How important is touch – both in times of pandemic and beyond?

March 3rd, 2021 by Roger Darlington

When was the last time you touched someone you don’t live with? One day last March, probably; you’re not sure of the date. Did you shake hands with a new colleague at work? Did your coat brush against another commuter’s on the train? Did someone bump your elbow and mutter an apology when rushing past you on an escalator? If you’d known that was the last time you’d make contact with the body of a stranger, you’d have paid more attention

And what about the 8.2 million British adults who live on their own? Many will have gone nearly a year now without so much as a pat on the arm from another person. Touch is the sense we take most for granted, but we miss it when it’s gone. Psychologists have a term for the feelings of deprivation and abandonment we experience: “skin hunger”.

These are the opening paragraphs of a recent fascinating article in the “Guardian” newspaper. The article really spoke to me as someone who is very tactile (perhaps because my mother was Italian) and as someone who lives alone (so the pandemic has been tough in dramatically reducing opportunities for touch).

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How large is the British House of Lords?

February 26th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

The House of Lords is the upper chamber in the British political system but the one with less authority. Its main roles are to revise legislation and keep a check on government by scrutinising its activities.

Since 1911, its power to block “money bills” is limited to one month and its power to block other bills is limited to one session, so ultimately it cannot block the will of the House of Commons. Furthermore, since 1945, there has been the Salisbury Convention that the House of Lords will not oppose a measure that was specifically mentioned in the last election manifesto of the political party forming the Government.

The House of Lords is an utterly bizarre institution that has no parallel anywhere in the democratic world. The explanation for the unusual nature of the Lords is that the British political system has evolved very slowly and peacefully and it is not totally logical or democratic. 

There is no fixed number of members in the House of Lords and the number fluctuates because of deaths, retirements and new appointments, but currently there are around 830 members – many more than in the House of Commons (650), more than the combined houses of the American Congress or the Indian Parliament (although both of these nations have a federal system), and the second biggest legislative body in the world (after the Chinese National People’s Congress which is effectively a rubber-stamping body).

The number was actually halved to 666 in the reforms of 1999 but, since then, succesive Prime Ministers (especially David Cameron and Boris Johnson) have been adding new life peers much faster than members are dying. Indeed the Coalition Government added over 100. Ironically the size of the House of Lords continues to rise at the same time as the House of Commons legislated to reduce its size (although that legislation has not been implemented).

You can find my guide to the British political system here.

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A review of “The War Of The Worlds” by H G Wells

February 25th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

In my teenage years, I read quite a lot of Wells and studied “The History Of Mr Polly” at school. However, while over the years I saw film and television versions and even listened to a musical interpretation of “The War Of The Worlds”, I was 72 before I eventually read the novel which was first published as long ago as 1897. I was prompted finally to read this classic work by a chance visit to Horsell Common in Surrey where, in the narrative, the first Martians landed (at the time he wrote the novel, Wells lived in nearby Woking).

From the opening words, the reader is gripped:“No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own”. From then on, we are introduced to the cylinders from Mars, the Martians themselves, their towering tripods, the Heat-Ray, the Black Smoke, and the Red Weed. There is a wonderful chapter, entitled ‘What We Saw From The Ruined House’ which provides graphic details of the Martian anatomy including the practice of taking blood from living creatures – preferably humans – and injecting it into their veins.

The imaginative and exhilerating story of this fateful month is told in the first person by an unnamed “professed and recognized writer on philosophical themes” (clearly a stand-in for Wells himself) and, at times, there are some existential musings in the text. I read the novel during the global pandemic occasioned by the coronavirus and it is a neat irony that – spoiler alert – the Martians were finally felled by Earth’s tiny and invisible bacteria.

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How should we test for coronavirus?

February 24th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

There are two tests to determine whether someone has coronavirus (and one – a blood test – to establish whether someone has actually had the virus).

The first test for the virus is called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This involves swabbing the back of the throat and the nostrils. The swab has to be sent to a specialist lab that typically takes 24-48 hours to determine the result. The test has a high degree of accuracy.

The second test for the virus is called lateral flow. This involves swabbing the nostrils only and gives a result on the spot in 30 minutes. It is reasonably accurate but certainly not as sound as a PCR test.

For various reasons – mainly because I am a volunteer with the National Health Service (NHS) – so far I have done four PCR tests and 21 lateral flow tests (all negative, thank goodness). My poor nostrils!

Now we have promising news from France about a test that can be done faster than the lateral flow one – just 10 minutes – but with the accuracy of the PCR one. You can learn more about this proposed new test here.

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Did you know that, in the Second World War, the British interned Jews on the Isle of Man?

February 20th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

No, neither did I, until I read “Jews Don’t Count” by David Baddiel [my review here].

You can learn more about this internment here.

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Would you like to buy the narrowest house in Britain?

February 18th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

What is believed to be the narrowest house in Britain is located on Goldhawk Road in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. The width varies a bit between the five floors but is typically a mere 6 feet (2 metres).

Originally this location was simply a gap between two buildings but it was filled in as a house around the 1870s. It is currently in the news – which is how I heard about it – because it is up for sale at an asking price of £950,000.

You can learn more and see photographs here.

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A review of “Jews Don’t Count” by David Baddiel

February 18th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

I read this book because, in his own review of it, a good Jewish friend encouraged all his non-Jewish friends to do so. I’m glad that I did and I would endorse his recommendation. It is a short work (just 123 pages) but compelling and important.

Baddiel, who is a Jew best known for his comedy, writes with passion and fluency to present a case which, for me, is utterly convincing. The case can be simply stated: too many progressives who (rightly) are quick to condemn sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism and especially racism, have a blind spot when it comes to recognising and calling out ant-Semitism.

He provides example after example, many from the world of Twitter, which is not a forum on which I personally spend much time, and finishing (sadly for me as a lifelong member of the Labour Party) with the report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission following its investigation of anti-Jewish discrimination in the party.

So, why do so many progressives fail to call out ant-Semitism?

For Baddiel, the basic answer is that, while other communities facing racism are seen as disadvantaged, “Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined – by the racists – as both low and high status”. So while Jews are perceived as dirty and vile, they are also seen as privileged and powerful and – in the classic conspiracy theory – in control of the world.

Another factor which Baddiel identifies is that Jews are often seen as white and therefore privileged compared to other ethnic minorities. Yet, when it suits the racists as it often does, Jews are portrayed as non-white with swarthy skin and big noses. He writes: “being white is not about skin colour, but security”.

A third factor is what Baddiel calls a “hierarchy of racisms”: a view of some progressives that, while Jews might have problems, they are somehow less discriminated against and therefore less deserving than other ethnic minorities. Baddiel emphasises: “I am arguing not for another person’s experience of racism to be lessened in significance but for the awareness of something similar happening to Jews to be heightened”.

I was particularly struck by Baddiel’s reference to his lived experience: “the lived experience of a Jew who feels as most Jews do that the reaction of progressives, to ant-Semitism, is that it doesn’t matter very much” or – to use the title of his book – “Jews don’t count”.

We live in a challenging age in which offence is less about the intention of the offender and more about the feeling of the offended. As someone with what has been described as a white-male-cis-het perspective, I am aware of my privilege and of the need really to listen to Baddiel and my Jewish friends when they talk of their lived experience.

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A review of the new film “Greenland”

February 18th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

In the middle of a global pandemic which has killed millions, here comes a movie featuring an extinction event that wipes out some 75% of all life on Earth. Cheery, eh?

Of course, there is something of a sub-genre of films involving threats to Earth from cosmic objects. Think of “Meteor” (1979), “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” (both 1998) plus – my personal favourite – “Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World” (2012). Sadly “Greenland” is not a distinguished addition to the canon.

Since the budget available to director Ric Roman Waugh (“Angel Has Fallen”) was moderate, the special effects are limited in this more character-driven work, but the characters are so stereotypical: a married couple facing difficulties (Gerard Butler and Morena Baccarin), their son who has diabetes and manages to mislay his insulin, and various individuals who either help or hinder their attempt to reach the safety of a special facility in Greenland.

I suppose as a reminder that we could face greater challenges than Covid-19 and a two-hour diversion from lockdown, it has some entertainment value.

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A review of the new film “News Of The World”

February 17th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

I’m a huge fan of Tom Hanks (who isn’t?) and I would watch him reading a telephone directory; here we view him as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd reading items in a newspaper to illiterate folk in post-civil war northern Texas. This poorly-paying itinerant role brings him unexpectedly into contact with a 10 year old girl called Johanna (a mesmerising Helena Zengel) who has been raised by an Indian tribe and, on the rare occasions when she deems to speak, utters Kiowa or German.

This unusual western brings to mind two other films. The first is “The Searchers” which is all about an effort to locate a young woman who – like Johanna – has been taken by an Indian tribe. The second is “True Grit” which – like “News Of The World” – is centred on the relationship between a grizzled man of the west and his young female companion.

Both these other films starred John Wayne and were darker. Hanks rarely plays a character who is not decent and kind and here – overlooking the act that (however reluctantly) he was recently fighting for the Confederacy in the defence of slavery – Hanks, who is growing old(er) gracefully, is a wonderfully brave and altruistic ex-soldier.

The director (and co-writer) of “News Of The World”, the British Paul Greengrass, also made “Captain Philips” in which again Hanks has the starring role, but that movie was utterly frenetic and tense. Here Greengrass is unusually languid in this beautifully-photographed terrain. Indeed this thoroughly enjoyable film has an elegiac tone: not only is the old South dead, so is the way of life of Native Americans, so is the carefree wandering of the buffalo, and so are family members of both the principals.

But ultimately this is a delightfully uplifting film that Netflix brings to us when we need it in the midst of a global pandemic in which we deserve all the kindness we can find.

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Word of the day: metonym

February 16th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

A ‘metonym’ is: ‘a word or phrase used in metonymy, a figure of speech in which the name of one object or concept is used for that of another to which it is related.

As an example, “the crown” is a metonym for “royalty”.

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