Journal of the Plague Year 2020

K.H.M., From an East Kent Village

​Whilst so many things have had to be cancelled – our Library Book Group, the annual Strawberry Tea for the church, the annual barbecue and Bellringers’ competition, my own 90th birthday party, (all in the garden), the launch of our latest parish history, the monthly ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ sociability – not all is bad. At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, there has been one great personal benefit of loc-down. This is the webinar. With it I have been able to attend lectures that I could never (being attached to a Zimmer frame) have got to.


​The same goes for funerals. These are well-recorded in most crematoria – it is of interest to record how unhappy a local Rector is at the prospect of much delayed memorial services when possible. These, he feels, will only re-open healing wounds as people will have usually begun to settle down by then.   


​I have only been out of the house at all three times since lock-down began. Twice to visit care homes – in one the necessity of our both wearing masks and my friend being deaf made communication impossible. In the other I sat out of doors under a gazebo while my friend (poised to move away from here for ever) shouted at me from indoors while we said our goodbyes. The third time was to visit a London hospital for long overdue treatment. It was eerily empty, my escort and I had our temperatures taken at every point and the waiting-room, usually overflowing, had four people in it. Everyone was masked.


​On the other hand when I woke up last month to find that the house had been burgled and the contents of every cupboard and drawer cast on the floor, and the house later full of policemen, only one of them was masked. On the garage forecourt were lots of little silver canisters that had contained nitrous oxide and I am told are known as Hippy Crack. It’s quite difficult to keep up to date these days.


​During this period I have inadvertently come into the twenty-first century in that when a plug socket broke and had to be replaced it was with one that had 2 USB sockets in it. There’s progress...


Florist in lockdown

Jane, Near Manchester, England

I am so excited about doing the flowers for Annabel’s birthday party. I have always wanted to create a floral chandelier, think large scale, dripping with vines, amaranthus, physalis. We will gather hydrangea heads and dahlias, if we can find some. Lots of foliage and twiggary will feature and I might even chuck in a few longi lilies for old time’s sake! There will be lots of candle light and fairy lights. See you there!

Back in the real world, it’s all ended in tiers. It’s Wednesday today and by the time you read this Greater Manchester will be in tier 3, very high alert level, due to increasing number of infections. I’m not entirely certain exactly what that means, and I cannot bear to watch any more news bulletins. Basically we can’t do anything fun with people we like hanging out with, but we don’t live with! Wales has a full on lockdown for two weeks, I think. Meaning that tourists can’t visit or stay over the half term holidays. I think the collective sense of uncertainty, isolation, insecurity, and loneliness is now impacting people’s mental wellbeing, especially as we approach winter. The community spirit of banging pots and pans on our doorsteps every Thursday seems a lifetime ago! The hospitality trade is on its knees, teachers are so stressed. COVID wards in hospitals are supposedly reaching capacity. All these new measures to protect the NHS. What of the £35 million raised by Sir Tom? Where’s that gone? Thank God for Netflix, my allotment and this journal

I was listening to radio 4 the other day a chap, whose name I don’t recall, has written Victoria Wood’s biography. She was partial to words like gusset, raffia, Cockermouth, eiderdown. She really was a genius writer for both comedy and pathos. Might have to watch some of her sketches this afternoon, just for the chuckle factor! 

There is usually so much going on at this time of year, the pumpkin festival, Christmas markets, festive events, artists open studios, craft workshops, all cancelled of course, or moved online. 

I watched ‘The Greatest Showman’ the other night, I dimmed the lights and pretended to be at the cinema. I miss going to the theatre or a live concert. Nothing beats sharing the experience with a live audience. This time last year we went to see Cher at Manchester Arena, she was phenomenal! A total superstar! I wonder what she’s doing now?? 

In other news, here’s a spoiler alert : My sister is about to become a soap villain. She has a big story line coming up at the end of the month. She was slightly nervous the other day filming with the Weatherfield legend Ken Barlow. 

Keep well everyone xxxxxxxx


Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

For our next fortnightly Wood Lane newsletter (a Corona virus initiative), to which I contribute a short local history piece, I was asked to write something about Beverley’s common pastures. As time is running out to contribute to this week’s Plague Journal, I’ll write on that topic here as well.


The town is surrounded by about 1,200 acres of common land in four blocks: Westwood and the adjoining Hurn, which has the racecourse, Swinemoor, and Figham. The prettiest and best known is Westwood, with its undulating landscape with trees, shrubs and sky larks and a wonderful view of the west towers of Beverley Minster, the gleaming white stone catching the setting sun or floodlit against the night sky.

The grazing rights belong to the pasture freemen of Beverley who have a certain number of ‘gates’ (a gate being the right to graze an animal) but since few now want to put their own animals on the pastures, they generally opt to accept a token sum of money in lieu, and the grazing is let to farmers. The management of the common lands falls to the twelve Pasture Masters who are elected from and by the pasture freemen, in a public election where the rules state that if no voting has taken place for 20 minutes the poll can be closed. 


So how do you become a freeman, or in my case, a freewoman? This was a privilege passed down for centuries from father to son, or obtained by being apprenticed for seven years to a freeman, something that is now more or less obsolete. By the beginning of the 21st century the number of freemen in Beverley was in serious decline. In 2010, after a protracted campaign, an Act of Parliament was obtained giving women the same rights as men to inherit the freedom, and also waiving the rule that freemen had to have been born within the town, which few are since there is no longer a maternity hospital. However, only those freemen who actually live in the town have grazing rights.


My great-great-great-great grandfather, William Needham, born in 1780, took up his freedom in 1802 after serving his apprenticeship with a shipwright. Thereafter the freedom passed down through the male line ending with my father, born in 1919, who had no sons to whom he could pass it on. All that changed in 2010, some years after his death, when myself and my three sisters were admitted as freemen (or freewomen) of the town. Westwood is just a few minutes’ walk from where I now live, and soon I should be receiving a small sum of money, traditionally £25, for not grazing animals there or on the other common pastures that we are so lucky to have to enjoy, especially in these difficult times. 



John Underwood, Norfolk

The Genie out of the bottle


When we started our book business and realised that there was the possibility of earning a living from buying, selling and binding books, my ambition was to own a Book of Hours worth a hundred thousand pounds. I realised that this was highly improbable but thought that one day I might be in the position of owning one for a short while until the new customer for the book paid up. That thought vanished fairly sharpish as I realised that I wouldn’t cope with the responsibility of owning such a glowing gem of a book. What if the roof leaked (again) and the water damaged the bookshelves? What if I hid it under the floorboards and the mice nibbled it? What if the grandchildren picked it up and used it for drawing in? What if I found that I couldn’t leave the house without it? What if I had to carry it around with me all the time for security? What if what if what if what if… The most likely scenario would have been that I hid the pearl of great price so well that I couldn’t find it again, as happened recently at home with something that we still haven’t found. And only the other week I was in the Post Office in the local shop and needed my glasses. I patted a few pockets, and then started to turn them out in increased urgency and frustration. “If you are looking for your glasses,” said the postmistress, “you might consider using the ones that you have on your forehead”. It was the situation that the phrase “oh for fuck’s sake” was specifically tailored for. 

So I have learned to be careful what I wish for. 

There is that pub joke about the man who finds an old lamp in a junk shop and decides to clean it up. Upon getting out the Brasso, piff paff pouf out comes a genie and offers him three wishes. Stop me if you have heard it. The genie disappears as they do having said that he will grant the man’s first wish. The man goes into his kitchen, and there, on the table, is a tiny man playing a tiny grand piano. Rushing back to the lamp, the man, let’s call him Cedric, summons the genie. “What’s this?” Cedric asks. “What’s this tiny chap doing playing the piano on my table?” “What’s the problem Cedric my old son?” says the genie. “You asked for a nine inch pianist didn’t you?”


In this week there has been a biography of the Prime Minister published, which tells of an abusive wife beating father (who knew?) and the childhood desire to become “World King”. As a classicist and historian, Doris will know all about world domination, and those who have attempted it. It tends to get a bit sticky in the “suppressing the huddled masses” department, and the “keeping the starving millions down” sub department. Dealing with the millions of bodies is a minor matter in comparison. Oh, and the small issue of learning to dodge bullets or spin round quickly enough to avoid the stab in the back. As The Prime Minister has learned, it is altogether better to get the stabbing in first, before your co-conspirators get round to it. Lie builds upon lie until there is a pile of them big enough to scramble up upon, enabling you to survey the bodies scattered around the wasteland you have carelessly created. So that’s what the Covid crisis is about is it? We are just the herd, the collateral damage? I think that if you were on a minimum wage and living in Manchester, you might think so.


Greetings from the far south

Mark Waller, Pretoria, South Africa

Hope denied can break your mind. These mornings, when the sun’s just up, I sit on the bed and think ahead for the coming day, try to climb out of this “gloomy solipsism”, as Mark Fisher called it.


The kids, Masana (7) and Gracey (12), are already up, watching cartoons. We should start lessons soon, but first they need some breakfast. I detach what’s been mashing my mind, leave the darkened room.


I’m dad-mum to them. It’s just the three of us. From early until late the days are full, by evening I feel older and knackered. 


They are my world entire, though I know I’m just a caretaker, here to get them started. I wouldn’t swap this time, being with them, for any other in my life.


Except for this plague context. More hope denied: the second wave, just when we thought that the epidemic was starting to tail off. We look to Europe and the US for news about how bad things are. 


The first wave, if that’s what it was, was bad enough. There are press articles about its irrevocable mental health impact, especially on young kids. And now people nearly everywhere face more of the same, only worse.


We’re going to fetch the school reports in a few days. Masana and Gracey haven’t been attending school, but they have gone there for assessment now and then. The assessments are being used to write up the report cards.


The school teachers have asked me nothing about how Gracey and Masana have got on, about their wellbeing, about what they do, whether they have problems concentrating. They probably think I’ll lie. They are probably right.


But my two have followed the news with unusual rigour. Not about covid especially, but about BLM and Trump and anything on the climate. 


Politicians usually make kids zone out. But not, it seems, Trump, who resembles some of the weird cartoon figures the kids watch each morning - the orange hair and skin, the little hands and whiny voice. 


And they process things their own way.


Today, as they had their juice and cereal, they saw something on Aljazzera about Trump being a racist. 


“That’s why he lives in a white house,” Masana declared between mouthfuls of cornflakes.


The Runaway Diaries

Sophie Austin, London

Peasants’ Revolt

I’ve been researching Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, the Great Rising, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Standing in the ancient Lesnes woods that exists between London and Kent, I imagine the everymen and everywomen. Their plague, the Black Death, was easing and they were emerging into a new normal where labour shortages, due to plague death rates, meant that government attempted to control wage increases for those who could work. On top of this the poll tax was announced. 

The fire in these plague weary citizens rose and they marched to London from across England. Lesnes Woods witnessed these rebels have a fierce confrontation with the abbot whose abbey was built nearby. Some of the trees, still swaying in the breeze today, would have provided shelter for the travellers and listened to their rallying cries. 

I find it humbling to consider what the natural world has been witness too. And I find it reassuring in a strange way to consider the repetitions in our human history. Maybe I escape to history to avoid the present.


My feelings on paper

Barbara Warsop, Sheffield, Yorkshire

22nd October

My CPAP machine was working overtime last night, Continuously, positively keeping my airways open with pressure to stop my sleep apnoea. Waking me up blowing air at a great rate into my nostrils and splashing my face with condensation. Well at least I have that to keep me from popping off the planet. It was 4-45 am and now I need a drink to quench my thirst and then I need the loo.

Clocks to go back at the weekend and if this happens next week it will be only 3-45 am and I will think I have jet lag.  

Might as well write my piece for the journal now I am awake. Don`t know why my machine and the modem are flashing. Well I soon find out my internet was down. That sorted I can continue.  


My daughter Sarah works for the Cancer Support center. So many illnesses are now suffering from neglect by this government. Cancer patients not knowing how to cope. Do they die with cancer or Covid? What a decision and dilemma to be in and have to take during this terrible illness.


The NHS suffering from lack of funds for so long by this terrible government who keep telling us of the money they are putting into the NHS whilst forgetting all the money they have starved it of during their years of office with their austerity policy. All this while they live off the fat of the land.  


The news yesterday was that this government have now declined giving children a free school meal during Xmas holidays. They have no idea of how to live on a low wage and zero contract hours. Parents having to choose between heat or eat during winter, presents will be the last to think of. Capitalism in all its glory!!! My husband predicted this state of affairs before dying last year.

On a more positive note.


Sheffield Cathedral is to commemorate and honor all the people who have passed away with Covid 19 and their loved ones with.  

HOPE - A reflective memorial with the leaves of the trees by the sculptor Peter Walker. 


The leaves of the trees installation will be visiting towns and cities around the country. It is made up of 5000 leaves with the word hope written on each one. Steel has been chosen as a material to remind us of our resilience and collective strength and as time goes on they will rust as the leaves turn to rust. Quite a nice idea I think.


As South Yorkshire moves into our second restrictions I am reminded of the first lock down and the little messages left on the lane where I do my daily walk, by some unknown person. The first one was left on April 14th. It hung on the road sign and was written in pirography with the words. (Make no bones about it we will get through this). From then on I enjoyed my daily walks as I looked for these messages put in different place on the lane, some were on tiny pieces of wood and I would be disappointed if I didn't see a new one, something to look forward to. So I thank the unknown person.  

Another thing that appeared was life size figures of people made out of oddments of old clothes and stuffed, left by the road side and other places. I started to photograph them. They made me smile as one was sat outside the public house and I used to think she will have to wait a long time for a drink.


Six months on and they have all gone now and I wonder if it will happen again. I wait in anticipation.


Care in the time of Corona

Shirin Jacob, Ålesund, Norway

I’m preparing a lamb biryani for tomorrow. Synnøve from Hareid, an island 20 minutes away, whom I met at the hairdresser last December, is having her colour done tomorrow. She likes to meet me every six weeks for lunch and I’m very touched that she makes that effort. I’m her link to her childhood memories of her father and Kerala, so I’m making an effort to make something Indian.


The original Indian biryani was brought by the Mughals to north India and had its roots in Persia. The Thalassery biryani of the Muslims in Kerala uses a different type of rice and is influenced by the Arab traders that plied our Malabar coast. It’s usually served with a mint, coriander and coconut chammanthi (chutney) typical of Kerala. I make the Lazy version which combines the rice, curry and chammanthi in one pot, layered like a lasagne. My one concession was making a homemade biryani spice mix which I roasted and ground. It will keep for two months and smells divine. I used my friend Sumeet Nair’s recipe from ‪yummefy.com‬. My grandmother, who was a superb cook, used to cook the biryani on a fire with hot coals on top. Breaking open the dough around the pot once it was cooked was a great occasion for me, as a child. 


I love housewives who look after their husbands and bring up grounded children. An acquaintance from Singapore, after almost 35 years of marriage, is getting divorced. I have spent the best part of the week helping her on WhatsApp with her affidavit. Her husband has stated that she contributed NOTHING to the marriage. He wants to give her a minimum of their assets with no maintenance. This horrified me. In Norway, gender equality was made law in 1978, and assets are clearly split down the middle. Not so in Singapore. This lady is very highly qualified with a PhD, who put her work life on hold to cook, clean, birth and bring up two grounded, sweet children; support her husband emotionally and contribute to his career, entertain endlessly, look after his aged parents; went alone to endless parent teacher meetings, school presentations, extracurricular activities and had sex on demand. She did NOTHING? Do we have to ensure that our girls... and boys, work, keep separate accounts, ensure home ownership is clearly split 50:50, share the housework and childcare, keep receipts and email communications in order to have an amicable divorce forty years later, if it comes to that? Clearly so. The death of the housewife. A tragedy. 


Back to the biryani. My husband wants to serve this for two separate dinners in the space of the next month. So he wants me to practice. Sigh. 


We were invited to a wonderful dinner at his colleague’s flat last weekend. Our second dinner party in two and a half years from a non-family member. The colleague’s partner works in quality control in a fish oil factory. She was originally from Oslo and after twenty years, says she hasn’t managed to break into the community here in Ålesund. I felt better! I’m not alone. She very kindly gave me some lovely omega-3 capsules. I discovered that her company supplies my favourite fish oil company, which just repackages it. Yay!!!


I was disturbed to learn that they feed farmed salmon soy. I’m always wary of xeno-estrogens as I saw increasing numbers of hormone driven tumours like prostate, breast and uterine cancers in the 37 years I’ve practiced. They farm halibut as well! The end of the romance of wild caught fish. Oh Dear !


I’m wondering whether it’s wise to meet anyone now. The news last night confirmed 44 cases of Covid in Norway, the highest number since May. We have foreign workers that test negative at the airport, start working whilst in quarantine and infect fellow workers. And the partying University students... 


I went to the monthly Hagemøte (garden meeting) restricted to fifty members. Homemade applecake in the interval (an improvement to the store-bought fear-of Covid snacks last month). “Cottage gardens” was the topic (they don’t have a Norsk translation for that) by a lady who lives closer to Oslo. I didn’t understand most of what she said, but was cheered that my Norwegian friend said it was hard for her as well. There are hundreds of dialects spoken here in addition to the the two official written variations. However, her garden was filled with a lot of English roses, which she sells. So, perhaps a little expedition South in the Spring?


Back to my biryani...

God helg my friends💗


From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

A different week yet again.  For reasons that I can't entirely tie down my emotional state in regard to the virus has improved. That doesn't mean I am growing to love all those billions of little non-creatures that threaten us, but I have become more relaxed towards their ever present hoards. They are not at all nice, so we really do need to look out and block their opportunities where possible.


Best beloved and I enjoyed a truly lovely weekend, even if we were unable to continue our walk, because of my dratted leg injury. I'm happy to report that it seems to have healed quite quickly, so I am not hobbling anymore and can trot/trudge/stomp at full speed once again.


At the beach hut on Tuesday, whilst best beloved was painting the inside, I had the good fortune to see a Great Crested Grebe in action on the sea. I don't think I've ever seen one on salt water before - new to me.


I am playing music - or what passes for it - again. I thoroughly enjoyed a Zoom pub open mike event that a friend hosts every Monday evening. There is music there, as well as poetry and storytelling at times. It started as something for the Isle of Wight, but we now have several regulars from Hawaii and Newfoundland. It seems to be working well.


Great excitement concerning my youngest daughter. Her purchase of a small bungalow in a gorgeous location is coming to fruition at last. I really am happy for her.


I think that's about it for now. I look forward to reading other journal entries as always. God speed to Sandy, and I hope she will revisit this community quite soon...

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