Thursday, 30 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin - the Blight of Corbusier

As lockdown continues, my thoughts turn more and more to those who live in the post-war blocks of flats foisted on the British by architects influenced by Corbusier and other members of the so clever they are stupid brigade , whose members come from all professions except the practical, useful ones,(that is, plumbers, farmers et cetera, who are never part of the nonsense). Yesterday, I got the excellent Austerity Britain down from the shelf to remind me of the facts, and my fury at the follies that were forced on a public who did not want them grew.

Not all post-war architects were quite as bad as the ghastly Ernö Goldfinger, who was so certain he was right about absolutely everything that he did not content himself with vandalistically removing Victorian mouldings when renovating an old warehouse for use as the headquarters of the Communist Party's newspaper in London, but installed very low lavatories because he was convinced that the nearer users got to squatting the better would be the users' bowel evacuation - needless to say the hapless journalists who had to use them did not agree at all. Still, judging by the account given by one planner of his visit to a pit village near Bishop Auckland, which he described as looking "nearer to hell than anything I had seen since Belsen",  more than a whiff of out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new-sweep-all-before-us zealotry does seem to have been in the air more generally (I just cannot accept that, unless your vision was skewed by an oddly doctrinal perspective, even the worst pit village could have come anywhere near Belsen in hellishness).

Someone on Twitter sent me these pictures of Brutalist sandcastles - Goldfinger would be delighted

What I find really distressing at the moment though is the fact that, according to Kynaston, very few people wanted the kind of housing they are now stuck in. In one survey he cites, which went on to be totally ignored by planners and architects alike, a mere 15 per cent of those interviewed said they might be willing to live in a flat. But "who cares what the population think" seems to have been the view of those with authority - thus the frightful Broadmead shopping centre was plonked down in Bristol, despite 13,000 people requesting that the old shopping centre be reinstated and only 400 expressing a wish for the proposed new one.

A Tory backbencher called Cuthbert Headlam, (surely a member of the Drones Club in his youth), does seem to have seen the dangers of this sort of thing but his tone reflects the fear of seeming old fashioned that was, I suspect, a major factor in post-war life. Headlam tried to raise objections to a particularly noxious piece of redevelopment legislation, telling the Commons, "I have an instinctive distrust of planners and always feel that 'planning' merely makes confusion worse confounded - but then I am out of date, and prefer things to grow up in their own way."

How much lovelier Britain would be today, if Headlam had been in charge - but, as I say, I have the impression that post-war you had to be almost egomaniacally certain that you were right if you wanted to beat the clamouring forces advocating modernity; it was as if modernity was interchangeable with virtue.

Which I suppose is why there are now so many poor souls cooped up in highrise low-ceilinged apartments without balconies, (let alone their own little scrap of garden to go out into). My heart goes out to those people, especially as they could have been housed much more comfortably, in accommodation that would not make this lockdown experience worse than it already is - they could have been, but instead they are victims of the stubborn, undemocratic imposition of idiotic doctrines that anyone with commonsense could see were stupid and which were imposed against the wishes of those forced to exist within the resulting buildings.

Arlington House, Margate, which has the added advantage for its inhabitants of being placed on the seafront but facing away from the sea
In the future no architect should ever be allowed to propose any mass housing without first signing a pledge that they will live in the resulting building for a minimum of one year themselves.

For distraction and a kind of bitter edification, I encourage anyone living in a flat without any access to the outdoors, perhaps 10 stories up, in a building with a lift that doesn't function to watch Our Friends in the North. It is a great series and at least it demonstrates that some people - the writers of the series - understood the great wrong that was done when professional know-it-alls decided to destroy communities and erect what they devoutly believed would be marvellous "towns in the sky".

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin - Not Losing my Religion

While I think it hugely admirable that a veteran in Britain has staggered up and down his garden for weeks now, in order to raise money for charity, I can't help wondering why a nation's health system should need charitable fundraising. Captain Tom Moore should be saluted for raising millions of pounds - and I suppose the Duke of Westminster should also be congratulated for his sudden impulse to chuck some of his small change, (when compared to his actual income, that is what several million is in fact for him) into the collection box.

But why give to the NHS when the entire tax paying population of the United Kingdom is already contributing hugely to it? I can't imagine anyone in Australia thinking that Medicare needs to be handed, out of our own pockets, millions more, over and above what our government provides for it, via us. Indeed, is there another nation besides Britain that would applaud its citizens hurling money at its government-run health system? Wouldn't the sensible reaction be to ask whether it is a good system if it requires so much fundraising - or whether perhaps it is an insane way to organise health care and, on top of that, an insane way that is also exceptionally badly run? Additionally, if you accept the idea of raising money to help the government run something, why not also start collections for greater numbers of police to patrol the streets, more teachers to reduce class sizes - indeed, why not abolish taxes and just run the country out of charitable donations alone?

Perhaps I am too jaundiced in my view of the National Health Service. One reason for this is that I volunteered for a couple of years in a London hospital and the money I saw wasted there on managerial salaries, management strategies, new management systems et cetera, beggared belief - and the neverending parade of managerial tweaks and adjustments meant constant distraction from the actual job in hand, which is making sick people better.

Another reason for my lack of blind NHS faith is that two of my nearest and dearest would have been left for dead before ever getting diagnosed, let alone treated, had they not switched to the private system - and indeed a third, whose misguided principles led him to insist that he would never under any circumstances go private, is dead as a doornail as a result. Waiting times and general dilatoriness did for him, it later transpired; if only he had paid and got seen more quickly, all would have been well, it was explained.

But the NHS is Britain's religion now. People praise its staff for taking care of them, as though taking care of people is over and above the normal call of their duty, rather than the minimum that one might expect. Even this week, when people in the army, called in to assist, have raised alarms about how disgustingly incompetently the NHS system of distribution is run, no one's faith seems to be shaken.

I will stick to Christianity for the time being, and pray that the huge numbers who worship the NHS blindly will not end up disappointed or worse.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin - Not Meeting People

I had a dream last night that I was at a dinner table, meeting new people. When I woke up, I felt the most intense relief. When you're doing it all the time, you don't notice how exhausting meeting new people is, but now, having seen no one for weeks, the prospect seems daunting - being assessed, hoping to be liked, trying to gauge whether these people will become friends or the opposite, (or whether this will be a meaningless encounter - I suppose I spent too many years going to diplomatic social events, which is why this last strikes me as the most likely result of new interactions, which is not very optimistic of me, I admit).

Anyway, until I woke up from that dream, I hadn't realised how much of a strain social life, except with those you know and love already, actually is, at least for me, a stupidly anxious person.

And speaking of anxiety, since lockdown I've been deprived of my usual evening panic. It went as follows: I'd get into bed,  pick up my book and begin to read and then fear about where my wallet was would creep into my head. I would try to tell myself that, wherever it might be, it could wait until the morning, but in the end I always had to jump up and rush off round the house to check that I hadn't left it on the counter of a shop or on the seat in a tram somewhere.

As I don't go out any more, this path of anxiety is now firmly closed. But never mind - my inventive brain has come up with a perfect substitute: is the freezer, packed with food so that we don't have to go shopping and risk certain death from the virus, closed properly? Cue jumping up and all the rest of it. If you are an anxious idiot, you never let yourself off the hook.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin - Reading - The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnar

I found my copy in a junk shop - very battered, printed in Romania, with enchanting illustrations, but no mention of who the illustrator was

I find it hard to explain to people who don't enjoy learning languages what it is about the activity that I find so endlessly appealing. I am not good at languages, I don't find them easy to pick up, so why do I bother?

It isn't so that I can converse - I find that being able to speak a language is always the last thing that I manage, mainly because the whole business of conversation, even in my own language, is always the use of language that is most fraught with nervous tension, because one has to be quick and not bore people, et cetera et cetera.

For me, the main aim - or certainly the first aim - is to be able to read books in the language I'm learning, then maybe listen to the radio, watch the television, maybe even go to the theatre.

In this context, I'm very excited to have at last finished reading my very first book in Hungarian (with enormous help from the dictionary and some from Google Translate). I have to admit it is only a children's book, but on the other hand it is also one of the best books I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The book concerns a group of schoolboys who live in the vicinity of Pal Street in the VIIIth district of Budapest. At the start of the book the boys have staked out a small empty space on Pal Street as their own special territory. Here is Molnar's introduction of the "grund" to the reader:

with my rough translation:

"The grund. Oh you fine strapping kids who live on the Great Plain, you're able to step out of your front doors straight into a boundless plain. It spreads out in front of you, beneath the marvellous vast blue dome of the sky, and your eyes are used to its great empty distances and far horizons. You don't have to live wedged in between high buildings and so you have no idea what an empty plot of ground is like for a bunch of kids living in the middle of Budapest. For them, their little scrap of land is the Great Plain, their endless distance, their wide blue yonder. That patch, bordered on one side by a tumbledown fence and on the other by buildings reaching skywards, is for them limitless and comes with the promise of freedom. These days a big melancholy four-storey building stands on the Pal Street "grund", full of apartment dwellers, among whom there is probably no-one now who has any inkling of how much that particular little plot once meant to a few poor Budapest children in their youth."

Having been well-schooled in The Return of the Native and having had to answer a question in some exam somewhere about whether Egdon Heath can be considered a character in that novel, I couldn't help seeing parallels. However, unlike Hardy, Molnar doesn't start the book with a description of the book's most important setting. Instead, he begins by conjuring up marvellously an afternoon in a fourth-form gymnasium classroom where the pupils are looking forward to being let out at the end of the day. He introduces us to our main heroes and their tiny preoccupations and paints a picture of the universe in which they exist.

Once school is finished, the news arrives that there is a challenge to the group's hold on the "grund". From this unfolds a tale over several days of desperate struggles, betrayal, heroics and daring. It sounds so trivial but, because Molnar is brilliant and his understanding of humanity and characterisation are both brilliant, it is anything but. The reader - well this one - becomes deeply involved with the characters and their fates.

The story ends in tragedy, but includes much humour, particularly regarding the lack of a sense of absurdity among many humans however young they may be - the minutes of the Putty Club and its antics are wonderfully pompous. The book seems to me to be an allegory, the noble Pal Street boys being a people, the grund a nation, the cause freedom, and all of this set within the higher power of the school and Professor Rácz, who is the deity above the fray. The final twist strikes me as particularly Hungarian - and only when it comes and you look back do you realise that Molnar had warned you in advance and there ought to have been no surprise.

Something rather Arthur Ransome-esque about this, but the book is infinitely deeper than anything by Ransome

You can still glimpse inner courtyards like this in Budapest's outer VIIIth

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin - Westminster Press Pack

I have a cousin who lives on a farm in northern Victoria. He has an Instagram account and occasionally posts to it - if there is an unusually hard frost, he'll put up a picture of the solid block the water in his birdbath has become overnight; in the bush fires, we were treated to photographs of smoke rising from distant hills; sometimes he'll provide a shot of some unusual bush plant flowering or a brief clip of cockatoos yahooing across the sky.

The other day, my cousin posted a little video, showing wasps buzzing about near what looked like the bottom of a door. "It's that time of year when the bloody European wasps appear", he wrote in the caption, "they are pointless and annoying."

After I'd watched my cousin's short video, I turned on the television to look at the nightly press conference in Downing Street. The Westminster press pack hurled furious questions at the hapless souls who are trying to manage the current coronavirus crisis. The pack seemed more than anything else to want to catch someone out somewhere, they were clamouring for a victim. In the midst of attempts to control the spread of an illness that no one has ever seen before, they seemed to be interested only in gotchas.

Journalist after journalist came forward to jab at the minister sent out to face them that evening - and they do the same on each occasion. They appear to be hoping to show up the government's failings when it is clear that no government is going to get things entirely right, because actually no one knows for certain what is the right approach, plus everyone is working on the run.

Having the press shrieking about how the government didn't move soon enough and then, once they did move, how the economy will be destroyed, how there isn't enough protective equipment, how there should be more testing, is entirely unhelpful, when no one is claiming that all is perfect, but everyone is scrambling to try to do the best they can. It is as if the press believe that the government is deliberately making mistakes, rather than working under extreme duress.

I think there are many things that have been done wrong, but I believe that all decisions have been taken with the best of intentions. That might sound feeble, and it certainly isn't a ringing endorsement of all UK policy; what it is though is a query about what exactly the Westminster press think they are achieving with their distracting hostility, their attitude that the government is the enemy, to be needled and attacked at this hugely difficult time.

In short, apart from the excellent Hugh Pym, the BBC's health editor, who is exemplary, the rest of the journalists reporting on the coronavirus crisis in Britain remind me of my cousin's pointless and annoying wasps. While trying to make things better for the nation, our politicians are forced to swat at these little stinging nobodies who make nothing better or clearer or easier for anyone at all.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin 6 - Happy Things

I've noticed that the beginning of a journey has a different mood to later points along the way. Setting out, all is jolly, excitement, the sheer pleasure of novelty. Of course, there was no jolliness at the start of lockdown due to coronavirus, but there was, perhaps, a freshness to our anxiety. Now we are at that stage where the cry from the back seat is "Are we nearly there", and unfortunately, no, we aren't. 

I'd say that carefree - (leaving aside economic cares, in favour of carefree meaning moving about without fear) - life is probably two years away, (working on the most gloomy estimate that I can bear to accept of how long it will take to create a vaccine; others may prefer the more optimistic version put out by the Times today - they reported that a UK virologist has suggested there is an 80 per cent chance of her vaccine working and being approved and dispensed widely by September; there is also the truly gloomy possibility that we will never ever work out how to quell this new virus, but let's not even contemplate that prospect).

Anyway, given that we are at the point where going back is impossible but there is still a long road ahead, I thought it might be time to pull out a few things that have cheered me or made me laugh during the past weeks.

1. Following a peculiar weeks-long stampede in Australia to buy all the loopaper available in all supermarkets, this picture appeared, which explained everything:

2. As many people began working at home, there was a fashion to be pictured in front of one's bookshelves; none of the pictures were interesting, but I did like this one that somebody posted, claiming that the creature in the shot was their new, highly unimpressed boss:

3. Working from home, (WFH), turns out to be contributing to relationship difficulties for some people:

4. Still, at least some people are able to work from home. Others are jobless and there is increasing concern about the dire consequences of lockdown for the economy. In the circumstances, it was good of the Slovak president to point a new way forward for the fashion industry with a facemask that coordinated perfectly with her dress:

5. Speaking of facemasks, a generously proportioned woman decided to follow instructions from a rather tiny Japanese woman on the subject of repurposing old brassieres into facemasks:

6. And speaking of repurposing someone made this, (it has bad language, so don't watch if you don't like that):

7. For those missing sports on the television, a BBC sports commentator came to the rescue:

8. St Louis zoo also provided something rather lovely in the surprising form of a penguin weigh-in:

9. And one of my favourite charities, the Sheldrick Trust, introduced us to a zebra foal, rescued from lions:

10. My youngest daughter reminded me of this poem, written some years ago by someone called Decca Muldowney, who I think now works as a journalist; the piece seems apposite right now:

11. I was surprised by the odd juxtaposition that Twitter threw up, when the sentence of Harvey Weinstein was announced:

12. Someone dredged up this Kissinger observation, which could not be more relevant - each person will have a different view about who has shown most leadership in this crisis. For what it's worth, the Chinese president doesn't make it into my top ten:

I suppose I have ended on a rather sombre note when I promised a barrel of laughs. Sadly, sombre notes are unavoidable at the moment, but it is in times like these that it is most important to try to find some fun as well.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin 5 - Pray for the UK Prime Minister

Following this evening’s news that Boris Johnson has been transferred to ICU,  I pray for his recovery & I hope many others will too, regardless of their views: this is a fellow human being in a very dangerous state.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin 4 - Not funny, Not Clever, Just Maddening

If you can stand it, take a look at this and this and this. Each of these ghastly displays has been posted by a famous person in the last ten days. They have done it in the belief, one assumes, that just the sight of them, however unamusing, witless and banal they appear, will make people all over the world feel better.

Maybe I'm alone in this, but I'm afraid it doesn't work for me. My only reaction to these terrible spectacles is to resolve to make every effort, when this crisis is over, to effect a change to end the cult of celebrity - or, at the very least, if we must have celebrities, to ensure we have celebrities who possess self-knowledge and talent.

I suppose none of the above examples was more than execrable, however, whereas this, the response from the dean of an arts college in New York to students needing their fees returned to them, given that classes can't go ahead due to the outbreak of COVID-19, is a glimpse of pure cold bastardry.

And don't get me started on the toxic combination of a parade of semi-celebs (I neither know nor care who most of them are, so it's no use asking) and NHS worship, which was on display in this broadcast. What was the point of it? It will probably add to the burden on Britain's perfectly okay health service (but no better than those of several other countries and fetishised in a way that makes it impossible to improve) by creating an influx of people made sick by the empty sentimentality of the gesture.

What a demonstration that noxious film is of how celebrity has been allowed to be equated with superiority: why is it more interesting to see these performers say thank you to the NHS than to see less famous people do the same thing? I know that the collective for people who are not well-known is "ordinary people", but I hadn't realised, until I saw this video, that, for those in charge of the media, the adjective "ordinary" is more than a tag - the makers and broadcasters of shallow video clips evidently believe that people who aren't famous are genuinely "ordinary" - that is, of no interest - and their "thank yous" aren't worth displaying to the wider world.

Of course, in my view, as I've already said, none of these thank yous are more than pure flannel, filled with that dreadful Jim'll-Fix-It kind of faux bonhomie that I've always mistrusted. If celebs actually were better than the rest of us, they would have recognised the superficiality of the whole ghastly enterprise and insisted instead on doing something genuinely useful - for instance,  all looking into the camera and, instead of being wet and meaningless, asking why Transport for London cut services just when it was most important that buses and underground trains become less crowded. That might have been a helpful way to use their fame to highlight something stupid and possibly bring about some useful change.

What we learn from all this is the obvious - performers are people who are desperate for attention.  When they make their little video clips, they may pretend they are trying to lift our spirits, but really they are thirsty for our gaze. I prefer to watch a less needy cult figure - Bernd, the famously depressed piece of German bread.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin - Cooking Notes 2

My friend in the country has just telephoned. She is very pleased with herself as, having discovered that yeast has run out in her village shop, she remembered a way to make yeast from scratch. She explained it to me, slowly and carefully, so that I could write it down, which I did. Here it is:

3 small potatoes, sliced thinly,
3 teaspoons of sugar
3 soup spoons of polenta
Cover all with water at blood temperature and leave until it bubbles and froths. Strain solid ingredients, add flour and start making your bread.

Unfortunately, when I asked whether she had a method for making flour as well, it turned out that she didn't. I barely have any flour in the house as I don't bake much - purely because, if I do make a cake, I am too weak to resist the urge to scarf the whole thing down in a greedy gulp, which is neither sensible nor healthy.

But for those who are more mature than me in the face of baked goods, I hope the information will be useful.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin No. 3

Well here we all still are. Not much wiser about how to get things back to normal - apart from the charmless libertarian Toby Young in the new online magazine The Critic, rather wetly echoed in Australia by Adam Creighton in the Australian. They seem certain that shutdown measures are too extreme. The claim is that there will be just as many deaths caused by unemployment as might be by COVID19 and therefore straight after Easter we should all just go back to the way things were before.

Yes, the suggestion is that in 10 days time, just as - in the United Kingdom at least, I fear - hospitals will be entering exceptionally dark times, everyone should just forget about the chance of getting ill and dying, get up as if nothing is happening and hop on the tube and go back to work. You'll probably be fine, is the argument - well most of you, although it's impossible to say which ones won't be. Toby Young ended his article with the claim that he was actually suffering from the coronavirus infection while writing and was happy to become collateral damage, provided the economy could be put back on track, which I think he thought was a marvellous flourish but of course actually entirely undermined his argument since, if he has actually contracted the illness, he is arguing from a perspective utterly unlike that of the person who has not yet been attacked. That is, he knows that he is either a) going to die, in which case, from his point of view removing all restrictions won't matter or b) going to survive, in which case he will have immunity and will be fine if all restrictions are removed

I'm astonished by the number of otherwise sane people who argue that these proposals need consideration. To me, the suggestion that government should stand idly by while, in very short order large numbers die from a previously unknown disease is ludicrous. Few people have much faith in the political system anyway but, were politicians to shrug and adopt a laissez faire approach to this epidemic, on the grounds that the economy is paramount, what little trust that remains would evaporate. Patience is needed. Within a couple of months I suspect something will be sorted out - my imagination conjures up a tedious and unremitting rigmarole of testing, which will lead to certificates for those who have immunity and return to normal life, limited mixing for those without (complete with yet more admonitions about handwashing) and isolation for those who turn out to be carrying the virus, plus tracing of all those with whom they've been in contact (the tests involved must not be made in China; I'm hoping their manufacture, administration and analysis will provide plenty of jobs for those made unemployed by the current lockdown, they will all pay taxes and everything will be just fine on the finance front [Pollyanna is my middle name, although I do recognise that the people involved in the bureaucracy attached to this system will almost certainly be more obstructive and maddening than I can imagine.])

It's all too hard, it's costing a lot of money and, look, sure some people die, but, guess what, we all die some time, that is what the Toby-Young-and-cohort proposition boils down to. I imagine given half a chance they would argue that the asbestos industry really ought to have kept going as it's such a useful substance and not that many people suffer agonising death as a result of it. Creighton does drag in the tobacco industry, arguing that the Australian government countenances 12,000 deaths per year from smoking. The things you can do with statistics - leaving aside all the other arguments wrapped up in that claim, they don't all die at once, bringing down the hospital system with them, as has happened in Italy and Spain with the influx of people suffering from the extreme version of this new disease.

But I must admit that in Britain the government has done a pretty good job of squandering public faith all by itself, thanks to its breathtakingly incompetent scientific advisers, with their babble about "modelling" and "behavioural science" and apparent lack of any commonsense.. Watching University Challenge the other evening, I saw the look on the face of a spectacled member of the Durham University team when faced with a tricky question, and I thought, yes, I think that was probably, for rather too long a time, the reaction of Sir Patrick Vallance; Professor Whitty; the maddening Dr Jenny Harries - who insisted one day that mass gatherings were safe as houses and, without a hint of an apology, insisted the next time she emerged that none of us should ever see each other again; and Dr Graham Medley, the one who was wishing for "a nice big epidemic" when confronted with the imminent question of what to do about this new virus:

I kept wondering as I saw the group of government science advisors wheeled out on a nightly basis, how so many highly qualified, supposedly clever people could have failed so spectacularly to see that something pretty dreadful was hurtling toward the nation? How could they have not learned anything from the methods being used in Singapore or Taiwan or even South Korea to contain this new, highly infectious threat?

Then I remembered talking to a friend of my mother's, a farmer, who has recently got to know his new neighbour, a smallholder who works as a civil servant in Canberra and knows nothing about being on the land. My mother's friend was late to meet us because he'd been helping out his neighbour who had got himself in a muddle with his livestock. My mother asked her friend what the neighbour was like. "He's clever", he told her, "he's got about five degrees, so he's very clever." My mother's friend paused, "He's so clever he's stupid, I think", he eventually said.

Five degrees, terribly clever - so clever, they're stupid; yes, there's a lot of that about.