“London Diary 4” by Jimmy Burns OBE
- Posted by Cristina A-C
- On April 14, 2020
- Jimmy Burns, News
“London Diary 4” by Jimmy Burns OBE
Monday 6th April
News that Boris Johnson has gone into intensive care generates an outpouring of get better messages from around the UK, friends, supporters, political opponents. Well known figures in several countries around the world have fallen victim to the virus-in Spain it has hit several well-known politicians and personalities, killing some of them- but this is the first government leader who remains popular domestically that is close to being at such a high level of risk from C-19 to his own life.
As a younger man in 1918, Boris’s icon Churchill survived the so called Spanish Flu, then as wartime prime-minister he suffered a mild heart attack in December 1941 while meeting his friend and most important ally Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House shortly after Pearl Harbour. Two years later, in 1943, he contracted pneumonia, but pulled through to see out WW2 leading the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ of the British people to final victory over Hitler.
Future enquiries may focus on whether too many British lives were needlessly sacrificed to C-19 because of poor planning and resources committed by the Johnson government, as personified by Boris’s own initial laissez-faire attitude to his own health and safety and the belated British lock-down. And yet the UK has remained relatively united behind the evolving strategy of stay safe guidelines throughout the UK and centralised planning for building up the capacity of the NHS, in contrast to the devolved regional and national mud-slinging between Spanish politicians-particularly the opposition right wing parties against the socialist led government and persistent tensions between Catalan independists and the rest of Spain – that has remained relentless during the pandemic.
If Boris remains popular it is because he has refrained from blowing his own and his party’s political trumpet, and been managing instead to strike just the right balance between well versed morale boosting encouragement and, as the pandemic has developed, the articulation of hard reality drawn from expert advice even while still giving the nation a sense of self-belief in its ability to contain and ultimately defeat the virus without having to be forced to do so by a police crack-down.
His determination to continue to remain upbeat while sharing the extent to which he had been infected by the virus, brought him in a very personal sense to the heart of the nation’s sense of fragility, pain and suffering, humanising him in a way no one who voted against him could have imagined just weeks ago when the main characteristic that defined our prime-minister was his arrogance with getting Britain out of the EU however divisive.
I never thought I would pray for Boris, but I have taken to doing so with genuine empathy.
Tuesday: 7th April
Bills and promotions of different kinds have creased to come through my letter box- a reflection perhaps that even the most ruthless of debt collectors are accepting that money’s tight, and some people might be fighting for their lives.
Thankfully my essential read of the week The Tablet continues to arrive, thanks to one of my local unsung heroes, postman Hassan.
The leading English international Catholic weekly is very much more than that. It provides a refreshingly non-judgemental insight on the world with some excellent writers on culture, society, politics and theology, encompassing diverse opinions and expression of faith and doubt. British journalism at its best, like the FT and the BBC.
Wednesday 8th April
My daily walk in Battersea Park. The bird song from the early pre-dawn call of the blackbird through to the sequence of tweets and trills of the tits, chaffinch, and wrens, among others, is heraldic.
As Tim Dee puts it in his latest timely book ‘Greenery: Journey in Spring Time’ birds like swifts and swallows can travel like messages, bringing news from everywhere.
I am missing watching the arrival of certain seasonal migrants at this time of year as I am unable during this extended lock-down to travel to Spain, but London’s Battersea Park is not short of other birds, connecting time and space. Like Dee, I am into my sixth decade. Old age is upon me, almost, and this virus doesn’t make one feel any younger whether you have it or simply fear it. I realise, as Dee does, that birds, like flowers and trees, do not stop time, and that Spring’s birth holds the seeds of summer’s death. But the lock-down is at least renewing our focus on what really matters, even if many of us have to struggle against the odds to follow Dee’s definition of a day fully lived, “not missing anything, seeing how the world goes by being with it as it goes.”
One of my fellow Park enthusiasts Suzanne messages me to alert me to where she had spotted a dead fox hidden from the main public routes. It is lying at the water edge of a small island –very russet, blending with the colours of the wild undergrowth of spring, seemingly untouched and peaceful , as if sleeping.
I look at it from just across the water, from Henry Moore’s Three Standing Figures 1947, a large stone statue of three draped women which the artist developed from a series of drawn observations of people in underground bomb shelters during World War Two. Moore said of the women, that it was as if they were “expecting something from the sky.”
A few feet away, an Egyptian mother goose has gathered her goslings to her in a collective sleep while a mother swan lies curled up in her large nest, perfectly weaved as an artisan’s basket, and waits to hatch the first of the year’s signets, in the exact same spot as last year. Could it be that the male killed the predatory Fox in defence of his territory and future family? I speculate.
Along with the fresh greening of long enduring trees from plain and chestnut to oak-the park is bursting with buds, blossom, and flowers –bluebells and camellias, white daffodils, radiant pink blossom, and lilac , periwinkles , primroses, and anemones form part of a growing multicoloured and symphonic space.
I meet at a safe distance my friends Carla, a young carer and the frail if spirited elderly lady in her charge called Daisy. Although she has the early stages of dementia, Daisy has not lost her love of the Park. Carla carefully calibrates her walk to ensure that none gets too near Daisy, while encouraging recognition, and fleeting conversations of mural reassurance that life is still worth living. So far the Park is proving a lifeline for Daisy as for others who benefit from the fresh air and exercise and I hope will continue to be able to so, with policing by consent and community spirit ensuring that no one is put at risk. I also hope that as a result of this crisis, the unsung, and under resourced heroic care workers like Carla will get the recognition they deserve.
Thursday 9th April
I have lost track of the number of memes that I have received unsolicited via my I-phone or computer. These images or pieces of text while occasionally humorous are often inappropriate, even cruel and distressing, disregarding the sensitivities of the recipient as they are spread rapidly by Internet users, often to suit a prejudice.
The memes form part of the relentless dose of information flooding the wild landscape of our communications in this digital age- showing a particular virulence of intrusion into the available page of our collective consciousness during the C-19 pandemic. It is a time of great uncertainty, seemingly beyond our control, of physical separation, where we feel a need to stay connected, however virtual the engagement, and yet it is almost impossible to hold people to account in a tangible sense.
Thankfully there are countless memes that are funny, and others that touch our hearts. After deleting an image of Julie Andrews being arrested by police as she runs through the hills “alive with the sound of music”, I listen to the latest social media feed from the BritishSpanish Society: “La Saeta”, the beautiful lament before the image of Jesus of Nazareth carrying his Cross sung by Joan Manuel Serrat and break down crying. “This is the song of the Andalusian people that every spring begs to be allowed to climb the steps to the Cross, the song of my land that throws flowers….”
Friday 10th April
An update message from the coordinator of my local community based initiative to help these feeling isolated and vulnerable reports that hundreds of volunteers have signed up working together in solidarity for the common good and the many being supported in different ways from home deliveries to phone conversations. At my local café -reduced in business terms to a take away and NHS support service since the lock-down – my friend Angelo and Ludovica covered in protective masks and gloves are delivering a box of Sicilian oranges and pasta to a local team of doctors.
Saturday 11th April
I listen on BBC Radio Four playback to the final episode of the Passion in Plants with the naturalist Bob Gilbert and his friend the Franciscan friar Brother Sam. They are celebrating the culmination of the Easter story, seeking out the plants associated with the Resurrection. As Christ emerged from the tomb, they tell me, it is the pearl wort, according to Gaelic legends, that cushions his steps. (My niece in Madrid coincidentally messaged me the other day to say that grass had begun appearing through the paved stones of the barely trampled upon locked down streets of the Spanish capital).
I am also reminded of the story of Mary Magdalene being the first to meet the risen Christ and mistaking him for a gardener. As she reaches out towards him he tells her not to touch him. The Biblical story gives its name to the late flowering ‘touch-me-not’ balsam.
I head for the Park and lose myself in the wild undergrowth near the Chelsea Gate, looking, amid the bluebells and the nettles and the broken branches, for the wood sorrel that flowers around Easter and is otherwise known as the Alleluia plant.
Sunday 12th April
Uplifting and prophetic ‘virtual’ Easter Urbi et Orbi (“To the City and to the World”) message from Pope Francis streamed live for a global audience. He is standing in a nearly empty St Peter’s basilica. I am thinking the words that resonate are FAITH, SOLIDARITY, COMPASSION, AND TRANSFORMATION when news emerges that Boris has been discharged from hospital.
With not so feint echoes of a wartime Churchill engaging with ordinary folk, and rallying the troops and fighter pilots of the RAF, Boris pays tribute to the doctors and nurses of the NHS who have saved his life, as they battle, not always successfully to save the lives of others. He singles out two nurses for caring for him through the worst hours of his ordeal –one Portuguese, the other from New Zealand. It should serve to remind people of the international nature of the NHS workforce. But Boris is also quick to define the NHS (without mentioning of course that it was a key part of the post-war welfare state that emerged, lest we forget, after Churchill’s election defeat by Labour in 1945) as a uniquely British achievement, now more than ever, as he had become in the eyes of many of his countrymen, a symbol of national resilience.
One wonders how genuinely transformative Boris’s near-death experience will prove to be for him and for the future of the UK.