From David Maughan Brown in York: Wrapped in the Union Jack

Prime Minister grimaces as flags close in, threatening to crush him.

April 7th

One of the stranger and thus far insufficiently analysed – although frequently observed  – symptoms of the changes the Covid-19 epidemic has brought about in England is a rash of red, white and blue flags that can be seen to have broken out in the offices of cabinet ministers.  It is widely suspected that this may somehow be linked to the UK’s departure from the European Union.   While it isn’t considered likely to be fatal in itself, there would appear to be a possibility that, like other prolonged side-effects of long-Covid, this could be seriously damaging and debilitating for England in the longer term.   It is worth noting that the same side-effect is not being observed in the other three countries of the currently United Kingdom, and is not thought likely to prove dangerous for them.   Indeed, it is even possible that it could in the long run result in their separation from England, and thereby protect them from this peculiarly English variant.

The rash of flags has in recent months been largely confined to the stage sets for ministerial press conferences and interviews, and the offices of generally male, and generally somewhat adolescent, cabinet ministers who appear to have been vying with one another to see who has the biggest one.  But the rash will soon be breaking out over all government buildings.  ‘New rules surrounding flying of the Union Flag’ were published by the Government on March 24th, although, as with so much else, our government of all the talentless couldn’t make up its collective mind and so concluded the announcement by saying:  ‘This update is guidance only and will apply from the summer.’ *  So not ‘rules’, then, just ‘guidance’.  But, unsurprisingly, it will be a rule, not just guidance, that planning permission will be required before anyone can fly the flag of the European Union.

Currently, Union jacks are only required to be flown on all UK Government buildings on some 20 designated days every year – the quirkily British designation often having to do with the birthdays of members of the royal family – but the expectation is that in future they will be flown every day.   And it isn’t just the government’s expectation; it is apparently also the expectation of ‘the people’, whose minds our psychic government is always confident it can read.   As Culture [Wars] Secretary Oliver Dowden put it: ‘The Union flag unites us as a nation and people rightly expect it to be flown above UK Government buildings. This guidance will ensure that happens every day … as a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us.’  The ‘rightly expect’ bit was obviously one of the key phrases the children were required to learn before they were allowed out to play, as the announcement also quotes Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP saying:  ‘Our nation’s flag is a symbol of liberty, unity and freedom that creates a shared sense of civic pride. People rightly expect to see the Union Flag flying high on civic and Government buildings up and down the country, as a sign of our local and national identity.’  Lord Nelson missed a trick when he forgot to include the ‘rightly’ in ‘England rightly expects every man to do his duty.’  The honesty of Jenrick’s recognition that the nation’s flag might at best be creating ‘civic’ rather than national pride was probably inadvertent: it certainly won’t have been in the script.  

If the rash of flags really is intended as a proud reminder of the totality of our history, it would suggest that selective amnesia needs to be factored into the equation as one of the more worrying side-effects of whatever it was that brought on the rash.   It is difficult to believe, even of our current cabinet of the clueless, that the likes of Dowden and Jenrick could really be proud, by way of example, of the deaths of the women and children in the Anglo-Boer war concentration camps in 1901-2, the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, the Hola detention camp massacre in 1959, and Bloody Sunday in 1972, to mention just four of the many moments of our relatively recent history that vanishingly few people can feel proud of.

Flags are a serious business, under no circumstances to be laughed about, particularly not by our revered national broadcaster.  The BBC recently shame-facedly reported that BBC Breakfast presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty had to be ‘spoken to’ following complaints after the former had gently mocked Robert Jenrick’s flag at the end of an interview: ‘I think your flag is not up to standard size, government interview measurements.  I think it’s just a little bit small, but that’s your department really.’**  Another BBC presenter, Huw Edwards, was apparently made to remove a tweet of the Welsh flag that poked fun at the row over the union jack.  And Tim Davie, the Director-General of the BBC, who will probably have done the talking to Stayt and been responsible for the pressuring of Edwards, was himself recently castigated by a Tory MP, James Wild, who is reported to have told Davie that his constituents would “expect to see more than one flag” in the BBC’s 268-page Annual Report. *****  It has not as yet, however, been made mandatory to hug the Union jack in the way the immediately past President of the USA was sometimes wont to hug the Star Spangled Banner.

Anyone who reacts with a measure of cynicism to the outbreak of a rash of flags will find him or herself in extensive, and often very good, company.   Given Jenrick’s own history of dodgy dealing with Richard Desmond (see my entry on 28th June), and the corruption around the PPE and Test and Trace contracts, Bill Moyer’s cautionary note is salutary: ‘They’re counting on your patriotism to distract you from their plunder. They’re counting on you to be standing at attention with your hand over your heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while they pick your pocket!’   David Lloyd George’s comment, ‘The man who tries to make the flag an object of a single party is a greater traitor to that flag than any man who fires at it,’ would serve as a suitable put-down of the Tories’ transparent attempts to outdo Labour where the size of their respective patriotisms is concerned.  As for being proud of the totality of our history, particularly such darker corners of our history as those listed earlier, Howard Zinn put it very well when he said: ‘There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.’  Johnson and company might also do well to think both about Laurence Peter’s aphorism, ‘The man who is always waving the flag usually waives what it stands for,’ and Arundhati Roy’s, ‘Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.’   But perhaps the most pertinent comment of all in view of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill I wrote about on April 5th is the warning about America attributed to Sinclair Lewis, adapted for our own country: ‘When fascism comes to the United Kingdom, it will come wrapped in the Union Jack.’


* https://www.gov.uk/government/news/union-flag-to-be-flown-on-uk-government-buildings-every-day

** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/union-jack-flag-eu-buildings-b1822026.html

*** https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/mar/22/bbc-chief-told-to-use-more-than-one-union-jack-in-annual-report

from Shannon in Seattle, WA: the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone.

Capital Hill, Seattle

My 13 year old son, Wren, and I made a visit to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle,WA. It was both inspiring and peaceful with a festival + BLM protest + collectivist atmosphere. We wore masks as did most people. Groups of people sat at good distance in the park ( there were dense crowds in places). People seemed happy and supportive, just walking about.

The carport door to the East Precinct police station
social distancing taking place in Cal Anderson Park

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: follow the tortoise …

a tortoise walk

April 28.  Casual walking out of a house, down the street, into a park or out to the countryside, has long-been the most practised and least studied form of recreation.

For most people in most times, it was the basic form of relaxation.  Until the twentieth century, domestic over-crowding meant that it was often the only means of escaping the press of people and finding some privacy.  Because it was essentially unstructured and unrecorded, it has rarely received the attention of historians.  Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, to which I referred on April 24, is, like a handful of other such books, essentially an account of literary walkers, from Rousseau and Wordsworth onwards.  The one exception is the now elderly account by Maurice Marples, Shank’s Pony (1959).

In Britain, however, one of its most common forms, walking the dog, has long been counted.   During the nineteenth century an increasingly firm distinction was drawn between walking with a dog, and dog-walking.  Next to the immobile pedestrian, the greatest fear of polite town dwellers was the uncontrolled dog.  It was at best a source of noise, pollution, and unwanted physical contact for other pedestrians, and at worst a threat to life through the widely-feared disease of hydrophobia, or rabies. Taxing dogs, which began in 1796, was a means of policing their mainly urban owners.  Rural working dogs were exempt.  Following reforms to the cost and efficiency of taxation in 1867, reliable records were kept.  By 1877, there were nearly 1.4 million licensed dogs in Britain, mostly in towns and cities. At least as many owners again were believed to be avoiding the tax.  By the second half of the twentieth century the figure had reached four million, doubling again before the licence fee was finally abolished in 1987.

In most countries in the coronavirus lockdown, some kind of exemption has been allowed for exercising a pet.  Last week a story went viral of an Italian woman who had been fined for exceeding the time limit for this activity.  Her excuse was that the pet was not a dog, but a tortoise, and there was a photograph to prove it.

Initially I had much sympathy for the woman.  In my adult life the only pet that I have owned myself, as distinct from the family cat, was a tortoise, named Herodotus, or Hod for short, after the first historian.  It always seemed an appropriate companion for an historian, or indeed anyone engaged in the slow business of writing a full-length book. At this time of the year Hod would be trundling about the garden, eating buttercups and clover as he recovered his strength after the winter’s hibernation.

But then again, a tortoise really does, in Kipling’s terms, walk by itself.  Cats are in fact always aware of human company and generally seek to be close to it.  But a tortoise is entirely indifferent.  That is what makes it so relaxing a pet.  No complex emotional interactions.  Our cat would walk surprisingly long distances with us when we were out on an expedition.  Not Hod.  It is not so much about mobility.  On a hot day, especially if there is a tortoise maid in the offing, a tortoise can manage a turn of speed.  Rather it is a matter of independence.  There is just no way in the world you can get such an animal to follow you down the street.

I am afraid the Italian police had the right of it.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: guest blog from Cathy Buckle in Zimbabwe – god help us …

from Cathy Buckle in Zimbabwe

Cathy Buckle. Dear Family and Friends,
On an early morning emergency dash to collect supplies I was anxious about venturing out and what I would see. It was Day 5 of Zimbabwe’s 21 day Coronavirus lockdown and I knew that by now people who live hand to mouth and eke out a living selling fruit and vegetables from roadside stalls would be getting desperate. Our taps were dry for the second day running and with gloves and a mask on I set out. People were out looking for water already, so far there was no news on where there were supplies of maize meal, the staple food.

I passed a man pushing a wheelbarrow with five empty yellow water containers, heading towards a public borehole. Fourteen people were already there ahead of him, standing in line at the borehole waiting for their turn to use the hand pump and fill their containers with water. This is coping with Coronavirus Zimbabwe style.

Further along a policewoman in uniform ignored me, she was busy taking a selfie photograph of herself on the side of the road, a block or two from the town centre. She wasn’t wearing a face mask. A group of four police men and women armed with truncheons were having an altercation with a man carrying a small cardboard box. None of the police were wearing face masks despite being a few inches away from the man. This is coping with Coronavirus Zimbabwe style.

All week we’ve been seeing pictures of big crowds of people desperately trying to buy maize meal in Harare and Bulawayo. No chance for social distancing, no sign of masks, just a massive squash of people trying to get food for their families, people who have to choose between hunger and an invisible virus. Almost five hundred people have been arrested this week for being on the streets in breach of lockdown, crammed into police lorries and taken away but in the same week 1680 prisoners have been released because prisons are overcrowded and congested. This is coping with Coronavirus Zimbabwe style.

On Day 5 of Zimbabwe lockdown, news had already filtered out that in the early hours of the morning police had raided Sakubva market in Mutare and confiscated three tons of fresh vegetables which were later set alight. Burning food when the country is in lockdown, people are desperate for food and over half the population is dependent on International Food Aid to survive, is very hard to understand.

Almost home from my early morning dash, two police details were standing in the middle of the road and indicated for me to stop and open my window, asking where I was going and why. The police woman who came to my window wasn’t wearing a mask or gloves and the obvious question that came to mind was: what if she’s got Coronavirus, isn’t she passing it on to every person she stops and questions? Isn’t this making a complete nonsense of lockdown, defeating the whole purpose of confining people to their homes to stop the spread of Covid 19? This is coping, or not, with Coronavirus, Zimbabwe style. God help us.


Until next time, thanks for reading this Letter From Zimbabwe, now in its 20th year, and my books about life in Zimbabwe, love cathy 3 April 2020. Copyright © Cathy Buckle. http://cathybuckle.co.zw/