Dear oh Dear

Recorded by WSM edited by MAM
King Charles III greets Prime Minister Sunak

“Dear, oh dear” muttered the new King, Charles III, as he greeted Liz Truss at Buckingham Palace only two weeks ago. The double doors were swung open by a liveried equerry announcing “Prime Minister – Your Majesty”. Ms. Truss bobbed forward to shake hands with the King, and said, ”Your Majesty, great to see you again,” the King smiled as he replied “Back again?” – “Well come along then,” he may have continued – but we missed that bit as, like a patient headmaster, he led the not quite settled in new Prime Minister into another room. Last week – as I began to unpack in Rome – she was back. “Oh dear oh dear.” The King may have said – again.

So Liz Truss was out, holding the seat warm for whoever wanted her place. There were only three takers for the open seating plan at Number Ten Downing Street, and they were not sitting in the stalls. Boris Johnson immediately flew back from his holiday in the Caribbean – reportedly booed as he got on the plane. Rishi Sunak got busy on his phone, emails, or in the tea rooms. Only Penny Mordaunt was seen in the halls of Westminster, looking strong, sensible, and even a little tough. She made me wonder what a woman like her could do if the men in Parliament really backed her. But these men are not the backing kind. 

The country was in an uproar as the disaster of Truss’s short-stay-to-let was seen but not averted. Clusters of shoppers were shown tut-tutting at the country markets – always the prettiest picture – as parliamentary plotting – all perfectly legal – continued. A candidate had to have at least 100 Conservative votes to make the ballot for the role of Prime Minister and by the deadline of 2 p.m. on Monday Rishi had 182. Penny conceded at 1.58 p.m. Boris, like a cornered bear, threw in his towel, and lumbered away on Sunday night, declaring ‘this is not the right time’. Let us hope history is remembered and it never becomes his right time again. Sunak was educated at Winchester College, not Eton, and like Avis, it can be hoped that he will ‘try harder’. 

The autumn temperature drops day by day and the leaves fall from the London trees only just faster than the Conservative cabinet ministers gathering their pens and papers as they scuttle out of their seats.

In our corner of London the cool morning air smells of sweet ripe apples, from a box of them set out by a neighbor when she returns from her country retreat. I make apple sauce that is as perfect as Bramley apples give before we go to Europe: first to Utrecht with family and an end-of-summer outdoor birthday party, then onto Paris to be with friends. Paris sparkles with the first crispness of autumn sunlight and delight, the streets and buildings shine as they brush off the stale air of summer and the lingerings of Covid. People are cautious and sensible as they move through the streets, mindful of the effects of the Ukrainian war on fuel supplies and costs. The city seems hopeful, bordering on contentment. A restaurant owner brings out a jar of truffles he has just acquired and we laugh in happy expectation of his fine omelets. We are here in the autumn of our lives, cherishing it, for we know our winter is near.

Fresh Truffles in Paris

And then it is onto Rome for their Film Festival, showing William Kentridge’s ‘Self Portrait as a Coffee Pot’. We are driven from the airport through the back streets into bulging traffic leading to the Tiber River and the city beyond looking weary, beaten down by the effects of the Covid pandemic. A bad garbage strike after the summer’s heat has left the big street bins battered and tainted with pigeon residue. Finally, we reach The Eden Hotel and from our terraced window we look down on a Rome that doesn’t seem so bruised. Lying in the marble bath at dusk I watch the bats wake up and zoom out from under the tile roof just above me to the park below.

Old and new friends in Roma; Noah, Linda, Aggie, Franca, Walter, Conrad, Laura

It takes a day – and we only had two – to breathe in the air of this city which I had come to terms with 24 years ago when I joined Walter on location. On our last evening, walking with friends after dinner we passed by an alleyway I remembered. Then, in a store window, three or four prepubescent girls sat cross-legged under a single light bulb. Old Persian rugs hung behind the girls, and their heads were bent low over their hands which were busy, stitching, weaving threads through old worn carpets. 

The day we leave, our driver is a woman and I am grateful to see this small step forward for equality in Rome. The road she took out of the city twists and turns and we crossed the river three times. The small riverside shrubs of 24 years ago have grown to trees but still the Tiber moves fast. They say a body tossed into the river is never found.  As we left the ancients – looking worn in the grey light – we drove up through the graffiti-clad outskirts of the city. The colors were dusty as they lay scrawled over the lower apartments of these almost middle-class neighborhoods, pulling them down as if in anger that the slums cannot rise but only spread. 

The flight to London was full and it was not until we landed and were ready to go through UK passport control that I stopped to use the facilities. There was a poster on the stall door; a young man’s face peering out from a confusion – of a woman’s hand, a car window, and lights, with the words ’Can you see me?’ ‘Slavery Still Exists’. On the way home, amidst catching the stealth movements of our politicians, I thought of those young girls sitting in the shop window and wondered what became of them in the ancient world that is Rome. 

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

January is Gathering Speed

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

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 First BioNTech-Pfizer Vaccine given to ninety-year-old grandmother Margaret Keenan. Photo by Jacob King

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.

£ 5 left over special

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.

Three hungry young men

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.

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