Tuesday, 31 March 2020

A bit of variety - but it still makes grim reading

Huw Evans, over in the next valley, challenged people on Facebook recently to put up news stories which did not involve Covid-19. I defended myself, pointing out that I have posted such items, just as I did when the rest of the media seemed to be wall-to-wall Brexit. However, looking back on recent contributions, they seem to have been just as depressing as coverage of the new corona virus.

Perhaps it is good news that Turkey continues to pursue the Saudi assassins.

Israel may be entering a period of political stability at last, but at the cost of keeping in power a prime minister with fraud and corruption charges hanging over him and of an opposition leader who has torn up virtually all of his party's last election manifesto.

"Federal prosecutors accused President Nicolás Maduro of participating in a narco-terrorism conspiracy, in a major escalation of the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure him to leave office." reports the New York Times. If the Obama or Carter presidencies had issued such indictments, one would have been inclined to believe they had merit, but with Trump, who knows?

The finance minister of the state of Hesse in Germany has been found dead on railway tracks. The immediate suspicion is that he committed suicide. What adds significance is that the financial capital of Germany, Frankfurt-am-Main, is situated in Hesse.

In Libya, the Benghazi-based, UAE-backed, warlord Khalifa Haftar continues to attack Tripoli, the seat of the legitimate government, in spite of a cease-fire which had been negotiated early in the month. It cannot be good that the state from which people-traffickers operate seemingly with impunity and which is next-door to popular UK holiday destinations, is unstable.

Most serious to my view is the incursion of the evil al Shabaab into Mozambique, a Commonwealth nation, with it seems little resistance from the central authority. If what Amnesty says is true, that journalists are prevented from entering the region, then the news broadcasters have some excuse.

[Acknowledgements to al-Jazeera, Deutsche Welle and Amnesty International]

Monday, 30 March 2020

Perry Mason again

Well, it keeps ones mind off you-know-what.

CBS Justice are now back to series 3 mid-week while continuing with series 1 at weekends. Differences so far spotted: already at the start of series 3 Burr showed signs of the weight problem that would blight his later career; the number of pointy bras fell; there was still some smoking but not as much as in the first series; and Della Street had less action and less dialogue than the original author, Erle Stanley Gardner, gave her. (The producers ran out of books to adapt towards the end of series 1.)

It seems that General Motors provided the cars for series 3, and some European motors started to make their appearance. Fords predominated in series 1 and, although the principals were already driving those tail-finned monsters which were to dominate the late fifties and early sixties, there were still quite a few of the bulbous saloons pumped out in the wake of the second world war.

Later - I was mistaken about Ford and GM. The programme-makers tended to alternate between the Big Two from episode to episode within the series. There is more here.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Boris Johnson, record-breaker

The latest addition to my bookshelf is Gimson's Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to May. It is very readable, includes all the best-known aphorisms associated with PMs (along with warnings about the most shaky attributions) and looks like being a handy quick reference in the future. Gimson does not pretend to great depth in his short portrayals, but even so I believe he could have given more weight to the social reforms of Attlee, Lloyd George and Churchill. Gimson clearly writes from a Tory perspective.

I am grateful for the information that it was Stanley Baldwin who coined the term "One Nation Conservatism", inspired by the Disraelian observation that Britain consisted of two nations. However, I continue to believe Anthony Sampson's assertion that Iain Macleod was the first politician to describe himself as a "One Nation Tory".

I agree with Gimson's praise of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) but would correct him on one point: it is accessible online to the card-carrying public library user only if his or her local authority subscribes to the ODNB. Neath Port Talbot CBC, which rates public libraries below sporting facilities in its officer hierarchy, gave up subscribing many years ago, much to my annoyance.

Gimson would probably have regretted ending his survey with Mrs May who, in spite of the gloss of "strong and stable" leadership, was to fall within months of publication. In his introduction, Gimson asserts that "someone like Donald Trump could not get to 10 Downing Street". Boris Johnson (about whom Gimson has also written a book) has done just that. Johnson has broken two more records. The only other prime minister to have been born outside the UK was Bonar Law, and  until his occupancy, the only PM to have been divorced while in office was the Duke of Grafton who achieved this by Act of Parliament - the only legal means to end a consummated marriage in 1769. One trusts that a further record, that of Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the only PM to die in Downing Street (though he had already written a letter of resignation), will not be broken in spite of the news that broke on Thursday of Johnson's succumbing to a mild attack of Covid-19.

updated 2020-03-31

Friday, 27 March 2020

Interim journal of a plague year

As I emphasised in a recent post, I am not a doctor. However, since then, I have been somewhat reassured by one who is. I had voiced doubts whether the Covid-19 could be eliminated from the UK once it had taken hold. It appears that, though experience of other corona virus outbreaks is that immunity resulting from recovery from infection does wear off after a time, tailored vaccines do offer long-term protection.

Prime Minister Johnson and eminence grise Dominic Cummings are not doctors or epidemiologists either. But they should have listened to those who were, according to the editor of the medical journal The Lancet, as cited by Mike Buckley in the Byline Times.

The UK has wasted seven weeks. This is the judgement of Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet. The UK’s new Coronavirus strategy of “suppression” is the course of action recommended by the journal in its first report on the issue on 24 January. It is the strategy followed by China, South Korea, Taiwan and other countries that have seen some success in reducing the rate of infection. It is the strategy recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which it has been clearly stating would be far preferable to the course of action chosen by the UK Government until yesterday [16th March].

Buckley continues:
Had the UK followed WHO guidelines and the best practice of other states we could have kept infections to a much lower rate. WHO advice is abundantly clear, based on existing guidelines and the experience of countries which have successfully contained and turned back COVID-19 and previous pandemics. The essential elements for success are mass testing, the isolation of the sick and those carrying the virus, contacting and testing people who may have been exposed to it, and social isolation to prevent its spreading by people yet to show symptoms. This is not theory, it is fact.
The experience of Asian countries which lived through Sars, Mers and H1N1 has informed these guidelines and it is no coincidence that countries which learned lessons in the Sars outbreak of 2003 are the same countries which have been most successful in containing the Coronavirus. They have had time to develop systems and structures for the next infection. The only surprise is that Western countries have been so slow to follow their lead and to learn from their former failures and present success.

Taiwan, for example, as of 15 March, had just 59 confirmed cases and one death. It has managed to avoid a major outbreak of a disease which all but paralysed neighbouring China. Apart from most people wearing masks on public transport, life there goes on as usual.

The Conservative government has set great store by a strategy drawn up by the coalition government in 2011, as a back-bench Conservative outlined last Monday:

The “UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011” sets out our preparedness for a severe pandemic. It was tested in 2016 through a major three-day exercise called Cygnus, which involved about 1,000 organisations and the devolved Administrations. It demonstrated a number of things that we do well as a country and a number of things that we need to improve upon, one of which was the drafting of the draft pandemic influenza Bill, which forms the basis of the legislation today.

However, corona viruses are different from 'flu viruses, and different again from haemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola and Marburg. One trusts that the boffins in the Department of Health and Social Care are not only updating their plans for future epidemics on the experiences of the current one, both here and in the Far East, but also on models of what might happen here if a haemorrhagic disease hits our shores. To those who believe "it cannot happen here", it should be pointed out that there are serious historical scientists who believe that the 13th century Black Death was not bubonic plague, but a viral haemorrhagic disease.

There are still one or two questions about Covid-19. For instance, it is rare for a young person to die from the virus. Is it something to do with the development of the immune response, or is it down to a higher metabolic rate in the young? The latter is said to be the reason that the horseshoe bats which carry it in the wild can tolerate the virus. And how are some people in the target age range able to shrug off the infection? Answers to these questions may well help treatment.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Refugees could contribute in our present emergency

From last Monday's Commons debate:
Sir Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Is the Secretary of State aware that many people in the refugee community in the UK are qualified healthcare professionals? I have spoken to the refugee charity RefuAid, which says it has 514 qualified healthcare professionals on its books. These are people who are willing to work and fully qualified in their own country, but there are bureaucratic barriers to their coming forward. Will he please look into this matter with great urgency so that such people can help us out?

Matt Hancock
Yes. If the right hon. Gentleman emails me with the details, we will get right on to it. He refers to bureaucratic barriers; we of course have to make sure that people are able to do the work that is necessary, but we have already shown in the Bill that we are willing not ​only to bring people back into service but to put into service those who are towards the end of their training, to make sure that we get as many people as possible in full service. I absolutely want to pick up on the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal and take it up with the General Medical Council or the relevant regulator to see whether we can find a way through for the period of this crisis.

At last, a Conservative government which is willing to allow refugees to earn some money for themselves and to help their hosts. One hopes that this liberal conversion lasts beyond the current emergency. Of course, a lot now depends on the GMC.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Not the end of cash

Today is Lady Day, which used to be not only the start of the legal year in England, but also when traditionally the agricultural season started and when monies were due to be paid. (There is more about the significance of this Quarter Day here.) So it is an appropriate date to talk about the future of cash.

Which? (the Consumers' Association) has just celebrated persuading the Chancellor of the Exchequer to protect cash. Anabel Hoult, Which? Chief Executive, writes on the magazine's web-site:

the government will bring forward legislation to protect access to cash and ensure that the UK’s cash infrastructure in sustainable in the long-term. We know that the cash system faces irreversible damage within the next two years. The UK’s ATM network is on the verge of collapse. In the past two years, 9,000 free cash machines and 1,200 bank branches have vanished. We’re even being charged a fee to access our own money at 25% of the cash machines that remain. Understandably, millions of people are unhappy about this. They rely on cash. For many of them, cash is the only option, so the government must swiftly press ahead with these plans to legislate, which must include putting a single regulator in charge of protecting cash.

We look forward to working with the government, regulators and industry to ensure that cash is protected for as long as it is needed.

As one who uses local town shops as much as supermarkets in Swansea or Neath, I can vouch for the fact that at least half the transactions here are in cash. Not all of us have cars which we can load up at an out-of-town supermarket once a week. Cash is still so useful for small purchases that I habitually draw a tenner out of the only ATM remaining in the town which does not charge a fee for withdrawals. Online purchases are disproportionately expensive for small purchases because of packing and carriage charges. Physical cash still works when card readers or the network break down. It can act as a curb on spending, which invisible card transactions do not.

Some EU nations have gone further down the cashless line, e.g. Sweden and Estonia. But there are doubts here, too:

e-commerce and the cashless society are facing a host of challenges related to cybercrime, fraud, privacy, the digital divide and pollution, among others. The coronavirus outbreak is also posing various challenges to e-commerce supply chains, many of which are based in the hardest-hit countries.

If cash were abolished, we would almost certainly want to bring it back, as we have brought back railway lines which were closed in the 1960s, also in the cause of progress.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

A panic which should have been no more than an emergency

Today, a Covid-19 Bill is scheduled to be passed to their Lordships by the Commons. It contains provisions which go beyond existing emergency legislation. (A Lords briefing is here.) At the time of writing, it appears it will grant worrying extra powers over telecoms.

I am also grateful to the Institute for Government (IfG) for their briefing. It seems to me that, with the exception of the power to postpone elections, application of existing emergency legislation at an earlier date would have avoided the necessity of more draconian measures now.

Not only draconian, but also suspicious is that:
The bill also makes provision to deal with the disruption that Covid-19 might cause to certain national security processes. It relaxes the judicial safeguard on the power of the home secretary to order the interception of communications. The maximum amount of time allowed before a warrant for interception is reviewed by a judge will be increased from three to 12 days. The government says that this is because the virus may affect judges’ availability.

Those who are keen on extending the surveillance state miss no opportunity to slip in further legal intrusions on our privacy.

Another loosening of civil rights relates to detaining of people suspected of being infected. Under the 1984 Act:
A magistrate has the power under the act to make a person submit to a medical examination, detain them in hospital, hold them in quarantine, and make them abstain from working or trading.

The 2020 Bill would allow the police to detain infection suspects without a warrant.

Technically, returning officers (EROs) have no power to call off by-elections

As the law stands at present, Neath Port Talbot council were acting ultra vires in postponing next Thursday's by-election in the Mount Pleasant ward of Neath Town Council. However, advice from the Cabinet Office and Crown Prosecution Service is that nobody is going to prosecute EROs for suspending by-elections, as one has already been put off in Clackmannanshire.

Pandemic or no pandemic, UK legislation has not wholly taken account of various emergencies which might occur. Andrew Teale, the Britain Elects Previewer, has published an analysis which goes beyond the current state of play. His remarks about devolved administrations make me glad that I am no longer in the front line of election campaigns.

Monday, 23 March 2020

The government is clearly not serious about its cordon sanitaire

Courtesy of The Secret Barrister, a gross lacuna (your actual legalese) in this government's so-called coronavirus action plan has come to light:

Today, thousands of citizens of England and Wales will attend their local Crown Court in answer to a summons compelling them, under threat of imprisonment, to do their civic duty and serve on a jury.

They will queue with dozens of other strangers to be herded into a packed jury waiting room. Once selected for a jury panel, they will pile into a dirty, windowless courtroom and sit next to each other for five hours a day. At lunch they will mingle with the hundred or so other jurors in the building. At the conclusion of the trial, they will shuffle into a tiny unventilated retiring room, where they will make a decision which could ultimately determine whether somebody spends years of their life in prison.

This is because, even though the government has closed schools, restaurants, pubs, cafes and leisure centres, one area of public life in which, to quote a government minister, we are “operating normally”, is in the criminal courts.

So while Scotland and Northern Ireland have temporarily suspended jury trials, in England and Wales the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland and the Lord Chief Justice have decreed that jury trials lasting up to three days – estimated to be 75 per cent of trials – must take place.

They will do so in filthy conditions where lack of hot water, soap and paper towels is widespread; where broken hand dryers and leaking toilets and burst pipes and crumbling roofs and walls are par for the course; conditions which in the good times we in the courts accept as a permanent feature of a chronically underfunded justice system, but which in the current climate present a far more alarming proposition.

Is this really getting things done?

How much of our licence fee was spent on this shambles?

In July 2017, walesonline proclaimed: "the new £120m headquarters for BBC Cymru Wales is on track for practical completion next spring, with it also being confirmed that it will be linked by underground fibre optic cabling to the Principality Stadium. [...] The cabling linking up with the Principality Stadium, which is within yards of the new HQ at Central Square immediately north of Cardiff Central Railway Station, will allow, for the first time, BBC Wales sport and news teams to have instant editing access to images from sporting events at the stadium. Plans for cutting-edge technology, including a virtual reality enabled studio and augmented reality capabilities are now in place. [...] BBC Wales has yet to finalise its staff migration programme but it will see the first staff, most likely in non news administration roles, moving into the building in autumn 2019. The plan is to have all staff in the building in the first quarter of 2020."

BBC has now had to admit that it "is still unable to give a date when broadcasting will commence at the Central Square, despite receiving the keys to its new HQ in April 2018. At that time it was said that fitting out the building with broadcast technology would take 18 months – until October 2019. But five months after that date passed, new equipment is still in the testing phase. One BBC source said some staff were increasingly frustrated by the delays, which are also affecting the Welsh language broadcaster S4C, whose employees are being split between Central Square and Carmarthen."

Loyal readers will know that I long ago objected to one of the best rail/bus interchanges in the country being sacrificed to what looked like a vanity project by the cosseted BBC. The corporation and the Welsh RFU will no doubt point to the fantastic linkage between the Principality Stadium and the new HQ as justification (no mention of Sophia Gardens or the Cardiff City stadium where international matches in other sports are also staged) but they have already missed enhanced coverage of the 2019/20 Six Nations championship. Maybe, if the championship is not abandoned altogether, Covid-19 has come to the corporation's rescue.

We should be told what the final cost of the project will be, bearing in mind the need to hold on to Llandaff longer than planned. It would also be reassuring to know that the corporation will be compensated by suppliers of technical equipment where these were at fault.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Arthur and Ryck

One of the consequences of the current pandemic and its domination of all broadcast news is that I spend more time than usual watching Talking Pictures TV to get away from it all. I have been a fan of the station from its early days, partly for the pleasure of re-acquaintance with classic films which have been on the shelf for too long and also for the anorak-y buzz got from spotting old British actors in otherwise sub-B features. One of those dependable performers who appeared in many a TV serial or series in the 'fifties, including wielding a crossbow as William Tell, was Conrad Phillips. When his name popped up as the hero of 1962's Dead Man's Evidence, this second feature clearly deserved a look.

The film was a decent spy thriller with a couple of satisfying plot twists. Set in Ireland, it was well-acted by both English and (relatively unknown to a British audience) Irish members of the cast. They had to be good to cope with its major failing, the dialogue.

The story turned out to be by the author of a classic. Arthur La Bern (born "Labern", but changed to imply a Huguenot ancestry) wrote It Always Rains On Sunday at the end of the war and his novel was turned into one of the great noir features of the recovering British film industry, under the direction of the troubled genius Robert Hamer. It helped that Hamer had Angus MacPhail and Henry Cornelius as collaborators in the screen play. A later La Bern novel, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, also became a film as Hitchcock's Frenzy. La Bern also wrote a few screenplays in the Edgar Wallace series, which Talking Pictures TV has been re-showing.

The most interesting revelation was that of associate producer and co-star Ryck Rydon. That looked like a stage name, and indeed it was. He was born Derrick Wilfred Haney in Canada and was well-equipped to play a suspected double-agent, as he had served as a private in the war-time elite joint American/Canadian commando unit known as the Black Devils. The report of his marriage to fellow-Canadian Kay Callard looks erroneous, however. Arthur and Ryck both seem to have been good at self-invention.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Forty years ago

The waste about to be laid by the combination of Brexit and the tardiness of reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to at least as bad as the consequences of the brutal monetarism of Thatcher and Howe. As this paper on the legacy of Thatcher puts it: "the combination of high interest rates and a high pound had catastrophic consequences for the economy and industry in particular. Industrial production (including oil output) fell by 6.4% between 1979 and 1980, and average unemployment leapt from 1.3 million in 1979 to 1.7 million in 1980, and continued to rise to nearly 3.3 million in 1986. According to a House of Lords report published in 1985, manufacturing output and capacity shrunk by 20% in this recession." Among other casualties was the UK machine-tool industry, leaving a clear field for the Japanese and continental competitors. Mass sackings not only caused personal hardship but also threw away years of experience.

Since then, UK commerce and industry has endeavoured to hold on to precious expertise through the various financial shocks which have hit the nation. Unless the banks, which now have access to money at unprecedentedly low interest rates, enable our small and medium enterprises to weather this particular storm, they may not be able to maintain key employment this time round.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Herd instinct

Like so many of the people peddling home remedies for Covid-19 on the Web, I am not medically qualified. Unlike them, I am ready to admit the fact. However, having lived with seasonal (and sometimes year-round) chest infections for as long as I can remember, and being an avid reader of popular science articles in reputable sources, I believe I can offer some relevant observations.

I have always understood the term "herd immunity" to mean "the reduction of infection or disease in the unimmunised segment as a result of immunising a proportion of the population". So one can virtually eliminate a disease or particular strain of one from a population by mass immunisation. Prime minister Johnson and his medical advisers have assumed a broader definition of the term. It seems that in the unavoidable absence of a vaccine, they are prepared to let the infection burn itself out, intervening only to the extent of treating life-threatening instances of infection and (belatedly and only partially) reducing physical contacts. As I understand it, they are assuming that those who catch Covid-19 and survive (and so far it has had only mild effects on healthy people) will naturally acquire immunity to infection in any future exposure to the virus. Thus there will be a herd effect without any need for the authorities to take further action.

What worries me is that the virus will not be eliminated, but go underground, as it were. We have already seen that children can harbour Covid-19 without exhibiting any symptoms. There have been a couple of cases of patients being given the all-clear only for a subsequent test to show that the virus had merely been "lying low" when the reassuring test had been taken. In my young days, several childhood viral infections were treated as a nuisance to be got over quickly, so prevalent were they. The dangers of measles had begun to be recognised, but parents tended to be a bit blasé about German measles (rubella) and chicken-pox, which appeared to be mild in their effects. Only later was the danger to unborn children from rubella recognised. It was also discovered that the herpes virus which causes chicken-pox can linger quiescent in the body for years, erupting in later life as the painful shingles. My concern is that the UK will become a reservoir of attenuated strains of this particular corona virus, which will flare up in the future as a result of mutation or change in the environment. Our nation may become a hostile environment to immigrants, but not as the Tories intended.

PS: The school shutdown in the home countries has led to questions about the future of those in their last year of GCSE courses whose exams have been cancelled, and whose GCSE grades will be assigned on the basis of assessment. A fairer course of action, one which would allow potential employers and universities to compare like with like, would be to allow those pupils to return to complete their year and take their exams. after the epidemic has played itself out. To ease the timetable and physical congestion which would otherwise occur, the opportunity could be taken to reduce the compulsory minimum school leaving age by a year. It is something I have been advocating for some time, but it would not have been politically acceptable in normal times. There would have been strong resistance from teaching unions, but individual teachers would welcome the chance to release into the outside world youngsters who are not confident of getting good exam results and cannot see why they are wasting their time in the classroom when they could be getting their feet on the employment ladder.

Thursday, 19 March 2020


I am heartened by the growth of local community groups which have sprung up to help the housebound and those who are self-isolating under the threat of the very infectious Covid-19. I had despaired of the people of Wales who seemed in last year's general election to be following the herd in England. There was a collective concession of decision-making to a Strong Man who would get things done, no matter how destructively, and to hell with community and democracy.

These self-help groups first became evident on Facebook's local pages, but it soon became clear that they were also using the good old pre-Internet leaflet-through-the-door technique for those who were not Internet-connected for whatever reason.

It is all very reassuring.

[Later] I see that Liberal Democrats in England feel that community spirit there needs reviving from the top down. A "Coronavirus Community Taskforce" has been set up to "coordinate Liberal Democrat councillors’, members’, activists’ and supporters’ response to the coronavirus crisis in their communities"

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Call that a global crisis? This is a global crisis!

The Labour party, and a few other bodies, in whose interests it is to shuffle off any blame, has managed to establish the myth that the banking and financial service failures of 2007/8 were of global significance. In fact, only those nations tied in to US finance were affected; China, India and the OPEC nations among others continued to grow. The major Spanish banks, forbidden by a law passed by their parliament frightened by a previous US lending failure from investing in dodgy American undertakings, also survived and were able to take advantage of the UK banks' failures. Middle East money enabled Barclays to survive without British state aid.

The current situation truly is a global emergency. China, which came through 2007/8 unscathed, was first in the line of Covid-19 fire. Trading partner Iran and popular Chinese tourist destination Italy soon succumbed. Other nations fell like dominoes. Perhaps if the  US, UK and other western nations had immediately adopted the measures taken by Taiwan as soon as that country recognised the danger, we here might not already be in the "delay" phase of the pandemic. Every continent has been touched by Covid-19.

World stock-markets have suffered falls not seen before in my lifetime, not helped by a row between Russia and Saudi Arabia over petroleum supply. One would think that our government, faced with financial and social problems absorbing much of its attention, would immediately repeal the legislation forcing this country out of any links with the EU by the end of the year and ask the EU Council for an extension of time for the free trade talks. Both the Lib Dems, who want to retain the closest links with the EU, and even Labour, largely in favour of leaving, have asked for that, both in Lords' Questions yesterday and Prime Minister's Questions today. At all turns, the government has remained implacable. Companies are already failing because of Brexit. More are going to fail because of the Covid-19 lock-downs. No doubt Johnson and the Tories will put all the blame for the coming recession on the latter.

Monday, 16 March 2020

House arrest

Trails of the first of PM Johnson's public briefings suggested that we over-70s were to be banned from crossing our own doorsteps for the next 12 weeks as a result of the epidemic of Covid-19 in England and Wales. This would give a boost to Ocado, Tesco, Iceland and others who make home grocery deliveries, but would do nothing for ones physical fitness. AsthmaUK advises that:

getting your heart rate up can actually improve your asthma symptoms. Here’s how:
  • Raising your heart rate regularly boosts your lung power, increasing stamina and reducing breathlessness
  • It supports your immune system and helps fight colds and viruses – a major trigger for over 80% of people with asthma
  • Activity helps you stay a healthy weight, in turn cutting your risk of an asthma attack
  • It releases ‘feel-good’ chemicals in your brain – studies show that if you’re stressed, or depressed, you’re at higher risk of asthma symptoms
Clearly some of these advantages apply to older people with other limiting health conditions. I hasten to add that I am not recommending that one should undertake strenuous exercise when one already has a fever - there are too many reports of athletes in the prime of life who have done this and damaged their hearts as a result - but a blanket ban on going out would do more harm than good.

To our relief, the word from the Downing Street oracle is that we need only avoid social interaction and that we are "allowed to go out for walks" when our period of staying at home begins. One trusts that tending allotments and dog-walking are also "allowed".

Friday, 13 March 2020

Asthma research

In these dark days when people already suffering from impeded breathing are threatened by Covid-19, such reports as this offer a glimmer of hope. However, as Asthma UK point out, the Irish research is at a very early stage "and done in animals. There will need to be further studies but there is a lot of potential here though if they could show a therapeutic effect of targeting the human form in clinical trials." Asthma UK (now merged with the British Lung Foundation) has itself been funding research into proteins triggering allergic reactions causing inflammation.

Thursday, 12 March 2020


President Trump has fallen into the condition known to the Germans as Musstunismus: something must be done, this is something, so let's do it. Facing growing concern in the US about Covid-19, he has banned visitation rights from most of Europe.  Note that he has not closed his more vulnerable border, the Pacific west coast facing China and South Korea, the nations suffering most from the infection. In fact, California has already recorded over one hundred cases of Covid-19 infection and (at the time of writing) four people have died of the corona  virus in the State. It would make more sense even this late in the day to ban interstate travel, and crossing land borders with Canada and Mexico, until the epidemic has run its course.

Even his ban on inward movement from Europe has some glaring lacunae. For a start, the UK, where the disease has unfortunately already taken hold (new cases are being reported which have no connection with existing Covid-19 hot-spots), is excluded. Moreover the travel restrictions exempt Trump-owned golf resorts. US citizens are exempt from the controls. One has to conclude that Trump's diktat is less a serious attempt to combat the spread of the disease, more an appeal to the xenophobic element in the US populace which helped elect him in 2016 and which he hopes will do so again this year.

Here, the Chancellor of the Exchequer aided by the Bank of England has introduced measures to give more money to his natural supporters with the aim of stoking up the economy. As mentioned in this blog before, the people who do not need hand-outs tend to save additional income rather than spending it. The people who really need money, those on basic wages, will spend any increase because they have to, and the immediate benefit will be to the local economy. Trickle-up works, trickle-down hardly ever does. Instead of announcing as part of his emergency measures an immediate increase in the national minimum so that it genuinely is a living wage, Chancellor Sunak has waved a vague promise that it may reach £10.50 per week in 2024 - by which time inflation will have eaten away the value of the "increase".

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Brexit continues to poison politics

A member of Aberavon and Neath Liberal Democrats has resigned as a result of the English Liberal Democrats accepting as a member, and candidate in a local election in May, someone who would have stood for Farage's Brexit organisation in last December's general election (until Farage pulled her along with others where their candidacy may have affected Tory chances). The former member concerned is a French citizen who is affronted that the Lib Dems should so swiftly adopt a person who only a few months ago was prepared to stand on a platform diametrically opposed to our campaign to remain in the EU and one with barely-concealed racist undertones. One does wonder how committed the new recruit is to any political philosophy and why more time was not allowed for this to be established.

I am proud to say that our local party resolved tonight to back our members from the EU in any way we could in the face of the Tories' short-sighted, xenophobic, hostile environment. 

Monday, 9 March 2020

Geraldine Mucha

If I had not been nursing a cold (not Covid-19, just my usual early spring affliction, contacts will be glad to hear), I would have been at a regional meeting of the Welsh Liberal Democrats yesterday and would not have taken my mind off things with the annual Radio 3 broadcast celebrating International Women's Day. I would then not have heard Geraldine Mucha's piano concerto.

Sarah Walker, in introducing the piece, said that she detected the influence of Bartok but went on to say that it was nothing like anything she had heard before. I would add Martinu as a possible influence, especially in the slow movement, but would certainly agree with her other impression. The concerto cries out for a Proms performance - and perhaps some enterprising young musician might select it as their personal choice for the next international piano competition?

Friday, 6 March 2020

Canals go electric

The boats on Amsterdam's iconic canals will all be electrically-driven by 2025, thanks to an initiative begun two years ago. It is probably the first move to electrify all the boats on a canal network, but it is not the first electrification of a canal boat. There have been canal boats powered from overhead cables since the 1890s though there appear to be very few such systems surviving. At the same time,  an automotive boat was not commercially viable because the massive lead-acid batteries which were then the only widely-available power source took up valuable cargo space.

An enterprising leisure narrow boat operator on the then recently restored Stratford-on-Avon canal launched the Electric Blue at the back end of last century, clearly named for one of the tropical morpho species collected in the Stratford Butterfly Farm. As to what led to its demise, I can find no answer on the Web now. (If anyone out there has any links, I would be grateful for them.) Perhaps there was just not enough space for the users in those days before the lighter and more compact lithium-ion systems were developed. Anyway, these are clearly the future and good luck to Amsterdam.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Mike Davies, perchance

It was one of those lucky accidents. The other day, I had prepared a Lidl insulated bag with another stout Lidl bag folded inside it. Spotting an opportunity to take advantage of brighter weather and an imminent bus departure, I quickly got ready and made for the bus stop. In my haste, I picked up the wrong bag. It was not until I reached the checkout that I realised my error. Too mean to buy another bag when I had plenty at home, I pressed into emergency service the other small plastic bag which I carry in my pocket, but reckoned that it, crammed full as it was, would not stand the strain of the walk all the way back from Cadoxton to Skewen. So I waited for the X8, even though I knew it would be fifteen minutes before it turned up.

It was there, at the disintegrating bus "shelter" that Mike Davies, who happened to be passing, recognised me and started a conversation about the failure of the council to replace the shelter. To my shame, I did not recognise him at first. In my defence, it had been eight years since I last met him, at the home of the late Leslie Hale during my unsuccessful campaign to be re-elected as councillor for the ward. There was a lot of catching up to do.

Mike, one of twins, had been manager of the Times Furnishing Company's shop in Neath. He had also been the leader, from the keyboard, of a small band, good enough to be chosen to back some headline acts when they visited the area. He cannily married the band's vocalist which kept the costs down, he said! Mrs Davies is still active with the Neath and District Ladies Choir.

In those eight years, he has come into his own as a photographer of the local scene and wildlife. He has been generous with his pictures, professional standard though they are. They have adorned the BBC TV weather presentations, both Welsh and national. He also contributes images to local charities, such as the Bryncoch Environment Group, for calendars, postcards etc. He also photographically documented the construction of a local wind farm, but donated his commission from the operating company to Neath Port Talbot hospital.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

York conference: self-isolation

In the light of a Covid-19 case turning up in Swansea recently, the result of a presumably familial visit to north Italy, representatives of Liberal Democrat parties in the area must be watching the local news media for fear of developments. The federal spring conference is due to start in York next week and party chiefs are poised.

I must remember to ask John Cresci if he has been back to the old sod recently.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Problems of an ageing EU population

From the pages of the European Parliament's Think Tank:

Demography matters. The economy and the labour market, but also social protection, intergenerational fairness and healthcare, the environment, food and nutrition are all driven by demography. The population of EU countries has grown substantially – by around a quarter since 1960 – and currently it stands at almost 450 million. The numbers are now beginning to stagnate however and are expected to decline from around the middle of the century. With the world population having risen still more substantially and growth continuing, the EU represents a shrinking proportion of the global population. The EU population is also ageing dramatically, as life expectancy increases and fertility rates fall below past levels. This has serious implications across a range of areas including the economy, healthcare and pensions. Free movement within the EU and migration from third countries also play an important role in shaping demography in individual Member States and regions. 
There is more here.

It is likely that the UK will suffer less from this than the EU, whose economy will pick up faster when the current recession ends. The Johnson government's proposals for immigration will probably cope with any shortages of highly qualified staff, and the reduced post-Brexit industrial activity means that there will be less pressure on the unskilled and semi-skilled labour market. However, for the EU as a whole, there will have to be hard choices as to who to let in and for how long.

All the foregoing is separate from our, and the EU's, obligation to take in genuine refugees.

Monday, 2 March 2020

A message from Stephen Dorrell of the European Movement

The negotiating mandate published by the government last week has laid out an alarming vision for the future where the United Kingdom will diverge from European Union regulations on key issues, risking the possibility that efforts to tackle climate change and unfair competition could be undermined.
This is the first time since the end of the Second World War that the government has outlined a mandate for negotiations that will not tear down borders to trade but erect them. Despite claiming to be pro-trade and pro-enterprise, this government is actively taking steps to isolate ourselves from our closest neighbors.
Instead of distancing ourselves from our partners in Europe, we should be working together to tackle the biggest issues of our time. This politics of protectionism only serves to erode our common interests and values.
With negotiations due to start today, the European Movement will be lobbying the government to ensure that our European rights, standards, and values are upheld post-Brexit.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Perry Mason: a wish granted

Last year, I expressed a wish that CBS in the UK would show the Perry Mason TV series from the beginning. I cannot have been the only one doing so, because CBS Justice started with Season 1, Episode 1 this afternoon. It is possible that clearance of rights may have held up the re-runs, or possibly checking that "thumbnails" of the sponsor's products which appear on the end-titles do not conflict with broadcasting laws in this country. However, neither Beads-O-Bleach, nor Trend detergent ("the brand the smart girls buy"), nor Blue Dutch cleanser, the three featured products of the Purex Corporation, are currently on sale in the UK. There might have been other in-programme product placements which needed weeding out. Indeed, there was a lot of gratuitous offering of cigarettes in today's three episodes, though it was impossible to make out a maker's name.

That is one major contrast with Season 9, currently showing on CBS Justice on weekdays. By 1966, when that last black-and-white series was made, the perils of cigarette smoking had been made known to the American public for two years, by virtue of reports from the US Surgeon-General's office. It would not be until 1971 before there was a complete ban on tobacco advertising on US TV, but clearly network commissioners were already chary.

The early Perry Mason, based on the Erle Stanley Gardner books, was also more tricky - willing to keep witnesses out of the way of the police investigators and even tampering with or faking evidence.

It is not immediately obvious why Burr wanted to take a break, but it is recorded as his decision to make series 9 the last. It could have been an artistic judgment - the scripts were patchy, occasionally having recourse to recycling plots (with names changed) from earlier episodes, there was some sloppiness in production (check for "Goofs", which become more numerous, in the IMDb Web pages for the later series) and Burr's performance itself has become more mechanical. One only has to look at the broadcast frequency - one 52 minute episode per week for eight or nine months - to realise the punishing schedule of television production in those days. The death of Ray Collins (see below) in 1965 may have cast a pall over the series. It is also probable that ill-health, and problems with his weight, were factors in Burr's decision.

Certainly the format of seemingly open-and-shut case demolished as the real perpetrator is unmasked in the courtroom, mechanical or not, continued to be successful. Take Matlock for instance.

Burr followed Perry Mason with Ironside, in which he not only redressed the balance in favour of the police, but also highlighted how a man could hold down a responsible job from a wheelchair, given the right assistance. That assistance included an African-American police officer in the shape of Don Mitchell, in the role of Mark Sanger, probably a breakthrough for US TV in the late 1960s. Ironside also tackled social issues in some of its plot lines. One imagines that as a gay man, perforce closeted for most of his career, he had an instinctive feeling for the underdog. A biographer noted that "throughout his public life Burr was unfailingly generous to charities and gave much of his time (when he wasn’t keeping a grueling work schedule) to public service of one sort or another."

He was certainly generous to other actors. When Ironside was abruptly terminated towards the end of  a successful nine-year run, Burr was approached to reprise the Perry Mason role with the benefit of colour and movie production values. He accepted only on the condition that Barbara Hale, the original TV Della Street, also be hired. William Hopper, the actor who played Mason's original investigator Paul Drake, having died, the new role of Paul Drake Jr was created for Hale's son, William Katt. The various series are studded with family connections. The investigator in the TV movies marking the final appearance of Perry Mason was played by William R Moses, the son of Marian McCargo, former US Wightman Cup doubles player, who appeared in both series 8 and series 9. Christian Nyby directed 13 episodes of the black-and-white series; his son, probably better-known for his work on Star Trek, directed 19 of the TV movies. There are other father/mother to daughter/son relationships among the minor actors. Several actors were continuously employed in minor parts such as "courtroom spectator". The most notable "ghost credit" was that of Ray Collins, the respected former Mercury Theatre actor who played the original Lt Tragg. Collins continued to be billed even after COPD prevented him taking an active part.

I am looking forward to Season 9, Episode 30 when the demob-happy production team are said to have planted several in-jokes. One noted feature is the appearance of Erle Stanley Gardner himself, for the first and last time in the series, fittingly as a judge.