From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

You know I've almost forgotten the time when we weren't locked away. I'm a seemingly fit 76 year old retired priest and engineer who is nevertheless officially classed as a vulnerable person, though not in the 'extremely' category as yet.


It quite surprises me the degree to which I seem to have adapted to a more or less eremitic life. 

Whilst feeling the sorrow and pain in the world caused by this damned virus, I cannot but reflect on the way I feel. I think that for the first time perhaps since I was about 4 years of age, my life is not governed by some sort of timetable. Life floats along these days and although there is the routine of getting, dressed, washed and fed, there are few other imperatives that might cause me anxiety.  So, life is mostly very placid and peaceful. The only blot on the landscape is that I am acutely conscious that my position is one of relative privilege, for at the moment at least, I have sufficient money to keep me afloat with food and a home. Am I morally entitled to this I wonder? The truth is that both my position as a Christian and also as a committed socialist are being challenged deeply, yet here I am feeling quite content with my lot. Much to think and pray about in days to come...


Another aspect of the experience concerns my darling partner. For very good reasons we are now geographically separated by a distance of about 7 miles. Both she and I are communicating mainly by telephone and also through emails. This might seem to some as a big obstacle to our relationship, however, it has proven otherwise.  In the end I can only write for myself, but it feels as if we are growing ever closer together.  Each of us is experiencing this lock down in slightly different ways. I am lone, the hermit, and she is with her granddaughter, who is hoping to head for university shortly if conditions allow. Necessarily differing lifestyles, but each with its own kind of isolation. How we will deal with the freedom to be together when the time comes is an interesting area of conjecture, but I for one am optimistic - it's in my nature and I know we love one another.


Outside of my small world it has been very encouraging the way in which essential business has been enabled to continue. Many small businesses, particularly the proverbial butcher, baker, and I'm not so sure about the candlestick maker, are delivering items to our doors. I am pretty certain that when this business ends I shall not return to using supermarkets in the way I did previously. I wonder if there may be a shift generally towards support for the small trader as part of community development.


Enough of my musings - I must go and play some music - not a timetabled activity I promise...


At Home

Nicky, Vermont

I’m writing in Vermont, close to the Canadian border. I’m rereading Three Men in a Boat by Jerome Jerome, though I’m not sure I read it the first time. Perhaps I only read the passage about opening a tin can without an opener. I’m rereading it to prepare for the pleasures of Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog which had my partner laughing aloud the day before yesterday while I was anxiously watching the news. I’m at the beginning where they are deciding what provisions they need for their journey, which seemed timely as I decide what to order from the local food coop. They call and then walk around the shop picking up what you want while you are on the phone. Frozen vegetables. Fresh vegetables. All good.   


Today we dumped the compost but we have to remember to bring the bucket inside because of bears, who are emerging hungry from hibernation. I saw one a few days ago, a large bear in the middle of a cornfield dining on left over corn from last autumn. It’s always a thrill to see a bear if it isn’t too close. Like on our back deck where the compost bucket is at the moment. 


I see that Peter Scupham is posting in this journal. I was a student of his in the late sixties at St. Chris. He used to read Lord of the Rings to us on Friday afternoons; a perfect teacher!  


Our friends in New York city say there are ambulances speeding past all the time.


From the black shed

David E, East Norfolk

Around the pond


The pond looks much better. We cleared out four barrow loads of overgrown vegetation, me in my waders, safe by two inches, my wife on the bank wielding a long rake. There were old roots of water lilies, long snake-like stems of bog bean, some flag iris, water mint and plenty of oxygenating plants which we threw back.


Now the water is clear and unusually at this time of year virtually no blanket weed. We have lots of newts and dragonfly larvae, variable numbers of water snails and water boatmen but we never have frogspawn. My theory is that the dragon fly larvae eat the spawn but I’ve no idea if I’m right? I’m sure we will have a fine display of damsel flies and dragon flies in May.


I seem to have upset the moorhen. She has been visiting less often since the clearance though she was paddling round and round in the open water yesterday. She hasn’t shown any signs of nesting, probably because she is so shy. She rushes off into the undergrowth as soon as she sees any movement, even through the windows of the house. Apparently moorhens sometimes nest in trees! Perhaps the reason she (he?) isn’t nesting is because of loneliness. There were briefly two of them in late February but only the one since then.

Beyond the pond is the wild part of the garden. Here there are lots of plants called “wild flowers” but when the same grow in the herbaceous border they are called “weeds”. This year the “lords and ladies” are in profusion, more than I have ever seen before. I leave them alone because of the sharp oxalate crystals in the leaves and stems. It is said that using the leaves as woodland toilet paper is a mistake you only make once!


I’ve been keeping a close eye on the trees coming into leaf. The bird cherry, the birch and the field maple are all well endowed but most importantly the oaks have definitely preceded the ash trees. Therefore I can confidently predict that we will have another dry summer!


“oak before ash, you’re in for a splash;

ash before oak, you’re in for a soak”



John Underwood, Norfolk

Head bands

I don’t think that I ever wore a headband. Probably tried one in front of the mirror but thought that it might be going too far, even when I had hair down my back, wore loons, pink monkey boots,  a very goaty Afghan coat and smelt of Patchouli. Wrist bands, and dingly dangly leather bits, yes, but not a headband. My hair was longest whilst I was at my Methodist teacher training college - indeed, I started my first teaching job wearing the above get-up. I had a P.E. lecturer at college who used to insist on everyone wearing white shorts and vests, white socks and plimsoles, and he used to make us dance about beating a tambourine. I found this…..humiliating, and so to exact revenge, I used to wet plait my hair into tiny plaits the evening before a P.E. lesson, and in the morning, unplait it, so that it stood out horizontally from my head, wider than my skinny shoulders in a bouncy crinkly frizz. He hated it, hated it. Job done.


Anyway I digress. I am not writing about headbands, but head bands, which are the little stripy pieces that are sewn on the the top and bottom of the spine of a leather bound book. You will find them on more modern books too, but these tend to be stuck on, not hand sewn. Head bands tie the sections of a book together at the ends, and provide a fairly solid platform to shape the leather over at the head and tail of a book. They are made from a core of glued hemp ( they used to be made from a twist of white doe skin) with two colours of linen thread wound round the core, and sewn through the folded sections of the pages, through the spine of the book, and up to the core again. This is fiddly work, mistakes show, as does uneven sewing. My problem is that I forget how to sew headbands, and have to work out how to do it every time. I get used to it, but if I haven’t been binding for a while, I am in the dark. You have to dye the linen thread too. This involves dye (obvs) and lengths of linen thread. I tend to put the dye in an old margarine tub, add the threads and whizz them around with a paintbrush handle until all the threads are covered. A rather satisfying process. You have to picture my work table. Covered with tools, two finishing presses, cutting mat, rolls of marbled paper, discarded leather offcuts, sandpaper, weights, a rabbit-skin-glue pot, linen, thread reels, bottles of dye, two more different tubs of glue, brushes, offcuts of marbled paper, used and new scalpel blades etc etc. There is a book amongst the detritus. I must tidy the table tomorrow- well, I’ll have the time, won’t I?


Isolating (seriously)

Jean, Melbourne Australia

I haven't gone beyond my immediate neighbourhood for over four weeks but this morning I had to go to my GP for a flu jab. The clinic isn't far, only in the next suburb, but it felt really radical to leave the little world of home and nearby streets. The tram came quickly but there was still time to be slightly unnerved by the sign advertising the lease of the building next to the tram stop: 'High Exposure Corner.' The only other passengers on the tram were an elderly couple who had face masks but no gloves. By contrast I didn't wear a mask but DID have a glove on my right hand and held onto one of the metal supports having decided not to sit down! It was so wonderful to ride the tram and shuttle over the river into Richmond. The tram stop where I got off is a well known gathering place for people looking for drugs, and sadly there was a crowd of men and women hanging out and chatting, but with an undercurrent of agitation. I don't know how or if the messages of social distancing and staying safe are being communicated to marginalised communities, but seeing this group was really concerning. At the clinic I had time for a couple of 1 minute sketches, then had the jab and was out. Then because it was such a beautiful morning,  I walked home and discovered lots of surprising things: so many shops were open (barber shops, a florist, 2 cafes, a McDonalds, shops selling fridges, outdoor furniture, door handles, and barbecues). And sometime in the last 4 months while I've been either overseas or quarantining here, most of a whole city block has vanished - demolished and as of this morning, the diggers were hard at it, excavating the site. 


Notes from a factory in the Midlands

MFS, Midlands

I attended a webinar yesterday morning hosted by the Chief Economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, and Deputy Governor Ben Broadbent. I was invited to this meeting because our company is a member of a network of businesses across the UK that contribute to a monthly data gathering exercise run by the BoE’s Regional Agents. This panel of companies provides the Bank with its own source of real and immediate hard data on what is actually happening in the economy alongside data from traditional sources like the ONS. The panel was set up about 7 or 8 years ago, and the Bank’s East Midlands Agent has been to visit me a couple of times, to gain a better understanding of the nature of our business and how we are impacted by such matters as interest rates, access to finance or, dare I mention it, Brexit. One of the most interesting matters addressed yesterday was about behavioural responses when the shutdown rules are relaxed. For example, will the hospitality industry bounce back into life as soon as we are permitted to eat out once again? Or we will stay cowering at home even when restaurants and pubs reopen. If the outcome is the latter, then the economic downturn will last a lot longer and be much more severe, and the increase in unemployment will be much greater. 


I saw that Rishi Sunak the Chancellor of the Exchequer was hosting yesterday’s press conference. He seems to be one of the more confident performers at the lectern, though the competition is not very challenging. Of course he only came into the role when our PM sacked the previous Chancellor Sajid Javid as part of his determination to create a single team of advisors working with both Chancellor and Cabinet Office. And I think the PM wanted it to be very clear who was boss – understandable if you have just won an 80 seat majority. But it has recently become apparent that one of the weaknesses of building a cabinet around one person alone is that if that person is laid low with illness, government becomes paralysed, unable to make decisions in the absence of the PM. Conservative commentators are predicting a great future for Sunak – he has certainly performed very well so far, in delivering almost one budget a week for the past few weeks. And very encouragingly it appears that the furlough reclaim system has performed well on its first day of operation. We will probably wait until next week before submitting our first claim. I met Javid, at an event last summer, and found him very impressive. This was not just because he was asking me a lot of sensible and intelligent questions about the challenges of expanding our business internationally, but also because he, like me, is only 5’6” tall – and we shorties tend to have a natural empathy as we battle to overcome the prejudices faced by those of below average height!


It was our 29th wedding anniversary yesterday. No celebrations this year. But S did cut my hair.


Tropical thoughts

Paul Lowden, Malaysia

A brilliant local DT teacher has designed shield face masks that can be made in the school workshop. With some deft origami ingenuity they magically appear, with a little help, from the flat 2D sheets of plastic. The local hospital is desperately short so he has turned his hand to upping the production. They are overjoyed.

Reading the rants in some of the posts about the politicians at home and their eel-like slithering of the news fused the two ideas of masks into a sort of ironic poetic harmony of ghastliness.  



Noun: A covering for all or part of the face that protects, hides or decorates the wearer; Verb: to prevent something from being seen or noticed; possibly from the medieval Latin for a witch or spectre via Arabic for buffoon.


Today it is the making of masks that 

I shall undertake. Superficially 

It seems a simple task, manipulate 

The pre-formed sheets and fold, bend, recreate

Miraculously a 3D shield; staff

Anticipate, nurse the hope they’ll cover

Up before it’s too late. The first one takes 

An age. The plastic won’t cooperate

And lithely twists and slips each time until 

Success… but then I find it’s upside down,

Like a politician’s promise. Steeling

I stick it out; a pile of forty lies

Complete. Tomorrow I’ll deliver them

To mask the heroes and the heroines.


Musings from self isolation

Billy Hearld, York

Today, as we sat down to a remarkably classy lunch of pot noodle, a delicacy specially requested by my sister and I, there came a furious knocking at the door. When we opened it, we found a package on the doorstep Ansbach a postman retreating back to his van. We waved at him and picked up the package, opening it to reveal that it was the hairdye which we had ordered! I am now sitting with a patch test on my elbow and, in 48 hours, I will be dyeing my hair if all is okay with the patch test!


From Rural New York

Sandy Connors, USA

Someone mentioned Dickens the other day and it sent me off to find ‘Charles Dickens Birthday Book’, a lovely book of favorite quotations compiled by his daughter Enid Dickens Hawksley, with drawings by favorite illustrator, Edward Ardizzone.  


Below a few I found timely or especially enjoyed ~


There’s romance enough at home, without going half a mile for it; only people never think of it.

The Pickwick Papers


Such are the changes which a few years bring about, and so do things pass away, like a tale that is told.
The Old Curiosity Shop


Such is life you see, my dear, and yet we do not break, but bend. 

Little Dorrit 


‘God bless my soul,’ said Tom, wiping his eyes. ‘The kindness of people is enough to break one’s heart!’
Martin Chuzzlewit


‘Glad to see you, Sir,’ said Mr. Peggoty. ‘You’ll find us rough, Sir, but you’ll find us ready.’

David Copperfield


It’s only a seasoning; and we must all be seasoned, one way or another.
Martin Chuzzlewit


This is just what I like - the happiest moments of my life have been passed at this old fireside: and I am so attached to it, that I keep up a blazing fire here, every evening, until it actually grows too hot to bear it.
The Pickwick Papers


There is nothing better than the faithful service of the heart.                        

A Tale of Two Cities


Tha’ made it my prayer that aw th’ world may on’y coom together more, an’ get a better unnnerstandin’ of one another.   

Hard Times    

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