A Shuffle Tory Horror Story

September 18

It’s Saturday morning, and the Horror Channel is showing AE: Apocalypse Earth, an exuberant collision of Star Trek, Predator, and Planet of the Apes.
Am currently suffering an awful hangover after spending yesterday with J and A – the four of us went to Sinclair’s, the Lowry, The Goose and Centre Stage and ended up drinking 5 bottles of white.

Latest Covid figures:
US: 42.8 million cases, 690.7 thousand deaths
UK: 7.37 million cases, 134.98 thousand deaths

Across the UK we are seeing supermarket shelves with gaps caused by delivery problems – some people have claimed that their local shop is completely bare, like the set of a zombie film. My own Tesco has a few gaps where the tinned soup and breakfast cereals should be; I also noticed that the fresh veg are not all that fresh, with grey furry spots visible on the carrots.

In Afghanistan, the new Taliban has announced that the school system will be restored – but for boys only. And in the US state of Texas, a newly-passed law will ban abortions carried out where any foetal cardiac activity can be detected – about 6 weeks after conception.

And then this week the lovely Boris embarked on his cabinet reshuffle; faced with a glittering array of talent, he finally decided to appoint Zahawi as Education Secretary and Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary. Dorries, you will recall, is a neanderthal Christian who believes that good girls say no, and who said that she allowed all her office assistants to use her own personal password to access her computer at work. Her corny romantic paperbacks will probably end up on the GCSE English syllabus next year.

The government has been widely criticised for plans to remove the £20 weekly uplift which was added to Universal Credit payments during the pandemic. Welfare secretary Therese Coffey dismissed these complaints during a TV interview, saying that ‘people will only need to work a couple of hours extra to make up this money.’ Not true, old girl; if you are on UC, then every pound you earn leads to a 65p cut in your benefit payment, so to secure an extra £20 you would need to earn an extra £67, or about eight hours’ work.

On other matters, the government appears happy to flip-flop and discard agreed policy. On 5 Sept, the BBC reported that:
“Vaccine passports in nightclubs and other indoor venues in England will be required at the end of this month, the vaccines minister has confirmed.
Nadhim Zahawi said it was the right time to start the scheme for sites with large crowds as all over-18s will have been offered two jabs by then.”

But a week later, we heard that:
“Plans to introduce vaccine passports for access into nightclubs and large events in England will not go ahead, the health secretary has said. Sajid Javid told the BBC: “We shouldn’t be doing things for the sake of it.”

The UK is also suffering from a shortage of affordable housing, and a recent white paper proposed that planning regulations should be relaxed to enable more homes to be built – giving a total of 337,000 new homes built per annum.

Naturally, this provoked a seizure among residents in leafy suburbia, who sent angry letters to their MPs and booted out the Conservative candidate from the safe seat of Chesham and Amersham. In the new cabinet, Michael Gove has been appointed Minister for Housing, and he has let it be known that the proposed planning reforms will be scrutinised at great length. Gove also needs to deal with the problems of flammable cladding and the leasehold scandal.
Oddly enough, a few weeks ago, Gove received a £100k donation from property developer Zac Gertler. He who pays the piper…

19 September: It’s Sunday morning, and the Horror Channel is showing ‘Stormageddon’ a high-octane eco-thriller about extreme weather, cyborgs, and defence computer systems: Day After Tomorrow meets James Bond and the Terminator movies.

Meanwhile, in the real world we have a real problem with carbon dioxide – not an excess, but a shortage. The gas is used to preserve fresh food and to anaesthetise livestock prior to slaughter; the impending lack of this material threatens the supply of food for UK families in the run-up to Christmas.

We are also seeing scare stories about a rise in the wholesale price of natural gas, which will feed through as an increase in the cost of domestic fuel along with all those commodities which use gas for heating (tinned food, steel, glass, textiles, ceramics etc).

The UK has set up a new global defence pact with Australia and the US, offering to supply nuclear-fuelled submarines – much to the annoyance of France, which had previously agreed a contract for diesel subs.

Architecture is essential

We need somewhere to live, to breathe, a place to read
A room to keep our space and to relax, a place to work, to contemplate
The joining up of unexpected lobes, where
Orbitals appear to occupy the textured cells
In which the larvae grow towards the dawn
And wings get woven from the thinnest silk,
All primed with fluorinated lecithin; it kills me

When I think of all those days
Before the buildings started to take shape.

Somewhere in the office of the architect
The vertical and horizontal lines are neatly stored
In two adjacent cabinets. Our ideas need
To be allowed to germinate and grow
In darkness; our buildings need to open up

The cabinet of dreams that each man hides.

Freight and Chaos

September 11, 2021

It’s Saturday morning, and the Horror Channel is showing ‘Dragonquest’, a lame cocktail of ‘Highlander’ and ‘LOTR’ with a typically late Romantic era soundtrack. On this day twenty years ago I was in the canteen at work (having started my new job about six weeks earlier) when Corrie burst in and exclaimed that she had been watching some news footage of a passenger jet crashing into the World Trade Centre.

At the time I was living in a flat without a TV set, and it was several years before I actually managed to see any of the footage from that event. It is difficult to explain to modern youngsters how much alarm this event generated; some people predicted that air travel would be banned in future.

Earlier this week Boris Johnson finally announced that the government would introduce an increase in National Insurance (i.e. personal tax) to fund a programme of improvement to social care. This was roundly condemned since it will reduce the income of working-age people while having no impact on wealthy pensioners (who often have significant wealth tied up in property).

Lots of debate online has played on the idea that pensioners ‘have been paying into the system all their lives’, a convenient economic fallacy which pretends that these older people have never had to rely on the social fund, and that their NI contributions are being stored in a dedicated personal reservoir of wealth.

Latest Covid-19 figures:
US: 41.7 million cases, 677 thousand deaths 
UK: 7.17 million cases, 134 thousand deaths

In other news: Gavin Williamson, hapless education secretary, was mocked for claiming that he had enjoyed a Zoom meeting online with footballer Marcus Rashford (who last year forced the gov’t to extend free school meal provision) when he had in fact been chatting with rugby player Maro Itoje. It is ridiculous to think that a cabinet minister could make such a blunder – unless he was trying to distract people from his boss…

And teenage tennis player Emma Raducanu has appeared from nowhere to reach the final of the US Open (having just finished her A-levels) against Leylah Fernandez.
[Update: during the final, Raducanu easily overpowered her opponent with a confident performance, and she handled the post-match interview like a seasoned pro, rather than a qualifying debutante.]

The glorious triumph that is Brexit continues apace: thousands of lorry drivers have left the UK to find work on the continent, which has caused shortages of food and chemical supplies. This means that sewage treatment plants are unable to sterilise their effluent output, and the gov’t has relaxed the rules so that they can discharge untreated waste into rivers. And to speed up the recruitment of drivers, trainees will no longer need to learn to reverse and decouple their wagons.

And Prince Andrew is currently hiding on the Balmoral estate after lawyers representing Virginia Giuffre attempted to serve papers on him, alleging sexual assault during the notorious parties hosted by the late Jeffrey Epstein.

Here in Manchester we have some lovely apartment blocks which were built two or three years ago, and which are full of smart young executives paying three, or five, or eight, or even fifteen thousand pounds a week in rent to occupy one of these plate-glass cages. One night I was looking up at the blocks, where lights filled about half the rooms; a fellow passenger had just stepped off the tram. Pausing to look at the towers, he said:

‘Dunno; do you reckon they’re all taking drugs up there? Or do they spend all night on foreign currency websites, shifting money between accounts and creating huge hidden pension funds?’
I laughed. ‘I’ll never know either way. Perhaps all the flats are empty, and they pay somebody to turn the lights on, to give the impression that it’s all popular and dynamic in there.’

‘Take that one’ he continued, ‘I reckon it’s a bloke called Myles in there. His dad persuaded the company to give him  a well-paid job and he’s completely out of his depth, no social skills, no friends, no interest in his job…’

‘Yeah’, I replied, ‘He’s got a massive hi-fi with just five records – ‘
‘Fleetwood Mac, New Model Army, Harry Secombe and The Stranglers!’
‘That’s only four…maybe he’s bought two the same, not realising that the record will be identical.’

I glanced at my new companion; a scruffy middle-aged guy wearing some kind of beige denim jacket and a green striped shirt. Over the course of the night we ended up in three different bars drinking horrible cheap bottled beer and listening to obscure drum-n-bass.

They Call Him Princess Paradox

Saturday 4 September

Today the Horror Channel is showing us ‘Nostradamus’, not a BBC Proms performance of the Judas Priest opera but a time-travel detective thriller (Timecop meets The da Vinci Code). If any visionary in 1995 had published a set of predictions for the next thirty years (Princess Diana, Iraq, Afghanistan, flooding, earthquakes and bush fires, financial crisis, pandemic and the election successes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump) they would have been placed in a psychiatric hospital.

Meanwhile, the real world is brimming with the genuine stuff of nightmares: in Afghanistan, the Taliban have started to jettison their veils of sympathetic liberal policy, expressing outrage that the helicopters left behind by the departing US troops were deliberately damaged.

At a court hearing in America, ISIS fanatic Alexanda Kotey has pleaded guilty to eight counts of terrorism after being accused of killing western aid workers in Syria. Kotey was one of the four kidnappers whose British accents led to them being nicknamed ‘The Beatles’.

In New York and New Jersey, extreme rainfall in the wake of tropical storm Ida has killed at least 64 people and caused widespread damage to property and the transport system.

At a supermarket in New Zealand, an Islamic terrorist ran amok with a knife earlier this week and injured seven people before being shot dead by police. The attacker had been under surveillance for years by security forces.

In Los Angeles, a transgender woman called Darren Merager has been accused of exposing their penis while using the womens’ changing rooms. They insist that this never happened and that the mainstream press is engaged in a furious conspiracy to persecute and victimise them. However, it has been revealed that Merager (or the male-identified entity previously using that name) is a convicted sex offender with a long history of predatory conduct. I’m fairly certain that this is not what Shaw had in mind when he said that ‘All progress depends on the unreasonable man’.

After our marvellous explosion of joy earlier this year when Covid-related deaths fell to zero, we now see a steady increase in cases, with an average of 33 thousand new cases and 92 deaths per day in the UK. Next week is when the school year begins again, with millions of eager, boisterous youngsters swarming around buses and trains and newsagents’ shops. Will this lead to a massive spike in cases of the Coronavirus?

Latest Covid-19 figures:
US: 40.6 million cases, 663 thousand deaths  
UK: 6.9 million cases, 133 thousand deaths

Last night BBC4 broadcast a concert of Moses Sumney performing at the Proms from the RAH. He has a remarkable vocal range and some incredibly oblique lyrics; perhaps this is what it would sound like if Nina Simone and Prince decided to collaborate on a Bond Theme.

When Ravel’s Mallarme settings were first performed in London, the Westminster Gazette was scathing: ‘…some of the strangest exercises in ultramodern cacophony which it would be possible to imagine…’ (quoted in Christopher Madden’s MA Thesis, 2011). I dread to think what the reviewer would have made of Sumney’s recital.

At the same time, over on the Yesterday channel we had a programme about another great Victorian institution – the awesome Crossness sewage pumping station, with the world’s largest steam engine housed in a spectacular cast-iron palace. A bunch of retired engineers have spent thirty years renovating selected areas of this masterpiece, now open to the public.

Orthodox, Metadox, Paradox

They call him Princess Porcelain; I don’t know why,
It’s always been like that.

She didn’t even try to crack a smile; instead
Her face began to split in four, just like
A cell dividing in the womb. Each part
Was drawn away to slip into
The window-panes that overlook the quad

If I release another sigh
Against the window of this bleak hotel
The mist will hang around for long enough
To let me write your name again. I see
Myself reflected, and beyond myself

The city lights reach out towards the sea.
The ceremony is written; it has
No life outside the pages of a book. I still recall
Your spiteful smile that opens up the cherry-
Scented sweep of smoke behind a door.

Newcastle City Lights…

Saturday 28 Aug 2021:

Today is Manchester Pride, again. A cheerful, rainbow-decked musical event where people can get into the Gay Village if they have a wristband (price £98 for the weekend) and drink overpriced beer in crowded bars. And mingle with crowds of excited young men and women, many of whom will be carrying the delta variant of Covid-19, the virus which has so far killed about 130 thousand people in the UK.

UK infections are still rising at 30,000 per day, with the death toll running at about 100.

This morning the Horror Channel is showing ‘Megaconda’, the everyday story of a colossal reptile which slithers around the American desert, devouring people. I was reminded of the time I went to the Nightingale Club in Birmingham, where the stripper was billed as ‘Andy King – the man with the longest snake in the Midlands’. It turned out he was a handsome chap whose gimmick was to stride around wearing nothing but a six-foot python. I’m sure I spotted this creature peering out of a sports holdall when I went to fetch my coat at the end of that night.

We have to wonder about this gigantic serpent; where did it come from, how does it find enough food to sustain growth, and how does it cope with predators and parasites? These are the issues that would be of interest to corporations which grow too large and become unstable.

The real world, meanwhile, carries on with unspeakably grim news stories.

Thousands of desperate citizens (some of whom have waded through an open sewer) have gathered outside Kabul airport, hoping to be allowed to leave the country on one of the few remaining evacuation flights. On Thursday two suicide bombers attacked this crowd, killing about 180 people, 13 of them US military personnel.  President Biden retaliated by ordering a drone strike which killed an Islamic State terrorist, and the Taliban later issued a statement saying that he had no jurisdiction over Afghan territory and should have left it up to them to deal with the matter.

In the UK, Messrs Raab and Johnson were filmed visiting the Afghan Crisis coordination centre, where Bojo made some dreadfully flippant and inane comments as the British operation was nearing its end.

In the US, tropical storm Henri lashed New York with torrential rain, causing floods and power cuts; meanwhile, Florida is preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Ida, which is expected to hit Nashville – a city still recovering from floods which killed 20 people earlier this month.

Millions of people are now being injected with a vaccine to protect them against the effects of Covid, but in London, a solicitor has been arrested after supermarket foods were injected with blood. Leoaai Elghareeb, of Fulham, appeared before Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Friday.  Officers in forensic suits were seen in Fulham Palace Road on Thursday at three stores – a Tesco Express, Little Waitrose and Sainsbury’s Local – after the incidents on Wednesday evening.

In six months’ time I will be sitting in a darkened hotel room on the fourteenth floor, gazing down at the lights of Newcastle city centre, listening to the Ravel settings of Mallarmé and drinking Shiraz.
With any luck…

Mama-papa we’re all Orlando now

Genderqueer Flexible Harmonic Crystal-Field Splitting (Mama-papa we’re all Orlando now)

We routinely see cars with rear-window stickers saying ‘Child on Board’; these were originally intended to warn rescuers that, in the event of an accident, they should make sure that the youngster is safe.

People then began using them to announce that they were a family unit: ‘Behold, we are responsible and committed members of society’ (or, as Ben Elton remarked during one of his stand-up gigs, ‘Don’t go flaunting your virility at me!’). The sticker signs became more varied: ‘Twins on board’, ‘Daddy’s little princess on board’, and then a spate of ‘Little United Fan on board’ notices.
The idea that a four-year-old can support a particular football team is faintly absurd; but the family would explain that, by encouraging them to join the clan, they will develop a sense of community, security, and identity; welcomed and supported by the tribe of fellow fans and family members.

Likewise, raising children in a religious household means that they will grow up in a prevailing matrix of beliefs and expectations, absorbing a complex framework of ideas which will become relevant only when they are much older.

This idea has now been extended to gender studies, where it is claimed that the terms ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ represent roles devised by the patriarchy to subjugate children and force them to adopt attitudes and behaviour patterns which are convenient for society, but which do not necessarily serve the interests of the youngsters themselves.

And in Scotland we hear that the government has adopted a policy of allowing children to decide for themselves (at school) if they want to be considered ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, without the parents being consulted or informed about this. The youngsters will be invited to specify what their preferred name and pronouns are, and will be free to use toilets and changing room facilities appropriate to their chosen identity.

Woolf makes her Orlando a dashing nobleman who goes to sleep and wakes up to find himself a woman, with a lifespan of 400 years during which (s)he does not age in the normal fashion. Surely it would be more sensible to encourage children to explore different identities as part of a role-play fantasy instead of deluding them into thinking that their lives would be in any way improved by adopting an alternative ‘gender’.

We should remember that what we call a ‘personality’ is a function of our own history and experience together with the people around us and the present situation. And our preconceived ideas and their expectations and their knowledge of what we are capable of doing and what we have done in the past (which may or may not be accurate).

The radical transgender movement has started to formulate ideas and demands that have outpaced the English language and the framework of law that currently exists in Britain. Perhaps we should fill in a chart each morning when we arrive at work or school, listing what gender identity we wish to adopt that day, and what types of person we would find attractive or unattractive – are we going to be same-sex attracted, or opposite sex attracted, and are we going to expect our partner(s) to adopt a gender identity(ies) conforming to their biological configuration(s)?

This morning the Horror Channel is showing ‘Riddles of the Sphinx’ (again…), a corny Indiana-Jones-meets-Lara-Croft type adventure film. The commercials include pension release advice for the over-fifties, some intimate feminine lotion (for persons of the adult human persuasion who may or may not identify as women) and a recipe delivery package service.

In the real world, we have more than enough misery: last weekend an earthquake struck Haiti, causing widespread damage. The death toll has reached 2000, and a medical facility was badly damaged, destroying the oxygen-concentrator units. The impact of this event was compounded by severe rainfall, and follows a political crisis caused by the killing of the Haitian president last month. President Jovenel Moïse was shot multiple times at his private residence on July 7.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has taken control, and desperate citizens are trying to flee the country, some clinging to departing aircraft and falling to their deaths.

The spread of Covid-19 continues in the UK, with about 30,000 new cases being reported each day together with about 100 deaths. Latest figures:
US: 38.4 million cases, 644 thousand deaths

The UK economy is due to encounter a few major shocks in the next few months. The Furlough scheme is due to end, so that firms will no longer be given taxpayers’ money to subsidise the wages of staff whose jobs have been wiped out by the pandemic. The government is still committed to spending billions of pounds on major infrastructure projects (Crossrail, HS2, and the Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor). And there are thousands of homeowners who cannot sell their properties because of the leasehold arrangements (spiralling ground rents) or flammable cladding issues (huge unexpected bills for remedial work).

Somewhere among the assorted books and papers in my spare room I have a tape cassette of Clocks and Clouds by Ligeti, which I recorded a few years ago from the radio. I was reminded of this music when we arrived at Jodrell Bank last week. During the journey there I was concerned that we might have taken a wrong turn, since there were no signs to confirm which A-road we were on; I anxiously scanned the gaps between the trees, hoping to glimpse a tell-tale white dish somewhere in the distance.

Then we rounded a bend in the road and suddenly found the skyline dominated by a huge white circle.
During our visit we attended a talk about the history of the centre and some of the remarkable discoveries. Pulsars. Clock, clouds of stars.
The tape itself is a narrow plastic film coated in warm brown rust: the colour of strong tea. I no longer have a tape-deck, so I can only imagine what it sounded like; the last traces of audience applause, and then the emergence of rippling notes.

The galaxies look like small clouds of light dotted through a deep black sky. Coming closer, we become aware that they are actually made up of countless bright blazing worlds, all spinning and racing away from each other. Hiding in the clouds we (or rather Jocelyn Bell) discovered the presence of numerous sharp flashing beacons. As these pulsars rotate, they expel vast beams of energy which appear as a dazzling cadenza of shining clicks.

Perhaps my tape was polluted by a series of these pips, shot through with sonic perforations. Perhaps I should have used a more expensive cassette, one with dark chocolate-coloured chrome tape firmly strapped inside a clear polystyrene shell.

Then on Sunday I went to the Whitworth Gallery – my first visit since January 2020. I admired the Lowry Industrial Landscape (and took a photo of the top left hand corner, where he has created some faint cooling-tower shapes in the white background) and looked again at the lathe and Genesis (but the etching of ‘Melancolia I’ has been removed).

There were two special exhibitions in place; ‘Cloud Studies’ by Forensic Architecture, and ‘The Destructors’ by Imran Perretta.
As an industrial chemist, I was fascinated by the graphical studies of herbicide and tear-gas clouds, the Beirut explosion, and the Grenfell Tower blaze. We sat around on beanbags in a darkened studio theatre, all wearing disposable face masks (to prevent the spread of Covid-19) watching amateur footage of chlorine, white phosphorus, and tear gas attacks.

The Destructors is a split-screen installation showing a young Asian lad in some anonymous classroom setting, with wrinkled glass windows and chipped paint. We see water seeping into a corridor from the locked rooms; it washes down to the edge of the stairwell and falls in a silver curtain. Perretta has created a narrative about the outsider experience, the problems with navigating personal growth in a foreign culture where the default setting is blunt hostility.

I decide to have tea in the Whitworth café; the windows reflect the other customers, but through them I can see the park where fitful sunlight carves the green space between the trees. Young men with long hair carry skateboards. They wear faded jeans and vintage t-shirts which are older than me. My small square table carries a perfect still-life; plain white teapot, a yellow chrysanthemum, and some tiny packets of sugar standing in a tin bearing Middle-Eastern script. At first, I thought it might be a tear-gas canister, but it seems to be a recycled can of peppers.

Handscape Sortrait

Sat 14 August, 2021

Perhaps August is really like a maypole, with angels skipping around, tethered by centripetal strands in pink and green, purple, orange, blue. With dainty steps she skirts around a puddle of embarrassed laughter. Beneath the three accusing flagpoles, finishes her cigarette and goes back into the lounge where the walls are papered with old sheet music and pages from Chemistry textbooks.

On the internet I discovered an article about Allison Katz, who is holding an exhibition of paintings and other art installations at Nottingham Contemporary. Gazing at her pictures I get impressions of the accessible and the forbidden, the chaste and the erotic, the obvious and the obscure, overlaid in broken films and crumpled networks.

Last night on BBC4 we were treated to Top of the Pops from 30 years ago, featuring Chesney Hawkes! Erasure! And Cubic 22!
And this came immediately after a broadcast from the Proms concert where Aurora Orchestra played the Firebird suite – from memory. Absolutely amazing.

This morning’s offering from the Horror Channel is ‘Bermuda Tentacles’ – not, as one might expect, a documentary about a sexually-transmitted disease, but a sci-fi action movie with lots of rugged US Navy personnel on a warship, coming under attack from a War of the Worlds-type robotic monster. Ridiculous.

The world at large is having a grand old sweep of cruelty and horror: last week it was announced that several major cities in Afghanistan have fallen to the Taliban, following the strategic withdrawal of American and British troops from the district. Over the past 20 years, nearly 500 British and 2500 American soldiers have been killed in this conflict. Not to mention Afghan civilians, with 30,000 dead and a similar number seriously injured. The UK had originally promised to offer safe haven to Afghan civilians who had acted as interpreters but had recently indicated this would not actually be upheld.

In Plymouth, a deranged loner shot and killed five people before turning the gun on himself.  Jake Davison had been ordered to surrender his gun and firearms licence last year following accusations of assault; but the items were returned to him a few weeks ago, despite his habit of posting angry tirades on Reddit, complaining that he would never be able to find a gorgeous female partner.

In other news: a police officer has been found dead, along with a three-year-old child at a house in Kidderminster.

Last week saw the publication of exam results for A-level and GCSE students, with over 40% of pupils getting A or A* grades. Instead of sitting the traditional exams, the grades were calculated by teachers using the results of numerous online and classroom testing sessions. Perhaps the steady improvement in learning skills and more engaging classroom material will bring us to the point where all children achieve A* grades in all their exams. Rather like all children being able to read and write, or all adults being able to pass their driving test. But for many people, education represents something else entirely:

“Ansell isn’t a gentleman. His father’s a draper. His uncles are farmers. He’s here because he’s so clever—just on account of his brains. He isn’t a gentleman at all.” (E M Forster, The Longest Journey)

Latest Covid-19 statistics: the UK is still seeing about 30,000 new cases and 90 recorded deaths from Covid each day.
US: 37.36 million cases, 637 thousand deaths
UK: 6.21 million cases, 130.8 thousand deaths

I wander into Manchester, where life in the city is gradually returning to normal; a street festival is taking place to say ‘Thank You’ to the key workers who kept the place from collapsing over the past 18 months. There were puppeteers, dancers, and a jazz band who played what sounded like a jaunty swing version of the closing theme from Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’.

Children run through the fountains, and the mega-expensive luxury apartment blocks are still there, with dozens of new developments appearing around the city. And Leeds played Man U at Old Trafford, which of course led to violent clashes between fans in the street.

Derby Revisited

Saturday 7 Aug 2021:

This morning the Horror Channel is showing ‘Killer Bees’, an eco-thriller about, well, a swarm of killer bees.  With overtones of small-town ignorance and the danger of treating mother nature with contempt.

Meanwhile, in the real world, we have some horrors of our own. A teenage mother in Brighton decided to go out on a six-day party to celebrate her eighteenth birthday, leaving her two-year old daughter Asiah to starve to death.

Seven men have been given prison terms for killing law student Aya Hachem in a botched trade war shooting in Lancashire.
Heavy rain has caused flooding in parts of the UK, with stranded cars being trapped underneath bridges.

Thousands of people in Greece and Turkey have been evacuated following wildfires of unusual intensity.
Three people have been detained by police, and one of them later charged with murder, after the body of a five-year-old boy was found in a river in South Wales.

The UK government announced last week it would introduce a new category of travel restriction – ‘amber watchlist’ – and then promptly reversed the decision. Meanwhile, the gradings of holiday destinations have been revised, with Mexico now being added to the Red list. This means that travellers discovered (half-way through their flight) that they would now be required to quarantine on return to the UK, at enormous expense.

Latest coronavirus figures: in the UK we are seeing about 20,000 new cases each day together with about 90 deaths being reported within 28 days of a positive test result.

US: 36.45 million cases, 632 thousand deaths
UK: 6.01 million cases, 130.2 thousand deaths

Last time I went to Derby was about eight years ago; I booked into an hotel and set out to visit my old haunts and enjoy a trip down memory lane. Alas, when I turned the corner I discovered that Freddie’s Bar had been replaced by a cheap apartment block.

I returned to Derby this weekend to meet up with old friends. I went to look at my two old houses; one of them a decrepit multi-occupancy household, the other a renovated convent. We wandered past the abandoned bingo hall and the church and the bookshop with a barbers’ chair and the hotel (sadly ruined and boarded up) and the take-away where I would buy Chow Mein twice a week.

In Derby I had a proper mid-life crisis complete with not one, but two motorbikes; the big one was a black Honda CB500 who carried me away to Yorkshire and Wales and Salisbury. If that bike could talk, it would sing:

Three Flagpoles Outside the Entropy Saloon

For me, the month of August stands
At the centre of the year, a heavy star
Round which the dancing seasons take their place.

I lived just down the road from here
So many years ago. On Friday nights this place
Would buzz with elegant complacent folk

A gentle swarm of well-to-do, the polished doorway
Framing their success.

Good to see you again, you’ve made it big
The sturdy flagpoles seemed to say; your
Glittering career has come to pass.

But now the days that make late summer bloom
Are dull and bring no joy; the bingo-hall
Is boarded up, the hotel ballroom
Filled with concrete silence cold. The three

Bare poles accuse me now of wasting all the days
And miles, the dotted lines across the map
That brought me back to where I am today.

Corona Catafalque

Saturday 24 July 2021:

This morning the Horror Channel is showing ‘Primal Force’, the everyday story of a rich businessman whose private plane crash-lands on a remote island. Little does he know that the island is full of genetically-altered killer baboons. Cue mayhem and carnage.

Over the past few weeks we have seen extreme rainfall in various parts of the world causing severe damage and loss of life.

In China’s Henan province, tens of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes as flood waters swept through Zhengzhou, and hundreds of people had to be rescued from the underground railway. Dams and reservoirs have been severely damaged, and power supplies were disrupted to homes and hospitals. At least 25 people have died in these floods.

In the German district of North Rhine Westphalia, heavy rain led to houses collapsing and cars being swept along the flooded roads. At least 70 people have died in the floods.

The monsoon rains in Mumbai caused heavy mudslides, leading to widespread damage and at least 20 deaths.
In June, heavy rains caused flooding in the Marne, Somme and Oise departments of northern and eastern France.
In London, heavy rain last week caused flash floods with basement flats being ruined, vehicles left stranded, and trains being cancelled. The sewer system backed up under the volume of water and began discharging its contents into bathrooms.

Covid-19 update: after a brief moment of excitement when Covid deaths fell to zero, we are now on the way back up, with about 40,000 new cases per day and sixty deaths in the UK.

Latest Covid figures:
US: 35.2 million cases, 626 thousand deaths
UK: 5.64 million cases, 129 thousand deaths

It was 20 years ago today…

Sat 17 July 2021:

Hurrah! Three weeks ago Boris declared next Monday, 19 July, would be ‘Freedom Day’ and announced that people will no longer be required to wear face coverings or maintain social distancing after that date. The deadly coronavirus has been vanquished; Boris and Dido and their gang of venture capital heroes have triumphed over the sordid reality of infection and death. Nightclubs, cinemas and restaurants will be able to welcome punters once more with no risk of spreading the disease.

Meanwhile, back on planet reality, we have seen a steady rise in the numbers of people infected and dying from Covid-19. In the past three days we have had about 120 thousand new cases and 100 deaths.

23 July 2021:

Twenty years ago today, I arrived in Manchester to start my new job. To celebrate, I decided to treat myself to a meal out, so I found a nice Italian place in the centre of town and made my way downstairs.

They sat me under the air-con unit, but I didn’t care; I was too excited at the prospect of a new career opening up in this dynamic town. After two courses and a large glass of wine I was almost ready to leap onto the table and shout ‘Where are all the good times? Who’s gonna show this stranger around!’

After dinner I called in at the Rembrandt Bar; it was almost empty, being a Monday night. There were some magazines and social group leaflets, so I grabbed one and sat reading for a few minutes.

I was hoping that somebody would sit next to me, offer to buy me a beer and then whisk me away to a late-night illegal drinking den where the bar staff were even more smashed than the punters. But alas, I ended up leaving alone; and went back to work the following morning with a clear head.

I wish I had started a scrapbook all those years ago, to keep the labels from all the bottles of wine I have enjoyed: champagne in January, red wine in Blackpool and Calais, white wine on the ferry to Bilbao and in a restaurant in Antwerp. Hundreds of square panels in fake parchment with gold-leaf script, ornate family crest designs, ironic edges and cold blue stars, they could be the pages from the album of my life.

During these twenty years I have worked for eight different employers and lived at six different addresses, studying project management, romantic literature, pigment chemistry, and German language.

During these twenty years the skyline of the city has been transformed, with dozens of top-flight apartment blocks for overpaid executives to live in and designer shops and restaurants in which to splurge their epic salaries.

The restaurant itself is now closed, and ready to be hollowed out and converted into an estate agent’s office or a shop selling reconditioned stolen mobile phones; all that remains is the sign that said ‘welcome to Manchester’ on that soft Monday evening in July.

I had been at work for less than two months when the news came through that Islamic terrorists had attacked New York by crashing two passenger jets into the World Trade Center. This event transformed global politics and air travel, introducing new layers of security and paranoia.

Hancock’s Last Half-Hour

Sat 26 Jun 21:
This morning, the Horror Channel is showing ‘Mind Blown’ (again). I am starting to feel that my life is now running in circles, with the same old things happening to me. I find myself going for long walks and listening to Andy Pickford on my MP3 player; this album reminds me of when I lived in Derby twenty-five years ago, in a scruffy rented room.

At the time, the Euro ’96 football tournament was in full swing, with England scheduled to play against Germany. My landlord wandered round the house before the game, drinking strong lager and singing ‘two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah, doo-dah’ and blowing his bugle (a dreadful racket). I decided to go out for the evening, so I drove to Nottingham and watched the match on TV in the Admiral Duncan.

The game went (of course) to penalties; it was terribly exciting, and Germany won. I returned home to find that the landlord had passed out shortly after the start of the match and slept through the whole thing.

And on Tuesday evening we are due to see England and Germany meet again at Wembley. The Daily Express has helpfully trailed this game with the headline ‘England to face Germany in last 16 of Euro 2020 as Three Lions’ path to glory confirmed’, which almost certainly guarantees that our brave lads will be thrashed.

It would be nice to travel over to Nottingham for old times’ sake to visit the pub again and see how things have changed; but alas, we are banned from travelling because of the ongoing Covid pandemic. For the past sixteen months we have been ordered by senior UK politicians to avoid mixing with other households indoors and to maintain a 2-metre social distance from other people. The official slogan is ‘Hands – Face – Space’, reminding us to wash our hands, use a face covering, and keep a 2-metre space between one another.

Among the senior cabinet figures reciting this mantra was Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who is currently in hiding after the Sun printed a front-page picture of him enjoying a steamy clinch with Gina Coladangelo, an aide at the Dept of Health who was originally appointed by Matt and who enjoys a 15 grand salary from the public purse.

This news sparked a colossal tide of online sarcasm, but Hancock blithely shrugged this off, issuing a sincere apology for ‘having breached social distancing guidelines’. Number Ten issued a statement saying that the PM had accepted the Minister’s apology and the matter was now closed. We have not yet heard what Mrs Hancock thinks about these developments…
Even Her Majesty chose to obey the rules during Prince Philip’s funeral, sitting alone in St George’s chapel at Windsor.

LATER: The news broadcast this evening was abruptly cut short to announce that Hancock had finally offered his resignation after a chorus of criticism from the press and fellow Tory MPs. I pity the poor soul who takes over in the Dept of Health and Social Care; either they will continue with the same policies (corrupt procurement, neglect of care homes) or they will admit that Hancock was making a mess of healthcare, and launch a change of direction.

The Dept for Education announced last week that all UK schoolchildren would be invited to sing a new anthem, ‘One Britain, One Nation’ on Friday afternoon. Fortunately, the Hancock exposé overshadowed this foolish project and spared us the embarrassment of a third-Reich dirge. Perhaps the nation’s kids would be more convincing if they all stood on their desks and sang ‘Babylon’s Burning’ instead.

Sun 27 Jun 2021:
According to the papers, Hancock has left his wife and is due to set up home with the lovely Gina, his assistant at the DHSC, who happens to be a millionaire consultant. Numerous complaints have been made about his conduct – offering huge NHS contracts to friends and family members, using a personal account to issue e-mails instead of his official channel, and refusing to admit that the protection of care home residents was badly handled.

So far about 60% of the UK adult population has received both doses of a vaccine against Covid-19; but the official figures show that yesterday there were 18,270 new cases and 23 deaths reported. The statistics issued over the past 12 months indicate that weekend numbers tend to be lower than the weekly average.

Fifteen months ago – 19 March, 2020 – Prime Minister Boris Johnson confidently announced that, “In 12 weeks we can turn the tide. I am absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing.”

Latest Covid-19 statistics:
US: 34.49 million cases, 619 thousand deaths
UK: 4.72 million cases, 128 thousand deaths

And after being forced to postpone his 21 June freedom day, Boris has now announced that 19 July will see the end of lockdown and a Return To Normal.

Today’s offering from the Horror Channel is ‘Lava Storm’, the usual race against time for a couple of researchers to find their teenage kids against a backdrop of volcano-driven catastrophe. Surely the members of the SAGE committee and Health Ministry officials should be forced to watch disaster movies, to get them into the correct mindset to deal with (and plan ahead for) pandemics, floods or other critical events.

I love the way the Möbius bacon emerges
From the ruins of another twisted pig.

Sat 3 Jul 2021:
In his autobiography, Frank Skinner describes how he got together with David Baddiel and Ian Broudie to write ‘Three Lions’ as an anthem for the Euro ’96 tournament. The song didn’t generate much interest among the England squad players, although it did manage to reach number one in the charts. And then he recalls the first time it was played at Wembley, when England had just beaten Scotland. The England fans took up the chant ‘It’s coming home’, and Skinner says of this moment, “I can’t tell you how it felt. I’m not a good enough writer.”

On Tuesday night, to everyone’s amazement, England beat Germany two-nil at Wembley. Delighted fans yelled with joy, threw their drinks in the air and hugged strangers in a frenzy of celebration. Wonder how this will impact the Covid-19 infection figures (currently running at about 27,000 new cases per day)?