Covid, Cummings and Crying with Clive

Recorded and knit together by WSM. Aired on KWMR.org

Tear it all up and start again, as every night gives a new twist and the morning brings another reality. Thus this letter too may arrive as if receiving the papers on board ship and reading three-month-old news.

A notebook behind my desk opens to a page, ‘Nobody Talks to the Cleaners.’ A friend returning from her hospital stay remarked how she always made a point of saying ‘Hello, how are you?’ to the lady who came to clean the ward. When cleaning and other auxiliary hospital needs were contracted out – separated from the National Health Service – little fissures had a place to enter a smooth team of personnel. This essay was still waiting to be written, when Clive Myrie beat me to it and I am grateful.

Clive Myrie Somewhere.

Born to Jamaican parents Clive is a Lancashire lad. He graduated from The University of Sussex with a Law Degree at the age of twenty. But he chose to enter a BBC graduate program, thus beginning his journalist career. Traveling to over 80 countries, covering far too many war zones, he is now a regular news reporter for the BBC.

I always like to see Clive. Each news reporter has a different persona and how we respond to them may affect how we take in the news they are sharing. Even in his prime John Simmons was always too ‘old school’ for me. Jamaican born Sir Trevor McDonald barely hid his bite and made many folks sit up a bit straighter. Beloved, comfortable Welsh Huw Edwards has an aura of stability that sometimes also carries just the tiniest edge. And the women, well bless Emily Maitlis and her clarity last week. Though she was curbed she was not arrested. But I see compassion in Clive Myrie’s eyes. Scrolling through photographs I am held by one where he is standing with a guard at Guantanamo Bay prison with his fingers on his mouth. What was he thinking? What could he say?

Last week Myrie produced a special assignment closer to home. With permissions from patients, their families, and the staff, Myrie and his team spent a week in the Royal London Hospital of Whitechapel, recording the care, successes and sorrows of the hospital’s Covid virus wards. He sought out and talked with those beyond the front-line student nurses, religious leaders of all faiths, owners of funeral homes and morgues filled to overflowing with the dead of Asian and African communities hit the hardest by the virus, and the cleaners. “We clean to reduce the infection. If I don’t come the infection is going to spread more.”

In his report Myrie said ‘So many of the nurses and doctors and consultants as well as cleaners, the helping hands guiding us through this storm, are Black, Asian and Minority ethnic. Somewhere deep down, my heart skipped a little entering the Royal London’s Corona Wards. Because studies suggest that those from these communities are being affected by the virus disproportionately and almost twice as likely to die from the infection than those who are white.’

Meanwhile up the road in number 10 Downing Street ‘The Dominic Cummings incident’ is being fast swept under the not-so-magic carpet as the bitter pill of betrayal still lies un-swallowed in the mouths of many in this country. The goal of keeping the death rate at under 20,000 is long lost and the number of UK deaths will reach over 40,000 by the end of this week.

In America too those effected by the Corona Virus are disproportionally African-American and working class. Like England, security guards and workers on public transport are at the highest risk for severe infection and death.

The news from the United States brings tears of frustration, anger and deep sadness. For now – again – the senseless death – at police hands of George Floyd. I’m remembering Rodney King, I’m remembering and not calling to mind those who have been killed in the same way before and since that time. Watching the US police forces I think back to when the old ‘cop cars’ were replaced by military SUV’s returning from Iraq. Weapons came with them, bigger and more powerful guns, man-toys. Esquire writer Charles Pierce reminds us “that since 9-11, the federal government has equipped local police with $4.3 billion in military gear and prepared them for an all-out war on terrorists.” And some useful combat techniques. Jim Cessford, who has spent 47 years in law enforcement, says ‘knee to neck’ is not a tactic. “Neck restraints are totally unacceptable and they’re not an approved policy by police.” But on Twitter, the Palestinian Solidarity working group wrote: “US cops train in Israel with Israeli troops on duty in Palestine. The police violence happening in Minneapolis is straight out of the IDF playbook.”

There is anger, tears and despair aplenty among the images across the all the news media formats. There are scenes of peaceful protesters, rioters, more looters, now that the American unemployment rate is 14.7%, alongside groups cleaning up and feeding their communities. New York police wearing ‘I can breathe’ face masks, countered by other New York Police and politicians and even National Guards kneeling with, and reaching out to, protesters. Thus is the divide of the United States of America made visible to the world.

George the Poet, on Newsnight explaining a little about Racisism in the UK

Last weekend in capital cities throughout Europe groups gathered in peaceful protest of this ‘fresh’ killing. In London, marchers gathered in Trafalgar Square and the US fortress Embassy in Wandsworth. Though Social Distancing was out the window, most of the young marchers wore masks. There were only 23 arrests and the London coppers, without a mask between them, clutching only their water bottles in the heat, walked calmly side by side, with the marchers. George the Poet came to Newsnight and spoke in a gentlemanly manner trying to explain to Emily Maitlis the chilling similarities of black men and women killed by Police tactics in the UK and the U.S.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated, The King Assassination Riots, known as The Holy Week Uprising took place in 125 cities across America. America is again bubbling like a cauldron brewed and spread from the swamps of its underbelly. If the ‘Me too Movement’ which Maitlis referred to, was able to bring down Harvey Wienstien is it too much to ask that ‘Black Lives Matter’ maybe the Trump card America needs today.

So I return, retreat maybe, to James Baldwin, watching again his 1965 debate with William Buckley at Cambridge University.
“Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?”
One could now add, “Among others.”
At night I reach for Baldwin’s ‘Collected Essays’, seeking clarity but not comfort.
In the background Nina Simone is banging on the piano and singing
Mississippi Goddamn – over and over again.

This has been a Letter from A. Broad.
Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.

Sheltering Somewhere

Recorded and Knitt together by WSM
First broadcast on KWMR.org 9.20 a.m PCT

Even as a child, the hamlet where I grew up was being hunted by urban amoeba pseudopods. The town of Fleet oozed with a hybrid sprawl, turning farms into developments, and army barracks into business centers. Not even a town worthy of its own picture house, the Odeon Cinema was closed in 1957. This corner of Hampshire is made up of just a few towns, as most of the B roads meander from villages through hamlets and back again. My mother lived in Fleet for all of her adult life. From childhood to widowhood in ‘The Old Divots’ and then as she started her life again in ‘The New Divots’. ‘The Divots’, named from her golfing and gardening life, was an important pause on life’s journey for her friends, our growing family, relatives, and yet more friends touching down from America and beyond. Bobby always had a warm welcome for everyone. There would be much serious liquid refreshment followed by a fabulous seasonal British meal, and then, after coffee and before teatime, an offer of a drive to some of the historic sites that litter this corner of England.

The village of Odiham was always a stop on Bobby’s tour. As The Young Farmers of Hampshire we would often end an evening at The George Inn in Odiham. Though I doubt any of us knew of the pertinent heritage to farmers that The George carried. In 1783, a group of, and I quote, ‘Gentlemen of Rank, Fortune and Ingenuity’ plus some ‘intelligent farmers’ met in The George Inn and formed the Odiham Agricultural Society. They went on to create a school of veterinary science which led to the foundation of the Royal Veterinary Society and profession in Britain.

Odiham also has a castle. Built by King John in 1214 the castle was then, like Fleet is today, in a prime location, between the seats of Winchester and London. The history of the castle saw the French dauphin laying siege to King John, the sitting of Parliament, and even the capture and imprisonment of the Scottish King David. Eventually the castle crumbled and was downgraded to a hunting lodge stop-over before finally left as a ruin in 1605.

The Gothic and Tudor Church of All Saints, lies behind the High Street. The church grounds leads out to The Bury courtyard. And in the Bury courtyard, now protected by a lych-gate like structure, stands the old Stocks and Whipping post. In another corner of The Bury sits The Pest House, both built around 1620. The stocks and whipping post are a reminder of times when villages, not always with a magistrate, took the punishment of community members into their own hands. A sepia postcard shows the stocks holding a tramp and the whipping post a young boy in custody, with 6 bobby-uniformed policemen in attendance some time after 1850.

Bobbies attended to the stocks and whipping post

The Pest House is one tiny room with a fire place and was restored by the Odiham Society in 1981. Usually these were placed outside of the village but this one is close to the church. Pest Houses were used to isolate people from within the community or travelers passing through who were thought to be contagious. The Plague, smallpox, and the sweating sickness brought in and spread by just one contact, could decimate families, farms and communities.

All of this comes to mind given the political shenanigans being exposed this week. It appears that Dominic Cummings, The Prime Minister’s chief advisor, did not follow the instructions that he himself had issued to Health Secretary Matthew Hancock and the government to “Stay in place, Self Isolate, Protect the NHS, Save Lives and so forth.” Nope. He packed up his car and drove his sick wife and four-year-old child north 260 miles to his family home in Durham where it appears that once in place his sister did the necessary outside shopping and errands for them. All so far infuriating but not raising the temperature of the general public until he was sighted 30 miles away from his house at Barnard Castle and later in the week on a walk to view the bluebell woods outside of the city.

I have not been the only person to write that they are ‘Incandescent with Rage’ at this sense of betrayal by a government advisor. Cummings is not appreciated for his possible far reaching governmental reform ideas but perceived as a machiavellian puppet master whose character is recognized in too many political histories.

This turmoil, which will continue to evolve through the next week, brings back to mind how small is England, and how much smaller it has become with today’s communication structures. The spirit of the people lives on from Hogarth sketching the depravity of his day in Odiham to Sunday when the ‘Led by Donkeys’ campaign truck parked outside of Cummings’ residence in Islington, the screen showing on repeat the TV footage of Boris reminding, urging, then thanking, the people of this great country who stayed at home. Disrespect can easily lead to mutiny.

But when we can look beyond this government for a moment, the unnecessary pain they have inflicted and towards a bigger picture we can take some comfort and resolve from a billboard high up in Piccadilly Circus where our captured Queen is pictured. Steadfast as always she is telling us that one day we will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again; we will meet again.

A Message from Her Majesty


This has been a Letter from A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.







Harvesting the Hill

Recorded and knit together by WSM
First aired on KWMR.org May 20 2020

‘It’s a Debortle’ became the catch phrase for any minor/major hiccup that occurred during the post-production of Coup 53. A blazer-clad and panama-hatted Brit arriving back in England from Iran was caught on camera and asked to describe the exodus of the British from Abadan in 1951. The journalists surrounding him didn’t seem to notice his grin as he repeated ‘Debortle’ while not giving any hint of the word’s origin. ‘It’s a Debortle,’ became the cry and the tee-shirt slogan for Coup 53 and in more than one London household referencing the situation we are all in, around the world.

The UK government’s handling of the Corona19 epidemic in England has been a debortle. But watching the medical staff at the Saint-Pierre Hospital in Brussels, Belgium as they silently turned their backs on Prime minister Sophie Wilmes when she arrived to visit, we see that England is not alone. Countries all over Europe, and continents throughout the world continue to struggle with this itsy-bitsy virus that maybe is here to teach us some sort of a lesson.

Even though this government says we can begin to venture out, as long as we ‘Stay Alert’, like many others we continue to stay alone at home. Guidelines from the “Evenin’ Standud”, dropped on our doormat nightly, continues to say that as over 70 years old we are among the extremely vulnerable. We turn to this guide rather than the three blind men (and women) who at 5 p.m. each weekday night stride out to their podiums at number 10 Downing Street with the day’s rule changes. Barely one thing they say is reliable and by morning it often needs amending – again.

So we stay at home and face each morning’s question–what to wear today? If one is lucky there is someone else in the house who can smile at you looking neat or lovely. But maybe there isn’t, and just the effort of getting dressed can sometimes be too much. But there could be a delivery. A loud knocking on the door in the morning has me racing – carefully – downstairs, but the postman is already leaving before I can open the door. I shout a “Thank you” with a smiling wave and he turns with his happy smile and wave in reply, but is already striding across the parking lot and I don’t think he can notice what I am wearing.

At some point during the day, separately or together, we will go to the park, down by the canal or around the hill. The end of spring has begun to layer white across the green before the summer pinks, blues and purples come to paint the summer hedgerows. There is a tall wall around the bottom perimeter of Primrose Hill. Houses, blocks of flats and even a reservoir are closed off. But from back gardens and small alleyways there are old wooden gates in the wall. The delight in a road or a pathway leading forward never fades. This feature is found in city and country parks all over, and surely must have been a thought for the American writer Frances Hodgson Burnett when she wrote ‘The Secret Garden’ published in 1911.

Now swaths of Cowslips that grew thigh high under the lime trees are beginning to soften from their bright white, while the Elderflower shrubs stand tall and take their turn, gracefully to unfurl their florets. It is too much! and carrying a floppy old plastic bag holding my clippers I walk the perimeter of the hill, eyeing the Elderflower heads as they bow towards me. It is a slow walk, for I must gauge how low the flower heads are, and glance around to see if anyone is watching. If I walk too deeply into the underbrush I may disturb someones lodging. There are only a few signs of human habitation but there are enough to remind me to be respectful. I’m looking for 20 to 30 full flowering heads from the Elderflower shrubs. Being particular, it takes walking the mile perimeter to gather what I need. Then I can saunter on home and pop the bag in the fridge to stay fresh until I have everything ready.

Ros’s Elderflower Cordial
Recipe

Our next door neighbors are also self-isolating. They have returned to London from their years in the Irish countryside. Like us, a smaller home and the lure of grandchildren has brought them back to the city. And, like me, they have brought their country recipes with them. Ros emails me a well-stained 40 plus year-old copy of her recipe for Elderflower Cordial.

Time is 26 hours total if you count harvest and preparation.

Introduction on the Stove

Once bottled and chilled it is immediately delicious. It is a perfect summer drink and my evening glass is going down a treat. The sun is shining this week, and we are very grateful to be allowed back onto our terrace. We were definitely “personae non grata” outside while the Blue Tits began nest building and egg incubation. But now the eggs have hatched and the parents are too busy flying in and out of the nesting box above the Vanessa Bell and Sir Walter Scott Roses to be too nervous about us. Bill Oddie’s bird book says they can hatch 14 eggs but I don’t see how they can all fit in the box. Maybe I will just have come out each evening, sip a little more cordial and count until the one night they all fly away.

This has been A Letter from A. Broad, Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.


Following Florence

Recorded and knit together by WSM
First aired on KWMR.org May 13 2020

In this new reality, a phrase that crosses my lips at least once a week is “Incandescent with Rage.” Usually by the time I come to write I have calmed down. But the feeling bubbles up and like waves rolling into the shore, heralds a possible storm at sea. This week it began – again – at Matt Hancock. A concise question from the Labour MP for Tooting, DR. Rosena Allin-Khan, about the continuing shortage of Personal Protective Equipment that was supposedly shipping from Turkey led him to respond that she should “Mind her Tone”.

And so it is UK people and businesses who step forward. On Princess Street there is a small sewing shop now closed. Walking past in the mid-afternoons we could see young children enjoying their after-school sewing programs. But the owner, Roz Davies, has gathered her staff together and, with a small army of off-site volunteers, been busy making gowns, scrubs and bags for the staff of The Royal Free Hospital. Nurses can put their scrubs in the bags for laundry and thus not contaminate their homes. This enterprising spirit has been repeated up and down the country by such shops as ‘Sew Much Fun’ and larger companies like Burberry. But wait a minute! This is the National Health Service. National, as in: owned and paid for by the UK government with our taxes. Would that not presume that the government would pay for and provide all the Personal Protective Equipment that the staff need? Ah well you see – that brings up an incandescent moment.

The testing for ‘essential workers’ has been abysmal failure. To find out if you are considered essential and how to get tested – you need a computer – where you can try to access a self-referral portal and fill out the 35 page form. Alternatively, try to book an appointment at one of the supposedly 50 testing sites open throughout the country. The nearest can be several miles away. And who is running them?

God Bless the Army. Newsreel footage now shows young soldiers with flapping blue plastic aprons over their army fatigues, standing, masked and gloved while waving cars forward. Then, while clutching papers and test tubes, they lean into car windows and poke swabs into open breathing mouths. No figures have yet been published as to how many of these young, partially trained, men and women have succumbed to the virus.

Throughout the week it was announced that The Prime Minister would outline his road map for going forward on Sunday evening. (Thereby cleverly missing a dissection by Andrew Marr on his Sunday Morning political broadcast.) We turned on the Television at 7 p.m. to see Boris in Blue. A navy suit, pale blue shirt and discrete tie. His hair, for those who like to note such things, was combed into a semblance of flattened style. Sitting at an old-fashioned desk with the door open behind him so we could see the elegant chairs and chandler in the room beyond. Did he give the broadcast live on Sunday? No he did not. It was prerecorded. Why was that? I still don’t know. And what did he say? Well a lot of us still don’t know that either. The three other United Kingdom Countries, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all rejected his new message of ‘Stay Alert’ and are continuing with ‘Stay Home and Save Lives’. This could be a moment to reflect that: “When Three Russians tell you that you’re drunk, you might want to lie down.”

But the general message seemed to be, “You‘ve all done a good job and now it is time to go back to work tomorrow. (Later that was corrected to Wednesday as tomorrow was Monday, a bank holiday.) If you can work from home, keep doing that. But if you do have to travel, try not to take public transport but “get on yer bike”.

And there must be a way to keep the natives happy and the country divided. (I’m sorry to sound so politically incorrect but here it is). Essential workers, and some businesses were to reopen, such as – wait for it – garden centers. How does that work? By keeping the home counties happy. They can shop for and work in their gardens and feel that Boris is taking care of them – as they will for him come election time. He must be careful as the warmth of the fire’s dampened faggots are beginning to smolder underneath him.

May 12th is Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday. A day celebrated throughout the world with maybe even with a Google Doodle. This spring five Nightingale hospitals were built in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Harrogate and Bristol. Similar facilities have been set up in Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast.

Frequent hand washing by nurses was an early directive of Nightingale’s and remains one of the most important health messages in this coronavirus pandemic. The new hospitals share many similarities to those that Florence Nightingale designed after returning to England from the Crimean war in 1856. But the main component was nurses. And the lack of nurses, as well as the situation just staying manageable, is what has kept these new pop-up hospitals almost empty. Nightingale also understood “politicians have short attention spans”. She was a quiet woman who would never have shown my emotion. I can’t but feel she might have given me a tight lipped smile of understanding.

This has been a Letter from A. Broad.
Written and read for you by Muriel Murch

From the Florence Nightingale Museum

Grateful in Week Seven

Recorded and knit together by WSM
Photograph by WSM

Week seven of Shelter in Place or Lockdown in London. Whatever we call it, this means remaining vigilant and at home. There is a new sense of ‘wait a minute’ … a new dawning of how life is really changing. Workers on building projects have had enough time off and money is running out. White vans are again parked on the roadside and masked laborers trudge in and out of the buildings. With luck, money will slip into empty pockets by the day’s end.

Meanwhile not only are all retail shops shut but so are most of the services that we have come to rely on. Hair is an optional accessory: some of us have it and some of us don’t, and blessed are those with a hairstylist in the family. Here in Camden, Ossie’s and the younger hip barber shops are all closed. So too are the ladies’ salons. Stylists have all gone home. The phrase ‘Shut up Shop’ has taken on a new meaning. As middle-age recedes, giving way to our senior years, we face the decisions we have made. Some of us have gone silver and others golden. Yet most of us try to do so something. Maintenance has become an almost full-time occupation while ‘You are looking very neat’ could be accepted as a compliment in these times. No longer able to enter the high street chemist’s I turn to the internet and find there is a run on ‘Age Perfect’ from L’Oreal and that Amazon is only allowing one package out with each order. But one is enough for the moment and will take me behind the closed bathroom door for a morning. Soon it maybe time for a pony tail clip.

But others are not so fortunate. The nurses, doctors and auxiliary personal on the front lines of the medical care of the COVID-19 epidemic can give no time to such personal considerations. Showers and laundry are all they can manage, meals are often gifted from the communities they serve. Some staff have even been camped in hotels, isolating themselves away from their families for weeks on end.

As we enter May, and come into Nurses’ week, celebrated around the world for the birthday of Florence Nightingale, I think of us nurses particularly. There are stories, penned in hours of exhausted lonely frustration, by Intensive Care Nurses working on the front lines from London, New York, Europe and throughout the world. These are heart’s weepings at the incredible loss of life they see and the family sorrow they bear witness and give comfort to. It is in writing themselves to sleep they join in comradeship with each other.

When patients are admitted to hospital with a clinical or tested diagnosis of COVID-19, this may be the last time they see their families. The death rate of those admitted to Intensive Care still remains at 50%. So many relatives have no time or way to say goodbye to their dying family members. It is the nurses who try to bridge that gap, calling families, holding mobile phones, and then holding hands with their dying patients. Nurses take their place at the bedside with both physical patient management and emotional support. If the nurses are lucky and gowned into proper protection, it is only their eyes that the patient can see, their voice the patient hears, and the warmth or a gloved hand that they feel. These can be enough. It is what nurses do.
The hold that the National Health Service has on the UK psyche is deep. It was conceived and brought into being in 1948 by Labour’s health minister, Aneurin Bevan. Subsequent governments have all taken turns nipping away at the NHS funding, mostly with cutting the salaries of nurses and doctors alike. This virus could be the a moment that the people say: Enough. Pay our staff.

Every European country with a socialized medical system sings its own praises. “Italy has the best Health Care System in the world.” says my Florentine friend Idanna. In less serious times I would banter with her that ours is better. But Italy, like all of the socialized systems has been sorely let down by their own government at this time. Italy went into lock down on February 23rd. Other European countries quickly followed with their own forms of isolation. It was not until March 23rd that the UK government asked this country to Shelter in Place. Italy quickly turned to music for community comfort. People came together across balconies and plazas to sing in praise and gratitude to their medical teams. Spain, Germany, France, England, China and America even, began their rituals of standing on doorsteps, singing, clapping and banging on whatever they can find to say thank you.

At 8:00 PM every Thursday, as night gives way to spring-time dusk, people around this country, on doorsteps, outside of hospitals, fire departments, and public services come out to clap, smile and wave at each other and for a moment not feel so alone.

This has been A Letter from A. Broad. written and read for you by Muriel Murch.

Boris is Back

The virus, politics, shopping and the park are the sharp points on our compass as we enter week six of lockdown in London. The number of recorded UK hospital deaths from Covid-19 has climbed beyond 21,000. If the death toll in care-homes, Hospice centers and communities are included that number will reach over 40,000.

On Monday Boris Johnson returned to Parliament. Striding to the podium outside number 10 Downing Street to give his ‘Hello I’m back. Well done everybody.” speech before reminding us all that this is the time to hold steady to achieve the five key points that the government has laid out: the death rate falling; the NHS protected (whatever that means); the rate of diagnosed new cases per day to be less than 1%; the government sorting out the challenges of testing; and Personal Protective Equipment (A total blotched job up to date) to thus avoid a second peak. Can he get all this, with some of the Conservative Party nipping at his heels to get the economy and business open as usual, before restrictions are lifted.

We watched Johnson to see if he is changed. Has there been a metamorphosis to a kinder, clearer and marginally more honest Prime Minister? I hold my hopes but know I have been wrong many times before. Johnson promised more transparency to the ‘People of the British Public’ But one could ask, why should that promise have been necessary?

Sunday mornings Political Commentary program with Andrew Marr is a ritual in this household as it is across the country. Sitting on the sofa in front of the television screen we share a late Sunday breakfast with approximately two million viewers. Andrew Marr is settling into a routine with fewer guests live in the studio and others on Skype or with a camera crew in not so close range at their homes. The program is lengthened to 90 minutes, which meant another pot of coffee with breakfast. There is a change, a shift in the questions, answers and banter back and forth. Dominic Raab the deputy Prime Minister refused to get riled by Marr, repeating, “You are absolutely right Andrew” at least 5 times after I started counting, leaving Marr with not so long a lance with which to prick his opponent. As Marr questioned the Leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, and Germany’s Andreas Michaelis, his attempts to pit one country against another failed. Many European and world leaders are presenting a united front acknowledging the different difficulties each country faces. Talking with our family in the Netherlands, who in turn talk with their friends from Sweden, we know that every government is being taken to task for the things they have failed to do.

Luckily Spring carries on with and without us. Cherry trees that were full of blossoms in early March quickly faded away as the winds took hold and blew us into April where the promised showers have only just arrived. Now it is the sturdy Chestnut trees turn to unfurl their white and red flowers before us.

Horse Chestnut Blossoms

The city air is so clear we can smell the spring. The Cowslips, Elderberry and Hawthorn are as intoxicating in the park as they would be in the country lanes of my childhood. Walking to and from the bike racks I pass both a Robin and Blackbird nest in the grassy scrub land left for them. Over the weekend the bike check in booths are changed. Circles are painted onto the pavement, ‘Stay this far apart.’ Credit cards are to be tapped onto the screen, no more punching numbers with your grubby fingers.

For another period of time, shops deemed non-essential, restaurants and pubs all remain closed. Our local grocery and essential shops that are open have become inventive. Last year the Indian News Agents at one end of the High Street rebranded itself as ‘Primrose Corner’ and began a long battle with Shepards, the Arab-run deli at the other end of the village. Now, despite the higher prices more people are choosing to shop close to home and the battle for customers has heated up. The tiny aisles at both shops are crammed full of boxes to be unpacked and shelved. Two English run shops have closed and may never open the same way again.

Spilling out of La Petite Poissonerie

On a tiny corner of Gloucester Avenue, at 75A, M Rascle the owner of La Petite Poissonerie has also gone the extra mile to bring his customers more than ‘Fish on Fridays’. Fresh fruit and vegetables overflow from his boxes on the pavement while bags of pastas, loaves of fresh bread, and all things French, cram the little space inside, leaving us close to the glistening fish, if not to each other. The queue here stretches around the corner, and in a mutual symbiotic relationship with the Primrose Bakery at number 69, the lines blend from one shop to another and so before our eyes we can see how a new community corner is born.

Social distancing in the queue at La Petite Poissonerie


A Month in Lockdown London

A month in Lockdown London

Early morning walkers are wrapped up warmly against the nipping wind that dances below the sun and tosses infrequent April showers across the country. The warm winter has brought green aphids out to suck on my roses. Every morning I brush them off and say thank you to the ants who are trying to devour them as quickly as they appear.

Walking past our local supermarket, the wind added to the chill of watching the long line of one-person one-cart each distanced apart, shuffling along the wall around to the waiting guard at the store’s entrance. It still feels too dangerous to shop there and not all right to ask someone to go for us. So we stay close to home shopping in the village and getting used to doing without the simplest things. It has been two weeks since I saw Philadelphia creme cheese in the dairy cooler. This week there is no mayonnaise and I pluck the last bag of risotto rice from the shelf.

Listening to the daily news bulletins from the government it is clear that they are not ‘telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’

Health care workers, transport, postal, delivery and essential service personnel are becoming increasingly distrustful of, and frustrated by, the government. There are no state governors here to overturn and bring clarity to the federal shambles. The major of London, Sadiq Khan, the son of a bus driver, needs union pressure to catch up, trying to make all transport workers safer and promote the use of face masks for public places where the correct social distancing cannot be kept. His frustration is palpable on the news clips where he is seen. Since before the weekend a shipment from Turkey of Personal Protection Equipment for medical personnel had been promised. Today we learn that it was only officially asked for on Sunday! and is now due (again) to arrive today. Turkey – the country once demonized to help win the Brexit vote.

Beech Tree in the Wilderness of Regent’s Park

This is week four of our London shelter in place and the government has decreed at least three more weeks. But over this weekend with the Spring sun shining and the air warm, there was a casual feeling from people that this will not affect them. We walked through a wilderness area of Regent’s Park, where couples and families were picnicking under the trees, hanging out where old London tramps like to make their camps. Impromptu soccer games were played, though the goal posts and nets are all put to one side of the pitches. Hardly anyone was wearing masks but we were. The last of our table napkins have been turned into masks. A bag on the front door holds more fresh napkins from friends. They are waiting, cocooned like caterpillars to metamorphose into white butterfly masks.

From Table napkins to Face masks Photo by WSM

Mr Habtu works for Addison Lee the car hire firm. His hours are rough and spontaneous and he is still working. Who are the people who need his services? He has a wife and three growing boys to support. Every time I see him drive away I worry more than a little and yet am grateful for him that he has a job, is able to work and provide for his family.

This morning another book arrived through the letter box. ‘The Great Influenza’. Written by John M. Barry published in 2004 and picked up as one of the three books by G.W. Bush as a vacation read in 2005.

On opening it up I am immediately caught and it looks like Thomas Cromwell’s death in ‘The Mirror and the Light’ may have to wait a little longer. Glancing through The Great Influenza I am stopped by the end. Though one is not supposed to quote from books the two concluding paragraphs bear repeating at this moment in time.

“Those in Authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart.”

And there is hope in the world as we read of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand managing her country through this crisis followed by the delicious news that the governments of Poland and Denmark are refusing to give financial aid to companies that are registered off shore.

Primrose Hill is embraced on three sides by The Regent’s Park, the Canal and then the railway heading away from the city center. Walking home through the park we paused on the bridge over the canal. In these last few weeks the canal water has become so clear that the shallow bottom was visible. The sunlight was strong and sparkled through the trees while the ducks flew in pairs along its path. Such is the stillness of the air that for the first time in twenty years we can hear the trains clatter quietly by – leaving us all behind.

The has been A Letter from A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.

Easter Weekend 2020

Easter Weekend in London brings news and time for reflection.

Some days swirl by in a non-specific haze, leading to a confusion of thought, and a seeming inability to get anything done, so that the by day’s end one wonders what did actually happen. Like older relatives and parents who cut out articles from the newspapers and mailed them to us, we now swap internet links and stories. “I thought you might be interested in …” and we often are.

Thomas arrived for my birthday. He had been hinted at, noted, ordered from our local book shop and was wrapped up to serve beside a pot of coffee for breakfast.

Thomas at Breakfast

Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror and the Light” brings Thomas Cromwell’s life to an end. For three days and nights I managed to resist him, continuing to read an evening chapter from “Jock of the Bushveld” an old favorite book of my mother’s.

But before even a week was over, I had picked up the hefty tome of 880 pages. I said (to myself) “I’ll just take a peek”, as if “I’ll just go for a drink with him. It’s nothing. I can get up and leave whenever I want.” But now Jock is laid aside, and Thomas has my heart and mind. I love him, more than a little bit, and am infinitely in awe of and grateful to Hilary Mantel. I am not alone. Others I know read him in this gifted time of solitude. We will go with him to his end and close the book with sadness.

When Susan Sontag published ‘The Volcano Lover’ in 1992, she went on her book tour. I was fascinated with the history and had lots of questions prepared for speaking with her at KPFA, Pacifica. But as the conversation relaxed and drew to a close, I asked about living alone in New York City. “Are you ever lonely?” “How could I be,” she responded. “I have two thousand years of history in my library.”

Here in London we both have small libraries crammed full of books that we cherish. We are both re-readers, I returning to history while he explores science. Though I’m a one-at-a-time gal there are at least seven books piled behind “The Mirror and the Light”.

My father would have been in his 70’s when I was first old enough to become conscious of his reading habit. And for him, too, this age was a time of re-reading books that he welcomed back into his life as long lost friends.

Saturday morning began in the new quiet, but by noon a helicopter began to circle overhead. There is no Prince traveling from one palace to another, and the air ambulance is hardly needed now that the London streets are almost empty of traffic. This is the police, boys with their toys, circling Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park looking for those, oh no, sunbathers and loiterers. Later, when we take our walk a police patrol car is cruising The Broad Walk. They are not walking to give a face to their presence, nor even on horseback when I might get lucky with a bag full of droppings for the compost pile.

The evening news program brings the government representatives out to the podiums with their daily bulletins. Mathew Hancock, Minister for Health, speaks his coverup nonsense “Maybe the NHS are hoarding gowns and masks which is why there is a shortage.” Priti Patel, the Home Secretary says, as one does when knowing there is a need for an apology but not ready to give ground, “I’m sorry the situation makes you feel that way.” As of this writing 8 national health doctors – all of them UK immigrants – have died. The number of nurses to have died is unknown. Today at over 11,000 deaths, England is set to overtake Italy in the number of Covid-19 deaths.

On Easter Sunday morning, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson was discharged from St. Thomas’s Hospital and driven to Chequers, the country seat of the current Prime Minister. Whatever one feels about this Prime Minister we are grateful that one more life has been saved. And so is he, giving public thanks to the nurses who cared for him; particularly Ward Sister Jenny McGee, from New Zealand and Staff Nurse Luis Pitarma from Portugal – again – immigrants.

Easter Sunday is when some look for a miracle. Not necessarily the one of a life returned, but possibly of the recognition in this moment of gratitude by the Prime Minister, for the nurses, doctors and all staff working in the health service. Doctors may cure but it is the nurses and hospital staff that keep us alive.

Old into New – again

A strange part of all of this is trying to accept that my job is to be out of the way, not on the ‘front line’ – not helping. But what to do? what is next? The table napkins are next, the first one already torn and sewn to make a face mask. I take up a needle and mother’s cotton threads while listening to history unfold itself again.

I bow my head over the work as a gentlewoman would in the Tudor time of King Henry and his Lord Privy Seal, Sir Thomas Cromwell.

This has been A Letter from A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.

Week Two of UK Lockdown

And it continues. We listen to the wireless almost hourly for news and watch the BBC ten p.m. evening broadcasts each night for updates on the UK Corona virus figures. And with such intense scrutiny it is clear that something is happening at ‘Auntie’. Over the last two years the BBC has seen budget cuts of up to 80 million pounds. This has caused the loss of 450 jobs from its news and story departments. Those BBC executives who still have their jobs warn that the corporation is facing an unprecedented threat to its future. The National Union of Journalists has said the BBC was facing an “existential threat”, while the sharing of radio bulletins across the BBC will result in further job losses. Newsnight, a nightly, popular political program will lose a dozen personal, production of its in-depth films will be halved, and its investigative journalism diminished.

There is also an effort to reduce the number of on-screen news presenters, which brings up the question of where is Huw Edwards, the main BBC News anchor? Even beloved Clive Myrie is rarely seen. The news presentation team is now almost entirely women and that raises another question of pay scale equality.  Commenting on changes due to the Corona Virus situation a memo reads… “We’ve tightened hygiene and safety measures. Our presenters are now doing their own make-up.” And it shows.

On Friday Sir Keir Starmer was elected the new Labour Party leader. He gives his speech trying to be as passionate as he can, (not his strongest suit) and with the transmission through one microphone to another and then to the airwaves his words loose a certain panache. Thankfully his somewhat swept hair will be a change for the cartoonists who are getting a little bored by Boris’s haystack haircut. But we wish Starmer luck with uniting the Labour party and in the parliamentary collaboration with the conservatives that must come at this time. 

For my allotted daily exercise I alternate between riding a rental bike and walking in Regent’s Park. A four mile cycle around the outer circle is pretty good. I am alone and not so nervous as there is less traffic and the car drivers and fast bikers now travel with a little more consideration. At the North West corner of the park sits Grove House, the first of the six gated, fenced and locked villas built by Quinlan Terry between 1988 and 2004. All of them are owned by one Sultan or another to be close to the mosque, while in town. Before Grove House there is a small stretch of parkland. The daffodils have begun to fade here and an old elm tree lies fallen on its side. A pair of lovers, wrapped in their winter scarves are standing close. She is hesitant but he pulls her towards him. He wants to feel her body through the rough wool of their heavy coats. I can’t help but smile as I see them. He, ever watchful, catches my eye and with an almost apologetic grin asks that I understand. And I do.   

It is a sunny Saturday morning but I am missing lemons and cumin. Risking the disapproval of our neighbors, I walk to Shepherd’s Market in the village. Regent’s Park Road would normally be bustling with activity but this Saturday is different. There are only a few people out on the street and those that are zig-zag across the road to keep at a distance. Two young people almost take themselves off of the pavement as they pass close to me and we smile. I can’t tell if they are being considerate of me or careful of themselves. At the market, a notice reads that only one customer is allowed to enter the shop as another one leaves. I stand behind a middle-aged man who is struggling to be patient with the older gentleman balancing a cane and two bags of groceries while climbing into his motor buggy. There is another queue outside of the butcher’s shop with people standing a discrete distance from each other. They are silent. There is no chatting for that would necessitate people leaning closer to each other.

It has been over a week since I was in the chemist’s shop. Another older man is standing outside the door, gathering himself as he slowly leans on his cane to walk home. Inside the chemist’s there is now a big wood framed plastic partition across the counter which it is clear will stay long after the virus leaves. I wonder about these solitary men, for now that the pubs are closed they have no place to belong, alone within the company of others. In London it is easy to half-close your eyes and see Hogarth’s England with all of humanities foibles etched on our faces. The experts say we are still two to three weeks from the peak of this virus. Tonight on the television and radios around the country the Queen will speak to the nation, gathering us all to a greater unity of purpose. And within the silence of the street maybe there is hope as we listen to the robin calling out for love once more.

This has been a Letter from A. Broad written and read for you by Muriel Murch. 

  • Huw Edwards surfaced again via Twitter on Monday. Thanking the National Health Staff for all of their care while he was ill with pneumonia.
  • And as of this posting Boris Johnson is stable with oxygen in St. Thomas’s Hospital, London.

Week One of London Lockdown

March 29th 2020 (Updated on April 1 2020) — Week One of Lock Down in London

A week ago on Friday, when my husband walked into Camden for some printer ink and returned with 5 Kilos of rice, I smiled. But now more than a week later I’m grateful to have that not so little bag of rice tucked away behind a chair in the living room. In the United Kingdom the death toll is over over 2200 and in London will be 700 plus by the time this reaches you. We are all finding different ways of being prepared for this new reality and the challenges and solutions of city living are different from life in the country.

Government Alert sent to ‘almost’ everyone

Being of a certain age we have been told – in no uncertain terms – to stay indoors except for one daily exercise adventure. This could be going to the grocery store, the pharmacy or, if really necessary, the doctor or hospital. In an effort to keep one’s sanity, the dog happy, blood circulating and bowels open we are all encouraged to take a daily constitutional in whatever way suits our fancy. There are signs posted in Regent’s Park reminding us to keep our social distance from each other.

We walk carefully, mindful of others on the pathway, staying at that social distance from each other with a grateful nod of thanks. And it is spring and we can all be grateful for that. But I can’t help wondering if someone were to fall, or become ill on the path would anyone stop to help them? Some areas are closed. Understandably the Zoo is closed. But then, also understandably, are the public toilets. The notice, posted by the label for the ‘Golden Showers’ Roses reads ‘Due to the present day crisis these facilities are closed.’ Which, due to the present moment crisis, could provide another critical moment.

A serious crisis moment

But we are taking it all seriously and are tremendously grateful for our neighbors with their offers to help and the shops with delivery services that are working to full capacity. On Monday Vinnie, our milkman, said that he ran out of cheese. At first I thought he had just forgotten the order and put it down to typical milkman behavior. But then my little carrier had only one slab of cheese besides the two pints of milk so maybe his supplies are getting low.

Necdet from Parkway Greens has been busy beyond belief sending out daily delivery vans with boxes of fruit and vegetables. Delivery is free for house-bound seniors giving us another reason to be grateful.

Our little corner of London is quiet. Occasionally we see a neighbor and wave from a scarfed or masked distance while still asking “Are you OK? Do you need anything?” Every weekday morning Bob from Manley Street strides out of his cottage early, not for a walk but off to work. I wonder what is essential about his job and my imagination leads me to him working for MI5 in one of the discreet building along the 274 bus route.

From 8 a.m onwards throughout the day solitary delivery trucks come up and down the street. Masked young men bang on doors to drop off a package and then flee the doorsteps, behaving, though not yet looking, like one of Santa’s elves. No one stops for a signature any more. I’m grateful when our tea order from Fortnum and Mason’s arrives and smile at my last extravagance. If we do get sick at least we can still be drinking good tea.

Another van drops off builders next door. Essential work ? Well that depends who you are asking. It’s a balancing act between abandoning or completing a job, leaving a client in disarray and – or the workmen left with no income.

No longer able to walk to the Camden Bakery I turn to my old farm recipes and begin to bake. But it seems that the whole country is baking and the shortage of flour on the shop shelves this week made news headlines. I suspect this is more than a necessity for food, it is a need for the giving and receiving of comfort within our families and for each other.

First loaves I learnt to bake in 1969?

And who would have thought it possible that the English could garden even more than they do. But on the kitchen windowsill my chard seeds have sprouted and already have four leaves. Soon they will be ready to go out into the little garden patch that I work. But not today because March is going out like a lion. The wind is blowing and we wrap warmly up to take our walk. The door blows shut as we turn to face the empty street and the tiny snow flakes falling on our faces. 

First aired on KWMR.org Swimming Upstream with host Amanda Eichstaedt – April 1 2020