Testing Times

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

Not again. Boris, what were you thinking?! Taking off with new young mother, Carrie Symonds, baby Wilfred, and Dilyn the dog to a remote cottage out in the West Highlands, overlooking the Isle of Skye. You think that a tent in the field next door will be fine for the secret service police but the owner of the field, a farmer, didn’t find the tent – nor the fire the poor chaps must have lit to keep warm – fine. Where are your manners that you didn’t ask for permission to pitch a tent in someone else’s field? The photograph in the Weekend Telegraph paper showed a stone wall between the bleak looking cottage, the field and the sea but no sign of any facilities. A road lies between the cottage and the field. If a car drove down, wanting to have a snap and a chat with the Prime Minister in his wooly hat and PJ’s how long would it have taken for the boys in khaki to; unzip the tent, run the field, hop the wire fence, the stone wall, cross the road and ‘be at your service’? It was a good idea to cut the holiday short and return to the relative safely of London.

Coverage continues on the ongoing protests and retaliations in Belarus. The situation is reaching some kind of a pressure peak as the president, Alexander Lukashenko, wearing the black body-armored uniform of the riot police and holding his assault rifle, is heavily guarded as he inspects the police ranks. Lukashenko looks like an old war general holding onto his last vestiges of power. It is clear that Putin does not, for the moment, want to enter this battle. The protesters remain in strong numbers on the streets. They are attacked, hauled into jail cells, beaten, released and returned to the streets more determined than ever as they get information out to the rest of the world. Will it end like Czechoslovakia? Scenes from ‘The Unbearable Lightless of Being’ play though my mind along with the film’s haunting music. Thinking of the end scenes of ‘Unbearable’ that were shot in the California sunlight of Stinson Beach and Blackberry Farm in Bolinas brings back memories of a happier time. Global distress always, but our corner of the world was a safe sanctuary. Now we watch as the fires sweep through Northern California and pray for you all.

Much of the world looks bleak, with the Coronavirus pandemic being mishandled in the U.S. and other countries. In England, schools are to carefully reopen next week putting children and teachers in jeopardy for the economy.

A large envelope came through the letter box for a survey on the Coronavirus conducted by The Office of National Statistics at Oxford University. The first interview and testing took place in the bathroom and on our doorstep. After forms were signed and the testing completed there was a survey to fill out. Inda sat in her car, I sat on our doorstep. “How many people have you been in physical contact with in the last seven days?” Touching is what she meant and I realized that if we lived alone the answer would be ‘none’.

The quietness of the London Streets is sobering. The parks and canal walks are beautiful but the loss of physical contact is hard. There is a hunger now for human engagement and with that has come a change in attitude.

The Albert pub closed up 3 years ago as the building was bought for renovation. Three flats were built and sold above the pub. Then things stalled. The pub shrank, physically, as the leaded windows dusted over. Even after signs saying, ‘Everything valuable has been removed.’ The door would be broken open just to check. The community petitioned ‘Keep The Albert Open’ but to no avail, and the grumbling rumbled on, ‘There goes another one.’ Earlier this year squatters moved in, furniture was dumped on Princess Street and there were a few days of frantic activity as the squatters made themselves comfortable. But quickly they were moved out and plywood panels went up to cover the old windows. Maybe the squatters were the push that the owners needed for now there are two builders’ vans and a skip in the garden. The front door is open and young men in dust-covered teeshirts and overalls are busily coming in and out. What suddenly is making The Albert a possible proposition is the little garden out back. In these Covid times outdoor seating is at a premium.

“Should be open in September.” Says one of the young builders.

The First beginnings at The Albert Pub Photo by WSM

Sam’s Cafe first opened on the high street of the village. But last year a minor repair turned into a huge building disaster that had Sam shutting up shop – literally – and licking his wounds, brooding on a dream so cruelly crushed. Owning and running a restaurant is not for the faint-hearted. Beloved JC’s L’Absinthe on the corner of Chalcot and Fitzroy was a truly go-to spot for us. But then JC fell in love and married. And he too looked to lighten his load. The doors of L’Absinthe closed and the corner was quiet.

And then during the winter came the rumor that Sam’s Cafe was to take over the old L’Absinthe restaurant. We watched and waited. First up went the brown paper in the windows to keep private whatever activity was going on. Months went by before the doors opened as old equipment went out and new came in. Final touches to Sam’s Cafe’ are done and the doors will open on Thursday.

The Last Touches to Sam’s Cafe

Now, on this little corner street, all the shops are busy again. There is hope for a future and we are grateful.

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

An Eton Mess

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

Despite being arrested and badly beaten, protesters are not giving up and protests in Belarus continue. Over 200,000 people took to the streets in Minsk over the weekend while TV Journalists are refusing to work in the state-sanctioned stations. Europe and much of the world are watching, appalled at the police and army violence used to control the protesters. Beleaguered President Alexander Lukashenko is feeling the heat and has turned to Vladimir Putin asking for help, which may – or may not – be forthcoming. Is this a world-warning to the U.S. if, in November, the U.S. presidential elections appear to be overtly tampered with?

A real Eton Mess by Helen Hall

An Eton Mess, as described in Wikipedia – the now go-to in depth Encyclopedia Britannica – is a traditional English dessert of strawberries, meringue, and whipped cream. As the name suggests the Eton Mess originated at Eton College and began life when served at the annual cricket match between the Eton and Harrow Schools at Lords Cricket Grounds in London.

In the summer time of the early 1960’s, as young student nurses, with our end of the month brown envelopes, we would walk up the hill to The Corona Cafe on the Guildford High Street. Crowded tightly into our little booth we would each order, not an Eton Mess, which was not yet on every restaurant’s menu, but a Knickerbocker Glory, which was.

A Real Knickerbocker Glory from Gastronomic Bong

Before the European Market, and a global economy, soft fruit was truly seasonal and ripe only in June and July. The berries then faded, giving way to August’s blushing peaches and plums.

But here we are in August, with strawberries and raspberries still in the markets and so, if we choose, we can make up our own versions of an Eton Mess; mashing merengue, ice-cream and fruit all together, or we can be more creative, putting together an elegant Knickerbocker Glory.

Now in this mid-summer moment, Boris Johnson’s Government has produced its own Eton Mess within the education system, taking all the good things of a last school year and, with a hairy fist and no thought for the consequences, crushed them into the industrial blender of the Ofqual algorithm. Whether it is G.C.S.E.’s or A levels, leaving school exam results are hugely important to the students, teachers and their schools. I can remember fearfully waiting during exam result’s week for the brown envelope containing my O Level results to come though the letter box. This year, because of the Corona Virus, there have been no A level exams. They are vital indicators for a student’s way forward to a university – or not – and if so which university can they attend. The government’s first choice was to wiggle through two paths. In Private (called Public) schools, the teachers were allowed to give their assessments of a student’s grades. In State schools the government implemented an algorithm from the exams watchdog, Ofqual, based on previous results from these schools. This appeared dependent on post codes for schools and students alike and did not address the hard work of the schools and teachers struggling to improve and equalize the opportunities for students throughout the country. The gap between rich and poor has been broadened and deepened more that ever.

The Scottish Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was the first to think ‘Rubbish, off with that computer’s head, we are going to listen to the teachers,’ though she put it more politely saying:
“We’ve got this wrong and apologize to both students and teachers. We are going to do whatever we can to put this right.” Northern Ireland and Wales followed suit. Quickly, old Etonian Boris Johnson, and the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, far from an Old Etonian, but maybe with such aspirations, were left watching their Eton Mess collapse into a proper Dog’s dinner. And now the students have voices; quickly they formed protests around the country and posted their stories on Social Media. Those whose post-codes down-graded their results are not going anywhere quietly. This maybe the first time that Domonic Cummings’ computer and puppet-strings for Gavin Williamson have tangled and crashed. The government has been forced to abandon their algorithm from Ofqual and now slides into a U-Turn. Like a cur that has regurgitated its Eton mess, it has turned tail, eaten its own words as a dog’s dinner and retreated.

But this week we are preparing for the Virtual launch of COUP 53 on Wednesday August 19th. That is this evening if you are listing on KWMR.org, one of the over 90 venue hosts in four countries, for COUP 53. Yes, I’m putting in a plug for the film and our own beloved radio station, where you can get tickets for Wednesday night and thereafter as long as the venues keep the link on their website. If your tickets are for the Wednesday opening you also get to see the on-line Q & A moderated by Johnathan Snow and featuring the writer/director Taghi Amirani, the writer/editor Walter Murch and actor, Ralph Fiennes. Ticket sales are split between the host venue and the film.

Everyone involved in the making of COUP 53 at times wondered what rabbit-hole we were falling into as these historic events from 67 years ago played out in more than unusual footage and film. The Press coverage has been amazing and maybe is in part due to the guts and determination it has taken to not only make the film but now to release it in these Covid-19 times. I’ve seen COUP 53 many times but truth be told, I’m looking forward to switching on and watching it again on Wednesday night.

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

Taghi Amirani and Walter Murch – Almost Done

Bubbles

Recorded and Knit together by WSM aired on Swimming Upstream KWMR.org

Now the open season on game for blame had begun and stalkers are on the beat. Who said what to whom and when? There is much scuttling around the zooming halls of Westminster as the cozy personal chats in the tea room become more difficult to access. Will it be the scientists, Public Health England, the National Health Service, or a couple of ministers who will get the blame now and – or the ax later? There will be ‘An Official Inquiry.’ though the PM Boris Johnson doesn’t feel this is quite the time for that. 

The Coronavirus is still very much with us in England, even as it recedes in other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe. Spikes and new outbreaks of infections have caused mini-lockdowns, The City of Leicester from an outbreak in a sweat-shop, and a farm in Herefordshire from the immigrant workers flown into the country for harvest. 

Other governments in similar predicaments and with similar geographies and social economic situations have managed better than Mr. Johnson. At 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning the European Council came to the end of a masked. ninety-hour session that agreed to 750 billion Euros in grants and loans to the 27 members of the Union. What a pity not to be a part of that Union. Instead the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has given 900,00 Public Sector workers, teachers, doctors, and dentists a 3.1% pay rise, back-dated to April, recognizing their vital contribution during the coronavirus pandemic but this is not for nurses or any other auxiliary staff.

Timing and Dosage. A medical term that also works well in all walks of life and work. Because this week the major – minor row in Government is not so much about the global pandemic we are living through, but some serious flag waving to obscure the view of a deeper investigation into the Russian Report that comes out today.

Johnson and his boys wanted their man, Mr. Grayling, to be the committee chair. But trying to make the appointment was against the rules. It gets confusing in here but with a little campaigning from back-benchers across the aisles, and a lot of tut-tutting, Mr. Lewis (already a committee member and someone who actually knows something about espionage) was appointed the chair. It was more than squabbling about who would chair a committee but hopefully who would really examine or obscure Russia’s use of cyber-espionage, money and social media campaigns to influence other countries political outcomes.

This week could be interesting, but it is getting tiring. As well as a global pandemic there is the Russian Report, and now the row with China over 1. Hong Kong  2. Ethnic Cleansing with forced Sterilization and ‘re eduction camps’. 3. the threat to national security from China’s Huawei firm. 

And all of this before turning to America and see undocumented Federal agents in Portland, the passing of the great warriors John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian and an imbecilic dialogue about washing machines. Somehow this week’s news brought me to tears.  And I am not alone. 

We retreat into the bubbles that we create, and with the summer stretching before us, can be excused for struggling with the scrapping dog-fights of the world’s governments. (Our tiredness being counted on to defuse us). We long for our families and friends. As we come to the end of month four of lockdown and sheltering in place, no one over 65 is going anywhere soon or fast. But we miss each other, the frantic tidying before grandparents arrive, the rumble-tumble of grand-children, and then the meals, games and naps all shared together and the exhaustion after it is over. 

We see it in all ages as we slide along in our own bubbles. For many, loneliness creeps into the mornings and lingers through the days, leaving some people shuffling about and questioning their place in the universe. But as the lock-down has eased and social distancing measures made a little clearer, some communities have found ways to connect. Not everyone is ready to rush out to the pub or the restaurant or even the shops, but people do want a natter, a chatter, a grumble or a moment with another. With summer weather and some organizing, the Oldfield council housing estate up the road has put out clusters of a few tables and chairs, an umbrella here, another table with drinks and chips there, and they have their own pub garden. 

As we walk through the days and weeks of this year not knowing where it, or we, will stop it can feel as if we are walking towards an unknown abyss. But on Monday’s sunny afternoon, when the park was less full, we walked down to the lake and lingered to watch the ducks and geese resting in the sun, taking things a little easy as their fledglings got on with the business of feeding themselves. We wandered on, down by the canal and found the blackberry brambles that have begun to ripen. Weaving in and out of the elderflower and nettles, the brambles produce tiny berries that have a flavor all of their own. These are not the lush bushes of the rivers or low-lying fields, but scrappy brambles that continue to grow despite the grounds-men’s best efforts to whack them back out of the canal-path. We slow down and begin plucking a little black berry here and another there. I pull out a plastic box that I had brought, ‘just in case’ and for the next twenty minutes we are at peace.

This has been A Letter from A. Broad.

Canalside Berries Photo by WSM

Written and read for you by Muriel Murch

Not Fit for Purpose

Recorded and knit together by WSM
Aired on KWMR.org June 17 2020

After three months in lockdown it was time to venture beyond NW1 deeper into the city at West 2. My audiologist was working through his waiting list of patients and my name came up. With two small children at home, he was, frankly, happy to be working.

“The 274 bus will take you to Marble Arch and then it is a five minute walk.” But running late I hailed a taxi. The cabbie kept his windows open and I my mask and gloves on. Late but not too late, I followed Mark into his back room wondering how is this going to work. But the appointments are spaced 15 minute apart to clean the rooms. He took a brief history and looked at my old aides, trying to hide his amazement.
“These are 9 years old.”

Into the box I go and testing begins. The spacing between beeps is far too long. This is not good. Nor is his final verdict, “You might want to tell your children. And these,” he concludes looking again at my old friends, “are no longer Fit for Purpose.”

He sets me up anew and I will read the directions several times to get the best out of my National Health aides. My fingers are crossed and my glasses adjusted hoping that these new friends will ‘See me out.’

Not Fit for Purpose. One thing to say that about an old, but still working, appliance, but a little different for a person.

Though stooped low with osteoporosis, Howard still walks as if about to run. Under his scruffy black cap his sparse, long hair flows behind him. Howard was a fine tennis coach in the small sports center at the north end of Regent’s Park. There were four tennis courts, a golf practice range and cricket nets. But a fresh administration, a clean sweep with a new broom, and the golf and tennis areas were cleared away to increase wilderness for the hedgehogs. A catering hub was built overlooking the newly laid out cricket and football pitches now there was money saved and money earned.

The little tennis club at the other end of the park grew, attracting sweet young things and handsome jocks. And the staff had to fit that look. Howard and his Russian friend did not make the cut and his friend was so devastated he committed suicide. Howard manfully struggles on. Now as his knees and heart age he often stops to rest on his hurried walks back from the village. In this coronavirus loneliness he feels keenly ‘Unfit for Purpose’.

George Floyd’s murder has brought much of the world to attention and the last two weekends in England have been marked with protest marches for ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the BAME communities. And once again the protests have been mucked about by nationalists looking for a good ‘bust up.’ There is no football, no beer and few jobs. Ironically, Nazi Nationalists are seen defending Churchill’s statue while a very buff Patrick Hutchinson tosses an older white skin-head over his shoulder, because, as he said, ’He was separated and needed to get back to his people.’

Patrick Hutchinson rescues a white nationalist Photo credit the Wimbledon Times

When Edward Colston’s statue was pulled from his pinnacle in Bristol, graffitied, today’s version of tarred and feathered – then rolled and tossed into the harbour from whence landed his slave trading fortune, people began to look around. Who else glorified a past built on the enslavement of others for the enrichment of trade? Even Oxford University faced its mixed messages of Cecil Rhodes and Nelson Mandela. “We are going to have to work together now you and I” Mandela said to the statue when he set up the Mandela Rhodes Trust in 2003 to help heal racial divisions.

In London, Winston Churchill’s doomed statue stands on Parliament Square. One weekend graffitied and the next – to protect and possibly buy time – he was boxed up. One couldn’t help smiling – just a little – at the irony of this move. Boris Johnson huffing and puffing that his hero Winston Churchill had to be put in a box and that Sadiq Khan, the son of a London bus driver and now major of London after Boris, was the one to do it. Surely even Boris might have a glimmer of understanding that these statues, even that of his beloved Winston, might now be considered Not Fit for Purpose. This week’s attention is on Clive of India – another dastardly (the word fits) fellow, who is tucked away in Whitehall.

But how do we remember history? How do we teach it, respecting what was good while acknowledging the mostly unrecognized, unspoken atrocities that each and every country inflicts on those who stand in their way or from whom they can benefit?

Typically Johnson has proclaimed ‘A committee will be formed to review race relations’. Some in government will laugh and chuckle, while those in minority communities across the country will weep with resignation at this announcement. Reviews after racial incidents have been happening since race relations began to overtake class inequalities in import. It has been hard to track the snail’s pace of change in this country. But maybe this can be the time, as families from the countries we have plundered march and kneel together, to keep pressure on this government to look again, not only at the statues but in the class-rooms and work to do more for an England that is ‘Fit For Purpose’ in today’s world.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Keeping Calm in London Town

“You ol rite?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Not coughin’?”
“No Maddy, not coughing.”
And Maddy gives me a thumbs up sign before she scurries away to catch an overland train to Battersea and visit her ailing mother.

Thank you Zine

“Do you need anything? Can I shop for you?”
“Thank you Sinder. We are ok at the moment.”
A note is slipped through the letterbox from Zine our neighbor at # 37. “… I would be most happy to help”.
“Aggie, Aggie.” Mr Habto has returned from his early morning taxi run and is standing by his cab. 

“Anything we can do to help. Please let us know. Knock on the door or leave a note.”
Maddy is probably London born and bred, Sinder is Hindu, Zine is from Eastern Europe, and Mr Habto a Coptic Christian from Africa. This is the mix of the little community at the bottom of our street. They all have families to care for and yet are finding moments to be watchful over us. We have become the “old folks” on the street. Thus neighbour cares for neighbour in our little corner of London. And we are grateful.

It is Sunday afternoon. The sun will not come out again today. The wind is blowing and the raindrops seem hesitant and unsure where to fall. Families are walking home from their ‘fresh air and exercise’ moment in the park. Football games are still scrubbing along in the mud. White shorts are streaked with brown, hair is windblown and there is quiet laughter coming across the pitches from the players. Out there – the city, London, – is very quiet.

Boris Johnson and his lieutenants appear very old school serious as they stride to the podiums set up in the State dining room at Number 10 Downing Street, while trying to cover up the fact that Number 19 Coronavirus may be beyond their abilities. This may be the first time in his life that Johnson gets really serious, and not everyone is convinced he knows how to do that. We can only hope that he might in fact be growing into the role of Prime Minister and treating this with all with the gravitas it deserves. One does suspect that upsetting the populace is as an important part of the equation as is protecting the insurance companies. Another supposition is that this is seen, by Johnson at least, as his Churchill moment. One can be grateful though that he has these two lieutenants: England’s Chief Scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty by his side. Whitty, or is it Vallance, produced graphs on a large board and pointed away so that the journalists in the room, sitting as close together as ever, could understand what was trying to be accomplished and then relay that information to us, the presumably less well-educated public. Vallance and Whitty are both, in their English way, considerably more competent than the school-yard gang that surrounds Donald across the water.

Daily updates from the government will now to come from Number 10 Downing Street as the situation changes every twelve hours with more confirmed cases and deaths. Johnson and his team are putting some guidelines in place while they wait to come down with a heavy hand. It’s a gamble for sure. Health Secretary, Matthew Hancock, sputtered and muttered on the Andrew Marr Sunday morning show about ‘Doing everything we can and self-isolation’. Manufacturers have an opportunity to make millions of Pounds Stirling and ventilators. “Other countries in the world will be needing them too.” Mostly though it is businesses, sports centers and banks (!) that are leading the way, encouraging working from home, cancelling big matches (though not the Cheltenham Race meet last week), and encouraging self-isolation.

And now, on Monday morning, there are more shutters coming down. Museums have already closed, special openings have been postponed, and the British Film Institute team all work from home, strategizing what this means for the film industry in England. We withdraw too, canceling lunch dates with friends and family. Being well over a certain age, 70, we are all ‘vulnerable.’ and many of us have at least one strike hitting our general health. We are being encouraged to self-isolate. What will happen then to the organizations run primarily by older volunteers who serve their communities? As I write an email comes through from one such trusted leader: ‘The Library is closed for the foreseeable future’. What will happen to those books? Sitting on their shelves so lonely and unread. Theatres, cinemas, concert halls, hotels and restaurants are all growing dark as their lights dim. Today all religious leaders united in asking their followers to pray at home.

Hand sanitizers are out and visible – where they are available. Otherwise it is serious and constant hand washing – by those who do that sort of thing. Shop-keepers and checkout folks wear rubber gloves to handle the £ coming in. And £s are rolling into supermarkets as folks panic buy and buy. That may have begun to calm down now with ‘assurances’ that the stores have enough of what we need stock-piled somewhere. This morning the pharmacy was full even as folks tried to stay apart from each other. The doctor’s office is closed with a notice on the door saying that appointments will be by phone for the near future! The local Deli and other coffee shops on the street are almost empty. Can they hold on for those over-70s for whom a little sandwich at the coffee shop is their main meal?

Daffodils from Taghi A’s Morning walk

We are grateful for the Hill and Regent’s Park where we can walk in isolation. Wild primroses rise from the soil to shine close to the ground. The daffodils are reaching their peak, staying upright through the foul weather of the last weeks. But the plum and pear trees lining the street are beginning to loosen their soft blooms and whisper in the breeze for us to keep heart. Our Robin Red Breast hops down to check my worm count as I work in the little garden. She too tells me to let the warming soil soothe my soul.

Primrose in St. Mark’s Church garden Wall. Photo WSM

‘Our’ Robin checking my work