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. 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.

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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfour_Declaration. 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: https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/conflict-Palestine

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.

UK Covid Travel Quarantine

On 8 June 2020 the UK government initiated quarantine restrictions on incoming travellers. With a few minor, and clearly (?) defined, exceptions everyone arriving in the UK by air, sea or rail, has to self-isolate for 14 days.

In the weeks since ‘lockdown’, during a period of unusually fine weather, 1000 illegal migrants arrived on the shores of the UK by various means – mostly small boats crossing the English Channel. In one day alone, in the week before the new restrictions, 160 arrived. How many arrived undetected is obviously not known.

In the context of quarantine restrictions intended to prevent ‘importation’ of new Covid-19 infections, one has to wonder where, and how, the illegal migrants are being quarantined – for their safety and ours – and how many of them have been tested and proved ‘positive’ for Covid-19?

Violent Protest in UK – George Floyd

Violent behaviour in demonstrations is unacceptable, but mass public protest has always been ‘hi-jacked’ by violent elements. I’m old enough to remember what happened during the height of the Vietnam War protests, and the CND movement, and the Miner’s Strike where sometimes extreme violence was perpetrated by, and against, protesters.

However, our society at large is tolerant, even encouraging, of violence legitimised by context. You just have to look at mainstream Film, TV, video ‘gaming’ to see how we glorify violence.

It is also the case that political protest has always been exploited by ‘agents provocateur’ – for example police dressed as miners during the miner’s strike – and unscrupulous media looking for a ‘good’ story. I’m not saying these incidents in London and Bristol are like that, but you have to be mindful that those small number of violent protesters may have an ‘agenda’.

Finally, I would ask those who are uncomprehending of protests triggered by an event thousands of miles away, to consider these 2 points:

1) The sort of casual and institutional violence exhibited by those police officers in Minneapolis sometimes happens here in the UK. Simeon Francis, a 35 year old black man, died in police custody in Torquay Devon on 20th May this year. Whatever the cause proves to be, you can be sure that racism is in the UK too.

2) Put the boot on the other foot. How would you feel if your society was largely of a different ethnicity from yours, where justice and law enfocement was delivered by a judiciary and police force largely of that different ethnic group, and where members of your ethnic group were routinely abused, even killed, by them without sanction? When you come to the point where, even in a pandemic, you think “Enough is enough”, would you be calm and measured? Would you maybe lose the plot, or be susceptible to the encouragement of others to do so?

Generation after generation, the words of Martin Niemoller are there to remind us that if we turn our eyes away, and stay silent in the face of such events, we are complicit. However ‘liberal’ and fair-minded we believe ourselves to be, if we do not protest we are no different from those who allowed the stain of fascism and Nazism to spread across Europe in the 20th Century.

‘Tombstoning’: Metaphor for Relaxing Lockdown?

In recent years there has been a growth in numbers of people (mostly young people) undertaking physical challenges that involve high risk. One of these is ‘Tombstoning’ – the practice of jumping from height, sometimes considerable height, into a body of water.

Over the sunny weekend of 30/31 May, in Dorset (UK), there was an incident involving ‘tombstoning’ which provides a clear metaphor for the UK government’s decision to relax the strictures of ‘lockdown’.

People were frustrated by being confined, at that time for 10 weeks, and the government had signalled that we could have a degree of freedom to go outside. It began by saying, three weeks previously, that we could travel any distance to enjoy exercise, as long as we maintained the prescribed social distancing of 2m while doing it. Predictably, people took that as a green light to go to the ‘seaside’ – in their thousands. Cars streamed to the coast, clogging roads and carparks, disgorging their occupants in confined locations where it was inevitable that ‘social distancing’ would be challenging if not impossible.

Durdle Door, in Dorset, is an iconic and beautiful location where an enclosed shallow bay features a natural arch over the water. It is, or should be, self-evident that an enclosed bay surround by cliffs will have limited access, and the limited space on the beach will be influenced by the fall and rise of the tide. Apparently not. Many hundreds of people arrived and spread themselves on the beach. Amongst them were three who decided it was a good idea to test their bravery by climbing up the cliff, over the arch of the ‘door’, and ‘tombstone’ 70 feet into the shallow water, encouraged by the onlooking crowd shouting “Jump, Jump”. They were all seriously injured and had to be airlifted from the beach to hospital, although it is questionable anyway whether land ambulances would have been able to get anywhere near on the clogged roads. To make room for 2 helicopters to land safely, hundreds of people were compressed into a small space, destroying what remained of any potential social distancing, and were eventually evacuated from the beach up the single access path in a massive ‘crocodile’ file. In this case, amongst the unknowable number of already infected people on the beach, any one or all three of the jumpers might have Covid-19, presenting risk to their rescuers and medics, not to mention that flying helicopters into that location is not entirely risk-free either.

This event is where my case for ‘metaphor’ comes in. Over a fairly short time frame UK governments (there are 4 devolved administrations) have decided to shout “Jump, Jump” while we contemplate tombstoning off a lockdown cliff. In the face of conflicting (and in some cases absent) evidence and scientific advice, we are being told we can come out of lockdown but, explicitly, to do our own assessment of risk! The problem with this is that the assessment of risk, in relation to Covid-19, remains, as it has been all along, selfishly focussed on not catching the disease rather than not spreading it. One thing the scientists are agreed on is that we need a robust, fully functional, ‘track and trace’ system to pick up, and isolate, outbreaks of disease. We have seen the value of this in other countries where they had systems for, and experience of, population scale testing and tracking in pandemics. To be robust and fully functional it needs to have adequate capacity, both for carrying out tests and analysing the results, and critically that means speed because outbreaks must be stopped quickly or they rapidly get out of control. At present the UK does not have this and, by all accounts, the statistics on tests carried out are suspect. The evidence, or should I say experience, from other countries where they have had a better grip of Covid-19 is that it keeps coming back. Other countries experimenting with coming out of lockdown have low rates of new infection, in the low hundreds at most. Our daily rate of new infections is stubbornly high, apparently around 8000, of which perhaps 25% are actually confirmed by a test. After 10 weeks of lockdown, which has limited movement and contact, one has to ask why? What is driving community transmission? I have my own theory, which is asymptomatic spread. Asymptomatic infectees will not be picked up by track and trace, or other existing testing, because they fundamentally require self-reporting of symptoms. Those contacted by ‘track and trace’, as having been in contact with someone who is confirmed (by another test) as infected, will be asked to isolate. However, though they may also be infected they may not have, or go on to develop, symptoms. In fact they may be the person who unknowingly gave the infection to the reporting person in the first place!

The science around modality of spread, of viability of deposited virus, of viable infectivity in a person after infection, of any acquired immunity and persistence of immunity, is weak. This brings me back to my metaphor. In a country where some seem only too ready to accept the government’s encouragement to “jump”, while applying their own assessment of risk to them, I fear we are all tombstoning to potential disaster with them.