Mutant in Tier Four

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

On our Sunday walk through the park, people were in groups of families and friends, mostly unmasked as if to say, like Scarlett O’Hara, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” And then in the depth of mid-winter, Monday’s Solstice came, with the dawning of understanding that England is now closed well into the New Year. The clouds are rain-filled and hang low in the sky, dripping like a slipping tap. And there is no way we can see the great conjunction of the planets, Jupiter with his train of moons and Saturn with her large rings.

Trucks in Waiting in Kent

Between Brexit and the new mutant strain of COVID-19, the rest of Europe is firmly closing its doors on trade and travel with England. Albeit ‘closing the barn door after the horse has bolted’. The mutant strain of COVID-19 is now found in six countries while 40 countries more have banned travel to and from England. The blinding vision that Boris Johnson, and all who sail with him, carry – that England would become a hub of commerce – have not just faded but imploded. Great Britain, in the eyes of the world, is now Little England. Who is being served here? Certainly not the European, Scottish and English fishermen, nor the lorry firms’ haulers or container-freight drivers from Europe or the UK. A six-hour queue on the motorways in Kent is now the norm, and the book of Brexit is not yet closed. News broadcasts announce that ‘there will be gaps on the supermarket shelves within days. A shortage of lettuce,’ they say. But who on Earth is choosing a salad over hot winter vegetable soup in these dark, wet, days. But we will join the rest of the country stocking up as best we can for our non-existent Christmas and into the Bleak Midwinter New Year. We go to our familiars: the supermarkets that are close to our feet and bank accounts, and we have now become the old people, moving slowly, peering at this and picking up that. Six crumpets at 30 pence a packet are still the best and cheapest comfort food on the shelf. And the wine, well we could always do with a bottle or two more.

Much of England’s dismay is the understanding that – once again – the UK government has not been telling, ‘The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’ The mutant strain of the COVID-19 virus was first discovered in Kent in September. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government Chief Scientific Adviser, spoke of it in October, and still, in November the government announced a five-day break of isolation over Christmas. Last week there was a “Oh, sorry about that, our whoopsie,” before a rushed reversal, clamping down to a one day Christmas holiday with no more than six people and no granny or grandpa visits.

In Tom Chivers’ December 21 article in UnHerd, ‘How dangerous is the Covid mutation?’ he writes of his family’s efforts to do the right thing before – thank you – explaining about mutations in a very readable way.

While Health Secretary Matt Hancock repeats: 

“It’s all very difficult.” But is it? Hie Min, the dance choreographer from Taiwan writes that life there is now almost normal. What did they, and other nations like China, Japan, New Zealand, and Vietnam, do? Apart from mask–wearing, social-distancing, super-hygiene, and testing, they closed their borders and contained themselves. And they thought of the collective good over their personal wants and needs.

Murch Mince Pies

Despite the lock-down I cannot help getting twitchy in the kitchen (as an American friend says about his Swiss wife) at this time of year. And so I buy dried fruit, mince-meat, more flour, eggs and butter, and bake for hours. But I’m not the cook I was and one burnt Dundee cake found its way to the compost pile where it will become soil for next spring. There is a little COVID-free cluster in this cul-de-sac bringing neighbors together as we all look out for each other. My husband watches with some concern as another plate of Mince Pies or Biscotti goes out the door into grateful hands and brings a smile to another drawn face. But there are always the crumble bits – which long ago Uncle Harold taught us have no calories.

There are more knocks on the door, as gifts and secrets (can you wrap this for us?) arrive from family and friends. This morning there is the mail from America, our letters from abroad. I open it eagerly, for among the  constant bills, is always a note from our son. This one says that the old Christmas Lights from eons ago are hung on the windows and a wreath of welcome hangs on the door. The gratitude that we feel when Dan the postman knocks on the door and, with a smile, hands us our letters, makes me wonder if this is how it felt to receive mail packages from the ships in past centuries, when families were taking great leaps into far-away countries, and letters from home were a reminder of what they had left behind: their families, the good, and the terrible times. Those leaps are still being taken by families from over the world. News may not come in letters, but phone calls – even emails – will still contain the same messages: of hope, of longing, some truths, some not-quite truths, some requests, some reassurances and news, good or not. 

As of this weekend it was not known if the Queen had written or recorded her Christmas message to the nation and commonwealth. It is hard to imagine what she must be thinking about this government. A good hearty wield of the ceremonial sword would not go amiss in these times. Her unprecedented message in the middle of the first lock-down helped us all see this through but now there is a deeper malaise, a sadder push and pull to us all in the country. We will listen to her carefully-chosen words on Friday, and hope that she can give us all the strength and courage to Carry On.

This has been a Letter from A. Broad. 

Written and read for you by Muriel Murch 

First aired on Swimming Upstream – KWMR.org. Web support by murchstudio.com

Flotsam and Jetsam

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

Earlier in this COVID year KWMR’s station manager, Amanda Eichstaedt, wrote in the weekly newsletter about walking with a purpose. Her young pup, Waylon, joins her as she sets out, gloved, and carrying a plastic bag and grabbers readily picking up litter left behind by those who have not yet taken on board the ‘pack it in, pack it out,’ mantra. Reading her words brought a smiling remembrance of long ago houseboat days. My friend Jill and I each had a toddler boy and our houseboats were small. In order to get the boys – and ourselves – outside safely we would often walk the shoreline of the Richardson Bay pushing a wheelbarrow along the unpaved path beside the water. We even brought gloves, knowing that while mucking about in the mud we could get pretty grubby as we hauled out flotsam and jetsam from the bay. Lumber from old building projects and branches from fallen trees were our main harvest, to be brought back to the boats, and cut up as firewood for our small wood-burning stoves. We also hauled out tires, coiled wire, anything that sullied the waters and could harm the wildlife. We carted those back to the garbage bin in the parking lot and hoped they would not find their way back to the water. The boys of course loved it. Jill’s husband Ron wrote two large labels, Roach and Grogan, and pinned them to our backs, and to this day I can’t remember which of us is which, while we both still, in our ways, carry on cleaning up.

Walking alongside this stretch of Regent’s canal last week we caught up with a slow moving barge. Four men, volunteers from the auspices of Camden Counsel were chugging slowly along and coming to frequent stops under the bridges that cross over the canal. Beside each was a pile of old iron.

Four men, mucking about in boats

It has been many years since we heard the weekly cry of a man pushing his barrow while ringing his bell and calling out, “Any old Iron, Any old Iron.’ Now for those who do not make it to the recycling centers there is always the canal at nighttime. Before this gathering barge there is another barge that combs the water. It carries a huge magnet that fishes for chunks of iron. Bedsprings and bicycles are among the big items, along with builders detritus and other indescribable metal. The magnet hauls these up from the shallow canal bottom piling it all to one side ready for collection by this second barge and its team. This culls the heavy metal, but plastics, glass and tins are left for another, bigger trawling barge that comes out scooping up the remains of our casual consumption.

This week the UK government has brought out its own barges and a cleansing sweep through the muddied waters of Westminster has taken place. More jetsam than flotsam, (jetsam defined as the portion of a ship’s cargo thrown overboard to lighten her during a storm) the removal of Dominic Cummings from Number 10 Downing Street has many of the back benchers, sailing in the good ship Tory, breathing a sign of relief. But will the removal of Cummings be enough to save the party and the country from the wreckage he has left behind?

Dom, his box and his backpack. Newspaper photo

The Brexit negotiations are floundering and to distract the populace there is a lot of fast talk by government about the cautiously optimistic scientific announcements of COVID Vaccines being available soon. There is an aura of hot wind blowing through the halls of Westminster. And to top it off, or bottom it out, Boris Johnson has been told to self-isolate due to being in contact with a member of parliament who tested positive for COVID. From where he has issued the inflammatory statement calling, “The Scottish devolution a disaster.” Thank you Boris.

Apart from the Telegraph, most of the English newspapers have left Belarus to flounder alone, stuck in its own political mud. While twenty-three journalists have been detained, Lukashenko is not budging. On Sunday alone, one thousand protesters were apprehended across Belarus after Roman Bondarenko who was taken and beaten by the police on Thursday and later died.

However the statement from Secretary fo State, Mike Pompeo, that “These political prisoners have been subject to harsh and life-threatening detention conditions, including credible reports of torture… The United States stands with those who remain detained and unaccounted for, those who have been killed, and those who continue to peacefully assert their right to choose their leaders in free and fair elections,” leaves me more than a little confused, considering all that is happening, and not happening, in the United States. Jetsam remains from the November presidential election and is still floating in the tidal waters of Washington. Large and small politicians and policies are banging into and against each other, unsure of which way the tide is turning. Some are scrambling to shore, some are retreating to the open seas, all are hoping to be rescued by history.

Next week brings the American Thanksgiving holiday and this year so many families will be apart and unsure what to be thankful for. We watch it all while the skies darken by late afternoon and the night air turns cold. Autumn is here and the fuchsias will not throw any more buds. Instead they will recede to the back of the stage and let the hardy cyclamen step up with their bright green striped leaves and even bolder purple, red and white flowers. These bright colors of winter are something for which we can all be grateful.

Cyclamen for you


This has been A Letter From A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch. First aired on Swimming Upstream – KWMR.org. Web support by murchstudio.com

A Few Good Men

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

As the wind whips up the autumn leaves along the bottom of the hill children are tossing them over each other as if they are snowballs. Their father stands patiently by the stroller, smiling as he allows his family to cover him with the yellow leaves. The clocks went back, the temperature is dropping, and blue skies struggle to be seen between the grey rain clouds. I reach the bus stop just as the number 274 comes along. I have an appointment with Nick. Following Covid guidelines, the salon remains quiet and his clients come in one by one. Soon a petite, sparrow-sexy lady of beyond my years enters. Socially separated, she settles in beside me for her biweekly shampoo and blow dry. I watch these two old friends sharing the news of the past weeks as best they can through their blue masks. Nick works steadily, caring for her and she relaxes under his touch.

Returning home the weather is squally. Walk, bus and walk again, along an alleyway between Mornington Cresent and Delancy Street, where an old man walks slowly towards me. Politely he stops to give me some distance on the pavement but in truth he has to pause. He is short of breath and is not sure in which pocket he will find his house keys. Then a lithe tabby cat crosses ‘his’ road – slowly – with ownership. At the pavement he leaps lightly to the railing that protects the house, and the stairwell to the basement flat, from the street. A window faces him. He calls – twice – loudly. The lace curtain flutters, the window-sash is raised and he bounds inside and out of the rain. The window closes behind him.

I hurry home to make supper. ‘My Kitchen and I are in good harmony’ wrote a chef, and I understand. One meal leads to another in a simpler way than the frantic cooking of early lock-down. Now there is just a weekly foray into the unknown. Chicken Pot Pie is the challenge for tonight.

Chicken Pot Pie for supper.

Nightly we watch the steep lift in the graph curve of the COVID-19 infection numbers in Little England. Throughout the country hospital staff are still feeling bruised as no-one seems to have caught their breath from the first wave of this disease. This summer the Duchess of Cambridge called for photographs taken during lockdown. Now 100 chosen photos are on display at the ‘Hold Still’ exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. ’Melanie March 2020’ was photographed by her colleague, Johannah Churchill, and now mural artist, Pete Barber, has painted her for the High Street in Manchester. The picture depicts what no one wants to return to.

Image from any of the many sources

Each corner of the country is metered out a different set of government rulings. People are confused, angry and frightened and not always sure of what or at whom. The rulings leave poor people struggling more than before while big businesses find lucrative loopholes.

Half-term has begun which means that school children are home for two weeks. Marcus Rashford, the 22 year-old English Football player, (who may yet have me watching football) petitioned the UK government to continue providing school meals to children whose families are in need over the holidays. The government rejected the petition. But all over the country, local restaurants, big and small businesses are supporting Rashford in providing lunch-meals through this half-term holiday. Speaking to BBC Newsnight, Rashford explained: “Growing up we didn’t have a lot, but we’ve always had the safety net of the community. That community was my family.” For those of us who live in communities we get it. News flashes show Marcus doing the heavy lifting with crates of food and Boris, softer-spoken today, holding a loaf of sliced bread. For now, and long haul, I have my money on Marcus. At least we know he is playing for Manchester and England.

Marcus Rashford helping out.

Meanwhile those restauranteurs looking for help have found a ‘Working Lunch’ loop-hole in the regulations for the Tier Two restriction areas, which includes London. One paper wrote ‘You can meet colleagues and people from other firms but you cannot take your mother to lunch. This is a conscious choice by the government to save jobs and livelihoods.’ The following tweets are full of British humor.

Somewhere, buried in this school meals and business lunch storm the Brexit discussions are still taking place. We don’t hear much about them. Fishing rights, like the Irish borders, remains a close-fisted problem of long standing. The French fishermen have fished in the waters of La Manche for centuries and the French government says nothing should change. The UK government is adamant that things will change. This game of chicken could end in a messy chicken salad sandwich.

And then comes Sunday. I confess to be ‘busy in the kitchen’ for some of Andrew Marr’s Political program. The strident tones of host and guest are upsetting and not good for digesting breakfast. But then I hear a calm voice. Andrew too is calmer. It is Dr. Fauci answering questions on the Corona Virus, and, politely sidestepping political jabs, he guides Andrew out of the gutter where he tends to slip speaking with the English politicians at his disposal. There is even a ‘I don’t know the answer to that.’ Politeness, calmness in the face of such needless suffering and death and a gentleman holding his own. Tears come to my eyes at the sight and sound of him. Surely a few good men is not too much to ask for.

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

Murder is a Messy Thing

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

Murder can be a messy business. Countries, cultures and times evolve and often a culture is the defining influence as to how political problems disappear.

This is uppermost in my mind in those pre-dawn moments; beyond the fast-climbing number of cases of COVID-19 in England, beyond the raging fires in California, and the understandable distrust for the British Prime Minister by the European Brexit team. The UK government is now reneging on the agreement with the European Union on the border for Northern Ireland. While the Brexit clock is ticking, the leaders of Russia, the US, and China are watching the chip, chipping away of Europe with glee.

But it is Belarus that is again, sounding the alarm bells in my head and my heart. Over one hundred thousand protestors marched in Minsk this weekend, and other cities were filled with protestors. The police targeted young men returning to the universities, as well as reporters, and one journalist remains in jail. Lukashenko has not been seen, only his riot police force out with their agenda. Luke Harding wrote of it in the Guardian Newspaper: “On Monday, unidentified masked men snatched the leading Belarusian opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova from the street in the centre of the capital, Minsk, and drove her away in a minivan.” Three young idealistic women formed a new opposition party called ‘Together’.

Veronika Tsepkalo (left), Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (centre), and Maria Kolesnikova display their signature gestures at a press-conference in Minsk in July. Photograph: Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA

The opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a teacher, unexpectedly allowed to run for president and had claimed victory against Alexander Lukashenko, fled after Lukashenko rejected the vote of the people. Maria Kolesnikova is reported as detained at the Lithuanian border, apparently after an escape bid, though Veronika Tsepkalo may still be in Belarus.

Russia seems to favour poison even as they make such a mess of it. Alexander Litvinenkno in 2004, Sergei and Yulias Skripal in 2018, and now Alexei Navalny in August. Navalny suddenly became ill on an internal flight from Siberia. The plane diverted to Omsk where he was treated for three days before being eventually airlifted to the Charité hospital in Berlin where doctors confirmed what the rest of the world knows, that Navalny was poisoned with nerve agent Novichok. The world will look in vain for an explanation from the Russian Government that does not care a button what the rest of the world thinks.

The Saudis preferred a strangulation, a little drug use, before the chain saw for the removal of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, while the United Kingdom takes the depression-walk-in-the-woods approach to the removal of dissidents to power – David Kelly’s death in 2003 is still remembered. North America uses guns and choke-holds and when countries collaborate the removals can become truly messy. During our years in Argentina I learnt of the 1970s student disappearances by the plane-load over the River Plata. I still cannot eat fish in Buenos Aires.

In these times of solitude I find myself with a strange kind of homesickness. While the farm and the California fires that surround it and all of our corner of West Marin are constantly on my mind, I also think of Buenos Aires and of that time in our lives when San Telmo held a home for us. Smells come over me in waves, they linger and bring memories quickly into my mind.

Walking along the cleaning aisle at the supermarket, with the mixtures of house-cleaning products, takes me to Fridays at the casa. Maritza, who is Bolivian, would take an hour-long bus from her home to San Telmo and spend all day cleaning that big apartment. Bea or I would make lunch and we would sit all together to eat a simple meal. It is the custom there. The espresso coffee pot bubbles up on the stove and, if I have missed it, a metallic smell spills over, with the coffee, onto the stove top. It is the same coffee pot as I had in the Abuela-Dome that spits onto the electric hot plate.

Breakfast with Granny in the Abuela Dome

On sunny Sundays I would bring the morning coffee out to the little table and chairs sitting by the window on the terrace. The terrace, between the main apartment and the bedsit Abuela dome, is long and as soon as David could, he would escape from the main apartment and run across to us. Through the glass doors we could see him standing on tip-toe, reaching up for the doorknob, and click, pull it down to come in. And there we would be. Were we ready to play, to read or maybe was it time for a second breakfast? Inside or out? He had a special mug for tea, as did Grandpa, while Granny has her own Royal Albert tea cup and saucer. And then there would be toast, just a little because actually David has already had breakfast with Mummy and Daddy.

This week is Bea and Santi’s 5th wedding anniversary. And in two weeks it is David’s 5th birthday. Bea posted a picture on Facebook of the wedding ceremony. The little courthouse is packed with Santi’s family, their friends, including Bea’s first husband Kragen, who stood up to wish them all happiness. Bea sits so ‘barefoot and pregnant’. They look young and nervous and yet with that determination that love can bring. The presiding officer was a kind motherly woman magistrate and her presence draws me back to memories of Argentina and all that is good in the world wherever we are.

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

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
couldn’t put Humpty together again.

And it went on. Now, after almost three weeks of tumbling down I’m still so sad and angry, watching as the English politicians made such a cock-up of their dear referendum. Yes I’m going to say that. Though in a global view this is small blip. America is churning and bleeding to death and Africans are dying in the Sahara desert, the Libyan jails and finally the Mediterranean ocean as they struggle to escape a certain death for a less certain life. But still, I’m so sad and mad. I don’t know when I have struggled so to write. If this was a yellow pad, which it was earlier, I would be back at the stationary shop buying another one. But the emotions that have been going around and around in my (and a lot of other people’s ) head, as the television and newspapers reports changed, history being eloquently rewritten every day and Great Britain as it was is no more.

That morning, the one when we all woke up to the Brexit decision was sobering and most of the country, even those who voted out, to show ‘them’ a lesson were stunned and grieving as the realization of what could come to pass began to sink in.

The eye watches London

The eye watches London

So I’ve read, and read and read, mostly coming back to The Guardian editorials which are the ones that make the most sense – to me. I’m suspicious even of my beloved Telegraph, seeing hidden agendas in each opinion column and page. But there are good articles. Lighthearted and accurate from Buzz-feed and somber and intellectual in The Guardian. Maybe there will be a breather today as the politicians wait for Her Majesty to return to London. The Queen is not going to break off other engagements just because these boys have all behaved so shockingly badly.

The weekend after the vote we took a train to Shropshire to visit with a beloved old friend who lives deep in sheep country. That evening he took us and another couple who were staying in Wales, (with more sheep), for dinner. The long evening light was still with us as we climbed out of the taxi (no drinking and driving with this crowd, who can still drink as if they were twenty). Our driver, a young lad, was built like a Sumo wrestler. Overflowing from the van’s upright driving seat he yet held a gentle hand on the wheel and had a sure knowledge of the small country lanes and the farmers heading towards us.

Deah heading the roses

Deah heading the roses

Summer roses

Summer roses

The following day it became clear that ‘a spot of lunch’ was actually a full blown ‘Luncheon for 30 plus’ and I was going to be vastly under-dressed and under-blinged. While the most amazing meal was being prepared in the garage, I was set to deadheading the roses, which with all the rain and very little sun, were glorious.

At noon the guests began to arrive. It was time to change from jeans to a not quite dressy enough skirt and join the friends who had come to share this day. As we sat down to lunch I took the opportunity to really find out a little more what people were thinking, and how they voted. I became impolite, asking those questions one never discussed in public (politics and taxes). Here were the land owners of Shropshire. The charming gentleman on my left was happy to tell me why he had voted Brexit, “We don’t like being told what to do,” And by “we” he did mean all of us, the Sumo wrestler driver, the milk-man, the chicken farmer as well as the Lords of the Manor (most of Shropshire’s around the table) were of one mind.

“We don’t like to be told by Angela Merkel. We don’t like to be told by George Osborne. And we don’t like to be told by Your Barack Obama.” And so out of sheer bloody mindedness they, to a man and woman, voted out.

“To show those politicians what we think.” The rifts that have erupted within families are startling and have taken this grey haired and somewhat still with it generation by surprise.

By the time the cigars and snuff were coming around I was being sleepily interrogated by Algie, (Algernon Heber-Percy Esq.) Shropshire’s very own lord-lieutenant. As the Queen’s representative in the county he could not venture his opinion. But by the languid body language he displayed as he placed his pinch of snuff surely on the back of his hand, he showed that he too was with the aforementioned gentleman on my left, his shepherds and arable farmers.

Today the Queen will return from her morning of duties and have time for a light lunch before meeting with David Cameron (let’s hope he doesn’t whistle a happy tune on his way out of the palace). Then maybe she will have time for a soothing cup of tea before she summons Theresa May to formally ask her,

“Can you command a majority in the House of Commons?” May will say ‘Yes Ma’am I can.”  May might add a curtsey and there you have it. While those two politicians are trotting in and out of the palace moving vans will have been in and out of three houses and on Thursday morning Great Britain will wake up to a new Prime-minister.

Grey skies over Westminster

Grey skies over Westminster

Meanwhile Humpty Dumpty will join his nursery rhyme pals, other eggs who have fallen, and lie broken on the ground, below the wall and under the benches in the House of Commons. They will pretend to care. Some will be swept up and discarded. Others might return to their seats, now knowing how precarious their hold and seat is on the wall. Who knows, one or two may even reach out for a drink with Tony Blair, also bruised if not bowed. The Chilcot Report has been released and the film ‘We are Many‘ is being shown in theaters again and again.