Restrictions for many
Hilde Schoening, Buchholz, Germany
The fourth phase of lockdown easing came into operation in Lower Saxony last Monday. Now you are allowed to come together with ten people from different households. Therefore we dare to invite friends again and my former students split up in two groups.
Last Saturday I was able to dismiss my class with their A Levels and we were allowed to invite their parents too. It was very festive and we teachers tried to make it as normal as possible under the circumstances. We held speeches, there was one song performed by students (only one singer on stage, of course), special face masks for all graduates and even a toast with sparkling wine (we always sat the school leavers together with his or her parents and kept 1,5 metres distance to the next three seats). I was very glad that I did not have to send the reports via mail and got lovely presents (a blueberry plant and a digitalis for the garden and several bunches of flowers).
Apart from that personal moment of joy, Germany is currently facing several outbreaks of covid-19 in meat plants, resulting in local lockdown in Northrhine-Westphalia, there have also been incidences in skyscrapers in two cities.
We had originally planned to cycle in the Netherlands but shall go on local tours from home instead.
A View from Crazy Town
Chris Dell, Washington, D.C.
To paraphrase a former radio personality, it's been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, er, Crazy Town.
Our Dear Leader spent the first part of the week licking his wounds after a less than successful reception for the relaunch of His ¡Greatness! campaign in Tulsa last weekend (“Low energy” Jeb! Bush’s mistake four years ago was using only one exclamation point, a mistake Dear Leader won’t repeat). He had labored mightily beforehand to set expectations, and in the process His Great Science Mind had even developed a new way to fight the pandemic - if we stop testing for it, the number of cases will go down and we can get back to ¡Keeping America Great! But it is a sad truth that Stable Genius often leaves the Faithful trailing in Its wake and struggling to catch up. The photos of the bored, slumping attendees at the two-thirds empty arena only underscored how much work still lies ahead for Dear Leader. Bowed by the weight of Greatness, a dejected Dear Leader stumbled off His helicopter afterwards - complete with bedraggled red tie and crumpled MAGA hat - projecting the image of a man misunderstood and alone (fortunately, the Lovely Mrs. Dear Leader was waiting quietly by the White House hearth to soothe His aching brow. Well, no actually, She prefers to stay well away from Crazy, and spends Her time in nearby Maryland with Her parents and The Child).
But Dear Leader knows that image is the key to Greatness, and gathering Himself together, on Wednesday He headed back out to fight the sickness where it rages most fiercely. In Phoenix He reinforced the new message of hope and renewal that He had first revealed to His Faithful in Tulsa. We are no longer being flagellated by the coronavirus (news first brought to you, you'll recall, by your Intrepid Reporter some weeks ago). No, in His wisdom, Dear Leader has carefully chosen from "the nineteen names for it" to explain that we are simply victims of the "Kung flu." Even better, if we don’t test for that either it too will go away! Although His Timid Advisors had tried to explain that Dear Leader had only been joking about beating the virus by testing less, He refuses not to be taken seriously. Thundering, “I never joke,” His Stable Genius proved itself yet again as his twin messages of “Kung flu” and “victory through ignorance!” were met with jubilation by the Young Faithful and the rafters echoed to the roars of “Kung flu.” At a stroke Dear Leader had revived His campaign and proved yet again that nothing beats the Gospel of Crazy in America.
Baffled by His vision of Victory, our closest friends and allies (low life snakes and losers all) have responded by leaking the news that Americans would not be welcome to visit Europe when the latter re-opens for travel on 1 July. Subsequently, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut joined with Europe in announcing that Americans from the heart of the sniffles outbreak would have to self-isolate if they wished to stray eastward this summer. Dear Leader instantly understood the Good News in this - not only we will have even more time to stay at home and focus on how we can (optional - ¡) Make (or - Keep) America Great Again (or - Nothing)!, but it will give His Chief Immigration Advisor, Stephen “Little Joey Goebbels” Miller the chance to refocus the ¡Greatness! Campaign where it belongs - keeping ‘Murica safe from furn’ers. Hell, it’s obvious - if there were no furn’ers, there’d be no stinkin’ Kung flu to ignore.
¡Greatness! does not come without its risks, however, which in this case include the rapid spread of the new flu through the Red Lands of Dear Leader's support. How the Faithful will react to this is unclear, but the increasingly negative polling for Dear Leader even in His Heartland reveals a disturbing lack of gratitude for all. He has done for us. If only His Great Science Mind had been permitted to roam freely sooner! Those 120,000 dead ‘Muricans would no doubt not have been tested and they’d still be alive to vote for Him in November.
In other news, various and sundry furn’ers are allegedly working on their own Gospels of Crazy. Britain's own Dear Leader has reportedly secretly developed a new weapon which could permit him to seize the title of King of Crazy. "Wack-a-Mole" will be hard to beat as a pithy (as in “full of pith”) slogan for a national strategy. The Timid Advisors are looking to Dear Leader for guidance on how to respond, but His Stable Genius already understands that ¡Greatness! has transcended the need for a national strategy and competing for King of Crazy with furn’ers would simply be nuts.
The Runaway Diaries
The Sweetest Strawberry
We pull up at your Nana’s house, two and half hours from our own home, our heads are full of nursery rhymes that we’ve been singing loudly throughout the journey. As we get to the front door, we take lungful’s of fresh Norfolk air and gaze up at the enormous sky. We haven’t seen Nana, my mum, in four months, you’ve got used to seeing her on my laptop and every time I pull it out, you quickly point and say ‘Nana?’.
I let you push the doorbell and bang the knocker, and suddenly she’s there, in front of us, in person and in our arms.
It's a huge relief to see her and the impact of not seeing her for so long hits me in the guts, but before I can acknowledge this momentous occasion, mum is saying something and it’s not sounding good and it washes over me and she has to say it again before I understand.
‘Your father has had a heart attack, he’s at the hospital now’.
All our bubbles burst at once.
It turns out that whilst we were driving to see my mum, my dad, in his own house in another part of Norfolk, was experiencing chest pains, his arms started tingling and his breathing became desperate. But he’s a quick thinker and knows himself well so called 999. Because we’re still in a kind of lockdown, there was no traffic on the roads, the ambulance was with him within ten minutes. Because of the risk of catching Corona, fewer people are attending A&E so Dad was seen immediately by a surgeon who cleared his arteries. And because of this terrible virus, he was encouraged to recover quickly and sent home after 48 hours.
During the wait for updates on Grandpops, we went for walks with Nana along the broads and splashed in the sea with your aunty. We drank the celebratory champagne we’d been saving for this moment by the pond watching for hedgehogs. It was so good to be physically connected to family, but the hopeful joy of seeing each other was tainted with a rumbling mortal fear.
My sister was amazing at handling the information from the hospital and working out a care plan, she ignored my numb brain and ignorant questions and bossed the situation so that our dad was able to be back in his own bed, shaken and stirred, but alive and smiling. We got to see him at a distance and in his garden, eating scones like nothing had happened. He showed you his strawberry plants and together you picked the ripest and enjoyed their sweetness before we had to get in the car and go back to London.
Thank you to the essential NHS and, I guess, thank you Corona, or perhaps thank you to everyone who has responded to this pandemic with such careful consideration. My dad is lucky to be alive because of all of you.
Care in the time of Corona
Shirin Jacob, Ålesund, Norway
We were invited to dinner in a village an hour away. The lady of the house was my fellow student from a course and had met her husband online. She regaled me with the near misses and scams associated with the online search for husbands. I enjoyed her deadpan sense of humour. There are many older Norwegian men with young Asian wives and, unfortunately, there are a few cases of the latter who face physical and mental abuse. My friend is one of the lucky ones but I do think her husband Peder was also quite fortunate to have bagged her. We have three Asian supermarkets and multiple Middle Eastern ones. Marilyn took me under her wing and showed me the best brands of sauces to buy for her cuisine. Her husband is an avid angler, which can be an expensive business here with a day’s salmon fishing in one’s own little spot costing upwards of 500 pounds. He was chairman of his club and knew little rivers that weren’t so expensive. We feasted on the eight-kilo salmon he had caught the previous week. In the 19-th century, wealthy English and Scotsmen often fished here and were called the Salmonlords (‘Lakselorder’).
So Monday was the big day. My appointment with the gynaecologist. I could have had a Pap smear with my ‘fastlege’ or regular GP but I think he is as frightened of me as I am of him and his ability with Pap smears. He swiftly suggested a gynaecologist close to my home. The elderly gynae, in scrubs, met me promptly at 830 am in the waiting room of the large multispeciality clinic. It’s very important to be precise with appointments here. My husband speaks of the relaxed Sunnmørsk half hour (Sunnmøre is the southern most area of our county, Møre og Romsdal) but I have noted his habit of always being ‘presis’. I was ushered into a suite of rooms with an ensuite bathroom. The doctor was professional, preferred to converse in Norwegian and encouraged me to use the bathroom before the exam. I am OCD to start with (only useful as a surgeon but a disadvantage in life as one constantly feels not good enough) and launched into my usual pre-gynae prep. He did a Pap and ultrasound of the pelvis in a very sophisticated chair which did not require one to take off one’s shoes! He very sweetly did not charge me as I was a colleague. I was surprised as it’s an old fashioned habit. My mother’s generation never charged fellow physicians and neither did mine but I notice the younger lot have changed as Medicine has become less about healing and more about a business run by administrators with their eye on the bottom line. I had bought pastries and chocolates as is my habit for doctors and their nurses. Long hours with never enough time to eat.
We are now on a little island, an hour and a half away from Ålesund by car and ferry. It’s only 12 sq km and has a population of 313 people, all related in some way to each other. My husband spent holidays as a child here with his many cousins. Our house was briefly sold to an ‘outsider’ after his aunt’s death but the man just destroyed the house and garden before the bank foreclosed. We bought it five years ago and have repaired most of it with help from a nephew. The kitchen is our next challenge. It’s quiet and peaceful, very few cars, two little beaches and many opportunities to have BBQ’s in this very unusual weather in our area better known for rain, hail, wind, ice and snow. Wishing you God Helg (a good weekend!), my friends.
Anna Stenborg, Uppsala, Sweden
The corona numbers are looking better for Uppsala University Hospital the last few days: only 30 corona patients and 10 patients in intensive care. It would be wonderful if it is not just a temporary relief. Also, work on my medicine ward here in Uppsala was not very hard this week having 4 assistant physicians and only 9 patients! The main problem though has been the huge pressure to use these few hospital beds as efficiently as possible. The reason for the shortage of hospital beds is a shortage of nurses. We have been very succsessful this week in discharging or transferring patients, but it remains to be seen if our follow-up plans for the patients after discharge will work as planned. My holiday starts tomorrow. We are going to the summer house in Västergötland which is the best place to be all year but even more so in the summer. Today is the funeral of my colleague and I am very thankful I was invited to come since it is, due to corona only a very small funeral. I learned that some of his old patients now phone his poor wife to talk about their troubles, very strange and quite inappropriate
From St Just
Jane G, St Just, Cornwall
I’ve caught myself several times this week stopped dead, staring at the radio and asking ‘Did someone really just say that?’ Once was when a weather forecaster warned of a particularly high UV risk because we’re missing our usual protective pall of pollution. Once was when a policeman said (though not quite in so many words) that he was worried about the easing of lockdown because policing is easier when people are locked up beforehand. Once was when a ‘scientist’ said it wasn’t safe to ease lockdown because of low herd immunity - though that one had me less stopped dead than beating my head against the wall.
A more thoughtful scientist suggested that with new infections running at about 1000 per day, a fortnight’s full lockdown now could reduce R to zero and mean that we really could go back to normal, theatres and masklessness and all. Her thoughtfulness extended to saying that unfortunately this wouldn’t be an option because people had so lost trust in the government that they wouldn’t believe it would be only for a fortnight and so wouldn’t comply - but not to how R would be maintained at zero unless all borders were kept closed and track & trace really worked: it was as if, despite her best efforts, she was thinking of the entire country as a hermetically sealed lab experiment.
Someone else pointed out that, with an estimated 33,000 people with the virus in the entire country, the chance of someone infected getting into your car (suppose you were a driving instructor & suppose you were allowed to work) would be 0.05% - so you’d have to give 10 lessons per day to get it up to 0.5%, and then, assuming R is around 0.8 your risk of catching the thing would be 0.4% and - if you’re of working age - your chance of dying of it just under 0.1% of 0.4% (is that 0.004%?)… which makes me want to say ‘let there be driving instructors’. And swimming pools. But I suppose some people might have the kind of luck with Covid that I have with aeroplanes and only ever meet people who are infected, just as around one in six of my flights goes life-threateningly wrong (engine failure, landing gear failure, encounter with tornado, bomb on board, and so on), which means I don’t take very seriously the internet’s idea that the odds of dying in a plane crash are just over 0.01%. Admittedly planes haven’t actually killed me yet - but I probably should be more sympathetic to relatively young and healthy people who say they don’t feel safe with a risk of 0.004% - unless of course they willingly take planes, which even the official odds suggest are a great deal more dangerous than being a hypothetical driving instructor in the UK today.
Either this is true, or you can prove anything. Or both. And of course the odds cease to apply if you intentionally go to a rave or unintentionally end up on a very overcrowded beach.
Incidentally, if you google ‘odds of dying in a plane crash’, one of the related questions that comes up is ‘what are the odds of dying?’ - which I’m afraid made me laugh.
In between calculations, I went as far north-east as Truro, partly to replenish stocks of watercolour paper and partly to see if the beginning of the rest of the country was still there. It was interesting: the entire centre is being pedestrianised daily from 10 till 4, to allow for queues. Last Saturday, though, the only noticeable ones were outside Primark, Sports Direct, Boots, and - for some reason - Smiths. Independent coffee shops were open for takeaway; chains were closed. Charity shops were closed. But Waterstones was open, and I spent a very happy couple of hours going round almost every shelf, the way I did when I was eleven and bookshops were a twice-yearly luxury. And one valiant furniture and general junk shop had opened too, despite some of its alleys being dead-ends barely wide enough to allow the port-side-up/starboard-side-down arrows to be pasted on the floor.
One final stat: apparently the arts sector creates six times more revenue than the air industry, but government is unwilling to tide it over, even in the form of repayable loans. This is one I do believe.
Hilary Q, North Norfolk
Two bubble teas in disparately divine gardens. All very sensible but inevitably the distancing rules became a little smudged in that deckchairs had to be moved, trays carried, chickens shooed, and dogs petted.
On my way home from the first, I was tootling along the coast road when a loud bang from underneath the bonnet of the newly serviced hornet was followed by ear splitting screeches and grinding noises. I stopped but then gingerly continued on my way with two cyclists turning their horrified faces to look. I was close to Morston and turned up by the church to the council estate where I pulled over. I was sure the engine was in ribbons.
I do not carry a mobile phone so went down the path of the first house where a chap was sitting on an aluminium deckchair inside the hall of his house; not in the first flush of youth, smoking a cigarette and drinking from a can. He indicated that I should not come close and gestured that he was shielding but he guessed I had just come from the car making the dreadful noise! I explained my predicament. He called to his partner to bring the phone so I could telephone my husband. Then he wanted me to sit down and have a cup of tea while I waited... “we’ll make you a sandwich,” he said. I declined but before retreating to the car I learned enough about him for us to establish historical acquaintances from Cromer to Kings Lynn! “Come back, borrow any of my tools, use the phone again if you need.” He was a character straight out of a copy of that green paper-backed magazine of yore, The Countryman, and I felt elated that yet again human kindness was all around.
He is the anecdote I wanted to share. Not the car which turned out to be a minor matter which my husband resolved in the shake of a lamb’s tale! However, I agreed that the time has come for me to carry a mobile phone even though I rue that I would never have met my Samaritan and he would not have had the opportunity to remind himself that he was one!
This incident occurred in the same week we learned that the biggest rise in social media usage over the last three months has been among the over 60s.
This brings me to Instagram! Nicola and I launched The Gilded Angel with a bit of a whimper rather than a bang not least because we didn’t understand hashtags! So while our friends can congratulate us on our hard work, potential customers have no idea that we exist!!!
Housekeeping. The wicked vermin is no more BUT... “The mole is dead... long live the mole!” We sense a son and heir!!! Meanwhile the ill-favour’d object continues to enhance his castle using every noisy gadget he can lay his hands on.
Finally, I have discovered a new addiction. A friend recommended the six Jackson Lamb novels of Mick Herron. Thrilling thrillers! Just look at the spines!
Thoughts from the Suffolk coast
Harris G, Suffolk
“Mid way this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
where the right road was wholly lost and gone...”
(adapted - Dante / Badalamenti)
A week of mostly beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies with storms predicted for today or this weekend. Not a lot to report. The past couple of days have been so hot that I’ve done almost nothing in the garden. Ah yes. I’ve had to prune - quite severely as it happens - a very large viburnum - badly affected by beetle. Oh and I have been out and about - in the car for some “rides out”, for a couple of long walks, for a beach picnic lunch with friends, into some of the newly opened shops. and of course there has been all the usual general living stuff. Life goes on.
The people I see or chat with are responding quite differently to the continued threat posed by the virus. Some see it as a nuisance, others as a disaster. After the government’s announcement about reducing social distancing to one metre plus, a friend who has a tendency to “catastrophize” (his word) sent me a text message - “Too soon, too soon”. And then later he wrote “Round two will be in November”. Others say they are pleased by the changes and feel we can now start to move on and rebuild. Pubs and other businesses seem to be trying to find workable solutions to the amended rules. People are being creative.
When I was out buying porridge and milk on Wednesday, I saw a sort of virus memorial. In one of the local supermarkets, staff have put up a white tree-like structure where customers can tie paper tags to the branches and write messages in memory of loved ones lost to Covid19. I was startled. There must have been thirty or more tags - all with messages like “I love you, granddad” or “mum I miss you so much”.
I thought of my own parents as I walked back to the car. They have both been dead for quite a number of years. What sense would they have made of this situation? I imagine my dad would have simply carried on. In the greenhouse. Practical. Stoic. Unmoved. I can see him now. In his armchair or in Cromer... walking along the cliffs. And mum? Sociable, fun, chatty, witty. Oh my lovely mum. During the last few months of her life, health problems would have made her very vulnerable. Yet I know she would have remained upbeat and jolly. “Let’s carry on regardless”. Well, not quite... but definitely “don’t get carried away, dear heart”.
Breaking news: thunder and rain. It’s raining as I type this. A lovely fine, summer rain.
“Tomorrow tomorrow I'll think of the poor,
Tomorrow, she said, not today
For dearer than all of the poor in the world,
Is my love who is going away, she said
My love who is going away”
(Sydney Carter 1965)
Notes from a factory in the Midlands
Another week, and ever so slowly the country creeps back towards some kind of normality - or at least we are shown the signposts that point towards normality. If it was up to me I would simply announce something like this: “Right folks, you know the risks by now. If you are old, obese or otherwise chronically ill, please continue to exercise caution in your social interactions. But the rest of you can get on with your lives as normal, with a bit of increased hand-washing!” Unfortunately, the government won’t follow this path, not least because of the “risk” issue. There seems to be a growing assumption that it is the government’s job (and, more absurdly, within the government’s gift) to eliminate all risk from our lives. So as schools start to open, journalists ask the relevant minister “can you guarantee that no child or teacher will come to any harm as a result of your decision?” And of course the minister cannot, and never will be able to, give such a guarantee. So by the journalist’s “clever” logic, schools should never reopen.
Meanwhile at work we are celebrating National Employee Ownership Day - the last Friday in June. As I have mentioned before, we are an employee-owned company and active in the EO Association. In recent years we have marked this day with speeches and presentations in a marquee set up on the car park, followed by a barbecue or hog roast for the entire workforce. This year our event is taking place virtually, with big screens set up in the factory and warehouse, and those working from home logging in to the live video stream. I will be presenting a financial update from my study. And the whole thing will be recorded to be made available to colleagues who miss the live screening. It is being managed by a media company from their studio in Northampton, blending live video of speakers, with slides and some pre-recorded film and soundtracks. Unlike Zoom calls, I cannot see the audience, which is very odd. I feel much more comfortable simply standing up on a stage in front of my colleagues with a microphone in one hand and a slide clicker in the other. For my own amusement I have rearranged the books behind my head to present the front covers of “Hard Times”, “A Journal of the Plague Year”, “Love in the Time of Cholera”, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s extraordinary book “Black Swan”, subtitled “The Impact of the Highly Improbable”.
The collared doves are still incubating their eggs in the prunus tree. I spent last weekend replacing rotten fence posts and panels at the bottom of the garden: I find such outdoor exercise very therapeutic. And last Sunday I sat quietly in our parish church for a period of what our political masters refer to as “private prayer”: a different but equally valuable kind of therapy from physical tasks in the garden.
Chris Gates, Norfolk UK
The week started with Cabinet meeting to discuss bulk easings. Slight nervousness here at home as there’s no mention in news bulletins - all desperately second guessing what might be to come - of self catering, which we come under for the purposes of our little Yurt business. They seem preoccupied with pubs. I suppose I should be more interested in the wisdom of easing, but, like most matters of principle it comes down to money, and that goes for me as well as Government...
However, all is well, BJ goes large at the following Briefing and opens up pretty well everything except Sheila’s beloved swimming pool.
There was (and is still) much concern from Alternative Sage about the reduction from 2m to 1+m social distancing, and Chris Whitty, appearing with the PM (for the last time, btw - no more Daily Briefings) is positively animated in his appeal to the English Public to show restraint/common sense and preserve a healthy gap.
As a large proportion of the English Public promptly descended in their hundreds of thousands rubbing sun-oiled shoulders with each other on (mainly) Dorset beaches, and there were riotous crowded scenes of Liverpool fans celebrating winning the League Cup he must have had one of those ‘I don’t know why I bother’ moments.
Here, we’ve had a yurt-raising, a spot of lumberjacking (part practical: the lowering of the crown of an oak - see pic, part whimsy: the cutting of a ride through the woodland belt to allow a glimpse of open field beyond), a khazi replacement, and electrical work to provide power through the outhouses, long overdue.
While pottering amidst all this, tending my tomato plants, I found myself running through a repertoire of Joni Mitchell favourites in my tuneless, quavering, old-man voice: Coyote, Carey, Amelia... until I was suddenly seized with concern that it was A Sign. Where had this pre-occupation come from? Joni must have died (she hasn’t been well) and in some subliminal way I was reacting to ethereal news from, well, I dunno, ‘Music in the Sky’s Hall of Fame’ perhaps.
It wasn’t that at all. It was you, Harris, mentioning Dog eat Dog in the Journal.