We met at the Community Library where we both volunteer as best as we can. He, Ben Aitken, is holding a book In the Blink of an Eye and I am weeding the roses. “Is this your husband?” he asks. “Yes.” I reply. And then he says something else and we chat. It is great to have young people volunteering at the community library. A few days later there is a joint book reading at the library and I go along. Ben discusses and reads from The Marmalade Diaries and Freya Sampson does the same with her book The Last Library. Both authors are well-spoken and while their books touch on many themes, community – in one form or another – is a constant. Later in the summer, the community (there is that word again) library hosts a barbeque party for the volunteers. A little wine is drunk, some sausage rolls and sweets are eaten and I ask Ben if he would talk to me about his book, The Marmalade Diaries for KWMR.org our community radio station in Point Reyes California, and he agreed.
After her husband of 60 years had died, 85-year-old Winnie Carter needed a lodger to live with her at home. Ben became that lodger. And then came Covid and the lockdown. The conversation explores how those Covid Lockdown months impacted all of us, especially the old, those alone, and families. And what Ben learned along the way. How did Covid change us and how did our lives change doing those long months?
“I’ve been speaking with your Health Secretary. He says things are getting better. Poor man.” So said the Queen, dressed demurely in a mauve frock, when, last Tuesday, after fifteen months, she met in person her current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. With the cameras rolling and clicking Johnson looked the unruly but chuffed school boy he is, standing with hands clasped behind him, before the Queen’s constant good manners.
“Yes, Yes.” The Prime Minister assures the Queen and that is all we see of that moment.
Until later in the week The Sun Newspaper hits the stands. There is Matty Hancock, Health Minister, clutching aide Gina Coladangelo in a clinch-hold on the front page, with the headline. “Face, Hands, Cock no distance” In the little-known dangers of University life, Matt and Gina first met at the Oxford University radio station. By Saturday evening, Hancock had resigned and Sajid Javid, previously chucked out as the Chancellor has been brought in as Minister of Health. A Cabinet reshuffle is not an empty phrase. Javid is a solid Tory man, called by some the First Son of Margaret Thatcher, and he will have to come up to speed quickly in this Health crisis brought about by this government.
On his first day in office he said ‘Yes’ to every question put to him. Sometimes adding the unnerving, ‘Absolutely’. Back to hypocritical, humbled-for-the-moment Hancock, who made a public apology for ‘breaking the rules on social distancing’ and says he will continue to serve his country from the back benches. After lying to our Queen, ‘Things are getting better’ and taking his eyes from ‘working around the clock’. Opinions from the dustman to the politician run between – ‘long may he rot there’, to ‘how dare he show his face in Westminster’. His constituency of West Suffolk is none too pleased with their minister’s behavior and if not exactly cries, there are certainly mutterings of “Off with his head.” Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts was ahead of her time. Even with their budgetary caution, the BBC has added their voice to the clamor from Labour and opposition government parties with outcries of ‘shame’, Johnson should have fired Hancock. Johnson knows as well as any man, that when the little brain takes over there is not a lot of logic going on.
But wait – stuffed behind a bus stop in Kent – someone – who was that – happens to find a bundle of soggy classified documents from the Minister of Defence. Information on the HMS Defender trying out a quick sail through the Black Sea checking on Russia’s response to edging a wee bit close to the Ukraine and Crimea was laid out in those soggy pages. Russia made their position clear with a quick response. This is a shell game over the waters and one can only hope that the fish have something to say about it. As NATO prepares to leave Afghanistan to its fate, Britain is thinking it might move in – again. While visiting India in 2004 we stopped at an old Anglican church. Along the nave, beside each pew, was a scabbard in which the British officers should place their swords. A memorial Cross stood outside to commemorate British officers who had died in the Afghan War – of 1865.
Following last week’s closure of the Apple Daily Newspaper in Hong Kong a seventh senior editor, Fung Wai-kong, was arrested as he prepared to leave Hong Kong for the United Kingdom. Now another newspaper, Stand News, has removed all their past published Opinion pieces. The Chinese Government’s net is tightening its draw string.
Meanwhile Alexander Lukashenko responded to the Western worlds imposed sanctions by sending plane-loads of Iraqi refugees to be unloaded in Lithuania while moving Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega from jail into house arrest. But this is no picnic or sign of safety for Roman, Sofia or any of the young people in Belarus, calling for a more democratic government. The IT industry that was booming in Minsk is disintegrating in the sewer of government impositions. Those young IT engineers that can, are leaving for the neighboring Ukraine.
Angela Merkel is lobbying the European Union to adopt Germany’s ruling that everyone coming from Britain to Germany go into quarantine. She is to visit with Boris Johnson in England this week and then onto the US before she leaves office in the autumn. She may be being very sensible and cautious, but so far the rest of Europe is not going along with her idea.
In this little island we are dealing with the crater-hole of one Minister falling on his sword and another picking it up out of the gutter. On Monday Chris Whittey, England’s chief medical officer, went to St. Jame’s Park for a little sit and think and was set upon by two men, angry, frustrated and feeling helpless in this continued uncertainty. Police were called to investigate, but will get no further than form filling.
But on another Island, Cuba, there is news that lifts the spirits with the development of their own Covid vaccine. Named Abdala – as a latin country would – from a poem by José Martí. It has so far proved 92% effective and thus is on par with BioNTech, Pfizer and Moderna. There is no attacking scientists or health workers in Cuba where political Isolation from the US embargo, their reluctance to take vaccines from China or Russia has kept the country poor and yet rich in its independence and humanity with a health system to be proud of.
While America turns the ignition key for political movement and change, Russia yanks its hand brake hard bringing dissension to at least a temporary halt.
If Alexei Navalny is to carry on his work, he needs to return to Russia. The price would be high and he knew the Kremlin would come for him. As Vladimir Putin’s strongest critic, in print and on the streets, Navalny has been a thorn in Putin’s side for a long ten years. The Kremlin tried to corral him to silence him, sending out their best guard-dogs to nip at his heels. They herded him into courts, penned him in house-arrests and jail, before finally, in exasperation, tried a botched poisoning attempt by the Federal Security Office, the FSO, that was rebirthed from the old KGB.
Whenever Navalny decided to return from Germany to Russia he knew the world’s journalists would be following him. Booking tickets on the same plane, they crowded in on Alexei’s last hours with his wife Yulia who must have accepted that this is the price they needed to pay.
What did Alexei and Yulia discuss, that they haven’t already? How far ahead can they look into the lives of their children, the family, his work, and how much can be continued if he were to be silenced forever? They must have known that Moscow’s police service had orders to immediately detain him for parole violations. The question of how long to detain him, where and for what, is a thorny political decision for Vladimir Putin as the world watches. And the world is watching, or rather glancing, for at the moment, there are other players in the world stage this week.
On Wednesday, as this program airs on KWMR the United States is inaugurating Joe Biden as their 46th president and with that act completed the United States and the world stages will change and a new act begins. While Putin may shrug off concerns for world opinion the question still remains for him, ‘What to do with this constant festering thorn in his side’.
Arrested again, Navalny is held and now jailed for a month pending his three-year prison sentence. He was last seen speaking from a holding area surrounded by masked police, and urging his supporters to take to the streets. Though the temperature is 20º below freezing, the sun is shining and his supporters are gathering and protesting for him. But the fear of the Covid virus and Covid restrictions may be enough to dampen support, and Alexei Navalny can be quietly herded into the past tense.
Text messages ping through within minutes of each other on both of our phones. “You have been invited to book for your local First COVID-19 (Astrazeneca/Oxford) vaccine this weekend” There are instructions, ‘attend alone unless you need a carer, don’t come at all and rebook if you are feeling unwell,’ and more. This is the true excitement highlight of this week. The Belsize Priory Health Center in Kilburn is on the number 31 bus line, but are we up for getting on the number 31 bus? Not yet. Just as we step outside, Mr. Habtu returns home from a client. I tell him we are off to get our vaccines.
There is no hesitancy,
“I will take you.” ‘No no.’ “Yes I will take you. Let me get a clean mask.” and he disappears up to his flat and returns to park his Addison Lee SUV at our doorstep. It is in the kindness of such gestures that we are reminded how much people need to give as well as receive. He is more than happy and we are more than grateful to be driven to and back from the Belsize Priory Health Center in Kilburn.
It is raining. Not hard slogging-down rain but neither is it just a soft rain. The queue stretches out and winds around the cold utilitarian buildings that look older than their years. Belsize and Kilburn all look worn down and even their tiny community garden is hiding in the rain. Umbrellas are needed as we move along from under the overhanging walkway, across the small courtyard, and into the first building. Traffic flow has still to be worked out, as there are check-ins to be done here, questions to answer there, and then another walk – winding around to the clinic building offices. Here we are firmly told where to stand. Nobody is going to get sick on this volunteer’s beat. How many of the staff are volunteers, medical staff from the clinic, or retried doctors and nurses recruited for this effort, it is hard to say. But everyone, before noon on Saturday, is still upbeat and kind. Across the country, health centers, pharmacies, and even cathedrals are rearranging the furniture to become vaccination centers.
The health scares of smallpox and polio with their vaccination programs for children that followed in the 1950s are strong memories from our childhood. Now those children, including ourselves, are the vulnerable seniors, once again waiting our turn and grateful for science to save us. From self-isolation at home, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announces that vaccinations are now available for those 70 years and older and that as of today over four million people have had their first vaccination in the United Kingdom. Though the UK death toll from COVID-19 is still rising, the number of new infections in London is down 30% and there is a glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel.
What will this week bring for American politics, for England’s Covid vaccination news, and for all of us living in these times?
With Brexit a done deal, opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer is washing his hands of any Brexit redux, leaving the freedom of travel for Europeans and Britons in the hands of the European Union. Sad as it is maybe he is right to let the English people grumble and suffer on with Boris Johnson’s non-deal.
Meanwhile the Covid Vaccine timetable is being rolled out. Health workers are getting vaccinated, the Queen and Prince Philip have been vaccinated, and white-haired seniors can been seen shuffling along in the cold, queuing outside of drafty tents. Minister of the Cabinet, Michael Gove, does admit “Transport for seniors may present a bit of an issue.” All I can think of is bladder control.
The stillness is beginning to get oppressive. Though there are still clusters of young people milling around the High Street coffee shops, not yet able to give up on the social connection or the metabolic addiction of their cup of Joe. Once again, I write out a grocery list and send it along to Parkway Greens. Later in the day, there is a rat-a-tat-tat on the door, and an overflowing box of fruit and vegetables is laid on the steps.
In Hampshire, where I grew up, the statistics are set out in graphs so color-coordinated I can’t follow them. But next door, Surrey, the homiest of home counties, has begun to build temporary morgues on discrete army grounds. While making room for 800 bodies, the County Council are still concerned that this will not be enough. The small hamlets and villages that surrounded my childhood are dotted with Covid virus cases and death. Old names – Ash Vale, Frimley, Bagshot, Camberley, Farnham, Elstead, Tongham, and Guildford, all a part of my childhood – are now saddened with a startled grief. The home counties suburbs are struggling in their perceived privilege with its lack of discipline as much as the industrial working north is with making a lively-hood.
A friend in London admits to now watching afternoon television. Something she would never have considered even six months ago. We are not there yet except for the momentous events of last Wednesday in Washington DC. But the death this autumn of Dame Barbara Windsor, star of the long-running TV drama East Enders reminded us of the hunger to escape into a fantasy world. And, often I do switch on my Roberts radio, tuned to BBC Radio 4, and catch the fifteen minutes of ‘The Archers’ which this year turned 70. First subtitled ‘The Every Day Story of Country Folk’ with a five-part pilot in 1950, it was created in an effort to educate farmers and improve agricultural production in the early post-war years and had a heavy government influence in the scripting until the 1970s. I can remember it playing on the wireless in my nursery where I would be having supper and someone would be ironing. Our generation listened to it for years, it was as ingrained in our minds as a Catholic catechism. School term times came and went, and whenever we returned ‘The Archers’ would be playing in their 6.45. p.m. slot. You could dip in and out of the village story, for it never lost its charm or its relevance to rural living. Even when television came nipping at radio audiences with their soap operas of Coronation Street and The East Enders that focused on working lives in London and the north of England, The Archers carried on.
Over this summer, the episodes of The Archers continued with a story of three British-born young men kept as slaves in a secret location on the outskirts of Ambridge, each one having a learning or mental health disability. This is the appalling reality that The Archers’ editor, Jeremy Howe, chose to confront as well as to challenge. According to the Global Slavery Index, it is thought there are up to 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the United Kingdom.
“It’s not simply a problem involving immigrant labour,” explains Howe. “It can be a British problem involving British slaves and British gang-masters.”
Reading the Saturday Financial Times paper on Sunday, I found a small article tucked in a lower corner. The South Korean Government knocking on Japan’s door once more for recompense for the Korean Comfort Women kept for the Japanese soldiers during WWII. The Japanese are, naturally, dismissing any further claims of compensation for the now very few women left alive. I first came to this story with Nora Okja Keller’s book “Comfort Woman” published in 1998 when for KPFA and KWMR we had a conversation about her book which was loosely told from her grandmother’s remembrances.
Slavery, and enforced indenture-hood, in today’s world, is nothing new, but something we don’t always look to find on our doorstep. Simple dramas like The Archers can do that for us. And so can the three young men of undetermined Slavik European lineage who “worked” for what we now call our Irish Rogue Roofers in 2016. We were taken for a right royal ride and I can only shake my head at our stupidity. And I remember those young men who devoured all the food I fed them and spent the longest time relishing hot water as they cleaned up at the end of the day in our bathroom. Photographs and recordings given to the police yielded nothing more than a night-time stop-over in a local police station for the family patriarch. In the silence of these restricted and cold winter months, with no work available, I pray that those young men are somewhere safe today.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz gave the welcoming address as all the members of the G 20 summit were made visible on the big Zoom Screen. The summit was hosted by Saudi Arabia but without the lush, welcome goody bags that must have been missed. Here were twenty nations coming together, to talk, or in this instance, to listen, trying to come up with a positive action in this COVID year that has affected every nation. President Putin looked suitably serious, President Merkel was as clear and concise as ever. Prime Minister Johnson huffed and puffed his way forward, while ‘you know who’ got up after the first photo shoot and went golfing. The consensus that emerged was that COVID-19 vaccines should be made available world-wide, and equally accessible to poorer countries.
There were no cozy tete-a-tete in the tea rooms or bars of the hotels where so much, for better or worse, can be discussed, suggested or mooted. So it was no surprise that the U.S. Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, slipped off touring the Arab states and ‘had a word’ with the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, M.B.S. undoubtedly picking scabs in Irainian politics with Pompeo saying “It’ll be our policy until our time is complete.” One wonders what the ‘it’ is, beyond giving President-elect Joe Biden a headache on entering the White House in January.
In England, beyond Brexit, beyond COVID, beyond a Prime Minister in isolation again, the UK government has another little problem. Sir Alex Allan, as adviser on ministerial standards, clearly decided that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had breached the ministerial code through yelling profanities and bullying. For whatever reasons Johnson sat on the report for months, though now it is clear that Patel’s role as dark haired handmaiden to the blond bumble may be in jeopardy. While Sir Alex Allan resigned, a few ministers came forward uttering variations of:
“I’ve never seen her behave badly,” The business has left another bad taste in the mouth of the public that is barely being rinsed away by the news of COVID Vaccines soon becoming available, or the promise of the national lock-down being lifted and Christmas having some element of normality.
European and international news is buried deep in back page paragraphs. In Belarus the 16 weeks of protest continue though the weekends arrests were down to 200. Three young Hong Kong activists including Joshua Wong, have been charged with activism and each face three years imprisonment. Exhaustion and the COVID Virus have caused many demonstrations to fade, though the women of Poland are still visible, struggling for the last vestiges of control of their bodies.
Seeing all this harsh political power-playing behavior, being isolated in COVID quarantine, and feeling powerless has been countered by the human kindness we met this week.
By Friday night, after a little biopsy on Thursday, my body had taken offense and raised my blood pressure to the extent it needed to let off steam, or blood, and, as there already was a wound available, it did. After doing all the right things it became clear this wasn’t going to stop without help. We had been instructed, “Dial 111 if you bleed for longer that fifteen minutes.” And I felt nothing but relief when two slender men in green uniforms strode into our cottage and joined me, sitting, and dripping, in the bathroom. Mike and John had been a paramedic team for over 20 years. Though both were now retired they had responded to this spring’s outreach call and came back into part time service for COVID.
After a bathroom sit and a chat it was clear that it was time to return to University College Hospital where a hand-off, such as I recognized, took place. Two young nurses tucked me up, watched my not good blood pressure and gently cleaned what they could of the continual stream of blood that was flowing into unmentionable creases. We were well connected before a very jolly God’s-gift-to-whoever doctor bounced in.
“We’re giving you some medicine for your blood pressure and now if you just hold this here with a little more pressure. And why did you have a biopsy?”
“Well it wasn’t for fun.” brought laughter to the little cubicle in which he had the grace to join in. I was wheeled off to a holding pen ward to wait, while continuing to drip, for the facial surgeon.
“And you are?”
“The Doctor.” A beloved young Asian Muslim knelt by my bed to talk at my level. I held out my hand and he took it, receiving me into his care. His soft brown eyes held my old bloodshot ones as he gently explained what he was going to do. He had done the first healing with acceptance and tenderness and now with his skill and experience he cleaned up the mess. I was beyond grateful.
While he went off to write up his notes, completing this minor event for him, I wondered if he realized that his healing had begun when he knelt by my side to look me in the eye. At one time he too must have had to overcome the fear of ‘the first time’ that was still carried by the young doctor who had performed the first, maybe her first, biopsy. We have all been there, learning the procedures, by the time honoured, “see one, do one”, been an assistant who lets their hand be squeezed so tightly as to bruise, before becoming the experienced practitioner who has the assurance to heal.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
Factory workers and university students have now joined the rota of protests in Belarus now working in daily shifts, slowing the country’s economy down hour by hour, adding their voices to the opposition of President Lukashenko.
In Poland too, the women have had enough. The latest change in the abortion laws – stating that even when the fetus is diagnosed with a serious and irreversible defect – abortion is now illegal, is seen as the last tightening knot against democracy, and there is a growing anger at the Church’s complicity in this ruling. The strikes are led by women in the work force, housewives will no longer keep house, and more women than are counted have ‘Shut up Shop’ – completely.
While Belarus and Poland protest, France mourns and prays as the attacks by ISIS extremists continue. With night-time curfews in France, Spain and Italy no-one knows when to have dinner.
Most of Europe now recognizes that each country’s initial ‘me-first’ reaction to COVID-19 didn’t help countries individually or Europe collectively. Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are now opening their borders for any needed treatments of COVID-19 patients. While England goes into Lockdown for four weeks. There is an old adage in medicine, “Timing and Dosage” which applies to everything we try to do. Everyone is struggling and, unlike Asia, no European country has succeed thus far in controlling the virus.
Here on Thursday all non-essential businesses will close for another month. Shutting up Shop has never felt so poignant. We tend to look inward and not venture too far afield. While the first wave of COVID caused a lot of closures and adjustments there were also new beginnings. Now there are six pubs within less than five minutes of our front door: The Pembroke, The Queen’s, The Lansdowne, The Princess, The Engineer, and finally The Albert which has reopened after four years. The opening of The Albert took place on Friday. A handful of locals gathered outside and Andrew Marr, of political inclination, declared The Albert open and joked that this was the most important thing he had done all year. Cheering and clapping on the corner of the street, but it too will close again on Thursday.
While walking through the modern complex of shops and high-rise apartments at the Tower complex I thought of our friends Hwai-Min LIN and Hsun CHIANG who had been gifted an apartment there for this summer. They arrived in February, and left in March. “The English are crazy, no masks no distance.” They very sensibly fled to the safety of home in Taiwan.
We had been nervous of going to a theater in these COVID Times. And maybe that is what these times will be known as – These COVID Times. But I snagged the last two seats available for a Saturday afternoon matinee at The Bridge Theatre. We were to see a one hour monologue of David Hare’s “Beat the Devil” performed by Ralph Fiennes.
How wonderful it was. And how brave. The Bridge Theater shines as a beacon by the Thames River and is looked down on by Tower Bridge. Across the river stands The Tower of London. Old and New London within a cricket ball toss of each other. The entrance doors of the theater are open, we have a window of time within which to arrive. Masked attendants guide us through the temperature check, check our tickets and show us where to go. The loos are easily accessible. The theater seating looks as if it has been prepared for an orchestra, so many seats are missing and spaced apart.
More staff come by for bar orders, another holds a glowing “Please wear a mask” sign and – if someone leaves their mask down for a chat beyond a sip – gently goes to remind them of their collective responsibility. The mask notice supplanting the ‘please turn off your cell phones’ message. At first I wonder, what on earth is it like to perform to such a sparse house? Does it feel provincial, like stepping out on the boards for the first time, trying to make your way in a flea-bag pit. But this is not that and soon after our ginger-beer drinks arrive the audience buzz begins. It is the same hum of excitement the same music of expectation, as if the audience is indeed in the orchestra pit and tuning up as musicians do. The hum grows, but then – the lights dim – and a hush comes over us all.
Ralph strides onto the stage and loudly places his props on the table, claiming the table and the props as a supporting cast. He is the magician who will hold us in David Hare’s mind with his fears of the disease, his anger at the government’s handling of it all, and his heart’s rage at the treatment of the NHS nurses. He longs for a gentle ‘Platonic disease’ while later realizes that “The Virus is always with me now.” The septuagenarian is there, twisted in Ralph’s body now sinewy as a maturing cockerel.
When the play was over, the applause was wondrous and we left the theater uplifted as art moves us, brings us closer to each other. As the audience goes their separate ways, we share that communion and feeling of belonging within this city.
Under the night lights we walk along the river finding our way back to the little enclave of Primrose Hill. It is time to try out the newly opened Albert pub for a half pint of cider and an elegant Ploughman’s supper bowl. It has been too long since I’ve crunched a pickled onion.
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?
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.
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
The Summer Solstice has brought bright sunshine. But there are no trips to Stonehenge to divine what the sun’s rising foretold today’s Druids. The longest day turns us to face the oncoming months of summer and review the fruition of the last few months of solitude. We are lucky and blessed, each with work that can be done sitting in a dressing gown on the sofa or – as some of us prefer – dressed for reclining out on the terrace.
We are also surrounded by a wonderful mix of neighbors gently watching out for us all. Tentative new friendships have begun between those of us who have been aware of each other for a mere twenty years. I now know that Leslie likes to read historical fiction, ‘I’ve got bookcases full of ‘em. You are welcome to borrow anything, come over any time.” She now knows that many of the flowers she enjoys when looking out of her window come from my mother’s garden.
Pressure on the government by ministers, businesses and the economy is growing. Non-essential shops have begun to open, though I’m not too sure what separates essential and non-essential, and for whom. One of my essential shops remain unable to get to their Piccadilly warehouse for what I require.
“The Prime Minister will share his outlines for reopening the economy on Tuesday.” The Government hands out information like school homework assignments and I’m not getting too excited about what Tuesday might bring. There will still be queues outside of the shops, there will still be people mindful of how they walk, and others uncaring as they pass you. And this new reality does not bear looking into too far ahead. Whatever Tuesday’s briefing may bring, I know that ‘we will never get back to normal, how things were.’ Intellectually I understand that, I really do. But emotionally I am a little worn down.
A friend and I had a socially-distanced wine bar meeting in the Library Garden. But as she steadies me down off of the ladder, where I have climbed for a little pruning, I longed to take her hand. Another friend is coming for tea in the Square’s garden on Wednesday. Will we be able to hug each other then?
Touch is the glue that holds us together. The skin is our biggest organ, it covers, protects and feeds us all at one time. Again we are lucky, there are two of us living side by side and touch is as much a part of our lives as is ‘time for a cup of tea then?’
The moments of solitude and intense personal work can also be a time to pause and look inward. It is James Baldwin’s clarity of thought and literary articulation in his essay ‘Faulkner and Desegregation’ that helps me delve into the minutiae of my mind and think of the prejudices that I carry.
“Just because they speak the same language, remember, they are still foreigners.” Said my mother in 1964 as I sat on her bed late one evening before leaving for America. I was appalled, as I often was, at ‘the things my mother says.’ I left for America determined to pay no attention to her words. It took a month, six weeks at most, for our cluster of three Irish and one English nurses to start squawking at how the Americans we met, patients, doctors and fellow nurses, behaved. Where was their stiff upper-lip? Did everything need to be written out before we got a patient out of bed? What, in other words, was the matter with these people? Our little gang of gals grumbled our way through winter into spring. New York and all across America was in racial turmoil during those months and on throughout the summer.
My mother arrived in July for my marriage (to an American!) in August. She came bearing gifts, lists and more scoldings on what I still had to get done in the remaining two weeks and also with an openness that put me to shame. For her ‘They are different’ translated into a sincere effort to understand the differences she encountered in the Americans she met. Naturally, she found more similarities than differences, and absorbed them all.
After the Friday morning wedding and lunch time snack we left, heading out for a six week motorcycle Odyssey to California. My mother stayed with her new relatives for the weekend. I can only image that after we had left, and the guests slowly finished up the sandwiches, champagne and tea, and also departed, my new in-laws, the grandmother and uncle who had flown down from Toronto and my mother had all sat down together with some relief. Conversation would have relaxed as they sipped something soothing and maybe smoked a little before dinner.
On Sunday our mothers went to hear Martin Luther King speak at Riverside Church. For my mother whose knowledge of Africans was from Africa this must have been an extraordinary event giving her another glimmer of understanding. And a glimmer is maybe all that most of us can hope for however hard we try.
Fifty-five years later I look back, and see how far we have not come, how much work there is still to do and how the tap and tide of human kindness does not always seem to be turning clockwise. On our little terrace I try not to be discouraged as I add Hibernation Gin to the Elderflower cordial and listen to the blackbirds calling to their fledglings. But I can smile and give thanks for all the young people we have raised who are finding those glimmers of understanding and a light to shine for us all.
This has been A Letter from A. Broad Written and read for you by Muriel Murch
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.
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.
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.
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.