+Johnson’s done it again! At least we know our Prime Minister is good at one thing, siring children. His latest (of how many we still don’t really know, it was five on the BBC and six in the Guardian) may give the climate change sceptic pause for thought. When the young Jolyon, or whatever his son is to be called gets to the age of 30 he will more than likely be able to travel all the way to the North Pole in a boat. Probably a cruise ship, actually. But by 2050 he may find many more reasons to rue the day he was born.
+From tonight’s No. 10 broadcast on behalf of the Conservative Party I picked up two points. Firstly, Johnson said that predictions suggested there could be up to 500,000 deaths from Coronavirus in the UK. The second was the scientist saying that ‘test and trace’ works best when you have fewer cases to deal with. I was eating a chip at the time (along with a nice Quorn hot’n’spicy burger) and nearly choked. On the latter point, the government abandoned test and trace almost before the famous ‘curve’ began, so we can see where the responsibility lies—but we’re all meant to forget about that. On Johnson’s half a million figure, this prediction seems to be based (looking at my Google search) on only one person’s early suggestion (subsequently drastically reduced), that person being an alleged ‘government advisor’ Prof. Neil Ferguson. I have to say, I’ve heard him on the radio and he does seem to me to be all over the place, but often sounding optimistic which is exactly what the government wants to hear. The key issue here is that one outlying ‘prediction’ (or was it more accurately a scenario) can be used by Johnson to portray the government’s hapless approach as being a success. We’ve ‘only’ seen 27,000 deaths so far. Crack open the Bollinger!
+Well, my question for yesterday’s No.10 5pm party political broadcast on behalf of the Conservative Party—sorry—on Coronavirus wasn’t chosen. It's interesting to see what kind of questions are chosen. So far they reflect the personal predicaments of people stuck in lockdown, such as how to involve grandparents in the care of children if parents go back to work. Such questions are pressing for those whose situations are already stressed out, but for a politician they are very much softball. The politician merely needs to present (I almost said pretend) a little empathy, repeat the mantra (the ‘action plan’) and move on. It’s not as if they could address personal circumstances. So, as the UK heads towards being the worst performing nation on Earth tackling Coronavirus, I will send my question in again. Why? Why? Why?
+Somewhere today I read of a slight alteration to the government’s ‘stay in’ slogan, which succinctly sums things up and will make a very good poster for the next election of whatever kind we’re allowed to have. Here is my adaptation of it.
+Staying in isn’t entirely bad. Sipping a large glass of Malbec, nibbling on a piece of Gruyere, listening to the gentle sweetness of Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ whilst perusing the entire Gerhard Richter exhibition in New York’s Met Breuer gallery on my laptop doesn’t make me feel too deprived.* Unless I’ve missed some technological click, it is a shame that the exhibition can only be inspected in something like postage stamp scale. Well, you can’t have it all.
+If this was 1920 as opposed to 2020, lockdown would be somewhat different. No foreign wine, no foreign cheese, no stereo, no exhibition (except perhaps in a black and white illustrated book). Sadly it occurs to me that many Tory MPs wouldn’t be all that bothered if the conditions for the masses today resembled those of the 1920s. Am I overstating it? What’s your bet on how we’re all going to be in this together (sic) to get the debt back down?
+No DVDs around back in the 1920s. I watched Eisenstein’s October 1917 last night, a brilliant piece of film-making of course, but the scene with the horse hanging off a bridge over the River Neva was shocking—this was no computer generated graphic. I hope the horse was fresh from the slaughterhouse rather than being killed for the film, but given a previous scene it’s hard to say. In our present unrevolutionary times I was entertained by the scene of the Provisional Government of Johnson—oopps, sorry! - Kerensky preparing to meet their fate as the masses stormed the Winter Palace. The cabinet appeared to imagine they would be greeted by polite obsequies over a cup of tea, as opposed to being roughly arrested by the door smashing revolutionaries brandishing bayonets and semi-crazed grimaces. Kerensky himself had of course run away before the final denouement. Are the Thatcher gates of Downing Street stronger than the gates of the Winter Palace? We’ll probably have to leave it to members of the Socialist Workers Party to find out. And who are today’s Mensheviks? What it is to be alive in history!
*I think I would feel deprived if I was forced to watch the crap that’s on telly every day. That would be torture.
+I only discovered yesterday that the public were being invited to submit questions to be ‘answered’ at the daily No.10 5pm party political broadcasts. So I immediately submitted a simple question: Why has the UK seen more deaths from Covid-19 than most other countries? I thought it best to keep the question as short as possible. The trouble with the journalists’ questions at these briefings is that, e.g. with Robert err . . ummm. . . Peston, they dress their questions up in such a verbose bouffant of self-referential ‘look at me’ importance people may easily lose interest in what the question was, and so when they don’t hear a precise reply it’s usually because the question was overly lacquered in the first place (it’s the lacquer that keeps the bouffant in shape I believe). But here we are, I shouldn’t want to be seen being too negative. Taking, or asking the public’s questions is after all, just another one of those little innovations introduced by one J. Corbyn when he was doing PMQs. Then of course Tory MPs ridiculed him. Now they’ll all be thinking this shows how Johnson is back in charge—i.e. always looking for a little ruse with which to distract the commentariat.
+It has so far been left up to a backbench Labour MP Peter Kyle, and former shadow chancellor John McDonald to suggest that corporations which do not pay their fair share of UK taxes on profits earned in the UK should not receive government bailouts. Checking on the latest statements from Annaliese Dodd, Labour’s current shadow chancellor I have yet to find support for that idea. On her Twitter account there’s a long letter dated 27th April with lots of detailed questions to the chancellor, all very sensible—and managerial. I hope we can rise above just the managerial and show some radical imagination. The situation demands it. This goes for Keir Starmer too. It's the old Vision thing.
My great uncle, Robert Swift, after whom I am partly named, died just over a hundred years ago from the Spanish flu. On the 31st December, 1919 to be precise. He was still in France, serving with a Yorkshire artillery regiment. His wife, Lillian received a certificate with a facsimile signature of the King, commemorating Robert’s service and the nation’s gratitude. I possess this and other relics, including the stiff cardboard tube in which the semi-illuminated scroll was delivered by the then real GPO. It’s always struck me as an evocative artefact, what with the stamps, the postmark, the solid construction of the tube—a rare yet common enough cause of a knock on the door because it wouldn’t go through the letterbox. We’re sending you our gratitude for your husband. In a cardboard tube.
Thankfully (for them), Robert and Lillian were both devout Methodists, so despite the fact that Robert died at age 34 and Lillian at 96, she at least believed that a rendezvous in Heaven was in order—she never let go of the idea and lived a quiet, Queen Victorianesque life of expectation ever since the receipt of that tube. Others had different ideas about how to respond to the horrors of the previous years, and it wasn’t long before the ‘Roaring Twenties’ began. That brief period of light relief of course was not shared by all, the political guff by the name of the ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ had no heroic context for a general strike, and had no regard for the sufferers of wage cuts or widening deprivation.
Looking to the past to seek answers for future turns in history, we ought to reflect on personal histories as well as the grand scope. With all the current bollocks spouted about sacrifice, scientific advice, gratitude for the NHS (a two minute clap once a week with ministers who voted for cuts and opposed pay rises for NHS staff) there is never going to be a substitute for a particular, individual story. Stalin had it right when he said one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.
Despite the fact that I (obviously) never knew Robert my uncle, the current situation we find ourselves in makes me wonder about his death—it may have been a hundred years ago, but maybe it’s because it was a hundred years ago that it deserves to be remembered. One hundred years is no time at all. More and more centeniarans are after all getting their ‘telegrams’ from the Queen, although perhaps not if this government has anything to do with it.
Speaking as one who was brought up in the golden age of British comedy, I can’t help contextualising things in terms of e.g. Steptoe and Son or Dad’s Army, Hancock’s Half Hour or even Harry Worth. But reflecting on my very early TV watching years I have to confess there exists a gap between watching Bill and Ben The Flowerpot Men and the aforementioned shows. So much so, I remember once being frightened to the extent of hiding behind the sofa when the Daleks were first given an outing on Dr Who. This was probably because the Daleks looked like inverted flower pots. At an early age you are allowed to make any connections you like, no matter how tenuous.
This is a magic roundabout way of wondering how Dad’s Army’s characters have become role models for our government’s Cabinet Ministers (capital C, capital M). It is possible that for some of these ministers, their only knowledge of wartime struggle (which is their metaphor for today’s problem) is having watched Dad’s Army, perhaps on its fifth repeat run? So who are the key characters and their current incarnations?
Capt Mainwaring: Boris Johnson of course, no prizes there. A bumbling, oafish and self-important character who vastly overestimates his capacity not just for intelligence, but the application of it.
Sgt. Wilson: insouciance personified, louche and devotedly relaxed, here we have Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who conjures up the very best of the English ideal of not having to do very much at all in order to convince everyone of his Stephen Potterish willingness to be everyone’s hard (but actually not hard) working companion.
Corporal Jones: the man who is prone at every opportunity to say ‘Sir! I’d like to volunteer!’ but is also prone to shout ’Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ Who else is this but Matt Hancock, who seems to be up for the fight but has absolutely no talent for it.
Private Frazer: I’m not quite sure who I would suggest is this Cabinet’s Private Frazer: which one qualifies as being the most two-faced?
Private Walker: No two ways about it, Grant Shapps has all the makings of somebody who could always make a fast buck on the side, no matter what the disaster.
Private Pike: As things stand, and this judgement could (always) be adjusted in the next minute or two, I think yesterday’s nobody and today’s great hope Rishi Sunak could fit the bill, a man who is loaded with ideas, many of which are doomed to fail, but whom we want to place our trust in because at least he seems to have some ideas. Many of which are doomed to fail. Did I mention that?
Private Godfrey: Godfrey, one of my favourite characters in Dad’s Army has no easy comparative character in our estimable Cabinet. He is a man of unimpeachable integrity, but suffers from a weak bladder, and in all his years of quiet servitude in Civil Service stores has never sought the limelight, merely seeking satisfaction in pressing creases in the tennis flannels of more worthy wearers. Well, that perhaps sums up the rest of the cabinet, who like the second rank in the show, are merely onlookers. This is perhaps where the uncelebrated contribution of a rarely speaking character comes in:
Private Sponge. Yes, for the rest of the Cabinet, despite their useless contribution to government, Sponge is the name of the game.
I would like to take this analysis even further, to question how Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition frontbench compares to the A.R.P., where greengrocer Chief Warden Hodges rules the roost, but due to a recent change of personnel it’s a bit too soon to make a judgement. Phew! How convenient! Put those lights out!
+I have written on this blog (1st April) about the possibility of issuing bonds to help local economies. But they could help internationally too, so I’ve signed a letter to Angela Merkel which is doing the rounds ( https://openlettertomerkel.com/ ). I still remain a European whatever the Brexiteers think and there’s no reason to stop new ways of financing things (preferably green things) merely by asserting that they must be tied to just one existing institutional basis. If we have indeed left the EU then it’s time to start searching for new ways of co-operating with our closest neighbours.
+I listened to Trump this morning saying that disinfectant could be injected in people to stop Coronavirus. I wonder who I need to contact so that I can donate a litre bottle of Domestos for the President’s personal use. No need to inject, just drink it neat.
+I enjoy the occasional cigar, which makes me very bourgeois I know. I’m compensating for that by following David Harvey’s excellent lectures on Karl Marx’s Capital online. Lecture One has been watched over 900,000 times. I wonder if that’s the number of unique viewers, or repeat viewings by people who didn’t grasp it first time round, like Socialist Worker Party members. Anyway, back to the cigar. The last one took on the appearance of Jesus, so I think I should simply count my blessings. I had to smoke Him though. Which reminds me: some research is now being undertaken to see if smoking helps stem the virus. According to the Daily Record “Nicotine patches could be tested on patients and frontline workers after a study suggests that smokers could be less likely to catch coronavirus.” Check out ‘smoking and coronavirus’ on Google. We’ll have to follow the science. I can’t wait for a similar story on alcohol.
Am I being a bit premature worrying, as I gaze out on the clear blue skies and wonder where our April showers disappeared to? The forecast for the rest of the month is basically for the same weather we’ve had all month. What a change from the wettest winter on record, with horror stories of floods and inundations. But what is happening is exactly in line with what climate scientists have been predicting for years. Yes, we shouldn't conclude that the strange recent weather is caused by climate change, few climate change scientists want to be hung out to dry by making direct causal links like that. God knows, if we had a freak blizzard next week all their hard work would be discredited, and the nutter Trump camp would be the first to declaim the ‘hoaxers.’ Nevertheless, along with the Coronavirus map I think I will keep an eye on the Environment Agency’s river flow map, published each week, which is probably as good an indicator of whether mighty England faces a drought this year. The map illustrated below takes us up to the 14th April and shows that just over half of English rivers have a lower than normal flow of water. And this is spring, after a very wet winter. Just in case, I do hope that our marvellous ‘just in time’ government is figuring out how we’ll all regularly wash our hands when stand pipes appear on the streets. Of course I’m being a little alarmist here, although I’m not sure it’s the image of stand pipes or the likelihood of a hopeless government promising more stand pipes that worries me most.
Source: Environment Agency, 14th April 2020
It will be interesting to see how the return of Parliament changes the political landscape. Today sees the first PMQs outing of Keir Starmer as Labour leader but of course I won’t be able to pass judgement on that until I’ve heard what Laura Kuenssberg has had to say. MPs will be limited to 50 at any one time in the House of Commons chamber. In normal circumstances this would be a vast improvement, since for 95% of the time you’d rarely find more than 20 present as some boring legislation churned its way through procedures. Indeed, from my observations, the chamber might be the best place to find an uninterrupted escape from politics, a place for a quiet nap in the afternoon with the drone of some monotone hastening the drooping of eyelids. The question opposition MPs face now is whether to launch strident attacks on the government for its incompetent handling of the crisis. I hope they do, and don’t go into the pathetic ‘this is above politics’ mode. That is very often the defence of the indefensible, as if somehow ministers were rising to or above the challenge and should not be robustly challenged. Let’s never forget that it was precisely because MPs did attack the government of the day that led to Churchill replacing Chamberlain. The trouble with this comparison with today’s crisis is that I can’t think of a single Churchill waiting in the wings. Will Keir inspire us?
*UPDATE I watched PMQs and can’t say Starmer’s first performance deserved a rave review. He came across as rather downbeat and sober, which is maybe what the occasion called for. So I hope when the appropriate time comes he will manage to put some spark into his presentation. It didn’t help of course that this session lacked any of the drama a packed chamber can generate. He perhaps wanted to come across as somebody who tackles things forensically, but here too I was a bit disappointed. When asking about the unheeded offers of PPE from UK firms, he should have mentioned a few of these by name. Not doing so made it much easier for Dominic Raab to wriggle off the hook and blather in generalities. In normal times a question about shunning an EU wide procurement process might have been timely, given the statement of a senior civil servant yesterday that it was somehow to do with Brexit ideology. But Starmer won’t go there, I suppose because he doesn’t want people to think that he’s a closet Remainer looking for a cheap shot. So the whole thing was a bit of a yawn.
I suspect the main interest to viewers might be the opportunity the new format of a ‘virtual parliament’ presents to see inside the homes of MPs. Some clearly understand how important it is to set their laptops up in such a way as to show off their fully laden bookshelves. Others might want to sit a bit further back from their cheap laptop cameras, which tend to make chubby cheeks balloon outwards most unflatteringly. Image, boys and girls, image! Beware the danger of looking like a complete wally in a time of national despair!
Back in the early eighties I was a self-employed printer working out of a grotty (but romantic) workshop adjacent to the occasionally flooding River Hull in Hull’s old industrial quarter, Wincolmlee. I was involved with a radical alternative newspaper, the Hull Post. It was all great fun. One day I had a call from a young journalist who had just started at the local commercial radio station, Radio Viking. In those days, they actually employed journalists. He wanted to meet up to find out if there were any stories he could follow up. We agreed to meet up in the workshop and I took him to my newly created mezzanine level office, which had a headroom of five feet. Anyway, we had a chat but I thought if we on the Hull Post had some exclusive scandal brewing I wasn’t going to tell him, some upstart from the new upstart commercial radio station what that story might be. So in the end I’m not sure what the meeting was all about. But ever since I have taken a passing interest in the career of Hugh Pym, now the BBC’s ever present health editor and formerly its economics chap. The reason I write about this encounter today is that he had the first question to Rishi Sunak at the daily No. 10 coronavirus party political broadcast (PPB), and Hugh actually started his one and only question to the Chancellor with ‘Are you ashamed . .’ [before raising the subject of inadequate PPE supplies for the NHS] and I wondered what had happened here. Clearly the question wasn’t designed to be answered head on [‘Yes Hugh, I am ashamed’]. At last I thought, a mainstream journalist has remembered what they got into the job for—to put the crapsters on the spot! Sadly, Hugh didn’t follow up his question with a demand that it be answered, so I concluded it was just a scripted piece of ‘clickbait’ or whatever they call it, to lead that day's bulletins. It would be nice to think that a journalist looking for juicy stuff back in the eighties could still be looking for juicy stuff today. Keep hoping.
Immediately following today’s PPB, the BBC’s PM programme invited Jeremy Hunt on to give his views. Hunt is chair of the House of Commons Health Select Committee, a role totally and scandalously unsuited to a former Conservative Secretary of State for Health, one who happily presided over so many of the deficiencies we’re now witnessing in PPE and other NHS critical supplies. I have come to the conclusion that when listening to these broadcasts I should keep a thick piece of leather to hand, to stick between my teeth to prevent myself from biting my tongue. Hunt is an apologist for the government’s current failings. He has no other choice.
I’ve been watching the American series DEVS on telly. Pure ridiculous nonsense, I won’t go into details but it presents the idea (using the latest technology from California of course) that we could see something that happened in the past, albeit without the full transportation of individual sentient beings through time. The familiar feature of such portrayals of time travel is that, as in this case you may see the Crucifixion of Christ or the death of Socrates as if you were watching a film, i.e. from a third party viewpoint, as you would in a cinema. The problem immediately arises: who is holding the time travel camera? My point is, if you could travel through time you might have just a decent a chance of emerging inside the head or liver of Christ or Socrates, as you might emerge in a microbe sitting on them or standing two feet away. What determines the view? How do you get to choose your viewpoint? Sadly, I can’t see how one could possibly emerge intact as a film director in another era, whizzing around with your camera, everything in sharp focus. But the appeal of sci-fi time travel is built upon such viewpoints, and our historical imagining of them. I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to wander down a medieval street (c’mon, who hasn’t?) and hear the sounds, sniff the smells and observe medieval people going about their daily business, yet be invisible to those denizens of the past (it’s not as if I’d want to catch their diseases or pass on my own). I would insist on being invisible in order to get back into my own time unharmed, in order perhaps to listen to Carl Orff on the stereo after a nice hot shower.
So I have to ask myself how did I make it to episode five of DEVS before I had to say ‘enough?’ One or two of the central characters are interesting, but their ultimate intersection is all rather predictable. The addition of computer generated graphics in these situations can’t really compensate for the decreasing sense of drama. All the explanations can be figured out far too soon, not least because they’ve all been implicitly explained already. There are no mysteries left. We are left with something which is mildly watchable but is unthought provoking.
It may have been different if this was a David Lynch. In his work you are presented with the frustration of not really knowing what’s going on, and knowing that there are known unknowns (etc., etc.) and that’s the way it should be and will probably remain. Indeed that’s what real life is like, but what we expect from a decent Hollywood set-up is quite the reverse. We want our heroes to be as we project ourselves to be when we dream on it. That probably is all the time travel we need, imagining our glories of the future. Our longing for that future seems rather accentuated at the moment.