March 2020 - Beer & Backgammon
Covid-19 (Corona Virus) started quietly enough in a Chinese city that no-one outside of industry had heard of. Its population of more than eleven million produced electronic parts, automotive parts - myriad parts for almost everything we in the west manufacture (sorry, we assemble from Chinese-made components). Like most modern Chinese cities Wuhan has a traditional heart, far from the minds of entrepreneurs intent on securing Western currency by being part of the just-in-time economy (it lies close to the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River).
The image above graphically depicts the single strand of RNA that enables the virus to mutate both very quickly and unpredictably, hence its rapid spread across human populations.
The old heart of Wuhan ('Hankow' until the 1911 Chinese revolution) centered on it's market - a live animal 'wet' market that has flourished for centuries, even though the city - at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze Rivers - was a centre for Western investment up until the First World War.
'Wet Markets' flourish all over the world - indeed Sydney's famous Fish Market is one such, though it confines itself to legal seafoods. In Wuhan, at the 'Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market' you can buy more exotic species of wild animal, sometimes sold as 'pets' if alive, and 'bushmeat' if not - this last, unpleasant, name imported from Africa to cover everything we're not supposed to kill, still less eat…
The trouble is that, as the business world expanded (and the virtual world shrank), this market cast its monetary spell farther afield until it reached across all of Africa and South America - gathering animals and animal parts for sale from pretty much anywhere. Chinese consumers, eager for meat to eat, are happy to buy animals from across the world without, ahem, even the rudimentary controls over animal welfare demanded elsehere.
This demand, for animals and their parts (think rhino horn, elephant ivory, shark fins, bear testicles and, well, you name it…) is defended as 'traditional'. I'm sorry - it was traditional (a long time ago) to wander around clothed in crude animal skins with clubs over our shoulders. By and large (certain US presidents excepted) we have progressed beyond that and it is time to tell the western
suited–and–booted President Xi his people need to move beyond it too. If he can incarcerate whole populations because they espouse a religion he doesn't like he can stop practices that diminish the world's diversity.
The latest Corona virus - unknown to science before December 2019 (hence the name: 'novel' corona) - originally crossed into humans from, it is currently thought, bats, and measures to curb its spread are getting more draconian by the day. Boris Johnson, who sees himself as the Churchill de nos jours, has shut down all pubs, bars and restaurants across the country. We'll see how well that pans out soon enough…
There are daily updates on the world situation: Italy and Spain seem to be the worst hit European countries, with spiralling death rates higher - in the case of Spain - than China. This seems worrying as, high as the smoking rate may be in Spain, surely it is higher in China? And in Italy they are now having trouble burying the dead so even the Mafia has been outflanked. (Late March - things are changing daily…)
Increasing numbers of countries are banning any activity beyond shopping for essentials and I wonder when restrictions like this will arrive here. All schools are shut, so teenagers are out and about - especially those not particularly bothered by summer exams. Civil unrest to come? I wonder…
Whoops ~ 'beer & backgammon': I almost forgot
I asked the owner of the Tap & Bottles bar in Southport what he would do when the Government forbids all over 70-years-old to come out. (This has been promised - threatened? - over the weekend of March 14~15th 2020…) He laughed. "They're the only ones who can afford to drink in the daytime!"
I feel, therefore, (relatively) safe. JQ & I have taken to meeting in this small town-centre bar as they provide some board games. The price of beer at our previous watering hole has crept up to the town average. 'Market forces' thus operate and we therefore play best of three backgammon here. Games ran, largely, with the run of the dice to start with, but I have been reading a small book and playing against the computer for a few days now. Even without slavishly following the odds my success rate is increasing - we both eschew the Doubling Cube as it only appeals to gamblers and, effectively, shortens the game. I'm not quite up to my standard playing against Mikey 'Gonzo' on the Katherine M all those years ago in Fish Harbor USA, but I'll get there! Once, I won a single game of Oware with the owner of a guest house in Grand-Bassam, Côte d'Ivoire, to her evident surprise. I never won another one…
Well, from the far end of the weekend of March 21~22nd 2020 I now have to say that 'beer time' no longer exists. It has been a beautiful, clear sunny couple of days and the promenade and pier were full of families basically ignoring government advice. Even the little tram was running along the pier carrying people unwilling to walk to the end and back on their own legs. No, don't slap my wrist - I meant what I wrote. All along the pier (I walk it regularly) you will pass people using sticks, walking frames or just plain walking, albeit with difficulty. The majority of train users are able to to walk, just lazy. The guy who owns the donut concession half-way down the pier has the figure of a heroin addict (I'm sure he isn't…), and the fatties who queue for his sugar-bombs offer quite a contrast.
Tuesday, March 24rd 2020 ~ 'Lockdown', Day 2…
Late last night Boris Johnson surprised - perhaps mostly - himself by ordering many businesses to close immediately. He went further and urged us all to stay indoors for three weeks. (Three weeks? INDOORS??)
But yes, that's what he wanted. He tried to look serious too, but for Boris it's a bit like seeing a Scouser in a suit - he's not used to it and you know it's only for show…
We are allowed out for 'one walk a day' and, separately, to go shopping. It really is as woolly as that - you don't get clarity with BoJo: he rambles and, with flapping hands, behaves for all the world like a fish up a tree. He appears to me rather like a version of Evelyn Waugh's Sebastian Flyte pinned, still wriggling, to an unfamiliar reality. An artist's vision dragged onto the world's stage to perform for us all, lacking even the most basic understanding of how normal people live out their lives.
I sort of knew something was likely to happen and thought of nipping out Monday evening, but waited until this morning and, hopefully, freshly-filled supermarket shelves. Would I be stopped by police and quizzed as to where I was going? Of course not - this is England. There were fewer people around but enough to feel everything was 'normal' - plenty of fresh produce on the shelves and, more importantly for the purpose of my trip, a fully stocked beer aisle.
A hazy sun struggled through clouds on a warm, windless afternoon as I took my allotted daily walk along the almost traffic-less Coast Road, so this spell of self-isolation might yet pass peacefully. I was planning to amend some of these pages in the time I now have, but listening nontheless to updates on the radio as the situation worsens.
It becomes addictive. Why? - what can one person do?
We all sit it out waiting for the Black Cloud to pass over, picking up what unfortunates it can and hoping it's no-one we know…
The next few days bring beautiful Spring weather - clear skies and light winds as high pressure sits over Scandinavia keeping the Jet Stream well to the North of Scotland. I sit on the pier watching a small flock of crossbills picking seeds from some stunted Corsican pines nearby. On any normal day the late afternoon sky would be veiling over with jet trails from dozens of transatlantic flights heading north to Lockerbie before turning west along their Great Circle paths to North America. Today the skies remain clear.
I live in an area of Southport filled with large Victorian buildings surrounding the mid-19th c. Hesketh Park. Most are now converted into either flats or care homes with, often it seems, residents of either type indistinguishable. Care Homes have staff of course, usually seen standing outside tapping intently into their phones, a cigarette burning senselessly away between two fingers.
Each day the orders get a little stricter, each day a couple more wheels fall off the bus. Today we learn that Boris and a couple of his henchmen have tested positive - they have Coronavirus. In a pointless amplification that shows how little they know about what they purport to lead the country on, the news bulletins emphasise the PM and his fellow victims are "only showing mild symptoms". Er, I think we all start off with mild symptoms Prime Minister - it's how the infection develops that counts…
Thursday, April 2nd 2020 ~ 8.00pm
It's dusk, and I'm working at my computer. The windows are open (they always are…) and, in these unnatural times, everything is quiet - no traffic and barely any birdsong. Suddenly I hear people shouting, banging cans and clapping, dogs barking and car horns sounding. Unaware of the time I check - bang on 8pm. Of course! I'd forgotten but someone, somewhere had suggested 'The Nation' show its appreciation in a concerted 'Clap for Carers'.
Not sure who innocently thought of that ambiguous name (and I feel a pang of puerile guilt just thinking about it), but part of me rebels at handing our generally inept politicians such an easy own goal. Instead of answering questions as to why testing and protective equipment is so woefully behind most other developed countries they will be able to waffle on about the wonderful public, the Dunkirk Spirit and, well, anything other than their own palpable failures in this car-crash epidemic.
And… We have all been here before. Periodically articles reference the 1918-20 'Spanish flu' epidemic but few think to mention another virus-borne killer, Yellow Fever, that wreaked havoc throughout the 19thc. in the southern United States. There are some parallels - ignorance, stupidity and exploitation - but saddest of all is the fact that over two hundred years later (it first surfaced around 1817) the world's richest country is struggling to cope with similar problems. Oh, and 'Spanish flu' wasn't really Spanish in origin. It started before the end of WWI (no-one really knows where) but Spain - officially neutral throughout that conflict - had no press censorship so reported the pandemic as it developed, and the accidental libel remains in that unfair moniker.
A sure sign of growing old is when a death (of someone else, natch) reminds you of past good times.
Bill Withers died today, April 3rd 2020, and I think back to a hot, dry day in the 1980s. Ken and I (you'll have to look him up in the 'USA' section) were being shown around Scotty's Castle in Death Valley, California. A huge, improbable edifice built in the 1920s by a gullible Chicago millionaire, it contained a vast pipe organ, and the Park Wardens (you were not allowed to wander unattended) were in the habit of playing the opening chords of 'Lean On Me' by Bill Withers. I joked with our guide that they needed to be keyboard players just to conduct the tour.
He laughed - "Nope, it's all on white notes and, so long as you don't move your fingers, you can play them all just like on the record!"
I feel I have to mention the weather (I know - it's all we Brits talk about, right?), but it has been relatively 'nice' these last few days, and promises to be actually warm this coming weekend. Always important, weather assumes a larger role now we are supposed to be confined to barracks. Living a scant two blocks from the sea has incalculable benefits - a walk of less than ten minutes brings me views stretching from (on a good day) the mountains of North Wales, across a wide sea horizon to the southern Lake District fells, then over the vaguely sketched tops of the Yorkshire Dales (dipping briefly across the Ribble valley), then sweeping on past Pendle Hill to the masts atop Winter Hill, standing hazily behind the sharper blocks of Southport's sea front buildings. I have never willingly lived far from the sea, and now thank my lucky stars I am within walking distance of a 30-mile horizon.
Our less than Churchillian Prime Minister has found his place at last - he is in 'self-isolation' due to having (we are told) Covid-19 symptoms. It may well be true of course, but part of me thinks he has found the perfect excuse to stay out of the limelight. He ALWAYS looks ratty enough to have just come from the bathroom in a hurry, and the judicious use of a throat spray to make him sound even more raspy than normal means he can hide behind a handheld phone camera while his hapless ministers have to field the inevitable questions about what's continually going wrong. Result! High Tides & Green Beaches
It's the 2nd week of April and Boris Johnson has lanced the boil of my scepticism.
He's now in intensive care so it's real, and it's serious. Oh dear…
However the weather is beautiful and we are experiencing the second spell of very high Spring tides, this time under fair skies with negligible winds. Yesterday's Full Moon, still huge, is sailing brightly past the gum tree outside my window. I snuck onto a local golf course last night to photograph it rising behind some spooky trees on a deserted fairway. It was relaxing to sit in the gathering dusk as invisible birds sang around me. Southport was under clear skies, and the sun set beyond some wispy squiggles but, alas, a full moon is only 'full' when it rises in the east, opposite the sun. The east on this beautiful, clear, coastal evening featured clouds thrown up by the Pennines, largely blocking my moon.
Before that, in a bright afternoon, I watched clouds of waders - knott & dunlin - flocking together before they head back north to Scandinavia. Morecambe Bay hosts many thousands each winter and these big tides force them nearer and nearer to the coast as the waters rise. Overhead peregrines and sparrowhawks hunt so huge numbers suddenly take off and form amorphous dark clouds, suddenly flashing white as they turn. It is mesmerising to watch, and all you have to do is pretend you're off to the supermarket if a copper asks why are you not stuck inside 'self-isolating' in front of daytime television.
Stoppit, I'm not being selfish! I'm not mixing with anyone and I'm neither catching nor spreading infections. I didn't choose to live here on the edge of the Irish Sea to avoid unknown pandemics, but I did choose to live here for the freedom to wander along the beach.
I feel sorry for those living in cities but - and this goes way back to life choices and why we live the way we live - ultimately you live the life you want to lead. This can be justified using the lyrics of Jimmy Buffett ("We are the people/Our parents warned us about") or, existentially, via Martin Heidegger. I'm a simple man and I prefer the Boy Singer. (Though Mose Allison does a more subtle job, with way better keyboards - right button, below…)
Jimmy BuffetMose Allison
Good Friday, April 10th 2020
Beautiful Spring weather and once again the hapless government, who couldn't organise getting protective clothing to frontline health workers (the first UK case was in JANUARY, for chrissakes…), are flapping their hands and begging us all to stay indoors since they can't organise testing either. All they can do, it seems, is give press conferences stating how hard they are all trying, and how grateful they are for our wonderful NHS staff. Of course our wonderful NHS staff are far too busy DOING to be bothered rebutting stupid ministers, but occasionally a nurse or a doctor pauses long enough to point out the stark difference between what is being said and what is actually happening. All very sad but, sadly, predictable.
Meanwhile I head out to the coast ahead of high water, hoping to see more mass aerobatics from flocks of seabirds. As the tide advances, groups of waders suddenly take off en masse, wheeling and turning as one until they settle on the next chosen patch of beach. Closer to the sea wall where I am sitting, the water's surface is glassy, untroubled by wind flurries. Oddly, little wavelets form just before the frontal edge of water lapping, each one, just that tiny bit further up the gently sloping beach.
I am always fascinated by this incremental movement - the spinning of the planets made real, right before my eyes. Growing up at the mouth of the River Mersey I was always aware of tidal forces, and after reading Ken Kesey's great novel 'Sometimes A Great Notion', I can never watch the incoming tide without thinking of that fallen tree pinning Joe Ben under a rising tide. It's gruesome and it doesn't end well but, still, a riveting read…
I was followed yesterday, Easter Saturday (or so it seemed, I refused to look up), by a police helicopter hovering close around the pier. Perhaps they were making a point but the pier, most of it's length anyway, is locked shut. The usual 'fine dining' experiences to be found around Britain's sea-edge are closed too: KFC, McDonalds's, etc., are all mercifully shuttered. Gone, too, are the accompanying smells of grease, frying animal parts and vehicle exhaust fumes. It is hard to overstate just how much nicer this part of the sea front is under 'lockdown'.
Angela Hewitt - BACH Sinfonia in D
2020's LOST SPRING
My daily walk takes me past suburban signs of Spring - small bright leaves are unfolding on trees, cherry blossom is everywhere and the bright yellow Forsythia flowers are competing with their own green leaves. Occasional Magnolia trees mark out their gardens and I think of the wildflower meadows in the Yorkshire Dales forbidden to us this year. Already the bluebell woods throughout the Lake District will be losing that first bright shock of colour. April 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth, and BBC Radio 4 is alive with readings, so inevitably 'Daffodils' is shoehorned into every possible programme, reminding us of what we cannot go to see.
The southern end of Southport's Lord Street has several fine mature Horse Chestnuts whose candelabra flowers are just beginning to erect themselves, proudly white against the rich green of newly unfurled leaves. Oddly the pandemic has marked the pavement in unusual ways: alongside shops there are striped bars, two metres apart, marking the distance you should maintain while queuing and, almost anywhere underneath pavement trees, vast quantities of pigeon droppings as reduced human traffic means they perch all day and all night, with predictable results.
So… I thought I would put up a few photos of Spring taken in past years - one of my favourite places is the small valley behind the southernmost lumps of the Howgills, following the River Rawthey northeast towards Ravenstonedale and Kirkby Stephen.
Scattered across the lower slopes of Brant Fell are dozens of scrubby Hawthorn trees which, at this time of year, are starting to foam with white blossoms ♠ Top Bottom ♥
An odd coincidence of this 'Lockdown' period (one month old today in Britain, Friday, April 24th 2020) is that we have been enjoying unseasonably warm weather, with an anticyclone parked over Scandinavia blocking the customary westerly flow of air over the UK. Normally after a few days of this, thousands of jet trails have combined to form a skein of high cirrus but, courtesy of Covid19, I have seen at most two flights passing overhead each day.
We are under the flight path between London and the Lockerbie beacon, where many transatlantic flights normally turn left for the New World. Right now our skies are as clear as they would have been fifty years ago - in fact so are the roads; and around the country people are remarking on birdsong heard, as if for the first time. This is the time when the dawn chorus is at its best, and I can hear at least three male blackbirds proclaiming their respective territories each morning and evening, without the previously inevitable rumble of traffic spoiling the concert. In fact my mind goes back to a summer's day parked high on Mam Ratagan, the pass from Loch Duich to the 'back door' access to the Isle of Skye via the tiny Kylerhea ferry. There is a viewpoint carved out of the mountain road, near some peat diggings, where I often stopped. This time the silence after the engine's laboured climb was complete, and soon I became aware of a song thrush perched high on a pine tree. Tiny, barely visible, his song filled my heart as I sat, stunned by the tranquillity until I reluctantly started on down Glen More towards Glenelg. But I digress (again!) …
Many friends claim to be using this lockdown time fruitfully - redecorating rooms, gardening, starting a new hobby or even a new business; one ambitious soul boasts of mastering some Scott Joplin piano rags. I, by contrast, am writing this with a glass of well-reviewed 'Seville Orange and Persian Lime' gin to hand. Diluted with an appropriate dash of tonic it looks, unmistakeably and unfortunately, rather like what I am asked to take to my doctor every year or so in a small plastic beaker… To be fair it does taste better, but not so good as the reviews suggest - I'll be sticking to conventional gin for the foreseeable future.
I am starting nothing, in fact doing nothing in particular other than growing hair and fingernails, cycling or walking along the coast each day, happy to be so close to horizon-wide views and a sea breeze fresh off the Atlantic Ocean.
On Saturday a family 'Zoom' event was planned and came off more or less as planned, though I wouldn't want to spend hours working this way. Two- or three-way conversations would seem to work best, as some faces inadvertently betray in the nearby screenshot…
Reading more books… Intemperate rant [DELETED]. I feel better now but clearly, I didn't then…
Good point: why write about now… er, now? I have been using my 'lockdown' time to catch up with earlier gaps in the narrative - not in any organised way you understand, just as the memories take me. And I think that way of writing suits me. But… Trawling my 'Back Pages' I find, embarrassingly often, bold intentional statements I didn't follow through with - certainly now with Covid-19 crashing all plans into the buffers.
We're all waiting for something to happen. (Until you catch it you're 'waiting' to catch it…) Until that happens er… I dunno.
I have a friend who writes each day (it's largely political…) what, to me, seems a lot of heavily thought-through comment on each day's events - and there's no denying there's a lot of stuff to think about right now as we strive to cope with the virus day by day.
And yet… Can you really think your best thoughts right now, in real time? For me no, so I'll go back to My Back Pages, and fill in here from some time in the (currently) un-lived future. Speak soon (smiley face…)
Snake Oil - keeping a safe distance…
…from perceived reality and see? We're already on shaky ground in this post-Trumpian universe (and if that isn't the biggest 21st c. tautology I don't know what is…) Yes, I like filing thoughts having given them, as it were, time to mature.
Brecon Gin - good thing is bottle design (a great gobbet of solid glass as the base of the bottle) encourages over-pouring & while Travis McGee prefers Boodles I'll go with Brecon. John D. MacDonald was very much a 'words' man, and 'Boodles' would appeal to the anglophile in him. The great thing about creating a character is, you can give him tastes you don't need to endure yourself!
The cocktail of pills I'm currently on has forced me to face up to the fact I have, finally, lost the 'bloom' of youth. Friends and family have, of course, known this for years, politely neglecting to point it out… All I am doing now is making it official: it's been noted.
I've also noticed a divergence of line between the BBC and what Private Eye, percipiently I think, calls the 'Dead Tree Press'. The Beeb, for all that it worries about losing funding from Boris's philistine rabble, continues to produce valuable programming, where newspapers (can they really justify usinge the word 'news' in their titles any longer?) fall back on gossip, speculation and clickbait generating listicles - even in the actual 'dead tree' editions; the websites, it goes without saying, are largely beneath contempt.
Increasingly, journalists who think for themselves (and I don't mind them having opinions: the difference between balance and bias is easily seen outside the Twittersphere) are putting out paid-for copy alongside free material strong enough to gauge if you want to subscribe. There are many already, many more soon enough I predict. Two I like currently are Matt Taibbi and UnHerd. Respectively, an individual journalist and a collective of 'mutually sympathetic' (rather than like-minded, I think: though that's my classification, not theirs) journalists not afraid to nail their colours to any handy factual mast.
Life through a mask
A mask of what… Truth over reality? Common sense over stupidity, over simple ignorance?? Or perhaps masking the other way: ignorance masquerading as knowledge and gaining traction because of the sheer stupidity of some sections of uneducated society. (uneducated, I hasten to add, not through their own agency, rather the lack of will to grant them an education - 'We brought this upon ourselves'.)
I wouldn't class what I am saying here as controversial (I wouldn't, would I?) but, given the self-abasing apologies now being published by allegedly free-thinking - and presumably intelligent - editors in the current bizarre climate of woke journalism, it may be seen to be so.
2020's LOST SUMMER
Yep - I was going to put a date there, just to anchor the thing in time, but… Why bother? It's August and we're all old people now: no-one knows the exact date, just that the kids are on holiday from schools they haven't attended in months. Some might be going back soon but we're not sure… No-one's taken any exams so teachers have assessed course-work. Of course those who were assessed well are happy and all the others feel cheated or, at the very least, mis-represented. Of course they do…
In some bizarre game of Pin‑the‑Tail‑On‑the‑Donkey the Government has decreed that several areas should return to lock-down. This is, they shrilly claim, 'based on The Science' (you can almost hear Matt 'Hapless' Hancock and BoJo Capitalising those words). In fact so few actual scientists were willing, any longer, to stand alongside them at the Daily Press Conference that they abandoned the charade in late June.
In some strange parallel Dance of Death both the UK and US Governments are losing their people, the argument, scientists and, finally, the PLOT.
I watched a 'Live' (last week) video debate today between two US academics on using face masks. Not how well they might / might not work, but whether to use them or not. No nuance here: this was full-on Nazism v. Fascism; the Pope v. Richard Dawkins.
In other words all heat, no light - Egos at dawn: only fanatics need pay attention and they, of course, never change theirs minds. I'm hoping most (any?) reasonable people who reach this discussion will see it for what it is. It's just slightly worrying that two academics (salaried, I assume, as teachers in bona fide institutions) should publicly debase themselves in such a petty dick-waving argument that, at it's best, is a side-show to what we are all facing. Angels on the head of a pin…
The good stuff
Late one night recently I was listening to Horowitz dissecting (there is no other word for it) Chopin's Waltze Op.34 №2, Exquisitely played, I imagined I was seated opposite a gourmand eating a bowlful of songbirds piece by intricate piece, intent in his hooded privacy on the delicate task…