From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘A time to break down, and a time to build up’

June 24th

From time to time throughout my adult life I have found the words of Pete Seeger’s 1962 song ‘Turn, turn, turn’ running through my mind.   The vast majority of those words aren’t, of course, Pete Seeger’s: but for the repeated ‘Turn, turn, turn’, and ‘I swear it’s not too late’, they are all taken directly, if in a different order, from the evocatively poetic King James Version of the Bible.  Over the last week or two the phrase that has kept coming to mind has been ‘a time to break down, and a time to built up’, bearing in mind that ‘break down’ fits the song’s rhythm a whole lot better than ‘dismantle’ would.

‘Dismantling’ lodged in my mind two weeks ago when the Minneapolis Council announced its startlingly radical, but clearly long overdue, response to the murder of George Floyd.  The Council President, Lisa Bender, told CNN that a majority of members of the Council had ‘committed to dismantling policing as we know it in the city of Minneapolis and to rebuild with our community a new model of public safety that actually keeps our community safe.’  She followed this up by indicating that the Council was looking to shift funding towards community-based strategies.   A two-minute internet search reveals that the Minneapolis Police Department, which initially described George Floyd’s death as a ‘medical incident’, has a long and very ugly record of police brutality.

Monday’s very extensive media coverage of the Reading park murders showed what a good day it was, if not exactly ‘to bury bad news’, certainly to distract attention from embarrassing anniversaries.  Monday was the 72ndanniversary of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks.  Given the scandal surrounding the treatment of many of those who arrived on the Empire Windrush, it won’t be remotely coincidental that the ‘Empire’ part of the ship’s name tends to be omitted in references to it a country that still, apparently entirely without embarrassment, attaches the ‘British Empire’ moniker to the various Medals, Members, Officers and Commanders of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire that make up the major part of its Honours awards. 

On Monday evening the Channel 4 News resisted the distraction offered by the events in Reading to the extent of carrying a four-minute piece on the family of Ann-Mari Madden, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush, and her four children.  Mrs Madden is a British citizen, as are her four children, but their lives have been blighted by our Home Office’s twenty-year long refusal, in spite of every last shred of evidence the family could offer over all those years, to recognise that fact on the grounds that they didn’t have passports to prove their citizenship.   As if the stress of losing friends and career opportunities was not enough, one of the children was threatened with arrest and deportation before they were finally able to take their case to the Windrush Task Force. The Task Force managed in 24 days to achieve what the Home Office had clearly spent 20 years successfully endeavouring not to achieve.  The Madden family have submitted a claim for compensation but seem likely to have to wait another 20 years to see any.  The Home Office has so far managed to process a total of 60 claims and distributed about £1 million out of the estimated £300-500 million it is estimated it will in the end have to pay out.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, Queen of the Hostile Environment, has refused to apologise for the foot-dragging reimbursements, excusing the delay on the grounds that the Home Office is handling them in a ‘sensitive way’.   ‘Home Office’ and ‘sensitive’ go together about as comfortably as ‘Minneapolis Police Department ‘ and ‘gentle’ would.   Which brings me back to ‘dismantling’.   The viciously vindictive manner in which the Madden family, like so many others, has been treated over the past decades is strongly reminiscent of the very worst aspects of the Department of the Interior in South Africa under apartheid.  It is, quite simply, inconceivable that the Maddens would have been treated so appallingly for that length of time had they not been black.  In May 2006, the then Home Secretary, John Reid, declared of the Home Office that: ‘Our system is not fit for purpose. It is inadequate in terms of its scope, it is inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management systems and processes.’  The Home Office has had 14 years since then to get its act together, the hostile environment is still all too obviously still with us, and now it would seem that the only solution is to dismantle it.  If the Minneapolis Police Department can be dismantled, so can the Home Office.  It is ‘a time to build up’ something very different in its place.   Whatever takes its place should not be led by someone whose sole qualification for the job (apart from having been fired from a less senior one previously, which Boris would obviously identify with) is that she was either blinkered enough to think that Brexit was a good idea or duplicitous enough to pretend to think so.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Proportionality.

June 23rd

Three men sitting with their friends enjoying the sunshine on a summer afternoon in Reading last Saturday are suddenly attacked without warning by a man they don’t know, and brutally, and with ruthless efficiency, stabbed to death.  Three of their friends are also stabbed, but their injuries are relatively minor.  It soon becomes apparent that their attacker, who is quickly arrested, is a mentally disturbed asylum seeker from Libya, Khairi Saadallah, who is said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his involvement in the Libyan civil war.  The identities of the three dead men are released one by one; moving tributes are paid to them by parents and friends, who express their shock and loss; the pupils of James Furlong, by all accounts an inspirational local history teacher, gather to pay their tearful tributes.   Boris Johnson tweets a formulaic statement to the effect that his ‘thoughts are with all those affected by the appalling incident in Reading’; Priti Patel calls the attack ‘senseless’ and elaborates on her boss by adding her heart and prayers to her thoughts which are ‘with all those affected’; the media are full of photographs of people laying bunches of flowers as tributes.   The attack is appalling, the grief of those who knew the men heartfelt and touching.

The sigh of relief that will have gone round Downing Street and the editorial offices and newsrooms of our predominantly right wing media must have been audible across London.  Here, at last, they were back on familiar non-Covid territory:  terrorist attacks, knife-crime, asylum seekers, Muslims, white victims, grief-stricken parents and friends.  After weeks of increasing discomfort as they watched the government they had supported into power demonstrating an embarrassing level of blundering incompetence in its handling of a killer pandemic, they were able to beat the Law and Order drum to their hearts content and, in the process, turn their collective back on the Covid-19 fall out.

I suspect I am not alone in detecting a certain disproportionality in what has been going on here.  A couple of weeks ago Professor Neil Ferguson, whose statistical analysis was instrumental in persuading our Government to institute the lockdown in the first place, said that the belated imposition of that lockdown will have resulted in some 20,000 unnecessary deaths.   A government that, supposedly, religiously ‘follows the science’ needs to take such statements seriously, even if a number of senior scientists have been sufficiently sceptical of their claim to feel the need to set up their own parallel, but independent, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.   That means that in recent weeks roughly seven thousand times as much grief, anguish and loss can be laid at the door of our incompetent government as can be laid at the door of Khairi Saadallah’s murderous killing spree.  Those 20,000 deaths will have been painful, lingering and desperately lonely; the grief of parents, partners and children will have been just as devastating; uncountably more lives have been irreparably disfigured and futures blighted.   The media could obviously never lavish as much attention on those twenty thousand lost lives as it has been able to lavish on the tragic deaths of the three men murdered in the park in Reading on Saturday, and culpability for the 20,000 deaths will never be as easily provable, but we should bear all those other deaths in mind, even as we are appalled by what happened in Reading on Saturday.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Protests against racism

June 7th

Protest marches against racism, most notably under apartheid, have been so memorable and regular a feature of much of my life that I am finding it increasingly frustrating not to be able to do anything active by way of demonstrating my support for those protesting against the murder of George Floyd, and institutionalized racism more generally.   Judging by the TV news coverage, the proportion of ‘vulnerable’ protesters (in this new world in which anyone over 70 is, by definition, ‘vulnerable’) is far lower than usual.  Of course the news footage has made it all too clear that anyone who protests in USA is vulnerable when it comes to police brutality.  The absence of older protesters suggests that, because we are statistically 500 times more likely to be seriously affected by Covid-19 than people who are only 20, even the most inveterate protesters of my age are with good reason less inclined right now to take part in large protest gatherings which are bound to preclude social-distancing.  But that does nothing to lessen the frustration.  Nor does the fact that I can’t possibly march more than a few hundred yards until such time as I can have a fusion operation on my back – and today’s Independent suggests that I am now one of ten million people waiting for non-emergency procedures of one sort or another.  I could ride my bike, but bicycles can’t very easily be accommodated in protest marches.

George Floyd’s killing, passively assisted by the three other policemen with him, was an outrage and it took far too long, even for the USA, for them all to be arrested and for charges to be brought against them.  It will no doubt be argued that they are ‘bad apples’ in an otherwise squeaky-clean police force.  The extraordinary footage of the elderly white man being pushed to the ground by the policemen in Buffalo, falling backwards, hitting his head on the pavement, and being left lying unconscious with a pool of blood seeping rapidly from a head wound is, in its way, more telling.   Afro-Americans are murdered by white policemen time and time again in the USA and I have no doubt the ‘bad apple’ argument is trotted out every time.  What was telling in Buffalo is that one policeman did try to tend to the fallen man but was hurried on by his colleagues, and that when the two men who appeared to be responsible were suspended, the entire 57 man emergency response squad resigned in protest. No 57 varieties there.  One can only hope that by doing so they will all be charged as accessories to the violent assault.  Whether or not that happens, and it probably won’t, this episode has blown the ‘one bad apple’ argument out of the water:  that whole barrel-full of apples has declared itself to be bad.

Leaving aside the almost certain second spike in Covid-19 infections that seems bound to result, it has been encouraging to see so many people coming out to protest against racism.   Many of those who have been interviewed by reporters have expressed optimism that this is the ‘break-through’ moment; that now something really will be done to address institutionalised racism in USA (and Australia and UK).  To which I can only respond with a world-weary sadness.  Would it were so.  As both South Africa and the United States show all too clearly, there are no break-through moments for societies built for centuries on institutionalised racism.   If ever there were was the potential for such moments, the elections of Mandela and Obama as Presidents should have been ones, but they only made the smallest of dents.  It will take generations to eradicate the legacies of slavery and apartheid from the consciousness of individuals instilled from birth with notions of racial superiority.

Racism hasn’t been codified in our law and practice in the UK in the way it has in USA and South Africa, but the UK is obviously not exempt from a similar legacy of institutional racism: much of our wealth was built on the backs of slaves, the history of Empire is not one to be proud of, and many black people have died at the hands of the police over the years here too.   More recently the racism and xenophobia underlying much of the Leave rhetoric in the 2016 Brexit referendum struck enough of a chord with the electorate to win the day, and in the process has given copious licence for racist abuse.   Much of the behaviour of our Home Office, the body responsible both for policing and immigration, is nakedly racist, as exemplified most obviously by the ongoing Windrush scandal.   There are multiple layers of irony in our Home Secretary’s instruction to us all not to attend this weekend’s protests against racism – if one could be bothered to waste time unpeeling them.  Priti Patel, recently crowned Queen of the Hostile Environment, whose presence in UK in the first place is entirely the result of Idi Amin’s racist expulsion of ‘Asians’ from Uganda, takes the lead for the government in ordering people not to attend demonstrations against racism – once again, you couldn’t make it up. Perhaps, given the very real difficulty associated with protest marches during lockdown, they did try to find a credible cabinet minister to deliver the message but realised that there isn’t one.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Bubbles

May 27th

Living in self-isolation under lockdown feels like living in a fragile protective bubble, a somewhat larger version of the huge soap bubbles I watched a busker producing on a still autumn day in New York’s Central Park some years ago.   As long as one is very careful, the bubble won’t burst, and provided the families of those one loves are safe in their own protective bubbles, one can get on with life with reasonable equanimity, even if the constraints become irksome from time to time.   The separate bubbles preclude physical contact but are uplifted by the virtual contact enabled by the likes, appropriately enough, of Zoom.  If we are lucky, they also insulate us to a significant extent from the agonies of the now more than 40,000 people in UK who have died of Covid-19, and the searing grief of the very many more partners, children, parents, and siblings who have been left behind.

One needs to be insulated.  The pain of all those deaths doesn’t bear too much thinking about.  ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’, as T.S.Eliot said.  The bubble bursts, a partner or a parent gets infected, goes to hospital and ends up in another kind of bubble, this time more like a steel-walled bathysphere that might as well be 10,000 feet under the sea in the Mariana Trench for all the chance anyone has of seeing or touching their loved one.  No visiting, no holding hands, no opportunity for any kind of proper closure, no saying goodbye, and at the end of it all no proper funeral.  Their loved ones have no option but to leave the dying quite literally in the hands of, and to the seemingly infinite, but desperately weary, compassion of the nurses.  Nurses who carry the burden of that love and compassion while, in all too many cases, also carrying the burden of knowing that the government of the people they are caring for, led by Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, would like nothing better than to kick them back to wherever it was they came from to care for our dying here.

It isn’t only the process of dying that enforces separate bubbles under lockdown.  To take just one of what must be hundreds of thousands of examples, there’s a letter in today’s Independent written by a 77 year old man, married for 56 years, whose wife has extreme Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home.  Whereas he used to visit and sit with her four or five times a week, he hasn’t been able to see her for eight weeks and, being vulnerable himself, has been in total isolation.  He feels ‘neglected, ignored, lonely and cast to one side’ and says that the pressure on mental health must be a major issue for many people like himself.  He concludes his letter by saying: ‘We cannot drive to Durham and choose whether we follow instructions and advice.  Grief, loss and depression are being dismissed by the authorities as unimportant.’   Whatever Boris Johnson may choose to say from behind his podium, we are not all in this together. 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Lockdown Fortnight.

26 May. All of us are looking towards the future, seeking to understand how we can draw lessons from the crisis and build upon them.

This is my modest proposal.

From 2021 there shall be a legally-defined annual Lockdown Fortnight.

The Lockdown Fortnight will fall in the last week of June and the first week of July.  During that period, with exceptions listed below, every household will be required to observe full lockdown.

The Lockdown Fortnight will have four functions:

  • It will serve as a memorial for the tens of thousands who lost their lives in the 2020 UK pandemic, and for the health workers who risked their lives in supporting the afflicted.  Clapping is not enough;
  • It will serve as an annual reminder that we need to be prepared for the recurrence of a global pandemic. Countries, such as South Korea, that had an active memory of the SARS epidemic, were much better prepared for Covid19 than those without such a memory.  During the lockdown the government will be required to make an annual statement of preparedness;
  • It will create a pollution-free interval to remind us of what we have lost and have a right to regain;
  • It will provide a planned break from the distractions of late modernity in order that individuals recollect themselves and the importance of their immediate social networks (and also do the necessary home repairs that otherwise are left undone across the year).

Because it will be planned and of a fixed duration, the disorder and stress of the current crisis can be largely avoided. Before the Lockdown Fortnight, supplies can be purchased, encounters with family and friends can take place, hairdressers can be visited.  Any other practical difficulties can be borne for only fourteen days.

During Lockdown Fortnight, the only permitted movement will be such as can be conducted on foot, or on a bicycle (powered or otherwise).  The only long-distance travel will be pilgrimages to the shrine of St Cummings the Martyr in Durham (and/or Barnard Castle).

The Lockdown Fortnight will be timed for the period of maximum daylight in Britain. It will incorporate the May Bank Holidays which will be moved forward for this purpose. The school summer half terms will be extended to two weeks and also be moved to this period.

The event is partly based on the Potters Fortnight, which was still functioning when I started work at Keele University.  This was a relic of an industrial holiday, when the potbanks were shut for maintenance, and when, before the 1956 Clean Air Act, it was the only time when you could see across the city.

Exemptions to the Lockdown Fortnight will be:

  • Health and related workers, though A and E business may again decline if the pubs are shut.
  • Hospitality workers serving overseas visitors, who will be welcome to bring their currency to Britain and spend it at otherwise un-crowded hotels and bars (on production of a passport).   This will represent a temporary but annual reminder of what we have lost with Brexit-inspired hostility to all foreigners. Britons travelling abroad will have to leave and return before and after the lockdown.
  • Home-working will be permitted although no household will be allowed more than 10 hours video conferencing a week (5 work, 5 social).  Wherever possible factories should arrange their annual maintenance for this period (see Potters Fortnight above). 
  • Sporting fixtures will be closed (the football season will be over), except Wimbledon on the grounds that it provides televised entertainment for those in lockdown.

The Lockdown Fortnight would be disruptive, but perhaps we have learnt this year that unbroken continuity of event and practice can oppose wisdom and self-knowledge. There may be a small net hit on the national GDP, but everything now is a balance between cost and benefit. See above for the gains.

The regulations will be rigorously policed by the Priti Patel Compassionate Enforcement Agency.

From David Maughn Brown in York: ‘Unskilled workers’

May 18th

As the lockdown, with its social isolation and social distancing, wears on, I am finding my emotions rising to the surface more insistently than usual.   The broadcast media seem at times deliberately to set out to play on those emotions with their extensive and insistent interviews with the bereaved members of the families of those who have been killed by Covid-19.   The cameras linger just that little bit too long on the anguished faces of the partners and children of those who have died as their fortitude wears out and they break down in tears.   One expects families to be grieving after the deaths of loved ones, what I hadn’t anticipated and have found equally moving has been the manifest grief of the managers and staff of care-homes who have been interviewed after the deaths of residents whom they have cared for and clearly loved.  It doesn’t, however, take very long for sympathy to mutate into impotent fury that they should have lost residents they care for very deeply as a result of the extraordinary negligence and incompetence of those responsible for Health and Social Care in this country who allowed elderly residents of care homes to be discharged from hospitals back into those care homes without being tested for Covid-19.

The anger is compounded when those responsible have themselves filmed  ostentatiously ‘clapping for carers’ at 8.00pm on a Thursday evening by way, supposedly, of thanking them for the difficult and dangerous role they are playing during the pandemic, and then walz along to Parliament on Monday morning to support an Immigration Bill which makes it abundantly clear that those same care workers aren’t really wanted or needed in this country.   There are 122,000 vacancies in the care sector at present, not including the gaps left by the 150 or so care workers who have died of Covid-19.   But prohibitive, and wholly unjustified, visa charges are currently in place to deter non-EU foreign care workers from coming now, and as soon as the Brexit transition period comes to an end on December 31st a shiny new salary-threshold based imitation of the Australian points-based immigration system will be put in place to keep them out altogether.   Roughly 25% of care-workers in UK are currently not British and without them, as those directly responsible for managing the homes know all too well, the whole sector will collapse.   But our xenophobic Brexiteer government doesn’t like foreign ‘low-skilled workers’, and one can only presume that the fantasy-land they live in is populated by hundreds of thousands of UK citizens champing at the bit to fill all the existing and prospective vacancies that will ensue.

Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, interviewed by the BBC this morning, referred to the Government’s bizarre decision to start implementing a two-week quarantine on anyone flying into the UK at this juncture (there’s nothing like waking up to a good idea two months too late) as ‘idiotic and unimplementable’.   Any policy that aims to keep poorly paid health and care workers who aren’t British out of this country, and imagines that our NHS and care sector will survive, is equally idiotic and unimplementable.  The notion that poorly paid nurses and care-workers are ‘unskilled’ is, of course, as stupid as it is offensive.   The equation of salary-level with skill is the kind of stupidity one should probably expect of a government led by an Old Etonian who recently acknowledged that his life has just been saved by the skills of two foreign ‘unskilled workers’, but is apparently blind to the contradiction.  Anyone who wants an example of ‘unskilled workers’ has only to look at Boris (although ‘worker’ is an exaggeration in his case) and Priti Patel, his Home Secretary, who, in spite of their £140k plus salaries, are manifestly lacking the skills needed to do the jobs they have maneuvered themselves into. Of all the sickening features of the whole sorry post-Brexit immigration debate, perhaps the least edifying is having to watch the spectacle of Priti Patel, whose parents immigrated to UK after being expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, frantically pulling the ladder up behind her.