Category Archives: General Musings

TTFN

My first corona blogpost was published on 1st April 2020, just one week after the imposition of the lockdown restrictions that implored us all to Stay Home, Protect the NHS, and Save Lives. Today will be my last post in the series that has run for 59 days. It coincides with the partial relaxation of restrictions in Wales that will allow us to meet with another local household in the outdoors from Monday of next week, subject – of course – to the 2m social distancing rule.

It’s been a useful distraction from the monotony of lockdown to find time each day to post something here, and I’ve mostly enjoyed the process (and I’ve been quite surprised at my own discipline in maintaining the run. There have only been one or two occasions when I have published a ‘holding post’ – simply to put something up but without any real purpose.

As always, I’ve broken all the blogging rules. There is no particular theme or style to this blog (and there never has been). It has been an eclectic meander through a whole range of things – sometimes a simple account of things I’ve done that day; occasionally partially educational; sometimes overtly political (there’s been a lot of politics in the last couple of weeks in particular!).

I hope that you’ve enjoyed the daily ramblings of my restless mind as much as I have enjoyed writing them down. I’ll post less frequently for a while now. I may share some of the outputs from the Creative Writing course that starts later on in June, but I’ll definitely be back for the annual November blogathon challenge.

Who knows, we may even be able to go to the pub again by then!

In the meantime, stay safe, dear reader – take care.

Impartiality is useless in the face of bad faith

Two interesting news stories have caught my attention today. The first concerns a BBC finding that the opening to its flagship Newsnight programme broadcast yesterday had breached its impartiality guidelines. The second relates US President Donald Trump’s response to Twitter’s decision to flag one of his Tweets about postal vote fraud with a fact checking warning.

Both stories raise fundamental questions about the role of the news media and social media platforms in promoting robust dialogue and debate, and holding powerful interests to account. Trump is entitled to a view about the potential for fraud in the postal ballot process, but he cannot expect (and is certainly not entitled) to assume that news outlets or social media platforms will broadcast that opinion uncritically and without challenge. What that criticism and challenge comes, he must be prepared to support his opinion with facts of his own. Threatening to close down platforms that dare to hold him to account is a very small step from despotism.

Similarly, a public service news organisation must have the courage to hold powerful figures in the UK to account; and to accurately represent the mood of the country that it serves. It has become a cliche, but the old story of the job of a journalist when confronted with two people arguing that it is simultaneously raining cats and dogs, and that so sunny that the road is melting still holds true. In that situation, the reporter does not relate both sides equally ‘for balance’ – she goes outside and finds out the facts for herself.

I would go further and say that the obsession with balance – with artificially seeking to give both sides of a story when there really is only one – is destroying the credibility of previously esteemed news outlets, including the BBC. The failure to point out the absurdity of a situation or to clearly and explicitly call out lies or misinformation where it is clear that they are being told or peddled, does a grave disservice to the audience and – furthermore – is incredibly insulting to that audience’s intelligence.

Artificial balance makes mugs of the audience

When we have administrations on both sides of the Atlantic systematically manipulating the media, dealing in half-truths and misrepresentations, and failing in their fundamental duty of honesty and transparency to the people they were elected to serve, then the gloves need to come off and news organisations and social media platforms need to say it how it is – without fear or favour.

In this context, impartiality is a weakness that unscrupulous people will ruthlessly expoit.

Inspired by contemporary fiction : the Cummings effect

I’ve taken the decision to vent no more anger on the whole sorry saga of the UK Prime Minister’s Special Adviser and his lockdown busting trip to Durham. His eyesight may have been impaired on the day that he drove his wife and child to a local beauty spot on her birthday; mine is perfect. I can see clearly that he is neither going to resign nor is be going to be sacked. The bar on standards of acceptable conduct in public life has now been lowered to such an extent that you’d need to go into the basement to get under it.

I have decided instead to look constructively at the whole thing and to take the positives where I can. Whatever Mr and Mrs Cummings shortcomings may be in terms of abiding by simple and straightforward instructions during a national emergency, there is no doubting their combined flair for creative writing. The imagination and sheer audacity of the plot line of their dramatic escape from the baying hordes besieging their London residence, the non-stop drive of 260 miles to Durham, and the heart-rending tragedy of their fight against all the odds to overcome unconfirmed covid-19 in a breeze block outhouse in the grounds of Cummings senior’s country estate, is an example to us all.

I cannot hope to emulate the sheer drama and sweep of the narrative without expert help and guidance. I have therefore signed up for a short course in creative writing from the University of Bristol* starting on 24th June for 9 weeks. It’s very possible that some of the outputs from this may turn up here during that time. I can’t promise they’ll be up to Dom and Mary’s standards, but it’s always good to have something to shoot at for!

* Other (less good) universities are available

Four herbaceous shrubs, two trees, and a hernia!

No – not the latest movie from the Richard Curtis stable. This is effectively a summary of my Bank Holiday Monday.

We had been planning quite a lot of work in the garden this spring in order to continue the process of transforming the featureless square box that was the garden when we moved in, into something a bit more interesting. Lockdown had temporarily brought a halt to planning and gardening, but with garden centres now back open, we decided to see whether we could get things back on track. We are fortunate to have a small independent garden centre within 20 minutes walk of the house, and so we did a little recce yesterday afternoon to see how busy it might be, and how easy it would be to make our purchases without breaching social distancing. Thankfully, it was quite quiet and all the stock was outside, further reducing the risk. Satisfied that risk was low, we returned this morning (early) and completed the purchase of two trees, four established herbaceous shrubs and a couple of bush tomato plants.

And so began a long day of toil, sweat and quiet cursing. The problem with having purchased a new build is that the ‘soil’ that comes in the garden is only about 40% organic matter. I have removed house bricks, lumps of concrete, enough nails, screws and bolts to start a hardware store, and even what looks like a metal cover plate for an inspection chamber. At one stage, I had to dispense with my spade and resort to a hammer and bolster to break through the layer of concrete that was conveniently buried 5 inches below the surface of the front garden. I just want to acknowledge the help that I received from the Prime Minister and his Senior Adviser with this. Never has a bolster been struck with such venom and purpose!

Cherry Tree (nearest) and Pear Tree enjoying today’s warm sunshine

Having said all that, the plants are now all in the ground, firmed in and very well watered. And they look great and have already changed the look and feel of the space to the front and rear of the house. The trees in particular bring some height to the garden, break up an otherwise blank run of fence, and (in time) will provide some additional privacy (as well as some scrummy cherries and pears).

I really enjoy gardening. It is one of the very few things that I do where I can stand back once it’s finished and actually see what I have achieved. In the case of the trees and shrubs today, it was doubly satisfying because the purchases have been made with money saved from not having to travel back and forth to work during the lockdown restrictions. This is an environmental ‘double-whammy’ – no emissions from the travelling, AND new trees planted that will further improve the suburban environment around the house.

We still have a few more things to purchase and plant to finish off the vision, but progress is very definitely being made!

Reflections on a weekend of learning

An undoubted sliver lining of the coronavirus lockdown has been the digitalisation of the Hay Festival this year. Since yesterday’s review of Stephen Fry’s reading from his new book Troy I have joined three further sessions. Each of them has been fascinating in it’s own right, but they have also given some pause for thought about the major UK new story of the weekend : the decision of the Prime Minister’s senior adviser to travel 260 miles from London to Durham to self-isolate at his parents’ home at the height of the crisis and when the official guidance was to Stay Home, Protect the NHS, and Save Lives. More on that later.

Yesterday afternoon, Professor Dame Sally Davies, formerly England’s Chief Medical Officer and now the UK Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance, delivered a lecture on the challenges facing us as bacterial infections become more and more resistant to the antibiotic drugs that are available to us. Dame Sally highlighted the fact that the World Health Organisation in December 2019 issued a report on its latest risk assessment for global health that identified a viral pandemic and increasing antibiotic resistance as the two biggest threats for the coming decade. The report was published before we properly understood the significance of covid-19. In fact, although covid is a viral infection, the two threats are interlinked in so far that many people who are ventilated in intensive care develop secondary bacterial infections that require antibiotic treatment. The ‘take homes’ from the lecture for me were that antimicrobial resistance has been accelerated by the choices that were made in so many aspects of society : the use of antibiotic drugs in the animal food chain as a cheaper option to good husbandry and high animal welfare standards (thankfully now much improved in Europe but still a major issue elsewhere in the world); the demand for antibiotics by members of the public even where they are ineffective (eg for viral infections) and poor practice by healthcare professionals in prescribing them; and the operation of market forces in some healthcare systems around the world that leads to people only being able to afford partial courses of medication, which in turn contribute directly to increased bacterial resistance.

Thankfully, the position is not hopeless. Changes in practice in UK agriculture has seen antibiotic use in animal production reduce by 50% in the past 4 years; and Scottish fisheries have now stopped using antibiotics in their salmon farms altogether. At the same time, public awareness campaigns have reduced antibiotic prescribing; and there is a co-ordinated push to support research and development of new types of antibiotic that will replace some of those that are no longer effective in their use. The UK is a world-leader in supporting other countries around the world to embark on similar action plans.

Asked specifically about coronavirus, Dame Sally was clear that there might never be an effective vaccine and that it was far from clear whether having had the disease was a defence against future infection. The science was clear : preventing the spread of coronavirus required good personal hygiene (hand washing and not touching your face), and social distancing, and isolation when unwell.

Straight after Dam Sally’s lecture, I joined an interview conducted by Guto Harri (formerly of the BBC and subsequently Boris Johnson’s Press and Communications Director during the Mayor of London years) of John Sopel (the BBC’s Washington Correspondent). Sopel has just published a book entitled A year at the circus – inside Trump’s White House. The book chronicles some of the events and intrigues that have played out in the West Wing over the past twelve months, and draws on Sopel’s inside track as one of a very small number of journalists who have been afforded ‘access all areas’ passes for the White House.

Having spent so much time very close to both the President and his closest advisors, Sopel’s insights were fascinating. He absolutely disagreed with Harri’s suggestion that Trump is in any way stupid or ill-informed. Sopel describes a man who has a keen sense of what will appeal to his supporters and the personal conviction to act quickly on those instincts even if this wrong-foots advisers and opponents alike. Sopel pointed to Trump’s recent announcement that he wanted all churches in America to re-open for worship even while the covid-19 death count went above 100,000. This had gone down incredibly well with southern Republican states where the religious right is crucial to Trump’s chances of re-election in November. In addition though, it had seriously discomfited Democratic state governors who were now placed between the rock of their religious voters and the hard place of lockdown restrictions to control the spread of coronavirus.

The problem for Trump is that his instincts are sometimes much less reliable. The recent press conference where Trump suggested that bleach or sunlight introduced inside the body might be ways in which coronavirus could be overcome was a good example of this. These suggestions came as part of a marathon press briefing in which Trump relished his central billing. Sopel suggested that this is where Trump is at his happiest – within the White House circus, he is not a clown (as many would claim) but rather the ringmaster, the wheeler-dealer pulling the strings and leaving others to sort out the fine detail (or the mess!).

There are undoubtedly times when the President has said things that are demonstrably untrue. Sopel was clear that in those circumstances it is the role of the press to call these things out, to speak truth to power in a fair, impartial but resolute way. Interestingly, though, Sopel stopped short of calling Trump a liar. Trump has undoubtedly said things that are not factually correct, and he has made claims that are demonstrably untrue, but Sopel was very clear that this did not warrant the description of Trump as a liar (which would be to denigrate his character rather that to hold him to account for specific incidents of lying). It’s a very fine distinction, and I’m not sure personally that it’s one that holds up to very close scrutiny. I do accept though, that it might be a necessary fiction for Sopel to maintain in order to avoid incurring the wrath of a President and/or his Press Secretary who might otherwise withdraw that sought-after pass. There is a balance to be struck between having the access to call out the specific incidences of lying, and being denied this if that leads to a withdrawal of access altogether.

Sopel’s analysis of the state of US politics was also revealing. He was clear that Trump had won in 2016 because his campaign was demonstrably more effective than that conducted by Hilary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Trump had connected with some of the most visceral beliefs of blue collar Americans around immigration, taxation, and the creeping interference of the state into all aspects of their daily lives. There was every likelihood that Trump would have gone into the 2020 election with a lead in the polls had it not been for covid-19. The virus has been a more effective opponent to Trump than any Democrat in the past three and a half years. As well as 100,000 deaths, millions of Americans had lost their jobs and hundreds of thousands were now dependant on food banks to feed their families. This was not the economic miracle that Trump had promised, and it was from clear that the US economy would recover quickly or easily from the shock that covid had delivered to it. What was clear, however, was that there was no viable alternative to Trump as the Republican candidate. The Good Old Party was effectively now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Trump Organisation.

The third speaker of the weekend was Dr Adam Rutherford, a geneticist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science. Rutherford’s talk summarised some of the key themes from his book How to argue with a racist which uses concepts from science, genetics and history to factually debunk a lot of the fundamental underpinnings of racism in Western society today. Rutherford was prompted to write the book in part because of the highly dubious tactics that were being employed by far right white supremacist groups claiming that results from genetic testing services including Ancestry.com and 23andme were somehow evidence of their racial purity. Rutherford observes that – much like many of those at or near the heart of government who have recently been revealed to have dabbled in eugenics – there is “a danger of being bewitched by the science but without having done the necessary legwork to properly understand it.”

Rutherford notes that most racism is fundamentally centred around skin pigmentation, and that this has only actually been an issue since the start of the European Enlightenment about 400 years ago. Prior to that, different peoples were differentiated on the basis of religion, language or geography rather than the colour of their skin. Ironically, the science is now pretty conclusive that the greatest genetic differences within humanity now exist in and between Africans who still live on the continent. In fact, it is much more likely that any individual African will have more in common genetically with any other person in the world from outside Africa, than with somebody else who lives in Africa. The racism that is based on skin pigmentation is effectively a social construct with no scientific basis to it whatsoever; that doesn’t make it right, but it also means that concepts of racial purity or superiority have to be called out whenever and wherever they are found. Rutherford’s talk finished with a quote from Angela Davis: “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, you have to be anti-racist.”

So what are the threads that I draw from this in considering the Cummings story over the weekend? It is a fact that Cummings drove from his main London home to Durham with his wife and child while she was already displaying symptoms of covid infection. He did this at a time when the official advice was to stay at your main residence and self-isolate if you or any member of your family was symptomatic. The excuse offered that he was concerned for the welfare of his 4 year old son does not stand up to close scrutiny. Literally thousands of people up and down the country in similar or parallel circumstances did as we had been instructed and stayed put. We did not visit family members; we did not decamp to be closer to family members of friends. We did this because we were told that we were all in this together – the fight against the virus gave us common cause. It was painful but necessary. We followed the science – we washed our hands; we socially distanced; we stayed in if we developed symptoms. We did this not because the law required it; we didn’t look for technical loopholes to justify ‘stretching’ the rules – we did it because it was the right thing to do. As a country, the UK has a long tradition in this regard – something that Dame Sally Davies continues in her international work to promote research and practice to improve antibiotic usage and reduce antimicrobial resistance.

Dominic Cummings selfish behaviour in driving 260 miles with a symptomatic family member against the spirit of the lockdown advice and guidance, displays the same narcissistic tendency that personifies Trump’s tenure at the White House. The rules are for other people, not for us. Boris Johnson’s appalling defence of his adviser at the daily briefing today demonstrates that – like Trump – his political instincts can also go badly awry. It is interesting to see journalists from across the spectrum of press and media outlets finding their professional nerve and holding Johnson and Cummings to account for the obfuscations and half-truths that have littered the official responses to the story to date. It is interesting to note that in Cummings’ case, his apparent interest in eugenics seems to lead him to a belief that he is inherently superior to others. He is the very embodiment of a man who has been bewitched by the science without bothering to properly understand it.

Lockdown as a catalyst for togetherness

It’s mental health awareness week in the UK. Social and broadcast media are full of appeals for people to be kind to one another; to look out for one another; to talk to somebody – anybody – if you are feeling anxious, or alone or unhappy. And that is all absolutely to be applauded. For far too long, those who have struggled with poor mental health have been stigmatised and made to feel that their ill-health is somehow a sign of personal weakness or a lack of resilience. Thankfully, the whole tone of the conversation around mental health has changed. It is no longer taboo to talk about how we are feeling. We are actively encouraged to speak up if we are feeling stressed or low or having a bad patch. Funding and support for acute services for those who are most adversely affected by poor mental health is still inadequate, but it is slowly improving.

One of the big concerns around the current coronavirus crisis has been that lockdown and enforced isolation as a result of the need to socially distance or (in some cases) fully shield, will lead to a surge in demand for mental health and wellbeing support services. There is some anecdotal evidence to support this hypothesis, although it’s likely to be some time yet before we will know the full extent of the impact on overall demand for services. There is no doubt that some people will have experienced a deterioration in their mental health as a result of the interruption to contact with social support networks that is an inevitable consequence of the lockdown regulations. Interestingly, however, the lockdown may turn out to have been a good thing for young people who would normally have been completing high stakes exams in schools and universities at this time of year. With most of those exams either cancelled altogether, or downgraded insofar that their significance in calculating final degree grades or determining whether or not students progress into the next academic year has been significantly reduced, their role as a stressor has been almost completely removed. Similarly, students have almost all returned to their family homes and are now back in the social networks that are often (though not exclusively) less stressful than university or private rented accommodation.

For others, the sense of isolation that is an obvious danger of lockdown, has been mitigated by the ability to engage with family, friends and support services through any number of video call platforms across the internet and mobile phone networks. In my own experience, this has been the case with regular, weekly video calls to family members in Llanelli and Cambridge (as well as those a little closer to our home in Cardiff). Paradoxically, we have probably talked more to family members during the past eight weeks than we had done before all this. It’s another example of the profound changes that have taken place in some aspects of life during the crisis that are likely to continue in similar form afterwards. The quality, ubiquity and ease of use of these technologies is now such that the need to travel long distances to ‘see’ family and friends on the other side of the country has been significantly reduced. This is a potential win:win – closer and more regular interaction with family and friends and a reduced environmental impact as travel reduces.

Coronavirus is a horrible thing; and for those who have been infected and made ill by it, those who have lost loved ones as a result of it, or whose mental health has been impacted because of it, it’s a terrible thing and not at all to be downplayed or dismissed. But some of the social changes that have been brought about during the crisis may yet prove to have some lasting positive implications too.

What would Bill make of this?

Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool Football Club from 1959 to 1974, is often quoted as having said : “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more important than that”. As a lover of the beautiful game (and long time Liverpool fan myself), I completely understand the sentiment behind this. But I can’t help feeling that even Shankly would be reconsidering and re-evaluating the relative importance of football, life and death in the context of the current conversations about plans to re-start the English Premier League. It seems somehow insensitive to be talking about football returning when UK deaths still exceed 500 a day and the total death total is now over 35,000. And if that seems somewhat removed from the world of football, it has been revealed today that there were six positive tests of players and staff at three premier league clubs from the first two days of testing this weekend.

Football is undoubtedly big business. Titles, promotion, cup wins : these are all important things and have potentially lucrative implications for the teams involved. Liverpool themselves were on the verge of clinching the premier league title when coronavirus brought an abrupt halt to the season in mid-March. It would be cruel for a team that was so dominant to be denied the title by something that is so out of their control. But – despite what Shankly may have said – at the end of the day, football is just a game. It would seem odd for matches to be re-starting (even behind closed doors and with teams having been quarantined for several weeks beforehand) when so many are still literally facing life and death struggles to survive.

Football will return eventually – with passionate fans contributing to the atmosphere that makes each game unique. There’s no rush for that to happen though, and it’s certainly not something that should be risking the welfare of players and staff in the meantime.