DAY 91: Fri 12 June

Talking to Big Sis, sorting out tools, and visits to Afghanistan, Armenia and Russia

Does anyone out there really know how to tune DAB radios? The instructions for mine, if that is what they are, were utterly confusing, and it was not just the problematic English translation. I gave up years ago and just stab at buttons and make do with what I find – mostly Radio 4 or 4Extra thank goodness. Willing as I am to try again – now I have time on my hands – I now cannot find the little instruction books.

I am not sure whether to call this a very productive day. Up and full of good intentions to start with – ready for 40 minutes of exercise with Martin Lewis on Desert Island Discs. But my cycling machine was blocked off by tool-boxes I had not sorted after the chicken run saga. So, anything for a diversion, I set to work sorting everything. Not just tools but screws and nails, and a cupboard full of bags and boxes of unknown things I have been storing for ten years, and now I don’t now why or what they are for. But even this diversion was interrupted, first by a delivery of frozen foods – including massive pack of barbecue items in the vain hope that soon we can have a family gathering in the garden. Some hope. 

That delivery required a sort out of the freezer to squeeze everything in. And then the phone rang. It was my big sister. She is one of those officially shielding. A hip replacement imminent at the time of lockdown of has been postponed with no known date set, and another for cataracts has been rescheduled for the end of July. Although we all keep in close touch via WhatsApp every morning, and via Zoom on family birthdays (there are lots of them in a big family like ours) , this was the first time we have spoken, one to one, in a while. She is very philosophical about her predicament, though her mobility is limited, and now she says her deteriorating eyesight means she can’t read for long, or watch much TV, and won’t do Zoom anymore.  More to the point, she can no longer drive.

She lives alone on a tiny village estate a long way from the nearest town and her children live miles away. Luckily she has a small garden she can spend time in but has to avoid too much sunlight. Poor old thing. She is normally very active, and helps out at a nature reserve. Now she is unable to go to church, has to have her medicines and food delivered, and can’t do much exercise. It was yet another reminder of how lucky I am to still be fit enough to do physical work, and exercise – ever though I try to avoid it at every turn. Out of respect for Big Sis, and my other sisters who are having treatment for cancer, I really should make the effort. Instead I fritter way my time writing up this diary.

While talking to her I noticed that dust has settled on numerous surfaces in the living room, and my heart sank. Yet more house work to catch up on. As the clouds gathered this afternoon I divided my time between chicken duties and sorting out the tools etc. It is amazing how long you can spin out the simplest of tasks if you are determined. 

I took the odd break to allow the brood out of the Gulch for the first time. It took them a while to appreciate that they were free, but when Mother Hen decided to follow me up the steps the others fell in line. Trying to get them back in after a couple of hours took rather longer. When they saw I had the ‘special treats’ bowl in hand, I became the Pied Piper but they would go no further than the entrance to the ‘cave’. They stood stock still and watched me standing on the top step of The Gulch making my ‘it’s feeding time’ noise. Their expression was plainly “Who’s the fool among us? Now we are out we are not going back down there.”

The secret weapon on such occasions is birdseed (or cat food sachets – but I’ve had none for three months). They cannot resist it, but it has to be done in plain sight. As I cast a handful into the depths, four of them cascaded down the steps casting aside all previous doubts about living ‘below stairs’. Only the specked Devon Blue took umbrage at this blatant manipulation of their basic instincts. She steadfastly refused to move, planting  herself beside the singular rose just above The Gulch and put on her best ‘Don’t even think about coming to get me’ face, with an occasional pitying glance at her sisters scrabbling about beneath her. 

We had a jolly old time as I tried to grab her, reminiscent of the little boy on the Saxa salt boxes of yesteryear chasing a chicken with salt cellar in hand. This one normally squats when approached as is easily picked up and petted but not today. She was having none of it. Eventually human ingenuity triumphed. I trapped her between the hollyhocks and a large plant pot, and down she went to join her companions. Her feathers may have been ruffled, but soon enough she had joined the hunt for the seeds scattered across the nooks and crannies of their new environment.

By teatime I was dusty and thirsty, and none to pleased to hear from the shifty-eyed Transport Secretary that the Covid19 ‘R’ number is above 1 again in the southwest – just as shops are about to open, and more children go back to school. This is not good news. The number of deaths has decreased dramatically, as has the number infections apparently, but having caught the latest edition of More or Less on Radio 3 I am more sanguine than ever about the messages we are being spun on the No 10 Briefings.

Shapps avoided answering questions directly, as usual, ignoring the nub of a one about the non-appearance of chief nurse, Ruth May, who is alleged to have refused to support Dominic Cummings, and duck-shoved those about measures to protect BAME staff in the NHS or the plight of student nurses who volunteered to help during the pandemic and now don’t know if and when they will get back to their studies. Don’t these politicians know that we all make a mental note of their evasions, and store them up for later derision? Don’t this shower know that their credibility has slipped far below the baseline?

Blithely unaware of our disbelief Shapps then expects us to rejoice because Gove has said no to extending the Brexit deadline from 1 January 2021, but that the Brexit border controls will be more relaxed than hitherto promised. Consistency is one thing we cannot expect from this government. And Oh! one final message – Please don’t join demonstrations in defence of racial equality this weekend. Stay at home and don’t deface statues of British heroes. That’s the message he passes on from his boss, Johnson – the one who used racist slurs to add colour to his Telegraph columns and keep faith with his Little Englander Brexit followers.

Just as I was about to get the dust out of my lungs and the disgust off my face with a well-earned sauna, a message comes through from a Serbian colleague: Can I help find outlets for some risky investigations now being carried out in the Balkans? They are urgently in need of a UK link to help win funding for the final push into the dodgy dealing of an international crime syndicate. By tomorrow! Just what you need when you are ready to switch off for the weekend.

I did eventually manage to get through a chapter about Clement Atlee’s formative years in the East End from John Bew’s Citizen Clem in the sauna, but the dry heat is taking its toll on the bindings, so I shall have to find a stitched hardback to take with me next time. 

A creamy bowl of Cullen skink with a pint of Guinness, followed by a chicken pie and green veg, for my late supper. Then I watched The Orphanage an Afghani film telling the tale of a lonely teenage hustler committed to an orphanage during the dying days of the Russian occupation. Apparently based on the actual diary of a friend of director Shahrbanoo Sadat, it is broken up by short bouts of Bollywood, a fantasy into which the central character Qodrat likes to escape the civil war. In one sequence the boys and girls from the orphanage are flown to Moscow to take in the sights and play chess, all properly got up in their Pioneer uniforms – the Communist Party equivalent of the Scouts. We see their delight when one of them beats a computer opponent. But there is an element of deep sadness about the whole story. 

It took me back to a visit I paid to Gyumri in Armenia, thirteen years after the 1988 earthquake that almost wiped out the country’s second city. It was still largely unreconstructed, rusted abandoned factories lined the road into the centre where horses and carts were as likely to be in use as cars on the pitted roads. Instead of housing estates there were row upon row of makeshift homes, the ‘streets’ numbered and lettered making it almost impossible to find anyone unless you of already came from there. I was visiting a cameraman I had worked with and luckily he and his mother lived on one of the outer rows. His father had ‘disappeared’ in the earthquake and he was convinced that his father’s body, like many other victims of the earthquake, had been spirited away to Russia so that his organs could be harvested.  

A pack of feral dogs inhabited what would have been the  entrance to the long abandoned Pioneer headquarters. An ugly tower block on the corner of the main street it still leaned precariously, its lower floors crushed. Nearby, on some sunken land, was what looked like a ‘container city’ in which a variety of social and cultural activities took place. In one of them, donated by British Women’s Institute, a dance group were performing in traditional dress. I was introduced to the former head of the Pioneers. He lost his son in the earthquake and it destroyed his life and faith. Abandoning the Party he had turned to painting for respite from his grief. He gave me a couple of his small works, doodled on the back of Party stationery. They are colourful little artefacts which I have yet to have framed. Like the film they fill me with a mixture of sadness and joy. 

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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