£10 to eat out: maybe stop and think about it?

£10 to eat out: maybe stop and think about it?

I was talking to a friend of mine last week who had been investigating the £50 mend-your-bike scheme that the Government has offered in order to get us healthy through cycling more.  She said it was an extremely helpful website, giving her access to all kinds of cycling stores and resources locally that she had not realized were there.  At the same time, as she came close to submitting her request for the £50, there was a paragraph suggesting that the person completing the form should stop and think whether they really needed this £50 to fix their bike, or could actually afford it themselves.  She decided she could not justify the status of really ‘needing’ it, so cancelled her request.  She will, nonetheless, fix the bike herself.

Good for her, I say.  And it brought to mind my mother, who died in 2001, saying to me for many years that she felt bad about free prescription charges but that there was no way of paying the money back into the NHS.  I know many of us are uncomfortable with receiving the heating allowance that comes in every year whether you need it or not.  Again, it would be good to donate that money specifically to those who do need it, particularly those in one’s local area, but instead one has to pass it on to charity where it goes into a larger pot and one can’t be sure what happens to it. 

Now, in August, people are being offered the £10 Eat Out to Help Out scheme to help boost restaurants.  And yes, it is great to get our hospitality sector back in action.  They need us.  But do I really need the £10 of taxpayers’ (many of whom may be worse off than I am) money to pay for this?  No, I don’t.  It doesn’t feel right.  Will I eat out, yes, absolutely as I am thoroughly keen to get our economy going again. And I enjoy a good meal out.  But I am uncomfortable about others paying for my delight in visiting a restaurant.

The conversation with my friend brought to mind how this key question “do you really need this?” needs to be placed more firmly in people’s minds.  We are so lucky to receive so many benefits in this country and as older people we receive many advantages on transport, in galleries and museums and many other opportunities to save cash.  Of course, it is true that we are generally living on fixed incomes – a pension, or income from savings, and are not in the position to generate more money through enterprise or hard work.  However, I do think it would be good to consider more often how we could pay back the advantages we receive, and not just when we are old. 

TFL is haemoraging money at the moment, as are the bus and train companies yet we still get free travel.  No doubt the services will decline as a result as you can’t run a business without customers.  We oldies shall no longer enjoy the privilege of a free television licence after the age of 75 unless we receive pension benefit.  It is quite a sizeable sum of money so it will make me ever more critical of the gains I might (or might not) receive from this licence – especially as we find ourselves more and more often watching Netflix or Prime as the terrestrial stations seem to offer such dross, other than the occasional period drama … or Line of Duty.  (I would probably pay for the licence simply to watch the latter if I had to!)

So, what I am suggesting is that we think more carefully about the various government schemes on offer and appreciate them.  There has already been criticism of certain celebrities and companies who have taken advantage of the furlough scheme despite having pots in the bank.  I know it can be horrendously difficult to run a business, and especially a small business.  When I ran Positiveworks, I soon learnt the need to put money aside for the time when a client merged or got taken over and a new CEO would ditch all the old contracts, or my contact left, or there were budget cuts.  Unlike those who become used to a regular salary and the perks of holiday, sick pay and pensions, in a small business you literally count every penny and know that what you earned one month you may not earn the next.  Covid must present a nightmare.

Certainly this pandemic is harsher and more challenging than anything I ever faced before and my heart goes out to those who have slaved hard to build businesses only now to watch them collapse.  I am fortunate to have retired, to have (at the moment anyway) some money coming in to pay the bills, though the interest from savings is near the negative.  I would rather that any £10 or £50 offer, or any government scheme, go to those who are struggling. 

This translates, in my mind, to anyone of any age who is the recipient of benefits, so that they consider whether they might give something back in some way, perhaps through voluntary or community work.  It is an expectation that has been missing and I think it would do our society good to be reminded of our individual responsibilities to the wellbeing of the whole, as we have been reminded during this pandemic.

I don’t mean to sound like a goodie-goodie.  Anyone who knows me knows that I certainly don’t fit that bill.  But I have thought for a long time that we need to make more emphasis on what individuals can do for their country and their communities rather than always looking to seek what the government can do for us.  I wonder if any of you agree?  I suspect you will have some creative suggestions as to how people might do this, in one way or another.

I think these government schemes for bikes and meals are innovative offerings and a much needed shot in the arm for health and the economy.   I certainly don’t want to discourage people from getting out there and enjoying eating out again.  Then cycling afterwards!   I’d just like people to stop and reflect on it all a little in the process and appreciate how lucky we are, despite the virus, to be the recipients of these initiatives.

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If this were a war would we have the moral fibre to win it?

Commentators and politicians have referred to this Coronavirus pandemic as a war.  There is talk of taking similar financial actions with budgets and taxes as were taken in WWII.  There is talk of the need to ‘pull together’ and to adopt behaviours for the sake of others and the country.  But this enemy is invisible.  Its outcomes are devastating but there is no ‘invader’, no external enemy we can gang up against. 

And so, seeking someone or something to attack, we gang up against policies and actions taken by government, or scientists, health ministers or policy makers, demanding of them that they give us certainty and get it all right.  Of course, we need to hold people to account but no-one gets it all right in warfare, whether the enemy is invisible or not, and when something so unexpected hits us the ‘science’ is unproven.  People clutch at straws as to what is the correct course of action and whatever anyone does, it is criticised.  Listening to this is disheartening.

Stress depletes our immune system and we have quite enough of it without the BBC reinforcing it.  I, for one, can’t bear to listen to the Today programme these days, nor watch the BBC 10 o’clock news.  It is just too depressing and not good for my mental health.

I don’t believe that this endless stream of pessimism and negativity helps to keep us, as a nation, healthy.  It brings me to the conclusion that we would not win a war were we suddenly faced with one.  We are too divided and too frightened.  It is this fear that will, quite literally, potentially be the death of us.  Our immune systems will be depleted, our mental health affected, and we shall, in one way or another, get both weaker and sicker.  Somehow we have to find the will and determination to push through the fear and we need help in doing so. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think the BBC is invaluable and there are some brilliant programmes, though I must admit that I do despair of their comedy programmes and surely they could have done better with The Archers?!  It is their news and current affairs programmes that I question.  During the Brexit negotiations all we ever heard, night after night, day after day, was Brexit Brexit Brexit.  The rest of the world could have gone to hell in a handcart as it just didn’t get coverage.  We have become more and more parochial and provincial.

Now, with the Covid crisis, we have been treated night after night to terrible scenes in ICU, haggard doctors, dying patients and on the Today programme more harrowing stories of tragedy.

These stories gave us few useful facts.  The purpose seemed to be to stir our emotions.  They did not encourage us to feel that we could fight this battle.  They simply left us feeling powerless.

Even if there was good news, the journalist presenting a story would always go in for the kill and either play their usual cat-and-mouse game of trying to demonstrate that nothing in this country is working, or end what could have been a positive piece of news with some phrase such as “of course this is unlikely to work…”

Meanwhile the appalling attack in May by ISIS on the maternity ward run by MSF in Afghanistan hardly got a mention.  Putin seemed able to hang on to power until 2036 with almost no comment, we hear a little about China, but the rest of the world may as well not exist.

I am not looking for propaganda, as we had in the war, but I am looking for balance, for there are many uplifting stories of survival and grit but they aren’t mentioned.  What we get is one story after another that will ramp up fear and one story after another, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, that ramps up guilt, even within the young who had absolutely nothing to do with this murder, nor with the slave trade or Empire.  All of this depletes immune systems and quite frankly the young have enough to cope with.

The health of the nation and the mental health of our young depends on balance.  The purpose of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy is to help individuals see the facts, gain perspective and balance and work out the best, most rational and helpful way of managing difficult situations.  That requires looking at any situation objectively and within its context, then challenging and changing distorted or unhelpful beliefs.  What I observe is that journalists are not challenging distorted truths when they hear them.

It was probably understandable that the government used fear during the early days of the lockdown.  “Stay home, stay safe, protect others and the NHS”.  This sense of duty tinged with terror that our NHS wards would spill over with the sick, resulted in us protecting the NHS but we now realise that this was to the extent that we patients have not been protected against all the other everyday but also chronic and dangerous illnesses that we may experience, like stroke, cancer, heart disease, and more.

A public service broadcaster could surely take some responsibility for the morale and wellbeing of the nation it serves, not through propaganda but through factual rigour?  I would expect a broader analysis of situations and events, a balance of historical perspective, some optimism in the midst of the pessimism.  It certainly exists.  It was not just the doctors on the front line whom we should applaud.  So many workers have been keeping this country going – technology, power, heating, deliveries and food supplies, refuse, roads, pharmacies and so many more.  Did we see them on the news?  I didn’t. 

You cannot win a war by bombarding people with terrible images and scaring them half to death because you deplete the reserves and defences of your people, leaving weakness through which the enemy can barge through.  A polarised nation is not one who will have the cohesion or grit to win a war, whether it is against a visible or invisible enemy.  The Putins of this world would lick their lips. The virus has its own strategies to attack the vulnerable.

In the light of a potential second wave, this is a call for a review of both the content and also the way news is presented.  We are in a specific and threatening situation that is taking a very real toll on our emotional and physical resilience.  There is no certainty and no end to the virus nor the economic consequences of lockdown.  Surely we deserve and need to have broader perspective… and just a little glimmer of hope!

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Governing in the garden of good and evil

During the coronavirus spike in March and April we experienced incredible kindness and community spirit.  This seemed to be mirrored across the UK, with neighbours taking care of neighbours and with individuals and families abiding by what was, in effect, similar to house arrest.  We accepted that for the good of all, we must stay indoors and not mix with others, in order to avoid the spread of this unpleasant and sometimes deadly virus. 

And then, a few months on, we watch the other side of the beast that is we humans.  Walking through Kew Gardens and tripping up over litter – discarded disposable nappies, cans, papers, tissues.  How could people be doing this when so recently they seemed to be demonstrating such considerate behaviour?  It got worse, of course, with tons of litter being dumped on Clapham Common and other open spaces after illegal raves, or the protests where statues were toppled and police who had nothing themselves to do with the George Floyd murder, were attacked and injured.

I feel we are witnessing an interesting conflict between the opposing forces of dictatorship versus an almost equally authoritarian movement calling for a form of anarchy.  Unlike the movements of the past, where there was an identifiable group of fascist right or communist left, one finds people from all walks of life on both sides.

On the side of authoritarianism, we see in China, the heavy-handed demands over Hong Kong citizens, including the removal of books on freedom and democracy, and further undemocratic actions within China, including the incarceration of the Uighurs.  In Russia we have just witnessed Putin’s predictable manoeuvre to ensure that he rules into his dotage.  Then there’s Trump, though I do have higher hopes that the US Constitution will protect the world from his worst excesses. 

On the other side we have real forces at work that are encouraging anarchy.  Forces that wish to disrupt and overturn the institutions of government, defund the police and perhaps, in the terms of the anarchist Emma Goldman, institute a ‘sovereignty of the individual’. Governments were, in her view, harmful as well as unnecessary.  Governments, she argued, do not care for the individual but only that the laws are obeyed, systems in place and the exchequer full.  And yet, I would say, life has moved on since she wrote in 1910 and the welfare state depends on that exchequer.

There is a call for ‘right-think’ on both sides of this argument and those who speak against the current regime, whether in China or Russia’s dictatorships, or in the dictatorship that is the woke social media, get cancelled and silenced.  And so we see the Hong Kong protesters holding up a blank sheet of paper and, as a writer I am concerned that this will be the state of affairs for us all unless we fight back.  I am glad to see that, today, writers have written a letter condemning this bullying ‘cancel culture’. 53330105https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-53330105

There are specific and identifiable leaders in China, Russia, the US, Philippines, Brazil but we don’t really know who the people are who are deciding what is politically correct or not in the arena of woke social media.  They are the shadowy mob, able to hide themselves behind some weird online name.  But they wield huge power and are succeeding in bullying universities and organisations to sack academics and staff who do not follow their right-speak.  Online, people get cancelled or threatened with death or rape, ostracised for having a view that does not conform.  Such is always the beginning of any dictatorship, for, as Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the movement invades the territory of the mind, removing a human being from their beliefs and opinions – the essence of what it is to be human.  People can no longer speak or state the truth of what they feel or believe and so are reduced simply to being a body.

For those pushing for revolution and the disruption of government institutions and the police I question whether we are capable, as Emma Goldman would argue, of organising ourselves to live fruitful and meaningful lives without the structures of a government system?  She speaks of ‘intelligent minorities’ who are capable of overthrowing government systems, sometimes through violent means to overthrow government systems.  Isn’t this what we are seeing today?  When we look at the breakdown of law and order on recent protests, parties and street gatherings are we really imagining that individuals could create a society that provides for food supplies, roads, drains, light, health and education, without the structures of government?  Personally I doubt it.  They may not be perfect but they do actually do a reasonable job. 

In Seattle, where the police retreated from a precinct for the BLM protests, the crime rate soared, so how does a call for police defunding protect a population?  Certainly, the American police need retraining and a culture change.  But our police operate by consent and we have witnessed their bravery in terrorist attacks and in maintaining law and order.  Of course, they need to be monitored to ensure they are fair but when we weaken their ability to act on behalf of the majority, we are likely to see higher rates of crime, as experienced now in the USA, and that benefits no-one.

Those advocating anarchy and disruption hark back to a time when life was harmonious, and we lived off the land.  They don’t seem to have read their history books and forget the huge famines, the early deaths, infant mortality, tribal warfare and utter discomfort and lack of hygiene of everyday life.  Visit any ancient culture – Egypt, Africa, India, South America – and one finds a history of brutal conflict.  We aren’t actually very good at living in harmony with one another and there have been plenty of greedy and cruel leaders who have slaughtered millions, well before capitalism.

In the main these days we all get along incredibly well compared to even the recent past, as Europe was ruled by dictatorships, where certain groups were incarcerated or silenced for holding the wrong beliefs until the early 2000s.  And what has happened in the past can happen again.

The limiting of our voices is dangerous.  In our case, here in the UK, it is not governmental dictatorship but dictatorship by this invisible mob.  There is no identifiable leader seeking power but a mob of individuals buying into some form of Orwellian Doublespeak.  But no problem will ever be solved when the truth is masked and silenced, as you can’t solve problems without being able to shape them accurately.

But Orwell himself described freedom as the right to tell people what they do not wish to hear.  And we must fight for this right, otherwise we are lost as human beings, as individuals, families, communities and nations.  We must stand up against bullies who threaten us or shame us into silence and so I am glad that we are offering passports to the citizens of Hong Kong, that we may well rile China, Russia and Saudi Arabia by pinpointing individuals whom we believe to have been involved in assassinations.  For we stand on our values and we are lost when silenced.

Thomas Hobbes believed that the brutish nature of mankind required strong government and yet we are too easily turned into sheep, as we have seen during lockdown.  People have emerged confused “what can I do now?”, forgetting their ability to self-direct and apply common sense.   John Locke wanted to preserve human rights through limiting the monarchy’s control and this is what we have fought for over the centuries in the UK.  I believe in my lifetime we have done a relatively good job of preserving and increasing human rights, equality, diversity of opportunity, including collaborating on political, scientific and medical initiatives globally.  Through this, and trade, vast numbers have come out of poverty.  Does this mean that I believe more should not be done?  Of course not – there is much to do but I don’t believe improvement will come by overthrowing what we have built up, by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

We have to accept that human beings are both altruistic and selfish.  And that means all of us.  There is no perfect human, no perfect government, no perfect or totally fair world.  That is idealistic.  Obama has just spoken to young people, suggesting that their tendency to point a finger at another for saying or doing the wrong thing too easily makes them feel virtuous and self-righteous.  Words like “should, must, ought to” generally reflect a self-oriented demand of the world or others but, as Obama said, we might do better to help the young accept the fact that we are fallible human beings living within a fallible system of community and government, both good and evil, wherever we inhabit the world.  There is no perfect but there is, for sure, a pursuit of excellence and improvement and that’s what we need to focus on.

So let’s beware the bullies who advocate anarchy.  It is no fun.  If we have to fight for everyday resources, we do not have the time or energy to create, whether that creativity is a business, invention, law, book, play, work of art, medical breakthrough or musical composition.

And let’s beware the bullies who advocate dictatorship or threaten us as individuals or, as China has done, as a country, should we not do what they say.  They are equally dangerous.

We must stand up for ourselves and what we believe in.  A healthy democracy depends on diversity of opinion unrelated to skin colour, class, age or gender.  We have to fight for this or we shall indeed be lost.

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I fear we Baby Boomers may end up being ‘cancelled’ by our grandchildren

I am watching the tearing down of statues with increasing concern.  Where will it stop?  Human beings, and therefore our history, has been brutal, but we are complex creatures.  Our lives are set within a historical and social setting of specific perceptions and norms and so it is difficult to judge these from a different period, where those norms have changed. 

We are good and bad and sometimes terrible.  Should we excuse the terrible? No, of course not.  At the same time if that person has done good, either through philanthropy, politics, or a creative enterprise, do we destroy their works – ‘cancel’ them, in today’s terms?  If so, then it is likely that most buildings, books, paintings and more would need to be destroyed, globally.  After all, there are many politicians who did some good but lived within a particular era and certainly many painters, writers, thinkers and musicians who were flawed individuals and treated others badly.  Where will it end?  As Orwell predicted, it starts with books and statues … but ends with people. 

So I fear this current uprising could move us towards a fascist silencing of all those who do not fit the perfect model as described by today’s young.  Probably, particularly, people of my generation, who have lived through different times and many periods of change and whose opinions they do not wish to hear, particularly around feminism, transgender, veganism.  I have heard several friends mention “I can’t say that in front of my children/grandchildren.”

I was born in 1950.  Homosexuality was still illegal until 1967.  Married women were not allowed to work or to take out a bank account or mortgage in their own name until 1975.  When I came to England from Portugal in 1954 it was a mainly white country and it was not until the 1960s and the break up of the Empire that we received large numbers of black and ethnic groups.  It was not the welcoming place they had hoped for and it is not a period of which we should be proud, any more than we should be proud of the bias that still continues in this and other countries today against those who are different.  But sixty years is not a long time in history: it has taken millennia even to begin to change attitudes to women and yet in many parts of the world women are still treated as second class citizens.

Difference can instil fear.  We are all biased and prejudiced in one way or another and we need to recognise it.  A few years ago, I was lost in Oxford on the way to a business meeting.  Two young men came up the road and I asked them for directions.  It was only halfway through my question that I realized I had addressed myself to the white man and not the black.  Perhaps somewhere in my brain there was a thought that he might be more local?  Either way I was mortified when I realized my unconscious bias and quickly thanked them both.  It was a lesson for me.  At the same time, one of the people who was dearest to me in my life, for 44 years, was from Jamaica.  So, as I say, we are complex beings.

Bias is a basic and tribal part of the human psyche: friend or foe, threat or ally, fight or flight?  It happens in all countries and cultures too – African, Indian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and beyond.  I am sure we have all heard stories where a black, Muslim or Hindu family has not been happy to welcome a white person into their family.   Difference of skin colour, behavioural habits, or religion can create divides. If the man killed by the US cop had been white would it even have reached the newspaper?  It is important to look at situations in the round, soothe the fear where possible, as, anger and violence just reinforce fear, closing minds rather than opening them.  Having lived through these periods of change, I can see the enormous progress of integration that has been made in these areas; black mayors, politicians, CEOs, medics, academics.  But naturally there is more to be done.

But if you are a young person who has not read history, particularly modern social history, then you do not see this progress.  You just see injustice, and of course there still is injustice, as the world is not a fair place and human beings have always, through their nature, found it tricky to provide a just environment for all.  Where equality has been attempted, it has taken away people’s freedoms and yet those who were or are in power in Communist-style regimes are generally every bit as power-hungry and greedy for large cars, mansions and servants, as those who hit the hierarchy in other regimes.

And so some of us oldies (and I certainly don’t speak for all of them as I know plenty of people who might disagree with me), who have observed the changes, may see things differently to the twenty-somethings.  The words we use can be judged to represent an out-dated attitude that we may not actually hold, for words have changed over the years but they remain in our neuronal memory.  I know many of us are nervous of becoming demented in case they all trip out of our minds and onto our tongues!  If they did, it wouldn’t necessarily convey a current perspective but it might convey the memory of a childhood rhyme we sang in the playground.  For homosexuals were referred to as queer where now they are gay.  Blacks were referred to as negro, then coloured, then back to black and now People of Colour.  The language changes as we go through life and we all have to keep up but occasionally, by mistake, we use the wrong word and the young are quick to judge us as ‘bad people’ for doing so.  Yet we aren’t necessarily bad people.  We are people of a particular era, making a mistake.

It is the hatred and intolerance, of which they accuse others, that I find distressing.  It has led to a loss of free speech in universities, to a puritanical, self-righteous and virtue-signalling set of perspectives and behaviours that judge and blame others, while possibly not judging themselves.  Are they any more perfect or any less flawed than most of us?  They are of their era, as we are of ours.  Some of the statues they build today may well be pulled down by future generations.

But to decide to silence people who do not agree with them is wrong and it is the slippery slope to fascism and dictatorship.  They use shame to silence – one small question about whether the transgender lobby might not be too harsh on JK Rowling and on the rights of women, or whether we question the disruption caused to ordinary workers by the methods of Extinction Rebellion, whether veganism is healthy, or an observation about the lack of social distancing on the Black Lives Matter protests and one is automatically put in a box as a ‘bad person’, without discussion.  We are assumed to be opposing the movement when we may, in fact, simply be asking a specific question about it.

For life is full of nuance.  One can agree with a lobby but not with its methods.  One can have a perfectly legitimate question about evidence, about analysis, or statistical background.  I have heard statements in interviews recently on television and the media that lack historical truth but are not challenged by the journalists.  Yet the facts behind a protest are important, as facts stir emotions and erroneous facts stir erroneous emotions.

Of course, racism is wrong.  Of course, the slave trade was a horrific and inhumane period.  Of course, the death of George Floyd was an appalling event.  But one murder does not mean that all police are murderers.  That is simple logic.  And so all police should not be treated as if they are murderers, any more than if one black person commits a crime, all black people should be treated as criminals.  This is what they accuse the police of and state that it is unfair.  It is unfair, so don’t mirror the treatment.  It doesn’t serve the purpose well.  Be clear about the actions required for change so that people can catch up but don’t treat the police or the rest of us as if we are shameful sinners. 

Stereotyping others in the way people dislike being stereotyped themselves polarises rather than integrates and unfortunately the media are reinforcing this polarisation by talking of anyone who is concerned about the removal of statues as ‘nationalists’.  It isn’t nationalist to question where this all ends.  It is perfectly possible that certain statues and street names have had their day, but does this mean that we pull down all statues that might have negative associations without proper discussion and debate?  Do we destroy books and paintings that may have been created by men or women who are judged by today’s light to have behaved badly in some way?  This could mean Tolstoy, Dickens, Darwin, Cromwell, Picasso, Peel, Rhodes, Gandhi, even Mandela, and countless more.

Many other countries have had Empires, racism, slaves and colonies so it could result in the destruction of many buildings in this country and abroad – the Coliseum, the Egyptian tombs, mosques, Roman pillars would all have to go.  Libraries, museums and art galleries would be empty.  But Churchill?  He may have been a flawed character and made mistakes, been a man of his era, but for heaven’s sake he played a major part in protecting the UK, Europe and the world from the worst racist in modern times, Hitler.  This world and our lives today would be very different were Churchill not to have played that part in history.  I can’t imagine anyone would really wish to live in a dictatorship ruled by such fascism?  So let’s not pander to this over-emotional desire to deface Churchill’s statues or cancel his memory.  We should not tolerate it. 

There are black voices today who are challenging the “continued oppression narrative” that draws on history to blame others.  In my coaching sessions, I found that the stance of oppressed victim does not serve a person well.  Whether this is due to colour, gender, age, childhood or marital abuse, trauma, sexual preference or any other oppression, it is more effective for that person to change and empower themselves.  One can’t change the past, but one can choose one’s response to it in the present so as to influence the future.  And, in historical terms, this generation alive are surely the least oppressed in the whole of human history.  So, let’s build on this progress and stop talking about oppression, as it creates a sense of helpless victims rather than of people who can democratically make change happen.

I sincerely hope that I shall not be ‘cancelled’ or silenced as I grow old, for we do have some stories to tell and may gain perspective over the years.  I am very happy to debate with those who disagree with me, as long as the listening goes both ways.  Many of us think we know everything when we are young.  As we get older, we realize we know very little and that life is far more complex than we imagined.   

We are all fallible.  The bad has to be balanced in the light of any good we do, as I don’t believe any of us would wish solely to be judged on our errors and mistakes.  This leads us down the road to the Stasi and the Thought Police.  No space here for redemption.

We can all play a part in designing the future to be a more integrated and just place. We need to recognise our own unconscious bias, whatever our colour, gender or creed, to identify the individual behaviours we each can adopt to create a society where we can live freely and harmoniously, in mutual respect.  Cancelling voices does not take us there.

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Let’s get just a tad busier again …

Do you remember that adage “ask a busy person”, indicating that a busy person will always get things done whereas someone who is slower never finishes the task you requested of them?  I feel we have all slowed down – or most of us have.  I certainly have.  I had so many grand intentions when I heard of the lockdown and expected it to last several weeks – that 2 foot pile of filing that has been sitting in its tray for two years, finishing off the book I had started five years ago, clearing out the garage, doing a Marie Condo on my wardrobes.  Have I done them?  No, I am ashamed to admit, not a single one.

I am not alone in this.  What has happened to us?  I think that in many ways we are suffering from the numbness of shock.  Rather like post-traumatic stress, we are in a period of discombobulation.  Or perhaps that is just the older members of society.  I know of several of us who would normally be active but are just about managing to do one or two zoom classes or conversations a week and then feel exhausted.  Several of us who go upstairs with a goal of doing something but by the time we have reached the top of the stairs have forgotten what it is, our brains turning to butter somewhere on the way up.

We have all suffered a shock.  Overnight we had our health threatened, our freedoms limited, and our most basic needs such as family, friends, food, medication and access to doctors taken away from us.  The reaction is a kind of paralysis, where our energy is being drained by the underlying emotions that we may unconsciously be experiencing. 

Our fear has been ramped up by the press coverage.  Terrifying scenes of ICU units shown to us morning, noon and night, accompanied by tragic anecdotes of loss.  This served a purpose to keep us frightened and at home.  No doubt we all also experienced fear for our own health, or those of our loved ones, some frustration at the limitations, fear at the economic prospects for ourselves, our families, children, our country and the global economy.  How many people will lose their jobs worldwide, how many will have difficulty feeding their children as the impact of this global lockdown takes effect?

Personally, I feel it is now time to get busy again, that we need gradually to crank ourselves up.  Maybe not to the frenetic pace of previous times but we can’t allow this malaise to continue for too long without catastrophic results to the nation’s health, wellbeing and economic prospects.  The question that is difficult to answer is how much of a risk to life Covid-19 is in the future and how much its threat should dictate the shape of our lives now.  As the statistics evolve, we need to analyse how much of a hazard coronavirus is in comparison to many other everyday threats that we tolerate.

Some shops are about to open but what about the hospitality industry?  It’s summertime.  Many pubs, restaurants and cafés have large enough outdoor spaces to allow them to open again, providing for a reasonable distance between people.  If supermarkets, chemists, newsagents and small convenience stores can do this, surely they can make relevant changes to protect their customers too?  Do we really want our pubs to go out of business?  They have been part of British life for centuries but if they stay closed much longer, they will go bust – they were already having a tough time before all of this.

Likewise, surely it is not beyond the realms of ingenuity for the parks and gardens to open again?  As Museums and Galleries are used to staggering entry, then gardens, the National Trust parks and other green areas could provide timed entry to a specific number of people and give their staff masks and gloves.  Without this the towpaths and pavements become ridiculously packed with people and this is far less healthy. 

Now that hospitals are under less pressure, I think many of my generation – the over 70s (by a week!) – do not wish to be ‘protected’ by others.  Yes, there are more risks but we know that there are other factors that can make people more vulnerable to Covid-19 than just the number of age.  Those of us oldies who are reasonably fit and healthy may not be at any more risk than men, but no government is going to suggest they should be shielded or locked away (well I can think of some I would like locked away, of course!).  And most of us are loathe to put our children’s and grandchildren’s futures and careers in jeopardy for our sake, so accept that in order for them to live a normal life we will all need to live with more risk.

I have now had the Covid-19 antibody test and it was positive, demonstrating that I did have this nasty virus.  Phew – I would have been fed up if I had experienced 5 weeks of illness without having had it!  I am not sure where it gets me other than that it does show that my immune system has rallied some antibodies to conquer the invasion of the virus and this should give me immunity from succumbing to it again.  Hopefully so.

It was a bit of a fandango getting enough blood out of a finger-prick device for the test tube, so it was very useful having a Doctor in the House as David then took some veinous blood from my arm.  A little unnerving when I thought afterwards that he hadn’t done this for over twenty years but it was obviously like riding a bicycle as he found my vein far quicker than many doctors and nurses have done over recent years.

So what now?  Sadly it doesn’t look as if we shall find a cure or vaccine for this illness in the immediate future and we cannot keep the world in standstill indefinitely.  There will be too much ‘collateral damage’ of those who lose their jobs, those who die untreated for cancers or heart disease etc within our health system, and potentially worldwide famine.

Previous generations had to accept that there were illnesses such as smallpox, polio, TB, diptheria, measles, scarlet fever that threatened their everyday lives.  We have been so fortunate that vaccination removed these threats but we probably need now to accept that Coronavirus could be with us for some time and some people will get ill and sadly some people will die.  But many people will die also if we don’t get life back to some more normality.

The world is gradually opening up and we have so much to learn from this episode in terms of lifestyle, methods of government, systems of logistics, environment, health and infrastructure.  I don’t see the point of endless blame.  We are where we are.  Let’s just focus on how we can ensure this does not happen again.   Every country, government and health service has made mistakes, experienced problems with PPE, testing kits and care homes.  What can we share and learn?  It must be time for the WHO to pull the world together into an objective global investigation and analysis of how this pandemic began, what went wrong, what went right and how the world can work more effectively and cooperatively together in future to make sure it doesn’t happen again. 

It feels logical to me that this investigation begins in China, yet I have read comments that suggest it is racist to mention the word China in this context.  I am no fan of Donald Trump but surely it cannot be racist to state that the virus started in China?  It did.  No-one has changed the title of Spanish flu claiming racism and if Coronavirus had started in the UK would we/could we have played some racist card?  I doubt it.  The world needs to work together now to protect not only individual wellbeing but also the global economy, not to mention the mental and emotional health of the world’s citizens.

The way forward will require analysis and objectivity.  We need party and global leaders (where are the LibDems by the way?)  to work in a more aligned way to get us out of this mess.  In that, they have to admit that it is mainly guess work and no one person can claim to have THE solution.  There is always a scientist, economist or medic who will contradict the research of another. 

So let’s just make a constructive start to get our lives back: act, then stop and analyse, adapt, review, adapt and keep trying.   And for goodness sake, let’s ditch the 14 day quarantine idea.  We are a hub for business and tourism.  The government is going to need every penny of tax it can get but there won’t be any tax if people can’t regenerate their businesses. 

There are those who say that this way of life should continue.  It is idealistic to imagine we can all slow down to a halt indefinitely and all will be well. I don’t believe it will.  We may be able to evolve some different systems but if this happens overnight millions will starve, especially in areas of the world with no welfare state.  “It’s the economy stupid” is not some nebulous capitalist concept: it is people’s livelihoods, mortgages, rents, salaries, bills, debts, bankruptcies and ultimately poverty.  Trade is part of life and has been for the whole of human history.  It also pulls people together across borders.  We can’t afford to bring it to a sudden standstill.

For sure we are going to need the most massive coordination of effort to get this country (and the world) back on its feet again.  That requires us all to begin to pull ourselves out of our numb states and get just a tad busier, while still respecting precautions. We shall have to hope that we can crank up our energy and get our brains working again for the good of all!

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How the years roll by

A very long time ago!

I am about the be 70 tomorrow.  How can that have happened?  I still feel about 18 on most days – except when I do something stupid like trying to exercise with Joe Wickes.  As I struggle to get up from a squat I suddenly remember, oh yes, these bones have been on this earth rather a long time!

It’s fun to look back but also sobering.  We are watching Normal People.  I am not enjoying it any more than I enjoyed the book.  It makes me cringe and reminds me of the time when I really was 18 and falling in love with unsuitable boys, going on dates, teenage parties where there was too much unwanted fumbling.  Much of it was excruciating: awkward conversations and the boys you fancied often didn’t fancy you, the ones you didn’t did, etc.

But the music was fantastic. I was Beatles-mad and no. 36 of their fan club – what a talent-spotter!? If I hear some Motown or Stones I can still dance all night, even if I can’t move the next day!  But of course we aren’t normal people at the moment so I can’t have a party, can’t dance the night away except in my kitchen with David.  And today’s teenagers and young adults are being deprived of those identity-shaping experiences too.  They can’t meet up, can’t kiss, or get drunk with their peer group friends.  I hope this changes for them soon.

I still have my collection of Beatle mania!

But of course our parents and grandparents experienced worse – long years of separation, no communication, threat of death by bombs, not knowing if sons, lovers or husbands would ever return or would return changed.  And so in many ways we are the lucky ones and I hope this period ensures we do not take for granted all the freedoms and pleasures that we have enjoyed over the last few decades.

Do we learn anything as we get older?  Returning to Normal People, the series has sparked a debate in The Times between James Marriott, who argues that the raw emotions we feel as young people shape our identity, and David Aaronovitch, who argues that it is when one gets older that one feels emotions more deeply.  I think I wandered around in a fog when I was young.  Things seemed to happen to me without planning.  There was little reflection or understanding.  Inevitably, as I have gone through life, I have experienced the great highs of love, motherhood, grandparenting, friendship, of career and of the amazing places I have been fortunate enough to visit.  But alongside that, the pains have, I believe, felt deeper, the losses and bereavements more poignant.  And our identity continues to be shaped, shaken and stirred throughout our life.  It doesn’t stop when we reach 21.

I didn’t have any sense of a ‘career’ until I was about 42. Work was just something I did. I didn’t give it any proper thought in terms of a trajectory.  I would have loved to have been a foreign correspondent had I been brave enough.  But I wasn’t.  So I worked with books, in publishing.   I always made sure that it was interesting, and that the people I worked with were stimulating, but I didn’t think about the future at all really. Yet amazing things happened along that journey.

And so now what?  In lockdown I am discovering all kinds of ways I have to adapt.  No cleaner, for a start.  I know it is lazy of me to say this when I am retired and should have all the time in the world to clean the house but I simply don’t enjoy it.  And maybe someone else needs the money, so I am happy to give it to them.  I am now fed up with cleaning the kitchen floor for the nth time and the pile of ironing fills me with fatigue.

I have learnt to chat, organise our book club and residents’ committee meetings on Zoom.  I have just started to become a virtual babysitter for my 4 year old grandson, Max, via FaceTime.  Of course, his parents are in the house but as they work full time, should both of them have business meetings concurrently, the iPad gets turned on at Max’s end, I have mine on here and we play ‘virtually’, me with my toys here and him with his toys there.  He has even worked out how to call me himself now, and, amusingly, how to mute himself so I can’t hear what he says!

What do I hope for now?  Gratitude takes one a long way towards contentment I have discovered.  I feel so lucky to have met the people I have met, family, friends, colleagues, clients and acquaintances of all kinds.  Look around you and count your blessings.  It changes the shape of your day.  I am also thoroughly grateful to those of you who have the patience to read these blogs and to those of you who respond, though that is by no means a requirement.

Right now I hope life starts to get back to normal so that our young can keep their careers and enjoy the pleasures I have enjoyed.  I long for our theatres, galleries, museums and concert halls to be open again.  We are so fortunate to have this amazing resource of talent and skill here in the UK.  We can’t let it die as a result of Covid.  I hope the young can one day travel to the far distant places I have been lucky to visit, by environmentally-friendly transport systems.  And I long for us all to be able to be together again in family groups and friendship groups.  I never thought I would wake up to this kind of world on my birthday, that’s for sure.  We have lived through post-war austerity, recessions and more austerity but we ain’t seen nothing yet, I fear.  Hold on tight!

In the meantime, we have updated my poetry website, www.babyboomerpoetry.com which is, as you will see, a trip down memory lane of some 70 years.  There are some reflections of ‘Normal People’ type moments here too.  Take a peek, it might remind you of some happy or even cringe-worthy memories too…!

Keep well.

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The past is another country; they do things differently there

That was us.  Just a few short weeks ago.  A past where we could go to work, drive our cars, hug our families, fly to another country, have meetings, go to the shops, eat or drink at cafés, bars, pubs and restaurants, stay in hotels, go off for a weekend jaunt.  My goodness, we did indeed do things differently there, didn’t we?

And how quickly we seem to have adapted to this new radically limited lifestyle.  The majority of us are socially distancing, living in glorious or ghastly isolation, learning how to use Zoom, running businesses, home-schooling, making time to have a ‘drink’ with friends on FaceTime or Skype, chatting to children and grandchildren on screen.  We have been extraordinarily compliant considering that we had only a short time to prepare for such a lifestyle, especially as this lockdown threatens not only our health but our emotional and financial wellbeing too.

But we need a plan now.  A step-by-step suggestion of how we can get out of this situation.  We can surely accept that this process will be under continuous review and that changes and reversals may need to be made.  But for the sake of people’s wellbeing we do need to have a vision of the future that is not the world in standstill.

We are threatened with financial ruin as a country, as businesses, families and as individuals.  This pandemic could lead to unemployment on a scale we have never seen before, and potentially to famine for many.  In creating a plan, I personally would like to know that those advising the government are emotionally intelligent, rounded people.  I worry that the decision-makers appear to be mainly male and predominantly from the public sector, civil servants and academics.  Whilst none of those things, in themselves, signify that they are not rounded or emotionally intelligent, they do appear to be theorists and thinkers and I hope that there are those close to the Cabinet who are also capable of tapping into the emotional experiences and social needs of our population.

There is already ‘collateral damage’.  Those who are awaiting cancer treatment or surgery that has had to be postponed; those in the middle of IVF who can no longer proceed despite the fact that the biology of a woman’s body will not standstill in the way that life has; couples and families separated by being unable to fly to see one another; families unable to be together for births or deaths; marriages postponed; domestic violence on the increase, amongst many other consequences.  We can’t let this happen for too long, can we.  It is cruel and inhumane.

I would like to know that there are more people with skin in the game who are influencing decisions.  That is major business leaders, self-employed individuals, small business owners, shopkeepers, front-line doctors and nurses, farmers, teachers, carers, mothers, grandparents, teenagers, and more.  Those who have experience of running organisations through economic challenges.  Those who are currently having to tackle first-hand the very real financial, emotional and practical consequences of this pandemic.

And so to the future, for that is another country too, and we shall need to do things differently when we get there.  To make good decisions about how we shape and achieve the best future outcomes for the UK and globally, we need diversity of thought, experience and approach.  Big picture thinkers as well as those well versed in detail and facts.  Those who understand the loss, grief, anxiety and isolation that people are feeling.   

We shall surely need to accept that there will be a risk to certain people as we ease the lockdown.  Those who have specific risk factors can maintain whatever isolation they choose but if we have, indeed, passed the peak and the NHS has coped, then can we not be allowed to get back to some kind of normal life?  Most particularly, businesses, and other enterprises and organisations, now need to start working again as otherwise the consequence to the economy will lead to far worse suffering and death, not only in the UK but worldwide.    If there is to be a second wave, then this will occur at whatever time we lift the lockdown, won’t it?

But we live in an era of ‘safetyism’, where risk is also another country.  In the last decade, the prospect of anyone getting ill, injured, or dying has become almost unacceptable.  Tolerance of mistakes or accidents has lessened and often become a matter of litigation.  Children are not allowed to play with conkers, nor go out to play without supervision on the assumption that it is a more dangerous world, despite the fact that statistically apparently it is not.  Adults are limited by endless health and safety regulations. But risk is a natural part of life.  I think previous generations understood this better than we do.

Should it be mandatory for the over 70s to stay at home?  I certainly hope not.  One lively friend in her 80s questioned recently whether she and her husband would ever be allowed to join the human race again before they die.  A brutal thought.  There are also younger people with more risk factors than some of the older generation, but we can hardly lock them up in the way it is suggested that we oldies might be incarcerated!  I believe we are happy to comply with reasonable limitation but the prospect of staying home for months on end while a vaccine is found, is unacceptable.

Are we not now going to have to muscle ourselves up to live with the prospect of Coronavirus being a part of our lives for the foreseeable future, as we do flu, pneumonia or cancer?  As long as the NHS is capable of offering support, is it not going to be far worse for everyone in every way if we insist on a continuation of this lockdown?  It is a horrible situation for any Prime Minister to face. Perhaps we have to give the Government permission to take such risks?

And as for this potential future, I hope we shall value key workers of all kinds more emphatically. I hope we shall continue the kindness and sense of community that we have seen within families and neighbourhoods.  I hope doctors and nurses will be better equipped and also better supported emotionally to deal with the cases they face every day.  I hope Public Health England will review their procurement and administrative procedures.  The UK has a great history of enterprise so I hope that this period of downtime will release some creative and innovative thinking in entrepreneurs, those in health, sustainability, and in those in the arts.  Our theatres, music and dramatic arts are some of the best in the world.  I trust these will return to feed our spirits soon.  I hope there shall be an unleashing of creativity and positive energy as we are released from lockdown.  We shall certainly all need to work extremely hard to recover what has been lost.

But please, please may we soon know the steps by which we can access this future, whatever its shape.  We need a plan…

[quote from L P Hartley The Go-Between]

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What might the Coronavirus pandemic be doing to our brains?

‘Use it or lose’ it is the key message we receive about keeping our brain on top form.  So how will these weeks of screen-based experience affect our neuronal circuits?  We are social animals and yet now, for the most part, are carrying out both family and work engagements online.  Well, thank heaven, as even five years ago I don’t suppose we would have had the technology to keep companies and teams working together on projects in quite the efficient way that they can today.  And yet it is just not the same thing, is it?

A friend of mine who lives alone wrote poignantly this week “it aches having no touch of human flesh” and that is the crux isn’t it.  Touch is a basic human need.  Babies who do not receive loving touch can die, so without it we can wither.  In many homes across the world isolated people are aching for human contact beyond the screen and there are weeks of loneliness stretching ahead of them.  There’s a silence of battling along through the longing.

And I wonder what it is doing to children’s brains, not to interact with their friends and peer group in the real world?  The tussle of the playground and classroom are where we build our identities and come to understand why we get along with one group of friends and not with another.  We then build our close networks of support – tribes, or however you like to describe them.  Chatting online to friends is simply not the same as the rough and tumble of school life, especially as young children are not always adept at phone conversation.

Teenage years are when the brain goes through radical change, trimming away at neural pathways that are no longer needed and building new ones, as new information and events occur in the young person’s life.  For girls particularly, the rich chatter of girlfriends is key to building a sense of self and also of support.  It’s a time to share experiences of growing up, first bras, first periods, confidences, fears and excitements.  Social media, as we have learnt, can be both wonderful and terrible, a great source of support and fellowship but also a hell of bitchiness and vitriol.  How much harder to navigate this when one is not actually seeing one’s close friends in the flesh but sitting alone in a room, isolated.  However much one might receive love from parents, it is not the same thing as that camaraderie of friends.

The brain has plasticity, which means it physically changes according to the tasks we give it.  It is well known that London black cab drivers have a larger network of neurons around the area for spatial awareness.  But should they change career, so their brain will adapt and change, as all our brains do.

So what will these weeks of screen do to developing brains, I wonder?  We already hear of the tendency for teenage boys to isolate themselves in their rooms to play endless screen-based games.  In Japan this phenomenon is known as hikikomori and over half a million young people, boys in particular, have been identified as shunning social contact.  Studies in Japan, South Korea and Spain have found a link with internet addiction.  This kind of pattern could too easily develop as habit in many teenage boys across the world now, as sports and other companionable activities are closed to them.  Making boundaries around screen time will become all the more important.

We have been reading the neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield’s essay “You and Me: The Neuroscience of Identity” published by Notting Hill Editions, in which she investigates what happens in the brain as we build a sense of identity.  She is interested in consciousness and how much develops unconsciously from our environment but she also describes her observations on how screen-based activities shape our brains, just as any other activity does so, but potentially differently in the two-dimensional world.

In the context of Coronavirus, for example, if young people spend six hours a day in home-schooling compared to face-to-face school learning, how might that alter the way the brain adapts to the information it receives?  The majority of information enters us through our five senses and, in a classroom, a child is hearing other people, sensing their physical presence, listening to a teacher impart knowledge, asking and answering questions, feeling their body on a chair, perhaps exchanging glances or smiles with others in the room, maybe tasting a glass of water and I suspect we can all remember a sense of the smell of the schoolroom?  In my case I can remember the sounds of the playground, echoing hallways, teachers’ whistles, the ghastliness of Bronco toilet paper and an all-pervasive smell of over-boiled cabbage!  Screen-based learning is better than nothing but certainly is not the same holistic experience, which I would prefer any day, cabbage and all.

As a business trainer I know that everyone in a room gained so much from the live interaction of a workshop environment, information shared by me but also knowledge and experience shared one to another, quite often in the form of jokes or amusing stories.  So much learning was gained in the room, and there are plenty of studies to demonstrate that the more senses that are used in education the better the memory of that information.

But the other problem about screen-based activities is that there can be objectification, particularly in games where so often the violence implicit within the game would be totally unacceptable in real life.  Yet because it is on screen there is a detachment from empathy and a focus on the often brutal and cold result of winning, activating the dopamine and serotonin systems that also play a part in addictive behaviours.  The fast pace of these games and activities could be a reason for an increase in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as the young brain is exposed so frequently to a world of fast action-reaction.  The kind of books my generation read as children are now regarded as far too slow and boring!

Unlike in real life, these games do not have a consequence in the real world, so it is easier to detach from any sense of reality.  A study of 1400 college students in the USA a few years ago showed a decline in empathy over the last thirty years, with a particularly sharp drop in the last decade.  Studies have not so far showed any direct causal link but it doesn’t take a lot to realise that two-dimensional screen time will inevitably be rewiring the brains of our young and it is wise to keep an eye on how they develop their social skills in the real world.

This is not in any way intended as any kind of rejection of technology.  It is absolutely marvellous – within boundaries.  I have been using Zoom for meetings and it works very well, though I am aware that for those who are shy or awkward it can make people feel ‘on the spot’ in a way that sitting around a meeting table does not.  Yes, many working people will continue to work remotely after this is over but I also know many others who directly miss the creativity and shared problem-solving that you experience when you are in the same office as team members, colleagues and clients.

FaceTime and Skype are marvellous inventions to keep families who are separate in touch and see the faces of children and grandchildren but I long to be in the room with those grandchildren and be able to giggle with them and hug them again.  I have two friends who have recently become grandmothers and are aching to hold their new grandchildren.  Then there are other grandparents I know who simply can’t manage the technology and so miss out. And this is not to mention those having babies in these circumstances who may not be able to have husbands or partners with them. Nor the heart-breaking end of those dying in hospital or care homes without the comfort of a loving hand.

And it isn’t just relationships.  Other factors feed our minds and souls.  Theatres, movies, concerts are cancelled.  And so again, the technology comes up with brilliant methods to screen live performances of National Theatre plays, Met operas, classical and pop concerts.  It is marvellous … and yet it is just not the same as being there.

As Darwin pointed out, as a species we survive by adapting.  And adapting we are.  I thank God for the techie brains that can create and develop this amazing software that keeps us in touch and keeps us learning.  I also thank God that our brains can adapt with care, thought and compassion in this current situation as I see and experience an inspiring number of acts of kindness and consideration.  Under the surface of our courage there is fear, pain and longing and this, also, will be building patterns of neural circuitry. We are complex creatures stirred by thought, spirituality and emotion.  All can be a source of comfort.  So let’s embrace technology but at the same time remember that our human links to others are precious and essential to our wellbeing.

Just as our brains are now adapting to screen-based communication, we shall need to consciously reboot them back into face-to-face contact once this pandemic is over. And, just like if we don’t speak French for some time we get rusty, this may take more focused effort both for we adults and for our young.  But how great will that be!  Keep well.

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Life in the Days of Lockdown

I wake up with a sense of disbelief every morning.  I have to pinch myself to remember that we are indeed living in this dystopian nightmare of a global Coronavirus lockdown.  That it’s really true that all the huge and beautiful major cities of the world are empty, that office buildings are vacated, that planes are grounded, restaurants and cafes closed, that people are at home and discombobulated in their efforts to pretend that life has some kind of normality.

I never did enjoy dystopian novels or movies.  No way would I watch the Handmaid’s Tale.  But I can’t escape this one, can I?

This week our creative writing class shared pieces on ‘The Invisible Enemy’.  The pieces written were poignant and thought-provoking and raised to my consciousness some of the fears and emotions I had been trying to keep at bay.  Would I survive?  Would my loved ones survive? How would our health service cope?  What will the impact of this economic shock be on my sons and grandchildren and my extended family?  Every day I think of my nieces, nephews, too, and wonder about the impact on their lives today and into the future.

And imagine if one was in a care home or heading towards the end of one’s life, one might be wondering, quite legitimately, whether one would ever see one’s children or grandchildren again, especially if they live the other side of the world.  People are quick to be judgmental about air travel but forget how essential it is when close family live far away.  Few of us would wish to be separated or unable to see our loved ones.

These existential concerns are very real and sadly they haven’t been created by Hollywood.  We can’t just switch them off.  They have been created by unhygienic practices in a Wuhan market and it’s pretty depressing to listen to a representative of the Chinese Government on the radio telling us what a wonderful job they have done collaborating with the WHO.  I am far more interested in them taking responsibility for the part that their lack of regulations has done in bringing the rest of the world to a standstill and in the premature deaths of thousands of people.  I would like to hear them say they will take control and alter these practices in future and be more aware of their responsibility for the wellbeing not only of their own citizens but also the wellbeing of the world’s population and economy.

Another theme of this situation is those who see it as a ‘message’.  That somehow this event is here to tell us something about the way we live.  Well I am not a believer in magical thinking, that there is some deity or force in the sky pointing fingers at us.  But it is human nature to try to make meaning out of events, so it is hardly surprising that people are doing this.  And that’s fine, as long as they realise that their own interpretation is just that.  It is a narrative they are telling themselves and not some universal truth or message from above.

In this message I have heard on Facebook that we should now turn away from industry and capitalism and read books.  A nice idea but it doesn’t feed us.  I think we need to be careful of idealistic anti-materialism when in fact the last decades have raised so many millions out of poverty worldwide.  Do we really want them to go back to hunger?  I watch the workers in India struggling to get on trains and coaches at Modi’s behest and worry, as they do, that they are about to experience extraordinary hardship.  We need to be careful that our idealism doesn’t throw huge swathes of the world’s population backwards into destitution.  The world has relied on India for technology, help desks and more.  Their welfare system is not capable of protecting them any more than I suspect is Africa’s. Let’s look after the planet, question greed, but tread carefully to ensure that we don’t make others suffer too much in the process.

We are now in the hands of the scientists and medics who are doing the detective work and analysis of Covid-19.  They are trying to improve testing and create an antibody test.  This latter is the one I am waiting for but I shall be thoroughly fed up if I discover that, having been sick for over a fortnight, I have not, in the process, built up useful antibodies to Covid-19.  Then we shall hope for a vaccine.  And let’s applaud the marvellous scientists who over the last centuries have saved so many lives with the vaccinations they developed.  Our great-grandparents’ generation were not so lucky.

And so how does our idea of ourself change on the inside when the world changes on the outside?  Is there some subtle shift of identity when we can no longer live life the way we did before, no longer see and hug our families, go to galleries or museums, pump iron at the gym, eat at nice restaurants?  For sure we are thrown back on our own resources and no-one more so than those who live alone.  The prospect of weeks ahead with no visitors is surely a kind of torture for most people but particularly those who are alone.  They will require depths of resource in order to thrive in solitude.  Thank heaven for technology!  Even ten years ago we would not have had the access we do to teams and conference calls and house parties.

I think the stillness does invite us to go inwards, if we are brave enough to allow ourselves to do so.  It has been so easy, in this brilliant creative and innovative world of the twenty-first century, to amuse ourselves endlessly with external activities.  Children have never been so entertained or social, and nor have we as adults.  As the world stops, so we are thrown back on ourselves and I suspect it will release aspects of our creativity we may not have known we had.

I wonder how the world will change as we come out of this shutdown.  What will be lasting changes and what shall we soon forget in the years to come.  One thing I have personally learnt is that the love of and for one’s children runs even more deeply than I had imagined, both ways.  Secondly, the kindness of neighbours – food, newspapers, medicines, jigsaw puzzles and colouring pads presented generously to us on our doorstep to keep us from going mad or hungry!

And with that thought in mind one of those kind neighbours has given us a 500 piece double-sided jigsaw puzzle of identical plants… think of us!  I shall let you know how we get on and hopefully it will keep us sane.  In the meantime, keep well and as happy as you can.  The blossom is telling us it is spring, the green shoots on the trees are budding and the landscape outside the window is ever-changing.  Even in a lockdown, nature bursts forth.

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If this is coronavirus it’s no fun

It’s day 10 of feeling totally pole-axed.  I have never experienced such utter fatigue in my life before.  But of course they are not testing you, unless you are Prince Charles or some celebrity, so I don’t know if I have Covid-19 or not.  But I suspect I have.

It started with a cough and a relatively mild set of symptoms.  After a few days I started to feel aches in my joints and muscles and my temperature went up.  At that stage, though, I felt well enough to potter about the house, call friends and family, and do the ironing.

It was last Sunday when things turned for the worse with my temperature going up further, shivers, coughing, aches and dizziness.  But I don’t mean sick enough for me to go to hospital.  No, just to feel totally isolated from any kind of medical help because 111, whom we had phoned when David showed his first symptoms, told us just to stay at home.  Then when I tried to call just to check out my own worsening symptoms, I hung on for nearly 2 hours but gave up.  Our GP surgery just refers us to 111 so there is no back-up.  This leaves one feeling alone in more ways than one, with far less medical support than one would normally have.  I don’t envy those who have conditions that need attention.

But of course I see that it is those who have major breathing difficulties who must get priority.  The rest of us who are merely staggering from bed to bathroom with no energy even to even pick up the phone to a friend, must wait to get better.  Hopefully.  And I am one of the lucky ones as I have a doctor in the house.  He can’t cure my symptoms but he does a good job of bringing me soup and cups of tea. My heart goes out to those in the NHS caring for the critically sick.

What has been marvellous, though, has been the kindness and care of our sons.  We have six between us!  Every day there is a call asking for a progress report on our symptoms, how we are doing, whether we have enough food, whether we are going nuts yet.  As a parent it is such a special feeling to experience the tide turning as the young look after us and ensure our wellbeing.

When the self-isolation factor first started to hit home I felt incredibly sad.  My son called and I sobbed down the line about how much I would miss my lovely cosy times with them and with the grandchildren, the school runs, the bath times, the outings, the sleepovers.  Patiently and kindly he talked me through it “Mum we want you there for their 16th birthdays… this is just a few weeks.  Try to think long-term.”  It’s lovely to feel that they really don’t want us to peg out, even though several of my own generation feel we would sacrifice our own lives for the financial wellbeing of our offspring.

Atal Guwande in his book Being Mortal said that it helps to have daughters as one gets older.  I feel much comforted by the care our sons have shown us in these last few days, including delightful bouquets for Mother’s Day, dropping off soup and bread and tasty delights on our doorstep.  Daily calls and FaceTime with the children.  It’s like receiving a giant hug from both our families.

Neighbours also have been extraordinarily kind and generous.  Our immediate neighbour dropped off homemade pasta sauce, muffins and fruit, another friend some delicious cake, other friends ask frequently whether we need any provisions at the shops.  We are blessed to live in Layton Place where there is such a strong sense of community.

Luckily Ocado has delivered for us and will be doing so again this Friday.  Not sure how it will go after that as when they first started their online queuing system, I would find myself at the end of a queue of 6500 but when I looked today the queue was 27,500!  But hopefully some of those people who have been laid off in the hospitality industry can now be redeployed to help with deliveries.

It is those who live alone who most concern me.  It takes a lot of determination and creativity to amuse oneself and not allow spirits to drop into despondency and loneliness.  I hope friends and family will keep calling them as we are, indeed, so very unfamiliar with our own company in a world where we have been able to pop out for a coffee, a sandwich, a walk, a gallery, a movie… and now we have none of those things to call on.

I thought David and I might amuse ourselves with a jigsaw puzzle – little did I realize that most of the jigsaw puzzles on Amazon would already be sold out.  Great minds!  I just long to have enough energy even to do a bit of adult colouring.  Right now I can do nothing but sleep and cough.

The annoying thing is that I had just joined the Vitality Health policy which includes incentives to keep fit via points towards an Apple watch, special discounts at Virgin Active.  For the first time since we moved to Kew I was really enjoying going to Virgin Active in Chiswick Park and working out and swimming.  And now I am ill and can hardly move.  How frustrating.  However, as this bug removes all hint of an appetite then at least I should not be putting on weight.  Hopefully once it lifts David and I will be able to revert to some home exercising.

I may feel sorry for myself right now because I am ill but it is the young I really worry about.  Their careers and financial wellbeing have been thrown into complete disarray as the world comes to a halt.  Thank heaven for technology and all it can do to keep companies operational, for teams to continue to meet online and carry out their work remotely.   We shall need everyone to be ready to get up and running again once this period is over.

I wonder how my grandchildren will remember this time.  They are used to such an active life of friends and activities in comparison to our own childhood.  And I certainly don’t envy parents trying to encourage their children to sit down and home school.  What a task! 

We shall get through it all, no doubt, but there will be loss and tragedy in the midst of survival.  And we shall be changed at the end of it.  It makes our world even smaller and more integrated.  Now, as well as a butterfly flapping its wing in Brazil potentially causing a hurricane in Florida, we shall also have to watch out for unsavoury practices in any small market of the world and be aware that it could wipe us all out.  Each one of us as individuals holds a responsibility for the wellbeing of others throughout the world.  We shall, I think, learn more about global love, compassion and care, hopefully. And about grit and determination.  And probably creativity.  Keep well everyone.

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