Just when it felt safe, we caught it

More than two years after narrowly avoiding lockdown in Bethlehem, after mysterious months of mask-wearing, social distancing and excessive ventilation, enduring myriad unintelligible and illogical restrictions, a spell in hospital with a gall-bladder infection and experiencing all the joys of a long low-fat diet – just when it felt safe to come in out of the cold, I caught Covid.

To be accurate, my wife and I both caught Covid, testing positive on the same day. She, being more resilient than I, was over it within a week; my version lingered for another three days. I still feel tired and have minor pains in my back.

Why should you be interested in this? Rumour has it that about seven people out of ten in England have had Covid in one form or another. And that’s the interesting thing – in one form or another. Because nearly everyone appears to be affected differently.

My wife and I both had the symptoms of a very bad head cold, with a few vague add-ons such as peculiar head pains and a certain amount of shivering. But neither of us had the “official” symptoms – high temperature, sore throat, loss of taste or smell. We just felt very ill, and so tested ourselves.

One friend said she felt “fantastic” while still testing positive. Others felt more or less OK. But of course many have been laid very low, with symptoms that go on and on and on, debilitating and more than distressing.

Naturally we know several people who have not caught it. Half a dozen of them have never been vaccinated. Others have had the full range of jabs. We have had three jabs and still caught it. We might ask what the jabs were for; you might answer that we would have been much more badly affected if we hadn’t had them, but that is conjecture. In fact, most of it is conjecture.

In view of all this, it must be right to return to normal life now, or we never will. Even civil servants might risk it.

Exactly how safe do we want to be?

It was that profound absurdist thinker Franz Kafka who put it most effectively: it is safer, he said, to be in chains than to be free. 

Most 21st century activists think the same way. And since safety appears to be the main preoccupation of us all, there is not much dispute that the chains will win. Even Tories are left-wingers nowadays. 

Coupled with belief that chains are the safest way of living is the illusion – or is it delusion? – that we can manufacture chains that are effective for every possible  situation. 

Take the “situation” in Ukraine. Evil is being perpetrated. Our concern is not primarily to battle it but to ascertain the safest way of reacting. This makes a certain kind of sense, doesn’t it?

But that’s just an extreme example. The health and safety industry is really in charge of everything we do. We have to wear helmets to ride bikes, seat belts to drive cars, obey speed limits of various kinds and follow numerous tortuous rules before forming any kind of group. Risk assessments, safeguarding, masks, speed cameras, speed humps, CCTV – you name it. 

The intrusion of government into what should be private and personal activities grows regularly, and many of us are all for it, citing “the greater good”. But of course all this is really chains. Is imprisonment of everyone the greatest good? 

No. Freedom Is vital if we to function in a human and loving way. Helen Keller said: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”

Why do we want to be so safe? What are we afraid of? Well, death, I suppose: the horrific possibility that things may end for us at any minute. Better life imprisonment than that. 

But of course Easter reminds us that this is rubbish: death is not the end. How could it be? It is the shaky secular society that we live in that generates fear, and the obsession with safety. If we stood back and looked backwards at our history, outwards at those we admire or inwards at the essence of life itself, we would realise that there are more important things than being safe. And more exciting prospects than extinction. 

Resurrection, anyone?

What’s really wrong with 20mph limits, and why no-one cares

Yet another article has appeared in my local paper on the question of  20mph limits – this time by a motoring writer. I was too slow to respond to it – caught in a 20mph zone, you might say. I was also rather surprised to hear a former motoring correspondent having anything to say in favour of 20mph limits, but I expect he had a Damascus Road conversion. In reverse.

There is, as any competent driver knows, little to be said in favour of 20mph limits, their only saving grace being that they are rarely enforced, thus acting as advisory signs, which is fair enough. In fact there is an argument that all speed limits should be advisory, as travelling at any given speed – or above any given speed – should really not be an offence in itself. 

Speed does not kill or even injure: collisions do that. So the real issue is responsible and skilful driving, with punishable offences being dangerous driving, reckless driving and careless driving. But the kind of frightened society we live in does not care for that and uses dubious statistics to twist its judgements. When I was growing up, I was told that there were lies, damned lies and statistics, and this is still true. But now it masquerades as science, and we love it. We prefer it to visible policing, which used to be a real safety measure. But that was in the days when the police said openly that you didn’t learn to drive well until you’d broken the speed limit. Oh yes they did.

What worries me is that someone will institute a method of monitoring all car speeds from a distance, and we will abandon all reliance on driving skill, allowing drivers to be fined or banned for arbitrary reasons, irrespective of how well they are driving. 

What exactly is wrong with 20mph? The same thing that’s wrong with driving too slowly anywhere. It’s polluting; it uses more fuel than is necessary; it distracts the driver from paying attention to the road; it lulls you into a false sense of security or makes you impatient, depending on what sort of person you are; and if deprives you of momentum, which is vital for avoiding danger. It means you spend a lot of time braking, which is when you are in the least control of the car. 

Many, many speed limits are too slow. I have just returned from Derbyshire, which has a more or less ubiquitous and idiotic 50mph limit on the open road. I followed a driver for many miles who kept rigidly to this limit – except that when when he went uphill, he reduced his speed to as little as 30mph. He also wandered all over his side of the road. Going too slowly means you are not in control of the car: you assume the “authorities” must know the right speed, and you don’t need to think at all. That is when accidents happen.

Slow speeds are demanded by local pedestrians because they see drivers going quicker than they are, and they assume that therefore they are going too fast. No, that’s not very bright, but we don’t live in a very bright world. They also never seem to notice how it’s more difficult to cross a road as a pedestrian when all the traffic is going at the same speed, with no gaps.

It’s April 1; so this could be a gigantic April Fool joke, or a rant by a boy racer. Sadly it’s neither: it’s the reaction of an experienced OAP driver to another money-making scam. 

Unfortunately statistics show that 90% of readers will have been brainwashed into thinking all the above arguments are absurd. I made that figure up, of course, but it’s about right. 

Happily I shall not live long enough to see the 10mph  limit or the return of the red flag. I  hope. 

Something on the pitch – but is it offside?

There was something on the pitch. All right, there was a ball and there were 22 players – all moving around at various speeds and not achieving very much, especially the ten in yellow and green and their goalkeeper in pink. The additional man in black seemed a bit put out to be there and kept running round and awarding free kicks, which is what you would expect. It was a normal match day at Carrow Road.

But there was something else on the pitch, and an official-looking man ran on to try and get rid of it. He failed, rather miserably. It was a feeling Norwich City supporters knew well.

There was a blackbird on the pitch. It was near the Barclay End, and it wasn’t doing much, although it was in plenty of space. No-one kicked the ball in its direction for a long time; in fact nothing much was happening at all. Supporters in the Barclay End were growing fond of the bird. It looked as if it might do something interesting, but nobody passed to it. It was almost as if they were avoiding it.

After some time, the bird flew – not very high, but up the pitch towards the River End, where it settled in a suspiciously offside position. The Barclay End started a new chant: “We want our bird back.” The River End looked smug, as if they had taken advantage of the transfer window in a particularly cunning way. VAR said nothing.

We assumed the bird would take its leave at half time – perhaps fly off in the direction of the dressing room, or even the river. But it stayed, and no-one tried to eject it. I think someone had realised that it might be a good idea to keep the City supporters distracted.

So the bird stayed at the River End. I would like to say it almost scored, but it simply got in the way of a corner and scuttled off towards the halfway line. After a while we realised that it was not making any productive runs or creating any openings. There was a risk it could get trodden on. The same went for the entire team, really.

I don’t remember the score, but the bird survived. The team probably won’t.

Pronouncing on the hugeness of Ukraine

If you close your eyes, you can imagine this article written in yellow and blue. These colours are very popular on the Internet at the moment to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

I know very little about Ukraine, except that it is very big – much bigger than I would have guessed it was, say, a couple of months ago. It’s huge. You could lose several armies in it, which is something I would like to see happen quite soon.

I have no idea whether the Ukrainians are particularly nice people or not. It would probably be racist to say they were or they weren’t, because countries are made up of individuals, some of whom will be better than others. The same goes for Russians. Or the British.

What is undoubtedly true is that it is wrong for one country to invade another and kill people. This is something that none of us in the West would do – at least in the 21st century. Of course Mr Putin may not be in the 21st century: it is hard to locate him exactly.

It is however undoubtedly right to be on the side of a country that is invaded, right to open our doors to refugees, to help where we can, and to pray for the terrified.

I do not know one word of Ukrainian. However, I am getting to know a few of their cities. What confuses me slightly is our pronunciation of them. I had known of Sebastopol since childhood, and had always pronounced it Sebastoepoll, with the emphasis on the last syllable. Now I find it is called Sevastopol, which is a minor difference, but apparently pronounced Sebastopple, with the stress on the penultimate syllable.

Kiev, which everyone knew because of the chicken, was always pronounced as two syllables. Now, suddenly, it is pronounced Keev. Is this in solidarity with the Ukrainians, I wonder? If so, I am not sure it works, because it disconnects us from something we could imagine we knew.

Presumably we still call Moscow Moscow because we we will not go along with what the Russians call it, which is Moskva. We might offer to call it that if the Russians withdraw.

I’m sure there will be people who are shocked at my writing about pronunciation when people are being killed and the world is on the brink of a huge, army-devouring disaster. But words are critical: the way we use them shapes our attitudes and leads to conflict or peace.

I could repeat the same truths about finding a way to peace that many others have done, and it is not that I don’t feel them strongly. But if you say the same thing too often, the impact is often lost. I agree with all that, but what can we really do except pray and provide aid? Better people than me may know. I don’t.

Addiction to closing roads has to stop

The other day someone drove into the river near the centre of Norwich. It happened at a roundabout; so of course police closed the roundabout and several nearby roads, causing traffic chaos throughout the city – partly because the council has for years been intent on closing as many roads as possible, and often there are no reasonable alternative routes.

All right – the driver had to be retrieved from the river, and quickly, because he might have survived. Sadly, he didn’t. And I guess the car had to be retrieved, too – though the urgency for that is less obvious. And of course barriers had to be replaced, because there was every chance that someone else might drive into the river too. It’s never happened before, but you never know…

I’m making too much of this, aren’t I? I should be mourning the sad loss of life, and not worrying about road closures. And I do mourn the sad loss of life, but I also wish we weren’t so complacent about blocking roads and holding people up, because that can cost lives too. In this case the roads were closed for six hours, which I reckon is about five hours too long.

Whenever there is any kind of road traffic incident, the first thing police do is close roads. Sometimes this is necessary, but all too often it goes on way, way too long. And it’s not just the police. It’s anyone who digs up the road – a group of people who as far are as I can see are organised (I use the word loosely) by a shadowy group of conspirators who hate cars. This means they hate an awful lot of people.

I live in a cul de sac, which means I do not have a variety of routes by which to get home (or get out, for that matter). Recently the council (or Transport for Norwich, as they jokingly call themselves) decided it wanted to make elaborate changes to the junction about a couple of hundred yards from our house. This included a “bus gate” ( or as you and I might call it, a “road block”). Being near a junction, it had an effect on four major roads. These are already heavily used. The effect of the changes will be to make the congestion worse.

There was course a consultation. Amazingly, despite many objections, it went ahead as planned. Who would have thought?

So we have six months of disruption. The major road at the bottom of our street has been made one-way: that happened three weeks ago, necessitating long detours, and it was absolutely unnecessary. Nothing has happened on that road. It is simply coned off.

At the same time the two lanes approaching the traffic lights from two other directions (one of which we have to take to get home) were reduced to a single lane each – again for no reason. This led to huge tailbacks, delays and pollution. A couple of us wrote to our councillor, and this was changed; then they changed it back, we wrote again and they changed it back again. What a waste of time.

I am half expecting to wake up one morning to find I can’t get out of my street at all. There will be road works as far as the eye can see, but no-one actually doing anything.

Is it car hatred, or apathy? Or simply lethargy? Or some kind of corruption? It certainly isn’t democracy, and there seems to be very limited intelligence involved. Must be covid. If I screamed, would anyone hear me?

Life before death? Not now, thanks

Today I played my guitar until my fingers bled. It only took a few minutes, but it made me feel like an old bluesman, which I suppose is what I am – or a grumpy old man, to put it another way.

There were lots of things wrong with the world when I was young. I seem to remember a long, cold war of some kind, and heaps of rubble left over from the much warmer one that I just missed.

And very painful dentistry after I cycled into a car. A stationary car. Nowadays, under the new Highway Code, it would be the car’s fault, but it wasn’t then. It was definitely my fault, which didn’t make it any less painful.

Children walked to school, or sometimes cycled. They certainly weren’t taken there in cars. There were no cycle paths, no high-vis clothes, no lycra, no helmets and no silly little helmet-cams. As a result most people kind of liked cyclists. I know it seems hard to believe. 

Most of all, people weren’t afraid all the time.

Medicine was far less developed than it is now; it wasn’t all that long since antibiotics had been invented. That was 1928, and it happened by accident, like all the best science. If scientists had been organised at the time they would all have got together and said antibiotics were impossible, and not allowed anyone to argue with them because there was a consensus.

Or maybe there would have been a lockdown, with occasional parties. 

People died quite a lot (well, once each, obviously) of diseases that are now easily curable. My mother told me I had polio, though I don’t remember it. My parents were not keen on vaccination, but they were not called anti-vaxxers or banned from social media, or cancelled. 

We did not live in fear of dying, and no-one was woke. People got on pretty well, really, and a lot of them went to church, which meant that they believed in life after death. Perhaps that had something to do with it.

Of course they also believed in life before death. That helped too.

I would like to make it clear…

…that I did not attend any parties in or around Downing Street, wherever that is, during anything that might be described as a lockdown. Nor did I attend anything that looked as though it might be a party, even if it wasn’t. 

I did not attend anything that was not a party, even though it might have been. Nor did I break any rules, even though I might have done, if there were any.

However I cannot rule out the possibility that I might have done one or more of those things if I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

“Fancy a quick drink in the garden, Tim?” 

“Don’t mind if I do. It’s been a hard day, and those scientists are so pessimistic. They make your head ache.“

Or I suppose I might say: “Sorry, I’m going to follow the rules. I’m going home. In fact, I’m not sure I should be here in the first place.” Anything’s possible. 

All those things, if they were indeed things, would have happened in a quite different reality. Things do. The past is a foreign country. People act differently there. Sometimes.

I think most of us would agree with that. 

Board game magic for Christmas

Board games go with Christmas, don’t they? Ludo and Scrabble, not to mention Monopoly and Dixit. Gold, frankincense, myrrh and Cluedo. A shepherd did it, with a crook, in the stable. You must remember.

But not chess. Too introspective, too binary, too many pieces on earth. 

Except that someone bought me a couple of chess books this year, and I was delighted. Especially as one of them contained four games I had played. I have been immortalised in print. All right – two of them were losses, but you can’t win them all, especially at chess, where the agony of losing possibly exceeds the joy of winning. A bit like Norwich City, except that Norwich City have forgotten what winning feels like.

This particular book, which I cannot praise too highly, because it has my games in it, is by my friend Mike Read, a senior international master who I have known since he was an outstanding schoolboy player at the City of Norwich School back in the 1970s. Hampered by medical problems over the years – he is unable to use a computer screen – he had huge success as an international correspondence player and has built an immense reputation as a chess analyst and annotater.

This, his third book, is called 110 Instructive Chess Annotations, and is considerably more exciting than it sounds, containing a tremendous variety of games from Norfolk players of varying strength, all closely examined and explained with that lucidity of style that has become his trademark in the prizewinning Norfolk chess magazine, En Passant – edited by David Le Moir, another prolific chess author.

As I have been involved with Norfolk chess for even longer than Mike (I played for CNS in the early 1960s and subsequently for Norfolk), the book is especially valuable to me, containing so many games by players who became friends, including two who died this year – Greg Tebble and Jonathan Wells, both the kindest of men. Chess may be hard fought, but between people who generally like each other.

Anyway I shall be playing through those games by friends and familiar ghosts, absorbing Mike’s astute comments and delighting in the magic of maths and music that chess reveals to those who love it. Too much? Maybe.

110 Instructive Chess Annotations, by SIM Mike Read, is available from Amazon at cost price, which happens to be £10.35. 

Slow, slow, quick – hey, wait a minute, what’s the hurry?

I know I am slowing down, but that’s my age. However, I can’t help noticing that a whole host of other things are slowing down too.

Civil servants, for instance. We already knew that the function of bureaucrats was to stop people doing things, but now they seem to be working on that more and more slowly. Soon no-one will be able to do anything. It’s probably already too late to leave the country.

Civil servants don’t worry about this, because they have large pensions and don’t have to make a profit. Why should they go anywhere? Or do anything?

They are also risk-averse, but so is the whole country, except you and me. Take look at health and safety guidance – any health and safety guidance, whether it’s covid-related or not. One thing is certain: it will be very, very long – so long that you lose the will to live before finishing it. And you forget whatever it was that you had been intending to do before you discovered you needed a risk assessment.

Trains are slowing down, because someone is always working on the track. And traffic is slowing down too – for several reasons. One is similar: more and more roads are being dug up for no apparent purpose. It’s essential work, of course, but not so essential that it requires workmen to move, or even appear.

Then there are speed cameras. Most speed limits are set about ten miles an hour slower than necessary, and if you drive at a reasonable speed you are likely to be out of pocket and collecting penalty points. So you drive slowly, lose concentration and hit someone. Then the ambulance will take ages to get there because of the road humps and diversions.

Cyclists are encouraged, because they are slower. At least, they used to be. Now they leave cars in their wake.

Why am I worried about all this? Because I think that as a people we are losing impetus. Nothing gets done; there is no urgency; paperwork mounts up and blocks any forward progress. So what? Well, it’s physics, isn’t it? If you lose impetus, you lose purpose, you fade away, whimper, get colder and colder and then die.

That could happen quite quickly.