Covid incarceration, Day 2

A postcard from Covidland

Having spent yesterday coming to terms with my new status as a citizen of Covidland, with the help of a little whisky and a little more wine, I’m more at ease with the whole thing now.

I’m spending my confinement in a little house about 100 metres from my sister’s, which works out very well so far. Indeed it’s actually quite pleasant, since it’s only when I go and sit outside the big house to have a socially distanced coffee that I realise there are only a couple of days before Christmas and everyone else is getting stressed. In my own little part of Covidland things are calm and serene.

And I’d like to offer a word of thanks for the movie streaming services. Obviously their algorithms mystify me – the things they recommend for me are nothing like anything I will ever want to watch – but they are a great way of wasting time. I find I’m categorising films by runtime. This is the most important feature of a film in Covidland.

Today’s objectives: get back to the novel, and try to stay off the whisky until 7pm.


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Covid on a rock

The guilt of the infected, and Tuareg blues

It seems Omicron is the variety of Covid-19 that finally has my name on it. Yes reader, I am stricken. Well, not so much stricken – I feel absolutely fine – as condemned, having had a positive PCR test.

And I feel guilty, like I must have contravened the rules in some way. I must have let the side down. I’ve always taken the risk of infection seriously, indeed my friends will tell you I have no compunction in telling them when I think they’re not being careful enough, but despite copious testing and the usual precautions, here I am; in quarantine on a tropical island.

In the grand scheme of things it could be worse. I’m being looked after (in a socially distanced and responsible manner) by my sister and her daughters, I want for nothing, the sky is bright and sunny, the temperature is consistently in the low 20s Celsius (it is a bit windy though – could someone do something about that please?), and I have a good supply of booze which I can still taste.

I’m also discovering some different music, thanks to a piece in The Economist. I believe the genre is sometimes called ‘desert blues’, in this case personified by Mdou Moctar on his album ‘Afrique Victime‘ which I recommend.


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British concentration camps in South Africa

Looking into the camps set up during the Boer War

A conversation the other evening sparked my history nerve: the concentration camps set up by the British Army in South Africa during the Second Boer War of the 1890s.

Concentration camp is one of those trigger phrases which brings to mind the worst attrocities of Nazi Germany, and is generally used with that subtext, and I realised I didn’t know as much as I should about the Boer camps to put my own perspective on the subject. So I did what every curious but lazy person does these days, and turned to Wikipedia.

Essentially, as far as I can understand, Lord Kitchener, commander of the British forces, set up the camps to house Boer families and black Africans displaced by the scorched earth strategy he used against the Boer guerilla fighters. The camps were badly run, leading to appalling conditions, with bad sanitation and starvation leading to epidemics of desase with dreadfully fatal consequences. A contemporary government enquiry established that there were over 100 camps and over 150,000 internees. Over 28,000 people died in them, of whom 25,000 were children under 16. Half of the entire Boer child population at the time. Such shocking figures are difficult to comprehend.

Some believe that it was Kitchener’s indifference to the plight of the people, rather than a deliberate policy of genocide, that led to the tragedy. Nevertheless, when Kitchener made the decision to force civilians off their land and into camps administered by the British Army, he also took on the responsibility for feeding them and caring for them; which he signally, and criminally, failed to do.

The full horror of the situation was well known to people at the time, with notable Victorians such as Arthur Conan-Doyle writing on the subject (opinions from the past are always alarming to contemporary eyes).

But for me the fascination of research is the discovery of people I hadn’t heard of before, and in this case it was the remarkable Emily Hobhouse, an Englishwoman who travelled to South Africa and saw the suffering in the camps for herself, leading to the establishment by the government of the Fawcett Commission to investigate. Incidentally, the Fawcett Commission (under Dame Millicent Fawcett) itself is interesting, since it seems to have consisted entirely of women – uniquely for a British government commission at the time.

So, the story is a horrific one without doubt, with the British Government to blame for appalling suffering. But should these camps be considered in the same way as the Nazi camps of the 1940s? I don’t believe so, since the scale and – more importantly – the intended purpose, are not remotely the same.

I’d relish the opportunity to discuss this further. Use the link on the left to comment.


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The great Notifications turn-off

Don’t notify me about what you think I’d like to know, just what I ask for

The notifications that some apps offer are a great idea, and a perfet use of the technology. The BBC Sport app is an example of best practice; it’s possible to control exactly the kind of notifications you get. I use it all the time.

Why? Because the world is full of sports, and the vast majority of them I have no interest in. If they just sent me notifications they thought I might like it would be based on the most popular, football probably, and since football falls into my category of “not remotely interested” then I’d switch off the notifications pronto. But instead they offer me the chance to select exactly which sports I want to know about, and also when and how I want to be notified, I use the service. Thanks BBC.

Sadly, one of the original mobile app rockstars, Twitter, is an example of how not to do it, and hence I don’t have their notifications switched on – despite Twitter asking me to do so several times a day.

Because they insist on sending me notifications I didn’t ask for, like tweets from people I don’t follow on subjects I’m not iterested in. Oviously they’re trying to use the service as a means to increase engagement but, for me at least, it has the opposite effect.

Which is a shame. In truth, I’d love to use Twitter more, and I believe many others would too, but unless they concentrate on providing the service their users want and cut out the crap, or at least give us an option to switch the crap off, they’re going to keep sliding down the social media league tables.


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The ghost of John Wayne

Learning tolerance from a dinosaur

A tall man in a wide brimmed hat stands a doorway, the bright western light behind him, his right forearm across his body, the hand holding his left elbow. A six-gun hangs low on his hip. His expression says he’s seen and he knows. He stands there for several seconds then slowly turns and walks away into the landscape with a slightly lob-sided gait.

John Wayne has become a forgotten movie star. It’s difficult, now, to describe how huge his fame was to anyone under 30, so you’ll just have to trust me; his face and his movements were instantly recognisable to a global audience until the 1980s. He was the very definition of a movie star.

He’s forgotten partly because that’s the nature of cinema, partly because the kind of masculinity he epitomised is out of fashion now, but also as a result of modern discomfort with his political views.

I’m not going to concern myself with the details of his politics here. I wouldn’t agree with him, but I’ve never felt disagreement should be a bar to discourse – unlike so many these days. It seems acceptable, indeed expected, now for someone with a political affiliation to simply ignore anyone with a differing idea. Which is a genuine tragedy.

Things haven’t always been that way; Wayne is a good example. He was a right-wing conservative, but one of his best friends in later years was Katharine Hepburn, his polar opposite politically.

A Hollywood dinosaur, but maybe there are things we can learn from when such beasts walked the earth.


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Tragedy and farce

Historic parallels are not difficult to find if you look for them, but some are more striking than others

To reference Marx, who was referencing Hegel:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

It’s an interesting idea to contemplate, and one that, in my all too frequent idle moments, I am apt to.

For instance:

A German leader, having given his soldiery vital experience of combat in the Spanish civil war, increased his power over Austria, then invaded Czechoslovakia — while other powerful nations did nothing to prevent him. Using the existence of German ethnic minorities as an excuse he built up a massive military force on the borders of Poland and then invaded.

And then consider:

A Russian leader, having given his soldiery vital experience of combat in the Syrian civil war, increased his power over Belarus, then invaded Crimea — while other powerful states did nothing to prevent him. Using the existence of Russian ethnic minorities as an excuse he built up a massive military force on the borders of Ukraine and then…

Tragedy or farce? I guess we’ll see. But the western powers have clearly decided, by not allowing Ukraine to join NATO, that a full blown Russian invasion of Ukraine is not worth a military confrontation with Moscow. Maybe the Ukraine is Bohemia, not Poland.


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Absolution

Three years, the blink of an eye, and a return to blogging.

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. It appears it’s been precisely three years since my last confession. Believe it or not the fact that I stumbled upon Toadstool today was purely accidental; if thought provoking. Precisely three years. Astonishing. 

Reading what I wrote three years ago, the person I was then, what interested me, is fascinating. I wonder what it will mean to people in, say, thirty years? Not much I suspect. It’s unlikely to concern me anyhow, since I’ll be worm food long before then.

But what three years they’ve been. One year into my little holiday from this blog there was a sweet little baby virus detected that the World Health Organisation became concerned enough about to name: COronaVIrus Disease 2019. It would be fair to say that COVID-19 has dominated our lives ever since.

Some people have taken exception to this domination, and have responded by simply pretending that it doesn’t exist. It’s the invention of, oh, I don’t know — an international cabal of pedophiles I think. Or Boris Johnson. Or the liberal elite. Whatever.

Anyway, these folk have decided that, since it’s a fake virus, we need not take precautions against it. We need not lock-down, or restrict travel, or wear face masks — and we certainly shouldn’t vaccinate ourselves.

We’ve all learned more that we cared to about viruses in the last few years, but the element of the situation that has struck me is how a virus can only be combatted through concerted community action. Whether an individual gets vaccinated or not is not just of importance to them, but to all of us. To be anti-vac is to be anti-social. Criminally so.


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The White Room

An invite to an exhibition opening exacerbates my cultural numbness.

Another November night, another private view for an exhibition that makes no sense to me apart from free booze. They’ve got the thermostat turned up to thirty and I’ve arrived in a clearly ill-judged suit appropriate for the season. I should have worn beachwear.

As a rule I dislike shows that require sheets of paper to tell me what’s going on, but tonight I find myself asking the charming woman who pours the vodka if there’s anything that can help me make sense of this. She doesn’t have any literature that can help but, ignoring the plaintive looks of the usual suspects chasing a glass of warm Prosecco, she gamely leaves her station behind the booze table to give me some guidance.

“All the pictures are different,” she tells me, “taken in different places.” I’m beginning to get that feeling of ironic uncertainly again. “He told me the key is to see the work in there,” she says, pointing to a circular wall, off centre in the room, which I’d previously taken to be some form of unavoidable void.

“I didn’t know there was something in there,” I offer. Her expression shows no sign of irony or humour – so often the case with the young. She’s very willing to help me achieve understanding, but the Prosecco hungry crowd is growing and I take pity on them. They’re going to need it. “Thank you,” I say – her expression is almost pleading – “I’ll have a look in there.”

I go ‘in there’, which involves waiting with the rest of the sadly curious until a young woman dressed head to toe in black, with long straight black hair, pale skin and round glasses, senses the moment is appropriate to open the curved door and allow us entry.

It doesn’t offer any enlightenment. The projected work is presented in such a way that necessitates a constant turning of the observer’s body, inducing a nauseating dizziness in your correspondent. The small circular room is heated even more than the rest of the gallery.

I escape the small room and see a man in shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt. Wise.


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A break from the norm

A bike trip to the seaside, an escape from the Smoke, and a religious surprise

Small town. I came out of the supermarket to find two fourteen year old schoolgirls sitting on my bike. When I was at school the nymphettes would roll their already short skirts up at the waistband so as to raise the hem as much as possible. These two were probably their great granddaughters, the technique having been handed down. At least they moved off when asked, giggling.

The town itself is strikingly beautiful; famously so. Generations of painters have hymned to its light and colours. Brightly clothed families, with dogs and children in perpetual fear of seagulls, still attest.

Even Hollywood’s most cliched set wouldn’t look as picturesque as the pubs, seeping with the genuine stature of age. No one ever created sky and sea so perfectly in balance, or such a breeze – strong enough to cool, but gentle, so as to stroke the skin.

I came here for a break from London; booked a hotel online and jumped on the bike. It seems it’ll be more of a break than I planned – inadvertently, I booked myself into a Christian hotel. The doors are locked at 9pm, the WiFi has parental controls. There are prayer meetings morning and evening.

I’ve just been out to buy a bottle of whisky. It’s going to be an interesting couple of days.


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Lascivious nods

Come with me on a trip back to my shameful youth

Rose Street played a small but memorable role in my younger life; what cultural commentators like to call a ‘rite of passage’.

For in a pub there – now, I hope and trust, long vanished – I witnessed my first and last stripper.

It was lunchtime, and my friend Andy decided this was the place to spend it. Not for want of alternatives – Rose Street had, I think, even more pubs then than it does now – but possibly because he’d spotted a seductive sign in the window, the promise of naked flesh with your pint.

And so we pushed open the old wooden door and quit the bright street for the dark, sparse, tobacco smoke scented den of iniquity. I recall a few solemn tables near the walls, and a few solemn men venerating their pints with more smoke, and – a surprise this, since I’d missed the sign in the window – one corner of the dark panelled room which was covered in mirror tiles. It called to mind a makeshift shower area built for a narcissist. “There’s a stripper,” said Andy.

As we moved towards the bar, monitored without interest by some of the solemn men, Andy nudged me. I glanced at his lasciviously grinning face – he really was much more enthusiastic and confident about all this than I was – he nodded towards Mirror Corner: “Look at the tiles on the left there.”

My eyes, slowly becoming accustomed to the gloom, studied the mirror and saw nothing of note until suddenly the impression left by a pair of oiled breasts sprung out at me. I can’t deny a thrill of excitement; teenaged obsession with the female breast was strong in me. Andy broke my reverie, handing me a pint. The lascivious nod again, toward the bar’s end.

I followed his gaze to where a heavily made up woman with dark curly hair stood, a shawl draped casually over her nakedness, drinking a pint. The man next to her had an arm resting lewdly across her shoulders.

I felt no attraction to her – she probably seemed from another planet – but will admit to a strong curiosity. Some music started. She stepped up on to the small raised platform in Mirror Corner and, in an utterly disinterested way, removed her shawl and her g-string over the next two minutes. She then stepped off the platform, finished her pint, and, still naked, walked around the room waving the empty glass at the solemn men, some of whom put money in it. Andy and I were among them.


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