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Corona Diaries: living to eat

I very rarely write about food, because you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

If I start extolling the joys of eating meat, I will upset the vegans, get accused of killing the planet because of cows that fart and I will be reminded of all the horrible things people do to animals before they reach our tables. And now, after the coronavirus has been revealed to enjoy the cold, nose-dripping atmosphere of meat-processing plants, I can be accused of unwittingly perpetuating the pandemic.

But if I were to embrace the vegan code, I would be accused of helping to ruin livestock farmers, of contributing to a drastic reduction in the world’s cow, pig and sheep populations, not to mention the chickens and turkeys. The only animals that would come out well would be fish – the ones that aren’t farmed, that is. I would most likely also be accused of lacking a sense of humour, since one of the characteristics of proselytising devotees of any faith (and no, I won’t call veganism a cult) is that they find it difficult to laugh at themselves.

The real clincher is that a vegan conversion would deprive me of one thing without which my life would be bleak, not to say hardly worth living.

I shudder even to think of life without cheese. Cheddar, Stilton, Gorgonzola, Wensleydale, Feta, Mozzarella, and that multitude of French cheeses with more names than God. Just writing those words produces an instant rush of serotonin.

I’m not a cheese snob, and I don’t do subtle. The stronger the better. In fact my favourite is Canadian Cheddar, which you could call the vindaloo of cheeses. Unfortunately it’s rarely available in the British supermarkets these days. Why, I don’t know. Perhaps the Canadians have decided to keep it to themselves for now, so that they can dangle it in front of us as part of some future trade deal. Or maybe it’s now so niche that you can only buy it in from a specialist shop in Covent Garden.

But enough of cheese.

Last night my wife mysteriously disappeared. Thirty minutes later, she returned with shawarmas from our local Lebanese Restaurant. It’s been selling take-out ever since lockdown started. And since shawarmas are the perfect take-out food – lamb, chicken, fresh salad and secret sauces wrapped in flatbread – I’m surprised that this is the only meal we’ve eaten in all this time that hasn’t been home cooked.

But you know what? I haven’t really missed restaurants, even though they’re a bit like music. Both have the priceless ability to summon up memories. In the case of Lebanese, shawarmas remind me of many happy years spent in the Middle East.

Barring such delights, our evening meals consist of 90% home cooked, 10% of ready dishes that my beloved has hoiked out of the freezer. Of the stuff we cook ourselves, at least half is fish, often accompanied with a glorious cheese sauce that I can make with my eyes closed.

I also don’t miss entertaining, though we have had daughters and partners over a couple of times, along with a squeaky grandson. Outside, of course. And since we don’t do dinner parties, except among a regular group of friends who shame us with their cooking whenever we go to them, we’re spared the intolerable pressure of having to concoct absurdly complex creations that we wouldn’t dream of lavishing on ourselves.

And anyway, I reckon that dinner parties usually have a hidden agenda, as in “it’s our turn” or some social or business objective. Can’t be bothered with that stuff any more. The only reasons for having people to dinner are friendship and kinship – keeping in touch, having a laugh and maybe learning something.

To an extent, this pandemic has been a bit of a phoney war, at least in terms of daily life, and at least for lucky us. Except during the initial panic buying stage, there’s been no shortage of essentials in the shops. Unless you’re a foodie, nothing that you need to come up with tasty, nutritious food has been unavailable. By the way, the pot roast in the picture is my creation. The leaves come from our bay tree.

If I sound a little smug, forgive me. I’m just grateful for the fact that some aspects of the pandemic could have been worse, at least in my country. There could have been major supply chain disruptions resulting in food shortages and price-gouging, which would have been very tough for those who can barely afford the essentials.

Who knows? Perhaps this winter we will see shortages, especially if second or third waves take a grip in various parts of the world. We’re not an island any more. We’re not self-sufficient. Maybe we’ll need the Irish to help us out, which would be an irony given our failure to prevent the famine of 1845-9.

If that were the case, I’ve no doubt that the nuns who educated my beloved would smile grimly from heaven, and remind us that we should never take for granted the food on our tables.

Amen to that.

The Sloganators: mad men in tee shirts

Slogans are part of life, are they not? Even among those whose brains are fading in old age, I’ll bet that most of us will remember the advertising slogans of our youth.

Go to work on an egg.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
Refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach.

Our reaction to such phrases might be neutral. Or they might be nostalgic. But rarely negative.

Political slogans are different. In me, they produce an instant reaction, rarely positive. I reject them because they’re like a virus to which I’ve built up ferocious antibodies. Even those that reflect political beliefs with which I have some sympathy sometimes produce an adverse reaction. Because they’re so simple, and life is so complex.

Whatever their purpose, slogans are tools of manipulation. Like most of us, I don’t like being manipulated. But first, I have to know that I’m being manipulated. Or influenced, sold to, call it what you will.

A good way to find out is to read Robert Cialdini’s classic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Just about every trick in the influencing book is there.

When slogans become more important than substance, that’s when things start getting dangerous. In the hands of the unscrupulous, they can become gateways to dark places. Hypnotic triggers that generate an instant, unthinking response.

In my case, the response is usually deep cynicism, which I guess is better than murderous rage. When Matt Hancock starts trotting out the COVID mantras – Protect the NHS, Save Lives and all that jazz, my immediate thought is that he’s about to tell a lie, or announce some unreachable target.

But occasionally the red mist descends. When Priti Patel tweets triumphantly about Parliament passing a law ending freedom of movement, and manages to include just about every Brexit-shaped slogan pumped out over the past four years, my response is rage, because reading those empty slogans brings back my original fury at the massive con-trick that’s been played on us. Rationality goes out of the window, and I turn to unworthy thoughts. I look at the picture of Patel’s wintry smile and austere attire, and I think of Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale.

Do I accept that there need to be some controls over who comes to live and work in my country? Of course. But do I believe that Priti Patel and her colleagues are capable of coming up with a system that is fair, in the national interest and doesn’t just pander to the prejudices of those who don’t like the prosperous, multi-ethnic society that is reflected in organisations like our revered National Health Service? Absolutely not.

A few weeks ago I suggested that the current British government is a machine best equipped to win elections, not to govern the country. That’s still the case in my view. But more than ever there are times when I feel that we’re governed not so much by an election machine but by a niche advertising agency run by men in tee shirts for whom messages are paramount, substance a mere technicality.

In other words, we’re being told to admire the car, not to look under the hood and definitely not to give it a test drive.

“Build, build, build” says Boris Johnson. The purpose? To kick-start the economy, provide jobs. Forty hospitals, rail track everywhere, new schools, blah, blah, blah. Much more exciting than the dreary reality that our infrastructure is crumbling, and that first we need to fix, mend and repair.

The problem for the sloganators is that the more they let us down, the more we lose our rationality. Instead of buying into some, and rejecting others, we regard every three-word gem they produce as a pile of stinking ordure. In marketing terms, that’s strong evidence of a damaged brand.

Which is how I feel about Boris Johnson and his gang. His is not the only brand that’s busted. Needless to say, I will never go near a Trump hotel or golf course. For the same reason I’m unlikely to buy a Tesla, I will never read the Daily Mail or watch Fox News except to ridicule them, and if you offer me Heinz salad cream I will accuse you of trying to poison me.

That’s the weakness of governing by slogans. If you believe the people delivering the message, fine. If you don’t, whatever they say, you’ll head for the beaches, hug each other in the parks and keep other people cool with your sweat at illegal raves.

Which is more or less where we are today, along with the people of Texas, Florida, California and other parts of the world where coming together is a voluntary act rather than an economic necessity.

Alas poor Boris. Will history say of him that he was sunk by his slogans, and strangled by his straplines?

Where sheep may safely graze? New times, hidden divides

This is a time for coming together, right? No matter what country, political system or social echelon you live in, wouldn’t you think that we could unite to defeat the coronavirus?

Obviously not. And it’s hardly surprising that our pre-existing divisions have been immune from the depredations of the pandemic.

While our attention seems to be permanently focused on social gaps (rich and poor) and political divides (democracy, despotism, right and left), do we care enough about another divide that gets less attention, except among the tech community and a few journalists dedicated to the subject?

I’m talking about a world divided between those who care about their personal data, and those who don’t.

I got to thinking about this when I read an article about TikTok, an app much beloved among teenagers and millennials. What could be more fun than recording a 15 second video on your phone that goes viral in the blink of an eye? Fun, funny and famous. Perfect.

But how many of those delirious users know or even care that TikTok hoovers up your data in far greater detail than Google or Facebook for reasons known only to its Chinese developer?

And anyway, what’s data to a teenager. Where you live, maybe, being pestered by pervy 50-year-olds, sure. But stuff the rest of us worry about, such as credit card fraud, identity theft, unwanted ads? No worries. Not many teenagers have bank accounts with lots of money, credit cards with huge limits and houses that can be burgled to order. Houses might be a worry, but that’s Mum and Dad’s problem, isn’t it? So why worry? After all, everyone’s collecting data on us. As long as no one messes with our mobile phones, it’s all good.

There are lots of grown-ups with the same view. You could call them grazers, as in “where sheep may safely graze”. They buy online. They have maybe two or three stock passwords. The share their holiday pics on Instagram and Facebook with not a care for the possibility that someone might be waiting for them to go away so that they can break in and take their valuables. They cheerfully email all and sundry, and spread their email addresses and phone numbers all over the internet.

Then other are others for whom the enemy is always at the gate. You could call them preppers, after those who build bunkers and stock them with weapons and supplies for use in an apocalypse.

Preppers tear off any paper that has their names and addresses – from envelopes, bills and so forth – before they put them in recycle bins. Anything with personal information they shred. They have sixteen internet passwords that they change regularly. They have the best virus checker and disc cleanser you can buy. They cover their webcams with tape. They know all about governments and criminals that hack into their phones and such up their data. They’re always on the alert for spooks, conspiracies and data hackers.

Before Google, Facebook and Big Data, most of us were grazers. Even in the unlikely event that someone used our stolen credit card details to go on a spending splurge, we felt pretty safe in the knowledge that the banks would alert us, or, if we cottoned on ourselves and let them know, the card issuer would compensate us for our losses.

There are still plenty of grazers out there. Teenagers who know the dangers but don’t care. People who hardly ever use the internet but are forced to do stuff on line, and, because everybody else does, use email. People still trust those who hold our data – governments, banks, the NHS and other safe institutions.

But I sense that more of us are becoming preppers. When we like some Facebook post from someone expressing an extreme view, and the next moment we’re bombarded with political ads. When the government asks us to sign up to a track and trace app that works by recording our proximity to someone who’s infected. Is this an easy way of allowing the authorities to know where we are at any moment of the day, like they can on those cop shows?

Thirty years ago I knew a guy who was totally off grid. He did the books for a small company I worked for before I went into business myself. He claimed to be unknown to the Inland Revenue, to the Social Security people and to anyone else that collected data on us. He had no bank account or credit cards. He only worked with cash.

Could he get away with that now? Maybe, if he was an illegal immigrant or if he worked through multiple false identities. But if he stepped out of line, he’d be caught soon enough, provided the relevant authorities could be bothered, which they likely would only if he was engaged in some form of organised crime, such as drugs, major fraud or people trafficking. It he was able to remain anonymous it would have been because he was small fry.

By the fact that I’m writing this, you’ll probably gather that we’re on the prepper side of the fence, But there are plenty of grazers still out there, blissfully unaware of the implications of leaving themselves open not just to fraudsters but to manipulation and even political control, should our gradual slide toward authoritarian government continue. There are people who would always lock their front doors, but aren’t even aware of how many virtual doors and windows they’re leaving open.

The trouble is, vigilance is hard work. It’s not just a matter of being aware of what is happening. Understanding what might happen is just as important. And so is doing what you can to protect yourself.

Which is why, without becoming paranoid and delusional, we not only need to ask ourselves what those sweet little apps like TikTok are doing – or could do – with our data, but ask the same question of Google, Facebook, institutions and governments.

Because, like it or not, we’re going through a period of massive change. In the 1930s, who suspected that Germany would use IBM machines to collect data that could be used to identify and destroy millions of people in the following few years?

Better surely to understand the implications of our online lives than to wake up one morning to find ourselves in a new reality from which we can’t escape.

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads: from the sublime to the, er, sublime

Alan Bennett is my hero. Well, one of them. I wish he could have written one of his Talking Heads monologues featuring a character in lockdown. Perhaps he hasn’t because to do so would be obvious. And anyway someone’s already done it, not as well as him, by the way. Or perhaps because at the age of 86 he reckons he’s been there and done that.

In case you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about I should explain that Bennett, one of the main instigators of the British satire movement, along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and David Frost, wrote a series of half-hour monologues for TV in the late 1980s. They were instantly acclaimed, and won awards both for the writing and several of the actors both here and in the US.

I missed the original series because at the time we were in Saudi Arabia, a time when no satellite TV and catch-up features could enable you to watch stuff unless it had been recorded on video. Now there’s a new production by the BBC, which includes a couple of fresh monologues.

The monologues are priceless, and, to extent timeless, because they’re distilled from a lifetime spent observing Englishness. Social tics and minutiae that through Bennett’s dramatic flair lead to triumph, disaster or despair.

In A Lady of Letters, for example, Irene, played by Imelda Staunton, is a lonely net curtain twitcher. She writes angry letters to all and sundry, usually officialdom, complaining about stuff that she sees out of her front window or reads about in the papers. Not quite a troll, nor an anonymous poison pen, but malignant enough for her to end up in prison, where she discovers the joy of companionship.

Many of Bennett’s monologues are set in Leeds, where he grew up. He captures Northern quirkiness beautifully. But his journey out of Yorkshire, from Oxford to Beyond the Fringe celebrity and then to fame and fortune as as successful playwright and author, has given him a wider sense of Englishness than that to be seen among denizens of Harrogate tea shops.

Soldiering On features Muriel, played by Harriet Walter. She’s a woman from a comfortable Southern town. Her husband has just died. From references she makes, we discover that he’s a former army officer who made a second career with a tractor manufacturer.

Her husband has left her well off, but she embarks on a trajectory to penury kicked off by her feckless son who ends up losing all her money. Along the way, she’s blighted by the strain of her relationship with a daughter who is mentally ill.

Harriet Walter is a magnificent actress. Her career has never been so buoyant. Recently she’s played Dasha, Villanelle’s mad mentor in Killing Eve, and a whole bunch of other high-profile roles.

She gives a virtuoso performance in her Talking Heads episode. Every pause, every facial twitch behind her “mustn’t grumble” smile, suggests the despair of someone whose life has fallen apart for no fault of her own. It cut me to the quick because of its truth.

I have known women like Muriel, pillars of their communities, whose place in society was based on their husband’s success, but whose lives were lacerated by pain of one sort or another. Middle-class women, who expected to live out their lives in comfort, and when things went wrong, went to any length to keep up appearances. My mother, for example.

Aside from admiring her as an actress, I have a personal link with Harriet. Once, a long time ago, she decapitated me. At the time we were in neighbouring boarding schools. When, as a boys school, we needed female cast members for our plays, her school provided them.

Which is how I was cast as King Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae, and she as my mother. My rather pervy character was stupid enough to spy on his mother’s women-only Dionysian rituals, and ended up dead for his troubles. Not only did I have to have my head cast in plaster, but it was the only time in my very undistinguished acting career that I had to cross-dress.

It was great fun, especially as it was staged in a magnificent open-air Greek theatre in the school grounds. The play itself has some interesting modern echoes, and no doubt Dionysian rites were quite regularly enacted in obscure parts of the grounds by my school-mates, though unfortunately not by me.

Harriet went on to great things, and I to, well, less great things. Hence her fame and my obscurity. I still have the original programme, which reminds me what, with a little more dedication and determination, I might have achieved. A bit of talent might have helped as well.

But no point crying over spilt milk, as Muriel might have said. I still love to see great acting. On the basis of the first three episodes, Talking Heads is an opportunity to watch a bunch of great actors at the top of their game, and to appreciate, as you would a finely crafted Elizabethan miniature, the work of one of Britain’s finest living playwrights.

Only one thing surprises me, though. Why does it take a team of thirty-three people to produce a series that uses the currently-vacant East Enders set as its backdrop? Shows how little I know about TV production, I guess. Not that I’m criticising. People in theatre and TV need as much work as they can get in these troubled times. It’s good to see some of them in employment.

So go ahead – make their day. You won’t be disappointed.

Faraway countries of which we know nothing

I’ve just read a long and interesting article by Tom McTague in the Atlantic magazine. In it, he explores what some see as the decline of America – a decline brought into focus and accelerated by the excesses of the Trump era. This, for a European, is an idea frequently explored, not only because of our relationship with the US is often fraught, but because we are so bound up in American culture, and dependent on its military and economic power.

If that power is ebbing away, whither we weak and decadent Europeans? This is something I’ve written about a few times in this blog, though not as impressively as McTague.

One of the points he makes is the way in which our obsession with America and its internal struggles is reflected in what you could describe as our harmonic protesting. If black lives matter in the US, so they do in Europe. Often enough, only when America lights the fire do we in our turn ignite. Over Vietnam, Iraq, globalisation for example.

He asks a question that I ask too:

“As the world watches the United States, is it the tone or the music that is causing such a visceral response? Is it an aesthetic thing, in other words, an instinctive reaction to all that Trump represents, rather than the content of his foreign policy or the scale of the injustice? Why, if it is the latter, have there not been marches in Europe over the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in China, the steady stifling of democracy in Hong Kong, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or against murderous regimes across the Middle East, such as Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia? Is it not the case, as many of those I spoke to said, that George Floyd’s killing and Trump’s response to it have become metaphors for all that is wrong and unfair in the world—for American power itself?”

He may be right. But he doesn’t really answer the question of why all those righteous, high-principled protesters with a concern over human rights and the plight of the oppressed have not taken to the streets in support of Uygurs, Rohingya, the people of Hong Kong, Palestine, Syria and the imprisoned dissidents of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf.

Why is it that protests against the regimes responsible for abuses of human rights only play out in the words of a few campaigners on Twitter who continue to prick our consciences?

A few theories, then.

A faraway country of which we know little.

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing

These words were used by Neville Chamberlain in 1938 to justify the appeasement of the Nazis in the run-up to World War 2. Why should we care about the fate of the Sudetanland? Is intervention worth the cost of another war?

Nowadays there aren’t many faraway countries. But the fate of the Rohingya in Burma, or the Uygurs in China is about as faraway as you can get. Is that why their struggles haven’t caught the public imagination in the same way, say, as the suffering of the Yazidi in Iraq at the hands of ISIS?

Skin in the game

When thousands are moved to take to the streets, it’s usually in a cause that affects significant numbers of us directly. People protested against the Iraq War of 2003 partly because British troops were going to war, and would likely die. The Brexit protests were over a decision that affected everyone. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations have also gone to the heart of what kind of country we are. We protest on issues in which we have a personal investment.

What you see is what you believe

You could also argue that our reaction to acts of persecution and oppression is in direct proportion to the extent that those acts are captured by the media, on TV or on video clips shared in the social media. The more we see, the more we react.

Hence videos of Palestinians being treated harshly by Israelis do more to put pressure on the Israeli government than, say, the occasional after-the-fact footage of Rohingya villages burnt to the ground by Burmese forces. And when Egypt erupted in 2011, videos of protests in Tahrir Square undoubtedly influenced the US government to pull the plug on on its support for Hosni Mubarak.

Most recently, would we have reacted as we did if there was no video showing George Floyd slowly dying under the weight of a policeman’s knee?

These days it’s not enough to read narrative descriptions of atrocities and cruelty. Since the Vietnam War, we’ve become conditioned to have to see them as well.

Protests need organisers, and organisers have agendas

Look at any major protest, and you’ll see lots of handmade placards. But you’ll also see placards that are well-designed, professionally printed and on display in places where they’re likely to be photographed by watching media. That’s because behind every major protest you will find an organiser, or a coalition of organisers. Think back to protests backed by trade unions. The union banners would be everywhere.

Organisers often latch on to small, spontaneous protests, and make them big. Where would the Iraq war protests have been without Stop The War? The Brexit demos without the People’s Vote campaign? And the recent protests without the Black Lives Matter movement?

And organisers have agendas, some hidden, some overt. Take the Stop the War Coalition. Formed in 2001, it has been one of the most effective protest groups since then. Its supporters have been a mish-mash of veteran peace campaigners, far-left activists, celebrities and politicians who have jumped on and off the bus at various times.

Its ostensible purpose is to oppose the use of war to settle political issues, starting with Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. But the consistent thread of its activities has been opposition to America as an imperial power. That’s a position that Jeremy Corbyn, who was chair of Stop the War before he became Labour Leader, has held for his entire political career.

I’m not passing judgement on Stop the War, only pointing out that there has been an ideological spine running through its chosen targets for protest.

In contrast, if you’re ever visiting the British Museum in central London, take a look outside the main gate, and it’s highly likely that you will find a small table with a few pictures, and quite possibly someone handing out small leaflets.

The people manning the table belong to a Chinese religious group known as the Falun Gong. They were considered so threatening by the Chinese government that in 1999 they were declared illegal, and ruthlessly suppressed. The story came to light in the Western press, and there have been many allegations since then. Estimates of 70 million followers, imprisonment in labour camps, torture and organ harvesting.

Very similar, in fact, to the alleged treatment of another group: China’s minority Uygur population.

Yet have there ever been large protests in support of Falun Gong or Uygurs in the West? Not to my knowledge. The efforts of a few people around a table in Bloomsbury were never going to be sufficient to arouse vocal condemnation of the treatment by China of minority group – a suppression, if reports from China are to be believed, far more severe than anything meted out in the West against a minority since the Nazis began to persecute the Jews of Germany.

And has reaction against the persecution of the Uygurs been any stronger? Yes, you’ll find plenty of outraged articles and tweets in the social media, but none of that outrage reflected in public protest. Is that because the Uygurs lack advocates who can organise eye-catching demonstrations? Possibly. It could also be because people might be afraid of associating with Muslim groups motivated by other aims than simply an end to the persecution of China’s Muslims. In other words, the activities of extremists on the streets of London and Paris lessen our sympathy for Uygurs and cause us to mistrust those who are standing up for them. Again possibly.

What is undoubtedly true is that the West’s politicians are reluctant to let the fate of a million or two Chinese citizens get in the way of trade deals and other bilateral ties. And countries in Asia and Africa that have benefited from Chinese investment are unlikely to make waves either.

So through a combination of the “faraway country” mentality, lack of organised protest and political timidity, China, it seems, is able to get away with murder. Literally.

All with with Donald Trump’s blessing, according to John Bolton, who has claimed in his book that Trump encouraged Xi Jinping to imprison the Uygurs in camps.

So I guess my point is that however righteous are the causes that lead us on to the streets, there are millions of people around the world who would give anything for the freedoms that allow us to to stand up and say “no, that’s wrong”.

Perhaps we should say “no, that’s wrong” on their behalf more often. Otherwise, just as Chamberlain was advocating in 1937, we are turning a blind eye to the fate of faraway people of whom we know nothing.

Corona Diaries: the new normal is a strange place

The new normal is rather unsettling. I enjoy playing golf and watching professionals who really can play golf. Since I can’t swing a club at the moment because of a back problem, the next best thing is watching it on TV.

So for the past couple of days I’ve settled into the couch and watched a tournament in Connecticut, USA, where most of the leading pros are playing.

What’s strange about the experience is not an absence of spectators. Some are to be found in the houses around the golf course. They have the rare pleasure of a clear view from their gardens. What little applause can be heard comes from them.

The disturbing bit is when the commentators provide a running total of players and caddies who have pulled out of the tournament, some even after the start. Caddies fall sick with COVID, and their employers withdraw “out of an abundance of caution”, a phrase clearly part of the protocol that the US Professional Golf Association has put in place to keep their members virus-free. One or two players have also pulled out because they have been infected.

Very odd, especially when you think that professional golfers, whose livelihood depends on hitting little white balls, would know more than most about how to avoid the virus.

It’s a bit like watching the pandemic in real time. Almost as if you could watch Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow from a drone, as solders gradually fall by the wayside, laid low not by the enemy but by the fearful winter.

It can’t be much fun plying your trade under these circumstances.

Back in the UK, my home country, the reaction against weeks of confinement is leading to predictable consequences, made more extreme by the hot weather. We drink, we fight, we swarm like bees. Well, not all of us, but enough to make you wonder what comes next. The dreaded upward curve?

People out there are having fun. But not me. That must be the sentiment that’s leading thousands to the beaches, the parks and the hills. And since the fun-seekers are mostly younger people, the other sentiment seems to be that people will catch the virus, but not me. And if it is me, it won’t be serious.

That’s what happens when the herd instinct kicks in. If my neighbour’s off to the beach, why not me? Until your neighbour, and your neighbour’s neighbour, is carted off to hospital under a flashing blue light, that’s the way things will continue, no matter how much the sober suits tell us otherwise.

And yet, in a way, it’s understandable that we should be tempted to take matters into our own hands, because what we know is less than what we don’t know. Is the risk of infection out of doors so low that we can safely swarm on beaches? That remains to be seen. What we appear to know is that hospital deaths as a percentage of admissions has dropped dramatically. Nobody can tell us why. Is it because of better treatment based on what we’ve learned about the disease? Is it dexamethasone? Or is it that the people who are being admitted now are less likely to succumb than the weaker folks who have already been carried off?

The pandemic is dynamic and fast-moving. And so is the way we’re dealing with it. That’s all we can say at the moment. But if it turns out that the death rate really is down from 6 percent to 1.5 percent, as the UK figures suggest, that must change the way we respond.

Meanwhile, we should spare a thought for those who are suffering from conditions other than COVID.

I count myself as one of the walking wounded, though I’m not looking for sympathy. A couple of weeks ago I crocked my back while swinging a golf club. It started getting better, but it’s not great at the moment. The problem with back injuries that affect normal movement is that your carefully-maintained fitness (and I speak with a certain irony about my own) declines noticeably. Although brainwise I’m as daft as ever, my body feels five years older.

These things happen, and they usually resolve themselves. But whereas I would normally avail myself of the National Health Service to help my recovery along, I’m reluctant to do so at the moment for obvious reasons.

For some, life is not so simple. Alistair Campbell, the Government’s chief communications adviser under Tony Blair, has long suffered from bouts of depression. He’s going through one right now, and he’s made a brave video in which he talks about their effects. It hasn’t stopped him from working. But it gave me, who has never suffered from depression, fresh insight into the illness.

Alistair, I’m sure, will recover. Less certain is the outlook for one of my friends, Mike, who’s been admitted to hospital for a dangerous condition unrelated to COVID. He has a tough road ahead of him. But he’s a great guy, and he has a loving family and countless friends rooting for him.

Which is a reminder that COVID doesn’t have a monopoly on illness. People still get sick for other reasons, and we shouldn’t forget them.

So this piece is dedicated to you, Mike. Because if there was any justice, it would be the best people who pull through.

Lockdown Reading: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

Why did so many Germans hate their Jewish neighbours in the 1920s and 30s? If I could understand that, I might also be able to get a sense of why the Hutu so hated the Tutsi, and why, today, the Hindus of India are indulging in casual and organised acts of hatred against the country’s Muslims.

In the last few pages of his 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis talks about those who have tried and failed to explain how an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Weimar Germany turned, in the hands of the Nazis, into activities that both dragged a significant part of the population into complicity with genocide, and left many others indifferent to the fate of the Jews, Russians and all the others who died in the camps.

What was different between Germany and other Europeans was that Germany elected a party that could and did use persecution as national policy. Only Russia, through its collective farming drive in the 1930s, went as far as Hitler and his gang. Other nations, whether under occupation or diplomatic compulsion, willingly fell into line and allowed their anti-Semites free rein.

I have no more answers than Amis and the writers he quotes. But I do believe that people can be overwhelmed by tides of emotion that sweep away what they thought were their principles. By peer pressure, fear of being seen to be out of line, and, once the regime of persecutors is established, by fear of sanctions against themselves. Hence Rwanda, hence Burma and hence India. And do we think we’re immune in Britain and America?

Most novels about the holocaust are centred on the stories of the victims and the survivors. A few, such as Schindler’s Ark, explore the enablers, the profiteers and the compromised. Oskar Schindler was a profiteer whose conscience turned him into a saviour for the Jews who worked for him. Amon Goeth, the commandant of Plaszow camp, his principal client, was a man who went with the tide and allowed his worst instincts to prevail.

In Zone of Interest, Amis puts the monsters on to centre stage. Paul Doll, the camp commandant, struggles to deal with the mountain of corpses that accumulates and poisons the air and the water table. Ilsa Grese, the sadistic camp guard, struts around with a horsewhip. An army of bureaucrats and SS men devise ever more devious ways to deceive the arrivals into walking calmly to their deaths.

The other main characters are Szmul, the chief of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish inmates who are roped into greeting the transports, disposing of the bodies, stripping the corpses and feeding the stinking pyres. Doll’s wife Hannah, who nurses a secret contempt for her husband and an abiding passion for the communist activist with whom she feel in love in the early thirties. And then there’s Thomsen, the technocrat who happens to be Martin Bormann’s nephew. He’s building a synthetic rubber and oil factory at the camp, and falls in love with Hannah.

With the exception of Szmul, each of the characters were rendered cynical and damaged in their own way well before the holocaust picked up pace. Szmul is simply numb with pain, driven only by a determination to stay alive, and justifying his collaboration with an imperative to bear witness.

The story opens as the Wehrmacht advances towards Moscow, and moves through to the beginning of the end – the defeat at Stalingrad, at which point all but the most fanatical of the protagonists realise that the game is up. You get a sense of growing rot – not only of the corpses that bubble and ferment in mass graves – but in the characters of those who are at the centre of things.

You also get a sense of the contempt in which senior Nazis hold each other, through the mouth of Bormann, the most cynical of the lot. Also the mad theories beloved of Himmler and his cronies that justify Aryan supremacy. Though most of the protagonists are consumed in the final inferno, a few survive, damaged seemingly beyond repair.

It’s a bleak story, yet spiced with Amis’s trademark savage humour. Perhaps my sense of humour is impaired, but it’s by no means what I would describe as a comedy, as some of the reviews of the time suggested.

To say I enjoyed The Zone of Interest is perhaps to use the wrong word. I’m glad I came across it, because it’s probably the best Amis novel I’ve read, with Koba the Dread, about the young Stalin, coming a close second.

It’s worth reading not because it answers the unanswerable question of how a supposedly civilised people could, even for a second, justify to themselves what they did, but because others have carried out the unspeakable, and some seem ready to do the same today.

So the question Amis seems to be prompting me to ask is not how could we have stopped the holocaust, but can we see future ones coming, and what can we do to prevent them?

Recent history suggests that the answer to the first question is a qualified yes, but to the second, possibly not much, especially if the oppressor happens to be a nuclear power.

Keir Starmer and the new interesting

Sir Keir Starmer is an interesting chap. Actually, Labour’s new Leader of the Opposition is interesting because he’s not interesting. Or at least he hasn’t gone out of his way, in the manner of his political rivals, to make himself appear likeable, which, in politics, is often the equivalent of interesting. Politicians of Boris Johnson’s ilk seem to believe that this only achievable if you can make yourself, your private life and your various idiosyncrasies worthy of the public’s interest. Not Keir, apparently.

In self-promotion terms, Boris beats him hands down. True, the floppy one has been promoting himself for decades, whereas Keir has only emerged from the shadows recently.

All we know about Keir, unless we happen to be Labour activists, is that he is a distinguished human rights lawyer with a record of fighting for underdogs. He was made Director of Public Prosecutions under the last Labour Government, became a Labour MP, rose rapidly through the ranks to the Shadow Cabinet. Then, after the demise of Jeremy Corbyn, he became leader of the party.

If you watch him on video clips, or performing in parliament, he comes over as precise and focused as Boris is flatulently omnidirectional. Or, as the media loves to observe, forensic, as befits a leading barrister.

Viewed from afar, his CV is pretty dusty, his character disciplined and buttoned-up. Unlike Boris, he doesn’t slide down zipwires or rugby-tackle spindly adolescents. To put it crudely, where Boris is flatulent, Keir looks like he has a cork up his backside.

Beyond what we can read in Wikipedia, we know little about his private life. In contrast, Boris and his extended family are like characters in a Tom Sharpe novel.

About the only story about Keir that hit the media in recent months was his purchase of a field behind his mother’s house where she could look after rescue donkeys. The Mail on Sunday construed that to mean that he was a property-owning plutocrat, and therefore a hypocrite. The story quickly died when the context emerged. A field full of donkeys, without planning permission for any other purpose, hardly qualifies him as landed gentry or a hard-arsed property speculator.

No doubt, come the election, he will do his share of baby-kissing, assuming such activities are allowed by then. And his party machine will churn out all kinds of humanising stuff, just as the Tories did with the shy and awkward Theresa May. But I doubt if Keir would allow himself to confess that the only naughty thing he ever did was wander through fields of wheat. He’s too smart for that.

So here’s the question. Since the British electorate seems to elect governments on the basis of whether the leader would be a good chap to have a drink with in the pub, when it comes to crunch time – the next general election – will Keir be dead in the water when judged beside Boris or whatever gruesome character the Tories will find to replace him?

I’m not sure. But I think there’s a distinct possibility that after all the flamboyant nonsense of the Boris circus, the electorate might tire of the personality cult and start asking themselves different questions. Not who is the most likeable character, but who can drag us out of the mess we may well find ourselves in by 2024. And in particular, they might just go for someone who keeps his shirt buttoned and his fly zipped. If Keir can continue to show unspectacular, boring competence, he might well be the man.

To an extent, he’s a bit of throwback. Not to the likes of Tony Blair and Harold Wilson, who played the personality card to great advantage, but to Clement Attlee, unprepossessing, reassuring and the very opposite of flamboyant. Attlee, though, was of a different age, when politicians could maintain an element of personal privacy, and a Prime Minister didn’t have impertinent journalists demanding to know his inside leg measurement.

Comparisons with Labour’s first postwar prime minister would force one to observe that Attlee succeeded Churchill at the end of World War 2, and the last thing I would want to do would be to compare Boris with Winston, and WW2 with Brexit and COVID.

So perhaps it would be more appropriate to think of Keir not as a throwback, but as a throw-sideways. There’s another European leader who is quietly competent, untouched by personal scandal, reserved and, in media terms, rather boring. Angela Merkel has been Chancellor of Germany for fifteen years. The most powerful woman in the world isn’t a bad role model for Labour’s Leader of the Opposition.

Of course, politics is cyclical. Perhaps Germany will select a buffoon as its next leader. Hopefully America will dispose of its sociopathic idiot in November.

One would hope that by 2024 the British public will have tired of the bumbling ministers, the data-driven manipulators, the property speculators, the hedge-fund owners and the faux patriots to whom it has entrusted its future, and look for a viable alternative.

If Keir Starmer can re-fashion his party and come up with policies that will excite the imagination rather than repel an electorate struggling to hold on to the remnants of its wealth, he surely has a fighting chance of taking power.

You will gather from these thoughts that I’m biased. But not against any particular party or ideology, though ideologies have an alarming habit of turning into cults. Rather, in favour of reason, of redefining national interest in terms of global interest, and putting our faith in politicians who prefer not to pander to special interests.

It would be good if in the next four years we came to the startling conclusion that competence is interesting. Values are interesting. And character is interesting.

All other things being equal, I would rather entrust my future to a human rights lawyer than to a disgraced journalist.

Corona Diaries: the conclave of the rule-makers

As Boris makes his latest and final daily COVID pronouncement, I’m left wondering about who makes up all the rules that stem from his wisdom.

Is there a ballroom somewhere in London populated by diligent clerks who agonise over the minutiae? I imagine little screened-off sections – perspex dividers of course, where civil servants labour over the implications of every aspect of our lives. The thought of having so much control over what we can do and what we can’t do must send some into raptures. The kind of control we’ve dreamed about. Others are probably appalled.

So I imagine there’s a One Metre Section, a Granny Hugging Department, an Orgies and Bacchanalia Team (behind opaque Perspex, of course), a Prohibited Sports Group and, occupying at least half of the ballroom, A Quarantine and Travel Directorate.

Such a gathering of rule-makers has probably not been seen since the Jewish sages of Babylon laboured over years to produce the Talmud – 2,700 pages of regulations that dictate every aspect of the lives of the faithful.

Or possibly since the scholars of Baghdad and other centres of Islamic learning dedicated themselves over centuries to sift, interpret and validate the Hadith.

Not that our modern rule-makers are divinely inspired, though they do take their cue from SAGEs, as interpreted and fashioned for political consumption by Boris Johnson’s ineffably wise political advisors.

But I do marvel at the output of these dedicated bureaucrats. No doubt diligent research would reveal why it’s OK to hug one grandparent, not two. And why it will soon be fine to import American chickens soaked in chlorine, but not fine to swim in a pool whose chlorine content is almost as high. And who has decreed that when the pools are open we will be able to do the breast-stroke, but the butterfly will be a no-no?

No doubt the nation’s hairdressers will be relieved to know that according to the Times, they must avoid small talk with their customers. No more discussions about Mrs Hebblethorpe’ bunions, then. But there appears to be no ban on big talk, so they will presumably be free to get into conversations about the big issues of the day, such as the government’s rank incompetence, Brexit, Donald Trump and the perils of quantitative easing.

Guests at holiday B&Bs will now be greeted by harridans in full PPE brandishing cattle prods, which will be a welcome return to the traditional underlying relationship between hosts and guests.

Cinemas will be equipped with “anti-viral fogging machines that eliminate airborne viruses on contact”. Which bureaucrat came up with that little beauty? Or is it just the same as a bog-standard disinfectant spray? I should have thought that it would be cheaper to issue each cinema-goer with their own taser, which could be used to silence coughing neighbours.

Weddings and funerals will be allowed a maximum of 30 participants, and strictly no singing. That will also be a relief both to those who dread being asked to such events, yet find it hard to refuse. And the absence of adolescent singers squeaking away at Panis Angelicum will also be welcome.

As Boris points out, opportunities for social intercourse are still circumscribed. “We have great writhing scenes in beer gardens” he tells us. No doubt the Orgies and Bacchanalia Team are at this moment working on ever-more detailed rules to prevent such disgraceful occurrences.

In the newly-opened libraries, books that are returned will need to be in quarantine for between one and three days so that any lingering viruses will have plenty of time to die. Speaking personally, if I was borrowing Fifty Shades of Grey, I would need to know that it had been left in a safe place for at least a week since the last person handed it back, and then microwaved before it was issued to me.

People visiting pubs will need to provide their names and addresses when being served booze. I suppose that’s just about feasible, but try asking someone to do that at the end of a six-hour pub crawl, and don’t be surprised if they give their address as Buckingham Palace.

So many facets of our lives, so many rules to create! Thank goodness we have all these people writing them for us. What would we do without them? Heaven forbid that we should be trusted to exercise common sense, because most of us don’t have any.

There’s one curious aspect lurking within all this worthy rule-making.

Aren’t we supposed to be leaving the European Union in six months’ time? If so, why are we still using metres as our unit of measurement when calculating social distancing. Surely we should be using yards, which are a wee bit shorter than metres. If we did, it would probably add £500 billion to the national economy. The Brexiteers would rejoice about that too.

Missed a trick there, didn’t you Boris?

Another rose in my political garden

I’ve written lately about the five rose plants which we bought last year, and which at various times since then have fought for my attention on the patio. I call them Boris, Priti (formerly Theresa), Dominic, Matt and Keir.

There’s another one that’s been around lots longer. I call him Joe. He’s a bit spindly, because I frequently forget to prune him. Earlier this summer, I treated him, along with all the others, for a nasty fungal infection. After removing all the affected leaves and cutting off the dead branches, there wasn’t much left that suggested any flowers this year. In fact, I thought I might have to put him out of his misery at one stage.

He stands alone, planted in the ground, rather than in pots like the other ones. It’s almost as if he’s in another country.

But lo! Old Joe is starting to produce.

Sitting on my patio, I can see at least eight buds waiting to burst into life. And atop them all, the first flower of the season sits, a triumph of hope over expectation.

Nearby, almost blocking one side of the conservatory, sits a big fat bush in full bloom with a multitude of yellow flowers. The blooms are spectacular, if slightly manic, but I don’t like the bush encroaching over the path and blocking my view of the rest of the garden when I escape to the conservatory.

By November, if previous years are any guide, Joe will still be in flower, but Donald, the big bullying bush with yellow blooms, will have had a Brazilian. Cut right back.

I like flowers, as Chance the Gardener might have said in Being There, one of my favourite movies. But every plant in the garden has its moment of glory. And there comes a day when it must be cut back, pruned and put in its place.

As Peter Sellers’ Chance, the illiterate gardener mistaken by America’s great and good for an economic seer, says to the President in a statement interpreted as a great profundity:

“In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.”

Or, upon riding in the car for the first time:

“This is just like television, only you can see much further.”

Or, as the TV-addled Chance says to Shirley MacLaine’s wealthy socialite when she tries to seduce him:

“I like to watch.”

They don’t make movies like that any more. Too close to the bone.

Enough of this silliness. Back to dreaming.

Corona Diaries: the gap that only cricket can fill

Sibling rivalry, Wales, Summer 1963

With apologies in advance to those of you who don’t follow the game, what I’ve missed more than anything else in the latter weeks of lockdown is cricket.

Much as I look forward to seeing Liverpool win the English Premiership football title under the incomparable Jurgen Klopp, the lack of cricket has been a gap in the English summer that is not easily filled, for me at least.

I don’t just miss the big set-piece events that I can watch for days on TV. I want to see cricketers battling it out in the park just down the road from my house, and in the evening, boys and girls honing their skills between plastic wickets, swatting soft balls over the grass and shrieking with delight at a big hit or a fallen wicket.

Even though the short forms of the game are often cacophonous affairs, the longer forms are not so suffused with adrenaline until they reach a climax, or even several climaxes as the pendulum swings back and forth. For much of the time, they’re a stage for quiet appreciation, where the action doesn’t demand constant attention, and where everyone around you has an opinion, but rarely expressed with tribal passion.

They’re events where you can disappear for lunch, have a few beers without finding yourself in the centre of a riot, fall asleep in the sun or, as I did when I was a kid, keep meticulous score, noting every run, every ball and every boundary. And if you think score-keeping is an activity confined to juvenile obsessives, you will still often find men in their sixties or seventies doing exactly the same thing.

It would be wrong to describe cricket as a gentle game. In times gone by contests between neighbouring villages would be extremely violent affairs. Strong men hurling thunderbolts at frightening speed towards myopic batsmen whose occupation of the crease was largely a matter of luck rather than talent. Blacksmiths, built like the shire horses they shod, sending the ball screaming over the boundary and often into the nearby car park. Teenagers drafted in at the last moment, keen to make a name for themselves. Umpires in long white coats, former cricketers perhaps, and often pillars of local society – the vicar or the pub landlord. And old men slowly plodding round the boundary ropes remembering W G Grace, Len Hutton and perhaps their own stellar moments.

When I speak about cricket in masculine terms, that’s not to suggest that it isn’t a game for women too, just not so much when I was growing up. Though one of my earliest memories was of playing a peculiar variant of the game at our holiday home in Wales. It was called French cricket, and it usually involved recruiting an unfortunate au-pair, whose role was to stand with a bat protecting her legs while my siblings and I pelted her with tennis balls. If the au-pair wasn’t available, our grandmother was an adequate substitute.

Rumour has it that once our masters declare a one-metre separation to be OK, cricket will return, though the professional game, like football, will play out to empty stadia. That’s not a problem, because when the England team tours the outposts of the game, five-day matches are often played in front of empty seats. In countries like Sri Lanka and India, the locals prefer the shorter forms of the game.

But as far as I’m concerned, summer won’t come alive until small grounds around the country are filled with accountants, vicars, blacksmiths and builders, doing their utmost to smash the windows of nearby houses, while a smattering of friends and passers-by sit on blankets and deckchairs watching the action with pints of real ale and tea in Thermos flasks on hand.

These days the game stretches beyond the outdated, and largely white, male stereotype I’ve just described. Women are no longer there just to pour the tea and make cucumber sandwiches. They’re fierce combatants, like their male counterparts. And if you visit a local ground you might find gay teams, Muslim teams and even teams of actors and authors, in one of which my favourite historian, Tom Holland, plays (he claims) a leading role.

The beauty of cricket is also that it’s a common language. It unites people from many different ethnic and social backgrounds. Just as you can talk football in most parts of the world if you see someone wearing a Liverpool or Manchester United shirt, I could take a ride in Riyadh with a taxi driver from Peshawar, and we could swap stories of Imran Khan, Virat Kohli and Ian Botham, or just shout out their names to bring a smile of common understanding.

If the game was once confined to the countries of the British Commonwealth, that’s less the case today. Cricket in Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and even the Netherlands is thriving.

One of the worthwhile aspects of nationality is not so much that we’re proud of our countries, but that we all have our cherished cultural idiosyncrasies that have not yet been erased by globalisation.

For me, cricket, with all its quaint traditions, though we share the game with many other countries, is something without which England would not be England.

First we take Piddletrenthide…

Piddletrenthide, Dorset. Pic: Marilyn Peddle

“This statue lark is getting a bit out of hand, isn’t it?”

“Whoa! You call removing emblems of racist repression A LARK??? You must be a racist yourself!”

“Oh golly, I was just about to point out that all those Roman and Greek statues are made of marble, which is white. That’s no reason to rip them out of museums and drag them to the nearest river. They were once painted, you know – all sorts of bright colours. And if you look at the skin colour on Greek vases, all the men are dark-skinned, even if for cultural reasons the women were light skinned.”

“Did I just hear you say golly? Well that’s it then! You are a bloody racist. And actually, a lot of Roman statues were brown, because bronze is brown, but the bastards were still slave owners, so they should be taken down.”

“OK, so what about all those statues of Jesus looking like one of the guys howling at Stonehenge to celebrate the solstice? They’re white, aren’t they? And the Leonardos, the Michaelangelos, the paintings in the churches, the stained glass windows created centuries ago? They have to go too?”

“Of course! We all know that Jesus had dark skin, so to portray him otherwise is an act of cultural appropriation. So yes, we should take them down, burn the paintings, smash the windows.”

“But wasn’t Jesus depicted as a white man in parts of the world where the population was predominantly white because the artists wanted to portray him as one of us? So that we would relate to him? Just as in Ethiopia the Copts gave him a dark skin, and Chinese Christians depicted him as Chinese?”

“Not the point. Far better that we have no images of Jesus at all, so that he can’t be hijacked into a racist icon. And the same goes for all other depiction of humans. Do you think people should give a shit whether Marie Curie, Adolf Hitler, Abraham Lincoln or Julius Caesar were black, white or yellow?What matters is what they achieved, or what monstrosities they carried out. If Christians truly want to be equal before God, it shouldn’t matter whether we are black or white, man or woman, whether we ejaculate or menstruate. So why depict all those images that create focal points for division and illusions of superiority? Take them down. All of them!”

“Well, I suppose the iconoclasts of Byzantium did have a point. All those icons that rode into battle against the Huns, the Goths and the Arab hordes. What good did they do? And it would be quite nice if all we could see was the birds and the bees, the sheep gambolling in the pastures and a few tyrannosaurs ambling benignly by. I for one wouldn’t miss those photos of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Genghis Khan. Not for a moment.”

“Exactly. So if you want to redeem yourself, and truly repent of your ingrained racism, there’s a march next Saturday on the Church of St John the Baptist in Piddletrenthide. We’re going to take down the racist windows that have been oppressing the village for the past eight hundred years. More details on your local Facebook Antifa Group. First we take Piddletrenthide…”

Yes, I know that’s one of the silliest conversations you’re likely to encounter today. And Socrates would laugh like a drain at the logic leaps. But consider the tweet that inspired it. It came from a guy who has over a million followers. He has a podcast and supports all kind of worthy causes, such as casting out the Republican majority from the US senate.

This is what he says:

Yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been. In the Bible, when the family of Jesus wanted to hide, and blend in, guess where they went? EGYPT! Not Denmark. Tear them down.

In a follow-on, he continues:

All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression. Racist propaganda. They should all come down.

Oh, and by the way, this chap, from the picture under his name, appears to be a white guy. His name is Shaun King. I know nothing about him other than what he says about himself in the jumble of hashtags that constitutes his Twitter profile.

The response to his message was largely mockery, though a few people clearly agreed with him. Who knows? Perhaps – as Donald Trump claimed when he said in Tulsa over the weekend that he was slowing the COVID testing down so that the US wouldn’t show so many cases – he was joking.

But I think it’s one thing if some crackpot like me, who has about two and a half followers on Twitter, comes out with stuff like this, but someone with a million followers?

All things considered, the best response is probably to have a laugh. Not about the important stuff, but about the wild shores that people are increasingly visiting. Until, of course, they come for Piddletrenthide, which, by the way, is a real village sitting down the Piddle Valley in the beautiful English county of Dorset.

And the Church is actually named All Saints. Very inclusive.

We’re the fat pigs now – George Orwell would be highly amused

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

George Orwell, Animal Farm

I am a lover of all things piggy. Always have been. I’m sorry if this upsets those of you who spurn the pig for religious reasons, or because you’re veggie or vegan, or because you just don’t like the taste of pork.

I used to collect piggy ornaments. Somewhere in my garage there are three pink flying pigs that used to adorn our lavatory wall, a reminder that when my wife used to compare me to that glorious animal if I overdid the fruit cake or the custard creams, her observations were close to the truth.

But now, according to the Sunday Times, to call humans fat pigs is a gross injustice to pigs, because on average they’re leaner than we are. I’d be happy about that if I thought the turnaround was the result of our concern for piggy welfare. But of course it isn’t. We don’t care if pigs are fat or thin. We do care if our bacon or ham is laden with fat, because fat is not good. This is ironic given that we really are the fat pigs these days. So that’s one foodie strategy that isn’t working, except possibly in Islington or Malibu.

But I do try to separate in my mind my love of pork from my affection for pigs, because to do otherwise would cause great anguish. How could you eat an animal that you so admire?

If we all stopped eating pork, the domesticated pig, which is the result of millennia of human-pig interaction, would cease to exist, except possibly as a source of leather or heart valves. We would be left with wild boars and warthogs, which are a different proposition altogether from the lovable animals that snuffle and grunt in the mud and help the French find truffles.

We humans are good at living with confliction (which is a less toxic word than hypocrisy). How otherwise would the Founding Fathers of America go on about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness when those admirable aspirations were sustained through the labours of legions of enslaved workers?

So for better or worse, I continue to love pigs and pork. Though as a sentimental human, I don’t love the way we keep pigs in pens and treat them as units, pump them full of hormones and antibiotics or shove them into trucks on their way to market in such confined spaces that their noses bleed against the bars of their cages. That’s when the mental barriers break down.

Not that I’m about to go into a diatribe about American factory farming techniques that enable producers over there to sell pork products at half the price as we do in the UK, which is the source of some contention as we try to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. Other pork-producing countries in my beloved European Union are hardly much kinder to their pigs, particularly the Netherlands and Denmark. And as for the Chinese, the welfare of all sorts of edible animals is hardly up there on their national agenda.

There is something disconcerting about the lean and mean pig, even if their brothers in the wild are just that. I have a wonderful coffee-table book called The Ubiquitous Pig. In it are paintings of extremely large animals, not penned up, but waddling around in seventeenth century English farmyards. They look like sleek, aerodynamic barrage balloons. There are also old photos of what Americans call hogs. They’re humongous, and likewise seemingly raised under more benign regimes.

Of course it comforts my conscience to see those stickers on pork joints when they paint eloquent pictures of the slab of meat’s life as a pig, as in “from specially selected, free range pigs raised in Lord Emsworth’s country estate, fed only on the finest acorns, leftovers from His Lordship’s table and the occasional thigh of a disaffected farm worker.” With apologies, of course, to PG Wodehouse.

I don’t entirely buy into the intelligent pig myth. Yes, they’re intelligent within their physical limitations. But so are dogs, and most of them don’t grow into 200-kilo behemoths. Not do I wish to have a pig as a pet. Not even a Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pig.

Pigs are pigs. The’re not Babe. They won’t take over Animal Farm. Lean as they now are, there won’t be Piggylympics any time soon. They’ll eat you if you play dead in their sty, and God help you if you get in the way of an angry wild boar.

I love them for what they are. Substantial animals, with attitude, personality and a gravitas that doesn’t just spring from their bulk. I love their grunting, their snuffling and their lack of concern for what they eat. Pigs are never going to be vegan. They interact with us humans, but unlike dogs, they make no attempt to ingratiate themselves, and unlike cats, they don’t try and manipulate us.

I can live with the contradiction of respecting an animal I’m delighted to eat, because that’s what we all have to do if we’re meat-eaters and we think further than the neatly-packaged piece of flesh from a supermarket. I have a high regard for sheep, cows and chickens as well. Should the time come, as well it might, when it’s no longer an option to live on a planet full of farting cows and slurry-producing pigs, I shall have to accept the inevitable. But I’ll lament the passing of all those farm animals, especially the pig, because their departure will be our fault, not theirs. After all, we’re responsible for their evolution from bristly brown bruisers in the forest to pink pigs in shit.

And if anyone wants to call me a fat pig, that’s fine by me, because they might think they’re insulting me, but they’re actually paying tribute to a very special species.

Lockdown Reading: Nathaniel’s Nutmeg

With the near-collapse of the travel industry, the prospect of reaching a tiny archipelago nestled between Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, and yet hundreds of miles from each, becomes almost as daunting as it was in the seventeenth century.

Daunting in our terms at least, because for most of us pampered travellers, any journey longer than 24 hours and without the convenience of air travel and well-appointed boats, remains the province of back-packers.

But to get to the Banda Archipelago in the days of sail was akin to a trip to Mars. Those who travelled there from Europe had to endure months of sailing, the loss of crew through disease, mutiny, pirate attack and hostile receptions at supply stops. There was never a guarantee that the ships sailing there would arrive, let alone return.

So why did fleets of ships set out for these tiny islands from Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and England at such great risk to the owners and those who sailed in them? And once they were there, why did ruthless competition result in little wars between the traders of each nation, occasional massacres and the eventual enslavement of local populations?

The answer lies in a few modest containers of spices to be found in most of our kitchen cupboards: nutmeg, mace and cloves. Surprising as it may seem today, if we ever even wonder where such humdrum condiments come from, these tiny little islands, barely visible on most maps, were the only source of nutmeg in the world.

And for centuries such spices, especially nutmeg, were much in demand as preservatives, medicines and to mask the flavour of rotten meat. A pound of nutmeg would sell in the markets of Lisbon, London and Amsterdam for three hundred times the purchase price from source.

So the nutmeg trade was a potential monopoly beyond the wildest dreams of any ambitious commodity trader today – for those who could control it.

I’ve learned all this and more from Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, a gem of a book by Giles Milton. The paperback was published in 2005, but I missed it then. I came across it thanks one of my daughters, who shares my taste in history.

Milton sails into lesser-known waters, all of which are connected to the quest for what were once known as the Spice Islands. Much of the early part of the book is devoted to attempts to find a faster passage to the islands than the only known routes – usually via the Indian Ocean. Hence the earliest attempts to find access across the Arctic Circle, and through the rivers of North America. All ended in failure, but did result in accidental settlements, including that of Manhattan Island by the Dutch, who, like the English, had originally hoped that the Hudson River might be a route to the Pacific.

The story then moves to the Far East, and to the formation of two rival companies, each granted powers by their respective governments to operate effectively as privatised nation states in their areas of interest. After the Spanish and the Portuguese had been eliminated as competitors by force of arms, the spice trade was left to the East India Company of London, and the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie.

Of the two, the Dutch company was by far the most successful – better equipped, better armed and with superior numbers of ships and soldiers. But the English did manage to gain a foothold in Banda – the island of Run, which it defended robustly under the leadership of Nathaniel Courthorpe, hence the title of the book.

Although the Dutch eventually expelled their rivals, with Courthorpe dying in the process, his courage and determination did pay dividends long after his death. The East India Company did not give up its claim to the ownership of the island, which it maintained was freely given by treaty with the local chiefs.

Under the 1667 Treaty of Breda between England and the Dutch Republic, both parties gave up claims over any territory that the other occupied. On the English side that included the minuscule islands of Ai and Run. The Dutch for their part ceded Manhattan, from which the English had earlier expelled them.

New Amsterdam became New York. And the little islands ceded to the Dutch eventually faded into obscurity. A fair exchange? Certainly not one that Nathaniel Courthorpe would have applauded after his efforts to maintain the English foothold on the Spice Islands.

We all know what happened to New York, and the East India Company went on to fulfil its notorious destiny in India.

Giles Milton’s book is a fabulous read. The story of the Wild East is a scantily documented side-show compared to that of the Wild West, yet Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is full of fascinating detail. Of the disease-ridden trading posts of what is now Indonesia; of the misfortunes suffered by the English in their voyages, including imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Ottoman pasha in Aden; of the fearsome Japanese mercenaries hired by the Dutch to subdue the Banda Islands, and of the dreadful toll exacted on the sailors by scurvy, dysentery and other ailments.

Nowadays many of the people of Banda are the descendants of slaves brought to the islands to cultivate the nutmeg trees. They interbred with remnants of the indigenous population, but have few folk memories of the days when European superpowers battled for supremacy over their volcanic dots in the ocean.

But battlements are still there, and so are crumbling remains of grand houses that the traders built for themselves along the sea fronts. And so also are the nutmeg trees, whose fragrance still drifts out to sea.

Not a place I’m likely to see, but if you’re a backpacker with plenty of time and a sense of history, a visit to the Spice Islands would surely be worth the effort. And if you’re of a nervous disposition, you would be encouraged to know that head-hunting has long ceased.

Confined as I’m to a world of the familiar, it’s been no bad thing to immerse myself in a story about a part of the world I’ll never experience.

America and the myths of Britishness – putting the boot on the other foot

Cast of Downton Abbey

I can diss my country, but nobody else can. That might be my first reaction when I read something critical of Britain by a foreign writer. And of course it’s totally not the case. Anyone can diss anyone else’s country. Otherwise, where would we be? No travel writing, no global perspective, and for me, the most grievous loss: no opportunity to pour scorn on Donald Trump.

But when I write about Britain, I sometimes feel like an angry teenager raging against my parents, their values, their aspirations and their pretensions. I might love them dearly, but they’re so…..wrong!

I detected the whiff of a similar anger when I came across an article by a Laurie Penny, British writer who spends much of her time in America. The piece is published in Longreads, a website for  – you guessed it – long articles. The introduction to Penny’s article gives you a flavour:

In “Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness,” Penny, with trademark vigor and wit, confronts Britain’s unsavory past and its unpalatable present as a former world power, reduced to exporting the fantasy of posh whiteness portrayed on shows like The Crown and Downton Abbey. “The plain truth is that Britain had, until quite recently, the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever known. We don’t have it anymore, and we miss it. Of course we miss it. It made us rich, it made us important, and all the ugly violent parts happened terribly far away and could be ignored with a little rewriting of our history.”

That just about sums it up, with a waspish glee suggesting that whoever wrote the intro heartily agrees with the author.

Penny writes with scorn about the myth and the reality of Britain. About the myth, of imperial elegance (as in Downton), of the plucky underdog (as in the Blitz), and of the manners, charm and traditions that so impress our gullible cousins across the Atlantic.

Then the reality as she sees it. The stale cucumber sandwiches of a second-rate, post-colonial nation. A hopeless government that has screwed up and lied its way through the COVID crisis. The cruelty and disrespect we show to migrants who keep the country running. The illusions of the ideologues who are dragging us out of the European Union. Our desperate affection for the National Health Service, even as successive governments have whittled it away in pursuit of a long-term goal of privatised health. The rise of extremism at both ends of the political spectrum. The decline of formerly robust regional centres brought about by the disenfranchisement and defunding of local government. Institutional racism, crumbling infrastructure and bad teeth. And, of course, the rain.

But then I realise that what I’ve just written is not Penny speaking. It’s me, though I would usually temper such a bowel-voiding of contempt with the upsides, of which there are many.

The author is gracious enough to point out that without the myth, she and many other Brits in America – especially those who work in the entertainment business, and others who cover for their mediocrity with their cut-glass British accents – would be out of a living.

But what of America? Are we not just as taken in by the American myths as they are with ours? More, I would suggest. In fact we are suffused with Americana, as anyone who looks around them and consumes its products and its culture will know.

So let’s take a brief look at American myths and realities.

But before we go there, what qualifies me to write of such things? Perhaps the fact that I’ve been a partner in an American business for the past twenty years that has, at various times,employed hundreds of people. Also perhaps that I’ve travelled fairly extensively throughout the country both for business and pleasure.

The travel experience has taught me how ridiculous it is to talk of America, as opposed to many Americas. Just as in our own little way we British are many countries, four nations and a host of local cultures.

Is it therefore fair to generalise about either country? On one level no, but about the myths, yes. Because myth is belief by another name. And everyone in America can believe in the myth of the land of opportunity, just as we British can believe in our courage, tolerance and sense of fair play. But just as we believe in our own myths, even while the realities are forced down our throats by the likes of Laurie Penny, we often believe in different myths about other countries.

For me, having travelled so much in America, sometimes it’s hard to tell when the myth made so pervasive by movies, TV and literature stops and reality begins. Did I really drive a few miles out of ultra-modern Raleigh into the North Carolina countryside and see shacks with old people sitting on their porches looking out on tobacco fields, or am I remembering a movie set in the 1930s? Were those threatening streets I’ve walked down in New York actually a memory of the 15th Precinct in NYPD Blue? And were the whales I saw off the coast by Baltimore a figment of my imagination inspired by some natural history programme?

In those cases, no, but when we think of America, how much are we reliant on the genius of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Steven Bochco for our views on America? Or Donald Trump, John F Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain or Edgar Allen Poe?

So perhaps we should be talking about the America we would like to admire and love, and then the country that presents itself on a daily basis, either in person or through what we read and see across so many media.

So what of the country that I love and admire? The music, from bluegrass to blues, from the Grateful Dead to the jazz of New Orleans. When I see it, which is not always, the optimism, the innovation and the ambition. When encounter it, which is also not always, the welcoming spirit, the curiosity and the generosity. Then of course there are the wildernesses, those parts of America not tamed and modified by those who wish to profit from them.

And the country that presents itself to the rest of the world? I might have said different fifty years ago. Then I would be talking about Vietnam, civil rights and moon rockets. Now I see meanness of spirit, fear, exceptionalism, paranoia, a willingness to let the needy sink. I see Donald Trump, the religious right, goons with rifles parading in front of statehouses and, of course, police. I see conspiracy theories, hate tweets and the frantic efforts of writers, musicians, lawyers and politicians to reverse the effect that Trump and his people have had on the tradition of reasoned discourse.

I still hope for good things from America. When I see Cagney, I look for Jimmy Stewart. When I see Don Corleone, I look for Dick Winters or Amelia Earhart. And when I see a policeman with his knee on the neck of a black man, I see another helping to clear the airway of a choking 11-month-old child.

So should we discard the myths and only look coldly at ourselves as we really are? I’m not so sure.

The thing about the myths we propagate about our own countries, however broad-brush and unrealistic they might be, is that we do try to live up to them, and we hold people to account when they fall below the positive self-image that many of those myths bestow on us. When Americans say “we should be better than this”, they’re judging themselves against the myths of freedom, can-do spirit, generosity and kindness to strangers. Likewise when we British ask ourselves whatever happened to our tolerance and sense of fair play, we’re not just looking at the rules of cricket and the Englishman’s castle. We’re measuring ourselves against who we think we are.

Three years ago, when Donald Trump was elected president, I vowed that I would not revisit the country until he was no longer president. If I was an American, I might well make a similar vow to stay away from Britain for as long as Boris Johnson and his third-rate cronies remained in government. Nobody in America will give a second thought about my absence, though we would miss the Americans who come to our country to breathe in our myths. After all, we’re the supplicants these days.

I believe that America will survive Trump, just as I believe that over the next few years my country will emerge from the current chaos a better place: in reality fairer, more outward-looking, more tolerant and more constructively engaged with its neighbours.

Neither country is currently the cesspit that its critics would like to suggest. I love my country and most Americans love theirs. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement – in fact, lots of it.

Downton Abbey may well stand for another hundred years, and so will the Statue of Liberty. And yes, we shall overcome. And keep overcoming.

But only if we look at our history square in the face, choose our myths carefully, and work hard to live up to them.

The Salisbury Poisonings, and how our dreams of apocalyse have changed

Last night I watched the final episode of The Salisbury Poisonings. Great drama, well acted, compelling story.

What amazes me is that whoever came up with the plan to assassinate Sergei Skripal, the retired Russian double agent living quietly in a small British city, was so stupid. Not only risking their country’s reputation by using a nerve agent that was easily traced back to Russia, but using people who bungled the job in such a way as to endanger the entire population of Salisbury.

Why, you wonder, use such a bizarre method of poisoning? You might also ask why polonium was used on Alexander Litvinenko. If the motive was to strike fear into Russia’s perceived enemies, surely a real-life equivalent of Killing Eve‘s Villanelle, who uses robust but more conventional ways of killing, would be able to do the job without leaving a trail of WMD components in their wake.

Are we all a little more afraid of Vladimir Putin as a result of these attacks? Possibly, but even if we don’t feel personally threatened, we surely buy in with greater enthusiasm to the narrative that this is a worthy successor to Stalin, a soulless murderer and the last person you could trust in any political partnership with the old enemies of the Soviet Union from which he sprang.

You would also be able to use as evidence Putin’s interference in the last US presidential election, which may have been instrumental in foisting Donald Trump on the world. And perhaps you might have read Bill Browder’s book Red Notice, which describes how Putin and his cronies took control of Russia’s corporate giants, or you might be aware of the country’s doped-up athletes, its weapons testing on innocents in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad and it’s indifference to the lives of citizens of Grozny, which Putin’s forces pulverised in his war against the Chechens.

But the Salisbury attack shows that he clearly presides over some pretty incompetent spies. Aside from the clumsiness of the assassins, the fact that Bellingcat, an independent blogging collective, was able to unmask the real identities of the two prime suspects by accessing public documents suggests that Putin’s gang are far from the efficient operators of the Cold War, or from Stalin’s pre-war assassins.

I do have one quibble with the programme. It reflected the government narrative that the event was a chemical weapons attack on a British city. It wasn’t. It was an attack on two individuals with unexpected and probably unintended “collateral damage”. There’s a difference. If the intention was to cause widespread death in Salisbury, that would most likely have been considered an act of war.

It would be more accurate to say that the Salisbury poisonings were a state-sponsored terrorist attack. And terrifying it was, for the victims, the local authorities and the people of Salisbury. It was grimly fascinating to watch Tracy Daszkiewicz, the public health director, going about her work, as she tried to quantify the risks. Who had come into contact with the substance? Where had they been? What had they touched? And had the nerve agent entered the water supply?

The biggest mystery of all, which the programme didn’t answer, was that if, as claimed, Novichok is fifty times more lethal than any other man-made substance, why, out of the five people known to have come into contact with it, did only one person die?

If an answer is known, it’s perhaps too complicated to be explained in a programme that focused less on the technicalities and more on the effect of the attack on the lives of those involved.

Although it uses similar narrative techniques to keep us interested, The Salisbury Poisonings is in no sense a disaster movie. Whereas disaster movies draw us into the lives of the protagonists as a prelude to some CGI-enhanced set-piece catastrophe, all we saw in Salisbury was a few people getting nastily sick. We hardly even saw the Skripals, who were the intended targets. Not exactly the Night of the Living Dead, thank goodness.

It was also striking how unshocking it was, to me at least, to see ambulances, military vehicles and people in hazmat suits milling around the quiet streets. The programme was probably made last year, long before the advent of COVID-19. Little did the makers know that the scenes they were shooting were ones that in the following year would become everyday occurrences.

The significance of both events – poisoning and pandemic, one of limited impact and the other universal – is that whereas my generation still wakes up in a sweat during dreams of a nuclear war, with fiery infernos sweeping away everything we hold dear, perhaps for those who still have most of their lives ahead of them, this is how we imagine we die.

Not through fire storms, tsunamis or by being swallowed up by the earth. But through something we can’t see, taste or smell. Something released deliberately or accidentally, that carries us off while leaving all that we created to quietly rot away.

I’m not sure which is the scarier dream, but I do know how I would rather die.

Corona Diaries: is COVID the great wake-up call for those of us who waddle?

Were it not for the fact that it likes consuming people with man-boobs and beer-bellies, COVID would be manna from heaven for white supremacists. What better example of the genetic superiority of the white race than a virus that disproportionately picks on people of colour?

Even better if you happen to be a God-fearing white supremacist, because then you can claim that the Almighty has sent the virus to demonstrate the weakness of other races.

Unfortunately, the fact that fatties of all ages and races are dropping like ninepins punctures the genetic argument. But it does give rise to another theory: that God has sent the virus to punish those of us who abuse the bounty of the good earth by eating too many pizzas, cookies and Pringles.

While taking God out of the equation, that seems to be a theory espoused by Bill Maher, an American comedian and chat-show host who berates his fellow citizens on a weekly basis for their unhealthy diets, and argues that if they’d spent lockdown changing their eating habits, they would have emerged with better metabolisms and consequently greater ability to survive the virus. This week he interviewed an nutritionist who made exactly that claim.

He may be right, but I’m afraid that as far as the American public is concerned, and certainly us Brits, he’s pissing in the Californian wind. He makes the perfectly plausible claim that nutritionists in the 50s and 60s, who had witnessed the effect of malnutrition in wars, famine and economic depression, were fearful that the growing population around the world would lead to increased food shortages and malnutrition. Therefore they were determined that America would have the vitamins it needed.

This led to the industrialisation of processed food, which in one way or another led to an obese population. I won’t go into the details, but that’s the gist.

But if Maher thought that we would all start restricting ourselves to nuts and quinoa as we sat at home worrying about our jobs and being quietly driven mad by the solitude, or loudly driven mad by our proximity to bored offspring, he surely had another think coming. In times like these, most of us reach out for comfort food, and that means the most sludgy, industrially-extruded crap that we can find.

Speaking only for myself, I don’t mind being confined to a hermit cave, but if all I was given to eat was lettuce and root vegetables, I’d quickly find a cliff to jump off.

I like Bill Maher. He has interesting guests, and I love his weekly tirades against Trump. He’s right to raise concerns about the food industry and its relentless self-interest in prioritising efficient factory production methods over public health benefits. He’s also right in saying that it will take a generation or more to get us to align our eating habits to current science.

But the problem is that in the light of the pandemic, we’re more sceptical about scientific advice than we’ve ever been. For that, we have to thank the politicians and media “experts” who have been manipulating the diversity of scientific views this way and that to suit their political agendas.

Who’s to say, we might legitimately ask, that after the next 30 years or so in which we make dramatic changes in the way we eat, a new scientific orthodoxy might arise that will trash the current version of the truth?

Even today, you could argue that there’s no such thing as “scientific orthodoxy” on the subject of diet. Only opinions. Fatties will gleefully seize upon studies that show that being fat doesn’t necessarily mean being unfit. Depending on who you listen to, cholesterol’s good and cholesterol’s bad. Same for butter, burgers and broccoli. And I can’t see the point in dwelling on the absurd variety of diet fads, nutritional theories, fitbits, exercise regimes and therapy techniques, most of which are purpose-built to extract dollars, pounds and euros from us terrified dupes.

But let’s rise above the chaos of theories and counter-theories, and take a look at our bodies in 50 years’ time, in anticipation that the human race still exists by then. Let’s assume that by wiping out fatties in huge numbers COVID gives us a wake-up call. Is it likely that we will respond by weaning ourselves off our harmful diets and turning ourselves into a population of wizened skinnies?

More likely that we’ll do what we always do – take the easy way out. Our scientists will come up with gene therapy techniques that will turn off our fat-producing processes and transform many of us into replicas of those annoying bastards who can eat like pigs and never gain weight. That way the food industry will be able to keep stuffing us full of chlorinated Dorritos and we’ll still be able to prance around looking like Olympian gods. Those of us who can afford it, that is. The rest of us will wallow around in an underworld of obesity and poverty, to be carried off in large numbers by each successive pandemic.

I have to say that I would prefer not to live in a world ruled by skinnies with their lean and hungry looks. There probably weren’t many porky hunter-gatherers, but fatties have been around ever since. Where would we be without them? Where would mothers be if they couldn’t warn their kids that they’ll look like Donald Trump or Mr Creosote if they keep eating Oreos and Custard Creams? What would life be like without our stereotypically jovial, funny fatties to counterbalance our mean and miserable skinnies?

Would we be enhanced or diminished if fat wasn’t a feminist issue, and if the formerly obese no longer had to present a facade of good humour while crying inside?

Speaking as someone half-way up the fattie scale, I wouldn’t mind waking up tomorrow morning looking like an Olympian god. But I can’t help thinking how boring it would be if everyone looked the same as me.

And I also can’t help thinking that if we all looked like Apollo and Aphrodite, we’d find something else to be unhappy about.

Is Global Britain all about us?

In one of yesterday’s least surprising pieces of non-COVID news, Boris Johnson has announced that the Department for International Development is to be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Now on one level I couldn’t give a damn about this piece of bureaucratic chair-shuffling, and I doubt if the recipients of Britain’s foreign aid could either. What actually matters is that that the Foreign Office’s anschluss of DfID seems more an ideological statement than a reorganisation. That it’s the ultimate triumph of the charity-begins-at-home brigade.

The absorption of DfID gives the government the chance to cut the purse strings without anyone noticing, as foreign aid becomes just another budget item, to be ranked aside Maltesers and ambassadorial Toyotas. For times is ‘ard, if you hadn’t noticed.

But before we say goodbye to our dedicated providers of largesse to needy countries (since many of them will surely lose their jobs) perhaps we should consider what foreign aid is in aid of.

Is it the last guilt-ridden RNA of benevolent imperialism? Our last opportunity to show the natives how to stand on their own two feet? Or is it, as David Milliband and David Cameron might argue, an essential vehicle for projecting soft power? A symbol of the very Global Britain that our new masters are so keen to create?

If, like me, you’re a reader of the London Times, you might be persuaded to believe that those who dish out the money at DfID are nincompoops. This morning, it regaled us with stories of misspent funds, such as the £285 million it spent on an airport at St Helena which largely doesn’t work because they didn’t realise how windy it would be.

But isn’t a series of dumb investments evidence of the incompetence of the decision-makers rather than the invalid logic of devoting a small percentage of our GDP to worthy development projects beyond our shores? I would be interested hear the views of the statue destroyers, who wish to expunge all monuments related to our shameful enrichment through the slave trade. Would they feel that it’s right and proper that we give something back after denuding half the world of its wealth and natural resources in order to build our railways, battleships and fine civic buildings?

Perhaps one of the most eloquent advocates of an independent DfID is Simon Bishop who in January, as Boris’s inclinations became widely known, wrote in the Guardian:

There’s a good reason why the latest Portland index on soft power notes that merging DfID into the Foreign Office is “unlikely to be positive” and why Joseph Nye, the Harvard academic and founder of the soft power concept, said: “The best propaganda is not propaganda.” A merger with the Foreign Office or loss of DfID’s secretary of state would signal a hollowing out of our longstanding poverty-first commitment, an end to Britain as a development superpower, and a resulting significant loss of soft power.

We all also want taxpayers’ money to be spent well. As Bill Gates said: “DfID is widely recognised as one of the most effective, efficient, and innovative aid agencies in the world”. It is also the most scrutinised government department, with its own watchdog, the independent commission for aid impact, in addition to a select committee and the national audit office – and it ranks third globally in the aid transparency index. The Foreign Office ranks 40th out of 45.

DfID’s world-class reputation also means it attracts development officials at the top of their game, who are passionate about helping the world’s poorest and tailoring programme spend accordingly. It is fantastic that the prime minister personally champions “12 years of quality education” for the world’s poorest girls, but only DfID staff have the skills to help the world achieve this. Despite DfID spending more than 70% of the government’s aid budget, a disproportionate number of “aid scandal” stories splashed in the papers come from aid spent by other departments. UK aid works because DfID works.

The whole article is here.

Well he would say that wouldn’t he, you might comment, given that Bishop worked for Justine Greening when she was the DfID minister in the last government. But I’m not so cynical. Though this is only a short-term concern, I think that to entrust our aid budget to the bone-headed Dominic Raab and whatever equally numbskull successors Boris might appoint at the Foreign Office will suck any motivation and initiative that remains among surviving DfID staff.

If you are of an ideological bent, you might ask why we don’t leave foreign aid in the hands of billionaire philanthropists and charities. That’s a valid opinion, I guess, unless you consider that Britain’s billionaires, in contrast to the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, are notoriously tight-fisted, preferring to see us dragged out of the European Union rather than put their hands in their pockets to help people in corners of the world where Brexit is an utter irrelevance.

And as for Britain’s international charities, many of them are dead on their feet, not just because COVID has starved them of funds, but because people don’t like to donate to organisations whose staff sexually abuse the victims of disasters, as was the case with Oxfam.

I don’t know whether the motivation behind this reorganisation is penny-pinching or the result of some libertarian ideology, but I for one am quite proud that my country spends 0.7% of its GDP on foreign aid without, as the Chinese do with their Belt and Road policy, demanding a massive quid pro quo.

Though that money can only alleviate in a small way big problems in many parts of the world, it does make a statement that “it’s not all about us”, and that as one of the major industrial nations, without talking about guilt and reparations, we do have an obligation to help those who are not as fortunate as us.

But perhaps such sentiments no longer have a place in the values of the new Global Britain. And perhaps it really is all about us.

I hope not.

Corona Diaries: Welcome to the Demented Season

We all seem to be finding our own ways of going bananas in this interesting time. I’m seeing a serious increase in barmy stories in the media that cause me to ask the question why. Or, if you’re a lover of textspeak, WTF?

First off: why, if you owe your acting career to Harry Potter, would you feel the need to comment on JK Rowling’s stance on the trans issue? Is it the need to feed your hungry social media following? Would it not have been better either to keep silent? Or do you not have the wit to play a straight bat to questions that seek to embroil you in the argument that isn’t of your making? Or are you so important that you feel the need to wade courageously into subjects that will excite a thousand trolls?

Next: why, at the beginning of lockdown, did so many local councils, including my own, think it was a good idea to shut the toilets in parks? Mine, by the way, disingenuously put a sign up saying that they were “closed for refurbishment”. Did they think that people wouldn’t be caught short on their mandated thirty minute walks? And why, therefore, since they were happy to provide poop bags for dogs, would they not provide larger versions for humans? And designated pee trees for men who can’t find a suitable monument?

And then why, as reported in today’s London Times, would you be so desperate to avoid tax and protect yourself from nasty viruses that you would choose to live on a “seastead”, a platform on the sea? Even if your watery pod was “powered by solar energy and natural gas, with rain catchers for fresh water”, and “hydroponic gardens, “living walls” of greenery and “smart” glass that serves both as window and touchscreen computer”? Show me a sea that doesn’t turn into a broiling hell every so often and upend everything impertinent enough to float on its surface, and I might accept that a seastead is a good idea. Otherwise I’ll need a lot of convincing that those who are promoting them aren’t completely off their rockers.

Now for a slightly more serious question. Most of us are educated at least from the age of 3 until 16. That’s 13 years of education at, say, 9 months a year, giving a total of 117 months. 3 months of missed schooling represents 2.5% of the total. – And that’s on the dubious assumption that the kids have learned nothing during lockdown. Are we saying that our children are so stupid that they can’t catch up, or that our teachers are so lazy and inflexible that they can’t help their students make up for lost time? Surely not. In which case, why are a few months of missed school or reduced school work from home, being described in the media as leading to a “lost generation”? I can understand that time gets more critical the closer you get to leaving school, but are primary school kids so irreparably damaged? Are we really so hopelessly addicted to curricula, and so sadly lacking in resilience and invention?

And finally, back to the trivial: English Heritage, the organisation that puts up the blue plaques on houses to commemorate the famous people who lived in them, is planning to inventory their plaques in order to identify all of its subjects with dubious aspects of their lives that might offend our vigilant Wikipedia inquisitors. What will they do when they find an offender or two? I have an idea for them. Why not put a little coloured sign indicating the nature of their offence? Or, if they really want to splash the cash, why don’t they add a little phrase to the end of the bio, which reads “and sometime racist/slave trader/fraudster/paedophile/wife beater” (select whichever malfeasance applies)? Or, to keep things simple, why don’t they take a leaf out of Twitter’s book, and put a little circled exclamation mark on the plaque to indicate that this person had a dodgy history, and if you want to know more, you should use your initiative and do your own research?

Once upon a time, we British had something called the Silly Season. It ran from the time when Parliament departed for its summer holidays until September, when it returned. The newspapers, lacking what they considered serious stories, and figuring that we workers didn’t want to be bothered with weighty stuff while we were guzzling our ice creams on the promenade at Bournemouth Pier, would pack their pages with all kinds of nonsense that wouldn’t have deserved a look-in any other time of year.

Now, it seems, most stories, whether “serious” or not , are tinged with unreality. And since we no longer have to rely on the newspapers for stories of the daft, the slightly unhinged and the barking mad, it would be fair to say that we’re in the middle what should be regarded as the Demented Season. Except that thanks to the social media, no season seems any less demented than another.

Perhaps, in fact, it would be more appropriate to say that we’re living through an Age of Dementia.

Corona Diaries: escape strategies

Time to think about getting away. Not actually getting away, just thinking about it. And working out how we can make our first trip after lockdown suitably zeitgeist-compliant.

Over the summer, we usually go on a city break or two. Krakow and Palermo were candidates for this year. Then a gloriously quiet ten days in a very basic gite in a Volvo-lite corner of Southern France: Lot-et-Garonne, as the last of the strawberries are being picked and the evening farmer’s markets in the local bastides are drawing to a close.

Our big breaks tend to be in the winter months, when the delights of Beaujolais Day, Halloween and Guy Fawkes night are far outshone by the lush humidity, the street food and the verdant rice paddies of South East Asia.

We have plans for some long-haul travel, but whether that happens remains to be seen. Eleven hour flights in masks, punctuated by sterile airports manned by people who are keen to out you as a coronadevil at the first opportunity are not an enticing prospect, even if the hosts at your final destination are as charming as ever.

So we’ll see. If we won the lottery, an executive jet would be a far more attractive prospect, if somewhat ecologically incorrect.

But what of local travel, by which I mean within our grand old continent of Europe? It would be wonderful to do a little farewell tour of favourite continental cities before we are reduced to the status of “third party” and have to join the same line at passport control as visitors from North Korea, Burundi and Uzbekistan.

But then when we return to the UK, we’ll have to join the Koreans, Burundians and Uzbeks in two weeks quarantine. That wouldn’t be a big problem for us since we only live twenty minutes away from Heathrow. But if we’re not allowed out in those two weeks, it would be a little unfair to rely on relatives for our supplies of milk, quinoa and caviar until either we died of the virus or emerged unscathed. Occado is not to be relied upon, darlings.

So a staycation within these shores, perhaps, or maybe just a few day trips to West Wittering or other beaches, where social distancing doesn’t seem to apply, and diseased zombies lurch past you sweating out the virus along with their excess sun cream.

Cornwall would be nice, except that the locals can’t decide whether they want you or they don’t. So would we be greeted with pitchforks and cattle prods, or welcomed to a glorious clotted cream tea while hanging over a cliff edge to conform with social distancing regulations?

Perhaps we should go for lesser-known places. In an earlier piece I mused whether the glowing sands of beaches near nuclear power stations might not be places where one could put a reasonable distance between us and the rest of humanity.

A little extreme perhaps, but there are other places no further than Cornwall worth considering if you live in the South of England. Obscure parts of Norfolk or Wales, for example, which have the added benefit of being unlikely to boast statues of slave traders. Or perhaps Northumberland, which might be a bit cold but has some impressive wild and windswept places. Surely they need our money as much as the Cornish?

Scotland would be good too, but I don’t like midges, and anyway Scotland has a bad reputation as the engine room of empire. As well as the home of Tennant’s Lager, which fuels the barbarian hordes south of the border.

Most likely we shall wait until the French decide that we Brits are no longer unclean. We might then venture forth to Lot et Garonne. But not, as usual, via one of Mr Ryan’s sardine specials out of Stansted, packed as they are with poshies in face masks and panama hats putting up with the Common Man spilling over alarmingly from the next seat.

No, if we go, it will be by car, in which we can only infect each other, even though a twelve-hour drive will necessitate a few risky encounters at service stations. But that’s what hand gell’s for, isn’t it?

Once there, we can sit in solitude, gazing out across the fields, orchards and woodland, dreaming of truffles, cepes and snails. We can dine outside, on poulet, tranches de porc and wicked cheeses, safe in the knowledge that our antibacterial wet wipes will take care of any RNA lurking on the local produce. And for dessert, we can pick the peaches, apples and pears from nearby trees. If we’re lucky, our neighbour might bring over a melon or some tomatoes from his garden.

Peace and quiet in the crackling heat, with only the lizards and hornets for company. What better way to spend a couple of weeks away from incompetent politicians explaining away their latest failures, statue wars and the ominous signs of a second wave?

Otherwise we’ll just stay in our garden, where the birds compete for our attention with the array of strimmers, leaf-blowers and patio cleaners deployed by our neighbours, which bring to mind Soviet tank exercises in Western Ukraine back in the good old days.

Not that I’m complaining, mind. There are far worse places to be.

Corona Diaries: Oh to be in England, especially when you’re off games

Your correspondent from leafy Surrey is off games. Not off eating, sleeping, watching TV and writing, fortunately. Just off any activity that involves exacerbating a busted back.

This is good news in one sense. It meant that I couldn’t do the barbecue to celebrate our son-in-law’s birthday. He had to do it. I’m OK standing up, so I did the cake. But shifting burgers round the grill? Not advisable.

Even if I wanted to, I would not have been able to participate in the frivolities indulged in by the shaven-headed pork pies assembled yesterday in Westminster to protest against I know not what. Well, I know what was reported. It was the far right, whoever they are. The mission: to defend the statue of Winston. Unfortunately, he was boarded up, so no doubt they would have also formed a protective ring around those little known statues of Hitler and Goebbels that lurk in the nether reaches of Parliament Square, but they couldn’t find them.

To their great frustration, they also couldn’t find any statue desecrators to engage in battle. But the law of Stella Artois dictates that in the absence of a wife to beat up, they had to find someone to attack. So they went after picnickers in Hyde Park and then turned their attention to the police. Who responded accordingly.

On the evidence of the videos that went around the social media, these lads – for there were no ladettes – were of various ages from twentysomethings, who had never known the joy of a giving people a good kicking on the terraces of Millwall and various other football clubs, to older guys who could tell you stories of their exploits before mass deaths at the Hillsborough and Hesysel stadia brought the era of standing-only terraces to an end.

Pretexts are irrelevant. All you can say is that the British love a good riot now and again, and this one was a long time coming.

Anyway, I won’t be able to riot for a while, either in defence of statues or to attack them. And the police are safe from me. More importantly, I can’t swing a golf club, which might come as a relief to all those who have to suffer a round with me but definitely not to my wife, who lives for those mornings when I venture out to hit the fairways – with the force of a JCB.

In fact it was in the middle of my best round of the year that my back went, which was exactly what happened five years ago when we were about to fly to Bali. We did fly to Bali, and I spent three weeks in a wheelchair, which was fun for me, but not for my wife, who had to push me around in it. I documented that saga in a piece called Crippled in Bali.

This time it’s not so bad. I can walk, as Dr Strangelove said, but not bend. In the absence of the NHS staff who came to my rescue then, I have self-diagnosed my condition as another bulging vertebra, also known as a slipped disc. It took six months to get back to normal then. Now I reckon three to six weeks should do the trick. Some painkillers, stretching exercises and a bit of TLC from my beloved should restore my usual riotous vigour in no time.

But in the meanwhile she will have to go without her daily cup of tea which I bring her in the morning (this is my Alzheimers test – can I get it up the stairs without spillage?), and I won’t be able to empty the dishwasher. I also won’t be able to remove dandelions from my lawn with the new toy she bought me, and changing light bulbs in the ceiling might be a risky venture.

Another positive aspect of my condition is that I can still appreciate my five patio roses, about which I’ve written recently, and which I have named after prominent British politicians. At the moment Boris has no flowers and nor has Matt. Theresa is encroaching on Dominic, which is a bit of a turnaround. But the current leader in the flowery stakes continues to be Keir, whose dark red blooms are in fine fettle. I’m thinking about re-naming Theresa, since she’s fast becoming an irrelevance. Priti would perhaps be an appropriate replacement. I watch them with interest, though I’m wondering at what stage I’ll have to board them up.

The roses don’t know it, but today is Sunday in this locked-down-but-not-quite-locked-down country. It feels like we’re in some sort of strange limbo. Like being in an open prison from which it’s easy to abscond and then return without anyone noticing or caring.

The shops are due to open tomorrow, but I’m delighted to have an excuse not to visit them even if I’m pleased for the owners who are desperate to keep their businesses going.

Unlike Donald Trump, I’m still capable of drinking a glass of water with one hand, and I reckon I’d do a good job of walking down a ramp without looking as though I’m about to tumble arse over elbow.

So all is good, in this house at least. There are plenty of strawberries to guzzle, since the patrons of Wimbledon will not be requiring them. Everyone we know is still alive, and there aren’t any statues in my little town.

Oh to be in England now the shops are here!

Corona Diaries: Ramadan in Lockdown

One of the most uplifting pieces of TV I’ve seen since we were confined to our homes was Ramadan in Lockdown. It’s a series of five-minute snapshots showing how Muslims in Britain adapted to the month of fasting without the usual traditions – of prayers in the mosques, family gatherings and communal meals.

I loved it because of the characters. There were a couple of NHS doctors, the family of a doctor who died of the virus, a nurse, a teacher, a guy who runs a business whose staff were furloughed, a restaurant owner and a chap from Bradford who’s into keeping fit. Men, women and kids from all over the country whom you might encounter in a street, who might be feeding you, delivering supplies to your grandparents, teaching your kids or trying to keep you alive in hospital.

I’m not a Muslim, nor am I particularly religious, but these little clips of kind, bright, funny and devout people brings back memories of many Ramadans I lived through in the Middle East. Despite the fasting restrictions, which didn’t apply to those of us who weren’t Muslim but required us to eat and drink away from those who were fasting, it was my favourite time of the year. I explained why in On the First Day of Ramadan, a piece I wrote ten years ago when I was living in Bahrain.

I don’t know much about those who produced the series, but they did us all a service by providing a counterpoint to the narrative of those who regard Muslims and their religion as a threat to the “British way of life”. Not that there aren’t people in our country who dream of the black flag flying over Downing Street. But the people we saw in Ramadan in Lockdown definitely aren’t among them.

I hesitate to say that they’re just like you and me because that implies that you and I are distinct and separate from a group of fellow-citizens who are fully engaged in the wider society in which they live and work, but who also have a strong sense of religious community. I prefer to say that we are them and they are us.

And if we can’t respect and cherish these people who spent the fasting month tending to the sick, feeding the needy and performing other acts of generosity mandated by their religion, then we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Muslims are not the only people who have reached out to those in need during lockdown. So have Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and people with no religious beliefs.

But the toxic hue painted over an entire section of our community badly needs counteracting. This series goes some way towards doing that.

One of my saddest memories of working in the Middle East came when a Saudi teenager came up to me during a workshop I was running for kids preparing to go university in foreign countries. He felt the need to tell me that he was not a terrorist. Of course he wasn’t, but it was a poignant reminder of the suspicion and misunderstanding that still plagues us – and can still be exploited – wherever people of different faiths live side-by-side.

The people who feature in Ramadan in Lockdown are fellow-citizens whom I’d be glad to have as friends and neighbours. Not just because of the love they show to each other, but because of their innate decency to which we can all relate.

Do watch the series, which is on All4, and if you like it, get your friends to do so too.

When a fire is raging, you have a choice

Robert E Lee Monument, Charlottesville, Virginia

Who’s the odd one out from Christopher Columbus, Fawlty Towers, JK Rowling and William Gladstone? No prizes for the answer. It is, of course JK Rowling. The rest are being decapitated, taken off the TV, de-plinthed or subjected to a modern version of damnatio memoriae. The creator of Harry Potter has found herself on a different battleground.

I have most sympathy for Rowling, who is the target of vicious abuse on the social media because she had the temerity to point out that there was a difference between trans women, who can’t menstruate, and those women who can.

The abuse is typical of the kind of stuff people feel free to express within the safety of their own homes, behind the shield of aliases, or both. Would they be brave enough to come face to face, one-on-one with Rowling, a fragile human being like themselves despite her riches and renown, and repeat the abuse? In the vast majority of cases, I very much doubt it. And if they were prepared to call her all the names that they happily trot out online, it would probably be because they had a baying mob of sympathisers behind them.

Jo Rowling is entitled to her opinions. Whether we should treat trans people the same as those whose gender they have chosen is clearly a touchy subject. I choose not to have an opinion on that. But what the hounds of hell who pursue her are telling me is that there are many people in pain. Just as there are even more people in pain over the discrimination, casual insults and in some cases physical damage they have suffered because of the colour of their skin.

The author of Harry Potter probably knew that by her remarks she would stir up a hornet’s nest. So did Germaine Greer when she expressed similar sentiments a while ago. So why did they choose to speak up? Because under the principle of free speech they were entitled to do so, and because they cared about the subject? Did they expect to engage in a rational argument with people who were prepared to argue on a rational basis? You’d have to ask them.

But if I was in the same position as them – admired, respected and widely listened to – I think I might be a little more careful in choosing my battleground. But perhaps that’s why I’m not in the same position as them.

I might also be reluctant to point out that if you wanted a rational argument, now is not the time.

If you wanted to express the opinion that the statues of Confederate heroes were erected in the Southern states of the US not as a provocation but in a spirit of reconciliation after four years of bloody conflict, so that the defeated whites of the South should not be bereft of heroes, and that they should not feel like downtrodden losers, now is not the time.

If you wanted to point out that Africans and Arab traders were complicit in the slave trade, that the foundations of Western society were built on slavery, that slavery was an institution somewhere in the world in every century of the Christian era and that reparations would be hideously complicated, now is not the time.

If you wanted to point out that there are more ways of dealing with racism than anger and protest, and that ridicule and irony can also play a part, now is not the time.

And if you wanted to screen a few episodes of Till Death Us Do Part in order to demonstrate how laughable Alf Garnett’s racist views were forty years ago, and how far we’ve come since then, now is not the time.

Because now is a time of anger, fear, frustration and pain. And when such emotions are given a channel, be it though protests, statue-toppling, iconoclasm or bilious discourse in the social media, they’re hard to control until they die down of their own accord, or until another focus of rage emerges. As it surely will, given time.

So you have a choice. Either to throw fuel on the fire or to be a quiet voice of reason. Or, as the path of least resistance, to remain silent.

I know which option I prefer.

Corona Diaries: keeping the milk unspilt

According to Professor Neil Ferguson, if we in Britain had locked down a week earlier than we did, 20,000 lives would have been saved. That may be the case. It might also have been the case that if Churchill had delayed the Dunkirk evacuation by a few days, we might have lost a quarter of a million troops. And if Marshal Blucher had arrived at Waterloo a few hours later, Napoleon’s descendants might still be on the throne of France.

Timing is everything, it seems. And everyone makes mistakes, don’t they? Hitler could have destroyed the remains of the British Expeditionary Force if he had allowed General Guderian to run riot with his tanks outside Dunkirk instead of ordering them to halt. And then where would we have been?

In the present case, it appears that the advice from the scientists was less than unanimous, and the government was less than decisive. But what will actually matter in any future inquiry will not so much be the missed opportunity to save thousands of lives, because Boris Johnson will be entitled to blame the fog of war, as he already is.

It will be what came next. The PPE shortages; the decision to put hospital patients into care homes without testing them for the virus; the gilding of many lilies over testing; the chaotic procurement efforts; the falsely optimistic claims over the readiness of the track and trace app; the chaos over schools reopening (or not); increasingly bizarre ordinances over the easing of lockdown, and the refusal of anyone in the government to admit any failings in their efforts to contain the virus. The latter is still going on. Lies, obfuscation and meaningless slogans.

Even today, it’s hard not to snort at the “achievement” of the NHS track and trace process finding 31,000 contacts in its first week in operation. The cumulative effort of 25,000 people hired to be contact tracers, therefore, is 1.25 people per contact tracer. True, it was the first week – it will take a while for the system to get up and running. But if productivity doesn’t improve, then either we don’t have the problem we thought we had or we’re wasting a ton of money on an ineffective exercise.

But perhaps we’re being unfair. After all, the government set up several temporary hospitals in a very short time. The NHS was’t overwhelmed, even though several hospitals, and the people working in them, were stretched to the limit. Measures were put in place to ensure that the majority of people didn’t suffer immediate financial crisis. The government is doing its best to stay ahead of a constantly-changing situation.

By and large, though, since the original sin of going into lockdown too late, it’s largely been playing catch-up. Though there’s plenty of point in crying over spilt milk, especially if you’re one of those made grievously ill or bereaved of loved ones, any future inquiry should focus on how to keep the milk unspilt.

Particularly, it should focus on the government machinery for dealing with emergencies, so that it becomes less dependent on the whims of politicians. It should look at the chain of command, methods of procurement, methods of communication and methods of prediction.

It should consider ways of dealing with any emergency, not just a health crisis. Nuclear, flooding, drought, war, civil strife, food, commodity and egergy shortages and so on. There should be a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C, constantly updated, not just shoved in a draw somewhere to be dusted off in a time of emergency. Those plans should be regularly tested both by computer simulation and physical exercises.

Are these things happening now? Sporadically and on a piecemeal basis, I suspect. Does every government department work to a common bible of disaster recovery? Theory says yes, practice says no.

And disaster recovery is not just the responsibility of governments. All businesses in which we entrust our well-being should have them too. My business experience tells me that some have, some don’t.

On the government side, MI5 reacted well before lockdown and implemented its contingency plan. Tesco, according to its CEO, did likewise. By implication, others clearly didn’t.

This is not to suggest that there should be a one-size-fits all disaster recovery plan that should apply to all government departments, and another to businesses. Each organisation is different and has its own innate vulnerabilities and choke points.

But it is surely not beyond the ability of a reasonably competent government and civil service to create an effective universal standard for contingency planning, and insist that every department, agency and local government authority not only adheres to it but undergoes regular certification. Also, companies deemed strategic to the well-being of the country should be required to adopt a similar standard.

I know from experience in getting my former organisation certified under the ISO quality standard and also Investors in People that standards aren’t the only answer. You need your people to buy into them, and you need standards that are evidence-based, not just exercises in having the right forms in place at the right time. But it would be a start.

And if such an overarching government standard that is widely implemented exists – and wait a minute, we do have a Civil Contingencies Act containing plenty of fine words and fancy diagrams that purports to set out those standards – then it needs to be reviewed for its effectiveness, because it clearly isn’t working.

I’m not a fan of bureaucracy, especially when as a taxpayer I’m helping to foot the bill. But I’m also convinced that that the world isn’t becoming less dangerous. There will be more disasters, and we need to be prepared for them. The fact that the government appears to have based its response to the coronavirus on a plan designed to deal with a flu pandemic is a telling illustration of the shortcomings of current contingency plans.

If we can’t deal with the predictable, how will we cope with all the black swans out there waiting to surprise us?

Corona Diaries: exam assessments – pity the poor teachers

The writer at fifteen, contemplating O level exams

We must spare a thought for our teachers, as they get to grips with assessing their students for grades in lieu of the annual GCSE and A Level exams.

Not only are they accused of potential unconscious bias against black and Asian kids, but they face the unenvious task of having to justify in detail each grade they award for fear of sparking off a blizzard of complaints from students and parents. And from the Daily Mail, of course.

I learned how difficult this is when I had to rate the performance of a bunch of smart high-school kids in Bahrain who were competing for places on a state-funded university scholarship scheme. Those who made the cut could take their choice from some of the best universities in the world. I helped to design the programme, and we took special care with the rating criteria.

But it was still a tough and often subjective exercise, made all the more difficult given the stakes for these sixty kids. Fortunately the ratings were only recommendations, and no doubt other considerations were taken into account when the government made its selections.

There’s another factor that I hope the teachers will take into account, though I’m not sure how they will do so. Again, my life experience informs me.

I was bright enough at thirteen to win a scholarship to the private school where I spent the next four years. But thereafter I winged it. There were too many interesting extracurricular activities that distracted me. I did OK in my exams, but only because I had an excellent short-term memory that enable me to get way with last-minute revision, sometimes all night before the exam. If I’d been assessed on my performance in normal class and project work, I would have been in deep shit.

But I did enough to get to university, which was not as easy in those days as it is today, and the rest is history. Well, my unspectacular history anyway. Suffice it to say that if I’d screwed up those exams, my life would have been very different. Not worse perhaps, because there’s always the chance of redemption in adult life. But just different.

So I hope that teachers are able to find a way to accommodate the hares as well as the tortoises, because if I had been in the same position as many kids today, I might have been bitterly regretting all the acting, cricket and other less mentionable stuff I did in the run-up to my exams.

While it’s true that there’s more course work these days than there was in the Sixties, if exams are not still critical determinants of grades, you wonder why students still get nervous about them. And, as we all know, they are.

I hope the whole process of awarding grades goes smoothly, but I fear that whatever measures are in place to ensure fairness, this is going to be one of the issues of the summer. And naturally, the media will happily gorge on it.

So while our attention has mainly been focused on children whose education has been affected by lockdown, let’s not ignore the tsunami of recrimination and complaints that might well roll over our teachers as they struggle to do the right thing.

They need our support and sympathy as well.

Corona Diaries: it will not be like this forever

Ben Macintyre, writing in yesterday’s Times, cheered us all up by telling us how the coronavirus will change our world permanently. I suspect the headline wasn’t written by him, because it says “The world will never be the same … in some ways it may be better”. He then proceeds to give us the usual litany of all the things that won’t get back to the old normal because the virus will be with us for ever – just like the common cold.

Only at the end of the article does he suggest how things might change for the better. He starts by telling us that there will be a surge of creativity. Maybe, though I’ve seen little of it yet. Just those TV paeans to loneliness and frustration under lockdown that have bored me near to death, or otherwise had me reaching for the prozac.

Then there are cycle paths “spreading through the cities”. Sure, though that’s a bit of a low blow, because surely nobody can say the cycle paths are a bad thing, can they? Well actually they can, and I do. They’re fine, as long as they’re fenced off to prevent kids, pooches, old ladies and blind people from straying into the path of these pious, planet-friendly masses of muscle hurling their way to work. Ever encountered these? Try Copenhagen, where you take your life in your hands whenever you venture out into the streets. Though I have to say that if I have to be knocked down and killed, let it be by some heart-meltingly beautiful Danish woman. Just as long as she doesn’t get hurt as well.

Then he talks about sick leave, which will “no longer be a sign of weakness but a civic duty”. Civic duty? I thought it already was. As in it’s your duty to throw a sickie so that the rest of us can be spared your description of your depravity the night before. Or because the last thing we need is to witness your misery as you thrash around in the last stages of Ebola on the office floor.

He ends by saying how adaptable we are as a species, and how robustly forgetful.

Well, I’m afraid I don’t want to adapt. I want the world back. I want to travel, to mix with my loved ones and to mingle in crowds. Not now, perhaps, but soon. And if Macintryre thinks that we as a species will put up with social distancing for ever, he’s wrong. We aren’t designed that way. We’re gregarious. We thrive on touch, on close proximity. We want to breathe the air that others breathe, to share the food we cook and the love we make.

I want all that for myself, and I want it for my kids and grandkids. I’m prepared to wait a while. Most of us are. But I’m willing to bet my life on the likelihood that this isn’t forever. It shouldn’t be and it won’t be. Otherwise life would be so tedious that we’d bore ourselves to extinction.

Policing is a symptom, not a cause. We need less talking, more listening

An interesting discussion is brewing in the United States on the question of whether police forces should be reconstructed in response to widespread complaints about the brutality of their methods and, in a wider context, concern about their apparent militarisation.

It’s relevant here in the UK as well. Back in the day, our police looked like relatively normal people when they were going about their usual business, even if they did wear funny hats. They only turned into terminators when they donned their riot gear. But now, the average police officer wears apparel that seems designed to intimidate. Stab jackets, and all manner of devices – sticks, tasers, radios, handcuffs, videocams – that tell anyone encountering them that they’re not to be messed with. Everything short of guns, of course, though there are plenty of those in evidence in places that have lately been at risk of terrorist attacks, such as airports.

It’s natural that the police would want to have all the latest technology to protect themselves and to communicate with their colleagues when the need arises. But while battle readiness may be necessary in areas where violence is rife, it’s hard to believe that there’s a need to dominate – to use Trump’s word – the streets of a sleepy little town in Wiltshire. And domination, as well as self-protection, is clearly an intentional product of the array of kit the police carry today.

I suspect those politicians with an authoritarian bent, such as our current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and Donald Trump in the US, wouldn’t have it any other way. Indeed, for Trump, as pressure groups advocate drastic reorganisation of policing, his self-proclaimed status as the “law and order president”, is one of his main hopes of keeping his job in November.

The irony in this, or so it seems to me, is that the weaker the bonds that glue our society together, and the stronger the fear that its norms are disintegrating, the more likely it is that our leaders will respond with symbols of strength. Or, to put it more simply, the more quasi-military uniforms you see in a country, the less coherent and stable that country is likely to be.

The arguments for putting people in uniform usually centre around esprit de corps and clear identification with an organisation. And it’s not as though they’re any more prevalent now than they were half a century ago. Back then, the fashion was for uniforms that had their origins in the military. The Salvation Army, Automobile Association patrolmen, Boy Scouts and even brass bands were decked out in apparel that had a military flavour.

That fetish was on the wane until recently. For me, the turning point was when the people who check our passports at airports suddenly stopped looking like you and me and started looking like commandos. I’ve written about this before (here and here), so I won’t labour the point further.

My concern today is that manifestations of authority, in the form of uniforms that distance and sometimes intimidate, seem to be on the rise. There are times when it’s hard to tell a security guard from a police officer, and a police officer from a soldier. And the origin is not “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. It’s fear. And fear is a symptom of weakness, not strength.

So, as most politicians know, because they use it to their advantage, the issue that we need to dwell upon is fear, and the causes of fear.

The way to deal with fear is not to deny that reasons to be fearful exist. Whenever possible, we should place it in context. I remember a British Ambassador in Saudi Arabia at the height of the terrorist campaign against Westerners making the point that we had a far greater chance of being killed or injured on the road than being shot by Al Qaeda. Yet we would cheerfully drive out on the highways while at other times hiding in fear in our compounds.

And to what extent do tactics to generate fear, such as the use of riot police at demonstrations, lead to incidents they were designed to deter? Would people be more or less likely to throw stones at other people who aren’t dressed for battle, and therefore aren’t seen as symbols of oppression? How can neighbourhood policing work if those who do the policing are, by their appearance and demeanour, seen as potential oppressors rather than neighbours?

I’m not suggesting that the police should allow themselves to be sitting ducks. More, that they should be responding to fears grounded in reality rather than imagination, and that a calculation of reality should be based on an assessment of risk according to universally-accepted rules rather than a one-size-fits-all posture. And those who command police forces should be aware that by their policies they create their own realities, which are sometimes the opposite of what they intend.

It would be interesting to see a survey of people who regularly encounter fully kitted-out police in their neighbourhoods. Do they feel safer because of their presence, or are they more fearful because they see the presence of these officers as evidence that they, the respondents, have reason to be fearful?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on policing, but I do know a little about what makes people tick. And what I also know is that we have a problem with policing which reflects wider problems in society as a whole. I’m not convinced that tearing down and re-building structures is an answer, because I don’t have sufficient insight into the problem. But without too much disruption, it would do us no harm to look at training, tactics and the use of psychology in policing. As for the wider problems, such as racism, sexual violence, inequality and the consequences of austerity, the police must be involved in the conversations as well as the solutions.

At a time when as a society we’ve rarely been so divided, it’s hard to see easy answers. But we must all be involved in finding them. If we’re relying on our politicians to take the lead, we shouldn’t hold our breath. Leadership is in short supply at the moment.

With that in mind, we should remember that the most effective leaders are those who listen. Who’s listening out there?

In a country with a long history, there’s a target for everyone

John Newton

I am, family tradition has it, a descendant of a slave trader who repented. John Newton wrote the words to Amazing Grace. Actually, family tradition is probably wrong, because he had no direct descendants. But there are enough Newtons in my family tree who, like John, became clergymen, for me to feel that we may be distant cousins. Either way, the slaver-turned-abolitionist occupies a special place in my heart.

Proud as I am of John Newton’s redemptive story, I feel conflicted over the fate of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, not because it shouldn’t have been taken down. It should. By legal means, and a long time ago. That it wasn’t is a failing on the part of our society.

What concerns me is that we’ve just endured a long-running saga of public outrage against Dominic Cummings who allegedly broke the law governing lockdown. Or might, according to Durham Police, have done so.

So, by cheering on those who dragged Colston’s statue off its plinth and chucked it off the harbour front, clearly in breach of laws against vandalism, are we not a little inconsistent when we pour shit over Cummings for appearing to break the law on another matter? Do we now pick and choose which laws we obey?

But Cummings is small beer. There are bigger fish to fry.

Once we’re done with the effigies of Bomber Harris, Winston Churchill, Cecil Rhodes, Robert Clive and every other historical figure with aspects of their careers of which we’re not proud, what’s next? Do we go after the monarchs who presided over the deeds of their subjects? Queen Victoria, George III, Charles II, even as far back as Edward I, who decided to rid his country of its Jews?

And when all the offending statues have been cast down and thrown into the nearest water, do we then go for tombs and gravestones? Plenty of them to be found in Westminster Abbey. And once desecrating graveyards becomes a fashion, perhaps there will be another bunch of people who will smash up Jewish cemeteries and daub paint over Muslim gravestones? Oh, wait a minute, we’ve been there before, haven’t we?

After that, how about offending artefacts in the British Museum, and portraits of bad people in the National Portrait Gallery? And how about banning books we don’t like?

In a country with two thousand years of recorded history, you could say that there’s a target for everyone, from Julius Caesar the Gaul-slayer onwards.

None of this takes away from the fundamental righteousness of removing Edward Colston from his plinth, and in the United States taking Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis from their places in the hearts of the cities where their effigies stand.

But those decisions need to be taken in accordance with the law. And if those responsible for public monuments can’t be persuaded to remove images and statues that are offensive to large numbers of their communities, then they should be shamed into doing so, by peaceful persuasion, non-violent protest or even the ballot box.

And I don’t buy into the objection that by confining the statues of people like Colston to a museum, we are erasing or re-writing history. But one of the problems of mass protests is that they tend to allow no nuance. You’re either right or wrong, virtuous or wicked, with us or against us.

But history is all about context, about competing viewpoints, about understanding a world which isn’t the one we’re living in today. Unless we believe that there are certain timeless values that don’t change from one era to the next, we will never understand why those statues were erected in the first place.

Each generation defines its world as it sees it, and bequeaths another layer of perception to the next. What the statues of Colston, Lee, Churchill and Clive teach us is that we should never be so arrogant as to assume that reputations are forever. That for me, is the joy of history, and why destruction will never snuff out nuance and reflection, even if it’s the signature of an age.

So by all means, let’s take down the statues that are offensive to our age, but let’s preserve them and put them in places where they can be seen in context, even if that context – and therefore potentially their location – changes from one generation to the next.

Corona Diaries: I didn’t love our fridge until it went dark

About ten years ago, via a rather circuitous route, we acquired one of those leviathans commonly known as an American fridge freezer.

This device, of a size beloved in the United States, where people believe in provisioning for a siege, still sits, grey and squat, in our kitchen. These days, I guess, many people have them. But it still feels very American, like a Buick or a Chevrolet, or one of those outrageously large SUVs – a Hummer perhaps – whereas the average British fridge used to be the equivalent of a Ford Anglia.

Another difference between it and British fridges – or rather the fridges that the British buy, because we don’t make much in this country anymore – is that it’s still going strong. These days, if you buy a fridge, a washing machine or just about any other kind of domestic appliance, the expectation is that you’ll only get about three years out of it before it starts to fail. Or more likely before it falls over completely, and it’s then cheaper to buy a new device rather than to call out an engineer. Which is why, if you go to the municipal waste dump, you will find skyscrapers of discarded white goods.

But Old Glory, as I’ve started to call our fridge, just keeps going on and on. One these quiet lockdown mornings, there are only two sounds to be heard. The birds, and Old Glory whirring away with a pot pourri of electrical noises that make no sense other than to remind us that he’s still working. Most of the time I filter the sound out, just as I manage to blank out the tinnitus that has afflicted me for decades since my youthful joust with the music business. But he’s still there, still producing a strange knocking sound as he tries to produce ice that we never use. And we don’t notice.

We’ve taken him for granted over the years, just as most of us assumed that our parents were immortal until, somewhere between our thirties and fifties, we discovered otherwise.

Old Glory’s moment of mortality came a few days ago. When I opened the door of the fridge compartment, the light didn’t come on. In a panic, I thought that the whole device had packed in. But no, the freezer bit was still OK, and after a few hours of waiting for the fridge to start warming up, it appeared to be working too. So most likely it was just the light bulb. But just in case, we moved another fridge from the garage to act as a standby, and loaded all the easily perishable stuff into it while we sorted the problem.

That was easier said than done. According to the helpline, there was a £120 minimum charge from an engineer, but we might have had to wait a while, because most of their engineers are on furlough. Or otherwise, we might want to take out a one-year warranty service for £260. Or we could try and change the light bulb ourselves, but with no guarantee that this would solve the problem.

We waited for a couple of days, during which I learned something about fridges. A dark fridge is a gloomy and disturbing place. Full of stuff that’s difficult to find, nondescript and not particularly appetising. Whereas when the light comes on everything looks shiny and inviting. Even last night’s leftovers look relatively appealing, whereas in the dark they look like amorphous and threatening. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why, in the days before fridges, when people relied on dark, unlit pantries, they didn’t eat as much as us.

Be that as it may, in a period when communal meals form a centrepiece of the day, to be discussed and planned for, rather than a necessary but inconsequential punctuation between more important activities, the fridge goes up a few notches in social importance.

Even though a failed light bulb is pretty unimportant in the big scheme of things, and something we could live with forever if necessary, it bothered the hell out of me. My spirits dropped every time I opened the door and fumbled around to find something that would normally be visible in an instant.

On the advice of a helpline person who works from home in Cornwall (lucky chap), we figured out how to change the light bulb. It required my wife to insert half of her body into the fridge, but with her guiding and me unscrewing the shield, we managed to remove it. And, sure enough, it was indeed broken.

We ordered a replacement bulb online for £8, and by some miracle it arrived the next day. And so, quickly, simply, easily, light was restored, along with my spirits.

If you think that what follows next is some profound observation on how the lockdown changes our perception of small inconveniences, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.

But the episode does tell me what an eejit I was even to contemplate spending a hundred and twenty quid to get someone to enter our house and change a light bulb in the middle of a pandemic, how fortunate we are to have the resources to do just that, and that our sturdier forbears must be laughing from the heavens at my lack of resilience.

At the same time, it also goes some way towards explaining why, at the height of the PPE panic, our government was prepared to award a contract for £108 millions’ worth of PPE to a pest control equipment supplier with assets worth less than the average family car.

In abnormal times the normal rules fly out of the window. Thank goodness that in my case, my eminently practical wife was around to bring me back to my senses.

And now that the light is restored, I have a new appreciation of our fridge. Can’t say the same about our government, though, because things are still pretty murky outside.

Corona Diaries: how does this help us move forward?

I’ve started to adopt a standard response to end conversations on some matters related to the pandemic that I’m beginning to find rather tedious.

For example, there’s a time and a place to discuss theories about the origin of the virus, and as far as I’m concerned it’s not now. The former head of Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, thinks that it might have been artificially created and accidentally released. The current head of the security service, MI5, thinks it wasn’t. It’s of natural origin, he suggests. There are thousands of idle minds that have lined up behind the artificial origin theory. My response is simple:

How does this help us move forward?

If we thought that nuking China to punish them for their misdeeds would magically stop the virus, I would understand. Or if we thought that the Chinese had a secret formula for turning it off, I would also understand.

But unless someone can convince me otherwise, no useful purpose is served by idle speculation on a matter that might never be settled beyond reasonable doubt. Unless, of course, the virus has provided a convenient club with which to beat China, which still doesn’t help us move forward. Unless of course we want to beat ourselves as well, which is one of the main reasons why the idea that a country might develop something that might wipe them out as easily as it might destroy its enemies is somewhat implausible.

A desire to disengage also came to me yesterday while I was playing golf. When I made a snarky remark about my eyesight being as defective as that of Dominic Cummings, my opponent launched into a passionate defence of Cummings, citing the Durham police assertion that he “might” have broken the law as proof that he had not broken the law. I was so pissed off at the prospect of having to go into all the “eyesight test with wife and child on trip to Barnard Castle” stuff, that I refrained from further discussion, especially as I stuffed my next shot into the long grass, and continued to do so on a regular basis until the end of the round. And yes, it was my bloody fault for mentioning Cummings in the first place. Lesson learned.

I’m happy to debate anything with anyone, within reason. Generally, I don’t get cross with someone who holds an opposite view to mine. But there comes a point at which there’s no point. And that’s usually when a subject is chewed into an unrecognisable grey bolus that bears little resemblance to the original ingredients. Or when the people debating hold views so entrenched that even Socrates would have a problem exposing the contradictions. And I’m no Socrates.

This is why, in more “polite” times, sex, politics and religion were subject to an unspoken embargo. If after a couple of bottles of wine George got fruity, or launched into one of his political hobby horses, he would get a sharp kick under the table from his long-suffering wife.

These day we can’t have dinner parties. For risqué conversation we have to rely on Zoom, or Twitter bombast in front of a potentially unlimited audience.

But right now, there’s risqué, and there’s plain boring. And when we start getting together with our friends in restaurants and at dinner parties, perhaps we should change the terms of the embargo. Take sex off the list, because that’s a subject of universal interest, and add conspiracy theories. Because they’re boring.

As far as I’m concerned, if that’s what turns us on, we can talk about lizards, 9/11, Kennedy and the evil deeds of George Soros and the CIA until the cows come home. After all, we’re consenting adults.

But when we’re discussing the current situation, which is so painful for some and worrying for many, perhaps we should keep returning to the question that separates idle speculation from conversation that actually has a constructive purpose:

How does this help us move forward?

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