Thoughts from the Suffolk coast
Harris G, Suffolk
The falling leaves drift by my window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips - the summer kisses,
The sunburned hands I used to hold ....
Kosma Joseph et al, 1945
At last! Sunshine after the rain! We seem to have had weeks of endless rain, gloomy greyness and high winds but this week there has been sunshine - albeit watery sunshine with mists and much cooler temperatures. But the sunshine is uplifting- and will hopefully help us all through the next few weeks of “lockdown two”.
On Monday - we went off to the beach for a lovely walk. Had a super lunch first (home made curry) and then trotted along the unpeopled coastal path - collecting stones and shells and getting joyful about plants that grow by the sea and sand.
Tuesday was taken up with gardening and a trip to the supermarket. Wednesday and we took the park and ride to Norwich for some final retail therapy (the city seemed very quiet) and then yesterday - it was back to gardening. I actually managed to mow some of the lawn (mostly an exercise in leaf collection) .
Friday arrives very quickly it seems. I have avoided any negative comments about last weekend and the announcement of lockdown two and indeed have said nothing about the US presidential election. These two issues have, of course, dominated the news throughout the week. Nothing to say except I wish there was a little more of the intelligent, moderate and dignified calm among politicians and world leaders... less of the blustery, buffoonery and Liberace-like showmanship. Anyhow, enough of my rambling. I’m looking out on a beautiful day and a sun that is low in the autumn sky...
Oh let your little light shine,
Let your little light shine,
Shine on good humour,
Shine on good will,
Shine on lousy leadership,
Licensed to kill...
Joni Mitchell 2007
Greetings from the far south
Mark Waller, Pretoria, South Africa
If people here looked at what’s going on with Covid in Europe and the US, maybe they wouldn’t be so relaxed and think the worst is over.
SA is infamously insular, part of the legacy of the isolation it generated for itself when it was under white minority racist rule. That legacy means that nowadays knowledge of and interest in the rest of the world is often stultifying narrow.
And so now, precisely when people in SA should be looking closely at what’s happening elsewhere to see how other countries are faring amidst soaring infections due to inadequate or delayed containment, they’re lowering their masks, enjoying crowded gatherings and ramping up the pre-festive vibe.
By official counts, infections are steadily increasing, at roughly 1800 a day, and there are now about 100 deaths a day. SA has not been hit that way many other countries have. Things are nowhere near as bad as they’ve been in, say, the UK. Here, and in other African countries, the population is generally younger and it may be that people have better immunity than in wealthier countries.
But health experts and the government are worried that as more people relax their guard, the dreaded “second wave” could flare up here as elsewhere. Next week, the president is expected to address the country on national TV and radio and issue a stern warning about a return to more stringent lockdowns unless people wise up and follow all the familiar protocols to suppress the virus.
No one wants to return to the blanket lockdown (level 5) imposed in March. It’s wrecked the economy and massively inflamed an already horrendous unemployment rate. Rich countries can, if they choose, relatively easily provide sufficient financial relief to businesses and individuals. Here, there are fewer reserves to draw on, other than getting further in hock to the vampirish IMF and World Bank.
So the last couple of weeks have seen rumours abound on social media of a return to the worst lockdowns. The president has had to issue rebuttals, call for calm and assure people there’ll be no return to level 5 or 3 or whatever. And yet I wonder what alternative they’ll be if the rate of infection increases the way it has elsewhere in the world.
Already, the government and various health experts have warned people that unless they do things like use their face masks properly, the consequences will be miserable. You see people wearing them in a variety of ways. The most assiduous wearers are women domestic workers, people working in government offices, police stations and law courts, sales staff in chain stores, and prisoners in the dock - TV cameras are routinely allowed to film court proceedings, and I suppose face masks provide much valued anonymity.
I may be wrong, but I get the impression from how people behave in my area of north Pretoria that white South Africans generally don’t opt to wear face masks. This seems to be linked to attitudes among whites that the rules applied by the black majority and the democratic government don’t apply to them. This is a headache that goes back to the advent of democracy here in 1994 and efforts to reconstruct the country.
This morning, as I drank my coffee and gazed out of the kitchen window, I saw two elderly white neighbours out for a brisk walk before the day got too hot. Neither of them wore face masks. They were accompanied by their black domestic worker, who walked a few yards behind them. She wore the traditional bright green polyester two-piece uniform that maids had to wear in the old days. In her arms she carried the couple’s Shih Tzu, which was evidently frightened by the barking of bigger dogs from outside the houses they passed. As you’d expect, she was fully masked up.
Words from Wood Lane
Susan Neave, Beverley
Remember, remember, the Fifth of November/The Gunpowder, Treason and Plot… No bonfire with fireworks display on Westwood tonight, but still plenty of loud bangs. Our house was built on the former kitchen garden of a late 17th-century house that in turn replaced a medieval one, which I discovered was the childhood home of Thomas Percy, the ‘gunpowder plotter’ who rented the cellar below the Houses of Parliament. When I looked out of the back window and saw the explosion of colour against the dark night sky I wondered what the teenage Thomas, described in his youth as ‘very wild’ and ‘much given to fighting’, would have made of Bonfire night celebrations.
Thursday evening, and whatever I write now will probably be out of date by Sunday. Last week I said we were wondering if this area was about to go into Tier 2, and by Sunday it had though no longer relevant since the whole country is now in lockdown. On Monday we went to the sea for what might be the last pebble hunt for at least a few weeks. Just one other couple on the beach. The only disappointment was finding that a major power cut in the area meant we couldn’t have our coffee and cake treat in the café, although we had a picnic lunch with us. Ballet cancelled, hair appointment cancelled. Absolutely no excuse not to get on with writing and tidying up the garden. At the moment I’m still optimistic that Trump might just have been out trumped by Biden in the US Presidential elections.
Mary Fisher, Norfolk UK
So here we are again. Living through Lockdown the Sequel. And featuring in this edition is a Pod.
In some ways people may feel better-equipped for a lockdown this time. Support bubbles in place. Tick. Family, friends and work video systems set up. Tick. Work arrangements in place. Tick. Ways of shopping without actually going to a shop. Tick. And then there’s care home visiting.
To recap. In early October, the government issued its Adult Social Care Winter Plan 2020-2021. Suffice to say it was not greeted with delight. In effect the plan banned visits to care homes in areas of high Covid-19 infection. Concerned about the impact on elderly people, care homes, relatives’ groups and charities took the government to court over the decision to cease visits to care homes in England in areas with tier 2 and 3 lockdown restrictions. Mr Justice Hayden, vice-president of the court of protection, ruled that care homes should be opened to visitors and that the regulations allowed contact with relatives and friends. Visits, he ruled, are lawful.
Then, a week ago, the government issued its Nov 5 lockdown plans to stop visits to ALL care homes. Residents were confronted by further weeks of enforced isolation. Fortunately, alongside the Judge’s ruling, a number of MPs stood up to the government. On Nov 4, the Minister for Health, having been forced into a corner, did a U-turn and said it was ok to visit. But he stuck to the “clear principles for how visits are conducted” set down in the Winter Plan. Care homes must allow residents to receive visits “in a Covid-secure way”. At this point we descended into the surreal. Visitors must not enter the building. Care homes could build protective pods for the resident. Or the visitor could stay in their car and the resident could be wheeled out to the car park – this presumes that a) all visitors drive and b) all visitors have a car. What about visitors who travel by public transport? Does the bus wait around? If only I were joking.
Some time ago, Care minister Helen Whately was tasked with setting up a pilot to start testing relatives to enable visits inside care homes. But this week she told parliament she was still planning “to launch a pilot on that shortly.” So that’s not going to be a solution to the current situation is it Minister?
On Thursday evening, appropriately accompanied by the fanfare of fireworks in the background, Barbara’s care home held a family and friend’s video meeting to apprise us of the new arrangements. Faced with a toss-up between residents or visitors risking the adverse effects from an inclement winter, they opted for relatives. They are building a pod. Well more an open-sided gazebo really. It’s being fitted in the garden. We will enter by a back gate. Is someone manning the gate – how will they know someone is there? And it has a PA system connected to the resident inside the building. Great! We will now be able to broadcast to the staff, all the residents and probably the unfortunate neighbours. And an added bonus. We can extend our weekly visit from thirty minutes to one hour. Not if I’m freezing my socks off in the garden!
How many times do we complain about something we feel is wrong? Much less do we compliment. Well after almost fifteen years, I’ve finally sent a thank you note to our county council to say thank you for the splendid autumn colours on the trees it was responsible for planting alongside some of our main roads. I have never failed to be cheered by the spectacular trees lining my route home. Whatever changes are going on in the world, at this time of year we get to enjoy the glorious colours as the deciduous trees shed their leaves. Reds, oranges, fiery yellows, deepest burgundy. As a season, I’m less keen on Autumn than any other. Autumn always feel like a loss. Shorter days. But every year I am cheered by the glorious colours guiding me to and from my home.
Mary’s Projects Mostly
Mary Hildyard, Totnes, Devon
What a week this has been! Leaving till last the nail-biting challenge to sanity that is the US Election, I begin with last Saturday. A fantastic second day of the Design for Weave course on zoom where we examined line, pattern and texture. We were encouraged to “play freely” with line (as you can see from the photos) and then to consider the multitude of ways to create a repeat - block, brick, dropped, reverse, angled and many, many others. By the five o’clock finish, when Simon and I left for our walk, my brain was fizzing with ideas. Then onto 8 pm and a Halloween party on zoom with the Book Club complete with costumes and games.
Sunday afternoon brought zoom play reading, with Margaret, Peter, Stephen and Stephanie, of Mike Bartlett’s “Albion” which concerns the restoration of a formal English garden. Interestingly, we seem to be concentrating on gardens; we recently read Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and are going on to “Comfort me with Apples” by Nell Leyshon. Sunday evening there was normal Book Club on zoom, and by Monday we were packing and rearranging online deliveries in order to leave Bristol for Totnes on Wednesday ahead of the sudden lockdown call.
All of this so blissfully occupied my thoughts that it wasn’t until Tuesday evening that I focussed again on the election. We were up until 3.30 am waiting for election results which of course continued to be indecisive through the night and onto the next day and the next. As I write on Friday, Joe Biden is moving ahead in Georgia and Pennsylvania and looks to be ahead in Arizona and Nevada. I am beginning to believe that by the time you read this he will have been declared our next president and I will be able to breathe again. The heartbreak for me is that the election shows that T’s popularity is not an aberration and his sizeable following, which I struggle to comprehend, is with us for the foreseeable future. Even if Joe Biden becomes our next president we have to live with the fact that America is a deeply and bitterly divided country.
From North Oxfordshire
Jane G, Banbury
It’s 9 am on the first morning of the second lockdown, and I’m writing from my desk in Oxford, looking out over the junction of Broad Street, Catte Street and Holywell Street, and seeing no signs of lockdown at all – presumably because the university and building contractors are exempt. Both Trinity and Wadham have large building projects on (read: have had large building projects on for many years; Wadham’s thankfully is due to be completed later this month), and the only thing that is visibly different today is that each individual builder has evidently driven his van in: the parking area in Parks Road is blue, white, grey and be-logoed vans nose to tail. Meantime the City Council’s neon warning sign on the edge of town, which they use to warn of road closures and open days and so on, still reads ‘For Oxford City Centre use only Park & Ride’, & so should presumably be taken down for incitement to break the law. If it is the law...
That sign has been displaying various idiocies for the last few months: ‘Get a test only if you have symptoms’ was one – which I suppose was following government guidelines, but that particular instruction has always struck me as one of the most stupid: surely the main point of testing is to identify people who don’t realise they may be carriers? It also made me mutter ‘HIV test? Smear test? Pregnancy test?’ And then there was ‘Cases are up across Oxfordshire. Act now to save lives’ – which alongside a bit of A44 dual carriageway simply isn’t helpful. Act how? Turn round and go back to Banbury? Pull over in Summertown to buy hand sanitiser? Stop dead in the middle of the road and scream?
So to the second day of lockdown, and I’ve been mostly struck by how unlike the first lockdown it is: I’ve been out to collect a parcel from the Royal Mail depot and to the dentist, and in Banbury as in Oxford, things look very nearly normal, except that most shops are closed. (I had to avert my eyes from the small co-operative gallery where I normally have some work, which we emptied – again – over the last few days.) This makes me afraid that very little will be achieved by it, except extreme misery to independent shopkeepers and a general sense of constraint and depression – and that we’ll then be told it has to carry on beyond 2 December.
Bumpy landing on the south coast
Life is hard, and that hardness leads to suffering. All creatures, I think, are both takers and givers, in differing ratios. I confess to my share of taking, in my time, but there is a part of me which, if and when I see suffering, does what it can to help, because there but for the grace of god… However, I realise I have of late been over-giving, and need to rein my impulses in a little and look after myself. This renewed English shutdown, albeit the lite version, caused me a dilemma about how much giving was the right amount, and it took a while to come to a decision. But it feels ok so I think I made the right call. It’s all a question of balance
And – of understanding the nature of real suffering.
A letter arrived on my doormat: handwritten, from a local Jehovah’s Witness. This lady has written goodness knows how many letters, each addressed to an individual household, because they can’t at the moment do the rounds in person. While I have no interest in being swayed by the Witnesses, I admire the quality of their deep, quiet, belief. The letter poses the question: ‘Why does God allow suffering? Does he care for us or does he even exist?’
This question is especially pertinent to the case of one of my grandfather’s brothers, F, and his family, who were Witnesses. In 1948 the Soviets arrested him, aged 56, and in 1951 his wife and two children, for their beliefs. After interrogation, they were deported to different labour camps for up to 12 unimaginably harsh years.
Their faith supported them, though, and they never gave up on their god. The JW monthly magazine, Watchtower (horribly prescient name in the 1940s and 50s) wrote retrospectively in 2011: ‘Even the guards got to know that the Witnesses always helped one another. When A [F’s daughter] was transferred from one camp to another, she didn’t have a spoon or a bowl - the very basics for camp life. “Well that’s ok,” responded the camp’s supervisor, “your [JW] sisters will give you what you need.” And so they did.
‘Even so, tests of loyalty never ceased. For example, although sister A had been in the prison camp for some time, the guards constantly asked her, “Are you still refusing to cooperate with us?” Of course, the type of cooperation they wanted was confidential information about Jehovah’s Witnesses. “You detain me in prison camps, and my father and mother died because of you,” sister A always replied. “How could I ever cooperate with you?”
Still, she was not bitter. “I will never forget the merry dance of the northern lights, frosty days when the colourful clouds of condensation rose from the sea or rivers, polar days when the sun did not set for two weeks, and polar nights when the sun was not visible for two weeks. I recall the green strawberries that ripened during the short summer and the arctic wildfowl that fed off the tiny branches of the slender trees. Despite all the hardships, I felt as though I were on tour in Siberia. I realised that, even there, it is possible to be happy with Jehovah.”
In the here and now, our fortitude is again being tested, by whichever force. Local cases are currently 72 per 100,000, against 231 in England as a whole, but of course rising. Our nasty family cold continues, to the point that I briefly considered booking myself a test.
As if to compound the notion of retribution being visited on us from on high, this year’s bumper crop of acorns (highlighted by the lovely Autumnwatch, which has been so brightening my evenings) is raining down on us (in my case, from the two magnificent ilex oaks overhanging my modest plot) with surprising ferocity. They hit one like small bullets, painfully, while the trees’ resident rooks shriek with glee.
Unsurprisingly, I have been forced to make another Victoria sponge – but because of being under the weather, I now don’t fancy it…
Even my trip into town to a small gallery was an ordeal by water, the sluicing rain cutting diagonally into me as I sloped through it. Not to mention yet another Covidiot on the way. But I was determined, and sloshed my way into a Robert Tavener exhibition, which made it all worthwhile. The gallery specialises in artists and printers working in Britain from the 1950s onwards. This artist, who made the town his home, was unknown to me, but his work is much to my taste. I bought a small picture (well, let’s not be boastful: a greetings card) because it cried out peaceful, glowing local summer, which under all the circumstances pleased me. In a microscopic way, like A taking solace from the beauty surrounding her frozen prison.
Meanwhile, I have been pushing HN, the love of my life, along the prom. Yesterday, the first day of new shutdown but coincidentally the first lovely sunny, calm, day for ages, it was jam packed. What happened to staying home? I plead necessity, to give Mum some sleep.
And my tender heart has found an unexpected extra object: a hawkmoth caterpillar, which crawled out of my salad and was nearly eaten. It now resides in a newly-constructed caterpillarium. Years ago, I raised and released another caterpillar moth, which I thought was called, touchingly, an angel wings moth. Turned out to be angle wings, but I still loved it.
Nicky, Vermont, USA
I don’t think I’ve ever watched so much television. I don’t usually watch hardly any, except that we’ve been addicted to re-watching West Wing for the past few months. But since 6 pm election day I’m watching all day, up late, and then up again at three or four in the morning hoping to catch the news of a yet a few more votes for Biden. I feel like my eyeballs are about to pop out. By the time this journal is published we’ll know the results and it seems fairly certain Biden will win. As I said to a friend yesterday, I just want the relief of knowing someone competent and well intentioned is choosing other competent people to run the government. I’d like to return to being able to ignore politics and who is running what and how and why, but that isn’t wise.
This election is reminiscent of 2016. So many people have voted again for Trump despite his gross incompetence and his malevolence. So what does he have to offer? When the results were clear in 2016 and many people were stunned, shocked, devastated, people of color in various contexts said, “what did you expect?” “This is no surprise.” “Where have you been?” “You haven’t been paying attention.” And they were right. I was on two zoom gatherings the day after this election, and people were again stunned, angry, upset, betrayed. Weeping. Much of the response to this 2020 as yet unresolved election is not only a response to the fear of another four years of Trump’s poisonous regime, but also a devastated response to the now glaring fact that so many millions of Americans would yet again vote for someone who has even more clearly revealed who he is and what he stands for. There’s no hiding it. And those voices from the 2016 election still echo in my mind. “Where have you been?” “You haven’t been paying attention.” “This is no surprise.” As B. says often, the United States is still enacting the civil war. Now, whoever gets elected, it’s hard to see the way forward. But don’t get me wrong. A competent well intentioned president and government is worth everything even if it is only a first step.
I hope the outcome is clear tonight and that I get more sleep.
Hello to everyone, and I’m so sorry about the increase in numbers of infections and deaths, and the renewal of the lockdown in the UK. And as always I so appreciate your writings and the welcome infusion of the details of everyone’s daily lives. Rain and migraines and crumbling cliffs and the naming of chickens.
View from the Top of the Hill
Linzy Lyne, Pateley Bridge
Here we are again, back in lockdown. We made a last ditch run to see the grandchildren on Saturday. We dressed up in Guy Fawkes costumes and hid sweets in their garden. It was a great surprise for them and very exciting for us too. Halloween hugs to last us through lockdown number two and now back to seeing each other on skype.
Since Tuesday we've been completely taken over by the US election. I don't remember ever taking such an interest in US politics. Somehow it just seems more important than it ever has before. Our knowledge of American geography has improved enormously. We've hardly slept. It's completely exhausting and we'll be really pleased to get back to normal when it's all over. I'm trying not to get too excited that Joe Biden is ahead in Georgia and appears to be heading for victory. Apparently aggrieved by Biden appearing on television looking every bit the statesman and asking for calm and patience, Trump has addressed the nation, ridiculously touting his belief that the election is being stolen through huge frauds by the Democrats. He was winning, how can he possibly be losing now, it must be a fix, a conspiracy, a disgrace. They 'keep finding more votes'. The comparison couldn't be more stark.
Today we had to leave the election news running without us. We woke to thick fog on the hill and quickly dressed in our long unused smart clothes. A lovely drive as the mist lifted, autumn light bouncing off multi-coloured leaves. We were half an hour early, a relief as we were late for the last one, so we sat in the car quietly watching the sun come out across the gleaming rows of headstones. The family and friends arrived, anxious faces under masks. My friend was feeling surreal, it was like an out of body experience. The hearse appeared with its wicker coffin and the twenty select mourners allowed to attend filed in to the sound of 'Hotel California'.
It was a humanist service and the celebrant had known our friend. There were lots of humorous anecdotes, the usual surprises when you find out things you never knew about the deceased. A slideshow of family photos to a guitar instrumental version of 'Here Comes the Sun'. Tears turned to quiet mirth at the funny photos of our friend and slightly louder laughter when the celebrant stripped off his shirt at the end to reveal a T-shirt with a picture of bananas as the punchline to a joke. Our friend's last words were 'this is one thing I can't put off'. We said goodbye to him across a rope barrier and to the accompaniment of 'Wish You Were Here' by Pink Floyd, we filed out into bright sunshine, all twenty faces red, swollen and wet with tears. We stood around consoling one another, awkward, touching arms discreetly. In the absence of a wake, no-one wanted to leave but didn't know what to do. My friend had bridged the gap by making goody bags for everyone, carefully labelled and distributed by 'goody bag monitors'. There was a 'fat rascal' for each of us, tea and coffee bags and a banana, so we could go and have our wake safely at home.
A funeral in the time of covid. Last year we went to five, this is our first this year, let's hope it's the last.
Home through the glorious autumn afternoon and back to the election. Biden's ahead in Pennsylvania, hooray!
Stay safe everyone and let's hope the world can look forward to a better future. I for one am feeling sad but slightly optimistic.
John Mole, St Albans
After Stevie Smith
and Matthew Arnold
but anxiously afloat
at a distant coast.
All in good time
may we reach it
and so at last
embrace each other.
As a poet wrote
we mortal millions
but yearn to feel
the enclasping flow
and hear this cruel tide’s
The Runaway Diaries
Sophie Austin, London
It has been a strange old week full of empty space and moments where I have found myself waiting – for that email or call, for the news to refresh, for you to wake up from your nap or calm down from your tantrum.
I have caught myself sitting, staring into space, recharging perhaps before the next moment that requires some sort of action.
I am consciously using these moments to recharge, to recalibrate. Not to panic or to disappear down a dark rabbit hole. To breath and accept the empty moment.
We escaped London last weekend to dance in and out of the waves on Studland beach. How lucky we were to get a moment away with your cousins and aunty. You were delighted with your holiday and explored all the corridors of the curious hotel, threw yourself into the outdoor pool, despite the rain and the fact you can’t swim, feasted on fresh fish and foraged for mushrooms.
It was a perfect little holiday, with masks and sanitizer and a looming lockdown.
On our way back we decided to call your Nana and tell her some good news.
It has been really difficult to not see her and harder for her to not get to play with you. I haven’t appreciated enough how tough it is for all the Nanas out there. We bumped into one on a train last week gleefully going to see her grandson for Halloween. She hadn’t seen him since March and she openly wept at the prospect of spending time with him for a short weekend.
My mum hasn’t seen you since August and I don’t know when she will get to see you next. But her patience is amazing and her kindness and resilience make me miss her even more.
I wasn’t really sure how she’d take our news, but of course, I needn’t have worried.
‘We’ve decided to get civilly partnered in December!’ I say with trepidation, ‘Just us and two witnesses, no ceremony or party or family present…’
And she is over the moon and thinks it’s a great idea, and perfect timing, and who needs all the rigmarole of speeches and the guests and the annoying family politics and the expense.
She’s wise my mum.
So your dad and I are getting hitched or signing a bit of paper that says we want to be together, mostly for tax reasons, but also for love.
Some readers might remember that back in April I suggested marriage and was laughed out of town, well it turns out that I just needed a bit of patience.
So even when the world is spinning in a whirlpool of madness, good things can happen, we might just have to wait a little longer.