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Corona Diaries: the great equaliser

Today the rains have come in my part of the United Kingdom. They will likely be with us for the next week. Which causes me to reflect that the rain is an equaliser. When it rains, we don’t want to go out.

Over the past month, the outside has been largely warm and sunny. For millions who have no access to outdoor space other than public areas, and for whom any attempt to enjoy the weather is greeted by passing police, sometimes polite, sometimes officious, warm and sunny is a mixed blessing. If not the police, you have to deal with neighbours and passers-by, who swerve away if you’re jogging, give you dirty looks if you sit on a park bench and tut-tut if you take out a ball and start throwing it to your kids. Not normal.

For those, like me, who have gardens, be they the size of a postage stamp or rolling acres, life can almost seem normal, especially if you’re not particularly gregarious and you’re not in the habit of hosting large gatherings week in, week out.

Did anyone imagine that dystopia might look like this? Hollywood’s dystopia is Mad Max, The Handmaid’s Tale, marauding gangs, the rule of the gun. Or, in a time of plague, the walking dead, bodies on the street, puke and pus everywhere.

Ours is a quiet dystopia, perhaps more of the mind than the physical form. Before the pandemic, we thought of the haves and have-nots in terms of money, and what we can do with it. Right now, owning a Chelsea tractor, a yacht and two country homes is irrelevant. So is having the time and money to go trekking around Vietnam or even camping on the coast of Cornwall.

Right now, the biggest difference in experience is having a garden – your private space outside – or not. That, at least for now, is the new equality gap.

You might tell me that money still matters. Of course it does. It determines how you eat, what distractions you can buy online, whether you sleep on the streets or in a bed and where your booze or weed or heroin are coming from.

Of course it does, but the vast majority of Britain’s population have a place to stay and are not going hungry. I suspect that for most of us, worries about the future have gone from an initial explosion of shock to a continuous low hum as we incorporate uncertainty into our daily reality.

What makes a difference to our ability to deal with the worry is our access to the outside. Sunlight brightens the heart. And those of us who have our own outside are lucky indeed. Except when it rains. If we have gardens, we might be looking on the bright side, and saying to ourselves well we needed the rain, and the farmers will welcome it. But when it’s pissing down we’re reduced to looking out of the window. Just like everyone who lives in a first floor flat or at the top of a tower block.

It’s a strange kind of equality in a strange, quiet, dystopia.

That’s not to say that even in our orderly little country, other more dramatic dystopias aren’t raging. The daily pandemonium in hospital ICUs – as doctors and nurses struggle to keep people alive – is as Hollywood as you can get. So, in a grimier, even more distressing way, because it doesn’t have an upside, is the increase in domestic violence. So also, though quieter and more insidious, is depression.

When we imagine dystopia, we often think of it as a universal condition. A wrecked world as opposed to patches of broken society. Our little corner, for most of us, is utopia compared with others, where civil war rages, sectarian bigotry rips the fabric of living apart and poverty provides an open invitation for the virus to wreak havoc.

But we each have our own realities. When stuff happens our outlook changes along with our reality. I expect a darkening of the national mood over the next week or so.

Who would have thought that rain might make such a difference? That it would be the great equaliser?

Corona Diaries: Boris is back. So?

As Boris Johnson, Britain’s Prime Minister, gets back to work after his near-death experience at the hands of the coronavirus, he must have a full in-tray.

No doubt there will Dominic Cummings and a stream of ministers whispering in his ear about the shortcomings of their colleagues. No doubt he will wish he could assassinate various journalists or at least lock them up in a place where they will be cruelly tortured. And no doubt he will have to deal with a phalanx of Members of Parliament, wealthy donors and industry lobbyists who believe, or are paid to believe, that saving the economy is more important than saving the lives of the elderly.

Concerning the donors and those who employ the lobbyists, I would like to think that they’ve come to their opinions after balancing humanitarian with financial concerns. But it’s a sad reflection on the state of British politics that I, and no doubt many others who are no fans of the ruling party, should be suspicious of their motives.

Wealthy donors are presumably donating to the Conservatives because they think that they will benefit financially from their support for a government they believe is more business-friendly than its opponents. And presumably these are people who have the most to lose in a pandemic.

I will say no more. Since the garden centres are closed, I have no nasturtiums to cast on their motives.

As for his ministers, he will want to congratulate Priti Patel for the most Trumpian statement since the epidemic began – as she delivered the impressive news that shop-lifting has declined dramatically since the lockdown, which is hardly surprising since most of the shops are closed. It would have been more interesting and more meaningful if she could have shared with us statistics on cyber-fraud and domestic violence. And it would be helpful if our Health Minister could tell us of any increases in hospital admissions on grounds of mental illness.

Mr Johnson’s to-do list is long. He must give us some sense of understanding as to the plan for lifting restrictions. Whether the government is waiting for him to decide on a roadmap, or the roadmap is already in place and his minions are waiting for him to be able to demonstrate his leadership by announcing, where we go from here is a question that may be answered before long.

But since he’s turned us into a nation of chart-watchers through the daily briefings that feature a bewildering array of ministers and chiefs of health organisations most of us never knew existed before the crisis, he owes it to us to bang heads together and give us information we can trust.

Why it’s beyond the power of our huge and expensive bureaucracy to capture deaths at home and in care homes at the same time as those in hospitals is a mystery. If there’s a lag between NHS reporting and ONS statistics (the source of care home deaths) it should be fixed, should it not? Otherwise we’re bumbling on with incomplete information.

There’s a further layer of analysis that we, the consumers of the NHS, should be made aware of, even if there’s no need for the information in real time. It’s this:

If, as I understand it, there’s a pathway, once a patient has been admitted to hospital, from nebulised oxygen, pressurised oxygen (CPAP) to ventilator, is there an entirely consistent treatment protocol being practised in every hospital and trust in the NHS? Given that the survival rate once a patient has been placed on a ventilator is 34.6% (as reported in a study by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre), how quickly are patients moved to the ventilator stage – which, in other words, in the majority of cases, results in death?

If there’s a difference in practice between hospitals, I would certainly want to go to one whose results show that they offer me the best chance of surviving. And if there are differences, would it not be another example of the infamous postcode lottery, wherein I get different treatment depending on where I live?

I appreciate that I’m straying into ground on which I’m not remotely qualified to comment, hence the questions. Nevertheless, the government must be aware that its own announcements, as well as the blanket media coverage on the dynamics of the disease, the treatment, the technology and the data, have made many of us lay people better informed on medical matters than ever before. A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing. But equipping us with that knowledge and then expecting us to ignore its implications is also dangerous.

Every week we pour on to the streets to shower praise, even adulation, over the NHS for the job it’s doing to keep us alive. But surely that doesn’t make it immune to rational questions about the consistency of its clinical practice.

Of one thing you may be sure. If my wife developed severe symptoms, and statistics show that she would have a better chance of survival at St Thomas’ Hospital, where Boris was treated, rather than our local hospital, I might not wait for an ambulance. I would be sorely tempted to get her into the car, drive at top speed and deposit her, gasping for air, outside St Thomas’. Which is one reason why the government probably wouldn’t want to share that information too widely.

You might say, well if everyone did that, where would we be? And I would reply, convince us that there’s a level playing field for survivability, and the question wouldn’t even arise.

Anyway, I wish Boris all the best, and I hope he can make a positive impact on the government’s efforts. Though judging by observations of people who have recovered from the virus of the toll it takes on cognitive ability as well as physical fitness, I hope he’s fully recovered his marbles.

He will need them.

Corona Diaries: eating the lock down – an entente gastronomique

I don’t know about you, but in our home, food has assumed a central role in our lives during lockdown.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that we no longer have teenagers around the house who would graze throughout the day and then spurn the lovingly-prepared communal meal. Not surprising, I suppose, since in those days mealtimes were not so much an opportunity to refuel but an attempt on our part to communicate with offspring who might as well have been on Mars.

Since, in keeping with government guidelines, we only go food shopping twice a week on average, the freezer has become a key worker. Nor that it ever wasn’t. Now, though, it’s gone from tactical to strategic.

If we ever get to the bottom of our freezer I will rejoice. Because then I’ll have no option but to capture and eat the squirrels that have made their home in our loft. But it’ll take an L-shaped economy as long as the line of space characters produced by my grandson when he starts playing with my laptop for that to happen.

The freezer is one of the major spheres of spousal influence into which I’m reluctant to wander. It’s a Tardis, vast and packed with good things. Yet I find it hard to reach beyond the outer portal. As far as I know, the little sister of Otzi the Iceman might be hiding in its furthest recesses.

If I attempt to search for stuff I either get shooed away because I’m disrupting the sacred order of things, or I’m covered in ridicule because I can’t find what’s staring me in the face. Not surprising really, because all I see when I open the door is ice. And then, when I find what I’m looking for, everything around it falls to the floor with a cacophonous clatter that alerts my beloved not only to my intrusion but to my rank clumsiness.

Every so often, the boss retrieves a strange icy object and puts it in a tray, muttering that “we really must start clearing the freezer”. If it’s a haggis I’m happy. If it’s some strange concoction with many vegetables known only to the patrons of Waitrose, I’m less enthralled. I find it strange that these periodic purges seem to liberate no space whatsoever. All that’s happening is that the space is mysteriously filled in short order.

I say mysterious because I’m rarely allowed into supermarkets. The reason for this is that I have a habit of making whimsical purchases alongside the essentials. Things like custard creams, pains aux raisins from the bakery and obscure bits of animal from the deli. And now, under lockdown, is no time be buying stuff that won’t be of use in a time of starvation. In this house, as in the wild, it’s the lioness who goes hunting.

Although I have no involvement in the supply chain, I’m happy to say that we have the perfect regime of harmony and cooperation when it comes to cooking. Stuff I do, such as baking cakes, she doesn’t. Preparing veggies, her department. Making elaborate and sometimes disastrous sauces usually involving cream, my job, provided I remember to insert garlic. Doing the pasta, the rice and the spuds, her role, and much else besides

As the result each meal is a celebration of marital success, bathed in mutual congratulation, and unsullied by our elder daughter’s complaints about our overcooking the Sunday joint (no vegans here, I’m ashamed to admit). She, by the way, is a better cook than either of us. But for now, we are alone with our backward culinary habits.

Food is not generally a political issue, unless there’s a shortage of it. But here’s an interesting development. We all know that in the UK, Waitrose is the preferred outlet for the powerful and well-connected, including our revered Royal Family. Could it be that the store is trying to nudge its patrons towards a union with France, just as Winston Churchill proposed in the darkest hours of World War 2?

I ask this because yesterday my beloved came back with a bilingual tub of coleslaw. On one part of the container it says Red Cabbage. On another, in spidery fin de siècle writing, it proclaims Salade de Chou Rouge. As it happens, it’s not a Waitrose product, but I do wonder whether, in this our darkest hour, we are witnessing the beginning of a campaign.

If so, I heartily endorse it. Imagine tariff-free cognac, the seamless flow of camembert in our direction and custard creams in theirs, and the gorgeous cuisine of France just a visa-free train ride away.

Although we no longer have any say in political decisions in our country, most of us would surely acquiesce in a partial sharing of sovereignty if that meant unity with our nearest neighbour, provided of course that the other side agreed to the supremacy of our gracious Queen, who would thereby recover the territories lost by her feckless ancestors. Even the Brexiteers would be happy with that.

It’s time for bold decisions. Such a thought alone makes the lockdown more tolerable. That, and the pleasure of watching Rick Stein eating his way through France while I trudge away on my cross-trainer.

And since we’ve just realised that the squirrels in our loft appear to have been joined by pigeons, unity with France, given their imaginative methods of cooking both animals, seems to be ever more desirable.

And now I’ve just realised it’s Sunday. Oh joy! Roast lamb awaits…..

Corona Diaries: miracle cures for the president

Today there will be a gap in my life, and most likely in that of millions of Americans. Donald Trump, apparently, will not be appearing at the daily White House coronavirus briefing. But at least we now know why the president comes out with his series of innovative cures for the disease. It seems that he obsessively watches obscure TV channels that run ads and interviews with people who have come up with these cures. They also send emails, which his dutiful minions print out and shove under his nose just as he’s about to speak to the nation.

Then he turns up at the briefings, unbriefed, with the latest idea. He runs them past his medical advisers live on prime-time TV, giving us the supreme entertainment of watching Doctors Fauci and Birx putting themselves into an altered state in order to avoid the slightest micro-expression that might betray their amusement or exasperation.

The spectacle reminds me of the famous Biggus Dickus scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which Brian’s guards struggle to maintain their composure as Pontius Pilate discusses his friend’s interesting name. Not to mention that of his friend’s wife.

Anyway, in Mr Trump’s absence, I’ve been working on a set of flash cards that I shall be sending to the White House with the suggestion that one should be shown to him every day before his briefings. On each card, in very large lettering and with as few words of more than one syllable as possible, will be written a Cure of The Day.

I’m down to a short list of ten, from which I shall select the final deck of cards. These are:

  • Broccoli
  • Viagra
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Radium
  • Hypnosis
  • Magnets
  • Hair spray
  • Cigarettes
  • Bat’s urine
  • Camembert

The last, by the way, is my favourite. I’ll leave it to your imagination to work out the scientific basis of these cures. But suffice it to say, I have some wealthy and powerful backers, including members of the president’s own family, encouraging me with my research.

I’m also working on a new prophylactic device that will dramatically cut down infections. It’s called a fart filter. I designed it after reading recent research suggesting that flatulence spreads the virus. I referred to this theory in an earlier post a few weeks ago:

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

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

I posted that on February 25th, long before air transportation ground to a halt. I’d like to say that my prophetic skills equal my scientific and engineering expertise, but I won’t.

Now, it seems, the evidence has become compelling (or repelling, depending on your point of view). So I’ve been working on the fart filter day and night. It comes in two variants – one for when the user is wearing clothes, and the other for when they aren’t. Once it’s perfected I will be sending a consignment free of charge to the White House and to my home equivalent, 10 Drowning Street.

Hopefully I will be more fortunate than my fellow inventor, James Dyson, whose engineers have been toiling around the clock to build a new type of ventilator, only for the British government to tell him that it’s surplus to requirements. It’s a decision that will be likely to deter other inventor-entrepreneurs, but I am undeterred, because I have witchcraft on my side.

Speaking of witchcraft, I hear that Dominic Cummings, the government’s chief Boris-whisperer, has been attending the SAGE meetings. As far as I’m aware, sage is not one of the cures proposed to Donald Trump, but it’s quite popular here in Britain. It’s the code name for a secretive cabal of scientific advisors who tell Boris what he should or shouldn’t do to combat the virus. The two options – should or shouldn’t – appear to be interchangeable, which might explain the government’s frequent change of priorities.

Be that as it may, there have been expressions of horror among the scientific community that Mr Cummings, a political adviser, has been participating in these gatherings. I have some sympathy for him. Surely, at this time of crisis, science can’t be divorced from politics. Just as it would be wrong to ignore alternative solutions such as mine, but also more established techniques such as homeopathy, faith healing and praying to ancestors, there must be a place for witchcraft in the deliberations of the great and the good.

If he finds that his input is spurned, my advice to Mr Cummings is that he should head straight to the White House, where no doubt he will be warmly received.

And if he does, I’ll make sure he brings my flash cards with him. Hope springs eternal.

Corona Diaries: a book for our time

As we in Britain lament the closure of garden centres, and the matrons of America sob because they can’t go to the hairdresser, this is not a bad time to remember that there still are people in other parts of the world who would be grateful for the quiet lives we are living.

In China, there are Uyghurs in camps. In Burma, the Rohingya continue to be harassed by government forces. And in India millions of Muslims are fearing for their lives in the face of an onslaught by Hindu nationalist thugs. Not to mention millions of displaced people in the Middle East: in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Yemen, all living in fear of diseases far more deadly than the coronavirus.

Which brings me to a book that seeks to provide answers to an agonised question asked all across the Middle East: “what happened to us?”

I’m recommending it because it’s probably the most eloquently written and concise study I’ve come across of how the world, not just the Middle East, has changed over the past forty years. It’s called Black Wave. It’s written by Kim Ghattas, a journalist who was born in Lebanon, one of the counties most affected by the political and social earthquakes that have shook the region since 1979.

She frames the events in the book in terms of the regional rivalry between two countries with ambitions way beyond their borders: Iran and Saudi Arabia.

For some of us, everything changed in the Middle East after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, followed by the oil shock which dramatically accelerated Saudi Arabia’s wealth. That event, together with the Palestinian uprisings and attacks on Israel and the West caused us to keep an ever-wary eye on developments in the region.

But for Ghattas, the starting point was 1979, when three key events, two well known and the other less so, took place.

The first was the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the establishment of a theocratic state under Ayatollah Khomeini. A country that had been an ally of the West suddenly became, in the eyes of many, a constant threat to the stability of the world order.

The second was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This triggered an insurgency, funded by the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf and aided by covert assistance from the West, that was a major contributing factor in the downfall of the Soviet Union.

The third was the armed insurrection in Mecca by a group of ultra-conservative Sunni fanatics who believed that Saudi Arabia – and especially the royal family – were straying too far from the strict religious principles on which the Kingdom had been founded. As the price for the clergy’s support in putting down the rebellion, any moves towards social reform in that country abruptly ended.

In Iran, decades of relative social freedom, especially of artistic expression and most especially among women, ended just as abruptly. It seemed that the two countries, divided by a narrow strip of sea, were competing for the honour of being the true keepers of the flame of Islamic purity.

There was a difference, though. The regime in Tehran was Shia. Saudi Arabia’s rulers were Sunni. Although in the past there had been tensions between the two main schools of Islamic thought, nothing in living memory prepared the region for the sectarian strife that the rivalry between the two counties triggered. And that rivalry, according to Ghattas, was at the heart of almost all the conflict that has burned in the Middle East and its immediate vicinity ever since.

She focuses on events in the countries most affected by the struggle for supremacy. Lebanon, her homeland, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and, of course, the two main protagonists.

There’s little doubt where her sympathies lie. Not with Khomeini, or Zia-ul-Haq, the brutal military dictator of Pakistan, who turned his country away from its rich tradition of cultural and religious diversity and imported the religious ethos and practices of its main sponsor, Saudi Arabia. Not with the conservative influencers in Egypt who had returned to their country fattened by the wealth of Saudi Arabia and inculcated with the same austere intolerance of diversity.

Not with Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s proconsul who sought to extend his country’s influence and power across Iraq, Syria and, through Lebanon, to the Mediterranean. Not with the Saudi ruling family, who sought to compensate for their military weakness through alliances with the West and, predominantly, with the USA. The same rulers who, while the West turned a blind eye, at the same time used their oil wealth to extend their influence throughout the Muslim world by funding mosques and schools which served to spread their fundamentalist ethos, even in countries that previously had no such narrow traditions of worship.

In Pakistan, Zia instigated the first instances of persecution by Sunnis of the Shia minority since Pakistan came into being. They were not to be the last. Fuelled by the wealth of Iran and Saudi Arabia and through well-armed surrogates, Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict became endemic. At various times in the past forty years Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt and Pakistan have been ravaged by sectarian bigotry and war.

The heroes for Ghattas are the free thinkers. Not necessarily those who sought to emulate the ways of the West, but people who celebrated diversity of thought, the spirit of reason, inquiry and creativity that has always coexisted with turbulent political change among Arabs and Iranians. Many of them have ended up dead – assassinated or caught up in conflict. Some are still alive, but exiled from their home countries. And others are mouldering away in jails like Evin in Tehran and Hair in Riyadh.

For me, this book is personal. I spent much of the eighties in Saudi Arabia. And in 2007 I returned to the region for five years, first once again in the Kingdom and then in Bahrain. I willingly experienced the austere norms that Saudi Arabia imposed after the Mecca siege, though for me, as a privileged Westerner, much of that life went on outside the walls of the compounds that were my home. In Bahrain I lived through the Arab Spring protests, heard the bullets from my apartment balcony and visited the square where thousands of protesters were gathered.

Over those years of interaction with the Middle East I have met many people of various nationalities who identify as Sunni or Shia. Few of them were bigots or fanatics. Nor did they harbour deep-seated hatred for their fellow Muslims. They were and still are people who love their families, their language, their poets, their food and the rest of their rich cultural heritage. Above all, they want to live in peace. Some I’m still proud to call friends.

It still amazes me that their fellow-citizens could condone or actively participate in the repression and slaughter. But there are many factors that cause societies to shatter into mayhem. Kim Ghattas eloquently describes them, not just through the events that have caused so much shock and despair, but through the lives of the people who inspired them, caused them or rowed against the tide.

Much of what we in the West read about the Middle East is written by observers from without. Kim’s is a voice from within.

Muslims are not the only victims in her story. Christians in particular have seen the destruction of their homes and places of worship. A religious tradition that pre-dated Islam has few protectors in the region. It has been reduced to small enclaves. Those shrines which survive are ones that even the fiercest fanatics would fear to destroy.

I don’t think of myself as particularly religious, though, as Tom Holland maintains in Dominion, his magnificent study of Christian belief and its legacy, I accept that my culture and values are profoundly shaped by religious thought. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t imagine living in a world without faith, and without the music, the art, the literature and the architecture that have been inspired by faith. And why my lukewarm feelings about religious dogma has never stopped me from respecting and often loving friends whose lives are defined by their faith.

In that spirit, at the beginning of a month that unites all Muslims, and as we all face a virus that doesn’t care a jot about which God we worship, I wish my Muslim friends Ramadan Mubarak.

Corona Diaries: obsessive-compulsive, or obsessive-repulsive?

One of the strange effects of lockdown is the repetitive behaviour it induces, in me at least. You might call it obsessive-compulsive, but I prefer obsessive-repulsive, since any new activity I start to perform without giving much thought as to why I’m doing it seems pretty repellent to my rational self.

Let me give you one or two examples.

Having spent a couple of days sorting out my books into subject categories and in order of author’s names I anxiously look at books that escaped the great reconfiguration, such as those in our bedroom, which sit in a nice little bookshelf. I work out where each book should be, and have to force myself to leave them where they are, because an empty bookcase is not only unattractive but suggests an empty mind. Then I curse myself for being an incorrigible book snob.

Next is the patio burner, which is an evil little tool my beloved brought me last year for the purpose of burning off the weeds that grow between paving stones on our patio. It’s basically a small flame thrower to which you attach a canister of butane gas. When you light it, it gives off a satisfying hiss. You point it at the offending dandelions, moss and grass, and it incinerates them, with an equally satisfying crackle, in seconds.

She bought it on the basis that it was less environmentally harmful than weed killer, which I suppose it is, though whether the burning butane does more harm to the environment than killing the earth is debatable. I love it, but the point at which love has turned into obsession was when I started to prowl around the patio, burner in hand, ready to zap the smallest green shoot that had the impudence to raise its leaves in the twenty-four hours since my last patrol.

Worse still, I’ve taken to zapping the places where the ants hang out in the hope that I can stop them visiting our kitchen, which they often do at this time of year. Deforestation is one thing, but incinerating the habitats of small creatures feels well beyond the pale.

Then there’s the roses. Last year I bought several rose plants from the local garden centre. They produced magnificent flowers right through until October, when the leaves started dropping off. This spring, as you would expect, they’ve produced gorgeous green foliage. The rosebuds are busy swelling in the sun. BUT, dark spots have appeared on some of the leaves. They’re turning yellow and dropping off. Not fast enough for my liking, so I’m out there with my clippers cutting them away because I want PERFECT ROSES. I haven’t gone so far as watering them every day, because that would be the last step before full-blown insanity. But really….

I guess most of us have hands red from incessant washing. I’ve taken things a stage further. No, I’m not microwaving the newspaper, but I am waiting for three hours before reading it. And I leave any deliveries for twenty-four hours before opening them.

And there’s the cross-trainer. I’ve managed to survive a decade without using the bloody thing. Now I go upstairs every evening and pound away for thirty minutes. That’s 300 calories, or a large piece of cake in old money. Now I’ve got into the routine, I find it hard to break it. If I miss one night, I feel stricken with guilt, even after doing the obligatory half-hour walk around town.

Next, boiled eggs. We get our eggs where and when we can. Small and large, white and brown. I’m good at boiled eggs, but I’m having to be obsessively agile in order to get the timing right depending on the size. I’ve developed a finely-tuned sense of the right time for boiling each size variant. I stand over the eggs looking at my watch. I’m acutely aware that in the time it takes to spoon the eggs out of the water, the last egg will be harder than the first one. Doctor, why does this bother me? I must be ill.

Oh yes, and I almost forgot. In the time between putting the eggs on the hob and the water reaching boiling point, I have just enough time to empty the dishwasher. Such brilliant use of empty time! After all, there’s no time to waste in a lockdown, is there?

Then finally, there’s this blog. When things started getting serious, I decided that I would post something every day. Not a single paragraph and some pretty photos, nor someone else’s video, but a proper piece of original prose around the theme of the coronavirus. So far I’ve managed to stick to my resolution, though it’s for you, my reader, to decide whether I’m producing a stream of drivel or something worth reading. A bit of both perhaps. But the point is that I now feel that if I fail to come up with a daily post, I’ve let myself down. For in this moment when everything is turning upside down, there’s surely something worth saying every day.

So is this collection of tics, foibles and fads the beginning of a mental illness that will afflict me for years to come? Nah. Put it down to a bout of temporary insanity. When I finally emerge, blinking and faltering, back into the crowded streets, I shall be just as haphazard and disorganised as I always was.

Though I call these corona-inspired obsessions repulsive, in some ways they’re a throwback to an earlier age. Back to boarding school, in which the daily routine, from dawn to dusk, was pre-ordained and immutable. Even if the daily tasks are self-imposed rather than dictated by an institution, there’s a certain comfort to endless routine.

Perhaps without knowing it, I’m even preparing for the day, hopefully a couple of decades away, when I sink into the routine of a care home from which I never emerge. But that would be fine, because most likely I wouldn’t even realise that I’m in a routine.

Corona Diaries: the over-seventies and “needs must”

Mary Beard, my favourite professor (apart from my brother, of course) came up with an interesting observation in her blog piece in yesterday’s Times Literary supplement.

What if the government, in its anxiety to get the nation working again, decides that there are “more important things than living”, as a Texas politician has famously said? As a result, everyone over seventy must stay at home until further notice, and everyone else is free to flounce around infecting each other?

Mary’s own situation – she is under 70 and her husband is past that point – leads her to ask by what logic she should be allowed out, only to come home and infect him.

Both my beloved and I are under 70. I am forever 59, as my blog title suggests, but if I happened to be 69, would I suddenly face internment on my next birthday? Perhaps I would get another letter from Boris Johnson, or more likely a stern letter from the local constabulary telling me to get my arse back home.

And should I be bold enough to venture out, will there an Oldie Squad scanning the motorways looking for geriatric drivers? Will I have to duck behind a hedge to avoid tut-tutting joggers?

As Mary says, we’re very confused about the elderly at the moment. One minute we praise them. Captain Tom raises millions for the NHS. The oldest man in the world is British, and we marvel at his ability to string together a few meaningful sentences. And as the oldies die of COVID-19, grandchildren tell us what wonderful people they were.

The next moment they’re bed blockers. They’re a burden on the state. We might worry about the over-70s being allowed to die in the pandemic, but the over-90s? Let’s not waste oxygen, ICU beds and PPE kit on them. They’ve had their time.

Even 99-year-old Captain Tom might get it in the neck. You could argue that he’s been manipulated, though goodness knows by whom. A captain is a junior officer in the army. He would surely not use that title when referring to himself. Even someone calling themselves major, the next rank up, comes over as slightly ridiculous. Someone else has given it to him for branding purposes. He most likely wouldn’t know how to set up a Just Giving page. Someone else set it up for him. All he’s done is repeatedly walk up and down a garden. He’s probably bewildered at all the fuss, even though I’m sure he’s enjoying the attention.

Back in the land of the under-seventies, I wouldn’t be surprised if the good captain isn’t making a few people feel rather jealous. I might run a marathon a day for 60 days, climb the ten highest mountains in the world or walk from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego to raise money for charity, and what do I raise? A few thousand, a few tens of thousands? Then this doddery old chap comes along, slides his zimmer frame up and down his garden, and he’s raised £20 million! He’s feted as a champion and will probably get a gong from the Queen. Where’s the justice in that?

I don’t share such churlish thoughts, of course. He’s a symbol, a focus for our generosity, a virus of hope.

In terms of acclaim if not achievement, he’s the Francis Chichester of our age. Anyone remember him, by the way? The world’s first solo round-the-world yachtsman. His voyage, completed in 1967, took him nine months. He was so famous that he made it on to a postage stamp, a rare honour at the time. One of the reasons why he was so feted in Britain was that he was seen as a shining example of what the elderly could achieve. Which shows what low expectations we had of the elderly – both in terms of lifespan and vigour – back then. He was 66 when he came sailing back to England.

Different times, different circumstances.

But it does seem sad that we can adore Captain Tom and yet sigh with regret as the 90-year-olds are allowed to die in care homes. Needs must, it seems.

Needs must also when we’re told that we shouldn’t wear face masks, even if they stop us spreading the virus, because the science isn’t conclusive. Whereas the real reason is that there aren’t enough masks to go round because it has failed to procure them, and it doesn’t want to deprive NHS staff of their much-needed equipment.

Needs must also that we should keep the vibrant, lively, energetic elderly locked away while the rest of us bound happily out into the streets again, should things turn out that way.

Needs must means do the expedient thing. I’m not about to call out this or that government for mistakes they have made during this pandemic (well, not in this post anyway), even if I have the heartiest contempt for the people we in the UK – and our cousins in the US for that matter – have elected.

Governments make mistakes because they’re made up of human beings. But if I make a mistake, it’s far less likely to affect the lives of millions of people than if our leaders screw up. Whether they’re forgiven or excoriated, their mistakes can’t be unmade.

But what sticks in my throat is when those governments fail to admit that they’re driven by expediency, and try to dress up grim necessity with platitudes and pious expressions of principle.

But is it right to demand total honesty of governments in extreme situations? Would we British have thanked Winston Churchill for telling us how dire things were in 1940? Or, in that scenario beloved of disaster movies, if the asteroid is heading towards us and promising certain death, should we be told of our fate and left to make our peace with our maker, at the risk of mass panic and civic chaos, or should we be left in blissful ignorance until the end?

Surely there’s a balance to be struck in the information that needs to be released. But where that balance is laced with untruths, as Donald Trump, America’s demented cheerleader, has discovered, the result can be toxic.

I suspect that when The Recriminator puts the current crop of leaders on trial for their missteps in the current crisis, it will not just be their mistakes for which they’re damned for posterity, but also their obvious, frightened and stupid lies.

Corona Diaries: if engineers and scientists can do it, why not educators?

“Mummy, Daddy, what’s a pandemic?”

“Hush child, Mummy and Daddy are enjoying a nice quiet glass of wine. If you’re really interested, here’s a good book about the last time this happened. It’s called Pale Rider. Come to think of it, here’s another good book called The Tipping Point. It explains why everyone in your class loves Peppa Pig.”

That might be the script for one of those talking baby videos, or some insane cartoon along the lines of The Simpsons. I only mention it because I had an equally insane thought the other night. I was thinking about how tough it must be for locked-down mums and dads to assist in the education of their kids at home.

To maintain some semblance of the national curriculum must involve chaining them to a table for those online classes, and wracking brains to retrieve some memory of Henry VIII, algebraic expressions, adverbs and cloud formations.

But what if we did something different?

The idea is this. If we have engineers who are capable of designing medical equipment from scratch in a few days, and scientists who can develop vaccines in one hundredth of the time it normally takes, surely there are enough fertile brains around who could rapidly develop a Pandemic Curriculum that would help kids to make sense of the economic, scientific and political dimensions of an event that in a few short months has changed their world.

You could argue that there are plenty of adults who would also benefit from such an education. All the more reason to develop something that would engage both kids and grown-ups.

Given that for most students there will be no exams this summer, we have an unprecedented opportunity to chuck out the normal curriculum and replace it with something that doesn’t just help kids understand how the new world works, but gives them some of the life skills they will need when the doors open again.

So here are a few things we could focus on:

How do viruses spread? And by extension, how do trends, fashions and fads go mainstream? Which of course is where Gladwell’s Tipping Point comes in. Get students to design a simple mathematical model that shows what it takes for something to “go viral”. Learn about assumptions, and how they can derail predictions.

Design your own vaccine. This could be a puzzle in which you set out to stop a virus in its tracks. Could be on a computer (good for gamers?) or with physical objects depending on the age group.

Create a video public health campaign. Home-made rainbows are only a starting point. Students could collaborate online with their friends, pets and parents to create stuff far more effective than endlessly repeated government slogans. There could be a competition for the best video per age group, and tutorials from furloughed film producers on video techniques.

Spot the fake news. Use the blizzard of online information on COVID-19 to analyse and sort the results into probable, possible and fake. In the process, learn about provenance, motivation and propagation. Who’s behind this shit, and why?

Create a pandemic budget. Learn about debt, what governments pay for, how they raise money and how they spend it. Then create your own budget.

Design the re-entry. How would you get things back to normal? What would you open first, and why? How would you avoid a new lockdown? Work with your classmates to develop your own plan.

Create a charity. Think about how the world will be different after the pandemic. What sort of charities will be needed when there’s not so much money around? Design a new one that will deal with different needs – perhaps loneliness, staying healthy, self-sufficiency, community cooperation, green issues.

Those are just a few ideas based on things that are likely to keep adults awake at night. Is it better to keep the young in a state of blissful ignorance, or get them thinking now about dealing with the real issues that will face them as they grow into adults?

Some aspects of the established curriculum – the three Rs for example – should continue as designed. But as for the rest, Adolf Hitler, Shakespeare, trigonometry and photosynthesis can surely wait for a few months. Our kids need to learn some different stuff right now.

I’m not a teacher, though I’ve designed a few courses and trained a few adults – both young and old – in my time. So I know enough to imagine what could be achieved, even if I don’t have the pedagogic skills to deliver it.

But there are enough smart educators around who might have some time on their hands and who do have those skills. So what are you waiting for? If the Mercedes Formula 1 team can invent a CPAP oxygenator in days, surely you can create an alternative curriculum in similarly short order that will revitalise all those bored kids and mooning teenagers stuck at home with their tetchy parents?

Getting the bureaucrats onside would be no easy task, I know. But if you’re in Britain, how about getting Dominic Cummings to sponsor a course on Red Teams and super-forecasting? That might persuade him to kick Gavin Williamson and his Blob into action.

As I said the other day, we need to stop blaming (at least for now) and start doing. There’s an educational opportunity out there which, unless there’s a lot of stuff already in train that I’m not aware of, is going begging.

And by the way, if you think I’m obsessing about education only in Britain, my country, this is an international opportunity. How great would it be to see kids working on a pandemic curriculum with their counterparts elsewhere in the world? That would teach our politicians a thing or two about overcoming inward-looking national stereotypes.

It’s not too late. Let’s get to work!

Corona Diaries: ah g’won, take another one, just to be sure!

My parents, Velden 1962

You might think from the title of this post that I’m writing about some poisonous medication that Donald Trump is urging his people to take. Actually, it’s about my next Man Project, which is sorting the photos.

It’s difficult to concentrate on anything on when my beloved is banging on the eves and rattling the rafters like a demented exorcist in a vain attempt to repel the resident squirrel, with shrieks of “out, out!” and “shoo!” interlaced with words I couldn’t possibly repeat on this very well-mannered blog.

But needs must, so regardless of the background noise I’m starting to assemble folders of pics from old laptops and internal disc drives.

I did a similar exercise once before, but that was back in 2002, before digital photography really took a grip. Using a scanner and a clunky old desktop with a large (for that time) disk, I spent weeks digitising family pictures.

I started with daguerreotypes of ancient forbears, most of them dressed up like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and glowering sternly alongside their cowed offspring at the camera. I then moved on to the jauntier Edwardian photos, and then to the Brownie era, as grandparents and their friends posed at tea parties, on windswept hills and on daring visits to Paris.

My arrival, and that of my siblings coincided with colour. My father’s Kodachrome slides were of even more daring holidays – skiing trips (as above), Gibraltar, Austria and Paris again, along with much-loved Cornwall and North Wales. There were slides of home, many of them from the garden in the huge house he bought for three thousand quid in 1956, and then lost ten years later when his career broke into smithereens.

And cars, each of them slightly bigger than the previous one, attested to the rise in his fortunes, far more impressive than the old green Volvo he drove at the end of his life, whose dodgy suspension led me to suggest to him that it had had a stroke, at which he roared with laughter.

The slides continued after I left home, but gradually gave way to more modest colour prints, which he continued to take until he died.

I, on the other hand, became someone rarely photographed. Even if, as the current fad demands, I’d wanted to post a picture of myself at twenty on Twitter, I wouldn’t have been able to find one. What our kids don’t realise is that for those with limited means photographs were not cheap. I probably have as many passport photos from that decade as I have normal snapshots.

Then, as I turned thirty, came Saudi Arabia, which meant more money, and, though not necessarily as a consequence, marriage and kids. And loads of photos. So it was for the next couple of decades before the first clunky digital cameras came on the market, a few years after those massive, brick-shaped mobile phones.

Which takes us to the point at which I digitised the few thousand extant family photos, put them on CDs and sent them to my siblings. My wife contributed a stack of similar photos from her family, which introduced an Irish dimension to the archive. Job done, I thought.

Since then, of course, the phone camera gradually gained its stranglehold. We have cameras all over the house, from big SLRs and pocket models, all sadly neglected, testaments to the death of an industry. My kids went semi-retro at first. They persuaded us to buy them big digital cameras that looked much like the old ones, but even they have largely abandoned them in favour of the seductive charms of Apple and Android.

So in this time of plague, I’ve decided to assemble memories of the past eighteen years from our vast junkyard of digital pics. There are several reasons why this will not be as simple a project as the original one.

First, every picture has about six analogues. Whereas in days gone by, unless you were a professional, you wouldn’t dream of wasting a roll of film on one subject out of fear that you didn’t get the subject right the first time. Now it’s “ah g’won, take another one just in case”. And another one, and so on ad nauseam. Which means that of ten thousand pics, nine thousand are virtual duplicates that you must delete unless you’re prepared to scroll through them to get to the next subject.

Our offspring are even more prolific than us. Our first and only grandson is two and a bit. His mother must have at least twenty thousand photos of him. It’s not as if one day he goes paragliding and the next disappears down a pothole. Out of those twenty thousand you could maybe get down to a couple of hundred worth saving for posterity as markers of his development and all-round lovable cuteness. But our daughter wouldn’t agree. For her, every picture is sacred.

Second, the job of assembling them is daunting. Every so often, I dump stuff from the mobile on to the laptop. But I often fail to delete them from the mobile, or I forget which I’ve copied over. So every successive dump contains duplicates, all of which must be weeded out before one even gets to the job of putting them in some kind of order. Also, when you copy them over, depending on how you do it there’s a risk that the files immediately acquire the date on which they were copied, rather than when they were taken.

Third, how do you categorise them? By date, month, year, event, human subject(s)? Do you leave the job to a photo app, that hoovers up all your pics from everywhere and dumps them into a set of simplistically predetermined silos? Or do you do it the hard way?

And finally, if you have so many pics, and your memory is fading, how do you place those people and events into any kind of context without obvious clues as to when and where they were taken? With thirty thousand photos, how long would it take for you to label each one with “Bert, Joe and Glenda at Grandad’s sixtieth wedding anniversary, 1936” as our ancestors did on the back of their snaps. And who the hell were Bert, Joe and Glenda anyway?

So despite the myriad of images, you’re still reliant on the unreliable memories of the elderly to untangle the web of relationships that the images represent. And, frighteningly, the unreliable memories now belong to us.

Is this herculean effort even worth worrying about? Why should our kids and their kids want to know about some party we went to in 1993, about who was there and who threw up over who? Why should we be over-curious about their parties, and what terrifying things they did on their holidays?

At any other time than now, perhaps I would leave these random images to fester where they lie, like the contents of an ancient drain in Pompeii. If they disappeared for whatever reason, there would be literally trillions more that will give digital archaeologists more than enough material to gain a comprehensive picture of what life was like before the pandemic sent the world as we knew it tumbling down.

But for my own satisfaction I’m going to sort them out anyway, no matter who cares or not. Because if I’m ever tempted to feel sorry for myself at this time of isolation, I can be reminded that my life up to now has been pretty damn good, and if the coronavirus were to bring it to a premature end, I’d have very little to complain about.

Corona Diaries: The Recriminator – a new role for Arnie

Here we go then. A little early in the game perhaps, but the recrimination engine is cranking up. Everyone’s getting in on the act, from conspiracy theorists to big-ticket mainstream journalists.

The recipe is familiar. A large dollop of cover-up, a strong flavour of deep state and a seasoning of insanity and espionage. The standard defence of “we are where we are. Let’s get the crisis over with before we start asking awkward questions” is crumbling before The Recriminator – an Arnie Schwarzenegger decked out with a titanium PPE suit slashing away at an army of lily-livered apologists.

Exhibit A is the origin conundrum, which is bubbling away nicely. Even the big newspapers are unable to figure out who to blame, apart from China in general. Ben Macintyre in yesterday’s Times gives us chapter and verse on the KGB’s campaign to pin AIDS on the CIA, and the fact the myth is still alive today. Today’s Sunday Times tells us about the Wuhan Bat Woman, in whose lab COVID-19 was allegedly brewed and accidentally released.

Donald Trump, in characteristic fashion, wavers between praising Chairman Xi for China’s transparency and mumbling “we’ll see” – his usual response when he hasn’t a clue and realises he should have a clue – about reports that the bug originated in the notorious Wuhan lab.

Then there’s Exhibit B: those who fiddled while Rome burned – or at least when the first few tenements went up in flames. Boris Johnson’s enjoyment of his extended recuperation at Chequers probably diminished a little when he learned, also from the Sunday Times, that he failed to attend five COBRA meetings before he got sick, some of them at weekends.

If this is true, I have some sympathy for him. Leaders, or anybody else for that matter, forced by circumstances or the expectations of others to work 12 hours a day seven days a week, especially when they live on top of the shop, sooner or later become in danger of losing a sense of perspective. The occasional day of leisure and reflection will surely be of greater benefit than attending endless meetings in which much is discussed but little achieved. Besides, even Winston took the odd day off.

The same newspaper accuses the British government of “sleepwalking into a pandemic catastrophe.” It may be true that Johnson and company wallowed in a warm bath of complacency for three critical weeks, but equally true is that we as an electorate have also sleepwalked. We slumbered into Brexit, and last year elected the most incompetent bunch of politicians in two generations to serve as our government. You might not agree with that suggestion, but I would argue that our sleepwalking took the form of the suspension of critical faculties. We followed our dreams rather than objectively drawing conclusions from a number of self-evident realities.

So we might gleefully pronounce that “it’s the government’s fault”, but we should accept that it’s our fault too.

Yes, we’re into a four-way blame cycle, in which everyone blames everyone else – involving the politicians, the scientists, the bureaucrats and the public.

What of leadership? As The Recriminator dons his gleaming armour, we in the United Kingdom have been parading one hapless, rabbit-in-the-headlights minister after another, and a stream of compliant scientists prepped to deliver the same slogans. Boris Johnson, more by accident than design, sits above the fray.

Exhibit C is in US, where the situation is slightly different. Donald Trump has assumed the role of Recriminator-in-Chief. Every day, seemingly without rhyme or reason, he finds someone else to blame for his government’s lame response. The fake news media, China, the Democrats and anyone else who dares to distract attention from himself. His advisers crowd around him, some struggling to keep a straight face. Others, like Mike Pence, adopt expressions of blank piety. And poor old Dr Fauci puts himself through an Olympiad of carefully chosen words in his attempt to tell the truth without criticising his boss.

In Germany we have Angela Merkel, who shows her scientific rigour as she calmly spells out the consequences of each week of early lockdown on the German health system in a manner that even the dimmest of us can understand, yet without condescending to the logically challenged. If things go pear-shaped in her country she will be in trouble, at least in terms of her mental health, as the inner politician points fingers at the inner scientist and vice versa.

Very few leaders will emerge from this crisis with a clean bill of health as far as their people are concerned, because the pandemic offers huge opportunities for their opponents to criticise them. But it does look as though female leaders (as in Merkel, Ardern in New Zealand and one or two others), will emerge with more credit than their male counterparts. Which is not surprising, given that all the strong men are men.

If we’re going to ascribe blame not on the basis of the evident human failings of the decision-makers but instead on cold, hard data, we’re going to have to wait for a very long time. Or so says my brother, who is a leading academic in the field of medical statistics. In a phone conversation this morning he suggested that this pandemic will be the subject of PhD theses for the next twenty years.

The haphazard way in which infection data is collected, analysed and interpreted around the world makes it ridiculously premature to come to any certain conclusions either on infection control or the efficacy of treatments. In other words, most countries are doing it their way, which is very British of them, but also rather strange, because I thought the World Health Organisation had provided frameworks for such research. More fool me, but I wouldn’t join Donald Trump in blaming them, because persuading all the scientists and politicians to adopt a common approach must be like herding cats.

Be that as it may, The Recriminator won’t wait for data. He’s already well into his stride, and no doubt he won’t be satisfied until the heads start to roll, regardless of how long it takes. But no matter how many victims he claims, it will only be an entertaining sideshow, because in most countries the die is cast. People will keep dropping, and the pandemic will end when it’s good and ready.

Though blaming someone else makes us feel good, doesn’t it?

Corona Diaries: the hippo and the birds

One of the interesting things about the reaction in the United States to the pandemic is how protest groups against the lockdowns in various states seem to pop up out of nowhere. Except that they’re not out of nowhere.

Whatever you think of the lifestyles of people labelled as Trump’s “base”, there’s no doubt that there’s a groundswell of discontent – perhaps not just among them – at the severity of the measures. People are pissed off that they can’t go to malls, go to church, go to the beach and invite each other to barbecues.

There’s nothing new about protests in America. I’m old enough to remember the civil rights marches and the Vietnam war demonstrations in the Sixties and Seventies. If you supported those protest movements, you can’t complain if people whose politics are far from your own turn out to register their discontent in public about a current issue.

But there’s a difference. And it lies in how quickly the mass media of the time enabled the virus of protest to spread. Two hundred years ago, it would have taken quite a lot of effort to organise protests in multiple cities more or less simultaneously. Think about it. No internet, TV, radio, means of rapid transportation. News would travel as fast as a horse could go. It took three days for official word of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo to reach London.

Even in the sixties, grass-roots protests – as the gatherings in Michigan, Ohio and other states appear to be – would have been organised by word of mouth, leaflets, posters and small meetings. Only when they became newsworthy would their impact be amplified by radio and TV. And as even today Fox News has amply demonstrated in its relationship with Trump and his base, public reaction to protest was heavily influenced by political views held by wealthy owners of newspapers, TV networks and radio stations.

Nowadays you don’t need to be William Randolph Hearst or even Rupert Murdoch to start a riot or two. Savvy use of the social media will buy you previously undreamed-of influence, as a bunch of Russians showed before the 2016 presidential election when they organised a protest in the US by the use of fake identities on Facebook. It also helps if you have a few billions at your disposal, because you can use your money to spread discontent in a number of ways – Facebook ads, bot campaigns on Twitter and funding for lobbyists, pressure groups, political action committees and so forth.

Whereas Murdoch through Fox News can influence opinion through the drip-drip repetition of selective information and outright lies, any old billionaire can ignite the fire. Robert Mercer, a former IBM computer scientist turned hedge fund magnate, proved that when he funded Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica, two organisations that played a major part in persuading America to elect Donald Trump and Britain to reject the European Union.

It took the Nazis eleven years to reach power in Germany. It took Donald Trump two years to gain the presidency. Who’s to say that over the next few days, with the tacit approval of Trump and the money of people like Mercer, we won’t see the preening exhibitionism of a few rifle-toting good ole boys turn into mass civil disobedience, with armed mobs storming statehouses and governors’ mansions in an attempt to force state administrations to uphold the right to go to shopping malls?

And what then? Armed insurrection? The collapse of the rule of law? The National Guard called out? The military?

By way of context, perhaps we should cast our minds back to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, or specifically around the time of the attempted coup against Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s subsequent accession. The country was in chaos. The value of the rouble had collapsed. Public servants were not paid for long periods. Nuclear scientists were touting their expertise to the highest bidder. The former constituents of the USSR who had weapons on their territories suddenly became nuclear powers. As Yeltsin launched his reforms, large industrial concerns found themselves in the hands of oligarchs, many of whom worked hand-in-hand with organised crime.

Those of us who welcomed the end of the Cold War looked on with horror and trepidation. Order was eventually restored, but at the cost of many of the new liberties that Russians won after the collapse of Soviet authority.

To compare post-Soviet Russia with virus-stricken America would be to invite ridicule. And yet, watching the early signs of America’s disintegration under the weight of the pandemic, exacerbated by a catastrophic lack of leadership from the federal administration, it’s hard to avoid a sense of diminishing certainty among those of us outside the US, for whom, for better or worse, America is a bedrock of global equilibrium.

We – speaking for those in Europe and beyond who have known centuries of disconcerting change, instability and war – may not have liked all of America’s policy decisions and their consequences over the past seventy years. But to contemplate life without its massive presence would be almost unthinkable.

Now, as some Americans worry about whether Trump will find a reason to postpone or even cancel this year’s elections, as individual states form alliances to take concerted action against the virus independently of the federal government and as law and order is threatened with the apparent connivance of the president, the world suddenly feels wobbly in a way that it hasn’t since those days following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Just as the hippo in the picture has a symbiotic relationship with the birds that keep it free of ticks, America, its friends and trading partners each benefit from their long-standing relationships. If the hippo gets sick or dies, the birds will find another hippo on which to feed.

In the geopolitical world, that is already starting to happen. But will the birds find the new hippo as hospitable as the old one?

Perhaps before long we we might start to find out.

Corona Diaries: three more weeks – national resilience and cultural DNA

Three more weeks! What the hell are we going to do? Three more weeks of po-faced politicians and sanctimonious scientists repeating the same bloody slogans, and saying “today I can announce…” followed by yet another target that will never be achieved.

Three more weeks of videos – silly, heart-warming and heart-breaking. Of watching the news on telly every night. Of narcissistic celebs posting pictures of themselves at 20. Of tut-tutting at neighbours who don’t come out from behind their hedges to applaud the NHS. Of cooking bizarre sauces never previously known to man, usually with olives.

Three more weeks of domestic projects – painting woodwork, vacuuming crannies undisturbed since the fall of Troy, plotting evil things against the squirrels in the loft.

Time for a Captain Tom-style challenge perhaps. Three reruns of the entire Sopranos canon in a week while exercising on the cross-trainer? Memorising the entire script of The Life of Brian, with accents? Replying to every tweet from Donald Trump with an entirely new species of insults not seen before on the social media? Or perhaps a set of photos showing the progress of paint drying, taken every minute for three hours and posted on Facebook.

I fear that none of these worthy activities will raise £12 million for the NHS, but they might be fun in a grim kind of way. Better than emulating polar bears that bang their heads against walls in zoos.

No doubt we will knuckle down, just like the French, the Italians and the Spanish. By the way, I never thought that stoicism would emerge as part of the Italian character. From all the reports I’ve seen, the people of that beautiful country are responding to disaster with grace, dignity and resignation. Not so many people are singing from balconies, but they do have Andrea Bocelli, and they’re hanging in there.

Not so, it seems, in certain parts of America. In Ohio and Michigan there have been flag-decked cavalcades of cars, their drivers hooting horns in misery at not being allowed to visit the hairdressers and buy plant seeds. “My gaad, the only place we can shop is Walmart!”. On that score, I can understand their frustration.

Then there are the usual troupes of gun-toting extras from Planet of the Apes posing on the steps of civic buildings, brandishing their AR-14s atop bellies straining to break through their hunting jackets.

Now here’s a thought. New York is the city that’s suffering most in the US. As far as I’m aware the Big Apple has seen no such outbursts of libertarian exuberance. New Yorkers are behaving much as we Europeans are in London, Paris, Milan and Barcelona. Why should this be?

I do have an explanation, or rather a theory. Of all the cities in the continental United States, New York is the only one that in recent memory has suffered the trauma of burning buildings and bodies falling in the streets. 9/11 happened not so long ago, so there are plenty of people with vivid memories of that dreadful event. Have those memories conditioned their response to this crisis, and given them a resilience that other American cities lack?

And what of our cities? Most of us don’t remember the East End of London burning and the destruction of Coventry in the Second World War. Likewise, few of the people of Barcelona living today witnessed the Spanish Civil War. But it’s pretty clear to me that memories passed on through generations have re-written our cultural DNA, so that even without a well of personal experience we seem to be showing the same resilience in the face of an invisible threat as our forebears did as they coped with the all-too-obvious danger of incendiaries and high explosives.

Some of us in each of the four European countries most affected by the coronavirus have more recently experienced the fruits of terrorism, but nothing on the scale of the war that people like Captain Tom witnessed.

If the effect of cultural DNA stretches back that far, you would also expect the people of Richmond, Atlanta and Charleston, cities that suffered grievously in the American Civil War, to show the same qualities of stoicism and resilience as New York. But perhaps not every part of America, especially cities and states that might have lost their sons in foreign wars but have been untouched by tangible disaster on their doorsteps.

The idea of cultural DNA is not mine, I should point out. A few years ago, a chap called Gurnek Bains wrote a stimulating book on the subject. I reviewed it here, in case you’re interested. It’s quite a long post, but it gets to the point eventually.

I might be maligning the good people of Ohio and Michigan, by the way. Reports on the protests have suggested that they’ve been inspired by right-wing pressure groups funded by various billionaires. Which ones I can’t say, because I haven’t delved into the story deeply enough. But it could be that the honking cavalcades and loping gunmen have nothing to do with the resilience of the population and everything to do with polarising influence directly or indirectly inspired by you know who.

Fortunately, at the risk of sounding complacent, deeply divided as we British are politically, there’s nothing the political fringes can exploit that’s likely to bring us out on the streets. Over the past few years, the usual stuff about inequality, incompetent government and how it’s all the EU’s fault has left us too exhausted at this point to stream out of our homes in anger and risk PC Plod’s retribution.

We also have secret weapons that keep us relatively calm. We have loo rolls from Tesco. We have a highly-developed sense of humour. And if we don’t exactly share a sense of national unity, we can and do unite in admiration for all the steadfast people who, despite their fear for their own personal safety, are keeping us fed, getting us to work and saving our lives.

That focus on people who have it worse than most of us will probably be enough to see us through the next few weeks and beyond. The lack of hairdressers? Not a problem for me, I’m glad to say.

Corona Diaries: the secret of lockdown – balance input with output

One or two people have asked me why I’ve dramatically jacked up the frequency of posts over the past couple of corona-afflicted months. Am I writing about the pandemic as a form of self-administered therapy? Do I imagine that churning out a post a day, as opposed to once or twice a week, will be any less boring to the people who encounter this blog?

The answer is simple. It’s a matter of balancing input with output. At a time like this, locked at home with no children to educate and no work to perform, it’s easy to sink into input only – TV, books, social media, games, videos, sudoku or whatever else takes your fancy.

We have plenty to do. All those home projects that normally get put off. And they’re great. Very satisfying in fact. But many of them are fairly mechanical. Sorting out books, cleaning patios, painting woodwork. They don’t exactly tax the mind.

Writing about all the strange things that are happening at the moment is my way of making sense – to my own satisfaction at least – of the experience.

I’ve never written a diary before, and I’m not sure that what I’m writing under the heading of Corona Diaries actually is a diary. Be that as it may, I’m making sure that I’m capturing my thoughts at an interesting time. I wish I’d done so at other moments of crisis. Cuba in 1963; the 3-day week in 1973; various wars and financial crashes. During good times as well. The 1966 World Cup, the moon landings, the fall of the Berlin Wall. And personal landmarks – getting married, the arrival of children and so forth.

Seventeen years ago, just before he died, I spent three hours recording on video a conversation with my father. My mother was there too, but he did most of the talking. I asked him a hundred questions about his life. One of them was about how he felt about the threat that Hitler posed in the late 1930s. His answer was that he would have done anything to stop a war, which he freely admitted put him in the appeasement camp.

How much better if he’d been able to point me towards a diary of the time. Not that his thoughts expressed in 1939 would have been a substitute for a video that showed much more than a narrative. But diaries, if they’re honestly written, can give a much more accurate view than 60-year-old recollections.

My memories of events such as Cuba, Berlin and the Gulf Wars consist of fragments, not consistent thought. Wondering whether I’d wake up the next morning in October 1962. Looking at a newspaper headline on Kennedy’s assassination in wonderment at the size of the typeface. As time went on, I can recall more coherent thoughts – on Vietnam, Nixon, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini and Brezhnev. But how much of what I think I remember reflects who I am today as opposed to the person witnessing the events at the time?

I suspect that for most of us diaries are unimportant. We’re at an interesting transition point where, even if we don’t leave a formal written account, the evidence of what we think, feel and do is quite abundant, but only if we use the social media. Assuming the data doesn’t disappear into a virtual crematorium at some stage, if in fifty years’ time you wanted to know how your parents reacted to some event in their lives, you would probably have to assemble the evidence from a digital patchwork of photos, likes and fragmentary comments on the back of other people’s input.

Going back to my father, would he have “liked” a contemporary Facebook clip of the General Strike, or Chamberlain’s “Peace in Our Time” speech at Croydon Airport? How would he have reacted to propaganda videos from Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts?

As it is, all that remains of most ordinary people like him is photos, letters and diaries, whose survival will be largely a matter of luck. Otherwise we have to rely on a dwindling number of living eye-witnesses, whose memories will mostly be fragmentary.

There is, of course, a big difference between a public diary like mine, which is intended to provoke, inform and entertain (even if it doesn’t succeed on any of those counts) and a private diary never intended for publication. Those are far more interesting, though I’m not talking about the majority of political diaries, which are written with one eye on the posthumous reputation of the writer. As pure entertainment, I doubt if many can beat Alan Clark’s journal of political life during the Thatcher years.

The best example of the private diary has to be that of Samuel Pepys. Did he expect it to be published? I doubt it, though he must have figured that his family would read it, which probably explains why some of the cruder expressions he uses are in code.

I doubt if I’d ever have written the classic diary, noting in exhaustive detail one’s activities on a daily basis. My life has been interesting enough to me, but probably not to others. I would have got bored very quickly. And as for pouring out innermost  feelings – love and hate, fears and hope – no way. Nobody’s business except my own. Some things are best forgotten.

Anyway, writing about the pandemic on almost a daily basis has been enormous fun, even if the subject isn’t. Hopefully it will continue to be so until I get hauled off to hospital. And should my descendants be interested, they won’t have to scrape up likes on Twitter and Facebook to figure out what their ancestor thought about Donald Trump, Brexit, Boris Johnson and other subjects of historical interest. It’s all here, my dears.

Corona Diaries: a morality tale in three parts

And now for a morality tale of sorts.

For a while we’ve had visitors in our loft. We hear them but we never see them. A few years ago, we called the council and they sent a man. He climbed up into the loft to our extension, which we don’t use, and told us that on the evidence he saw we had resident squirrels. He left a bowl of chopped-up Snickers bar laced with poison. Squirrels love chocolate and peanuts apparently.

It didn’t work. He suggested that we get ourselves an air rifle and shoot the culprits, who were most likely hanging out in the garden. His qualifier that “I didn’t tell you that” was enough to put me off from going down to our local gun shop (yes, I know this is the UK, but we actually have one!) and purchasing the necessary weapon. I don’t like the idea of shooting things, and anyway, a few months later the squirrels went away.

Recently they came back. Maybe not the original ones, but perhaps their grandchildren, who had listened to stories of the magic loft on their grandpa’s knee. You could hear them above our bedroom at strange hours of the day and night – tapping and scratching away. If we banged on the ceiling, they would go silent. But not for long.

This time, we decided on a hi-tech solution. We got ourselves a little device that emits a high frequency sound wave that squirrels are not supposed to like. We stuck it up in the loft. There was silence for a while. But then the little bugger (or buggers) returned.

Now we’re in lockdown, so it’s highly unlikely that we can find a posse of exterminators willing to use any means necessary to get rid of them. I’ve been a bit worried about the possibility of one of our visitors chewing through an electric cable and setting the house on fire, but I figured they would trip a circuit breaker before things got to that point.

But yesterday, as my beloved was having at the driveway with our pressure washer, the machine just stopped. After doing a bit of fault-finding I discovered that a circuit that provides power to half the house has gone kaput. No breaker appeared to have tripped, which was ominous, but there was no smoke from the loft either.

We now had no shower, because the pump in the loft seemed to have been affected. Fortunately, the lights were still working, and so was the heating. But what caused the outage? If we called in an electrician, assuming one was available, we would risk the deadly virus penetrating our little cocoon. If we didn’t, we would have to live with whatever was happening up there – live wires and God knows what else.

But wait, my precious. Since the outage started there was not a peep from the squirrel. Which suggested that there might well be a dead body in the loft.

After much agonising, we decided to call the electrician, give him a mask if he didn’t have one, have him slather himself  from our dwindling supply of antiseptic gel, wipe all the surfaces he touched and hope for the best. The alternative would have been to spend the rest of the lockdown getting very furry. But that would be better than being electrocuted or burnt to a frazzle.

We may have wanted the squirrel gone, but not under these circumstances.

Up to this point, then, with a dead squirrel cooking in the loft and us facing the prospect of months of jungle-washing, the moral of this tale would have been to be careful what you wish for.

But there’s more. We called our home emergency service. Yes, said the charming chap from Athlone, we’re still in business and we can send you an electrician. Five minutes later, we got a call back on the phone. It was the electrician, who turned out to be an equally charming woman called Karen. Which surprised me a bit, since in all my long years I had never met a female electrician.

So the second moral of the tale is just because you haven’t personally experienced something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

As it turned out, Karen didn’t need to visit us. She asked us to send her a photo of the circuit board, and quickly identified that a switch I thought was on was in fact off. One flip and we were back in business, with me feeling like a total idiot. Collapse of cable-chewing dead squirrel theory.

And thus to the third moral, which is that when shit happens, the most likely cause is usually the most obvious one.

Each of these morals is relevant to the current plague, but I’ll leave you to figure out how.

Now we have to work out what to do about the squirrel. A final solution is required. Yet another Google search has led to innovative solutions. Ultrasound is useless, we are told, so I suppose we should sue Amazon.

The latest colourful answer is to spray the urine of foxes or deer around the loft. Yeah right, as if I’m in a position to go hunting these animals with a little pot and asking them politely if they’d piss in it. I reckon that a more effective solution would be an electrified fence around the eves that delivers 20,000 volts to any animal brave enough to touch it.

It would be interesting to see how many circuit breakers that would blow. Perhaps an automated taser activated by movement would more easily do the trick. But I doubt you could find one of those on Amazon.

This being lockdown time, there must be an online forum of frustrated Americans with hunting jackets and AR-14 semi-automatics who have nothing to shoot. They would surely be glad to advise.

On the other hand, perhaps there’s new life being created up there, and we should take satisfaction from that thought in this time of doom and death.

But enough of this rambling. Just another day in lockdown. Time to make a cake, I think.

Corona Diaries: the NHS and its “difficult choices”

Unlike some people who get skittish about the effect advancing years might have on their career prospects, I have never contemplated lying about my age. Until now.

According to yesterday’s London Times, the British National Health Service has invented a “clinical frailty scale” that will determine whether or not you get a bed in an Intensive Care Unit during the COVID emergency. It applies to the over-65’s. Basically, you will be assessed on a points system. Over 70, you get four points, plus three penalty points for your implied fragility. Which takes you dangerously close to the cut-off point of eight points. So any underlying conditions – a dicky heart, lung problems, dementia and so on – will mean that you don’t make the cut.

It is, apparently “guidance”, meaning that clinicians will make the final judgement based on your points, plus your current state as indicated by vital signs. Annoyingly, the article doesn’t tell us how many points you “earn” if you’re between 65 and 70, which is my bracket.

So does this mean that it will make no difference whether you’re a marathon runner or a giant sloth, so long as your vital signs are heading in the wrong direction? Presumably your path will be oxygen on a general ward yes, but round-the -lock attention and a ventilator no.

An objective view might be that although it’s a system more likely to appeal to technocrats sitting behind desks rather than clinicians with real humans in front to them, it makes sense as long as it isn’t the sole basis for determining who is worth trying to save.

With that in mind, and considering that nobody who goes into hospital is jogging in there to show their underlying fitness, the determining factors governing whether you’ll make it out again is oxygen, medical care and, in the final analysis, luck. Though even if you’re lucky enough to get into ICU and on to a ventilator, you’re not out of jail. Your chances of making it past the ventilator stage are currently just over 30%.

Since my chances of making the cut are limited, to say the least, I shall prepare mentally in the hope that I can nudge the hospital staff towards a positive decision. This is where lying about my age might come in handy. If I thought I could get away with it, I would declare myself to be 64 until further notice. Unfortunately, with centralised records, I’m stuffed.

But given that the staff authorised to use the protocol include healthcare assistants, I shall go out of my way not to say unkind things about the apple crumble that the nice lady with the trolley brings me for lunch. A dog biscuit at dinner might be a bad sign.

Being able to complete a sudoku puzzle in five minutes might also help, as would challenging the nurses at arm-wrestling. But in the end, I suspect, I would discover that I can’t beat the system.

There is another potential dimension to the NHS’s systematised approach to assessing patients.

For now, it seems, the rationale is to stop the service from being overwhelmed, and specifically to reserve the highest level of critical care for the younger part of the population – or at least to load the dice against those who by objective criteria are less likely to survive.

I understand that, even if I don’t particularly like it. Well I wouldn’t, would I?

But what if, when the pandemic is over and the accountants start analysing the cost of the whole thing to the NHS and, by extension to the state, some bright spark comes up with the idea that “hey, this is the magic key to ensuring that universal healthcare is affordable going forward. So let’s keep using the scorecard even if we have spare capacity. That way we reduce the costs of pensions, social care and a big piece of the NHS.

Let’s encourage the private hospitals to set up their own ICUs and the health insurance companies to include the cost of intensive care in their premiums.  If the elderly who can afford it wish to even up the dice, let them pay for it, just as they pay for their care home places. This will enable us to keep the intensive care capacity for future pandemics, but take the day-to-day burden of the weaker elderly away from the state and place it onto the individuals whose lifestyle choices have led to their pre-existing conditions.”

No matter that these individuals may have paid proportionately more of the taxes that fund the NHS. No matter that some of them may have worked themselves at the expense of their health – literally half to death – over forty years to provide for their families. The wealthy must pay. Period.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the way we go. Which takes us towards passive, if not active, Logan’s Run territory – if you’re over 65, you won’t be encouraged to die, but you won’t be helped overmuch to live. Or at least it moves us a little closer to the American “system” in which inequality is institutionally embedded.

I’m not making a firm prediction here. Nor am I making a political point. But when this pandemic over we will be left, in healthcare terms, with capacity but not cash. So it’s entirely possible that there will be influential people who will be making the argument I’ve set out on the utilitarian principle of “the best possible outcome for the most possible people”.

If you don’t like the idea, you’d best be marshalling your counter-arguments now.

Corona Diaries: locked down at Easter

Happy Easter everyone!

It’s OK to say this, because the celebrants among us know that Easter Sunday is the day when we remember the resurrection, even though resurrection from our current state is some way away.

Better than Happy Good Friday, despite Donald Trump’s efforts to celebrate the Good bit despite the awful event being commemorated. I guess at the time of his tweet he was focused on the idea that Jesus died to absolve us of our sins. That must come as a particular relief to Mr Trump, though whether he is actually aware of all the sins for which he needs to be absolved is debatable.

On this special day, labour on isolation projects has come to a temporary halt. So my beloved has laid down the pressure hose with which she is remorselessly cleaning our drive, and I have cast aside the hoe that I’m using to scrape away several years-worth of accumulated crap between bricks and tiles that the hose can’t easily reach.

Normally on Easter Sunday we would have a smattering of family over for a big lunch. Perhaps the turkey we picked up for a bargain just after Christmas. This year it remains frozen. But we do have a large leg of lamb, which we shall cook along with other Easter specials including a nice cake. No matter that we’re the only ones who will be eating it. We’ll live on leftovers for the next few days, just as we do after Christmas.

I won’t bore you with details of whom we will zoom, but no doubt we’ll be able to see our grandson on his first Easter egg hunt.

Back here, exercise will continue. I won’t pretend I’m not getting a little jealous at the sight of my beloved swooning at Joe Wicks as she contorts her body into impossible configurations. Though perhaps she’s not swooning – more likely falling over in an attempt to regain her normal posture.

I will continue to go nowhere on the cross-trainer, with the TV for company. I’ve run out of Rick Stein guzzling his way through France, and I’m now on to Du Fu, China’s greatest poet, of whom the vast majority outside his homeland are totally unaware. I can’t say I can see what the fuss is all about, though Ian McKellen’s honeyed tones do make the 250 calories of purposeless energy expenditure a little easier.

Outside, all is quiet. Our neighbours are giving their strimmers a rest, though the dogs are harder to mute. I know them all by their barks. Max, the beagle next door, has a whoomph of outrage, as if mortally insulted by any other creature daring to make a noise, including us humans. The two St Bernards down the road bark in short but deafening low-frequency bursts. If their owners tire of them, they could be usefully deployed on cargo ships as sonic cannons to deter Somali pirates.

I also hear the shrieks of children at play. I recognise three of them. They have a large garden nearby, so they’re not breaching isolation rules. But there are others whose sound I don’t recognise. I must send up a drone to survey the immediate vicinity and take pictures of them and their families pausing during their exercise, or, worse still, playing football. Photos, date/time stamped and with GPS location will go straight to the local constabulary. Who needs net curtains when we have drones?

Speaking of the police, a little anecdote from Ireland. Yesterday my normally mild-mannered sister-in-law was pootling down the road close to home on her way to the local shop, when she was stopped by two gardai. The younger one, who was aged about fourteen, started interrogating her about her destination. Slightly riled by their impudence, she spun an elaborate cock-and-bull story about it being a lovely day, and she was off to her holiday home on the coast and rushing to get booze and barbecue stuff for a family gathering.

As the gardai turned purple and stated getting their notebooks out, she told them “just kidding, I’m off to the local shop to get eggs and milk”, and proceeded to chew them out for not having better things to do than lurking down country lanes. On your way madam, they said, a little taken aback at her ferocity. I hate to think about how that would have played out here in England.

No doubt we shall tune in to the Pope blessing us all from an empty St Peter’s Square and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s homily from his garden in Lambeth Palace. Then there’s the Queen on Instagram, Nigel Farage on Twitter and Priti Patel on Facebook. Oh joy! And John Cleese, who claims to be so broke that if you pay him he will send someone a personalised message on your behalf.

I’ve not yet started on the Sunday newspapers, since I’m giving them the usual three hours for their resident virus population to die off. However, I confidently expect to be told that we’re all doomed, or to be regaled with heartbreaking reports from ICUs and in-depth analyses of the failings of the government, along with the cataclysmic effect on the US of Trump’s hapless dithering. And if I skip the first sixty pages, I might find a few football non-stories and pictures of the fashion editor posing in designer PPE gear. Lots to look forward to then.

Speaking of newspapers, about the most sensible musing came from Matthew Parris (as usual) in yesterday’s Times, under the headline of “We say everything will change, but it won’t”. We will not learn lessons, he says, and things will gradually stumble back to normal by next year. Though “the shadow it (COVID-19) will cast will not be over attitudes, lifestyles and values, to which our attachment (and in which our inertia) runs deeper than we know. We’ll be just the same, but poorer and, sadly, somewhat fewer.”

I suspect he might be right, especially about being poorer and fewer. In which case our futurologists and super-forecasters will likely be out of business for a generation. They should make hay while the sun shines. It’s an interesting article. If you can get through the Times paywall, it’s here.

I will end with an apology, Priti Patel-style. I’m sorry if you’re even more bored than you were before reading this. Actually, I’m not sorry at all, because it’s not my fault and your emotions have nothing to do with me. So get over it.

That’s all for now. I’m off to bake the cake.

Corona Diaries: eighteen and a half things I’ve learned from the plague

It’s time for a corona listicle. But this one, be assured, doesn’t have endless pages of photos that take years to load, enough cookies to choke the most ravenous Labrador and five times more ads than content. Just words:

That people who have the least often give the most. I’m thinking of the lady down the road who lives on her own, is in her eighties, but regularly bakes cakes and delivers them to the doorsteps of old people she knows who also live on their own.

That people who buy expensive apartments with airtight windows are idiots. Balconies and windows that open might not be aesthetically pleasing, but fresh air beats floor-to-ceiling vistas and air-conditioning every time.

That Brexit is no longer important. When a munitions dump goes up, you don’t notice which rockets are exploding.

That ancient grannies and granddads are expendable. Or at least so it seems, judging by the number of them dying in care homes.

That people don’t think you’re mad if you greet perfect strangers. I have discovered this waiting to go into Waitrose and passing people in the park. Except joggers, of course. They do think you’re mad.

That headless chickens can run a long way before falling over. Or so most governments appear to be showing us.

That people who keep the internet going are essential workers. If you want riots, chaos and general disorder, wait until broadband starts falling over on a regular basis.

That “platforms” for small businesses get very wobbly in a pandemic. As in Amazon, eBay and the like. In case you were naïve enough to believe otherwise, they will look after themselves first.

That you can make soup out of broccoli stalks. Well, perhaps not just broccoli stalks, but certainly mixed in with other unappetising stuff you might normally throw away.

That people will go to any lengths to exploit their dogs for viral videos. But dancing parrots and shrieking goats win out every time.

That shopping lists are aspirations, not prophecies. Nobody is better at opportunistic purchases than my beloved. Russians who lived in the Soviet era would be in awe of her.

That Gollum would be a better president than Donald Trump. Well, you knew that already, but no post from me would be complete without an insult delivered in Trump’s direction.

That Americans use twice as much loo paper as the rest of the West. Why should this be? Do Americans use it on their dogs and cats? Do they visit the loo more often on account of eating twice as much as the rest of us? Are the rest of us converting (or reverting) to toilet hoses? Or is obsessive polishing what’s Making America Great Again? Just curious…

That I don’t miss football, but I do miss cricket. Ben Stokes, I hope you’re staying fit. Your moment will come again.

That suburban silence is bliss – no planes, no cars, only birdsong. Until, that is, our neighbours crank up their lawnmowers, strimmers and other weapons of war against nature.

That studio audiences exist only to boost the confidence of those in front of them. If a TV programme can’t do without them, it’s not worth watching.

That applauding the NHS is not enough. We should be out on the streets cheering all those born in another country who chose to make their home in ours. Not just doctors, nurses and care workers, but plumbers, cleaners, delivery drivers, shelf-stackers, teachers, academics and research scientists. We would be lost without them. Or rather, MUCH more lost than we already are.

That we’re not living through a war, for goodness sake. Rather, we’re facing an invisible steam-roller that’s flattening everything in its path. Eventually it will run out of steam. Hopefully, like Jerry the Cat, we will reanimate.

The half thing? That custard creams are an essential necessity. I’ve always adored them and especially now. But I’m still grieving over the disappearance of an ambrosial biscuit called Milk and Honey.

I’m done with this – there’s only so much you can learn from one emergency. But should you wish to add stuff you’ve learned, you’d be more than welcome!

Corona Diaries: which science?

2020 is shaping up as the Year of the Expert. To me, that’s a welcome turnaround from the days of 2016, when we in the UK were encouraged to be sceptical about expert opinion, especially when that opinion contradicted our political beliefs in the Brexit debate one way or another.

The trouble is that this year we’re learning something we seem to have forgotten about experts. There is no single version of the truth. Just as the theologians of Constantinople in the first millennium would argue endlessly about the nature of the Holy Trinity, and scientists have for decades been disputing the meaning of climate data, a bewildering array of doctors and epidemiologists are popping up on a daily basis to offer opinions on the efficacy of our coronavirus suppression measures.

Arguments and contrary views are meat and drink to the media, especially those that major on health and medicine. Not a day goes by when the results of one piece of research seems to contradict those of another. Butter’s good, butter’s bad. Cholesterol keeps us healthy. No it doesn’t – it kills us.

In the same way, consensus on coronavirus containment is wickedly hard to find. Don’t wear face masks, do wear face masks. Two metre separation? Nonsense – seven metres and hit the deck with your face buried in your clothes whenever anyone close to you coughs. Depending on whose opinion you read, the potential final death toll varies by a factor of ten.

Both the mainstream and the social media seem to be playing that game enthusiastically. In the UK, a bewildering array of professors from lesser-known universities are popping up to add their tuppence worth. Heads of quangos most of us never knew even existed before the emergency are giving interviews, each with a slightly different take from the other.

Then we have the medics whose credentials are only slightly distinct from those of David Icke, such as the guy who convinced Donald Trump that chloroquinine is the answer to all our problems – provided, as it turns out, we’re prepared to endure heart attacks and fearsome headaches in our desire to suppress COVID-19.

I suppose you could say that the blizzard of divergent information and opinions makes us all experts now, though some of the stuff you can read I find utterly decipherable.

I give you as an example a Mail Online article that I stumbled upon this morning via Twitter. Now I recognise that the readers of the Daily Mail are experts in many things, not least health, sport, the evils of socialism and the continual visitation of Unidentified Flying Objects. But this piece, which goes into some length about a Cambridge University study into three variants of the COVID virus, while interesting, will probably leave its readers, however expert, none the wiser about the implications.

It does have some value, I suppose, in that it will allow Mail readers who have survived the virus to compare notes with their peers over their privet hedges on whether their version was Type A, B or C. At this point it’s not clear which strain carries most cachet, but no doubt, being experts, they’ll figure that one out and add the distinction into their social hierarchies. Perhaps they’ll also be able to explain why, since we’ve all been taught to refer to the bug as COVID-19, the Mail is using another name: SARS-COV-2. Oh well, God has many names, so why not His instrument, the coronavirus?

All of which goes to show that our government was somewhat naïve in claiming that in its approach to dealing with the virus, it was “following the science”.

If we’d known then what we know now, perhaps the obvious question in response would have been “which science?”.

One more thought: from Ancient Greece through to Age of Enlightenment, what we now call science was bracketed under the label of “philosophy”. The squabbling philosophers of the ancient world would have watched our various differences of opinion with knowing smiles.

Some things never change.

Corona Diaries: are we turning into a nation of watchers?

Yesterday Linda Tripp, a former civil servant in the United States, passed away. She became famous, and in some circles infamous, when she made public a confidential conversation in which Monica Lewinsky told her about her sexual relations with President Bill Clinton.

Ms Tripp claimed that she blew the whistle over the priapic president’s extra-curricular activities on the grounds that it was her patriotic duty. Her testimony played a major part in Clinton’s subsequent impeachment.

Not for the first time, a debate raged at the time over whether a greater good was served by what some saw as her betrayal of a confidence. Is it right that a confession to a heinous crime, such as murder, should by protected by client-attorney privilege? Is it right that priest should be absolved of the duty to report a similar confession made in a small wooden cell in a church?

This post is triggered by two British media reports. In the first, from the Guardian, police chiefs are said to be urging the government to impose tighter restrictions on isolation. It also states that several police forces have created online forms for the public to use when they want to report infractions.

In the second report, the BBC quotes the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester as saying that his force broke up 660 parties over the last weekend. They included street parties, fireworks, bouncy castles and parties in people’s homes. What he doesn’t say is where his force got their information. To discover that number of parties without the help of the public would have been a tough job.

So is it right that the police in Great Britain should encourage citizens to report their neighbours for breaking the lockdown rules? Is the risk of creating an informant culture – a standard feature of authoritarian states such as Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR and the post-war East Germany – outweighed by the notional good of calling out behaviour that puts other people potentially in danger of catching COVID-19?

That’s an issue on which we will all no doubt have our own opinions. As does Donald Trump, who famously called his lawyer Michael Cohen a rat for his allegations of presidential wrong-doing, and who is going around merrily firing government inspectors-general, officials who serve as watchdogs to expose actions by government departments that might be illegal or incompetent.

But getting together in groups of more than two, or driving to beauty spots under the pretext of taking exercise, are surely not on a par with murder, or the mighty accidentally spilling seed on an intern’s dress.

My own feeling is that encouraging the public to inform on others is a greater evil than that infractions on social isolation should go unreported. Having said that, the government is placing the police in a tricky position by passing laws that are difficult for them to enforce on their own without the assistance of vigilant citizens lurking behind net curtains.

Equally, the police don’t do themselves any favours by calling for tighter regulations to enforce the lockdown. Their job is surely to present the data to the executive, who then make the appropriate decisions. To use an extreme analogy, how would the public – whether or not they are Daily Mail readers – react if police chiefs called for the re-introduction of the death penalty?

Of course we live in the real world, and police chiefs are making recommendations to the government formally or informally all the time. But lawmakers, our elected representatives, make the law. The government makes decisions according to those laws. The police enforce the law, and if they can’t do so effectively, they have a duty to raise that issue with the government. Only in extreme cases should they delegate their responsibilities to the public.

That’s not to say that informants have no place in a democracy. Convictions for terrorism, gang crimes and acts of violence often rely on information received from the public. But that’s slightly different than sending the police haring after a group of five having a picnic in the park, only to find that the group are a family who live together.

“Reasonable” is a key word often used in the writing of laws – as in reasonable doubt, reasonable behaviour and so forth. The interpretation of reasonable in different situations is what gives, or should give, the law a measure of flexibility.

So perhaps we should be asking whether it’s reasonable for the police to ask the public, on a wide scale by the use of an online form, to report unreasonable behaviour on the part of its neighbours.

Yes, we should all play our part in helping to prevent crime. But do we really want to become a nation of COVID vigilantes? We already have a network of surveillance tools, including increasingly pervasive CCTV coverage. Perhaps the police should seek to use those tools effectively before enlisting the public’s help. And the lawmakers should surely only pass laws that are within the capability of the police to enforce.

I will end with the ritual incantation that the police are doing a good job. Of course they are, and of course we need to support them. But if we all become little police officers, monitoring each other as we go about our lives, for some people that will become a thrilling habit that will be hard to shake off once this emergency is over.

I don’t know the boundary between reasonable and unreasonable, but I do know what sort of country I want to live in. A nation of covert watchers is not it.

Corona Diaries: the convenient demon

Yesterday a friend sent me an email suggesting I write about China. He included a link to an article by Melanie Phillips in the London Times entitled West can no longer turn a blind eye to China.

It was nice of him to ask, especially as I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable as Melanie Phillips. So let’s start with an opinion I’ve written that you might encounter out in the wilds:

“Thank goodness that’s sorted. It’s all China’s fault for covering up the original outbreak. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it manufactured the damn thing and let it loose on the grounds that it could manage the fallout better than its rivals. Economies collapse, democracies implode, and China picks up the pieces.

Much the same argument that influential Americans made at the height of the Cold War: let’s nuke the Russians. Yes, there will be mass destruction, but our bit will be less destroyed than theirs.

For the plan to work, you don’t want a virus that’s too virulent. That would either end up destroying everyone, or it would die out after being bottled up in a quarantine zone. No, you want one that debilitates but doesn’t destroy, thus leaving the victims vulnerable and dependent on mighty China to keep them afloat.

Remember the aftermath of the 2008 crash? It was China’s massive stimulus that kept the world economy afloat. It embedded Chinese investment in the US, Britain and other powerful nations to an unprecedented extent. That was Phase One.

Now we’re into Phase 2. The ultimate revenge for the Opium Wars. Where the Western nations brought China to its knees in the 19th century by getting it hooked on opium, so today China has turned us into Yuan junkies.

So by the end of this pandemic, no country will for the foreseeable future challenge China’s economic and political supremacy, because to do so would result in catastrophic withdrawal symptoms.

Welcome to the Chinese Century.”

If I were to synthesise a virus to demonise China in my little Surrey lab, this would be its DNA. If variants of the same virus weren’t already out there, you could cut and paste this one, and it would go zipping around the world as fast as the one that started in Wuhan. Which is why China is in the process of being revealed to the watching world (but mainly in the US and the UK) as the devil incarnate. Just in time to stop it from taking us all over.

If the BlameChina20 virus didn’t exist, it would be necessary to create it. Because everybody needs a scapegoat. A coherent narrative that distracts attention and channels blame. No matter how incompetent your government in responding to the pandemic, the ultimate counter-narrative is to blame the Chinese.

Unfortunately for the blame virus, there are plenty of antibodies that will stunt its virulence. In fact, logic shows one fatal flaw.

If you believe that China’s virologists are so smart that they could synthesise a virus as effective as COVID-19, and test it in secret with live subjects to make sure it had the desired effects, you are naïve in the extreme. An accident possibly, but deliberate? Highly unlikely, because you would be dealing with something that would screw you up as effectively as it would those you are targeting. Your economy as much as theirs. Your people as much as theirs. And if there’s one thing followers of Confucius abhor more than anything, it’s chaos – the opposite of harmony.

Take away the intention, and the whole theory falls down.

Now, let’s get serious and realistic.

China is an authoritarian state. Covering stuff up is what countries like China do. And not just China. Remember Chernobyl? It was only after the toxic cloud reached Scandinavia that the USSR, under that nice Mr Gorbachev, finally admitted the full horror of what was happening.

However, in the case of the coronavirus, Chernobyl is not a good analogy. China has dealt with lethal virus outbreaks before – bird flu and swine fever most recently – and has effectively suppressed them. It seems highly likely that the politicians who orchestrated the COVID-19 cover-up did so out of a sense of complacency. In other words, we’ve dealt with this kind of thing before, no point in alarming people. Although the implications of Chernobyl were pretty clear early on, that might not have been the case in Wuhan. People with viruses don’t emit radioactive clouds.

But in both cases, you can point to organisational incompetence and a cover-your-arse culture, which are signs not of strength but of weakness.

Though before its fall the USSR was revealed as a sclerotic basket case, China is nowhere near that point. We might look at its ruthless suppression of the virus after the outbreak as evidence of its competence, but ordering people around is something that authoritarian states must do to stay in existence.

In the USSR, the structures Lenin put in place to keep the people compliant lasted over seventy years. You could argue that they still exist today after Putin’s efforts at refurbishment. China, on the other hand, has no need to rebuild its authoritarian apparatus. Instead, it’s enhancing it.

So basically, China covered up in Wuhan because it could – for a while. As I said, for better or for worse, it’s what authoritarian governments do by default.

Finally, lets look at some fundamentals about China that the West interprets as strength.

Covering up the original COVID-19 outbreak is not strength. It’s fear. Locking up millions of Uigurs in camps is not strength. It’s fear. Carrying out surveillance on its people to an unprecedented degree is not strength. It’s fear.

So perhaps we should think carefully before branding Xi Jinping as an all-powerful dictator, presiding over a juggernaut of an authoritarian state bent on world domination. And we should not forget that authoritarian states are built on fear. The people fear the state. The leaders fear the people, because they know that their legitimacy depends on what they can deliver – safety, prosperity, stability and contentment. The moment one or more of those four pillars is threatened, the legitimacy cracks and the leaders fear for their future.

Therefore we should not fear China as an economic cuckoo in our nest, or as an aggressive military power seeking to dominate the South China Sea and beyond. We should see it for what it is: a major power with strengths and weaknesses, both proud and paranoid.

Rather than constructing a conspiracy theory around its national ambitions and seeking to punish or even isolate it, we should deal with it as an equal, protect ourselves from its unsavoury activities such dubious trade practices and industrial espionage, and treat it with clear-eyed, calculated respect. Neither the kow-tow nor the cold shoulder.

And if the leadership finally implodes, it will most likely do so without our help. What’s more, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that such an outcome will be to the benefit of the rest of us. We surely learned that lesson after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One last thought. Various voices in the West are calling for a reparation claim on China for covering up the original outbreak. China will treat any such claim with contemptuous refusal. Likely as not it would respond with a demand for reparations on account of the damage done by opium forced upon it in the 19th Century. And it would have a point.

The reality of the present is that China is neither malign nor benign beyond the boundaries of what it perceives as its national interest. If we understand what that interest is, we in the West have a sensible basis for interacting with it as we go forward.

OK Jeremy? That’ll be six packets of Custard Creams please.

Corona Diaries: the future is postponed

A few months ago, if I had got into a discussion with my neighbours about an imminent financial collapse culminating in a worldwide depression, they probably wouldn’t have believed me. But if they had taken my prediction seriously, they would have been terrified at the prospect of losing their jobs, their savings and their pensions.

Yet now that all these possibilities are looming, we seem to be in another frame of thinking. It’s as if someone comes up to you and tells you that there’s a good chance you’re going to die. Deeply worried, you go off and do what’s necessary to make sure you give yourself the best chance of living. At the same time you probably think about death all the time, how you will handle it, and what you need to put in place before you die – making a will, fixing broken relationships, telling your loved ones that you love them, planning for your funeral.

Then someone else comes along and says “the good news is that you’re going to live. The bad news is that your life will never be the same. You will be financially ruined, and so will everyone else you know”. How do you react? I suspect that most of us would think “thank God I’m going to live. What comes next? Less important than being alive”.

We might also think “the worst is happening now. What follows can’t be so bad”.

So compared with the mountain of staying alive, dealing with what happens after the pandemic might seem a hill to climb, not a cliff to fall over. We’ve already fallen off the cliff, and we’re bobbing around in the rapids below, clutching at branches of overhanging trees.

What do we care about right now? We want to go to the park. We want our football back. We want to party, to go out to eat, to go to church, to go to the pub, to go listen to some music. Yes, we’re worried about the future, but we’re living in the present.

And actually, despite the circumstances, many of us might one day look back at this moment and reflect that the present wasn’t a bad place to be in. Our culture encourages us to worry about the future. We’re conditioned – by the media, by the fears of our peer groups, by our politicians and rulers – to be afraid of illness, financial ruin, crime, terrorism, destitution in old age, climate change and what might happen if the other party gets in.

But right now, because we have to, we accept the things we cannot change. Those of us who sit in isolation think about stuff we don’t normally have time consider. We observe things – goats in the high street, squirrels in the park, empty beaches, leaves sprouting on the trees, blaring ambulances and mortuaries in car parks. Things that surprise, delight and appal us, but which in normal times – barring the bad stuff – wouldn’t merit a second glance.

I’m not about to promote mindfulness and all the other psycho-fetishes that people try and sell us. But even those who don’t have the time to look at the world anew, who might be driving our buses, delivering our letters and desperately trying to keep the sick alive, are living almost entirely in the present.

Yet who would have thought that governments around the world are lashing out extraordinary sums of money to keep our economies afloat, ward off deprivation and ultimately keep us from starving? And who, right now, apart from a handful of economists, is concerned about the mountains of debt being incurred on our behalf? And how it is that these governments can go from austerity, prudence and sound financial management to magic money trees? And if every government in the world is borrowing money, from whom are they borrowing it? How will it be repaid?

At any other time, these questions would be front-page news, everywhere and every day. Today, as defined by Stephen Covey in his Four Quadrants, they come under the heading of important, but not urgent.

For the first and possibly the only time in our conscious lives, most of us  – even if we have much to be worried about – are living almost entirely in the present. We are concerned only with a tiny sliver of the future – what we can see in the next twenty-four hours.

A hundred years ago, according to Laura Spinney in her book Pale Rider (see my review), the indigenous population around Bristol Bay in Alaska was reduced by 40% in the 1918 flu pandemic. The descendants of the traumatised survivors refer to that event as nallunguaq, which means something you pretend didn’t happen. Will we and our descendants prefer to forget what we’re living through now?

I very much doubt it. But by then we’ll be back to the future.

Corona Diaries: The Truth

The truth is out there. In fact it’s so totally out there that everyone’s telling it, if only we were listening.

No doubt you’ve been bombarded with advice from a billion sources, and don’t know what to believe. Relax. Help is at hand.

So here, in all its glory, is my Compendium of Alternative Coronavirus Truths. You just have to pick the truth that suits you best. Trust me, there’s something here for everyone:

Where does the virus come from? The CIA, a lab in Wuhan, 5G masts, the Qataris, God and the Devil appear to be the main sources. Lesser known origins are a secret establishment in Krasnoyarsk, the Israelis, the North Koreans and the half-men-half-lizards that rule the world.

Two other sources I’ve yet to hear about on the internet are a meteor carrying a lethal pathogen that latched on to an innocent coronavirus, and an ancient bug that emerged from the melting permafrost.

How do you treat it? Chloroquinine, garlic, colloidal silver, plasma from a new-born baby and those old favourites: eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing.

Who is most vulnerable? Cats, dogs, ferrets, tigers, bats and three-toed sloths. Humans with underlying conditions, including a predilection for conspiracies, a liking for soaking themselves with with the blood of Christ and a compulsion for oral sex and self-flagellation.

And don’t forget obsession with sunbathing. I have it on good authority that the interaction between the sun and the human body creates a negative force field that sucks the virus from wherever it’s lurking and infects the flagrant rule-breakers.

What can you do to protect yourself? At all times wear a paper bag on your head, remembering to punch out holes for your eyes. Euthanise your gerbils, and keep your cats and dogs in larger paper bags. Erect a yurt in your garden (if you have one), and cover yourself with lamb’s fat in the Mongol style when you’re self-isolating.

Regularly clean your AK-47s. Shoot your postman if he comes within two metres of your door. Bludgeon passing squirrels and foxes. Microwave your newspaper. Better still, incinerate it in the oven. Install a sheep dip by your front door for your shoes. If you have to go outside, make sure you bring a cattle prod to nudge joggers and cyclists out of your way.

And finally, avoid bad language, water, the electrical grid, vacuum cleaners, barbecues and endless re-runs of Spooks.

When will the crisis be over? When your leader says so. Or when the Reverend Copeland (see below) spews slimy black demons from his mouth. Or when you run out of episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Whichever is earlier.

So there you have it. Fear not. We will get through this, and we will meet again, whether in this life or the next. Or possibly in the twilight zone, somewhere between the two.

God save the Queen.

Corona Diaries: taking the mob out of rule

Something very strange is happening to me. No, I’m not growing green scales. Nor have I started speaking in tongues.

The strange transformation is that this week I managed to sit through almost an entire session of the BBC’s Question Time. Normally, after five minutes I go into auto-immune collapse. I start cursing the speakers, muting the sound of the rent-a-crowd, and chewing the carpet as the obligatory Brexiteer or English Defence League audience member spews clichés fed to her by the Daily Mail like a slot machine that’s paying out a jackpot of cyanide capsules.

The new, socially isolated Question Time is actually watchable. Some might say that without the audience applauding like Kim Jong Un’s praesidium at every golden utterance from a panel member pumped up like an angry pit-bull, vying with the others on the podium for the most bloodthirsty applause line.

Take away the audience, reduce the size of the panel to two or three in the studio spaced at the correct distance and a couple of online members, and lo, the panellists are having a discussion, not a shouting contest.

In the same way, Kier Starmer, newly elected leader of the British Labour Party, making his opening address in a short and simple video, was far more impressive than he might have been in front of a delirious crowd of “invited” party hacks going into raptures at his every pronouncement.

And government ministers, doing their 5pm coronavirus update without even the physical presence of journalists seem more human and less demagogic than they might otherwise have been. Some are far too human for their own good, but that’s another discussion.

Contrast these scenes with Trump’s baying mobs, and even the roaring, heckling rabble that the British House of Commons becomes when it scents political blood.

The Roman mob, the factions of Constantinople and the chuckers of sticks, stones, eggs and tomatoes that succeeded them down through the ages have hardly been likely to inspire wisdom or reason in those whom they despised or adored. Adrenaline is as infectious as a virus. It helps you win battles but not arguments.

Perhaps this feeling says more about me than the current crisis. I’ve never liked crowds because I sense that those who inspire them are manipulating me. Happy crowds are OK, and so are solemn ones. Music concerts, weddings, funerals and parties are fine with me, because they’re normally there because of love, or at least appreciation, of something or someone.

Demonstrations, marches, political rallies and even sales conferences may have a positive intent, but appeal to our basest instincts as often as our best.

However, since was more than happy last year to see huge numbers of people turn out in opposition to Brexit, and in 1989 I rejoiced at the sight of the Ceausescus realising that they’d lost the Romanian dressing room, I guess that makes me a bit of a hypocrite.

Anyway, for better or worse, the power of crowds is temporarily at an end. And in keeping with the spirit of reason and empathy, up pops Her Majesty the Queen, who will be addressing her subjects at 8pm this evening.

She’ll probably get better ratings than Trump in his daily virus briefings, but I fail to understand why we need widely-propagated trailers telling us what she’s going to say. The BBC in its 10pm news last night even went so far as to quote directly from her address. Why? Can’t we wait for tonight?

She’s not delivering a political speech whose contents are pumped up by the spin doctors (as in “the Prime Minister will say…”). She’s the National Granny, whom most of us deeply respect. We know without being told that she will talk about togetherness, values and hope. She will thank the NHS and all the other heroes of the pandemic. She will end by saying God be with us, or some such blessing.

Sadly, I’m afraid, most of will say “aah, that’s’ nice”, have a warm feeling for five minutes, then get back to our gaming, boozing and box sets.

Still, I’d rather have this dignified, gentle old person as our head of state and voice of the nation than any of Trump, Putin, Xi and all the lesser charlatans and chancers that she has to suffer whenever they come to our country for state visits.

Happy Sunday everyone. Enjoy the sun if you can, but make sure you don’t arouse the ire of the viruspolizei or find yourself featured in a photo posted by vengeful harpies on Twitter.

Corona Diaries: loitering with intent

Loiter is a glorious English word. Much better than hang around or wander about aimlessly. One word says it. But what, in the context of a coronavirus lockdown, does it mean? If I interrupt my daily stroll to enjoy admire the view, or stand in front of a shop window to admire the fancy chocolate sculptures on display but not on sale, am I loitering?

Dawdle means much the same thing, but has an innocent connotation. Lurk is not so innocent. But loiterers are usually up to no good. Hence the term loitering with intent. But with intent to do what?

For this reason, I’m curious about the case of Marie Dinou, who was the first person in Britain to be fined under the Coronavirus Act. According to the Times, she was found “loitering between platforms” at Newcastle Central railway station.

As the deputy police constable of the railway police says, officers were dealing with someone who was behaving suspiciously, and railway staff thought she didn’t have a ticket.

Although she was convicted and fined, the case has been quashed on the grounds that the wrong legislation was used.

The case raises many questions. What legislation makes it a criminal offence to hang around a railway station? If she was beyond the ticket barrier where was she – on the railway track? What made the staff think she didn’t have a ticket? Did they ask her, or did she just look like the kind of person who doesn’t buy tickets? And what does such a person look like?

As for the police, did the railway staff call them or did they approach her of their own accord?  According to other reports, Ms Dinou refused to speak to them. Did it occur to them that she might have been afraid, that she might have been depressed, that she might suffer from some condition that made her reluctant to speak to people, or even that she might have been planning to throw herself on the track? Or, more simply, that she was confused about which platform she needed.

And then the prosecution. How come nobody in the chain that led to the district judge figured out that they were using the wrong legislation? And anyway, is it against the law to loiter between platforms?

Perhaps there’s a new law that’s been passed behind our backs: the crime of “loitering with intent to do nothing”. If so, what of the legal principle of mens rea, which by one definition is “the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused”? If Ms Dinou was refusing to speak to the police, how on earth were they able to divine her intention? Unless of course she was in the process of getting on to a train, in which case she was not loitering.

No doubt my lawyer friends will tell me I’m talking out of my arse, in which case they’re free to correct me.

For sure there must be more detail that has not been reported. And I have to say that the Times report was sketchy on the details. But if we have more tricky cases like that of Ms Dinou, I suspect that Rumpole of the Bailey will have to be dragged out of the clutches of She Who Must Be Obeyed back into the law courts.

Corona Diaries: ninety minutes of timelessness

I was once asked to do a promotional piece for a glossy magazine about a watch fair in Switzerland. I found it surprisingly hard to write. Having to conjure up the necessary excitement about jewel-encrusted baubles that do anything from telling you how much longer you have to live when you’re exploring the bottom of the Mariana Trench to tracking your bowel movements in Bali didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

I’m a Swatch person – the cheaper the better, black plastic strap, no maintenance, tells the time. On my undemanding wrist they usually last between three and five years, and then give up the ghost, begging to join their siblings in a landfill. I don’t grant their wish. I leave them languishing in a drawer somewhere, waiting to be fixed, until I put them out of their misery in the next clutter-purge.

I buy Swatches because they work fine until they don’t work fine. But a couple of years ago I accidentally bought an automatic – the sort with no battery that winds itself when you wiggle your arm or conduct a symphony orchestra. You can wind it up with a button, but I’ve forgotten whether you have to do it clockwise or anti-clockwise. So I try both.

It’s crap. It’s totally useless. It loses time, it gains time, both according to no discernible logic. Normally I would scrabble through mounds of paperwork to find the guarantee and send it back to Swatch. But not now. Not in the time of plague.

This morning my watch told me I’d woken at six. So I got up, went downstairs, and found that actually the time was seven. And it didn’t matter. These days I set more store on when the birds start singing. If I was still in the Middle East, it would be the first morning prayer call, just before dawn. And anyway, what do I have to get up for? The clock in the kitchen provides an adequate approximation of the time, and that’s good enough for me.

No golf at seven. No conference call at nine. No deadlines, appointments, cows to be milked, trains to be caught, babies demanding feeding, dogs patiently waiting for breakfast. Nothing between now and the next time my head hits the pillow. Liberation from time, from structure, from daily rhythm. Plenty to do, but an endless stretch of time in which to do it.

For some people that might induce a queasy feeling, rather like the sense of disturbance you feel when you’ve been out on a rolling sea in a small boat and you step back on land. But I don’t find the temporary suspension of time remotely disturbing. On the contrary, it’s a kind of freedom, even if it’s unnatural.

I say it’s unnatural because nobody, except possibly the very young, the very old and the very sick, lives without reference to time. Not even the birds, who wake when the sun comes up, or the squirrels in my garden, who know when it’s time to start scratching around for lost acorns.

But we have food, so I eat when I’m hungry, even though I bow to the tradition that you eat dinner at approximately the same time every day. Stuff to be done can be done today, tomorrow, the next day. I’m not even aware of what the days are called.

I’m exaggerating of course. But first thing in the morning, alone with a coffee, I like to spend a little time dreaming that I’m living in a timeless place.

And then I switch on the laptop and the spell is broken. I’m sucked, as if through a wormhole, into a few square inches of a different world. Deadlines for virus tests, anxious faces, angry people, prophets of doom and messages of hope as well as despair.

My wife wakes up, I bring her tea, and the real day begins. Not so different from the imaginary one, yet still punctuated by the urgency of others.

But for ninety minutes or so every day, this pandemic brings me the precious gift of a brief sliver of life without the constraints of time.

A small mercy, but worth celebrating.

Corona Diaries: Maslow’s pandemic

I don’t want to get overly philosophical, but I do think that one of the interesting facets of the pandemic lies in how the definition of essential will change during weeks or months of social isolation.

Before the lockdown, you may have been among among the hordes of people panic buying in the supermarkets, anxious to buy anything that they perceived would be unavailable should the outbreak get worse.

Anyone who remembers learning about Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs will recognise this behaviour as trying to meet the most basic need – defined as Physiological.  The need for basic survival, food, shelter, warmth, clothing and so forth.

For most people, I suspect that the panic buying was on the basis of “just in case”. Once we realised what a serious threat we were facing, we started worrying about needs that Maslow defined as at the second level as Safety and Security. Will I catch the virus? Will I die? Will I lose my job? What will happen to my savings if the economy crashes? Will I be physically safe from opportunistic burglars or marauding rioters?

Next up, at the third level we have Love and Belonging. This is where we function as friends, families, tribes, society in general. Now that we’re confined to our homes, how can we make up for the lack of proximity to people and groups where we fit in? Those who can, make up it by phone calls, online chat, Skype, Zoom and so on. It’s better than nothing. Needless to say there are others – especially those who don’t have access to these tools – whose sense of belonging must feel utterly broken.

The fourth level is Self-Esteem. How many people languishing at home, deprived of the symbols of social and career success, are thinking about how fragile and ultimately irrelevant those symbols are? Perhaps they’re questioning the value of the jobs they do. Above all, they might be feeling pretty powerless. Some are entitled to feel proud of their work in the crisis, such as the NHS staff who are doing their best to keep the rest of us alive and healthy. But the chances are that they don’t have the time or energy to feel good about what they do, despite the applause they receive. They’re down at level 2 – exhausted, afraid, trying to stay alive themselves.

And finally Self-Actualisation – the sense of achievement, of knowing that our lives have been worth something. That we are worthy of an obituary that say more than “we were born, we lived and we died”. For most of us, the only achievement we need right now is to stay above ground through to the other end of this pandemic.

Now, back to shifting definitions of “essential”. It’s pretty clear that the government views essential as primarily a matter of safety and security. It had and still has no concerns about Level 1. There’s plenty of food in the supermarkets, and these days even loo paper seems easy to obtain.

Though the government might think that it has the task of ensuring our physical safety well in hand, the psychological safety of the nation is another matter. And this is where definitions of essential start to blur. At the moment, most people seem to be coping with being cooped up and isolated from their normal social structures. But how long will that last?

The cracks are already appearing. There have been push backs against over-enthusiastic police enforcement. People are starting to be concerned about things they feel are essential to well-being, which could be the kid of activities deemed by Derbyshire Police to be “NOT ESSENTIAL”.

For example, the Times this morning reports on a garden centre owner who is refusing to close on the grounds that for many people, the ability to tend their gardens – albeit in isolation – is essential to surviving the crisis. So he sell seeds, bedding plants, fertiliser and all the other stuff people use to keep their gardens looking pretty in the summer.

As isolation continues, this is where the government needs to be fast on its feet. It’s not enough to call on the army to patrol the streets in an effort to keep us confined. If it’s sensible, it will also be adding to its army of experts a few psychologists who can devise strategies that will keep us docile without the use of force.

They should particularly advise on ways to lighten the measures in ways that will not lead to a new upsurge in infections. In Italy, they are trying to do this by allowing people to go out with their children. In Britain, I suspect that being able to buy seeds and bedding plants will not do the job for everyone, since we don’t all have gardens. Perhaps the wherewithal to enable the cultivation of a particular type of weed might come in very handy for quite a few folk whose supplies are running low.

If the antigen tests come online soon, another measure would be to allow a little more freedom to those who know they’ve already had the virus. Will we start seeing antigen parties in our parks?

What’s pretty clear to me is that as the period of isolation drags on, our idea of essential will start to ascend up the hierarchy of needs. If the government is smart, it will be sensitive to this dynamic, and will come up with effective ways that will allow us gradually to return to normality, not just in the physical sense, but also mentally. Whether or not it’s copped on to this challenge remains to be seen.

Perhaps first we need to think about whether or not normality as we knew it in 2019 ever returns. Whoever answers that question successfully will find no shortage of self-actualisation,

Corona Diaries – please answer the damned question, Minister

I’m not sure I’m going to keep listening to the British government’s daily TV update on the coronavirus situation. The only thing I learned today is that even our medial advisors seem to have had training in evading questions.

I yearned for a straight answer on at least one of the questions. All I heard was smooth deflection.

For example, the question on why we are struggling to test more than a few thousand a week when the Germans are managing half a million. The answer wouldn’t require a detailed exposition on the differences between the two health systems, though it would be interesting if we could learn why Germany has twice as many hospital beds as we do.

All it would take would be a little humility. How much more satisfying and how much more honest, it would be if Mr Sharma, the minister at the podium tonight, said this:

“We are full of admiration at the way our German friends have handled their testing programme. To date, we have not been so successful, for a number of reasons, some structural and some practical.

What I can tell you is that we have much to learn from Germany’s outstanding effort. Based on their experience as well as our own, we are doing our best to get to the same level of testing.

Yes, we have made some mistakes, and yes, perhaps we should have mobilised sooner. But now is not the time for a detailed inquisition on what has gone wrong and why. Now is the time to learn from experience, wherever it is gained, and to put that learning to good use for the benefit of our country. And I can assure you that this is what we’re trying to do.”

One of the reasons why people mistrust politicians is because of their inability to admit mistakes. In this case either the government doesn’t believe it’s screwed up, in which case it’s delusional, or because despite a comfortable majority and four more years in office, it’s so insecure that it automatically resorts to knee-jerk evasion born of a deep-seated fear of failure.

Neither possibility is a promising recipe for success, I suggest.

Corona Diaries: so is the minister a liar?

Michael Gove went on television yesterday and said that a lack of chemical reagent is holding up the UK’s coronavirus testing programme. According to the chemical producers’ industry body, there is no shortage of reagent. They claim that the government has never asked them for more supplies. The story comes from Robert Peston, ITV’s chief political editor.

This is what Rachel Clarke, a prominent NHS doctor, had to say on Twitter about Peston’s report:

Tonight @MichaelGove told the public our inadequate #COVID19 testing is due to a lack of chemical reagents. The UK Chemical Industries Association says there’s no shortage at all. Nor has @10DowningStreet even asked manufacturers to increase production. This is indefensible.

Small wonder that a large number of people in the UK quite possibly believe that Michael Gove is a liar.

Michael Gove may be a liar. We are all liars to one extent or another. Liars to ourselves if not to others. But wait. There is another possibility. That he and his colleagues are desperate, fearful and, crucially, credulous.

I very much doubt that a few weeks ago Gove knew any more about the chemistry of testing for virus infection than 99.99% of the population. He probably doesn’t know much more now. After all, it was he who told us during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign that “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

Cheap shot, I know – I couldn’t resist it. But today he, like his colleagues who routinely pop up to the No 10 podium to pronounce on the crisis, is reliant on briefings from those who know what they’re talking about.

So now, imagine a meeting – of COBRA, Ministry of Health. Downing Street advisors, whatever – in which the politicians – Gove, Johnson, Hancock, whoever – assemble their team and say “right guys, we’re in deep shit unless we can come up with a reasonable explanation for why we’re behind on testing. Ideas please….”.

Advisors, who have been working 18-hour days for weeks, scuttle off and break into huddles. Some bright spark comes up with the idea that a contributing factor is a shortage of reagents. Not necessarily because the reagents aren’t available, but because within the layers of bureaucracy, something has caused the supply chain to break down. Maybe a key person – a vital human link in the chain – has caught the virus and is out of communication. Someone less knowledgeable is standing in for them.

Amidst the panic, speculation from the stand-in mutates into information, which passes up the chain of command to the bright spark at No 10. The ministerial meeting resumes, and the hard-pressed advisors, fearing for their jobs if they don’t come up with something, provide a list of possible contributing factors, of which the reagent theory is one. “I like that”, says the minister, “let’s go with the reagent shortage”.

So in the space of a few hours, amid a febrile environment in which new political meteorites are constantly streaking towards the decision makers, a theory mutates into a fact, at least in the mind of the politician, who doesn’t want to hear the caveats about lack of verification. He wants a bloody answer. Now. Because nothing at this more precise moment is more important to him than the daily update he will deliver at 5pm. The last thing he wants is to appear an idiot.

And yes, maybe what he tells us will turn out to be a lie. But not necessarily a cold, deliberate untruth. Because he’s sitting at the top of an anthill threatened with scalding water that sends the workers scurrying around trying to figure out how to save the colony. Or, to put it another way, he has to be the swan sailing serenely against the current of a river while beneath him his feet are paddling furiously.

The scenario I’ve described may be totally wrong. But my experience tells me that lies uttered by leaders often come about not through cold calculation, Goebbels-style, but in the heat of the moment, driven by fear and desperation.

When I heard the Gove story, I tweeted “Why would you lie when you know you will be found out? Only kids do that, don’t they?” I was wrong. Kids don’t necessarily know they will be found out. They don’t even consider the possibility. If they find themselves in a corner, they’ll say anything to wriggle out of trouble, regardless of the consequences. And so, under certain circumstances, do the rest of us.

And that, I suspect, is the story.

Corona Diaries: blubberous toad starts working out, shock horror

In one of our rooms we have what we rather pretentiously call a gym. I suppose the presence of a cross trainer and exercise bike qualifies it for that name, as does a mirrored wall that provides the excruciating experience of being able to watch yourself as you wobble back and forth on one of the machines. To relieve the boredom, there’s a telly where you can watch satellite TV piped from the box downstairs. I hadn’t used our gym for a decade. My preferred form of exercise is golf, but my wife uses it most days.

In case you think I’m some kind of an oligarch, you should know that it also possesses most of the characteristics of a junk room, as seen above. Boxes of artificial flowers used by one of our daughters for her business share the space with suitcases used on our travels that we can’t be arsed to stick in the attic and various other things for which there is no other logical home. No landmines or samurai swords, but it makes picking your way to the fitness equipment something you would not attempt in the darkness.

Now that golf is banned, along with Easter Eggs and blue ponds, I’ve made my first tentative steps back on the cross-trainer. Half an hour, with plenty of intervals. It would be a supreme irony if at this moment of viral danger I dropped dead of a heart attack. So I’m not going at it with the manic intensity of relative youth back in the day.

One session a day in the gym, plus the statutory 30 minutes of outdoor exercise (carefully avoiding beauty spots or any other place that might be remotely pleasing to the eye), should be enough to prevent me from turning into a semi-inert blob. It doesn’t help my blood pressure to see Rick Stein cruising around France sampling some ineffably gorgeous-looking gastronomy, while I’m wending my lonely way to nowhere upstairs. Bastard!

But I do miss the golf course. Unlike the blubberous toad in the White House, most of us in the UK walk our courses. Some of us carry our clubs – though not me because my knees wouldn’t take the strain. This blubberous toad has an electric trolley, but that doesn’t stop me walking through five miles of English countryside at least three times a week. In the process, I get to see red kites, swifts, weasels, rabbits, foxes and the occasional deer darting from fairway to fairway.

Now these places are closed. I suppose that’s just as well, because if they remained open, no doubt some posse of over-zealous police would quickly be at work with mechanical diggers ripping up the greens, so that those of us who can still walk around our courses can no longer enjoy the view. Or perhaps they’d spray them red.

I very much doubt if Mr Trump, in his turbo-charged cart surrounded by other vehicles manned by secret service agents with fearsome weaponry, sees much beyond his ego.

Not that I’m complaining about this temporary restriction. Unlike millions who live in apartments whose only concession to nature is a plant-box in the front window, we have a garden, and we live in a leafy town at an arm’s length from London.

Nor are we afflicted by the loneliness of social isolation, unlike many people who live alone. I like my own company, and long before the pandemic, my wife and I evolved a way of living whereby we don’t impinge on each other’s space. So not much chance that we’re going to batter the hell out of each other and end up divorced.

She might say otherwise, as my sociopathic behaviour – such as the desire to tidy up stuff that’s beyond my remit – irritates the life out of her from time to time. But thankfully not enough to induce her to depart for East Grinstead.

This might sound complacent, but it’s accompanied with regular touching of wood. Anything might happen to disturb the equilibrium – most obviously if one or both of us gets seriously ill or worse, or if someone we love suffers a similar fate. Or, less terminally, if the Sky box fails, the boiler blows up or the internet falls over. Any of these irritants turns me initially into a raging maniac, and subsequently leads to sullen improvisation. In normal times, though, fixes to these problems are usually available in fairly short order. Not now, perhaps.

All of which leads me to reflect on what pampered, spoilt and unresilient creatures we are, or at least those of us who have never dodged bullets in Afghanistan, risked asphyxiation down coal mines or, today, worked ourselves to exhaustion in intensive care wards.

I don’t think there’s any need, therefore, to hark back to earlier times when we say we’ve never had it so good. Some of us have never had it so bad, but the rest of us are learning not to take the good things for granted. And most especially, the people we love.

Corona Diaries – a bluffer’s guide to pandemics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something to think about when this awful episode is over.

More soon.

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