Thursday, December 31, 2020

Review of 2020 - 5 positive things

As it's New Year's Eve, I thought I would close out 2020 with a blog post. While it's a hard year to review, for fairly obvious reasons, here are 5 things that made my year a bit special. 

1) February's Five Football Saturdays

It feels like a long time ago since I was freely able to go to football matches. Although the pandemic derailed my matchgoing last season, and has meant I haven't been to any games this season yet, I still feel pleased about getting to a game on all five Saturdays in February. This can only be done in a leap year, and only when the 1st and 29th of February are Saturdays. 

I blogged about the games I went to here

2) Achieving a collecting target

On 9 May I started a blog about baseball cards featuring the Padres greatest ever player, Tony Gwynn. I set myself a target of collecting 394 cards featuring him - in honour of his batting average in 1994, when he recorded a modern day record of .394. On 7 October I completed that mission. I've actually exceeded my target by some way and have now blogged well over 500 different cards.

3) A surprise knock at the door

Quite unexpectedly my former colleague Sean, who now works for Diabetes UK Cymru, knocked on my door and presented me with a Diabetes UK Cymru Director Award for Campaigning and Influencing Change. It was both unanticipated and humbling to receive that recognition and in the middle of a tough week, work-wise, it was a timely encouragement. 

Sean also took a photo of me and stuck it on Twitter. I'm holding up a planter that came with the certificate. In hindsight I could have posed a bit more elegantly. At least Sean timed his call when I'd just had a haircut and wasn't sporting Lockdown Hair!

At the end of October many of my NHS Wales colleagues were successful at the Quality in Care Diabetes Awards. There's a full write up here. One of the projects I've been involved in was shortlisted. It's a picture book about a dinosaur who has diabetes and the two girls who wrote it were also given special awards - which I was really happy about.

4) Dwi'n wedi dysgu Gymraeg 

I started learning Welsh in September 2019. In January this year I sat an exam and passed my Lefel Mynediad (Entry Level). I then went on and completed the Sylfaen (Foundation) course, most of which had to be taught on Zoom. I didn't find the remote learning as good as the classroom experience. 

I didn't enter for the Sylfaen exam because it would have been on a date I was supposed to be at Hampden park for a Euro 2020 game. That game didn't happen... and neither did the exam!

I have really enjoyed learning Welsh. It's a challenge because languages were never my strong point, but I am able to write the occasional email in Welsh now, and have some very basic conversations. I can also understand a bit of the commentary on Sgorio when watching the highlights of the Cymru Premier games, although I have a bit of a way to go before I'm able to follow it properly. 

5) An unusual Christmas

I blogged a couple of months back about "Lockdown freedoms", which were some of the good things about this horrible year. I worked from home from the middle of March. Although I miss my office colleagues and seeing people face-to-face, it does mean I have had lunch with Cathy nearly every day.

Another bonus for us was planning to have Christmas at home. In the 22 years we've been married, we had only spent two Christmases at home. Once we had a last minute change of plan when I was really poorly with a terrible bout of 'flu. And two years ago we had Christmas at home with my sister-in-law as Cathy recovered from surgery.

We decided a few months back that the most sensible course of action that was least likely to be derailed by events, was for Cathy and me to plan to have Christmas on our own at home - for the very first time. As it turned out, this plan worked out best for everyone. My brother's family expanded with two new children in November, so they needed some space. My foster-sister was given an appointment for dental extractions two days before Christmas and needed my Mum to go and stay with her to help with childcare. (They travelled up on the day the Tier 4 restrictions came in and Scotland closed its borders about an hour after Mum arrived in Edinburgh!)

So Cathy and I had our Christmas together, just us. And you know what? It was lovely. We had a leisurely time opening presents. I made a roast dinner. We went out for a little walk in the afternoon. We watched the new Pixar film, Soul, on Disney Plus in the evening. And it was just really nice and relaxing. 

So, looking back on the year, there have been some good times and I've managed to achieve a few things despite the best efforts of a nasty virus. Even the small wins are wins. 

Meanwhile, to kick off 2021, I'm planning on doing my Annual Christmas Card Audit for the 9th consecutive year! So keep an eye out for that...

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Lockdown freedoms ( a "Fire Break" post)

Wales is back in lockdown, although this time it's got an end date specified from the outset. The Welsh Government has branded it a "Fire Break". We are all supposed to stay indoors and not see people.

I know people who have really struggled with all the restrictions placed on us during the pandemic. I've talked to friends who were desperate to go to a pub as soon as pubs reopened, and who were equally desperate for their children to go back to school. It was hard on people to have their children at home all day, seven days a week. 

On the plus side, I've not had to deal with any of the veiled pity normally measured out on child-free people like me. But then I've not really had to deal with people generally. 

As someone with a lot more introverted characteristics than are obviously apparent, I don't mind not seeing people. In fact, the summer just gone was one of the few summers where I have felt free to sit indoors on gloriously sunny days and not feel like I was somehow wasting the good weather by not being out in it. I'm an indoor person, quite happy working in a bunker with no windows.

I've also been free of the pressure to socialise. I can be sociable. I like people and I like meeting up with them. But I find big groups harder to deal with. It takes energy. Some people get energised by walking into a room full of people and talking to everyone. I'm the reverse. That's not how I recharge after a hard week. The lockdown removed some of that pressure to be outgoing and expend energy on group situations. 

I have enjoyed having more free time with less guilt that I'm not out doing stuff. My lockdown project - to blog about 394 baseball cards featuring Tony Gwynn - has exceeded expectations. I met my target after 152 daily blog posts, and am continuing both to blog and to accumulate more cards. I have also heavily modified a Lego set (actually combining two Lego sets) to build a big station building for my Lego train. 

I haven't written a draft of a novel or a screenplay, or anything, but my creative output has been higher than for a good number of years. I've felt like I've had permission to stay inside and do things I enjoy.

However, there has been a trade off. I wrote back in May about the fractional losses from the pandemic. We have experienced a few more of those recently. 

Some friends had twins a couple of weeks ago and we have admired their cute little faces through a window. We have no timeline in place for actually holding them. One of our best friends is turning 40 during the fire break and we are not allowed to party with her. Similarly, our godson is hitting double digits and Cathy's Grampy is having a birthday too. The football season has kicked off but the teams I support are playing behind closed doors. My work colleagues had some fabulous success in some industry awards last week, and we all had to watch in our own living rooms instead of clinking beers together at a fancy soiree.

Overall, I would trade the small freedoms I've found in lockdown for being free of the threat of Coronavirus. While I have enjoyed having time to myself, I would like that to be something I choose rather than imposed by a viral threat. I really hope this fire break works.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Achievement Unlocked! The virtual meeting trifecta

Today I had back-to-back meetings on Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and then Zoom. I could do comparison of all three. I'm not going to. Those kind of things have been done to death.

It's been almost seven months now of working from home and virtual meetings. From my perspective as a meeting co-ordinator there are some real positives. It is a lot easier to get people together from the further flung corners of Wales to discuss aspects of work and contribute to joined up working practices. Another six months of this and we will have delivered on projects that may never have got sorted without the option of 'meeting' virtually. We have also been able to establish a weekly 'team meeting' that has brought together people in similar roles to me and helped us to get to know each other better, offer support and advice on stuff and be sounding boards for each other. 

But I miss real-world meetings. I miss the corridor conversations either side of the meetings where I learned useful sidenotes on what was going on. Never underestimate how much intel you can gain on a three minute walk to the car park with someone you otherwise will just never see. I also miss the processing headspace on the drive home after meetings, or driving between meetings.

Virtual meetings are more tiring. I'm not the only person who says this. Even though you can safely discount a good ten per cent of the meeting time due to someone, or several people, having tech issues or speaking while on mute. (This meme really made me laugh!)

Days when I have screen meeting after screen meeting I feel relieved to reach the end of my working hours. I think it's the level of mental processing needed, and the type of concentration required. Someone should really do an analysis on the psychological effect of virtual meetings and the differences between real world meetings.

We also need to factor in comfort breaks. That's something that is easy to forget! If I don't answer a question during a meeting, odds are it's because the coffee I started the meeting with has made its way through my system! Regardless of the technology being used, biological processes remain the same.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Artful juxtaposition of photo and sponsor

I've been sorting through my late dad's accumulation of football programmes. (If anyone wants a few hundred Shrewsbury programmes, just get in touch!) As I went through them, I spotted this one where the choice of photo on the front aligns comically with the name of the match sponsor!

I would have thought the Shrewsbury Town Away Travel Club would use a coach, but it wouldn't surprise me if they did go by mower.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Nostalgia Triggers from 90s Choons

I usually listen to the radio when I'm doing stuff in the kitchen. With the world generally being pretty dreadful I've been avoiding news-based stations and so have retuned the radio to Absolute Radio 90s, which just plays songs from the 1990s, triggering memories from two thirds of my life ago.

Photo taken in Paris in 1993 or 1994

For example, when The Size of a Cow by The Wonderstuff comes on, then I'm transported back to sitting at the heavy lab desk at the back of Mr Dorricott's science classroom. My desk-mate, Tim, was really into The Wonderstuff and a lot of other music. He used to go on the train to Birmingham to buy "choons". He pirated me a cassette of Nevermind. I remember once at my house my tape player chewed up his tape of Achtung! Baby and when we cut and pasted the tape back together we put one bit back in the wrong way round. Unintentional remixes of our time.

(This will all mean nothing to anyone under the age of 30, probably. Tapes? What are those?)

Another song that is on heavy rotation on AR90s is Parklife by Blur. I have a very specific memory related to this. Back when that song came out I used to go to a church that met in an upper complex of rooms above a pub. During Sunday evening meetings you could hear the music playing in the pub downstairs. Sunday evening meetings were generally informal, and I remember one evening we had moved the chairs round into small circles to pray in groups. Through the floor came the thudding beats of Parklife. I wasn't the only one in the prayer circle mentally singing along.

All the people
So many people
And they all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their

I know I wasn't the only one singing along because a few of us mouthed the word 'Parklife' in time with the song. We saw each other do it and grinned.

And then I left Shrewsbury to go to university, just as the Britpop bubble exploded. Anything by Oasis or Shed 7 or Elastica reminds me of university days. Basket Case makes me think of my digs in the first year when one of the first things I bought was a CD player that I cobbled into my hi-fi amp and double tapedeck. But those are later days and moving to Cardiff for Uni, to living here afterwards is more of a continuum. When I left Shrewsbury to go to university I ended up never going back there to live, not even for a summer holiday. So that is the one clear page break in my story.

It's the songs from the early 90s that are the real nostalgia triggers, but that's not to say I particularly want to wallow in that nostalgia. Looking back it's a wonder I got through those teenage years as I was barely coping with undiagnosed depression, was a fervent religious fundamentalist, and had the weight of expectations on me to go to university and achieve great things.

That last one is hard to reconcile with the great love I had (and still have) for my father, but he did tell me how he thought I could follow in his footsteps and study medicine, and one reason I went to study theology is because I knew Dad would approve of that choice when medicine was closed off to me (more on that later).

Understanding depression more as an adult, I can see how it affected me quite a bit as a teenager. I know I'm not unique in finding teenage life hard. Recently I have reconnected with a few people I knew in school and realised that I wasn't the only one who was presenting a brave face. Some of the people I most admired have told me they felt constantly on edge, or were hiding an eating disorder, or were bullied as badly as I sometimes was, if not worse.

I think it would have been good for my fragile, nervous self when I was younger, if I had known that the people who seemed to have got their stuff together were actually feeling just as desperate on the inside.

For me, my depression has left me with some regrets. I dropped friendships that I wish I hadn't. It affected my concentration and my ability to focus on schoolwork, and dampened down my love of learning. I barely read some of my textbooks at A-Level. It's stuff I sometimes wish I had actually learned. It also stopped me from learning new skills. I was very keen to learn how to play guitar, went through a depressive phase, sold the guitar to a classmate, and I still occasionally wish that I had been in a mental place where I could have actually learned to play it.

I had almost zero self-confidence, which was also linked to the depression. Here's a story that illustrates it. I was planning on studying science at A-Level, with the end aim of applying for medical school. I went on an open day to the VI Form College and went to the science labs. My school had switched that year from single subject science GCSEs to a "Double Science" course that covered all three subjects and gave you two GCSE grades at the end.

When the science teacher heard this, he was very dismissive. "Oh," he said, "you won't be able to do A-Levels unless you've done single subjects at GCSE. Most people find the step up really hard anyway, so it will be almost impossible for you!"

I remember feeling absolutely shocked by that. There was no point trying if it was going to be impossible. So I went and did three other subjects instead.

For a long time I was angry that my school had made me do double science, because that had prevented me from going on and potentially becoming a doctor like my dad. But it wasn't the school, and it wasn't even that discouraging response from the A-Level teacher who was to blame.

It was only recently I thought to myself, 'Why did I let someone I had never met before shape my choices in such a way?' Without sounding disrespectful, he was just a bog-standard teacher in a run of the mill VI Form College in a half-horse town. In what way was he an authority? He had never met me and he had no clue whether I was any good at science or not.

That encounter could have gone another way. I could have ignored him and had a go. I got Double As in my Double Science (despite mainly talking to Tim about music) so clearly I had some ability.

Besides, every A-Level teacher reckons their subject is really hard and requires a lot of work. If I turned up in that class and I was behind the curve, then a good teacher would find a way to bring me up to speed, rather than writing off my chances before I'd started the course.

But when you're depressed and you feel that everything is a struggle, you don't respond to negativity like that in a positive way. It doesn't spur you on to try hard and prove them wrong, which is how I wish I had responded.

You have to be careful with wishes like that though. If I hadn't been so discouraged by that guy, I wouldn't have ended up studying theology. Even, if I hadn't been depressed and had studied and got the A-level grades I wanted to get, I wouldn't have ended up studying theology in Cardiff. My life would have had a very different trajectory and although I was in a pretty tough place then, I'm in a good place now. Happier than a lot of people, and, I hope, doing a bit of good in the world.

It all worked out. It could have been an easier route, though.

I'm going to stick with listening to Absolute Radio 90s because in a strange way hearing those songs has helped me rearrange some mental furniture and appreciate my journey from then to now.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Visiting the Grangetown Zoo

This was a fun little community thing that happened right at the end of May. A community project called the Grangetown Art Trail began posting pictures of people preparing their windows for the Grangetown Zoo for people to visit over the weekend. This is a bit like the rainbows project that I've blogged about previously.

We decided to join in. I say "we", but Cathy is the creative one. She made these wonderful bears to sit in our window. Everyone, meet Arthur and Ursula.

Cathy also made them a little, Welsh-speaking, friend.

We went out for a couple of walks over the weekend and found some more "exhibits". Sorry for the quality of the photography, but you know how it is trying to photograph animals...

We saw lemurs in Earl Street (behind a very clean, very reflective window!)

They were all named after Harry Potter characters.

We saw tigers in Holmesdale Street

And nearby there was a flamingo

There was a very tall giraffe in an upstairs window in Paget Street

And a monkey who had fallen out of a tree. We helped him back into a hedge.

There was a variety of fauna on display in Virgil Street

The parrot was bright and colourful, with beady eyes

They had a majestic, yet approachable looking lion as well

And then in Warwick Street we found the aquatic exhibit

The main resident of which was this handsome knitted octopus

It was a really lovely art project; a celebration of creativity. It was great fun wandering the streets looking for the different creatures as people shared their locations on Twitter. I would really like this to become a thing that happens annually with more people joining in and not be 'one of those things we did during the crazy lockdown'.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Delving into the family archive: my great-great uncle, Robert Ivor Bostock

Two years ago we rescued some old family photos from my parents’ garage and scanned them. There was a lot of family history in the albums and I ended up discussing my great-great-uncle with my Dad.

When my Dad was little he lived with his Grandma, who he called Ninna, in New Broughton just outside Wrexham. Ninna’s brother, Robert, had left the Wrexham area early in the twentieth century to seek his fortune in America. When my Dad visited New York and went to Ellis Island he found his great-uncle’s name in the vast arrivals logs that the US Immigration Service has open there.

Robert Ivor Bostock was born in 1877. He was adopted by the Roberts family of Brymbo, my great-grandmother’s family, but kept the Bostock surname. I’m glad he did because there is a website dedicated to tracing Bostocks and it has a lot of information about him, and his family, on it.

For example, thanks to that website I know that in the 1901 census he was registered as a clerk in a brickworks in Brymbo. The next census he appeared in was an American one, in 1910, by which point he was living in Long Beach, California.

What happened in those 9 years? Well in 1905 he went to America on a ship called the Oceanic. Having gone through immigration at Ellis Island, he then travelled inland to Mahoney City, Pennsylvania. I know this because he had a photo taken there, which he sent back to his sister, Elizabeth (Ninna). Sadly the photo mount got cut to make it fit into a photo frame at some point, so his message on the front has been lost, but the information on the back is intact.

From Mahoney City he made his way to Los Angeles. A couple of years later, in 1908, he got married. His new wife was also called Elizabeth. She was originally from Skipton in Yorkshire and was another immigrant to California. We have a wedding photo.

I think Elizabeth must have emigrated with her family as she seems to have her mum present. Robert went the America alone, although he did already have a cousin who was also called Robert living in the USA. I don’t know if his best man is his cousin or a friend he made in California.

Within a year, Robert and Elizabeth’s first son, Albert Ivor was born. Albert lived until 1995. We have a baby photo sent back to Ninna. Photos like this would have been the only sights she had of her nephew.

In 1911, Robert and Elilzabeth had a daughter called Gwendolyn. I think this photo is of Albert and Gwendolyn as small children, mainly because we have no other photos of children dressed like this in the archive.

The next item in the archive is a postcard sent in 1917. It’s dated 23 May. 

The message on the back is a bit difficult to read. I think it says:

“Dear sister and niece [possibly my grandma, Eliza Jane Richards]
Just a line to say we are all well, hope you are the same. How is [???] boys that are at the front
did you hear from [???] soon
What do you think of the U.S.A. joining in the war
with best wishes
Your brother Bob”

It gives his address as 622 South Hope Street, Los Angeles, California, USA. This is now right in the centre of downtown LA, only a couple of blocks away from the Omni Hotel where Cathy and I stayed on our first ever American roadtrip in 2004.

Robert had applied for American citizenship in 1912, at which point he was an agent of the Metropolitan Life Assurance Co., now commonly known as Met Life. In September 1918 he registered for the army, at the age of 41. A large number of men he would have known from his days in Wrexham would have been fighting in the First World War, and maybe the pull of loyalty to his original homeland persuaded him to sign up once his new homeland entered the war. However, I doubt he would have left the USA as the war was over a couple of months later.

In the 1920 census he was a bookkeeper in a shipbuilding company. By the 1930 census he was back working as an insurance salesman. He died in 1932, aged 54.

The only other photo we have in the archive is this photo of Gwendolyn, or Gwennie as she is called on the note. It’s dated 1927, so she would have been 16 in this photo. She lived all her life in Los Angeles and died in 1992.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been thinking a lot about Robert and his journey to America. We forget sometimes what emigration meant in the era before air travel. He left home, travelled abroad, and never saw any of his family again. There was probably an exchange of photographs and occasional letters. His sister only ever knew her nephew and niece through those pictures that arrived in the mail. None of his family from Wrexham was present at his wedding or his funeral, and none of them ever visited his grave.

I feel this small blog post is a belated tribute to someone who went out and changed their own future, swapping Denbighshire for California. 

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Whataboutery and moral equivalency - weapons in the war on truth part 3

This is my third post in a row about whataboutery. I've previously written about 'moral equivalency' and how whatabouterists try to deflect criticism by criticising the critics. But sometimes whatabouterists stray into bold new territory. Today's quality whataboutery came on yet another post on Facebook about Dominic Cummings.

A friend shared a story from someone who had been in a very similar position to Dominic Cummings but had followed the quarantine rules. It was difficult for that person to follow the rules, but it was the right thing to do. They were justifiably annoyed that Dominic Cummings had ignored the quarantine rules and potentially exposed a lot of other people to Coronavirus.

The very first comment on the shared post included the phrase "What about..." It's a textbook start for some whataboutery, and then it kicked into an unexpected direction. Here's the post.

In case you can't read the reply, here it is a bit bigger.

It reads as follows:

"Think it's time to move on. Starter is a hypocrite and CANNOT be trusted. What about the French escorting migrants to British eaters and dumping there? Where it the new coverage over this - nowhere and the media wiggle to be the best at destroying someone it goes over their pathetic agenda." [sic]

I told you it was quality whataboutery. It was clearly typed in a hurry by someone in a rush to tick lots of boxes. "Time to move on." they say. I have a lot to say about that phrase. It's the catchphrase of an authoritarian person who does not want to be held to account for their actions. (That's a future blog post right there.)

By "Starter", they actually mean Starmer, as in Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party. Apparently he "CANNOT be trusted". The use of CAPS is beloved of whatabouterists. But who said anything about Starmer? This, again, is an attempt to bring the "other side" in and pretend this is only a political argument. It was heartening to see that subsequent commenters just ignored this libellous comment and avoided the trap of defending Starmer. That's not the subject in hand and the distraction was ignored.

Then we get the "What about...?" Just to clarify, they mean migrants being escorted to British waters, not to British eaters. E and W are easy keys to mix up when you're keen to get your comment in. I thought I'd best explain, just in case you were worried about cannibalism.

I have no idea what relevance the French navy's actions have to the discussion at hand. It's a classic example of an attempt at derailment and deflection - let's talk about another issue! Why isn't that news?

And they're still not finished. This is a real kitchen sink job - everything is going in! As we saw in my previous post, the actions of the media are criticised. They are trying to destroy Dominic Cummings in pursuit of "their pathetic agenda". Again, no acknowledgment that none of this would have happened if Dominic Cummings had not broken quarantine law, or had resigned when the story broke. No, this is all the media's fault. Blame-shifting is an important aspect of whataboutery.

In my previous posts I've blacked out the names of the people making the posts. I almost didn't bother with this one because they sound like a racist and I think people should own their shit when it comes to that sort of thing. But I'm nice. However, I did reply to him, as follows.

"[To Name] I agree it's disgusting that migrants aren't helped safely ashore and cared for. More should be done for them. They shouldn't just be dumped."

They haven't responded to that. That's probably because whatabouterists aren't actually looking for a sensible debate on the points they ask 'what about' about. They just throw stuff into the mixer to confuse the conversation and obscure the point of it. I wasn't expecting a response and did it mainly for my own amusement, and also because I like pushing the buttons of people who blame all the ills of society on immigration.

I'm concluding this mini-series of blog posts about whataboutery here. I suspect we will continue to see a lot of it on social media in the coming months though.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Whataboutery and moral equivalency - weapons in the war on truth part 2

In my previous post I deconstructed a Facebook comment that was trying to use moral equivalency to downplay the actions of the Government advisor Dominic Cummings by claiming that people from all political backgrounds were breaking the rules. I pointed out several problems with the argument, including that it disregarded several inconvenient facts as it tried to build up justifications.

'Moral equivalency' and its close ally, 'whataboutery', are becoming very common tools on the right wing of politics. Usually Whataboutery starts literally with the words "What about..." followed by a completely unconnected issue. But it doesn't always have to be this way. Sometimes the whataboutery is implied. Here's an example that was shared by someone I'm Facebook friends with.

That's a shared post that had the original caption "the media is poison". The text above the photo is part of the image and says "This is the UK press breaking isolation rules so that can shame someone who broke isolation rules............[facepalm emoji]"

The implication there is that the media are hypocrites and therefore morally equivalent to the person they are trying to talk to. The aim of sharing that post is simple - to downplay the wrongdoing of the person who is being targeted by the media by pointing out that other people are now behaving just as badly.

Again we can deconstruct this. I have some points. For the purposes of this argument, I am going to assume this is a genuine photo and not something that has been repurposed. You do have to be careful with right wing memes because the photos often aren't what they claim to be. But let's take it at face value.

1) The journalists aren't following social distancing guidelines. They should be punished. Nobody needs to defend them.
2) The journalists would not be there at all if Dominic Cummings had followed the rules that he had been party to developing.
3) No "isolation rules" are being broken there. Social distancing rules are being broken in that picture, yes (see point 1) and, more importantly, Dominic Cummings broke quarantine rules. Those rules are to stop people who are ill with Coronavirus from travelling and potentially infecting other people. Breaking quarantine rules is more likely to infect other people with Coronavirus. That's arguably more serious than breaking social distancing rules.
4) The whatabouterist is trying to change the focus to the response. This is a common tactic, to change the discussion from the actions of the person in the spotlight, to try and talk about the reactions they have caused.
5) There is a faulty claim to a double standard here -  the criticism of the people in the picture is that they aren't following the rules. But the real double standard is holding the members of the media to a higher standard then the person they are investigating.

The description of the event as a shaming attempt isn't accidental either. This isn't about trying to "shame" a person. This is about the media challenging a person who has a lot of influence and power about their behaviour which has directly placed other people at risk of harm. Describing at as 'shaming' is an attempt to downplay it.

Here's another example of whataboutery, this time a quote from a newspaper columnist done up as a meme by an ultra-conservative (ie hard right) group called Reasoned UK and shared by a different Facebook friend.

My friend added her own commentary, saying: "I disagree with what he did, but there is never an excuse for bullying."

The quote is from Melanie Phillips who writes for the Times. For context, she's written some pretty racist columns about migrants in the past and is a climate change skeptic. She has also, and this is important, lost at least one journalism job after writing stuff that wasn't true. So, the first question we have to ask, is, is this true? Did Dominic Cummings experience intimidation and "bullying" from his neighbours?

But, let's say he did. Let's give Melanie Phillips the benefit of the doubt here. What is the argument? Apparently "[t]here is absolutely no excuse whatever for shouting at, intimidating and bullying". None, whatsoever!

We could debate that. She writes an opinion column. She has opinions. I have opinions. We all have opinions. We don't all have a national platform to broadcast our opinions.

But this is almost exactly the same whataboutery as in the first post I shared. It's criticising people for reacting. It's criticising people for being provoked. It's criticising the response. There doesn't seem to be an acknowledgement anywhere in this that people may have a right to feel angry, that actually some of what has happened here is the fault of the person who has done the wrong thing.

Now Melanie might have said that, but her article is behind a paywall. And the people who dressed her words up in this easily shareable quote have left any caveats that she might have included out.

We can debate the old idea that two wrongs don't make a right, and I would generally agree, but when people try and shift the focus to 'what about the reaction!?!?" they are doing it for a reason, and that reason is to gloss over the bad behaviour that has brought about that reaction. It's ultimately a form of victim-blaming

Whataboutery can take some pretty wild turns, as it turns out. I've got one more example, which I will save to my next post.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Whataboutery and moral equivalency - weapons in the war on truth part 1

Something that frustrates me most in the political conversations I see around at the moment is "whataboutery" and "moral equivalency".

I'm going to use some examples that I've seen on Facebook in the last couple of days that were responses to the recent row over the actions of the Prime Minister's advisor Dominic Cummings to illustrate these debating tactics. In fact, they aren't debating tactics. They are attempts to shut down the debate or derail it into the long grass.

I tend to see these more when people are trying to defend the Tories or actions of those even further on the right. They have been very common on the anti-EU side of the Brexit argument, and they are almost universally used by apologists for Donald Trump.

That's not to say they couldn't be used by anyone, from any political ideology, supporting any political aim. Or really any argument at all. You see these arguments all the time in sports when shady, loaded individuals want to take over a football club for example, and fans are looking for a reason to justify their continued support for a club that is now owned by a human rights violater with a reputation for torture.

But I tend to see them deployed most often on the political right. They are used to minimise terrible moral actions and deflect away scandals. They have been very effective in the propaganda wars on social media. They tend to get shared by people who aren't very good at recognising propaganda.

There is a subtle difference between the two."Moral equivalency" is the fancy term for saying "they're all as bad as each other!" Moral Equivalency gets rolled out any time a person's degenerate behaviour is questioned. Here's an example; the first comment left on a post that my friend Sian shared on Facebook about Dominic Cummings.

The joke that Sian shared is that if you 'cut out' the mask and wear it you can drive wherever the f*ck you want during lockdown. This joke incidentally, was ripped off by the Daily Star, and printed on their front page.

The very first comment is a classic piece of Moral Equivalency.

"Or Welsh Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, or the Scottish Dr. Seems it doesn't matter what political party there are idiots in them all who bend the rules to suit them [angry emoji]"

Do you see the attempt to make an equivalency case? Well, says our erstwhile commentator, they're all as bad as each other.

There are so many problems with this approach it's hard to list them all, but we can deconstruct this argument to see what the person using it is trying to do.

1) It casts shade on somebody else from a different part of the political spectrum to try and provoke a defence of that person. (It's a shame for them they can't do better than Stephen Kinnock. I can't imagine anyone jumping to his defence.)

2) If they don't provoke a defence of that person, it is still minimising this as just a political disagreement. They're basically saying 'You are only disapproving because he's an advisor to the Tory Prime Minister.' That's basically invalidating a person's opinion by accusing them of bias. It's an attempt to negate the argument by changing the basis of the argument from examination of a person's actions to debate about their beliefs.

3) It's an attempt to downplay and justify. But justifying bad behaviour by citing another person's bad behaviour is juvenile. That's like me telling my Mum I shouldn't be told off for kicking the cat because my brother forgot to feed the cat last week*.

*this is an analogy. No cats were actually kicked or neglected in the writing of this blog post.

4) This is a good example of someone trying to "kitchen sink" an argument - throwing in all the examples they can to show that there are loads of people breaking the rules out there.

In this case the person doing the 'kitchen sinking' is factually wrong which is counter-productive to their argument. The "Scottish Dr" was an employee of the Scottish Government, not a member of a political party. (As far as I'm aware, anyway. I never saw any party affiliations mentioned when the news cycle was about her.) And, more importantly, she resigned when her rule-breaking was discovered.

That actually shows a level of contrition and acknowledgment of wrongdoing that has been completely absent from Cummings. In fact, the "Scottish Dr" is an example of a high ranking government advisor who owned her rule-breaking and took the consequences rather than trying to avoid them. The commenter either doesn't know this or doesn't care. They just want as much evidence as possible. Facts don't matter. Kitchen sinkers are rarely deep thinkers.

5) It makes all wrongdoing equally bad. It's similar to when the tape came out with President Trump describing his approach to women as "grab them by the pussy" and his supporters replied with whatever bad thing they thought his opponents had done. 'They're all as bad as each other' implies that every action or attitude is of equal standing. 

6) It reduces accountability. "Of course Dominic Cummings ignored the lockdown rules and quarantine restrictions - he's a political advisor, that's what people in politics do..." Such an attitude basically gives people a free pass and doesn't hold them accountable for their actions.

I have some more examples but this has turned into a long post, so I will write about them in part 2.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The fractional losses, being human in a viral world

A while back, my friend Sara and I talked about 'microaggressions' in our industry. These are tiny ways that processes and interactions rob you of your humanity. Usually microaggressions occur in discussions about racism or other forms of bigotry, but I feel the definition could be widened slightly.

It seems almost pointless to add to the many handwringing opinion pieces about the awfulness of the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been some real tragedies that have upset me incredibly. Well over 100 NHS staff have died of Coronavirus, including five people from my organisation. I felt very sad about the identical twin nurses from Southampton who died within days of each other. These are the big, headline stories that overwhelm me and make me feel guilty about my losses, which are slight in comparison.

But they are still losses. Yes, a death of a very close loved one is incomparable. But that does not negate the build up of those fractional losses; those small ways in which we have been denied the things we need. The virus is aggressive, but it also deals in microaggressions.

In no particular order, I've lost the following since the beginning of March.

1) Funerals. On the 19th March, a year to the day that my Dad died unexpectedly, my friend Ben died. He was the same school year as my brother, Dave, and Dave's best friend. Ben and I shared Best Man duties at Dave's wedding.

Ben was only 40 when he died. He had a crazily rare condition, which felt cruelly random. It feels strange to think he has gone. We had that kind of semi-distant friendship where you don't see each other for ages and then when you do, it feels like the gang has got back together. I saw him last year. I didn't know that would be the last time.

A few weeks later my Uncle Malcolm died. I've been visiting him several times a year for several years now. If I had a work appointment in North Wales I would try and call in and see him.

I would have wanted to be at the funerals for both Ben and Uncle Malcolm. Social distancing requirements and restrictions on travel prevented that. It's hard to not get that opportunity to pay respects, share some stories, hug people who also loved the person who has passed on. 'Closure' is an odd word, but that is what a funeral gives you. And I don't have it.

2) Involvement. My Mum has moved house. We had plans for this - it was going to be the weekend after my birthday. I would be there helping to shift stuff. I would be there as she moved into her new house and help her settle in.

All those plans got turned on their heads by the pandemic. She was able to move but there have been unexpected hurdles and issues. My brother has had to manage it all and I feel frustrated by that, knowing that the burden we would have shared has been dumped on him. He hasn't complained at all, but I wish I had been there to help him.

Another aspect of being stuck over 100 miles away from the action is my own personal goodbye to the family home that has been the welcoming safe haven for 35 years. I stayed there for a weekend at the beginning of March. I was expecting to be back there at least one more time before it became someone else's house. It feels like that chapter of my life has been forcefully closed for me before I had finished reading the final page.

3) Football. I know football isn't important really. But I had plans. I was trying to work out how to get to Sunderland for Shrewsbury's away game there on 4 April. At Easter I was going to go and watch Barry play in Caernarfon on the Saturday and then see Shrewsbury's home game against Ipswich on Easter Monday. In June I had tickets for Euro 2020, including a game at Hampden, which is a ground I'd really like to visit. My last game this season was my 35th. My record for a season was 37 and I was going to bust through that and probably over the 40 game mark.

They're all lost opportunities rather than actual losses but sometimes we grieve over what we can't have, rather than what we had.

4) Routines. Since September I've been learning Welsh two evenings a week. I had got into a routine with it. Leave work, park at the uni, catch up on my homework while eating a sandwich, go into class. I had a good bunch of classmates, all genuinely nice people.

We have switched to Zoom. We lost half the class when we switched. I have found the move online more difficult than I thought it would be. The dynamic of learning has changed. Our tutors have done their best to make it work, but it's not easy using resources designed for the classroom when you don't have a classroom. If I have Zoom calls all day and then a 3 hour class on Zoom in the evening I feel exhausted.

5) Moments. My Mum said to me that her main regret in all this is that she feels she is losing the time she has left. I know what she means about that because lockdown life is not life at its fullest.

I miss being able to mooch around the charity shops with Cathy on a Sunday afternoon.

I miss meeting my friend Sara for work chats over coffee.

I miss my bunker at work. Our office has been occupied in our absence by a team who had their own space requisitioned with very little warning as the hospital reconfigured and braced for crisis. I have regular WhatsApp coffee times with my small team, but it's not the same as seeing them every day and having them on hand to bounce ideas with or get a third opinion on something.

I miss making the effort to go out on a Monday evening to my book group, and being glad I did afterwards.

I miss calling in at a supermarket and just being able to walk in without any hassle.

I miss going out to eat. I don't mean fancy meals that cost a lot. I mean evenings when I felt too tired to cook and we went and hid from the world and responsibilities in a booth at Pizza Hut, eating pizza with a base that has gone crispy with grease and pretending that the bowls we filled with 'salad' were healthy.

I miss those moments of connection. In the queue at the post office. With the cashier in the supermarket. Those friendly chats with strangers. Now we just nod from distance.

They are all instants, but those many moments add up. Being robbed of so many small elements of humanness makes all this harder to navigate. Sometimes I worry that the fractional losses are making me lose sight of myself, that I will be lessened by all of this.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Grangetown Rainbow Art - messages of hope in the time of Covid

A version of this blogpost previously appeared on the Grangetown Community website. I've extended it a bit here and added more photos.

With limited exercise opportunities available because of the pandemic, I've been going out for a walk most evenings. Sometimes I walk to a park or by the river, but sometimes I just walk up and down a few streets. Grangetown's streets are fascinating. Different styles of houses. Strange old outbuildings. All kinds of things to see.

Lots of homes have rainbows in the windows with messages of thanks to NHS staff and key workers - the people who are keeping the country going at the moment. 

They are lovely messages and sometimes they give me the feels. One that said "Thank you Daddy  and all key workers!" gave me a little heart pang. Another one said "Well done! Auntie Claire." I don't know if Auntie Claire has been able to see it, but I hope she knows she is a hero.

Its impressive to see the array of arty techniques on show. Poster paints and water colours, marker pens and coloured pencils, collages and cut outs.

One house has a rainbow made from a row of tiny handprints on the glass. Another has different coloured paper hearts arranged in a rainbow.

There is lots of bilingual messaging. Arhoswch adre! Ofalwch i ti!

In Pentrebane Street there is even a remarkable bilingual teddy bear called Chester who greets children in Welsh and English. I saw him one evening when it was too dark to take a photo and had to go back the following evening to try and get a picture when there was more light.

I've been putting photos of some of the rainbows on my Twitter feed. People like them. They are messages of hope for a future beyond this crazy time. As one piece of artwork said 'After the storm, comes the rainbow.' 

And, of course, I live with an artistic, creative person. Here is Cathy's message of hope.