A Journal of The Plague Year
In the years when I was making the transition from being a little boy to a teenager and then a young man, some of the realities of history gradually unfolded before me. The second world war as a child appeared as a glorious adventure, fuelled by my weekly comics and endless black and white films on the telly, and part of ancient history. In reality, the middle of the Sixties, was only twenty years earlier, roughly the same distance as 9/11 is from today. Then, as the details of the Nazis and concentration camps emerged for me, I was genuinely shaken to realise, probably for the first time, man’s capacity for savage, industrial-scale, cruelty to others. The reality of the Holocaust more than anything else never loses its power to shock and baffle me. The final stage of this gradual loss of innocence, was the story of the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the thirties. I could never quite grasp how it was possible that the Nazis rose to power through the democratic processes of the state. Yes, I know there was manipulation and propaganda, violence and coercion, but even so it was a process that took several years. Did nobody notice? Was no-one motivated to resist? How could they possibly have allowed it?
For years, this formed part of my fundamental narrative: that the world was inexorably getting better, and that as universal education spread, a vaguely socialist perspective, rooted in a concern for the common good and a belief in collectivism, meant that steadily, with some slips on the way, fairness, prosperity and equity were growing. The rise of the Nazis belonged to a more primitive version of human society. It couldnt happen here again, not now. I’ve held on to that narrative, sometimes like a drowning man clinging to bit of driftwood, for years. Even during the beginning of the Tories austerity regime from 2010 I comforted myself that it was a passing phase, and that demographics alone meant that The Tories were inevitably a busted flush.
I was also bolstered by a belief that democracy works. That the population can be trusted not to make stupid decisions, so that, in the end, liberal values are not at risk. That belief has gone now, I’m afraid. It could only ever work as long as there was untrammelled access to reliable, accurate information. A combination of social media and the internet has put paid to that. To think that 20-25 years ago, one of the apparent attractions of the internet and its lack of regulation was the idea of democratising power and information flow, so that neither corporations nor governments, could propagandise their way to power, like the Nazis did in Germany all those years ago.
The Trump experience in the States shows how easy it is to convince people of lies. Even today, it’s clear that The Republican party, far from repudiating the Trump lies, has completely embraced them and Liz Cheney is to be expelled for not backing Trump in the aftermath of the election. What has the world come when Liz Cheney has turned into the poster girl for liberal democracy and the rule of law? Her father will be turning in his grave. This has chilling consequences for the next election. Now, one of the only two available choices to the American people, is as near as dammit fascist.
And the same applies here. The results from our own sweep of elections last week were not unexpected. But they were tremendously depressing nonetheless, not least for the fact that they presage probably another ten years of this, the worst Government and Prime Minister in my life time. And another ten years of this amoral crew really does not bear thinking about. What is the charge sheet as it stands and what can we look forward to?
- Serial, repeated and proven lying
- Corruption, misuse of money, cronyism with favours for friends
- Contempt for the rule of law and the constitution.
- Obstacles to Judicial review increased so the government cannot be held accountable by citizens
- Stripping away of planning regulations for a plague of unregulated house building on green belt land
- Gerrymandering election law via constituency boundaries and photo id for voters.
- Removal of democratic rights to protest
There is probably more. There is so much shit cascading from Westminster that it’s impossible to compile a definitive list that can be relied upon for more than five minutes.
And when all of this is going on, the BBC acts like an organ of Government, craven and cowardly, frightened that the license fee will be abolished. As the playwright David Hare said a few weeks ago, “The BBC is like Pravda”. At 1 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock, regular as clockwork, the BBC news bulletin turns into a party political broadcast for the Government, aided and abetted by the COVID briefings that give Johnson star billing. Laura Kuenssberg, in an extraordinary article on the BBC website, supposedly investigating Johnson’s lying, cannot bring herself to find a single lie, and dances on the head of a pin to excuse or redefine lying. She is like some kind of mediaeval cleric writing a treatise about equivocation. It was only written in the first place because she was shamed into doing something on it by the 11 million internet views of Peter Stefanovic’s video compilation of Johnson’s 6 main lies to Parliament. She does not even have to do any work on it – he’s done it all. And still she exonerates him and waits patiently for her eventual place in the honours list in the future. Click the link below to see the article and make your own mind up.
And the people, those guardians against our slide into the pit of corruption and fascism, vote for it all, cheerily, proclaiming that good old Boris is a bit of a character. And Hitler and Pol Pot would be a laugh to go for a beer with. The most depressing part of the post-election spectacle was Chris Mason’s interview of a father and son on the dockside at Hartlepool, falling into line and providing the standard Vox Pop proving that the Tories are on the side of working people and Labour are just interested in trendy London Metropolitan types. One day soon, somebody on Universal benefit in some godforsaken Red Wall town, will actually use those words in a vox pop BBC interview: “No, I used to be Labour, like me father and grandfather before him, but now Labour are just for the metropolitan liberal elite, like.”
When pressed by Mason to explain why they had changed allegiance, they both referenced the Courts being closed, the local hospital being cut etc etc . They did not seem to realise that these issues, absolutely crucial for local communities everywhere, were the responsibility of the Conservative national Government and had nothing to do with the Labour local council, which presumably was on its knees because of swinging austerity cuts imposed by the Tories. Dear me. Johnson is living proof that you can fool enough of the people enough of the time, and that the current Conservative Party is a coalition of the Selfish, the Stupid and the Sentimental. That’s the MPs, before you start getting sniffy about blaming the voters. The only reason I don’t blame the voters, by the way, is because they’re given false information.
And so now, I can completely understand why and how the Nazis rose to power in thirties Berlin. And the rise and end of Trump transformed my understanding of The Handmaid’s Tale from it being a dystopian tale into it as a roadmap for the rise of the far right. The response of the hardcore Trump supporters and the Q anon crazy conspiracy theorists was chilling, but less so than the realisation that previously mainstream liberal Republican types would go along with it for personal power and advancement. Just as here, normal liberal Tories have been expelled (Grieve, Hammond, Greening, Gauke Stewart et al) and any moderates that are still in place, support the slide into moral turpitude to protect their own skins. I shudder to think for too long about where it will all end, and have no faith in The Great British Public to see through the Fake News.
Which is where I started. Regulate the Internet.
Next time: Why Labour has got it so wrong and why Peter Mandelson is most definitely not the answer.
Incompetence, Ideology and Entitlement: The Return of the Shit Show
It is with no pleasure that I return to this chronicle of our nation’s darkest days, but needs must. The needs are distinct but all are pressing. A need for personal therapy. In the absence once more of social intercourse, the need to articulate the current situation and its impact, performs a vital function in terms of one’s own understanding of the crisis, not to mention mental health. A need to play my part in the popular revolt against Mr Johnson in particular and The Conservative Party in general. It is coming, sensation seekers, be patient. There will be a reckoning, along with a wailing and a gnashing of teeth. And, finally, a need simply to record for posterity the twists and turns in this long strange trip.
Reasons to be Cheerful
- Although, of course, I’m gripped by fear and loathing, the portents look good for Tuesday’s American election. Unless the polls have completely messed it up (and our experience of Brexit and the last US election give pause for thought), it seems likely that the nightmare of Trumpery is coming to an end. This is tempered by an expectation of street violence by very well-armed and emboldened far right militias in the US. Trump really does need to stand trial for his crimes.
- People are at last beginning to see through Mr Johnson’s bluster to conclude that, yes, The Emperor is very much not wearing clothes. And it’s not a pretty sight, gentle readers
- News that a dossier of evidence about Slytherin Dominic Cummings has been passed to the CPS has warmed the cockles of my heart. The documents support allegations that Cummings perverted the course of justice in his away day to Durham and his subsequent No 10 Garden “explanation”. This (wait for it) carries a prison sentence if proven.
- It’s all gone quiet on Brexit. It could yet end in no deal, but more likely is that a fig leaf “understanding” will be announced that can be presented as a great triumph by The Liar Extraordinaire. Even if that happens, le merde will hit le fan. Delays, shortages, lorry queues, rationing, emergency medical shortages. I know it’s harsh that that can be presented as a reason to be cheerful, but I am increasingly of the view that people need to feel the pain to fully understand what they voted for. Already the Lie Machine is in full vigour blaming the nasty foreigners for all of this. My hope is that Johnson’s tattered credibility will make this harder to stick than previously.
That’s enough of whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. Now for grim reality. And so to Lock down, Act 2. Has anything ever been so predictable as this? The sight of Tories and Johnson himself, making themselves look stupid by condemning Labour’s call for a national lockdown has been priceless. Even two days before their ignominious u turn, they were criticising this as extreme. It is presented to us as Johnson making “difficult” political choices between health and the economy, and being such a libertarian (what a great guy) that he delayed until the bitter end before bowing to the inevitable. What arrant nonsense. As a result of this dithering he has successfully synthesised those polar opposites, health and economy, because the multiplier effect of delay has ensured that the economy will be locked down for significantly longer now than would have been the case. All the while we have had to endure the prospect of their entire Covid policy being calibrated by a calculation so self-serving, so empty, so crass and yet so predictable. It is this: Johnson’s brain has been whirring with the following equation. What do I have to do to be able to ease restrictive measures, so that some species of family Christmas can be preserved? Yes, dear reader, Johnson is motivated not by protecting citizens but by the prospect of headlines about Boris Saves Christmas. Even if Boxing Day were to be followed by the Dickensian spectacle of bodies piled in car parks, such is Johnson’s short-termism that he would have jumped at that as an opportunity. And then he would have blamed Michel Barnier.
To be honest, the first Lock Down was relatively painless for some people, including me. Retired with a juicy pension, in a nice house with a big garden, it has been perfectly manageable. Misanthropes like myself have enjoyed the excuse it provided for not seeing people. The return to eating out in Restaurants during the summer was also welcome, if misguided now in hindsight. Sport’s return, at least on the telly, was also welcome even if that, in saying that, I’m well aware that I’m part of the bread and circus’ response of Nero Johnson. The lack of cinema, theatre and gigs has been harder to bear. But the second wave, in the dead of winter, will be very much harder, not least psychologically. And I think, its doomed to failure because of some catastrophic policy errors, that stem from an obsession with presentation rather than substance.
It is a huge mistake to leave Schools and Universities open. The case for closing Universities is unanswerable and the data on children, infection and schools is not yet all in. I am fairly certain, based on nothing more than intelligent observation, research evidence devotees, that schools will be found to have played a major role in the resurgence of the virus. But the libertarian hawks, buoyed by the case to be made on the grounds of “suffer the little children”, are nauseatingly hypocritical when they insist that children need schools to be open.
There are two reasons for school closures to be more problematic than other sectors of society. First, closure presents major threats to children who are at risk in abusive families. Secondly, deteriorating mental health amongst children and teenagers who are removed from society and networks by the lockdown, is a genuine worry. But, to be blunt, mental health and abuse are neither of them contagious and there are other ways of mitigating those risks short of a return to full time attendance.
But, of course, the opponents of this policy are all there, drip-dripping their bile and vitriol. So we have Kelvin Mckenzie tweeting that teachers are lazy, and didn’t do a stroke of work during the first lock down. He is backed up by other such intellectual power houses like Julia Hartley Brewer, Sarah Vine, Isabel Oakshott. The brain dead of Fleet street are joined by the ideologically fervent of Westminster, with their commitment to grand abstract nouns such as Liberty and Sovereignty. You know those Titans of the Commons, Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker, Desmond Swayne. Mark Francois would be fighting them on the beaches as well, but of course, he has his own little local difficulty to deal with at the moment. These Freedom Fighters, who so often invoke the Second World War as England’s finest hour, would have been useless during that actual conflict. Imagine them dealing with a polite request from the ARP to put that light out: “How dare you infringe my inalienable rights as a freeborn Englishman. I reserve the right to keep my lights blazing and to hell with Jerry. Those Europeans are all just frit.” As someone pointed out a few days ago, it is delicious watching Boris get shafted on his own side by the Libertarian Loony right. A richly deserved taste of his own medicine, and one hopes deeply instructive to be lectured by people who have the resources to protect themselves against Covid while making a quick killing financially.
“Put that light out!” “How dare you infringe my liberty as a free born Englishman!”
But why have they, Johnson in particular, been so unremittingly hopeless in dealing with this public health crisis? It’s because it goes to the heart of the lies and contradictions that being a Tory in the modern world now consists of. Every instinct in their body, every ideological sinew of belief screams in agony when the only solution that will work is one which requires them to spend billions of pounds of money to give to people for doing nothing. So they kick and scream and drag their heels. They don’t mind pending billions of pounds of public money that go to their mates or the wives of their mates. That’s business as usual and money well spent as far as they are concerned. This is where the sense of entitlement comes in. They are the ruling class. It’s something they have taken in with their mother’s milk. They deserve it. Scrutiny from the oiks in Parliament is an affront that normally can be tolerated but when their backs are against the wall and it actually means something they are furious that their decisions are being questioned.
All of their public health decisions have been made with an eye to the economic cost. Every single one. So they think that’s they can preside over a policy of repeated lock down and easing to buy enough time muddling along until a vaccine comes along. And people will die, but they are not the really important people, so we can put up with it and they can try to gloss it over and get away with it in time for some more giveaways before the next election. Easing the economy in July was essential to allow people to start to make money, so they could ease back on public spending. A terribly sort sighted, ideologically hide bound mistake that will lead to thousands more deaths and just as much if not more on the eventual public spending bill.
They really do need to take off the blinkers and think a little bit more about economics. Globalism and Thatcherism have comprehensively failed. Public spending needs to increase massively on the decent infrastructure that Germany has maintained. They are hardly a hotbed of Marxism, after all. A touch of Modern Monetary Theory is what is needed. The level of deficit is nowhere near as important as classical economics has taught us. Balancing the books is irrelevant. The last six times we have had a balanced budget in the last three hundred years, it has been followed by an incredibly deep recession. For countries that issue currency, deficits are good for the health of the economy, as long as you keep a weather eye on inflation. In the face of this new thinking, traditional Tory economic advocates are like flat earthers.
So what should be done?
- Lock the economy down just as in March.
- Impose a rent and mortgage freeze
- Maintain furlough and extend to the self employed
This puts the economy in a deep freeze, still alive, ready to revive next year.
- Close schools and universities. Refund part of fees paid. Have rota systems for schools so that children get regular contact with others outside of their household
- Cancel exams and do ongoing assessment
This will give us a chance of getting to the end of Spring next year with a workable vaccine and everything in place to bounce back strongly.
Next time: My five point plan to rid the world of disease, prevent war, and train everyone to be nice to each other. Or was that my five pint plan?
Week 11 May 31st
“I am in blood stepped in so far…”
It’s been over a month since I last posted an entry in my journal. What can we deduce from that unseemly gap? That lockdown has become commonplace and not worthy of comment? That no-one I know has caught Covid 19 (or at least, not seriously), so it becomes harder to maintain an end-of-the-world style narrative? That far from having endless stretching hours of nothingness to kill, actually most people are extremely busy and can’t fit everything in?
No. none of the above. Or, more accurately, all of the above, in varying proportions, depending on the time of day, or day of the week. But above all, the overriding factor in distracting my attention away from recording History As It Happens has been this.
The opening of Garden centres up and down the land.
At this point I must sheepishly acknowledge my privilege. I know I’m extremely lucky to have a big house and a big garden. I know many people and families are struggling in cramped accommodation with no access to outdoor spaces, and I can’t imagine being cooped up for all of this time. (Eleven weeks and counting, as far as the Journal’s calculations go). But this is my journal, about me.
So, having felt guilty for a nano-second, I can put that to one side and get down to business. The glorious sunny weather, and the recent availability of plants and equipment, has meant that every waking hour I’ve been shopping, weeding, digging, planting, and designing. And my garden, a monstrous 200 footer that backs on to woods, has never looked more beautiful. And the bird song, morning noon and night has been spectacular as well.
I am still working, but because I only teach Key stage 3 classes, I am not condemned to the ghastly, intensive, untried trudge of Zoom lessons, so beloved of Lord Adonis, that famous and world -renowned Pedagogical expert. I have to set, check and mark a lot of work, and occasionally go into school for my part of the rota of staff dealing with children of key workers and the like. I don’t have a Year 10 or 12 class, so I’m not expecting to be called back before the Summer holidays, apart from the rota just mentioned. I’m also finishing off Teacher training courses, getting ready to assess Trainees remotely.
But the significant thing about today, June 1st, is that it marks what is supposed to be the beginning of the Great Return to Normality. All kinds of things are happening: schools re-opening, Shielded people allowed out and about, Meeting in groups of six, shops etc opening up again. What it actually means, and remember this when you look back in anger, is that today marks the day when a Second Spike in infection became unavoidable. Yes, the actions of our government, who care for nothing but their own power, have made it inevitable that many more people will die. And they know this. I can’t think of a more shocking indictment of this ghastly shower of shit we have that passes for a Government. Johnson and Cummings et al know that thousands more will die and they think it a price worth paying.
Another milestone, that will gather ever more significance as times passes, was the Cummings Barnard Castle debacle. That was the moment when the Tories lost the next election, and the allegation of lying finally began to cut through. The ridiculous assertion that Johnson and the Tories was a Man of the People and could represent the interests of the “ordinary” voter in the north, was holed below the water line. Of course, there is plenty of time for other events to take place and Johnson can row it back, particularly when he is prepared to throw money at anything and everything.
And the lying thing is important. More and more people cannot now believe a word Johnson says. So the assurances about a “World Class test and Trace system” ring absolutely hollow, about taking “Baby steps” and “following the Science” are meaningless. As are the ludicrous “Five tests”. It seems that Johson’s view is that each test is passed when he says it has been passed. Don’t trouble him with evidence or data. More and more “Scientists” are willing to speak publicly about it being far too early to relax things. All of this is being done to create a feel good narrative that removes Cummings from the front pages. I’m just not sure what their own longer term forecast is. They must know that disaster is on the way. I wonder whether Johnson is so used to blagging it and getting away with it that he doesn’t think it will matter, because he will just continue to refuse to be accountable, not answering questions and pushing on head down until the end of the next press conference. At present he and evil genius Dom are still going along with the Trump playbook, where you just assert the opposite, ignore stats (so they no longer present the figures in comparative death totals) and spin awkward questions or appalling revelations (the clear plan for people in Care homes to die) as coming from “Campaigning newspapers”. But we don’t need to worry. Evil genius Dom has sorted a few teething problems with the new Red Wall seats. You know, the great unwashed from up North, who can’t speak properly and have an appalling diet. Using Johnson’s unparalleled Classical Education, he has taken a leaf from the Ancient Romans book and gone for the old bread and circuses trick. Football is back, along with horse racing (double whammy that one because it also keeps her Maj happy) and getting pissed in big groups outside. Brilliant. Cogito Ergo Dum, as it were.
In this extraordinarily depressing landscape, there is some comfort to be had in the thought that the pendulum has begun to swing back, and that this is the beginning of the end. It was fascinating to see Tories joining in the criticism last week, even those who have been the most ideologically bonkers. When that happens because of what their inbox tells them the public thinks, you know the tide is shifting. Just as in America with Trump and Republicans, at some point mainstream Tories will have to calculate exactly when they are going to cut Johnson loose to save themselves from complicity. They will have one eye on the inevitable future inquiry. All reasonable democrats just need to keep the faith. There will be a reckoning and the guilty will be exposed, but we will have to wade through a lot of bodies on the way. The Macbeth quote, so useful in dissing ruthless political operation in the past, comes into its own now.
“I am in blood
stepped in so far that, should I wade no more
Returning were as tedious as go o’er”
The real tragedy is that that was always a metaphor. These days, horribly, it has be taken literally.
Cravings and Ravings…. Weeks 5 and 6 April 23rd 2020
In these strange times, full of empty days and an uncertain future, one inevitably turns to musing all things philosophical. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Will there be any cricket this summer? Lately these thoughts have turned to man’s greatest achievements, in an attempt to decide whether or not we as a species deserve to survive. After much thought, I’ve got as far as these. In no particular order, I give you:
- The Sistine Chapel ceiling
- The Flushing Toilet
- The Cruyff Turn
- Abbey Road side 2
- Much Ado about Nothing, Act 4, scene 1, lines 251 – 325
- The Waitrose Chocolate Berliner Donut
Perhaps you could choose four more and then we could go to a vote. I’m sensing a Twitter poll coming on
It feels like the tide is beginning to turn in terms of our glorious government and the Blessed Boris. Having been surfing on a tide of brainless good will since he Rose Again, Johnson is, at last, being subjected to some proper scrutiny. And what do you know, when the spotlight of interrogation is on him, the mystery melts away, and just like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, a rather silly pathetic, ineffectual little man emerges. His canonisation reached its peak, hilariously, with Alison Pearson’s tear stained, masturbatory eulogy in The Telegraph about how the nation held its breath as he teetered on the edge of death. He was, Pearson declared, the incarnation of the spirit of Albion, the Johnson body (steady Alison, you’ll need to wash those sheets) being one and the same thing as the body politic of the realm. Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation? Thinking about it, with Johnson, it was almost certainly Con.
But even in the breathless, evidence free zone that is the Tory press, eventually reality must break through. Those damn bodies. In the same way that the relentless clips of young Americans being flown back to the US in body bags from Viet Nam did for LBJ in the Sixties, so the daily press briefings giving the inexorable rise in deaths from the disease, has gradually chipped away at the Johnson myth. The briefings have been led by a series of utterly hopeless Tory Ministers (Alok Sharma?!) and have been notable for several things. First, the absolute inadequacy of the journalists questioning. The questions are poor and repetitive, and no one is challenged for not directly answering. Then the “independent” scientific advisors. What a joke. The petrified Minister passes the difficult question to the advisor who plainly fails to answer it before passing it back with a rictus smile, pathetically grateful that a few more minutes have passed and the end of the whole charade of a briefing is a little bit closer. Finally, the latest in a series of desperate promises about the future is delivered, whether that’s the target or 100,000 tests by the end of April, a figure blatantly plucked out of thin air, a delivery of PPE from Turkey, or all homeless people will be given secure accommodation. It does not matter what the promise is, you can guarantee that it’s a lie to placate the simple minded and to take up a few more moments of the briefing.
And so to the Sunday Times story, delicious and horrifying in equal measure, confirming what most of us long suspected: Johnson is a lazy, lying charlatan, whose instinct is to wing it and hope for the best, confident that he will get an easy ride from the media. After all, why on earth change an approach that has got him into number 10, with a proven track record of moral turpitude, entirely ignored by Fleet Street’s finest?
The simulation of the pandemic scenario in 2016 nails it completely. The conclusions of this exercise were as stark as The Tory party’s blithely continuing to ignore them as they accelerated their run down of the basic structures and provisions of a modern state, motivated purely by ideology. The lack of intensive care beds and ventilators is truly shocking given what they knew. Then came the head in the sand approach to clear warnings from Wuhan and Europe. Johnson allows Cheltenham, goes to the rugby, tells everyone proudly, bloke of the people style, that he shakes hands with everyone and why shouldn’t we all go to the pub? Then he disappears for ten days, finishing his book apparently at Chequers, all loved up with Carrie Symonds and does not bother to attend never mind chair the first five meetings of Cobra. The veritable cherry on the icing is the news that the failure to participate in an EU wide supply of ventilators was, indeed, a policy decision not the laughable “we didn’t get the email” excuse ( surely this ranks alongside “the dog ate my homework” in the all time lamest excuses list.)
Yes, that’s right. Don’t just move on to the next paragraph. Government spokespeople repeatedly lied to us about this. Once more with feeling: Government spokespeople repeatedly lied to us about this. What on earth has happened to us and our expectations that this is, apparently, unremarkable? Time was, there would have been a media feeding frenzy, with news organisations scenting blood, nagging away at every opportunity until there was a resignation or two. Now, it’s no big deal. Move along please, nothing to see here.
Beyond this, what else has weeks 5 and 6 of Armageddon brought us?
- The figures started to sort of come down, accompanied by discussion amongst the experts and wide eyed news readers abut relaxing the lock down. The main focus of this relaxation is, of course, schools. Most teachers would have been horrified to read plans for schools to go back as early as May 11th, on the basis that statistically, kids are pretty poor at passing the virus on and that teachers, a lazy bunch at the best of times, are just sitting around at home doing the garden in anticipation of a scorching summer drinking G&T with the occasional bit of light weeding thrown in. This would be a great theory but for one strangely overlooked fact. Schools generally, in order to function well, tend to have adults in them as well. But as the ghastly Spectator journo Alison Williams opined sagely in The Telegraph, its time for teachers to show a bit of bravery and open up classrooms again. “What we need, Blackadder, is a supremely futile gesture of self-sacrifice, in the grand tradition of gullible footsoldiers through History.”
Bollocks to that, as Winston Churchill once said.
Even just the mention of it, though, with the suggestion that we are past the peak and the whole thing is going to dribble away, has had a strange effect on me. When I went for my latest visit to the supermarket there was no queue at all and I began to think that even the most basic of social distancing and handwashing was a little bit OTT and for wusses. It’s easy to see how relaxation could easily lead to non-compliance and a huge tsunami of new infections down the line. This feeling is compounded by the latest reports of people drifting back to work and normality and a friends reports of Croydon being packed once again, with little attempt at social distancing. Now, everyone wears some form of mask or bandana and just carries on as normal. In the same way that cycle helmets turn people into less sensible cyclists, face masks do the same for people in the public domain.
- The Populist insanity in America has started to take centre stage with swivel eyed Libertarian crazies taking to the streets with banners and assault rifles (essential shopping in the US remember) swearing their inviolable right to do what the fuck they want in the name of Liberty. I predict, Nostradamus like, that there will be a mass shooting before all this is done. This is the latest in a series of events that make the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale, less an enjoyable, thought provoking fantasy and more a foreseeable reality.The surprise is that there hasn’t been more resistance here from the far right Brexit crazies. The only consolation from the sight of them massing to demonstrate is that they will have infected each other. No, sorry, that’s a horrible thing to say. Lockdown is clearly getting to me. The job of socialists, liberals and other proper human beings is to protect the nasty red necks from themselves. Forgive them, they know not what they do.
- I am beginning to fantasise about life before the lockdown. The other day we rewatched Fleabag and all of our conversation afterwards was about how wonderful it would be to be in a Restaurant, or in a black cab crossing the Thames late at night. Similarly, my son and I, having got through The Lord of the Rings films, now watch Youtube classic football reruns obsessively. Oh, for some top-class sport on the telly. I am really missing the way that progress from Spring into Summer is harder to keep hold of without the usual markers of the The Season: Boat Race, Grand National, Football season climax, Cricket, Wimbledon, International Football tournament etc. We have even, in a vain attempt to hold on to the joys of Summer, been watching Rick Stein’s journey through France, vicariously enjoying all of the scenes of Rick sitting at an outside table eating lovely food and sipping an expresso, a cold beer or a glass of fruity red. Having lost several holidays already, there is some pleasure to be had in planning future trips, whilst watching the appalling Rick ballsing up in the most boring delivery known to personkind in the most exquisite locations in Europe.
- By the time we are released back into the community, if I have survived my perennial manful, I will need a wheelchair, such is the extent of my muscle wastage. I know I could be being innovative with my exercise regime without going to the gym, but its just not the same. One of the great pleasures of semi-retirement was going to the gym for an hour of treadmill, exercise bike and rowing machine, followed up by a trip to Waitrose for a free coffee, a free newspaper and joy of joys, a Waitrose Chocolate Berliner donut. Even writing it down is bringing tears to my eyes. You can keep Proust and his Madeleines. All I want is a Berliner. Just one.
- Symptom alert: Still got headache, aching limbs, crippling tiredness. It’s clearly only a matter of time now. And then my wife reminds me that I have had these symptoms every week for the past thirty years
Weeks 3 and 4 April 10th 2020
“Shall we lead on 980 people dead anyone?”
“No, this is much more relevant.”
The Easter holidays. How can you tell? It’s funny how the days all merge into one. The promised period of productivity, whether that’s was going to be in the garden, the house or embracing a new absorbing, creative hobby has dribbled away. Any impetus to begin anything, even putting one’s socks on, is fatally compromised by the idea that it can be put off until the next day. Coronavirus has turned us into a manana society. I suppose this is what it’s like to be completely retired, but under house arrest.
Things have definitely shifted into a different phase since I last wrote. Now Johnson has Covid and is in intensive care (“Yes, I met several people who contracted the virus the other day and I shook hands vigorously with everyone of them because I’m not the run of the mill ordinary kind of chap who has to obey the rules. Oh no, that’s for the little people like you”). This has generated the most sickening, sycophantic nonsense from the media, who plumb new depths every day with their stupidity. It was bad enough having to witness the clapping for the NHS, now we are encouraged to clap for Johnson. The clap for Johnson is not an unfamiliar concept, obviously, but now we have a slightly different take on it.
To be clear before you stop reading, unfollow me and reach for your green pen to write a letter to the Daily Mail, I’ve got nothing against clapping for the NHS, but it’s just so terribly, crappily British that people clap and then think they’ve done enough, and now all will be well. DON’T VOTE TORY! It’s not difficult. If you did, and you have done so before, then you are at least partly responsible for the dreadful, unprepared state of the health service. It’s on its knees every winter with normal flu, for god’s sake. How the hell can it cope with this armageddon?
DON’T VOTE TORY.
It really is that simple.
So, some other developments since my last post.
- It was a surprise to venture out to the supermarket to find that they seem to have got their act together, with enforced socially distant queueing, security guards, one way entrance and exit systems etc. And stock piling and panic buying seems to be very much last year’s thing, with flour and lentils finally coming back to the shelves. It did lead to what has been my worst experience so far, in the terribly polite Waitrose queue, which is an exercise in all that is best about restrained British stoicism. It’s a better class of queue all together. The sort of queueing that will add £10K to the average house price in the area. They have employed a particularly effective MC to supervise the queue and he is quite brilliant at it, being at the same time, cheerful, slightly risqué, bossy, pisstaking, flamboyant and efficient. He spoiled his copybook with me, however, when after one of his set piece riffs about making people do fifty press ups if they did not maintain the correct social distance, he ambled over to me in the queue and sotto voce , said to me, “You know Sir, you can go straight in , if you’re over seventy.” Cheeky sod. As I said to him, in a terribly witty riposte, “No thanks, I’m only actually 35, I’ve just been a bit stressed recently.” Seventy – Christ on a bike. It can’t get much worse than that.
- Well, actually, it can. The Johnson thing developed such that he had to go into Intensive Care, and the media overreaction went into full second world war mode, compete with the usual crappy WW2 metaphors about Johnson being “a fighter.” This is so insulting to all of those people who have already died, with the clear implication that they couldn’t be bothered to cling on to life and that actually, its their fault. What is wrong with these people and their tone deafness to the respectful mood that is called for? It’s an illness that affects all kinds of people, who can all die as a result. It was a real shock that this happened to Johnson, and only a sense of our common humanity has stopped the obvious temptation to be a smart arse about it. It has also given rise to a new species of media question about a “power vacuum” and fevered speculation about who is really in charge. Dominic Cummings is really in charge, obviously. The Johnson incapacitation changes nothing except the appearance. The idea that Johnson is a brilliant leader who has his finger on the pulse and who can make decisive, timely decisions and policy shifts is ridiculous.
- Speaking of things being our fault, it’s been noticeable that in the increasingly ludicrous daily briefings, the assembled crack journalists (assembled by Zoom) seemed to have decided to stop asking awkward questions about testing and unpreparedness. Into this vacuum subtly come the idea that the spread of the virus is our fault for not obeying the rules of the shutdown. No, guys, it’s your fault. The whole thing has been a shameful dereliction of duty and they have blood on their hands. Alastair Campbell (oh, how one longs for the days of intelligence at Number 10) has done a very helpful outline of the sort of reasonable questioning that should be going on. https://www.thearticle.com/media-questions-at-no10-briefings-are-woeful-here-are-20-they-should-ask
- I’m sure I’m not the only person who thinks every day that they have contracted the virus. A slight headache, some aching muscles, a cough, crippling bouts of exhaustion – they all generate existential angst, and a feeling that my days are numbered. Once any one of these symptoms presents itself, then all of my waking thoughts are spent in expectation of the first cough or episode of chest pain. I’m particularly exercised by the idea that I have contracted this ghastly thing by heroically carrying on doing visits to the supermarket. We seem to be the only family I know that did not have a regular paid-for delivery slot and can now not clamber on to that particular life raft. Having four people at home, including two children in their twenties, means we get through the food requirements of a small European country every three days. And it’s been made worse by the fact that my daughter got the news on Monday that she has been furloughed. More worry. More time to fill.
- And now he’s out of IC and back into a normal ward. And rather than lead on the highest number of deaths to date, the Media trumpet this as “ Good News”. Reporting for credulous children, not active citizens.
Friday March 27th 2020
Closure of hairdressers begins to bite..
It keeps getting stranger and stranger. It was bad enough when Johnson announced the stay indoors advice and immediately worse when some unseasonable warm sunny weather brought out crowds to parks, beaches and wild remote locations like Snowdonia where rumour has it that the national park is going to introduce those 2 metre apart chevrons up the mountainside, Waitrose style. If you can read this sign, you’re too close, matey. Ah, the great wilderness. At present, it’s more remote in Oxford Circus.
Then came the military state style clampdown. This seems to have had a real effect on people. I went on one of my allowed shopping trips the other day to Marks and Spencer. It was the middle of the afternoon, but it was eerily empty and those people that were there were extremely wary. Amongst polite shoppers a new etiquette has emerged whereby people are very watchful, calculating when they can turn into a new aisle without getting too close to anyone. If you break that procedure and catch someone unawares, they freeze or jump a mile. This tends to be accompanied either by a withering scowl or a conspiratorial, shy smile. Those that are most unforgiving tend to be those in full survival kit: face mask, gloves, sharp pointed stick two metres long.
I also experienced a new version of an old paranoia, the irrepressible urge to cough. In more innocent times, this would usually happen in the National Theatre, or a cinema and I would, without fail, be sitting right in the middle of the row. A few “controlled” coughs would occur, followed by discreet but frantic scrambling around for tissues and cough sweets. The terror of having to get up to leave the auditorium, from the middle of a row of outsize people, would induce more tickling in the back of the throat. A vicious cycle, I believe it’s known as. This new manifestation clearly has more sinister overtones, however. A coughing fit in a supermarket would lead to a citizen’s arrest, a general shunning and name calling of me as a social pariah, or in branches of Lidl or Aldi, a ritual public beating up and being left in the supermarket car park, tarred and feathered, with a hand written misspelt sign around my neck saying, “Go back to China, unclean foreigner”. I did manage to suppress it, but not before several people had backed away making the sign of the cross and brandishing their garlic bulbs in my direction.
Still it’s hard to be too harsh, when every day more people have died, of all ages now, seemingly, and we are continually told that soon the NHS will be overwhelmed. It’s a frightening time, so one must take one’s pleasures as they now come. The crisis has provided plenty of opportunities for Johnson and his motley crew to do what they do best: Lie, lie and lie again. Lots of statistics to misuse and misrepresent. Lots of straight questions that Tory spokespeople can blatantly not answer. Lots of promises that can be blithely made secure in the knowledge that they will never come to pass and can be instantly rebutted if and when some pathetic reminder of the promise is made by the feeble representatives of the main stream media. They are absolutely shameless, continuing to say that there are plenty of ventilators in hospitals now, fabulous contracts agreed with captains of Brexit supporting industry (Dyson, Wetherspoon, Branson et al), PPE overflowing, tests of all kinds up and running and ready to use. They say this after hearing in the same studio from NHS front line staff and independent scientists that there is nothing. This is who we voted for.
But we are all in this together, at least that’s something. The virus is no respecter of status, wealth or position. After all, Price Charles is the latest celebrity victim. That will cheer the nation up, eh? And it’s typical of that damn Megan Markle and ginger traitor Harry to scuttle off to America leaving Blighty at its time of need. Or at least that’s what I read in the Daily Moron. Well, the virus may be no respecter of status , wealth, power and influence, but access to a test certainly is. And having a gated and guarded ancestral pile is handy when it comes to social distancing, something that the royals have generations of training in, after all.
I started this blog by observing that the whole thing is getting stranger and stranger. And proof positive of that is the fact that since I started writing this, Johnson, Hancock, and now Whitty have contracted the virus. The chilling sight of Michael Gove taking the press conference today immediately provoked the most elaborate of conspiracy theories: that the whole thing is a Govian plot to stab Johnson in the back again (its positively Shakespearean, the whole thing) and be the last person standing, so he will have to be the supreme ruler, even if he is a little strange and unpalatable, like a mouthful of Brylcreem. My confident prediction is that Gove will be the only member of Parliament and the Westminster crew not to get the virus, because he is an alien, or a replicant. Or something. And it will be revealed, in the final chapter, that he can only be killed by pouring water over him.
Apart from the fear of Gove and all things Govian, the other dimension of this crisis that has been exercising me of late has been the terrible impact on my personal grooming regime. Unfortunately, the clampdown occurred just at the moment when I needed to make a visit to a barber. It won’t be long before bushy eyebrows and long unkempt straggly hair and beard become the norm and social distancing will no longer be a problem, as ordinary men and women in the street will stampede to cross the road to avoid getting near mad beardy man.
The rampaging, out of control, hair-growing surges of my body will be strangely mirrored by the beautiful, manicured and carefully clipped progress of my garden, after years of neglect. It will be like a weird version of the portrait of Dorian Gray. As my garden gets ever more sculpted, controlled and designed, I will get wilder, more hirsute and baggy. Eventually, my feet will take root in one of the ornamental borders, and I will explode into growth exponentially.
I clearly need to stop writing this. None of this will happen. Instead, more people will get ill, and more people will die. Until next time, mes petits choux.
March 20th 2020
It seems like an awfully long time since I waved goodbye to my son at Heathrow, returning to his year abroad in New Orleans as part of his American Studies and History degree. I didn’t say anything at the time, but we were worried about his return because he was moving to a new apartment with new sharers, and they just happened to be Chinese. Who had just returned from China that same week. No matter that China is a huge country and I had no idea which part of China they were from, but I suppose it’s a parent’s job to worry irrationally. The story of Coronavirus had gradually crept up the news schedules during the Christmas holiday and by the time he was due to go back to the States, it was clearly a major issue. Funny looking back, how I thought it was going to be a major issue for him, in the US, rather than for us in London. But that was before it had started to sweep across the map of Europe, like a forest fire.
Two weeks ago we went to dinner at some friends’ house, and it was something of a joke when we arrived, how we all greeted each other. Gone were the hugs and air kisses, and we awkwardly elbow-bumped instead, not really knowing whether we were overreacting or being sensible. We dropped a couple back at their house on our way home, and a combination of drink and time made me forget the new protocols. I slipped straight back to the habits of a lifetime and gave one of them a big hug and a kiss goodbye, as usual. She jumped back like a scalded cat, generating a torrent of apologies from me. It was a stark reminder that things were about to change. We were all over sixty and some of us were immuno-compromised. Living dangerously had become something that was only for the young.
But it has crept up on us, stealthily at first, and then with whirlwind speed. Every day, it seems, brings news that a month ago would have been laughed at in the pub. Like not going to the pub, for example. I have not been able to buy toilet paper for the last two weeks. I’m not particularly concerned about that, to be honest. At last there’s a reason to buy The Sun. The great Bog Roll Riots of Tescos Elmers End suggest that not everybody shares my laissez-faire attitude to toilet routines. It seems that for many people, an inviolable marker of civilization is the right to pamper one’s rectum with unguent infused, fragrant, quilted, luxury bog roll. Bog roll that has denuded the rain forest, doubled the quantity of carbon in the atmos, and which ends up as a major constituent of the sewer fatbergs beloved of the tabloid press in the silly season. Bring back IZAL medicated. Absolutely nobody would be panic buying that. The only panic associated with IZAL is that induced by the prospect of using it. No football on the telly. Not even mindless chat about football. That has left a massive hole in my normal schedule and has left me either having a nap, reading a book or endlessly surfing the internet, dribbling. If my newspaper was suddenly not delivered, for some up till now not predicted contagion risk, then I would really feel that the fabric of society was crumbling.
Self-isolating and social distancing. That has been a bit of a challenge. At the beginning of that period my journey to work along the M25 was like going back fifteen years in time, with my journey time cut by a quarter. Going to the West End of London was also very pleasant, as were restaurants and theatre trips. How naïve we were back then, how innocent! Today I visited the local library and I was the only borrower there. There was an enormous notice telling me that I could borrow up to 25 books and all fines were waived for the foreseeable future. The thing is, nobody knows what the foreseeable future is. It’s unforeseeable, and therefore, rather unsettling.
Things came to a head last weekend when, justifiably panicked by travel restrictions all over the world, we frantically made arrangements for dearest son to fly back home. This has cost us thousands of pounds, none of which we will ever get back. It’s been a bit of a blighted year for holidays. Holiday in Venice cancelled for floods. Trip to New York cancelled for plague. Trip to Granada cancelled for plague. Trip to Italy in August probably going to be cancelled, probably because of the plague, but by then, it could be anything: earthquake, locusts, invasion of the bodysnatchers. It feels like the Earth’s revenge on us for not being satisfied with two weeks in a caravan in Redcar.
We picked him up, wearing his face mask and complaining of muscle cramps and fever. This provoked self-isolation for a week for the whole family. On the same day my daughter was told to work from home. Everyone started to feel ill, with a range of symptoms. Inhabiting the mindset of a true panic buyer, I was exultant when I managed to find a thermometer from Amazon. When it came, predictably we were all absolutely normal. Perhaps our symptoms had all been an extreme reaction to the lack of quilted toilet paper.
Then came the news of school closures and no exams. This has probably had the greatest effect on me. I’ve been an English teacher since 1982 and even through the giddy career heights of Deputy Head-dom, I’ve loved teaching English. I’d just about got used to the idea that in July I would probably finish my part time job and never teach English again. And now, having seen the schedule from school about teaching the key workers’ children, I think I’ve probably already taught my last lesson without knowing. Selfishly, I’m a little sadder about that than about anything else.
This is clearly going to go on for a long time and some people, too many people will die. I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands, with no football to watch. So, I’m going to do this journal, to record the events as they happen. I wonder if Daniel Defoe had toilet paper issues?
Stay safe everyone.