Britain has been waiting for ages for a report on goings-on at Number 10 Downing Street during the COVID pandemic, involving our beloved prime minister, his wife and staff. It is sometimes referred to as Partygate. The person tasked with this enquiry is a senior civil servant called Susan Gray that nobody had ever heard about before. She is not related to the world famous blogger - John Gray. It will be interesting to witness how Johnson wriggles out of this one for here, hot off the press, is Ms Gray's frank and thorough report:-
30 January 2022
It was written in the early years of the nineteenth century by an Irish songwriter called Thomas Moore. It was first published in 1813 - featuring in Moore's "Irish Melodies" project. The roots of this song are probably much older.
It is a wistful and evocative song that speaks of war, of bravery and of loss. It is a plea for liberty as much as anything and it comes as no surprise to learn that Moore visited America's southern states in 1806. In dreams I may sometimes see myself as that minstrel boy with my wild harp slung behind me.The song has been with me since 1963. Please listen:-
29 January 2022
Saturday lunchtime. A perfect opportunity to mark Shirley's retirement with a special family meal out in the Ego restaurant at Dore Moor Inn - on the edge of the city.
The food was excellent and so was the service. As a starter, I had chicken liver and rosemary pate on toast with chilli tomato marmalade. For the main, I had rump steak with peppercorn sauce, fries, plum tomato and rocket. This was followed by a mini chocolate brownie with cream and a latte.
All thoroughly scrumptious and Little Phoebe behaved herself so well. No crying or screaming. Nothing like that. It was a perfect meal in a nice environment and yet...
At a right angle to us, in the bay window, there was another family that included an older teenage girl and a boy of about nine or ten. At first, we hardly noticed them but halfway through the meal period, one of them began playing a game on a smartphone. This game included music, voices and the sound of weaponry and it went on and on. And you know what - it wasn't the boy or the teenage daughter who was playing, it was the forty something mother!
Then one of these things happened:-
A) I put my knife and fork down and stood up. After pushing my chair under our table I went to our neighbours' table and stood right next to the thoughtless woman with the smartphone.
"Excuse me," I said as she continued to play. "If you must play that game, please mute the sound as the noise is spoiling our lunch experience. You may not have noticed but we are sitting at the next table."
She looked up.
"I'm not hurting anybody am I?" she said.
Then her barrel-shaped husband piped up. "Keep your ****ing big nose out of things and sit down mate! There's no law about playing games in pubs is there you ****er!"
Well, as you can imagine, this coarse intervention caused my blood to stir. Not wishing to cause a scene, I invited the fellow into the car park where I boxed his ears. Upon returning to our respective tables, he urged his wife to turn off the irritating game as she dabbed at the trickle of blood that was emerging from the left nostril of his recently reddened nose.
Justice had been done.
B) Upon noticing the game noise I continued to eat my delicious main course trying unsuccessfully to ignore the intrusive din. I kept quiet knowing that any complaint could be awkward and might lead to an angry scene, creating a memory I had no wish to connect with Shirley's special retirement meal. Discretion is often the better part of valour though it might be viewed by some as pure cowardice.
When the other family departed, I breathed a sigh of relief as Shirley and Frances confirmed that they had also found the game noise annoying. They both thought that the unwelcome noise had been made on a device by one of the children but sitting where I was I had been able to watch the mother as she played by looking in an adjacent wall mirror.
I watched as the departing woman passed by outside in front of the bay window - totally oblivious to the annoyance she had just caused during perhaps half an hour of gaming activity.
Throughout this ghastly pandemic, I have been following associated statistics with the aid of a respected reference website called "Worldometer". Figures are updated every day.
Digesting the numbers, I have often wondered how different countries gather their data. Even in developed western democracies there is no internationally agreed common method so that some countries may be over zealous in their calculations while others are rather lax.
Great Britain and Northern Ireland have the worst COVID death count in Europe - 155,317 dead as I write but this small country has a very large population at just under 68.5 million so a simple death tally doesn't give the full picture.
To get that I think you need to look at deaths per million. Britain's current figure is 2,269 deaths per million. However, there are eighteen other European countries with worse figures and the worst of all is Bulgaria with 4,819 deaths per million - more than double Britain's rate. Other countries with worse figures than Britain include Italy, Hungary, Czechia, Belgium, Poland and Ukraine.
Visitors from the United States might like to note that their death rate is currently 2,709 citizens per million with no less than eighteen states having a death rate of over 3,000 per million. The worst of all is Mississippi with 3,639 deaths per million. Canada's current death rate is 876 per million while Australia's is 136 per million and Germany's is 1,404 per million.
I have no reason to doubt Worldometer's statistics with regard to COVID but it would be interesting to discover how they gather the numbers and how different countries do their additions.
On a separate note...
Given the fact that Britain recorded 90,000 new cases yesterday as well as 277 COVID deaths, I remain perplexed as to why our government have just cancelled most restrictions. Is this connected with Johnson's popularity crisis and the tangle he finds himself in? I also wonder where Professor Chris Whitty has gone and where is Professor Patrick Vallance? In their roles as Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientist they appeared on television many times during the pandemic - carefully explaining things with honesty and integrity. It would be good to hear what they think now about the dropping of restrictions. In effect, have Johnson and his gang ceased following "The Science"?
27 January 2022
Today I needed a good, long walk and for some reason hit upon The Derwent Valley which I have visited many times before. I parked Clint where the road ends by The King's Tree and set off on a nine mile circuit that took me almost exactly four hours. I walked the length of Howden and Derwent reservoirs then back up the other side.
Naturally, I snapped some pictures before carrying on. I was weary by the time I got back to Clint and very happy to guzzle water from the flask I had left in his boot (American: trunk). "What kept you so damned long?" Clint smirked.
26 January 2022
Forty six years ago, a teenage girl came to Sheffield to begin her nurse training. Yesterday, her nursing career within The National Health Service reached its formal conclusion. I have been with her nearly every step of a career that she is entitled to look back upon with pride and happiness for I fell in love with her when she was just twenty years old. We married in October 1981.
These words were written in one of the cards she received yesterday at the health centre where she worked for the past twenty two years:
To Wonderful Shirley!
Just wanted to say thank you for everything!
When I started here two years ago I knew nothing about being a practice nurse. You took me under your wing and taught me everything I know. Thank you for your patience, getting me through my smear training, answering my random questions and texts on an almost daily basis. You are an inspiration and a fantastic role model and I feel so lucky that I have had you to mentor me. You will be missed by all the team and by me especially.
Enjoy your precious time with your beautiful granddaughter. She is lucky to have you - you're going to have a blast!
See you soon for a few proseccos.
All my love,
And so that is it. The end of an era. Shirley is going to take some time out before deciding if she has really left nursing entirely. Of course, she will have opportunities to cover for absent colleagues or to deliver vaccinations from time to time but at the moment she's not sure.
I am enormously proud of what she has achieved in nursing in different locations - from Accident and Emergency service in our main city hospital, orthopaedic ward nursing and then on to practice nursing - serving three different communities. Along the way, she worked very hard to attain a nursing degree and a Masters having begun as a basic State Enrolled Nurse (SEN). And you know what - she always loved it - every step of the way. She was doing something that was undeniably worthwhile within an organisation that she was always very proud to serve - The National Health Service. It was a fantastic journey and she leaves without bitterness or regret. No one can doubt that she did her best.
25 January 2022
24 January 2022
"Boiling Point" is a drama and not a documentary. Released just before Christmas, this British film is set in a busy upmarket London restaurant with the central focus being Andy Jones, the head chef and part-owner of the establishment played by the brilliant Stephen Graham.
Written and directed by Philip Barantini who just happens to have much personal experience of working in restaurants, the film is very special in the sense that it consists of one continuous ninety minute take. There's no splicing or cutting to other cameras. It's just one camera roving around the restaurant, sometimes following Andy Jones or taking us to tables where demanding diners are seated.
In this sense it does have some of the characteristics of documentary film making. However, as I said at the beginning "Boiling Point" is a drama. It was carefully scripted and carefully rehearsed to give the impression of reality unfolding before our eyes. Stuff happens including angry tensions between the kitchen staff and front of house and the unwelcome visits of a top food critic and laddish social influencers who demand steaks even though steak is not on the menu.
It would be interesting to tune into what really happens behind the scenes in upmarket restaurants. I would like to think that most eateries are far more harmonious, orderly and much less dramatic than in the story that unfolded at "Jones & Sons" on that particular Mad Friday before Christmas.
On this grey day, I caught a bus into the city centre to watch the film on a big screen. Seeing good films on a television set in one's own home is just not the same. It is more enthralling to sit in a comfortable cinema seat in darkness with surround sound and full concentration. "Boiling Point" was well worth the effort.
23 January 2022
We often use words or phrases without considering their history - how they came into being in the first place. However, I am sure that some of you will already be aware of where the term "on tenterhooks" came from. It is a useful expression that describes the tension we feel when waiting for resolution, a decision or an answer.
Back in medieval England, wool was key to England's prosperity and growing might. At Meaux Abbey in East Yorkshire, Abbot Hugh de Leven reported that the lands he oversaw were home to 11,000 sheep. Eastern towns like King's Lynn, Thetford, Lincoln and Norwich grew fat and populous on the back of wool. It was our most important export.
Linked to the wool trade and the woollen industry, techniques were developed to process the raw material including new methods of spinning and weaving. Washing rough woven lengths of cloth was important because of the oils, muck and insect infestations they still contained.
Once this cloth was washed, it needed to be dried when shrinkage could be a problem. To avoid this, the drying cloth would be stretched on wooden frames called "tenters". Nailed into these frames at intervals were strong hooks onto which the cloth was attached and of course these became known as tenterhooks.
By the way, the term "tenter" is derived from a Latin verb that meant "to stretch" - the same root as "tension".
22 January 2022
I didn't read any reviews before watching "Don't Look Up" on Netflix last night. It was written and directed by Adam McKay with starring roles from Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence. Significant supporting roles were played by Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Mark Rylance. The running time was 2hrs 25mins.
It seemed to me that the film didn't take itself too seriously. Central to it is the idea that a large comet is about to strike Earth with a power akin to the Chicxulub event on the Yucatan Peninsula sixty six million years ago. That was the collision that wiped out the dinosaurs and utterly changed this planet's evolution. Not a light-hearted topic I am sure you would agree but in the hands of Adam McKay and his troupe, the horrific vision is sheathed in a lot of dark humour. There's a kind of balance going on.
I liked the modernity of the film which pictures the world we inhabit as a place where social media and popularity matter more than impending doom or truth. Random Instagram images flash by at times - especially as humanity careers to the inevitable ending.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence's characters have a message that they need to give to the world but nobody wants to listen - not even The President of the USA who appears like a female version of Trump, self-obsessed and divorced from reality.
I enjoyed "Don't Look Up". It was fun but with some serious questions buried in there too. I hope that I haven't given too much away here...
21 January 2022
I headed down a very treacherous, muddy path to The River Dearne yet thankfully avoided falling on my arse (American: ass or butt). Crossing the babbling Dearne, the mapped path heading south did not seem to exist so I had to improvise.
There were some raggedy horses looking sorry for themselves. They are probably owned by travellers or gipsies who often claim that they love their animals. Lord knows how long those sad horses have been surviving by the river without proper husbandry or stabling.
Clint and I suffered traffic issues both on our way to the location and on the way back. We found ourselves stuck on the M1 motorway for a full hour in the morning and meeting Friday rush hour traffic both in Barnsley and Sheffield on the way back. Of course these matters were connected. The lost hour meant that I finished the walk later than I had expected.
20 January 2022
This has been a significant week for Little Phoebe, our darling granddaughter. On Monday, Mama Frances had to go back to work after a full year of paid maternity leave. New arrangements had to be made for Phoebe's care.
Close by Frances and Stew's house there is a modern, well-staffed nursery and before Christmas it was arranged that she would go there for much of the working week. Full days on Mondays and Tuesdays plus Thursday afternoons and Friday mornings. Breaking up the week, she would spend all day Wednesday with Grandma and Grandpa (that's me) and all of Thursday morning too.
We looked after her this morning and then took her to the nursery at half past one. She was happy and had not moaned one iota in the morning. In fact, she had been a delight as per usual. Entering the nursery, she was dressed in her snow leopard coat with a happy smile on her face.
Then Shirley handed her over to one of the young women who works in the baby room. That's when I took the "photograph" with my eyes, I will remember the image for a long, long time I am sure. Suddenly, the happy face crumpled with some unspoken agony that verged on despair. Why were we leaving her there?
She looked at me and she looked at Shirley and reached out a free hand, her little face re-shaped with a kind of horror. But it was too late. We were off. The nursery had advised no tarrying or extra cuddles. We just had to go. She would be perfectly okay in their expert hands. Even so I am left with that haunting image - it felt as though we had betrayed her somehow.
I guess that the new routines will take some getting used to. "Good girl Phoebe! Good girl!"
19 January 2022
I was heading for a stone outcrop that I had previously spotted from afar and had identified via Ordnance Survey mapping. It was and is called The Horse Stone.
It sits in splendid isolation with no other outcrops in its vicinity. I guess that at some time in the distant past somebody must have thought that it had the shape of a horse but I can't see it myself.
I moved carefully through the snow - sometimes sinking up to my thighs - and finally reached the outcrop that could easily have passed for an abstract sculpture. I wondered about our ancestors - people who inhabited those uplands. many centuries ago. Archaeologists have certainly identified signs of pre-Christian habitation and burial within a mile of The Horse Stone.
What would they have made of such outcrops? I can't help thinking that such places would have been venerated - places to meet and pay homage to natural forces. The people who lived in faraway times would have had no notion of the geological processes that created such strange, unearthly shapes. If only that stone could speak.
Standing there by The Horse Stone, I bellowed with all my might believing that nobody would hear me for, as I said before, there was no one else about even though I was only fourteen miles from the western suburbs of Sheffield and fourteen miles from the eastern suburbs of Manchester.
18 January 2022
As usual on a Tuesday might, I saddled up Clint and headed for our nearest "Lidl" store on Chesterfield Road. It wasn't a big shopping expedition.
Annoyingly, none of the serviced checkout counters were operational so I had to put my purchases through one of of those irritating self-service checkouts. When it was all done and I had paid my bill with a contactless Visa card, I noticed that I had forgotten to put a single courgette (American: zucchini) through the till. It was still in my trolley.
I admit that for a moment, I was very tempted to sling that thing into one of my shopping bags and just walk out of the discount supermarket. But I didn't because I knew that if I had done that, the act of dishonesty would have preyed on me. Consequently I put the single courgette through the self checkout process and paid a further forty seven pence. It felt better to have done that.
That's the kind of bloke I am these days. I try my best to live honestly - no cheating and no lies. It feels better that way. I can sleep easily in my bed with a clear conscience.
In contrast, our country's prime minister seems to be full of lies. He lied about the benefits that leaving The European Union would bring to Great Britain and he lied about the drinks parties that happened in the very seat of government during the worst times of the pandemic when this country was in shutdown mode.
My mother would frequently retort, "I can't bear liars!". She would have been disgusted with this country's current political leader. Lying is as much a part of his character as his inability to say "sorry" and really mean it. For him, every pretentious "sorry" is qualified.
If he had an ounce of dignity he would have already resigned and gone off into the wilderness to write his bestselling memoirs. Hopefully, it won't be long before he is squeezed out like the last globule from a toothpaste tube. He's customarily lazy and self-obsessed and doesn't have the wherewithal to MBGA (Make Britain Great Again).
Rant over. Ahhhh... that feels better.
17 January 2022
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
15 January 2022
14 January 2022
I should have written about "The Tourist" before. After all, I finished watching it ten days ago. Using the BBC i-player, I got ahead of the television schedule and watched the six one hour episodes in six days. That still seems like cheating to me.
Written by Harry and Jack Williams and directed by Chris Sweeney, "The Tourist" is set in a dusty part of rural Australia. The central character - known at first as "The Man" - has been in a dramatic road accident which has robbed him of his memory. He has no idea who he is or why he is even in Australia.
There are a handful of killings in the show and as I have indicated before, I am not a fan of killings - they often seem gratuitous but in this instance I was prepared to let them pass for the greater dramatic good.
"The Tourist" is craftily put together with quirky humour and many eye-catching details. It travels backward and forward in time and is visually appealing with intrigue round every corner.
The performance of Danielle Macdonald as probationary police officer Helen Chambers was as charming as it was comforting. Her positive spirit and naivete stood in contrast to the ruthlessness of characters played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Alex Dimitriades and Damon Herriman.
I do not wish to give too much away so I will just finish here by saying that I found "The Tourist" to be really entertaining and it held my attention throughout. You never quite knew what to expect and I loved the dusty Australian settings that helped to give the drama substance and believability. Maybe you would like it too.
13 January 2022
Today, unbroken sunshine was promised from dawn to dusk. It was time for another country walk. I chose the flatlands north of Doncaster and parked Clint near Hatfield and Staniforth railway station. Above, a pizza business, a barber's and a fish and chip shop on Broadway in Dunscroft.
Below, Lock House Farm north of Barnby Dun. You can see the farm through the trees.
12 January 2022
Hugonis de Leven was the fifteenth abbot of Meaux (Melsa)- a Cistercian abbey in the heart of East Yorkshire. He was most probably born around 1300 and was claimed by The Black Death in 1349, ten years after his appointment. Little is known of him - especially as the five pages about his abbacy in "Chronica Monasterii de Melsa, a Fundatione usque ad Annum 1396" by Thomas de Burton (d. 1437) were ripped from the original manuscript long ago.
There where crows announced
Countless days and still nights
Were made unquiet by
Gorging on the coast
And The Lord was munificent.
Moving cross foreign lands
Then reaping London
Like a scythe
And we, glad to be alive,
Praised The Lord of Mercy.
None doth know
But by the first snow
Death had taken half of us
Wise Hugh writhed in his cot
As I nursed him
Spared and steered by The Lord.
Into the chancel
By Adam de Skyrne
Who were’t abbot
In my father’s time
And flung quicklime
Into the hole,
Proffering prayers for The Lord to attend
In sure anticipation of
11 January 2022
Another cheery blogpost for mid-January. With The Black Death in mind, let us go a-rambling once more but walking boots are unnecessary...
In the 250 years between The Norman Conquest of England and The Black Death, many great abbeys were established. Populated by monks, they were not all about worshipping and serving God. They possessed huge swathes of good farmland. In squeezing rents from tenanted farmers, the abbeys prospered.
The control that these Roman Catholic abbeys exercised was a legacy of the Norman invasion which would later drive King Henry VIII to destroy them. They had a very good run. 450 years of enormous financial and political control as kings and queens looked on.
I was born and grew up in a village called Leven - located right in the heart of The East Riding of Yorkshire. On the outskirts of our village was a stone pillar known as White Cross. It marked the original boundary of lands that were under the control of a nearby monastic settlement - Meaux Abbey. Though White Cross endures Meaux's stones were carted away long ago.
Established in 1150, the abbey grew and prospered. As well as the resident abbot and his monks, lay brethren lived within the abbey precincts. It was five miles from my home and the fertile lands in its possession reached east to the North Sea coast and down to The Humber Estuary.
In 1339, the fifteenth abbot of Meaux Abbey was appointed. He was called Hugh de Leven so I imagine that he had a special connection with my home village. Maybe, like me, he was also born there. In 1349 when The Black Death arrived at Meaux Abbey, Hugh de Leven died along with half of the other residents. The plague also tore through local farming communities. Suddenly, the abbey's power and wealth nosedived.
Crops were not harvested or sown and animals were not tended. Many ploughmen had died along with monks who would have collected the rents. Prosperity often survives in a delicate balancing act but The Black Death had tipped that balance into chaos. Not just at Meaux but across the nation.
In lightly researching The Black Death with the kind assistance of Professor Google, I have been surprised about how little contemporary art or literature reflected what went on. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous "Canterbury Tales" near the end of the fourteenth century , well within living memory of "The Pestilence". He was most likely born in London in the early 1340's so though he was a survivor, The Black Death would have certainly struck down members of his immediate family.
The world was much changed for Chaucer's generation but there is surprisingly little reference to the plague in "The Canterbury Tales". Only in "The Pardoner's Tale" do we get a hint of the deadly pandemic - "He hath a thousand slayn this pestilence...".
Here's an illustration from a manuscript created during the height of the plague in Tournai, Belgium:-
10 January 2022
1349 was the year that The Black Death reached Yorkshire. By that time, the deadly plague that had spread around Europe and Asia was progressing via aerosol infection - human to human - rather like COVID 19. People were dying like flies. There were no vaccination programmes and hardly anybody wore masks. It was thought that the plague was being spread by rats or fleas that lived on their fur but such theories were redundant for, no matter how it began, it was now riding on the exhaled breaths of infected people.
The population of England in 1348 was an estimated 4.8 million. Three years later in 1351 it had fallen to 2.6 million Can you imagine that? In such a very short time our population had been reduced by half. Families were decimated. Whole towns and villages were emptied. Graveyards were filled to overflowing. Death was everywhere making our current pandemic seem like a walk in the park. It was the same in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. In fact every European country felt the terrible shadow of The Black Death.
Early in 1349, the population of prosperous Norway was probably 400,000. In the summer of that year, The Great Pestilence was imported from England and it spread like wildfire killing half the population in just two years. Afterwards, it took three hundred years for Norway's population to return to pre-plague levels. In the intervening years, the proud and independent country had become part of the wider Danish empire - subjugated and beholden to the Danish parliament in Copenhagen.
In Yorkshire, priests who sought to comfort grieving families themselves became very susceptible to The Black Death. They died in such numbers that many churches were without presiding priests for years after the pandemic had subsided.
The people who lived or died in 1349 were just like us. They had hopes and dreams and memories. They laughed and they cried. They shivered and they sweated. Try as I might I simply cannot imagine what daily life must have been like as the Christmastime of 1349 approached. Who would attend the annual feasting and who would be left to even prepare the feasts? Fear must have throbbed in every heart. Maybe folk wondered why God was allowing the slaughter to continue and was he even there at all?
1349... a momentous year. One that should never have been forgotten. I think I will say more about The Black Death tomorrow. To me at least, it was a fascinating period in our history.
9 January 2022
No quiz meant that I had to spend two and a half hours drinking beer and conversing with my Sunday night quizzing chums. There's Mike who was seventy last October, Danny who will be seventy in July and Mick who will be sixty five in the spring. He's the spring chicken in the team. I will be sixty nine in the autumn - if I make it that far.
We spent a little time reflecting on the business of ageing. All three of my chums have daily pills to take for various ailments and conditions. Fortunately, I don't take any medication at all. No pills for me. I guess I am lucky that way.
Recognising that "The End" is just up ahead, I told them that I want to make sure that any books I read from now on should be worth reading. I don't want to read any crap. They could understand the point that I was making. Time is precious and it is running out. Maybe COVID has emphasised this.
We also spoke about hearing in noisy locations. Increasingly I find it difficult to hear people in noisy places - even when they are sitting right next to me. The muffled background bass seems to take over. There are only so many times you can say, "I'm sorry, could you say that again?" In a way, it was reassuring to discover that the lads knew exactly what I was talking about.
I don't think about growing old and then dying very often. I just get on with my life, taking each day as it comes. Graveyards tell us that these journeys we are on will all reach the same destination but what a grim life it would be if ageing and death became our foremost mental preoccupations. As Dylan Thomas said, let us "rage, rage against the dying of the light".
8 January 2022
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So there I was standing in the kitchen of our son's terraced house. Something caught my eye outside in his little urban garden. It was a...