Sat 17 Oct 2020: high risk, and a proposal

London is now a “high risk” area.

I’m glad that the government has finally created a list of standard restrictions that will be applied in different areas depending on local risk levels derived from local infection rates. Unfortunately, in doing so they haven’t allayed any concerns about the restrictions being arbitrary. The regional hodge-podge we had before was clearly arbitrary and the new system is certainly simpler. However, the new restrictions still have the look of the arbitrary about them while at least being easier to understand.

In particular the ban on pubs staying open after 10pm appears to be a case of “something must be done; this is something; therefore it must be done” and to have no evidence behind it of any kind. The government have repeatedly said that there is an evidential base for it, but refused to share what that evidence is. Therefore we can only assume that the evidence is, at best, very fucking weak, and at worst a lie.

I think that these tiered standard restrictions came in too late, as well as being just plain wrong. Too late, in that they should have been standardised right from the start, when the first local restrictions were imposed in Leicester. Just plain wrong in that as well as the clear lack of evidence for at least some of the restrictions, there is also a clear lack of desire to target the actual causes and again, the government really just wants to be seen to be doing something.

Things were chuntering along fairly calmly from the end of June to the end of August. And then the schools went back, with minimal precautions, and in what must have come as a shock to absolutely no-one, cases started going up markedly; then at the beginning of October universities went back and lo, there was a massive bout of Freshers’ Flu.

Closing the pubs an hour early ain’t gonna do a damned thing when schools and universities are the real cause. Closing gyms and preventing people from seeing their friends will only have minimal effect when schools being vile plague-pits is the real cause. And people know this. The new restrictions on pub opening hours and other businesses will be adhered to because owners don’t want to get shut down, but people will not obey the rule about not seeing their friends. They put up with it back in April when it seemed sensible, but nowadays they know that it’s not tackling the current problem, they know it’s a stupid rule, and they won’t put up with it. I certainly don’t intend to obey it very well.

What should be done now is schools should teach in smaller groups, extending their day to do so, and also teaching on Saturdays. The teaching unions won’t like it, of course, but the government should quite clearly call them out on it, stating that they want to spread disease through the community. Yes, this will mean some extra hours in lessons for teachers. Teachers can be helped out by cutting back their hours outside of useful lessons. No extracurricular clubs, no field trips, no PE, no RE, no PSHE. Less homework for pupils and so less marking. No marking of older pupils’ homework, instead hand out answer sheets the next day so pupils can mark their own work and know what to ask questions about. Sure, some kids will just not do it, and harm their own education, if their parents allow that. I am indifferent to their plight, protecting society is more important. And if the teachers go on strike – great! The children won’t be able to go to school and spread pestilence between their families!

Universities should just close their accommodation for undergraduates if, as appears to be the case, they can’t house them safely. Teach those who want it remotely online. For courses that require lab time, only admit local students, and it may be possible for them to safely do their labs. Defer entry for the rest. In my experience a large number of students would be well served by having a year out of school before more studying anyway.

Wed 7 Oct 2020: crazy mountain man

before

It seems like such a small insignificant thing, but I’d not had a beard trim since January. It’s something I normally get done three or four times a year, as without it I start to look like the sort of crazy mountain man who wears animal skins, lives in a cave, and shouts incomprehensibly at visitors. For a good long while barbers were just not allowed to open, and then after they reopened they were only allowed to do hair cuts. Having gone nine months without a trim it was long, and scraggly, and turning into a bit of a pain in the arse. It caught the wind, it made wearing a mask even more awkward than a beard normally does, and worst of all as the cold season sets in, it was impossible to have soup without making a terrible mess.

after

So today I had a good four inches off and feel much better for my beauty treatment.

Wed 23 Sep 2020: still carrying on

This time the government’s changes to the plague restrictions have changed, a teensy tiny bit, but the changes are minimal.

Encouraging office workers to work at home? Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. The government guidance here has changed, but the effect on peoples’ lives will be minimal as very few people have gone back into offices anyway.

Table service only in restaurants and pubs? Hardly any change for restaurants, a minor change for pubs (some were already doing it). That pubs have to close at 10 is a bit of an imposition.

Mandatory face coverings in taxis is certainly a new restriction, but not a new practice. They’ve been compulsory in taxis in London for ages, and people not masking up in taxis elsewhere are the loony fringe. Compulsory masks for staff in customer facing jobs is a new restriction, but again not an onerous one, and plenty of those people have already been masking up for ages.

Weddings are being limited to only 15 guests instead of 30, but that will affect very few people. Weddings aren’t exactly something people do frequently.

Adult indoor sports being limited to groups of six … errm, what sports would those be? A volleyball team is six people, there’s five a side football, and I can’t think of any other widely played indoor team sports, most indoor sports are played by individuals or pairs.

So really, for most people, the only change is that the pub will close one pint earlier. For the oiks who were already flouting the rules and guidelines the fines they are liable to have gone up. It’s all really a big ball of nothing.

Fri 18 Sep 2020: second theatre

Almost exactly a month after my first theatre trip of the Plague Times last month, which was an outdoor performance, I went to my first indoor performance!

before the show

Theatres have actually been allowed to open for a while, but most have remained closed because after being shut for so long they need time to rehearse – both the actors and the technical crew – and time to adapt their spaces to be plague-safe. For big shows in yer typical Victorian or Edwardian theatre that can take months. One man shows, however, are much cheaper (important with smaller audiences!), much less complex to put on, and the modern Bridge Theatre is a very flexible space. It was designed right from the start to be supremely adaptable. It can be a “normal” modern proscenium theatre, or configured with a thrust stage like for this performance, or for “in the round” performances with seated members of the audience in the galleries and groundlings mixing with the performers. And in that last configuration, segments of the floor can be raised and lowered on demand to form small stages, stairs, all kinds of settings. All of this means that they could easily take out ¾ of the seats to force customers to keep their distance from each other. Corridors and other circulating areas are also built on a modern scale to get people in and out as quickly as possible so there were none of the bottlenecks and crowding that you get in the vomitoria of older buildings.

The show was An Evening With An Immigrant, part of their season of twelve one-man shows, and I’ve got tickets for two more in the season next month. Inua Ellams is a playwright and poet who writes a lot about his childhood in Nigeria and his loooong journey to being finally allowed to live in the UK, beset by bureaucratic incompetence and petty cruelties, some of which is still ongoing. At one point I thought that he would lose at least some of the audience with a political rant, but I should have known better, London’s theatre goers are thoroughly liberal. He may get a rather different reception if he tours the show unchanged to some of the more backward countries of the Union, such as England.

Thu 17 Sep 2020: Carrying on as normal

There’s been much talk recently of reimposed restrictions, but that is not really the case. Expected lifting of restrictions has been postponed, and existing restrictions have remained in place with somewhat beefed-up enforcement powers.

The usual suspects have been whining about “whyyyyyyy” can people go to work in an office but not have all their colleagues come and visit them at home. All across the land – well, across the internet at any rate – went up the cry “but I don’t understaaaaaaand”. The cynical response is that “if there’s a till involved you can do it”, which isn’t quite true (you can do voluntary work in groups, and amateur organised sport, and so on, with no money changing hands) but it does get to the heart of the matter. Those groups are allowed to meet because the harm done by not allowing them to meet has been deemed to outweigh the benefits from prevention. I feel a bit like a stuck record here saying that working, and being a customer for other peoples’ work such as in a pub, is the best way to prevent poverty, and poverty is a far bigger killer than the plague. Likewise, volunteering for any number of good causes, even those unrelated to mitigating the effects of the lurgi, does far more good than harm. Likewise sport, which provides both physical and mental health benefits. All those things are allowed to go ahead with pestilence-mitigations: face masks, fewer customers than normal, being restricted to only 6 drinking buddies (hardly a restriction for the vast majority of drinkers anyway), washing your hands and your cricket ball several times during a game, and so on. All things that those too bloody thick to “understaaaaaaand” will not have in place in their homes.

There’s also an understanding from government that clamping down hard won’t work anyway because the people are fed up and wouldn’t put up with it. The beefed-up enforcement powers are acceptable to most because they don’t affect them, they only affect those who were previously not paying attention to reasonable restrictions anyway.

Thu 27 Aug 2020: blades, baptism, but no buggery

As well as theatres, I also frequently visit London’s many museums in normal times. They are starting to re-open, along with galleries. However, some are only partial re-openings (the British Museum is only opening their ground floor, for example) and there is a trend to force visitors to take pre-determined routes around the displays, and discouragement from going back to see something from earlier on your route. For this reason I’ve not yet visited any of the larger institutions.

But I’ve been meaning to visit the Garden Museum for a while. I saw that they have a temporary exhibition (until the 20th of September) about Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness which also includes some of his art works. It’s a teeny tiny museum, so if it’s open at all it’s all open. Hurrah!

The Jarman exhibition, which is small but well put together, is very good and worth a visit on its own. Alas, no copy of Sebastiane playing on a continuous loop, but I imagine that the museum’s landlord, the Diocese of Southwark, would disapprove. The rest of the museum, their permanent collection and displays, left me a bit cold. I’m not really a gardener though – I like gardens but don’t enjoy gardening – so maybe I’m not their audience. They do have a small but interesting collection of historical tools, especially mechanical improvements to simple hand tools such as multi-bladed trimmers.

The building itself is a fairly uninteresting mostly mid-19th century church, deconsecrated in the 1970s. It has one interesting feature, an immersion font set in the floor. It is apparently one of only two such beasts in Anglican churches in England, as most Anglicans baptise with a mere sprinkling.

Fri 21 Aug 2020: first theatre

I normally go to the theatre at least once a month, to big professional shows such as put on by the English National Opera or elsewhere in the West End, to regional theatres, to some of the tiny pub-theatres around London, and even occasionally to amateur community theatre. But my last was at the beginning of March. The big theatres are still closed. They’re allowed to open but with much reduced capacity, and a combination of that smaller capacity being loss-making and that they need lots of time to rehearse, and maybe to re-write to enable actors and technicians to work safely means that I’m only aware of one of the big theatres reopening. That exception is the Bridge Theatre, one which is exceptionally commercially driven, and even there they’re only putting on one man shows, which are much less complex to rehearse and stage.

For the last several months London has been a theatre desert, something unseen since the interregnum over 350 years ago. I have been watching theatre online, as the National Theatre put quite a bit of content on Youtube, there’s been Operavision, the Royal Opera, and Glyndebourne, and many smaller theatres have put stuff online from their back-catalogue. But there’s been no live theatre, and live theatre is always better than filmed theatre.

But today, I went to see local amateur theatre! Live! A short version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, put on in their car park after just two weeks of rehearsals by Croydon Youth Theatre Organisation with a very young cast. It was … patchy. The very brief rehearsal period accounts for much of that. Some of the dance numbers were hampered by being performed on rough Tarmac instead of a stage, and being outdoors in high wind meant that they struggled to be heard sometimes.

But none of that matters. It was live theatre, put on by a cast whose enthusiasm was infectious. I understand that theatre barely happens in state schools these days, and in a relatively deprived area like the north of Croydon many children will have hardly any opportunities to go to the theatre, never mind take part in a production. CYTO does important work to supplement education and personal development, and to train its older members in technical skills. Even if the show had been a colossal flop CYTO’s work would still be worth supporting.

Mon 17 Aug 2020: chafing at the bit

I’ve been back at work part-time for a week, working half my normal hours, and despite joking about how horrible it is to experience mornings again it’s not been too bad. It took me a few days to get back up to speed as there was a huge backlog of correspondence and I wanted to at least glance at everything that had been done in my absence. The usual meetings where my team keeps each other informed of progress, plan our work and so on, all of which are useful, take an annoyingly large proportion of my time given my reduced hours, but they are necessary.

On Saturday I was umpiring again, in Malden this time. One of my father’s cousins lives very close to the ground so I invited him and his wife to come and watch, and then went to dinner and a good chinwag at their house afterwards. Quite a bit of our nattering was about what we’d been up to in these strange times, as expected, but also about how they and everyone else were beginning to chafe at the bit. When people like them, community-minded law-abiding people, a retired engineer and someone who works in a medical practice, are getting to resent their loss of liberties – and are putting it quite clearly in those terms – it is clear that any significant re-imposition of restrictions will not be tolerated by the population as a whole.

A little while back there was talk that the schools must reopen in September, and that we could either have schools open or pubs open. The logical conclusion was that pubs must close. But I do not think that would go down well! Not only would the child-less majority of adults resent it, you have to remember that pubs and restaurants re-opened because to not have them open would do terrible harm, socially and economically, to the very large number of low-paid workers who staff them. As much as the whining twitterati hate it, the government has had to, and will have to, accept that some deaths are a price worth paying for reduced harm elsewhere, and that life and happiness do in fact have a finite value that can be expressed in pounds and pence.

The actuaries and liberals in my vast audience will, of course, all be going “well duh”.

Mon 3 Aug 2020: returning to work

It looks like I’ll be returning to work next week, working – and being paid at full rate for – half of my normal hours until the end of October, and then back to full time from November. The other half of my hours will continue to be paid by the “job retention scheme” although how exactly the various percentages and caps and whatnot work is unclear right now, I’ve seen at least three different ways of calculating it.

My last day at work was the 9th of April, so it will have been almost exactly four months of not working, then two and a bit months of half time.

For ages I’ve been saying – truthfully – that I’ve enjoyed furlough, but I am glad to be getting back. Unlike many people I’ve been able to trim my outgoings back a lot without my lifestyle being especially affected, primarily through taking a mortgage holiday and haven’t had to rely on savings or borrow to make ends meet, but even so, not paying the mortgage for several months means that when I do start paying it back again my payments will be about 10% higher than they were previously because of the extra interest that is due on the capital I didn’t pay back.

Things are going to be Interesting for my employer for at least the rest of this year. Hopefully my currently rather dim memories of how things worked, where everything is, and what I was working on when I stopped, will come back quickly, but it will still take me a little while to get back up to speed with where I was, and I was still very much a neophyte. But I have also been accruing holiday entitlement at the usual rate throughout all this, and not used any of it as all the events that I was planning to take time off for have been cancelled. There’s a corporate policy of not carrying leave over from one year to the next, so unless that’s changed I’m effectively only going to be on half time even when November comes! And it’s not just me in this boat – everyone coming back will be affected so some degree, and I expect that even amongst the employees who continued working full time all the way through there will have been a lot less holiday taken than in a normal year. Something that I think I shall have to discuss with The Boss when I speak to him to sort out what my hours are going to be.

Tue 28 Jul 2020: trips to normality

As I wrote about last week, professional sport is tentatively returning. I went to the Surrey/Middlesex warm-up match yesterday. They had opened up part of the Vauxhall end of the ground, blocks 16 to 20. One thousand tickets were available each day to members, with allocated seating. Every second row was in use, with two empty seats between groups of attendees from the same household. I know that on Sunday all the tickets were quickly taken up. They weren’t taken up quite as quickly for the Monday, but even so, it certainly looked from a quick count/estimate that there were about a thousand people.

This of course meant that there were more people than is normal for a multi-day match, crammed into a small area instead of being spread out all around the ground. I suppose that was necessary for the trial, and they’re repeating it next weekend with more people – 2,500 on each day.

There were, notably, comments from the club’s CEO about it not being sustainable. There was about a 10:1 ratio of spectators to staff when you count all the stewards, security, catering, bar, and cleaners. and I’m not sure if that ratio includes the players, physios, coaches etc. The larger trial will presumably have a better ratio. Of course, multi-day county cricket isn’t financially sustainable anyway, it only survives because of income from the national team and cross-subsidy from the lesser forms of the game, which is presumably why Surrey were happy to be a guinea-pig. I’m sure that a rugby league club, on the other hand, wouldn’t want to go anywhere near it once they looked at the staffing costs for putting on a match with spectators in the current climate.

And then today I went to the cinema for the first time in ages. I saw The County, by the same director as the excellent Rams. It was good, but I wasn’t sure about the ambiguous ending and wonder if it could have been cut short two scenes earlier to end on a solid up-beat note. It being an early afternoon showing the experience was not really any different from in normal times: there was hardly anyone there, and the Curzon Mayfair staff were courteous and efficient as always. But the journey there and back was still very different from normal. The mid-day train was about as busy as normal, although I did notice that train passengers seem to do a better job of masking up than bus passengers. Victoria station was perhaps a little quieter than normal, and the bus station was practically deserted. Walking through the streets from Picadilly to the cinema was like a ghost town. Several cafes were trying to put a brave face on things and were open but they had very little custom, and there was hardly another soul walking around even on normally-busy Picadilly itself.

Judging from traffic levels – broadly back to normal, although public transport isn’t busy, so it seems lots of people are driving instead of using it and that consequently means that lots of those who normally use cars aren’t traveling at all – and combining that with the above it seems that business is still well down, and that those people who are going to work in town are only doing that, they’re not going out for lunch or hanging around afterwards.