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30 things I learned in April 2020

1: In terms of the response of many governments to covid-19, David Runciman suggests that “For now the war is all there is, and the peace will have to take care of itself.” I hope that’s not true. If there’s one lesson we always say we need to learn after every crisis, it’s that we need to do more planning for the “recovery phase”, the return to normality (even if that is a new normal). I hope the UK’s government is thinking on that.


2: Contrary to everything I thought I knew about myself, it turns out that I am the kind of person who stands in a queue outside Asda. Covid-19 has done strange things to us all.


3: Doctors often spend a lot of time moaning about the involvement of politicians in political decisions about healthcare. I appreciated this article from Political Violence at a Glance for giving a brief but thoughtful answer to the question: “In pandemics, should the experts or the politicians be in charge?”


4: Dies Irae is quoted in a lot of films. Who knew that Gregorian chant is so relevant to modern cinema?


5: Teacher training in England is a mess.


6: Mario’s moustache is there for a reason.


7: There’s a great article in the April/May 2020 edition of Courier—not online as far as I can tell—about what a company learned from deciding to pay all their staff the same salary. It didn’t work out for them. Courier does these articles on failed business experiments really well: it’s great to see failure embraced and learning shared rather than just pretending everything works all the time.


8: “There is no sweeter moment than passing a middle-aged man in lycra on a carbon-fibre road bike when you’re riding a Dutch bike in a dress.”


9: According to a lecture by Dr Mary Rogers who manages the Abbott Global Viral Surveillance Programme, from all the SARS-CoV-2 viruses genetically sequenced to date from over twenty countries, there is only variation in 149 positions in a 29,000nt virus (i.e. very little mutation and variation).


10: “Whether one agrees with Trump’s policies or not, his administration has accomplished much of what it set out to.” I sometimes think that the collective outrage at Trump’s policies obscures the fact that he delivers on them. I would never have believed on 9 November 2016 that Trump would still be in office today, let alone that he would have actually delivered on his outlandish promises.


11: Bats have weird immune systems.


12: Stoking anger and resentment in difficult times still sadly brings gainful employment for some, according to Andrew Tuck: “At the park there’s a man lurking by the bushes. He’s got a camera with a telephoto lens as long as his arm. He’s here not to spot a rare bird in the trees but to try to catch out people sunbathing, sitting on a bench, talking to someone who does not live in their household (I know this because a few hours later I check the tabloid sites to confirm my suspicions and there are his pictures). He’s also got a series of people allegedly cycling too close to one another. But they are not what they seem to be. He’s simply used the lens to make it look like people are super close by shortening the field of vision. With a country on edge, it’s incredible why anyone would try to sow unease.”


13: In the context of the Prime Minister’s covid-19 diagnosis, “Donald Trump described Johnson as a man who ‘doesn’t give up’. Which is about as disrespectful a thing one could say in the face of the tens of thousands of people who have died of the virus, and presumably just couldn’t be arsed to hang around.”


14: Canine life coach is a career option.


15: I read a lot of library books and have never really worried about catching infections from them. But Gill Partington seems to think I should worry (and according to this article, Public Health England has guidance on cleaning library books, which was also news to me).


16: It’s easy to forget the unprecedented pace of social change over the last hundred years, which means it’s easy for a news report from a century ago to knock my socks off with its attitude to gender politics.


17: The Government’s latest covid-19 graphic feels strangely reminiscent of certain 1990s weekend shopping trips.

Staying@ 
for Britain 
All in, au together.Stay@

18: It’s “unlikely in the extreme” that covid-19 will delay November’s US presidential election.


19: The Economist reckons that “apps built using Apple’s and Google’s new [covid-19] protocol ought to focus on providing information to technologically empowered human contact-tracing teams, not on automating the whole process.” I agree; I’m not sure whether or not that’s PHE’s view.


20: Streaming funerals online raises interesting theological questions.


21: By dint of being in the second half of the decade, I don’t think I can describe myself as being in my “early thirties” anymore. In Misbehaving, Richard Thaler suggested that people can no longer be considered “promising” once they turn forty. To wit: I’m now a “promising thirty-something.”


22: According to this headline, the ideal moment to invite more people to attend NHS services is the moment of greatest pressure on those services.


23: Some pigeons have their rectums checked for incendiary devices.


24: Some days, I just despair.


25: Van Gogh’s isolation in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum influenced his art in interesting ways.


26: A Time-ly reminder that hospitals are only as strong as their domestic workforce.


27: In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker argues that “style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily.” Events over the last few days have made me think a lot about how consistent and accurate advice is crucial for outbreak control, but I had been thinking in terms of ethics and efficacy. Trust is, of course, especially important too: people don’t follow advice they don’t trust. It’s normally the sort of thing I bang on about a lot, so it’s interesting to reflect on why it was so far from my mind this weekend.


28: “The rich world has no modern precedent but a 2017 paper by Keith Meyers, of the University of Southern Denmark, and Melissa Thomasson, of Miami University, on a polio epidemic in 1916 in America, made the lesson clear: closing schools hurts kids’ prospects. The younger ones leave school with lower achievements than previous cohorts and the older ones are more likely to drop out altogether.” (But but but…)


29: Today, I’ve had Adam Buxton’s take on the Quantum of Solace theme stuck in my head. It must be twelve years since I heard it on 6music, so I’ve no idea why my brain dragged that up!


30: I didn’t realise I was tired tonight until I woke up having falling asleep while reading in an armchair. I’m not sure this is correct behaviour for a promising thirty-something.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Here’s what I’ve been reading in April.


Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

“You two are in something. I don’t know what it is, but you guys are in something. Some people call it a relationship, some call it a friendship, some call it love, but you two, you two are in something.”

It’s rare to find a book that grabs hold of you from the first page and just doesn’t let go. Yet the exquisite, intense, poetic writing of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s first novel, published only a few weeks ago, does exactly that. It’s hard to believe that it is only 145 pages long.

The plot, narrated in the second person, centres on two young Black British artists, one a photographer and one a dancer, trying to find their way through London and through life, while falling in love: real love, strong and fragile, comforting and tormenting, easy and hard.

This was stunning, in every sense of that word.


Writers & Lovers by Lily King

I can’t remember what made me pick up this 2020 novel by Lily King, and I initially found it slightly hard to get into. But I ended up enjoying it.

Set in the US in 1997, the protagonist is a woman, Casey, in her early thirties who works at a restaurant while trying to find her way as a novelist. She is also dealing with the grief associated with her mother’s recent death. She begins to date two men, both also writers, and tries to decide which she wishes to enter a longer term relationship with.

I enjoyed this for its light discussion of the process of writing, and also enjoyed the development of the protagonist over the course of the novel. The relationships were well-written and closely observed.

The ending of the book felt tonally different to the rest of the novel, and it left me feeling a little disappointed. I suppose this means this is a rare example of a book where I enjoyed the middle but didn’t especially enjoy the beginning or the end!


Concretopia by John Grindrod

Published in 2013, and on my to-read list for some considerable time, this is John Grindrod’s tour of post-modern British architecture. Grindrod’s evidently abundant enthusiasm for the topic shines through, and carries interesting but detailed discussions of topics that might seem superficially rather dry—approaches to town planning and battles with Local Authorities, for example!

I was slow to read this book as it often had me hurrying off to search the web for some of the developments discussed. That was partly because Grindrod’s introductions interested me, but also partly because in the paperback edition I have the pictures are a little small and sometimes hard to make out.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this, learning more about developments that I’m somewhat familiar with, and plenty that were new to me.


Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Published last year, this is Cathy Rentzenbrink’s book which reflects on the effect books have had on her own life, as a reader, bookseller and writer. It includes a great many recommendations of books she has enjoyed.

This was short enough to read through in a day. I found it surprisingly heartwarming: the premise seemed a little off-putting—I often find that people who define themselves as “readers” are not particularly good or engaging writer—but the book came on recommendation, and I enjoyed it. The insights into bookselling were particularly fun.


The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

My read-through of all the Sherlock Holmes stories has reached The Hound of the Baskervilles, first serialised in 1901-2–and I was fortunate enough to read this 1902 edition courtesy of The London Library. This is the third novel in the series, coming after two volumes of short stories.

I note that in my review a year ago of the previous book in the series (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) I commented that I was looking forward to getting engrossed in a proper full-length novel again, but I’m afraid this left me disappointed. The plot seemed absurdly far-fetched and there seemed to me to be very little new characterisation.

I know many people love this book, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Given that none of the volumes so far have bowled me over, I think perhaps that my plan to read all the volumes might have been a little hasty.


Pandemic 2 by Slavoj Žižek

I picked this up because I enjoyed the first volume a few weeks ago. Like that, this book consists of Žižek writing angry philosophical reflections on the pandemic.

Despite the similar premise, I enjoyed this volume much less than the first. This volume is much longer than the first, and doesn’t have the same sense of capturing a moment: the first was published just as the pandemic was taking hold and the first lockdowns in Europe were being implemented. This second volume tries to take a longer view about “time lost” but isn’t very successful as it was published last autumn, which we now know to really have been in the ‘middle’ of the pandemic rather than at the end. It isn’t helped by large passages on why Trump will win re-election.

Žižek also goes much deeper into pop culture references in this volume: I know that’s his usual style, but my pop culture knowledge is a little lacking, so much of it went over my head. I preferred the lighter touch of the first volume.

I still think that the first short volume was fun and worth reading, but I’d advise skipping this second one.


The Future of British Politics by Frankie Boyle

This is the last book I’ve read in Tortoise Media’s 2020 FUTURES series, and for good reason: I didn’t think I’d be very interest in comedian Frankie Boyle’s view of The Future of British Politics. I wouldn’t have bought this had it not been part of the five-piece set.

It turned out to be a book which wasn’t really about the future of British politics at all, but a 59-page comedic essay about British politics as it currently is. Clearly, the Goodreads average score shows that this has brought a lot of joy to a lot of people, but this style of offence-as-humour just isn’t my cup of tea, and I took nothing from it.

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31 things I learned in March 2020

1: Talking about how to influence politicians, Professor Dame Sally Davies told the HSJ ”You’ve got to think ‘where are they coming from’ and frame the issues so it has salience for them.” When I was lucky enough to work alongside her, I learned a huge amount from just watching how Sally worked. It still strikes me as notable that many doctors take the approach she describes with their patients but don’t do the same in political discussion. 


2: Leaving portfolios until the end of the appraisal/CPD year is a bad idea. This isn’t really a lesson specific to this year, but I never seem to learn it regardless. 


3: Some days are longer and busier than others. 


4: In Grandeur and Greed, Giles Smith refers to Bassano’s painting The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark as having “the worst depiction of an elephant in any exhibited artwork in a major gallery”. It took me a while to spot it, which rather says it all: I think he might be right


5: It’s always lovely to reconnect with an old friend. 


6: Just as the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of pandemics is common sense. 


7: The more intensely I work, the more I lose perspective. This is a useful trait, great for total immersion in complex projects, for trying to untangle a complicated outbreak or for trying to make a useful and structured text from lots of conflicting ideas. But I’m learning that it’s not a helpful trait when working intensely to others’ plans, because it’s easy to become fixated on the flaws and fault lines of my little corner rather than seeing the bigger picture taking shape. Rest helps to restore perspective. 


8: I’m not sure whether I actually learned anything from it, but David Marchese’s interview with Aaron Sorkin in The New York Times Magazine was brilliant. 


9: I’ve learned what book reviewers think is the point of book reviews


10: Being woken in the middle of the night when on call seems to get even less fun each time it happens, and covid-19 means it is happening a lot. 


11: Sleeping for 12-and-a-half hours straight is still a thing that happens when I’m tired enough. 


12: The Electoral Commission recommends postponing the May elections until the autumn, and I’m surprised by how conflicted I feel about that. 


13: Mind-gardening is a thing. Apparently. 


14: I can’t remember the last time a cartoon stopped me in my tracks like this one by Ella Baron


15: Philippe Descamps’s article in Le Monde Diplo on cycling in Copenhagen was interesting—particularly the bit about having predictable provision according to the road’s speed limit. The article suggests that only 6% of daily journeys in Copenhagen are on foot, which I suspect is an artefact of the definition of “journey”: almost everyone will walk some distance on foot each day, and on the occasions when I’ve visited Copenhagen, I’ve enjoyed the fact that provision for pedestrians is as thoughtfully considered as the provision for cyclists. 


16: Despite it being (apparently) very commonly taught in schools and universities, it is only at the age of 34 that I’ve first heard of the “five paragraph essay”


17: The good people of Newcastle are, it seems, panic-buying chicken. 

Empty shelves

18: Snail facials are exactly what they sound like. According to Race Across the World, there are 52 species of hummingbird in Costa Rica. This came as a particular surprise to me as I thought ‘hummingbird’ was a species. I know nothing. 


19: Even a fairly crude “guy walks into a bar joke” can be a delight when it’s well written. 


20: I usually walk to work: it takes a little under an hour, which is only a little longer than it takes by Metro or car. Today I learned that if the rest of the world self-isolates, it actually only takes nine minutes to drive. 


21: Traveling from London to Mallorca by train, foot and ship is easier, but less environmentally efficient, than I’d have guessed. 


22: I’ve never thought before about the fact that escalator machinery on the London Underground wears unevenly because of “the weight of those who dutifully stand on the right”. 


23: This time three months ago, I thought it was extraordinary that a Government would remove the right of citizens to live and work in any country in the EU. Never did I imagine a British Government could remove citizens’ rights to the extent that they have to stay indoors. I’m living in extraordinary times. 


24: Most of the time, letters responding to articles in medical journals add very little. Sometimes, though, they add completely new insights which change my perspective on an issue: pointing out that health improvement interventions that go along with screening tests are usually ignored in analyses of the effectiveness of screening programmes is a great example. 


25: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Doctors


26: There’s a reason why it feels strange to walk on a stopped escalator


27: It’s been too long since I last listened to Reply All


28: “Self-sacrifice has always been an implicit part of being a doctor. It is a source of both pride and pain, and why, on the whole, doctors and nurses deserve our respect. Rarely has it been so called upon as in the covid-19 crisis.” 


29: It’s tough to be a spy in a country in covid-19 lockdown. 


30: An article by Peter Blegvad in the latest Brixton Review of Books made me think quite a lot about the relative accuracy of each of imagination, observation and memory: a theme explored in quite a few novels I’ve read, but which I don’t think I’d really considered in art before. 


31: “Pineapple is the smell of masculine.” Apparently. 

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