Monthly Archives: April 2020

The end of the beginning…?

It was Churchill who – in a speech in November 1942 outlining the impact of recent events in the war against the Axis states – stated that what had happened did not mark the end of the war, nor even the beginning of the end, but it was perhaps the end of the beginning.

Churchill celebrates the famous occasion in April 2020 when your blogger posted twice in the day

There is a sense that we are at a similar stage of the coronavirus crisis in the UK. The number of new infections, people in hospital, and daily deaths all seem to have either levelled out or be in decline. There are the beginnings of some return to normality – with elective work on cancer and mental health returning to NHS settings, and some scaling back of the extra critical care capacity that was created in hospitals in areas where case numbers have not reached the feared levels.

But this is not the end of the crisis. The infection rate is still dangerously close to 1 (meaning that each person with the virus continues to pass it on to nearly one other), and we will need to see that securely below one before we can expect to see restrictions on movement lifted to any great extent. There is also some evidence from Germany and Singapore (as two examples) that lifting restrictions even a little bit results in some increase in the infection rate and the risk of a ‘second spike’ in cases.

I started this daily blogathon in the (now optimistic) hope that things may be being relaxed at least a little bit by now. That hasn’t happened, and I suspect we will be under restrictions for several more weeks yet. So what to do? I initially committed to 30 posts through the month of April (and I’ve actually posted 31 times this month – I know, dear Reader, I’ve been spoiling you!!). I’ve actually found the discipline of daily posts very therapeutic, so I’m going to keep going for the time being. Sorry in advance!

Getting to grips with the ‘new normal’

It’s been obvious for a little while now, but hearing the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England explaining today that covid-19 will be with us for some time to come, really brings home the fact that things will never quite be as they were before all this began. The ‘new normal’ is no longer a theoretical label about how things might be – rather it is a shorthand for how things inevitably must be. And that new reality will take some getting used to.

Office meetings may never look like this again

The Chief Executive of Barclays is quoted today as saying that large offices filled with white collar workers may well be a thing of the past. The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to working from home. Organisations and companies the length and breadth of the UK have quickly shifted to remote working with staff using any number of digital tools to carry on their jobs – often more effectively than they would have been in the office. File sharing, video conferencing, instant messaging – if we didn’t know much about these tools five weeks’ ago, we certainly do now.

There are obvious advantages to working from home : no more expensive and unpleasant commuting (good for the environment and the individual bank balance); flexibility to combine work with caring responsibilities; potential to design your workspace around your individual preferences, and to work in different spaces to achieve different tasks. Organisationally too, there has been a shift away from ‘presenteeism’ (the cultural belief that work is done in long hours in the office) to managing by outcomes – as long as the work gets done, individuals are allowed freedom and control over how they organise their time and tasks.

Working from home – part of the ‘new normal’?

On the debit side, working from home is only possible if your home space can accommodate the demand for somewhere to set up a laptop and screen, a keyboard, and the headset that’s a necessity for video-conferencing if you have anybody else in the home with you. At the same time, whilst many of us have adapted reasonably well to home working, we are using kitchen chairs and dining tables, or sofas and coffee tables, and ergonomically that is storing up all sorts of problems for us in terms of backache, repetitive strain injuries and so on. There is also a social cost. Video-conference calls to colleagues and virtual coffee morning sessions are all well and good, but they don’t really replace the occasional, serendipitous collisions that happen in any office from day to day – the so-called water-cooler encounters.

There may well also be a wider economic cost to the shift from office to home working. High streets and urban centres are already struggling to survive, and a lot of their business derives from office workers popping out from central business districts for lunch, or calling in to shops on their way home of an evening. Significantly reducing that footfall is sure to have an impact on those businesses (even while it may see a resurgence in the vitality of suburban shopping streets).

Dress code for a ‘new normal’ day in the home office?

So the ‘new normal’ will be a very different country to what we had become used to. There will be advantages and disadvantages, and it may take a while before we know whether – on balance – things are better overall. But they will certainly be different.

The A to Z of blogging!

On BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Breakfast Show this morning, a challenge was thrown out to write a story in 26 words, each word starting with the consecutive letters of the alphabet. This seemed like too good a challenge not to take up for today’s blogpost – the A-Z of blogging!

A
Blogpost
Carefully
Drafted
Engages
Followers.
Generates
High
Interest,
Kindles
Lots
More
Notifications.
Occasionally
Posts
Question,
Rationalise,
Scrutinise,
Topical
Understanding.
Vocabulary
Widens
Xenomorphically.
Yields
Zestfulness.

Getting bubble ready!

So I’ve just found out that one suggestion to help us transition out of lockdown is that we form groups of ten people who would be part of a ‘bubble’ that we would be able to socialise with at weekends whilst preserving wider social distancing behaviours. This has got me thinking about who would make it into my ‘fantasy bubble’ of ten people from history who I would love to have had the chance to spend time with. In order to provide some structure to my thoughts, I’ve imposed some rules on my selection process. My group of ten must be equally divided, male and female, and must have representation from both Americas, Africa, Asia, Australasia, mainland Europe, and the UK. Everybody on my list must also have passed away. What follows is one of several versions of my list (even with these restrictions it’s not easy to narrow the choices down to 10). You’ll also notice that I have selected 10 plus me (so 11 in total for my bubble). This is deliberate – with a group this amazing, at least one of them is likely to be doing media work on any given weekend which would mean that only 10 of us would ever actually be making it to our get-togethers!

First on my list is Jane Austen, English novelist and chronicler of 19th century English upper middle class society. There is much in Austen’s writing that suggests a love of the absurd and a wry detachment from the social mores of her time that really resonate with me.

Next up, and representing South America*, is Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered while celebrating Mass in 1980. Romero trod an impossible path between the extreme political forces (both right and left) that were waging civil war in El Salvador in the year’s leading up to his eventual assassination. It would be fascinating to understand more about his brand of liberation theology and to hear his thoughts on the market-driven evangelical Christianity that dominates public life in the USA at the present time.

Third on my list, and representing mainland Europe, is Marie Curie. As a woman in STEM, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and still the only woman to win two Nobels in different fields, I would love to hear Curie’s thoughts on the progress (or not) that has been made towards reducing the barriers for women in science.

From North America, I have selected Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, a feat achieved in 1932 when she flew from Newfoundland and landed slightly earlier than planned just outside Londonderry in Northern Ireland (she had been aiming for Paris but poor weather and mechanical problems intervened).

From Asia, I have selected Mahatma Gandhi. As a lawyer and civil rights activist, his conversations with Romero about non-violent direct action in pursuit of social justice would be inspirational and educational in equal measure.

And simply to add the final touch to that conversation, my selection from Africa necessarily has to be Nelson Mandela. No further explanation is needed for this one.

My seventh choice from Australia would be Don Bradman. I love cricket – now (regrettably) only as a spectator, and Bradman is probably the greatest batsman ever to have played the game. His Test match average on retiring for 99.94. To explain that a little for non-cricket lovers – that meant that every time he went into bat for Australia, he scored on average almost 100 runs. To put that into perspective, a good average for any international cricketer would typically be in the range of 45 to 55 runs per innings. Bradman was and remains peerless.

Which leaves me three remaining spaces in my fantasy bubble. The first of these goes to Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Suffragette movement in the UK, and a champion for women’s rights to vote.

My ninth choice is Bette Davis, the American actor who was the first (male or female) to achieve the milestone on ten Oscar nominations (twice winning the Best Female Actor award). With a reputation for straight-talking and having lived through the golden years of Hollywood, David would have a wealth of stories to tell (and dirt to dish!).

Finally, and completing this bubble, would be Freddie Mercury. The mercurial lead singer of Queen (and the only one of my ten who was openly gay), Mercury was a prodigiously talented musician, whose talent was only matched by his sense of theatre and flamboyance. He’d definitely lead the after-dinner sing-a-longs!

Town and country

It looks like this will be the last warm and sunny spring day for a little while, so we took the opportunity to get out of the house early for our daily exercise hour. We headed along the river and north beyond the M4 into the fields that fringe the Cefn Mabley estate. If the farms north of Cardiff are anything to go by, then this has been a very successful lambing season. And it appears that the new arrivals around Cefn Mabley have very quickly settled into their surroundings, and become very used to their suburban neighbours walking past during their lockdown exercise hours. I was able to capture some lovely pictures of the lambs with their mothers today – without straying too far from the public footpath that runs through the field, and without needing to use a long zoom.

I’ve been playing about with different aperture settings and black and white mode on my camera

New born lambs carry added meaning for us this year. The symbol of new life marking spring’s emergence from the dark, wet days of winter is the message of hope that we all need to be reminded of just at the moment. The idyllic countryside of this morning’s walk brought to mind William Blake’s poem The Lamb.

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life and bid thee feed.
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing woolly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek and he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

The poem is a celebration of the freedom and happiness of Nature as presented through the innocent pleasure that the lamb elicits from its country surroundings. It is a far cry from the dark satanic mills referenced in Jerusalem, probably Blake’s most famous poem (although Tyger Tyger gives it a good run for it’s money). Orville Phillips’ poem Urban Sprawl cleverly quotes Blake’s Jerusalem juxtaposing the industrial web of development that extends to every corner of this green and pleasant land.

Detailed plans
showing arteries and veins –
lifeblood
to and from the rural heartland.

Congestion zones
leading to clogged up roads –
choking fumes
causing a nasal blockage,
123,000 cones
carefully tracing
a road to nowhere.

A gallery of signs
warn of snarl-ups,
fast flashing blue lights
pursue those who spurn.

The long and winding roads
are intertwined –
strands of spaghetti
arranged with a fork.

Unsightly scars
made by an ugly hand –
on the face
of this green and pleasant land.

But while urban environments can be harsh and cold against the warmth and softness of the rural landscape, I must admit to having a soft spot for industrial images too. This group of photos was also taken on our walk today, perhaps reflecting the reality that our rural heartlands rely on the arteries and veins that bring lifeblood to the countryside.

Worth a thousand words

I blogged earlier this week about the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, and the love of language that was instilled in me thanks to some truly inspirational high school teachers. Even now, I really enjoy all forms of literature, and can appreciate the way that different linguistic devices are used to convey mood, atmosphere and feeling. There are books that I return to over and over again, and it’s really unusual not to find something new with each re-reading. Often, what strikes me on a fresh reading was there, hiding in plain sight all the time, but it’s my own perspective or viewpoint that has shifted, allowing me to see things from a different angle – to appreciate the writing in a different way.

It’s a matter of regret (and not a little shame) to me that I have never been able to appreciate art in quite the same way. Paradoxically, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the opening paragraph to this piece, those few attempts that I have made to read up on art history and develop my understanding, have resulted in me enjoying the narrative text used by the art historians to describe the great masters, more than the paintings themselves. This was certainly the case with Simon Schama’s The Power of Art, a book that accompanied the BBC series of the same name. This quote from Schama’s introduction to the book is typical of the combative style that he adopts to the critical analysis of the works of eight great artists who individually changed the way that art was done and appreciated. “The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in short order to re-arrange your sense of reality.”

The regrettable truth is, that for me, I ended up feeling much like it was prose of Schama that was ‘roughing up my sense of reality’ than the paintings that he was writing about! It probably makes me a Philistine, but I have tended to fall into the ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ category. However, I am determined to use this enforced lockdown period to try once again to change all that. And I think I’ve found just the way to do it. Quite by chance in casting around for some inspiration for today’s blogpost, I stumbled across the National Gallery’s YouTube channel. It’s an absolute treasure trove of video introductions to some of the painters and paintings that can be found in the Gallery’s massive collection. I watched a thirty minute lecture on the three Caravaggio paintings on display at the Gallery. They cover the whole period of Caravaggio’s career, from his initial breakthrough completing private commissions in Rome, to the height of his fame completing public works for some of that city’s most important churches, to his final years on the run from a murder charge in Malta, Sicily and finally Naples.

I now have the beginnings of an understanding of the way that Caravaggio uses light in the same way that a theatre lighting designer would use a spotlight to highlight specific people, expressions or actions in a painting. But also how he uses darkness to emphasise things that are not meant to be seen. Thus, in the early work of the boy being bitten by the lizard, it’s not the lizard that is the main focus, but rather the shocked expression on the boy’s face. And in the Emmaus Supper painting, the faces of the disciples are lit up as the identity of Christ is revealed to them, while the innkeeper’s shadowed face mirrors his lack of knowledge about what is happening right under his nose. Caravaggio uses the framing of the pictures too, to drawn the viewer into the canvas. We are not passive observers but rather we become active participants in the scene. The executioner is not merely presenting the head of John the Baptist to Salome, he is literally presenting it to the viewer beyond the plane of the painting.

It’s early days, but I intend to stick with these National Gallery introductory videos (and I’ll also be casting around to see if there are equivalents for Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I’ll know if I’m making progress if I can begin to understand what it is that I’m looking at in a Mark Rothco canvas!

Mark Rothko : No.5

Weekend haiku reflections

Commuter worries
Fade to distant memories
While working from home

Sun-drenched lunch outside
Fresh air and relaxation
Chilling at midday

Socially distant
Meetings becoming more normal :
People connecting

Local suppliers
Turn to home delivery
New customers hooked

Evening exercise
Awkwardly passing neighbours
Trying not to cough!

Happy birthday, William!

April 23rd sees the anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. Either the greatest writer in English the world has known; or the source of untold agony to generations of children trying to recall obscure quotes to regurgitate in sweltering school gyms for national examinations. Where you stand on this continuum is probably a function of age and the skills of your English Literature teacher!

I was really fortunate to have outstanding English Lit teachers throughout my team in secondary school. As a result I really enjoyed the Shakespeare we studied and even now can recite reasonable numbers of lines from Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth and Henry IV part one. Incidentally, the same teachers brought to life Milton’s Paradise Lost and Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. It’s to those teachers that I owe my love of words and word-play (as well as my finely tuned eye for the absurd!).

If Shakespeare’s plays are what he is best-known for, then some of his most poignant writing is found in his poetry, and more especially his sonnets. A sonnet is a particular form of poetry, comprising 14 lines with one of a number of rhyme schemes and typically 10 syllables per line. 154 sonnets in total are attributed to William Shakespeare, and some of them include some of the most famous lines in the English literary canon. Take this quatrain from sonnet 18 :

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Or these lines from sonnet 130 :

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Themes of love, loss and redemption re-occur throughout the sonnets, nowhere more so than in sonnet 33. This is a poignant reflection of a time of perfect love that is lost as the sun is lost behind a bank of cloud. The implication is that the object of Shakespeare’s love has done something that has spoiled the perfection of their relationship – that they have acted basely and in a way that makes ugly the beauty that they had portrayed before. Ultimately though, Shakespeare forgives the object of his love – acknowledging that even as the sun allows itself to be hidden by the clouds, so occasionally ‘suns of the world’ will act in ways that mask their true and endearing beauty and brilliance.

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out! alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth

I think it’s a beautiful poem, reminding us always to remember the ‘triumphant splendour’ of the early morning sun and not to dwell on the occasional clouds that pass by or are burnt off by the sun’s glory.

Happy birthday, Mr Shakespeare – and thank you.

Relatively speaking, absolute positions on anything are ill-advised!

I was struck today by the news that in Germany and Austria, the federal governments (supported by local state legislators) have moved to make the wearing of face masks compulsory when travelling on public transport, and in some cases, even when shopping. This is a sensible measure that is evidence-based and follows the precautionary principle that underpins all public health advice : it does no harm to wear a covering of the nose and mouth, and it probably plays a part in reducing the risk of asymptomatic people spreading the covid-19 virus inadvertently when out and about. I have no argument with the policy, and I strongly suspect that something similar will form part of the process that allows the UK to emerge from our current restrictions in due course.

State legislatures in Germany and Austria have legislated to make the wearing of face masks compulsory as part of plans to ease coronavirus restrictions

So what has given me cause to pause by this story? Simply this. That many of these same states have also passed legislation banning the wearing of traditional Muslim full face masks in public.

Now, I’m not an expert in the legal systems of Germany or Austria, but it seems to me that it’s going to be very difficult to reconcile an absolute ban on the niqab alongside an absolute requirement for everybody to be wearing a face mask in defined public settings. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the two laws will be absolutely in conflict one with the other. And this is the problem with taking an absolute position on almost any particular issue.

European laws seeking to restrict the wearing of traditional Muslim dress in public spaces largely stemmed from fears that a rise in sympathies for far-right and neo-Nazi groups might lead to far greater dangers for Muslim residents. Mainstream politicians of the left, centre and social democratic right sought to reduce the populist appeal of a particular brand of anti-Islamic rhetoric by bringing forward legislation that was itself clothed in words like assimilation, or helping minority communities to ‘fit in’ better. There was even some suggestion that traditional dress was demeaning to women and ran counter to Western values (conveniently overlooking the structural sexual discrimination in those same societies that continues to see women paid significantly less on average than men in almost all large organisations across the public and private sectors).

The problem is that seeking to legislate – to take an absolute, clear legal position – on something as complex as a dress code steeped in a thousand years of cultural and religious symbolism and culture, is fraught with danger. Legislation is not good at nuance – it is usually and necessarily a blunt tool. And seeking to take absolute positions where context and nuance are key to understanding what is going on, is inevitably fraught with danger down the road. Even more so when it now seems that wearing the niqab was actually the socially responsible thing to be doing all along!

Making lockdown a little more bearable one Tweet at a time

Twitter often gets a bad press – and often its deserved. From automated Twitter-bots churning out propaganda or targeting views and opinions contrary to those of the their paymasters; to orchestrated pile-ons against individuals or organisations in an attempt to harass them from the platform; to malicious reporting of Tweets that are alleged to be offensive or otherwise contrary to the usage rules in order to seek to close down fair comment and wider debate. It’s by no means a perfect platform, and not everybody who uses Twitter does so in good faith.

However, there are also lots of really good things that receive wider coverage because of the ease with which they can be shared through Twitter. This has been particularly the case during the coronavirus lock-down period. From laugh-out-loud funny, to quirky; from silly to simply inspired, there has been some great content shared during the past month, and tonight’s post celebrates some of the Tweets and content that have tickled my fancy.

First up is this video of Louise Crawford, a Waitrose employee in Bracknell who was tasked with entertaining shoppers queueing to go into the store while strict controls are in place on numbers of shoppers who can be inside at any one time. She’s got a great voice.

Sticking with the musical theme, but a million miles from Louise’s live rendition of Son of a Preacher Man, is this Tweet of a video featuring a back garden recreation of Freddie Mercury’s now legendary performance with Queen at Live Aid. I’m not sure who the guy on the extension roof is, but the laughter of the people in the garden recording his antics tells you all you need to know about the joy that he brought to them!

There have also been absolute zingers from celebrities commenting on breaking new stories over the past month. Home Secretary Priti Patel came in for much ribbing (a lot of which was vile and abusive) when her presentation of the daily government coronavirus update on live television was marked by a calamitous stumble when attempting to state how many diagnostic tests had been undertaken in the UK up to that day. Romesh Ranganathan (a UK comedian) took a much gentler and self-deprecatory tone when he tweeted :

Some of the Tweets from healthcare staff working on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis have elicited huge admiration and not a little emotion. Max Allin is a doctor in Western Australia who was supposed to be getting married to his co-healthcare worker fiancé on 11th April. Instead, this is where they spent the day.

Not directly related to the crisis at all, but always good value for a chuckle, Moose Allain wins the prize for my favourite Twitter joke of the lockdown period to date.

And finally for now, there’s this anthem for all teachers facing up to the challenge of delivering their classes on-line for the remainder of this academic year. A genuine cry from the heart that says all that needs to be said on the matter!