Notes from a factory in the Midlands

MFS, Midlands

I was shocked by the footage of the Metropolitan Police breaking up the Good Friday liturgy at a Polish Catholic church in London. The footage of a policeman standing at the pulpit stating that it was an illegal gathering looked more like a scene from communist Eastern Europe than something occurring in England. I later read an interview with the Parish Priest, who explained how the church diligently followed all Covid guidelines (just as I help implement at our church in Kenilworth), and it was quite clear that the gathering was in fact entirely safe and legal. But of course the Met has a bit of form when it comes to disregarding the law; and breaking up a church service is a lot easier and more fun than actually trying to go out and apprehend criminals.

This week we managed two somewhat chilly outdoor meals with friends and family. And I have just booked an outdoor pub meal for the evening of 20th April, which is our 30th wedding anniversary. I hope the weather warms up a bit. 


I mentioned last week that Sarah was baking a Simnel cake, so I include a photo of the finished article. It is made with two layers of marzipan, one on top and one layered through the middle, which melts into the cake mix. Delicious! The eleven marzipan balls are said to represent the 11 apostles, with Judas understandably absent.

simnel cake.jpg


Seriously isolating

Jean, Melbourne Australia

We've had a run of glorious autumn days. Warm enough to go to the pool a few times a week and soak up sun for the coming colder days. But yesterday, in the space of a couple hours, the temperature dropped and it started to sprinkle with rain. I was out shopping with Elly, a friend of my daughters, who's only recently managed to fly back to Australia from England where she had been working for the last couple years. This was after a couple of failed attempts (cancelled flights) over the course of a few months, followed by two weeks in hotel quarantine in Sydney. It was so much fun to browse through the shops with Elly, first because she is such a delightful person and the best company, and second, because it makes the prospect of doing the same things with my daughters all the more real. Anyway, because of the weather, Elly ended up buying and walking out of the shop wearing her new full length, long-sleeved dress - the summer frock just didn't cut it! 


This morning, more rain, wind, and flocks of white, screeching Little Corellas wheeling across the sky, momentarily settling in the trees, and then taking off again in flight. According to Birdlife Australia, they are "long-lived, highly intelligent, and very social" and turn up this time of year to feast on seed pods etc from introduced European trees, which they love and are common in this suburb, before their mid-year nesting season. They are fascinating to watch, but also have a slightly sinister aspect, a bit like something from Hitchcock's The Birds?


After 'our' sterling performance (led by the States) in controlling the virus and allowing us to open up to a 'new normal', the vaccine roll out here (led by the Federal government) has been very slow, with perhaps the inevitable hiccups. I managed to get my first shot of Astra Zeneca two weeks ago thankfully, but as of yesterday, this vaccine is now being restricted to the over 50s. The fall out from this has meant the government's roll out timeline is having to be revised, and other vaccines ordered. This hasn't helped the Federal government when it is already seriously on the back foot because of its ham fisted response to allegations of rape and sexual harassment in Parliament. It is a sorry sight to see the PM struggling to grasp the fact that half the country is made up of women who have minds of their own and the voices and confidence to express what they think. Honestly, it's 2021.


Talking of dresses and shopping, there's an exhibition, on loan from the V&A, of Mary Quant fashion at the Bendigo Art Gallery - not far from Melbourne - and I think this is a must! I don't think I ever bought anything from her shop in the 60s but I did get a couple of Biba dresses which were memorable. One had a full very short skirt and a scoop neck, in a red and white swirling psychedelic pattern, with little red buttons down the front. It probably got passed on at some point... I wonder if anyone's wearing it now?


Vie de château

Marie-Christine, Blois, France

Science is not an opinion


This is a common saying among scientists.  

First you observe, then you question, then you look again at the facts to see if they are really as they appear and to decide what you should do about it. You go ahead into the unknown. If you have a preconception, if you don't keep cool about what you see, you can't go ahead. Most medical papers reporting research are unpaid, even if they have taken long, very long, hours of demanding work (let's say, on average, a thousand hours for the person whose name is at the beginning of the list of authors of a medical publication).

I remember very well the influence of the "anti-vaxxers" in the UK. In 1998 the Wakefield study, now completely discredited, purported to show that the MMR vaccine was causing autism. It was an appalling lie. The result for our family was that Rob refused the jab for our children. They both duly caught whooping cough (the French vaccine combines whooping cough with MMR), luckily without serious consequences for them. 

The explanation which is given, by https://oxfordmedicine.com/page/measles%20and%20the%20hesitancy%20to%20vaccinate/measles-and-the-hesitancy-to-vaccinate, is "the public perception of risk is connected by two factors: hazard and outrage", both of which are easily manipulated by the media and politicians. The paper continues, "Hazard is the scientific risk of mortality and morbidity; outrage is attributed to the factors surrounding an event that frighten, worry, or upset the public". The consequence of this manipulation in the case of MMR was that a lot of children died or have been handicapped for life because of a wholly unjustified scare.  

This short, informative and readable article mentions another aspect of the problem: "The hesitancy to vaccinate may be religious or cultural beliefs".

This morning on the radio the French Secretary of State for the Ministry of the Interior gave a warning about the spectacular rise of fake medicine and sects taking advantage of the worries created by the Covid epidemic. 

Even if you are not "natural" Guardian readers, there is an excellently clear and informative article, not at all politically slanted - at least in my view: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/07/what-do-i-need-to-know-about-the-oxfordastrazeneca-vaccine. We are now discovering that 79 people died of blood clots in the UK for 20m Britons vaccinated with AZ, but that not all may be linked to the vaccine. Doctors from Norway, Denmark and Iceland were the first to report their observations (just as one is supposed to do in medical care) without any suspicion of their being biased or in the pay of Big Pharma - to suggest otherwise would be a libel. The first report of brain lesions was published in Radiology, by a team from Detroit, Michigan, and this was then followed by further international publications concerning thrombosis of the cerebral venous sinuses which may be typical of the syndrome.  


Cats and dogs. Warning


Elsevier One Health publication: "High prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in pets from COVID19 + households", Matthieu Fritz and coll. 

"Seropositivity was significantly greater among pets (21% to 53%) from COVID-19+ households compared with owners of unknown status. Our results highlight the potential role of pets in the spread of the epidemic." You can read the article on PubMed. While waiting for more studies, don't kiss your pet on the mouth, or vice versa!



Two questions from me about vaccination and politics


1) The UK government has ordered 400 million doses for 32 million persons in the priority groups and then 21m in the remaining population. 53m persons vaccinated twice are going to need 106m doses of the vaccine. So why order 400m? If somebody knows anything about this, we will all be interested. Can I say something a bit stupid? When you need one car, you don't buy two or three. But I am not a big business or finance wizard. It seems that the French government has ordered 100m doses of the AZ vaccine, and twice this amount from Pfizer and Moderna. Just the same technique as in the UK: 50m persons to be vaccinated and three times the amount needed on order. I am happy to be old in this respect. I don't understand much of this new world where you order things you don't need and deprive other people in the process. 


2) Did the General Medical Council in the UK validate the one jab strategy of the Prime Minister and his policy of "Let's do the first injection and the second God knows when"? After the usual trials the vaccines - except for the one-jab Janssen - were recommended and agreed legally for use, with two shots at about a month's interval. The one injection policy of the British government seems, for today, to be a winning strategy, half of the UK population now having antibodies. It was indeed a huge bet, an enormous medical experiment (resembling Shirin's cartoon last week). It has worked, luckily. Despite this success - the death rate has plummeted - it is not a medical procedure to be recommended or to be repeated on this scale or individually in other diseases. Napoléon, when choosing a General for a battle, used to ask "Is he lucky?". For a time his luck held, but as we all know he ended up by losing. Up to now the English General has been lucky - but with an anticipated precaution, the signing of a "no responsibility" paper for everyone involved in his strategy. When I came to England for Tony Blair's program of recruiting foreign doctors, I asked at a meeting "What are a doctor's legal responsibilities in the UK? " The manager answered, "Queen's cover", no responsibility if you follow the recommended rules and don't commit a crime. I was astonished. In France doctors are responsable for everything, including if the patient happens to fall from his chair in the waiting room. 


Obviously Président Macron, who is as much of a gambler as the English PM, lost his bet, which consisted of "Don't confuse speed with hastiness" (he might as well have said "lies with truth"). It reflects shamefully on him when, by contrast, we see that all the Americans who want it will be vaccinated by 15 April. Macron stated in March 2020 that we were at war against Covid, without apparently being able to see that vaccination was the main battle. What can you expect from the French top civil servant he used to be? Living in a bubble, powerful, calling himself "the Master of the Clock" (the person in charge of the timing of things), with no scientific culture. He now knows what Hubris means (as his first Interior Minister had warned before Covid was heard of). I asked Rob if the ancient Greeks rulers were any better than ours, the answer was emphatically NO. Human nature ruled, then as now. For better and for worse. 


Our future


One thing certain about Covid-19, we have not seen the end of the acute crisis, and the consequences are difficult to predict. But we still have to choose what we want to make of our lives in the 1, 5 or 10 years coming. We have decided to buy a small flat in Montpellier, at 5 minutes' walk from our daughter. We will be able to migrate south when we will feel the need of it. Giving oneself an alternative is quite invigorating these days.


Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

A cold week as predicted, but no frost, only the lighest possible snow flurry one day, and lots of sunshine. On Wednesday we headed down to Lincoln to meet up with youngest stepdaughter, husband and grandchildren, who drove up from Newark. It was very cold but we were well wrapped up and enjoyed a walk on South Common, and a picnic lunch. Last week would have been better but they didn’t break up until Maundy Thursday, a week later than our local schools. Lovely to see them after such a long gap. Our son-in-law’s parents live in Sussex so it has been even more difficult for them to see the grandchildren as it’s too far for a day trip. Made Mary Berry’s ‘very best’ chocolate cake for them to take home. I don’t really like chocolate cake (strange as I’m quite keen on chocolate), but they do! I’d much rather have the lemon cake that Margaret kindly mentioned last week, or a slice of buttered fruit loaf. Next week we both have the excitement of a long overdue haircut, and a trip to the sea.




John Underwood, Norfolk

Out and about

This week has been mainly boating related, with a trip on our motor boat down the river Ant, into Barton Broad and to a favourite mooring at Paddy’s Lane for a cup of tea. The weather was blowy and the water choppy - not usually our favourite boating weather. We are not put off by a bit of rain, but windy weather makes getting back into our mooring difficult and so we usually avoid stronger winds. A boat next to us on our mooring has recently been sold, which meant that we have more room to manoeuvre, therefore negating the wind factor. It was good to get out again; being on the water is a great change of scene, and somehow different every time. We have a fairly modern fibreglass boat, but have been thinking of changing to something more interesting. I think that I have written before about my father’s liking for boats, probably from his courting days on the Thames. He introduced me to rowing, using hired clinker built wooden rowing boats, and Ally and I had canoes for years before buying our first boat on the Broads a few years back. 


We always lust after old wooden boats as we pass them on the water. They remind me of my first Broads holiday in a wooden boat “The Silvery Crest” when I was about six. Just last year I found a hire company booklet which had pictures of the boat and details about her. We never went again on a boating holiday as a family - not my mother’s cup of tea I suspect - but it had a big impact on me. 


Last Weekend, we found an advert for a 1947 cabin cruiser online; all varnished wood and white paint, and on a whim, I persuaded Ally to go and have a look at her. She looked very tidy on the outside, with nice lines in a kind of staid 40’s style. Nothing unusual to her looks unless you were to moor her alongside a modern boat. Onboard, many original features were still retained. All the woodwork, the cooker and sink, the catches on the cupboards, the light fittings and switches, the layout of the seating, the windows. All the woodwork was varnished, the floor and ceiling white painted, but crucially, there was a newish engine, canvas cover, and a survey which suggested that everything was sound below the waterline which is more that I could say for myself.

On Monday, we are taking her out on the waters around Brundall with her current owner, having agreed a tentative price contingent upon everything working as it should. Fingers crossed. The stupid thing about all of it is that this original, hand built little gem is valued at a little more than half of our current mass produced plastic Tupperware boat ( other storage containers are available). The difference in price might be a start to building up a fund for the inevitable repairs needed with old wooden boats. The clichés are that buying an old boat is like trying to dig a hole in the water to pour money into, and that you have the two happiest days of your life owning one. The second happiest is when you buy the boat, and the happiest when you manage to sell her again.


Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Suffolk

Don’t the weeks pass quickly?! This week seems to have rushed by and I’ve achieved very little. The weather has been on a yo-yo - temperatures erratic although mostly cold, and there has been an odd pattern of sunshine, sleet, sunshine, snow, then sunshine again. Today looks to be bright and hopefully mild although rain is predicted. Another cold snap coming this weekend too...


Despite the cold, we braved a small ‘get-together’ in the garden of friends one afternoon earlier in the week. A really good time spent in a lovely spot with very witty company. Theirs is a walled, courtyard garden with a fine, well-established magnolia tree and some handsome urns and unusual plants. We talked and laughed and swapped lockdown stories as we ate homemade scones with jam! I’m beginning to sound ‘Blytonesque’ as a friend calls it - ‘Four get Hysterical Giggles in a Suffolk Village’ - but we did roar with laughter and it really lifts the spirits.


Of course, the news and general atmosphere - even with the relaxation of some lockdown restrictions - is hardly a ‘barrel of laughs’. Not wanting to ‘kill the mood’, I read a short article about the increase in family crises with cases of domestic violence and abuse soaring. There is also a sponsored page on Instagram entitled ‘Walking on Egg Shells’ - raising this very issue. It makes links to other sites where the forms that abuse and bullying can take are described. It is so easy to forget how people suffer...

But back to more cheerful things, the new pup, ‘Lucy’ continues to delight and charm with her joy for life. She rushes everywhere, loves food, loves walks, loves people, is interested in everything! She has developed a voice too - she makes an almost cat-like wail when Philip, the Jack Russell, steals one of her toys or selfishly refuses to share the ball. Mind, it is not all one way. Lucy is now an accomplished thief - sometimes quite brazenly taking the things she desires, other times stealthily removing items from my pocket - especially treats and tissue paper! The wooden handles of my favourite garden trowel and fork are now permanently tooth-marked and there are no signs of the laces from my gardening boots! I wonder if they’re buried in the border I was trying to weed last week. 


Anyhow, time to wish you all a good week. Stay safe and well xx



Staying home

Nicky, Vermont, USA

Well, we’re in our apartment in Ithaca, (we own a duplex and all our stuff is in the downstairs apartment) and for a week we’ve been sorting books. It’s been an interesting and sometimes very emotional experience, and I’ve learned I’m not cut out to be a used book dealer, though I have looked up many books and found surprisingly valuable ones. The most valuable, other than a potentially first edition of Little Women, (worth a fortune if it is indeed a first edition, but probably not, and if so, we probably couldn’t collect the fortune) is, ironically, a first edition of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, weighing in at a hefty six hundred dollars and change. We don’t get the money, we donate to the library book sale, but we can claim some of the value of the donation off our taxes.

And, on the less financially interesting level, we’ve packed up and I’ve driven about ninety boxes of books to the book sale this week. The volunteers there groan when they see me coming. And my shoulders and hips and knees groan from lugging books. But it’s been quite wonderful really, to get rid of them. Lots of books about things I thought I should know, so I bought the books thinking then I magically would know. Books about things I want to know, but never enough to pick up the books. Lots of my mother’s books. Novels I’ve kept because I loved them and so wanted to hold the experience close, but don’t plan to read them again. Cookbooks galore. I love to read cookbooks and my mother had a significant collection of them, but now I’m winnowing down. Poetry books that turn out to be worth money just because I bought them in the ‘70s and now they are magically first editions. And on and on.

I’ve kept books from Australia and New Zealand, any art books, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, quite a few self-help books for the life long self-improvement projects, and all books illustrated by Arthur Rackham. All art books. I got rid of all literary criticism, all fairy stores and folk lore, or almost all… and and and. Tomorrow is the last day we can drop boxes off so we are nearing the end. The aforementioned shoulders, hips, knees will all be very grateful. And in the meantime it is spring here, the trees are blooming, the male cardinals are singing their hearts out and I saw an osprey carrying a branch about six times its size up to the platform where the osprey nest is being build. (I’m shifting into the passive voice to avoid gender here because who knows if it is the male or the female.). And thank goodness for the dog who insists on the early morning walks which always keep me sane and appreciating the beauty in the world.


Home thoughts

Hilary Q, North Norfolk

Hooray for the Weekly Angel who returned on Wednesday and proudly announced that it didn’t matter how well we had kept the house she would be starting at the top and performing one of her sensational ‘deep cleans’!!! The house is squeaking!


Meanwhile I have started yet another cull on my attic bookshelves and was most amused to find that I already had a copy of Georges Perec’s ‘Species of Spaces and Other Pieces’ which I had bought in 1998 in New York... and never read! So just 23 years in the waiting! I have become such a fan of his lighthearted and playful way of seeing and describing things... a total obsessive... nothing wrong with that! One conundrum regarding pictures... if we didn’t have walls we wouldn’t have pictures... when we hang a picture we cease to see the wall... Of course, the essay which really captured my imagination is titled ‘Brief Notes On The Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books’... please forgive my enthusiasm... I share below the entire contents of this classic little Penguin Classic... 


All this and Spring too! NB Asparagus tips are peeping!!!