Wednesday, 14 April 2021

The Elephant in the Room

Twenty-three years ago, I was privileged to be living in a house where there was a TV set in the bedroom.  I was chided by my wife because I was taking so long to get dressed that morning.  The TV news was reporting the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.  This dramatic occasion marked the end of thirty years and more of 'the Troubles'; it heralded a new season of peace in Northern Ireland.  Long, long years before, I had attended church with my then fiancée for an all-night vigil of prayer for that province at the start of the unrest.  In the age since then, I had married, fathered two children, seen them grow up, and had become divorced from their mother.  Other girlfriends had come and gone, and I was now married again.  A whole lifetime had passed, and on that morning, yes, I was attentive to the news; I was savouring every precious drop.  There was peace once more in our United Kingdom.

Not many years after that remarkable announcement, my own life had taken many more turns in its contorted course.  I had become a 'same-day courier' and, as part of that role, I was occasionally asked to make deliveries to Ireland, both in the North and in the Republic.  If I had a delivery in Belfast, I always preferred to be booked on a ferry to Dublin, to avoid the long drive to Stranraer before getting a short ferry crossing, and all with the worry of getting there on time.  I remember one occasion - it was probably during an election campaign - when I drove along the elevated section of the M1 to enter Belfast from the south, looking down and seeing a poster on every lamp-post, and flags on every street, sometimes the union flag, sometimes the Irish tricolour.  I hated every moment of it.  

As a country boy from a sheltered past, I'd managed to overcome my fear of big cities on some of the darker streets of outer London, but that morning I felt a new fear as I entered this place, still tainted in my mind by the violence that was, in those early years of the present century, just beginning to be nudged into a closed chapter of history.  Perhaps a decade on from the GFA, the streets were still besmirched by the evidence of divisions that didn't simply evaporate at the stroke of a political pen.

And in the last weeks, we have seen again in the media renewed evidence of those divisions and a reminder that, while the GFA may have brought about a ceasefire, it has not resolved underlying differences and problems; it has not brought equality of understanding and opportunity to the vast majority of the population.  Many have resigned themselves to the incompleteness as a better alternative to ongoing hostility, danger and murder; a significant minority have not.  A new generation of young people seem now to be the successors to those who haven't forgotten why there was violence in the nineteen-seventies, -eighties and -nineties: the fear of those who see the minority in their midst as the ever-present vanguard of encroachment from the South; the fear of those who, being that minority, see prejudice and persecution lurking in the next street.  

As I wrote in this blog many years ago, Northern Ireland, although historically and politically an integral part of this Kingdom, is generally overlooked by those who live on this larger island called Great Britain.  Because their home is on the other side of the sea, and we can't simply drive there like the Welsh to Manchester, the Scots to Newcastle or Carlisle, or the English to Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Cardiff, it's easy to forget about those who live in Belfast or Derry; Armagh, Coleraine or Enniskillen.  "Ignore them and their problems and they'll go away" seems to be the mindset of the people of Great Britain.  Even the country's Olympic team was non-inclusively named 'Team GB'!

Only it doesn't happen that way.  Another memory of mine is driving around Dublin one morning.  I'd just found a filling station and was driving the last mile or so to the port to get the ferry home.  I was so intent on the news bulletin that I missed my turning and had to make a long detour to get back on track.  This was in the year or so before the Brexit referendum, and RTÉ was reporting on the Leave and Remain campaigns.  One thing they focussed on was the impossibility of squaring the circle of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland leaving the EU and all its institutions without returning to the hard land border with the EU across the island of Ireland ... something that had been dissolved by the GFA.  

It had been my hope that this obvious impossibility would be the downfall of the Leave campaign and that we would remain in the EU.  However, this wasn't to be.  What was obvious to me was clearly hidden to those in power.  More likely, as stated above, it was simply overlooked as a minor detail that would be sorted later ... along with all the other things that weren't thought through before R-day.  Now the true nature of Brexit and its effect on Northern Ireland has become apparent, there are troubles again ... not specifically caused by Brexit, admittedly, but that is certainly a reminder to those affected of the way their interests are consistently ignored by the authorities on this side of the Irish Sea.  If trouble is not to turn into 'Troubles' again, someone, somewhere, has to realise the obvious solution to the difficulty.  

However distasteful to some in positions of power and authority, the trumpeting of the elephant in the room must be listened to ... Britain must re-join the Single Market, so that the need for 'a border in the Irish Sea' (the supposed solution to not having that hard land border) can be removed and Northern Ireland can return to being a full part of the UK.

The only alternative is the partition of the UK and the re-unification of Ireland, which would risk yet further - greater but different - violence such as was threatened in 1912!

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Possess it if You Can

I'd be the first to admit that my domestic skills are not great.  In fact, 'skill' probably isn't a good word for them at all.  But one thing I have discovered, that I believe to be good economy, is 'cooking bacon', formerly known as 'bacon scraps'.  Pound for pound (I know ... an out-of-date expression now, but still meaningful), it's about half the price of neatly packed rashers and once unpacked and unpicked, there are many almost complete rashers amongst the true 'scraps'.  However, last night for dinner I was confronted by a single 'rasher?' that was about a centimetre thick.  I was proud to be aware of the need to cook it very  s l o w l y.

Similar patience is needed, I discovered, when filling the iron; getting a lot of liquid through a small hole too quickly can result in water everywhere and an uncomfortably wet foot!  I've had a lot of reminders of patience lately, not least of which have related to the world of politics.  However great my desire for the overturning of a corrupt government and for electoral reform, I realise that neither of these is likely to happen for a number of years. 

Last month, I mentioned taking a great interest in the regular webinars of the Western Front Association.  I learned from one of these that, surprisingly, one of the things that the soldiers in the trenches had to deal with was boredom.  Yes, there was danger, yes, there was the excitement of conflict, sometimes the physical pain of wounds or the emotional pain of lost comrades, but for much of the time there was ... nothing.  There was time to sleep, to smoke, to read over again letters from home, or to write back but, in terms of the war, just waiting.  And that needed patience!

In a way, reacting to the Covid pandemic - which our Prime Minister described, with accuracy if not with sensitivity, as a war - has brought just such a need for patience.  Right now, I find the need for patience for the pain in my arm to end, following my second vaccination yesterday.  But more generally, there has been a growing frustration at the social restrictions resulting from lockdowns of varying intensity, one after another, for the last year and more.  Who knows when we will once more be able to visit loved ones in their homes,  watch a football match or enjoy a pub lunch again?  What we learned last summer was that bringing these things back with inappropriate speed simply invited a resurgence of infection and renewed restrictions as a result.  If we desire a return to 'normal life' in all its fullness, we must be patient.

I have been fortunate in having my family history researches - largely unhindered, thanks to the internet - to occupy me during lockdown.  In October I embarked on what has sometimes seemed an endless exploration of the clan of my great-great-grandmother, and in particular during the last fortnight I've followed the fortunes of one Agnes Jane Bailey.  Born in 1892, she appeared in the 1901 census as the second of a family of five children and that was how I had been content to leave them when I first learned of their existence some 16 years ago.  

However, when the 1911 census became available, I discovered a small discrepancy and corresponded again with the cousin who had provided that information.  In her reply she advised me that the three-year-old latest addition to the family was not, as she appeared, Agnes's youngest sister, but her daughter!  Agnes, meanwhile, was recorded working as a kitchen maid in a large household some twelve miles away.  Whether there were any connection between this household and the girl's father, I have no idea.

Clearly Agnes's family had been very supportive when the child was born to their 15-year-old daughter.  Many a girl in such a predicament would have been cast out to make of her life whatever she could with no help at all from her disgusted parents.  My recent researches have revealed not only that the child, Helen Ruth, survived and married in 1932, but that Agnes rewarded her parents' support by also marrying just after the outbreak of war in 1914.  Over the next twelve years Agnes and her husband had five children, four of whom were living with them in 1939 (one had died when only a few weeks old in 1919).  Sadly, Agnes's parents both died in 1940, so wouldn't have seen the marriages of these four grandchildren, between 1944 and 1973, and the great-grandchildren that I'm sure existed, but whom I  have yet to discover when opportunity affords.

And my title this week?  It comes from a playground rhyme of the age when behaviour seemed always to be in the context of 'boys v. girls': "Patience is a virtue; possess it if you can: --- in a woman, but --- in a man."  The gaps were filled by such two-syllabled words as 'always', 'often', 'sometimes' or 'never', and the word 'but' replaced by 'and' as necessary, according to the chanter's attitude to, and tolerance of, the opposite sex.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

What is Truth?

There has been only one occasion in my life when I entertained a woman in my own house to a three-course meal made by my own fair (or not-so-fair) hand.  That was about thirty years ago, and how I did it still amazes me, knowing the extent of my culinary skills.  More of that later.

My title is Biblical in origin, coming from John's account of Jesus' trials.  The Jewish leaders wanted rid of Him and had charged Him with what would best achieve this end.  To their own council, the charge had been blasphemy: He had claimed to be the Son of God.  But in front of Pilate, the Roman governor, the charge was sedition: He had claimed to be a king, and thus undermined Caesar's authority.  So Pilate was faced with examining this claim of kingship.  Jesus had told him that the reason He came into the world was to testify to the truth (John 18:37).

A problem of the written word is knowing where emphasis should be put: emphasise the wrong word and you can change the whole meaning of a sentence.  When it comes to the Bible, we have to remember too that we are always reading it in translation, which can add to the uncertainty.  Some versions say that Pilate 'retorted' "What is truth?"; others have it that he merely 'said' these words (which is closer to the original Greek text).  One word gives the impression of aggression, the other allows the possibility that it was anger at being called out early in the morning to judge something that the Jews ought to have dealt with themselves, or contempt for the whole concept of truth ... again, depending on the emphasis with which the words had been spoken.

One of the commentaries on this passage makes this observation about truth. "Pilate was cynical; he thought that all truth was relative.  To many government officials, truth was whatever the majority of people agreed with or whatever helped advance their own personal power and political goals."

Jesus himself had earlier declared to the people, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32).  He meant free from the slavery imposed by lies.  If we tell different people different untruths, we have to remember what we have actually said to whom, so that our lies are consistent.  Otherwise, our façade is betrayed.  By telling everyone the simple truth - which had probably added to our confusion about our network of lies in the first place - that strain, the slavery to our fabrication, is removed.

Back to that meal.  It almost ended in disaster.  As my friend was leaving, in the course of saying my goodbyes I had reached up to unfasten the door.  This done, as I lowered my hand again, it had brushed the front of her jumper as she was putting her coat on.  To my surprise, she suddenly burst out, "Were you trying to grope me?"  Nothing had been further from my mind, but it took what felt like half-an-hour for me to convince her that, if that had been my intent - which it wasn't - there would have been a far better time and place than at the door as she was about to leave.  I'm pleased to report that this wasn't the end of our friendship and there were other dates before it concluded in the amicable recognition that our cultural tastes were too diverse.

The incident demonstrates that truth varies according to our viewpoint.  I knew my own motivations, or rather the lack of them; for all I know, my friend may have been on her guard the whole evening at being alone with an almost unknown man in his own home, and readily jumped to what was the wrong conclusion in her reaction to something that I was unaware of until she spoke.

"If you tell a big enough lie and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." is a propaganda theory often wrongly attributed to Joseph Goebbels.  However, it was part of Nazi thinking from as early as 1925 when Hitler was writing 'Mein Kampf'.  It's a theory that works, though, ... especially when employed by those whose position and authority puts them beyond reproach.  It's not until people find that their personal experiences differ from public proclamation that the truth finally emerges.  Remember that bus, and the famous "£350 million for the NHS"?

Where do your sympathies lie: with a football manager who, when interviewed after a significant defeat, blames the referee for bias and the sun in his team's eyes, or with one who is prepared to state with regret, 'we just weren't good enough' or 'we took our eye off the ball'?

Whether it's football, or local or national government, I think we all crave honesty and openness, so far as it's in keeping with national security.  If something isn't possible, we'd like to be told why and hear suggestions about how underlying needs might be met, rather than hear excuses and blame for absence or delay placed on other parties or organisations.

Intense campaigning for the elections next month is just beginning.  Above all, it's a time when we all will be faced with the challenge of whose version of 'truth' we believe.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Three Into One Won't (quite) Go!

 Whatever the pain, misery and tragedy it has brought, this Covid pandemic has also initiated many in the intricacies of technology to assist with teaching, learning, meeting and simple community living without real physical engagement.  Few, if any, of us can be unaware of the name ZOOM ... even if some have not actually used it, and many more will not have initiated a Zoom meeting.

I have been fortunate in discovering or taking part in a number of regular Zoom opportunities in recent months.  Some are expressions of activities of which I was already a participant, others have been discovered during one lockdown or another.  On Thursday, however, my diary revealed not two but three such events which, if demanding complete participation, would have been an impossible combination.  However, since they formed a partially overlapping chain, I took the questionable decision to attempt some attendance at each one.

At 6.30 came a political discussion on the implications of the 2019 general election, held under the auspices of Make Votes Matter.  The speaker was a very knowledgeable professor whose appearance fitted his credentials.  His wispy hair flowed in all directions and sometimes required the flick of a hand to keep it off his face.  The manner of his delivery was unusual and a little off-putting, for he kept up a quite regular swaying movement from front to back.  Fortunately he was wearing his microphone, so the sound wasn't interrupted.  The slides he used to illustrate his presentation were mostly graphical, and of differing formats.  Although these were always relevant and informative, the speed of their delivery made it difficult sometimes to assimilate the dimensions and significance of one before it was sacrificed in the appearance of the next.

At something short of the hour, as the professor was drawing his thesis to a conclusion, I was not unhappy to 'jump ship' and engage a meeting of the Suffolk Family History Society.  The speaker here had been spared a lengthy journey, and joined us from her home in Clitheroe.  In her native soft Lancashire accent, she presented countless examples of her amazing finds in local newspapers of past centuries.  Clearly her interest exceeded the bounds of her own family research, and she had browsed far beyond the personal to absorb much of the background against which their lives had played out.  It was an example that I wish I had the time to follow up.  That said, I do recall once making the amazing discovery that my grandfather had once appeared in court - a story to be told here on another occasion!

She had held us in rapt attention for over three-quarters of an hour, when I looked at the clock and realised that my third appointment had already begun.  Reluctantly I turned away from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth.  One of my significant discoveries in this Zoom age has been the Western Front  Association.  Their avowed aim is not to glorify war but educational in nature, seeking to maintain interest in the period of the Great War and to perpetuate the memory, courage and comradeship of those on all sides who served their countries, principally in France and Flanders, in that conflict.

Having decided to accept the invitation to contribute to their funds in response to the many enjoyable winter evenings I've now spent in their 'company', I discovered that, for little more than my planned donation, I could join the association.  This means that, thanks to a very efficient administrative operation, I have now received some very interesting back copies of their regular magazines, and have access to potentially useful resources in the 'members-only' sections of their website.

I joined this week's presentation part way through a talk about the development of propaganda during the War, and the ways in which it made use of the media of the time to sway public opinion.  By the time the speaker had finished, I think I was finished, too.  After nearly three hours at the screen, I felt 'Zoomed out' and didn't stay for the questions-and-answers session.

Message to self - if you want to enjoy what you're doing, don't overcrowd every hour of your day!


Saturday, 20 March 2021

Don't Even Go There!

This was the response I got from one of my colleagues at work the other day.  However, such is my memory, that I can't remember who it was, nor what we had been talking about.  What I do recall is the comment to which he/she responded: "I reckon you get a good idea of the extent of inflation over the last fifty years if you think of today's prices in shillings and pence."

Last weekend included Mothering Sunday and, like many, my thoughts turned to family ... not just my mother, but father too, and our family life together.  The arrival today of my new Council Tax bill, and the recent letter from the DfWP telling me what my state pension will be next month, have enabled me to finalise my budget for the new tax year.  With this in mind, the searchlight of my family recollections has picked out one particular day - probably in a school holiday when I was a bored eight-, nine- or ten-year-old - when I sat on the foot of my parents' bed as mum opened her wardrobe and withdrew an old clutch handbag.

This handbag, dating from the era of World War 2 or thereabouts, now resides in what passes for my family archive - a cupboard in the corner of my own bedroom - where it shares company with, inter alia, a small money box in the form of a 'pillar box'.  These were the instruments of my mother's financial planning, and on that occasion I was permitted to watch - silent by request to aid her concentration, and mesmerised by a side of her that was completely new to me - as she put them to use.  

She had a number of these 'pillar boxes', but only one now survives.  In them were stored coins put by for specific expenses so that funds were available when bills became due.  I don't recall the specifics now, but I expect there were tins for all sorts of monthly expenses that would be provided for on a weekly basis.  In the handbag were a number of envelopes in which were kept further and larger collections of money for annual things, like insurances, Christmas presents and the television licence ... and the family holiday!

With my father at work, and much of his evenings and weekends spent on the garden, the only really family time that I enjoyed in the company of both parents in those years, was the annual week at Great Yarmouth.  I've no idea of the overall cost of those holidays but, amazingly and, unlike other times when a request might be refused on the grounds of 'we can't afford things like that', there was sufficient to pay for all sorts of luxuries.

The first cost was the taxi fare from home to the railway station, closely followed by the return train tickets,  When we arrived, although there were many young boys anxious to earn pocket money by meeting holidaymakers with hand-carts to carry their luggage, another taxi would ensure that both we and the suitcases would arrive quickly, safely and together at the boarding house, something in excess of a mile from the station.

Once greetings had been exchanged and refreshment offered and taken, we settled in, and garden vegetables were handed over for use during the week (this gesture probably contributed to the overall cost of the accommodation: I have no idea whether this was paid up front or at the end of the week).  The first major undertaking was then to get booked up for the various seaside shows. In addition to the Windmill theatre and the Aquarium on the seafront and the Regal at the town end of Regent Road, there were regular performances on each of the two piers on week nights - the Sunday shows with the greater stars were beyond our price range - and we always seemed to fit in a visit to the Hippodrome circus on the Tuesday afternoon.

When these bookings had been secured, the true holiday could begin.  I remember that I was allowed a magnificent half-a-crown a day spending money, much of which, in later years, would be spent on bus fares as I explored the town on my own ... such freedom as would be deemed quite dangerous these days!  Often if we had been for a walk together in the evenings, we would stop at the fish and chip shop just down the road from our boarding house and get some chips to replace the energies used up by the exercise.

When I consider what all this must have cost, I have to marvel at how my mother managed to stretch her resources because, alongside all the other things for which she had to budget, it was all funded by, and saved up for week by week from my father's pay packet, which amounted to no more than £8 or £9.  Once tax had been deducted, there seemed to be an odd 4d in the amount that was left each week, and this was passed to me as 'pocket money'.

All this is a far cry from the luxury of 2021!  I recall now the examples in my mind that remained unexpressed the other day - a single Eccles cake from a packet of four from the supermarket costs 8/- and a cup of machine coffee at a service station almost 3 guineas!

Saturday, 13 March 2021

The Search for Sabrina

... or "Sucked Down the Rabbit Hole"

Three weeks ago, I wrote about making rules concerning 'rabbit holes'.  "What are man-made rules," I ask, "if not to be broken?"  So, this week, with the digital ink scarcely dry on that edict, I'm breaking the rule (echoes of our PM here, I confess, but not with such devastating consequences).  To explain the situation, let me begin with a parallel from my Welsh course.  If I'm confronted by a word that - frankly - I've forgotten, I might remember the shape of it and take a punt at filling the gap.  If I'm a letter out, it gets counted as a 'typo' and I don't lose the mark!  I then remember that word next time through remembering that good fortune (sometimes).

Back in the autumn - the second lockdown - I commented here about entering a spouse, discovering that the couple had two children and then entering the first only to find that she's there already, waiting for me!  That surprised me simply because I hadn't remembered the spouse's name, Stangroom.

This week, following my new rule, I began the task of completing that distant family with the intention of documenting births, adding deaths and declaring them 'closed'.  In the case of the first sibling, Mary Ann Batley, being female, I needed to find a marriage in order to locate a death.  When I discovered that she had married Henry Stangroom in 1849, the 'Rabbit-hole Rule' went out of the window!  It's not a common name - and I remembered it this time! - there had to be a link with November's experience.

In the 1851 census, the Stangroom family, living in the Norwich parish of St George, Colegate, comprised Henry, 29, and Mary Ann, 22, a 2-year-old daughter named after her mother ... and one Sabrina Stangroom aged 11, also described as daughter.  My immediate thought was, 'daughter of a previous marriage - Henry must have been a young widower'.  Then I looked again at the ages ... it was possible for him to have been married at 18 and a wife to have died, but was it likely?  I sought the foggy area of the 1841 census for clarification.  Henry was there with his parents and a younger brother, but no sign of wife or daughter.

the Sabrina of Welsh legend - sculpture
discovered in Worcester museum

Sabrina was said to have been born in Roydon, the next village to where I believed Mary Ann to have started life - Bressingham - (although the 1851 enumerator had clearly entered her birthplace as Loddon! which I take as a mis-understanding of Roydon).  I checked birth registrations for the area, but there were no entries for Sabrina or Stangroom, let alone the combination of the two, for a wide range of years.  I also browsed Roydon baptisms for any child with that name, again without success. Would 1861 yield any clues?  There was no trace of the family at all.  Had they been struck by some epidemic?  In this search, I discovered the death of Mary Ann aged 6 in 1855, but of her parents ... again, no sign.

How about 1871 ... did they just not register in 1861, or had the pages simply been lost?  Sure enough, Henry and Mary Ann were there, along with three more children and a 'nurse child' (about which I shall have to seek some meaning later).  There was no sign of the mysterious Sabrina, though.  I began to retrace my steps.  What actually did I know about this family?  I went back to 1841.  There was Stephen, 50, wife Ann, 55, and sons Henry, 20, and John, 10.  Stephen was a weaver, Henry a shoemaker.  Then I remembered my autumn experience and looked back at that Stangroom family.  John, the father of the 'surprising' daughter Edith, was born in 1830, according to his age recorded in 1861, where he was ... a shoemaker.

I returned to the image of that 1861 entry, in the parish of St George, Colegate, and browsed back and forward from it, looking for Henry and Mary Ann.  Sure enough, there they were, only two pages away, with the same three children listed ten years later ... and an elder daughter SABINA!  The family's surname had been mis-transcribed as Stangaard, although how they came by that, I couldn't see.  Much more understandable, though, was the transcription of the girl's name as Labina: the initial letter could easily be mistaken were it not for the S of the surname ... which they had got correct even if what followed was wildly out.  The key to the mystery, however, was not so much the clear spelling of Sabina, but her age ... she was 15.

Armed with the correct details, I easily found her birth recorded in the December quarter of 1845 in the Guiltcross district, which includes both Roydon and Bressingham.  She was registered with the surname Batley!  How Henry and Mary Ann had met - he was from a Norwich family, and this was before the Batley family had moved there - is not clear, but it does seem that Henry, who clearly acknowledged Sabina as his daughter, might have made an effort to shield his wife's potential embarrassment in 1851 by adding a few years to Sabina's age to make it seem impossible for Mary Ann to have been the girl's mother when she would have been only 11.

Perhaps this six-year-old was big for her age!

Saturday, 6 March 2021

A 'Fistful' of ... Dollars?

I don't know about you, but there's something irresistible about a tiny fur-ball with prominent eyes and pointed ears, known familiarly as ... a kitten.  When I say irresistible, I don't mean that I want to buy one, or even have one as a present.  For one thing the lease on my flat prohibits animals; for another thing, I recognise that owning such a creature commands responsibility and a degree of expense, neither of which are, of themselves, so attractive.  

But to watch one at play could entrance me far beyond the time I can really spare for the task.  One thing that fascinates me is the consequence of placing a kitten for the first time in front of a mirror.  You can see the curiosity - for which cats are lethally famous - spreading across its face.  'Who is that?'  'Can I make friends/play with him/her?' 'Why does he/she move when I move?'  Eventually an explorative expedition is mounted to the far side of the mirror, only to find ... nothing!

Another thing that fascinates me, with absolutely no desire to be part of it, is war.  During the course of the recent Covid-caused personal restrictions, I've discovered the Western Front Association, and a series of publicly available webinars they have produced regularly ... so much so that I've now developed the habit of booking up for each one as it's announced, anxious to absorb as much as I can of their content before the series comes to its inevitable conclusion in the next few months.

There's one aspect of a battle that is difficult to convey on-screen, whether we're talking about those in comparatively recent times, i.e. the twentieth century, or those longer ago, and that is the sheer chaos, resulting from the noise, smoke and smell of the conflict.  The result, as those who have survived can testify, is a partial or complete loss of spatial awareness: you have no idea where your comrades are, whether near or far, and in what specific direction.

And what have these two fascinations do to with each other ... let alone with my title?  I can sense your bewilderment.  Let me put you out of your misery forthwith.  I was surprised when research told me that the expression 'smoke and mirrors' was coined by an American newspaperman in the 1970s.  I felt sure that it was used in one or other of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories decades earlier.  It seems I was wrong as regards the origin, but I'm confident of its meaning as derived above and as I'm about to apply it.

I woke up this morning to the news - announced, if I have the story right, late last night - of a pay award of just 1% to our hard-working and self-sacrificing nurses.  It's described as an award but, in reality, with inflation running somewhere near 2%, it's actually a pay cut!  Hardly what they deserve after their indescribable contribution to the fight against Covid.  

When interviewed about this, the Health Secretary replied, I understand, 'It's all we could afford.'  I imagine that he then followed up by listing all the other costs that the pandemic has caused, the furlough scheme, the enhancement to Universal Benefit, awards for this and that, not to mention the additional funds announced only this week for major new projects such as the Freeport scheme.

One of my earliest political memories is when I realised for the first time that politicians never give a direct answer about money.  When the question is 'Why haven't you done X, Y or Z?', nine times out of ten the answer is in the form of, 'We have spent £k millions on A, contributed £m billions to B and funded C to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds.'  where A, B and C are only distantly, if at all, linked to X, Y and Z, and the sums of money mentioned are way beyond the imagining of the average listener to the interview.

It's all done to sound as if the most phenomenally generous things that had been done in the field outweighed the need for the specifics enquired about, so why should such a trivial matter be raise at all?  Another memory comes to mind.  It was a day when I had made a banking blunder that would have resulted in my employer's bank account being overdrawn by some thousands of pounds.  The 'penalty' I had to bear was no greater than a train trip to the nearby city, bearing in my pocket a bundle of £50 notes, brought after lunch by my boss from his home, and amounting to several months' of my salary, to be paid over the counter into the affected account.  

Money ... the answer to anything, it seemed, except for the real need.  In that case, a lesson to be learned in checking what I was doing before committing such a faux pas; in the case of the nurses - an interview with one of whom I heard on this evening's news bulletin - some genuine compensation for the years of under-payment, putting up with the unbearable combined pressure of demand coupled with staff shortages, and the additional strain and embarrassment of being dependent on foodbanks to feed their families.

I think of some of the £million scandals that have been in the news in recent months,  A BMJ article in July, for example, quoted £10 billion being set aside for test and trace systems, of which £9 billion remained unaccounted for.  Apparently £4.25 billion would increase NHS salaries by a more realistic (considering recent years' shortfall in pay increments) 12.5%.

When I put these figures side by side I wonder whether my title should have come from another film in the same Western series: 'For a Few Dollars More' ...