Greetings from the far south

Mark Waller, Pretoria, South Africa

The first batch of J&J vaccines that work against the variant of the corona virus prevalent here arrived by plane from the Netherlands late on Tuesday. There was footage on TV of five carts of white boxes being towed across the tarmac at OR Tambo airport. 


But there was no media presence or fanfare, unlike a few weeks earlier, when consignments of the less effective AstraZeneca vaccine landed. Still, the arrival of the J&J vaccine is big news and more than welcome. And it comes amidst talk about a third or fourth wave of infections, following from the current second surge. The J&J vaccine apparently works well against the mutated form of the virus doing the rounds here.


We’ve been under a stricter lockdown for several few weeks and it seems to have reduced the numbers of infections and deaths. There’s been a gradual easing of restrictions last week, and on Monday the schools reopened. I’d struggled a bit with the prospect of my kids returning, worried about the risk of infection. 


But all the schools seem to be well organised in terms of ensuring distancing, mask wearing and hygiene. The grades are split into two groups, which attend class on alternate days. The kids are given a ton of homework to do during their days off. But my two seem happy with that. Masana (7) fared pretty well during nearly a year of near total confinement at home. It was harder for his sister, who became very withdrawn and latterly sat under a blanket all day, screen-gazing.


I spent all Monday morning lying on the sofa distractedly flicking through a book I wanted to start reading but couldn’t. It was odd having the house, the silent house, to myself after all this time. Weird cacophonous monologues running through my mind.

Both Masana and Gracey were excited to return to class, to see their friends. Gracey is in her last primary school grade, Grade 7. She gets a different uniform to wear, altogether more elegant looking and so un-primary. 


The Grade 7s hang out by the school gate each day after class, chatting among themselves, aloof, cool. I think the other grades look on in awe, which is what they’re meant to do. For Gracey, the effect of being with her friends again - despite all the mask wearing and the rest of it - even for just a few days of school has been wonderful.


And they’ve just burst in on me as I write this, having walked home from school today, Friday. They don’t have to return until Tuesday next week, which is a sign of the continuing partial lockdown, but for them seems like just a nice long weekend. They wish.


So all’s relatively well within our cocooned existence. 


Beyond, the picture looks decidedly unstable. The rising crime spurred by all the breakdown and sudden increase in poverty seems to be out of control in some respects. 


I heard that in Mamelodi township, where I used to stay when I was a visitor to SA, many years ago, gang violence and racketeering has grown massively and rapidly, all based on extortion and car hijackings, the latter a vast and lucrative industry. 


The main gang calls itself Boko Haram, after the terrorist group that operates mainly in north Nigeria. People I know from Mamelodi say that the cops are useless - outnumbered, or else utterly absorbed into the gang networks. 


These networks are starting to spread to other impoverished areas around the city. My friends say that soon the place will be as bad as Cape Town.


Gracey in her Grade 7 uniform with her dog Pearl


Youlgrave lockdown

Dianne, Youlgrave Derbyshire

Vaccination day yesterday - Thursday. We were hoping to be given appointments for our village surgery or Bakewell but were asked to go to Chesterfield. It’s only twenty minutes away and is a pleasant drive and gave us a chance to charge the car battery so we were happy. We hadn’t been to Chesterfield, apart from dropping kids at the railway station once in the summer, for over a year. We noticed various changes, mainly new building, so work has been going on while our lives have been paused. The vaccinations took place at the Casa Hotel. It was easy to get to, very well organised and very friendly. Some of the staff normally worked in the hotel so they have good people skills and know how to put people at their ease. There was no queue and we were able to go in as soon as we arrived, about twenty minutes early. They said it is very busy when they start at 8am but as soon as they get through the first batch it is very relaxed. As we walked through the spacious reception area we noticed all of the Christmas decorations were still in place. There is a team of workmen, making the most of the hotel being closed, doing renovations in the bedrooms and they had requested that the decorations be left up. It all looked very bright and welcoming. Having been checked in and answering ‘no’ to all the relevant questions we were able to go into the booth together and after another quick question round from the vaccinator the deed was done. It really was ‘a slight scratch’, I didn’t realise she had done it. We have both felt slightly off colour but hopefully that means our bodies are doing what they need to do to protect us from the virus.


We didn’t feel up to attending the Zoom Oxfam auction last night but put in a few bids beforehand. The local Oxfam group are trying different ways of raising money as they can’t hold their usual events. We have a metal ladder which Jeremy will put up to the tree house – the wooden one has become rather rickety. We also have two hours work from a handyman. I do have my own handy man in Jeremy but he rather likes the idea of having his own handyman to help him for a couple of hours. (PS. Sadly I’ve just found out we didn’t get the handyman after all!) The event raised nearly £400. 


I have heard that there is a vigilante group in the village keeping an eye on the holiday cottages to make sure nobody is visiting. Maybe the same people who were putting up notices telling visitors to go home during the first lockdown. This makes me sad, although people shouldn’t be coming. The police can easily check where cars are registered and they recently sent some visitors back to Sheffield. I presume they also fined them. Jeremy needs to go and put up scaffolding on my parents old house, in Cottingham near Corby, so the stonework can be repointed. He says that will be fine as he will be going to do a job but he isn’t a registered builder so I don’t think it will be. We’ll have to check that out.


Yesterday was sunny so we took our seven year old grandson on a 9km circular walk to Robin Hood’s Stride. That is a natural sandstone rock outcrop just over the valley from our house. His oldest sister had said he wouldn’t walk far and would moan but he scampered along happily with me struggling to keep up, especially on the hills. He seemed to enjoy the history and geology lessons Jeremy was giving him on the way. His other sister had said, “Grandad is like a history book, he has everything in his head.” 


I am definitely feeling happier having had my first vaccination. Lighter evenings and signs of Spring are helping too.


Rural Norfolk

Chris Gates, Norfolk UK

Monday and Tuesday are full days of thaw, and in the last hour or so of daylight - now, mercifully, pushing 5.30 - a fine mistiness hangs over the open grassed areas front and back of the house. The guineafowl seem to relish it - they can roam in their flock selecting stuff from the turf instead of huddling in the odd sunny patch looking thoroughly fed up and there’s less conflict at the feeding stations with hens and pheasants. Strictly speaking the hens should be enduring their own lockdown, but that seemed pointless with 50 or 60 other wilder ‘fowl’ out and about: there’s only the four of them, they get close attention every day and are healthy enough.

Spring is deffo on the go with crocuses in odd corners and general bud-bursting. The Great Spotted Woodpeckers are drumming away marking territory and (hopefully) attracting potential mates. Equally hopeful cock woodpigeons pursue coquettish females along the parapets and the cock pheasants are going through their odd ‘drooping wing, sideways shuffle’ routine.


I mentioned Woodcock inbound from Scandinavia last week and we’d just ‘gone to press’ when this pic turned up of one hitching a lift on a Wells-next-the-sea fishing boat. It fluttered down about 8 miles offshore and stayed onboard until close to land.


I ventured into Norwich for some fish - we’re recreating all Rick Stein’s fishy meals from the recently repeated “Secret France” series - and was struck by just how deserted the Centre was. As it’s the arguably ‘non-essential’ shops that make up most of the frontages, they, of course are closed and most are dark. Some, like Debenham’s with grand, deep entrances under cover now sport tented enclosures of the homeless. It comes to something when a Tesco Express stands out as a spark of colourful jollity.


There’s much pointless and rather annoying pressure from tv and papers at every opportunity, speculating what ‘release’ may look like when it’s addressed next week. Anytime they have a politician in the studio they ask the obvious questions and they’re all staying schtum for the moment - Sunday’s Marr show might see a bit of authorised leakage. Trying a different angle, one reporter asks a brewery exec a to say what form of relaxation he’d like to see re pubs opening - which boils down to “business as usual or don’t bother”. I’d love that too, but can’t see that happening anytime soon.

There’s a follow-up to irregularities mentioned in the Journal in past weeks: concern that billions were spent unwisely in the dash to secure PPE, sometimes from ‘crony companies’... The High Court has found that Matt Hancock and the DHSC failed in its statutory duty to provide details of contracts issued within the required 30 days. In fact we’ve never been told where the whole of the £15 billion went. The Judge was quite clear: “The Public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded.” What we do know - so far - is that £252 million went to a finance company who diversified into face masks, £108 million to a confectionary company suddenly able to supply medical requisites and £345 million to a company called ‘Pestfix’ - perhaps not an obvious, established or reliable source for PPE. Though found in breach of the ‘30 day’ rule, so far there's no DHSC undertaking to provide the required transparency anytime soon. 


And finally, a beginning. We’ve had some cracking starts to the day this week - though there must be a load of anxious shepherds out there on the Acle Marshes.



From rural New York

Sandy Connors, USA

I find it difficult to share the many feelings I have day to day, week to week ~ my moods go up and down all day long over so many things in the small sphere of my life as it is now.  Trying to arrange an appointment for the vaccine, I set my alarm for midnight, 3 am, 5 am, etc. hoping there will be available slots online at the closest pharmacy hoping to avoid having to go long distances in this precarious wintertime weather. But so far, I have been unsuccessful. Being woken up in the middle of the night, I find my dreams are vivid and stranger than I have ever experienced ~ people show up in them unbidden and unwanted, sometimes funny, but often strange and worrisome. I think it is due to the level of quiet stress we are all living under.


There are some lovely new projects I am working on, which are like anchors to my old self, and make me happy to reconnect with ~ but my commitment ebbs and flows, depending on the success of a particular sketch, or the uncertainty of whether or not it is a worthwhile pursuit at this point in time. But, truly, creativity is probably the one thing that does give me real pleasure and glimpses of hope.


March is just around the corner ~ oh, how lovely the thought of spring is to me! My warmest greeting to everyone.

This is an early morning update following my lamenting post of last night ~ After setting the alarm for 4 am, on the advice of the Pharmacist I visited yesterday seeking guidance about when was the best time to try and get an online appointment, and refreshing the site every 5 minutes for two hours, I finally succeeded in booking both my vaccine appointments this morning at 6:15 am! I must admit I feel a bit groggy from my disturbed sleep but oh, so relieved! I just had to share the good news with you all. I hope it isn’t as difficult as I found it for those of you who still haven’t gotten yours yet. Won’t it be good to have everyone safe again. But I cannot imagine that will happen by July as President Biden is hoping. Well, have a good weekend, everyone ~


Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Suffolk

This is a quiet time - nothing doing. We endure lockdown. It goes on and on. And on. The snow is almost completely cleared - a few patches remain - in ditches or shadowy areas on the fringes of the village. Today there’s some watery sunshine and our bed linen is washed and blowing on the line in the garden. I’ve things to do in the greenhouse and a walk to take. Hopefully it’ll stay dry. 


I recall a film from years ago - I don’t know its title or any of the actors names but one scene or image was particularly powerful. It involved a young lad running - frantic to get home from school. His goal was to get the washing in from the clothes line. He used to wet the bed and, for him, the sheets on the line showed the whole world his shame and humiliation.


It stuck with me that image. Fear. Panic. Trying to get somewhere before the game is up. Maybe it’s a metaphor for my life. Running to try to stay ahead in the game. Fearful or anxious. Can’t say I feel too frantic just now. No need to run. Nowhere to run to. Not fit enough anyway! Lucy, the new pup, does all the running nowadays. She’s watching me type this. Her eyes say “hurry up”!


Signing off now. Stay well and safe x


Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

Have just been listening to a piece before the 6 o’clock news on Radio 4 about mud. It sounds as if the combination of so many extra people out walking and some exceptionally wet weather is going to be a real problem in some public gardens and spaces. Here, parts of Westwood have turned into a quagmire. After several periods of heavy rain many of the underground streams have come to the surface. In one area a lake has appeared, complete with seagulls. When the weather turned very cold the surface improved for walking on as it was crisp, and even better when we had a couple of days of snow. As soon as it turned milder the snow turned to water, and the sloppy mud returned. What we need now is an early, dry Spring. In the garden the dwarf irises are bursting into flower. Next Tuesday I have my first vaccine. Hurray! 


Thin air

John Mole, St Albans



Invited online

for another meeting


you check the list

of your regular tasks


as every day

seems a digital journey


and every fresh link 

an anxious diversion.


Held up in the traffic

of unanswered messages


having logged on 

at the very last minute


you hold your breath

for reassurance


that patience is virtual,

that the host will let you in.


My feelings on paper

Barbara Warsop, Sheffield, Yorkshire

This week a friend and neighbour passed away. The second death this year of family and friends. I am quite sad as we both belonged to our local art group and sat together, she will be missed. Although we haven’t been able to meet for a year now due to COVID-19, we have been neighbours for 54 years; our children were at school together. 

In her later years she was wheelchair bound suffering with rheumatoid arthritis and her husband took care of her whilst suffering with Parkinson’s. disease. They were the happiest people I know always smiling and uncomplaining. I feel so sad that due to Covid I have not called to see them.

When I did call to see them, they always offered me a cup of tea and biscuits. I felt guilty as her husband wouldn’t let me help and I used to hope he didn’t fall waiting on me. By the time he had walked across the room shaking half the tea would be in the saucer. He was so independent.

When my husband was ill he offered us the use of a wheel chair, in his out house he had quite a few and had to walk down a slope to get it. I was on tenterhooks as he wobbled down this slope, and had to get them all out for me to choose. I struggled not wanting to interfere, watching him with his independence. 

This lovely man has just lost his wife and I still can’t visit. He lives with his son. This year has been hard, The People in the art group I belong to are all senior citizens, it’s a very friendly group.

This year we have missed out on our annual Exhibition in May, our BBQ in July, A trip out to an art show, our local festival exhibition in August and our Xmas party. I think we have all had our vaccinations now and I hope there is light at the end of the tunnel. So many things we have all had to cope with in the last year.


I have spent too much time watching TV and my body is becoming stiff and painful. The physio exercises have given me so much pain. I rang my GP and he has given me Patches of Butec5 buprenorphine. These patches have so many side effects that will also stop me from driving that I have decided not to use them.


The good thing I have watched recently on face book is the new world-wide challenge. Jerusalem Dance. I found I can do that at home and its something I have enjoyed. I may even loose a bit of weight and loosen up a few joints.   Ha-ha.

The sun has just come out and snowdrops are out in my garden so things are looking up. Stay safe everyone its not really time to mix just yet.



Jane, just south of Norwich

Jane, Eaton

It has been a quiet week here on the edge of Norwich. The snow has melted away as the temperature has risen and the birds have increased their activities after sheltering from the icy conditions of last week.


The bright spot for me this week was my birthday on Tuesday and doorstep “hellos” from our two daughters. A in her lunch break bringing coffee cake and P after work bringing homemade sticky toffee pudding! It was good to see them and hard to resist a hug. Our son’s card arrived from Canada on my birthday which was a treat and a sign that the postal service between the UK and Canada was back on track. It arrived with my NHS letter inviting me for a vaccine – my new age brings me into this next phase of the vaccines, well timed!


We speak to our son and daughter-in-law in Canada every weekend and life in Banff, Alberta is slowly returning to a cautious normality – they have actually been out for a meal and drinks. What was not normal for Banff was the earthquake they experienced on Saturday when there was a loud boom and their house shook as they were eating their evening meal. Fears were there had been a serious train derailment but in fact it was a 3.9 magnitude earthquake, 6km north of Banff in the Rockies. It caused a lot of alarm at the time but it appears no one was hurt and no structural damage so far reported.


So another week passes. With falling infection rates daily, increased talk of lifting restrictions and more daylight hours we have reason to look ahead positively. Off for a walk now to compensate for some of those birthday calories!  Best wishes to all.