Arrival of the seven deadly skins…

Plutarch Relics

01 June 2021

Roll up, roll up! There’s nothing here to see, just a big fat zero, a rolling cipher, behold the empty bullring in the sky!

 At long last, after fourteen ugly months with sick and dying people all around, we have at last seen an entire day when not a single Covid-related death has been reported. This means we can all relax and meet up with all our friends in the pub, hugging and kissing, sharing buffet meals, blowing candles out on birthday cakes, and generally casting off the tedious and unnecessary restrictions of the past year.

Until next week, when we see a rise in cases due to travellers coming back from their holidays in Spain and Portugal.
Boris is fond of spouting bits of Classical literature to give himself an air of culture and wisdom; I wonder if her would recognise the following quote from Plutarch?

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailments of all republics.”

But Boris has previously spoken of his admiration for the rich, who he regards as being naturally more talented, more able, and more deserving than the poor; the clever cornflakes who ascend when the box is shaken (a dodgy metaphor, even for Boris) and attain the prime roles in a capitalist society.

In the news: Sir Kevan Collins was appointed by the government earlier this year to oversee the ‘catch up’ programme, which looked at ways to help children whose education had been disrupted by the pandemic and school closures. He spoke with hundreds of parents, teachers, and educational policy experts, and came up with a proposal to extend the school day (among other measures) which would cost about 15 billion pounds.

The chancellor and education secretary peered at this report and said ‘Splendid! Just what we need! Here’s 1.4 billion; see what you can get done with that, old chap.’
I’m sure Sir Kevan is enough of a realist to expect that his financial demands would be challenged; but a 90 percent cut proved too much, and he resigned from the post.

Sunday 06 Jun 2021

This morning the Horror Channel is showing ‘Zodiac: Signs of the Apocalypse’, a routine eco-disaster movie built from the leftover fragments of Stargate/Day after Tomorrow/Fifth Element/Knowing.

Here in the UK we are due to host the G7 summit next week, and it was announced yesterday that the finance ministers have agreed on a programme to start imposing tax on high-tech data firms. When this proposal was discussed in the Commons, every Tory MP voted against it; however, Chancellors Sunak and Javid have been bragging on Twitter about how responsible this government has been in spearheading the action.

Over the past few weeks we have seen a faintly absurd scenario, where the European Champions’ league final was due to be played in Istanbul, even though both teams (Chelsea, owned by a Russian oligarch, and Manchester City, owned by a middle-eastern oil sheikh) were British, and Turkey was on the ‘red list’ of restricted countries. Frantic discussions took place; would it be safe for thousands of football fans to travel to a country with an unknown rate of Covid-19 infection? Surely it would be more sensible to hold the match at a stadium in the UK?

Eventually a compromise was reached, with UEFA agreeing to transfer the match to Portugal, which had been added to the government ‘green list’ of safe destinations. The fans rushed to buy plane tickets and headed off to Porto, where they drank beer, danced with the locals, and started fighting with each other. The match ended with a one-nil win for Chelsea, the fans came home and then started getting text-message alerts to say that one of the passengers on their flight had tested positive for Covid-19.

So Portugal was then set to be transferred to the ‘amber list’, giving holiday makers just four days to rearrange their trip home in order to avoid the lengthy quarantine and expensive medical tests required. And after the general rejoicing last week (hurrah! Zero Covid deaths!) we now find that the daily death rate in the UK has started to rise again, making it less certain that we will be granted the 21 June release from lockdown that everyone had been promised.

Tuesday 15 June: After being advised for weeks that we could all look forward to the End of Lockdown on 21 June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on TV last night to announce that the restrictions would remain in place for another four weeks. There is now widespread confusion about what we will be allowed to do; the rules on weddings have been relaxed so that the guest numbers can exceed 30, but everyone has to wear masks. Wedding receptions are famous for the dancing – by the happy couple, inebriated aunties, and energetic children; but indoor dancing is still prohibited under the new rules. People are advised that even dancing outdoors should be avoided for health reasons.

Thousands of businesses around the UK have been gearing up for the End of Lockdown, stocking up with merchandise and arranging for staff to return to work.

Large numbers of football fans have been travelling round the UK and Europe to watch their teams compete in Euro 2020, and we may see a surge in Covid infections in two weeks after these fans help to transmit the virus among their home communities.

Colour-coded confusion

Sat 29 May 2021

That was the week, alright; God knows what David Frost and Peter Cook would have to say about the political turmoil of the past month. On Wednesday we had the long-awaited appearance of Dominic Cummings before a committee of MPs to discuss the government ‘response’ to the Covid pandemic.

Cummings has been a sinister backstage presence for the past few years, supervising the Brexit ‘Leave’ campaign and using focus groups and big data to manipulate public opinion. During his explosive testimony he accused the PM and health secretary of being ill-prepared, disorganised and dishonest when dealing with the public.

Unfortunately, the mainstream press has been making the same detailed claims about Messrs Johnson and Hancock for at least eight months, so the latest revelation came as a damp squib. And when Cummings drove 260 miles to his parents’ house and thence to Castle Barnard, the cabinet scurried to his defence, so it strikes an odd note for them to now dismiss his latest outburst.

Cummings likes to present himself as an outsider, a sharp-thinking science geek among the flabby, unfocused PPE graduates who populate Whitehall. On the Horror Channel they are showing ‘Roswell: The Aliens Attack’ about a couple of humanoid arrivals who crash land in New Mexico and then set about destroying the human race. Perhaps DC is actually like Thomas Newton, an alien visitor on a mission to annihilate humanity and harvest the resources of our planet.

The general public has always viewed the scientific community with suspicion, and as soon as Covid began to spread, a host of conspiracy theories flared up, claiming that the new virus had been engineered in a lab and escaped into the wider population. This idea was roundly dismissed (e.g. by Jeanna Bryner in Live Science, 20 March 2020; Scripps Research Inst, 17 March 2020) but now is being revived, following claims by whistle-blower Li-Meng Yan back in September.

Senior medical experts originally claimed that the particular structure of the virus could never have evolved from any existing animal virus, since it would no longer be able to survive in the host and would have therefore died out.

I feel like a virus sometimes, as I wait on the crowded platform alongside fifty or sixty other commuters, waiting for the train, the long, slow cellular steel organism that will carry us around the bloodstream of Greater Manchester, spilling different fractions of the infectious medium at various points where we can do the most damage.

I get the 7.12, which deposits me in Deansgate at about 7.45, and from there I walk for about twenty minutes to reach my workplace. I make my way up the stairs and enter the office space. There are eight banks of desks, each holding room for eight office staff; at the end of each bank is a filing cabinet and table, on which we find our seating plan for the day. The plan has been drawn up in landscape format, but is printed in portrait, which means that the entire layout is squeezed into half the page. Each bank has been assigned a different colour – not for any real reason, just because it conveys the impression of some mysterious underlying order.

The chart starts to resemble a crude version of the periodic table with its blocks of coloured square desks. We peer at the diagram, trying to read the names printed in microscopic letters on a dull green or orange or blue background. Each day we are allocated a different seating position; this again, is not for any reason, but merely to remind us that every tiny detail of our job is being carefully scrutinised by the senior officers in their penthouse suite.

I eventually locate my name on the chart and work out which desk I’m supposed to be working at. I have to plug in my computer and then adjust all the settings because the previous worker used a different audio configuration. Now that Covid has arrived, the process of hot-desking is strictly forbidden, so we will now each be given a fixed location to work at; this arrangement was earlier dismissed as being inefficient, but now it seems to be perfectly okay. Okay, huh?

Sunday 30 May 2021

Yesterday it was announced that Boris and Carrie (Boris, sacked for lying, twice-divorced, serial philanderer, gave thousands to the lovely Jennifer, just had his flat redecorated by a mystery admirer etc) have wed – in the Catholic Cathedral at Westminster, of all places.

This morning, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi was asked by a reporter whether the government had been completely honest with the UK public: Matt Hancock promised that every care home resident, after receiving hospital treatment, would be tested for covid and isolated to prevent the spread of the disease.
But residents were not tested or isolated, with the result that so far about 40,000 residents and staff in this sector have died from Covid-19.

Zahawi cheerfully responded to the question by saying that we were all working very hard to save as many lives as possible by rolling out the vaccine, a reply that he makes to nearly every press question about the handling of the crisis.

Yesterday’s Covid figures:
US: 34.02 million cases, 608.9 thousand deaths
UK: 4.48 million cases, 127.7 thousand deaths

Smoked Minotaur Bronze

Great England of Britainshire

It’s only eight o’clock, there’s no-one here
The cocktail bar is empty still, the DJ left a running tape
Of The The’s Infected; I could almost dance
With my other self who watches from the mirrored wall.

The scattered thrill of medicine portrays
A profile of a nation in torment; the blood
Crawls through a plastic corridor towards the brain
Where electricity finds corners to avoid.

Behold, in Coronation Street a story line is dragged
Up from the past to entertain the floating mask.
Meanwhile, a one-time footballer gets hit
With eighteen thousand volts and then a kick

To blow the skull; they think it’s all over.
A single petal lands upon the windscreen
Of a waiting sixty-five plate Rover; it is now.

Weds 19 May 2021

In the news: having left the EU, our grate leader Boris is keen to secure a trade deal with Australia to supply the UK with beef and lamb. This has sparked panic among farmers’ representatives, who fear that the Antipodean livestock can be supplied at lower cost and will thus wipe out a lot of the British beef industry.

A trial has opened into the death of former footballer Dalian Atkinson, who was suffering from mental health issues. When police were called to his father’s house, Atkinson began acting in an erratic manner, causing the police to deploy a Taser. When this instrument failed, another Taser was used, but instead of the standard 5 seconds, Atkinson was subjected to 30 seconds of high-voltage suppression which melted the fibres on his clothes.

The two police officers then assaulted the prone footballer, one using a baton, the other aiming kicks at the man’s head.

Long-running TV Soap Opera Coronation Street has recently featured a storyline involving a young Goth woman and her boyfriend, who are attacked by a gang of thugs. The man ends up dying in hospital; the girl is left badly traumatised. This plot echoes the case of Sophie Lancaster, who died in 2007 after she and her boyfriend were assaulted in a park in Bacup; they were attacked simply for being dressed as Goths.

Is the UK descending into a mass of tribes, selfish individuals who can spend their waking hours online determinedly pursuing their narrow agenda of interests, avoiding exposure to any distractions or different points of view? Pawley suggested this back in 1972…

Sat 22 May 2021

This morning the Horror Channel is showing the Peter Cushing movie ‘Island of Terror’, a sci-fi drama about a weird lab-created life form that destroys all the bone structure in its victims. Very ‘Quatermass’ with a hint of ‘The Blob’.

In the news: Martin Bashir has resigned from the BBC following the Dyson report, which found that he had used callous deception to secure his interview with Princess Di. And when journalists tried to uncover the story, FOI requests were carefully blocked, and the BBC embarked on a huge cover-up to protect their own reputation.

Bashir lied about his methods to senior BBC executives, who cheerfully accepted him back (from ITV) as Religious Editor in 2006.

The graphic designer Matt Weissler (who created the fake bank statements used by Bashir) reported that his house had been burgled and the original artwork discs stolen. The Dukes of Sussex and Cambridge have both expressed outrage at this treatment of their mother, in a break with standard diplomatic protocol – this could mark the end of the BBC as official Royal Correspondence agency.

The death rate from Covid-19 in the UK has fallen to fewer than ten per day; however, people have now been told they can travel to Spain and Portugal on holiday, which will probably lead to an increase in cases of the SARS disease over the next few weeks.

Latest Covid statistics:
US: 33.86 million cases, 603.4 thousand deaths
UK: 4.46 million cases, 127.7 thousand deaths

India has been reporting about 4,000 new cases each day for the past week; the chaotic healthcare system means that cases (and deaths) are being under-reported, and some reports have claimed that bodies are being dumped in the river.

Crass Observation

Weds 12 May 2021

Today is the annual mass observation day in UK, where ordinary citizen-units are invited to keep a record of their daily activities.

The country has been in lockdown now for over a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During the past few months there have been intermittent easings of the lockdown rules; last August the Chancellor announced a scheme called ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, where restaurants could offer subsidised meals to diners.

This was immensely popular and encouraged people to start socialising again. At the time, the death rate from Covid was very low in the UK; however, within a few months it had reached new heights, and the total is now about 127 thousand.

My life is very similar to the situation a year ago; the position of my desk in the office has changed to be nearer to the window, but other than that, everything is unchanged. I still perform the same job, discussing income tax with members of the public. I still work the same hours, using the same equipment. We have had a significant pay rise (engineered by the Union, by persuading staff members to surrender some of their terms and conditions) which has provoked anger among the public, who want increased funding to be directed to healthcare workers.

For breakfast I had porridge with cashew nuts, pecans, raisins and dried cranberries.

I was planning to have an ornamental meal, with olives, onions and tinned oysters representing different types of quark. These would be arranged on round cracker biscuits (to represent protons and neutrons) and a group of these laid out on a plate to signify the nucleus of a boron atom.

I stare at the changing world outside my window: the council workers came round this morning with ride-on lawnmowers to cut the grass; it reminded me of Druids Heath, where the council grass-cutters would fling small stones through the wired-glass windows of our maisonette.

From the window I see the neighbour’s cat, elegant in a light brown collar. Sometimes there are birds; magpies, pigeons, blue tits, robins and occasionally a pheasant. Last night I went shopping at Tesco, and purchased various groceries, most of which would be considered non-essential: biscuits, ginger herbal tea bags, wine. This time last year we were being instructed to stay home at all times, except for once-weekly trips to buy essential supplies such as pasta, rice and toilet roll.

The supermarket PA system broadcasts gentle music to distract shoppers; last night they played ‘Sweet Harmony’, which took me right back to 1993 when I lived in Birmingham. I was fed up with the living conditions in my shared flat, so I rang Switchboard to ask if they had any rented rooms available.

They told me there was one on their books, so I arranged to view it one evening after work. On the way there I called into HMV and purchased a couple of cassette singles: ‘Sweet Harmony’, and ‘Little Bird’. Then I made my way to Balsall Heath to look at the room and meet my new landlord. It turned out to be the best move I ever made, and heralded the start of a very enjoyable episode in my life. After moving into this house, I became firm friends with my landlord and his gang of eccentric cronies; we would spend Saturday afternoons in Birmingham, shopping in the arcades for designer shirts and buying gorgeous little nibbles from Marks and Spencer. I recall one afternoon at work it rained hard for two hours, turning the factory yard into a lake. My bus home was delayed by two hours, and when I eventually got home I had to wade through knee-deep water on Stoney Lane.

Sunday 16 May:

The Horror Channel is showing a perfectly dreadful movie called ‘Lord of the Elves’, which features scantily-clad men, giant spiders and flying reptiles, and two lead actors who bear a worrying resemblance to Sonny and Cher. Shot entirely on location in the People’s Republic of Bakelite.

This morning’s commercials are for furniture stores, food-delivery services, erectile dysfunction treatment and intimate feminine antiseptic cream. And a service that enables you to switch between energy providers; there are so many of these nowadays that soon we will see adverts for services that allow you to switch between services that allow you to change your energy supplier.

Some of the major outsourcing personnel providers to the NHS Covid track-and-trace have decided to adopt a similar approach; it appears that an individual worker can find that their contract of employment has been switched to another employer without warning, so that they end up being put on an emergency tax code. The multiple employers in question are usually mini-umbrella companies based in the Philippines; this arrangement allows the parent company to avoid paying National Insurance, since the government has issued an exemption to encourage firms to recruit new members of staff.

Latest Covid-19 figures:
US: 33.69 million cases, 599.8 thousand deaths
UK: 4.45 million cases, 127.6 thousand deaths

Another block fire

Sat 8 May 2021: It’s exactly four years since I started work at the office; chatting to complete strangers and discussing elaborate financial issues with them.

On Thursday we had the local council elections and a by-election at Hartlepool. This constituency seat has been a Labour stronghold (apart from a single term) for the past fifty years, but it fell to the Tories, who are now boasting that they can seize all the traditional working-class regions in the North. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is seen as a bland corporate lawyer, rather than a champion of workers’ rights.

On the Horror Channel they are showing ‘Journey to the far side of the Sun’, a 1969 space drama filled with cutting-edge technology; winking square lights, spinning tape reel computers, oscilloscope dials and instrument modules made from eau-de-nil Tufnol panels.

The languid electronic soundtrack is just right for a hungover Saturday morning. And the plot descends into crash landings and some weird stuff about a doppelganger planet; one online reviewer described it as ‘Thunderbirds meets 2001’.

In the news: a fire broke out in a 19-storey tower block in East London, on the New Providence Wharf development. This building had flammable cladding – similar to the material used on Grenfell Tower – and 40 residents needed ambulance treatment following the blaze. All over the UK, thousands of flat owners are finding that their dwellings are not adequately fireproof, and so are required to pay for a routine watch service to raise the alarm if a fire breaks out. This makes their apartments impossible to sell, so they are effectively trapped.

The cost of repairs and remedial work would initially be borne by the owners of the entire block, but this could then be passed on to the individual residents in the form of increased service charges or leasehold fees. Various proposals were made by the House of Lords to stop this transfer of financial burden, but the Commons defeated the amendments.

When one leaseholder contacted the department for Housing and Communities, he received a polite e-mail message offering sympathy, and suggesting that he could contact the Samaritans if he was suffering mental health problems due to the impending bill of £20,000 to remove the cladding.

Latest Covid-19 Statistics:
US: 33.42 million cases, 594.91 thousand deaths
UK: 4.43 million cases, 127.59 thousand deaths

Sun 9 May 2021: This morning, the Horror Channel is showing ‘The Day The Earth Stopped’, an absurdly derivative film about alien robots and the proposed annihilation of life on earth. Unlike the previous two movies (Michael Rennie and Keanu Reeves) of this name, the envoy is female – a startling break with tradition. The soundtrack includes long stretches of gentle, meditative synth music, which blend with the choir singing on Radio 4 in the next room. I was hoping for some airborne sharks to appear as part of the aliens’ plot, but was denied even this morsel of pleasure.

Next Wednesday is May 12, the national Mass Observation day when everybody is invited to submit a one-day journal for the national archives. Unfortunately, for many of us the world has indeed stood still – I am living in the same place, eating the same food, doing the same job, and obeying the same rules on social distancing as this time last year.

During the past 12 months I have had my hair cut once (by my partner) and have put on a lot of weight. We made a single visit to a pub, to have lunch with an old friend. I bought a new cellular telephone, since my old one – 7 years old – was becoming unable to hold its battery charge.

Fireproof Haematite

Elektra tries to make her way
Through the Mobius Maze, avoiding the
Reflected face that occupies
The crumpled walls of crimson glass

And one year on, around the sun
Hearing the same food, eating the same clothes,
Wearing the same songs, it feels as though
By rolling days betrayed
We’ve just forgotten how to grow.

Of course, Elektra doesn’t know
She’s trying still to come to terms
With memories of haematite, the
Furtive man with eyes of bronze.

Safe behind a nervous curtain
She watches all the boys run round; they’re
Squirting water from the heart of a pig
And yelling ‘Follow me! I’ll make you wet!’
She doesn’t move. Behind her in the dark
Some lonely animal begins to stir.

Dull Grey Drama

Sunday 2 May 2021

Many years ago I worked in a factory making the acrylic paint that was used on the plastic housing for old-fashioned cathode ray TV sets. There were several firms located in Wales (Sanyo, Toshiba, Hitachi etc) which manufactured these television bodies, and each of them had their own trademark colour. To the average consumer, all these would appear to be a uniform metallic anthracite finish; but the formulation of every one was unique, with different grades of aluminium flake and polyester beads to impart the required appearance.

Anthracite: from the Greek ‘anthrakites’, or coal-like. A very dense form of carbon mineral having low levels of impurity and moisture. From 2021, Aberpergwm Mine (near Neath, S Wales) is the only source of high-grade anthracite in Western Europe.

Anthracene: extracted from coal tar, anthracene is a fused system of benzene rings. Many years ago I remember we synthesised a derivative of this material, one of the few occasions when we had access to benzene. We mixed a green solution of tetracyanoethylene with a solution of anthracene to create 9,10-dihydro-11,11,12,12-tetracyano-9,10-ethanoanthracene, demonstrating the Diels-Alder reaction.

The senior chemistry professor was supervising the lab session, and he wandered over to my bench, lifted the watch glass from the beaker and took a deep sniff. ‘Reminds me of my own days as a student’ he said happily, before wandering off to the next group.

Anthrax: ‘coal’, named by the Greeks after the black skin lesions observed in livestock infected with the bacillus.

Nowadays, nobody uses CRT boxes: flat-screen technology has enabled the production of large, intensely vivid screens for domestic cinema.

I wonder if Boris Johnson has a flat-screen telly in his flat above number 11? We have recently discovered that Bojo and Carrie have spent a vast amount of money on refurbishing their apartment, but he has refused to confirm or deny that the initial funding of this project came from a Tory party donor (which, if not declared, would be a breach of Parliamentary rules). Some newspapers are also claiming that Boris has tried to get party donors to provide financial support for his childcare costs.

In the news this week: Noel Clarke, highly regarded actor and director (who recently received the Outstanding Contribution Award from BAFTA) has been accused of sexual harassment by numerous female co-stars. In response to this ITV decided to cancel screening the final episode of his crime drama ‘Viewpoint’, and the BAFTA has suspended his membership and withdrawn the award.

The Lag B’Omer religious celebration at Mount Meron in Northern Israel attracted about 100 thousand ultra-orthodox visitors – ten times the expected crowds. The festival turned to tragedy when a group of people slipped on a metal stairway and caused a stampede, leading to over 44 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Latest Covid-19 figures:
US: 33.1 million cases, 590.7 thousand deaths
UK: 4.42 million cases, 127.5 thousand deaths

The daily death toll from Covid in the UK has now dropped to single figures, thanks to social distancing and the vaccine rollout – but in India, the disease is out of control, with over 350,000 new cases being announced each day and widespread shortages of oxygen and medicine.

Anthracite, by Bartolo Cattafi (trans: Brian Cole)

Factories and trains lose their splendour,
they fade with time, they grow old,
they trespass on the grey of the fog.
Anthracite lasts, down there, black,
brittle, hard, reflections of metal,
earth closed and remote
with lights extinguished.

I understand the signs, the calcined stones of the boundary,
the fossil wing fastened to its side
the shrunken hands of wrecked shipmates
dead in the oceanless gulf.

It may be that tomorrow another funeral pyre will rise
not the open joyous combustion
that stains the air with smoke and amaranth,
the suffocating loss of the soul
ourselves embedded in the darkness.

I think of the rain, of the ashes, of the silence
which the hurricane leaves behind, mixed
in the virgin slab of mud
where troops of men and beasts
will again come to engrave
their passage through the world,
unaware at dawn on the black
heart of the world.
(2000 ARC Publications: ISBN-13 : 978-1900072427)

Post Offensive

Sat 24 April 2021:

This morning’s offering from the Horror Channel is ‘Mind Blown’, a sort of Dreamscape-meets-Avatar military sci-fi project, starring Luke Goss (!) and written by someone called Thunder Levin. I remember when Bros made an appearance at the HMV store in Oxford Street, bringing central London to a standstill. Chunks of the movie look like a Janet Jackson pop video, giving it a vaguely 1980s feel.

In the news: some text messages have been leaked to the press, revealing that Boris Johnson offered to adjust the tax regulations for the benefit of James Dyson (who had offered to develop and produce hospital ventilators for use in Covid-19 wards).

The press were then tipped off that these leaks originated from Dominic Cummings, the bitter, twisted former adviser to Number Ten. DC firmly denied this, and retaliated by publishing a blog post in which he accused Bojo of being reckless with public money and failing to uphold standards.

A long-running scandal has nearly been resolved at the High Court in London. Back in 1999, the UK Post Office installed a mega-computer system called ‘Horizon’, supplied by Fujitsu, in all their local branches. This system – like many IT networks – carried some programming bugs, which led to financial discrepancies in the branch accounts. The Post Office firmly announced that the computer system was completely reliable, and the accounting shortfalls were the result of pilfering by the sub-postmasters at the branches. It then proceeded to launch prosecutions for fraud against hundreds of staff, many of whom were convicted and sent to prison; having been convicted, they were then unable to obtain employment, left bankrupt and forced to live on benefits.

Post Office Limited refused to accept that their system was at fault and embarked on a huge campaign to challenge the claims, organising the wholesale destruction of evidence relating to the appeals.

39 sub-postmasters have now had their convictions overturned, but the Post Office maintains that this was simply because they were not able to get a fair trial; it refuses to acknowledge that Horizon caused any problems, or that the staff members did not steal any money.

The UK is seeing a decline in the number of cases of Covid-19, but India has started reporting record numbers of infections and deaths, and the UK has placed India on the ‘Red List’ of destinations. This means that travel to the UK is permitted only for UK nationals, who must spend ten days in isolation on arrival.

The government helpfully gave four days’ notice about the ‘red list’ elevation, leading to a mad scramble for plane tickets at exorbitant prices.

Latest Covid-19 figures:
US: 32.7 million cases, 585 thousand deaths
UK: 4.4 million cases, 127.4 thousand deaths

According to the ‘Review of Standards 1980 – 2000 in English Literature’ (QCA, 2004), “In 1980, the study of a Shakespeare play was compulsory, but otherwise candidates were free to choose texts from any period.”

My own recollection of this was that we did not have any exposure to The Bard (happy belated birthday, sire!) at school; instead, we studied Churchill’s My Early Life, short stories by DH Lawrence, poems by Shelley, Lord of the Flies, A Man for All Seasons and Cider With Rosie. The Churchill text was long, opaque and impenetrably dull, and I was unable to engage with the book at all.

Perhaps it might have been better to give us three chunks of biography by different political figures and invite us to compare the styles of writing. Now that I have a little experience of real life it might be worth trying to re-read these books to see if they make any sense.

O-Level English

Dragging their satchels, nudging with scorn
They spray the air with luminous obscenities
Just another normal gang of schoolboy thugs
Articulate and arrogant, they’ve all been groomed
By years of imperceptible conviction to know
Where they belong – but more than that, to know
That they belong. Within this tribe

Each facet cultivates a different dream; one
Imagines a vacant life spent watching birds, just
Tiny specks against a fading sky. Another
Wants a banquet of extravagance, fast cars, big house,
A deafening parade of opportunities.

Our teachers guide us through the maze of narrative;
They didn’t bother telling us (‘cos after all,
We didn’t need to know) this is no ordinary
Bunch of lads on holiday. Securely trapped inside a world
Of merchant bankers, pinstriped suits, they glide along
On polished rails towards a plump, complacent destiny.

Meanwhile we struggle by on part-time jobs, to
Scrape a living with the help of other friends
Who may or may not still be here a month from now.
And none of us has ever lived
The country life, with horses, cows and sheep at every turn
We thought this way of life was set in stone, but
Five years from now these treasures will be gone.

Maximum Density, four dead degrees

Sunday 18 April 2021: Relieved citizen-units around the UK have been gathering in pub beer gardens, laughing and drinking with their friends. Yesterday saw the funeral of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Normally this would have been a state occasion, with huge crowds lining the route of the procession to pay their respects; but due to the ongoing Covid restrictions, the mourners were limited to 30 at St George’s Chapel and the event was on a modest scale.

Women in the UK tend to live longer than men, and Her Majesty was five years younger than the Duke; even so, nothing can prepare somebody for the loss of a spouse after 73 years of marriage. The TV reporters struggled to find suitably dignified comments to fill the airtime without lapsing into cliché. The Daily Mail took an unseemly interest in what the mourners were wearing, and how much their outfits had cost. Thirty years ago, the death of Prince Philip would have simply closed down all the TV channels (and pubs, cinemas and restaurants) leaving us to reflect on the life of a man who reached three-score years and ten in the service of the Royal Household.

In other news: corruption in the Tory party as it turns out Matt Hancock is a shareholder in a firm owned by his sister. The firm won a contract to supply document shredding services to the NHS. Hancock oversees the award of NHS contracts, which can run to millions of pounds. He managed to completely forget that it was his responsibility to report this family link in the Register of Interests.

According to a DHSC spokesman, “Ministers have no involvement in the awarding of these contracts, and no conflict of interest arises.” And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything…

Latest Covid figures:
US: 32.3 million cases, 580.7 thousand deaths
UK: 4.39 million cases, 127.2 thousand deaths

Tuesday 20 April 2021: It is a bright cold day in April and the clocks are striking
(5n-squared +3)/(3n-cubed +7)
where n is the number of covid cases per thousand head of population.

Yesterday’s figures for the UK included just four people dying ‘within 28 days of a positive Covid diagnosis’ which is the lowest number for several months.

In the news: the big six footie teams have started discussions to join a breakaway European Super-League, sparking dismay among fans and politicians. These clubs tend to have foreign-born players and managers, and their assets are owned by institutions based outside of the UK. Back in the old days, proud fathers would name their children after players – or sometimes the entire team – of their favourite club.

Welcome to Britain! Roll up, roll up; great closing down sale, everything must go!

Dreams of Cheese

Saturday 10 April 2021: Last night for tea we had some leftover chili and rice, together with grilled camembert on garlic bread; it was very tasty. I ended up having some unusually vivid dreams, in which I was living in a sort of student apartment block where a string quartet rehearsed on the balcony opposite. I was also busy trying to sort out some important documents, folding them up into a small envelope and sending them to myself by post. The walls were decorated with lavish spray-painted murals in a range of electric blues and greens, featuring trompe l’oeil Roman numerals which jutted from the wall, casting bold painted shadows.

Back in 2013, when I never made my trip to Chicago, I didn’t manage to see the Museum of Science and Industry, the Jewelers’ Building, or the Wrigley Building, or the London Guarantee Building with its fantastic Beaux Arts architecture.

I never walked down West Lake Street at 6.45 a.m. staring at the bookshops and the cafes and the dynamic young student putting in a 90-minute shift as a cleaner before heading off to study medicine with engineering. Just a glance at her clothes and hair alerted me to the fact I was no longer in England. Or, rather, since I didn’t actually go there, ‘…the fact that I wasn’t no longer in England.’

If I had actually gone there, I might have noticed that the roads all seemed incredibly wide, as though a normal high street had been prised apart and a section of the M62 laid down the middle. But I hadn’t, so they weren’t.
I didn’t manage to photograph any of the flagpoles that announced each building as it came into view. But of course, the flags are all at half-mast today…

This morning, the Horror Channel is showing ‘Alien Fury; Countdown to Invasion’, a routine sci-fi drama with action sequences but a miniscule budget and nothing in the way of special effects.
All the other main channels have cleared their schedules and are showing wall-to-wall tributes to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh whose death was announced yesterday lunchtime. Endless hours have been given over to repeating stories about his distinguished military career, technical prowess, and commitment to helping youngsters via the Awards Scheme. Apparently, HRH was not a keen fan of lavish ceremonial tributes, and might not have felt comfortable with all this attention, when his role in life had always been to provide discreet, unfailing support to HM the Q.

One of the first broadcast tributes came from Prime Minister Boris, who referred to the Duke as being her Majesty’s ‘strength and stay’ for over 70 years. Viewers probably had some raised eyebrows at this, coming from a serial philanderer. He also included a gag about ‘expert carriage driver’ – Prince Philip had a road crash a couple of years back but didn’t face any criminal charges.

In other news:
A volcano has erupted on the island of St Vincent, forcing 20 thousand people to be evacuated from their homes.

More accusations of Tory Conyism, with revelations that Rishi Sunak – multimillionaire UK Chancellor – had offered to lobby various senior figures at the Bank of England to try and secure support for Greensill Capital. This firm employed some bloke called David Cameron as an advisor, and the demise of Greensilll left DC holding millions of worthless shares. Poor DC!

The Brexit trade agreement has disrupted customs arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – as predicted by people who opposed the leave campaign. And this has now provoked violent unrest in Belfast, with crowds of teenagers hurling petrol bombs at the police and setting fire to vehicles.

Latest Covid figures:
US: 31.87 million cases, 575.6 thousand deaths
UK: 4.37 million cases, 127 thousand deaths

Sunday 11 April 2021: a few weeks back, our great leader set out the roadmap to recovery, during which various retail and leisure sectors would be able to open their doors to the public. Tomorrow we have the pubs reopening, in a strictly limited fashion – drinkers will be able to sit outdoors only and receive table service.

This morning, the ground carried patches of frost; so it is likely that the weather next week will make al fresco drinking a bitterly unpleasant experience.
And then everybody will gather en masse in burger joints and kebab shops after they have had a few pints, and we will see the number of Covid infections gradually start to rise…again.

I Didn’t Go

Journal Entry, 2 April 2021: It’s Good Friday, so perhaps I shouldn’t be watching the Horror Channel this morning. When I turned the box on, it launched into a natural history prog from years ago, where David Attenborough was showing us the mating rituals of giant centipedes. Not the best thing to watch while eating breakfast.

In the news: the government released a report into racial inequality which found that the UK was an exemplar of good race relations and there was no institutional racism in the country. We can’t help thinking that this conclusion was sent out two years ago by Munira Mirza, who then instructed the commission members to find evidence which supported it.

The report also includes a chilling reference to slavery, saying that this needs to be presented in a balanced way as part of the Caribbean Experience, and how grateful we are to immigrants for enriching the English language.

In another piece of revisionist reporting, MP Vicky Ford dismissed Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign: ‘We very much welcome his support for the initiative, but this project of mine was already underway.’ Which is presumably why she voted against extending free school meals, and why Boris had two phone conversations with Rashford.

The Covid epidemic in the UK is beginning to subside, with over 30 million people having received at least one vaccine dose. Latest figures:
US: 31.2 million cases, 566.6 thousand deaths
UK: 4.35 million cases, 126.7 thousand deaths

I never got to spend my birthday in Chicago; for a few years I had entertained vague ideas about travelling to this city when I reached fifty. I would eat seafood in glamorous rooftop restaurants, witness drive-by shootings, visit art galleries and hear lectures, and attend a public rehearsal by the symphony orchestra.

The shopping mall would be the size of a small town and carry quirky shoes and jackets with painfully high price tags. There would be street entertainers; mime artists, buskers, living statues and religious maniacs unleashing a torrent of conspiracy-fuelled nonsense.

And then, a few years later, I would be able to pass my evenings at home by pulling out a box-file filled with city maps, receipts, concert programmes, and train tickets. There would be a series of postcards which I sent to myself: ‘The hotel receptionist loved my English accent and recommended a hipster bar – waiters on roller-skates, seventies vinyl funk – and I had a Polaroid taken with the signed Kirk Douglas movie poster’ etc.

It would all feel like a dream, or a half-remembered radio play on Sunday evening…
But then, when I was forty-nine, I changed jobs and found myself with a reduced income and no holiday allowance, so my planned trip was postponed. One of the postcards I never sent would carry a short poem:

‘Do atoms really look like grains of sand?
Or are they all just dainty knots
Tied in a line of whispered prayer?

I was thinking about this when I watched Graham Norton last night, whose guests included Frank Skinner. FS is resuming his UK tour – cut short a year ago – and has also published a book of prayers. This was mentioned in passing, but then the conversation turned back to the other guests.

This was a shame; we have just spent a distressing year with millions of people around the world falling ill or losing their jobs due to Covid.
Prayer may be an appropriate response when we encounter this kind of epic problem; it will not cure the ailment, but it will encourage us to formulate the exact nature of the problem and the steps needed to bring about (some kind of) a solution.

When I didn’t go to Chicago in 2013, I didn’t visit the Holy Name Cathedral or the Holy Trinity Polish Cathedral or the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral to admire the architecture, or the paintings and sculptures, or to inhale the atmosphere of peace and reverence that fills the echoing space around.

I didn’t spend half-an-hour on Thursday night scanning the various restaurant menus, drooling with pleasure at the thought of sole with chorizo or chili-flecked oysters. Eventually a handsome young waiter didn’t come out of the restaurant and invite me in to sit at the bar, where I could enjoy a cocktail and a series of tiny taster shots, to decide what I felt comfortable eating. When I didn’t tell him that I was visiting from the UK, he never showed me the satisfied customer reviews from Nottingham, Oxford and Durham that they hadn’t received in the past three weeks.

I didn’t make my way to the Chicago Cultural Center, whose impossible grandeur didn’t leave me speechless, nor did I visit the Art Institute of Chicago, with its legendary collection of 19- and 20-century paintings. I wasn’t there, so I didn’t end up going to a small viewing of a student art show in  a basement cinema where a dozen talented youngsters never talked about their work in a relaxed, European atmosphere.