Strange times

Anna Stenborg, Uppsala, Sweden

There is less pressure on the hospital now with fewer corona patients, so that is good. During work on weekends I had to take care of 2 corona patients and for the first time had to put on and take off all the protection in the right order and leave things in the right place. Thankfully they were not severely ill.


Probably because of too much work and some trouble with sleep I felt stressed these last weeks. There was also the repeated interactions with the husband of an old very complicated patient with recurring coma and hypoglycemia. She was quite fun to talk with when she was properly awake. Previous physicians had put a warning for the husband, who is a retired physician, in the patients electronic chart, but I removed the warning since there was no risk that anyone would not discover the problems right away, and the chart ought to be about the patient, not her husband. When I discharged her to the nursing home, I was worried that he would tamper with the papers that we sent to her nurse, so I made extra copies marked "for the husband". But they phoned from the nursing home and he had taken all the papers, leaving only the medications. Obviously we faxed the papers instead.

People are not wearing masks in the streets and shops since there is no recommendation to do so. I am not sure if it is efficient but now I will buy masks and at least use in the supermarket and for the rare dinner with relatives and friends.


Rural Norfolk

Chris Gates, Norfolk UK

Midweek and after a slow start suddenly there’s news, unwelcome news - dominated by an explosion in Beirut port killing more than one hundred, injuring 5000 and rendering 300,000 homeless. The Port is, effectively, destroyed. The source was not terrorism (at least not thought so, the Israelis haven’t claimed it) but 2750 tons of stored Nitrate fertiliser, the IRA explosive of choice - widely available as an agricultural fertiliser - set off by a nearby fireworks store on fire... small explosions were clearly seen in a separate fire beforehand. The Lebanese, desperately poor, suffering their own Coronavirus crisis, faced with galloping inflation, led by inept and corrupt government, are going to need help. 


Here, 4500 mainly ‘High Street‘ jobs are lost this week so far, including 900 at Hays Travel, the family firm that came to Thomas Cook’s rescue a while back, though in a bittersweet moment the rather engaging Mr & Mrs Hays say the losses won’t be from the new Thompson contingent.


In Rural Norfolk and elsewhere, harvest is in full swing and the comforting rumble of combine harvesters is heard in the land. Farmers rarely admit everything is fine and this year yields are down, both wheat and barley. This would normally push prices up, but depressed draught beer sales have left brewers with big stocks of malting barley putting a dampener on barley. Apropos nothing much, while being of an age and disposition to be part of the pub culture, I have found in recent years that my interest in going to a pub is in inverse proportion to beer prices. At the start of my ‘career‘ a pint cost between 1/6 and 2 shillings and a meal anywhere between 7/6 and a Guinea. You could argue the relationship is still there, but with a pint at £4+ I don’t seek it out as enthusiastically as I used to.


Thursday, and news emerges (have we been here before?) that a £252m contract to supply masks at the peak of PPE clamour was given to a researcher for Liz Truss - Andrew Mills. He and his wife have no background in PPE or importing, used a £100 clean ‘shell‘ company and bought from China - but it turns out the kit isn’t fit for purpose (ear loops, not secure ties) and has never been used... He is also (or maybe was) an advisor to the Board of Trade. Whether the masks will ever be used, whether there will be repercussions, no-one knows.

The incidence of new coronavirus infection shows a slight increase - plus we’ve extended the ‘quarantine on return’ regime to those returning from Belgium, Andorra and The Bahamas. France is experiencing widespread spikes and expected to be added soon. We’re probably waiting for MP’s to return from their villas.


Bumpy landing on the south coast

Catherine, Sussex

It’s been a bit of a week, and I’m ready for a rest. With little warning, J2’s mother came to stay with me on Sunday, for four days. Just time to organise things, including lactose-free diet. Fortunately, although we have little in common other than our children, we like one another and get on. She has not a malign bone in her body, which is refreshing. She also has dementia so a light touch is required, which suits me fine. In the end she spent all day each day with the Js, just having a sleep, breakfast and chat here, which suited me even finer. Except for one afternoon, when I was coerced into joining the three of them. It ended badly, with J1 furious with me yet again; it happens a lot at the moment. On the up side, I had been brave and asked that my visitor wear a mask at all times, as would I (she has a health condition), and she was fine with that, bringing an assortment. We also managed to keep a respectable distance from one another. A discovery was that shouting, or at least greater volume, is in fact a necessary part of distanced mask-wearing, whether or not one relies on lip-reading. I am generally told that I speak too quietly, so made a conscious effort to speak up, and articulate more clearly, which to me sounded awfully loud but seemed to do the trick. I shall have to channel my inner thespian. All these new ways we are having to learn…


Still, on that disturbed afternoon we had an ice cream on the beach, where I paddled and realised that it is not always, after all, too crowded, Covid-wise, to swim, so made a happy mental note to sally forth soon with costume and towel. Admittedly the wind was cold, which will have deterred some folk, so I should perhaps wait for inclement weather. I don’t mind: I’ll swim anywhere any time. Though I was disturbed this morning by a radio reminder of the fact that Covid lingers in fecal matter, which, truth to tell, does sometimes make its way into the local sea. Dilemma!


Needless to say, the Js hated the birthday mask, even when I explained that the sides needed gathering up to make a snug fit around his rather long face. It even had a metal strip to mould around his nose. They said rather vaguely that they would ‘re-purpose’ it. I’m half inclined to ask for the elastic back for my own next mask.


On Wednesday I was shouted at by another cyclist. I had ventured into the fringes of town, avoiding the centre with its Arndale and weekly market (shame, as a chap there sells divine home-made apple juice), and was making my way home with nerves already a bit displaced. As I was about to cross the road, a lycra-clad grey-bearded cyclist coming my way but then turning off before reaching me, yelled across the 25-odd metres: ‘Please, PLEASE, stop being PARANOID’. !? Jangled and baffled, I could only think that he was referring to my mask, which I hadn’t yet taken off after leaving the shops. Words fail me. The mask is to protect him and his ilk, not me.


A dear friend, a level-headed person, has been dipping periodically downwards during the last four months. There is nothing to say or do to help, except empathise, and send virtual hugs. The causes of our angst are very similar. Without distraction and engagement I guess lots of people are feeling their own pain more acutely. It is visible even within the pages of this journal.


Nicer things: yesterday morning J1 had another scan, and sent both grannies, sitting post-breakfast in my garden, a photo of our grandson. Much cooing and general satisfaction, marvelling at the continuation of both lines.


Today I’ve just come from an exhibition of David Hockney and Alan Davie. No, I hadn’t heard of him either; he was no self-publicist but a Scottish jeweller and jazz saxophonist as well as painter of big, loud, stream-of-consciousness canvases, while Hockney went on to become the more polished, commercial, artist. There was the not-unexpected sprinkling of sniggery schoolboyish bits, but overall it was an interesting exhibition. I do think men and women artists paint differently – discuss.


On entering the gallery my name and phone number were taken, for tracing, and en route there I had come across, next door, an unsuspected Covid testing station, empty but for lounging, waiting, staff sheltering from the sun; no wonder, I thought: the council feeds us with admonishing messages yet nowhere had I seen this new station mentioned.  Still, on my way home I saw that there was now a steady stream of cars driving in and being efficiently marshalled into bays.  My town is finally getting into the swing of pandemic things.

Works by Alan Davie

An early David Hockney - influenced by Davie?


Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

Monday was D’s day surgery. Felt lucky to have a very smart NHS Day Surgery Unit in the area equal to any private hospital. In between being a ministering angel I’ve been out and about catching up on jobs. These included taking a bag with a broken strap and a pair of shoes that needed serious treatment to a very good cobbler who works in a tiny ‘shack’ ten minutes from the town centre. He made a brilliant job of both. The shoes, which I’ve had for a long time, are Clarke’s ‘Funny Dreams’, a sort of chunky laceup that is made year after year in a variety of colours. The main complaint people have about them is that the soles disintegrate long before the uppers. I was on the point of throwing them away but the clever cobbler built up all the missing bits of the sole and then put a new rubber one on top. They are a bit heavier than they were before! It reminded me of my twenties when I wore Anello & Davide shoes with button strap, a design that was really a dancing shoe but which they made with a hardwearing sole as well. I used to get a cobbler to nail metal segs on the little heels so they lasted much longer.

Apart from that, not much to report. By next week life should have returned to normal, or rather to what now passes as normal.


Greetings from the far south

Mark Waller, Pretoria, South Africa

The short winter of cold nights and hot, brilliant days is coming to an end and soon it’ll be spring. Everything’s parched, the land beige and dusty, yearning for rain. The feeling of impending change is at odds with the invisible stormy weather of the pandemic, blasting and swirling among us with no let up. Just when you feel that things are - should be - changing, you realise we’re in for a longer haul than we realised. Gradually, we’re becoming more and more unhinged.


My children have now been at home under various states of lockdown for five and a half months. Schools reopened for some grades following the first, heavy, phase of the lockdown between March and May, but then pupils were sent home again when it became clear that the numbers of infections were increasing massively. I had applied for my two young ones to do “lockdown learning” from home and to receive school work online. So they’ve been stuck at home all this time.


Home schooling has been erratic to say the least. I’ve struggled with balancing my own work, which I anyway do from home, with trying to help Gracey (12) and Masana (7) with their school books. But the hardest thing is to get them to show any interest in their school work. Taken out of the school context, the content of their school books seems increasingly absurd, divorced from reality as they now see it. At times they simply go on strike and come out with compelling arguments to show that it’s all a waste of time, and that whatever YouTube videos they’re into are far more worthwhile. Their best line of argument is the most succinct: “Why?”. I flounder, trying to convince them that it’s good to learn and practice reading and writing, or, in Gracey’s case, to learn about the rest of the world. But I can do that, as Gracey keeps pointing out, without referring to her textbooks, which in this time of corona read like they were written in a different era. 


Today (6 August), I noticed with some pride that Gracey was looking at a BBC video about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She’d come across this, without my prompting, after seeing something else online about the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why, I thought, should I even consider telling her to close the laptop and take up her Afrikaans text book? She was horrified and disgusted: “How could anyone do that to those people?!”.  


That’s a best case situation. Often, she simply watches online anime videos for hours on end. I can see why she likes the stories about love, death, loyalty and other gripping eternals. By contrast, her English textbook is full of truncated versions of Aesop fables with a faux African spin that bore her. I need to get her to write about the anime stories that she finds so gripping or make up her own. Cut off from her school friends, she now delves deeper into her own world. She spends hours talking to herself, dancing alone, staying up into the early hours. There have been some good sides to this lockdown but it's not hard to see how our personalities turn in on themselves as the outer “normal” frays and warps, or simply isn’t there.


Masana has internalised a lot of the corona news he hears on TV. He talks about “the corona” a lot. It’s become an omnipresent phantom, an unholy ghost, against which you spray sanitisers, wash your hands - something that he seems to think is a weird adult sacrament that you “just do” - and practice social distancing. He has assimilated this last rite thoroughly, applying it to all degrees of separation in ways I’d never imagine. Today, when I asked him why he left such big gaps between letters when writing in his school book, he answered, without the slightest dissemblance, that it was to keep them distanced from one other.


Youlgrave lockdown

Dianne, Youlgrave Derbyshire

Jeremy and I are on holiday on the Lincolnshire coast this week, with friends whose camper van is much prettier than ours. That is evident as you can see the reflection of ours in their shiny paintwork. Aren't fish and chips by the sea just the best?


Notes from a factory in the Midlands

MFS, Midlands

Another relatively normal week of work. I spent three days over in my office at the factory and worked from home for two days. I had the usual run of phone calls with bankers, auditors, insurance brokers, lawyers and the like, plus some real face to face meetings with colleagues. However, I have still not sat in a meeting with more than two participants since March, which is very odd. Business continues on a steady track, with July’s sales being more or less the same as July last year. With each passing week we are becoming more confident about the future, even to the extent of deciding to go ahead with some modest elements of investment in the factory. 


Chatting to colleagues with school age children this week, one common theme was the absolute necessity of getting all children back to full-time schooling from September. This is one of the (many) areas where I feel the government has failed miserably during the pandemic and one where the unions have run rings around ministers. As well as insisting on complete school reopening, the government should also make clear that there will never again be a blanket closure of schools, though I suppose it might occasionally be necessary to have a local closure for a fortnight if there is a flare up in a particular town.  


Last night’s news in the Midlands included the sadly inevitable confirmation that the Birmingham Hippodrome (the most attended theatre in the country) has cancelled its annual pantomime. I am not a great attender of pantomimes, but it is money-spinning events like pantomimes that make it possible for the Hippodrome to act as home to the Royal Ballet, and to host touring opera productions, which we do appreciate. Also this week, the RSC has confirmed to us that they have re-booked our War of the Roses tickets from 1st January 2021 to 1st January 2022. This production is a condensing of the three parts of Henry VI into two plays, and we will see them on the same day as matinee and evening performances. It seems odd to be making theatre bookings 18 months out, but it gives us a firm date in the diary and it allows the RSC to hold onto our ticket money. And, what is more, 1st January 2022 will be the first day of my retirement!


Care in the time of Corona

Shirin Jacob, Ålesund, Norway

It’s been wet and cold from Monday. 

On Saturday, four of us had coffee, scones (the Norsk version) and kanel bøller at a bakery in Vigra that had been in the news. We wolfed it down quickly before the crowds started to come in and went for a walk on the small beach and up to a little cave on the island of Valderøya. I gave the cave a miss. Hot sun at noon with no cloud cover or wind is not my idea of fun. Mad dogs and englishmen. 


We were meant to be on the island this week but a combination of exhaustion, bad weather and the wish to avoid a visiting relative on the island kept us away. Let’s call him Arthur. Arthur is in his sixties but comes every summer to the island for a fortnight. He comes with a box of wine as a gift for whomever he is staying with but proceeds to finish it himself over the course of a few days. Arthur relies on the generosity and good nature of the island folk and partakes of the generous meals, coffee and cakes, long walks on the beautiful island and the use of the guest bedrooms in return for several hours of him expounding on whichever subject is his want till He is exhausted at 2 am and needs to retire. He has visited for years sans his family and thought little of letting his eighty year old aunts cook and wait on him hand and foot. So we stayed in Ålesund. 


I have been very down and overwhelmed this week. For a variety of personal reasons. This too shall pass. I’m self soothing with re-reading about the gardens at Sissinghurst and Great Dixter and trying to be inspired by Vita and Christopher Lloyd. 



John Underwood, Norfolk

Zucchinis and damn butterflies


We have seven courgette plants, all doing very well thank you. We have added courgettes to almost every meal, we have spiralized them, turned them into courgetti spaghetti, roasted them and added them to vegetable kebabs on the barbecue. Alison thought about a courgette cake, and I thought about leaving home. And still they come. If we don’t eat them they just grow bigger and more impossible to consume. I would put them at the end of the driveway with a sign, “Courgettes”, but I am frightened that other people would just dump their own glut on the table and drive off at speed. I don’t actually enjoy eating courgettes much, but one has to do one’s duty. Ally has just turned up an internet page “top ten things to do with a courgette”. I will leave you to speculate upon my response.


We have also been fighting off Cabbage White butterflies. Despite caging our brassicas this year, a couple managed to find a way in to the netting - as yet no sign of eggs or caterpillars, but I am not sanguine about our chances of escaping the yearly plague .


Ally has celebrated a biggish birthday this week, and we were delighted when our boys conspired together to visit. I was in on the secret, but we managed to keep the surprise up until the moment when our younger son and partner arrived, complete with their lively two year old. We managed to distance safely, with one family sleeping in our caravan and awning. We sat round a fire and ate far too much barbecued food and birthday cake. And yes, there were courgettes invited. It felt good to be surrounded by family although rather scarey. Today, anything that didn’t move was sprayed with antibacterial spray. We have had several visitors in the garden, and we managed a visit to my aged mother in Lichfield, staying overnight at my sister’s house nearby. It all felt very strange, but good to meet people face to face after months of ‘phone calls. We are now thinking that we need to pull in our horns for a while, consume less food and drink, and think about shedding a few pounds before Winter and a predicted spike in Covid combined with ‘flu - although it has been suggested that a ‘flu outbreak over the Autumn and Winter might be rather mitigated by increased hand washing and mask wearing. We shall see. 


Nobody that we speak to has a good word to say about the government’s handling of the pandemic.“Omnishambles,“shitshow” and “clusterfuck” are all rather good descriptions that we have read - some of them from serving Conservative members of Parliament. 


I have just thought of a creative use for our spare courgettes.


Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Suffolk

“As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden 

The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine 

I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain 

Someone hit me from behind.

Ain't talking, just walking 

Walking through this weary world of woe 

Heart burning, still yearning 

No one on earth would ever know”

(Some words to start from Bob Dylan).

Another week of sunny and very warm days. It has been so hot today that I have had little motivation to garden or indeed do very much indoors. 


Last week, having found a stepometer - I challenged myself to walk 10,000 steps in a day. And yes, I have achieved it ... but only once! And I don’t think it has done much to help me reduce my weight! Still baking cake, still eating fruit crumble, still grazing on goodies in the evenings! No discipline. Oh why are cashew nuts so delicious?


Earlier in the week, I met up with some old friends (people I know from work). We usually meet twice a year but it is a long journey to see them. I couldn’t face the drive so rather foolishly took the train. I say foolishly - it was really a smooth journey and the railway staff were very helpful. But - nearly 2 hours of mask wearing on the train was too much. I felt hot and bothered by the time I arrived. Walked around streets and places that have changed beyond recognition since I worked there. All in all, had a rather jolly time - a good meal and lots of reminiscing. Talked about people we had worked with, ex-students who are doing well, families and holidays... all the usual. Seemed a bit staccato - socially distanced chatting but it is good to see people and talk and laugh.


On the train back, I thought about my ex manager - he died a year or so ago - an unexpected heart problem - only 61 years old. When I first met him he had looked very businesslike. Hopeful. Ambitious. Blue blazer, brass buttons, shirt and tie, portly. He had been married to his first wife then and had two young children. Climbed the career ladder quickly and held a variety of oddly-titled roles - never quite made it to the dizzy heights of dean or head of faculty but he always remained in senior positions. At some point, he split up with his wife and there was a predictable affair with a younger member of staff - but she moved to another organisation and he found someone else. I think he remarried a few years ago. Photos on Facebook showed a very happy couple - doing lots of walking and eating out and holidaying in exotic places. He was a bright man. At graduation ceremonies, I recall that his academic robes were very colourful - “blood red from clawing and fighting” I think another colleague once rather spitefully remarked.


My reflection made me feel a bit melancholy. I didn’t always think highly of my manager. But I had mostly liked him. He was a good sort. Essentially kind. A nice person. And gone so young. A life cut short. Another human being just trying to find a way through the tangle of daily living. Sorry. This is self indulgent misery. I must be more upbeat.  


So more words from Bob Dylan:

“Ain't talking, just walking 

Through the world mysterious and vague 

Heart burning, still yearning 

Walking through the cities of the plague”. 


Although most of our garden is starting to look tired now, the roses have suddenly burst into bloom again and the Guernsey lilies have been great this year. I’m having to do a lot of watering. Our dahlias and sunflowers are very thirsty! And so too the vegetables. The beetroot is really disappointing. But the tomatoes... fantastic. 


A letter from my elderly aunt came this morning. Lovely handwriting. She’s worried about a second wave of the virus... says it is looming on the horizon... and possibly another lockdown... Gosh - doom and gloom! She has also read something about Legionnaire’s disease and how it is possible that the vapour on face masks can attract bacteria that could give us deadly infections.... Hey ho! 


Bob Dylan to the rescue:


“The suffering is unending 

Every nook and cranny has its tears 

I'm not playing, I'm not pretending 

I'm not nursing any superfluous fears...


As I walked out in the mystic garden 

On a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn 

Excuse me, ma'am, I beg your pardon 

There's no one here, the gardener is gone 

Ain't talking, just walking 

Up the road, around the bend. 

Heart burning, still yearning 

In the last outback 

At the world's end”


The Runaway Diaries

Sophie Austin

We're driving to Wales! 


5 months ago we did the same journey under very different circumstances, it was Mother's day and we were escaping London just before lockdown. We assumed we'd be away for a couple of weeks. 


We stayed in our little farmhouse in the mountains for two magical months before heading back to London as lockdown began to ease. 


This time it will not be just the three of us; your cousins and aunty will be with us along with their whippet Arrow. This will be their first holiday in a long time and so deserved after months of coping with the challenges of homeschooling isolation. 


There will be one more addition to the Welsh household - The Ginger stray who hung out with us for those two months, Peanut Butter Toast, (named by you) has had a kitten! We had an inkling she was pregnant when we left but couldn't get close enough to check and sure enough when other family members were staying in the house recently, a tiny ginger ball of joy was seen splashing about in the stream. I hope we get to catch a glimpse but I'm not sure Peanut Butter Toast will approve of our canine companion this time. 


It's not totally clear if you understand what Wales actually means and if you remember the barn with the bats, the fishes in the river and the wild horses in the mountains. Your quadbike and trailer obsession has been replaced by motorbikes and cars so it will be interesting to see if it all comes flooding back to you when we walk up the hill to the house. 


Only an hour left in the car. The first rain drops are falling and I'm happy to see grey skies for miles; it's 38 degrees and bright blue skies in London, but the grey clouds and lush green trees here feel so welcome to me. 


Journal submitted, phone switched off, and the first deep breath to be taken in a long time. Happy holidays.

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