Sheltering Somewhere

Recorded and Knitt together by WSM
First broadcast on KWMR.org 9.20 a.m PCT

Even as a child, the hamlet where I grew up was being hunted by urban amoeba pseudopods. The town of Fleet oozed with a hybrid sprawl, turning farms into developments, and army barracks into business centers. Not even a town worthy of its own picture house, the Odeon Cinema was closed in 1957. This corner of Hampshire is made up of just a few towns, as most of the B roads meander from villages through hamlets and back again. My mother lived in Fleet for all of her adult life. From childhood to widowhood in ‘The Old Divots’ and then as she started her life again in ‘The New Divots’. ‘The Divots’, named from her golfing and gardening life, was an important pause on life’s journey for her friends, our growing family, relatives, and yet more friends touching down from America and beyond. Bobby always had a warm welcome for everyone. There would be much serious liquid refreshment followed by a fabulous seasonal British meal, and then, after coffee and before teatime, an offer of a drive to some of the historic sites that litter this corner of England.

The village of Odiham was always a stop on Bobby’s tour. As The Young Farmers of Hampshire we would often end an evening at The George Inn in Odiham. Though I doubt any of us knew of the pertinent heritage to farmers that The George carried. In 1783, a group of, and I quote, ‘Gentlemen of Rank, Fortune and Ingenuity’ plus some ‘intelligent farmers’ met in The George Inn and formed the Odiham Agricultural Society. They went on to create a school of veterinary science which led to the foundation of the Royal Veterinary Society and profession in Britain.

Odiham also has a castle. Built by King John in 1214 the castle was then, like Fleet is today, in a prime location, between the seats of Winchester and London. The history of the castle saw the French dauphin laying siege to King John, the sitting of Parliament, and even the capture and imprisonment of the Scottish King David. Eventually the castle crumbled and was downgraded to a hunting lodge stop-over before finally left as a ruin in 1605.

The Gothic and Tudor Church of All Saints, lies behind the High Street. The church grounds leads out to The Bury courtyard. And in the Bury courtyard, now protected by a lych-gate like structure, stands the old Stocks and Whipping post. In another corner of The Bury sits The Pest House, both built around 1620. The stocks and whipping post are a reminder of times when villages, not always with a magistrate, took the punishment of community members into their own hands. A sepia postcard shows the stocks holding a tramp and the whipping post a young boy in custody, with 6 bobby-uniformed policemen in attendance some time after 1850.

Bobbies attended to the stocks and whipping post

The Pest House is one tiny room with a fire place and was restored by the Odiham Society in 1981. Usually these were placed outside of the village but this one is close to the church. Pest Houses were used to isolate people from within the community or travelers passing through who were thought to be contagious. The Plague, smallpox, and the sweating sickness brought in and spread by just one contact, could decimate families, farms and communities.

All of this comes to mind given the political shenanigans being exposed this week. It appears that Dominic Cummings, The Prime Minister’s chief advisor, did not follow the instructions that he himself had issued to Health Secretary Matthew Hancock and the government to “Stay in place, Self Isolate, Protect the NHS, Save Lives and so forth.” Nope. He packed up his car and drove his sick wife and four-year-old child north 260 miles to his family home in Durham where it appears that once in place his sister did the necessary outside shopping and errands for them. All so far infuriating but not raising the temperature of the general public until he was sighted 30 miles away from his house at Barnard Castle and later in the week on a walk to view the bluebell woods outside of the city.

I have not been the only person to write that they are ‘Incandescent with Rage’ at this sense of betrayal by a government advisor. Cummings is not appreciated for his possible far reaching governmental reform ideas but perceived as a machiavellian puppet master whose character is recognized in too many political histories.

This turmoil, which will continue to evolve through the next week, brings back to mind how small is England, and how much smaller it has become with today’s communication structures. The spirit of the people lives on from Hogarth sketching the depravity of his day in Odiham to Sunday when the ‘Led by Donkeys’ campaign truck parked outside of Cummings’ residence in Islington, the screen showing on repeat the TV footage of Boris reminding, urging, then thanking, the people of this great country who stayed at home. Disrespect can easily lead to mutiny.

But when we can look beyond this government for a moment, the unnecessary pain they have inflicted and towards a bigger picture we can take some comfort and resolve from a billboard high up in Piccadilly Circus where our captured Queen is pictured. Steadfast as always she is telling us that one day we will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again; we will meet again.

A Message from Her Majesty


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







Boris is Back

The virus, politics, shopping and the park are the sharp points on our compass as we enter week six of lockdown in London. The number of recorded UK hospital deaths from Covid-19 has climbed beyond 21,000. If the death toll in care-homes, Hospice centers and communities are included that number will reach over 40,000.

On Monday Boris Johnson returned to Parliament. Striding to the podium outside number 10 Downing Street to give his ‘Hello I’m back. Well done everybody.” speech before reminding us all that this is the time to hold steady to achieve the five key points that the government has laid out: the death rate falling; the NHS protected (whatever that means); the rate of diagnosed new cases per day to be less than 1%; the government sorting out the challenges of testing; and Personal Protective Equipment (A total blotched job up to date) to thus avoid a second peak. Can he get all this, with some of the Conservative Party nipping at his heels to get the economy and business open as usual, before restrictions are lifted.

We watched Johnson to see if he is changed. Has there been a metamorphosis to a kinder, clearer and marginally more honest Prime Minister? I hold my hopes but know I have been wrong many times before. Johnson promised more transparency to the ‘People of the British Public’ But one could ask, why should that promise have been necessary?

Sunday mornings Political Commentary program with Andrew Marr is a ritual in this household as it is across the country. Sitting on the sofa in front of the television screen we share a late Sunday breakfast with approximately two million viewers. Andrew Marr is settling into a routine with fewer guests live in the studio and others on Skype or with a camera crew in not so close range at their homes. The program is lengthened to 90 minutes, which meant another pot of coffee with breakfast. There is a change, a shift in the questions, answers and banter back and forth. Dominic Raab the deputy Prime Minister refused to get riled by Marr, repeating, “You are absolutely right Andrew” at least 5 times after I started counting, leaving Marr with not so long a lance with which to prick his opponent. As Marr questioned the Leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, and Germany’s Andreas Michaelis, his attempts to pit one country against another failed. Many European and world leaders are presenting a united front acknowledging the different difficulties each country faces. Talking with our family in the Netherlands, who in turn talk with their friends from Sweden, we know that every government is being taken to task for the things they have failed to do.

Luckily Spring carries on with and without us. Cherry trees that were full of blossoms in early March quickly faded away as the winds took hold and blew us into April where the promised showers have only just arrived. Now it is the sturdy Chestnut trees turn to unfurl their white and red flowers before us.

Horse Chestnut Blossoms

The city air is so clear we can smell the spring. The Cowslips, Elderberry and Hawthorn are as intoxicating in the park as they would be in the country lanes of my childhood. Walking to and from the bike racks I pass both a Robin and Blackbird nest in the grassy scrub land left for them. Over the weekend the bike check in booths are changed. Circles are painted onto the pavement, ‘Stay this far apart.’ Credit cards are to be tapped onto the screen, no more punching numbers with your grubby fingers.

For another period of time, shops deemed non-essential, restaurants and pubs all remain closed. Our local grocery and essential shops that are open have become inventive. Last year the Indian News Agents at one end of the High Street rebranded itself as ‘Primrose Corner’ and began a long battle with Shepards, the Arab-run deli at the other end of the village. Now, despite the higher prices more people are choosing to shop close to home and the battle for customers has heated up. The tiny aisles at both shops are crammed full of boxes to be unpacked and shelved. Two English run shops have closed and may never open the same way again.

Spilling out of La Petite Poissonerie

On a tiny corner of Gloucester Avenue, at 75A, M Rascle the owner of La Petite Poissonerie has also gone the extra mile to bring his customers more than ‘Fish on Fridays’. Fresh fruit and vegetables overflow from his boxes on the pavement while bags of pastas, loaves of fresh bread, and all things French, cram the little space inside, leaving us close to the glistening fish, if not to each other. The queue here stretches around the corner, and in a mutual symbiotic relationship with the Primrose Bakery at number 69, the lines blend from one shop to another and so before our eyes we can see how a new community corner is born.

Social distancing in the queue at La Petite Poissonerie


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.

Easter Weekend 2020

Easter Weekend in London brings news and time for reflection.

Some days swirl by in a non-specific haze, leading to a confusion of thought, and a seeming inability to get anything done, so that the by day’s end one wonders what did actually happen. Like older relatives and parents who cut out articles from the newspapers and mailed them to us, we now swap internet links and stories. “I thought you might be interested in …” and we often are.

Thomas arrived for my birthday. He had been hinted at, noted, ordered from our local book shop and was wrapped up to serve beside a pot of coffee for breakfast.

Thomas at Breakfast

Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror and the Light” brings Thomas Cromwell’s life to an end. For three days and nights I managed to resist him, continuing to read an evening chapter from “Jock of the Bushveld” an old favorite book of my mother’s.

But before even a week was over, I had picked up the hefty tome of 880 pages. I said (to myself) “I’ll just take a peek”, as if “I’ll just go for a drink with him. It’s nothing. I can get up and leave whenever I want.” But now Jock is laid aside, and Thomas has my heart and mind. I love him, more than a little bit, and am infinitely in awe of and grateful to Hilary Mantel. I am not alone. Others I know read him in this gifted time of solitude. We will go with him to his end and close the book with sadness.

When Susan Sontag published ‘The Volcano Lover’ in 1992, she went on her book tour. I was fascinated with the history and had lots of questions prepared for speaking with her at KPFA, Pacifica. But as the conversation relaxed and drew to a close, I asked about living alone in New York City. “Are you ever lonely?” “How could I be,” she responded. “I have two thousand years of history in my library.”

Here in London we both have small libraries crammed full of books that we cherish. We are both re-readers, I returning to history while he explores science. Though I’m a one-at-a-time gal there are at least seven books piled behind “The Mirror and the Light”.

My father would have been in his 70’s when I was first old enough to become conscious of his reading habit. And for him, too, this age was a time of re-reading books that he welcomed back into his life as long lost friends.

Saturday morning began in the new quiet, but by noon a helicopter began to circle overhead. There is no Prince traveling from one palace to another, and the air ambulance is hardly needed now that the London streets are almost empty of traffic. This is the police, boys with their toys, circling Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park looking for those, oh no, sunbathers and loiterers. Later, when we take our walk a police patrol car is cruising The Broad Walk. They are not walking to give a face to their presence, nor even on horseback when I might get lucky with a bag full of droppings for the compost pile.

The evening news program brings the government representatives out to the podiums with their daily bulletins. Mathew Hancock, Minister for Health, speaks his coverup nonsense “Maybe the NHS are hoarding gowns and masks which is why there is a shortage.” Priti Patel, the Home Secretary says, as one does when knowing there is a need for an apology but not ready to give ground, “I’m sorry the situation makes you feel that way.” As of this writing 8 national health doctors – all of them UK immigrants – have died. The number of nurses to have died is unknown. Today at over 11,000 deaths, England is set to overtake Italy in the number of Covid-19 deaths.

On Easter Sunday morning, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson was discharged from St. Thomas’s Hospital and driven to Chequers, the country seat of the current Prime Minister. Whatever one feels about this Prime Minister we are grateful that one more life has been saved. And so is he, giving public thanks to the nurses who cared for him; particularly Ward Sister Jenny McGee, from New Zealand and Staff Nurse Luis Pitarma from Portugal – again – immigrants.

Easter Sunday is when some look for a miracle. Not necessarily the one of a life returned, but possibly of the recognition in this moment of gratitude by the Prime Minister, for the nurses, doctors and all staff working in the health service. Doctors may cure but it is the nurses and hospital staff that keep us alive.

Old into New – again

A strange part of all of this is trying to accept that my job is to be out of the way, not on the ‘front line’ – not helping. But what to do? what is next? The table napkins are next, the first one already torn and sewn to make a face mask. I take up a needle and mother’s cotton threads while listening to history unfold itself again.

I bow my head over the work as a gentlewoman would in the Tudor time of King Henry and his Lord Privy Seal, Sir Thomas Cromwell.

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

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