The Skeleton Army and the Salvation Army

The Salvation Army was founded as a London mission in 1865, offering food and shelter to the down-and-out, the poor, and the very, very drunk. The Skeleton Army was founded by people who enjoyed a good drink and a fight, and in the 1880s and 1890s it harassed the other army.

The Salvation Army came first, so let’s start with them: According to one account, its goal was to wage war on poverty and religious indifference, which testifies to humanity’s long and history of waging war on things that can’t be shot, slashed, or speared. 

And there I was thinking all that war against abstractions and inanimate objects started with the U.S. declaring war on drugs.

Never mind. The Sally wasn’t the first organization to fall in love with a bit of overblown rhetoric, and it quickly took on a military structure, complete with uniforms, recruits, ranks, and marching bands.

Irrelevant photo: An October seed pod. A friend thinks they’re from an iris, in which case I’ll guess a yellow flag, which grows wild.

The Sally’s own website doesn’t talk about warfare but about saving souls and relieving “the Victorian working classes from poverty. In Booth’s eyes [Booth being the founder], this involved morality, discipline, sobriety and employment.”

In other words, unlike the unions and proto-unions of the period, they didn’t see the causes of poverty as low pay and killingly long hours, they were immorality and drinking.

Not to mention gambling and salacious entertainment. 

Within the Salvation Army, women’s ranks–and this was radical for the period–were equal to men’s, and women played a powerful role in the organization. Although having said that, it was started by two people, Catherine and William Booth. I’ve put her name first because I’m like that, but I’m a minority of one in that. He’s credited as the founder and Catherine sometimes gets a mention–and not always by name but just as “his wife.” She may have played a secondary role–I’m not sure–but even if she didn’t, he was the Methodist minister in the family, and if that wasn’t enough he carried a Y chromosome, along with the physical oddities that follow from it, so he walked around with neon arrows pointing him out as the important half of the couple. 

Still, I’m writing that from a contemporary point of view. For the time, the organization was startlingly equal.

The world they campaigned in was a brutal one. Industrialization meant cities and towns had grown massively, and people’s hours, pay, and working conditions were, literally, killing. 

And in spite of the way the language is changing, literally there doesn’t mean figuratively. It means the hours, pay, and working conditions killed people. And crippled them.

Housing was overcrowded, germs hadn’t been so happy since the Crimean War, and beer and gin were cheap, so people drank. Sometimes that was all that got a person through one day and into the next.

Into that setup marched the Salvation Army, not to quietly establish soup kitchens and wait for people to come eat and get preached at but to march down the street, thumping the drum, playing the tuba, waving banners, and preaching against the evils of et cetera.

Et cetera can be extremely evil if left unchecked. 

This won them both recruits and enemies. Plenty of people wanted a drink and a dance and a fight. 

Along England’s south coast, this response coalesced into a group that called itself the Skeleton Army. Chris Hare, a historian from Worthing, one of the Skeleton hotspots, traces their origin to groups of Bonfire Boys–working class young men who raised hell on Bonfire Night, as well as on Mayday and any other occasion that gave them the opportunity. They didn’t bother with ranks or uniforms, but they did sometimes wear yellow ribbons in their caps or sunflowers in their buttonholes.

No, I don’t know how either. Maybe sunflowers were smaller back then, or buttonholes were tougher. 

They also took the Salvation Army’s songs and wrote rowdy lyrics to them. Fair enough. The Sally had taken popular secular songs and reworked the lyrics to suit their purposes, so they were only stealing what had already been stolen.

Skeleton mobs attacked the Salvation Army, throwing paint-filled eggs, dead animals, burning coals–whatever came to hand. Except for the eggs. Those took planning, because getting paint into an egg and keeping it there long enough to throw? That takes work. In fact, how you do it is a deeper mystery than anything the established religions have yet cooked up. But never mind, the eggs appear in more than one telling and seem to have been real. 

Where were the town’s respectable people while all this was going on? Unhappy not about the Skeleton Army but about the Sally. Individually, they wrote letters to the newspapers, worrying that the Salvation Army would give their towns a bad reputation and drive visitors away. 

As for the religious establishment, it preferred its religion inside the church, not bothering people on the street corner. And landowners and industrialists had an interest in keeping their workers drunk and if not happy at least not demanding higher pay and forming unions.

The Salvation Army was anything but revolutionary, but it offered enough prospect of change to worry the powers-that-were. 

Collectively, they were glad to look the other way when the Skeleton Army broke up Salvation Army events. 

To the extent that the police got involved, they were likely to blame the Salvation Army for any uproar. In Worthing, when one “Salvationist applied to the bench for a summons against those who had assaulted him,” he was told,” ‘You know what you do provokes others to interfere with you, and then you come to us for protection.’ ”

In Eastbourne, the mayor and the brewers endorsed the Skeleton Army. In Torquay, the local government banned marching music on a Sunday. It attracted troublemakers, so they arrested the marchers. 

Attacks on the Salvationists–as the articles I’ve read call them–increased, and the women, especially the women in authority, were the primary targets. 

Are you surprised?

One woman, Sussanah Beaty, was killed.

There were riots in Exeter, Worthing, Guildford, and Hastings, and brawls in 67 towns and villages. From the 1880s to the early 1890s thousands of the Sally’s officers were injured. 

But by the early 1890s,  the police became more likely to arrest attackers. Opposition began to die down and the skeleton army faded away.

After that, the story isn’t half as interesting, so we’ll abandon it there.

 

Lockdown part two: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

England’s about to enter a month-long lockdown that includes pubs, restaurants (except takeaway), nonessential stores, and going in to work if you can work from home. The biggest exception involves schools and universities, and that loophole is big enough that we can move in the construction equipment and build a world-class germ exchange.

Five and a half weeks ago, the government’s own science advisory group suggested a two-week lockdown, but the government, in its wisdom, decided it would be too damaging to the economy. So now we have a longer lockdown in response to a higher number of infections and it will inevitably create a longer economic interruption. And of course it has that big honkin’ loophole I mentioned, so it may not work all that well, but we’re going to pretend that kids don’t spread the virus (which is possible but far from established) and that students, teachers, and staff don’t interact with anyone except each other. 

The emotional pitch for the new lockdown is that if we do this now, we can save Christmas. 

Someone’s been reading too much Dr. Seuss. 

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower.

The press conference where Boris Johnson announced the new lockdown started three hours behind schedule, and I would love to have eavesdropped on whatever was going on behind the scenes. So far, no one’s talking but I’m hoping for leaks. 

The delay left fans of a dance competition show, Strictly Come Dancing, frantic, and the BBC cut away a little early so they could start the show only a few minutes late, thus saving not Christmas but Strictly, which is important enough that the nation’s on first-name terms with it.

Only slightly less important than Strictly is a newly announced extension of the job furlough scheme–the one that pays people whose jobs haven’t gone up in smoke but instead have been shelved and may yet be unshelved. The furlough scheme is full of holes, but it’s better than nothing. 

But. When areas in the north of England were in local lockdowns, people who were eligible for the scheme got a smaller percentage of their usual pay. Now that the whole of England’s going into lockdown, people who are eligible will get a larger percentage. Because, um, yeah, basically the areas up north are up north somewhere, and they have these accents that don’t sound right in the hallowed halls of Parliament and–

Oh, hell, they’re a long way away. Who cares, right? 

That can’t be going down well up north. 

As recently as last week, a local government in West Yorkshire, which was moving into a local lockdown, was told there were no plans to make the lockdown national. I hate to sound naive, but I actually believe this. That’s the way Johnson’s government works: There were no plans. At a certain point, they just jumped. 

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England–or Britain, if you prefer, because elements of this will overlap–isn’t alone in facing a second spike, but it does have its own particular causes, and an economist from the University of Warwick has traced one of them back to the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which offered half-price meals (up to a certain limit) to people who ate out at participating restaurants. 

Thiemo Fetzer traced three sets of data: the number of restaurants participating in the scheme in a given area, the days of the week the scheme ran, and the amount of rain that fell during lunch and dinner on those days. (Not as many people eat out when it’s raining hard.) Then he compared those to the number of known new infections in an area and concluded that the scheme “may be responsible for around 8% to 17% of all new detected Covid-19 clusters emerging in August and into early September.”

To which the Treasury Department said, “Bullshit.”

Okay. They said, “We do not recognize those figures.”

In early October, though, Boris Johnson said in an interview, “It was very important to keep [those two million hospitality] jobs going. Now, if it, insofar as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus, then obviously we need to counteract that […] I hope you understand the balance we’re trying to strike.”

If you’ll allow me to translate that, since it’s mildly incoherent, it means we knew it would spread the virus, but we had to balance that against getting people to spend their money.

Another swathe of infections can be traced back to a government effort to save the travel industry by opening “travel corridors”–arrangements that would let people travel to other countries withour having to go into quarantine when they came home. A Covid variant that originated in Spain is now widespread in the U.K.–and a lot of Europe, while we’re at it.

Spain was on Britain’s list of safe places to visit. Just bring your sunscreen and a bathing suit. Come home with some chorizo and a nice tan. The government cares about you and wants to make sure you can have your holiday–or vacation, if you’re speaking American, which no one was. It’ll all be fine.

The Covid variant, by the way, isn’t a particularly significant variation from the original. For a virus, Covid is surprisingly stable, but like all viruses it evolves and that means sometimes the origin of a cluster can be traced. In this case to Spain, and to a government policy that tried to save the travel industry. 

So here we are again, entering our second lockdown. Forgive me if I haven’t managed to be funny this time out. I support the lockdown, late and flawed as it is. Covid’s a dangerous disease, not only because of the deaths it causes and the way it overwhelms our hospitals but also because of the people it leaves disabled for no one knows how long, maybe for months, maybe for a lifetime. If you’re dealt a card out of the Covid deck, you can’t know in advance which one it will be. Will you be asymptomatic, have a bad week or two, become disabled, or die? 

And you don’t know who you’ll pass it on to, because people are infectious not just when they’re sick but before they have symptoms, or if they have no symptoms. So we gamble not just with our own lives but with the lives of people we love and of people we don’t know at all but share breathing space with. 

Stay safe, my friends. Be cautious. 

Wear a damn mask. They do make a difference.

 

What we’re not supposed to do: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A whopping 13% of people in England say they fully understand the lockdown rules. In Wales and Scotland, they’re doing better: 15% are fully enlightened. No one in charge of the survey managed to locate Northern Ireland, so I don’t have any data from wherever it is today. 

No, I can’t explain its absence. I’m only somewhat British–I was adopted, and late in life at that–so I can’t be expected to understand how this stuff works, not to mention why. What I can tell you is that 51% of people in England, 62% in Wales, and 66% in Scotland say they understand the majority of the rules. 

Do they really? Maybe. Which also implies maybe not. It was a survey, not a test. 

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Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper.

Meanwhile, in response to a ban on social get-togethers, the police in Scotland have broken up hundreds of house parties since August. Or possibly thousands. The number I found was 3,000, but that was how many times they’d been called out, not how many gatherings they broke up. 

Let’s say lots and leave it at that.

What kind of get-togethers? A party involving 270 students at a dorm. A religious gathering of 20 people. The virus doesn’t care whether you’re praying or shouting, “Sweet Jesus, I’ve never been this drunk in my life.” 

Places rented on Airbnb have been used for a number of the parties, indicating that people aren’t in the awkward position of have 264 more friends show up at their house than they’d planned on, they’re going into it with malice aforethought. 

A police spokesperson said the gatherings weren’t limited to any one age group. 

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A Spanish company, working together with a university, has come up with a machine that should be able to disinfect a room in minutes. It uses cold atmospheric plasma to clean surfaces and to kill 99% of viruses and bacteria in the air.

And if you’re not sure what atmospheric plasma is, what have you been doing with your life? It’s a deeply scientific-sounding phrase that I quoted in order to sound like I know more than you. 

Okay, haven’t a clue. I do understand cold, though. I used to live in Minnesota, which is close enough to Canadian border than the icicles that dangled from their roofs grew right past our windows.

Why don’t we go to a spokesperson, who can explain it all? 

Broadly speaking, we subject the surrounding air to a very strong electrical field, pulling electrons from the neutral particles in the air and forming ions. This system can generate up to 70 different types, from ultraviolet rays to peroxides, ozone, or nitrogen oxides. The synergies between these allow bacteria and viruses to be neutralized.”

Got it?

Me neither. What I do understand is that it’s the size of a laptop, it’s silent, and it can be used to clean either an empty room or one with people in it, recirculating the air. 

Let’s quote the article I stole that information from

“To do this, the system releases ions which, once disinfected, are reconnected in neutral particles.” 

They’re hoping to have it tested and certified by the end of the year. The snag? No one’s said–at least within my hearing–how much it’s going to cost. 

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Staff at some universities complain that they’ve been pressured to stop working at home and show up on campus so that the schools can create a vibrant atmosphere. Because what could be more exciting, when you’re young and taking on a  debt the size of Wales, than having lots of people around you to participate in the Great Covid Lottery? And who’s more exciting to play it with than the back-office staff? 

One school, in explaining why it needed bodies behind desks, wrote that it was trying to keep students from asking to have their tuition refunded, which at least has the virtue of being honest.

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The AstraZeneca / Oxford vaccine–one of the front runners in the race to make a massive viral load of money in the Covid vaccine market–reports that it’s sparked a good immune response in older adults as well as the young. Old codgers (and being one, I get to call us that) also have fewer side effects than the young. 

AstraZeneca says it will be available for limited use in the coming months.

Um, yes, and how fast, exactly, will those months be in coming? AZ says before the end of the year where countries approve its use. Britain’s health secretary says the first half of 2021 is more likely. But whenever it happens, it’s likely to be available to only a limited group at first. 

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Which leads me neatly into my next item, a warning from scientists that the rush to adopt a vaccine may get in the way of finding the best vaccine. Once a vaccine’s in widespread use, it’ll be harder to prove the efficacy of a later vaccine, especially among particularly vulnerable groups. Some mechanism, they say, needs to be set up to compare them.

The vaccines that are ahead in the race are using new approaches, but it’s possible that the older approaches will yield a better result. It’s not necessary, but it is possible.

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The US Centers for Disease Control has (or should that be have, since they insist on being multiple centers instead of a single one?) redefined what close contact means when we’re talking about exposure to Covid. The earlier guidance counted close contact as being within six feet of an infected person for fifteen minutes. Now the CDC reminds us that six feet isn’t a magic number, and neither is fifteen minutes. They’re rough estimates, and being around an infected person fifteen times in a day for a minute each time exposes you to as much virus as fifteen lovely, relaxed minutes in a single encounter.

That may seem obvious, but someone’s always ready to take these things literally. Some schools were moving students around at fourteen-minute intervals. Quick, kids, the virus is onto us! Everybody split up and move to different classrooms!

Basically, what they’re saying is that the more virus you’re exposed to, the greater your risk. Exposure isn’t something that happens all at once, like falling off a cliff. 

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And finally, a bit of rumor control: Wales did not classify tampons and sanitary pads as nonessential items and ban their sale during its current lockdown. What happened was that someone tweeted to Tesco that a store had refused to sell her period pads. Tesco tweeted back that it was government policy.

Tesco then deleted the tweet and apologized. It turns out that the store had cordoned off an aisle because of a break-in. Had someone knocked a wall down? No. The police were investigating, and anyone who’s ever been on a British highway after an accident can testify that you don’t mess with the police when they’re investigating. Everything stops until they’re damn well done.

But by the time Tesco deleted its tweet, the rumor-horse was out of the social media barn and galloping happily toward the Severn–the river that divides Wales from England–reciting, “One if by land and two if by sea, and I spreading rumors of all sorts shall be.” 

Sorry. American poem that kids of my generation had to memorize if we hoped for lunch period to ever arrive. It’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” ever so slightly bastardized, and it’s totally irrelevant but we’re getting toward the end of the post here and headed not just for the Severn River but the Stream of Consciousness.

Should we go back to our point? Sanitary products are recognized as essential and are available for sale. The Welsh health minister added that stores can sell nonessential items to customers in “genuine need,” which is defined as I think it’s lunchtime and I’m leaving now, so define that for your own hair-splitting self.  

The Welsh government is meeting with retailers to review the regulations and guidelines, after which it will all make sense.

Politicians and hungry kids: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

After refusing to find common ground with Manchester’s political leadership over money to support workers and businesses devastated by a local lockdown, the government announced a new package of support for businesses and workers devastated by local lockdowns. 

Andy Burnham, Manchester’s mayor, said it was what he’d been pushing for all along

So why did the government let the talks blow up before agreeing to provide support? So it can say, “Nyah, nyah, we win.” The government can now claim that it was their idea all along and that they’ve forgotten where Manchester is anyway.

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Irrelevant photo: Starlings in the neighbors’ tree. They gather in large flocks in the fall and winter. The Scandinavian starlings spend their winters here. The ones that spend the summer here head south in the winter. Go figure.

This might be an appropriate time to talk about sewage

No, that wasn’t an editorial comment. I am so politically neutral that I can’t even see myself in a mirror. 

Ninety sewage treatment sites in England, Wales, and Scotland are starting to test for Covid. A pilot program in Plymouth spotted an outbreak that was clustered around some asymptomatic cases well before the test and trace system spotted it.

Admittedly, the test and trace system couldn’t spot a Covid-infected camel if it crashed  through the Serco board room with a nickelodeon on its back playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but the point is that the sewage folks spotted the outbreak at an early stage. They’d have no problem spotting a camel either. 

The nickelodeon might be more of a problem. It needs a different set of reagents and an entirely different testing protocol.

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Having finally noticed that the test and trace system not only isn’t working but that the percentage of people it contacts has fallen, the government placed an ad for someone with a track record of “turning around failing call centres.” 

The job pays £2,000 a day. And as I often have to remind you, in a pinch a person can live on that.

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When I was looking for details on the program to support workers and businesses devastated by etc., I thought I could save myself a few keystrokes by just typing in the chancellor’s last name, Sunak. Auto-complete took what I’d written and supplied “flip-flops.” I was delighted: Sunak and Johnson had both flip-flopped on support for etc, and here Lord Google was writing an editorial for me. 

I followed Lord G.’s editorial to pictures of physical flip-flops–those plastic sandals you can slip your feet into without having to fasten anything. Turns out I’d flip-flopped a couple of letters and typed “Sanuk,” a brand of flip-flop that cost anywhere between £20 and £55. 

I remember when flip-flops were cheap. Of course, I remember when gas (or petrol if you speak British) was $0.29 a gallon. I also remember when I was nineteen, and it was a shockingly long time ago. 

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After rising for seven weeks, the number of Covid cases in England looks like it’s stopped rising. Hospitalizations always tag along behind, kind of like a pesky younger brother, so they’re still going up.

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An Australian company is working on a Covid test based on saliva–no swabs involved–that reports back in fifteen minutes and uses a hand-held device. That doesn’t necessarily mean the device is cheap–the article didn’t say what it costs–but it does mean you don’t need an entire lab for the test, so there ought to be some savings in there somewhere.

Of course, in Britain, we’ll have to contract with an outsourcing company to bring it into the country, and that should add a few million to the cost, if they get it here at all. But hey, what’s a few million pounds between friends? After all, Parliament just voted not to give low-income families £15 per kid over the school holidays so the kids wouldn’t go hungry. We might as well spend that money somewhere. 

The tests themselves work out to about $25 each, although to get a more exact figure I expect you’d have to do some sort of mathematical gymnastics involving the cost of the hand-held gizmo and the number of tests you’re going to do on each one. 

The bad news is that the system’s still being tested, but the hope is that it’ll detect the virus when people haven’t  yet shown any symptoms but are already contagious. The current tests are most effective after symptoms have started, meaning they give a lot of false negatives.

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After Parliament voted not to give families that £15 per low-income kid over the school holidays, cafes, restaurants, and local governments stepped in to help fill the gap.

The issue of kids going hungry was raised by a football player, Marcus Rashford, who learned enough about hunger as a kid to qualify as an expert. He shamed the government into creating a program over the summer, but the thing about eating is that having done it once doesn’t keep you from needing to do it again.

Reacting to businesses stepping in to help, Rashford said, “Even at their lowest point, having felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, local businesses have wrapped arms around their communities today, catching vulnerable children as they fell.

“I couldn’t be more proud to call myself British tonight.”

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, “declined to welcome the offers of assistance,” as one paper put it. I assume some reporter gave him the opportunity just to see if he would. But hell, if these kids wanted to eat over the holidays, they should’ve had the foresight to get themselves born into better-off families, the way he did.

Arguing against spending the money on kids, MP Brendan Clarke-Smith said, “I do not believe in nationalising children.

“Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility and this means less virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.”

Like low pay, possibly? Or a lack of jobs? 

Nah, it’s got to be personal irresponsibility.

The government’s decision is particularly grotesque since it spent over £522 million on a summer program to tempt people back into cafes and restaurants, but only if they could afford to pay half the cost. And MPs are expected to get a £3,000 raise.

The pandemic news from Britain, for at least the next 20 minutes

Unless you took too long to get around to reading this, here’s the Covid situation in Britain at this very minute: Wales is in a circuit breaker lockdown, which they’re calling a firebreak in order to distinguish it from the circuit breaker the British government’s refusing to impose on all of England, even though its experts say it should.

A brief interruption, just so we’re clear: Both of those are short lockdowns. And just so we’re even clearer, the British government doesn’t govern Britain as far as lockdowns are concerned. It governs England, which is part but not all of Britain. And when I say England, of course, I also mean Cornwall, because Cornwall’s governed by English law. 

It’s so simple I’m almost embarrassed to explain it.

Irrelevant photo: Cylamen, one of those magical British plants that bloom in the winter.

Scotland’s lockdown will have five tiers, and Northern Ireland’s will be northern. And also Irish, although let’s be honest, I don’t understand what happens up there. They’re across some water, I don’t swim well, and if I say too much I’ll expose my ignorance. They were the first part of the UK to impose a circuit-breaker lockdown. And I have a link to back that up.

None of the lockdowns sound as complete as the lockdown we all went through in March to keep the Covid horse from getting out of the barn, although by then the horse hadn’t just left the barn, it had gone to the pub for a drink and decided to move to a bigger barn. 

Are you still with me? By now, the horse has invested in a whole series of barns, because what’s the point of getting stuck in one barn when you can become a developer? In other words, since the metaphor’s also left the barn, the country locked down too late to control the virus the first time around and is now looking at the second wave and wondering if maybe it shouldn’t take some sort of action in case the wave turns out to be full of swimming horses. 

Stop me, someone.

What the British government’s trying to do where it has some power–in other words in England–is to on one hand lower the number of Covid cases but on the other avoid locking down the whole country. Hence the idea of local lockdowns where the virus is concentrated.

It sounds sensible until you put it into practice, at which point it gets messy. The earliest local lockdowns don’t seem to have worked well, but the emphasis there is on seem. The most authoritative assessment I’ve found is that it’s hard to say whether they’re working. That’s balanced but it’s not reassuring.

The local lockdown that’s getting the most press is Manchester’s, where the mayor, backed by local politicians, including some from Boris Johnson’s own party, wouldn’t agree to go into the most restrictive category because the government refused to give them enough money to cover the losses to workers and businesses. A lot of public snarling followed until Johnson said, “It’s my ball, so I get to make the rules,” and imposed the lockdown anyway. It will take effect on Friday.

One of the major issues they fought over is that people who can’t work during the lockdown will get less than they did during the national lockdown. 

Why? 

Because.

What’re they supposed to live on?

The government doesn’t much care. 

How do I know that? 

I’m channeling them. I hear them in my head, and if you think that’s fun, I invite you to play host to a bunch of overprivileged ex-Etonians. Especially when you thought the wine on sale at the supermarket would be fine.

Eton? That’s a public school, which in British means it’s a private school–a place where parents with too much privilege pay too much money to have their darling boys taught how to be part of the ruling class. 

No, I’m not exaggerating.

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Universities–which in the US would be called colleges, but that has a whole ‘nother meaning here–are trying frantically to deal with their own localized Covid outbreaks. 

In Bristol, 900 students and staff have tested positive, and both they and the people who’ve been in contact with them are having to self-isolate. Hundreds of students who live in university housing have signed up to a rent strike that’s due to start at the end of the week. They’ve been locked down twenty-four hours a day and want to be released from their rental contracts if they move out or have their rent reduced if they stay. They also want people who test negative to have access to the outdoors, and they’re unhappy with the food boxes that are delivered to them (since they can’t go out), which they say don’t have enough food, don’t work for all diets, and sometimes don’t include essentials like cleaning products or sanitary products. 

Complaints about the food delivered to students who are expected to self-isolate are widespread, and I don’t think this is a case of kids complaining that they’re not getting quail under glass but that a week of instant noodles and energy bars doesn’t make a workable diet. Also that delivering pork products to Muslim students doesn’t communicate cultural sensitivity.

Of course, the kids who put “Send Beer” posters in their windows aren’t doing the cause a whole lot of good, although they are at least finding a way to pass the time that doesn’t involve either property damage or self-harm.

Rent strikes are already going on at Glasgow and Cambridge.

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Arts organizations have been struggling during the pandemic and lobbying hard for some help, so when some got rescue grants from the government and were told to pour a bit of public praise on the campaign, they (at least mostly) did.

“Welcome this funding on your social media accounts . . . on your websites . . . and in your newsletters,” they were told. “In receiving this funding, you are agreeing to acknowledge this funding publicly by crediting the government’s Culture Recovery Fund.” 

And so on. 

Recipients obediently went online and sang the praises of their glorious leaders, who are also our glorious leaders. 

I used to work for an arts organization and it made my flesh crawl to watch how some of the staff members fluttered around when large donors appeared, but at least the donors had the good grace not to dictate their own thank-you letters.

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In an unexpected side effect of the pandemic, Britain may be facing a shortage of tracksuit bottoms, leggings, and running shoes. Think of it as the Zoom meeting effect. Only half of you needs to look respectable. 

There’s a more serious side to it, though. A lot of clothing factories in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Bangladesh closed in response to the pandemic. Sorry to chuck that in, but it is part of the story.

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And now a feel-good story as a reward for having gotten this far: 

Football teams (and if you’re American, please understand that in Britain football teams play soccer) have been playing to empty stadiums in the pandemic and making money by broadcasting the games on pay-per-view TV. The cost is £14.95 a game.

Earlier in the pandemic, the games were shown free. And since fans–or many of them, anyway–have already paid for subscriptions to the stations carrying the games, the extra fee didn’t sit well. 

Newcastle United Supporters urged a boycott and raised £19,000 for local food bank instead.

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The UK will be the first country to deliberately expose volunteers to Covid in order to test the effectiveness of vaccines. They’re called challeng trials, and there’ve been debates about the ethics of doing that with a life-threatening disease that we have no cure for, but it’s a lot faster than injecting people with the vaccine, then winding them up, letting them go about their ordinary business, and waiting to find out if they get the virus.

The volunteers are between 18 and 30, and they’re healthy, so they’re in a relatively low risk group. They’re also, given the dangers that long Covid presents to people in all age groups, incredibly brave.

 

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.

 

Tumble dryers and Twitter: It’s the nonpandemic news from Britain

A university student near Hull got stuck in a tumble dryer that she’d climbed into on a dare. 

Why yes, she and everyone within three miles of her had been drinking. What made you ask?

Her housemates called the fire department and three firefighters worked her loose. Before they left they checked the washing machine. Just in case. To save themselves another trip. 

I was hoping to say that this is what students do when they’re in lockdown, but I don’t know that the University of Hull was in lockdown. What I can tell you is that the university webpage about keeping students safe while they’re on campus doesn’t mention either laundry or laundry-related hardware–an oversight that I’m sure they’ll remedy as soon as I bring this to their attention. I’d have called by now but I wanted to let you know first. 

The student herself admitted that she’d never done her own laundry before. That doesn’t strike me as entirely relevant, since everyone who washes clothes once did it for the first time. The first time I ever took that daring step, I don’t remember being overcome by an impulse to climb into the dryer. Admittedly, my mother talked me through it: See, she told me, this is the water. These are the dirty clothes. What you want to do is introduce one to the other in the presence of this detergent that’s all stuck together because the basement’s a little damp. Just chop some out with this measuring cup, trying not to spray it all over the floor.

But even so, I don’t remember for one second wanting to measure the dryer for size. In fact, thousands upon thousands of people do their own laundry for the first time every year without climbing into the dryer. 

Maybe we’re all repressing the impulse. If you repress it well enough, you can’t be sure it was ever there.

*

Irrelevant photo: a hellebore.

As long as we’re in the Hull area and visiting with firefighters, a nearby crematorium got carried away with its work and set itself on fire. It took eight hours to put out the blaze, which started just before a service, so someone just missed their chance to go out in a blaze of glory.

Sorry. I couldn’t help myself. It’s a genetic problem.

*

A tour group in Iceland lost a tour member and, when she didn’t show up after an hour, hit the panic button and set off a search involving mountain search teams and the rest of the tour party. 

At 3 a.m., a member of the tour realized that she was the person she was looking for. She’d gone back to the bus and changed her clothes, so the 5’2” Asian woman in dark clothes was now a 5’2” Asian woman in some other kind of clothes. 

Cue many headlines about going to Iceland to find yourself.

*

Gay men invaded the Twitter hashtag of the Proud Boys, a far right group (or neofascist, if we’re calling a fascist a fascist this week) that was mentioned approvingly by Donald Trump before Trump himself was mentioned approvingly by the Covid virus. 

The invasion consists of gay male couples posing proudly–with each other, with their kids, with a Canadian Army uniform and a partner.  

The claim that the Proud Boys changed their name to Leathermen to get away from the invasion is, sadly, a spoof, but funny enough that I was happy to believe it until someone challenged me. If you’re not familiar with leathermen, Twitter will introduce you to a bunch of muscular gay men looking very kinky. 

Does the Covid virus work nights? It’s the pandemic update from Britain

With Covid cases rising in Britain and more than a quarter of the country living with local restrictions on top of the national ones, pubs in England have been told to close at 10 pm. So who can resist a story about Parliament’s bars being exempt from the rules?

Parliament has thirty bars and the booze is subsidized, so it’s cheap. And we shouldn’t be calling it booze, because a lot of these people are high-class guzzlers. They’re not in the habit of letting people talk about them as if they were your everyday, low-rent lush. They are extremely high-rent lushes.

But high rent or not, sitting in the House of Commons or the House of Lords is a thirsty job, so they need those bars. Which, I assume, is why they were neatly defined as workplace canteens, which gave them an exemption on both hours and a few other things until the opposition–that’s the Labour Party–started yelling, the whole thing got a bit of embarrassing publicity, and someone decided that, gee whiz, guys, this might give people the wrong idea about us. 

The bars now stop serving at 10 pm, and that will last until either the regulations change or outsiders promise not to notice.

*

Irrelevant photo: Pansies. I’ve given up growing them. The slugs and snails just love ’em.

What’s the logic behind closing the bars at 10 pm? According to our prime minister, who’ll say anything that comes into his head, however incoherent it may be, “What we’ve seen from the evidence is that the spread of the disease does tend to happen later at night after more alcohol has been consumed.” 

What evidence do they have that the disease spreads late at night once the viruses or their containers (that’s us) have gotten shitfaced? Well, the BBC asked the Department for Health and Social Care for the specific evidence and didn’t get it. Instead, the BBC ran through an assortment of data from Public Health England, showing the number of outbreaks in schools, food-related businesses (you can slot the pubs in there), care homes, and workplaces, but it inevitably showed more transmission in places where testing’s heaviest, so it’s anything but conclusive. And it doesn’t mention time of day. Or night. 

Professor Mark Woolhouse, who’s on the government’s infection modelling team, explained (helpfully), “There isn’t a proven scientific basis for any of this.”

So as far as we know, the virus works both the day shift and the night shift.

*

A study has begun on how long Covid can survive once it’s airborne. Figure that out and  you can figure out how to reduce the risk people run in enclosed spaces. 

The consensus is that it’s not just the larger droplets that humans breathe, cough, and sneeze out that carry the disease, it’s also aerosols–tiny beasties less than  5 microns across, which hang in the air much longer than droplets. By way of comparison, a human hair is 60 to 120 microns across. 

Because aerosols are so small, they stay airborne longer than droplets and can be carried by air currents. 

Humans are messy creatures, always breathing–not just in but (annoyingly) out–and we tend to share whatever’s taken up residence inside us. So if the disease does spread on aerosols, keeping two meters away isn’t going to keep us safe. 

Earlier research gave the rough estimate that Covid has a half-life of 1.1 to 1.2 hours in aerosol form, but the new research will create a closer replica of real-world conditions, even varying it for different climates. I’m hoping they don’t tell us that we all need separate countries. In spite of how difficult we are as a species, I actually like being around other humans. Not all of them, but a fair few.

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Here’s a quick snapshot of Britain at the moment: University students across the country went back to school this month, and (to no one’s surprise) universities are reporting Covid outbreaks. They’re being urged in all directions: to drop all face-to-face teaching, to continue normal teaching, to be sure campuses are two-thirds empty, to quarantine affected students and pretend that in a dorm that solves the problem, to let student life carry on as usual because the climate of fear is doing untold damage, to return the tuition they charged, and to keep the tuition they charged.  

The only way to choose the correct advice is by having a gorilla throw darts at a target.

A report says infections in the food industry are thirty times higher than are being reported. 

A scientist from SAGE–the group of scientists who advise the government–is arguing that repeated two-week lockdowns could knock the virus on the head. Not necessarily hard enough to kill it but enough to make it dizzy.

Outside of Britain? The world has now logged a million coronavirus deaths. Those are the ones that’ve been counted. How many are there really? No one knows. Countries haven’t even agreed on the definition of a coronavirus death, and we won’t get into the problem of figuring out who actually had it when testing is so patchy. But basically, a lot of people have died, and that’s not taking account of the people who are left debilitated or of the economic damage the pandemic leaves in its wake.

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A quick Covid test is now available. It gives a result in 15 to 30 minutes and works like a pregnancy test, but nine months later you don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night and feed anybody. 

Unless of course you want to. 

The makers claim it’s 97% accurate, but in real-world conditions it picks up something more like 80% to 90% of infections. Other quick tests are sold online, but this is the first one that meets the World Health Organization’s standards. By way of illustration, Spain ordered two sets of rapid tests in March and sent them back.

A second test is expected to get WHO approval shortly.

Under an initiative started by the WHO, the European Commission, the Gates Foundation, and the French government, 20% of the tests will be made available to low- and middle-income countries for $5 per test. The rest will go to wealthy countries. You may notice an, um, imbalance there between what wealthy countries get and what poor ones do, but it’s actually better than the alternative, which is to have them all go to the countries that can pay the most. 

Yes, it’s a lovely world we live in.

Right now, most low- and middle-income countries are doing minimal testing. North America tests 395 people per 100,000 daily, Europe tests 243, and Africa tests fewer than 16, but most of those are in just three countries, Morocco, Kenya, and Senegal.

It’s not clear whether the UK plans to buy any of the tests. It’s committed heavily to two different tests that take 90 minutes, aren’t as easy to use, and cost more.

 

*

A reporter asked Boris Johnson to explain the tighter local restrictions that northeastern England is living with and, to prove how simple the rule of six is, he got it wrong. It all has to do with how many people you can get together with indoor and outdoors.

Here’s how it really works:

If you’re outside the restricted area, it’s six inside and six outside. But if you’re inside, it’s six inside but not six outside. 

I hope that clears everything up. If not, just hide in your basement, knock the glass out of a periscope, and breathe through that. We’ll look for you when this all passes, as all things must.

What people really want to know about Britain, part who’s counting?

Let us enter, once again, the depths of the internet, whose current wash strange questions to the shore here at Notes.

But you need to know a few things about the process before we go on: First, no feelings were hurt (or so I tell myself) in the process of turning me loose on these questions. They come from people–or I assume they’re people–who flit through here, driven by whatever whim propelled them at 2 a.m. to ask Lord Google for information on subjects they may not have actually cared about, and then flit right on out, leaving behind their questions but not their consciousness. Second, the questions appear in all their original oddity, except that I’ve italicized them. Third, I used to answer them seriously. It didn’t take long to get boring. 

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Irrelevant Photo: The view from Castle Point, where there is no castle. The flowers are heather and gorse.

double space after full stop uk

For the sake of American readers, I need to explain this before I answer it: The question isn’t about social distancing at two stop signs. In Britain, a full stop is that tiny dot you put at the end of a sentence: a period. Back in the old days, when we used typewriters and that seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, we were taught to double space after a period. That pool of wide-open paper made it easier to spot the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next.

In my school, by the way, only girls learned to use typewriters. They were considered too technical for boys. 

Then word processors came along and spoiled the fun by introducing proportional spacing.The divisions between sentences now jumped out without the help of an extra space. So the second space went the way of the typewriter and the quill pen, although 30% of the people in a survey (which may or may not be representative of I have no idea what population) still think it’s correct to double space.

If you want to know more about this (and who wouldn’t?), here’s a link

I can’t explain why Lord Google thought this was the place to send people for information about that, but now that I’ve written about it, he’ll send more.

Now let’s double back and explain my second sentence for the sake of non-American readers: In most (possibly all) states in the U.S., failing to come to a full stop at a stop sign will earn you a traffic ticket. But only if you get caught, which mostly you don’t. 

difference between anerican beeband british beer

You drink one in America and the other in Britain unless you want to pay extra for an import. One’s spelled with an R and the other with an extra B and no space at all before the and

berwick and russia at war

This is the longest non-war in history, and it has the biggest following. 

how do you pronounce river teign

Teen.

Teignmouth, though, the place at the mouth of the River Teign? Logic says you’d pronounce it the same way. 

Logic is wrong. This is England. Those are place names. Abandon hope. It’s Tinmuth.

And the government of the area, which is called the Teignbridge Authority? We’re back to teen.

widemouth

Most people call me bigmouth, but widemouth is far from the worst thing anyone’s called me. The place name, though, is pronounced Widmuth.

english holiday with sprouts

Back in the old days, this was known as Christmas, but the world changes and we have to change with it. It’s now known as English Holiday with Sprouts. 

These are brussels sprouts we’re talking about, for those of you who aren’t clued in to the oddities of British culture. I don’t answer questions about either bean sprouts or that hairy fuzz that grows out of alfalfa seeds. 

The sprouts holiday–

Let’s capitalize that: The Sprouts Holiday falls on Christmas, and folks gather around to eat brussels sprouts (and possibly other things, but the presence of sprouts obsesses a category of people who buzz around this blog like flies). 

Sorry, I got sidetracked. The people gather, eat sprouts, and wear silly paper hats. They place two desserts on the table and set fire to one of them.

That is–however strange it sounds–true.

The question should probably be about a British Holiday, though, not an English one, but I’ve never spent the Sprouts Holiday in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, so I don’t really know how integral sprouts are there. I’d be happy to hear reports from the other nations on this crucial topic. 

Don’t you love that people turn to me to learn these things? Who better to explain the intricacies of the British Christmas tradition than an American Jewish atheist? This, my friends, is the true meaning of multiculturalism. 

Whatever that was you just threw at me, you missed. 

But let’s go back to the question and make sure we cover all possibilities. It might have been about taking your sprouts on holiday with you, which in American would be taking your brussels sprouts on vacation. Because, hey, it may be a holiday (or vacation) for you, but if you leave your sprouts at home, what kind of time are they having? The world would be a better place if we all took our vegetables into account when we made our plans. 

You’re welcome, and a 50-page position paper on the subject will arrive in your inbox tomorrow. Please get back to me with any changes by Monday. 

how did carriages pass on narrow english country lanes in olden days

This is, surprisingly, a good question. I don’t know what it’s doing here either. English country lanes are narrow. So are British country lanes in general, but let’s not get into that. Horse-drawn carriages didn’t have a reverse gear.

The partial answer is that country lanes aren’t an even width. They have wider spots, where you can pull over, swat horseflies, check your phone messages, and wait for that oncoming carriage to pass.

The rest of the answer? What happens when you’ve got a blind bend in the road and no wide spot? Your guess is as good as mine. What I can tell you is that I live in an area with lots of narrow lanes and blind curves and I’ve seen the shipwrecked remains of abandoned carriages or the bones of the horses that pulled them, so they must have figured out a way to go on.

debtors prison england

Where we’ll be if we don’t break down and admit that we need to tax those who can best afford taxes.

why call great britain

Because it’s running this fantastic ad campaign: Do you want your tea hot, your weather cool, your history complicated, and your spelling unpredictable? Call Great Britain! We deliver. 

parky used nineteenth

This is our mystery question. There’s always one. [Warning: I’m about the offer the world a bit of misinformation. In my defense, I was repeating what I’d been told by someone who seemed to know what he was talking about. The more fool me. See the comments for a correction or three.] Parky comes from a bit of Cockney rhyming slang: It’s parky in the mold means it’s cold. Mold is the rhyming bit, so it gets dropped because otherwise the phrase might make sense to people who didn’t already know what it meant. 

Nineteenth, though? Used? All suggestions, however bizarre, are welcome. 

Small changes in the world of pandemic Britain

How is our world changing with the onset of the pandemic? Well, the International Football Association, which sets the rules for international competition, has added a new offense: deliberately coughing at another player. The referee gets to decide what’s deliberate and what’s close enough to be offense-worthy, and the player who’s on the wrong side of the decision can be sent off the field.

If you’re American, you should understand that football is soccer but that coughing is still coughing.

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A company in Taiwan has developed a robot that can swab noses to test for the coronavirus. It sounds silly, but it’s one of those jobs that puts health care workers at risk. And you might as well admit it: You’ve always wished automation would swab your nose for you. 

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Vaguely relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who can’t be bothered opening doors. He has people who do that for him.

When Britain was still in lockdown, adults went from watching an average of 34 minutes a day of streaming services in April 2019 to an average of 71 minutes a day in April 2020. Those are the Netflix-type shows that you pay for. But that’s nothing. They also went from watching 4 hours and 53 minutes of TV and online video a day to 6 hours and 25 minutes. 

If I understand this correctly, that’s 6 hours and 25 minutes of TV shows, online pornography, and videos clips of cats opening doors and performing brain surgery. Per day. 

Who says lockdown is destroying our cultural life?

Okay, I only know about the cats because I sneak a peek now and then. You can also find videos of bears sitting in blow-up wading pools or canoodling with cats.

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How are we, as a nation, doing for money? About a third of Britain’s biggest companies have cut their top execs’ salaries in the face of the pandemic. 

Impressed? Don’t be. Top execs make as much or more from bonuses and share schemes as they do from their salaries.

What kind of money are we talking about? The head of Ocado–a grocery delivery outfit–made £58.7 million in 2018-2019–1,935 times the median salary of a full-time UK worker. To put that another way, it would take the average worker eight years to earn what he earns in a day. If that doesn’t add up, don’t blame me. I stole the statistic. See the link above if you want to argue. Or argue with me, but don’t expect a decent opponent. I’m a word person.

I don’t know if Ocado cut his pay–probably not, since food delivery businesses have been making out like (excuse the language) bandits–but I can’t see where he’d have a whole lot of trouble getting by if they did.

Back in the real world, there’s a ban at the moment on landlords evicting tenants who’ve fallen behind on their rent, but when the ban ends (as it’s scheduled to) they’ll owe a huge whackin’ amount of rent and no one who makes the decisions is talking, at least in public, about how they’ll to pay it off.

And a quarter of all adults are struggling with what’s being called food insecurity. That’s not exactly hunger. It’s hunger and being susceptible to hunger and to malnutrition. Almost a quarter have eaten less so they can feed their kids. 

In case anyone’s in danger of forgetting.

*

Like the rest of the world, we live in the shadow of the disease–some of us more immediately and some of us less so.

My partner and I got tested for Covid-19 yesterday. Not because we have symptoms but because a friend whose husband died of the virus really, really wanted us to. And because every country should be testing asymptomatic people on a mass scale. It’s the only way to identify clueless carriers, and until we do that they’ll keep spreading the virus. 

I was reluctant. To work, testing has to be on a mass scale and we’re only two people. We could test negative and be exposed tomorrow, so what does a test tell us, really? And the British government isn’t doing mass asymptomatic testing. It’s pushing testing for people with symptoms. But, as our friend reminded me, I didn’t have any overwhelming amount of respect for the way the government’s handling the pandemic, so why did I suddenly want to respect their decision on this? 

We signed up.

So here’s the report on testing: The website where you book the test got stuck in a loop when Ida signed up, repeatedly asking for her date of birth, so that she wasn’t just born again but again and again and again. But it did eventually let us schedule the tests.

Okay, Ida booked both tests while I sat on the couch and kibbitzed.

The system only wanted my date of birth once. 

The testing was well organized. We found a variety of ways to screw up, but the people who worked there were patient and got us through it. Then we came home to go online and register the tests, because if you don’t, you don’t get your results and the whole thing’s pointless. 

Ida couldn’t get past the screen that asked for her post code. It didn’t believe her. Or it didn’t like her neighborhood.  

Whatever. She gave up and called the phone number that the form gave as a backup option.

I got past the post code with no problem. We live in the same house but my half is in a better neighborhood than hers. I was getting all ready to feel  smug when I realized that the page the form had sent us to exists to book a test, not to register a test you just took. 

When do you want to book your test? it asks. 

Two hours ago, please. 

I picked up the phone and called.

*

I can’t leave you without a word or six about the government’s world-beating test and trace system. Because contact tracing is–or at least needs to be–a part of our lives these days.

Some of the people who’ve been hired as contact tracers still report–as they have from the beginning–having nothing to do. They’re supposed to call people who’ve tested positive, ask who they’ve been around, and then call them. And talk to them all about quarantining themselves. 

Some contact tracers report only making a handful of calls a month, including the ones to nonexistent numbers. Team leaders are keeping them busy with quizzes and offering prizes for the most calls made. 

One company subcontracting from the outsourcing giant Serco had 471 agents and made 135 calls in two days. That includes calls to wrong numbers, calls to voicemail, and multiple calls to a single person. The tales go on, but you get the drift. 

In early July, the system was reported to cost £10 billion.

That’s in addition to the contract tracing app that failed. That cost £11.8 billion