A Dereliction of Duty

Recorded and knit together by WSM

“On an extraordinary scale”, said Major Gen Charlie Herbert, who served three tours in Afghanistan between 2007-2018. “It is almost impossible to believe that the Prime Minister departed on holiday on Saturday; he should hang his head in shame.” 

Again – I might add, as we continue shaking our heads at the inconceivable conceit of this government while trying to wrap our minds around the suffering, fear and deaths that are taking place in Afganistan this week.

It came quickly, to those who have been diverted from the Middle East by relief at getting through the Tokyo Olympics with some honour, and then the helpless sadness at the latest earthquake destruction in Haiti with the number of dead reaching 1500 and Storm Grace closing in on the country. I think back on the young firemen from California who flew in to help in the last earthquake and pray another wave are willing to take on that relay baton. 

Throughout the summer the BBC gives trial runs to hopeful new young newscasters. So on Sunday night a lovely young woman smiles her way through the news from Afganistan before going live to Kabul. But Secunder Kermani, the BBC’s Afganistan correspondent was not there. In his place is a clearly nervous, Malik Mudassir who has a hard time staying focused on the camera. Afganistan is the third most dangerous country for news reporters. The BBC reporter Ahmad Shah, was killed in the province of Khosa, earlier this year on a day which left nearly 40 people dead.

Ahmad Shah reporting

This evacuation remains a withdrawal of shambolic proportions that is ever changing as I write. There is no captain of the ship. No brave president Ashraf Ghani staying until the last. Ghani is gone. The Kabul airport seems to have been allocated an international zone and over 60 countries are operating from makeshift desks and computers at that site. The UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, is there helping to process visa applications for over 4,000 British nationals and eligible Afghans. Dominic Raab’s office said the evacuation efforts will continue for “as long as we are able to do so and as long as it is safe to do so”. Cordoned off by the US troops this area of the airport is – for the moment – a safe haven for some. There are literally thousands of citizens from countries around the world, each that held a little presence, for their own ‘special interests’ in Afganistan, now clamoring to reach the airport and a plane. Like players on a monopoly board, they are now all ready to sell their stock for a flight out of the country. Except for the Russian and Chinese embassies. They are staying in town for informal chats with the Taliban leaders as they form a new government. Russian’s Presidential envoy to Afganistan, Zamir Kabulov, said that Moscow would decide on recognizing the new Taliban government based “on the conduct of the new authorities.” Vladimir must be chuckling at the debortle that his ‘Lets make a deal’ orange puppet offered last May. Like a patient fisherman he can just keep warm, sitting on the banks of this river of history, watching his line bob and duck under the rippled water that is Afganistan today. History, repeating again, from the Coup of 1953 in Iran through to this moment. With Joe Biden’s stance, can or will America and western countries keep their sticky fingers out of other peoples pies? It is doubtful.

But it is possible that when Boris Johnson said, “There is no military solution to the ‘problems’ in Afganistan’ he may have been saying – finally – a long-overdue truth, in all senses of the word. In August, when the country ‘shuts up shop’ and goes on holiday, there is usually a flurry of silly activity to find the Prime Minister on his or her holiday and, in the best English journalistic way, make a mockery of their chosen hideaway. But this year all was strangely quiet. And now we know why. Both the Prime Minister and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, popped off for their summer holidays at the same time on Saturday. Johnson to Somerset, and Raab was in Cyprus until Sunday, hours before the fall of Kabul. Neither had showed up for work for over a week. Boris Johnson’s departure on Saturday, despite public warnings the Taliban would be in Kabul within hours, has been soundly criticized as a “dereliction of duty” by former senior military and security figures and may well cost him those deep conservative votes and pockets he counts on.

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who served in the Scots Guards, appeared to choke up as he spoke of his regret that “some people won’t get back”.

The Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen called into the BBC, live on air “There will be no revenge  on the people of Afghanistan. We are awaiting a peaceful transfer of power. We assure the people of Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe – there will be no revenge on anyone. We are the servants of the people and of this country.”

Spokesman Suhail Shakeen. Photo from the Daily Express

On the Sunday night news screen, a middle-aged Afganistan woman, a teacher – of girls – spoke with bewilderment at her new reality, “I thought I was doing good, teaching.” On a phone from an empty room she looks about thoughtfully, now unsure what will become of her. And neither are we as posters and billboards depicting women in places of influence are blacked out throughout the cities of Afganistan.

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

Spring Break

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

This weekend brought the Spring break, and England got a break from the battering of rough weather and political scrapping. The sun is shining, the Elderflowers are blooming and a harvest is on its way to becoming Elderflower cordial. Men are wearing shorts in the city.

It was a welcome pause after Dominic Cummings’s seven hour ‘tell all’ to the government inquiry committee last week. Small new potatoes burnt dry on the stove-top or huge baked potatoes bursting in the oven? The mess in the kitchen of English Government is yet to be explored.

Even if, as many suspect, Dom is telling the truth – it is only – this time. For as he almost admits, he has been the spokesperson for so many untruths to do what his boss wanted to ‘Get Brexit Done’. No wonder the boss said, “Well come along with me dear Dom, help me get this sorted.” Dominic Cummings has the kind of mind that sees underlying problems, the solutions to problems, and is easily frustrated when those problems cannot be solved within the system set up and in place. The English government finds ministers on a certain track, like trains bound for Waterloo, running on rails they cannot deviate from. Would Dominic Cummings’ plans to rip into and rebuild the civil service have been possible if the COVID pandemic had not happened? It is difficult to say but the situation today shows how deeply entrenched this system of government is and the incredible mis-steps that occur within it. 

Dominic Cummings speaks

A wolf in sheep’s clothing? But Cummings never pretended to be a sheep and the circulating herd around the Prime Minister were always nervous of him. Who was guarding the flock? Certainly not the Prime Minister. It may have been his then fiancée, and now wife, that nipped at the heels of Cummings and eventually sent him away. Until this week. Cummings sat before the committee for seven hours and spoke his truth, but his previous untruths, his relentless understanding of the incompetence he saw around him has won him few supporters. The previous ministers he served and then dismissed as fools are happy to crow: ‘That’s Dom’, as he savages Prime Minister Johnson and Health Secretary Hancock in this outing. “The government is run by fools and I had no business being there,” he concluded. Dominic Cummings lays the blame for thousands of unnecessary UK deaths on the sagging shoulders of the Prime Minister and his Government. Somehow I can’t help wanting to put periwigs and beaded top coats on them all.

Noam Chomsky, one of the most important American intellectuals of today, drew up his list of 10 media manipulation strategies universally used by politicians to maintain power. His number one is the strategy of distraction.

Mr and Mrs Johnson at home

How to distract from this disastrous political week? Pushing a trusted and trussed Matt Hancock onto the train tracks of the oncoming inquiry train is one way. Getting married in secret as a ‘surprise’ is another. And so, discretely, Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds entered Westminster Cathedral on Saturday afternoon and emerged as Mr and Mrs Johnson. It was clever and fun with a save the date notice for a wedding celebration next summer already sent out. The wedding was followed by a bit of a knees-up in the garden of number 10 Downing Street and a weekend break before back to work on Tuesday. 

America and England are now looking for the inception of this coronavirus pandemic. British intelligence operatives believe that it is ‘feasible’ that the coronavirus began with a leak from a research Laboratory in Wuhan. US President Joe Biden told intelligence agencies to look into the lab leak theory. The Sunday Times reports that ‘we are one wet market or bio lab away from the next spillover’ Naturally, officials in Beijing angrily deny such allegations. A western intelligence source familiar with the British involvement said: ‘There might be pockets of evidence that take us one way, and evidence that takes us another. I don’t think we will ever know.’

While Russia’s President Putin has cancelled all flights to and from Europe to and over Russian air space, as predicted, presidents Alex Lukashenko of Belarus and Vlad Putin had their photo moment together. Set between them is a small table suggested a meeting of minds, with pads of paper for notes and flowers for collegiality. 

Presidents Alex Lukashenko of Belarus and Vlad Putin

As the country eases up, the National Better Health Sports centers and swimming baths are safely open again. As I slide into the pool I can listen to all the voices of ordinary Londoners taking to the water again. I am beginning to recognize some of the regulars, English men and women, old, middle-aged and even young come and feel the freedom that water brings. 

Better Health

Abdul, a gentleman of a certain age, comes to the pool as if to a bathing house, not to swim but to talk, to be among people. He swims just a little, mostly watching and waiting for someone to talk with by the poolside edge. 

Gladys is from the Caribbean. Her body is full and I believe surrounds a huge heart and a mind of steel. Like many of us, she has a routine – swimming for a number of lengths before hitching herself to the side-railing and completing her water exercises. I imagine this keeping her strong and out of the health care system. Does she leave the chores of the day behind her as she swims and even remembers the warmer waters of the Caribbean of her childhood? For Gladys is about my age and seeing her I remember the young women recently arrived from Kingston, Jamaica who became my sisters in nursing. I had no knowledge of their childhood, the lives and families they had left behind and they knew nothing of mine. How much has changed, or not, over the fifty-five years that bring Gladys and I to the pool on a Thursday morning.

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

Sunshine Weekend

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

The sun shone and the weather was perfect on Saturday for Prince Philip’s funeral at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. Orchestrated by The Prince but now adapted in strict accordance with the Government’s rules for these Covid times, 30 members of the Prince’s family, all appropriately distanced, were in attendance. The ceremonial military guards, the Windsor house staff from the HMS Windsor bubble, his Fell carriage ponies, and close family remained masked and socially-distanced throughout the afternoon service. How glad we, who watched, were for their masks. As the Queen sat alone, mostly with her head bowed, her grief was only visible in her reddened eyes.

The Duke had added personal touches to his funeral: the Sailor’s piping call for permission to come aboard and entrance for his coffin into the chapel. At the service closing the highlander’s solitary bagpipe lament played in the empty nave while his coffin was lowered to the crypt below. The blessing followed, and the Dean of Windsor and the Archbishop of Canterbury led Her Majesty and the family out through the Galilee Porch. The Queen drove back to the castle with her lady-in-waiting while Prince Charles chose to walk and the family followed, the men warm in their overcoats and the women brave in their black stiletto-heeled shoes. Sometimes it is when walking in the sunshine that words can be spoken, gently, cautiously and hopefully healing. Did any of the family manage to have tea together? What sort of bubbles were established and kept? Where was the time when a family can gather, talk, sharing their sorrow under the banter of day-to-day catch-up chatter. Through the late afternoon and into the evening, I kept thinking about the Queen – wondering who was with her or did she sit – alone – in the silence of that time and all the times to come.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Fell ponies and carriage at Windsor for his funeral

The sun continued to shine on Sunday as the country began slowly to go about its weekend business. Londoners in Regent’s Park gathered in discrete family bubbles, picnicking on blankets as their children played and scootered and the volley ball games spread out beyond the football pitches. The cherry blossoms on the young trees are giving way to lime-green leaves and the wisteria buds are swelling. We wandered into the hidden St. John’s Lodge Gardens. It is a hushed meditation garden where couples and families sit quietly bringing in and packing out their picnics.

Time to get Ice cream

We sit too, watching the robins flit in and out of their nests in the tight hedgerows. Returning along The Broadwalk we crossed the canal and road before dipping into the grounds of St. Mark’s Church. There is a coffee hut, some benches and a sunlit spring garden that cascades down to the canal. It is one of those gardens that is gently tended, but it is clear the garden has the upper hand and the gardener just follows the landscape that unfolds. Now the plots where the Scottish Christmas Trees were sold is lightly fenced and reseeded – by the tree company in their best effort of cleaning up after oneself. Canal boats with happily spaced passengers are chugging and punting up and down the canal. Two young boys have been manning their canoe and brought her to shore. Their mothers and a sister climb the steps through the garden to collect small tubs of much needed ice cream for those intrepid sailors. Such small adventures are huge, taking up the whole of a sunny afternoon. We sit watching together on a bench in the sunshine overlooking the sloping spring garden and the canal. The daffodils have given way to red tulips and blue forget-me-nots. We are comfortable, sipping a fine latte coffee and sharing a crumbling iced carrot-cake, tucked into our place in the city. For the moment the sunshine bathes and soothes us all on this Sunday afternoon in a garden.

It’s an interesting question

During a weekend of national mourning some politicians hoped to be able to slip under the radar of national scrutiny but not all were lucky. The headline of the weekend edition of the Financial Times reads, ‘How Sleazy are British Politics?’ The page turned to past Prime Minister David Cameron striding from here to there – wherever there may be. Boris Johnson has sanctioned an inquiry over the allegations of misconduct but an old episode of ‘Yes Minister’, is not so far gone in memory:-

“’There is going to be an Inquiry Sir”.

“Oh good.”

“Good Sir?” 

“Yes, that means nothing will happen.”

Boris and Doris on the underground

But turning the metaphorical page, opposition leaders are urging the House Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, to allow a vote on an inquiry into Boris Johnson’s ‘Consistent Failure to be honest” in statements to Ministers.

Given the size of the Conservative majority it is unlikely this motion will come to a debate, but just the idea of it is – well, ballsy Johnson’s blatant misleading and disregard for the parliamentary process is hitting a low water-line, not unlike the autocratic behavior of other world leaders that England shakes its finger at.

One of whom is Vladimir Putin. His political opponent, Alexei Navalny has been on a hunger strike since March 31st and Navalny has been moved to a prison hospital. There is not much time left for his healing or death to occur. Putin must personally long for Navalny to be gone – completely – and yet he must know that if Navalny were to die now it would be as a martyr. Russian news coverage of Navalny’s condition is silent while the world’s telescope scans this horizon. 

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

Covid, Coup Coo ee

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

To date, over nine million people in the UK have had their first Covid-19 vaccination. Now there is a scurry-hurry as testing is ramped up in flaring spots of the fast-spreading South African variant of the virus. The English like a good hunt and if foxes are off-limits then viruses can be the quarry. As the elderly residents of all UK care homes are now scheduled to receive their first vaccinations, Ireland, Wales and Scotland are also vaccinating the care-home staff but for some untenable reason, England is not.

The Covid virus remains indiscriminate and random in its reach. Age and health play a part but there are no guarantees of safety from the disease. This weekend Captain Sir Tom Moore who walked 100 laps of his garden before his 100th birthday, raising over 32 million pounds for the Nation Health Service, was hospitalized with pneumonia and a positive Covid-19 test, and he died on Tuesday afternoon. He and his family became a symbol of hope and inspiration for the whole country. We hear a lot about how the pandemic affects doctors and nurses on the front line. Today I am thinking about an anesthesiologist’s story of his first two intubations, back to back, for young women bedded in the same unit, both mothers with young families to care for. He writes of the panic in their eyes and in his heart and the moment when he has to switch from compassion to competent – and carry on. 

On Monday came the news of the military coup in Myanmar, formerly Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi and 400 members of parliament have been detained by the army and remain confined inside their government housing in the capital. Police are inside the complex and soldiers are outside. Somehow a democratic election was held in 2015 and though the military never really gave up control, Aung San Suu Kyi – after spending nearly 15 years in detention – emerged as the country’s leader. Myanmar has never been known as a soft country and her harsh treatment of the Rohingya people has inked her time in the office with the United Nations. But under her leadership, the country has begun to open for the young people who have quickly seen its new possibilities. It is hard to think that they will allow that window to close again.

As hard line coups continue to happen, people throughout the Western world also continue with protests. Alexei Navalny is still in prison but the people of Russia are protesting in their thousands. Was it the video of Putins’ Palace, the gold-plated toilet brushes or Arkady Rotenberg stepping up to claim the palace as his own – Rotenberg, a known construction magnate, judo sparring partner, and close pal to Putin – that has kept the Russian people pouring onto the street to demonstrate? Even those who are not Navalny supporters have joined the protests and this weekend over five thousand were detained by the police. These protests may be as much about questioning the authority of Vladimir Putin as the imprisonment of Navalny. Similar questions as those posed in Belarus. 

Putin’s Black Sea Palace

Military and Police forces are the powerful tools used to protect or take over a government or country and control the media. The Iranian Coup of 1953 used the military and paid mobs to overthrow Prime Minister Mosaddegh and that model has been copied and refined ever since. We can fast-forward to the almost coup 2021 in the United States – which though it appeared unruly, was orchestrated. Photographs of rioters with handcuffs and ropes harks back to a chilling American history. 

NPR reported that nearly 1 in 5 of the American rioters charged has served in the military. This made me think of the Vietnam veterans I met in the mid-1960s while nursing in Hollywood, California when new teams of respiratory therapists marched onto the wards. They were young men, edgy, competent, and clipped and all were returning Vietnam Medic Veterans. They had been fast-tracked, retrained, to treat people after surgery or with cardiac and respiratory disease. 

In 1966 President Johnson read a report “Accidental Death and Disability”, stating accidental deaths as the leading cause of death in young people. And in 1969 came the first standardization of care and emergency training for “rescue squad personnel, policemen, firemen and ambulance attendants.” This program was a life-saver, not only for accident and cardiac victims but for returning medics from the Vietnam War. The program gave their adrenaline the same pump and release that war had given them, but just a little slower, and as they cared for civilian patients many of those medics healed too. So I think about the 1 in 5 rioters who stormed the US capital building being veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and maybe having no support when they returned to the US, the country they thought they had fought for.

Hello-eee calls out the Royal Society of Protection of Birds, waving for the ‘Big Garden Birdwatch.’ In 1889 Emily Williamson founded The Plumage League to protect birds killed for the decoration of hats. Across England, the last weekend in January is set aside for anyone who wants to count the birds in their garden for an hour. I choose my Sunday morning Andrew Marr breakfast time and, with a cup of tea in one hand, pen poised over notebook in the other, I waited. This weekend the weather was miserable, cold, and foul, and the birds mostly remained shivering in the trees. But eventually, they emerged in the pattern they have long-established. One robbin, followed by two blue tits, two coal tits, one great tit, all knocked off the feeder by a starling. A feral and wood pigeon strut across the terrace while the goldfinches, dunnock, and wren stayed hidden. Then it is a walk up to my friend Lucy’s wilderness garden where we put out more seed. We sit on suitably-spaced garden stools and take our masks off to talk. It doesn’t take long before the robin who lives in this hidden quarter of Primrose Hill comes down to feed with us.

St. George’s Terrace Robbin

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

Sunday Snow

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

It is almost time to mute Andrew Marr on Sunday mornings. The program is getting upsetting, not so much in the content but in the sharp delivery, so early and with breakfast on the sofa, and it is not good for digestion. When there was art, cinema, and theatre to discuss, Marr’s tone would soften and he would be coy like a schoolboy in a candy shop. But the politicians do not move him in the same way, while now some are figuring out how to defuse him. “Call me by my Name” is a book and a film of love, and to call Andrew by his name somehow takes a touch of the wind out of his sails. Matt Hancock has begun to do it, but it works best with the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy, or Annelies Dodds, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, and best of all, with Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland. They have also learned that other trick, to keep talking, and not let him interrupt. It takes practice and breath control and would be funny if some of the topics were not so serious and pertinent to our daily lives.

Matt Hancock is still working from his home office and needs to close the kitchen door. But there is a rare smile on Hancock’s face as he recited the rising numbers of those in England who’ve had their first vaccination, including 80% of those over 80 years old. But like the working terrier he is, Andrew has his nose on an important question. Originally the scientists recommended that the two doses of Pfizer/BioNTech and the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccines should be given three weeks apart for the maximum benefit. But now politicians and their statisticians, say actually no, the doses can be given up to twelve weeks apart. It seems some serious number-crunching is going on, trying to lower the number of people who would get sick enough to require hospitalization and further burden the National Health Service. But today, as the UK death toll from the Coronavirus tops 100,000, there leaks news of petty behavior from Boris Johnson to João Vale de Almeida the ambassador sent to represent the European Union in England. This rolls back to past behaviors and slights between brief-cased men and women over the last painful years of the Brexit negotiations and now rumbles on into questions of who holds how many doses of which vaccine, manufactured and stored in which country, and who is going to share, what, when.  

Boris Johnson in Trouble
The Independent

This brings back a shadow remembrance of the Ford Pinto number-crunching that went on from the 1970s to 1980s. After the gas tank misdesign was uncovered and Mother Jones published ‘The Pinto Memo’ that said the cost of recalling the cars would have been $121 million, whereas paying off the victims would only have cost Ford $50 million. ‘It’s cheaper to let them burn” in ‘the barbecue that seats four.’  For the moment the UK Government, The European Union, and medical scientists are at odds, as they wrestle with the numbers that may not be, how many lives will be lost, but whose.

The situation with the COVID-19 virus, vaccinations, questions about schools remaining closed, and with no end in this degree of lockdown in sight, have pushed even the American political changes under President Biden onto page two. News of other nation’s pandemics and war deaths are barely covered as if the continents of South America, Africa, and India are too big for us now to comprehend and explain.

Coverage of the protests in Belarus has given way to those in Russia over the arrest of Alexei Navalny. Before Navalny left Germany he made a video film, “Putin’s Palace: The $ Billion Dollar GRIFT” in which, at almost two hours long, Navalny also narrates in staccato bullet-point sentences. It is an amazing piece of work, gathering all of Navalny’s research over the last ten years as well as help from those who also see that things are not as they should be in Mother Russia. By the time Navalny returned to Moscow and was arrested, the film was already available to anyone on YouTube, and, at this point, remains untouchable by Putin. Even as the temperatures are well below freezing in Moscow, St Petersburg, and other Russian cities, the outpouring of demonstrators has filled the city streets and the protesters arrested number in the thousands.

The Russian police look like plated armadillos as they take on the protesters. The chain-mail effect as iron gives way to the sturdy plastic of their interlocking shining plates harks back to Tudor England and copied from the ancient armor held in the museums of Europe.

The harshness and speed of the clamp-down has been so severe that Western countries are ‘considering their next steps,’ as they watch Putin and the Kremlin close the fist of authoritarianism.

Back at the kitchen sink after our morning dose of politics, I look out of the window and the sky stares back at me. “Watch now,” it seems to say, and then slowly, thick drops of moisture begin to fall and, as they gathered in strength and courage they grew bigger, fatter, and fell covering the pavement, the cars, and shrubs outside with a solid blanket of snow. The old words return, none are better: solid blanket, silent night, or, in this case, day, as the snow fell for a sweet two hours, and we smiled with childlike excitement to see it so. Young Charlie fox padded softly by, paused at the window to look in on us before continuing his morning hunting rounds.  

Charlie Passing By Photo by WSM

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