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

Gilbert is Gone

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

And where is Boris? The Prime Minister thought it a good idea to fly to Scotland last week. But did he drop in on Scotland’s Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon? No, he did not. Either she didn’t know he was coming, or more likely he just wanted be seen popping in and out, like popping into a fish-and-chip shop.

Fishing. That’s the thing. On the News at Ten, Boris Johnson was seen holding up a very substantial Atlantic Crab. One that could definitely go on some kind of a diet if it didn’t want to avoid the pot. But all evidence showed that the pot was to be the crab’s destiny. It was hard to tell which variety of crab this was as it was on its back, where Mr. Johnson may find himself if:

He doesn’t pay attention to the women leaders who can deliver daily briefings on their country’s Covid-19 situation, alone at the podium, wearing stiletto-healed shoes.

He doesn’t get himself on the imposed dietary restrictions he is putting in place for England. Photographs of him jogging in London are not a pretty sight. Johnson has now declared a campaign on adult and childhood obesity. And it is true that in England 70% of the deaths from Covid-19 have been for patients who were seriously overweight.

The weather has turned blustery, as English weather does, and is the reason that the English migrate so steadfastly to Spain, Portugal and Southern Europe for their summer dose of sunshine. Now suddenly the UK government has mandated a two-week quarantine on people returning from Spain. Even a government minister has been caught out, and will have to self-isolate when he returns to the UK. Dominic Raab made the announcement from home, with the backdrop of delightful delphiniums growing in his garden – reminding us all that really the government has ‘shut up shop’ and gone on holiday. Is anyone paying attention?

For some of us are watching North America go into free-fall.

This weekend saw the beginning of Senator John Lewis’ journey home, including his funeral procession over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The quiet dignity of the procession befitted a man of quiet dignity and good trouble. I have pulled out blue and purple ribbons and tied them onto our front door. Blue for Mr. Lewis, and Purple for the pancreatic cancer that felled him. Over the course of his life John Lewis returned to Selma again and again. He often said, “This is where I come for renewal.”

Our front door

A book, ‘The Best of Ruskin Bond,’ was given to me by Shubki, the wife of a government minister who welcomed us to Pune in 2004. This collection includes many of Bond’s short essays. In ‘At Home in India’ he asks, ‘What is it that holds me back in India, that I don’t leave?’ And he replies, “It is more than the land that holds me. For India is more than a land. India is an atmosphere. Over thousands of years, the races and religions of the world have mingled here and produced that unique, indefinable phenomenon, the Indian: so terrifying in a crowd, so beautiful in himself. … Race did not make me Indian. Religion did not make me Indian. But history did. And in the long run, it’s history that counts.” I like to believe that John Lewis would have nodded in agreement as the history of his country and his work unfold before us.

The West Indian Cricket Team is playing the English Team in the third Test. And ‘Rain Stop Play’ is holding the last day’s play hostage. This is of no interest or importance to anyone outside of cricket fans. But in a box of old family memories there is a sepia photograph of the first West Indian team to be invited to play in England at the Dulwich Cricket ground where my father was captain. The photograph is dated 1928 and shows the team striding sternly out to take the field at ten minutes to noon. I looked at the man standing at the entrance to the club house, Trilby-hatted with a hand in his old raincoat pocket, and I wonder if it is my father. Like a message in a bottle I have sent a copy of the old photograph to the team’s captain, ‘To wait for their arrival’ at Lord’s Cricket Grounds. If it reaches that shore – or their captain – I can give them the original. For this memory belongs to them, not to me.

West Indian Cricket Team at Dulwich Cricket Grounds in 1928
Gilbert is set in Place 2015 Photo by WSM

Between the showers on Sunday we walked in the park. Clustered on the playing fields and under the trees by the lake were groups of families and friends, wanting to picnic together but not venture inside another’s home. The roses in Queen Mary’s Rose Garden are blooming in waves and every bench is occupied by family or friends taking time to be together. Leaving the rose garden to return to the park I look for Gilbert, a fine, standing topiary of tight yew and ivy shaped into a hard-working gardener, complete with a tin watering can. But Gilbert is gone. Once, when questioning a live gardener working close by he had assured me, “‘is name is Gilbert”. Gilbert had been a signature at this corner of the rose garden for at least five years.

Now he has been replaced by a very elegant succulent elephant, with tin ears. I admire the succulents and the handiwork of this new sculpture. And think maybe it is a homage to the zoo which has struggled with the pandemic shut-down, or maybe it is more, a homage to those whose work has made these gardens and the park as beautiful as they are.

The Elephant comes to the Park Photo by WSM

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