Late Life Crisis - May 2020

Beginning of May. At times like this it is good to revert to grammar. A columnist reports a text from Ocado that opens: "Dear [      ]. As one of our best customers we have made two slots available to you to book over the next 14 days." That is grammatical nonsense. Read literally, it means that Ocado are one of their own best customers. Ocado is not alone - this is a classic construction from marketeers. How to correct it? Easy: "As you are one of our best customers we have made available.....". Just add two words. Mind you, who is bothered other than pedants like me?

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"We will do 100,000 tests a day by the end of April". So said the Secretary of State for Health [and Social Care - something he has been uncomfortably reminded about]. Various numbers are being bandied around, but on one set 40,369 were posted out on the last day. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you must decide whether "do'" means effected tests, or whether it is sufficient that the 40,369 people were put in the position of being able to do the tests once they received them, whenever that would be, the post being a little more irregular these days."

I will leave you to decide whether Matt Hancocked it up, or whether we should focus on acknowledging the effort of the people who did the work behind the scenes. We can deride political grandstanding announcements, but it seems that the only way that big government works is to set big targets as a way of galvanising the supertanker to add on a few knots. Nevertheless, we can observe with scepticism Mr Hancock's presentational approach, he dropping in an amuse bouche of resumption of fertility treatment before doing his major announcement with a sly look of self-satisfaction. 

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In these days one spends more time poring over newspapers, reading articles that would once have been overlooked as there was no time as you had to go out and do stuff. On the downward slope before one edition hit the recycling bin, I noticed an advert from a firm of solicitors who specialise in defending people accused of driving offences. The offences they flag up include drink driving and drug driving. Infuriatingly for the observer layperson, but reflecting how life works and how quite properly the prosecution must prove its case after following procedures correctly, the firm points out that it often succeeds for clients by pointing out deficiencies in police or prosecution procedures.

What caught my eye though was a supplemental paragraph noting that Covid 19 is resulting in time limits being missed for delivery of evidence and summoning of witnesses to court and that these factors could lead to prosecutions failing. So possibly one to chalk up on the winners list for the impact of the virus, and comfort for those whose response to feeling a bit down is to take the motor for a 120mph spin up the M1 at 2am.

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May signals the British asparagus season swinging into gear. Soon salad picking time will be upon us. Yet in a statement of supreme irony - Priti Patel, avert your eyes and return to the Mail on Sunday - a farmer bemoans that British pickers are no match for the "skilled" Romanian workers returning for the summer. A representative of the Asparagus Growers Association comments that British students and furloughed staff are unlikely to be willing to put in 12 hour shifts, and their lesser efficiency costs the farmer.

At one level this can be trumpeted as dismantling the gung ho argument that them foreigners are stealing our jobs. But the economics of it require deeper consideration. We have all got used to cheap food. Would we pay more for our home-grown veg and salad in order to fund a more expensive harvesting system with more pickers and shorter shifts. Does that even work logistically? And if we are not happy with that would we turn to imported produce and more of it? A quick trawl of the internet suggests that the largest asparagus crop is produced by............aha, China. Whatever the outcome of deliberations by better minds than me, the hop-picking idyll of the Larkin family in The Darling Buds of May this ain't. 

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The Archers are on furlough, or should that be furrow. For me, at the end of Broadcasting House on Sunday morning, it was a race against time to switch off the radio before we had more than a couple of bars of the jiggly theme. Yet I knew people who could not function on Sunday until they had had their dose of the Omnibus programme. It was fun to tease more recent devotees of the programme by asking if Dan and Doris were keeping well and whether Walter Gabriel was up to his usual tricks. The furlough apparently results from running out of episodes; it is confusing to hear this about a radio programme that does not need the performers to be co-located, but hey ho, as they might say down at The Bull. No doubt the programme will re-emerge with its pre-Covid scales shedded and with scripts that reflect the brave new world of Ambridge.

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In the virus crisis lawyers are not at the top of the sympathy league table. However, there may be a very bad effect from the drying up of residential conveyancing. First and foremost we should think of people whose moving plans have been thrown through social distancing restrictions. But for many high street practices the solid and reliable cash generator of conveyancing work assures financial stability and enables the firm to continue other services that, whilst being less profitable, provide much needed access to justice. Depending on how quickly a functioning property market returns, we may even start to experience an alien sentiment, feeling sorry for estate agents. 

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A lot being written on how the Over 70s will be treated in the review of lockdown. Up till recently 70 was treated as the new 60. Now, 70 is becoming the new 80, or maybe 90, or maybe what the hell you lot are an excessive risk to the NHS and should quietly be eased out of the world.

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On the other hand, talk of the grey pound and what the economy will lose if over 70s not needing shielding on health grounds are denied the opprtunities given to "younger folk". One certain casualty will be matinee performances at theatres. - I can say this from empirical research. But then the oldies are likely to be the most cautious anyway about a return to places of entertainment. 

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Further, and of course not deliberately set alongside the last couple of items, there has been little written of how to handle the logistics of toilet use outside the home. Watch this cubicle.

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Euphemisms; One no longer resigns, one steps back (Prof. Neil Ferguson). The new normal term does have an odd ring: would John Profumo have "stepped back" from the Government after admitting that he had lied to the House of Commons, or would Opposition MPs shout "step back!" across the benches or down the line from Zoom when a Minister had made a significant mistake?

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Metaphors: Boris launched us into a tunnel somewhere under the peak of a mountain, as though we were participating in a strange video gaming experience. All was ok as we could see light at the end of the tunnel, and some pasture, although hopefully we would not drive into the pasture. But yikes, there could be another peak beyond and it was not clear whether there would be a tunnel under that. The problem with extended metaphors is that when you go into them you need to know how to get out of them, otherwise in this case Boris might be leading us out of a tunnel and over the edge of a cliff.

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Punishment for politicians: You will watch 100 times the 2011 film Contagion.

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Starmer much more comfortable at the despatch box than Johnson. Cross-examining skills in play. A clever question on the miracle of 100,000 tests a day by end of April, that Johnson either did not understand or chose to ignore. Johnson doing his trademark looking around for support, but he could not pull off the bluster without the hot air from Tory backbenchers putting wind in his sails.

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It is unwise to be wise after the event (April Late Life Crisis on quarantine for those flying into the UK), but it seems that something will emerge on this when the Head talks to us on Sunday 9th. However, how British if the instruction amounts to requiring private self-isolation at home. I am unduly influenced by Dad's Army, but I could conjure up Sergeant Wilson: "Would you mind awfully staying at home for a couple of weeks just to make sure that you haven't got that ghastly Covid 19? Thank you so much." Mainwaring would have had ankle tags on them - forget spot checks. " "Wilson, don't you realise there's a war on!".

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We waited, we waited...and we were treated to a lovely slice of waffle. The Prime Minister is at his most comfortable in waffle mode - broad brush, or Boris Brush if not Basil Brush. As one wag observed on Twitter, it was comforting to know that if your household included your gran, then you could now take her out to the park for an all-day kickabout. That's about the level of specifics we got. However, we must wait for the 50 page document of detailed guidance.

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Such document has emerged, and on key things we are not much the wiser. "If you can't work at home, go back to work where possible but have effective social distancing there". [Permission given for turning of blind eyes]. "Don't travel to work by public transport if you can possibly walk or cycle". ["Dammit, I can't see what the fuss is about - I can easily stroll down to the Commons from Dolphin Square!"]. It would help to have some honesty - the economy desperately needs reviving; that furlough arrangement is not holiday pay. Perhaps it is brought into sharpest relief by the relatively small-scale announcement that nannies and cleaners are now allowed back into your home (after all the posturing over meeting Mum in the park in the morning and Dad in the park in the afternoon).This of course is to enable someone to go out to work leaving kids behind with Nanny/work more effectively from home leaving kids with Nanny/be absolved from all that cleaning nonsense to be able to ...guess what?

Despite the dressing up of the messages via the "Comms" people, it is evident to the British public (that term that Boris frequently uses, often barely resisting the temptation to apply Darkest Hour language and add "great") that when the needs of the economy clash with the needs of virus protection then it's a no brainer as to which is going to win. Thus my own efforts in the Pastiche the Message stakes:

Economy first

Sod the virus

When it suits us

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One of the few benefits from recent weeks has been the near absence of the strident brogue emitted by the First Minister of Northern Ireland. But now that the four nations are diverging in strategy for next steps, we realise that no one can do a grim rendition of "lockdown" like our Arlene.

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It has been observed that the two protagonists in Normal People are members of that weed-smoking, angsty and solipsistic breed known as arts students. But how would it work if we made them science undergraduates? Marianne would need to be studying chemistry or even better biology, as girls of course cannot be natural physicists....  Connell I suggest would be studying engineering - my University had an engineering faculty, and we snooty folk from the Law Faculty marvelled at how the engineers could down eight pints a night mixed with mounds of Chicken Vindaloo.. The meeting would have to be when Connell stumbled by accident into a lab where Marianne was concluding an experiment. He would see her flimsy (retro) white coat, and would fantasise at what was underneath. She would invite him to hold her pipette, and would offer him a visor to wear so that they could have a twosome amongst the test tubes. Unfortunately, the story would end there, as with Connell's natural tendency to mumble she would not then be able to understand a word he was saying.

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In years to come children will be told of the great toilet roll shortage in 2020. But will we be more economical on usage in the future? It was not quite a short-term adaptation of the exam rubric, so: "Wipe on both sides of the paper,", but there was stress. Some of us will remember the Izal days (apparently it can still be sourced) when the price of hygiene was getting your bum ripped to shreds. For those who hoarded elephantine packs of toilet tissue, the Government knows who you are.....

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I've had some remedial plumbing work done, to fix a poor installation from another contractor before I bought my place. After assessing what was wrong. my excellent chap took me through what "they" had done wrong. I put that word in speech marks as it has occurred to me that out there in the community of home maintenance and repair contractors there is a ubiquitous breed called they, that is the people who bodge, jerry-build, shortcut, or otherwise do defectively any task for which they are commissioned by an innocent homeowner or occupier. The phraseology is near standard: "`Well, when they did the job, they.... [add appropriate words]." Could some wit market a business under the brand "They Limited, Building, Plumbing, Electrics, General Repair Work - No Job Too Small to Cock Up"?. It would be an eye-catching piece of marketing, but the underlying irony (because of course they would be first-rate in quality) would probably not get through.

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I suggest that one of the best communicators at the Downing Street Media briefing is Professor Jonathan Van Tamm. At a briefing where most of the noise concerned the relevance of loss of taste or smell as a symptom of Covid 19, JVT uttered one short sentence that I did not see picked up. This was to the effect that the country's response to the virus is driven by three factors, science, politics and practicality. I doubt if the Government would have enjoyed this frank statement that there are trade-offs involved. If nothing else, it damages the carefully crafted position, and coached response to any difficult media question, that "we are guided by the science".

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Having said this, I am of course totally respectful of Government recommendations. So faced with the Secretary of State for Transport's advice that we should walk or cycle to work, I thought I should see how long it would take to walk from my home in North London to the City (where I do most of my face-to-face teaching). The answer is 1 hour 20 minutes, and a fraction over that on the way back as it has some mildly uphill sections.

How about doing it as standard travel for what is a round trip of 9.5 miles? Well, on a pleasant May morning with little to carry and as a one-off, it was fine. More frequently, and with work papers, and with a change at least of shirt due to glowing at the end of the journey, and in winter in the dark, and from time to time with rain, wind and snow, I am not so sure. Nevertheless it was interesting to see  the City mid-morning, apocalyptic leaving aside the bubble of construction sites.The outing was also useful to gauge time to walk in, as I have no doubt that the rail unions, frustrated by the temporary need to shut up, are planning some nice industrial action as soon as this become practicable. The other option might be cycling? No thank you - I may be a fool but I do not have a death wish.

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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been called to the Headmaster's Study:

PM: "Well, Therese, we're uncomfortable about your blaming "wrong" scientific advice on Government decisions on Covid 19."

TC: "But, Boris, you appointed me for my loyalty, competence, loyalty, willingness to defend the Government vigorously, and loyalty."

PM: "And I told you that as you are not top totty it would improve my image."

TC: "Yes, Boris. So in the light of this, why you are criticising me."

PM: "Well, er, this might make us not, er, look good."

TC: "What do you mean?"

PM: "Well it might, er, end up that. er, the blame should be on the Government. Ergo, as we used to say in the Wall Game, the team might be on a sticky wicket."

TC: "I see.".

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Cambridge University will take all its 2020/21 lectures online. Others seats of learning may follow. Shock horror. Or rather, no loss at all. Supervisions (tutorials) will continue face-to-face, although with students perhaps not near enough for the tutor to smell the fear from the unprepared one. What is missing? The "student experience". Which at basest level may be the loss of student mingling - substitute other expressions as needed.

Yet we cannot discount the virtues of clubs and societies, albeit not everyone will be material for Footlights or its equivalent in other areas. There is also the whole experience for many of surviving away from home, even if that involves eating crappy food and ineffective washing of clothes. All those are intangibles, and unlikely to sway universities on claims for fee reductions when they are going to lose pots of income from no-showing overseas students. 

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If ever the tracing app is put into full use, then the logo should carry an image of Matt Hancock's chin. 

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Light relief in these times. A friend posted a complimentary comment in a What's App group about another friend's superb piece of baking. At least it was intended to be complimentary - through an unlucky intervention from auto-correct what was intended to say "yummy" came out as "scummy". We have all been there in one way or another. 

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End of month. I started a short analyisis of the Dominic Cummings road trip, working through from the Regulations applicable at the time, but abandoned it. Is the dome-headed one, modelled on Dan Dare's arch enemy, the Mekon, worth the effort? I don't think so. Our arch enemy now is R1.0000001 plus, and we will not need other mental challenges as we are trying to understand the nuanced - popular word  - social distancing guidelines across the UK. It could be up to six people or eight people, outdoors in a garden or only in public places, with one other household or more then one household. All depending on where you live. Whatever you do, don't ask Boris for guidance, as you will only get more confused. Anyway, he will be distracted by the excitement of being able to exercise in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, ready to return with a world-beating BMI number. And as you contemplate (in England at least) a trip from the back garden inside to the toilet, you must ask yourself the question, "What would Chris Whitty do in the situation?". 

So we stumble into June, waving our charred sausages in the air (if we have been lucky enough to participate in a barbecue), wondering if we are at risk level 3 or 4 (or really sort of 3.5 but that would be too complicated to explain), and hoping that the 200 person drug-laden rave on Hackney Downs is not going to spill us over into another lockdown. We seriously need a distraction, and maybe that might just come from a maniac in the White House who seems to be barbecuing what is left of his reputation. We can only hope.

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The author is a former City law firm partner, still teaching legal practice but also doing guided walks as a professionally qualified tour guide and writing and speaking on various things.