Ciao Diego!

In the same way that Americans can remember where they were when they heard of President Kennedy’s assassination, most Englishmen can remember where they were when Argentina knocked England out of the 1986 World Cup.

Occurring only four years after the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, the game was inevitably charged with significance, bristling with jingoism on both sides. For Argentina, it was seen as an opportunity to avenge the Belgrano sinking. For England, the possibility of reminding Argentina of their place. Journalism and nationalism at their worst.

The game was broadcast live in the UK and everywhere people gathered to watch. Nil-nil at half-time, the game erupted into life in five short minutes not long after the break. Two goals by Diego Maradona, the genius of South American football, seemed to epitomise the opposing faces of the man. The first, a deliberate handball on this largest of all stages, somehow went unnoticed, despite vigourous protests from the England players and fans. But the second, well that was a different matter. Picking up the ball (this time only figuratively) around the halfway line, Maradona dodged and weaved between the starstruck England midfield and defence, sometimes seeming almost to glide, before slipping the ball past the advancing Peter Shilton. If the first goal had been a punch, the second was a pickpocketing. Gary Lineker said it was the only time in his life he had felt like applauding an opposition player, such was the magic of that goal.

England pulled one back late in the game but there was never any doubt over the result. Argentina were leagues better than England. The final score 2-1 flattered England, reflecting a valiant but ultimately toothless performance. Maradona was the hero of the day. A week later he was lifting the World Cup after eliminating Belgium 2-0 in the semifinals and West Germany 3-2 in the final.

Maradona was the face of that World Cup, captaining his side to what it saw as its destiny. And if anybody was unaware of Maradona before the World Cup, they certainly weren’t afterwards. He was on every magazine cover, in every newspaper and every television programme. The little man with his curly black hair and mesmeric feet was a cult.

But on 22 August, everyone was watching Argentina play England. Everyone except me.

Because I was in America, doing postdoctoral research at Indiana University. And if that wasn’t remote enough from world football, on that particular weekend I was in Kansas, at Lawrence, giving a talk on fast cyclic voltammetry at carbon fibre microelectrodes. This was my former life before Parkinson’s and redundancy put paid to it.

America was not big on football (or soccer as they persist in calling it) in those days. The World Cup typically featured on the sports news in a five-minute segment after the baseball, basketball, gridiron, beach volleyball and miniature golf. Of the 300 million people watching the World Cup worldwide, none were doing so in America. It simply passed them by. For the most part I think it still does. It’s a pity really because, if nothing else, America knows how to treat its sporting idols. And few came bigger than Diego Maradona.

And for another decade, he dazzled crowds in Europe and beyond with his breathtaking footwork and simple star quality. Often in and out of trouble, wilfully controversial, you can’t escape the fact that he was a supremely talented footballer. I never saw him in the flesh but I’ve seen enough of him on the screen to salute him.

In England, praise of the man’s ability is often set against that single handball goal rather than the magic of his second goal. But, like I said, I never saw the first goal. So my picture of Maradona is that of the miraculous second goal. And I’m glad of that. For me, he will always be one of the greats of the game. Call him flawed if you must. But frankly it’s time to get over that. He was a genius. Have the grace to recognise that.

You are what you eat

Although, for a long time on the back foot, there is optimism in the last few days that we may yet beat Covid 19. In the space of a week we have progressed from our darkest hours of lockdown to the promise of two – count them, two – vaccines for coronavirus. I’m going to write about those separately so hold your horses.

Anyway, not being able to go to supermarkets due to the lockdown – yes I know you’re all ignoring it – has rather focussed my mind on what I eat. Currently I have three sources of food. These are the local farm shop (not actually very local – nearly 5 miles away), taking up offers from friends/family and finally food by post.

Normally I ignore flyers through the door. In fact some days I don’t even pick them up. Double glazing offers, handprinted bills by amateur tree surgeons, prayers for the day and dental plans offering me Hollywood teeth from an address at the far end of the goods station yard (second floor, ask for Benny). The usual stuff.

Most flyers never percolate into my consciousness. But one, the other day, offered to bring the me “odd” vegetables, misshapen versions of their supermarket siblings and veg so numerous that only the fittest should survive. Somehow, and perhaps because of my own misshapen corporeal manifestation, this aroused my interest.

Mail order vegetables are commonplace nowadays. Riverford probably started this trend but others have carried the torch as well, each with their own little USP. But as far as I know nobody has yet traded in imperfect vegetables, the runts of the litter, or in those surplus to requirements. Until now. The company is called Oddbox. I shan’t do their advertising for them – you can look them up – but the idea seems worthy and rather noble. Rescuing vegetables that would not otherwise find their way to your plates. Think of it as Schindler’s Ark for vegetables.

And let’s not forget fruit. Same deal.

Here’s the skinny. For a fixed sum you can order a large, medium or small box of vegetables, fruits or both. You set up an account and that’s it. They deliver to your door in eco-friendly cardboard boxes. As a further concession to eco-living, they deliver in the middle of the right when there is less traffic on the road. Yes I follow the logic but it’s a brave man who would knock on my door with an armful of vegetables at 3 AM.

Fortunately that scenario has not yet played out. The vegetables are left, covered by a little waterproof bag in a sensible place of your choosing. Today’s cornucopia consisted of an aubergine, a lettuce, a cauliflower, six carrots, twelve small onions, four beetroot, three potatoes, six kiwifruit, five pears and two pomegranates. No mention of partridges or pear trees. Oh and a recipe for carrot and onion bhajis. Can’t say fairer than that.

With the end in sight for coronavirus hopefully, I need to get in shape a bit. Well actually I need to get in shape a lot but let’s not get too excited yet. A few vegetables is a start. And if I can help to eat the oddities and superfluous of the vegetable kingdom, so much the better. It’s the first small step towards better health.

Incidentally, you can tailor your vegetable box to your tastes. Even specify the vegetables you prefer not to receive. Up to a maximum of three – I don’t think they want to encourage the overly fussy. Like the Emperor Nero, I have given the thumbs down to courgettes, celery and tomatoes. Aubergine would also have got it in the neck had there been a fourth place offered.

But not to worry. You can always barter with fellow vegetable box peeps. The aubergine and lettuce are already on their way to Crowborough in exchange for Mary Berry’s marmalade cake.

Don’t give me that look.

Welcome back, America!

I’m not easily swayed by the words of politicians but I have to confess that listening to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris deliver their acceptance speeches (obviously not the formal speech while this nonsensical legal palaver continues to drag out the death throes of Trump’s regime) I was persuaded. I was persuaded that here was a government that would be truly inclusive. Government for the people rather than for one faction. Of course the proof of the pudding lies in the eating but initial signs are good.

While Trump’s lawyers kick out and convulse, the death spasms of a former regime, the last shreds of dignity are stripped away. The scene at the Four Seasons landscaping company, located between a crematorium and a pornographic bookshop in the outskirts of Philadelphia, where Trump’s toxic pit bull Rudy Giuliani snarled and howled at every perceived injustice, was surely the ultimate distillate of Trump philosophy – bombast and bluster papering over the cracks in the legal case. The judges will not be so easily fooled.

If it’s any consolation to any of you, I’m tired of having a go at President Trump. I’m tired of flagging up the many legal infelicities of his poisonous regime. I have better things to do with my time. Fortunately the American people have spoken and his administration can be consigned to the garbage pail of history. In the words of Shakespeare “if we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear”.

Sadly it wasn’t all just a nightmare, softly erased by a mother’s gentle cuddles. America really did vote for Donald Trump in 2016. And, in much the same numbers, in 2020. Although beaten, and soundly beaten in a way that pretty much everyone except the incumbent president understands, Trump continues his uppercase tweetkrieg to anyone who will listen. Have you no dignity? Are you determined to scratch around in the gutter along with the rest of the white supremacists? It’s over. Surely somebody in the White House can get that across to President Trump. Oh and remind them to switch off the lights when they leave.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the last word I’m going to write on Donald Trump. He campaigned. He lost. I’m going to end the story there to allow him one last chance to react with dignity to his reduced circumstances. One last chance to behave with decorum. No I don’t suppose so either. But you have to try.

So let’s look forward to future. And surely the supreme irony is that the most culturally inclusive campaign team should deliver the detailed policies of the 77-year-old white man. But there it is. I believe him and Kamala Harris to be sincere in their efforts to unite America. They want (we all want, the world wants) an end to the vitriol spewing incessantly from the White House on everything from climate change to “Chinese” viruses. It won’t be easy but let’s try to be friends.

It won’t be easy. It will take a courageous president but I sincerely believe that there is nothing America cannot achieve when it works together in unity. There will be no more red states or blue states. They will just be United States.

Welcome back, America.

Donald, a word in your ear

Mr President? ………… Hi Donald, it’s Mike here. ………… No, not at McDonald’s. Mike – your vice president…………. Mike. Mike Pence. ………… Right! That Mike. You’ve got it. Can we talk. ………… yes,I know you’re busy. Those tweets don’t write themselves…………. Lots of lawyers. Yes I know. I saw it on the news…………. Busy busy busy. But can I ask you just to drop things for a minute and listen? ………… Well, I need to tell you the truth about something. ………… Yes I know how much truth means to you…………. Well that’s why I am phoning…………. If you can just calm down for a moment I’ll explain…………. Look I know you’re angry and I’m sorry the White House kitchen didn’t have any meatloaf…………. Or strawberry Jell-O ………… But, if you just hold on there for a moment, there are bigger things here………….Yes, bigger than the meatloaf problem. ………… Well, like who is going to be president?………… Yes I knew you were going to say that. But it’s not so simple ………… No, I know it’s you at the moment…………. Yes, I know it’s a really important job…………. But you see that’s the point – the people of America want somebody else as president…………. I know he’s a Democrat…………. Yes they probably are all communists and socialists ………… No Mr president, you can’t just shoot them. We’ve been through that. Remember we talked about armed militias? ………… That’s right, the ones in the black shirts with swastikas. Them. ………… No, they’re not good people. Remember we talked about that – people with guns who shoot other people are not good. You can’t just go shooting people…………. No, that includes Democrats…………. Please calm down again Donald…………. I want to talk about your friends and what they’ve been saying. ………… Friends. You know – people you will always help out. ………… Okay. Well think back a bit. How about schoolfriends?………… Well you must have had some surely?………… You took your ball home?……….Maybe you should have shared the ball with them? Maybe that was what upset them?………… No I’m sure you’re mistaken. They can’t all have hated you…………. Please stop crying Donald…………. How about pets? Maybe you had a dog? Some animal that would wag its tail, always pleased to see you. ………… Well no – apart from Rudy. ………… Well okay then, it’s been tough. But at least you had your family support you. ………… No no no. Stop crying again. Blow your nose…………. Yes I know the orange comes off on your handkerchief. ………… There, that’s better. Let’s try and hold it together, eh?………… Well, because I need to tell you some things…………. No, not about the meatloaf. About everything else. ………… No, forget the White House kitchen. And the Jell-O. This is not about the kitchen…………. I don’t know – maybe Melania can sort it out. Donald…………. I’ve been trying to tell you. About the presidency, Donald…………. Please stop interrupting…………. Because I can’t tell you important stuff if you keep interrupting…………. Yes, important stuff…………. No it’s not about your Reader’s Digest subscription…………. I know you collect the coupons………. I feel we are losing focus here…………. It’s Mike here. We’ve been through that…………. Can I just have sixty seconds please Donald. Without interruptions…………. Now that wasn’t even five seconds was it?………… Well somebody needs to buy you a watch. Perhaps we can do that later. ………… Thank you…………. You remember I mentioned the White House staff and that they were telling you lies?………… Yes I know you won’t tolerate lies………… Good. Very good. Now we are talking…………. Well I think they are telling you that the election is still on. I think they’re telling you that you have won the election. And the Democrats have added lots of ballot papers so that they win. And they won’t let you watch the counting. Yes Donald I’ve heard all that…………. I know it’s a great victory for the Republican Party. And I know they tried to take the election away from you. ………… Yes I remember all the lawyers. No I didn’t think so…………. But when you go on TV, and when you say you been robbed…………… I don’t know quite how to say this but you sound a little bit crazy…………. That’s what they’re saying ………… Well actually they’re saying a lot crazy…………. I know you asked them to like you…………. That sort of sounded kind of needy…………. What do I think you should do?………… Well………… And I don’t want to shout when I say this………… But………… You lost the election. Didn’t win it…………. yes of course I’m still your friend………… and Rudy? ………… yes. probably………… well he is not answering my calls…………. Well I’ve been talking to the lawyers………… No they don’t think it’s a brilliant idea either…………. The thing is, er, Donald………… You can’t change history…………. Fact is you lost. You’re a loser…………. Sorry, I forgot you don’t like the L word…………. Let me put it another way then ………… You’re the runner-up………… you came second…………. Yes that sounds a lot better…………. Think of it this way, you are going to have plenty of time for golf. How about that. The electorate wanted to help you improve your golf because you been such a great public servant. They love you…………. There you are, no need to cry any more…………. What was that?………… No I’m sorry. You don’t get to keep the helicopter…………. Can’t hear you. Are you still there?………… Don’t worry about packing. There are people who will do that…………. One last thing – hand your badge into security. I’ll have someone call you a taxi.

Lockdown lament

The first lockdown over the summer was almost like an adventure. Certainly wasn’t a whole lot of fun but it did seem to instil a kind of Dunkirk spirit, that famous self-celebration of adversity that we Brits seem to revel in. We stood outside our houses on Thursdays clapping for the NHS workers facing this viral challenge on our behalf. We read about the virus in our newspapers and saw ambulances queueing outside hospitals. We did not quite take in all those refrigerated lorries at the rear entrances of the hospital. On the whole it was a phoney war. Other people were doing the dying for us. We might lose the occasional grandad but, for the most part it wasn’t us.

Besides, it was summer and it’s impossible to believe in death in summer. Summer is all about new lives – nesting birds, new shoots on trees, flowers opening. The time to get out into the garden for those of us that had one. It was a season of pruning, trimming, propagating, repotting and feeding. This was not a season of death.

As time wore on we became blasé, callous even, irritated that our basic civil liberties were being eroded in order to try and prevent a viral avalanche. Bit by bit we ignored, relaxed or just flouted the rules. The government, unable to stem such disobedience, simply rescinded the restrictions one by one, in a vain attempt to persuade us that such relaxations were at their behest not ours. They mirrored public action with governmental decision. A laughable illusion and one which fooled nobody. Knee-jerk government. Vacillation portrayed as vindication.

And as the number of new cases fell, the brakes were released still further. The people wanted holidays, flights to exotic destinations (well, as exotic as EasyJet and Ryanair can manage). Football resumed, to the relief of the government, albeit without anybody able to watch it. Surely as ridiculous a conceit as any over the last several months.

As the summer passed, with a handful of football games and some tokenistic cricket, nobody noticed the coronavirus still lurking in the shadows. Like grandmother’s footsteps, the virus gradually pressed forward until, with us barely taking any notice at all, suddenly the second wave was upon us. And this is no viral after-shock, palely imitating the first onslaught. This is far worse. This is The Big One.

In the summer, the rate of infection maxed out at 5600 new cases per day. In this second wave, we reached that figure by 25 September. And what did the government do? That’s right, nothing. They hedged their bets with tentative half-hearted measures in the provinces but failed to grasp the nettle for another month. Unbelievable really that they should have prevaricated for so long. In that intervening month of inaction, the daily rollcall of new cases rose to 23,000, four times as high as the first wave and we haven’t even reached the peak yet*.

Even those aware of the rising number of cases point to the much reduced mortality this time. Perhaps the virus has mutated to a less venomous form? Perhaps we’re getting better at treating it? This is delusional thinking. Already the death rate is rising. Make no mistake, once the hospital ICUs
are saturated the mortality will catch up dramatically**.

I have been saying all along, from the very first cases in early March, through the peak in May and the subsequent fall, that we have not seen the worst of this. I have maintained consistently, and will do so again, that we will lose some 150,000 people in the UK by the end of this year if we do not take decisive and effective action. Far from being a curtain call for the first phase, this is the real thing. The first phase was merely the hors d’oeuvre. This is the main course. Throw in a few weeks of rain and a side order of influenza and we will not be standing, after dark, in the streets in our raincoats, clapping our chapped hands for the health service.

Of course people tire of such apocalyptic predictions. To some extent I wonder why I even bother to write on the subject. I know full well that the number of people who read my blogs about coronavirus is far fewer than when I write of other matters. Some will read, fewer will act.

But if you read this far, at least do me a favour. Go and wash your hands. It just might be the most important thing you ever do.

*As of Friday 13th November, daily new cases exceed 33,000.

**The daily death tally now exceeds 500.

Vote America, vote!

The 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections could not be more different. In 2016, both leading parties (Democrat and Republican) offered the electorate new candidates for the consideration. President Obama was leaving office after eight years in which the economy had been stable, foreign wars had been managed cautiously and healthcare revolutionised. The Democrat star was in the ascendant but, as so often, the urge for change proved the catalyst for the events that followed. Republican Party hustings at first, failed to identify an obvious president amongst the hopefuls. But gradually, as the summer wore on a ground swell of support began to identify Donald Trump as the preferred candidate.

Trump was different. With no governmental or political baggage, he was seen as a breath of fresh air, very much his own man. Indeed so much his own man that Republican grandees frequently questioned his allegiance to the ideology of the grand old party, some pointing to his Democrat sympathies when younger. But the party began to recognise him as the only person, of those on offer, with a realistic chance of at least bloodying the Democrats. A surprisingly strong orator with the common touch and an undoubted ability to work a crowd, he increasingly emerged as a credible candidate. Indeed his lack of political experience, far from being a disadvantage, was a significant asset. He could criticise the failings of previous presidents and candidates with impunity. He had no political blunders to his name. Against all odds this multimillionaire somehow persuaded legions of blue-collar workers that he, and only he, knew what it was like to be in their shoes. Obama, with all his fancy words and elaborate oratory, spoke as though for posterity. Although for many years happy to vote for him, the working classes never really related to his wordy academic tones.

If Obama spoke like Cicero, Trump was a Pennsylvanian sheet metal worker. He spoke the language of the Rust Belt states and, whether true or not, was believable. Trump was a street fighter.

But the fact remained that the Democrats were substantially ahead in the polls and even Trump was struggling to make inroads. It would take a particularly awful Democrat candidate to lose the presidential election to this political neophyte. But the Democrats had exactly such a candidate. Hillary Clinton had two insuperable handicaps to her candidacy. Widely seen as corrupt, dishonest and untrustworthy, Hillary Clinton was also a woman. In the southern states of America, with their pivotal electoral colleges, this was an electoral train wreck waiting to happen. Trump preyed on her assumed or alleged dishonesties and gradually the mud began to stick.

Trump talked less about his own policy plans and more about his interpretation of Clinton’s motivation to be president. Steering clear of his own policy plans was wise. After all there were none to speak of beyond a threaten to roll back Obama care. And a nebulous promise to “drain the swamp” which had an undeniable ring about it. Throw in support from the gun-toting religious right and a campaign focus on the swing states swept Trump to the presidency. Nobody could quite believe it.

2020 is an entirely different situation. We have learned many things about Trump as a president.

Firstly, he believes the job to be essentially part-time and that he can share time between the White House and the golf course – at taxpayers expense.

Secondly, he does not understand that the role of the presidency is nonpartisan. A president serves the entire country, not just the Republican bits. Presidents should always seek to unify. That’s understood.

Thirdly, he does not grasp the need for messages to be consistent, frequently undermining his briefing staff by ad-libbing policy thoughts.

Fourthly, he has no grasp of practicalities. Just saying that there will be a wall between the US and Mexico does not mean it will happen.

Fifthly, blaming all his own troubles on the previous administration simply won’t wash. It might have been usable as an excuse in 2017 but when facing the electorate in 2020, it’s not believable.

The last six months have seen the unravelling of this president and his vanities. Flashing hot and cold on key issues, he stands behind the presidential podium like some demented Belisha beacon. A gift to cartoonists with his ridiculous coiffure and disastrous orange tan, he is a cartoon president. Spitting image mercilessly lampooned president Reagan for his limited grasp of policy and preponderance of gaffes. Trump is almost beyond caricature. He is Mussolini, one minute all bluster and bombast, the next minute rambling, unfocused and incoherent.

If he were just an idiot, his failings would be almost endearing, like that bumbling uncle at the family Christmas get-together who gets names and places mixed up. He would be tolerated but largely ignored. But Trump is not an idiot. Or perhaps I should say Trump is not only an idiot. He has raised nepotism and cronyism to the level of art. No president previously has dared put so many family members into key positions. So brazen are his actions that commentators find their sense of outrage blunted. Any one alone would have been sufficient grounds for investigation. Most journalists have to suspend disbelief when reporting a Trump story. Far from draining it, Trump is the swamp.

In 2016, Trump offered vague sentiments along the lines of “let’s make America great again”, meaningless but somehow persuasive. In 2020, those slogans seem hollow. He has had four years to do so. If America is not yet great again, it’s his fault. Simply needling the previous administration isn’t persuasive.

The role of president is about one thing and one thing alone – leadership. When the threat to the country presents itself, the president is expected to have a plan and to act decisively. In March and since, the US and other countries have experienced a viral pandemic. Each country has acted in its own way, some more convincingly than others, but none has acted by doing nothing. Except America. Trump’s lamentable failure of understanding this has surely made the death count far worse than it needed to be. His ambivalence about masks and pronouncements that it would all miraculously disappear were comical if not for the fact that lives were lost as a direct result. Far from admiring a beacon of global leadership one is left with the feeling that a village somewhere is missing its idiot.

Trump’s presence on the international stage is even more absurd. His refusal to sign the Kyoto and Paris agreements was, on its own, an act of absurdity. Climate change is global. Surely nobody can fail to grasp that. And even more comically absurd was his withdrawal from the World Health Organisation at the outset of a pandemic. Petty, vindictive and stupid. But then that sums up the man. Protectionist economics rarely makes a country great. Great economies trade and trade widely. Imposing tit for tat trade tariffs is not a meaningful means of exerting foreign policy. In 2016 America commanded respect on the world stage. Confidence and a courageous economy led by a benign regime ensured respect from other countries. Pride even. In 2020, foreigners feel pity for America and Americans and that’s something I never thought I would see in my lifetime.

America is a great country, make no mistake. America has been the home to some of the greatest thinkers and the greatest technologies in the world. That strength has been built on a workforce as broad and deep as any in the world. Immigration has built that economy. Immigration has fathered tolerance and understanding. Immigration is America at its best.

At present, the country is on its knees, brought down by a divisive, vindictive and incompetent leader. America needs to unite and to heal its wounds. That can never happen under Trump. His regime needs to be expunged, his period in office a brutal, bloody stain in the country’s history. It’s time for America to brush him and his odious administration away.

Americans, it’s time to do your duty. To your fellow Americans, to the citizens of the world. America we love you. Make us proud of you again.

Live and let die.

It’s been interesting, over the last few months, observing the changing tides of public opinion on how to handle the coronavirus pandemic. In March we saw the first deaths from the virus, triggering widespread public anxiety and even, in the case of toilet paper, panic. Shops closed, supermarkets were more or less plundered, and every visitor to one’s house looked like an angel of death. We washed our hands to a degree commensurate with an OCD diagnosis. And you could not buy antiseptic hand gels for love nor money.

As March slipped into April, the number of daily new cases peaked at 5500 with just under a fifth of those dying. Things looked bleak and, if not bad enough already, we were subjected to daily briefings from one or other cabinet lackey, sometimes legitimised by the simultaneous presence of a scientist. When the daily news was particularly desperate, Bojo wheeled out Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance to add a measure of gravitas to his own bumbling reassurances.

Either way, it amounted to the same thing. We were confined to our homes and told to travel only when absolutely necessary. Of course not everybody’s interpretation of the words “absolutely necessary” was the same. While some balked at walking 50 yards to the corner shop for bread, others found 700 mile round trips to visit their dentist “absolutely necessary”. Clearly lockdown was easier for some than others.

As spring slipped into summer, warm weather made a mockery of social distancing. Meanwhile he government vacillated over the use of masks, eventually deciding (on a coin toss as far as I can see) in favour of facewear. Pubs were reopened, as long as they socially distanced. Of course that was never going to fly. Since when have drunks kept their distance?

Meanwhile silently, like a nuclear submarine, the virus continued spreading. The daily cabinet briefings became less frequent. Coronavirus ceased to be the first news item, replaced by the vicissitudes of the Brexit negotiations (but that’s another day, another rant). Whether deliberately downplayed or not, the dangers of the second wave became apparent to anyone who cared to notice. By the third week in September, the second wave of infection has exceeded the first. By the third week in October, the number of daily cases hit 19,722. That’s nearly four times the maximum values in the first wave which, in case you need reminding, cost more than 40,000 lives. And it’s rising even faster. By the middle of next week we will be over 30,000 cases daily.

We could have done something. We could have held back on opening up businesses and hospitality. Instead, the government opted for the populist solution. We all knew that this would mean an increase in reported cases. It’s not rocket science. Did the public react responsibly and intelligently? Let me help you – the answer to both questions is no. The country’s collective response to the lifting of restrictions was, in essence, a month-long lager frenzy.

All over the country people used (and still use) the word pandemic in the past tense, ignoring the gigantic elephant virus in the room. And we know enough from the shape of the first phase, Pandemic 1 if you will, that Pandemic 2 is going to be worse. By the end of the year we will look back fondly on Pandemic 1 with its little hand washing rituals and all those funny masks. Compared with what is coming, Pandemic 1 is a walk in the woods.

Who do I blame? Well quite a few. I blame the politicians for failing to protect their people. I blame the scientists for failing to ensure that their advice was followed. But above all I blame the young (late teens, early 20s). You could have done something. You could have shown the kind of leadership sadly absent in our elected representatives. But no, you didn’t. It may be a bitter pill to swallow but the fact is that, in large part, it’s your fault.

[This is where I put in my usual disclaimer. No it’s not every single person in their 20s who is responsible. It’s just a stereotype to help make a point. Don’t take it personally – unless you should].

And why should it be so? Because your generation is the most impatient. Your generation is the most numerous. Your generation is the least vulnerable. And in the final analysis, when we tot up the casualties, we will realise the saddest truth – that your generation ultimately didn’t care enough about the other generations. That’s why the second wave will be worse than the first. Well, not for you. You don’t have to worry. Let others do that.

Live and let die.

Upgrade or die?

Okay, follow my logic on this.

The UK government has made a huge fuss about a piece of software developed by Apple and Google together I understand. This is the NHS Covid 19 app. It uses your mobile phone and Bluetooth to look at your location over the course of the day and determine whether you have been in close proximity to somebody suffering from coronavirus infection. It’s full of other bits as well telling you about symptoms and so forth. And it’s pretty firm on what you should do if you start to cough, can’t smell the roses or get hot under the collar.

With me so far?

Okay I’m not going to dive into the civil liberty issues – where does all this information go and who has access and why – and take the thing at face value. The rather Huxleyesque overtones of this detailed surveillance are a subject for another blog on another day. Let’s just assume that this is an honest piece of software devised by our governments for our own benefit (although I recognise that sentence seems more absurd reading it a second time).

So, being a good and obedient citizen, I chose to download it. Simple enough you would think. After all every TV and radio advertisement break has been exhorting us to do exactly that.

I have an iPhone 6+, the ever so slightly larger version of the iPhone 6, made for those of plumper finger and weaker eyesight (such as myself). I bought it in the latter part of 2014 as a birthday present to myself. Apart from the usual patronising gobbledygook from the salesman, the purchase process was largely painless.

And let’s face it, that’s not always the case when you are buying technology above your pay grade. More than once I have been clubbed into purchasing inappropriate and needless “support” services only to find myself transferred from one geek to another in an endless vortex of deliberate obfuscation.

I digress. On this occasion the process was painless. A quarter hour spent transferring the contents of my previous phone (an iPhone 4) onto the new phone and I was good to go.

After a couple of years, O2 contacted me with details of the upgrade that was available to me. Indeed their wording made it seem much less an invitation than an expectation. My contract had expired and I was therefore eligible for a new phone. All I had to do was go to their webpage where a veritable cornucopia of telephonic devices strutted their stuff. What the “invitation” omitted to mention was that the spanking new phone would commit me to another two-year contract. Under contract in which I would have to pay for this phone. It was taken as read that every right-thinking individual on the planet would automatically want to upgrade their phone every two years or yearly or whatever.

On the other hand, my existing phone, worked fine. I have never suffered from phone envy, never been tempted by these concoctions of brushed aluminium and chrome. Remember I’m from Yorkshire. We are not easily swayed by these fancies. So rather than tie myself into a new contract with the new phone, “practically a gift” at £48 per month for two years, I elected to persevere with my iPhone 6+, paying only for the airtime at around £20 a month.

All fine and dandy. The iPhone 6+ continues to work well and allows me to do most if not all of what I want. I can make phone calls, send and receive texts, trawl the Internet, write blogs, make podcasts, read and write emails and probably a whole bundle more things that I have never taken the trouble to learn. The phone has served me well and, up until now, continues to do so.

This is where I get to the point. And I can hear that collective sigh of relief.

I log onto the Apple store, locate the app, click the “get” button, authenticate myself with my fingerprint and wait. After a second or two a pop-up informs me that I need to upgrade my operating system to iOS 13.5 before installation can proceed.

A quick check in the phone settings informs me that my phone has iOS 12.4.8 as its operating system. Ah, that will be the problem thinks I. I asked the phone to check for upgrades and to download them where appropriate. It does nothing. “Computer says no”. Not only is iOS 12.4.8 the current operating system on my phone, it is as good as I’m ever going to get. For the iPhone 6+, life ends at iOS 12.4.8. Stop those foolish dreams of iOS 13.5. You are obsolete.

Well I’ve been called many things in my time so “obsolete” doesn’t hurt. Besides, I didn’t want this stupid app anyway. See if I care.

But that’s exactly the problem. I do care. I do want the app. I want to be protected and to help my fellow man.

The wider implications, and this is where I was heading all along, are that people with older phones will not be protected. And what kind of people predominantly own old phones? That’s right. Old people have old phones. The very people who are most vulnerable to Covid 19 have been thrown under a bus. Not for them the protection of a spanking new iPhone. Some don’t even have smartphones at all. They will die in their droves (just remember that, Richard).

So the options for the elderly, whether chronologically or technologically senile, are very simple. They can either cash in their pensions to buy the latest iPhone, at the price of a second-hand car or they can take their chances in that great Covid lottery.

Perhaps it should be Apple’s new slogan – “Upgrade or die”. You’ve got to admit it’s catchy.

Old King Coal

I grew up in Yorkshire. Oh, did I already mention that? So forgetful these days.

Specifically I grew up in Doncaster, that industrial jewel in the South Yorkshire countryside. Not that there was much countryside in the coal-blackened land between Barnsley in the west and Scunthorpe in the east, Thorne to the north, Rotherham and Worksop to the south. A skyline dominated by the winching gear of a hundred collieries, each a testament to the generations upon generations of men who took their lamps, helmets and snap tins deep in the earth each day.

The pit heads were no more than the entrance and exit to the mine. Perhaps a quarter of a mile below the surface pithead the mines fanned out to follow the seams of black gold. Miniature underground railways, narrow and cramped, would often take miners towards the active seam front, perhaps a mile or more from the pithead. Eventually the seams narrowed until impassable by train and the miners disembarked and clattered, bent double in the low sweltering tunnels, toward the coalface, their voices lost in the scraping, clawing and clattering of mechanical diggers. A Dantean vision of Hell.

Accidents happened of course. Tunnel collapses, in particular, were the enduring nightmare of every miner and his family.A signal from the pithead, known to the mining community alone would alert the villagers and bring them anxiously to the colliery for news. Sometimes good, occasionally not. Each colliery kept records of injuries and deaths incurred while mining, their names the price paid for digging into Hell’s outer reaches.

In the mining towns and villages, entire streets were colliery workers. Many of the villages were built explicitly to staff the collieries. And when Mrs Thatcher, with murderously swift fountain pen, signed the order to end the mining industry in the UK, death sentences for the collieries meant the same for whole towns.

My grandfather was a coal merchant, staggering with hundredweight bags on his back from dray to house all day until, parched and tired from so many deliveries, he would slake his thirst in the Black Bull on the north side of the marketplace in Doncaster. As time went by, he did a little less delivering and rather more slaking until that decision ran its course. But that’s a story for another day.

I remember coal, the look and feel of it. Like most South Yorkshire homes we had a proper fireplace where we would burn coal in our grate or, when available, anthracite, the blackest and hottest of all coals. I can remember my father, on winter mornings crisp with frost, lugging coal from shed to fireplace. I remember his breath steaming in front of him as he lit the rolled up newspaper beneath the carefully stacked coals – largest in the middle, smaller in a circle around – and blew on the flickering flames. Sometimes he would let me use the bellows cautiously. I felt very big and responsible even though my father never left the room for fear that I would burn the house down with an overzealous use of the bellows. If the fire was particularly reticent my father would cover the fireguard with sheets of newspaper to help the fire draw. It seemed to me to be much more of a danger to the house’s integrity than his eight-year-old son with a bellows. But I didn’t question his wisdom.

I wonder how many eight-year-olds now would even know what coal was. And what would we tell them to explain? For their generation, fossil fuels are satanic relics from another time. But those satanic relics built our roads and railways, houses and ships there would be no locomotives without coal, no steamships or mighty pistons. Coal may not be part of our future but let’s not forget its past role in shaping our futures. Coal fuelled industry. Without coal and the need for coal, many towns might never have been built or populated. Entire generations might never have existed.

Including me.

Facebook friends

I’ve been thinking recently about Facebook. More specifically been thinking about how I use it, what I hope to achieve with it and how I can best operationalise that. That’s a rather long way of saying that I sometimes struggle to get messages through to the right people or to make sure that they don’t get through to the wrong people. That probably sounds a little more paranoid than intended.

For instance, if I’m posting about Parkinson’s, that may (or may not) appeal to those of my Facebook contacts with Parkinson’s or those having in some way a vested interest in Parkinson’s. Patients, carers, nurses, neurologists – those sort of people. For most of my family however, both nuclear and wider, the minutiae of day-to-day living with Parkinson’s, however insightful, are about as interesting as a party political broadcast. Maybe even less.

So first of all, I looked closely at the kind of things I post on Facebook. Now, on the whole, I try not to post pictures of animals. I know that many of you do but please, for the moment, contain your ire. No slight intended. All this I have nothing against pictures of animals – many are cute and fully deserving of their corner of cyberspace. And good on you. Just not my bag.

Of course I’m not claiming the moral high ground – I’ve posted enough pictures of hand made paella, cricket bats, home-grown fruit, antique microscopes, and so on. And when it comes to selfies, I am as much a recidivist as any. Probably worse. In fact I think Facebook more or less created the selfie, For many, that’s what Facebook is about – a little light relief against this apocalyptic backdrop we seem unable to eliminate. And what’s wrong with that? Jolly good I say.

Much of the above probably comes across as tetchy, grumpy and critical. And if it does, that’s probably the manner of delivery rather than the sentiment. Facebook is like television. It’s just a medium. And whether your preference is for Strictly Come Dancing or Blue Planet, American football or sumo, Grease or Apocalypse Now, there is something for everyone. Facebook is just the same.

But for me, from my little corner of the ether, Facebook is primarily a medium for drawing attention to my recent writings on my website, in particular the blog part, where I fire off periodic salvos on whatever has caught my fancy or irked me. Recent posts have discussed the lack of preparedness for the coronavirus second phase, a rhapsody on village cricket, ramblings about spare bedrooms, symptoms of Parkinson’s and a celebration of the title winning Liverpool team. Hardly anything falls outside my orbit. No subject is too rarefied for you, dear readers, to not be treated to the fruits of my wisdom (tongue firmly in cheek).

And herein lies the problem. I freely concede that not everybody on Facebook (or I should say my friends since my profile is not public) is interested in everything I write. And you only have to read a couple of articles that fail to stimulate your intellectual tastebuds before you slip into the “I’ll read that later” category. Later, of course, means never.

The issue is targeting. I need a way to make sure that my parky friends are alerted to pieces pertaining to Parkinson’s, without having to sift through long screeds about the latest England fast bowler or how Wagner influenced 20th-century music making. Separating the wheat from the chaff but, of course, remembering that one man’s wheat is another man’s chaff.

So, over the next couple of days I’m going to try to find some way of creating subgroups which allow posts on Parkinson’s to go to those interested (or at the very least engaged). If I get this right they will be spared my discourse on the wines of Pauillac. Or whatever.

This may take a little while and will necessitate some guesses on my part if I can’t remember which category some individuals fall into. So there will be mistakes. Of that you can be assured. But if you feel you are being erroneously deprived of my articles on 16th century Byzantine teapots because I have misplaced you, let me know. And no, I haven’t actually written an article on teapots of any nationality.

This is in large part an experiment and therefore, like all science, subject to failure. But bear in mind that this is an effort to help you read less of my writings rather than more. Small mercy you may feel. And of course if I vanish from your Facebook feed, you will know that I have misplaced you into the wrong category. If so, sorry. My bad. But at least you’ll be spared the paella.