Tuesday 31 March 2020

For all those remaining indoors

Because dark humour is still humour, right?

Apologies if that joke isn't funny anymore...

Friday 27 March 2020

Strange days indeed

Christ, these are strange times. Forget the coronavirus, Lord Bob of Dylanshire has just released a new track, his first for eight years. And it's a 17-minute ramble about the assassination of JFK. Blimey... didn't see that coming.

Songs for tomorrow: For Tomorrow

Given the name of the series, this song, from my favourite Blur album, had to feature early doors. Have always loved the spoken word outro - a lovely piece of flash fiction.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Lies, damn lies and ...

I like numbers. The current COVID-19 pandemic is generating a lot of numbers. Let's do some maths.

I know it's a moving target but as I write this, according to the excellent John Hopkins CCSE COVID-19 dashboard, there are 34,009 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Germany and 8,167 in the UK. Or, if you prefer:

ng = 34,009
nu = 8,167

So, as at 12.48pm on Wednesday 25th March, Germany has about four times as many confirmed cases as the UK, because...

ng / nu = 4.16

At the same time, Germany has 172 deaths and the UK has 422. Or...

xg = 172
xu = 422

Now I know the actual number of cases in both countries is likely to be much higher, because of under-reporting, but let's work with what we've got. And what we've got so far tells us that the mortality rate in Germany is about 0.5% - look

xg / ng * 100 = 0.50574....

Whilst in the UK it's somewhat different:

xu / nu * 100 = 5.16713....

Yes. 5%. Does this mean that you're ten times more likely to die of COVID-19 in the UK than you are in Germany. No, of course it doesn't. But it does suggest that if you contract COVID-19 in the UK you are ten times more likely to die from it, with a one in twenty chance.

Of course, try hard enough and you can prove anything with back-of-an-envelope maths. Certainly there would need to be some more rigorous research into how comparable reporting of confirmed cases was in the two countries. But here's an interesting chart from some proper, peer-reviewed research:

Source: Rhodes, A., Ferdinande, P., Flaatten, H. et al. The variability of critical care bed numbers in Europe. Intensive Care Med 38, 1647–1653 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-012-2627-8

Or ... well, you know the drill by now:

bg = 29.2
bu = 6.6

Now admittedly these figures are nearly eight years old but, assuming nothing much has changed (a big assumption - I'm willing to bet the UK figure has got worse in that time), this suggests that, like for like, Germany has more than four times as many critical care beds as the UK, look...

bg / bu = 4.42r

It's almost like there's a correlation between surviving a serious illness and having a critical care bed.

This reasoning is, of course, specious at best. If I'd chosen Italy, for example, instead of Germany, as the comparator no doubt I would have been drawing different (but possibly equally dodgy) conclusions. But one thing is clear - years of under-funding have left the NHS operating on a shoestring, and a ragged, part-worn shoestring at that. I'd like to think that one positive from the COVID-19 pandemic is that afterwards, when things are heading back towards normal, successive governments might realise that they need to fund the health service properly. Of course I need to temper my naïve optimism on that score with the fact that, when this is over, the nation is going to be not only skint but massively in debt. There's not going to be any money for the level of investment that is so clearly needed.

That's more than enough syntactically correct but ultimately worthless maths for today. But in case you're in any doubt (I know you're not) as to the funding gap that's opened up around the NHS, here's a little "spot the difference" game you can play.

Mirror man

Like lots of people suddenly working from home more than they ever have before, I'm spending a lot of time in videoconferences, staring at my laptop's webcam like it's HAL's unblinking red eye. And seeing myself in close-up, on-screen, in return. It's not a pretty sight.

I don't tend to look in the mirror, generally, other than a fleeting glance to make sure my face is basically clean. I don't have much in the way of hair, so it's not like I have to spend ages fussing over my barnet. And you can clean your teeth without a mirror. In other words, it's not often that I look at myself, and never for prolonged periods.

So the webcam experience is a sobering one. I look like crap, basically. Podgy, jowly, bald, wrinkled, old and unattractive. It's a good job I'm not single, because no-one would look twice at me. Terrific. Still, it's an excuse to play this.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Asterix and Restinpix

I know lots of people are dying at the moment (there, obligatory COVID-19 reference done in the first sentence) but I was still slightly saddened to read of Albert Uderzo's death. He was, as you've probably guessed if you didn't already know, one of the co-creators of Asterix, the plucky Gaul and perennial thorn in the side of those pesky Romans.

I had an admittedly short spell in childhood of being very into Asterix books, which in turn led to a greater (and lasting) interest in Imperial Rome. Seems that they, rather than the indomitable Gauls, won me over.

I chose the image to the left for two reasons - firstly, it was just about my favourite Asterix book when I was a kid (wish I still had it, but flogged my vintage copy on Amazon some time ago), and secondly - well, I think this may be the only Olympics we see this year (there you go, another COVID-19 reference for you).

Monday 23 March 2020

In case you missed this yesterday...

...Uncle Bill always knows best. I don't know what it is about him and his songwriting, but he provokes an emotional response in me that few other artists can. This doesn't quite get something in my eye the same way that Between The Wars does, but my word it was timely for yesterday. In Billy's own words:

The coronavirus pandemic is going to affect our lives in ways we've yet to grasp. In the coming months, most of us will be forced to miss family gatherings, starting with Mother's Day which in the UK falls on this first weekend of isolation.

Here's a new song written in the past few days that touches on the emotional cost of this crisis.

Featuring CJ Hillman on pedal steel

Recorded at home 21st March 2020 Engineered and mixed by CJ Hillman

Friday 20 March 2020

Songs for tomorrow: Tomorrow's Just Another Day

Inspired by Rol's excellent Positive Songs for Negative Times (and to try to be a bit more upbeat than yesterday's post) a new series of songs about tomorrow, starting with this from my youth, in the hope that "it gets better every day".

Thursday 19 March 2020

The chase

No, this is not a paean to the ITV game show or its admittedly likeable host, Bradley Walsh. Nothing so light or frothy, I'm afraid. In fact, if you're already feeling a bit down, you might want to browse the sidebar on the right and read something else, something cheerier. Because what I write today is naturally the coronavirus, and its impact on our lives.

No, wait, come back! I fully appreciate the last thing the Internet needs right now is another no-mark's opinion on the empty shelves in Sainsbury's, or the fact that working from home sounds alright for a few days but gets old quickly. But what I really wanted to talk about was the bigger impact, the underlying effect on our core, our outlook, our way of life.

You see, when things really started to ramp up, about the time that people started ironically losing their shit over toilet paper, I wondered, optimistically, whether the coming pandemic would give people cause to re-evaluate their lives. Maybe I was being naïve, I don't know. But I wondered whether people collectively would realise that the way we have been living is so wrong, that our priorities have become so skewed. I hoped, perhaps foolishly, that people would have a Damascene revelation and realise that they had bought into a continual and unachievable chase. You know, the chase to have more. A phone upgrade. A new sofa. A fitted kitchen. Another pair of trainers. A phone upgrade. More TV channels. Clothes with some designer's name on. A faster bike. A phone upgrade. A nicer car. A bigger house. More exotic holidays. A phone upgrade...

You know what I mean. You'll no doubt have your own chase. I certainly have had mine, though it's nothing like the exemplar above, thank God. And the thing is, in the grand scheme of things, none of that stuff matters, not really. And a 24-pack of luxury quilted two-ply doesn't really matter either. Not when compared to the fundamentals: food, shelter, health. Our family, friends and loved ones. Our children. Our future.

So people will realise, I thought, that the chase is stupid and unimportant: they'll see the suffering of their aged parents or their newly unemployed friends and think, God, something's got to change. They'll note the cleaner air, the clear skies, the quieter roads, and realise the unsustainability of our 21st Century lifestyle, the message rammed home with the force of a thousand Thunbergs. And people will change, abandon the chase.

That's what I thought. But then last weekend, on a perhaps ill-advised trip to the Smoke, I watched in mute amazement as a thirtysomething over-nicotined housefrau got into a shouting match in the street over a packet of nappies, along the lines of "If I need f-ing napppies for my f-ing nephew and I can't f-ing buy them I'm just going to f-ing take 'em." It transpired she had just removed them from someone else's trolley. And yesterday, back home in my sleepy rural idyll, I watched in equally mute amazement as a WAG tried to persuade the guy behind the counter in the butcher's that, when things got tight, he should not sell food to other people but keep it for regular customers like her. This was before she hopped back into her Range Rover with a bag of raw meat for her dogs. And today I've heard from a good friend who lives in Madrid where, it transpires, supermarkets have implemented a "one-out, one-in" policy as the only means of maintaining any control over panic buying.

So rather than abandon their chase, it seems that people have just found another one: chase food, chase toilet paper, chase nappies, chase hand sanitiser. Sod the person in the queue behind you, with the empty bag. Yes, social media has plenty of stories along the lines of

"I saw an old man in the supermarket and he only wanted <<insert heartbreakingly basic object here>> and the shop had run out, so I found a way to get him some. BE KIND PEOPLE!"

And that's fine, of course. But I don't know that this charitable bonhomie will last, not when the supermarkets start closing, rather than just having limited stock. I wonder, privately, how far off looting might be. Or fighting in the street over a tin of beans. Because this isn't going to be over in a month's time, I'm sorry but it just isn't - read this if you don't believe me. And it'll probably get a lot worse before it gets better.

I don't know what the answer is. I just hoped that this was a chance for humanity to reinvent itself, to be better. Now I fear it is going to become the excuse humanity needs to be its worst self.

Look after yourselves, and each other. Get your news and health advice from reputable sources. Don't become mired in social media, otherwise you'll end up like me, with a band of anxiety so tight around your chest that you'll start to wonder (as I did last night) if what you're feeling is actually the start of COVID-related respiratory problems...

How to end this sorry excuse for a post? Er... with Michael Stipe, of course. To paraphrase him, it's not the end of the world, but maybe the end of the world as we have known it.

And because this has been such a heavy post (sorry), here's something marginally lighter, that leads nicely on from Mr Stipe. Why not sing it whilst you wash your hands?

Tuesday 3 March 2020


This morning, the atonal drone of a Karcher Window Vac put me in mind of the intro to this (even though the Karcher was in the wrong key):

What random sounds put you in mind of songs?

Monday 2 March 2020

Twenty in '20: Wakenhyrst

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty books in 2020. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

7/20: Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

The blurb: In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father.

When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud's battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father's past.

Spanning five centuries, Wakenhyrst is a darkly gothic thriller about murderous obsession and one girl's longing to fly free by the bestselling author of Dark Matter and Thin Air. Wakenhyrst is an outstanding new piece of story-telling, a tale of mystery and imagination laced with terror. It is a masterwork in the modern gothic tradition that ranges from Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker to Neil Gaiman and Sarah Perry.

The review: regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Michelle Paver's work - indeed, I wrote (and raved) about her previous novel, Thin Air as part of last year's reading challenge. It's not just Paver's fluid prose style that makes me such an admirer - it's her ability to evoke a setting. I have quite a thing about "setting as character", both as a reader and an aspiring writer, and the setting for Wakenhyrst - the fens, and a remote fenland country house - is as much a character in this novel as any of the human protagonists.

It's no mean feat, particularly since Paver has to deal with two time periods, the early years of the Twentieth Century and the middle of the Sixteenth. And yet at no time does the setting, the cast of characters, their dialogue and the practices of the day feel anything other than entirely authentic. This is testament to Paver's research - she's clearly read a lot about the fens in those times, and this has informed everything she's written here.

Indeed, without giving spoilers, it is interesting to note that the genesis of this story came from Paver combining, and then extrapolating from, three real-life events (yes, the author's note at the end of the book is also worth a read).

As in Thin Air and Dark Matter before that, Paver uses isolation to great effect, to apply pressure on her heroine and reinforce feelings of the uncanny, of otherness. Wakenhyrst didn't scare me in the same way that Dark Matter did, but it did unsettle me, and that's almost better (or worse, depending on how much you appreciate being scared). And for a novel that deals in historical language and practices, this gallops along at a fair old pace. The reproduction of journal entries helps in this regard, I think. Either way, I found it hard to put down.

The bottom line: classic gothic suspense, in the truest sense of those words, with terrific setting, characterisation and pace. Recommended to all.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆