Lords of the Desert

This has been on my shelf for a long time, not because I didn’t want to read it but because I was quite looking forward to it and wanted to read it at the right time. I was disappointed. While it gave me some of the desired background knowledge of the region, it became far too bogged down in unnecessary detail in my opinion. It also did not join up well with the political situation today or even the last few decades. While undoubtedly this would have been a huge undertaking, I think spanning a period continuous with today, it would have been more accessible. Other than that, the writing was quite essay like and while not completely stuffy, it was just a bit dull. Probably avoid unless you have a real interest in the minutiae of the period between ’45 and ’60 ish. 

Human Kind

This book is all about how we as humans are inherently kind rather than the more popular believe that we are not. Call me a cynic but I found this book a bit naive. Although it would be lovely to think that even Hitler and the like were just fluffy bunnies underneath it all, the author cherry picks science to fit his theory rather than the other way round. While an interesting exploration of many of the pyschological experiments that have taken place on this subject, the biased analysis of it all falls far short of credible and for me just got me quite frustrated. 

Wild Camp in Cornwall

You may or not remember my wild camping trip last year with my mate Rich. It was such a success that we vowed to do it again. This is the one where we do it again.

This time, we decide to get a bit more ambitious. A number of years ago Rich and his wife decided to abandon me and move down to the coast. Treachery aside, it does mean that I have friends and (crucially) a base in Cornwall from which I can stage an epic camping trip if needed. Rich has had his eyes on the south west cost path (a pathway of such significance that I was unsure whether or not to capitalise it – having just looked it up, it turns out I should have done) for a while now. This path extends for 630 miles from Somerset all the way round the Devon and Cornwall coasts, ending up in Pool in Dorset. It even has its own website. For a path, I think that is pretty impressive.

Our aim for this trip was to tackle a small section of it over a couple of days, camping on the open road each night while we did so. Rich’s plan was to start in a small, innuendo-friendly bay called Welcombe Mouth. From there we would camp our first night and set off southwards towards the town of Bude and, should the wind be behind us and the carbohydrates within us, beyond.

Logistically we (I) was struggling to see how we could start in one place, finish in another and then exfiltrate ourselves using the same infiltration method we’d started with. I hadn’t counted on Rich’s excellent wife who was happy to drop us off at the beginning and pick us up when we’d had enough a couple of days later.

Trip sorted. The weather is another issue. Of course for the entire journey there, it pelts it down with rain, but as soon as we arrive in the welcome mouth of Welcombe Mouth, the rain leaves us and the evening sun creeps out from behind the clouds in a really rather generous fashion. As a result, the waterproofs never see the light of day.

For dinner, we build a fire on the beach, strewn with logs and pebbles after a brief discussion on whether the tide is likely to swallow us up before we’ve even opened up our beers. We decide it won’t, so we open up our beers. Proven correct, we enjoy a seabass and vegetable foil dinner that Rich had already prepared. Such is the quality of this meal that, frankly, I would have been happy with it in a posh restaurant. Aside from a rogue pocket of hot slate that explodes out of the fire and a small rockfall that falls on the exact spot we’d initially set up on, we enjoy a superb evening looking out onto the open ocean. The vista we look out on is worthy of a desktop screensaver.

As night falls, we set our tents up on the cliff and, apart from a lone van in the car park, we are the only ones in the whole valley. At one stage, just as the light is all but gone, I become convinced that the headlights of the van flash at us from across the other side of the stream that runs through the valley. “Doggers,” says Rich casually. I can’t quite tell if he is joking but from that point on, I keep a close, untrusting eye on that van until we leave the next day.

Generally speaking, during the nights when I am camping, I invariably get a very cold nose. This one is no exception. I’m convinced it is ever since I got an elbow to the face while playing football. As we pack up the next morning and hike out of the valley, tents and all on our backs, I speak to Rich about my idea for a nose cosy. I would call it a ‘nosie’. He doesn’t really say anything but, tellingly, neither does he laugh so I can only assume he loves the idea.

The path itself is breathtakingly scenic, something we discover through the course of the morning. Nothing quite beats looking out on a sunny seascape whilst watching a frolicking seal in the surf. On the other hand, quite a lot of things beat lugging a backpack of a weight equivalent to Matt Hancock’s conscience up and down the steep sides of each valley. The coastal path is rife with streams running into the sea, each with its own deep carving through the cliff tops and so what is quite a short distance as the crow flys turns out to be a hell of a lot more in reality. After one particularly strenuous climb, Rich almost bunders into a hedgerow just as a nice lady bids us a good morning. Ah to have been a crow.

By midday I feel like I’ve worked my gluteal muscles so fully that I would feel reasonably confident opening a can of baked beans using just the cheeks. Lunch is taken in a small gulley through which a babbling stream runs and from which we replenish our water supply. Luckily Rich has one of those water filters so thankfully neither of us subsequently die as a result. I come up with the idea of camping slippers.

After lunch, we set off back into the Cornish countryside (we had already crossed the border from Devon to Cornwall earlier that day). As we approach a cool-looking government radio station, we pass some walkers. Not just any walkers though; they mean business. I hadn’t realised but the South West Cost Path (capitalised) is kind of a big deal and people really do go all in on it. If you’re trying to do the whole thing then to miss even a small section out is sacrilege. Such is the opinion of the cheerful gentleman who passes us coming the other way. Apparently we are on a small detour inland which he too has mistakenly taken. He informs us cheerfully that he is retracing his steps in order to ‘do it properly’. It can only be a few 100 yards difference.

A little while later, he catches up with us (he doesn’t have Matt Hancock’s conscience on his back) and, with a spring in his step, declares “caught you up.” Stating the obvious I think to myself, while smiling back at him. To my shock, he then adds the following words verbatim… “And my anal fixation has been satisfied.” Must be the man from the van I ponder. I am too otherwise appalled to say anything out loud.

It’s a long afternoon of hiking but we eventually make it to some semblance of civilisation (a café on a fairly isolated surfing beach) where we grab some drinks and realise we have both been cultivating an impressive sun burn on our faces, necks and arms since we began earlier in the day. I buy some sun cream and aloe vera (pricey) and a snickers (affordable).

We begin to debate where we are going to camp. It is tempting to retrace our steps a way to a suitable spot seen earlier. The opposing temptation however is to carry on, even though we are approaching the outskirts of Bude, making it harder to find a place to camp without being blatantly obvious. We choose the latter option and live to regret it. More quickly than we had anticipated, Bude looms into view and we are forced to get a bit posh and pay a local farmer £10 to camp in his field. Not quite wild camping then but we do have access to one of the best equipped portaloos I have ever had the pleasure of using. We have noodles for dinner with a view of the ocean over the cliffs and I note how manly my hands look as a result of the work they have had to take on during our journey. I invent the word mands which I think is my best suggestion yet but Rich doesn’t look so sure.

The next morning we pack up and head into town where we have an excellent fry-up and a big coffee, (Rich has some sort of mocktail that I don’t know the name of). I buy some more butane for my camping stove in a department store straight out of the 80s after which we climb out of Bude back onto the cliffs to continue our journey.  I stop at one point to look at the lifeguard trucks below. Purely by coincidence, I have been watching a lot of Baywatch recently and I get a bit excited.

We stop every so often to apply our newly acquired sun cream and I eat a protein bar that tops any other protein bar I have ever had. As we grow wearier, we decide to pinpoint our exfil site – a beach not much further where we can eat lunch and await Rich’s wife to rescue us. The beach we get to is a bit ropey to be honest. We pass the ‘Beach House Hotel’ which looks like the house from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and decide to eat instead at the local café. I’m glad we do as the tartar sauce sachets they have there are cutting edge.

After lunch, we decide to retreat to the one pub in the bay for the final stages and, in contrast to the scenic tranquillity of the British coast we’ve just experienced, we witness the human element to this landscape. We watch with interest as five generations of one family race around on the mini go kart track outside as we sip on much anticipated pints of Doombar. There is a parrot in a cage in one corner and a child plays nearby who we can only assume is feral. In fairness to the locals, the breeding pool is small.

Overall, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed our journey over the last 2 days. According to Rich’s calculations, we have covered 15 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation. Rich is keen to get home now to address the ‘chafeage’ he has endured around his waistline (of all places) and I need to apply ice to my shoulders which feel as if they have been compressed beneath several tonnes of Matt Hancock’s promises.

Until next time.

Haunting at Frimley

This ghost hunting is fast becoming a thing. As we had a bit of time to spend away again not long after our trip to Bath, Rach decided we should go on a nice relaxing spa trip. I, on the other hand, had other ideas. More ghoulish antics were definitely called for. 

Step in Frimley Hall hotel – Spa and gym package on the one hand, haunted house on the other.

With our weekend all booked, our journey to Surrey is comfortably short and, whether it is a spike in confidence or just plain denial, Rach seems annoyingly calm. Perhaps she is focused on the impending dressing gown and slipper combo (slippers which, I would argue, provide sub-par purchase on the ground should she need to run from a ghost and that’s not even factoring in the trip hazard).

I’m not ashamed to admit that I am a little disappointed at her laissez faire attitude but I am rewarded for my patience as soon as we arrive on the driveway at Frimley Hall. Her exact words are ” Oh my God, this is horrible.” Turns out she has just been hiding her anxiety a bit better this time around. 

Excellent, I think to myself. Her words are, in fairness, a little harsh to the good people at Frimley Hall. The building and grounds are lovely but I can also see what she means. It has a stately feel with lots of intricate nooks and crannies across its ivy-covered facade. It looks like the sort of place the location scouts from Jonathan Creek would be all over. 

We arrive just as the sun is setting and I can tell Rach is eager to get things sorted before it disappears altogether. Despite her barked instructions on how to carry our bags in, I can’t help be be distracted by the massive tree out front. I comment that perhaps it is the biggest tree I have ever seen in this country. The trunk is thick certainly, but the sheer height of it is quite something. Rach tells me to stop going on about the tree. 

We enter reception through a stone archway, its heavy wooden doors opened and propped either side. Pretty much everything in here is wooden – the stairs, the floor, the desk. I note that the tree outside is lucky to be still standing. The guy at the desk who checks us in has a really calm and sleepy voice and I have to stifle a yawn. As I stand there a bit dazed, Rach is staring up the wooden staircase, a little frown just visible on her face. This, I realise, is the exact epicentre of the hauntings at Frimely Hall. 

Legend has it that, back in the depths of time, a nanny took her eyes off the child she was looking after just long enough for it to have fallen down the staircase, dead. (Frankly, the stairs are so shallow and are so nicely carpeted that, for a child fragile enough to die from a tumble down these stairs, it was only a matter of time anyway).

Either way, from then on, it is said that the ghost of the nanny frequents the top of the staircase and the landing along from it, wailing in anguish over the time she dropped the ball. 

All checked in, we get to our room, not too far from the aforementioned landing but because it is a newer part of the building, I sense Rach instantly relax. Even more so when she realises there is a bottle of Prosecco waiting for us within. 

There’s a quick turnaround before dinner, punctuated by a brief panic when we realise there’s no hairdryer in the room. Rach leads the outcry but, as I’m currently growing my hair, I’m secretly bricking it also. Fortunately a quick call to reception (its the guy with the relaxing voice again) saves the day. 

At dinner, it becomes clear that the hotel is far from full. The Covid 19 pandemic has hit the place hard. The dining room is uncrowded and there are apparently only 6 staff present forming some sort of skeleton crew. The parallels with a Jonathan Creek mystery are beginning to strengthen. 

Dinner is lovely and halfway through Rach feels a chill behind her which neither of us can explain. She goes a bit pale while I examine the cutlery, with which I am very impressed – weighty, with a premium feel but really quite small so my hands look and feel massive.

Over desert, I whip out my phone to read a bit more about the building. Originally a family home, Frimley Hall dates form around the 1800s. After changing hands several times over the years, it became a hotel from the 1930s, briefly providing a location for the women’s naval service during and for a time shortly after WW2. 

To me, it is the wartime era that it most retains from its history. I can imagine the dining room as a mess hall and the drawing room next door somewhere the officers could retire to for cigars and brandy. 

It is to the drawing room we move to after dinner and, a little caught up in the feel of it all, I order a whiskey. The waitress hesitates when I asked what selection they have. Rach doesn’t hold back in asking why – they’re not exactly run off their feet so we have a good old chat here – and she admits she has to go to the cellars to get the whiskey I have ordered. 

‘Awesome,’ I say, as Rach recoils at the realisation that there are cellars here. Of course, we then ask about the ghost stories and it turns out they are ‘legit’. She talks of people having seen a white figure at the top of the stairs, of strange wailing noises at night, and of doors slamming for no reason. 

While we are talking, Rach grabs my arm and whispers to me that she can feel the chill again. I point out to her that we are sitting directly next to an open window. 

That night, we get to sleep without any drama. In Bath, our previous trip, I was woken quite early on. This time, I manage to sleep through a good portion of the night. However, around 4am, I am prodded awake. Rach is staring at me in the darkness, clearly terrified. 

‘What is it?’ I ask. 

‘Are you awake?’ she asks. 

‘Uh, yes,’ I reply.

‘Who were you talking to?’ she asks. 

‘What?’ I ask, extremely confused by now. 

‘You were saying “Yes please”. Who were you talking to?’

I had apparently been sleep-talking. Not something I usually do (with one exception in my early twenties when I was witnessed to have jumped upright while fast asleep shouting “cover me!”.)

I admit I have no idea as to what I was accepting, nor from whom I was accepting it, but I quietly acknowledge to myself an element of satisfaction that I remain polite even while unconscious.

This is only half of the story though. Rach then draws my attention to the sound of the zip on my suitcase. I hear nothing now but apparently something, or someone has been causing it to rattle for some time now. I laugh, thinking she is joking but her wide eyes tell me she is deeply concerned. I go back to sleep. 

In the morning, she tells me that the preceding night had been worse than anything experienced in Bath and that my nighttime conversation had been very creepy. I tell her I have no memory of it and suggest I may have been possessed. She hits me. 

The gym is booked after breakfast where we have a good workout and then finish with a dip in the pool. We discuss our plans for the day. At the George, we have the historic city of Bath on our doorstep. Here we have Camberly, Brookwood cemetery and Basingstoke canal. We decide to relax at the hotel. 

That afternoon, we return to the drawing room for some afternoon tea. We are challenged by the waitress to guess the flavour of one of the sweets. I realise this is a far cry from the pub crawls of my youth and half expect them to switch the T.V on just in time for Countdown. Mercifully, I realise it is the weekend, so no Countdown for at least 2 days. 

The afternoon tea is delicious, the scones artery-clogging. We have the obligatory ‘clotted cream or jam first’ discussion. Rach orders some chips. 

After a nap, we escape the confines of the hotel to have dinner at a local pub. The portion sizes here are north American and Rach orders the ‘Ultimate Burger’. I order the salmon and when they bring them to our table, the waiter assumes the burger is for me as it is literally the size of Rach’s head. 

As large as it is, both meals are delicious and make us rather sleepy. We pull up to Frimley Hall again, lit in moonlight and looking quite spooky. Rach is emboldened by an espresso martini or two, so we explore the landing and examine a picture on the wall we assume is of the nanny. I swear blind the eyes are following us and Rach hits me again. 

Fortunately the night passes without even the faintest of zip themed interruptions. Nor it would seem am I offered anything else in my sleep. We wake up ready for our morning gym session and I am in big trouble for making Rach go. The espresso martinis may have something to do with this. 

After this, we sit down for a nice leisurely breakfast and I marvel at the ketchup sachets. Rather than tearing unevenly down one side like the ones in Burger King or Macdonalds, these almost miraculously tear in a perfect horizontal line across the top. I don’t know why these things aren’t everywhere. 

After breakfast, we go for a full body massage. Rach gets the short straw – her masseuse apparently ‘didn’t have her heart in it.’

If hers didn’t, then mine certainly did. I’ve never had a massage this long or extensive and I walk out of it feeling like a million dollars. I didn’t realise they did the toes as well. And to top it all off, we weren’t murdered by ghosts. So, as we bid goodbye to the silken voiced receptionist, I think to myself that this spa thing isn’t such a bad idea after-all. I could certainly get used to it.

W

Ghost Hunt in Bath

Before I go any further, I don’t believe in ghosts. I will admit, however, that I suggested to my girlfriend Rachel that the hotel we were staying in this weekend looks haunted. 

This was, in retrospect, a bad idea as it turns out Rachel does believe in ghosts. Cue a quick google search for ‘Most Haunted’ and, lo and behold, our destination has been the focus for ghost hunters on several different occasions. It turns out it really is haunted!

We read some accounts from former visitors, one of whom claims to have seen a figure standing at the foot of his bed and another sensing pressure on the mattress, as if someone was resting there next to them. 

Rachel became rather transfixed on staying somewhere else after that but, despite her protestations, our weekend booking remained in place. 

The George Inn, situated in the village of Norton St Philip, is a 15 minute car journey from Bath. Neither of us had been to Bath before, so it was an ideal destination. 

We arrived on a blisteringly hot Friday afternoon, me looking forward to relaxing for the weekend and Rachel bricking it far more than I had come to realise. 

The George Inn looks haunted. It really does. Standing 4 stories high, it looks distinctly medieval with its thick wooden beams and its curved and warped walls, all askew. It is apparently 700 years old and claims to be the oldest inn in the UK.

Upon our arrival we are met by a pleasant but harried hotel employee, all masked up for Covid. Immediately Rachel asks if it is haunted, to which he replies with a well rehearsed speech that he has not personally witnessed anything but others certainly had. In my opinion, he gives only enough information to maintain the mystery. Clever.

We  are shown to our room, the King Charles room, up a creaky wooden spiral staircase on the 1st floor. The floor slants towards us so much as we enter that I’m sure any loose items would rush out of the door. A huge wedge is necessary under 2 of the 4 legs of the bed to keep it level. A portrait of a suitably unimpressed King Charles sits on one wall while a tapestry of a medieval polo game hangs above the bed. 

Elsewhere, other ancient drawings in the characteristically child-like (shit) style of our ancestors fill the gaps on the other walls. Rather excellently, the hanging sign for the inn is directly outside our window and it makes a creaking sound in the wind. Rachel looks a bit pale. 

We drop off our stuff and we go for a wander around the village. It seems very quiet and sleepy; a crossroads village really although it used to be big in the wool industry apparently. The view of the church against the backdrop of the fields beyond across the village green provides a photo op. 

As we walk, we discuss the possibility that the entire village is a front for an MI6 base. Rachel laughs this off but I’m not so sure. 

We linger in the church graveyard and look at some of the gravestones – some ancient, worn and overgrown and others fresh and well tended. Further on we pass a dried up stream and an oddly placed apple, rotten as if from the opening titles of the Walking Dead. Perhaps most chilling of all, I notice a cuddly toy (a rabbit I think) as it lies face down in an overgrown driveway next to some rusty swings that creak slowly in the breeze. I don’t tell Rachel.

Back at the Inn, we take a peek into the ‘dungeons’. This sunken area is cooler than outside and has been turned into a sort of second bar area/ function room. From the chains hung on the walls, its original purpose is clearly not forgotten. The story goes that a group of rebels who fought with the Duke of Monmouthsire in his rebellion to overthrow King James II in the late 1600s, were housed in the inn the night before their execution just over the road. 

Legend has it that a guard was also executed by mistake – a chap known as ‘the innocent bystander’. A chilling room then – in more ways than one – but though it keeps Rachel uncharacteristically quiet, I can’t help  but notice it has an excellent sound system. 

We eat dinner at the George  a bit later on and, bolstered by some Dutch courage, Rachel collars the landlady and probes into the hauntings a bit more. She is as evasive as her employee from earlier on, very much the party line I think. However, she throws Rachel one snippet of info – another guest having apparently seen or felt something the previous night. 

Armed with this news, we retire to our bedroom, this time under the cover of darkness at which point a vital and thorough conversation takes place. Which lights should remain on?

My argument is that all lights should be off. From a purely clinical point  of view of course, that’s just good sleep hygiene. Rachel argues the complete opposite. Fortunately my argument wins out and we settle in for the night. 

It’s 2.08 and I am shaken awake from a deep sleep. I have been efficiently working my way through some sort of checklist in my dream – a list that I am nine tenths of the way through. It is a list that I will now never know what it feels like to complete. 

I look to my left where my eyes meet Rachel’s, wide in the moonlight. 

‘What is it?’ I ask. 

‘Nothing,’ comes the reply.

”Why did you wake me up then?’ I ask again.

‘I can’t sleep.’ 

Clearly nor now can I. 

This goes on for a bit and eventually I am asked to stay up and read while Rachel goes to sleep. I cast my eyes around the room, searching the shadows for any obvious ghosts. There are none.

With a sigh I sit up and get my book out – a non-fiction about the periodic table. Even despite the fact that it is bloody boiling, this is not the sort of book that is necessarily suited to staying awake at such an early hour and, though I really do give it a try, the next thing I know it’s morning. 

Breakfast consists of wheetabix, a cup of tea and one of my top 5 rated croissants of all time. 

I receive quite a detailed account of the night from Rachel’s perspective. I hear a lot about noises from the floor below and about the creaking sign but no concrete evidence of any ghosts. 

My attention wanders to the impressive ‘George Inn’ branded napkins which are of such high quality that I hesitate to use them. 

To get Rachel’s mind off the upcoming night number two, at one point seriously under threat in favour of a Premier Inn, we spend the day in Bath. 

It’s a great day. We walk to Pulteney Bridge, which I read was built in 1774 and stands out due to the shops built into it. From there we take a walk around the market from which I buy a notepad to record some travel notes. I flirt with buying a flat cap which I have felt for a while would really suit me. Rachel says no. 

We have lunch at Bill’s although Rachel is almost denied entrance after recording a high temperature upon arrival. It turns out their thermometer is tricked by the warmth of her forehead from standing outside in the sun. Strange times we live in. 

From there, we spends a few hours exploring the Roman baths, glasses of prosecco in hand. It is genuinely interesting and the audio guide is good (not as good as the one at Alcatraz though if you ever decide to visit).

We both decide to upgrade our face masks in WH Smiths of all places. Now looking flush and significantly cooler in our sleek black masks, we head for drinks in a bar and from there onto a converted railway station to eat Italian food and listen to some live jazz. The drummer reminds me a bit of Jim Broadbent. 

I’m impressed with Bath. It is genuinely unique, with its sandy stonework and its sunken valley setting. Quite alternative; a bit like nearby Bristol or faraway Portland, though perhaps lacking the edge of those places, a bit more self contained and certainly without the same amenities that a bigger city might have. For those seeking a quiet and scenic existence, almost certainly a nice place to live. 

Back at the inn, it’s night 2. Before we go to our room, I see someone in the bar that looks a bit like my brother-in-law’s sister-in-law. When I point it out, Rachel doesn’t care for some reason. 

To my surprise there is relatively little fuss as we settle down but once again, later that night I am awakened by a now terrified Rachel. She has heard something. 

‘Did you hear that?’ she asks. 

I shake my head, eyes barely open. We lie and listen for a while but there really is no sound at all. Through-traffic seems minimal at night; a real plus point I would say for the village of Norton St Philip.

There follows a very serious conversation about whether or not to sleep in the car but we decide that ghosts could probably access the car park as well as they might the King Charles room. I do my reading thing again, this time managing to stay awake for a bit longer. I learn a bit about sulphur and its biblical applications before I fall asleep again.

The croissant in the morning is not nearly as good. It must have been a freak batch the day before. Rachel looks very tired but is at least relieved that we survived the night. Only now we are leaving does the landlady reveal more detail, spurred on by Rachel’s enthusiastic questions. It turns out that another guest, seemingly unaware of the spectral nature of the inn had reported sensing the presence of someone in his room the night before last. I note a visible chill run down Rachel’s spine as the story is told, particularly when it turns out the seemingly obvious guest had described seeing someone in guard’s uniform in the darkness.

I don’t think Rachel will ever return to the George Inn, but that’s not to say we didn’t enjoy the weekend. Over a roast on the route home, we discuss whether she would try any other haunted locations. She says no.

I remain hopeful though. And who knows, if any other vacancies at haunted hotels pop up, who’s to say I won’t be able to convince her to book a night or two again? Especially if she doesn’t know it’s haunted 😉

W  

 

The History of the Twentieth Century

This door stopper took me a while but was a real pleasure to read. I have not read a Martin Gilbert one before and was impressed with the way he writes. Very easy to read. More to the point, the content was really useful. Although I have covered much of the content before, it gave great context to stuff I have heard or read about in isolation before. It was a bit like fitting the puzzle blocks into the correctly shaped holes in some cases. 

What struck me most was how full of conflict the twentieth century was (the two world wars aside) and how similar the issues we face now are to a hundred years ago. We really do learn nothing do we. As interesting as it was depressing.  

Black Lives Matter

To avoid letting all of that unfocused anger simmer into a lifetime of disquiet and more division, the movement needs a leader.

It’s been a few weeks now since the Black Lives Matter movement hit the headlines with a surge of media coverage. As we all know, it was triggered by one particularly heinous incident in the US but there have been countless other instances along the same lines throughout history. Why then all the furore now? Perhaps the shocking footage being circulated across social media, perhaps the need to lash out following weeks of being confined to homes. Whatever the reason, it all seems to be fading again. What has it achieved? Call me a pessimist, but perhaps not much. It is even possible things have been made worse.


While mostly peaceful, some of the protests have been marred by violence (far eclipsed by the far right counter demonstrations). More to the point, it has also highlighted, from my perspective, a vague sort of righteousness from many corners that in many ways feels a little disingenuous; as if one must speak out on this as more of a procedural duty rather than from any meaningful understanding. While many campaign, I wonder whether some really get it. ( I should say that most – the BAME campaigners, many of whom will have experienced some form of racism – will almost certainly ‘get it’ in one way or another.) Arguably however, the campaigning that does take place is not necessarily useful.

I understand from some points of view the need for democratic decision in a civilised society when it comes to removing a statue. The debates regarding the statue in Oxford are probably more in keeping with this rather than the unceremonious toppling we saw in Bristol. Having said that, if the democratic process is demonstrably failing to acknowledge the issues, I can’t be too critical of those involved. When you see young girls burning the union jack on the cenotaph however, it is clear to me that the emotions (justifiably strong) of some are misguided.


My fear is that this movement, as well meaning as it is, is merely deepening the divide. There will be a significant proportion of people in the UK I am sure who will see these protests in a negative light and this will galvanise inherent racism all across the country. (Particularly as they fell in the midst of a pandemic which many will have been diligently isolating from – don’t forget, those out protesting and not observing the lockdown may not become unwell themselves but will potentially spread coronavirus and be responsible for deaths of others that could have been avoided. Raheem Stirling said that there was only one virus. I’m afraid he is wrong.)


However, more worryingly, I can’t help but wonder if other more moderate individuals will begin to feel a little intimidated by the ease with which BAME individuals label anything that happens to them as ‘racist’. For example, I mentioned to someone the other day that a friend of mine was playing a character with a Caribbean accent and they replied asking if that’s ok to do? It got me thinking. Why shouldn’t it be? From my point of view, being able to impersonate and Australian accent or an American one but not a traditionally BAME accent deepens the divide rather than heals it. Many celebrities have come out recently apologising for using ‘black face’. This is a little more contentious perhaps but nevertheless open to interpretation in the same way. I would argue that, as long as done without malice or under a genuine misguided sense of superiority, it is not offensive. Of course, things are not often so simple and there is a spectrum but we must all use a bit of common sense from time to time rather than cry fowl at every opportunity.


In many instances, this oversensitivity is counter productive and could be seen as ‘political correctness gone mad’ by many. BAME individuals will inevitably be treated differently under this scenario, with many people tip-toeing around issues or even avoiding altogether in order to avoid making some unintended faux pas.


Of course, I do have sympathy to the reactions of many considering the unimaginable injustice that has occurred historically and unfortunately that still does today. My point is that, while racism must be tackled, tackling it in the wrong way makes it somewhat of a self fulfilling prophecy. All the while, the more damaging and malignant stuff carries on underneath. In order to wipe out this sort of discrimination, it needs two things: time and focus.


Generally speaking, racist leanings are learned behaviours from parents or peers. Once learnt, they are very difficult to wipe. The call for education and inclusion in curriculums of things like slavery therefore is one of the positives of the Black Lives Matter movement. As the older generations fade, time will hopefully bring more enlightened younger ones. Hence time but also focus. Arguably the focus element is most important here. To avoid letting all of that unfocused anger simmer into a lifetime of disquiet and more division, the movement needs a leader.

It needs someone who is measured and accessible to people of all races. Someone who can guide the anger of those who have been wronged and help them to heal the divides and encourage others to heal their own prejudices. Someone who is able to build influence enough to discourage people from self destructive behaviours such as the protests during the pandemic (not all self destructive I should say because it has of course got everyone talking about it) but instead encouraging people to channel their emotions into more sensible and tactically more beneficial endeavours; ones that are not going to alienate the huge swathes of society that are probably the ones they need to win over the most.

While there are higher proportions of BAME people living in poverty, this is a result of historic disadvantage and current division and cannot be changed overnight. Poverty, from an economic point of view must be tackled as one issue, not divided up into white and BAME poverty or else the divides will continue through the generations. From a social point of view however, BAME poverty can be changed only by a focus on changing attitudes.


To find someone who can guide us all through such a change is challenging. Whether someone suitable will step up to the plate is hard to say. If no one steps up – or indeed if the wrong person does – and perpetuates the divisions further, then I fear this brief surge in popularity will have little impact in the long run.

W

Previously on Covid-19

As we approach June, I thought it might be a useful exercise to recap on the last few months. After all, there’s quite a lot that has happened and it’s been a bit of a blur thus far! Who knows what the next few months will hold but these are the key events from a Coronavirus point of view since it all began.


31 Dec 2019 – The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reports a cluster of pneumonia cases in the Wuhan province of China.

8 Jan 2020 – Chinese scientists announce that they have found a new strain of coronavirus.

12 Jan – The genetic sequence of the new coronavirus known to be causing these new cases is released publicly by China. The virus is known as SARS-CoV-2.

13 Jan – the first official case outside of China is identified in Thailand.

30 Jan – There are now 98 confirmed cases in 18 other countries and the WHO declares a Public Health Emergency of International concern.

31st Jan – The first 2 cases are confirmed in the UK.

11 Feb – The disease caused by the virus is named as Covid-19 by the WHO.

5 March – The first confirmed UK death related to Covid-19 is reported.

11 March – Due to being “deeply concerned by both the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of infection” the WHO announce a pandemic. The 2011 film ‘Contagion’ begins trending on various streaming platforms.

12 March – The UK moves from the “contain” approach to what is referred to as the “delay” phase. This means that people with symptoms are no longer tested unless requiring admission to hospital.

16 March – The WHO advises “test, test, test”.

20 March – Schools, nurseries, restaurants and pubs all ordered to close.

21 March – The government shielding scheme started. This has caused some confusion, both then and now. Letters were initially sent by NHS England to those with features suggesting they were ultra vulnerable should they contract Covid-19; even more so than the vulnerable groups normally granted free flu jabs annually. These included those with organ transplants, undergoing active chemotherapy or with any immunosuppressive condition. Some letters were sent to people who did not need to be on the list while others who did need to be on the list were not initially identified as the data used to draw up the lists was from a national database. Subsequently, lists have been revised at a more local level. The letters advised shielded patients not to leave their houses at all if possible and offered information about local support agencies.

23 March – The government announces lockdown measures with advice that people stay at home, only leaving for one form of exercise a day, for work if absolutely necessary, to shop for essential items and to fulfil any medical and care needs.

2 April – Suspected Covid-19 hospital admissions peak in the UK at more than 3,400 in a single day.

3 April – Worldwide cases of Covid-19 pass 1 million.

5 April – It is announced that Boris Johnson has been admitted to hospital with Covid-19.

6 April – The Primeminister is moved to ICU.

10 April – The UK daily hospital death rate reaches its peak at 980 for cases involving Covid-19.

12 April – Mr Johnson is discharged from hospital.

20 April – The government furlough scheme officially comes into effect.

23 April – Testing begins on the vaccine developed at Oxford University which uses an inactivated adenovirus with an additional “spike” protein found on SARS-CoV-2 in the hope that the body will develop an immune response to this protein, thereby potentially providing some immunity to SARS-CoV-2 itself. (Due to the more recent drop off in cases, there have been some reports that the trial may struggle to get results because a sufficient number of participants will need to be exposed to the virus for it to be reasonably certain that the vaccine works.)

29 April – Official figures show UK deaths pass 26,000 as care homes deaths related to Covid-19 are included for the first time.

5 May – Doctors in France report that, having retested a swab taken on 27th December 2019 on a patient at a hospital near Paris (who had no recent travel history), Covid-19 had been identified. This has raised questions over how long the virus has really been in circulation.

13 May – It is announced that lockdown measures are to be eased somewhat. Members of the public are still to observe previous measures but are now able to take unlimited exercise, restart open air sports and meet one person from another household in the open as long as social distancing measures are observed.

14 May – Data are published that show A&E attendances for April were 0.9 million, down 57% on April 2019. While clearly a very large number of A&E attendances are unnecessary, this raised concerns over how many serious medical conditions may have gone untreated or undiagnosed as a result of people’s reluctance to attend.

20 May – The official figures show that there have been 250,908 confirmed positive Covid-19 cases in the UK to date and 36,042 deaths. Bear in mind the drawbacks of such statistics without a robust and extensive testing system in place.

22 May – Testing is finally rolled out again for those with symptoms and, theoretically, anyone above the age of 5 and with symptoms (which now include loss of taste or smell) can access either home testing kits or testing at one of the regional sites via the NHS website. (Not via your GP).
These tests are swabs and detect the presence of viral RNA on the mucosa and in the saliva and can tell whether there is current infection or not.
In order to detect whether one has had the virus at some point in the past and therefore probably has a level of immunity (although this is not yet proven), an antibody test is needed. There has been much talk of these, first mentioned by the government in March as being imminent. However, as yet, no antibody tests are available. Two tests (developed by Abbott and Roche) were validated by Public Health England on the 14th May and will apparently be used from next week to test NHS and care workers. These tests are available privately from various centres but people should be cautious about the results. For a start, it could take up to 28 days after the infection before the test can properly confirm if a person has had the virus. Secondly, as mentioned above, there is currently no telling how much immunity one gets from having had Covid-19 so, until this is better understood, the benefit of antibody testing is largely for community statistical purposes.

So there you have it. The story so far. The next few weeks will no doubt contribute to our ever expanding knowledge about the virus. It might be useful to mention at this point an app developed by Kings in London called ‘COVID Symptom Study’ that I would encourage everyone to download and fill in if you haven’t already.

The more we know, the better we can understand how best to open things up and prevent a slide back into a second peak. Data, for all their faults, are key. Testing is integral to this.

Thoughts of the Week

It’s been however many weeks now in lockdown and, although easing a little, much of the entertainment (or at least unpleasant distraction) is watching our government muddle their way through things in farcical fashion.


Covid aside for a second, there was furore about the $26,000 (actually pounds but my keyboard doesn’t let me do a pounds symbol) or so salary limit on foreign workers, with critics accusing the government of not valuing the work of those on lower salaries. My gut reaction was to agree with the dissent until I heard another side to the argument – that workers below this salary cap can be more easily and more cheaply trained; not that the people and the jobs being done were at all not valued. I don’t like our government, don’t get me wrong, but it was a moment I had to check myself and remind myself that there is bias on both sides of the spectrum and there are always two sides to the story. This is something that we must all be wary of. Even when there is no attempt to deliberately mislead (and there are plenty of examples of that), the sheer strength of opinion almost took me to one side of an argument that, when one looks closer and puts aside bias, is not quite as simple as it seems.


I tried to remain measured when it came to Cummings. I really did. ‘If it was just a trip up to the house in Durham to isolate there’ I said, ‘then well I suppose I can understand that’. Of course, everyone now knows it wasn’t just that and to defend it is indefensible in itself. If you disagree you are hopelessly deluded or there’s something in it for you.
It is this sort of blatant disregard for accountability and flagrant shamelessness that we have come to know and love in politics in recent times, to the extent that even those who have practised it in the past have called Cummings and the PM out for it.


Our leaders are a bit like that naughty child at school. The one who constantly pushes his luck and plays up, each time emboldened when the consequences are far less severe than anticipated, the bluff of punishment having been well and truly called.


Not many succeed at this better than Donald Trump but, to me at least, it is obvious in our government too. Frankly I wouldn’t even trust Boris or anyone of his cronies to take a picture of me lest they run of with the camera. What surprises me is that some people are surprised. There are those who are now saying that this blatant refusal to be held to account in a position of power is a slippery slope. Of course this is true but what many don’t realise is that we’re half way down that slope already.


Enough of that. In other news, I’ve been reminiscing on my childhood Wednesday evening tv viewings (the slot just after the Neighbours/Simpsons power combo of my teenage years). Star Trek is not my favourite of the “Star” franchises. Despite the tangled and ill thought out mess of the recent Star Wars films, I favour the original trilogy above all else. Having said that, I did enjoy Patrick Stewart in the Next Generation, if not just for the outstanding potential for quotes. (“engage”, “make it so” etc). The new Picard series was something I was a bit sceptical of as reviews had, for some reason, been a bit cold. I have no idea why because quite honestly it’s brilliant. Clever, action packed, stylish, nostalgic and quite poignant so far, I am absolutely loving it. I genuinely don’t want it to end (although I will definitely finish the series, unlike my refusal to watch the last season of Lost, thereby somehow making it last forever in my head). Anyway, watch Picard, it’s awesome.


One final note, this week on cyclists. This lanky and lycra-clad species are a perpetual menace to me at the best of times. Let me be straight, I am never aggressive and am always safe when I drive but deep within me, I boil over with rage whenever I see one on the road. They are particularly irritating when strong in numbers, sitting lazily in packs across an entire lane and quite literally stealing 10 minutes of my life away from me. The rage is intensified all the more as they sail straight through a red light, presumably safe in the knowledge that they’ll just phase through any oncoming traffic without so much as a hair out of place (although is it just me, or are a lot of them not just tall and lanky but also quite prone to balding as well?). Either way, I don’t know if it’s the lockdown, the weather or both but there’s bloody loads of them out at the moment. They need to stop it. In the interests of balance, I will mention the one cyclist who waved me past him as the traffic light went green the other day. I was so shocked that he’d even obeyed the law enough to stop at the red light, let alone reveal some semblance of a conscience, so perhaps I didn’t thank him as much as I should have done. Regardless, he is in the minority. Get rid of them.


Ps. As a doctor, quite apart from the environmental benefits, I would say cycling is an excellent form of aerobic exercise, especially if you want to take the load off your knees and it should be unfalteringly encouraged.
W