Strange times

Anna Stenborg, Uppsala, Sweden

In the Bollnäs area mainly the two other, larger hospitals have been under hard pressure, but now even the intensive care units have some empty hospital beds and in Bollnäs hospital we have only 5 covid patients today.

Finally after much critiscism our government is recomending face masks, but only in rush hour public transport. At the hospital we are required to wear mask and visor in all meetings with patients. This makes it really difficult to communicate with our mostly old patients since many have reduced hearing. 

Wednesday night I was awakened at 3 o’clock by loud music and laughter from a party in a adjacent apartment. At least it was good music. If it happens again I shall be angry and complain. 

Today we have sunny weather and snow of perfect texture. Also there is snow on the trees which is so beautiful. I am taking the train back to Uppsala today but there is snow there as well, so that’s good.



Plagues past and present

David Seddon, Brockdish South Norfolk

Lockdown and Livelihoods


Last week, I told the story of how the good people of Harleston in south Norfolk contained the plague that broke out there in October 1626 by ‘locking down’ the Middaye family for nearly two months. But the parish as a whole also made sure the family was well provided for during their ‘lockdown’. 

In other towns, that kind of collective support was largely lacking, and many people experienced severe difficulties as the local economy reeled and effectively closed down as a result of widespread ‘self isolation’ and the better off retreated to the relative safety of their second homes in the country.

There was an outbreak of plague in Cambridge in 1626-27, and then another in 1630-31, in which about 350 people died; there was also such a serious risk of famine among the poor in the town that the new king (Charles I) authorized a collection for poor relief funds in London, to be sent to Cambridge. The harvests of 1628-1630 were also pretty disastrous. Grain was in short supply, food prices rose and many of those reliant on purchasing rather than producing grain were in deep trouble. 

The sheriff of Norfolk reported in March 1631 that corn prices had doubled since October 1628 and were deemed ‘excessive’, especially by poor worsted weavers and stocking knitters, who were always hovering near the subsistence line. Robert Ryece in neighbouring Suffolk observed ‘the greatest number of poor where the clothiers do dwell or have dwelt’. Sudbury spinners, for example, were having to sell vital tools of their trade in order to eat. Hingham had only one good harvest in the whole decade, and the parish register records more burials than births. In 1636, the plague visited Diss and, according to Pursehouse (p.291), ‘grass grew in the streets and 400 families were sick’ in that one town alone.



Care in the time of Corona

Shirin Jacob, Ålesund, Norway

It’s Friday and -4 degrees Celsius. With clear skies, no wind, rain, slush, hail or snow. Fabulous weather till next Tuesday, when it starts snowing again. Today is the anniversary of the day several years ago, my husband decided to buy our house on the island. He had gone to see his late aunt’s house, which was in a state of disrepair, and went for a boat ride around the island on his cousin’s boat. Several orcas suddenly surfaced with their babies in tow and frolicked around the boat. A good omen!

My least favourite months here are January, February and sometimes March. It’s not much fun with icy, slippery streets, shovelling a snow path in the morning and clearing snow and ice off the windscreen. I dream of having a flat with a view, in Lisbon, to pass the winter months. However, I would spend the last fortnight of every year in Ålesund. Decorating for Christmas, buying all the Christmas goodies, enjoying Julaften (Christmas Eve), førstejuledag and andrejuledag (Christmas and Boxing Day). We continue celebrating through “romjula”(the space or room, “rom,” between 27th December and New Year’s Eve) till the wonderful fireworks of the New Year without the crazy crowds of a big city. Norway does the Christmas «eventyr» or fairytale best, I think.  


Why Lisbon? I have a couple of acquaintances there, have very happy memories of holidays exploring the city, museums and the restaurant scene. The Portuguese are friendly and kind. I don’t need a suntan and so, am not drawn to the beaches crowded with hundreds of other bodies.  


Talking about crowds. We have been advised to stay home, avoid having guests, use masks and to continue maintaining social distancing. No escaping to the Maldives, Greece, France or the Canary Islands. The main problem here are the returning foreign workers with fake test results. The rules have been changed now and Covid tests are done on arrival.  


The main advantage of the “lockdown” for us personally, is that my husband has been working from the home office and will continue till the government says otherwise. The cats and I love having him home. Sofus is a dedicated football player and expert dribbler, meows incessantly till my husband throws a little rubber ball for him to jump, catch and fetch. A cat/football player/ dog all rolled into one. Julius, our ginger, finds Sofus just plain odd and prefers snoozing in my shoebox. Big ginger cat, all contorted, into a little shoebox. His Safe Space.  


On Wednesday, the emergency alarm was sounded at noon. This is done across the country, on a Wednesday, every few months, to test the system. In a real emergency, it’s a prompt to turn on the radio for an update. Alarming but charming. Reminding me that I live in a little outpost rather than a faceless, big city.  


I read the quote by Martin Niemöller earlier this week: 


“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out -

Because I was not a socialist. 


Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out -

Because I was not a trade unionist. 


Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -

Because I was not a Jew. 


Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.” 


Although this was written post WW2, it is still so relevant today. Reading the news cycle and posts on social media, we are like frogs being warmed up in a pot filled with so many conflicting thoughts, opinions and sometimes falsehoods. Will the moderates, intellectuals and liberals have the courage to stand up to those who don’t take responsibility for their actions? If not, we might just end up being boiled.


Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

It’s Friday again. Yesterday it rained all today. Today we woke up expecting icy weather, having seen the forecast last night, but not even a touch of frost. On the North York Moors the temperatures have been well below freezing, and in Sheffield my sister has snow, but in our little corner of Yorkshire the weather is often much milder.


On Wednesday morning we learnt that D’s sister’s husband had died peacefully during the night, from a long-term illness exacerbated by Covid. Fortunately he had been transferred to a community hospital outside Oxford, and was in a private room, so his wife was able to spend the last few hours with him. Yesterday the wife of a colleague from the 1970s/80s phoned to say that he had died this week. The first snowdrops in the garden are in flower.


Youlgrave lockdown

Dianne, Youlgrave Derbyshire

What a grim week. The figures are staggering and frightening. The whole situation is so sad. The vaccine is the light at the end of a very long tunnel. And yet lots of people are booking holidays! Where are they planning to go? I can’t imagine going anywhere abroad this year. Perhaps they have more confidence in the vaccine roll out than I do. Maybe they are booking for 2022 as we are hoping to do. We will both be 70 and celebrating our Golden Wedding in 2022 so we had planned to rent a large house and take all of the family, fifteen of us, abroad to celebrate. Surely by then we will have this under control.


There have been problems locally with some older people not being able to get to the vaccination centres and therefore missing their vaccination. The centres are now keeping reserve lists so they can call people in if someone doesn’t turn up. This is making the days even longer for the vaccinators. We certainly don’t want to waste any of these precious vaccines. But people who live in villages and don’t have a car need to have a way of getting to the centre or of the vaccine coming to them. Hopefully local pharmacies and GP surgeries will be able to help.


I was cheered up by the parents inundating Ofsted with compliments for the teachers working so hard to educate and encourage their children. The downside was that they had to take on more staff to respond to all of the emails. They were worried that they would miss vital emails reporting issues relating to vulnerable children to which they would need to react quickly. It’s interesting how Ofsted have the resources to extend their staff in a way that no school can!

I enjoyed a twilight walk along the river in total silence when suddenly a large skein of very noisy geese flew directly overhead. Magical. A minute later one lonely goose followed the same path, only to circle round and fly back the way he had come. Too late to the party. I wondered where they were going to settle for the night. Two days later, slightly earlier in the day, we were walking back to the village across fields and came across a flock of about 150 geese. Were these the same geese? The field was certainly in the direction from which the skein had come.


Thank you G Harris for your flat battery story. It made me chuckle. I have been in similar situations a few times – swearing at the computer or down the telephone at a recorded message. At least I have always been inside a warm house!


A week ago I took a picture of the first snowdrop in the garden. I always look out for them and feel cheered up by the thought of Spring. My great aunt Em, who was a retired infant teacher, taught me a poem about a snowdrop when I was about five. I have never forgotten it and taught it to all of my infant classes in the hope that it will live on. My great aunt must have been a wonderful teacher; she was such a kind and gentle lady. She never married and taught from before the First World War until after the end of the second. I have her record books which make for fascinating reading. I also have Teachers World and Schoolmistress magazines from that time which are equally fascinating.


The Snowdrop


“Dear little snowdrop, what news do you bring?”

“I bring,” said the snowdrop, “the message of Spring.

God sends me in Winter, when cold breezes blow,

I hang my head downwards because of the snow.

My food is a small bulb, my drink is the rain,

How my little white flower grew I can’t quite explain.

But that does not matter as long as I’m here,

I bring you the message that Springtime is near”



Restrictions for many

Hilde Schöning, Buchholz, Germany

The news is unfortunately not any better this week. The government considers even tighter restrictions, my students are partly depressed and suffer from a pandemic fatigue. Well, understandably it is not easy, but in our case at least the technology works for online teaching.


I keep hearing and reading disastrous stories about online teaching with servers breaking down, demanding teachers, overtaxed parents who have to look after their children, work themselves and somehow replace teachers simultaneously. 


The school reports are due in a fortnight and I spend a lot of time filling in tables with marks. Furthermore, I offer individual talks to my students in order to establish a better contact during the time of school closures. This is surely necessary now. 


It is cold without snow and there should be a possibility for good walks at the weekend, I missed fresh air during the last days.


Vie de château

Marie-Christine, Blois, France


Every two days a Titanic is sinking in the UK on the iceberg of COVID-19. On the Titanic 1500 were drowned. On Week One of the year 2021 the 7-day average has been 792 deaths.

The crew of the NHS is sinking too under the weight of great fatigue and depression. I heard this morning an interview - on France Info - with the leader of the Royal College of Nursing who explained how tired and emotionally affected the nurses are by the increased number of deaths and by patients in hospital continuously for, by now, ten months.  


What about wearing a face mask? 

I was recently very surprised to learn that it was not obligatory to wear a mask in the UK. Not wearing a mask in the presence of somebody outside your own bubble, in your house or outside, is the equivalent of driving while drunk. You may kill somebody. No excuses, then. 


What can I say about the French experience of masks? 

To persuade unbelievers, I at first thought of researching in depth about Masks and Covid. I made a list of paragraphs, as if I was going to write an essay for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. And then I just felt exhausted with the idea. Let's stick to the basics facts of what we need to do in order to lead a daily life that is safe (and as comfortable as the situation allows) for others and ourselves.


Since July 2020, it has been compulsory by law in France to wear a mask everywhere you go as soon you leave your house - except on your large own estate, if you happen to have one. 

By that time we were able to buy masks everywhere. Before then it was difficult, mainly because of political mess-ups and a lack of proper governance resulting in a lack of them even for carers. 

After July we were lucky because there was no choice. No need to wonder why or how. We wear masks because if we don't it costs 135€. After watching the Covid graphs in the newspapers it was also reassuring to have one on. There were medical dispensations for mental handicap, tracheotomy, face transplant. We would surely prefer not to fall into any of these categories. In any case, people with asthma routinely wear the thicker ones (FFP2) during the pollen season. So breathing difficulty is not a real contraindication. And this is true of many professions, in industry and medicine, throughout a working life.  

Very anxious people can learn to wear masks by practising at home to get confidence.

The "fight for liberty" not to wear a mask has become ridiculous. Titanically ridiculous. Anyone in their senses can now understand that you are not going to fight Covid by not wearing a mask. You are not going to save the NHS, or the economy, or your grandpa, or yourself.  

You soon get used to it. You have some in reserve in your car, in your handbag, your coat pocket, by the front door... in case you forget - it still happens to me sometimes when I am leaving the house. 

No need for the children under 6 to wear a mask in France. 

I can only hope for your sake that your government in the UK makes masks compulsory, and double quick. Then it doesn't look as if you are taking sides, you are not marked out as a timid soul if you wear one. You don't ask questions of yourself nor spend time or energy on medical publications before deciding. I only see advantages to wearing a mask, the first being that it makes you more aware of Covid. The only difficulty is the steam on spectacles. Yesterday the optician gave me a little packet of wipes which may help. 


I recommend this excellent website:  


PPE and COVID-19 | Royal College of Nursing

PPE is designed to protect you from harmful substances such as chemicals or infectious agents. In a pandemic situation, it can also help prevent the transmission of infection between staff and patients.

The photo above is of me in my FFP2, these are the most protective and comfortable, they don't press on your nose. Don't use the ones with valves, they don't protect the person in front of you.


Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Suffolk

Hello! I’m hoping this finds you safe and well x 


Another week of rain, frosts and greyness here in Suffolk. If not actually raining, then the sky has been threatening rain and it has been that damp-cold that seems to penetrate as deep as the bones!  So - definitely not much achieved in my garden. Not much achieved indoors either. Pottered about. Watched television. Wrote a few letters and phoned a few friends. Out for an hour most days - walking the dogs. We are training the new pup and slowly she is learning to behave in a calmer way. She has a tendency to jump up at us (excitement) and she will steal food from the other dog’s bowls... but we are getting there. Life is ok and we know we are fortunate. Others are having a very tough time.


I have watched the evening news with increasing concern. At times, I found it alarming. The reports repeatedly talk of soaring infection rates, an overwhelmed NHS and the highest daily death tolls on record. Legends run - declaring that London hospitals are in a state of emergency. Scenes from Intensive Care Units show desperately ill people gasping from behind tubes and oxygen pipes while masked, visored, blue gowned nurses hurry to bleeping machines and cardiac monitors. In care homes, the reports show equally disturbing images. Frail, elderly people sitting in lonely rooms. Carers in great distress - trying to put on a brave face and carry on.


Things are bad. An earnest Prime Minister has even put in an appearance or two on our screens. In one interview he said in a solemn voice “increasing pressure is putting the NHS at great risk”. He sounded like he was in the chair of the TV show “Have I got News For You”.  Yet for me - Matt Hancock’s “poker face” topped the charts of insincerity. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, he would probably have been standing there saying how we need to cut spending on health and education, close more hospitals, reduce nurse and medical training and make more use of the private sector. Those were the messages only a year or two ago... austerity, welfare cuts, reduce public spending. Now it is all “our beloved NHS”, “our world class welfare system”, “our wonderful care services”.


My disillusionment fed into my mood at the start of the week. Flat. Scared. Angry. Depressed. What’s gone wrong? Surely most of us have complied (to the best of our knowledge/ability) with every rule or regulation that has been issued. We have worn masks or face coverings in shops, washed our hands over and over, stayed away from people, not seen loved ones and friends, not gone into churches or schools, parks and museums. We’ve queued outside supermarkets, held meetings via zoom or video technology, sat in socially distanced seating arrangements even when it has been cold and miserable, and yes, we have felt miserable too. Some have lost jobs and livelihoods. Some have lost loved ones and had no chance to say goodbye. 


And now a spiteful, rapidly-spreading virus mutation/variant repays us with yet more cases, more suffering, more deaths. It is cruel. I know there are concerns about the minority of people who do not comply with the rules (was shocked to see that police had to break up a large group of what looked to be middle aged men playing cards in an East London club) but I personally don’t need to hear the threat of “tougher restrictions” and “police clamp downs”. More to the point, I don’t need to hear those threats spoken in such an unnecessarily punitive and superior way by some finger-wagging politician. I just think to myself - look closer to home - only a few months ago all the rule breaches made by the advisor to your leader were dismissed as minor or of no consequence. Hmmm.


I heard someone once say that when governments are failing they tend to use the tried and tested “divide and rule” method. You know - get us all to turn on each other - so we start watching our friends and neighbours for their failings but do not see the wider picture - what is really happening. We miss the mismanagement of public money, the neglect of the poor, needy and vulnerable, the shady deals between ministers and public officials so lucrative contracts are awarded to friends and relatives of politicians. Ah but this is England. Things like that don’t happen here.


I wonder why the world leaders do not seem to be working together with this pandemic. There doesn’t seem to be a universal plan or am I missing something? Surely we should all be working together and in similar ways. Why are we not stopping all nonessential international travel? Is our vaccination program not the same as that elsewhere? 


Anyhow, time for the daily walk now... I do hope you all stay safe and well. Keep thinking of the good days of spring that really aren’t that far away... x


Thin Air

John Mole, St Albans



Blank days

are what we wake to


anxiously charged

with purpose or distraction.


Either may serve

to pass the time


and mark its passing

hour by hour.


Silence returns 

familiar with the void,


its ambiguity

once more a challenge:


seize the day

and plan to live in it


or fear tomorrow’s

vacant plot.


From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

I've been struggling a bit over what to write. Quite a lot has happened this past week, but not much of that is stuff I feel I can or should reveal, because its very revelation seems like a breach of confidence. Sufficient to say that the plague is quite near to me, although best beloved and I are well at present. So, what shall I write?


Oh yes, my small campervan, Romy, needed an MOT test, an annual ritual which seems a bit like a medical examination when it happens. It feels personal, this submission of a beloved piece of metal and plastic for a make or break health check. I was concerned of course over how I would get Romy to the test centre, because of concerns over human contact. I needn't have worried at all. A phone call to the local Citroen dealer put me in contact with Gary, a most helpful person. "No problem at all!", he said, "I live near you and can collect it and deliver it back later in the day!". Next followed a detailed set of instructions as to how Romy was to be prepared for him. All handles, buttons, knobs and surfaces with which he might come into contact were to be wiped with anti-virus material, and I was to leave the key (clean also) on top of the driver's sun visor. Well, that was no problem for me, and I diligently cleaned as directed and more - the driver's cab hasn't shone like that for a long time! Gary duly came along and all went like clockwork. He took Romy away, carried out the test, phoned me for payment and returned her with an even more gleaming cab area. I find I am really heartened by the quality of service this young person gave me. There was no charge for collection and delivery and everything was done cheerfully. Gary is on my list of good people - hope he doesn't mind!


On a somewhat similar vein, I received a letter from my doctor's surgery last week. This was to tell me I should get a routine blood test - something I have undergone for many a year. Of course a pathology form was enclosed with instructions as to how to go about the test in these weird times. I am not a person to do anything without my eyes wide open, so I examined the form in detail to determine whether they were going to test the usual pointers and so on. Without beating about the bush I can reveal that the main reason for the test is my ancient and slightly enlarged prostate gland, and thus the code on the form I was looking for was "PSAD". Well, it wasn't there! Innumerable other factors were cited to be checked, but the most significant was missing. A phone call to the surgery was indicated, because punters are banned from dropping in as they were wont in the past. I had bad feelings about that, which were born out after I dialled the number. Many messages, mainly about Covid, followed, then various buttons to press, but finally I was on course towards a real person. After a very long wait, blighted by a ghastly sound that I suppose could be called - well at a long stretch - music, said real person answered. She was very helpful and acknowledged my problem, but said that Helen, who deals with such things, wasn't in, and would I please call back after a couple of days. Now, not wishing to endure the cacophony again, I suggested that a message be left for Helen to phone me, and happily that idea was accepted. Two days later Helen called and apologised for her mistake - she had indeed left the key test off the form. A replacement came through by post and I am going to get tested this afternoon. Hopefully all remains in order. As with the MOT service, I am very happy that people at the surgery, and indeed in many roles upon which we depend, are doing their utmost with kindness and consideration. Yes, I do hear of people being badly treated, but that hopefully can be put down mainly to tiredness caused by the high demands so many are facing. Being a glass half full person, I see the good outweighing the bad in general.


Music has been a great solace again this week. Every Monday evening at 8.00pm I have been joining a virtual pub open mic evening run by a friend of mine. Usually I perform something, as do many others, but there are also people who want to listen. All are welcome and the event has grown from being local Isle of Wight to being worldwide. People from the north island (England) join in, as do others from far flung places. Hawaii, Newfoundland, mainland USA, France and Ireland figure prominently so far. It really is good to share musically with so many who also endure many of the same vicissitudes in these plagued times. If anyone is interested in coming along, it's on Zoom and can be reached using ID 891 0610 5858 and passcode 1234. For simplicity the following URL is good: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89106105858


I hope my fellow journalistas are keeping well and happy for the most part. I really value the companionship of so many fellow travellers here.