The COVID Chronicles – 18

Geneva, 27 June, 2021


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New Zealand, the brightest beacon of covid-correctness, is sitting smugly in its own unique elysian isolation. The Land of the Long White Cloud is, according to friends there, going through a process of rediscovery. Those happy-go-lucky kiwis are finding places and community as they were before being swamped by hoards of inconsiderate overseas tourists (like me.) Life, it seems, is just a box of fluffy ducks. And there is good news elsewhere. Despite disruption of their formal education, children are reading more books as a result of the lockdowns. The property market is booming in many countries as those who can tele-work re-assess the necessity of living close to urban centres. Outdoor pursuits such as cycling see an unprecedented hike in popularity. E-meeting systems – through their quality and people’s increasing familiarity with them – are becoming accepted as the norm. I met a cosmetic surgeon who claims to be in the pink thanks to the pandemic. He says people are so horrified by confronting their own image on zoom all day and every day that they want just a little teeny-weeny botox injection.

And how time flies! It is nearly eighteen months since the disappearance of jet streams from the skies over Geneva and the appearance of supermarket trolleys piled high with toilet paper. Little by little we have become accustomed to life in the era of COVID-19. And what’s more, it is now clear that this is something that is with us for good.  We just have to work out how best to live with interim measures involving masks, hand sanitisers, social distancing (there’s a phrase we hadn’t heard before March 2020!) and travel restrictions. Meantime, we await the ultimate means to control the virus’s impact; that is, a sufficient proportion of the human population being immune to serious COVID-19 infections through vaccination.

But then, as has become apparent, it’s not so simple. A year ago, we believed the roll out of an effective vaccination programme would simply clear up the aftermath of the pandemic (or first) wave and prevent a second wave. Last December, we had the welcome news that an effective vaccine would be available in 2021. This news coincided with the reality that a second wave was already under way in many countries. Little did we know that the virus would show its true colours and keep many steps ahead of us by generating even more transmissible versions of itself that show no respect for national boundaries. The foreseen roll out of vaccination campaigns has turned into a desperate race to keep up with the new variants; the big fear being one such will pop up that is vaccine resistant. On a global scale, inequitable access to vaccines, testing protocols and global travel restrictions including mandatory quarantine have become, predictably, major political issues.

A conversation after a round of golf. Me: “Have you had your vaccinations yet?” Golfer1 (articulate, educated, businessperson): “No, I don’t trust them.” Me: “Who don’t you trust?” Golfer1 “The World Health Organisation.” Me: “Why don’t you trust the WHO?” Golfer1 “They changed their definition of a flu pandemic in 2009. And their vaccines are dangerous.” Me: “Urrm… OK … but it’s your government that is running the vaccination programme… and all evidence points to the vaccines being safe.” Golfer1 considers this for a moment and lights up another cigarette. I wonder if I have at hand a copy of “Health for Dummies.” Golfer2 (health-care professional) joins the conversation: “I’m not going to get vaccinated. I’m waiting to see what happens.” Me: “What is it that might happen that you’re waiting to see?” Golfer2: “Oh, you know, side-effects. Case numbers. Things like that.” My mind boggled. My jaw-dropped. “Brace! Brace! Brace!” screamed a voice in my head.

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Source: Johns Hopkins

As I write, news comes in of booming case numbers and overloaded health facilities in St Petersburg, Russia. This coincides with – and may be linked to – that city hosting several of the European (Football) Championship matches. Sydney, Australia, is in lockdown again as a result of a spike in cases of the delta variant. And the Olympic Games in Japan are just weeks away. Current case numbers there are higher than the peak of the first wave. This does not look good.

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Source: Johns Hopkins

Concerns about the global economic impact of the pandemic seem to be bubbling away on a back burner; at least for the time being. I haven’t come across any credible predictions about how this is going to play out in the months and years ahead. Having said that, there is evidence of strong undercurrents in the great money ocean. Perceptions of the Swiss Franc as a financial safe-haven in global hard times have forced Swiss banks to bring in negative interest rates. Yes, negative interest!! This is to deter people simply loading up their Swiss accounts. My bank announced a couple of weeks ago that savings would be charged 0.75% per annum. Conversely, if I were to take out a mortgage with them, I would benefit from a negative interest rate meaning that I would ultimately pay back less than I borrowed. The world of high finance slips even further from my comprehension. 

I’ve had my two vaccinations. Case numbers here in Switzerland are dropping dramatically. This will be the last of these chronicles….. unless, for whatever reason, we go back into full lockdown.

Lake Bike

Bike with shells 1

I am strolling down by the lakeside with my three-year-old. He stops and points. His tiny finger indicates what has caught his interest. For once it is not something that could be a dinosaur bone. A bicycle leans against a wall; it looks as though it has been ridden through a flour mill.

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The bike is covered with dried mud and little mussel-like shells. Fascinating! To think…. Someone designed the bike. Someone built it. Someone bought it. Someone rode it. Someone threw it in the lake. And then someone, somehow, got it out of the lake and left it there to be discovered by a passer-by who was intrigued enough to photograph it (noting how the molluscs seem to be particularly attracted to the gear cogs.)

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I can’t help thinking that Lake Bike merits a more dignified resting place. Maybe I’ll wrap the saddle, pedals and handle bars in leopard skin, attach a pink neon light or two and hang it upside down from the ceiling of a contemporary gallery? Well…. maybe!

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Qlocktwo: Contemporary and chic time-telling

This blog has featured some truly innovative and beautiful stuff related to human’s obsession with knowing the time. Remember Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” or Maarten Baas’s Schiphol clock?

If you’re looking for that very special gift or the coolest of wall features for your office, take a look at the fabulous Qlocktwo. You’ll find it at Gregoire’s bijouterie in Geneva’s Old Town.

Bunkers, fist bumps and woodpeckers: the 17th Chronicle of “these times”

Geneva, 1 May, 2021


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How I miss our annual golfing holiday in Scotland! We took a cold, wet Sunday stroll on the Old Course at Saint Andrew’s a couple of years back. That’s me on the edge of the appropriately named “Hell Bunker” on the 14th “Long” hole. Most non-golfers will know that to find your ball in a bunker is never good news. And there’s a saying: “If you think your ball might be in the bunker, it probably is.” This observation is simply based on the laws of physics. Gravity dictates that the ball will settle at the lowest possible point. (If bunkers were mounds of sand, the ball would be much less likely to settle on one!) 

You may ask what this has to do with “these times;” by that I mean the current global crisis that is absorbing all our thoughts and energies. Well, one year ago we were all about washing hands, buying packs of pasta and, inexplicably, hoarding toilet paper. We started to bump fists or tap elbows instead of shaking hands. (Fist bumps seem to have won the day.) Keeping our distance from others, staying at home, teleworking and face coverings soon kicked in. The case numbers fell quite rapidly; surprising in retrospect. It was in about June last year that I first heard an expert say that the only way out of this crisis ultimately was the v-injection. Look at us now! There is talk of third and even fourth waves in a number of countries despite all the measures taken. The v-injection roll-out in different countries and the Asian origins of the little tinker (from now on in these chronicles known as the “LT”) are highly and dangerously politicised. Despite the uncontested efficacy of the current v-injections we are, quite simply, caught in a race between, on one hand, the human ability to innovate, communicate and organise, and on the other, the LT’s extraordinary ability – despite our best efforts – to continue to leap from person to person with increasing ease by clever spontaneous variations in its genetic code. The full implications of those genetic variations are unknown and most experts are preparing us for the long haul. One thing is sure: relaxing those awful measures that we have come to hate is likely to boost case numbers again. More case numbers mean a higher likelihood of variations; getting on flights makes the spread of these variations likely. And so on. I can’t help thinking this dangerous scenario is dictated by some as yet unrecognised law of biology. In brief, I’m worried about where the ball is going. And if you think the ball may be in the bunker, it probably is! I hope I am wrong and wish I could be less pessimistic. And, yes. I lose sleep over it.

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Great Spotted Woodpecker. Photo by: Andrej Chudý (on Flickr)

One surprising source of joy in “these times” is that we have a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major) busily preparing a nesting site in a dead tree right in front of our balcony. On-line sources say that the male does most of the pecking away at the hole of the nest-to-be and that the female comes along and pecks around the hole, goes into it as if to inspect it and then flies away. What I’ve not found reference to is that these guys seem to be working on three holes at the same time. Anyway, we are excited beyond reason by the thought that we may, in the weeks to come, see some young Woodies coming out of their nest-hole. The first Red Kites have arrived from African skies and circle overhead emitting their sad shrieks. And of course, the Pigeons are paring up and doing their Pigeon stuff… just as they did last year at this time.

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Pigeon Love 35cm x 35cm Neocolour and watercolour mix

I have my first v-injection next week. Watch this space!

Art as chronicles: images of native American life by George Catlin and Karl Bodmer

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I am standing on a bluff looking out over the Missouri River in North Dakota. There is a stillness and quiet here, only broken by the sound of Red-wing Blackbird song, Chorus Frog call and the distant sound of Canada Geese. Tears roll down my cheeks; I am here at last. A lifetime of reading, studying and dreaming about this place is fulfilled. This is a highpoint of my Western American road trip in the Spring of 2015.

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Karl Bodmer. Fort Clarke in the winter of 1833-4

Although now empty of human activity, on this very spot in 1832 stood the rough and ready, wooden-pallisaded trading post, Fort Clarke. Close by was the Mandan village of Mih-Tutta-Hang-Kush. The lives of the Mandan people was chronicled by two artists. George Catlin visited them in 1832 and Karl Bodmer travelled in the Prince Maximillian expedition of the Upper Missouri River in the winter of 1833-4. Prince Maximillian was an explorer and chronicler. His ethnologic notes with Bodmer’s watercolours made up his treatise on the Mandans, supplementing and corroborating the relevant parts of Catlin’s vast work on North American indians. These men brought to the outside world a visual picture of the native peoples of this region before white influence changed their culture and appearance for ever. They anticipated the tragic future of the Indians. I first saw their drawings and pictures when I was eight years old. They left me with a fascination for everything and anything to do with North American indians.

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George Catlin: Portrait of Mah-to-toh-pa

Mah-to-toh-pa (Four Bears), was a Mandan hero and head man. He was also a veteran of the O-kee-pa torture ritual that was witnessed by Catlin. In 1832 Catlin wrote “Oh! “horribile visu – et mirabile dictu!” Thank God, it is over, that I have seen it, and am able to tell it to the world”. He was the only white man ever to witness the O-kee-pa ritual of the Mandan. As a boy, I soaked up accounts of these horrors; they served only to deepen my interest in a people and a culture that was so far removed from anything I knew.  

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Karl Bodmer: The banks of the Missouri River

Bodmer was a watercolourist in the Victorian style and painted the landscapes that the expedition traversed, the wildlife and the peoples of the Missouri River. Catlin painted in oils and rendered fine drawings in pen and ink. He later painted many exquisite and historically important portraits of Indians from across America. His energy and his output was extraordinary. As you can imagine these guys were tough. They witnessed violence and murder and endured incredible hardships in order to feed their desire to discover and chronicle those discoveries. The journey up the Missouri by boat from St Louis to the Mandan country took three months! I just drove there, parked my car and wandered around to explore! We owe these men a great debt.

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Karl Bodmer: A Mah-to-toh-pas robe
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George Catlin: Drawing of an interior of a Mandan lodge

Artists who have also served as chroniclers include war artists, court artists and scientific illustrators. The reason for their creating is quite different from simply rendering a thing of beauty or an idea. They speak to us of the times and from the times in which they worked. Their work, unlike the written chronicle, has an inbuilt honesty to it. They are much less likely, or even able, to exaggerate or lie; for their reference sits before them and often with witnesses.

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Karl Bodmer: Portrait of Pehriska-Ruhpa

This portrait is a watercolour of a Minnetaree man, and friend of Mah-to-toh-pa, Pehriska-Ruhpa. He wears the ceremonial regalia of the Dog Band, the highest of the male orders. The Minnetarees had a shared culture with the Mandan and lived in villages further upstream. This portrait, later turned into an engraving, is considered to be the greatest ethnological rendering ever made. It accompanies a most detailed description of Pehriska-Ruhpa by Prince Maximillian.

At the time of the visits by Catlin and Bodmer, there existed only about 1,600  Mandan people. They had already been decimated by smallpox; a disease brought by white fur trappers and traders and to which the Mandans had no immunity. By 1836 the Mandan were all but extinct. Had these chroniclers got there just three years later one of the most extraordinary human cultures would be unknown today. And this brings me back to the O-kee-pa ritual.

In Letter No. 22 of his two volume work, Catlin chronicles, in full detail, the ritual where Mandan men voluntarily submitted to the most agonising tortures for the good of the people. It has to be among the most accomplished pieces of ethnologic observation and writing about the most bizarre ritual that our species has invented. It has changed how I think about mankind. 

Bibliography

Bodmer pictures from: “People of the First Man. The first hand account of Prince maximillian’s expedition up the Missouri River, 1833-34.” Published by E.P. Dutton, New York, 1976.

Catlin pictures from: “Letters & Notes on the Manners, Customs & Conditions of North American Indians.” Published by Dover Publications Inc. New York, 1973.