Care in the time of Corona

Shirin Jacob, Ålesund, Norway

It’s been a momentous week in Ålesund. The weather turned a corner from the Arctic chill of four degrees last week to nineteen degrees and sun yesterday. There is a saying that there is no such thing as Bad weather, just Bad clothing. We enjoy North Atlantic weather all year. A mild wet climate with wind, rain, occasional hail and snow. I think Norwegians have some of the best rain and outdoor gear in the world. There is a famous bargain outlet called Devoldfabrikken in Langevåg, ten minutes by fastboat from Ålesund, that stocks amazing Norwegian brands like Norrøna, Swims, Bergans and Devold. Another shop has Arcteryx jackets, fleece and windproof rainjackets at sale prices all year round. The brand Canada Goose is available in a local boutique but arctic wear is unnecessary here. Locals favour down and rain jackets in colours like teal, ultramarine blue, lime green, neon orange and mustard yellow. Much easier to spot when lost at sea or on a mountain.  


Life is going slowly back to normal. Schools have reopened, my exams were back on track and we are all preparing for ‘ferie i Norge’ (holiday in Norway). We are allowed to travel abroad but encouraged not to. Neither travel insurance nor repatriation is offered by the government. We feel that’s fair enough. We aren’t open to tourists. A county to the very north, Troms og Finnmark, went rogue and closed their borders to the rest of the ten other counties in Norway from mid-March and totally isolated themselves. Their inhabitants escaped fatalities from the virus but have now opened up and crying for other Norwegians to come and spend some money there as their economy understandably took a big hit. In Møre og Romsdal county, where we live, we’ve had 119 cases but thankfully no deaths. There have been a total of 235 deaths in Norway’s population of 5.3 million. I’ve been very nervous as no one here uses masks but there is tons of anti-bac everywhere and everyone is very conscious of maintaining a safe distance. Self-isolation is a way of life here and we never needed a lockdown. 


We celebrated our first National Day without the delightful traditional public parades of children accompanied by their parents and teachers in Bunad. It was the first time since the Second World War that the parade had been cancelled. Bunad is the traditional dress of Norwegians consisting of a beautifully embroidered long black, blue, grey or green wool skirt (depending on the area one comes from), an embroidered white cotton blouse, a long black wool cape and an embroidered purse hung from the waist. The main jewellery is intricately decorated large silver brooches on the chest and collar. Bunad is usually made for confirmation at age 15 and is used for life. It helps to not put on too much weight. The initial cost can be as much as 4000 pounds. Men often wear suits today instead of their traditional outfits. This year, National Day, 17thMay, was on a Sunday and we celebrated at a cousin’s home with dinner and many, many cakes. Alcohol is not traditionally served. 

The following day was my oral Norsk exams. The lowest level required for permanent residency is A1, whilst B2 is the Holy Grail. In general, I operate on two speeds, Whirlwind or Inert. My aptitude for language and musical instruments is the latter. As I’m no polyglot, Norwegian has been the bane of my existence for two years whilst attending Adult Language classes four hours daily. Think ‘Mind Your Language’ from the seventies. Nuff said. Six hundred hours of Norwegian lessons and fifty hours of Social Studies are free for asylum seekers, refugees and partners of Norwegians. It’s a condition to be fulfilled within three years if one hopes to get residency or citizenship. I’ve never met more committed teachers. Not only do they suffer through months of incomprehensible mumblings from us, they gently translate the finer points of integrating into Norwegian life. I slowly changed from feeling isolated, bewildered and a little resentful to a deep appreciation and gratitude to the country. 


‘Going to church  in Hardanger’ by Hans Dahl ( 1881-1919)

The Vietnamese from the 70’s and the Jaffna Tamils, 40 years later, have migrated all over the country, and are hardworking and integrated. It remains to be seen with the more recent arrival of Afgans, Syrians, Iraqis and North Africans. The Poles, the largest group of working migrants, prefer to return to their home country. Similarly many of the Thai, Filipino and Brazilian students married to Norwegian men dream of retiring in their home countries with warmer climes and a more affordable lifestyle. Although I come from Singapore, which was like Disneyland for me, this is Home now. I’ve never been in a more beautiful country with such clean water and fresh air.


We are encouraged to listen to NRK P2 Radio which has lots of news and commentaries on current affairs and watch the news and documentary channel NRK1 on TV. In addition, it’s critical to subject every Norwegian to our excruciating Norsk in spite of the fact that almost every local speaks English. To their credit, no one has ever laughed at me, been patronising, rude or sarcastic but, instead, so genuinely pleased that one is trying to speak their language. After two years of learning, I’m able to sit through a dinner party conversing in Norsk but not quite ready to practice medicine in an acute event. Language is complicated in that we learnt Bokmål, the traditional Danish influenced Norwegian, but our commune has just converted to NyNorsk which is the second National language. My husband speaks Ålesund’s dialect whilst his cousins speak the dialect of whichever island they live on. There are literally hundreds of dialects in Norway which adds to the confusion we live in. Norwegians are terribly patient and resilient so it isn’t the huge challenge one thinks it might be. Unfortunately, my exams were not uneventful and I’m hoping for the best. Norwegian Style.



John Underwood, Norfolk

Surprise surprise

What surprises me the most is that anyone expected that the Prime Minister and his chief advisor would behave honourably. I don’t like using their first names as it humanises them and allows us to imagine that they our chums and are like the rest of us. They are not. 


Max Hastings wrote about our current PM in the Guardian back in June 2019, and his words still ring horribly true.  “There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth.” And in the same article; “I have known Johnson since the 1980s, when I edited the Daily Telegraph and he was our flamboyant Brussels correspondent. I have argued for a decade that, while he is a brilliant entertainer who made a popular maître d’ for London as its mayor, he is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification… Dignity still matters in public office, and Johnson will never have it. Yet his graver vice is cowardice, reflected in a willingness to tell any audience, whatever he thinks most likely to please, heedless of the inevitability of its contradiction an hour later.” 


I would argue with Max Hastings about dignity mattering in public office in Britain today. What seems to matter much more is the ability to present a barefaced lie and when challenged or questioned, to fail to answer the question and repeat the lie in different words. 


People who had failed in public office, or had been indiscreet in their private lives used to resign as a matter of course, out of shame, or out of the fear of bringing their office into disrepute and suffering the shame of having done so. Nowadays one is presented with a bland sense of entitlement and insouciance which betrays a feeling of contempt for other people, and a disinclination to listen to experts, scientists, and medical people if their advice runs counter to the current political dogma. It is not as if there is any backbone to the Prime Minister’s political posturing; he is far too lazy to develop an argument, preferring to waffle and let events take their course, knowing that he can stare down criticism or ignore it. His chief advisor writes endless, seemingly learned blogs on all manner of subjects, but if you read his critics, he is accused of regurgitating half understood ideas, and of being linked to those espousing eugenic theories. A short step to “herd immunity” and accepting that a few pensioners will die. These people are indeed morally bankrupt. I am not surprised at what they do, or fail to do. It is why I didn’t vote for them. Perhaps we should replace the clap for carers on Thursdays with a Boo for Boris on Tuesdays. Tuesday Boo day anyone?


From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

I think Margaret is probably feeling confused by my sending an 'empty' message to her. Somehow it tells me that trying to use an iPad for writing to the journal may be a bad idea. It was the iPad that sent the message, not me. I'm as certain as I can be that I never touched the 'submit' button at all!  Anyway, my apologies to Margaret for any puzzlement.


Talking of puzzlement, I am bemused, staggered, and finally incandescent with rage over our dear leader's stance on the Cummings affair. I am totally with Hilary Q in her anger. Just who are these people who put their entitlement above the majority of the population of this land! Well, we know who they are don't we, and I don't think any of us should be complacent over the larger implications. They - at least both of them - simply must go, if not in the name of God, then out of simple respect for those who have obeyed the lock-down rules mostly to the letter. Where this is personal to me is over the fact that best beloved and I live only about 7 miles apart and have not properly seen one another since the beginning. In view of our 'at-risk' status we intend to remain apart in future, for a time at least. Truth to tell I believe there would be very little risk in two similarly protecting and isolating households sharing our two homes as one, but that isn't allowed - or so we have clearly understood hitherto. It is hard though when those in authority (a position now undermined of course) play by their own set of rules. Many non-priestly expletives want to escape my lips!! Incidentally, I applaud today the church leaders who have tweeted their criticism of our ruling junta's attitudes and actions.


Squirrels haven't appeared yet this morning. I wonder if they sense the atmosphere emanating from my house - only about three miles from the second home of the Father of the House I might add...


Tropical thoughts

Paul Lowden, Malaysia

Hoi polloi

The wrinkled lip, the sneer of cold command

A public show, majestic dominance.

For Ozymandias, laid low by time, 

The intoxicating draw of hubris,

Suggested immortality and fame

Astonishing mere mortals with his name.

Cicero stated “O fortunatam

Natam me consule Romam” marking

His clear arrogance and self-assurance

That the Roman state was fortunate to

Be born in his great consulate. Nothing 

New in politics that self-important

Unelected snake-oil salesmen should try

One rule for them and one for hoi polloi.


Bristol Calling

Simon Davies, Bristol

In the 1940s I was at a kindergarten only a few minutes walk away from where we are now. I have a memory, which maybe entirely fabricated, of early winter evenings and a lamplighter on a bicycle with his ladder coming to light the gas lamps outside the school.

As in many parts of Bristol the original lamp posts remain but they have been converted to electricity. I have a long standing fascination with gas street lamps. There are some around York Minster and many in the side streets around Covent Garden. In fact in London one and a half thousand of them remain. One on the Embankment is said to be run on gas from the sewer below. 

So in our Bristol walks I would glance up to see if any gas mantles indicated an unconverted lamp. Eventually we found some on the curiously named “Back of Kingsdown Parade”. When I checked on the internet there was a comment saying that their gas supply had been disconnected in 2018 and I couldn’t find out whether they had been reconnected.

However the Clifton Preservation Society indicated that two areas much closer to us, Cobblestone Mews and Canynge Square, were still lit by gas. In Cobblestone Mews the mantles were certainly still in place and we met a man sitting outside his house in the sunshine who said that in all of Bristol there were about nineteen lamps still functioning. They were looked after by an enthusiast who came round to check them. He added there were some near The Guinea pub down near the docks.

We went on to Canynge Square and to our surprise found that not only were the lamps intact but, in spite of the bright blue sky, they were lit.

I looked up ”The Guinea Pub” on Google maps and found “The Golden Guinea” in Guinea Street. So another walk was planned in that direction. We couldn’t find any gas lamps although we did find some interesting old houses and, if you live in Britain, so can you because tomorrow night (Tuesday) Number Ten Guinea Street is featured in A House Through Time on BBC Two at 9 o’clock. The programme covers some of the darker side of Bristol’s history.



Bumpy landing on the south coast

Catherine, Sussex, UK

Unexpectedly got the house to myself today. The Juniors have gone off to a distant beach, more fool them on a Bank Holiday. If it weren’t for boring paperwork needing to be done, it would be heaven.  Still, once that’s done, it’s ginger tea and cake in the garden for me. Could be worse. Love to you all.