How MI5 keeps Britain’s secrets safe-ish, and other news from Britain

MI5 has warned LinkedIn users that they’re at risk of spilling the nation’s secrets. 

Let’s take that apart, okay? What’s MI5? 

It’s the British domestic security service. MI6 does the overseas spookery. To quote its own website, “MI5’s mission is to keep the country safe. For more than a century we have worked to protect our people from danger whether it be from terrorism or damaging espionage by hostile states.” 

Some other agency gets to deal with non-damaging espionage. 

MI5 is also dedicated to keeping the nation safe from commas, both the necessary kind and, the, unnecessary, sort. 

Irrelevant photo: It’s red berry season. I have no idea what these are. They’re not edible, though, at least as far as I know.

Linguistic problems aside, though, they’re spies. Or counter-spies, but countering spies can involve doing a bit of spying, because otherwise how do you know what your presumed spies are up to? Every country has some, although it’s bad manners to say so. When Lord Google directed me to MI5’s website, I got a brief message saying the site wasn’t available and thought, Ooh, that really is secretive. Then, disappointingly, it loaded. 

Maybe they used the pause to snip out the commas.

Next question: What kind of secret is the great British public at risk of spilling? 

The sad truth is that not many of us hold secrets anyone cares about. The people MI5’s worried about work in government and key industries, and MI5 says some10,000 UK nationals have been approached by hostile states on LinkedIn (which they don’t mention by name–they’re good at keeping secrets) over the past five years.

How does that work? Your average hostile state sets up a non-hostile fake profile, connects with likely users, and offers them speaking gigs, travel, business deals, lollipops, whatever sounds enticing. It all looks legit, not to mention flattering and lucrative. Presumably, these lure the targets into flapping their gums about whatever they’re supposed to be keeping secret. 

People who’ve been working from home since the start of the pandemic are said to be more vulnerable to these approaches, possibly because they’re working on less secure home computers, but possibly because they’re bored out of their skulls and lonely. 

Or possibly not. Maybe MI5 just threw the pandemic into the explanation to make it newsworthy.

 

Meanwhile, in other countries

In the US–you may well know this–Texas passed a law making abortions illegal if you’ve been pregnant for more than six weeks. Even if the preganancy’s the result of rape or incest. Even if you didn’t know you were pregnant until you were 6.1 weeks along. It’s also now illegal to help anyone get an outlawed abortion, and the law creates an odd, and potentially threatening, situation where individuals, not the state, are supposed to enforce it. So an antiabortion group set up a whistleblower website, and TikTokers promptly flooded it with Shrek memes, pornography,, and fake reports. 

My favorite report is an accusation against the State of Texas for maintaining the highways people use to reach abortion centers, although the 742 accusations against Texas’s governor run a close second.All 742 were all sent by one woman. Anyone who was even vaguely interested could find information online about how to convince a computer to submit mass reports.

Shortly after that started, the site’s host, the ironically named GoDaddy, kicked the site off its platform. It’s not considered nice to collect private information about third parties. The site moved to another platform, Epik, which (I’ve read but not confirmed) hosts assorted ultra-right and outright fascist sites. Then Epik kicked them off for pretty much the same reason. 

It was kicked off a couple of other platforms and last I heard had dropped out of sight..

The law, however, has not.

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A Spanish bishop, Xavier Novell, resigned after falling in love not just with another human being but with a divorced one who writes erotic fiction with satanic themes, Silvia Caballol. The blurb on one of her books describes it as a journey into sadism, madness, and lust. The plot, it says, will shake the reader’s values and religious beliefs.

Well, either the plot or something else seems to have shaken the ex-bishop’s. He was known for for carrying out exorcisms, as well as for backing “conversion therapy” for gay people.

I can’t help hoping that he falls in love with a man next, although I probably should wish this gem on anyone.

 

An important report from a non-existent department 

The Department of Reasonable Caution isn’t concerned with LinkedIn. Instead it urges us to be more careful than the Mid-Kent Planning Support Team was when it tested an online system.

The team took five real planning applications from the town of Swale, inserted assorted wise-assery where bland responses normally land, and then–oops–put them online. After that, Swale discovered that not only was the incident embarrassing, it was legally binding. They can’t just say, “Sorry. Now we’ll publish the real response.” Instead the phony ones have to be overturned in the courts, which will take two or three months at an expected cost of £8,000.

And that’s only if the process isn’t challenged.

The blame’s landing on the head of some junior officer. I’m not sure what junior officer means in this context, but I can’t help feeling for him or her. This is some ill-advised soul who was trying to stay awake (not to mention amused) at work one day. And, briefly, succeeded.

In fairness, a bit of blame may land on the heads of the people who made the test documents public.

What did the docs that shouldn’t have gone live say? One application was turned down because “your proposal is whack.” Another was approved with the comment, “The incy, wincy spider.” A third was approved with the comment, “Why am I doing this, am I the chosen one?”

Yes, dear, you are: the one chosen to catch 96.3% of the flak.

Some of the place names sound like they were made up by the incy, wincy spider author, but they’re real: Bobbing, near Sittingbourne, home to the Happy Pants animal sanctuary. 

Pants, in British, are underwear. What kind of animal sanctuary does that make it? Sorry, you’re on your own there. *

 

And a yet another caution warning

This past week, Britain’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, demonstrated that he couldn’t tell one Black public figure from another by confusing Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje. He told an interviewer he’d had a pleasant Zoom meeting with Rashford. He’d been talking to Itoje.

When it all blew up in his face, he explained that he’d made “a genuine mistake.”

And here we’d thought he was faking the mistake to fool us into thinking he’s the kind of clueless racist who can’t tell one Black person for another and doesn’t think that’s a problem. And I say that as someone who can’t tell most people apart–Black, White, or Anyone Else. But my problem is with faces. The difference between the names Rashford and Itoje might give me a clue that they’re different people. And if I had to invest enough time in one of them to hold a meeting, I might take the time to find out who he actually is. 

Williamson also got Itoje’s first name wrong. It’s Maro, not Mario.

 

 

How smart does a prime minister have to be?

One of the non-burning questions in British politics is whether the prime minister is, contrary to all appearances, intelligent or whether he’s the kind of dope whose overpriced education taught him to say dumb things in Latin. 

Why isn’t that a burning question? Because if he is smart, it’s his dumb act that’s leading the country, so the impact is pretty much the same.

Still, it’s something people talk about, and the only argument I’ve heard in favor of him being smarter than he acts is that he wrote a biography of Churchill. No one mentions his novels. Presumably any idiot can write one, although as a novelist I’d like to think that  depends on how low your standards are.

If the Churchill biography is our key evidence, then it matters, in a non-burning sort of way, that a few months ago an eminent (and unnamed) Shakespeare scholar was asked to help Johnson write a biography of Shakespeare

Why is a prime minister messing around with a project that’s even less burning than establishing whether he’s clever enough to be allowed out alone? Because in 2015 Johnson signed a £500,000 deal with the publisher Hodder & Staughton. How much of the advance has been paid is anyone’s guess. I’d assume not all, and the publisher will be glad of that because he hasn’t finished it. Possibly hasn’t started it–he’s been distracted by this silly country he’s supposed to be running–although for all I know all the ands and thes are in place and only the connecting words are missing. 

The scholar was contacted by an agent and asked if he or she would “supply Mr Johnson (and a dictaphone) with answers to questions about Shakespeare. . . . The originality and brilliance, his agent assured me, would lie in Mr Johnson’s choice of questions to ask and in the inimitable way in which he would write up the expert answers he received,” 

The expert was told Johnson wrote his Churchill biography using the same method. S/he told the agent to take a hike. And then, apparently, called the press.

That leaves the nation still debating the prime minister’s intelligence. I’m not sure anyone’s arguing about his character.

 

Talking ducks

A musk duck in Australia has been recorded saying, “You bloody fool.” It’s the first documented instance of a duck imitating human speech. You have to watch the video a few times before you catch the words, but once you do, yes, it really does sound like the duck’s saying, “You bloody fool.” Maybe it’s talking about the ways we waste our time on this planet.

I found it disconcerting to hear a creature talk when its lips aren’t moving. And disconcerting that something that talks doesn’t have lips.

The duck was–or so the article I read told me–hatched from an egg, which I would’ve thought was common enough not to need mentioning, but since we’re talking about a talking duck I don’t suppose we should take anything for granted. The duck was also hand reared. 

Whether any of that is relevant to its ability to insult the world at large is up for grabs, but I’m thinking the duck–he’s called Ripper–wouldn’t make a bad prime minister. I don’t know what Britain’s unwritten constitution has to say about non-citizens becoming prime ministers, but ducks aren’t specifically ruled out.

Even with an unwritten constitution, I’m sure of that.

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  • My thanks to Bear Humphries for the tip about Swale. I’d have missed it without him. The link is to his photo blog, which is well worth a look.

A nice British scandal

Who doesn’t love a good scandal? And Britain’s rich in them right now. They’re buzzing like flies around the rumpled head of our prime minister. We have so many that–metaphor switch here–it’s like standing in front of a dessert buffet with a too-small appetite and a too-small plate. 

To translate that, I can’t cover them all, so let’s focus on the Covid-related one: Before the third lockdown, Boris Johnson allegedly said, “No more fucking lockdowns. Let bodies pile high in their thousands.” 

Allegedly? Well, yes. The source of the quote is, so far, unnamed, and Johnson denies having said it before changing the subject, but it’s being taken seriously and the subject doesn’t stay changed for long. 

You can probably guess, even without following British politics closely, that letting the bodies pile up isn’t a popular stance. 

I’m sure someone in government is looking for the source of the quote even as I type. Back in October, someone leaked government plans for a lockdown and an inquiry was ordered so that blame could land somewhere. To date, the culprit remains unnamed. More recently, families of people who died of Covid have been calling for an inquiry into the pandemic’s mishandling and the government’s said it doesn’t have time for that sort of hindsight. Haven’t these families noticed that we’re still in a crisis? 

Irrelevant photo: Wild primroses with violets.

However, there is time for an inquiry into top civil servants taking outside jobs that may be conflicts of interest. There’s also time for an inquiry into who leaked text messages between Johnson and a businessman in which Johnson promised to change some tax rules the businessman had complained about. There won’t–if Johnson & Co. can help it–be an inquiry into the exchange of messages itself. 

After all, there’s only so much time a government can devote to inquiries.

Sorry to have passed up the other scandals. They look delicious, but it’s not nice to be greedy.

 

Yeah, but what are we doing about Covid?

A taskforce–we’re still in Britain in case you folded your map away–has been told to find two new drugs that will stop mild Covid from progressing to severe Covid. If that makes it sound like someone’s misplaced the drugs and they’d show up if you’d just move the couch away from the wall for me, please–well, that’s probably not what they have in mind. 

You can shove the couch back in, thanks. It hides the dust.

The drugs they’re looking for have to be something people can take at home instead of in the hospital, and they have to come in either tablet or capsule form. 

What’s the difference between a tablet and a capsule? Does it matter? They’re both pills. If you’ll just shut up and swallow one, by tomorrow you won’t remember which it was.  

When he announced the task force, Johnson said experts expect another wave of Covid later in the year. In spite of which, and in spite of the possibility that the pills dropped into the heating ducts and won’t be found until years from now when the whole system’s torn out and replaced, no one’s adjusting the steps toward easing the country out of lockdown. The economy must be revived. Let the bodies–

No, he’s not going to repeat that particular quote. And I hope we’re not in that dire a position this time around. Almost 47 million people have had at least one dose of a vaccine. That’s out of a population of almost 67 million. In precise percentages, that’s a lot of people. But it’s not a suit of armor. If another pandemic wave comes, it does no good to tell the newly bereaved, “Well, nowhere near as many people died this time around.”  

How likely is the taskforce to succeed? I don’t know, but I do know that it isn’t the world’s only group working on the problem. With luck, someone will get there, and whoever shows up first–and second and forty-eighth–I’m prepared to applaud.

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So how vulnerable is the country?

Professor Adam Finn, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, expects a third wave this summer. He considers the country vulnerable and says the dates for easing lockdown may need adjusting.

Britain’s vulnerabilities include new Covid variants, the still-large number of unvaccinated people, and the inevitable breakthrough cases among the vaccinated. The number of deaths expected in that wave vary from 30,000 to 100,000, depending on what software the statisticians rely on. The time when the wave’s most likely to hit also varies. What does seem to be solid is that another wave will come.

You remember that Greek myth about Orpheus going down to the underworld to bring his love Euridice back to the land of the living? He’s told not to look back at her until they’re above ground, and he doesn’t until he comes into the sunligh. Then he looks back, but she’s still in the shadow of the underworld and, damn, you blew it, Orph, so back she goes, yelling, “You damn fool, you never did think of anyone but yourself,” the whole way down.

We need to think about that tale as countries emerge from the underworld. Don’t let yourself believe you’ve solved the problem just because you feel the sunlight on your own silly skin. 

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That noted non-scientist our prime minister, however, says there’s nothing in the data to show that everything can’t go ahead exactly as planned. 

 

And meanwhile–

A nurse in Manchester, Karen Reissman, was fined £10,000 for protesting the 1% raise that the government saw fit to give the nurses it spent months applauding. She’d handed in a risk assessment for the protest, but the Manchester police decided the rally was breaking Covid rules anyway.

“Somebody calculated that if I used my 1% rise, it would take me 56 years to pay the fine off,” Reissman said.

Believe me, the fine will be appealed.

All the news you don’t need to know

Patriotism has run away with us in ever-so-great Britain: Paul Scully, a minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, went on TV to promote offshore windfarms and bragged that a government program would create British jobs, using British manufacturing “and of course British wind.”

The plan at the moment is to surround windfarms with barbed wire and make sure foreign winds are kept out, but the plans could change if the political winds shift. The possibility of putting electric fans on the leeward side hasn’t been ruled out. 

Irrelevant photo: A Cornish stone wall. The plant is wall pennywort.

 

More political stuff

After Meghan Markle and Harry Whatsisname accused Britain’s tabloid press of being racist, Ian Murray, the executive director of Britain’s Society of Editors, responded by asking himself, “Are you a racist?” answering, “Don’t be silly,” and then issuing a statement saying that racism was never a factor in how the press treated Markle. M & H’s “attack,” he said, was “not acceptable.”

All hell broke loose, a great deal of huffing a puffing followed, and Murray has now resigned.

A particularly British way of thinking about racism is for a person (the person in question, in my experience, being white) to consult their intent and declare themselves free of it. Their impact on other people or the world in general doesn’t come into it and neither does anything that other people might contribute to the discussion. If they declare their intent to be pure, they are pure. 

 

The sciencey stuff they don’t want us to know

And now we come to the shocking revelation that on the equinox, which most of us were trusting enough to think is the moment when day and night are equal in length, day and not are not equal in length.

Yes, folks, deep forces are at work here and they do not have our best interests at heart. 

I’ll quote an explanation of what the equinox really is: “On a winter day, the Sun is low in the sky, whereas on a summer’s day the Sun lies considerably higher. But on a specific day in the spring or autumn, the Sun will be visible directly above the equator, somewhere in the middle of the two arcs traced by the Sun in the summer and winter.”

You mean all those people on the equator only get to see the sun twice a year? 

Um, probably not. It means–

Well, it means something else, okay? 

The unevenness of day and night has to do in part with sunrise being measured from the moment when the rim of the sun appears on the horizon and sundown being measured from the time that same rim disappears. That leaves a bit of time sloshing around when the rest of the sun is following the rim.

Did you follow that? Maybe it would be better if we skip over the sciencey stuff. All we need to know is that deep forces are at work and that we’ve been lied to. Don’t trust the forces of nature. Stay alert. Keep a clock by you at all times. Trust no one. And if you want an actual explanation, follow the link

 

The animal stuff

This is the year of cats and lawyers. 

Barrister Naz Hussain’s cat Colombo broke into a Zoom hearing in January. He had his eye on the headphone cable but then strolled across the keyboard until he was in range of the camera.

“The judge jokingly asked if he was my instructing solicitor,” Hussein said, “to which I said: ‘No, it’s my replacement junior.’ “

That is British legalspeak. Don’t worry about what it means. Just bask in how arcane and British it sounds and pretend you’re watching one of those law shows where half the actors have lambs curled up on their heads.

“Everyone laughed,” Hussain said, “and, sensing stardom, Columbo just kept coming back.”

I don’t know if the defendant was included in everyone, but he may have been because he was found innocent.  

Colombo now has his own Twitter account. And Hussain–having been repeatedly mistaken for a defendant and asked by other lawyers if he’s really a QC–has taken advantage of the moment when people are listening to him to say some serious things about diversity in the legal profession.

A QC? That’s a particularly high-powered breed of lawyer. They’re so important they’d wear two lambs on their heads if there was room.

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Somewhat less impressively, a sheriff’s deputy in Georgia got out of her patrol car to serve papers on someone, leaving the door open, and a goat jumped in. She–that’s the deputy, not the goat–recorded the whole thing on her head cam, which also recorded her saying, as she knocked on the door, “I hope that goat don’t get in my car.”

Be careful what you say around a goat. They’re very bright and highly suggestible. 

Leaving the car door open is standard practice, at least for her. If she has to get away from a bad-tempered dog, she wants the escape to be seamless. 

While it was in the car, the goat munched on her papers and spilled her drink. And when the deputy got to be enough of an annoyance, it head-butted her to the ground. 

She’ll never hear the end of it.

To the best of my knowledge, the goat hasn’t set up a Twitter account.

Yet.

 

The high-tech stuff

Gucci’s selling sneakers for $17.99, but since the brand’s shoes can sell for as much as $500, there’s a catch: They’re virtual sneakers. You can buy them for your imaginary self to wear in online games, which if I was even remotely with it I’d call virtual reality but I can’t be bothered to pretend. You can’t put them on real feet because they don’t actually exist. So if you buy a pair you just spent $17.99 on something imaginary.

The Guardian describes one of them as “a chunky slime green, bubble-gum pink and sky blue shoe that wouldn’t look out of place in a robot’s orthotics clinic.” I’m going to assume that the other one matches.  

Who could resist?

Policing, politics, and women’s safety in Britain

Our tale starts in London on March 3, when Sarah Everard was abducted and killed–apparently (the official word here is allegedly) by a cop, who has since been arrested. He–the cop–served in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Command and had at some point in the past been reported for indecent exposure. Twice. In a fast-food joint. 

The reports don’t seem to have interfered with either his career or his freedom.

It’s worse that the events took place in a fast-food place, isn’t it? Hamburgers can be sensitive. The man clearly had no respect.

This history raises questions about whether the police force–as they say in the blandest of bureaceaucro-speak–responded appropriately. 

 

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil

Policing protests during a pandemic

Now we come to the part where I remind you that all this happened in the midst of a pandemic. Remember Covid? That pandemic. Because of it, a formal vigil was denied a permit, but people–especially women–poured out anyway, both to memorialize Everard and to highlight the everyday dangers women live with and the need for change. They left flowers. They brought candles. They came together spontaneously because to have organized the vigil would’ve meant organizers facing £10,000 fines, even though the pandemic rules allow (but don’t define) “reasonable excuses” to be outside. 

Screw the permit, though. People felt the need to be out there. No one had to organize it.

For a while, the cops didn’t interfere, but toward evening speeches began and the police moved in to break it up. The police said that people had packed in to hear the speakers, “posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19.”

The crowd–I’m basing this on photos–was almost entirely masked, a crowd in Scotland that had turned out to celebrate a football win wasn’t bothered, and last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have not been linked to any Covid spikes, so if you’re going to taste the official explanation I’d suggest more than a grain of salt. Especially given various demonstrators’ descriptions of police getting right in their faces and yelling at them as well as forcing the crowd closer together than it had been. 

If you’re worried about a crowd spreading Covid, those aren’t the recommended crowd-control approaches.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, said the vigil had been hijacked by protestors.

I’m shocked,” she said, “that what started as a peaceful and important vigil turned into a protest with photographs showing ‘ACAB’ signs, which stands for ‘all cops are bastards.’ ”

Yeah, I’m shocked too. The virus is spread by bad language, signs that insult the police, and protest in general. It’s not spread by apolitical mourning. So leave a flower, girls, then go home and behave.

A photo from the demonstration has gone viral. It shows a young woman thrown to the ground and handcuffed by two cops, who are kneeling on her back. She describes herself as five-foot two and weighing nothing. Not irrelevantly in a protest about women’s safety on the streets, both were male. She had been simply standing there, she said, and that seems to be borne out by video footage.

 

The background 

Britain has a dismal track record on prosecuting rape and sexual assault. I’ve seen two figures and I don’t know which one’s correct, but honestly it doesn’t matter. According to one, only 1.4% of the rapes that are reported end up being prosecuted. According to another it’s 1 in 70. Take your choice. Both present a good argument for mourning and protest getting to know each other on a speed date and deciding that they have a lot in common.

Patel mentioned that the event involved some assaults on police and a broken mirror on a police car. Or van. Vehicle, if that’s not too bloodless a word. All of those, according to someone who trawled through videos of the event, were carried out by men. As far as I’ve been able to sort out, the four people who were arrested are of the female persuasion. 

The government has responded to Everard’s death by publicizing every quick and pointless solution that anyone thought of at a ten-minute brainstorming session involving donuts. (No, I don’t actually know where the ideas came from. They only read like they were thought up that way.) They propose more street lighting, more CCTV, more cops on the streets, undercover cops in pubs, and more other things that no one involved has called for. They haven’t called for any consideration of what’s going wrong with the way rape complaints are handled. They haven’t called for a national discussion of the pervasive, everyday harassment that women and girls face.

They haven’t even acknowledged it. 

 

The policing bill

In the midst of all this, the government is pushing through–and with an 80-seat majority, will pass–a policing bill that changes the balance between police and protesters, tipping it further in favor of the police. Protesters will face a fine of up to £2,500 for violating police directions that they should have known about, regardless of whether the police informed them. Creating a public nuisance will be an offense. Being noisy will be a reason to break up a demonstration. 

They’re setting the bar very close to the ground here. An eighty-year-old with two bad hips and a cane could get over it. And I’m close enough to eighty that I get to say that. They’re not talking about demonstrations that attack or threaten people. They’re not talking about threats to public health or safety. They’re talking about being a pain in the ass.

The police right to stop and search will also be expanded, although that’s used far more against young Black men than against white. The maximum penalty for damaging a memorial will be increased from three months to then years–longer, as may people have pointed out, than for attacking a woman. Rapists could (it’s complicated) get longer sentences under the bill, but given how few cases are even prosecuted that’s kind of beside the point.  

The parts of the bill that relate to demonstrations are a response to Extinction Rebellion, which was quite deliberate about creating a public nuisance. But then, the US civil rights movement also created a public nuisance, and by now it’s entered into public mythology in a defanged and respectable–almost sanctified–form. Sometimes being a damned nuisance is the only thing that works. When people try to make change and they run into a brick wall, they’ll stop business from being carried on as usual. It’s a law of physics. 

Is the bill a total crackdown on dissent? Probably not, although you shouldn’t take my word on that. I’m not a lawyer and my understanding of British law is spotty at best. A lot of organizations are seriously worried about it, and it does give the police a lot of leeway to crack down on dissent. And when they’re given that leeway, sooner or later they’ll take it.

I don’t suppose I should be surprised when governments do what they can to keep people from opposing them. Not all of them do that, but the temptation’s got to lie just under the surface. And when they give in to it, the cost is high. Not just to protesters but to any semblance of democracy, to the possibility of peaceful progress, and sooner or later to the government itself. Because you can shut up some of the people all of the time and you can–

Hell, you know how that goes. Sooner or later, you’ll hear from them and it won’t be a pleasant discussion. 

Will the bill make women safer in the streets and their homes? 

Are you kidding me? That’s not the priority.

Edward Colston and the statue in Bristol’s harbor

In June of 2020, a Bristol crowd looped a rope around the statue of Edward Colston, pulled it down, and dumped it in the harbor, firing a British version of the usual debate around who owns history, although as far as I know no one put it that way. 

But let’s put history in general to one side and start with who Edward Colston was and why he ended up in the drink.

 

The bio

Colston was born in 1636. You’ll forget that within seconds, but it gives you a century and a set of clothes to imagine him into. He came from a prosperous merchant family whose links to Bristol went back to the thirteenth century. The family bet its chips on the Royalist side of the Civil War, which was first a bad move and then a good one. Somehow they ended up in London. When the king was restored, Eddie’s father went back into business trading in oil, wine, and raisins. 

That isn’t particularly relevant, but it is thorough. Are you impressed?

Irrelevant photo: A snowdrop. In bloom in January. Unbelievable. With a nice hardy weed growing at its feet.

Edward was apprenticed to and then became a member of the Mercers’ Company. In London. He never did move back to Bristol. Except as a statue.

Mercers? They dealt in fabrics, usually expensive ones–silks, velvets, that kind of thing. 

Colston established his own business, trading mostly in cloth and wine and acting as a money lender. He had interest in St. Kitts, in the West Indies, and that should send send up red flags: Britain controlled much of the West Indies, and the economy was based on plantations worked by slave labor. Britons made profits both from selling slaves and from selling the products of their work. Slavery was an important slice of Britain’s economy and the people who ran both the trade in slaves and the slave plantations wielded a hefty slice of political power. 

In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company. More red flags, waving wildly. The company held the British monopoly on the slave trade between African and the Americas. During his time with it, its ships embarked 84,500 people from west Africa, bound to the Caribbean. 

Notice the wording there–embarked. By one estimate, a quarter of the people who boarded the ships as slaves–or cargo–died en route from disease, from murder, from the occasional suicide, although in the conditions suicide wasn’t easy. They were branded and shackled so tightly together that they lay in their own filth. 

The crossing took six to eight weeks.

I’ve shifted focus from Colston to the company because no one seems to have sorted out how much of his fortune came from the slave trade and what came from ordinary mercerizing. By one account, he owned forty ships. By all accounts, he made what’s commonly known as a shitload of money. What is known is that he played a major role in the company, becoming a deputy governor. 

The profits from his slave trading financed his money lending. 

During the 1690s and 1700s, he sold off his ships, withdrew from the RAC, settled into retirement in Surrey, and got to work philanthropizing. He was High Church, and he knit that tightly into the fabric of his philanthropy. 

High Church translates to–oh, hell, someone else should really be the one to explain this, but it’s the Catholicky end of Anglicanism. It’s formal and heavy on ritual and priests and fancy clothes. That should hold us until someone better educated in churchly stuff comes along. 

One scholarly paper describes his brand of both Christianity and philanthropy as authoritarian, and that seems fair. A foundation he set up required students “‘to be staunch sons of the Church, provided such books are procured for them as have no tincture of Whiggism.” 

The Whigs? They were the politicians who weren’t the Tories. The differences between them were both political and religious.

His approach to religion was that the “holy doctrines, if we follow, will teach us obedience to our governors, as well civil as ecclesiastical, and to support the rights of both, to which that God will incline us all.”

If you have nothing better to do, you might want to see if you can untangle that sentence. I gave up. What the hell, it’s a quotation, I can claim not to be responsible. But we could fairly safely sum up the content as, Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told. 

Philanthropy sounds selfless, but it gave (and still gives) a person a lot of political clout, and his made him a revered figure in Bristol. 

He never married. I found one intriguing quote saying, “he prefers good works to purity of life, by laying out some thousands of pounds in building hospitals here, while himself lived very much at his ease with a Tory, though of a different sex, at M[ortla]ke.” 

You figure it out. I got lost trying to figure out which sex is the opposite of Tory. Whatever his purity or sexual interests, he left his money to a niece–and of course her husband, because in those days a lady didn’t soil her hands with money, even if she wanted to.

 

Colston’s legacy

Bristol was a focus of Colston’s philanthropy and over the years it got to be thoroughly be-Colstoned. Buildings were named after him, along with streets, schools, pubs, a hill, an almshouse, and of course that statue. I could go on, but enough. Twenty things have carried his name according to a local paper

And for ages Colston was commemorated in a yearly service at St. Stephen’s Church, where he was buried. Three charity groups held a procession from his statue to the church, complete with top hats and tails and double lines of expensive-looking men. All of them white. They did that until 2017, when Colston’s reputation was getting too ripe and the church refused to host the service, although it offered to hold one thanking the groups themselves for their charitable work.

In what seems to have been a separate commemoration, schoolkids were rounded up to sit in the cathedral, contemplate a window in Colston’s memory, and listen to a sermon about his good works. 

My point here is that it wasn’t just Colston’s statue, standing there and minding its own business. This was in-your-face, behold-the-great-man Colstonizing. I’m not sure the statue wouldn’t have been torn down anyway, but with all that worshipfulness, you could argue extenuating circumstances.

 

Why people didn’t use legal channels

It’s not like people didn’t try to get rid of it legally. Over the years, petitions to have the statue removed had been created, circulated, signed, submitted, and ignored. Demonstrations had been held, not necessarily aimed at the statue but at other bits of the Colston cult.

Okay, that’s unfair. It’s not exactly a cult, but the alliteration was so tempting.

At some point, a home-made plaque appeared on the statue, noting that Colston was a slave trader and filling in as much of his history as you can fit on a plaque, and that sparked several years of effort to replace it with an official plaque. 

What should the official plaque say, though? A group of historians were asked for a draft, which was nitpicked to dust. Someone objected to the word trafficking being used to describe the slave trade. Couldn’t it just say Africans were transported? And that word enslaved. Doesn’t that sound kind of harsh?

No blood was shed in those meetings, although I don’t know why.

Okay, I don’t know if they actually held meetings. If they didn’t, that might explain it.

When a compromise was finally–somehow–reached, the mayor took a look at the wording and ordered a rewrite.

At his point, they were fifteen months into the project. They’d agreed on the words and and but, but not the.

Then some ten thousand Black Lives Matter protesters converged on Colston Square. It took them four minutes to topple the statue. 

And at various points along the way, some of the things named after Colston were quietly renamed, including one of the pubs. Some organizations are still working on it and some dug a hole and pulled it in over themselves. 

 

But what about History, with a capital H?

You can’t talk about people toppling statues without someone saying that they’re erasing history. 

No. Let me try that again: You can’t talk about Black Lives Matter protesters toppling statues without etc., because when statues of Sadam Hussein were torn down–with the help of the US Army, if memory serves, because the crowd wasn’t large enough and maybe he was glued down, because he didn’t leave his pedestal without a fight–I didn’t hear any complaints about rewriting history. It was all whoopee! The dictator was being torn down. The people were taking revenge.

Ditto the statues of Lenin. Or Stalin. No articles in the paper saying that it was an attempt to erase history. 

But statues aren’t history any more than my junior high history textbooks were history. They’re mythology. At best, they’re one version of history–the version convenient to whoever’s in power. At worst, they’re bullshit–an attempt to glorify the inglorious, simplify the complicated, cover up the inconvenient, and (although this never gets said) remind the governed who still rules them. 

When Black Lives Matter protesters pull down the statues of slave owners and slave traders, they’re making history. They’re demanding that the official history of their city, their country, their world include them, not just the people who made fortunes by driving and selling their ancestors. 

Colston’s statue will end up in a museum–when they open again–where it can be presented as part of genuine, difficult, complicated history. 

The problems with mass Covid testing

Britain started a £100 billion Covid testing program, Operation Moonshot, which is supposed to catch asymptomatic cases so people can quarantine themselves instead of transmitting the disease and life can return to normal. The plan is to screen millions of asymptomatic people every week, and it’s being tried out in Liverpool as I type. 

Which sounds great, but Dr. Angela Raffle, a consultant to the UK national screening programmes, said, “It worries me that ministers . . . can wake up one morning saying let’s spend £100 billioin on this and not have it scrutinised–it would be like building a Channel tunnel without asking civil engineers to look at the plans. . . . This seemed to me to be the most unethical proposal for use of public funds or for screening that I’d ever seen.”

Other than that, though, it’s a good plan.

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms–a photo I stole from last spring. 

The program relies on the Innova lateral flow test, which when it’s used by research nurses catches 76.8% of positive cases. When it’s used in the real world by what the article I read called “self-trained staff,” though, it picks up only 57% of positive cases. And Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics, said people aren’t being told that they still might be carrying the disease, so if they test negative they feel safe to do–well, whatever they haven’t felt safe to do. Visit granny in the nursing home or tear off their masks and run through twelve supermarkets breathing heavily on staff and fellow shoppers. 

Nursing homes in three counties, including mine, are trying out rapid tests to allow visitors in. The publicity I’ve seen doesn’t mention the possibility of false negatives. It’s all how great it is that granny got a visitor. And up to a point it is great. I’m sure granny was pleased. I also hope it doesn’t end up killing her.

The good news is that the test doesn’t generate a lot of false positives. 

Italy was the first country to use mass testing–they used antigen tests–to control the virus, and it seemed to be working, which encouraged other countries to try it, including Britain. Italy’s now in its second wave of Covid. It went from  500 cases a day in August to more than 35,000.

So what went wrong?

Andrea Crisanti of the University of Padua says the tests were used the wrong way and that using them to protect vulnerable people in care homes was “absolutely criminal,” because of the infected people they miss–the false negatives.

The tests they used are 80% to 90% accurate and give both false negatives and false positives, but they’re quick and they’re cheap. If they’re used, say, before people catch a train, they could reduce travelers’ exposure. But they wouldn’t eliminate it because, again, they don’t catch every case.

Crisanti said, “If your objective is to screen a community to know if transmission is there, fine.” But the quick tests, he said, need to be backed up with the more accurate but slower PCR tests, along with stay-at-home orders.

There doesn’t seem to have been–or to be–any strategy for what to do with the information beyond simply boosting the number of tests.

In an article about how antigen tests were used in the US, the website ProPublica writes that “When health care workers in Nevada and Vermont reported false positives [from the tests], HHS [that’s Health and Human Services, a federal agency] defended the tests and threatened Nevada with unspecified sanctions until state officials agreed to continue using them in nursing homes. It took several more weeks for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue an alert . . . that confirmed what Nevada had experienced: Antigen tests were prone to giving false positives.”

In nursing homes, false positives are as dangerous as false negatives. A person who tests positive will be moved in with other people who test positive. If the test gives out some false positives, healthy people will be exposed to Covid, making the test a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The tests HHS recommended are meant for people with Covid symptoms, and when they’re used that way they produce virtually no false positives and catch 84% to 97%  of positive samples in a lab test. But a study–like many Covid studies, it hasn’t been peer reviewed yet–found them catching only 32% of positives in people without symptoms.

Still, HHS is recommending them for use on nursing home residents without symptoms and suggesting repeated tests to reduce false negatives. An October survey found that a third of nursing homes hadn’t touched the antigen tests they’d been given. They didn’t trust them, they didn’t have the staff time, and the paperwork and reporting requirements were more than they wanted to deal with.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Smith, an epidemiology at the University of Illinois, said, “It’s how you use the tests, not just how many tests you have.” If you have a million tests, is it better to test a million people once, or test half a million people who are at high risk twice, or test essential workers five or 10 times? 

If anyone has an answer to that question, I haven’t seen it in print yet.

*

Earlier this week I introduced the game Where’d the Money Go? and missed some of the more outrageous examples of where the money’s gone. I plead extenuating circumstances, because a National Audit Office report hadn’t hit the news yet. So let’s make up for my lapse. 

Sorry. I do try to sneak some good news into these posts. Some weeks, it’s like fighting gravity.

Early in the pandemic, in an effort to get protective gear for the health and social care systems, the government set up a high priority contracting channel for businesses that were recommended by ministers’ offices, lords, politicians, or officials. Oddly enough, those lords and politicians seem to all have ties to the ruling party, the Conservatives.

The rule of the playground is that we don’t share.

Their bids that went through that channel were ten times more likely to be successful than the bids that went through ordinary channels. One source said their pitches were automatically treated as credible. The documentation is–

Quick, someone, what’s a shoddier word than shoddy? Paperwork documenting why a particular supplier was chosen is sometimes missing. Contracts were sometimes drawn up after the work had been started. 

The person who recommended the company to the priority channel is documented less than half the time. No rules for how the priority channel should operate seem to have been written.

This was in the first six months of the pandemic, when £18 billion was spent on Covid-related contracts.

Liz David-Barrett, a professor of governance and integrity (that’s what she studies–I’m not commenting on her personal qualities), said that firms recommended in this way are usually treated as higher risk rather than lower.  

In a related story, although I can’t say what channel this contract went through, Gabriel Gonzales Andersson made £21 million for wandering through a deal between the UK government and an American jewellery designer, Michael Saiger, to procure protective gloves and gowns from China. 

According to the BBC, Gonzales Andersson was paid to find a manufacturer for deals that had already been arranged.

If you can figure out what happened between the two, you’re doing better than I am, but they’re both in court in Florida–suing each other, I think, although I can’t swear to that. Saiger had several follow-up contracts, and the gear he was supposed to supply was delayed, possibly because the relationship between the two men fell apart.

One more example before I stop: Lord Feldman, a former chair of the Conservative Party, and a managing director of the lobbying firm Tulchan Communications, acted as an unpaid advisor on Covid. 

Tulchan is also called a public relations firm; flip a coin if you care.

After the firm Oxford Nanopore signed a £28 million contract with the Department of Health, and also after Feldman stepped down as an unpaid advisor, Nanopore hired Tulchan. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, happens to have met with both Feldman and Oxford Nanopore before the contract was signed. I have no idea what they talked about. Movies, probably. Pornography. Gummi bears. Surely not whose money would end up in whose pockets. I wasn’t there. That’s how the gummi bears came into it. 

Tulchan says Oxford Nanopore was already in discussions with the Department of Health before the meetings, so everything’s fine.

Nanopore later picked up another £100 million in contracts.

*

The British Medical Association has gone public with advice on how to lift the current lockdown. The approach last time was, “Wheeee, that’s over. Go out, have fun, spend money. Don’t work from home. The economy needs you.”

That was followed by a faint, “And, oh, do be careful, okay? Wash your hands or something.” 

Which is one of several reasons that we’re now in a second lockdown. 

What the BMA advises includes giving local public health teams more of the test and trace budget, along with more oversight of the program; limiting socializing to two households instead of six people; keeping the local tiered lockdown system that imposes varying restrictions depending on an area’s level of infection but banning travel between areas in different tiers; encouraging people to work from home if they can; and replacing guidance about how to keep workplaces and public areas safe with rules about how to keep workplaces etc. safe. The theory goes that rules are enforceable and might be taken more seriously.

Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s chair of council, said, “The big question in practical terms is can we reopen hospitality venues–pubs and restaurants–in the run-up to Christmas and still avoid infection levels increasing?

“I suspect we can’t, but the decision may be made to do so anyhow on the basis that any increase will be slow and may be able to be counteracted later.”

Because what the hell, it’s Christmas. What do a few extra deaths matter?

*

If I haven’t managed to be funny this time–and I’m pretty sure I haven’t–I’ll try to do better next time. It’s not that this stuff isn’t funny, in a demented sort of way. But it takes time to find the humor and I want to get this posted before the next wave on insanity breaks over us. 

Stay well. It’s dangerous out there.

 

Where’d the Money Go? Play the thrilling new boardless game

Okay, kids, it’s time to play Where’d the Money Go? I’ve just pulled the special Pandemic Edition out of the box, so make yourself at home and let’s start.

Never played it before? One player–that’d be me–offers footnoted examples of ludicrous spending and wasted money. If I don’t document my claims, I’m out. 

The other players (that’d be you)–

Actually, the other players don’t have a lot to do. You shake their heads, moan, and generally make horrified noises. Or you don’t. Up to you. You leave comments. Then when the time comes, if you live in the relevant country, you vote. High points to the players who vote the rascals out and (more immediately) to the ones who leave funny comments on the blog, although wise, insightful comments are also worth points. 

In fact, any comment’s worth points.

If the current rascals do get voted out, will the replacement set be less rascally? I can’t promise, but this lot has set a high standard, so the odds are good.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Okay, I start, so I’ll offer up a few recent examples. The older ones have been buried under a blizzard of recent ones and I don’t want to dig them out.

Since the start of the pandemic, the government’s spent £1.5 billion on contracts with companies strongly linked to the Conservative Party, which just happens to be the party in power. I keep seeing the word chumocracy in articles about this.  

Many of these are urgent contracts. Under ordinary circumstances, the government has to advertise for bids instead of just awarding contracts to the closest person in the room. But there’s an exception for urgent contracts. Since the pandemic, lots of contracts have gone–urgently–to the closest person in the room.

How do you get into the room? See above for links with the Conservative Party, I’d guess. 

In exploring the law on this, the Local Government Lawyer website says, “The core question is really, then, is this contract really necessitated by this emergency or is the emergency being used as cover?”

Mmm, maybe not all of them are really necessitated by the emergency. Some have gone for political consulting. One was to research public opinion on the government’s Covid communications. To explain a few of the other contracts, I’d need more words than I have in the bank but, hey, I’m giving you a footnote–one of those things known as a link in this century. Sorry, I’m very much from the last century. If you want more examples, you can dig them out there.

Other contracts were for urgent supplies but are still questionable. 

Example: Anthony Page used to be the secretary of MGM Media, which manages the “brand” of Baroness Mone, a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He’s also a director of a finance firm, Knox Group, which was founded by Mone’s fiance, Doug Barrowman.

Page quit at MGM media and set up a company called PPE Medpro. The Good Law Project calls it a £100 company–I assume that’s how much capital it had. Miraculously, forty-four days later, PPE Medpro was awarded a £122 million contract to supply the government with gowns for health care workers. The contract wasn’t opened up for public bidding. Because, hey, we’re in a crisis here. There’s no time for niceties.

Nobody involved has anything relevant to say, although they’re quoted, except that it’s all fine and an article in the Herald Scotland ends by saying that “there is no suggestion of wrongdoing and the Department of Health said: ‘Due diligence is carried out for all government contracts.’ ”

That translates to, “Don’t sue us.”

On the other hand, the director of the Good Law Project, which dug up the information and is suing the health secretary for breaching UK laws requiring transparency, tweeted, “I am told time and again of profit margins of 10-20% on these contracts. Fortunes large enough to sustain generations are being made by those lucky enough or well connected enough to win them.”

Good Law Project’s website mentions another contract, this one with Ayanda Capital, “a politically connected firm” that got  a £252 million contract to supply face masks for the National Health Service. Most of them turned out to be unusable. 

“Ayanda was guided through the process by the Cabinet Office and enjoyed staggering margins compared to the prices paid to others.” 

Then there’s the Randox company, which got a £347 million six-month extension on a contract. Randox are the good folks whose Covid test kits were recalled last summer when some of the swabs–those things you’re supposed to stick up your pristine nose–were found to be contaminated. 

A Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, earns £100,000 a year as a consultant to Randox, and he was part of a call between the company and the health minister in charge of supplies for the testing program.

I’m sure nothing out of line was discussed. Don’t sue me either. It’s all footnoted. I hope.

Details on urgent, noncompetititive contracts are, by law, supposed to be published within thirty days but have been slow in coming, taking an average of seventy-eight days. As of November 16, information on £4.6 billion worth of contracts hasn’t been released.

In an editorial, the BMJ (which used to be the British Medical Journal but which following a logic they somehow never explained to me is now just the BMJ) said the pandemic “unleashed state corruption on a grand scale” that is “harmful to public health.” It called it “opportunistic embezzlement.” It also–more chillingly but less relevantly to our topic–said politicians are “suppressing science.” 

The BMJ doesn’t usually wade into politics, making it noticeable when it does.

No footnote there. The BMJ‘s behind a paywall. I’m relying on a quote from one of the links above.

You may have notice that I didn’t footnote every fact. The links repeat. I get bored. They all came from the sources I cited. You can throw me out of the game if you like. The person who opens doesn’t get points anyway. They either get thrown out or they don’t.

*

As a side issue, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has had to put himself into isolation after meeting with an MP who later tested positive for Covid. Pictures show the two men posing maskless and too close together, although I’ll admit that they’re not in each other’s pockets. 

The test and trace system did manage to locate the prime minister and tell him to stay home but it’s better known for the people it doesn’t reach than for the ones it does. Its head is another Conservative member of the House of Lords, Dido Harding. Last time I saw a number, the government had spent £12 billion on it. Consultants are being paid as much as £6,250 per day.

Johnson wants the world to know that he’s “bursting with antibodies” and feeling fine. 

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t any pictures in my mind of what he’s bursting with.

*

Irrelevantly, the London Economic says that a source close to Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, claims the real reason Boris Johnson fired his brain–that’s Dominic Cummings–is that he leaked an announcement of the current lockdown to the press before Johnson got the news to parliament. 

And in a further moment of irrelevance, and you  will probably have already heard about this, the Moderna vaccine has gone public with preliminary results: It may protect 95.4% of people against Covid and doesn’t need to be kept as cold as the Pfizer vaccine, which has a preliminary report of 90% effectiveness.

The Russian Sputnik V vaccine reported 92% effectiveness. Again, that’s preliminary. 

Feeding hungry kids: the English public strikes back

After the government voted to deny £15 vouchers to low income families in England so that their kids wouldn’t go hungry during the school holidays, a local pub banned the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, from its premises.

For life.

It did the same to three other local MPs who voted against the vouchers with him.  Pubs can do that here, but they usually reserve it for the kind of customer who sets off fireworks on the bar or pulls the plumbing out of the men’s room. But I guess it’s a question of who does more damage in the long run.

The ban was posted on the pub’s Facebook page, which also reproduced a menu from one of the House of Commons’ many restaurants, where steak and chips are going for £11.77–a price subsidized by the taxpayer.

Don’t usually do politics but here goes,” the Facebook page said. “I have never known a Government which is consistently the wrong end of every argument.”

*

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

In tweeting about against the vouchers, Conservative MP Ben Bradley wrote, “At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime.

“One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids.”

FSM being free school meals. This is shorthand for the voucher program. Which is also shorthand.

Don’t worry about it.

When he started catching flak for that and a few other tweets, he complained that they’d been taken out of context. I’m still trying to figure out how to squeeze any context at all into 280 characters. Short of writing in Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, where a single character can be a whole word. 

*

In the meantime, players from Leeds United donated £25,000 for kids’ meals over the school break, and the club they play for has announced that it will match that.  

Businesses, restaurants, and local governments (including at least a few led by the Conservative Party–the party that voted against the £15 vouchers) have also stepped up with offers to help, and Conservatives are beginning to say that the government misjudged the feelings of the country. Not that kids need to eat and they want to do the right thing, but that people are mad at them.

They don’t even know how to say, “Ooops,” right.

All of it goes a good distance toward restoring my battered faith in humanity, but it’s worth remembering that whether kids get fed will depend on where they live. In some places there’ll be multiple offers and in others there’ll be none.

*

This morning, I listened to Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care, interviewed on the radio. I was driving and it was him or nothing. We eventually realized that nothing was much better, but before we did I was interested to hear that he’s not singing Ben Bradley’s tune. I doubt even Ben Bradley’s singing Ben Bradley’s tune anymore. It didn’t go over well. What he said was that of course the government’s making sure every child gets fed, but local governments are better at that than central government and we’ve given them money for it.

But, the interviewer said, that was way back when and it was spent long ago.

We’ve given them money, he said in seventeen different ways.

It’s an approach I’ve heard a lot in the last few years. Ask a government minister why the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank is so short of money and they’ll tell you how much money they already spent on the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank. It doesn’t answer the question, and sometimes they’re talking about money that was allocated before William the Conqueror’s boat first touched England’s southern shores, but it sounds like an answer and can usually be counted on to derail the conversation.

*

Since as a nation we’re not handing low-income parents £15 to waste on feeding their kids, let’s review another spending program. No one tweeted that the £12.7 billion program to help the self-employed through the pandemic was pouring spaghetti sauce into crack dens, but a study from the Resolution Foundation says it gave £1.3 billion to workers who hadn’t lost any income while successfully missing 500,000 who did. The study blames a combination of strict eligibility rules and weak assessment. Basically, they excluded lots of categories of the self-employed and then didn’t ask people in the categories they accepted to document their losses. 

The  study also said that the self-employed were hit even harder in the first six months of the pandemic than employees were. Three out of ten stopped working during the worst of the crisis, and one in six is still out of work. 

About 5 million people count as self-employed in Britain, although some of them, inevitably, will be the mythically self-employed. It pays for corporations to offload the expenses of employing people by calling them freelancers, and people are desperate enough to accept that.

Do you remember when life was going to get endlessly better? 

*

The lockdown in Wales is tighter than England’s, and it’s closed shops that sell nonessential goods, which has had the odd consequence of restricting supermarket sales of the same items. They’ve had to have had to cover shelves to hide the socks, the decorative hair thingies, the–

Actually, it’s hard to decide where to draw the line. The cake decorations? They’re edible, so maybe they can stay. The birthday candles? Non-edible but on the same shelves as the cake decorations. The mugs that say, “You’re the best”? The ones that say, “I changed my mind. You’re a cockwomble”?

Let’s turn to the experts: Nonessentials include electrical goods, telephones, clothes, toys and games, garden products, and homewares, and the decision on individual items depends on what part of the supermarket they’re in rather than their inherent essentialness. So forget the cups, but you can probably buy birthday candles.

Supplies for the “essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household,” such as batteries, light bulbs, and rubber gloves, are okay. Because who could function without rubber gloves?

It’s easy to make fun of, and I’m having a hard time holding myself back, but there is a logic to it. To slow the virus, you need to shut down everything you can, but they don’t want to hand supermarkets the business they’ve denied to small shops. Yes, it’s crazy. And yes, it makes sense anyway.

*

While we’re talking about the odd places that rules lead us into, England’s rule of six limits gatherings–indoor, outdoor, underground, and hallucinated–to six people unless they’re all from a single household (it’s slightly more complicated than that, but close enough for our purposes). But some of London’s fancier restaurants have discovered that if people are talking business they can gather in groups of thirty.

Wheee. Take your foot off the brake and don’t be such a scaredy cat. 

One of the restaurants emailed its client list to let them know that “when the topic is business you can still meet over a fabulous working lunch or dinner without the restriction of the ‘single household rule.’ ” 

You will, however, need to employ at least one overcooked adjective and a full set of quotation marks, however unnecessary and aesthetically offensive they may be. 

At one expensive restaurant, the Sexy Fish, caviar sushi sells for £42 a piece, and you can buy a £16,000 Armand de Brignac champagne if you really need to. The reporter who scouted the place and asked diners if they were discussing business got himself thrown out. Which was lucky, because I doubt the Guardian’s budget stretches as far as the sushi, never mind the champagne. 

How to choose a new career, courtesy of the British government

With 300,000 job cuts planned back in June and July (sorry–statistics lag behind reality) and more cuts hitting the headlines every day or three, with the possibility that unemployment among young people will hit 17% later this year, never let it be said that the government isn’t trying to help the least among us. 

And believe me, they think we’re all the least. 

What are they doing for us? Why, they’ve created a quiz to help us figure out what jobs we’d be good at if our old careers have crashed and burned, or if we never had a career but our jobs are now cinders, or if we graduated to find the job market in flames and the fire department at half mast due to a decade of austerity budgets, or–

Well, you get the picture.

Ever anxious to help people (that was one of the questions on the test), I’ve taken the quiz so that you don’t have to trouble yourself. And by way of full disclosure, I should tell you that this is a test version of the test, so I’m sure–

I’m sure of nothing. Never mind. It’s a test version. We’ll leave it there.

Irrelevant photo: A flower I’ve forgotten the name of–and a butterfly. If someone would remind me, I’d be grateful (for whatever use that is). A friend once called it “that tall, ethereal thing” and it knocked the real name right out of my head.

What the test asks you to do is agree or disagree with a series of statements, and with each question you go deeper into the essence of who you are and what you’re capable of. Then an algorithm compares that with every available shred of information about the job market and spits out your own personal economic self-improvement plan.

How scientific a portrait of you does it build up? Oh, very. Especially when you pick the “it depends” box. 

The questions include: 

I am comfortable telling people what to do. (I am, but I sometimes need to wait until they’ve pissed me off. Then I’m very good at it.)

I make decisions quickly. (I had to switch to a different tab and type that question up for your benefit, so even though I claimed to make decisions quickly, I took my own sweet time with the question. I don’t think I was penalized for it, but they don’t really tell you.)

I take control of situations. (It depends. On what? Oh, lots of things.) 

I like taking responsibility for other people. (It depends. On what? Time, place, and circumstance, mostly.)

I set myself targets and usually meet them. (I accidentally left that one blank and tried to go on. The test sent me back and I said that yes, of course I meet my own targets. But filling out the test correctly was never one of them.) 

I think I am a competitive person. (I think I am? If they don’t trust me to know this about myself, why would they think I’m non-delusional about the others?)

I set myself goals in life. (You asked me this once already. Standardized tests often do that to see if you come up with the same answer when the questions come in different forms, but most of them are subtle enough not to hit you on the head with it.)

Doing well in a career motivates me. (Geez, no. What could be less interesting?)

I try to think differently to others. (I don’t try, sweetie. This is the brain I was issued. This is how it works. Yes, it can be interesting in here at times.)

And so on. 

At about the halfway mark, I started hitting “It depends” on most of the questions. Because I was bored. Because I wanted to see what they’d do with someone in the absence of any discernible personality. And, of course, because it does depend. Everything depends. It depends on how we’re going to interpret the question. It depends on whether I want to make a good impression on myself. It depends on whether I want to play the game fairly. 

Basically, yes, I cheated by not representing my real self, so I don’t claim that the careers scientifically chosen for me are entirely tailored for my oddities, but it turns out that I’d make a good soldier or a good cake decorator.

Also a nursery worker (to translate that, it means working in a preschool; you can see why someone who’d be a good soldier is a natural fit there), a judge (my lack of a law degree doesn’t seem to be a problem), or a dance teacher (the startling number of left feet that were included in the package when I was born present no problem).

And since the travel industry’s thriving right now, I could also retrain as a travel agency manager, a tourist guide, or hotel room attendant. That last one is career-guidance speak for a cleaner. 

An assortment of other people who took the test report that they’d be good boxers, lock keepers, or movie projectionists. Lord Google left me with the impression that lock keeping’s a volunteer job. With time and dedication, you can progress up the ladder to be a volunteer coordinator, but probably still as a volunteer. And one of the big movie chains just closed its doors. 

Reality has also closed its doors. Movie projectionists are looking to retrain as lock keepers.

That leaves boxing. I’d make a good boxer, competing in the overage runt category. But when they asked if I was competitive I said, “It depends,” so they didn’t suggest it for me.

If you’ll excuse me now, I have a couple of cakes to shoot.  I don’t like doing this, but orders are orders.