Lockdown Jottings – 07

Watching with Mother

I’m trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to wean myself off the 24-hour television news channels. Yes, they are depressing and repetitive at the best of times but even more so at the moment – the coronavirus story just isn’t unfolding fast enough for an hourly news cycle – but it’s my yearning for good news about a vaccine being discovered, or some other discovery that will bring an early end to lockdown, that keeps me tuning in. I have the television on in the background most days, sound turned down a little while I get on with my work but keeping one ear cocked just in case there’s some optimistic new development that will help to move the story forward.

A couple of nights ago, the BBC broadcast a programme looking back to a gentler time. “From Andy Pandy to Zebedee: The Golden Age of Children’s Television” took me straight back to my own childhood and revived memories of watching TV at home with my parents, particularly my mum while dad was out at work.

I can still remember the day (if not the date) that our first television was delivered. It was during the spring or early summer of 1957 around the time my younger brother was born. It was a sunny day as I stood in the hallway of my parents’ home, clutching onto my teddy bear, from whom I was at the time inseparable. The set was delivered and set up in the living room while Teddy and I did our best not to get in the way. I can remember the delivery man tousling my hair and asking what my teddy bear was called…..

As it was our first television, an aerial had to be fixed to the chimney stack and the cable fed down the back of the house. A small hole was drilled in the (wooden) window frame to allow the cable to pass through into the living room. Once the aerial was connected to the set, instructions were shouted back and forth between the man setting up the set and the man on the roof so that the aerial could be adjusted to ensure we had the best picture.

Once they were satisfied, off they went, leaving us to admire the new arrival (– the TV set, not my new brother!).

It was a large cube-shaped affair, made by Baird, in a mid-brown polished wood veneer and stood atop a matching table. On the front, and beneath the square screen, were two cream-coloured plastic knobs, one either side of the speaker grille. One knob turned the set on and adjusted the volume, the other enabled the selection of channel – from a grand choice of just two: BBC or ITV.

The set (and the table) were supplied by Radio Rentals – for a weekly payment, you too could watch TV: sets were just too expensive to buy back then and many families with television sets relied on the rental companies. (DER – Domestic Electric Rentals – was another such company.)  

The TV took a time to come on – valves had to warm up – and when it did, the picture was in black and white. When you switched it off, the picture shrank rapidly to a little white dot at the centre of the screen which then took a few moments to fade completely away – and we’d sometimes watch it as it did (we took our pleasures where we could!).

One consequence of the time is that so many of my childhood memories are in black and white: TV programmes, films newspapers, family photos, all in black and white. (Even buildings came in soot-stained black back then.)

Occasionally, and right in the middle of a favourite programme, the TV would break down – and that meant not only that you missed the rest of the programme (not to mention the rest of the evening’s programmes) but also the possibility you’d be without TV for several days as you had to wait for a repairman to come out to fix it – a job that could take a few minutes or a couple of hours. Sometimes, the TV set would have to go back to the shop to be fixed and a loan TV would be supplied until your own could be repaired.

One of the biggest disruptions to my childhood television viewing was when the ITV television mast at Emley Moor collapsed in the winter of 1969, brought down by the weight of snow and ice that had accumulated on it and the power of strong winds. I seem to remember that we lost our ITV reception but could still receive BBC transmissions which came from the Holme Moss transmitter. Nearer to home, our own aerial blew down one evening in bad weather and we had to wait until someone could come out and put it back up for us.

My earliest memories of watching television still centre around the weekday ‘Watch with Mother’ programmes broadcast around lunchtime: Picture Book (Monday), Andy Pandy (Tuesday), Bill and Ben (Wednesday), Rag, Tab and Bobtail (Thursday) and The Woodentops (Friday).

Children’s television programmes were also broadcast in the late afternoon. Particular favourites from childhood were The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Richard Greene, a name I always thought rather apt for a character meant to be dressed in Lincoln green), Ivanhoe (starring Roger Moore – on horseback! – later to go on to become The Saint and then, of course, James Bond), and The Lone Ranger (a US import). We also had The Forest Rangers (a Canadian TV series broadcast in the 1960s: I’ve just discovered some episodes are available on YouTube – and they are in colour, a revelation!), and Four Feather Falls, a puppet show produced by Gerry Anderson who was to go on to produce other puppet shows such as Supercar, Stingray, Fireball XL5 and, best of the lot in my view, Thunderbirds! Four Feather Falls was the name of a (fictional) town in Kansas where Sheriff Tex Tucker, voiced by Nicholas Parsons, kept order. Still in the world of animation, The Magic Roundabout, with Florence, Dougal, Brian and Zebedee (amongst others) broke new ground, shall we say.

On Saturday afternoon, 23rd November 1963, I watched a programme such as I’d never seen before. This was the first ever episode of Dr Who starring William Hartnell. If truth be told, it was so unexpected that I didn’t know what to make of it and it was only later in the following week when I watched Junior Points of View and saw all the letters that the programme had generated that I realised how significant that first screening of Dr Who had been. The programme had got a bit lost, however, as it was broadcast the day after the assassination of President John F Kennedy in the United States and many people, it seemed, had missed it. This led the BBC to repeat the first programme and run it back to back with the second episode on Saturday, 30th November. From that moment on, I was hooked, and I’ve been a Dr Who fan ever since, even though some episodes terrified me as a child.

We stayed in black and white right through the 1960s. Our set was capable of receiving transmissions on what was called the 405-lines service – and sometimes, you could see every one of those lines when the picture broke down. Every so often, the picture would slip – you’d see the top half of the picture at the bottom of the screen and the bottom of the picture at the top, the two halves divided by a black line. And sometimes, they’d continue to slip as if someone was pulling a reel of cine film through the set with every frame individually visible. Usually, it took no more than a sharp slap to the side of the set to restore the image to how it should be.

BBC2 was launched in 1964, but you needed a TV set that could receive transmissions on 625 lines to watch it. Ours couldn’t do that, so we had to do without BBC2 for a while after that.

In the run-up to the wedding of Princess Anne on 14th November 1973, the first ‘modern’ royal wedding to be broadcast live, we moved up in the world and migrated to a modern, colour television on the 625-line service. So posh was it that it came housed in a large, floor-standing cabinet with sliding doors that could be closed when the set was not in use. And the world of news bulletins and other programmes came to life in full colour.

The TV was still rented from Radio Rentals, but when they collected the old set, we got to keep the table – and that continued in use for another twenty years as a slightly too tall ‘coffee table’.

Watching television was a pastime for the whole family. Assuming we were all at home, we would all settle down on an evening to watch TV. It led to some arguments, of course, over which programmes to watch but we had our favourites. One of my dad’s was All Our Yesterdays with Brian Inglis; for mum, it was Emergency Ward 10 and Coronation Street and we all liked Z Cars.

But whatever we watched, and so unlike today, you knew that broadcasting would stop each evening, the set would be switched off, the little dot on the screen would eventually vanish and it was time for bed, as Zebedee would have said.

Lockdown Jottings – 06

The Easter Bunny fails to call

So that’s the Easter weekend out of the way. For some, today should have been a return to work and a resumption of routine, but of course, we’re in lockdown so many people will find today very much like the days which have preceded it. Stopping at home, trying to find things to do, keeping up to date with friends and news on social media – and watching the daily government press briefings, hoping for some good news in the latest statistics.

I don’t ‘do’ Easter myself (or Christmas for that matter). I’m not a theist so Easter has no religious significance for me, and I’m not that bothered about chocolate – so no Easter treats were delivered or consumed chez nous. I guess the Easter Bunny was also in lockdown.

It’s now just over three weeks since the PM announced the beginning of our own lockdown and it looks set to go on for a while longer yet. The number of reported cases seems to be levelling off a bit with ‘only’ 4,342 new cases added to the official UK tally yesterday (Easter Monday), a slight reduction on the previous two days but a considerable drop when compared with the number of new cases reported on Good Friday, when 8,681 new cases were added to the list. The daily count of people having died because of the virus has also fallen – 717 announced on Easter Monday down from a high of 980 on Good Friday.

It’s still too early to see these reductions as a trend; we’ve seen reductions in the numbers before only for a sudden spike to reappear taking us to new levels. There have now been 11,329 deaths attributed to Covid-19 and that number will go up again when today’s figures are published. It’s widely accepted that the figures being reported are not showing us the full picture as they only count the number of people in hospital where people are being tested for the virus. Deaths of people in the community, particularly in care homes, are not being added to the figures because there has, as yet, been no significant testing for the virus outside of hospitals.

So, the lockdown goes on – we’ve not yet been given any official confirmation for how long it will be extended but it will probably go on until at least the end of April and quite possibly into May. There are concerns that the lockdown will do long-lasting damage to the economy and that, because of this, lockdown needs to be relaxed early to get the economy back on its feet. No doubt there will be some phasing out of the current strictures but it will need to be done carefully to avoid the risk of a sudden upturn in new cases and yet more deaths.

I can see some sense in this – unable to work, people are suffering financially, and some businesses may never recover (an increasing number of retail chains are already going into administration and the future of these companies and what will happen to their workforce is at best uncertain). But there’s another major downside to the lockdown and that’s the stress it’s causing and the impact it’s having on physical and mental health – whether it be due to financial worries, or depression and loneliness triggered by self-isolating or, in some cases, domestic abuse (which is reported to be on the increase while people are being forced into close and unrelenting proximity).

Despite the problems, easing the rules around lockdown will need to be done very carefully. Some workers may have to be coaxed back to work – given assurances that their workplaces are safe and that social distancing can be practised while they do their jobs. If people are allowed out and there’s no upswing in the number of reported infections (and concomitant deaths), then confidence will start to grow. However, until the virus is eliminated, or an effective vaccine is produced and a mass inoculation programme implemented, there’ll be certain sections of the population for whom lockdown may have to continue indefinitely. The elderly and those with underlying health conditions are obviously most at risk – but it’s not just about staying home for them, it’s about keeping their distance from the people they would usually come into contact with, including family and friends, while carers will need to continue exercising caution when in close proximity with the people they are looking after.

Lockdown will be even harder to bear for those people who have to continue with their own self-isolation once the rest of the country starts to return to anything like normal. There’s been a heart-warming upsurge in community volunteers offering to help neighbours, the sick and the elderly. I hope that such community spirit might continue for those who need it once the doors are unlocked. For some, such support has been a lifeline in these troubling times.

Lockdown Jottings – 05

You apricate if you want to; I’m staying in

Autres temps, autres mœurs – we’re learning to do things differently under lockdown. Meetings held by video conferencing, practising social distancing, and shopping just once a week where we can.

But these unusual times are making me realise we need to develop a new set of manners: is the wearing of plastic gloves in the supermarket something we should do, or something we should not do? Is it socially acceptable to not wear a mask?

If you pick something up while shopping, are you allowed to put it back or, rather like the admonishments in the antiques shop (‘If you break it, it’s yours’), do we need to adopt a new social code – if you touch it, you have to buy it?

I ask because I ended up buying something I didn’t mean to the other day. I didn’t realise until I had brought it home, so the immediate question of whether I could have swapped it or should have felt obliged to put in my trolley didn’t arise on this occasion, but the experience of picking something up you didn’t mean to buy is, I am sure, one that many of us have shared.

I wanted a tin of sliced peaches in fruit juice. Having identified their location on the shelf, I reach across, picked up a tin and put it in my trolley. It was only when I took it out of by shopping bag at home that I saw I’d actually bought a tin of apricot halves in light syrup. Clearly, someone had picked up the tin at some point and put it back in the wrong place. Hey ho, these things happen. It will be apricots for tea and no harm done. But the question is, would it have been appropriate to put the tin back on the shelf (in its proper place, of course) had I realised the mistake I was about to make while still in the shop?

Anyway, whether peaches or apricots, tinned fruits are a mainstay of any larder or kitchen cupboard, little pieces of sunshine in a can that can be eaten at any time of the year (supermarket stocks permitting) and because of the canning process they retain many of the health and dietary benefits of fresh fruit.

But seeing the word apricot set me thinking? Was it related to apricate I wondered? It would have been neat if there was a connection – but sadly no, the two don’t seem to be directly connected: the link is tenuous at best. The word apricot comes from the Arabic word Al-birquq, itself taken from the Greek berikokon which in turn comes from the Latin praecoquum meaning early ripening. Meanwhile apricate (to sunbathe or to bask in the sun), comes from the Latin apricare.

Talk of aprication, the act of sunbathing, couldn’t be more topical this Easter weekend with temperatures rising and the sun putting on a show. Under the lockdown rules, people are allowed out of their homes to exercise, but not to sunbathe. If you want to go to your local park (assuming it’s open) you have to keep moving; lying on the grass to sunbathe appears not to be permitted within the rules and people are being moved on. It’s all well and good if you have a garden or balcony which catches the sun, you can apricate to your heart’s content – but you can’t do it in the park or on the beach.

Personally, as someone who burns quickly, I’ve never understood the supposed joys of sunbathing: I find just find it uncomfortable. I’ve never booked a ‘beach holiday’ in my life. And don’t get me started on what I can only regard as bizarre practice of grabbing a sun lounger when on holiday – or popping out first thing to reserve one next to the hotel pool….there’s an essay on that topic alone.

If there’s shade to be had and I’m outdoors, the shade is where you’ll find me; if there’s a shady side to the street, that’s the side I’ll be walking on.

You apricate if you want to; chances are, I’m staying in.

Lockdown Jottings – 04

Measuring out our lives in coffee spoons

I love coffee, I love tea
I love the java jive and it loves me
Coffee and tea and the java and me
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, boy! 

(From ‘Java Jive’, composed in 1940 by 
Ben Oakland and Milton Drake)

It’s the Easter bank holiday weekend.

When I used to work full-time, the arrival of a bank holiday signalled that it was time to take a break, to relax, to have a rest. Yes, for me, bank holidays have always been a time to put my feet up, to catch up on reading perhaps, or maybe watch TV. I might be persuaded out to socialise with friends in an evening, but mainly I stayed home and kept out of the way. Not once did I think I might be missing out on something more exciting happening elsewhere.

Of course, some people might think that being retired would turn every day into a bank holiday, but I can assure you, that for me at least, it’s nothing of the sort. I’m still very much on the go and in the thick of things. A bank holiday is still a valuable time to take a break.

Suddenly though, and thanks to lockdown, every day does feel rather like a bank holiday except, whereas I used to choose to stay at home, today I am expected to do so. For those of us who are not regarded as key workers who perform some essential role, we do our bit by keeping out of the way. 

And that’s true for many of the people I know. No one rings up to see if they can pop round for a coffee anymore. Today, we drink our coffee alone – well, not quite alone in my case: I live with my partner and he knows how to use a kettle. Like many married couples, we have our little rhythms and rituals – I look up from my work (or my nap), look at the clock and see it’s time for a coffee break – and one of us (usually him) gets up to make a drink.

At home, it’s usually the granulated instant variety – spooned out of the jar and into the cup before adding the hot water. Instant is quick and convenient: filter’s fine, but there’s more faff and washing up to do afterwards. No milk, and definitely no sugar, thank you: I’m an adult who likes his coffee unadulterated.

I can trace my evolution as a coffee drinker all the way back to my early childhood. I was raised on Camp Coffee (I kid you not). Back in the 1950s, this sweet, coffee-flavoured drink based on chicory was no doubt a more palatable offering for a child. A spoonful of the dark syrup per cup, add water, milk and sugar to taste. (Some years ago, I bought a bottle to relive my childhood memories. Let’s just say that I wish I hadn’t. I still have the bottle, all but full, which I’m keeping as a future museum exhibit.)

At some point, I progressed to ‘proper’ coffee (‘I’ll have a proper cup of coffee in a proper coffee cup’), originally drunk with milk and sugar. But the sugar shortages of 1974 (caused by a severe drop in imports of sugar cane, the impact of the three-day week, strikes at the docks and housewives panic-buying sugar), saw me weaning myself off my fondness for sugar – you either had to drink your coffee without sugar or not drink it at all. Not long after that, I stopped adding milk to my coffee. Working in an office where tea and coffee making was often a shared responsibility, I learned not to trust the milk. In a hot office with no fridge, it went off very quickly in the summer, even when stored somewhat precariously on the window ledge outside (I worked on the first floor back then). Drinking my coffee black and without sugar actually marked me out as something of a rarity at the time (trendsetter, even back then!).

Today, my day is marked out by coffee (and tea). I have coffee for breakfast. It doesn’t matter whether I’m having just toast, the ‘full (vegetarian) English’, or something in between – it’s coffee that kickstarts my day. If I’ve risen early enough, then coffee might also make an appearance for elevenses. At lunch though, it depends where I am. If I’m at home, it’s always tea that I drink, but if I’m in a restaurant, I switch to coffee – without fail. I have no idea why; it’s just one of those things I do and I see no reason to change. Mid-afternoon, chances are it will be another coffee (unless scones come with it, when I revert to tea – and Earl Grey if it’s available, please).

What I drink at dinner again depends on where I’m dining. At home, it will be tea that ends the meal but if I dine out, it will be coffee again. Later in the evening, I might have another cup of coffee just before I go to bed. Some say you shouldn’t have coffee before going to bed (how many times have people expressed surprise that I’m drinking coffee so late!) – but I find it’s not having coffee before bed that keeps me awake! I lie in bed thinking about the coffee that’s not circulating in my system……

Anyway, time for a break. I’ll look up in a moment to see if my partner catches my eye – and if he does, and I hear the kettle going on, I’ll dig out that CD I have by The Manhattan Transfer – one of the best renditions of the Java Jive you could wish to hear and the perfect accompaniment to my cup of joe.

Lockdown Jottings – 03

Tackling the to-do list

I do like a nice ‘to-do’ list.

When it comes to getting organised, there’s no better way to give meaning and structure to your plans for the day, week or month, than writing out a fresh new list laden with hope, expectation and good intentions.

Sometimes, I start a new to-do list just for the fun of it, cracking open my notebook at a crisp new page and carrying forward uncleared items from an earlier list onto a new one.

Creating a new list gives a renewed sense of purpose. It shows a determination to get things done! And that satisfaction obtained from ticking each item off as tasks are completed makes me feel that my day has been spent wisely; things have been accomplished!

I always write my to-do lists by hand – never on my laptop, tablet or phone. (It’s one of the few times I get to practise my handwriting these days.) But I’m a bit old-fashioned that way. (I also keep a pocket diary for my appointments. It’s a lot quicker to write things down and to see what’s coming up than logging on and opening some app or other. Trust me, I speak from experience of waiting for colleagues to do just that to see if they’re free to go for a drink, set up a meeting or come round for dinner.)

Anyway, this is supposed to be an article about the experience of lockdown, so let me return to my theme: procrastination in an age of lockdown.

I’m used to working to deadlines – nearly every piece of work I do has some sort of deadline attached to it, some immediate, others more relaxed. And, of course, I’ll have several things on my to-do list at any one time, each with its own deadline. As one piece of work is finished, I move on to the next. Keeping an up-to-date list of the things I have to do helps me to make sure I keep on top of things and meet the expected deadlines. My to-do list helps me to plan my working day. It gives it form and order: I might tackle some of the easier things first (quick wins!) simply because ticking things off the list early in the day gives a sense of achievement and progress being made but I can also keep track of the important things as well.

But in these lockdown days, the deadlines are fewer and even the ones which remain are less demanding. With so many meetings cancelled, the urgency has gone – and with it, if I’m honest, some of the motivation as well. Deadlines act as an incentive: they add urgency and impetus. They propel me forwards. With fewer deadlines, the get-up-and-go has got up and gone (it can’t have gone that far, though, given that no one’s allowed out).  

Don’t get me wrong: there are still things I must do, and I am doing them, just more slowly. I now have longer to do things and, because I’m no longer going out socially, my evenings are empty: I really do have more hours in the day. In a perfect example of Parkinson’s Law, the work to be done is expanding to fill the time available in which to do it.

Sometimes though, I just defer starting things on today’s to-do list to another day. Procrastination might be the thief of time, but there are books to read, TV programmes to watch, naps to be taken and red wine to be drunk – if not necessarily in that order.

If I tell you that I fully intended to write this item yesterday, I’m sure you’ll understand. Tomorrow, I shall write a new to-do list on a brand-new page in my notebook. I’m rather looking forward to it.