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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 37.JOKES AND PANTO

Blog Number 37 [Tuesday 7th July 2020]. Jokes and Panto.

Mr Anastasiades, a man of extreme wealth and prominence in society, gets out of a taxi. The taxi driver, eagerly expecting a generous tip, is put out when the great man gives him a few pennies. Stung by this the taxi driver says: “Mr Anastasiades, I have to tell you this. I often have your son in the cab, and he always gives me a really big tip. To which Mr Anastasiades replies: “Ah, unlike him, I don’t have a rich father.”

My father used to tell this joke. Was he conscious of its meaning to us? I was the son of a rich father after all. He may have been but that was not why he told the joke. What he liked, what we all like about jokes, is simple. It’s the unexpected, the twist at the end. Told well, such a joke makes people laugh and in doing that the joke teller has occupied the centre stage for a short while. The joke doesn’t even have to be funny. The comedian, Tommy Cooper, told terrible jokes, most of which he messed up. That was the real joke of course. A comedian should be able tell slick jokes with great punch lines and we laugh because Tommy Cooper’s attempts always fall flat. Yet, once you have seen Cooper’s routine, you already know it will go wrong. There’s no twist. In fact, you are eagerly expecting him to cock it all up. The reason it’s funny is all in the man and the delivery. To many Cooper was a very funny man [see Antidote below].

Here’s another joke:  

It’s the 2nd World War. A new inmate arrives at the POW camp where many have been interned for several years. He’s told by one of the veterans that once a week everyone piles into Hut C to listen to jokes. They go along together. They all sit around waiting expectantly. A person gets up to tell the first joke. “Number 34,” he says, and everyone bursts into laughter and applause. He sits down and the next person gets up. “Number 72,” he says. Again everyone bursts into laughter and applause. This happens again and again. Someone gets up and says a number and everyone laughs. Afterwards, the new inmate asks the veteran what’s going on. “We have all heard the jokes so often,” he says, “that we wrote them down in a joke book and gave each a number. That way we can just say the number and everyone knows the joke.” The new inmate studies the joke book and at the next meeting he decides to tell one of the jokes. “Number 49,” he says. But instead of roars of laughter and applause there’s total silence. Crestfallen he sits down. Afterwards, he asks the veteran what happened. Was there something wrong with Joke Number 49? “No,” says the veteran. “That’s an excellent choice.” “So why didn’t people laugh?” “What’s funny is not the joke,” he goes on. “It’s the way you tell it.”

Many of you will have seen this joke coming. Does that matter? A little. The first time you hear a joke is best if it has a really good punch line. Thereafter, the enjoyment is more in the anticipation of the joke, the build-up, and that is all about the person and the delivery. That and sharing the humour with your friends for shared jokes give us a feeling of solidarity. The many, many jokes about Trump, for example, provide a release for the anger and frustration people feel at having such an awful person in one of the most powerful positions in the world. Similarly, with regard to the incompetent, self-serving shower in charge of this country. Are such jokes helpful? It depends. In the sense that they provide a release, yes. In the sense that they undermine those in power, maybe or maybe not. After all Boris Johnson got where he is today by encouraging buffoonery of which he was the butt. Remember the man hanging on a tripwire? He has honed his persona over years right down to the blonde hair that he carefully tousles before giving a speech and the provocative one-liners. “Fuck business,” he said. Has that damaged his popularity? No. And yet… 

In Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke, a man makes a casual, jokey remark about politics. It’s reported and his life is turned upside down. Authoritarian governments come down hard on people telling jokes at their expense. If jokes didn’t matter, why would they do this? John Lennon, responding to criticism of his and Yoko Ono’s week-long bed-in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel, said: “It’s part of our policy not to be taken seriously. Our opposition, whoever they may be, in all manifest forms, don’t know how to handle humour. And we are humorous.” Satirical humour directed at those in power is a political statement. It provides a focus and a forum. Hence, the hashtags, the tweets, the sharing of funny videos. But how does humour fare against tanks, tear gas and the baton charges of riot police? Not a fair contest, is it? Still, even in the most dire of situations, when life is at its most terrible, a dark sense of humour can help. In Berlin, being heavily bombed during the final days of the 2nd World War and in the depth of winter when people were freezing and starving, a joke went the rounds. ‘What will you give as a Christmas present?’ ‘Be practical, get a coffin.’ Who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?

And coming to the present day government, there is plenty of material for humour. Here’s my take on the latest developments.

The Arts are to be awash with dosh. Rishi, the boy Chancellor, [ventriloquist puppet to Bojo who is in turn ventriloquist puppet to Dom] announces that the they are to get £1.7 billion give or take a billion or two. Hooray! On the radio this morning a little known government minister by the name of Oliver Dowden talked of this ‘world-beating’ sum of money. What? Does everything the government does have to be world-beating? I mean the world must be in a parlous state, being pummelled on all continents by Bojo, Rishi, Govey, Mattie, and not forgetting Dom Raab, which I would dearly love to do but somehow can’t. Is there anything we are not world-beating at? Joined-up thinking? Telling the truth? Publishing reports of government inquiries? 

Anyone like to tell me what Mr Oliver Dowden is Minister for? Thought not. Try Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Four in one! He’s a multi-tasker! Do you notice how Sport never gets its own ministry but is always tacked on to someone else’s? I think it needs an upgrade at the next reshuffle, Minister of Health and Sport perhaps. It would suit Mattie though, sadly, I doubt he will be around to enjoy it.

‘What are we world beating at?’ I ask M. 

‘By ‘we’ you mean…?’

‘Me and you, you and me, happy together,’ I sing lustily if not all that tunefully.

A long silence. Singing might not have been a good idea.

‘Talking bollocks.’

‘I’m sorry, no need to be personal. I was just trying to make conversation…’

‘I mean that’s what you and I are world beating at, talking bollocks.’

‘Oh.’

‘At least when our so-called conversations get written up into what you like to call your blog. They’re truly bollocks. World-beating bollocks, I’d say.’

I don’t know whether to be proud or insulted. I mean bollocks is a bit harsh but if your bollocks are world beating, that’s something, isn’t it? Max, you can stop sniggering. This is not schoolboy humour. [Yes it is! says a voice at the back. No it isn’t! says another]. Pantomime, flushed with a dollop of Rishi’s cash, is back. But with this government did it ever go away? 

Fade to a rehearsal at the Old Vic. On stage, two actors and the two ends of a Pantomime Horse. One is a blond tousled-hair bimbo in an ill-fitting suit and the other a rake-thin SPAD dressed in unwashed T-shirt and dirty grey tracksuit trousers.

‘Which end, am I, Dom?’

Weary sneer. ‘Which do you think, Bozo?’

‘You could get my moniker right, Dom. It’s Bojo. I am PM after all…’

‘Okay, don’t get your knickers and all that.’

‘…and as PM, I…’

‘Go in the back end.’

‘What? No, surely not.’

‘Think PM. I know that’s hard for you, thinking. Not your forte. But try. The back end is the best place for you. You can’t be seen, you don’t have to do anything, and you can nap to your heart’s content while I get on with all the important things.’

Like everything Dom says, it makes perfect sense, to him at least.

Off stage, a small tremulous voice. ‘Er, lads, the horse is actually mine. A pantomime horse is part of my remit.’

‘Who the fuck are you?’ thunders Dom.

Man in a smart grey suit appears on stage. ‘Name’s Dowden. Oliver Dowden. I am Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I’m in the Cabinet.’

‘I don’t care if you’re a turd being flushed down the toilet. You don’t decide anything. You are just a Minister and in my new uncivil service ministers don’t lead. They follow. Preferably social distanced at a safe distance of half a mile. Got it?’

‘Sorry. Just trying…’

‘You are exactly that. Trying. So go and be trying elsewhere.’

It’s pantomime, Jim, but not as we know it.’

Antidote 37

Tommy Cooper. Does his routine still make you laugh?

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 36.

Blog Number 36 [4th July 2020]

A coincidence? The choice of 4th July for the grand reopening of UK plc? Wait a minute. Not UK for we have a disunited kingdom these days. Where’s Scotland? Not a question for Grant Shapps as he probably wouldn’t know. His expertise is elsewhere, on the A15, which he can bang on about for hours. No, where’s Scotland at this great moment? Fuming. Hell hath no fury as Nicola scorned, and scorned she was, since in a rare moment of consistency, the government failed to consult Scotland yet again. Wales too, leaving only Northern Ireland, who jumped the gun and opened pubs and bars first. But come back to the 4th July. Independence Day when a certain colony threw off its shackles and went it alone. Hmm, what’s the message there, you think? Ask Nicola. She’ll tell you.

The word ‘omnishambles’ has re-appeared, a good candidate for the Word of the Year. Do you want to go abroad? Yes? Okay, there will be a traffic light system for countries we can visit, green for ‘go’, amber for ‘wait’, and red for ‘no way, Jose’, announced Grant Shapps, and you won’t have to go into quarantine when you come back. This assumes people will want to come back. The next day a list of countries appeared without any traffic light system. They include Aruba, Bonaire, New Caledonia, St Pierre and Miquelon, French Polynesia, places that, frankly, I had no idea existed. Others were more familiar, Germany, Spain, France, Portugal. Hold on, not Portugal. Too dangerous. What? We have 6 times as many Covid-19 infections than Portugal does. Dangerous for us or for them? Would Portugal want us Brits, sorry, Englanders? Yes, it seems and more so now that we have blacklisted them. They are fuming. You could of course fly to Malaga, get your rental car and head west. I’m reliably told that will get you to Portugal. 

But do you really want to go abroad? It’s a question I ask M.

‘I’d prefer to go to M & S,’ she says. ‘They have better cherries than Sainsbury’s.’

‘That’s your priority, is it? Ripe cherries?’

‘Frankly, yes.’

Though I am not as partial to cherries as M I have to agree. The last thing I want to do is to get on a plane where most of the air is recirculated and you are surrounded by strangers, masked or otherwise, for a couple of hours or longer. Not everyone feels that way. A photo appears in the papers of a leering, blonde haired masked man just arrived at Athens airport. Looks suspiciously like Bojo but turns out to be another Johnson, Stanley, father of our world beating PM. He’s not waited for Grant Shapps’ traffic lights system. He’s gunned the accelerator and gone through red, ignored the FO’s advice not to travel except for essential reasons, and utterly selfishly decided he needed to infection proof his Greek villa asap so he can rent it and get some dosh. What’s the phrase it makes you think of? Yes, that’s it. Like father, like son. 

So here we are, about to embark on the next phase of the omnishambles that passes for government policy, loosen the lockdown and provoke another spike in Covid-19 infections resulting in more illnesses and more deaths, until another lockdown has to be introduced. The pubs are open again from 6 am today! Some of them at least. Others are more circumspect. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, tells us he can’t wait to go to the pub again. I’ll give a fiver to anyone who spots him in one. He has the cheek to tell us it’s our bounden duty to go out to bars and restaurants and spend, spend, spend. How must that sound to those who are on or below the breadline, or to those who have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, or to many contemplating a very uncertain, perilous future? Then Bojo says we should clap for the capitalists now, for our wealth creators, which would be okay if so many didn’t take their wealth elsewhere to avoid paying taxes. Actually, it’s not okay. Not remotely. It’s sickening. It was a spontaneous movement started by a Dutch woman to clap for the front-line workers in the NHS and social care. They risk their lives daily and many have died. What do the so-called wealth creators risk? Commonly, other peoples’ money. And we should clap them? What breathless arrogance even to suggest it.

To those, not many on this list admittedly, who thought Boris Johnson was a good egg, time to rethink. Frankly, he is not even a curate’s egg; there are no parts that are not rotten. John O’Gaunt’s pelting farm is here. This sceptered isle leased out. It’s an omnishambles, a word that Will could have invented. Boris Johnson is the Falstaff of our age, hanging on a tripwire swinging uselessly, while the country goes to the dogs beneath him. And like Falstaff he cares not a whit for anyone but himself. 

Antidote 36

On the subject of the Bard, the RSC has Shakespeare available online including six dramas, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/group/p08b0ct7, and some lovely readings of the sonnets, https://www.rsc.org.uk/shakespeares-sonnets/sonnets-in-solitude

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 35

Blog Number 35 [1st July 2020]

Last night I woke up with a searing pain stretching from my lower back down my left leg, what used to be called sciatica, but is doubtless called something else now by doctors. That’s the way of modern medicine; the docs change the names of everything so they can keep one step ahead of us lot, we who used to be called patients but are now called customers or service users. Normally, I am a stoic in these circumstances. But the pain was difficult to ignore. I must have woken up M when I got up and did a few star jumps.

‘What time is it?’ 

This is always M’s first question, which irritates me because she has a perfectly visible clock on her bedside table.

‘I don’t know. Early. Three fifteen maybe.’

‘Why are you doing exercises in the middle of the night? No, don’t answer. Go and do them somewhere else for God’s sake.’

‘I have got this pain down my back and leg again.’

‘I am very, very sorry to hear that,’ she says very, very slowly, and then even more slowly, and slightly more loudly, ‘GO DOWNSTAIRS, OR OUTSIDE, OR ANYWHERE.’

‘Don’t worry about me,’ I say in the martyred tone long married couples have perfected, as I get back into bed. ‘I’ll just lie here. I’ll be okay.’

M’s only response to this is to yank the duvet and mutter something about being freezing cold when I know she gets too hot at night for she has been sleeping mostly out of the covers. She denies this. A few nights ago I took a photo and showed it to her in the morning. For some reason this made her cross. 

“If you take any more photos of me in the middle of night,’ she said, ‘I will divorce you.”

“Promises, promises,” I said. 

“I am serious, John” she said. “It constitutes domestic abuse. It’s a violation of my constitutional rights.”

Now that is simply not true for in this world beating country of ours we don’t have a constitution. And taking a photo of your wife cannot be domestic abuse unless she’s stark naked and you post it on the internet with some jokey emojis and I had no intention of doing that. Still, I recognised from her saying the cue word, ‘John,’ that it would be better to put the spade down and climb out of the hole. 

Trump has bought up all the supplies of the drug remdesivir from Gilead which is the sort of grandiose Biblical name a pharmaceutical company gives itself. That’s half a million doses. His MAGA wearing supporters will cheer to the rafters without realising it’s only for himself, his family, Putin and close associates, and the Trump hotel chain where along with the Gideon Bible and Trump’s ghost written book, The Art of the Deal, it will be offered at a special knock-down price to all his loyal customers. Go Trump! I mean it literally.

Yesterday we had to reboot the internet, which is always a scary prospect for it usually ends in existential despair. We waited with bated breath as our router archly flashed its red and green lights for several minutes at us. Finally, it settled down to a steady light and the internet was back. Phew! But then I discovered my SONOS app would not work. Whatever I did, it remained a light grey screen that shuddered as though in terrible pain. After futilely switching it off and on and even risking the router’s wrath by rebooting it again, I was stumped. I had to ring the SONOS help line. Eventually, a lilting Scandinavian voice answered that was somehow instantly calming. 

‘How can I help, John?’ Sven said after we had done our oh so friendly exchange of names..

I explained. Sven then took me by the hand and led me through a series of baby steps, which included a request to do another reboot of the router.

‘Are you sure?’ I said. ‘It won’t like it.’

He paused for a second. ‘No worries, John. It’s not actually alive, you know.’

‘I’m not so sure about that. It can be temperamental.’

Another pause. ‘Of course. Trust me. It will be fine.’

It was then that I noticed that the ethernet cable connecting the router to the SONOS speaker had somehow been detached. It was déjà vu all over again for the last time I had contacted the SONOS helpline, that had been the problem. In fact, I had made a careful note to myself to check the cable if the app didn’t work only [a] I had no idea that I had done this and [b] I had no idea where I had left the note. I confessed all to Sven who was not at all fazed, no doubt coming across this sort of stupidity several times a day. Once all had been re-established, we said our sad goodbyes.

‘Just one thing, Sven, before you go.’

‘Of course, John.’

‘Do you by any chance do marital counselling?’

He chuckled. ‘Goodbye, John. Take care and check those cables.’

He must have thought I was joking.

Do you have a growing realisation when you are reading a book that you have actually read it before? As I reached Chapter 24 of The Luminaries, after 20 hours of listening, it dawned on me that this was all too familiar. Maybe I had just read that particular chapter before for occasionally one of the review papers features a specific chapter. But no. I began to remember how it all played out and, even worse, that I had been disappointed with the ending. Up to now I was enjoying it hugely with its cast of larger than life characters and its tales of the South Island gold fields in the 1860s. I consulted M. 

‘This isn’t it, is it?’ I asked. ‘The beginning of the long, slow decline into dementia and death? Tell me, please.’

‘Probably.’

‘That’s not the right answer. Try again.’

‘You men are such babies. We are all losing our marbles. I forgot to take the bread out this morning.’

‘That’s different.’

‘How?’

‘It’s not as though you forgot we were making bread or what the breadmaker is for.’

‘And you didn’t forget what a book is for. You just forgot you’d read this one before. Look on the bright side.’

‘There’s a bright side.’

‘You don’t have to buy another book. You can just go on reading The Luminaries. That will save us loads of money especially as you don’t finish most of the books you buy.’

‘Not helpful. I’m going to call Sven.’

‘Whose Sven?’

‘The SONOS guy.’

‘I thought the SONOS was working.’

‘It is. But he has such a calming voice. I’d just like to hear it again.’

Antidote 35

Lovely, smooth modern jazz, the trio Możdżer Danielsson and Fresco in 2016. Even my old pal, Adrian, who claims that jazz is an offence to the ears, might enjoy this. 

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 34

Blog Number 34 [Saturday 27th June 2020]

M and I listen to music every morning. I may have told you this but if you are like me, you have probably forgotten. It’s hard to remember anything these days, even what I did yesterday. Each day bleeds into each other. Sorry, that’s not a nice image. How about, each day runs into one another. No, that won’t do. Days in lockdown do not run; they amble at best. Oh dear, let me start again.

M and I listen to music every morning, day after day [that’s better]. On Wednesday we listened to the young Luciano singing “Che gelida manina” from La bohème, not perhaps the best choice given it was one of the hottest days of the year. And it doesn’t end well for poor Mimi, does it? Still, that voice! He could transfix England football fans. Well he did, didn’t he? At the risk of tarnishing my reputation as a serious classical music lover, I got this from a CD called 101 Opera Favourites. It has all the good stuff without all the boring recitative bits. Now I know, I know. I am shocking the true opera aficionados amongst you like Mary-Ann, Tim, Mike, Gabrielle, Adrian, Nan, gosh, there are lots of you. But choosing to listen to the recitative? Really? In the Barber of Seville it took 20 minutes of, frankly, stupendously boring recitative for someone to send a letter. I timed it. I was tempted to shout out, ‘For God’s sake, get on with it!’ But even in the less than hallowed precincts of Oxford’s New Theatre, that would have caused offence. But as to Luciano. I’d listen to him any time.

Some good news, especially for my friend Stephen. Liverpool have won the Premier League. Hooray! They deserve it not least for their German manager, Jurgen Klopp. He of the floppy hair, the horn-rimmed glasses, wide smile and shining white teeth. When the virus struck and threatened to void the season which they were winning at a canter, he said, “Never mind. Football is the most important thing of the least important things.” He has a humility that is welcome after the preening self-importance of other managers and politicians. When you next find yourself muttering about Germans with their beach towels on loungers or their apparent humourlessness or their militaristic nature, do think of Jurgen. [You could think of Angela but I suspect you might be better off with Jurgen].

Everybody knows that it is far too early to relax restrictions since the first wave is still with us and our world beating Test and Track system is, shall we say, in development. It will only end in tears. Now I recall that Tim, amongst others, mocking the predictions of behavioural scientists that the downside of a complete lockdown is that people will at some point cease to regard it seriously and cracks will appear. Well, we are seeing it now. The crowds on Bournemouth beaches, the raves in city centres, the mingling in parks, the demos and marches, the joyous celebrations of Liverpool fans, and that’s just in this country. It’s not helped by Bojo’s desperation to be seen as a jolly Santa showering pressies on the grateful masses. Narcissists want to be loved and you can’t be loved when we are telling people to stay at home all the time and not to exercise the inalienable right of every English man and woman which is to go to Primark and buy stuff. Hence, the many U-turns, the latest of which is the tearing up of Pritti’s flagship announcement of 14-day quarantine for all visitors to the UK. Poor Pritti. You at last get to flex your tiny muscles and then a bumbling blonde-haired bimbo comes along and throws sand in your face. In case you misunderstand me, I am not suggesting Bojo has been out digging sandcastles on a Bournemouth beach. He’s not a Bournemouth beach sort of guy really. The beaches he goes to are elsewhere. They tend to be in the Caribbean and owned by Richard Branson. Pritti should be grateful anyway. As behavioural scientists will tell you, Tim, getting people to do something they don’t want to do needs more than telling them it’s for their own good. You need something else. A small orange vegetable and a large piece of wood sums up decades of behavioural scientific research. And you also need Mattie’s world beating Test and Track App and that is, what’s the phrase, still in development.

‘Wouldn’t it be great to go somewhere?’ I say to M for I’m not immune from the Hooray, Let’s Get Out and Play Again syndrome.

‘Where?’

‘Well anywhere really.”

‘I’m not sitting cheek-by-jowl on a crowded beach,’ she says. I already know this for she has never wanted to do that. 

‘What about York? We can see Sarah and the twins.’

‘It’s a long drive and how do we get there without stopping?’

‘Why would we need to stop?’

M gives me The Look.

‘I have told you,’ I say a trifle defensively, ‘I can do without coffee if absolutely essential.’

‘It’s output not input I’m talking about.’

‘What?’

M rolls her eyes. [Actually she doesn’t. No one rolls their eyes except in novels].

‘Okay,’ I say as the penny drops [a rather too appropriate phrase]. ‘I get it. I tell you what I’ll email Dominic Cummings. He’ll have some tips.’

I can see M is not impressed by my attempt at levity. 

‘How about we take an empty bottle? Or even two?’ I say.

Mind you, my last experience of using a bottle was not a great success. It was on the Trans-Siberian where they lock the loos at stations. There’s a 7 hour stop when you go through customs and that’s a long time even if you don’t have ‘prostate issues’ as they are delicately called. I could tell you what happened but I think it’s best left to your imagination.

M ignores my bottles suggestion. ‘Anyway,’ she says, ‘we should not be going out unnecessarily.’

‘But others are. Bahram and Jean have gone to France.’

‘That’s your reason, is it? Everybody else is doing it. So why can’t we?’

‘No.’ [It is]

‘No? So what is your reason?’

Those who have been married for a long time, especially if it’s to the same person, will recognise this point in a conversation when you see that your partner might have a point [be completely right]. There are really only two options. You double down or you change the subject. Marital therapists will tell you there’s a third, that you look your spouse in the eye, smile lovingly and tell them they are right. But those therapists are either not married or if they are, have a marriage that is not like any other on the planet. I chose the second option.

‘Hey, I have just remembered. We’ve not talked about what we are having for dinner.’

You may think this won’t work. But, Tim, behavioural scientists have shown that the most effective way to get someone to change is to offer them food. Admittedly, the majority [all] of the research studies were done on rats in a maze. Still, that’s not so different from a long marriage, is it?

Antidote 34

It has to be Luciano. Here he is singing ‘Che gelida manina’ [from a TV broadcast in Paris in 1965]. https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=pavarotti+che+gelida+manina+1965

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 33

Blog Number 33 [Wednesday 24th June 2020]

At breakfast, M read me the latest Trump diatribe. Having walked unsteadily down a ramp, he is now convinced there’s a conspiracy to make ramps steeper than they were under Obama. Orchestrated by George Soros of course. This was in a New Yorker piece. It ended:

Trump told reporters that he was also considering signing an executive order requiring all ramps to have an incline of zero degrees, rendering them completely flat.

“Those would be perfect ramps,” he said.

Responding to this proposal, CNN’s Jim Acosta asked if, by making ramps flat, Trump would in effect be making the nation’s ramps no longer ramps at all.

“You’re a terrible person,” Trump replied.

You couldn’t make it up. Except the writer of the piece is Andy Borowitz, described as author and comedian [hint there]. The problem with Trump is that it is entirely believable. Like his assertion that too many tests are being done for coronavirus which makes America look bad. The more tests you do, the more infections you find, he declares. So ramp down [sorry] on the testing. Did he really say this? Yes, more than once. Is he serious? Yes. “I don’t kid,” he said when asked by a journalist if he was kidding. It makes sense in Trumpington, USA, where the way things look is more important than the way things are, which is why the empty seats at his campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma must have hurt. My old friend Colin, who may or may not have squared up to Clive James in 1968 [see Mini-Blog 5 and ensuing correspondence], posted this little ditty, https://youtu.be/wyJe5NPj4jc

Over this side of the pond, mini-Trump tells us from July 4th – deliberate choice this date I guess – we are all free to go out and catch the virus [I summarise]. Apparently we have been in hibernation. Well, the government has in any event. Things have not gone all that smoothly [a candidate for the understatement of the year]. Mattie has had to set up a new Test, Track and Trace system to find out where the old Test, Track and Trace system has gone. Last seen heading towards the Isle of Wight, it seems. I just hope he’s not going to propose another App. The last one cost £12 million to fail to appear, which is enough dosh to respray 5 planes and build 2 new yachts for Queenie [model yachts actually as Philip wants a change from the toy ducks he plays with in the bath]. Now no more from the gloomsters and doomsters as Bojo would say, there is some really good news. The pubs will be opening. Hooray! But there are some caveats. Sit back, close your eyes and imagine going to your local…

A customer about to enter the Rose and Crown is stopped by the landlord, Andrew. He’s wearing a Union Jack mask and brandishing a gun, a cap gun admittedly but it looks like the real thing.

‘Name.’

‘What?’

‘Your name.’

‘I just want a drink.’

‘Yes, I know. The rules are you have to give me your name and a contact number before I can let you in.’

 ‘Boris Johnson.’

‘Sorry, already have a Boris Johnson. Try again.’

‘Margaret Thatcher.’

Andrew glares. ‘You’re a man.’

‘I might be trans.’

‘In which case I can’t let you in. I only have a Ladies and a Gentleman’s Loo.’

‘Keir Starmer?’

‘Fuck off.’

Even if you get into the pub, you have to follow guidelines like not leaning on the bar, surely the inalienable right of all pubgoers, and there is to be “limited contact with staff”. 

Man ordering a round of drinks. ‘Two pints of Old Hooky, a hugely expensive glass of Chardonnay, a gin and…’

‘Sorry, time’s up.’

‘What?’

‘You have exceeded your limited contact time with staff.’

‘But I haven’t finished my order.’

‘Sorry. That’s it. It’s the rules.’

‘W…’

‘If you persist in talking, I will have to ask you to leave. Next.’ 

It will pub going but not as we know it.

Antidote 33

A youthful Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey on the proper function of government.

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 32

Blog Number 32 [Friday 19th June 2020]

World beating facts.

  • Taking the knee is from Game of Thrones [Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary]
  • Taking the knee is an act of subservience [Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary]
  • Black lives matter but so do white ones [Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary]

Truthfully, Dom didn’t say the last, at least not out loud. Aren’t we lucky to have such a man as Foreign Secretary? We are for we might have Gavin Williamson, Mattie Hancock or Boris Johnson instead. Sorry, we did have Bojo, he who hummed the Road to Mandalay in a sacred temple in Mayanmar and was rapped over the knuckles by the British Ambassador. How did Kipling’s little ditty go? 

In the Shwedagon Pagoda, in the country Myanmar

There’s a man a-hummin’ and I know he will go far

For the wind of change is coming and the Brexit bell does say:

“Come you back, you Brexit warrior; come you back to Churchill’s day

Come you back to Churchill’s day.

I can’t repeat the rest as it has references to picaninnies with watermelon smiles and other now deemed ‘unacceptable’ terms. It amazes me that after his debacle as Foreign Secretary, Bojo should be considered Prime Minister material. But then, to use a language Bojo claims to think in, he is only primus inter pares and you only have to look at the pares. Another way of putting it is that he’s the worst of a bad job. Which brings me to poor Mattie Hancock.

Do you remember just a few weeks ago Mattie proudly unveiling the new all British, world beating Test and Trace App, the one that is to be trialled on the Isle of Wight? How proud the islanders must have felt to be signalled out. And how disappointed they must feel now that the App is to be withdrawn. Or maybe not. Did you see the vox pop from Look South!, the island’s local news channel?

SCENE: Elderly couple standing on a wind-swept promenade interviewed by young local reporter.

[Local reporter] ‘What do you think now that the world beating Test and Trace App is being withdrawn? Are you disappointed?’

[Long silence. Then finally the woman speaks] ‘What’s an App?’

And what is an app? Ask Apple or Google for it seems we are going to use a world beating combination of theirs now. News to Apple apparently and not welcome news at that for do they really want what passes for the British government anywhere near their App? After all, we all know it can only end in tears. Which brings me [again] to poor Mattie Hancock.

Gamely he fronted the Three Podium Briefing yesterday, only perhaps in line with government cuts to fund a respray job on Bojo’s plane, it was reduced to a Two Podium briefing. For company he had the wonderfully named Dido Harding, she of great successes like Talk Talk and now Test and Trace. Remember Dido? No, not the singer! The Queen of Carthage abandoned by her lover Aeneas who then stabbed herself with a sword and immolated herself on a pyre just to be sure. I suspect this is more likely to happen to Mattie than Baroness Harding who is one of those people who goes blithely untouched from failure to failure, collectively known nowadays as doing a Grayling. Anyway, Mattie stumbled on claiming he had been in serious talks with Apple and Google about pilfering, sorry adopting their Apps though sadly that was mostly in Mattie’s head where all sorts of wonderful things go on. I do feel sorry for Mattie though. Bojo and Dom have him lined him up in their sights. He knows it too but he still can’t help putting himself out there for all to take a pot shot at. When his time comes, we will miss him, won’t we? Okay, okay, I’m not expecting you to answer. Anyway, like Banquo’s ghost he may return, a spectre in his blue suit, white shirt, pink tie and matching pink handkerchief peeping out of his top pocket who will haunt the briefings wistfully calling out, ‘Remember me! Please! Remember me!’

Conversation with M this morning:

[Me]. ‘I’m going off to write my blog.’

[M]. ‘Another one? Have you got anything more to say?’

[Me] ‘Yes!’

[M] ‘But anyway haven’t you just written one?’

[Me] ‘Well yes but people want to read more. And I’m bored with the jigsaw.’

[M] ‘Not surprised. You spent an hour and 25 minutes doing it this morning.’

[Me] ‘What did you actually time me? That’s a bit unnecessary.’

[M]. ‘I didn’t “actually time” you. It was 8.30 when I started my chores…you know the word ‘chores’ do you?…and 9.55 when I finished. You hadn’t moved from the jigsaw in all that time.’

[Me] ‘Well, it’s a tricky one.’

[M]. ‘Of course it is. By the way when you have finished writing that great piece of fiction you like to call a blog, I have a tricky bit of ironing you might like to tackle and there’s a tricky bit of washing up to do too. As long as you’re up to it, darling, after all your tricky exertions.’

I feel a bit bruised to be honest. I must remember not to use the word tricky in future as for some unaccountable reason M seems to have an aversion to it. Tricky that though. Oh God!

Antidote 32

The guitarist Sean Shibe playing Bach, the Sarabande from the Suite in E-minor

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 31

Blog Number 31 [Wednesday, 17th June 2020]

M tells me on our morning walk she thinks we’ll be in lockdown for the rest of the year.

‘Surely not,’ I say, taken aback. I do a quick calculation. ‘That’s another 6 months.’

‘We are old and regarded as ‘vulnerable.’ So we can’t take any risks.’

‘I don’t think I’m really all that vulnerable,’ I say. ‘Or all that old for that matter.’

‘You’re 73, aren’t you?’

It’s not like M to get something wrong but the truth is I’m 74 and have been since 12th February this year. Should I correct her? Usually that doesn’t go down all that well.

‘Sort of,’ I say as a compromise.

M frowns. ‘Sort of? Oh, okay, I get it, you’re 74. But that’s old anyway.’

‘You’ve made my point. Age is just a number…’

‘And you are as old as you feel? Is that what you were going to say?’

It was! ‘No. Of course not.’

‘So?’

‘So?’

‘So what were you going to say?’

This is tricky. I could say I can’t remember but that would just confirm M in her belief that I’m going senile. 

‘I was going to say,’ I begin, thinking desperately, ‘that if you are right and we are in lockdown for another 6 months, it’s lucky that we get on so well.’

At this M abruptly stops. In solidarity I stop too. We face each other.

‘Don’t you think?’ I say.

A big smile spreads over M’s face. ‘I was thinking,’ she says, ‘another 6 months of this and one of us would end up killing the other.’

A big smile comes over my face. ‘Yes. And I know which one would do the killing.’

‘So do I,’ she says.

I wonder if we are thinking of the same person.

Yet another debacle for what passes as Her Majesty’s Government. A certain Marcus Rashford has been leading a campaign for free school meals to continue over the summer. He wrote a reasoned and impassioned open letter to HMG. Now that’s 1.3 million children who would go otherwise go hungry. We are the 6th largest economy [though that will change and not in a good way] and surely the government can find the wherewithal to feed our poorest children over the summer break. Rashford came from a family that survived on free school meals. He knows what he’s talking about. He is a modest, likeable guy. And he also happens to be a megastar, a talented football player, centre forward for Manchester United and England. You would think any politician would recognise how this will pan out. But no, not Bojo. There will be no free school meals over the summer, he firmly declares. Local councils can take care of it [they can’t]. They have lots of dosh [they don’t]. Less than 24 hours later, it turns out there will be free school meals in the summer break after all. Hooray! You could say the government made a meal of this [ha! ha!] and if they did, it was surely a dog’s breakfast. I could go on but there’s no point. Just read the wonderful, incomparable, scathing Marina Hyde, 

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/16/marcus-rashford-politicians-nurses-footballer-ministers

Do you avidly follow the news? If you do, how do you feel? I asked myself this question and this was the answer: angry, anxious, frustrated, worried, helpless, depressed. Most of my friends feel the same. So why do we persist? Why don’t we shut out the noisy, angry world, switch it off as you might switch off a TV programme that you find too disturbing to watch. I decide to ask a psychologist.

‘M, why do we watch all this crap on the TV?’

[Defensive] ‘I happen to like East Enders. I know it’s not your thing…’

‘Actually, I meant the news.’

‘Oh. Okay, it’s better to be informed.’

‘But is it? I mean what’s to be gained. It’s not as though we can change anything.’

‘I just need to know what that bastard is up to.’

‘Are you talking about East Enders again?’

‘No! I mean Boris.’

‘We know the answer to that and it’s just two words.’

‘Bugger all?’

‘I was thinking ‘no good’ but that will do too. Wouldn’t it be better if we made a pact…’

‘A pact?’

‘Yes, a pact, an agreement…’

‘I know what a pact means…’

‘…not to watch or listen to or read the news for a week. Then see how we feel.’

Silence. 

‘Hello? Anyone in there?’

‘I’m thinking!’

‘And?’

‘The thing is if we don’t talk about the news, what are we going to talk about?’

This is a valid question. The Premier League resumes today. Somehow I don’t think M will want to talk about football and anyway Liverpool is a shoo-in to win the league, which will please my friend Stephen who has been on tenterhooks since the lockdown threatened cancellation of the whole season. 

‘Other stuff,’ I say. Admittedly, this is not all that specific.

‘Other stuff?’ M brightens up. ‘Yes, we could revive our plan to re-do the front room. Look at some furniture catalogues and on-line websites. I could probably get some swatches sent now that the shops are open. First we need to decide whether to re-cover the sofas or buy new ones. Probably not much difference in price. Second…’

This is not going well at all. I need to say something and quickly. ‘I was thinking we might read all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, maybe one a day, and then discuss it in a sort of tutorial.’ Truthfully, I was not thinking that. It just popped into my head.

‘Oh.’ M pauses. ‘I suppose we could do something like that, or…’

‘Or?’

‘Or?’

‘Maybe,’ I say, ‘not watching any news at all is a bit too much, a bit like going cold turkey.’

‘Yes and that never works, does it?’

‘It’s Wednesday today, isn’t it? That means PMQs at 12. It would be a shame to miss it.’

‘Yes. It would.’

‘Let’s put the pact on hold and think about it and discuss it later, maybe next week.’

M agrees. Phew.

Antidote 31

Classic Monty Python. The dead parrot sketch and the lumberjack song, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnciwwsvNcc

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A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 30

Blog Number 30 [Saturday 13th June 2020]

In lockdown, the days have merged into one another. The usual punctuations have been absent. A Saturday is no different from a Wednesday or a Monday. Slowly, this is changing. I have a cycle of regular weekly zoom conversations, family, pub group, old pals [or Oxford Throwbacks as Jini, somewhat too accurately, called us]. I play tennis twice a week. M and I go for walks, alternating between Burgess Field, the University Parks and Christchurch Meadow. Now, desperate to get the economy moving again, the HMG seeks to ease the lockdown. As we have come to expect, they do so without careful thought or proper planning. 

The grand aim to get all primary school children back for the rest of the summer term has been summarily withdrawn. Why? Because how do you ensure social distancing in classes of 30 or more? That problem was there from the beginning. The rational approach would have been to consult all the key stakeholders and work out what exactly could be and couldn’t be done. Had they done so, there might have found a way of staggering access over the week or attenuating the social distance rule or expanding the available space. As it is, they announced a policy and then were forced to retract it, blaming others, the Teachers Union for example who, unsurprisingly, wanted to ensure their members and their pupils were safe. What have other European countries done? Here’s a summary from the BBC as of 10th June, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-52575313. Italy and Spain apart where schools will not return until September, primary and secondary schools have reopened in various stages. France has a traffic light system of green, orange and red zones for easing the lockdown generally. Could we not learn from these countries? Or does that go against the grain of English exceptionalism in which everything we do has to be the best, ‘world beating’ as our PM is too inclined to say. Of course, we might be world beating in another sense, mightn’t we? Getting children back to school as soon as possible is one of most important and desirable changes for many reasons, educational, social, economic, psychological. Instead though, the PM announced that zoos and safari parks can reopen. Hooray!

M and I watched one of the audience-free Wigmore Hall Concerts, Steven Isserlis and Mishka Rushdie Momen playing Faure’s First Cello Sonata. Sublime. How strange it is when the camera zooms out on to the empty hall. Not totally empty as R3’s Martin Handley is there on one side along with the director of the Wigmore Hall on the other. An audience of two. How do the performers feel, I wonder? They are on stage when the concert starts so no walking on to applause. No applause at the end of a piece either. No prolonged applause at the end to signal the wish for an encore. Handley simply asked Isserlis if he had some more music and he played a Bach piece, the beautiful sound of his cello echoing through the empty hall. There were no fidgety audience sounds, no coughs or shuffling in the seats. All attention was on the playing and the music. I loved it.

I asked M if she would ever topple a statue.

‘Why would I want to do that?’ she said.

‘You might want to strike a blow against the patriarchy. Most statues are of men, you know.’

‘I’d rather topple the patriarchs.’

‘Okay. But a statue is a symbol, isn’t it?’

‘So it would be, what, a symbolic gesture?’

‘Yes.’

‘Rather like one of your symbolic gestures. For example, when you offer to do the washing up when I just finished it…’

‘Hold on…’

‘Or to clean the bathroom.’

‘I do clean the bathroom,’ I shoot back.

‘The trouble is, darling, it’s hard to tell. Or,’ she goes on as she’s on a roll, ‘vacuuming. That is truly symbolic.’

‘You don’t trust me with the vacuum cleaner. You said that.’

‘That’s because you didn’t know it had various attachments. In fact, I don’t think you even know where it is kept.’

I think quickly. ‘Top of the cellar stairs,’ I say triumphantly.

‘That’s the ironing board. That’s another symbol, for you at least.’

How did we get from toppling statues to ironing boards? Conversations with M are tricky these days. I say something to that effect.

‘Yes. Far better before the lockdown when like everything else, our conversations were – what’s the word for it, darling? – symbolic.’

Antidote 30

An 11 minute film featuring the oldest footage of London ever. Leon, you can see our old school, the City of London School, next to Unilever House at the end of Blackfriars Bridge [at 2”38’]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_me3NrPMh8

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A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. BLOG 29

Blog Number 29. The Perils and Pleasures of Lockdown [11th June 2020]

No politics. No conversations with M. No humour. Just a few thoughts of a psychologist on the experience of lockdown. 

The trauma of lockdown

I have been thinking of parallels between lockdown and the experience some people have during and after major traumas, something I have written a couple of books about. I can see parallels and I can also see differences. 

One of the characteristics of a major trauma is that it derails normal life, suddenly, violently and unexpectedly. Think of being caught up in the 2005 London Tube bombings, or being physically attacked when you are out jogging, or having a serious road traffic accident, or watching helplessly as two planes crash into the Twin Towers. Death and fear of death are thrust into our faces. The illusion that all is well in our world shatters. Covid-19 doesn’t have the attributes of a sudden, unexpected trauma. It crept up on us, at least in Europe. For some weeks we could see it coming. At first it didn’t seem too threatening. Many got ill but very few died. Was it any worse than a seasonal flu? We know now that it is. 

The first inkling that the virus was a serious threat came when China locked down Wuhan. A draconian measure even by Chinese standards. Then came our understanding that transmission could be asymptomatic, meaning you could have it, not know it, and pass it on. An invisible enemy, which is always more frightening. Then the chaos in Lombardy and another lockdown, this time in a country like ours. By early March it was clear that we wouldn’t escape it. Belatedly, after flirting with the ‘herd immunity’ strategy, on 23 March came the lockdown. I remember thinking this is unprecedented in my lifetime and feeling a rising panic. Covid-19 may have crept up on us but it felt like it had just hit me in the solar plexus. If we did not take precautions, there was a real prospect that I, my loved ones, my friends, could die. Our Prime Minister learned this the hard way, paying a heavy price for his insouciance, his boasting of shaking hands with those in hospital with the coronavirus. The message was clear: carry on as normal and you risk death. Normal life was transformed by the lockdown. This was, in any sense, traumatic.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]

I am cautious about making simplistic extrapolations. For example, I have heard mention in the media of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. It is mooted that those who suffer during the pandemic, perhaps because of the death of a loved one, could go on to develop PSTD. A psychotherapist friend told me that some of her colleagues were planning to offer psychological help. Well-intentioned perhaps, but helpful? I was reminded of a psychologist who worked with the survivors of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster reporting one victim saying that he hid under the table when yet another counsellor came in to offer help. Another example. Some years ago I recall hearing on the radio that a coach carrying schoolchildren had crashed on the M40 and that “trained counsellors” were being sent in. Leaving aside the revealing adjective “trained,” suggesting as it does that there are myriads of untrained counsellors who might descend on survivors, there is scant evidence that immediate counselling is helpful and even a suggestion it could be harmful though in my view there’s not enough good evidence to reach a definitive conclusion. What people want in the immediate aftermath of a major trauma is time and space to recover, ‘tea and sympathy’ as the Red Cross had it. 

This brings me back to PTSD. Leaving aside the many weaknesses in the psychiatric diagnosis itself, it is simply incorrect to assume that the majority of people who go through a major trauma will develop PTSD. The research shows that, on average, a mere 10% of people experiencing a major trauma go on to develop the symptoms that lead to the diagnosis of PTSD. Ninety percent do not.[1] This does not mean most people are psychologically unaffected by major traumas. Traumas do affect us. But in many different ways, most minor, some major, some like PTSD, some very different. The focus on PTSD is misleading because it suggests an inevitability that is not justified by the evidence as well as unnecessarily medicalising what are understandable experiences when our lives are turned upside down by major traumatic events. Does this matter? I think it does for it primes us to think in terms of being vulnerable when most of us are not. It also implies, as I have said, that most people would require professional help [drugs, therapy] to ‘recover’ when most will not. 

What people know about PTSD is the experience of flashback memories that seem to come upon trauma survivors unawares. Flashbacks do occur for some and they can be very disturbing. But only a minority [in one study, about 10%] of those who are diagnosed with PTSD experience actual flashbacks. It is more accurate to say that after a major trauma, many have, unsurprisingly, disturbing memories of the experience but most are not in the form of flashbacks. Because the pandemic did not hit us suddenly with the force of a tsunami or earthquake, the threat to life is not as visceral. This may be significant for it’s a reasonable hypothesis that immediate fear of one’s life, sheer terror in many cases, primes a biological response that underpins the persistence of disturbing memories. The pandemic is different. It is more like the experience of a terminal illness, or a period of civil unrest or war, or a hostage situation, events that unfold over a long period of time. These are traumatic in a rather different way. There is a fear of death but it is attenuated, less visceral. This is not to say that it is less traumatic; only that the trauma is different. 

In my case I experienced considerable anxiety in the first weeks of the lockdown. It affected my sleep and invaded my mind. I knew I was anxious. I experienced periodic thrumming fast heart beats. I lay awake worrying about death, and also, as is the way with anxiety, mulling over the stupid and shameful things I did in the past. I thought of comparisons with the rise of the Nazis in Germany and how many were unprepared for the horrors that came. Was this not something similar? Should we not be better prepared? I knew about treating anxiety from my psychologist days. But knowing about it does not stop the experience or necessarily help reduce it. Gradually it lessened. It has not gone away. Even writing this short piece makes me anxious. It’s more enjoyable is to write amusing conversations with M, real or imagined, or to satirise the bumbling incompetence of what passes for our government. I promise that will be in my next blog.

Positive consequences of lockdown

It has long been recognised that even the most terrible events can lead to positive change as in the age-old story of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. A grievous personal loss can be the wellspring of creativity; two literary examples are Hardy’s poems after the death of his first wife, Emma, and Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam, to the death of his beloved friend, Arthur Hallam. In my book, To Hell and BackPersonal Experiences of Trauma and How We Recover and Move On, I described how people experienced major traumas and how the ensuing consequences affected them. For some, though not all, the change had positive aspects. This is in part explained by the crisis opening up an opportunity; the unexpected change enables someone to take a different course, one that they may have long wanted but never managed to realise. A man I assessed, who had been travelling into London on the Paddington train that crashed in October 1999, was traumatised by the experience even though physically unhurt. The psychological trauma enabled him to quit his job and become a farmer, something he had long wanted to do. Another man I interviewed for my book, whose former girlfriend died in the 2005 tube bombings, made a loving film about her life, not ever having done anything creative before. This doesn’t mean that people will always, or even frequently, benefit from terrible experiences. To many, terrible events make things worse. Imagine what it must be like to be in lockdown with an abusive partner. Imagine if you have lost your job with little prospect of finding another and money fast running out. Imagine not being able to be with your son or daughter, or mother or father, as they succumbed to the virus in complete isolation. Even so, even when the most terrible things have happened, people can say, ‘I didn’t want it to happen, and I wish it hadn’t, but I don’t want to go back to the way I was.’ These words were said to me by Georgie, a young woman who had been raped by three men in her flat in Paris, an ordeal that lasted several hours. Matthew Engel, the Financial Times journalist, said something similar. He had lost his 12 year-old son to a prolonged and painful illness. He was different as a result, he told me, and he valued the difference. 

It seems generally true that, if positive changes occur, they tend to do so after a period of time has elapsed. Caught up in continuing horror and grief we can be too consumed by it to get the detachment needed to change. Yet it occurs to me that the seeds for that change may be sown during the crisis itself. Mark, another man I interviewed for my book, was held hostage by Colombian terrorists for many months, often in fear of his life. He was a filmmaker and he told me how through establishing a relationship with the leading terrorist, Antonio, he sowed the seeds of a film that he made after his release. Antonio wanted the plight of the poor and downtrodden Colombians to be brought to the attention of the world. A film could do that. He and Mark talked about it. Eventually, Mark returned to Colombia where he met Antonio again and made the film. In the film Mark turned the tables on Antonio, pointing out how his human rights had been violated by him. Antonio eventually admits this and asks for forgiveness. This admission was important for Mark. That and the film enabled him to move on.

The enforced change of the lockdown has disrupted, and continues to disrupt, normal life. There is a growing recognition that things will not be the same again whatever the long-term outcome is. It will be a ‘new normal’, people say though without knowing what that will mean. What can one learn from this? What seeds might be sown for the future? I notice how I have found solace in some rather surprising things. I have watched the changes in our garden closely, something I never did before. How long the wisteria lasted before the blooms faded, the persistence of climbers as they inched forward day after day, the relationships on the bird feeder, how starlings can drive off one jackdaw but not two, how the robin carefully times his/her trip to the seed feeder, the simple pleasure of regularly going round in the evening watering the plants. Gardeners know about this. Yet for me the pleasure is new as it was never a regular feature of my life. I am reminded of what the playwright Dennis Potter said in an interview with Melvyn Bragg as his terminal cancer – called ‘Rupert’ by the way – was in its final phase. He was moved to tears by the simple beauty of a blossom outside his window, he said. Appreciating the natural world, particularly beautiful at this time of year, is something I intend to hang on to, if I’m spared as the Irish say. 

I have written before about the pleasure of listening to classical music. I was doing that before the lockdown. The difference is that now I take my time and explore new domains like contemporary composers. There’s no urgency though what urgency there was before rather escapes me. It often related to having to go out for coffee. I have my coffee now at home and it’s better! It’s not just classical music. Last night my eye was caught by an Essential Playlist of Bob Dylan songs. I put on ‘My Back Pages’, a song I hadn’t listened to for years. I heard Dylan’s refrain, ‘Oh but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’ It wasn’t just the clever inversion. It struck me how prescient it was of how I was feeling now. Dylan was only in his 20s when he wrote it. How did he do it? Now that he is so much ‘younger’, he might reissue the song with the refrain reversed. You never know with Dylan. The debate about whether he’s a great poet as well as a great lyricist continues and will never be resolved, I suspect. The Nobel Committee thought so when it awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature. I am not sure. I decide to listen again to ‘Desolation Row,’ one of my favourite tracks. In my poetry course with Philip Gross, we had discussed whether the words of ‘Desolation Row’ worked without the music. Did they have the quality of a poem? We had printed the lyrics out. We examined them. On balance we didn’t think so. It needed the music to bring it alive. But that was the point, I realise. Dylan’s words are full of meanings, many of which are obscure to me, and maybe even to himself. The rhymes can be strained. The lines often don’t scan properly. But with the music, that lovely trilling guitar in ‘Desolation Row’ for example, the song works wonderfully. Why ask for more than that? 

Antidote 29

Three antidotes today covering folk, jazz and classical. Take your pick or watch all three.

Folk

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Linden Lea sung by members of the talented band, The Full English, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THUKgRNxPQY&feature=youtu.be

For a more polished version, listen to the recording on their CD, The Full English,

Jazz

Ray Charles would have fallen foul of the ‘MeToo’ movement had he been alive today. Apparently, he would feel the wrist of any prospective Raylette as a means of judging how attractive they were. He was a terrific gospel/blues singer and pianist as you can see from this 1963 video of the exciting, ‘What I’d Say.’

Classical

The delightful, lyrical playing of the violinist Alina Ibragimova of Mendelssohn’s lovely Violin Concerto, Opus 64 at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam in 2011.


[1] The figures are higher for those whose work exposes them to life-threatening traumas such as soldiers, emergency personnel and war journalists.

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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?