Chris Gates, Norfolk UK
Huge news of the week is the early arrival of Covid vaccine for issuance to Care Homes and the NHS before starting on the populace. Oddly, the finer detail is less clear: it turns out vials are packed in lots of 975 and once the pack is open you have to use the lot pretty well immediately. As it’s stored at minus 70 it’s tricky stuff to handle and no-one has thought it through yet - ie how do you get say 25 to a Care Home in good chilled order and what happens to the other 950 doses while you’re doing it? Imagine specialist injectors fanning out in all directions from central storage to make best use - that will be too slow, surely? Or get Care Home residents and Staff onto chartered busses to drive-through jab-stations? Hospitals will be ok, they can set up immunisation clinics - if they have the -70° fridges.
By Friday the answer still hasn’t emerged, though we’re good to go from next Tuesday, apparently. The looming question is: whose job was it to get the fridges?
Anyway, it’s marvellous progress, the UK is ahead having fast-tracked the seal of approval and we have 800,000 doses of this Pfizer Biontec vaccine from Belgium, coming immediately from an order of 40,000,000, enough ultimately for 20,000,000 immunisations.
National ‘r’ is now below 1, and thus a dramatic downturn in new infections and consequent hospital admissions, best seen in the BBC graphic below - though sadly, we’ve passes the 60,000 mark too.
We’ve had a giddy whirl of a coronavirus defying time, driving not once, but twice into Norwich on successive days, mooching, buying a chair, a book, a beard-trim and even sitting primly in a ‘distanced’ City cafe with hot chocolate and Portuguese custard tarts. There were a lot more masks on the street than before.
Greetings from the far south
Mark Waller, Pretoria, South Africa
It looks like we could be heading for another period of lockdowns, as Covid ‘hotspots’ now emerge in parts of the country. Nelson Mandela Bay, the municipality that contains Port Elizabeth, is now under a night curfew once again. Alcohol sales are being cut back and religious gatherings can only have fewer than 100 people attending them.
The super spreaders are, apparently, the “after tears” parties that people hold following funerals. Funerals are a big deal here, often bigger, more raucous events than weddings. More attention gets lavished on folk after they’re dead than they ever received in life, and packed, boozy funeral celebrations are corona magnets.
New restrictions are also due to take effect in the Saara Baartman District in the Eastern Cape, and throughout the Garden Route in the Western Cape. The interdependence of these two Cape provinces, so vastly different in social and economic terms, is accentuated by the pandemic.
Tens of thousands of people from the Eastern Cape travel to the affluent Western Cape for work — as domestics, gardeners, shop workers, labourers, hawkers — and return home regularly with hard earned cash and supplies. The constant to and fro of migrant workers is one reason why the virus has spread again so rapidly within the two provinces, following the heavy lockdown of earlier this year.
But we’re seeing a gradual resurgence of the virus just about everywhere, as people seem to have stopped taking basic precautions. The government keeps reiterating the message that mask wearing, social distancing and better hygiene are our main hopes of reducing the rate of infection. But it seems that far fewer people are taking any notice than in the early days of lockdown.
Round where I live, in Pretoria, which is in the province that still has the highest number of corona cases, mask wearing seems almost to be a thing of the past except in some places of work. Practically all the small shops and businesses nearby don’t bother with it. The bigger chain stores do and so do local municipal offices. When I went to get a haircut the other week, the woman who cuts my hair asked me to take off my mask. Neither she nor her coworkers wore masks.
It’s different at the local grocery store I use almost daily. The owner is from Greece and his parents and other older relations live in Athens, confined indoors. He worries about them. At the entrance to the shop, he has a worker spray the customers’ hands and take their temperature. All the workers, who are locals from the nearby township, wear masks, and they seem well up on the state of the pandemic in the country and locally.
One of them, Ester, complained to me today about how, despite everything, people still came into the shop wearing their masks sloppily. She pointed to a white guy who was standing just inside the shop. His mask only covered his mouth. She made sure he could hear her. I doubt he was used to a black woman putting him in his place. “Look, there’s one who doesn’t know how to wear it!" she said loudly. "Do they think they don’t breath through their noses?”
Restrictions for many
Hilde Schöning, Buchholz, Germany
We received our first Christmas card along with lovely gifts from Sweden on Wednesday. The houses and the land are covered by ice in the morning and it is quite cosy at home. There is a lot of marking to be done so there wouldn't be any time for Christmas markets which are not taking place this year.
The government decided on Wednesday evening to extend its lockdown lite until the 10th of January, as we are not having a decline in infections but an increase in mortality. The northern states seem to be less affected than the southern ones, some people claim northerners are more disciplined and obey the rules more. I'm not sure about that, the north is in large parts less densely populated, though.
We still make an effort to create a nice atmosphere in the school building and a huge Christmas tree has been put up in the hall which is nicely decorated. Breakfasts or small festivities in class are forbidden on the last school day in two weeks.
Words from Wood Lane
Susan Neave, Beverley
‘I heard a bird sing in the dark of December. A magical thing. And sweet to remember. We are nearer to Spring than we were in September. I heard a bird sing in the dark of December.’
Oliver Hereford 1863-1935
It has certainly been dark here today – and damp, but there have been a few birds singing. We are trying out a new ‘squirrel-proof’ bird feeder with metal shutters that block the feeding holes when the squirrel presses on the perch. So far it seems to have been working, but no doubt they will find a way round it eventually. Instead they just content themselves with the bird table.
What we really want is some sunshine. There is a particular reason for this. Earlier today a man from Sussex delivered a rather lovely sundial (with a bird on the pointer). It was a surprise present from the family of our old neighbour who died earlier this year, as a thank you for help over the years and with the sale of his house etc. They are scattered around England – Suffolk, London and Cornwall, plus one in Australia. We are delighted with it, and have the perfect spot. All we need now is some sun so we can place it in the correct position!
Waiting for some sun!
David Horovitch, Twickenham
I find myself more and more moved when I read the journal these days, a strange sense of solidarity, almost intimacy sometimes with the other contributors. There must be a name for this - if there isn't, I propose The Burlingham Syndrome. We've all been through this strange time together but as soon as I write this, I realise we haven't have we? Most of us have never met and some of us are on the other side of the world but I do appreciate everyone's candour, humour and, I suppose, courage. I'm so glad my sonnet readings are bringing pleasure to you, Mary. Pleasure is too small a word for what they bring to me. I've just recorded the 124th. I'm 30 away from the finishing line. I do about 3 a week now. I'd like to finish them on the day I receive my second vaccination, crack open a bottle of champagne and read nothing but Elmore Leonard for the rest of my days. My recreational reading at present is Treasure Island which is wonderful.
I was going to write much more but my agent's just called and I have to prepare a self-tape by Monday and I'm sworn to secrecy about what it's for. It'll have to wait.
Hilary Q, North Norfolk
An unexpected order for six bespoke boxes of Posh Kindling arrived in the middle of last week. Every photograph tells a story. I started making these four years ago as a bit of a joke. The Weekend FT has periods of complete consumerism overload and I thought it would be rather fun to make firelighters from the best and often the most outrageous headlines... the conceit being that once you have burned the firelighters you can burn the box as well... they are all lined with the stock price pages... so money just goes up in smoke. Banksy would approve.
The aspirational fireplace shop Jamb in London’s Pimlico Road sold them to the rich and famous and since then I regularly receive orders. I ask for a few details about the recipient’s interests and attempt to tailor the boxes to them. It is always a challenge but great fun and I relish putting the stories together whilst listening to Radio 3 or 6!
Mary Fisher, Norfolk UK
Oh the number of hoops Barbara’s care home is being asked to jump through by the government. Barely have the staff set up garden visiting, than they are building an indoor pod, a sort of plastic room within a room. I for one will be pleased to get into the warm again; Thursday’s visit was so wet with wrap-around cold.
Unhappily this week has had more false starts. Even before the pod is finished, staff are being asked to set up a rapid-results testing service. On Tuesday the government issues a press release, “Care home residents in all tiers will be able to see their families again this Christmas… with visits to begin in the first homes tomorrow”. One day’s notice? Well no because the department of health hadn’t actually planned either how staff would be trained or supplied the testing equipment. It comes as a surprise to care staff too when relatives start to ring up expecting to be able to visit inside after hearing the announcement. In reality many care homes will not be able to set up the new rapid testing system until the New Year.
And then a further problem is detected… doubts are raised about the effectiveness of the rapid testing technology. It seems there are a relatively high number of false negatives if the tests are administered by inadequately trained staff. In light of this, one council decides that each visitor needs two tests, 24 hours apart, before they can be allowed to visit. So, is that two trips to test and a third trip to visit? Excellent, a rapid test that is neither rapid nor a test!
Then, credit where it is due, the department of health successfully manages to acquire vaccines for an identified list of high risk people. Included on the list are care home staff and residents. Wonderful! We won’t have to worry about rapid tests or pods. That’s another No. Care home residents and staff are not included in the early roll-out. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at a very low temperature thus it can only be delivered to and by hospitals. Raised expectations dashed again. Patience is a virtue that I think I’m losing.
Much grumbling going on in Parliament about the Tier system. And many debates about Christmas arrangements. Should we meet up or not? I was reminded this week that, in 1644, the Puritans had no scruples when it came to Christmas measures. The Puritans found no biblical justification for Christmas at all. Indeed, they considered it was a profligate festival that endangered core Christian beliefs. Accordingly, Oliver Cromwell enforced an Act of Parliament and simply banned Christmas celebrations. All activities relating to Christmas, including attending mass, were forbidden. Not surprisingly, the ban was enormously unpopular and many people continued to celebrate Christmas in secret. Nevertheless, the ban lasted for sixteen years. Is it really too much for us to tone down our celebrations for one year?
Christmas cards are beginning to land on my doormat. Nearly all wish me to stay safe and well. I am trying. Personally, I have always taken pleasure from receiving cards at Christmas time. I like the whole process. Buying or making cards - Sheila’s card last week was gorgeous. I like writing a greeting or, as R used to call it, a mini thesis. Many people have switched to virtual or e-cards but I’m wondering if real cards will see a revival this year.
Vie de château
Marie-Christine, Blois, France
My contribution is short today, too much work again on administration for my pension.
Even if I started the process in July there is still some way to go. Everything has to be ready on the first of January, and not all of it is in my power. French Administration, in its worst aspect, slow and redundant, a serpent biting its own tail - demands by one bureau for forms given by another bureau, and all just as slow as each other, three different departments involved - none of which talks directly to the other two, while I am required to act as the intermediary. Providing proof in the shape of a 1971 salary form for example..., ages on the telephone before any answer, and then cut off or landed with the wrong person... refusal of 'in person" appointments because of Covid... why not shut hospitals because of Covid, we have to meet people there too? Just an awful experience. Administration is a kind of secret cult of its own, with its own dreary vision of eternity and fight against the demonized users of its "services". I am listening Parsifal on the Met Opera online at the same time, very appropriate. I would almost have preferred to work up to the end of my life. That's probably why France has good food and good wine, to comfort its people for inadequate and powerful administration of every sort. I am describing my pension odyssey, but it's the same story for taxes, buying a property, renewing an ID card (this is nothing to do with the EU, it's specific to France)...
Last week's photo of Gorleston on Plague20 (and then the Google satellite Map which it prompted me to consult) brings back memories of our yearly month in Geldeston long ago.
Gorleston was our best spot to swim in the evening after supper, nobody was there.
We parked the car by the Ladies's bowls club, went down a flight of stairs to the sand, warm from the sunny day, and the beach was ours. Big boats were entering the mouth of the River Yare.
From the Beccles road, we had to turn right at the sign to the Crematorium, for once a cheerful omen. I loved that drive, the round tower of Haddiscoe church, the Victorian cast iron bridge over the Waveney at St Olaves.
Thank you, Chris, for bringing back those days back so clearly with your Gorleston fishing photo.
And with that memory come back all our holidays in Norfolk: summers in Overstrand and then Potter Heigham in the bungalow on the River Thurne.
Mary's thanksgiving pumpkin tart.
I intend to make one for the next time our American family comes. I will need to practice before; can we have the recipe please? Miamian (= yummy yummy).
Now it's Plague20 journal first. I enjoy it more and more. Maybe because I know you all better and because I understand your written English better after 6 months. It's like getting letters from twenty-five friends every week. We have our stars, Ernie not least. I also love to have a view, in France, of daily goings on in the USA, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Germany, and from so many places all over England.
And Rob loved Peter's poem last week.
Why bother with French Administration when you can look at this new picture of the Milky Way?
Mary’s Projects Mostly
Mary Hildyard, Totnes, Devon
I am feeling rather fed up with our COVID existence - the lack of Christmas with family, the bitter cold that keeps us from meeting up outside with friends, the endless online shopping for everything we need, from watch batteries to envelopes. But, several things have brightened my week. One, of course, is the prospect of vaccinations beginning in the UK. If I can begin to hope that that means “near normal life” by Easter I can hold things together until then. After a year, to be able to hug my grandchildren - such a joyful prospect.
Those grandchildren also brightened my week. Zooming with them often takes the form of just watching them colouring or painting and chatting with them as they work. This week, Ben, aged 3, decided to draw our portraits. “Stay still” he said “I am drawing you”. So, Simon and I stopped talking and stared into the screen as he drew. His mother emailed a photo of the drawing. My brother, to whom I emailed it on, commented “I have never seen your hair so radiant”.
Sam, aged 5, also gave me delight. He is currently being home schooled due to a positive COVID case in his bubble. He and his father, John, went on a “long and astronomically correct walk” this week taking pictures as they progressed. Starting at the Sun (that is, just outside their home in Royston) they chalked the planets as they proceeded through the town and tried to pace the “astronomical units” between each planet. According to John they “fudged the pacing” to the last planet in order not to end up in a field outside Cambridge!
The dazzling sun
Almost 700 million kilometres from the sun, now.
Or about 700 big footsteps. Europa may hold life...
From a very small Island
Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight
Thinking about the journal, I’m finding it hard to think of very much that has happened during the past week. Perhaps there is hope with the vaccines. There is also the age old hope and anticipation of Advent of course.
The Irish holiday went quite well. We enjoyed music, but less so two quite bizarre and rather bad so-called quintessentially Irish films, The Quiet Man and Ryan’s Daughter. People have such strange ideas about Ireland and Irish culture! We did watch one wonderful reflective documentary on the pubs of Ireland, which was great. Food was good; Irish stew, barmbrack, ginger cake, and naturally alcohol, making their presence felt. Never did get round to colcannon - not enough room in our stomachs!
Best beloved and I took a walk over Brading Marshes on Tuesday. We are quite used to seeing the white Little Egrets all round the Island, but suddenly we saw a white bird on quite a different scale. This was heron-sized and we realised it must be a Great Egret. What a beautiful creature! They have only quite recently come to the UK. I am wondering if any journalistas from other parts have espied them at all.
Well, I think that’s about it for this week. Please keep well all who may read this.
From the South Downs
I haven’t written an entry for this journal for some time. What inhibits me? The things I’d like to talk about are personal, perhaps better not displayed online. I worry about becoming boring. But I thought I’d write this week and sum up a few Covid-era 2020 recent events.
I booked up for a free reading by American poet Carolyn Forché (whose work I admire very much – the wonderful poem Museum of Stones and the frightening poem The Colonel are two of her most famous works, I guess) – and I was not disappointed. The reading was arranged by an Irish university. Forché normally has a big audience – and it seemed rather privileged and pleasingly intimate to be with her in her room. On the same evening, poet Julian Stannard was launching his book online – another pleasure though in a totally different way. Julian’s slightly tragic humour is disarming, and even without a visible audience, his wit shone through.
My sister-in-law bought us as a gift of a Freedom from Torture poetry reading featuring the winners of their poetry competition and guest poets Imtiaz Dharker, Ian McMillan, Inua Ellams, Daljit Nagra – all reading their powerful poems from their homes. The talk about resilience by one former torture victim, his hopefulness and generosity, made me ashamed of little worries.
Another ceremony that I ‘attended’ was the funeral of my old tutor from Warwick University, Tom Winnifrith. I have never been to a funeral online before and was glad to be able to pay my respects to Tom, who as well as being a brilliant and kind lecturer (albeit not suffering fools gladly), fulfilled all our naïve fresher expectations of what an eccentric academic should look like, with his wild wiry hair, thick glasses and mismatched socks. Tom taught us Virgil and Homer and, as well as being a classicist, was a Bronte expert. He once took us on a coach trip to Howarth on a wet, grey foggy day (perfect weather for the ambience of Howarth parsonage) where he stood outside a tearoom announcing loudly to passers-by – I AM BRANWELL BRONTE.
Using Zoom, I was able to see my friend Lynne’s new dog, formerly a Romanian street dog, now a cosseted East Midlander and getting huger by the minute. Lynne also made it to Tom’s funeral online which led us to talk over our early days at Warwick and how our tutors, Tom, Penny, Ken, Paul and Sam built our confidence by treating us in a civilised way. Lynne and I met on the first day in the Warwick Uni bookshop putting out our hands for the same copy of Vergil’s Aeneid.
Closer to home, I find it very frustrating that we can’t have our friends Chloe and Liam in the house. We’re all working at home so are no risk to one another. We would be safer having a coffee together in either house than going to a café.
My online RLF sessions with Southampton University students continue – in fact, I’ve been very busy with Monday and Tuesday now usually full, which means sometimes I’m reading twelve essays a week. Sunday and Monday nights have been busy with the essay reading. Sharing a document online seems to work. Our play-readings on Zoom with Margaret and Peter, Mary and Simon, are very absorbing.
This virtual life is strange. I was glad to plant my sweet-peas in the mended greenhouse and make Christmas puddings – the eight hours of steaming is just over as I write. Reality seems precious, and I’m looking forward to the vaccine and being out from behind the screen eventually.