from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: On Isolation and Hunger

July 2. Those of us in lockdown feel, of course, isolated from our friends and family.  We count the days, which in the present uncertainty stretch before us without limit, until we can share our lives with them.

This fragmentation of the population is reflected in other dimensions.  Sitting inside our houses, patrolling our weedless gardens, we don‘t see, literally don’t see, anything of how the rest of the country is experiencing the pandemic. Amongst the consequences of confining to their homes the fit and active of seventy and over is depriving the community of a host of active volunteers who could  both witness and respon to cases of need.

It is very easy to turn off our sensors and concentrate solely on our own misfortunes.  One effect of the lockdown is to throw attention onto the most trivial grievances.  The major event last Saturday in my household was the failure of Sainsburys to deliver the supplements in the weekend papers we had ordered.  No book reviews, no television guides.  It quite spoilt the day.

If you look for it, however, there is evidence that out there people are going without more than just newsprint.  There are those deprived of their income because they don’t qualify for the furlough payments.  There are the daily increasing numbers who are being fired in anticipation of the closure of that scheme.  There are those who legally have ‘no recourse to public funds’ because they have a right to live here but not to benefit from the welfare state.  There are those who had been barely getting by in the gig economy who are now wrestling with intricacies and inadequacies of universal credit.  There is the group described by the money expert Martin Lewis as experiencing a ‘financial catastrophe’ as their businesses have failed leaving them with no safety net of any kind.

The consequence is not just some kind of social poverty, but basic physical deprivation.  The Food Standards Agency has just published a report showing that since the pandemic began between 6.3 and 7.7 million adults had reduced their meals or missed them altogether because of lack of money, and that between 2.7 and 3.7 adults sought charity food or used food banks.*   The food banks themselves have found it difficult to meet the increased demand, despite a ‘Food Charities Grant’ the government has established to provide them with short-term assistance.

Just now, my wife and I are living in a two-person fenced community.  We must be grateful, I guess, that so far the material sufferings of so large a minority seem not to be reflected in the crime figures.

Add Mss 4.  OU brings down French Presidential candidate.  Further to yesterday’s discussion of the work of the Open University, the verdict has just been reported in the trial for embezzlement of the former French prime minister and presidential candidate, François Fillon, and his Welsh-born wife Penelope.  Up to a million euros were paid to Penelope over a number of years for office support that she never undertook.  The offence first came to light in a newspaper interview with Penelope back in 2007, when she admitted in passing that she was too busy to work for her husband.  The reason she gave for her lack of time was that she had just started an OU course in English literature.  She told the journalist that she was studying for a second degree because ‘her five children viewed her as “just a mother.”  She wanted to show them she was “not that stupid”’ (my own mother, in her time, took an OU degree in her sixties for much the same reason).  Both action and motive seem more than sufficient to acquit Penelope Fillon of the charge she faced.  As it is, she has been given a suspended sentence of three years.

*https://www.food.gov.uk/research/research-projects/the-covid-19-consumer-tracker 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Loneliness and Life Satisfaction

June 30. We are living through a time of drama.  Every week brings a new crisis, reported or anticipated.

History will record a belated response in the early days leading to thousands of avoidable fatalities, critical shortcomings in PPE, scandalous death-rates in care homes and amongst the BAME population, widespread failings in introducing test and trace procedures, the complete failure of the NHS testing app.  Today we have the return of lockdown in Leicester and later this week there is the predicted disaster of choosing a summer Saturday night to open all the pubs in England for the first time in three months.  And so it will continue in the face of a still unknowable virus and a government of still uncharted incompetence. 

And yet, if attention is paid to how people are feeling about the crisis, a very different picture emerges.  In my entry for May 27 I drew attention to the social surveys which have been launched at great speed in response to the coronavirus.  One of the larger enterprises, the UCL Nuffield Covid 19 Social Study, has now published four further weekly reports, displaying consistent data over three full months of the pandemic.*  The questions in the survey cover basic attitudes and emotions in the lockdown.  Each topic has its own trajectory since the last week of March, and its own variations by age, income, and living conditions.  But standing back from the detail, what is most striking is the absence of change over the period.

Graph after graph proceeds in an even line as each week passes, sometimes on a slightly upward trajectory, sometimes downward.  What is missing almost completely is the kind of volatility that we read in the headlines each day.  ‘Loneliness’ (see above) has been almost completely flat since the last week of March, unaffected by the recent marginal lifting of the lockdown.  ‘Life satisfaction’ has gradually risen from 5 to 6 on a 10-point scale [it should be 7.7].  ‘Happiness’ [you may not know what that is, but here it is measured by the Office for National Statistics wellbeing scale], has been at or just under 6, again on a 10-point scale, with very small fluctuations.  Levels of depression and anxiety have been higher than in pre-Covid times but have gradually declined through the Spring and early Summer.  Confidence in the English government showed one of the largest short-term changes, falling from 4.5 to 3.5 on a 7-point scale at the beginning of May, but has since levelled out. Notwithstanding this decline, willingness to comply with guidelines has barely altered, slipping over three months from almost 100% to just over 90.  The sharpest fall has been in worries about food security, which began at around 60% of the population and are now only a little above zero. 

The scale of the sample, which involves 90,000 respondents, inevitably has a dampening effect on variability.  Individuals who have lost their jobs, or have been ill, or have suffered serious bereavement, will scarcely report so uneventful an experience.  Nonetheless the absence of sudden change across the population in such fundamental areas as depression or life-satisfaction is a necessary corrective to the melodrama played out on the front-pages of the newspapers.

When the scores are broken down by issues such as income or living conditions, there are generally only minor differences.  In most categories the young are suffering more than the old, the poor more than the rich, but often the differences are small.  Much the largest variable on almost all issues is a prior diagnosis of mental ill-health.  Again the scores show little change over the period, but there are significant gaps between the graphs of the well and the unwell. On key issues such as depression, anxiety, loneliness and happiness, the mentally fit are between half and three times better off than those who entered this crisis already in trouble. 

According to a report by the charity Mind this morning, almost two thirds of those with a pre-existing mental health problem said it had become worse during the lockdown.**  When we consider where the effort should be placed in alleviating the consequence of the pandemic, the mental wellbeing of the population at the outset of the crisis will require particular attention.

* Covid-19 Social Study Results Releases 1-14

** https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/30/uks-mental-health-has-deteriorated-during-lockdown-says-mind?CMP=share_btn_link

from Louis in Johannesburg: life under lockdown …

June 29. Life under lockdown in South Africa has settled into a routine. These routines have been stripped of the jarring interruptions from another way of life where the clock and the time it keeps rules. Electric lights still extend the day beyond what is a healthy cycle. I prefer this rhythm. The rooster’s crow as the sun rises is one signal of dawn breaking. The playful bark of our small dogs starts their announcement of a new day. No better, non-violent alarm system, self-adjusting to solar time. Going into Southern Hemisphere winter in May, nights are lengthening and days shorter. Our little natural system is geared to track this shift. I am the beneficiary of that shift for now. Time to feed the dogs, and the chickens and also to collect any eggs for breakfast. Enjoying an egg this fresh tends to make one judgemental about the so-called fresh eggs from the local supermarket

Then into my workspace to continue working on the writing and other matters of developing an income in this time of lock-down. I am committed to converting a thesis to a readable piece of writing for practitioners interested in rebuilding towns and cities as the next phase of my so-called career. This diary has recently taken second place to my plan to leverage my modest process-consulting business of scenario-based strategy and executive education (aka capacity-building) during and after this lock-down. I appreciate the privilege we enjoy working from a home office. Commuting to the office is a one minute stroll down the corridor gets me into my “office.” From there Zoom and Google meeting connects me to a scenario session in New Hampshire and a family friend’s funeral in Dublin in the same day.

Since 1990 when I left the corporate world, I have enjoyed the benefit of knowledge work. Long may it continue. In the early 2000s an Irish Life assurance company engaged us to develop scenarios for a viral attack and its consequences. That’s where I learnt that a viral attack similar to the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu was inevitable. The timing was unknowable. Since the Spanish Flu we have seen a succession of viral attacks on the human species. A number of other “inevitable surprises” spurred me to consider what a sustainable, robust plan for our home in Midrand would look like.

We live in a community of 450 families. Together we have pooled our resources to ensure that criminal elements cannot enter to make or lives a misery. Our security manager, an ex-cop with sound relationships with the South African Police Services (SAPS), understands that criminals are not deterred by the consequences of their actions but by being tracked around and within our community. In these days of extended lock-down our community support grows by the day. Sean from Homestead Meats delivers bacon, sausage and steaks later today. His meat processing is down the road from our home. Sara brought in eggs by the dozen a couple of days ago. She is down the road as well. We support both these home-based entrepreneurs in their efforts to sustain their families in these times. Back to creating a sustainable home, we installed solar water-heating and grid tied, generator-assisted electricity, which hedges us against our faltering national electricity supplier and its predatory pricing. We have been off the water grid for years but receive regular “accounts” from Joburg water. The so-called accounts seem to be based on some poor soul extending last month’s reading and rendering an account based on that estimate.

Our organic garden delivers, spinach, pumpkins, gem squashes, basil, rosemary and other herbs for kitchen cooking. “Flattening the curve” between growing your own veggies and the demand in the kitchen takes on a whole new meaning. Suddenly the importance of curried beans, frozen veggies and surplus pesto to absorb an overproduction of basil highlights the complexity of farming where supply and demand must be matched to avoid wastage.  We are constantly and painfully aware of our privileged life and remain engaged in assisting in the broader community at an interpersonal and project levels.

A local car guard, from the DRC whom we have befriended, receives a monthly stipend to sustain his six children and spouse. Another person, a Malawian, receives food parcels and monthly payment regularly as he stays in isolation. During the hurricane/typhoon last year in Mozambique, Marie moved 32 tons of clothing and food into Mozambique via the Charitas faith-based network to help the needy there. Currently she is again coordinating the Charitas efforts to assist people in need as result of the Covid19 pandemic. 

Over the past four years, I have coordinated a blanket-fund as part of a men’s group. We raised funds, acquired and distributed more than 4,000 blankets to the poorest of the poor. My engagement in various poorer communities has indelibly changed my perspective on township life in our province and how to support the needy. For instance, balancing the quality of blankets purchased and distributed, with the context of the recipients is critical. Too high quality and they are sold to buy food. Too low quality and they are discarded on the refuse dump where I understood they are harvested by other people lower down the needs chain. Zero wastage in poorer communities. This, besides raising money for numerous other donations to orphans in distress in an underfunded orphanage and a mission station for abused women and their families to name a few. In these ways we ensure that as a family we maintain an ethical balance between our relative comfort and those in need in this country fraught by the greatest inequality anywhere. Dwelling on how corrupt politicians blatantly steal food parcels destined for the poor or use their power over the starving to extort votes for food seems “just how it is here” for now.

My hope is that as the Covid19 exposes the political opportunists and fracture lines in the SA society opportunities for policy improvement will open up. The imminent entry by the IMF to fund the national deficit will eliminate short-sighted ideology-based decisions and encourage pragmatism in terms of evidence-based economic policy. According to the Institute of Race Relations’ surveys, the average South African simply wants government to create jobs, reduce criminality, provide education for their children and medical care for the sick. Expropriation of property without compensation is ranked last in a list of ten top priorities. The ideological blinkers worn by the socialist/Marxist national political leadership of the ANC prevent them from seeing the priorities of the average person in the street. Never were Prime Minster Thatcher’s words more prescient; socialists are politicians that run out of other people’s money.  Every Rand paid by the taxpayer devotes 58 cents to servicing foreign debt. Many of the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are technically insolvent. Eskom now owes R500 Bn which is state guaranteed. Ministers are trying to recover South African Airways (SAA) which is also technically insolvent. This in a climate where airlines in general are struggling to survive.

For the first time in memory, government is turning to the much maligned private sector vilified as “white monopoly capital” (WMC) as a potential source of further borrowings. LOL. Attention is gradually shifting towards unlocking the economy and restarting organisations which have been dormant during lockdown. The extent to which society has adapted to social distancing, and other behaviour required to keep safe, is astounding. Many now prefer this mode. School children in high school now prefer what they call home-schooling via computer link. Teachers have made the investment in digitally delivered provision. The adjustment may be permanent, with typically the higher grades preferring this mode while the lower grades, which need careful supervision by parents at home prefer a back to school choice.

Many of the private schools have been accused of racism amidst the global wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM). In South Africa its history predisposes this society to ingrained racist practice which is often invisible to itself. Transformation usually begins with non-racial policy and due process to deal with behaviour that violates policy and agreements between parents, pupils and schools. However, behaviour of pupils is shaped by the attitudes and values formed in the family context. Prejudice and stereotyping persists in families long after the need for societal transformation is seen to be essential. Schools as institutions are also being called out for individual racist behaviour under the current our cry for BLM.    

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Lonesome George and the Cowboy

Lonesome George

June 29 I enjoyed Nike in Katerini’s account of sleeping with an owl and a snake by her bed.  In her culture, these are choices full of classical meaning.  In my own more prosaic world, I do not instinctively turn to such mythical objects when in need of guidance or security.

I was raised in a Protestant denomination.  Methodists focus on words, whether spoken, read, preached or sung.  They do not employ three-dimensional symbols to embody spiritual verities or to keep us safe from Bunyan’s lions, dragons and darkness.   I do, nonetheless, keep two objects on my desk to guard my endeavours, albeit of an altogether more humdrum nature.  

The first of these is a small, carved, wooden tortoise whose provenance I have long forgotten.  I explained the connection between this animal and the lot of the long-distance writer in the entry for April 29.  I have an engagement with tortoises beyond the ownership of my pet Herodotus (Nike may note that I was stretching for a classical association).  Ten years ago, whilst still a university manager, I was sent to give a keynote speech at the remarkable Loja University in central Ecuador.  The organisers arranged for the speakers to visit the Galapagos Islands before the conference started.  There I met Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island giant tortoise, just two years before his untimely death at the age of 102.*  It is one thing encountering a tree that has survived over centuries, it is quite another gazing eye to eye with a creature that has moved so little and seen so much over so many years.

My second penates is quite different and much slighter.  It is a mass-produced, 6.5cm high plastic model of a cowboy, six shooter in each hand.  I don’t know where I found it, but it speaks to me at some unconscious level.  I must have owned such a toy as a small child.  Now it stands at the opposite pole to my other desk guardian.  The tortoise represents the slow daily slog that all scholarly writing requires.  But I have read book after article after manuscript where the routine has overwhelmed the inspiration.  Each page represents a dutiful journey between evidence and interpretation, all true, all hard won, but lacking any spark in either the prose or the argument.   It is far from easy to sit down day after day and attack the project, putting to flight mediocrity of thought or writing.  My cowboy with his guns reminds me of that requirement.

So it has been during the pandemic.  The tortoise element has not been so difficult.  For those already living in semi-lockdown, surrounded by sufficient creature comforts, the prohibition on movement has not seemed a practical problem.  The real threat is avoiding the descent into the Slough of Despond which faced Bunyan’s Christian.  Deprived of the stimulus of events, travel and fresh company, it becomes a challenge to generate the spark of energy and creativity during a day that begins and ends in the same place as the one before. 

I have to find the six-shooter in me, up for whatever drama and danger I can manufacture.

*In February of this year, naturalists claimed that after all they had found thirty near relatives.  Too late for George.

From John in Brighton: Even a Haircut’s a Dilemma

28 June

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” wrote LP Hartley. In “normal times” I’d muster up a bit of small talk and visit the barber every six to eight weeks. My last haircut was 28 February and on a personal level I recall it as the weekend of visiting Bletchley Park and you may remember it as a very rare occasion – Liverpool lost (to Watford in case you’re interested). That weekend was very chilly and now we’re in a heatwave which means an expanding thatch is the last thing you want. Human hair grows about half an inch in a month and my couple of inches is clearly apparent. In fact if I were blonde then I could be mistaken for BJ…..from the eyebrows upwards; yes, it really is that bad. 
Which begs a question – if all the barbers and hairdressers have been closed, presumably furloughed and thus banned from any work then how come so many of the politicians and footballers look like they had a haircut just last week? And Pritti Patel living up to her homophone with not a hair out of place. Are they all that skilled with the DIY clippers or married to frustrated tonsorial wizards? In the absence of Wimbledon we could perhaps ask a past master of the shaggy barnet and headband what he thinks.  “You cannot be serious!”. Credit where it’s due though –  this could be a dictum that Dominic Cummings hasn’t breached – either thro’ lack of need or his impaired vision giving false reassurance. 
But the good news is that relief is on the horizon and for this year only July 4 has been called UK Independence Day and amongst the “freedom package” on that day will be reopening of the hair salons. But another question occurs to me is the rather illogical way in which aspects of the lockdown have been relaxed. Why have we had to wait so long especially as dentists resumed action in early June.  The hairdresser mostly stands behind you or at the side unlike a dentist peering directly into the potentially virus-ridden oral cavity. And if hairdressers are opening then why not nail bars or massage parlours (not that I’m rushing to patronise either)? But there’s a silver lining to most things and it’s back to the weather – not the heatwave but I’ve watched with a blend of amusement and fascination as to how weatherman Tomas Schaffenaker looks as his bouffant evolves. 
I’ve just watched Marr interview Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, and what a breath of fresh air after listening to politicians because he clearly knows what he is talking about and is definitive in what needs to happen. Based on the timing of relaxation he predicts a second wave of infection starting late June  / early July and if we don’t act swiftly and proactively then this could get worse as the winter progresses. This of course coincides with the multitude of winter viruses and ubiquitous coughs and colds which may be difficult to differentiate in the early stages of infection. Three key things he advocates are that we trust the Government (the track record doesn’t inspire confidence – my words not his), availability and reliability of testing and protecting the vulnerable especially the elderly and BAME. He stresses that particular caution is needed indoors and especially when mixing with a lot of people. So that  underscores my dilemma – I really feel the need for a haircut….. but despite the relaxation of lockdown and initial tentative casting aside of our shields old habits die hard and rightly so in the light of Sir Jeremy’s comments. Anxt and alertness underlie my every move and decision despite the false sense of security engendered by some government policies and observing public behaviour. We children of the 60’s can vouch for a haircut being non-essential as I wistfully recall Beatlemania and Woodstock. Enclosed space, high rate of throughput, close contact with the hairdresser – is that a risk worth taking? Prima facie it seemed like an easy decision, now I’m not so sure. Like it or not for the foreseeable future our every action, previously taken for granted, needs a risk assessment both to ourselves but also to society in general.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Hibernation

hibernating dormice

June 24.  Hibernation.  Tuesday’s public announcements, reinforced in my case by a personal letter from the NHS, have merely highlighted the collapse of trust in governing bodies in the UK.

According to Boris Johnson, the era of hibernation is over in England.  Pubs and hairdressers will open, the two-metre rule is halved.  The ‘shielded’ will be allowed to visit family from July 6, and permitted to roam freely from the beginning of August.

In better times, a public statement by the Prime Minister in Parliament, reinforced by a press conference attended by both the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, plus an official three-page letter, should be enough.  Who am I, a toiling historian, entirely innocent of a medical education, to dispute these authoritative statements?

But before I will move an inch from my current uneventful but secure lockdown I will consult every newspaper I can find, sundry blogs to which I subscribe, my neighbours, my friends (particularly two who actually are scientists), my younger brother who is playing a major regional role co-ordinating trace and test regimes and sits on the board of two hospital trusts, my grown-up children (especially), my lawyer, my astrologer, anyone who might be able to triangulate the official message.  Then I will discuss the matter with my similarly sceptical wife, and between the two of us I expect we will decide to change nothing in our daily ritual until the consequence of the relaxation becomes evident in the infection rates (see Add Mss below).

This is tiring.  A healthy democracy requires a questioning electorate, but only so far.  If we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to invest confidence in those to whom we delegate fundamental decision-making powers.  The education we have received since the beginning of the year tells us that the administrative competence of ministers appointed not for their abilities but for their position on Brexit is low, that the government machine which should support them is not firing on all cylinders (no controlling ‘deep state’ here, anymore than there is in the USA), that the Prime Minister is careless of detail and the truth, and that the scientists and medical specialists argue with each other, including about the current topic of the safe rate to relax restrictions. 

And if we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to walk down a street or enter a public building without viewing every stranger as a potential threat to our health and wellbeing.  Amongst the many inherent contradictions in the new policy is allowing alcohol to be consumed in a ‘mitigated’ form.  Someone somewhere has forgotten that the point of drinking is that is a means of throwing off the mitigations of the daily round.  It promotes personal interaction, reduces inhibitions, and in extreme, but far from uncommon, cases leads to profoundly anti-social behaviour (there is a reason why the business of Accident and Emergency Departments has sharply declined in the pandemic lockdown).  

In the end the calculation of risk will be largely personal.  In two months we expect the arrival of a new grand-daughter a hundred-and-fifty miles away in London.  It is likely to be that event, not further iterations of official advice and guidance, that will cause us to emerge from the burrow in which we have been sleeping.

Add Mss 3.  June 10 Staying Alive: “When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company.In Australia a lifting of the lockdown has been suspended in large parts of Melbourne because of a resurgence of infections blamed on family gatherings and birthday parties.

Guest contribution from Christopher Merrett in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: the sporting question

Runners in the Comrades Marathon

June 9. From the Thornveld: I had expected that lockdown might provide us with blessed relief from pollution, litter, noise – and professional sport. That was naïve. The airwaves and newspaper pages remained saturated with the clichéd thoughts of players, endless speculation about the completion of leagues and resumption of ‘normality’, and truckloads of utter trivia.

Sebastian Coe, head of global athletics, recently spoke of ‘frustration’ that ‘top events’ had no firm dates for resumption and said that athletics might act unilaterally and without approval. His attitude was deplorable; but also self-defeating because national health authorities make the decisions he appears to want to arrogate to himself and they are backed by legislation. But he demonstrates a blatant example of sports hubris fuelled by popular adulation and millions of dollars. And it is the last factor that is behind the agitation for leagues and competitions to resume as soon as possible: big money deals.

Here in KwaZulu-Natal it was not until 8 May that the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) accepted there would be no race this year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Given that it has been blindingly obvious for months that a (perhaps the) main cause of viral infection is human proximity and density, clearly the CMA has been living on another, apparently Covid-19-free, planet. The very essence of the ultra-marathon is mass: the numbers of runners, the packed nature of the start, the race culture of group running, and the exuberant involvement and sociability of spectators (see the photograph above near the end of the 2019 race in Pietermaritzburg). Some of the classic moments of this gruelling race involve runners physically assisting others, particularly at the finish. There’s a very high chance that there will be no race in 2021, the centenary year, either.

One problem according to the CMA was that T-shirts had been printed and goody bags prepared. Sponsors had already coughed up funds, so yet again it all comes back to money. But it goes beyond financing to issues of entitlement and continued refusal to recognise that professional sport is simply a business. Indeed, many critics persuasively argue that it is just another arm of global capital.

Lockdown has cut a swathe of destruction across economies and societies. Many businesses will disappear without trace and hundreds of thousands of people will never work again in the formal sector. Why should professional sport think it is owed any favours; any more than, say, theatres, opera houses or concert halls? Commodified sport produces nothing of lasting value, material or intellectual.

But perhaps the virus and its lockdown will produce a positive outcome. Vast sums of money are locked up in sport courtesy of sponsorship and broadcast rights. In some sports people who have minimal skills beyond dealing with a ball earn enormous salaries and perks. Teams fly endlessly around the world impressing a gigantic carbon footprint. We are told the world will never be the same again. If so, maybe a great deal of this will end and international sport will be cut down to more appropriate dimensions and influence.

From the Thornveld is a site that provides access to writing by Christopher Merrett, a former academic librarian, university administrator and journalist based in Pietermaritzburg. He has written on a wide range of topics – specialising in the past on human rights issues in South Africa, particularly censorship and freedom of expression, and on the politics of sport.

https://www.fromthethornveld.co.za/

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Reading and Solitude.

The LRB – improve your solitude …

June 22 The London Review of Books (LRB) sends me a digital advertisement: “Improve Your Solitude. Engage with the world’s best thinkers and writers, with Europe’s largest literary magazine.”

In a practical sense the advert is wasted on me. I have been a subscriber since the happy day ten years ago when I retired from university management and swapped my subscription to the Time Higher Education Supplement for the LRB in the mistaken assumption that I would now have more time for reading books and reviews.

Since then the LRB has been a mixed blessing. Most issues contain a piece that interests and informs, but not all. A great literary magazine makes you think you are a little smarter, a little better-read than you actually are. The LRB generally has the reverse effect.

Nonetheless its advert contained a basic truth. For those of us who are locked down without other responsibilities, there ought to be more time for reading. At the least it gives us a chance to replenish the shelves that we want to display behind our heads in ZOOM meetings (the prize for the politician for what clearly is the least-read, and smallest, background bookshelf goes to Iain Duncan Smith. No surprise there).

Books occupy empty hours. But they have never simply been the handmaiden of solitude. It took centuries after the invention of printing for the act of reading silently to yourself to become the standard practice. In the eighteenth-century women in particular read to each other as they worked at a household task, and one in a family read to the rest in the evenings. Increasing literacy and falling book prices in the Victorian era promoted private consumption of the printed word, but demand for books still outstripped the capacity to own them individually, and amongst the newly literate, children read to their less-educated parents and their parents to grandparents. In crowded households with unheated and unlit bedrooms, those who did read to themselves frequently had to do so amidst company. Books were less often the solace of complete isolation, and more the facilitator of abstracted solitude, the practice of withdrawing from others whilst still physically in their midst.

It is too early to take a final view of reading in the lockdown. Bookshops were shut until last week in the UK, book launches cancelled (including my own), as were book festivals. My wife and I were at the Dalkey Literary Festival in Dublin this time last year, and had planned a return visit.

https://www.dalkeybookfestival.org/

On the other hand, the online trade was already well-established, and unlike food, and (for the most part) clothing, it is always possible to re-use what was purchased years ago. It is reported that sales of thrillers have risen, and also books about pandemics. My expectation is that the overall change will not be that great. For every household with more time on its hands, there will be several more in which the adults at least have lost every minute of solitary recreation.

In my case, where not much has altered in my daily round, the problem is as it always has been, the reluctance to take a book off the shelf after an entire day at my desk, reading and writing words. I’d sooner dig my garden.

Add Mss (1). June 16. Bedtime Stories.  No bedtime stories at Styal Women’s Prison, where the stillbirth of a baby to a prisoner has been reported, the second in nine months. The medical staff failed to diagnose the pregnancy, and gave the prisoner paracetamol when she complained of severe stomach pains. Only twenty-three women across the system have been released under the scheme for pregnant prisoners and new mothers under the coronavirus pandemic (Guardian 19 6 20).

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Intrinsic and Extrinsic

June 18.  I recently had a discussion with a Dean at a university I am reviewing, about intrinsic versus extrinsic reward.

She was arguing that in her faculty, staff found such satsifaction in their teaching and research that external validation was not important. 

There is a truth in this view.  One of the great privileges of a career in higher education is that it is full of people who found a passion in life, and a form of employment that enabled them to pursue it.  Most academic staff pay little attention to the exact length of a working week, or indeed very often to their maximum holiday entitlement.  They work long hours because of their commitment to the progress of their students, and their desire to push back the boundaries of knowledge in their chosen field.  A smart or lucky institution will align the enthusiasm of staff with the interests of the organisation without imposing a formal regime of mission statements and coercive strategies.

And yet, from a PhD onwards, every move is subject to peer review.  Projects are initiated and completed as part of a conversation with fellow researchers, and their response will range from the supportive to the terminally destructive.  And however much an academic’s labour is driven by personal enthusiasm, mortgages have to be paid.  Everyone in the trade has either experienced or witnessed the colossal demotivation a failed or delayed promotion can cause. 

There is a contrast with the passions that get you out of bed in this lockdown world.   Where there is no remunerative labour to undertake, what is the purpose of the day’s activities? 

Take for instance gardening.  My village takes part in a national open gardens scheme, where on a given summer Sunday, people can visit private gardens for a small fee which this year is donated to a nursing charity.  We have always refused absolutely to take part, however worthy the cause.  This is partly because in normal years we lack the time to arrive at a point of weedless perfection, but more fundamentally because what we grow is no-one else’s business.  We are happy to show it to visiting family and friends, but our pleasure in our achievement is, in management speak, entirely intrinsic.  Even between the two of us, each has their own programme of work, and we choose whether to tell the other what we are doing and how well it is going.

There are, of course, those who treat gardening, or some other recreation, as a form of work or competition.  Targets are set, outcomes are measured.  A brother-in-law runs every Sunday, recording his performance on an app that allows him to compare his times with runners of the same age around the world.  Gardeners have been forming themselves into societies and awarding prizes for fruit and vegetables for more than two centuries in Britain.  This was not just the practice of the well-heeled.  A survey of working-class gardeners in the industrial north in 1826, identified fifty auricular and polyanthus shows annually, together with twenty-seven tulip, nine ranunculus, nineteen pink and forty-eight carnation competitions.  The committee of the society would meet for a leisurely, alcohol-fuelled judging dinner, and then award prizes.

It is, nonetheless, one of the reasons why the pandemic lockdown has been bearable for those lucky enough not to be struggling with working and child-teaching at home.  We have always pursued our recreations for our own satisfaction, and it is a minor matter that, in my case, the best of my garden will be over this year before anyone else gets to see it.

That said, were I to win a prize for my sweet peas at the Shrewsbury Flower Show, all my promotions and all my books would be set at nought.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: the daily count

Katerini, Greece

Our daily case count is rising. Greece was doing so well, we even had one day where we had no new cases and we mostly had very low single digit figure days of two, three, four. We are having spikes now, we had 52 last week and we’ve had 20 the last three days. They mostly come from overseas, either Greek Nationals returning home or visitors, plus we’ve had some outbreaks in two cities, Xanthi and Larissa.

Xanthi’s was in its sizeable Greek speaking Muslim population present since the Ottoman occupation. In Larissa the outbreak was in the Roma gypsy encampment. The Greek government has announced it won’t induce another nation wide lockdown but it will induce mini lockdowns in affected areas. Plus they are relying on the testing of all incoming visitors and a quarantine period before they can commence mixing with the population. I just hope it works.

easing of restrictions ….

Just before the nationwide lockdown was introduced I’d ordered a new bed. I remember my bed arriving much later than the promised arrival time because the furniture maker, Dionysus, had been inundated with new orders for the tourist season. I could not stop thinking about him during quarantine. When those orders were placed he would have ordered materials, booked staff etc to create the inventory. I popped in to see him to say hello and tell him I’m very pleased with my new bed and to ask how he went during quarantine. Indeed it was as I feared. Those hotels still haven’t opened and the few that have so far are showing minimal bookings and many have cancelled those orders which he has piled up to his ceiling in his warehouse. Just one example of the economic impact of Covid 19. His mother came out to say hello to me as well and she said, “don’t tell me you believe all this virus stuff, it’s all a conspiracy by the government to close down our churches and force us to become atheists.”
I did not laugh or roll my eyes but remained calm as I said, “I do believe this virus stuff in fact my own son got it and suffered quite a lot.” She snapped back at me, “your son is young, he probably didn’t have it at all, he probably just had a cold.” and with that she turned on her heels and waddled back to her big leather desk chair at the back of the showroom where a gaggle of her friends were sitting all clucking their agreement.
Dionysus shrugged as he said to me, “I know the virus is real but what do you do. People believe what they want to believe

On Monday, 15 June, our borders officially open to many countries. Let’s see how we go.

In the meantime I went out for a stroll last night.