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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 28

Blog Number 28 [Friday 5th June] 

Some people [Paddy] asked what the difference is between a Blog and a Mini-Blog. The clue is in the name. You might as well ask what the difference is between a van and a minivan or a bar and a minibar or a mouse and Minnie Mouse. Okay, not the last. Paddy also wanted to know – though surely you have better things to wonder about, Paddy – why the Mini-Blogs do not appear on my website. They will. In the course of time. Soon. Okay, when I work out how to create a sub-heading. Advice welcome on that score though it must be couched in terms that the very simple, and I mean President Trump level of simplicity, can understand.

M offers me her reading group book to read, saying she won’t need to read it yet as their next meeting is on 15th June. 

‘That’s just 10 days away,’ I say. ‘Shouldn’t you start it now?’

‘Far too soon. I’ll read a potboiler first.’

I look at the book. It is Amy & Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout. It’s over 400 pages long.

‘That’s cutting it fine, don’t you think?’

‘Not really.’

For some reason this annoys me. ‘Don’t you think a good book needs to be savoured like a good claret?’ [I admit this remark may sound pretentious. Okay, not ‘may’, it does.]

‘You don’t drink claret. Anyway, what does ‘savoured’ mean? Have you ever savoured anything?’

‘Yes.’

‘What?’

I search my befuddled brain. ‘Our morning conversations?’ 

‘Really? Then I would have thought they might have lasted longer and involved more than what we are going to eat for dinner.’

‘Well, that’s often something savoury.’ I grin at M in what I take to be a disarming way. 

 ‘You are such a witty man,’ she says as she leaves the room. 

I am glad she appreciates my worth.

Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland, was published in 1980. I read it again last year. I thought the idea of moving Parliament to a theme park on the Isle of Wight was farfetched. Then came Brexit, Boris, Cummings, Rees Mogg, COVID-19 and Alok Sharma. Who? The Business Secretary who has had to isolate following the return of Parliament this week as he began to experience symptoms of the virus. Did you see the photos of the MPs standing in a theme park like queue to go into Parliament? I think they would have been better off going to Ikea. At least they could have bought something cheap and cheerful for their pains. As it was the turkeys voted for Christmas, supporting the bill that made their life more difficult and more dangerous. I mean it’s not as though there’s an obvious alternative to walking into a lobby to vote, is there? 

Wouldn’t it be great if a large swathe of what passes for the Government became stricken with the virus and were forced to self-isolate? If so, I can safely recommend taking a 260 mile drive first, preferably driving west or east from London and not stopping anywhere. The virus is not known to live in the sea after all. Returning to the unfortunate Sharma. The government put up some minion to the Today programme who was asked about his showing signs of coronavirus symptoms in Parliament. “Might be hay fever,” the man said in desperation. I have hay fever. Sweating is not a symptom of it. Then the man was quizzed about why Pritti Patel was introducing quarantine for all arrivals to the UK just at this moment. “We said we would do it when the infection rate here was low,” he said. “So as not to risk exposure from those countries with higher rates.” Don’t we have the second highest rate of infection in Europe [after Russia] and the most COVID-19 deaths? “It’s coming down,” he said, desperate again. Yes, but it’s still the second highest in Europe and we still have the highest Covid-19 death rate.

It is obvious to all except the most blinkered [HMG] that we are exiting lockdown too early and this will inevitably result in a second peak. As Keir Starmer pointed out in PMQs, the Alert Level remains at 4 and the R rate is still high. The same as weeks ago. To which, Bojo could only rant and rave, accusing Starmer of attacking the ‘good work’ the government has been doing. Starmer came back smartly: scrutiny is not the same as attack, he said. To Bojo though, scrutiny is actually worse. He has lived his life evading scrutiny, whether it’s about the cost of a failed garden bridge over the Thames and other vanity projects he did as London mayor, or the ‘business meetings’ at the delectable Jennifer Arcuri’s flat, or simply how many offspring he has fathered. For a man who likes to duck and dive, being in charge of the country during a pandemic is a nightmare. There are only so many COBRA meetings, Select Committee sessions, PMQs and daily briefings he can miss before he has to appear, hair dishevelled, clothes rumpled, face hollowed out, eyes small as pinpricks, and respond to questions by desperately searching for words like ‘exegesis’ and ‘octothorpe’ that will mask his inability to string a meaningful sentence together. Far from being the famed communicator people say he is, he’s a hopeless, hapless one. I am almost beginning to feel sorry for him. And then I remember that he wrote two speeches on Brexit, one in favour, one against, choosing the one he thought would be most likely to get him to be Prime Minister. He made the rod for his own back and if he’s now feeling the pain, he has no one else to blame but himself.   

And Trump. What more is there to say?

Antidote 28

Rowan Atkinson interviews Elton John, or is it John Elton?

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 27

Blog Number 27 [Friday 29th May] 

“The thing about Johnson is that he desperately wanted to become prime minister, and he desperately wanted to have been prime minister. It’s just the bit in between he struggles with.” (Marina Hyde, The Guardian, 26th May)

“It seems that many people have been making simple category errors with Boris. They have assumed that Dominic Cummings’s understudy has an intelligence and morality to compromise…Yet the evidence all points to something more disturbing. That beyond an ability to recite the odd Latin phrase, Boris is actually quite dim. Worse still he is totally amoral. So the very idea of him doing the right thing is a complete non-starter.” (John Crace, The Guardian, 28th May)

Just when you thought things could not get worse for our beleaguered PM, they do. Have you seen the man? Bags under his tiny dark recessed eyes, hair now so totally dishevelled he looks like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, and that terrible haunted look that pleads ‘get me out of here, Nanny, please.’ Remember Theresa May? You know, she was Prime Minster in the olden times. How she began all cheerful and relaxed and ended up looking haggard, bone weary and exhausted as she was lambasted time and again by the opposition, that is, the loony Brexiters in her own party. That took 3 years. For Bojo it’s taken a mere 6 months. Now the inmates are in charge of the asylum and there’s no Jack Nicholson to take them for a ride. In fact, the only people being taken for a ride are us, the people, and we are not buying it any more. “I mean,” says a man in a vox pop, “people won’t bother now. If Cummings can do what he wants, why can’t we? It’s one law for them and another for us.” In the opinion polls Bojo has crashed like speeding meteor. He’s in negative figures. I think back to those who looked to him to get the country back on its feet after May’s disastrous reign. “Get Boris in,” said one woman chirpily. “He’ll sort it out.” No, he won’t. He doesn’t do reality. Like Trump he lives in a bubble of his own creation, where running the country is like being on Have I Got News For You. A few quips and jokes and then on to the next show. The trouble is there is no escape from running the country. And then stuff happens, or as Harold Macmillan put it when asked what he found most difficult about being PM, “Events, dear boy. Events.” Oh dear, in a pandemic, events come thick and fast and unlike some, well, one person, poor Bojo can’t get into his car with his wife and child and drive to the safety of his own private bluebell wood. Bleary-eyed after another terrible night’s sleep, he wakes up only to find he’s still PM and no amount of clicking his red shoes will take him back to those halcyon days when he could fabricate entertaining stories for the Telegraph. Now he has to fabricate for real and he’s just not good enough. Desperate times call for desperate measures. No, he says to Laura K, at the Three-Podium Address, you can’t ask political questions of scientists. They are not politicians after all. They don’t know how to duck and dive, to answer a different question from the one asked. They will tell the truth for God’s sake. It’s a scientific question, comes back Laura, but no one hears her as he’s put her on mute. If only he could do that to the whole country, he thinks, put them on mute. That way he could attend properly to the Dom’s voice in his earpiece and maybe even understand what he’s saying, at least some of the time.

I have heard a rumour that people who have been reading my blogs think M has all the best lines. Okay, it’s not a rumour. People have told me. To my face. On zoom anyway. As, with the exception of a brief encounter with a masked daughter brandishing a 2 metre long stick and shouting “No closer,” I haven’t faced anyone in real life apart from M for weeks. I ask her whether she thinks she has the best lines.

‘What lines? You never write what I actually say.’

‘I try to make it more interesting.’ [I’m aware that this could be misinterpreted.]

‘So, I never say anything interesting. Is that it? [See]

‘That’s not what I meant. I’m a writer. I embroider. I make things funny.’ 

“I never say anything funny. Is that what you mean.’ [This is not going well].

‘No! I mean humour is not your forte…’ [The hole is getting deeper].

‘And what is my forte as you put it.’ [Oh God!]

In desperation I clutch at the tiniest straw. ‘Putting up with me?’

‘You got it, Mr Witty Writer. That’s your forte and your fifty and your sixty.’

‘That’s quite funny, actually.’

‘So put it in the blog. At least I have actually said it.’

And so I have.

Antidote 25

This is for Colin, the Professor of Rock. It’s a young Richard Penniman on Granada TV back in the day [1964], with support from, amongst others, the oh so lovely Shirelles.

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE BLOG 26

Blog Number 26 All mighty flows the DOM [Tuesday 26th May] 

I watched the Dom’s Address to the Nation. Extraordinary. First that it took place at all. Second that it was in the Rose Garden of No. 10. Not always the best spot to pick. Do you remember the Dave and Nick show there in 2010? The joshing. The fun. Little did they know how soon it all would turn into ashes for both of them. Third is the fact that he kept everyone waiting for 30 minutes. What! And this is someone whose expertise is supposedly in public relations. What message does that send? Then came the convoluted story, the twists and turns in the life of Dom, devoted father and family man. The decision to drive 260 miles north was to protect his 4 year old child. And what better way than to do so than keep him in an enclosed space for 6 hours with his ill mum? And as he was not ill with COVID himself, not then at least, he could drive. Well, he certainly would be ill after doing that. And he was. Hold on, that’s not all. It seems after discovering his wife was ill, he returned to work. Now what were the guidelines? If you a member of your family comes down with COVID-19, he or she isolates in the house and you stay at home. So, returning to No 10, that was nothing to do with protecting his child. It was all about the importance of the Dom. Without him the whole machine would grind to a halt. When he was back at No 10, he told the PM and others what he was going to do, did he? No. He told no one. After all, the Dom is accountable to nobody, only to God and not always then. But hold on again, Dominic, why not stay and look after the lovely wife and sainted child yourself? I might have got the virus. Yes. But you might not have. And even if you had, could you and wife not have coped as so many had to. But if we got too ill…Sorry, there was no one in London who could help if that had happened. Really? You are the PM’s Special Advisor. You are running the country. Was it too embarrassing to ask for help? Or was it that you are the Special One, and so don’t need to ask. So off you all go all four of you, you, wife, child and virus, to Durham where you can isolate on your parents’ estate. You even had a house to yourself and a bluebell wood to walk in on the private grounds. Now, Dom, I don’t think that plays well with the public, millions of whom don’t even have a garden of their own, never mind a bluebell wood. Shades of the duck house and the moat of days gone by. And this is just the beginning. Worse was to come.

Dom turned on the media. You hacks had got the wrong end of the stick and made false allegations. He had to tell the true story once he had worked out what it would be. But hadn’t he been asked about the trip weeks ago? Could he not have corrected the false allegations then? And when his wife wrote up her diary of her illness in the Spectator, would it not have helped to have said that they were in Durham and not in London? In fact, did she not write that she came out of her illness into a changed London in lockdown? Slip of the pen perhaps. Perhaps not. And then the trip to Barnard Castle on his wife’s birthday. That 30 mile journey was simply to test whether his eyesight was good enough to drive. Of course it was. I mean you needed to drive 30 miles with wife and child in the car to a well-known tourist spot to do that. Not possible to do it by driving the car on your own nearer home? Or just around the estate, by the bluebell wood perhaps? 

And so it went on. No regrets. No apologies. No contrition. No idea how implausible and obscene his self-justificatory story sounded. What did he care? He had deigned to talk to the little people and if they didn’t buy his carefully concocted story, that’s their problem. He had a country to run.

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 25

Blog Number 25 [Monday 25 May]

On Saturday I go out for my “essential exercise” cycle ride. On the way back I get a newspaper from Court Candy, a shop that is a social distancing challenge to put it mildly. The shop is one of those small supermarkets, what estate agents like to call bijou. I can barely squeeze down one of the two aisles that run either side of a central set of shelves. If another customer comes in, we will have to go through a ritual forward and back dance so I can get out of the shop uncontaminated. If another customer, well, then we’re all stuffed. I mention this to M when I return triumphant with the Guardian, having been the only customer.

‘Why on earth do you not go to the Coop or Tescos in Summertown?’ she says. ‘They have self-service machines.’

‘You have to pay by card.’

She looks at me in frank amazement. ‘You do know it’s safer to pay by card. Did you actually pay by cash?’

‘I had the right money,’ I say breezily. I lie for that was last week. I had actually handed in a £20 note and crammed the change in my pocket. I am now wondering how to get it out and when I do, if I should wash the new plastic notes in bleach. Will they disintegrate? Maybe I should use a pair of pliers to extract all the dosh and just throw it in the bin. The Saturday paper is always more expensive yet paying £20 for it seems a bit steep.

‘Anyway,’ I go on, trying to bolster my position. ‘I want to support the small local shops.’

‘And how will you do that if you get the virus and die?’

‘I’ll leave them something in my will.’ 

I am pleased with my witty riposte. 

‘Very funny,’ M says as she walks off and I know what that means.

That was Saturday. One or two things have happened since then, you might have noticed. By the time I finish this sentence it’s possible that [a] the Dom is another of Bojo’s exs [unlikely despite Bojo’s record], [b] the Dom has fled to a Durham monastery, transgendered and taken the veil, [more likely than [a] but still unlikely], or [c] nothing has changed [very likely]. And by the time you read this you will know the answer. Tempting as it is for me to join in the chorus of anger at our self-serving and pusillanimous PM, I will cite two usually opposed sources, the Monday Daily Mail [Headline: WHAT PLANET ARE THEY ON? Quote; “…he has given every person a licence to play fast and loose with public health,”] and John Crace in today’s Guardian, “No dignity, no future: Boris forsakes leadership to protect Cummings,” https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/may/24/no-dignity-no-future-boris-forsakes-leadership-to-protect-cummings?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

One more thing. M shows me a picture of a cat born with two-faces. As a metaphor it couldn’t be more apt. Two-faced is what the PM is, unabashed at justifying the Dom’s flight north with the claim he was just following the instincts of a good father. Really? You know about those fatherly instincts, do you, Boris? Certainly, those associated with flight from your own paternal responsibilities. I’d like to write more but the tacks I am spitting are damaging my laptop.

Meanwhile, 1st June is looming and there’s the tricky problem of easing the lockdown. A rational approach is to do so one sector at a time and keep a close eye on the consequences. This means a test, track and trace system. The government claims to have the best in the world and it will be ready. Do you believe them? Neither do I. If the planned partial re-opening of the schools goes ahead, which many parents want, how can this happening to respect social distancing and protect pupils and staff? Should teachers wear PPE? I try to imagine what a 6 year old would feel being taught by someone in PPE. Gloves and apron are okay but masks? A visor? What signals will that send out? How much anxiety might it cause? Constant washing of hands too, will that breed a cohort of obsessionals? Or, will that just simply become the new norm? 

My twin grandchildren are 6 years old. They are fortunate as they have each other though they don’t always see it that way. They crashed in on a zoom call that we were having with their mum and aunt. Lucy is enamoured with Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh and she chats to us about them. I ask her if she has any questions of us. She says, “When will the virus end and how long will you be in lockdown?” That is a good question. I only wish we knew the answer.

Antidote 25

Víkingur Ólafsson playing Bach: Organ Sonata No. 4, BWV 528: II. Andante [Adagio]

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 24

Blog Number 24 [Friday 22 May]

People are relaxing. That should be a good thing but in the Days of the Virus, the era we are now in, it’s not. The papers published a photo of Brighton beach showing crowds of sunbathers cheek by jowl. What are they doing? The virus doesn’t go away because it’s a lovely sunny weekend. The quiet, empty streets around Summertown are filling up with cars again, not as many as before, but still the return of the noise and the pollution are unwelcome. At the beginning of the lockdown the besuited scientists that flanked our then glad-handing, insouciant PM during the Three-Podium Address told us that people will resent lockdown if it last too long. They cited “behavioural scientists.” Frankly, you don’t need behavioural scientists to tell you that people get fed up with being cooped up in their own homes for weeks on end. There’s also a little-known psychological process called forgetting. On the Thursday clap-a-thon people mingled on the road and chatted. Two metre distances dwindled to one or less. It felt unneighbourly to move back or tell them to keep away. Does it matter? I mean we haven’t got the virus so we’re alright. Again, you don’t need a scientist to tell you the flaw in that claim. HMG’s answer to this is to – yes, you know it – stay alert. All very well to say it. Doing it is another matter.

I missed watching PMQs when BoJo decided, or more likely Dom had, that he should go on the front foot and attack Starmer. Instead I read through the Beeb’s live reporting feed and concluded that the PM had lost the plot again. Temper tantrums. So childish. Not how many of the papers saw it though. Boris on the rampage at last. Perhaps it played out better live than it does in print. Or more likely, many desperately want to see a forceful leader, none more than BoJo himself, and so anything is better than his bumbling, stumbling Man on a Tripwire act. He even planted Mattie Hancock on a bench to heckle about Starmer’s alleged £2 million donkey sanctuary [a field by the way] only to be disparaged by the Speaker. Being heckled by Mattie is like being heckled by an estate agent or a presenter of the One Show. Not exactly their forte.

Mattie was again sent out to face the enemy [us] after BoJo decided that charging migrants to use the NHS, many of whom are the people who look after us and save our lives, does not play well with the public. I guess that this might be beyond the understanding of our current Home Secretary, Pritti Stupid Patel, for what does she know about migrants coming to this country? But surely anyone else can see how mind-screechingly awful that is. So BoJo flipped. And Mattie was sent out to defend. He did what he did best, lie. The PM was talking generally about surcharges not specifically about the NHS. No, he wasn’t. But say it often enough, once in Mattie’s case, will make it true. 

In bed last night M read out a quote from the book she is reading. ‘It says here, “The duty of the wife to her husband is second only to God.”’

I was only half-listening and heard ‘God.’ 

‘You don’t believe in God, do you?’

‘No. So that puts you at the top? My duty is to you. Is that what you’re saying?’

‘No!’ 

Frankly, this is not a good late-night discussion topic between loving spouses. It can only go one way and that’s not conducive to a good night’s sleep.

‘My duty is to you,’ I say in marital desperation.

‘In what way?’

‘Every way.’

‘Name some. No, name one.’

See what I mean.

‘If you are attacked by a Rottweiler, I will always defend you.’

‘So, when have I been attacked by a Rottweiler? I don’t even know what a Rottweiler is.’

‘A dog. Big one. Can be vicious.’

‘What else?’

‘An Alsatian.’

‘No! What other duty do you pay me?’

‘The duty of…Not sure ‘duty’ is the right word.’

‘Exactly.’

M goes back to her book, leaving me to ponder what she means as I toss and turn trying to get to sleep.

Today’s Friday and the weekend is coming up. Even though I am retired, the weekend is special. There’s sport. But now there isn’t. All we get in the papers are journos writing about an old football match they watched that changed their lives, like the Arsenal-Man Utd FA Cup Semi-Final in 2003 or whatever. Frankly, I can do without that. Match of the Day has gone. In its place the Beeb has gone for lists. So, if you want, you can watch, Gary (Wholesome) Lineker, Ian (Wrighty) Wright and Alan (Boring) Shearer ponder the best 10 strikers in the Premier League. For those who don’t know these luminaries, Wrighty is ex-Crystal Palace, Arsenal and England striker, a lovable rogue sort of guy whose first act is to take himself off the potential list in favour of fellow striker Andy Cole. Shearer on the other hand resolutely remains. Alan Shearer memorably said once that for recreation he liked to creosote the fence. You felt sorry for the fence. And Gary Lineker is, well, Gary Lineker. It’s boys’ chat really and only the truly desperate will watch. I am desperate but not that desperate. 

Last night as I was cleaning my teeth I switched on the radio. 10 pm. On R4 the World Tonight. More virus and politics. How much more can I take? I switch to R3 and find there’s a discussion of suicide and depression! Sums it up really.

Antidote 24

The wonderful Dame Edna Everage on the Michael Parkinson show in 2004 [with Judy Dench and Sharon Small]. The master, or perhaps the mistress I should say, of the stiletto put-down. No one can stop her when she’s in full flow as she is here.

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 23

Blog Number 23 [Tuesday 19 May] 

Do you find you lose track of the days? I have to think hard to work out which day of the week it is, or in absence of thought, quite common these days, look at my laptop. It’s Sunday 17 May, I’m informed. What on earth are we going to do today? I say this to M after we have listened to the morning’s music, a jolly allegro from Prokofiev’s First Symphony and the spirited finale of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto that were supposed to buck our spirits but seem not to, or not much. 

‘I’m going to do my Pilates,’ she says. ‘And then make some more masks.’

‘What more masks? How many do we need? Are you going to go down Beech Croft Road and hawk them to the neighbours?’

This last remark was a mistake in the sense I had said my thoughts out loud when it was better not to have done. Also it might have been taken as a touch aggressive. Had I still been seeing my psychoanalyst, it would have filled a session or two of interesting discussion.

At first M does not reply but just looks straight at me, which frankly is worse than a reply. ‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Bit of stir fever.’

Instead of berating me, she says, ‘Go and do your exercises. That might help.’

I’m not used to M being nice to me. I look at her fondly.

‘And then if you’re still bored, there’s the washing up, the shower to clean, a load of shirts to iron and maybe you’d like to make dinner tonight.’

That’s better. That’s the M I know and love. 

‘I’ll start with the exercises and see how I go.’ I say, feeling better already.

Several days have passed since I tuned in to PM’s road map for exiting the lockdown. I peep out from behind the curtains to assess the lie of the land. Not a pretty picture. The road map was sketchy at best, like one of those old maps of the world with blanks spaces and pictures of dragons and other mythical creatures. The government is zigzagging all over the place, holding the map on its lap and peering out of the grimy window for any landmarks. Where exactly are we going? And how will we get there? What will we find when we do? No one knows. Take schools returning. Mikey Gove was sent out at the weekend to provide clarity. Optimistic at best. Mikey has a fuzzy relationship with the truth. He tells Andrew Marr that it is absolutely safe for children and teachers to return to the classroom. Except, Mikey, obviously it’s not. Nowhere is absolutely safe, certainly not in a school where social distancing is next to impossible and no one knows how much the kids transmit the virus to adults. Saying something doesn’t make it true. Didn’t they teach you that at school? We have worked closely with the teachers, he goes on, again lying through his teeth. It might have been helpful to have consulted the teachers’ unions first before announcing the strategy, the militant teachers’ unions as the Daily Mail has it, who for some reason want to protect their members and their families from dying. Now the militant BMA has come out in support of the teachers. Just too many groups protecting their own, aren’t there? That’s the government’s prerogative surely. What’s happening on the testing front? Are we testing and tracing? And what about that much heralded COVID Symptoms App that is being trialled in the Isle of Wight? Are there testers in place? Mikey, had he been asked, would have said there were thousands trained and raring to go. Those organisations earmarked to do the testing and tracing have heard nothing. The rumour is that the App doesn’t work and will be jettisoned in favour of a new one, which probably won’t work either. Oh dear. I pull my head back and close the curtains around me. 

What do these have in common? Garden centres, golf courses, tennis courts, croquet lawns? You’ve got it. They are all places where the middle-classes have their fun. And now HMG says it’s safe to resume going to them. Hooray! Not absolutely safe as we have to exercise sensible precautions. I ring around my tennis buddies. We decide to give tennis a go. It has to be singles. We must keep our distance and we must not touch our opponents’ balls. Yes, yes, I know. Anyway, my opponent is Rachel and apart from a couple of reflexive opponent ball touching, we manage. The trouble for me is Rachel’s devastating forehand and her canny tactics. She rushes me all over the court and I am beaten. I mutter something about outlawing forehands when we shake hands at the end. Metaphorically that is. Of course, I am just delighted to play again; winning is not everything. Losing is though.

Brexit? Really? That’s so last year. Yet the government is ploughing ahead. Full steam ahead, eyes closed, minds even more so. Forty-three percent of our trade is with the EU, 15% with the US. So, which matters most? Difficult question, is it? Yet on we go. Do you want chlorinated chicken? How about letting US Health Providers cherry-pick the best of the NHS? How is that going to be a benefit to us? Brexit has always been a delusion, fuelled by a nostalgia for a past that never was and a mirage of a future that makes no sense. As the pandemic has shown, we are interdependent. No one country can ‘go it alone.’ And in the background our planet is over-heating. No one country can change that. We have to work together. So, what do we do? We cut ties with the countries we are closest to, geographically, culturally and politically, and at a stroke we lose the benefit of almost 50 years of cooperation. At this moment the 27 EU countries are meeting to look to provide a stimulus package to help each and every one out of this crisis. It saddens me beyond words that we are not there with them.

Antidote 23

Delightful Flash Mob performance of the ‘Ode to Joy’ in Sabadell, Spain.

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 22

Blog Number 22 [Wednesday 13th May]

[“Stay Alert!” after “Be prepared!” by Tom Lehrer]

STAY ALERT! That’s the PM’s marching song,

STAY ALERT! Then you know you can’t go wrong.

Stay alert for the virus when you’re out on your own,

It’s in the air, it’s on your clothes, it’s even on your phone.

STAY ALERT! 

The virus is a mugger, it takes you by surprise.

It’s a clever little bugger, best not to touch your eyes.

If you see it lurking, then kick it with your shoe

And then make sure you wash your hands whatever else you do.

STAY ALERT! 

And listen to our messages and hope for the best.

We’ll give you your instructions, but you must do the rest.

Your government is working hard, we’ve made a sudden spurt,

We’ve sketched a little road map to stop you getting hurt.

And if you can’t understand it or it doesn’t seem to work

There’s only one thing you can do, (What’s that?)

STAY ALERT! 

I penned this little ditty as I can’t top the brilliant dissections of Marina Hyde or John Crace. Admittedly, they are not short of material. BoJo can’t help himself. He’s a natural performer and typecast for the role of Bumbling Idiot on a Tripwire. His Address to the Nation was a masterclass in communication, I mean the ‘before’ version that people will use in times to come to highlight what not to say and how not to say it. I see poor Mattie Hancock has reverted to type. He’s taken to snarling at interviewers, aware that he’s the patsy, the fall guy, the one BoJo is lining up to make the ultimate sacrifice, to fall on his sword for the benefit of the country [for BoJo, that is]. Imagine the conversation.

[Mattie]. What’s this, PM? [Holds Samurai sword aloft]

[BoJo] I was looking for that. It’s my gift.

[Mattie] To me? [Looks chuffed at this unexpected favour]

[BoJo] Yes. Let’s do this properly. Close your eyes and make a wish.

[Mattie does as he’s told. He wishes he was on Richard Branson’s island, sipping margaritas and swapping choices for Desert Island Disks. He wonders if Richard would choose Kylie Minogue’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ too].

[BoJo]. Ei! Ei!. Rushing forward, he impales Mattie on the sword. It is a far, far better thing that you do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than you have ever known. [If not cod-Churchill, cod-Dickens will do].

‘Are we institutionalised?’ I ask M as we go through the top item on the agenda for the day, opting for steak and chips rather than fish pie after a long discussion.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, every day’s the same. Do a bit of the jigsaw. Watch telly. Listen to music. Stare into space.’

‘You mean like this. Empty the dishwasher, make the bed, clean the bathroom, iron the shirts, order the food, cook the dinner, make the bread, sew the face masks…’

‘Okay, okay, I get your point.’ 

‘And what point is that, darling?’

‘Darling’ is another of those code words, ones that mean the opposite of what it says. ‘Sorry. Nature calls,’ I say as I dash off to the loo.

M and I go for our ‘essential exercise’ in Burgess Field, a nature reserve, the nearest thing we get to wilderness here in Oxford. This past two weeks the hawthorn trees are in full blossom, rich and dense as clotted cream. Some are now beginning to turn; tiny petals strew the ground like confetti. Clusters of shiny yellow buttercups dot the grass verges and daisies appear signalling the onset of summer. All around us there is verdant greenery, the full-leaved trees by the stream along Port Meadow, the grassy earth under our feet, the flowering nettles along the paths, and the bushes and hedgerows dotted irregularly throughout the heathland. This is no manicured park. We love it. We have walked here two or three times a week since the lockdown, criss-crossing the Field to avoid the joggers who prefer the periphery. Will we continue once it is all over? The virus and the lockdown have forced many changes, many are clearly to the good. How to hang on to them is the test though. In five years time perhaps we’ll look back on 2020 as the year that changed everything, if we’re spared, that is.

Antidote 22

Habanera, from Carmen by the snazzy-looking Amadeus Electric Quartet

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 21

Blog Number 21 [Friday 8th May] 

Today is a special day. Yes, it is the 75th anniversary of VE Day. I think you might have noticed that. The 8thMay is also my mother’s birthday. Or was. She would be 112 today, Leon tells us in the course of a tripartite sibling Zoom yesterday. Evelyn and I are not as impressed by the statistic as Leon is, but then he’s a mathematician. She died in January 1992 at the age of 83, a miserable death in a care home after debilitating months of pain and misery. She had made it clear she didn’t want that. What she wanted was someone to give her an injection so she might die in comfort. If she had been in her own flat, her GP told us after her death, I could have helped. I can do nothing in a nursing home, she said. My mother suffered cruelly and unnecessarily. We willingly put our pets out of their misery when they are near death. But do not accord the same sort of compassion to our own species.

The debate over assisted dying is on hold, like everything else. Lockdown applies not just to people but to life as it was. We wait until it is all over, but no one knows when that will be or even what that means. And now there is a horrific form of ‘assisted’ dying going on as the virus runs rife through hospitals and care homes. In the litany of this government’s incompetencies and fiascos, the failure to protect staff and patients in care homes from COVID-19 must rank near the top. In an FT article Tim sent me, Professor Richard Coker, an epidemiologist, showed how the Government failed to protect care home residents as they pursued the ‘herd immunity’ policy. Predictably, this would result in increased deaths above and beyond normal, or “harvesting” as it is called in the trade, rather too evocatively. Here is his summary of how it all went so wrong.

If herd immunity was the initial strategy outlined by advisers, they would have known that harvesting older people could not be part of the equation. This isn’t about science or politics – it’s a simple question of humanity. If the government’s strategy was to allow the virus to spread through the wider population, albeit at a slowed pace, residents in nursing homes would need to be protected.

But this is not what happened. The initial strategy of allowing herd immunity to develop in the wider community was pursued, but the most vulnerable people were not protected. Though harvesting may not have been the government’s intention, it became the de facto policy in the absence of adequate protections for older and vulnerable people. Had the government monitored care homes, supplied adequate PPE, rolled out testing in care homes, and reduced the exposure of their residents to visitors and other carers, the islands of vulnerable and elderly people would have been protected.

The irony of today’s celebrations is that many of the people who were actually there 75 years ago have been abandoned by their government. Many have died, some in terrible suffering. Keir Starmer made that point in his calm, lawyerly fashion to the Prime Minister at PMQs. Typically, Boris had nothing to offer beyond rhetoric and bluster. People are beginning to tire of rhetoric, of being told one thing and finding the truth to be quite another. Matt Hancock’s bravura claim that 122,000 people had been tested on April 30th proved a mirage [a lie, not to mince words]. Over 30,000 of those tests had only just been sent to people; none had come back. Through the first week of May the real figures came in, hovering around 80,000, confirming the data massaging he had done. Why? Why set a target of 100,000 tests? Why pretend that you have hit it when it will become almost immediately obvious you haven’t? Why treat the public like fools and idiots? All it does is further undermine what little trust remains in this benighted government. 

VE Day 1945

I asked my sister Evelyn what she remembered of VE Day. She was 11 at the time. She had no memory of it at all, she said. She didn’t know if they got a day off school or what our parents had done. She worried about the loss of cognitive function that this implies, but it is what happens as we get older. No consolation in that though. I am sure my parents would have celebrated Germany’s surrender, the end of the war in Europe, the defeat of the fascism they detested. Did they retain any residual patriotism for the country they had left 12 years before? When I was growing up, they rarely spoke about Germany. I recall no reminiscences, not until much later in her life when my mother told me of the terrible years of poverty and anxiety after the First World War. I cannot recall a single positive comment or any happy stories about their early life. Very likely I showed no interest. I was an adolescent after all and what was there beyond my wonderful life? I wonder if they had deliberately erased Germany from their experience. Perhaps many immigrants do that, especially when the country they came from fought a long and terrible war with the one that has adopted you

I have mixed feeling about the VE Day celebrations. I delight in seeing the joyous excited dancing in the black-and-white film footage of the time. I love the story of Humphrey Lyttleton playing ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ on his trumpet, which the BBC coverage picked up. With some pride Humph said when he heard it, he knew it was him by the Louis Armstrong flourish at the end. The sheer relief at the end of the horrors is evident. The war was not over for all. People knew that. Churchill said it in his broadcast. Yet all that could be put aside for the joy of the moment. And now? Like on every Remembrance Day when the politicians intone their clichéd words about the sacrifice so many made, I wonder about what people really feel. Not the veterans marching in step down Whitehall, those who lived through it and lost friends and saw awful carnage. Their feelings are undoubtedly real even as they are complicated and personal, feelings I can only guess at and never truly feel in the way they do. What are people feeling about an event that occurred before most of them were born? What are we celebrating?

Orwell, in his famous essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, written in 1940 when, as he wryly observed, “highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me,” drew a distinction between patriotism and nationalism. I wrestled with this in one of the letters I wrote to my grandchildren, see http://johnmarzillier.co.uk/essays/patriotism/ Orwell stated that patriotism, unlike nationalism which he saw as self-serving and self-glorifying, was a positive force “and there is nothing to set beside it.” What he meant by patriotism is the emotional sense of belonging to your country, of being part of something bigger than yourself, sharing it with others around you, rather like we are experiencing in the lockdown. A sense of community. This is a positive force but it can easily be harnessed into something nasty as it was, I believe, by the hard-line Brexiters and by English exceptionalists who seem to be desperate to believe that England, and I mean England not Britain, is superior to every other country. 

“Two World Wars and one World Cup” is a football chant you might hear if England are playing Germany. In case you don’t know it, Germany has won the World Cup four times. A friend asked me once if I supported Germany. “No,” I replied in amazement. Unlike Richard who supports Wales, Bob who supports Scotland, and Paddy who supports Ireland, I feel no affinity with another country, not with Germany, the country of my ancestors. The patriotism I feel is entirely English. Why then do I not feel patriotic on VE Day? Perhaps because I recoil from any tinge of English exceptionalism, the blinkered notion that we won the war. England did not win the war. Britain didn’t either. The war was won by the Allied Forces and with the help of people from many other countries around the world, countries Britain had ruthlessly colonised and exploited. I have the same reaction to Farage and his gang of crooks who played upon patriotic feelings to take us out of the EU, a singularly stupid act in today’s globalised world. There’s another reason. VE Day is a celebration of a moment of peace not peacetime. It’s the peace that followed five years of horrific warfare during which all sides committed atrocities. Now the rhetoric of war has infused the media’s response to the pandemic. People battleagainst the disease. Our careworkers are on the frontline. They make the ultimate sacrifice when they succumb to the illness. A virus is not the enemy. And it is not a war we are fighting. Viruses are simply facts of nature. How we deal with COVID-19 is nothing to do with fighting or patriotism but with basic competence and common humanity, both of which have been sorely lacking in those who are governing us. Let us leave war out of the discourse. On VE Day I join in commemorating the ending of a terrible war that destroyed many lives worldwide. On a future 8th May, or its equivalent, I hope there will be a ceremony to remember those who died during this pandemic, many in suffering, many alone, and many who would not have died had the government acted swiftly and sensibly to protect those who most needed it.

Antidote 21

Since the above is a polemic, here’s the wonderful Monty Python argument sketch with Eric Idle and John Cleese.

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 20

A Hundred Days of Solitude

Blog Number 20 [Tuesday 5th May] 

As I suspected, M did not like Slaughterhouse Five. It’s a slim book, less than 150 pages, and I would find it abandoned on the sofa, bookmark showing little signs of progress. I made the mistake of mentioning this.

‘You don’t seem to be enjoying Slaughterhouse Five. I see it lying around so I guess you haven’t been reading it much.’

‘You’re checking up on me, are you?’

‘No! I am just saying. If you’re not liking it, why not give it up?’

‘You said it gets better later. [Did I? That was unwise] And I’m waiting for that.’

M finished it yesterday. 

‘Did it get better?’

‘No.’

‘Oh.’

The truth is that you should never recommend a book to anyone, certainly not your nearest and dearest, especially one like Slaughterhouse Five, which is regarded as a classic. M goes on to say that it’s a man’s book. Now I would normally take offense at that because what she really means is that it’s full of gratuitous violence, puerile humour and the female characters are all male fantasy figures, either Madonnas or whores or both. Not that this is true of Slaughterhouse Five, except the violence but then it is set in the 2nd World War. And okay, there is a porn star called Montana Wilding with whom, Billy Pilgrim, the hero, has great sex on the planet Trafalmadore. And the only other female character of note is hugely fat and stuffs herself all the time. And the constant refrain of writing ‘So it goes’ when anyone dies, and they die a lot, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe it is a man’s book after all. 

Do you have a problem with technology? My old laptop is wheezing, not anything to do with the coronavirus, but the battery life, old age and, frankly, abuse. I have frequently shouted at it VERY LOUDLY and once I almost hit it, though I deflected my fast-descending fist on to the desktop. The pain did not improve my mood, I recall. M has been urging me to get a new one. The unspoken text is that it would stop me complaining all the time. So I get one. And Jeff Bezos notches up another cent that he can put into building his Faustian skyrocket. The problem comes in transferring data from the old to the new. I am told that all I have to do is find the Migration Assistant, an interesting choice of name, and stick the laptops side by side and they will do it all for me. As always in these situations I start with a breezy confidence that masks the underlying thrum of anxiety that it will all go horribly wrong. The laptops start off well enough, recognising each other and holding hands so to speak. But then a message comes up.

‘It says it will take 7 hours and 38 minutes to do the stuff,’ I shout to M who’s a few feet away in the next room. After the obligatory, ‘what did you say? I can’t hear you’ and my repeating it at a volume that most of Beech Croft Road could hear, M comes and has a look.

‘That’s seems a very long time,’ I say.

‘Did you get rid of all the stuff you didn’t want from the old laptop first?’

‘Should I have done?’

‘Maybe,’ she says diplomatically when she means ‘Yes. Duh.’

My hand hovers the cursor over the CANCEL icon. 

‘NO!’ she shouts. ‘Don’t do that.’

Too late! 

‘Shouldn’t I have done that? Oh God they’ll now hate each other and refuse to meet again like on a bad Blind Date.’ 

Fortunately, computer designers know how stupid most users are and I have to press again to really cancel. So the laptops press on. Hours pass. The send out messages to me, almost all of which are saying the equivalent of ‘hey, won’t be long now,’ which we all know is a lie. For the last 2 hours the message reads “Just 8 minutes to go.” I am reminded of the fact that time passes more slowly in the mountains and I think maybe it’s even slower in Digital Computerland or wherever these laptops are disporting themselves. I ring tech support.

‘Kate, it’s on APPLICATIONS and say 8 minutes to go.’

‘That’s okay,’

‘But it’s been saying that for 2 hours.’

‘Ah. Just cancel. Some apps may not transfer. It’ll be fine.’

I did. It was. But not completely. However, if I told you all the ins and outs, you would lose the will to live, as I did several times.

Antidote 20

The wonderful Nicola Benedetti playing Vaughan Willams’s The Lark Ascending. Bliss.

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 19

Blog Number 19 [1st May] 

I would like to recommend to HM Government that they adopt the slogan that M and I saw on a banner outside a well-known college on our ‘essential exercise’ walk along the Banbury Road, “This college exceeds expectations.” You don’t need to have a philosophy degree to realise that there’s a flaw in their proud claim. A pedant, yes. A philosopher, no. Still, as one of my oldest friends is married to a lady who went to this establishment in the 1960s, I will not name and shame the college. 

This brings me to Mr Gove, a man who has always exceeded my expectations, when he breezily declared that there would be no request for an extension of the transition period for us leaving the EU. After all, an extension would prolong the process, he declared. Yes, that’s what extension means, Mikey. Prolonging something. Look it up. It would be a bad idea, he went on, because it would create uncertainty. Blow me down with a feather, uncertainty. Isn’t that what we have now in spades? And if we fell off the cliff without a deal, that would create more or less uncertainty, Mikey? Finally, he said that if leaving the EU would give us greater flexibility. Now I am all in favour of flexibility. My daily Yoga exercises are designed to provide it though I haven’t actually noticed much change. 

‘That’s because you’re not actually doing them,’ says M. 

‘I am doing them virtually,’ I reply.  

‘You mean by watching that nubile 19-year old in her leopardskin leotard I saw on your screen the other day’

I am shocked. What has the world come to when a man’s laptop is invaded by others? I splutter something to this effect. She gives me the Look. You know the one that implies that I have said something so stupid that even Donald Trump wouldn’t deign to utter it. 

‘Don’t you know that everything you do online is already watched by others?’

‘That’s different,’ I say.

‘How?’

‘They don’t know me. Well, not personally anyway.’

‘You think not?’ She walks off. 

Hmm, not sure that went so well.

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that another little Bojo has come into the world, the fifth or sixth but, hey, who’s counting? Not Boris anyway. That combined with the 100th birthday of Captain Tom has set some of the tabloids off into a spin of, well, spin I suppose. But not all. Not the Star, whose headline is: 12 PINTS OF LAGER AND A PACKET OF CRISPS, PLEASE, celebrating the possible re-opening of Wetherspoons in June. [Note the comma before PLEASE. Truly impressive even if it was Spellcheck what done it.] Still, at a time when the UK is heading for the top spot of COVID-19 deaths, a dead cat is thrown on the table. Not the re-opening of Wetherspoons, which is more a hope and a prayer I suspect, but a bouncing baby Bojo. Now even I know that baby was not due until late summer and although Carrie would no doubt do most things for her man, deliberately bringing on the birth of her child is surely not one. So maybe she’s not very good with dates. Or could it be that the conception occurred earlier than claimed? Of course not as Boris was still married then. Silly me.

In one of the books I have actually finished reading [Hooray!], Richard Holloway’s A Little History of Religion, I learned about the abolition of Hell. I didn’t know that was possible but apparently it is, at least according to a certain prophet, Ellen White. Ring any bells? Possibly not. There’s not been a musical made about her, at least to my knowledge. American, b. 1827 – d. 1915, a Seventh Day Adventist, and was against smoking, drinking, dancing and most forms of entertainment. You might say, who needs Hell when it’s already here on earth? Or, as Mephistopheles put it to Dr Faustus, “Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.” The good doctor doesn’t heed the warning and we know that didn’t end well for him. Was Prophetess Ellen White a kindly soul who was against poor people being condemned forever? Nope. Lost souls, as she called them, in Hell blaspheme against God as they writhed in torment and that just wasn’t on. Her solution? Annihilation, eternal oblivion. So no Hell, just forgotten. Is that worse than devils gnawing at your entrails? [I’m not expecting answers].

It’s May morning. Instead of getting up at an unearthly hour to go to Magdalen Bridge and strain not to hear the choristers singing, we are being enjoined here in Oxford to go out of our houses at 8 a.m. and sing “Somewhere over the rainbow.” Now I am prepared to belt this out in the shower but not subject my friends and neighbours to my unique version of the tune. Great as the song may be, I wonder if it’s a bit too apposite. After all, that’s where HM Government’s idea of a plan for coming out of lockdown is located, is it not? Our returning PM singularly failed to give us any idea of when or how that might happen. Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t the faintest idea.  

Antidote 19

Catherine Tate and The Doctor [David Tennant] as pupil and teacher on Red Nose Day 2007

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxB1gB6K-2A. Are you bothered?