Political earthquake in Washington shakes the world

The tremors of a major earthquake can be felt many miles away from the epicentre, when the actual core event is limited to a small area. The political and physical storm that hit Washington on January 6th was seen by millions of viewers on TV and has reverberated around the world with a massive response expressing a mixture of incredulity, dismay, and concern. Political leaders across the world were quick in severe condemnation and the enemies of America, whom Trump has claimed to have bested, must be rubbing their hands with satisfaction at a free political feast.  

It was a catastrophic miscalculation by Donald Trump, because by inciting his followers to march on Capitol Hill, not condemning their breaches of the paltry security and inciting to entering the central chamber, he allowed the sacred bastion of American democracy to be breached by rioters. Not since the infamous invasion by the British in 1814 have the walls of the Congress building been infiltrated by insurgents. Senators had to temporarily shelter under desks or behind seat before being evacuated to a basement holding room.

As described in a previous blog “Trump card -winner or loser”, the US electoral process shas long transition period and involves several steps that originated in the history of the individual states joining in a federal democracy and also in the time it took for people to assemble for meetings, when travelling long distances. This process has been challenged by Trump and his supporters (including many Republican politicians and aides in the White House), from November right up to January 6th. A large number of lawsuits (60 or so) in different states were all rejected as being without substance and ridiculed by judges as being frivolous or without merit.  The College of Electors consisting of 538 chosen electors in the 50 states) met in the individual state capitol buildings on December 14th to cast their votes, with each elector having one vote. Despite the threatened disruption, this part of the process occurred peacefully with a 306-232 majority for Biden. The results were transmitted to Washington for ratification at a special joint meeting of Congress on January 6th.

Right through this process Trump refused to concede the election, tirelessly repeating his assertion of widespread electoral fraud. There has been a persistent and obsessive post-election campaign to invalidate the election results with some jaw-dropping manoeuvres. These included the hour-long leaked telephone call to Raffensberger in Georgia, pressurising him to overturn the election results, the ‘behind the scenes’ pressure on Pence and the public exhortation at the Save America Rally on 6th January not to certify the election results at the special meeting of Congress. He told the crowd “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election!”. “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country.”

In this attempt, he has received consistent and high-level support from many Republican politicians. They have been remarkably loyal, whether from fear of Trump, loyalty to the Republican party or belief in the Trump rhetoric. For some it is concern for the 2022 elections, when they may need the votes of Trump supporters. It has been interesting to see the timeline of politicians withdrawing support, like an orange being unpeeled slowly. Former President G.W. Bush was the first to acknowledge Biden’s victory on November 8th, closely followed by Mitt Romney. It was not until December 15th (6 weeks post-election) that Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, formally acknowledged the Democrat’s victory, while right up to January 3rd Mike Pence was steadfastly loyal to the President when he welcomed publicly the effort some senators to refuse to certify the election result for Biden. However, he stood up to Trump before the joint Congress meeting and affirmed that the role of the Vice-President in ratification of the electoral college vote was purely ceremonial. Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz led a campaign to challenge the results in Congress, a process requiring at least one Senator and one House of Representative to sign an objection, thereby forcing a 2-hour debate on each objection in separate sessions of the two bodies. In the vent despite events outside Cruz objected to the Arizona vote and Hawley to the Pennsylvania vote. While both objections were defeated 121 and 138 Republicans voted to support the objections for Arizona and Pennsylvania respectively. This even after the storming of the Capitol some Republicans were still trying to halt the inevitable.

The gross misjudgement by Trump has caused the decisive downturn in his political fortunes. The shock waves caused by the footage of rioters breaking into the Capitol building, trashing offices and desecrating the centre of American politics was a step too far. Politicians initially hiding under desks and then escorted to safe areas had time to reflect on the consequences of their support for Trump and the reaction of the world outside was soon apparent.

While Trump’s son, Eric, declared that “this isn’t their Republican party anymore, this is Donald Trump’s Republican party” possibly hinting at a rerun in 2024, the likelihood of this occurring has receded considerably. A by product of Trump’s inability to accept electoral defeat is that he has strengthened the Democrats hand immeasurably and split the Republican party. The loss of the 2 Senate seats in Georgia, leading to a 50:50 hung Senate can be directly attributed to Trump’s rhetoric.

Politicians supportive of the US electoral process have argued that the failure of Trump to challenge Biden’s victory shows that American democracy is strong. However, this view ignores two important facts. The first is the extent to which Trump’s rhetoric and the political environment has created a divided America; commentators have described a society of two tribes. It is thought the bitterness of this divide will take a long time to heal. The second is the huge damage done to the concept of democracy both within America and throughout the world. The obvious consequence is that America cannot accuse other regimes in the world of being undemocratic, when disturbing political events occur. The more important and underlying concern is that this earthquake has shaken the foundations of democracy and weakened belief in the system. Belief in democracy and trust in politicians is vital for the system to operate, whether it be holding fair elections, accepting laws or following emergency directives, as we are being asked to do for the COVID-19 pandemic. It is arguable that the Brexit process which resulted in the UK leaving Europe, had its origins in the lack of belief in the honesty and integrity of politicians and lack of faith in the UK political system. Ironically Trumps hope of “making America great again” has been put back considerably by his own actions.

So why write an article on a subject covered extensively in the mainstream media with TV reporters and newscasters providing lengthy discussions and analysis from a series of political analysts, former politicians and military experts. The answer is simple. We all remember where we were, what we were doing and how we reacted when we received news of world-shattering political events. Since 1945 there have been three such events occurring in the United States of America: the assassination of President John F.  Kennedy in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, the 9/11 plane attacks on Manhattan, New York in September 2001 and the storming of the Capitol building on 6th January 2021

In 1963 I was 16 and doing evening homework at school – normally a quiet period- when a friend burst in to tell me he had heard the news of the assassination of President Kennedy on the radio and in a few minutes the corridor was crowded with people, all contributing to a noisy discussion. the We were stunned by the news and disbelieving at first. How could such a thing happen? Why was such a charismatic person assassinated in broad daylight with the TV cameras rolling? Fifty years later with 5 million documents released (though over 1000 are still withheld) and many conspiracy theories formulated, the public still does not know the full truth. In 2001 we heard of the impending attack on New York by Al-Qaeda terrorists who had hijacked four airliners. Two were directed at the World Trade Center in Manhattan and one at the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. By the time my wife switched on the TV the north Tower was ablaze and the second plane was approaching the south tower. Within minutes CNN had a live feed. The second plane hit the south tower at 9.03 a.m., an event seen by millions of viewers

All three events have been costly and have involved a threat to democracy, not just to the US but to the world. They also share common features: a world-wide television audience watching the drama unfold before their eyes, a period of disbelief that this could be happening and then a series of strong reactions unfolding rapidly but with knock on effects for many years.  In all three cases there have been strong allegations of a failure of security allowing terrorists, either internal or external, to breach protective barriers and inflict major damage.  Fifty years after Kennedy’s 1963 assassination Roberts wrote in a review “the conclusion that JFK was murdered by a plot involving the Secret Service, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been well established by years of research”. Although in 2001 the FBI quickly identified the hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks, through documents found in the luggage of the leader Mohammed Atta at Boston airport, a number of security reviews and the 9/11 commission report highlighted how security and intelligence agencies were inadequately coordinated to prevent the attacks.  The President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council was set up as well as anti-terrorist legislation across the world. The events of 6th January 2021 showed  a palpable lack of adequate security with insufficient Capitol police and  a failure to authorise deployment of the National Guard quickly enough.

In the aftermath of the 6th January there are a lot of issues being addressed and measures taken (identification of the rioters and the weapons they brought, possible actions against Senators Hawley and Cruz, concerns over any last-minute rash actions by Trump, impeachment procedures against Trump, attempts to oust Trump via invocation of the 25th Amendment, safety at the Inauguration Ceremony, etc.). However, the long-term central dilemma to solve is the vulnerability of democracy and the potential instability inherent in the long transition period between the election in November and the Inauguration in January. Over the next 4 years it is important that this is addressed and not shelved on the basis that “we came through”. There will need to be a balance between the historical customs and improving the system to be more robust, against a maverick outgoing President and US dissidents seeking to manipulate either the voting process   or the post-election confirmation procedures. At the same time vulnerability against foreign interference in the US needs to be minimised. In the past there have been too many instances where the focus of the US on internal affairs has allowed the outgoing administration to lose its focus on what is happening abroad.

The suspension of Trumps Facebook and Twitter accounts has removed the oxygen of publicity, which Trump has used consistently to fan the flames of controversy and to maintain his influence (though many ultra -right wing websites still convey dangerous and false information).

Keep the mahogany ballot boxes but consider changing the electoral college system and ensuring the President-elect has unfettered rights of access to ensure a smooth transition. Despite the good intentions of the Senate resolution in September 2020 (ROM20874) to guarantee a smooth transition, it certainly did not happen that way this year. America’s right to be called the bastion of democracy has been severely damaged by the assault on the Capitol and will reduce US influence on regimes the West considers undemocratic.

Written 10-13th January 2021

New Year’s resolutions and 2021 solutions

Making New years resolutions is almost an annual ritual. In the holiday time afforded between Christmas and New Year we have time to reflect on the past year and think about the upcoming one. Many of us rush to make new resolutions for the New Year, perhaps in the hope that somehow we will be a better, more likeable person.  A common one is that we should take more exercise and so joining a gym would be a good idea. Often these candles of intent flicker and die out in a couple of months, maybe less.

The perceived wisdom is that “we are who we are” and that “human nature does not change”, so these aspirations are bound to fail. This year during lockdown we have already had time to reflect on what is important in our lives and to try new things. I thought it might be instructive to reflect on my own experiences during lockdown and see how I fared in this respect. Out of interest I (in common with many others) have kept a coronavirus diary to record what we did and how we felt during lockdown, so this has been invaluable in promoting my poor memory on what actually happened,  as opposed to what I hope occurred. During this period there have been times when the streets have been empty of the usual hustle and bustle and this was noticeable around August, which should have been Fringe/Festival time.

Edinburgh Lawnmarket: centre in busier times, left and right during 2020 lockdown
Photo credits: Bruce Ward ( left and right) and BestofEdinburgh (centre)

One of my many faults is untidiness and that has been so for many years. My sister recalls me being tidy up to the age of 8 after which “the rot set in” but I received detention at school on many occasions because I left running shoes, clothes and books lying around. Things have not improved much in the ensuing years, thus requiring periodic garden/home “cleansing” when the mess accumulates. Just before Christmas I excelled myself by filling the utility room with wood to dry out to complete the woodshed roofing, whilst having stones strewn round the garden (part of a planned new rockery). Neither job was finished before Christmas but the tidying up was, accelerated by  the threat of eviction.

The curtailing of group activities like drama, pottery and language courses, not to mention socialising with others theoretically gave me a lot of “free” time but we all know that this never translates fully as the time for the ceased activities was scheduled and our routine adapted to fit the activity into a regular slot. Nevertheless, during April and May helped by good weather we were able to spend a lot of time outdoors gardening, walking and relaxing. So it was not a great ask to get the vegetable garden planted and keep it in order. At the end of the day the weather was good enough to have a drink on the balcony and admire the day’s work.

Activities on the “attempted” list

Tried and succeededStarted but either lapsed, done periodically or not completedFailed
Starting a blog Tidy workshop
Outdoor photographyPlanning a week’s menuRepair of bicycle
Regular walkingNew lino on kitchen floorWrite more poetry
Lose weight Start pottery at home
Keep veg garden in order Bury water pipe to greenhouse
Improving knowledge of trees and flowers Decorate bathroom

However bad habits are hard to shake; doing jobs that are more enjoyable first means that the unpleasant and boring jobs remains at the foot of the list. So, the blue waterpipe to the greenhouse water tank at the bottom of the garden remains an unsightly eyesore and the punctures on the old bicycle are still not repaired, while the chain has become clogged with dirt.

With a canal path close to the house that leads to countryside at Ratho, just 7 miles outside Edinburgh and then a further 20 miles onto the Millennium Wheel at Falkirk there is an easy and interesting route out of Edinburgh.   The Union Canal goes from Edinburgh to Falkirk where it links with the Forth and Clyde Canal that runs from Grangemouth in the east to Clydebank (Bowling) in the west, just outside Glasgow. Over the Christmas period in 2017, I walked a different section of the Union Canal for a week and discovered lots of interesting information about Edinburgh’s western side. This Christmas we have walked down to the end of the canal, where the canal now terminates and seen goosanders, mallards, coots and waterhens. Over the last few days with the snowfall it has provided a different picture.

Edinburgh post Christmas 2020: inc. Harrison Park, bronze swans at canal basin and Mortonhall woods

With a canal path close to the house that leads to countryside at Ratho, just 7 miles outside Edinburgh and then a further 20 miles onto the Millennium Wheel at Falkirk there is an easy and interesting route west out of Edinburgh.   The Union Canal goes from Edinburgh to Falkirk where it links with the Forth and Clyde Canal that runs from Grangemouth in the east to Clydebank (Bowling) in the west, just outside Glasgow. Over the Christmas period in 2017, I walked a different section of the Union Canal for a week and discovered lots of interesting information about Edinburgh’s western side. This Christmas we have walked down to the end of the canal, where the canal now terminates and seen goosanders, mallards, coots and waterhens. Over the last few days with the snowfall it has provided a different picture.

Polwarth church and Union Canal

Edinburgh is well adapted for cycling with plenty of green spaces such as the Meadows and Holyrood Park. Within in the city are other cycle routes e.g. from Leith Links to the beach at Portobello, along the Water of Leith walkway from the shore at Leith to the city centre and then onto the Water of Leith centre. The route from the centre to the Forth Road bridge goes northwest along National Cycling Network Route 1(NCN1). There are routes to the east along the coast to North Berwick via Port Seton using NCN76 and routes around the large Pentland Regional Park that extends in a broad band south west from Edinburgh to Carlops. There are 14 cycling groups in and around Edinburgh poviding advice and encouragement on how to start cycling as well as cycling route maps. Over the period of the pandemic the City Council have added bollards protecting cycle paths on roads and have increased the number of areas with a 20 mph limit.

So why with so much incentive to start cycling does the bike still languishing unrepaired in the workshop?. I guess the main reason is it is much easier to get on with a job if there is a deadline to meet or a necessity (mend a water leak, lay a gravel path for wedding visitors etc.) and the second is that I just find bike repairing slow, messy and tedious. The spanners slip on the stretched tyre, the chain requires thorough cleaning in petrol, you lose the clip etc. Perhaps if I was better at it. I would be more enthusiastic.

 The converse question is why did I succeed in other new ventures? We have been walking since the first lockdown with a few gaps and have found it invigorating physically and has helped maintain as sense of well-being in a period of concern and isolation (either partial or complete). It has also provided relaxation and emptied the mind of all that clutter we carry around and which increases tension. Over the autumn period we did a longer weekly walk taking a picnic with us that enabled us to explore new places, take photographs of the autumn colours and refurbish our knowledge of trees and flowers, which had dwindled over the years to a basic level. I guess this actually worked well as  package because the photography  was combined with the walking and this gave more incentive to catalogue both old and new images. Over the months we have refound  old handbooks on wildflowers and trees, bought new books on insects and trees and installed identification apps for flowers, birds etc on our phones.

Witch hazel

On one such walk in December I photographed a shrub with wonderful spiky yellow flowers that stood out against the drab winter foliage aroind it. Image compare on bing suggested it was witch hazel, a plant that flowers from November to February.  However my new tree identification book failed to mention it.- The reason for this is that witch hazel,  is not native to the UK unlike hazel or wych elm. Both witch hazel and hazel have bendy stems, which is why they have been used for water divining/dowsing in the US and Britain respectively. In New England in the 1840’s the Puritan settlers learnt to make a medicinal extract from witch hazel and in  the 1860’s a process of distillation was set up by the Dickinson family, which survived until 1987. Industrial steam distillation of witch hazel chips, followed by addition of alcohol to 14% is still used to produce a distillate used in cosmetic nd pharmaceutical products world wide.You can still buy  distilled  witch hazel from Boots, which is recommended for relieving  discomfort of bruises, sprains, and skin discomforts (despite much medical evidence as to it’s efficacy). As is evident following these rambling threads from observation of a plant or bird to learning more about them is interesting to me.  .

Over Christmas my wife has taken a complete week off work, so we have been able to walk every day whenever we chose. With snow falling overnight we woke up on December 29th to pristine covering of snow in the garden and the park behind us. Taking advantage of the fine weather we walked down the Union Canal towards the city. The canal was frozen with interesting patterns on the ice; the family of goosanders we had seen a few days previously had either hunkered down or flown somewhere more suitable, and the only swans to be seen were the bronze ones in the canal basin, Two coots were trying to find a few holes in the ice but the flew away into some sheltering bushes (a sight I have not seen that often). The combination of walking, enjoying nature and photography has worked and hopefully will continue , when the covid pandemic is over.

The take home message I have learned about making resolutions and starting new activities during lockdown  is in line with advice given when I retired from work; don’t take on too much at one time and identifying a regular time slot will make it easier to keep it going. So I am not making any new Years resolutions as such, just making a few silent wishes that we won’t forget what we have learnt and will think more clearly about the environment and lifestyle we want for the long term future. but that opens a topic for another day. For now the next step may be to throw away the spanners, grit my teeth, dig deep in my pocket, buy a new bike and start cycling.

Christmas dilemmas but lights on the horizon

The annual anticipation of Christmas normally is like having a slow cooking stew in the oven; for a while there is no sign of much activity but slowly the evidence of the cooking builds from a vague hint to a mixture of appetising aromas that whet the appetite. With our children, Christmas started at the beginning of Advent. On Advent Sunday the Christingle was reassembled on the dinner table and one candle lit and three spaces vacant. On each successive Sunday,  a further candle was added, so that the angels revolved faster on each addition. They also enjoyed opening up one door of their Advent Calendar each day. In those days the Advent calendars were fairly simple pictures of the Nativity story with the wise men from the east, the shepherds etc. and there were two larger doors for the 24th and 25th. Nowadays the choice is much greater: elves bearing chocolates, wooden snowmen, reindeer, Christmas trees, craft calendars, etc. There are calendars with pockets for treats and ones with large wooden boxes (like the drawers in an apothecary’s cabinet) that can be used year on year.

The run up to Christmas in Edinburgh is usually great fun with market stalls in the street, Princes Street gardens hosting a big market where smells of mulled wine, sausages and cheese entice the visitor to browse the craft stalls. There are craft fairs in various locations within and around the city with fair attractions such as the Big Wheel and the Star Flyer providing laughter and lights. This year the display of festive lights in the city centre is muted with a few trees lit in Princes Street but the gardens below the castle eerily dark.

Edinburgh Castle on a December night

Unsurprisingly with Edinburgh under tier 3 restrictions, where even outdoors no more than 6 people from two different households can meet, most of the usual events are cancelled. It is still possible to book tickets for lights displays in the Botanic Gardens and the Zoo.

However, the big decision for each of us is not whether to go shopping locally or to meet a friend in a café; it is a choice of whether to spend Christmas alone at home or to enjoy the grace permitted to visit family or friends, locally or further afield. Those with family a distance away have to balance the hazards of travelling, particularly if going by train or plane and the “covid circumstances” of the people they are visiting. By covid circumstances I mean whether their routine is one where they are coming into daily contact with a wide variety of people through work, school or activity and their likelihood of meeting people who could pass on the virus. Despite all the precautions, restrictions and lockdowns that have been in place during the autumn, over the last 7 days the number of cases in the UK has been increasing with an average of 174 cases per 100, 000 people.

For months we have been living with safety messages from the UK Government at Westminster that have been difficult to understand and with wrangling between different regions.  The rules and restrictions have depended first on the country you live in (England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), second on the region and in which tier it is currently placed, and thirdly with time as the tiering changes with the rise and fall of coronaviruses cases and other factors. One of many examples of inter-region rivalry is that northern regions feel London is getting preferential treatment as it is currently only in Tier 2, though the number of coronavirus cases “merit tier 3 classification”, while Conservative MPs argue that this would be “catastrophic” and cause “untold damage”.  Since this blog was started it has been announced that London will finally move into Tier 3 on December 16th.

The assiduous can look at the restrictions on the national websites using the postcode checker but most rely on the latest update from their mobile. So, it was a temporary relief when the four nations agreed a joint plan to allow families to form Christmas bubbles of not more than three households from December 23th to 27th.

However, this seems to have been devised merely as a strategic plan to allow activity that would have occurred anyway and to attempt to limit its scope. No sooner had the rules been explained following their release on November 24th than a stream of advice not to travel and not to mix followed. On November 30th, Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland  confirmed that she will not be seeing her parents indoors over Christmas and advised people to “think carefully “about meeting up with loved ones at Christmas. Radio programmes brought in health experts with advice about not passing plates around, keeping windows open and not playing family board games. The SAGE committee suggested that children should avoid close contact with their grandparents or sleeping in the same room as children from other households, a rule almost impractical to implement. Strategic advice has given way to advice and warnings based on safety considerations. SAGE member Dr Hilary Jones, argued that  the Christmas rules were illogical and thought Christmas gatherings will result in increased transmission of Covid -19 , a rise in the R-factor, and a possible third wave in January and February . This view has been echoed by Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at Edinburgh University , who labelled the relaxing of covid restrictions at Christmas “a mistake” and expressed concerns about people travelling from “high to low prevalence areas”, thereby enhancing transmission of the virus. The chief of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson wroteto the Prime Minister arguing that the Christmas rules may need urgent review within a few days and other medical experts have also expressed their fears  that a surge in covid cases will result due to relaxation of rules over the Christmas period. This  has led in the last 48 hours to reassessment by the politicians and varying degrees of adjustment and tightening of the rules.  

This all leaves individual members of the public to discuss the pros and cons of mixing at Christmas with family and friends and to reach their own decisions. With a heavy heart we  made the decision not to travel to visit family a couple of weeks ago; all the information coming out since then has made the decision seem logical but not any easier emotionally. At our age (over 70), it seems too great a risk to take and although we shall miss the family enormously, particularly the grandchildren, hopefully we will be around next year to make up for it. With vaccines not just on the horizon but the first already being rolled out in the UK it seems foolish to take a short-term risk.

So, are there any lights twinkling on the horizon to help us survive the winter and provide hope for the future and a truly better New Year?  I think there are plenty and certainly enough to sustain us through the difficult weeks ahead. For the present we have some physical lights to cheer us in the streets and in our homes. The Christmas lights are lit up along Princes Street, the tall Christmas tree is in place as usual  on the Mound and many homes with outside displays together provide reassuring continuances of the Christmas spirit.  The tradition of the tree on the Mound dates back to 1949 when Norway gifted Scotland a tree in thanks for the assistance rendered during the Second World War. But it is the mental lighting up of our hearts and minds that is most needed.


Mental health advisors speak of the importance of having something to look forward to, and thanks to the prospects of various vaccines in development there are messages of optimism (mingled with calls for patience) that transmission will be brought under control. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is already being administered in hospitals and care homes in Scotland and there is optimism that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine may receive approval either at the end of December or in January. The formal request by the government to the regulatory agency, MHRA, for the vaccine to be licensed and authorised for wider use has already been submitted. Currently there are 6 vaccines approved in different countries and at least another 46 in development .

Although the news on the vaccines is undoubtedly the most significant area for hope and cheer, we – the human race – need a mixture of mental sustenance to keep us going. In our little bubble of two, we have been actively trying to create a sense of well-being and relaxation amidst the semi-isolated life we currently lead. One feel-good factor comes from communicating with close family and friends, another comes from making the most of the music, films, stories, dramas and entertainment on offer.  I have particularly enjoyed Sunday mornings on Radio 4: news, Sunday worship with a mixture of music, reflections and narration of individuals’ experiences, A Point of View, and tweet for the day providing a little cameo about somebody’s favourite bird. It is refreshing and invigorating whether you are religious or not.

However probably the greatest benefit has come from getting involved in small activities. The long autumn allowed many opportunities for photography and with Christmas approaching cooking and baking has provided a lot of fun. The jellies, chutneys and preserves made earlier can now be wrapped in paper as small presents for friends.  The most sustaining activities have been two that we do each week regardless of the weather and that provide two oases of tranquillity, no matter what else is going on at home or in the outside world. These have become increasingly important in keeping both our spirits up and for maintaining a sense of equanimity as the months of semi-lockdown continue. The first has been our weekly walk; just a couple of hours somewhere different within our permitted area of travel.

Roslin Glen and Rosslyn castle

For example this week we did two short walks on the same day: the first in Roslin Glen, which lies about 8 miles from Edinburgh, through which the North Esk flows amidst scenery that has been admired by poets and writers for many centuries. Hawthornden Castle lies at the northern  end of the glen with Rosslyn Castle at the other end and close to the famous Roslin Chapel. After a picnic in the open we headed for Straiton Pond, which lies close to the busy Edinburgh City bypass and a large, popular retail area. It was formerly an industrial  blue clay pit but  is now a small nature reserve with ducks (mallard, tufted, goldeneye, goosander), swans, coots and moorhens. In winter neither location was at its best but both were tranquil and refreshing.

Straiton pond- tranquillity surrounded by industry and traffic

Our other relaxation has been 9-holes of golf on a country course the other side of Roslin Glen. On a Friday afternoon we are often the only ones on the course in winter. it is easy to unwind any tensions there and to enjoy the company of our friends. Often, we are heading back to the car park in the gloaming with the lights of the surrounding houses twinkling in the twilight. As well as playing golf we can admire the fields and woods surrounding the course and the view of the Pentland Hills provide a wonderful, if sometimes windy, backdrop. In autumn, flocks of geese fly across on their way back to their roosting spots.

How to see the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, 21 December 2020. Credit: Pete Lawrence
Computer generation image as Saturn (L) and Jupiter (R) converge: credit Jamie Carter/Sky at Night

We may need to make a special trip on Monday 21st December, because weather permitting there will be a very special and unusual light in the evening sky. For the first time since 1426 there will be a very close conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, visible low in the west. They may look like one shining star to the naked eye even though they are in reality 450 million miles apart but with a telescope they will look like a double planet, separated by only 1/5th the diameter of the full moon. Whether we take this as a special omen for 2021 or not, this is surely a light on the horizon worth observing. If we allow it to provide a beacon of hope, so much the better.

Tree of light and hope

Written 12-16th December

Trump card – winner or loser?

The statue of Liberty in New York by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Danger for democracy or storm in a teacup

Is the topsy -turvy aftermath of the 2020 US election a danger signal for democracy or the last despairing card being cast by Trump in the political saloon of Washington?

Interest in the US election has been intense in the UK and even overshadowed developing news on the coronavirus pandemic, which has obsessed our thoughts and affected our lifestyles for so many months. This has reached a crescendo in the last week when after an exciting election that seemed to swing in the balance for a while, the clear Biden victory has been contradicted by the refusal of Donald Trump and his political allies to concede.

Trumps techniques in seeding unrest

The current flurry of activities (legal and media) behind the scenes reminds me of those snow globes, where the figures in the scene are obscured by the many “snowflakes” swirling around and only become visible after a time for resettling. Donald Trump has used this tactic of shaking up the system for many years: repeating mantras to reinforce the message and making multiple unsubstantiated statements. It was central to his success in the 2016 election and in the subsequent 4 years of his Presidency.  “Make America great again” has been a useful slogan for the Republicans but we are no closer to understanding exactly what is meant by it or how this goal will be reached.

This tactic has been used dangerously in minimising the danger of coronavirus and the widespread occurrence of infection in the US.  The President has succeeded in convincing many Americans that wearing a mask is not necessary and indeed a sign of weakness. While on the one hand seeming Presidential, holding a major news conference on coronavirus at the White House with US health officials and commercial concerns on  “winning the battle” against coronavirus, he has subsequently on many occasions appeared in in public not wearing a mask, downplaying  the severity of the pandemic and  maintaining  “the battle was won”. The facts are deeply concerning: over 11 million cases, 250,000 deaths, a record 160,000 new cases in a single day on 12th November, and an alarming rate of increase of cases in many States (doubling in under a month). Yet placards against covid measures and refusal to wear face masks still abound.

He has also succeeded in his repeated rhetoric about rigged elections in convincing 75% of voters that fraud occurred, with 40% saying it influenced the outcome of the election – proof that social media has more influence than official reports. This coupled with a barely disguised fanning of the flames is increasing tensions across the nation, with the likelihood of violence. In a move reminiscent of his risk-embracing strategy in October to cheering supporters, when he took a “drive-by” outside the hospital while still being treated for coronavirus, Trump repeated this tactic during the “MiIlion Maga March” on November 14th. Trump supporters from all over the US, including the far-right Proud Boys group, held a rally in support of him and the claims of electoral  fraud.  On his way to golf, his motorcade happened to drive through the demonstration, with the President giving thumbs up  to his supporters in tacit approval.

Why Britons mind about the US election results

First and foremost, the US President is a powerful and influential figure and a nominal world leader. What happens in the US has ripple effects across the pond. However, Donald Trump is not popular nor respected over here, with a 74% negative opinion in a recent YouGov opinion poll. It is partly his bullish assertions and crowd-rousing tactics that strike a discordant note. Like a child in a playground, he hopes that the incessantly stated wish will become true if it is repeated enough times.

A second reason for our fascination with the US election is that it is a unique combination of a race and a drama that plays out over many months. The 2020 election started on 17th February 2017, with Donald Trump announcing his candidacy for a second term, and will end on 20th January 2021 at the Inauguration Ceremony. The race analogy holds up well with runners in the primaries falling at different fences for lack of money or electoral support. Bernie Sanders established an early lead but Joe Biden was the eventual winner with Sanders “pulling up” in early April. The primaries constitute just the first act of a drama played out in many acts: the election campaign, election day, vote counting, the transition period between administrations and finally the Inauguration.

The count drama

The third reason for the massive interest this year was the timing of the counting, which  led to a very exciting and tense wait before the final call by the major networks of a 306 to 232 victory, the same margin by which Trump beat Hilary Clinton in 2016 and ironically hailed by Trump as a landslide victory. The Democrats, mindful of the coronavirus pandemic, encouraged postal ballots, (estimates of c. 95 million).  The rules on counting these ballots meant there were considerable apparent swings from red to blue in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada as counting proceeded.


For example, on November 5th in Georgia, Trump was leading by 18,540 with 96% of the 4. 9 million votes counted but this turned to a Biden lead of 14,172 after 99% votes had been counted. The apparent swings in Pennsylvania were even more marked: a Trump lead of over 600,000 votes on the morning after Election Day shrunk rapidly as postal votes from the major cities were counted and this lead  was whittled down steadily over several days to an eventual Biden win with a majority of 68,712 and a 1% greater share of the votes. It was the Pennsylvania result that led to the news networks calling the election for Biden.

The timing of the count made the election look “knife edge” with a cartoon of Trump threatening the Statue of liberty with a knife “I win or the Dame gets it!”. Also, it provided an opportunity for Trump to challenge the validity of the election and to launch a number of lawsuits in battleground states.  As reported in the Washington Post, Trump allies and “ordinary” Republicans then proliferated these allegations of electoral fraud on social media.

Smooth or rough transition of power

The current focus is on Trump’s refusal to concede the election, which though not obligatory is customary; it is part of the process of the almost 3-month long transition process between administrations. Tony Blair (UK Prime Minister 1997–2007) in a recent interview was confident that despite many Republicans repeating  the assertion that “the election had been stolen” and other disputes, “the democratic system has rules, which will eventually be implemented”.

Two interesting documents support Blair’s view. The first was a Senate motion, ROM20874, proposed by Joe Manchin, a respected Senator from West Virginia, in September and unanimously approved.  The resolution affirmed a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power between outgoing and incoming presidential administrations . In a powerful and impressive speech, Manchin  lamented the need to have to reaffirm a commitment to the US constitution and the freedoms “we all take for granted”. He went on “Make no mistake, this is about maintaining this democracy”.

The second was a joint statement from the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council & The Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Executive Committee released on November 12th. “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history”. “We can assure you we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should too.”

Sadly, this ordered transition has not yet occurred. The Biden team have not been given access to classified security briefings, federal agencies and funding needed to ensure a smooth transition of power. The risks that this poses for security and tackling covid have been pointed out by people on all sides of the US political spectrum. There is also the process of converting the votes cast in the election into electoral college votes. The electors meet in December and Congress in January. Only on 6th January 2021 are the electoral votes formally presented before a joint session of Congress, completing a complicated system devised in the early days to provide a compromise between States rights, Congress and the popular vote.

What happens next?

Several theories have been advanced as to what Trump hopes to achieve from this refusal to concede: maintaining a hold on the Republican  Party,  running for President again in 2024,  a need to remain in the limelight or to minimise the danger of lawsuits when he leaves Office. Equally there are many questions as to why prominent Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, continue to support Trump’s stance, regardless of the damage that it is doing to the reputation of the US worldwide.

There is an underlying fear in some quarters that the foundations of American democracy will be at best considerably shaken and at worst badly damaged. In a recent interview Barack Obama talked about issues, like inequality and immigration, where divisions between differing opinions were being amplified by news reporting and by “the spread of misinformation online, where ‘facts don’t matter'”. In the short term, the divisions within the US could severely affect the control of the coronavirus pandemic. In the longer term, a breakdown of trust in the election system and the legitimacy of the Presidency could result in deep fissures within American society.

President-elect Biden in his “acceptance” speech said, “This is a great nation. And we are a good people. This is the United States of America.” His task will be to make it united again.  

Seasons of sighs and mournful wistfulness

The autumn colours are starting to shade the trees as if some unseen painter’s brush was choosing a change of palette. The chestnut in the garden pot is already a mixture of yellows and russet brown while the hawthorn leaves in the country hedges are still green with bright red berries. In the streets, a thin layer of brown leaves is accumulating, with little mounds in corners where the colder winds have swept them.

Autumn brings in for me a swathe of mixed emotions: thankfulness for the summer past and the autumn bounty of fruits, nuts and gathered harvest, but is tinged with sadness for the dying year and the inevitable disappointments of unachieved hopes. Acknowledging autumn has arrived means accepting that we are in the twilight of the year and that we have to prepare for winter and wait for spring.

Reacting to autumn varies so much from year to year, and often we are looking to nature to reflect our feelings. In a year when the world has been paralysed by Covid and our everyday lives not only restricted but changed in many ways, some irrevocable, it is perhaps natural to focus on autumn as a period of decay and dying. People who have lost a parent or a partner in autumn often feel sad and depressed every year in autumn due to the close association between autumn and loss.

This year, reading some of the many accounts of the difficulties faced by young people, I wonder how they will look back on this autumn. Those leaving school and starting at university have suffered on several fronts: loss of their last term of school, the exam fiasco and anxiety about entrance to university. Now they  have made it to university many are in self-isolation and all are living under conditions they had not expected . Over 50 universities have confirmed coronavirus cases, the latest with multiple cases being Northumbria University and Edinburgh University.

Students have expressed feelings of being not cared for, resentment at having to pay accommodation fees and frustration that they are missing out on a once in a lifetime experience. While meeting together in large groups to dance and drink is not sensible in terms of the potential spread of Covid, it is  understandable that young people away from home for the first time want to meet other people and enjoy themselves. It is part of the process of settling into a new environment. Many students complain that they have been “cheated”, with teaching online and being confined to their flats.  If they had known what it was going to be like they would have stayed at home and saved the money for accommodation. In addition, the nature of much university accommodation is shared flats, and kitchen facilities shared between 6 and 10 students; students rightly worry that their chances of catching Covid are increased by this. All this has been exacerbated in some universities by poor planning in terms of ensuring food and laundry provision.

Autumn: a time for reflection. Photo credit: Harrison Haines (Pexels)

Equally there are autumnal woes for those in the 16–24 age group seeking employment. While furlough has certainly helped, there have been redundancies throughout the furlough period and across a variety of sectors. This is likely to accelerate sharply despite the Jobs Support Scheme, which is reported to be both complicated and not generous. The forecasts for employment are not good and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has warned that without drastic government action there will be a tsunami of unemployment. Unemployment has crept up from 3.8 to 4.1%; there are 5 million people registered as being “temporarily away from work with 2.7 million of them claiming benefits (Universal Credit).  The UK government has introduced a KickStart scheme to encourage employers to take on 16–24 year olds ) but at the same time there are reports circulating that the government expect a figure of around 4 million people unemployed because of the Covid crisis. Grim news indeed.

So, are there reasons to look on the positive side? For those not struggling, either financially or mentally, this year has been a fruitful one, both at home in the garden and out in the countryside. With more time on their hands many people have found a new affinity with nature, a keener observation of the turning seasons and a sharper observation of the natural world surrounding us. There has been a simple but satisfying joy in the succession of fruits and vegetables in the garden. Aided by an unusually balmy Scottish summer, our own vegetable patch has yielded broad beans, potatoes, courgettes, runner beans and beetroot, with leeks and parsnips still to come. We have even been able to grow tomatoes successfully outdoors. The plentiful supply of plums and apples have been used for deserts and turned into chutneys. Perhaps most satisfying of all are the small pleasures: picking strawberries or blueberries in the morning to go with breakfast cereals or gathering blackberries from hedgerows during our walks, for blackberry and apple crumble.

All this has reminded us strongly of two things. The first is the natural seasonality of food, often obscured by the ability to buying strawberries and other fruit from the supermarket all year round. The second is that growing vegetables gives an appreciation of nature’s bounty as a crop comes to maturity. Even being at home and unable for several months to travel anywhere, at times we were overwhelmed by the peaks of ripening, particularly for the runner beans and the plums. However, the advantages of freezer preservation have not been spurned and plums in syrup await enjoyment in winter (I can remember my mother having to salt green vegetables for the winter). 

The gifts of autumn have been expressed wonderfully for us by Keats in his poem “To Autumn”, written in 1819 at the age of 23 and just two years before his death:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
(For full poem follow link)

Walks in parks and the countryside have helped to keep a “feel good factor” going in lockdown despite gloomy worldwide news. While we have not managed to walk every day, our frequency of walking has increased dramatically and with it our enjoyment of the trees and flowers. For example, whilst visiting grandchildren for the first time since February, we admired the plentiful figs and walnuts on the trees in the neighbour’s garden. I have made a few  additions to our walks: the first to take a camera with me,  the second to use online apps for identification of trees, flowers, insects and birds and the third to use the NHS Active 10 app to monitor how much brisk walking we have been doing (the downside is that scrolling back can bring a guilty feeling for those blank gaps!).

However, it is the watching of the turning of the seasons that has been the greatest benefit. Over the summer we saw the cygnets growing and developing and enjoyed the hedgerow and meadow flowers, but more recently it has been the signs of autumn in the hedgerows and the abundance of different berries like  rosehip, blackberries and sloes. The hawthorn we saw flowering in May has now set red berries while the holly berries are slowly turning from orange to red.

Traditionally the autumn bounty has been celebrated in Harvest Festivals all over the world. As a child attending church in the UK this was always a fun occasion, with sheaves of wheat, vegetables and large, decorated loaves piled up at the front of the church. The hymns tended to be the same year after year such as “We plough the fields and scatter”, “All things bright and beautiful” and “All creatures of our God and King”. After the service, the food was distributed in the parish.

This tradition continues within and outside churches and the need to help others has increased since the start of the Covid pandemic. The Trussell Trust in the UK reports that 2 in 5 households  need to access food banks and  forecasts needing to give out 6 emergency food parcels very minute this winter. Just in the UK it is estimated a further 670,000 people will be destitute by the end of the year. Globally, hunger has been an issue for many years, with charities like Action against Hunger, Bread for the World, Freedom from Hunger and the Hunger Project battling to alleviate hunger worldwide.

Amidst the autumn bounty there is also undernourishment. In 2000, the United Nations and world leaders committed to achieving to meet eight goals by 2015: the first of which was “to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”. In 2015 a new set of Sustainable Development Goals were developed, including  one to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” by 2030.These are lofty international aims but we all have the opportunity to contribute by supporting the work of specific charities and caring for others.

In considering the ups and downs of autumns, one image has caught my imagination: at the centre of each cluster of the decaying leaves of the chestnut tree , a small sticky brown bud has formed and is lying  dormant just waiting for  spring to come again.

September 30th -October 3rd

Addendum.

To any reader who has followed me, I offer sincere apologies for the long gap between blogs. In one of my early blogs “Destinations and paths” I wrote about mazes. Well I certainly got stuck in a dead end for some time and my energies got diverted. Hopefully I will learn from that lesson.

Stones and the passage of time

Innate in our psyche and strengthened by experience is a strong association with stone: the houses we live in, castles, stately homes and churches we have visited and trips we have made abroad to see sights such as the Alhambra, the great Wall of China, the Coliseum, and the church of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, to name a few I have been fortunate to experience.

Interior Sagrada Familia
Exterior Familia Sagrada

The seven wonders of the ancient world (ref) around the Mediterranean were all architectural structures, even the hanging Gardens of Babylon. These gardens were reputed to be a wonderful combination of trees, shrubs and flowers with statues and columns, the whole area engineered in an ascending series of tiered gardens and with a remarkable irrigation system. Their location has never been ascertained; one theory is that they were built not in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II but in Nineveh by the Assyrian King Sennaccherib.

Of these only the Pyramids at Giza remain. Four, the Colossus of Rhodes, the lighthouse at Alexandria, the statue of Zeus and the mausoleum at Halicarnassus were wholly or partially destroyed by earthquakes; one the temple of Artemis was destroyed purposely by fire after being rebuilt three times.

So what are the thoughts and dreams these stone structures evoke: fondness for times past and particular periods of our lives, admiration of their beauty and the art of their construction, shared homage to an eminent person, deity or empire or for the qualities and the longevity of the stone.

Malmesbury Abbey Credit Bruce Ward
Old Bell Inn

My first association with stone was from living in the Cotswolds with its wonderful mellow soft stone used for houses, churches and walls. Cotswold stone has a warmth on which J.B. Priestly remarked “when the sun is obscured and the light is cold, these walls are still faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them.”  The region is rich in small villages such as Bibury, Lacock, Castle Combe and Bourton-on-the Water that are big tourist attractions but many others have a distinct charm.  Returning to this area evokes warm memories of a happy childhood and gentle pastimes, the rougher trials of childhood swallowed up in a mist of forgetfulness that seems to occur naturally in most of us.

By contrast the school I attended in Salisbury was a tall redbrick building, built in the late Victorian era and in recent photos it looks much the same as I remembered it over sixty years ago. Not a building of great beauty.

Salisbury cathedral

By contrast looking from the upper floors of the school one could see the imposing spire of Salisbury cathedral, which never lost it’s attraction, despite being an everyday sight. The sports grounds of our great rivals, the Cathedral School were located in the lee of the cathedral and especially in the summer this was a wonderful venue for cricket matches, which we appreciated despite our generally philistine outlook. Over the years we visited the cathedral a number of times and learnt to appreciate the qualities that have led it to be described as possibly the leading example of Early English architecture with a unity of vision. The latter stemmed from the fact it was built in a period of just 38 years between 1220 and 1258, truly astonishing. The stone used was a combination of Chilmark stone ( from the latter part of the Jurassic period, around 145 million years ago) and Purbeck marble, a crystalline limestone, quarried in Corfe Castle, Dorset. In recent times the Chilmark stone needed for repairs has been obtained from the Chicksgrove Quarry nearby.  The dark, slender columns of Purbeck marble create here a quite fabulous sense of space and height. It has been used primarily in the column shafts of the nave and aisles, and in the vault ribs. The same use of contrasting colours for columns has been used with great effect for the interior of the Sagrada Familia (see photo above)

The cathedral also possesses one of the four extant copies of Magna Carta, the charter signed between King John, the fourth son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and the barons at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. This document did not lay down the principles of democratic government but was a crucial predecessor. It established the rights of the classes possessing land and established that even the King was not above the “supreme law” ( Winston Churchill – the Island Race), The charter was brought to Salisbury by William Longespee, half-brother of King John, who is buried in the Cathedral.  

During my time in Salisbury we were taken to several important stately homes, such as Longleat and Wilton that were even then open to the public. Longleat, built of Bath stone (1568-1580), was an enormous venture ; the house has 128 rooms and cost £31 million in today’s terms; Wilton House, the home of the Earls of Pembroke for over 400 years was built as a Tudor House in 1551 and then redesigned by De Caus and Inigo Jones between 1632-1647. The gardens and park covering 21 acres provide a magnificent setting with the small  Palladio bridge across the river and the large stone Whispering seat.

 As an adult both these houses are interesting and impressive.  However, as a child of under ten, the open areas around the city and in particular the ruins of Old Sarum were more appealing. Perhaps if the safari park at Longleat opened in 1966 had been there or I had attended the Wessex Country Fair at Wilton, my memories would have been different.

Aerial view Old Sarum – Courtesy Mark Edwards

Old Sarum lies just a couple of miles north of the present city of Salisbury and as it’s name implies was the site of the original city. It started off as an iron age hill fort (400 BCE) with impressive ramparts and then in Norman times a castle was built by William the Conqueror in 1070. Five years later construction on a cathedral was begun nearby, beneath the raised ground of the castle (motte). Disagreements between the churchmen of the cathedral and the soldiers of the castle led to the decision to build a new cathedral to the south. The cathedral was dismantled over a period of years and today only the outline of the foundations can be seen. The castle lasted until about 1514 but the area was sold off by Henry VIII, who in his bid to raise revenues sold off and destroyed many castles, churches, cathedrals and monasteries. The peak period for the dissolution of the monasteries was 1536-1541 but kingly patronage and largesse was more easily dispensed if revenues were gained by confiscation).  The clear outline of the motte-and bailey castle construction can still be seen, which was exciting for a  young boy bought up on “1066 and all that”.

Whilst the beauty and history of these stone constructions is clear, sadly their longevity varies widely.  Both nature and man have played a part. Often stone is reused as in the construction of Salisbury cathedral from the cathedral at Old Sarum. Earthquakes and fires have destroyed many buildings, the fire at Notre Dame in being a notable example. Greed caused the destruction of many monasteries and warfare settled the fate of many castles such as the old Coventry cathedral,  Corfe castle, Tintagel and Dunstanburgh.

Yet amazingly many have survived.

Before the iron age fort was formed at Old Sarum, the hill top site was a Neolithic settlement. Another famous neolithic site not far from Old Sarum is Stonehenge. Journeying from north Wiltshire south to Salisbury, we could cross the barren stretches of Salisbury plain, used then and now as an army training area through Potterne, Market Lavington, Tilshead, and Shrewton. Crossing the A303 near Amesbury, the stones of Stonehenge came into view standing alone in the wide open spaces. In those days the site was open with no fencing and very few visitors. Since 1986 it has been a UNESCO World heritage site and no wonder.

So it deserves a separate article when I can write about my fascination with the  Neolithic stone structures at Stonehenge, Callanish and other Scottish and Irish neolithic sites.

Written 27-30th June

Emergence

Visiting the caves at Lascaux is a memorable experience. From a sunny exterior you go into dark passageways dimly lit and then into the darker caves, where the prehistoric paintings are briefly lit up and the images of bison, deer and mammoths takes one back about 20,000 years to the age of prehistoric man in the Upper Paleolithic/Late Stone Age era. At this time the surrounding region was periglacial and large herds of herbivorous animals roamed across the land as they searched for vegetation to graze on. No matter that the caves we were looking at were not  the original ones, when one emerged again into the bright sunlight there was a dizziness from a combination of still thinking about this ancient  world, brought to life so well in the cave setting, and the readjustment to sunlight and modernity.

Hall of the bulls – Lascaux ( Patrick Aventurier/ Getty Images)

Life for these people was tough with severe winters confining them largely to their caves and when they emerged they need to take advantage of the short summer to gather roots and to hunt animals. They were well aware of the dangers on the outside and needed to balance risk and reward just as we do.

For those of us who have been in isolation for many weeks  and are slowly emerging into activities long in abeyance there is a bit of the same disjointed feeling. The situations is further complicated by the fact that the lifting of restrictions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are occurring under different plans and different rates. The plan in Scotland has 4 phases and we are still in Phase 1:  restricted to a 5 mile radius, allowed to socialise with one other household outdoors and allowed to play golf but with some restrictions. Phase 2 is likely to be introduced on 18th June.

As mentioned in the previous blog “White swans and black birds”, we have had more time to both observe and think about nature. Alongside that, those of us in the vulnerable age bracket are often thinking back to our youth and enjoying revisiting and relearning. My wife still has Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s book, first published in 1944, which was a childhood present. The book uses the device of a twice monthly walk, where the children are accompanied by their Uncle Merry and observe the successive emergence of animals and flowers through the seasons. At the back are 3 glossaries of flowers, trees and birds with black and white illustrations. There is even a monthly poem by the likes of Robert Browning, William Wordsworth and John Keats. That for June is “High Summer” by Matthew Arnold.

Soon will the high midsummer pumps come on,

Soon will the Musk carnations break and swell,

Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,

Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell,

And stocks in fragrant blow;

Roses that down the alleys shine afar,

And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,

And groups under the dreaming garden-trees

And the full moon, and the white evening-star

Blyton has been a much attacked author: criticised for mediocre material, limited plots and considered offensive for reasons of racism, nationalism and sexism, though her books were hugely popular and read at the time by millions of children in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Indeed in 2008 Enid Blyton was named the best-loved author of all time.

This nature book contains a lot of useful information. Together with the old Observer Pocket Series of nature books, some modern books on flower and tree identification and some apps for plant identification we have been having fun relearning and identifying plants on our walks.

Part of the enjoyment is that common names are not always the same in different regions: yarrow/milfoil, cuckoo-pint/lords and ladies, jack-by-the hedge/garlic mustard to name but three.

Lords and Ladies flower and berries. Jack by the hedge

Walks over this period have also allowed us to observe bird activity week by week. Young birds have a significant and often life-deciding decision on when to leave the nest. Fledging too early when the wing muscles are too weak is dangerous as they may be unable to fly properly; fledging too late means their nests may be discovered by predators such as crows and magpies. Songbirds that experience higher daily rates of predation tend to fledge relatively early.

Every day birds have to make the decision whether to go foraging for food and expend energy or to remain in their roost. With their high metabolic rate flying is expensive in energy terms. Added into this is the risk of predation and the availability of food in connected patches.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The warm weather of April and early May in Scotland has been superceded by two weeks of rainy weather and snails and slugs have been more evident in the garden. The humble terrestrial snail has to decide, literally, when to come out of its shell in order to seek food such as green plants. It can only do so easily when the environment is moist; this facilitates production of mucus and allows the snail to glide along surfaces. Snails usually come out at night or in the very early morning. This reduces their chances of predation by birds and rodents; the less time spent in the open and outside the shell, the less the risk.

For us deciding when and how to come out of isolation and emerging into the wider world is a complex decision and not just a matter of following different governments’ advice as restrictions are lifted in  phases. For most, the economic necessity of going to work (if available) is the driving force but all of us have to consider the risks to our health both of working and of socialising. The risk factors of age, ethnicity, underlying health conditions and location are a lot clearer than they were three months ago and can be taken into account, but a lot depends on the behaviour and sense of  responsibility of those around us. The impact of the recent frenzied rush to the seaside and to beauty spots around the UK has yet to be assessed but there is no doubt that social distancing in these cases was insufficient for safety. It also reminds us that without a quick and reliable method of testing and contact tracing we are ignorant of the covid-status of those we met outside our immediate environment – and indeed of ourselves.

Written July 15th-18th

White swans and black birds

The situation in Scotland is changing rapidly as the first phase of lifting restrictions has started. The noise level in neighbour’s gardens and the amount of traffic in the streets around have both increased. There has been the smoke of barbecues in the air, laughter and singing from the nearby park and the occasional burst of music as a car passes by.

This all contrasts with the previous two to three months, when at times the streets have been eerily quiet and the sound of the birds in the garden have sounded almost deafening. So,  it seems a good point to reflect on some of the benefits of lockdown. As I wrote in a previous blog “Phases of the Moon” lockdown has provided the opportunity to enjoy nature more, to observe the unfurling of spring and to watch the behaviour of birds and animals from day to day. What was just a fleeting glance can become a series of observations that give us more insight into the wildlife in our cities and parks.

The area where I live is quite rich in birdlife: a series of adjacent back gardens, plenty of trees lining the canal and several parks within a short flying distance. Like most cities there are a large population of gulls, who enjoy the rooftops. Many Edinburgh buildings are three or four stories high and still have chimney pots, a leftover from the coal mining days, when each room would have a fireplace. Nowadays the city is a smokeless zone, so only approved coal can be burnt and many of the chimneys have become a good nesting site for jackdaws. The gulls also like the canal as they can compete for the bread (despite recommendations to feed maize or other more suitable food)  thrown by children, who come to feed the ducks.

We have quite a few black birds in the neighbourhood: jackdaws, crows, coal tits and blackbirds. The blackbird we so enjoy in the UK is the Old World/Eurasian blackbird. It is certainly the most numerous breeding bird here and probably also, the best loved bird. Its beautiful mellow, liquid song brings joy to the listener. This is encapsulated in the poem by the Victorian poet, William Ernest Henley.

The blackbird.

The nightingale has a lyre of gold;

The lark’s is a clarion call,

And the blackbird plays but a box-wood flute,

But I love him best of all.

For his song is all of the joy of life,

And we in the mad, spring weather,

We too have listened till he sang

Our hearts and lips together.

It has been fortunate that we have been able to hear this wonderful song, morning and evening,  for many weeks, in what is the peak period for their singing. The one in our garden is full of energy and gusto, marking his territory as he moves round his circuit of favourite trees. The other evening, we sat outside in the garden with a friend over a glass of wine for the first time for ages as the first phase of lifting lockdown restrictions in Scotland has just started.  After weeks of unusually sunny weather the forecast rain arrived. We moved to shelter but our blackbird continued singing lustily through out even when he was flying across the garden.

Another solace over the last few weeks has been the chance to explore new walks in the area. With Arthurs seat, the Pentland and Braid Hills amongst others we have a good choice of uphill walks and equally in the lower areas where the streams and parks are abundant we have the Water of Leith, Inverleith Park, Princes Street Gardens, The Meadows and many more. Recently we have been exploring the walks in the area around Craiglockhart and Craighouse. The nature reserve at Easter Craiglockhart covers 35 acres with a long pond by the sports centre and pleasant, mainly deciduous, woodland, not far from the Observatory, Braid Hills and its golf courses and adjacent to Craighouse estate, with it’s chequered history.  The woods offer a shady stroll with a good variety of trees and plants, including campion, bluebells, long leaf avens and wild garlic

Craighouse mansion was built in 1565. In recent times it has been a hospital, part of Napier University and is now being developed with 145 units of modern housing, despite considerable local opposition.

Craiglockhart pond was built as a curling pond in 1878. During the First World War when the nearby Craiglockhart Campus building was used as a hydropathic hospital. Wilfred Owen built boats for sailing on the pond ( Wilfred Owen by Guy Cuthbertson, 2014) .

Pond at Easter Craiglockhart

Today it is part of the nature reserve, frequented by  Canada geese, tufted ducks, coots, moorhens, herring gulls and black headed gulls.  However, pride of place on the pond goes to the beautiful pair of white mute swans. This year they have had a clutch of nine cygnets, an unusually large number (normally 4-7) born in early May, We were lucky to see them when they were just a week old and to see the contrast between the large sleek icy white adults and the small grey-brown fluffy cygnets with their stubby black beaks.

Swans and cygnets – photo credit Bruce Ward

Over a hundred years ago, incidentally  close to the time when Wilfred Owen came to Craiglockhart, William Yeats sought solace in Coole Park in County Galway, Ireland, (then home to Lady Gregory, a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre and now also  a nature reserve) and wrote his poem the Wild Swans at Coole , the last three stanzas  from which are shown below:

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

The poem expresses for us the admiration in which we hold these magnificent birds. For Yeats the sight of the fifty nine wild swans elicited deep reflections on his life. For all of us,  nature can be a source of both inspiration and reflection.

These two birds have given me a lot of joy in different ways over this difficult period: the cheerful little blackbird, protecting his home patch from which he never wanders far with his robust singing and  boundless energy; the graceful, regal  large white swans, elegant and tranquil on the water, majestic in flight.

Swans on Easter Craiglockhart

Over March, April and May we have had pleasure in watching spring unfurl. While the human world has been in pain and turmoil, the natural world has gone through its normal seasonal progression. For birds territories have been established, nests built and young reared. Plants have responded to the sun and spring flowers appeared in their normal succession: daffodils, bluebells, wild garlic, campion and many more.

As we strive to put our world together again, I hope that we will remember to be grateful for the environment around us and have the strength and vigour to protect it too.

The two faces of politics

The trouble with politics is that it all depends on your point of view. The current brouhaha over the recent behaviour of Dominic Cummings, the UK Prime Minister’s specialist adviser is a case in point. The facts are fairly simple and have been widely reported in the mainstream media.

Mr Cummings drove his wife and four-year-old child 260 miles to his parents’ Durham farm on March 27th, because he believed his wife was suffering from coronavirus; he started suffering symptoms of coronavirus the next day, when he self-isolated. This was less than a week after the Prime Minister had declared “a national emergency” on March 23, when he initiated the coronavirus lockdown and people were advised to “stay at home, support the NHS and save lives ”. In his TV address to the nation he explicitly stated “ people will only be allowed to leave their home for the following very limited purposes” and went on to say “these are the only reasons you should leave your home.”

Almost two months later (May 25th), in a rare public statement from the rose garden of No 10 Downing Street Mr Cummings defended his actions, the main argument being that he was seeking care for his child. He also said that “he did not regret what he did” and believed he had acted “reasonably” and within the law. [Unlike non-political adviser such as Professor Neil Ferguson and Scotland’s chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, who both resigned after being challenged for breaking lockdown rules, he is currently still in post.]

However the UK public think differently as shown by two YouGov polls (1 and 2). 68% of people thought he broke the restriction rules and 59% thought he should resign.

Unfortunately, any political controversy sparks off a stream of claims and counter claims, justifications and criticisms that tend to deflect from the main issues that should be considered. In this specific case there has been support for Dominic Cummings from fellow Ministers such as Michael Gove and criticism from the opposition parties and from journalists such as Piers Morgan, many of whom have been on the receiving end of rude remarks from Mr Cummings. . Interestingly there have also been calls for his removal from 44 Conservative MPs, a not inconsiderable number.The Prime Minister stated that Mr Cummings did not flout the lockdown because he had been “travelling to find the right kind of childcare, at the moment when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus.”

The crux of the matter is that the British public have found the behaviour of Dominic Cummings offensive and many people feel that they, ordinary members of the public, have made large personal sacrifices to comply with coronavirus restrictions. By contrast Mr Cummings, a key member of the group that laid down the lockdown rules is seen to be above the law.

People’s anger over the actions of Mr Cummings, his lack of repentance or apology and the defence of his behaviour by the Prime Minister and other Government ministers have been reflected in several ways. There has been a flood of message on social media, petitions for his resignation have gathered and a startling drop in opinion ratings for the Prime Minister and his Government.  During the first month of lockdown approval ratings were stable at c. 40% but fell from 19% to -1% over the past few days over the Dominic Cummings affair. It is ironic that if it were not for lockdown there might have been demonstrations and marches to protest.

The fact that this effect has been so seismic, is perhaps a reflection both on the power and influence of chief advisers within Government but also the concern of the public about this. Governments have always used specialist advisers in many fields such as health and agriculture so that technical advice from people with acknowledged expertise in a specific area can be given to guide the Government of the day. The members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and other committees advising on epidemiology and on hospital Covid-19 infection are examples. these people are independent non-political advisers.

 However, specialist advisers, who assist Government ministers, are political appointees and act in a personal and party-orientated capacity. First introduced by Harold Wilson in the labour Government of 1964, their number and influence has increased steadily. Whilst often not household names some have been well known either because of their influence or because of their involvement in specific crises. Alistair Campbell, the Press Secretary (spin doctor) for Tony Blair crucially involved in making responses to the media during the Iraq war.

At present there are 109 special advisers in government of whom 44 work for Boris Johnson. In February 2020, Sajid Javid, newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer felt the brunt of adviser power when he was asked to replace his team of aides with personnel chosen by No 10. He refused and resigned.

All this begs the question of whether the current political structure is healthy or needs redesigning. The much-vaunted British parliamentary system, which evolved over centuries, was based on a parliament, (answerable to the electorate only at elections) with an impartial civil service providing the information on which decisions were based. However this  system has been in considerable jeopardy for at least two decades due to the concentration of control within a narrow circle of ministers, thereby diminishing the importance of parliament and the increasing importance of the third tier of political advisers, who are not accountable to the public.

Good Government depends on trust, the trust of the public. This need for Government to have the backing of the public is magnified enormously in the current situation, when people are being asked to act selflessly in many ways (staying away from dying loved ones, obeying the restriction rules, cooperating with track and trace  system etc.). Cooperation is vital in the efforts of the whole country to help contain further spread of the coronavirus. Effective government on a world stage, which we will need in coming times, also depends on how those outside our country view the actions of our government.

Whether you agree or disagree with the behaviour of Dominic Cummings will depend on your point of view. However, we should seek a better system of using specialist advisers, so that the powers they have are balanced by making them more accountable, not just to their individual bosses.

When the bushfire of the current scandal has burnt out and we are sifting through the ashes, should we not at least consider whether our current system has the right checks and balances and also learn how the rest of the world views us.

Written 26-28 May 2020

Touching distance

Touching hands. Courtesy IANS

Touch is important from the very first moment of our lives. All round the world babies are  placed in their mothers’ arms as soon as they are born, and so the process of bonding begins. This initial contact can be a life-changing moment and often women who did not feel particularly maternal in pregnancy suddenly feel a rush of love and a fierce protectiveness. Touch is one of the five fundamental senses but our modern society has problems in balancing the benefits of humans touching each other with the prevention of inappropriate touching that crosses accepted lines.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

During the coronavirus lockdown the fact that we have had to conduct our lives almost without touch has led to an appreciation of its value in relation to seeing and hearing. In video chats with grandchildren we can see and hear them but a virtual hug is scant consolation for the reward of reading a story with the child nestled in close to you or a hug to celebrate some new achievement. On two occasions during recent months my wife and I have taken the precaution of sleeping in different rooms. The first was a week before lock down in the UK when I had a dry persistent cough albeit with no temperature, which at that time were the two major indicators of possible Covid-19 infection.

With the data gathered through the King’s College, London symptom survey led by Professor Tim Spector ( https://covid.joinzoe.com/), the list of symptoms associated with coronavirus infection have increased and include loss or taste or smell ( added to the NHS coronavirus symptom list on 18 May). But the sensible course was to stay part until we knew that the infection was non-covid. During this period neither my wife nor I slept well and we missed the reassuring and calming small touches that mean so much.

Our individual attitudes to touching and the general view of society change over time. Growing up in the 1950’s, my parents kept to the customs and attitudes of their peers. This meant my father greeted me with a formal handshake not a hug, whereas my wife’s family came from an environment where touching was an important demonstration of affection and belonging. Over the last 20 years it has become the norm for men to greet female friends with a kiss on two cheeks. My children have grown up in a world where hugging between men is normal and in team sporting events there is a mass clasping of bodies in mutual congratulation on scoring a goal etc. The 2005 series of Ashes tests (cricket matches between England and Australia) have recently been made available to view again. At key moments, the players rush to congratulate a teammate who has made a telling contribution, smothering him in hugs and pats, so he is submerged from view. Not something we are likely to see again for a long while.

Celebration during the Ashes 2005series (Daily Mail)

In fact, handshake greetings have become so habitual, that when the advice to stop greeting came to be part of official coronavirus guidance in February, people including politicians and royalty found it difficult to break the habit. Stopping kissing, hugging and handshakes was implemented in Europe, well before lock down started (UK 23 March). It was ironic that at an early White House press conference, announced with much fanfare, on how the US was going to tackle the coronavirus President Trump shook the hands of several of the participants.

Trump handshake in Rose Garden – March 13th (Getty Images)

Touching distance for two adults is roughly 1.5m, within the 2m social distancing we are recommended at present in the UK. The exact safe distance is still being debated with WHO suggesting 1m is safe but all recommendations are based on studies of other coronavirus particles in air and the risk of aerosol transmission. Professor Werner Bischoff, from Wake Forest, North Carolina, speaking on BBC Radio 4 on May 19 (link) explained that large expelled droplets (larger than 5 microns) travelled less than a metre. Small droplets travel further but have a lighter viral load and so pose less risk. However, the time of exposure is also important and as argued below it is probably the overall dose of virus particles that is the important factor.

An interesting post by Dr Erin Bromage discusses the relative spread of virus particles through air as a result of breathing, coughing , sneezing and singing (link). Whilst the large number of particles released by coughing is well known, Bromage cites two examples from the scientific literature where low levels of virus excreted over a prolonged period of time indoors caused high rates of infection. The article emphasised the role of asymptomatic carriers and argued that the accumulative dose was the key factor in aerosol spread. One consequence of this argument is that social distancing measures, based on short exposure times are insufficient for indoor situations, particularly where airflow such as air conditioning is transmitting virus particles to neighbours.

With regard to touching, the rapid transmission of bacteria and viruses between humans has been known for many years. In undergraduate teaching classes a simple experiment where a harmless bacterium was put on one person’s hands and then passed onto the next person by shaking hands was used to show that a small dose can be transferred effectively through a number of different people successively being in contact with each other. Similar experiments using harmless tracer viruses, carried out at the University of Arizona, showed that virus particles could be transferred from one object such as a door knob to other objects such as computer keyboards, toilet handles and table tops. Within 2-4 hours the virus was detected on 40-60% of such surfaces and human workers were contaminated.  

As we touch our faces frequently, the possibility of transmission of Covid-19 from hands to face and then entering the body through the nose and mouth is obvious. Hence the advice of frequent hand washing with soap or wiping with alcohol, both of which kill the virus by disrupting the viral coat.

The social consequences of all this is that the comfort and assurance that we are used to receiving daily through touching is disrupted in many ways such as meeting and greeting friends and relations. While meeting in person has been replaced partially by video chats through systems, such as ZOOM and Skype,. that allow “virtual meetings”, the element of touch is still missing.

In the Netherlands one care home has introduced the use of glass cabins where relations can see their elderly relatives and talk to them using speakers though separated by a glass partition (link). This system works for patients with dementia who could not cope with video chats.

The moist poignant need for touch right now is when a person is in hospital, infected with Covid-19 and close to dying. Both the ill person and those close to them want to be at their bedside at this pivotal moment for mutual comfort. For many this has been impossible and doctors used to witnessing deaths have been affected  by these cases of patients dying, literally in isolation. In a moving programme on Radio 4 (diaries of the NHS workers – cronavirus behind the mask) doctors and nurses related some of the difficulties they face every day.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000j22z

One commented that it was hard to watch people say good bye, especially if they are doing so remotely from Facebook or on Face time. At the Royal London Hospital, in an act of courage and humanity, Dr Rupert Pierce decided to offer relatives the chance of saying goodbye in person, protected by PPE. For medical staff and relatives alike this was a big decision; demonstrating how to put on and take off PPE safely and knowing that these people would be taking a risk.

Hands bringing comfort – photo courtesy IANS

Being in touching distance was important enough to take the risk.

Written May 20th 2020

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