DAY 24: Mon 6 April

A brief cycle ride, a Zoom meeting, and a deceased colleague remembered.

It rained last night but it’s fresh and sunny this morning so I SHALL take a short cycle ride sometime today. I have booked a ‘physically distant’ conversation with a friend less than a mile away.

I checked my weight this morning for the first time in 3 weeks. No figures will be made public at this time, but I can confirm that my weight is stable if not a little up on last time, but that may just be the weight of my glasses.

I have taken photos of my burgeoning eucalyptus tree in the hope that a local tree surgeon will come and lop it. They grow so fast, and have a tendency to discard whole boughs when the going gets tough. Mine has already done so twice this year during storms. The tall slender branches formed over the the last two years are now around 60 ft tall. When lashed by strong winds they look very dramatic but they have already dislodged tiles on the roof. Whoever planted it so close to the house was a twit. I have had to have it lopped three times in the last ten years, taking down a nine metre trunk, as well as pruning the lower branches myself.

I learned today of the sad passing of former NUJ National Officer Mike Bower. I remember the day we were evicted from the newsroom of the Nottingham Post by thugs hired by Christopher Pole-Carew, then Sheriff of Nottingham. He had demanded the police throw us out when a group of NUJ members sought to discuss his attitude to staff (in lieu of a mass picket). The police quite rightly pointed out we had entered peacefully and were simply requesting a meeting. But they did tell the Sheriff he was at liberty to remove us using reasonable force. So off went Pole-Carew to local pubs and offered people £20 to get rid of us. We were pushed down several flights of stone stairs and Mike sustained a bloody nose. As we emerged into the street, with photographers recording the scene, two of us supported Mike who was shaken by the experience, his face and shirt covered in blood. I asked the nearest cop to call an ambulance.”You call one,” he replied. There was no phone box in sight.

A formal complaint was laid about the incident, and months later an officer from a neighbouring force was assigned to interview the complainants. I was newly married at the time so we made sure our council flat in Wapping Stephen and Matilda Tenants Co-operative was neat and tidy. We laid out our wedding gift tea set and settled down around the gas fire to politely answer all his questions, like a respectable and respectful middle class couple.

Before he left the officer asked to use the loo. When he returned he quickly packed his briefcase and left. It was only then that we realised the smallest room was still bedecked with socialist posters and Teach Yourself Marxism booklets. Our complaints, of course, came to nothing. But it taught me a lesson I have passed on to generations of journalism students. “When interviewing people at home,” I tell them, “Always ask to use the loo. It gives you a chance to see more of the house, and sometimes that can tell you a lot.”

I went for my short cycle ride along almost empty roads, so different to when last I saw them, more than three weeks ago. I stopped at a safe distance to speak with an old friend across her driveway. A welcome break for us both, chatting books, and politics and the tribulations of extended quarantine. 

Some extraordinary sights on the way there and back. Queues at the local health centre extend across the car park and down the hill for almost 100 metres as patients spaced themselves out for safety. Thank goodness it was not raining! 

And in the little Fishponds Park all the children’s play equipment has been uprooted and taken away. Just two old guys, one standing, one sitting, each dragging on a fag and clutching a can.

When I got back the tree surgeon arrived, and tells me he can operate on my wayward eucalyptus this Good Friday. He is having to work alone because of  physical distancing. He will undertake the task despite the difficulties since it is one of the few ways to keep his family business alive. He will be reducing a familiar local landmark to a manageable size, but protecting my home in the process. Apparently in its native Australia it is known as the widow-maker because of its uncanny habit of shedding huge boughs when under stress. Luckily the two it dropped during recent storms fell at 90 degrees to each other, but parallel to and away from the house. The ones most likely to go next time will crash straight onto the house.

A Facetime call comes in from Barbados; old friends who went to visit family but are now stuck there in quarantine. They’d love to be back close to family in England but on the other hand, there is family there and plenty of sun…

The call is interrupted by another from my daughter to say her Skype is down, and I lose the Caribbean link. This evening’s story time is postponed as it’s the slot has been booked for an NUJ branch meeting via Zoom to discuss the problems facing journalists during the crisis. This could prove to be the way to engage more members in the future – we had more people online than we often get to Branch meetings in person.

Efforts have been made to ensure that local journalists are able to work as normally as possible, despite the Chief Police Officers’ advice note which appears to suggest that journalists are key workers only when covering coronavirus stories. 

We will be lobbying for public notices to be allocated to local, hyperlocal and community publications to help keep them operating at a time when local journalism is all the more important as so many people are stuck indoors some without access so the internet.

Reports continue to come in about health workers scared to go public with evidence about the perilous conditions they are expected to work under with insufficient protective work wear. It is vital that journalists reach out to and protect whistleblowers so that such scandals are exposed and working conditions improved for the people we expect to be saving lives at direct risk to their own.

At the No.10 press conference this evening journalists were at pains to find out about the condition of the Prime Minister. Their efforts got nowhere, yet within hours their suspicions were confirmed as we learned that Mr Johnson has been wheeled into intensive care, yet again as a precautionary measure. We now have a crisis within a crisis. Will it strengthen calls for a national government? Who knows where things will go now.

A simple supper – jacket potato with tinned tuna and salad. Then an escape from the news by learning about Du Fu, China’s greatest poet on BBC4.

By the way, have you had your letter from the Prime Minister? I certainly haven’t. Maybe he was using second class stamps, or maybe he had not got round to signing them all when he was taken sick. Who knows. From the responses I have had it would seem that quite a few people have been left off his list.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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