Covid-Nineteen Rag


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It might help if you remember Country Joe and the Fish at Woodstock, doing their Fixin’ to Die Rag. If you don’t, it’s on Youtube

Either way, hot off the press, this is The Covid-Nineteen Rag by Country Dom and the Kids

Gimme an F —
Gimme a U —
Gimme a C —
Gimme a K —
What don’t I give? —
What don’t I give? —
What don’t I give? —
What don’t I give? —

You British women, British men
Your country needs your help again
We got a virus, small and mean
That some folks call Covid-Nineteen
The only way to save your heart
Is stayin’ six feet apart

But it’s one, two, three, what are we locked down for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t need the hassle
Next stop is Barnard Castle
And it’s five, six, seven, it’s my birthday mate
I’m a Tory MP, so the rules don’t apply
Whoopee, yer gran’s gonna die

Now you can all take back control
As long as you ain’t sick or old
Put your old folks into care
You don’t even have to go and see ’em there.
I made these rules, but don’t you see,
They don’t apply to me

[chorus] And it’s …

Hey stock market, you can see
This gonna ruin the e-con-o-mee
But billionaires can do just fine
Supplying fake meds to the ol’ front line
Just clap them carers, shout woo-hoo
(Long as it don’t kill you too)

[chorus] And it’s …

Come all you suckers throughout the land
Don’t wear no masks or wash your hands
Go out and protest, ‘cross the nation
It’s our chance to cull the population
And you can sit in your own front room
And bury your folks via Zoom

[chorus] So it’s …

I thank you

Can’t You Do Anything Right?


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 Fuck me, here beginneth my fifth straight year of weekly blogging. I really must try to get a life! Anyway, here we go …


It has always dismayed me, that humans who develop a strong dislike of someone or some institution, however justified or unjustified that may be in the main, will then view every little thing through bile coloured glasses. I suppose it’s the mirror to the love obbject that can do no wrong, when lighting farts seems charmingly boyish and missing the toilet just one of his adorable ways.

In a West Midlands office where your friendly blogger used to work, there was an interesting chap — let’s call  him Jehosaphat, which was nothing like his real name.

Jehosaphat was an affable lad, but had a very slow and nasal West Country way of speaking that gave the prima facie impression of his being rather dull-witted. This turned out to be anything but the case. He was quite the intellectual, reading a wide range of literature and thought-provoking non-fiction and having extremely catholic tastes in art and music, a fellow-journeyman on that road less travelled that leads to the shores and depths of Grieve-Not Lake.

For reasons unknown, possibly due to his carefully thought out manner of expression or more likely his unconventional outlook on ‘advancement’, he had not gone down traditional routes to ‘success’. He seemed quite happy to do his weekly 37 hours of data prep in a local government office, so as to concentrate on his cultural interests in his free time. For this was in the days when us computer programmer types sent sheets of code to an office full of typists (all women, but for Jehosaphat), who produced decks of punched cards for ingestion by the room-sized computer. Suffice it to say that Jehosaphat’s cultural tastes set him apart from his fellow workers (and it’s important to add that in no way did he think this made him ‘superior’ to any of them, even if they naturally assumed it did).

And thus was Jehosaphat roundly disliked and an object of suspicion, derision and no doubt any other negative -ions you can think of.

And the wife and I (who liked him a lot) noted that this came out in the oddest of ways. One year, having saved up his shekels, Jehosaphat went on a Grand Tour holiday to see art and architecture in some part or parts of the Continent. This of course got enough comments from the lassies, as anyone who went on holiday to do other than sit on a beach all day and booze all night must have something wrong with them. Fair enough. But then Jehosaphat also sent jolly postcards to us in programming and analysis as well as his own, unappreciative colleagues in DP. And this was also derided; it’s hard to work out just why the word ‘typical!’ was spat out in this context. Maybe the suggestion was that it made him a creep or in some way ‘superior’ — maybe there was some guilt that they were rarely bother or sober enough to do it themselves.

But the thing that struck us most forcefully related to his handwriting on said cards. It was exquisitely neat and aesthetic and legible (none of which could be said about your faithful blogger’s scrawls — thank  heaven for keyboards, worm professors and spiel chequers). The contemptuous tone with which we heard two of his colleagues comment, “Huh! Trust him to have dead boring neat handwriting!” summed up my whole thesis:

It seems, once people see you in a negative light, you really cannot win.

Now, I loathe and despise our current government, but I thought one of the few sensible things Bozzer Johnson ever did was to write two pieces, one arguing for and one against the UK leaving the EU. It was roundly attacked by liberals as evidence of his duplicitous nature, but that way of crystallising one’s thoughts has a long and noble history. We certainly did something like it in English lessons at my (state) secondary school, and I believe it’s a mainstay of a Jewish shul education — before you make a decision, try to see both sides. That BJ then chose the dumbarse option is the thing we should get at him for, not that he made an effort to see both sides.

And maybe it’s just your blogger’s nature not only to look for some good in everyone, but to seek some sense in even their dumbest utterances. Even those of that rich seam of absurdity which is Donald Trump.

There is a saying that the only stupid question is the one you fail to ask.
Another of my ex colleagues, a descendant of Rabbie Burns’ brother, did his best to disprove that, by asking some of the daftest questions I’ve ever heard; but it’s also a mainstay of business brainstorming that you never let a fear of seeming ridiculous stop you suggesting things, however outlandish.

The world (except his die-hard fans) derided the Donald for his suggestion that there might be a way that bleach or uv light, both deadly to our little friend the novel corona virus, might be introduced to the bodies of its victims. And yes, a little thought would tell us that it’s the nature of light to need a clear medium to travel through and that bleach destroys the virus because it destroys most organic cells, including (as the ads assure us) 99% of all household germs and a similar percentage of our own fucking bodies!

But, but, but…

Let’s go back to a hospital in Paddington, London, in 1928, where a researcher finds that some mould has got into his bacteria cultures and killed off his sample. And apply the Trumpian question of, ‘is there some way we could get this mould into the body to kill the germs there?’ What if the response had been equally derisory? What if folks had said, ‘yeah, but, no, but, we all know that eating mouldy food can make you really sick, so you’re a twat even to ask that’?
No antibiotics.

So the question ‘is there some way of getting that effect in the human body?’ turned out then to be quite a smart one, which Alexander Fleming’s team (despite his initial resistance) and the visionary brilliance of Dotty Hodgkin were able to develop into a revolutionary treatment which has prolonged millions of lives (even if it is looking like becoming less effective now).

OK, maybe the bleach question is still a bit more like, ‘fire destroys coronavirus; is there some way setting fire to people might help?’, but all questions are worth asking (as long as the population is too well-educated to start drinking Domestos or to ignore the fact that you have friends who are selling it or hydrochlorosnakoilo).

But I guess we are an ad hominem species. When we take against a hominem, we are rather blinded to their better qualities, even if, like Jehosaphat, they have many, and their helpful utterances, if, like Donald, they might just come out one day with a less stupid one than drinking bleach.


Chesses and Foods


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The other day, musing on a pertinent subject for these times, I thought of a great routine, and decided it would make an humorous wee post to share with my reader.

Gone. Didn’t make a note. Brain blank.

So I need to share other shit.

Firstly, the chess set is finito! Fifty plus years after first seeing it in a book and coveting it, eighteen years after seeing it in the flesh (well, boxwood) and coveting it even more, and ten years after having the wood turned and starting to whittle away …

Buffed, varnished and felt on the bottom (chess set, not me). There be a page about it on the website. This is the second attempt, so I now have two (very slightly different) sets; I prefer the second, though in some ways the first is closer to the Ernst original.

And speaking of chess, I now have a makruk app on my phone, so I can lose at Thai Chess to Alisa, as a change from losing at Western chess to Stockfish.

Of course, fifty years ago I actually played the bloody game quite often. Now there are precious few folks to play with — I have no desire to play any games against remote opponents; to me the ‘joy’ of such things is the face to face interaction (and the chance to intimidate with weapons, when play goes badly). I did find one guy down the local cemetery.

Good player. I was lucky to draw (I think the pieces confused him). He says he’ll play me again soon.

Meanwhile I’ve also been doing pictorial recipes (Me, the Thirteenth Duke of Wimbourne, make video blogs of cookery? In my kitchen? With my standards of hygiene? I don’t think so!)

My tagine recipe has had over two and a half thousand hits!

OK, I admit it, that was on Weibo, in Chinaland. Two and a half thousand, as a proportion of the Chinese population, is about the same as seven folks here in Scotland. I wonder if any of them understood it (in Chinaland or Scotland).

[My Chinese chum always refers to ‘foods’ and my Japanese ex wondered why we Brits use ‘-land’ as a suffix for some countries and not others, so …]

Stay healthy, folks!

A Jotter of the Plague Year


Random thoughts, probably all bollocks.

This land of 70 million people has officially had about 200,000 cases of cv19 (which I shall call it for ease of typing). So that’s one in 350 people. OK, our testing and reporting rates are poor, so working up from about 30k deaths at the sort of rate more testy countries report, and it could be more like 400k infections. But then nearly half of the reported total is also reported as recoveries by now, so maybe it’s not far off to say that, after weeks of reduced contact, the chances of that guy you got close to in the supermarket being a carrier or spreader are less than one in two hundred.
Perspective is important in these things.
But complacency can be fatal, so still assume everyone you pass has it and keep your distance. If they seem to be getting too close, shoot them. Better safe than sorry.
Oh, and wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Especially after shooting people. Powder traces can be a dead giveaway.

Will a second wave necessarily be worse? I’ve no idea. Will those countries we point to as being so good at containment just suffer more with wave 2? Or, as the actual infection rate in all countries is still quite low, will the ‘immunity’ the bigger sufferers like us are building up be enough to make any difference (if indeed immunity does follow from infection)?

Rightly we look to excess deaths to get an idea of impact. At this peak, the average weekly deaths are about double the usual figure of around 10k, even though all this isolation is keeping figures down for flu and other infections. But will people consider the deficiency figures in the aftermath: those, especially the already sick and elderly, who would have been found in the ranks of death, had they not been carried already by our new wee friend?
(Incidentally, I was remembering how, in the days before antibiotics and advanced pain relief, pneumonia was sometimes referred to as ‘the old person’s friend’, because it was what usually finished off relatively peacefully the terminally ill and suffering oldsters)

It seems quite sensible to me, a mathematician by training, that a scientific advisory body for this situation would contain behaviourists and number-crunchers. But there seems to be an ascendance of the utilitarian nerd these days, and I worry that a certain subset of them has the idea that numbers are everything. I don’t have any doubt that data, the bigger the better, can reveal and predict things that more focused experts often can’t see. But I can’t see that the computer guy can appreciate the whole picture without the specialist, in this case the virologist and the epidemiologist. Context may not be everything but it is crucial.
When it comes to stupidity, no one outdoes the highly intelligent.

[BTW, I understand the basics of mutation and evolution, but I must admit to being baffled as to how one strain of a virus can supplant another, especially worldwide, over time. Trillions of the wee buggers are produced in any given victim. Some will be viable newbies, most will perish as non-functioning specks. But why does one strain, or even totally new thingy, not just live alongside its parents and cousins? Who’s competing for what limited resources/niches with whom? I can sort of see possibilities, but can’t really visualise the processes. I need a virologist. Preferably a rich widow virologist, looking for companionship and meals out.]

A common utilitarian cry at the moment is the idea (not without foundation) that the cure will be worse than the disease, ie economic collapse will kill more people than cv19.
Well, one problem with this is that we still don’t really know what the long term effects numbers for this disease might be (permanent lung damage, kidney damage and excess brain clotting have already been shown as possible), nor whether immunity can be gained or a vaccine found — and as it is still mutating, albeit slowly, in what form it will ‘settle down’.

But I still feel that to some extent these ‘economic deaths’ are a matter of choice, whereas cv19 deaths are compulsory. An article in the Grauniad this morning spoke of the ‘suspension of capitalism’ and the ‘wartime economics’ of ’39-’45, for instance. As far as I can see, the people able to offer services and work will mostly still be there when the dust settles, as will the ‘consumers’ (ie people who need shit); and there’ll be a backlog of needs to keep everybody busy. The economics that works so awfully (ie well for a few, sufficiently for most and craply for the ‘undeserving poor’) actually causes the problems at a time like this. The WWII responses proved that even capitalist economists (when I say ‘capitalist’, I include state capitalists and pseudo-commies) appreciate this fact. So to what extent will the kontinuation killer be the system’s own refusal to suspend the money flow based purely on capital (rents, mortgages, wages, debts, etc), rather than any real shortfall in the operation of the underlying economy of needs and supplies?

As an anarchist I should of course be delighted at the prospect of economic collapse and the popular  awakening to the hollow evil of the whole system of money and hierarchy. As an ageing pessimist, I’d say, yeah, right, don’t hold yer breath.

Cavatina (Feliz Cumpleaños, Carlos)


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Regular readers (hah!) might know that I discovered the Spanish ‘postist’ poet, Carlos Edmundo de Ory, in my old stamping ground of Cádiz, Spainland, back in 2018. I’ve felt moved to mention him here a few times, starting with Poet, Escaping in September of that year, and have made amateur attempts at rendering his surreal and sonorous works in English (most recently, his Imágenes/Images).

Well, despite the fact that this month, I ‘ave been mostly translating Du Fu, I realised that Monday would have been old Charlie’s 97th birthday. So it seemed only right to dip back into my copy of Melos Melancolía, his final collection (1999), and tbh the only one I own.

I rather liked his Cavatina, and decided to have a go at rendering it in vaguely mellifluous English. I tried not to be too daunted by the fact that it had, unusually for de Ory, a rhyme-scheme, not quite falling into a steady pattern of quatrains. In Spanish, being an inflected language (ie one with set word endings for tense and person), multiple rhymes are easier to find and less trite-sounding. So the occasional sestet of triple rhymes was maybe best avoided in English. I offer slightly staggered quatrains and … well, anything that seemed to work, basically. And de Ory never uses punctuation unless you count upper case letters to begin new ‘sentences’. I couldn’t resist adding it, I’m anal that way. It helps me when reading it out, at least, and my version, like Ory’s work, really has to be read aloud to have its optimum effect (even if that’s just to confuse and annoy the listener).

Apart from a couple of complex patches, I think I’ve got the flavour right and much of the meaning. Checking my poetic licence hasn’t expired, I threw in a few things, (like a beach) and left out others, for the sake of metre and rhyme. Which means my excuse is, I’m not claiming this as a literal translation, but a pome of my own, built on the smouldering ruins of a superior original.

And in case you’re wondering what a cavatina is, I offer the Chambers Dictionary definition: ‘a melody with no second part or da capo; loosely, a short operatic air of a smooth and melodious character, often part of a grand scena‘.

So here goes. Happy birthday, Carlos. And stay healthy, compañeros.


By the torch of silence, with lips to the breeze
that scatters the ashes of futile speech,
I look for a vent where my breath can break free.
His seamless shroud burns nightly on the beach.
If you could leave me, all intact, in calm,
my voice in forgetting the useless word.
Choose to be dumb, and give me the palm
of a mouth sealed from nightly fears, unheard
the strident braying of the soul’s great mare.
The raggéd throat sings songs with a croak,
western or bandaged, in the meagre attire
of a worldy beggar, worn like a cloak.
The empty theatre makes a dent in the night,
where no one applauds the moon or me,
trembling from poetry in my wintery fright
to the monosyllabic branch I’m clinging,
quietly speaking, not knowing what about
like a tree apart breathes pure self-giving.
And the absolute language was straw from the stable,
the place to hug dreams of the Magi’s gifts,
leaving the words in the bed of the devil.
Through the colourless air the angel’s voice drifts,
when the lunar drum of the infinite night
fills my thoughts with archetypal sound.
‘Twas the voice that I knew but had yet to write
before which the pain was embroidered around,
fair, on the black silk of the curséd phrase.
Beauty without homeland, like an anti-soldier
who only his bosom fraternal obeys.
Accuse not the poet of such naked cries —
blood of conscience and silence eternal —
under the proud sun of laughter he dies,
like a fire divine, far beyond the infernal,
while on the world’s altar, in half-light dressed,
the moon waits to say mass after mass,
every night at the hands of her priestess —
and the human dream has a skylight at last


[Carlos Edmundo de Ory (Apr 27, 1923–Nov 11, 2010),
from Melos Melancolía, 1999;
translated Dai Lowe (Nov 21, 2003–Nov 11, 2006),
Edinburgh April 27, 2020]

@Zhang’s Hermitage


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Continuing my reading of the poetry of Du Fu (杜甫; 712–770, see earlier post), still in volume 1 of 6, I found two poems ‘written on the wall at Zhang’s hermitage‘, and decided I’d have a play with them. Anything to delay getting on with the main task at hand, the novel.

As usual, I’m trying to take the flavour, based on my phone’s camera-text translation of the Chinese, and translations by other, more professional and educated folks than what I is. Stephen Owen’s ‘scholarly’ translations in the collected works [Library of Chinese Humanities/de Gruyter, 2016] make a great starting point. But Chinese poetry, especially of this era, is elliptical, aphoristic. The original gives a sense of scattered words, so only an experienced sinologist (or a tame Chinese person, to which I don’t have access under lockdown) can help to draw out some sense; and Owen’s extensive footnotes help to muddy this with alternatives.
[oddly, this is reminiscent of the word-for-word readings of the C14 Welsh of Dafydd ap Gwilym, of which you can read or even click to hear my manglings elsewhere]

Two of Du’s early poems were (literally?) written on the wall at Zhang’s hermitage, and I thought they were both candidates for re-imagining here in Scotland. The first seems literally to be about the titular place, so I moved it to a spot in Edinburgh with poignant personal significance, the ‘Rest and be Thankful’ seat on Corstorphone Hill, mentioned by Stevenson in Kidnapped.

The sight of Zhang’s tame deer, referred to in both poems, was replaced by the sounds of animals in the nearby zoo (I remember sitting there one Christmas Day and being startled by the throaty roar of a lion); the sounds of a woodman’s axe, as the poet, increasingly alone, climbs the wooded hill, were updated to a distant chainsaw. The evocative metaphor of the drifting boat, which various translators seem to apply equally to Du or Zhang, gets shifted to the one I think on wistfully whenever I sit there. Say no more.

Written on a Wall at Zhang’s Hermitage [I]

Consider ye the response of the mobile phone and its translation app. The original texts in the book are photographs, png files, so the camera option, designed for pointing at foreign menus, is my best bet. And it gives something like this:–

Spring mountain, no companion
Wood ding ding mountain is more claustrophobic
The rest of the cold, the ice, the snow
Stone gate slope day to forest hill
No, night, gold and silver
Far harm to look at a high deer swim
Take advantage of the fun and get lost [I love that!]
Suspicion of the kind of virtual boat

But, with the help of Owen’s, very readable, version, I can extract and warp to get my little verse:–

At Rest and be Thankful

Alone on hills of spring I looked for you;
A distant chainsaw, people thinning out.
In lingering chill beside a stream in spate,
in sinking sunlight trudge up to the bench.
All night beneath a gold and silver sky,
hearing the distant captives of the zoo.
My thoughts roam far, all motivation gone;
you seem to me an empty boat, adrift.

As for the second one, this was more about Du meeting up with ‘this gentleman’ (Zhang?), with whom he usually ends up drinking late, watching his deer and enjoying the trees and plants of his garden and lake, before staggering home happy. It was celebratory, wistful and humorous all in one, and I felt it deserved putting into a rhyming verse. I read (and mentioned two posts ago) that the lüshi verse form favoured by Du Fu had a repeated rhyme on the even numbered lines; so why not?

And here, to finish, is the text and my version of …

Written on a Wall at Zhang’s Hermitage [II]


My friend and I meet up from time to time;
‘just dropping by’ runs late into the night.
We watch the goldfish in his garden pond,
beneath the trees by evening’s fading light.
He’s keen to share his favourite local brew;
to shun his tasty snacks were impolite.
The road back home is winding, steep and dark,
yet, walking that way pissed, I feel all right.

Stay safe, people.

That’s Numberwrong!


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Back in skool, I read of tribes, perhaps apocryphal, who could only count up to three, and, naturally, had no concept of zero as a number. After three, they had ‘lots’. And if they had no cows, they ‘didn’t have any cows’; they did not ‘have zero cows’. I don’t know if they had the concept of being owed a cow; maybe they were untainted by the grave error of exchange. Ether way, they’d not think of it as having ‘minus a cow’, even if they were aware that they potentially or effectively had a cow if only Bert  at the other end of the village would eventually get off his lardy arse and give them a cow like they did him once, or he said he would.

So me and my fellow nerds tried to come up with a system of maths based on one, two, three, lots — with the addition of ‘some’  to cover the cases where you couldn’t be sure: you have a cow and I  give you some cows, how many do you have now?

As to zero, I remember being told at uni that there is not just one zero, and this relates to our tribesfolk too. For them there is an obvious difference between not having any cows and not having any goats.

What’s the reason for this  ramble? Well, recently, more than ever, one sees, among numerate chums, a resurgence of the old saying that humanity’s biggest failing is the inability of many to grasp the exponential function.

This and a  tv demonstration by Hannah Fry regarding the spread of covid-19, reminded me of another bit of juvenile reading, concerning the myth of the invention of  chess. The emperor of the land had asked his wise men to come up with a diversion and sure enough (and utterly unhistorically) some clever clogs invented chess. The emperor was delighted and told the sage that he would grant him any (reasonable) wish. The inventor, insisting his needs were simple, asked ‘only’ for some rice, such that he be given one grain for the first square on the board, two for the second, four for the thrid, and so on, doubling the amount on each square.

The ruler did a quick calculation and realised the first eight squares would only need 255 grains, and gave his consent. Not long after, his ministers came to him to point out that to fill all 64 squares on that basis would need more rice than the empire could produce (about 370 billion tonnes — China currently produces about 200 million tonnes a year). As the sage suspected, the emperor had no grasp of the exponential function, but what he failed to take into account is that nobody likes a smartarse; he was beheaded for his presumption.

The other thing folks don’t grasp is statistics. In my first week of compsci at Manchester, the stats lecturer (usually, and this guy was no exception, the most boring subset of academia) asked us what we thought the odds were that there would be two people in our set of 34 who shared the same birthday. ‘Remote’, we all chuntered; ‘tiny’. 365 dates, only 34 people, one in ten at best. After about seven people we found a match, and then he did the sums that proved conclusively it’s around 80% likely that there would be a match. At heart, it’s an exponential issue again, but the point is that, at head, it’s counter-intuitive.

It must go down to how we evolved. Big numbers and fiddly statistical calculations are not necessary when you only need to know how many tigers might be in the area and that the best way to avoid being eaten relies on common sense and experience, rather than number-crunching. And so magicians and governments can play on our assumptions and fool and manipulate us with wowing or calming ‘facts’ and figures, assuming we won’t look at the bigger picture and do the maths (or math, if you wrongly prefer).

We see these principles at work now in the time of covidity. Social media commentaries are full of people who would be better off without their heads, failing to grasp our Hannah’s point. I recently saw someone still arguing that there have been no more deaths than are common for flu at this time of year, and this proved the whole thing was a storm in a Wetherspoons tankard. And indeed, looking up to the date they showed the numbers for, the deaths were not that much more. But then, look at the graph of deaths over the period just before, and the expectations over the next few days (until and if it peaks and starts to go down again). Ten thousand people die every week in this country under normal circumstances, from all causes, as shown on the government stats site the poster referenced. So the death total from cv19, fewer than 3,000 up to then, was no biggie. Yeah, but, no, but, the curve was shooting up faster than Keith Richards in his heyday. In the days after their cut-off, the numbers got closer and closer to a thousand a day (and we now know that was hospital deaths only, care homes providing many uncounted extras). If that continues or even levels at that rate, cv19 will soon be doubling the total weekly death rate — and that now with added distancing. It’s all down to that transmission rate of c2.5; more than the chess guy’s doubled rice grains, and a lot more than the 1.3 of the average flu.

The same, possibly wilful, ignorance of the bigger picture has crept into the latest propaganda war over China. There’s little doubt that China was heavily at fault over letting it get to the level it did, while trying to cover it up (hoping it would go away, perhaps), and they might have massaged the figures down. But the obvious motivation to claim that they vastly understated the problem, is to excuse the actions (or inactions) of countries like the UK, US and a few others, who would never have gone for the herd immunity (aka cull)  approach had they realised how virulent and deadly it could be. So the new narrative is that there were many millions more deaths in China than were admitted to, proving it’s nastier than we could guess.

The latest bit of ‘data’ to back this up (after unsubstantiated reports of millions of Wuhanese failing to bury their dead properly), is the claim that 21 million Chinese mobile phone contracts were cancelled in the last three months, presumably because they all died from cv19.

It’s the opposite of the ‘no worse than flu’ narrative above, but using exactly the same trick.  Wow, 21million deaths! How dare they hide these figures? Commie bastards.

There is currently a fear in the West that China will be using its success in reducing the spread of cv19 as proof that a one party, authoritarian (but, naturally, ‘benevolent’) state is better at handling crises than any so-called democracy. I’ve written about this before, but suffice it to say it does put these ideas into a certain perspective.

The idea that China’s figures are worse than stated is used to excuse the dreadful outcomes in the West; but then if it’s that virulent, how do we explain the counts from South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and other countries who acted quickly? Or Germany who have kept their body count down so low? Are they as duplicitous as the yellow enemy?
But more to the point, looking at the figures with a cooler eye, consider the overall death rates again. With 1.4 billion people, China has about 200 times the population of the UK. If 10k Brits die each week (don’t worry, 14k new ones are born), then it’s safe to assume 2 million Chinese do likewise. So in three months that’s 26 million deaths, most of whom will then have their phone contracts cancelled.

Hey, wait, that’s 5 million contracts still running in the name of dead people!!
I think I just proved the zombie apocalypse just started — and it’s all the fault of those pesky Chinese and their 5G Huaweis!

Keep Calm and Translate Chinese Poetry


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For a site with a Chinese name and banner picture, this blog rarely mentions far Cathay. Let us remedy this.

This week BBC4 aired a documentary by Michael Wood about the poet, Du Fu (杜甫; 712–770), with readings from Ian McKellen. I’d heard of his mentor, Li Po, mainly from the poems that Gustav Mahler used in his orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), but knew nothing of this guy, who, it seems, is generally regarded as the Chinese poet, their Shakespeare or, even better, their Rabbie Burns, as both men’s work and lives, including their concern for the common people, are bound to a sense of national identity.

I also liked that he had his own Proustian moment, but, rather than a coffee-soaked piece of toast (romanticised in fiction as madeleine and tea), Du Fu’s came when watching a lithe young sword-dancer, evoking the dance he’d seen as a child.

One critic took the programme to task for talking so much about the poetry, but giving us so little flavour of it.  Fair comment, but then it is not beyond the wit of man to google.

The very wonderful Project Gutenberg does have some Chinese poetry translations, but a bit ropey. Much of Du Fu’s work is in couplets, in a ‘regulated’ form known as lüshi, where the lines, all of an equal number of characters, fall into couplets, ‘rhyming’ on the even lines, always with the same rhyme throughout the poem. But turning this into simple rhyming quatrains is unsatisfying, especially as rhyme in a tonal language doesn’t really have the same effect as in English. I don’t know how good a translator Charles Budd was back in 1912, but he was a pretty ropey poet (says the rank amateur!).

I found another site ( which has a book, £136.50 in hardback, or free as an epub, with the complete poems, with ‘scholarly’ translations and learnéd text by one Stephen Owen. Downloaded and stuck in the good old Sony Reader (the thinking man’s Kindle), all 1500 pages! So, as a change from surrealist Spaniards and medieval Welshmen, I thought I’d dip in and do a reworking of my own every now and then, hopefully turning the scholarly to the poetic. The translation app on the trusty Huawei allows me to point the camera at the Chinese text giving some idea of the word-for-word meanings too.

Looking at the early poems I found the one reproduced in fine calligraphy above (note how the fixed length form adds to the aesthetic nature of the poem, something far harder to do in an alphabetic language). The opening, rendered as ‘What evening is this?’ brought to mind the current situation where, as Morrissey put it, every day is like Sunday, and we are no longer sure what day it is. So the description of a dice game in which the poor author is having no luck (though the envoi suggests another participant fared even worse) was easily transferred to an online gathering during a lock-down.

Let’s not get into a technical or aesthetic waffle about my choices or what the original, elliptical text, might really be getting at. Suffice it to say I read that the pairs of lines should also ‘rhyme’ thematically, contrasting or reinforcing. So I’ve let that influence, if not dictate, my very loose adaptation.  But it’s all about the flavour, really. Enjoy —

This Evening: a pandemic reworking

What evening is this? The year is passing on;
bright candles stretch the night hours out.
Self isolating in the Dalry flat with naught to do,
we come together casting dice online.
Excited cries of Yahtzee! over Zoom —
sat here half-dressed, good throws won’t come.
The greatest heroes too have nights like this;
trusting to luck should not be thought absurd.

No sniggering:
Lord Peter always wished to be a pleb;
he had no loo roll in the house,
xxxxxxxxxx but lost ten thousand cash


The Lungs of Man under Anarchism


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One interesting topic among many brought up by the Covid-19 pandemic is the comparison of ways in which different political and health service systems, not to mention societies, are dealing with the crisis.

Generally speaking, they’re all fucking it up.
But each is fucking up in their own way, and the proponents of each are using that to bash the ‘failings’ of the systems they intrinsically dislike. My friend Ting Guo of Hong Kong Uni shared a fascinating analysis by Byung-Chul Han, which speaks of factors like the Confucian tradition making East Asians more compliant and trusting in their leaders — and so on and so forth; well worth a read. So we have one highly surveilled society using that big data approach to target testing and isolation and thus reduce the cost in their poor citizens’ lives, while others, ‘democracies’, bastions of ‘freedom’ seem unsure whether to protect lives or the economy (well, which to appear to be protecting).
Heaven forfend I’d suggest that the more utilitarian alt-right, the demonic spawn of unholy mating between Thomas Gradgrind and Ayn Rand, see this virus as a gift, targeting the elderly, the ailing, the homeless and the helpless. For certain people in a number of countries who’ve been advocating some sort of cull for a while now, it must seem perfect — except perhaps that 80% of its ‘target group’ have a nasty tendency to get better, despite their governments keeping the supply of life-saving equipment at a minimum — and for those of us with an annoyingly socialised health system, the workforce can be further depleted with insufficient safety measures, ready for increased absorption into the private sector (profitable bits only, of course — but we’d better be seen to applaud them, I suppose).

Incidentally, I can’t wait for the financial vultures to start rerunning those old adverts, now saying, are you the victim of mis-sold PPE?‘ …

Some, even more cynical than I, have called this ‘eugenics by stealth’. But that’s harder to buy into when the virus is no respecter of self-proclaimed Übermenschen — though they’re better equipped to hide from it, like Vincent Price in The Masque of the Red Death, and even to claim to have had it, if that suits their herd immunity, no big deal narrative. Anyway, those it kills are already out of the breeder’s handicap. So eugenics? Sorry, no.

I can’t endorse the initial Chinese response, nor any cover up some in China may wish to try on now, but I think most major nations, finding a breakout of something in their back yard, would be very tempted to brush it under the news carpet and hope it fizzles out. Why risk panicking the populace and then looking stupidly alarmist when not much happens, except a lack of bog roll in the stores? Let’s face it, Trump and Bolsonario tried to write it off even when they had all the facts from the Asian experiences — and countries wilfully ignoring the evidence of the trailblazers have no fucking excuse.

Perhaps more important than their obedient nature in places like Taiwan and South Korea, was their recent experience of SARS. People are not just more inclined to be compliant, but they’ve seen what epidemics can do already. Once bitten, twice isolated.

By the bye, it’s not well publicised amid all the accusations that Xi sent commiserations and offers of help to many Western countries, and that the central CCP has been publicly instructing the provinces, like Hubei, not to cover up new figures — but this itself could of course be no more than window dressing and a smokescreen. However covering up can only work for so long,  and they must be aware of that. As Trump is almost learning, viruses don’t respect bluster and lies either.
What surprises me most is that Sweden, the bastion of cool-headed, scientific, liberal thought, is taking the very let it run its course approach that the British and American governments no doubt wish they could, neither quite having the nerve of Victor Orbán and his emergency dictatorship coup in Hungary (and it remains to be seen how that will play out in the long run, especially if Europe threatens expulsion, which, I accept they may lack the spine to do while shell-shocked themselves). It will be interesting to see if the Swedes change their minds as the death toll increases (which I have no doubt it will).
The herd immunity idea is all very well from some angles, but the strain on the health and service systems while it’s peaking unchecked would nadger the economy for a long time to come, so it really is a case of damned if you do, economically depressed if you don’t, and either way there will be plenty of knock-on fatalities. Or, to one of my political hue, a serious threat to the capitalist system at its very roots. But that may be for a later entry.

Some twitterati keep saying it’s inevitable we’ll all get it and that way we’ll build up immunity etc etc. But this is dodgy on a number of counts. Herd immunity is originally the theory that if you can vaccinate a certain number of a population (domesticated animal or human), the transmission of the disease will be sporadic at worst and the whole population will effectively be immune. With far more transmissible (but far less deadly) diseases, this has worked well until Satan (figurative) brought in his army of little anti-vaxxer morons. Anyway, not everybody needs to or will get it, that’s the point. And, as I say, the cost of trying to build that up quickly is that more people will catch it on the way and the services will be overwhelmed too. Those dealing with it are especially vulnerable because of the huge initial viral load they get hit with, which has far more chance of getting to the lungs before the immune system knows what’s happening.

As an amateur political thinkist, a number of questions assail me. Are authoritarian states better equipped to deal with this sort of thing? How do different democracies react and is that about their constitutions or their national characters? Particularly, I wondered about the direct democracy of Switzerland. Now, we in the UK, like the Good Ol’ USofA, have in recent years been ‘taught’ to distrust ‘experts’, to bang on about freedom and treat any request for order or responsibility as just some conspiracy to keep us down. Other populaces do seem to have more of a trust that their governments have their best interests at heart, and are indeed their own representatives, and this is particularly true with a system like the Swiss. But such systems are also notoriously slow-moving; when you need a two thirds majority on any major issue (and have a small ‘c’ conservatism at your heart), it’s less of a surprise that the Helvetics took so long to give women the vote (they needed 2/3 of their menfolk to agree).
But my spy in Lausanne tells me they are also good at planning for emergencies and giving their elected representatives responsibility — and their trust — to do a sensible job. So not only were they able to invoke emergency isolation and distancing measures quickly, the constitution says that no canton (state) can pass emergency restrictions more draconian than those issued from Berne. It seems a good job that the American federation doesn’t have that law, so at least some states can go against the advice coming from Cloud-Cuckoo land.

So what of the lungs of man under anarchism? My first thought was a worrying one. But then I realised that if a truly anarchist, exchange-free society did exist, many of the problems would not be the same because we would not be the same. Conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs actually rail against the current restrictions of ‘freedom’ and human rights, and the ‘bullying’ of their governments, while citizens stubbornly congregate, partying and even coughing purposefully on passers-by in acts of potentially suicidal defiance. I’m an anarchist, for fuck’s sake, and I totally agree we should be locked down. Spot executions for the bastards who go out, hand me a sniper rifle now, etc etc.
OK, I exaggerate for effect a bit. But it is the only sensible thing to do, and being told to do it, if only in part, by neo-fascists doesn’t alter that.
Am I leaning towards a more syndicalist anarchism in my old, virus-vulnerable age? Maybe. I’ve always reiterated that Anarchy is Order, as the circle-A symbol indicates. And there would be a need for a rapid-response mechanism for all sorts of natural and man-made emergencies. In a connected world, this would not be difficult to create and maintain (although we’d also need low-tech contingencies for stuff like solar activity knocking out all our electronics for a while).
And there would be no problem keeping all sorts of research and emergency planning and thinktanking going, for pandemics, asteroids, whatevs — things that our governments have ducked or scrapped as too costly or not ideologically sound in their ‘democratically’ fluctuating views. Cost wouldn’t be an issue when there’s no such thing as cost. If people are available, and have something to contribute, they’re in — and all their conclusions would be shared and discussed publicly: bottom up processes.
But most of all, the economy would be far less damaged by the hiatus (and yes, even exchange-free societies need economics, just very different). It’s the system of stocks and rents and jobs and mortgages and all that shite that spins off from the artificial construct of money and the illogical paradigm of exchange that will cause the biggest shocks, the deepest recession. Yes, there would still be a lot of rebuilding and refilling of stores to do, though I like to think with better testing and voluntary use of ‘big data’ the spread could have been contained or slowed far better in a truly democratised system. In fact almost everything could shut down for a month all over the globe, so everybody who had it and lived would be over it, isolate all those who treated them for a further month while others took on their roles and the virus wouldn’t be alive in a single host and the story would be over; end of story. No, I know that’s bollocks, but either way, after the dust settled, no one would have lost a business or a home or be in huge debt; everyone capable of doing so could simply put their shoulders to the wheel and enjoy the challenge of working together to revivify society.
Interestingly the proponents of Universal Basic Income have been shouting into their echo chambers online too. It’s a simple and probably economically sound idea (I’ve always thought it makes perfect sense for hard-line capitalist billionaires and entrepreneurs to support it too; as an anarchist it seems a form of counter-revolution); just paying everybody, at least for the duration, a simple living salary, like passing GO on a Monopoly™ board. Cheaper than having an army of clerks and new software to means test us all in various categories, and it’s fine that folks who can still earn will be topping up (though this could replace the need for employers to pay a full salary to them). But this brings howls of anguish from the money is the root of all activity  brigade like IDS: it would be a disincentive to work, they bleat despite any number of studies showing this is not the case — in fact possibly the opposite. Anyway, as someone pointed out, at this point in time we need to disincentivise people from going out to work!
Maybe the spontaneous acts of goodness we’ve seen already, more important and efficacious than, and sometimes flying in the face of the official policies from above (even if less reported than the mindless racist attacks and abuse against health workers that fear engenders in an undereducated population of wage slaves) will also be fertile ground for the idea that there is an alternative. Of course those in power are scared of either outcome, but my position has always been that they really should embrace them and realise that, in the right kind of society, once we all recognise the goals that are of real and lasting value in life, they’d gain as much if not more than the oiks and losers they so despise.

Now I agree these are sketchy first thoughts. I don’t put this forward as a full-on research or proposal paper. But I just thought I’d share some musings with all my reader.

It’s something to do while I’m stuck at home alone.

Still Pasty After All These Years


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[A guest piece by arts correspondent Glenys Sproat, reprinted with kind permission of The Spayne and Spigwell Advertiser]

It is a source of merriment to the cosmopolitan literati that the Birchwode Arts Centre is named after a failed thespian of Shakespeare’s day. Well, now the spirit of Septimus Birchwode, and that of all who frequent Wyberton’s premier concert venue are bracing themselves for the return of Spigwell’s even less successful son, Tim Rowley, aka Spam Sarney, frontman of local punk legends The Pasty-Faced Wasters. Of course, ‘aka’ could set off a whole list here, as neither singer nor band has ever had the same name for more than a single recording or appearance. The personnel has been equally varied (it is said that Rowley himself wasn’t always present), though that may be down mainly to the bandleader’s ‘difficult’ personality. Coupled with his insistence on never playing the same material for any two gigs or recordings (or, some say, at rehearsals), success was always going to be a hard ask. It’s unlikely musical talent would have helped either.

But few can deny the vaulting ambition and formal daring of the man (well, usually a man). Who else would attempt to create a rock album using Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone composition techniques, as Rowley (or rather, ‘Snott Wanka’) did, with 1983’s Serial Triller?

And his fascination with the Japanese design concept of ‘ma’ or white space, was evident not only in cover design for 1990’s look at me now, ma (by the ‘monodriers’, featuring ‘kodo modo’), but also in the scant musical material, described by one critic as ‘Steve Reich’s minimalism meets John Cage’s silence on a desert island, and quickly falls asleep from boredom’.

So who knows what to expect next Tuesday night? All we can say is that you won’t have heard it before and you probably won’t be sorry that you’ll never hear it again. Although Rowley actively encourages filming and recording at his shows, no one is known to have taken up the offer.

It will be ear-splittingly loud or perhaps inaudibly quiet — or maybe somewhere in between. And ‘Erik Podov’, as he’s billed, along with ‘The Kroydens’, won’t give, as per the title of the Wasters’ album, A Monkey’s Pizzle what you think. The most positive thing one can say is that, even if you’ve followed his career meticulously, you won’t have heard anything quite like it before.


Stop Press: every cloud has a silver lining and the current state of lockdown means that the Birchwode Centre is closed for the foreseeable future, and the concert will not go ahead. Rowley has stated his intention to release a live album of the gig, nonetheless.