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A grand day out

https://letterboxd.com/film/a-grand-day-out/

Have you noticed how the news is reported these days in respect of Covid-19? Gone are the individualised and personalised stories of the casualties of this awful virus. Gone are the stories of individual and collective heroism of ordinary, actually extraordinary, people.  Gone is the mention of the R rate and the discussion around it. Gone are those pictures of the people that died.  No longer the headline, Covid- 19 is reduced to the middle order and consists predominately of the number of cases and the number of deaths. We watch these figures rise on a daily basis and we hear discussion about local lockdowns and areas with high incidents. We hear confusing stories about lockdown and then no lock down and then lockdown or is it partial lockdown and where exactly does it apply? We hear about areas that have high incidents where no action is being taken, well not yet anyway. And companies that remain open despite outbreaks only to be forced to close, let’s be honest, because of media scrutiny. We hear more from Nicola Sturgeon the first minister of Scotland than we do from our own prime minister.

We are sucked into a world of tourism, safe corridors and safe countries, lists and the plight of the aviation industry. We hear tourists moaning about self-isolation (I constantly scream at the tv you made that choice you ****). We are sucked into the debacle around schools and qualifications and returning to school. And we are told by Boris that we should all go back to work, back to the office. We hear of tourists returning on flights having contracted Covid-19 and passengers not wearing masks on flights. At the same time, we are told by bosses in the aviation industry that the industry is doomed unless something is done about it, this self-isolation malarkey really isn’t good for business. Once again, I shout at the tv (I don’t suppose you’ll be getting on one of those cattle trucks in a hurry you ***). Do I sound angry, I guess I am?

When the virus first struck, whenever that was, we all probably didn’t take it that seriously, serious but you know, not that serious. Then there was the lockdown, now that was serious, and it hit home how serious it was. Then we watched the tv and that reinforced how serious it was and if you weren’t a little concerned for yourself, your friends and your loved ones then you really weren’t in touch with reality. And then the economic costs started to rack up and that became really serious. And then, the government decided that since the NHS hadn’t been overwhelmed it was now permissible to open things up. And then, the government decided that it would pass the responsibility for the management of Covid to local authorities. And somewhere along the line, the responsibility for ensuring my safety, and yours became that of business. As long as businesses could assure us that they were Covid safe then we could go back to work and go shopping and eat out. In fact, you could eat out for 50% less in some places aided by a government scheme. A scheme to get businesses back on their feet which of course involved packing people in. Just how Covid secure are these places, well you take your chance, but you can feel assured.

I decided to venture out with my wife to get ourselves a new mattress.  The old one has had its day, we meet in the middle of the bed every night, whether we want to or not, the only solution, to try to sleep as close to the edge as you can and if possible somehow cling on. Time for a new mattress.  I’m not sure about these new-fangled mattresses (you know, the ones that come in a box and then pop out never to be returned to the box) and so rather than shopping on line we went to a store.  We entered the store, masked up as is required, to be greeted by an assistant who pointed to the hand sanitiser. “oh, that bottle doesn’t work”, she says, “try the other but you’ll have to hit it quite hard”. Oh well, at least she’s wearing a face shield and I notice the other assistants are doing the same, except that theirs are up, a bit like a visor really, as they hang about talking to each other. One saunters over to us and after a brief conversation leaves us to look at and try the mattresses. Now that sounds alright doesn’t it, except that not only was his face shield not down, he’d taken it off altogether and thrown it onto the bed. We kept our distance.  So, the markings on the floor suggesting 2 metre distance and the hand sanitiser at the entrance and the issue of face shields to staff are all Covid compliant but in operation, not really. Still we had a grand day out and felt quite assured.

As we hear the clamour to get schools back up and running, we hear about the plight of the school children and as a consequence, the voices and concerns of the teachers are drowned out.  As we hear the concerns of lecturers from their union, the lecturers themselves and even the medical profession, their voices are drowned out.  The only thing that seems to matter now is the economy and business. Those that run it are not on the coal face and will not be putting themselves at risk, but they tell us how we must all do our bit and return to work.  If you wonder how getting children back to school fits in, well parents caring for children at home are not in the office working.

I selected some passages from the government guidelines regarding Covid 19.

“The more people you have interactions with, the more chance the virus has to spread. Therefore, try to limit the number of people you see – especially over short periods of time”


“limit the number of different activities which you partake in succession to reduce the potential chain of transmission”


“group size should be limited to the minimum which allows the activity to take place”

Now isn’t that confusing. We must all get back to work and back to the offices and, yet the government’s own guidelines seem to suggest this should not happen unless absolutely necessary. How exactly does this fit with teaching and class sizes and the number of students that teachers interact with? The same applies to lecturers at university, of course they have the added problem that the students will have come from all over the country and then come together in a Covid -19 cauldron. Pack them all in but you can feel assured that schools and campuses are Covid safe (a bit like those planes returning from foreign climes).

I feel like I am in a socio-economic experiment. An experiment where I see the disadvantaged and weak in our society put at risk for the sake of business. Where the older generation are made to feel dispensable and unimportant.  Where figures are manipulated to downplay the seriousness of the problem. Die on day 29 after infection and you won’t be included in the Covid statistics.  I see an experiment where facts are bent, ignored, and a narrative that subjugates the truth to management and business ideals.  It looks like I’m going to be shouting at the tv for a very long time and I must be honest I really don’t feel very assured.

https://twitter.com/JeffOllerton/status/1301492068125224962/photo/1

Covid-Universities and what if

https://blackadderquotes.com/final-scene-blackadder-goes-forth

Over the past week or so there have been some mutterings about whether it is safe to open up universities. There is the advice from the scientific advisors (Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September)  and some thoughts from academics ‘Why universities must move all teaching online this autumn’.

As we move closer to the start of term, so my dread of what is ahead comes into sharper focus. I try to imagine what it would be like and try to reassure myself that the risk assessments have been done and the reassurances that the universities are Covid safe are true rather than simply fantasy and wishful thinking.

In this safe environment I imagine that the number of students and staff on campuses will be carefully managed as it is with many large stores.

I imagine that all staff and students will be wearing face coverings. This is not for protection of themselves, as the use of coverings is a somewhat altruistic venture, I cover my face and protect you and you cover yours and protect me.

I imagine that all thoroughfares will be marked and monitored. Social distancing is important, and we need to be at least a metre apart.

I imagine that the classrooms will be laid out in such a way that social distancing can be maintained and that the classrooms will be well ventilated, even in the middle of winter. I imagine all the chairs and desks and any other equipment will be wiped down after each session.

I imagine that face to face teaching will be limited and interactions with multiple groups of students will be severely curtailed to ensure lecturers are not put at unnecessary risk.  I imagine each class will comprise only a few students to minimise risk.

I imagine that anyone who is symptomatic will not attend a university and will after being tested self-isolate.  I imagine that all the people they have been in contact with will do the same for a whole, boring, 14 days.

I imagine that the universities’ management will be at each university, leading from the front.  They will be checking to ensure the safety of students and staff.  They will be mixing with staff and students, receiving feedback and continuously monitoring. I imagine the safety of the students and staff is paramount.

And then I think, what if…

What if campuses are a free for all.  Students can come and go as they please, there is no monitoring of volumes.  Or what if there is, but it is impossible to enforce with limited staff to do so. And those staff tasked with this endeavour are at greater risk due to the proximity with large volumes of students.

What if people decide not to wear face coverings or having got into the building decide to take them off or several people are exempt for some reason or another. Altruism has gone out of the window. I’m a criminologist and I know that people break the rules for all sorts of reasons and the only certainty is that some people will break the rules.

What if social distancing becomes all too difficult.  Many of us have experienced it in stores. A one-way system works for most, but a significant number just don’t abide by it, for whatever reason. People break rules.

What if the social distancing in classes is impossible, there just isn’t enough classes to maintain it with the volume of students on the course.  What if ventilation is impossible, other than air conditioning, some classes are in the middle of buildings. Who will clean the chairs and equipment after each class? Go to a restaurant and tables and chairs are wiped down after each use so who will do it at a university?

What if lecturers have to teach multiple groups face to face as there are not enough staff to spread the load. Teaching in a classroom for two hours multiple times in a day with different groups each time must surely expose lecturers to much greater risk.

What if students are of the age group where they are more likely to be asymptomatic?  How many that are infected might be at a university, spreading the virus around campus and around the locality.  Even if they are symptomatic, how likely are they to self-isolate? Judging by the street parties and illegal raves reported on the news, there is a good chance that some will break the rules. Let’s be realistic, if you are only likely to suffer affects akin to a cold, why would you be that bothered about social distancing or self-isolation?

And finally, what if all managers avail themselves of the much-vaunted government advice, work from home if you can. Leadership from the rear, the bottom line is more important than the safety of others.  We can of course dress this up in management psychobabble about what the students need.

Never mind, ‘Tally ho and all of that sort of thing and over the top we go’*.

* For those of you that are lost at this point it might be worth a visit to the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

What is the value of your ‘yes’ when you never say ‘no’?

A good few years ago a senior colleague asked me that very question.  It was more of a statement, than a question and it was designed to make me think about how I approached work and perhaps more importantly how others saw me in the workplace. It fits very nicely with another saying, ‘if you want the job done, give it to a busy person’.  It seems there are those in the workplace that get the job done and those that don’t.  There are those that always say ‘yes’ and others that often say ‘no’. There are those that solve problems and those that don’t. Another saying from a senior manager, ‘don’t bring me problems, just bring me solutions’ sums up the majority of relationships in organisations. 

My experience of managers (both middle and upper) has been varied, but unfortunately most have fallen into the category of poor, bordering on awful. Perhaps that colours my judgement, but I do know that I’ve also had some very good managers.  The good managers always made me feel like I was working in partnership with them and, yet I knew who was the boss. I always tried to find a solution to a problem but if I couldn’t then the boss knew that it was a problem he or she needed to deal with, they trusted my judgement. Often what appears to be the most trivial of problems can be a show stopper, a good boss knows this.  If I said ‘no’ to a piece of work, then the boss negotiated which other piece of work would be set to one side for now.  Sometimes everything is a priority, and everything is important, it is for those at the most senior level to make the decisions about what will or will not get done.  Making no choice is an abrogation of responsibility, suggesting it is another person’s problem is just as bad if not worse.

Good managers understand how much work people are doing and trust their workers to get on with the job in hand. A good manager knows that even the most menial of tasks takes more time than might be imagined and that things rarely go exactly to plan.  There is always an element of redundancy.  When someone says ‘no’ to a piece of work they understand that there is a reason for that ‘no’ and rather than simply seeing that person as being difficult or lazy, they listen and seek solutions.  More importantly, they take responsibility for the problem, ‘bring me the problem and I’ll help you find the solution’.

As we move into a summer of uncertainty where the ‘new normal’ is an anxious time for most, where the ‘yes’ people are needed more than ever, and the managers need to lead from the front, if you are a manager, what will you response be when your undervalued ‘yes’ person says ‘no’?

Ignorance is bliss: the problem with education

I woke up this morning with a feeling of the weight of the world on my shoulders. My problems are insignificant compared to many others, but I did think, wouldn’t it be nice to get off this merry-go-round. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could stop thinking about the injustices in the world and the part I play in them, how the problems might be solved, how best I can do my job online and give all of my students what they need, how best I can deal with tricky relationships at work and do my best for all concerned How I might ensure that my family are looked after and take on significant responsibilities in looking after the interests of an elderly relative whilst ensuring fairness all round. How can I do the right thing and not send myself into bouts of depression?

And as I thought of all of these things I came to an interesting question.  Is it better to be ignorant, inept and irresponsible?

If I was ignorant, if I didn’t bother to watch the news, to critique, to engage in discussion, to think about the social world and my place in it. If I was to carry on in blissful ignorance of what is going on around me would I not be happier? If I am not aware of social injustices, then it would be easy to take a stance that what matters is simple, law and order for instance.  I could become a Sun reader, more interested in the pictures than the content. The headlines would capture my imagine for a nano second and I could simply agree about how terrible this or that issue is before blissfully moving on to something else. I don’t know what everyone else is complaining about, I’m alright Jack, or should that be Jill, I must stop thinking.

If I was inept, I make a bit of an assumption here that I’m not, I guess others will judge, then that ineptitude would ensure that I wasn’t given any responsibilities, well none that really mattered. Cock things up a few times and suddenly you find that nobody wants to give you the work and nobody really wants to do any work to deal with your ineptitude, and nobody thanks them if they do.  In other words, you are ‘quids in’, minimal work and nobody on your back. Couple this with blissful ignorance and life is so much easier.

If I was irresponsible, or at least seen as that, then I wouldn’t be asked to take on responsibility and all of the ramifications that go with it. No longer asked to do something that is important and has significant ramifications if you cock it up. That takes us back to ineptitude, being inept leads to no responsibility, being irresponsible gives the appearance of being inept. If I am blissfully ignorant of what people might think of me or what I might have cocked up, then no need to worry.

The only fly in the ointment here, is that in being educated, I am able to write this blog. I am able to place myself in society and sadly acknowledge my part in it. I pride myself in doing a good job and I don’t shy away from responsibility although I might get there kicking and screaming at myself for the angst and inner turmoil it sometimes creates. Knowledge is powerful, education gives you knowledge and self-awareness. The greater the knowledge the greater the self-awareness, the greater the self-awareness, the greater the thirst for knowledge. Unfortunately, there is nothing blissful to be found there though.

Some lessons from the lockdown

Dementia
Koestler Arts (2019), Another Me: The Redwoods Centre (secure mental health unit), James Wood QC Silver Award for Portrait, 2019

In March 23, 2020, the UK went into lockdown.  The advice given, albeit conflicting in parts, was clear.  Do not leave your home unless absolutely necessary, banning all travel and social interactions.  This unprecedented move forced people to isolate at home for a period, that for some people will come to an end, when the WHO announces the end of the pandemic.  For the rest of us, the use of a face mask, sanitiser and even plastic gloves have become modern day accessories.  The way the lockdown was imposed and the threat of a fine, police arrest if found outside one’s home sparked some people to liken the experience with that of detention and even imprisonment.

There was definite social isolation during the pandemic and there is some future work there to be done to uncover the impact it has had on mental health.  Social distancing was a term added to our social lexicon and we discovered online meetings and working from home.  Schools closed and parents/guardians became de facto teachers.  In a previous blog entry, we talked about the issues with home schooling but suffice to say many of our friends and colleagues discovered the joys of teaching!  On top of that a number of jobs that in the past were seeing as menial.  Suddenly some of these jobs emerge as “key professions”

The first lesson therefore is:

Our renewed appreciation for those professions, that we assumed just did a job, that was easy or straightforward.  As we shall be coming back eventually to a new normality, it is worth noting how easy it will be to assign any job as trivial or casual.

As online meetings became a new reality and working from home, the office space and the use of massive buildings with large communal areas seemed to remain closed.  This is likely to have a future impact on the way business conduct themselves in the future. 

Second lesson:

Given how many things had to be done now, does this mean that the multi occupancy office space will become redundant, pushing more work to be done from home.  This will alter the way we divide space and work time.     

During the early stages of the lockdown, some people asked for some reflection of the situation in relation to people’s experiences in prisons.  The lockdown revealed the inequality of space.  The reality is that for some families, space indicated how easy is to absorb the new social condition, whilst other families struggled.  There is anecdotal information about an increase on mental health and stress caused from the intensive cohabitation.  Several organisations raised the alarm that since the start of the lockdown there has been a surge in incidents of domestic violence and child abuse.  The actual picture will become clearer of the impact the lockdown had on domestic violence in future years when comparisons can be drawn.  None the less it reveals an important issue. 

Third lesson:

The home is not always the safest place when dealing with a global pandemic.  The inequality of space and the inequality in relationships revealed what need to be done in the future in order to safeguard.  It also exposed the challenges working from home for those that have no space or infostructure to support it.          

In the leading up to the lockdown many households of vulnerable people struggled to cope with family members shielding from the virus.  These families revealed weaknesses in the welfare system and the support they needed in order to remain in lockdown.  Originally the lack of support was the main issue, but as the lockdown continued more complex issues emerged, including the financial difficulties and the poverty as real factors putting families at risk.

Fourth lesson:

Risk is a wider concern that goes beyond personal and family issues.  The lockdown exposed social inequality, poverty, housing as factors that increase the vulnerability of people.  The current data on Covid-19 fatalities reveal a racial dimension which cannot longer be ignored.    

During the lockdown, the world celebrated Easter and commemorated Mayday, with very little interaction whilst observing social distancing.  At the end of May the world watched a man gasping for breath that died in police custody.  This was one of the many times the term police brutality has related to the dead of another black life.  People took to the streets, protested and toppled a couple of statues of racists and opened a conversation about race relations. 

Fifth lesson:

People may be in lockdown, but they can still express how they feel.

So, whilst the lockdown restrictions are easing and despite having some measures for the time being, we are stepping into a new social reality.  On the positive side, a community spirit came to the surface, with many showing solidarity to those next to them, taking social issues to heart and more people talked of being allies to their fellow man.  It seems that the state was successful to impose measures that forced people indoors that borderline in totalitarianism, but people did accept them, only as a gesture of goodwill.  This is the greatest lesson of them all in lockdown; maybe people are out of sight, appear to be compliant in general but they are still watching, taking note and think of what is happening.  What will happen next is everyone’s guess.    

HMP Science Competition 2020: “Thank God”

The last few months have been challenging for all of us, in one form or another, regardless of personal circumstances. Many of us have faced loneliness, illness, bereavement, as well as a range of other challenges. Prisoners have particularly been hit hard, with the cessation of family visits as well as, an extremely restrictive regime. As a response to the Covid-19 lockdown, the Criminology team have created a range of different activities which can be undertaken in cell and which have hopefully helped to pass the long hours. Similarly, colleagues within Geography have created a number of different quizzes which have tested both staff and prisoners. As part of this initiative, Professor Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of UoN kindly offered to run a writing competition focused on science. Along with the winning entry which can be read here, the following entry was highly commended by the judges as an imaginative response to the questions posed:

Thank God: Everything is not always as it seems when you are only three. A short story written by M. C. using subjects 4 and 5*

September the 22nd 1959, my third birthday. The day the Spirit of the universe, Divine Power greater than myself, Supreme Being, God made his presents [sic] known in my life.

I had just climbed to the top of a Wicksteed Park slide it was 33 feet high made of steel and iron set in a concrete base. It was in Castlefields Park at the bottom of Brook Street, Wellingborough.

My lovely mother was standing at the bottom, a beautiful 22yr old young woman. I fell from the top landing directly on my head onto the concrete base. My mother was horrified, she thought I was dead!! But I just stood up and shook my head without a tear. So that was my first experience of the power that does not live on this earth stepped in and saved me Thank God!!!

That when Dad came home from work. I remember him saying one of God’s favourites boy!!

I know that I am made in the image of God and God as [sic] manifested many miracles throughout my life, and blessed me with so many gifts. The gift of tongues which I can also translate, the gift of using the blood of Jesus for healing, I can look into the future through meditation allowing me to open my third eye. The holy spirit that is not in the form of man. It’s more of a magical being of the universe. I can call on the holy spirit any time that I want instantly and straight away achieve the spirits peace and happiness in my life. Plus in deep meditation the spirit great powers can transform me to heaven. I have been a few times and believe me it’s not a place on earth. Most of this can be proved, and is written down in the Chronicles of the Kingdom Life Church.

The universe can be measured by holy string. Which comes in three sizes Large Medium and Small. So the exact size of the universe is a large piece of holy string by a small and medium piece!! Not forgetting Heaven is 41.000 miles cubed in one corner of it.

M.C. (2020)

  • Question 4: How big is the universe and how is it measured? Question 4: Will humans ever met space aliens?

#CriminologyBookClub: The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown

As you know from our last #CriminologyBookClub entry a small group of us decided the best way to thrive in lockdown was to seek solace in reading and talking about books. Building on on what has quickly become standard practice, we’ve decided to continue with all seven bloggers contributing! Our fourth book was chosen by all of us (unanimously)  after we fell in love with the first instalment. Without more ado, let’s see why we all adore Inspector Chopra (retired) et al.:

Another great edition to the Baby Ganesh agency series. After thoroughly enjoying the first book, I was slightly sceptical that book 2 would bring me the same level of excitement as the former. I was pleasantly surprised! The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, will take you on a picturesque journey across Mumbai. The story definitely pumps up the pace giving the reader more mystery and excitement. We now get more of an insight into characters such as inspector Chopra (retired) and his devoted wife Poppy. We also get to meet some new characters such as the loveable young boy Irfan, and of course the star of the show Ganesh, Chopra’s mysterious elephant. This novel has mystery within mystery, humour, suspense and some history, which is a great combination for anyone who wants to have an enjoyable read.

@svr2727

In the second instalment of detective Chopra’s detective (retired) adventures he is investigating the disappearance of the infamous Koh-i-noor diamond.  The mythical gem disappears from a well-guarded place putting a strain on Anglo-Indian relations.  In the midst of an international incident, the retired inspector is trying to make sense of the case with his usual crew and some new additions.  In this instalment of the genre, the cultural clash becomes more obvious, with the main character trying to make sense of the colonial past and his feelings about the imprint it left behind.  The sidekick elephant remains youthful, impulsive and at times petulant advancing him from a human child to a moody teenager.  The case comes with some twists and turns, but the most interesting part is the way the main characters develop, especially in the face of some interesting sub-plots

@manosdaskalou

I am usually, very critical, of everything I read, even more so of books I love. However, with Inspector Chopra et al., I am completely missing my critical faculties. This book, like the first, is warm, colourful and welcoming. It has moments of delightful humour (unicycles and giant birthday cake), pathos (burns and a comforting trunk) to high drama (a missing child and pachyderm). Throughout, I didn’t want to read too much at any sitting, but that was only because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Vaseem Khan’s wonderful characters, even if only for a short while…

@paulaabowles

It was a pleasure to read the second book of the Inspector Chopra series. Yes, sometimes the characters go through some difficult times, the extreme inequalities between the rich and poor are made clear and Britain’s infamous colonial past (and present) plays a significant part of the plot, yet the book remains a heart-warming and up-beat read. The current character developments and introduction of new character Irfan is wonderfully done. Cannot wait to read the next book in the series!

@haleysread

One of the reasons for critiquing a book is to provide a balanced view for would be readers. An almost impossible task in the case of Vaseem Khan’s second Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation. Lost in a colourful world, and swept along with the intrigue of the plot and multiple sub plots involving both delightful and dark characters, the will to find a crumb of negativity is quickly broken. You know this is not real and, yet it could be, you know that some of the things that are portrayed are awful, but they just add to the narrative and you know and really hope that when the baby elephant Ganesha is in trouble, it will all work out fine, as it should. Knowing these things, rather than detracting from the need to quickly get to the end, just add to the need to turn page after page. Willpower is needed to avoid finishing the book in one hit. Rarely can I say that once again I finished a book and sat back with a feeling of inner warmth and a smile on my face. If there is anything negative to say about the book, well it was all over far too quickly.

@5teveh

The second Inspector Chopra book is even more thrilling than the first! As I read it I felt as though I genuinely knew the characters and I found myself worrying about them and hoping things would resolve for them. The book deals with some serious themes alongside some laugh out loud funny moments and I couldn’t put it down. Can’t wait to read the third instalment!

@saffrongarside

I have always found that the rule for sequels in film is: they are never a good as the original/first. Now, there are exceptions to the rule, however these for me are few and far between. However, when it comes to literature I have found that the sequels are as good if not better than the original- this is the rule. And my favourite writers are ones who have created a literature series (or multiple): with each book getting better and better. The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown (Chopra 2.0) by Vaseem Khan has maintained my rule for literature and sequels! Hurray! After the explosive first instalment where we are introduced to Inspector Chopra, Poppy and Baby Ganesha, the pressure was well and truly on for the second book to deliver. And By Joe! Deliver it did! Fast paced, with multiple side-stories (which in all fairness are more important that the theft of the crown), reinforce all the emotion you felt for the characters in the first book and makes you open your heart to little Irfan! Excellent read, beautiful characters, humorous plots! Roll on book number 3!

@jesjames50

HMP Science Competition 2020: “Will humans ever meet space aliens?”

The last few months have been challenging for all of us, in one form or another, regardless of personal circumstances. Many of us have faced loneliness, illness, bereavement, as well as a range of other challenges. Prisoners have particularly been hit hard, with the cessation of family visits as well as, an extremely restrictive regime. As a response to the Covid-19 lockdown, the Criminology team have created a range of different activities which can be undertaken in cell and which have hopefully helped to pass the long hours. Similarly, colleagues within Geography have created a number of different quizzes which have tested both staff and prisoners. As part of this initiative, Professor Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of UoN kindly offered to run a writing competition focused on science. The winning entry can be read below

There is a near 100% certainty that humans will indeed meet space aliens – and if not within our generation, then most likely within the lives of our children or grandchildren.

However, whilst generations built up on visions of Star Wars and Star Trek might envisage us clasping hands with humanesque visitors from outer space, Babel fish in their ears, the first and perhaps only encounter ever likely to happen is that of a scientist peering at the screen of an electron microscope, to study the truly spectacular and epoch-making vision of an alien self-replicating molecule, or single-celled proto organism, retrieved from a volcanic rent on volcanic vent on Io [moon of Jupiter], Mars or another near neighbour.

The mathematician von Neumann’s concept of the ‘von Neumann probe’, or self-replicating space vehicle capable of travelling interstellar distances, to replicate itself on other planets, from where it would then head off to further star systems, populating the entire Milky Way in less than a million years, does neatly encapsulate the question: If there is intelligent alien life out there, why haven’t we seen it? The only answer to which must be, to the extent it does exist, it must be a long, long way away, in remote galaxies, perhaps too distant to ever be reached by man, as the universe expands more rapidly than we could ever travel.

Initial results from the studies of now thousands of exo-planets have also failed to give chemical indications of oxygen, or other synthesised chemicals likely to indicate life in detectable quantities on our near neighbouring planets.

However, on the smaller scale, if scientists such as Langland are correct in their view that the evolutionary adaptation of self-replicating molecules, leading to early life forms, can be explained by the laws of thermodynamics, prior to any Darwinian pressures on replication, mutation and inheritance traits, life in its most basic forms is likely to be a common phenomenon. Rather than needing a primeval chemical soup struck by lightening to foster the creation of RNA-like molecules, any simple source of energy such as volcanic spark could, over time give rise to simple life forms. Indeed, this is seen here on earth, where a bewildering variety of non-oxygen based simple life forms exist in the plumes of deepwater volcanic rents.

Such life forms may be simple, and their environmental conditions not far extensive enough or long-lived enough for complex life to form, or spread from the immediate vicinity. Even here on earth, life may have existed for two billion years or more before that fateful day when two became one, and complex cellular life came into being.

Sometimes in the near future, life will no doubt be discovered elsewhere than just on earth – with all the implications that will doubtless bring to the monotheistic religions placing God and Man at the centre of creation. But one thing is certain, our first encounter with alien life will be through a microscope, not a spaceship.

M.R. (2020)

Deniable racism: ‘I’m alright Jack’

‘No coloureds need apply’: a black man reads a racist sign in a UK boarding house window in 1964.
Photograph: Bill Orchard/Rex/Shutterstock

I heard on the news a week or so ago that an investigation by ITV news had found that the majority of NHS Trusts have not completed full risk assessments on BAME staff. Considering that BAME groups are impacted disproportionately by COVID-19 I have to ask why? And, probably more importantly, now that the issue has been raised, what are the government doing to make sure that the risk assessments are carried out? Since I heard about it I’ve seen no response, so I guess I can answer my own question ‘nothing’.

But then maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, I read an article on Racism and the Rule of Law and you can’t but be appalled by the number of recommendations from various inquiries and reviews that have failed to be acted upon.  The problem is that the action requires more than just the eloquently spoken or written word; to put it very bluntly and maybe crudely, ‘put your money where your mouth is’.  It is easy to state that this is wrong or that is wrong in our institutions, the term ‘institutional racism’ trots off the tongue, seized upon by the wronged and more worryingly banded about by the societal racists of the elite who are only too willing to blame someone else.  In thinking about this I wonder whether when we use the term racism, we are all talking the same language. The ‘deniable’ racism is easy to identify, ‘we don’t use that sort of language anymore’, ‘we no longer put those signs in our windows’, we have laws that say you can’t act in that way.  ‘Actually, I’m not a racist’.  But the statistics don’t lie, they can be bent, manipulated to some extent to favour one argument or another but there are some very basic inescapable facts, BAME groups are over represented in the wrong areas of our society and under represented in the right areas.  And most of this I dare say does not owe itself to ‘deniable’ racism, it’s more than that, it’s embedded in our society, it’s not institutional racism, it’s societal racism and it’s hidden.  The problem with societal racism is that we only see the positive attributes of people that are like us and we promote those that excel in showing those attributes. Hence, we have the elite in business and government that are not ‘deniable’ racists but nonetheless are the epitome of, and lead a racist society.

I want to return to the idea of ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ mantra.  They say money makes the world go around, I’m not sure that is entirely true, but it certainly goes a long way to getting things done and conversely the lack of it ensures that nothing happens or in some cases that good things come to an end.  A prime example is the austerity measures put in place in 2010 that saw budgets to government agencies and funding to councils cut significantly.  Those that suffered were the most deprived. Even worse, was the fact that funding for youth projects in inner cities suffered and those initiatives that were aimed at reducing violent crime amongst young people ground to a halt. Policing saw huge cuts and with it the withdrawal of neighbourhood policing.  This link to communities was severed and any good work that was going on was quickly undone.  That doesn’t explain all that is wrong with policing, but it certainly doesn’t help in building bridges. Who in their right mind would embark upon fiscal policies with no regard to such outcomes, our elected government did. If we think now about the so-called return to normality post the Covid-19 pandemic, which caring company or institution would suggest that the most impacted by the virus should continue or return to work, or study, or any other activity, without considering their specific risks and needs? Probably those that have more concern for the bottom line than peoples’ lives. ‘I’m alright Jack’ comes to mind or at least I want to make sure I am.

In thinking about policies, procedures, risk assessments or recommendations, managers have an eye to finance. In the NHS, the day to day business still has to happen, in policing, incidents still need to be attended to, so where is the money to do the extra?  Everything comes at a cost and every recommendation in every review will cost something.  The NHS risk assessments will cost money. The question is whether government and all of us in society really believe that ‘black lives matter’.  If we do, then then it’s time to acknowledge the type of society we live in and who we really are and for government to ‘put the money where its mouth is’ so that the recommendations can be acted on.  Or of course, we could just have another review and ‘Jack’ will do very nicely out of that as well thank you.

The pandemic and me – Paula


Portrait de Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso, 1937

The last time I physically went to work was Thursday 19 March, over 12 weeks ago. Within days, I blogged about the panic and fear that risked overwhelming us all in the light of a pandemic. Some of that entry was based on observation and the media, other parts, my own feelings and emotions.

Prior to the pandemic, I had been the kind of person that felt the need to be at work, often for 10-12 hours a day This was partly to kid myself that there was a clear delineation between the personal and the professional (something, I’ve never managed to achieve since joining academia). Part of it was due to my previous career in retail; when there are customers there must be staff, so there is a necessity to presence. Part of it was tied up with notions of work ethic and fear of missing out, dropping out, losing connection. The regularity of the Monday to Friday (and sometimes, Saturdays for events) commute there and back, the same familiar route, the same familiar timetable, the same familiar faces. Even prosaic matters, like my wardrobe, is primarily designed for my professional life, however, #lockdown life requires something different than formal suit, dresses and court shoes. Similarly, make-up seems out of place, why paint your face or nails, without the rest of the professional apparatus, deemed so necessary to what Goffman (1969/1990) identified as The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

In his play Huis Clos (No Exit) Jean-Paul Sarte famously claimed that ‘Hell is—other people’ (1947/1989: 45). This is often interpreted as if the company of others is hellish, but that is a misreading. Sartre, like Mead (1934) before him recognised the role of the other, in our own understanding of ourselves. In essence, we can only ever see ourselves through the lens of others. In lockdown that lens dissipates or even disappears entirely, even with technology, which although we appreciate as an enabler of communication, I’ve yet to hear anyone say it is a complete replacement for human interaction.

Nevertheless, lockdown has forced us to look again and not only at our wardrobes. Once the panic and the novelty of not going to work, socialising and all the other activities, that are part and parcel of our lived experience passed, a new normality replaced this. Introspection is often missing in twenty-first century life, even among those of us that spend considerable amounts of time, professionally, if not personally, reflecting on what we’ve said, what we’ve done and how we can change, amend and ultimately improve as human beings. It’s also provided space to consider what we can’t wait to get back to, what we’re glad to have a break from and what we are looking for ways to avoid in the future.

For me, part of that introspection has focused on my need to be present at work. After all, in academia there is less pressure to be on campus, particularly on one which has been designed with the future in mind. There is no office, where I need to water plants, (most of) my academic books are here and I also have a work laptop, as well as my own pc. At home, I can have silence, or music while I work. If I am hungry or thirsty I can satisfy those needs. If I am overwhelmed, I can simply walk away for a little while, without explanation. If I am lonely, confused or need advice, I can pick up the phone, message, video call and everything else that technology can offer. My professional life can pretty much continue without too much interruption.

So what happens when things return to normal, should I throw myself back into the same patterns as before? I am hoping the answer is no, that I will do things differently, not least for my own wellbeing. Although I love the look and feel of the campus, I have always struggled with what, criminologists will understand as the panoptic gaze (Foucault, 1977). The sense that wherever you are, the threat of observation is ever present. The panoptic gaze does not differentiate between deviant or pro-social activity, it simply retains its disciplinary function designed to constrain and control For many, it is an open welcoming space, however, as a person who thrives on quietness, on privacy, on spending time away from human contact, it can have the opposite effect. Not all of the time, but at least some of it, I wouldn’t want to abandon campus life completely. The lockdown has shown me that it is possible to have the best of both worlds

References

Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)

Goffman, Erving, (1959/1990), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (London: Penguin)

Mead, George Herbert. (1934). Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. (Ed. Charles W. Morris). (Chicago: Chicago University Press)

Sartre, Jean-Paul, (1947/1989), No Exit and Three Other Plays, (New York: Vintage International)

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