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Corona Diaires: why the Clinton Defence won’t work for Dominic

I was wrong about Dominic Cummings. A couple of days ago I suggested that “while Boris feels that he needs him, the feeling isn’t necessarily mutual”.

Yes, it clearly is. Cummings really wants to keep his job. Why otherwise would he go through a humiliating, lawyered-up charade in which he matched every sighting in Durham and Barnard Castle with a narrative seemingly designed in excruciating detail to fit the known facts?

If he is the arrogant prick he’s made out to be in some quarters, it must have taken every ounce of self-control to go through his “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” gambit without telling his inquisitors to piss off and die.

Bill Clinton could attempt to carry off the argument that technically oral sex with Monica Lewinsky didn’t amount to sexual relations because of his charisma, authority and mastery of communications. But faced as he was with impeachment, Clinton surely wouldn’t have tried a story about driving twenty miles with Hillary and Chelsea in the car to test his eyesight. Apart from anything else, Hillary would have filleted him for his gross irresponsibility in even suggesting the idea.

There was another reason why Clinton got away with it and Cummings might not. Clinton was President of the United States, and Cummings is a mere adviser.

Anyway, either Cummings was telling the truth, in which case he’s an idiot (which also reflects on his wife, whose reputation will equally suffer for letting him drive to Barnard Castle), or he’s a liar. Being a liar doesn’t necessarily disqualify him from working in government – especially for the current lot. But there are lies, and then there are stupid, implausible lies that reveal the idiocy of those who tell them. And if the narrative was constructed with the advice of lawyers and the approval of his boss, that makes them idiots as well.

As I was watching him go though his litany, I thought to myself that never in my wildest dreams would I put myself through such an exercise under the guise of “explaining myself”. Unless, of course, I was on trial for murder, in which case I would have hired a far better lawyer than the one who advised Cummings.

What really amazes me is that they ignored a get-out-of-jail-free card waiting to be played.

If I was his communications adviser – which I accept I could never be because the man sees himself as the ultimate master of communications – I would come up with the diminished responsibility argument, which goes like this:

I know now that I was suffering from the coronavirus. Many of those who have been infected have as a result suffered from cognitive impairment. Looking back, I’m convinced that my poor judgement in taking the actions that I did was the result of my illness.

I accept that what I did was irresponsible, but I hope that those who are concerned about my behaviour will understand that my actions were the result of an impaired state of mind. I am now fully recovered, and thankfully so are my wife and son.

I offered my resignation to the Prime Minister. He declined to accept it.

The result? No need for a detailed explanation of his itinerary, of walks in the woods and toilet breaks for his son. A blanket insurance against further revelations. By this statement Cummings would have portrayed himself as a victim of a very scary illness. A sufferer, worthy of public sympathy, not an arrogant rule-breaker.

By offering his resignation to Boris, without having to say so he would have reminded his audience that the Prime Minister was a fellow-sufferer who would have instantly understood the effects of the illness, and was not prepared to let his adviser go because of a mistake made while struggling with the same condition. From which, by the way, he has fully recovered, but only after a spell of convalescence at Chequers.

A written statement to that effect might well have put the issue to bed there and then. Even if there had been questions about why he didn’t go to hospital or otherwise seek medical advice, he would have been able to say that he was in denial – further evidence of cognitive impairment. A perfect defence, because whether it was true or not would have been unknowable.

Thus his extended family would have been spared the intrusive scrutiny they subsequently underwent. He would have been able to continue in his job without the current shadow hanging over him.

But perhaps the one thing I haven’t considered is the power of the ego. To admit to an error of judgement, even one made under the duress of an illness, might have been a step too far for a person who, on the evidence of his blog, is clearly someone with strong opinions, especially about his own abilities.

I may be getting him wrong. He may have been reluctantly dragged into yesterday’s set-piece. But I suspect that he was happy to go along with it on the grounds that it was his opportunity to bask in the sunlight and “set the record straight”.

I also suspect that Boris’s minions in parliament, who have been tweeting with identikit phrases their pious hopes that the whole episode can now be laid to rest, are wrong.

The story is not dead yet.

Corona Diaries: Britain’s manhood under lockdown – from Dapper Dan to Desperate Dan

There must be a word for it in German: malicious pleasure at seeing friends who have put on weight in a time of plague. Not really malicious, but I’ve noticed one or two people we haven’t seen for a couple of months looking a bit jowly, and walking with a waddle that wasn’t noticeable before the lockdown.

I can say this because I haven’t put on any weight. Actually, thanks to sessions on our cross-trainer, I feel fitter than I was nine weeks ago. I noticed this when I played my first game of golf. I didn’t exactly skip back home afterwards like a March hare, but I certainly felt far less tired than I normally would after a long break away from the fairways.

I have no right to be smug, however, because I’m just as likely to succumb to some deadly illness as I was before. But at least the job of hauling me around in a coffin would be marginally easier than it would have been at the beginning of this year. A month in Asia, and then the lockdown, made sure of that. I’m one of those strange people who always loses weight on holiday, probably thanks to swimming twice a day and because the places we visit usually lack the toxic eating pleasures to be had in the UK.

Because we don’t zoom with friends and relatives on a regular basis, and therefore miss out on witnessing their gradual transformation, it’s a shock to see people suddenly turned from Dapper Dan into Desperate Dan, hair all over the place and four days of stubble.

It’s almost as if Britain’s well-groomed men have adopted “We are all Boris Johnson” as their motto. As for the women, best to refrain from comment in case I’m accused of some gender crime.

The other thing I’ve noticed is how many amateur hairdressers have been proudly pointing out their handiwork. This is also a sensitive issue, so I won’t talk about grey hair where none was previously evident and jagged fringes that look like the coast line of Madagascar

Again, at the risk of sounding smug, I don’t have that problem. I have no need to impress anyone with shaggy silver fox locks, which is a relief, because I don’t have much in the hair department. I avoid the Gorbachev look – hair sprouting out in plumes either side of a shiny pate – by using a shaver, set at Number 4, every couple of months.

Though I’m slightly ashamed of the secret pleasure in watching the physical deterioration of others, it’s actually a welcome relief from watching (and writing about) the mental deterioration of prominent leaders upon whom we depend for our health and well-being.

At least my friends can do something about their paunches. I very much doubt if there’s any easy return for the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson from the heart of darkness that’s fast enveloping both of them.

PS, in case you’re not sure who Dapper Dan is or was, it’s a pomade beloved by George Clooney’s character in the Coen Brothers’ superb movie O Brother Where Art Thou? Some smart Brits subsequently marketed a product by that name.

Corona Diaries: the downfall of a courtier?

Dominic Cummings hasn’t murdered anyone, at least as far as I know. Nor has he raped anyone, robbed a bank, swindled old ladies or plotted the downfall of Her Majesty.

Yet to judge by the cascade of sewage that’s been showering on his head since The Trip to Durham, you would think he’d done all these things and more. Manipulating the result of a critical referendum on his country’s future also comes to mind, but at the moment that falls under the heading of “other offences to be taken into consideration”.

What I find extraordinary is how much energy is being expended on preserving or wrecking the career of who is basically a courtier. Someone with no power in his own right, who serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, who should ordinarily be faceless, expendable and interchangeable.

The Affaire Cummings has been worked up by the media into a lengthy charge sheet. It’s a demonstration of lackeydom on the part of ministers who allegedly can’t stand him and yet take to the social media with one voice to defend him. It’s an unforgivable act of hypocrisy – that what’s good enough for Neil Ferguson isn’t good enough for Cummings – that undermines the entire government lockdown strategy. The government’s defence of Cummings is an insult to those who have stuck to the letter of the lockdown rules despite the severe emotional cost. And so on.

I have no view on the alleged offence, and I don’t really care whether or not he falls on his sword. If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the Guardian’s take. I do find it interesting that this quirky individual should have become so indispensable that Boris Johnson and his colleagues should be prepared to risk arguably the entire credibility of the government in order to retain him.

Politicians and monarchs have always had courtiers whose favoured status has aroused jealousy among others competing for power and influence. Even before Tony Blair, who effectively institutionalised the role of the special political adviser, there were kitchen cabinets, inner cabals and trusted influencers. But before Blair, most of them were “encouraged” to work within the traditional system, either through elevation to the peerage or by being found safe seats in the House of Commons.

Nowadays the SPADs, as they are known, are in practice a third arm of government, alongside the civil service and elected MPs. Cummings himself is the primus inter pares in this shadow executive of powerful influencers.

I like to think I know how this works, because I’ve seen something similar evolve.

During the Eighties, I spent most of the decade in Saudi Arabia. I was working for an American contractor that was responsible, it thought, for managing a critical sector of the country’s infrastructure. An assertive Saudi executive, who was nominally part of the civil service, had other ideas. So he set about establishing a group of trusted individuals, some Saudi, some foreign, who functioned as the “real organisation” alongside the notional organisation put in place by the Americans. He, and his group, made all the key decisions. I became part of his team.

I remember well how uncomfortable some of the American executives were when asked to put someone who was not a career employee into an executive position at the insistence of the Saudi boss whom they expected to be a mere figurehead. The discomfort was made worse by the fact that many of these executives were former military officers, for whom the chain of command was sacred.

So I can understand why senior civil servants and ministers must mutter “who the hell are you?” under their breath when some arrogant SPAD like Cummings starts telling them what to do.

For Boris Johnson and his predecessors, having advisers they can trust, who are not potential competitors, must seem essential. Politics is a vicious game. Within every cabinet there are a potential backstabbers, to the outside world loyal and supportive, but in reality waiting for the prime minister to make a fatal mistake. In the mind of a paranoid leader, their advice is potentially tainted by self-interest.

The civil service, on the other hand, is supposed to be politically impartial. This makes it not much use when a leader deems that self-preservation takes precedence over the interests of the country.

So how is a leader expected to govern without a team of political shock troops loyal only to him or her – the political equivalent of the Roman emperor’s Praetorian Guard and the Ottoman sultan’s Janissaries, if you like?

As for Cummings, I don’t know the man, so I don’t pretend to understand his motivation. But I suspect that while Boris feels that he needs him, the feeling isn’t necessarily mutual. That he’s not a fanatical loyalist. And that he’s a hired gun whose reputation, bolstered by his recent track record in the 2016 referendum and the 2019 election, would surely guarantee him another project if his current job goes away.

So perhaps he can easily afford to sit tight without worrying too much about what comes next.

Whatever becomes of Cummings, or Boris for that matter, in a decade or two the courtier will be a footnote. Some courtiers are long remembered, like Piers Gaveston, King Edward II’s favourite, who ended up decapitated by powerful noblemen whom he had pissed off once too often. Others, like Peter Mandelson, made respectable if occasionally chequered careers for themselves. But most of them merit little more than a biography in Wikipedia.

As with many political scandals – if this is what the Affaire Cummings turns out to be – it won’t take that long for us to look back and wonder what the fuss was all about.

Whether he stays or goes, we have far more important things on our collective plates right now.

Corona Diaries: lockdown discovery number 73 – roses have personalities

One consequence of spending a large amount of time in the house and, thanks to the warm weather, in my garden, is that I’m paying attention to different species like never before.

I have learned, for example, that my roses have personalities

Towards the end of last summer, I got the idea that the patio needed brightening up. We has a couple of potted rhodadendrons that flowered once – around now actually – and then contributed nothing to the garden thereafter apart from requiring regular watering from our slop bucket.

I’ve always loved roses. We have one or two rather bedraggled plants that are either coming to the end of their lifespans or are the victims of atrocious husbandry. Probably the latter, because as a gardener I don’t even deserve the distinction of being called amateur.

My wife is a cut above me, but she’s more interested in summer bedding plants – geraniums that last until late autumn cascading from hanging baskets and pots around the patio. Generally though, you could say that we’re both fair-weather gardeners. The subtleties of horticulture tend to escape us, though we appreciate the results.

Anyway, last summer I bought five medium-sized patio rose plants, along with some big ceramic pots and plenty of compost. This was around August, so we got a decent amount of flowers to brighten up our autumn.

Now that the this year’s growing season’s in full swing, the roses are busy flowering. Yet the odd thing is that each of them, despite being planted in the same compost and getting much the same amount of sun every day, is behaving differently. They’re separate varieties, but I didn’t expect them to produce such divergent results.

From which I can assume that they have personalities. The first in the row is a bully. Its branches are invading its neighbour’s space with glorious abandon. I reckon there are at least twenty blooms either out or on the way. I call this one Boris. He’s so all over the place that we had to inset a bamboo cane to give him a bit of backbone. I’ll say this though: his flowers are seriously, well, florid.

Boris’s next-door neighbour, on the other hand, whom I’ve named Theresa, is a bit of a wimp. She seems to be intimidated by the bullies on both sides. She’s produced way less buds. The ones that have flowered have lasted far less than those of the alpha male next door. An epitome of underachievement.

Then there’s Dominic, the wimp’s other neighbour. He’s second only to Boris in terms of the beauty of his blooms. They’re big, assertive and lean to the right. Like those of Boris, his flowers also cut across those of his neighbours in rather a chaotic manner. But I get the feeling that he doesn’t care.

Moving down the line we have Matt, who hasn’t actually managed to produce a single bloom, though some of his buds show promise. Will he deliver what he promises, or will he be all mouth and no trousers? Or possibly all buds and no buddies? I fear that with him it might be a case of too little, too late.

And finally we have Keir, who is another late developer. But he’s actually starting to deliver, in the form of a single, gorgeous dark red bloom, with many more to come, you would think. I expect great things of him later this summer

Yes, I know it’s a bit silly to name my little beauties after British politicians. But each of them does seem to have a distinct personality, and I find myself worrying about them, because the branches are quite spindly and blow about in the wind, which isn’t good for the flowers.

I should have pruned them a couple of months ago.

Next week, if I get the time, I’ll tell you about Donald the Giant Hogweed, who poisons everything he touches, Xi the prickly Pyrocanthus and Vladimir the creeping Convolvulus, whose speciality is slow strangulation.

Only one of the three is resident in my garden. I’ll leave you to guess which one.

Corona Diaries: when the clapping stops, it’s down to us, not them

The Thursday Clap-In has turned into a national institution. Last night, the BBC produced live coverage of the event in a number of locations around the country. People on streets, the emergency services standing to socially-distanced attention and Boris, making his customary appearance, looking like Harpo Marx without the curls and wearing an ill-fitting suit worthy of Leonid Brezhnev, on the steps of 10 Downing Street. The Queen has yet to make an appearance on the battlements of Windsor Castle, but that must only be a matter of time.

On my road, a few people stuck their noses out from behind their hedges, had a sniff and a clap, and retired again. Some of the familiar faces, people who ordinarily we wouldn’t meet from one month to the next, didn’t show. I don’t judge them. There were a couple of Thursdays when we almost forgot to step outside, only to be alerted by the banging of pots and pans.

It’s now nine weeks of Thursdays, and I sense that for some the exercise is no longer a genuine expression of gratitude. It has become something of a social obligation. In fact I’m reminded of the call to prayer in Saudi Arabia, which rings out simultaneously from neighbouring mosques.

Pots and pans are not as pleasant-sounding as muezzin, and it would insulting to compare the obligation to pray with social expectations on a population that is more often than not embarrassed by displays of emotion on occasions other than football matches, elections and birthday parties. But in both cases, it’s a matter of what society demands that you do, regardless of your own personal inclinations.

I continue to be grateful for the NHS staff who are keeping people alive, but my feelings towards the organisation that employs them and the politicians to whom they are responsible, are less warm. But sorting out systemic failure and exposing human shortcomings is for later. For now, we have to make do with what we have.

As we come out of lockdown, we’re in a bind.

What’s the point in quarantining people arriving in the country when so many exemptions – of agricultural workers for example – are being contemplated? How is it fair that bus drivers, who can’t work from home, will only be able to take holidays in this country, while those who can work from home can take off for a foreign holiday, after which they can come back and work in their own homes during the quarantine period?

What to do about schools when we have no firm grasp of the dynamics of the virus, and track-and-trace appears less feasible every day?

And if the result of widespread abuse of social distancing rules is a second wave, how easy will it be for the government to impose a second lockdown? Almost impossible, I would guess, except in clearly delineated hotspots.

It’s little wonder that faced with such questions, the politicians are huffing and puffing, sending mixed messages, making U-turns on the spur of the moment and working themselves up into a frenzy of confusion over divergent scientific advice.

Are there any silver linings coming out of all this? Possibly yes and possibly no.

The received wisdom is that in times of crisis people crave for Big Leaders with the authority, decisiveness and courage to lead us safely through the hard times. Big Leaders with simple answers and an inclination towards authoritarian rule have not prospered in this pandemic. Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the US, Putin in Russia and our own would-be Big Leader have all presided over disaster. Their authority is greatly diminished.

Could it be that far from ushering in an era of dictators who routinely ignore the rule of law, the pandemic will remind us that in the long-term the only viable form of rule is by consensus? Or will we find the bumbling authoritarians being replaced by people who don’t mess around – like generals?

Then there are the dinosaur bosses who insist that their staff can’t work effectively unless they’re where they can see them – stuffed in an office. Habits of decades are being cast aside as people are realising that yes, workers are just as productive at home as they are in the office. Yet what will be the cost of reduced human interaction to information-sharing and creativity, especially if every conversation is potentially recorded?

There’s also the possibility that many of us will emerge from lockdown fitter than we were before. I certainly will. And if we continue with new habits such as walking and cycling instead of driving cars, not only will our health improve but carbon emissions will decline. Or is this just a pause, after which we will resume out former habits?

Finally, and this is something that applies particularly to Brexit Britain, will more of us have learned to rejoice in our ethnically diverse society, now that we’ve seen how much we depend on people from other countries for our well-being? And will our immigration policy reflect a new-found respect for them? Not if Priti Patel, our Home Secretary, has anything to do with it. But if the winds of opinion are changing, she’ll soon change her mind or be swept away.

One thing’s for sure. If we’re to emerge from this tunnel a better-adjusted and happier society, we’re going to have to do far more than step into the street and bang a drum every Thursday. And I do mean us, not some ever-culpable them.

Corona Diaries: bring back the baying mob. The Member for Crawley tells it like it is

Some people will do anything to get a little attention, even if their talents are hardly worthy of notice. I know very little about Henry Smith, the Member of Parliament for Crawley, other what his Wikipedia biography says about him. It suggests that his career achievements are modest, to say the least.

But this little missive on Twitter will surely get the attention of his famously workaholic leader, one Boris Johnson:

The response to his ringing endorsement of the work ethic of his colleagues in other parties has ranged from contemptuous to unprintable.

He clearly senses that Boris is missing the baying mob that shrieks their approval of every bumbling reply he makes at Prime Minister’s Question Time. In return for his support to our beleaguered leader, no doubt Mr Smith is heading for minor ministerial post in Johnson’s government, from where I’m prepared to hazard a guess that he will sink without a trace.

But what do I know? Perhaps he has hidden talent, and is destined to become our next-but-one prime minister. Somehow I doubt it.

The point he makes is that some MPs oppose Parliament gathering into its usual raucous rabble from June 2, as opposed to continuing virtually. No doubt there are some lazy MPs who are currently isolating in some remote Scottish island which they happen to represent. Mr Smith, on the other hand, can demonstrate his relentless energy by hopping on the Gatwick Express for a 30-minute ride into London.

How the House plans to manage a fully populated session without having some members do handstands to avoid a dangerous proximity to their buddies is beyond me. And what example does a seething mass of MPs crowding on to the benches for an important debate set to the rest of us who are being told not to do likewise on Brighton Beach? That’s not for me to judge, since I shall be going nowhere near a beach or the Houses of Parliament in the coming weeks.

All I can say about Mr Smith is cometh the hour, cometh the loudmouth. My only sadness is that when he next enters the House of Commons, his smug expression will most likely be hidden by a face mask.

He does have some redeeming features. He once tweeted that Vladimir Putin was “a tosser”, though that was rather like calling Josef Stalin a prat. He is also an animal rights campaigner, which is a Good Thing, especially if you’re a badger.

I’m thinking about asking him to demonstrate his concern for animals by coming to my house and removing the squirrels that continue to make merry in my loft before I find a way of braining them.

But that would be silly, just as I was silly in emailing my local MP, who in a previous life was a mental health doctor, asking about what measures are in place to assure the sanity of his colleagues, who at the time seemed to be fraying at the edges somewhat. I was promised a reply by the email auto-response. That was in December last. I’m still waiting.

Thank goodness for politics. A source of endless amusement.

Corona Diaries: coronavirus – the actuary’s nightmare

The Roman emperor Vespasian, a pragmatic and cynical man according to his biographers, is famous for his last words: “I think I’m becoming a god”. If he was on his deathbed today, I suspect he might have said “I think I’m becoming a statistic”.

One thing I’ve learned from the coronavirus is that the whole idea of life expectancy is, to put it bluntly, a bollocks. I appreciate that it was never designed for the benefit of you or me. Our life expectancy is a matter of personal decisions and the vagaries of fortune rather than averages dreamed up by actuaries in some dusty old insurance company back office.

No doubt after the pandemic has died down there will be some report showing that life expectancy in various countries has changed. Mostly down I would imagine. But will it matter to us mortals that the mathematical models expect us to live to 83, not 85? And should we be worried about that downward trend?

National life expectancy trends are often quoted as a measure of the extent to which one society is better than another. An upward trend signifies better health, better health systems, perhaps even gross national happiness. If the number goes down, it’s a cue for hand-wringing and “what’s become of us?”.

For those of us who are inching closer towards becoming statistics, it means nothing beyond how much we might have to pay for our life insurance and when we can draw on our pensions.

But what the coronavirus has taught us is how fragile is our confident expectation that our kids will live longer, healthier lives, and that those of us who are approaching old age will actually satisfy the actuarial predictions.

When statistics show that the people being scythed down by the virus are mostly elderly, with “pre-existing conditions” – diabetes, heart and lung problems – we’re reminded that we’re not living longer than our forbears because we’re inherently healthier. It’s because we had our jabs when we were young, because we take antibiotics when we get pneumonia and because we’re being kept alive by medication that wasn’t available to our parents and grandparents.

In fact, all things being equal, you would probably find that provided you didn’t work down a mine or live in a smog-filled city, you would have been as healthy if not more so than your modern counterparts. You wouldn’t be addicted to sugar, you would have been far less likely to be a lard-arse and you would have been more likely to take exercise because you wouldn’t have owned a car.

The other day I watched a fascinating documentary on the death of Stalin. No, not Armando Iannuci’s comic masterpiece, but footage of the actual event. If you looked at the people mourning him all over the Soviet Union, you would have been hard put to find a fattie amongst them. Except, that is, among the leaders who were vying to succeed him. Bulganin, Beria, Malenkov and Khruschev were all lard-arses, sweating away in their heavy overcoats while keeping vigil over the fallen leader. Life was clearly good for the nomenklatura, even if for different reasons their life expectancy was hardly assured, as Beria discovered in front of a firing squad shortly thereafter.

When we look at the reasons why many of us are living longer, I suspect that it’s not so much a matter of “because of”. Rather, “in spite of”. Not because we’re busy jogging, eating the right foods, drinking our one glass of red wine a day and doing all the other things that the doctors tell us will help us to live long lives. Actually, a large number of us, despite the obesity, alcohol abuse and other bad habits that turn us into waddling, oxygenated caricatures of humanity,  are being propped up by medication. We rattle. And if it were not for pharmaceutical support and the genius of surgeons, we would fall over much earlier.

So all it takes is a virus for which there is no cure to remind us that life expectancy isn’t an endless upward curve. Our increasing resistance to antibiotics is a more insidious reminder, as bacterial infections that could once have been treated by penicillin are now wickedly difficult to shake off.

The virus not only shows us that life expectancy is nothing more than a comforting illusion. It also shatters another illusion. We’ve learned to assume that economies, and by implication our personal prosperity, will inevitably grow. Far from it. If we didn’t learn that from the 2008 crash, we’re learning it now as we face one of the most dramatic recessions in recorded memory.

It will be interesting – though that’s probably not the right way to put it – to see what effect a prolonged recession will have on the chances that a child born today will to reach a hundred. And also interesting to see how – speaking of Britain now – our diminished national finances will impact on our ability to fund the National Health Service. For how long will our much-loved NHS remain politically sacrosanct? And if cuts should come, will they affect those of the oldest generation being kept alive who might otherwise have faded away?

Those who live in parts of the world that are habitually ravaged by war, famine and natural disaster will be well aware that nothing in life should be taken for granted. But for some of us in the soft, sappy west, such a prospect might come as a surprise.

The conclusion to draw from all this is that none of us sits more easily on this mortal plane than those who came before us, for all the efforts of doctors, scientists and politicians.

Vespasian could have told you that. Three of his predecessors died in the course of one year. And they didn’t even get to be gods.

Corona Diaries: corona-fatigue, and innovative uses for the President’s meds

It’s hardly surprising that some of us might be suffering from a touch of corona-fatigue. No, not from the virus itself, but from the stream of information, opinions, contradictory facts, statistics and out-and-out bullshit that flits across the eye-line no matter where we look for our news.

It’s almost as if the coverage is the result of a deliberate disinformation strategy designed to reduce us from shock, confusion and anxiety to blanked-out apathy. The sort of thing that was once a KGB speciality is now a tradition carried on with enthusiasm by Vladimir Putin. Not that I’m accusing Putin, Xi or any of the other usual suspects on this occasion. Nothing will convince me that this pandemic is anything but a natural phenomenon.

Until recently I devoured coronavirus news from multiple sources. The London Times and the New York Times, to which I subscribe, the BBC website and a host of other publications either through email prompts or Twitter.

Now I ignore much of the stuff and focus on a few stories. The search for a vaccine and anti-viral treatments, for example. The political implications of the pandemic in various countries. The stupidity and lies of Donald Trump and a host of other leaders, including our own.

These days I often pass by the individual stories of suffering, death and grief, and the counter-balancing inspirational tales of courage, selflessness and sacrifice. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s more a lack of bandwidth.

There was a time when I would lament the fact that the death of a hundred people in a car-bombing in Kabul or Baghdad would attract less attention in my country than a fire in a London tower block. Now that a thousand tower blocks are on fire, I find it no easier to mourn the victims than to experience more than a frisson of shock when gunmen spray bullets into an Afghan maternity ward. Near or far, death is death.

My political light relief comes mainly from the United States. There’s little to laugh about in my government’s behaviour, but Donald Trump and his administration is a gift that keeps on giving. Every day there’s a new story that launches a thousand memes. The State Department inspector-general who was fired after investigating Pompeo’s use of his minions to walk his dog is a case in point. The idea of a high official interviewing dog walkers is curious, to say the least.

Then there’s Trump’s claim that he takes hydroxychloroquine to ward off the virus. This is a drug whose side effects include paranoia, hallucinations and delusions. It’s hard not to be amused by a tweet like:

In the last ten minutes Donald Trump has said that all inspector generals should be fired because “they may be Obama people,” revealed that he is taking hydroxychloroquine and that the doctors who warn against it should be ignored because they are probably Democrats

And then there’s Nancy Pelosi’s delicious twist of the knife when she says:

“He’s our president and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and in his, shall we say, weight group — morbidly obese, they say”

Yes, the Trump Show is truly a laugh a minute, until you remember that he’s a man who can wipe out half the planet with the press of a button. You’d hope, though, that there’s someone in the background sensible enough to apply the straitjacket before the president’s finger wanders close to Armageddon.

In the UK, on the other hand, we are regaled with cheerful headlines like this selection from yesterday’s Times:

Tough quarantine plan scuppers holiday hopes

UK wants 30m doses of vaccine in four months

Academies warn of irreparable harm if schools remain closed

BMA accused of poor science over return to classes

Blood-thinning drugs offer hope to beat clots

Half of doctors fear for their health

Vitamin D deficiency linked to risk

Advisers cast doubt on the official range of symptoms

Scandal firm given tests job

It’s little wonder that the normally sedate readers of The Times might be oscillating from rhapsody to despair. The good news? We’re ordering millions of doses of a vaccine. The bad news? We don’t know whether it works or not. And that’s just the domestic pages. Look at the world news, the opinion columns, the business pages and the sports stories, and you might be tempted to go into terminal decline.

Not me though. There are plenty of small pleasures to relish. Golf to be played, cakes to be baked, squirrels to be ejected, books to be read, a video about the new excavations at Pompeii to be enjoyed, the company of my beloved and the knowledge that each day of health leads to another day. My blood pressure’s normal, the oximeter readings are good and all the people I know are still alive.

If anyone were to ask me for a prescription for coping with the pandemic, it would be to husband your bandwidth, keep an eye on the important stuff and take your comfort and joy when you can.

Oh, and if you have any spare hydroxychloroquine lying around, go out and find some giant hogweed and feed it to them. The Times recently claimed that they’re spreading almost as fast as the virus. With a bit of luck, they’ll start eradicating each other.

Corona Diaries: what does this man have in common with Donald Trump and Howard Hughes?

A couple of nights ago an extraordinary thing happened. There we were, watching our favourite Italian TV series, and downloading the next series, when a little message appeared on the information screen. This programme will be deleted at 12am on 15th May. Sure enough, at 11pm, all the new stuff plus a whole bunch of other content disappeared in front of our eyes.

It was as if an electronic hand had reached down our satellite dish and zapped half of our downloads. I felt violated. Not in the same way as if a real burglar had been through the house, but I was still left thinking how dare you? You could at least have left the stuff we downloaded even if you removed it from your bloody channel.

On further reflection, I imagine what happens is that each download has a time-triggered auto-destruct code. But that doesn’t explain why the channel – Walter Presents on All 4 – has other stuff that seems of have been around much longer. Something to do with the licence agreement with the production company, perhaps.

Anyway, I’m extremely pissed off with Walter, who is a nerdish character of indeterminate origin with the look of a frightened rodent. To give him his due, he still has some stuff worth watching, but from now onwards, I will never be sure that what we download won’t suddenly disappear mid-series in a puff of smoke.

Another problem with Walter is that you have to download each episode individually rather than by series. Not only that, but you only know which episode and which series the episode belongs to once you’ve done the download, so you risk clogging up your box’s hard drive with stuff you’ve already. And episodes seem to appear in random order in amongst stuff from other series.

So I’m beginning to see him as bandit disguised as a hamster. A bit like our beloved politician Michael Gove, in fact.

Anyway, Walter has graciously left in place one of our favourite series of the moment, which fits into the strange category of “light-hearted murder”. Other members of the species include shows like Killing Eve, in which we’re supposed to be amused by the creative ways in which Villanelle manages to dispatch her victims. Then there’s NCIS, which has a grinning pathologist who surveys the crime scene with unashamed glee, and makes silly jokes while filleting bodies on the slab.

But Professor T is different, and perfect for the age of coronavirus. He’s a Belgian criminology professor who gets called in by the local murder squad to help them solve a new murder each week. His unique selling proposition is that he’s autistic. He sees things that his colleagues don’t see, and solves crimes that leave them floundering. He has a ghastly mother who makes the occasional appearance, a psychiatrist whom he drives demented, and a romance that isn’t a romance with the head of the murder squad.

His most obvious eccentricity is his obsession with anti-bacterial wipes and sprays, which he applies every time anyone comes near him. His colleagues at the university are well used to him, and religiously wipe the door handle when they leave his office. They include the long-suffering dean who recognises his brilliance. He does his utmost to indulge his employee while sheltering him from the less tolerant members of faculty. The professor also has hallucinations, which usually involve other characters in unusual scenarios. The whole thing’s a blast. On a more serious note, it’s good to see people with autism, and their rare talents, taking centre stage in a TV series.

Life isn’t always easy for the good professor, though. He’s full of phobias, one of which is about public transport. The irony is that someone wearing surgical gloves having a meltdown on a bus would nowadays appear quite normal.

I haven’t forgiven Walter, but I thank him for Professor T, who ranks alongside Donald Trump and Howard Hughes as one of the great germophobes. What a pity Trump isn’t a fictional character as well. Walter would be welcome to delete him.

Corona Diaries: three watchwords that will power the recovery

If our leaders, most notably Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, are allowed to ramble on about subjects they know little about, then so are you. And so am I.

Therefore take what I’m going to say about what might happen next in the countries whose economies are likely to be worst affected by the pandemic with a pinch of salt. Also bear in mind when you’re consulting oracles that experience is not the same as knowledge, and knowledge is not the same as wisdom.

The economic projections for the UK look pretty grim. One in three small businesses, says one survey, will shut for ever. Millions of jobs will be lost. But that doesn’t mean a decade of doom.

How many of us remember previous recessions? 1990-91? The dotcom collapse? 2008? It depends on how badly we were affected. Or possibly the extent to which we thrived. I say the latter because in recessions there are opportunities as well as disasters. And I’m not just talking about hedge fund owners adding to their billions by betting on a downturn.

I do have some personal experience to draw upon when saying this. Thirty years ago, a partner and I started a business. At the time, the UK was in a recession. Not as big as this one looks. But bad enough to put a number of businesses under severe strain. Some ceased to trade.

We flourished. Why? Because our business was designed for the current conditions, and those of some of our competitors were not. What that meant was that we had low overheads, owners who worked their backsides off and finance when we needed it, not when we didn’t.

Others in our field had high overheads and found themselves stuck with fixed costs they couldn’t easily reduce – big offices for example. They also had staff they didn’t need, whereas we had only who we needed to keep growing.

We did OK, and ended up selling the original business to a large American company ten years later.

Let’s think about now. In the UK, shareholders in large businesses will suffer significant losses. Some of these firms will go bust, others will be taken over by stronger competitors. Will the jobs of all the employees of failed companies also disappear? Not necessarily.

Take the airline business. If one of the major airlines that serves passengers in and out of Heathrow goes under, the slots that they rent off the airport operator will be up for grabs. Should we expect those slots to sit unused? Of course not. Some other airline will take them over. Perhaps a new airline.

Each slot, which entitles an airline to make a landing and departure, represents a number of jobs: aircrew, ground staff, security staff and so on. The travel industry might recover more slowly than other sectors, but recover it will, because we are unlikely to lose the desire to look beyond our local horizons even if options are limited today.

In our high streets, in the short term we will likely see many empty shops and business premises. Will they remain empty? Unlikely. Over the past twenty years charities filled the void and opened shops selling used stuff. In my high street one of my favourite shops is a second-hand bookshop ran by a hospice.

I’m not saying there will be twice as many charity shops tomorrow that there are today, just that you might be surprised at what emerges. For example, if we’ve all become used to walking again, as opposed to taking our cars to the superstores, how many new entrepreneurs might be tempted to open on the high streets as butchers, bakers and candlestick makers? Will we become used to pop-up shops taking empty spaces? How about a shop selling fancy French produce one week, and a hundred brands of coffee or cheese the next? Elitist examples, I know, but hopefully you get the point.

How have restaurants stayed in business? Some by providing a takeaway and delivery service. How will they operate in the near future, when half of their capacity is gone because of the need for their customers to socially distance? They might diversify. One restaurant in my high street has remained open during the lockdown because it’s not just a restaurant. It sells high-end Italian food products, from fresh pasta to pannetone, from prosciutto to dried porcini. You can still buy takeaway coffee, and sooner or later you will be able to sit down again for your favourite Italian dish.

I suspect that new businesses will thrive by doing one of two things. First by becoming even more niche than they already are. Take plumbers, electricians and heating engineers. If they become centres of excellence on smart homes, they will be able to capitalise on the demand for green technologies, both as contractors to builders and in their own right.

Second, by diversifying. Who would have imagined that Amazon would be delivering testing kit and PPE? Jeff Bezos perhaps, but not those of us who think of them as a retail company.

Equally, who would have imagined the armed forces running the drive-in test centres? What other public services can they provide that will help them keep their numbers high enough to provide for the nation’s defence needs? A good example of a multi-purpose military is the role of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who repaired the levees in New Orleans after Katrina. This was not just disaster recovery. They built many of them in the first place.  

In my last post I wrote briefly about three normals: the old normal, the current normal and the new normal. The current one is almost too volatile to be considered normal at all. But there is a common thread: people sitting at home wondering what the hell they’re going to do next.

Whereas in the old normal, change was a matter of evolution. Yes, new technologies have developed at a relatively rapid pace, but the vacuum created by a destructive bang is an entirely different dynamic.

When the physical world starts re-connecting, we shall have to cope with life after the shock. And if our economies are to recover, some of us will have to start from scratch. Businesses will have to be able to repurpose, and fast.

If James Dyson, just crowned as Britain’s wealthiest individual, can design and build a new ventilator in a matter of weeks as opposed to years, what can your company do? If we’ve suddenly discovered that a large portion of the workforce can easily and effectively work online, what will your new offices look like, and what will the property company that leased you your old office do with all the unwanted space on their hands?

If you’re a school leaver wondering what to do with your life, are your safe choices – perhaps leisure, retail, sport, accountancy or law – safe anymore? And if you’re in mid-career and suddenly find yourself out of a job because there’s no longer a demand for what you do, do you settle for long-term unemployment or try and reinvent yourself by learning new skills, as thousands of people did in the seventies and eighties by moving into IT?

There’s nothing new in any of this, except perhaps in the scale and urgency of the repurposing required.  The speed of recovery will depend on two things: the availability of investment finance and the willingness and ability of people to spend money. If we simply sit around in the next few months expecting governments to provide all the answers, we’ll be waiting a long time.

Financial institutions will need to play their part in coming up with imaginative new ways of investing. Educators will need to re-think their curricula. Businesses will need to think of the new normal as a blank canvas, or as a landscape full of open spaces, just as planners looked at London after the Great Fire of 1666 or the Blitz in 1945.

And we, those of us of working age, will need to think about how to repurpose ourselves. What new skills will we need and how will we acquire them? An opportunity for businesses in training and education, or maybe even for the state education sector.

Perhaps there will be new opportunities arising out of a move towards national self-sufficiency. You might think that globalisation failed its biggest test when faced with the pandemic. The scramble for equipment and materials needed to cope with COVID-19 has led to voices asking why PPE can’t be made in our home countries. Will we still trust international supply chains after seeing bidding wars for equipment sitting on airport tarmac in China?

Or perhaps we’ll think differently if an international effort to develop a vaccine produces results in months where previous efforts took years.

I have no idea how long it will take us to emerge from the current economic shock. I’m inclined to be optimistic. Perhaps our new normal will stop being a matter of pain rather than prosperity within two, maybe three years.

But what I do know is that recovery will only happen quickly if governments, institutions, businesses and individuals focus on three tasks, not as a response to a crisis but as a continual process:

Reimagine, Repurpose, Reinvent

When I was hiring new people in the business I co-owned thirty years ago, I made them one promise: that if they stayed with us, the company they would be working for in a year’s time would not be the one they joined today.

Hyperbole, perhaps, but certainly a statement of intent. If I was starting a business today, the three Rs above would not only serve as my mantra, but would be written on every home screen, every office wall and in every job description.

To hell with missions, vision, values and all the other corporate bullshit. This is what the new normal should be about.

None of these three processes imply revolution that might first bring more pain in its wake. Evolution is still possible. But it needs to be urgent and rapid. A return to the old normal is not an option.

There is, however, one big proviso: that we can resist another outcome that looks distinctly possible under the current leaders who control most of the world’s economies: more corruption, more cronyism and the further consolidation of power and resources.

Things are finely balanced, for sure. But I’m inclined to imagine on the bright side.

Corona Diaries: The current normal, the new normal and a visit to the old normal

Out on the fairways for the first time in eight weeks! Suddenly everything feels different, though a five o’clock start and racing down empty roads to make six o’clock tee-off is normal fare for this time of the year.

Good to see some old faces, even at a distance. Though not everything is “normal”, there’s enough normality to make you feel as if this visit to the old normal was a dream from which you just woke up.

Then home by ten, to find a quietish house. In another room some way from where I am, my beloved is talking to a friend. Again, pretty normal.

After a nap I come down and see what’s hitting the fan around Twitter. Hah! A demo in Hyde Park. A florid-faced middle-aged man being escorted to a police van mouthing off as he goes. Hoaxes, 5G conspiracies, placards demanding freedom and police not wearing masks. A kind of corona group hug. Just the sort of event you need to spark off a second wave.

On to the newspapers, where I learn that at least 30% of corona victims suffer blood clots, which lead to thrombosis, embolisms, strokes, heart attacks and death. No shit, I say to myself. A good job I take a daily aspirin. Then I learn that normal blood-thinning treatment doesn’t work. Not good.

Then I read criticism of Hapless Hancock the Health Minister for saying that early in the outbreak the government put a protective ring around our care homes. Not true, it turns out. He’ll be on special measures soon enough. Or possibly promoted.

So up in the heavens and then down to earth again, all in the space of a few hours. Back in my own protective ring, there are geraniums freshly procured from the garden centre, a fish pie to be cooked and an evening of Italian subtitles, to be interrupted only by the avian evensong and an occasional squirrel trying to find a new way into the house.

New normal, much like the current normal, to be punctuated by a visit to the old normal at the golf course again on Monday.

Tomorrow, I’ll have a stab at thinking about what an economic recovery might look like. Not all as grim as we think, I suspect.

Until then, happy Saturday.

Corona Diaries: breaking out

A new dawn awaits. On Saturday I will be out on the golf course for the first time in eight weeks. It will also be the first time I’ve driven my car since February. I normally play golf three days a week, and I shall start doing that again now that Boris says I can. Or doesn’t say I can’t.

My beloved expects me to be fibrillating with excitement at the prospect of my first real foray into the world outside our home beyond the regular walk around town. She’s a bit disappointed when I say I’m not, and that actually I haven’t really missed golf too much.

The reason I’m not jumping for joy is that I’m well on my way to becoming institutionalised. Lockdown with one other person in a largish house with a decent-sized garden under the sunny skies of the past couple of months has hardly been a penance. We’ve settled into a routine in which we give each other plenty of space. Plenty of us-time too.

There’s comfort in an ordered life that’s well-known to people who’ve been in hospitals, prison and boarding schools. I’ve experienced two out of three. The difference, of course, is that it’s our routine, not something imposed on us.

On typical day I’ll be up early browsing and writing, fortified by plenty of coffee, followed by breakfast mid-morning, daily chores, a book, a nap, a walk round town, more boring stuff, a cross-trainer session and dinner. Then a bit more browsing, a bit more writing, some telly, another book and sleep.

You may have noticed that we do without lunch. Two meals a day is our way of avoiding turning into pumpkins.

I make the odd phone call to friends and relatives. We say hello to our grandson every day. No tedious Zoom meetings because I have no reason to chat with 20 people all at once, thank God.

And that’s more or less that, unless we have a squirrel emergency or some other unscheduled event. It’s a bit like living in one of those well-appointed prisons where the Mafia used to hang out in Italy. Not very exciting, hardly worth writing about and certainly not worth complaining about.

Except that it’s only now that the routine is about to be broken that I realise how institutionalised I’ve become. The reason I have mixed feelings about breaking out is that I don’t feel anything has changed. Hundreds of people are still dying every day. The consequences of catching the virus are still potentially dire.

When the pandemic started, I resolved to write off this year. No foreign travel, largely housebound, largely isolated. I told myself that if that’s what it takes to have a decent chance of staying alive until there’s a vaccine or effective anti-viral drugs, then so be it.

I’m lucky. I don’t have an employer urging me back to work, asking me to risk infection in a bus, train or tube. I’m not worrying about running out of money, especially now when our only expenditure is on food and normal household bills. I feel almost guilty writing this when I know so many people are living through really stressful times – no money, no job, uncertain future.

Every day you read optimistic stuff about game changers. The latest is that an antibody test that appears to be 100% reliable has been approved for use in the UK. The Oxford vaccine seems to be doing well in trials. Great, so we’ll soon find out whether 5% or 50% of the population has been infected. And at some stage, many months ahead, maybe we’ll get the chance to have a jab that gives us immunity for a while.

All fine and dandy, except that in the meanwhile the virus is still out there, no less virulent and no less deadly than before. So if it hasn’t changed, why should I?

Then I say to myself: What the hell? You’re in your sixties. You could die at any time from a stoke or a heart attack. Maybe you have some cancer you don’t know about that will end up killing you. The older you get, the riskier life becomes. For God’s sake, you’ve been living with risk all your life. What’s different now?

And I reply yes, you may be right. Perhaps the difference is in the magnitude of the risk, or at least what appears to be the magnitude. Maybe if every day we were regaled with the horror of living after a stroke, hardly able to speak let alone lift a cup of coffee to our lips, or if we saw endless videos of people in the terminal stages of cancer, the stuff that we’re seeing and reading about the effects of the coronavirus would not seem so pitifully awful.

And then I see the sun coming up, the flowers blooming and some infernal machine doing its horticultural thing and deafening everyone within half a mile, Down the road our neighbours are strapping the brandy barrels on their St Bernards, and I say to myself this is not all about you. Remove your head from your backside and live your bloody life.

So I set about redesigning the government’s new slogans, and come up with:

It’s not over. Stay apart. Be sensible.

Or perhaps, on a more spiritual level:

Don’t be afraid. Love your neighbour. Love life

And with that, I toddle off to clean the golf clubs in readiness for my own little Great Escape.

Corona Diaries: the elderly are us, and we are them

Leonardo da Vinci, Heads of an old man and a youth

Those of us who have watched our parents grow decrepit and die might, if we have nobody older then them left to lose, support the idea that the elderly have had their time, and that we shouldn’t worry if the coronavirus helps them on their way. This is not new thinking. Flu has long been called the old man’s friend.

It’s both arrogant and unthinking to take this view. If you have a parent who is lying in a care home curled up in an insensible ball of dementia, I can understand the desire to let nature take its course. Likewise if an elderly person – or someone of any age for that matter – is struggling with an intolerable condition that sucks all the joy out of life, then their wish not to be resuscitated should be respected.

But not everyone sails slowly through Shakespeare’s Seventh Age of Man, “second childhood and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sand taste sans everything”.

My father died at 81. He was sharp as a pin. Had he lived another ten years I’m sure he would have remained so. He would have continued to practice law, go to the theatre and devote much time to his arcane reading interests. As well as speak the German he learned at 60. He drew a short straw called acute myeloid leukaemia.

My mother, on the hand, soldiered on into her nineties. Her world slowly shrunk into the four walls of her room in her care home. When she went, a lifetime’s interests had died before her. She no longer recognised her children and lived from meal to meal.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Which is why I absolutely adore watching interviews with older folks, especially those in their nineties and beyond. Captain Tom, the centenarian who was the focus for an effort that raised over £35 million for the NHS, is one example.

Then there was a lady in her nineties who featured in a documentary on the emergency room in one of the London hospitals. We discovered little about her life, except that her husband had died of dementia and her only daughter of breast cancer. She was, to use the cliché, fiercely independent. She was also as fluent and articulate as someone thirty years younger, yet she possessed the stoic reticence of someone who was not given to dwelling on life’s misfortunes, though she’d clearly seen a few.

And if you think that those who have reached a hundred are barely capable of stringing one sentence after another, there’s Owen Filer, who was first interviewed on ITV in January, and then in a follow-up during the current lockdown. If you haven’t seen the interview, I urge you to watch it.

I’m writing this in the middle of a huge row over the British government’s decision in March to send elderly people from hospitals to care homes without requiring them to be tested for COVID. In many of these care homes the staff were not provided with the necessary protective equipment. Many staff fell sick themselves, and many thousands of elderly residents have subsequently died of the disease.

My purpose is not to bash the Government. There are plenty of people, most notably Sir Kier Starmer, the new Leader of the Opposition, who are doing that far more effectively and with greater authority than I ever could.

I simply feel that we unfairly place this section of the population into a basket that we would never dare to use when thinking about other generations. “The elderly” are no less diverse than “the young”, the baby boomers, Gen X and all the other catch-all phrases we use to describe people of different age groups.

Some live in care homes, some live in their own houses, some are dependent, some play sports, tend gardens, write books, play music. Matathir Mohammed, a 95-year-old for goodness sake, was prime minister of Malaysia until this March.

Not all the elderly have the gift of wisdom any more than they had when they were young or middle-aged. Not all have nice, cuddly unthreatening personalities. Some are loved by their offspring, others loathed.

That’s because they’re individuals. Not an age group, not a demographic, not Conservative or Labour voters, rich or poor or just getting by. They may no longer be influential, except when politicians seek their votes every few years. They may be, to use that hateful phrase, “economically inactive”, in that they no longer work in offices, factories and fields.

But they are us, and we are them. They don’t have “Expiry Date” or “Best Before” written all over them. They’re just further down an uncertain track than the rest of us.

I don’t believe that old people automatically deserve our respect any more than people from any other generation. But those who are vulnerable, of any age, in a society that places a premium on quality of life, should be protected, not written off. Those who can look after themselves should be encouraged and helped to do so. We should not condescend to them, tell them how marvellous they are and treat them as oddities.

I love listening to old people not because they’re wonderful or special, but because they show me that individuality doesn’t end once we start drawing our old-age pensions.

The other day there was a story in the media about a Spanish woman of 105 who survived a coronavirus infection. She said that she was just an ordinary person, and she didn’t understand why she was getting so much attention. So there it is in a nutshell. The world thinks of her as a living miracle. She thinks of herself as just an individual.

Perhaps if we stopped shrugging our shoulders and taking the view that people whose voices have gone quiet no longer deserve to be thought of as individuals, we wouldn’t be in such a shameful mess as we are today.

Corona Diaries: Boris Goes to Hollywood

Instant name recognition is a wondrous thing. How many politicians are universally known by their first names? Hillary, I suppose. But she didn’t win. And Enoch (Powell), whose name was mainly used since his career disintegrated by those who declaimed that “Enoch was right” when they talked about rivers of blood. Perhaps the last British Prime Minister to be instantly recognised as such was Winston.

And now, whether by accident or design, we have Boris. If you ask anyone in the country who our Prime Minister is, they’ll be able to tell you. It’s Boris. Which is a double-edged sword, because whereas Theresa May, David Cameron and Gordon Brown were relatively anonymous figures to many, everyone knows who Boris is. So for better or for worse, everyone knows who’s in charge and, by implication, who’s to blame when things go wrong. Now being a case in point.

Such is the confusion in the midst of this pandemic that the most frequent refrain I’ve heard over the past few days is “Boris says….”, which is used to justify each and every decision people are taking about how to behave from hereon. There’s even confusion about what we’re permitted to do and what we actually should do.

Perhaps we’d be better off summoning a council of religious scholars to advise us on such matters. They’re usually very good at pronouncing on all the minutiae of life about which we lost souls cry out for guidance. The trouble is, we’d have to wait several centuries for them to come up with a definitive set of rules, and even then we couldn’t be sure that they wouldn’t end up tearing out each other’s beards over the finer points of doctrine and dissolving into schismatic sects.

Instead, we follow the religion of science. We have bodies of scholars who advise the leader, just as the bishops guided the Emperor Constantine at the First Council of Nicaea. We have a government-appointed committee of scientists called SAGE, and now an unofficial SAGE, consisting of equally eminent scientists, who present a contrary view. We also have our voices in the wilderness, scantily-dressed heretics who wander round the country urging us to destroy 5G masts and gobble down chloroquinine, or those who think we should let the weak die off and the strong inherit the earth.

No wonder, like Constantine at Nicaea, Boris at Westminster is dazed and confused. And no wonder we, like lost sheep, cling to the idea that we have a sheepdog who knows best even if the evidence suggests to some that he’s leading us into a ravine.

Perhaps we intone “Boris Says” because some guidance is better than none, and we have less chance of being arrested if we use as our defence that we did what we did because we thought that was what Boris said.

Anyway, later this week I’m going to play golf with a friend because Boris said it was OK. No he didn’t, you might reply, he said you could only do it with a member of your household. Nonsense, I would reply, one of his Companions said that it was OK to play with one other person, and the rest of my household, ie my wife and our squirrels, wouldn’t be seen dead on the golf course. Besides, Boris was referring to the Greater Household. The Household of Humanity. God’s Household in fact.

Or I might say that he used the word household in the context of the time, which was three days ago. Things change fast. Nowadays, household means something different, and we can’t be stuck with a literal interpretation for all time.

OK, you might reply, don’t blame me if the police show up in a golf buggy demanding to see evidence that your opponent lives in the same house as you, and rewards you with a £100 fine if you can’t produce it. After which I would mutter to myself bloody hell, Boris hasn’t even departed yet, but they’re already taking his name in vain.

Or I might just wrap up the argument by declaring that actually he’s not the Prime Minister. He’s just a very naughty boy.

To which you would be quite within your rights to say just shut up and go and play golf, you silly old bugger.

Corona Diaries: project number 47 – Italian lessons

I’m currently learning Italian. Not because we’re in lockdown and I’m running out of constructive things to do. Far from it. The list of tasks stretches long into the future. When I’ve finished, it will be time to revisit the first one. A bit like painting the Forth Bridge, you might say.

No, I’m learning Italian because it’s one of the most beautiful languages in the world. Not for nothing were Handel’s early operas in Italian, and the Imperial Court in Vienna was dominated by Italian composers until Mozart broke the mould by writing a German opera. Its long vowels are made for song. It’s a lover’s language. A language of light and shade, of passion and persuasion.

Actually, it’s perhaps fairer to say than I’m not so much learning it from scratch but revisiting it with intent. My first serious encounter was in 1969, when I travelled around Italy on my own. I didn’t have the funds, the courage nor the inclination to go backpacking to Kabul, Kathmandu and Calcutta. And besides, I’d just spent my school years studying Latin and Greek, so what better places to go before university than to Rome, Naples and Pompeii?

Since I was familiar with Latin, I didn’t think its successor would be too much of a problem. I got hold of an Italian grammar, learned some words and phrases, and away I went. Most of what I learned then I’ve forgotten, like much else besides. But a love of Italy and all things Italian has remained.

Since then I’ve visited many parts of the country. I’ve done business in Rome, Piedmont and Naples. And I’ve shown my family the wondrous ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Our last visit was to Puglia. The next will probably be to Sicily.

But despite our frequent forays into Italy, through fiction, history and music as well as physical travel, I’ve never dipped further beneath the surface of the language, despite appreciating its beauty.

Now is the time.

Actually to say I’m learning it is somewhat Trumpian, though he would no doubt say he’s fluent already, coming from New York. Perhaps it would be better to say that I’m absorbing it. I was always amazed to meet people in the Middle East and Asia who would say that they’ve learned their English through watching TV. That would also be a very Trumpian thing to do, though I doubt he has the capacity to remember anything that doesn’t relate to him for more than five minutes.

Be that as it may, TV is helping me. My beloved and I are both addicted to foreign language TV dramas. Not just the Scandi stuff, but Belgian, French, German and, of course, Italian. We’re great fans of the Sicilian detective, Inspector Montalbano, about whom I’ve written before. My wife loves Gomorrah, a  Camorra horror set in Naples. I don’t – too violent. Recently though, we’ve found a couple of series that we both enjoy.

The first is Non Uccidere (Thou Shalt Not Kill). It’s set in a gloomy, wintry Turin. The main character is the equally gloomy Valeria, a beautiful young police inspector who has good reason to be miserable. Her mum was jailed for killing her dad, who turns out not to have been her dad. After a decade in jail, mum is released, only to be murdered herself. Understandably, Valeria hits the Prozac.

The family saga runs through the series, though, being a brilliant detective, she still manages to solve a number of murders while struggling to keep herself together. The series is suffused with a melancholy that I don’t normally associate with Italy, but which surely chimes with feelings in the region at the moment, as it struggles with the coronavirus outbreak.

Then there’s a very different bowl of olives. Mafia Only Kills in Summer is a black comedy set in Palermo, close to Montalbano’s Sicilian stamping ground. But whereas the Mafia lurks in the background in the Inspector’s Vigata, in this series, as the title suggests, it’s centre stage.

It’s the late Seventies. Salvatore, the narrator, is a pre-teen member of a small family – eccentric dad, ambitious mum whose heart is set on getting a job for life in teaching and sister whose teenage love affairs nearly consume her. The boy watches as dad, who’s a mid-ranking civil servant, does his utmost to avoid the clutches of the Mafia and mum battles furiously with the corrupt bureaucracy that denies her rightful tenancy.

Meanwhile Tore battles with his schoolmates for the affections of Alice, the femme fatale of Year Six.

The whole thing, despite the serious subject of the Mafia and its hold on Palermo, is as sweet and light as Thou Shalt Not Kill is gloomy. Like Montalbano, the narrative is rich in humour. Despite their comic pretensions, the character never lose their dignity. It’s a joy.

While watching these series, I find the subtitles merging with the language itself. Whether I’m really picking up more – other than familiar words and phrases – without the aid of translation I’m not sure. But I definitely feel the water wings slowly deflating as I learn to swim again in this gorgeous language.

I’m not sure of the precise way forward, whether through books, online tutorials or even finding people to talk to on Skype. But I’m hoping my new project will outlast the virus. More than anything I want to be able to revisit a country that’s close to my heart. The more I can speak the language, the greater will be the joy.

I suspect that our forays further afield will have to wait for a while, but when Italy’s ready, we will be too.

Corona Diaries: Boris’s darkest hour

The BBC is very cruel. On Saturday, the night before Boris Johnson’s address to the nation, it chose to screen The Darkest Hour. I happened upon the last thirty minutes of the movie, in which Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill struggles to hold himself and the country together during the fall of France.

Mussolini has offered to mediate a peace deal with Hitler. Leading members of the War Cabinet persuade him to accept Il Duce’s offer. Winston, barely coherent, agrees that they should draft a response.

There follows a dark night of depression, in which Clemmie, his wife, tries to boost his spirits and the King, who arrives unexpectedly, succeeds. The next morning, on his way to Parliament, he escapes from his car, hops on to the Tube and asks his fellow passengers if they think he should give in to Hitler. Never, comes the resounding response.

Duly strengthened by the will of the people (at least those in one carriage of the Metropolitan Line), he marches into the House of Commons with the speed of an Olympic walker. He addresses a group of MPs with a blood-curdling speech in which he vows to die choking on his own blood fighting the Nazi invaders. He walks into the War Cabinet meeting, tears up the letter to Mussolini and stalks off to address the House, his opponents trailing in his wake and muttering about a vote of no confidence.

He then delivers his “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech to a rapturous reception. As the armada of little boats makes its way towards Dunkirk, the film ends.

For me the most telling line in the movie comes at the end. With order papers cascading to the floor of the House, Halifax, Winston’s main rival and proponent of the peace talks, is asked “what just happened?”. He replies “he just mobilised the English language – and sent it into battle.”

It’s stirring stuff, even if Winston never actually came anywhere near a tube train at the time.

And now, alas poor Boris, struggling in the footsteps of a giant he adores. No Empire to come to his aid. No visible enemy at the gates. No fleet to protect our shores. A worthy successor to Mussolini in the White House. No packed House of Commons to rally and rouse. Just baby steps and new slogans that appear to have been written by committee.

Alas also for the English language. The soaring rhetoric of Churchill replaced by a recitation of rules that might have excited a convention of council librarians, but is unlikely to have inspired a nation whose resolve is crumbling amidst mixed messages and unchallenged outbreaks of civil disobedience.

Unfair of course. They don’t make ‘em like Winston any more. Nowadays, anyone attempting to sway an audience with Churchillian rhetoric is likely to be laughed off as a pompous buffoon.

The most effective political language today is delivered in simple staccato bursts. It’s fashioned for short attention spans. When the politician delivering it goes off script, often enough they collapse into incoherence. The ability to think on one’s feet seems to have atrophied as steadily as education standards have risen beyond the preserve of the elite.

So instead of blood sweat and tears, we’re faced with R-numbers, conditional measures, stay alert and control the virus. Even a former journalist like Boris, who delights in florid phrases, looks like Gulliver pinned to the ground by an army of bureaucrats and advisers who argue about every phrase, every nuance.

Margaret Thatcher’s best efforts at Churchillian style fell flat when, after one of her election wins, she intoned “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony; where there is error, may we bring truth; where there is doubt, may we bring faith, and where there is despair, may we bring hope.” Unfortunately she spoke in the monotone of a schoolgirl who had stayed up all night to learn her lines in a poetry competition.

In 2020, she might have said “Where there’s a virus, may we bring vaccines; where there’s a lockdown, may we bring cybersex; where there’s testing, may we bring targets, and where there is Italy, may we bring South Korea.” On second thoughts, that wouldn’t work either, not even from the mouth of Winston.

So now we have a choice. Across the Atlantic we can listen to Donald Trump whining away about American Carnage and Make America Great Again. Over here we have Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Save the NHS, and Boris Johnson addressing the nation with all the authority of a puppy that has just pissed on the floor.

On the other hand, we can still rejoice in novels, films, poetry and plays that remind us what the English language is really about.

Alongside writers such as Hilary Mantel, Lee Child, Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Franzen, Susan Sontag, Armando Iannuci, Tom Holland and Jez Butterworth, poor Boris, desperate Donald and their armies of semi-coherent acolytes don’t stand a chance.

Advance Britannia, God Bless America and all the other English-speaking nations! There’s still hope for our beloved mother tongue.

Corona Diaries: as if a deadly virus isn’t enough…

Vesper Mandarinia. Pic, Gary Alpert, Wikipedia

A new threat seems to have reared its ugly head. I’m now quivering with terror at the prospect of being cornered by a swarm of savage hornets from, you guessed it, Asia. What did we do to Asia to deserve this? Lots, as it happens, but we won’t go into that right now.

Just as the virus has caught us in a pincer movement, going west across Europe to the UK, the other way to America and then all over the place, it seems that the Asian Giant Hornet, now known to the world as the murder hornet because of it’s liking for decapitating and then devouring bees, is following the same path.

One of these delightful creatures showed up on the south coast of Britain last year, and now it seems that it’s arrived on the Pacific coast of the US. It took the American genius for hyperbole for it to acquire its colourful new name. So now President Trump now has another reason to blame China for something. If it’s Asia, it must be China, right?

Blame or otherwise, he would be right to be worried. After all, the murder hornet is a threat to European and American honey bee species. If we lose the bees, crops go unpollinated and we starve. No matter that the bees are already in serious decline because they’re being killed by pesticides, this could be the coup de grace.

Aside from the danger to bees, their stings are so venomous that if we get stung enough times, we can die.

So how long do we have to wait before the conspiracy theories start going viral? It’s been genetically modified in a lab somewhere in China and sent to the West to weaken our economies and put us further in thrall to President Xi. And how long before that theory comes to the attention of President Trump, who casually airs it in a press conference?

Yes, the murder hornet is a nasty piece of work. But before Mr Trump goes to DEFCON 1 and aims his nukes at Beijing, he should understand that he’s going to have to nuke most of the countries in South-East Asia in the process. It’s all over the region. We’ve seen them in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Like other species of wasp, they’re not out to get you. It’s the bees they’re after. Despite their fearsome reputation as bee killers, native bees have learned to live with them by evolving defences. Other bee species are more vulnerable, so we have reason to be concerned.

What to do about them?

Destroy their nests, basically, if you can find them. Years ago in our untrammelled youth, my elder brother and I did some experimentation on zapping wasp nests. We prepared a bomb out of a bit aluminium piping and blew up a nest in our rockery. Since we nearly decapitated our mother and a friend as they were taking tea by the swimming pool, we weren’t encouraged to move on to Nagasaki, so to speak. There wasn’t much left of the nest, though, let alone the rockery.

So I was heartened to see some boys in Raleigh, North Carolina gathering for a quick snack at Subway before they went off to demonstrate over the right to go out and hunt hornet nests. Their weaponry was clearly more sophisticated than ours. The guy with the really big gun definitely knows how to terminate hornets with extreme prejudice. The bazooka might also come in handy.

There seems to have been plenty of research into more subtle ways of eliminating the murder hornet, as witness a video I saw of a preying mantis devouring one. It’s too gross to show, but it’s fascinating to see how the victim continues to struggle even after its head has been eaten off.

Though they’re clearly effective at mandible-to-mandible combat, I suspect that training armies of preying mantises to go after hornets might have unintended consequences, as they would probably polish off every other insect in their paths, including ones we don’t want them to eat, such as bees.

Now that the public is fully aware through the social media of the hornet’s murderous habits, no doubt our leaders will find a way to beat back this latest threat. For Messrs Trump and Johnson, victories are hard to find at the moment. Every little win will help.

After spending a bit of time reading about these scary insects, I began to feel rather sorry for them. After all they’re just doing what comes naturally. I’m sure they have redeeming features, and anyway, who said that humans should have a monopoly on genocide?

Corona Diaries: will a discreet rebellion be the thin end of the wedge?

The VE Day celebrations have been a welcome distraction for many of us in Britain. We’ve been busy looking back with a mixture of sadness and nostalgia back to an event that took place seventy-five years ago. The media has been interviewing veterans. Videos of school kids singing “We’ll Meet Again” are circulating. Across the country there’s been an abundance of flag-waving and socially distant street parties.

More than on any other day, in the streets and park near me I’ve noticed what you could describe as a quiet rebellion against the lockdown. There have been cars pulled up outside houses, presumably for discreet visits, and groups of people sunbathing in the park. So much for self-isolation and thirty minutes of exercise.

This leads me to think that with a population of sixty six million it would be very hard for the police to enforce the regulations if a sizeable slice of that population decided that enough is enough. Even an authoritarian state with armed police finds it hard to control a popular surge of civil disobedience.

My own limited experience of such an event came in 2011, when I was living in Bahrain. As the Arab Spring was in full tilt, demonstrators gathered at a major roundabout to protest against social and political inequity perpetuated by the regime. It quickly turned ugly. Police fired on some demonstrators nearby. Some died.

From then on what had started as a non-sectarian protest quickly turned on to a full-on campaign of civil disobedience by the Shia majority of the population against the Sunni minority – and specifically members of the royal family – that controlled the wealth and the political power in the country. For a while there was a stand-off as protesters went into permanent occupation of the Pearl Roundabout.

A Bahraini friend took me to the encampment. Each Shia village had its own tents, with cooks handing out free food. There was a clinic, exhibitions of pictures showing the unequal wealth distribution. Next to them, autopsy photos of the bodies of demonstrators who had been shot. In the middle of the roundabout was a stage, where people read poetry, performed makeshift plays and delivered political speeches. It was rather like a political Glastonbury.

It all ended one morning when a Saudi detachment of its National Guard came across the causeway between the two countries and assisted in the clearance of roundabout, guns at the ready to shoot anyone who resisted.

Bahrain is a small island. Much of the violence took place while we were listening from our apartment balcony two miles away. We could hear gunfire and ambulance sirens. Outside the apartment, funeral marches snaked through the streets.

For weeks afterwards we crossed patches of scorched tarmac on the main highways. In some areas you could see burning tyres as local protests continued.

Bahrain is a tiny country compared with Britain and America. Yet living though its period of turbulence showed me how quickly normal becomes abnormal. Nine years on, you could argue that both in both in the UK and the US the equality gap is wider than that in Bahrain at that time, even if the social fault lines are not based on religious belief.

We are now living though our own version of abnormal. In Britain, our little acts of civil disobedience are modest and barely noticeable. In America they’re more open and aggressive, as groups protest at the lockdown regulations and individuals gather in large numbers as if no regulations were in place.

The social discipline that largely held together during World War 2 did so because the threat was clear and visible. Also there was no dissent in the media, be it radio, newspapers or public information films. By and large, the people believed the government and supported the war effort, even if there were grumbles about the fairness of measures such as food rationing.

Things are vastly different in our new period of abnormal. Despite the efforts of the government and its sympathisers in the media to keep us on message, I sense that the barrage of off-message information we receive via the social media and public figures with axes to grind is beginning to fracture what started as widespread support for the lockdown.

If we get to the point where we don’t believe the science that the government is feeding us because we have seen other views that we think more credible, then public obedience is bound to fray. Also if we think the regulations defy common sense, we are more likely to follow our instincts rather than the government’s exhortations.

For example, is there a reason why we can buy plants in a DIY shop and not in a garden centre? Is there a reason why (as I mentioned yesterday) we can’t play golf, a sedate game that naturally lends itself to social distancing, yet we have to run for cover on our roads when a sweating jogger races past us? Is there a reason why we can’t entertain family members who aren’t living with us, so long as they stay in the garden and keep the prescribed distance from us, when family members get together in parks?

Equally, when the lockdown eases, will we be allowed to crowd on to tubes, trains and buses because it’s safe to do so, or is the government giving in to the lobby that believes in saving the economy more than saving lives?

Boris Johnson and his crew, being electioneers at heart, will know when he’s losing the public because opinion polls and focus groups will tell him so. If the government is to avoid further erosion of confidence, it will need to improve its communications. You can sloganize a lockdown fairly easily because the message is simple and uncompromising. But when we’re looking at more subtle gradations of freedom, it will become harder to encapsulate the new message in equally simple terms.

It will also need to come clean about its shortcomings, rather than give the impression that it’s constantly attempting to cover up for past mistakes and current problems. Though we’re only halfway up the Trump scale of obfuscation, getting public admissions of failure is like forcing blood out of a stone.

For some onlookers, the charade over the “100,000 tests a day by the end of April” may turn out to be the last straw, not because of the childish deceit in counting tests that had been sent but not carried out, but because of the limitations of the testing programme itself. It’s one thing having a stated capacity to test 100,000 people a day, but quite another matter if some of those tested have to wait for ten days to hear the result.

Nine years on, Bahrain still lives with the memory and, for some, the consequences of the unrest. There are still prisoners in jail for their part, real or perceived, in the events of 2011. All of us who survive this pandemic will have vivid memories of the experience. Many, like the survivors of 1939-1945, will know people who don’t make it through. What’s yet to be seen is whether Boris Johnson and Donald Trump allow their countries to slide into patches of anarchy because of incompetence, complacency or just bad luck.

Wherever we are on the curve, the next six months should provide the answer.

Corona Diaries: let us open the fairways, Boris

A bit of special pleading here.

Please, please Boris, let me play golf again. I know Eton is not renowned for its star golfers, even though Bertie Wooster was partial to the odd foray onto the fairways. I also know you might be worried that those whom you think of as the lower classes, and whom you spent so much time and effort wooing in December, will resent a load of crusty old gammons being able to hit a white ball around wide open spaces when everyone else only has shit-strewn parks and grubby pavements on which to exercise their dogs.

But believe me, it’s not only gammons who play golf. I play with all sorts: builders, taxi drivers, electricians, lawyers, retired colonels, hot tub salespeople, clergymen, gravediggers and bog-snorkellers. No Old Etonians. Sorry.

If you’re worried that people might think it unfair that I’m allowed to traipse around a golf course while others are not permitted to spend a few hours sunbathing in parks, let them play croquet, petanque and bowls. Let them practice their knife-throwing, or do socially-distanced yoga classes and other outside activities that don’t involve people slobbering all over each other. In fact, if they can’t be arsed to exercise, let them eat cake.

We won’t infect anyone, honest. Where I play, we had a trial run of corona-golf just before the lockdown. The clubhouse was closed, you picked up your scorecard from a desk, you went straight out to the course with no prior congregation. There was no rakes in the bunkers and the flag-sticks were fixed in the holes so you didn’t need to remove them to retrieve your ball.

The only chance of catching the virus was if one of the players got a coughing fit and died on the spot, in which case the instruction was to leave them where they were until the paramedics arrived. Anyone hitting their ball near a corpse was allowed to drop the ball elsewhere without penalty.

With all these measures, we had a COVID-safe environment. This will continue if you let us out. We promise not to shake hands, not to do high fives and not to touch each other’s balls, so to speak. And definitely not to have discreet assignations with dog-walkers in the rhododendrons near the seventh tee.

We’ll wear face masks if you ask us nicely. Our hearts will be lifted as we commune with the birds, the bees, the foxes and the crocodiles. The oldies will get decent bouts of exercise that will keep them out of care homes. Nobody who goes out to play golf will feel the urge any longer to kick their dog, send their cat into orbit or speak ill of their spouse, at least not in the latter’s presence.

Besides, you owe us. The vast majority of members of my club voted for your infernal Brexit and then for your party last December. Not me on either occasion, but I’m still looking out for all those old codgers who knew not what they did. And if Nigel Farage is allowed to stand for hours in the cliffs of Dover watching out for boatloads of illegal immigrants, do you really want my lot to join him for a little afternoon entertainment? Surely the last thing you want is videos of police vans filled with elderly insurgents all over News at Ten.

I know golfers who are fed up playing online bridge, who never want to talk on Zoom to their simpering children again. They’re driving their neighbours to distraction by peppering them with golf balls miscued over garden hedges. They’re ripping up their lawns as their muscle memories fade and their chip shots become ever more inept. Their long-suffering spouses are on the verge of banishing them to the outer darkness because they’re frustrated at the sight of them as they waddle like basking walruses from dinner table to armchair and settle in for endless afternoons watching re-runs of The Masters.

So if you’re really planning to let us live a little, bear in mind that there are many people who don’t want to go to the hairdressers, go clothes shopping, climb Ben Nevis or sit on pavements at socially-distanced tables getting pissed.

We just want to hit a stupid white ball into a few gorse bushes. Not too much to ask, surely. I’ll never vote for you, especially after the mess you and your lot have made of the last three months. But at least you can go some way towards redeeming yourself by applying a touch of much-needed common sense.

If the po-faced Science permits, of course, because we crusty old gammons are the last people to want to rock the boat. Aren’t we?

Corona Diaries: not a day for jollity

If I sound less than enthusiastic about today’s VE Day celebrations, it’s perhaps because so many of the generation that experienced the end of the Second World War are currently languishing in care homes, or are dropping like flies because we have failed to look out for them.

I know nobody who is more interested in that conflict than I am. I have read many books and spoken to many people on the subject. But it’s not my experience and I find it hard to share in the outbreak of nostalgia.

I don’t want to stop people celebrating. After all, we have little enough to cheer about at the moment

But to an extent I share the perspective of a friend, Andrew Morton, who posted this on Facebook:

For me, this VE Day is going into Room 101. WW2 was a very nasty scrap and there are many lessons to be learnt for those who care to get a proper historical perspective. The problem is that it has all become massively mythologised – by the Russians, Germans. French, Americans, Polish but most of all, and probably worst of all, by the British, and the British establishment at that. Or should I say “Great British”. My dad played an active part, and many of my older relatives were involved, fought and died, in both wars. However, I’m sure their version was not the Boris Johnson, Mark Francois, flag-waving Vera Lynn fest that is being foisted on us all. It is a sad fact about the British that, apart from the 66 World Cup, they have so little to celebrate that they have to delve 75 years into a past that 90% of them never experienced to feel good about themselves. Anyway, count me out.

Like Andrew, I have relatives who fought and died in both wars. Both my parent were in uniform. I’ve posted several extracts of my grandfather’s diary from the Western Front in the First World War. We should remember those who died and be happy for those who survived.

I don’t take such a negative view of my country and its post-war achievements as my friend. We should reflect, though, that many of our achievements have been those of individuals – scientists, engineers, musicians and writers – rather than the result of what you could call national effort.

Whatever we have become over the past seventy-five years, today should not be a day for flag-waving, socially-distant tea parties and old songs.

It should be one of solemn commemoration. By all means we should wheel out the Spitfires, gather by the war memorials and observe the one-minute silence.

But this is no time for jollity.

Corona Diaries: a professor’s downfall

First Council of Nicea, 325 CE

Yesterday, in Would you let a dancing bear mind your sheep? I suggested that one of the reasons for the delay in the British government’s taking action to deal with the coronavirus was that its main skills are in winning elections rather than governing the country that elected it. But that’s only part of the story. The brouhaha over Professor Neil Ferguson is another.

I can see both sides of the argument over whether Ferguson should or should not have been allowed to resign from SAGE, the British government’s advisory committee over his breaking of the lockdown rules.

On the one hand, he’s a valuable contributor to the scientific effort to defeat the coronavirus. To let him go without a warning or a reprimand is a self-defeating act at a time of national crisis.

On the other hand, he of all people, given that his model predicted dire consequences unless the government imposed the lockdown, should have set an example. Therefore he’s guilty of unpardonable hypocrisy.

Yet beneath the simple question of expediency versus morality, it seems to me that there’s something rather grubby going on. At best, grubby, at worst, tending towards deep-stateish.

To deal with the grubby first. Why is it relevant to the debate on his indiscretion that his visitor happened to be female. Not just female, but his “married lover”? Would the reaction have been the same if The Telegraph, the paper that broke the story, had simply reported that he had a visitor?

If the person visiting him had been his mum, his therapist, his sister or a minister of the church giving him spiritual sustenance, would he have been fired, or even outed in the first place?

If the answer is probably not, then we’re dealing with a common-or-garden sex scandal, the kind of story the Telegraph normally leaves to Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids. Or, to put it in Sun-speak, it’s the sex wot did for him.

Then it gets darker. According to a number of sources, the Telegraph had the story some time ago. The indiscretion happened in March. Why did it wait until now to out the professor? Why did it out him at all? Surely a quiet word from Boris Johnson to the publisher of the newspaper, citing the national interest and so forth, would have killed the story. And don’t tell me that the government didn’t know what was about to break.

Further, why did the Telegraph follow up with a report casting doubt over the efficacy of his model? Is this new news, or did they deliberately save it until the week in which the government is preparing a plan for easing the lockdown? The Telegraph’s article is paywalled, so here’s a Daily Mail piece that references it and summarises the argument.

At this point you could start trotting out the investigating reporter’s clichés: follow the money, and cui bono?

If you’re a deep-statist, you might leap to the conclusion that the Telegraph was acting at the behest of the substantial group of lobbyists, donors and politicians who want the lockdown to end because they’re terrified of the impact on their personal finances. Or if you were of a less dark disposition, you may think that these same people are public-spirited citizens who fear for the country’s economic future if the current restrictions are allowed to continue.

By squashing Professor Ferguson, and then using other professors to trash his reputation, you cast doubt on the whole premise of the lockdown, and damage the credibility of the government in the process (as if its credibility isn’t damaged enough already).

Alternatively, did the government, prompted by shadowy figures unknown to us, acquiesce in Ferguson’s outing because it knew his model was flawed, and his misstep gave them an opportunity to get rid of him without having to admit it screwed up by taking his advice in the first place?

Very nasty stuff, and a juicy conspiracy theory in the making, especially if the lockdown is eased, thousands more people die in a second wave, and we’re looking around for people to blame.

Then, while digging around trying to find out more about the flaws in the good professors’ model, I happened on a conversation that sent me temporarily insane. It was on a website called Lockdown Sceptics. I immediately sensed that I was straying into a room full of Martians, somewhere in which – due to my ignorance of the subject – I had no place.

But I read on anyway. The conversation began with a software engineer who used to work for Google comprehensively trashing the Imperial College software. It was old, not fit for purpose, full of bugs and written by amateurs. It was followed by others who supported her opinion, and yet more people who disagreed. Most of them preceded their input by rising up to their full online height and stating their credentials, as in “I have thirty years’ experience of writing software etc etc”.

Try this for size as an example of the content:

“Stochastic” is just a scientific-sounding word for “random”. That’s not a problem if the randomness is intentional pseudo-randomness, i.e. the randomness is derived from a starting “seed” which is iterated to produce the random numbers. Such randomness is often used in Monte Carlo techniques. It’s safe because the seed can be recorded and the same (pseudo-)random numbers produced from it in future. Any kid who’s played Minecraft is familiar with pseudo-randomness because Minecraft gives you the seeds it uses to generate the random worlds, so by sharing seeds you can share worlds.

It reminded me (and forgive me if you’ve heard this analogy from me before) of the interminable arguments in the early centuries of Christianity over the nature of Christ’s divinity. It was said that in the equivalent of pubs in Constantinople, fights would break out between ordinary people over the meaning of the Holy Trinity.

I’m not sure that ordinary people like me are likely to start throwing lattes over each other in Starbucks over stochastic models. But a dive into that website took me into a deep hole of specialist opinion that left me none the wiser, and, had they been available, would have required a couple of prozacs for me to escape with my sanity after delving any further.

The point of this diversion is that if I, a classicist by education, struggle to understand a tenth of what these people are saying, what are the chances that Boris Johnson, also a classicist, but unlike me caught in the middle of a shitstorm, had any option other than to rely on what his scientists were telling him in plain English?

Which opens up an alternative to a conspiracy theory – that the whole episode was just one in a series of cock-ups.

Given that the scientists all had their own interpretations of what was going on, was the problem that Boris and his political advisers had to choose between one interpretation and possibly several others, and chose the “wrong” one?

Further, did the Telegraph out Ferguson for the usual reasons: it’s a newspaper struggling to sell its product and grasping any opportunity to maximise its subscriber base?

And finally, when we look back at this whole mess, will we conclude that one of the main reasons why we got here is because something, to quote the movie title, was lost in translation?

Only time will tell.  

Corona Diaries: would you let a dancing bear mind your sheep?

Forgive me if I throw a theory out there that has already occurred to those with more sophisticated political instincts than mine. But it’s what everybody else seems to be doing, so why not me?

When we look back on the reasons why the two world leaders in COVID deaths failed to act quickly enough to suppress their outbreaks, one of the main causes will be that both in the UK and the US, perceived opinion mattered more than science.

The United States is perpetually in election mode. Nothing new there, except that two things have amplified the focus on elections.

First, it has a president obsessed more than any other about what he calls ratings. Since there is an election of critical importance every other year – be it the mid-terms or the general election – Trump never stops campaigning. It is his highest priority. Therefore he pays attention to opinion polls and those who influence opinion before all else.

Second, through the social media and the TV networks, the population has been focused on elections and election data more than ever before. Forecasters like Nate Silver, who accurately predicted the outcome of the 2008 and 2012 elections, have become gurus. The media fed Trump. Trump fed them.

It wasn’t just Trump. When hard decisions needed to be made on social measures to contain the virus, every politician with what Nassim Taleb calls skin in the game – including the president and all the governors, senators and house representatives who are up for election this year – asked themselves how their decisions would play in November.

You wouldn’t want to jump into a swimming pool if you’re not sure it’s full of water. At worst you injure yourself, at best you make yourself look like an idiot. In February and early March, as far as Trump and Johnson were concerned, lockdown was that swimming pool.

It’s still going on. Many state governors, with honourable exceptions, are playing a game of chicken. Who dares to reverse the lockdown, and to what extent? Pay lip service to science and give full attention to public opinion. Politics comes before science, unless you can find some science that suits your purpose. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the thinking is not economy first, but election first.

Now let’s look at the UK. It’s not quite the same story, because we’ve just had an election and we don’t have a head of government who spends hours every day watching opinion-formers on networks and cable TV, glowering at twitter feeds and spinning every positive opinion poll that comes his way. Boris Johnson is not a mini-Trump, though he shares some of the president communications liking for bluster and hyperbole.

But we do have a government that has come into being after a critical referendum and two general elections in the four years. A government to whom the opinions of the opinion-shapers seem to matter more than the facts on the ground. For whom facts are there to be ignored, distorted and re-interpreted. In other words, it’s a government that may be assured of another four years in power, yet is still in election mode. Those who helped to win the last election – campaign managers, political advisers – are still at centre stage.

You only have to look at the use of slogans in the government communications on COVID to know that. Those who brought you “Take Back Control” are now telling you to “Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives”. Slick, succinct and memorable.

Call me a cynic, but I suspect that the government’s electioneering muscle memory contributed as much to the initial hesitation as did what it calls “the science”.

In both cases – the US and the UK – you have to ask the same question: are the skills required to win elections the same as those required to govern effectively? Doing and saying what’s necessary to be liked, versus doing stuff you think necessary regardless of the effect on your popularity?

Of course not. The best leaders and governments manage both. Some, such as Gordon Brown in the UK with his management of the 2008 financial crisis, managed one but not both. Whether Donald Trump manages both, one or neither remains to be seen. History will judge his executive decisions. As for his ability to win elections, we will know more after November.

In countries that are bitterly divided and have huge constituencies of discontent, the temptation is always to go down the route least unpopular among those who shout loudest, especially if governments rely on the opinions of those who are tried and tested in winning elections rather than those who are capable of making and implementing effective policy decisions, however difficult and however unpopular.

Dancing bears don’t easily turn into sheep dogs. Whatever structural difficulties both countries faced in the first few months of this year, I suspect we’ll end up pointing at the dancing bears when we look back at the hard times we’re enduring today.

Corona Diaries: the squirrelageddon saga

Two diary entries today. This one on a personal note. A bit later, you guessed it, back to politics.

Yesterday I had a George W Bush moment. You might remember the scene after the invasion of Iraq when Dubya lands on an aircraft carrier and, decked out in a flying suit, announces “Mission Accomplished”. We all know what happened afterwards.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that over the past few months we’ve been fighting a losing battle against squirrels that have made a temporary home in our loft.

We’ve tried many stratagems to get them to leave and thereby spare us from being woken up by scratching in our bedroom ceiling at two in the morning or at other equally inconvenient times.

In this time of plague, it’s hard to find anyone prepared to come over, seal the eaves, plant landmines on the rafters or sell us a ghetto-blaster with movement-activated Led Zeppelin tracks.

As I mentioned before, I’ve been tempted to buy an air rifle. But up to now we’ve resorted to non-lethal methods of persuading the squirrels to go forth and multiply elsewhere. They include external and internal ultrasound rodent repellants and an infrared camera intended to help us understand our enemy more clearly. Not to mention my wife banging on the ceiling and screaming Celtic curses at them whenever she hears a noise (apart from at two in the morning of course)

All efforts failed until we installed the camera. In itself it was useless. We thought we were installing the equivalent of military-grade night vision goggles (too many episodes of Homeland I guess). But what we got was a foggy darkness in which nothing could be seen other than a few grey smudges which were not moving, so they couldn’t have been squirrels. In retrospect, what more should you expect for twenty-five quid?

So we decided to put a light up there. It’s not a usable space, so we didn’t have one before. We’ve left it on day and night for the past three days.

And breakthrough. Not a sound of little feet scampering back and forth. No scratching. No nothing.

From which we concluded that these are vampire squirrels. They don’t like the light. Could it be that we’d accidentally stumbled on the ultimate deterrent? If so, it would have been surprising that it was something as simple as a light bulb.

But then, as I’ve also mentioned before, my little town was wiped out by the Martians in HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. And was it not the introduction of the common cold – a coronavirus – that sent the invaders and their lethal handling machines crashing to the ground?

So perhaps the fact that accidental discoveries led to defeat of squirrels and Martians might point the way towards an end of our current battle with COVID-19? Unlikely, but you never know.

Alas, as Dubya also discovered, my moment of triumph was premature. The bastards are back. Presumably this is the second wave.

Corona Diaries: Homeland Time bites the dust

Since lockdown took over our lives we’ve taken to using a new measurement of time: how long it takes to get from one episode of Homeland to the next. Nominally it’s a week, yet despite the acres of unstructured time stretching in front of us, the next episode has always seemed imminent.

Homeland Time is faster than a normal week not because we’re desperate to see what disasters befall Carrie Mathison next Sunday, but because so much seems to be happening in between that we forget about her until she’s ready to go manic on us again. Time is really flying, in this household at least.

Now we have to find a new unit. Homeland is no more. Carrie’s chin has wobbled its last. At this point, on the advice of a friend who is planning to binge watch the entire series, I should issue a Spoiler Alert, although I’m revealing no details of the final episode.

In the final series, peace with the Taliban, brokered by Saul Berenson, Carrie’s grizzled CIA mentor, is about to break out. Carrie returns from the fray after a few months in the nuthouse recovering from her Russian imprisonment. Saul sends her to Kabul, where the local CIA boss gives her a less than enthusiastic reception because he thinks she’s now a Russian agent. Her Russian tormenter, GRU officer Yevgeny Gromov, turns up and sends her wobbly again.

The US president arrives in Afghanistan to sign the Taliban deal. His helicopter goes down, killing him and the Afghan president. All hell breaks loose, with Carrie, naturellement, in the middle of the chaos. Before you know it, the US is ready to go to war with Pakistan, which brandishes its nukes in response. Only Carrie can ward off World War Three by finding the flight recorder and proving that the president’s helicopter wasn’t shot down. She finds it, but Gromov steals it, and uses it to prise out the identity of a long-time US spy in the heart of the Kremlin.

I only joined Homeland in the series that ended with Damian Lewis swinging on a rope in Tehran. Since then I’ve been hooked. I know it’s not cool. I doubt if the Queen watches it, and probably not David Hockney. Some of the plot lines are a tad tenuous, and Carrie’s bipolar episodes take centre stage in every series except, interestingly, the last, which is better for the lack of them. You know a wobbly chin moment is coming way before it arrives.

And yet there’s a nobility in some of the characters, Carrie included, that keeps you watching for fear that they might fall off their perches. Which mostly they do. And there’s that magical moral ambiguity you so often find in the best spy stories. The goodies are flawed. The baddies are capable of redemption. Even Haqqani, the Taliban leader responsible for so many American deaths, with whom Saul negotiates the peace deal, acquires an almost Mandela-like aura before he too meets his maker.

Homeland also has the magical ability to build a parallel universe that reflects stuff going on in the real world at or around the time of transmission. In the final example, the Taliban deal came together just as Trump’s negotiators were wrapping up an agreement with the real McCoy.

Where Claire Danes and her fellow-producers fell down in the latter series was in not imagining that a jackass like Trump could be elected president. They do go some way down the road as the dead president’s weak successor falls under the influence of a jackass adviser. But they can be forgiven for not casting the main man as a raving nutcase. Scenes featuring a fictional president musing in public over the injection of disinfectants to treat a deadly virus would have been a scenario too far for the Homeland team.

Never mind. If you can cast the real world aside (would Carrie really be allowed out on bail after being accused of assassinating the president?) and if you can ride with the patriotic overtones that flow through the lifeblood of the show, Homeland has been compelling drama. It’s created a new market for domestic defibrillators and plucks the heartstrings every time a protagonist hits the dirt.

Has the show really come to an end? The the final episode left plenty of opportunities to build on for a new series. Perhaps China should come into the reckoning. Although it’s a bit late for her to save America from a pathogen cooked up in a lab, it shouldn’t be difficult to craft a juicy crisis in the South China Sea for Carrie to be pitched into.

Who knows? Since the pandemic has probably left Hollywood short of a dollar or two, perhaps it’ll be considering hoiking one of its most successful products out of retirement.

Whether or not we’ve seen the last of the redoubtable Ms Mathison, the end of the current series means that we’ll have to select a new unit of time. Nothing springs to mind, so I guess we’ll have to revert to boring old weeks and months.

PS: Incidentally, if you’re interested in autistic or bipolar characters in TV drama, you might want to look at a piece I wrote a while ago comparing Carrie with Saga Noren of The Bridge and Sherlock Holmes in Elementary. Also seek out the excellent Professor T, the eponymous hero in the current Walter Presents series.

Corona Diaries: is herd opinion more dangerous than herd immunity?

One of the more interesting aspects of the current flurry of interpretations of “the science” around the coronavirus is that in the UK a new group of scientists is being formed to provide advice independently of the government’s SAGE committee of experts. They will, apparently, report their findings to the parliamentary select committee on health.

Will they shed light where currently there are only murky shades of grey? Maybe, though they may simply add to the bewildering spectrum of opinion that seems to be proliferating on a daily basis.

What I find interesting is that the new group is – informally at least – a classic Red Team. A devil’s advocate. A second team that questions the assumptions and conclusions of the first one. This is just the sort of decision-making tactic advocated by Dominic Cummings in his voluminous blog. Any set of advisers and experts that stays together long enough is in danger of developing groupthink. They no longer think independently or challenge the precepts that the majority have agreed upon as a group. It’s also known as confirmation bias. Once you believe something it can be very difficult for you to unbelieve it.

Because of Cummings’ liking for red teams, I’m surprised he didn’t set up his own from the beginning of the crisis. Perhaps the government scientists don’t believe in the concept. Perhaps that also explains his participation in SAGE meetings, as the representative of a one-man red team (aided and abetted by his proudly weird data buddies). A contrary voice, in other words.

Whether this new bunch of scientists, who appear to be as eminent as the ones on SAGE, will exert any influence on official thinking remains to be seen. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it a bit disturbing there are so many experts, each with their own opinions, popping up out of nowhere like religious sects in the Reformation, being given a voice somewhere in the media.

Read yesterday’s Sunday Times, for example, and you will not only learn about the new red team, but you will be regaled with a long article about all the things we don’t know about the virus. Enough to send you into a decline, because how the hell can you contemplate moving on from the lockdown when you know so little about the thing that caused it?

To add to the anxiety, there was a harrowing piece in the magazine section by a photographer whose wife is a doctor. She arranged for him to spend three weeks in the intensive care unit of one of London’s major hospitals. The pictures and his accompanying narrative are terrifying enough to spook even the most dedicated gun-toting Trump supporter out of complacency.

Then, further on into the paper, we have a piece co-written by a former Downing Street advisor and an epidemiologist from Stanford University. The headline reads “The science is becoming clear: lockdowns are no longer the right medicine” The gist of the article is that we know lots about the virus, that millions of people in the UK have probably already been infected without knowing it, that hospitals and care homes are lethal places because medics are passing the virus to patients, that contact tracing is futile on a mass scale…BUT “the latest evidence and data all points in a favourable direction”, and now “policy-makers can shift to the next phase and start to bring the lockdown to an end”.

You would have to read the article to work out whether or not my summary is misleading. But that’s not the point.

The point, for me at least, is that you can read one newspaper and pick out content that you either pooh-pooh or use as evidence that things are better or worse than you previously imagined. Your conclusion may well be based on a pre-existing opinion. Confirmation bias, in other words.

I don’t criticise any newspaper for presenting contrary views. Far from it. In fact, if papers like the Daily Mail had been a little less doctrinaire on the subject of Brexit, perhaps we wouldn’t be facing the second whammy of a further hit to the economy after the end of this year. And Americans shouldn’t despise Fox News for becoming less universally adoring of Donald Trump now that his shortcomings have become undeniable by all but a dwindling base of fanatics. They should welcome the change in emphasis.

The miasma of uncertainty, and the explosion of conflicting scientific opinion is surely causing us to grow ever more unsure about the information we are getting, whether from official sources or in the media.

What worries me is not that we’re becoming even more sceptical about what we read than before the pandemic. That’s fine. We should question what we read. We should be looking to discover the motive behind the opinion or the presentation of the “facts”. But if, because we can’t bear a state of unknowing, we cling to one “truth” and, under the guise of being sceptical, reject any contrary view, we aren’t really being sceptical at all.

What in my opinion is dulling our critical faculties is fear. Concern for our personal safety and for our economic well-being makes a powerful addition to all our other fears – the ones that push us towards populism and strong men who tell us that they have the answers to all our problems.

What we instinctively know, yet find hard to accept, is that fear is part of the price we pay for being human. And the most terrifying time of all is when Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” become “known unknowns”. That’s the time when fresh devils of uncertainty are let loose, and we cling to life-rafts of belief, whether misguided or not.

Another article in the Sunday Times was about a chap who has made zillions by betting on disaster and specifically on the adverse consequences of this pandemic. He’s a follower of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the guru of the Black Swan theory. What I found most interesting about Mark Spitznagel is that he’s also a part-time goat farmer. He has assembled a herd of alpine goats, from which he makes award-winning cheeses. I don’t know this guy, but I’d wager a bet that he gets as much if not more pleasure from his goats as he does from sitting in a room full of computers and PhD mathematicians, working out how he can profit from the next global disaster.

The lesson I learn from people like Spitznagel is that fear is only a distraction that prevents us from doing what enhances our lives. We should give it a place, because it often drives us to make decisions that allow us to navigate past danger. But if at all possible, we should focus at a time like this on things that make our lives worth living, even if they’re the equivalent of herding goats. From small things we can derive great pleasure. Even in the worst of times, most of us can find joy if we know where to look.

Whatever horrors await us in the months to come, I suspect that when this is over, there will be a raft of self-help books with titles like How the Pandemic Changed My Life, or Learning through Adversity. The authors will make a fortune.

Many of us will emerge with new passions, new hobbies and perhaps even new careers. But only if we keep our fear in its rightful place, open our minds and embrace joy when we find it.  

Corona Diaries: twenty-eight thousand

Here’s how my town in Surrey feels on a Sunday morning.

A Waitrose, with freshly-minted paving stones outside. A smattering of old people’s homes at roundabouts and intersections. Charity shops, Domino’s Pizza. A park full of dogs and well-trained owners, normally. Pavements with little tufts of grass starting to peep through the cracks. Pedestrian crossings blinking to no purpose.

A couple of surviving banks, staffed by a single person for a few hours a day. Plenty of restaurants with notices of regret in the windows. A museum full of civic pride. A stumpy little rock that once sat in the middle of a medieval London street. A cricket field enclosed by roads lined by parked Range Rovers, usually populated at this time of years by kids in whites and the inevitable dogs that fertilise the square when no-one’s looking. No cricketers now.

Shoppers in their ones and twos can see others coming from afar and change course with shy smiles, slightly embarrassed. After you. No, please. Thank you.

An allotment where middle-aged diggers stop for tea parties beside someone’s shed. Distanced, of course. Always tea, and maybe a little thimble of something else.

On your way through the park, past the church and down a little alleyway next to the sixties-built library, now closed, you come to the high street. A few big cars with Mums and little kids. An ambulance, occasionally. Occado wagons, rushing to fill their slots. White vans on their way to tend gardens or to fix a broken cooker.

Not many civic monuments in my town. Just a war memorial and a crumbling column erected in honour of a now-obscure Georgian princess. Plenty of water, though not so much at the moment, as a month of drought has depleted our little tributary to the Thames. The ducks and swans don’t notice. There are still a few collections of mums and kids feeding them chunks of white bread. Time out from home schooling. Nobody fishing. That wouldn’t do.

The dead round here rarely get buried in the cemetery next to the church. It’s pretty full. Mostly they’re cremated, or laid to rest in a bigger graveyard out of town. Next to a golf course. A good progression, you might reflect, and far enough away from the main streets with their new apartment blocks springing up (much to our disgust) for us not to have to think of those who don’t need armchairs and gardens anymore.

The schools are empty. The clothes shops have windows full of fashion but nobody to sell it. There’s even a chocolate shop with elaborate creations suitable for an oligarch’s birthday party. The pharmacies are open, a few customers studiously avoiding each other and hoping not to encounter other people’s symptoms. The assistants looking very medical in face masks.

Police? Not many round here. We’re a well-behaved crowd. The odd burglary, a bit of cybercrime and the occasional rash of car thefts by people who breeze in and steal to order.

We don’t have much in the way of wildlife, apart from the birds, the squirrels and the foxes. An occasional swan sails over. There are deer in the woods, waiting to colonise us.

We have our share of celebs who live up on the hill. They occasionally descend upon us to take coffee in Café Nero. Not now though.

At this time of year we have church and school fetes where we can buy bedding plants and cakes, where the kids can throw wet sponges at adults in stocks, and we can congratulate ourselves on our charity. Not this year.

To the back of the high street, in front of the medical centre, there are old walls that suggest a bit of history, which there is if you dig for it. Fictional as well. We were destroyed by the Martians during the War of the Worlds. And if you walk through the woods near the banks of the old motor racing track, you can still hear the screams of a dying racer. Or so people say.

And that’s my little town. The population in the 2011 census was around fifteen thousand. A good deal more now. But still less than twenty-eight thousand.

Which is why as I sit at home on a Sunday morning I think of what twenty-eight thousand deaths means. The population of an entire town like mine wiped out. A football stadium full of people. A Saturday crowd at The Oval for a cricket match against Australia. The Centre Court at Wimbledon, two days in a row.

All gone, not in some Martian massacre on a single day, nor spread out over a year so we don’t notice. Instead, a rising crescendo over weeks, subsiding only now, but with some way to go before the conductor can rest his baton and turn to face the survivors, with every possibility that he’ll come back for a lengthy encore.

Best not to dwell too long about such things, I suppose. We’re still alive, and we should make the most of it. But the dead shouldn’t be allowed to slip away without our thinking about them, even if we don’t know them personally. We’ve been here before, as the names on the war memorial attest. No doubt we’ll be here again.

We’re the lucky ones, those of us who haven’t died. Our population isn’t densely packed. We don’t see neighbours wheeled off to hospital gasping for breath. We hardly see our neighbours at all. What we see is mostly empty space.

But just as those who lived here seventy-five years ago must have felt in the last months of war, we think to ourselves please let this be over. Soon.

Corona Diaries: testing, testing 1-2-3 (thousand?), and taking back control

After my gross impertinence yesterday in commenting on spittle-flecked militias in the United States, back to the latest in my own dear Britain.

I don’t want to bash the government for falling short on its testing target. 80,000 tests performed, as opposed to the 100,000 promised, is no bad achievement considering the starting base. But claiming another 40,000 because the test kits have been sent out is a bit fly.

The numbers Matt Hancock, our Health Secretary, announced seem to be based on the assumption that a) all the people to whom the tests were sent receive them, b) they all take the test, c) they all send them back, d) that all the kits arrive at the testing centre and e) that they all turn out to have been properly carried out.

That would seem a bit of a stretch. It’s a shame, because the government doesn’t need to gild the lily. Tweaking numbers creates loss of confidence in all the numbers. We’re not in the old Soviet Union, where apparatchiks would jack up production numbers for combine harvesters to save face, or possibly their necks. We in Britain respect, and sometimes celebrate, heroic failure.

Next, to the measures the government is planning to announce next week in an effort to prevent turning the lockdown into a meltdown.

I have no idea what they’re going to come up with, because they haven’t asked me to participate in the SAGE meetings, even though just about everybody else with half an opinion seems to have been involved.

I will only make a couple of points:

South Korean scientists have announced that contrary to earlier evidence, nobody they’ve re-tested after infection has come up positive again. The confusion arose because the second test treated bits of de-activated RNA floating around the body as positive readings.

That’s not to say that you can’t get infected again. Just that it hasn’t been demonstrated to have happened yet.

Back in the days of smallpox, survivors bore the scars on their faces, so there would have been no difficulty in telling who had suffered the disease. Not so with coronavirus.

That being the case, wouldn’t it be great if everyone lucky enough to have survived the virus was awarded a nice little badge, which entitled them to mix with each other without social distancing, go back to work and live normal lives? Something like a Blue Peter badge, or a Scout patch. I was going to say Jim’ll Fix It, but we Brits know that doesn’t go down well these days.

It probably won’t happen of course, because “the science” will not decree that people who have had the virus are immune until some study, no doubt taking years, determines the average length of immunity. Taking a chance, or making an intelligent guess, is where the politicians come in. What ours might decide is anybody’s guess.

Besides, anyone sporting a shiny new Blue Peter virus badge might be shunned by the rest of us as “unclean”. And if the conspiracy theorists got working, they would be treated as vectors for new infections. Oh, and wearing badges might be a little too close for comfort to those coloured stars people were forced to wear not so long ago. Perhaps a laminated card would do the trick, as well as a special app for survivors to find others and commune without being hassled by the viruspolizei. Tinder for Zombies?

As for the rest of us, particularly the 12 million over-65s and the umpteen millions with diabetes, heart problems, lung problems and obesity, there must come a point at which we get to decide for ourselves whether we re-enter the world. In other words, being fully cognisant of the risk, take responsibility for our lives. Or, as we in Britain are fond of saying, take back control.

When the government determines that we’re adult (or Swedish) enough to make our own decisions about managing risk without much chance of the house crashing down again, I don’t think age should play any part in that determination. If I were a fit and healthy 80-year-old, I would fancy my chances over a waddling, wheezy 60-year-old any time. Yes, those who are unable to look after themselves should be shielded. But for the rest, to exclude anyone over a certain age from participating in the new normal would be misguided.

I eagerly await Boris Johnson’s pronunciamento next week.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we’ve taken advice from “the science” and bought an oximeter. It enables us to tell whether our lungs are about to pack in without obvious symptoms. Hence, we can make a more reasonable determination on whether to call 111 and raise the alarm.

It’s a shiny little pink thing (see above). You clamp it over a finger and by some miracle it tells you your pulse and whether your blood oxygen is at normal levels. When it arrived we whipped it out of the bag and took turns in sticking our fingers in it.  And whoopee! We’re both normal. Well, normal in terms of blood oxygen, if not in other ways. Even after intense exercise – me at the cross-trainer, my beloved with Joe Wicks and some unhinged woman who wants to turn her into a contortionist – we’re still normal.

But if you get one of these gizmos, beware. It can become an obsession. You don’t need to test yourself after you’ve been to the loo, watched a Donald Trump video clip or sat at a table drumming your fingers, wondering whether to vacuum. All of which I’ve done. That said, any of those circumstances could be good reason to measure your blood pressure, if you have that kit as well.

Moderation in all things. And that includes the amount of hummus you chuck at the TV.

Have a nice day!

Corona Diaries: myth and reality, rights and responsibilities

The images of the latest incursion into the Michigan State House by a group of armed men protesting about the extension of the lockdown has resulted in howls of outrage from many quarters in the United States.

The repeated refrain is that it’s Trump’s fault. He’s empowered the extremists, encouraged the militias and shown contempt for the rule of law. And so on.

Their contention of the president’s critics is neither true nor untrue. It’s a matter of opinion.

It’s easy for me, living in a country where the kind of weapons these guys were brandishing are banned, to think that if we were allowed to carry rifles in the streets there wouldn’t be similar people looking to storm Parliament.

Just as for the past seventy years many of us have watched Holocaust commemorations with the smug belief that if the Nazis had conquered Britain we wouldn’t have enthusiastically participated in the rounding up of the country’s Jews.

We would be wrong on both counts, in my opinion. And I can opine all I like, because my view can never be tested. I can only point to our history of violence, riots and insurrection and civil war over the past ten centuries, and to our sporadic outbreaks of anti-Semitism over a similar period, as evidence. And in the end, who cares?

In America, even if you can’t be bothered to look too deeply into the country’s history, you can point to two hundred and fifty years of similar civil turbulence. But, as everybody knows, with one critical difference: that the right to bear arms was enshrined in the constitution more or less from the outset.

So are the good ole boys in Michigan just Americans doing what Americans always do? Or is there really something different about the antics of these people?

Yes and no. Cultures might differ, but basic human traits crop up wherever there are humans. These guys do what they do because they can.

What is different is the speed and ease of communications that enable them to organise or be organised. I posted about this after the initial demonstrations in the US, so I’m not about to go through the argument again.

Another difference I would phrase in the form of a question. Is life imitating art, or the other way round?

For as long as cinema has been one of the main modes of cultural expression in America, movie makers have offered a consistent stream of moral absolutes – goodies versus baddies. From Wyatt Earp to Rambo to Captain America, vanquishing bank robbers, commies and Thanos. Moral ambiguity has also always been there as the sauce that spices up the narrative. But over the past twenty years mainstream movies have become increasingly unambiguous. Good prevails over evil, in blockbusters, Marvel movies and so on. By the way, I include TV in the movie basket.

To supplement, and in some cases rival the movies in popularity, we now have games. So these days you don’t have to sit passively watching the bad guy get his just deserts. You can dispatch him yourself.

I’m not saying that computer games turn people into murderers, vigilantes and armed militiamen. There are plenty of kids who will become law-abiding delivery drivers, musicians and accountants who sit in their bedrooms, night after night, killing the bad guys.

But where did this stuff come from? Are the movie makers and games designers creating role models, or are they simply reflecting morality in the real world? Or are they building on a century of art imitating life which then imitates art which imitates life? In other words, a spiral of myth that becomes real, inspires more myth that turns into new realities?

It seems so to me. Perhaps the Michigan militias are just playing out their fantasies. Just as Trump opponents claim that he’s playing the role of president rather than doing the actual job, maybe the brave boys with guns are following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood.

I have no idea how many of these guys have experience of real war, but I suspect that most of them would shit themselves if they ended up staring down a Taliban barrel in Afghanistan. Veterans of wars such as Vietnam came home with mental and physical scars so traumatic that the last thing they would contemplate was brandishing weapons in a statehouse. The sad reality is that more likely they would turn those weapons on themselves.

The same goes for veterans in my country. Most of them are reluctant to talk about their experiences unless the stories are prised out of them. Apart from those who use their exploits for commercial gain, such as the macho SAS types who have turned special forces legend into an industry, most would spit in derision at the poseurs who prance around in uniforms at far-right rallies.

The other key difference – and this applies to the US, the UK and many other parts of the world – is that those of us who have grown up during the past seventy years have become acutely aware of our rights. They’re codified in laws and the most fundamental of them have been placed in an overarching basket that we refer to as human rights.

But what of responsibilities? There is no civil law setting out our responsibilities as human beings. Obligations, yes. All countries have laws that describe the norms of behaviour that if breached result in some form of punishment. But an obligation is not the same as a responsibility.

There is no universal code of responsibility other than those enshrined in religions, and these also often take the form of obligations, rather than acts carried out in free will. Since we’re becoming decreasingly religious, even if we carry the DNA of religious thought in our cultures, responsibility is becoming a matter of personal preference, or even convenience.

Perhaps it takes a unifying event such as a pandemic for people en masse to remember a sense of responsibility to other humans, to future humans and to other species. And yet if rights are seen as immutable, and responsibilities as matters for individuals or self-regulating peer groups, where you have differences in attitudes among individuals and between different groups, then you have a recipe for fractured societies.

No doubt the boys in Michigan have their own codes of responsibility, but if they’re not aligned with those of other groups who believe that their responsibility is to self-isolate so as not to pass the virus on to others, then further conflict is inevitable, especially when they’re inspired by a sociopath with his own warped sense of responsibility, principally to himself.

So yes, America seems to have come a long way from “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Perhaps it’s time also for a Declaration of Universal Human Responsibilities. Or maybe I’m just pissing in the wind.

Corona Diaries: a bad no-hair day

Yesterday was a bit of a ratty day. I started to shout at the TV. It happened during the Downing Street briefing. I then fired off two intemperate tweets, which is rare for me. In the first I said:

I do wish that the “health advisors” at the Downing St briefings would, for once, say what they really mean: “it’s complex. You don’t understand. You will never understand. Now shut up and f**k off.”

In the second:

We are reviewing. We are considering. We are thinking. This is the sound of bureaucracy at prayer.

Which just about sums up my jaundiced view of the government’s efforts to communicate with us at this time of crisis. I actually think that the time has come to consider whether these daily briefings are helpful. Do we really need to be told the same stuff, day in, day out by an assortment of mediocre politicians and health advisers who are clearly under orders to say nothing that suggests that the government’s performance has been anything other than optimal?

Am I suffering from lockdown fatigue, or has the government run out of things to say? Either way, perhaps these briefings should take place every two or even three days. At least then there might be something new to say other than the steady thud of death statistics.

Another example of my COVID-related bile is that after repeatedly swearing that I would never consider terminating with extreme prejudice the squirrels that are scratching away in my loft and waking us up at 6am, I actually went so far as to look on the web for air rifles. That’s as far as it went, and I still don’t think that I could kill an animal in cold blood, even though I happily eat those that have been terminated with equal prejudice.

But the fact that I even thought of the nuclear option was telling. Perhaps it would be OK if we ate the squirrels that we shot, but then the task of skinning and disembowelling them would also be beyond me, metropolitan wimp that I am. Cooking them would be no problem though, because the other day one of the readers of this blog very kindly sent me link to a website that had a recipe for squirrel stew. No so benign was the picture that accompanied it of a teenager with a very powerful-looking rifle.

It was clearly a bad no-hair day, at least on my part. What it suggests is that I’ve been watching too much TV coverage of the pandemic. And possibly too many movies featuring men with weapons who take out the bad guy with a single shot.

One upside is that overdosing on TV has given me a fresh insight into the mind of Donald Trump. It’s been reported that he spends hours every day in his bedroom searching for TV news stories about, for and against him. I imagine that the White House has cleaners who on a regular basis have to come in and wipe down his multiple screens after he’s pelted them with cheeseburgers and ketchup.

I’m reminded of the scene in Downfall in which the Fuhrer is ranting at his generals, and outside his office aides are weeping and cowering at the fearsome racket. The Trump scenario also brings to mind the last days of Robert Maxwell, and the lurid tales about the state of his bedroom before he jumped, was pushed or fell from his boat in the Mediterranean.

Fortunately we don’t live on a boat or in a bunker. And if I were to start throwing hummus or porridge at our TV I would have to do the cleaning myself or face the consequences.

Why, you might ask, do I not comfort myself with those nice natural history programmes, or shows about gardens? Because these days they rarely end without warnings that the gorillas are doomed, or that Japanese knotweed is taking over the world.

Another insight that came to me yesterday is that the dog population has multiplied during the lockdown. What’s more, they all seem to be hanging out in the park near us. In our little town we don’t have much of a problem with joggers, cyclists and sunbathers. But we do have all manner of strange dogs. Labradors with tiny sausage dog legs. Wolfpoos (or should they be called Woodles?). Saint Bernards the size of grizzly bears.

It’s as if somewhere in Surrey, the sedate English county where I live, there’s been a radiation leak nobody’s told us about. Or possibly there’s a Dr Mengele at work at the National Veterinary Laboratory, which happens to be a few miles away. Is it me, or have dogs always looked this odd?

Their owners seem normal enough. They congregate in socially-distanced groups and chat, presumably about doggy things, while the mutts bound around with a freedom unavailable to their minders, trying to eat each other. If only there were groups of squirrel owners who could tell me what to do about the renegades in my loft.

Ah well. Today is a glorious new day. There are no pee patches on the lawn (our dog passed away last year, which probably explains the emboldened squirrels). The lilac in the garden is in full flower, as are the rhodies. The rosebuds are on their final push, and so far there have been no scammers knocking on our door asking for their iPhone back (see previous post). Kim Jong Un is still alive, Trump is still trumping and from Downing Street comes the mewling of a hungry infant.

Nothing to complain about. All’s well with the world, n’est pas? Comfortably numb is a good place to be.

Corona Diaries: beware of geeks bearing gifts

Yesterday was notable for a flurry of excitement in our household. Normally, or at least new normally, there are few things that cause our hearts to miss a beat or two. Relentless daily sessions on the cross-trainer or other instruments of torture is one of them. The intensifying battle against the squirrels that have infiltrated our loft and wake us early in the morning with their demented scratching is another.

And then there are the deliveries. For me, the pleasure in receiving a parcel, even if you know what’s in it, is undiminished since childhood. At the moment most of them are related to insurgent squirrels or COVID. The latest squirrel-related delivery is an infrared camera that will help us carry out covert surveillance on the little bastards as they make merry in the rafters. We shall soon discover their purpose. Procreation? Drawing on a nut stockpile? Or perhaps just fun.

The latest COVID delivery, which is scheduled for the next day or so, is an oximeter. We already have face masks, a blood pressure monitor, antiseptic gel and a couple of rocket-propelled grenade launchers to repel starving intruders. But apparently some people are being diagnosed with critically low blood oxygen levels without even realising that they have a problem.

I should have thought that gasping for air after ten minutes on the cross-trainer would also provide some indication that there’s a problem, but we’re taking no chances, especially as the media medics are telling us that an oximeter is a useful piece of kit. Apparently it’s possible to go from feeling OK to being very dead in a matter of hours if the lungs decide to collapse. So an early warning is no bad thing.

I’ve no idea how an oximeter works. Google tells you that you can measure your blood oxygen by putting your finger on the camera of a mobile phone, provided you have the app and the right phone. It seems that some Samsung phones can do this for you. Sounds great, but I wouldn’t switch over to Android even if the phone offered me a full body scan. I’m afraid I’m set in my Apple ways.

Which brings me to the cause of yesterday’s excitement.

At around midday, there was a knock on the door, which was a sure indication that there was a courier waiting to deliver good things. We thought that Amazon was exceeding our expectations and delivering the oximeter three days early. But no, it was a DHL courier with a chunky package.

We opened it to discover that it was an unexpected gift. Or so it seemed. Inside the bag was a big, sexy, top-of the-range Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, with a SIM card from one of the UK’s leading mobile phone companies. On the delivery note my name was listed as the intended recipient.

At first we thought that my beloved, who occasionally responds to surveys which offer such devices in prize draws, had hit the jackpot. But there were no emails to tell us we’d won a new iPhone. And anyway, you would have expected her to be the recipient, not me.

Then we thought it might be a mistake. Some weird computer glitch. We did a Google search on “I’ve received a mobile phone I didn’t order”. Answers to similar queries suggested that one option was to say nothing and hang on to the phone. I can’t say that a little inner devil didn’t try and tempt me, but such “gifts” rarely come without consequences, as recipients of large sums of money arriving accidentally in their bank accounts often discover. And this was no cheapo phone. It retails on Amazon for £1,400, three times as much as my laptop.

More searching revealed that apparently there’s a scam going round. Cyber-criminals order the phone using stolen bank account details. Once it’s delivered to the named recipient, they contact them posing as the phone company, telling them there was a mistake, and could they send the phone back to a given address, which, of course, isn’t that of the phone company.

We decided to check with the provider. Perhaps these scamsters are relying on the fact that the mobile phone companies make it very difficult for you to contact them by phone, or, at the moment, even by chatline. However, we did manage to get through to a human by saying fraud often enough to the answering system.

It turned out that whoever ordered the phone had set up an account in my name, using my bank details and my address. Though we’d checked our account before the call, the reason why there had been no fishy transactions was because the phone company wasn’t due to take a payment for another two weeks. So if all had gone according to plan, the scamster would have been away with a brand new phone, and we would have been left with the bill. Nice huh?

I have no idea where our bank details came from, but probably from one of those well-publicised mega-hacks that have taken place in recent years. Or possibly through one that hasn’t yet been uncovered – or disclosed.

So if one of you hopeful dunderheads is reading this, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the phone is already on its way back to the phone company, and our bank has cancelled the relevant cards. Not that an all-singing-all-dancing phone would have been of much interest to me. A phone should be a phone, not a bloody supercomputer.

You often read of these data hacks, and rarely expect that you will be affected. We’re pretty familiar with scams and how to deal with them. How many other people, especially in our generation (over-60s), are falling victim to them, especially at a time when it can take ages to speak to a human who can help you?

Such excitement reminds me of another aspect of lockdown. Somewhere in my house there’s something called a wallet. In it you would find a couple of pieces of paper with the Queen’s head on them. Elsewhere we have a few bits of metal that we normally use for parking charges. They sit, untouched for weeks, reminders of simpler times.

How long before they suddenly become relevant again?

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