Notes from a factory in the Midlands

MFS, Midlands

Today is National Numeracy Day, and Andy Haldane Chief Economist of the Bank of England has a good article on the topic in the Guardian. Numeracy or rather the lack of numeracy is one of my bug bears, particularly among otherwise well-educated people.  How many times have you heard someone say “I’m rubbish with numbers” as though it was a badge of honour?  Can you imagine anyone boasting “I’m rubbish at reading”?  There is a degree of shame associated with illiteracy which doesn’t attach to innumeracy. I am not saying that shame is a good thing, but it shows perhaps how our priorities are skewed. 


One area of maths that is in particular in focus at the moment is statistics, defined as “the practice or science of collecting and analysing numerical data in large quantities, especially for the purpose of inferring proportions in a whole from those in a representative sample.” Every day we see politicians and journalists struggle to understand the data before them and then struggle even more to communicate effectively both the shocking impact of Covid19 on vulnerable people, particularly those in care homes, but also the actual (very low) risk the virus presents to the young and healthy. And a lot of the statistics are based on what is necessarily an incomplete dataset, particularly when producing estimates of the R number.   


Another aspect of the nation's general innumeracy is financial literacy. Question: If your sales fall by 20% by what percentage do they need to grow to get back to where you started? Or do people understand that if you answer the questions “how will you pay for it?” with the answer “using a credit card”, then you have failed to answer the question. You aren't paying for it, you are creating a high interest debt to a finance company, which if you fail to pay will soon grow out of control. It was supposedly Einstein who said that compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world – those who understand it, earn it; those who fail to understand it are condemned to pay it. So maybe those lucky people for whom lockdown is an extended holiday people should take advantage of lockdown to brush up their mathematical skills, instead of just catching up with their reading. It’s 25%, by the way.


Tropical thoughts

Paul Lowden, Malaysia


“I like a neat border,” she said

Viciously snipping a dead head

Into rubber gloved hand. Grass trained

To putting green velvet restrained

By gravel sharp half-moon edging 

Blade. Pens of plants choked in clumps, tight,

Segregated colour, scent, height.

Disembowelled slugs curled round pellets.

“Serves them right,” she sighed, “they just don’t

Listen. Poor weeds; glysophosphate’s 

Pure Heaven. I do so hate it

When things don’t know their place.

Like this,” a scowl upon her face

As a tasselled shoe found a snail.

Gently, a satisfying crunch.

“All’s well that ends well! Stay for lunch?”


Sequestered in Sequim

Beth, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Covid granola 


Covid finds me in the kitchen for many more hours a week than normal. I can only bake so many things and the freezer is full. So I have been working on granola. We really like crunchy oats, but have been disappointed by every brand of store granola that we have ever tried. Too much something, always.  Too heavy, too salty, too sweet, has coconut, etc. A friend sent me a recipe, and I have been experimenting from that recipe, and we are quite happy with this formula:


Preheat oven to 325. Our oven seems a tad slow, so if yours is hotter you may need to adjust a bit. Spread parchment paper on two baking sheets.


Combine 4 cups oats, any kind at all, with 1 heaping cup of wheat germ, 2 T brown sugar, and a healthy shake of cinnamon. The wheat germ is essential to the clusters.


Heat together in a saucepan until combined and warm - 1/4 c neutral flavor oil like canola, 1/2 c water, and any flavorings you might choose. I have been using a splash of vanilla, a splash of olive oil, and a splash of maple syrup.

Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and mix well. Now get your ever so well washed hands right down in there and start making clusters all over the parchment paper. It should be wet enough to clump. The water combines with the wheat germ to make great cement. The flavor is so nutty and the crunch is great, too.


Bake at 325 for 15 minutes, then set heat down to 300. Bake for another 25 minutes and then check to see if you need to gently move it about on the sheet to brown evenly. Generally I then need about 25 more minutes to get to a golden brown cereal.


Of course you can add any number of things to a granola for different flavors and textures. We prefer it cooked up plain so you can dress it up in the bowl.  Enjoy!



Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Suffolk

Yesterday a friend sent me some lockdown related cartoons. I guess they do the rounds - these email jokes or whatever. Do they make us laugh? Sometimes a wry smile I guess. A chuckle. Anyway, one of them was of two women - one of whom was spraying the “I woz ‘ere” slogan on a wall and saying to her companion “I don’t have a smart phone so I can’t download the tracking app”. It made me think. 


So much has changed during my lifetime ... from smart phones, the internet and iPads - to contactless payments ... plastic windows, Sunday shopping, different working patterns, 24hour supermarkets. There were three channels on television but now there are God knows how many ... and nothing I want to watch! High streets were once full with shops - bakers, newsagents, green grocers, butcher’s shops with sawdust on the floor,  Stop this, Harris, all this ‘good old days’ stuff, all this “when I was a lad” ....  stop it!


Oh but when I was growing up, we thought ourselves “very modern” as we had three telephones in the house - one in the hall, one by my parent’s bed and one in the kitchen. The first was a black old fashioned bakelite thing, then a cream one (the height of chic) for the bedside and finally a green wall phone in the kitchen. My dad was very strict about their use. If we rang anyone - we had to say why we were doing so and put money in a box he kept in the bureau. Sometimes I would telephone a school friend. It made me feel terribly adult. I would give up some of my pocket money for the pleasure ... 2p a minute I seem to recall. The idea that I might one day speak with someone in Australia via a video call never occurred to me - it was beyond comprehension - a space age invention! 


I guess the greatest changes have been in attitudes and belief systems - the “general milieu”. But what will this lockdown do to that? What about the immediate and long term effects? How will our behaviour to our fellow humans change? We are fearful of spreading and catching the disease. No more shaking hands, hugging friends and close contact? Will we be masked and gloved and shielding for months? Will we lose the confidence to laugh out loud in public? A horrible illustration was shown on the TV news of the spread of droplets from a single cough in a supermarket. It showed how just one cough contaminated the air from one shopping aisle to another. 


But lockdown is easing ... slightly. We may now drive out and exercise several times a day as long as we respect social distancing guidance. The unpeopled beaches I have been enjoying will soon be repeopled I guess. But won’t the suntans be odd if we all have to wear face masks and plastic gloves! 


May drive out to see if there are queues at the garden centres ... promise I won’t laugh or cough!


Gratefully Sheltering

James Oglethorpe, Virginia, USA

Hugged together safe and sound around a fire the children watched, eyes wide, as sparks ascended into the clear, silent night sky.

A stranger sat amongst the grown-ups, talking easily amongst the laughter.

“I want to tell you about a far away beautiful place,” the stranger said. “It was so full of light it was never dark. Beautiful, it glowed at night like a million diamonds. It had as many lights as there are stars in the sky. It was full of people who never stopped moving, talking, running, busy busy, crossing bridges over the water that surrounded the city like a moat. They traveled in vehicles with no animals pulling them, rode in carriages on rails through tunnels, and walked hand in hand in the park.”


“It was a tall palace of people living in buildings that touched the sky. They came from all over the world, listened to music and fell in love. If I said it was a very human place would you understand what I meant? I met my wife, Peachy, there. I was out walking one day and she was standing outside a store. She picked up a peach from a box, held it up and smelled it. And you know what? She smiled to herself and put the fruit back. She was so beautiful I had to go over and say hello.”

The stranger sat silent, lost in thought.

“I tell you now there were places in my city where more people than you can possibly imagine met up. We all gathered together, thousands and thousands of us shouting and whistling. Strangers but as close together as one big family, all cheering, roaring our heads off and clapping. I miss it so much…”

Choked, the stranger fell silent, and looked into the flames, eyes brimming with tears.

“What happened in the end?” A child dared ask. 


After a moment the stranger looked up from the fire and said quietly. “The virus came and I haven’t seen her for years. I don’t know where she is anymore. I don’t know what happened to my city. Or how to get back there.”


In the morning the stranger was ready to move on. The children walked with her to the edge of the village. Before she left she pulled a blue cap out of the pocket of a battered waxed coat and put it on the head of a girl walking alongside her.


“What does NY mean?” she asked the stranger, who replied with a smile, winked, and strode off with determination towards the mountains in the east.


From St Just

Jane G, St Just

My internet has been disintegrating again, and yesterday an engineer came: I was told on the phone that he would be unable to enter the house, but fortunately no one had mentioned that to him. He enquired cheerfully 'any symptoms?', marched in, diagnosed not one but three faults and marched out again to climb various poles and replace various elements. I was pleased and relieved to find that my response to seeing a live human being in the sitting room wasn't to want to hide behind the sofa. 


I've also been hugely relieved that we're not being compelled to wear face masks, nor even advised to use them except in very particular circumstances. Although I live alone, I haven't felt particularly isolated - which is partly because I'm naturally solitary, but certainly also because this is a small and friendly town where people smile and greet one another in the street: probably even more so over the last couple of months. If masks were compulsory, the many of us living alone would quite literally never see another human face, except on screen. 


The other day I passed someone in the street whom I know - not especially well, but enough to talk to. She was in full face covering: perfectly co-ordinated with her hairband, & so less sinister than it might have been, but it made her unrecognisable. A mute signal flashed from her eyes and she whipped off the mask to say hello - possibly defeating the purpose, but I was very glad to see her, and to see the transformation from slightly hostile-looking alien to friendly acquaintance. 


One thing that really is puzzling me is public transport. The advice to walk or cycle to work is fine, of course, assuming people live within a few miles of their workplace... but in Oxford, for example, almost everyone already walks or cycles if they're in town: the problem is the very many people who have to come in from outside. Walking or cycling 25 miles each way strikes me as a bit keen... if the government could just put its mind to running regular out of town bus services and - especially - compelling CrossCountry to put a sensible number of carriages on its trains, it would be one unexpectedly wonderful side-effect of the virus. But somehow they seem not quite to have thought this through.


Thin air

John Mole, St Albans




Scuffing up flint

along the old ways


in our boots or trainers

we’d rediscovered walking


as the paradox

of solitude for company


when out of nowhere 

cyclists came crunching past


and thanked us

as we stepped aside.


Such unfamiliar courtesy

was so surprising


that we shouted after them

‘You’re welcome!’ as they disappeared.


If this becomes the new way

may it last for ever.


Thoughts from the Top of the Hill

Linzy, Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire

Wednesday It's getting easier to remember this as the Radio Times has now settled to a regular delivery day. It was also a big day for me as I made my first trip out, apart from quick dashes to the post box, since lockdown. Totally legitimate, by the way, as it was work related and now of course it's fine to go to work as long as you don't use public transport.


Actually I went to collect some books, as my stock has been severely depleted by online sales during the lockdown and I had sold quite a large proportion of my art books. Not, as one might have expected, books on learning to draw and paint, but more art appreciation, with a particular emphasis on modern artists, Escher, Dali and Picasso to name a few. One sale was a selection of  twenty-one art books ordered with some optimism by a customer in India. Unfortunately the parcel did not make it as far as the plane and when the flights to India ceased the package came back and is now awaiting the end of lockdown in India. A great shame as the customer could have been enjoying them all this time.


My friend and fellow bookseller had arranged lots of books on a table outside for me to look through, with appropriate social distancing. His charity book sales have of course ceased and the stock room is overflowing, so we were able to help one another out. While I was sorting a box of art books he received a call from the local tip, which has just reopened. He has some book recycling bins there, which he regularly empties and they were phoning to tell him the bins are already overflowing and he needs to go and collect the books. Naturally, people have been having clear-outs while confined indoors and rushed to the tip as soon as it opened. He gets some quite good books in this way. Many others end up in the general paper recycling, where they are doomed to be shredded.


This reminded me of how ephemeral books have become and how prey to the whims of chance. I routinely handle volumes which are over a hundred years old, treasured for many years by their original owner then cleared out by their children. Sometimes they are remarkably well preserved and I can describe them as 'very good' and sometimes they have sat neglected on a shelf or in an attic and are not really fit to be sold. It always seems a shame to throw any of them away but sometimes there is no alternative. Many of them have a story to tell, with photos, letters and post cards left inside as book marks. My friend tries his best to find a home for any book, however sad it looks, so his sales are wonderful jumbles of all kinds of volumes. When they have had a few chances at finding a buyer he passes them on to a shop that sells everything for 20p. However, the sales can't take place just now, the 20p shop is closed and so are the charity shops, so it's a matter of chance whether the excess will end up in the shredder.


So, please, if you are clearing out your books at the moment, give a thought for their possible untimely end and perhaps keep them in the garage until the charity shops reopen so they get their chance for a new home. Although charity shops often have a policy of removing books from their shelves after two weeks, there is a company which collects them all and keeps them in a huge warehouse while advertising them online. Sometimes I wish I had thought of this.


On my way home I noticed the entrances to car parks at local beauty spots are still barricaded, with big 'no parking' signs. Pateley Bridge was still deserted and the caravan sites still closed. North Yorkshire is not ready to open its doors yet.


We are looking forward to a live streaming of a half-hour production of Macbeth on Friday evening by the Oddsocks touring company, from their home. Every summer we go to see their open air production at Harlow Car Gardens in Harrogate and they are hilarious. It's our grandchildren's main shot at 'culture', so we are all going to watch it at the same time, while having our separate picnics, as if nothing has changed.



Wouldhave, Swaledale

Behold, old Wouldhave, oop north, self-isolating with Miss Melanie's Stripey. Miss Melanie herself is in the cottage kitchen next door where she is cultivating many tender plants - veggies? flowers for a cutting garden?  - of whose destiny I am uncertain.  


Soon the sun will disappear behind the towers of the penitentiary opposite and I shall return to the ruminations of Baltazar. 


Tough going.


Will Clea eventually guide me to a conclusion or will some fell constable tap me on the shoulder?