Smiling in Heaven

Although few outside the family would have guessed, my fatherwas a lifelong fan of Liverpool. While his two sons chose to support Leeds United and Arsenal, he was resolute in his support. He would recite, like a rosary, the names of the great Liverpool sides of the times. Bill Shankly’s battle hardened team – Ray Clemence, Alec Lindsay, Tommy Smith, Chris Lawler, Larry Lloyd, Ian Callaghan, Emlyn Hughes, Steve Heighway, John Toshack and Kevin Keegan. Gritty football based on work rate and Bill Shankly’s insistence that the team would play from whistle to whistle. As other teams flagged, the Liverpool strikers pounced. So often the scoreline would read Keegan (85), Toshack (87) or Heighway (89). Scoring in the last five minutes was the hallmark of Bill Shankly’s teams.

But these values were ingrained into the Liverpool ethos over generations. In those days management was about continuity. As Shankly went, Bob Paisley took over and built success upon success. New names to conjure with – Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush, John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Robbie Fowler and so on.

Opposition sides were intimidated before they even reached the pitch. Above the final steps from changing room to field was the famous sign “This is Anfield”. And for perhaps 20 years, those words let opposition players know they were in for a game. And the Kop was merciless. Every opposition error was greeted with a mix of pantomime cheers and jeers in that confection of twinkle eyed disrespect that marks the Scouser apart from his fellow man.

Gradually the red tide ceased. The trophies dried up and the talk was of great games in the past rather than the prospects for the forthcoming Saturday. Nostalgia replaced promise. “This is Anfield” became a limp reminder of the home team’s identity rather than the full throated voice of threat.

Two years without a trophy became five. Five became ten and, unthinkably, ten became twenty. Until Wednesday this week Liverpool had gone thirty years without winning the title. For a fan base that did not so much expect success as demand it, the frustration must have been unthinkable. Managers came and went, each confidently promising success but ultimately failing to deliver the big one. Flattering to deceive. Other minor (and major) cups still found their way into the trophy cabinet at Anfield, even, most amazing of all, two champions league trophies. But, as any football fan will tell you, knockout competitions rely on good fortune as well as skill. Upsets occur. But to win the league, good fortune is not enough. You need a team that is as strong and resolute in February’s rain and mud as on the green baize and bright sunlight of early September. You’re not a real team until you have won the league.

And in an instant on Wednesday evening, Liverpool erased thirty years of frustration and disappointment. Thirty years when they had been bridesmaids but never the bride. Thirty years in which they were forced to watch helplessly as arch rivals Manchester United racked up title after title. Thirty years in which “The Reds” became synonymous with United rather than, as any Scouser will tell you, Liverpool.

But “the Reds” are once again Liverpool. In a season full of records, and disrupted in ways unpredictable and unimaginable, Liverpool have taken the premiership title, with seven games remaining. A breathtaking achievement. Unless they relax and play some of the juniors during the remaining fixtures (and why wouldn’t they), they will have rewritten the records books by the time we finally call it a day on the 2019 season. One brilliant German coach – Juergen Klopp – and probably the most talented Liverpool team ever to take the field. Only the most grudging and mean-spirited football partisan could fail to acknowledge the quality of the football played. Once again “This is Anfield” means something.

And as I watched Juergen Klopp, tired and emotional, I thought of my father and how much this would have meant to him. I think back to all the games we watched together, father and son. European cup finals and so on. Happy days.

I just hope they have a television in heaven. Because I can see him smiling.

They think it’s all over

As summer sweeps in and sport returns there is a tendency to feel that all is right with the world. The pandemic is apparently over or at least not occupying every single inch of the front page of every newspaper. It’s easy to relax. In beautiful sunshine it’s hard to imagine people dying. People are bored of that. Not least the government which has today announced the lifting of several restrictions. Or more accurately announced that it will be making an announcement. The end of lockdown is touted as a liberation of the people, VE (Virus Eradication) Day and a fillip to the country’s tattered finances. An awakening of our comatose economy if you will. All is good. The pandemic was a bad dream. You can shake hands, hug, kiss and make up, kiss and make out. Whatever you want seems to be the order of the day, while Boris attempts to put the paddles to the chest of the Treasury.

I’ve noticed one common thread in pretty much all government policy relating to the pandemic. Governmental decisions consistently seem to precede acts of open disobedience by a few days or, in some more extreme cases, by a matter of hours. For the terminally naive, this creates the illusion of a government in touch with its people, reading the Zeitgeist and at the same time powered by strong scientific argument. And of course that’s exactly what it is meant to look like.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from leading, the government is shadowing the people, responding with populist legislation to placate imminent insurrection. The spectacle of beaches brimming over with lobster bodies basting in suncream was enough to evoke a modest lifting of restrictions prior to bank holidays and so on. Understandable. Otherwise the government just looks foolish. What do you mean it does anyway.

So before we all reach for our bikinis (not me personally you understand) let me try to instil a note of caution. Let me pour cold water on some of this inappropriate optimism.

The lifting of lockdown restrictions does not mean the pandemic is over. All it means is that currently there is room in ICU for you. Obviously as the second spike/wave begins, that may no longer apply. And lifting restrictions is of course a good way of doing just that.

2 m or not 2 m? That is the question. Well actually it is. The government now says 1 m will do. On the other hand the scientists calculate that halving the social distance will increase the likelihood of infection between twice and tenfold. Needless to say their views are not being widely reported in government briefings for the press. The hospitality industry is of course, cock-a-hoop. The 1 m spacing means something like three times as many places in a restaurant and thus three times as much revenue. Well at least to begin with. Obviously it will drop off as the clientele start to fall ill again.

These are not visionary ideas from a government populated by intellectual colossi and brimming over with inspirational legislation. Quite the reverse. These are knee-jerk policies from a largely decerebrate cabinet of browbeaten Boris lackeys. And we have the worst death rate in Europe as a result.

Perhaps the signature moment of the whole sorry business was Boris appealing to British common sense. The last time we did that we ended up with Brexit and Boris. Perhaps the saddest double act in all politics.

They think it’s all over? It’s hardly even begun.

Campari and tonic

“Campari and tonic please. One part Campari to three parts chilled tonic. No ice, no slice”.

This was the nurse’s preferred aperitif throughout most of her adult life, a habit acquired whilst in the Navy nursing service, stationed in Bighi, and ordered with that slow precise yet confident diction we British reserve for use when talking to foreigners. The perfect summer evening drink to enjoy on the terrace below the officers mess, watching the low evening light turn Valleta from pale sandstone to rich coral or salmon. Tiny fishing boats bobbed along on the swell, the painted eyes on their bow guiding them home. The smell of frying lampuki wafting up from the harbour cafes, while feral cats picked out scraps of fish carelessly tossed from the kitchens.

It was a long way from Wigan, that’s for sure. You would struggle to find anyone who had heard of Campari. Or anyone who could spell it. But these were before the days of globalisation. International brands simply didn’t exist. You drank gluhweein in Germany, sangria in Spain and, God help you, ouzo in Greece. But don’t expect to find them back in Blighty. This after all was the 1950s. Rationing was not long gone and we were only gradually emerging like colourful butterflies from khaki gabardine cocoons. Who wouldn’t want that vibrant pink drink, bitter with wormwood, sparkling in the sunset to wipe away those evenings in the Dog and Basket on Station Road, nursing a half of mild while nicotine fingered old men bickered over dominoes.

“Hello” he said. She looked up, screwing her eyes against the sunlight. It was the naval surgeon from the landing ship anchored in the harbour.

“Hello” she replied awkwardly.

He looked away for a moment, collecting his thoughts, sorting his words.

“That looks interesting. Can I get you another”, he said gesturing to her drink.

She hesitated.

“Thank you” she said “Campari and tonic please”.

He repeated the words silently to himself.

“I’m John” he said.

“Pat”.

“Pleased to meet you, Pat”.

It was 1956 and even in those drab post-war years there was still such a thing as love at first sight. They were engaged within two months, wed within four.

And until the day she died, some fifty years later, she drank the same aperitif. They played a little game. As the sun settled over the yard arm, she would say “Campari”. He would reply “and tonic”. And they would alternate the remaining words as though struggling to remember them.

I once asked my mother, many years later, why she always drank the same evening aperitif.

“Because every time I take that first sip, it’s sunset and I’m back on the terrace at the naval hospital”.

With God on whose side?

I don’t normally write blogs on two consecutive days unless I have to, driven by a change in circumstances or unforeseen events. I wrote yesterday of my misgivings about President Tweet and of the moral vacuum at his heart. I wrote of his intellectual inadequacy. Like Colonel Kurtz, this is truly a heart of darkness. He has brought shame to the office of President, embarrassment to his country and disbelief from the rest of the world.

I thought we had reached absolute rock bottom with him, that he could sink no lower. After all, as an ethical and moral cesspit, there comes a point when you can sink no lower.

Or so I thought.

Last night on the news, we were treated to the sight of armed police using rubber bullets and tear gas to break up a peaceful demonstration outside the White House to allow President Tweet to walk to church, Messiah like, Bible held aloft.

“Is that your Bible?” asked one voice.

“It’s a Bible” was the response.

Leaving aside the shocking symbolism and fanning the flames of a religious war, this was the most cynical photo shoot ever. Did the president go to church that day? Does the president normally attend church there? Does he attend church in the Washington dioceses? The answer is no to each of those questions. As Bishop Marianne said, he’s not a church attendee.

That in itself is not an issue. The issue is claiming to be something you are not, wrapping yourself in the flag of your country or with the trappings of religious faith. In one moment, against the backdrop of tear gas and guns, President Tweet redefined the word hypocrisy for the world to see.

Matthew 6:5.

“When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men”.

Dear President Tweet

Dear President Tweet,

The news from America seems to get worse daily. Protests and looting in several major cities, while you cower in the White House bunker, blurting out scattergun thoughts and ad hoc policies like a five-year-old with the TV remote. One minute you tell us China is wonderfully transparent, the next you are practically lining up coordinates for the missiles. Your amnesia is breathtaking – coronavirus has gone from something that will miraculously disappear to the cause of death for more than a hundred thousand in the US. And in the parallel reality that you, President Tweet, seem to occupy, this is somehow portrayed as validating evidence of your vision and foresight, rather than, in what others call reality, the terminal indictment of a man whose response was that of a rabbit in the headlights. On the other hand, how can you be held responsible for your actions when there were none. Your ratings mattered more to you than the death toll from this very obviously not disappearing virus.

But pandemics don’t magically disappear. Nor is it the case that “nobody knew that”. Actually the CDC and the pandemic planning office did know that. And you would have known that if you had not abolished the office shortly after becoming president. “The cupboard was bare”, you whine endlessly. If it was, then you should have done something about it. You have been the president for more than three years. That’s what presidents do. Well, real presidents I mean. The buck stops with you.

So what is your response to this? How do you make sure that America is best prepared for the pandemic. Unbelievably, you withdraw support from the World Health Organisation, an action that beggars belief in the middle of a pandemic. It is hard to believe, at a time when the world is sharing its experiences of dealing coronavirus through the WHO, that the US should deny itself access to that information through an act of presidential petulance.

And yet, while America burns, you threaten protesters with big dogs and sharp teeth. Or sometimes just bullets. These are the reactions of school yard bullies not leaders of the free world. You are oblivious to the issues and consequently have no hand to play, being unable to comprehend that.

Still, your performances in press sessions are positively Shakespearean in their combination of the tragic, comic and pitiful. Rambling and incoherent, the words tumble out, like Kerouac on amphetamines. Nothing is connected to anything else, each response the sound of an engine revving in neutral. And when a reporter penetrates the outer reaches of what passes for reality in your mind, you plead that it is a ‘nasty question’. Well mummy is not listening. You have to do this one all by yourself. You are the president, remember.

Not everything is “fake news”. Pandemics are real. Looting is real. The fires are real. The injustices are real. While you fan the flames of civil disobedience with one inflammatory tweet after another, understand that this is not fake news. This is reality. You are the fake, Mr President. You are a stain on the office you hold.

Politicians and statistics: a marriage made in Hell.

The political fate of one senior Tory aide does not, in the grand scheme of things, amount to a hill of beans. He may or may not resign – that’s a matter between him and the Prime Minister ultimately. Opinions have polarised, largely on the basis of whether or not they like him. He does have a capacity for rubbing people up the wrong way. For some, he did no more than most parents might under the same circumstances. For others, his behaviour was one of cavalier disregard for the principles and execution of his government’s lockdown legislation. At best it was oddly naive. He must surely have known that there were press photographers behind every lamppost in his vicinity. He is hardly low-profile in any understanding of the words.

He is not the first person around Whitehall to play fast and loose with lockdown legislation, interpreting it to meet their needs. He surely won’t be the last. My natural reaction to all this shenanigans would largely be one of ‘who cares’ were it not for the wider ramifications for the management of this viral outbreak. And those ramifications have been further undermined by the Prime Minister’s support of his aide. Once again, the Prime Minister finds himself at odds with the Tory grandees. And they have long memories as he will, in the fullness of time, find to his cost.

The tabloids have largely taken the line that Johnson’s authority as leader of the government’s response to the epidemic has been holed below the waterline by his continued endorsement of Cummings. I think that’s inaccurate, if only because it presumes that he had the intellectual authority in the first place. To see him at the press briefings in the early days of the outbreak bracketed by Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance was like an inside-out sandwich with the bread in the middle. He was out of his depth and knew it. He answered questions with the usual flannel while the scientists dished out hard facts.

Gradually the tenor of these briefings has changed. Every cabinet member, one by one, has to face the music. Matt Hancock first, then Pritti Patel and so on has to answer uncomfortable questions as the death toll mounts. They can hardly look forward to their turn. I imagine them trying to hide under desks rather than face the media’s representatives as the tide of public opinion starts to swing away from the Prime Minister’s “we are all in this together” bluster masquerading as rational policy.

And the increasing replacement of scientists by ministers has a clear message – politicians make decisions. Not scientists. It’s no use saying that government decisions are driven by the science. It may or may not be. But either way, it is clear that the science underpinning government decisions will be presented to the public through the rose tinted spectacles of politicians rather than the all revealing microscope of scientists.

For me, there are few sights more ungainly than cabinet ministers attempting to interpret scientific data and graphs. It is like Samuel Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs. It would be comical were it not for the fact that their decisions, if wrong, cost lives and thousands of them. They spout pseudoscientific babble backed up by GCSE level PowerPoint to try and persuade us that black is white and vice versa while the scientists are confined to the basement, tied to chairs, their mouths covered with gaffer tape.

Politicians secretly love statistics because they know that there is always a graph that fits their needs no matter how bleak the general picture. There will always be one graph showing improvements in one tiny sub cut of the data. “Here you can see a 50% reduction in new cases amongst vegetarians over 90, living with a cat, who have seen more than 20 episodes of Emmerdale”. Cause for rejoicing I’m sure you’ll agree. But it’s impossible to mask the fact that statistics in the hands of politicians is like an AK-47 in the hands of a chimpanzee.

The truth is that statistics, as we commonly use the term, are a dark art. The best statisticians I know are amongst the best scientists I know for statistics is the language of science. Statistics is as much about determination rather than dissemination, deduction rather than description.

In the current climate, the daily merry-go-round of politicians presenting the government’s spin on the death toll is becoming less credible by the day. Is the UK seriously doing well against coronavirus? Let’s just look at the statistics. No spin. Simple facts.

At time of writing, the UK is in 20th place in the charts with 3909 cases per million of the population, comparable with Italy (3813) and Sweden (3412). Germany has 2164. Conclusion? We’re not doing as well as Germany at controlling infection.

The UK has 37,048 deaths (second highest in the world behind the much larger USA) from 265,227 cases of infection. That’s a 14% fatality rate for those infected. Germany’s figures are 8498 dead from 181,298 infected. That’s a 4.7% fatality rate. Conclusion? We are not doing as well as Germany in saving lives of those infected.

The UK has 546 deaths per million population. That places them fifth behind San Marino, Belgium, Andorra and Spain. Ignoring San Marino and Andorra for the moment (tiny countries with sub- statistical populations) puts the UK into third place on the deathometer. Germany is on 25th place with 101 and New Zealand, perhaps the role model for all, is in 121st place with 4. That’s right, four.

At the beginning of this outbreak I recall the Home Secretary stating that the NHS would receive whatever it needed to manage this outbreak. They conveyed confidence and a clear mandate. Carry up to 3 months on, we have seen this conference laid bare. Inadequate personal protective equipment even to protect our own staff, a death toll that involves the frontline nurses and doctors, haphazard bit part testing and rampant disobedience of laws so impenetrably drawn up as to be uninterpretable.

There is a time when it’s no longer good enough to talk the talk. Eventually people notice that you are not walking the walk. The last months have been the time for strong leadership. So it would be nice if we had some. The arrogance and complacency of Boris Johnson’s government will be judged by posterity, by the survivors. It is unlikely that will be kindly.

And Dominic Cummings? Nobody will even remember him.

The voice of a generation

The truth is that 95% of you will not even read beyond this sentence once you realise that this piece is about Wagner and specifically a Wagner singer. So goodbye to 95% of you. And welcome to the remaining 5% prepared to lend me a few minutes of your time to read further. Thank you. It’s appreciated.

I can’t remember the date but I do know I was about 15, at boarding school, when I first began to appreciate classical music. There had been precious little opportunity for classical music appreciation in 1960s Doncaster. Professing a liking for anything classical was enough to get you beaten to a pulp in the playground. At Marlborough it was different. Open disdain gave way to polite tolerance by your peers. Shrugged shoulders instead of clenched fists. The school had a very strong musical tradition and most pupils played an instrument to some level at least.

I remember buying my first classical LP (Peer Gynt music by Grieg) largely on the strength of its use in the 1972 Summerfield house play of Orpheus and Euridice during which I fell in love with the gorgeous Jackie Vellacott. Nearly 50 years later, I still cannot listen to ‘Morning’ without thinking of her.

Other LPs followed, largely without making me think of Jackie and her raven tresses. I bought recordings of the Beethoven symphonies under Erich Kleiber, Vivaldi’s three seasons (autumn had a scratch and was unplayable), the Brandenburg concertos, Mendelssohn’s music for Midsummer nights dream and so on. A good solid grounding in the broad church that is classical music. It will probably come as no surprise to any of my readers that each LP was numbered and dated.

Disc 13 was a turning point. Up until then I had been exploring different styles of music and getting the sense of what I liked and what I didn’t. Disc 13 changed all of that. After an hour of aimless browsing through the racks – B for Brahms, E for Elgar and so on– I was almost out of ideas. W, almost the last rack. And there, at the special budget price of 89p was an LP of Wagner overtures played by the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch, the doyen – although I didn’t know it at the time – of post-war Wagner conductors.

I took the record up to the observatory where we kept a record player to entertain us during long nights observing distant galaxies. It was love at first hearing. The overture to Tannhauser with slow brass introduction was magnificent. I was hooked.

I won’t catalogue every purchase but it’s fair to say that I bought many more Wagner records, swiftly moving from bleeding chunks of orchestral passages to the entire operas. I learned to appreciate different singers, recognising their individual timbre. I began to have favourites – Hans Hotter, Gottlob Frick, Wolfgang Windgassen, Gustav Neidlinger and more.

But one singer stood out from this distinguished list. Born in 1918 in southern Sweden was a simple farm girl, who grew up to be the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her generation. I’m talking of course of Birgit Nilsson. She had a voice that was perfect for the great Wagner roles. Absolutely clear, precise and of awesome power. The high notes were hit with absolute accuracy. She eschewed the common practice among sopranos of sidling up to the high notes to cover failings in technique. Her technique was impeccable – she simply opened her mouth and hit the note head on.

She was the exact opposite of diva. Whereas other singers flounced in and out of the dressing room having hissy fits about the quality of mineral water or the colour of the curtains, Nilsson simply went to her dressing room, changed into her costume, went out and sang. No airs. No graces. Just a determination to show the public what she could do.

The singer may be gone (she died on Christmas Day in 2005) but the many recordings that remain are testament to this fabulous voice. I could go on but you’ve indulged me enough by reading this far. Just one more favour – listen to this recording. It will explain everything.

Birgit Nilsson sings the liebestod from Tristan und Isolde by Wagner, Stockholm 1964 .

Thank you.

Glad we cleared that up

By any standard, Boris Johnson’s performance yesterday evening was breathtaking. It was a performance worthy of his American counterpart. Positively Trump-esque in its incoherence, rambling and bizarre use of hand gestures. The lockdown was being relieved/not relieved. You can visit relatives but are advised not to visit relatives. If you can go to work, you must go to work unless you can work from home. And to get to work, you shouldn’t use public transport unless you have to in which case you should be working from home. The schools will not open yet but will open imminently. Some teachers will be available for some classes some of the time but will deliver online classes the rest of the time when they are not in school delivering real classes. Go to the parks now for exercise all day long but only if you maintain social distancing. You can play sport but only with your family assuming they all live under the same roof and are not members of the family who were shielding. If you are shielding, stay shielding. Eventually people will forget about you and we won’t need to offer further instruction. If you are a key worker, carry on working your key when you are not playing sport with your family, exercising in the park, delivering food for those who are shielding or collecting medicines. You may collect medicines as long as you do not use a park or public transport. If you need to use public transport to get to the park, try and find a different family with whom to play sport. If you wish to collect medicines as well as play sport, you should not go to the park unless shielding and on a Thursday. If you wish to use public transport have your excuse ready when inspected. Do not produce food or attempt to buy medicines when shielding schoolchildren who are taking part in a virtual online class before organised sport between the members of the family who are not shielding.

Glad we could clear that up

A textbook pandemic

Once again, not so subtle leaks to the press are being used to trail imminent governmental announcements. In this case, the newspapers have led with the idea that there will be significant lifting of the lockdown after the weekend. And Mr Johnson finally gets his opportunity to be the bearer of good news to his flock.

Closer scrutiny reveals an entirely different picture. The number of new admissions to hospital with coronavirus has not peaked. Even with the most optimistic look over the data, it is at best on a plateau, and a high plateau at that. Let’s be clear on this. Far from beating the coronavirus into submission, the lifting of significant parts of the lockdown is an economic decision.

Economic decisions taken in the face of opposing science rarely makes long-term sense. So, bowing to pressure from the economists and industry, the government will loosen the lockdown. Since we are not yet on the downward part of the graph, there will be a rapid acceleration in the number of cases. This will inevitably result in a further lockdown of more extreme nature simply because of the numbers involved. A couple of weekends of busy public transport, crowded parks and beaches and we should be well on our way to a massive surge in the number of cases.

It’s easy to control a trickle of cases (relatively speaking) with the health service just below capacity than it is to slow a deluge of cases extending way beyond capacity of the country’s intensive care resources. When people require intensive care treatment for coronavirus, the mortality is about 20%. That assumes the best of treatment and adequate facilities. The mortality amongst patients requiring intensive care but unable to receive it because of bed limitations will be nearer 100%. That’s why it’s important to stay below the NHS saturation level. We are close to it at present. The consequences of removing the lockdown too soon may trigger a deluge of new infections and send the death toll into the stratosphere.

No wonder the scientists are twitchy. They know full well that releasing the economic brakes too soon will result in a second infection wave of apocalyptic proportions. And this is too soon.

If we would only pay attention and look back to 1918 and sequence of events then, we would learn how to deal with this. But once again we are doomed to repeat the lessons of history rather than learn from them.

So, here is the chain of events. Government relaxes lockdown on Monday. Two weeks follow in which people use the parks and beaches for recreation not exercise. People visit relatives they haven’t seen for a while. By the end of the month, the number of new cases per day has doubled to around 10,000 day. Intensive care units are saturated and we are beginning to see a rise the death rate which will peak in mid to late June at around 2000 per day and continue at that rate until the autumn. Well on target, as I predicted a couple months ago to hit a UK death toll between 100,000 and 200,000. You read it here first.

This is a very textbook pandemic.