From David Maughan Brown in York: Not just another Birthday


29th November

Yesterday saw yet another lockdown birthday come and go.  This time it was my own.  In many respects the contrast from one year to the next could hardly have been be starker.  Last year I spent the day with my younger son, Brendan’s, family in Cape Town, enjoying the already significant warmth of early summer two days before we flew back for Christmas in York.  The last week of November in South Africa always saw the first lychees coming into the shops and one of my annual birthday rituals, which was duly observed, was to enjoy our first lychees of the season.  Yesterday the temperature in York didn’t rise above two degrees Celsius at any point during a murky winter’s day.  Not only did it not feel like lychee weather but I didn’t set foot outside the house all day.  Being all too well aware that I wouldn’t really get to see, never mind hug, my York and Sheffield grandchildren or their parents, and that the day would see us feeling very isolated, I hadn’t been looking forward to it with any great enthusiasm.  But I hadn’t been taking due consideration of my wife and family’s determination to make sure it was a memorably enjoyable, and paradoxically social, day.

It started with breakfast/brunch shared with the family in Cape Town.  Brendan had organised a globalised breakfast for us with Anthony doing the buying and Zoom overseeing the sharing.  The main component was a nostalgic fruit salad consisting of mango, grapes, strawberries and passion fruit.   During the course of the breakfast, I unwrapped presents intended, according to the accompanying card, for ‘a relaxed afternoon’, consisting of a 1kg bag of dry roasted peanuts, four assorted bottles of craft cider and perry, and a copy of Barack Obama’s 750 page long memoir A Promised Land.  Not being a speed-reader, never mind a speed eater or drinker, the relaxed afternoon will extend into very many more than the single one envisaged.  I’ve already dipped very fleetingly into the Obama memoir – humane, articulate and elegantly written – which will keep me going for several weeks and raises, again, the question of how on earth the same country could elect two such polar opposite Presidents within four years.

Breakfast was followed by morning tea, again courtesy of Zoom, with Sarah’s family in Sheffield, with the opening of more presents, some exquisitely crafted birthday cards and a copy of a strikingly mature poem about winter written by the eight-year old younger of my two granddaughters.  I was told to expect a similar Zoom call with Sheffield in the afternoon, but when Susan called me over to her laptop at tea-time I was surprised to find the screen filled with an even more globalised gallery-view of all my siblings and their partners as well as Anthony and Sarah’s families: Johannesburg, Washington DC, Exeter and Swakopmund in Namibia being represented, as well as Sheffield and York.  Last year our interactions consisted of brief phone-calls and/or WhatsApp messages; yesterday we spent a very pleasant  hour catching-up, and agreed to do the same at Christmas.  Over the course of the day a couple of phone-calls had come in from friends and 10 greetings messages had come in for me on the extended family WhatsApp group from various nephews and nieces.

Dinner was again shared on Zoom, scheduled to allow the Cape Town contingent to get home from the party that had kept them from being included in the afternoon’s gathering.  Anthony had circulated a menu in advance (see illustration), I had made my choices which he had prepared, in the case of the excellent Irish chowder with our eldest grandson, twelve-year old James, as leading chef.  Anthony had sent the same menu, with recipes, to Brendan and Sarah so that they could prepare their own choices.  We all dressed as we would to go out, enjoyed a great meal, and spent two hours in each other’s company.  It didn’t take long before one simply stopped noticing that the company was ‘virtual’.   

The day was, on reflection, a testament to people’s capacity to adapt to changed circumstances.   I saw members of our children’s families in person for perhaps five minutes during the day when Kate and two of the children came round to give birthday wishes from a safe distance in person, and Anthony and James came to deliver the dinner.   But far from its being an isolated-feeling lockdown birthday it was probably the most sociable and, where members of the extended family are concerned, inclusive birthday of my adult life – thanks to the good offices of Zoom and WhatsApp, and the love, care and thoughtfulness of close family and friends.

From Steph in London: How many carrots to loosen a tooth?

 25 October

Having our usual Zoom chat- “What  news Jacob?”

I’ve got a wobbly tooth and I couldn’t wobble it out so I had a carrot. Do you know you need about 10 carrots to get a tooth out……there followed a detailed conversation about the strength of carrots versus the obstinacy of loose teeth when you are 7.

That’s what I miss- the incidental conversations that children initiate, that grandparents go along with, that remind us of the importance of a child’s perspective on the world.. Adults perspectives are far too jaundiced.

Jacob and his brother  had their 7th birthday in the summer. They usually have raucous fun filled birthday parties with loads of cake. That’s the good news.  The bad is that they live in Manchester and have been unable to have people in the house for months.. The party was cancelled 3 times and finally went ahead at an activity centre where only the children were allowed to go in. So picture 30 parents of 7 year  olds dropping off their offspring somewhere where they will have a great time and then come home exhausted…..a total win win….

The phenomena of unintended consequences looms large these days… but are they enough to change behaviours on a permanent basis? Thinking life on a daily basis is boring- the times we have walked out of the house without masks- but at least  it puts up the number of  steps walked!!

Socialising face to face has to be the gold standard, hugs gold star plus  and anything else is a pale second best….

Talking of which (a pale second bet)  – the rush to the bottom of competencies in the government. I have lost count of how my times Matt Hancock has had a foot in mouth moment ( has he had any successes?) The Track and Trace, the App, the spurious 6 people only in houses – if I had one iota of confidence that he has surrounded himself with people infinitely more competent than himself that he would listen to, I’d feel we were going to beat the virus. However, I remain dumbfounded that he is still in position.

Ditto Gavin Williamson. Ask any educationalist how they think he’s doing.. their answers are usually too blue to print… they are both playing with people’s lives- and Boris won’t move them whilst they detract from his lacklustre leadership…..

from John F. in Tadcaster, UK. August in North Yorkshire.

Post no 14.  August 17. We are well behaved in this rural part of the country; masks are universal and even in the little village shop when the postmaster hands me my morning paper, I don a face shield. So far there is no sign of the virus erupting again, as it has in West Yorkshire, not so far away. The local hospital has not had a death since June 18th.

Some of the restrictions are proving frustrating. I saved Rishi Sunak £100 by taking all my grandchildren and parents to a wonderful tapas restaurant last week on a Thursday, just missing the £10 a head gift. The food was excellent as always (far better say the Spaniards whom I have taken there, compared to what they get at home) but the complex ordering system made me cross.

The menu was on the internet, so I printed off copies for everyone to save time. However we could not simply tell the shielded waitress what we wanted, but had to download the menu and an ordering system from a mobile app. As we were spread over two tables there had to be two orders and drinks were also online. The whole ordering process took 45 minutes but the waitress finally relented and accepted a drinks order before we had entered it on the mobile. Payment had to be made before the order could be sent to the kitchen; later the whole process was restarted for the ice creams etc that the children wanted.

Sandsend Beach, north of Whitby, UK

Like many people I am still a little uncertain about the regulations; I may well have been breaking them when my wife and I went to the beach at Sandsend, a little village north of Whitby. On a lovely sunny day we joined our grandchildren for a light lunch on the terrace of their holiday house and then in deckchairs on the beach. But what a wonderful orgy of nostalgia it was, as I used to go to that same beach 75 years ago just after the war.  However the young now have 21st century equipment such as wet suits and surf boards and are far more active than I ever was.

The weather has been far cooler than in the south of England and as a result our harvest has barely started. However those farmers that have combined, report low yields of poor quality barley – fit only for cattle feed rather than milling for food (or beer). Straw is very short and stubby so the income from this will be negligible. Wheat has still to be harvested and the potatoes are being drenched by huge irrigation pipes.

As ever, our local church has been slow to restore normal operations. It provides one Zoom service on Sundays for all four parishes in its benefice and a live one in the biggest church; it then lets the local churchwardens open up their churches for private prayer an hour once a week. No plans are given for full live services in the three smaller churches.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Only Connect

In my capacity as a temporarily returned member of the Open University History Department, I have just taken part in an online research seminar.  As with most of my many video meetings in the lockdown, it achieved its basic purpose.  A group of interested scholars was gathered together.  The two presenters were able to outline their work, switching between their spoken account and various illustrative documents.  Questions were asked and answered.  We ended the session knowing more about the potential of using search engines to conduct textual analysis – in this case the deployment of the word ‘nationality’ in Hansard in the nineteenth century.  It turns out that the technical challenge of the process somewhat outweighs the insights yielded into the political history of the period.

I thought by now I was if not the master then at least a competent user of video technology.  However in addition to Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams, I was now faced with Adobe Connect.  As has been the case in first encounters with each of the technologies, the ten minutes before the session began was a time of mounting panic, with emergency downloads of apps, repeated attempts to get them to work before, for no apparent reason, suddenly there was a connection and we were away.  But Adobe Connect, at least in the version I had found, lacked the mute / unmute switch.  So when the time came to ask my own penetrating question, I could neither be heard nor could I know that I was excluded from the conversation which was continuing without me.   It was a kind of waking nightmare, when you know you are speaking, but not that no-one can hear you.  Eventually one of the presenters noticed my gesticulating hands and, as the new language has it, let me in.

The world of virtual discussion has placed a new premium on listening.  Physical face-to-face conversations have become a rare privilege, and those conducted electronically lack many of the visual clues by which we communicate meaning.  In the case of an arcane branch of the digital humanities, this may not matter so much.   But when it comes to medical consultations, it becomes much more important.  I was talking yesterday to a nurse sent out from my surgery to conduct a routine blood test in my home.  How are the practice staff managing with a limited number of physical consultations and the rest conducted on the phone or by video link?  Not well she thought.  You need to see someone, how they look, how they hold themselves, to understand what they are, and crucially, are not, telling you. 

This applies particularly to the field of mental health, which as I discussed in the entry for June 30 is especially vulnerable in the pandemic lockdown.  A newly qualified mental health social worker is interviewed in today’s paper.  Thrown in at the deep end, he has had to refashion his newly-acquired diagnostic tools.  He is compelled to meet his clients virtually.  “The challenge,” he explains, “and the negative side of that, is that I am not going into people’s homes so I don’t get to see the full picture. You can get a real sense of somebody within seconds of seeing them. People might be able to present quite well on the phone but be feeling quite unwell.” The pandemic has caused him to hone and refocus his skills: “I have had to learn to practise with my ears open and really listen to people and hear what they are saying.” 

We speak of love at first sight, not at first hearing.  To get even someone you know, let alone a stranger, fully to express themselves in words, is hard.  Harder still is the patience and the attention required to understand what they mean.

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: scavenging

May 1. Yesterday, the Zoom session was with my younger daughter and her two daughters aged two and five.  It began badly.  I asked the older child what she had been doing during the day.  It was now four in the afternoon so plenty had happened.  There was a long silence before she finally said, ‘we had lunch’.

I should have known, I do know, that children of that age do not go through a day narrativizing their activities.  Any parent greeting a child back from school soon gives up trying to find out what went on that day.  Interesting things do happen, and when the child is interested in talking about them, it will.  Until then, the point is what it is doing now, and might do next.

So we quickly moved on.  My wife read a story to the two girls which last she had read to their mother when she was at the same age (Sally’s Secret by Shirley Hughes).  Mother and children were equally pleased.  Then the five- year-old, who is rapidly mastering the skill, read us a school book, which featured a grandmother who bought blue shoes to see the Queen.  A heel broke and she was in despair until a kindly palace official produced a bag of spare blue shoes, and all was well.

Last week we played the well-known game of scavenging.  A list is sent of things to find in the house and garden, and the video session begins with a show-and-tell, which displays the energy and ingenuity of the finder.  The five-year-old is now old enough to reverse the game.  For the following session, the grandparents were sent a list of things to collect, and we were required to display them in front of two critical grandchildren.  The list was as follows:  we had to find something that was

  • really bouncy
  • has a strong smell
  • prickly
  • smooth
  • sticky
  • fluffy
  • a cone shape
  • multicoloured
  • made of rubber
  • very heavy
  • very light
  • has a switch

Good luck with this.  You can show and tell on Monday.  Enjoy the weekend.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Screen Life

April 30. Like everyone else, the fixed points in my week are mostly through the medium of Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Team.

Those connected with my work are relatively stress free.  There is widespread use of microphone cancelling to preserve the signal in multi-participator events, so every sound in the house does not have to be quietened.  The Open University History Department meetings, involving over twenty people, have adopted the etiquette of turning off the video.  This means that colleagues cannot see that you have temporarily ceased to pay rapt attention to the matter in hand, or are sneaking a look at emails on your phone, or briefly leaving the room to make a cup of coffee.

With calls to family and friends it is quite otherwise.  There is no point at all in forbidding sight of children and grandchildren you would give so much to see in person.  Or in turning the sound on and off when small parties are prone to make unscripted interventions.   This makes the whole experience both pleasurable and surprisingly tiring.  After an hour’s interaction, you feel drained of energy. 

There are several reasons for this.  The first is the technology.  Smart though the competing sites are, the quality of the sound is often poor, and the picture of limited quality.  In talking to each other we are all of us minutely attuned to tiny movements in facial expression.  The video images, under stress with so much increased use, can be insufficiently sharp, or require intense concentration to decode.  There is also the question of positioning the camera.  My younger daughter, a BBC producer, is long used to this business.  She strongly advises two techniques; always place the camera at head height so that the viewer is not focussing on the underside of your chin; and always sit back, so that your face does not dominate the screen.

The second is the intensity.  In normal life we don’t often talk to someone without a break for a whole hour, and when we do there are pauses, moments when we are looking elsewhere, or have briefly diverted attention to our own thoughts.  In my book I examine what I term ‘abstracted solitude’, the capacity to withdraw from pressing company.  Daniel Defoe in his second sequel to Robinson Crusoe, caused his hero to write that,  ‘all the Parts of a compleat Solitude are to be as effectually enjoy’d, if we please, and sufficient Grace assisting, even in the most populous Cities, among the Hurries of Conversation, and Gallantry of a Court, or the Noise and Business of a Camp, as in the Deserts of Arabia and Lybia, or in the desolate Life of an uninhabited Island.’  It is very difficult to be there but not there, if you are constantly on camera.

The third, unique to this medium, is the accompanying presence of your own image, particularly on ZOOM.  The one thing you never do in ordinary conversation is look at yourself.  I am not fond of my own image at the best of times, and now, two months and counting since my last haircut, I am beginning to look like Al Pacino in his later manifestations.  To be faced with such a sight for so long is deeply dispiriting.

These limitations have caused some of my friends to revert to the older technology of the telephone, where you are free to concentrate on the conversation, without the distracting video technology.

But then again.  A video call yesterday was held up when my five-year grandson discovered, to his great satisfaction, that if he put his bare foot up against the camera on the laptop, it would appear five times larger than the rest of him.  Can’t do that on a telephone.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”

20 April.  My wife and I keep in touch with our London-based family through Zoom and Skype: a get-together of the entire tribe at 4 on Sundays, bi-laterals with each of our three children and the grandchildren at intervals during the week.  In one of these, my second daughter, having gone through all the projects she had undertaken with her two young, now unschooled, children, and described her re-entry into home-based work after three weeks of inactivity, turned the conversation back to her parents:

“So, what have you two been doing?”  We both of us realised that we really had no answer to that question.

Our days had not been empty.  We had gardened, cooked, shopped online.   I had sat at my desk writing odd pieces and collecting material for books which may never be written.  Thanks to the discovery of sites such as Curzon Films, and, in particular, MUBI, we had watched an increasing range of art-house films late at night – our physical art-house, The Old Market Hall, a seventeenth-century building in the town square, skilfully converted into an compact cinema, with an adjacent café to supply food and drink, is like all public entertainment, firmly closed.  

But we had not really done anything worth reporting.  Nothing to change our circumstances.  Nothing to impact upon the world and its suffering.

It is of course otherwise with those, who include my children and their spouses, who are at home but still pursuing their careers.  And with those who are using their enforced idleness to undertake useful voluntary work.  But for those of us who are both retired and locked down, each day just follows another. 

We no longer have plans with outcomes.  There are occasional disjunctions, but for the most part action has been replaced by ritual and routine.   In our household, as in much of British culture, these are largely secular and private.  Unlike the celebrations so vividly described by Nike in Katerini, Easter has never passed so unremarked as it did with us.  The upcoming May Bank Holidays have no meaning.  Nor do the summer holidays beyond them.  The Queen will have no guns firing for her birthday.  

Now we focus attention on the weekly round of Zoom conversations.  In the early evening we take a turn round the adjacent field, circling a flock of mildly curious sheep.  Within each day my wife and I not only eat together but make a particular point of meeting at the coffee and tea breaks which punctuate our particular labours.  Two public rituals have been introduced.  The first is the daily press conference given by some hapless minister.  The second is the Thursday 8 p.m. public applause for the front-line workers, which is partly a genuine show of gratitude, and partly a demonstration that we remain connected members of a larger society. 

 “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” wrote J Alfred Prufrock (as it happens in the middle of the national crisis of the First World War).  So, for the time being, with us.