28/02/2021

Florist in lockdown

Jane, Near Manchester, England

The big news this week is there is a tentative plan to ease the country out of lockdown. Schools will be the first to open up again on the 8th March. They are calling it a ’road map’ and it’s all subject to changes if the infection rate increases. Shops and hairdressers won’t be able to open before 12th April at the earliest. For us it means Mother’s Day will be more online orders and deliveries, rather than shop purchases. Boris announced the new plans on Monday in the House of Commons, he spoke without hesitation and with confidence, then as soon as he was asked questions and came ‘off script’ he started to flounder and stammer. He began to irritate me so I switched him off. A bit like me when I worked part time in the local post office, I guess they are all just winging it!

I was interested to discover this week that Manchester Art Gallery is exhibiting the chosen art works created for Grayson Perry’s Art Club. A celebration of people’s creativity during lockdown. Something to book in the diary soon! I will look forward to that outing.

Nothing much else to report, so I’ll send you some flowers. Keep well everyone xxxxxxxx

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28/02/2021

Greetings from the far south

Mark Waller, Pretoria, South Africa

Much relief, even celebration, in the air with the rollout of vaccines that can either ward off severe Covid or provide more complete protection against the disease. 

 

The second batch of 80,000 vaccines will arrive here by plane on Sunday. The first to receive the vaccine have been frontline healthcare workers followed by all others. There are calls to give priority too to people working in shops, as they interact with large numbers of people daily and, compared to doctors and nurses, are usually badly protected against infection.

 

The government aims to vaccinate some two-thirds of the population. This, apparently, will allow sufficient herd immunity to suppress the virus, though, as elsewhere in the world, we’ll be living with the corona virus indefinitely. It’s interesting how all the ideologically inspired thinking on reliance on ‘natural’ herd immunity that tainted some of the policy debate in the early days of the pandemic has quietly gone away gone to earth.

 

But it’s going to take a while before the vaccine is distributed widely. Until then, and for a little while afterwards, we have to keep to all the safety rules that have been in place. The country is still under lockdown. This has greatly reduced the numbers of cases, now about fifteen hundred a day, down from some twenty-thousand a day at the beginning of February.

 

So the bigger picture is brighter in some respects. On another level, we’re continually reminded that the disease continues to devastate people around us, families and communities, even if the situation looks better overall.

 

Every day I check with others about the situation of my friend and colleague Karima Brown. She was admitted to hospital with Covid a few weeks ago and has now been in ICU for 10 days. Karima is in her 50s and suffers from asthma, so she faces an uphill battle. She is perhaps the finest journalist in SA, and when she was young was involved in the underground struggle against apartheid, a brave courier between rebel structures inside the country and the African National Congress in exile. 

 

Karima hosts a weekly TV programme that investigates political corruption and mismanagement. She’s indefatigable, unwavering in her support of the difficult post-apartheid reconstruction of the country. She takes no shit from politicians and their moneyed cronies. She’s made a lot of enemies among the dubious factions of some of the main political parties and has been threatened and vilified by various populist leaders, but she has won far more friends and supporters among her vast audience. She’s worth her weight many times over in krugerrands.

 

So we’re all rooting for Karima while giving her family enough space to try to cope with the situation. So far we’ve had no news, and with Covid no news is simply that - no news.

28/02/2021

Youlgrave lockdown

Dianne, Youlgrave Derbyshire

This has been a good week. Everything, not just the evenings, seems lighter somehow. The promise of the gradual lifting of Lockdown, being able to meet up with family and friends and the chance of visiting other places has such a positive impact on my state of mind. Who would have thought such simple goals would become so important. I said in December that if I could just get through January and February – my least favourite months – I would feel much more positive. And here we are ready for Spring and it’s a glorious day with a long walk planned for this afternoon. We have been told that we may have snow at Easter but that’s alright, we are heading in the right direction and the chance of another long, hot summer.

 

Our youngest son has had his first vaccination and our daughter-in-law gets hers next week. They both suffer from asthma. Now if they would just vaccinate all the teachers... The good news is that they are prioritising people with learning difficulties. They have been found to be more at risk of dying if they become ill. It must be so difficult for them to cope with being in hospital if they don’t understand what is going on and have no contact with their carers.

I met up with my entire drama group, in the flesh, on Monday. We were socially distanced and spread out, with many other villagers, along the road that goes right through the village. We held up our banner and cheered and clapped the cortege of a wonderful village woman as she made her last journey. In normal circumstances the church would have been packed. Lillian was 87 and had spent her whole life in Youlgrave. When she was five and one of her siblings was “still in a high chair” her mother left them and she was “brought up by the village”. Her father had to go out to work and she and her older sister had to make sure his dinner was ready when he came home. She repaid the village by being an active member of many community groups. She was particularly supportive, against opposition, of the plan to have affordable housing built to help local young people stay in the village. Lillian was the oldest member of our drama group, had her own way of doing things and a wicked sense of humour. We all loved her. It was so good to see everyone. I’m not sure if we broke any rules.

 

I’m very pleased with the hellebore I bought a couple of months ago. It cheers me up every time I go in and out of the house. I’m not very good with plants – I think I over or under water them! So I’m very proud of this one. I hope you are all enjoying the sunshine.

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28/02/2021

Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Suffolk

The past few days have been really rather good here. Mostly overcast but dry. Milder. Warmer. Great weather for dog walking and pottering in the garden. Have attacked some of the ground elder and other weeds that, along with the spring planting, seem to be burgeoning into life. Daffodils, celandines and aconites are opening up more and more, and it is heartening. I’ve taken the opportunity to wash off as many of the garden tools as possible, have turned the earth in one of the bigger borders and have even used the shears to trim some of the edges of the lawn. The garden doesn’t look good - the ground is still sticky and many of the trees are leafless, but it is only February! 

 

When I was teaching, February was my least favourite month. It always seemed damp and dark and depressing. In those days, I used commute to work - and I recall long train journeys and drives on congested roads like the A12 and A14, sitting in queues of traffic, wondering how much of my life was being wasted - stuck behind the wheel or sitting in an overcrowded carriage. Now that everything is in this state of flux, I  wonder whether many people will opt to ‘work from home’ for the future. My friends who are still working as lecturers tell me that they’re delivering all of their courses from home - webcams for tutorials and prepared lectures delivered from comfortable sitting rooms. 

 

Had I still been working, I think I’d have missed the human element; the eye contact, the face-to-face meetings, the spontaneous comments, questions and humour. The banter with and between students. Laughter. The flesh and blood theatre of teaching! Of course, it is not just teaching - all areas of work are going to change. My sister tells me that the company she works for is unlikely to reopen many of its offices. She works for the kind of ‘service industry’ where it is entirely possible to work from home - well, as long as you have a reasonable internet connection and sufficient self-discipline to keep you at your laptop and engaged with work. I’m too easily distracted - I’d be “googling” plants or antiques or on to Prime-location and looking at properties in far away places and dreaming of a different life ...

 

I saw the BoJo show on Monday - presenting the roadmap for getting England back on its feet ... out of lockdown. The great plan. The great plan indeed.  Slowly reopening areas of social life and society ... so we can - in a week or two anyway - meet one person at a distance of 6 feet and go for a walk, then in a few more weeks, invite five friends in to the garden and so on and so forth. There was much praise for the marvellous NHS and the vaccination programme. And yes, it has been super. But I was not elated. Unconvinced. The words rang untrue, hollow. Is the plan just to get us “back” to where we were before? Weren’t the plans before the pandemic all about dismantling and privatising our struggling NHS? 

 

Surely we have a brilliant opportunity now to sort out the massive mess we are in? Surely it is time to be very creative with new social policies and reforms? Surely we should look to rethink our entire living and working arrangements - our societal infrastructure? What a great time to consider developing and expanding clinical services for welfare, health and education. What a great time to plan for environmental change ... healthy neighbourhoods, better working lives, excellence in education, arts and science, future needs in terms of roads and transport systems, leisure and housing and businesses. Okay. I know I’m rambling. Time for me to climb down from my soap box, eh?

 

Back on the home front, we have made arrangements for Lucy, the new pup, to go to the vets and have her “operation”. Neutering. Sounds very well organised. Timed arrival. Veterinary nurse to greet us etc. Masks, hand gel, gloves. Hands, face, space. Just a day case and won’t have to wear one of those plastic lampshade collars as they now have special “chew-proof” vests to stop dogs and cats from nibbling at stitches. After the phone call, I looked at Lucy. Saw her beautiful, trusting face. The appointment is made. I know it is the right thing, the responsible thing to do ... but as her eyes looked up at me I couldn’t help feeling... well, emotional. 

I am listening to Joni Mitchell this morning.
She is singing:

“The cats are in the flower bed

A red hawk rides the sky

I guess I should be happy

Just to be alive...

But we have poisoned everything

And oblivious to it all

The cell phone zombies babble

Through the shopping malls

While condors fall from Indian skies

Whales beach and die in sand...

Bad dreams are good 

In the great plan”

 

Stay safe and take care xx

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28/02/2021

From rural New York

Sandy Connors, USA

Last Sunday morning, as I came downstairs looking forward to a cup of coffee in front of the wood stove and to read the Journal, I noticed the air was full of what seemed to be dust or dirt floating about. Looking around the house I noticed the cobwebs usually undetectable and missed when cleaning were black and sooty behind, above and everywhere dangling from light fixtures and pictures! My hands when I washed them turned grey as did the surface of the sink ~ everywhere I touched there was a film of oily furnace soot! Sometime during the night I had had what is known as a ‘puff-back’ from my very old heating furnace.  

 

Fast forward to today, Friday morning ~ the furnace was irreparable, as there was a hole in the heat exchange and as it is winter this was treated as an emergency ~ three electric heaters supplied by my oil company, and the kitchen wood stove, kept me and the water pipes warm enough to get through the next four days of winter temperatures. The dogs had to be packed up and sent to the kennel for keeping til it is safe to come back home ~ Charlie’s pretty white ruff was dark grey when he arrived, while Plum already black as soot, looked just the same except that her usually shinny coat was rather dull and sooty ~ poor pups! We now have a brand new furnace which I will be paying for over 10 years, but the house is warm again ~ although at the moment the soot is still floating through the air left in the heating ducts ~ so a claim was made to the insurance company and accepted and a local cleaning company that deals with fire damages is on its way to clean not only all the ducts, but every surface in my home, something a homeowner could not possibly do on their own... ceilings, walls, woodwork, upholstered chairs and sofas, rugs, clothing and dishes and Oh, my, all my books! I have things covered with old sheets in the library, the dolls are now in a chest waiting for careful cleaning etc. The process, I am told, can take a couple of weeks to complete!  

How strange it is to wake up one day, unaware of what the day will bring! It could be so much worse, of course ~ on Tuesday one of my brothers slipped on the ice and broke his leg, is in a cast and requires surgery and a couple of months to heal.  

 

This week the temperatures are expected to rise to the mid 40’s which is lovely ~ I may go out and snip some branches of witch hazel to force inside. Though it may prefer the clean air of outside at this point to the sooty air in my little house!  Perhaps I’ll wait a few weeks.

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28/02/2021

Staying home

Nicky, Vermont, USA

In my Sumi-e class, the class on Chinese/Japanese brush painting, the teacher introduced POMO. In playing with watercolors I have found great joy in wetting the paper, adding paint, and then tipping the paper up and down and seeing what patterns and colors form, and what I imagine the shapes might be. I’ve felt rather illicit doing this, like perhaps it is watercolor painting cheating, but it is serious fun. At least for me. Well, it turns out Chinese painters have been doing this since the sixth century. They tended to work with different intensities of black ink to get a multitude of grey variations, although some used colors. I tried doing it with rice paper and Chinese paints. I used shikisi board, which is rice paper glued to a board, but I think I could do it with rice paper taped to plexiglass too. The shikisi boards have gold around the edges which makes them very spiffy. The virtue of Chinese paints is that they have a different glue ingredient than Western watercolors, and that glue makes it possible to paint so when the paint dries it isn’t reactivated if it gets wet again. So you can paint on top of the first round of colors. It is more like painting with gouache paint, and indeed the Chinese paints are little chalky, not that extraordinarily beautiful translucence of Western watercolor paints.  

 

So I tried a couple of landscape type patterns, stripes of color across the page, and there was wonderful variety and subtlety in what happened after it dried. I started with red, blue and white, but the white was too heavy and didn’t mingle well, so I switched to yellow which afforded some interesting greens. All fun. Not great art but certainly a source of joy. In POMO I would now paint trees, mountains, houses, waterfalls and perhaps people into the landscapes I created, though that’s stretches my skill set. But I’ll work on it.

28/02/2021

From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

It's Friday and a beautiful spring-like morning here on the Island. When a young man's fancy turns to...? This  begs the question: what does and old man's fancy turn to? Well, that would be telling wouldn't it! Sufficient to say that not all passion dies with age. Best beloved is in my thoughts constantly - in fact we even managed to meet on Tuesday for long enough to have a walk and a bit of a nose around some really rather fine Victorian houses near here.

 

Yes, we both have the curiosity gene - if there is such a thing. These houses were constructed when the Island became very fashionable after Vicky moved to Osborne House. They are summer residences originally designed for the aristocracy and landed gentry when they were enjoying Cowes Week and Ryde Week sailing in their massive cutters with hired crew,  and all else essential to enjoying a good  holiday. In the many years since those times some of the houses have been through periods of dilapidation, whilst others have moved into multiple occupation. Now though, things seem to be swinging back to the old ways a bit. Many of these giant pads are being worked on extensively. It surprised us to see that single occupancy may be returning. Perhaps they are again to become summer palaces for those who perhaps have made and increased their personal wealth in difficult times. The SUVs certainly seem plentiful in this area now, and I don't welcome them much. It's perhaps good for the building trade making the refurbishments - that's obvious, but I'm very doubtful about the effect on an already quite class-divided population in this small place.

I missed a journal entry last week didn't I!  The truth is I forgot which day of the week it was.  Now that is certainly age and lockdown related. My fan, a certain 'J' from near Southampton, phoned on Sunday to admonish me. Yes, I have a fan, and I am very fond of her despite the slightly school teacherly (is that a word?) response to my undoubted negligence, mea culpa. I'm only teasing J - honestly!

 

I now officially have Covid! No, not the disease - see photo! My eldest daughter kindly gave it to me for my birthday. I have deduced that it is better than any vaccine. After all, with this around, what chance has the microscopic version got?

 

On the wildlife front, I am having difficulty with a couple of birds that I have seen in my garden. They are finch-like and relatively quite large. The best identification I've made so far is that they are reed buntings. Frustratingly I haven't managed to get a good enough view to be certain. Anyway, it's always nice to see a pair of any species arrive, not that I would expect them to nest around here.

 

Must go - love to all and it's time to get coffee and resume the Irish studies again...

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28/02/2021

Gratefully sheltering

James Oglethorpe, Blue Ridge Mountain, Virginia

WIDE  TO THE OCEAN

 

Drafting into the wind a seagull calls,

settling with feathered

touch on a coiled rope

sagging silken off a brazen hook.

 

From within the river’s mouth

the whoop of a ship’s horn

reverberates in dusky light,

diesel electrics slit a prow

through a silt laden channel —

a latté wake frothing

out behind churning screws.

In amongst the swoosh of passage

engines rumble, bells ring, voices chatter,

a face peers between

red and white life preservers

gripping green railings.

 

Across an expanding distance divisible

by tides of water, space and time,

lights astern recede toward the horizon

the full moon rising from

a revelation of stars

meeting itself on the surface

of the mirrored sea.

28/02/2021

Rural Norfolk

Chris Gates, Norfolk UK

Wonderfully mild, Spring-like weekend, celebrated here by visit from Son and lovely GF who have bought themselves a portable pizza oven and wanted a maiden voyage with us. We were able to sit outside in the warm sunshine and each ‘designed’ their own pizza. Mine was ‘English Breakfast’. Ignore the burnt bits - I did.

As expected, various leakages ahead of the Ministerial Broadcast scheduled for Monday, mainly in in the form of a very full briefing to Parliament at 3pm which is televised.

Nevertheless, three hours later at 7pm Judgement Day arrives, and the Judgement is that if the brakes are taken off slowly, then starting 8th March with full school return, there is a ‘roadmap‘ to freedom in every respect by the end of June. 

This seems so improbably far-off it loses much in the way of reassurance or indeed hope, but still, there it is (you can print it off and put it on the fridge if you want), a month-by-month progress towards sanity.

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Though ‘sanity‘ may well consist of sporadic mask-wearing and an annual Covid jab to go with the annual flu jab in perpetuity. Something to look forward to is travel. All being well we should be able to go to the seaside without collecting a fine.

It’s funny how some react. The otherwise measured Prof Alice Roberts, she of enormous brain and assumed proportionate judgement comes out with “Project Herd Immunity for children and young people due to start March 8th. I’ve said it before: good luck, Herd.”

 

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock claims there never was a shortage of PPE on his watch. The problem was too many people wanting it.

 

Things took a Pinter-ish turn one morning. 

A snippet of conversation, after a bit of facial topiary, an attempt to ‘tidy up’ my appearance with the new compendium of electric grooming:

me, “ Do you like the new shorter beard?”

her, deep in Magazine of some sort “Mmmm”

me, “Well, you might have noticed, there’s a lot on the floor”

her instantly aflame, slightly misunderstanding “You should have cleared it up. Why leave it to me?”

me, perhaps an unwise attempt at jocularity, “I will do, but it is in your job description”

her, “Fuck off!”

me, compounding error, “I believe being civil is there too”

her, “Fuck off again!”

I blame her upbringing among unruly Nuns. Well, that and lockdown with me. It’s almost certainly my fault - it was, even before lockdown.

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We had a lovely Birthday morning coffee-and-cake in the Old Hall greenhouse on Wednesday, Peter in good form sat deep in the sheltered sunshine...

Vaccination progress continues to be encouraging. We’re up to 19,000,000 now, positively romping down the age groups to the point where 40-49ers should be seen to during April and are now considered to be in the ‘active’ programme. During a Briefing, JvT, brilliant communicator that he is slips this in, encouraging us to continue full Covid vigilance: “It’s like being 3-0 up and thinking ‘we can’t possibly lose this’... How many times have you seen the other team take it 4-3? Do not wreck this now - it’s too early to relax.” 

As another example, a rather gloomy example, of ‘work in progress’ this weekend marks one year from the first Coronavirus death, and the admitted (there’s always more) UK total now is 122,415.

 

Continuing good weather will see me out over the weekend to tackle one of the bigger early-season garden jobs: the new 7 raised bed and fruitcage ‘installation’. This is to be a hen/guineafowl/pheasant resistant source of cut flowers, veg and salads. The netting arrived today and compost arrives next week. Exciting, seasonal stuff, just the sort of safe lockdown escapism needed.

28/02/2021

Broadland type

Sheila, Norfolk UK

Another perspective...

A Beijing divorce court has ordered a man to compensate his wife for the housework she did during their marriage, in a landmark ruling. The woman will receive 50,000 yuan ($7,700; £5,460) for five years of unpaid labour. 

 

I was quite taken aback when I heard this on the radio this morning.

Really! China!!!!!

 

Shortly after hearing this, Chris sought praise from me for him managing to trim his beard. "...Mmm quite good" I said. "well there's loads of it on the bathroom floor" he said. 

 

I was incredulous! 

 

Had he really left his trimmed beard hair on the floor in the bathroom - and walked away! 

Me "You mean you've just left it there? For who to clear up?"

C: "Well I thought it was in your job description"

 

You may imagine what happened next: I can confirm that I found some pretty strong language in response. Now I'm not normally taken to colourful language but on this occasion it was exactly what was required.

 

It was almost certainly meant by him in a jokey way, we haven't fallen out, and the hair was cleared up soon after our exchange - by him! 

 

But I'm watching him very closely now...

 

How we have survived a 47 year relationship is a minor miracle if you ask me!

But perhaps I'm in line for some compensation...