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Strange times

Anna Stenborg, Uppsala, Sweden

Today is the last day of the last two weeks of summer vacation. It is cold and it is raining on and off since yesterday. The rest of summer was sunny and warm though, so I feel very content.


We had many visitors to the summer house this summer. We also found a white wine that goes perfectly with cod, browned butter and capers. I had time to bake buns and bread and working in the garden. Since I don´t dare to use the chain saw, I tried my newest tool, a “tiger saw” and it proved extremely useful working with the trees. There was one tree which looked all tangled, and which has no good fruit which I reduced to half size and so improved the view of the lake from our house. I also started pruning some of the other fruit trees but in a less drastic manner. Taking care of all the cut branches, making firewood and shredding branches also takes a long time but is meaningful.


Tomorrow we drive back to Uppsala and work after a wonderful summer.


Greetings from the far south

Mark Waller, Pretoria, South Africa

I received my second jab of the Pfizer vaccine a few weeks ago. I had to wait a while between getting the first jab and the second, delayed by a brief bout of Covid-lite in July. Now, I consider myself pretty well defended against the virus, but that could be characteristically delusional of me or at least short lived. 


All the analyses I’ve read, online, suggest that at some point people who have been vaccinated will need booster jabs. And there are increasing instances of people getting breakthrough Covid. 


Here in SA, only 8% of the population of about 60 million people have received the vaccine. There’s a lot of vaccine scepticism. Not so much of the loony antivax variety that we see in Europe and North America. It’s more to do with scare stories about side effects and, in rural areas at least, a preference for traditional medicine, despite its ineffectiveness against the pandemic.


The Delta variant continues to spread, quietly infecting over ten thousand people a day and killing about three hundred, according to official stats. The real figure is much higher, we just don’t know how much.


The curve of the current wave of infections is slowly dropping, but I think would drop a lot faster if people bothered with safety. They don’t, at least not around where I live. If anything, people seem more complacent than ever, going about things as if everything’s back to normal. 


Whatever that means. There’s a political crisis, due in its bare essentials to the failure of the governing party to tackle poverty and inequality since the transition to democracy. And there’s a continued threat of orchestrated instability, of the kind I mentioned in my last piece for the journal. So maybe the slow burn of bad but not catastrophic Covid doesn’t really bother people so much now. 


Fo my kids, Gracey and Masana, school attendance is still on a rotational basis and they are at home a lot during the week. They too have eased out of the fearful caution of the earlier months of the pandemic and into more relaxed comings and goings. “Are you wearing your masks?” I shout from my work table when I hear them going out. Invariably they have to return to hunt for them.


But at school, social distancing and mask wearing do seem to have become ingrained behaviour. All the teachers have been vaccinated and they are pretty strict about safety. That, I think, has altered how the kids interact with one another, maybe more than we realise.


Masana told me the other day that he is in love with a girl in his class. Her name is Doreen. 


I asked him if he talks to her. He said he hasn’t talked to her yet. But, he said, she made her eyebrows go up and down at him. That’s great, I said. It’s called wiggling your eyebrows. What did you do? I made mine go up and down too, he said. 


The next day Masana told me Doreen winked at him. He said he winked back. I asked him if he plans on talking to her. No, he said, he doesn’t. But they did bump fists after class, and then they both ran off. Covid doesn’t stand a chance with them.


Restrictions for many

Hilde Schöning, Buchholz, Germany

Catching a short glimpse of the Journal party a few weeks ago was fine, and I am sure you had a good time despite the weather. Due to a lot of rainfall the soil has gained some compensation of humidity for the last dry years. It also brought lots of snails in the garden as unwanted guests.


Hamburg is the first state in Germany which has introduced new rules concerning the admittance of guests in restaurants and cultural venues. Vaccinated and from Covid recovered people are allowed to enter without any restrictions. The decision to apply this rule is up to the proprietor. On the one hand they gain guests, on the other hand they might lose some. All in all, this causes an incentive to all those, who have still been hesitant about a vaccination.


School life is back to almost normal and hopefully remains like this.


Care in the time of Corona

Shirin Jacob, Ålesund, Norway

Hello! It’s been more than three months since I’ve written for the journal. 


I have spent four months on the island, away from Ålesund, and it took a few days after our return last week for both the cats and I to readjust to life in town.


It’s been a very hot summer. Great for trekking and outdoor activities and we seem to have spent masses of time planting, watering, fertilizing, weeding, planting even more, weeding yet again and mulching. Unfortunately, my husband over-exerted himself and landed in Casualty with atrial fibrillation requiring cardioversion under anaesthesia. This experience brought home how very isolated I am here when he is ill even though I love Norway. There is no one to turn to. Norwegians are lovely people busy with their own lives and commitments. There is very little space for the other. I spent hours on the phone with my dear friend in Singapore, who continues to hold my hand long distance. Fact - there is no perfect place on earth. Singapore was my safe place for many decades but the explosion of wealth and influx of literally a couple of million immigrants overnight, attracted by our stable government and quality of life, seemed to drive out all the creatives together with the vitality and charm from the centre of Singapore. It has become just too expensive for the average Singaporean. I can’t imagine going back “home”. So the last three months succeeded in Acceptance of my current reality here in Norway. I started to enjoy the isolation, increased self-reliance and a more introspective life. 


Back to our island. An acquaintance on the island suddenly died from a massive stroke. He was 66 years old. The funeral was simple and beautiful. The bells tolled for five minutes on the island and flags flew at half-mast. The priest read the dedication from his wife which described his entire life, devotion to his parents, wife and children and this was followed by testimonials from childhood friends and cousins who stood up in church. Strong Norwegians who weren’t afraid to cry openly in front of the congregation which made all of us tear up. I wish I had known him better. After the burial, we gathered in the priest’s house for salted lamb and vegetable soup followed by dessert, a table groaning with many homemade cakes. I was asked to step outside to take care of an elderly gentleman who had cut his hand so badly that it had severed a tendon. An eventful day. I suggested to my husband that we exchange our dedications now so we don’t miss the best bits later. 


My best early birthday present in June was training sessions with a Singaporean trainer on What’s app video. Signs of aging coupled with my dislike of exercise were becoming more apparent. I noticed I was losing flexibility and balance. With gyms closing as a result of Covid, the most I did was gardening and the occasional walk. Amirr, my Singaporean trainer, makes me do lots of yoga stretches and focuses on exercises like squats, lunges, shoulder presses, planks and push ups. There is a lot of groaning, huffing and puffing on my part. In the beginning, I could hardly do anything. Sofus, our cat, watches all my sessions intently and comes and sits on top of me if he gets concerned! I want to continue with Amirr if I can. Accountability to a third party seems to work for me. His wife is an arborist and he trained as a chef, so we have lots of interesting conversations during my rest periods. 


Barbara Warsop and I continue to speak on FaceTime. And Marie Christine from France and I email each other and chatted on the phone for the first time recently. Friends from the Plague Journal! I’m so happy about this. 


I have started to take more comfort in music whilst I am watering the garden. I particularly love the album “A Meeting by the River” by Ry Cooder and V.M.Bhatt which reminds me of my childhood in Kerala. My husband has introduced me and I have come to deeply appreciate the music of Leonard Cohen.

A month ago we took the ferry to two neighbouring islands as a road trip. There were no cafes or restaurants and just as we were getting hungry, we were flagged down by two little girls jumping up and down by the side of the road. What followed were three delightful hours. They were selling coffee, soda, ice-cream and svele (pancakes of this region) filled with geitost, a delicious brown goat cheese. Their grandfather invited us to sit in the garden with them and we went home laden with presents - an Honesty plant and little home-made clay hearts for the Christmas tree. New friends two islands away. 


I rang Chiltern Seeds and Scamp’s Daffodils in the UK for their catalogues. Both companies apologised that they did not send bulbs or seeds to Norway post- Brexit. I had seen Adrian Scamp on Talking Dirty on YouTube and was impressed with his passion and knowledge. Who knew there were 27,000 varieties and 13 divisions of daffodils? Both Adrian and Chiltern sent me their catalogues knowing full well that I couldn’t buy from them. The Scamp catalogue is a treasure. Wonderful British spirit and kindness. 


Covid cases are spiking again. Thirty new cases almost overnight here this week. The mayor has recommended the use of masks but very few seem to listen. I’m just waiting for the green light to go back to isolation on the island. In the meantime, the tragedy of Afghanistan unfolds. I’m grieving not only for the desperate Afghans but for those poor dogs and cats and their humans who were stopped by the Taliban. Why, why, why did people not get out earlier? Biden announced the pull-out date in early April this year. The suicide bombers have just struck. I can’t bear to read more. Lighting candles and saying a prayer. 


Take care.


Notes from a factory in the Midlands

MFS, Midlands

I have missed the last two monthly editions of the journal, having got out of my disciplined habit of submitting an entry (nearly) every Friday morning. So this is a bit of a catch up entry.


At work, my confirmed successor as Finance Director (an internal appointment) has appointed his successor as Head of Finance (an external appointment). And when this new person turns up in November, I will be able to take a back seat through to the end of December. Discussions are now turning to arrangements for my leaving party, where we have a tradition of sending directors off with a big dinner, followed by an evening of rather drunken karaoke.  


Our business is stable, but it seems that our customers have so much on their plate at the moment that starting a new diet isn't top of the list. Perhaps the start of the new school term will prompt people to think about turning over a new leaf. Our office staff who have largely been working from home are gradually returning to their desks, following informal rota systems to ensure we don't end up with full offices just yet. As for Brexit, we are continuing to ship our sales to EU countries through an import agent in Belfast. Once they are cleared in Northern Ireland, they are effectively "inside" the EU, even though the lorries drive back across the UK to get to the ferries to Northern Europe. Longer term we are going to have to establish a permanent warehouse in mainland Europe, but we don't want to rush that decision. 


We had a great trip to the theatre a few weeks ago. The RSC have constructed a temporary outdoor theatre by the river in Stratford, and together with two of my sisters who were staying with us for the weekend, we enjoyed dinner in the Rooftop restaurant a very entertaining performance of The Comedy of Errors. This was the weekend of the Journal Party, which explains our absence from Margaret's journal celebration.  


In the wider world the chaotic retreat from Afghanistan is all over the news. It is concerning that President Biden, whom the civilized world welcomed eight months ago for possessing the supreme virtue of not being Donald Trump, turns out to be a bad tempered and probably senile old man. Since writing this paragraph news of the terrible terrorist attack at Kabul airport has come through which will place the Biden regime under even greater strain


Our son and girlfriend did finally move out - their planned ten days' stay with us extending to nearly ten weeks. Their 1930s house in Leamington has been transformed from the tired and rundown place it was when they bought it last year, to something quite modern and stylish. There is still work to do, but they have a functioning kitchen & bathroom, plus a bedroom and lounge. Oh, and they have also acquired a Weimaraner puppy!


As for the Covid pandemic, I hear regularly of friends and colleagues who are catching the disease despite being vaccinated, but thanks to the vaccine none are becoming seriously ill. I guess it confirms that a policy of “defeating” Covid is doomed to fail, because the vaccine doesn’t prevent infection or transmission. And now that the vast majority of adults are vaccinated, protecting most of them from serious illness, hospitalisation and potential death, we should just get on with life, and accept Covid as an endemic disease like influenza. So that’s a vote from me for no more lockdowns, and certainly no more school closures. People of school age are probably going to catch Covid from time to time for the rest of their lives, so they might as well catch it now whilst they are young and healthy and start building immunity. 


Meanwhile I have been appointed a Trustee of Oscott College, one of only two remaining Roman Catholic seminaries in the country. Its splendid buildings date from the 1830s, designed by Pugin in the Gothic Revival style, and sit in parkland to the north of Birmingham. And so I am now able to put some meeting appointments into my otherwise blank 2022 diary!


A small blackbird

Marie-Christine, Blois, France

Is Care a real job?

Our jobs, as care workers, put us under a permanent pressure in order to give the best care we can to somebody we don't know. It doesn't come easily, and is an aim never fully or permanently achieved. 

When I was a child, young girls were still offered classes in the "domestic arts" - "arts ménagers" in French - one afternoon a week, the day the schools were closed. I chose knitting, sewing, painting and drawing. By the age of ten I had become very skilled at sewing, more generally at making 3D objects with materials. I loved making soft toys, all by hand. Singer sewing machines had not yet conquered the villages - I got my first one when I was 22, an electric one, second hand and I still have it, recently adjusted and in perfect working order. 

I never thought my expertise with needles would be useful, in a very peculiar way, 25 years later while doing medical biopsies. As in sewing, all your mind has to be in only one place, the end of the needle. The long-ago habit of changing the pressure on the needle according to the different resistance of the material was useful.


Usually, medical people don't say much about their job and how they feel about it. I have been encouraged by many of you writing about your professions over the last 18 months. In the newspapers also, health workers have been able to speak their minds during the awful year 2020, more overwhelming than usual, a medical tsunami. The silent care-crowd have found their voice. The silence used to be like that in the army, it is difficult to speak about the horrors we go through and witness every day. Who wants to know about such things in our society, where usually death and suffering are private and hidden? Even the words are not to be pronounced. 


Covid19 began as an explosion, but it's going on and on and on. The shock waves reverberate in ALL the departments of the health system (and more generally in the whole society), mainly because the energy, the carers and the equipment are dedicated to the Covid patients and subtracted from all the other departments. For years now all carers have done increasingly more work than they are well able to do every day. The general feeling is that most of us have done too much and with the result that we are exhausted mentally and physically, and have no more life inside of ourselves.



The robot Atlas of Boston Dynamics. Very skilled, very frightening. Let's hope he will be "educated" in favor of peace. But having met a delivery robot on a pavement in Berkeley three years ago, I wonder. Delivery Robot was strolling in the middle of the pavement, obviously not set to stop when humans were in its path - somebody in a wheel chair would have had difficulties to go by. I wanted to pick it up - it was the size of two small cabin suitcases- and put it into the road. Rob and our son persuaded me that this was not a good idea. I am not rich enough to pay for a US lawyer.

A few steps further on, I noticed that Delivery Robot was programmed to stop at the next road crossing. I was upset with that. Don't mind the humans, but cars might be dangerous for the little robot.. 


Strange birthday

On Rob's birthday, we went to the funeral of my sister Aude's father-in-law. Edgar was born in 1936. A very good man. He was a farmer, left his farm to his two sons when he was sixty, but continued to help there up to the age of eighty. The religious service took place in the village church, medieval, with three added beautiful baroque altars. The stone ceiling must have gone at some time and was replaced by a fairly recent wooden one. The hymns were sung by a few women with very thin voices, nobody could help them with the harmonium. Twenty years ago, somebody in the village would have been able to do it. The playing of keyboard instruments is declining. It's the first time I noticed that there were many more men than women at a funeral. All the farmers around came to pay homage to their colleague. They were very simply dressed but had their best polished shoes. We all walked behind the hearse to the cemetery. His wife gave us drinks in their beautiful garden after the burial. I always think that the buried person would have loved to be there, with all the members of his family and his friends. So human to do things a little bit too late. 


Gooseberry Show

One of my treats of the month was the photos in the Guardian of the Egton Gooseberry Show, a 220-year-old competition. The comment says "equally prestigious to Wimbledon". The usual gooseberry champion Graham Watson lost this year. The winning gooseberry weighed 26 drams 18 grains (but the real scale was electronic and the measure in grams!).


It looks as intense as the Geldeston summer show we used to enjoy for 20 years. Our late neighbours Mr and Mrs Lane were stars, they used to win so many prizes: courgettes, potatoes, tomatoes, cakes, jams... Mr. Lane was a professional gardener. Mrs. Lane used to make tea for the community in an enormous tin teapot - she did it for the last time when she was 100-years-old, saying that the teapot was starting to be too heavy. We used to go to all the summer fêtes we could. Among them, the Sidestrand one was the favorite - nice music band, nice lunch, nice place, meeting friendly people. We also remember the sea-scouts fête in Haddiscoe (very skilled mothers baking cakes).



Nothing to be added to the magnificent speech of Tom Tugendhat MP and army veteran. He very bravely defended the honor of the Afghans soldiers he knew. He mentioned the critics "who never fought for the colours", probably thinking of Presidents Biden and Trump who, perhaps conveniently, "avoided" the Vietnam war. Everybody will feel silenced by what he said. He shows the gigantic sinkhole in front of us, I feel it's a much greater one than Covid19. I take two words from his speech: the last one "defeat" and the central lesson "patience". I will now add the Afghanistan Times to my morning newspaper reading as long as it continues to be issued.As usual, if you have any kind of weapon and the determination to use it, you win - with the complicity of some politicians.


Forgotten bicycle in abandoned garden.

Our street.


Burlingham blog

Mary Fisher, Norfolk UK

My Latin is rusty at best. However, a letter to the editor of a national newspaper assures us that “te absente stercus flabellum tanguit” roughly translates to “while you were out, the shit hit the fan”. Ministers may like to bear this in mind when planning future vacations. Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, faced days of media questions after he went on holiday whilst the Taliban engineered a coup in Afghanistan. Perhaps the media were asking the wrong questions. Why, when you’ve known about an exit plan for months, would you not make adequate evacuation provision? Why would you even contemplate going on holiday a few weeks before such an important deadline? For almost twenty years Afghanistan has been run by a national government supported by NATO. President Biden made a decision to pull U.S. troops out by September 11. As far back as April, NATO, of which the UK is a member, had announced that its troops would begin withdrawing. Did no-one guess that the previous rulers, the Taliban, just might be interested? And finally, can our PM's Ministers be relied on not to wander off when making future decisions on the pandemic? 


Looking to the future of a Taliban rule amidst a global pandemic, the outlook is not promising. The Taliban are hostile to vaccinations and the World Health Organisation fear an unprecedented rise of Covid-19 in Afghanistan. Opinion is divided on whether or not the Taliban will ban vaccinations as they have done in the past. Even if they do not, rises in transmission are likely to increase due to Afghans hiding from the threat of Taliban persecution. One way or another the Taliban rule will have implications for the rest of the world.


If asked what the most significant pandemic was, most people would opt for the 1918 influenza, known as the Spanish flu. This month an article in Horizon, a Europe research journal, has identified that we may need to rethink this view. In 1890, the much less known Russian or Asiatic flu resulted in one million deaths. The researchers have determined that it was probably not a flu virus but more likely to have been a coronavirus. Furthermore, the 1890 coronavirus is still around and causes symptoms similar to the common cold in people today. It looks like Covid-19 has been here for well over a century and is here to stay for some time. 


Of the 48,000 Covid-19 deaths registered in England and Wales in the first three months of the 2020 lockdown, 40% were care home residents. During that time, the government is estimated to have supplied only 10% of the PPE needed in adult social care. With my aunt living in a care home, the reasons behind this disaster are high on my radar. So, I’m keen to watch a drama on channel 4 coming out soon, fittingly called ‘Help’. Set in a care home, the production portrays life at the start of the pandemic. It does not have a happy-ever-after ending. Barbara was lucky; she is living in a care home where not one resident has caught the virus. This was due to the vigilance by the care staff and by the management’s prompt purchase of PPE at outset. As a result, Barbara and I were able to join the other residents and relatives last week for a midsummer party in her care home garden. I cannot begin to imagine how terrifying it must have been for staff working in care homes that were not so well prepared and forced to make their own PPE from plastic bin bags. 


Grandson, aged nine, finally went to his first professional football match this week. He was due to have gone some eighteen months ago but the pandemic scuppered family plans. He may have considered it was worth the wait as he watched his team thrash their opponents 6:0 in a cup match. His father, who until then, had never seen six goals kicked into the back of one team’s net in a professional match, has tried to impress on his son that the result is probably a once in a lifetime experience. Nonetheless, my grandson will always remember the first match he went to. 


I’ve spent a few weeks tracking down an ever-worsening smell in the house. Having only recently moved home, I had visions of major sewerage problems. More in desperation, I pulled up a carpet in the hallway; deep cleaned the dishwasher; sniffed around and checked all the downstairs plumbing outlets. Nothing. On the eve of getting in professional help, it finally it dawned on me that I had bought a vegetable basket just after I moved in and had put some potatoes in there. Both basket and potatoes were promptly forgotten, tucked out of sight on a shelf. The residual rotted material was indescribable.