It starts with a conversation

The events of the last few days, and in particular those of Wednesday when a mob invaded the Capitol building in Washington, are emblematic of a very disunited States. News channels round the world covered the events live. Scarcely has a less flattering image of the United States been transmitted in living memory. It reminded me of the scenes in the American compound in Saigon during the last hours of the Vietnam War.

What impressed me most was the significant disconnect between the television images of the mob and the individual motivations to do so. Individual demonstrators/rioters felt they were crusaders, the last bastions of truth in the world misled by fake reporting. They justified their actions in the kind of language that would have been familiar to the soldiers of the American Revolution back in 1783. They were freedom fighters, trying to make/keep America great. They saw themselves as patriots.

Of course others saw it differently. While Republicans were uncomfortable, uneasy at best with what they were seeing, Democrats were clear. This was an assault on democracy, an attempted coup, anarchy in urban America, domestic terrorism, even treason. Take your pick. Not only was it an unconscionable act of defiance but one incited by the president himself. Writing this four days later, it still seems hard to believe.

But significantly absent from any of the television coverage, focused on hyperbole, was a sense of perspective, an attempt to make sense of the events rather than project their consequences forward. News coverage focused on several perceived desecrations of the building and its assembly. Protesters relaxing, their feet on the speaker’s desk. That sort of thing. As the night wore on, despite a hurriedly imposed curfew, the arrests began, along with the inevitable post-mortem analysis of the level of policing.

This truly is a country divided against itself. Not since 1861 and the opening salvoes of the Civil War has there been such disharmony in America. And in an uneasy reflection of those times, the country once more is divided on racial and geographical lines. The southern states of the old Confederacy mirror Trump’s powerbase.

Clearly this stand-off is insupportable. A country divided against itself has two choices – revolution or reconciliation. It really is as stark choice as that. Either the US takes steps on the road to reconciliation urgently or faces the most terrible of consequences. And let’s be under no illusion about this. It is not simply an American problem. This has implications globally. Either America heals itself or the year 2021 will go down in history as the onset of the second Civil War. When brothers stand apart, rifles trained on each other, either they lower their rifles or they pull the trigger.

But how can such reconciliation be effected?

It has to start with a conversation. And that conversation cannot occur with guns held to each other’s heads, figuratively or otherwise. So start with those who are able to take that step. Start with those whose differences are more trivial. Talk about subjects you agree upon. Seek for agreement not disagreement. Find the many areas where you see eye to eye. Explain your vision of America.

I have always taken the view with social media that one should never make comment that one would not be prepared to endorse. Facebook and other social media sites invite polarisation rather than reconciliation. Differences of opinion swiftly descend from reasoned analysis into the abyss of name-calling and abuse. And yet I wonder how many would feel comfortable repeating their comments face-to-face. It is too easy to use the anonymity of the chat room to fuel disharmony.

So the path to reconciliation will never occur in the pages of Facebook with its currency of confrontation, pithy one-liners substituting for considered analysis. It requires real people to have real conversations about real issues. It starts with the singular understanding that conversation should lead to conciliation not confrontation. Confrontation creates winners and losers and, when the stakes are as high as they are now, ultimately only losers. Conciliation, or at least the desire for conciliation, creates only winners.

My position, in terms of American politics, has been adequately expressed in this blog/column over several years. There is no need to reiterate it here. But I recognise that victory of one party over another is less of a conclusion than a commencement. We have to get away from this tribalist approach to politics. There are no winners and losers, only losers. The path to reconciliation has to start. And it has to start now, with a willingness to engage. And this applies at a personal, national and global level.

I confess I can’t understand the position of my opponents. But I need to. And I want to. Because there is no other way forward.

How? It starts with a conversation.

The 12 days of Christmas: Parts 1-4

Monday, 6 PM. Doorbell rings.

Van driver: Amazon delivery for you.

Jon Stamford: I’m not expecting one. What is it?

Van driver: I don’t know, I just deliver. It says live bird and plant specimen. Some sort of shrub I guess.

Jon Stamford: I think there’s been a mistake,

Van driver: Don’t think so. The address is correct.

Jon Stamford: Can you show me the document… And tell your man to stop unloading it. That’s hardly a shrub, is it? It’s taken two of you just to get the thing out of the van. Now don’t bring it up the drive. Just hold on there until we get this sorted out.

Van driver: Look I’m just doing my job. It says here “leave with customer. No signature required”

Jon Stamford: Yes but what if the customer isn’t expecting it or doesn’t want it? I mean who sent it for a start?

Van driver: Doesn’t say. The ink has run on the docket. Look mate, we’re just delivery men. If you’ve got a problem, take it up with Amazon.

Jon Stamford: I will, but incidentally for future reference, something 15 feet tall is not a shrub. That’s a tree by any standard. Now please take it away to wherever you take unwanted trees. And the bird. Whatever it is.

Van driver: Sorry. Can’t do that. We are already running late so we can’t get back to the depot tonight. And were not allowed to carry live animals.

Jon Stamford: Well you appear to have carried a live animal here…

Van driver: Yes but that’s different you see. That’s a delivery not a return. We are not allowed to take returns.

Jon Stamford: So what am I meant to do with a partridge in a pear tree that I didn’t order and don’t want?

Van driver: Phone Amazon?

Jon Stamford: Why– do they have a Department for unwanted plants and animals delivered without warning and unrequested?

Van driver: I don’t know mate. We are just deliveries.

Jon Stamford: Well thank you.

Van driver: Enjoy your evening.

Jon Stamford: Well thank you so much. I can’t wait to see what you bring me tomorrow that I haven’t requested.

Tuesday, 6 PM. Doorbell rings.

Van driver:  Delivery for Mr Stamford.

Jon Stamford: That’s me. I’m not expecting one. And incidentally aren’t you the driver I spoke to yesterday?

Van driver: Don’t know. We see a lot of people.

Jon Stamford: You delivered a tree and a bird. Unrequested. Does that ring a bell?

Van driver: Ah yes sir. I remember. You got a bit shirty about it.

Jon Stamford: A bit shirty? I had to hire a forklift to remove the tree to the local garden centre. And I’ve no idea where the bird has got to. Hitchhiking to Morocco for all I know. I shall be demanding compensation from Amazon for this.

Van driver: Well, like I said sir, we just do deliveries. If people don’t want deliveries, that’s their problem.

Jon Stamford: And what is today’s unsolicited parcel then?

Van driver: I don’t know. I’ll just get it down from the van. Sign here please.

Jon Stamford: And what am I signing for?

Van driver: Err, turtledove times two. Matched pair

Jon Stamford: Hold on a minute. I haven’t ordered any turtle doves.

Van driver: Delivery address is correct and you are Jon Stamford.

Jon Stamford: Yes but I didn’t order them. Who sent them?

Van driver: Let me check It’s a Mister Non. A Non.

Jon Stamford:Anon. In other words anonymous.

Van driver: Oh I get it. Now where do you want these?

Jon Stamford: That’s just the point. I don’t want these.

Van driver: I don’t get it why is somebody sending these birds.

Jon Stamford: I don’t know. Is there any point in me asking you to take them away?

Van driver: No sir. We…

Jon Stamford:… Only do deliveries not returns”. Yes I know. Look, I’ll tell you what. I will give you my phone number so that the next time you have an unusual delivery to make to my house you can phone me first and find out whether or not I need them.

Van driver: Okay, you’re the boss.

Jon Stamford: Thank you. Oh and release the birds.

Wednesday 2 PM car pulls into driveway narrowly missing a chicken. JS exits car.

Jon Stamford: What the…!

Neighbour: Oh I’m glad you are back. Amazon came this morning while you were out.

Jon Stamford: and… No, wait. Let me guess.

Neighbour (laughing nervously): You’ll never guess

Jon Stamford: I think I will. They delivered three hens. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Neighbour: No.

Jon Stamford: You mean they didn’t deliver birds?

Neighbour: No, I mean no I can’t tell you you’re wrong.

Jon Stamford: So they did in fact deliver hens today?

Neighbour: two buff Orpingtons and a Rhode Island Red.

Jon Stamford: Orpington and Rhode Island are hardly French are they?

Neighbour: So I gave them French names. Do you want to hear them?

Jon Stamford: Not right now. Let’s save that treat. And where are the other two that I didn’t nearly slaughter on the driveway?

Neighbour: Yes, I meant to say. A bit of a story there. You remember that fox we saw snooping around? Well I don’t know quite how to tell you this…

Thursday 4 PM. Doorbell rings

Van driver: Hello. Me again.

Jon Stamford: Hello. What new avian apocalypse are you planning to rain down upon me today?

Van driver: There’s no need to be like that. Somebody obviously likes you or they wouldn’t send you these birds.

Jon Stamford:… Or hates me. Whatever. Do your worst.

Van driver: It says here “four colly birds”

Jon Stamford: And what is a Colly bird when it’s at home – which incidentally is not going to be here?

Van driver: Let me see

Jon Stamford: No, let me guess. What would be the most inconvenient and unattractive bird to receive here. What would be my avian nemesis? Four tiny little songbirds twittering in the dawn. No, that would be too easy. I’m guessing that these “Colly birds” are in actual fact South American vultures, reeking of carrion, riding the thermals above my house and waiting for me to die. That would be much more in keeping, don’t you think.

Van driver: I just deliver parcels. But they are not very big.

Jon Stamford: Probably juvenile vultures. Don’t be fooled. They will grow to be enormous birds that will sink their claws into my neck, peck out my eyes and leave me for dead and their remaining siblings to dine on my choicer morsels.

Van driver: I think you need to lie down

Jon Stamford: Never mind. Show me the birds.

Van driver: Oi, Sid, fetch Mr Stamford’s parcel

Sid: Right you are.

To be continued…

2020 – return to sender.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I will be glad to see the back of 2020. Normally when it reaches the end of the year I find myself in reflective post-Christmas bonhomie, buoyed by the occasional glass of sherry and mince pie. Through the rose tinted optics of hindsight I find myself mulling over the year and its many joys. A warm fire, a Val Doonican jumper and grandad slippers and the illusion is complete. Gosh, is that snow outside?

Not this year. Not in 2020.

If ever there was a year to see the back of, this is it. Australian bushfires to start with. Huge news story in any other year but this. Climate change as a global emergency. Wasn’t that enough to be going on with? We are in a full tilt race to save the planet. A full-time job in its own you might think. But no, the media circus moves on. And what happened to little Greta? Nowhere to be seen. Or, more accurately I think, avoided by the press who have other fish to fry. Never mind the planet frying. As far as I’m concerned that’s high enough on the apocalypse-o-meter

But apparently not.

You can be forgiven for missing it but there it was, some tiny little news item, buried in between the Wichita under 30s Bake off challenge and the list of unpaid parking tickets. Something about a virus crossing over from wild animals to man. Hardly a news item really. Within a month there was cause for concern in China. Another month and the rest of the world was beginning to wake up to the defining news story of the year. Suddenly attention was focused on China and its food markets. And before you know it, it is ‘traced’ to bats. Specifically people eating bats. I ask you.

For goodness sake what kind of a person eats bats? There are no bat recipes, no bat cookbooks and not a single Internet bat bistro devoted to the bat gourmet.

Perhaps I’m mistaken. Perhaps, in the Far East, the Burger King Bat Super Whopper is competing for the stomachs and minds of the Chinese with the McDonald’s Big Bat combo platter?

And to follow? The bat pavlova, bat cobbler, sorbet de bat? And then there are the canapés – bat goujons, pate de bat, bat fricassee, bats on horseback? No, the reason there are no bat recipes is because we are not meant to eat them. It’s not discrimination. It’s not being Battist. It’s just common sense. Besides, they’re very crunchy.

Back in China, some clown ignores common sense and tucks into the bat sushi platter. All well and good (even if rather disgusting). Unfortunately his particular selection of choice bat cuts contains a previously unknown respiratory virus.

Viruses don’t normally cross species barriers. They snuggle up to the same species. But when they do cross species, they do so with a vengeance. Before you know it, we have an epidemic in China. It turns out to be such a hit that other adjacent countries take it as well. Another couple of weeks and it’s a pandemic. Short for panic epidemic. (No it isn’t but it sounds good). People start filling hospital beds. Then they start dying. Some wear face masks, some don’t. Panic breeds more panic. World leaders, used to fluffing news about a new national traffic management scheme, or a regional document archive plough their collective ostrich heads into the sand. Then there is a vaccine. Then there are two. Then more. Then the virus hits the gas pedal, reluctant to be outdone by mere humans. A feeling of déjà vu? Wait till the third wave.

And to think that we were concerned about forest fires in January. At the end of December, we are virtually praying for forest fires – to kill the virus or kill the news stories.

Dear Sir, my year 2020 is faulty. Can I have my money back please.

A job for the army

As we know, the UK government has pledged to inoculate the population, starting with the Pfizer vaccine. On the face of it tremendous news but on closer examination perhaps a more challenging.   Let’s do some basic maths.

There are some 60 million people in the country. Let us estimate, for the sake of argument, that 10 million will choose not to have the vaccine for whatever reason. A mistake I feel but I’m not going to go into the folly of their reasoning at this point. That’s a job for another time.

So 50 million people need to be vaccinated. Inoculation is a two jab process. So we will need 100 million jabs collectively. And these must be kept at -80° C until used. That’s colder than Antarctica during a cold snap. Now hospitals have those kind of freezers but GPs generally do not. So already we have a major logistical problem and we’re not even out of the car park yet. But let’s put that aside. Let’s wave a magic wand and pretend that can be resolved.

100 million jabs to be given. And in what kind of timeframe? Well obviously it can’t be too long – the longer we take the greater the risk of mutation to a resistant strain. So let’s say complete inoculation of the population in just over three months (or 84 to 93 days). Let’s be generous again and round that up to a hundred.

In simple terms we need to perform 100 million inoculations in 100 days. Even I can do that calculation in my head. We have to deliver 1 million jabs per day. That’s every day including weekends.

If I understand this correctly (and the government is a mite evasive about this), we have 70 inoculation venues around the UK. So each vaccination suite must jab a little over 14,000 people every day. Let’s say they are open 10 hours every day (I do like to simplify the mathematics where possible). That means each centre must inoculate 1400 every hour, churning them out every 2.6 seconds. The duration of a Formula One Grand Prix pitstop.

Now think for a moment about when you had your flu jab. Mine took considerably longer than 2.6 seconds. After a quick swab with alcohol, the injection itself and the collection and disposal of the injection paraphernalia into a sharps bin, the procedure took probably two minutes. Again only a ballpark figure. So one nurse takes 120 seconds.

In order for the centres to achieve an inoculation every 2.6 seconds, each will require 69.23 syringe wielding nurses, more if they want tea breaks and a lunch hour. That’s a big ask. Already this is beginning to look like a Carry On film. Not an impossible challenge but certainly daunting. Nationally that’s 4846.1 nurses doing injections and nothing but injections for three months. Repetitive work.

Unless the health service has nearly 5000 spare nurses available for three months to do injections morning till night time for three months, we need to recognise that this will all take a while.

If it weren’t for the fact that it was a global pandemic, we might recruit from other countries – obviously not Europe in the present climate of animosity, but elsewhere perhaps. There must be some countries we haven’t yet antagonised. But either way, the numbers don’t stack up. We are not going to be able to inoculate the UK population in three months.

Of course the government may not be thinking in terms of three months. I suspect, if truth be told, that they are not thinking in terms of any particular timeframe. But they should be. Because every day that passes poses an additional risk of mutation to a more unpleasant and resistant strain. There is no time to lose. The south-east of England is currently under attack from a new strain. Not necessarily more unpleasant (at time of writing) but seemingly more infectious.

The website about vaccination against Covid 19 makes it very clear that we should stay at home and wait to be called. We should not phone our doctors and harass them about our position in the queue. No, it’s a case of don’t call us, we will call you. And there’s probably no need for you to sit staring at the telephone waiting for it to ring. It’s not going to be this week. Or next week or the week after.

I don’t believe it’s beyond this government to find a solution. That is after all why we elect them – to find solutions. We need an immediate workforce of at least 5000 who can be deployed round the country to get the job done. While the government scratches its collective heads, the answer is staring us in the face. This is a job for the armed services. We are fighting a war on the virus so it’s entirely appropriate that the army takes a role here. Give basic training on how to do injections – I mean how difficult can it be – and then it is turn the squaddies loose. These are not idiots. Anyone who can dismantle and reassemble a semiautomatic weapon inside a minute is not going to balk at filling and discharging syringes. And, whatever one thinks about the role of the army in modern life, their grasp of logistics is top-notch. Getting people to places in the right numbers, with a minimum of fuss and in the shortest possible time is what they do best. That is the nature of warfare after all. Three months to save the country? I think they would relish the challenge and there are enough of them.

I can almost see Lord Kitchener staring back at us from the recruitment posters. This could be their finest hour.

Matt Hancock is proud

I for one listened to Matt Hancock’s announcement of the UK approval of Pfizer’s vaccine against Covid 19 with a measure of discomfort. Yes, the announcement is good news. We can now start inoculating the population against this nasty little munchkin (the virus not the health minister). We should be happy and we are. But the message of positivity was delivered with chest beating pride that was uncomfortable to watch to say the least.

The government is quick to claim success and slow to acknowledge failure. Hancock was, in his own words proud to be able to deliver this message. But let’s put this in context. The vaccine was developed by a pharmaceutical multinational and is available to all countries. Not just Britain. Britain played no special part in its development. The sole source of Hancock’s pride was the fact that the UK regulators had seen fit to give the vaccine the go-ahead a few days ahead of those in other countries. That’s it. That’s all it takes to puff up the plumage of the average Cabinet minister.

The proud announcement was, of course, nothing more than an act of political showboating, timed to demonstrate how new post-Brexit UK makes its own decisions. Ever the opportunist, Jacob Rees Mogg even crawled out from under his rock for long enough to claim that such a decision would previously have been impossible for a Britain strangled by European red tape.

Perhaps at this moment of needless triumphalism we should reflect on the UK’s performance in this pandemic as today we hit the less attractive pandemic milestone of 60,000 deaths. I don’t see Hancock or Rees Mogg waving the union flag on that. Perhaps we should acknowledge that the UK death toll per capita is the eighth highest in the world (out of 220 countries), higher than the US with its “it will magically go away one day” healthcare policy. Higher than Sweden with its “we trust the people to do the right thing” hands off approach.

And what is the government’s latest health tip? Play charades instead of Cluedo. Yes, really. Very well then – I’ll get the butler to fetch the cucumber sandwiches, Madeira and Dundee cake shall I?

Of course this isn’t a game. We are playing with people’s lives and we should reflect on the fact that many more people have died in the UK than should have done when you take into account the facilities available in our health service. So my advice to Mr Hancock would be to put the flag down. Gestures of relief would be more appropriate.

So Britain is first to license the vaccine. Other countries will take their time. Maybe the UK regulators have been pressured to produce a decision more rapidly than they should. Maybe not. Maybe they simply work harder and better than their European cousins. It really doesn’t matter – the end result is the same. But please drop the political windowdressing and puerile flag-waving. And a little less of the false pride. Because we all know what pride comes before.

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.