We are now a monthly journal...
Clarissa Upchurch, Wymondham
One of the hottest weeks this year started with ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19th and late this afternoon Lily, our cat, flopped over dramatically onto the carpet as if she had had enough of it, the heat I mean, not Freedom! Yet the high temperatures have encouraged Lily to consider the outdoors for a change and every day this week she has been found lying around in the yard while keeping an eye out for the pigeons hoping to take advantage of dropped seeds from the bird feeder. Sparrows are very good at throwing them around. Seeing Lily basking in the yard reminds me of photographs in the papers of throngs of people crowding onto sun-shimmering beaches around the country also enjoying ‘Freedom’. But no sooner after settling down, large numbers will most likely have been pinged by the NHS app which means they must self-isolate for anything up to 10 days. What kind of freedom is this?
On a different note, a bird, probably a fat pigeon, fell down our chimney and was trapped half way down behind our bricked up fireplace. For days we heard its piteous attempts to peck its way out. The bird did not last long and we thought no more about it until slowly but surely flies mysteriously appeared in the room. I imagined there was no social distancing in the cramped confines of the corpse. They came through the smallest of gaps, a tiny hole in the plaster, squeezing through one at a time, dazed at first, then making a straight beeline for the open window and freedom!
Last summer on our well-being walks we often passed a beautiful buddleia with deep purple flowers. I broke off a bit of it from a branch that was overhanging the path and on returning home stuck the stem into hormone rooting powder that I have had for years but never used. Success! as it took root and even survived the cold winter. In spring I repotted it with the result it has now grown into a healthy shrub with flowers recently appearing - as are butterflies! Lily has shown great interest in the butterflies, alas. Passing the spot where the original buddleia grew I noticed it had disappeared. It was a shock as I did enjoy looking at it but I was so glad I had taken a cutting. I noticed on the internet that a ’buddleia davidii’ or butterfly bush can cost up to £42!
I have been closely following the rise of cases in the latest ‘Delta’ variation surge by making a note of the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths. I have pages of data. Looking at the ‘surge’ graph on the Guardian coronavirus page I was reminded of geography lessons on glacier valleys; the ‘U’ shape and then stunning images of such valleys in Switzerland. It made me think of carefree times without the fear of killer viruses.
Fear is fading in the minds of people after a week of ‘Freedom’. I have noticed the gradual disappearance of masks outside: there are only a few in outdoor use, usually worn by very old people, and the gap between people in queues is narrowing. I am tempted to say ‘Please stand back’ but I am wary of the sort of aggressive behaviour that can happen in such circumstances. Most of us have received double jabs but some people can still fall ill, mildly if lucky, but some, in a few cases, can fall very ill again. I am not living in fear but I am still cautious as are many of my friends and acquaintances.
A Wymondham Plaguery
George Szirtes, Wymondham, Norfolk
It has been an eventful week. I started by meeting a Dutch translator of Korean poetry into English, a very nice young man who has competed in the Student Games at Taekwondo. It was Taekwondo that first took him to Korea where he learned Korean. The poet he is translating was a dear friend of ours who died last autumn. We met her while she was resident at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich and I was asked to help her while she was here. Clarissa and I became very fond of her so it was a shock when she died (not of some Covid-related illness). Now here is the young man reading her poems to me in Korean then in his translation. I meet him again tomorrow, but this time online.
On Monday I went to London by train for dinner with fellow judges of the International Booker. It was the day of torrential rain and our table was on the terrace under a big umbrella. There were seven around the table. The waiters were all fully masked and soaked. I was accommodated in a nearby hotel having made arrangements next day to meet a poet I have long known, Christopher Reid. We met at Speaker’s Corner then walked across the park to a pub where I had a whiskey and he a glass of wine. We were outside and the sun was warming up. The next step was a meeting at Ognisko, the Polish restaurant opposite Imperial College, with another old friend, Eva Hoffman, again out on the terrace. That meant another walk, this time through the mews estate just behind Exhibition Road. Polish food is delicious and savoury. We talked for a couple of hours then she decided to go for an Uber that could also drop me at Kings Cross. Not the best idea. The traffic was so slow she got out at Baker Street, I at Euston Square, and walked the rest of the way to catch the next available train, a slow stopping one to Cambridge, then changed to our line.
This sounds like the life of a social butterfly, literary lounge lizard and serial name-dropper (heaven knows if those names carry weight with readers here). In any case I received my due punishment by getting pinged a day and a half later along with half the country. I am double vaccinated and have never had a symptom. But the ping explains why I am seeing the young Dutch translator online rather than in person tomorrow.
Otherwise, I finished translating a Hungarian screenplay about an elderly woman in Chicago whose children want to place her in a very expensive sunset home but who is adopted by a lost racing pigeon and has adventures in New York in her efforts to return it to its owner.
We watched Dominic Cummings doing his interview and later caught him on Spitting Image. It was hard to tell the difference except for the fact that the puppet knows itself to be a satirical figure made of rubber. I was thinking what writer might best able to include Cummings in a work of fiction, a fate he surely deserves. I asked friends for suggestions. Hilary Mantel was mentioned, Mary Shelley, Frank Hampson (of Billy Bunter fame) and John Webster, the playwright of revenge tragedies. Plenty more. I quite like the idea of Mikhael Bulgakov.
I nearly missed the weather suddenly sizzling. I sit in a T-shirt at 9pm writing this.
A small blackbird
Marie-Christine, Blois, France
Dear friends, news from your country seems alarming, keep safe as much as you can.
I wonder if I should go on doing it. I am addicted - an hour a day minimum. I better subscribe to Zen Habits, Be More With Less or Becoming Minimalist, it might be better for my health - mental and physical. We don't have TV and don't watch vidéo news, too much disturbing images. The tittles of newspaper's articles in English or French I remember since the last issue of our Plague20 journal :
• I have a pandemic brain. Will I ever be able to concentrate again?
• Where is Europe going to? (for Brexiters, it's not about EU, it's about our shared culture and generally about "the old continent").
• Why Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is the ultimate opera? (after watching on Arte, a really bad staging of the masterpiece in Aix-en-Provence last festival).
• Renting clothes is worse for the planet than throwing them away (still debated).
• The decrease of anthropogenic CO2 didn't have any impact on global CO2. Half of anthropogenic CO2 comes from 25 cities, 23 in China - we have to consider that China is producing most of the goods we need here, so it's our CO2 too -, Moscow and Tokyo.
After raising those questions, I better put the kettle on if there is nothing stronger in the fridge.
A Covid star, Jackie Weaver
She calls for more kindness, generosity and warmth in society. Everybody needs it. For me, even if I get a good share of it, Jackie's paper in the Guardian ( Sunday 11 July 2021) made me think that I had been, like many women of the 50's, educated to GIVE, and now frankly, today I am thinking "all that giving, what for ?" The haters seems to have won, I let them have their victory, but I don't have anymore energy left for kindness to "unkind people". Sometimes, I think that Covid seriously affected brains and hearts, even without contracting the actual virus.
A week in the Aubrac
We are just back from a week in Central France, in the village of Saint-Urcize. It's our favourite place in France.
Very quiet, more cows than tourists. Silence. A grassy granitic and volcanic plateau, altitude 1300 m (4000 ft), you may find beautiful photos on internet, and the place is even more beautiful than the photos. The light is permanently changing. Streams run everywhere. Local people are genuine, discrete and welcoming. The main activity for visitors is walking, or doing not much, sitting and reading inside when wet or outside when the rain stops - that's Rob and me.
That week in the mountain fresh air restored our strenght, after two months of exhausting grand-parenting and many other unusual circumstancies.
During three days, we have visited ancient roman sites. One day was spent in the vanished city of Anderitum, now called Javols. It was an unexpectedly and appropriate way to celebrate Rob's new book Veii. Anderitum was an important city in the second century AD, now just a large flat empty field to let our imagination run. We visited the site during several hours, walking around with three women specialists: a young archeologist in charge of the place - the exclusive passion of youth-, a botanist archeologist and a geology archeologist probably both retired with the spirit of a life's passionate knowledge. The other days, we walked short distances on the remains of the roman road between Javols and Rodez. By car today, it will be 1h30 drive, 93 km/58 miles, the modern road is more or less parallel to the roman one. It's such a strong feeling to think that we put our steps on the same path used for 2000 years, and may be older - they are also quite a lot of dolmen around. Those "roads" are still used by people who walk from Le Puy-en-Vellay to Compostela on the via Podiensis. You can see them with their walking sticks (some still use the self-made wooden ones) and their backpacks ornated with the scallop shell (we call it in French, coquille Saint-Jacques, for that reason).
For the first time of my life, I am consulting weekly a physiotherapist. He is clearing away my old companion pain in my left leg. Good for the spirit. I can hardly believe that I got a "new" painless leg. Rob's dentist accepted to consult me after mine retired, I feel so lucky. How can one age without a competent and nice dentist ? Talking about health is a sign of age!
To raise our spirits: "be reasonable and human", that was the advise of a father to his son, Axel Kahn, a celebrated French Doctor who died recently.
Photos: Tree pulling up a stone.
Roman road. Javols: 200 and 2021 AD
Robjn Cantus, Cambridge
John and Lucie Aldridge have always been considered the 'quiet ones' of Great Bardfield, but this is mostly down to people linking the traditional style of John's painting and forcing that idea of tradition and morality onto his persona. In contrast, most people's views of Michael Rothenstein are that he was eccentric, due to his amazing mixed media work. But the myth that the Aldridge's were quiet couldn't be further from the truth. But with no biography (up to now) on them, the lives of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious have taken centre stage.
A painter and rug weaver, Lucie Aldridge settled in the Essex village of Great Bardfield in 1933 with, the painter John Aldridge. Also living there at that time were Eric Ravilious and his wife Tirzah Garwood who were cohabiting with Charlotte and Edward Bawden. When Tirzah and John had an affair it tarnished the Aldridge’s marriage forever, something Garwood didn’t acknowledge in her biography Long Live Great Bardfield. Many people take Garwood's book, verbatim, and don't question her own intentions or motivations, leaving room for Lucie's memory to have become sullied by her love rival.
Lucie's memoirs were written at the suggestion of the editor of Time magazine, T. S. Matthews. Lucie was born in 1889 and being older than John, she had a totally different series of memories and friends. Her memoirs describe her unorthodox childhood on a Cambridgeshire farm, the involvement of her family in Women’s Suffrage, her marriage during the First World War, and her experiences at Art School in London in the 1920s. A beautiful woman, she posed for several artists. She also observed the post-War era of the Bright Young Things and the painters she knew, including Robert Bevan, Cedric Morris and Stanley Spencer. Through John Aldridge she came to know Robert Graves when he was living in Deià with his mistress and muse Laura Riding, and provides a fascinating account of her visits there while Graves was in self-imposed exile after writing Goodbye to All That. During these visits she also met and wrote about poets and artists such as Norman Cameron and Len Lye.
After Lucie’s death in 1974 the memoir was lost, but it recently surfaced in
an American university archive. Why Lucie's memoir wasn't published is a mystery, but it is likely that ill health pushed its importance back, though she clearly had the desire to see it in print.
After being postponed due to the Covid pandemic the book is released on the 16th August 2021. It has been printed in a limited edition of 50 hardback copies and 250 paperbacks.
This is its first publication with her text illustrated with linocuts by Edward Bawden. The postscript covers the other artists of Great Bardfield and their friends.
Order from: https://inexpensiveprogress.com/new-b
From the black shed
David E, East Norfolk
May was wet, June was cool, July has been baking and as a result parts of the garden have got a bit out of hand. I don't think I have ever seen such prodigious growth. The lawn, usually parched at this time, is as green as ever apart from the "no mow May" bits which are brown. The Hollyhocks have reached 11 feet and are still growing!
With all the activity in the garden we haven't been out much to join the multitudes escaping from lockdown; a few walks, some lunch and a sail on the river Bure dodging the holiday cruisers. I must try to sail more on a Saturday which is change over day so fewer holiday makers on the water.
At the weekend we will be at a family wedding in the west country and will follow this with a few days in Wales. What are the chances we will get "pinged" I wonder? I imagine that the chances of passing by an infected individual while walking the length of the promenade at Aberystwyth are not insignificant. If half a million people were pinged in the last week how is a society supposedly back at work expected to cope? I don't think the architects of test-and-trace thought this one through properly at a time of rising infections. Surely the common sense answer is to self-isolate when close family or work colleagues are affected but not for casual contacts.
Meantime we're not any closer to meeting our children in Canada and Uganda, both in areas where covid levels have been high but now falling rapidly. Vaccination levels are good in Canada but in Uganda only three percent of the population have received a dose. Maybe next year, who knows but for now thank goodness for WhatsApp!
Jean, Melbourne Australia
We are back in lockdown in Victoria, our 5th, along with half the rest of the country. The Delta variant has taken off unfortunately – and the country at large isn’t vaccinated. Only 12% are fully vaccinated – meaning we are at the bottom of the OECD (38/38) in terms of our vaccination success. The government bought a bit of Pfizer and lots of Astra Zeneca – and then when incidents of blood clotting appeared – clumsiness of government messaging around the safety of the AZ vaccine along with overall complacency led to us being very far behind.
How the government will deal with a highly vaccinated country, whenever that happens, is unclear. I really hope this next stage will be guided by medical science and a strong public health approach. That’s been the case so far with state government leadership, with so much messaging focussed on keeping people safe and on protecting the health service.
Before the lockdown was announced, I applied for an Exemption for Travel in the hope of travelling overseas to see my daughters. This first application was turned down – it seems it didn’t meet the requirements (although they are not spelled out however) for travel on care and compassionate grounds! – and I’m winding myself up to put in the next application with further letters of support. Going by articles in the news, it seems to take a number of applications before it is – maybe – accepted. The whole process is like a roller coaster – some days are up and others are really down.
Again, thank heavens for Zoom. My birthday last week was actually wonderful, celebrated with champagne and cake over Zoom with all of us spread about the world. Tomorrow morning we’re getting together again, this time for my younger daughter’s birthday. As for celebrations, so glad Margaret and Peter are having a party for the Journal writers at long last. I hope the sun shines and it’s a glorious day!
Anna Stenborg, Uppsala, Sweden
I worked three of the last four weeks, but had one week off, which was spent in the summer house. During the previous summers I was occupied for much of the time with fixing the old windows, but this summer it is time to work with the shoreline by cutting reeds and clearing the seabed and making a footpath along the shoreline. Also bathing, of course, which is so pleasant when the water is warm. Thomas and his lovely fiancée Marit visited from Norway for the first time since the pandemic and we had a great time together. We also had visit from a family of old friends of a particularly cheerful disposition who stayed a few nights. Back in the large hospital in Uppsala this week includes more work than normal weeks with two evening shifts. Also, I have to work both Saturday and Sunday this weekend. The corridors of the hospital are quite empty, but the emergency room is full most of the time. The shortage of nurses and hospital beds has led to overcrowding in the emergency room. Some mornings there were 30 patients who were waiting for a hospital bed. Covid cases are very rare however, and we only need to wear masks when we work closely with patients so Covid is not a lot on my mind. I long for more holiday which will be the last two weeks of August.
Maz, Sheffield, England
This is my first contribution to the journal, and I apologise in advance for the gloomy topic.
My mum died last week in France, on her birthday, aged 87. We had been estranged for some time; it was complicated. Isn’t it always? But during those years I had made peace with Mum in my head. I thought about her life, her strengths and accomplishments, and the undivulged troubles she took with her to the grave. The very happy young childhood that she gave us. And her unswerving dedication - well, there was a brief wobble after we all left home - to the genial, mostly well-meaning idiot who was my father.
My sister and her family in France, from whom I am also estranged - what a dysfunctional lot we are! - arranged for Mum’s funeral to be shared on Zoom with her many friends and relations. I woke in the morning with a heavy feeling, like giants treading on my chest, and a buzzing in my head. A numb, dry-eyed sadness. Thoughts scattering like smashed glass. I got the time difference all wrong, and nearly missed the start.
There is a lot to be said for Zoom funerals if you are no stranger to estrangement. You can have a good look at everyone else on Zoom, without having to talk to them. It doesn’t matter if you can’t hear all the contributions at the service, or see all the photos clearly; they are emailed over to you afterwards. You can sit in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee by your side, your well-stocked bookshelves behind, confident in the impression you are making. And my one and only Mum is gone.
Thoughts from the Suffolk coast
Harris G, Suffolk
Greetings, comrades! It’s hard to believe that four weeks have gone since the last journal entry - but here goes - a few lines from an early morning in mid-Summer Suffolk!
Not a lot to tell. The fine weather this past week has kept me out in the garden for much of the time. It has been very hot - at times too hot to do too much gardening! Oh but heavy rain in previous weeks has meant that now it is so warm, the plants and shrubs seem to have doubled in size. Hollyhocks and delphiniums have done especially well - and so too the roses. The garden is as colourful as it gets just now - yet this is not my favourite time of the year. For me, spring is always more hopeful. All the same, isn’t it good to see the sunshine and cloudless blue skies and feel the warmth on our shoulders?
Well, “Freedom Day” - July 19th - has been and gone but in my part of the world, nothing much has changed. The official lifting of the restrictions may have occurred but locally people are largely maintaining social distancing. At the supermarkets, there are regular loud-speaker announcements to the effect that ‘although no longer mandatory, staff and customers are grateful for those who continue to wear face coverings and keep two metres apart’. I guess there is a level of doubt or mistrust. We are waiting and watching and wary.
Not far from me, an outdoor performing arts festival has just started - Latitude. This major event happens annually in the grounds of Henham Park. It brings many people into the area and undoubtedly provides quite a boost to the local economy. This year it is happening as part of the UK government's Events Research Programme, meaning it can go ahead at full capacity. I hope it goes well. I am not sure I would be tempted to go just yet - although the history of the park interests me a lot. Indeed, it used to be the site of Henham Hall - a vast ‘stately home’. Sadly, the hall was demolished in the 1950s but there are photographs on internet sites that show it as it was being ‘taken down’. By all accounts, it was a very fine house.
Mention of fine architecture reminds me - I made a trip to Norwich a few weeks ago and spent a lovely day walking around the city. There are so many good shops to see and interesting places to browse. One not-so-good sight to behold, however, is the now empty Debenhams superstore building. There - in one of the busiest streets - near to the bustling market place and other major stores - homeless people have set up tents and other temporary sleeping arrangements in the empty doorways and dusty entrances. Imagine trying to sleep and live in such a way. It must be miserable.
Lately, I have experienced a few restless nights - mostly when the temperature has made sleeping uncomfortable and I have been disturbed by dogs wanting to ‘take the night air’ or ‘use the outdoor facilities’! Then, if I cannot get back to sleep, I read or listen to the wireless - especially those late night phone-in shows. On one programme, people were calling in about the NHS. One caller was quite angry, arguing that it is so difficult to get a face-to-face appointment now. Lots of concern was expressed by the various callers - the NHS has died said one - and it has been replaced by the NCS - National Covid Service! Nothing new I guess. Before the pandemic, public services were already struggling to cope with demand. Surely this is now a political ‘wake-up call’? Surely, everyone can see that we must invest much more in our NHS and public sector services. We must review the services... Must rethink... must not miss the opportunity to build a better future...
Hey ho, time to climb down from my soap box...
Another fine day begins (a little cooler and some cloud today. Rain on its way).
Take care, good people. Stay safe and well.
Mary Fisher, Norfolk UK
It’s been a week of mixed messages from the government. On Saturday the Health Minister tests positive for Covid-19. Photos circulate the media showing Sajid with the PM and Cabinet Ministers. On Sunday the PM and the Chancellor issue a statement to say that they’re carrying on as normal as they are part of a pilot that no-one has heard of. An outcry ensues in the media. Screeching halt and the PM pops up on our screens to say they won’t be taking part in the pilot after all. By Friday the pilot has transformed into new rules and key food workers are exempt from Covid isolation. All crystal clear so far?
Midnight Sunday. England removes most of its lockdown regulations; Monday becomes so called Freedom day. Nightclubs open their doors to eagerly awaiting crowds. Social distance instantly becomes a distant memory. With a sense of déja-vu of the rapidly abandoned re-opening of schools in early January, the PM announces a change in plan only seventeen hours later. Covid-19 vaccine passports will be mandatory and full vaccination will be a condition of entry to clubs and other venues with large crowds. But, not until the end of September. All summer to party then. On Friday crowds of Latitude festival-goers begin to arrive and the big festivals season begins.
Onto the airwaves first thing Monday a Business minister tells the public that people can make an "informed decision" if they are 'pinged' by NHS test and trace app – this is government speak for “you can ignore it”. Downing Street immediately contradicts the Minister to say that it is "crucial" to self-isolate when told to do so by NHS app. Really rather pleased that my mobile is so old it wouldn’t download the app.
Ping-demic is also rife in the schools. Three grandchildren and teacher daughter-in-law were all sent home over the past two weeks. 14 year old grandson was sent home on a Monday even though a pupil in his class had tested positive the previous Thursday. Teaching staff have been doing a brilliant job to keep things going over the last sixteen months. Seems the government does not take the same view and, as the schools break up, the government announces that teacher’s salaries are being frozen – the Minister for Education has the temerity to call it a “pay pause”. Nice timing Gavin.
[With apologies to Shakespeare] - To wear a mask, or not to wear a mask, that is the question. For me it’s a no-brainer. I shall continue to wear one in all enclosed or overcrowded places. At Barbara’s care home life carries on as usual. Full PPE, visitor testing, no hugs. The Ministry for Social Care hasn’t actually made a decision on what to do in regard to the new unlocking regulations. As Parliament goes on its summer vacation today, this means that nothing will be done for at least a couple of months… if then. Barbara doesn’t understand why I cannot remove the mask as she can’t hear me and has to wait whilst I write everything down. If I take her out, the new rules apply but I cannot persuade her to even leave her room. Barbara is safe but all the joy is going from her life.
This week I was saddened to hear that a friend has died from cancer. P was getting medical advice late last year as the country lurched from one lockdown to another. Treatment was rescheduled whilst the local hospital struggled to cope with the increase of Covid-19 patients during January and February. When we last spoke, P was looking forward to spending more time with her beloved grandchildren. Another hidden cost of the pandemic.
Meanwhile I’ve been settling into my new home. And I love it. By sheer good fortune I’ve moved a few roads away from Jane, another Plague20 contributor. This week Jane turned up with a tray of pretty plants from her garden and is introducing me to some beautiful walks in the area. Naively, I had assumed that moving to city-cum-suburbia would mean a dearth of countryside. Not so. Close by is a diverse environment including marshland, woodland, streams and wildlife habitats. Oh yes and parakeets, although I’ve only heard them not actually seen any.
John Mole, St Albans
High on its branches
and weighing them down
until grown to a size
that will catch the wind
cones perch like pontiffs
enthroned in judgement
each nodding with zeal
to consider the law
of arborial gravity
if not the fall of man.