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.

Sucker punch

30th October 1974 – The Rumble in the Jungle was slowing to stalemate, both boxers drained by the Zaire heat, going through the motions with punches that would have barely knocked the skin off a custard. With a little more than ten seconds remaining in the round, Foreman let an Ali hook catch his cheek. He turned to respond and, from nowhere, was caught by a vicious five-punch combination, then a left hook and a hard right straight to the face that sent him, senseless, to the canvas and defeat.

Ali had, against all odds, taken Foreman’s title but, worse than that, he had humiliated the big man. Throughout the fight, Ali had taunted Foreman, asking, after every flurry of punches, “is that all you’ve got, George?” until, inevitably, Foreman was spent. Then Ali pounced with the sucker punch.

Going into the fight, Foreman was the strong favourite. He was the champion, had a punch like a jackhammer and was undefeated in his professional career. Ali was yesterday’s man, a former champion but now more a talker than a fighter. He no longer floated like a butterfly nor stung like a bee. It was odds-on that Foreman would defeat Ali. Many feared his iron fists would do more than that. Several newspapers ventured serious concerns for Ali’s well-being in the face of such firepower.

But you can never underestimate the power of complacency. So confident was Foreman of victory that he made no attempt to pace himself. He attacked wildly, swinging enormous energy-sapping punches, any one of which would have ended the fight had it reached its target. But Ali boxed clever, simply covering up until the storm passed. By the middle of the eighth round Foreman was defeated. He just didn’t know it yet.

Okay, I admit that this is one of those clumsy segues that will have you all groaning but let me voice it anyway.

Complacency and arrogance allowed Ali to defeat Foreman. The same complacency and arrogance is allowing coronavirus to defeat us. If you’re not interested in my thoughts on this, just stop here. I hope you enjoyed the reflections on Muhammad Ali. If, on the other hand, you want to be privy to my concerns about coronavirus and its likely autumnal trajectory, read on.

We all know the story or at least we think we do. Novel virus, found initially in China, spreads worldwide over the next six months, killing around three quarters of a million people worldwide. Summer arrives, the number of new cases falls (except in America, obviously) and the public begins to celebrate the end of lockdown.

Flames fanned by the newspapers (at least in part), the end of lockdown is seen erroneously as the passing of the pandemic. Pubs open, gyms too, toilets, libraries and Starbucks. Shops reopen, tentatively at first, like flowers after a forest fire and the hoi polloi head to the beaches. Meanwhile the scientists are watching the behaviour of the virus like hawks, anxiously studying the data for signs of an impending spike in infection rates.

Before long, the British beaches are insufficient for the sunbathers and, just as the airlines, opportunistically announce cheap flights pretty much everywhere, the inevitable happens. Thousands of fake-tanned narcissists make their lusty way to Ibiza for sun, sand and sangria. Or whatever. Social distancing? How long before somebody invents a cocktail with that name?

Of course this hedonistic escapism only lasts so long. Inevitably the number of new cases each week begins to rise. The scientists begin to sweat. Probably more than the sunseekers. And suddenly, almost out of nowhere, we are standing at nearly 3000 new cases a day. That’s not a little spike. That’s half what it was at peak on the first wave of infections. And at that point, the death toll was nearly 600 per day.

This time, although the pattern of infection is similar and rising sharply, there are far fewer deaths. Instead of 600 a day, it’s less than 10. Time to relax, eh (George)?

But before you reach for that swimsuit and after-sun, let’s think why. To my mind there are three plausible explanations.

Firstly, perhaps the virus has mutated to a less lethal form. Viruses often do this. It is after all not in their interests to kill the host (that’s you). The longer they can keep you alive, the better their chances of reproduction. And that’s all a virus really cares about.

Secondly, the rise in infection is predominantly among the younger who are comparatively resistant to coronavirus’s virological charms. But of course their parents and grandparents are less so. If that’s correct, there will be another peak (yes, a third one) as the funlovers bring home the virus as a holiday souvenir to their aged relatives. Expect a big peak in mortality around Halloween.

Thirdly, perhaps we’re just getting better at treating people with coronavirus. No longer are we simply rabbits in the headlights. We have one or two drugs and at least some of the population are heeding the facemask advice. The promise of an imminent vaccine is now no longer the province of desperate tabloid headline writers. It’s looking good. Overall, and for whatever reason or combination of reasons, the number of deaths is low in relation to the number of infections. You’re more likely to survive it now than you were six months ago.

Okay, time to wheel on the complacency. Because that’s exactly what this is. And we would be well advised not to punch ourselves out and think we have this thing beaten. Because this virus is a canny little fella. Already it has probably mutated to a less virulent form in order to increase its likelihood of spreading. Logically its next step may well be to acquire resistance to the drugs we are using. Bacteria are experts at this and hospital mortality statistics are chock-a-block with the consequences of multiresistant bacteria. Successful surgery undone by superbugs. Or maybe the virus will mutate into a “scorpion” form – one that keeps victims alive much longer so that they can pass it on but couples that with a later mortality. Just imagine that. Or perhaps you’re trying not to.

It’s been a few months since I wrote about coronavirus. Although much has changed and we are learning new normals, I don’t believe for one second that we are ready for what’s coming. If we throw in seasonal flu as well, the period until Christmas looks alarming. While the summer has emptied people out of the homes, the first winter winds will drive people back indoors and trigger the second wave. If the first wave was a spring tide, the second will be a tsunami. Whether we like it or not, lockdown is coming again. And if the government has any sense, it will act now. Not next month.

In March I predicted 150,000 dead in the UK from coronavirus by Christmas. In the intervening months I have seen nothing to dissuade me from that view.

We are too complacent. And the sucker punch is waiting for us. Just like George.