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.