Author Archives: Mary Reid

No child should go hungry

Last week I reported that Kirsty Williams had committed to extend free school meals through the holidays and right up to next Easter. Of course, that only applies in Wales where she is the Education Minister.

But this week MPs shamefully voted against a similar programme in England, in spite of the widespread support for Marcus Rashford’s campaign.

Lib Dems, headed by Daisy Cooper, have been calling for action:

There is a petition to sign, in which we call for:

  • Free school meals to every pupil whose parents or guardians are in receipt of Universal Credit
  • Food vouchers for every one of those pupils in every school holiday and during any period of lockdown
  • Free school meals to pupils from low-income families whose parents or guardians have no recourse to public funds and destitute asylum seekers

I’ve signed it. Will you?

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Reminder: What does it mean to be black in Britain in 2020?

Our Vice President Isabelle Parasram invites you to join her for a free event “What does it mean to be black in Britain in 2020?” on Thursday 22nd October from 7pm-8.30pm.

Christopher Jackson, Professor of Geology at Imperial College and soon to be the first black scientist to jointly present the 2020 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, will be speaking and answering your questions. He will be joined by Former CEO of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and Co-Founder of The Centre for Inclusive Leadership, Paul Anderson-Walsh, as we ask about their experiences and insights during this Black History Month event.

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Kirsty Williams leads the way

I have been very heartened by the news from Wales, and not just because a bit of my heart always lives there. Unlike her English counterparts Kirsty Williams, the Lib Dem Education Minister for Wales, hasn’t had to be challenged by celebrity footballers to remember those children whose needs are greater than others – she had already worked up schemes to support them.

In the very early days of lockdown, Wales was the first country in the UK to announce that children eligible for free school meals would continue to get them through the Easter and summer school holidays, supported by substantial funding.

Kirsty has now taken a further ambitious step by announcing an £11million fund to provide free school meals during term-time and holidays right up to Easter 2021. Special arrangements are in place for children who are quarantining or shielding at home.

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Black History Month: How Paul Stephenson changed the law

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There was a heartening article in The Guardian yesterday with the headline “Paul Stephenson: the hero who refused to leave a pub – and helped desegregate Britain“.

Paul Stephenson is a black Briton who in 1964 refused to leave a pub in Bristol after he was told by the landlord “We don’t want you black people in here – you are a nuisance.” He was arrested and spent several hours in a police cell. He was cleared and awarded damages in the subsequent court case, which was widely reported in the press.

The repercussions from his act of defiance must have surprised even him, when Harold Wilson sent him a telegram to say that he would change the law. In 1965 the first Race Relations Act, which banned discrimination in public places, was enacted.

Paul Stephenson had previously led a boycott of Bristol buses because they refused to employ black or Asian people. He continued throughout his life to challenge racism in all its forms, working as a community relations officer around the country.

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It’s October and that means it is Black History Month

Lorely Burt kicks off the month for us.

Please let us know in the comments about Lib Dem events in your area.

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It wasn’t really a Virtual Conference


OK, you might think I am being pedantic, but the word ‘virtual’ carries some weight, so bear with me.

The term ‘virtual reality’ emerged from online gaming. Players place themselves in an imaginary universe, and adopt a character or avatar while they are there. In multi-user games they interact with other avatars, without wondering much about the real person behind them. Virtual reality headsets take this one step further by providing a 3D fully immersive experience of the imaginary landscape.

Virtual reality is usually compared with ‘real life’; the first is a creative construct, the second is the world we actually inhabit. In what sense was our conference last weekend virtual?

Before there was widespread access to the Internet we communicated with our family, friends and colleagues in many ways that were not face-to-face. We used a variety of written methods – letters, notes and memos – and we used the phone. I don’t think we ever saw these as virtual conversations; they were real conversations with real people. In the same way, once email became ubiquitous it was seen as an extension of our other modes of communication.

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Conference gets off to a good start

On Lib Dem Voice: Reportage | Contribute
On the official party website: Conference home


Party President, Mark Pack, opened the Conference this afternoon, paying tribute to members who had lost their lives, or the lives of people dear to them, through the pandemic.

Before that Geoff Payne, the Chair of Federal Conference Committee, introduced us to the studio set at HQ, and I must say that it had all the feel of a real-life Conference, if in miniature, and is far removed from our all-too-familiar Zoom experience. This was followed by a scene setting video showing places all over the UK.

We have our wonderful signers in the corner of the screen – I love watching them. I clearly remember the time, some years ago, when one of them demonstrated the BSL for bullshit, not to mention “I’m not a happy bunny”.

The first business item was to agree the revisions to Standing Orders that were needed in order to carry out the Conference remotely. Voting was really simple – just a click under the Polls tab.

During gaps between items we were shown short videos. I caught one from the Council group at St Albans talking about what they had done for their residents during lockdown.

The chat function is being put to good use – people are diving in to answer questions from first timers , while others are simply meeting and greeting. As far as I can see, chat is specific to where you are, so when you are in the Auditorium you can discuss the motion under debate – something we couldn’t do very easily in real life!

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Logging in to Conference

On Lib Dem Voice: Reportage | Contribute
On the official party website: Conference home


Well, I’ve done it, and it works!

If you have registered for our very first Virtual Conference then you will have been sent an email with the subject line “Your ticket to Lib Dem Conference”. Click on the link and our Virtual Conference is revealed in all its glory.

It’s very easy to navigate. Over on the right you can edit your profile and upload a photo.

As I write 296 people have logged in already. You can see who is there under People, and if you click on a name you can invite them to a video call.  Alternatively you can just add a general comment under Chat.

The left hand menu takes you to the main elements of the Conference – Auditorium, Fringe and Training, Networking and the Exhibition. And below the main banner on the home pages you will find a “What’s Happening Now” section.

We are advised that the best way to view Conference is by using Chrome on a laptop or tablet. In the comments perhaps you could let us know if you have managed it successfully using any other hardware/software platforms. You can download Chrome here.

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Isolation diary update: Wondering about what comes next

Don’t kill Granny” – well, thanks, Matt Hancock, I appreciate your concern for me.

When you gave that advice ten days ago, the infection rate stood at around 3000 per day. It is now 4000, and hospital admissions and deaths from Covid-19 are beginning to follow, with the usual three week time lag. The last time the UK had that rate of infection was at the beginning of April, well into lockdown. So what is your advice today to the grannies (and grandpas) to avoid being killed? Pardon? I can’t hear you…

We all know that the vast majority of deaths are of people who fall into the vulnerable or extremely vulnerable categories. The latter group, who were advised to shield through lockdown, have been enjoying six weeks of more relaxed living, but are now justifiably pretty anxious again.

Shielding officially ended at the end of July although we were allowed to go out for exercise during the previous month. But life hasn’t changed very much for me and my husband. We enjoy walks out in the countryside, but avoid the town. We have discovered, not that far from our home, several areas of wood and heath, and, amazingly, three lakes (including the one in the photo) which we didn’t know existed.

One day we booked into a National Trust garden near us and sat outside the cafe for tea and cake, unexpectedly qualifying for Eat Out to Help Out.

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Is wearing a mask a civil liberties issue?

Some Libertarians in the US and elsewhere certainly seem to think so, and refuse to wear them. But we are not Libertarians, and as Liberals it is easy enough for us to justify asking others to wear masks by drawing on two principles described by John Stuart Mill.

In On Liberty Mill explores his political philosophy and expounds on the Harm Principle:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

In other words, the potential for harm can outweigh the loss of liberty.

In Utilitarianism Mill develops this from an ethical point of view and outlines the Greatest Happiness Principle:

… actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.

Whenever we, as a party, debate policy that might impact on our liberties, members tend to use one or other of these principles as justification for their position. For example, discussions some years ago about whether to ban smoking in public inside spaces often invoked the harm principle – smoking can cause physical damage to people nearby who are not smoking, including the people who work there. On the other hand, the powers adopted should be minimal, that is set at the lowest level to be effective, which is why we support outdoor smoker’s areas, where the harm is limited to the smokers themselves.

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+++Breaking news – the new Leader of the Liberal Democrats is …

Congratulations to Ed Davey who has just been elected by members as Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

If you missed the announcement and speech by the new Leader, then you can catch up here.

Huge thanks must go to both Ed Davey and Layla Moran who fought a clean but impassioned fight, demonstrating what great assets they both are to our party.

Votes cast were:

Ed Davey: 42,756

Layla Moran: 24,564

Turnout: 57.6%

 

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Leadership announcement tomorrow

The next Leader of the Liberal Democrats will be announced at 11.30am tomorrow, Thursday 27th August.

You can watch the announcement live on YouTube.

 

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Conference Directory published – fringes, training, exhibition

A couple of weeks ago the Agenda for the online Autumn Conference was issued. That has now been joined by its companion publication, the Directory.

While the Agenda contains the timetable for all the formal sessions in the Main Hall – policy debates, speeches etc – the Directory lists all the other fun things you can do over the Conference weekend. You can read and download the Directory here.

So what is on offer?

Fringe meetings

  • Dozens of meetings organised by Lib Dem and external organisations, most with key speakers.
  • Watch out for the Comedy Night
  • We understand that information about Glee Club will follow.

Training sessions

  • On a wide variety of topics including pastoral care, being an effective agent, councillor or campaigner, using tools such as Lighthouse, Connect and Affinity, and, of course, winning elections.

Campaign surgeries

  • 30 minutes free consultancy on a range of campaigning techniques
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Exam grades and what they should have done

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In this post: Exam Results and Gradings Ianto Stevens explained how and why examiners moderate exam results to try to smooth out inconsistencies from year to year. Some of this was to compensate for variations in the difficulty of exam papers. The overall aim was to give the same balance of grades as in previous years.

For example, suppose on a particular A Level physics paper, students across the country get markedly higher marks than in previous years. Examiners will assume that the students are of much the same ability as previous cohorts and that the variations are due to the questions asked and the marking guidelines. It is almost impossible to write a series of exam papers that produce the same range of results each time.

The problem this year was that this legitimate moderation process was applied not to actual written exam papers but to teacher’s predictions.

I spent many years teaching and organising A level and BTEC courses in a large FE college. Each year the whole of my Easter break was devoted to assessing and ranking coursework projects for some 60 A level Computing students. And, of course, I had to provide predicted grades which I based on their AS levels, mock exams and the state of their coursework at the time when the predictions had to be submitted.

I do understand why there was a reluctance to simply award the students with the grades predicted by their teachers. If that had happened then the overall grades would have been significantly higher than in previous years. The consequence would have been that a higher number of students would have met the conditions set by universities, so there was a danger that courses might have been oversubscribed. Universities always offer more places than they can fill, on the basis that not all will qualify.

So, to avoid a glut of qualified students, the raw predicted grades were treated as though they were actual marks and were moderated to bring them in line with other years. What is more, the moderation was applied at the level of an individual school or college rather than across the whole exam entry cohort – a granular application of a holistic method.

I will argue that it was not necessary to moderate the grades at all, but first let’s take a look at the procedure that was adopted. The actual predicted grades were ignored and the rankings used instead. These were mapped on to the spread of grades achieved in that subject, in that school or college, over several previous years. So if in previous years, on average, 5% had been awarded a U (ie fail), then the bottom 5% in the ranked list this year would be given a U, and so on across all the grades.

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Conference agenda now available

The agenda for the online party Conference in September can be downloaded here. It is at the same time both very familiar and rather different from usual.

All the expected elements are there: policy motions (with amendments), business motions, speeches, Q&A’s, reports, consultative sessions, fringe meetings, training, exhibition stands and helpdesk. There is even a feature that enables you to network with other members at random, just as you might chat with someone while queuing for a coffee. Conference Extra and Conference Daily will be published as usual and the Conference app will be available nearer the time.

The most obvious changes from the norm are with the timing. Auditorium sessions will run between 2.15pm on Friday 25th September and 9pm on Monday 28th September, in shorter bursts than usual – presumably to avoid screen fatigue. This means that many more sessions will be accessible to people in full-time work. The (new) Leader’s speech will be at 2.50pm on the Monday afternoon.

And, of course, it will be much more affordable this time. The only cost will be the registration fee, as travel and accommodation will not be needed!

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Isolation diary update: Thinking about the future


I am very pleased that the Government is finally going to enforce the use of masks in shops. Those of us who are shielding will be in lock down until the end of the month, but we will only emerge cautiously after that. Don’t forget that we are at high risk of dying from Covid-19 if we catch it.

People have been telling us that in the town centres social distancing is not being observed, masks are not being worn and many shoppers are flouting the rules about queuing and following routes. Don’t they realise that they are condemning some of us to permanent lock down?

Having got that off my chest I have been thinking about what needs to change from now on.

But first, this is what has changed, hopefully permanently:

  • Neighbourliness – WhatsApp groups for roads have sprung up; neighbours have got to know each other better and have been helping each other out.
  • Black Lives Matter – the timing of this in the middle of a pandemic has focused our attention.  I have heard this said several times: “I am reading to educate myself on the issue”.  There is a widespread new understanding of privilege and unconscious bias, as well as institutional/structural racism. And people who have responded with “All lives matter” have been gently corrected.
  • Online tools –  we now all recognise the usefulness of Zoom and Microsoft teams and will no doubt continue to use them where they bring added value.
  • Value of care workers – we sort-of knew that they were important; now we really know.
  • How we all love the NHS – I found Danny Boyle’s tribute to the NHS at the 2012 Olympics a bit puzzling. I don’t now.
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Isolation diary: Signing off

This is my last regular diary entry, although I may drop in occasional extra posts when things change for us. I have written every single day since 16th March when we went into voluntary self-isolation to protect my husband.  The rest of the country joined us in lockdown a week later.

Shielding will continue until the end of July at least, so my life is still going to be considerably more restricted than most people as lockdown is eased. From next Monday persons who are shielded like my husband no longer have to socially distance themselves from other members of the household who are not shielding. I have chosen to shield up to now, but in theory I could now drop my shielding precautions and join the rest of you in shops, pubs and restaurants, or even on the beach. However that does add an extra layer of risk so I don’t think I’ll do so for the time being.

If you’ve been following my diary you will know that I have been enjoying my time at home. I have had a rich cultural life during lockdown. I have enjoyed recordings of world class live theatre productions – drama, ballet and opera –  via National Theatre at Home and The Royal Opera. Highlights have included One Man, Two Guvnors (NT), The Magic Flute (ROH), La Fille mal Gardee (ROH), A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Bridge Theatre (NT), and Frankenstein (NT).

I have watched several box sets, often following recommendations by friends  – Normal People (i-Player), Devs (i-Player), The Kominsky Method (Netflix), Unorthodox (Netflix), The Capture (i-Player).  And I have discovered some lockdown gems  – the W1A Zoom meeting, David Tennant and Michael Sheen in Staged (i-Player), Alan Ayckbourn’s audio play Anno Domino, plus the current series of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads (i-Player). My drama group at the Rose Kingston has continued with a weekly online meeting where we have been swapping recommendations and reading scenes.

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Isolation diary: Remembering London 2012 – cycling around

A few seconds after I took this photo of Bradley Wiggins, from a vantage point in the Rose Theatre, a thousand people surged into the building to watch the rest of the race on a giant screen. Huge cheers erupted as Wiggins turned into Kingston’s Ancient Market, crossed the bridge to Hampton Wick and then on to the finish line outside Hampton Court Palace. It won him a gold medal in the 2012 Olympic time trials.

He endeared himself to local residents for ever when he said this about the roaring from the spectators:

But the point where I was most aware of it was coming around the roundabout in Kingston – the noise was incredible.

I’m never, ever going to experience anything like that again in my sporting career. That’s it. That experience topped everything off right there. It was phenomenal.

The Olympic road races had also passed through Kingston a few days before. There was a massive amount of organisation – and disruption – around all the road cycling events. In fact, a year before, there had been a trial event for the road races, which required rolling road closures from central London and out into the Surrey Hills. Box Hill featured prominently and if you have ever driven up the Zig Zag Road you will know how challenging that is for cyclists. Although we don’t live directly on the route, we were quite limited in where we could go throughout the whole day when there was a road race on.

The annual RideLondon festival was born out of those exciting times. Every year in August some 30,000 riders do a 100 mile ride on roughly the same route as the one used in the Olympics. It is the cycling equivalent of the London Marathon, with a mixture of club and fun riders, the latter often collecting sponsorship for a charity. Alongside this there is a longer run for elite riders which usually takes them up and down Box Hill several times.

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Isolation diary: Remembering London 2012

A huge gap has opened up in the TV schedules for this summer, because of the cancellation of so many major sporting events. And the biggest of them all will be when the Olympics and Paralympics would have taken place.

I hear they are planning to replay much of the action from 2012, and I am looking forward to watching Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins, Ellie Simmonds, David Weir, Jessica Ennis, Laura Trott, Andy Murray, Nicola Adams and many other heroes relive their moments of glory, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. Great Britain won 65 medals in the Olympics, and 120 in the Paralympics. It was also the first time that the Olympics and Paralympics were given equal parity and run by the same organisers.

As a Gamesmaker I was invited to attend the dress rehearsal of Danny Boyle’s extraordinary Olympics Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium. We watched in genuine jaw-dropping astonishment as England’s green and pleasant land, complete with cattle and cricket, was transformed into the dark, satanic mills. The section honouring the NHS, with performers dancing around hospital beds, did seem a bit strange at the time, but will be utterly appropriate this year. After that we celebrated British pop culture from the 1960s to the present day, followed by a rare appearance of Tim Berners Lee, the father of the World Wide Web, who tweeted “This is for everyone”.

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Isolation diary: Being an ally

A year ago Kingston’s Guildhall flew the Pride flag for the first time. This was an initiative of one of our councillors, Sam Foulder-Hughes. We attended a short ceremony to mark the occasion, and I was struck by the way Sam thanked allies like us – straight people who support LGBT+ equality.

I hadn’t heard the term ally used in that context before, but I have also been hearing it recently in relation to Black Lives Matter. Yes, those of us who have no living experience of belonging to a specific identity can still empathise and campaign with those who do.

Today would have seen the Pride in London parade. The flag is flying this week again in Kingston, though sadly I can’t go in to see it, and there are numerous online events, including some Lib Dem ones, to mark the day. Google London Pride and the search engine throws up a rainbow border.

My active support for the LGBT+ community goes back to the 1970s, long before the time when that shorthand was commonly used. It was only a few years earlier that the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 had made homosexual acts between consenting men legal – acts between women had never been illegal.

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Isolation diary: Exploring my family history again

My grandmother was a Hooker. I’m afraid she never really understood why we all fell about laughing when she told us that. As it happens there is a distant family connection with the slang term for a prostitute – but more of that later.

Which reminds me of something one of my sons told me this week. When he was young he learned the words prostitute and protestant at around the same time, and managed to confuse them for a while. It’s a good thing he worked out the difference before he went to live in Northern Ireland.

To return to the Hookers in my family. Last week I wrote about my father’s side of the family and the story of my great great grandmother who, in a remarkable echo of Downton Abbey, was disinherited after running off with the coachman.

This time I am thinking about my mother’s ancestors, and one illustrious one in particular. My grandmother was always proud of the fact that her nine times great uncle was Richard Hooker. She came from Exmouth and would often tell me about the statue that stood in the grounds of Exeter Cathedral. He is recognised by the Church of England as a Teacher of the Faith and remembered on the anniversary of his death, 3rd November 1600.

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Isolation diary: Feeling the sun on my skin

On a hot day like today, the one thing you would love to see is a photo of naked cyclists, right?

I had been trying to find this photo amongst the many thousands of pictures on my laptop, but I couldn’t remember when it was taken. Then yesterday it popped up on Facebook under the ‘See your memories’ feature. It was taken nine years ago in Bristol.

We were driving down to visit our son and his family and were stopped at the end of the M32 by around 100 cyclists circling the roundabout. And none of them had any clothes on. It was a joyful sight and made me smile. I managed to get a quick snap through the car window as we waited for them to go past.

Now I’m not a naturist, but, being a good liberal, I have no problem with people who are. In fact, the quantity of clothes that people wear on our favourite beach on Fuerteventura decreases to zero the further you get away from the hotel. Whilst staying there we discovered that the chaplain of the Anglican church in Correlejo was a leading light in the Christian Naturist Fellowship.

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Isolation diary: Sharing a birthday with Alan Turing

A photo of this sculpture hangs in my study

Alan Turing was born on 23rd June 1912. I wasn’t aware that I shared a birthday with one of my heroes until the 1990s, long after his untimely death. In fact, the world knew very little about him until government papers were released in the 1970s under the 30 year rule. And yet he is now going to be memorialised on the next £50 note.

Actually I did become aware of some of his work at University, because I read his seminal pre-War paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” as part of a Philosophy of Maths module. Neither I, nor my tutor, knew that this was to become the foundation for computer science, via his work on the theoretical constructs he called ‘universal machines’ – now referred to as ‘Turing machines’. His work was influenced by all the key figures in the field, Kurt Gödel, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alonzo Church, David Hilbert and John von Neumann – all of whom I had read.

Later, of course, he was able to convert his imaginary machines into physical reality. After the War he built some of the earliest computers, first at the National Physical Laboratory and then at Manchester University.

Alan Turing wasn’t directly involved in building the Colossus – the world’s first electronic programmable computer – at Bletchley Park, although his theoretical ideas underpinned it. In the early days of the War he had developed another machine called the Bombe which was designed specifically to decrypt messages generated by the German Enigma machines.

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Isolation diary: Celebrating 100!

Yes, it is my birthday. No, I am not 100, although three quarters of the way there.

What I am celebrating, to my surprise, is this, my 100th Isolation Diary. Back in March I tentatively approached my colleagues on the editorial team of Lib Dem Voice to see if they thought it would be a good idea to have some daily musings on life in self-isolation. They have encouraged me even though the posts often have little direct political relevance.

So I have now managed to impose some 50,000 words on you, my readers. Most entries are introspective, exploring the inner life of lockdown, the limitations of shielding, and daily practicalities. Some have been commentaries on the wider political scene, such as the Black Lives Matter campaign, and the rewriting of history. Others have allowed me to examine my own values and relate them to my upbringing, to my faith, or even, in one case, my ancestry. I have explored some of my favourite places. There is probably too much about singing and the theatre, and the risks in belonging to a choir, and you have seen too many photos of the results of my cooking experiments.

Yesterday – too late for my diary – the Government announced new guidance for people who are shielding, like us. The scheme as a whole will finish at the end of July, although I’m pleased to hear that we will still be able to get priority slots for online supermarket deliveries.  From July 6th we can meet outside in a group of up to six people. Single shielders can now form a bubble.

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Isolation diary: Looking forward to Autumn Conference

As Caron has explained, Autumn Conference will take place online from 25th to 28th September. I have been watching the developments with a lot of interest, because I was a member of the Federal Conference Committee for five years until I stood down at the end of last year.

I loved being on the committee, but it completely took over my time at Conference. Committee members were on a rota to chair and aide motion debates in the hall, to chair speeches and Q&As from the main stage and spokespersons’ sessions elsewhere, and to attend various events for first time attendees and others. For each debate we would usually need the same amount of time in advance to read through the speakers’ cards and construct a balanced discussion. On top of that there was training to remind us of the niceties of the standing orders, and how to deal with requests for counted votes, referrals back etc, plus a daily briefing meeting. It made life busy, and I found I missed some of the other delights of conference, such as sitting around and chatting with old friends, but I did enjoy doing it.

I was really looking forward to York in March and the opportunity to just wander around Conference with no commitments for the first time in six years. When that was cancelled, Brighton was on my radar for the Autumn. That will now be a rather different experience from what I was expecting.

On the committee we were often asked if members could have remote access to Conference and in particular to remote voting on motions. That would make the conference more accessible to people who couldn’t attend in person for employment or financial reasons.

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Isolation diary: Enjoying the summer solstice

Slightly fuzzy photo – we were right at the back

Today is the longest day – it’s downhill all the way from now on…

I’ve often wondered why we don’t have a major festival to celebrate summer. The ancient pagan rituals around the longest day are only practised by a tiny minority, and for most of us it passes as just another day.

In contrast, we all celebrate mid-Winter at Christmas with gifts, rich food and cosy family gatherings, possibly around a fire,  whether or not we observe it as a Christian festival.  Similarly we mark Spring at Easter with symbols of new life – eggs, flowers and bunnies.  These events both have an interesting history, with pagan origins, overlaid with Christian symbolism, and now adopted as secular festivals for all to enjoy, institutionalised through Bank Holidays. The Winter Festival, around the winter solstice, extends into Hogmanay, and the Spring Festival, around the spring equinox, is preceded by Carnival in many parts of the world.

The Autumn celebrations are more complex but we can see the echoes of ancient fire festivals to ward off evil at Hallowe’en and on Nov 5th. I’m always struck by the way Hallowe’en in the US is more of a harvest celebration than the creepier intimations of death associated with All Saint’s Eve, which we honour in the UK.

These days we don’t have a single focal point for the middle of summer, although many other European countries do. In the past we did, and indeed 24th June is still, somewhat puzzlingly, referred to as Midsummer Day. There are references to it in the title of Shakespeare’s play, even though that was, apparently, first performed on New Year’s Day.

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Isolation diary: Singing again


Covid-19 has silenced choirs – we must find a way to restart singing together – that was the headline for a letter in the Guardian this week. It was signed by some very well known names in choral music, people I have admired for a long time. They included Bob Chilcott (composer of some stunningly beautiful songs), John Rutter (another well-known composer, and revered for the Carols for Choirs series which is used by almost every choir in the country), Simon Halsey (Director of the London Symphony Chorus), Harry Christophers (director of The Sixteen – my favourite choir of all time), plus many conductors of choral societies around the UK.

They write:

Up until now we have had one of the most vibrant choral landscapes in the world. Our professional choral life, consisting of world-renowned chamber choirs, vocal ensembles, opera choruses, cathedral choirs and theatre ensembles, faces an uncertain future. The financial picture for such groups has always been challenging, even in the best of times, but the outlook now for such ensembles, mostly made up of freelance musicians, is not an optimistic one.

We have a world-leading cathedral and church choir tradition, largely made up of young boys and girls and paid adult singers who face financial hardship and also serious challenges of continuity. The amateur choir life of this country is huge, from the world-class symphony choruses and university choirs to community and school choirs, and all these groups face a time of great uncertainty.

We need church leaders to have the courage to speak out so that we can make singing together in churches work within certain guidelines. We need the government to show how we can restart singing together on an equal footing with opening theme parks, shopping and kicking a football around. It is imperative that we find a way for choirs in this country to resume as soon and as safely as we can.

Singing in a choir is not only about communality, social cohesion and harmony; for many it is an essential source of emotional wellbeing and positive mental health. Moreover it is a powerful expression of our culture and humanity, and it cannot be allowed to fade away.

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Isolation diary: Feeling cautious

On 1st June people in England who were shielding, like us, were told they could go out for a walk once a day for exercise, but not to the shops. If they lived alone then they could meet one other person outside, but still socially distancing.

Were we excited about our new little bit of freedom? At the time I debated whether I should go out, and did go for a short walk. But I haven’t been out since, apart from going to the dentist and taking my husband for a medical appointment.

I have to explain that I am not shielding because I am vulnerable myself, but to protect my husband who is. We have two options. On the one hand I could behave like the rest of the population – going out, shopping, meeting others safely – but I would then have to socially distance myself from him at home by sleeping in a different room, using a different bathroom (if possible) and being ultra careful about things that we handled such as crockery, cutlery and towels. The other option is to shield myself, which means that within the house we can live normally. Not surprisingly I chose the second option.

My husband hasn’t been out for a walk at all, and has said he won’t do so until the alert level is at 3. He is not alone in feeling cautious about the relaxation of the rules. The good news today is that the alert level has indeed been reduced to 3, so we finally went out together for a short walk this afternoon. It proved to us just how much we needed to do it, as muscles had been seriously underused in the last three months.

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Isolation diary: Rewriting history

Anyone who thinks that removing statues is rewriting history should ask who wrote the history in the first place.

I wrote that sentence on Facebook this morning, having already (editorial privilege) read Paul Reynolds’ excellent article, in which he discusses the very many omissions in the current teaching of history.

My own experience of history in school was dire. I hated it, not least because of the way it was taught. The teacher spent almost every lesson dictating notes which we duly wrote down in our notebooks and attempted to remember for exams. At the end of the third year in secondary school we had to choose between History or Geography, so I chose the latter. As a result I studied no history later than the second Jacobite rebellion in 1745, and because I changed schools I actually studied that twice.

So I left school with huge gaps in my knowledge of 19th and 20th century history. For example, I didn’t know anything about the origins of Liberalism in the UK until I started reading J S Mill and others for my Philosophy degree. I didn’t understand the causes of the two World Wars and hadn’t heard of the Holocaust. I was living through the independence of former British colonies but hadn’t learned the history that would have explained why they had been coloured red on the map. I was denied any understanding of the importance of prime sources, or of historical method, and I didn’t appreciate that records were always created by the literate elite.

Of course, over my life I have gradually pieced together a lot of information about that period but still wish I had had a more formal foundation. I learnt that the history of wars is always written by the victors, so is inevitably skewed. And today’s political interference in the curriculum in the UK has striking parallels with the airbrushing of history practised by autocratic regimes.

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Isolation diary: Musings on The Salisbury Poisonings

Much has already been written about the contemporary relevance of the BBC mini-series The Salisbury Poisonings which ended yesterday and is now available on i-Player. Although written and produced before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus, the way in which the public emergency in Salisbury was handled two years ago has some uncanny parallels with the events of this year.

I was struck by one simple fact – the operation was headed by the Director of Public Health for Wiltshire, Tracy Daszkiewicz. She, in fact, was the main focus for the dramatic retelling of the story, and it is clear that her timely actions and highly professional approach to the problem prevented many people from dying from Novichok poisoning.

Directors of Public Health are in a unique position to track and trace major health emergencies. But, during this coronavirus emergency their very specific skills and local knowledge were sidelined by the Government.

At one point in the series, Tracy Daszkiewicz is challenged by a civil servant who has been sent down from Whitehall. Tracy had just learnt how Nick Bailey, who was the first police officer to enter the Skripal’s home, had become infected by the nerve agent, in spite of wearing protective clothing.  Spots of Novichok were found throughout the house; it was only when the police viewed bodycam photos of the initial search that they realised that they had been put there by Nick himself, and that he had picked it up from the handle of the front door. They concluded that the Skripals must have got it on their skin from the door handle as well. Tracy’s response to this information was to track Nick’s movements afterwards, and as a result she recommended the immediate closure of the local police station so it could be isolated and examined for contamination.

At that point the Government official intervened and over-ruled her, on the grounds that closing a police station would cause public panic. Parts of the building were then tested whilst normal activity was going on elsewhere, and, as Tracy predicted, traces of Novichok were found. The police station was closed and the Government adviser was sent packing.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 6 Comments
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