Brexiteers take note: we have seen the enemy, and it is us.

The strongest argument for Brexit, and the only one that appeared to have a shred of respectability, was the need to escape the suffocation of the Brussels bureaucracy. Now the UK’s management of the Covid19 epidemic has stripped that argument to a collapsing skeleton as we see one bureaucratic blunder follow another while the pandemic rages on.

Apart from the horrendous ‘herd immunity’ blunder by a single highly-placed but supposedly scientific nabob (who has recently disappeared from sight), at first it looked as if the Johnson government was going to surprise us all by mounting a coherent, science-led response to the outbreak. Now it is looking more and more incoherent and science-leaden. Everywhere, in every failed, half-hearted bumbling response we see the slow, cautious hand of the bureaucratic jobsworth, exposed nowhere more bleakly than in the tragic handling of testing.

Testing for the virus is actually pretty simple. The Germans had a reliable test up and running within days. You extract a strand of RNA, the cell’s reverse template of its DNA, use it to run a matching DNA strand, multiply that one to detectable levels and bingo you have your result. There are literally hundreds and probably thousands of machines in labs all over the country that can do this. So the bureaucrats at Public Health England put their heads together, kept them together for rather a long time, and decided that only one brand of one type of machine should be considered suitable, sending out requests for that machine and that one only. Oxford’s Dunn School of Pathology had 119 machines. Only one was of the approved type and that one only was requested. All testing was to be under the strict control of PHE, regardless of the fact that the capability to do it is sitting idle in labs all over the UK. Ah, but they might be unreliable … Caution, caution, caution. The old familiar watchwords and modus operandi of the bureaucrat are in firm control. Take no risks that you may have to answer for later. Do not trust anyone in private enterprise. Be wary of academics. (I think we can rely on an Oxford school of pathology to know what they’re doing, don’t you?)

Now we have taken weeks to even double the national testing capability to a woeful 10,000 per day, while even Trump’s supposedly hopeless administration has somehow managed to step theirs up to more than 20 times the number they started with. And where has that pitiful capability been deployed? To vast, empty drive-in facilities where NHS staff are turned away because either they ‘weren’t on the list’ or ‘didn’t have an appointment’.

Now that waste of oxygen Matt Hancock has declared, “I want industry and government to come together to build a UK diagnostic capability.”

That would have been just the ticket – in January, when the Germans did it. Now it is just another example of bureaucratic, monolithic thinking. It is far too late for that – just let those who can do it get on with it. They are out there by the dozen, champing at the bit. Some are already doing it, unsanctioned by PHE but gratefully received by the communities they serve. Systems Biology Laboratory, a philanthropic not-for-profit lab in Oxfordshire is one such example. Ah, but that is the pet project of a multi-millionaire entrepreneur. Can’t have those sorts involved.

I could go on, and on, and on. If you have any doubt at all, listen to Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director of PHE, openly ignoring difficult questions and reeling out formulaic statements of “intention” at the daily 5pm briefings. The most disturbing feature of these sessions lately has been the evident equanimity of the officials in charge. Failing badly, conspicuously, people dying in consequence, they show neither ruffled feather nor beaded brow. Business as usual. “Didn’t do too badly, don’t you think?” “Oh, excellent. First class.”

This is exactly what Brexit was supposed to deliver us from. Well now we know. British bureaucracy is the match of anything Brussels could ever deliver. The last feeble shred of justification for Brexit has fallen victim to the virus.


ICU. They don’t call it ‘intense’ for nothing.

NICE, the committee that sets NHS standards, has published a one-to-ten graduated scale for hospitals to use in deciding which Covid 19 sufferers to prioritise for ventilators, kidney dialysis and all the soon-to-be-rationed machinery of intensive care. Perhaps you have read the list and are thinking, “I’m fit, exercise regularly, have no other health conditions. I’m a One. If I get the virus the NHS will look after me. I’ll be fine.” They probably will but I promise you – you won’t be fine. Early this year I came down with double pneumonia, went into septic shock and almost died; the magnificent people of the NHS saved my life. In my disreputable youth I spent three months in the infamous Bangkok Hilton, Klong Prem Prison; in Jakarta I caught and survived a vicious tropical fever without medical attention. But my three weeks in ICU and the High Dependency unit at Southmead Hospital were still the worst days of my 71 years of life. Believe me – you don’t want to go there.

It happened so quickly. In the early hours of the 2nd of January I woke my partner. I was in bad shape – feverish, coughing, struggling with breathing. We debated whether to head for A&E in the morning or call for help now. Had it not been for our home blood pressure monitor I probably would have chosen to wait and would almost certainly have died. Fortunately, we strapped the cuff around my arm and received a terrible shock: 71/42 – about half what it should have been. I didn’t know it at the time but plummeting blood pressure is the septic shock signature tune. An hour later I was in the resuscitation unit at Southmead hospital, an x-ray showing both my lower lungs as a solid white mass. Double pneumonia had triggered sepsis and now I was in septic shock.

Very rapidly I went all the way to death’s wide open door – multiple organ failure, my body a war zone between impressively sophisticated medical science and aggressive, all-consuming infection exacerbated by the out-of-control guided missile that was my own immune system. Already by the following morning they had called in my partner to tell her to prepare for the worst. I was unconscious, of course. Not because of the disease but because they had knocked me out and pumped me full of muscle relaxants to keep me still. The things they have to do to you to keep you alive offer such brutal insults to your system you couldn’t bear it. You would thrash, groan, gibber, tear out tubes.

For me, those first six days of unconsciousness weren’t good, or bad, or anything. But for my family, my partner, they were hell. I could have died at any moment and the doctors could give no reassurances beyond promising to do their best. After the worst was over they slowly brought me back to some form of consciousness and now my nightmare started in earnest. My first clear memory is of the lovely face of my partner leaning over me. “Hello sweetie. You’re doing really well. Keep it up. You will be alright.”

Doing well at what, I wondered. Why could I not move? (Answer – muscle relaxants.) Why could I not talk? (Because of the tube down my throat, which I could not feel and did not know was there.) This was obviously a hospital. What had happened? Apparently I was told, more than once, but immediately forgot.  I drifted off into the first of what was to be days of vivid, long-lasting hallucinations with complex, mad story-lines, all in other times and places, all extremely unpleasant. I was running some kind of bar in New Mexico or Arizona, desperate to get my hands on a cold, fizzy Coca-Cola or root beer which remained perpetually out of reach because, even in my hallucinations, I could not move.. I was bed-bound in a squalid inn in northern New Zealand sometime in the 19th century, waiting for my brother to arrive with bonds and deeds of title. Eventually he came, in a cocked hat and frock coat, but I could neither rise nor talk to him. I clearly remember six different such scenarios, all equally protracted and miserable. At unpredictable intervals I would be startled by a deafening beep, when the whole world would become a bright green undulating space of geodesic forms. Although they lasted only seconds such moments were almost indescribably terrifying, and they came often.

There were intermittent and fleeting moments of consciousness, usually the occasion of being rolled, shifted or washed, themselves mostly violent and shocking disturbances. Although I am sure they were being as gentle as possible the nurses had a non-stop workload to get through. There was never any time for me to prepare myself; just a brief warning and straight to it. I was aware of masked people flitting about in the half light. My first reaction was fear until I would get a grip on myself and remember that I was in hospital. Apparently it is not uncommon for intensive care patients to be seized by paranoia, to see witches and demons; at least I was spared that. Then there was the pain, misery and indignity of being dragged onto a coarse, compressed cardboard bedpan.

There is more – much more. As the hallucinations faded I became abusive, suspicious and resistant to help, demanding a saintly forbearance of staff and visitors. During the last days of those three weeks I was desperate, desperate to get out of that bed but when I tried I was told off in no gentle terms. Towards the end, when I was hoisted mechanically out of bed and into a special chair it was a triumph, surpassed only by the thrill of sitting on a real toilet. Those hideous, abrasive bedpans, how I hated them. After that I recovered very quickly, much faster than expected. Within a day or two I was walking with the aid of a stick and two days later I was home.

Why did I survive? Why, after predictions of long, slow months or even years of recuperation was I back to perfect fitness a scant six weeks after discharge? Simple. I don’t smoke, and for years now I have been walking a very brisk, demanding five miles on most days. I am very fit. I drove myself hard to get back into shape. Fitness has saved my life. But believe me, fit or not, you do not want a visit to ICU. Your loved ones and friends do not want you to be subject to the brutal mercies of ICU, nor do they want to spend days awaiting the news of your death. The health system certainly does not want you there. Bear in mind that I received the very best care the magnificent NHS had to offer. Now, we will get the best they can manage and it may not be enough.

I will go to any lengths not to catch this virus. I will willingly endure any inconvenience. And if you had been where I have been, so would you.

We said the day would come. Has anyone noticed that it has?

If we don’t stop kicking the planet in the guts, one day it will kick us back. A comment that was already banal five years ago. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have identified Covid19 as the kick in question and what astounds me is how intelligent, how compassionate and gentle it is. Not the biblical plague many of us expected, but as gentle and effective as Mr Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch.

I will come back to the intricacies of the design, but first I have to declare myself a believer. I don’t attempt to describe what I believe in, or even give it a name, because language is too limited a tool for the job. But part of what I believe, based on what I observe, is that the planet is being protected as a place of human habitation, mainly from humans themselves, just as a mother protects a young child from actions that it is not yet able to recognise as dangerous. Even to the extent, when all else fails, of giving the child a corrective smack. Years ago I recall a friend smacking her two-year-old on the leg because he persisted in running across a busy street. She was resolutely opposed to corporal punishment but had realised that no other effective remedy was available. She couldn’t lock the kid up 24/7 and it had become a game for him. The hard slap on the leg worked.

So now that force, whatever it is, has slapped us.

Why do I think we are being protected from our own worst impulses and actions? Because, looking over the purview of recent history, an era when the powers of states had reached the potential to encompass the globe, I see at least two examples of critical moments that turned the course of history away from the triumph of evil and planetary disaster.

The first happened at Dunkirk. Almost the entire remaining allied forces were backed into a corner on a French beach, defenceless, and the unstoppable forces of the blitzkrieg were racing to finish them off. I will simplify what was a slightly more complex situation – in fact a number of separate pivotal and simultaneous events took place and significantly, every one of them tilted the odds back in favour of the stranded army. Panzer General von Rundstedt, poised to hammer the expeditionary force to pieces, simply stopped 15 km short of Dunkirk. History has given at least three different reasons for this, none of them particularly compelling.

At the same time a British patrol stumbled in the way of a German staff car and killed the driver with a pistol shot (note: an extremely unlikely event). An officer fled the subsequent crash, leaving a briefcase containing the German plans for attacking the remaining active troops further up the coast. Effective countermeasures were immediately taken.

Then the weather moved in to complete the good fortune. For day after day the Channel remained as smooth as glass and a huge rescue flotilla of naval vessels and hundreds of small boats evacuated the 335,000 stranded men. It is rare, very rare, for the Channel to stay that calm for that long.

If the Dunkirk rescue had not happened, Britain would have been wiped out as a free country. Churchill, only days in office, was surrounded by ministers keen to appease Hitler, believing that the English and the Germans were natural allies. With the army gone they would have sidelined Churchill and gone cap in hand to Hitler. It would have been a surrender on the knees – we don’t have to guess who would have ended up fully in charge. With Britain out of the war and the US not yet in it, Hitler would have won in Russia and moved on to a probably successful invasion of the US. The Nazi thousand year Reich would now be 80 years young and going strong.

The number of discrete pieces of good fortune that rescued Britain and the world at Dunkirk are simply too many, and too heavily against the run of play, for me to believe they were blind luck.


Take a good look at this man – he saved the world. Literally. His name was Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. He was second-in-command of the submarine B-59, intercepted  on the 27th of October 1962 during the US blockade of Cuba. Showered with depth charges, B-59 was forced to the surface. The Yanks believed it to be conventionally armed; in fact it carried a 15 kiloton nuclear torpedo which the Captain and Political Officer prepared to fire, mainly to prevent the technology falling into US hands but also because, after days in radio isolation, they thought that the expected nuclear war had broken out. Protocol required all three men’s assent. Arkhipov dissented and maintained his opposition during a raging argument, two against one. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr described this as ‘the most dangerous moment in human history’. That nuclear strike would, without a shadow of doubt, have triggered nuclear armageddon.

Once again, we are looking at an extremely unlikely event. Arkhipov may have been the second-in-command on the B-59 but he was also the commander of the entire flotilla. You did not rise to the upper echelons of any Soviet organisation by being a maverick or by having a sensitive conscience. And yet, there he was when the planet needed him.

Of course, those two facts alone are not enough to convince me that we are being protected from our own worst impulses. There’s much more and I’m not actually trying to convince anyone. Just sayin’, as they say.

Now to Covid19. Those of us who have thought that the planet wouldn’t take being trashed sitting down have tended to mutter darkly about plagues and pestilence on a biblical scale, like the bubonic plague, for instance. Vast numbers of human dead. Not merely warned but forced to stop the carnival of devastation. But Covid has done it. Carbon dioxide emissions have plummeted. Many of us have recently taken a moment to reflect that we have probably taken our last quick break to the Greek Islands, or the Canaries, or Marbella. Furthermore, I doubt the residents of Venice, of Barcelona and Dubrovnik, are just going to throw their doors open when this is all over. The planet, Gaia, whatever, has shown us what peace and quiet, the end of the rat race and runaway consumption looks like and by God it is good!

Note how clever the design has been. It has been exclusively rich nations which have been hit hard. Most poor countries lie between the two tropics and the virus does not flourish in temperatures above 25ºC. Some of those nations are quite serious polluters but out of the sheer weight of population, not because their citizens are running round in big SUVs and flying around the world for their holidays. It’s us rich buggers who have been given the hard word.

And all this achieved at a cost, not of 50% of the population, nor even 5%, but at levels well under 1%. If this is design, it is wonderfully elegant design. Compassionate design.

The lady sure knows her business.


Seems I was wrong, mostly. The system is already cranking itself up to flood the skies with planes. But not entirely. We recently took a trip home to NZ. (Yes, I know. But a close family member had recently been diagnosed with serious cancers.) We travelled around a country with no foreign tourists; New Zealand’s biggest industry had ground to a halt, but strangely the national economy was doing quite well. At much-visited spots like Cape Reinga and Paihia, places that on a normal day would be teeming with tour buses disgorging hundreds or even thousands of visitors taking selfies for all they were worth, we joined friendly, modest-sized crowds of locals enjoying their heritage at ease, delighting in the absence of throngs. All the tourism was local but there was quite a lot of it. Following the crash of the campervan industry many companies have sold off their stock cheap – it seemed that every pensioner in NZ was on the road in their newly-acquired vehicle. It was lovely. NZ, at least, seems unenthusiastic about throwing open its doors again. In the Covid-free country vaccination is proceeding slowly. There’s no need to hurry – tourism businesses aside, no-one is itching for the return of the hordes. Now the government has decided that it will support initiatives to help tourism magnets like Queenstown find other sources of income. They may even regulate numbers of overseas visitors. We have had a chance to realise that magic spots like Tane Mahuta, the country’s largest kauri tree in Opoua Forest, belong to us. Having to queue with many hundreds of people, most of whom will barely glimpse that wonder through the screen of their phone, is just not OK.

Dare we hope that we are not alone in this? Fingers crossed.

Housing Crisis? Simple.

Across the road from my house, in a long terraced Victorian street, stands an imposing house in commodious grounds. Three stories high, a brick structure, Edwardian at a guess, the generous windows commanding a spreading view over eastern Bristol.

Well, would command. But the windows are shuttered and no-one is alive in there to enjoy the view anyway. The former lawn and garden have long since vanished under a horde of invading weeds and (this is the part that first puzzled me) the entire estate is surrounded by a formidable, and ugly, steel fence. An expensive fence, not something you would put around your home. Forbidding signs proclaim a mythical 24 hour vigilance. It is not that someone has just walked away. This place is on ice. Banked, I realised eventually, and gathering value as the growth in property values far outpaces interest rates.

This is simply wrong and where I come from it would not happen because of what you call Land Value Tax, probably a better handle than the vague ‘Council Rates’ we have in New Zealand but the same thing. They are the only tax we pay to maintain our councils and they are substantial.


Coming to the UK five years ago I experienced first hand the tyranny of the landlord, enabled and empowered by a chronic, inexplicable housing shortage. Why inexplicable? Because in every quarter of Bristol I constantly come across abandoned structures, some vast, wasting away on valuable land. Sturdy stone shells easily converted into thousands of apartments, often in reasonably attractive and desirable parts of the city. Big houses shuttered and empty, deteriorating office buildings in almost every part of most cities. Waste on a colossal scale.

How could this be? Slowly the penny dropped: they don’t tax land here. It was the only possible explanation and it turned out to be (mostly) true.

We simply don’t see this in NZ. In my home city of Auckland you can walk or drive for miles and never see an abandoned, deteriorating building – someone would own the land, unpaid rates would ruin them, the property would be seized and sold by the council to recover the lost rates and someone else would put it to use. Yes, that buyer would have to put in risk and work, probably the reason the UK’s banked properties stand idle. Development costs money. Landlording can be tricky in a country with well-established tenants’ rights. So much easier to park and forget. But in NZ the burden of council rates makes such development and usage unavoidable.

Why is this, to me, obvious solution to a desperate social problem scarcely on the political landscape? At first I was tempted to mutter darkly to myself about vested interests, but perhaps the simpler answer is that you British don’t see it. Since WWII you have grown up in a landscape littered by ruins. The abandoned house on the hill is a familiar literary trope. You simply don’t register that there is something fundamentally wrong about a Victorian factory, a house inherited by a distant, absent family member, just lying about the place unnoticed and unused. This is the way things just are. Or is it something else? I don’t know – you tell me. But waste on a grand scale it most certainly is, waste I have now seen in half a dozen English cities, and the simple remedy of Land Value Tax is standing in the wings waiting to fix it.

To be fair the government has not simply stood idle. Using the archaic mechanism of stamp duty, long since vanished from the NZ scene, they have moved to tax the purchase of second homes. This will not solve the problem, indeed may make it worse because it means that land bankers have to hang on to their empty properties even longer to wait for the investment to grow to where the profit from the eventual sale is still sufficient to justify the cost. Even worse, it applies only to residential properties. Buy an abandoned factory or office building and you’re fine. Bigger properties, potentially so many more homes.

The only real answer, a permanent and fundamental answer, is to make the holding of idle land and buildings uneconomic by taxing their value year after year.

There are downsides. During the late 20th century redevelopment of inner cities we saw elderly people rated out of their lifelong homes because the land on which they stood had been rezoned Commercial A, sending their rates through the sky. We are also rated on the value of the ‘improvements’, calculated on the rentable value of the buildings as they presently are. It can be argued that this is unjust, as it is the occupants, not the council, who have invested the resources to make those improvements. But the clearance of old housing stock in the wrong place to allow commercial centres to grow was inarguably necessary, and a pure land tax would avoid the injustice of taxing people for work done which has already cost them hard-earned resources.

But I promise you: it works in New Zealand and it will work here.

Just do it.


A Silent Witness? Secret History?

I often pass by the Granada Cathedral, a huge pile of stone in the old city centre. I notice things. On the side of the cathedral I pass by I first noticed one thing, looked more closely and saw more.  Slowly I came to understand that I was looking at what I believe to be an undocumented but still visible relic from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

First I noticed the iron railing fence protecting every entrance.


Interesting, I thought. Why does a church need such barricades?

Then I noticed how they were anchored to the building.


That little alcove would have once contained a holy statue. Gone. In fact large areas of the exterior of the building showed many such alcoves, all similarly empty.


Scanning further, I discovered that all the windows, stained or plain glass, were screened off with steel mesh.


Note the smashed pane in the lower part of the window.

By now the penny had dropped: the Civil War. It is a matter of history where the Church stood in that conflict – firmly on the side of Franco and his Nazi supporters and against the socialist Republicans who had been elected to power – the legitimate government, in fact. The Church in Spain had been thoroughly compromised for centuries, comfortably in bed with the aristocracy, bleeding the peasants and working people white with their stranglehold on the hearts and minds of this deeply Catholic country.

The church and its fat, authoritarian clergy were in the sights of the Republicans from the beginning. Attacks on churches were legion, priests who stood by their power and privilege often put to death, either through the sentence of courts or by vigilante action.

I realised I was looking at the scars of this onslaught. The icons pulled down and smashed. The cathedral barricaded.

It gets worse.

The exterior of the building forms a series of bays demarcated by triangular buttresses.


But the bay next to the gate I was looking at was special – it is cordoned off with ‘decorative’ chains.

The Chains.jpg

I wondered why. Then I noticed something unusual – at a consistent height between one and two metres from the ground the stones were pockmarked by something I recognised.


These are bullet marks in the ceremonial gate to St Stephens Green in Dublin – the epicentre of the Easter uprising. They appear to be larger, either because the stone is softer (unlikely) or because they record the impact of the heavier ammunition from the Lewis machine guns the authorities deployed in the upper stories of buildings facing the College of Surgeons where the rebels were holed up.




All between chest and head height of the average Andalusian man in the 30s (they were smaller then).

This, I am almost certain, was an execution site. Sacred ground, chained off. And unmarked by any overt signs.

They are gradually refurbishing the exterior of the cathedral. This, I expect, will be gone in five years.

There is no point trying to confirm this. To this day, I was warned by an Andalusian friend, a hood of silence hangs over the events of the war. My gitano guitar teacher spoke of it, but only inside our house and when we were alone. Raise the question in a bar, in conversation and someone will quickly and forcibly change the subject.

Repression in the south was swift and extreme. Neighbours dobbed in neighbours, who quickly disappeared. Of course, old scores were settled, and I sense in the often grim expressions of the very old that consciences remain troubled. It is dark territory.

Compare the pictures. This section of the cathedral wall is alone in bearing ambiguous, semi-legible graffiti. Look at the second-to-last picture above. Like the two or three other semi-erased graffiti, they consist of three letters.

Ireneo Antonio Torres, perhaps? Initials of somebody’s name, anyway.

They remember all right. And so they should.