Victoria and Albert – their names are everywhere

April 1st, 2020 by Roger Darlington

This coronavirus crisis has found me running online lessons in Victorian history for a couple of nine year olds. We’re using Skype to have a one-hour session each week and we’re finding it fun.

Naturally we started with Queen Victoria herself who ruled Britain from 1837 to 1901, a record 37 years – until the current Queen Elizabeth II beat the record in 2015. And, of course, there was Victoria’s husband Prince Albert with whom she had no less than nine children before he died at the early age of 42.

I told my young students about some of the many places named after Victoria or Albert or both.

Here, in London, we have Victoria railway station, bus station and coach station and, on the underground, we have both Victoria station and the Victoria line. Even the pub in the television series “Eastenders” is the Queen Victoria or Queen Vic.

Still in London, Albert has a huge music hall named after him and opposite the Albert Hall is a grand statue of the prince.

Staying in central London, north and south of the River Thames we have respectively the Victoria Embankment and the Albert Embankment. Then there is the wonderful Victoria and Albert Museum.

I’m originally from Manchester and the town hall there is located in Albert Square.

But I know that this naming practice is not confined to London or Manchester. I once visited Regina, a provincial capital in Canada, and found that at the centre of the city there was the intersection of Victoria Avenue and Albert Street.

I’m sure that my little friends would be interested in any further examples that you can offer.

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Some people on social media are claiming that coronavirus is just like flu and that governments and the media are over-reacting

March 27th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

CV is not just flu – it is a new virus and we still have much to learn about it

CV is not just like flu – it is much more contagious and will probably prove to be much more deadly.

It is far too soon to be sure which measures were most effective and whether some have been an over-reaction, but already we are seeing dramatic differences between countries which suggest that early and tight controls are not an over-reaction but effective: Taiwan and Singapore versus Italy and Spain. The United States could well prove the most instructive case because the numbers are so great and the response has been so poor.

We will eventually know how many died as a result of the virus. We will never know how many would have died had all the social distancing, self isolation and lockdown measures not been adopted. But the Imperial College modelling in Britain suggests that, without such measures, the death toll would be greater by a factor of more than 10 times. 

It is true that the impact on the economy will cause deaths. We will never know how many deaths were attributable to loss of income, bankruptcy, anxiety, suicide and the like. And, at this stage, we have no idea how long an economic recovery will take and how comprehensive it will be.

The reality is that almost all governments – whether totalitarian like China and Iran or democratic like Italy and Spain – have to respond to immediate threats to the lives of their citizens and be seen to do so. Treating CV like a huge medical experiment by just letting it run its course is not an acceptable or moral option.

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How the coronavirus lockdown introduced me to online home schooling

March 26th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

This CV crisis – and especially the resultant UK lockdown – is leading to a much more intensive use of a variety of online communications services by me and very many others. In this first week, I have had a FaceTime chat with one friend, a Skype lunch with another friend, and a Facebook Messenger coffee break with two other friends. 

Especially interesting has been my introduction to home schooling through Skype. My eldest granddaughter (aged nine) is not at school and I was asked to assist in her home education and allocated the subject of Victorian history. This required some research and preparation but seemed to go well. 

As a result, I was invited to repeat the lesson for the son – same age as my eldest granddaughter – of a good friend of mine. 

Both sessions were just an hour. I tried to make the sessions interactive with questions and discussion plus a couple of short videos, two writing exercises and a final quiz. I’m not sure exactly how my two little students found the project but, for me as 71 year old living alone, it was a joy to interact with two such delightful and bright youngsters. 

But I can’t do too much of this. Each day I have my own 16th century history lesson in the form of reading about the life of Thomas Cromwell via the 900-page novel “The Mirror And The Light” by Hilary Mantel.

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A year of living on London’s South Bank – now such a different experience

March 25th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

A year ago today, I moved home for the first time in 35 years. I went from a four-bedroom house in London’s suburbs to a two-bedroom flat on London’s South Bank. It was a major downsizing operation which involved a substantial process of decluttering. It was stressful but it was a great move. Yet how different is my world – and, of course everyone else’s – now.

As a person living alone, I enjoyed chatting to the concierges who operated a 24 hour service in the building, but now they are rightly all at home. Next door is a pharmacy and round the corner is a small Waitrose and now, more than ever, I am grateful to have them so close. My morning routine was to go to my nearest cafe – Caffe Nero just a couple of minutes away – to read the “Guardian” online but, of course, like every cafe and restaurant it is now closed.

I live a minute away from the embankment and the River Thames and I can still take my daily walk. Before CV, the embankment was always thronged with people going to and from work and tourists from every country on the globe. Now everyone is working from home and there are no tourists. There are just the joggers.

I have loved living so close to so many places of culture and entertainment: ten minutes away from the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the Royal Festival Hall, Tate Modern – all closed now.

So it is an utterly different world – but so it is for everyone. I am fortunate to be in good health with supportive family and friends – and a 900 page novel to read. Stay well everyone.

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In other news … there is still a ferocious conflict in the Middle East

March 22nd, 2020 by Roger Darlington

I’ve just finished reading a new book called “Black Wave” by Kim Ghattas.

Ghattas is a Lebanese writer and Emmy Award-winning journalist who covered the Middle East for 20 years for the BBC and the “Financial Times”. The ‘black wave’ of the title is the tsunami of Islamic fundamentalism that has flooded the Middle East and her informative and insightful book covers developments over the last 40 years in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Pakistan with references to Afghanistan, Yemen and Turkey. It is an ambitious scope with a good deal of information, but Ghattas is an accomplished writer who enlivens her narratives with stories of brave individuals seeking a more inclusive and humanistic Islam.

Too many people in the West see recent events as a clash of civilisations between the rational, democratic world and the inexpicable Islamic world and have an massively inflated fear of Islamist-inspired terrorism. In reality, as Ghattas, states: “The largest number of victims of jihadist violence are Muslims themselves within their own countries”. The theme of this book is that there is in effect a civil war within Islam itself between the majority Sunni world and the minority Shia world and, within each section of Islam, between minority fundamentalists and the majority of tolerant Muslims. In national terms, this conflict is a titantic battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran who are ruled by adherents of very particular and extreme versions of respectively Sunni and Shia thought.

The schism goes back to the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. What we now call the Sunni tradition believes that the succession from the prophet should be determined by selection, commencing with the prophet’s close companion Abu Bakr, and that the prime authority should be a ruling caliph. What we now call the Shia tradition believes that succession should be through the prophet’s descendents, starting with his cousin Ali, and that the prime authority should be the local imam. 

Today, in Saudi Arabia, the controlling Al-Saud dynasty follows a particular version of Sunnism based on the teaching of the 18th century religious preacher Ibn Abdelwahhab (hence the term Wahhabism) which is part of the Hanabali school, the strictist of the four main schools of jurisprudence. Meanwhile, in Iran, almost all Muslims are Twelvers, named after the Twelfth and last Imam who lives in occultation and will reappear as the promised Mahdi, and, since the revolution of 1979, the country has had a version of Shism which merges religion and politics and places power in the Supreme Leader and the Guardianship of the Jurist.

Saudi Arabia seeks to dominate the Middle East through the use of vast sums of oil money to fund madrassas and organisations that propagate its peculiar view of Islam. For its part, Iran projects its influence through military means via use of its Revolutionary Guards in Syria, its sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebabon, and its support for proxies in Iraq. Currently the two powers are indirectly locked in a brutal conflict in Yemen with the Saudis backing the Sunni government and Iran supporting the Shia Houthi rebels. 

This is a story of what Ghattas calls “the sectarianisation of faith”” where “despair drives people to faith” and yet, as she points out: “In all of the 6,236 verses of the Quran, there is not a single verse calling on Muslims to silence blasphemers by force”. In a short concluding chapter, Ghattas writes: “Travelling around the region to conduct my reporting for this book, I oscillated between despair and hope … Between despair and hope, I ultimately settled on hope”. It would be encouraging to learn that there is meaningful evidence for such hope, but really her hope is based on no more than a belief in the courage of selected reformers, even though the last chapter of the book is about the savage killing of her colleague and friend Jamal Khashoggi.

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“I’m still standing”

March 20th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

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Where does your country come in the World Happiness Report?

March 20th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Since the first World Happiness Report in 2012, four different countries have held the top position: Denmark in 2012, 2013 and 2016, Switzerland in 2015, Norway in 2017, and now Finland in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

With its continuing upward trend in average scores, Finland consolidated its hold on first place, and is now significantly ahead of Denmark in second place. The remaining countries in the top ten are Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, and Austria, followed by top-10 newcomer Luxembourg.

The Top 20 happiest countries are:

  1. Finland
  2. Denmark
  3. Switzerland
  4. Iceland
  5. Norway
  6. The Netherlands
  7. Sweden
  8. New Zealand
  9. Luxembourg
  10. Austria
  11. Canada
  12. Australia
  13. UK
  14. Israel
  15. Costa Rica
  16. Ireland
  17. Germany
  18. US
  19. Czech Republic
  20. Belgium

You can access the full 2020 report here.

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If you would be interested in tracking in real time accurate data on the spread of coronavirus worldwide, there is a web site that is doing that

March 18th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Amazingly the site has been set up by an American boy of just 17, Avi Schiffmann, a high school junior from Mercer Island outside Seattle. But the site is using reputable sources such as the Word Health Organisation.

You can access the site here. As I write this posting, the global number of confirmed cases has just reached 200,000 (but, of course, there are many, many more unrecorded cases) and the global number of deaths is almost 8,000 (but, of course, this is set to rise substantially.

For UK readers of this blog, there are three statistics which are worth remembering:

  • The modelling suggested that, without severe social distancing and isolation practices, the death toll could be around 260,000.
  • The modelling suggested that, with the current severe social distancing and isolation practices, the death toll could be around 20,000 or lower.
  • Seasonal flu kills around 8,000 a year in this country in a ‘normal’ season.

Posted in British current affairs, Science & technology, World current affairs | Comments (0)


What was the greatest film ever made? Let me make a nomination.

March 17th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Readers of this blog will know of my love for the cinema.

At the weekend, I ‘braved’ the coronavirus to go to the British Film Instiute and see my all-time favourite film on the big screen. Since it was first released in 1962, over a period of almost six decades, I’ve viewed “Lawrence Of Arabia” a total of 12 times and on each occasion it is simply awesome.

You can read my review of the film here.

What would be your nomination for best movie or at least favourite film?

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“Parasite” becomes highest earning subtitled film

March 14th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

The Oscar-winning horror-thriller “Parasite” has become the highest earning foreign language film at the UK box office, overtaking the 2004 Mel Gibson-directed film “The Passion of the Christ”.

Curzon, the South Korean film’s UK distributors, has reported that “Parasite” has passed “Passion”’s cumulative total of £11,078,861 on 6 March. “Parasite” was released on 7 February in the UK, and had taken £1.4m before the Oscars. However, its Best Picture win had a dramatic effect, with takings of more than £2.5m in the post-Oscar weekend.

In the US, where the film has been on release since May 2019, it has taken $52.8m, well behind “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”’s $128.1m, recorded in 2000.

You can read my review of “Parasite” here.

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