Brave New World or Paradise Lost? – Our town’s new library

Our town has a new library. It’s been open since early August, but the UK’s National Libraries Week (5 -10 October) seems like a good time to check it out. For years – no, decades – we’ve wished to see the old library replaced. Hopefully it will prove to be worth the wait.

* * *

The old library was a converted stone-built domestic property – The Hollies – dating from the first half of the 19th century. Located within the Belper Town section of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, it had loads of character. But despite the best efforts of the staff it was a woefully inadequate public library, a hotchpotch of small, knocked-together rooms spread across two floors. “Compact” would be one way to describe it, but I prefer “cramped, uncomfortable and incapable of measuring up to 21st century expectations.”

The old library (photo taken 2005)

Ideally, Belper’s new library would have been purpose-built, but space for new-build projects is at a premium in the World Heritage Site area. And anyway, libraries aren’t seen as a priority these days, in a society which seems to believe that the Internet and mobile phones are the answer to everything. In the circumstances, I suppose we should be grateful that the project went ahead at all, albeit in another converted building.

The site of the new development is the former Thorntons factory, where yummy chocolates and other confectionery goodies once rolled off the production lines in vast quantities. Thorntons abandoned Belper many years ago, and a new use was required for their land and buildings.

The new library (ignore the frontage stretching into the far distance on the right!)

Cometh the hour, cometh the council. Parts of the factory were flattened, to be replaced by a relocated care home and a health centre. However the oldest factory building was retained, to be converted into the town’s new library.

* * *

As we approach the new library we take stock of its appearance and potential. Externally the architect has done a good job, broadly sympathetic to the building’s industrial past and in keeping with the spirit of the World Heritage Site. So far, so good. But what about inside?

A masked member of staff greets us as we enter, asking for our names and contact details as part of the government’s Covid-19 Test and Trace strategy. However there seems to be little chance of catching anything here. The place is almost deserted, just a couple more staff and one other member of the public who scuttles out soon after we arrive.

The timing of the new library’s opening is disastrous, and you’ve got to feel sorry for the management and local staff. This project has been in the pipeline for years, and nobody could have predicted it would come to fruition when the country is in the throes of a pandemic.

Computers wrapped in bin bags, and no chairs…not much chance of public internet access here today! Sexy curved shelving – but the “island” units interfere with sightlines.

Elsewhere in Derbyshire the county’s library service is working hard to extend and promote its digital offer – eBooks, online storytimes and the like. But here at Belper the team face a different challenge, to entice users to try out an unfamiliar library building which is currently unable to live up to its potential due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

It’s clearly not “business as usual” today. Covid-19 is still deterring many people from venturing into public spaces like this, the computers are wrapped up in what looks like bin-bags, and seating is limited. More disturbingly, all books returned to the library after being borrowed are set aside and quarantined for three days before they are put back on the open shelves.

Exposed rafters and beams, and bare brickwork, celebrate the building’s industrial past

So, through no fault of the staff our first visit here is not the relaxed, welcoming experience we’d hoped it would be. We have the place to ourselves as we start to explore the Brave New World of Belper Library

Although the positioning of the original windows tells us this was once a two-storey building, the first floor has been stripped out entirely. The roof soars high above us, revealing exposed rafters and beams. Combined with the bare brickwork, the underbelly of the roof pays due homage to the building’s industrial past.

White “island” shelving units, but wooden wall-mounted units. Why?

But, and it’s a big but, the place seems a bit small. In order to cram more books into the available space they’ve opted for head-high “island” shelving, which interferes with sightlines and counteracts the airy sense of space which should result from the soaring roofline. And where are the public meeting rooms, a vital resource for the modern public library, welcoming shared spaces where community groups can get together to explore culture, literature and learning?

But it’s the children’s section of the library that disappoints me the most. It’s not big enough, feels austere and clinical, and lacks both colour and character.

In my view the most important part of any public library is the children’s area. More than ever in this digital age we have a duty to encourage youngsters to explore and enjoy the written word, to develop their language skills, and to experience the power of story. I worry that the dazzling white shelves and uninspired furnishings will struggle to achieve this.

The children’s area: austere, clinical, lacking colour and character

Perhaps I’m being too harsh? The library is clearly an enormous improvement on what the town has had to put up with for the previous 80 years, and we’ve not seen it at its best. In the post-Covid environment (whenever that is!) I’m sure the staff will work hard to make it fly, and I wish them well in their endeavours.

But this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something brilliant for culture and learning in Belper, to create a new, vibrant community venue, and it seems to have slightly missed the mark. I leave the library feeling a trifle underwhelmed, debating whether, when I write this post, I should somehow weave “Paradise Lost” into the title of the piece.

Sadly, I won’t be spending as much of my retirement in the library as I’d once imagined.

Of canaries and donkeys – celebrating National Poetry Day

Last Thursday, 1 October, was National Poetry Day. In a belated celebration of the event, I thought I’d share with you the only two poems I’m able to recite from memory. The first on my list is the work of the American poet Ogden Nash (1902-71), described on the Poetry Association website as “the most widely known, appreciated, and imitated American creator of light verse.”

Canary Literacy

PHOTO CREDIT: “Canary Literacy” by Jocelyn777 Love Europe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The verse in question runs to only 13 words, and therefore is clearly no Paradise Lost! On the other hand it has just the degree of cheeky irreverence guaranteed to appeal to a schoolboy growing up in the 1960s. Which I guess is why my teacher Mr Williams introduced us to it, and why, over half a century later, it still trips off the tongue. The Canary was published in Nash’s 1931 collection Free Wheeling, and still makes me chuckle today…maybe it’s the birdwatcher in me?

The song of canaries
Never varies,
And when they’re moulting
They’re pretty revolting.

My second poem is a lot more serious. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936), universally referred to as G K Chesterton, was an English author, journalist, critic, philosopher and theologian.

Just why my headmaster chose to display a poster bearing the text of Chesterton’s poem The Donkey in the main corridor at my primary school will forever remain a mystery. Thankfully he did, and at a time when my brain was like a turbo-charged sponge, desperate to absorb new ideas and images, I consumed it greedily. Chesterton’s words have remained with me ever since. Here they are:

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

If you are one of those people who prefers to listen to poetry, rather than to read if off the page, the link below will take you to a reading of The Donkey by Elric Hooper.

The Donkey celebrates Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. As I am not, either by upbringing or instinct, even remotely religious, it may seem strange that this poem has stuck to me like glue for more than half a century. But the words have another, more profound meaning which resonated with me then and still does today.

In the first three verses Chesterton’s subject speaks to us directly of the contempt in which he is held by the world, contempt for his origins, his appearance and his lowly status. The donkey appears to us as a pathetic, self-loathing creature, lacking in confidence and eaten up by the ignorant and hateful way that others perceive him.

And yet…in the final verse we learn that he has a noble past, a back-story of which he is justly proud. The donkey has witnessed and been part of an extraordinary, world-changing event. He, no less than any of those who decry and despise him, is worthy of our respect, admiration and love.

File:Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro lorenzetti.jpg

IMAGE CREDIT: Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, a fresco in the Lower Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Pietro Lorenzetti / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

And I guess that’s the philosophy by which I have lived my own life. The opinions held by others about our origins, outward appearance and social status are a mere distraction, an irrelevance, perhaps even a lie. We must look beneath the surface to perceive a deeper truth.

All lives have value, and all are worth living. We should never feel the need to apologise for what we are, and what we are not.

Instead of feeling imprisoned by other people’s perceptions of us, surely our focus should be on how each of us can best play the cards we have been dealt in order to help make the world a better place for ourselves, for our fellows and for all living things.

PHOTO CREDIT: Laraine Davis via Pexels

Each of us, guided by a spirit of tolerance and compassion, has the potential to do good. And each of us has the right, as well as the innate capability, to live a happy, fulfilling life untroubled by the negative opinions of those who would wish us ill.

Even donkeys can be beautiful.

A funeral in the time of Covid

Milly’s been sick for almost two years, going downhill steadily as Motor Neurone Disease tightens its grip. It’s a cruel condition, remorseless, destroying her body but leaving her mind intact. Helpless, she watches herself slowly waste away. When she finally passes we are sad to say goodbye, but relieved that her suffering is finally over.

The church in the village where Milly lived is closed, being too small for services to be conducted safely while the virus is still active. Instead, the funeral is moved to one that is a little larger, a few miles from her home. It’s a decent sized country church and probably seats around 200 people in normal times, but because of the virus, attendance today is by invitation only and limited to just 30 mourners. Others wishing to pay their respects must stand outside, and listen to the service relayed on loudspeakers.

We put on our facemasks before entering. Only the pews in the nave are available; others in the aisles on the left and the right are out-of-bounds. To facilitate social distancing each pew is limited to just two mourners, the first pair sitting to the left, those in the row behind them to the right, and so on. It looks and feels surreal, this funeral is in the time of Covid.

The priest takes his place, wearing a clear plastic visor. He welcomes us, and apologises that this will not be the sort of funeral to which we are accustomed. It doesn’t matter, we think, we’re simply pleased that we are able to gather here to pay our respects. The social distancing, the facemasks, the other restrictions, none are of any lasting consequence when seen in the context of the life that Milly has lived and lost.

The coffin bearers enter. Incomprehensibly, while everyone else in the church is masked-up, they aren’t. Why? It’s inconsistent and makes no sense, but that could be said of so much of the official response to Covid-19. Our government is clearly making it up as they go along, and while I don’t seek to minimise the challenges they have faced I do worry that they simply aren’t up to the job. I’m tempted to say that they’re a joke, but plainly this is no laughing matter.

The service begins: the prayers, the Bible readings, the eulogy. All standard stuff, swiftly and efficiently executed. But no hymns. The priest advises us that singing is not currently permitted at religious services, as it increases the risk of spreading the virus.

Instead he flips a switch, and a recording of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind fills the air. It’s a familiar hymn that most of us learned in primary school and, although we’re not allowed to sing out loud, as I glance around me I sense several mourners mouthing the words within the privacy of their facemasks.

The end, when it comes, is unexpected. Today would have been Milly’s 89th birthday, and as the coffin bearers carry her from the church the priest flips his switch again and Happy Birthday to You echoes around us. It’s a bit quirky, and therefore in keeping with the rest of the morning’s proceedings. We are reminded that, although we are here to mourn, today is also a celebration of a life well lived. Covid-19 cannot and will not be allowed to distract us from this simple truth.

Rest In Peace, Milly.

Fish and chips: a very British obsession

Last Friday, 4 September, was National Fish and Chips Day. Which, in my view, is a bit odd. After all, the combination of fried fish and chipped potatoes is – unofficially, at least – the UK’s national dish, an iconic part of our cultural heritage. Although they won’t win many Michelin stars, fish and chips are a British staple, a British obsession even. Surely, every day is Fish and Chips Day?

PHOTO CREDIT: Magda Glazewska (@magdag) via Unsplash

Of course, the people who declared 4 September to be National Fish and Chips Day had an agenda. The festivities were the brainchild of NEODA. Never heard of them? Neither had I, but a quick trawl on the internet reveals NEODA to be the National Edible Oil Distributors Association, a trade organisation representing “all the major refiners, key packers and distributors of edible oils.” So now you know…I expect you feel much better for that!

It’s easy to understand why the good folk at NEODA want to promote fish and chips, but frankly they’re pushing against an open door. The British love affair with the dish has been around for at least 150 years, and shows no sign of abating.

We need to talk about chips

Q: When are chips not chips? A: When they’re (French) fries.

To assist North American readers of this post, I need to explain that the food item we Brits call “chips” is referred to on your side of the Pond as “fries,” or maybe “French fries.” The snacks that you describe as “potato chips” are called “potato crisps” over here, because…well, because they’re made from potatoes and are kinda crisp. Confusing, eh? When George Bernard Shaw, the renowned early 20th century Irish playwright, observed that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” this was exactly the sort of nonsense he had in mind.

We Brits like to think of chips as quintessentially British. Wrong! Of course it was an Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh, who first introduced potatoes – originating in South America – to northern Europe in the late 16th century. However it was the French who invented chips, pieces of potato around 1cm square, cut in varying lengths and deep-fried. The clue’s in the appellation French fries, although the Belgians claim it was they – and not their southern neighbours – who made the culinary breakthrough

By the beginning of the 19th century chips had made it across the English Channel and were being cooked and eaten in the UK. First published in 1817, William Kitchiner’s cookbook The Cook’s Oracle, includes the earliest known recipe for something similar to modern chips. However, fish and chips, the double-act that was to wow the nation, had yet to make an appearance

A marriage made in heaven

As an island nation, we Brits have always eaten a lot of fish. However, coating fish in a floury batter and then frying it in oil was unknown until the early 1800s. The practice appears to have been brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants from Spain and Portugal, where fish was traditionally cooked in this fashion. It soon caught on, and is mentioned in Charles Dickens’s 1839 novel Oliver Twist, which references a “fried fish warehouse.”

Frankie’s Fish and Chips, the UK’s most northerly chippy, sells fish ‘n” chips to eat in or take away. We ate in, and had an excellent meal!

The marriage between the feisty fish and the humble chip was consummated around 20 years after Oliver Twist was first published. Who should get the credit is hotly disputed, just another chapter in the interminable tussle for cultural supremacy between “the south” (aka London and its environs) and “the north” (aka anywhere up-country of Watford.)

Proponents of southern supremacy claim the first combined fish and chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, in east London around 1860. However, northerners have their own hero, one John Lees, who is believed to have been selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market, near Manchester in industrial Lancashire, in 1863.

Regardless of who thought of it first, fish ‘n’ chips soon became a staple food item, particularly amongst the working class poor, for whom the meal constituted a welcome addition to normally bland diets. Shops selling fish and chips for customers to take away and eat elsewhere, often wrapped in old newspaper for extra convenience and cheapness, became known as chippies. They quickly spread across the length and breadth of the country, serving urban populations that grew rapidly as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

But the passion for fish ‘n’ chips was not confined to densely populated industrial settings. The craze spread to small country towns, and isolated rural settings too. Last year we had the pleasure of visiting Frankie’s, the UK’s most northerly chippy. Situated in the village of Brae on the main island of Shetland, which lies almost around 200 miles off the north-east coast of Scotland, Frankie’s maintains a reputation for high quality fish ‘n’ chips despite its very remote location.

The red spot (top right of inset map) shows location of Frankie’s!

By 1930 there were more than 35,000 chippies across the UK. Today, there are still 10,500, serving an estimated 382 million meals of fish ‘n’ chips every year. This is equivalent to six servings annually for every British man, woman and child. Almost a quarter of the UK population is believed to visit a chippy at least once a week.

With the arrival of chippies in towns and cities across the UK, the lives – and diets – of working people would never be quite the same again. These days, of course, they face stiff competition from other fast-food outlets, including those selling burgers, fried chicken, and Indian and Chinese takeaways. All have their place, and some may even outsell their older rival, but none is so deeply embedded in British culinary culture as good ol’ fish ‘n’ chips!

Choose your fish

The most popular fish sold in chippies is cod (around 62%), followed by haddock (around 25%). Others, seen less frequently, include hake, skate, plaice, sole and pollock. Several years ago George’s, our local chippy, briefly offered hoki, a fish found in the waters around New Zealand. They don’t sell hoki any more, which is probably no bad thing considering the monstrous carbon footprint each portion entailed.

Growing up in London in the 1960s, my fish of choice was rock salmon. Sounds grand, doesn’t it? But the name is marketing bullshit, an attempt by canny fishmongers to glamorise the patently unglamorous dogfish, or huss. I now live in the English midlands, and up here they don’t sell rock salmon. I don’t know whether to be impressed that the locals have seen through the promotional smokescreen, or appalled that they are denying me a much-loved childhood treat.

Condiments and accompaniments

Originally a meal of fish ‘n’ chips was served with no condiment or accompaniment other than a sprinkling of salt, but today just about anything goes. While the standard condiment remains salt and vinegar, popular alternatives include curry sauce and gravy. Tomato ketchup is also well liked by some, and was favoured by none other than John Lennon. In Edinburgh, however, a tangy brown sauce is preferred.

Moving on to accompaniments or side dishes, pickles of various types, including onions, gherkins and eggs, all have their fans. And then, of course, there are mushy peas.

What in god’s name, I hear you ask, are mushy peas? Well, put it this way. Imagine dissolving Shrek, the Incredible Hulk, Kermit the Frog and a sack full of oversized, bullet-hard marrowfat peas in a seething vat of acid, and mixing the resultant pulp with a bucket-load of fermented goose droppings. Got the picture? Well, mushy peas are worse than that. They are the devil’s work.

Mushy peas

PHOTO CREDIT: “Mushy peas” by Simon Lieschke is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Found mostly in more northerly parts of the country, mushy peas are an acquired taste that this Londoner-by-birth could never be bothered to acquire. It seems to me that anyone liking them must be just a little bit odd…on which point I should add that Michael Jackson is reputed to have adored mushy peas. I rest my case.

And while we’re exploring the darkest recesses of culinary good taste, perhaps I should mention the Deep Fried Mars Bar. In the UK Mars is a divinely decadent chocolate bar consisting of nougat and caramel covered in milk chocolate (the US version is rather different). “Naughty but nice” sums it up perfectly. In 1995 a Scottish chippy, encouraged by a pair of customers who were clearly chancing their luck, experimented with coating a Mars Bar in batter and then deep frying it.

The trial was pronounced a success (nobody died!) and pretty soon Deep Fried Mars Bars were on sale in chippies throughout Scotland, although whether anyone actually eats them alongside fish ‘n’ chips is unclear. I confess I’ve never tried one myself: life’s too short, and mine would probably be a damned sight shorter if I indulged in stuff like that.

Celebrating National Fish and Chips Day

It would have been churlish of us not to celebrate National Fish and Chips Day, so Mrs P did the decent thing and went online early Friday morning to place an order. I drove into town at lunchtime to collect the heavenly treat, and minutes later we were tucking into a feast of cod and chips, delicately seasoned with a sprinkling of salt and a splash of vinegar.

And not a mushy pea or deep fried Mars Bar in sight!

Hair today, gone tomorrow: bouncing back from lockdown

First the good news: after a wait of over five months, Mrs P has at last had a proper haircut. My wonderful missus likes to wear her hair short, in a simple elfin style. The closure of hair salons during lockdown therefore made her miserable, as her locks edged inexorably towards her shoulders. A state of emergency was duly declared, and the Platypus Man was called upon to wield a pair of scissors. I think it’s safe to say I have not found a new career.

photo of saloon interior view

PHOTO CREDIT: Guilherme Petri via Unsplash

The government finally allowed hair salons in England to re-open on 4 July, but when she contacted her hairdresser Mrs P was dismayed to learn that other members of the sisterhood had beaten her to it. It seems that women-folk right across our neighbourhood had been suffering similar torments, but they’d been quicker off the mark in booking appointments. Five anguished weeks followed before, at last, hairdresser Sue was able to fit her in.

Returning from her appointment, Mrs P bounced into the house like a new woman. The measures the salon had put in place to protect clients and customers from coronavirus had been thorough but not onerous, enabling my good lady to relax while Sue got down to business.

And down to business Sue did indeed get, snipping, clipping and primping merrily until order was restored to my wife’s rampant mane. Both literally and figuratively, a weight has been lifted from her shoulders: Mrs P’s got her mojo back. She looks great.

But now for the bad news: my good lady has declared that I too must have a haircut. I generally avoid male barbers like the plague, being pathologically incapable of holding up my end in random banal conversations about soccer, cars or superhero movies. Instead, I let Sue sort out my hair as and when necessary. However, it’s been more than six months since I last sat in her chair of shame, and I’m enjoying a new sense of freedom.

man in blue and white shirt wearing black framed eyeglasses

PHOTO CREDIT: Mostafa Meraji via Unsplash

You see, male pattern baldness is embedded in my genes, and has been making its presence known for two or three decades. I’ve not got much hair left now, and I cherish every last strand that has remained faithful to me.

Moreover, I’m a child of the sixties and look back lovingly to my hippy past. OK, I wasn’t a real hippy, but I admired their hedonistic lifestyle and carefree attitude to the cultural norms of their parents. To celebrate their values, in my university years I allowed my hair to grow until it brushed my shoulders, long, thick and luxuriant.

Ah, those were the days!

It’s occurred to me in recent months that the haircutting hiatus initiated by Covid-19 offers the ideal opportunity for a new beginning. Or perhaps more accurately, the chance to relive my glory years.

I therefore boldly suggested to Mrs P that lockdown is just the beginning, that now is the perfect moment for me to grow what’s left of my hair down to my shoulders again, and maybe even to have a ponytail. Her reply was short and to the point: it’s not going to happen, and if I don’t get it cut voluntarily she’ll do it herself when I’m asleep.

Huh!

So we’ve agreed on a compromise. Mrs P’s booked her next appointment with Sue for early November, and one for me 30 minutes later. Could be worse, I guess: at least I’ll have a couple more months to enjoy my rediscovered hirsute-ness.

And with any luck we’ll be in lockdown again by November, and hair salons will be closed until spring 2021. That should give me plenty of time to explore my inner hippy. Peace, man!

green peas peace sign

IMAGE CREDIT: Stoica Ionela via Unsplash

Defying the lockdown: the new adventures of Milky Bar

The UK media has been ablaze in recent days, ordinary folk – of whom I’m one – furious that people who should know better have apparently re-interpreted the lockdown rules to suit their own needs. Resentment at the cavalier behaviour of an individual in the Prime Minister’s inner circle, and the latter’s decision to condone that behaviour, are seen by many as proof positive that “there’s one rule for them, and another for us.”

For god’s sake, we deserve better than this.

But of course, there are those amongst us who have made no secret of the fact that it is their intention to defy the lockdown at every opportunity. Take Milky Bar, for example.

Milky Bar surveys his domain from the top of the garden wall

Milky Bar is a cat who lives on our estate, a cat who believes that our garden is in fact his garden, a place to hang out, booze and snooze whenever life gets on top of him – which is nearly always, it would appear. It’s also where he can hunt dragonflies, a distressing habit that I wrote about last year.

From the day that the UK’s lockdown was announced, Milky Bar has made it abundantly clear that as far as he’s concerned it’s business as usual. The Prime Minister limited citizens’ exercise outside the house to just 30 minutes per day, but in a brazen demonstration of contempt for those who claim the right to regulate our lives Milky Bar has opted to defy the lockdown. He continues to visit whenever he chooses and for as long as he pleases.

Sitting on the fence!

The perimeter of our garden is defined by a wooden fence on two sides and a brick wall on the third. Milky Bar’s arrival is invariably announced by an almighty clatter as he leaps up on to the wooden fence from Jim’s garden next door. From this vantage point he surveys his domain, checking out our garden for dragonflies, unwary birds or other opportunities for mischief.

He often drops by for a drink. We have two ponds, and he likes dipping his paw into the water, licking it dry, then repeating the sequence. Sometimes he does this for several minutes at a stretch. It’s not a very efficient way to drink, but it gives him – and us – ample satisfaction, as well as ensuring he has the cleanest paw in the neighbourhood.

Drinking from the birdbath

But there are times when he prefers his drinking water flavoured with birds rather than fish, on which occasions the birdbath comes into play. Standing up on his back legs, with his front paws on the edge of the bowl, he can drink contentedly while at the same time keeping a beady eye on the birdtable, just in case…

“I think this water’s off!”

One day, the local blackbird makes a near-fatal error of judgement. He can’t have missed Milky Bar, lapping water from the birdbath. Perhaps he’s calculated that the birdtable’s very high and no self-respecting cat would try climbing it. Whatever the reason, he decides to drop in to fill his face. Foolish blackbird!

As soon as the blackbird lands, Milky Bar’s on high alert. He immediately stops drinking and creeps stealthily towards his intended lunch. Suddenly he charges, launching himself at the birdtable, scaling it frantically like a furry Edmund Hillary.  Feathers fly, avian curses shatter the suburban calm, but happily no blood is spilled. 

On the birdtable … snacking on bird food

It’s unclear who’s more embarrassed by this episode, the blackbird or the cat. However, Milky Bar is not one to dwell on a momentary loss of dignity and having conquered the summit he quickly decides that he should be rewarded for his endeavours. Shrugging off his mistake, he proceeds to eat bird food instead of blackbird … he’s a very, very strange cat, but cute as hell.

Drinking from the watering can

It’s been hot and dry here for several weeks – last month was the UK’s sunniest ever May since records began – and watering the plants has become a nightly ritual. Unfortunately the hosepipe is knackered and the lockdown has prevented us replacing it, so we’ve had to resort to watering cans.

“I’m in heaven”

But one person’s misfortune is another’s pleasure, and Milky Bar has just discovered the exquisite joy of drinking direct from a watering can. Maybe the water, fresh from the tap, tastes even better than the fish- and bird-flavoured alternatives? Whatever, since we started leaving the watering cans full overnight he’s been in heaven.

Snoozing in the shade of the bushes

But of course, drinking, chasing birds and eating dragonflies are mere distractions. Milky Bar’s main reason to visit our garden is to snooze. He’s very good at snoozing. There are lots of places that are just right for forty winks, plenty of bushes offering shade from the midday sun while still giving good views of the birdtable…if he can be bothered with his feathered friends, that is.

Snoozing in the shadow of the sheets

He also enjoys laying out underneath the washing that we’ve hung out to dry, the sheets that waft in the breeze gently fanning him as he dreams of dragonflies. And recently he’s discovered that, behind the shed, I have an old dustbin (translated for my trans-Atlantic buddies, that’s a garbage can!) in which I store compost. Sleeping on top of the dustbin, hidden between the back of the shed and the fence, offers all the comfort and privacy that this idle cat covets.

Snoozing on the dustbin lid

So there we have it. The lockdown has brought misery to some, irritation to many, and inconvenience to just about everyone. But for a select few it’s simply an irrelevance. For those lucky souls life’s going on just as it always did…Milky Bar’s doing just fine.

Milky Bar’s doing just fine

*

Postscript: Milky Bar, blogger extraordinary. New followers of this blog won’t be aware that around six months ago, when I was busy preparing for Christmas, Milky Bar stepped in to write my weekly post. He had a lot to say for himself in his Guest Blog, and took great pleasure in hurling insults at me. However, I’m a generous soul and have forgiven his youthful indiscretions. You can read what he had to say by clicking here.

Milky Bar the blogger … he’s got a lot to say for himself

The truth is out there – just ask a librarian

There’s no shortage of information currently circulating about the causes of, and cures for, Covid-19. Trouble is, much of it is just plain wrong, being based on ridiculous conspiracy theories – for example, that 5G phone networks are to blame for spreading the virus – or profound ignorance. The latter is exemplified by the recent speculation that ingesting or injecting household disinfectant could cure the infection. Bloody hell, words fail me!

The crisis has only been around a few months, yet already Wikipedia offers a 16,000 word piece on “Misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.” So the burning question is, just who can you trust to point you in the right direction?

Personally, I would always trust a librarian to do just that. One way or another, I’ve spent most of my life in and around libraries. I always get a buzz of excitement in them. All human knowledge is available in, or accessible via, a properly run library. All you have to do is find it, and there’s no better way to do that than to ask the librarian.

Librarians are information professionals. It’s their job to help us find the information we need, accurate information from reliable sources. Many also have a wicked sense of humour. The image below was sent to Mrs P by one of her friends. Just read the book titles from top left to bottom right, and have a quiet chuckle at the creativity of one immensely knowledgeable librarian, albeit someone who maybe has too much time on his – or her – hands at the moment!

Libraries in the UK – and many other countries, I think – are struggling right now, so when the current crisis has passed why not pop into your local branch and check it out? You may be pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer. Meanwhile, you could try out the library’s digital offer. Various library services are available online these days, and could have been designed for lockdown living!

This is not the time to party

A few days ago, the media reported on a “massive party” held in contravention of the UK’s emergency rules on social distancing, rules that have been introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m saddened to say that the party went down in Derby, just ten or so miles from Platypus Towers, although to be fair I guess it could have happened anywhere. Shortly afterwards there were reports of a pub holding a “lock-in” for regular drinkers at Sutton-in-Ashfield, also just a few miles from where I’m writing this, in flagrant disregard of the restrictions currently in place.

orange and white digital watch

IMAGE CREDIT: Glen Carrie via Unsplash

While most of us are adapting to the current restrictions, a few of our fellows seem to feel that they’re being unfairly treated. They appear to believe that they’ve been singled out for what the Americans might call cruel and unusual punishment, and that they are therefore justified in continuing to do their own thing, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. Their actions are making a clear statement: “these rules, these restrictions on personal liberty, don’t apply to us.”

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When you’re in the midst of a crisis there’s a natural tendency to assume that your misery is unique, that no-one’s ever had it quite so bad before. But it ain’t necessarily so. COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic in human history, nor, I’m certain, will it be the last. This should come as no surprise – after all, it is in the nature of bugs to mutate, just as it’s in the nature of our immune systems to adapt to those mutations. That battle is set to continue until the end of time.

The so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918/19 was by far the worst pandemic of the last century. It’s estimated that around 500 million people caught it, which amounted to about a third of the world’s population at that time. The death rate was huge:

The number of deaths [from Spanish flu] was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

Source: Website of the CDC (The USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Meanwhile, at the time of writing (10am, 4 April 2020) Worldometer reports 1.1 million cases COVID-19 worldwide, and 59,247 deaths out of world population of 7.7 billion. Plainly, during an ongoing crisis any such numbers must be treated with a huge amount of caution; however the contrast between Spanish flu and COVID-19 is stark.

In quoting these figures I’m not seeking to minimise the current crisis, nor to underestimate the suffering of those affected, their families and wider communities. And it’s also plain that while Spanish flu is history, COVID-19 exists in the here and now: nobody knows when it will end, or just how the numbers will stack up when it does. However, the evidence is that humanity has been through something similar before, and had to find ways of coping. Maybe we can learn from history?

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I’ve been vaguely aware of Spanish flu for as long as I can remember. As a student of history it’s one of those things I just picked up along the way. But not for its own sake: rather, it was merely a sad footnote to the history of World War 1, the ironically dubbed war to end all wars. It never occurred to me to look beyond the numbers, to question how society a century ago tried to cope with a rampant epidemic.

Trawling the Internet today I’m not surprised to learn that, here in the UK, we coped badly. Medical science was in its infancy and the disease was poorly understood. In any case the National Health Service did not exist, meaning that a co-ordinated strategy for dealing with the pandemic was impossible.

Moreover, the State had minimal ability to influence and control societal behaviour. A couple of weeks ago, before he himself went down with COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television and ordered citizens to stay in their houses unless they had a reasonable excuse such as shopping for basic necessities, seeking or providing medical assistance, taking exercise (alone, or with other members of the household only), or travelling to or from work (but only when it is impossible to work from home).

It is inconceivable that, in 1918/19, Prime Minister Lloyd George could have envisaged such draconian measures – government’s willingness to reach into the day-to-day lives of its citizens was much more constrained a century ago. Communicating the need for “social distancing” would in any case have been fraught with difficulty without the broadcast media, Internet, and mobile phone technology that we take for granted today. And even had such restrictions been successfully communicated, enforcing them would have been all but impossible.

As the Spanish flu crisis deepened, responses to it were locally devised rather than nationally prescribed, and as a result were patchy. For example

In Rotherham, posters were displayed in prominent parts of the town, and health visitors and school nurses distributed leaflets from door to door, encouraging people to keep dirty handkerchiefs out of the reach of children. The Borough of Hackney recommended that victims stay isolated, go to bed the moment symptoms appeared, and gargle with potash and salt. In Keswick, Cumbria, the Medical Officer arranged for a free supply of “disinfectant mixture”. Every morning, formalin was sprinkled on the floor of Brighton’s public library and post office, and tramcars were fumigated in Doncaster.

Source: History Extra website. Retrieved 4 April 2020

Attempts at social distancing were at best half-hearted. At the height of the outbreak hundreds of elementary schools were closed, but only when staff absenteesim forced the issue. Secondary schools remained open throughout, and church services proceeded as usual. Factories continued to operate, and there was no ban on entertainments and public gatherings.

In short, there was no “lockdown,” as we now understand it, in the UK’s response to Spanish flu in 1918/19. Individuals, families and communities struggled on as best they could. The vast majority got through it, though it must have been a traumatic experience.

However, around 228,000 British citizens died as a result of the Spanish flu pandemic. And I’m sure that every last one of them would have put up with the temporary inconveniences caused by 2020-style social distancing, if they had believed doing so would give them – and their families, friends and neighbours – a better chance of survival.

If they’d been offered a simple trade, a lockdown or a life, they would have chosen life. Sadly they didn’t have that choice. We do.

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Generally speaking I’ve been impressed by the way people have adapted to the COVID-19 crisis, supporting one another, putting differences aside and doing the right thing. But, as my opening paragraph illustrated, there are still some moaners, some selfish individuals who feel their right to party supersedes society’s short-term need for social distancing.

I get it, I really do. What we’re being asked to do is contrary to our custom and practice as citizens of a proud, free democracy. Moreover humans are primates, social animals. We’re hardwired for social interaction, not social distancing.

But now is not the time to stand on principle, to play at politics or to throw our toys out of the pram. Together, we need to hold our nerve, to do the right thing by our families, friends and neighbours, and to trust that our scientists and medical professionals will help us find a way through the crisis.

There will be time enough to party when all this is over.

A story of our times: the great toilet paper panic

Dateline: Tuesday 17 March, 2020. Scene: Mrs P and I are walking across the car park towards our local supermarket, hoping to buy flour. Fat chance, but you have to try, don’t you? A woman emerges from the store and approaches us, beaming from ear to ear. She has a spring in her step, and looks as triumphant as a pauper who’s just won a fortune on the lottery. The cause of her joy? She’s carrying a twelve-pack of toilet rolls under each arm, clutching them to her ample body lovingly, like a B-list actress who’s just won an unexpected Oscar.

person holding white toilet paper roll

PHOTO CREDIT: Elly Johnson via Unsplash

Fast forward a few days. I phone Pat and Dave in London, and ask them how they’re coping as the COVID-19 crisis deepens. Dave replies, saying that a couple of days earlier at his local retail warehouse he’d been interrogated by the guy on the checkout. “Haven’t you forgotten something, mate?” was the mischievous question.

“No,” replies Dave, glancing down at a few random packs meat, fish and groceries in his shopping trolley, “I don’t think so.”

“What about toilet rolls then?” queries Checkout Man, giving Dave a conspiratorial wink.

Dave lifts his head, and looks around him. The warehouse is rammed with shoppers, and all the other buggers have filled their trolleys with toilet rolls. The word’s out: this place has had a delivery, and is creaking at the seams with toilet paper. But not for much longer, obviously.

person holding white tissue paper roll

PHOTO CREDIT: Jasmin Sessler via Unsplash

Dave goes on to say that the next day, just 24 hours before the Prime Minister appeared on television and warned us all to behave responsibly or face the consequences, he and Pat attended a skittles evening at their local hostelry. He explains that they got knocked out early, but hung around until the end of the competition. The winner’s “mystery prize,” a bemused Dave observes, turned out to be a toilet roll tied up in a pretty silk bow.

So my question is this: how the hell have we managed to get here? It’s clear that, in the midst of a grave international crisis, vast numbers of our fellow citizens can think of nothing better to do than hoard toilet paper. Why, for god’s sake, are we so obsessed with the stuff?

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Toilet paper is something we take for granted. Can’t imagine life without it, can we? But countless generations of our ancestors got by quite happily, doing the necessary with whatever else was to hand – shards of clay, a sponge on a stick, leaves, fur, stones, moss. Even corn cobs. The list goes on and on.

And as society developed, it wasn’t just natural alternatives that people turned to. When newspapers got going and started peddling fake news, their lies and deceits were given the treatment they deserved in privies throughout the developing world.

Yes, it’s true. You name it, we humans have used it in pursuit of enhanced personal hygiene. The 16th century French writer Rabelais even proposed “the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs.” Adds a whole new level of meaning to the practice of “goosing” someone, doesn’t it?

white printer paper on brown wooden window

PHOTO CREDIT: Allie Smith via Unsplash

China is the source of all sorts of things. Pandas, for one. And COVID-19, of course. Paper is another of that nation’s gifts to the world. And given that they invented paper in the 2nd century BCE, it’s no surprise that the Chinese were also the first to come up with toilet paper.

By the 6th century CE the use of paper for the most intimate acts of bodily cleansing is said to have been common in China, but this wasn’t toilet paper as we know it. That first came along in 1391, made for the use of the Chinese Emperor, each sheet being perfumed to mask the noxious scents that inevitably result from consuming too many mung beans.

But it was a forward-thinking businessman in the Land of the Free who finally made toilet paper available to the masses. The game-changer was New Yorker Joseph Gayetty, who, in 1857, started selling commercially packaged toilet paper. He marketed his single, flat sheets – infused with aloe, and sold in packs of 500 – as “The greatest necessity of the age!” Promoted as a medical treatment to cure haemorrhoids, Gayetty is probably the first entrepreneur in history intent on making piles of money from piles.

Inexplicably, in perhaps the worst marketing initiative ever perpetrated by a profit-crazed American businessman, he insisted that his name be printed on every sheet of his “Medicated Paper.” Now, I know that many spirited entrepreneurs like to get down and dirty, but surely this was a step too far? Gayetty had hoped to be flushed with success, but his innovation turned out to be a commercial disaster. He and his product hit rock bottom.

However, Americans are a determined bunch, rarely shy when profits are at stake, and it should therefore come as no surprise that Gayetty’s vision was reworked into something that would sell. So it was that, in 1883, one Seth Wheeler of Albany patented rolled and perforated toilet paper. And the rest, as they say, is history.

white and red wooden counter

PHOTO CREDIT: John Cameron via Unsplash

Or is it? While some historians (Americans, probably) subscribe to the sequence of events described above, others (British, I imagine) maintain that it was a Brit who invented the toilet roll. According to this revisionist interpretation of the history of bathroom stationery it was Walter J Alcock who, in 1879, first created toilet paper on a roll as an alternative to the standard flat sheets.

But to avoid falling out with our American cousins – we Brits need all the international friends we can get right now – let’s be charitable and say that toilet rolls were invented simultaneously in the USA and the UK around 1880. Standards of personal hygiene on both sides of the Pond undoubtedly improved as a result, although the quality of the experience must have been very different back in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

As proof of this assertion, it was as late as 1935 that a claim was made by the British Northern Tissue company to have manufactured the first splinter-free toilet tissue. The clear implication is that, before then, using the stuff was fraught with hazards that we would all wish to avoid. Is this why photographs from the early part of the 20th century generally show their subjects wearing pained expressions?

And it was not until 1942 that the first two-ply toilet paper came off the production line, courtesy of St. Andrew’s Paper Mill in England.

Yes, that’s right. Some of my countrymen took time off from defeating Hitler to do something they evidently perceived to be even more important: to immeasurably improve – and soften – the British sanitary experience. Given this extraordinary demonstration of societal priorities perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that today, while the COVID-19 crisis rages all around them, so many people in the UK and across much of the wider world are fixated on the supply of toilet rolls.

white tissue roll on tissue holder

PHOTO CREDIT: Jasmin Sessler via Unsplash

Toilet paper is clearly useful, making an awkward but necessary human activity more comfortable. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it’s a symbol of civilisation, an indication of how far we’ve progressed from our cave-dwelling days.

If you believe some of the stories circulating in the media and on the Internet, our very civilisation is currently under threat from COVID-19. Given this context, is it really so astonishing that millions of ordinary folk are desperate to ensure uninterrupted access to a product that is both a symbol and an embodiment of the benefits civilisation confers on its citizens?

And also, as any half-decent farmer will confirm, there just ain’t enough corn cobs to go round.

Why can’t every day be Pancake Day?

Yesterday was Pancake Day. Mrs P and I share the cooking duties at Platypus Towers, but when it comes to pancakes I know my place: I’m a scoffer, not a tosser. Unsurprisingly Mrs P’s pancakes were faultless, and we made short work of them. But now the party’s over it will be months – and quite possibly a whole year – before we have pancakes again. And that’s the problem, isn’t it, with designating just one day per year as Pancake Day? It implies that on the following 364 days (or 365 in 2020, and other leap years) pancakes should be regarded as strictly off-limits.

Pancakes With Strawberry, Blueberries, and Maple Syrup

PHOTO CREDIT: Sidney Troxell via Pexels

For the uninitiated, in England a pancake is a thin, flat cake, made from batter and fried in a frying pan. When one side is cooked the pancake is tossed with a deft flick of the wrist. If the cook is lucky it will land back in the pan, uncooked side down; however if fortune is not smiling, the pancake will end up on the floor, or stuck to the ceiling. A traditional English pancake is very thin and is served coated with lemon or orange juice and caster sugar, or maybe golden syrup.

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The origin of Pancake Day is religious. The day in question is Shrove Tuesday, immediately preceding the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. In the Christian calendar Lent is a 40 day period of abstinence, when believers are required to give up some of life’s pleasures. Eggs, butter and fat were all on the hit list, and turning them into mouth-watering pancakes on the day before Lent began ensured they did not go to waste.

There is also said to be religious significance in the key ingredients of pancakes. The white milk that loosens the pancake’s batter is seen by some to symbolise purity, while the eggs represent creation and salt stands for wholesomeness. According to this reading the flour symbolises the staff of life, the dietary staple upon which we all rely.

In the USA, France and Germany the day before the start of Lent is known as Mardi Gras. This translates as “Fat Tuesday”, an allusion to the excesses and festivities that are enjoyed on this particular day, before the deprivations of Lent take hold.

tray of hotcakes

PHOTO CREDIT: Mae Mu via Unsplash

Today the connection between Christianity and Pancake Day is rarely acknowledged, and the practice of giving things up for Lent has largely disappeared. However the advance of secularism has done nothing to undermine the habit of bingeing on pancakes one Tuesday in either February or March, exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday.

In a few places in the UK, Pancake Day is celebrated by the holding of a pancake race, which involves herds of eccentrics dashing frantically through the streets, each of them clutching a frying pan in which they toss a cooked pancake. The tradition is said to date from 1445, and results in the lanes of some English villages briefly becoming clogged with more than the usual number of lycra-clad tossers. However the disruption is tolerated with good humour as everyone knows that afterwards pancakes will be off the menu for around 12 months.

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In the USA, however, they do it differently. Pancakes are a big deal in the Big Apple, and everywhere else too. Every day is Pancake Day in the good old US of A.

In the same way that American and Brits are no more than distant cousins these days, their pancakes are also very different. The version from the other side of The Pond is fluffy rather than flat, using self-raising flour or baking power to get a rise from the batter. In the USA pancakes are traditionally served in a stack, accompanied by a little jug of maple syrup and, if it takes your fancy, with a few rashers of crispy bacon on the side.

And, joy of joys, Americans have pancakes for breakfast.

I remember vividly our first encounter with a “short stack” of American pancakes. The previous evening we’d flown into Rapid City via Minneapolis, and had spent the night in a grotty motel that numbered cockroaches amongst its other guests. The next morning we staggered into the adjacent diner, with expectations at an all time low.

pancakes on palte

PHOTO CREDIT: Luke Pennystan via Unsplash

It was a modest diner, as befitting its location on the outskirts of a memorably unmemorable city. And yet, to our amazement, they were serving pancakes. Now at the time I was just an innocent English guy, a first time visitor to the States, and the prospect of eating something so deliciously, decadently sweet that early in the day had me transfixed. America is amazing, I thought to myself. Americans are amazing. They play by different rules here. I love this country.

The menu sported a fabulous photo of a stack of pancakes, topped off with summer fruits and wallowing in an ocean of maple syrup. They looked irresistible, so I did the honourable thing and resolutely refused to resist them.

And thus began my love affair with pancakes for breakfast. In the years that followed I’ve visited the USA more than 20 times, and have rarely been tempted to try anything else. OK, I will confess that once or twice I’ve fallen under the spell of the sultry southern temptress that is biscuits and gravy, but pancakes are my first love, my only true love in the crazy world of American breakfasts.

So here’s my question, the big one, the puzzle that’s got me beat. If the USA can do it, why the hell can’t we? Here, in England, why can’t every day be Pancake Day?