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[Entries are in reverse date order, newest at the top. Comments and contributions are welcome, to the email address at the bottom.]
Friday 24th June
We're nearing the end of this:
So we went to see Little Amal on her visit to Cheltenham yesterday. She was serenaded by primary school children outside the Everyman Theatre:
If you don't know her, here's an intro from the "Walk with Amal" website:
"One little girl. One BIG hope.
"Last year Amal, a ten year old refugee, embarked on a remarkable journey that took her from the Syrian border across Turkey, across Europe. In search of her mother. To get back to school. To start a new life. Now she takes her next steps.
"Amal is a 3.5 meter puppet. From July to November 2021, representing all displaced children, many separated from their families, Amal travelled over 8,000km embodying the urgent message 'Don't forget about us'.
"Since the beginning of her journey in 2021, Little Amal has travelled through over 70 cities and been welcomed at more than 160 unique events, reaching 875,000 people in the 12 countries she has already visited, and millions more online. In June 2022, one year on from leaving Syria she will take part in World Refugee Week by visiting 10 towns and cities across England meeting old friends and making new ones. In September 2022, Amal will travel to New York City. After arriving at JFK Airport, she will travel through all five boroughs, meeting artists, civic leaders, community groups, and young New Yorkers of all backgrounds."
And here's a late promotional call to Stroudies and neighbours. Hill House in Amberley, which offers "sanctuary retreats for refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of trafficking and torture", is holding its annual fundraiser this Sunday 26th June. Proceeds will go to the Bristol Hospitality Network, which supports destitute asylum seekers, and to Hill House. Ticket sales - you can buy via the website stated in the flyer below (click to enlarge) - close today.
Plus "Reasons to be Cheerful":
Boris is in Rwanda. He can stay there.
Wednesday 22nd June
Inflation? It's a generational thing.
When the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) declared an embargo in 1973 leading to the "Oil Crisis" - which saw the price of oil rise nearly 300% by the end of the sanction in March 1974 - I had just left university. I remember hunting and queuing for diesel for the truck I drove at the time. My father implemented the "Three-Day Week" - commercial users of electricity were limited to three specified consecutive days' consumption each week and prohibited from working longer hours on those days - at his factory in Worcester.
At the time of the 1975 inflation peak of 26.9% - please just pause to consider that number - I was 23. I left the UK for Italy at the end of November that year. I returned after the "Winter of Discontent", in August 1979.
In almost every way, the crisis passed me by. I had no money then - none to lose. A job when I wanted one. What money I earned, I spent - in Italy, on a "life of Riley": visiting its beautiful regions, skiing every weekend in winter, seriously committed to a love of Italian food, renting the summer wing of a 13th century Venetian villa in the foothills near the Prosecco vineyards (long before British adoption of the wine as the girls-night-out drink of choice😉).
This didn't seem to apply:
Now, 40+ years on, it looks different. I have some money - and no job.
Inflation, strikes - for anyone over 60, it's déjà vu. They did for Heath, Wilson and Callaghan. We ended up with Thatcher, her determination to break the unions, and in time witnessed the dismantling of British industry. Are you watching Sherwood, the BBC thriller about murders in a Nottinghamshire village still plagued by the 1984-85 miners' strike? Compulsory viewing.
Now we have Johnson:
I'd like to end on a cheerier note.
"Now is the winter of our discontent", spoken by Gloucester, Richard III. In the early 1970s I used to visit a camping shop just east of Worcester. At January sales time, they had a sign on the road at the entrance which read: "Now is the discount of our winter tents."
Tuesday 21st June
As you will know from these pages, the desire to campaign actively against the noxious Westminster government has been growing in me. I'm beginning to feel that it's one of the things that I want to do with my time in the next two years. Rather than recoil in dismay at the actions of Boris and his cronies, take the fight to the perps.
Brexit has been a personal affront. Our family is European. Son Nikko lives in Vienna, son Ben in the Basque Country. We have strong ties to Italy, Spain and Greece. I don't feel particularly British - at the moment I mostly experience shame. My heart is in Europe. I dream of reversing Brexit's catastrophic spirit and effect.
Can this be more than an idle whimsy? My Irish correspondent pointed me at this organisation yesterday:
I'm surprised to read that the Movement has "history" in the European debate. Its origins lie in the aftermath of WWII - see last Saturday's blog on Churchill and the Council of Europe 👉. It campaigned strongly for the 'Yes' vote in the 1975 EU membership referendum, pressed for direct elections to the European Parliament in the 1970s and promoted the benefits of the single market in the run-up to 1992. No prizes for guessing which side it took in 2016.
Michael Heseltine, former Conservative deputy Prime Minister and leadership challenger to Thatcher in 1990, is president. Andrew Adonis, Labour peer and cabinet minister under Blair and Brown, is chair. Our local Stroud luminary Molly Scott Cato of the Green Party (her MEP seat was stolen by Brexit, along with 72 others) is senior vice chair. The CEO is Anna Bird, formerly Head of Research and Public Policy at the disability equality charity Scope, and Deputy Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, campaigning charity for gender equality and women's rights.
So, there's a cross-party and "good cause" feel to the venture that could well allay my natural suspicion of any group with a rich old Tory property developer and landowner as its figurehead.
I can't quibble with Heseltine's introductory remarks in the welcome - and invitation to membership and donation - email (full text here: ) to interested parties:
"What a week it has been in politics. Far from the promise of "no border in the Irish Sea", we are now threatened with a trade war over Boris Johnson's government's decision to overturn its own treaty commitments on Northern Ireland.
"The plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is unravelling, bringing with it the usual Brexiter reaction that this country should abandon the post-war European Convention on Human Rights, based on democracy, individual freedom and the rule of law and set up in part as a beacon of hope to the countless millions enslaved under communist dictatorship.
"Queues are back. Thanks to Brexit, there are queues to see doctors, queues at A&E departments, queues at airports, queues at ports, queues at passport offices. Farmers turn their crops unharvested back into the soil.
"Meanwhile the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has predicted that the UK will grind to a halt in 2023. Only Russia is performing worse out of the G20 group of wealthy nations."
On 10th June he wrote an article in The Guardian titled: "Even the Murdoch press is now waking up to the truth: Brexit was an act of self-harm". I agree wholeheartedly with the second statement. I hope the first is true.
Here are the full article (4 pages) and two extracted paragraphs, the first quoting the right-of-centre press and reiterating the economic consequences outlined in his welcome email, the second a call to action:
"Brexit was meant to be a 'new beginning for the Tory party,' Jeremy Warner wrote this week in the Daily Telegraph, 'but by making trade with Europe more difficult and costly it has so far only added to the country's travails'. In its coverage of recent OECD warnings, the Daily Mail reported that the UK economy 'is set to flatline next year - performing worse than every other G20 country except for sanctions-crippled Russia'. Most of these countries have also felt the consequences of the war in Ukraine and the Covid epidemic - but not, of course, Brexit.
"I say to all those who have supported the European vision of prime ministers from Churchill through to Cameron: now is the time to restore this vision of our country as a major European partner in one of the world's most powerful and influential organisations. We owe that to generations that are yet to come."
The movement's Twitter feed is lively:
Is this going to have an effect? Is it for me? I certainly warm to its fierce condemnation of Brexit. Will it convince the people who don't agree with us? The movement's track record (see above) is encouraging, 2016 aside. Heseltine's assertion that the Tory press is turning, well ... if the Daily Mail and its ilk switch sides, then we're getting somewhere.
There used to be a Stroud4Europe group, from the dates of its most recent Facebook and Twitter activity now defunct. Maybe it's time to revive it.
Monday 20th June
Recovering from yesterday's 7-hour round-road-trip, in very comfortable temperatures here.
Son Ben, who is not a fan of extreme heat, has had to cope with this in the Basque Country:
Sunday 19th June
Rest day. Actually, it's going to be a very busy one. We're driving for most of it, off to an event, on Fathers Day, where there will be no other fathers and none of my children. No matter, just a bit weird.
A few minutes to reflect on the pros-and-cons of social media interaction. Two people whom I have noted and quoted in these pages, Dale Vince of Ecotricity and George Monbiot of The Guardian, have been going at it hammer-and-tongs on Twitter.
It's all about Dale's Green Gas proposal, of which I wrote here 👉. George - I extolled his essay on capitalism here 👉 - is not impressed.
Dale makes the point: "Why do you refuse to discuss this other than via Twitter missives?" George says: "I doubt I would have got the answer if the discussion had happened behind closed doors."
I rely on Twitter a lot as a source for this blog. Dale and George are significant contributors. It has its place. But not as a forum for serious, balanced debate? Many of the responses to this exchange by other tweeters certainly don't fit into that category. That said, it's a conversation that should be had, and this Twitter thread has stimulated me to look deeper.
Saturday 18th June
I caught ten minutes of the BBC's "Any Answers?" on Radio 4 yesterday evening, at the point where the panellists were putting forward their views on withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The views were split, predictably and for radio effect, between "that's why we chose Brexit, to take back control of our laws" and "it would be a disgrace to abandon an international buffer against discrimination and the abuse of power, conceived in the aftermath of the Holocaust".
The ECHR is not a function of the EU. The Council of Europe (CoE) - the ECHR was its first convention, the cornerstone of all its activities, drafted in 1950 and applied from 1953 - is not the European Union. The two organisations are quite distinct, although the 27 European Union states are all members of the Council of Europe, which now has 46 member states. The 10 countries involved in its original development were: Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden - and the United Kingdom. [The Russian Federation was excluded from the Council in an extraordinary meeting of Ministers on 16th March 2022, after 26 years of membership. On 17th March, the Committee of Ministers suspended the rights of Belarus to participate in all meetings and activities of the Council.]
Winston Churchill was a prime mover in its establishment. Earlier this year I quoted the speech he delivered at the University of Zurich on 19th September 1946:
"We must re-create the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe, and the first practical step will be to form a Council of Europe. If at first all the States of Europe are not willing or able to join a union we must nevertheless proceed to assemble and combine those who will and who can. The salvation of the common people of every race and every land from war and servitude must be established on solid foundations, and must be created by the readiness of all men and women to die rather than to submit to tyranny."
There is an obvious irony here. Boris Johnson published the book "The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History" in 2014. He is clearly a fan. Critics questioned his motivation. Sonia Purnell said in The Independent: "The book says perhaps less about Churchill than it does about the ambition and self-image of Boris." In The Daily Telegraph, Con Coughlin wrote: "The obvious subtext, of course, is that Johnson is seeking to compare his own reputation as a political maverick with that of Churchill."
Here is grainy newsreel footage of the first parliamentary assembly of the Council in August 1949. Churchill afterwards addresses the crowd in Place Kléber, Strasbourg (there's that loathed name again). He warns that he is going to speak in French: "Prenez garde! Je vais parler français." He doesn't warn of his accent, which would shatter a crystal glass at a thousand paces.
Here is the full text of his address (3 pages) - in French:
I've extracted the paragraph heard in the film clip:
"Pour ma part, je ne suis l'ennemi d'aucune race et d'aucune nation du monde. Ce n'est pas contre une race, ce n'est pas contre une nation quelconque que nous nous rassemblons. C'est contre la tyrannie sous toutes ses forms, anciennes ou modernes, que nous nous dressons résolument. La tyrannie reste toujours la même, quelles que soient ses fausses promesses, quel que soit le nom qu'elle adopte, quels que soient les déguisements dont elle habille ses valets."
"For my part, I am not the enemy of any race or nation in the world. It's not against any race, it's not against any nation that we come together. It is against tyranny in all its forms, ancient or modern, that we stand resolutely. Tyranny always remains the same, whatever its false promises, whatever name it adopts, whatever the disguises in which it dresses its henchmen."
Friday 17th June
No deportation flights to Rwanda are planned for today 😁
I'm still tickled by the fact that a European humanitarian institution and agreement should have tipped the balance on Tuesday evening.
Boris and Priti must be hopping mad, which fills me with delight. They'll be planning yet more feverishly to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), to which the UK still belongs post-Brexit. The court is based in Strasbourg (horror!), named also in French, Cour Européenne des Droits de l'Homme (how absolutely dreadful, although now acceptable to Boris's dad). According to The Conversation, no state has withdrawn from the convention in the past 50 years. The last withdrawal was Greece, which did so temporarily under the rule of the military junta in 1967.
Should you wish to dig deeper, here is the convention document (34 pages): . Plus Tuesday's interim measure press release (2 pages): .
Browsing the ECHR website, I was interested to see that Taoiseach Micheál Martin paid a visit earlier this month, when he was welcomed by President Robert Spano and Vice-President Síofra O'Leary:
Not a trip that Boris is likely to make, eh? Unless it's to hand in our notice.
My Irish correspondent has reminded me of the marvellous Sir Patrick Stewart sketch:
On a personal family note, my sister Vicky sent me this email two days ago:
"Over two months ago we offered rooms to a Ukrainian family (two adults and their two year old). The accommodation we have offered was checked and approved 5 weeks ago by our local council and the family put in their visa requests over two months ago and yet they haven't heard anything despite two requests from our MP to the home office (on our behalf as we seem to have no access to the process). Easy for us to carry on with our lives here but theirs are on hold. I feel so sorry for them but we're helpless and they're understandably thinking of seeking a home in another country. Makes me embarrassed to be British. And cross. It's all blather."
Makes you weep. And even more determined to get rid of this toxic incompetent mob at the next election.
Thursday 16th June
Covid, Ukraine, cost-of-living crisis, Rwanda plan ... and now, to challenge Boris yet further, Scottish independence is properly back on the agenda - at least north of the border.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has re-launched the process that should culminate in Indyref2, supported by associated documents that bear the title:
Here is the full initial paper (72 pages) and an "easy read" version (4 pages) .
Sturgeon explains the rationale in her foreword to the main document:
"Since May last year, the Scottish Parliament has had a clear majority of Members who are in favour of independence and committed to giving the people of Scotland that choice in a referendum.
"The Scottish Government is determined that the choice people make on independence will be an informed one.
"To that end, this is the first in a series of 'Building a New Scotland' papers designed to contribute to a full, frank and constructive debate on Scotland's future.
"Independence in itself does not guarantee success for any country. For Scotland, the aspiration of a wealthier, fairer and more successful country will depend on democratic decisions made post-independence and the good stewardship of governments elected.
"But the point is this: in an independent Scotland, crucial decision-making power will rest with the people who live here - not with Westminster governments that do not command the support of people in Scotland, and which pursue policies, for example, Brexit, that are deeply damaging to Scotland's interests."
The core premise is that Scotland can do better. The papers draw comparisons with other nations:
Some simple first conclusions are:
The main paper presents a series of charts (click to enlarge any) to illustrate the UK/Europe comparisons, which make uncomfortable reading for defenders of the Union. Here's a selection:
It's a fair question: "Why not Scotland?" I have an old instinctive reaction to the break-up of the Union, one of dismay, a sense of loss. But whose loss? I'm a pushover for an autonomous or separatist region, such as my beloved Friuli in Italy and the Basque Country where son Ben lives. The Little Englander bemoans the loss of Empire, but isn't it just that those former colonies should have their independence, should govern themselves? What right did we have to be there in the first place? There was nothing truly noble about our presence, although you might argue that there were some benefits absorbed from British rule (and now India usually beats England at cricket, and hosts the big money events). Mostly it was about global power, captive markets and cheap raw materials. Ireland, Scotland and Wales, given the treatment meted out by the English over centuries, can justifiably yearn to be apart - and in Ireland's case be proud and grateful that they already are. And aren't we lauding a Ukraine that wishes to remain independent of Russia?
Who wouldn't want to be free of the current Westminster cabal? I'm at the head of the queue.
Wednesday 15th June
It's reported that the £££m-hire Privilege Style (Privilege Líneas Aéreas S.A. - click on the Corporate Watch summary above to see the detail) 'plane - allegedly (Daily Express) a 27-year-old ex-Polish Airlines Boeing 767-300 - returned from MOD Boscombe Down late last night to its home base in Palma de Mallorca.
The débâcle is an in-a-nutshell snapshot of many qualities of this Westminster government: incompetent, dodgy, muddy-thinking, wasteful - remember PPE? - morally bankrupt, callous.
On the issue of morality, one of the most telling indicators is the letter to The Times yesterday from senior Church of England clerics, the so-called "Lords Spiritual":
"Whether or not the first deportation flight leaves Britain today for Rwanda, this policy should shame us as a nation. Rwanda is a brave country recovering from catastrophic genocide. The shame is our own, because our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, as we have for centuries. Those to be deported to Rwanda have had no chance to appeal, or reunite with family in Britain. They have had no consideration of their asylum claim, recognition of their medical or other needs, or any attempt to understand their predicament.
"Many are desperate people fleeing unspeakable horrors. Many are Iranians, Eritreans and Sudanese citizens, who have an asylum grant rate of at least 88 per cent. These are people Jesus had in mind as he said when we offer hospitality to a stranger, we do it for him. They are the vulnerable that the Old Testament calls us to value. We cannot offer asylum to everyone, but we must not outsource our ethical responsibilities, or discard international law - which protects the right to claim asylum.
"We must end the evil trafficking; many churches are involved in fighting this evil. This needs global co-operation across every level of society. To reduce dangerous journeys to the UK we need safe routes: the church will continue to advocate for them. But deportations - and the potential forced return of asylum seekers to their home countries - are not the way. This immoral policy shames Britain."
Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York
Dame Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London
Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham
David Urquhart, Bishop of Birmingham
John Inge, Bishop of Worcester
Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry
Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford
James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle
Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans
Donald Allister, Bishop of Peterborough
Stephen Conway, Bishop of Ely
Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark
Nicholas Baines, Bishop of Leeds
Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester
Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester
Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol
Libby Lane, Bishop of Derby
Julian Henderson, Bishop of Blackburn
David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
Guli Francis-Dehqani, Bishop of Chelmsford
Robert Atwell, Bishop of Exeter
Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford
Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich
Paul Williams, Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham
Tuesday 14th June
The 6am questions: will the Rwanda flight take off, and with how many on board?
Eighty of us turned up in front of Stroud Subscription Rooms yesterday at 5:30pm for a half-hour silent vigil:
What were my thoughts?
Silence is very powerful, in many ways much more so than loud declaratory protest. I was acutely aware of my own interior conversation, reflecting on the plight of those at risk in this grim moment, trying to understand how our country has come to this point, wondering how we can make change for the better. There were one or two objecting toots from passing motorists, and a rant from a sad deranged woman familiar to residents of Middle Street - which said far more about them than the vigil participants.
It was largely a gathering of "the usual suspects" [Question to self: is that what I have now become?]. A recognisable representation of the anti-vax conspiracy theorists with whom I have clashed in the past. Last night I was moved by a less critical thought. Many of these people have stood up for matters of principle all their lives, often in the face of hostile opposition and at a personal cost. Former mayor John Marjoram was present, as ever on such occasions, still at the age of 82 carrying a placard for justice and humanity. Our friend Martin Whiteside was there with members of his family; he has made a huge contribution to the green agenda in Stroud. If we are to halt the toxic drift of the current government, we are going to need a lot more of that kind of commitment and tenacity.
The age and social profile was unsurprising. Preaching to the converted? Our real challenge, as Obama said at COP26, is to convince those who don't agree with us. As the Brexit madness rolls on, how much of the Leave-voting population still believes? It was an act of such xenophobic entrenchment that it's difficult to see how those attitudes can be given up or changed. Who wants to admit that they were wrong? Or stupid? Or mean? And will we achieve the dream of a kinder society, a Britain (or just an England if that's what is left of the union) of which we can be proud rather than ashamed ... if we think of the Brexiteer - and indeed the Tory diehard - in those dismissive terms?
How do we create a generous future in all our names?
Monday 13th June
The Twittersphere is awash with anti-flight sentiment today, including:
Stroudies, don't forget:
Sunday 12th June
Full printable PDF for display:
Saturday 11th June
Why not write - if you're a UK voter, and find the Rwanda plan as stupid and callous as I do - an email immediately (the flight is scheduled for Tuesday) to your MP?
Even the heir to the throne objects (allegedly) - and the second headline comes from none other than the Daily Mail:
Friday 10th June
Dale Vince's Green Gas project - dismissed by many as bonkers - has been gaining traction. Here's a recent interview with TalkTV (2 minutes):
His company website explained:
Ecotricity has begun construction of its latest renewable energy innovation - a green gas mill, which will make gas from grass. Its first-of-a-kind gas mill is now being built near Reading in Berkshire. Once fully operational in early 2023, it will provide all the gas needs of 4000 local homes - every year. Traditional methods of making green gas involve use of food waste or energy crops - both have sustainability issues and problems with a lack of scale. Grass is a breakthrough alternative.
Ecotricity's green gas mill will be fed by herbal lays - a mix of grass and herbs, sown and grown on farmland next to the plant. Green gas mills do not require agricultural land and do not compete with food production. Costing £11 million to build, Ecotricity's first green gas mill will create 30 jobs and directly contribute £3m into the rural economy.
Ecotricity has also released a new white paper on the potential for Green Gas in Britain. Authored by independent academics from Imperial College London Consultants, the report reveals the potential that a national Green Gas program would have:
The report also highlights the significant shortcomings of the government's national air source heat pump roll-out - it's alternative plan for heating homes without carbon emissions. Such a plan would cost six times as much as a green gas roll out - partly due to the need to triple renewable electricity generation, and significantly upgrade the grid to deliver it. The plan would also require the scrapping of millions of gas devices - boilers and cookers, as well as the UK gas grid. Currently, it costs £8,000 per home to install a heat pump - which also adds more than 40% to the overall energy bill of each household that uses one instead of gas. The report also flags that heat pumps will not work for 20% of British homes at all - while a further 20% of homes will need significant upgrades.
Here's the full report - a serious document, full of detail and technical background (56 pages):
I've extracted two brief chunks of text and a map of available UK grassland (click to enlarge):
Green Gas can immediately contribute significantly to meeting the UK's Net Zero target. We assessed that the UK has 6.46 million hectares of suitable grassland. This is enough suitable grassland for around 5,400 Green Gas Mills to be built. This would provide up to 236.5 TWh - enough energy to heat 98.8% of British homes if made energy efficient - while also boosting the rural economy by nearly 162,000 jobs and generating £16 billion for the rural economy.
Green Gas Mills also save nearly 87% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when compared to usage and generation of natural gas and synthetic fertiliser, as business-as usual scenarios, which could be further reduced with proper automation and well monitored systems by 2050 to emission saving up to 99%.
What's not to like? Well, to go with my politically incorrect dislike of wind and solar farms - I must get some counselling - there are 5,400 mills to be built. I'll have to apply a dose of Hans Rosling "factfulness" to help me with that number.
To finish off, here's a video of the Reading mill under construction (3 minutes):
Thursday 9th June
You'd be forgiven for thinking that I've lost my marbles today. I'm posting maps (click to enlarge any for the smaller details, you really have to look closely for some) by Jakub Marian, according to his website a "Czech data scientist, linguist, geographer, and musician" . Why? Because they popped up when I was looking for something else. I love maps. They're European. Quirky. There are nuggets of interest in them all. Search for the minorities; I reckon the Basque Country is the winner.
Here are three old maps that he has digitally restored:
Map of Europe - Abraham Ortelius, 1571
Linguistic map of Europe - Gottfried Hensel (1687-1765)
Vintage map of Italy - Litografia Corbetta, 19th century
And, I suspect, a small private statistical joke:
Wednesday 8th June
The Platinum Jubilee is over, we are "moving on" from #PartyGate. I'm going back to Hans Rosling's good news. Be aware that it's at least five years old.
In chapter two of Factfulness, he lists some simple graphs of "bad things decreasing". Click on any chart to enlarge.
He goes on to the reverse set, "good things increasing". You may question the "goodness" of some of these, such as the growth of the internet and the proliferation of mobile 'phones, or the value of more recorded music and feature films.
I hope that cheers you up a bit.
Tuesday 7th June
It's a start. Or is it?
Monday 6th June
Everything further down was written before this announcement:
Johnson's team have sent this document to Conservative MPs arguing his case (click to enlarge):
So, before that news ...
A bit of cricket - skip if it's not your thing. The England team actually brought some Jubilee - there, I've finally managed to mention it - cheer by beating New Zealand, a welcome change after winning only one match in the previous seventeen. Joe Root picked the party Sunday to score a century at Lords, hit the winning stroke and pass 10,000 test career runs along the way, the 14th player in history. In reaching the milestone, he equalled former captain Alastair Cook's record of being the youngest player in the world to do so, at 31 years and 157 days. They will have to argue over the minutes that separate them. After resigning as captain following a poor eighteen months of results, Root has his smile back. So do I.
Talking of the Jubilee, the Queen can be pleased with the extent of the celebrations, the gratitude and respect expressed.
Recent political events took a back seat. I'm sure Boris wishes the, ahem, party could go on for longer.
Comedian Lee Mack couldn't resist a sly reference in his introduction to the #PlatinumPartyAtThePalace:
Members of the audience at the event welcomed the Prime Minister:
The most charming tribute, and comment on the Ukraine war, came from BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg's piece (6 minutes, so heart-warming) with Valentina "Queen of the Kiosk" on the occasion of her birthday:
The technology used to display images on the front of Buckingham Palace was impressive. But I don't remember this one:
Just a couple of questions. Wasn't it a little weird to hear a 73-year-old man refer in front of millions to our 96-year-old monarch as "Mummy"? And whose cruel idea was it to drag poor 78-year-old Diana Ross - hardly a Brit national treasure - on stage for the concert finale?
Saturday 4th June
I had intended to extract detail from the Rosling family's theories, but overnight - it often happens - I decided this would be overkill. Maybe wait until I have finished their book Factfulness.
I'll limit myself to a few examples. Their very attractive premise, if the news gets you down, is that things are not as bad as they seem. This is, admirably, based on large-scale analysis of data of reputable origin - Factfulness has 5 pages of acknowledgements, 26 pages of sources - presented in simple but compelling ways. Ola argues that we have a tendency to be guided by misconceptions, while instead we should apply certain positive rules of thumb to our conclusions.
Key to all their arguments is our ability to overlook the majority. Typical evidence of this can be found in the Hans Rosling video I posted on Thursday👉. We know that there is a huge gap between the very rich and very poor. But over the last fifty years most of the world has moved into the middle ground between the two extremes.
Here's the first misconception, the most basic, paired with its accompanying rule of thumb:
If we have an impulse to catastrophise, here's the fourth pair:
Hans Rosling was a brilliant enthusiast. I can't resist another video from an earlier TED talk of 2006 (6 minutes) which concentrates on changes in child mortality. It shows his ability to present data in a way that challenges established views - with great energy, self-deprecating humour and humility.
In some ways this bigger-picture approach doesn't quite wash. We are witnessing a brutal war between two nations in Europe. That means there are 42 other countries in the region who are not engaged directly in major conflict. The overwhelming majority is at peace. See what I mean?
Friday 3rd June
I promised at the end of yesterday's post that I wouldn't leave you high and dry with Hans Rosling's questions about "How not to be ignorant about the world". In the 2014 TED talk he handed over to son and collaborator Ola. Here are his answers (just over 10 minutes):
Here's the transcript (4 pages):
I'll extract some summary graphics and notes when I have time ... probably for tomorrow ...
Thursday 2nd June
You will know from these pages how I, like most people, struggle to digest the news in all its grimness.
Two weeks ago I met my children's secondary school Maths teacher in the street, Mr. (Roger) Dixon. When I told son Ben, he wrote: "Good old Tricky Dicky. Probably the coolest teacher I ever had.". Roger and I discussed how overwhelming the media coverage can be, how difficult life has been for young people over recent years. He recommended this book:
I've barely started it, so I can't yet pass judgment, but I have now watched several of Hans Rosling's TED talks. How did I - someone who is a pushover for data and charts - miss this guy?
He was a professor of international health at Sweden's Karolinska Institute and co-founder with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund of the Gapminder Foundation (named after the recorded announcement on certain London Underground stations, "Mind the Gap") which developed Trendalyzer, software to animate data compiled by the UN and the World Bank.
Factfulness ("the stress-reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting facts"), written with Ola and Anna, was published after his death in 2017.
The introduction starts with these words: "I love the circus." On the second page, "I decided to become a sword swallower."
"Sword swallowing has always shown that the seemingly impossible can be possible, and inspired people to think beyond the obvious. Occasionally I demonstrate this ancient Indian art at the end of one of my lectures on global development. I step up onto a table and rip off my professorial checked shirt to reveal a black vest top decorated with a gold sequined lightning bolt. I call for complete silence, and to the swirling beat of a snare drum I slowly slide an army bayonet down my throat. I stretch out my arms. The audience goes wild."
This should be an intriguing read, I thought.
Here is the first half of the TED talk he gave with Ola in 2014, titled "How not to be ignorant about the world". It's genuinely worth eight minutes of your time.
Here's the transcript (3 pages):
I really shouldn't leave you there. Maybe I'll post Ola's answers tomorrow ...
Wednesday 1st June
Nothing but beer deliveries outside my office window today. The Bisley House is warming up - or cooling down? - for the Platinum Jubilee.
Yet another Stroud festival starts today. Click on the image below to visit the Stroud Nature website:
Tuesday 31st May
Bristol mayor Marvin Rees has taken some flak for flying to Vancouver to give a 14-minute TED talk on the role of cities in fighting climate change.
Climate campaigners Flight Free UK calculated the trip of 4,600 miles (7,402km) each way created 2.016 tonnes (2,016kg) of CO2 per passenger and was at odds with his message. UK director Anna Hughes said:
"Bristol was the first place in the UK to declare a climate emergency, yet the mayor is acting completely at odds with this declaration. Faced with such a precarious climate situation, we need our leaders to demonstrate the kind of action we should all be taking, not flying to another continent to speak, ironically, about the climate emergency. Actions always speak louder than words, and in this post-pandemic age of online interactions, it would have been a much more powerful and effective statement to appear on screen."
What about the talk? Marvin argued that cities play an essential role in the climate emergency:
"Consider these four numbers: three, 55, 75, 80. Cities occupy less than three percent of the Earth's land surface. Cities are home to over half, 55 percent, of the world's population. Cities are responsible for around 75 percent of CO2 emissions. Cities consume 80 percent of the world's energy.
"But think about this. It's the characteristics of cities - their reach, their size, their density, close proximity of the leadership to the people, their adaptability and their capacity for reinvention - that mean that we can actually plan to manage those numbers. That means through our cities, we can actually plan to do more, for more people, with less. And it's why I say cities are one of the most effective tools we have at our disposal for leveraging efficiency into our relationships with land, energy and waste."
There's a lot of international cooperation already happening. He mentioned three organisations of which I had hitherto heard absolutely nothing (text detail from a variety of sources):
"He has been clear - the fight against climate change will be won or lost in cities, which generate three-quarters of global carbon emissions. And it is therefore the duty of city leaders to come together, lobby for change and influence each other to make a collective impact. The mayor's visit to Vancouver was not just to deliver the talk. He had a full agenda [including the chance to network with other influential speakers and attract future funding and inward investment]."
Here's the talk (14 minutes):
Here's the transcript (5 pages):
Monday 30th May
BBC Politics West belatedly caught up with some news yesterday - covered in these pages on 2nd April 👉 - with a discussion on the cost-of-living crisis and the role of renewable energy, starting with a pre-recorded piece on Dale Vince, his planned sale of Ecotricity and a move into politics. Here it is (just over 4 minutes long). In defence of BBC West, it adds additional rounded context to what I've posted already.
Stroud Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie was on the programme in person, and offered her two penn'orth:
"OUR town centre"? Has she ever graced us with her presence? I swear she barely campaigned in Stroud during the 2019 election - won the seat on the back of Boris's Big Lie - and the Politics West appearance was the first I've seen of her since. Contrast that with the involvement of David Drew, our former Labour MP and current county councillor. I've seen him regularly in the last six months: at Forest Green Rovers, a meeting at the Crown & Sceptre about local parking, the refugee campaign launch at Stroud Brewery last week.
Sunday 29th May
No serious comments today. Just a thank-you note from friend Eddy - time-honoured postcard format, the familiar handwriting. Two indicators of our times added by the postal system: "Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal: donate now at DEC.ORG.UK" and "Royal Mail Jubilee Mail Centre". Plus a traditional "wish you were here".
Saturday 28th May
Here's a local snippet.
On Thursday evening, we attended a meeting at Stroud Brewery for the public launch of "Stroud Together with Refugees", a new campaigning group triggered in part by Priti Patel's disgraceful Rwandan scheme:
"How does our country fit into the bigger picture of global transformation and upheaval, climate change, war and political violence? Britain was one of the first countries to ratify the Refugee Convention in 1951, so how can schemes like criminalising desperate people on arrival, or offloading them to Rwanda, even be considered? Yet now they are more than schemes - they have become law. Refugees have been scapegoats for countries' problems throughout history. But never until now have there been such starkly different policies for different people, according to how they travel instead of why they have fled."
There were four speakers: Judith Large, Senior Fellow at Kent University, adviser on Forced Migration at the Conflict Analysis Research Centre; Adele Owen, Director of GARAS (Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers); John Patrick Njau, Participation Officer for BRASP (Bristol Refugee Asylum Seeker Partnership), with lived experience of seeking sanctuary in the UK for nearly two decades; and Doina Cornell, Leader of Stroud District Council.
Doina was elected in 2012 as a Labour and Cooperative district councillor for Dursley and has been leader of Stroud District Council since January 2018.
She works with her family business Cornell Sailing, publishers of nautical books and guides: father Jimmy, mother Gwenda and brother Ivan. Here is Doina's "about" entry on the website:
"Having two travel-obsessed parents, by the age of fourteen Doina had covered thousands of miles over land and sea, most memorably spending seven years circumnavigating the world with her family on a 36-foot yacht. Her memoir of this time, 'Child of the Sea', was published in 2012.
"Since then she has been mostly land-based but continues to sail whenever possible, including to Antarctica with father Jimmy and brother Ivan. As part of the Blue Planet Odyssey (a round-the-world sailing rally from 2014-17 aiming to raise awareness of climate change and the most urgent issues facing our oceans), she sailed to the Arctic and Tuvalu in the South Pacific to raise awareness of the risks of climate change to these parts of the world. In the summer of 2014 she sailed to the Arctic with Jimmy and her daughter Nera. In 2015 she joined the Blue Planet Odyssey on board Australian yacht Drina with her son Dan and sailed to Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu."
Only in Stroud, eh?
There is a discussion meeting hosted by "Stroud Together with Refugees" at Star Anis Café on Monday 20th June at 7.30pm.
Friday 27th May
Number 10 flat, 25th May, 8:20pm
Thursday 26th May
Boris still refuses to resign after the release of the Sue Gray report. Here it is (60 pages, which include her earlier January update):
For me, his press conference had clear Bullingdon undertones, echoes of a club unfettered by standards of decency accepted by the rest of society. If you have time and access, Netflix's Anatomy of a Scandal is a relevant and compelling watch, exploring the link between the Westminster power elite and a university society called the Libertines. In both the Netflix fiction and today's real-life #Partygate, there is no genuine regret, other than for being caught.
I've extracted short clips from the press conference. Boris displays three attributes - they leak out, involuntarily, from beneath a surface attempt at contrition - that smack of the Bullingdon link: irritation (that anybody should question his behaviour), disdain (for his critics) and a light-heartedness (which implies that it's really just a bit of fun, not serious at all).
First, watch him get miffed with Beth Rigby of Sky News, who dares to attempt a second question:
Next, he gives short shrift to Andrew Marr, representing LBC:
Towards the end he tries to leave, but is persuaded to answer three more questions:
In the Netflix drama, the over-entitled undergraduates commit acts of excess and abuse, then chant "Omertà of the Libertines!", which is both a rallying cry and a vow of silence. They are answerable only to themselves. The suffering of others is ignored.
Some snippets from the report. First, 20th May 2020:
"No 10 Official (2) responded 'Great! Could you also suggest they bring their own booze! Not sure we will have enough but hopefully there aren't that many people in the building!'
"The same No 10 special adviser sent a message to Martin Reynolds [Principal Private Secretary to Boris Johnson] by WhatsApp: 'Drinks this eve is a lovely idea. Just to flag that the press conference will probably be finishing around that time, so helpful if people can be mindful of that as speakers and cameras are leaving, not walking around waving bottles of wine etc.'
"Lee Cain [Downing Street Director of Communications]: 'I think it's your decision my friend, not mine! But it obviously comes with rather substantial comms risks.'"
13 November 2020:
18 December 2020:
"There was food and alcohol available which had been bought and brought in by staff. Some members of staff drank excessively. The event was crowded and noisy such that some people working elsewhere in the No 10 building that evening heard significant levels of noise coming from what they characterised as a "party" in the Press Office. A cleaner who attended the room the next morning noted that there had been red wine spilled on one wall and on a number of boxes of photocopier paper.
"The event lasted for several hours, with varying levels of attendance throughout, including because officials left to attend official meetings. Attendance peaked during the awards ceremony. No 10 exit logs show a number of members of staff remaining in the office until after midnight."
The most unsavoury of all:
"I was made aware of multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff."
No discussion of whether these events might be wrong, indeed a booze-gathering is "a lovely idea", caution is advised only to avoid being found out. Breaking of the rules is reduced to a "comms" issue. Contempt for the humble cleaner.
Tuesday 24th May
A delightful reunion with my friend Eddy yesterday. As fit as a fiddle at 74 from his beloved cycling; he told me that as recently as 3 years ago he was clocking up an annual 10,000km - that's an average of 27.4km every day, or 192.3km each week.
It was interesting - and difficult - to hear his coruscating view-from-Luxembourg of Westminster corruption and the Brexit catastrophe.
He still reads (print) newspapers voraciously, with Le Monde a clear favourite. Along with Private Eye.
I have talked in this blog of his firm rejection of computer and internet technology. I was amused that to purchase a ticket at Cam & Dursley station for the onward trip to Bristol, he was obliged to interact with a screen.
The final picture is a private hommage to a moment in northern Italy 45 years ago. We were waiting at a railway station to catch a train to Venice when one of our number muttered: "Come on, little train."
We can't risk a delay of another 15 years to meet again.
Monday 23rd May
Suspension of blog today for a very special event. My friend Eddy from Luxembourg is arriving at midday. You may have read about him in these pages. We met 50 years ago and have not lived in the same country since 1975. This is our first meeting in 15 years, when we stayed chez him and Diana on the way to Berlin.
Sunday 22nd May
It's the final day of the weekend's Stroud Festival of Food & Drink, a new venture this year, the website promising talks, masterclasses, tastings, workshops, family entertainment, culinary games, live music brunches and street markets.
As with most Stroud events, there's a town map (click to enlarge) of goings-on, this time designed by local illustrator Ruth Hickson:
Granddaughter Lola and her friend Ava have been staying while our daughter Ellie has been at a hen party in Dorset. Yesterday we went down to try out the Food Trucks in Fawkes Place behind the Subscription Rooms, an unlikely venue, I thought, as it is a featureless space flanked on one side by the main public toilets. Thankfully, it was transformed. Lola and Ava fell on the varied offerings despite their recent and perfectly adequate breakfast. OK, I admit that I succumbed to the densest chocolate brownie I've ever eaten.
Cost-of-living crisis? A crispy duck wrap for £8? Well, it was Middle-Class Saturday, a Farmers-Market-plus. It's a different story mid-week, when the High Street is populated with homeless begging from their sleeping bags. A tale of two towns ... of two Englands.
To satisfy the Grauniad readership, a number of celebrities have contributed, among them Jack Stein (son of Rick), Loyd Grossman (Through the Keyhole peeper and purveyor of sauces), Rustie Lee (80's favourite and owner of an infectious laugh) and topping the bill Jay Rayner (son of Claire, Observer food critic and habitué of MasterChef).
Rayner had a double gig on Friday. He presented a talk titled "My Last Supper", describing what would be on his menu were he a condemned man. This was followed by performance from the Jay Rayner Quartet, interpreting material from the Great American Songbook. £24 + £16.50 = £40.50. Those feeling the pinch would have stayed away.
For the fatter wallet, a charming festival. I watch MasterChef, but a voice whispers in my ear: "Why all this 'fine dining' food titivation? Don't we just need wholesome affordable meals for all?"
Saturday 21st May
Weekend quiz. What's the story? Answers below.
1. Stanley Johnson takes French citizenship.
2. Energy - or cost-of-living - crisis.
3. Covid breaks loose in North Korea.
4. Wayne-Wagatha Rooney in court. Should he sue the artist?
5. Ed Sheeran and Cherry Seaborn announce second baby.
6. "Chariots of Fire" composer Vangelis dies aged 79.
7. Russia declares victory at Mariupol steel plant.
8. Plans for Northern Ireland Protocol threaten Belfast Agreement.
9. Hotel in Rwanda awaits first refugees.
Friday 20th May
Having worked in IT for many years, I still get updates from the computer press. I don't read them as avidly as I once did, but my attention was drawn yesterday to an article in IT Pro about Russia, which led me to another published earlier about Ukraine.
The first was titled "Google Russia files for bankruptcy, ends operations in the country":
"Google's Russia-based business unit has filed for bankruptcy following the country's decision to seize its bank account in late March. The move made it impossible for the Google subsidiary to continue paying its employees, suppliers, and vendors, making it 'untenable' for the tech giant to 'function', according to a statement given to Reuters.
"It has also made it increasingly difficult for Google to move its remaining employees out of Russia. The company had been helping its staff transfer to other EMEA offices since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Googlers who had chosen to remain in Russia have now been let go.
"In March, Russia banned Google News for promoting 'inauthentic information' about the invasion of Ukraine after Google paused all advertising for Russian state-funded media in late February.
"The asset seizure by Russian authorities is the latest development in Google's soured relations with Putin's government. In late 2021, Google was fined 9 million roubles (£94,400) as a penalty for failing to delete content deemed illegal by the Russian state."
The second article was "How Telegram became Ukraine's biggest digital ally in the war". Telegram is an online messaging app that works like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. It was founded by Russian Pavel Durov, who was also behind Russia's largest social network VKontakte (VK).
In 2014, Durov publicly refused to hand over the personal data of Ukrainian protesters to Russia's security agencies and block Alexei Navalny's page on VK. He was ousted as VK CEO, claimed the company had been effectively taken over by Vladimir Putin's allies, left Russia and stated that he had "no plans to go back". He then started Telegram, which was headquartered first in Berlin and later moved to Dubai, as did Durov. In April 2021, he received United Arab Emirates citizenship. Forbes reports that he has a net worth of $15.1 billion, based mostly on his ownership of Telegram.
The IT Pro article stated:
"The messaging app has experienced a surge in demand as users flock to the platform for news and instructions on how to participate in the effort to thwart Russia's invasion. Researchers have observed rapid growth of Ukrainian groups turning to various Telegram channels with the purpose of organising offensive efforts against Russia.
"The highly publicised 'IT Army of Ukraine' group, set up by Oleksandr Bornyakov, Ukraine's deputy minister for digital transformation, is among the most populated with more than 277,000 members [in March 2022]. The group posted its "top priority" targets, which included GLONASS, Russia's space-based satellite navigation system; the Belarusian railway, which hacktivists previously targeted prior to the conflict; Russian telecoms providers; the National Bank of Russia, and ATM processors."
Thursday 19th May
Mission accomplished on Tuesday. Grandson Marlie will receive his new passport within a week. Phew! All that time scrutinising the form paid off. I had been dreading the drive all the way to Peterborough only for daughter Ellie to be told, "Sorry, that won't do." In fact, the staff at the Passport Office, far from inflicting on us an anticipated - by my cynical suspicion of government bureaucracy - display of jobsworth-ness, were charming and helpful. Prompt, quick and efficient. Ellie was seen early and out of her appointment within twenty minutes.
The downside of the experience was the ten hours spent in the car. It was a full house: me, Sarah, Ellie, Marlie and two dogs. Quite why we were all making the journey, on a day that touched an unseasonal 25℃, beats me. A round trip of 386 miles, including the preliminary (and concluding) hop from Stroud to Bristol to pick up our passengers. After taking the M32 and M4 to Swindon, we went across country via Oxford and Northampton, returning the same way.
The most striking observation for me was how much the driving - or road - experience has changed in my lifetime. When I was a five-year-old child, we used to travel in our black Morris Eight from Worcester to Cornwall, the majority of the journey down the A38. There were no motorways, barely a hint of a bypass. We went through the centres of cities, towns and villages.
On our Tuesday route we did not see a single one of these, except for a brief tour, deliberately leaving the A605, of the pretty market town of Oundle, where I went to school and to which I have never returned in 50 years. All you see now of towns like Brackley are retail parks, massive distribution centres, out-of-town Aldi and Lidl supermarkets, drive-through outlets of McDonald's and Costa, all bordering the ubiquitous ring-road. Nothing of the individual and regional characteristics of each county, a church or town hall, the distinctive local stone or brick. The architecture is marked by national, even global, design and branding - presumably so that you can easily spot a well-known food stop or retail branch. There's nothing - apart from signs, but certainly not in the buildings or landscape - round the towns or on the connecting trunk routes that would tell you where you were, although that might also be a function of the predominantly flat East Midlands.
Of course, it's better that the centres of population are not cursed with high volumes of traffic. Even in the late 1960's, lorries plagued the old narrow streets of Oundle.
Another feature that struck me was how many of the new roads and bypasses are flanked by abundant trees, blocking any view of the surrounding countryside. Were they planted at the time of construction, intentionally, and have now grown to maturity?
By early evening, coming home, I had grown heartily sick of roundabouts, a frustrating impediment to progress on a ring-road. They're inevitable and necessary, if you think about it, as the roads that radiate out of any town have to cross your path as you circumnavigate the centre, usually without the benefit of a fly-over or underpass. You pick up speed on the relatively short sections between junctions and then have to slow down to negotiate each roundabout. There was a tell-tale smell of brake-pad burning after an intense series of these encounters. I never imagined I'd be relieved to get back on the M4.
I have always thought that the M1 was the first motorway in England. In that it was conceived explicitly as a complete motorway, that's true. The first section between Watford and Rugby opened on 2 November 1959. However, I read that the pioneer road embracing now familiar motorway regulations was the Preston Bypass, opened in 1958 by Harold Macmillan and later subsumed into the M6. The initiative was made possible by the Special Roads Act 1949, which, as the name implies, authorised the construction of special roads which could be restricted to specific types of traffic. The motorway, as we know, was not to be used by pedestrians, cyclists, animals and more - only by, yes, motor vehicles.
I still have one question outstanding from the passport adventure. Why is section 7 of the form "intentionally blank"? The guidance booklet merely repeats the advice on the form: "Don't write in this section." The passport services website doesn't help much more: "Section 7 consists of a blank space. This is entirely intentional, and applicants should be careful to leave this space blank and not write anything on it." I've only found one suggestion on the internet, namely that the section used to be for no-longer-required grandparent information and has been retained to avoid renumbering, which I assume might cause incompatibility issues with other referring documents and systems. Really? I'm surprised that there has been such scant discussion. Are we just to roll over and accept this absurdity? I need to know the answer. Who will tell me?
Wednesday 18th May
Recovering from 11 hours in the car yesterday. Reflecting on a road trip across Middle England. Thoughts tomorrow.
How does that fit with 80 days of Mariupol? I'm still unsure how to square such suffering with my daily life.
Tuesday 17th May
Little time to blog. Yesterday was grandson Marlie's 8th birthday🎂, and today we're off to Peterborough (via Bristol) to renew his passport. I estimate a total of eight hours in the car. It was either there or Glasgow. The system is so clogged up that we can't risk the advised delivery time of 10-12 weeks if we want to be sure of Marlie being allowed into France for our family holiday in July, so we're using the "fast track" service. You have to book a face-to-face appointment to take advantage. Harder to nail down than a ticket to Glastonbury. Similar price.
OK, I'll admit that this is mainly triggered by his passport having been lost. I'm amused by section 3c of the form, details of the lost or stolen passport:
Isn't it in the nature of losing something that you don't know where and when it happened? Would you write "Dropped out of my bag, Bristol Temple Meads station, platform 4, October 23rd 2020, 4:21pm, waiting for the train to Taunton"?
There is also the mysterious section 7, a large box occupying roughly a third of page 3:
Ours not to reason why.
Sunday 15th May
As expected, Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest with Kalush Orchestra's "Stefania", riding the wave of European support. Perhaps more remarkably the UK, with Sam Ryder's entry "Space Man", came second - evading the humiliation of "nul points". Can it be that the rest of Europe doesn't hate us quite so much? Russia was denied participation. It's a measure of our troubled times that a much-derided show, once hosted by a very tongue-in-cheek Terry Wogan, should now be a platform for political empathy or condemnation. I still couldn't bring myself to watch it.
I was pleased, following my piece yesterday, that Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool won the FA Cup Final, adding a second trophy this season to the Carabao Cup - or League Cup, now sponsored by a Thai energy drink company - they claimed back in February. Both against Chelsea, embroiled in Russian sanction woes. However, I was reminded of why I don't watch much football. It's a game defined by goals; you win if you score more than the opposition, right? Adding together the "normal" and extra time played in both finals, neither side scored during 240 minutes of open play, the games decided by penalty shoot-outs. I should have expected the scoreline, on account of the Lewis Footie Curse, mentioned before in these pages. World Cup Italia '90? I was back in Udine and saw the Spain-Uruguay game: 0-0. The only match I attended at Forest Green Rovers this season just gone? Goalless. I must be a slow learner.
We're into the second day of the first weekend of another Stroud delight, the Select Arts Trail (14-15 and 21-22 May), where local creatives open their homes and studios to the public. Here's the brochure - designed by our neighbour Chris Bailey - front page and trail map (click to enlarge):
There's also an interactive guide online:
We went yesterday to see the work of potter friend Penny Campbell, who has provided most of our serving bowls.
Saturday 14th May
I can't face the gloom of the news again today. Truss says she's going to rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol, Putin cuts off electricity to Finland, the first 50 migrants are chosen to be sent to Rwanda, the Wag Wars ... it's not good for anybody's health. Much worse, of course, for those suffering.
It's a lovely morning, and further brightened by the prospect of watching Liverpool in the FA Cup Final this evening. I'm really not that keen on football - which might surprise you from the space I devote to Forest Green Rovers in these pages - but I do like manager Jürgen Klopp. Passionate, positive, decent - and he understands the city of Liverpool, home town of my father's side of the family. So, the cheery piece for the day is the time he spent shortly after joining the club in 2015 with a kid teaching him Scouse.
Friday 13th May
Forest Green Rovers again. This time there's been ... trouble at t' mill.
Here are two interviews with chairman Dale Vince. Take your pick. The first, with BBC Radio Gloucestershire, is brief at 1 minute 20 seconds. The second, with Sky Sports TV, is 6 minutes 40 seconds - and so provides a more complete reaction.
He seems pretty stoical about the setback. Looking to the future. "Overwhelmingly disappointed"? I wonder if there were a few stronger words. He's not impressed with Watford FC: "Deceit is part of a culture that comes from the top."
Meanwhile, son Ben discovered Los Canónigos restaurant in Valpuesta, a village in the hills an hour south of Bilbao. Treated himself to the set meal:
MENÚ DEL DÍA. Disponemos de un menú desgustación de 35€, que consta de aperitivo, entrante, pescado, carne, prepostre y postre. Incluye bebida, café.
TODAY'S MENU. We have a €35 tasting menu, consisting of an aperitif, starter, fish, meat, pre-dessert and dessert. Includes drink, coffee.
A bit "Master Chef" for me, I said, but Ben commented:
"It is fine dining but for a 4 course menu including wine for €35 a head, I'll tolerate the ponce. Sea bass, lemon foam, pea puree, white asparagus and globe artichokes. Tasty stuff, although the foam was a bit OTT. Best place I've found to eat in the Basque Country. Run by a couple and they're the only two workers."
Ok, I admit it, I'd love to be have been there with him.
Got to get through Friday 13th May now. Tricky. It was the day and date on which my father suffered a fatal burst aorta while on holiday in Norway, 39 years ago. RIP.
Thursday 12th May
The Wag Wars, dontcha luv 'em?
Conflict and suffering in Ukraine. Climate emergency. Cost-of-living crisis. Northern Ireland Protocol.
But this pair have gone to court:
Many are feeling the pinch. Rebekah turned up in a black high-neck £1,780 Prada dress with a matching £1,245 blazer from Alexander McQueen.
It seems to be all about reputation. What reputation is that, then? Why would you want to protect it? Fuelled by alleged press leaks and social media misdemeanours. "Vital" evidence was lost when a 'phone was dropped in the North Sea.
Oh well, it must help to keep the mind off lesser world events.
Wednesday 11th May
Sarah's back from Vienna after a safe flight 😮
The Queen's Speech. Here's the Hansard transcript (3 pages):
I've extracted a few gems:
"Her Majesty's Ministers will bring forward an Energy Bill to deliver the transition to cheaper, cleaner, and more secure energy. This will build on the success of the COP26 Summit in Glasgow last year."
Oh, come on. COP26 was a shambles, a feeble apology for action. The key word is "secure". The stimulus to change comes from the Ukraine war and the need to rid ourselves of dependence on Russian energy. Money. Nothing to do with saving the planet.
"Her Majesty's Government will continue to seize the opportunities of the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union, to support economic growth."
What opportunities would those be? Please tell Northern Ireland. Ask the dock workers at Holyhead. And here's another little example. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) has revealed that the annual number of registrants coming to work in the UK fell by 68 per cent from 1,132 in 2019 to just 364 in 2021. The additional paperwork required to ship British meat to the EU has increased vet workload by 1,200%. OK, right ... there are loads of job opportunities for vets.
"Legislation will be introduced to enable the implementation of the United Kingdom's first new Free Trade Agreements since leaving the European Union."
The "first" agreements? The Brexit referendum took place nearly six years ago. The UK left the EU on 31st January 2020. These liberating, prosperity-generating deals are coming in a rush, aren't they?
"Her Majesty's Ministers will take action to prevent dangerous and illegal Channel crossings and tackle the criminal gangs who profit from facilitating them."
No wonder the Queen stayed away.
Tuesday 10th May
Monday 9th May
Sunshine on a family lunch at our local Crown & Sceptre yesterday, enhanced by an impromptu appearance of the Red Rock Ceilidh Band:
Jigs seemed appropriate after the Sinn Féin results. United Irish Jigs? The Northern Ireland Protocol bedevils Stormont. Good old Brexit. Thankfully not given much house room in our committedly European pub.
Sunday 8th May
A West Country news day. Click to enlarge any bits that are difficult to read.
Footballing delight as three teams from the west move up to League One. Forest Green Rovers grabbed the League Two title by a whisker, squeezing out a season-ending away draw after a wobbly run. Chairman Dale Vince tweeted something about a tattoo.
It would have been a great day to be at my childhood home cricket ground of New Road Worcester on Friday. Newly-appointed England captain Ben Stokes hit eight fours and 17 sixes in an 88-ball innings of 161 for Durham. I might even have swallowed my loyalty to Worcestershire for the duration.
Marvin Rees has been gracious - if concerned - as the Bristol mayoral system gives way to committees. He still has two years to serve, and was never intending to stand again. I wonder what he's going to do next. Will the national Labour party call on him? I'll have to get daughter Ellie to do some digging.
The Bisley House opposite re-opens any day soon. Its incarnation as the excellent Toni's Kitchen Italian restaurant succumbed to the economics of lockdown. The new venture is going to be a pub-cum-burgerbar. Quite why anybody would want to buy - or sell - a burger in a quiet street with scant parking away from town, I can't imagine. A handy pub now holds little attraction for me; I've just celebrated my first alcohol-free anniversary. The sanding and varnishing of the tables out in front, below my office window, has disturbed me. I'd much prefer drinkers to be in the delightful garden behind, although residents in the next street may disagree. Platinum Jubilee weekend will be a litmus test, as licensing hours are extended to 1am. I'll wait to pass judgment.
Saturday 7th May
The message from the local elections - while remembering that these only concerned a third of councils, and that people vote differently than in general elections - is clear. Voters are sick of the Westminster bubble: Tory sleaze, dishonesty, privilege, cronyism, incompetence, Johnson himself.
There is also some tiredness overall with the two main parties, witness the gains by LibDems and Greens. Despite the victories in Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster, Labour's showing was not definitive.
Starmer remains an issue, as Have I Got News For You indicated last night with a two-edged quote from The Times:
The Sun front-paged #Currygate:
What of the Union? The SNP and Sinn Féin results presage its break-up. Wrapping in the Cambridge fiasco in the Caribbean, over what will our next monarch reign? It's lucky that the Platinum Jubilee celebrations are only days away. I was pleased to see that Mattel, makers of Barbie, have come up trumps (not that one):
On a personal and completely different note, yesterday was the 46th anniversary of the earthquake in Friuli, north-east Italy. My friend Carletto in the village of Talmassons, where I was teaching that night, sent me a thank-you for our help in the aftermath of the "6 maggio" event in 1976. We didn't do much - we were just there and bore witness.
You can read my account of the terremoto here:
Friday 6th May
Bright sunny day.
Bright sunny local election results around 6am:
Chuckle for the day:
Thursday 5th May
I have little desire to dwell on the main news items today, so I'll choose something altogether more trivial. It's the time of year when thoughts - in truth, not many of them in the current climate - turn to the summer game. If you have no interest in cricket, please ignore.
National treasure and top luvvie Stephen Fry will take over as the next president of the Marylebone Cricket Club from 1st October 2022. Quite an appointment for a sport-loathing (cricket excepted) thespian.
Here is his 2021 MCC Cowdrey Lecture. As you would expect, it's an extremely articulate tour de force, 40 minutes delivered, as far as I can tell, with barely a note. In many ways, it's not really about cricket - although his grasp of the game's detail is impressive - but about change in our society. The content may well have been uncomfortable for the egg-and-bacon brigade. If you have time and inclination, it's a good watch. Also in parts pretty rude.
His admission of unsuitability to be giving the lecture made me grin widely, so Fry-clever: "I am a non-cricketer. As non as there can be. So non. Non-ner than an Italian grandmother."
I had just finished posting the above when I spotted an article by Peter Wilby in this week's New Statesman titled "The long shadows over English cricket". He deals with the racism exposed by Azeem Rafiq at Yorkshire County Cricket Club last year, a theme picked up by Fry in his Cowdrey speech. Once again, if you can spare a few minutes, here's the article (4 pages):
Wednesday 4th May
Back to the blog after a few days of family business. A quick review of the newspaper front pages doesn't bring much joy, sad to say. Mind you, what did I expect? You have to look elsewhere to feed the soul.
There's often relief in music. Here is Ed Sheeran's collaboration with Ukrainian band Antytila on his song "2step". Members of the band are now on the front line. I wish I understood their lyrics.
Saturday 30th April
Today marks 96 years since the route name "US 66" was first proposed. It was assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route on April 30th 1926 in Springfield, Missouri. Click to enlarge the map below.
"(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" was composed in 1946 by American songwriter Bobby Troup. Nat King Cole made the first recording in the same year.
Friday 29th April
I suspect there will be scant opportunity for blogging over the next four days as Sarah's brother Kevin is with us for a spring visit.
Thursday 28th April
Out and about round Gloucestershire again yesterday, breaking free of the lingering lockdown habit.
In preparation for the visit of Sarah's brother Kevin at the weekend, we went to check out "The Ionian", a quirky establishment southwest of Stroud between Dursley and Berkeley Castle. Its website says:
"Located on a working farm on the A38 we're a family-run farm shop and restaurant. Our humble beginnings began 5 years ago selling our wood fired pizza out of a truck. We've now expanded with indoor and outdoor seating, surrounded by our pasture-fed lambs, two Belted Galloways - Grace and Frankie - and our rescue chickens. The menu is constantly evolving, from hand stretched pizza and antipasti, to traditional Greek sweets and our lamb souvlaki, in order to bring a taste of the Mediterranean to the local community. Like the Ionian Sea, our kitchen fuses Greek and Italian influences creating a wave of flavour throughout our menu."
There is uncertainty hanging over the Ionian's future. Here's their petition on change.org:
"We are The Ionian! Mother from Padova, Italy and father from Kozani, Greece - our brother and sister team formed the sea in between.
"Five years ago our family began the woodfired kitchen on an Iveco truck on our farm, as many of you may remember. Since then, we have worked hard on our farm diversification project to bring Mediterranean food to the local community, and serving you with healthy fresh food. We promote seasonal eating, sustainability and creativity, with the help of our amazing team! Unfortunately, since we started the Ionian our local council have not been so supportive of us. Over the years, we have put three planning applications forward to ask for a small wooden building to ensure we can trade easier during the winter months. However, Stroud District Council have informed us they no longer want us to continue The Ionian on our farm at all, despite the unique product we bring to our community along with a love and passion for what we do.
"We would appreciate all of your kindness and support from old customers to new. It would mean a lot to us if you could sign this petition to help us on our case, which will determine if we are allowed to continue the Farmshop & Kitchen on our farm.
"Big love, The Ionian"
Shame on you, SDC. I've signed the petition and so have 7,553 others😁. It's such a different place, not the usual burger van you find by the side of the A38. What objection can the council possibly have? Food too good? Too much fun?
Wednesday 27th April
Patchy posting over the last few days as I try to shake off what I on Friday called "Long Lockdown", the habits of postponing action and hiding away from the real world triggered by the pandemic. In other words, getting out more. As I said at the outset of Coronavirus Blog, I started writing these pages as a means of navigating an unprecedented and threatening event. But, in the UK at least, it's over. Still here, but no longer the dominant feature of our lives - the "learn to live with it" vapour trail. One of the effects of having had Covid in the last month is a sense of relief. It didn't kill me. Eighteen months ago, many of us feared exactly that fate.
So the blog has become not a survival tool but an inhibitor to living. Not that I intend to stop, as it's something I enjoy doing. But I need to be careful. In those dark isolated days it was a perfectly acceptable use of time. Now it feels a little dangerous, an excuse for not tackling the activities and projects that I really should - or simply being out and about.
Last weekend I had some success. We were blessed with fine weather and the goodness to be found here in Gloucestershire. Of course, the now-drawn-out conflict in Ukraine casts a shadow, but it's not directly over us. Which should make us appreciate even more what we have.
It started on Saturday morning when the Stroud Town newsletter dropped on our mat. The front page is all about a project to develop the space in front of the Subscription Rooms, a grand building in the centre erected in 1833 which provides a venue for music, dance, theatre, visual arts, spoken word, exhibitions and workshops. The Beatles performed there on 31st March 1962. Paul McCartney famously described the gig in an interview with the BBC as one of the group's worst ever performances: "Stroud was pretty bad. We'd never heard of it, but we went there and I think about three people showed up."
Here are two architect impressions of how it will look:
There we have it - the new Town Square. An improvement initiative, not rebuilding after destruction. Too fortunate for words.
The next experience was a play, "Between Severn Tides", performed down on the "flatlands" by the river in St. Peter's Church, Framilode:
It was a charming all-local affair - as good as anything I've seen in recent years - written by Brian Dimmock and performed by amateur actors from around Framilode, a cast of 26, all on stage for the whole show, and directed by Stroud theatrical luminary Jo Bousfield. We went because our friend Susi was one of the co-narrators. The play was written during lockdown and inspired by Dimmock's re-reading of Dylan Thomas's "Under Milk Wood".
On Sunday we discovered another hitherto-unknown gem, the old railway Goods Shed in Tetbury, now restored as a community and events centre, with an excellent café:
I finished off with a trip up to the cemetery at the top of Stroud on Yellie the electric bike:
Yep, better than sitting in front of a computer.
Monday 25th April
What a relief. Let's hope "Nous tous" becomes a reality. Maybe we have to thank Marine Le Pen for giving him a shock?
Friday 22nd April
Having written yesterday at some length about blogger Tim Urban and his principle of making more time for treasured friends and family, I'll try to be briefer today. I will again draw on Urban's thoughts, on a related topic. It resonates strongly with me as I find my favourite time of year hurtling by with only a faltering stab at my list of goals; indeed, some projects haven't even got started. It's a condition I call "Long Lockdown", the extended hangover from putting things off in the name of Covid. For heaven's sake, it's a month since the equinox, and ...
I'm going to post his TED talk delivered in Vancouver in February 2016 titled "Inside the mind of a master procrastinator".
It's a predicament familiar to most of us, a story amusingly told by Urban. He introduces three characters. Typically two of them are pitted against one another:
A third comes into play when the effect of procrastination becomes critical:
Here's the video of the talk. It's standard TED length, around 14 minutes - time well spent watching.
Thursday 21st April
This weekend is the 50th Reunion of the Class of 1970, Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, USA - delayed for two years because of Covid. I was an exchange student there from January to June 1970. If it's of interest, you can read my account of the experience and subsequent tour of the States and Canada here:
I'm not going. School wasn't my thing, not Exeter nor the English one I had just left. I have no desire to be re-united with either. There's only one person attending that I would like to see, my dear friend Don McBride. But I couldn't expect him to devote all his company to me.
There has, however, been some interesting correspondence in the drawn-out process of invitation and cajoling encouragement to attend. Last week John Barry, whom I don't remember, sent a final email plea:
"The attachment [to the email, see below], sent to me by my son Matthew, quantifies an important reality I had not reflected on adequately. The attachment states better than I can why attending reunions is important and good for you. Think of how many hours we spent together at Exeter, and how many hours we have spent together since then. For me, less than one hour since graduating for every thousand hours while at Exeter. For every thousand hours I spent building important life relationships with now longstanding friends, I have spent less than one hour enjoying those relationships since graduating. Would I spend 1,000 hours planting seeds and then only one hour harvesting?
"Two weeks ago, John Emerson (who may have never yet before attended an Exeter reunion I can remember) emailed me and others asking if we are attending the reunion, and if he would see us there. John's email triggered more reflection on my part, which triggered a lively email chain discussion on the importance of longstanding friends, memories, comradery, and just getting together with classmates, for our individual and collective benefit."
I applaud John's sentiments, the expression of value in old friendships and the reminder to nurture them. I just don't see the point of returning to a place I didn't like - indeed, I fell out big-time with the powers-that-be, all recorded in my account - to rub shoulders with people (all but one) with whom I had no connection at the time. On the other hand, there is a quiet voice whispering in my ear: "Maybe you could go back and make new friends at this late stage, with contemporaries who will have done interesting things in their lives." But I couldn't bank on it. I'd get annoyed all over again with that smug elite, infuriated with the self-satisfied celebration of a privileged and disproportionately powerful institution and club. The risk is too great.
As John notes above, the attachment takes his view further. It's a guest essay published in the New York Times on 25th February by Tim Urban, author of the blog Wait But Why (visit the site here: ) titled "How Covid Stole Our Time and How We Can Get It Back":
I'll extract some core thoughts from the essay. It's all about the time to foster relationships available to us in our lives and how we need to be more pro-active in using it. He calls the concept "Depressing Math":
"Depressing Math reveals a cold truth. While you may not be anywhere near the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time spent with some of the most important people in your life."
The idea echoes John Barry's reflection on how much time he spent early in his life with good friends at Exeter, only to see it shrink later. Urban uses a "Parent Time" diagram to illustrate the change:
"Perhaps the hardest math to process - and, in turn, the hardest Covid pill to swallow - has to do with our relationships. I grew up spending some time with my parents almost every day. Since turning 19 and moving away for good, I've averaged about 10 to 15 days a year with them. If I'm one of the lucky ones, I'll have quality time with my parents until I'm 60. That means that the day I headed off to college, I had something like 350 remaining parent days total - the amount of time I had with them every year of my childhood. What it boils down to is this: my life, in the best-case scenario, will consist of around 20 years of in-person parent time. The first 19 happened over the course of my first 19 years. The final year is spread out over the rest of my life. When I left for college, I had many decades left with living parents, but only about one year of time left to spend with them."
He adds the concept of regret into the discussion, starting with this diagram:
There's bad news in this picture - but also good:
"We think a lot about those black lines: the roads not taken, the opportunities missed, the ones that got away. But most of us greatly underestimate the size of the lush green tree of possibilities that lie ahead of us. We underestimate future possibilities for the same reason we overestimate the time we have left with those we love; our intuition is not very imaginative. It's a human instinct to believe the life we're used to is how things will always be, both the good parts and the bad. Wallowing in regret carries an implicit assumption that we had agency in the past - that we could have had those other life paths if only we had made better decisions. When we think about the future, though, that feeling of agency often disappears, which can leave us feeling resigned and even hopeless. But the life we'll be living 10 years from now will largely be determined not by our past selves but by our present and future selves. If we imagine what we might regret down the road, it's very much in our hands to do something about it now."
I reckon there's a flaw in the theory, if I've grasped its meaning correctly. In the same way that we might rue all those black lines on the left, the paths we didn't take, we can only choose one green line on the right, a small fraction of the possibilities on offer. At the end of it all there will remain a collection of lost experiences.
But I quibble. The message is clear. Don't waste energy regretting the missed chances of the past. Pay attention to opportunities presented in the future. Seize as many moments with friends and family as you can. There's not much I can do about my parents; they are long gone, bless 'em. Urban's advice is naturally, given his age, aimed at a younger readership. But there's still everybody else, and every other dream, to choose and cherish.
He concludes thus:
"At our current pace of 10 to 15 days per year, my parents and I have at best a couple of hundred days left to hang out. But there's nothing stopping us from changing that equation. Agreeing upon an additional annual family week each summer would almost double our remaining time together, while moving to the same city could multiply it by 10. Getting together with my friends one weekend a year would triple our pace and leave us with 15 percent of our total hangout time ahead, instead of just 5 percent.
"That big green tree is a reminder that we have the power to change so much of what seems set in stone. The two delusions - that we have countless time ahead of us and that we can't change our course - are a recipe for complacency. We can actually go a step further and make up for the missed experiences, flipping the deficit into a surplus. If Covid has given us anything, it's a rare chance for a reset. Let's take it."
Tuesday 19th April
Echoing my Easter Sunday acknowledgement of being blessed in Stroud, our neighbour Amy circulated this review from the Sunday Times of 10th April (click to enlarge). Ilkley gets front page billing, but inside is our town and even our street:
Here is the text extracted from the description. I think it's quite a faithful summary.
"Stroud likes to celebrate everything local. It was one of the many reasons that the old-fashioned, new-age town was named the overall Best Place to Live winner in 2021. A few locals might have treated themselves to a Plant Power vegan pizza (£11) with a pint of Big Cat stout, all organic and "very Stroud" at the Stroud Brewery Tap Room. Others liked to point out the fact that Extinction Rebellion was founded here as grounds for disqualification.
"As a mill town in the Cotswolds, Stroud means different things to different people. For some, it's Barbours and bridles, wellies and yomps on the commons with the labradors; for others it's mung beans and beanies, changing the world one sustainable soya latte at a time. Most Stroudies fall somewhere in between, but whichever camp you're in everyone comes together at the Saturday morning farmers' market - one of the best in the land.
"There's also serious culture at the Stroud Valleys Artspace, Stroud Books prides itself on its 'festival-like vibe', and even the local football team, Forest Green Rovers, is riding high, both in the league and as the world's fully vegan, carbon-neutral club. The thoughtful revamp of the Five Valleys shopping centre is progressing nicely with the arrival of Sandersons - a 'boutique department store' - and evening openings on Fridays with food and music.
"In the past 12 months many more new arrivals have joined Iong-term residents to sing Stroud's (often alternative) praises. The town and its surrounding valleys are crowd-pleasers for families Iooking for good schools - Stroud High School and Marling School finished third and 15th respectively in Parent Power top 20 schools in the Southwest - commuters (direct trains to Paddington 1 hour 28 minutes, Bristol is a 40-minute drive), or anyone who wants to keep it real surrounded by countryside.
"It is one of the reasons that Ry Gerbrands, 36, who grew up in Stroud, returned. He lives a 20-minute walk from Made in Stroud, the gallery and shop set up by his parents in 2000 which he now runs. 'Stroud has improved massively since my early teens,' Gerbrands says. 'There's a much wider choice of good restaurants and pubs and plenty of independent shops - only chain shops closed during lockdown - and also greater diversity in the people here. The Sub Rooms puts on events, educational plays for children, and music, and the markets are a big draw. It's not great for people aged 18 to 23 - there's no nightclub - but past that it's wonderful.'
"Best place to live if... You fancy country living with a radical edge.
"Best address: Middle Street and Nelson Street in the centre, or nearby Minchinhampton, Chalford and Rodborough."
Also blessed is the Bilbao wing of the family. Son Ben and partner Soph have been on tour again, this time to the south of Spain, passing through Valdepeñas in the province of Ciudad Real on the way to Andalucia, last seen staying at a house in Pinos Genil just east of Granada.
Sunday 17th April
How blessed we are here in Stroud: family together (missing the Bilbao contingent), the bustling Farmers' Market on a sunny day, spring in bloom, food abundant. In peace.
"Pretty Good Day" - Loudon Wainwright III
Saturday 16th April
|A break from blogging, probably for the whole weekend. A full house here: four adults, three kids, two dogs and three cats.|
Friday 15th April
"Memorandum of Understanding between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the government of the Republic of Rwanda for the provision of an asylum partnership arrangement - Published 14 April 2022":
Thursday 14th April
Wednesday 13th April
Most of us watch with a sense of helplessness as events unfold in Ukraine, while doing our best to contribute. Many have donated money. Others are perhaps hesitant, lacking confidence in where their donation goes. My friend Jude sent me an email yesterday about an appeal from a friend of hers. She's a direct contact with unfiltered access to people in need on the ground, including in Mariupol. Jude's message is below, and all the necessary details. If you know of anybody who might want to participate, please point them at this blog.
"Dr Hana Josticova is a friend of ours who is Slovakian by birth but did her PhD at the University of Birmingham on Eastern Ukraine. As a result, she has many personal contacts within Ukraine - especially in the east - and a few weeks ago, she returned home to help refugees on the border and those still in Ukraine who are so very much in need. You, like me, have probably already donated money via one of the larger charities or aid organisations, to mitigate some of the sickening impacts of this hellish, barbaric war but if you feel you would also like to donate directly and immediately via someone who has close contacts in dire straits, please read what she has just sent me (below) about how she is using targeted funds:"
'For those who wish to donate, I have been collecting money to help displaced people and refugees from Ukraine. The interest to help personally derived from my closeness to Ukrainians - I have stayed in eastern Ukraine for six months as part of my PhD fieldwork. The people I met through my research ranged from ordinary people, to activists and fighters. Over the four years of ethnographic research, many of these people became my friends. Most of the fieldwork took place in Mariupol but I travelled extensively across all near-frontline towns and cities in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. My contact network exceeds two hundred people from across Ukraine.
'I have donated personally to my friends and acquaintances, but also others' friends upon request, and volunteer hubs in Ukraine that my friends established as they fled war zones. While they were forced to flee their homes, they chose to stay as close as possible to help others. This is how I know exactly where the money is needed and where it ends. Refugees we support usually flee from most-affected areas, namely Mariupol and Donetsk and Luhansk regions. First aid is needed in Zaporizhzhya and Dnipro and this is where my friends' volunteer hubs are centred.
'So far I've raised just over £500 but even £20 enables people to buy medication, food, petrol or shelter for the night as they flee. These people have literally nothing.
'First I donated my own money. The first donation went to my friends, a family of four, to survive the first few days before they got governmental support from Poland where they fled. They are optimistic; they wish to go back to their home in Sievierodonetsk as soon as the war ends. My second donation went to my friends from Mariupol who have nothing to come back to, yet they are staying in Ukraine in hope of rebuilding their beloved home. Since then, my friends' donations helped other Mariupol families either settle temporarily through my friends' volunteer hubs, or move to start a new life in Poland.
'As I have Wise, I am able to send money to Ukrainian cards, which takes minutes, as opposed to international bank transfers that take days. And as I've been doing with each donation, I send a message with a screenshot detailing the money transfer and a description of where the money went and why. Knowing the story of people I donate to makes donating more personal and, I believe, more rewarding. I cover the fees which means that Ukrainians receive 100% of all donations.
'Thanks for helping Ukraine, Hana'
Hana's details are:
Bank: Wise, 56 Shoreditch High Street, London E1 6JJ
Sort code: 231470
[This is a UK pre-paid card so no IBAN number is required for the transaction and payments are in £sterling for ease and speed.]
Here are two of Hana's university affiliations and her Twitter biog (click to enlarge any):
Here's a later update from Jude:
"I sent some money to Hana this morning and she e-mailed (as below) this afternoon."
'Jude, your money has just arrived. And it is going straight to a military chaplain who helps evacuate people from the Luhansk region, namely from Severodonetsk. Another friend of mine has sent £250, so together with your money, we have enough to hire a bus and a driver for one whole day of evacuations.'
Tuesday 12th April
After watching the opening report from Ukraine on the BBC ten o'clock news last night, I again wonder what right I have to drivel on about other matters. But I'll press on with the trivia.
I've never liked Airbnb. It seems like a vehicle for chancers to hack an inappropriate chunk out of a property, post photos of a distant beach, call it a holiday home and make a quick buck off hopeful punters. We once stayed in a flat in Bilbao, perfectly comfortable - but the view from the living room window was a concrete wall, ten yards away, so high you had to crane your neck out to see the top of it, natural light at a premium. Son Ben stayed in another in Lugo, Galicia, over last New Year. It was unbelievably dirty, the oven didn't work, the cupboard doors were hanging off.
Last Saturday I posted photos of the charming house son Nikko booked for us all in Provence this coming July.
Not any more.
Enjoy our stay?! What about the dosh we've already forked out on flights from Bristol and Vienna? We should have guessed from the English-French mix in the title. What breed of Steve has two Es in the middle of his name?
Not that we know what kind of France we will find by then. Here's a poster photographed by my Irish correspondent's son in Paris last week:
"I🧡POUTINE" inscribed on her forehead. The French pronunciation of Putin, I understand. Designed to avoid confusion with putain? Why bother? Except that not to do so would be disrespectful to the latter. I also read that poutine is a dish of French fries and cheese curds topped with brown gravy which emerged in Quebec in the late 1950s.
Monday 11th April
A brief blog today. Mixed Covid status - Sarah's still negative, I'm positive. Plumber Charlie has bravely decided to come to finish off our bathroom. Windows wide open, masks on in shared spaces, I'm locked in the office.
A welcome update from Chris Taylor in Friuli:
"Some Covid news from Italy. At more or less the same time as you, perhaps a little earlier, I tested positive, to be followed two days later by Daniela. Symptoms in both cases were those of a heavy cold. As regards the rest of the country, the general trend continues to be downward but by no means insignificant. Lots of people here have picked up this latest strain 'though symptoms are not worrying. We are now negative and life goes on as we prepare for an Easter break on a tour of Germany. Things are not so rosy further east. Can no-one rid us of this grotesque individual?"
I asked him about the Easter tour:
"The Germany trip. Flight to Berlin and two days there. I've been there lots of times, also for the university, but always glad to revisit. Then we basically return to Udine by coach via the island of Rugen in the Baltic, Stralsund, Magdeburg, Erfurt, Bamberg, Rothenburg, Augsburg and Chiemsee, plus a number of smaller places. These are all places I have never been to and hence the interest in the trip. The downside will be long hours on the coach, but we mustn't grumble."
A lot has changed since Chris gave me an Udine perspective at the beginning of Coronavirus Blog. The diminished impact of BA.2, foreign travel allowed - and Ukraine.
Talking of which, and acknowledging Chris's question in his first email, here is a poster in Kyiv main railway station. I wish I could translate the captions.
Sunday 10th April
Covid update. Sarah tested negative this morning (hurrah!) but I'm still positive, which is a drag because we shall have to cancel our continuing bathroom renovations tomorrow. They'll probably stretch into next month now, as plumber Charlie has other work starting the following week. This in turn is inconvenient as son Nikko is arriving from Vienna with his daughter for Easter. Still, we have a new shower and toilet - but no bath for 3-year-old Ellie. One other small matter is that I have an incipient tooth infection, but presumably can't present myself to a dentist until I'm clear. It's not the actual Covid - very mild - that is the problem, but the knock-on effects.
An email from the New Statesman yesterday alerted me to an article by Bruno Maçães titled "Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory: Sergey Karaganov on what Putin wants". It's essentially the transcript - maybe edited - of an interview conducted on 28th March.
What's interesting is that it's an assessment by a Russian, one who has been very close to Putin as an adviser - not an interpretation put forward by a European or American journalist. Karaganov formulated many of the ideas that led to the war in Ukraine - although he has also expressed disagreement with the idea of a long-term occupation of the country. He has promoted the concept of "Greater Eurasia", has defended a closer partnership with China and has argued that the long reign of the West in world politics is now at an end.
So, the views are not from a source that I would normally count as within my natural habitat. As a result there are glimpses of a different angle on the conflict, some not so surprising nor unheard before, just not what most western leaders and commentators are saying. At times merely the odd word, phrase or sentence, an extra dimension. The same issues, but from a different perspective. And from the "horse's mouth".
Here's the article: . It's quite a long read at nine pages, so I've extracted several of his comments as a summary, and shortened Bruno Maçães's questions. See what you think.
Why did Russia invade Ukraine?
The first objective is to end Nato's expansion. Two other objectives have been added: one is the demilitarisation of Ukraine; the other is denazification - [Russia] thinks [Ukraine] is beginning to resemble Germany in the 1930s. There is also an aim to free the Donbas republics of eight years of constant bombardment. But the real war is against the Western expansion.
In the Kremlin, what would be considered a successful result for the invasion?
I don't know what the outcome of this war will be, but I think it will involve the partition of Ukraine, one way or another. Hopefully there would still be something called Ukraine left at the end. But Russia cannot afford to "lose", so we need a kind of a victory. And if there is a sense that we are losing the war, then I think there is a definite possibility of escalation. This war is a kind of proxy war between the West and the rest - Russia being, as it has been in history, the pinnacle of "the rest" - for a future world order. The stakes of the Russian elite are very high - for them it is an existential war.
What will be the outcome for Ukraine?
I don't know whether Ukraine will survive, because it has a very limited, if any, history of statehood, and it doesn't have a state-building elite. Maybe the Ukrainian nation will be born. I will be happy if Ukrainians have an effective, viable government - unlike the situation during the last 30 years. They were the absolute losers after the Soviet Union because of their lack of a state-building elite.
My judgement would be that some of Ukraine will become a friendly state to Russia, other parts may be partitioned. Poland will gladly take back some of parts in the west, maybe Romanians and Hungarians will, too, because the Hungarian minority in Ukraine has been suppressed along with other minorities.
Are you worried that this could be the start of a "Chinese century" for Russia?
One answer to your question is that China's economic influence in Russia and over Russia will grow. China has most of the technologies we need, and it has a lot of capital, so there is no question about that. Whether Russia would become a kind of a satellite country, according to the Chinese tradition of their Middle Kingdom, I doubt it. We had years of Western domination here. It was almost overwhelming. And nevertheless, you see what has happened: Russia revolted against all that. So I am not afraid of Russia becoming a part of a great China. If you asked me how I would describe Russia in one word, it is "sovereignty". We defeated those who sought to rule us.
Who are the winners and losers?
I think the biggest loser will be Ukraine; a loser will be Russia; a great loser will be Europe; the United States will lose somewhat, but still it could very well survive as a huge island over the ocean; and the big victor is China.
What would qualify as defeat?
I do not know. That is the question. We need victory. I don't think that, even if we conquered all of Ukraine and all the military forces of Ukraine surrendered, it would be a victory, because then we will be left with the burden of a devastated country, one devastated by 30 years of inept elite rule, and then of course devastation from our military operation. So I think at one point we need a kind of a solution which would be called peace, and which would include de facto the creation of some kind of a viable, pro-Russian government on the territory of Ukraine, and real security for the Donbas republics.
How do you feel personally?
We all feel like we are part of a huge event in history, and it's not just about war in Ukraine; it's about the final crash of the international system that was created after the Second World War and then, in a different way, was recreated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, we are witnessing the collapse of an economic system - of the world economic system - globalisation in this form is finished. Whatever we have had in the past is gone. And out of this we have a build-up of many crises that, because of Covid-19, we pretended did not exist. For two years, the pandemic replaced decision-making. Covid was bad enough, but now everybody has forgotten about Covid and we can see that everything is collapsing. Personally, I'm tremendously saddened. I worked for the creation of a viable and fair system. But I am part of Russia, so I only wish that we win, whatever that means.
Saturday 9th April
The gulf in fortune between lives in the UK and Ukraine was brought home to me yesterday by photographs on the BBC website. How the world of ordinary people in Ukraine has been turned upside down in the grimmest way imaginable, their normal everyday existence transformed within two months into - literally - a matter of life and death.
The first photo is of Katrine and her 18-month-old son Nikita. Six weeks ago a mother with a toddler. Now she's a sniper.
The second pair is of two university students, Dmytro Kisilenko (18) and Maksym Lutsyk (19). They're not studying any more. They're fighting, have already been to the front.
Here's the brutal contrast.
Last year son Ben decided that we should have a family holiday this summer. After much cat-herding, we're all set to stay in a house east of Marseille in July. Nine of us, three generations.
We'll be going to the beach, to the market, cooking and eating in the sunshine of Provence, hopefully tucking into bouillabaisse at a harbourside restaurant. Ukrainians will - at best - be rebuilding after the destruction of their homes.
How can our futures look so different?
[7:30am update. Once again, I wrote the above last night. I may have to give up doing so. That kind of question running through your head doesn't help - poor me - with a decent night's sleep.]
I can't shake off this answer: it's the work of one man. You can search for all kinds of contributory factors to the conflict - NATO enlargement, Ukraine's previous identity as part of the Soviet Union, the west's baiting of the Russian bear - but this stands out above all others. It's not an original thought, but a conclusion shared by many, not difficult to find among the views of world leaders and international press commentators. The war in Ukraine is the brainchild of Putin's lifelong resentment, damaged psychology and cruel autocratic spirit.
No wonder the Latvians put this poster on the facade of a museum opposite the Russian embassy in Riga:
Friday 8th April
My Irish correspondent has done most of the work today ...
... and three from me:
Thursday 7th April
Covid update. Still testing positive. Continuing slight cold and sore throat.
I'm finding it hard to write about Ukraine. There is little I can add to the media reports. It seems to me that the war is becoming increasingly attritional. I see no prospect of conclusion, certainly none that we might consider positive.
One worry is that we who are not involved in the physical battle may be reaching what you might call UWF - Ukraine War Fatigue. If it continues for long, will front page reporting dwindle and thin, to be replaced by parochial issues? There appeared to be much more time for other topics on the national TV news yesterday. Will coverage fade, like that of the conflicts in Syria and Yemen? I suspect that there are certain factors to sustain interest. It's happening on our doorstep, in Europe. Nobody is safe while Putin is the adversary. We're worried about the prospect of NATO being drawn into direct confrontation with Russia. And, of course, the big red button.
I'll turn, guiltily, to lighter matters. It's difficult to smooth such a transition.
I need to complete the story of contributions from Luxembourg of the last two days. What I failed to say explicitly is that almost all of Eddy's communication comes by traditional post, has done for half-a-century. He doesn't do computers. I have never received an email, nor a word generated by typing. We have the occasional telephone conversation. He now owns a mobile 'phone so that we can exchange text messages. But his preferred choice of technology is the photocopier, the output from which is transferred into an envelope bedecked with pretty stamps.
It's impossible to miss the arrival of his letters. Here is the corner of an envelope which I cut off and pinned to the noticeboard above my desk years ago (click to enlarge):
Diana - who cheers me up with the emails and videos that you may have seen in recent days - responded to my posting yesterday of Eddy's remarkable selection of architectural photos:
"Eddy appreciates your nominating him for protected heritage status in the Handwritten Communications category, and the recognition belatedly conferred on his contribution to sustaining this traditional approach to performing/relativising the constraints of geographical and social distancing while offsetting the normative orthogonality of his preferred medium via the referencing and eclectic recycling of materials and, be it admitted, jokes.
"My client has requested me to inquire discreetly about a possible future nomination in the 'Unrecognised Genius' category, but meanwhile looks forward to collecting his award in person, together with commemorative multicoloured biro. He foresees a window of availability in early May.
"Eddy has yet to read any of your blog due to his continued resistance to post-Enlightenment communications media and his full schedule of outside engagements (currently, for example, 'just popping out to get L'Équipe'), but is kept updated about it and has been familiarised with emergency procedures for accessing his own email (the 'nuclear option', not yet activated)."
My Irish correspondent has alerted me to reports of the Census 2022:
"Last weekend people in Ireland were completing their 2022 census form. It included a 'time capsule' section in which one could leave a message for those reading it a hundred years from now."
Here are some "time capsules" published in the Irish Mirror. You may also have seen them in The Guardian. The instructions given on the form include: "This space is for handwritten messages only. Photographs or other attachments will be removed and cannot be returned."
To understand the reference to "Mayo All-Ireland" in the last entry above, please read my blog explanation here: 👉
Wednesday 6th April
Another day thinking of Ukraine, watching in horror. I'm not going to write about it; I have nothing to add to the media reports.
Still testing positive this morning. Thankfully no Covid symptoms apart from just one out of the newly extended official list of 12 - a sniffle, almost vanished last night, slightly thick this AM.
Restricted as I am to a Plague House, I can't help reflecting on how things have changed.
I learnt via email that I may be eligible for treatments that didn't exist at the start of the blog: nirmatrelvir and ritonavir (Paxlovid); sotrovimab (Xevudy); remdesivir (Veklury); molnupiravir (Lagevrio). To justify my eligibility, I have to take lateral flow tests for three consecutive mornings; the positive test of yesterday counts as the first, today's the second. Presumably I will get treatment only if my condition worsens. I'm told that I should get a 'phone call from the NHS. Really? With the current level of infections in the UK?
Actually, I'm nowhere near as restricted as I would have been 18 months ago. Only by a voluntary sense of social responsibility, which was of course what Boris encouraged all along at the time of rules relaxation. No-one will arrest me if I go out. I can nip into Waitrose with impunity, even without a mask. It's all about others. I run no risk of catching the virus; I've already got it.
Where do we stand with vaccination? Has the efficacy of my three jabs waned? Will I get a fourth? Have the drugs mentioned above replaced vaccines as the defence/treatment of choice? Are the anti-vaxxers out in the clear?
More relief from Luxembourg. Diana's husband Eddy is the most loyal of correspondents. I have an accumulation of missives going back 50 years: postcards documenting his travels; photocopied articles, cartoons, artworks; quirky snaps from foreign residencies - all adorned with his dramatic larger-than-life script. He has showered me in the last few days with a selection of New Brutalist architecture from his collection:
Tourist Information Centre, Fort William
Bus Station, Exeter
Nylon Factory, Pontypool
Thomas Cook International Headquarters
Bus Station and Shopping Centre, Hanley
Sun Lounge, Butlins, Bognor Regis
At the top of the High Street in Stroud - a town with its share of pretty Cotswold stone and Victorian brick buildings - we have our own fine example, the police station:
Here is a report extract - allegedly - from local organ This Is Gloucestershire titled "Listing Nomination":
"Stroud Civic Society's vice chairman, Tim Mars, announced that Stroud's notoriously ugly police station may be in line for Grade II listed building status.
"Tim said, 'It's about time Stroud police station got the recognition it deserves. Its etiolated horizontality offers an elegant geometric counterpoint to the heterorthogonality of the topography'."
Article dated April 1st 2009.
My friend Mark makes Christmas cards for all of those who attend our annual old mates' get-together, a tradition going back several decades. In an accident of juxtaposition, Eddy (see above) is one of the founding members of the group - called "The Maxes" (I won't explain, it's all too embarrassing) - but has sadly always (nearly always?) been in another country at the time of the festive occasion.
Aidan, another friend in the group, just sent me one of Mark's cards appropriate for today:
Happy New Financial Year
from The Unusually Tall Sheep
Tuesday 5th April
[9:15am update. I wrote everything below last night. I've just tested positive. Not feeling bad, just a slight sore throat and a blocked nose. A bummer all the same. I'll start the process of re-arranging plans. First job is to put a requested selection of plumber Charlie's tools by the back gate. Then cancel weekend visitors.]
A miscellany today. I haven't the will to write about Ukraine.
A bit of Coronavirus Blog, with a new case chart (click to enlarge) from the ZOE COVID Study:
Our region is top of the list. Caution is not common in Stroud. I went into a 'phone shop in the High Street yesterday, struggling with my mask. "Don't bother with that", said the shop owner. "My partner's got Covid", I replied. He nodded: "Fair enough". Without metaphorically breaking step.
ZOE project principal Professor Tim Spector of King's College London has been celebrating:
The original signs of a Covid infection that were recognised in the UK were: fever; new continuous cough; loss of sense of smell or taste. A further nine have been added: shortness of breath; feeling tired or exhausted; aching body; headache; sore throat; blocked or runny nose; loss of appetite; diarrhoea; feeling sick or being sick.
These symptoms could indicate many other conditions, couldn't they?
Some Climate Blog. Greta Thunberg tweeted this remarkable chart yesterday, "Country Overshoot Days 2022" (click to enlarge). Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity's demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. Baddies - the resource greedy - are at the top right, goodies the top left. (Take note please, friend Diana in Luxembourg😉I think I might have an answer, but please give me your explanation). Have I got this right? I can't quite believe the order. By the way, in 2021 we - all of humanity - overshot on July 29th.
Now for Whatever I Fancy Blog.
First, more of the family adventures in northern Spain. Son Ben, partner Soph and friend Carmine walked the Ruta del Cares in Asturias at the weekend:
Finally, more uplifting video from friend Diana. It's of Pam Ayres reciting her poem "They Should Have Asked My Husband", a moral tale for (mostly) men - I don't exclude myself - who might be too overbearing in our opinions:
Monday 4th April
Household Covid update. Sarah has still got a cough and cold. I've tested negative again this morning. We're leading a curious intra-dwelling distanced existence - thanks to my Irish correspondent for advice on ways to do this. Sarah uses the living room - sofa for reading, television for entertainment - and I occupy the office upstairs - internet for this blog, ITV Hub last night for The Ipcress File. I cook in the kitchen, then vacate it for her to wash up. I go out to shop, she isolates at home. After she uses the office computer, we ventilate the room and I sanitise the keyboard and mouse. I wear a mask as I move through shared spaces. It seems mad, but necessary.
In the outside world, there has been widespread condemnation of the horrors revealed in Ukraine. President Zelensky has said that Russia's actions constitute genocide, describing the invasion as "the torture of the whole nation".
Here is a selection of tweets.
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations:
Charles Michel, President of the European Council:
Anthony Blinken, United States Secretary of State:
Melinda Simmons, non-resident Ambassador of the United Kingdom in Ukraine (she left Kyiv on 19th February and Ukraine altogether on 7th March):
Then we come to this:
Yes, that's right, the Westminster Foreign Secretary, while expressing criticism of actions in Ukraine, takes the opportunity to include a self-promoting snap. So appropriate to atrocity. Bright blue top, smart white jacket - ideal. Ever mindful of a Tory leadership contest, I'm sure.
On the home front, emails have come in from friends, get-well-soon wishes and advice on seeking light relief from all the bad news.
My friend Diana sent me a wealth of uplifting material from Luxembourg yesterday, starting with this message:
"To limit my contact with the horrible news reports coming out of Ukraine, I have read mainly unrelated items in today's Observer. These include an article on Ofsted's 'pop quiz' method of assessing/disparaging schools' overall performance. The article referred to a recent Ofsted inspection of Coalwood Community School in the Forest of Dean, which was downgraded from outstanding last November. Kids of 7 and under were found to be unable to sequence historical events in the right order because of gaps in their knowledge. To fill in some gaps in mine, I googled and downloaded the Ofsted report, which by the way is full of praise for the environment created by the school and the fact that the children, as well as feeling - and being - safe, supported and happy there, loved reading. The inspectors nevertheless downgraded the school, partly on the basis of children's less than total recall of all the topics covered in the curriculum. They do not seem to have taken into consideration the fact that there have been officially-endorsed and factored-in gaps in all school students' grasp of the curriculum over the last 2 plague years.
"I can't remember doing any formal history lessons until secondary school. At seven I expect I was still under the impression that dinosaurs, cavemen, the Romans, Henry VIII and my grandparents had coexisted in the olden days - i.e. the period up to 1955. The all-important and priceless 'love of reading' my school and parents imparted has enabled me to fill in some of the gaps since then, without necessarily achieving Ofsted-standard certainty about the correct sequence of events.
"This rant is not intended for inclusion in your news round-up, by the way [Ed: I have gained permission from Diana to include it 😃]. I just thought you might be interested in some home-produced idiocy as an alternative to brooding on the savagery unleashed elsewhere. Have you ever heard Fascinating Aida's wonderful Ofsted Song? I'll forward it to you.
"On a more hopeful note: Ceasefire in Yemen! A little bit of hell on Earth may be in retreat."
So, for your escapist delight, here is Fascinating Aïda's OFSTED Song. If you are or have ever been a teacher, this is for you. I sincerely hope that my dear friend Alastair, ex-inspector for OFSTED, is not reading today's blog 😉
Sunday 3rd April
The reporting from Ukraine, which includes hitherto unseen historical video footage, has reached new levels of intensity and ugliness - hardly adequate words, horror and atrocity are closer. It's all there in world media coverage. You will have seen the images and film, so there's little I can add. Yes, the Ukrainian forces appear to have had success around Kyiv, but we also have reports of civilian killings at Bucha and elsewhere, people with their hands tied, shot in the back of the head, the mayor Anatoly Fedoruk stating that they have buried close to 300 in mass graves. Pictures of suburban streets transformed into graveyards of Russian armour. Barely thinkable six weeks ago. I didn't fully imagine then that I might be writing such words today. It's a shock seeing them on the page as I review before posting.
Meanwile - almost too trivial to mention, but it's the news in this house - here at home Coronavirus Blog is back. Sarah tested positive yesterday. I tested negative. As I did again first thing this morning, despite a mild sore throat and slight sniffles.
Sarah has been feeling poorly for a couple of days and now has a nagging cough. Thankfully nothing more severe. It means of course that she has been busy with 'phone/text/WhatsApp telling friends and family with whom she has been in contact in the recent past. Also, sadly, cancelling a trip to London today to see son Nikko who's here on a flying visit from Vienna with his new girlfriend. Plus appointments in the coming week.
I have postponed arrangements too. Our bathroom renovations go on hold as the plumber needs to stay away. I guess we'll be leading separate lives for the duration, ventilating shared spaces well, wiping down surfaces, sticking to our own tea mugs.
I haven't posted coronavirus charts for a long while. The second shows the Stroud rates.
Back in Boris's triumphant vaccination programme glory days, the 60+ purple line was nowhere near to tracking the 0-59 green. It looks like this household is now contributing to that change of statistic.
I was in town yesterday, later than the busiest peak of the Saturday farmers' market, but there were still plenty of people around, more than on a typical weekday. I was among a tiny minority of mask-wearers. Indeed, I only saw one other in the three shops I entered.
Saturday 2nd April
It wasn't an April Fool. Dale Vince is leaving Ecotricity, primarily to get involved in the next general election. He will also continue with other ventures such as Forest Green Rovers football club, the vegan food company Devil's Kitchen, and Skydiamond.
I'm going to devote today to an interview he gave to Mark Owen, editor of Gloucestershire's Punchl!ne News. It's 11 minutes long - worth watching - so I've added my own shortened transcript below should you prefer to read rather than watch. I've concentrated on the first two-thirds, the more political content. It's tidied up. I've simplified Mark Owen's questions, but Dale's answers are close to verbatim, with the ums-and-ahs edited out.
Why are you selling?
I've been doing it for 25 years. We were the only company in the world selling green electricity back then. Today everybody's selling it. It's a proper global mainstream business. That means there's a relative lack of impact I can have by spending more time here. Ecotricity has a pipeline of projects to build new green energy which will cost about 2 billion pounds of investment, money that we don't have. I can have more impact somewhere else. Ecotricity can do more with a new owner. And that's a good combination. Sometimes you can achieve more by letting go.
What sort of owner are you looking for?
I'm looking for commitment, the same commitment that I have to green energy, to my team here, to our base here in Stroud, someone with deep pockets that can take our pipeline of projects forward and build them rapidly, because this is what the country needs.
What about the 800 staff here in Stroud?
The most important thing is the choice that I make, who I choose to buy the company. I'm blessed by independence, I own Ecotricity wholly, so I make my own decisions, I'm not driven by money. I'm looking for the best outcome for Ecotricity, which will mean the best outcome for the staff.
Has the Ukraine situation and the energy crisis had a big impact on your thoughts?
The energy crisis has been badly handled by the government and is hurting an awful lot of people, and enriching a few people. The big oil companies have made 50 billion this winter with windfall profits which the government refuses to tax. They refuse to take that money and put it back to where it came from, into the hands of energy bill payers. That is a big problem and lends weight to my feeling that politics is the missing bit of the jigsaw now. We've got renewable energy technology, economics is on our side, people are on our side and we have the urgent need to get to net zero. What we don't have are politicians with all the policies that can get us there. This is what I want to pivot into now, to move out of green energy, which is something that we founded and have proven over 25 years - to get to where we now need to be, politics needs a nudge.
You've given money to David Drew [Labour MP in Stroud for many years, replaced by Conservative Siobhan Baillie in 2019, fervent supporter of Forest Green Rovers, former chairman and vice-chairman] - do your politics lean that way? Will you stand in Stroud?
I genuinely don't know, I haven't decided how to get involved in politics. I don't want to be a politician, but I want to get involved in the next election. It's the most important of my lifetime, of all of our lifetimes, of all of us that are alive today. There will be no more important election. I've given money to Dave Drew, I've supported the LibDems, the Labour Party, the Green Party, all kinds of people, not the Conservative Party funnily enough. That tells you what my politics are. I'm about the environment, social justice - that's the direction of travel I'll take.
If you got into Parliament you could do a lot as a member of the club.
That's possibly so. There's a lot of power currently in the hands of some very incompetent unworthy people that have done nothing in life, that are in politics out of self-interest, with those second and third jobs. People that are not honest with themselves or us, and making bad choices. They're ruining our country. That bothers me.
He was then asked about Forest Green Rovers and reaffirmed his stewardship of the club, to take it up two more leagues, to develop the Eco Park at M5 J13 with its injection of green jobs and £millions into the local economy. He'll also be busy with his vegan food company Devil's Kitchen (FGR are nicknamed the Green Devils) and Skydiamond. I'm sure there'll be plenty of other new initiatives.
He told accounting consultancy KPMG, who are handling the selling process, to take the iconic green "Union Jack" out of the "deal perimeter". It's not for sale.
I share his dislike of the present Westminster government. I blogged the 2019 general election with a growing sense of despair. Brexit, #Partygate, gongs for oligarchs, cronyism - I'm sick of the mean-spirited self-seeking buffoons. So maybe here's a new project for the next couple of years. Perhaps I'll offer my support to Dale in the run-up to the next election. Anything I can do to help turn England into a kinder, more generous place to live - worthy of admiration in Europe, not a pariah.
Still waiting for a reply from Ecotricity to my three emails about the effect of the price cap increase on my bills 😉
Friday 1st April
We had snow yesterday. Not so good for the spaghetti crop:
It's full-speed-ahead with the cost-of-living crisis and energy price rises. And it's no joke. The cap goes up by 54%.
I had a go at Dale Vince last night:
He has other things on his mind. It's a good date for this announcement:
From the company website this morning:
"This is a huge decision - it's been my life for a long time and is arguably my life's work. But it's the right decision at the right time - our pipeline of green energy projects is way beyond what we can fund ourselves, while at the same time, the country's need for new sources of renewable energy has never been bigger.
"Or more urgent - we're halfway through the vital last decade, the UN said we had to avoid the worst of climate change, and little has changed in that time. The good news is that the war in Europe has finally brought the attention of our government to this issue, through the risk to energy supplies and the newfound interest in Energy Independence.
"By passing the baton now to a new owner, Ecotricity will be able to play a big role in the accelerated shift to 100% green energy on the grid. And I will be able to play a part in the next general election in some way or another. We have everything we need to get to net zero as a country, we have the technology, economics is on our side, as are the public - we clearly have the need, what we lack are politicians that get it and the policies that will help make it happen - faster.
"I believe this will be the most important election of our lives."
His decision is covered in The Times newspaper this morning. Interviews with BBC Gloucestershire and Greatest Hits Radio Gloucester.
I'm waiting for 12 noon. Isn't that when we find out that we've been had?
The Stroud Times is sceptical:
Thursday 31st March
So, the promise to the Chernihiv region didn't herald much peace. And Putin says he won't stop shelling Mariupol until the city surrenders.
This is not an original thought, but the pictures of flattened non-military targets in Mariupol particularly shocked me yesterday. Why would you destroy a city and kill many of its inhabitants as part of your strategy to bring a country back into the fold? Even if Ukraine does eventually surrender, the memory and pain of such suffering will live forever in the nation's soul. A fierce resistance movement will operate as long as Russian control persists. It won't be a safe place for a Putin-ite to live. Vladimir Vladimirovich himself will surely never be able to set foot on Ukrainian soil.
This beggars belief too. Extracted from a BBC report, detail derived from Russian state-owned Zvezda TV, on recruitment of mercenaries:
"Russia says it has signed up around 16,000 recruits from the Middle East, with social media in Syria flooded with requests for people to join Russian troops. Soldiers are being offered up to £5,000 a month to fight on the front line for Russia in Ukraine. Syria's economy, already ravaged by civil war, now faces a spike in the price of essentials like wheat, much of which comes from Ukraine and Russia - making the Russian offer look all the more tempting."
How does anybody come up with this idea? To seduce people from a suffering nation in one part of the globe to participate in a humanitarian crisis elsewhere. With money.
Sorry folks, not a cheerful morning. At least somebody took the trouble a few days ago to dress up as a cute bunny to entertain children at a Kharkiv metro station:
Here's central Prague during the Zelensky address. Inspiring. Yes, those are the EU and Ukraine flags together.
Wednesday 30th March
I've been surprised and heartened - warily - by a number of reports from Ukraine in the last 24 hours, mostly courtesy of the BBC, which even as a brainwashed consumer of the western press I hope I can trust more than Russian state TV.
First, an update from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW):
Yes, there are large amounts of red. However, the green circles indicate where Ukraine may actually be reversing the invader's progress. Didn't you imagine as I did that Russia would steamroller unopposed over the entire country, certainly within the first month of war?
Peace talks resumed in Istanbul. I never dreamt that they'd happen in the first place.
Russia's deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin said:
"Due to the fact that negotiations over an agreement on Ukraine's neutrality and non-nuclear status and security guarantees (for Ukraine) are moving into a practical stage, and taking into consideration the principles discussed during today's meeting, the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation has taken the decision to drastically reduce combat operations in the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas in order to boost mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations and for the signing of the aforementioned agreement."
I really didn't expect to hear words like these from a Russian minister: "mutual trust" ... "reduce combat operations" ... "further negotiations" ... "agreement".
[10:50am update. Too soon, I fear. Renewed attacks in Chernihiv region. Governor Viacheslav Chaus scoffed at Russia's promise: "Do we believe in it? Of course not." - adding that Russia had bombarded Chernihiv "all night long".]
Unbelievably, there appears to be a lightening mood in Odesa, with bars and music venues re-opening. Drummer Alexander Hodosevich, after finishing a set at the More Music club, claimed:
"The city is coming alive, I feel. I think the fear is going away a bit. People believe in our army, which is protecting us, and feel comfortable, feel safe. I don't think the Russian army is winning."
There's room for humour too. Here are clips of Ukrainian tractors stealing enemy armour, courtesy of the Russian-language TV channel Current Time (a collaboration between US-funded organs Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, editorial office in Prague), tweeted by a ... hmmm, "government organization":
Tuesday 29th March
Some responses to balance my post yesterday on Biden's regime change remarks. First, a couple of tweets:
Canadian journalist Ali Velshi on MSNBC:
I get it ... but I'd like to stick with Desmond Tutu.
Monday 28th March
Doesn't Joe Biden read this blog? Hasn't he understood the words of Desmond Tutu, whom I've quoted twice, that we should "consider using more temperate language when describing those with whom [we] disagree". From a man who witnessed oppression and genocide but could still come up with reconciliation.
Others share my concern.
Richard Haass, president of the US think-tank Council on Foreign Relations, previously Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State and a close advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell, tweeted:
Emmanuel Macron warned:
"We want to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine without escalation. If this is what we want to do, we should not escalate things - neither with words or actions."
Jim Risch, the senior Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, commented:
"My gosh, I wish they would keep him on script. Any time you say or even, as he did, suggest that the policy was regime change, it's going to cause a huge problem. This administration has done everything they can to stop escalating. There's not a whole lot more you can do to escalate than to call for regime change."
Biden might even learn from our cat Peewee. This weekend she steadfastly refused to be provoked by the invasive aggression of daughter Ellie's Patterdale terrier Kode:
No hissing, no raised hackles. Result: one puzzled ratter rendered harmless, an ugly back yard skirmish avoided.
Sunday 27th March
Saturday 26th March
A postscript to yesterday's piece on kindness in Ireland.
My correspondent accepted my theory that suffering at the hands of the English had contributed to this spirit, but went further:
"Occupation, land seizure, suffering, discrimination and serfdom under the English down the centuries did strengthen the bonds of solidarity in adversity amongst the people of Ireland, but the spirit of generosity would appear to pre-date that. The Celtic Brehon Laws (7th century to 17th century) even stipulated that offering hospitality to the stranger was a duty of all Irish people, and anyone who refused would be shunned by society. Christianity would have reinforced the message of kindness to others."
"I would like to think it is the nature of Irish people to be kind and generous to others, not just related to any laws or religious beliefs."
Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) picks up and extends the thread:
"Life in medieval Ireland was governed by laws, just as it is today. Readers may be familiar with the term Brehon Laws, which represent a collection of references to instructions, traditions and customs that originate in the 7th and 8th centuries and survive in later medieval manuscripts. It is within these texts that we find evidence of the importance of hospitality in medieval Irish law.
"According to these laws, a householder was required to offer food and lodging to any traveller passing through a neighbourhood. In addition, householders were bound by religious morals to give to the poor.
"Warm welcomes were not just reserved for the upper classes. Several records in the folklore collection tell of the hospitality for 'beggars' and 'travelling folk'. In the townland of Rashinagh, Co. Offaly, it was recorded that 'beggars used to be received in certain homes in the country districts with hospitality'."
Following on from the tweet I posted about the link between Ireland and the Native American Choctaw Nation (the third-largest federally recognised tribe in the United States), here's an article from a 13th June 2017 Irish Times article:
"The Choctaw Nation of the south-eastern states of America were so moved by the plight of the Irish people during the Famine that in 1847 they raised $170 - worth tens of thousands of dollars today - from their meagre resources to aid those starving in Ireland.
"Now the generosity of the Choctaw people, which came when they were suffering great penury and hardship after thousands perished on the forced migration that was the Trail of Tears, is to be remembered at a ceremony in Midleton, Co Cork.
"Choctaw Nation chief Gary Batton and a delegation of representatives from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma will attend the unveiling of a piece of sculpture entitled 'Kindred Spirits' by Cork-based sculptor Alex Pentek.
"According to Cork County Council East Cork municipal officer Joe McCarthy, the sculpture was commissioned in 2013 by the former Midleton Town Council in recognition of the Choctaw's extraordinary generosity towards the people of Ireland."
My correspondent added: "One Irish proverb that I am fond of is: 'Wide is the door of the little cottage' - no matter how small and humble your abode, there is always a welcome for everyone."
Boris's cabal and its Little Englander following has much to learn from this. EU countries like Ireland and Poland have received Ukrainians with open arms. The first instinct of post-Brexit Westminster is to do the opposite, to construct barriers to keep people out. Not "you're in need, come in and I'll help you" but "you could be a security risk, let me check you out". Fear and suspicion, not empathy and welcome.
I sincerely wish that we can change such an attitude in coming years, that Brexiteers may grow to realise what they have lost. If you abandon kindness, what have you got left?
Friday 25th March
With our bathroom out of action, yesterday I had a shower courtesy of friends Fod and Clare at their house on the Amberley hillside just off Minchinhampton Common above Stroud. A beautiful clear evening, views over the valley towards the Forest of Dean, the sun going down in the west.
Sadly, it was also a moment of unwelcome realisation. A shock in the shower. I don't like England very much at the moment. Even if the spring flowers usher in my best time of year.
It's mostly to do with the shaming bureaucratic Westminster response to Ukrainian refugees. A natural corollary to the mean spirit of Brexit.
Why are our neighbours so much kinder? Ireland in particular. My unwilling conclusion is that they have suffered invasion and oppression - usually at the hands of the English - whereas England has escaped, at least since the Normans. From that comes an empathy with those who are down-trodden, who have suffered loss and displacement. Ireland had to withstand, broadly, 800 years of English oppression. Only in 1949 did the country leave the British Commonwealth and formally become a republic.
Kindness is part of the fabric of Irish society, a basis for action.
Here's a report from the Irish Times in December 2019:
"A primary school in County Cork has decided to do away with all homework for the entire month of December, replacing it instead with 'acts of kindness'. Instead of spending the dark winter evenings memorising times tables or reciting the Modh Coinníollach, schoolchildren in Clonakilty's Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin will be spreading the true meaning of Christmas by performing acts of kindness for friends, family and the community. It's the third year in a row the school has replaced homework with something unique. Last year it was gratitude, where the children and their families recorded all the things they were grateful for in a Dialann Buíochas (Gratitude Diary). This year, the children are asked to record their acts of kindness - either in writing or pictures - in their Dialann Cineáltais (Kindness Diary). The school suggests doing something nice for an elderly neighbour, or performing an act of kindness for a relative or friend who may be feeling lonely, but the act can be anything as long as it brightens someone's day."
This is an entirely different lesson for children, isn't it, to the teaching of "control", and the desire to be separate from a union which, as we see in the generosity of EU nations today, has kindness enshrined in its laws?
As the Irish Times article above notes, kindness goes hand-in-hand with gratitude. Which often has a long memory.
GoFundMe said in 2020 that Ireland made the most donations per capita in that year, making it the most generous country in the world on the 10-year-old crowdfunding site. Here's a tweet:
Beyond matters of the spirit, there are the economic impacts:
And reassuring that Boris is so welcome among Western leaders ...
Thursday 24th March
My mother Bette would have been 101 today. I've been checking family history with sister Vicky.
She was born in 1921 to Mancunian parents Albert and Edith. By the time of her birth they had moved to London, as Albert had risen from humble beginnings in an accountancy firm to the point where he was sent to the big smoke to open an office. Bette grew up in a large house in Strawberry Hill. When she was nine Albert died, aged only 44. She supported Edith - who later lived with us in our family home in Worcester - for the rest of her days, until she too passed in her early nineties.
She courted and married my father when Britain was last embroiled in a global conflict. The story is that Victor - V for short, born four days after the end of WWI - was working as a metallurgist on Spitfire airframes in a Slough factory where Bette was the in-house nurse. He would reputedly and repeatedly cut his finger so that he could visit her as often as possible. There is also talk of their performing together in Farnham amateur dramatics.
Bette drove an ambulance during the Blitz. An idiosyncratic driver, she would have put the fear of God into the Germans had they arrived in Piccadilly.
Bette was a woman of boundless empathy and compassion, with a talent for connecting to people regardless of status or background. She would have been much distressed by the current hardships undergone by the less fortunate in our society, and moved to action by the suffering in Ukraine.
I remember one telling conversation at the grand party held in her honour when she retired from a distinguished career running the Family Planning Association in the West Midlands. A young clinic nurse took me aside and said: "Charlie, I have to tell you this. When your mother speaks to me, I feel like I'm the only person in the world." Some gift.
Wednesday 23rd March
Our bathroom reconstruction is under way, mostly aimed at installing a new walk-in shower. I'm having to share blog time with supporting the plumber. He's also called Charlie, which is causing some confusion with tea offer cries coming upstairs. I suppose we both just say yes.
A typical response to friend and neighbour enquiries about progress might be, "Oh, it looks like a bomb site." Not appropriate in current times. How fortunate we are. It's planned, not inflicted. And Charlie is very tidy and considerate, not an evaluation to be linked with invading Russian forces.
A month of war in Ukraine. My thoughts overnight turned once again to how it might stop. Who will discover the "golden bridge" that allows Putin to halt the destruction and killing? We've had a number of candidates jostling for the vacant position of Prince of Peace, some of them unlikely: Zelensky himself, Pope Francis, Erdoğan, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who or what can unlock and neutralise Putin's motivation?
I see two-time Olympic gold medal Russian swimmer Evgeny Rylov has been stripped of his Speedos after attending Putin's rally at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Is this the exposing catalyst we need?
Tuesday 22nd March
It's the 2-year anniversary of starting this blog.
230,000 words. Not all mine, as apart from my own comments and opinions I've tried to be an "aggregator of content", to reflect others' views. Over 2,000 external documents, images, videos and audio recordings posted. More than 5 gigabytes of data.
I began blogging before 22nd March 2020 with my account of the UK General Election, the first comments written on 30th October 2019. Another 15,000 words.
It's not been a great period, has it? A sizeable majority that launched Boris and his cronies, Brexit and the abandonment of goodwill, the divisive blight of Trump, the shocking murder of George Floyd, a pandemic claiming 6 million deaths worldwide, the woeful under-achievement of COP26, corruption and incompetence in Westminster, a burgeoning cost-of-living crisis and now the tragic crime of the Ukraine invasion. If I were to make a self-pitying assessment of the last two-and-a-half years, I'd say that someone upstairs has been intent on buggering up my retirement.
On the other hand, our sons lead rewarding European lives, Trump has gone (for now), awareness of racism has been raised by the Colston statue events, I have neither had Covid nor lost loved ones to the virus, I still witness people committed with passion and integrity to the pursuit of good in the world, I'm not short of cash and nobody is bombing me at night. We've even passed through the vernal equinox into my favourite time of year. I wish better times upon people and planet. The immediate priority is for peace in Ukraine.
An uplifting moment from yesterday was Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's press conference. As her husband Richard acknowledged, such grace. A family full of love and resilience. No false delight either, a realistic honesty about what they have lost - six years that should never have been - and the path, the "baby steps", to recovery. Nazanin emphasised the issues of those who remain in detention. She broached the big unanswered question of how many Foreign Secretaries it takes to gain a release, why it took so long to pay off a debt. A truly class act: human, balanced and positive. Radiant.
To mark the 874 days that have passed since the calling of the General Election and the commencement of my daily scribbles, I'm going to re-post a selection of videos and add a couple that I omitted at the time.
Brexit and the Boris cronies:
Trump and his disinfectant blather, courtesy of Sarah Cooper:
Italian social distancing brindisi (toast):
The best explanation of climate targets:
A joke from Dublin:
Absent friends. Old mate Ken Robinson, who died in August 2020, and daughter Ellie's partner Martin, who passed in November of the same year:
A song, Van Morrison's "Days like This":
Huge thanks to all my loyal contributors. A special mention for my Irish correspondent.
Monday 21st March
Cartoon by Patrick Chappatte in a Swiss Le Temp article "Guerre en Ukraine: comme un air de déjà vu" - "Do you see anything coming? The past."
A helpful page (click to enlarge) for Ukrainian visitors from the French daily Nice Matin: advice on accomodation, residence and work rights, care access, children's schooling. I like the handy scissor mark in the left margin - cut out and keep.
Ukraine flag projected onto the Russian Embassy in London ...
... and in Lisbon ...
... and in Tbilisi ...
A message from Alexandre's Bar in Dallas: "Removing all Russian spirits and introducing the F*** Putin shot, we'll be bringing in Ukrainian vodka next week to replace."
Sunday 20th March
"I know that it's the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom, every time ... When the British people voted for Brexit in such large numbers, I don't believe it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners. It's because they wanted to be free to do things differently and for this country to be able to run itself."
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey: "To compare a referendum to women and children fleeing Putin's bombs is an insult to every Ukrainian. He is no Churchill; he is Basil Fawlty."
Former Downing Street Chief of Staff Baron Barwell: "Apart from the bit where voting in a free and fair referendum isn't in any way comparable with risking your life to defend your country against invasion, and the awkward fact the Ukrainians are fighting for the freedom to join the EU, this comparison is bang on."
Saturday 19th March
Friday 18th March
The news doesn't get any easier to watch, does it? Yes, I'm aware that sounds shamefully "poor me". It's the Ukrainians who experience the spreading devastation and loss.
As I've said before, I look at the early morning reports and wonder why I wrote what I did last night. How does it have connection to the flattening of Kharkiv and Mariupol, the growing threat to Lviv? In truth, it barely does.
Once again, I'm going to leave the scribblings here. Maybe because there's a little lightness in them.
First, I had to finish off St. Patrick's Day events ...
The Irish Office of Public Works kept its word on the change to "Global Greening":
"In Ireland and abroad, we take pride in the wearing and displaying of the green on St Patrick's Day. The colour is an intrinsic part of our pride in our roots and the joint celebration of Irishness on our national holiday. Over many years, the Office of Public Works has set the mood for this important day by symbolically 'greening' our most iconic heritage sites, government buildings and national cultural institutions.
"This year is different, however, and even as we look forward to marking St Patrick's Day with our friends and loved ones, we think of the people of Ukraine whose lives, safety and sovereignty are at risk. For them and for the eyes of the world, we send a message of solidarity by illuminating 41 Irish landmarks across the country in the colours of Ukraine tonight and over the St Patrick's Day weekend to underline that the people of Ireland stand with Ukraine."
Shan Blue, my pick - sporting Ukrainian colours - in yesterday's Cheltenham Ryanair Chase started promisingly and then faded. Never mind. The compensation was that Michael O'Leary's horse Conflated fell and didn't finish - in his owner's race. Schadenfreude indeed. That'll teach him to scrimp on legroom, payback for all those extra charges. However, I wish no ill to horse and jockey - hope they're OK.
Isa Clee, one of our Stroud District Green Party councillors, has created a Ukraine poster which is free to print and display.
Here's the full-size original PDF:
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has popped into view again, this time in a 'phone call with Putin. Is he really going to be the Prince of Peace?
Thursday 17th March
It's St. Patrick's Day. We're lucky enough to to be able to celebrate. The usual thanks are due for un-usual contributions ...
With its customary kindness, Ireland has acknowledged Ukraine. Report from thejournal.ie a week ago:
"The Global Greening campaign will not take place this year so monuments can be lit in Ukraine's colours. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has written to all Irish embassies asking that embassies, monuments and other sites typically lit up green for St Patrick's Day should instead be lit up in yellow and blue."
Berlin has responded:
The Cheltenham Festival is in full swing up the road from here. Thursday is traditionally Irish Day. I couldn't resist putting a small wager on this appropriately-clad bay in the 14:50 Ryanair Chase:
What about this for an indulgence? Black Velvet cake. Guinness, champagne AND chocolate. Here's the recipe:
Why not make some traditional soda bread? Watch this charming instructional video. Looks fool-proof.
Fancy a dance? Shamrock Bhangra fuse dhol beats and Irish jigs for St. Patrick at Castletown House in County Kildare - with Ukrainian headgear:
I'll chuck in some topical tweets:
And finish with this:
Wednesday 16th March
I have to attend to other matters today, so just time for a few snapshots courtesy of the BBC website.
The map has more red.
Yet the Russian advance has been impeded by Ukrainian resistance.
Trains are vital in moving millions to safety. 37-year-old chairman of Ukraine's railway network Oleksandr Kamyshin keeps on the move, believing he is a target for the Russians.
There's an echo here of historian A.J.P. Taylor's famous theory on the importance of railway timetables to the beginning of WWI, how their inflexibility in relation to mobilisation precipitated the onset of hostilities.
"The Austrian declaration of war on Serbia was pure theory; no action followed it. Now this gives the essential factor in the outbreak of the First World War. All the great powers, of whom there were five, or six counting Italy, had vast conscript armies. These armies of course were not maintained in peace time. They were brought together by mobilisation. This factor had already counted before in the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, but this time there was a further complication.
"All mobilisation plans depended on railways. At that time the automobile was hardly used, certainly not as an instrument of mass transport, and railways demand time tables. All the mobilisation plans had been timed to the minute, months or even years before and they could not be changed. Modification in one direction would ruin them in every other direction. Any attempt for instance by the Austrians to mobilise against Serbia would mean that they could not then mobilise against Russian because two lots of trains would be running against each other. The same problem was to arise later for the Russians and in the end for the Germans who, having a plan to mobilise against France, could not switch round and mobilise again against Russia. Any alteration in the mobilisation plan meant not a delay for 24 hours but for at least six months before the next lot of timetables were ready."
Meanwhile, Covid lingers - and prospers? Here are the NHS numbers of UK hospital admissions showing the recent spike.
Tuesday 15th March
Finally. The UK government has launched the "Homes for Ukraine" scheme. 25,000 Brits registered to host a refugee within the first three hours.
This is good. However, I'm now going to fall foul of the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove. He lost his rag in the House of Commons yesterday: "I've had it up to here with people trying to suggest that this country is not generous."
Why am I going to quibble? Because it's not all done and dusted yet. And it didn't have to be like this. Until Brexit.
EU countries haven't taken so long. Look at this welcome for Ukrainian children in an Italian school. This is already happening, has happened for days.
Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin was interviewed by the BBC yesterday:
There's a key point in what he said. He'd just been honouring the European Union's Temporary Protection Directive.
From the EU website:
During the 1990s, conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, in Kosovo and elsewhere demonstrated the need for special procedures to deal with mass influxes of displaced persons. The 2001 Temporary Protection Directive provides a tool for the EU to address such situations.
The provisions within this Directive, based on solidarity between EU Member States, have been triggered for the first time to offer quick and effective assistance to people fleeing the war in Ukraine. On 4 March 2022, the Council adopted unanimously the implementing decision introducing temporary protection due to mass influx of persons fleeing Ukraine as a consequence of the war.
The Temporary Protection Directive defines the decision-making procedure needed to trigger, extend or end temporary protection. It foresees harmonised rights for the beneficiaries of temporary protection, including:
England abandoned this kind of humane commitment with Brexit. None of the EU countries has had to think twice about accepting refugees, to contrive new schemes. THE ANSWER WAS ALREADY THERE. In 2001. No scheme to invent.
Even with the UK announcement, there are hoops through which to jump, caveats revealed in the Homes for Ukraine website wording:
If you have a named person who you wish to sponsor you should get in contact with them directly and prepare to fill in a visa application with all their details and yours. The visa application will go live on Friday 18 March. Someone is eligible for the scheme if they are a Ukrainian national or the immediate family member of a Ukrainian national, and were resident in Ukraine prior to 1 January 2022. We will welcome as many arrivals as possible, based on the number of sponsors.
Named person ... visa application ... 18 March ...
Shadow Secretary of State Lisa Nandy commented:
"On his [Gove's] tour of the TV studios, he suggested several times that people who are willing to sponsor a Ukrainian family need to come to the government with the name of that family who will then rubber stamp it. He can't seriously be asking Ukrainian families who are fleeing Vladimir Putin, who have left their homes with nothing, to get on to Instagram and advertise themselves in the hope a British family might notice them."
Applicants, she said, still faced a 50-page form requiring them to upload water bills and mortgage documents and other things you might not grab when you flee for your life.
Oh well, at least we've got back control. And become very mean indeed.
7:00am postscript: As often happens, I have overnight thoughts to add.
The one possible defence of our government that I can come up with is that it has been seeking to create a system that is sustainable, that can function into the future. Poland, for example, is close to being overwhelmed by the numbers of Ukrainians seeking sanctuary.
That said, it still doesn't wash. What have EU countries said? "Sorry, you can't come in, we're not ready. Please wait patiently in your cities as the Russians advance until we've got sorted. Some of you will have to stay there because there's not enough room." No, they haven't. They've said, "Come in, welcome, we'll fix the problems later. We want you to be safe right now. Not just from March 18th."
Why have they been able to behave in such a way? Because a humanitarian framework - an agreed response - already existed in EU law, rights enshrined in the Temporary Protection Directive, enabling timely action. As Micheál Martin stressed in the interview at the top of today's post: "Speed is important in a situation like this."
The spirit of kindness lives in British hearts and minds, I don't doubt. What enrages me - in recent days I've got cardiac-risk angry - is that Brexit was a formal turning-away from principles of humanity and union, the rejection of harmony, goodwill and co-operation, rubber-stamped in an act of government, binding on us all. Not in my name.
I had thought for a long time before the Brexit imposition of insularity that if there were regrets about the loss of empire - not mine - we had instead, joyfully, gained Europe. Then the "sovereignty and control" monkeys ditched a beautiful idea.
Monday 14th March
I have usually quoted the World Health Organisation in these pages on matters related to coronavirus and vaccination. Yesterday it published this statement, "Stop attacks on health care in Ukraine" (2 pages):
"Today, we call for an immediate cessation of all attacks on health care in Ukraine. These horrific attacks are killing and causing serious injuries to patients and health workers, destroying vital health infrastructure and forcing thousands to forgo accessing health services despite catastrophic needs.
"To attack the most vulnerable - babies, children, pregnant women, and those already suffering from illness and disease, and health workers risking their own lives to save lives - is an act of unconscionable cruelty.
"In Ukraine, since the start of the war, 31 attacks on health care have been documented via the WHO's Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care (SSA). According to these reports, in 24 incidents health care facilities were damaged or destroyed, while in five cases ambulances were damaged or destroyed. These attacks have led to at least 12 deaths and 34 injuries, and affected access to and availability of essential health services. WHO is verifying further reports, as attacks continue to be reported despite the calls for protection of health care."
In a cruel twist, one effect of the war is that western - primarily, but not exclusively - nations will have to pay more attention to their sources of energy.
Presumably Belarus will see no change. Nor China.
Any reawakening we now see of the desire for energy independence is pretty shameful, isn't it? Not a response to others' suffering, but about the pain we will feel in our wallets. There's nothing in it to alleviate the plight of the Ukrainian people. We're just worried about our household bills.
On 3rd March the International Energy Agency (IEA), the 28-government organisation (Russia is not a member) established within the framework of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1974 in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, issued its "10-Point Plan to Reduce the European Union's Reliance on Russian Natural Gas" (12 pages):
Barbara Pompili, Minister for Ecological Transition of France, which currently holds the EU Presidency, said:
"More than ever, getting rid of Russian fossil fuels and of fossil fuels in general, is essential. What is at stake is both the need to accelerate the fight against climate change, and, as we can see now, the short-term energy security of the European continent."
Here is the plan summarised in an infographic below (click to enlarge). You can download the same image in PDF format (1 page) and a list of actions and impacts in text format (1 page) .
As Barbara Pompili said, there are short term aims, which include the maximisation of bioenergy, nuclear and alternative gas sources. The green energy purist/radical is going to be frustrated/appalled by the direction taken in this early phase. New life for the Cambo oil field off Shetland, the west Cumbria coal mine? Fracking back on the agenda? On this last, the Warwick Business School study of March 2020 calculated that UK production of shale gas could meet between 17 and 22 per cent of UK cumulative gas consumption between 2020 and 2050: "Its role will be to mask the declining production of the UK continental shelf and displace a limited quantity of imports ... an exercise in slowing the increase in import dependence."
Here is the IEA's projected reduction in gas reliance on Russia in the first year (click to enlarge):
This leaves 5 points that truly encourage the development of sustainable energy:
The amount of media coverage - reflected in this blog, I admit - on climate change has dropped to near zero. It takes a war and its associated financial threats to re-stimulate action. Money talks.
All of this assumes we haven't blown ourselves up before we put the finishing touches to climate catastrophe.
Sorry, folks, I never meant to get this gloomy. But I'm bound to repeat the Have I Got News For You tweet that I posted earlier in the month:
Overwhelmingly so for Ukrainians. Who were minding their own business three weeks ago.
Which is why I haven't called this impetus for renewable energy self-sufficiency a "silver lining".
To finish on a brave and brighter note, here's a video clip just sent by my Irish correspondent of a choir in Odessa singing "Va, Pensiero" ("Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves") from Verdi's opera "Nabucco":
Sunday 13th March
Saturday 12th March
Every day there are fewer words to describe the situation in Ukraine. Every day the Russian red spreads across the map. Every day the refugee numbers grow.
Here are screenshots I took of BBC live news shortly after 7:30am this morning:
The Westminster refugee response is buried in red tape. The "community sponsorship scheme" has yet to be finalised; further announcements are due on Monday.
This is wilful government-led throttling of humanitarian support, a malign and punitive obsession with "due process". It's not reflected in local communities in England, where individual towns and villages have made direct connections to assist, for example, their counterparts in Poland and Moldova.
Contrast the leadership across the Irish Sea.
Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) has reported:
"There have been almost 12,000 pledges of accommodation from Irish people to refugees from Ukraine. On Monday, the Government announced an accommodation pledge register through the Irish Red Cross website. The highest number of accommodation pledges by county is 2,149 in Dublin, followed by 1,327 in Cork, and 663 in Galway. The Government is said to be setting up an Irish presence in Polish airports to facilitate people fleeing the war in Ukraine."
From the Irish Examiner:
"Ireland is rolling out a series of extraordinary measures, including a plan to shelter up to 80,000 refugees from Ukraine. Farmers will receive extra State payments to grow crops on their land to counteract the economic and financial impact of the Ukrainian crisis. Emergency plans to house up to 80,000 Ukrainian refugees, which could involve constructing modular homes on State land such as the Curragh, are being drawn up with officials from the Department of Children working throughout the weekend with several hundred hotels being acquired from next week. With thousands of families now expected to arrive here, the Department of Education is working on meeting the demand for extra school places, while psychological supports and counselling are also being looked at. Meanwhile, a reduction in excise and an increase in the hauliers' fuel rebate is on the cards to help ease soaring petrol, diesel and home heating costs.
"Measures such as compulsory tillage orders were used in Ireland in extreme circumstances such as 'The Emergency' (WWII) including at the Ford car factory on Centre Park Rd, Cork City, pictured in 1940:"
We're all watching. Here's a Greek cartoon:
Boris and Priti don't get the message. Too busy with parties and bullying.
Friday 11th March
Random snippets today. I'm sure you've seen plenty of news already.
Daughter Ellie sent a photo of some house-painting near her home in St Werburghs, Bristol.
My alma mater sent me this email. So proud that they are in tune with world events and sticking to the important things in life. That they'd guessed what was really on my mind.
"We would like to thank you for your patience during the ticketing process." Damn right. I've been so frustrated by the delay in securing my May Ball admission.
Two days ago President Kelensky denounced the bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol as an atrocity. At about the same time, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a press conference in Antalya, Turkey, during which he claimed that the hospital had been taken over prior to the attack by the right-wing, neo-Nazi Azov militia battalion. "All the mothers that were about to give birth were chased out of there."
Of course, this led me to questions of truth, and then to George Orwell's "1984". I had never read the appendix to the book, "The Principles of Newspeak" - the fictional language of totalitarian Oceania - but I have now. What a commanding piece of invention, a beautifully-crafted treatise on the manipulation of language in pursuit of power and control. If you have the time, and you're interested in language, here it is (11 pages): . As a taste, this is the second paragraph:
"The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought - that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc - should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as 'This dog is free from lice' or 'This field is free from weeds'. It could not be used in its old sense of 'politically free' or 'intellectually free' since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum."
So, they held the trilateral meeting in Turkey. You're not telling me that Erdoğan sees himself as a peacemaker? I never spotted him as the recipient of my proposed Nobel Prize.
A Meta spokesperson has said: "In light of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, we made a temporary exception for those affected by the war, to express violent sentiments toward invading armed forces." A permissible example: "Death to the Russian invaders." Somebody asked me yesterday why I wasn't prepared to use Facebook. Here's one reason. Fits with Mark Zuckerberg's mission statement "Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together", doesn't it?
Thursday 10th March
Every day I experience more of a sense of guilt at being a bystander, mainly as we in the West insist that the Ukrainians' big request must be denied.
Here is the president's tweet from yesterday:
This was echoed by his wife in her recent open letter to the world's press:
It's not the kind of picture you'd expect in a humanitarian appeal, is it? Super-glam. I assume it's intentional, quite why I'm not sure.
Our response to the refugees continues to shame me. I was surprised to find this cartoon on the front page of the upcoming issue of The Spectator, an organ once edited by Boris.
The "how will it end?" question persists. Here's one idea:
A minor quibble. Tom needs to be more careful with subtleties of grammar. Who was running the Stasi agents?
I've wrestled with the one remaining question presented to me by daughter Ellie's friend H. It's about issues of race and colour in the crisis, particularly her perception of news coverage and treatment of black and Asian people in Ukraine. I've written yards on the topic, but have decided that it's not appropriate to post right now, even if the photo of Olena Zelenska above might have some bearing on the matter. Fear and death are pigment-neutral - although people of colour may arguably experience more (Yemen, Ruanda). Instead, I'll stick with this comment from the South African comedian and television host Trevor Noah:
Wednesday 9th March
Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to a packed House of Commons, to a standing ovation.
An indicator of extraordinary times.
The first foreign head of state to be heard, albeit virtually, in the chamber. 46 other leaders have addressed members of parliament since 1939, but in other venues, most frequently the Royal Gallery and Westminster Hall. Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua, spoke in Committee Room 14.
Five Russians (one of them twice) have given speeches: Nikolai Bulganin (Premier of the Soviet Union) and Nikita Khruschev (First Secretary of the Communist Party), both on 24th April 1956; Alexei Kosygin (Premier), 1967; Mikhail Gorbachev (General Secretary of the Communist Party, President), 1984; Boris Yeltsin (President of the Russian Federation), 1992; Mikhail Gorbachev again (when out of office after the official end of the Soviet Union), 1993.
Zelensky expressed personal thanks to Boris, but sadly for the Ukrainian president he still hasn't got the no-fly zone he really wants. I suspect he's after even more, namely for NATO, the organisation he's accused by Putin of wishing to join, to stand alongside his forces to fight the Russians - although he must surely understand the implications. His speech was full of praise for the West's support - but there was definitely an elephant in the room.
My friend Alf Florio, who was curate of St Patrick's Catholic church in Soho from 1954 to 1965 (he has some tales to tell), emailed yesterday:
"What about a Damascene conversion for Vladimir? Without it Saul would have been a bloodthirsty nobody. Putin said 'God forbid ...'. Is he a Russian Orthodox believer? A sudden cessation of the war because he repents would make him a universal saint for all time! Miracles aside, what does the Russian church say about the war? The Pope has made a clear condemnation. Surely there must be many orthodox Christian clerics bursting with horror. Maybe we are not allowed to hear of them, given the control of information. Given also that he only appears to talk to his subordinates at five metre table lengths, perhaps no senior cleric can get anywhere close to him. It is very difficult to have reasonable hope."
I'm heartily sick of our mean-spirited, red-tape-obsessed Home Office:
Which leads me to the whole pack of rouble-grabbing Westminster toffs. Ben Elliot is Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party. He's a member of 5 Hertford Street, a secretive private members' club in Mayfair owned by "committed Leaver" Robin Birley. Political figures allegedly - yes, I've learnt from Private Eye - associated with the club include Priti Patel, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, David Cameron, Arron Banks and Liz Truss. Elliot co-founded the "concierge" Quintessentially Group - fixers for the rich. The group posted this promotional material on its website, rapidly taken down (but lingering on the Twittersphere) after the Ukraine invasion:
OK, so that's gone, but not forgotten, I'm sure. You can still find this on the site:
It's not exactly levelling-up, is it? Not surprising when the Secretary of State for Levelling Up (that really is the official job title - it must be a jolly private joke, although to me it sounds distinctly Orwellian) is no stranger - allegedly - to 5 Hertford Street.
Tuesday 8th March
Nearly two weeks of war.
The question in all our minds must be: How will it end?
There is no sign of Putin abandoning his plan. Indeed, what is the plan? Will he stop when he has crushed the Ukrainian armed resistance? What would happen after that? Dissolve the border, absorb the country into Russia? Install a puppet regime? Maintain a military presence?
Or press on into other ex-Soviet satellites? Only those who are not members of NATO, such as Moldova? Or beyond, perhaps to the Baltic states? Then surely we face the unthinkable.
Might the Ukraine, unable to sustain further intolerable wounds, agree to a political compromise? Fall back from fight-to-the-death?
Could Putin be convinced to call a halt? By impoverished oligarch, gymnast lover or weary general? By Ivan Public? By the threat of prosecution for war crimes?
Will he be removed from power? Bumped off by disillusioned countryman or foreign adversary?
I'm still waiting for the "golden bridge".
What could NATO do?
My friend Dave Lovegrove yesterday pointed me at a Guardian article that I'd missed a week ago by Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow for defence and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, the Washington-based think tank, titled: "Many predicted NATO expansion would lead to war; those warnings were ignored". He opened with:
"Russia's military offensive against Ukraine is an act of aggression that will make already worrisome tensions between NATO and Moscow even more dangerous. The west's new cold war with Russia has turned hot. Vladimir Putin bears primary responsibility for this latest development, but NATO's arrogant, tone-deaf policy toward Russia over the past quarter-century deserves a large share as well. Analysts committed to a US foreign policy of realism and restraint have warned that continuing to expand the most powerful military alliance in history toward another major power would not end well. The war in Ukraine provides definitive confirmation that it did not."
The Clinton administration invited Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to become members. Madeleine Albright, then US Secretary of State, conceded in her memoir:
"Yeltsin and his countrymen were strongly opposed to enlargement, seeing it as a strategy for exploiting their vulnerability and moving Europe's dividing line to the east, leaving them isolated."
Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State, said:
"Many Russians see NATO as a vestige of the cold war, inherently directed against their country. They point out that they have disbanded the Warsaw Pact, their military alliance, and ask why the west should not do the same."
George Kennan, American diplomat and historian, warned in a May 1998 New York Times interview of what the US Senate's ratification of NATO's first round of expansion might set in motion.
"I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. The Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else."
We rubbed our hands with glee at the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and gloated as the Eastern Bloc adopted western economics. "Communism, pah! - we knew it wouldn't work." The Cold War was over. The Russian threat had gone away. Nobody considered that the hurt might grow to be less to do with ideology, more with power, status, territory - and revenge. Humiliation bred resolve. The bear retreated with its tail between its legs. Now it's back.
We of the NATO alliance have as great a duty as any other party to the crisis to unearth a creative route to resolution.
Meanwhile, we have the privilege of continuing daily family life free from fear of attack.
Son Ben has had a break from Bilbao in Barcelona. Here's his wee snack in a café near Parc Güell: "Morcilla, chorizo and baby squid. Everything deep fried with plenty of white bread. Welcome to Spain." Plus a glass of vermouth. I'm green with envy, but happy to avoid the cardiac risk.
Grandson Marlie has been praised at school for his musical contributions, even with violin. So a friend of daughter Ellie bought one for him.
And not forgetting, happy ...
Monday 7th March
Hats off to Poland.
According to the BBC, the United Nations has reported these numbers so far: Poland 1,027,603; Hungary 180,163; Slovakia 128,169; Moldova 82,762; Romania 78,977; Russia 53,300; Belarus 406.
50 Ukrainians have been granted visas under a scheme for refugees with family links to the UK, the Home Office has announced. That is about 1% of the 5,535 people who have applied since the programme launched 48 hours ago. Priti Patel said that it is ...
"... the first scheme in the world that's up and running in this short period of time. This is an incredible scheme and we are doing everything possible, surging capacity across every single application centre across the EU."
Przemysl is a city in southeastern Poland with 60,442 inhabitants as of June 2020. It has seen 180,000 arrivals in 10 days.
Sunday 6th March
Worrying news that Putin has declared that sanctions are an act of war. We're miles from rapprochement, from the prospect of a "golden bridge". As my friend Diana said this morning, "the Ukraine situation is beyond comment or understanding."
And today I'm not going to try. Lunch in Bath with friends. A privilege we still enjoy.
Saturday 5th March
Day off. A luxury not afforded to Ukraine. Except for the marginally brighter news that Russia has agreed to a ceasefire allowing civilians to leave Mariupol and Volnovakha (13:00 - Now reported to have been broken).
Time for a trivial observation on the home front. Sir Gavin Williamson? Should you ever need an illustration of the shortcomings of the Westminster government - incompetence, insensitivity to the public's experience of the pandemic, execrable timing (did Boris think he'd slip the award in under the cover of war?), cronyism and gongs for goons - here it is. What an insult. To jog your memory ...
I like the redheaded girl with the perfect model elephant. Job done properly. Tidy and organised. No mess. Completed with success as designed.
Friday 4th March
News of the war in Ukraine is as grim as ever - no, grimmer if you consider the deepening humanitarian crisis in places like the port city of Mariupol. Not to mention the risks of shelling a nuclear power plant.
I have however noticed, with gratitude, that the desire to find ways to unlock the situation is growing. The search for the holy grail of "getting inside Putin's head". The idea posited by Mary Sarotte two days ago: "Give your enemy a golden bridge to retreat across". I said yesterday that a reward should be given for imaginative solutions that will give us the key; I've upgraded that to a Nobel Peace Prize.
What it requires is an understanding of complexity, and a willingness to hear disparate views. As Barack Obama said in an entirely different context: "We have to persuade people who ... currently don't agree with us. We actually have to listen to their objections." I'm still trying to find the right answers to the questions posed by daughter Ellie's friend (I'll call her H for anonymity), and I'll try to address them in what follows. Some of what I'm going to write may be unpalatable.
H challenged what has become the conventional wisdom: "It's so one-sided. I want to know more about Putin and what he wants because I think they're all just as evil as each other."
[Gulp. Deep breath.] OK, let's give it a go.
First, is Putin evil? Is the West evil? We believe the first, Putin believes the second. My gut instinct - from cultural background, upbringing, education, received wisdom - is that the first is true, the second not. But that doesn't help. The use of the word pours fuel on the fire, incites greater hostility. We have to find the parts of Putin that are not evil. The Quakers' "grain of goodness". Not easy, not our first inclination when faced with his undeniably belligerent and inhuman traits, but ultimately the only approach that will lead us away from confrontation.
H went on: "What is so wrong with Putin not wanting any more of his neighbouring countries to be part of NATO? Doesn't he have a point when he says that could be a threat to Russia?"
This goes back a long way. History that I'm probably not qualified to verify, so forgive my conjecture, my stab at it.
At the end of WWII, there were many contributing factors that led to the cooling of the West-Russia relationship, a process that was evident at both the 1945 conferences intended to establish the post-war direction of Europe, held in Yalta (Crimea, early February) and Potsdam (near Berlin, late July into early August). The enmity between Joseph Stalin and the other two world leaders - Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at Yalta, Harry Truman and Churchill at Potsdam - was becoming entrenched.
The Russians felt let down in the latter years of the war; they believed that the Allies had delayed the Normandy landings and invasion of Italy, leaving the Soviet army to struggle alone against Nazi Germany.
Straight after Potsdam, the USA dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on 6th and 9th August respectively. At the outset of the Cold War, the United States was the only nation in the world with the bomb, and had with the attacks on Japan effectively initiated the era of nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race. Two years ago, in an interview with the estimable British journalist Steve Rosenberg, Mikhail Gorbachev - the last leader of the Soviet Union, instrumental in ending the Cold War, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, later derided in Russia for accelerating the Soviet collapse and ushering in economic chaos - said:
"Why did the Americans do that? As a warning to everyone. Obey us, or we'll drop a little bomb on you, like we did on Japan. That's how I see it. Why else would they drop a bomb?"
There was also the divide between capitalism and communism. The core tenet of the Truman Doctrine, enshrined in that president's 1947 speech to the US Congress, was that the United States should attempt to contain the Soviet sphere of influence and the spread of communism, hence the later Berlin Blockade (and Airlift), Korean War and Vietnam War. The Republican senator Joseph McCarthy was the most public face of the ugly political and social drive - termed "McCarthyism" - to suppress communism in the USA in the early 1950s.
In the west, the main manifestation of the breakdown of relations was NATO - the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in French Organisation du traité de l'Atlantique nord or OTAN, which implements the North Atlantic Treaty signed on 4th April 1949. The initial members were: France, United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. NATO embodies a system of collective security, whereby its independent member states agree to mutual defence in response to an attack by any external party. Since its foundation, the admission of new member states has increased the alliance from the original 12 countries to 30. Despite the assurances given by several western leaders to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that NATO would not expand further east, "enlargement" has proceeded apace.
Joe Biden said last week that the military alliance would maintain its "open door" policy to European states who share its values and may someday seek to join.
At the time of NATO's inception, the Soviet Union had no comparable partnerships, until the birth of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation (WTO), officially the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, commonly known as the Warsaw Pact. Established in 1955, the initial membership included: the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania.
All seven of the Eastern Bloc nations have since become independent of Russia. All of them are now members of NATO.
You can see how it must look to Putin. However, as far as I know, none of these countries has been coerced into joining the EU or NATO. The growth was the natural extension of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the desire to be free of its controlling shackles. The benefits of belonging to the West appealed. I remember on our first visit to Berlin around 10 years ago, when we drove son Nikko to start living there, having a sense of how it must have looked to East Germans. We dropped Nikko near the zoo, amidst glittering glass buildings under the iconic revolving Mercedes sign. On the other side of the wall they had been driving Trabants. They must have looked west in the night sky and thought, "I want some of that."
H's next question was: "Did America add any fuel to this fire before it actually blew up?"
I need to substitute "the West" for "America". My answer is more subjective than in the NATO section above - it's my opinion.
Yes, we did. Putin's actions are despicable, the suffering is horrific, but we have indeed helped to stoke the conflagration, although not in the form of armed aggression. Biden and Boris have used language that can only incite the adversary. Maybe that's a show of strength - which is arguably the only thing that Putin understands - but unless we want to go to war and risk annihilation, we have to find a way to - and I'll quote Desmond Tutu's words again - "consider using more temperate language when describing those with whom [we] disagree". If that sounds feeble, let's remember that Tutu knew far more than most of us about oppression, armed conflict and genocide, and still came up with reconciliation.
We have failed to understand the direction in which Putin has been heading, and instead of taking a stand earlier, have cosied up to his regime.
We are guilty of collusion.
The UK has trousered deep pocketfuls of the Russian rouble. The Tory party has accepted donations in the millions (£ sterling) for some time. To name but two donors: Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Russian deputy finance minister, has given more than £450,000 in the last year; former arms tycoon Alexander Temerko has gifted over £1.2 million in the past seven years.
It's laudable that the oligarchs are finally being squeezed, but why did we ever allow them to hold such sway in the first place? Our own greed. There has been little resistance to Russian acquisition of British businesses and property. Chelsea football club has happily accepted Roman Abramovich funding for nearly twenty years. New details of Russian ownership are revealed every day as the hunt goes on. I was astonished to hear that health and wellbeing specialist Holland & Barrett was acquired in 2017 by companies controlled by billionaire Mikhail Fridman.
It's an irony that the original cold war western fear of communism is now groundless. Putin is neither defending nor promoting the ideology of Karl Marx. Russia represents hyper-capitalism, the concentration of vast wealth in the hands of few. There is nothing egalitarian about Alisher Usmanov's megayacht Dilbar, seized on Wednesday by German authorities.
Right, that will do for now. I still have more H questions to consider, but I'm sure you've read enough for today.
I'll turn to cheerier topics, stories of resistance and generosity.
High up the list is 77-year-old Yelena Osipova protesting in Moscow. She's alleged to be a survivor of the siege of Leningrad, but that ended just over 78 years ago. Never mind, close enough. I'm sure it wasn't a great place to be born in the aftermath of the siege. Or maybe she's actually much older than reported?
The open-armed welcome extended to Ukrainian refugees has been moving. Daughter Ellie posted this on Instagram:
Thursday 3rd March
Last night I gave up on the idea of posting anything today. I'd been wrestling with some challenging questions about the crisis posed to me by a friend of daughter Ellie, with whom I'd had a long conversation the day before as she sought assistance in unpicking the historical and political context of the conflict - Putin's fear of an encroaching NATO, the west's role in inflaming confrontation, issues of colour and race.
I simply lost the will to carry on scribbling - although I intend to return to the questions - in the face of the growing human cost of the invasion. Shameful really, as Ukrainians have to find the strength every day to resist the crushing might of Russia.
At 6am this morning I got up to encouraging emails, and that's why I'm posting now. My friend Diana emailed me a note titled "Small ray of hope, maybe" - "Lavrov and China are alarmed by the prospect of nuclear war, and will perhaps be able to find the formula for a climb-down." My Irish correspondent sent me reports of heart-warming responses from across the Muir Éireann.
Great kindness breathes out of Ireland, in contrast to the chill empathetic parsimony of Boris's Westminster cronies. Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) published this story yesterday:
"A mural has been unveiled in Letterkenny, Co Donegal to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine. The painting by street artist Ciarán Dunlevy was displayed for the first time at a vigil, organised by the local community, this evening. The mural was inspired by a report in the New York Times, he said, which showed people in Ukraine taking up arms to defend their nation. Mr Dunlevy said the artwork is a 'declaration of our support for the Ukrainian people. It is an honouring of their exceptional courage, strength, humanity and power. We want them to know that the Irish people stand with them in solidarity and love.'
"'The last mural I painted was of Ireland's great mythical hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Fionn's warriorship was one of integrity, truth, courage and love. Fionn and the Fianna were fierce protectors of their tribe. This is what I saw in the faces of the Ukrainian people. This new mural depicts the face of one of these people; a young Ukrainian civilian-warrior named Zakhar Nechypor who has the power and protection of their sovereignty Goddess Berehynia emanating through him.'"
I saw a tweeted photo yesterday of the Prague statue of Sir Nicholas Winton, the British banker and humanitarian who established an organisation to rescue children at risk from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II.
Back to the Westminster dolts and curmudgeons ...
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, in response to the mooted Swedish invitation to Russian deserters, said:
"I take the view that the best thing that Russian deserters can do is go back to Russia, tell the Russian people they are being deceived, tell the Russian people that their military leaders are causing huge amounts of unnecessary suffering and losses because of either incompetence or arrogance, and they can go back and tell the mothers, who are wondering where their thousands of disappeared sons are."
That's right, Ben, they'll be welcomed with open arms, won't they? Why not a tickertape parade? How stupid can you be?
A related tweet ...
... and a limerick from the Daily Mirror, in reference to Wallace's retrospective quip about the Scots Guards' "drubbing" of Tsar Nicholas I in 1853:
As ministers try to ignore
Donations from Russians galore,
Defence Sec Ben Wallace
Attempts to seek solace
By citing the Crimean War.
Wednesday 2nd March
This now happens every morning. Wake up, have to check the news. How far has that convoy got? And I'm sitting in a quiet street 1,600 miles away. Not a handful of kilometres, or right on my doorstep. No missile strikes in Stroud. No tanks rumbling up the A46. In Ukraine, having to face each morning and the day ahead must be beyond awful. What has to be endured there is light-years from our experience here.
Once again, I got up and decided to scrap what I wrote last night. It seems to miss the point. A luxury of observation, even reflection, not permitted in Kyiv. As before, I'm going to leave it here, because ... well, it's what I was thinking. Maybe it has some value. Feel free to skip if you wish.
This is the moment when I'm going to, for the most part, say goodbye to Coronavirus Blog. When I posted my Covid update and summary nine days ago, I had a sense of farewell. The virus has not gone away (the 7-day rolling average of related deaths in the UK was 106 yesterday), the global vaccine roll-out is far from complete (Mali, for example, still has only 3.8% of its population fully vaccinated), long Covid casts a shadow, we don't know what else lies ahead with future mutations - but it seems that "learn to live with it" has now taken hold, at least in the UK. We have other concerns, not least the one below.
I have repeatedly quoted in these pages Bill Gates's 2015 TED speech (the first time was on Easter Sunday 12th April 2020👉) in which he warned of potential virus pandemics as the major threat to the world's future, and the need to prepare, advice that we failed to heed.
He walked on to the stage wheeling a drum of survival supplies:
Here are his opening remarks:
"When I was a kid the disaster we worried about most was a nuclear war. That's why we had a barrel like this down in our basement, filled with cans of food and water. When the nuclear attack came, we were supposed to go downstairs, hunker down and eat out of that barrel [audience laughs]. Today the greatest risk of global catastrophe doesn't look like this [shows mushroom cloud]. Instead, it looks like this [influenza virus]. If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it's most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes."
Bet you didn't think it would be the other way round, Bill, did you?
The people sheltering underground in Ukraine could do with a consignment of those barrels now.
Have I Got News For You (see yesterday too) tweeted:
Laugh? I nearly cried. The biggest question for all of us must be: "How do we get Putin to STOP?" Isolation seems to be current tactic number one. But Putin himself has told the story of being attacked by a cornered rat. Mary Sarotte, Professor of Historical Studies at the Henry Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins, said on Channel 4 News last night:
"I would recommend the saying of Sun Tzu, 'Give your enemy a golden bridge to retreat across', meaning make backing down attractive for your enemy. My gut feeling is that it's not to him we need to give this golden bridge, it's to the people around him."
Will it be sanctioned oligarchs, rich mates who see their fortunes threatened, who convince him to call a halt? Will it be his own people as the dollars and euros run out at the ATMs? It won't be, as used to be the case, others in the Politburo, because it doesn't exist any more.
You can now read any number of analyses of the workings of Putin's brain and how they got us into this mess. What I haven't yet seen is how we might lead him - and all the rest of us, but primarily the Ukrainians - out of it. If ever a massive prize needed to be awarded for creative and imaginative solutions, however apparently counter-intuitive, it's now. Answers on a postcard, please.
Tuesday 1st March
Once again, I was unable to sleep after 5am. I put it down to watching the extended BBC news last night. It's difficult to witness the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine: the queues for trains, families separated, children in underground paediatric hospitals. And, of course, immeasurably harder for the Ukrainians themselves to experience. I was struck in the night by the silence and darkness in our street, in contrast to the noise and flash of explosions in beleaguered cities to the east.
I wrote - collated - a lot yesterday for today's blog that involved witty observations from a variety of sources, often posted on Twitter. This morning, I wasn't sure whether to post it. As I've said before, I'm very uneasy about the place of humour in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. At the same time, satire has long been used in Britain as a means to expose the truth, a sideways incisive look at current mores and events, in a tradition going back to cartoonist William Hogarth and poet/satirist Alexander Pope. So I'm going to use the material - because it informs our understanding of the present context.
It started with a tweet from Have I Got News For You, which sits firmly within the satirical tradition, particularly as team captain Ian Hislop is editor of Private Eye.
Brexit, then the pandemic, Tory sleaze, the dire unhinged threat of Putin, Ukrainian suffering - and the IPCC report.
HIGNFY went on:
I'm tired of, shamed by the mean-spirited nature of the Westminster government. Here are some differing reactions to the needs of refugees.
You have to question the motivation and fitness of Tory leaders in the crisis. Truss spends more time at photoshoots than in problem resolution as she eyes up the door to Number 10. Boris seeks his Falklands moment to escape the fallout from #PartyGate, the attentions of Sue Gray and the Met.
In spirit-lifting contrast, there are myriad initiatives to support Ukraine. My Irish correspondent has sent me one example in Dublin, an appeal by The Art of Coffee chain of 14 cafés:
Monday 28th February
I woke up yesterday - as I'm sure we all did - to thoughts full of dread and dismay at the unfolding events in Ukraine.
This is Europe in 2022. My generation didn't expect - or at least hoped not - to see a modern war on the continent. Much of post-WWII political energy was directed at ensuring that no such conflict should occur again. There have been some tragic blips, although nothing quite as threatening as today's situation. It's worth remembering the concluding words spoken by Winston Churchill in a speech delivered at the University of Zurich on 19th September 1946:
"We must re-create the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe, and the first practical step will be to form a Council of Europe. If at first all the States of Europe are not willing or able to join a union we must nevertheless proceed to assemble and combine those who will and who can. The salvation of the common people of every race and every land from war and servitude must be established on solid foundations, and must be created by the readiness of all men and women to die rather than to submit to tyranny. In this urgent work France and Germany must take the lead together. Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America - and, I trust, Soviet Russia, for then indeed all would be well - must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live. Therefore I say to you 'Let Europe arise!'"
Shame about Russia.
As an aside, have you noticed that Boris has gone all European again? Having led us into isolation, he now refers to his "friends and partners".
Putin has uttered the N word. He talks of a "special alert". His use of the adjective is disturbing. The invasion started with a "special military operation". Again, Churchill's warning in the Zurich speech was prescient:
"In these present days we dwell strangely and precariously under the shield, and I even say protection, of the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb is still only in the hands of a nation which, we know, will never use it except in the cause of right and freedom, but it may well be that in a few years this awful agency of destruction will be widespread and that the catastrophe following from its use by several warring nations will not only bring to an end all that we call civilisation but may possibly disintegrate the globe itself."
The response of other nations to the displacement of an estimated 4 million Ukrainians, close to 400,000 refugees in flight to adjacent countries, has been welcoming.
Sadly, the UK stance on existing Ukrainian residents has disappointed, with a strong odour of red tape:
Pork butcher? Give me strength.
The Twittersphere has offered comment:
A contrasting, decisive declaration from Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee:
While praying that Putin can keep his finger off the Big Button, I am warmed by global acts of opposition solidarity, not least in the world of sport. Here are players at the Everton-Manchester City Premier League game and the big screen at the Ireland-Italy rugby test in Dublin.
My friend Diana sent me the link to another Playing for Change song. It was in fact the first I saw from the foundation, more than ten years ago: a cover interpretation of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me". At the time I was attending to the computer needs of the vicar of Nailsworth, and I sent it to him. He played it to his congregation.
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we'll see
No, I won't be afraid
No, I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
Did you spot the Russian cellist?
Saturday 26th February
I'm tempted to abandon the Tutu-inspired thoughts of peace and understanding I posted yesterday. They simply don't marry with the workings of Putin's brain. Getting inside his head is the dissection of psychosis. Tutu's words would find no houseroom there. What can you do with a man who first urges Ukrainian troops to lay down their arms, then later to turn them on their own leaders, the "drug addicts" and "Nazis"? I'd join those who argue that the only solution is a bullet to his head - except that would mean I'd become like him.
I watch the Russian entry into Kyiv with guilt. The forlorn brave defiance of Zelensky: "When you attack us, you will see our faces. Not our backs. We're all here [pictured with his top aides]. And it will stay this way." The Ukrainians cry abandonment, compelled to stand alone in the face of Russian might as world powers apply political and economic sanctions - but not force. What they really want, surely, is for NATO to fight alongside them - yet we all know where that would lead.
This Putin invasion has been long in the planning, hasn't it? Probably since the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. Was it a shameful moment for him, one that seeded his current action? "Watch me", I can hear him say, "One day I'll get all this back."
The conflict is an unequal contest. Untrained, volunteer citizens picking up guns to defend their country against the massed armoury of the invader. The NATO-Russia confrontation is committee - who must agree and follow international law - versus dictator - who will do whatever he wants.
I still need to find ideas that counterbalance the ugliness of these events, antidote to this worst expression of (in)humanity, to believe in something better, even if I feel undeserving in the shadow of the Ukrainian people's plight. My friend Dave Lovegrove sent me a thing of beauty yesterday. It's from Playing for Change, the foundation that brings musicians together from around the world to perform great, healing songs.
The video below is of their cover of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter".
It's prefaced with the Irish proverb: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine - translated here as "It is in the shelter of each other that the people live".
The lyrics - a selection here - resonate, one line in particular:
Ooh, a storm is threatening
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Ooh yeah I'm gonna fade away
It's just a shot away
Ooh, see the fire is sweepin'
Our streets today
Burns like a red coal carpet
Mad bull lost its way
Gimme, gimme shelter
Or I'm gonna fade away
I tell you love, sister
It's just a kiss away
Friday 25th February
Sanctions - who will they hurt?
Yes, Russian stocks took a hit yesterday, including the state-owned energy corporation Gazprom and banking/financial services company Sberbank:
But look at how the UK is affected by gas supply and the predicted impact on the energy price cap:
Putin has other markets. China won't stop buying. Pakistan ex-cricketer and prime minister Imran Khan has been doing deals:
I'm now going to post quite a long quotation, but I think it's worth it. Two days ago I said that I was reading Desmond Tutu's "No Future Without Forgiveness", published in 1999. I've now finished it. On the one hand it's very appropriate reading for today, on the other horribly ill-timed. In this Ukrainian conflict, we are so at the wrong end of a journey that might lead to truth and reconciliation. Negotiation has fallen off the table. We are in the first flush of trying to inflict hurt. Nonetheless, I think these 3 paragraphs are useful. They are in happy contrast to the current face-off.
"I hope that those who are at this moment enemies around the world might consider using more temperate language when describing those with whom they disagree. Today's 'terrorist' could very well be tomorrow's president. That has happened in South Africa. Most of those who were vilified as terrorists are today our cabinet ministers and others sit in the government benches of our national assembly. If those we disagree with today are possibly going to be our colleagues tomorrow, we might begin by trying to describe them in language that won't be an embarrassment when that time of change does come.
"It is crucial too that we keep remembering that negotiations, peace talks, forgiveness and reconciliation happen most frequently not between friends, not between those who like one another. They happen precisely because people are at loggerheads, and detest one another as only enemies can. But enemies are potential allies, friends, colleagues and collaborators. This is not just utopian idealism. The first democratically elected government of South Africa was a Government of National Unity made up of members of political parties that were engaged in a life-and-death struggle. The man who headed it had been incarcerated for twenty-seven years as a dangerous terrorist. If it could happen there, surely it can happen in other places. Perhaps God chose such an unlikely place deliberately, to show the world that it can be done anywhere.
"Peace is possible, especially if today's adversaries were to imagine themselves becoming friends and begin acting in ways that will promote such a friendship developing in reality. It would be wonderful if, as they negotiated, they tried to find ways of accommodating each other's needs. A readiness to make concessions is a sign of strength, not weakness. And it can be worthwhile sometimes to lose a battle in order in the end to win the war. Those who are engaged in negotiations for peace and prosperity are striving after such a splendid, such a priceless goal, that it should be easier to find ways where all are winners than to fight; where negotiators make it a point that no one loses face, that no one emerges empty-handed, with nothing to place before his or her constituency. How one wishes that negotiators would avoid having bottom lines and too many preconditions. In negotiations we are, as in the process of forgiveness, seeking to give all the chance to begin again. The rigid will have a tough time. The flexible, those who are ready to make principled compromises, end up being the victors."
Tragically, I don't think Vladimir Putin is ready for this - and may never be. The reports this morning, the attacks on Kyiv and elsewhere, the mounting death toll, indicate that he is intent only on assault, the crushing of Ukraine into submission. It's bashing-time, full-on attack mode, nowhere near any idea of peaceful resolution. I just need to feel that there is some hope.
I do think Tutu's point about temperate language is well made. Biden and Boris have both used terminology that demonises Putin - and so have I. That makes him more determined, backs him into a hole, no room to compromise. Yes, he is naturally belligerent and dangerously flawed, but if we feed those characteristics we will also have some responsibility for that old Cold War endgame concept of "Mutually Assured Destruction" - indeed, for a truly MAD conclusion.
Thurday 24th February
15:00pm - Time to stop watching any more news.
As with any conflict, part of the process is an intractable war of words. I'm reminded of the statement: "One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter". NATO talks of defending democracy and a sovereign state. Putin talks of liberating Ukraine from "Nazification" and genocide. Both parties believe their view is correct.
06:00am - Sleep over, I reckon.
Russian missile strikes this morning on Kyiv. Tanks entered Ukraine via the Belarus border.
Our Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace was yesterday filmed declaring to a group of British soldiers that "busy" Putin had gone "full Tonto", while claiming that his old Scots Guards regiment had "kicked the backside" of Tsar Nicholas I in 1853 and that now we could send in the Gurkhas to "do it again".
Thank goodness we're in such safe hands.
04:00am - Woke up and checked the news.
Putin has launched a "special military operation" in Ukraine.
Biden has responded:
"President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering. Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable."
Two days ago, Trump was interviewed. You always knew he'd pop up as the madness broke.
"I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, 'This is genius.' Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine ... Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that's wonderful. So, Putin is now saying, 'It's independent', a large section of Ukraine. I said, 'How smart is that?' And he's gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. We could use that on our southern border. That's the strongest peace force I've ever seen. Here's a guy who's very savvy ... I know him very well. Very, very well. Here's a guy that says, you know, 'I'm gonna declare a big portion of Ukraine independent and we're gonna go out and we're gonna go in and we're gonna help keep peace.' You gotta say that's pretty savvy."
I collated these cartoons yesterday evening. I recognise that now is hardly a time for humour; however, I'll leave them here because they inform the context as we blunder into conflict.
Wednesday 23rd February
This is scary. The exchange between Putin and Sergei Naryshkin, director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Putin's "spy chief". Video courtesy of The Guardian.
The grand setting of a colonnaded hall. Putin comfortable and imperious at his large desk. The array of officials on simple upright chairs. Poor Sergei - OK, as my friend Diana says, "I can't say there are many circumstances in which I would sympathise with anyone who had made it to the top of Russia's intelligence service" - breathless, anxious, browbeaten into his final "yes". Then given permission to sit down.
It doesn't look like the politics of consensus, does it? How do you negotiate with that?
Sanctions, eh? They can work both ways. All that Russian gas. Dale Vince's arguments for the end of fossil fuels and energy independence have never looked more valid. Nor have, as a related aside, his views on the scandal of the North Sea windfall profits.
Tuesday 22nd February
Lost for words today. Putin says Ukraine was never a proper country. Russian troops are mobilised to support the newly recognised Donetsk and Luhansk. UK and US sanctions are announced.
I'm reading Desmond Tutu's "No Future Without Forgiveness" at the moment. Scant evidence of that spirit among the protagonists of this crisis. Putin is hell-bent on regaining the Soviet Union of his youth. Biden and Boris crank up their response. Precious little respect or understanding for the adversary's view. Too much loss of face in compromise, retraction, a negotiated settlement.
Sad to say, I feel the grim sense of inexorability that must have filled the air in 1939. Where the prospects and plans for the coming day seem unreal, trivial, irrelevant.
Let's hope I'm over-egging the gloom.
Monday 21st February
The Beijing Winter Olympics are over. There has been some speculation that this would be the moment for Putin to launch a full invasion of Ukraine. Well, he wouldn't want to have rained on the parade of his mate Xi Jinping, would he? We watch and wait. Will the Biden-Putin summit happen?
While there's still time, I thought I'd return to the original trigger for this blog, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and reflect on the last two years.
There's quite a lot of detail in this post. I feel that it's justified by the extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime - I hope - journey we have travelled. If stats and charts are not your thing, you may want to skip to the two sets of bullet-point observations, or restrict yourself to the last chart in each series of four.
We are in a different place today.
The Queen has tested positive, but is only suffering "mild cold-like symptoms" and plans to continue with "light duties".
England is expected to end all virus restrictions in the coming days. Boris said yesterday: "Now is the moment for everybody to get their confidence back".
Others are less sure. Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said: "You have at the moment more people dying, more people in the hospital, than you had before Plan B was introduced. It does appear as if the government is trying to pretend that Covid doesn't exist in the day-to-day lives of so many people."
I'm going to review the pandemic with the help of my old friends, the charts derived from the Financial Times analysis of data from the Coronavirus Resource Center (CRC) of the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
I'll start from 1st January 2020. The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China on 31st December 2019; a novel coronavirus was eventually identified. The World Health Organization (WHO) set up its Incident Management Support Team (IMST) the next day, establishing an emergency footing for dealing with the outbreak. On 5th January WHO published its first "Disease Outbreak News" on the new virus.
The FT/Johns Hopkins website allows me to select 6 countries or regions. I've chosen the USA, the United Kingdom, the European Union, India, Brazil and China. Click to enlarge each of the charts.
First, 4 charts of cases: cumulative and new, raw numbers and per 100k.
I'm struck by these points:
Some stand-out points for me from this set of charts are:
Just as we appear to be emerging from the pandemic, the last thing we need is a war in Europe - if that's where it stops.
I think I'll watch the women's curling again on iPlayer.
Or maybe focus on the positives that have emerged from this period. The astonishing performance of scientists in unravelling the epidemiology of coronavirus. The rapid development of vaccines, and more recently of anti-viral treatments. The brilliance of the NHS, and the renewed recognition of its value, even by a Tory government. The lessons learnt about the need for preparedness. The public response, with the exception of a dissident or feckless minority. Our ability to withstand such a threat.
Sunday 20th February
Saved by curling - and Scotland - in the wee hours. 2 medals total - 1 gold, 1 silver, 0 bronze.
Before this week, I'd only been aware of "curlers" in one context. Team USA could have used some.
Enough of my dissing. Yesterday I expressed an interest in curling shoes. Here's a description from news and information website HITC:
"Curling shoes actually feature different soles on each shoe - and both are equally as important. One sole is known as a 'gripper.' As it might suggest, the rubbery material is designed to give athletes traction and grip on the ice sheet to ensure they don't fall over. The other sole is known as a 'slider'. Here the idea is to give athletes the ability to glide over the ice with the minimal effort. It is made from a Teflon material. Left-handed players generally use the gripper on the left foot and slider on the right, the opposite for those players who use their right hand to deliver a stone."
And the technique of sweeping? This explanation is from USA-based CurlTech, using North American terminology like "rock" (stone):
"Sweeping the ice in front of the running surface as the rock travels changes the ice surface by warming it slightly, affecting the distance travelled. The friction of the broom also creates small grooves in the ice, affecting direction. One sweeper lightly sweeps the area to remove debris. The amount of pressure necessary for this is tricky. A very light sweep (one or two pounds of pressure) may be counterproductive. In this case, debris may "roll under" the broom head. Greater pressure (10 pounds) will be much more effective in cleaning the area. Directional sweeping is used to keep rocks straight as well as to increase the curl. In order to get rocks to curl more, the "high side" sweeper (on the opposite side of the curl direction) sweeps/scratches the path at angle up to 45 degrees in the direction of the intended curl. The directional results will come from only one side. If two sweepers are scratching on opposite sides, they will nullify the desired outcome."
There you have it, more information about curling than you ever thought you needed.
Saturday 19th February
Storm Eunice didn't happen here beyond a stiffish breeze. Annoyingly all the trains were still cancelled. But I'm thankful to have been spared what has happened in other regions.
The Winter Olympics really aren't our thing, are they? We don't feature in the top 25 ranked nations. Belgium has won more medals than the UK (see STOP PRESS below). Not that I mind that much. I'm unimpressed by watching events hosted by a government that invited Vladimir Putin as an honoured guest to the opening ceremony, and used the equivalent of a day's worth of drinking water for 900 million people to create fake snow.
Suddenly we're all fans of curling now that GB has reached the finals of both men's and women's competitions (the men started at around 7am GMT today [9:50am STOP PRESS: Men win curling silver, losing to Sweden. GB 24= in medal table. Still behind Belgium]). The spike in interest is similar to the way non-gamblers once a year stick a pin in the newspaper to pick the winner of the Grand National. With apologies to Scotland, Switzerland, Sweden and others, I remain unconvinced by a sport which has the pundits saying, "The girls have been sweeping really well." Is it based on a domestic science curriculum? That said, I do admire the slippy shoes the curlers wear, gliding frictionlessly towards the red line where they release the stones. How come they never fall over?
I am intrigued by the back-story of the curling stone itself - or rock as it may be called in North America. The Guardian published an article on 2nd February about the primary source of the granite and a leading stone maker:
"The uninhabited island of Ailsa Craig is situated in the Firth of Clyde, about 10 miles from the Scottish mainland. Known to locals as 'Paddy's Milestone' for being a resting spot across the sea between Glasgow and Belfast, it was a haven for Catholics fleeing persecution by Protestants during the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century.
"The tough, hard properties of the island's micro-granite make it the ideal material from which to make curling stones. Founded in 1851, Kays Curling manufactures and exports the unique Ailsa Craig stones around the world."
Kays Curling produced the stones that feature in this picture of the British team at the 1924 Chamonix games:
I have a personal interest in the stone production. Last September we stayed in a cottage on the cliffs outside the village of Trefor on the Llŷn Peninsula in north Wales (see my account here: 👉). Rising steeply behind the cottage is Yr Eifl and its neighbouring hills. You can see in the upper centre of the picture below the Trefor or Yr Eifl Granite Quarry, opened in 1850 and later managed by a distant relative-by-marriage. The granite was used - not exclusively, as it paved much of Liverpool and Manchester - to make curling stones. I doubt that is still the case, because the quarry closed in 1965.
Friday 18th February
08:00 Waiting for Storm Eunice to hit. Clear skies and just a light breeze at the moment.
Looks like Sarah's visit to brother Kevin in London is unlikely:
Daughter Ellie warned her Bristol dog-owner customers yesterday:
Met Éireann earlier predicted weather chaos across Ireland. The news and media website Galway Beo suggested that the local nuns might be inspired to repeat their "Sister Frosty", created after Storm Emma in 2018.
Thursday 17th February
The "whiff of Munich".
Do you wake up thinking, "I must check: has Putin invaded Ukraine yet?" That must have been what people were doing 80-odd years ago, with different protagonists of course. Hopefully you're not as pessimistic as I am.
"Peace FOR our time". Not "in" as widely quoted. On 30th September 1938, PM Neville Chamberlain addressed the crowd outside 10 Downing Street:
"My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep."
Earlier, after landing at Heston Aerodrome with a copy of the Munich Agreement in his hand, he had said:
"The settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine [waves document]. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you: '... We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again'."
Apparently the current threat is the "new normal", according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's assessment during the first day of the meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence:
"NATO will not compromise on core principles: the right of each nation to choose its own path and our ability to protect and defend all Allies. We have already enhanced our deterrence and defence with more troops, planes and ships, and higher readiness of the NATO Response Force. These steps are defensive. NATO is not a threat to Russia. We do not know what will happen in Ukraine but the situation has already demonstrated we face a crisis in European security. Moscow has made it clear that it is prepared to contest the fundamental principles that have underpinned our security for decades and to do so by using force.
"I regret to say that this is the new normal in Europe."
So, not the triumphal declaration of 1938, but I bet he hopes his picture doesn't become as infamous as that of Chamberlain.
Following the discussion yesterday of Putin's mindset and motives, I attach an edited article - it originally included Trump as well, but I took him out as irrelevant (how pleasant to be able to say that, for now) - published on Soapboxie, a political and social commentary website, in late 2020. If you've been reading this blog in the last couple of days, no prizes for guessing who directed me to the site. The article is arguably from the school of "home-grown psychology", but it provides a more detailed analysis of Putin, the "Hubris Syndrome" - the term is explained - and the arrogance of power, much of which is worth a look. Here you are (7 pages):
Times cartoonist Peter Brookes's made this observation yesterday:
Russia has expressed concern about the growth of NATO. You can see why. Putin must have watched it happen with dismay - no, probably rage. Ukraine is another big chunk.
Wednesday 16th February
Some ramblings on Putin in response to my Irish correspondent's question, with reference to Putin, Xi, Stalin, Lukashenko, Mussolini, Franco, Saddam Hussein, Pinochet, "to name but a few" - "What is it in their upbringing that produces these monsters of men?"
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is two-and-a-half months younger than me; he was born on 7th October 1952. He was a child of the Cold War, which is generally considered to span the period from the 1947 Truman Doctrine (12th March 1947) to the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union (26th December 1991, when Putin was about to turn 40).
Truman said in his 18-minute speech to Congress:
"I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures ... that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way ... [and] that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes."
Sounds familiar. A red rag to the Russian bull.
Putin was 8 when Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth, 10 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 15 when the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia and - it must have been a bitter blow - 16 when the Apollo 11 Eagle module landed on the moon. He can have had little doubt in his formative years of the identity of his natural enemy.
He worked as a KGB foreign intelligence officer for 16 years, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. The Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or "Committee for State Security" had among its responsibilities foreign intelligence, counter-espionage, guarding the state border of the USSR and combating nationalist, dissident, religious and anti-Soviet activities.
Here's the KGB emblem, a sword - attack? - in front of a shield - defence? - bearing the hammer-and-sickle:
Then there's the manly pursuit of riding, fishing and shooting:
So, in his heart must lie a hankering for the old Soviet regime and its extended federation, the obligation to defend and promote its status, a deep-seated distrust of the West, the impulse to suppress any deviation from his world view, a warrior instinct to bear arms, and the vanity to flaunt his Alpha-male self-image.
Naturally peaceful and conciliatory tendencies, eh?
I'm loath to borrow from The Sun newspaper, but I can't resist this drawing of Putin's brain published yesterday (click to enlarge), just brought to my attention - I'm indebted again - by my Irish correspondent. In my words above I decided to leave out his relationship with gymnast Alina Kabaeva.
Tuesday 15th February
Power down again over the weekend, so no blog posted. It really does bring home our dependence on electricity. Fortunately, it's only been one circuit causing the problems, so we've had central heating, the cooker and main lights all functioning. But no Wi-Fi, TV and landline.
What was the main sensation induced by this? Feeling cut off, I think. So much of our experience, information and capability travels up and down the wire.
But we do have smartphones in reserve now, allowing us to catch up on news, make 'phone calls, do WhatsApp, send texts. I even watched 2 episodes of ITV's "Triggerpoint", the bomb disposal drama starring Vicky McClure of "Line of Duty" renown, as I couldn't sleep. At a potential extra cost. Virgin Media sent me this text at 3:07am on Monday morning:
"Hello! You've used up 75% of your Inclusive data for this month. If you slip over you'll pay out-of-allowance rates. For details of these or to change your tariff or buy an add-on go to www.virginmedia.com/rates."
Here are some Oldie reflections. At university we didn't have 'phones where we lived, of any kind. Remember reversed charges to long-suffering parents? When I first lived in London, I'd travel across town to see friends, and after I found they weren't at home was obliged to spend the evening all alone in the local pub. To meet up with others on European travels, you had to make arrangements beforehand and stick to them. Did you use Poste Restante? On reaching Italy in 1975, I sent a telegram to my family to let them know I had arrived safely. Here it is, retrieved from my mother's possessions after her death:
They struggled to get our surname right, didn't they? Must have been the "w", not present in the original proper Italian alphabet, available only in "loan" words like "weekend". And I promised to write a letter. Haven't done that for years, I'd struggle not to litter the text with crossings-out in the absence of a digital editing tool.
Our electrician arrived before close-of-play yesterday, having admirably responded to my text over the weekend. He couldn't detect any single culprit and came to the conclusion that the Big Switch, the RCD (Residual Current Device), was at fault. So he has removed it for a bench-test at his workshop today. It's the same story with my car. I drive it - permitted by our mechanic - with all manner of dashboard alarms lighting up in random sequence, sometimes not at all: airbags, seatbelts, service due. There's an expensive alert monitor in the steering wheel which has already been replaced once, but it's started misbehaving all over again. The specific presumed-guilty components are fine - it's the warning system that's broken.
Still, there are greater threats hovering over Europe. When I picked up my 'phone this morning, it decided to broadcast loudly a bulletin about the imminence of a Ukraine invasion, unsolicited by me. I couldn't silence the damn thing. Had to turn the 'phone off completely. Which may be an answer to our woes. Much Ukrainian opinion holds that the crisis is part-fuelled by the sheer volume of speculation circulating on the airwaves. The wolf that grows is the one you feed. Not that 130,000 troops are an illusion.
There was a very good article in last Friday's New Statesman by Jeremy Cliffe titled "How Russia's neighbours are turning against Putin", analysing the - relatively recent - historical and geographical context. Here it is: .
Saturday 12th February
I was gobsmacked.
Dale's tweets show that he recognises the improbability of this conversation. If you've watched the video now, what do you think? There's something strangely balanced about Farage in this exchange. Although he challenges conventional wisdom about electric cars and the renewables industry - I've written in these pages about our continuing and growing greed for things electrical - it feels like he's trying to do a proper job as a dispassionate interviewer. He even acknowledges that he has interrupted Vince and invites him to carry on. I've not seen that before.
The Zerocarbonista will talk to anybody who's prepared to listen. He has already partnered with the Daily Express to promote grass gas - see this blog's coverage here 👉. I have some sympathy for such an approach - open-minded, innit? As Obama said at COP26 (his speech was one of the few good things to come out of that event): "We have to persuade people who either currently don't agree with us or are indifferent to the issue."
Fun for the day:
Friday 11th February
So Cressida Dick is standing down. The second casualty of this blog, I think, after Trump. My loyal readers must have influence well beyond their numbers. But I was going to write about something else ...
One of the ways I get through the second half of the British winter, and begin to anticipate the arrival of my favourite season, is by following the rugby union Six Nations championship.
This year it has started badly for England as they lost to Scotland last Saturday in a nailbiter at Murrayfield, indeed possibly threw the game away with an act of indiscretion. I did however, as I always do to mitigate the potential pain of defeat, place a bet on Scotland and hence won the princely sum of £12.50.
In contrast, Ireland enjoyed a handsome victory over Wales in Dublin. Which brings me to the nub of this post.
In 1972 the Five Nations - as it then was before the admittance of Italy - was never completed, the first and only time in its history. In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday on 30th January, the decision by Scotland and Wales not to play in Ireland meant not all the fixtures were fulfilled.
The following season, on 10th February 1973, England played in Dublin despite continuing concerns and threats, and received heartfelt praise from the Irish, including a standing ovation at the start of the game.
Ireland won 18-9. At the post-match dinner, England captain John Pullin said in his speech: "We may not be very good, but at least we turn up." The second ovation of the day.
Tom Grace, who played in the game and was Honorary Treasurer of the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) for 13 years before retiring in 2020, said: "It will never be forgotten, because on that day they probably saved the future of Irish Rugby". Syd Millar, former President of the IRFU and once Chairman of the International Rugby Board (IRB), added: "I don't know we could ever repay them for it."
Filmmaker Luke McManus released a documentary about the game in 2019, titled "The Team That Turned Up". Here is an introductory snippet:
Always an honest man, Pullin later confessed in a 2007 speech at the Ireland Funds Gala Evening to a less altruistic reason for his presence in Dublin that day:
The remark never left his side. He died a year ago last weekend on 5th February 2021. Here's the cover of his biography published in 2019.
At this point I'm going to leave the beaten snow and ramble off-piste, drawn by local connections and personal whimsy. If rugby's not your thing, nor my affection for the A38, you may want to leave now. But if you've got time, feel free to read on. I do get back to today's main theme at the end.
Pullin combined farming and rugby in those amateur days. He played for Bristol, although his family livestock farm was in the village of Aust on what the BBC's Chris Howells (BBC Sport Wales website yesterday) called the "Gloucestershire coast". Eh? The Severn Estuary, perhaps, leading to the Bristol Channel, but it's still the River Severn at Aust, isn't it? It's certainly not seaside, or at least not any that I'd pick for my summer holiday. Un-Mediterranean bathing, and a genuine risk of perishing in the mud. I've read somewhere that the Pullin farm was (is?) on the Welsh side of the water, although still in Gloucestershire - but I can't confirm that, and can't find evidence of the village on both sides. There was a car ferry at Aust before the Severn Bridge was opened in 1966 by the Queen. Here's a picture of it, and the bridge under construction in 1964, with no roadway yet.
I wonder if the ferry crew had started applying for other jobs.
I always like to go to South Wales or the Forest of Dean via Aust and this old bridge, down the back roads from the A38. That's partly because I think of the A38 as "my road". I was born just off it in Edgbaston. It passes - I mean the real original thoroughfare, as you're now routed round endless ring roads - fewer than 100 yards from my childhood home in the centre of Worcester. Then on it goes through the hearts of Gloucester, Bristol, Taunton, Exeter, Plymouth. There was no M5 - as far as I know, the only motorway built primarily for holiday traffic, conceived to alleviate the volume of Brummies heading to Devon and Cornwall during the summer months - that far south until the mid-seventies. When I was very young, younger than memory really permits, we would drive down the A38 through the night in our black Morris 8 to Cornwall. My father - a skilled carpenter - had built bunk beds for my sister Vicky and me, which replaced the front passenger seat. Our mother sat behind father, Indian file.
Right, back to John Pullin. He had turned up only two weeks before the Ireland encounter representing the Barbarians against the New Zealand All Blacks - and featured in the extraordinary passing movement within minutes of kick-off that led to "That Try", the only Englishman to do so. Here it is, acknowledged widely as the greatest ever scored.
Did Phil Bennett manage to sidestep you? Not only did he bamboozle the onrushing Kiwi forwards, but also the cameraman - and certainly me. The Barbarian matches are usually played in Corinthian spirit, set apart from the deadly seriousness of international rugby. Bennett has acknowledged this, saying than in any ordinary Test match, had he been playing for Wales, he would have kicked the ball into touch, hopefully around the half-way line. Gareth Edwards, who arrived like a train to score the try, said he was only running that fast because he was trying to catch up with play. The game had started at a frenetic pace, Gareth said they were all "blowing a bit", and they could have done with a rest - which a Bennett kick into touch would have provided. In fact, you can see John Pullin delay his pass to John Dawes because Edwards is in the way, standing still, facing in the wrong direction. So when Gareth saw the movement gathering pace up field, he thought he'd better get cracking and chase after the rest of them in case he was needed.
And back to the 1973 England visit to Ireland. Here's the legendary Irish and British Lions captain Willie John McBride:
"They were horrible days here in Northern Ireland. You just didn't know what was going to crop up next. There were murders, there were people disappearing, there was great unrest everywhere. They were ugly, ugly years. It was 30 years of my life that really were destroyed and I'm not the only one who could say that. It's something that still stirs up a lot of feeling in some rugby corners that those two games in 1972 were never played. Even outside rugby, people would tell you how disappointed they were. Everybody was so keen that England came and we were absolutely thrilled. I think it was very, very important for the whole country."
Thursday 10th February
After enjoying a diversion from the declared (sub-)themes of this blog, I feel refreshed enough to look at a big issue of the day. Something to do with climate - or related, namely the energy crisis. Probably because it makes me cross.
Three headlines from yesterday:
Meanwhile, I can't resist noting what the Daily Star - as ever, finger on the pulse - judges to be important. Mind you, if such concerns are at the top of your list, maybe everyday life is less troubling.
Whether windfall or wag, it's all out of whack, isn't it?
Plenty of comment from Stroud's Dale Vince, highly critical of the North Sea bonanza and overall government strategy.
What about my energy bill, Dale? I sent an enquiry to his company two days ago:
"What will happen to our Ecotricity bills in April? What price increases do you have planned?"
Here's the reply:
"Thanks for your email. We'll get back to you as soon as we can. We're sorry if this takes us a little longer than normal. With the energy sector being so much in the news recently, we've received a lot more contact than usual."
Everybody seems busy these days. How often are you not in a 'phone queue?
Wednesday 9th February
Yesterday was odd, but also illuminating in how I spent my time. I didn't go out until 10pm - which I can't explain - to drive down to the Stroud Subscription Rooms to pick Sarah up and meet friends in the bar after they'd attended a film that I didn't want to see.
There's no hope of conducting a full life in this way. I did however have some very enjoyable moments. All experienced in a lingering lockdown virtual world, enabled by those ever-present technologies: email - fading now; do you use it as much? - WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, SMS (also fading), the general sharing of internet URLs and digital images. I was acutely aware on Sunday following our domestic electricity failure how much I rely on them all. I was stripped of habitual communication when the power went down, particularly the ability to research the questions rattling round my head. My still-functioning smartphone rescued me to a degree, but I felt short of the full toolkit. No surprises here - we know about our dependence on energy sources - but I was surprised by the almost physical sense of loss.
The other difference to yesterday was that I didn't consume any news at all until a brief engagement with Channel 4 around 7:15pm. Very refreshing. I actually felt released from all the emotional challenges that news brings: anger, dismay, sadness, disbelief, sometimes delight. Not that this approach can continue for very long - in fact, it's over - as I also had a sense of growing disconnection as the hours passed.
I've picked three pleasure points.
Our Middle Street WhatsApp group delivered this message:
"Would anyone like a bottle of pink cherry gin? Unwanted Christmas present. Can leave outside hidden for collection."
So far, nobody has taken up the offer. What sort of mind would devise this? As a commercial proposition? Or just at all?
My exchange with friend Aidan about Tom Waits extended - over WhatsApp - to other musical passions, mostly connected to the blues. I've written about the late BB King here: . Aidan shared a delightful tribute to the great man, a biog-strip by Sussex friend, designer and illustrator Michael Munday.
Lovely. One final frame remains, of course, BB's passing on 14 May 2015. So sadly not continuing.
My Irish correspondent sent me a link to an article by County Wicklow comedian Dara Ó Briain (Mock the Week) in the Irish Examiner. Titled "Culture That Made Me", it reviewed the influences on his life and work. Eddie Izzard is one. Ó Briain wrote:
"I remember the first time I saw Eddie Izzard do 'le singe est sur la branche' (the monkey is on the branch) at the Montreal Just for Laughs, a routine about how he learned that phrase. The whole thing is about: how can I contrive a situation where I could use that phrase? Would I have to bring a monkey with me and place a monkey in the tree and then, say, go to the guy in the hotel reception: 'Yeah, yeah, that's my name and by the way, 'le singe est sur la branche'?'"
Here's a video of the routine:
My correspondent commented:
"As a French teacher who started learning the language from textbooks that had been written in the 1920s, I have always loved that Eddie Izzard clip. I confess that when teaching French prepositions, I used 'le chat est sur/sous/devant etc la table', partly because a cat is one of the few animals I could draw on my worksheets, and I did demonstrate with a black furry toy cat and the teacher's table."
Back to the top of this post. In the Subscription Rooms bar I was talking to friend Dave. He's a loyal reader of the blog. I realised I was telling him stories or expressing views that I had already written here - and so he'd heard them before. I'll say it again - it's time to get out more.
Tuesday 8th February
More digressional stuff. It's the birthday of my loyal reader, dear friend and neighbour Alf Florio. Happy birthday, Alf 🍾🎂🎈 This lot is for you - a bit mad, but I hope it provides some interest.
My friend Aidan directed me to this collection of interview snippets with the great Tom Waits, American musician, composer, songwriter, actor and perfect nutter.
A touch contrived, Tom? He's a Marmite Man. I do like: "Reality is for people who can't face drugs." You wouldn't want more than one Tom Waits, but the one we have is a treasure. I forgive him everything.
Here is "Way down in the Hole" - bonkers, an almost unhinged homage to gospel blues. I was inspired to sing it in our band The Love Vultures some years ago. Our version was OK, but it never came close to this.
When you walk through the garden
You gotta watch your back
Well I beg your pardon
Walk the straight and narrow track
If you walk with Jesus
He's gonna save your soul
You gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole
He's got the fire and the fury
At his command
Well you don't have to worry
If you hold on to Jesus hand
We'll all be safe from Satan
When the thunder rolls
Just gotta help me keep the devil
Way down in the hole ...
... All the angels sing
About Jesus's mighty sword
And they'll shield you with their wings
And keep you close to the Lord
Don't pay heed to temptation
For his hands are so cold
You gotta help me keep the devil
Way down in the hole ...
He can do tender as well. Here's "Jersey Girl":
I got no time for the corner boys
Down in the street making all that noise
Or the girls on 8th Avenue
'Cause tonight I want to be with you
Tonight I'm gonna take that ride
Across the river to the Jersey side
Take my baby to the carnival
And I'll take her on all the rides
Down the shore everything's all right
You and your baby on a Saturday night
Don't you know all my dreams come true
When I'm walking down the street with you ...
... Nothing else matters in this whole wide world
When you're in love with a Jersey girl ...
Much of his image is stage persona. He keeps his personal life very private. He has been married to Kathleen for 42 years and they have three children: Kellisimone (39), Casey (37) and Sullivan (29). I wonder how they've replied to the question: "What does your Dad do?"
Monday 7th February
An enforced rest yesterday as an electrical circuit tripped constantly and knocked out computers and Wi-Fi.
This is what I would have posted, lighter material to offset our normal daily fare:
Congratulations to the Queen on the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne. She has worked with 14 Prime Ministers (Harold Wilson twice, so 15 in separate office). I have known only one monarch - which she became 6 months before I was born.
My Irish correspondent drew my attention last week to St. Brigid's Day, Lá Fhéile Bríde, commenting: "Her feast is going to be a public holiday in Ireland from next year [on 1st February]. High time St. Patrick had a female challenger."
Here's a picture of the iconic Brigid's cross, Cros Bríde. Usually woven from rushes, it typically has four arms tied at the ends and a woven square in the middle; there are also three-armed versions. They were often set over doorways and windows to protect the home from any kind of harm.
Raidió Teilifís Éireann (Radio Television of Ireland) reported:
"To celebrate the creativity and talent of women on St. Brigid's Day 2022, the Irish Traditional Music Archive and the Department of Foreign Affairs have collaborated to commission three talented and emerging traditional musicians to compose new works inspired by lore relating to St. Brigid.
"Síle Denvir, Cailtín Nic Gabhann and Louise Mulcahy spent time in ITMA's library researching music, history and folklore relating to Brigid. They also visited places associated with Brigid in Kildare. Once sufficient creative impetus was found, they set about composing a new song, melody and dance."
Here's a charming pipe piece, with an introduction by composer and player:
"Uilleann piper/flute player Louise Mulcahy's new composition, Port Naomh Bríd/St. Brigid's Jig, celebrates St. Brigid, her legacy and her important connection with nature and the environment."
Saturday 5th February
The AC-12 team interview Boris ...
... and Cressida Dick ...
"Change is good", says Boris. First Peppa Pig, now philosopher monkey Rafiki. Unimpeachable sources of inspiration for our leader.
Friday 4th February
It's hard to believe what a mess Downing Street has become. Its greatest current value - as the cartoons I've posted on these pages testify - would appear to be comedic. Gallows humour. And the world knows it.
The PM, after apologising twice in the House of Commons, clearly felt that another sorry was one too many. His latest perceived transgression came in Monday's debate on Sue Gray's report with the dig at Keir Starmer, when he said:
"This Leader of the Opposition, a former Director of Public Prosecutions ... spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as far as I can make out."
So yesterday his head of policy Munira Mirza, a loyal Johnsonian of 14 years' service, resigned and wrote:
"I believe it was wrong for you to imply this week that Keir Starmer was personally responsible for allowing Jimmy Savile to escape justice. There was no fair or reasonable basis for that assertion. This was not the usual cut and thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse. You tried to clarify your position today but, despite my urging, you did not apologise for the misleading impression you gave.
"Even now, I hope you find it in yourself to apologise for a grave error of judgement made under huge pressure. I appreciate that our political culture is not forgiving when people say sorry, but regardless, it is the right thing to do. It is not too late for you but, I'm sorry to say, it is too late for me."
Mirza is married to Dougie Smith, who has also worked in Downing Street as a strategist and researcher. In an earlier life he was co-founder of Fever Parties, an agency which organised swingers' orgies for up to 50 couples at a time from London's fast set, often in Mayfair town houses. Oh dear, now I've become a scurrilous tabloid commentator.
Are the qualifications for landing a job at Number 10 substantially different to those normally required for posts of civil responsibility and probity? #PartyGate doesn't seem so surprising any more.
Heads rolled yesterday behind the famous black front door, but guess who's staying?
Thursday 3rd February
There's plenty more to come on #PartyGate, but I'll go easy today.
It's not just the British poking fun at Boris. European cartoonists are enjoying themselves too.
Here's one from Patrick Chappatte, a Lebanese-Swiss illustrator known for his work in Le Temps and Der Spiegel. The PM is saying: "We have always worn masks in Downing Street."
And from Vincent Di Silvestro in the Swiss Le Courrier. "British Police are investigating the parties at Downing Street. 'Could you come back later? We're in a business meeting.'"
I know I post a lot of cartoons. In my defence, there is a reason. They get right to the heart of #AmbushedByCake and other absurdities, and at least allow me a giggle in the face of what appears to be a disturbing parallel universe.
If you want words on the topic, and you didn't watch the TV coverage, go no further than the Hansard transcript of last Monday's House of Commons debate on the Sue Gray report: . You won't want to read all 50 pages ... I have, and I need to get a life ... but maybe Boris's opening statement - hmm, we all know there's a problem with apologising too often - and Keir Starmer's vigorous character demolition of the PM.
I'll allow myself one snippet from the proceedings, as Boris responded to criticism and promised change:
"Mr Speaker, I get it and I will fix it. I want to say to the people of this country: I know what the issue is. [Hon. Members: "No!"] Yes. [Hon. Members: "You!"]"
And one more cartoon, from Brian Adcock in The Independent:
Tuesday 1st February
Here is yesterday's Sue Gray ... err ... "update" (12 pages, one "intentionally blank" and another just blank, so 10):
She itemised 16 events that were "in scope" according to the terms of reference for the investigation. However,
"As a result of the Metropolitan Police's investigations, and so as not to prejudice the police investigative process, they have told me that it would only be appropriate to make minimal reference to the gatherings on the dates they are investigating. Unfortunately, this necessarily means that I am extremely limited in what I can say about those events and it is not possible at present to provide a meaningful report setting out and analysing the extensive factual information I have been able to gather."
Gray was therefore free to comment on only 4 of those events.
Despite the thinning of her material, she managed to come up with these conclusions:
Monday 31st January
Sons in the mountains last week.
Nikko in Gerlos in the Austrian Tyrol ...
... Ben on Fuente Dé in the Picos de Europa, Cantabria ...
... while he and Soph were staying in Asturias ...
No parties ... sorry, work events. No Brexit border queues. No ventilation issues. No troops. No storms.
Sunday 30th January
|Rest day. Although as a relief from #PartyGate I have been trying to understand the labyrinthine process of the Italian presidential elections, aided by my friend Chris Taylor in Udine. At the centre have been two respected politicians, 80-year-old Sergio Mattarella, re-elected as president for another term, and Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Not just one decent leader, but two. How remarkable.|
Saturday 29th January
Friday 28th January
Junction 13 on the M5 could look very different in a few years.
Green energy supplier Ecotricity founder and chair of Forest Green Rovers Dale Vince tweeted this week:
"Eco Park takes a step forward today, quite a big one.
"We gained outline planning permission for the all-wooden stadium about two years ago - after six years in planning.
"Then we got a new MP (from out of town) that tried and failed to stop it, then the pandemic hit - so it's not been without its challenges :)
"We stayed busy, working with the council to align our plans with the Local Plan Review that was underway - and also the canal re-instatement.
"As a result we've submitted a new planning application today that supports the Local Plan Review - which identifies Eco Park as land suitable for sport and business use.
"That review should complete around autumn time and if we're lucky we'll have outline permission for the whole thing this time next year.
"It's a lot of progress actually - back in the day our biggest issue was the land was outside of the Local Plan, now smack bang in it.
"Some amazing opportunities for Stroud and the wider area - the sport and green tech biz park combo will bring about £150m annual benefit to the region and £2m of biz rates to Stroud District. We're talking about 5k or so jobs in the green economy.
"FGR will have an amazing new home and a new training facility where we can bring all elements of the club together for the first time - youth, academy, women and first teams.
"The new wetland area is exciting as is the chance to push the boundaries of sustainable development. We need to build stuff, we need places to work and to live - the question is not if to build such things but how. At Eco Park we'll get the chance to set new standards. We'll build places to live and to work and make room for nature - with a 12% biodiversity increase on what's there today. And at the New Lawn - we hope to build low carbon affordable housing.
"Lot's still to do, hurdles to overcome - but we've come a long way."
Here's a local news report:
It's all very inspiring and sustainable. It's great to see the progress of Forest Green Rovers under Vince's stewardship, a far cry from our - remembered with great fondness - visits to the old Lawn twenty years ago, when we endured nail-biting conclusions to each season in the Conference as FGR fought to avoid relegation. Now seven points clear at the top of League Two with a game in hand over second-placed Tranmere Rovers. A football club widely respected for its approach and principles.
Now for the moaning-minny side of my reaction. The club's going to be nowhere near Nailsworth. It should be renamed J13 United. I suppose it's becoming "the pride of Gloucestershire" rather than a smile-inducing oddity at the top of the hill above the small town near which we used to live.
It's still an extension of the built environment. Fields turned into a "park" of human-made construction. Dale says in the interview above: "the question isn't 'should we build things", it's 'how do we build things'." Is it? I wrote in these pages about my dislike of wind farms, a laudable replacement for fossil fuels which nevertheless don't disguise our continued and growing greed for energy, while majestically polluting erstwhile pristine landscapes. We've been hunting for a holiday destination for our whole family this summer and I've been reminded of the degree to which the Spanish coastline has altered in my lifetime, the relentless drive of urbanización. The issue at the heart of it all (although the curve is flattening out) is this:
The dreaded G-word. The new FGR home may be green, but it's "growth" nonetheless.
I also have one question as an Ecotricity bill-payer. Where's all the money coming from?
Dear me, enough negativity, enough regret and guilt. I look forward to visiting the Eco Park, and welcome the economic benefits it will bring to the county.
Thursday 27th January
Although son Ben is in Bilbao, we celebrated his birthday with a Burns supper, one day late. Haggis, tatties, neeps, intruder sprouts just for Sarah and a whisky sauce, the first time I've ever made it. Accompanied by a nod to the traditional pageantry. I used a YouTube recording to pipe in the haggis and recited the Selkirk Grace before stabbing the "wee beastie". Some unexpected low-level anxiety compelled me to do this, a mild worry that the absence of proper form might invite bad luck had I not.
I remember a similar - rather more justified - unease at the age of 10. I was transfixed, in front of a tiny black-and-white television, as President Kennedy addressed the world during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. My father sought to reassure me.
Sixty years ago. Different times and geography, same old story.
I'm sure Boris would love his JFK moment, to draw our attention from cake.
Wednesday 26th January
Happy Birthday to our son Ben 🍾🎂🎸💖
I've got yards more #PartyGate material. But somehow I can't bring myself to post it as we have, among other things, the threat of war in the Ukraine, the potential for, in Biden's words, "the largest invasion since World War II".
Or maybe I should. It's a measure of the Boris shambles that while troops assemble in central Europe all the focus is on cake in the UK. Has the PM engaged Putin to divert attention from Downing Street festivities?
So I will. As a reminder of how Boris - ironic that he should be a huge fan of war leader Churchill - gains the trust and respect of the nation.
Tuesday 25th January
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has postponed her wedding. Video courtesy of The Guardian:
"I am no different to, dare I say it, thousands of other New Zealanders who have had much more devastating impacts felt by the pandemic, the most gutting of which is the inability to be with a loved one sometimes when they are gravely ill. That will far, far outstrip any sadness I experience.
"Such is life."
Leadership, eh? Same rules for all. No parties. "We're doing this for one another." With a smile.
Monday 24th January
Despite my declaration of blog change yesterday, there are some things I won't abandon. Jokes. Is it a British trait that we mitigate grim news with humour? Not tragic or evil events, of course, but scandal, hypocrisy, inept government? No, it must be universal. We don't have exclusive rights to irony and satire. But we are good at it.
Here's a post-Brexit comment on our new isolationism:
Sunday 23rd January
Today I'm serving notice - to the select band of my loyal readers - that I'm scaling back on this blog, at least in its current focus, or lack of it.
I have some other things to do. It's a change of emphasis, how I spend my time, for survival, although that sounds too dramatic.
I started blogging on 30th October 2019 with my take on the UK General Election, 816 days ago. Then the pandemic hit, followed by the rise in climate awareness, culminating in the Glasgow COP26 summit. Hmmm. What a shambles that turned out to be. Check out the column-inches or air-time currently devoted to the future of the planet. Negligible.
The blog was a way for me to process, perhaps even withstand, the events of the day: the madness of Brexit - "Take Back Control" 🤬; the squalor and divisiveness of the Corbyn-Johnson electoral contest - "Get Brexit Done" 😡; the unprecedented global grip of a virus; and the urgency of a response to environmental catastrophe.
For long periods we were shut indoors. It seemed perfectly acceptable, even useful, to pass significant amounts of time devouring national and world events via a computer screen, making sense of them.
But two years, and a bit more, are enough. The pandemic is becoming endemic. "Learn to live with it". I need to get out more. There are projects that can't wait any longer.
I'm not going to stop the blog. There's too much happening in the world for me to ignore. But maybe I'll skip more days if I need to get on with something else.
The consumption of news is a predominantly gloomy business. I need a break from the cloud. More sunshine, at least metaphorically. It's now over a month since the shortest day. The chill of winter will pass.
Saturday 22nd January
An email from Open Britain arrived in my inbox yesterday:
At 7:15am this morning the website StopBoris.com displayed signatures so far under an enlarged snap of the beleaguered and cancelled PM:
Do campaigns like this have any effect? To date, that's 1.6% of those registered to vote in the UK. Will the Tories plotting in the bars and restaurants of Westminster take note? Meanwhile, we have no idea if the 1922 Committee has received anywhere near to the 54 letters required to trigger a confidence vote; chair Sir Graham Brady is keeping shtum. We're waiting on Sue Gray. And Conservative backbencher William Wragg's blackmail meeting with the Met Police next week.
Is this really how our elected representatives should be spending their time? Fiddling while Rome burns?
Friday 21st January
I don't quite know how I can ignore the sabre-rattling in Ukraine, but that's what I'm going to do for another day.
I also reckon I must stop promising that I've finished with a particular topic, because I've still got some more on "After Life". Oh yawn, I hear you say - and you're right - but please bear with me for a little while longer. There is some element of broader generality in what follows.
Netflix and the suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) have donated 25 "After Life" benches to local councils round the UK, each engraved with a quote from the show: "Hope is Everything".
Ricky Gervais said:
"We hope the benches will create a lasting legacy for After Life, as well as become a place for people to visit."
Eddie Curry of Nottingham City Council said:
"We are delighted to be chosen to take not one but two of the Benches of Hope. We know people have really relied on our open spaces during lockdown - for exercise, for wellbeing and for their mental health. These benches will provide even more opportunities to sit, be still, chat as well as giving you a chance to reflect."
Really? Part of me thinks it's a lovely idea. I'm a pushover for a good bench. Here's one of my favourites at the top of our High Street, a place where you can pause to day-dream and watch Stroudies as they toil up the hill.
But is there perhaps a hint of brazen marketing from Netflix? Surely not, what a base notion.
I stumbled upon an NME (New Musical Express) interview with Gervais from March 2018. It's mostly about his approach to comedy, but also reveals his embracing of on-demand television. Here are the edited relevant two minutes:
I've selected key snippets:
"I'd have been living under a rock not to have seen Netflix happening. They've pandered to the way people watch things, which is binge-watching. The last two or three years, I haven't watched terrestrial TV. There's no reason to sit and flick, going 'This is all rubbish'. I don't turn the telly on unless it's to go to Netflix. Netflix is now, Netflix is TV."
He's become a very rich man through following this route. There's a point in the interview when he makes a joke about artistic integrity while rubbing his fingers together in a filthy-lucre gesture, as if caressing dollar bills.
I have to admit that I've recently been dragged into the 21st century and watched some great quality material - while still a fuddy-duddy bemoaning the demise of scheduled public service broadcasting. There's something squalid about what Gervais calls the "deep pockets" of Netflix. Where money and profit skulk beneath our viewing habits.
We've always refused to buy the services of Sky, mostly through loathing of Murdoch. Now Pay-TV and sport walk hand-in-hand. I have a distant memory of following test cricket on a black-and-white set. Long summer afternoons glued to ball-by-ball BBC coverage of Australian or West Indian series. At close of play we'd go outside with bat, ball and a couple of stumps and re-enact what we'd seen, mimicking our heroes.
Oh dear, that's enough "jumpers for goal posts".
Thursday 20th January
I'm feeling drawn back to the big - and inevitably gloomy - news of the moment, but I think I'll have at least one more day of digression.
You'll recognise the first verse of this Dylan Thomas poem:
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
My friend Aidan sent some photos of senior citizens living the poet's words:
Back to "After Life", I promise for the last time. I'm not alone in my enjoyment. Footballer turned pundit and national treasure Gary Lineker tweeted his appreciation, echoing my questions about on-demand versus scheduled television. First ...
... and then he changed his mind.
While I was there, I browsed his comments on the current BBC debate. He approves.
Well, they say you should never bite the hand that feeds you, even if you've taken a pay cut.
He posted an elderly - judging by the amount of hair John Cleese had, and the cost - celeb justification of the licence fee. Count those who are no longer with us, and at least one who has since been disgraced.
Even better, here is Kirsty Wark's Newsnight response to the call for the National Anthem to be played.
At least Lineker has a nice line in self-deprecation. Here is his Twitter mini-bio:
I liked his reference to the No-vax Djokovic visa affair:
Wednesday 19th January
The latest WhatsApp report from son Ben in the Brexit-defying, Covid-avoiding, #PartyGate-free Spanish adventure. His partner Soph ran a yoga retreat last weekend in the remote hamlet of Villabasil between Bilbao and Burgos. Ben did the catering. Here's a team photo, Ben third from left, Soph kneeling on the right:
Bitterly cold, but sunny clear skies:
Ben provided all vegetarian food. Here's an onion soup with cheesy crouton and three dips:
And it wasn't bad in Bristol's Ashton Court when daughter Ellie was walking her dogs:
Tuesday 18th January
Yesterday I sang the praises of "After Life", written and directed by and starring Ricky Gervais.
Punters like me have loved it. The critics, not so much. Hugo Rifkind of The Times called it "mawkish." Harsh, I thought. Some syrupy passages - it is after all a tear-jerker about a man surviving the death of his beloved wife - but not quite that far.
After watching the last instalment, we had said, "Five episodes? That's an unusual number."
Correct. Because there are six. Somehow, Netflix hadn't revealed the final one to us. The reviews made me check and sure enough there it was. Substantially more sentimental than all the others that preceded it. I can now understand the negative critics. Gervais's character Tony - committedly grumpy and angrily foul-mouthed - has something of a lovey-dovey epiphany. I won't say more, spoiler-averse. Except that I'm still a fan.
This is the kind of pickle into which on-demand television can take you. It wouldn't have happened had I been following a published schedule. "Last episode tonight, fancy coming round to my place?"
Which brings me back to the question I posed to myself yesterday, about why a broadcaster like the BBC offers both scheduled and on-demand access to a new popular series. I felt pretty old-school as I asked the question - and I'm guilty as charged. It's a response to how the modern viewer wants to consume content. Talking about "After Life" is off the point, really, as Netflix is one of the key threats to the BBC. Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC between April 2013 and August 2020, outlined a shift in direction a while back in a speech to BBC staff in Birmingham in 2017:
"This is my challenge: over the next few years, I want us to reinvent public service broadcasting for a new generation. Let me say straight away: this does not mean somehow forsaking our existing audiences - that would be stupid. We have to ride two horses: doing brilliant things on our existing channels and services, but also innovating in the digital space. Our task is to reinvent public service broadcasting so that it works for all audiences.
"Audiences continue to value what we do - in fact, they value it more than ever. And - Ofcom's research shows - young people value public service broadcasting as much as all of us - a really crucial point to remember. But if young people value what we do, reaching them is a whole different matter. In fact, it's one of the single biggest strategic issues we now face. Why? Well, first, because there's so much competition for their time. Adults spend eight percent of their media time on social media and messaging. For 16-24 year-olds, it's 25 percent. Across the whole of the TV market, time spent with young audiences has fallen by 20 to 30 percent. It's the same story with radio. Increasingly, younger audiences and older audiences are consuming media in different ways. So we have to respond.
"I think the second big issue is that the media landscape has changed beyond recognition. It is hugely more global and more competitive. We're now in an environment where Amazon, Netflix, and others are willing to invest huge amounts of money with no certain return in an attempt to capture market share where Facebook is looking at commissioning its own TV programmes, and Twitter is buying up sports rights and where moves such as the Fox-Sky merger are making the very biggest players even bigger."
He summarised the transition thus in describing the role of iPlayer: "We need it to make the leap from a catch-up service to a must-visit destination in its own right."
This was five years ago. All pretty obvious. The change in viewing habits and content consumption has accelerated since then. Partly driven by the pandemic? More people at home, not necessarily at traditional peak hours, wanting to access favourite material there and then, intolerant of the wait for scheduled delivery? Also, not restricted to the television in the corner of the sitting room, but available across multiple devices. Wi-fi internet delivery, not just via the old-fashioned airwaves. Watching a YouTube channel on the bus home?
Monday 17th January
On-demand television is a strange thing to a child of the 1950s. I don't know if it's my self-imposed lockdown-lite, January blues, cold grey weather or just sloth, but I've indulged in some mild binge viewing over the first two weeks of the year.
I polished off all four episodes of Ruth Fowler's "Rules of the Game" in two evenings, three of them last Wednesday when the Middle Street book group banished me to my office upstairs. Netflix only released Series 3 of the Ricky Gervais dark comedy "After Life" on Friday; I've already consumed the five half-hour episodes.
This is a very new approach for me. I watched the relatively recent "Bodyguard" and "Vigil" thrillers at their published weekly times although I could have got ahead of myself on iPlayer, certainly with the latter. The same with "Line of Duty". With "Vigil", I even had reminders in my diary.
That's how we used to do things, isn't it? Look forward to the next instalment and wait for it. The technology wasn't available with "The Forsyte Saga" or "Brideshead Revisited" - OK, you have to be of a certain age to remember those.
Whatever happened to deferred gratification? I've suppressed a quiet guilt in gobbling up "After Life" so rapidly. I'm not complaining. Gervais's latest offering is excellent. You may not like him, but he's clever, an original and acute observer. While dark, sad and very rude, the brilliance lit up these winter Covid days.
There was a kind of anticipatory ritual in days gone by, governed by fixed-time broadcasting. You might plan to watch with friends or family. Then review with colleagues the day after: "Did you see 'Monty Python' last night?"
I don't know why the production or distribution companies now give us this option. It alters the whole concept of audience attraction, the traditional dynamic of viewing figures. Is it a recognition of "I want it now" greed? Are we no longer prepared to wait?
If you subscribe to the Netflix service, I can't recommend "After Life" too highly. We may not be able to contend with Australia at cricket, but we really do have some astonishing creative talent in this country.
Sunday 16th January
Saturday 15th January
Friday 14th January
Thursday 13th January
"End of the road", they said. "The party's over." Hmmm ... we'll see.
Conservative MP Christopher Chope commented:
"I've never heard such an abject apology from a government minister in my 30-plus years in this place."
What did his advisers tell him? "Boris, this is it. Apologise or you're a goner. No jokes, no snappy catchphrases or soundbites - none of that 'we vaccinate, they vacillate' stuff. No poking fun at Starmer. Try to look like you mean it. Just say sorry. And don't smile."
What did you think? Have you ever heard words such as these from a British Prime Minister?
"Mr Speaker, I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. I know the anguish that they have been through - unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or do the things they love. And I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead, when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.
"And though I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry I have learned enough to know there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility. Number 10 is a big department with the garden as an extension of the office - which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus. And when I went into that garden just after six on the 20th of May 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event.
"But, Mr Speaker, with hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside, I should have found some other way to thank them and I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way. People who suffered terribly - people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all, inside or outside. And to them and to this house I offer my heartfelt apologies. And all I ask is that Sue Gray be allowed to complete her inquiry into that day and several others so that the full facts can be established."
His answer to every question faced finished with that request, except for a brief rally at the end of Keir Starmer's fierce examination when he resorted to his habitual promotional bluster about the Great Vax Job.
He still tried to wriggle a bit. That garden was well-used "because of the role of fresh air". Hanging on to the "work event" claim.
Sue Gray, it's over to you. Or maybe the 1922 committee and 54+ Conservative MPs.
Wednesday 12th January
I watched the BBC news and scanned stories on the CNN website last night, and found that I really didn't want to reflect or comment on any of them. Too wearing.
A contrasting shaft of light came from a local source. Our Middle Street WhatsApp group (I hate that the platform is owned by Zuckerberg's Meta) really has enhanced the life of our community during the pandemic, like countless others round the world, I'm sure. Yesterday a new baby was welcomed, a neighbour was able to borrow scaffolding planks, the Crown & Sceptre alerted us to Katie's Famous Chicken and Mushroom Pie at the weekly Up The Workers cheap supper evening, a resident borrowed a guitar to help her through Covid isolation, a mis-delivered letter found its rightful recipient - and the Adventures of Marley the Cat continued.
Marley goes missing. The group has frequently been called upon to help find him. Then at Christmas his owner bought him a digital Cat Tracker. Yesterday evening he revealed himself at a favourite watering hole in town.
Tuesday 11th January
I was up at 5:30am this morning. The birds were singing outside my office window as I sat down to write. A welcome portent - OK, maybe I'm jumping the gun - of spring. We're heading for my favourite time of year. The darkest dawn is well behind us, 21 days ago.
One of the benefits of Boris's let's-pretend-it's-business-as-usual Plan B is that our local cinema is open. At the weekend we saw Steven Spielberg's re-make of "West Side Story". An absolute joy, radiance in a damp and dreary coronavirus January. It's a cheesy story of doomed passion - so was "Romeo and Juliet" - and Spielberg can lay it on with a trowel, but I loved it, as much as the original film made in 1961 - oh dear, sixty-one years ago. It seemed appropriate to watch the film so soon after the passing of lyricist Stephen Sondheim. What's more, as it had been showing for some time and we went on a Sunday afternoon, I could choose a seat at a safe distance from the few other people present.
Oh, those songs: "Tonight", "Maria", "Somewhere", "America", "I Feel Pretty", "Gee, Officer Krupke". The New York background - in this version amidst the demolition of the old neighbourhood to make way for new development. The Puerto Rican and Latino flavour, criticised by some as a perpetuation of stereotypes, but come on, it's an old musical. The colour of the girls' flared skirts in those exuberant flowing ensemble dances. Charming performances by the two young leads. Maria was played by 20-year-old Rachel Zegler, cast in the role at age 17 while still in high school, three years later a Golden Globe winner. A nice symmetry in that executive producer Rita Moreno, now 90, took the part of Valentina six decades after she portrayed Anita, Sharks leader Bernardo's girlfriend - and rescued Anita from the Jets towards the end of this 2021 reprise. Spielberg dedicated the film to his father, Arnold, who died during production at age 103.
If you haven't seen it, here's the studio publicity:
Monday 10th January
I'm startled by today's FT/Johns Hopkins new cases per 100k chart (click to enlarge) for selected European countries covering the entire period of the pandemic:
Compare with last January, when we were in a state of alarm, even panic. Nearly 3 times higher in the UK now.
We're trying to press on with "normality", aren't we? This morning I watched the kids going off to school from my office window. Parking spaces appeared in Middle Street as people went to work. Sarah went to a volunteer meeting in Gloucester, having done a lateral flow test.
I'm still erring on the side of caution. Passed on an exercise class today. I have only cooked one meal for friends in the last year. We received close family visitors over the festive period, but no others. I had New Year 'phone chats with three friends yesterday - they're doing the same.
I just don't want to get Covid. The evidence is that it wouldn't be as severe an experience as last year. The assumption then was that you might die. However, I'm not keen to find out.
Sunday 9th January
England the "global outlier", eh? This statement - video clip courtesy of The Guardian - by Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford is quite a comment on leadership in Britain.
Somehow the sign language emphasises the madness.
Drakeford's not a party animal, is he? Just as well. Parties can get you into trouble - quite rightly if they're held in Downing Street.
It's disappointing if you're a supporter of the Union. Good sense exhibited in the Celtic fringe while confusion and sleaze reign in Whitehall. Mind you, it's an advert for devolution. The Welsh get the kind of steady-handed leadership missing in Boris's corridors of power.
You may have another view of course, particularly if you're a Welsh rugby fan or a Cardiff publican who would normally be expecting the windfall - £15,000 to the City Arms on match day - influx of fans for three contests at the Principality Stadium. There is a bitter irony in the Welsh Rugby Union's consideration of moving their Six Nations home games to English venues.
I've been looking at another source of coronavirus data - I generally rely on NHS and ONS statistics - namely that of the ZOE Covid Study, prompted by a Christmas telephone conversation with my cousin's wife. There's an app to allow you to report all your test results, and even just your general health. ZOE - from the Greek meaning "life" - states on its website that it
"is a not-for-profit initiative that was launched at the end of March 2020 to support vital COVID-19 research. The app was launched by health science company ZOE with scientific analysis provided by King's College London. With over 4 million contributors globally, the Study is the world's largest ongoing study of COVID-19 and is led by ZOE Co-Founder, Tim Spector [Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King's College]."
Here are a couple of the study's latest charts (click to enlarge): 1) new cases, with a separate line for double-vaccinated people; 2) daily cases, detail of regions (notes: too few participants in Northern Ireland to generate a good estimate, care homes excluded as there is not enough data from the app to estimate this population).
Dr Claire Steves, scientist on the ZOE COVID Study app and Reader at King's College, comments on the latest data:
"It's good news that the number of daily new cases has slowed for now. ZOE COVID Study data shows that this slowdown is being driven by cases falling in London and in younger age groups. However, it's worrying to see cases increasing in the over 75 age group. This is the group we need to protect as they are the most likely to be hospitalised as a result of a COVID infection. It's too early to know if cases have truly peaked in London, as schools reopen after the holidays. We've seen school terms driving infection waves throughout the pandemic. The health and care systems are already under huge pressure, so we all need to take personal responsibility for limiting the spread of COVID. This could be in the form of regular testing, wearing masks, staying away from busy crowded places, meeting up outside and getting booster vaccines."
I'm on board. And, yep, worn down by it all. That's before you think about the families close to the 150,000 who have died in the UK - and 5.47 million worldwide.
Still - trivial and meaningless in comparison - I'm trying to press on with positive projects. As promised last Thursday, I retrieved the harmonica that had fallen down the back of my desk. Now I'm working through Blues Harp 101 tutorials on YouTube.
One last thing. I write this at 7:55am. England have held on for a draw at the Sydney Cricket Ground, five minutes ago, with only one wicket in hand. 39-year-old fast bowler Jimmy Anderson - not out 0 - blocked the last six balls to prevent Australia going 4-0 up in the Ashes, eliminating the prospect of a series whitewash. Hardly a triumph, but it's something 😅
Friday 7th January
The daily email I've received from the WHO has me thinking about the relationship between private and public - or global - responses to the pandemic. The main content of the email is Director-General Dr. Tedros's New Year Covid briefing.
What is my personal reaction to the present status of Omicron? I'm still adjusting my behaviour away from pre-pandemic "normal". I don't go into crowded places. I always wear a mask in the local small shops, even if there are no other customers. We have the annual 'feast' celebration of our local walkers' group on Saturday - but I won't be going.
Son Ben has been eager to get the family together for a summer holiday. One possibility is a return to Algajola in Corsica, courtesy of our friends Ian and Ali. How realistic is that? What travel rules will be in force by mid-summer? Will the efficacy of our boosters have waned by then?
Dr. Tedros's briefing remarks are all about the imperative of vaccine equity. Here's the full text (5 pages):
"While some countries have had enough personal protective equipment, tests and vaccines to stockpile throughout this pandemic, many countries do not have enough to meet basic baseline needs or modest targets, which no rich country would have been satisfied with. Vaccine inequity is a killer of people and jobs and it undermines a global economic recovery.
"At the current pace of vaccine rollout, 109 countries would miss out on fully vaccinating 70% of their populations by the start of July 2022. The essence of the disparity is that some countries are moving toward vaccinating citizens a fourth time, while others haven't even had enough regular supply to vaccinate their health workers and those at most risk. Booster after booster in a small number of countries will not end a pandemic while billions remain completely unprotected."
We can take care to protect ourselves and our community. How do we engage in the world-wide battle? Because that is what will free us all from coronavirus.
Thursday 6th January
There are many things I could write about today: Boris's adherence to Plan B, the easing of Covid testing rules, the Colston Four acquittal - I am tempted by that - Tony Blair's knighthood, No-vax Djokovic's Australian visa. But I'm going to give them all a miss. I'm sure you've seen the coverage.
Instead, I'll concentrate on 2 minutes 35 seconds of delight. Mostly the 35 seconds.
My Irish correspondent asked me yesterday, "How is the harmonica coming along?" A fair question. We're six days into January and it's on the 2022 list, but I'm slow out of the blocks. With a twinge of guilt, I had to admit that I hadn't started. In fact, the said blues harp is stuck down the back of my desk.
Today I will dig it out.
My inspiration is one record above all others: "My Babe" by Little Walter, real name Marion Walter Jacobs (May 1, 1930 - February 15, 1968). The song was written by Willie Dixon, released by Walter in 1955.
After just under a minute, there's the solo. Everything I love in the best blues: sparse yet complete, intricate but un-showy, tuneful, rhythmic, small-but-perfectly-formed. The world in a few bars.
Wednesday 5th January
With many football clubs affected by adverse Covid results, spare a thought for one beleaguered manager:
In response to criticism about test scarcity, Boris's team has launched a cheap quick-and-easy supply-chain-free solution:
Tuesday 4th January
I said on New Year's Day that I was going to pay less attention to Covid. Hmmm. It's difficult to avoid. Omicron numbers rise. The effects may be milder, but the pressure on the NHS increases.
However, these two charts tell a better story than a year ago:
This is surely down to vaccinations, isn't it? Despite the pernicious peddling of misinformation by the anti-vaxxers.
In Stroud, we see a reflection of the national statistics. A marked rise in infections, but fewer deaths than in previous periods of the pandemic.
Endemic? Learn to live with it? As a retired person - I can. But with an increase expected in absences from work, the NHS pressures, hospitality businesses still impeded - the country cannot operate at anywhere near full throttle.
Is it any kind of normal? An unsettling background to attempts to lead a regular everyday life. Kids having to wear masks in schools? How helpful to learning is that? I can't do anything useful while wearing one. Breathing impeded, glasses steaming up. I still haven't ventured into any crowded space.
Still, for two weeks the days have been getting longer.
Monday 3rd January
WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued a New Year message last Thursday titled "My hope for ending the COVID-19 pandemic in 2022". It started:
"With the curtain closing on 2021, we are faced by a sombre milestone, and a stark choice. This New Year's Eve marks the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, serving as a poignant reminder of what we have achieved, gained and lost, as a global community, in our collective response to a truly global crisis. It offers a moment for pause, reflection and, I urge, renewed action to end the pandemic in 2022.
"The power is in our hands to change the course of this crisis once and for all. We have all the tools, the resources and the reasons ... to end this calamity."
He pointed out, as he always has, the immorality - "narrow nationalism, me-first approaches, vaccine hoarding" - of global vaccination inequity. He also celebrated positive progress:
"1) the unparalleled scientific collaboration that has led to 10 vaccines receiving WHO Emergency Use Listing to protect people from serious illness and death; 2) over 8.5 billion doses of vaccine have been administered globally, saving millions of lives and reducing untold suffering; 3) new treatments have been developed that can boost access and reduce deaths."
Here is the full text of Dr. Tedros's message:
I remain, like most not in the anti-vax camp, dazzled by and thankful for the work of scientists over the last year. The rapidity of vaccine development ... they said it couldn't be done, even the über-evangelist Bill Gates. Last week we saw the approval of yet another - I mentioned three on 3rd December👉- antiviral treatment, Paxlovid, designed to block an enzyme the virus needs in order to multiply. Clinical trials showed that it reduced the risk of hospitalisation or death by 89% in vulnerable adults.
The scientists have done their bit. Can we expect the politicians and Big Pharma to do theirs? As Tedros said, "it comes down to a matter of will."
Sunday 2nd January
I'm heartened that son Ben still defies the obstacles that Brexit places in his path. He and partner Soph spent Christmas in Galicia. The European adventure continues.
Saturday 1st January
650 days have passed since I started this blog. Difficult days for the world.
You may have noticed that "Whatever I Fancy" now has pride of place at the top.
Climate and Covid haven't gone away. I'm just not going to pay them such singular attention. I've always allowed myself a licence to digress; this is different, it's more deliberate, not merely surrendering passively to casual distraction.
It's partly an act of self-preservation. How much can anybody take? And I say that with the acknowledgement that the NHS in particular has no choice. I began the blog as a way of navigating through the pandemic, to digest and dissipate the experience by digging into detail and analysis. The problem is that the process - of questions, research, understanding - has meant that I feel over-exposed to very gloomy material. I'm sure it will be impossible to avoid dark news - it's the default media output - but I aim to seek out the light as well.
My New Year resolutions reflect that intent - and recognise the shrinking commodity of time. This summer I will enter my eighth decade. The catchphrase rattles in my head: "If not now, when?" If there's anything I want to do, it's time to get cracking. If there are changes to be made, the moment has arrived.
2022 isn't starting well - Omicron pervades, Brexit casts a shadow, the global response to climate change is perilously incomplete and slow, significant cost-of-living increases are in the pipeline. The challenge is how to combat rather than succumb to the pessimism.
I'm planning to practise what you could call "active inversion". Instead of regret, concentrate - as a matter of course, a self-imposed mandatory counter-thought - on what's gone right. How might it be possible to switch to the positive flipside of bad stuff? I think of the smothering British winter weather. Well, we're threatened neither by drought nor famine. Start with gratitude.
With the big challenges, what influence can we possibly have? About the only way we can respond in the face of political immorality, government corruption, corporate greed, billionaire wealth, wilful climate damage - is to do the right thing ourselves, in the hope that there is a multiplying effect which ripples outwards. I'll borrow the words of the recently departed "Arch":
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