Boris Johnson’s minders, & other pandemic and Black Lives Matter news from Britain

Somebody in government let the prime minister out on his own and before anyone could shut him down he’d blamed care homes for the nearly 20,000 Covid-19 deaths on their premises.

“Too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way they could have,” Boris Johnson said. 

All the predictable hell broke loose, along with reminders that: Care homes hadn’t been able to get protective gear. What guidelines they were given were unclear. They couldn’t get either staff or patients tested for the virus. Agency staff–that’s British for temporary workers–spread infections between homes because (guess what) they couldn’t get tested. The government rejected a proposal to lock down care homes before the infection entered. 

And did I mention that 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested?

Sorry, I meant to mention it. It’s a detail. It slipped my mind.

As soon as Johnson was bundled back out of sight, a government spokesperson said, “The PM was pointing out that nobody knew what the correct procedures were because the extent of asymptomatic transmission was not known at that time.”

Which sounds almost exactly like what Johnson said if you took away his words and replaced them with other, more coherent words on a slightly different subject.

FYI: Asymptomatic transmission was known at that time, and at several other times, but let’s not pretend we’re talking about reality here.

Johnson’s minders are under strict instructions not to let him wander loose that way, but you know what it’s like. They can’t keep an eye on him every minute of every day. And he is the prime minister, so he gets to give the orders, at least when Dominic Cummings is out of the office.

They don’t have an easy job.

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Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker.Not an actual one, you understand. A flower by that name.

The health minister has said that in all but  “certain circumstances” the government will be scrapping free parking for National Health Service staff members once the pandemic eases. No one’s told us yet what he really meant to say, but the shit is flying thick and fast. By tomorrow, someone should step in to explain that he really meant there’s been some concern about people parking on the white lines that divide their spaces and would they please exercise a bit more care.

Clapping for NHS workers, which the top government ministers did dutifully on many a Thursday, doesn’t cost anything, but it did have an unfortunately way of focusing the nation’s attention on NHS staff. And the next thing you know, people are looking asking why it’s been so long since they got a pay raise. And why they were charged for parking in the first place? 

It’s not easy, placating an entire country.

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The committee of the Morris Federation–an organization of morris dancing groups–has written to its members calling for a halt to the use of blackface.

One strand of morris dancing has a tradition of appearing in blackface. No one’s sure when or how that started, and some dancers argue that it isn’t racist, it came out of the dancers’ need to disguise themselves. Other dancers have stopped arguing about origins and dropped it.

The committee writes:

Our traditions do not operate in a vacuum. . . . We must recognise that full-face black or other skin tone makeup is a practice that has the potential to cause deep hurt.

“Morris is a living tradition and it is right that it has always adapted and evolved to reflect society. . . .  We welcome the fact that many long-standing teams who used to wear full-face black makeup have chosen to use masks, alternative colours, or other forms of disguise.  We now believe we must take further steps to ensure the continued relevance and inclusivity of the tradition.”

They’ll be asking the group’s annual general meeting not to renew the membership of teams that continue to use blackface.

An annual general meeting? It’s a British thing. All you have to do is say AGM and everyone will know what you mean. It’s an–um, well, it’s complicated. It’s a general meeting. Held annually. And you have to have one or your right to call yourself an organization will be revoked. That’s enforced, with no mercy and no appeal, by the laws of physics, a handful of which apply only in Britain.

My thanks to @amuddleofmorris for keeping me up to date on this. 

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I keep promising myself that I won’t report on coronavirus studies, possibilities, and assorted carrots dangling in front of us as we look for a way out of the hall of Covid mirrors. Most of them will come to nothing. That too is enforced, with no appeal, by the laws of physics. 

They’re ruthless bastards, those laws of physics.

Then I see a mention of another promising study or three and I break my promise. Because promises aren’t governed by law. And because we all need shreds of hope as we stumble through, bumping our noses into exits that turn out to be more damn mirrors.

So, here’s what I’ve found. I don’t promise that any of them will ultimately work, but they might. They just might.

1. A proposal to try the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine against the coronavirus in the hope that it will reduce lung inflammation and sepsis, two of the body’s most dangerous responses to the disease.

2. A synthetic antibody that may be able to neutralize Covid-19, both preventing any initial infection and helping people who’ve become infected to recover. Basically, it works as a decoy, drawing virus particles away from cells that could become infected. It was developed in mouse models. 

Mouse models? They’re improbably good-looking mice. The scientists give them the drug and photographers take pictures.

The less than great news is that if it works it would have to be injected into the bloodstream every two to four weeks.

They’re working toward human trials.

3. A test of canakinumab, a drug no one can pronounce that’s used to treat juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It damps down the body’s immune response and could prevent the cytokine storm–the immune overreaction–that occurs in some severe cases.

I was going to say it works by being so hard to pronounce that the disease goes into a state of paralysis, but I was afraid someone would believe me.

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Madrid’s Teatro Real became the first European theater to stage a live production (as far as I know, which isn’t all that far; it’s a big continent) since the continent locked down. That doesn’t include the concert that was staged in Barcelona for an audience of live plants. That one’s in a category of its own. 

The Madrid production was Verdi’s La Traviata.

How’d they do it? They doubled the size of the orchestra pit so the musicians could keep a safe (we hope) distance from each other. The intermission lasted forty minutes so everything could be disinfected. The conductor was behind a plastic screen. The production was semi-staged, presumably to keep the singers at a distance from each other. And the audience wore masks and was half the usual size.

The production opened with a moment of silence for the victims of the virus and a statement from journalist Iñaki Gabilondo: “Nothing is simple now, including being here tonight. “ 

My thanks to Max Burrows for sending me a link to this article.

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If you’re still holding out for herd immunity to protect us from Covid-19, prepare to accept a lot of dead bodies and damaged survivors along the way, because we’re nowhere close. A large study in Spain, which was hit hard by the virus, found that only 5.2% of the population has antibodies. The standard estimate is that 60% would need antibodies before you could talk about herd immunity.

If–and it’s a big if–anyone develops immunity to the virus. That hasn’t been established. We may, we may not. 

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A group of 239 scientists from 32 countries urged the World Health Organization to give more emphasis to the use of masks and to acknowledge that the virus is spread not just by the big droplets we breathe out but by the aerosols we breathe out along with them–those tiny, near-weightless bits of breath that surf the air currents more gracefully (and more to the point, for longer) than their clunky droplet cousins.

WHO seems to be taking it on board. Its latest statement says there’s emerging evidence of aerosol transmission but it’s not definitive.

If the 239 scientists are right, it means that we may need to do more than keep two (or one, or however many) meters (or yards) apart. It means that especially in crowded, badly ventilated space, we need masks. 

Yeah, you too, cowboy. 

And there’s some evidence that wearing a mask does give the wearer a bit of protection. Which is a bit better than no protection.

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York Minster’s been the center of a debate over whether a statue of a Roman emperor, Constantine, should be removed because of his support of slavery. Two newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, have run articles. Comedians and politicians have tweeted in the statue’s defense. It’s Black Lives Matter gone insane, they say.

The only problem is that no one proposed getting rid of it.

“We have not received a single complaint about Emperor Constantine’s statue,” a minster spokesperson said. “Nothing is happening: there is no discussion, action, intention or even thoughts about it.”

It’s disappointing. Just when you get a good lungful of outrage going–

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That’s it for the moment. Stay well. I don’t have so many readers that any of you are expendable. 

A quick introduction to morris dancing

Morris dancing is—.

Oh, hell, I haven’t finished the first sentence and already I’m in trouble.

Morris dancing divides people. You love it or you hate it, and if you hate it you go out of your way to make fun of it. It’s one of those things people in Britain compare to Marmite, a brownish paste that’s made in Britain (6,000 tons of the stuff a year, filling some 50 million jars) and that you can spread on toast and eat if you like it or run from, screaming, if you don’t. No one’s neutral about Marmite.

No one’s neutral about morris dancing either, but morris dancers turn out at fairs and festivals with their bells and sticks and streamers and flowers, and they dance as happily as if they knew for a fact that everyone loved them. You can’t help admiring them for that.

Or I can’t anyway. And I want to present this as neutrally as possible–especially since I’m not in love with morris dancing but people I like are.

Rare sighting: a relevant photo here at Notes. These are morris dancers at the Royal Cornwall Show. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Morris dancing is an English tradition. And a Cornish one. I add that because some people consider Cornwall English and others very emphatically don’t.

How traditional is traditional? I’m not the only person who can’t answer that. The Morris Ring writes, “The earliest confirmation of a performance of morris dancing in England dates from London on 19 May 1448, when ‘Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services.’ ” The S is shillings. The P is pence. Your guess is as good as mine what that bought back then. They may have been highly valued and they may not have been.

A Wikipedia entry dates Cornish morris dancing back to 1466, but it doesn’t give a citation.

In the Elizabethan era (that’s 1533 to 1603), it was already considered ancient.

According to RattlejagMorris, its origins are lost, but there’s no evidence to associate it with pagan festivals, as some people do. “Very little is known about the dances per se, though there seem to have been two types: a solo dance, and a dance in a circle around a ‘maiden’ (who could have been a man in women’s clothing) for whose favours the dancers compete.

“By the early sixteenth century morris dancing had become a fixture of Church festivals. In mediaeval and Renaissance England, the churches brewed and sold ales, including wassail. These ales were sold for many occasions, both seasonal and sacramental—there were christening ales, bride’s ales, clerk, wake and Whitsun ales—and were an important means of fund-raising for churches.”

Which isn’t immediately relevant but it’s interesting, so I left it in. And all that drinking seems to have given it a raucous reputation.

Later in the century, it became associated with May Day and village festivals and fetes.

By the nineteenth century, it had gone into decline, but some villages managed to keep it alive. When it was revived toward the end of the century, it was used as part of an effort to build up the mythology of Merrie Englande. In the early twentieth century, its fortunes rose with an increased interest in folk music and dance, and women as well as men began to take part.

Some morris dancers black their faces. The first time I saw this, I assumed it was part of the racist minstrel show tradition of white entertainers pretending to be black, which started in the U.S. but took hold (and still casts its long a creepy shadow) in Britain as well. I couldn’t think of any better way to react than to pretend they didn’t exist (I know: great moments in political activism), but Wild Thing went over to a dancer and asked about it.

She–or maybe it was he; I don’t remember–told us (and I’m paraphrasing heavily) that It came out of the time when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans suppressed Whitsun ales, morris dancing, and anything else where people might be in danger of having fun. Besides, morris dancing had a whiff of pagan carrying-on about it. The dances continued in either secret or semi-secret, but the dancers blacked their faces to disguise themselves.

However, other explanations also circulate.

Border Morris page on Wikipedia says (or said when I checked), “During the hard winters of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, out of work labourers and builders sought to anonymously supplement their income by a bit of dancing and begging. The use of blackface as a form of disguise is established in early eighteenth century England. In 1723 it became a capital offence under the Waltham ‘Black Act’ to appear ‘in disguise, either by mask or by blackened face.’”

Another theory traces the word morris to Moorish and suggests the earliest performers were mimicking North African dancers, or a Moorish king and his retinue. And yet another theory traces the black faces to the minstrel shows. In support of this theory, morris dancing is recorded to have been referred to colloquially as “going niggering”.

Yes, I’m using the word. We’re talking about racism and we need to talk about what we’re talking about. Look it in the eye, friends, because it’s still with us.

A few songs that morris dancers use, like “Old Black Joe” come from minstrel shows, although most are far older.

My best guess is that an older tradition, or more than one of them, crossed paths with the minstrel shows until now it would be hard to tease the strands apart.

If you look, you’ll find quite a bit of public argument about whether white dancers appearing in blackface is inherently racist. No one’s asked my opinion, but here it is: Whatever its origin and however innocent its intent, it’s time to stop doing it. Even if it has to do with Cromwell or disguise for some other reason, audiences will be bringing a whole different set of associations to it, and whether you mean to or not you’ll be aligning yourselves with some really unsavory elements of our culture. Which is another way of saying that you’ll be passing them on, regardless of what’s going on in your mind.

And no, I don’t really expect anyone to listen to me. There seems to be a cast-iron conviction among a category of white people in Britain that if they don’t intend anything racist by [fill in the blank, including a few songs I hear sung, which should be left to a folk music preservation society but retired from active use], then to hell with the impact it has on other people or the world at large, it’s not racist. Because they mean well.

And some—although by no means all—of them genuinely are people of goodwill.

That sound you’re hearing? That’s a long and frustrated sigh brushing across my keyboard.

But let’s go back to morris dancing in general so we can end on a cheerier note: It never made much sense to me until G. explained that morris clubs were just drinking societies with a dancing problem. I’m not sure how many morris dancers would agree with her, but it made an odd kind of sense to me.

I can’t swear that she’s right and I’m happy to hear from anyone who wants to correct me. Or her. Or anyone else.

On any subject.