Monday, 30 March 2020

The Perils of Lock-down

We’ve both fully recovered from the dose that we had. But we are still none the wiser about whether it might have been the dose. When the antibody test becomes available, we’re certainly going to take it. Until then, like the rest of the country, we’ve been in lock-down. For both of us this has meant a lot of hard work. I’ve been catching up on heavy jobs in the garden that had been neglected for several years (since my last major operation). T has been getting plants ready for her greenhouse. We threw ourselves into these tasks, perhaps as an antidote to the anxiety of the coronavirus. Little did we know that we were engaging in work that is more dangerous than skiing and rugby in terms of hospital admissions.

Our house is built on the side of a drumlin. We have a large raised border which extends across the rear of the house. The original owners filled this haphazardly with ornamental conifers and other shrubs. Over the intervening twenty five years these have grown into a veritable jungle that is both dense and tall. And because it is a raised border some of the trees now tower over the house and block the light, to the extent that we sometimes have to switch the lights on during the day.

I began by tackling the cypresses; there were six of these. Each had multiple slim branches growing straight up from the same low trunk. The largest cypress was about twelve feet tall and six feet wide. I began to cut out the tallest branches which were in the middle of the clump. The thinner ones could be cut with a large lopper, the thicker ones (3 inches or so in diameter) had to be sawed. This was rough work. I had to clamber through the border, part the outer branches and saw at an awkward angle with small branches scraping my arms. But when a dozen or so branches had been removed, the first cypress was thinner and shorter but still in roughly the same shape. Then I turned to the other five.

The two largest trees were ornamental spruces. These had been planted by the previous owners with no thought for how tall and wide they might become or whether a raised border behind the house was a suitable location. I tried to prune them, but they were too high (about 15 feet) and too dense for this to work. There was nothing else for it, they would have to go. I consulted my neighbour, who arrived with his chainsaw and helped to chop them down. The trunks were about a foot in diameter and I had to secure one with a rope to make sure it didn’t fall onto the greenhouse.

After a long hard day, we had a mountain of felled conifer but much more light for the house and greenhouse. I had stinging grazes on the inside of my forearms and a sore back. I also gained breathing problems (needing to use my inhaler for the first time in months), as one of the other conifers had discharged a cloud of white pollen in my face while I was trying to prune its neighbour. The revenge of Mother Nature?

The next day, T and I dragged all of the conifer branches to the corner of the garden and tossed them over the fence into the neighbouring field. This was heavy going and took several hours to do. We also collected all the dead branches from the lawn that had been brought down from the ash trees at the edge of the field by winter storms. We piled all of these branches up and I started a fire. There is something very therapeutic about a good bonfire. Perhaps it is a trace memory from our lives as hunter-gatherers or the cleansing ritual it represents (burning the debris of winter)? I wore a mask but still managed to inhale some smoke, so it was out with the inhaler again. The next job was mowing the lawn for the first time of the year. It took twice as long as usual.

According to official figures, around 100,000 people require hospital treatment for injuries sustained in gardening and DIY each year. Some 10% of these injuries are serious enough to require admission to hospital. The main culprits are machinery (especially lawnmowers), digging and falls. After our first week of lock-down labour, we’ve gained aching joints, sore muscles, multiple grazes and wheezing lungs. Last night we were so tired that we fell into bed at 9.30pm. Given the risks, we seem to have got off lightly so far. Although, as the lock-down is set to continue for months rather than weeks, only time will tell.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Coronavirus Symptoms and Advice

Over the past week, we’ve both had a mild headache, a sore-throat and fatigue. These symptoms were intermittent, with occasional hot flushes. Mostly we just felt under the weather. We took our temperatures and found that they were normal. We didn’t have a cough or any breathing difficulties. So we put this down to a strange seasonal cold that persisted without really developing. We took it easy and carried on with our social distancing.

Two days ago, T found (quite by chance) that the previous week she had been in contact with a person who was now at home with the same symptoms. However, the week before, this person had come into contact with several visitors from France and Spain. This person didn’t have a cough or fever, but had been advised by NHS 111 to self-isolate for a week as a precaution. We were shocked. Did we all have covid-19? None of us knew. We certainly didn’t have the key symptoms. But, disturbingly, there was no way of finding out. The NHS wasn’t going to test any of us unless we became seriously ill.

There are already high levels of stress and anxiety about the coronavirus, and the great uncertainty about whether we are (or were) positive has added significantly to ours. Importantly, if we had lived just 30 miles south of here (in the Republic of Ireland) we would have been tested and, if necessary, our contacts traced.

The Government coronavirus advice focuses on those who have moderate symptoms (fever and persistent cough). A fever is defined as a temperature of 100 degrees F or higher, which means you will be feeling very unwell. Under these circumstances, you are going to want to stay at home and be in bed anyway, because you won’t feel able to do much else. Thus, the Government advice seems to be targeting an extreme minority of people who consider that it might be sensible to go out into the world with a high fever.

The Government coronavirus advice pays no real attention to mild symptoms. These mild symptoms are not described, nor is any advice given about what to do in the event of getting them. The only comment that is made is that most people will only get mild symptoms.

Why doesn’t the Government advise people who have mild viral symptoms of any sort to self-isolate for a week? This failure, allied to the lack of community testing, generates an extremely serious problem. People with mild viral symptoms are still infectious. Indeed, these are exactly the people who are more likely to try and carry on with their normal lives, and in so doing come into contact with plenty of other people.

From a medical perspective, you focus on the most unwell and pay little attention to the less afflicted. However, from a public health perspective, you also need to consider the impact of those you are not focusing on. In an epidemic, neglecting those with mild symptoms will surely lead to the coronavirus spreading more widely and rapidly.

Because it has been a week since the symptoms first appeared, we no longer need to self-isolate. We feel okay, but the worry hasn’t gone. In fact, given the news from Italy, it looks like it’s all going to get a whole lot worse before it gets any better.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Social Distancing

As I am in a high-risk category, over 60 and having recently had surgery on my lungs, we have been paying close attention to the health advice on Covid-19. In recent days we have stocked up and now we have enough basic supplies in the house to last us for a week or so. It was a disturbing experience to go to the local Tesco supermarket and find the shelves empty of staples such as bread, meat, potatoes and vegetables. We didn’t witness any fights over the last tin of beans or jar of chutney. But people were very stressed and fearful. Thankfully, the next day the store was fully stocked as usual.

T is working from home. She is delighted not to have the long drive to and from work anymore. I took early retirement a decade ago, so this is my norm. As we live in the country, surrounded by fields and farms, we normally have to make an effort to meet people. Over the past week, we’ve been minimising our contacts. For others, of course, this is not so easy.

Staying at home hasn't been a great ordeal for us so far. We have plenty of things to be getting on with. I began to prune the back hedge. It hadn’t been cut for three years, due to the last operation which opened my chest. So the hedge had grown by about six feet. After an hour of lopping my arms and shoulders were aching, but there was still plenty of hedge to cut. T has a new greenhouse to fill with seeds and plants.

Going forward, all of the main things we were intending to do this month have been cancelled anyway. I had been booked to read my poetry in Galway. And T had planned to visit her elderly mother, who is now isolating at home and getting her food delivered.

As we are doing plenty of reading and writing, we have time to ponder. I’ve been working on my poetry manuscript for a while. It is now in its fifth iteration, with a new set of poems in a new order under a new title. Unfortunately, I continue to collect rejections from publishers. Roger Robinson, the recent winner of the TS Eliot prize, said that early in his career he was told not to worry too much until he got over 30 rejections. I believe William Golding got over 40 rejections for ‘Lord of the Flies’. By these measures, I still have some way to go.

Another issue to ponder is the underlying reason for the UK being so different in its approach to the Covid-19 pandemic to most other countries. Surely they are all looking at the same scientific evidence about the disease. So the reason for the difference in strategy must be political. Perhaps it is because the NHS is under-prepared for the scale of the outbreak. This would not be unexpected after a decade of underfunding and understaffing. Matt Hancock’s recent appeal for ventilators would seem to give some credence to this theory. Furthermore, the decision to test only those who are already seriously ill means that the size of the outbreak in the UK is being massively underreported.

There is also the issue of confidence in the leadership during this crisis. Boris Johnson has long admired Winston Churchill. And here is a situation of great challenge and adversity that requires a Churchillian response. But, however much he might try, Johnson exudes all the gravitas of a marshmallow. He seems to be inveterately shallow and evasive. I’d trust him to be in charge of a TV panel-game, but little else.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Seasonal Affective Disorders

Since our return from Lanzarote, the weather here has been dreadful: gales, rain, sleet, snow and floods. The bad weather has been relentless, day upon awful day.  After two weeks of unbroken warmth and sunshine, the re-entry into the winter of Northern Ireland was always going to be difficult. But this year it has felt much worse than usual, the weather having thrown down a challenge that even the Stoics would have found troubling.

A friend of mine told me that he and his family had only been on a winter holiday to the Canary Islands once. And that had been over twenty years ago. So why had they not gone on such a holiday since, I asked? Because after a week of lovely sunshine, the return to the winter of Northern Ireland had been so terrible that it had taken them several months to get over it. They decided not to put themselves through that ordeal again.

I knew exactly what he meant. They had gained a few days of summer but this delicious experience had then been painfully curtailed by the relentless wet and cold of winter. Emotionally, the continuing darkness and depression of winter was easier to bear without your hopes being raised and then dashed by a fleeting glimpse of summer.

This would seem to explain why a number of people we met at the hotel in Lanzarote had extended their time there, year on year. One couple from Newcastle told us that last year they had come for one month and this year they had doubled it. Another woman from Leeds told us that she came each year on the first of January and didn’t go back home until the first of May.

A Canadian I met some years ago said something similar. He was a successful businessman and had bought a flat (condominium) in Florida for winter holidays to escape the deep cold of Canada. Over time their winter holidays in Florida got longer and longer until they were only going back to Canada for the summer. Eventually, the summers in Canada got to feel cool and they sold their house there and moved to Florida.

When we returned home from Lanzarote we put the central heating on continuously for the first few days. Outside it was blowing a gale and snowing. I complained to everyone I met about the weather. Most shrugged with resignation. What do you expect, one said? It’s winter.

It took me quite a few days to be able to try a bike ride. I wrapped up in four layers of clothing and pedalled hard to get the blood flowing to hands and feet. Although the sun was shining when I set off, squally showers came in on the strong wind and during the ride I had rain, sleet and snow. Luckily I found shelter in barns to escape several of the showers but the last one caught me about five miles from home. I decided to press on through it. The temperature went down to 1 degree C and I was drenched and shivering by the time I got in. After a warm shower and hot tea with dunked ginger nuts, I perked up.

The next morning I sat down at the computer and began to search travel sites. Before the day was out I had booked two weeks in Mallorca for a cycling holiday.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

An Island of Deserts and Volcanoes

We’ve just returned from Lanzarote. It was our first visit there and it won’t be the last. You can, of course, rely on winter sunshine of 18-24 degrees C. But the island has so much more; the interior holds white-walled villages amidst a starkly beautiful volcanic landscape. We stayed in a small hotel in Costa Teguise, made up of three dozen apartments that surrounded a kidney-shaped pool. When we looked out from our balcony each morning we could see the hotel staff cleaning the pool. We stayed half-board and were delighted with the range of local dishes available for dinner. We also became quite addicted to the Spanish practice of cake (almond, apple or lemon) at breakfast.

I brought my bike with me and explored much of the island on two wheels. The main resorts are on the coast, but traditionally people lived inland to escape attacks from pirates. The centre of the island is a plateau at around a thousand feet, dotted with small white-walled villages that host traditional markets. They are surrounded by a range of volcanoes that rise to about two thousand feet. The landscape is desertified and exposed to the wind, which is constant and can be very strong. Succulents and cacti are common; trees are rare, although you do find palm trees and the odd eucalyptus and acacia tree in the villages.

The last big volcanic eruption was in 1824 and great swathes of the island are covered in lava. Strangely enough, when this lava is broken up into very small pieces it absorbs moisture from the atmosphere and supports the cultivation of vines on the hillsides. However, the vines need to grow behind little walls or in pits to protect them from the ever-present wind.

I did some great rides through the lava fields and vineyards, explored sleepy villages and managed the long climb to the Mirador del Rio, a fantastic viewpoint at 1600 feet above sea level. Not bad for an old geezer. The island is much favoured by triathletes for winter training. On the ascents I was regularly overtaken by groups of riders from the Netherlands and Germany. But the descents were fast and I would often be able to catch them up at a cafe stop in the next village (menta poleo tea being my favoured drink).

T preferred reading and writing at the pool or visiting the markets. We spent a good part of each day beside the pool, either me joining T after a ride (which I did on alternate days) or both of us taking it easy in the afternoon following one of our trips out. I would lie on my back in the water and look up at the blue sky with hardly a cloud and the fronds of the palm trees swirling in the wind. On the sun lounger I read ‘Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither’ by Sara Baume, a very well written but sad Irish novel, and an entertaining Jo Nesbo thriller.

It was my birthday whilst we were away. When we came down to dinner we found that the maitre-d had prepared a special table for us, with flowers, candles and a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket. It was a very nice touch from an extremely friendly and hospitable hotel. We met several people who were staying there for months on end. On the plane we talked about returning for longer next year. And after I had to walk across the tarmac at Belfast International Airport in my shorts in a howling gale with sleet at just 1 degree C, I was convinced that it was a great plan.  

Monday, 13 January 2020

The Big Wind

As I write, Storm Brendan is battering this island. Gusts of wind of 90mph have been recorded on the Cork coast. Some 50,000 people are currently without power, although this number is expected to rise as the storm continues. Met Eireann have issued an orange warning (a threat to life and property) and recommend that people avoid travelling. My dearest T is battened down in the North West with the curtains closed as the wind howls outside, threatening to lift the tiles off the roof.

Yet in a couple of clicks we can look at a live weather map and see that the centre of the storm is several hundred miles off the west coast and that it is tracking towards the north east. Few of us are likely to think that the storm is of Divine origin and a harbinger of the Day of Judgement. But this was exactly what many people thought on 6 January 1839 when The Big Wind struck this island.

The day before the storm was unusually warm and windless. People were preparing for the Feast of Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, to celebrate the coming of the Magi. By sunset the wind had risen and rain began to fall. By midnight, the island was in the grip of a ferocious hurricane that roared like an animal. The storm hit the west coast so hard that the thunder of the ocean could be heard many miles inland and waves actually broke over the top of the Cliffs of Moher (500 feet above sea level).

As the storm intensified, the wind began to rip the roofs off houses. Thatch was blown away; chimneys, slates, timbers and other debris were hurled to the ground. Trees were uprooted everywhere. Stone buildings collapsed, factories and barracks were destroyed. Fires erupted in the streets of many towns. All of the water was blown out of the canal in Tuam. Sheep and cattle died in droves.

Many people sought what little shelter they could find from the wind and hailstones in hollows and behind hedges. The immediate death toll was around 800. Most killed by falling debris. Many others later succumbed to pneumonia. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless.

The forecast tells us that Storm Brendan will abate this evening and by tomorrow it will be gone and we can pick up the pieces and get on with our lives. Hopefully, no-one will be killed. Some repairs could be needed, but contemporary houses rarely collapse in storms. In a day or so power will probably be restored to those who lost it. In 1839 the homeless and destitute only had the workhouse to turn to, if it was still standing. If not a harbinger of the Day of Judgement, then The Big Wind was certainly a precursor of a decade of famine.