To contact me, call 07500 337460, or email jaybee@joinedupletters.co.uk

On a journey of rediscovery, post-Covid

The British chapter of the Coronavirus story may be drawing to a close. Or not. But going away for a few days remains a distant dream in the UK; and venturing abroad is set to remain well nigh impossible in practical terms for the foreseeable future.

Two weeks on the Costa del Sol might sound delightful, but it rather loses its appeal when you’re faced with spending a further fortnight in quarantine on your return. Furthermore, unless and until a Covid-19 vaccine is found, or a reliable treatment developed, or we collectively shrug our shoulders and accept the threat of the Coronavirus as something we just have to live with (not inconceivable in the long term, but unlikely in the short), cheap mass overseas tourism is dead in the water. It just can’t happen, the maths doesn’t stack up. If social distancing were to be maintained, planes would have to fly a quarter full: non-viable with ticket prices at current levels, and passengers would be unlikely to swallow a fourfold increase in airfares.

The holiday forecast in Britain doesn’t look much brighter. At the time of writing, people in England are free to drive any distance to other destinations in England, such as beaches and parks, but are not allowed to stay overnight away from home (even if they intend to bed down in a second, owned, property). And we are (rightly) being discouraged from venturing too far afield in any case; beauty spots such as Cornwall and the Lake District – and Norfolk, my own county – do not need visits from potentially Covid-afflicted incomers. We have enough of our own.

Meanwhile, across the nation self-catering cottages, Airbnb properties, campsites, hotels and holiday parks will remain closed until the start of July, at the earliest.

Nonetheless, I think there are grounds for optimism.

My gut feeling is that there is already massive, and still growing, pent-up demand for UK holidays. Four drivers (in no particular order): first, we look to be having a decent summer; second, we’re desperate for a break from our own four walls; third, many people’s circumstances are straitened thanks to furlough and/or redundancy, and staycations are cheaper; and fourth, we can’t go abroad, even if we could afford to or wanted to.

Though there is still a hunger for foreign travel – and I believe it will be possible, but we might need to be more intrepid and inventive than has been the case in recent decades.

Back in the days before wide-bodied aircraft brought cheap transport to the masses, travel was seen as the preserve of the rich; aboard luxurious liners, or as part of the jet set. And that could well become the case once again. But there were ways to get around the globe on the cheap.

And still are. If you can be flexible as to time and destination, why not book passage on a cargo vessel? Most of the major global shipping lines offer paying passengers an opportunity to travel with them. As a paying passenger, you are accommodated in guest cabins and have access to most parts of the ship. This is not a cruise – there’s no nightly cabaret, no boutiques, no health spas, no deck tennis – but spending a week or two on a working ship is a fascinating experience in itself. And you’ll have plenty of room: a definite plus if (by then) you’re still pursuing a self-distancing policy. Predictably in these internet-driven days, a number of freighter travel agencies have sprung up to take the ‘hard work’ out of booking your passage. Thanks but no thanks; you will be much better served, and save a considerable amount of money, by contacting the shipping lines direct.

Meanwhile, with many airlines going to the wall (especially the low-cost no-frills carriers), those that remain will inevitably raise prices – partly to recoup losses, partly because of conditions imposed on them by Covid-19, and partly because of the simple principles of supply and demand. Your job as a traveller is to fight back.

And here’s a weapon for your armoury: I predict the re-emergence of courier flights.

Popular in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to travel the world on a budget, courier flights involved handing over your baggage allowance to, say, Federal Express or TNT (the latter has, I learn, now been taken over by the former), and therefore travelling with hand luggage only, plus a manifest of what was actually taking up your space in the cargo hold. In return for your sacrifice, you got a cheap ticket.

Courier flights died a death in the early noughties. Why? Three reasons. First, 9/11 made carriers super-wary of what they were carrying. Second, air travel became cheaper overall, to the point that there were no longer significant savings to be made. And third, many courier companies – certainly the bigger players – improved their logistics operations (in some cases using their own fleet of aircraft), so that there was no longer a requirement for couriers to be drawn from the ranks of the public.

With Covid-19 still globally rife, it’s too early to say for sure what new economic and communications matrices will establish themselves. But in these stay-at-home days record-busting numbers of letters and parcels are criss-crossing the globe (many ending up at our doors via Hermes, Parcelforce and DPD); and I’m betting demand for that will continue, post-Covid. Which is good news for logistics companies; but I think volumes will be such that, once travel restrictions are lifted, there will be renewed demand for people (on a reduced number of flights, remember) prepared to cede their cargo space in return for reduced airfares.

A Corvid pandemic? Stone the crows

As a writer for hire – latterly a writer for hire by one particular company – I am often called upon to rattle off a piece about wildlife. In recent years I’ve written at length about bird watching in southern Europe; the ongoing revival of the UK’s osprey population (though as a migratory bird, strictly speaking I don’t suppose the osprey is a native of anywhere… sorry, getting off the point); the lizards on the Majorcan island of Sa Dragonera; and especially Britain’s red squirrels, about which I now know more than I ever thought I wanted to.

Now I’m as fond of untamed fauna as the next person; but I wouldn’t say I’m any more fond, if you see what I mean. If asked to submit an article about, say, pine martens in Scotland, I gen up on the subject, submit my 1,000 words, and send off my invoice. Then it’s on to the next thing. The natural world is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

As luck would have it, a short while before this awful virus visited our shores I was doing some background reading on jays and magpies prior to turning in another avifauna article (which has been spiked for the time being). In some ways the success of both is a non-story: neither is endangered, in fact if anything numbers are on the increase thanks to both human activity and the birds’ willingness to share breeding territories. But common as they may be, they are lovely to look at and surely undeserving of their associations with the malign and the sinister.

Anyway there I was, making notes… one of which was the fact that the two birds belonged to the crow family. Corvidae. Corvids.

What a difference an ‘r’ makes. As pandemic-related rumours coalesced and became news, I spent at least a week prey to the delusion that we were facing an altogether more Hitchcockian nightmare.

Compared to which the novel Coronavirus is… well… chicken-feed. Strictly for the birds.

***

Bubble etiquette: a minefield in the making

As (please God) we Brits approach the end of our nationwide lockdown, or as our government at least begins to think about exit strategies, there is talk on the BBC website (and probably elsewhere) about expanding the “social bubble”: ie the friends and family one is permitted to see and spend time with while (as I understand it) NOT observing the two-metre distancing rule.

With the caveat that nobody knows anything: I expect bubble expansion to start sometime in May. I hope so, anyway.

But someone pointed out that it could be a bit awks. What if, for instance, I wanted to expand my social bubble to include you, but you didn’t want to include me in yours? Or vice versa? “Sorry – I’m only allowed 10 people in my social circle, so I’ve chosen the folk I really like. And you’re not one of them.”

Tricky.

***

Taking freedoms for granted? Not any more

Nothing like depriving you of something to make you realise how much you miss it, is there?

Shopping, food shopping especially, has always been a chore. An unavoidable, wallet-lightening once-a-week trip to Lidl or Aldi (plus Waitrose for posh). When the big supermarkets started doing home deliveries it felt like liberation.

Not any more. Right now I would no more book a home delivery than fly to the moon. Have groceries delivered and miss a chance to leave the house? Only a hermit, an anchorite or a misanthrope would consider that a preferable option.

Similarly, I’ve never been particularly exercised by the need to exercise; but now my freedom of movement has been curtailed, I’m out there with the best of them. My location of choice is the local cemetery: two large, open areas bisected by a main road. A full, walking lap of both takes almost exactly an hour, and is almost exactly 10,000 steps.

I’m getting to know the place pretty well. I wouldn’t say I’ve unearthed all its secrets – but I know where the bodies are buried.

Conflicted by Covid

As recently as 14th/15th March, with the (now not-so-novel) Coronavirus establishing itself as “a thing” in the UK, the clouds gathering, the virus making itself felt in our daily lives, I’ll admit I felt scared. Anxious.

It wasn’t Covid-19 itself that worried me – I may get it, I may have already had it, and at just turned 58 and healthy I’m not very high-risk.

What I feared was societal breakdown. Already fractured by the shift to “online” and the agonies of Brexit, society, I reasoned, would be totally rent asunder by the weight of this latest onslaught. Cue the apocalypse. Anarchy. Survivors going feral. Shooting each other for a mouldy loaf of bread.

These are still relatively early days, but it seems I was wrong. While some news media need to take a long, hard look at themselves, much of the reporting (to date, anyway) has, to my mind, been measured, factual and non-sensationalist. (Though maybe you just need to know where to look.) And BBC Radio 6 Music has been nothing short of superb: a national radio station pulling off the neat trick of sounding like a local one, and somehow pulling a disparate nationwide listenership together with just the right mix of levity, concern, genuine warmth and great tunes.

Furthermore, my social-media feeds are full of positivity – which I did not anticipate. Ideas for how we can all help each other. Stories of how many of us – individuals, charities, businesses – already are.

I had expected people to run for the hills and pull up their drawbridges. (And to mix their metaphors, clearly.) What I hadn’t expected was a rebirth, a rejuvenation, of society, of community.

God, doesn’t it do the heart good?

But it’s not all upbeat. As I write, my brother lies seriously ill in our local general hospital, the Norfolk & Norwich (AKA the N&N), having suffered a perforated gall bladder 12 days ago.

He was taken to hospital on 15th March with severe abdominal pain, examined, and… sent home. Indigestion, that was the verdict.

The pain didn’t go away, but rather intensified. Forty-eight hours later he was properly admitted – and has since been on a course of serious antibiotics to fight the infection that the ruptured gall bladder, missed two days previously, has since caused; the latter cannot be excised until the infection has been beaten.

My brother’s wife has been able to visit. The rest of us, rightly, have been prevented from visiting because of the Coronavirus, but have been assured that he was “responding well” to the antibiotics.

That message now appears to have been stretching things a bit. The night before last he went into renal failure. Kidney function in a man of his age (68) and general state of health should be between 60% and 70%.

His was 3%.

A cannula was fitted to deliver essential fluids – and fell out. Despite repeated requests it remained unfixed throughout the night of 25th/26th March. So my brother set his phone to sound an alarm at 15-minute intervals; every quarter-hour, the whole night long, he woke himself up and forced himself to drink. It was the only way to stay hydrated, and alive. It is my belief that he is still with us only because of his own grim determination.

The latest news is that the N&N is likely to discharge him today. Not because he’s recovered, far from it; but because were he to contract Covid in his present condition it would definitely kill him; and the chances of coming into contact with it are increasing by the minute. The hospital is close to being overrun with the virus.

The National Health Service is a magnificent institution, of which we should be hugely proud; and right now NHS personnel are justly winning plaudits for their unceasing care and commitment. The NHS has its hands full dealing with Covid; we know that, and we make allowances.

But that doesn’t mean the organisation shouldn’t be called out when mistakes occur. A misdiagnosis is a misdiagnosis, and poor treatment is poor treatment.

To some extent of course, my brother is, tangentially, a Covid casualty; but in at least equal measure, he has been a victim of diagnostic ineptitude. Had his condition been correctly identified in the first place, when the N&N was not unduly busy, he would have been admitted on the Sunday, undergone surgery on the Monday, and discharged on the Tuesday: way before the virus made any real impact – in Norfolk as a county, never mind its central general hospital.

Instead of which, he faces an uncertain future. Self-isolation at home; weeks, possibly months, on antibiotics and a restricted diet; frequent visits from community healthcare professionals (when resources are already stretched); and at the end of all that, probably readmission for surgery when it’s considered safe (though gall bladders have been known to fix themselves). Self-isolation might be de rigueur for many of us at present anyway, but the rest would have been largely avoidable had the problem been correctly identified in the first place.

All of which is a bit long and rambly. I guess I’m conflicted, really. It is surely heartening to see (and be part of) the overwhelmingly positive outpouring of fellow-feeling that has overtaken the nation; and generally, our National Health Service has been, and continues to be, beyond amazing. But the NHS that is rightly winning across-the-board plaudits for the fantastic job they’re doing caring for Covid patients is the selfsame NHS whose misdiagnosis/negligence came close to killing my beloved brother. One to chew on.

Coronavirus: dry cough, fever, shortness of breath… and, as it turns out, cognitive dissonance.

Refining one’s kissing technique

I had intended to post this on 14th February. Valentine’s Day, an’ all. But (a) I missed it; and (b) in some ways, I think February’s extra leap-year day can lay claim to being more romantic. Still a human construct, yes: but a lot less cynical than what the greeting card industry dreamed up a century or so ago simply as a way to boost profits.

By tradition 29th February, which comes but once every four years, is the day on which women can propose to men. Yes, I am aware of what year it is. I am a wholehearted supporter of female emancipation. Of universal suffrage. I am totally behind the whole rationale of LGBTQ-Plus. Everyone has a right to propose to everyone else, or not, on any day of the year, should they so wish. Again, or not.

But I still feel there’s something rather lovely about the notion of a ‘leap day’, when normal rules do not apply.

Except one. Surely any Valentine’s card, or any 29th February proposal (if accepted), will be sealed with a kiss?

I’ve been putting kisses at the end of personal correspondence since I mastered the ability to write, aged six or so. (Indeed, to use joined-up letters.) Letters home from school to Mum and Dad; Christmas cards; postcards from far-flung places; torturously overwritten outpourings to early girlfriends; reminding housemates to put the bins out, or feed the cat – all ended with that universally recognised symbol of affection. Sometimes more than one, and sometimes more considered than others.

Like many of us I suspect, I no longer write by hand as much – and when I do, it’s a jarring reminder of just how poor my handwriting has become. Being a southpaw it was never good in the first place, but these days it starts as a scrawl and gets steadily worse.

So I do as others do, and resort to the keyboard (or, at a pinch, the phone).

As it happens, I was an early adopter of electronic-communication technology. I had dial-up internet in about 1994. I bought a (horrendously expensive) mobile phone in 1998. And I made free and full use of the email and SMS facilities each offered. Work-related messages I treated as one would any business correspondence; but personal stuff I signed off in my usual cavalier fashion. One ‘X’? Two ‘X’s? Never gave it a moment’s thought.

Until recently. On Valentine’s Day, with nothing better to do, I decided to look into the etiquette of electronic kisses.

And – intra-family messages aside – guess what? The guidelines (if such they are) are confusing indeed.

A single ‘X’, at the end of a personal or business email (I know, I know) is, apparently, shorthand for ‘best wishes’ or ‘kind regards’. Pretty impersonal. (Though, really? I mean, however cordial your relationship, are you ever going to send an ‘X’ to your bank manager? Me neither.)

‘Xx’? You’re writing to a good friend – or, just possibly, someone whose friendship you’d like to develop further, into…

…‘Xxx’. You’re keen; and you want to advertise your keenness.

… ‘Xxxx’? Frankly, you’re gagging for it.

Now this is only my interpretation, gleaned as I say from some very mixed messages courtesy of Dr Google. Messages that, dare I say, are as confusing as the still-evolving protocol concerning the kisses themselves. I mean, I know (though I shudder at the memory) that there have been instances when I’ve sent ‘multiple-kiss’ messages to folks who, if my findings are correct, really shouldn’t have been the embarrassed recipients of such effusive affection. Fred: you’re a great mate – but I really don’t want to sleep with you. Hope we’re clear on that.

But here’s one observation that seems to be all my own:

If you write a message electronically, and end it (as of course you should) with a ‘sentence-stopper’ – a full-stop, a question mark or an exclamation mark – for any kisses you add, the first one will automatically default to upper-case: ‘X’.

A lower-case ‘x’, therefore, means more. You’ve made some effort, however infinitesimal. You’ve pressed a a button or two. ‘x’ shows that, however briefly, you’ve thought about it.

You’re welcome. x.

Adjusting my drinking thinking

All my adult life I have been an enthusiastic, unapologetic consumer of alcohol.

Pretty much every day I’ll have a beer, or a glass of wine – and sometimes rather more than one. I like the taste of both (though not together, obviously), and the feeling I get from having a few drinks: not being totally slaughtered, staggering and slurring my words; but nicely alight, edges smoothed off, full of witty banter and bonhomie. For me, drinking is one of life’s pleasures.

Towards the end of last year, having left Wroughton in Wiltshire to return to live in Norwich, Norfolk – my home county – naturally enough I registered (or reregistered) with my local medical practice. When the admin staff clocked my age (57) they strongly suggested (or rather, more or less insisted) that I undergo a free NHS health check; apparently anyone over 50 is entitled to this, but I had somehow slipped through the net – probably as a result of relocation.

The result of the check-up, you’ll be delighted to know, is that I am (to quote Mary Poppins) practically perfect in every way. My cholesterol level is where it should be; my glucose, ditto; lung function, good (surprisingly and pleasingly, given nigh-on 40 years of smoking); everything ‘down below’ working as it should; blood pressure, textbook; and little or no evidence of early-onset senility.

Just two teensy-weensy problemettes:

  1. I’m about five lbs overweight, and
  2. My blood test showed that my liver is secreting just a little too much alanine aminotransferase (ALT), an enzyme associated with alcohol consumption.

My GP is not overly concerned – and neither am I – but she suggested a second blood test early in February following a post-Christmas month of reduced booze intake.

So I got to thinking. If I want to get my weight down, and the ALT under control: why simply go for a reduction? Why not try for a month of total abstinence?

Thus, dear reader, you find me more or less midway through my own…

…Dry January.

A particularly, though not peculiarly, British ‘thing’, Dry January was the brainchild of the charity Alcohol Concern (now merged into Alcohol Change UK). Or perhaps it wasn’t – more likely it sprang out an amorphous, collective consciousness (the way things sometimes do), chimed with the prevailing public mood and just sort-of… gained traction. Or maybe the idea came from one person: Emily Robinson, who gave up alcohol for January 2011 in preparation for a half-marathon and joined Alcohol Concern in January 2012 while abstaining again. Let’s just say its origins are obscure, and debatable. But anyway, it seems to have taken off properly around end-2013 or 2014 (Public Health England began promoting the campaign in December 2014) and the number of adherents has rocketed year-on-year ever since: from a reported 17,000 in 2014, to an estimated 3.1m in January 2018, and whatever, doubtlessly higher, figure now.

Now I’ve always resisted following the herd; and January is joyless enough as it is. But my excess weight and overenthusiastic liver combined have provided just enough incentive for me to climb aboard the increasingly crowded temporary temperance bandwagon.

So, I hear you ask, a fortnight in: how’s it going?

Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve had no cravings to speak of. Nor, however, have I so far noticed any substantial health benefits. I’m sleeping well, but I’m not sure any better than normal. I think I’m losing a bit of weight – contrarian that I am, I refuse to weigh myself; but if the looseness of the belt is any guide I must have shed a pound or two. I’m drinking lots of tomato juice (which I like anyway) and the occasional lime cordial and soda (got to watch the sugar intake though). And I have a little more money in my pocket.

But I’ve learned two things:

  1. I drink every day because I’m a creature of habit. I like routine, and I don’t like to deviate from it; and
  2. Sobriety is boring. A life without booze is a life lived in pastel shades; and I need strong colours.

I’m sticking with the programme, if programme it is: it’s really no hardship. But come the end of the month – or after the February blood test – will I be back on the bevy? Assuredly, yes; but not, I hope, in quite the same way.

I intend to spend the next two to three weeks (while in full possession of my faculties) engaged in a process of self re-education. If I am to forswear the habit of an adult lifetime, I need to form another habit to replace it: one that’s equally pleasurable, and colourful, and will hold my attention.

So far, nothing suggests itself; but hey, 20-odd days stretch out before me – a lifetime, in Soberland. Or so it feels at present. If I can spend the time – nearly three weeks – carving out a new template, one that involves abstinence on weekdays and a bit of indulgence at weekends, I shall consider my Dry January to have been a long-term success.

And hopefully I won’t need to do it again.

Farewell to a literary colossus

Those of us who make a living out of stringing words together in pretty patterns, those of us who do so from compulsion, or those of us who are somewhere in between (that’ll be me, then) usually read as much as we write – and we all have our favourites. As a 57-year-old middle-class male mine are, I suppose, the usual suspects: the writers I read – we all read – in our late teens and through our 20s and 30s. John Updike. Ian McEwan (though I always found him a bit hit-and-miss). Martin Amis (up to and including London Fields). John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany remains my go-to novel). Julian Barnes. And others.

But bestriding this pantheon of literary gods is one whose talent really did make me want to chuck it all in and go get a job in a ball-bearing factory.

Clive James.

Is? Was. That polymath’s polymath died last Sunday, aged 80, after a nine-year battle with leukaemia and, latterly, kidney failure and lung disease.

From the age of about 13 (me, not him), James was firmly on my radar thanks to his peerless television reviews for the Observer newspaper, written over a 10-year period between 1972 and 1982, which redefined the genre. They were, and still are, some of the funniest pieces I’ve ever read – and eminently quotable. Of (then-bodybuilder) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique: “a brown condom full of walnuts”. Of romantic novelist Barbara Cartland’s eye make-up: “twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff”. Of Formula 1 commentator Murray Walker: “even in moments of tranquillity, [he] sounds like a man whose trousers are on fire”. The TV shows and/or personalities he wrote about are mostly long gone; but the writing is timeless. The articles were quickly anthologised, and as far as I’m aware are still in print – and to anyone casting about for inspiration regarding Christmas gifts this year, I urge you to pick up a copy of The Crystal Bucket, or Glued to the Box. The recipient will thank you for it.

In the late 1970s James started to pop up on the other side of the TV cameras, thanks to a short-lived show called Saturday Night People, made by London Weekend Television and broadcast (as you may have guessed) on a Saturday night, at around 11pm. Along with host Russell Harty and fellow regular guest Janet Street-Porter, James would opine on pop culture, the decline of western civilisation, the latest Hockney exhibition… you get the drift. To an 18-year-old living in the sticks it was all terribly metropolitan and groovy, though I don’t suppose it was actually very good. Hence the short run.

But perhaps it gave James a taste for fame. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he was a fixture on British TV screens, with shows such as Saturday Night Clive and Clive James on Television attracting an audience in the millions.

In truth (and yes, I’m aware there’s rather too much of “me” creeping into this) I never liked him much on the box. To my mind he didn’t look comfortable, and his interviews with studio guests occasionally tended towards sycophancy. There’s more than a smidgen of snobbery on my part about this too. Surely that willingness to show off, to make lowest-common-denominator telly programmes… surely pap such as this risked eclipsing his singular way with the written word? Risked masking his astonishing erudition? But James, to his credit, saw as much to celebrate in the lowbrow as the scholarly.

And actually, nothing in James’s multifaceted career really eclipsed anything else. Launched in the early noughties his website, www.clivejames.com, showcased not just his own work as an essayist, a literary critic, a memoirist and more; but generously gave space to others whose writing he admired. Though the web was surely the only place where he could be so magnanimous; so prolific was James that no other medium would leave room for anyone else.

In 2010 I contacted James, seeking information about a quote he’d included in an earlier piece of TV criticism: who said it, and of whom. I received a prompt reply. Thus encouraged – the lines of communication were open, surely – I wrote a longer email; a fan letter, really, in which I attempted to explain what his writing meant to me, and that while I would never be much more than a paid-by-the-word hack, I could at least aspire to something more. Again he replied, with great grace, kindness and words of encouragement, while at the same time elegantly indicating that we would not become regular pen-pals. I would like to think the reason was simply that, having been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, he had other priorities; though it’s rather more likely that he didn’t relish the thought of a protracted email exchange with a scrote such as me.

As his life (and terminal illness) progressed, James maintained an amazing work rate. To my mind his later work, while enjoyable, didn’t quite match his earlier stuff. Various encomia I’ve read in the past few days by people who knew him well give the impression of a man who had always put a lot of effort into making it appear effortless; and having to divert at least some of his attention away from his writing and towards staying alive possibly led to a slight drop in standards.

But his verse took flight, in particular the poems which made up Sentenced to Life. Published in 2015, it was intended to be a valedictory volume – in fact James himself was slightly embarrassed not to turn up his toes shortly afterwards. But the poems have lost none of their power for all that; and one in particular floors me every time I read it. I reproduce it here:

Japanese Maple

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see

So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls

On that small tree

And saturates your brick back garden walls,

So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends

This glistening illuminates the air.

It never ends.

Whenever the rain comes it will be there,

Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that. That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colours will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

RIP, Clive James.

Brexit: let the choice be based on facts

Today, 1st October 2019, is, potentially, the first day of the last month of Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Whether you view that as cause for celebration or lamentation is, of course, up to you. I’m a Remainer, and proud of it; but I do respect that others have the right to take an alternative view.

But to my mind, the case for a second referendum on the issue becomes ever stronger, day by day.

Not because I don’t like the result of the first one. I mean, I don’t; and actually, I fear that a second go at it could produce a similar outcome, so entrenched are people’s positions. No, there needs to be a second referendum because the people were lied to in the run-up to the first one, plain and simple. It’s not about democracy, not really (though I would argue that at this stage a second referendum would be the least undemocratic option); it’s about making a momentous decision (whichever way it goes) based on facts, not mendacities.

Of course anyone with half a brain takes campaign pledges with a healthy pinch of salt; it’s sad, but a fact, that politicians distort the truth to suit themselves. Particularly in a democracy, as it happens (a column for another time, perhaps: The Plus Points of Dictatorship). But the whoppers peddled by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings et al in the lead-up to 23rd June 2016 were of a different stripe. The sunlit uplands of prosperity. Remember that? Trade deals galore. Remember that? £350m a week for the NHS. Remember that? The Turks will join in 2020, and invade our shores. Remember that?

And the people, 52% of them, went along with it. Whether they knew that these statements were falsehoods is, I think, a moot point. Personally I’m of the opinion that there was, probably, a widespread suspension of disbelief; but let’s not disappear down that particular rabbit hole.

The last three-and-a-half years have seen a nation convulsed as it seeks to find a way out of the resultant mess, against a lazy but growing chorus, from thickoes on both sides of the debate, to “just get it done”. Guys, the reason it can’t just be got done is because it’s really bloody complicated, and reducing the arguments to yes-or-no, black-and-white binaries (as the Prime Minister and his cronies are attempting to do) risks sending us back to the economic and societal dark ages.

So, how to resolve this? There is talk of a general election, which, given PM Boris Johnson’s (or, more accurately, shadowy, unelected strategist Dominic Cummings’s) ability to play the parliamentary system, appears fraught with risk. Also, in the unlikely event that the Conservatives lost (which, sadly, I don’t think they would), Labour (the main party of opposition) is in such disarray, fighting its own internal, ideological Brexit battles, that the Liberal Democrats could emerge as winners. Now I like the Lib Dems, but they have already pledged that, if returned to office, they would immediately revoke Article 50 (the 250-word clause of the Lisbon Treaty that serves notice on the EU that a member state wishes to withdraw) – now and for all time. Which might on the face of it suit us Remainers, but would be rightly seen as a slap in the face of the Brexiteers, and of democracy, and would surely cause the already deep divisions in our society to deepen still further. Outright civil war, anyone?

No, the least-worst option is an extension of Article 50, and a second referendum. Imagine the Leave campaign’s sloganeering! From “Taking back control” to “We’ll get through this, somehow”. Not quite such a persuasive message…

Although actually, as I say, I fear it may not make a decisive difference to the result. But at least we can no longer claim to be ignorant of what Brexit really means. And if, in possession of most, if not all, of the facts, the outcome is the same – well, I suppose one positive is that people like me will have to shut up.

I said in an earlier submission that Drum and Monkey doesn’t do politics. I lied. But then, so have so many others.

The Locarno: Swindon’s Notre-Dame?

Paris. The City of Light. Beautiful. Elegant. City of culture, of great art, of philosophy, of groundbreaking literature. City of landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre’s Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe…

Swindon. Er… not Paris.

At several points in its history Swindon has been an economic powerhouse: canals (which met in the town) brought the benefits of extensive trade in the 18th Century; in the 19th Swindon was the construction site for all the rolling stock for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway; and throughout the 20th and into the 21st Centuries the town has attracted the heavy-hitters of industry and business to make their home there. Nationwide Building Society, Zurich Financial Services and others have headquartered themselves in Swindon; WH Smith and the National Trust have put down roots; the UK Space Agency finds the atmosphere capable of supporting life; and, though Honda and BMW are, if not hitting the highway just yet, apparently packing the boots and fixing the roof-racks, it doesn’t feel unduly optimistic to think that, ere long, there’ll be someone else along to occupy those two car-makers’ well-located, state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities.

Odd, then, that Swindon – its commercial centre, anyway – should feel so downbeat. Dreary and soulless, with evidence of poverty that is strangely disproportionate. Greater than it should be, I mean. There’s poverty everywhere, of course, in every city; but in an ostensibly thriving burg like Swindon, one expects to see less of it.

But even its most fervent apologists would surely concede that Swindon is an unlovely town, architecturally speaking. And I wonder whether what I’m seeing isn’t poverty so much, but more a lack of civic pride. And, if so, whether that can be restored.

In April of this year, arguably the most important of Paris’s landmark buildings endured a cataclysmic fire. The medieval cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, held by many to be the soul of the French capital, burned for 15 hours. The damage was extensive, as you’d expect: the blaze brought down the spire and much of the roof, but thanks to the efforts of 500 firefighters the main structure remained intact.

Emmanuel Macron immediately promised that Notre-Dame would be restored, and called for the work to be carried out within five years. The French president intuitively understood – understands – the importance of the cathedral to the French psyche. If Paris is the beating heart of France, then Notre-Dame is, or was, the beating heart of Paris. And will be again.

Swindon at present has no beating heart – but it could have. All it takes is money, imagination and commitment.

In contrast to the lacklustre and rather drab business zones that have been developed to the north of the borough, Swindon’s Old Town is a vibrant, pretty place. Old Town is as its name implies: the hilltop site of the original Anglo-Saxon settlement which, though it grew and developed over the centuries, retained much of its original ‘market-town’ character. As indeed it still does; the markets may have come and gone, but their legacy is a small district of quaint buildings, interesting shops, and agreeable bars and restaurants. Old Town is where Swindonians go to have fun.

And dominating Old Town is the Old Town Hall, more commonly referred to as the Locarno (see top).

Originally built in 1852 and enlarged and added to over the next 40 years or so, as well as being the town hall this edifice served as a market hall, courthouse, storage facility, wine warehouse and corn exchange. When council business was transferred to the New Swindon Town Hall in 1891, the Old Town Hall was given over to entertainment – the cavernous space at its centre became by turns a 1,000-seater theatre, a rollerskating rink, a cinema, and then after World War II a dance hall and concert venue: the Locarno.

The 1960s were the Locarno’s glory days. As a concert hall the place attracted all the top acts – the Kinks, the Hollies, the Who, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and many, many more. To this day, Swindonians of a certain age go all misty-eyed when you bring up the subject of that old rock-‘n’-roll mecca, 50-odd years ago.

The Locarno: as it is now…

For whatever reason, in the late 60s and early 70s the bands stopped coming. The Locarno struggled on for a while as a bingo hall, before finally closing its doors and starting on a long, slow decline.

Actually, the decline wasn’t that long or slow. Two devastating fires, in 2003 and 2004, sped up the process considerably. But what you see now is the result: a woeful, desolate, still-noble structure (above), desperately in need of someone to come along and give it new life.

There are reasons to be hopeful. Developers are in protracted discussions with Swindon Borough Council, trying to arrive at an agreement on how best to redevelop the place. Negotiations have been dragging on for years – but there does, finally, seem to be light at the end of the tunnel. There’s talk of restaurants, chic apartments, nightclubs, an ‘entertainment space’ – but above all, turning the Locarno back into a focal point for the people of Swindon. Proud of its past, and looking to the future.

…and as it could be again (with apologies for the pixellation)

And it can’t come soon enough. Swindon, not overly blessed with landmark buildings, needs the Locarno arguably even more than Paris needs Notre-Dame. A place to restore some civic pride – and make the heart of this redoubtable, industrious, forward-looking town beat once again.

Vaping: a future written in the clouds

A committed smoker from the age of 16, like many I’d tried most things in my sporadic efforts to quit: patches, chewing gum, cutting down, changing brands… finding something else to take my mind off it (I became, and remain, something of an expert with a yoyo)… but e-cigarettes were the game-changer. The early, basic models looked like cigarettes, glowed at the tip when you took a drag, provided a satisfying ‘throat-hit’ – and, though the taste wasn’t exactly pleasant, it wasn’t a million miles from the flavour of tobacco, either. This was a nicotine delivery system that, while not as enjoyable as fags (and let’s be honest here – it isn’t, and never will be), was just about good enough: approved-of, socially; cheaper; convenient (many pubs and restaurants allowed e-cigarettes to be used indoors); and, crucially, the evidence suggested (and continues to suggest – more on this later) that e-cigarettes were up to 95% less harmful than what they were replacing.

I saw my first e-cigarette in, I think, 2009. I was interested enough to try it, but not – quite – to make the switch.

Those early e-cigs (early to me, anyway) – or, more likely, modern variations of them – are still widely available. Pop into pretty much any newsagents’ and you can pick a disposable e-fag (not that you should), battery pre-charged and e-liquid loaded, for somewhere north of a fiver.

But where it all started to get interesting, what really (if you will) lit a fire under the industry (and led me, in 2015, to make the change), was the move away from ‘cigalikes’ to tank-based systems and, a little later, mods. Both established vaping as different, something increasingly apart from ‘traditional’ smoking; and gave the users agency: over what flavours they preferred, the nicotine content, the amount of vapour produced and – crucially – the design (or designs) they felt suited them.

What followed – along with exponential growth in popularity and usage – was a division of vaping devices, broadly along gender lines. A generalisation: but women vapers, you can’t have failed to notice, seem to prefer a slimmer, more elegant model; men, by contrast, go for size, chunkiness, and the ability to clog their immediate surroundings with a thick diffusion of sweet-smelling fug. Small wonder that many of the bars and eateries that earlier allowed the use of e-cigarettes have subsequently withdrawn that permission.

As a man who’s never afraid to acknowledge and indulge his feminine side, I fall sort-of in the middle. My vape (pictured above) could, conceivably, belong in a lady’s handbag; but also rubs nicely against the thigh when thrust into a jeans pocket. The colour I find pleasingly butch, and I like the fact that it’s a bit battered (as is its owner).

But the modders – if that’s the correct term – those guys (and it always is guys) are a breed apart. Men who’ve looked at what’s on the market, decided there’s nothing sufficiently hardcore available to buy, and decided to make their own. Out of an old bicycle pump, a Liebig condenser and a trumpet mouthpiece, with enough battery power to light up a small town and producing a fog so thick as to support the weight of a small child. Walk into any vape shop and you’ll find them (vape shops being a social club for modders), beards flapping (perhaps the thick, unkempt whiskers act as a rudimentary filter) as they discuss/drone on about sub-ohming, DNA chipsets, dripping, hot spots, hybrids, squonking… Blokes being blokes, incomprehensible jargon is half the fun.

The rise and rise of vaping is a sans-pareil example of disruptive innovation: something no-one saw coming, which proved an immediate hit. We can all think of others. Recorded music, for instance: operatic tenor Enrico Caruso would surely not have enjoyed such worldwide adulation were it not for the fact that anyone with a phonograph and a bit of spare change could listen to him. Uber, which has redefined – is redefining – the taxi business. Good old Netflix, which ran Blockbuster out of town.

But what all disruptive technologies have in common is that the authorities – scientists, regulators etc – are caught cold, and struggle to keep up. To provide some sort of framework – ensuring that recording artists get paid; that Uber drivers (and passengers) are safe; that video-streaming services adhere to certain standards.

And this is as true of vaping as everything else. Truer, even. Do the much-vaunted health benefits have any basis in fact? Who should regulate the industry? Should vaping be taxed as swingeingly as tobacco products? Should mods – which have a tendency to catch fire, or explode – be banned outright?

Right now, unless I’m missing something, vaping – the popularity of it, the proliferation of new products – continues to outrun both scientific research, and regulation, both of which are huffing and puffing in its hazy wake.

But unless and until new evidence comes to light, I shall continue to vape with the best of them. I suspect, intuitively, that ‘95%-less-harmful’ is erring on the optimistic; but while there’s nothing like a fag (nor ever will be), vaping – particularly as it divorces itself ever further from ‘tobacco culture’ – is more than acceptable; and, increasingly, more than an alternative.

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