Heading North

16 July 2020: Chris Grayling, MP has managed to avoid being sacked from his Cabinet posts, despite a number of spectacular cock-ups (awarding a huge contract for post-Brexit cross-channel freight to a company which didn’t actually own any ferries) and was recently appointed to the Chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Or, at least, that was the plan; but one of the other c’ttee members decided to stand against him for the post.

The c’ttee was stacked with Conservatives, and all the members were contacted to make sure that they would comply with the wishes of the Prime Minister and elect the hapless Grayling to the post.

Then Julian Lewis, an MP with considerably more experience in the field of intelligence and security than everybody else in the room, announced that he was willing to stand for election. His appointment caused furious embarrassment to the Prime Minister, and shortly afterwards it was announced that Lewis had been expelled from the Tory party.

18 July 2020: The UK government has recently decided to abandon the daily reports of virus cases and fatalities, because it was noticed that the ‘deaths’ figure will include anybody who dies, even if they were diagnosed four months ago with Covid. Our most recent confirmed statistics are:

US: 3,782,00 cases, 142,000 deaths
UK: 294,000 cases, 45,318 deaths

21 July 2020: Severe back pain – I am trapped in bed, forced to lie flat, listening to Radio 4; the pain is a constant dull ache except when I try to shift my weight, which causes a sudden jolt of agony.

22 July 2020: Requested some Naproxen online, need to wait 48 hours before collection.

23 July 2020: Nineteen years (exactly one-third of my life) ago I started my new job at Sterling Technology. A few weeks previously I had attended two interviews. These meetings started well; I had lots of relevant experience and chatted confidently about my skills in testing samples of polymer coating systems.

‘The trouble is’ said the interviewer, ‘We really need somebody with first-rate computer skills, and you don’t appear to have that much knowledge in that field.’
I replied that I was currently engaged on the European Computer Driving Licence training course, and would be happy to attend further tutorials if the company felt these were necessary.

‘No, no’ he continued, ‘It is vitally important that the person who is taken on for this post has plenty of previous experience, a first-class track record in programming skills, and you don’t seem to have those qualifications.’
‘Well, the agency who notified me about this post didn’t mention anything to me about IT skills being so important; if they had done so, then I would have declined the offer of an interview.’

He sighed wearily, and I made my way home feeling confused about whether I had made a good impression. Two days later, the agency rang me to say that the firm had been quite pleased with me and would I be willing to accept the post if it was offered?
‘Absolutely!’ I yelled, and proceeded to skip around my flat singing ‘Bring Me Sunshine’, and trying to work out how best to transport my belongings to a new city.

A bulky letter arrived the next day; a three-page contract of employment (two copies) and a set of instructions on when they wanted me to start, and how to go about getting a pre-employment medical examination.

My local GP was scornful; the waiting list for medicals was three weeks, by which time I would be starting work. The actual results would take a further two weeks to arrive. I rang the agency and explained that I might not be able to accept the job because I couldn’t get a works medical in time. The agency rang the company who rang my GP, and the agency rang me back and said that in view of the short timescale the firm would agree to take me on, provided that I arranged a medical with a local GP as soon as possible.

So I started work, and began testing production batches and dealing with customer complaints and preparing the occasional development sample.
After about six months I realised that I had not yet been issued with a company e-mail address (indeed, there wasn’t even a PC installed in my office) so I asked the boss whether they had made any arrangements to enter my details on the company network.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that’ he said, ‘There’s no need for you to correspond with customers, so you won’t require any e-mail access. And your job doesn’t involve any report-writing, so you don’t need a computer in the office.’

At the time, I was continuing my ECDL course, learning (at my own expense) how to use the standard software packages – but I wondered if all of this had been a waste of time.

A year later we were all issued with a company memo, reminding us that IT security was very important and that we should all be careful not to access any unauthorised websites or e-mail contacts. ‘Please sign below to confirm that you understand and agree to the terms and conditions outlined in this letter.’ I duly sent the memo back, pointing out that I had never actually made use of the firm’s computer system.

I carried on working there for four years, and then moved from job to job at different places round the UK, eventually landing here, where my salary is still slightly below what it was nineteen years ago.

An Evening Walk

Today I went out for an evening walk, to
Keep me busy on a desperately wet day in July
And give my mad-professor lockdown hair
A chance to take advantage of the rain. On my journey
I encountered gleaming pools of light
Where dancing rings began to swell and burst
Beneath the groaning pressure of the sky.

I spotted the abandoned wage-slips, discarded burger cartons
Like orange books of Styrofoam philosophy
And bushes thick with gleaming thorns bear fruit
Some berries green like mantis eyes of polished jade,
While one or two are bursting purple ripe.

Nineteen sturdy metal poles line up
To form the perfect cage; they threaten to diffract
The butterflies, the sparrows, wasps
And empty beer-cans thrown by angry lads on Friday night.

The harsh grey pylons hang below, humming
With the evanescent currency of dreams;
Reflected railings crumple in the rain, somewhere
A long equation describes with perfect clarity
How dancing circles interrupt
This stern parade of bars.

Mass Observation (We’re Being Watched!)

“My membership of the Society of Authors came through today! I’ve been accepted.” (Kenneth Williams, Diaries, ed. Russell Davies: entry dated Mon 12 May 1980)

Mass Observation Diary, 12 May 2020:

I’m 32 years old, from Brighton but now living up North. I spent years working as a trainee architect but now I am employed as an Account Manager. I was born male, and remain male, but apparently nowadays (according to the gossip on Twitter) it is not unknown for men to simply declare that they now ‘identify as female’, and, despite having all the characteristic physiology of mature male humans, demand the right to use women’s toilets and changing facilities.

Because of the lockdown, it is easier to think of the world in terms of the things we cannot do, rather than those which we can; simple things like travelling to work or going to a café.

Today is Thursday, when the bins get emptied by the council rubbish collectors. Many years ago, the binmen would come once a week, but that was changed to every other week in order to save money. Of course, ‘binmen’ is an archaic expression from the seventies when jobs and careers were strictly demarcated; refuse collectors were always male, nurses were always female.

My partner Simon claims that this is the highlight of my month. We live together – we have little to do with the neighbours, and some of them (so I understand) are under the impression that he is my son.
We live in a rented flat; many people in the UK own their homes (or will do so after paying a monthly mortgage for twenty-odd years) but we have to pay rent to a distant landlord. Technically we are in Salford, a deprived region of Greater Manchester, but our flat overlooks fields, so really we are on the edge of Cheshire.

I work for an electronics firm, and like many people in Britain I am being allowed to work from home. This policy was announced by the government to slow the spread of the coronavirus, by cutting down on travel. Lots of people are being ‘furloughed’ so they can remain at home, getting 80 percent of their wages from the government and being kept ready to resume work once the epidemic has died down.

Normally I would walk up to the local station and catch the 7.12 train to Oldham. The route is a busy one, and the trains are often delayed or cancelled. Sometimes the passengers have to stand for the entire journey in desperately crowded carriages called ‘Pacer Trains’.

The train journey would carry me past the ‘station park’ – a miniature replica of Frodo Baggins’ cottage in Lord of The Rings – and then past the Bredbury Power Station, and on to Manchester where the skyline is a forest of cranes. Spaces that were formerly car parks or derelict shops are now being transformed into cities in the sky.
I would leave the train at Victoria station, then walk twenty minutes to the office where I work, passing the homeless people in sleeping bags under the bridge, passing the smart restaurants and bars, past the estate agents’ offices with expensive sports cars parked outside them, and past the Gothic fantasy frontage of the John Rylands library.

Usually I would buy a sandwich for lunch from a supermarket, and then make my way on towards work, passing the Oast House, a trendy bar assembled from weathered beams and rusted farm implements.
This bar has a large courtyard where drinkers can enjoy the warm evenings and watch live music or broadcast sport; a life-sized poster shows one player from each of the six nations rugby teams, with a vertical scale in the middle for lesser mortals to see how they measure up against these giants.

Like all sporting events, the Six Nations was suspended in March.

So, instead of this journey to work, I now walk from the bedroom to the spare room where I have a desk and computer set up to carry out my work. The miracle of technology allows tens of thousands of workers round the UK to remotely access their secure office networks and so carry on processing customer details.
My monthly season ticket for the train costs about £215, so the process of working from home brings financial benefits.

Breakfast: toast, cereal and coffee. I boil the water in a kettle on the gas stove rather than use an electric kettle. The handle is fixed to the kettle lid using a mild-steel screw which has started to rust. I was hoping to have avocado on toast, but the fruits themselves were hard. ‘Perfectly ripe’, it said on the wrapper, which I am guessing was Greek for golf balls.

We don’t have a dishwasher, so all the dirty plates and cups were waiting for me in the sink when I got up today; I set about washing-up, cleaning the crockery along with a couple of plastic ice-cream tubs. But we do have a washing-machine, so I no longer have to carefully decant laundry powder into old margarine tubs and take the half-hour walk to the washeteria.

Social: during the day I correspond with my work colleagues and ask them for advice using an online messaging service called ‘Microsoft Teams’.
I would sometimes go into Manchester on Tuesday nights to meet up with friends and play board games in the pub. Without the standard family network I (and many other gay men) rely on the pub scene for conversation, affirmation and company. But now we are still instructed to avoid unnecessary travel, and all the pubs and restaurants and cinemas and libraries and shopping centres are still shut, so I stay indoors and watch television.

For many years I had no television and would listen to records or read library books, but now I have no turntable or speakers so I can only listen to music online or by playing CDs through a DVD unit. Online entertainment is a miracle – you can simply tap into a keyboard and immediately listen to almost anything without having to pay a fee or search through library catalogues…

Weather: since I am not travelling to work, it doesn’t matter what today’s weather is going to be like. It’s glorious outside, bright and cold: I watch the neighbour’s cat go trotting daintily past the wheelie bins with a mouse.
Food: the arrival of the Coronavirus sent thousands of people rushing off to their local supermarkets to stock up on tinned beans, long-life milk and toilet rolls. I have several tins of soup and rice pudding and a large jar of olives. We bought a couple of bags of flour and have been making pancakes and shortbread. This is delicious, but I realized, after polishing off most of the batch, that I have eaten half a packet of butter in one day.

For lunch I turn back into a student and treat myself to beans on toast with grilled cheese. In the evening I decide to prepare an ornamental salad with tomatoes, eggs and leaves. ‘You don’t like olives, do you?’ I call from the kitchen. Simon says no, not really, and I point out that it is a line from Victoria Wood. ‘Or perhaps it’s from Abigail’s Party…’

Work: I sit at a small desk with a dainty laptop computer and take customer enquiries. On the bookshelf there is a picture of me with my older sister, taken 5 years ago at the Coliseum in Rome. At work, we are required to clear all personal belongings off the desk at the end of the day, so people rarely bother to put on display any personal items or photographs.
I sit at my desk taking phone calls and webchat messages; the great thing about working from home is that I don’t have to trudge from the office to the station, worrying about how late the train will be. Instead, I can saunter into the bedroom and have a brief power nap before getting dinner ready.

TV news: the news is all about Covid-19, and the recent announcement that people in the UK will be allowed to travel greater distances to get their unlimited daily exercise. However, after discarding their slogan ‘Stay Home’ the government went on to say that people should still avoid going out if possible. I log onto the internet to read the news headlines and see the latest grim statistics. We are advised to return to work but not to travel by public transport, a declaration that has prompted widespread scorn.

To cheer myself up I watch the jazz Rachmaninov scene from ‘Groundhog Day’ on the Youtube website.
Earlier today it turned grey and damp, the tarmac bruised with gleaming puddles. But now it is glorious again, late low sunshine bouncing off the trees and the power station chimneys.

‘Look what I’ve found’ said my friend, offering me a black fabric bag. I peered in and saw a pair of headphones. When I didn’t show any excitement, he went on: ‘Look what else is in there.’ And deeper in the bag I found my Hitachi MP3 player, a flat rectangular capsule full to bursting with Prince, Doves, and Berlioz. I bought this player ten years ago in Truro, and spent hours listening to it. Then it went missing a few months ago and I was distraught, worried that I had lost it somewhere.

The evening is cool; behind our flat, the trees make ornate silhouettes against a soft grey sky that drifts from lilac into amber. On the news we have the Chancellor telling us that thousands of jobs have already been lost due to the Covid lockdown, but the treasury would carry on paying furlough wages to companies whose workers had been temporarily laid off.

The day is nearly over; we watch a TV drama serial called ‘The A Word’, all about the issues surrounding autism in children. I think about the funeral hymn, ‘The Day thou Gavest, Lord’, and wonder if it’s time for an alternative version, where the draughtsman puts the finishing touches to his utopian blueprint, or the technician at CERN initiates the voltage-ramping procedure that will lead to a staggering discovery.

This time last year everything was radiantly optimistic, with Boris suggesting that the threshold for higher-rate tax payers could be raised from fifty to eighty grand a year. This time next year we could be plunged into a recession, with a ban on air travel, interest rates at twelve percent and the Qatar FIFA world cup on the brink of cancellation. Only time will tell…

“I donate my 12th May diary to the Mass Observation Archive. I consent to it being made publicly available as part of the Archive and assign my copyright in the diary to the Mass Observation Archive Trustees so that it can be reproduced in full or in part on websites, in publications and in broadcasts as approved by the Mass Observation Trustees. I agree to the Mass Observation Archive assuming the role of Data Controller and the Archive will be responsible for the collection and processing of personal data and ensuring that such data complies with the DPA.”

Here Are The News

It’s Monday morning; the world outside is grey and damp. Strange how the large bush in the back garden flails in the wind, all the branches moving in different directions.

Half-fill the sink with cold water and add a squirt of washing-up liquid, a pleasant-smelling juice in a warm orange-red colour, supposedly flavoured with pomegranate and rosemary – not sure what the point of this is, since it’s not meant for consumption. Indeed, the label carries a hazard warning to alert people to the dangers of skin and eye contact.

I enjoy cleaning the crockery; a couple of these plates have travelled with me from Derby, where I lived in 1996.

Perhaps I’ll go to Lidl in a bit, to get some of those lovely Portuguese tarts. I wonder if they have to remain in quarantine for 14 days before we are allowed to eat them? The government has issued a series of scrambled announcements, telling people that they can travel abroad but they will be required to spend a couple of weeks in isolation upon arrival, and then a further two weeks when they return to the UK.

British holidaymakers can now go to several foreign destinations without having to self-isolate when they come back; but a curious exception is Portugal, one of the most popular travel spots. The reason for these quarantine rules is, of course, the pandemic of coronavirus which has killed thousands of people and forced the widespread closure of manufacturing and leisure facilities. In 24 years’ time we will have forgotten all about this.

Another country which is not allowing direct travel from the UK is Greece; however, Stanley Johnson managed to get over there by breaking his journey in Bulgaria. SJ is better known as the father of Boris, our Prime Minister, who has presided over a shambolic response to the pandemic. The next five years will see a huge number of books and research papers exploring the background to Covid-19 in the UK and the wayward antics of our senior politicians.

It appears that my smartphone is beginning to malfunction; the battery no longer holds its charge for an entire day, and the display enjoys going through its ornate display of coloured smoke for minutes at a stretch, instead of kicking neatly into the launch menu. These devices are usually reckoned to have a lifespan of about four years; so I’m living on borrowed time having purchased this item in 2013.

At least it helped us to find our way to the Youth Hostel in Brno, with just four percent charge left by the time we arrived, down from 19 percent as we left the train at Dolni station.

Here are the News

In just the right sedate and measured tones,
The radio announcer tells me that
The virus killed another thousand people yesterday
And the high street clatters towards annihilation
With big stores watching jobs evaporate

Without the faintest murmur of excitement
The wireless informs us that we are at war,
The city overrun with fever-stricken zombies
Bleeding from every orifice and refusing
To observe the social distance guidelines put in place

No hint of drama animates the voice
That brings to life the daily news; ‘Today’
It says, ‘A one-armed dentist carried out
Open-heart surgery on a wasp. Madonna will
Conduct the Last Night of the Proms. And a football player
Has had a haircut, but is expected
To make a full recovery. Thank God for that!’

The UK economy is starting to emerge from hibernation,
Thousands of people returning to their jobs; they
Sit in parlours and paint the nails of bored housewives,
Or cold-call nervous pensioners, trying to persuade
Them to switch their energy supply. There’s nothing quite
Like doing work that fills your soul with pride.

Forgotten at last…

It must have been difficult enough for those blokes back in 1874 when they were trying to set the type for Bohn’s Classical Library; not only did they have to cope with back-to-front letters, but nearly every page carries a footnote or three, often including Greek script. Did they receive special training in how to understand Greek, or was there an eager brigade of proof-readers ready to inspect the printed sheets and identify any mistakes?

And even the bits that are not Greek seem vaguely foreign; I have forgotten nearly everything I learned at school, but I am absolutely certain that we never encountered the term ‘zeugma’.

Once I think it would have been a vivid green, but all the years have laid grey dust in close-up constellations of the unseen mystery. I bought the book back in 1980 from Treasure Trove, a ramshackle warehouse of old books and plates and ornaments. I recall there seemed to be a lot of hardback novels by Augusta Wilson and Philip Gibbs, along with physical chemistry textbooks.

But the book I decided to purchase was Bohn’s edition of Homer’s Odyssey; I knew nothing about this work other than it was a cornerstone of Western thought, and felt that my life would be improved in some vague manner if I were to own a copy.

When we got home I started browsing through the book, and immediately found it to be hard going – partly because it was a literal translation, designed expressly for scholars with a deep interest in Classics – and also because it had not been fully cut, and several of the pages were still joined together.
Not thinking of the possible damage to the historical value of this volume, I took our mild-steel carving knife and set about opening up the pages. Alas, after this I lost interest and put the book in a shelf where it remained, unread, for years.

I recently picked it up again and came across the brief section in book IX where the crew of Ulysses’ ship arrive at the island of the lotus-eaters and are seduced by the narcotic blooms.
How many layers of meaning lie hidden in this narrative, I wondered? And then I remembered that Tennyson had written a poem all about this episode, where the sailors give voice to their loneliness and fatigue, explaining the appeal of forgetfulness. As well as the hypnotic lotus flowers, Tennyson mentions amaranth and moly, two plants with legendary medicinal properties; the restorative herb moly appears in book X of the Odyssey.

Amaranth refers to a synthetic dyestuff, but the actual pigment contained in the petals of the amaranth flower is usually a betalain, consisting of a glucose unit bonded to a base then via an azo linkage to a betalamic acid derivative. The various different functional groups attached to this structure give rise to yellow, crimson, or violet pigments. These materials are currently being studied for their antioxidant properties.

Tennyson’s sailors end their narrative by resigning to a life of ease and happiness; but in Homer, we find the men dragged back to the ships where they gradually recover their senses and smite the hoary sea with their oars, ready to encounter the Cyclops and the glorious dwelling of Circe.
Curious, then to recall that many of the pages of this book were still sealed when I bought it; for, looking through the chapters I found some ancient handwritten notes. The book had also been owned by Jean Harris, at the University of Birmingham; I wondered if she had bothered reading the book and found the unopened sections, but did not wish to damage the structure.

Covid-19 update, 01 July 2020:
UK: 313 thousand cases, 43,900 deaths
US: 2.74 million cases, 130,000 deaths

Perhaps the vaccine, when it arrives, will allow us to forget the horrors of the past, the long-term respiratory damage and neurological disorders caused by the coronavirus, the induced coma state endured by patients on ventilators and the agony of being transformed into swine during their drug-flavoured nightmares…

Context and future context

Looking through the Bohn edition of Homer’s Odyssey, we find that nearly every page carries footnotes, often to explain the difficulties in translating the original text but sometimes to post a reference to later commentaries; a few of the footnotes compare sections of Paradise Lost with the body of Homer’s work. But this overlooks the fact that Milton would seem like an alien being to the ancient Greeks.

In the same way, perhaps the reported numbers of Covid-19 cases should always carry a contextual note to explain how many infections (and fatalities) have been measured per head of population.
Some people would say that, to aid simplicity, the infection rates should always be reported as numbers per thousand head of population so that we can compare different countries. However, extracting the raw data then becomes a problem and it is not easy to identify the source of any errors in the calculated numbers.

Many years ago, my research project involved measuring the bond strength of adhesive joints, and I reported the results as being failure loads in kN, having already described the joint configuration.

Some colleagues pointed out that this was not consistent with other published reports, since most researchers in this field would quote failure loads in MPa, dividing the failure load by the surface area. This appears to be a sensible idea, since it would allow the results from different project to be compared. However, the standard lap-joint undergoes eccentric loading and differential strain, which means that the stress is highly concentrated at the edges of the bonded area.

Perhaps every research paper should be revisited after five years, to see whether the results have been supported or dismissed by the work of later project teams; my own work would carry footnotes to advise that the primer systems I studied have now been replaced by eco-friendly versions using water-borne emulsions and chlorine-free polymers. And after a few years, other commercial organisations might be able to publish their own private results, demonstrating that they had already been engaged on similar research. This information could be added to the text of the original research paper in the form of a subsequent footnote.

So it is correct that the number of Covid-19 cases needs to be placed in context, by reporting the population from which they are taken; but merging the data would impair our ability to analyse the figures and formulate an effective response.