Why don’t they do it in the Rosary?

I may have mentioned the Rosary cemetery. When I “took my exercise” there during the first lockdown, it was almost always deserted. Now, word seems to have got round, and I’m pretty sure it’s not because thousands of people are reading my posts. Perhaps people are getting so bored with their daily street walks or the overcrowded riverside gangways that they’re looking desperately for somewhere different that can still be described as “local”. Eventually they stumble on the Rosary. They strike lucky.

As we ease into spring, the Rosary is probably at its best. New blankets of crocuses appear every day, among many other spring flowers – snowdrops, primroses, daffodils. You know the sort of thing. Pretty irresistible.

However, unlike many others, I don’t think our appreciation of this phenomenon has suddenly arisen because our lives have slowed down, allowing us to appreciate nature more. Either you appreciate nature or you (inexplicably) don’t.

Most of us love nature, and we don’t go out of our way to ruin it. As I tiptoe between the graves, I try hard not to tread on any tiny shoots. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Nevertheless, there seem to be people who are so focused on themselves and their own convenience that they really don’t care about their surroundings.

I’m not talking about the highways department. I’m not talking about car drivers, or dog walkers, or climate change deniers, or anti-vaxxers or secret huggers, or elves and fairies.

I’m talking about ordinary people who could have an immediate impact on the environment by simply refraining from one activity that has a huge negative impact on city streets and country verges. I am referring, of course, to dropping litter.

Do you actually know anyone who drops litter? Nor me. But it happens on a huge scale, all the time. The Rosary seems to be an exception, and I wonder why. What sort of people don’t go there? People who regard cemeteries as gloomy and forbidding places? People who aren’t impressed by trees and flowers? I was going to say dog walkers, but that’s just me being prejudiced. Maybe it’s people who just don’t notice their surroundings, or are frightened by the whole concept of death, or by the invisible “big picture”.

Somebody left an embroidered notice on one of the seats in the Rosary. It reads: “Not to ruin the ending for you, but it will all turn out ok.”

It is this kind of optimism – some would say reality check – that makes us look round at what I like to call Creation, and want to enjoy it. You don’t have to call it Creation to enjoy it, but it seems to help.

What really worries me about getting overwhelmed


During the first lockdown of my life, last year, everywhere seemed empty. When I took the car to the chemist’s to pick up a prescription, there was almost nothing on the road, and hardly anyone walking either. It was weird, and quite exhilarating. For a while.

This time round we know all about lockdowns. When I go out for my daily exercise (you know, the sort of thing we always did every day and need to keep doing, ho, ho), I can hardly move for other people doing the same thing. On the roads there is loads of traffic – all of it no doubt on essential business.

I read about people travelling vast distances to do trivial and ridiculous things and wonder why I don’t take my wife over to North Walsham – a distance of about 15 miles – to put flowers on her parents’ grave. Such an action would not precipitate any increase in coronavirus infection, but it might attract a fine from some over-zealous marshal or police officer “only doing their job”.

So my parents, buried only ten minutes’ walk from my home, get all the attention. Dead lucky.

Yes, our almost daily wanders to the cemetery, by the river and round the cathedral close are never lonely as a cloud, but packed with bursting bubbles of eager walkers, or runners, or cyclists. Fair enough. I can hardly complain about people doing the same things as I am, even if far too many of them have dogs.

Covid is worrying, of course. What really worries me, though, is the number of people who will flock to our coast and other beautiful spots when the virus eases its grip, and the law is relaxed. I have a feeling my usual favourite haunts will be overflowing with strangers who still can’t get on a plane to Tenerife and have to go somewhere.

There is a whole bloc of people who have to go somewhere. I call them the Restless Ones. They can’t stay home for more than a few days without feeling the urge to go on “holiday” – if only in a tent, or only for a day or two. They bundle all their children into a car and take them somewhere that used to be lovely.

Someone once said (I think it was Jerry Seinfeld) that there was no such thing as fun for all the family. They refuse to believe this.

The problem, I’m afraid, is not people going to beauty spots. The problem is the number of people going to beauty spots – people who would in the normal run of things be out of the country. This is a serious problem. What if air travel doesn’t resume for years? What if these people suddenly realise that the country they live in is full of undiscovered, stunning countryside and excellent restaurants?

I may be vaccinated and optimistic about our ability to cope with the virus, but I can’t help fearing that I am nevertheless going to be overwhelmed – not by illness but by other people.

Why can’t we be more like Golgafrincham?

The other day I happened on a TV documentary from 1957, shown by the ever-delightful Talking Pictures channel, which ran through what happened at Covent Garden from midnight till mid-morning the next day.

Sound enthralling? Surprisingly, it was. But what struck me most about it was the expertise of the workers. They knew exactly what they were doing, and how to do it….and at considerable speed.

I also watched an episode of Grand Designs in which a young man who had recovered from a brain tumour, and his wife, who had many medical problems including recurring skin cancer, took on the immense task of converting a massive barn into a superb house despite minimal finance and in the face of huge practical difficulties – many of them created by planning officials.

I wouldn’t have started the project , let alone finished it. If I had started, I would have given up at several points. But it was a triumph.

And these two programmes made me think about the B Ark. This was an invention of the brilliant Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The B Ark, a huge space vehicle whose residents chose to believe they were the cream of their planet, Golgafrincham, had been fired off to search for a new inhabitable planet.

In fact they were a collection of the most disposable inhabitants of Golgfrincham – marketing executives, PR consultants, telephone sanitisers, bureaucrats, politicians, planning officials and so on – who would really not be missed.

I have always seen myself as a B-Arker. I mean what use is a writer, journalist, poet…? Put me in Covent Garden and I would be lost. Ask me to build a house, and, although I am adequate at small DIY, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start – or the energy to do it.

Our society, unlike that on Golgafrincham, really has this all wrong. We praise and promote the academics, historians, professors and high-earning “elite” and fail to see how much more valuable are plumbers, electricians, nurses, care workers – even when the truth stares us in the face.

The Education Act of 1944 was supposed to put this right, creating schools which specialised in promoting practical skills – you know, the skills vital to our survival. What happened? Technical schools were looked down on, underinvested and seen as a home for people who weren’t good enough to make the academic grade.

One of my favourite comic strips, Dilbert, puts it very well in an encounter between Dilbert, an engineer, and a new employee, who says: “Hi. I’m very smart, but I don’t know how to do anything.” Dilbert replies: “Where did you get your PhD?” New employee: “I didn’t say I have a PhD.” Dilbert: “You kinda did.”

The current pandemic had thrown a spotlight on people who do really useful things, and do them very well. I would like to think that this realisation of who is really valuable to us all will result in a rethink about the structure of society, and where the big money goes.

But I bet it won’t.

I am not one of those who semi-amusingly use Facebook to blame the Tory government for absolutely everything that goes wrong. I am not a Socialist Worker, though I know one and like him very much. I do not pull down statues. But I would like to see change in the area of valuing the right people, and I think many other outwardly conservative people would like to see it too.

Hauntingly beautiful walk – so near and yet so far

I’ve just come back from the Rosary again. During the covid restrictions, I have become well acquainted with this hilly Norwich cemetery where my parents and grandparents are buried. It’s only just round the corner and makes an easily accessible walk, even at my age.

It’s also hauntingly beautiful, with ancient gravestones buried in brambles, a tangle of paths leading nowhere in particular and the resting place of city dignitaries gone by marked with quiet signposts.

As well as my parents and my father’s parents, it holds two uncles, three aunts, the church leader who ministered in a mission hut that stood on the site where I now live, and the pastor of Surrey Chapel, the church I attended in my youth.

It also holds many of those half-remembered men and women who worshipped in and ran that undenominational Chapel, which once loomed large over the space between Ber Street and Surrey Street but became dwarfed by the incongruous Norfolk Tower. It was then demolished, its striking structure in the proportions of the Old Testament Tabernacle giving way to a department store car park – another kind of tabernacle.

It rose again in a different form in the shadow of Anglia Square, and is now to be demolished again whenever a plan for the Square and the refurbishment of the area gets the go-ahead. Another incongruous tower? Almost certainly.

But what of the Rosary? It continues in its semi-wild state while being carefully tended by council workmen, one of whom we have got to know in the past months.

I have seen it in all kinds of weather. It is a place to relax in warmth of spring and summer; to explore gently in autumn and to set a brisk pace through in winter. I have seen a deer there, and magpies and jays are frequent, as are squirrels. There is the occasional cat, but happily no dogs: it is one of the few places you can walk without being pestered by “friendly” or noisy canines.

There are many stories here, a large number of them untold. There is the rail crash, the fairground accident and the premature death of two teenage lovers. Many other premature deaths too, but a surprising number of people who lived to a ripe old age – people who had never heard of coronavirus, or Spanish flu, or even a world war. So near, and yet so far.

It’s big, but is it beautiful?

I was playing rugby at school when this huge boy about twice my size came bearing down on me with the ball. I wasn’t sure whether to tackle him or not. It seemed a life or death question. In the end, I think I tried to trip him up, which is apparently illegal. But at least I survived.

I seem to remember that he continued irresistibly down the pitch, with much smaller boys parting like the Red Sea before him until he fell on the ball under the posts. Rugby was his game.

I was not keen on rugby. But as nearly all the boys preferred football, the school made us play rugby quite often. I think it was supposed to be character-forming. Or maybe they just didn’t like us.

The question of size in sport is interesting. It seems to me that over the course of my life, the more successful sportsmen seem to have got much bigger. I used to enjoy watching rugby, as opposed to playing it, and at the time wings and centres were normal-sized – sometimes even small – as opposed to the great hulking forwards.

That is not true now: everyone on the field is huge, and great emphasis is placed on aggressive physical behaviour. This, together with the fashion for random penalties at scrums and ridiculous rolling mauls – which are just legalised obstruction – has turned me off.

Football is much the same. Physicality is much praised, and free kicks are pretty random, even with VAR – particularly as VAR still depends on judgement of grey areas, and not black and white.

You might think that cricket , without much physical contact, would rise above the search for something bigger, and so would sports like tennis and golf. But this is not true.

Think the impressive Freddie Flintoff and Sir Ian Botham, but think even more about the weight of cricket bats, which has increased so that you only have to get a nick on the ball for it to go sailing over the boundary and score “the maximum”, however bad the shot. This gives rise indirectly to reverse sweeps and that shot where you paddle it over the wicketkeeper (and the rope). That’s not beautiful, and not the cricket I knew and loved – perhaps because I was a bowler.

Golf clubs and tennis rackets have also developed into tools of fearsome power, so that weight beats skill in many situations.

I hope I am not being sizeist. I have nothing against big people, but I don’t like the idea that being big immediately gives you an advantage. I’m sure the odd rule change could put things right, unless you indulge in basketball, which is beyond salvation. Meanwhile, I shall continue playing chess.

Conspiracy theory or reasonable doubt?

Until recently, fighting whatever attacked us was straightforward. When London, Coventry or anywhere else was being bombed, we could see what was happening, and we could take action. People banded together, hugged each other, commiserated and cared for their neighbours. Back when the Vikings raped and pillaged, we could see the threat. Even the plague was easy to see. More recently the results of violence have been visible, if not at first hand, on television or online. Before that it was clear in the bodies of the injured, or their failure to return.

Now we have something attacking us that we cannot see. We are specifically forbidden to band together and hug each other, and we are prevented from doing what seems instinctive. Even worse, we are about to be faced with a remedy that we cannot see either. Most of us have only the most superficial knowledge about vaccines.

Today a leaflet came through my door alleging that Covid-19 vaccines are not licensed, and so manufacturers have no liability if something should go wrong. The UK Medicines and Healthcare regulator apparently said as recently as October that a high volume of adverse reactions was expected, and Robert F Kennedy, who admittedly is an American, has said that the type of vaccine being used “represents a crime against humanity”.

None of these things is necessarily true. They may be true but with a wrong emphasis, or they may not tell the whole story. The problem is that the figures the Government and its scientists give us is misleading at best – ever since they decided that having a positive Covid test and then dying meant that you died of Covid – even if you had no symptoms and were knocked down by a car a month later.

There are influential people, well qualified and with no apparent axe to grind, who are extremely concerned about the way Covid-19 is being tackled. They are easy to find on the internet; so I see no reason to go into what they say here. Most of us will dismiss what they say as “conspiracy theories”, which is fine and sensible – unless of course there is a conspiracy.

When I worked at a journalism training school, we used to advise our recruits that they should “never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity”. This is a good test to apply to conspiracy theories – or to the way that a government or scientists behave when faced with something that could be described as a pandemic – but again, what if there really is a conspiracy?

When some people said the Nazis were systematically killing Jews, was this regarded as a conspiracy theory and dismissed by all right-thinking Germans? A large number of fashionably left-leaning liberal Englishmen and women thought the idea that Stalin could be killing people in labour camps was absurd. A lot of us were suspicious when we were told that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

So when does a conspiracy theory become a reasonable doubt?

Being reasonable people, we like to think that that politicians and scientists are reasonable too. We like to think they are making the best possible decisions for the best possible motives. But what if they aren’t?

If people in some kind of authority insist on something for long enough, they find it hard to admit they might be wrong. This is what is known as a universal truth. Tolstoy said: “Most men (and women), including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

Academics and experts know this very well. Fred Heffer wrote this week: “The easiest and least stressful path to success is to adopt the status quo viewpoint without question.” If there is a consensus on something, it is much easier to attack people who query it than let people think there might be something to talk about. But of course all science makes progress by challenging consensus.

It’s not easy, is it? We want to act in a way that helps others and helps ourselves. Getting vaccinated is clearly the “right thing to do” because it could save people’s lives. But people say that it’s not that serious: Covid-19 has a 99% recovery rate. This may not be true. It may be 97%. Or if you personally die from it, 0%. In your case.

After that, things become very clear.

Hidden world behind the houses

You’re walking down this suburban street. Technically it’s a village: it has a village green and an old church. But it’s attached to a city ­– there’s no countryside in between; so I think it’s fair to say it’s a suburb. It has a good bus service.

Anyway, you’re walking past these suburban-type houses, and suddenly there’s a track off to the right. It goes between a couple of the houses, and there’s an old down-at-heel notice that says you can get to the river that way.

You give it a shot. You’ve been in lockdown, and you need the exercise. 

A hundred yards down, there’s an old brick bridge – a rail bridge – and beyond it, round the bend, a house on its own. It looks abandoned, but it’s not. Old wood of various kinds is stacked up on one side, and on the other side are several vehicles the worse for wear. The house has two doors and two numbers – 1 and 2. There is a dim light in one of the rooms.

Another couple of hundred yards beyond the house there is a second rail line, but this one has a gated crossing. You open the gates, check that no trains are coming, and walk over. There is no sign of a river. Not yet.

The track continues. On the right are marshes, and a couple of very muddy paths – neither of them passable without a small boat. This should be beautiful country, but instead it seems dirty, with skeleton trees in the middle distance looking dystopian rather than stunning, and ditches brimming with unhealthy-looking water. There is no sun: the sky is heavy.

Eventually a very narrow path leads down to the river. It simply stops when it gets there, giving a river frontage of only a foot or two. On one side is a dilapidated dwelling, scruffy fencing and a large sign reading Private. On the other is a boatyard, apparently closed for the off-season. A few tired boats are moored nearby. The river is quite wide, and empty.

You return to the rail crossing and find a young family apparently train-spotting. The smallest child opens the gate for you, and you thank him. On the other side of the track a cyclist is coming through. You return by a side path, past a cemetery and, as you near a neater civilisation, a local Scout headquarters. 

You have lived within three miles of this hidden, layered world for more than 35 years without knowing it is there. You return to the car and drive home.

Toilet rolls? Panic buying? Nothing to see here

I am now locked down, though I don’t feel any different. Yesterday I took the car for an MOT, not because I was panicking but because that was the day I booked it in, about a month ago. I went for a walk while it was being done. Later I bought some toilet rolls.

Again, I was not feeling particularly panicky, but I was in the shop – a local convenience store – to buy something completely different, and this pack of toilet rolls was on the floor, saying “Please buy me” – or words to that effect. So I did.

It was at that point that a couple who live three doors down happened to come in the shop, and the husband eyed me suspiciously. I felt a slight amount of panic then, but not much. On the way home, another neighbour crossed over and caught me with my casual package of toilet rolls. I acted nonchalant, and pretended they were not there. But of course they were. As far as I’m concerned, it means nothing.

Another neighbour has a cupboard full of toilet rolls. He volunteered the information when six of us were having a drink in the street to mark the last day we could be seen together. Apparently he has 37 toilet rolls, although he says he’s not worried because he could always step into the shower instead. I felt this was too much detail.

I had to cancel a visit to my friend in Hickling today, because of the lockdown, but I phoned her instead. We did not mention toilet rolls at all. I don’t know if she was avoiding the subject. She did not mention the American elections either. But then I tend to agree with Richard Holloway, who used to be a bishop, that you can prove nothing from something that is not mentioned.

The man who gets my groceries tells me the supermarket has sold out of salted potato sticks. I should have bought a box of them last week. Perhaps you can get them online.

All we need is love, but will we avoid it like the plague?

I don’t get out much nowadays. I don’t even write letters to Private Eye, though I have been tempted. I don’t actually subscribe to Private Eye: our neighbour, a very kind man, lets me read his copy when he’s finished it, and in return I’ve taken to giving him our used copies of the Eastern Daily Press. Admittedly it is not so funny, but there’s more of it.

Anyway, reading anything is more fun than going out, because the world out there is becoming increasingly unrecognisable. Yes, there are people moving around as always, and for some reason there seems to be just as much traffic, but something is missing.

I conducted a number of studies on this, involving a variety of research groups at distinguished universities, and got a number of different results. This is not unusual, because no research group wants to be the same as other research groups, and whatever research group is most recent is inevitably right. Unless, of course, it isn’t.

This is the same basis that is used for creating Covid regulations. The result is that Covid regulations are universally ridiculous – or as some would have it, locally ridiculous. They are so ridiculous that only politicians could take them seriously – and of course the BBC. I am not going to explain why they are ridiculous, because if you don’t know, it is already too late.

My own research, undertaken entirely independently of universities, scientists, the NHS and Highways England, has uncovered something remarkable. The real threat to each and all of us is not a virus of any kind, but the removal of joy from daily life.

When was the last time you saw anyone smiling? Admittedly the lack of smileyness is partly because the imposition of masks prevents you from seeing whether someone is smiling or not, but is is also because they really aren’t. There is no longer any fun in popping into the city or going to a restaurant, or driving to the coast, because wherever you go there will be a lot of dreary people either carefully obeying the Covid regulations, or wishing they were in Benidorm.

What makes the human race human is our capacity for love. In most cases demonstrating love requires contact with other people, if only in the form of a handshake or a hand on the shoulder (thank you, Sergio Aguero). In extreme cases, it calls for a more thorough bodily contact, and it is no accident that more and more people are ending communications with the words “Hugs and Kisses” nowadays.

In the street, giving people a couple of metres space – apart from being impossible – gives the impression of avoiding them, or not wanting to risk contact. It is the kind of thing people used to do when they considered themselves superior to another race, or sex, or class.

One of the myriad “recent surveys” revealed the frightening suggestion that even when Covid goes away, 48% of those responding will continue to keep distance from people where possible. What sort of people have we become?

Separating people from their loved ones in care homes and elsewhere is not a solution: it is a move that should never be considered.

Covid is not the plague. It occasionally kills people, but so does the flu, and so do cancer and many, many other illnesses and accidents. Death statistics generally are no worse this October than they were last October. Covid may kill me: I am 75 and have been in hospital this year. But it probably won’t.

Whatever happens to me, the real measurement of death from this pandemic (if that’s the right word) can be found in the absence of love, the dearth of merriment, the artificial avoidance of physical signs of affection, and the care-worn eyes behind the pesky masks.

Missing our second home

Although I have many doubts about the Government’s approach to Covid, since the outbreak started I have avoided travelling to my second home in Scotland.

This is partly because I don’t have a second home in Scotland, but there is a place in Aberdeenshire that does feel enough like home for me to want to go there. It’s called Ballater, and we have been there almost every year since about 1990.

We started going because our next-door neighbour in Norwich came from Aberdeenshire, and once we had got attuned to his accent – it took a couple of years – we found that he had a sister who owned a cottage in Ballater, and she might be willing to rent it out to us.

She was, and she became a close friend. She introduced us to several different Highland Games – no, that’s not a euphemism – and introduced us to her friends. She fishes for salmon, and she knows the top people along the River Dee – not just the ghillies, but the landowners. She is well connected.

The “wee house” we stayed in was a former school house, with plenty of ground and strategically placed. More recently it has been sold, and we have stayed at other cottages in the town.

During Storm Frank at the end of 2015 much of the town was flooded, when the Dee burst its banks to the south and west of its centre – the water inundating the golf course and hurtling into shops in the High Street and buildings elsewhere. It has taken some time to recover.

This was a major change to the town, of course. But other changes happened too. The station, which had been redesigned as a museum commemorating the visits of the Royal Family (Balmoral is just up the road), burnt down. Again it has risen from the ashes, and the Prince of Wales – or the Duke of Rothesay, as he is known in those parts – has opened a swish new restaurant to assist in the revival of the town. We’ve eaten there. It was superb.

Still we can’t help hankering over the Green Inn, which was in the early days probably our favourite restaurant in the world, but was sold and became an Indian. A very good Indian, it has to be said, but not the same thing.

We also miss the Glen Lui Hotel – or will, because it too was hit by fire earlier this year, and the last we heard it was due to be demolished. We stayed there on a couple of occasions, but always ate there when we were in Ballater, because the food and service were so good.

Storm Frank didn’t just flood the town; it demolished roads outside the town (the main A93 was washed away at one point between Ballater and Balmoral: it took only 19 days to replace it, partly because Norfolk County Council had nothing to do with it) and bridges  went down too. A beautiful footbridge at Cambus O’May on the way to Aboyne was badly damaged and has been hit again in recent days by another storm.

One of our favourite spots, the Linn of Quoich, had its road bridge completely destroyed, meaning that walking to the Linn became much more of a challenge.

We still love it all, of course, but we are becoming wary. Other restaurants and shops have changed hands, and when we arrive in Ballater nowadays the first thing we do is look round anxiously to see if our favourite places are still there. It’s the same everywhere, no doubt, but when it’s your second home, the changes hit you harder.