A dark Swiss secret

 

From unsplash.com / © Nadine Marfurt

 

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently living in the past, which is no doubt due to the lack of anything happening in the present.  And that, of course, is because of the ongoing and seemingly never-ending Covid-19 pandemic.  Since August 20th, Sri Lanka, the country I’m currently resident in, has been in its third period of lockdown.  When it was announced, my partner and I had just ended a state of self-imposed lockdown, for one of our friends was diagnosed with Covid-19 at the start of August and we’d had to self-isolate.  So, basically, we’ve seen little apart from the inside of our flat for the past two months.

 

Anyway, the following entry is a little stroll down memory lane that I originally posted on this blog in 2015.  While it looks back (fairly) fondly on an adventure I had in 1983, what revived my memories of the adventure was a disturbing article about Switzerland that I’d just discovered on the BBC news website.

 

For two months in the late spring and early summer of 1983 I worked on a farm in the Swiss municipality of Niederweningen, which is a 35-minute train ride out of Zurich.  I can safely say that in terms of sheer, hard, physical work, I’ve done no job like this before or since.

 

At the time, I was in the middle of taking a year out between the end of high school and the start of college.  As far as I remember, nobody else in my school-year did this.  Those who intended to go to college did so in the autumn of 1982, a few months after they’d left school.  Everybody around me, including my parents, seemed to think I was insane for delaying my entry to college by 16 months and spending the intervening period doing loopy things like working on a farm in rural Switzerland.  Nowadays of course, nearly four decades later, you’re considered insane, and lacking in initiative and employability, if you enter college and you haven’t taken a year out, or a gap-year as it’s known in modern parlance.  (At least, that’s how it was before the Covid-19 pandemic and presumably how it’ll be again after the pandemic.)

 

In 1982 I’d discovered an agency called Vacation Work International, which for a small fee arranged paid working holidays in Switzerland.  Switzerland wasn’t top of my list of places to visit but Vacation Work accepted people from the age of 17 upwards.  I was 17 at the time and other foreign-job agencies I’d tried had turned me down because, due to visa regulations, they could only take on people who were 18 or older.  In October 1982, Vacation Work fitted me up with a month-long job as a grape-picker in a vineyard near Lausanne in French-speaking western Switzerland.  This was a tough (and wet – those Swiss wine-producers had a very rainy grape harvest to deal with in 1982) but tolerable job.  So, after spending some time travelling in central Europe and working with the Community Service Volunteers in the English Midlands, I thought I’d contact Vacation Work again and give something else on their Swiss brochure a go.  This time I plumped for a two-month package where I’d work as a farmhand.

 

One thing this job did immediately was rid me of the assumption that everyone in Switzerland wore a smart suit and earned pots of money working in a bank.  The farming family whom Vacation Work attached me to were not wealthy; certainly not by the standards of any farmer I knew back in the UK (and my Dad is one).

 

Their house was plain but serviceable, but certain things I’d assumed would be a feature of any household in Western Europe, however rich or poor, such as a television set, were absent.  One basic commodity that seemed to be lacking was a decent strip of flypaper because, although the house was reasonably clean, its dining table was always plagued by swarms of big, impudent flies.

 

Their farmstead possessed a tractor, a trailer and one or two other bits of machinery, but nothing like what even a modest British farm would be equipped with.  When the farmer, Hugo, wanted to bale some hay, he had to arrange for the use of a baler that seemed to be shared among a number of farms in the valley.  And there were no machines for spraying or weeding crops.  Those chores had to be done by someone with a heavy tank of weed-killer strapped onto their back or by someone wielding a hoe, monotonously, all day long, up and down the furrows of a field.  Similarly, such devices as front-end or back-end loaders were considered an unaffordable luxury.  For shifting things like dung or loose hay, the shovel and the pitchfork were the order of the day.  During my two months there, such basic tools were rarely out of my hands.

 

My abiding memory from those two months is of the daily schedule.  Hugo would usually come knocking at my door at 5.30 in the morning and after a hurried breakfast both of us would be outside, ready for action, at 6.00.  We’d have an hour’s break at lunchtime.  We’d spend the first half that lunch-hour eating and then Hugo would give me a pitying look and suggest, “Jan…”  – neither Hugo nor his family could ever get their tongues around the correct /ǝın/ pronunciation of my name – “…eine halbe Stunde.”  During this free half-hour, I’d usually doze off in my room and wake up 20 or 25 minutes later with a headache and a rotten taste in my mouth that suggested I’d just been chewing a dead frog.

 

At some point in the early evening there’d be another meal, but the work usually continued until 8.00 or 9.00 PM.  During a busy period, like when we were hay-making, we didn’t clock off until after 10.00.  This was the routine six days a week.  Only Sundays were free.  I calculated I must be doing 70 to 80 hours of physical labour each week.  I’d grown up on a farm, and indeed the previous year I’d spent a busy summer working on my uncle’s farm in Ireland.  But I hadn’t done anything on the scale of this.

 

© schweizerdeutsch-lernen.ch

 

That said, I did quite enjoy myself.  I got on well with Hugo and his family were civil to me, although because I was equipped only with the basic German I’d learnt at school and as they spoke the robust – some would say impenetrable – dialect of German known as Schweizerdeutsch, communication was often difficult.  At the end of 1983, I received a nice Christmas card and letter from Hugo and his family, which had been written in English by one of their children who was learning the language as school.  It wasn’t very comprehensible and I wondered if I’d sounded as strange to them when I’d spoken German.

 

The family were also kind enough at the end of my two-month service to present me with a going-away gift: a bottle of illicitly-homemade kirsche.  This bottle of kirsche lasted for the next two years, into 1985.  It was so strong that it could be supped only in minute quantities.  A couple of times I sneakily gave glasses of it to college acquaintances who liked to boast about their drinking prowess and, soon after, enjoyed the spectacle of them falling unconscious.

 

Pleasant too was the scenery at Niederweningen.  It wasn’t mountainous but, half-farmed, half forested, it was gorgeous in a sedate, pastoral way.  And I formed a friendship with another Vacation Work person who’d been assigned to a neighbouring farm, Rebecca Macnaughton.  Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we’ve kept in touch to this very day.  Actually, no matter how long and how hard I worked, it never seemed to stop me from accompanying my Vacation Work colleague down the road to the local pub for a beer after I’d finally finished for the day.

 

One evening, we tried exploring a different road and happened across a small restaurant that was run, somewhat unexpected, by a well-travelled and very interesting Sri Lankan guy.  In fact, he was the first Sri Lankan I’d ever met and I never imagined that, later in my life, I’d spend seven years living in his home country.  Anyway, he described how, previously, he’d worked in Zurich with some young Swiss heroin addicts.  And suddenly another of my assumptions about Switzerland, about how it was a bastion of order, decency and law-abidingness, had been turned on its head.

 

One other positive thing about the experience was how physically fit I felt afterwards.  Nowadays, with my body wracked by arthritic aches and pains and my waistline fighting a losing battle against a beer-belly, I look at photographs taken of me after I’d arrived home and can hardly believe how athletic I looked then.  Indeed, one of the things I did after that was to spend a fortnight tramping around the Lake District and I seem to remember bounding about those Cumbrian fells like a mountain gazelle.

 

For my Swiss farm-work I was paid a modest wage, but I was never sure if that wage came out of Hugo’s pocket or if it was provided under some Swiss farming subsidy scheme.  From what I could gather, the people provided by Vacation Work International were just one input in a system that saw lots of foreign people working cheaply on those modest-sized, modest-resourced farms.  Hugo told me how one farmhand who’d worked for him previously was an African bloke.  He’d also employed someone, at some point, from the Faroes Islands.  Hugo and the Faroese guy had got along so well that the latter still phoned him for a chat from time to time, from his home in the North Atlantic.

 

Mind you, the annual presence of foreign farmhands didn’t seem to improve Hugo or his neighbours’ knowledge of the outside world.  I recall one lunchtime having an argument with him and one of his neighbours about where Albania was.  I was the only one who maintained that it was in Europe.  Eventually, one of Hugo’s kids’ school atlases was dug out and consulted and, yes, it transpired that I was correct.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Roland zh

 

I’ve written nostalgically about my days on a Swiss farm, but I have to admit that what rekindled my memories of them and inspired me to write this blog-entry was something altogether darker.  Whilst browsing through the online back-pages of the BBC News website magazine, I happened across an article about a phenomenon that the Swiss authorities had until recently kept quiet about.  The article is called SWITZERLAND’S SHAME – THE CHILDREN USED AS CHEAP FARM LABOUR and is written by Kavita Puri.

 

This describes the old Swiss practice of taking orphaned children, or the children of unmarried parents, or children from poor backgrounds, and using them as ‘contract children’; as ultra-cheap labour, often on farms, where they were vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.  Part of the reason for this was simple economics.  Prior to World War II Switzerland wasn’t a wealthy country and a low-costing workforce for its agricultural sector had to be found somewhere.  However, it was driven too by an unforgiving attitude towards poverty.  As one historian explains: “It was like a kind of punishment.  Being poor was not recognised as a social problem, it was individual failure.”

 

The phenomenon of contract children – which over the decades is believed to have involved hundreds of thousands of Swiss youngsters – began in the 1850s and continued for the next century.  It didn’t peter out until the 1960s and 1970s, when “farming became mechanised” and “the need for child labour vanished.”  Also, “(w)omen got the vote in 1971 and attitudes towards the poor and single mothers moved on.”  Even so, Puri’s article mentions one case of agricultural child labour that occurred as late as 1979, just four years before I arrived there for my 70-to-80 hours of weekly hard labour.  What a sobering thought.

Here we no-go again

 

 

Sri Lanka is currently in the middle of another Covid-19-inspired lockdown. This is a 24/7 lockdown with nobody but police, health-workers, delivery staff and other essential service workers allowed to move around outside, so it’s a curfew basically.

 

This curfew was imposed by stealth. Originally, it was meant to last from the night of May 13th to the morning of May 17th, keeping people off the streets for a weekend.  Afterwards, for the rest of the month, people whose National Identity Card numbers (passport numbers if you were a foreigner) ended in an odd digit would be allowed out on odd-numbered days and those whose numbers ended in an even digit would be allowed out on even-numbered days.

 

However, another weekend lockdown was imposed from May 20th until May 25th and we were warned that a further one was planned from the 25th to 28th, which would keep people indoors during the Vesak Festival on May 26th.  Then it was announced that this lockdown would be extended until June 7th, with a couple of days along the way designated as ones when people could nip out to buy provisions. And then it transpired that those days when lockdown would be lifted wouldn’t actually happen, leaving the population with a 12-day stretch of home confinement until June 7th.

 

Who knows?  It wouldn’t surprise me if this lockdown gets extended again beyond the 7th36 people died of Covid-19 yesterday, a fairly typical daily number during the past few weeks, so the emergency remains.

 

Generally, since the Covid-19 epidemic began, my partner and I felt quite fortunate to be in Sri Lanka because, overall, the island seemed to have done a reasonable job of dealing with it.  After a strict initial lockdown last year, from March to May, the virus seemed to be contained. For months afterwards, while the virus wreaked havoc in supposedly more developed countries like the UK and USA, the Sri Lankan death toll remained static with fatalities only in the teens.

 

This changed in early October 2020 with the appearance of a major cluster at the Brandix garment factory in Minuwangoda, 35 kilometres north-east of Colombo.  By now, clearly, Covid-19 had got onto the island and wasn’t going away.  Still, however, the situation seemed manageable.  The island’s tropical climate helped.  People could go out and gather in relatively safe outdoor spaces – for instance, restaurant terraces and gardens – at times of year when in other regions of the world they’d be forced into hazardous, crowded, badly-ventilated, virus-friendly spaces indoors by cold weather.

 

Unfortunately, on Sunday, April 18th, at the end of a holiday week celebrating the Buddhist and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka, we realised things were going to take a serious turn for the worse.  We went for dinner and a few drinks in a hotel bar we frequented. During our previous visits, the bar had been no more than 25 percent full, so that there was plenty of space for social distancing, and the punters were careful to wear masks whenever they left their tables.  This Sunday night, however, the bar was mobbed, social distancing was non-existent and faces were unmasked as folk wandered from group to group.  We lasted about two minutes there.  Then, feeling extremely uncomfortable, we retreated to a sparsely populated restaurant in the same hotel.  I suppose most of the clientele in the bar had just returned from their New Year holidays and were enjoying a final boozy night out before they went back to work.

 

In fact, the New Year festivities had been allowed to take place without any restrictions. People visited families and friends across the island and, the wealthier ones at least, crowded into the beach and mountain resorts as they would in any ordinary year.  This had predictable consequences.  As one journalist recalled, “cases began to rise rapidly, overwhelming the state’s mandatory quarantine care facilities.  Soon, the intensive care units of a delicate hospital system were at full capacity.  By May, hospitals were inundated.”

 

As I mentioned, May 25th was the last day when people could go outside, although strings had been attached to this ruling. Firstly, only one person per household was allowed to be out at any one time.  Secondly, ‘vehicular’ movements were not permitted and you had to walk.  This would presumably ensure that people visited only their local shops and strayed no more than a mile or two from home, thereby lessening risks of infection.  I ventured out in the late morning, to get some money out of an ATM and then hopefully buy a few supplies in a non-mobbed supermarket.

 

 

When I emerged onto Galle Road, Colombo’s main thoroughfare, it was devoid of traffic and disconcertingly silent and still for a minute. Then a set of traffic lights behind me must have changed from red to green because I was passed by a small fleet of cars, tuk-tuks and motorcycles heading north towards the city centre.  But after they’d gone by, silence prevailed for another minute.  That was how things continued while I trekked along Galle Road to the ATM.  Every so often there’d be brief spurts of traffic that the lights had accumulated and then released.

 

 

Only shops selling food or medicines were allowed to open today.  Thus, there was activity around the little grocery / general-purpose shops that cluster near the entrance to Kathiresan Pillayar Temple on the eastern side of Galle Road in Colombo’s Bambalapitiya district.  One shop-sign there I hadn’t noticed before was the luridly coloured one for the ‘Irissh’ Super – which sounds like it’s owned by an Irishman who slurs a bit when he’s had too much to drink.  Further along, small queues of about half-a-dozen people waited to get inside the street’s pharmacies, like UniChemist, and mini-supermarkets, like Sathosa.

 

 

Having got cash from the ATM, I thought I would try the branch of Keells Supermarket on Marine Drive, which runs along the coast parallel to Galle Road.  I have to say that by this time I was starting to suspect that not everyone was following the rules.  As those knots of traffic passed me, I would notice the occasional middle-aged couple riding together on a motorbike, which made me wonder how strictly the police were enforcing the rule about only one member of each household being allowed out.  Though perhaps what I was seeing on those motorbikes were two mature, but still horny, members of different households taking advantage of the situation to pursue an illicit love affair.  Meanwhile, while I approached Keells, I noticed a suspicious number of cars pulling into its forecourt – this on a day when you weren’t supposed to travel by car.  Still, the tuk-tuk drivers seemed to be toeing the line.  The whole time I was outside, not one slowed and stopped and asked if I needed to go anywhere.

 

After seeing the small queues outside the minor supermarkets on Galle Road, I expected to have to wait for a time outside Keells, but I got in immediately.  It was busy, but not too busy.  The shelves and trays in the produce section had mostly been scoured clean, but there were reasonable stocks of everything else.

 

 

I carried my shopping home along Marine Drive, which was busier with traffic than Galle Road.  The police stations of Colombo’s coastal districts, south of the city centre at least, are positioned along Galle Road and the drivers were probably using Marine Drive instead because they figured there was less chance of them being stopped and checked. However, Marine Drive’s pavements were practically deserted and the shops along its seafront were almost all shut.  My local off-licence, the Walt and Row Association Wine Store, was shuttered – it was only food and medicine on sale today, strictly no booze.  Similarly silent was the Westeern Hotel, the passageway leading to Harry’s Bar at the back of the premises sealed by doors with rusty metal bars. Actually, the nation’s pubs had been ordered to stop doing business as early as May 3rd.

 

 

It proved a melancholy walk and I couldn’t help but feel melancholy about the situation overall.  Not just in Sri Lanka, where the authorities had taken their eye off the ball and a lot of people had acted selfishly and / or foolishly in April, resulting in this current crisis.  In countries like India, Brazil and the USA – where ridiculous things have happened, like Republican politicians getting vaccinated on the quiet so as not to upset the brainlessly delusional anti-vaxxers who make up a large part of their support – arrogance, complacency and both wilful and genuine stupidity have resulted in massive Covid-19 spikes and huge but avoidable death-tolls.  In Britain, despite a successful vaccination programme so far, there looks likely to be a third wave of infections while Boris Johnson’s hapless government dithers on whether or not to end Covid-19 restrictions later this month.

 

The sad thing is that the Covid-19 pandemic, serious though it is, doesn’t constitute the end of the world.  However, manmade climate change is making itself felt in our lives now and threatens to transform the planet in ways that could be catastrophic to our civilisation later this century.  If people generally, and politicians in particular, can’t get their act together to deal with Covid-19 in 2021, what hope is there for the decades ahead when we’ll really need to get our act together?

Locked-down Colombo

 

 

A few weeks have now passed since Colombo, the city where I live, emerged from Covid-19 lockdown.

 

Even now, walking about the city has a slightly eerie feeling of unreality.  The traffic isn’t quite as heavy as it was, though it’s gradually returning to the standards of the congested bad old days.  But some business premises remain closed, fewer pedestrians are using the pavements and nearly everyone is wearing a mask.

 

Not that I’m complaining about the masks, of course.  When it comes to the wearing of these, I’m in agreement with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who memorably tweeted the other day, “The science is unanimous – if we all wear masks, we slow down the spread and can open safely.  It’s not a political issue.  Anyone making it a political issue is an absolute moron…”  That sounds even better if you read it aloud in the Terminator’s accent.

 

I say ‘lockdown’, but in fact what we had for nearly two months in Colombo was a curfew, where you stayed indoors and supposedly weren’t even allowed to nip outside for a spot of exercise.  Hence, whenever I went down to the front door of our apartment building to pick up a delivery, I’d be greeted by the sight of our neighbour from upstairs burning off calories by riding her bicycle around and around the building’s small concourse.  Sri Lankan people seemed generally to accept and put up with the inconvenience of this.  I suppose it’s partly due to unhappy past experiences.  Events like the 30-year civil war, the 2004 tsunami and the Easter Sunday bombings last year have made them appreciate the importance and necessity of emergency security measures.

 

The curfew was imposed on Friday, March 20th.  There was an experimental half-day lifting of the curfew four days later, which gave folk a chance to get to the shops and stock up on supplies.  (By this point, Colombo’s food retailers hadn’t yet set up a coherent online system whereby people could order things from their homes and have them delivered.)

 

On March 24th, curfew-lifting day, I got up and headed out at about 7.00 AM, my goal being do some shopping at the nearest supermarket, Food City on Marine Drive.  When I arrived at Food City, I discovered that a queue had formed outside, which was slowly being threaded into the premises by a group of shopworkers and policemen.  I walked alongside that queue for the whole of the next block, counting the people as I went.  The queue actually turned 90 degrees at the far corner of that block and continued up a side street, and by the time I reached the end of the queue I’d counted 173 people.  Everyone was trying to ‘socially distance’ themselves from one another by keeping a metre of space between them, so it was a long queue of 173.

 

 

The queue inched along and more than two hours passed before I got into the supermarket.  The shopworkers and police at the entrance were making sure that only a couple of dozen people were inside the shop at any one time, to enable social distancing.  But I’d expected a long wait and brought a book along and I spent those hours in the queue reading.  In fact, a long, grindingly slow queue was probably the best context in which to read this book, for it was Anne Rice’s 1975 gothic opus Interview with a Vampire.  Yes, when you’re queuing for food in the middle of a pandemic, even Ms Rice’s florid and overwrought prose seems pretty bearable.

 

 

The people I saw outside and inside Food City behaved responsibly, but March 24th’s curfew-lifting didn’t seem to be a success.  Later that day, I saw reports in the media about crowded shops, markets and vehicles across the city and the country where the infectious and opportunistic Covid-19 virus would have enjoyed a field day.  Afterwards, when the authorities re-imposed the curfew, they kept it in place for a long, long time.

 

In fact, the only time I ventured beyond the edges of our premises during the next seven weeks was one day when I realised that I needed to get cash.  By now Colombo’s retailers had managed to set up a working delivery system, but not everything could be paid for online and / or with cards.  Sometimes you needed to pay the deliverers with physical money when they arrived at your door.  So off I trudged to the nearest ATM, not knowing what to expect.

 

This experience did make me feel like I was journeying through a city in the grip of a pandemic – a pandemic portrayed in an apocalyptic sci-fi / horror movie.  Traffic on Marine Drive was no more than a trickle.  The only people I saw who weren’t in vehicles or uniform were the staff at the Lanka Filling Station – a few vehicles were nosing onto their concourse to get petrol – and a couple of guys on the far side of the road, next to the sea, loading white Styrofoam boxes of fish onto the back of a delivery truck.  All the businesses along the road looked like they’d been shut for an eternity.  Oddest of all was the sight of our local branch of the KFC, which I’ve rarely seen not busy.  There was something utterly grim about the sight of all its chairs upturned and set on top of its tables, their jutting chair-legs forming a prickly metallic forest in the shadowy, unlit eating area.

 

Despite its close proximity to our building, the ATM I was heading for was actually in a different district of Colombo, across the Kirillapone Canal that forms the boundary between Wellawatta and Bambalapitiya.  And a security checkpoint staffed by three armed soldiers and ten police officers and consisting of a tent, desk and wheeled metal barriers had been set up by the canal bridge.  I noticed how this had also become the gathering point for the local population of crows, who usually assemble hungrily and hopefully where human beings assemble too.  So I had to traverse this checkpoint, show them my passport and explain where I was coming from, where I was going to and why.  I was allowed to continue to the ATM on the strict proviso that I returned home immediately afterwards.

 

During April and into May rumours about when the curfew would be lifted were plentiful, but it wasn’t until the week beginning May 11th that a modicum of normalcy returned in Colombo.  Not only were businesses allowed to have some ‘essential’ employees back at their workplaces (as opposed to ‘working from home’), but the general public were permitted outside on one weekday according to the final digit of their ID card number.  If that last digit on your ID card (or, if you were a foreign resident, your passport) was a 1 or 2, you were allowed out on Monday; if it was a 3 or 4, you were allowed out on Tuesday; and so on.  For me, this meant I could finally escape house arrest on Thursday, May 14th.

 

I was actually working from home for most of that day, so I didn’t get to venture out until late in the afternoon, which in the pre-Covid-19 era would have coincided with Colombo’s homeward-heading rush-hour.  This time the experience felt nowhere near as desolate as when I’d trudged to the ATM the previous month.  Most of the city remained closed, however, and considering what time of day it was, the lack of traffic on Marine Drive was astounding.  I was also shocked when a train rolled past along the nearby coastal railway tracks.  In the normal world, the train would have been stuffed with end-of-the-day commuters.  The more adventurous ones would be hanging out of the doorways while Colombo whooshed past below them.  But some carriages in this train barely contained a soul.

 

 

I felt melancholy walking around Colombo that day because I passed a few businesses to which I’d given my custom in the past – okay, pubs – and they looked practically derelict.  I wondered if they’d ever reopen.  One example was the Western Hotel, which’d optimistically put potted palm trees out along its façade shortly before the virus and curfew arrived.  Another was that mainstay of Sea Avenue, the Vespa Sports Club, its colonial-era bungalow standing silently in the middle of its empty courtyard.

 

 

More encouragingly, I happened to pass my favourite Chinese restaurant, the Min Han on Deanstone Place, just as one of its owners, Mo, materialised at its doorway.  So I was able to enjoy a socially distanced blether with him.  He told me that the restaurant was taking orders and providing takeaways and money was thankfully starting to trickle in again.

 

 

Now, a month later, the Min Han seems to be fully back in business and I’d advise all Colombo-based lovers of authentic Chinese food to head there immediately.  It’s highly recommended.

 

One other feature of traversing this strange, semi-deserted version of Colombo was how, in places I’d walked through practically every day of the past six years, I noticed things in the quietude that I’d never noticed before.  For example, there was a flowery Christian shrine near the Seylan Bank on Duplication Road.  Or a depiction of Mariah Carey, lurking sinisterly in the undergrowth near the entrance of the disused Indra Regent building, a little further south along the same street.

 

 

So those are my memories of locked-down Colombo between March and May 2020.  It was an economically brutal experience for the city and for the country as a whole.  But I think it was a necessary experience because three months after Covid-19 appeared here, the total number of cases have been kept below 2000 and there’ve been only 11 deaths.  Compare that with the shambles of a response to the crisis that went on in the UK, mis-orchestrated by bumbler-in-chief Boris Johnson.  Or worse, what happened in the USA with Donald ‘Drink Bleach’ Trump at the helm.  Let’s just hope that, after all the sacrifices made, and with life making a hopeful return to normal, Sri Lanka doesn’t have to deal with a resurgence of that bloody microbe in the near future.

Millennium Dom

 

From the Cyprus Mail

 

Spin doctor Dominic Cummings, the Svengali to Boris Johnson’s Trilby, the Rasputin to Johnson’s Tsarina Alexandra, the organ-grinder to Johnson’s dancing monkey, the puppet-master to Johnson’s, well, puppet, has become Britain’s Most Hated Man.

 

That’s because everyone in Britain now knows that Cummings didn’t just break the coronavirus-lockdown rules that he himself helped draw up for the population, but pulverised them.  The Gollum-like governmental advisor apparently believed that rules exist only for plebs and he, as a superior being, had a divine right to flout them.  In late March he drove his wife and child 260 miles from London to his parents’ farm near Durham in northeast England, while his missus was displaying coronavirus symptoms.  He developed symptoms soon after.  Also, while in the northeast, he drove 30 miles to local tourist attraction Barnard Castle, an action he subsequently justified by claiming he’d done it to check if he could drive safely even though the virus was affecting his eyesight.  I guess that’s the equivalent of a brain surgeon performing an operation to check if the palsy he’s been suffering from isn’t making his hands shake too much.

 

I should say not quite everyone in Britain is baying for Cummings’s blood, for I’ve noticed a few right-wing folks complaining on social media that Cummings has been the victim of a stitch-up by Britain’s hideous lefty mainstream press.  Such people regard Cummings as the Messiah, thanks to him being Campaign Director of the Vote Leave movement in 2015-16 and playing a major role in getting Britain out of the European Union.  According to them, the lefty newspapers that have it in for poor Dom include that notoriously socialistic organ, the Daily Mail.  Looking at the state of the comments posted by those fulminating right-wingers, I just hope they cancel their subscriptions to the Daily Mail and invest the money they’ve saved in taking punctuation courses where they learn how to use apostrophes correctly.

 

Anyway, reading the screeds of print written about Cummings in the past week, I’ve been reminded that Cummings first made a name for himself during a little-remembered episode in recent British political history.  It happened shortly after the advent of the new millennium, in a part of the world where I was living.  I’m talking about the referendum on setting up a regional assembly in northeast England, held in 2004.

 

Soon after Tony Blair’s New Labour government arrived in power in the late 1990s, devolution was implemented in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Irish Assembly.  This left England as the only part of the UK without devolved government, which caused some awkward anomalies.  How, for example, could Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians turn up at the British parliament and vote on issues affecting the English population, when English politicians weren’t allowed to attend the three devolved parliaments and have a say on equivalent issues affecting the populations there, like health and law enforcement, entrusted to those parliaments under the devolution settlement?

 

The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act of 2003 was meant to restore constitutional balance.  It was envisioned that, eventually, eight regional assemblies would operate across England.  As England had a population five times the size of that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, a patchwork of small English assemblies would ensure that too much power wasn’t concentrated in a single, huge English assembly.  And the first English region to get the chance to approve the establishment of its own assembly was northeast England, which had an all-postal ballot on the matter on November 4th, 2004.

 

Cynics would say that the northeast was given first say because it seemed highly likely to do what the government wanted it to do.  It was deeply pro-Labour at the time and contained Tony Blair’s constituency, Sedgefield.  Also, it seemed the English region with the strongest local identity – a place that’d want its own assembly making decisions on its behalf rather than having decisions imposed on it from faraway London.  At the time I was living in the northeast’s biggest city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, without wishing to confuse the city with the region, I have to say the Geordies of Newcastle did seem a complete race apart.

 

I’d spent most of my youth in Scotland, where devolution had been a burning political issue for a generation.  There’d been a referendum about establishing a Scottish parliament back in 1979 and a majority had voted in favour of it.  Due to some disgraceful rule-bending by the Labour government of the time, though, it was decreed that the majority wasn’t big enough and the parliament wasn’t delivered.  Soon after came the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, which massively reshaped the economy and culture of the UK in the 1980s.  Most people in Scotland didn’t vote for Thatcher but the existing constitutional set-up left her free to do what she wanted with the place – a sorry state of affairs that resulted in the nadir of the Poll Tax, imposed solely on Scotland in 1989 as an experiment to see how it was likely to go down in the rest of the UK.  A great ‘what-if’ of Scottish political history is how a Scottish parliament, if one had been created at the end of the 1970s, might have stood up to Thatcher.  I certainly can’t imagine things being any worse than they were.  Anyway, it seemed to me a no-brainer that people in northeast England should get their own assembly in 2004.

 

However, in the run-up to the referendum, I realised my devolutionary enthusiasm wasn’t mirrored in the Geordies and north-easterners around me.  This was largely due to the influence of the anti-assembly campaign North East Says No, chaired by local businessman John Elliot and with a certain Durham-born, Oxford-educated character called Dominic Cummings as one of its prime movers.  The anti-assembly campaign whipped up resentment against the proposed establishment.  It warned that an assembly would be an unnecessary extra layer of government, diverting yet more public money into the pockets of yet more politicians – and diverting it away from areas that really needed it, like health.  “More doctors,” declared one of its ads, “not politicians.”  Actually, that sounds familiar.  Didn’t Dom peddle a similar message in a more recent political campaign?  Although in Newcastle in 2004 I didn’t see it emblazoned on the side of a bus.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

It didn’t help the assembly’s cause that the senior politician entrusted with overseeing its creation was deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who famously had not one but two princely Jaguar motor cars at his beck and call and generally wasn’t known for his frugality.

 

Cummings’s anti-assembly message certainly got through.  With hindsight it was scary how many left-wing, liberal-minded people I knew in Newcastle, who’d normally have detested everything Cummings stood for, unconsciously parroted his rhetoric.  I remember in my workplace a Russian woman, who had British citizenship and the right to participate in the referendum but wasn’t too clued-up on local politics, asking a colleague for advice on how to vote.  The colleague, a Guardian-reading progressive if ever there was one, promptly told her the assembly was a nonsense and to vote against it.  Meanwhile, my best mate in Newcastle, also no right-winger, dismissed the proposed assembly as a ‘white elephant’ designed to ‘line politicians’ pockets’.

 

It didn’t surprise me, then, when Prescott and company lost the referendum and a majority voted against the assembly’s establishment.  It did surprise me how emphatic that majority was – of those who bothered to vote, 78% voted against it.  And that wasn’t only the prospect of a north-eastern assembly killed stone dead, but the prospect of any future devolution in England generally.  No politician would touch the project after that whipping.  Dominic Cummings had secured his first and, alas, not his last big victory.

 

Although Newcastle is pictured by some as a drunken hellhole where ghastly nightclubs are pillaged by stag and hen parties clad in little more than jockstraps and G-strings while freezing easterly gales howl around them from the North Sea – an image that admittedly isn’t wide of the mark if you venture into the city’s Bigg Market district on a Friday or Saturday night – I thought it was a great city.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time there during the first half of the noughties.  It had some great pubs (away from the Bigg Market), a good live music scene, decent shops and easy access to libraries and galleries.  You could generally find whatever it was that floated your boat, be it antiques markets or creative writing groups or comedy shows or whatever.  And I loved how you were mere minutes away from some of the most scenic landscapes in England.  And the Geordies were great company.  Indeed, I would have stayed for longer if the money I was earning in my job there hadn’t been so crap.

 

Looking back, though, I was probably lucky that I left Newcastle when I did and avoided the years of austerity that were inflicted on it by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 onwards.  The newspaper reports I’ve read about what happened to Newcastle make grim reading – slabs of money hacked off its budget every year, a total of some 300 million pounds lost by 2019, with a resulting cull of libraries, youth clubs and children’s centres and a general neglect of public services.  Even the city’s lollipop men and ladies weren’t spared – their numbers declined from 64 to seven in the space of five years.  Would a north-eastern assembly have been able to protect the city against some of this savagery?  Like the hypothetical 1980s Scottish parliament and Margaret Thatcher, I doubt if it would have made things any worse.

 

 

Incidentally, I think the missed opportunity of the English regional assemblies will contribute eventually to the breakup of the United Kingdom.  Occasional senior Labour politicians – Gordon Brown especially – still talk up the prospect of a federal UK as a way to keep Scotland British.  With their parliament nestling amid a bunch of similar-sized English ones where power is equally distributed, the Scots, the theory goes, will neither feel neglected nor get ideas above their station.  They’ll accept they’re fairly treated and accept their lot as happy Brits.  That might be true in an alternative universe, but it isn’t going to happen in this universe.  There won’t be a properly federal UK because people in England, as 2004 proved, aren’t interested.  And with so much power entrusted to dolts like Boris Johnson in London, I can’t see the Scots putting up with the existing constitutional status quo for much longer.

 

Modern right-wingers adore Dominic Cummings for what he’s supposedly done to restore British sovereignty.  But he’s actually done more than most to crock the whole concept of Britain.  Thanks in part to his exploits, including those in 2004, Britain as a union of four nations is doomed.  Dom-ed, in fact.