From David Maughan Brown in York: A crannog and a clown

Crannog on Loch Tay

August 5th

Normality at last – or as close to normality as one can get in the UK these days.  At the micro-level, a week spent with our daughter, her husband and their two daughters at a hired cottage in Kenmore, at the northern end of Loch Tay.   A week spent exploring the area (all travelling in the same car!); canoeing on the loch and watching the family swimming; enjoying the Olympics on a very large television screen on the rare occasions when it rained (very much less frequently and persistently than we would have been subjected to had we stayed in York); and playing games with the grandchildren.  We spent a fascinating morning at the museum at the Scottish Crannog Centre, which was, paradoxically, all the more interesting because the crannog itself (an iron age dwelling built out over the loch to avoid building on land that could be cultivated on the shore) had caught fire and burnt to piles and ashes in six minutes just four weeks before our visit.   

At the macro level, everyone was calmly going about their business as though the sensible requirements to keep wearing masks and maintain respectful social distances were perfectly normal.  They had avoided the headline-catching grandiosity and sheer stupidity of Boris Johnson’s much bruited ‘Independence Day’.  When Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, appeared on television, one had the sense of having arrived in a serious country whose leading politicians actually cared about the people they governed.  Throughout the six-hour drive up to Kenmore – which turned into an eight-hour drive on the way up as a result of a two-hour hold-up on the motorway resulting from a bad accident – I had a relieved sense that I was driving away from badly-produced and singularly unfunny comic-opera country.  By the time we came back, I found myself wondering what I was missing that was preventing roughly half the population of Scotland from being desperate to shake off their subjugation to the idiocies and incompetence of the Westminster government as rapidly as possible by attaining a genuine independence.

Even in Scotland the only way to escape footage of our Honourable Prime Minister lumbering around in a hi-viz jacket, with the straw-like ends of his storm-ravaged haystack of hair sticking randomly out from the brim of a hard hat, was by avoiding turning on the television.   The point of a hi-viz jacket is in the name: high visibility.   ‘Look at me, look at me’ it demands, like a three-year old desperate to show its mother that it can almost do a somersault.  Whoever manages Johnson’s diary appears have been instructed to ensure that he visits at least one factory, workshop, laboratory, ship-yard, building-site, or anywhere else he can get away with wearing a hi-viz jacket, at least once a day.   It is as if the man was born wearing a small, ill-fitting hi-viz jacket and now, like Linus Van Pelt with his security blanket, can’t feel wholly comfortable without one.

Johnson, whose minders have somehow managed to keep him away from Scotland for many months as a 100% guaranteed vote-loser for the Tories north of the border, travelled up to pay a two day visit immediately after we arrived back.  His visit was characterised, first, by his lying about not having turned down an invitation from Nicola Sturgeon to visit her in Edinburgh.  But that wasn’t unusual as Johnson tells lies much of the time.  Second, by his refusal to self-isolate when he got back in spite of the fact that one of the aides who had travelled with him has tested positive for Covid-19.  This merely reinforces the widespread recognition that it is ‘one rule for us and another for them.’  Third, he ‘joked’ about the lead Britain and the Conservative Party took in combatting climate change under Margaret Thatcher by having the foresight to close the coal mines in the 1980s: ‘Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.’  

This throw-away remark, made, almost unbelievably, on a visit intended to woo support for the continuation of the union, produced an immediate backlash.[1]  Alan Mardghum, secretary of the Durham Miners Association, said: ‘Johnson has again shown utter contempt for the people of former mining communities.  The wilful annihilation of the coal industry caused social and economic devastation in our communities that is still felt to this day.  It was an ideological assault.… It is no joke.’

Shortly after we arrived back from Scotland the BBC News covered the visit of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled leader of the opposition in Belarus, to London where she was inevitably shown being ‘entertained’ by Johnson in Downing Street.  My reaction to the coverage can only be described as one of embarrassment.  Here was a person trying to lead the opposition to a brutal dictator, who was coming to our country looking for support in her efforts to do so, and all we could do as one of the richest and formerly most powerful countries in the world was present her with a clown for her to have to pretend to take seriously.  Johnson is a supreme narcissist, a racist, a serial liar and philanderer, a wholly immoral man capable of the crassest of misjudgements, and he is, it would seem, the best leader our England-dominated political system can come up with.

It is difficult to know precisely what the long-term economic effect would be were Scotland to gain its independence, shake the dust of Westminster off its shoes, and rejoin the European Union.  The Scottish Crannog Centre, which reflects five thousand years of Scotland’s history, is due to be rebuilt on a larger and better site immediately across the loch from its present location.   Scottish Independence could not possibly wreak as much damage to Scotland as last month’s fire did to the crannog, and a fresh start, as far as possible from the taint of the little-England mentality that currently dominates UK politics, might well be the best way Scotland could  start its next five thousand years.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/boris-johnson-mine-closures-joke-b1898337.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Signs and signals

September 28th

Every time a significant new announcement is made with regard to Covid-19 regulations, which seems to be around twice a week these days, the BBC News dutifully does the rounds of the four countries of the supposedly ‘United’ Kingdom’ in turn, so that those of us in England can be kept up to speed with the invariably much more sensible variations on the theme being proposed in the other three countries.  Not, of course that the BBC would ever be likely to venture such a value judgement at a time when the right wing of the Conservative Party (i.e. about 90% of it) is baying for the BBC’s blood on the wholly specious grounds that it has a left-wing bias.  What I am finding increasingly irritating about this regular tour of the UK’s four constituent parts is not the regular reminder that Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers respectively, are so much more articulate than their English counterpart, whose stumbling inarticulacy, however plummy, so often gives the lie to the notion that he is a good communicator.  What gets me much more viscerally is the glaring absence of a signer in the background whenever Boris delivers one of his portentous orations, by stark contrast with the ever-present signers helping the First Ministers to communicate with the people in their countries who are hard of hearing.

It is beyond comprehension both that Boris would not narcissistically want to admire his own speeches, and that he would not be compulsively drawn to watch his Scottish and Welsh counterparts’ speeches, not because he is interested in what they are saying, which might require too much concentration, but to prove to himself how much better he is at oratory.  Does he not notice the signers in the background?  Does he think that English superiority and exceptionalism must mean that we don’t have any people in England who are hard of hearing?  Are the signers, to him, simply an unusually animated part of the furniture that isn’t worthy of his attention? Or does he perhaps think that what they are doing is translating spoken language into signs for the benefit of the backward descendants of the Celts and Gauls who inhabit the mountainous outer reaches of the UK and haven’t in consequence yet developed to the point of being the proud owners of a spoken language?   Or does he, quite simply, not care?  And what about the Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health (sic)?  Or the Minister of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (sic)?  Or any of the rest of our Cabinet of the talentless?  Do they neither notice nor care either?  Or is it that, just like the First Ministers of the other countries they only get to speak to Boris once every three months and our ministers are so awed by the privilege that they don’t want to rock the boat by asking awkward questions?

If the absence of signers is signalling to those who want to read the signs that our government in England (the government, in theory, of the whole United Kingdom) is a lot less caring and inclusive than the governments of the Scotland and Wales, it has not been the only sign over the past six months that has signalled that we have plenty to worry about where our government is concerned.   A handshake is normally a sign of greeting and friendship; when Boris Johnson invites the cameras to photograph him shaking hands with Covid patients in hospital it signals a reckless braggadocio that, all too literally, bodes ill.   The meaning of ubiquitous signs saying “Stay at Home” is crystal clear – until Dominic Cummings jaunts off to County Durham and cabinet ministers from the Prime Minister downwards, falling over themselves to claim that he has done nothing wrong, signal that the injunction only applies to some people, not everyone, and half the population, picking up the signal, thinks ‘what the hell’ and starts following the Cummings example and interpreting the advice and regulations to suit themselves.

My personal assumption about the reason for the absence of signers from our screens when Johnson is exercising his oratory is that the necessary animation of a signer in the background inevitably attracts the attention, however fleetingly, of viewers who aren’t hard of hearing, and Boris is always desperate to have the full gaze of the nation exclusively, and he no doubt assumes admiringly, focussed on himself.  Of all the warning signs visible on our screens over the past six months signalling that the consequences of Covid-19 are going to be very dire for our incompetently governed country, the most telling sign, paradoxically, has probably been that glaring absence of signers.   What it signals, at least to me, is that we are being told what to do, rather than led, by a self-obsessed narcissist with a hand-picked Cabinet of the like-minded who are ultimately interested only in themselves and their chums.  All talk of inclusivity and ‘levelling-up’ is simply window-dressing.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Rule of 6

September 23rd

With spasmodically jerking clenched fists and a steadfast, and studiedly serious, gaze down the camera lens, our Prime Minister, trying on a statesman costume that doesn’t fit, chose the autumn equinox as the cosmically appropriate day to tell us that his Rule of 6 (no groups of more than six are permitted to meet indoors) was likely to last through until the spring.  It is just over six months since I posted my first entry to this diary on our delightful youngest granddaughter’s birthday on 18th March.   This means that because Anthony and Kate have three children, not two, we are effectively going to miss out on the entirety of Rosie’s fourth year of growth and development, in spite of the fact that she lives little more than a mile away.  At least we are all still alive. And at least we can see Sarah and Andreas’ family from Sheffield, because they took the precaution of only having two children.  

I’m sure Browning would understand if I alter his first line slightly in present circumstances: ‘Oh to be in Scotland now that winter’s here!’  In spite of opting for much tighter restrictions in the face of the exponential increase in coronavirus infection numbers, Nicola Sturgeon appears to understand that adding a three year-old onto the Rule of 6 mix is unlikely to increase the risk significantly, provided one is observing social distancing rigorously.  It is entirely unsurprising that Sturgeon’s approval rating among the people of Scotland is vastly higher than Boris’s is among the electorate here. Meanwhile, apart from gloomy prognostications and dire warnings about what might happen if the virus got out of control, and threatening us all with the army and the possibility of £10,000 fines, the only practical outcome of Boris’s speech was to introduce a regulation requiring bars and restaurants to shut at 10.00pm.  It would appear that he has belatedly discovered that the virus only gets out of bed at 10.01 pm.

I have just had to draft an email to the 1600 or so of our U3A members who have email addresses to alert them to the fact that, unannounced by either Boris or the media, the Rule of 6 exemption whereby we could continue to run our interest groups with more than six members – not ‘educational’, not ‘business’, not (fairly obviously) ‘religious’, but (somewhat oddly) ‘charitable activities’ – has now been rescinded.  So all the work that has gone into preparing for groups of more than six to resume their activities in the rooms we lease in the Friends Meeting House has been in vain – at least where the next six months are concerned.   I thought it appropriate in the circumstances to quote two African proverbs in my email.  One from Ethiopia: ‘Don’t blame God for creating the tiger, instead thank him for not giving it wings’ (not to mention for encouraging tigers not to live in Ethiopia).  The other from the Congo: ‘No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come.’

From David Maughan Brown in York: To mask or not to mask?

August 24th

So the ringmaster, who doubles as the lead-clown in the Tory circus tent, has folded the holiday one he pitched in the wilds of the Scottish countryside in the hope of inducing the Scots to hate him a little less, and is back on his version of the job.  Actually, suggesting that he either pitched or folded the tent himself is almost certainly an overstatement: the hard work is always done by someone else.  Having cleverly avoided being around to answer for the A-level results fiasco, Boris has popped up in time to reassure the parents of children in England not only that it is perfectly safe for their children to return to school, but that there is no need for them to wear face-masks when they do so.  He is obviously hoping that the same parents will have forgotten that he confidently reassured everyone, worried parents in particular, that the algorithm-generated A-level results were wholly reliable – “they’re robust, they’re good, they’re dependable for employers.”   So good, so robust, so dependable, in fact, that they had to be binned a few days after his robust reassurance because they just happened to be grossly unfair and discriminatory.   

It will almost certainly be no coincidence that the two leaders in the Western world who appear to have been most successful in their approach to Covid-19 have been women, Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern, and that, if one feels inclined to take the coronavirus policy of any of the four prime, or first, ministers in the UK seriously, it would be Nicola Sturgeon’s.   Sturgeon is following WHO advice on the wearing of face-masks in the communal areas of schools, but Boris knows better and asserts that they aren’t necessary.  In just the same way, Boris knew better than the WHO when it came to locking down and concentrating attention on tracking and tracing when the pandemic first arrived, and an estimated 20,000 deaths of predominantly elderly people resulted as a direct consequence.   It would, however, probably not be a good idea to bet the house, not even a very little Lego one, on our not being about to see another of Boris’s screeching U-turns.

The best compromise for Boris, given the latest round in the English culture war, this time relating to the singing, or otherwise, of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia!’ at the BBC Proms (of which more in a later entry), would probably be to accept that face-masks are a good idea, at least where singing is concerned, and relent on the masks in public spaces in schools in England.  That would allow him to distribute free Union Jack face-masks to all pupils in English schools (now that the Tories have discovered a forest of money-trees) and turn the return to school into a festival of ‘patriotism’ befitting the Tory circus tent.  Pupils could be encouraged march up and down the corridors wearing their masks and singing patriotic songs that glorify the Empire that still features so prominently in the New Year Honours the Queen awards every year.