From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

No doubt readers may be relieved that there was no contribution from me in last week's journal. Truth to tell I completely forgot to write anything until time had run out - my only excuse being that it was a frenetic week. Anyway, I did read the works of others and, as always enjoyed the experience, although some of the adventures and misadventures were a little worrying, especially about bus queue rage. I haven't tried public transport since March and do not intend to in the near future, so cannot comment on the state of play here in Vectis.


I am writing on Thursday, following the latest announcement from our government - assuming they merit that title. The 'rule of 6' seems sensible I must say. Whilst I pen these words there seems to be a full-scale party going on in a neighbour's garden. Many more that six are gathered and it looks really dodgy, so I am not impressed in the least, however I shall not object or protest because toleration of neighbours is, I think, more important than whatever they are up to now. This is the first party in some 20 years of living near them, so I have little to grouse about, but the timing isn't good!


Last week was beach hut wall week, and the rebuild went really smoothly, being completed in just two days. For once I hit zero snags when doing the work. All went completely smoothly, best beloved and myself operating successfully as a team. The result looks good too, although it should be better when painted, a job that can't be done immediately on treated wood. Next spring for that probably.


Squirrels have been active around my garden. The resident pair are both busy gathering hazel nuts and burying them - sometimes in my flower pots!


Last Sunday I briefly tried paddle-boarding. It isn't as easy as it looks - that's all I can say. Anyway, I intend to pursue the sport, maybe buying my own board quite soon.


Keep happy and safe for the eventual gathering...


From Twickenham

David Horovitch, Twickenham

I generally make it a rule not to watch TV during the day but I was bored on Wednesday and turned it on at about 4, thinking I'd watch an episode of a French spy thriller to which I'm mildly addicted. To my surprise there was our prime minister flanked by his two scientific advisors, the familiar oak-panelling behind them, announcing the new 'rule of six'. It felt as though we were going back to the beginning and, although the much-anticipated winter spike is not inevitable, it is obviously something the experts fear. I had been travelling quite a bit on public transport but I will think twice about doing that now. 


Gordon Brown on the radio this morning predicting 3,000,000 unemployed in the winter. 


Apparently, Dominic Cummings when asked by Sam Mendes, theatre and film director, what provisions were being made for the Arts, said 'ballerinas can go to the back of the queue.'


The playwright, Ronald Harwood, died on Tuesday. He taught me when I was at drama school in the sixties. and was kind enough to pull a few strings to get me my first part on television fifty years ago. Ten years ago I was in a double-bill of his plays which transferred from Chichester to The West End. Last year I went to see him three times in his flat in Chelsea. I had an impression of great loneliness. His wife, from whom he had been inseparable, had died a few years previously and he had stopped writing. He was a man of Mr Toad-like ebullience but now there were only flashes of the old bounce. At one point he said 'The trick is not to take anything too seriously' but only minutes later 'My life ended when Natasha died.' The last time I saw him he was more cheerful because it had been decided he would go and live near his daughter in Sussex. 


I feel a little bleak. I'm not sleeping well. I don't think I can write any more. I wish all my fellow journalists well.


From the black shed

David E, East Norfolk

Back in Norfolk after another brief sojourn in Scotland, via Northumbria. It was a real treat to pause around Alnwick and Bamburgh to meet our daughter and family who were travelling home to London from a holiday in North Berwick on the same day. We met in Barter Books in Alnwick, the largest and most interesting second hand book shop I have ever visited. Do go if you ever have a chance. Grandson Reuben was fascinated by the model trains running along the top of the bookshelves. 

In Scotland I sense a more careful and responsible attitude to coronavirus precautions, especially in more rural areas. Rules are made to be followed and in the hospitality sector they are observed to a tee. After a night in a small hotel in The Trossachs one is required to strip the bed and put all the linen and towels in a black bin bag. Breakfast must be pre-ordered so that there is minimal contact between staff and clients - all very efficient but that friendly relaxed feel is missing. Small shops only allow one person in at a time and a one way system must be followed. 

I took the opportunity to walk part of The Rob Roy Way which runs from just north of Glasgow to Pitlochry, 87 miles. Walking between Callander and Lochearhead I found the path flooded and was somewhat surprised to come across a dam blocking a small burn. Was it made by beavers? At first I wasn't sure but then I saw characteristic teeth marks on the broken saplings. I later learned that beavers are increasingly common in this area and all along the catchment of the river Tay. They are now a protected species in Scotland, somewhat to the annoyance of some farmers.

Further on the steady climb through Glen Ogle follows the route of the former Callander and Oban railway line, a feat of engineering in the 1860s with an impressive viaduct. The line eventually closed in 1965 after a rock fall which is still there. 

What of Rob Roy? His grave is just off my walk at Balquhidder, close to his home where he died after what can be described as "a full life", first as a supporter of the Jacobite uprising, then as a cattle owner and dealer and latterly embarking on a long feud with the duke of Montrose over the theft of cattle. I've tried to read Walter Scott's immortalised version of his life but I find the language hard going! Sometime I'll have another go.


Staying home

Nicky, Vermont, USA

I remember walking home from the library with my mother, I must have been eight or nine, and saying to her that when I grew up the most important places to me would be the library and the pub. She was shocked, and told me not to talk such nonsense. I remember feeling resentful at being told off. I’ve always felt a bit guilty about that conversation, sorry for making her cross, but this morning it seems to me that even at nine and already a colossal social failure, I knew people were important.  


My mother wasn’t upset about me naming the library as important, even though she wasn’t much of a reader. She enjoyed books, and tended to have lots of them around to look at and consult. In that town we furnished our house from an auction where, as a side lot, we got a large box of Reader’s Digest Condensed books. I remember the covers of them even now, the patterns all the same kaleidoscope triangles, but each book in a different shade. They tended towards reds, oranges and purples. Even then I was frustrated by their condensed character… it didn’t take long enough to read them. At the library I was reading my way through the science fiction section. It must have been there that I was first allowed in the adult section of the library, a great liberation as I’d read my way through the children’s sections of libraries long ago and craved romance and war and adventure. And ideas… though I wouldn’t have articulated it that way at the time, but that was what led me to science fiction.


In terms of the pub half of my statement though, I realize now that it wasn’t that I anticipated happy adult years drinking my way into oblivion. Instead it was that I anticipated the importance of other people and pubs were a way to meet people, to make friends, to be part of a community. Libraries don’t function that way of course. Although there are other people in the library talking is discouraged and a visit to a library is a relatively solitary activity. 

In America, for the most part, bars don’t function the same way as pubs do, or used to anyway, in England. People go to a bar for a date, or with a friend, but there isn’t that broader friendliness, and bars tend not to anchor a community the way I remember (or imagined?) pubs did in England.  

Which brings me to the virus. Usually, when unhappy I go to a library and browse the shelves. I can always find several books to either distract me or cheer me up or illuminate my unhappiness and suggest things to do about it. No longer. Only one of the three libraries I belong to is open, and that only for a fifteen minute visit in one room where they’ve laid out books they think people will want to read. Mostly detective books apparently.


About pubs: one of the lessons of the virus has been how important casual relationships are. Being introverted and bookish, I had no idea. While I don’t usually spend hardly any time in bars, I miss the people I would meet in exercise classes or art classes, or in the shops. Or on the streets. No more classes, at least not in person, and I don’t recognise people behind their masks in the grocery store, and anyway I’m scuttling around trying to be efficient and get out in time.


So in losing casual encounters with books and people I've learned I was right in telling my mother that not only books but also people are important.


Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

The Macmillan coffee ‘event’ (a week early) in our small street raised over £870, partly due to the generosity of passers-by, the advantage of being on a pedestrian route to the town centre. Lockdown has certainly brought residents together more than ever before. On Monday I did the first ‘pick’ at the allotment under our care this week, with the help of a friend, and came home with a bumper crop of raspberries, some courgettes, and the last of the beans. More to collect this afternoon. We have also given a large bag of damsons, so in a few months there will be damson gin.


This weekend is Heritage Open Days, but opening private houses hasn’t been an option this year. Instead a number of people are opening their gardens, so I’m on duty at one of them on Saturday afternoon. Not sure how the new ‘six only’ rules would have affected this had it been the following weekend. Next week our Silver Swans ballet is meant to start again, split into smaller groups and only once a fortnight, so hope that can still go ahead. Feel very sorry for students just starting at University.


View From the Top of the Hill

Linzy Lyne, Pateley Bridge

Events on both sides of the pond have become somewhat farcical this week, causing us to swing from howling with laughter to wringing our hands in despair from day to day.


Our much loved Sir Lindsay Hoyle (apologies for confusing his name last week with Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Cecil Hogg as I tend to think of him) has his work cut out if he hopes to get the government to answer any questions at all in the coming weeks. Firstly, who thought it was a good idea to bring in a bill to override the Brexit agreement, which after all was an oven ready deal just a few months ago, thus causing the powers that be in Brussels to threaten the UK with legal action for breaking international law? This has brought about a huge clamour of disapproval from all sides of the political divide, bringing many forgotten faces from the shadowy regions of Parliament to give vent, including he of the something of the night and the lamentable Norman. (Michael Howerd and Norman Lamont, for our overseas readers). Many commentators have drawn attention to the unfortunate snippet that the UK will only be breaking the law in one limited aspect, which has prompted much mirth along the lines of "does that mean that if I get caught breaking the coronavirus rules I can plead that I only broke them in a very limited way"? Will Boris have to appear in a European court, having stipulated that EU laws will not apply to Britain? Can they extradite him? (Or, preferably, the whole cabinet?)


Second own goal of the week is the crazy 'moonshot' plan, yet another short slogan to add to our lexicon. It all sounds very exciting and plausible, to test ten million people a day so we can go back to theatres and football matches, and more importantly WORK, which is the main aim. However, it was very quickly shot down with missiles of derision when it was shown it would cost the entire NHS budget for a year and that the technology and infrastructure doesn't exist to carry out the plan and especially not in time for us to throw the promised Christmas parties. There is also more than a faint suspicion that contracts worth billions are already being lined up to benefit the same government cronies who have recently wasted millions of pounds of  taxpayers' cash on inadequate PPE and failed apps. Disappointing for the PM as he only wants people to see how heroic and world beating he is, but Matt Hancock is undaunted, leaping up from the front bench and going off-script to deride the naysayers who "always oppose" anything the government tries to do. That could be because the government has failed in nearly everything it's tried to do this year but there we are.


A new pronouncement was made that the testing system has become clogged up with people taking tests when they don't have symptoms. How naughty of them, but I'm sure we were told very recently that we need to test asymptomatic people as they can be spreading the virus and that there was plenty of capacity in the testing system!


A friend told me that her daughter has been working for the government's world beating track and trace system, on full pay and overtime for months, made to clock in and out and only take half an hour for lunch, while not being given a single call to make. Ditto the rest of her team. I mentioned this to a friend in the NHS, who interrupted me to say "and she didn't make a single call, right"? It appears to be a well-known fact that thousands are being paid to do nothing, which makes the decision to halt the furlough scheme even more outrageous and the claims for track and trace all too transparent.


Another damning book has been released in the US, the Bob Woodward exposé, which trumps all the other anti-Trump publications by having accompanying tapes a la Watergate, in fact it's been described as more important, more sensational and more exciting than Watergate itself. It beggars belief that the President would bypass his minders to practically beg this renowned writer of exposés to report his failures. It is now a proven fact that Trump deliberately misled the country about the seriousness of the virus. Could this swing the election? The land of crazy has just hit an all time high, or low, depending on which way up you're standing. One journalist has achieved some fame by being the first person to read the book all the way through, thus becoming an expert.


Aside from the mesmerising world of politics, all has been quiet here. The farmers are waiting impatiently for the grass to grow back so that they can take another cut for winter feed, the cattle are quietly grazing and our woodpeckers have gone off in a huff because we let the peanut feeder run out for a day. The skies still seem fairly quiet, there are definitely less vapour trails due to the decimation of the aviation industry, which I count on the whole as a good thing for the planet, if not for holidaymakers.


I have promised to create a project for the grandchildren on 'endangered species', but have stalled at the point of knowing where to start. It's very discouraging to find lists and lists of creatures classified as near to extinction or highly endangered. I think I will get them to start close to home, as suggested by a friend recently, with the hedgehog. Maybe the children can campaign to build a tunnel under their road or something, as it is hard to point them to something they can do right now to help orangutans or the Amazon rain forest. They and all their generation are going to be living with this dreadful mess when we're gone. It doesn't bear thinking about. I'm not sure I should burden them with this information at their tender age but forewarned is forearmed and they are already well versed in the importance of recycling. Should I tip them off about the contents of their recycling bin ending up on a dump in Asia I wonder?


As the infection rates are obviously going to rise again (and we didn't see that coming when they opened pubs and told people it was safe to go back to work and university) I have decided to make a few safe little trips to see friends before the winter weather makes it harder to meet outside. We will probably be back in self-isolation here by October if the trend continues. It's not so bad, let's resort to a little optimism and throw our weight behind the moon landing, or moon launch or whatever it's called, if that's our best shot. Our favourite and much-used phrase at the moment is "you just couldn't write it". However I will continue to try.


Corona Diary

Annabel, A village in North Norfolk

11th September 2020

On Monday evening my friend Polly came to stay in my house and on Tuesday I drove to Dorset to stay with my mum. It was very weird having someone in the house and we both wore our masks and socially distanced. I really haven’t had anyone in the house for months apart from Roger the gardener who comes in for the odd cup of coffee and piece of cake. I make everyone sit in the garden and use the outside khazi but even then I havn’t really seen many people.


Polly has been madly watering the garden, feeding the cat and the chickens. She says I have 257 pots! On Monday it was like Mrs Bridges or Mary Poppins had arrived and I had staff. Bliss. I said I love having staff and she said she likes being staff. 


On Tuesday we had our favourite Norfolk lunch of lobster and crab in the garden and then Earnie and I hit the road. I stopped at the M&S garage the other side of Norwich to get some nuts and then got back in the car and nothing! Oh blimey, so I waited for a few minutes watching a lorry driver in front of me polishing his lorry. After a while I went over and said you look like you have time on your hands so he and another lorry driver pushed me and eventually it started so I carried on with the 250 mile trip. 


At Fleet services I was so desperate for a wee as was Earnie so I had to stop and take my chances whether it would start but luckily it did. Have never seen so few cars in the car park there.

We made it, took seven hours. I had a bouquet of flowers in a bucket from the garden for my sister as it was her birthday. They made it too.


Lovely to see my mum. I came prepared with a box of masks to wear in the house but she was fairly scathing and said, “you can’t wear a mask for days. You’re going to give me a nervous breakdown etc.” so the masks remained untouched. 

Anyway its all very odd on one level and normal on another. 

We’ve been for lots of walks and Earnie has been swimming in the sea. In one field in front of us was a black bull. Oh he’s fine says my mum! He’s got a bad leg. Then Earnie rolled in a fresh cowpat, his presumably, so we turned back to the sea to get the top layer of stinking green sludge off. I had to shampoo him later and then me. 


On Thursday we had lunch at my favourite cafe called The Red Brick Cafe in the antiques bit of Bridport. All outside, you have to sign the book and then put your own dishes in various buckets and scrapings in the compost when you leave.

Then we went to my friend Miranda’s studio to buy cups for the shop, we were in separate cars.

This morning another old friend came for a walk with us along the coastal path and tomorrow it’s back to The Red Brick cafe to meet another very old friend Ros for a coffee and a stroll round Bridport market.


This afternoon I stocked up on white T shirts and nuts in Bridport. Just after I got back my friend Frankie texted me to say what were you doing standing outside the nut shop in Bridport? 

They were driving to Lyme Regis from Duxford near Cambridge and were stopped at the traffic lights. Frankie said that girl looks really like Annabel, It is Annabel! How weird.


My mum has gone to a drinks party at my sisters with various locals inside Charlotte’s house! They have all been in a semi bubble through lockdown but a step too far for me so I’m writing this with Earnie on the sofa. 

The last party hurrah as after Monday it’s only gatherings of 6 people inside or out. 

Hands Space Face is our new 3 word slogan. Dom is obviously back. The R number is around 1.2 and positive cases are on the increase and doubling in a week so parties are over. The virus is accelerating. If you are a family of six you can’t see anyone else. I think it might be time to start collecting bottles of olive oil and loo paper again. Chris Whitty is concerned.


Boris and the government have had a bad press this week and all the previous tory prime ministers and various law officers are up in arms as there are legal shenanigans going on and the government are set to break the law and renege on an element of the withdrawal agreement. Oh God, Brexit is back with a vengeance. 


Stay safe everybody, all a bit dodgy now.

Love Annabel xxx

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