Donald, a word in your ear

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

Lockdown lament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**The daily death tally now exceeds 500.

Vote America, vote!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live and let die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live and let die.

Upgrade or die?

Okay, follow my logic on this.

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

With me so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old King Coal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Including me.

Facebook friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Village cricket vignette

I’ve never really been comfortable with the idea of sledging in sport. Well, in cricket specifically. I can’t really comment on other sports, mainly because I think there is less sledging and less opportunity for sledging but also because I have never played other games to a standard that sledging is integral. Those who have seen me play cricket would argue that the same applies to that sport.

I think cricket is susceptible to sledging because of the nature of the game. It is, at once, a team game but also one that contains within itself individual skirmishes. And it is those individual one-to-one scraps that help to shape the whole battle that is a game of cricket.

When you play cricket, you enter into a realm of infinite complexity and also beguiling simplicity. Even the best batsmen in the world concede that batting is a case of ‘See ball, hit ball’. And many bowlers often do little more than attempts to hurl the ball towards the batsmen as fast as they can. But draped over this simple philosophy is a lexicon of nuance. The cover drive, the pull, the hook, the sweep and so on. And the bowlers have their inswingers, outswingers cutters, bouncers, googlies and chinamen (are we allowed to call them that any more?). 

This is the cricket you see as a spectator, punctuated by the sound leather on willow. The sun always shines and the runs always flow.

But there is a darker side to cricket. An ugly expansion of the conflict. Gone are the days when a batsmen would nod to a bowler in appreciation of a fine delivery that had beaten the bat’s edge. Or a bowler might shrug his shoulders to acknowledge the batsman who had just dispatched him back over his head for six.

These genteel appreciations of the wider game have largely been replaced by vocal input of a less worthy nature ostensibly in the form of commentary but in truth focused on the batsmen. After a testing delivery, the wicket-keeper will comment to the slips that the batsman’s footwork was dubious and that, in consequence, he had failed to play the delivery correctly. I’m paraphrasing. These things tend to be expressed in a much more vivid vernacular.. But the objective is the same – to break the batsmen’s concentration in a manner that can if necessary be defended as innocent commentary 

Of course much of the chatter that goes on the pitch is genuinely innocent. I have, more than once, been part of a slip cordon that spent several overs comparing the merits of doughnuts over a good old-fashioned Victoria sponge. Weighty matters. It was not unknown for the batsmen to join in, perhaps venturing the coffee eclair as an appropriate alternative. I could discuss cricket teas forever (and will at a later date). The Empire was forged and lost over cricket teas. Don’t get me started.

But sledging has little to do with cricket teas. Indeed, in my view, it has little to do with cricket full stop. Although confrontation between batsmen and bowler can sometimes spill over in the heat of the moment, it is rare. Don’t get me wrong – I was is captivated as any at the famous eyeball to eyeball stand-off and exchange of words between Allan Donald and Mike Atherton [4th Test v South Africa at Trent Bridge, Day 4] or the attempted intimidation of Jacques Kallis by a young Kemar Roach 3rd Test West Indies v South Africa in Barbados ]– the perfect example of a young hothead being given a lesson in respect by one of the legends of the game. Used sparingly, this sort of thing lends a certain frisson to international cricket. In village cricket, it looks petulant and unconvincing. Yet it still occurs. There is something vaguely laughable about being sledged by a 13-year-old fast bowler. Ask them if they’ve finished all their homework and watch their line and length fall apart. 

Throughout the villages of Kent and East Sussex, where I used to play the game (and I use the word “play” in its loosest possible interpretation), each village had its own hallmarks – elegant faded pavilions speaking of more prosperous times and exalted bygone teams. Brutish Portakabins disgorging angry adolescents, determined to bruise and better. And that was just the spinners.

You learn to recognise the signs. Meeting the opposition captain out in the middle for the coin toss gives you a pretty good foretaste of the ensuing encounter. Chat for a moment or two, recall previous encounters and (genuinely) wish each other good luck. You know you’re in for a good afternoon irrespective of the result. On the other hand, when you shake hands before the toss with an expressionless Neanderthal, monobrowed and monosyllabic, you swiftly realise that this will not be an afternoon of gentle banter so much as what Steve Waugh used to call mental disintegration. It’s a tactic perhaps successful at the WACA, but all rather unnecessary in the East Sussex league division 12. Besides, our batting was as frail as a bee’s wing. There was no need for mental disintegration. Our teams typically had one halfway decent batsmen, ageing but able. The attack (and again I’m stretching the definition) consisted principally of a former first-team seamer, short of a yard or two now but naggingly accurate. The remainder of the team were bits and pieces sorts of players. And before you say anything, yes I count myself in that category. I have always thought of myself as a classic English all-rounder – I can’t bat and I can’t bowl.

But all this talk of batsmen, bowlers, all-rounders and such detracts from the linchpin of each team, the wicket-keeper. It doesn’t actually matter too much whether they are good. The principal requirements of the position are to keep up a steady stream of chatter between themselves, the bowler, the slips and gully. An eight-hour game of cricket can pass surprisingly quickly if the chatter is good.. For a few short weeks our 4th XI had an Aussie keeper. Only a few short weeks sadly – as long as it took the club’s management to realise that he could actually play the game and was therefore underutilised in the ‘dads and lads’ team.

He was unusual. A dead ringer for Phil Jupitus, he had a vineyard somewhere in Australia. And for a few short weeks, he punctuated and commentated the afternoon’s entertainment.

“Like a gazelle, Jon” he called as I tripped chasing a quick single and landed upside down in a heap. Or, as one of Julian’s dibbly dobbllies pitched on the adjacent strip, “that’s enough variation Jules”. When one young but erratic fast bowler was still trying to finish is over after 11 deliveries I called out to him “come on G, we’re right behind you” in what I thought was an encouraging tone. “Safest bloody place” said Paul in a theatrical whisper. 

Above all, he understood the nature of sledging. Well sledging in village cricket I mean. He admired quality in every aspect of the game and would happily complement (sincerely) opposition batsmen on elegant cover drives or balletic square cuts. He filled those long periods when nothing seemed to be happening with bat or ball with amusement and advice.

It was inevitable of course that the club would soon realise that he actually knew how to play the game. But in those short weeks he showed the 4th XI how the game should be played. 

You won’t find the real heart of cricket at the MCG, at Sabina Park or at Lord’s. The real beating heart of cricket and the key to its survival is found in the hundreds of tiny clubs dotted around the country and in the personalities who play the game. Cricket is not about mental disintegration. Cricket is about being part of something that is timeless. 

Believe me, I watched Boycott bat at Headingley when I was young. I know what “timeless” means.

Bedroom broadcasts

The virus induced lockdown has had some peculiar televisual side-effects as broadcasters have struggled to interpret the stay home message from government. Whilst under normal circumstances (whatever those might be, I can’t remember) conversations and interviews might take place on sofas the size of tennis courts against studio backdrops of carefully selected special effect images and projections, none of this now applies.

Smart suited men and women speaking in front of backdrops of the Manhattan skyline at night are replaced by the kind of broadcast quality associated with student vlogs, video apprenticeships or those rather overearnest afternoon advertisements for haemorrhoid ointment. Talking heads, for once, are exactly that, their fisheye round faced proximity necessitated by the limited pickup of the laptop’s microphone. Suave newscasters and correspondents, hair brushed and airbrushed, colour-coordinated complexioned sophisticated interpreters of events are replaced by their mad rustic cousins, ties akimbo, plethoric complexions unmasked beneath scarecrow hair. As a friend of mine once said, it’s a bit like waking up next to a new lover and discovering that the hot water bottle was actually their colostomy bag. Or that the genteel, tea drinking Frank Bough was actually a cardiganned crackhead.

Broadcasting from one’s home is of course fraught with uncertainties. Inevitably no sooner have you at last got the Russian ambassador on screen than Amazon rings your doorbell. Or your cell phone receives a text to the tune of Colonel Bogey. Or your three-year-old child marches confidently into the room just as you are doing a live piece to camera about the deteriorating Korean political landscape.

But the thing I love most about these broadcasts, apart from their splintered spontaneity and the frisson of excitement lent by imminent broadcasting implosion is the insight into the broadcaster’s home life. I have seen it all.

Broadcasts from attic rooms, with magnolia walls and a single unshaded bulb above their heads. Echoes of gulags and isolation, of rooms unloved, remote from the rest of the household.

Contrived backdrops of rococo mirrors, chandeliers and candelabras, like Viennese palaces transposed to Muswell Hill. Objects (or should that be objets?) carefully positioned in the frame. Keeping up appearances for posterity. After all, digital is forever.

Fashion conscious bookish boys masquerading as Renaissance men, their razor-blighted complexions and ill-advised goatees betraying the lie.

Then, a world away from these contrived filmset mockups, there are those whose standing is enhanced, their integrity strengthened by broadcasting from the living room with its children’s toys, washing baskets overflowing and background noise. Real people. Or so it seems to me.

How many broadcasters, I wonder, have delivered a piece in a shirt, tie and pyjama bottoms? Such as the West of England Reporter doing a piece to camera about the state of Britain’s care homes. Everything went perfectly, until he stood up to make a particular point. And in a manner of speaking, he did.