Aspects big and small of being locked down with nowhere to go

The small things hit first: no squash, badminton or visits to the local bar, no films or gigs. No anything much. And no bread flour, a triviality but bread-and-butter to my eyes.

Other personal aspects are more serious, such as not meeting family or friends. Elderly parents go unseen; two of our three grown-up children go unmet, even though one lives two miles away. Our youngest is cooped up here with us, kept away from the school where she is training to be a teacher.

For those fighting the coronavirus, this interlude is not worrying or wearisome but terrifying. At the time of writing the recorded death toll from the virus is 1,789, with 381 people dying yesterday, including, tragically, a 13-year-old boy.

Those are the facts and that is why we are being asked to live as we are.

Boris Johnson has the virus and, thinking about it, he’d been looking peaky for a while. His personal ratings are high over his handling of the crisis, yet that’s as much to do with the job as the man. President Trump’s ratings are also firm, even though his handling of the crisis has been abjectly crazy and wildly inconsistent.

Coming off the back of Brexit (ah, cosy old Brexit with its endless shouty rows), this crisis arrived when much of the media was still stuck in yah boo mode.

All that buttering-up of Boris set the tone for too long. Fortunately, journalists are now asking important questions: why is Britain behind in testing; why did ministers say they ‘missed the email’ from the EU offering ventilators (and was that just more Brexit blather)?

Also, remember that Johnson is a question-dodger at heart, as the shutting down of Parliament showed us. Everything is shut now too, making it harder for proper scrutiny. Remember, too, that Johnson never really gives interviews, the closest being those daily press briefings. Yesterday’s briefing was taken by Michael Gove, which was about as reassuring as finding a cocky, lying little devil perched at the foot of your bed.

To all this you can add the behaviour of the police. Let’s freely admit the police have a difficult job to do. Let’s also freely admit that the police have used their big boots to trample over what in normal times constitute our rights.

Derbyshire police have had the most criticism, for drone-shaming walkers and even putting black dye in a blue lagoon to deter visitors. On the radio the other morning, former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption branded such behaviour “disgraceful”, said it was close to a police state, and added that officers had no power to “enforce ministers’ preferences”.

Derbyshire chief constable, Peter Goodman, now admits Lord Sumption is right, but adds that he also must consider locals frightened by tourists trekking through their villages.

The new rules fall somewhere between law and ministerial edict. The police rushed into that gap as if in pursuit of criminals, rather than people going for a walk when perhaps they shouldn’t.

Anyway, two loaves made from my diminishing supply of bread flour are about to go in the oven.

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We all need distractions and here are two of mine… Richard Thompson’s private gig and Masterchef

God, we all need a post to lean on. Here are two of mine: a ‘private’ audience with Richard Thompson and plenty of fork into mouth action on MasterChef.

Thompson, that noted wearer of berets, is a spinner of great songs and a fretboard wizard who can make one guitar sound like two. He has been performing for more than 50 years – around 5,000 gigs, as he confided last night.

“Can’t remember any of them,” he quipped, his voice now confident but still running ahead of a childhood stammer.

All those gigs, and now he’s stuck at home in New Jersey with the latest woman in his life, the singer Zara Phillips (not the royal equestrian one).

Unable to travel anywhere, Thompson, 71 this week, made do with a lockdown gig streamed from his studio.

Lovely stuff to this long-time fan, just Thompson and his acoustic guitar, singing and strumming out the rhythm while laying flurries of notes on top, as he does. He is drily witty, his British humour undimmed by years in the US. At one point, Phillips came on to do the vacuuming, took his temperature and then joined in on vocals.

Thompson played songs old and new, including Down When The Drunkards Roll, one of two great drinking anthems by this now teetotal singer, God Loves A Drunk being the other.

On the Facebook feed fans scrolled out their gratitude and, remarkably, their grumbles. The moaners wanted to see his hands better so they could learn to play the songs properly.

“They’re not easy to play,” I told Thompson once during a phone interview.

“They’re not meant to be,” he said.

After last night, I have a better handle on Walking The Long Miles Home, so thanks, Richard. Oh, and he played that song now accidentally of the moment: Keep Your Distance.

MasterChef ­­is a guilty pleasure just when you need one. Never has this show been more welcome. These hopeful Hestons are on hand to cheer us up. And if you want to know what a scallop or a chocolate fondant look like, they’re eager to oblige.

It’s an odd addiction, I’ll agree. A programme about food you never taste, cooked by people you don’t know from Adam keeping six feet away in the supermarket.

The tasting is all down to that pair of professional mouths, John (‘Parsta’) Torode and Gregg (‘Sorse’) Wallace. Forks plunge into their mouths like JCBs going into muddy holes. We froze the programme on play-back the other day and one or other of them was there for ages with his gob stuck on open.

All very ridiculous, yet I love this show as much as Gregg with two gees loves his puddings. In case you don’t know, he’s the one who looks like a permanently surprised tortoise.

I even love the voice-over drawl at the start, all that doomy excess of second-rate Hollywood blockbusters – “MasterChef is back!” It is my sworn duty to repeat that phrase every time we sit down to watch. A habit warmly welcomed by everyone else (all two of them).

Anyway, it’s knockout week and we will be watching tonight, happily distracted for an hour.

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This too shall pass and other passing observations about staying in…

The words jumped out at me from beneath a rainbow painted by a child – “This too shall pass.”

I was running and those four words trotted along for a while. They have a biblical cadence, I thought, a good short sentence. The keystone is the placement of ‘too’, I thought (pant, pant).

Try the same four words with ‘too’ at the end and nothing really works: ‘This shall pass too’ has the stresses all wrong. That arrangement also raises a comma conundrum: do we get fussy and include one after ‘pass’? By the time you’ve pondered all that, a lovely phrase has curled up and died (pant, pant).

Back home and sweaty, I turned to Google. Turns out the phrase is not biblical but thought to be an old Persian adage.

It’s a noble sentiment and better than, say, all this shit will be over one day, won’t it, with the virus gone and that orange virus in the White House gone too, along with other shitty things?

Those rainbows displayed in house windows provide something cheerful for children to do. At least our three are grown up, so we don’t have to worry about home schooling. On social media you will find many amusing posts on this theme, and one or two outright rants about the impossibility of teaching your own children at home.

Painting rainbows only goes so far.

With much to feel unsettled about, it’s good to find comfort in words, even four simple words that are probably a terrible cliche by now.

Not going out is weird. Those runs and a weekly shop are my outings. Oh, and I drove into town to pick my wife up after she’d had a long day at work. The following day in York police were stopping drivers and asking them why they were out in their cars.

Also castigated by the police have been walkers in the countryside. Is this the right approach? Those walkers are breathing fresh air and generally keep a distance from others. Surely a case of over-policing, but these restrictions are swallowed for now.

Anyway, we can at least walk from our front door to those edge-lands where town and country meet, or head into the emptied streets of York.

Last night we opened a bedroom window, as others in this road out of town did, and soon everyone was clapping their support for the NHS. It was strangely moving. A cynical quip inserted here about the Tories and the NHS has been removed, as Boris Johnson now has the virus and needs our best wishes (not something said often around here).

Also, last night we did a virtual pub quiz on Instagram. All very enjoyable even if we did only tolerably well. There were four of us on team sofa, as our daughter’s boyfriend joined in remotely, helping on screen.

This too shall pass, and he’ll be allowed in the house again and we’ll be allowed back in the bar where the pub quiz wasn’t taking place.

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Oh, please put down that dusty old bottle of Blitz spirit…

We should be suspicious whenever someone pulls out that dusty old bottle of Blitz spirit.

This spirit refers to something that can be said to have happened, namely the grit and guts of Londoners during the air raids of the Second World War. Yet it is also the distillation of something else – a noble myth of our wonderfulness to be revived whenever life turns tough.

Anyone armed only with Google and five minutes to spare can easily discover a different version of history.

While most bombed-out Londoners stayed the right side of the law others didn’t and the Blitz saw a sharp rise in crime.

According to the War History Online website, Britain during the Blitz was marked by looting, violence and organised crime.

“During the years of the Second World War, there was a marked increase in crime,” that website records.

“This was due to a combination of different factors. Some were opportunistic crimes, in which not only criminals but also members of the public took advantage of the chaos during air raids and blackouts.”

Writing on the BBC History Extra website, author Mark Ellis records that reported crimes in England and Wales rose from 303,711 to 478,394, an increase of 57 per cent.

“What was behind this huge jump? The blackout and the bombs were the most obvious factors, and murder, rape, robbery, burglary and theft all flourished in the dark and the chaos,” Ellis writes.

The war also introduced a raft of new restrictions and regulations which people broke or circumvented, sometimes because there were few other choices.

“Rationing of various staples of life offered huge opportunities to fraudsters, forgers and thieves and created a vibrant black market, and there were a variety of other new or expanded criminal opportunities,” Ellis writes.

Murder continued too. One killer, nicknamed the “Blackout Ripper”, killed a suspected four women, before being caught and unmasked as a young airman called Gordon Cummins.

Ten years ago, as the 70th anniversary of the Blitz approached, Duncan Campbell recorded some of the era’s characters for the Observer. He noted that prisoners with less than three months left to serve were let out of prison at the start of the war.

“One of the first lucky ones to pick up a get-out-of-jail-free card was Billy Hill, the dapper gangster from Seven Dials central London, who would emerge from the war as the leading figure in the capital’s underworld,” Campbell wrote.

For Hill, the war represented a fabulous opportunity. “I don’t pretend to be a King and country man, but I must say I did put my name down to serve and until they came to get me I was making the most out of a situation,” Hill wrote in his ghosted autobiography, Boss of Britain’s Underworld, published in 1955. “So that big, wide, handsome and, oh, so profitable black market walked into our ever-open arms.”

Campbell also recorded that thieves used to dress up as air raid wardens and smash their way into shops when no one was looking. Seeing their armbands, members of the public would help load up a car with stolen goods, thinking they were being removed to a safe place.

“Some unscrupulous villains used vehicles disguised as ambulances for their getaways,” Campbell wrote.

One gruesome incident often appears in chronicles of crime during the Blitz. In 1941, when the Café de Paris, which was thought to have a secure underground ballroom, suffered a direct hit, “rescuers were shocked to find that looters were among them, yanking brooches and rings from the bodies of the revellers,” as Campbell writes.

All of this is true, with many more examples to be found. Remembering the darker side of what happened isn’t dishonourable, just realistic, and a reminder to say no thanks the next time that bottle of Blitz spirit is being passed around by Nigel Farage (other slippery opportunists are available).

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Is solitary running and walking at a distance sensible or not?

Only later did the doubts come: should any of that have happened?

I went for a short run first thing yesterday, then the three of us (wife, flown-home daughter and myself) drove out of York to do a shortish walk.

An amount of exercise that allowed for a guilt-free beer or two in the evening, at home instead of at the local bar.

This is not going to be an aggressive manifesto for going outdoors during this health crisis. It’s more a case of puzzling out what’s sensible and what is not.

First item for the (self)-defence: originally the advice seemed to be that exercising outdoors was all right. Boris Johnson even suggested as much during one of his daily announcements.

A quick Google leads me to Runner’s World, a US website chosen because there wasn’t one called Old Puffer’s World.

There, the advice given is that all races and mass events should be cancelled, as mostly they now have been. But solitary running was OK, and according to David Nieman, an American health professor, it is safer to be outside than inside, as when people congregate droplets carrying the virus can be easily passed in a confined space.

“The best plan for running right now is to go out for a solo run and enjoy the outdoors,” he said.

In my plod around the local pavements only a few other runners were encountered. Smiles were exchanged but we all kept our distance.

The walk was in the Howardian hills, retracing steps often trod before. We distanced ourselves from other hikers and saw dog walkers at a long remove. Sandwiches and crisps were eaten on a bench overlooking a valley with Castle Howard in the distance. Back in the car, we drove home without stopping because there was nowhere much to stop.

We’d been shopping in the morning and, if anything, the supermarket seemed riskier as it’s hard to keep six or even three feet apart in a queue. But you do have to buy food. We didn’t stockpile anything, just gathered enough supplies to see us through a strange week.

The newspapers are horrified this morning by all those people who flocked in the sunshine to park or coast; or crammed themselves into London markets.

I wouldn’t wish to do either of those things, as keeping your distance seems sensible. But then sometimes you worry you are part of the problem; is your ‘sensible’ running or walking at a distance just as bad?

“OBEY THE VIRUS RULES – OR ELSE” is the stern headline in the Daily Mail this morning. If such strictures force us to stay at home, we are lucky in having a long garden. Running up and down that will have its limitations, especially if the gardener impedes my stumbling progress, but there you go.

Skipping may also be investigated, not that I know how to skip.

Social media can be a comfort in shut-down days. Here are two tweets I enjoyed. The writer Matt Haig: “I’ve never known so many people simultaneously feeling the need to go for a walk.”

Meanwhile, Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian, points up this letter in his old newspaper…

To keep my rebellious 75-year-old body safe and in line with approved social distancing policies, my wife has devised the mantra “better six feet apart than six feet under”. She won’t put it on social media in case it goes viral.
Graham Jones
Cold Ashby, Northamptonshire.

Ah, a letter that incidentally brings back to mind a favourite American drama series, Six Feet Under.

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Thoughts on the importance of friends (and praise for Gordon Brown)…

Even the horrible national shin-kicking squabble of Brexit occasionally gave us a break.

This coronavirus has turned us into one-track ponies. It’s easy to understand why as it’s all so fraying.

Each day brings something new to worry about, personally and more widely. I don’t wish to add to the fret pile with too many plague jottings. But some days the subject is hard to walk around.

Here then are a couple of serious thoughts, followed by a cheerful recommendation.

You really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. The one politician talking calm and authoritative good sense is Gordon Brown, survivor/saviour of the 2008 crash, yet a prime minister who eventually disappointed.

But he’s the man you want in a crisis, displaying depth, urgency and asking the right questions. And agreeing to be interviewed by the BBC Today programme.

Boris Johnson desperately wanted the job he snatched, and now he’s landed the toughest beat possible. Whether you like the way he’s handling things is a matter of taste. I’d say he looks like a man in a stream wondering why he can no longer feel the riverbed beneath his feet.

He’s not well suited to the serious stuff, being only ever one bad joke away from putting his foot in it. Still, he has the support of the more lickspittle newspapers who continue to treat his karaoke Churchill act as if it were the real deal.

The media’s job in this sort of crisis is to keep us calmly informed but also to question constantly. Slapping Johnson on the back is not helpful. Praise him where it’s due for sure; but criticise him where it’s due, too.

Jeremy Corbyn says some sensible things, but you can’t help thinking it’s a shame he’s not Gordon Brown. While also thinking, heavens, are you still here?

Trending on Twitter at the time of writing is that loathsome slump of humanity going by the name of Nigel Farage. I won’t pass on what he said about China because in times like this we need sensible words, not self-propelling nastiness from a man who really should just shut up and walk away.

And we don’t need the incoherent ramblings of his friend Donald Trump either. Honestly, I watched one press conference clip about self-testing for coronavirus and, well, it was a test of my self to not scream and bang my head against the wall. What is that man talking about?

As Gordon Brown wrote in the Guardian the other day, an international crisis requires governments to work together. The populist nationalism of Trump’s America First policy, along with those of his copycats around the globe, puts us all at risk. Cooperation is what’s needed, not selfish nationalism and blame-shaming.

Incidentally, I went food shopping yesterday and there wasn’t any. Apparently, you need to arrive at 8am to buy luxuries such as potatoes and onions. Apparently (part two), in virus-ravaged Italy there are no food shortages, no selfish scramble to pull everything off the shelves.

Anyway, I promised something cheerful. On the BBC website there is a wonderful little interview with Doreen Burns, Carol Spark and Dotty Robinson. This trio of Salford grandmothers have known each other for more than 40 years.

As they tell BBC Breakfast reporter Jane McCubbin, they’ve hatched a plan to live together when further restrictions are introduced. Wine will be involved, plus love and squabbles, and stories of divorce and survival, and a front room to hide in if they get on each other’s nerves, or a long garden to exercise in.

Honestly, they’re an uplifting hoot and a holler. A reminder that if we have good friends in shitty times, we are indeed blessed.


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Working from home with mating frogs as a distraction…

As I eat breakfast, the frogs are frolicking in the pond beyond the window. It’s an oddly comforting sight, normal and seasonal. Queasy too as the water turns spunky white after a prolonged spell of frog-on-frog action.

I don’t look closely as I am eating bran flakes and listening to John Smith as he spins around on vinyl. What frogs get up to in their orgies is enough to put you off breakfast.

If you’ve dropped by to learn about the mating habits of frogs, you may be disappointed. But I can tell you, courtesy of the BBC, that by late February something is stirring in the garden pond (and in the male frogs’ tight shorts – the later observation not quite being from Sir David Attenborough).

Common frogs wake from hibernation with one thing on their mind, as sometimes do young men. The rampant male frogs emit deep, purring croaks to intimidate other males and attract the attention of females. Who are probably thinking, oh, look at him with his croaking; what’s a girl got to do for a bit of peace around here?

But I can pass on that male frogs grow pads on their forelegs that help them to grasp the females in an embrace known as amplexus which secures their position for the act. The male frog is the one on top and behind; whether they fall asleep straight away once the job is done is open to speculation.

John Smith is only coming out of one speaker now. A little non-technical tugging of wires restores his stereo self.

The news on my phone tells me that the Glastonbury festival is off and my copy of the Observer, read gradually over the week, reminds me that the word quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta giorni. This refers to the 14th century practice of requiring plague-infected ships at Venice to “sit at anchor for 40 days before landing”.

The article containing this fact is about the village of Eyam in Derbyshire where, during the bubonic plague outbreak of 1665-6, the inhabitants quarantined themselves in what became regarded as a huge act of self-sacrifice. Isolation, self-chosen or otherwise, is nothing new.

The villagers kept their distance in the belief that the illness passed from person to person. In fact, infected fleas in a bundle of imported cloth were to blame, but the instinct that they should not move among other people was right.

Many of us are now getting used to the idea of not moving among other people as we are working from home. Usually it’s a combination for me: newspaper production work in an office, freelance work at home; university work face-to-face with students or preparation and marking at home.

I once spent the best part of a year sitting in this study in the mistaken belief that freelance journalism and novel writing could provide a sustainable living.

From this week all my work takes place at home, as is now general where possible (my wife works in a shop and there isn’t room for that shop in this house). Will all this homeworking prove a liberation or lead to us all going stir-crazy within weeks?

On my phone in a mates’ chat group, a friend has sent a clip of an old Cockney woman ranting about the lack of toilet rolls.

In a voice that could break windows, she swears forcefully, using the expected word but pronounced to rhyme with “lacking”. She recommends using newspaper for the job instead, as happened in the, ahem, lacking war.

An oddly cheering sight, although I do wish people from the prime minister downwards (upwards?) would stop chuntering on about the war.

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I try not to worry; but still…

I hope you are well. This is not the usual start to one of these blogs, but these are not usual times.

While it is natural to panic, I try not to because if you are married to a natural panic merchant, having two play that game is unsettling.

But my attempts to stay cool while saying the coronavirus won’t be all that bad have unravelled. I don’t want to join all the amateur epidemiologists lining up to have their say, as that should be left to those who know what they are talking about. But still.

Here are a few snapshots of how our life is unravelling a little, as yours might be too.

We went to a friend’s birthday party on Saturday and only ten of us turned up, as opposed to the 30 or so who usually roll along. The birthday boy enjoyed himself, but later said he was going into self-chosen quarantine: not because there was a problem, just because he’s in his mid-60s and has certain health problems.

An old friend of mine unmet for two or three years cancelled a planned lunch for this week, as he’s in his mid-60s, has asthma and has been advised by his doctor to keep a low social profile.

My long-since separated parents are in their late 80s, so that raises other concerns. My in-laws are in their early 80s and perfectly fine, but still.

One of my brothers is on holiday with his family in Spain and is confided to the hotel balcony. The brother who lives in Hong Kong is seeing his life changed by the coronavirus (students sent home and so on), after seeing it changed by the protests and riots.

Our eldest son and his partner have had to cancel an Easter trip to New York. They’d decided not to go because everywhere in the city was shutting down; and now Trump has banned flights from Britain anyway.

We went to our local bar last night, a small weekly treat. It was pleasantly filled with drinkers and their dogs (it’s a canine-friendly sort of place). Will that bar and all others be forced to close and what will Sunday look like if it does?

I do work for two universities, both still open for now, although others are closing. My office work is being done from home on Friday as an experiment in remote working.

As I said, I try not to worry; but still. What if my works stutters or stops; what if the shop where my wife works is required to shut for a while? We all face such questions, or most of us do.

While not wishing to join those amateur epidemiologists, I do wonder about advising everyone aged 70 and above to stay indoors for their own protection. Some 70-year-olds are fitter than they’ve ever been (one I know a little is still playing squash) and no more at risk than a younger person in poor shape.

But still. These are small ways in which life is being changed, infringed, made worrying. Some people are facing bigger and more tragic difficulties. All we can do is carry on (when that’s allowed) and hope everything turns out OK for those we love.

My mother has started a family WhatsApp group for keeping everyone in touch. I have two more such groups for friends. My phone is pinging all the time, but it’s good to be in touch, especially if you can no longer touch or see.

I try not to worry; but still.

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The story of one house with a supporting cast of others…

Our eldest (born Lewisham, lives York) is trying to buy a house. Recently he stayed with my mother (Essex, Bristol, Cheadle Hulme, Knutsford) and showed her the house in Bristol where she grew up. As it had been sold relatively recently, there were photographs online.

A house is just a house, yet memory is mortar to those bricks. From the front this terraced house looks much as it did. And out the back the garden is still walled and beyond you can see the roof of the school. Further away and not visible is the prison against whose outside walls children sometimes kicked balls; perhaps they still do.

Inside only the front room, where my grandfather would hover at the net curtains while giving a running commentary on what the neighbours were up to, coincides with memory. Most other rooms have been changed and the attic seems to have been colonised.

The kitchen is unrecognisable from memory, smart and modern behind the remembered version; the old kitchen haunts it like a negative ghosting a new photograph.

My grandfather, an East End boy, did office work in the London docks. During the war he was sent to Bristol (I think it was a reserved occupation) and liked the place so much, he moved his family there afterwards.

We lived nearby in a house where, aged three, I fell from a bedroom window and fractured my skull. My grandmother kept a diary which my mother found years after she died, and the potentially tragic incident loomed large.

My grandfather had an allotment around the corner, to which sometimes he would retreat. His wife was known to the grandchildren as Nagging Nana, although she rarely nagged me (eldest grandson, victim of a childhood mishap).

We moved from Bristol to Cheadle Hulme shortly before one Christmas in the mid 1960s, two parents and three boys, with Christmas packed into the removal lorry. That house in the cul-de-sac pops up in a search but without any photos. About three years ago, visiting the area for a mini-reunion, I drove into the road that goes nowhere, parked outside, had a look, then left.

One of my brothers (Bristol, Cheadle Hulme, Cardiff, Paris, Lyons, and now Hong Kong) once told me he’d never liked that house or the road. I did but perhaps I am more sentimental. My other brother (Bristol, Cheadle Hulme, Barnsley) has never said much about the house that I can recall.

I try the same trick for where my father (Southampton, Bristol, Cheadle Hulme, Prestwich) grew up, but discover no details. In a street-view photograph the house in Southampton shares a glancing similarity to the 1920s semi in York where we moved so that my wife (Macclesfield, Cheadle Hulme, Nelson, Wetherby, London, York) could have the garden she complained she’d never have.

Our daughter (born in York, lives in York, loves York) is back home while training to be a teacher. The other day dad and daughter walked past the old council offices in St Leonard’s Place. This Georgian terrace was turned back into houses and flats (sorry, apartments) some years ago.

Those prices are astonishing, we say to each other, while heading to meet her brother for a drink, the York brother and not the Salford brother. Two out of our three stayed around, the other lives where he was a student. I did that too and that’s how we met: happenstance and rented rooms in a shared house in Lewisham.

Eventually we bought a flat converted from a large house with a monkey puzzle tree outside; a flat that, according to Zoopla, is now worth a dizzying amount.

The day after dad and daughter were discussing the old council offices in York, an estate agent’s advert popped up on Facebook: £1.1m for an apartment. That seems bonkers and a social wrong. As does the apparent worth now of that flat halfway up the hill in an ordinary corner of south-east London.

Takes deep breath, gnashes teeth and reminds himself there are different kinds of worth…

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We’re listening to experts again. Is that bad for Trump and Johnson?

The TV is on all day in this office, with screens showing sport or the news. Right now, President Trump, in a red baseball cap, bomber jacket and enormous white trousers, is talking to a group of men who are smarter than him.

The sound is down so Trump is muted (hallelujah) but you can’t miss his gee-you-know-I’m-a-genius-really face.

I check later and his visit, repeated endlessly like Groundhog Day at the lip of time, was to a centre for disease control and prevention in Atlanta.

The other men, the ones who look more like presidents than Trump, are experts in disease control. Trump is an expert only in being Donald Trump. He holds up an image of the coronavirus, as it if were a drawing he’d just done in class that morning.

Trump doesn’t like experts. He has disparaged experts since his election. Experts tell him things he doesn’t wish to hear. Experts say the climate crisis is real and not something cooked up by the Chinese. Out with experts.

Trump deploys his lack of knowledge as vacuum shield that sucks in everything around. He spouts nonsense as if it were a magic mantra.

He insisted the coronavirus crisis did not exist, but suddenly that crisis has put experts to the fore again. Who you gonna trust – the world’s most infamous gobshite or experts who know that they are talking about?

Suddenly people in the US want to listen to experts. It’s the same here and never mind all that pre-Brexit idiocy from Michael Gove about how, “People in this country have had enough of experts”.

Trump’s first instincts were to ignore the experts, politicise the crisis, and blame Barack Obama (everything is always his fault). All that self-serving bluster wasted valuable time. Then he visited experts in suits and said he could do their job as he had a good mind.

He is still popping up on that screen when the late shift ends. On social media, which after all is Trump’s playground, people are sharing scurrilous theories about how beneath those capacious white trousers the president now wears adult nappies. It is not possible to know if this is true, so let’s hurry on.

In the supermarket the next day, amid reports of toilet roll riots, everything is calm. Lavatory tissue is lined up in abundance, although pasta is in short supply and, oddly, nearly all the bread flour has gone. This suggests my fellow bakers are more panicky that I realised.

There is an odd irony in selling out of pasta, the unacknowledged national food of Britain. Most pasta comes from Italy, the European country hardest hit by the coronavirus.

This morning northern Italy is in lockdown, while we all go hunting for dried pasta shapes. Boris Johnson is telling us that we don’t need to panic buy, and he may be right, but people will still panic. That’s what they do; what we do.

I try not to panic, but no longer know if I am being too sanguine by half. The thing is, does panicking help? Is stockpiling toilet paper sensible? Almost certainly not, but once people start grabbing everything off the shelves, it’s hard to stop them.

Boris Johnson came to power promising to see off the “doomsters and gloomsters” but now his slyly arranged cheerfulness runs into a real crisis. One where the ability of the NHS to cope with rising numbers of coronavirus sufferers could be harmed by a decade of cuts imposed by his party.

Johnson, like Trump, would surely believe this to all be a fuss about nothing, a distraction from the yellow brick road he pointed us along. But those yellow bricks no longer seem to be pointing in the right direction.

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