Tag Archives: UK

Pandemic Reading List

We are finishing up week three of our lockdown in the UK.  When it was announced, the Prime Minister said it would be reviewed after three weeks.  Signs are, restrictions will not ease up anytime soon.

I limit myself to scanning the headlines of the New York Times, BBC News, and Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune every morning.  I can literally feel my heart start pounding faster and my palms sweating, so after reading one or two articles, I force myself to move on to something else.

Later, I can’t resist tuning in to the Downing Street Daily Coronavirus Briefing.  You may have heard that the PM, Boris Johnson, was hospitalized for coronavirus.  He was just the best-known figure outside of Britain.  Every day there’s a different line up of authorities.  One day the chief medical officer for England is on tap, the next day he’s gone because he’s got the virus.  Ten days later he re-appears, but in the meanwhile he is replaced by the health minister, who disappears and is replaced by the secretary of state for health and social care, who disappears next, and so on.  It’s a bit disconcerting but also gripping television drama.

Every evening they show a series of graphs. I don’t know if this is being done in the US.  I can’t bring myself to watch he-who-shall-not-be-named.  Reading about his gaffs and lies the next day is bad enough.

When I look at the trajectory for US deaths, it looks bad, right? This is one of the things that compels me to watch the briefing—I want to see if any of the lines have changed course.

It could be worse.  In the past year I happened to read two books and a short story about post-apocalyptic worlds.  I made a list of all such books I have read, and here it is, in case you are looking to scare the b’Jesus out of yourself—or make yourself feel better about the current pandemic.

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. This is the book that most closely resembles the current situation, except that the virus has a 95% fatality rate.  Lots of food for thought about how we would survive, physically and socially, once the grocery stores were looted and empty.  One of those books I was still thinking about months later.

Blindness, by Jose Saramago.  As the title implies, this is about a plague that causes 99% of the population to go blind.  Similar to Station Eleven, themes are about how we would survive physically and socially if we could not see.

Memories of the Space Age, by J.G. Ballard. The title of a short story and collection of similarly-themed short stories.  Lately, I find I only have enough concentration to read short stories.  This one is about how man’s intrusion into space causes a plague-like time-slowing effect that starts at NASA and advancing through Florida until the entire state has to be shut down and emptied of people to stop the spread.

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. LeGuin.  Humans have depleted every natural resource on Earth and are now plundering other worlds.  On Forest, they meet their match in the natives, who eventually drive them off but not before their innocence is defiled. Not a plague, but post-apocalyptic and not so unbelievable considering our rampant destruction of our planet.

The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick.  This novel has been made into a TV show starring one of my favorite actors, Rufus Sewell.  In this scenario, the plague is fascism.  Again, not that farfetched, I’m afraid.  The plot: Germany and Japan won WWII.  The Germans are exterminating every person in Africa and chasing down the few Jews who slipped through the cracks.

On the Beach, by Nevile Shute.  A nuclear holocaust has exterminated the human race except  in Australia.  They know it is just a matter of time before the radioactive clouds reach them and cause them to die in agony.  By far the scariest scenario because they know their plague is coming.  I couldn’t finish it.

And now, a beautiful view of Oxford’s spires from a hilltop on a spring day.

Missing Things, Noticing Things

What are you doing with all your time at home?

You would think I would be writing 10 blog posts a day, but I’m not.  I’m too busy with other endeavors!  I am working on the novel I’ve always wanted to write.  I spend at least an hour a day on mastering German verb forms.  I spend another five hours using online resources, like a class about the philosopher Nietzsche (“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”) to tours of the World’s Greatest Museums to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare performed online by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Peoria, Illinois; I’m learning how to play the didgeridoo from YouTube videos.  I don’t have a didgeridoo so I have to mime it.  I make sure the curtains are closed first.

Seriously, I’m not doing much.

Most of what I have written about the You-Know-What has changed.  I got this notice yesterday.

We are allowed to go to stores for food and medicines; all other stores, pubs, restaurants, and other venues are now closed.  We’re also allowed to get out for exercise once a day.

It could be worse.  Starting on Monday, 1.5 million Britons got notified that, because they have underlying conditions, they must stay in their homes for the next 12 weeks.  For this “shielding operation,” the government is also recruiting 250,000 volunteers to ensure the home bound have food and medications.  I just signed up.

I take a long walk every day.  There are many routes to explore in Oxford, especially along the Thames.  My favorite encompasses Iffley Village, a quaint village with thatched-roof cottages just 10 minutes from me.

Iffley’s Church of St Mary the Virgin was built in 1160.  It’s unusual looking for an English church.  If you want to read why, here you go.

I was fortunate to get inside before everything shut down.  It’s tiny.  I admired the modern stained-glass windows.

They had a blind organist for 40 years!

The vicar was setting out prayer books on the benches.

“Can I ask a dumb question?  How do I tell if a church is Church of England or Catholic?”

I noticed he didn’t say, “That’s not a dumb question.”

“Look for things that are missing,” he said.  “No images of Mary.  No stations of the cross, no holy water fonts.

“But the main factor is the age.  Anything built before the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII around 1540 is going to be C of E.  Catholic churches all relatively new, because they were banned for over 200 years, until the late 18th Century.”

I know this has nothing to do with Coronavirus and that’s kind of the point.  I am looking for other things to keep my mind occupied and at peace, but things that don’t require a lot of concentration.

I walked around Iffley yesterday. This sign greeted me at the gate.

The church is closed now so I sat in the churchyard.  It was quiet before but now it was silent except for the birds, which I had not noticed before.  No airplanes overhead, no street traffic.  For a jarring moment I felt like I was in a movie set in the 1910s.

I walked around the church, looking up, and saw this Where the Wild Things Are face for the first time.

Back in the street, I stopped to admire a classic Morris Minor.  It’s much smaller than a Mini Cooper.

I stepped into the tiny community shop, surprised it was open.  The elderly lady at the till seemed nervous; was that sheen of sweat on her brow a symptom of the virus!?  Another woman appeared in the doorway, looked at me, and asked, “Do you have a guardian?”

I panicked.  Did I look like I needed a guardian?!  Was the government coming to take me away and lock me up?  I rushed out of the shop, then I realized she was looking for The Guardian newspaper and she had thought I worked there.

Thankfully this was steps away, and restored my sense of humor.

I snatched the toilet paper.

Just kidding!

Let’s all try to notice things around us—beautiful, strange, and ab fab.

 

Boat as Bolthole

As I was cleaning up my work area because, well, now I have all the time in the world to do that, I came across a program from a piano recital I attended at St. Hilda’s College about six weeks ago.  I had written a few notes to myself because the visiting performer, a professor from some university in the US, said things like, “the piece I am about to perform place exemplifies the dystopian and utopian poles of Beethoven’s variations on Sonata No. 32 in C Minor.”  As I sniggered at this rarefied language, people around me where murmuring, “Ah, yes, so interesting.”  I’m glad someone knew what the hell he was talking about.

My life—and probably yours—has suddenly become dystopian.

In my last post I laid out the reasons that the UK had not closed schools.  Last night Boris Johnson announced schools would close indefinitely starting at the end of the day on Friday.

I attended my usual free lunchtime concert at the old church in town on Monday.  The program, two Beethoven sonatas, was performed by a visiting Japanese pianist.  There were about half the usual people in attendance, and we were all seated as far as possible from one another, until at the last minute an old man shuffled into the pew behind me and proceeded to cough and sneeze.  Maybe I should have moved, but I kind of wish I would just get the damn virus so I could get it over with.

At the end of the performance the vicar announced the series would be suspended indefinitely.  I felt sad.  How will I know what day it is now?  No more Monday concert, no Wednesday Pilates at the gym, no Friday yoga class at the community centre.

Am I the proverbial frog in the pan, the one that’s oblivious to the rising temperature until it’s too late?

While I get urges to just go home, my rational mind says I am safer staying put than getting on a bus to Heathrow, hanging out in an airport full of tourists from all over the world, then spending eight hours packed into a plane—potentially surrounded by people who have the virus.

I keep imagining myself with the virus, slumped against the plane window coughing and sweating while my fellow passengers glare at me and contemplate throwing me out the emergency hatch.

I haven’t been able to get through to Expedia for three days, and my duplex is sublet until the end of May, so leaving is sort of a moot point anyway.

I walked for three hours in the rain on Sunday.  In Oxfordshire, the Thames is unfortunately called the Isis.

I thought this graffiti under the train bridge beautiful.

Also this boat, one of many narrow boats moored along the Isis.

I had lunch at a pub near the lock where I crossed to the other side of the river.

Every time the server came to my table I thought, “I could be giving her the virus right now, or vice versa.”  In the UK, we hadn’t yet been encouraged to avoid pubs, but now that’s changed.

On another walk, I was thrilled to stumble upon this outdoor gym, since I will not be going to my real gym any time soon.

There will be no grand UK tour as described in my last post.  I searched Air BnB for boats and there was one—one I had passed many times—for rent.  I booked it for a week when my house sitting ends.

I may have to cancel it, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

After that?  Anyone’s guess.

At night I watch the news, transfixed.  Bertie, the affectionate cat of the trio for whom I am responsible, creeps up onto me seeking love.

“I can see you, you know,” I tell her.

She kneads me with her paws, then sinks her claws in, at which point I shove her away and we start the cycle again.

I watched University Challenge one night.

The pianist who specializes in Beethoven’s dystopian and utopian themes would have done well.  I didn’t get a single answer right.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Is this it?  Is this the moment I will look back on in a month or a year and ask, “Why?  Why didn’t I get out of the UK while I could!?”

There so much loaded into that question.  Half a dozen people have asked me a version of it.

“Are you worried about being trapped there?”

“Are you okay there?”

“Are you staying there?”

“Are you coming home early?”

From the people from whom I am house sitting: “Do you need us to line up emergency cover in case you have to hot foot it back to the US?”

I think these questions are a reflection of the askers’ anxiety, and I totally understand.

I too feel anxious, but I feel safe here.  Would it be better if I took a crowded bus into London, spent time in a massive airport, and eight hours on a plane?

I wrote a version of the following on Facebook so some of you will have seen it already.

Britain is doing things differently. For instance, they are not closing schools. The thinking is, if schools are closed, 20% of the NHS workforce won’t be available for patient care because they’ll have to stay home to take care of their kids.  Also—and I have seen this backed up by the head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota—kids just don’t get or pass the virus on the way adults do.  There is also the panic-inducing factor, which I have begun to see among my American family whose children’s schools are closed.  “They’re closing the school?! This must be even worse than I thought!”  Fourth reason: This won’t peak for 10-12 weeks; schools closed now may have to stay closed for months.

Is the UK getting it right?  Time will tell.

In this interview with Mike Osterholm, head of CIDRAP, he describes in lay terms how it is thought the coronavirus is transmitted.  “Think about the last time you looked at the sunlight coming through the windows of your house, and you saw all that material floating, that dust, and you think, ‘Oh my, my house is dusty.’  That’s an aerosol; that just floats.  That’s not falling to the ground.  And we now have increasing evidence that coronavirus is likely doing the same thing.”

I honestly think I am better off “sheltering in place,” an option international organizations deploy when there is a security threat.

I may be wrong.  This morning’s news is that American Airlines has cancelled all its long-haul flights except two a day to Heathrow and Narita.

Is the noose tightening?   Will I have to take the Queen Mary home? That’d be okay, assuming I could afford it.  It’s on my bucket list.

In 1918, two of my grandfather’s sisters died in the global flu pandemic. They were 5 or 6 years old.  In the early 40s, my mother attended her cousin’s 5th birthday party and within hours he and another little boy were dead from meningitis.  My mother’s family was isolated for a week with a QUARANTINE banner circling their house and yard.

I Do Not wish for our elders to die. But I am grateful that the current pandemic doesn’t kill children and young people. Can you imagine the additional panic if children were dying? And the grief of parents and others would last for decades.

As an aside: When my mother’s family was quarantined, Mr. Goldenberg, who ran the five-and-dime store down the block, would deliver groceries at the back gate, then run back down the alley.  Yesterday I knocked on my next door neighbor’s door to give her my phone number.  She’s an elderly lady who lives alone.  She reciprocated.  We agreed, we hope we won’t need to call on one another for food deliveries, but it’s good to know that we can.

This morning, I found a note slipped through the letterbox.  Another neighbour has organized a “Charles Street Connected” group.  It’s meant to help us connect, pool resources, and support each other.

Look out for one another so that a month or a year from now we may look back on some positives that came out of this.

Coronavirus – What Else?

I haven’t written for a while because life has just been … normal.  I’ve been working, going to lunchtime concerts, to the gym, tending the cats and chickens, and trying to plan five and a half weeks in Europe after my house sitting gig in Oxford ends next month.

I was on the verge of booking a tour of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.  I was going with Responsible Travel, a company with which Lynn and I toured Colombia two years ago.  They’re UK based and I had to call their American branch to book.  The branch didn’t open until 4pm my time, and I got distracted with other things.

Then I watched the news.

Coronavirus has been the top story here in the UK every night save one or two for over a month.  I don’t recall what the particular news was on this night, but I crossed “Book Tour” off my to-do list.

I’m not worried about getting the virus.  Of course I am taking all precautions but if I get it, I get it.  I do worry about being in Bulgaria and my return flights being cancelled.  I worry about being banned from the UK, from which my flight home departs.  I worry about being quarantined in a 2-star Hungarian hotel and having nothing but pork hocks to eat.

I worry that my cousin Molly and her husband will cancel the trip they’ve been looking forward to for months—to Oxford and the Scottish Highlands—scheduled to commence a week from tomorrow.

To their credit, as of yesterday they were saying they would come, knowing the worst case scenario was they would be “stuck” in the UK or be sick here.  In my opinion, the UK would be a good place to have the virus.  The NHS seems to have been very aggressive with quarantines, testing, and public health messaging.  While there has been a run on loo paper and pasta (photos below of my local Tesco store’s pasta section), there is still plenty of food to be had.

Yesterday after taking a long walk along the Thames I sat perusing a travel book at the Eagle and Child pub with a pint of local ale and a bag of salt and vinegar crisps.

Here’s a book I didn’t buy:

My advice to any Brits who think Kansas sounds exotic is, “Don’t do it!”

The book I bought is, Europe on a Shoestring.  I hoped it would kick start my plans, but I wasn’t feeling excited.  I can’t afford to lose significant money if my plans are cancelled.

I noticed that—ironically given Brexit—the book included the UK.  I flipped to that section to see what it said about Oxford, then kept reading, and began to feel excited. Why not just stay here and see the places I’ve never been?  I started yellow highlighting and making lists of “base” and “day trip” destinations.

I awoke this morning to messages from friends and family informing me that all travel from Europe to the US has been banned. This is idiotic on many levels but it confirmed my gut feeling that I would limit my travels to the UK.

The ban is muddled and, I believe, will exacerbate the worldwide economic downward spiral into another recession or even depression.

When communications are unclear, people panic.  For instance, the ban does not apply to Americans returning from Europe.  Why?  Don’t we carry germs?  The UK is exempt from the ban.  Why?  Heaps of people pass through the UK all the time on their way from Europe to the US.  Are they magically cleansed of contagion as they pass through?

Trump called coronavirus a “foreign” virus and Mike Pompeo, head of our State Department, calls it “Wuhan” virus.  This “pure” us vs. “dirty” them language will ratchet up the xenophobia already rampant around the world and probably motivate foreign leaders to ban on US travelers.

Meanwhile, back in Oxford last night, my yoga instructor, who I think is Canadian and the most miserable-looking yoga instructor ever, encouraged us to “feel your bioenergy harmonizing with the universe.” I couldn’t feel it, but I felt grateful not to have a cough or fever.

Breathe in, breathe out.

And wash your hands!

Back in the Shire

Oxfordshire, that is.

I’ve put off writing because I didn’t know which angle to take.  Should I document all the things I’ve seen and done in the last 10 days?  Should I write about odd happenings, like me falling on an escalator and attracting the attention of dozens of shoppers and shop keepers, all asking solicitously, “are you all right?”  (I was embarrassed and bruised, but otherwise all right.).  I could contract American and British things. I could write about the history of Oxford and its famous university, or chronicle my inner journey of relocating to another country.

All this was a good excuse to procrastinate, but to be fair to myself, I’ve been putting in a lot of work hours and keeping busy gadding about town.

I’ll start with my base, the house where I am house sitting, which affords me a sanctuary from which I emerge and explore.  I will share some photos eventually, but I want to be careful about not creeping out the homeowners.

It’s a terraced house, a typical type of housing in the UK.  Probably dates to the Edwardian era, named for King Edward VII who reigned from 1901-1910.  There are windows and doors front and back and neighbors on either side.

I haven’t heard much of or even seen the neighbors.  I heard water whooshing on the other side of a wall one day, a door slamming once.  Last night around 3am I smelled toast.

On the ground floor, which in America we call the first floor, there’s a living room, which they call the lounge.  There’s a dining room, kitchen, and sunroom, which my homeowner calls The Cocktail Lounge. Up a steep set of narrow stairs is what they call the first floor and Americans call the second floor.  Here there are two bedrooms and a bathroom.  In this house, the owners have very cleverly opened up the rafters to build a loft office.  Getting up there involves climbing an even steeper set of stairs.

There’s a back garden, which in America we call the back yard.  With terraced housing back gardens are very long, narrow spaces.  In my case, the back garden has been bisected by a fence.  The front half is for people and the back half is for chickens.

Yes, I am tending four hens who my homeowners rescued from a laying factory.  They make adorable noises like “bwaaaaaaa, buh buh buh” and the usual clucking.  Every morning I go out to collect one to three eggs.  I let the hens out to free range and top up their food and water.  Once a week I clean out their little house and hose down the sidewalk that has become mucky with chicken poo (Americans say poop—why?).

One of the hens is hen pecked by the others.  She has hardly any feathers except on her head, which makes her look like a little pot-bellied naked person wearing a chicken-head costume.

There are also three cats, one of whom rarely makes an appearance.  They poo outside so I don’t have to deal with a litter box.  They have a smart cat door which reads their microchips and won’t open to neighborhood cats.

My seven housemates are low maintenance.  Caring for them gives me a little routine to ground myself each day.

I live in Cowley, the vibrant, diverse neighborhood east of Oxford city center where real people live.

I live a half hour walk from Oxford city center.  Since my arrival I’ve walked at least an hour a day just to get around.  I could take a bus, but why, if I am able to walk?

There is so much going on here, and it’s cheap or free if you look.  The highlight so far was a free concert at Christchurch Cathedral.

The program was Chopin, and the pianist played the funeral march from Sonata Number 2.

This piece has become almost a joke, but if you listen to the whole thing you will hear it is not only a beautiful piece of music but a celebration of life with all its ups and downs and frustrations and joys.

Which pretty much sums up my life so far.

Travelers and Travellers

Lynn proposed taking a break from driving for a day, so we took a bus to Abbottsbury, home to the world’s largest colony of mute swans. Yes!  I know you’ve been wondering where the world’s largest colony of mute swans is, and now you know.

We Americans are so car dependent.  Thing is, on many routes you can see so much more from trains and buses.  This was the case on the route from Charmouth to Abbottsbury, which wound through gentle rolling hills overlooking the sea.  It was a double-decker bus and in addition to the views, we had the double-decker bonus of an entertaining and slightly menacing fellow passenger.

This guy was sitting in the front left bench on the top of the bus with his dog.  A young boy was slumped in the bench on the other side.

“I’m a Traveller,” he turned to announce to us in a phlegmy smoker’s voice.

I capitalize Traveller and use two “ls” because Travellers are what we in the States might call Gypsies, which some consider a pejorative term for the Roma people.  Irish Travellers are an ethnic group, while the British term Traveller seems to be a catch-all for nomadic people who might be Irish Travellers, Roma, new age drifters, or others of indeterminate origins.  Some of them travel in family groups in old-style wagons or caravans.  They take over farm fields or urban vacant lots and are reputed to steal anything local that isn’t nailed down.  They don’t send their kids to school or use the NHS or work except for odd jobs. After a few days or weeks they skedaddle, leaving behind mountains of trash for the land owner to pay to remove.

Our Traveller was clearly agitated—on drugs?  He turned and yelled at Lynn to ask where she was from—it was like I was invisible, which was fine with me—and when she said north London that was all he needed to go off on a rant.

“I’m a Traveller,” he repeated, as he stood up and began removing his shirt.  “I got my best friend here,” he gestured at the dog.  “And my kid over there,” he waved his hand dismissively at the boy.  “My partner’s had a baby, so I thought it’d be a good idea for us to go off and leave ‘er alone for a while.”

Yes, every woman’s dream—to have a baby and be left alone, probably in a filthy squat, with no medical care or support of any kind.  Maybe I had it all wrong.   Maybe she was in good hands.  I hope so.

He peeled of his shirt and rubbed his hands all over his torso.  Yes, he was high.  He had an almost-gone splif he kept putting in his mouth, holding his lighter to it, then remembering he was on a bus and putting it away.

He went on about London—how it had changed, how everything is different now, how expensive it is.  He talked about his dog and what a good friend he was.  The boy sat silent in the corner of his seat.

We passed through Chideock and Eype, then stopped in Bridwell, where the driver announced we would wait for 10 minutes.  The Traveller jumped up and ran down the steps to smoke his splif, leaving behind the dog and his kid.  The dog started wandering down the aisle.  The Traveller reappeared, yelling and cursing at the dog to “get yer feckin arse” back on the bench.  He put his shirt back on, then took it off half way, then sat down and was quiet.

Lynn and I and the two other passengers, an elderly stone-faced couple, proceeded to enjoy the tranquil scenery.  These photos are from some small town; it could have been Litten Cheney, Littlebredy, or Puncknowle.

I love how the hat shop is proud to be “known in both hemispheres.”

The Traveller and his entourage disembarked somewhere before Abbotsbury, which was a relief.  There isn’t a lot to say about the swannery, except that it was peaceful and good to learn there is a job called “Swanherd” that probably doesn’t involve sitting at a computer or in meetings all day.