Care in the time of Corona

Shirin Jacob, Ålesund, Norway

At times like this, flexibility is key. I read a question once, what one piece of advice would I give my future grandchildren? The answer was easy. When life gives you a hard punch, get up, dust yourself off and stop trying to break down the locked door in front of you. Look around the space and find the nine other possibilities which will solve the problem. 


This week, the news from Singapore was bleak. Thousands of sick foreign workers, mainly from Tamil Nadu, whose desperate living conditions came to light. Men who leave their little villages to create better lives for their families back home. My favourite people in India are the Tamils and my favourite city, Madras. More of that in another post. I’m a third generation Singaporean but was brought up in Kerala, by my grandparents, from the time I was six-months old till I was six years. 


My grandfather was a doctor with a local Indian degree that was unrecognised in Malaysia, when he migrated in 1916 with his young wife. He wanted a better future for the family they were going to have. He worked in the Seremban hospital as a Hospital Assistant, a general dogsbody who wheeled patients, did all the minor surgical repairs in Accident and Emergency and postmortems whilst the doctors watched and recorded. The guiding principle in his life was education and all three of his children became doctors. My mother, Felicity or Phyllis as he called her, would recall later that he did not allow them to cook, help with chores or do any housework. Just study. My mother couldn’t boil an egg and would blame the breakdown of her marriage to her inability to be a good housewife or cook a good curry. Nevermind that my father was a good-looking philanderer. As a result, I was made to not only study but also attend cooking classes from the time I was eight. The lone eight-year old in adult cooking classes. And had to cook dinner for the family during school holidays. Can I cook? Yes, if a gun is held to my head. I’ve solved the cooking problem by marrying a fantastic cook and good friends need only apply if they are spectacular cooks who entertain me often. 

Back to my grandfather, Dr Joseph Jacob. The Light of my life. Whose photograph is the first thing I see on waking and the last before sleeping. Flexibility was the name of the game for him. He was uncompromising and strict with himself in his youth, incredibly kind and loving to my grandmother and adored by his children. When my only Uncle came back from concentration camp after the Japanese occupation and had a complete mental breakdown, my grandparents left their two young daughters in Singapore to complete their medical education, which had been interrupted by the war, and went back to our ancestral property in Trivandrum. A house set in the midst of several acres, in the heart of town. My Uncle Aurey (my grandparents were Joseph and Mary Jacob. Their children Felicity Constance, Aurelieus Reuben and Jasmine Regina. Enough said.) never left this property till Uncle Aurey died in his late seventies. My grandparents couldn’t give him this possibility or care back in Malaysia and had to change their retirement plans. They left their girls unprotected at a time when women in our community did not date and both of them married unsuitable men. My mother, a doctor, at 40 had an arranged marriage to a man 13 years younger. And my aunt married a Dutch steward, whom she met travelling back from London after completing her studies in Paediatrics. I have one cousin, an Orthopaedic surgeon in Singapore. Both of us knew by the time we were six that we were expected to do medicine. 

I have a bundle of letters my grandfather wrote to my mother over a period of seven years. When I was born, he comforts her. Clearly my mother wanted a boy and Papa, as I called him, tells her that I will bring luck. My mother was 42 when she had me and I did everything for her in later life that a son would have done. There are letters whilst I lived with my grandparents in Trivandrum, keeping my mother up to date on my progress. My father was studying Law in Middle Temple in London and my mother rented out her house to support him and couldn’t care for me till he finished. These two strangers finally picked me up when I was six years old and time to start primary school in Singapore. The image of saying goodbye to my grandfather outside the blue gate of our home has never left me. The question “Why are you letting me go?” hung in the air. Decades later, I read the letters from him to my mother reminding her to be kind and gentle with me. To understand that I liked variety in my food. The poor man had no idea of my mothers’ cooking skills. Spam and Corned beef were her best friends.


My Papa died two weeks later in Trivandrum of a heart attack and my only thought was that I was now really lost. No one would come to save me. Flexibility has been my saving grace. My grandfather always looked for another way. My darling Papa.


Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Between Aldeburgh and Southwold

Saturday is here already. The days seem to pass so quickly. An overcast start. Blossom descending everywhere - looks like confetti. Will get outside shortly. 


For several weeks I’ve been noticing that my greenhouse is getting a nocturnal visitor. I’m hoping it is just one and not more - gathering to rampage and feast. A few plants have tell tale nibbles. There have been some black dirts on the potting shelf. On Thursday I found where the visitor has been entering - and the signs of tunnelling in one corner. So I set my trap - using peanut butter to entice. Lo and behold - yesterday morning - looking a little disgruntled - was Mr Mouse. I released him later - into the woods - hoping he will not return. I’ve closed the entry site and blocked off the tunnel. People say get a cat but with two dogs, we are already committed.


Listened to the news before supper:

Virus related deaths in hospital reduced a little. 

There has been a two per cent increase in the numbers of cars on the road. 

Mr Trump has been making odd suggestions about antiseptics or bleach and there’s a backlash. 

Captain Tom Moore has made number one on the pop charts with a version of “When You Walk Through a Storm”. Michael Ball is reported to be very happy. 


I played a Frances Black album of songs. She sings a beautiful song called ‘On Grafton Street’ (written by Nanci Griffith):


“It's funny how my world goes round without you

You're the one I never thought I could live without

And I've just found this smile to think about you

You're a Saturday night far from the madding crowd”.


From the black shed

David E, East Norfolk

Am I Becoming Addicted?

You would think that when there is nothing in the news other than covid-19 that we would tire of hearing it. I tell myself that I don’t need to hear the 8 o’clock news when I’ve already heard it at 7! The difference is that at 7 I had a cup of tea in my hand and I was thinking about what lay ahead for today, then at 8 I had the newspaper and was starting on the puzzles. The degree of concentration varies but I seem to perk up when there is a little snippet of other news.


Then we get the afternoon televised bulletin with all the day’s statistics, the latest government announcements and the hacks’ questions. There is of course a distinct gap between what the reporter is asking and what is contained in the reply and in the end there must be some hope that they will stop asking the same questions about “why was the government slow?” and “when will the lockdown end?”


When the concentration fades there are other things to busy the mind. All these broadcasts from peoples’ homes; be it reporters, MPs, comedians or exercise promoters; allows one to look into their homes. Some obviously prepare the scene carefully so as to promote the correct message, others seem not to understand that the viewer can see what’s behind! We’ve seen lots of bookshelves in varying states of organisation or chaos and I have seen at least one toilet, the laptop balanced on the toilet seat. Pictures on the walls are always interesting and I think says a lot about style and personality!


So I’ll carry on listening to the news at least three times a day, coupled with The World Service in between times when I’m in the garden and try to get those damned statistics out of my head.


From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

Hurrah! I've got a Tesco delivery slot!! I don't know the experience of others on this forum who may hail from far and wide, but in this neck of the woods getting delivery slots from the supermarkets is something of a black art at the moment. Just once in a while I need a delivery from one of the bigger suppliers, mostly for frozen food and some toiletries and so on that I cannot get from local suppliers. At this point I must remark that small businesses on the Island have more than stepped up to the mark and it's really easy to get good bread, eggs, milk, meat and all sorts from these small independent businesses. I have vowed to continue giving my custom to them after the big opening of doors, whenever that may occur.


Speaking of the big opening up, I am feeling some concern that oldies like me may end up being imprisoned whilst others are let loose on the world. It may seem that our dear politicians want to sort out everything without consultation with those of us deemed 'unproductive'. I can be a rebel and not see things in just the same way as others from time to time, and I resent the idea that 'les anciens en retraites', as the French might call us, are in any way unproductive. Together those who haven't fallen into frailty can do an awful lot for our country and the world. Many of us look after grandchildren and enjoy providing love, affection, encouragement and even material help for them and their parents. Some of us go way beyond what they could have possibly envisaged, and I am thinking now of the excellent Captain Ton Moore, who has raised so much money for NHS Charities. Oh, this brings me to a third topic this morning...


Truly I wonder why the NHS is made dependent on charity at all. It was set up after all as a state health service for the good of the whole UK population from cradle to grave. It was intended as a replacement for charity run and private health provision, so why is it not working alone in that role? The answer to me is that people aren't prepared to pay properly for its benefits. Some years ago I had the opportunity to look at a small part of the Swedish healthcare system in Stockholm. Things may have changed since then, but in that country, where things are by no means perfect, charity appears to have a far smaller role to play, perhaps exemplified, and slightly unfairly, by the existence of just one charity volunteer in the Karolinska Institute teaching hospital. She was from the Red Cross and helped direct people who came in the main door. Charity otherwise seemed totally absent and this seemed then to be part of the national culture. People there are prepared to pay for good state run services.Why has that not happened here?


Okay, this time I have ranted!  Please forgive me on occasions when I do that...



John Underwood, Norfolk

Human chess


I studied Sociology as a main subject at College, and in particular a branch of it called Phenomenology, the study of interaction in everyday life. In one term, I became interested in crowds and how people behave in them. Today, research akin to this area informs the design of buildings - how large numbers of people will behave when faced with ticket barriers, or how many entrance and exit doors should be provided, and their configuration. I became interested in how people behaved if they were in a situation in a public space, where they were forced to wait around. Consequently I spent time observing people waiting in bus queues, at stations, and in shopping centres. I noted different gestures, impatient arm crossing, foot tapping, glancing at watches, pacing about. I was interested to find out if the little signals that people were making whilst they were waiting were conscious activities, a kind of embarrassed behaviour that signalled the meaning for their lack of purposeful activity. On one occasion, whilst observing people waiting in a shopping precinct from a second level balcony, and whilst speaking into a concealed tape recorder, I was apprehended by a rather large Police Constable who thought that I was speaking to fellow pickpockets through a walkie-talkie. Luckily my College tutor, with some prescience, had provided me with a letter stating that I was engaged in a college activity, with a number to call if in doubt. My conclusion to this piece of research was that it was important that other people interpreted the behaviours (intentional or not) “as pertaining to waiting” as I put it at the time. A proper and reasoned response to this activity at the time would have been to look me slowly up and down, from Doc Martens to Afghan coat to long hair, sniff, and comment “Facking Student”,  but I remain fascinated to this day with how we manage “the self” in social situations. Which is why the human chess that we are playing as we self-distance is so fascinating. We are all learning a new way of interacting, or “not interacting” as I would probably have called it back in the day. 


I use our local shop in the village, and in the next village. We want to keep them going, and they are much less daunting than large supermarkets. Because of the configuration of the shop aisles, only two customers are allowed in at once. You peer through the door and try and see into the gloomy recesses, or ask at the till. Otherwise you wait on the pavement outside, stepping back when someone exits the shop. There are usually two shop assistants, one on the till, and one floating, stacking shelves, slicing ham etc. This is where the human chess comes in. You might have to move smartly forwards or backwards, or sideways into the storeroom to keep your distance. The lady on the till might direct you in this. You comply. You might need to make an entire circuit of the shop, to avoid the other shopper and the assistant, and you might suddenly have to reverse your move if the shopper turns back for a forgotten item. Kt. to Bshp.2. At the till you use a contactless payment, but if your combined  purchase is more than the allowed amount, you might have to take the card reader in your gloved and sanitised hand. This is the closest that I have come to touching anyone apart from my wife in six weeks. Sometimes there are television programmes made before social distancing, and one sees crowds. They now seem... odd to me. I can’t imaging pushing through a crowd at a bar with a pint in each hand, or standing up in a cinema seat to allow someone to their seat, and a rammed and noisy party with close and avid face to face conversation unreal and unsettling. Stalemate.


From St Just

Jane G, St Just

My internet has been quietly disintegrating over the last week: it seems just to have realised that we are effectively at Land's End and that it is at the end of its tether. An upgrade is promised for Tuesday, so I've deferred the term's first tutorials till Wednesday; if it doesn't work, I'll have to postpone them till Thursday and drive for Oxford at speed in a journey that suddenly has become essential. I hope it won't be: walking out this morning I realised that although I've spent at least part of every month of the year here, the larger part of many months, and all of several months, this is my first late April and will be my first early May - and I'm watching the improbable garden lilies come out, when normally I see them embryonically furled and then in full flower, and experiencing Cot Valley bluebells rampant for the first time. 


How easy it will be to concentrate on tutorials on The Taming of the Shrew, Paradise Lost and the N-Town play from here I'm not sure, but next week will tell. Of course admin and organisation have taken up a lot of the last month, but admin and organisation are mechanical; tutorials aren't.


Meantime I'm fitting in a few last coronavirus activities: slow progress on the capsule wardrobe, which may after all be redundant, and Bloomsburying the bedhead.


Counting my blessings

Sue, Yorkshire

Blessings this week include a moderate win on premium bonds; a visit from engineer to fix badly behaved boiler, finding the central diamond which fell out of my engagement ring whilst moving a pot by the side of the shed, My problem now is I cannot get the ring off so have blue tac stuck over the space where diamond normally lives twinkling up at me! I do wonder how long it will be before I can a) have help to remove the ring and b) rehouse the stone? Had a lovely walk to see the bluebells in the woods yesterday and today planted my bedding plants - is it too soon? I only became a gardener last year so I shall have to keep a look out for any signs of frost. This morning I had a Zoom session with my elder son and family - lovely while its happening - but sad to say goodbye. I opened the door this morning to find a bag of S.R. Flour on the mat deposited by my neighbour as she has at last sourced a packet.


Broadland type

Sheila, Norfolk UK

I am without a book at the moment although I'm not really a reader. But I've found the Luisa Clarke trilogy by JoJo Moyes has brought me back to reading. I have long enjoyed the Jane Austen books and Pure by Andrew Miller is a real favourite but I go 'off reading' quite regularly and for long periods of time - often a year or so. Being an artist of sorts I tend to gravitate towards 'doing' things instead and knit or create glass things quite regularly. I can read quite lengthy tomes like 'Middlemarch' but often need cajoling into them by watching a good dramatisation - which sends me straight to the book on the basis that dramatisations are rarely as good as the original book. But honestly, I'm not a reader.


I have spent the last 5 weeks on this journal, originating the website and entering all the articles that we receive daily and today I thought I'd write something about the experience. I go through and read everything we are sent, I remove extraneous spaces, particularly double or triple spaces in front of a new sentence, or turning four dots into an ellipsis (I was taught that is three dots not four) and I try to make the style consistent so that the words themselves are the stars on the page.


I spent my first years out of Art college in the early 70's designing books for Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Van Nostrand Reinhold so book design was the bedrock of my Graphics career and I have tried to bring some of that, quite traditional, experience into this journal. We used to have to go through 'galley pulls' in those days and mark up at the side ready for the typesetter to alter where necessary. I can't say that I read everything then, I was more interested in line breaks and whether I could fit the picture that went with the text onto the relevant page - not as easy as it sounds, especially when there were no computers and you had to rely on scaling techniques and cropping by use of tracing overlays on the photos supplied. Enough to say that it was another world!

Being able to create this now myself on my computer at home and being totally autonomous (no-one else has offered or wanted to take over) has been, and still is a total joy. I love reading all your pieces and I feel I know you all quite well by now. There are almost 70 of you and I look forward at some point in the future to perhaps meeting some or all of you. 

Each day is punctuated by meals, often prepared by my husband Chris, tending the plants outside and seedlings in the greenhouse and usually culminating when the day's articles go live with a glass of red on the terrace - which is looking glorious at the moment. But it's mainly 'The Journal" that keeps me occupied. 

This morning, a new book arrived for me to read: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. I just plucked it from nowhere without any personal recommendation but I'm hoping it will engage me and keep me reading. I've become quite spoilt reading all your articles so I fear I may be a touch more discerning these days. I really hope it doesn't disappoint.

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