The Lockdown Diary – Day 57

Geneva, Monday 11 May 2020

As we plan to play golf tomorrow, today will be the last post of my Lockdown Diary… at least for the time being! Thank you all for reading my thoughts and observations about this strangest of times. I’d greatly appreciate any comments you might have about what you’ve read.

I’ll leave y’all with the usual rattle bag of stuff.

South Korea, China and Germany are three countries which have loosened lockdown measures to see a small resurgence of cases in the last days. It’s clear: trading social liberties against measures to slow this virus’s capacity to spread is going to be an extremely difficult balancing act. As a result, I can’t help being concerned about Boris Johnson’s not entirely coherent plans for similarly relaxing the isolation and distancing rules in the UK. There must be a statistical basis for this. But on this one, that great British talent for arrogance in the face of mediocrity comes blundering onto the stage. And what’s more, it relates now to the biggest issue of the day: officially noted death rates from COVID-19. Take a look!

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Reported COVID-19 related deaths per day have fallen for the last four weeks. (Note – “reported.”) I’m no statistician but I think this graph shows an important and uniquely British reporting bias; namely, a weekly cycle on which the two days with fewest reports are Sunday and Monday regularly followed by a near-doubling of the figures for Tuesday. It is unlikely that the coronavirus actually kills people in different numbers by day of the week. It is equally unlikely that this pattern comes about by pure chance. Therefore, the cause must be something in the reporting system. But here’s the kicker, this reporting bias existed two weeks before the “peak” and has become more pronounced since. You’d think the reporting system would have eliminated such a bias, not exaggerated it. So, given the political expediency of reporting a decline in COVID-19 related deaths, what is the connection between the reported overall decline in deaths per day and this extraordinarily inept reporting bias? I don’t have an answer but it’s a question that has to be asked especially as reported cases – not only deaths – bafflingly show a very similar weekly cycle but without the decline. 

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There are many reasons for the unreserved admiration I hold for my wife. One is her determination. At the beginning of the lockdown, she decided she was going to surmount the many obstacles inherent in making the ideal sourdough loaf. Let me tell you, she has passed every stage with flying colours.

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So good is her sourdough bread now, that any left uneaten is sliced, frozen and consumed later as delicious toast! Lockdown has had its positive outcomes.

A rabbit hops into a butcher’s shop. “Got any carrots?” he asks. “Sorry, Buddy,” says the friendly butcher. “We’re butchers. We do meat. The grocer down the road does carrots.” The rabbit leaves. The following day, the rabbit hops into the butcher’s shop again. “Got any carrots?” he asks. Slightly irritated, the butcher replies “I told you yesterday, we’re butchers. We do meat. The grocer down the road does carrots.” The rabbit leaves. The following day, the rabbit hops into the butcher’s shop again. “Got any carrots?” he asks. Agitated, the butcher says “Listen, Bugs, I told you yesterday and the day before, we’re butchers. We do meat. If you come in here again tomorrow asking for carrots, I’m going to nail those two big stupid floppy ears to this counter. Got it?” The rabbit leaves in short order. The following day, the rabbit hops into the butcher’s shop again. “Got any nails?” Furious now, the butcher yells “No!” The rabbit smiles. “Got any carrots, then?” The butcher is a nice man at heart and can’t help but be amused; he decides to take the rabbit down to the grocer’s himself. “Hi there!” says the grocer. “How may I help you?” The rabbit thinks for a while “Got any sausages?”

The Lockdown Diary – Day 56

Geneva, Sunday 10 May 2020

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Fishing with my father in 1969

In 1979, I was a final year medical student. I went home for the Christmas break. My father had been in rural general practice for nearly thirty years. His hundreds of patients were spread over a wide country community. He knew them all by name and, often, by diagnosis as well. He asked me if I wanted to go with him on his round of home visits. I thought I would learn little about medicine but it would be fun to accompany him. Inevitably, as it turned out, he would give me a very important lesson in what medicine was really about.

The bitter north wind had frozen the puddles on the rutted track. Our old Renault 4 bumped and slid its way toward the farmhouse. Cows hung about with hoofs in mud, backs turned to the biting wind and heads hung low. It was milking time. My father explained that, two days before, he had been called to see the farmer’s six year-old son. The boy, the oldest of three children, had pneumonia and needed a course of antibiotics. As we arrived, the farmer came out of the back door and disappeared into the cow-shed. I asked my father why he had not sent the child to the paediatric ward in Norwich. “Think about it.” he said. “The child goes into hospital. The mother has to go with him. The father has 60 cows to milk twice a day. And by the way, he’s an angry man. What’s going to happen to the two younger children?” That stumped me. “But I might have to send the boy in if he’s not improved today. And we’ll somehow have to keep an eye on this farmhouse.” As we got out of the car, I noticed the mother at the kitchen window putting the kettle on. I also noticed that my father had already slipped his stethoscope inside his shirt front. “This is a very difficult child!” he said more to himself. I could see he was concerned.

The mother welcomed us in; they were clearly not well-off. The three children, bundled up in pullovers and scarves, sat around a single-bar electric heater watching TV. The older boy, looking a bit flushed, had a blanket wrapped tightly around him that he pulled tighter the moment he caught sight of us. My father took his coat off and washed his hands in a bowl that the mother had filled with hot water. He turned to me and whispered “You see old boy, with a child like this, if your hands or your stethoscope are cold, you’ve no chance.”  I realised that getting anywhere near to hearing air entry to this child’s lungs would be a mighty challenge. And a big decision hung on it.

My father sat down next to the boy who recoiled deeper into the grubby sofa. Instructions were given that the TV be switched off and the other kids be shooed from the room. Unnoticed, a thermometer made its way into the boy’s mouth. My father started to chat to the mother. Yes isn’t it a cold winter. Norwich City lost again at the weekend. A cup of tea would be very nice thank you. etc. etc. “And do you have a candle and some matches?” has asked. The mother rattled around in the kitchen for a while. I looked back at the boy. I couldn’t believe it. Taking advantage of the distraction brought by all the noise and chatter, my father had managed to slide his hand and stethoscope inside the blanket and up under the boy’s pyjama shirt. “Now, young man” he said removing the thermometer and glancing at it, “Take some deep breaths.” The boy looked at him with great suspicion and held his breath. He’d fallen for the thermometer trick; further complicity was out of the question.

The mother returned carrying a tray with cups of tea, a candle and matches. My father asked me to light the candle. “Now, old boy, would you be so kind as to hold the candle three feet from this young man’s nose.” Turning to the boy, he said “Go on, now, blow out the candle!” The boy took a big breath in and blew. The candle was still alight. “Go on, you can do better than that. Blow harder! Nearly there! Try again!” I could see that the stethoscope was being moved around the boys chest with each attempt to blow out the candle. We got about seven good breaths before he managed to extinguish the flame but by then he was onto our game and sullenly held his breath again. Nevertheless, the good doctor had got a real good listen to the boy’s lungs. It wasn’t necessary to send him to hospital.

In 1989, I was working as a surgeon in a hospital on the Afghan border of Pakistan for war-wounded run by the International Committee of the Red Cross. One of my patients was a ten year old boy who had been shot through the right side of his chest. (For those interested, an AK47 might shoot a high energy military bullet but if it’s stable in flight – for example, at longer range – it can pass clean through the body doing surprisingly little damage.) This boy arrived with us three days after his injury. He had a haemo-pneumothorax meaning that his lung had collapsed leaking both blood and air into the chest cavity. He was not too sick and all he needed was some anitiotics and a thick tube drain inserted between his ribs to allow the blood and extravasated air to escape and the lung to expand. After four days, he was doing fine and we thought maybe the tube could come out; he would then need a few days of physiotherapy. However, the boy’s father became very agitated saying he was going to take the boy out that morning. He had to get home far inside Afghanistan – a three day bus journey – because he was worried about his family. I explained via our Afghan nurses that if the boy’s injured lung was not inflating properly, it would be dangerous to take him on such a journey. The discussion became quite heated. I sat on the boy’s bed, took out my stethoscope, put it on his chest and told him to take some deep breaths. He did what all Afghans do when told to take deep breaths; he vigorously moved his shoulers up and down without actually moving any air. So I asked for a candle. The boy went home.

Hoping all readers of this Diary are well, safe and happy.

The Lockdown Diary – Day 55

Geneva, Saturday 9 May 2020

I thought I would tackle a more intricate subject than some fruit on a plate. I found myself thinking of my home town in England; Norwich, a fine city. And the jewel in the crown of that fine city is its cathedral. Here it is, viewed via the Erpingham Gate. I know, I know… the best bit’s the letter box.

So, that pandemic business. There’s one thing screaming at me. We are moving towards relaxing lockdown measures when, globally speaking, the stats are many times worse than when it was deemed necessary to go into lockdown. It’s quite some paradox. It’s only explicable by some countries feeling more or less safe with the measures they have imposed and the resulting stats. Heads of some governments who appear to be winning against the COVID-19 pandemic met by conference call yesterday to discuss what they’re doing right and how they plan to reboot their economies. The group includes Israel, Denmark, Norway, Czech Republic, Greece, Singapore and Australia and New Zealand. Austria is chairing the meetings. They call themselves the “First Movers” club. I would imagine this will become the “Movers” club as others join up. All well and good. But there’s only one way this can go. 

The “Movers” will be the countries that have a public health infrastructure, resources and the political will to undertake widespread testing and to impose social distancing measures as necessary. The other countries – let’s call them the “Shakers” – like Brazil, possibly also Russia and pretty much all the developing world will suffer a badly recorded public health catastrophe. What this means is that as the Movers get moving again, they will not want all their hard work undone and so will want total isolation from the Shakers. I hate to be gloomy about it all, but international air travel, as we knew it, will be shut down for many, many months unless by agreement between specific Mover countries. Even if Shakers are flying, they will not be welcomed by the Movers.

Let’s move on. Bread. My wife is now regularly producing the most delicious sourdough loaves. I do pancakes. As you will have discovered if you have gone down Sourdough Road with us, there is a price to pay. It is a messy. If sourdough was bright red, our kitchen would look like a scene from some chop ’em up horror movie!

After my drubbing on the bread front, I have salvaged a smidgin of self-respect by winning today’s putting competition 2 and 1. That makes me up by 21 games to 11. 

The Lockdown Diary – Day 54

Geneva, Friday 8 May 2020

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It’s looking increasingly unlikely that we’ll be able to take our annual holiday in Scotland.  Here is the famous 9th / 18th par 3 hole at Durness, one of our favourite courses; it’s about as far North as you can go in Scotland. Always worth a visit. A ticket for a week costs £70!!!

Missing a Scottish holiday is a tough one for a golfer even though it’s unimportant on today’s grand scale of things. You see, I’m now 63. In my twenties, I had time and energy but no money. In my forties, I had energy and money but no time. Now in my sixties, I have time and money but energy diminishes a little year-by-year. And I don’t want to waste a minute.

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Today, in the UK, there are celebrations to mark the 75th commemoration of Victory in Europe. Clear parallels are being drawn to an imminent victory against the current national threat, the COVID-19  pandemic. The news footage of VE Day is remarkable; hundreds of thousands of people danced in the streets of London for days. My father, who was a medical student in London at the time, wrote a truly amazing account of the events in a letter to his mother.  

I find the breathless clipped accent of the news announcers of the day fascinating. Nobody speaks like that now. Britain is a country where people’s accents can denote not only where they come from, but also their social class and level of education. For us Brits, like it or not, our accent is like a badge that we all wear. There is even a police accent! (Go on… do it! “I was proceeding in a southerly direction along Primrose Lane when I recognised the unbecoming gait of a local felon by the name of Knosher Stibbs….) The good ol’ BBC cultivated it’s own accent in its early days which continued right through to the 1960s. Just listen to Valerie Singleton, and the most memorable moment on the BBC’s flagship children’s show of the day, Blue Peter.

A survey of Middle Eastern attitudes toward American culture found that only 23% of people in Qatar like the Flintstones while 75% of people in Abu Dhabi do(o)!

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The Lockdown Diary – Day 53

Geneva, Thursday 7 May 2020

I would love to get away from “Today, President Donald Trump said…..” The problem is, that what he says tends to eclipse all other news. Despite wise people counselling caution he throws that caution to the political winds and continues his tirade against China and despite wise people pointing out that there is still no firm evidence indicating that the pandemic can be traced back to a laboratory in Wuhan. So…. Today, President Donald Trump said “We went through the worst attack we’ve ever had on our country, this is worst attack we’ve ever had. This is worse than Pearl Harbor, this is worse than the World Trade Center. There’s never been an attack like this. And it should have never happened. Could’ve been stopped at the source. Could’ve been stopped in China. It should’ve been stopped right at the source. And it wasn’t.” This is war talk. And he knows it.

So, battered and bamboozled by it all, I thought I would tell you a story of a hapless painter and a very big company. 

In October 2006, I put on an exhibition of my paintings. I hung 74 large canvases on the theme of “XYXX: the Biology of Love.” I set out to tell biologically-based narratives about falling in love, couples, he and she, boys and girls, males and females, Mum and Dad, guys and gals and baby-making and all that stuff. The visual theme was an interaction of blue-for-boys and pink-for-girls in a square format. Gay themes were included.

I sent out 1,000 invitations. The event generated some interest in the local papers and radio. Friends pledged to come over from UK both to support me but mainly to have a jolly good laugh. Kick-off was at 18.00. 

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At the entrance, we put a painting called “Harmony” that had featured on the invitation.

Here’s the two metre square, principal theme painting, “XYXX” in my studio. 

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The pictures were hung tastefully thanks to the my amazing teacher, Guy. The wine was chilled and the exotic nibbles were laid out. At 17.30, I was sure nobody would come. At 17.45, I thought I would be sick. At 18.02 five people walked in. Guy told me he had come prepared to note any buyer’s name and contact details and to take a deposit. I thanked him and assured him that nobody would want to actually buy one of my paintings. He smiled. By 18.30, dozens more had arrived. By 20.00 the place was jammed. 

We had one small rather uninteresting painting. I wasn’t sure I wanted to exhibit it. Guy said “Always hang the shit next to the bar. It’ll sell.” It was the first to be bought.

For the rest of the evening, Guy was surrounded by people with wallets open. The paintings sold like hot cakes both during and after the event. Eventually, through the XYXX paintings, I was able to donate over CHF 100,000 (about $95,000) to a special fund for people disabled in armed conflict. 

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Fourteen months later, I was dawdling around an airport duty free shop. You can imagine my surprise when I saw that Hugo Boss perfumes, a subsidiary of Proctor and Gamble based here in Geneva, had launched a line of perfumes: XY for him and XX for her. 

Other advertisements for the same product claimed that “Harmony is overrated.” I thought that this really was quite some coincidence. I dug a bit deeper. Lots of other coincidences appeared: The lettering. Blue on the left, pink on the right. Square format with a border (boxing ring with the ropes’ shadows.) He and she kiss (top right is my painting called “Kiss”) 

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As I had a second exhibition on the same theme coming up, I wrote to Proctor and Gamble asking what they would like me to say if ever a journalist asked me about the similarity of my theme of paintings and their marketing campaign. In response, I received a polite letter from a legal adviser pointing out that I could not possibly claim intellectual property on XYXX, the genetic code for males and females. (I hadn’t.) The writer than invited me to slither back to my muddy pond and die slowly in pain. Those weren’t the exact words.

Thinking that was that, I carried on preparing for the exhibition. Here’s “Arrivals.” Isn’t it – or wasn’t it – fantastic to watch people waiting for their lovers at an airport? And isn’t it amazing how readily we have the ability to recognise that one special face among thousands. 

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Twenty four knotted ties went into “Man’s World”. Are women left crushed and bleeding by the male monster? Or are the women weeping tears of laughter at the guys’ ridiculous power plays? Or are they oozing excitement at men’s overpowering sexuality?

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Some months later, I was dawdling around a department store. You can imagine my surprise when I saw that Mexx perfumes, also a subsidiary of Proctor and Gamble, had launched a line of perfumes: “Nice” and “Wild” – XX for her and XX for… well… her as well. Two girls hanging on to each other. Buy the perfume and you get a strappy little pink bag for free. 

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In the first exhibition, I exhibited a painting called “XXXX” – top left here. It was painted as a gift for two lady friends who were about to celebrate a civil partnership. I was the witness at their ceremony. (That’s me… the tiny little blue entity bottom left.) It’s most unlikely that including the girls’ pink bags would have been influenced by my “Pretty Women” painting and and all its luscious Julia Roberts shopping bags!

So I carried on painting. This is “Fantasy” A kind of fly-away-on-a-ballon romantic notion for the happy XYXX couple at centre. I got the idea from seeing a hot air balloon being inflated in the park near here. 

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Of all the paintings I did at this time, I enjoyed doing “Nocturne” the most. I loved laying out the regular key board geometry on the sheet music of Chopin’s nocturnes. Great music for people who have been in love for a long time.

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Some months later, I was flicking through a glossy in-flight magazine. I was more than a little surprised when I saw this image promoting Hugo Boss’s “Boss Pure” because….

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….. “Dream Diver” (below) was my first ever oil painting. It has never been exhibited. 

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But I did have a party at my studio once. I didn’t recognise all the guests.

We went through the worst attack we’ve ever had on XYXX, this is worst attack we’ve ever had. This is worse than Pearl Harbor, this is worse than the World Trade Center. There’s never been an attack like this. And it should have never happened. Could’ve been stopped at the source. Could’ve been stopped in China. It should’ve been stopped right at the source. And it wasn’t.

All XYXX photos thanks to Peter Hobden (