Careless whisper

As those of my friends without Caller ID have found over the last couple of weeks, I have had some serious computer problems recently. Specifically the hard disk on my computer has failed. That’s ‘failed’ as in ‘loss of all data and writings over the last year and a half including many photographs of the family and so forth’. Irreparable. At least it hasn’t lost any travel documents, souvenirs and holiday photos since of course, like everybody else, I haven’t actually been anywhere, seen anyone or done anything. A kind of memory nirvana..

Despite the valiant efforts of Chris, my good friend of nearly two decades and general computer wizard, all is apparently lost. Flushed down the toilet of history. My nephew M2 (yes that is what we call him in the family) confirms this. As far as the data is concerned its ‘Goodnight Vienna’ and ‘Auf wiedersehen, pet’.

Obviously, being me, I have mourned this computer mishap extensively and disproportionately. Like Stalin’s funeral or the death of a pope. This has therefore been a rather testing time for my friends who have borne my computer woes with saintly patience although one pointed out, quite correctly, that my computer’s demise was very small beer by comparison with the nation’s collective body count over the last many months. “Snap out of it” were her words. Well, some of them. Her admonishment was delivered in a rather more vivid vernacular. So I sort of did snap out of it. I ordered a new hard drive which Chris was generous enough to fit it and to install Windows once more.

I won’t bother you any more with the laptop – this is not a computer story really. Suffice it to say that the computer worked so I began the long arduous process of re-installation of all the programs that have gone with the wind. And incidentally don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s a five-minute job. Seventy two hours and counting here.

All was going well, agonisingly slowly but, until yesterday morning when I was ready to reinstate the mighty Dragon – voice recognition software not fire-breathing lizard you understand – it was OK. All tickety boo until the final screen of a 40 minute installation when, following a few ominous sounds from the vicinity of the DVD reader, a pop-up told me that the attempt had failed – yes, I got that –  just as it was approaching the home stretch. Then for a microsecond or two the screen filled with diagnostic information and my efforts were nullified. As fast as you can say “shit”, it was all over. The DVD drive came to a screeching halt and contemptuously spewed out my installation disc, with what I fancied was a gallic snort. If it could have thrown it across the floor, it would have done. A second installation sortie proved no better but at least I was able to read the  information screen as it flashed past.  Third, fourth and fifth attempts proved equally futile. and it didn’t, or rather doesn’t, seem to matter whatever I did or do. The dragon will not revive.

To probably most of my readers, speech recognition software is little more than a gimmick of the aren’t-computers-awfully-clever variety. Nothing could be further from the truth for somebody who has Parkinson’s and whose tremor is sufficiently pronounced as to make people feel seasick. For me it is a lifeline. My tremor is of sufficient amplitude that individual keystrokes are a lottery. Couple that with predictive text on phones and the results can be little more than guesswork. Sometimes comical, at other times franky abusive. So typing is a nonstarter. it has to be speech recognition or there is no voice. 

Currently I am at that stage. I have no voice. I am mute. And nothing is more profoundly unsettling than that to someone who still entertains the conceit that he is a writer however remote that reality. Voice recognition is my lifeline. After all, what is a voice if it cannot be recognised. And for those of you that are wondering, this was done, painfully slowly and with a morning worth of necessary corrections, using Google’s voice to text input. Better than nothing but not by much. My voice is little more than a whisper and, with all the erroneous transcriptions, a careless one.

 Careless Whisper – that would be a good song title. What? George who?

All dressed up and nowhere to go

The alarm on my phone rang out a little after 7 AM as it had on every 12th of February since 2009. Not my normal daily rise-and-shine-and-take-your-medications alarm. I sat up, rubbed the sleep from my eyes and stumbled downstairs to have a shower. Not my normal brisk purposeful shower. More of a deep cleanse, titivating every pore and follicle with salves, balms and unguents.

My shirt was ironed, my trousers pressed, my shoes polished and my hair brushed. I picked a favourite tie – a royal blue with a discrete Yorkshire rose pattern. She would be amused by this tiny acknowledgement of my Yorkshire roots. I dressed swiftly but purposefully with a glance at my watch. It would not do to keep a lady waiting.

A quick nod of approval from myself in the mirror and I was ready. Checklist, at eye level on the front door frame: medications for the day, house keys, phone, car keys, credit card and cash. I would stop for flowers along the way..

It was cold out, the night having undone yesterday’s snow melting, freezing it once more into treacherous ice. Still early, I thought. What must the roads be like.

I slipped a small piece of paper into my back pocket, a hastily scribbled note with the telephone numbers of my children.

I lifted my father’s old charcoal grey greatcoat from its peg, folded it neatly and placed it on the chest of drawers by the front door along with my car keys and the other essentials. I always forget something, no matter how diligent my preparations.

Final check – lights off, heating low, dishwasher left to run.

“Ready?” I asked the mirror. “Ready” it replied,

I deadlocked the front door and climbed into the car. Seatbelt on, mirrors checked.

I turned the key in the ignition. Although not used for more than a month, it caught instantly. A couple of blips on the accelerator, a flick of the rev counter then idle for a few seconds.

An involuntary sigh as I switched off the engine.

I sat there for a moment then gathered my things and went back indoors.

“Not coming to visit me this year?” I could hear her asking.
“No, mum. It’s not allowed.”
“But it’s my birthday”
“I know, mum.”

Every 12th of February since her death a dozen years ago, I have made this little journey to visit her grave, to leave flowers, have a quiet word and tell her our news. Even towards the end of her life, in a haze of pain and morphine, she always smiled at our news.

I wanted – desperately wanted – to visit her today, to tell her we were all well and to see her smile in my minds eye. For me it’s an essential journey. But not for the legislators.

I made the effort. I’m sure she knows that. It’s probably just as well that I can’t go. She never liked to see me cry.

Let in the light

Yesterday was the day when America rejoined the world. In the space of an hour, the dark rhetoric of hate was banished by the winter sunshine over Capitol Hill. In that hour, memories of the violence less than two weeks previously faded like old photographs bleached the sun. By the end of the inauguration, all the fears of mischief, the rumours of armed militias descending upon state capitals bent on havoc were banished. This was no longer the America of mistrust, fear and antipathy towards one’s neighbour. No longer was the country the unwitting victim of a spoilt brat sent to bed without supper. No longer will it be subjected to paranoid politics, looking to bully other nations. No more the politics of revenge, thriving on division. No more of those ridiculous social media outbursts, tweeting into the night like some epileptic nightingale. No more playground politics. It was time. It took four years to do so but in banishing Voldemort from Washington, America finally has drained the swamp. No more politics of division, no more walls of separation. Yes, what did happen to that wall?

Whereas the previous president had a certain novelty value in 2016, that currency was long since spent. A catalogue of misjudgments locally and internationally dragged down credibility of his administration in general and his own standing in particular. Greed driven politics and an every-man-for-himself attitude gnawed away at the very fabric of America and what it is to be an American. A cynical betrayal of the American dream. Power, corruption and lies invaded the collective psyche of the Americans. Greed was good, power the ultimate end and lies the roadmap to that end. A nation ill at ease with itself. Over four years, the previous president’s international pronouncements, off-the-cuff remarks masquerading as reasoned policy, veered between brutish thuggery and comically ill informed rabble-rousing. Denial of climate change, dismissal of the severity of the Covid pandemic and repeated undermining of his own appointed experts did little to instil confidence. No president can be expected to understand all the science. But, as Forrest Gump said “stupid is as stupid does”.

I truly believe in what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”. America was a great country and yesterday showed it will be again. The damage inflicted over the last four years, severe as it is, is nonetheless reparable Greatness is not measured in personal wealth, in a rising stock market or in the denial of inconvenient facts. Greatness is the sum of many tiny things – the little ways in which we daily show how we care for our fellow man. And that starts from the top down. Respect for individuals starts with respect for your president.

I would like to believe that the last four years will fade from memory with time, the tragic but retrievable error of judgement by the American people. A blip on the timeline of your great republic. More likely I think it will become an example, along with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, of the terrifying power of mob culture. They will teach it in schools.

Joe Biden has a job ahead of him. I don’t mean coronavirus. I don’t mean race relations. I don’t mean even the international status of the country after four years in which America’s standing in the world slumped to an all-time low. No, these are just steps along the way to the real destination. America needs to wash away the sins of the last administration, to be baptised once more on the path it was always meant to take. There is no country like America. It’s time for Americans to feel good about themselves again, to show ethical and moral leadership at every level, to take pride in a job well done. And yesterday afternoon America, bloodied but unbowed, was born again.

It starts with a conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how can such reconciliation be effected?

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

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

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

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

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

How? It starts with a conversation.

The 12 days of Christmas: Parts 1-4

Monday, 6 PM. Doorbell rings.

Van driver: Amazon delivery for you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Van driver: Phone Amazon?

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

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

Jon Stamford: Well thank you.

Van driver: Enjoy your evening.

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

Tuesday, 6 PM. Doorbell rings.

Van driver:  Delivery for Mr Stamford.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon Stamford: And what am I signing for?

Van driver: Err, turtledove times two. Matched pair

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

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

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

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

Jon Stamford:Anon. In other words anonymous.

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

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

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

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

Van driver: No sir. We…

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

Van driver: Okay, you’re the boss.

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

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

Jon Stamford: What the…!

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

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

Neighbour (laughing nervously): You’ll never guess

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

Neighbour: No.

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

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

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

Neighbour: two buff Orpingtons and a Rhode Island Red.

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

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

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

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

Thursday 4 PM. Doorbell rings

Van driver: Hello. Me again.

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

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

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

Van driver: It says here “four colly birds”

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

Van driver: Let me see

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

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

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

Van driver: I think you need to lie down

Jon Stamford: Never mind. Show me the birds.

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

Sid: Right you are.

To be continued…

2020 – return to sender.

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

Not this year. Not in 2020.

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

But apparently not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A job for the army

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Hancock is proud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ciao Diego!

In the same way that Americans can remember where they were when they heard of President Kennedy’s assassination, most Englishmen can remember where they were when Argentina knocked England out of the 1986 World Cup.

Occurring only four years after the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, the game was inevitably charged with significance, bristling with jingoism on both sides. For Argentina, it was seen as an opportunity to avenge the Belgrano sinking. For England, the possibility of reminding Argentina of their place. Journalism and nationalism at their worst.

The game was broadcast live in the UK and everywhere people gathered to watch. Nil-nil at half-time, the game erupted into life in five short minutes not long after the break. Two goals by Diego Maradona, the genius of South American football, seemed to epitomise the opposing faces of the man. The first, a deliberate handball on this largest of all stages, somehow went unnoticed, despite vigourous protests from the England players and fans. But the second, well that was a different matter. Picking up the ball (this time only figuratively) around the halfway line, Maradona dodged and weaved between the starstruck England midfield and defence, sometimes seeming almost to glide, before slipping the ball past the advancing Peter Shilton. If the first goal had been a punch, the second was a pickpocketing. Gary Lineker said it was the only time in his life he had felt like applauding an opposition player, such was the magic of that goal.

England pulled one back late in the game but there was never any doubt over the result. Argentina were leagues better than England. The final score 2-1 flattered England, reflecting a valiant but ultimately toothless performance. Maradona was the hero of the day. A week later he was lifting the World Cup after eliminating Belgium 2-0 in the semifinals and West Germany 3-2 in the final.

Maradona was the face of that World Cup, captaining his side to what it saw as its destiny. And if anybody was unaware of Maradona before the World Cup, they certainly weren’t afterwards. He was on every magazine cover, in every newspaper and every television programme. The little man with his curly black hair and mesmeric feet was a cult.

But on 22 August, everyone was watching Argentina play England. Everyone except me.

Because I was in America, doing postdoctoral research at Indiana University. And if that wasn’t remote enough from world football, on that particular weekend I was in Kansas, at Lawrence, giving a talk on fast cyclic voltammetry at carbon fibre microelectrodes. This was my former life before Parkinson’s and redundancy put paid to it.

America was not big on football (or soccer as they persist in calling it) in those days. The World Cup typically featured on the sports news in a five-minute segment after the baseball, basketball, gridiron, beach volleyball and miniature golf. Of the 300 million people watching the World Cup worldwide, none were doing so in America. It simply passed them by. For the most part I think it still does. It’s a pity really because, if nothing else, America knows how to treat its sporting idols. And few came bigger than Diego Maradona.

And for another decade, he dazzled crowds in Europe and beyond with his breathtaking footwork and simple star quality. Often in and out of trouble, wilfully controversial, you can’t escape the fact that he was a supremely talented footballer. I never saw him in the flesh but I’ve seen enough of him on the screen to salute him.

In England, praise of the man’s ability is often set against that single handball goal rather than the magic of his second goal. But, like I said, I never saw the first goal. So my picture of Maradona is that of the miraculous second goal. And I’m glad of that. For me, he will always be one of the greats of the game. Call him flawed if you must. But frankly it’s time to get over that. He was a genius. Have the grace to recognise that.

You are what you eat

Although, for a long time on the back foot, there is optimism in the last few days that we may yet beat Covid 19. In the space of a week we have progressed from our darkest hours of lockdown to the promise of two – count them, two – vaccines for coronavirus. I’m going to write about those separately so hold your horses.

Anyway, not being able to go to supermarkets due to the lockdown – yes I know you’re all ignoring it – has rather focussed my mind on what I eat. Currently I have three sources of food. These are the local farm shop (not actually very local – nearly 5 miles away), taking up offers from friends/family and finally food by post.

Normally I ignore flyers through the door. In fact some days I don’t even pick them up. Double glazing offers, handprinted bills by amateur tree surgeons, prayers for the day and dental plans offering me Hollywood teeth from an address at the far end of the goods station yard (second floor, ask for Benny). The usual stuff.

Most flyers never percolate into my consciousness. But one, the other day, offered to bring the me “odd” vegetables, misshapen versions of their supermarket siblings and veg so numerous that only the fittest should survive. Somehow, and perhaps because of my own misshapen corporeal manifestation, this aroused my interest.

Mail order vegetables are commonplace nowadays. Riverford probably started this trend but others have carried the torch as well, each with their own little USP. But as far as I know nobody has yet traded in imperfect vegetables, the runts of the litter, or in those surplus to requirements. Until now. The company is called Oddbox. I shan’t do their advertising for them – you can look them up – but the idea seems worthy and rather noble. Rescuing vegetables that would not otherwise find their way to your plates. Think of it as Schindler’s Ark for vegetables.

And let’s not forget fruit. Same deal.

Here’s the skinny. For a fixed sum you can order a large, medium or small box of vegetables, fruits or both. You set up an account and that’s it. They deliver to your door in eco-friendly cardboard boxes. As a further concession to eco-living, they deliver in the middle of the right when there is less traffic on the road. Yes I follow the logic but it’s a brave man who would knock on my door with an armful of vegetables at 3 AM.

Fortunately that scenario has not yet played out. The vegetables are left, covered by a little waterproof bag in a sensible place of your choosing. Today’s cornucopia consisted of an aubergine, a lettuce, a cauliflower, six carrots, twelve small onions, four beetroot, three potatoes, six kiwifruit, five pears and two pomegranates. No mention of partridges or pear trees. Oh and a recipe for carrot and onion bhajis. Can’t say fairer than that.

With the end in sight for coronavirus hopefully, I need to get in shape a bit. Well actually I need to get in shape a lot but let’s not get too excited yet. A few vegetables is a start. And if I can help to eat the oddities and superfluous of the vegetable kingdom, so much the better. It’s the first small step towards better health.

Incidentally, you can tailor your vegetable box to your tastes. Even specify the vegetables you prefer not to receive. Up to a maximum of three – I don’t think they want to encourage the overly fussy. Like the Emperor Nero, I have given the thumbs down to courgettes, celery and tomatoes. Aubergine would also have got it in the neck had there been a fourth place offered.

But not to worry. You can always barter with fellow vegetable box peeps. The aubergine and lettuce are already on their way to Crowborough in exchange for Mary Berry’s marmalade cake.

Don’t give me that look.