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not ‘business’, not (fairly obviously) ‘religious’, but (somewhat oddly) ‘charitable activities’ – has now been rescinded.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: Fiction and fact

September 9th

Most of my time is currently being divided between painstakingly working through the page proofs of a novel scheduled for publication at the end of November, and trying to ensure that members of our York U3A who are venturing cautiously out of their homes to involve themselves once again in their widely differing interest groups are going to be as safe from Covid-19 as we can make them.

Were I ever to venture an application to become a Mastermind contestant, my specialist subject would not be either Risk Management or Health and Safety.  But the basics are relatively straightforward as long as the parameters within which one is working are clear and relatively constant.   We pressed the starter button on indoor meetings last week with a ream of cleaning, access and other requirements in place, only to find our selves suddenly subject to the Boris & Matt ‘Rule of Six’ Act.  Having been heavily, and justifiably, criticised for increasingly confused messaging for the past few months, Matt Hancock declared that the time had come for the message to be ‘absolutely clear’, which inevitably meant that for some people it is anything but clear.  The rule precludes ‘social gatherings’ of more than six people, but is not applicable in educational and business settings.   Our language classes, for example – German, French, Italian and Latin – are unquestionably educational, but the Friends Meeting House where we rent rooms is not an ‘educational setting’ – or is it, given our educational activities there?  It is a ‘business setting’ in that it rents the rooms to us, but would the government regard it as such?  It is undoubtedly a ‘religious’ setting, but we aren’t using it for religious purposes.  We are still waiting for absolute clarity, as is the Third Age Trust to whom we look for guidance (and insurance cover).

Proof reading wouldn’t be my specialist subject either.  Last time around I sent back 84 out of 440 pages that needed minor corrections – typos, the odd word left out, punctuation (mainly misplaced or absent commas), and so on – and felt it was a job pretty well done.  That was until the proofs came back for checking and I decided not just to check that the corrections had been made, but to proofread the whole lot again.  That time I sent back 90 pages.   I also try to be alert to plausibility where the minor details are concerned as I go along.  Could a protest march from the assembly point to the City Hall in Sheffield, for example, really be completed in the time I allowed?  By the time it gets to the proof reading stage it is much too late to start asking oneself whether the major points on which the plot depends are plausible.   But that, like Covid-19 risk management, is time-dependent too.

I wrote about fictional plausibility in my entry for July 10 and chose, as an example of what wouldn’t be regarded as plausible in a novel, the appointment of Chris Grayling, ‘Failing Grayling’, to the Chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee – ironic as the ‘Intelligence’ bit would have been.  As it happens, Boris’s cunning plan was foiled and Grayling wasn’t appointed.   In July it would have been regarded as too wildly implausible to choose as an example of possible fictional implausibility the idea of a government Minister of any political complexion standing up in Parliament and brazenly acknowledging that the legislation our government was about to introduce would be a deliberate transgression of international law.   A Conservative Government of the United Kingdom deliberately reneging on a treaty it had willingly signed up to less than a year ago? Come off it!

More implausible still would be a Prime Minister boldly declaring that the international illegality he was embarking on was, in fact, to protect the one precious thing his actions seemed ineluctably bound to destroy.   There is no way the extraordinarily hard-won Peace Accord in Northern Ireland could survive the erection of physical check-points for customs and excise purposes along the border with Ireland, which Johnson is effectively daring the EU to set up to ensure the integrity of the European single market in the absence of the checks at the Northern Ireland ports which Johnson signed up to in the Withdrawal Agreement, but is now intent on ratting on.  On reflection, describing Johnson’s behaviour as ‘ratting’ is unfair to rodents that can’t be expected to abide by any moral code as they go about their business of eating, sleeping and breeding.   Boris Johnson isn’t stupid.  He way well have been, probably was, too lazy to read the detail of what it was he was signing up to, but its full implications will have been explained to him, and he is now, for once, refusing to make one of his regular U-turns.  He isn’t stupid, but he is deeply immoral, and the way he is behaving is as far out of bounds where fictional plausibility is concerned as it is when it comes to international law. But then one would only have to go back two or three years for it to have seemed wildly implausible that any dystopian writer could get away with imagining that a man like Boris Johnson could ever be appointed as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Risk Management

August 21st

Throughout my time in University management in England I managed to avoid line management responsibility for staff whose lives were dedicated to Health and Safety and Risk Management.  Very important areas of activity, but ones that never exactly stirred my blood.  I was well and truly inducted into the arcane mysteries of the sect when I was required to attend a Health and Safety Committee meeting as part of my induction to my new university role in York.  It was soon enough after my arrival for me still to be driving my car around York with windows and doors firmly locked to avoid being hi-jacked, and still making a point of backing into parking bays to the same end, both being legacies of having lived in South Africa for the previous 30 years.   There were two substantive items on the agenda:  a four-page paper titled “The Safe use of Ornamental and Christmas Tree Lights” (it was November after all); and a six-page paper titled “The Dangers of Working Alone”.   Enough said.

But the management of Risk Management has now caught up with me in retirement, and is taking its revenge.   When I accepted nomination as Chair of the U3A in York, the crystal ball a colleague gave me as a parting present when I left the University of Natal for a primarily ‘Strategy and Corporate Planning’ role at York St John failed rather dismally in its responsibility to alert me to the impending onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.   U3A is gradually easing itself out of lockdown, and every tentative step has to be risk assessed.  We are acutely aware of the extent to which the vast majority of our members are, by definition, in the ‘vulnerable’ category, and very conscious of our responsibility to try to make sure that, in resuming their U3A activities, they will be as safe as we can possibly make them.   

In some instances, particularly with outdoor activities, that is relatively easy.  So, for example, we just have to review the risk management measures advised by the Croquet Association, and make sure the members of our croquet group are aware of them and happy to abide by them.  But even with outdoor activities there can be complications.  We have a number of walking groups of various sizes.  The Ramblers Association allows parties of up to 30, but we have group insurance through the Third Age Trust and their advice is still that only six people from different households should meet outdoors, as our cycling group is doing.  So is it OK for our large walking groups to divide into groups of six, each with a sub-leader who has reconnoitred the route with the Group Leader, with a view to many more than a total of six going out on the same walk, but at five minute intervals?

The restarting of group meetings indoors makes the complications of outdoor activities pale into insignificance.   We have an excellent relationship with the Friends Meeting House in York where our office is situated and where we rent meeting rooms for a significant portion of the well over 100 groups who meet indoors.   The Friends will take responsibility for the regular cleaning of the meeting rooms, but what about the ‘touch-points’ between sessions: door handles, light-switches, window-catches etc.?  And what about our office, storeroom, and equipment? Assorted Group Leaders, some probably about as absent-minded as I am, will be accessing the office at different times, taking PCs, projectors, cables etc. from the storeroom, and returning them at assorted times.   Is it reasonable to expect them all to remember to clean all touch-points as they go in and out? And what about cleaning the equipment?  None of this is insuperable, and we are expecting a very gradual return to indoor meetings from our understandably cautious membership, but it is taking a great deal of time – particularly for our Groups Coordinator.

A kindly neurosurgeon came to my aid on Wednesday.  He didn’t offer to help with the solution to the problems of cleaning the touch-points in our office, but he did put the occupational hazards of being Chair of a U3A branch with ultimate responsibility for risk management in a time of Covid into perspective.  His aim was clearly to make 100% certain that, in signing a consent form for a fusion operation on my spine, I was graphically aware of the risks involved.  ‘See that thin line there,’ he says, pointing to a very thin line on the MRI scan up on the screen in front of us, ‘if I nick that, you die on the operating table.  It has never happened to me – yet, touch wood, but it has happened to most of my colleagues, but only once.’   I was inclined to think that ‘happened to’ might, perhaps, be more appropriately applied to the patient rather than the surgeon. ‘You obviously have to be lying on your stomach, probably for around two and a half hours, so if we don’t have your head positioned correctly, there is a risk that you could be blind when you wake up,’ he continued, adding as an afterthought, ‘and if we don’t have your arms positioned right you could end up with permanent nerve damage.’  Those were by no means the only risks he enumerated, and he is not a man to pull his punches, but, oddly, he managed to be quite reassuring at the same time.  Reassuring enough, at least, for me to try to fit my signature into the appropriate box on the consent form for an operation which, he hopes, will be in time to ensure I am not one of the 10 million people predicted to be on NHS waiting lists by Christmas.   I just have to hope that there is plenty of coronavirus-free wood around for him to touch from time to time as he goes about his business.

From David Maughan Brown in York: “It is what it is”

April 15th

We are getting close to phoning the last on the list of 230 or so U3A members in York who do not boast email addresses – at least as far as our less than perfect records know.   To date I have phoned rather over 120 members and been struck by how phlegmatic and resilient in our present unusual circumstances the overwhelming majority, most of them over 70, have sounded.  A few have clearly wanted to make the most, in their isolation, of having the opportunity to talk to someone; most have simply assured me that they are getting on fine and have whatever support they need, and after a brief conversation have thanked me for phoning them.   Even those suffering some sort of particular distress in their isolation – a broken foot, a recent stroke, chemotherapy, bereavement – have almost always been able to find something to be positive about.  Their overall perspective on the virus, and the lockdown more generally, has been a stoicism – primarily attributable, I suspect, to their age group, but probably also owing something to the county they live in – best summed up by an often articulated:  “It is what it is.” 

At one level that short sentence is about as banal a statement of the bleeding obvious as it is possible to imagine.  How could ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is, ever be anything other than what ‘it’ is?  But the statement, ‘it is what it is’, conveys a wealth of coded acceptance:  ‘The present state of affairs has descended on us without our willing it to do so, there is nothing whatever we can do to change it, so we might as well accept it and make the best of it.’  ‘It is what it is” is a whole lot more succinct – and one wouldn’t want to waste words in Yorkshire.   No semblance of anyone here raging against the dying of the light.  But then, of course, the light isn’t literally dying: it is one of more extreme disjunctures of our spring lockdown that the sun is shining and the days are growing longer, even as the light goes out on tens of thousands of lives.  ‘It’ would have been much better suited to November.  Eliot was right where 2020, at least, is concerned: April is, without doubt, the cruellest month.

But ‘it is what it is’ glosses too easily over what ‘it’, in our case, is.  In a 21st century world in which aircraft can travel at 2000 mph, people are able to construct 160 storey buildings, and space probes can be sent to explore the outer edges of our planetary system, the entire world has been brought to a grinding halt by an invisible virus.  For all the skill and ingenuity with which mankind can explore the universe, and work seeming miracles elsewhere in the fields of medicine and surgery, there is currently no antidote for this virus, any more than there was an antidote for the Black Death in the fourteenth century or the plague in the seventeenth.  ‘It is what it is’ is a kind of comfort in that it deflects any need to reflect on the hubris of twenty-first century man (and of course, if to a lesser extent,  twenty-first century woman).

from David Maughan Brown in York, UK: Isolation and Cold-calling. April 1-2

Having spent some time learning how to post these blogs myself (thanks to Anne for her excellent fool’s-guide instructions), I turned my attention this morning to transmogrifying into one of my own least favourite creatures – a telephone cold-caller. Isolation is for many of our members precisely what the University of the Third Age (U3A) provides an antidote to: what it offers by way of companionship and friendship being for some people more important than the mental stimulation or physical exercise. As Chairman, I have been particularly concerned about those members of our York U3A community who don’t have email and with whom we can’t, as a consequence, easily keep in touch.  We have been sending out weekly information updates to the 1,550 or so members who do have emails, and our very long-standing practice has always been to post letters to those who don’t have email whenever we send out emails.   But that is totally impractical in present circumstances.  Besides which who knows whether the local constabulary might not think buying stamps and posting letters to be on a par with buying Easter eggs when it comes to being “essential”?

So three of us from the committee have set out to phone all our 230 or so members who don’t have email, working our way down the list on the basis of their membership numbers.   Today I’ve been phoning the ones whose membership numbers are in the 300s and 400s.  Given that the number of the last person on the list to be phoned is just under 4700, the ones in the 300s are clearly very long-standing members, all in their eighties or nineties.   Once the initial suspicion about the credentials of yet another cold-caller have been overcome – April Fool’s Day was probably not the ideal occasion for this exercise – I have found it a heartening experience.   Although many of them live entirely on their own they have, with one exception, all been cheerfully philosophical and said they are being well supported either by family or, more frequently, by neighbours.  I’ve made a note to phone the one exception again next week.  Although time-consuming, it is a worthwhile exercise to the extent that all the 30 odd people I’ve spoken to so far have said how pleased they are that we had contacted them.  It has also been useful to discover that several of them do, in fact, have email.

2 April:  So our sick Prime Minister (using the term literally in this instance) has made an announcement, quoted in this morning’s news bulletins, to the effect that ‘testing, testing, testing’ is what will enable us to conquer coronavirus.  This insight was accompanied by the promise to ramp up the number of tests being carried out.  So Boris has undergone a Damascene conversion in his illness and arrived at a dazzling new insight which just happens to be what the WHO has been saying for the last six weeks.  As it also happens, Boris has himself been promising for a week or two to ramp up testing, with no discernible effect whatever on the number of tests being undertaken.  Perhaps amnesia is another of the symptoms of the virus.

The same broadcast also carried a gem for the collectors of absurd World War II Covid analogies.  A spokesman for some chemical company or other has apparently asserted that small companies can contribute to the war effort in the same way as ‘the little boats at Dunkirk.’  The government effort is like the big destroyers but the little boats can also assist.  Admittedly it was an early broadcast and I was half asleep, but my imagination is not fertile enough, particularly at that hour, to dream up an analogy like that.  If one were to follow it through one would have to conclude that the destroyers have, in fact, been holed below the water-line and have sunk without trace.  Good luck to the little boats.

Where much less far-fetched and jingoistic analogies with war are becoming all too apparent they are, for obvious reasons, being suppressed.   The parallels are with the pain and fear-filled deaths of the many who are dying essentially alone, out of reach and out of touch of those they love; with the loved ones left behind who have not only been unable to watch over or be with them as they die, but are unable to hold anything resembling an appropriate send-off; with those whose loved ones are simply being taken away and burned without any send-off at all.  Those who invoke World War II need to be careful what they wish for.