Captain Dave The Pirate Cat

Captain Dave is your Pirate Cat

A Pirate Cat with a three cornered hat

A Piratical Cat that sails the seas

On a gale or a breeze

he goes where he pleases

and always has peases for tea.

No-one calls him a Pirate Puss

A Pirate wimp or a Pirate wuss

For Dave is as fierce and as brave as can be

Whether chasing a mouse

Or climbing a tree

He buckles his swash and swishes his tail

And sharpens his claws as sharp as a nail

He’ll flash and spit and hiss and growl

But you wipe his face with a fluffy blue towel.

Captain Dave’s tail is ginger with stripes

He’ll crawl up drains and down dirty pipes

Coming out stinky and horribly smelly

Mud and poo cling all round his belly

He’ll sit on his hind legs washing his toes

And less pleasant places far from his nose.

Curled up in bed and dreaming of fish

Imagining wonderful things for a wish

He wishes for cream and lovely smoked salmon

Dreaming of bream and big bones with ham on

Morsels of catfood, milk and cucumber

Swim round his brain in his deep sea slumber.

Yes Dave is a Pirate but also a cat

So stroke him again and think about that!

Captain Davy McBoing Boing

(This story was prompted by a friend who told me of a family cat who had joined her in bed early one morning – the cat was called Dave, but his full name, apparently, was Captain Davy McBoing Boing)

“Shiver me timberrrrs!”

A booming salt-caked gruff voice bounced off the pitch pine panels that lined the cabin walls, rattling pipes in a silver mounted pipe rack on the mantel.

“Avast there ye creepy landlubbers”!  “Stand to and prepare to haul away, for we sail for the Spanish Main at midnight”.

Captain Peregrine McHardy threw back his head, ran his fingers through his long greying hair, tweaked his even longer yellowing, and tobacco stained, beard.  Then, “Step thud Step thud”, he stomped across the deck on his wooden leg to the leeward rail of his barquentine, The Dark Lady, raised a telescope to his one good eye and purred with satisfaction at the view.

The view was across the neatly clipped lawns of the Cedars, a Nursing Home for retired seafarers or their dependants, not the quayside of a Caribbean Island, but did nothing to penetrate the illusion.  The Dark Lady rode easily on the calm waters of Captain McHardy’s imagination.

“Did you hear Mr McHardy this afternoon, Matron, he was really away with the fairies at teatime?  I’m afraid he’s getting worse.”

Matron Jeanne sighed, then shifted her considerable weight uneasily, her heavily carved antique chair squeaked in protest on its four brass castors.

“I agree Marianne, but The Captain’s condition is benign, so far at least.  You haven’t been with us long, but the duty doctor examined him only last week and, apart from his eccentricity, said he’s harmless enough and pretty fit for a 99 year old, even with a leg missing.   As long as he stays fit, and his fees keep being paid, there’s no harm and The Cedars will cope.  We’ll keep him under review.”

“Actually, I’ve been thinking that we might get him a pet, something to focus on that’s real, not imaginary.  Since the parrot we used to have in the residents’ lounge died he’s seemed a bit sadder somehow.  The local Cats Protection down the road have lots of demand for kittens, especially round Christmas, but they’ve put round a flyer about a poor old ginger tom called Dave that they can’t find a home for.  Partly it’s because of his age, but also he only has three legs and lost an eye – results of a hit and run – so he wouldn’t be a wanderer and he might be good for the home more generally.  What do you think?”

Three weeks later and preparations for the Cedar’s Christmas party were almost complete, but it was going to be a challenge to coax all the residents out of their rooms.  The prospect of two hours of carols, and sing-along show tunes, led by Leonard Pomfrey, his ‘swinging’ electric organ, and his glamourous assistant Mabel, were disincentive enough but, the idea of pushing peas and carrots round the gravy for their old relative was more than many sons, daughters, nieces, or nephews could contemplate.  For the most part they had politely declined the invitation, citing a variety of reasons, some more convincing than others, preferring instead to visit before their own home celebrations, or rushing off to an airport to escape entirely in the warmth of a Spanish or Portuguese villa.  And so the party would lack the joie de vivre engendered by fresh conversation and new faces but, as well as delivery of frozen turkey-filled vol-au-vents, individual pavlovas, cubes of pre-cooked roasted potato and, of course, peas and carrots, The Cedars had taken possession of Dave, as had Peregrine McHardy, or perhaps it was the other way around.

Peregrine McHardy had elaborated Dave’s name, and given him the honorary rank of Captain: Dave had become, to McHardy at least, Captain Davy McBoing Boing.  McHardy had tried at first to appoint him as his First Lieutenant, “Number One” to his own command, but Dave would apparently have none of that as he would not respond to any call other than “Captain”.  As for Davy, well it seemed more piratical than Dave, and right for his one-eyed confederate whose scars gave him the caste mark of a buccaneer.

He had added the patronymic ‘Mc’, to align with his own Mc – though truly that was also a fiction because Peregrine’s real name was Hardy.  He’d felt the need to differentiate himself from Nelson’s Captain Hardy, because being a Hardy had been the source of recurrent and irritating “kiss me” jokes throughout his own maritime career.

Quite where the “Boing Boing” part came from he could, or would, not explain.  Instead, he left it to speculation, with a knowing wink from his good eye, saying “That’s for me to know and you to find out”, with more than a hint that it might be something ribald or risqué in some Caribbean patois.  Within two weeks of his arrival at The Cedars the two Captains would stroll the garden decking outside McHardy’s room, between them their uneven gait giving an uncanny impression of a ship in motion.  At other times they could be seen sitting side by side, at the railing, apparently reminiscing about past adventures or sharing more intimate moments as Captain Davy rubbed his ginger head through McHardy’s beard. 

Once established at The Cedars, and trusted almost as a member of staff, Captain Davy was allowed to walk the corridors, visiting the other residents room by room dispensing, not medication but something just as powerful and though there was never any doubt about McHardy’s primacy, Captain Davy’s independence was also never in doubt.  He went where he pleased, when he pleased, but also where he was needed. 

In the days between Christmas and New Year the Cedars drifted, becalmed in a kind of social doldrum.  Not much happened, no-one much visited, even the doctor stayed away, and it was a time that Matron Jeanne, Marianne, and her other colleagues always valued as an opportunity to review, but this year there was something unusual to discuss.  Stocks of some medications were not declining at a normal rate.  Of course, that might be a natural cyclical phenomenon.  As residents came and went the need for medication varied, but there had been a decline in the need for anti-depressants, for sleeping pills and so on.  Even call for routine medications for Parkinsons and Alzheimer’s seemed to have reduced.  The doctor’s surgery had noticed that the regular dispensing of repeat prescriptions had dipped and, concerned, had enquired as to why. 

It was Marianne that spoke up.

“I know this sounds silly, Jeanne, but I think it began when Captain Davy came to live here.  I know we got him for Captain McHardy, and that’s worked, he’s definitely happier, but all the residents love him.  We’ve all noticed that when we do the blood pressure checks, especially after Dave has done his rounds, most of the readings are down and they are staying down.  Not much, but they are down.  We’ve also noticed the residents are sleeping better, some of them even grumble when we wake them up for breakfast!    

Meanwhile Captain Peregrine McHardy had begun to leave his room more often too, and sometimes would patrol the corridors and lounge in company with Captain Davy.  He would stomp around, and could be heard issuing orders to Captain Davy, for example to “batten down the hatches” or “reef in the sails”, when the weather forecast was bad. 

On Captain McHardy’s 100th birthday he was found on the deck, in full dress uniform, surrounded by photographs of some of his ships.  He had cast off for his final voyage.  Captain Davy sat by his side, quietly mewing for orders.  He attended the funeral, along with Matron Jeanne, Marianne and someone from the Seamans Mission, but though Captain Davy returned to The Cedars he didn’t stay, and one night he just slipped away. But the gifts he had brought to The Cedars did stay, and a new cat came from the shelter, a female, that they named Lady Mary Killigrew.  As the years passed other cats came and went, but a tradition had been started.  Out of respect to the two Captains who began it, but especially Captain Davy McBoing Boing, however many legs or eyes they had, they were always named after pirates.

Andrew Gold ©

December 2023

Feeling alone at Christmas, and what might it mean?

Even with family, with social connections, people can feel alone at times.  Even if they aren’t alone they can feel they are.  They may or may not feel lonely, which is a different thing from being alone, in fact people who are not alone can still feel lonely; a feeling of emptiness that is not unlike that of hunger.  It feels like hunger because that is what it is. 

The media, television companies especially, even more so at Christmas, focus on joy, on excitement, on being not alone, satisfying a need for something which is sublimated into a need for new, for bigger, for better and the commercialism of the modern world is only too happy to exploit it.

The collateral damage, the human casualties, we probably don’t think about for a few days at least – if we ever did. Perhaps, because they can’t avail themselves of the balm of excess, we maybe feel guilty about them: fortunate to not be them and uncomfortable about it.  When you don’t even have a roof over your head, or food to eat, being made to yearn for Jimmy Choo or Gucci is at best cruel, but what might we lack and may have in common with them?

The reality for many is that the need, this yearning, is for something deeper.  Alone this year and binge watching a continuous stream of (especially American) made-for Christmas movies, I’ve realised that, formulaic though they are, they touch on common themes.

They all seem to offer hope: hope of redemption, or simply hope for a kinder future.  They seem to value connectedness to values we may have lost, the importance of giving not taking, turning our backs on opportunism, and especially the need for, and to find, love.  Oddly, one of the most iconic (to the ‘west’) and much loved of modern Christmas stories, Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”, does not have the pursuit of love as a central theme, although the loss of the youthful love of his sweetheart because of Scrooge’s greed and ambition is an issue. Other seasonal filmic offers are similar: “It’s a Wonderful Life”, for example, focusses on the love of man, not romantic love.

Christmas is an important religious festival for practising and devout Christians.  For the rest, non-practising but perhaps brought up in the context of a Christian tradition, acknowledgement of something missing in our spiritual lives is circumvented by willing acceptance of, even faith in, something miraculous or supernatural but religiously ‘safer’: fairies, angels and Father Christmas.

Faith can be defined as a belief in something, or someone, on the basis of conviction rather than empirical proof: evidence. All the world’s religions are founded on faith (though some adherents of relgions would say there is proof for their particular faith. So, whatever your faith, or none, if you are alone at Christmas, and feeling a gnawing hunger, try reaching for something less tangible, but maybe ultimately more filling, than food or material possessions.

What next in the Israel/Palestine Conflict?

On 7th October 2023 a complex, sophisticated, and multi-modal assault was launched on southern Israel by Hammas, a so-called Palestinian ‘militant’ organisation, from within Gaza. There have been minor exchanges of fire with Hezbollah in Lebanon, another so-called ‘militant’ organisation, in the north of Israel. It has, so far, resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries, in both Israel and Gaza, the kidnapping of Israeli men women and children as hostages, and the retaliatory arrest and incarceration without trial of thousands of Palestinians within Israel itself and the Israeli-occupied territories. It has led me to wonder what (and who) might be behind it?

Some of the Israeli civilian casualties, including women and children, were slaughtered, wholesale, in a bestial outpouring of hatred and anger, and rightly condemned around the world. As I write this, the Israeli military is pounding Gaza into rubble, also indiscriminately killing civilians, and in an extended act of revenge and reprisal Gaza has been effectively cut off from water, electricity, food and medical supplies. Though the United Nations Organisation, and other diplomatic channels, describe this as a war crime and a breach of international law, in general the world response to Israeli actions has, so far, been notably muted. I will return to this later.

There has been surprise that the Israeli intelligence services, acknowledged to be amongst the most effective in the world, appear to have been caught napping: they didn’t see it coming. Or did they? Reports have emerged that Egyptian sources warned of an imminent attack three days before it started. Other reports, from Israeli reservists, warned of unusual military activity along the border for weeks before, reports that appear to have been ignored. An Israeli military spokesman referred to the shock as being like that in the US caused by 9/11 and Pearl Harbour, so it is ironic that similar reports sufaced of ‘ignored’ warnings after Pearl Harbour. Pearl Harbour brought the US into WW2, from sitting on the sidelines, and ultimately led to victory for the Allies. Some might think the price paid at Pearl Harbour was worth the sacrifice made, by ignoring warnings that were believed to have been received then. I don’t doubt there are many in Israel who would dearly love any excuse to destroy the Palestinians as much as there are some Palestinians would like to destroy the state of Israel. There can be no doubt that the Hamas attack on 7 October gave Israel a cast iron excuse to do just that. Did the hard-line, right wing, nationalist Israeli government secretly think that allowing the deaths of 1200 citizens and abduction of 250 was a price worth paying? Hamas, and fellow travellers , could not possibly have expected to destroy Israel by their actions on 7 October, but may have thought, strategically, the consequences of the inevitable Israeli reaction might ignite a regional reaction that would achive that for them.

It is a truism that nothing overcomes internal divisons quicker than an external threat and, until this latest conflict happened, Israel was deeply divided with unease, even in the military, of the direction of travel of the right wing coalition government. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is under attack for pressing through reforms to the judiciary which are intended to limit the freedom the courts. These reforms are so divisive within Israel, so anti-democratic, that army reservists had threatened to not turn up if they are called. Mr Netanyahu is also under indictment for bribery, corruption and fraud, so this is a welcome distraction for him, but there are many, including at all levels of Israeli society, who are worried about the seemingly inexorable progress towards a theocracitic state: the conflation of Judaic law and civil law. An inevitable consequence of conflating the two is that criticism of the state of Israel, or the actions of its governments, is labelled as “anti-Semitic”. Whatever one thinks about the former leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, his inability to counter a label of anti-semitic because of his overt support for the cause of Palestine, and his criticism of the state of Israel, cost him his job, cost Labour the next General Election and precipitated a change in Labour Party policy. All Jews and people of Jewish heritage know that anti-semitism, in thought and action, is real and ever-present, but today’s conflict seems to have precipitated an eruption of both in the UK. However, in the second world war, and ever since in the re-telling of its history, the same conflation of Germans and Germany with Nazis and Nazism took place – and continues to this day. We have seen what happens when the secular and democratic life of a nation is overtaken and suppressed by an ideology or theocracy: Afghanistan and Iran are two examples of the latter, with Saudi Arabia not far behind, and the active inclusion of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian politics is yet another example.

Not all Israelis are Jews. Not all Israeli Jews are Zionists, not all Arabs are Muslims, not all Arab Muslims are fanatically anti-semitic or anti-Zionist. It is not beyond the bounds of possibilty that the forces from Gaza that inflicted such grievous and bestial harm are not even from Hammas’s own cadres but from Isis/Islamic Jihad acting as proxies. It is very muddy, too muddy for broad brushes. The term “Palestinians” is used as if they were a homogenous people from an identifiable land/country. They are not. They are a disparate multi-ethnic population, 75% of whom are regarded as refugees, and many of them are living in refugee “camps”. Not all so-called Palestinians support Hammas or Hezbollah, or indeed any of the many political or neo-political groups that seek to represent them such as The Palestine Liberation Organisation, Fatah, The Palestinian Authority and so on, but it suits some agendas, including those of a lazy and compliant world press, to lump everyone under one umbrella and paint them as “Good or Evil”. There is no room on the front pages of the tabloid press for nuanced reporting. The BBC, to its credit, published an early piece by veteran reporter John Simpson explaining why the BBC steadfastly refuses to label Hammas as “Terrorists” (and it’s worth a read), but even long-term Middle East reporter Jeremy Bowen seems to have been choosing his words very carefully. It has taken the BBC a week to start more in-depth objective and contextual analysis of the wider and historic causes of Middle East conflict. At first I only found a BBC Radio 4 production in the series “Briefing Room”, broadcast on 12th October – also worth listening to. Now there is a daily podcast, but the daily output on mainsteam TV (especially) has been, in my opinion, ‘soft edged’.

Taking a step back, to allow a wider perspective, one wonders who, ultimately, will be the beneficiaries of this new war? For example, in the global context, it undoubtedly suits Vladimir Putin to have the west’s attention taken away from Ukraine, it also suits him to have munitions earmarked for Ukraine, and only a few days before reported to be scarce, to be diverted to support Israel. I would venture to speculate that this war also suits other Middle-East nations. Syria, for example, is a bedfellow of Russia and Putin and out of the rubble of their own civil war would like again to be a key player in the Middle East. Iran, for example, a theocratic state implacably opposed to the ‘West’ and the West’s client states like Israel, also has regional ambitions. As I write this there are indications of what may be attempts by either “side” to provoke an extension of the conflict into Lebanon. Hezbollah, based there, is a massively well armed and well trained organisation: a wholly different order of opponent of Israel from Hammas. Hezbollah has fired a few rockets into northern Israel, allegedly in support of Hammas. Israel has fired artillery and mounted air strikes into Lebanon in response. Israel has claimed their forces have intercepted (i.e. shot down) drones flying their territory. There is also a largely unreported conflict on the so-called West Bank, where heavily armed illegal Israeli settlers, with the tacit (or actual) encouragement of the Israeli government, are intensifying ongoing raids into Palestinian/Arab lands and forcibly evicting the legal residents. It all feels, to me, like a deliberate series of provocations intended to justify a wider war – and to whose agenda?

So, I would argue, it is not completely ridiculous to wonder whether the backers of both main actors in this war, Israel and “the Palestinians”, are being manipulated by others to create a situation that results in changes to the intractable conflict, for their own regional ambitions, and this is why the international response has been muted. While people on all sides are dying, apart from some appeals for restraint, the major governments are waiting to see how this plays to their overall strategy for the region. When considering such an apparently ludicrous and machiavelian idea it is helpful to review how, and why, it got this way.

The creation of the state of Israel, a homeland for Jews, in the guilt-ridden aftermath of the second world war was (I contend) at best badly mishandled, at worst a mistake. The 1917 Balfour Declaration led to the creation of a national homeland for Jews, and this Wikipedia article bears some study. Critically it did not propose that a state of Israel would be established in all of the territory then known as Palestine, and it specifically said that the rights of the Palestinians, who then represented the vast majority of the population there, should be protected. Understandable in the recognition of the Nazi Holocaust (whose ghost has been raised by the present Israeli government), and the historic and historical oppression of Jews everywhere, the way in which it then happened by the forced appropriation of lands belonging to Palestinian Arabs planted the seeds of the present atrocities. Britain’s mandated control of Palestine was wrested from it by armed struggle with who we would now call Israelis but, at the time, we called terrorists: Irgun and, often known pejoratively as the Stern Gang, “Lehi”. Lehi was a Zionist paramilitary militant organization. Large swathes of what we now call the Middle East was colonised, mainly by Great Britain, France, Germany and Turkey, the major protagonists in the First World War, and the ‘redistribution’ of colonial ‘spoils’ after that war set the stage for what we now see. See this link for some more information:

There are elements within the Israeli establishment, and having influence over the establishment, that would like to ethnically “cleanse”, and militarily sanitise Gaza, of Arabs: to replace the population with Israelis. Not many will say so openly, but for some Israelis the ideal solution would be to push the Gazan Palestinians into the sea, or over the border into Egypt. I would go further and say Gaza bears ironic and ugly comparison with the Jewish ghettos of eastern europe, and the inevitable consequences of that in the holocaust. Gaza has become a kind of concentration camp, and the suggested forced ‘evacuation’ of the populace for their own safety, is just another kind of Pogrom which should resonate with some Israeli Jews. The modern political and military rationale is that Gaza is an open sore threatening Israel. The political and economic rationale is that Israeli occupation and control of Gaza gives Israel uninterupted access to the Mediterranean from the border with Egypt in the south to Lebanon in the north.

And if Israel did achieve a completely unified border, a contiguous land mass, what then? Would its historical, almost genetic, insecurity be assuaged? What, for example, of it’s borders with Jordan and Syria, already ‘adjusted’ by occupation of the Jordanian ‘West Bank’ and the Golan Heights? With both sides seemingly held hostage by extremists, and with a Russian backed Assad in charge of Syria, what new flash points might there be? What of the land annexed by armed Israeli settlements, what of Jerusalem? Are these not just future Gazas which, in time, would be ‘dealt with’ in the name of security?

True Love

Cheryl is giving Victor his regular trim.

“How’s your week been?”

“Same old, same old”, he lies.

The lost love of his life has just arrived at the Halcyon Days home, but does not remember him. Dementia.

“There, Victor, nicely presentable.”

Tidied, he sits staring at the garden, untended like his love, holding her hand.  Once soft and supple, her thin skin maps a long life with another.

Rehearsing passion never declared he squeezes and mouths “I love you, Jenny”, but it escapes.

She squeezes back.

“Are you Eric?” she says.

Her slight smile is worth the deceit.

“Yes dear”.

100 Word Flash Fiction

Pandora’s Box

She was walking the streets, not knowing where to go.   Leaving had been inevitable, but Pamela did not go to bed thinking “tomorrow’s the day”.  Her decision and action were sudden, as hurried as the packing of her case. 

She strode steadily along the redbrick terraces of Macklington, the security of her home on Warmsley Street fading with every echoing step.  Unsure of her immediate future, nevertheless she reached the first corner without a second thought, or even a notion to look back.  She turned it; not going but gone.

Mother would make a show of looking for her, for a week or two.  She would tell the neighbours how she is worried: “I know she’s 24 but Pammy’s, you know, different.  She’ll say “I’m only glad Father’s not here to see it.  He did worry so”.  The truth is that Mother would not manage without the lifelong anxiety of Pamela to distract her.  In time the relief that she no longer has to worry will be replaced by brittle silence, of having nothing much to say and having no-one to say it to.

The worry began when she was barely eight: an argument about a child’s ticket in the cinema.  “She’s never eight,” the manager had said, “Look at the size of her!  Fifteen if she’s a day.”  Pamela was extraordinarily tall, even then, but her humiliated parents were escorted out to the foyer and obliged to pay the extra.  From that day they paid adult prices for everything.  Avoiding embarrassment about Pamela became a way of life. 

When she started secondary school the novelty of being different was a distinct advantage for Pamela.  Other children wanted to be her friend and she was first to be picked for sports, especially netball at which she naturally excelled.  Girl friends came home for tea, Pamela was invited to birthday parties, and the other parents spoke to them in the shops.  But as she and her contemporaries arrived at the threshold of womanhood she found herself the target of name calling.  “Lanky”, “Stilts”, and “Beanpole” were the kinder epithets.  Being so different brought a loneliness  she learned to bear, but it also added grit to the oyster of her character.

By the time she really was 15 Pamela was 6’7” and her growth showed no sign of slowing.  Mother took her to the doctor but she had no disease he could treat.  All her limbs and features were correctly proportioned, and in fact she was rather pretty.  There was just a lot of her.  Had her height been causing Pamela psychological trouble, he said, he might have prescribed hormone therapy but she seemed as well adjusted as any teenager is.  When they returned home her parents sat quietly in the kitchen, nursing teacups, crestfallen.  She realised then that they were disappointed for themselves, not for her.

Then when she was 18, and nudging 7’0”, Pamela left school.  Pottlemore’s Circus came to Macklington, as they did every June, and against her parents’ reservations Pamela took a job with them, touring nearby towns.  She mucked out the animal stalls, sold tickets and hot-dogs, generally helped the performers, and watched them from the ringside.  In Pottlemore’s she found another family, one where differentness and non-conformity was celebrated, embraced and valued.  She also made money, friends, and discovered an unsuspected talent: she had a rare gift for ventriloquism.  The summer ended and the circus moved on.  For the rest of that year Pamela filled shelves in her local supermarket.  Sometimes she relieved boredom by juggling with fruit, or entertaining the customers by throwing her voice into their purchases.  Every Witsun afterwards, though, she hung up her blue tabard and waited at the corner of the recreation ground.  When the first of Pottlemore’s wagons pulled in off the by-pass she blossomed again.

In the April of the fourth year Cyril Pottlemore himself called at Warmsley Street.  He stood on the black lacquered and polished step, wearing his trademark yellow checked suit and red bowler hat.  He had a proposition.  Of course, at 21, Pamela needed no permission but Mr Pottlemore was ‘old school’ and wanted to reassure her parents that his offer was on the level or, as he put it, “all bright and tiddly-push like”.  The gist was that the previous winter he had been touring somewhere called the Cont-e-nont, looking for new acts and had found Anton Dubcek, a 2’10” midget.  Anton had been part of a clown troupe, but had lost a leg in a human cannonball accident.  With Pamela now 7’6”, and still rising, he’d had the idea of teaming them up in a unique ventriloquism act.  Pamela would be the ‘vent’ and Anton would be the dummy.

“Anton might look like a little kid, ‘specially next to you, but he’s older than you’d think and dead keen to try something new.  I thought, only if you’re agreeable like, when we’re ready to get going you could join us at Easter and work up the act with Anton.  Of course, for stage purposes only you understand, we’d need to give you another name, something more dramatic.  I thought Pandora.  What do you say?” 

She said yes, but fate struck first.  Easter was early that year and a late chill had left the training ground slippery.  Anton, unsteady on his crutches, had slipped on one of the rides and crushed his other leg.  Generous Pottlemore, had kept him on: “Pottlemore looks after his own,” he’d said “there’ll always be something for you here.”  But by the time Pamela joined them Anton was being pushed around the site in a wheelbarrow, broken in heart as well as body, facing a life of being lifted onto the stool behind the cash desk on show days, or staring bleakly out of the caravan window when they were closed.  Now, with Pamela’s arrival, Pottlemore was to change all that. 

To the old showman Anton’s disability just made him even more unique, and there was no malice or heartlessness about it.  Of course he saw opportunity for himself, but it was an also an opportunity for Anton to earn his keep, no favours asked or given, and a chance to be a performer again for as long as his health allowed.

He laid out his vision: Anton speaking from within Pandora’s star-studded box and then, without his proper false legs on, being taken out to perch, floppy limbed on her lap.  To all appearances he would be a traditional ventriloquist’s dummy and, with heavy makeup and clever lighting, nobody would be able to tell he was not a painted wooden doll. He said that with Anton’s clown’s training and comic timing, Pamela’s flowering talent as a ventriloquist, and their extraordinary size difference, they would be a sensation.  Within a fortnight Pandora was carrying Anton around the ring, him holding vented conversations with mesmerized children, or singing with the orchestra. “The Amazing Pandora and Anton” were indeed sensational and, by the time the circus arrived in Macklington again, the show was selling out every night.

Such was their success that Pamela stayed until the end of the season and the act continued to develop.  First disguising him with the help of a mask, and later a pair of papier maché mittens, Pandora began to walk among the ringside seats, actually handing Anton to patrons to hold while she threw her voice from him.  Their performance, like the magic that deceives even close up, was electrifying.  By the end of the season they, and Pottlemore, were excitedly discussing taking the act  still further.  With a full upper body wooden cast for Anton, he would be a manikin to Pandora’s puppeteer and, at the climax of the act, she would take a pair of theatrical golden shears, cut the strings and set Anton free to dance.  There was even talk of a TV appearance.

It had been a long season and rather than spend the winter on a travellers’ site, Pamela returned to Warmsley Street and took the exhausted Anton with her.  But when they arrived Pamela discovered her father was seriously ill; “Pneumo something or other” her mother said “coal dust, his lungs are gone, poor bugger”.  After tea she made up a camp bed for Anton in the parlour.  “I hope that’s all right, I mean you’re not, you know, you and him, you’re not, well, not………together like.”

Pamela did not laugh at her mother’s inability to speak the words, or the thought itself, though well she might have.  By any measure, not least of stature, it was a preposterous notion, and yet these past months of enforced closeness, of sharing triumph and pain with Anton, had produced a bond as close as that of love, if not love itself.  They needed each other to be whole.

The winter passed with Pamela and Anton planning the coming season but the pall cast by her father’s decline began to suck the life out of them too.  They managed to laugh a few times, and even to raise a smile on her mother’s tired face, but in January her father died.  After the funeral the three of them sat, listening to the sound of the mantel clock ticking, and after a week of that Pamela knew she would have to leave soon or suffocate. 

It was Anton who decided it.  Pamela woke cold in the chilled air, her pink and green candlewick bedspread sliding from her bed.  She leaned over to drag it back and saw, to her shock, that it hadn’t fallen but had been pulled: by Anton.  He was cold too.  Very.  For some reason he had dragged himself up from the parlour, the stairs finally proving too much for his damaged and overtaxed body.

That was the moment.  Pamela dressed, took her case from the top of the wardrobe and threw in her clothes.  It was Pamela that kissed Anton gently on the forehead, folded him neatly and placed him on top of her stage costume, but it was Pandora who snapped the locks and carried the case quietly downstairs before stepping out into the dawn.  So she walked, not knowing where to go.  But she knew what to do.  She knew where Pottlemore’s would be at Easter, and by then she would have found a discreet taxidermist.

Covid-19 – A final rethink.

On 26 November 2020 I published this piece on Covid-19 but, as so much has happened since then, an update seems very necessary.

In late November 2020 it felt like we were surfing down the face of a “second wave” of the Covid-19 pandemic. There were one or two “good vibrations” in terms of progress with vaccine development but it was scary because, sadly, a lot of us were and are still going to experience “wipe out”. I deliberately used the surfing analogy because there had been more than a small element of wilful risk taking that had brought us to this ‘place’. As of 2nd December the latest lockdowns were replaced by a set of restrictions, dividing the home countries into ‘tiers’, in order to let the populatiuon “have a Christmas”. These tiered restrictions seemed likely to last until March 2021.

Since my piece in mid-June, much of what I then feared (even predicted) came about. The UK’s so-called “world class” track and trace system failed miserably, and for the reasons that have been obvious from day one:

It lacked the capacity to test widely

It lacked the ability to reach enough ‘contacts’

It depends on people to report symptoms and then, diligently, self-isolate

From the very earliest days of the UK’s pandemic, certainly before the initial ‘lockdown’ in mid-March 2020, it has been clear that the extent of asymptomatic disease, and transmission, was underestimated and driving community incidence. Its effects were compounded by our UK government’s flip-flopping on social distancing, and on the use of face masks and, critically, it was also compromised by the overwhelming desire to “get back to normal” and to re-open the economy (see “Shop til you drop” and “Tombstoning..” elsewhere in this thread). In the summer of 2020, when Covid-19 appeared relatively under control, it now appears our population was used, guinea pig-like, to experiment with what happens if you let the brakes off in various ways. We were told we could go on holiday. In the UK people streamed from areas with higher incidence rates to areas with lower incidence. People relaxed whatever adherence to anti-Covid measures they were observing, understandably enough, and largely forgot about social distancing. Young people, especially, threw themselves into party mode. At the same time we were told to “eat out to help out” and many holiday hot-spots became “super-spreader” locations. We now know that those who did venture abroad, especially to Spain, brought us back a new strain of Covid-19. Schools re-opened and, significantly for some local ‘spikes’, so did Universities. It seems nobody thought that mass movement of young people to University halls of residence across the UK might be a problem – or did they?

In the face of regional disquiet over the UK government response, and rising infections in university cities, the devolved administrations began to apply their own (some might say improved) responses. We already had confusion about what Covid-related restrictions applied, and the inevitable anomalies were (and still are) wilfully exploited by some. It just got even more confusing. Only the Welsh authorities imposed widespread travel restrictions, while in Scotland there were regional closures.

As I saw it, a significant proportion of the UK population was (and is) not disposed to following guidance, never mind instruction. Whether this is because they are incapable of understanding, or are wilfully disregarding, the importance of their part in suppressing transmission, I don’t know. With the population suffering, what was called, Lockdown Fatigue, pent up frustration, and being somewhat encouraged to anticipate a “festive season”, one had to hope that enough common sense prevailed. I thought it was highly likely we would see a third wave of infections in the new year. but actually the third wave was already under way.

Then, in short order, we got the first deliveries of two approved vaccines and the government approved plan for a 5-day family Christmas was belatedly abandoned and cut to one day. Into January and the first of the so-called “variants” was acknowledged, but we now know that one that had emerged in Kent in September began driving the third wave well before Christmas. It was this that caused the abrupt cancellation of Christmas festivities, and the imposition of another total lockdown.

Fast forward to now, late february 2021. In the UK we have a rolling programme of vaccination, with 2 vaccines available and more waiting to come ‘on stream’. 17 million + people, in the clinically most at risk groups, have had their first dose of a planned 2-dose vaccination. The essential second dose is not now to be administered until 12 weeks after the first, which is not how the designers tested it. The programme is going so well that the government has now decided they have the ability to vaccinate all of the adult population by the end of July 2021 with the first dose.

The third wave has seen us pass the ghastly milestone of 100,000 dead (and as I write this update, passing 120,000). Although the third wave seems to have peaked I can see no reason why the death toll will not eventually pass 150,000 [note this figure eventually rose to more than 240,000]. Nevertheless, hand in hand with this perceived ‘peaking’, and the available vaccine programme apparently going well, the government has decided we can plan for coming out of lockdown. It would appear that the ‘data’ supports a cautious relaxation of restrictions, with several weeks between each relaxation to monitor the effects on infections. The official view is that this is the last of the lockdowns, that this direction of travel is “irreversible”, but this is where I have fears for a fourth wave.

We know that humans (at least in the UK) will not do as they are told. We know that sometimes this is because the don’t understand, sometimes because they don’t care, and sometimes because they are confused by variable and nuanced government messages. We know the economic and political imperative to reopen commercial life is powerful. We know the virus will continue to mutate. I think it reasonable to assume the government has learned epidemiological lessons which, I believe, it experimented with throughout 2020. I believe the government anticipates a fourth wave but feels it has enough data to pin its hopes on vaccines that can limit the size of that wave, and that can be ‘tweaked’ to deal with serious mutations, and in the context of coming summer weather which naturally suppresses the virus. Experience in treatments and the development of antiviral drugs seems to suggest that, for most, infection will not result in hospitalisation and death. Whether this holds true for all future mutations of the virus remains to be seen.

In the end I believe the success or failure of managing Covid-19, going forward to the winter of 2021 and beyond, will depend on whether people can remember, and apply, what they have learned over the last year to mitigate their own risks (hands / face / space), for the long term. Whether Covid-19 becomes like seasonal influenza, something we live with and manage with an annual vaccine, it certainly won’t be the last we see of it and neither will it be the last pandemic we see.

Shop ’til you drop?

On 15th June 2020, the UK government re-opened “non-essential” retail business (then, in England only) to trading.

TV reports showed queues forming outside retail parks, and interviews with representatives of other parts of the economy still closed, like ‘hospitality’. There were opinions from medical science about the safety of reducing ‘social distance’ from the present 2 metres, but not any behavioural science underpinning the relaxation.

I struggle to understand why any, never mind many, people are in such desperate need for “non-essential” items to the point they would queue overnight – as happened in some places. Crowds, bordering on disorderly, were seen outside so-called flagship ‘brand’ shops. What the social distancing was like inside the stores we do not yet know.

The point of this post is not to focus on the unquestionable health risk associated with this behaviour, but on what I perceive to be the fragile, and fundamentally unsound, basis of our economy which caused the government to allow shopping to resume in spite of the risks.

The UK is a service-led economy. We don’t manufacture much to sell to anyone but ourselves, and most of what we do sell to others is services, not goods – apart from very specialist and high priced items like luxury cars and aeroplanes. We sell ideas, designs, science, ‘systems’, lifestyles. We buy goods from (mainly) developing nations because they can make ‘stuff’ and ship it to us cheaper than we can make it ourselves. In consequence our economy, the flow of money round the nation, and critically into the coffers of the tax man, depends on us spending – especially discretionary spending. Much of our retail, and of course our leisure travel, sector is dependent on this sort of activity but the Covid-19 pandemic has also starkly exposed how dependent we are on routine international air travel for underpinning supply chains with freight carried on passenger airliners.

The latter part of the 20th century saw the confluence of two developments in the economic activity of so-called first world countries: on-line commerce and “just-in-time” manufacturing. Very few major sectors of our UK economy, whether it be retail (including food retailing), car making, construction, or even heavy industry like ship building or wind turbine manufacture, hold ‘stock’. This means, as an island nation, we are extremely vulnerable to disruption of supply chains. In the past we, as individuals, went to ‘agents’ for purchases and they co-ordinated all our purchases and placed orders with suppliers. Now we are all our own agents, making individual direct purchases and “cuttting out the middle man”. This sort of activity is almost impossible to plan for, whether in materials, manufacture or logistics, and so there have been shortages. Shortages create unease, unease creates panic, panic influences our buying behaviour to such an extent that we will buy things we wouldn’t normally buy – in order to get ‘something’: a sort of displacement purchasing.

And so, back to the point of this post. Judging by the queues, and excitement, as shopping became just a little bit easier it seems that we have become so dependent on buying, and spending (even getting into debt to do so), for our emotional and psychological health that we are individually prepared to take Covid-19 risks with our physical health. It also seems our economy is so dependent on our spending, even on “non-essential” items, that our government is prepared to encourage us to take risks too.

Sadly, for some, “Shop ’til you drop” may become the reality.

Are we all ‘ists’ practicing ‘isms’?

There has been worldwide reaction to the illegal killing of an African/American (George Floyd) by police in Minneapolis. In ordering my own thoughts about this issue, and the current unrest in and on behalf of the BAME communities about it, I have come to the troubling conclusion that I am an ‘ist’, or at least guilty of ‘ist’ behaviours – or ‘isms’. This realisation has helped me to understand, I hope to some extent, the institutional and inherent racism in my own country.

The manner of George Floyd’s killing, by a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost 9 minutes, could not have been more calculated to evoke the history of black slavery in the Americas. However, not all of the understandable reaction has been well intentioned. While it has given people from ethnic minorities a focus around which to express their anger over past and present injustices, it has also provided opportunities for “racists” to promote their views during demonstrations against them. It has also provided opportunities for those who benefit from creating and maintaining division, in society more generally, to exploit the situation by provocation.

The event sparked the creation of a movement (fuelled and fanned by social media) that self-identified as “#BlackLivesMatter”. Curiously in the UK (so far) #BlackLivesMatter has not appeared to focus much on similar events in the UK. In other words it does not appear to be using the George Floyd incident to draw attention to occurrences of UK people, often young male people of ‘colour’, dying while in British police custody.

In the immediate upwelling of protest, some individuals defaced or destroyed statues, and other memorials, of historical people with links to slavery, the British Empire’s colonial past, or believed to be associated with support for historically contentious figures like Mussolini and Hitler. In passing it made me wonder whether, across the former British Empire, in fact all of the former Empires of European nations, similar things are happening? Are statues being torn down in the former African colonies of Belgium or Germany, the French colonies of north Africa and South-east Asia, the Far East colonies of the Netherlands, the Portuguese and Spanish colonies of South and Central America?

In the fairly recent past of other nations, effigies of world-influencing people have disappeared from view. In the former Soviet Union, once replete with images and statues of Stalin Marx, Lenin, Engels etc., such are hard to find except in museums, while those of pre-Soviet personalities are reappearing and revered. Iraq and Libya have seen statues of former dictators torn down after regime change; the same happened in Cambodia, Romania and many more.

For what my opinion is worth I think we’ll have to reconsider how, and where, we ‘memorialise’ people in future, but I’m happy to think of existing statues being moved to a “walk through history” sculpture park – not a theme park, but somewhere that allowed space for interpretation, information, and context. Where exisitng statues of contentious individuals cannot be moved, why not add some interpretative panels nearby or even erect another statue adjacent which depicts another part of their story? I believe we have to face up to our past, and through education learn from it, not try to expunge or edit it. To do so is to deny their context: a context that seeks to explain, not excuse. Otherwise we are no different than those who seek to deny the reality of the WW2 Holocaust, and murder of 6 million Jews by the Fascist Nazis.

Naturally as a person with some Jewish heritage and DNA, I have a reaction to this last point in particular, and it’s visceral. A novella by John Buchan, “The Thirty Nine Steps”, is a favourite story of mine but there are profoundly, and explicitly, antisemitic passages in it which I really struggle with. I have to skip past them in order to read the rest of the book, but I couldn’t burn it. Antisemitism is not part of my direct experience: I’ve never been abused, called a ‘Yid’ or a ‘Jew boy’ (not to my face) so my response is taught, learned and passed on, inherited. I am a white, middleclass, well educated and, I like to think, ‘liberal’ person and yet I have a direct instinctive response to an indirect stimulus: I am preconditioned by my environment (upbringing) to not have a rascist bone in my body and yet, and yet, I find myself admitting to prejudice about people I have never met.

In considering the undoubted rascism experienced by our BAME citizens, and trying to imagine how people of those communities must feel, really feel, I tried to put myself in their shoes. Of course that’s impossible, but in my head I tried to go through some benign scenarios, such as how would I react to people of different appearance, dress, skin colour, race, ‘presentation’, turning up unannounced at my door, say to conduct a survey. I had to admit I might be, probably would be, instinctively more wary of a young black man in a ‘hoodie’, and talking in ‘urban patois’, than I would a white middle-aged man in a suit. That is prejudice. That is racism. And there is nothing in my direct experience that leads me to this, quite the opposite, so it must be environmental. I must have been insidiously exposed to imagery and attitudes in various ways, some so subtle that they have been un-noticed, that I have formed some underlying attitudes to stereotypes. I suspect most of us have, and so it is entirely understandable that for some people, without the priviledges of a good education, sound upbringing, decent housing and work opportuities, these prejudices are nearer the surface than in others.

I recently undertook a DNA-based exploration of my family history. There were few surprises: I expected my genetic makeup to be mostly Celtic and European (Ashkenazy) Jewish, and it is. However, I also had a few ‘outlier’ strands, some from north and west Africa. I wonder if some of the Nazi-saluting fascist thugs who counter-demonstrate #BlackLivesMatter gatherings might be similarly surprised to find how cross-cultural their DNA is? Those who parade proudly under the cross of St. George or Union Flag, and proclaim themselves thoroughly English or British, might be surprised just how polyglot they are.

When I lived in Scotland, from where my Celtic DNA derives, my wife experienced occasional low level anti-English bigotry. She is not identifiable as being from a particular racial group, or origin, until she speaks. At that point, some deep seated stereotyped response was triggered in some people she met. Not based on who she was, or on appearance, skin colour, attitude or behaviour, she was made to feel unwelcome. That was 30 years ago, and yet it coloured her feelings about the Scots ever afterwards. She knew that it was irrational, but her slight experience created an emotional ‘trigger’ in her. How do we expect people of BAME origin in the UK feel, when they are individually and collectively subjected to much more overt, systemic, and frankly nastier, abuse?

The unpalatable truth, as I see it, is that humankind is tribal. It is complex and multi-layered, but we have a herding, animal, need to belong. Whether that be defined by race, religion, politics, profession, class, sporting affiliation, age, gender, neighbourhood (and sometimes several of these) we seem to need the safety of our ‘clan’. In times of societal stress, whether that be caused by a pandemic, a financial crash, or even a war, we fall back on the instinct of what makes us fit in with our group to feel safe. We are frightened, especially just now, and frightened people are often irrational.

And so I would ask that we self-examine our motivations, and feelings about #BlackLivesMatter, both for and against, and whether over this or other things, we are also ‘ists’ and practice ‘ism’s. I know I do, and it’s not a very comfortable place to be.