Late Life Crisis - August 2020

I must have a downer on Waitrose. Their latest  "Important News" for customers starts, after instruction on what customers must do: "You will also see our Partners in Waitrose and John Lewis stores will be wearing face coverings." So far so good - I go into a Waitrose or John Lewis store and every member of staff I see will be wearing a face covering.

Not so quick. On to the next sentence: "These will be worn by all Partners who are not exempt when they are in areas where two metre social distancing cannot be achieved, or where other measures such as screens are not present". A communication of Delphic obscurity. I think there may be a comma intended after "exempt". If so then it would suggest that certain staff are generally exempt - on what grounds is not clear. Following this through, as two metre distancing is impossible in public areas within the store, then staff (other than checkout staff behind a screen) should wear masks at all times. But when I went into my local store, this was not happening. There is as much annoyance in reading Waitrose's announcement as there is in wearing a mask.

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Led by the Secretary of State for Transport, many people booked a European holiday in full compliance with quarantine measures and Foreign Office travel advice. But bad luck if you chose Spain and have since suffered from the Government's sledgehammer change of policy. From "getting the economy going again" we have a swift volte face, with the cheeky observation that "no travel is risk-free" aka Hee Hee, we got you there, Not so much guided by the science as driven by dichotomy. So the fact is that if you contemplate an overseas trip then you must be in a position to self-isolate for 14 days when you come back. This applying on a risk basis for potentially a very long period of time. Except that the Government does not have the guts to tell us that.

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Postcard from Heathrow Terminal 5

One of the punishments for arriving too early at the airport is a requirement to watch repeat fragrance adverts on a big screen. For a promotion of Lancome Idole a woman rides bareback on a white steed through what looks like New York streets. We then see her on the same horse, out in the wild. She produces what appears intended as an enigmatic smile but that comes across as a thin-lipped sneer. I think she is telling me what a twat I am for still looking at the advert. 

I have only spotted two people not wearing a mask.The predominant style is the blue paper on. I have the same, but will switch before boarding to an N99 medical grade version, which I find more comfortable to wear for extended periods. I know that I am denying the NHS valuable PPE. If Moralistic Matt were in the terminal and not striding the beaches of Falmouth I fear he would have me thrown out. 

In Departures there is a slimmed down offering of retail outlets. Fortunately Boots and W H Smith are open, but I am disappointed not to be able to visit the Harry Potter Experience Shop.

It's going to be tough for those travelling Club Class. There may be the Lounge, but once the hoy polloi join the folk at the Gate there is no price-led priority, and boarding will be done with those at the back embarking first and then seats filling up going forwards. As Our Lord said in the Gospel according to Matthew, "The last shall be first and the first last", although I am not sure that he had this context in mind.

A sweet sounding BA person asks us to ensure that prior to boarding we have completed our Covid-related online contact details form. Most of us go into a flat spin as this was not made clear in the pre-flight emails.Within seconds the sweet voice is back to tell us that if we have not completed the form online then there will be a paper version that we can do on the flight. Order is restored.

Glyndebourne Man arrives from the Lounge, accompanied by wife.You can tell he is Glyndebourne Man as he is carrying a green canvas bag emblazoned with the word "Glyndebourne". He wears a powder blue summer jacket, matched with rust coloured trousers and a Royal blue shirt . Obviously he is following Michael Portillo's travel programmes.

Time to  board. I adjust my Hannibal Lechter mask and head for the queue.

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I am one row behind the beginning of Club. My carry-on case is one row ahead in the only space left. So I am going to travel with me in Economy and my case with the elite. I am honoured.

Economy passengers are offered crisps, biscuits and a small bottle of water. I defer gratification and put mine aside to have later. One row ahead they are being offered a choice of ham croissant or cheese croissant. This is one of the reasons why you travel Club Class.

We complete our contact forms. The chief stewardess (sorry, cabin attendant) is chatting to some passengers just in front of me. I am glad that she is not trying to chat to me. It would be a challenge to have a conversation when you are in a window seat and wearing an N99 mask.

The stewardess then moves into Economy to congratulate a woman on being a member of BA Executive Club for 10 years. Stunning customer care. The woman looks bemused. This is not what you are used to with BA. 

We come to disembark. A man offers his completed form to the chief stewardess. She declines it with a cold haughty look. That's more like my BA!

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Postcard from France

At Passport Control in Nice I proffer my contact form alongside my Passport. The official returns the form without looking at it. Good to know that we are joined up with France in the dying weeks of our EU attachment.

The much larger Terminal 1 is closed. We were routed through the smaller Termnal 2, disembarking from a pod. The Arrivals Hall is quiet, and luggage comes quickly. Great service, but an overarching unreal feeling, coupled with a sense that they want us out and away as quickly as possible. 

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Settled in, there is much searching of the internet for hotspots, and we are not talking sun. Nice will be avoided, and indeed any town where the streets would be busy. But in a self-contained property away from the coast and with a swimming pool, there is no need to go out except for hypermarket visits at quiet times during the day. The Covid 19 risk is thus miniscule, despite reports in the British press suggesting that France is ravaged by the virus. Nevertheless there is a sense of doing something illicit in being here.

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Notwithstanding a time predominantly of self-isolation, an occasional outing is fun, but pointed up into the mountains rather than moving around the coast. Cotes de Provence "does not travel", as the wine experts say, but there are scores of domaines scattered around nearby, and a drive of a few kilometres results in an accretion to the reserves of a couple of cases. Despite the vast array of wine in a hypermarket there is satisfaction in pretending expertise in sniffing and tasting (and yes, m'lord, I did swallow), before buying what one spotted within two minutes of going inside. At one domaine there was a tasty bottle of red for 550 Euros. In fact everything there was pricey: time for an exit with studied insouciance.

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After a stop to pick up a baguette from the midday bake, arrival at the pretty mountain village of Seillans. Very quiet, and worryingly every cafe and restaurant is closed. But afer great trepidation, the Hotel Les Deux Rocs is found open, with a bevy of customers in the cobbled courtyard restaurant, which comes complete with large tree to provide adequate shade for all, and a fountain that produces the water for the table. After lunch a discussion with La Maitresse on the state of the world. The French have taken up most of the slack from the non-visiting Brits. Some Germans have made a sortie down to the area, but the only English voices you are going to hear (for these purposes including Americans) are likely to be those who own homes in the South. Again the unreality: it's all beautiful, they have not had a single Covid case diagnosed in the village, but the nasty virus is still out there. 

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One nationality that is generally not seen up in the mountain villages is the Russians, who prefer to hug the coast. A couple of years ago, at lunch in Beaulieu, I managed a superb piece of racial profiling on one family. There was the patriarch at head of table, with trophy wife and a couple of grown-up children with their attachments. The gluttony was a sight to behold. As an entre acte between an enormous starter and and an enormous main course, the chef de famille had ordered a whole roast chicken. But when it arrived they barely picked at it before oligarch dismissively waved for it to be taken away. The waiters fawned appropriately, but here service is a matter of pride (and common sense given the dosh that the Russians were throwing out) - I reflected on what Gallic words of abuse might have been shared once the staff were safe from being overheard.

This experience came back to me on seeing the story in Nice Matin of the Russian Instagrammer, Victoria Bonya. Not a name I recognised, but the piece said she has seven million followers, so she must be important. It turns out that Ms Bonya is, guess what, a model and actress, currently resident on the Cap-d'Ail, she apparently unknown in Europe but dubbed by Nice Matin, "The sexiest woman in Moscow". Why should she be newsworthy, when you would assume that celebs would prefer a lowish profile at least in terms of where exactly they are residing? Duh, you have not taken into account the demands of the Instagram public! To keep her disciples content, Ms Bonya found it necessary to post photographs from the terrace of her grand apartment, sufficient to identify its location to the sophisticated readership of the paper...and a key constituency in the readership is the phalanx of thieves who for years have harvested the belongngs of the rich and famous as they soak up the sun and publicity of the Cote d'Azur. So poor Victoria had her apartment robbed twice in ten days. How one suffers for one's art...!

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Despite Nice being one of France's largest cities, Nice Matin is extraordinarily parochial, a sort of Ham & High (sorry, North London reference) for the Cote d'Azur. Broader French news is limited, and international news even more so. Notwithstanding other countries looking feverishly at the growth in new French Covid cases, the paper appears only to give a weekly update. 

An example of the above is a good few column inches being devoted to the honey festival at Mouans-Sartoux. This little town, between Cannes and Grasse, is unpromising when you approach it . There is a tree-lined boulevard, though beyond the trees it could be the entrance to the Slough Industrial Estate. But once you have parked, there is the Thursday market, which I am advised is not full of tat, and once one tacks in from the town square there is an urban design revelation, a grid of tiny streets festooned with planting and with houses dressed in the Provencal colours that would look bonkers in many locations but here are perfect. And there is the sky. A lively bout of wind stormed through the region a couple of days earlier - it would be poetic licence to call it the Mistral but it packed a punch; however, it left a sky of the deepest blue. All idyllic. And yet with the unmentionable out there it felt as though you were cheating the real world.

(Short) postcard from Nice Terminal 2

As the great Glenda Slag from Private Eye might have said: "Hindsight: dontcha love it!". I left 48 hours before Shapps slapped down the quarantine requirement. I strolled up to check-in, and shared a joke with the BA chap on whether the condiments in my hand luggage that I had bought for my kids, might be caught in the security check. We boarded 55 minutes before scheduled departure time. We took off early. We arrived early at Heathrow. We rolled up to a pod and disembarked like a bunch of shoppers getting off the local bus. Passport control was a breeze, though the queuing gaps were minimal: "2 metres is so early summer, darling!". Perhaps it would have been fun to have been closer to the wire and being able to regale your autumn dinner party guests on how you drove for 9 hours to Calais without even a Cummings comfort break, catching the last ferry out and sharing a round of applause with your fellow passengers when the Captain announced that the ship had reached British territorial waters with ten minutes to spare. Personally I was much happier with my journey. 

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I am brought back down to earth at home, but am cheered by LinkedIn suggesting that I might apply to become assistant branch manager at an estate agents. Unfortunately I am disquaified through not possessing a pair of pointy shoes.

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Test match umpires are adopting a risk averse approach to weather conditions. We have delays through rain, delays through wet outfields, and delays through bad light. It has been suggested that umpires are emboldened by the absence of spectators, who would otherwise boo or slow hand clap or say it's just not cricket. It may be easiest if the umpires could simply call off the remainder of the current Test series between England and Pakistan. For this though, they may need additional grounds from which they can choose, so we might suggest the threat of a Covid 19 miasma descending on the ground, or the risk of humidity on the grass bringing a plague of mosquitoes - the latter nicely gets in climate change. Maybe there is an algorithm that could provide an appropriate outcome to the rain dilemma. Or maybe not. 

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Alternatively the umpires could put "high winds" on their list. Up my way I hear the aged locals musing on the situation: "Ooh ar.., ye should be aware of the August storms....". Never mind, heatwave for Christmas. 

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I am very happy with my previous designation of Gavin Williamson as the Secretary of State for Undertakers. Leaving aside (a long way) his competence in the day job, he is perfectly suited to be rolled out for any situation that requires regret, sorrow or condolences. Obviously his current role is giving him plenty opportunity to hone those skills.

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I will finish with something positive about Waitrose. In the middle of a succession of days delivering online training, glued to a desk for several hours each day and not seeing anyone face to face, I received an early morning delivery from the store. I commiserated Gav style with the young man over the appalling weather in which he and his colleagues were having to do their work. He cheerfully told me that he cycles to work and that doing the deliveries is no way worse than that. His positive disposition gave me a boost for the day. Seeing someone in the flesh and not through a computer screen does mean something.

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