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Corona Diaries – a bluffer’s guide to pandemics

Suddenly, it seems, we’re all pandemic experts. We gravely discuss R0, R2, U-curves, W-curves and all the other indicators that help us predict the spread of pestilence. But most of us run out of authority when our knowledge is revealed as less than a micron thick. Even Donald Trump resorts to something resembling witchcraft whenever challenged over his encyclopaedic expertise.

However, if you’re looking to become a certified bluffer when it comes to lethal illness, you could do worse than to read Pale Rider, Laura Spinney’s masterly account of the 1918 flu pandemic and its aftermath.

You will then be able to mutter about Pfeiffer’s Bacillus, once thought to be the cause of flu, about how the death rate in Western Samoa was so dramatically different than that in neighbouring American Samoa. You will be able to point out that the schools in New York were kept open, because health officials believed that they were much healthier places than the squalid slums where so many of the kids lived – particularly those of recent Italian immigrants.

You will learn that there were three theories as to the origin of the pandemic: the mid-west of the United States, where the first documented case arose; China, from which battalions of labourers were exported to the Western Front to work behind the trenches; and war-torn France, where migrating birds shat on piggeries and the resultant flu virus mutation took a liking to humans.

You will also be able to explain the function of different strands of RNA that enabled the virus to spread – the H strand that breaks into healthy cells, and the N strand that enables the virus to replicate. Hence H1N1 and successive variants of flu.

Then there were the consequences. Baby booms among the fittest who survived. Shorter height and lower life expectancy among those who were infected in utero.

All this and a cornucopia of anecdotes. The doctors who experimented on themselves and learned that flu doesn’t transmit through blood. The Xhosa woman whose dreams while unconscious led many within her tribe to revere her as a prophetess, until the South African authorities declared her insane and locked her up in a lunatic asylum. The religious implications of an outbreak in Mashad, Iran, the death of a film star in Odessa and catastrophic mortality in an Alaskan town.

And then the death toll. Initially estimated at 8 million, after further research it’s now accepted that 50 million people died, and some estimates suggest that the true number was 100 million.

Spinney’s book makes the science accessible, yet is full of human stories of courage, suffering and resilience.

The parallels with the current coronavirus are not exact, yet there are many echoes that make sense today. Even if you have no desire to become a Category A pandemic bluffer, you will find much in her book that will help you to understand our current predicament more clearly.

Speaking of the present, do you remember the miracle of the hospital in Hebei that the Chinese built in a week? Now we’re deeply impressed at the achievement of the NHS in creating a temporary hospital in a London exhibition centre in a similarly short time, with more to come in other cities. Which makes me wonder why the Chinese opted to build a new structure rather than adapting an existing one, as we in Britain have done.

Both here, in the US and elsewhere, though I don’t like bandying about oversimplified comparisons with World War 2, it’s also impressive how despite slow starts  by governments (especially on Trump’s part) businesses and scientists are working together with an energy not seen since the war on vaccine research, workarounds and vast quantities of equipment needed to fight the virus: tests, safety gear, ventilators and so on. While politicians and pundits squabble and point fingers, it’s comforting to know how much effort is being put in by those who can really make the difference.

Now, back to the old cynic act. Though this has nothing to do with the pandemic, it seems that the US Department of Justice has released the unredacted version of the Mueller Report to a federal judge after a long legal battle.

Take a look at the job title of the person sending the document:

Does that not suggest that the United States doesn’t have a deep state as much as a deep bureaucracy – layer upon layer of hierarchy? Would organisations like these be able to design a new model of oxygen mask within a week that will spare thousands from having to lie comatose in a ventilator, or create a coronavirus vaccine in a month when most vaccines take years to develop?

We have similar bureaucracies in the UK. Which reminds me of my favourite job title in the government department for which I worked in Saudi Arabia: Manager, Management Management.

Something to think about when this awful episode is over.

More soon.

Corona Diaries: a gift from the virus

Yesterday, the coronavirus sent me a precious gift.

A few days ago I mentioned that, like many people in lockdown, I’ve come up with a number of domestic projects that have been waiting for a while to get done. One of them was to sort out my books. Not only do we have many shelves full of them, but the numbers were swelled when my father died seventeen years ago.

Some of the books he left went to my siblings according to their interests. The rest, including some seriously arcane stuff from the early part of the last century, stayed with me. The subjects range from history, geography, art, music and psychology, and that’s just the stuff I kept.

He also had a liking for big coffee-table books, many of which languished on our bottom shelves because they were too big to fit anywhere else. Part of my project was moving them to a place where I could easily pick one out in an idle moment, of which there are likely to be many in the coming months. I chose our conservatory, which is a bit cold in the winter, but not a bad place to hang out in warmer times.

So yesterday I merged his big books with mine and now we have a long row of volumes lining one side of the room. In doing so, I discovered the gift.

Hidden among the larger stuff was a modest cloth-bound book dating from 1922. Inside were letters and photographs. It was my grandmother’s Baby’s Record, full of colour plates of babies, sentimental poems and spaces where she could enter stuff about the baby’s development – height, weight and so on.

That baby was my father.

Like many mothers who start these records with the best of intentions, my grandmother left the story far from complete, but it’s still full of interesting information – to me anyway. One of the events she describes verified my father’s yarn about the time he swallowed an open safety pin which had to be surgically removed from his gullet, with no less a personage than King Edward VII’s surgeon in attendance.

Then there was a new mystery. Why after two months was he “skin and bones”? He was weaned off the breast after six weeks. My grandmother noted that that “he is not such a good baby as Brian (his brother), fidgety and nervous. Digestion ruined at 6 weeks old, due to the wickedness of Nurse Milsom.”

What Nurse Milsom did or didn’t do we will never know.

And why, at the age of 18 months, was his circumcision “a very necessary operation”?

My grandmother, whom I only met once when she was very old and afflicted by Parkinson’s, was by family tradition a bit of a character. My grandfather’s second wife, she was a silent film actress and a crafty tax evader. Like many relatively affluent mothers of the time, she seems to have delegated much of the child’s care to a live-in nurse and then a nanny.

The collection is full of little pointers to social attitudes of the time. For example, my father was christened by “Mr Woods. Irishman. Locum”, as if this was unusual. This caused my wife, who is Irish, to raise her eyebrows slightly. His toys included “Rattle, rubber duck. Big Dog from Biddy for Xmas, Teddy from us” and little else. Contrast that with the tsunami of soft toys and shrieking electronic devices showered upon today’s babies.

Then there were the diseases. My father’s were pretty typical for the 1920s: whooping cough at two, measles at three and chickenpox at five. MMR jabs were a generation away.

Among the loose papers was a letter that corroborates another family legend: that my grandmother wanted a girl, and chose names in advance for the baby that would work regardless of the child’s gender. The letter is from a Nurse Hiffersen, who apparently was my uncle Brian’s nurse before my father. In it she says she looks forward to re-joining my grandmother: “Only 6 weeks and 2 days. I shall be counting the time away. Now do try and hold out until I come as I want to receive the little stranger and manage her from the beginning of her life.”

Being a bit of a family history buff, I have a number of documents and photos, but mainly from my mother’s side. They include a spectacular diary of the First World War that I’ve serialised in this blog. To come across a little collection of records in my paternal grandmother’s hand is a special gift, for which I thank the coronavirus, without which I may never have discovered them.

In a strange way, it’s a message of hope. Three years before my father was born, the Spanish Flu pandemic ended. My grandparents were obviously among the lucky ones who survived it. Life went on. A hundred years from now, family stories from today are likely to be digitised. There will be video records but few letters. But only if we bother to collect them and make them available to our children and grandchildren, so that family historians in 2120 will know how their ancestors fared in the wake of the 2020 pandemic.

Surely that’s worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

Corona Diaries – Minister, share your pain with us….

I’m getting a bit fed up with journalists asking questions that begin with “Prime Minister, do you regret that…”, or “are you afraid that…”. At this precise moment, we don’t need ritual bows, hara kiri or grovelling on the altar of false humility. Of course Boris Johnson, as he sits in gilded isolation, regrets shaking all those hands, and Michael Gove regrets the government’s failure to act earlier. And is Matt Hancock afraid as he contemplates the progression of his illness? Of course he is.

You only have to listen to Jeremy Hunt, the former Health Secretary, who, now that he’s no longer in office, admits to many regrets about his period in power, to know what government ministers think but cannot admit publicly unless they are unable to wriggle off the hook of responsibility.

Questions about emotions are for later, unless you happen to be Donald Trump, whose psychopathic nature renders him incapable of normal human responses apart from pride, anger and malice. What we need right now is for the press are, on our behalf, requests to inform, explain and justify. We should let the politicians handle their emotions as best they can and judge them accordingly when the time comes.

Not that emotions don’t play a part in the current situation. Those of us who have no symptoms are afraid that they will develop. Those with symptoms are afraid of what comes next. Speaking for myself, I rejoice every morning when I wake up feeling OK. Yes, I’m afraid too. My wife and I think back over the past couple of weeks to occasions and interactions that could have been laden with COVID-19. But not for long. We have plenty of projects.

What about volunteering? At the moment, we’re reaching out to people we know, not just in the UK but everywhere in the world, to make sure they’re OK. As things develop, I think that a more specific need is arising that goes beyond practical help. As people develop symptoms in increasing numbers, some are alone, some are in denial, and some won’t don’t what to do. The advice they get from official agencies such as 111, overburdened as they are, will be on a pull basis. If you’re sick, you have to call. They will not call you. And the saddest stories are of those who died alone in their homes without anyone coming to their aid.

So what people who have sent out a distress signal will need is a signal back, not just once but on a regular basis. Not just those who need practical help, such as food shopping or getting their plumbing fixed. There are some who simply need advice, emotional comfort or possibly an advocate.

However, and by whom, that gap is filled, returning the signal will be one of the most important activities in the months to come.

Moving on, I don’t know about you, but I’m a glutton for good news that can lift us out of our gloom. But when the good news, especially if it come from an unimpeachable source, induces cognitive dissonance when set against the evidence in front of us, the result, as always, is confusion.

A case in point is the story on the front page of today’s Times, in which a professor from Imperial College claims that the UK death rate from coronavirus is likely to be far lower than predicted: the curiously precise figure of 5,700. This is in contrast to an analysis by another Imperial professor, who claimed that without the stringent measures we have adopted 200,000 will die.

So what are we to believe? An end total only five times greater than Italy’s current daily death rate, or the 20,000 that the government says we’ll do well to stay within? The answer is neither. These are models, which are laced with a string of assumptions that most of us won’t even bother to examine in any detail.

We just have to sit tight and wait, like the rest of the world.

As the lockdown progresses, I suspect that our idea of good news will change. The activities of the Derbyshire viruspolizei point the way. For those of us with little to celebrate other than videos of dogs and angry Italian mayors, there will be nothing that will make us happier than having a good moan at an appropriate target.

Step forward the Derbyshire plod, who, as I reported the other day, are making total arses of themselves by publicising drone videos of middle-aged ladies out for walks with their dogs in beauty spots. Now they have topped that by dying sky blue ponds black to that people will not come to gawp at the strange colour of the water. Thanks to their misplaced enthusiasm, they’ve made an internet meme out of NOT ESSENTIAL

Sad to say, most police forces have their complement of heroes – brave and dedicated, polite and helpful. But they also have some who delight in surveilling us, lecturing us and treating us as delinquent children, usually from their desks and now from the safety of drones, because they wouldn’t get away with their officious behaviour in face-to-face interactions with the public. They get the heroes to do the dirty work for them.

There! I feel happier already. Pathetic really, isn’t it?

Finally, an observation. I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice it, but contemporary drama and comedy shows on TV seem like period pieces. Do you flinch instinctively when you see someone on the box getting close and personal? I certainly do. Isn’t it amazing how thoroughly we’ve been programmed in the space of a month?

More when I have it.

Corona Diaries – bagpipes, drone videos and the rigours of le lockdown

For us in the UK, was it not heart-warming to see so many people out on the streets applauding our National Health Service workers for their efforts in keeping us alive? For once the social media came up trumps as a positive force, though one virally-induced expression of goodwill doesn’t excuse it for being a platform for trolls, liars, bigots and bots.

One striking indication of change in the country was the video of Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former chief spin doctor, out in his street blowing a jaunty tune on his bagpipes. A decade and a half ago, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, I suspect that the last thing he would have wanted was people knowing where he lived.

Speaking of videos, the new government information clip showing Chris Whitty, our Chief Medical Officer, urging us to stay at home, is a tad anodyne. His etiolated figure reminds me of the deputy head of a British public school who never quite made it to the top job, but is prized for his reliability over a 40-year career, and reluctantly stands in whenever the head resigns over some unspeakable indiscretion. Unfair, I know, because Professor Whitty is one of the good guys.

Not so reluctant are the police, some of whom appear on BBC footage politely asking people in their very British way if they would get the hell off the road, park or whatever, and go home. Now that they have the power to slap fines on unauthorised loiterers, I’m surprised they haven’t outsourced the job to our beloved parking wardens, who I’m sure would be only too pleased to slap tickets on people now that offending cars are in short supply.

Also, have you seen those drone videos showing people taking their dogs for a walk in the Peak District, highlighted by a flashing “non-essential”? There must be officers who have waited all their careers to do something as fun as this. Far more fun than arresting a couple of cage fighters scrapping in a supermarket over a packet of loo rolls, I should have thought.

For really effective enforcement, perhaps we should persuade some Italian mayors to come over and let rip at our gregarious offenders in their unique style, as in:

But since they’re still too busy corralling their own miscreants, we could always record examples of their choice rhetoric to be broadcast via the surveillance drones. That would put the fear of God into Mr and Mrs Molesworth, who have sneaked out with the dog for a second spot of exercise. Though whether the police have technology to identify the number of 30-minute exercise periods the Molesworths make in a given day is debatable.

Seriously though, I’m entirely supportive of efforts to keep people at home provided we do so in an appropriately British way. No tasers, cattle prods and paddy-wagons please.

We in Britain might be slightly stunned by the lock-down measures in our country. But spare a thought for our neighbours across the channel. Katy, a former colleague who now lives in France, sent me this update yesterday via Facebook in response to one of my blog posts:

The postal service in France is rapidly grinding to a halt and is longer accepting parcels for deliveries. Letters are being delivered sporadically. Online shopping no longer works because the delivery companies are not operating. Here people no longer want deliveries because of the fact the virus lives on cardboard for several days. Seems obsessive compulsive but hey we’ve adapted to the new world where you are scared of your next-door neighbour infecting you.

Employers can be fined for not protecting staff correctly and essential means essential i.e. food or pharmacy. Little else counts. Locally there is a preference for open air food markets rather than the supermarket. Some supermarkets only allow one visit per week. The DIY shops have been closed for 10 days but now some bigger shops are selling essential items for collection: door locks, lightbulbs, hot water tanks and boiler parts, electricians supplies. But no paint, decorating or garden stuff. In the property world (I am an estate agent) you can no longer move house, or view houses, house sales processes are on hold, the French land registry is closed, the mortgage registry office is closed, notaires are closed, you cannot buy property.

You cannot buy much really. What is interesting is how quickly we seem to have adapted to it all. 10 days in and there is a quiet acceptance of the situation. Next crisis in discussion: food production. The French government has been recruiting volunteers to help harvesting and people here are planting their vegetable plots. We can produce a lot of food in France. How will the UK fare in comparison?

So France, land of the barricades and the gilets jaunes, seems to be quietly buckling down, despite restrictions even more severe in some ways than in Britain.

Katy’s comment on the preference for open air markets over supermarkets is not surprising, but I wonder how the French are maintaining social distancing in those gorgeous rural gatherings where people normally crowd around the meat stalls and lovingly inspect the rows of shiny fruit and vegetables.

No doubt they find a way with the assistance of a few strategically placed gendarmes, but sadly there will be no cafes open where they can relax after their shopping. And no brocante stalls, full of antique glassware and Napoleonic maps, which are my favourite feature of the classic French market.

As for food, I’m sure we in the UK can get by on oats, sugar beet and turnips, but so far I’ve seen no sign of municipal parks or the Buckingham Palace lawns being dug up for planting. On the DIY front I imagine that most of us will be OK, especially those who before the lockdown hoovered up all the stuff they will need for their home projects.

I was a bit taken aback at the shutdown in France of online buying and home deliveries, though we too are becoming somewhat OCD about stuff that arrives on our doorstep. I’ve just received a package from Amazon containing some books (of course). I took each book out of the box, cleaned the jackets with antiseptic wipes, put the box outside and washed my hands. We’ve also started wiping down supermarket purchases (no, not the onions and bananas, stupid! We bathe them in chlorine).

Enough of this nonsense. I have important work to do. The CDs are sorted in alphabetical order, we’ve done a deep clean of the bedrooms, and now my Director of Operations has ordered me to undertake my toughest task yet. I have to rip all the weeds out of the cracks in the patio so that she can have at the slabs with the steam cleaner. Purging our bookshelves will have to wait, as will sorting lego bricks and other detritus belonging to our little grandson who, to our immense sadness, can’t visit us at the moment.

Life goes on – hopefully.

Corona Diaries – viral humour, states of denial and other stuff

I woke at 8.30 this morning, which is most unusual, since I’m normally up in the early hours. What was equally unusual was the cause of my wakening – my wife giggling helplessly beside me. At this point it occurred to me that manufacturers are not alone in going into overdrive to meet the nation’s needs in this time of crisis. A trickle of joke videos and photos about social isolation is turning into a flood. It’s not just the virus that’s going viral.

One of the best is an expletive-laden rant by a squeaky-voiced dog with a broad Scottish accent complaining about the effect on its social life of one 30-minute walk a day. One of our friends responded by texting “why do I think this was made by Judy Murray?”. Mrs Murray, in case you don’t know of her, is Andy Murray’s mum, who is known for her, um, outspoken style.

Personally, I reckon it’s Andy Serkis, who plays Gollum in Lord of the Rings. But judge for yourself:

Anyway, on to more weighty stuff.

The deaths of a 35-year-old British diplomat in Hungary, and of a 21-year-old woman with no pre-existing conditions in the UK, should surely reach into the minds of the madding crowd of youngsters who think the virus is no worse than the flu. Except, possibly, those of folks who enjoy playing Russian roulette.

For people who take seriously the possibility of falling sick, there’s a new app that encourages us to record our symptoms, should we have any, on a daily basis. A good idea, because the data it provides gives a wider view of how the virus is affecting people, and in what geographical areas.

Fine in principle, but there are one or two underlying reasons why it might not work as well as it could. First, there will be people who will view it as just another example of the surveillance society. Everybody’s collecting data on me. What else will they use it for? Will I get a knock on the door at some stage by the viruspolizei, who will cart me off to some unknown leper camp?

Second, I suspect that some people are in denial. If someone has a symptom like a mild cough, or they sneeze occasionally, they might find a number of reasons to think “it’s a cough, no big deal”. On my one trip out yesterday I popped into Morrisons, which operates a one-out-one-in policy. There was a queue of about eight people, separated by the mandated distance, waiting to go in. Two of them were coughing. Why, you might wonder, weren’t they at home, especially as both were accompanied by partners?

If people are in denial, why? Normally, when flu symptoms appear, half the population thinks to hell with it, and keeps working. The other half wonders if they should go to the doctor and keeps an eye open to the possibility of calling in sick.

A month ago, people worried about whether they were infected would have sought help in the knowledge that if they got really sick, the good old NHS would be waiting for them, ventilator at the ready.

Now we’re inundated with videos and news footage of overstretched intensive care units, people struggling to speak, and heartbreaking stories of NHS staff unable to get the kit they need to protect themselves.

Is it therefore any wonder that people imagine a hospital ward to be a place worse than hell from which they might not return, and will blank out any evidence that they themselves are on a pathway to that fate until they’re so sick that there seems no alternative?

I hope I’m wrong, but for this reason I fear that the self-reporting app will only deliver incomplete data.

Next, to the argument that the elderly (or, in my case, people getting that way) are a burden on society and should make way for the succeeding generations. I was surprised to see the historian Sir Max Hastings, who is 74, endorse that argument on the grounds that, to put it bluntly, we baby boomers have screwed our kids by keeping our wealth to ourselves. It’s an argument, sure. But are we really a burden?

If all you only think of old people as cash cows, you ignore the wider role of the elderly in society. As a source of perspective, though in the case of Brexit a pretty wonky one. As people who love and are loved, who care for grand-kids, some of whose minds continue to be sharp as pins through to the end, and who, by reaching an age far beyond the average life expectancy of as little as a century ago, represent what we regard as one of the ways in which society has progressed in the era of technology, mass communications and medical breakthroughs.

And, of course, are these not people who paid their taxes and national insurance contributions for up to fifty years as part of a covenant that the state would look after them when they were too old to work?

Speaking as one of the alleged economically inactive, I would point out that far from hoarding what wealth I and my beloved have accumulated, we are spending it. So are millions of elderly people who keep buying stuff, going on holidays and serving as the Bank of Mum and Dad. Are we to be sacrificed on the altar of youth? And when their turn comes, will the young step readily towards the same altar?

There are plenty of counter-arguments to what I’ve just said. For example, to the person who protests that they’ve paid their dues and deserve to be kept alive, you might ask if over their 80 years of life they’ve never come across any examples of a government making promises it can’t keep.

Perhaps it’s all about love. The love shown by the priest in Italy who gave up the ventilator that his parishioners bought for him so that someone else might live. He died shortly afterwards. And perhaps for most of us it’s personal experience that informs attitudes towards the elderly rather than elevated concepts of morality and expedience. If your Dad is a crabby old bastard, you might be happier to let him go than if he has been the kindly mainstay of your life.

Moving from morality to expediency, I’m interested in the stance of the British government over bailouts to British Airways, our national flag carrier that’s actually a subsidiary of a Spanish holding company. It wants cash. Rishi Sunak says no – find it by loans from the market or shareholder subscriptions.

I agree with him, not because BA has long ceased to be our flag carrier, whatever that means. If BA went out of business, much as I sympathise with the thousands of employees who would stand to lose their jobs, after the pandemic is over, others would surely move into the vacuum created by its demise.

I also suspect that there are a few predators out there with deep pockets who might see the current aviation meltdown as an opportunity to pick up a bargain or two. Qatar Airways, for example, who are owned by the state of Qatar, already have a stake in International Airlines Group, the owners of BA. They might benefit greatly by taking a controlling interest. If not them, perhaps Emirates. Although less likely, perhaps even the Saudis, who have lagged behind as their rivals in the Gulf have created successful hubs in their home countries, might dip in.

The aviation industry might end up being only a relatively minor part of a succession of corporate re-alignments after the pandemic is over. Will the banking industry emerge unscathed? And what about technology companies, especially some of the old behemoths that have dominated the last few decades? For those of us who survive, it should be interesting to see which corporate household names also make it through the storm.

Finally, as we retreat more deeply into social isolation, I’m beginning to see this diary as the equivalent of a flight data recorder from a crashed aircraft plaintively pinging away from the bottom of the ocean, reminding us that it’s still there.

That’s self-indulgent nonsense of course, since we still have the full range of communications capabilities to remind others that we’re still here. Yet there’s a little voice lurking in the background telling me that if I stop posting, it will mean I’m about drop off my perch. Equally nonsense, because I only reach a small number of people, and they have more to worry about than one addition to the mortality statistics in Surrey, England.

But come what may, I shall keep buggering on, with one eye on the present, and the other on what promises to be a fascinating future.

Corona Diaries – a good day to bury bad news

One of the inevitable side-effects of a national crisis is the way big stories are forced off the front pages. UK readers might remember the Labour spin doctor who emailed a colleague on September 12 2001 to the effect that “today is a good day to bury bad news”.

Not quite appropriate in the case of Alex Salmond, but the former Scottish Chief Minister’s acquittal yesterday on charges of sexual offences would have been splashed all over the internet and the mainstream media. The trial began with a bang, as one of the women alleged to have been assaulted claimed that Salmond was “all over her like an octopus”. It ended with a whimper, overpowered by the sound and fury of the coronadrama. The story made it to Page 20 of The Times, for those not too exhausted by the preceding coverage of the pandemic.

For Salmond, perhaps, it was a bad day that buried good news, for he surely would have preferred his vindication to take place in a blaze of publicity.

On the bad news front, I also wonder how many businesses that were failing before the crisis will now blame the pandemic for their demise. Laura Ashley, the furnishing retailer that went into administration last week, will be unable to use that excuse because its troubles were well known. But how many others will quietly slip away, claiming it was all because of the virus? Even if the real cause was the incompetence (or criminality) of the directors, will they avoid scrutiny as the system for examining corporate failures becomes impossibly overloaded?

Equally, how will the government prevent companies in dire trouble before the pandemic from leeching public money to stay afloat under the current financial mitigation measures? This is perhaps more of an issue in the US, where Donald Trump insists that he will provide the oversight that will prevent large corporations from misusing money earmarked for bailouts. Yeah, right.

But the question for the government is do you support businesses that were already failing in order to keep people in jobs, thus creating yet more zombie companies that owe their existence to government support?

Another potential danger is a rise in cybercrime. People – particularly the elderly – who are stuck at home, and previously used the internet for the most basic reasons, will be looking to do more things online, such as banking and ebusiness. If their net savvy is limited, they are particularly vulnerable. Perhaps the government, in conjunction with the banks, should use their communications channels to educate them on fraud avoidance tactics.

An interesting development is how the BBC has become the government’s “voice of the nation” in matters related to the pandemic. Not only does it televise the government’s daily update at 5pm, but it carried Boris Johnson’s announcement of the lockdown at 8.30pm. How long before, on the government’s instruction, it creates a special Corona Channel carrying only news, announcements and directives? And how long before Sophie Raworth is replaced by a man in a dark suit and a bow-tie intoning “This is London”?

I hesitate to suggest that at some stage we might even see censorship of the media, but if we start seeing large-scale civil unrest, as opposed to people flocking to the beaches of Bournemouth in protest at the lockdown, I wouldn’t rule it out.

But before we get carried away in a rush of fear and paranoia, more prosaic concerns need to be clarified. For example, is a newsagent an “essential shop”? Whereas the fags and booze bit probably isn’t, given that the supermarkets will stay open, what about newspapers? The last thing the government surely wants is people crowding into the big stores to get their papers. And newspaper deliveries are surely one way of keeping people at home.

Then there’s the question of other deliveries, especially of stuff ordered online. None of Johnson’s ordinances seem to suggest that the likes of Amazon will grind to a halt, especially as they’re increasingly used to order “essential” stuff, such as the pallet of loo paper that arrived at a house near us last week. But as supply chains buckle under the strain, we can probably expect much longer than usual delivery dates.

Also, are DIY shops considered essential? As of early this morning Homebase, according to its website, was still open. But as of now, three hours later, the website has crashed, so who knows? Given that half the country will be engaged in the coming weeks in a frenzy of long-delayed house improvements, I would think that if they are open they’ll be doing a roaring trade just now. Anything we need we’ll order online.

That’s all for now, apart from couple of curiosities from elsewhere.

Search Twitter for “Italian Mayors”, and you’ll find a delicious collection of videos in which these officials rant at their disobedient citizens, including references to dogs with prostate problems, and people not needing elaborate hairdos in closed coffins. Priceless.

Then there’s the Texas couple who self-medicated with chloroquinine sulphate. One of them died, and the other is critically ill. The one who’s still alive claimed they did it because Donald Trump said it was a good idea. Oh dear, that’s another lawsuit the president has to look forward to when he leaves office, which hopefully will be soon.

That’s it for now. Back to my book-purging, CD-sorting and other mindless man-chores.

Corona Diaries – snake oil, man projects and waiting for the viruspolizei

Lots of interesting stuff in the Sunday newspapers, as well as the online cloaca maxima. I shan’t comment on all the doom and gloom stuff. You can find that yourselves easily enough.

First off, what a joy to hear foxes copulating at night, disturbed only by the barking of jealous dogs. Then in the morning, not a plane in the sky or car on the road, leaving the soundscape to the birds, who must be astonished to have a blank canvas on which to paint their musical portraits.

In the Sunday Times, Matt Rudd comments on the efforts of people to provide appropriate backgrounds for their online communications. There’s a picture of Ben Fogle in front of a colour-coordinated bookshelf. One row of red, followed by blue, green and yellow. This strikes me as rather a daft idea, unless you have a brain that categorises things by colour, as in Hilary Mantel, green, Albert Einstein, purple, Donald Trump, a sickly orange.

Which brings me to the President, without whom no blog post about COVID-19 would be complete. He’s tweeting with an excitement he rarely summons (other than when he’s boasting about the stock market) about the benefits of chloroquinine in mitigating the virus, despite the advice of one his most eminent advisors that it’s not approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration, even though Trump says it is. From this one can only assume that the president’s son-on-law has invested in a company making tonic water. Expect large numbers of Americans to expire from gin poisoning before long.

Then there’s the Harley Street doctor who has reaped £2.5 million from private coronavirus tests in one week. He’s done this by applying a massive mark-up on a test available direct from the supplier. Goes to show that there’s no limit to human ingenuity in exploiting a bad situation, and no end to gullible punters with more money than sense. I mean, if the test comes back negative, what do you do – test yourself every week for 500 quid a shot? When this is all over, I will definitely reinvent myself as a snake-oil salesman.

Next up, we are being encouraged to decide whether or not we wish to be resuscitated in the event of our catching the virus. Sensible enough when directed at care home patients who spend much of their time staring into space. But as the death toll rises, if some official starts making such noises in the direction of the not-so-elderly, my response will be go stuff yourself, I bloody well do want to be resuscitated. I’ve never had a tattoo, but I’m seriously considering having RESUSCITATE tattooed across the bit where they put the ECG stickers.

Isn’t it amazing how easily how new acronyms enter the language, and how everybody who uses one assumes that you understand what they mean? In this case, I’m talking about PPE, which stands for Personal Protection Equipment. In other words, all the masks, gowns and other stuff health workers use to keep themselves from being infected, and which fashion models use when they’re flying to exotic places. Given the shortage of such kit, I’m surprised people are venturing out wearing latex gloves and face masks when they go to Tesco, where they face disapproving looks that say how dare you wear that stuff when the NHS is running short? But people can be pretty hard nosed when it comes to self-preservation.

I fully expect to see a crop of other new acronyms to emerge in the coming months. Such as NWH (now wash your hands) and SOGs (selfish old gits). Further suggestions welcome.

Meanwhile, as we languish in isolation with only Carrie Mathison for company, I’m doing a bit of planning on constructive things to do at home. Plans are great, aren’t they? You make them down to the last detail, and if you screw up, you look around for someone else to blame. A bit like government IT projects, actually.

I have three projects under development. The first one is to sort out the books. By which I mean that we have shelf after shelf of books which, despite my dogged delusion otherwise, I have to admit I will never read again. It’s time for a purge.

But what to do with the purged volumes, of which I’ve set a target of five hundred? Take them to the charity shop? Maybe. Sell them to an independent bookseller? I’m not sure there are many left, at least not in our neighbourhood. Crate them up ready for disposal after the pandemic is over? That would be my preference, but not easy when the garage and much of the rest of the house are jam-packed with our children’s detritus. (They are of the opinion that since we live in a relatively large house it’s their right to use it as a warehouse.)

Alternatively, as I’ve hinted before, put them in the garden shed and keep them in case we have a hard winter and no means to stay warm, as in The Day After Tomorrow, when the huddled survivors of the big freeze survive by burning the contents of the New York Central Library.

Then there are the CDs. Hundreds, lining my study. Given that I’ve digitised most of them, why keep them there? Because they look nice, and because I want my kids to have them when I’m gone, even thought they might not be too enthralled with 10CC and The Incredible String Band. But they’re totally jumbled up, which means I can’t find anything without loads of searching. So I’m going to do a man project. Sort them all by genre and then by alphabetical order.

Third project: purge the kitchen. How was it that we managed to accumulate enough pots, pans and cutlery to start a restaurant? Do we really need fifteen pots, ten metal trays, twenty mugs and countless knives, forks and spoons? That’s not including more stuff stashed away in the garage.

That one’s going to take a bit of thinking, especially as I will need the uxorial sign-off – she who against all logic can always find a reason to keep something. Marie Kondo she is not.

Next, the plight of the self-employed. This one is close to home. Last week, one of my daughters went from a decent income stream to very little in 24 hours. Apparently there are up to four million people like her. I appreciate that providing support to the self-employed is not a straightforward as subsidising the jobs of employees, and I also appreciate the amount of work the government has had to do to finalise the current support measures.

But it should not be beyond the wit of the mandarins to come up with a plan to help these people that goes beyond the current plan to offer a small increase on Universal Credit. These people pay their taxes and national insurance contributions just like employees. They are the twitch muscles of the economy – they can ramp up very quickly. Equally, if their businesses are allowed to die, a huge financial hole opens up that will be difficult to fill. Try harder, Rishi Sunak.

Lastly, I’m not in the least surprised at hints that the British government is about to bring in the viruspolizei to keep people in their homes. I went through town on an errand yesterday, and was somewhat gobsmacked at the number of people in their cars and on the streets. It reminded me of the old wartime question: “don’t you know there’s a war on?”

Finally, this afternoon my wife took a walk through the park. Since it was a nice day, the place was full of people. Three-generation family groups, teenagers playing football, kids in the playground. So no, I’m not sure people are taking the emergency seriously. Perhaps we need a few electronic signs about showing yesterday’s death toll and the death toll from the day before. That might concentrate the mind. We are not immortal, and we are not immune, even in Surrey.

More soon.

Corona Diaries – meanwhile, over in the land of the plague, the home of the flea….

Wherever you are in the world, it’s easy, and natural, to be engulfed in your own national crisis to the exclusion of everything and everywhere else.

But just as the pandemic has reminded even the most insular of us that we (speaking of Britain now) are neither independent nor in control, it’s interesting to watch that realisation sink in elsewhere. Especially so in countries where people widely resist the idea that they can’t determine their national destinies alone.

And particularly in America. Thanks to the extraordinary diversity of media sources available online, from the New York Times to the steaming cesspits of Twitter, you don’t have to be living in the States to get a reasonable idea of current developments.

The most recent story to get my attention is that several Republican senators allegedly sold large quantities of stocks and shares after the Senate received a confidential briefing on the coronavirus and before that information was made public. This sounds like a classic case of insider trading. If the senators in question are forced to resign, that would temporarily give the Democrats a majority in both houses of Congress.

The procedure for replacement of senators who resign varies from state to state. In most cases, the state governor nominates a temporary replacement to serve until a special election is held. But if the governor is a Democrat, and the resigning senator is Republican, can the governor nominate another Democrat for the seat, thus creating a shift in the balance of power in the Senate?

Though there are plenty of ifs and buts yet to be resolved, the implications are enormous.

The second bit of recent news is that the US government is urging its citizens, wherever they are in the world, to come home before travel restrictions make their repatriation impossible. Ho hum. If I was a US citizen living in, say, Germany or Singapore, where the authorities, backed by well-funded and sophisticated health systems, seem better able to deal with the outbreak than most of their neighbours, I would think very carefully before returning to a country as woefully unprepared, incompetently-governed and ill-equipped as the United States. Harsh words, I know, but mild compared to some of the opinion expressed within the country, not least by some of its scientists and doctors.

Then there are the students on their spring break making whoopee in Florida and blithely ignoring advice on social distancing. There have been videos of one or two of them saying words to the effect of “if it happens, it happens. No big deal”.

There are two possible reasons to explain their behaviour. First, that they’re genuinely ignorant about how seriously ill they could become if infected. For that you can blame the mixed messages coming from Trump and other sources such as Fox News. The second possibility could be rooted in research on adolescent development. This appears to show that the part of the brain that assesses risk remains underdeveloped in males until they reach their mid-twenties. Which in turn might explain their liking for extreme sports. So are we seeing a new sport – Riding the Virus? If enough kids are prepared to ignore the risk of infection, peer pressure does the rest.

A further problem is that people make judgements based on their lived experience. If I’ve never had the virus, and I don’t know anybody who has, I’m more likely to dismiss anything that contradicts what I see in front of me. But by the time my lived experience changes by seeing people I know become horribly sick, it’s too late to change my behaviour, because the virus is out there among my circle and replicating like crazy.

The next interesting – if that’s the appropriate word – factor in the US is the balance of power to make decisions related to the pandemic between the federal and the state governments. This is most likely proving a life saver where some states are taking decisive action, as is the case in New York and California, and where the federal response is weak and confusing. By contrast, in countries such as China, Italy and Spain (and the UK when we get round to it) central governments are making decisions for the whole country without challenge.

In the US, the federal government is able to take a range of decisions unilaterally, such as allocation of federally-controlled resources such as the military. But thanks to the delicate issue of state’s rights, over which a bloody civil war was fought, it’s the state’s prerogative to impose lockdowns.

Is the distribution of power to federal, state and (not to forget) city administrations helping or hampering America’s response to the pandemic?

Just as important for the long run, is Trump’s response fatally weakening his chances of re-election, as well as the future Republican control of the senate? Or, if the crisis has abated by November, will sufficient numbers of his supporters believe his inevitable claims to have beaten the virus to assure him a second term?

What’s more, as Trump goes around pointing the finger at China by referring to the “Chinese virus”, what of the post-pandemic relationship between the US and China? And if Trump finds his support tanking by October, what are the chances that he will find a reason to take precipitate action against Iran? Nothing like a war to bring about a change in electoral fortunes.

So many questions yet to be answered – good reasons to keep a close eye on American politics over the next eight months.

Another fascinating story is Trump’s attempt to subcontract for large sums of money the development of a vaccine to a German institute, in return for “exclusive use” for the US of the end product. An entirely logical move if you treat the running of a country as a business, as Trump does. And there is a precedent, though in different circumstances. After all, at the end of World War 2, America managed to recruit an entire cadre of German scientists, led by Werner von Braun, to kick-start the US space programme. The spoils of war, you might say.

But in the middle of a global crisis, making such a blatant America First move to the detriment of an allied country, not to mention the rest of the world, is just one reason why you should be very careful before you allow a business person, especially one as amoral as Trump, to run your government.

Much as I admire and respect so many aspects of American life, not least the instinctive generosity and boundless optimism of its people, I still deplore the corrosive effect that Trump and his followers are having on their country. At such a time, another president would their utmost to unite the country. This one, however much he tries, is continuing to divide it.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is not America’s finest hour.

Corona Diaries – locusts, laxatives and cracking good reads

My beloved has been out shopping today, not once but twice. Not to stockpile, you understand, just to make sure we have enough essentials to keep us going for a while. By essentials, I don’t mean loo paper, though she did manage to secure an eight-pack today. I’m talking about really boring stuff. Paracetamol, light bulbs, plasters, washing powder, that kind of thing. In the process she comes back with wonderful stuff like a kilo of mussels, which we shall eat tonight.

Just as the virus cases have skyrocketed over the past week, so have the supermarket shelves cleared. At 7am this morning, there were long queues waiting for Morrisons to open. 7am, for goodness sake! I can’t remember what she was hoping to secure at that godly hour, but clearly the rest of our town had similar ideas. Just like Christmas Eve, she said. Locusts don’t celebrate Christmas, I replied.

That said, the panic buying in the UK is clearly selective. She reports an abundance of condoms and pregnancy test kits in the store. Which suggests that people are rutting with abandon and not bothered about the consequences. I wonder how supplies of Viagra are holding up.

Rutting apart, most of us are no doubt thinking how we will fill our isolated days. I have no worries on that score, thanks to a pretty decent stockpile of books. In case you need a few suggestions, here’s my reading list. Even if you don’t share my love of history, you might find a nugget or two nestling within this lot:

The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel. In which Thomas Cromwell finally gets his turn.

The Histories: Herodotus, trans. Tom Holland. Collected works of the West’s first historian, translated by one of my favourite modern historians.

The Red Famine: Anne Applebaum. The story of the Ukrainian famine, orchestrated by Stalin.

Invisible Romans: Robert Knapp. How the other half lived in ancient Rome.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz: Heather Morris. My first novel set in Auschwitz.

The Fifth Risk: Michael Lewis. How Trump is dismantling government.

The Science of Storytelling: Will Storr. An anatomy of stories.

Pale Rider: Laura Spinney. Given where we are now, I couldn’t resist this account of the 1918-20 pandemic.

Black Wave: Kim Ghattas: chronicle of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and its many consequences.

A Curious History of Sex: Kate Lister. I’m hoping it does what it says on the tin.

The Last Day: Andrew Hunter Murray. Dystopian thriller.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Giles Milton. Account of competition between the English and the Dutch in the East Indies.

Tidelands: Phillipa Gregory. Historical yarn set in the English Civil War.

Venus and Aphrodite: Bettany Hughes. Meditation on the Goddess of Love.

Arabs: Tim Mackintosh-Smith. History of my favourite people.

Why, you might wonder, do I buy so many books? Because their subjects are so fiendishly interesting. And you never know when a pandemic is lurking around the corner.

Back on the subject that keeps on unfolding – loo paper. I’ve come up with another cunning trick to cut down on excessive usage and eke out supplies a little longer. Regular doses of Immodium. One sure way of ensuring that your bowel movements are kept to a minimum. Once every couple of days would be pretty good. There is of course the possibly that if things went awry you could end up exploding after a few days. But you could always ward off that possibility with a well-timed laxative. The colonic equivalent of uppers and downers. On reflection, perhaps not such a good idea, though at least if you’re caught short you would suffer the consequences in your own home.

More thinking on a lock-down. I worry about our two-year-old grandson if he has to spend a few months cooped up at home. The twos are an age when kids learn the art of socialisation, not only with adults, but especially with other kids. What will be the effect of missing his swimming, playgroup and visits to the park playground? Hopefully he’ll catch up, but you do wonder. Then the realist kicks in. He’ll adapt. Kids do.

On the physical health front, we make the assumption that fruit and veg from overseas will miraculously continue to appear on the supermarket shelves. But if supply chains are disrupted, we should keep an eye on our consumption of vitamin C. So expect our public-spirited locusts to start stockpiling cartons of orange juice.

Meanwhile, keep doing the right thing. Every day without symptoms is a victory.

Corona Diaries – slivers of experience and ancient bogs

On 30th January I wrote the first of a dozen posts about the emerging pandemic. It seems a lifetime ago. Coronavirus had hardly penetrated Donald Trump’s palaeolithic imagination. Boris Johnson was crowing about Brexit. And the rest of the world – China excepted – was getting on with its life. Now everyone with a phone, tablet or keyboard is writing about it. This will be the best documented event in human history.  

Good. Everybody has their own story to tell. Will those of us who survive end up any the wiser? I’m not sure. One wonders how future historians will sort through all the slush in order to come to any universally-accepted conclusions.

If we want to derive lessons from history from, say, the war between Athens and Sparta, we have only Thucydides and a limited number of other sources to draw upon. As each event or period from then onwards becomes better documented, the picture becomes not clearer but muddier, not focused but more multi-faceted, more open to interpretation.

So it will surely be with this pandemic. All that diarists will be able to offer is slivers of experience and uncertain speculation.

So my first bit of uncertain speculation for this morning is that lock-down in the UK might be hours away. I’m not suggesting this in a vacuum. Stuff is flying around the internet to this effect.

I guess most of us are wondering what this new world we’re entering is going to look like. Here are one or two thoughts – some facetious, others less so. First, whose job will be safe over the next twelve months?

Delivery drivers, though any carrying loo paper will need an armed escort. Bureaucrats – can’t see the civil service standing anyone down. Personal trainers, provided they kit themselves out to do their sessions online. Therapists, again on-line, tending to the anxious. Private jet aircrew, provided any country will still allow billionaires to land. Actors, waiters and teachers, provided they take jobs as delivery drivers and supermarket shelf stackers. Journalists, provided they don’t expect to get paid for everything they write.

Some jobs are actually being created. Aside from manufacturers who are re-tooling to produce ventilators and other pandemic paraphernalia, I hear that the government is afraid of riots in the near future. Therefore, allegedly, it’s planning to recall some police officers from retirement. I’m not sure whether they’re being recalled for their beef or their brains, but either way, depending on the length of time they’ve been retired, I imagine that there will need to be a bit of shoe-horning of large bellies into uniforms and reading up on what’s changed in the law.

And if riots are imminent, this implies that there will be arrests, so will we see former prison officers being enticed back into service to look after all the looters and protesters confined to their kettles? I doubt it. Not when prisoners are being released to reduce overpopulation of our penal institutions.

Next question. Which assumptions that underpin our daily lives will prove to be unreliable over the next eighteen months? Here are a few:

That the internet will work. That central heating boilers will be repaired if they go wrong. Ditto cars and washing machines. That potholes will be repaired. That online deliveries will arrive on time, if at all. That you will be able to choose from ten types of coffee at your local supermarket. Likewise tea. That you will be able to meet your local Member of Parliament.

An irony of the present last gasp of free association is that most restaurants are nearly empty, judging by a drive we took last night through our town centre. We went to one of them – possibly for the last time for a while – and were able to secure a table miles away from the only other diners, an extremely loud group of twentysomethings. Washed hands going in and going out, plenty of distance, nice dish of pasta. What’s not to like?

Fine for us, but not for the restaurant, whose owner vented his frustration at being unable to claim on his insurance for loss of earnings because the government has not ordered him to shut down. So this is not anecdotal. It’s real. And he blames the insurance companies for lobbying the government, a possibility I mentioned a few days ago. You can see the grievances being stored up.

On to what now seems like an old chestnut. We’ve given up waiting for our online order for loo paper, placed three weeks ago, well before the panic. So before long we’ll be moving to plan B, which is to use back copies of The Times cut into neat little squares. Plan C is to dismember all the books we’ll never read again, though we’re reserving the coffee-table volumes because the glossy paper would be thick and non-absorbent. They will also be useful for next winter, in case the boiler gives up the ghost or the nation runs out of gas.

The best solution of all would be to find a plumber who can fit a toilet hose in one of our loos (see my post about these devices from happier times). Cheaper and more energy-efficient than the singing, dancing and blow-drying Japanese super-toilets. Bidets would work too. But I imagine that all the McMansion owners around here have created a shortage of these as well.

Use of unconventional materials with which to wipe your bottom could lead to other challenges. One of the potential environmental benefits of restaurants closing will be that the fatbergs blocking our drains are unlikely to get any worse. But will they be augmented by DailyMailbergs? The last thing we need is concrete blocks of Brexit propaganda causing a sewage reflux.

Our little contribution to avoiding such a nightmare in our neighbourhood might be to deposit re-used newsprint in bins rather than down the loo, as they do in Greece and other countries with less robust drains. Unfortunately, that would make the job of our refuse collectors more hazardous and unpleasant than it already is. Everything has consequences.

If all else fails, then perhaps we should do as the Romans did. Buckets of water and sponges on sticks. But this would probably not be a favoured option in Surrey, since it would require regular sluicing of formerly pristine wet rooms with liberal doses of disinfectant. Enough already.

On a more cheerful if crashingly mundane note, yesterday I refuelled the car. No queues, no panic, Not surprising, considering that before long anyone on the roads will be intercepted by viruspolitzei demanding to know where we’re going. But satisfying normality in these abnormal times. I’ve no doubt that given half a chance there would be people filling up jerrycans at the pumps, thus turning their garages into incendiary devices. Perhaps that’s for later.

As we plod slowly towards national hibernation, here’s a final list – things I’m not missing.

Traffic jams in my town, where planners insist on cramming in more people without considering the small detail that each of these people want at least three cars. Aircraft every two minutes on the flight-path to Heathrow. Talk about Brexit (yes, of course there’ll be a bloody extension whatever Boris the Idiot says). Talk about reforming the BBC. Flooding (thank you God for giving us a break from the rain). Unkindness, lack of compassion (we do seem to be caring about each other a little more).

That’s that for now. Comments on any of these thoughts are more than welcome.

Onwards and upwards with good cheer in adversity.

Corona Diaries – lockdown, soon, maybe…

I don’t know about anyone else, but one of the odd things about living though a pandemic is the sense of certainties evaporating. Things we take for granted, that shops will be open, that planes will be crossing our sky on their way to Heathrow, that playgrounds in the park will be full of kids and that there’ll be footie on the TV if we fancy a nap – all slipping away from the realm of normality.

Then there’s the possibility of death, something most of us come to terms with if we have an incurable disease. But a plague is different. It’s rather like a storm cloud you can see on the horizon as you’re out walking. Will it drench you or will you escape a soaking? Either way you prepare yourself for the deluge, and hope it discharges itself elsewhere.

For the past six weeks, since the virus first raised its ugly head, I’ve thought constantly about the prospect of being one of the unlucky ones. My first emotion was fear. I was also struck by the cognitive dissonance of contemplating the end amid benign normality. Then fatalism. If it happens it happens. Then positivity. It’s possible to influence the outcome by taking precautions, and meanwhile life, to the extent that it’s allowed to, goes on. There’s plenty of pleasure to be had from listening to the birds, watching the early flowers come out and seeing the trees gird themselves with buds in time for another summer.

That’s how I feel now. Should the virus take me, there probably wouldn’t be much processing capacity beyond dealing with body aches and failing lungs – the primal struggle of staying alive. But that’s for tomorrow. Today is for appreciating good health and using it in productive ways. Writing this diary is one of them.

Normally on my birthday we would have a gathering of our small but much-loved clan. Not on Sunday. We cooked the usual full-monty lunch meal, but because one of our daughters, her partner and our grandson have the sniffles they didn’t make it. Our other daughter, stuck in London, gave it a miss on our advice. Hopefully there will be other opportunities in better times to get together.

But enough of this mawkish contemplation. Time to think about others, especially the people of Italy. Celebrity chef Giovanni Locatelli posted a video the other day showing the death notices in a Milanese newspaper a month ago. One and a half pages in February, and ten pages in a recent edition. Brings it home to you, doesn’t it? My heart goes out to them.

Now, turning towards the reported policy of the British government towards the over-70s. I know nothing, but it occurs to me that the worst thing you can do is to confine fit and healthy senior citizens to their homes, especially if they live active lifestyles. State of mind must play a part in boosting or depressing immune systems. So surely we should be encouraging our elderly to continue to be active, so long as they do so in a way that doesn’t potentially infect others?

They should be encouraged, not just allowed, to go for walks provided they keep away from others. They should be allowed to play golf, so long as they maintain a safe distance from their playing partners – no handshakes, no congregating in the club house, plenty of hand-washing. If they live by the sea, they should take the dog for a walk on the beach. If they live inland, they should seek out beautiful places, if they’re lucky enough to live close to any.

Is this dumb advice? Call me stupid, but it seems to me that someone locked in their home is more likely to succumb to depression, and consequently to other ailments, even if they escape the virus. I know people, especially singles, who if they were locked away might die of boredom and neglect.

Of course it would be simpler just to issue a blanket ban. But most older people I know want to live and have much to live for, not least to be involved in the lives of their kids and grandkids. They’re not stupid. Should we not trust them to do the right thing? Maybe, maybe not. After all, desperation often finds a way.

Another question: to what extent can the population as a whole be trusted to do the right thing? I’m assuming that everybody by now knows the basics – hand-washing, social distancing and so on. But how far into the population has the message actually penetrated, and to what extent are people believing what they want to believe, especially if there are siren voices on the internet and amongst natural sceptics suggesting that the virus is no worse than the flu?

I suspect that despite the wall-to-wall messaging, there are still people who are not convinced. It may well be that a universal acceptance of the danger won’t come about until everybody knows somebody who has been infected, and their stories – especially those who have had a bad dose or even died – circulate widely. That moment may not be far away.

Here’s another issue that prompts my inner cynic to leap out. In the government’s most recent communications, spokespeople from Boris Johnson downwards keep airing the prospect that a lock-down is imminent. Yesterday, Johnson said in the first of his daily homilies that people should avoid going to public places such as theatres, pubs and restaurants.

Good advice, except that, as a number of journalists on the social media point out, until the shut-down is mandatory, owners will not be able to make insurance claims for loss of earnings. So they’re understandably worried that they will soon go out of business.

Now here’s where my cynicism kicks in. If insurance companies, which are among the mainstays of the British economy, have to pay out for a massive number of claims, what will the hit do to their financial health? And what level of lobbying of the government is going on to mitigate that risk? And to what extent is any lobbying influencing the timing of the government’s decision to impose the lockdown?

Recommendations, as opposed to orders, appear weak and indecisive. I find it hard to understand why the government should wait a couple of weeks before doing what most people know it’s going to do. So to what extent is the timing guided by science, and to what extent by powerful lobbying?

Finally, the latest in the long-running saga of our online loo paper order. After numerous promises that delivery is imminent, we got this email today:

Thank you for the message to find out the status of your order for toilet paper. I’m very sorry to hear that you have not received your order as of yet.

As you will no doubt have heard the recent escalation of the Coronavirus outbreak has created a sudden and unprecedented demand for household essentials, especially toilet paper. As a result, all manufacturers are struggling to meet the increased demand, which is, therefore, resulting in some delays in getting sufficient stock to us.

Nevertheless, we have secured the commitment of stock from our manufacturers, and are receiving stock on a daily basis and will be fulfilling all orders. We completely understand the importance of having essential household items such as toilet paper during this period of uncertainty and are working extremely hard to ensure that all our customers receive their orders as soon as possible.

I will also check with our carriers regarding your order, as we are starting to receive reports of parcels of toilet paper going missing. It is something that we are monitoring carefully, but rest assured if this is the case we will organize a replacement parcel to be sent out asap.

We apologize for the inconvenience caused and thank you for your patience and understanding.

So it seems that the timeless Middle Eastern tradition of bukra inshallah (tomorrow God willing) has arrived in Britain. Or otherwise, I will look with unaccustomed suspicion upon my neighbours, as in as in that famous Surrey epithet: “which of you bastards has nicked my bog paper?”

Oh for the days of plenty when loo rolls would cascade down the terraces at football matches!

One last thought. If the Grim Reaper decides to take me, I fervently hope he doesn’t knock on my door until after the last episode of Homeland.

More when I have it.

The New Pope – strange goings-on at the Vatican

Though I’m not religious, I am a bit of a papaphile. This post might only make sense to those of you who are also interested in popery. Or, more specifically, the work of Paolo Sorrentino, who three years ago directed a gem of a TV series called The Young Pope. It featured Jude Law as a tortured American priest who becomes Pope Pius XIII at an unusually young age.

I loved it (see my review), and I yearned for a follow up, which Sorrentino has duly delivered in the form of The New Pope.

In The New Pope, Jude Law’s character lies in a coma after a heart attack, and the cardinals elect a new pontiff. And then another, in the form of John Malkovich as an English aristocrat who also happens to be a priest. And then Pius XIII wakes up.

The whole thing is like a dream, in which a central questions – what sort of church is fit for purpose in the 21st Century, and indeed whether the church’s beliefs and traditions are immutable or flexible – slither in and out of the narrative. Accompanied by dancing nuns, a sinister character who claims to be God and his devilish assistant, a woman enlisted as a whore in the service of Christ, a malevolent jihadist and a troupe of fanatical worshippers of the stricken young pope. Plus corruption, hypocrisy and gay cardinals in every corner.

The central character is not, as you might expect, either of the two popes, but the ubiquitous Cardinal Voiello (magnificently played by Silvio Orlando), pope-maker and “the longest-serving Secretary of State in the history of the church” as he frequently points out. He presides like a tarantula over a far-reaching web of influence. He knows where all the skeletons are hidden.

Yet he’s far from a cardboard baddie. He cares about the church as much as his own career. And his best friend is a disabled boy to whom he has provided a home and companionship. When the boy dies, the subsequent funeral in front of the pope and the cardinals, and Voiello’s eulogy in which he describes the life the boy would have lived had he not been disabled, are deeply moving.

While Malkovich does a decent job of the effete and damaged aristocrat, the drama comes alive when Lenny, the stricken pope, emerges from his coma. I sometimes think Jude Law doesn’t get enough credit for his acting skills. In The New Pope he is superb. He contributes scenes of great pathos, with moments of sweetness you would not have expected after watching the first series.

I have no idea about Sorrentino’s religious beliefs, but this surely is the work of a man on whom the Catholic Church is indelibly engraved. It’s stylish, beautifully staged, well-acted and full of humour and emotional intensity. The Vatican, as most of us see it, is theatre, which the director captures with panache. It’s a mysterious tableau, on which Sorrentino paints his fantasies, and millions of the faithful paint theirs.

The real work of the church takes place in less glamorous places. Yet would it be the same without its glittering epicentre? Watching the faces, full of wonder and devotion as they listen to their holy father addressing them from his balcony, you might think not.

Does the story end here? There’s plenty of life in the characters, though I doubt if all of them would make it to Series 3. But if anyone can create another chapter to equal the first two, it must be Paolo Sorrentino.

Corona Diaries – waiting for the end of the beginning

Woolton Pie

Lots of stuff to think about today, starting with a beacon of wisdom and leadership.

Donald Trump has suggested a national day of prayer to head off the coronavirus. If he was Irish, he would say “I’ll pray and pray till me knees are raw”. Perhaps a better approach would be to wash and wash until your hands drop off.

No doubt a little faith goes a long way. At least you feel a bit better afterwards. But a day of prayer? It’s hard to imagine that the righteous would be able to stay on their knees all day without a regular slug of Fox News to sustain them. Perhaps that’s the benefit of staying at home. You can do both at the same time.

A few days ago I suggested that the data from the pandemic would be difficult to analyse because a number of countries would be keeping the extent of their infections under wraps in order to hide their ill-preparedness. It seems I was right. The president of Indonesia has admitted doing just that, though his stated reason was that he didn’t want his people to get too worried. Sadly, another example of a leader treating his citizens like children. Do we have the same situation in Russia, Turkey and India?

When people are dropping like flies, even the most authoritarian government finds it difficult to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes. As in Iran.

But lo! Now it turns out that in my own country, according to the BBC :

“People who are self-isolating with mild symptoms are no longer being tested for the virus. The government said on Friday it estimated the true number of UK cases to be around 5,000 to 10,000.”

Which means that the “confirmed infected” numbers are meaningless. We’ve either run out of testing capability, which is the case in the US and most likely in other countries where the number of cases is suspiciously low, or the rate of infection is so rapid that we can’t catch up and have given up trying.

So actually the death toll is the only meaningful number, and the death rate – the percentage of dead versus those infected – will remain a mystery for all time, as happened in the Spanish flu pandemic. Duh. Now even I, with my limited intellectual capacity, am beginning to understand.

Meanwhile, almost every hour it seems, we are being bombarded with news and speculation. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, tells us via the Daily Telegraph that we’re on a war footing. Good old WW2 rises its head again. Boris Johnson is urging industry to convert its factories to produce, not Spitfires, but respirators. What a shame that we don’t have factories in the UK anymore. Perhaps the government will take up my earlier suggestion that we should buy the kit from China. He could call it a lend-lease agreement.

On the speculation front, some the most alarming conjecture came last night from the very mainstream, non-fake ITV. Robert Peston, the arm-waving harbinger of financial doom in 2008, suggests that soon the NHS will stop treating anyone over 65, and enforce isolation on the over-70s, who will be ordered either to stay indoors go to a care home.

Very interesting. No doubt our eminent human rights lawyers would have something to say about an implied contract between the state and people who contributed mandatory National Insurance payments for their entire working lives. Breach of contract for not providing healthcare?

I have a particular interest in this story. Today is my birthday. I’m over 65, but under 70. So if Peston is correct, I shall still be free to go out and play havoc, but I shan’t be treated if I get sick in the process. Which I guess is better than being forced to go to a care home where the boredom would see me off faster than the virus.

I’m sure the government will have thought about another implication – how the constituents of elderly members of Parliament would feel about their elected representatives being incapable of functioning because they’re forced to stay at home. But of course that would not be an issue if they suspend parliament for six months. Problem solved!

Should we all end up being gated, I’m not in the least concerned about being bored. We have enough books to last us for months, including a number of 900-page tomes I haven’t got around to reading yet, including a birthday present from my beloved, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which describes Thomas Cromwell’s stately progress towards the executioner’s block. Now there was a man who knew something about plagues…

On the subject of books, I had a heated discussion with my wife this morning. Our regular delivery of loo paper is now two days late. If it completely fails to arrive, and our back copies of the Times are no longer sufficient for our needs, we’ll need to attack the library. But what books? Lee Child, Kathy Reichs? Or perhaps the moth-eaten history books festering on my shelves?

I fear this argument will continue to run until the crisis is over or I peg out, in which latter case the drains will quickly become blocked by pages of my late father’s biographies of obscure Austro-Hungarian archdukes.

But first I shall propose a compromise – that we should start with all the exotic cookery books we’ve accumulated over the years but never used, saving only the one that contains the recipe for Woolton Pie, the insipid concoction recommended by the British government to the ration-stricken population during World War 2.

I will end this bulletin with a chirpy little story from the front page of the Sunday Times. Apparently ISIS has told its followers not to travel to Europe. In its Al-Naba newsletter, it warns that “the healhy should not enter the land of the epidemic and the afflicted should not exit from it”.

Oh well, that’s one less thing for MI5 to worry about. It can turn its attention to the octogenarian resistance movements brewing in the suburbs.

Hasta la pasta!

Corona Diaries – enter the Virus Police

Evening all. Now that the British government has delegated the management of the coronavirus crisis to the Department of Agriculture, those of us who are not approaching the end of our useful lives, and who don’t have swine fever, tuberculosis or foot and mouth disease can rest easy that we’re in safe hands. To hell with omnidirectional clamour of the experts. Herd immunity is on its way.

The rest of us look nervously for signs that point to a cull, be it by vets with rifles, vans with frosted windows or a chap with a black cowl and a scythe stalking the neighbourhood. Note, by the way, the headline in today’s London Times, which screams “Police get powers to detain virus victims”. Do we think they’ll be heading for police cells? I don’t think so.

I’m joking of course.

Seriously, I do worry about the substantial portion of the population that keeps invoking the example of the Second World War. This little fetish is much loved by Brexiteers, who keep reminding us how we stood alone against the monstrous force across the Channel.

Now we have folks recalling the spirit of the Blitz, when we pulled together as the Nazi bombers rained death and destruction upon us. The analogy, though stirring, is a little fragile, I’m afraid. For example, we didn’t leave the sick and the elderly out of the air raid shelters to create space for the able-bodied, who could thereby continue to drive the buses and deliver the milk. We did massacre our pets, but not our grannies and granddads.

But such minor details are unlikely to put off the war fetishists. While the Italians are singing arias out of their balconies, most of us, not having balconies, will no doubt be singing Vera Lynn songs out of our front windows during tea breaks from building Anderson shelters in our gardens which will be used not for hiding from bombs but for concealing vast quantities of stockpiled loo paper (amongst other essentials).

Also don’t be surprised if the government, embracing the spirit of wartime discipline, doesn’t create a Ministry of Information, and make it illegal for anyone to spread alarm and despondency. In which case you’re unlikely to hear from me again after Dixon of Dock Green has taken me off in a Black Maria.

One bit of positive news is that America finally seems to be waking up to the seriousness of the pandemic. Even Donald Trump, for whom the whole affair seems to be an opportunity for him to look presidential, seems to get it, even though he still seems happy to shake hands with people, and he still refuses to be tested. I half expect to hear him declare “I have great immunity. No one has better immunity than me.”

But it’s no joke for ordinary Americans, who seem to be going through all the circles of hell to get tested and diagnosed. I also have a sneaking worry about the haphazard melange of announcements and decisions coming out of the US. If things get seriously bad, and half the population is required to work at home, what about those who can’t, and who look after facilities that not only Americans but all the rest of us need to work properly?

Maintenance of nuclear power stations comes to mind. If one of them accidentally melts down (remember Chernobyl), there will be global consequences.

Then there’s something else that we all seem to take for granted, especially during the current crisis: the internet. The US is a key technical hub for the net, and if connectivity and bandwidth start degrading because there aren’t enough staff to maintain the nodes, we’ll all be in trouble.

Which calls to mind one of my favourite novels of last year, Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep, set in a world eight centuries from now that has returned to the Middle Ages after an unspecified disaster wiped out all the infrastructure and much of the population on the planet – around now. Unspecified because a resurgent church blames the collapse on the biblical apocalypse, and does its utmost to hide the real cause for fear of losing its hold on the imagination of the surviving population.

But this is a flight of fancy, and I don’t for a moment believe that the internet will fall over, though I suspect that we might be in for some patchy service in the coming months, which will not be good news for those of us, which is most of us, who rely on ebusiness in our daily lives.

On a practical level, if large numbers of people are confined to quarters over the next few months, there will need to be a network of volunteers who are prepared to drop food and other supplies to those who can’t go out. Provided I’m not one of them, I’m more than happy to help.

Perhaps this is where community spirit will assert itself, despite efforts by the government to encourage the survival of the fittest. We should never underestimate the ability of people to care, even when much of the evidence suggests otherwise.

On that optimistic note, I’m off to Waitrose for a spot of panic buying. Half-baked ciabatta, walnuts and ginseng are top of the list. Oh, and loo paper, because our consignment still hasn’t arrived.

Back soon, virus permitting.

Corona Dairies – herd immunity: are we cattle now?

So we’re worth little more than a herd of cattle, is that right? I suppose you could argue that Britain’s elderly and vulnerable are worth considerably less than a farm full of Jersey cows. Cows produce milk, cheese, yogurt and, at the end of their days, meat. Old people consume them, and economically speaking make no recognisable contribution to society other than the money they spend, much of which comes from the government anyway.

I think I understand the concept of herd immunity, and I recognise that it would be good if the survivors are equipped to resist a second wave of coronavirus, which might arrive in the coming winter.

Yes, well we’re all entitled to our opinions, though those whose views carry the most weight appear to be prepared to sacrifice a generation in order to prove their opinion right.

I have a better idea. It’s not particularly sound economically, but morally it knocks the economic argument out of the ballpark.

If the Chinese have equipment left after their shipment to Italy, we should spend some of the money we’ve budgeted for roads, railways and other stuff on buying intensive care facilities from them. We should immediately start work on creating ten, maybe twenty thousand intensive care beds, whatever it takes. If the Chinese can build a hospital in Wuhan in a week, surely it is not beyond our capabilities to build, even on temporary premises, enough beds to save some of those who will otherwise die in their beds or hospital corridors because the NHS can’t treat them.

Would that not be an act of leadership? Would it not be proof that as a country we care about all our citizens, including the economically quiescent who paid tax and social security for maybe fifty years in order to raise and educate the generations who will benefit from this herd immunity. Better surely than treating them like exhausted milch cows?

I have no idea how long it would take to create the extra beds. Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister would no doubt find a reason why it would take many months, at which point the intended beneficiaries would be dead. But the Chinese presumably don’t have Sir Humphrey equivalents. The orders come from on high and they jump.

If the objection is that it’s not a matter of equipment but staff, my question would be that given there are many people unable to work through being temporarily laid off, what would it take to train people rapidly to perform certain specific tasks in support of the intensive care effort?

In short, I would set a target of two months to get the new facilities in place. Just in time for the anticipated peak. Businesses love stretch targets. Why not governments?

And now a further thought. When the crisis is past, perhaps we should put the surplus equipment in storage and earmark it to be donated to faraway countries of which we know little when they have to cope with epidemics – zika, ebola, whatever – for which their health systems are underprepared.

If we wish to see it this way, would not the soft power that accrues from such a gesture more than make up for a few delays in our new roads and railways?

But, you might ask, what qualifies me to mouth off about this stuff? I can only say that I’ve learned much from the globally acclaimed expert in such matters, Donald Trump. His leadership, wisdom, and deep scientific knowledge are an example to us all.

More soon.

Corona Diaries – Keep calm and carry on, as the ancients would say

So here we are in leafy Surrey, the epicentre of the coronavirus (because everywhere is the epicentre, or is likely to be shortly). As always, we’re on the alert for the dreaded dry cough and raised temperature. At least I don’t have to set off for work in a packed train full of grey-faced commuters, or take my kids to school, or tootle down to Cheltenham for the great equine virus exchange festival.

I don’t actually have to do anything except perform my daily Alzheimer’s test of bringing my beloved her morning cup of tea without spilling it on the stair carpet. But plenty to catch up on. Trump’s mogadon-fuelled address to the nation, suspicions on Twitter that Boris Johnson is preparing us for the abandonment of the oldest generation and news of the latest footballer, politician or movie star who has fallen victim to Covid-19.

One bit of good news raises the spirits. A kitchen fitter arrived yesterday to fix the kitchen cabinets that keep collapsing every time we open them. He’s a lovely guy called Attila. A very appropriate name given that the other day the malfunctioning kitchen caused me to wreak Hunnic destruction on a plastic spatula that proceeded to take its revenge by breaking a pane of glass in a nearby door.

This Attila (a common name in Hungary) has been in the UK for sixteen years. His son was born here. He has no desire to return home, because he’s already at home. He’s bloody good at his job, and much in demand from the Surrey bourgeoisie who like to change their kitchens every three years. Which causes me to ask: what kind of stupid country encourages decent, skilled, hardworking tax-payers like Attila with a son who is bilingual and loves playing chess to ply their trade elsewhere?

Only the madness of the plague trumps the insanity of Brexit in these interesting times.

Back in our pit of pestilence, I have it on good authority that our local Waitrose has run out of quinoa, olives and black truffle paste. No doubt the matronage is planning a raid coordinated with an insider at Waitrose to snaffle up supplies for their lunch collective as soon as these much-needed essentials return to the shelves.

Zooming up to the situation nationwide, Twitter this morning is full of Brits asking why when neighbouring countries are locking down every conceivable group activity, we are locking down precisely nothing. Does our government know something that the Irish, Germans, Italians, French and even, God help them, the Americans don’t? Perhaps our magic formula for keeping nature at bay is our endless repletion of the national mantra – keep calm and carry on. Before long someone will no doubt claim that we inherited it from the Druids, who knew a thing or two about magic.

At home we have other problems to worry about. Our two-year-old grandson has suddenly learned how to copy the words we temperate adults say. A couple of days ago he heard an expression of annoyance from one of us. I won’t embarrass my wife by letting on which of us came out with it. Anyway, he immediately came back with same word, flashing a wicked grin.

We then set about convincing him that the offending word was shoot, and tried by repetition to implant the alternative into his memory. The result was that every time we said shoot, he went sssh, and collapsed with helpless laughter. A child that is able to detect a naughty word at his age is clearly destined for great things. And if we’re not careful about what we say from now onwards, we face stern disapproval from his parents, not to mention death stares from the matronage at Waitrose.

But dang, ain’t things moving fast at the moment? Every time I go online, I expect to discover some new member of the great and the good who has succumbed to the bug. A wicked thought occurs to me. If, God forbid, Her Majesty contracts the virus, you can bet your life that we will do everything in our power to help her get through the disease. Which goes to show that Boris Johnson’s remark about us having to face the fact that we will be losing our loved ones doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone.

Knowing the Queen, which I don’t, I suspect that she would insist on getting no better or worse treatment than anyone else, just as the Queen Mother insisted on staying in Buckingham Palace during the blitz. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that a 103-year old lady has just become the oldest person in China to survive the virus. Her Majesty, by all accounts, is a healthy woman, and I’m sure she would be fine.

Hi ho. It’s been at least an hour since the last bit of bombshell news, so I’m going to stop here while the going’s good, which no doubt it still is at Cheltenham.

Oh, almost forgot. The loo paper hasn’t arrived. I suspect the delivery driver left it outside and some sneaky neighbour snaffled it. In Surrey?

More when I have it, and as always, stay safe.

Corona Diaries – sound and fury, signifying what the hell?

Fourteen days back in the UK, and not a symptom in sight. Hurrah! At this precise moment nobody needs to fear me, though now I have to fear the super-spreaders.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. Just the same, I’ve been scrupulously careful. Mainly staying at home. Washing hands before the occasional visit to the high street. Washing hands afterwards. No handshaking.

I’ve played three rounds of golf since coming back. Golf is a great plague sport, because you’re outdoors, and you’re never close enough to your partners – provided you avoid the high-fives – to exchange viruses. You’re walking four or five miles a round, and you don’t have to go near the clubhouse afterwards, apart from to wash your hands. Cross-country running’s probably even better, but my knees are knackered, and anyway, I’m looking for exercise, not mindless endorphins.

But fear is out there on the golf course, especially among the older folks who rely on golf for their social life. The other day I played with a guy in his seventies. He has Type 2 diabetes. His feet aren’t good. The only time he became animated was when we mentioned the coronavirus. It’s not a joke, he said. People are dying. He was right of course, but there’s nothing like black humour to leaven fear. And I realised that he is very afraid. What he meant but didn’t say was that he was worried he might die. He and a goodly percent of the elderly golfers in the country with “pre-existing conditions” who turn out come rain or shine every week.

And me? I have to admit I’m ambivalent. There’s one side of me that says fuck you, coronavirus. If you want me, come and get me. Then at other times I think that if I’m careful enough, I might just end up being among the 40% of the population that dodges the bullet long enough for the scientists to develop and test an effective vaccine.

If you take the middle way between my attitude swings, you end up with something that looks like common sense. That of course assumes that decisions will not be taken away from us, as is the case in Italy.

Do the math, on the basis of cases doubling every four days, and you will find that within one calendar month, starting at a base of 500 infections, we in the UK will have 128,000 cases, and between 2,500 and 3,800 deaths, depending on a fatality rate of between 2 and 3 percent. At what point will the government declare a lockdown? And would that number of infections and fatalities be sufficient to overwhelm the National Health Service?

Depends, depends depends. If the virus produces a spectrum of seriousness, how many of the 120k will need intensive care, and how many will have a mild illness that requires them to stay at home for a week or two with no clinical intervention required?

No doubt this stuff has been modelled to the nth degree by the doctors, scientists and statisticians. But while you can model all you like, you must still be flexible enough to update those models rapidly.

What if something unexpected happens? A few days ago, I read of a limited Chinese study that suggests that the virus has mutated into two versions. One, highly lethal and contagious. The other still contagious but less lethal. The bad news is that you can catch both simultaneously. The good news is that the more lethal version will die down more quickly because it will kill more quickly, thus depriving itself of the means to reproduce.

If this is true, and it’s a big if because I’ve not heard anything about this theory since it first hit the media, it makes the job of testing more involved, and the modelling much more complex. Could it explain why the Italian death rate is so high compared with that of other countries?

Is proactive testing – identifying cases early – the way to limit the death toll? The relatively low death rate and high level of testing in South Korea suggests that might be the case. As with all these speculations, it’s unlikely we will know the answers until after the fact, and perhaps not even then.

Just as we don’t know the precise numbers of infected and deaths in the 1917-19 flu pandemic, we are unlikely ever to know the full story of this pandemic, although for different reasons. Back then, the problem was a lack of ability to diagnose or document consistently across the world. Today, it’s more likely that some governments will choose to distort or under-report in order to disguise their lack of preparation and mitigate the political fallout from their incompetence.

Even so, we will almost certainly end up with better data than we did a hundred years ago, which will stand those of us who survive in good stead when predicting the outcome of the next pandemic. In fact the post-mortem – if you’ll forgive the inappropriate analogy – seems already to have begun before the patient has expired. I’ve just read an interesting article in The Guardian about a study suggesting that if China had introduced its lock-down measures three weeks earlier than it did, it would have reduced cases by 95%. Nothing definitive, just another bit of modelling to add to the pile.

Meanwhile, here in the United Kingdom our beloved government has revealed our annual budget.

Two things stand out. They’ve suspended any increases in duty on booze for a year, which suggests that they’re encouraging us to drink and be merry while our grannies and granddads drop like flies.

The second thing is why, at a moment of supreme uncertainty, would you issue a budget at all? Would it not be better to announce a package of coronavirus temporary measures (which they did) and defer the remainder of the budget until the current crisis looks like resolving itself (which they didn’t)?

Do we really think that if the economy tanks over the next three months the government will be willing and able to deliver on its commitment to a massive spending splurge? The answer, I guess, depends on whether you believe anything this government promises.

We must at least give our lot credit for having some kind of plan. I was quite encouraged by the discussion in Parliament in which Matt Hancock, the Health Minister, answered questions about how the government was dealing with the outbreak. For once our MPs sounded like adults. The questions were intelligent, as were Hancock’s answers.

Our cousins in the United States, on the other hand, seem to be at sixes and sevens, except in the fevered imagination of the president. Minimal testing, mixed messages, prayers and, initially at least, gross complacency on the part of Trump himself.

I won’t go on about his behaviour in the crisis, except to recommend an excellent report for the BBC by Jon Sopel, who doesn’t just deal with Trump’s antics, but points the finger at America’s ethos of every man for himself as the biggest obstacle in the way of the country getting a grip on the crisis.

Trump himself has come within two degrees of separation from the virus. A couple of congressmen shook hands with someone who had the virus at a recent conference. One of them was on Air Force One the other day with the president. The last thing I wish is that Trump gets infected, and if he does, I hope he recovers quickly. But a bout of infections at the highest level might persuade the complacent to take the pandemic seriously.

Perhaps Trump’s travel ban on people from various European countries will focus the American mind. If not, the news that Tom Hanks, the epitome of the Decent American, has caught the bug might seep through to the backwoods of Pennsylvania and Montana.

It pains me to think that the United States, because of its shortage of testing facilities, might end up as one of those countries whose reporting on infections might never reflect reality. But more, I’m worried about my friends over there who have more to lose than the national reputation.

On the domestic front, our regular online order of loo paper has not yet arrived. My wife wonders if it’s been hijacked. She may be right. But at least the newspaper arrived this morning, so all is not lost.

That’s it for now. Stay safe y’all.

Confessions of a spatula killer

Speaking of moral choices, of which I’ve done quite a lot lately in the context of how we deal with the coronavirus, I feel rather sorry for Jolyon Maugham.

He’s the barrister who killed a fox in his garden on Boxing Day and tweeted about it. The fox in question was threatening Mr Maugham’s chickens. It got caught up in some netting – the opposite of the Great Escape, you might say. So a man with a formidable reputation for pro-bono work on various causes, most notably the legal challenges against the British government’s high-handed behaviour in trying to deliver Brexit, is now just as widely known as a fox slayer.

Despite the efforts of some enthusiasts within the RSPCA (Britain’s animal welfare charity, which has powers to prosecute) to hang, draw and quarter him, he learned this week that there will be no criminal charges resulting from his action. It seems that he complied with the law when he rapidly dispatched the fox with his baseball bat. Not quite the humane killing of a snarling animal in pain that the RSPCA would have preferred. But swift, effective and legally mandated.

It’s a bit surprising that he had to wait almost three months to discover that there would be no charges against him. The RSPCA did a post-mortem on the animal and determined that it died instantly. It’s hard to understand why it took that long to come to such a conclusion when the Silent Witness team, my favourite TV pathologists, usually manage to unravel the most hideously complex cold cases in a quarter of the time. But I suppose in real life these matters require a hundred emails and the long deliberations of great minds.

Anyway, the moral choice in this case was do you consider the lives of your cherished chickens – presumably the source of an abundance of free-range eggs for your table – more highly than that of a fox doing its utmost to break into the coop and decapitate them? Or do you don a pair of kitchen gloves, grab some wire-cutters and risk catching rabies in order to liberate the fox in full knowledge that it will make further attempts to murder your chickens? Or further, do you wait for hours on a public holiday for the RSPCA to arrive and make the decision for you, knowing that the fox will be in pain throughout the wait?

I’m pretty sure that there would have been farmers across the country cackling with laughter at the thought of city dwellers in such a frenzy of anxiety and anger over Mr Maugham’s moral choice. A farmer would have whipped out the shotgun and bang. Problem solved and nothing said.

The other dimension of the story is the social choice Mr Maugham made by tweeting about it. As a public figure with hundreds of thousands of followers, why did he not realise that his tweet – intended to be ironic – would ignite such a firestorm of fury that he felt the need to withdraw from the social media for weeks? The reaction was so toxic that he even offered to resign from his chambers (the equivalent for a self-employed barrister of leaving his place of work). His offer was not accepted, but it’s an indication of the effect on him of one ill-judged tweet.

All of which goes to show how careful you need to be with your pronouncements on the social media, and how even the wisest and best of us are prone to the occasional disastrous misjudgement. As opposed to the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, who make heinous misjudgements on a daily basis and seem to get away with it. But then they are neither wise nor the best of us.

I, on the other hand, am not well-known, wise or particularly good. Therefore I feel I can confess to a heinous misjudgement without fear that my reputation, such as it is, will be ruined, and my picture splattered all over the tabloids.

What’s the old fool on about, you might ask? It’s this. I am a spatula killer. By which I don’t mean I kill things with spatulas. I kill spatulas. Well, just one actually.

Let me explain. Over the past few years our kitchen has been showing signs of frailty. Every now and again, draws collapse and cabinets fall to pieces. Each time, I, or members of my family, patch the offending bits up with the aid of nails, glue and gaffer tape.

At this point you might ask why we don’t just get a new kitchen. The answer is that if we can fix it, why bother to spend untold thousands on a set of new cabinets that work no better than the ones we replace?

But make-do-and-mend does have its disadvantages, especially when the thing you’re mending shows signs of terminal degradation. When the person doing the mending is also showing signs of degradation (if not terminal), the consequences can be surprising.

As happened the other day. When I pulled out the cutlery draw it collapsed, causing the draws underneath also to collapse like one of those old buildings brought down by a controlled explosion. At which point, in a moment of mindless frustration I grabbed a nearby plastic spatula and smacked it down on the dining room table.

What I wasn’t expecting was that it would break into a several pieces, and that a larger bit would fly into a glass pane in a nearby door, leaving the door with the appearance of having been the victim of vandalism or a drive-by shooting. Or at least I think that’s what happened. I can think of no other reason why a pane of glass should suddenly crack.

I only discovered the damage later, after I had reverted to my usual calm demeanour. Imagine my shame when owning up to the by-product of my senseless act of destruction.

As a result, I’m in the doghouse, not only for my uncharacteristic (honest!) display of temper, but because the cost of replacing the pane of glass is a ridiculous two hundred quid. Then there’s the destruction of a much-loved spatula, which may have been old and bobbly, but served our family in the preparation of countless pans of onions over the past decade. Mea maxima culpa.

Now the spatula wasn’t threatening any chickens, and my behaviour was intemperate, whereas Jo Maugham’s was logical, even if, in some people’s view, draconian. But if I tweeted about what I did the result would be the same, if microcosmic in my case. I would be forever known as a spatula destroyer. In my obituary, my shameful act would feature as prominently as my many achievements.

No doubt Mr Maugham has learned a lesson, although I’m not sure I have since I don’t really care a hoot about my reputation.

There is a postscript to my tale of wanton destruction. We’ve hired a kitchen fitter to replace the offending drawers and shelves, not with new units, but with what are known in the trade as carcasses. This enables us to fit the wooden fronts of the old units to new ones that work fine, thus saving the outrageous cost of some artsy-fartsy “new kitchen”.

But I’m troubled by the unfortunate use of the word carcass. From now onwards, whenever I open a kitchen cabinet or pull out a drawer, I shall be forever be reminded of the intended victims of Mr Maugham’s intruder and of its grisly fate.

Which goes to show how easily unintended consequences can corrode the soul.

Corona Diaries – following the science

Matt Hancock, Britain’s Minister of Health, tells us today that the government will “be guided by the science” in determining next steps in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. Sorry Mr Hancock, but that is an abdication of responsibility.

If the science tells us that by not imposing lockdowns on seriously affected areas, banning public gatherings, closing schools and doing all the other stuff that Italy is doing right now, the result will be X, and by taking draconian measures now, the result will be Y, the government clearly has a choice: if X equals rapid spread and an early peak in infections – you could call that a “get the virus done” approach – and Y slows down the rate of infection but prolongs the outbreak – with consequent risk to the economy – that is not a choice dictated by science. It’s a political and a moral choice.

X will most likely result in the Health Service being overwhelmed and unable to deal with a vast number of serious cases becoming critical at once. I imagine that the advice of economists would be just as influential in making that decision as that of the scientists. Either way, it will be scant consolation to the weak and elderly who might die, but might be saved if the government opted for Y.

I went on at some length about the implications of large numbers of deaths in my last post, so I won’t repeat myself here. But I do wish that Mr Hancock and his colleagues would explain to us that there are a number of factors at play other than just the science. Aside from the political, moral and economic dimensions, there’s the danger of a breakdown in law and order sparked by panic buying, disrupted supply chains and quite conceivably by an ugly public reaction to what people might see as the needless deaths of their elderly relatives.

I would understand if he explained that more extreme measures might be unwise unless or until we have areas of mass infection that can clearly be identified as candidates for lockdown. It’s difficult to lock down a whole country. Not even Italy has done that. Instead it waited for a regional trend of infections to become clear.

But I really object to his insulting our intelligence by pretending to bow down to the God of Science. Science is neutral. It can tell us when we’ve been infected by a virus. But it can no more offer a clear way forward than the Delphic Oracle, because it points towards choices, not certainties.

Science might tell us about the consequences of letting the epidemic rip. Economists will calculate their best guess as to the damage to the economy. Doctors can estimate how many will die. Politicians will worry the effect on morale of food rationing and social isolation. And moralists will ponder what it does to a society if hundreds of thousands of elderly die needlessly.

It’s not just the science that should guide us, Mr Hancock, and you know it. Informing us about difficult choices is not the same as spinning bullshit to win elections. You would think that we’ve been a democracy long enough to be treated as intelligent adults rather than gullible dupes ready to believe any old nonsense.

The government must listen – especially to health workers on the front line – educate and admit that it doesn’t have all the answers, and nor does science. If it doesn’t do these things, many of us will start believing any old nonsense, not least all the crap being circulated on the internet.

We are adults, Mr Hancock.

Corona Diaries – The Walking Immuno-Compromised

OK, so where do we go from here? Speaking of myself, nowhere. I’m ten days on from returning to the UK from a country that has seen a Covid-19 outbreak. Nothing on the scale of Iran or Italy. Not even as big as the UK on current numbers. The island where we spent a couple of weeks had no cases. But then we had to negotiate airports on the way home. Plenty of hand-washing – and disinfecting our personal space on the aircraft – hopefully did the trick.

Thus far, no symptoms. We haven’t self-isolated, because no official advice has required us to do so, but we’ve continued to be careful. Within four days we will move from being notionally a potential threat to others to the outside world being a threat to us.

For reasons that are none of your business, I would consider myself to be mildly immuno-compromised. So according to current guidance I need to be extra careful. But I am only one of a huge number of people in this country who are at risk if and when the virus really takes a grip. How many people have heart problems, Type-2 diabetes, respiratory problems? I can think of a dozen or more without even trying.

I’m not in my 70s or 80s, I live an active life and I haven’t lost my marbles yet. I would therefore hope that I will not be first in the queue for death’s door. But I do consider myself to be part of a clan: the walking immuno-compromised, to be known here onward as the WICs.

And speaking on behalf of that clan, I have to say that I don’t buy into the crap perpetuated by the “keep calm and carry on” brigade, especially when they reel off the flu death statistics and claim that Covid-19 is just like a nasty dose of flu. For some, maybe, but for others, including people like me who haven’t been to the bookies for decades, it’s a matter of odds.

If the virus infects 60% of the population, and it kills, say, 3% of those it infects, then we will lose 1.2 million people, mostly the elderly and WICs.

Now I can see the advantages both for the dead and those who survive them.

The dead won’t have to live with the consequences of Brexit, won’t see our cricketers lose the Ashes once again, nor our footballers crash and burn in Qatar in a couple of year’s time. They won’t need to witness another Eurovision Song Contest. They won’t have to look on Boris Johnson’s fat, smirking face gurning at them in the newspapers. If they’re lucky, they might live long enough to see Donald Trump blow up like an enormous stink bomb in November.

Those who live in care homes will be spared the trauma of having to move to another “home” because staff costs in the Priti-Points era have made the current place unsustainable. They won’t live to see the Archers privatised, nor will they have to put up with a daily diet of reality TV featuring people 60 years younger than themselves.

For those who survive, I can see many advantages. A million less old-age pensions for the state to pay out. The National Health Service relieved of the burden of having to care for society’s weakest members. And since the virus doesn’t distinguish between the rich and the poor, think of the inheritances that will cascade forth upon the survivors, not to mention the boom in death duties, as well as the properties liberated from the iron grip of the baby boomers and the stamp duty bonanza resulting from their sale by grasping descendants.

Yeah, it’s sad about grandad, but he had a good life and his time had come. Now the funeral’s over, let’s get on with the tax cuts, eh Boris? With all that extra money, time to build some motorways, HS 2, 3 and 4, and get that bloody bridge across the Irish Sea sorted.

When the survivors look back, it will seem as if God organised a euthanasia programme, since He knew that we were too wet and sentimental to do it for ourselves.

Will it come to this? Your guess is as good as mine. But the signs aren’t good. The most ominous portent from the last couple of days is the news that two BA baggage handlers at Heathrow have come down with the virus. This implies that they caught it from bags they handled, which in turn implies that either the passengers or the handlers at the originating airport were infected. Try tracking that lot.

We seem to be fast approaching the point at which we need to make some decisions. To be fair to the government, I think they realise this.

Do we put life on hold for the next six months for everyone in the country to give the WICs a chance? Or do we let God get on with His euthanasia programme?

If the former, it will mean embargoed communities, no Glastonbury, no Cup Finals, no quiet dinner parties and no scrums on the Tube. In other words, Wuhan awaits.

If the latter, it will be sauve qui peut. Crowds mobbing the supermarkets as they panic buy and infect each other. Paranoia, attacks on minorities perceived as being super-spreaders (already happening), economic collapse (not far away) and general anxiety sufficient to move even the most phlegmatic of our citizens (getting close).

Speaking as a paid-up member of the WIC, I think that any society that is prepared to abandon the weak and the elderly to their fate isn’t worth belonging to. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But to do so does set a dangerous precedent, since the young will be old one day, and this pandemic is surely not the last we shall face within the next couple of generations.

So I don’t think it’s too much to ask to put normal life on hold for the next few months. This is the government’s Delay strategy. Try and phase the rate of infection so that the NHS isn’t overwhelmed all at once. The longer we avoid reaching the peak, the closer we come to the point at which we have a viable vaccine.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from a pandemic, it’s that we’re not an island. We simply can’t close our borders, close our eyes and hope for the best. Because by the time we get around to doing that, it’s too late. The damage is done.

Whether we like it or not – and lots of people in this country don’t like it – we’re not independent and never will be. We’re interdependent. Right now, we depend on the efforts of other countries to limit their exposure to Covid-19. We depend on other countries to share information and research that will result (hopefully) in a vaccine. And if our economy is reduced to a smoking ruin, we will depend on international institutions to keep us afloat.

Perhaps, even in our frenzy of national selfishness, we might find it within ourselves to assist other countries less able to cope with their health emergencies.

I will not bang on further about Brexit and the false god of independence. And besides, we have other more pressing things to worry about. At least I’m pleased to announce that we have a shipment of loo paper, ordered online, coming our way. Should it be diverted by rioting dysentery sufferers, we have a large number of back issues of The Times which will do nicely. I always knew that the print version was preferable to the online edition, though I hadn’t anticipated this potential benefit.

We’re all dealing with our fears for the immediate future in our own way. Some of us are in denial, which is certainly a comforting strategy. My way is to put my thoughts in writing, hence this post. I don’t think we’re approaching the end times, but I do believe that we should keep our eyes open, be realistic and recognise all the crap that’s circulating about this crisis for what it is.

That’s it for now on the corona front. More when I have it.

World Book Day – a self-isolation reading list

To celebrate World Book Day, here’s a list of books I’ve read in the past year. It’s far from complete, but it includes some of the more memorable ones. Should you be unlucky enough to have to go into enforced isolation in these troubled times, a few of these might come in useful.

Fiction – Top Ten

The Testaments: Margaret Atwood. If you enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale (book and TV), unmissable.

Big Sky: Kate Atkinson. Anything by Atkinson is worth reading. Jackson Brodie, her battle-scarred detective, tackles a paedophile ring.

All the Lives We Never Lived: Anuradha Roy. Sad novel set in Northern India and Bali. If you like the English Patient, you’ll like this too. A lament for unfulfilled lives.

Second Sleep: Robert Harris. 800 years on, we’re back in the middle ages. It’s never clear what caused the extinction of the digital age, because the church blames it on the biblical Apocalypse. I wonder if Harris is smiling grimly at the thought that coronavirus might bring us down. Rattling narrative and a powerful feat of imagination.

The Underground Man: Mike Jackson. Fictional diary of a 19th century English duke who goes slightly potty and builds tunnels under his estate. Great characters. A comic portrayal of the disintegration of a lonely man.

The Siberian Dilemma: Martin Cruz Smith. I’ve read all his books (like those of Robert Harris). Ever since Gorky Park, Arkady Renko has lived an eventful life. In fact he’s probably had at least ten cat’s-worth of lives thus far. Now he comes to grips with a couple of murderous oligarchs.

The Garden of Evening Mists: Tan Twan Eng. We Westerners don’t often give much thought to the Japanese occupation of Malaya. This moving story about a woman revisiting her life in a wartime camp fills a gap, especially if, like me, you love Malaysia.

Varina: Charles Frazier. The author of Cold Mountain recreates episodes from the life of Varina, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Much of the story is of her reminiscences set against those of a black child she rescued from the wreckage of Richmond in 1865. A daguerreotype brought to vivid life.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World: Elif Shafak. Shafak is another of my must-read authors. The story of an Istanbul prostitute as she looks back on her life in the dying seconds after her murder. Superb characterisation, set in one of my favourite cities.

Agent Running in the Field: John Le Carre. How Le Carre manages to produce work of this quality in his eighties defies belief. A story that looks back to the golden age of the cold war, yet shows us why spying is the second oldest profession, and very much still in business.

Fiction – The Rest

Blue Moon: Lee Child. My first Jack Reacher novel. Enjoyable, but I’m not sure I’ll read the other twenty-odd. What were they doing casting Tom Cruise as Reacher? In his demented self-perception, I reckon Trump would fancy a crack at playing him.

Destroying Angel: S G MacLean. Me and my golfing mate Nick share an interest in historical novels about the 17th century. So he gave me this one, which is one of a cracking series set during the Commonwealth.

Blood’s Game: Angus Donald. Cracking tale about the wonderfully named Colonel Thomas Blood, the man who nicked the Crown Jewels in 1671 and lived to tell the tale. Nick will like this, and so did I.

The King’s Witch: Tracy Borman. Super yarn about a woman with healing powers who negotiates her way through the treacherous waters of James I’s court. Reminds me of No 10 under Boris. Nick will like this as well.

The Falcon of Sparta: Conn Iggulden. Xenphon’s Anabasis reimagined by one of my favourite historical novelists. About time someone joined Tom Holland in giving the Persians a human face.

The Wolf and the Watchman: Niklas Natt och Dag. Not so much Scandi Noir as Scandi Black Hole. I always thought that Stockholm was rather nice. Clearly not in the early 1800s. Convoluted, bleak and thoroughly depressing.

Winter of the World: Ken Follett. This is the sort of book you should take on a long holiday and read over 2-3 days. Part of a trilogy. Follett takes a cast of characters from Russia, the US, Britain and Germany through the 20th Century, and has them suffer all kinds of agonies in the process. Good stuff if you like family sagas.

Edge of Eternity: Ken Follett. See Winter of the World above.

Non-Fiction – Top Ten

Dominion: Tom Holland. Another peerless history from Tom Holland. Explains why I’m still a Christian even if I don’t believe in God. Like Holland’s other work, worth reading twice.

Handel in London: Jane Glover. Eminent conductor writes a biography of the incomparable Handel.

Aleppo, the Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City: Philip Mansel. A paean for a great city, virtually destroyed in the Syrian civil war. Another multi-ethnic, multi-cultural centre of power and trade in the Middle East. I should have visited it when I had the chance.

The New Silk Roads: Peter Frankopan. If you’re interested in China’s economic colonisation of half the world, this is for you.

They Will Have to Die Now: James Verini. Learned, moving, pitiful narrative of the fall of Mosul. Admirable especially because of the historical context in which Verini places the story.

The Quest for Queen Mary: James Pope Hennessy. Papers from the author of the best (and almost only) biography of Geroge V’s wife. Very funny if you’re interested in the curious bubble of royalty.

Chernobyl: Serhii Plokhy. Gripping and forensic account of the Chernobyl disaster.

Salonica – City of Ghosts: Mark Mazower. I read this before I went to Thessaloniki. Story of a multi-cultural city over 2500 years.

The Moor’s Last Stand: Elizabeth Drayson. The story of Boadbil, the last Muslim king of Granada, Spain’s last Muslim outpost.

Why We Get the Wrong Politicians: Isabel Hardman. Interesting analysis by a political journalist who tries to explain why Britain’s gone to the dogs.

Non-Fiction – the Rest

France: John Julius Norwich. Highly readable and not excessively long history of Britain’s best friend and enemy.

Twas the Night Shift Before Christmas: Adam Kay. Unless you like gruesome medical stories, best to stick with Kay’s first book about life as a junior NHS doctor, This Is Going to Hurt.

Chastise: Max Hastings. Story of the World War 2 Dambusters raid. So many nasty characters, so many innocent casualties, but almost unbelievable bravery by airmen, many of whom were only just post-adolescent.

The Fall of the Ottomans: Eugene Rogan. Decline of a great empire and birth of the modern Turkey.

The Diary of a Bookseller: Shaun Bythell. If you fancy running an independent bookshop, read this and think again, but have a good laugh in the process.

The Secret Barrister: Anonymous. Britain’s legal system is fucked, basically.

Drive: Daniel Pink. What motivates people. You’d be surprised.

Lords of the Desert: James Barr: How the Brits, the French and the Yanks carved up the Middle East. Nostra Culpa.

How to be Right….In a World Gone Wrong: James O’Brien. Interesting take on cult thinking, politics fake news et al from Britain’s Destroyer-General of Public Illusion.

Do No Harm: Henry Marsh. Melancholy memoirs from a brain surgeon.

Field Guide to the English Clergy: Fergus Butler-Gallie. Rookie priest makes a name for himself with tales of eccentric Church of England clergymen. Reminds me why I love being English.

The Secret War: Max Hastings. Spy stuff, about how we fooled the Nazis in World War 2.

The Defence of the Realm – The Authorised History of MI5: Christopher Andrew. More spy stuff, mainly about how the Russians fooled us.

A Spy Among Friends: Ben Macintyre: Yet more spy stuff, mainly about how Kim Philby fooled us.

I hope you get as much pleasure out of some of these as I did.

Ten curses for the digital age

Image by Pankratos/ Wikip[edia

I love curse tablets. Ancient Greeks and Romans used these little tablets to curse people or objects. Typically, they would drop them into wells, which is why we have been able to retrieve and read them. Most recently a number have been discovered in disused Athenian well shafts. But they are to be found all over the ancient world, notably in Roman Bath.

These days there are not too many wells available should we wish to revive the custom. Instead, we have more than enough opportunity to curse people and things through all manner of social media. The difference is that ancient curses were usually a private matter between the person doing the cursing and the deity best qualified to answer the malevolent plea. Our curses are entirely public, and the deity we invoke is the god of public opinion.

Given the distinct possibility that the coronavirus might carry some of us off in the forthcoming months, I’ve decided for posterity to cast a few of my own curses into the digital well. The possibility that they will be retrieved by some digital archaeologist in a couple of thousand years’ time probably depends on whether, in the midst of a zillion other bits of useless information, they are deemed worth retrieving.

But since for the ancients, the satisfaction probably lay more in the cursing rather than in the misfortunes of the cursed or the immortality of the grievance, why should I deny myself a little malevolent pleasure?

To this end I’ve compiled a short list of objects for my digital tablets. They include phone speakers, the BBC’s Question Time, remote controls, text messaging, car error messages, central heating controls, swatch functions, squirrels, self-service check-out, influencers, vaping, independence, political rallies and demagogues.

For the purpose of this post, I’ve narrowed the list down to ten, some about humans and the rest about the stuff humans create. In no particular order, here goes:

Conspiracy theorists. I don’t actually care whether Covid-19 was invented by the CIA, the Chinese, the Qataris or our reptile rulers. And I don’t care who killed Kennedy or who – other than 19 murderous bastards and their helpers – might have brought down the twin towers. What happens, and how we deal with it, is what matters. My wish for conspiracy theorists is that they be condemned to watch nothing but David Icke videos on the internet and endless re-runs of the X-Files on TV.

BBC Question Time. Any TV programme that deliberately scrapes up people with bizarre and extreme views and implants them in their panels and audiences in the name of “balance” does not deserve to be considered a serious current affairs show. My wish is that it should either be put to sleep or rebranded as reality TV and shown at 2am.

Phone speakers. As with all technology, it’s not so much the machines, but the people who use them who deserve to be cursed. I’m thinking of those who sit on a beach watching a Chinese action movie, or in a train listening to a video on make-up, or in an airport lounge watching a Montenegrin soap opera. Do they think we’re all interested in this omnidirectional noise? At least my wife, when she’s talking to call centres, has the courtesy to retreat to another room. My wish is that they accidentally expel their devices from their back pockets down the toilet, or drop them from an extremely tall building.

Central heating controls. Why does it take an hour of farting around plus an intelligence to match Einstein’s to figure out how to change the timing on a central heating control panel? Surely the manufacturer knows that the first thing you do with the instruction leaflet is put it in a safe place and lose it. My wish is that the designers of these things be sentenced to spending a month putting together IKEA flat-packs using only Burmese instructions for assistance.

Demagogues. Yes, I’m talking about you, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and all the other jerks who lie, cheat and rabble-rouse their way to power. My wish is that you are locked up in a convent ran by sadistic nuns who make you write in an exercise book “I shall not lie to the people” at least 800 times a day until you’re confined to the sanatorium with writers’ cramp.

White goods manufacturers. These are the makers of microwaves, fridges, dishwashers and washing machines who sell you shiny bright stuff for very little money, knowing that their machines will break down irreparably within three years (unless they catch fire in the meantime) and that you will have to buy another one, after clogging up the waste recycling centre with useless tin boxes. They’re quite capable of designing stuff that lasts decades, but that’s not profitable apparently. My wish is that the directors of these companies are made to wash their clothes with mangles for eternity.

Independence. You probably know who I’m talking about without my having to write it down. Believers in the cult of independence, who live with the fantasy that one country can be independent of another, that any economy can exist without reference to another, and that people can exist without other people. My wish for them is that they self-isolate on a remote island for a year, with only the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne for company, and see how they like it.

Car error messages. Those little lines of text on your dashboard that tell you that you have a problem, ranging to annoying to potentially catastrophic. Again, it’s not the messages, but the reality that you can’t fix the problem on your own, which you might have done 50 years ago, and you need to take your car in to some ludicrously expensive garage and are told that you need an even more ludicrously expensive part. I wish that those who design these cars be sent on work detail to Cuba, where they will spend the next five years fixing 1955 Studebaker saloons. And fabricating the parts themselves.

Influencers. I admit that this curse is born out of pure jealousy. The idea that adolescents and millennials earn a fortune by showing pictures of themselves in Instagram, or prattling on in YouTube videos about clothes make-up and vegan dishes makes me curl up and want to die. Even worse, that cruel and exploitative parents turn their 5-year-olds into test-beds for toys, and earn twenty times more than people in proper jobs, like our hard-working, truth-telling, baby-producing prime minister, convinces me that society’s gone crazy. My wish for them is that their internet access is permanently restricted to the websites of their rival influencers, so that they can be eaten up with the same jealousy as mine.

Political rallies. I’m mainly thinking of Trump rallies, wherein thousands of people abandon every last ounce of critical faculty to luxuriate in a warm bath of groupthink. Not just Trump rallies, but any other form of entertainment in which peer pressure requires you to applaud, weep, boo or fart in response to a given cue. So I guess that includes comedy shows, football matches, riots and church services. My wish for British rally attendees is that they be required for three hours a week to listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury recite the shipping forecast, and applaud at each mention of a location and barometric pressure, as in Rockall, Dogger, German Bight and the like. As for the Trump supporters, they can go a place where the only food for eternity is chicken nuggets. Also known as hell.

And finally, squirrels. Grey ones to be specific. Or to be more precise, the little buggers who break into our loft and wake us up at three in the morning with their scratching, nesting, cable chewing, lovemaking or whatever else they do up there. Perhaps there’s no need to curse them, because we’ve recently installed high-frequently zappers that have the same effect on them as Black Sabbath on Jehovah’s Witnesses. But should they return, my wish for them is that after she’s fired from her current job, Priti Patel agrees to take up residence in our loft, equipped with a loudspeaker, a cattle prod and an arsenal of squirrelese swear words in order to create an appropriate hostile environment. If she’s not available, Dominic Cummings will do.

You might notice that I included a bonus curse. That’s because I believe in under-promising and over-delivering. Also because curses are the gift that keeps on giving. You never run out of subjects.

But I suppose I should finish with a recital of blessings, being a positive sort of chap. But who really wants to know about my love of history, cheese, cricket, Emmylou Harris and Russian folklore?

Boring huh? Curses are much more fun, for me anyway.

The last thing Britain needs is another bloody party. Wrong, perhaps…

Are the old labels – right, left and centre – still relevant in British politics?

With no-deal looming and the government cutting ties with the EU in many other ways, the consequences of Brexit are so far-reaching that we seem unable to revert to the old political boundaries. We focus instead on what we have lost and what we might gain. We are assailed by mind-boggling figures claimed to be the cost of Brexit. More, some say, than all the money we have contributed since we joined the EU.

The optimists tell us that we’ll be fine without a trade deal with the EU. We’ll be free to develop the country as a tech powerhouse. Oven-ready deal, as the Tories claimed? Frictionless trade? Promises made, promises seemingly about to be broken. No matter – a dream come true. A dream of independence from the control freaks in Brussels. Free to do our thing on immigration, to let our fishermen fish and, in the words of the Prime Minister, fuck business.

Now Brexit is done (which it isn’t by the way) it’s hard to imagine that over the next two years political discourse in the country will not almost exclusively be framed by the consequences of our decision to leave the EU. And even if an issue that has nothing to do with Brexit, such as Covid-19, the increase in non-EU immigrants and the flooding of our hinterland, the chances are that some politicians will find a way to blame the EU for our troubles.

You will deduce from the above (or by reading other stuff I’ve written,) that I’m not a fan of the current government or its threadbare-to-non-existent policies. But whatever I think, you can place a fair bet that the debates to come will not be between enterprise and opportunity on the one hand, and for the many, not the few on the other.

If the debate instead will be between sunlit uplands and lemmings rushing over the cliff, has the time come for a party pledged to rebuild closer ties to Europe: a European Party?

Note that I’m not suggesting that such a party should be committed to re-joining the European Union, though at some stage that could be an option worth testing. I’m also not suggesting that it should become a redoubt of die-hard remainers. That battle is over.

Judging by statements of MPs across the political spectrum before the battle lines were hardened, there is most likely still much sympathy for the idea that leaving the EU should not mean casting off into the Atlantic as a kind of off-shore trading whorehouse is not necessarily in our best interests.

Why we should cut loose from the Erasmus Programme, the European Arrest Warrant scheme, criminal intelligence sharing and other areas of cooperation that in no way run counter to the objective of Brexit can only be explained in terms of a government committed to an ideology that informs its policy across the board. So much for traditional pragmatic conservatism.

The only way to contest that ideology is by a counter-ideology. This is something that the Labour Party has failed to produce. Though the Liberal Democrats came close during the past election, its commitment to repealing Brexit with no recourse to a further vote was a turn-off for many voters.

Now may not be the best time for launching yet another party. But in a year or two, if Boris Johnson’s government is self-evidently leading us down an economic and social blind alley, there may be sufficient discontent – and wide-ranging buyer’s remorse over the Brexit project – for a new party to fill the vacuum that a dysfunctional opposition has created.

New parties are delicate flowers that need intensive cultivation. As the Brexit Party showed, it’s no use showing 15% support in opinion polls if you can’t win seats in Parliament. And Change UK showed that if you are united only by discontent with the status quo, even if you start with the seats of dissident MPs, you will quickly be snuffed out by the party machines.

So would a European Party be dead on arrival? Not necessarily. You will need to plan for the long haul. Perhaps to start as a pressure group. Having gained a public profile, you then start contesting elections. The only way to jump-start would be to have a few wealthy donors invest substantial sums that would help you build that profile. For that you would need a convincing strategy and the talent to execute it.

If things really go as badly as some predict, you might start picking up support from fed-up Lib Dems, Scottish Nationalists, Labour supporters and Conservatives within the next couple of years. But only if you come up with a coherent set of policies across the board that persuade people that you are not a one-issue party.

To do that, you’ll probably need to be aligned somewhere near the centre, while recognising that “centre” should be redefined as a focus on issues that are transforming from ideological hobby horses to the cause of common concern, such as climate change. Most importantly, you’d need to show what you’re for, rather than banging on only about what you’re against.

You should also remember that people elect people, not just policies. So you would need to make sure that those who represent you, especially if they have a political past, are respected and liked by a significant number of voters.

You’d also need to look at some unorthodox campaigning tactics, like telling the truth, or techniques along the lines of Rory Stewart’s videos or Led by Donkeys’ street advertising.

And finally, you’d need to rely on the European Union not making total arses of themselves over the next two or three years.

A tall order, fraught with risks? Maybe. But if Boris Johnson and his government continue to make a pig’s ear of things, and Labour continues with its unequal struggle to be all things to all workers, you might, just might, have a chance.

At a time when we are in so much turmoil, you might never have a better chance of success for the foreseeable future.

And who might “you” be? Well count me in for starters.

The hostile environment?

About 14 months ago I posted a piece about the UK “Border Force”, in which I lamented that the organisation that employs the people responsible for greeting entrants to the United Kingdom have ceased to be a “service”, and are now a force.

I wrote that:

“I fear that once the old-timers have retired, we’ll be left with a “Force” of officials whose personalities are defined by their uniforms, and whose model of best practice is that of the shaven-headed hominids who think their mission is to keep America safe from child migrants, Muslims and Mexican drug mules.”

From “Oi you – welcome to the United Kingdom.” December 2018

Travelling through Heathrow yesterday there was a mercifully short line through the e-gates. But looking over to the booths staffed by the Border Force, it’s hard not to believe that my fears are becoming reality.

Not the hominid bit, because I didn’t get to interact with them so that I could gauge their progression from human to terminator. Nonetheless, the paunchy, comfortable-looking folks who manned the booths in times gone by seem to have gone.

The six guards I saw looked identical. All male. Aged 30-50. Fit, trim, each with shiny bald pates that did an excellent job of reflecting Terminal 5’s rather inadequate lighting. Black uniforms signalling serious intent. Ready to leap over their desks to confront the bad guys.

For all I know, they were pussy cats in uniform. However, that was not my experience last time I encountered one of them, as I described in the earlier post. Their shiny black uniforms are the work of the last female Home Secretary, one Theresa May. But given the reputation that Priti Patel, the current incumbent, is fast acquiring for bullying authoritarianism, I would say that the men in black are very much her style as well.

It’s ironic that when you arrive in Stockholm, as we did on our way home, you’re greeted by photos of eminent Swedes – artists, writers, athletes, airport workers and so on – most of them smiling. Whereas at Heathrow, once you’ve run the gauntlet of our diligent Border Force, the most striking image that awaits you is that of a glowering soldier in a bearskin. Goodbye EU, welcome to Britain.

It’s hard to escape the impression that this is what a hostile environment looks like. But trust me. It’s all a facade. Honest.

Last Postcard from Phuket – Corona schmorona

After a month of not touching surfaces, avoiding people with coughing fits and applying liberal doses of antibacterial gel, we’re on our way home to the United Kingdom.

When we first arrived in Bali, we seemed to be the only people questioning whether we should be travelling at all. The Wuhan outbreak was in its early stages. At the time there had been few infections outside China.

Since then, the world seems to have gone corona-crazy. For good reason, I guess, as big outbreaks erupt in South Korea, Japan, Iran and Italy. Not in Phuket, as far as we know, and it was only days ago that the first case in Bali was confirmed.

Then of course there’s been the saga of the Diamond Princess, moored off Yokohama, which has effectively been turned into a plague ship. Like thousands of others, we watched the videos of David and Sally Abel from the ship, which became increasingly desperate, until they finally succumbed to the bug.

Now they’re in Japan, he with acute pneumonia. The saddest thing of all was his desperate plea to Donald Trump to help get them out of there, as if there was ever a chance that the fat narcissist was going to send a detachment of Navy Seals to spring them.

In fact Trump tweeted today from India along the lines that the US has everything under control, so nothing to worry about. And his chief media toadie, Rush Limbaugh, followed up by informing America that the virus is no different from the common cold. So that’s all right then. It would be sad if, given his lung condition, he comes to regret his words.

Leaving aside the opinions of such experts, I sincerely hope that the Abels pull through, not just for their own sakes, but because if they don’t, their passing will send a shiver of fear through all the Westerners who watched their videos, not least all the elderly folk with Type 2 diabetes, from which David suffers. It’s one thing when thousands of anonymous (to most of us) Chinese people die, but if someone like David Abel doesn’t make it, it puts a human face on the disease. Here’s hoping for his recovery.

It’s almost inevitable that as Covid-19 turns into a pandemic, all kinds of weird stuff starts circulating on the internet. This is partly because we simply don’t know the long and the short of the virus. Are you infectious while you’re incubating? Can you become infected again after recovery? What’s the incubation period – 3 days or 27 days?

Then there’s the theory, encouraged by a US senator (a Trumpite of course), that the bug was artificially created in some demonic Chinese biological warfare laboratory. Yeah right. Just like the CIA invented AIDS.

The best one I saw was that if you’re infected and you have diarrhoea, if you fart you leave a plume of virus-laden gas 200 feet long. You mean people are out there measuring the coverage area of farts now? I find this one somewhat hilarious. In my experience anyone suffering from the runs is aware of the necessity never to ignore a wet fart, and head for the nearest convenience post haste.

I appreciate the possibility that faecal matter may spread the bug, but surely that means that you should be very careful where you go to the loo, wear a face mask and wash your hands, not that you should run a mile when someone sends forth a trumpet blast. Also, if farts spread the virus, anyone in a confined space, such as a lift or worse still, an aircraft, is effectively done for. In which case, should the theory be proven correct, expect the temporary shutdown of air transportation across the planet.

The big question for us, as we pass through two airports on our way home, is should we self-isolate when we get back, despite having no symptoms? The conclusion we’ve come to is to use common sense. Plenty of hand-washing, keeping a distance from people and reporting any symptoms immediately.

Besides, if the virus breaks out in the UK, we’ll be looking at a whole new game. Nobody will be safe. Best to hope that if you come down with it you get treatment before the health service is overwhelmed.

But that’s doomsday stuff. All you can do in the meanwhile is take precautions and hope for the best.

What I know is that we’ve had a great holiday. If shit happens, it happens. Same goes for farts, I guess.

Postcard from Phuket – the quiet joy of people watching

Holidays are for what? Lying like slugs on a beach or at a hotel? Or hang-gliding, wrestling with crocodiles and discovering lost temples in the jungle? Possibly, depending on the state of your relationship with your beloved, spending much of your time wrestling in a private space.

For me and my beloved, holed up in Phuket, dodging the coronavirus by avoiding the hackers and sneezers and applying liberal quantities of antibacterial squirty stuff, life still offers many pleasures. There’s food to die for (hopefully not with pneumonia). There’s an hour of swimming every day to counteract the gorging, many books to read and a few blog posts to write.

And then, as much as anything else, there’s people watching. You might think that’s an old person’s pastime, but we’ve been doing it ever since our first holiday together, again in Thailand, thirty-eight years ago.

We’re one of those couples who delight in spotting doppelgangers – people who look like other people we know personally, or from TV, movies or politics. In all these years we only ever encountered one person who was the real thing: Rick Wakeman, who from afar appeared as gloomy as his Grumpy Old Man persona.

We’ve seen many other clones over the years. Last year a spectacular Larry David, perfect in mannerisms but fortunately lacking his Curb Your Enthusiasm rant mode.

This year there’s been a vintage crop. Le Juge – the stooping, silver-haired Judge Roban from the French TV series Spiral:

Matt Lucas’s Vicky Pollard, complete with vacant stare:

We also have a Santa Claus, or rather Dickie Attenborough’s version from Miracle on 35th Street; Logan from Succession (aka Brian Cox), ready to explode over breakfast; on the political front we have Dominic Cummings and at least three almost exact copies of Question Time Woman – the one whom the BBC helped go viral with her rant about immigration.

You could say that spotting doppelgangers is a family tradition. My father used to hoot with laughter at the same phenomenon.

Then there’s tattoos. I’m not a great one for self-adornment. Ugly, smudgy products of the tattooist’s art up and down your arms, legs, chest, back and God knows where else would not be my preference. Nor would a butterfly surreptitiously creeping down my arse crack, as seen on a number of otherwise undecorated women, do much for me.

Not that I really care, but it’s quite striking how many older people are sporting dragons, demons and satanic symbols. I doubt if they acquired them when they were bank managers or leading lights in the Women’s Institute. Retirement, and the presumably example of their juniors, have clearly inspired them. Nothing like living a little, eh?

Trouble, is, older folk, like me, look bad enough without covering themselves with ink. But hey, it’s their choice I guess, and a gruesome form of entertainment for the rest of us.

The third source of censorious delight is beards and moustaches. Again, I’m not a fan, especially on men.

Perhaps it also stems from my childhood, when my father made a mild comment about moustaches. He didn’t like them, because he thought they made people look irritable. I’ll go further than him, and say that the more flamboyant the moustache, the scarier it makes its wearer seem. Think of Merv Hughes, an Australian cricketer for whom the phrase “you looking at me, pal?” might have been invented.

My Dad also had a few things to say about beards. He thought that a lot of people grew them to disguise undesirable facial characteristics, such as a weak chin. I took that one on board too, especially when I looked at portraits of deeply insecure leaders such as Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany.

At one time in my life, I grew a beard. It was in the early seventies, when every self-respecting hippy bearded up. But it didn’t last long. I got fed up with having to sponge out drops of tomato soup, or comb it to remove bits of cheese and other foodstuffs that made an attractive target for passing squirrels when I was asleep.

Since then I’ve done without a furry face. Likewise a moustache.

I accept that there are beards and beards, and what men wear on their faces is entirely up to them. I also have no problem when people feel they have to wear them out of a sense of religious obligation. But subject to that exception, beards don’t impress me. For starters, they wipe out half of the facial expression to be seen on the unbearded. Do these folks like to be seen as men of mystery? Then there’s the idea that wearing a beard saves you having to shave. Those who wear carefully contoured beards shave the bit around them as often as anyone else.

Whether beards are the result of vanity or insecurity, I still don’t understand. Since women seem to get along fine with smooth faces, why not men?

Some beards are worse than others. I particularly dislike the type sported by overweight, gun-toting good ole boys from America who look as though someone has smeared something unpleasant from their upper lips down to beneath their chins. And then there are hipster beards, as prissy and self-righteous as their owners.

As for moustaches, apart from the Merv Hughes spectacular,

which has become as much an Aussie signature as the American facial smear, I dislike two types particularly. Adolf Hitler did for the toothbrush, but there remains the extended-Adolf favoured by Blakey from On the Buses (with apologies to anyone under 50 and not British who wouldn’t have a clue what I’m on about).

And then there’s the carefully sculpted, inverted V-shaped specimen, a moustache that might look great on a movie star, but not so good on a half-naked paunchy sunbather of a certain age.

Also up there on my list is the John Bolton shaggy number, which is a relic from the 70s.

In Bolton’s case it seems indicative of a person so welded to his self-image that he couldn’t contemplate any other look. Or perhaps he just likes being recognised in restaurants.

About the only moustache that doesn’t leave the wearer with a permanent scowl belongs to Tom Selleck, who manages to look pretty genial despite his adornment.

To my delight there have been examples of all sorts on this holiday. So I’ve been able to tut-tut to my heart’s content.

God knows what everybody else says about me during my rare public appearances. That old slob with the hat goes swimming every morning. Who does he think he is – Tarzan in his dotage? In fact, it’s a probably a vanity to believe that other people people-watch as much as we do. But what’s the fun in sitting at breakfast resolutely glued to one’s mobile phone, or fixated on yet another the fried egg sitting on the plate.

If it’s OK to sit at a kerbside café in Paris watching the world go by, then surely it’s no bad thing to sit in a restaurant in Thailand watching our fellow detritus waddle past?

Anyway, tomorrow we’re off home. Time to get the face masks out and run the airport gauntlet. I shall be looking with keen interest for a Dr House clone on the plane.

Britain’s new immigration points system highlights the great divide

I’m hesitant to enter the UK immigration debate, because thanks to Priti Patel, the minister responsible for migration policy, it’s such an over-exercised subject at the moment.

But it seems to me that one half of the country sees immigrants as draining the nation of infrastructure and resources for the purpose of taking advantage of our benefit system. The other half is profoundly grateful for the presence of thousands of professionals who keep the National Health Service in business, who care for our elderly and who keep us warm in the winter.

Both are views that tell only part of a mind-numbingly complex story.

I’m doing my best not to frame my thoughts in terms of the Brexit debate, because these arguments have been going on since the Sixties, and I doubt if our proposed points system will resolve them.

For me the most convincing argument against the system as currently proposed is that it is designed to allow fully formed, work-ready people to apply for jobs in areas where there are skills shortages. There is no bias towards youth.

This is an issue that goes well beyond the technocratic, criteria-based solution proposed by the government. By denying entry to the baristas, the cleaners, the warehouse workers and the Uber drivers, we are potentially shutting the door to the drive and ambition that first-generation immigrants often bring to their new country.

If you read Ben Judah’s This is London, you will think of the nation’s capital city as a seething sink of people who arrived here in hope, but have ended up disappointed. Judah writes about ethnic enclaves in London slowly forcing white Londoners out to the margins, about gangs, doss-houses and exhausted Africans on early trains to their cleaning jobs in the city.

As Blake Morrison wrote in his review of the book for the Guardian back in 2016:

Judah might not trust statistics but he weaves them into his narrative, and at the end – in case we don’t trust them – he gives the sources, mostly from government surveys. In 40 years the percentage of white British in London has fallen from 86% to 45%; 600,000 of those in London are there illegally; the number of Africans would fill a city the size of Sheffield; 57% of births are to migrant mothers. A gun is fired on average every six hours; 96% of London’s prostitutes are migrants, as are 60% of its carers. This is London, Judah insists: multitudinous and multi-ethnic. Or – less an assertion of truth than an expression of incredulity – This is London?

If he had been writing the review today, he might also have mentioned knife crime, which has significantly added to the narrative of a city broken by immigration.

Though Judah’s book is sympathetic and compassionate towards the protagonists he meets, it can only have added to the negative perception of immigrants that drove the Leave vote in 2016 and the election last year of Britain’s most right-wing government in recent memory.

And yet we have perhaps forgotten that within the teeming suburbs, where immigrants, illegal or otherwise, scratch a living, you will almost certainly find people driven by an ambition that will lead them to success, if not for themselves, certainly for their children.

Read this Twitter thread from Alex Andreou, and you will hear from people whose parents settled in the UK with nothing, and who certainly would not have met the points criteria. These stories are about success and contribution to their new country.

The narrative of the immigrant who works all hours to make something of themselves isn’t so popular in the UK, yet it rings true. The classic story is of the Ugandan Asian refugee who opened a corner shop in the 70s and whose children ended up becoming doctors, lawyers and accountants. But it’s much wider than that. If you go through Andreou’s thread you will hear from EU citizens prospering too.

I know this from experience. One of our dearest friends came from Croatia in the 90’s. She has built a good life for herself. As a nurse, she may or may not have met the today’s entry criteria. But Britain would have been the poorer without her paediatric intensive care expertise.

So the question is, among those who will be excluded under the new rules, how many baristas and Uber drivers might have gone on to college and found companies? How many Polish plumbers might have moved from self-employment into running their own businesses that employ Brits as well as Poles?

If we deny the young, ambitious migrant who for one reason or another doesn’t make the points, we will never know.

Aside from the youth issue, I can think of other technical objections to the points system. One of them is that it offers applicants no option for self-employment, a mode of working that has massively increased over the past three decades. I can see the rise of “employers” whose only purpose is to offer work-arounds that allow their “employees” to work autonomously. Anyone who has spent time in Saudi Arabia will know all about the Saudi sponsors who became wealthy by receiving a rent from foreign workers merely for providing them with a cloak of legitimacy.

The new rules will probably also impact the zero hours culture by cutting the supply of workers who are prepared to work on this basis. If labour is at a premium, how many people will still be prepared to work on the basis that they have no guarantee of a stable income? That would be fine by me, because I regard zero hours as a recipe not for flexibility but for employer exploitation. But do we accept that conventional employment comes at a cost, and are we prepared to pay the price that will inevitably be passed on to the consumer?

Change is inevitable, not least because the immigration system is broken and those who administer it have shown themselves to be at times callous, incompetent or overwhelmed. But it will also happen because those who elected the current government are convinced in large numbers that immigration is a Bad Thing. They need to be satisfied that the government is trying to address their concerns.

The immigrant narrative is of course much stronger in the United States. In a country where all but a few are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, it’s easy to find examples of billionaires, presidents and Nobel Prize winners who can trace their lineage back to people who arrived on a boat with nothing. The pioneer spirit, powered by immigration and encapsulated in the American Dream, is built into America’s cultural DNA despite Trump’s efforts to pander to those who are threatened by it.

Not so in the UK, which also owes much to immigration. For one half of the country, they are an inconvenience at best and a threat to a perceived way of life at worst.

For the other half, in which I include myself, they are our future. We can’t accommodate everybody who wants to live in our country, but we should think very carefully about those whom we propose to exclude, in case we shut the door on those with the greatest drive and energy, who have the courage to leave behind familial roots, and upon whom we as a nation may well depend for our prosperity generations from now.

US Primaries – let he who is without sin cast the first vote

On the Day of Judgement, God scours the web, checks out the social media and makes His decision on who goes to heaven or hell.

This also appears to be the prerogative of voters, except that each of us is expected to function as the judge, and determine the relative weight of the sins against the good deeds that will send the candidate to heaven.

One of the less pleasant aspects of modern elections is the way in which the closer you get to the election itself, the more intense the stream of calumny against the front-runners becomes. It’s as if opponents of the candidates drip-feed the negative stuff over the campaign, and save the really juicy morsels of poisoned meat until the end, at which point the choice is severely limited. The timing of the nasties often or not determines the result of the election.

Even in the case of Donald Trump, whose transgressions have been manifest more or less from the moment he took office, you get the sense that those who wish to overthrow him still have something in reserve. Will it be further compelling evidence of corruption, revelations from his tax returns, damning emails or some other yet-to-be revealed candidacy killer?

The sad aspect of the battle for Democratic nomination is that the different factions within the party are doing as effective a job as Trump in demolishing the prospects of the leading candidates. Biden’s senile, Bernie’s a socialist who hasn’t changed his views since he extolled the Soviet Union. Buttigeig is either gay, therefore unelectable, or isn’t gay enough, which is unacceptable. Warren will destroy Wall Street. Bloomberg is an oligarch turncoat who hates women and presided over an oppressive stop and search regime while Mayor of New York. Klobuchar bullies her staff. And that’s just scratching the surface.

What a bunch of irredeemable shits, it would seem! And this comes from their own side. Yes, I know this is a time-honoured ritual in American politics, in which the acts of those who have governed are judged not by the standards that applied when they carried them out, but by the often very different attitudes of today. Likewise those who were legislators are reminded of every vote they cast thirty years ago that might not fit the present realities. Every pecadillo, misspeak and dissonant word is brought to light again, never to be forgiven.

Then, when the candidate is chosen, the furies who have persecuted them and all those who have fallen by the wayside turn into cheer leaders who do their darndest to persuade the electorate to ignore the heinous flaws they had previously exposed.

Nowhere is this excoriation more evident than on Twitter. You would have to search very hard to find anyone prepared to extol Bloomberg’s achievements, either as a businessman or a politician. The virtues of other candidates as decent human beings whose qualities are the very opposite to those of Trump rarely get an airing. So it’s left to the candidates themselves to blow their own trumpets, only to be howled down by the hounds of hell.

Way before the age of Twitter, I used to wonder how the whole process ends up throwing up halfway decent leaders. It seems designed to identify the most inoffensive mediocrities, and then slather them with money from the wealthy in search of influence – in return for an unknown quid pro quo.

That of course was before King Donald showed up and broke the rules. But the Democrats seem not to have grasped what those rules are, which is to say anything, break any eggs and hurt any feelings in order to get elected. They will say that the number one priority is to defeat Trump, and then they scuttle off to spread poison about those best placed to do so. Whoever makes it to the main contest will be hobbled before they even start.

I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that the only way any of the embattled survivors of the race to nomination will defeat Trump will be through an implosion on his part – perhaps some further revelation about his murky past or present, or his failure to deal with a catastrophe that will repel all but his most fanatical supporters.

I don’t wish catastrophe on anyone, but if one serves to end the grotesque career of the current President, then at least there will be a silver lining.

I’m not just talking about the US primaries, by the way. In my country we have a Labour Party leadership election in which supporters of the various factions are using exactly the same tactics to denigrate the candidates – all on Twitter of course. Like Trump in America, Boris Johnson must be looking on with glee.

In these dark days for democracy, a little kindness might go a long way.

Postcard from Phuket – Russia Town

Not much to report on the coronavirus front in Thailand, except the apparent absence of it. We moved on from Bali to a rather nice hotel on Karon Beach, which is close to Patong, where the ladyboys and their gawpers assemble in pubs and bars.

The apparent absence of the virus might be related by the almost total absence of Chinese visitors, who normally come here in their droves. I expected to find the area relatively quiet for that reason. Not so. The place is packed with people, most of whom you could describe as westerners, out for dinner and mingling happily in the markets. Hardly a face mask in evidence.

What took me by surprise was that at least two out of every three groups of people we passed by were speaking Russian. My suspicions that we were in a Russian town were confirmed by the charming Maria, a Muscovite who works in customer services at the hotel. She told me that the largest nationality group at the hotel is Russian, followed by Kazakhs, and then by Australians. We Brits are a small minority, along with a smattering of French, Danes and Germans.

So no problem with towels on empty sun loungers, you might think. Not so. Either the Germans have been maligned for all these years, or the Russians have caught up with them. The hotel has a rule that staff are entitled to remove towels that have been left on unoccupied loungers for more than two hours. Fine in principle, but would you risk the wrath of a chap straight out of a Bond movie whose last job was probably annexing Crimea?

Speaking of Bond movies, and their portrayal of Russians – usually as hitmen, oligarchs, SMERSH operatives and thugs who get wiped out in large numbers by our James – reminds me of the extent to which Hollywood has demonized them over the years. How many movies or TV series have you seen that portray Russians in a sympathetic light? I can think of a few. Gorky Park, Enemy at the Gates, Dr Zhivago, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the Hunt for Red October and Chernobyl – even though the latter was set in Soviet Ukraine – come to mind.

But for every movie that humanises them, there must be at least two that portray them as ruthless spies, ideological automata, criminal masterminds and assassins. And when real Russians conform to the fictional stereotype by showing up in England with polonium and Novichok to wipe out exiled enemies of the state, it’s easy to understand why people in the west might get a little nervous when they come across large numbers of ordinary Russians minding their own business in a holiday resort town in Thailand.

That’s especially the case, when they bear a distinct resemblance to the GRU operatives who poisoned Sergei Skripal or when they stride down the street with impassive faces and barrel chests doing their best impressions of an oligarch’s bodyguard. Or when husbands who are not blessed in the looks department show up with their impossibly beautiful wives who sport perfect bodies and plumped-up lips that have clearly benefited from Thailand’s cosmetic surgery expertise.

We do them an injustice, just as decades of movie portrayals of Arabs as murderous terrorists likewise condition us to be afraid of dark-skinned men with long beards.

To see the streets thronged with Russians of all shapes and sizes also reminds me of how little I know of them and their country. If you believe western news reports describing Russia as a country in almost constant economic crisis, whose population is declining and where the average life expectancy is way below that of their European neighbours, you wonder how it is that so many have the means to holiday in Thailand.

Can they all be from the large cities where reasonable livings are to be had and something approximating a middle class has sprung up? Is so, why do we hear only of poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, poor healthcare and social decay in small towns across the hinterland that have missed out on the prosperity to be had in Moscow, St Petersburg and the like?

The problem, I suspect, is our age-old tendency to associate the character of a people with the image projected by its leader of the time. Unfortunately, as far as the West is concerned, Russian leaders haven’t cultivated the greatest PR over the years, though I did have a soft spot for Boris Yeltsin and his liking for a good time.

In this respect we are guilty of double standards. Would we write off every American as a demented Trumpite? Not until after the next election, possibly. As for Britain, my own country, there are still a few people who would react with horror at the thought that the world sees us as slaves of the mendacious chancer running our government.

Perhaps to see though the Russian stereotype we need to look beyond the stuff we’re fed in the West. I’m not saying that I’m planning to replace the BBC with Russia Today as my news medium of choice. But I really would prefer to find things to love about a country rather than aspects to hate.

So we need more music, art, literature, in fact a whole range of Russian culture to be more visible to the West without ideological filters. Perhaps we need some enterprising Russian film makers to come up with a few Russki Noir TV series that might beguile us in the same way as the Scandi stuff has.

As things stand, the more we ignore a people’s diversity and humanity, the easier it is to think of them as an enemy.

Back in coronaland, COVID-19, as we are now to call the virus, has yet to get a grip on the beautiful island of Phuket, so thus far our facemasks have remained unused. Lets hope that the Big Buddha, who sits on a hill not far from here, will keep everyone safe.

Sinn Fein rising – thoughts from a Brit

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by anything that happens in politics these days. At least not after the Brexit referendum, the malarkeys of Trump, the election of Britain’s most extreme government in living memory, the resurgence in anti-Semitism under the unlikely umbrella of the Labour Party and the slew of governments with an authoritarian bent in all manner of countries where you would least expect to see them.

But I have to admit that the voters of Ireland opting in unprecedented numbers for Sinn Fein is right up there. I do understand the desire of young people both sides of the Irish border for a united Ireland. And yes, I accept that we should regard the party in the North as a political movement that since 1998 has opted for the ballot box over the gun, and through a political agreement is deemed to be respectable enough to share power with the Democratic Unionists.

And yet I can’t forget that not so long ago they were the “political wing” of a movement that also included battalions of bombers and gunmen intent on killing their way to their desired political end. I also can’t forget how, when I married my beloved wife in a southern Irish town, I was assured by all and sundry that such atrocities as were still going on in the north had no place and minimal support in the south.

I remember well the little game played by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who claimed distance from the IRA, while most of the people with an ounce of insight into the affairs of the province knew well that they deeply involved.

Though I was no more than a bystander through the Troubles, I know people who were shot at by the IRA, while Adams and McGuinness, as leaders of Sinn Fein, blithely maintained that they “didn’t speak” for them.

So under the Good Friday Agreement, it was determined that all sides should let bygones be bygones. The murderers on both sides of the sectarian divide put away their weapons. The thousands of the bereaved – the families of the IRA and its various factions, of the loyalist paramilitaries, of the police and soldiers and of the innocent bystanders – were left to mourn their dead.

I, and everyone else who lived through the bombings and the assassinations, am therefore expected to say that that was then, and this is now. Just as black South Africans, oppressed for decades, were expected to forgive their oppressors when the wall of apartheid finally came down.

So be it. And I accept that there are many voters in Ireland who don’t care about old allegiances and have no sectarian beliefs. They would like to see a united Ireland, and so, actually, would I. Whether those voters are in a majority, and whether those who come from the Unionist tradition are insistent enough to persuade their parents and grandparents to set aside their fears of marginalisation, remains to be seen.

Certainly I can forgive, yet I can’t escape the feeling of distaste at the rise of Sinn Fein, whose name I associate with cruelty and mayhem, now standing on the brink of power. And although there are people I know who most likely will have voted for them, in the interests of friendship I will not be reminding them of the violence their political forebears inflicted on my forebears.

I will also not accept the silver-tongued whataboutery of the IRA’s apologists in my country. I know about Cromwell, the plantations, the famine, the Easter Rising, the Black and Tans, the suppression of civil rights and all the other malfeasance that fuelled the violence of the most recent Troubles. Many wrongs do not make a right.

The innocents who died in Omagh, Belfast, Warrington, Birmingham and countless other locations bore no responsibility for the misdeeds of the past. And in case we think that the modern Sinn Fein is long divorced by the passage of time from the viciousness of their former brothers-in-arms, we should remember that as late as in 2005, Mitchel McLaughlin, a former Sinn Fein speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, felt the need to comment that the execution of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten suspected of being a British Army informer, who was kidnapped, shot in the head and buried by a beach like an unbaptised child laid to rest in a cillín, was not a crime.

McConville was killed in 1972. Her body was not discovered until 2003, four years after the IRA provided information as to her whereabouts. No evidence was ever produced of her informing activities.

So to the good people of Ireland, as always I wish you the best. It’s your country, your politics and it’s not for me to say whether or not you’ve done the right thing. And to Sinn Fein, good luck, govern well if you get the chance, and do the right thing. But for what it’s worth, don’t expect me to cheer you on. I can’t. You are tainted, and I suspect ever will be in the minds of my generation.

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