Thursday, 30 April 2020

2020 Pandemic - some thoughts

The Covid-19 Pandemic has turned the entire World upside down within a matter of weeks.

Most of us have been hunkering down letting the Government roll up its figurative sleeves and get on with tackling it.  Personally I’ve tried to switch-off normal news media as I find the constant negative and pessimistic approach depressing - although not as depressing as the young “liberals” on social media wishing death on Government Ministers and dancing with glee at every setback we encounter in attempting to fight an unknown and fast moving disease. I’m sure I can’t be alone in detesting the joyous way Boris Johnson’s own contraction of Coronavirus was greeted by many on the left who have exposed a singular lack of the humanity and community spirit they pretend to espouse.

The left’s cries of “murderer” at Boris because he didn’t (in their view) shut down the economy fast enough are now replaced by cries of “incompetent” as they belatedly realise the horrendous cost of the shutdown in terms of economic hardship,  additional deaths from “normal” diseases such as cancer and (not least) the mental health of a lot of people.

I’m entirely supportive of the super-human efforts of everyone from Ministers to NHS Front-line staff as they work tirelessly towards getting us through this crisis. However, I do think the Government’s approach of being “led by the Science” has exposed a problem.  It turns out that “the Science” of epidemiology is not the clear definitive block of wisdom we may have thought it was and it is in fact far more akin to economics or meteorology where differences of opinion are the norm and accuracy of predictions are shaky to say the least.

The “flatten the curve” mantra has been almost universally accepted as the thing to do – it must be the correct approach if the entire World has agreed on it, surely? Cut the opportunities for the virus to spread and it will avoid a disastrous exponential spike in cases and fatalities, extending the life of the pandemic but buying time and making everything more manageable. However, just as models of weather systems on super-computers have impeccable mathematical algorithms behind them yet can’t reliably predict next week’s weather, the modelling of pandemic outcomes is just as uncertain. Apart from the sparsity of reliable hard data one of the key weaknesses is the so called “Ro” factor. This is defined as “the average number of secondary infections caused by one infected individual during his/her entire infectious period at the start of an outbreak” – this “reproduction factor” is key to the size and shape of every mathematical curve.  Small changes in the Ro make enormous numerical changes in the slope of the prediction curve, whilst an Ro of less than 1 will result in the disease wilting away.  But – how on earth can a realistic figure for average secondary infections be arrived at given the enormous differences in geographic and social circumstances even within one city? The leverage such small changes in Ro produces violent swings in outcomes and it seems to me to be based on a “best guess” rather than solid measurements.

Even more worryingly, Dr John Lee, a recently retired professor of pathology writing in this week’s Spectator, posits the suggestion that the virus could be evolving all the time and its spread via people with no symptoms is a good thing because it helps the virus get milder more quickly. If that were the case, the lockdown strategy is actually counter-effective with hospitals creating the perfect viral storm, containing everything needed for rapid evolution.  The policy of “shielding the vulnerable” and carrying on as normal does have a certain intuitive appeal but the only Country to go near that route so far is Sweden.

These are desperately difficult decisions for Governments to make and my only plea is for all of us to be positive and support those who are tasked with making those decisions without descending into cheap political point scoring. It’s too serious for that.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

We all need our Boswell

I just had to pop back here for a rare post as my Wordpress blog is over-run with adverts unless I agree to upgrade to a subscription and three readers don't really justify the investment. These 21st Century economic models where you exchange your soul for wonderful "free" services take a bit of getting used to.

And speaking of which, two items of news this week brought home to me just what a cataclysmic shift has occurred in our day to day life as "a nation of shopkeepers" over the last few years. We are all aware that the High Street is in difficulties and we've all witnessed the deterioration of our town centres as specialist shops are replaced by charity shops, hairdressers and coffee shops. Every town has empty un-let shops and even successful retail cities like Norwich have a significant proportion of empty stores. 

My assumption has always been that the old adage "don't be in the middle" is at work and retailers have to be either super cheap and accessible or ridiculously expensive and exclusive to succeed - those left in the middle end up providing neither cheapness nor quality and get squeezed whilst Primark and Barbour control more market from either end of the spectrum. 

However it seems that this is over-simplistic as in the last week Oxford's oldest Department Store and Norfolk's longest running car-boot sale have both announced their closure. Both appeared to be a permanent part of our cultural life, Boswell's since 1738 and Banham since 1984. They will be joining the long list of closures from Woolworths to Mothercare and it really brings home the extent of the slide in the way we go about our business. 

Most would agree that replacing nice busy high streets with lots of anonymous blokes charging round in white vans making 175 deliveries a day is a BAD thing, particularly for our social cohesion and cultural life. The same could be said of the 11,000 pubs which have closed their doors in the UK in the last 10 years, a slide which goes back to the 1940's. 

The conventional wisdom is that we all want "experience" rather than goods and this is reflected in the way we are prepared to fork out £150 for a Coldplay Concert yet expect their entire catalogue to be available for nothing - the days of the £15 CD are long gone. Having said that, I keep noticing an expanding rack of 12" vinyl LP's appearing in our Sainsbury's which I suppose is more of an "experience" than clicking a Spotify link. I remember the intense bearded chap talking to his mate: "The things that really attracted me back to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience".  

I will no longer be trying to flog my old CD's off at a quid each at Banham Car Boot Sale anyway. Welcome to the 21st Century.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Six Weeks Hip Report

Well that's me sorted. 

They said it would be a 6 week recovery period and sure enough at 6 weeks (to the day) I threw away my crutches and plastic raised toilet seat and set off on a pleasant pain-free 2.5 mile walk around the village. Bliss! I'm a very fortunate fellow.

Things I learned from the experience:

  1. The operation itself and immediate aftermath are almost totally pain free thanks to the wonders of modern anaesthetics.
  2. Surgeons are modern day Saints. Why they are referred to merely as "Mister" is beyond me.
  3. What wasn't so easy was the self-injected blood thinning drugs. I was sent home with 28 syringes to be inserted daily into my stomach which I never got used to. Diabetics I salute you. I managed to carry off the tights though.
  4. I had to sleep on my back for 6 weeks which was almost the hardest thing of all. I woke up every 2 hours with a mouth like the inside of a hamster cage and was quickly banished to the spare bedroom.
  5. At 6 weeks I asked my wonderful physio for a list of things I need to be careful about. She handed me a blank sheet of paper and smiled. "But what about the danger of dislocation I've read about?", I asked. "After 6 weeks of physio the danger is no more than it would be for your 'good' leg", she said. The World is my oyster! 

So that'll be me haring along the Country lanes on my Miss Marple bike next week counting my blessings. I think I'll head off for a Diss location.

Pip pip dear reader!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

Blimey is that the time?

Over a year has passed since my last epistle to the Philistines (no offence) and I was beginning to think I'd just leave this blogging thing up there on the shelf with VHS video tapes and my compact-cassette Motown singles. With a few notable exceptions (see right) everyone these days is simply tweeting vitriol in 140 characters or becoming a Vlogger showing un-needed details of how to bake a cupcake or cut toenails.  The heady pre-Facebook days of chatty social interaction in the comments of blogs has been replaced by simpler and quicker ticks and sentences in boxes. ROTFLMAO zzz. Goldfish are discussing our declining attention spans with each other.

Then I thought why not have another odd shout down the cyberspace well, just to keep it ticking for the time when the circle turns and everyone goes back to longer form communication?

I suppose quite a bit has changed over the last year. At the time of writing my last blog entry the USA had a savvy, highly intelligent and articulate President and we had shiny Old Etonian David Cameron. There was some sort of EU thing last year and now I can knock out a passable version of acoustic Layla. I've also taken to reading pop music biographies which are a source of endless fascination. I particularly liked 'White Bicycles' by Joe Boyd and David Hepworth's '1971' book (subtitled 'Never a Dull Moment'), and I've just finished 'Homeward Bound', the well researched book on Paul Simon's life in music by Peter Ames Carlin.

I've just started my next book on the list (a brilliant Christmas present from a son) 'I've always kept a Unicorn', the (tragically curtailed) life story of Sandy Denny.  I felt a slight tingle when I got to the page with her original handwritten lyrics for the wonderful "Who Knows Where the Time Goes".

It reminded me of those youthful times when I'd be hanging out in hip joints, and also reminded me that tomorrow I'm going into hospital to have a hip-joint replacement operation so hopefully I'll be skipping past again soon to tell you all about it. Pip Pip!

Monday, 28 March 2016

Idle Frets

I've started taking guitar lessons for the first time in my life.

When I was given my first guitar at the age of about 15 it was a classic case of reality falling short of expectation. My expectation was based on one of those red Fender electric beauties played by Hank Marvin - the reality was one of those cheap Spanish guitars brought back from Spain alongside sombreros and stuffed donkeys by the thousands of post-Franco tourists in the 60's. Try as I might, there appeared to be no way on earth I was going to replicate the sublime echo plus tremelo lead of "Apache" on my undersized, wide necked acoustic. Every single one of my school exercise books was adorned with doodles of that iconic Stratocaster body shape but my Spanish guitar was more like a battered tennis racket, and about as tuneful.  

In those days there were just two ways of becoming proficient in playing guitar. One had to either have a musical ear and pick up popular songs by simply listening to them (that let me out) , or one had to go through a painful process of working through books such as Bert Weedon's laughably titled "Play in a Day" which took months to get you to play such groovy standards as "Bobbie Shafftoe". 

How different things have become today! For a start, you can purchase an electronic guitar tuner for four quid which is light years ahead of the useless pitch pipes which we used to (try and) use. That means you can start with a realistic chance of playing along to a record in the right key.

Then there is the multitude of "Tab" web sites where one can enter the name of virtually any song and find "crowd sourced" renditions of lyrics, chords and tabulated note-by-note guides to the most desirable guitar solos you can think of.  In the sixties, the equivalent was to travel miles to a music shop and order expensive sheet music which normally included no chords and was only decipherable by a proper musician. 

And you don't even have to work out where to put your fingers today - sites such as provide easy access YouTube videos of all your favourites, from simple accompaniments to stratospheric Mark Knopfler solos.

On my first lesson, my tutor described me with deadpan expression as "a guitar tutor's worst nightmare" and I wondered if I should simply give up and plough all my energy into a law suit against the late Bert Weedon's estate. However, I've started to make some progress and am really enjoying it so look out Eric Clapton and Richard Thompson!

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

One of my many rejection letters ....

Channel Four Productions
Portcullis House
London WV2

16th November 1998

Dear Mr P.

Thankyou for your letter of 12th October 1998 containing your suggestion for a new Channel Four programme.

Having given your submission some scrutiny we regret to advise that our commissioning appraisal team see little point in pursuing the matter further. 

The overall idea of an hour long show comprising two estate agents showing people round houses is suspect to say the least. Estate Agents are not highly regarded role models and there is no "aspirational" element in watching ordinary people turning their noses up at houses they don't deserve. The prospect of maintaining interest over a 60 minute programme is, IMHO, zero.

Your other programme ideas have also met with a negative response from our creative team. These included:

A. Six people baking cakes in a tent. (Not even with Joan Bakewell presenting)

B. Michael Portillo sitting on Trains ("We'd rather watch paint dry")

C. Joanna Lumley goes somewhere expensive and patronises the hell out of the locals (Not on our budgets)

D. Two local auction dealers drive around Britain in an old car and buy stuff. (Nope)

E. The keyboard player out of D-Ream goes on a World Tour pointing at the heavens. (Frankly, what are you on?!)

We trust you will understand that we have to be very certain a programme will appeal before we commit substantial production budgets and we trust you will continue to let us have the benefit of your valued opinions and ideas

Yours faithfully

Graham Watson-le-BoƮte
Head of Commissioning