Notes from a factory in the Midlands

MFS, Midlands

The financing came through from the bank just before the end of April. I am now confident that so long as the economy doesn’t get worse than it already currently is, we won’t need to draw on our overdraft until after the summer. The factory is currently shutdown, and only the warehouse team are operating normally. However, with a welcome if unexpected improvement in sales in the last ten days, we have decided to partially restart manufacturing next week, rather than the week after as planned. This means that for those employees we bring back in, we will not be able to claim the furlough money from the government, because they will have been off for less than three weeks. But we were starting to run out of stock of certain products, and decided that it is more important to keep our customers happy, and profitably sell stuff to them, than try and maximise financial support from the state. Distancing will be a challenge in some parts of the business, but we will have to slow down, learn and adapt. We have also been busy this week buying social distancing screens, to erect between co-workers on the production line, and lots of masks and visors. 


Hopefully the government will indicate this weekend how it proposes to unlock the lockdown, presumably some step by step approach over many weeks and months. But it will be a difficult task given how successful its “stay at home” message has been. What we cannot do is to hide under our duvets and wait for a vaccine that might never arrive. We must accept our responsibility to get out there and spend money, to protect people’s jobs, generate tax revenues and get the economy moving.


At Home

Nicky, Vermont, US

My neighbor and I went for a walk yesterday with her two large dogs, one bouncy, one stately. I was armed with dog treats, and the dogs love me because of said treats. We counted our blessings.


We live in a state with a governor, who, despite being a Republican, has been very pro-active in instituting stay at home orders, finding protective equipment and so forth. Unlike most Republican governors he doesn’t kowtow to Trump, mostly because Democrats vote for him so he has a solid voting block without needing Trump’s abject followers. I don’t vote for our Governor, but I’ve certainly gained respect for him through this crisis.


We live in a beautiful place with lots of room to be outside without tripping over other people. The traffic is much reduced traffic on our dirt road which renders it safer for dogs and humans. Sometimes this feels like a throw back to the fifties and early sixties in a good way. A much slower pace. The dog is calmer. I’m calmer most of the time.  


Our neighbor planted daffodils in her field, and each time I drive up our driveway there are more daffodils blooming. I dream of plans to go places. A friend and I were going to Sweden, Denmark. She thought I’d never been to Scandinavia and in my dream quandary I didn’t know how to break the news that I used to live in Norway. In another dream I’m in a large city with the dog searching for someone or somewhere. Or I’m on a plane. 

Awake I think I should visit my beloved New Zealand relatives instead of them visiting me. But there will be no safe way to fly to New Zealand until there’s a vaccine. 


Things I haven’t done: Called the hardware store to find a load of top soil or compost to fill our new raised bed. Called the other hardware store to buy a hundred foot hose. I cut up our old one last fall, ungainly thick hose falling everywhere. I haven’t called the generator people to find out when our generator will get hooked up to propane and someone will come and tell us how to use it. I hate making phone calls. 

My birthday is coming up and perhaps it is time to get a bicycle. I’m scared of bicycling on the roads here, but Sam and his wife have Bromptons, which fold up so you can drive to a bike path and then unfold the bike and off you go. Or I go. I worry it might take me a year to learn how to fold and unfold it. Perhaps I’ve forgotten how to ride a bicycle. Perhaps there is no pleasure in riding if I have to wear a helmet. Perhaps I will adore it and be liberated.  

A note to Catherine… I'm glad to hear about your liberation from St. Chris, and your unhappiness too. Not that I’m glad you were unhappy, of course, but hearing about your pleas to be allowed to return home pricked my adolescent bubble in which I was the only miserable child there.


Tropical thoughts

Paul Lowden, Malaysia

Gardens are very personal things, reflecting as they often do the personality and nature of their guardian. Entrusted by the vanishing neighbours next door to not only look after the 4 Mouseketeers but the garden as well I was conscious of this responsibility. But what could go wrong? The sun shines relentlessly and then it rains biblically and then everything grows manically. As the days have merged into weeks so has my [misplaced] confidence grown as Malaysia's answer to Titchmarsh, amateur hero of the secateurs, waver of the pruning saw, flowerbed supremo. With exuberant growth comes a need for trimming [as all good economists know] and so I set off to show Nature who was boss. I may have over-done this...

Thank goodness the lockdown has been extended to June - at least that gives the plants a fighting chance of recovery before the owners return to wonder why their rambling rose is now a dwarf varietal. 

Jane Austen clearly had similar issues...




Do not undertake this lightly: roses,

Vines, exotic shrubs, things that like to climb,

Low spreading greenery, fruiting stuff, palms,

A veritable jungle of unnamed plants

Seemed ripe for the chop. Surely tropical

Downpours, luscious heat, steamy conditions

Guarantee success? True the cacti looked 

Anxious, prickly at this unwelcome stance

‘No cutbacks here-zero emissions plant.’

Undeterred by ignorance, common-sense

Anything remotely like competence 

I set to work; in retrospect not wise.

“I will not say your mulberry trees are dead,

But I am afraid they are not alive.”


Rural Norfolk

Chris Gates, Norfolk UK

The news is largely about the fabled consignment of PPE ordered from Turkey in a blaze of publicity attempting to demonstrate the night and day world-scouring attention Matt Hancock was employing, personally, to sourcing. Remember how in the end we had to send in an RAF plane to collect? How it had to wait for a few days? Turns out that all 400,000 surgical gowns are, on inspection, unusable - not to standard. So far there is no news of whether there ever was a standard in place, why there was no production line inspection in a factory normally making teeshirts, why we paid for them before getting a look at the goods, or how we might get our money back if - and staggeringly it’s not a gimme - the rascally Turks have had us over. They, no doubt will claim they were to a standard requested. No wonder Hancock the Unfortunate was a bit prickly in the Commons. He must be dreading the quizzing to come over this... I wonder how much he paid for them, and what their future is?

Boris has learned from the ‘100,000 tests a day’ situation (less than that for the fourth day running btw) and now trumpets 200,000 a day testing capacity by the end of the month - actually a reduction of 50,000 on his previous ambition and just the capacity, not the take up.

The PM is gearing up for his Big Announcement. Today marks the nominal end of the second lockdown period, and following Cabinet, Cobra and Sage meetings over the next days we’ve been told to stand by for a Prime-Ministerial address on Sunday, followed by implementation on Monday. This has driven the Press into another frenzy, attempting to second-guess what form(s) of relaxation we might enjoy. “Nothing much” seems to be the concensus - though getting as many off furlough as possible and back into work, tax-paying work, would appear pre-eminent in their guesses. Good luck with that one.

This afternoon’s Briefing is to be hosted by Home Secretary, Dominic Raab, who must have drawn the short straw at Cabinet today. For once the HackPack assault may be entertaining.

Today’s plans for me include firstly a cup of coffee (feeble delay mechanism) then the spreading of yet another half ton of gravel just collected from the merchants, painting of a much-loved but touch-rusty metal garden table and chairs and a return trip to the merchants this afternoon for another half ton to be spread tomorrow. I’ve just learned my daily gravel outings will be on hold after today because tomorrow is a Bank Holiday and the Building Trade doesn’t work on Bank Holidays... I rather thought that having only just opened for business after a month’s lay-off, the Building Trade might for once forgo a break...


Out on the terrace, Sheila’s Potted Tulip Show has been particularly fabulous (that’s a display of potted Tulips, not a euphemism for an extravagant dancing routine) and long-lived too. It’s a silent companion to our ‘sundowner’ sitting, and this afternoon, though this will have been long-writ and online by now, as we sit here with our glasses and nibbles I thought I’d share it with you. Cheers!


Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Between Aldeburgh and Southwold

I have been sorting through books and pictures. It is taking a long time. I get caught up rediscovering old joys. I do not have sufficient wall space for most of the pictures. Not enough shelves for the books. What should I do with them all? 


I have a collection of books on Country House architecture. I am especially interested in lost (or demolished) country houses. There is something so tragic but compelling about the loss of beautiful buildings - the love, skill and artistry that went into their creation, the lives they touched, the stories they held and then the insult of their destruction - fire, abandonment, the wrecker’s mallets! 


I wonder what is happening at the moment in the country houses that survived though? Places like Blickling Hall or Felbrigg or Chatsworth or Woburn Abbey. No tourists being guided around. Just huge displays of treasures that no one sees. Security staff (wearing gloves and face masks) and spiders wandering in grand rooms. 


A friend tells me that her workplace will from now on be her home. For the company that employs her - it is “business as usual”. The managers held a meeting (on Skype) a few days ago and decided that they will reduce to just one much smaller site and the offices that are dotted around the country will close. Centralise and rationalise but lose no staff. All staff have laptops and meet via the video conferencing apps on their phones or computers and - they are finding - lockdown has actually been very productive. A service industry of course - all office based work - but probably the future will encourage lots more home working. Why bother with expensive offices? Staff can stay in the comfort of their own homes where they pay for the heating, cleaning, tea and coffee, the desk space etc. 


So what’ll become of the huge monumental office blocks in our cities? Some of them are ugly anyway. Do we need them all? Really? Buildings that are usually just warehouses for office staff. Could we use them in different ways? Apartments? Could we solve some of the housing crisis with redesign? After the war, many of the grand London town houses were converted into flats or houses of multiple occupancy. Perhaps some of the offices could be humanised into living spaces. A new industry could emerge to redesign the spaces. What is it called now? Repurposing? 


The news headline this morning when I first opened the iPad was that Matt Hancock was speechless when he discovered that one of the government advisers had broken the rules of lockdown and has been having visits from his lover. Speechless? Matt Hancock?


Oh Matt Hancock, Matt Hancock,

What should you do?

People break rules,

And you’re speechless - are you?


Oh Matt Hancock, Matt Hancock,

Make an address, 

Why not repeat it -

Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS.


Oh Matt Hancock, Matt Hancock,

What’s going on in your mind?

Are you speechless with fear

Or is it jealousy of a kind?


Oh Matt Hancock, Matt Hancock,

Won’t you say anything at all? 

Are you a man who is perfect 

And never broke a rule?


Broadland type

Sheila, Norfolk UK



Now I’m not really a great fan of yellow past Spring when the daffs are utterly fabulous. I don’t generally buy yellow plants for my garden, but suddenly I find I’m surrounded with bursts of yellow.


I occasionally make glass things and in the past I’ve bought loads of different yellow glass to experiment with - you know - sun, flowers, sand, that kind of thing. But I don’t really like yellow so I don’t use it much in my own work. Hence, I have loads of yellow glass and am now on a bit of a mission to create things using “the yellows”. 

I’ve already made a couple of yellow coasters for my son’s girlfriend (who thankfully likes yellow) and now I have a square dish in the kiln waiting to be slumped - pictured.


Yesterday, I noticed a rather lovely but “rogue” yellow tulip in my gorgeous pink tulip display.

Suddenly there is a completely unexpected yellow poppy just come out among my pots.

And then there’s the lemon tree in the greenhouse!


We have had this lemon tree for a few years now and always over-winter it in the greenhouse. We managed to bring two fruits to full size this winter and we had one of them with a G&T a few weeks back, and very satisfying it was. I have left the other one on the tree for now to see what would transpire…  I had read somewhere that lemon trees are one of the few plants that can contain every stage of growth at the same time. I wanted to check this out and have been nurturing the tree to try and achieve this result.


Well!  Look what has happened - I have: one fully mature lemon, lots of wonderfully scented blossoms, many small yellow fruits and even more further advanced green fruits. Quite honestly, the tree's a stunner - and it's true!


I think I might have to review my opinion of yellow.


All is quiet

Tilly Wonham, Hertfordshire

When I one day see my father I will hug him and hold him tight. Then I will take him somewhere beautiful along the coast to eat ice cream and watch the sea.


When I one day see my eldest daughter I will hug her and hold her tight. Then we will amble along Bristol’s harbourside or through St.Nick’s market to buy our lunch where we will sit and eat amongst the crowds.


When I one day see my son I will hug him and hold him tight. Then I will bring him home to walk in the countryside where he can blow away the London cobwebs and fill his lungs with fresh air.


When I one day see my youngest daughter I will hug her and hold her tight. Then we will lay on her bed together gossiping and laughing and watching funny videos.

For now, those days are future dreams and these days blend one into another calmly, punctuated by walking, gardening or making art.

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