Disasters fascinate. The Titanic still garners interest after 100-plus years. Though I suspect some of that has to do with the lost ship and its treasures. The other side of Titanic fetish comes from the high number of casualties, that mass grave in the North Atlantic, arguably an example of what’s been called ‘dark tourism.’
My disaster fascination is with Pompeii, where some 2,000 people died when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. I first caught Pompeii fever as a child when an exhibit about Pompeii toured America and came to the Art Institute of Chicago. I was mesmerized by the plaster casts made from the ashen moulds of bodies frozen in time at the moment of horrific death. My recollection of this includes seeing people screaming. But that’s an unfaithful childhood memory. The reality wasn’t so detailed or morbidly vivid. Most of the figures are covering their heads, crouched or lying down. My adult self looks at these casts and imagines people being in a state of meditative acceptance of their mortality I visited the remains of Pompeii on two occasions, once in the 80s and sometime around 2005-06. The disaster is still fascinating, but more so for what it has left behind – the artifacts and structures that reveal how the inhabitants of the ancient town lived.
More recently, I had the pleasure of hearing the historian and classicist Mary Beard talk about her book and television series on Pompeii. Beard has changed my way of thinking about these people, for instance, pointing out that it would be wrong to call them Romans. The graffiti and inscribed objects indicate a diverse population, with speakers of Latin, Oscan, Greek and Hebrew.
This point is also picked up in Robert Harris’s brilliant novel Pompeii, a true page-turner set in the days before and during the eruption, with well-drawn characters and an attention to detail praised by historians. Harris digs into the minds of the people of that time who regarded such disasters as vengeance from the gods and the warnings that they had that went unceded. His protagonist, the region’s aquarius responsible for the aqueducts feeding into the towns, makes this observation: ‘Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails – and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?’ This underlying environmental message also makes this worth a read.
There’s another type of dark tourism that I’ve been thinking about lately. The phrase is also used for visiting places like the concentration camp at Auschwitz, the Rwandan genocide towns (Kigali, Nyamata and Ntarma) and the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, where apparently the rubble and twisted metal from the immediate aftermath of the bomb remain in situ. I’d argue that these sites, though they might hold a morbid fascination for some, are more about education, pointing the finger at human destruction and the mistakes of those who turned a blind eye. Watching, reading and hearing the news day in and day out, I wonder if Bucha and Mariupol will become sites for dark tourism.
There’s an awful lot of blue and yellow out there these days. According to a few online ‘-edias’ and ‘-ictionaries’, the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag represent the sky and fields of wheat. This combination of colours comes from the flag of the Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia, used in the 12th century for the lands that include modern-day Ukraine.
Even the Covid-19 pandemic has failed to unite people the way Putin’s attack on Ukraine has. The pandemic was beleaguered from the start with different theories on how it spreads and what strategies governments should take to protect people. And let’s not forget the covid-deniers and anti-vaxers. The war in Ukraine is more straightforward. Though the solutions and ways of taming Putin are complex, we have all witnessed this unprovoked attack on a liberal democracy and recognise propaganda when we hear it.
I suspect that we’re sporting the blue and yellow, not only because we’re humanitarians, but because we feel vulnerable. I sure do. The possibility of another world war, one that would be, unlike its predecessors, fuelled in part by cyber-attacks and nuclear arsenals leaves me edging towards panic, that sensation of falling from high without a net.
Everyone has their own means of dealing with this feeling of vulnerability. I find myself meditating longer and more often, trying to live in the moment as vulnerability entails some projection into the future. I’ve also tried to do something for the people of Ukraine in a couple of small ways – a donation to the Red Cross and participating in a march through the streets of Cambridge, UK. (I’m aware that by mentioning this I risk being accused of virtue signalling.)
Above all else, I’ve sought solace in the Ukrainian writings and artistic works that have been surfacing en masse in mainstream and social media. Before this war, I was only familiar with a handful of Ukrainian writers, including Natalka Bilotserkivets. I found one of her poems again and reread it, forced by the present to interpret it differently:
It’s time to pack your bag and go. You don’t know what to take – something easy to carry; everything you’d possibly need, instantly found.
Two or three brushes, soap and a towel. Clean underwear, just in case your lover meets you – or God. Either way, you should have clean underwear.
In a secluded place, among weeds of a dense, heavenly forest, I’ll meet a rose. Like Blake’s symbol of delicate mysticism – the rose who loves the worm.
Having allowed him into her alluring womb, she trembles, hidden, to avoid me, and all poetry – a shame, a bore, oh, poor flower, lovely, dear . . .
“‘When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”’ I’ve been thinking about this well-worn quote from Lewis Carroll in recent days as I listen to the verbal gymnastics performed by Vladimir Putin.
Much of what Putin is saying about Ukraine can be found in the bully’s handbook as well as the propagandist’s handbook: Create a false narrative that makes you look like a victim and that leaves you with no other choice but to attack. Putin has claimed that Ukraine is committing ‘genocide’ against the Russian diaspora in the separatists’ regions of the country, and that his military actions will ‘liberate’ the people. This might at first sound like reckless hyperbole, but I think Putin has chosen his words carefully. ‘Genocide’ induces a heady mix of anger and fear, while ‘liberation’ is what most of us desire in some form or another. He’s manipulating the most basic of human instincts. The falsity of Putin’s claims doesn’t matter. He knows if something is said enough, there are people out there who will believe it. Trump’s ludicrous claims of a rigged presidential election are a case in point.
I’ve also been struck by Putin’s characterisation of the Ukrainian government as a ‘gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.’ Apparently for Putin drug addicts are not only a blight on society, but they should be feared. I see drug addicts as substance abusers in the same way I would regard alcoholics, people struggling with psychological and/or societal ills. The real danger is the drug lord and those who aid and abet the distribution network.
As for neo-Nazis, or just plain Nazis, this word has the currency of being both powerful and meaningless at the same time. The Nazis of the Weimar Republic were anti-Semitic, racists, homophobic thugs responsible for one of the worst acts of genocide of recent centuries. Since I’m not hearing or reading about anything like this taking place in Ukraine, and certainly not under the auspices of the Ukrainian government, I have to assume that Putin (if he were being truthful) must be using the word Nazi in its other sense. I remember as a child thinking my older sister was a Nazi because of the way she ordered me around when it came to making my bed and washing the dishes. Perhaps Putin is using Nazis to mean something else, something between the literal/historical meaning and the anodyne sense for a bossy person. If Putin is calling the Ukrainian government authoritarian or dictatorial, again he’s missing the mark as by all other accounts, Ukraine is a liberal democracy.
I started with Humpty Dumpty, so I’ll end with a metonymic meaning of a humpty-dumpty. Today a humpty-dumpty is a person or thing that once destroyed cannot be restored. In this battle for Ukraine, I’m seeing humpty-dumpties on both sides. While I relish the idea that this will ultimately be Putin’s downfall, I also fear for the Ukrainian people who won’t be able to put their lives back together again.
This is not a travelogue, nor is it packed with recommendations for places to eat in the Big Smoke – apparently the most popular nickname for London, according to Google. Yesterday marked my first daytrip to London in well over two years. That’s not to say I haven’t seen London at all during the pandemic, but those were trips getting to or from airports, with fleeting glimpses of the skyline from an overground train. Ely to Nice is inevitably via London. But Nice, the fourth largest city in France, has nothing on London when it comes to crowds and narrow spaces, where I have been imagining spiky Covid cells floating from one Londoner to the next. My day in our country’s crowded capital was my act of defiance, my coming to terms with the idea that I must learn to live with ‘it.’
Like so many of my past trips to London, this one was spawned by political activism. Make Votes Matter had organised a rally in Parliament Square to protest against voter suppression and in support of proportional representation. Voter suppression is the hidden agenda of this government’s proposed Elections Bill, currently getting readings back and forth in the two houses of Parliament. As for proportional representation, the current system for voting in the UK gives victories to candidates with the most votes and the party with the most seats, even if these results are far less than 50%. Stay with me. This means that in a country with more than two viable political parties, the majority of the votes could be against the Conservatives, for example, but the Conservatives still win because the opposition votes are divided among say four other parties. If you’ve been following British politics, you’ll have recognised that my example is in fact the reality. The last time Parliament was won by a majority was in 1935 (Statista) and the unpopular Conservatives were in power for most of the 20th century and since 2010.
While these are causes worth rallying around, more important for me was being outside in the gathering of some 500 people. We didn’t need to wear masks or keep two meters apart. We talked to people we knew and to a couple of strangers and we joined the group chant of ‘No way,’ responding to a speaker’s rallying cry. We were in a dome where Covid seemed a distant memory.
Yet, the true highlight of my London day was a visit to the Tate. I’ve been to some museums in Nice during the pandemic but felt safe doing so with pass sanitaires being scanned for entry. At the Tate, some Covid protocols were in place. We had to book our free tickets in advance as numbers entering were limited, and we had to wear masks – all sensible measures. The health protocols kept me aware of the times we live in, but the works of art – J.M.W. Turners, Henry Moore, the Pre-Raphaelites – transported to that other space where only art and creativity can take me. A true and real space, to loosely paraphrase Aristotle.
The rally and the museum were the pleasurable parts of the day, as was a long stroll in the winter sun from Parliament Square to Blackfriars Station to catch the Thameslink train back to St Pancreas. The not so pleasurable experience came when riding an underground train, the aptly named Tube – in these small carriages, designed in the days of Victoria, I felt like a rat in an underground pipe, encrusted with dirt, potentially with disease.
On a more positive note about the Tube, I’m reminded of a much-quoted passage from Peter Ackroyd’s London Under which encapsulates how I felt at the end of the day:
‘The passenger travels within the origin of the city. It is a curious fact that the further the train moves from the centre of the city, the more anonymous it becomes. The journey becomes less intense. It becomes less intimate. It loses its mystery.’
London in these Covid days of partial restrictions has become less mysterious and less intimidating as I have grown more used to living with the pandemic.
While I’ve read some fine books in 2021, my favourite this year has to be Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. Central to this book is the idea that thinking we live in a meritocracy – an idea much-used by politicians – has created a false sense of deserving and has alienated the unsuccessful. Sandel points out that many who have not received the rewards of their hard work, in particular those who have been most effected by the economic crises of recent decades, blame their governments and/or immigrants, giving rise to populists’ movements in democracies such as the UK and America. Reading this book made me re-examine my own thinking on meritocracy and how it has changed over the years.
When I was a child, I believed that if I tried really hard at something I would reach my goals. Watching Jimmy Stewart films and being told by teachers and parents that anything was possible if you worked for it, I was a product of my culture. Yet, I knew even then that there were limits. I was never going to be Miss America (because I didn’t have the looks), nor was I going to be a professional baseball player (because I was a girl). By the time I was a teenager in the 70s, the women’s lib movement made me all too aware that adult life was not played on a level field and that if I succeeded at anything, I would be paid less than my male counterparts.
While the bubble was deflating, there was still enough air in it for me to believe that hard work and ambition would have their rewards. Living in predominately white, working and lower-middle class America, believing in meritocracy was a default position. On top of that, I was caught up in the wave of aspirational coaching and new age spirituality espousing the notion that positive thinking yielded positive results. My reading list in those days featured self-help gurus Wayne Dyer and Louise Hay. It was all about self-improvement – it was all about me, me, me…
Although I found such thoughts empowering, there was a flipside to all of this: that failure was something I projected on to the situation. I would never blame a government or social structures – that seemed a sign of weakness, blaming others as a child would. By my mid-twenties, I easily blamed myself for the jobs I didn’t get, the publications not realized and for times of being negatively targeted by family members or colleagues. Likewise, when I did achieve and accomplish something I owed it to myself (and sometimes luck). I was being rewarded for my labours and for jumping over obstacles. It was still all about me, me, me…
Over the years, the more I talked to friends, the more books I read in politics and sociolinguistics, the more films and stage plays I saw, the more my thinking included how the power of social structures, the media, advertising and popular culture, along with money of course, dictates who achieves and who does not. Sandel’s book deconstructs our so-called meritocracy in a similar way. I was particularly pleased to see how he uses corpus linguistics to illustrate points on language used by politicians and advertisers to sell the idea that we live in or could live in a meritocracy if we vote a certain way or do certain things.
But Sandel has done more than just validate my own thinking. He has made me aware of the judgements I have made in recent years about the less educated, noting how they tended to vote more for Brexit and Trump. Sandel points out that a university degree is on the one hand not always given to the smartest or most deserving and is on the other hand an entrée to the jobs our society places more value on. He also looks at education in the climate change debate, again making me think differently. Politicians on America’s far right who are climate change deniers are just as educated as those who believe that climate change is real and human made. Both sides of the argument have used their schooling and analytical skills to justify beliefs they already had.
Dictionary.com has announced that allyship is its word of the year. A word I have never seen before, let alone this year. I was expecting vaccine, variant, renewables or some neologism, like antivaxxer.
According to Dicitonary.com, allyship is a noun referring to ‘the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.’ It’s a straightforward blended word, combining the word ‘ally’ with the morpheme ‘ship.’
Although allyship is new to Dictionary.com, its origins go back to the mid-1800s, but that was in a broader sense, a group of allied organisations. The modern sense used by Dictionary.com can be traced to the 1940s but didn’t come into more regular use (apparently, even though I missed it) until some 15 years ago.
These lexicographers go on to say, ‘Allyship acts as a powerful prism through which to view the defining events and experiences of 2021 – and crucially, how the public processed them.’ For me, recent examples of this include white protesters at the Black Lives Matter marches and heterosexuals across the world actively supporting gay rights in Ghana, Uganda, Russia and Poland. Though some in these pools of partisans have been accused of virtue-signalling (another good word), I’d like to think that the vast majority are genuine.
But I was put in my place when I did my own corpus search on allyship and found an article from The Guardian. Questioning the allyship of whites who support black causes, Kelsey Smoot had this to say:
‘The truth is, genuine allyship is not kindness, it is not a charitable act, nor is it even a personal commitment to hold anti-racist ideals – it is a fall from grace. Real allyship enacted by White Americans, with a clear objective to make equitable the lived experiences of individuals across racial lines, means a willingness to lose things. Not just the extra $50 in one’s monthly budget by way of donating to an organization working towards racial justice. I mean palpable, incalculable loss.’
Smoot raises some good points about empathy and activism. Nevertheless, I like the social justice flavour of allyship and might start using it myself for actions I think are genuinely deserving. This might be a tall order.
As I don’t understand and can only feel rage over the crisis in Afghanistan – Biden’s long game, the shambolic withdrawal of troops and civilians, NATO’s apathy – I’ve escaped this past week to Cyprus. That is, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, written in 1957. To achieve total escape, I decided to experience this not as a written book, risking my thoughts drifting to Afghanistan, but as an audiobook – my first audiobook ever. This neatly coincided with the task of 18 meters of rickety old fence to paint.
A friend recommended Durrell’s autobiographical account of his three years in Cyprus. Strangely devoid of sex for a L. Durrell book, the narration is straightforward and the descriptions are rich with Mediterranean flora and the spirited people of the island. As I listened to amusing encounters between Durrell and the locals as he tries to buy a home, my paint brush slopped over old twigs stuck between panels of rotten wood. To dislodge the twigs would have caused the panels to pop out.
The book gradually introduces the political context through how it manifested itself in the daily lives of locals and expats. Cyprus was trying to gain independence from the British, who still controlled it as a Crown Colony.
A couple of days of rain meant I had to leave the fence about one-third painted. I watched Afghanis crowding into Kabul Airport, a few men jumping onto the underbelly of a US military plane as it taxis towards a runway. Feminist Current’s blog relayed a story about Taliban troops going door to door in search of ‘wives’ (translation – slaves). I followed the links to find that the story originated with Bloomberg, but I haven’t heard anything since.
The weather improved, and I returned to the garden with my bucket of cedar red. Durrell started his journey as a writer looking for a change of scenery, but ended up working as a press officer for the British foreign office. One of Durrell’s neighbours talks about the need to fight for independence if independence is supposed to have any meaning at all. Does the Taliban feel the need to fight even though they’re being handed their independence on a platter? Durrell observes the British officials’ sense of entitlement to have a British Empire. One officer bemoans Britain leaving as ‘Cyprus is the backbone of the Empire.’ I’m living through the crumbling of the American Empire. Given the US government’s failures at nation-building through military means, this isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps it’s time for America to exercise more soft power through its technology and medical science in parts of the world in need (for me, this includes America itself). By the time Durrell left the island, he had witnessed death and destruction, his lyrical travelogue turned into a treatise on human failings.
Unfortunately, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, beautifully read by actor Andrew Sachs, is only three hours long. My escape from the news in Afghanistan and my painting job had to be supplemented by a radio podcast about Nina Simone and the start of my second audiobook, Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit (more on that another time).
With my work completed, the old wobbly fence is still an old wobbly fence, but now at least it’s of one colour. I have performed a cedar-red wash over chipped paint, rusty nails, decaying wood, empires, soldiers and refugees.
With the news of Governor Cuomo resigning after nearly a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment, I’ve been thinking about my Woody Allen boycott. For just a few moments this week I felt that same ache I felt back in the 90s when Allen fell off the pedestal I had made for him.
By the 90s, Woody Allen movies had long since become one of my annual traditions as Allen makes a film every year. I know what you’re thinking – they have not all been great works – some have been real stinkers. But in my childhood and early teens films like Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, Sleepers and Love and Death were formative in teaching me about life – the societal hypocrisies and the need for psychotherapy.
As Allen films became more sophisticated with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Zelig, I began to appreciate a well-written script, and that lead to my discovering Woody Allen the writer of short stories and essays (mostly in The New Yorker). Allen’s world was funny and cerebral, self-effacing and philosophical. I don’t know what this says about my younger self, but I relished in his misanthropic humour. Among my favourite Allen quotables are: ‘Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.’ And ‘If my films make one more person miserable, I have done my job.’
Then there was the downfall. Soon-Yi Previn, Allen’s adopted daughter became his romantic partner in 1991 when she was 22. At first it was just weird. For the love of Woody, I shrugged it off, convincing myself that it was okay since Soon-Yi was an adult and of the legal age of consent. Moreover, Woody Allen was more like a step-adoptive father to Soon-Yi (the first adoptive father being Andre Previn). Downfall part two – in 1992, Allen was accused of sexually abusing his other adopted daughter, Dylan, when she was seven-years old. It was easy at the time to place this accusation in the category ‘ex-partner gets her revenge,’ the ex-partner being actress Mia Farrow. While Allen falling in love with his other adopted daughter gave him an air of guilt, he was never convicted. To this day, I’m still on the fence about his culpability.
When Woody and Soon-Yi married some five years later, I felt more justified in my acceptance of this relationship. Between the announcement of their being in love and the marriage, Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite came out – two of the best films of the 90s. But as the years passed, I came to realise that issues of consent are not so straight forward. With Woody Allen, the complication arises from his changing roles from father to lover to husband, where the first role was one of familial power followed by roles that by definition involve sexual relationships. For me, the age of consent laws and marriage certificate no longer legitimise this creepy coupledom.
On top of that, I was growing uneasy with his films – he might give actresses some strong parts, but Allen has also made otherwise intelligent women characters weak in the face of compliments about their looks. I mean weak to the point of falling for the bespectacled, maladroit played by Allen himself. It’s in several Allen films, including Annie Hall.
My boycott of Allen films started in 2011 and has continued to this day, with an exception made in 2014 for Colin Firth in Magic in the Moonlight – Firth and the French Riviera was too much to pass up. The boycott is my way of saying that I object Allen’s use of power, and I am not going to continue to support it by contributing to the offender’s income, however small my contribution may be.
In the case of Cuomo, again I’m looking at a man in a position of power changing that role to one of sexual intimate, regardless of the other person wanting that relationship. But in this case, there’s nothing to boycott. The Democratic party, to their credit, have done that for voters by pushing him to resign. Of course, they’re doing this for political reasons, but I’m glad that our post #metoo society has helped to create that political environment. That just leaves me being miffed that someone I had admired for his support for women’s issues – calling himself a ‘feminist’ – and his anti-Trump handling of the pandemic could plunge so disgracefully.
Unlike the 2020 Covid travel stories of people escaping before lockdowns, the talk now is about vaccinations and tests, the lifting of restrictions and scientific advice versus political will.
Getting to Nice was easier, if not more surreal, than we thought it would be. Armed with our lateral-flow tests certificates (at £50 each), we arrived at a half-closed Gatwick with the ambiance of an airport in the off-season. On our way to the gate we were stopped by an official asking to see our vaccination certificates. When he saw mine, he said ‘Sorry, we can’t let you through. You have to have had your second dose at least four weeks ago.’ For a few seconds I was in panic mode, imagining David going to France without me. I caught my breath and in near unison David and I said, ‘No, it’s two weeks, not four.’ I offered him my lateral-flow test certificate, but he wasn’t interested. This person whose job it was to check documents did not know the rules that he was supposed to ensure we were following. Luckily another Gatwick worker came to our rescue, agreeing that my second vaccination needed to be only two-weeks old. With that we were off to the Cote d’Azur, where we waved our vaccination certificates in the air as we whizzed through passport control.
When we saw French neighbours for the first time in ten months, they asked straight away if we had been vaccinated. One asked which vaccines we had, followed by raised eyebrows when we mentioned AstraZeneca – apparently, not the right answer. Whatever we did, Covid was not far away. It was the backdrop of all social interaction, screening who’s hugging, who’s elbowing, who’s pecking each cheek, for which I have mastered the air kiss. In France, masks are still obligatory in public transport and indoor public spaces like shops, museums and cinemas. Some people don’t know how to wear masks and use them to cover their chin, or if you’re young, male and really cool you wear them on your wrists. As we needed to take trams everyday, we soon realised that we were testing the efficacy of our unpopular AstraZeneca jabs.
By the end of the second week, we heard the good news that we had expected – people coming from France, which is on the UK’s amber list, will not have to self-isolate for ten days and will only need to take one PCR test on their return to the UK. Relief all around. We continued to fill our days with the Nicoise sunshine, morning walks, coffees and croissants at terraced cafes often followed by a swim.
This joy was broken a week before our departure when Johnson’s government announced that a new traffic light had been created – the amber-plus. The country on this list-of-one was France. This meant that upon returning to the UK from France, even though we are double-vaccinated, we would have to self-isolate for ten days and have to take PCR tests on days 2 and 8. The first government explanation was that France had a worrying rate of Beta variants of the virus and that these cases might not be protected by vaccines. It was soon pointed out in the press that France’s higher Beta rate is in the French islands of Reunion and Mayotte, thousands of miles away. Mainland France has a lower Beta variant rate than Sweden, Germany and Spain – all of those countries are on the normal amber list of this Alice-in-Wonderland trafficlight, and people returning from those countries would not have to quarantine.
Just before we left France, Johnson responded to the criticism by saying that actually it is the Delta variant that is the problem. What? The UK had at that point about 6 times the number of cases of people with the Delta variant than France. Some 97% of those cases were of people who were not vaccinated. So, why quarantine vaccinated people coming back from a country with a lower rate of cases than the UK? The French authorities were quick to point out the lack of logic and scientific evidence behind these new rules. Former PM Tony Blair also put the case forward in favour of double vaccinated people not needing to quarantine. But still, nothing changed.
Why France? Has it got to do with Brexit renegotiations? A bit of jealousy over France catching up with the UK on its vaccination rollout? Or is it a personality clash between Boris the buffoon and the humourless but statesmanlike Macron?
All of this seems so ridiculous. I knew that I wasn’t likely to be a medical threat to anyone, especially after the negative results of my lateral-flow test in France a couple of days before our departure. This test incidentally cost half of what it did in the UK and this time, I had to show the certificate at the EasyJet gate, along with proof that I had arranged for two PRC tests in the UK – the cheapest option we could find was the do-it-yourself at home variety for £82 per person for the set of two.
During my first quarantine in 2020, before vaccines, I understood the importance of staying in for two weeks and tracked the days on Facebook with pictures of my garden jogging path, my various projects, etc. This time, bitter and feeling every bit the political pawn… well, here’s my summary journal:
Day 1: We receive our first of many phone calls from the NHS checking up on us, asking that we understand the rules and that we understand if we break the rules we get fined. I resist using sarcasm.
Day 2: We take our PRC tests at home and put them in the pre-labelled packages. David leaves the house, breaking the law, in order to post the tests. We both receive NHS phone calls with the same texts read to us as in the previous day.
Day 3: I find myself reading a short story by Tessa Hadley inThe New Yorker set during a Covid lockdown. Another set of NHS phone calls comes in.
Day 4: David misses his NHS call. I take mine, noticing that all of the callers sound young – twenties, maybe thirties. I hear about a colleague who has returned from France and is receiving three phone calls per day.
Day 5: David receives his daily phone call, but I don’t. The UK government announces that from 2 August, people who are double vaccinated coming from the US, amber countries in the EU (that is, not France) and cruise ships – those petri dishes of disease – can enter the UK without having to self-isolate. I consider rereading Kafka.
Day 6: David receives a call, but again, I don’t. I start to hope that I’m off the radar. I read in The Times that anyone associated with London Fashion Week can fly to London without having to self-isolate. I feel I’m living in a joke that isn’t funny.
Day 7: UK Foreign Secretary Dominique Rabb explains that the issue over the island of Reunion having a high rate of Beta and not mainland France where people are travelling from is immaterial. It’s not the distance between the little island and the mainland, it’s the accessibility the island has to mainland France. Clearly, Rabb hasn’t noticed all the times that Reunion has had lockdowns with no one travelling anywhere. Nor has Rabb considered the fact that rules for going to the Canary islands, which are owned by Spain, are different from the rules applied to mainland Spain. When I get my NHS call – I’m back on the radar – I request the short version of the script, explaining that the long version will just make me angry. The caller replies to my bitterness with a perky ‘Okay’ and jumps to the part about being fined.
Day 8: We take PCR test 2, David breaks the law again to post them, and we both receive phone calls from our young friends at the NHS. Simon Calder of The Independent confirms a rumour we have heard that turns out to be true – the island of Reunion with its high Beta rate is on the amber list, while mainland France with its miniscule Beta rate remains on the amber-plus list.
Day 9: David receives his daily call, but I don’t. The papers are full of stories about vaccine passes. In France, these passes are proving a success, before they even become law, millions more are queuing up for their vaccines. Those who refuse could still get into venues with a negative covid test, or they could simply take to the streets and protest – it’s what the French do. I’m missing France already.
Day 10: I start looking into a winter holiday in Reunion, and I finish this blog.
In brief, East Anglia Bylines is part of the Byline network of news sources generated by citizens’ journalism – that is, anyone can write for them. The editors have professional experience as do quite a few of the writers. All have been working laboriously for months now to get this polished up and off the ground. What makes this publication different from other online news sources is that it represents the region of East Anglia in England, its writers, its perspectives. These perspectives include national and world news, recognising that international is local.
This publication has emerged in response to the times we live in, where democracies are being threatened by populist leaders while the earth faces a catastrophic climate emergency. As people feel that they are not being heard on these issues, local news outlets, which used to give citizens a voice, are also dwindling. These presses have been subsumed or destroyed by larger corporate advertiser-led publishing houses.
The Byline network is non profit and independent. I’ll close with the words of its editors: …’we seek to demonstrate democracy in action by giving a voice to local people and holding our elected representatives to account. This is made possible by our independence – both from government control and from the influence of corporate interests. Our political stance is progressive and internationalist. Our objective is to be part of the debate at a regional and national level.’
I’m hopeful that this isn’t yet another one and that this publication will encourage others to follow its lead in locally-based citizens’ journalism.