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)?

Tonsil Vaccine Blues

Sat 19 Jun 21:
This morning, the Horror Channel showed ‘Malibu Shark Attack’ – just another film about psychotic marine predators swept onto a crowded beach by a tsunami. And in the news, we had a story about twin sisters who decided to go for a swim in a lagoon in Mexico. One of them was attacked by a crocodile, and was saved by the other, who kept punching the animal until it released the victim.

No doubt there will be a movie soon which involves just this type of storyline…

They took my tonsils out when I was twelve. I remember waking in a hospital bed and being sick into a blue plastic bowl. Perhaps my adenoids are sleeping in a jar of formalin on a forgotten shelf, just waiting for me to come and take them home.

There were no spare beds in the children’s ward, so I ended up on the adult ward surrounded by old men who shuffled round, made slow by jagged lumps of pain. I had a small cassette player and a tape of Beethoven. The hospital sent a trainee teacher to give me some maths practice which involved modular numbers. I had just one lesson and was unable to follow his instructions, the jumble of clock-face diagrams and Pugwash boats on different coloured waves.

I remember only one meal in hospital – some kind of heavily-spiced burger, which I was unable to eat.

There was no-one to talk to. Back in those days there were no TV programmes during the day, apart from some peculiar Open University lectures, one of which featured a room full of melting plastic people. Another odd programme was a discussion of two modern poems: ‘Tea at the Palaz of Hoon’ and ‘I Dreamed that in a City dark as Paris’.

Years later I managed to track down these verse icons:

I DREAMED THAT IN A CITY DARK AS PARIS by Louis Simpson

I dreamed that in a city dark as Paris
I stood alone in a deserted square.
The night was trembling with a violet
Expectancy. At the far edge it moved
And rumbled; on that flickering horizon
The guns were pumping color in the sky.

There was the Front. But I was lonely here,
Left behind, abandoned by the army.
The empty city and the empty square
Was my inhabitation, my unrest.
The helmet with its vestige of a crest,
The rifle in my hands, long out of date,
The belt I wore, the trailing overcoat
And hobnail boots, were those of a poilu.
I was the man, as awkward as a bear.

Over the rooftops where cathedrals loomed
In speaking majesty, two aeroplanes
Forlorn as birds, appeared. Then growing large,
The German Taube and the Nieuport Scout,
They chased each other tumbling through the sky,
Till one streamed down on fire to the earth.

These wars have been so great, they are forgotten
Like the Egyptian dynasts. My confrere
In whose thick boots I stood, were you amazed
To wander through my brain four decades later
As I have wandered in a dream through yours?

The violence of waking life disrupts
The order of our death. Strange dreams occur,
For dreams are licensed as they never were.

TEA AT THE PALAZ OF HOON by Wallace Stevens

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

(Perhaps these poems could be twisted around each other to generate a new hybrid literature, a tense architecture of wordy ideas.)

In the news: property developer John Bloor recently applied to build 600 homes near Ledbury. This development was universally opposed since it would create traffic problems and ruin an area of outstanding natural beauty. However, Housing Minister Christopher Pincher – dismissing the objections of the town council – gave approval to these plans, and two days later the Conservative Party received a massive donation from Mr Bloor.

This is typical of the government’s policy in recent years – allegations of sleaze and cronyism have dogged the party in relation to the awarding of Covid-related contracts. And this was regarded as one factor in the shock by-election result last week which saw Chesham and Amersham elect a Liberal Democrat MP, after being a Tory stronghold for over 40 years.

Last night the Euro 2020 football tournament continued with England playing Scotland at Wembley. Despite the fact that we are still seeing about 8,000 new cases of Covid every day in the UK, thousands of fans descended on London to drink, and dance, and cheer on their team. It was claimed that UEFA officials had demanded the right to attend the game without complying with quarantine or vaccine rules; failure to indulge them would result in the finals being moved from Wembley to Budapest.

The widespread mingling of persons who may or may not be carrying the Virus, and their dispersal from London (following the pitiful no-score draw) means that we might see a spike in Covid-19 figures in a couple of weeks’ time. Despite a determined campaign by the NHS, there remain large numbers of vaccine sceptics, who believe that Covid is not dangerous, and that the vaccine is a conspiracy to implant monitoring devices into a gullible public. Indeed, it was recently proposed that, in order to protect the elderly residents of care homes, all staff members in such places should be required by law to be vaccinated.

However, this triggered a storm of protest, with trade unions saying that compulsory vaccination would breach the Human Rights of care home workers, and that up to a third of care home staff would resign (and claim unfair dismissal) rather than accept an ‘untested, experimental’ vaccine.

MY ELECTRONIC NURSE by Romola Savile

Without a word she plunges grains of vaccine
Deep into my upper arm; I gasp and look around.
The ward is lined with neat white beds
Each one contains a tattered story book,
A catalogue of dreams, a body shape
That is, or was, or will be racked with pain
Depending on the time of day.

I’m scared I might be asked to leave
When they find out I don’t know who I am
Or why I’m here; I overheard some urgent, whispered
Conversation where they said
Some damaged organ or a useless gland
Was waiting to be found and torn apart.

She handed me the script, and said ‘Here
Is your life; it’s up to you what happens next.’
The broken paragraphs gave no idea
Of what I had to say, or when. The faded maps
Showed rough terrain that I already knew
Could not be found. A set of elegantly angled shapes
Showed me how atomic networks bite and punch
And pull apart the oyster shells where neutrons wait

Hiding somewhere in the mud, afraid to breathe
Through tightly folded wings that dream of space.

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)