Kindness and laughter, gambling, billionaires, insurance, escaping abuse and worries about heaven

11 April 2021

At times like these, the world needs kindness more than ever.

Suffering is all around us while autocrats and plutocrats live increasingly remote and unreal existences, never seeming to recognise that they actually depend on the rest of us.

In China, the Uighurs are being ‘re-educated’ to destroy their cultural history and independence;  in Myanmar, the Rohingya are being annihilated and demonstrators are being shot;  in the middle east, Israel is killing Palestinians and disenfranchising all Israelis who aren’t Jewish;  Muslims are divided between Sunnis and Shi’ites (basically the left and right hands of the Prophet fighting over who gets to cut the other one off);  Americans are buying guns and, having got them, reckon they might as well use them to kill other people;  Northern Ireland is descending into chaos again, this time over the Brexit agreement rather than religion, but the burning buses look the same;  the ‘authorities’ in Hong Kong are killing anyone who disagrees with them;  nobody likes Iran (like Britain, another failed state that used to control a huge empire);  and Russia is headed by a humourless despot who thinks it’s cool to be photographed topless on a horse.

What happened to laughter?  Can you imagine Vlad the Poisoner helpless with laughter?  Why are so many leaders so self-important?  What makes powerful people think pomposity and arrogance are essential to their trade?  Can you imagine Donald Trump saying “I don’t know, tell me what you think”?

We are all but waves on the limitless oceans of spacetime, and waves don’t go anywhere, they’re just water going up and down in the same place, and are gone in the blink of an eye.

I sometimes wonder if we all – including me – try to see too far with short-sighted eyes and we should just accept that other people see things differently without necessarily being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  We can perhaps concentrate just on thinking about what will make other people happier and ignore what might make them like, or fear, us more.

Being kind to people can make them happier, even if only briefly, and doesn’t have to take time, perhaps messaging them asking how they are, or remembering their birthday, or sending them a book you saw in a charity shop and thought they might like.  It’s often the little things that make the most impact and, just for a moment, the other person will wonder if the world isn’t all bad. 

If I could have one superpower, it’d be to make people feel better about being themselves, warts and all.  For me, silliness and laughter are essential parts of this so I get great pleasure from small things, like the official sign in the District of North Vancouver which reads:

Attention dog guardians
Please pick up after your dogs.  Thank you.  
Attention dogs
Grrrrr, bark, woof.  Good dog.

(I’ll send a photograph of the sign to anybody who thinks I make these things up.)

Incidentally, did you see that Betfred, a gambling company, had refused to pay out a £1.7m jackpot won by Andy Green playing blackjack on their site in 2018.  Their excuse?  Their system had a glitch that failed to stop people winning multiple jackpots.  This is a classic example of what Bugs Bunny once described as “a pronoun problem”, a definition I’ve cherished ever since I heard it.  In a summarised form it goes “I’ve got a problem and you’re going to put it right”.

The punter concerned was understandably upset and took them right up to the High Court where it was decided that the problem was Betfred’s not the winner’s and they should pay him what he’d won.  After this judgement, Betfred said “we will abide by the court’s decision and not appeal. We would like to apologise to Mr Green for the delay in receiving his money.”

(An incidental benefit arising from this is that we now know that, because the software’s been sorted, if we do win a jackpot, we should stop playing because the updated software isn’t going to let us win another.)

I always used to suspect it was more productive to place a bet that certain events would happen than to insure against them happening because bookmakers were more likely to pay out than insurance companies but I’m now beginning to doubt this.  (I once damaged the trousers of a suit and was offered half the cost of the suit because only half of it was damaged;  obviously, I did the only thing possible and posted them the jacket and saying here’s the other half of the suit’s value, it’s yours to keep,  please send a cheque for the full cost of a replacement suit, and they did.)

Gambling firms have profited hugely from the Covid-19 pandemic, as have billionaires generally with 493 new billionaires, 205 of them in China, being added to the Forbes annual poll which now lists 2,755 billionaires with a combined wealth of $13.1tn (up from $8tn in 2020).  Trump was one of the few losers and finished almost 300 places further down the list.

Another much more worrying effect of the lockdown has been the surge in domestic violence but an 18-year old Polish woman, Krysia Paszko, who’d heard of the Spanish system which the French had adopted that uses codewords to tell pharmacists they were being abused.  (In France, asking for a “Mask 19”, alerts the staff to abuse.)

In Poland, Paszko set up a website Rumianki i Bratki (camomiles and pansies) in April last year.  It looks like a normal cosmetics shop with pictures of lavender soap and cleansing sage face masks but, instead of salespeople, you reach a volunteer team of psychologists from the Centre for Women’s Rights and, if someone places an order and gives their address, it means a police response is needed;  in the last year, it’s helped 350 people with free legal advice and action plans.

Her inspiration won Paszko the EU’s Civil Solidarity Prize, a 10,000-euro ($12,000) award for Covid initiatives. 

And, of course, the Duke of Edinburgh died this week.  I hope people will respect the Queen’s request that they give money to charity instead of dumping bouquets that rapidly turn into a mixture of compostable material contaminated with cellophane, plastic and rubber bands.  Let’s also spare a thought for how she must be feeling at the end of a partnership of 73 years. 

Philip himself is now in the big kennel in the sky with our dowager dog who died a few weeks ago.  I hope he’ll visit her – she loved everybody, especially if they brought her celery.

Actually, I’ve always wondered, if there is a heaven, do animals go there?  Are your old pets waiting to greet you?  Do they still eat … inappropriate things?  Are poo bags issued to dog-lovers?  I’m reminded of Androcles saying in G B Shaw’s play ‘Androcles and the Lion’ that he wouldn’t want to go to heaven if there weren’t any animals there.

Would a friend of mine who died of Motor Neurone Disease when we were both 43 recognise me now I’m no longer 43?  What about babies who die very young – what sort of spirit would they have?

Even more importantly (for me) is whether there’s laughter in heaven and whether one’s allowed to be silly, like in the card in the shop window that said:


Tabby cat, white chest and paws,

answers to the name of Bugger Off.

Silliness and self-importance are mutually incompatible and I know which I prefer.

I wonder about these things not out of any disrespect to other people’s beliefs but because, here on earth, friends, animals and silliness are important to me, and I fully accept that what I now think of as ‘me’ is so rooted in the life I’ve had so far that my spirit may exist far above such petty limitations.

Climate change, US impeachment, nominative determinism, where the money goes

14 February 2021

No response from Chuck Schumer yet, not even an acknowledgement. 

At least the White House replied when I was emailing the last president even though they sent an identical reply to my first two (different) emails.

However, I did get a reply from the writer of frequent letters to the local paper written by a far-right climate change denier.  A few weeks ago, his letter saying “child poverty and climate change are woke concepts, used to describe parental poverty and nice warm weather” inspired me to ‘explain’ that because the volume of ice is greater than the volume of liquid water, if all the polar sea ice melts, sea levels will fall not rise.  On Friday another of his letters was published thanking me for pointing out “the anomalous expansion of water” and disagreeing with another correspondent who’d attempted to correct one of his misapprehensions about the climate crisis.

I was disappointed (but unsurprised) by his immediate acceptance of my claim without first checking the volumes of water in polar sea ice in relation to the volume of water in all the world’s oceans while he went to some lengths to explain why somebody else wasn’t up to date with the meaning of ‘woke’ and that his own earlier claim about the adverse effects of burning hydrogen had been misunderstood.

I now feel I must write to apologise for having teased him (Oh what a tangled web we weave …)

But isn’t it fascinating to see how extremists will unquestioningly accept a claim that appears to support them, however daft it is, while they attempt to counter the arguments of scientists and other experts.

This week’s entertainment has been provided by the evidence presented to the US Senate hearing on the impeachment of The Man With A Mouth Like A Dog’s Bottom*.  The prosecution presented a detailed and illustrated case containing some frightening new footage from security cameras.  

The defence made only a token effort, knowing that Republican senators from states whose voters supported Dog’s Bottom feared they might not be re-elected if they didn’t vote to acquit him.  They produced some carefully edited and misleading videos taking historical clips of Democrats using the word “fight” out of context, slotted them between clips of the violence and produced the punchline that, if a president tells a crowd to “fight like hell”, “No thinking person could seriously believe that [this] was in any way an incitement to violence or insurrection”.  Absolutely right, old chap, how could any sensible person possibly think that.

I actually thought of a much better case for the defence which would have left enough doubt in people’s minds to make the decision much harder (for obvious reasons, I’m not going to tell anybody what it is until we know if he’s going to face criminal charges).

In the event, only 7 Republican senators had the courage of their convictions, not enough to give the required 70% support, and he was acquitted by 57 votes to 43.  Let’s hope that the weak senators’ support for Dog’s Bottom will continue to taint their reputations (see how I resisted saying ‘dog their days’) until the next elections in 2022.

(A friend suggested the vote would be fairer if it were taken my secret ballot – what a great idea!  That can be the 29th amendment.)

After the acquittal, Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said the former president’s conduct amounted to a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” and he was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day”.  He added “President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he’s in office.  He didn’t get away with anything yet.”

And Nancy Pelosi reminded people that the mob had chanted “Hang Mike Pence” after he’d refused to support Dog’s Bottom’s claim that the election had been rigged.  “They just dismissed that,” she said. “Why? Because maybe they can’t get another job.”

The invasion of the Capitol building did produce a wonderful example of nominative determinism.  A police officer, already hailed as a hero for saying “Don’t do it” to the rioters as he led them in the wrong direction, away from the Senate door and the chamber, is now known also to have warned Republican senator Mitt Romney that the invasion was heading his way and turned him round.  His name?  Eugene Goodman.

Despite (or perhaps because of) all this, the latest newsletter from investment managers Charles Stanley has just said “Despite global economic growth entering another pandemic-driven soft patch, we are constructive on equities over the next few months.”  Apart from providing a great start if you’re playing BS Bingo, all this means is that they’re hoping markets will hold up despite all the bad news around at the moment, but you must remember that their firm’s existence depends on people giving them money to invest instead of buying gold bars, Bitcoin or tulip futures for themselves, so they’ve a vested interest in being bullish.

While 2 million people died and tens of millions lost their jobs and the rest of us just had to stay at home in 2020, the world’s 15 most active hedge fund managers (all of them men surprise surprise) made about £17 billion (that’s £17,000,000,000) between them.

There’s something wrong somewhere.

What happened to kindness, caring, being nice to each other, sharing, and helping those less fortunate than ourselves?

*          Not only is there an unmistakable physical likeness but identical material issues from both orifices.

Message for Chuck Schumer, PM’s good week, punting, NZ, Vlad the Poisoner, flammable cladding, smart technology and smuggling cactus

7 February 2021

An open message to Chuck Schumer:

“Please remind Senators when you open the trial of your last president that, while they were elected for their party membership, this is not an election and they must now put their politics aside and think for themselves as intelligent individuals, looking only at the facts and the evidence before them.”

Boris Johnson actually had a good week, claiming personal credit for having been at least partly educated in a country whose scientists found the first effective Covid-19 vaccine, and for leading a genuinely impressive roll-out of the new inoculations.  By the end of last week, more than 8.5 million people had already been vaccinated and it seems possible that one of his promises, to vaccinate 14 million people by 15 February, might be kept.  If it is, then shall flags be hung and songs be sung and church bells rung to mark the first time Johnson’s ever kept a promise.

However, he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place:  scientists (and a Conservative former health secretary) want the lockdown kept in place for as long as it takes to know we’re all safe while businesses – many of whom are Tory donors – want everything opened up again as soon as possible.

Scientists have also said opening schools in England too soon would be “a recipe for disaster” while so many new cases are still being reported each day while Johnson has just said he reckons 8 March is “the prudent date to set”.  18 Tory MPs want them opened on 22 February…

How can Johnson possibly say 8 March is “prudent” until he knows if the number of cases will have decreased enough by then to avoid a fourth spike or surge?  (I reckon the only difference between a spike and a surge is the scale of the axes on graphs of the figures.) 

Some of the more unexpected casualties of the lockdowns are guide dogs.  Their normal lives are full of concentrated brain work, guiding their visually-impaired owners round obstacles, judging whether they can safely walk under scaffolding 6’ above their heads (how do they do that?), stopping them at kerbs, judging traffic, etc.  During lockdown, they’re getting bored and there are fears that they’ll need retraining before they can work again.

But perhaps it’s like riding a bicycle or punting:  however long it is since you last did it, it comes back when you’re on the bike / punt.  Mind you, I’ve never seen a dog punting.  (There are only two things you need to learn about punting:  don’t lower the pole down, drop it and let it run through your hand and, if it gets stuck in mud and won’t come free with a jerk, let go of it and stay on the punt – the alternative is damp.)

I can’t let this week go by without a nod at Captain / Hon Colonel Sir Tom Moore who died this week of Covid-19.  When he was 99 and had been told to exercise after a hip operation, he thought he could combine this with raising some money for the NHS so he decided to walk 100 laps of his garden before his 100th birthday, hoping to raise £1,000.  The rest is history:  the story went viral, he raised almost £39 million, was knighted and had a number one hit song with Michael Ball.  Yet another example that ‘ordinary’ people can do extraordinary things.

At the other end of the scale are people like Vlad the Poisoner who failed to kill Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition figure, by putting novichok in his underpants.   Navalny recovered abroad but returned to Russia knowing he was like to be arrested, and so he was, for violating parole from a sentence he was given in 2014 for embezzlement, a case he claims was politically motivated after he’d accused Putin and his mates of stealing billions from the state.  Navalny has been sentenced to two years and eight months in a prison colony, another court case is pending and his supporters are demonstrating in the streets.

Anybody making book on how long Vladimir Putin will now go before killing somebody else?

As far as I know, nobody nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize but Jared Kushner (son of He Whose Name Shall No Longer Be Spoken) and his deputy, Avi Berkowitz, have been nominated for one by the lawyer who acted for the defence in last year’s impeachment trial.  The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement has also been nominated by nine lawyers from both parties.

I’ve recently come across a fascinating project called Operation X, run by Dyami Millarson, who aims to learn endangered European languages before they die out.  At the moment, he’s concentrating on the 14 living Frisian tongues …

Jacinda Ardern has been criticised for not doing enough to remove the systemic disadvantages faced by the Māori peoples and racist bias in environment, housing and child poverty.  However, she has appointed Māori Nanaia Mahuta as New Zealand’s foreign minister, the first woman to sit in the country’s parliament wearing a moko kauae, an ancient Māori tattoo form, and there are hopes that things may be starting to change for the better.

Parliament last week voted on a Labour motion to speed up the removal of flammable cladding from buildings that are still at risk from a Grenfell-type massacre and to set up an independent taskforce to get the dangerous cladding removed.  Some Conservatives supported it but most followed instructions to abstain so it was passed by 263 votes to zero.  Because it’s a recommendation and not a requirement at the moment, why did so many on the Government benches abstain?  Don’t they care about the lives still at risk?  Or are they worried about upsetting the money-grubbing developers who fitted them?

Dolly Parton was twice offered the presidential medal of freedom, the highest US civilian honour, by the last president but turned it down both times, first because her husband was ill and second because of coronavirus travel restrictions.  Last November, Barack Obama was asked why he’d honoured musicians like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder but not Parton.

Obama looked surprised and said “That’s a mistake … that was a screw-up … I think I assumed that she’d already got one … she deserves one.”  He also promised to call Joe Biden and it seems he did because Biden’s now offered her one though she says she’s not sure if she’ll accept it in case it appears political.

Being paranoid about ‘smart’ technology, I was rather upset to get a text message from the garage in Manchester we’d bought a newer car from this time last year saying “Your car … has alerted us that it may require maintenance.  Please call us on …” 

What’s it doing?  It’s switched off and sitting in the garage.  Has it told Google what music I’ve been listening to, or the police that I tend to keep to speed limits?  Is it about to turn the television on to the Gay Rabbit channel?  (What is the Gay Rabbit channel anyway?  We’ve skimmed past it on the list but never bothered to find out what programmes it shows.)

A woman was caught by a detector dog at Auckland airport trying to smuggle almost 1,000 cacti and succulent plants into New Zealand in stockings stuck to her body.  This brought to mind some words from a Loudon Wainwright III song which I’ve only adapted slightly:

Smuggling in cactus is easy

Stuffed in your tights – it’s a breeze

Just walk as if you’re bow-legged

Don’t laugh, don’t fart and don’t sneeze.

Covid vaccinations, HS2, KGB assets, Proud Boys, verbising, nice people and a royal double bind

31 January 2021

We had our first Covid vaccinations yesterday with our second booked for 19 April, which gives us plenty of time to catch Covid with the 50% that isn’t protected.  Then, this morning I had Jerome K Jerome’s problem:  I’d read the list of possible side-effects and woke up with a headache and feeling fluey.  Bit better now though thank you for asking and a friend has just said she too had a bad reaction but it only lasted a day. 

Problems crossing the new “frictionless” and “tariff-free” borders with the EU continue to appear and Boris Johnson is busy rushing round the stables shutting doors while, in the distance, there’s a field full of equine escapees.  However, for a change, this week’s problem wasn’t of his making and came from the EU which was forced to do a U-turn over trying to control vaccines travelling to the UK through Ireland but, even though they had the grace to recognise their mistake and apologise, they’ve thrown a lighted match into a political powder barrel.

Protestors against HS2 have dug tunnels under Euston Square Gardens to delay the work.  They’ve stocked up with food and drink but my first thought was to hope they’ve got a loo down there.  Sadly, they’re apparently already running short of oxygen and rain is causing leaks of mud and collapses in the tunnel.  Great idea to draw attention to the futility of HS2 but why is there never a civil engineer around when you want one?

With the demographic changes wrought by the pandemic, some of which are certain to be permanent, it’s obvious that whole UK transport system needs to be thought again from scratch and HS2 is a white elephant.  The problem is that a vast amount of money and reputations have already been sunk into it and it would be politically difficult to cancel it and make a fresh start on a UK-wide plan.

The government seems to be full of people who will hold onto an investment whose value has plummeted and wait for its value to come back to what they paid for it.  This can feel emotionally comforting but is nonsense.  It’s generally much better to cut your losses and buy another investment with better prospects.

On Tuesday, Johnson said he was “deeply sorry” for the world-beating 100,000 deaths from Covid in the UK and, as prime minister, he took “full responsibility for everything that the government has done”.  When he asked if he now wished he’d done more sooner, he refused to answer the question and waffled “What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything that we can, to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering in what has been a very, very difficult stage, and a very, very difficult crisis for our country, and we will continue to do that.”

Perhaps the Tories should cut their losses.

Of course it’s not all down to the government’s feeble reaction to the pandemic because other factors, such as the increasing incidence of morbid obesity and diabetes, increased the number of deaths caused by the virus.   And the UK’s progress in developing a vaccine and sticking it into people’s arms might genuinely have been ‘world-beating’!

A former KGB major, Yuri Shvets has revealed that Donald Trump was one of hundreds of young people the KGB recruited as ‘assets’ in the 1980s.  They had identified he was very vulnerable intellectually and psychologically and was susceptible to flattery, and was too thick to realise they were using him, so they cultivated him for the next 40 years, feeding him soundbites he could use.  Tragically, the rest is history.

One of the far-right groups in America is (or was, they keep changing their names) called Proud Boys.  Why does this conjure up in my mind a crowd of very camp men in rainbow-coloured leotards dancing to Abba songs on a trailer at a LGBT+ street parade?

On Tuesday’s BBC 1200 news, a reporter said “it is worth caveating that …”, which stopped me dead.  Turning nouns into verbs, and vice versa, has become much more prevalent over the last few decades, in some cases making the original usage redundant and, ultimately, archaic. 

The first I remember was the use of ‘invite’ instead of ‘invitation’;  how many people now send out invitations?  Another is the misuse of ‘leverage’, often in a business context.  Using it as a noun (and even pronouncing it in American with a short E) is understandable but bankers and fund managers who’d never learnt the word ‘lever’ created a new verb from it and now ‘leverage’ deals.

Incidentally, wasn’t it encouraging to see the biters bit this week!  After a discussion thread started on Reddit, small investors started buying lots of shares in Gamestop using the amateur share trading platform Robinhood and the share price rocketed from $40 on 19 January to $400 within a week.

Wall Street institutions and hedge fund managers were outraged because they’d expected the price to fall so they’d sold Gamestop short* and now had to find enough cash to buy the shares they had to deliver at a much higher price. 

Wasn’t the crocheted Bernie Sanders doll that Tobey King from Kansas made and sold on the internet, raising $20,300 for Meals on Wheels America, wonderful!  After the image of Sanders huddled up in a warm coat and mittens at Joe Biden’s inauguration went viral, his own campaign has been selling sweatshirts and T-shirt with the image and has raised a further $1.8m for charities combating food insecurity.  Nice woman, nice man.

There was an advertisement on TV this week inviting applications to take part in a new series called Celebrity Home Cooking, or something like that, and my wife suggested I apply.  I said that, sadly, I couldn’t because I’m not a celebrity.  I’m not even a ‘celebrity’.  Not even in the street where we live.  And anyway, my knowledge of cooking is limited to pre-heating an oven, removing all outer packaging and putting the tray on the middle shelf for 45 minutes.

I also saw part of a programme on Wallis Simpson being manipulated by Edward VIII (previously known as David) who said he’d slit his throat if she didn’t marry him, and he abdicated, leaving the throne to his reluctant younger brother George VI (previously known as Bertie).  A classic double-bind!

*          ‘Selling short’ basically involves selling shares you haven’t got in the hope that the price will go down and you can buy them at a lower price before you have to deliver them.  It’s a form of gambling.

New hope, coronavirus, Brexit problems, 24/7(?) and kindness

24 January 2021

Here beginneth new hope.  Joe Biden’s got a lot to do but he started well by making his inauguration bipartisan, reversing some of his predecessor’s more stupid actions and appointing some good people.  Let’s breathe lightly for a bit and see how things settle down.

Covid is still on the rampage but Boris Johnson actually said something sensible this week when he warned that tight restrictions could last well into the spring and it was too early to guess when they might be lifted.  Gone is the “all over by Easter” bluster.

The injectors are moving closer and, being nearer 60 than 40 (it’s true!), we hope to get our first vaccination within the next couple of weeks.

The scientists at Friday’s government briefing provided some key answers.  The first vaccination provides about 50% immunity 2-3 weeks after the jab;  the second increases this to 70-95% depending on the vaccine.  The second top-up dose should be given a couple of weeks after the first but they’re delaying this to about 12 weeks so as many people as possible are 50% protected.

People who have been vaccinated don’t get any more freedom because, even if they’ve had both jabs, they can still carry and spread the virus to others, as can those who have had it and are thought to be immune to reinfection for 3-4 months.

In the longer-term, Covid 19 is likely to be with us forever, rather like flu, and we’ll get an annual injection to reduce the likelihood of our being (re)infected seriously.

It’s a pleasure to hear experts giving information and actually answering questions;  and that they know ‘data’ is plural.  Incidentally, have you noticed how many times Johnson says “er” when he’s bumbling?

Another genius was fined £200 this week when he was stopped in Devizes, having driven the 100 miles from Luton for a Macdonalds takeaway, even though Devizes doesn’t have a Macdonalds.  Even more brilliantly, he didn’t insure his car so it triggered police alarms every time it passed an ANPR camera and the police seized his car;  he presumably had to walk home.

We hear that much of the UK is flooded and/or snow-covered but down here, we’ve had some rain and it’s been getting colder but Friday and yesterday saw sunshine and blue skies.  There was a little snow last night and this morning the roads were covered in black ice and treacherous.  Incidentally, has anybody seen any gritters yet?  They haven’t done our bus route yet.

The floods are of course likely to add to the woes of businesses that are beginning to reap the Brexit harvest and are unable to import goods due to EU couriers’ refusal to cross the Channel because of the delays, tariffs, taxes, couriers’ surcharges and the extra paperwork now required by the UK, as well as the advance deposit of huge amounts of VAT to HMRC (HMRC has estimated that British companies will have to complete an extra 215m documents a year, with their counterparts in the EU having to do the same.  Private imports and exports are also subject to surcharges of up to 50% and the UK Department for International Trade is advising businesses to set up new companies in the EU.  You couldn’t make it up.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now has £23m to compensate fisheries exporting fish to the EU if they can show they suffered “genuine loss” (by filling in yet more forms).

Not quite the deal revealed on Christmas Eve when Johnson also said “there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade” with the EU; and, of course, the NHS is still waiting for his original promise of an extra £350m a week.  How proud we all are to have broken free from EU bureaucracy.

The French and UK governments are also putting money into Eurostar to make sure it survives the pandemic as passenger numbers have fallen by 95%.  France still owns 55% of Eurostar and Belgium still owns 5% but the British government flogged off its 40% to private pension funds in 2015.  I’m glad my pension isn’t with one of them.

I’ve a 10p bet with a friend that Johnson won’t see the year out as prime minister (and he’s bet the same amount that Kier Starmer won’t as Labour leader).  I was therefore relieved by Theresa May’s support in her Daily Mail article this week which was very critical of Johnson, saying that his threat to break international law and his backing out of the foreign aid target had not “raised our credibility in the eyes of the world”. 

Back at the ranch, I discovered a new meaning of 24/7 last week. 

On Sunday evening, my wife’s chairlift crawled up four stairs before it stopped, saying its battery was low.  Luckily it came down again so she was back at ground level instead of suspended half way up, but it refused to up again.  I suggested she spend the night strapped in it while I got a good night’s sleep but she declined the offer so I rang the firm that last serviced it and had left a sticker on it saying “24/7 service” (Hanover Lifts if you’re interested).  The précis of an only slightly longer conversation was “You won’t get anybody out tonight”.

Rather than debate the definition of 24/7, I rang our wonderful neighbours who came over and together we lifted my wife backwards up the stairs and onto a chair from which I could then get her changed and into bed*.  (The next day, she rejected my offer to bump her downstairs so I rang Hanover again and she had to stay in bed till 2 pm when an engineer replaced a battery and she could get downstairs again.)

Aren’t people kind?  Three local families have offered to help us with things like this and we feel able to call on any of them, a comfort beyond words.  The world needs need more people like them.

*    I should explain that I couldn’t lift my wife on my own not because she’s too heavy but because I’m just feak and weeble.

Christmas meditations, kindness, Gabriel, forgiveness, tolerance, the sanctity of law and coathangers

27 December 2020

In many countries, many people celebrated Christmas last week and, in many countries, many people didn’t.

December 25th (although the calendar was different back then) was chosen at random as the birthday of a baby about whom much has since been written and in whose name many kindnesses have been done and many people killed.

When I was young, Christmas started in our house with Kings College’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.  My mother loved it, especially ‘Once in Royal’, and there was a special place in her heart for the chorister who read the first lesson one year, who probably got the Brian Blessed Award for over-acting later in life, as he read with well-practised shock and horror:  “Who told thee that thou wast naked?”

As an adult, I’ve always tried to listen to ‘Once in Royal’ each year and it still makes me think of my mother almost 50 years after her death.

It’s also made me wonder about the oral transmission of the stories from ageing priests to younger ears, and the various languages in which it was later written down and copied and translated.  Even in my lifetime, the words have changed as more translations, retellings and theses have appeared but I’m still waiting for a simplified version of the middle section of the first chapter of the Luke’s Gospel that will say:

“An angel yclept* Gabriel sailed down a sunbeam on shining white wings, and bowed down before Mary, a young woman who was married to Joseph but still a virgin because he was much older.  “You’re pregnant, milady” said the angel “and Jehovah** has said that your son will inherit his forefather David’s throne” – and Mary said “OK then.  Will you have a cup of tea?” but Gabriel said he had to go and rose up as silently as an owl.”

I also wonder about the omissions from Jesus’s story, like what he did during the first 30 or so years of his life, apart from sharpening chisels, sweeping up sawdust, debating theology with priests in the temple and building a bridge of rainbows for his friends to play on.  Did he ever laugh? 

Many of Jesus’s teachings included Aesop’s conclusion 600 years earlier that “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted”, a sentiment that was qualified slightly more than a century after Jesus’s death in Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditations’ in which he said “kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere”.

Another word for which we remember him is ‘forgiveness’.  Remember that (again according to Luke) some his last words were “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”;  he didn’t say “I forgive you”, he asked God to forgive them.  The interesting thing is that, much as we think we ought to, we can’t (well, I can’t anyway) forgive anybody who hasn’t first shown some sort of regret or repentance for what they did or said, but Jesus didn’t need that.

And, above all, we remember him for ‘love’ and his instruction “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. (He obviously hadn’t met our neighbour.)

Of course none of this is exclusive to Christianity and most the world’s major religions have similar foundations. 

Having praised the UK’s Chief Rabbi last week for his tolerance of Islam, I was encouraged to see that somebody from Israel had visited this site and I was flattered that David Bogomolny, who posts as ‘ben Alexander’, had offered his own kindness by ‘liking’ my offering. 

New Zealand’s wonderfully human prime minister, Jacinda Arden, who was re-elected by a landslide in the autumn has admitted to suffering from “imposter syndrome” despite her successes.

If only our own prime minister suffered from it.  He has just, exactly as Polly Toynbee predicted about a month ago, given up almost everything at the last moment to agree a Brexit deal with the EU.  The opposition parties now have no choice but to support it because there isn’t time to do anything else and, if it’s not approved, the UK will crash out next week without any deal, which would arguably be even worse than the deal he accepted.

What I’m not yet clear about is what will happen in Ireland.  Will I be able to go to Belfast, nip across the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic to buy stuff that’s cheaper in the EU, then avoid any border controls on my return from NI because I’m returning from the UK?

Anyway, Boris Johnson is now jumping up and down in his cot and praising his negotiating skills while the fishing industry, and other businesses, 7,000 lorry drivers and a lot of the rest of us feel betrayed and will have to pick up the pieces.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is pardoning all his criminal buddies while executing more people given a federal death penalty.  Even though his pardon doesn’t reverse the guilty verdicts and they’re still criminals, I do wonder if muddled the paperwork and meant to pardon those under a federal death sentence …

Amy Coney Barrett’s not having a good time either.  People with controversial cases they think would appeal to her personal social and religious prejudices (same sex parents, abortion, gun control etc) are now trying to present them in such a way that they’ll end up in the supreme court where her hang-ups will override her legal duty and she’ll decide in their favour.

So much for an independent judiciary that leaves the judges’ political views out of the courtroom and just considers the law.

Rather than end up in front of Coney Barrett, Ghislaine Maxwell will probably make a plea bargain in a lower court.  Having been hiding for 9 months, Maxwell was finally arrested in the summer and her exact whereabouts are now known at all times – she’s inmate 02879-509 at the Metropolitan Detention Centre, Brooklyn.

Cynics believe she’s pessimistic about her future because she recently married and transferred assets to her new husband but, of course, it could just be love and/or coincidence.

In 2021, I’ll be working on a theory about the first known form of mineral life:  metal coat hangers.  If you leave them in a cupboard, they huddle up together and, when you try to take one, all the others rush after it and fall to the floor.  Some of them have also perfected the art of clinging together to form chains. 

Even two left together on a bed can metamorphose into one of those Christmas cracker puzzles that take 10 minutes to separate two twisted bits of metal;  and they can teleport:  they disappear into wormholes in hotel wardrobes and reappear in your wardrobe as if they’d never been anywhere else, and a bagful of the things taken to a charity shop will be back within the week.

Their reproductive processes are unclear but two coat hangers will turn into three if you shut them in a dark cupboard and at least one will fledge when you next open the door, falling to the floor and attempting to bounce out of the house before you can catch it, often holding hands with another fledgling that jumped at the same time.

I have to admit I’ve not yet proved any intelligence or motives behind their movements but their actions are indisputable and, of course, I might be wrong.  In any event, with some wire-cutters and a couple of used biro tubes, they make wonderful dowsing rods.

*     Well, OK, it’s anachronistic but it’s such a lovely word I couldn’t resist it

**   Remember everybody there was Jewish at the time.

Nice things, including starlings, Judaism and Islam, kangaroos, generosity, misogyny and proposed new rape laws

20 December 2020

“… and call off Christmas”.  Thus spake Alan Rickman’s sheriff of Nottingham*;  and so it came to pass.

Only nice things are included this week because Friday is Christmas Day, an ancient pagan festival which probably involved a lot of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and was adopted by the Christian church as it began to convert the heathens to wine and biscuits.

Airth, a small town between Edinburgh and Stirling, has been suffering from a lot of short power cuts which baffled Scottish Power until one of their engineers discovered what caused them.  Huge murmurations of thousands of starlings had been wheeling around in those beautiful patterns before landing on power cables.  Then they’d take off again all at once, the wire they’d been sitting on bounced up, got too close to another cable, arced across the smaller gap and blew a fuse.  The cut-outs reset automatically but there’s a 10 second ‘outage’.  Isn’t it wonderful that small creatures weighing only an ounce or so can gather together and turn off millions of TVs.  There could be a lesson for people there …

An article published this week was highly critical of China’s oppression of the Uighurs, a Muslim group with their own culture and language, spread throughout Asia.  According to satellite images, leaked documents and survivor testimonies, Uighur men and women in Xinjiang are being beaten if they refuse to renounce their faith, children are being separated from their families and women are being sterilised.  China denies that the Uighurs are being confined in “vocational skills education centres” but President Xi Jinping issued a directive in 2017 that “religions in China must be Chinese in orientation” and “adapt themselves to socialist society”.

The good news is that the article was written by Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth.  That’s Judaism in practice, open-hearted and open-minded, and it shows clearly why Israel’s policies aren’t based on the precepts of Judaism.

In 1985, Donald Trump bought what is now the Mar-a-Lago club from the residential estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post and, as part of his plans to make money from it, applied for change of use in 1993 from residential to business.  The local government of Palm Beach made him sign an agreement which limited the number of days he could live there to a maximum of three non-consecutive weeks in any year.  Rumours that he’s planning to move there when he’s ejected from the White House may therefore be exaggerated.

Neighbours (largely Republican) have said the town let him get away with more frequent stays while he was president even though the additional traffic, security and noise were unpleasant but they’re now going to start enforcing his own agreement again.  They said there are plenty of other nice houses for sale in Palm Beach but, of course, he might be provided with free accommodation (and security) by the government of the United States for the foreseeable future.

Trump’s casino and hotel in Atlantic City went bust some years ago and the building is now due to be demolished.  The mayor of Atlantic City is raising money for the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City by auctioning the chance to press the button that sets off the explosives.  Imagine how much they’d raise if they could auction the opportunity to blow up the building with Trump in it.

A recent study appears to show that kangaroos can communicate with humans in ways similar to those used by dogs and horses.  When researchers gave kangaroos a box of food they couldn’t open, many of them came back to the researcher and handed the box back to ‘ask’ for a box that opens.   Our dogs just nag, but have an amazingly accurate sense of time.

This year has also seen a few of the world’s richest people sign up to the Giving Pledge Initiative, created by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, which encourages “the world’s richest people to donate a large portion of their wealth to charitable causes”.  Notable examples include (in random order):

  • MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, has given more than $4bn in the past four months to hundreds of charities and aid organisations and has pledged to have given $6bn by the year end;
  • Bezos himself has committed $10bn to issues related to climate change;
  • Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter, has given $1bn to a fund to support pandemic relief efforts and other causes;
  • Bill and Melinda Gates have this year committed $305m relating to Covid-19 vaccines and diagnostic development in addition to other money given by their Foundation;
  • Michael Jordan, a former basketball star, will be giving $100m to Black Lives Matter and other social causes over the next decade;
  • Stormzy, the UK musician, has committed £10m to black British causes over the same period and, in August, gave £500,000 to fund educational scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • Dolly Parton gave $1m in April to help the Vanderbilt University medical centre research a Covid-19 vaccine, but she has form:  she founded the Imagination Library, a charity that gives free books to children all over the world, and she set up My People, a fund that gave money to families who’d lost their homes and to firefighters and rebuilding efforts after the wildfires in Tennessee in 2016;  she also risked her career way back when to support HIV/Aids groups when it was still taboo in country music, and she has given away even more money to healthcare facilities and organizations for years.

Well, it’s a start which might encourage other billionaires to follow suit and begin to address the huge and increasing inequality of wealth distribution that has proved, and continues to prove, so devastatingly destructive. 

We’ll know we’ve turned the corner when an appearance on any ‘Rich List’ becomes a mark of shame.

In America, a bigot called Joseph Epstein has been called out for sexism following an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, offering Jill Biden some advice.  He starts it “Madame [sic] First Lady – Mrs Biden – Jill – kiddo” and then questions her right to call herself Dr Biden because her doctorate is an “Ed D – a doctor of education” which he thinks sounds “fraudulent”.

The implication that you can call yourself a doctor only if you’re qualified to prescribe paracetamol is questionable and would rule out Stephen Hawking for starters.  What he also omitted to mention was that, while her husband was Vice-President under Barack Obama, she continued to teach English composition anonymously at Northern Virginia Community College where she was just known as Dr B and insisted that her security officers disguised themselves as students.

Epstein described himself as an adjunct (i.e. part-time) professor at Northwestern University but they issued a succinct response saying he hadn’t taught there for 20 years and removed his name from the list of “emeritus lecturers” on their website.

Pakistan’s president has approved a tough new anti-rape law which will speed up rape trials and permit the chemical castration of serial rapists.  It also requires trials to be completed within four months, it prohibits the identification of rape victims, it will create a national sex offenders’ register and officers found to be negligent in investigating rape claims could be imprisoned for up to three years.

It still needs to be approved by the government so keep your fingers crossed.

Until next week, enjoy your memories of what you used to celebrate at this time of year, and how, and don’t forget to ring your family to make sure they’re not having more fun than you are.

*   Apparently Rickman ad-libbed this during rehearsals and it got such a laugh, they kept it.

A miracle, US super-spreader, Boris backs capitalism, restricting education, badgers and kindnesses

11 October 2020

It’s a miracle!  Donald Trump, the White House’s own super-spreader, has completely recovered from the coronavirus in a matter of days, the only person in the world to do so.  He’s now the fittest person still alive (as I write), despite being a fat pensioner and having been so unfit in his 20s that he failed his medical on leaving college and wasn’t able go to Vietnam to fight for his country and get shot.

Which may be why he said a few weeks ago that the American soldiers who fought and died in World War II were “losers” and “suckers” for getting killed.  It now seems that Covid-19 has destroyed what was left of his brain because nothing he now says or does makes any sense.

Trump said he has “learnt a lot about Covid” from his infection.  If he’d read the briefing papers he’s been given for the last 10 months, he’d have learnt it a lot earlier.

Then, though he was still infectious (why do people say ‘contagious’, which involves touch, instead of ‘infectious’, which doesn’t?) when he discharged himself on Monday, he appeared on the White House balcony and dramatically removed his face mask to prove to the world what an idiot he is and that he doesn’t care who he infects even though, when he was speaking, at least 27 people in his inner circle had tested positive (ABC News claims 34), and the bodies of more than 210,000 people killed by Covid-19 litter the country.

People who know Trump believe he would happily sacrifice anyone, even those closest to him, to win the election.

He’s even cancelled the second presidential debate after a non-partisan commission decided the debate should take place online due to Trump’s diagnosis;  his refusal to take part in a ‘virtual’ debate wouldn’t have been related to his childish and “unpresidential” performance at the first one would it?  He will however be attending a supporters’ rally in Sanford, Florida on Monday, though everyone attending it will be required to sign a waiver of their right to sue the White House if they subsequently contract the virus (“Nah mate, no risk at all, everything’s fine, just sign here or piss off”).

The third and final debate is to be held in Nashville, Tennessee on 22 October, just 11 days away.  Harold Wilson once said “A week is a long time in politics” so anything could happen.

All of this rather leaves Boris Johnson in the shade but he’s desperately trying to catch up.  In a speech he gave on Tuesday, he said “We must be clear that there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it”.  In plain English, this seems to mean “We’re not going to (re)nationalise anything else or give businesses any more support and if they go bust, tough, that’s how capitalism works”.

However, Rishi Sunak as Chancellor of the Exchequer almost immediately contradicted him by saying that, from 1 November when the furlough scheme ends, the government will subsidise employees’ salaries in qualifying businesses (thought likely to be pubs, bars and restaurants) by up to two thirds, to a maximum of £2,100 per week. 

I’ll bet the odds on Sunak’s being the next leader of the Conservative party are shortening.

I wonder if this is why the government has recently ordered schools not to use materials supplied by organisations that are opposed to capitalism?  The short (about 200 years) history of what we now call capitalism deserves a blog of its own but they’ve obviously never heard of social enterprises or mutuals or housing associations or even charities and other not-for-profits? 

It might be easier just to control what schools can teach.  Stop history at 1820 to include Mary Wollstonecraft but exclude the Tolpuddle martyrs and exclude all earlier references to slavery, colonisation, empire etc.  In fact, better to burn all the books just in case.  Fahrenheit 451.

Another Johnson wheeze to distract from his disastrous handling of everything else, announced a couple of weeks ago, is his expansion of badger culling to 11 new areas with the aim of killing 60,000 more of the beasties.

In 2018, in the report of an independent review led by Professor Sir Charles Godfray at Oxford University and commissioned by the then environment secretary, one Michael Gove, scientists said it was wrong to claim badgers were the main cause of outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis and it was “highly desirable” to start vaccinating badgers rather than killing them.  They concluded that most infections were caused by poor farming practices such as insecure fencing between different herds, and the movement of two million cattle round the UK each year.

Despite the government’s clear commitment in March to phase out badger culling, this turned out to be another of Johnson’s “Of course I’ll still love you in the morning what was your name again” promises.

The South West was that light grey line way below all the others on the charts of infection and deaths during the first epidemic but, with the summer influx of grockles and the return of students, things are declining and, worldwide, it looks as if the earlier surge was just a foothill in a mountain range still to be scaled.

Interestingly, the Office of National Statistics routinely tests tens of thousands of households around the country whether or not the occupants have symptoms and has found that, between April and June, 86% of people testing positive had none of the main symptoms on the day they were tested and 75% had no notable symptoms at all.  This could be interpreted to indicate that most people have it and are infectious without showing any severe symptoms so tests don’t identify all carriers and we should all wear masks everywhere.

In August, I praised Tesco Mobile’s kindness in giving £700,000 of equipment away.  Sadly, I was premature.  Tesco, to whom we (you and I and all other UK taxpayers) have already given £249,000,000 for a business rates holiday, is giving dividends worth £315,000,000 to its shareholders.  Morrisons did something similar last month

Tesco’s Chief Financial Officer Alan Stewart said it is the “right thing to do for shareholders” because it was based on last year’s profits.  What absolute bollocks.  The same argument could be used by a company that made a profit last year and is now bust but it’s still OK to increase its losses by giving its shareholders a dividend.

We are definitely entering the end days of capitalism.

And there’s more good news and kindness.

The Queen has issued a message of support for traditional media outlets.  She said that “having trusted, reliable sources of information, particularly at a time when there are so many sources competing for our attention, is vital”.

She never, of course, comments on political matters but one is tempted to read her support for the BBC into the message.  Good on yer, ma’am.

The footballer Marcus Rashford, who I’ve praised before for getting the government to extend free school meals, has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list.

And Prince William has set up the Earthshot prize fund which will give away five £1m prizes each year for the next ten years with the aim of trying to reverse the climate crisis and “repair the planet” by 2030.  No, of course it’s not all coming out of his own pocket but it’s great that King-in-waiting no. 2 is using his power to draw together a group of charities and businesses and individuals to support the movement started by a Danish schoolgirl.

Money v people, Trump still unhinged, civil war, death by liquorice, Ireland’s kindness

27 September 2020

Exceptional times demand exceptional leaders.  Cometh the hour, cometh Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.  Oh dear. 

At least Johnson shows signs of knowing he’s out of his depth and has given up saying “all over by Christmas” and is tightening things up again, allowing localised lockdowns, presumably so that when all the local lockdowns meet in the middle, nobody can blame him for closing the entire country down for a second time. 

The problem is that it’s likely a second lockdown is unavoidable and, therefore, ’twere well it were done quickly.  A lot of people suffered badly during the first lockdown and, by easing too much too soon when a second surge of infections was inevitable, they were given a false hope that their lives would improve again.  Reimposing restrictions is therefore likely to hit them even harder and I fear we’ll see even more people suffering from depression and committing suicide.

What I find difficult to judge is the actual increase in infection rates.  We know that, as more testing is done, the more positive results there will be but I don’t know how the increased number of infections relates to the increased number of tests.  (Donald Trump has naturally realised the link between the number of tests and the number of reported cases but his unhinged brain has interpreted this to mean that if you stop testing people there will be no more positive cases and therefore the pandemic will end.)

Our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has cancelled the budget and announced a multibillion-pound fund to boost the economy but has admitted it isn’t enough and that more businesses will go bust and unemployment will increase even more.  It seems strange that he didn’t also introduce a maximum amount that directors and managers could take out of larger companies, cancel all dividends to shareholders and require both groups to repay past payments back to their company to help ensure its survival.  I suppose what this omission emphasises is that, given a choice between letting more people die or inconveniencing the rich, the government thinks money is more important than people.

Then the rich emigrate to tax havens, the latest being the UK’s richest person, Sir Jim Ratcliffe (no, me neither), so they don’t have to contribute to the costs of putting Britain back on its feet again.

At least the chances of a rebellion / civil war are probably lower here than in America, but they’ve had more recent practice than we have.  The only difference will be that instead of blue versus grey, it’ll be blue versus red though it’ll probably involve roughly the same groups fighting each other again.  Followed by lots more deaths and, finally, partition into the Disunited States of America.

Tellingly, Trump refused on Wednesday to deny that he wouldn’t leave the White House if the vote went against him and, when pressed, said “Get rid of the ballots … The ballots are out of control.”

Brian Karem, who’d asked the question, later tweeted “This is the most frightening answer I have ever received to any question I have ever asked. I’ve interviewed convicted killers with more empathy.”

Then, on Thursday, I saw a clip of Trump smiling at a crowd of people somewhere offstage who were chanting something that sounded terrifyingly like “Sieg Heil!”.  It’s haunting me still.

Even more frightening is the disrespect for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s last wishes that Trump has just shown by announcing a new supreme court judge who just happens to be on the far right and claims to be a “faithful Catholic” though she’s actually a member of a loony, misogynist fringe group called ‘People of Praise’ which is run entirely by men to whom women are subservient.  It’s headed by a board of governors, all men naturally, who describe themselves as its “highest authority”.  I thought Catholics believed God was the highest authority and that, if God’s in a meeting, the Pope steps in but I’m obviously out of date. 

Trump obviously sees her as a supporter willing to vote the Republican way.  Since when have a judge’s personal beliefs been more important than the law of the land?  (And since when has a politician had the experience to decide the best lawyer to serve on the supreme court?)

More books are being published about what life with the Trump Klan is really like and, since John Bolton’s book ‘The Room Where It Happened’ became a runaway bestseller in June, the Department of Justice has started a criminal investigation into whether Bolton was indiscreet with classified information.

Ellen Knight, the former senior director for records, access and information security management at the National Security Council has since confirmed her team spent four months reviewing and double-checking the contents of Bolton’s draft to ensure it didn’t disclose any classified information.  After clearing the book in April, Knight claims Trump’s lawyers tried to force her to sign false and misleading statements to prevent its publication and she’s now filed a formal letter confirming this in the federal court in Washington.

Trump’s unstatesmanship was further exposed this week when China’s leader Xi Jinping said that the fight to control and overcome Covid-19 was an opportunity for international cooperation while Trump blamed China for unleashing the “plague” in the first place.

There are still, of course, alternative ways of dying.  In Massachusetts, a construction worker ate 1½ bags of liquorice every day and, after the glycyrrhizic acid found in black liquorice had unbalanced his body’s chemicals, died a few weeks later.

On a lighter note, David Flatman, a sports presenter on Channel 5 recently exposed the bigotry of his co-presenters – and probably quite a lot of his viewers – by pointing out that “global pandemic” is tautologous because the ‘pan’ prefix means worldwide.  An intelligent sportsman?  Who’d have guessed this was possible.  It’s a good job he’s not also a woman or the comment would have made the front page of the Daily Mail.

Despite an apparently undisputed debt to Iran, the UK still hasn’t paid it and hopes that its settlement would allow the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe seem over-optimistic and she remains under house arrest in her parents’ home.  She now claims she’s being harassed by the Revolutionary Guards who have falsely accused her of damaging her tag and threatened her with a second charge.  The FCO is aware of this so it’s down to Dominic Raab.  Don’t watch this space unless you’re bored by* watching paint dry. 

And a big kindness from Ireland this week.  In the latest act of solidarity between the Irish and Native American peoples, the Irish men’s lacrosse team has relinquished its place in the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, and given it to the Iroquois Nationals, a team representing a confederacy of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations.

Lacrosse originated among the Iroquois nations (also known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy) and Ireland Lacrosse’s CEO Michael Kennedy said “We want the Iroquois to take up the position which is rightfully theirs”.

Links between the Native Americans and the Irish go back at least as far as 1845 when the Choctaw nation gave $170 (worth about $5,500 in today’s terms), more than Queen Victoria gave, to victims of the Irish potato famine.  This led to a lasting bond between the nations and, in 2020 alone, the Irish people have given more than $5 million to Native American families who, due to poor health, lack of running water and numerous other deprivations, have been struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic in Arizona and New Mexico.

* Why do so many people now say ‘bored of …’?

Lawbreaking now OK, Trump’s brain goes missing, female sexuality, a failed MP exposed, kindness and a new love

20 September 2020

The Brexit Bill was passed by the House of Commons by a depressing number of conservative MPs more willing to break the law than risk their jobs.  It makes you realise why the word ‘Commons’ is used.

Wouldn’t it great (if it survives the committee stages and the House of Lords) if the Queen declined to break the law herself and refused to sanction the Brexit Bill?

But even the right-wing press are critical of Boris Johnson’s promise to carry out 1 million tests a day followed three days later by his humiliating admission they hadn’t even reached 300,000 yet.  Let’s paint “1 million tests a day” on a new Boris bus.

The American ‘justice’ system is now also flakier following the sad death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 87-year old supreme court justice who had pancreatic cancer, and Trump now plans to nominate another Republican and the Senate will nod it through.  Still, if this does happen, it’ll simplify the American justice system because all new applications to the supreme court will have to do is to ask which party the applicant supports.

In 2016, eight months before the presidential election, Mitch McConnell set a precedent by blocking Barack Obama from filling a court vacancy on the grounds that the time was too short and the position should be left vacancy for the next election winner to fill.  In 2020, two months before the next presidential election, the same Mitch McConnell has now pledged to get a swift vote to appoint a Trump groupie before the election. 

Even Johnson now realises a second spike is approaching and R, the average number of people who catch it from a single sufferer, is now over 1, the level at which it might be contained.  The coronavirus test and trace system is still “barely functional” and The Independent has seen a leaked document saying that the Department of Health and Social Care has capped funding testing in the health service, leaving hospital doctors, nurses, teachers and other key workers unable to work because they can’t get tested. 

However, it now appears that nowhere has recorded an infection rate of over about 50% and optimistic epidemiologists are hoping that about half the population might be naturally immune.

America has, of course been well-led and very lucky and, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Donald Trump said “It would go away without the vaccine, George … sure, over a period of time. You’ll develop like a herd mentality, it’s gonna be – it’s gonna be herd-developed, and that’s gonna happen. It will all happen.”

Even our stuttering prime minister could learn from this.

Trump’s latest wheeze is to create a ‘1776 Commission’ which will aim to educate people “about the miracle of American history”, erasing unnecessary irrelevancies like slavery and racism and making it clear to the native Americans that the continent actually was discovered by Columbus.

A similarly ingenuous attempt to mislead people appeared over here when an offer of 190p per share was rejected by the board of G4S, Britain’s most incompetent and scandal-ridden security firm, on the grounds that “the timing of the proposal is highly opportunistic”.  Isn’t that one of the overriding principles of capitalism and market forces, that you take advantage of others’ weaknesses to make yourself a profit?

A fortnight ago, I commented on the quality of the water in our rivers, lakes and streams.  Figures just released by the Environment Agency show that none of them have escaped pollution by sewage discharges and agricultural and industrial chemicals.  Bit worrying really since some of our ‘lakes’ are actually reservoirs and we drink them.

I was saddened to hear of Shere Hite’s death this week.  She produced her eponymous and ground-breaking report on female sexuality in 1976 and upset a lot of men who thought they knew better and criticised her sample of 4,500 women as being self-selected and unscientific despite the significant correlation between their responses.  Her response was that Freud’s claim that clitoral orgasms were “immature” and women who couldn’t orgasm through penetration were “frigid” was based on a sample of three Viennese women.  (I’ve always assumed that Freud enjoyed himself doing the research, which probably influenced his conclusions, and have wondered whether the women shared his self-satisfaction.)

I’d never known if her name, which sounds so much like a Spoonerism, was real.  It turns out that her given name was Shirley, the same as her mother’s, so she was nicknamed Shere while still very young and later adopted the family name of her stepfather, Raymond Hite. 

Our shamelessly absentee and utterly useless former MP gave up in 2020.  Having been opposed by a local community activist who gained more votes than any other independent in the UK first time she stood against him, Swire could see the writing on the wall and stepped down in case he was humiliated by an independent who was not only younger but – ugh – a woman!

Now Sasha, a former journalist and his wife, has written a book about her time as an idle MP’s wife and implicitly, but probably unintentionally, recognises the success of our dedicated independent, Claire Wright, and compliments her by confirming that Swire started his own short-lived campaign to keep the local hospital open in competition with Wright’s longstanding campaign just to annoy her.  How small-minded and bitter can a failed MP get? 

While breaking my fast early on Wednesday before a trustees’ meeting, a large fly was zooming round the room so, next time it passed, I snatched out at it and yes, you guessed, it had beautiful yellow and black stripes and a pointy bit at the end which it managed to jab into my little finger before I dropped it and trod on it.  I felt a bit guilty because it was only doing what it was designed for …

Chuck Feeney, who co-founded Duty Free Shoppers and made billions out of it, is an unusual man.  In the early 1980s, he started asking himself how many yachts or pairs of shoes he needed and set up The Atlantic Philanthropies, a charitable foundation into which he transferred almost all his wealth although this wasn’t known until 1996 when he sold his stake in DFS. 

He’s now 89 and has finally achieved his lifetime’s ambition:  the foundation has given away all its money and is being wound up.  A friend said “He has made reasonable provision for [his children], but he did feel that his family should be not be burdened with extraordinary sums”.

He wishes people like Jeff Bezos would follow his example.  “Try it,” he’s said, “you’ll like it.”

Chuck, I love you.