The Era of Missed Opportunities

June 1, 2020

It could have been very simple.  Boris Johnson could have sacked Dominic Cummings as soon as he had evidence that his special advisor had broken lockdown rules.  Johnson would have strengthened his authority by the move: he could have come out to brief the press, stared at the camera, and looked straight down the lens with a clear gaze.  He could have said, “The rules apply to everyone, no matter what their role is within this government.  It is clear that Mr. Cummings broke the spirit if not the letter of those rules, therefore there is no place for him here.  I have relieved him of his duties with immediate effect.”

The tabloids would have cheered.  The Daily Mail, no doubt, would have run a headline calling him the “Iron Prime Minister”.  The Daily Express would have used the adjective “steely” in relation to him and praised his fairness and resolve.  The Daily Telegraph would have made up some editorial praising the return of strong, authoritative government.  The Times would have also run some piece on the refreshing change that the coronavirus had wrought in Johnson, suggesting that he had risen to the role which he had sought for so long.

Of course, nothing of the kind occurred. Our government is the most simultaneously fearful and privileged since Louis XVI worried about the sans-culottes busting down the door of his palace.  Dominic Cummings’ behaviour echoes Louis XIV: “L’etat c’est moi”.  Let the sans-culottes sit on a Tube train wearing a thin mask or crouch in a Lewisham bedsit.  He would not be denied his trip to his father’s Durham estate, nor be prevented from taking his wife to a beauty spot for her birthday. 

It could have been simple in America too.  The Governor of Minnesota, the Mayor of Minneapolis, could have reacted instantly to the murder of George Floyd by the police.  They could have reassured the public that this isn’t right and would be put right immediately.  They could have sacked the 4 officers involved in the incident at speed.  President Trump could have stayed out of it; lest his voice add to the din.  Has these officials been more responsive and responsible, perhaps the wildfires of reaction to police brutality would not have burned as ferociously.

It could also have been straightforward in India too.  Rather than allow members of his party blame Muslims for the pandemic, Prime Minister Modi could have said that the coronavirus has highlighted that no matter one’s faith, we are all equal in the eyes of God, and we are just as susceptible to nature’s wrath as each other.  Such rhetoric could have united his fragmented country and strengthened his government.

China too is guilty of making things more complicated than they should have done.  The authorities have shown some level of repentance by making the doctor who initially raised the alarm about the coronavirus something of a public martyr and a hero of the state.  But what mechanisms are now in place to ensure that such a hero is never maltreated again?  And what is the point of cracking down on Hong Kong now?  Populists in America and elsewhere are looking to blame China for the coronavirus: tightening the screw on students demanding freedom only pours more petrol on the flames.

Brazil is now experiencing the depths of the pandemic.  Rather than supposedly prioritise the economy over effectively dealing with the coronavirus, President Bolsonaro could have realised that the health of the people and the health of the economy are linked.  He could have demanded a quick lockdown like New Zealand did, and spared his people the death and turmoil that they are presently experiencing.

In short, this is an era of missed opportunities.  These nations all provide potent examples.  In addition, we as individuals are apparently not learning the lessons proffered by the pandemic.  We should have come to the realisation that humanity is frail and vulnerable.  One virus can knock our global trading system flat.  One virus can wreck public finances.  One virus can force us to isolate from those we love.  One virus can alter our destiny in the blink of an eye.  Does this make us more cautious?  It doesn’t appear to have done so, if the crowds on beaches are anything to judge by.

We should also take this opportunity to look at the damage we have wrought on our planet.  Because of lockdown, the skies in some cities are clearer than they have been for a very long time.  In this all too brief pause in humanity’s attempt at ecological suicide, wild animals have retaken territory, we can hear birdsong which was once drowned out by traffic.  The canals of Venice have cleared and the swans have returned.  The air we breathe is purer and our carbon emissions have temporarily collapsed; even the dreams many of us have experienced are more vivid than they were before, perhaps it is a by-product of sleeping in silence.

However, we are on a quest to return to “normal”; lest we forget, the “normal” we seek was no paradise.  We apparently were so busy with “business as usual” that the stillness that thought requires couldn’t find us.  Perhaps that’s the most dangerous element of this period, at least from the perspective of those in power.  There is time for us to think; there is time to contemplate the depths of incompetence of those in power.

Whether we are ready for it or not, lockdown is ending.  Some schoolchildren in the United Kingdom returned to class today.  Car dealerships have re-opened: should we wish to spew more pollution into the atmosphere, the tools to do so are available for purchase or lease.  Soon stores which have previously been classed as “non-essential” will re-open, making available things that we didn’t apparently need all that much.  The din of modern life will resume, increasing in volume until it drowns out thought again. Once more the birdsong which has been the feature of lockdown mornings will be drowned out by honking horns and traffic congestion.

If we are fortunate, however, we will be forever changed by what we’ve experienced these past few months. The blatant incompetence of the authorities should be crystal clear by now.  Maybe, just maybe, we’ll demand and get change.

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Talking About White Privilege

May 25, 2020

Before I begin this piece, I will add a disclaimer. I am a white person in my late 40’s. I have grown up in a white neighbourhood. There were people from a broad variety of backgrounds in my school, but these tended to be the exception rather than the rule. Although I lived in big metro areas, specifically, just outside New York City and inside London, my experience of these places was cosseted by my upbringing.

When I mention “white privilege”, no doubt, a lot of people who have a similar background to me will be tempted to say, “What privilege? Life is hard!” When one looks at some of the poorer locales in the West, this privilege can seem like not much of a benefit. There are places where the majority of residents are just as white as I am and are wracked with misery and unemployment, domestic violence, and despair . When I talk about “white privilege” and “white supremacy”, it is not to minimise the suffering that occurs there.

White privilege manifests itself in the strength of headwinds which blow back against the individual. For example, a young white man recently did the following experiment: he went out running. He was carrying a television set. No one stopped him. Furthermore, he claimed people waved to him and smiled. Ahmaud Aubery, an African American man, went jogging without a television under his arm: he was shot and killed by a retired police officer and his son. It took a great deal of pressure on Georgia’s state government for the case to be treated as a homicide. Therein we see the privilege: the assumption made by passersby was that the white jogger had a legitimate reason to be running with a television; Mr. Aubery was assumed to be up to no good. This prejudice was reflected in the authorities’ inaction. Expand this premise out and you can see why there have been so many cases of African Americans dying in police custody.

Other headwinds are economic. One effect of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time in office was to expand home ownership. Agencies were set up to facilitate mortgage lending. However some areas were deemed too risky; this practice was known as “red lining”. Red lining directly disadvantaged African American communities. Without home ownership, it was much more difficult for minority communities to build up wealth. Sub-prime mortgages eventually appeared: but these were granted on the assumption that those who took them out would pay higher rates of interest. When this premise collapsed after 2007, so did the financial markets.

Another headwind is cultural. I live in Britain; I speak with an American accent. The most I can expect is to be teased about not pronouncing “battery” or “aluminium” correctly. If an African American speaks in their accent in the United States, they can often expect to be told to “speak proper English”, as if the way they speak is something to be eliminated.

None of this is to say that the life of every white person is particularly blessed. The son of a coal miner in the wilds of West Virginia may find it difficult to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Their school may be of limited value. They may find that good paying jobs aren’t available. Nevertheless, the headwinds they face into are generally less: they can go for a run and not fear that they may get shot and that the perpetrator won’t be prosecuted. They can see a police officer and not worry about being misinterpreted. They can apply for jobs and not wonder if they ought to use a different name to get to the top of the pile of resumes.

White privilege continues white supremacy; we would like to think it’s a relic of the past. For example, Léon Rom, pictured at the beginning of this article, was a colonial official in what was once known as the Belgian Congo. The Belgian Congo was a result of perhaps the most egregious exercise in white supremacy, the so-called “Scramble for Africa”, which occurred in the late 19th century. European powers decided to divide up an entire continent without consulting anyone who lived there. Belgium, thanks to the diplomatic manoeuvres of King Leopold II, managed to get a giant slice of central Africa: he looted the so-called “Congo Free State” for rubber and ivory, which was collected with slave labour. Leopold regarded this as the natural order of things; he went so far as to regard himself as the Congo’s “proprietor”. Rom was one of the many agents Leopold sent to gather the loot. In his spare time, Rom collected butterflies; he painted. In some respects, he was cultured. However, he also kept severed heads of Africans in his garden as a warning. He wrote a book about African customs which was racist, pompous, and dismissive. He saw nothing wrong with this. He saw this as the natural order of things.

Rom has been by and large forgotten, except as a possible model for Kurtz in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. We’d like to think we’re beyond this; we’re embarrassed by racist caricatures and want to be politically correct. The average Belgian sees their life as hard and doesn’t look up and notice that many of the grand edifices in Brussels and Antwerp were paid for out of the slavery and misery of others. The double L symbol of Leopold II still adorns public buildings; the magnificent palace Leopold built at Laeken still stands, the Belgian Royal Family lives there. 60 years after Belgians quit the Congo, the Belgians benefit from white privilege though they may not know it. We all do: some people may be reading this via a mobile phone. Many of the rare earths and materials used in its construction come from the Congo, and those who gather them are paid a pittance. Not to do so would ensure their starvation. This is not much different to the system that Leopold II put in place. We should be conscious of these facts, and begin the hard task of removing white supremacy and privilege; until then, we are collectively no more civilised than Rom was, specifically, only on the surface.

It is not solely a person of colour issue; Muslims face into similar prejudices. They are excluded from identification with the wider life of the nation. Change, when it occurs, is often because the pressure of injustice is too much for any society to bear. I submit this is what led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Otherwise, it happens slowly: one relationship at a time, one friendship at a time, one disaster at a time which forces society to cohere more closely. Hopefully the coronavirus situation, as terrible as it is, will show us that we are all human and vulnerable. The fact that minorities have been dis-proportionally hit by the coronavirus demands answers. But even if the barriers are eroded, they are unlikely to magically disappear.

It’s in everyone’s interests for white privilege to end. It’s very clear that people like me, older white males, haven’t done a particularly good job of running things. The economy’s rules, much of which are epitomised by the swaggering machismo of (mainly white, male) business channel commentators, is not delivering better outcomes for all. Meanwhile, generally speaking, the countries which have responded most effectively to the coronavirus have one thing in common: they’re not led by white men. It should disgust and repulse any person with a conscience that the colour of one’s skin or one’s creed could provide an instant assumption about what that person is like, their depths, their inner qualities. Yet this prejudice floats above society, like a storm about to break, with the occasional lightning flashes and thunder roaring. “Civilisation” as presently constituted, is in a state of gradual collapse; the Earth roils at what a terrible job we’re doing. The seas are full of plastic, the skies thick with carbon, the coral reefs bleach, species upon species die. We need change, and quickly: perhaps the way forward would be to understand that no one person, no one category of people, has a monopoly on truth, nor a right to civilisation. It is the inheritance of all humanity, to develop and improve.

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Up from Lockdown

May 19, 2020

I’m still in lockdown. This is because I’m living with someone who is in a vulnerable category, and another person who has a letter saying they are are “shielded”. The letter goes so far as to say that they cannot leave the house.

So, if I venture out, I have to put on a pair of latex gloves and a surgical mask to cover my face. Upon my return, I have to dump all my clothes into the washing machine and take a shower. I’ve never been cleaner; that said, my skin could be used to sand down the hull of a rusty tugboat.

If the world outside is at a distance, at least I am able to access it via the internet. My parents and I call each other via FaceTime twice a day. Because they are based in New York, we share notes on which country is the most insane. My father will cite the people who are burning 5G towers in the United Kingdom; in response, I ask if the President still wants people to inject themselves with bleach. My father will talk about Boris Johnson, I can reply with talk about Trump taking hydroxychloroquine despite having no symptoms and the Governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, who seems to think tattoo parlours provide an essential service. We concur that it’s crazy for people to hold beach parties and raves. No matter how bad the United Kingdom and United States seem, however, my parents and I agree that Brazil is by far the worst. President Bolsonaro does not appear to be particularly concerned about the coronavirus and indeed wants people to go out to protect the economy. The street gangs in Brazil’s notorious favela neighbourhoods are more responsible than he: they have apparently been trying to get people to stay at home. Their grasp of economics is superior to the President’s: he has yet to realise that dead people generate no revenue.

Additionally, my parents and I discuss things we would like to do. Yes, it would be great if one day we could have Christmas in New York again. But we know that the airports are empty, and only essential travel is being permitted. Quarantine rules will likely come into effect in the United Kingdom shortly. In my mind’s eye, I can see a lonely traveler wheeling a single case through the emptiness of Heathrow Terminal 5. Will this ever be back to normal? Perhaps. But perhaps it has been diminished for years to come. The virus did not come to Europe via the Silk Road, like the Black Death, rather it was likely the connection from Wuhan to Beijing to Rome to London that did it.

For the moment, all my family gatherings have become virtual. My sister attempted to hold an event from her apartment in Boston: so many friends and relatives attended that it nearly caused the Skype call to collapse. We couldn’t all see each other, which was a shame. Nevertheless, it happened. I can foresee how we will have a Christmas this way: virtual meals broadcast via mobile phone and laptop, showing a roast turkey in one location, roast beef in another. Perhaps there will be carols via Zoom.

Lockdown has been educational. I have become an expert spelunker into the depths of streaming services. I found a documentary from 2018 entitled “Flint Town”; this series followed the Flint, Michigan police on their patrols and highlighted the struggles of both the cops and their city. I couldn’t help but think that if Flint was full of white, middle class people that it would not have been permitted to degenerate into such chaos, nor allowed to suffer from water supplies suffused with lead.

At the time the documentary was made, there were only 98 police officers covering a city of over 100,000 people. The residents rightly stated that community policing, which is probably necessary for progress to be made, was impossible with such tiny numbers. The cop is “the man in the car”. The election of Trump as President occurred while the film was made: the police officers themselves were divided on whether or not he would improve matters. Some appreciated his apparently “pro-police” stance. I think we can say with certainty that things haven’t improved for the police and people of Flint since 2016. But will they come out in droves for Biden? I suggest that this may hold the key to Michigan, and to the Presidential election. Seldom has a documentary from the past seemed more consequential for the current day.

I have improved my online shopping skills during the lockdown. I found that eBay has a lot of bargains for staples like laundry detergent. I suspect what happens is that a supplier or a store gets overstocked, and then has to get rid of the excess; this excess may have become particularly excessive during the lockdown. Not only is it cheap, shopping this way beats having to don washing up gloves and a mask to pop into the corner store. The delivery people are probably sick of me by now.

I’ve found that baking and jam making are a good way to relieve stress. I’ve made jam out of fruit that had sat in the fridge as a tribute to virtue, and was about to rot. The result has been a bright, brilliant orange clementine jam that is better than many marmalades. I’ve found clementine and ginger can make a superior Madeira cake. Dark chocolate which has sat at the back of a cupboard can be recycled into chocolate chunk cookies. Nothing need go to waste.

I’ve also rediscovered the virtues of clothes that smell of a spring afternoon. I’ve found comfort in a bed I freshly made with sheets that hung in the warm May sunshine. I feel a sense of accomplishment from the sink being empty and the floors being cleaned. Yes, this time is frustrating; I am aware that I am clinging onto minuscule joys until such time as the world re-opens. But I’ve survived the virus itself; I will survive this. One day, I will get up from lockdown. This time will be a strange memory. That will be a relief.

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History Rhymes

May 6, 2020

After coming to power in 1933, the Nazis worked hard to sell eugenics to the masses. A particularly nasty example of these “re-education” efforts is a film entitled “Dasein ohne Leben” (“Existence without life”), which was released in 1939. It argued that the mentally ill should be killed. Furthermore it suggested that if the mentally ill were clear about their own state of mind, they would want it this way.

A recent column which appeared in the Daily Telegraph newspaper made me jump because much of the same vocabulary was deployed. It suggested that in lockdown, we are “existing” but questioned whether we are “living”.

At first glance, it may seem a stretch to suggest that there is a connection between these two items. However, dig beneath the surface and there is something altogether disquieting; the underlying concepts have similarities. There are implications for the coronavirus policies which may be followed in the near future.

From the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, there was a thought in the UK government that we ought to let the virus “run its course” in pursuit of “herd immunity”. Never mind that the herd immunity concept is generally used in situations where there is a vaccine: the idea being that if enough people are vaccinated, that a particular disease, such as smallpox or polio, can be effectively wiped out. Furthermore, it’s not altogether clear that having had coronavirus bestows a particular immunity, nor is it obvious how long such an immunity would last. Meanwhile, the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, or a compromised immune system, would be left to fend for themselves and indeed, many would die. Prior to contracting the virus himself, Prime Minister Johnson suggested on national television that perhaps we should “take it on the chin”.

These are “survival of the fittest” policies that echo what many of the Nazis thought; Hitler was so committed to “social Darwinism” that he would set his acolytes in competition with each other in order to see who was the strongest, and he believed the strongest would inevitably prevail.

Just because these ideas are presented in English by men in Savile Row suits, doesn’t make them any more palatable. This flirtation with “herd immunity” has left the UK in a dire position. It is clear that Britain has the highest number of fatalities in Europe; per head of population, only Spain is losing people at a faster rate. Even Johnson has had to admit that it is a source of “bitter regret” that the epidemic is not yet under control in care homes. Yet we are talking about opening up rather than ensuring that we have sufficient testing and protective measures before we consider any loosening of current rules.

Furthermore, there appears to be a co-ordinated attack in train on the author of the lockdown policy, Professor Neil Ferguson. He was incredibly foolish to allow his lover to visit him in contravention of social distancing rules. It gave the press an opportunity to paint him as a hypocrite, and furthermore, opened the door to the following query: “if he’s wrong about this, what else is he wrong about?” Sure enough, the Daily Telegraph did follow it up with a piece in this vein.

Given the present mood, it is likely that Britain will be “re-opened” before it is ready. The countries which have been able to re-open so far have either got a more rigorous and prevalent testing regime, such as Germany and South Korea, or took much more assertive action much earlier in the crisis, such as New Zealand did. The United Kingdom is a laggard.

In the United States, it is much the same. President Trump would like to end the pandemic in order to bolster his fading chances of re-election, and it appears he is trying to wish the virus away. He first talked about winding down the task force managing the pandemic, then reversed course. He said he has left managing opening up to the governors, but then encouraged anti-lockdown protestors in Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota. Nearly every last anti-lockdown protest which has appeared on the news has shown ardent Trump supporters making these demands. Social Darwinism made an appearance there too: the Republican Lieutenant Governor of Texas suggested the old should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the country’s good, specifically, so the economy can get going again. Meanwhile, veterans die in care homes. Minorities are disproportionately affected, due to the conditions created by poverty and years of neglect as a result of racism and harsh government policies.

The sum total of what is happening in Britain and America paints an alarming picture. History doesn’t necessarily repeat, but it can often rhyme. The most repellent ideas of the 1930’s, namely that some not only should perish, but would want to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the nation, are bubbling up again, hopefully unconsciously. We are told that we are “existing” in lockdown, not “living”. We are spoon-fed propaganda that the scientists who are using reason and evidence to create our policies are hypocrites and not to be trusted. We are being softened up for the pandemic to continue and not to think about it too much.

Hopefully, this will backfire. I know someone who died due to Covid-19. I was ill with it, as were my parents. It is not a disease to be trifled with. My father, who is of an entirely different political disposition to myself, is upset that the vulnerable have not been better protected. If the pandemic spreads and we all become acquainted with someone who suffered or indeed died, will we be so tolerant of this nonsense? Or will we turf out the politicians who sold us this phony cure for what ails us? I would rather that it backfired before we found out: certainly, many voices have raised the alarm. However it seems many in the media are happy to spoon fed the current narrative for the time being; it should bother us that they can readily consume such a terrible diet.

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In Lockdown

April 19, 2020

In these days of lockdown, perhaps the most liberating moments occur on days when the sun is shining. I put the laundry on to wash, it finishes, the machine beeps loudly, and I take the wet clothes out to the washing line. I peg out the t-shirts and pyjama bottoms, I raise up the pole that supports the line, so the laundry catches the breeze. On a good day, the garments float and flutter on a warm wind.

Otherwise, there is not much to be said for this time. As I sit here in my study, Chabrier’s piano music echoes out from my stereo. I am one of the lucky ones: although I’m still in recovery mode, I’ve survived the coronavirus. I may be one of the fortunate ones who will have an immunity in future. I have sufficient space to be alone. I have enough books and music to see me through the next three weeks and well beyond. Yes, there are challenges, there are things to do, and I’m confronted with the daily struggle of trying to keep everything hygienic. Nevertheless, I feel blessed. I can still revel in the sunshine and warm spring breezes; my cats run out the back door and into the sunlight ahead of me. Life continues. Not everyone I know, or rather, known, has been so lucky.

The current lockdown has been so complete that I’ve sometimes caught myself thinking that it’s a foreign country beyond my doorstep. We will not always be like this, I know. There is a world beyond the front door. Nevertheless, when I first stepped out to take my dog for a brief walk, it was clear the country had changed. There were people walking down the same village lanes as I was, but as we approached, we each did a polite “veer”, ensuring that we were 2 metres apart when we passed. We smiled at each other and wished each other a “good afternoon”. My corner store’s opening hours were truncated. The patrons and staff wore masks. The queue at the checkout had people standing apart to maintain safe distance.

Until such time as there is a vaccine, I suspect this is what any lifting of the lockdown will look like. I can imagine anything that means people have to stand closer than 2 metres won’t be permitted: restaurants will lose capacity, concerts and sporting events won’t be allowed. Movie theatres will remain shut, perhaps forever, if they continue to lose money. I suspect masks will become as much a necessity as an umbrella when it rains. I have little doubt that there will be many “fashion” masks made. The catwalks will feature models wearing ones with Chanel and Vuitton logos as they walk, stop, and turn.

Will we be without a vaccine by Christmas? The holidays are always a home centred affair, but perhaps the confinement of the elderly due to their vulnerability to the virus will make it more sparse. No doubt some people will consume alcohol with gusto: in my mind’s eye, I see a middle aged father, a blue face mask askew, and an empty bottle of Irish cream on a table next to him, snoring amidst the glow of Christmas tree lights and the fading scent of roast turkey.

We will adapt, we will survive, we will go on. The government will likely have to step up, albeit hesitantly, for all those who have been economically deprived, lest indifference provokes unrest. It’s bad enough that many have lost their jobs, but to see tax money going to the likes of Richard Branson is a step too far. Even the tabloids cannot ignore their readership to that extent. The help may be faulty, inadequate, but we will stumble along. Labour will surge in the polls, I believe, as the government’s inadequacies and failings become clear. If the British government knows what is good for it, it will delay the next stage of Brexit indefinitely.

I believe supermarkets will be emptier. Online shopping, online working will become even more prevalent. Someone will have to say the obvious: if this is how we are going to be from now on, we need Fibre to the Premises throughout the country to ensure that broadband can cope with our new lifestyles. Perhaps the money dedicated to the new high speed rail – a dubious investment at best – will be diverted to this end. After all, we will be travelling less.

Some airlines may go bust. Certainly, some cruise companies will. Airports will be full of temperature scanners, to ensure that travellers arriving from abroad don’t carry the virus. 14 day quarantine orders for anyone arriving from a constantly updated list of countries will become normal. All the while, the mask will be an ever more present feature of our public spaces.

In this atmosphere, it could very well be that Trump will not be re-elected as President. No one, apart from his most extreme supporters, will be able to say that they are better off than they were four years ago. The governors that have most closely aligned themselves to Trump are the ones who are presiding over the most uncontained outbreaks of the coronavirus; this may be noticed. Biden could very well play the “return to normalcy” card, promising to deliver evidence-based policy; this will have an appeal in contrast to the ineffectiveness and harm of populism. In Britain, it may be that Boris Johnson is booted from office: it is clear some of the press has turned on him, in favour of his rival and colleague Michael Gove. The public may begin to look at the world prior to 2016 with a certain sense of nostalgia: they weren’t necessarily the “Good Old Days”, but at least one could meet one’s friends in a park on a bright Spring afternoon.

I think the moments of freedom from fear and tension will come mainly from being in one’s house, the only familiar country we will be able to maintain. The moments of comfort may come when the sunshine glows and from simple things like seeing the clothes flutter on the clothesline. It surely will come from being with family, and seeing our pets sit in the shade. Beyond the doorstep, it is now a different country and world. The only place where normality may continue to reign is home, at least until that brilliant day, which may never come, when we can say that the coronavirus has been defeated.

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The Near Aftermath

March 24, 2020

The coronavirus gave me the worst illness I have ever experienced. I’ve had chills and fever that were so severe that I couldn’t shift out of bed. I was still shivering even with the electric blanket on the highest setting. The virus does its evil work by bogging down the immune system, forcing the body to devote all its resources to fighting it, this manifests itself in high fevers and extreme fatigue. The body may need food but it has little capacity for consuming it: I have lost 5 kilos in the space of a week. Though I’m better than I was, even now, doing simple things like emptying the dishwasher or hanging laundry out on the line, exhaust me. I have a chair positioned next to a fireplace where I gather my thoughts after I’ve done something. I sit there for twenty, thirty minutes at a time. After this, I pull myself together and carry on.

I am lucky. The worst, it would seem, is over. Each day the struggles are a little less difficult. Coffee and food have started to taste better; the odd metallic taste they previously possessed is fading. I was able to cook for myself, which seems like an achievement. I am definitely on the path to recovery.

Given how awful this illness has been, I become horrified and angry when I see people who aren’t taking the virus seriously. There are British vacationers in Benidorm who seem to think that their holiday matters more than preventing the virus spreading. Via social media, I’ve seen college students on Spring Break in Florida acting as if the disease can not touch them; thank goodness the Governor of that state recently shut down the beaches and the marinas. My parents in America informed me that until the Governor of New York clamped down on the operation of clubs, bars, and restaurants, people were still going out as per normal in Manhattan. I’d warn all of those who are being so nonchalant, if you had this, you would trade every day in the sun, every fancy dinner, every midnight stroll on the beach you ever had to get rid of it.

Anyone with a weak immune system can easily break under the pressure of this disease: hence, I believe, we are seeing the spike up in deaths in Italy and Spain, and the preponderance of casualties among the old. In the United States and the United Kingdom, it’s highly likely the worst is yet to come.

Yet, the measures just announced by the UK government indicate that asking people to be good citizens and stay at home simply hasn’t been enough. There is still this odd perception that it is like the flu; we’ve all had the flu, it’s treatable, so what, get on with life. It does make one wonder how much serious it has to get for the message to land. Yet, fools create social media memes about licking public toilet seats. Other miscreants keep their pub chains open, making clear profits matter more than their customers. I have said to my parents: please just stay home, as it takes only one idiot, getting too close, only once for them to catch this illness. Normally sociable and active people, they have listened to me. They’re staying at home.

When the here and now is so awful, it seems almost unbearable to think about what tomorrow may bring. As the fevers die away and my strength returns, I am starting to look at that future; it is bleak. We are going to have to fundamentally rethink the economy.

An economy runs on the premise that people have needs and wants. One person sells, another buys, based on those requirements. The consumer society has been predicated on the notion that wants are just as important as needs. Blue jeans are just as easy to get as food or water. This has created a level of employment that wouldn’t otherwise exist: people have work making and selling blue jeans, when strictly speaking, that activity isn’t necessary to human survival.

The coronavirus has forced us to cut back to bare necessities. The “wants” part of the economy, from books, to blue jeans, to berry flavoured lip balm has fallen away. Indeed, all but the most basic of shops are now closed. How this is going to work? How will employment be maintained? I don’t believe there is a good answer to this question. Furthermore, much of the economy is social: going to restaurants, cinemas, on holiday and so on. What happens when you can no longer be social, or at least, have to severely restrict it? What if we have to wait until 2021 for a vaccine or treatment which will unshackle us from this virus? Will there be much of an economy left by that time?

Furthermore, what will be the long term effects on people’s behaviour? I have little doubt that when an effective vaccine is released around the world, the event will be celebrated with fireworks and music. It will be recalled as a moment of liberation from fear. Nevertheless, habits will likely have changed by then. What will be the permanent effects?

I have never experienced an event like this in my lifetime. The closest was September 11th, when I was in the United Kingdom and my mother was in New York; neither my father and I could reach her for several hours. A global event had hit me personally; behaviour and societal norms changed too. The impact and import of the coronavirus has been even more profound. I’ve been sick; I’m still not well, though I have been able to stand in the sun for a little while. I will go to sleep tonight in reasonable certainty that tomorrow morning will come for me and I will feel more healed then than I do now. Thousands all over the globe are not nearly as fortunate as I am; families are mourning, there will still be many more who will grieve before we turn the corner. After much pain and many oceans of tears, we will get up from this, but what will we have learned?

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The View from My Sickbed

March 16, 2020

The NHS believes I have the coronavirus. The pleasant GP on the other end of the phone ran through my symptoms while I lay in bed. She told me that there is no testing at this point in time. The focus, she said, is on treatment, not testing. Just rest, take paracetamol, drink plenty of liquids, stay away from everyone else, and hope for the best. When the UK government says that things are under control, I don’t believe them: after all, how can you know if you’re not measuring? Would my diagnosis feature in the statistics that the government is compiling? Somehow, I doubt it.

I am on the 4th day of this illness. It is one of the most unpleasant sicknesses I’ve ever had. I’ve had consistent fevers, only ameliorated by paracetamol induced gaps of lesser temperatures. The fever dreams are particularly odd. Over the weekend, I had a dream that my cat Thomas and I had washed up on a distant shore, the waves lapping over us as we lay on the sand. The hot sun beat down on us both. Flotsam and jetsam, brought up from the deep, I woke up before the dream could unfold any further.

As this indicates, the nights are particularly terrible. There has been an occasional panic in my stomach that something is dreadfully wrong. I thought it might be something with my heart. My hands have become very cold: I have had to switch up my electric blanket to the highest setting. I have all the temperature regulating abilities of a lizard. All I can do is take another paracetamol and use the brief gap it grants to fall asleep.

The mornings are not much better. As I sit here and type this, a low, dull headache throbs behind my eyes. Nevertheless, I’ve had to be responsible, sit at the keyboard, and cancel appointments for the next two weeks. “Sorry,” I say, “I’ve been diagnosed as having the coronavirus.” The recipient may get my missive or they may not. Either way, I will push through, finish writing, and go back to bed. When the recipient picks up the message, no doubt they will say, “Oh of course”. No one wants to be around someone with this. Cancel the appointment? Absolutely.

Often, daylight hurts. The curtains are drawn in my bedroom. Fortunately, I can watch television. Reading is more difficult. I have an audio book, a biography of Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the Spanish Communists, which I’m dipping in and out of. The problem is keeping track of all the acronyms and the various committees: no wonder the Left lost the Spanish Civil War, the comrades were bogged down by bureaucratic infighting. They should have focused on keeping the fascists at bay. This is about as elevated as my thinking gets at the moment. I look through the narrow portal to the world that Twitter affords to see what outrages are being committed by nonsensical populist governments. I also listen to the BBC World Service. Last night, I was lying in bed when I heard Trump talk about how happy he was the Federal Reserve cut interest rates. Given his joy, you would think an interest rate cut was a cure for the coronavirus. In fairness to the World Service, they had on a professor after Trump’s statement who said what most people already know, that the President doesn’t understand monetary policy and it’s unlikely to be the cure-all he thinks it is. Maybe his ignorance has finally caught up with him.

The fever returns. I go back to sleep. The time comes for another paracetamol; I awake, take it, and drink some water. Any trek to the bathroom feels ponderous and long. A week ago I was running over 2 miles on a treadmill; now I can’t climb the stairs without needing a rest. Similarly, going to the lavatory is a matter of one foot in front of another. When the hour is late, midnight, one am, two am, it feels like I’m absolutely alone. I am not, however: I reach out and there is my cat Thomas sleeping at my feet. Nevertheless, I have to worry about him getting this too: a dog with a compromised immune system in Hong Kong apparently caught it from their human. If indeed Thomas gets it from me, what chance does he have? But he wouldn’t be anywhere but with me: I know if I shut the door, I’d hear his insistent paw clawing the door. Indeed, he has not left my side since I became ill.

The dawn comes again. I should be feeling better. The thermometer tells me that I’m still feverish. How much longer, I wonder. There is no help from the NHS: they have no medicines, they have no advice except what I’ve heard already. Nature will take its course. Theoretically, I’m developing an immunity, which is what the government thinks is going to serve us best in the long run. I’m not sure we should be so cavalier about such an unknown and novel virus. Evolution is a powerful force and it’s difficult to know how this virus will change and adapt. It could become more lethal. Already there are reports that some people have caught it more than once.

As I fight the fever and feel aches ripple through my body, I think that I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. I have no idea how long it will take for the illness to loosen its grip. The thermometer indicates it won’t be today. Tomorrow? Wednesday? Who knows.

I am lucky. I’m relatively healthy. As awful as this is, I will get through it. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be frail and have the weight of this sickness land on you. I will wake up one morning and it will be gone. But I will remember those who succumbed, and I will blame those who decided that it wasn’t important to measure what was going on.

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In the Shadow of the Coronavirus

March 13, 2020

“Oh, damn.”

That was my first thought when I woke up on Friday the 13th. I had that scratchy feeling in the back of the throat, my lungs felt like there was something they wanted to expel. Sure enough, I coughed. I hoped it was a one-off. No. I coughed again. I sat up and felt the chilly air hit my body as I peeled back the duvet. I wanted nothing more but to lie back down.

“Damn,” I thought again and gathered all the sensations from my body into a single status. “I’m getting ill.” As if to emphasise the point, I involuntarily sniffled. I grabbed a tissue from my bedside table.

I wasn’t sure where or how I had gotten this sickness. I have been mainly self-isolated apart from one trip to an office in Slough on Tuesday.

Yes. That may have been it. I had sat at one of the hot desks and found packets of tissues and sanitary hand wipes there, unused. I had been careful and used the wipes. I washed my hands whenever I went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. As I examined my memory, I remembered that there was an echo of sneezing. There, perhaps, I had picked it up. I had only been there for about 2/3rds of a day. I hadn’t shook anyone’s hand. But apparently the virus requires very little to do its malevolent work.

Maybe that wasn’t where I got it. After all, it can take several days to gestate. I go to the corner store from time to time. I stand in queues. Perhaps it was then. Perhaps it was when I last went to the gym, the hard exhalations of my fellow patrons filling the air. I recall someone saying in the locker room that they had recently come back from Australia. We are increasingly linked to a variety of networks, and yet we don’t realise that these connections are neutral: they can bring trade and tourism, but they can also bring disease. The Black Plague made its way down the Silk Road. The coronavirus, its less potent descendant, catches a flight to Munich, and from there it takes connecting trips to London, Milan, and Los Angeles.

If this was another time, my rising illness would be a cause for mere annoyance. I’d say to myself, “I can’t afford to have a cough”. Or a cold. Or the flu. I have things to do. I’d take vitamins, I’d tough it out. But the coronavirus has cast its shadow: I think with each cough, is it the virus? The NHS has told me to sit and wait for seven days. If it’s not better, then perhaps I should get tested. Meanwhile, stay at home; don’t go out, don’t mix and mingle, keep the door shut. I need to stay away from anyone who might be vulnerable…just in case.

The shadow extended further later in the day. Some groceries were delivered. The driver, wearing thick glasses, a green and white shirt, and a grey jacket kindly told me that he couldn’t do anything other than leave the bags on the doorstep. He couldn’t hand them to me directly, either. He also couldn’t take back the plastic bags for recycling.

“There’s been a memo sent to all customers,” he explained. He was apologetic. Nevertheless, he was upset when he made the faux pas of handing me a bag directly, even though I didn’t touch him. I believe he was glad to escape. His caution was welcome: a previous driver who had been less hesitant to carry groceries into the house was visibly ill.

My parents are currently visiting the United Kingdom; they are due to go back next Wednesday. I stayed up late earlier this week, listening with half an ear to Trump’s announcement of a travel ban, halfway wondering if they would be trapped here with me for a while. No, apparently not: they can go, because apparently Trump believes the United Kingdom is handling the coronavirus well, despite flimsy evidence for this assertion. Then on Friday the 13th he seemed to reverse himself. Never mind, my parents, who are in their seventies, are likely to go home before Trump can shut the door. That said, they are returning to New York, where there are already 400 cases. My parents have some pre-existing health conditions; for example, my father once had a rare infection of the spine. What impact will the virus have on them? They often hang out with my little niece. What about her? If this was the flu or a cold, I wouldn’t worry. It is the unknown of all this that makes it so menacing.

Perhaps there’s no point in worrying. I am following expert advice: I have self-isolated, remained inside, avoided contact. Saturday dinner with my parents at my home has been cancelled. My connection to the world is mainly expressed through a long black Ethernet cable which runs under the door into the router in the hallway. I sit in my study with my books and music and television and catch up on programmes I didn’t really care about beforehand. A box of tissues rests on my table. I cough into a tissue, take it to the bathroom, flush it away, and wash my hands while singing “Happy Birthday”. I am grateful to Gloria Gaynor for giving me “I Will Survive” as an alternative.

Local elections are cancelled. Sporting events are on hold. The Olympics is in doubt. I wonder where my dog-eared copy of Marquez’s “Love in a Time of Cholera” is located. I’d like to lie in bed as this ridiculous cough torments me. I will take another lozenge and read the Marquez while lying flat on my back. I want to shut my eyes and dream of the chill that lingers in this house dissipating in the warmth of Spring. Yet, I know that I will wake up tomorrow and the cough will still be there. I felt a chill earlier running through my shoulders. I’ll take a paracetamol. I’ll tell myself for now that it’s all within the normal parameters of being sick. Will it get worse? I don’t know. Perhaps. Perhaps tomorrow I will find that it was merely a garden variety illness. But what if it isn’t? What will tomorrow bring? And what will I do if the shadow lengthens?

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Passing the Torch

March 4, 2020

I went to bed on the evening of March 3rd with the radio tuned to the BBC World Service. I’m a light sleeper at best, so from time to time, I heard snippets of the Super Tuesday results. Biden won Virginia, Sanders won Vermont: these were not shocks to me. I drifted off. Around 4 AM, I heard that Biden had won a plurality of the delegates on offer. I was surprised that he won Massachusetts. I was more stunned that he was leading in Maine. It’s been a good night for the former Vice President; the campaign has crystallised into a competition between him and Bernie Sanders, and then with Donald Trump.

In many ways, this is a profoundly depressing set of events. America has never been more diverse than it is now. There are plenty of young people with world-changing ideas; I think the success of the American economy has more to do with this attribute than any tax cut bill that Washington has passed. Yet, the political system is churning out leaders who are probably more acquainted with the hits of Ethel Merman than Beyoncé. All three, Trump, Biden, Sanders, are septuagenarian white males. No matter who wins, the White House kitchen will likely need a supply of prunes and glucosamine. All three are part of high-risk groups for the coronavirus, particularly Trump, whose recent trip to India punctuated by healthy vegetarian cuisine could only provoke a chuckle at the thought of him being made to consume lentils.

I am not speaking from a position of cocky youth: I’m middle aged. My tired knees make a tearing sound sometimes when I ascend the stairs. The hair on the top of my head is long gone; however, this has been replaced by a thick forest of it in my ears. The mornings are more difficult than they used to be and require more coffee. Going to the gym is harder and more painful. Modern music often sounds to me like a car crash involving a van full of electronic instruments. I have caught myself saying on occasion, “Kids these days…”

But it is precisely these qualities that clearly tell me that people like me and older should loosen our grip if not let go of it entirely. The future should belong to those who have more of it ahead of them. Perhaps one of the most inspiring speeches ever made was by President Kennedy during his inauguration in 1961; a particularly memorable line was his statement that the “torch had passed to a new generation of Americans”. It felt like when Obama triumphed in 2008 that this had happened again. But in 2016, it was promptly handed back to the previous crew: this would have happened even if Hillary had won, but it was significant that it went back to an old, white male, a living, breathing symbol of the anger that many white males presently feel.

If anything, this retrograde step has become more pronounced since 2016. Much of the so-called “populist” phenomena is to do with older white males and what they want. They feel the world has slipped away from them: in their memory, or rather that of their fathers, they recall a world in which one income, derived from the man, could support a family and a middle class lifestyle. That man didn’t necesarily need a college education. That man could expect to work for the same company for 40 years and retire with a comfortable pension. There were darker sides to it, such as the treatment of minorities, the subservient role of women in the household, the veneer of hypocrisy covering all manner of sins including domestic violence. Also, much of that world was based on the consumption of cheap oil, an unsustainable state of affairs.

However, when white males marched in Charlottesville, they demanded a return to these fictional halcyon days. They believe that the diversity of today and those who dare speak its name are obstacles to overcome to get back to that era. Some of these white males, such as the extremist who murdered Jo Cox and the one who ran down Heather Heyer, don’t care if people are killed in the process. It is notable that they also tend to deny climate change.

Lest I be accused of describing a phenomenon solely on the Right, it says something that major figures on the Left in recent years are also of the same generation. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders differ in many significant ways, but generally speaking they want a return to the social democratic consensus of the 1960s and 70s, in which state ownership was common, higher taxes and public spending prevailed, and less of the globalisation which has taken a wrecking ball to the stable working patterns of the 1960’s and 70’s. There are elements of high-tech glitter around the edges of their respective prospectuses, but the underlying principles remain the same. Because we are so far removed from this era, it seems thrilling and new to people who have no recollection of having such security in their lives.

To clarify, it is not always bad to hark back to the past: in general, I agree with Sanders and Corbyn that greater social protections are needed more than ever, particularly in a world which features the gig economy and high tech labour. Nevertheless, the past seems to linger like a miasma floating around our political systems, threatening to choke democracy as it puts power in the hands of people who are disconnected in time and status from those it puports to represent.

Perhaps the clearest symbol of the disconnect of the generations is Greta Thunberg. I am inspired by her. I think it’s wonderful that a young person is taking such a vital interest in ensuring the future of the planet. I am glad to see that there are more young people stepping forward who are just like her. I believe she and her generation will undo a lot of the damage that my generation and previous ones have done, if only we let them.

However, many older white males are enraged by her. An oil company in Alberta made her the subject of an extremely offensive cartoon. Trump has trolled her. This makes no sense. How is the most powerful man in the world, how are supposedly tough oil workers, threatened by this wisp of a teenage girl?

The reason, I believe, is that she reminds these men that the future doesn’t belong to only them or even mainly them. Youth will have its say, and she points out the fundamental truth that we are operating in such a manner that may not leave a future for youth to inherit. The angry responses are one long “how dare she, the world is ours”, laced with a lot of profanity. She merely brushes them off, often times with a humour beyond their comprehension. Perhaps she knows she is wiser than they. Perhaps she also knows that theirs is the reaction of someone who has been reminded that they are no longer young, and thus their horizons are limited.

Quite frankly, speaking as middle aged white male, I’m fed up with us. Perhaps we need to be reminded that we are not all or even mostly geniuses nor gods, and the best legacy we can leave is the good we do for our families, our neighbourhoods and our friends. An equally positive legacy would be to yield to youth and accept that change is inevitable. When that acceptance comes, perhaps some of the populist nonsense and its resulting hatred and violence will fade. Perhaps then, we would also leave a legacy of tolerance and wisdom. If not, it’s worth remembering that we are all on one long walk towards sunset; youth will have its say, even if it has to wait until twilight.

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Self-Isolation

February 29, 2020

“Self-isolation” is the latest term to enter popular vocabulary. People who have been infected with the coronavirus have been urged to remove themselves from society. People who have recently been to regions which have been afflicted by the virus have also been urged to do it. Go home. Shut the door. Have minimal contact with people. Ensure that you’re not putting the health of the public at risk.

I have neither been infected, nor been to an affected region. Nevertheless, “self-isolation” is a term to which I can relate. My self-isolation began in late 2018. I had just finished being a witness in a prominent court case. I had taken the stand five times; I had travelled to the Old Bailey on three separate occasions. It is the task of every defence attorney worth their salt to pull witnesses inside out; this made a task which I found depressing to do in the first place, even more onerous despite having the comfort of holding fast to the truth. By the time it was all over, I was bruised and saddened; I must, however, give credit to the volunteers who help witnesses outside the courtroom. They were very supportive.

My face and name were in the newspapers and on television. I recall going into a corner store to get some supplies and hearing a couple whispering to each other behind me in the queue, “Is that the fellow…?” “Yes, dear, I think he is…”. I paid and left as quickly as I could.

After my last court appearance on December 17, 2018, I sat on the platform at City Thameslink station, waiting for the first train to whisk me home. Being alone was blissful. It was the early afternoon. I sat there, with my phone in hand, a chill wind blowing down the darkened tunnel. In a rare departure from my usual classical repertoire, I put on the Beatles song, “Two of Us”. I hoped the jaunty tune would cheer me up, but the reason why it particularly appealed was the line “I’m going home”. I also thought of a statement from Eliot’s “The Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

Time to turn back and ascend the stair

I would go home and ascend the stair. The curtains would be drawn, that would be all. I would wait for the noise to dissipate and for people to forget. After all, Christmas was coming up and surely more important things would preoccupy anyone who was acquainted with the story. I waited for the day when I could go to the corner store and no one would know my face nor remember my name.

It took longer than I hoped. My preference during that period was to stay at home and out of sight. I kept my Twitter account locked for sustained periods. The media approaches continued into the New Year; I thought about telling my story but eventually decided against it. I didn’t want to be bothered any more than I had been already; also, while there was an appeals process underway, I thought it would be unwise to say anything. Furthermore, I believe the publicity harmed the job hunt I was undertaking at the time.

Eventually, Spring came. The looks and whispers died away. I still have preferred to be home; through 2019, I spent a lot of time and effort into putting together a comfortable study where I can continue to self-isolate. I put a large portion of my classical music collection in there: the Mozart, Bach, Wagner, and Beethoven box sets have prominent places on the shelves. I acquired more bookshelves from Ikea and filled them. I spotted a deal on a television last July; I acquired it. My comfortable sofa is draped with blankets in case I need a nap on the weekends.

I got another job. More often than not, I work from home: I do so in my study. My cats quickly realised this was where they could find me; my cat Thomas has a spot on the sofa which he has claimed for himself. It’s not uncommon for all my cats, Thomas, Sarah Jane, and Solomon to be in here all at once. My Dachshund Boris also is a frequent visitor.

I found the study window could be brightened up by stringing coloured pennants across it. I ordered some from a craft company in Lithuania via Etsy prior to the Brexit deadline. Books continue to cram every corner. Small busts of composers acquired from eBay sit on the shelves. My banjo sits on a stand in the corner. When I look up from my laptop, I see tomes which range from Isabel Allende’s latest novel to a biography of the Austrian statesman Metternich. As I type this, a vinyl record spins on the player, liberating Billie Holiday’s voice to touch the air. The door is shut. I am self-isolated, at least until my cat Thomas comes to the door, pawing at it until I let him in. He is always welcome.

Although I’m an introvert, I was not always this way. I ran for city council in 2016, 2017, and 2018 as a Labour candidate. I remember the 2017 campaign as a particularly inspiring time. I went out every evening and knocked on doors and spoke to people in the ward. I wanted to speak to everyone. One evening, there was a public hustings in a village hall. I wore a dark pinstripe suit and a bright red tie. I felt like I could talk to anyone, and advocate for the cause of my constituents. I recall doing it, I recall every nuance of strength and emotion that I felt. I effectively countered the 8 or more Conservative councillors who decided to question me from the audience. I remember feeling “switched on”; the possibilities seemed as limitless as the summer sunshine that blessed the weeks of that campaign. I didn’t win, but it was a shining moment.

Not too long ago, I drove past that village hall. It was night; the windows were dark, the doors were locked. It some ways it seems the door is still shut. I am self-isolated. Time to turn back and ascend the stair. Put on another Billie Holliday record. Drink some mineral water, wrap a blanket around the shoulders. You’re ready for the coronavirus, I tell myself. You can stay here for weeks at a time if need be. Dear Thomas will come to the door and we will listen to music and he will watch me as I type away on this keyboard, his green-yellow eyes following the movement of my fingers. I will look up at a later hour and see the fading sunlight, and eventually, night will arrive. It will be time to turn back and ascend the stair, Thomas following me as I go to bed.

However, things change. After all, the open horizons of 2017 became the narrow confine of 2018 and beyond. I have little doubt there will be a time when I will get up from the routine of work, study, with trips to the gym or the store in-between. The healing that self-isolation offers will be complete. The door will open.

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Me And My Blog

Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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