Jinja on my Mind

I hear that Ireland has introduced a 2Km limit on how far one can go to take a Covid constitutional. I imagine most people have some bit of countryside or park within that kind of radius, though a substantial number won't. Bristol is well served, with many large parks and surprising fingers of countryside that reach deep into the folds of the city. Here is Purdown the other day, for example, a 10-minute walk from my house, albeit up a suitably cardiovascular hill:


My work rate seems to be slowing exponentially, even as the casualty count increases (or "ramps up," as Boris Johnson would no doubt say, with a fist pump). The advantage is that I still have plenty to keep me occupied, at least. But I do get distracted, whether it be by watching poor blind Jessie wandering about the room and bumping into things randomly like a furry Roomba (I'd love to get her a guide puppy, but fear it would not be a long-term solution), or the realisation that I should really be packing for Kyoto. As a way of cheering myself up about the latter, yesterday I constructed my very own Fushimi Inari Taisha:


I considered putting Jessie in a red bib like one of the shrine's protective kitsune, but refrained. Some things are better left to the imagination.

Who was that Masked Stranger?

I still have a few masks that I brought back from Japan in 2016 as a souvenir. I bought a few more last month, thinking that if I, my daughter and her boyfriend were in Kyoto then it would makes sense to have some - not so much for protection as because three obvious foreigners not wearing them might draw glares in this febrile time, especially on public transport. Of course, that's not going to happen now.

I wouldn't say I have a stockpile of masks. In fact, I have exactly 15.

In the UK, the scientific authorities have been pretty unanimous that masks offer no protection and may even become a vector for disease. But it's becoming increasingly clear that, compared to some other countries, the methods adopted in the UK have been ineffective. The government has been disastrously at fault in its lack of pandemic preparation, its slowness to react when it finally arrived (especially in terms of testing, medical equipment and protective clothing), its initial "herd immunity" approach, which was not only nigh-on homicidal in itself but wasted vital time, and its overall mixed messaging.

By contrast, the countries where the curve has been kept low (mostly in east Asia) are all mask-wearing countries. Correlation is not causation, of course, but they're clearly doing something right, and the wearing of masks is one of the few measures that people are in a position to adopt individually. I see increasing numbers of people wearing them round here - or makeshift bandana arrangements, at least. A few weeks ago I had never - well, hardly ever - seen a white person in a face mask. Now, I don't look twice.

I'm considering joining their number, at least for those occasional supermarket runs, which seem like the most vulnerable of times these days.

What are you doing on the mask front?


Wearing a mask for lols in 2016

A Welcome Dose of Clap

I'm a cynical old soul who find orchestrated displays of emotion rather cloying, so I don't suppose I'd have participated in yesterday evening's unfortunately named "Clap for Carers" had not all the neighbours I happen to know best been medical professionals. As it was, I was roused from my computer at 8pm by the sound of saucepans being rattled and a few whoops, but mostly a politely enthusiastic round of applause, of the type that one normally hears when a batsman strokes a ball through silly leg over to the boundary. That polite ripple was not very loud, but it was happening all round the country at the same time (even inside Brixton Prison!), something even I must admit to finding quite moving:

Also, credit where it's due: the Chancellor's measures to help those laid off by the crisis, whether employees or self-employed, have been (while far from watertight) pretty decent, especially when compared to some other countries' efforts. I think he "gets" that paying an eye-watering amount now may avoid paying an even more eye-watering amount when all this is over - much as Gordon Brown did in 2008. I'm less impressed with the banks, who were bailed out with taxpayers' cash on that occasion but are now charging businesses over 20%, at a time when the base rate is 0.1%. Could it be that bankers are greedy shits?

Meanwhile Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock (who is contractually obliged to run mad in white linen whenever Johnson runs mad in white satin) have both caught the virus. I'd have more sympathy with Johnson had he not boasted not long ago about shaking the hands of Covid 19 patients. (I wonder how his pregnant girlfriend felt about that?) Even from his sick-desk today he was joshingly referring to the "wizardry" of the technology that enables him to speak to people he's not in the same room as. He's two years younger than me, ffs.

The story that sums Johnson up best, for my money, is from a week or two back. In a meeting about how to increase the supply of respirators, he reportedly dubbed the initiative "Operation Last Gasp." The worst thing about this joke is that it's actually quite witty; I really resent being made to smile at something like that. But also - it's all very well for private bloggers like myself to make off-colour jokes (see the title of this post) as way of relieving the stress of these unusual times; it's another for the Prime Minister to do it - and it's even worse when you realise that, even as this was going on, Britain was (whether from incompetence, jingoism or a mixture of both) failing to participate in a Europe-wide initiative to source... respirators.

For a long time Japan was an outlier in those comparative charts of Covid-19 infection across countries: the country's infections started early but confirmed cases stayed low (the odd Yokohama cruise ship nothwithstanding), despite no stringent measures having been introduced beyond the (advisory) closing of schools. Restaurants, shops, etc. have been open as usual. Even school graduation ceremonies took place, despite the lack of lessons.

Now, finally, Abe has asked the IOC to postpone the Olympics, and almost immediately the number of cases in Tokyo has shot up and the governor has ordered people to stay inside. It's almost as if Abe had been endangering public health for the sake of a sporting competition.

Just as the fish are now teeming through the canals of Venice, so the toilet rolls and eggs are gradually returning to the shelves of Tesco. Yesterday there was no Marmite Crunchy Peanut Butter, though! We must all stay strong...

Agonistes Blues

My lockdown regime, generally speaking, will involve a daily trip to Tesco - via the hilliest route in this hilly city, so as to get my cardiovascular system going, i.e. a footpath over the railway cuttings of St Werburghs. However, although supermarkets are booming (and, to be fair, their logistical expertise and the labour of their workers are what's holding this country together right now, along with the NHS), I don't want to let the Gloucester Rd wither on the bough. Today I had to walk down it anyway, to fetch some medicines for Jessie, and took the opportunity to buy supper at the fishmonger - now using such extra measures as six-foot-distant customer-queuing positions painted in yellow on the pavement, and contactless payment through the window glass:


A minority response to the lockdown has been to go on an arson spree. I saw a burned out electric bicycle on the footpath to Tesco yesterday; and today I read that arsonists have burned out two Iceland food delivery vans in Bristol, while Asda has been similarly targetted in Weston-Super-Mare. I'd suspect a motive of letting the old folk starve, had the skateboard park under the M32 not been torched as well.

I Love the Smell of Boiling Frog

One's relationship with time runs strangely in times like these, and not only because normal schedules of work and school are disrupted. For one thing, time and space are strangely entangled. The future has acquired a compass point: it lies to the south-east, through France (a week ahead) and beyond, Italy (a fortnight).

If I were to give the government and its nudge unit more credit than I suspect they deserve, I might speculate that their bumbling lack of clarity was a ruse to make the public take self-isolation into its own hands, and hence be more accepting of (even grateful for) repressive measures later. There's certainly a case for saying that, in a democracy, policies of great harshness cannot easily be brought in all at once, as in China, but must be introduced step by tiny step (but not too tiny, lest the crisis outpace you). I for one feel as if I'm in an amphibian bain-marie, as well as a Petri dish.

On the other hand, when I look at Orban, Trump and Johnson calling invarious ways an unlimited blank cheque from their legislatures, I can't help but be suspicious - not because of the call so much as the callers. As Jane Carnall notes on Facebook, there's a stark contradiction between Johnson's words ("We'll have turned the tide in six weeks") and his actions ("Give me dictatorial powers for two years"). Coming from a notorious liar and would-be "king of the world," it's hard to extend trust, or to know where in all this rubble of distraction and destruction poor mistreated truth may be cowering.

Equinoctial Activities

We're repeatedly told that there is enough food, etc., for all, if only people would stop panic buying. Panic buying, as the name implies, is an irrational behaviour taken as a whole; but for individuals in a panic-buying environment, there is a point at which it becomes rational, because if you don't stock up you won't be able to buy anything at all. No doubt the game theorists have a word for this moment when, like one's reflection in a concave mirror at a certain distance, all is suddenly inverted.

Perhaps we have seen, too, the birth of a new emotive conjugation: "I stockpile; you hoard; they panic buy."

One of my Skype friends in Japan tells me that, in Hiogo Prefecture, where schools have been shut because of the virus, rather than move classes online or even send worksheets by email, teachers on bicycles are hand delivering lessons to each pupil's house. This seems very Japanese, almost to the point of parody: toilets from the 21st century, but a lot of other things from the middle of the twentieth of earlier. (This combination is of course is hugely appealing to me.)

I mentioned this to Moe yesterday, as we took a 1-metre distant walk around Ashton Court. She told me that in Japanese hospitals (she was a nurse in Osaka) patient notes are even now generally written up by hand rather than entered into a computer - because the senior doctors can't or won't get their heads round the technology. She was meant to be going back to Japan in a month or so, but is planning to take the opportunity to go earlier - next Tuesday, in fact - because, well, who knows whether it will even be possible in a few weeks? Even as it is, she can only go to Tokyo, and will have to be collected by her father to travel to Osaka (no shinkansen for anyone coming from abroad), before spending a fortnight in her room. What a sad way to end her time in the UK!

At least we saw a nice Banksy-eseque piece of art in the underpass as we walked:


A few days ago, I reflected on Facebook that, just as there are no atheists in foxholes, in a pandemic everyone's a socialist. Today, apparently, we have the Daily Telegraph calling on the Tory chancellor (late of Goldman Sachs) to introduce socialist policies. Even in times of plague, there are some pleasures to be had.

The Earth Exhales

It's strange how quickly one's notion of normality changes. Seeing a programme from twenty years ago, one flinches slightly at how easily and automatically people will light a cigarette in a pub or somebody's living room - we've been trained to notice it as a taboo. Meanwhile I've been watching YouTube, etc., over the last few days, and every time I see a crowd of people, especially if there's stranger-hugging going on, I cringe slightly. (Mind you, now I think about it, I always did.)

Today I walked down the Gloucester Rd. It's not quite dead yet. I was able to buy apples at the greengrocer in the normal way. The fishmonger was open, but there was safety tape to stop customers actually entering the shop, and contactless payment was encouraged. (I got a lovely tuna steak, though.) The florist next door had assumed a similar posture. Various cafes were selling takeaways only, from a hatch, while others were still open with customers inside, though fewer than usual. Pubs and restaurants had closed, for the most part. The shops selling outpriced ornaments and clothes were open, but empty, as were barbers and opticians.

Meanwhile, Johnson's press conferences inspire ever less confidence. Today he predicted that it would take 12 weeks to "turn the tide" and "send the virus packing," but it was evident that he was pulling the figure from his arse. On Facebook, I'm trying to run a sweepstake on how long it takes for him to use the word "boffins." I give it three days.

The lack of tourism, air travel, etc., is having a positive effect on pollution and the environment generally. Suddenly the canals of Venice are streaming with fish, dolphins, narwhals and mermaids, as of yore. Could the virus be Gaia's sharp wrist slap to mankind, some wonder? Will we remember the lesson a moment longer than necessary, others speculate?

My daughter came safely back from Portugal yesterday (after a few days with her boyfriend's family), to find quite a different country, with far fewer toilet rolls. She apologised for laughing at me when I bought hand sanitiser a month ago, but now hesitates to see me lest she infect me. I miss her, but appreciate the thought.

Top tip. If you're thinking about how to spend the time between now and whenever, and especially if you're not British (which I say only because everyone in Britain probably already knows), why not check out the archive of 2,250 interviews with music in Desert Island Discs, here lovingly described by a convert in The New Yorker?

I gave my first online lessons today and yesterday, which necessitated introducing my students to my cat.

Meanwhile, the Osaka sumo basho is being played out without an audience, for the first time ever. At first it seemed very odd and unnatural to have no cheering, but now I think I prefer it (although it's probably financially unsustainable). It's interesting to see how it affects different rikishi differently, though. Aoiyama, the Bulgarian moob mountain, is having the tournament of his life, because (apparently) the silence helps him to concentrate; while little Enho, normally buoyed by an enthusiastic crowd, has gone down to a makekoshi in its absence.

Land of the Rising Son?

My great-great-aunt Annie Robina Butler (pictured) wrote numerous children's books, mostly (if not all) on religious and more specifically on missionary themes. I'd seen lists of her works relating to various places round the globe, but it was only the other day I thought to seek out her Stories About Japan (1888). To my surprise, a rather nice reprint was to be had for less than £3, so I ordered it.

Annie Robina Butler

I've been reading a fair few books written around that time about Japan, and I find that Annie Robina uses quite a few of them in writing her own (she's quite candid about that). One important source is Isabella Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, which I've mentioned here before. Did Annie Robina know that just at the moment she was writing about Isabella Bird, Bird herself was in India with her little sister, Fannie Jane, and that together they were busy founding the John Bishop Memorial Hospital? She must have, surely? It seems too much of a coincidence.

No doubt I will end up writing about the way Annie Robina presents Japan to child readers when I come to write all this up in an academic context, but in the meantime let me share with you, via her, these illustrations from The Pilgrim's Progress, at that time recently translated into Japanese (in the late 1870s):

Mr Worldy WisemanChristian at the Wicket GateChristian and Hopeful in the Flatterers net

"The Japanese understand their meaning much better, and the book much more easily, than they would if the pictures were English," Annie Robina explains, adding: "Missionaries tell us that the people of Japan are getting to be just as fond of Bunyan's wonderful book as the people of England are."

I wonder if it's still much known in Japan? I must investigate.

It's Gettin' Cold in Here (so cold), So Put on All Your Clothes

I decided to make occasional notes of developments here as they happen, because this is the kind of long-running crisis where it's going to be very difficult to remember how things used to be, or the order they happened in, even after a short time.

After several days insisting that those calling for more severe measures were speaking from a position of ignorance (which was admittedly true for many of them), and that the previous softly softly catchee lurgy approach was informed by the most sophisticated modelling techniques available, yesterday the government did a handbrake turn. They apparently just noticed that, actually, yes, their previous approach would inevitably lead to the NHS being overwhelmed 8 times over, and around 250,000 deaths, much as people had been warning them. Instead, we're being sort of locked down for the foreseeable future, perhaps until a vaccine is developed, maybe 18 months in the future. Interesting times have never been so dull.

Sort of? Yes, because people are only being "advised" not to go to restaurants and pubs. The result of course is that restaurants and pubs will close and probably go out of business but will be unable to claim on insurance. It's a policy that could almost have been devised to sacrifice small businesses while protecting large ones (there will be a rescue scheme for Richard Branson yay). Sign here if you want to object to this.

Also, while most of us have been told to avoid social contact, and many groups (including pregnant women) have been told to self-isolate entirely, schools are still open. Apparently this is what the science advises, but I've heard no explanation why, and it's deeply counterintuitive. Perhaps the children I've known have been the exception, but personal hygiene and avoiding physical contact isn't generally their forte. And, since they tend to be asymptomatic, they are especially effective vectors for disease, surely? The obvious explanation is logistical rather than epidemiological - who would look after those children? Wouldn't childcare duties take too many essential workers out of the workforce? Well, they order these things better in France, it seems, where facilities for those children to spend their days in isolated fun are even now being commissioned. Not sure how that's going to work out.

Yesterday, as expected and increasingly hoped for, the possibility of going to Japan was taken from my spotless hands by BA's cancelling the flight, which I think means I will get a full refund (and since I was paying for three people it was a tidy sum). But I'm in the very fortunate position of still having a job and wage, and being in a sector that has the possibility of moving largely online. There are millions of people without a safety net of any kind. That's why I do not blush to share another petition, this one calling for a Universal Basic Income for the duration of the crisis (and perhaps beyond?).

"There are more things than we think. And why shouldn't there be? We don't think much."

I've made a couple of posts in the past about Lucy Boston and Hemingford Grey, notably this one, describing my night spent in Tolly's room some two and a half years ago. If, like me, you're a fan of the books, take 15 minutes to see the author herself in her habitat, some 37 years ago. This video appeared on Youtube just yesterday, from a programme broadcast in 1983:

To quote Mrs Oldknow: "It sounds very sad to say they all died, but it didn't really make so much difference."