Archive for the Biographical Category

Imagining an Eighties Coronavirus Pandemic

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, History, Television on January 25, 2021 by telescoper

Thinking about the TV series It’s A Sin I blogged about on Saturday a couple of things struck me in relation to our current situation trying to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the early 1980s we had no access to the internet – it only really get going until 1983 and most households didn’t get connected until much later. There wasn’t even email either. And nobody had mobile phones – smart or otherwise, so there were no text messages.

Had the Covid-19 pandemic occurred forty years ago we would have had to face it in very different ways. Working from home for most people would have been impossible so any kind of lockdown would have had dire economic consequences.

In the education sector, in which I work, the existence of the internet has allowed us to switch to remote teaching and learning (and assessment). Although it has been very far from ideal, at least we have been able to do something. What would we have done in the 1980s? I really don’t know.

One possibility is to have used the TV to broadcast some form of educational service. But until 1982 (when Channel 4 arrived) there were only three channels in the UK so it would not have been easy to devote a lot of time for live broadcasts. On the other hand people did have video recorders, so programmes could have been transmitted during the night for later consumption. I guess also that some materials, assignments, etc could have been delivered using the regular mail rather like old-fashioned correspondence courses. The Open University was already doing that, of course, but expanding it to include every student at every level in the country at very short notice would have been very difficult indeed.

The number of people in other sectors who would be able to work from home would also have been very small, so the economic cost of a lockdown would have been even higher than at present. I suspect that Governments wouldn’t even have tried, with the resulting increase in mortality.

And there is also the social dimension. During this pandemic people have been able to use software such as Zoom to stay in touch, including with elderly relatives who might otherwise be completely isolated. That would have been impossible in the Eighties.

In any case socializing for young people during the 1980s – which is what I was then – was very different. We didn’t (because we couldn’t) use texts or mobile phone calls to arrange nights out or other things. I didn’t get my
first (very basic) mobile phone until the 1990s – and I think I was an early adopter. I kept in touch with my friends in normal times by frequenting the same bars and clubs as my friends. We’d often meet up without arranging anything specifically.

There were no dating apps then either, so people used to hook up in bars and clubs (and frequently elsewhere). I suppose that has changed a lot over the past couple of decades (although I don’t go to such places any more, being an oldie).

Suffice to say that compared to today the impact on social lives and wellbeing would have been even more drastic had we had lockdowns in the 1980s.

A Little Local History

Posted in Biographical, History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve lived in Maynooth for over three years now and for a large part of that time my home was a flat on Straffan Road near Court House Square. Across the road from where I lived is Lyreen House (sometimes called Larine House). The Lyreen, incidentally, is the name of the small river that runs through Maynooth, on which the old mill was built.

The house was built in the 1780s and is now used as a day care centre. Towards the rear it has a very pleasant walled garden; from the side looking across Straffan Road it looks like this:

The car is not always there. Note the rather unattractive grey pebbledash rendering which is I’m afraid rather ubiquitous on old buildings in this area. I think this is because many of these buildings are made from limestone which needs to be protected from weathering. There is a lot of this rendering on the South Campus at Maynooth University too.

Anyway, I walked past Lyreen/Larine House every time I went to work without ever really thinking about its history. Then, yesterday, I saw this:

The picture at the bottom shows Lyreen House as seen looking South from Court House Square, with Straffan Road to the right. The article in the local paper explains that during the War of Independence a hundred years ago, it was for a time used as a barracks for the Black and Tans! I had absolutely no idea about that until yesterday!

Nowadays the view looking North through Court House Square towards Main Street is this:

The white building to the right is Brady’s pub. The structure you see is a monument to the victims of the Great Hunger in a pleasant seating area that is often used for craft fairs, musical performances and other gatherings. Or at least it was in the pre-Covid era.

What you don’t see is any sign of a Court House. That is because it was destroyed by the IRA in 1920. This is what it looked like after the attack.

The War of Independence in County Kildare didn’t see anything like as much violence as other parts of Ireland, abut that didn’t mean there wasn’t a strong Republican presence here. When rumours circulated that the British were going to use the Court House as a garrison the local IRA decided to deny them that opportunity by setting it on fire (though they first ensured that everyone inside was taken to safety).

The Old Court House lay derelict for many years and was eventually demolished. Then a public convenience was built on the site. This was not only an eyesore but also a smelly and unpleasant place that people generally avoided. It  was then demolished and the monument was constructed in 1993.

I walked through Court House Square last night on a rare trip out of my house to collect a takeaway for my dinner. I noticed that the Christmas lights and nativity scene were still there, almost a month after Christmas. I wonder when they’ll take them down?



It’s a Sin

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT, Television with tags , , , , , on January 23, 2021 by telescoper

My Twitter feed was on fire last night with reactions to the first episode of the new Channel 4 drama series It’s a Sin. The title is taken from the 1987 hit of the same name by the Pet Shop Boys.

I didn’t watch it. I told a friend that I would find it impossible to watch. He asked “Why, would the memories be uncomfortable?”. I said “No. I can’t get Channel 4 on my television”. I only have the minimum Saorview you see.

Now I’ve been informed that it is possible to stream Channel 4 for free in Ireland I will definitely watch it, so consider this a prelude to the inevitable commentary when I’ve actually seen it.

The reason why my friend thought I’d find it uncomfortable is that the story of the first episode is set in 1981 and revolves around five characters who were eighteen years old at that time. As it happens I was also 18 in 1981. On the other hand the story involves the protagonists all moving to London in 1981, which I didn’t. I was living in Newcastle in 1981, doing my A-levels and then taking the entrance exam for Cambridge where I went the following year (1982).

Before going on I’ll just mention that 1981 was – yikes – 40 years ago and – double yikes – is closer in time to the end of World War 2 than to today.

Anyway, a major theme running through the 5-part series is the AIDS epidemic that was only just starting to appear on the horizon in 1981. I recall reading an article in a magazine about GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which it was what AIDS was called in the very early days. I remember it only vaguely though and didn’t think much about AIDS during the time I was an undergraduate student, although became terrifyingly relevant when I moved to Sussex in 1985 to start my graduate studies.

Although I had been (secretly) sexually active at school and definitely knew I was gay when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I wasn’t very open about it except to my closest friends. I also didn’t do much about it either, apart from developing a number of crushes that were doomed to be unrequited.

In my final year at Cambridge I decided that I would try to get a place to do a PhD (or, as it turned out, a DPhil). I applied to a few places around the country, and was very happy to get an offer from Sussex and started my postgraduate studies there in 1985. The reputation of Brighton as being a very `gay’ place to live was definitely part of the decision to go there.

Having been very repressed at Cambridge and mostly unhappy as a consequence I decided that I couldn’t continue to live that way. One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at Sussex was join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. To begin with I found it helped to pluck up the nerve to go into gay bars and clubs, which I was a bit scared to do on my own having never really experienced anything like them in Newcastle or Cambridge.

It didn’t take me long to acquire an exciting sex life, picking up guys here and there and having (mostly unprotected) sex with strangers several times a week (or more). I then met an undergraduate student through the GaySoc. Although younger than me he was more experienced and more confident about sex. The relationship I had with him was a real awakening for me. We had a lot of sex. I would often sneak off form my office to his room on campus during the day for a quickie. We never even talked about wearing condoms or avoiding ‘risky’ behaviour. This was in 1986. The infamous government advertising campaign began in 1987.

Then one evening we went together to a GaySoc meeting about AIDS during which a health expert explained what was dangerous and what wasn’t, and exactly how serious AIDS really was. Most of us students were disinclined to follow instructions from the Thatcher government but gradually came round to the idea that it wasn’t the attempt at social control that we suspected but a genuine health crisis. That day my partner and I exchanged sheepish glances all the way through the talk. Afterwards we discussed it and decided that it was probably a good idea for us both to get tested for HIV, though obviously if one of us had it then both of us would.

Having been told what the riskiest sexual practices were, and knowing that I had been engaging very frequently precisely in those behaviours, I just assumed that I would be found HIV+. When I did eventually have a test I was quite shocked to find I was negative, so much so that I had another test to make sure. It was negative again. We were both negative, in fact, so we carried on as before.

It was in the next few years that people I knew started to get HIV, and then AIDS, from which many died. I imagine, therefore, that It’s a Sin will have a considerable personal resonance for me. Even without watching it (yet) a question that often troubles me returned once again to my mind: why am I still alive, when so many people I knew back then are not?

Delivery Notes

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , on January 22, 2021 by telescoper

I was a bit surprised to see the latest issue of Private Eye was delivered this morning. The Eye is published every fortnight on a Wednesday but, until recently, it normally took about a week to arrive in Ireland. Since the New Year however it has been taking much less time to get here. In fact this one arrived on the nominal issue date (22nd January):

I’m not sure why it’s suddenly got much faster, but I wonder if it might be related to a reduction in other items being sent to Ireland from the UK because of difficulties that kicked in as a result of Boris Johnson’s Trade Reduction Treaty on January 1st? (Perhaps not, though, because my 1st January Physics World still hasn’t arrived and that presumably comes via a similar route…)

Anyway, I’ve been reading quite a lot of stories about the changes that have occurred in receiving goods from the UK: long delays, vastly increased delivery charges, VAT and customs payments due on arrival, and sometimes orders cancelled entirely. I think items only worth a few euro are exempt from these new charges but I know of a few people who have been handed large bills when goods they have ordered over the internet have been delivered. I think it’s going to be very important in future that firms advertising in Ireland make it clear if the goods they are selling are going to be delivered from the UK.

These developments have at least provided some possible explanations of the reasons why so many people voted for Brexit. One might be that they enjoy filling in forms and wrestling with other kinds of red tape. Another, more likely, is “sovereignty” which I interpret as meaning “not having to deal with nasty foreigners”.

As regular readers of this blog will know I voted Remain and now live in the EU as a nasty foreigner. I do however think we nasty foreigners should accept the reality of this situation and respect British sovereignty.

Indeed I have seen many interviews with British business leaders who voted for Brexit complaining about all the difficulties that now exist to trade with nasty foreigners. I think there’s only one way for decent folk to react to this and that is to help these people in their hour of need by saving them the effort of form-filling, the extra expense of delivery, along with all the other headaches, and at the same time fully respecting their sovereignty, by simply not buying goods from them any more. It’s the honorable thing to do.

Fortunately it is increasingly possible for people in Ireland to do what Brexiters want by avoiding buying British goods. There are now 30 weekly sailings from Ireland to France, operated by 4 different companies. From tomorrow there will also be a new route from Dublin to Cherbourg by Stena Line.

But now I’m in a quandary. Am I disrespecting British sovereignty by continuing to subscribe to Private Eye?

It’s raining…

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , , , , , on January 19, 2021 by telescoper

Taking a short break from examination marking I had a look outside. I’m not sorry to be cooped up indoors given that it’s pouring with rain. In fact it rained all night and morning and is set to continue in the same vein until tomorrow.

While I was waiting for my coffee to brew I was thinking about some idiomatic expressions for heavy rain. The most familiar one in English is Raining Cats and Dogs which, it appears, originated in a poem by Jonathan Swift that ends with the lines:

Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip tops come tumbling down the flood.

My French teacher at school taught me the memorable if slightly indelicate Il pleut comme vache qui pisse, although there are other French expressions involving, among other things nails, frogs and halberds.

One of my favourites is the Welsh Mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn which means, bizarrely, “It’s raining old ladies and sticks”. There is also Mae hi’n bwrw cyllyll a ffyrc – “It’s raining knives and forks”.

Related idiomatic expressions in Irish are constructed differently. There isn’t a transitive verb meaning “to rain” so there is no grammatical way to say “it rains something”. The way around this is to use a different verb to represent, e.g., throwing. For example Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí which means “It’s throwing cobblers’ knives”.

Talking (of) cobblers, I note that in Danish there is Det regner skomagerdrenge – “It’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices” and in Germany Es regnet Schusterjungs – “It’s raining cobblers’ boys”.

Among the other strange expressions in other languages are Está chovendo a barba de sapo (Portuguese for “It’s raining toads’ beards”), Пада киша уби миша (Serbian for “It’s raining and killing mice”),  Det regner trollkjerringer (Norwegian for “It’s raining female trolls”) and Estan lloviendo hasta maridos (Spanish for “It is even raining husbands”).

No sign of any husbands outside right now so I’ll get back to correcting exams.

For the Birds..

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 17, 2021 by telescoper

The Giant Robin of Newgrange

I saw the above picture of a robin on Twitter the other day and it reminded me of the one that visits my garden. I’ve never been quick enough to take a picture of him, but he’s every bit as plump as the one in the picture. If he were taller he’d be spherical.

The robin situation in my garden has seen an important development: another robin has arrived. The new one is smaller than the first and the first time I saw it I only noticed it because it was having a squabble with the plump one. I assumed it was a younger rival, but on subsequent days I saw the two of them together quite peacefully. Since male and female robins are virtually indistinguishable I wonder if they might be a husband and wife team? The fact that I saw them having a row lends support to this theory.

Another interesting thing concerned niger seed. I bought some of this a while ago, together with a feeder that purported to be designed for dispensing it. Niger seed is a fine oily seed very good for the smaller birds. Unfortunately the mesh in the feeder is too coarse and the seed just poured out as I filled it. I put the bag of seed away and filled the feeder with other stuff. Last week I remembered the bag of niger seed and decided to try putting some loose in the bird table. In no time a group of four chaffinches were tucking in. These were definitely two males and two females – the females are notably different in colour. Anyway, they love it – as do a number of other birds, including the robin(s) – and I’ve had to replenish the supply twice.

I usually wait until there don’t seem to be any birds present before going out to check the food supply, but this is a waste of time. Even if the garden appears empty, as soon as I go out there’s a whooshing sound and lots of chirps as birds that had secreted themselves in various trees and hedges take to the air to escape the scary human.

The birds provide a welcome distraction when I take a break from exam marking, as does writing a blog, but I guess I should get back to it now.

Happy Birthday Wikipedia!

Posted in Biographical, History with tags on January 15, 2021 by telescoper

Not a lot of people – well, probably quite a lot of people actually – know that it was twenty years ago today, on January 15th 2001, that Wikipedia first went online. I know this is true as I read it on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia was launched on January 15, 2001, by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Sanger coined its name as a portmanteau of “wiki” and “encyclopedia”.

I don’t remember the launch of Wikipedia itself but I do recall when students started using Wikipedia links in project reports and the like. Unfortunately at the beginning many of the articles on scientific topics were very poor – often laughably so – and I discouraged students from using them. Now, twenty years and the efforts of many volunteer editors later, they are generally very good. I now encourage students to use Wikipedia as a resource, but I still discourage them from including references to it in formal reports. The best way to use it is to get an overview but then dig down into the references which most articles lists.

I find Wikipedia an excellent resource for things outside science of course, especially music, and link to articles there very often from this blog.

Somewhere along the line somebody even set up a Wikipedia page about me. It began as “just a stub” but has been updated from time to time. I don’t know who set it up or who has updated it, but it’s now a bit out of date. It still says that I work part-time between Cardiff and Maynooth, for example. No doubt someone will fix this at some point.

I’ve edited a few articles there myself, actually, mostly on cosmology but also on Jazz. Some of my blog posts are linked from there too but it would seem inappropriate for me to edit my own Wikipedia page.

Anyway, if you’re a fan of Wikipedia then please consider making a donation.

Update: it seems that the elves have been at work already and my Wikipedia page has been partially updated. It still says I live in Cardiff, however…

Abide with me

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , on January 14, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve had a very busy day today so haven’t had time to write anything significant, but I just remembered this piece that I heard a few weeks ago and thought I’d take the opportunity to share it. The hymn Abide with Me sung to the tune Eventide by William Henry Monk is a piece that makes me quite nostalgic as I remember it coming up quite frequently during Evensong when I sang in the Church choir in Benwell when I was little. It’s also well known as the hymn that was always sung before the start of the FA Cup Final.

Anyway, I’m not really a huge fan of brass bands, but I think this arrangement of Eventide for brass instruments by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins is very beautiful. On this recording it’s played by the Cory Band.

Cold Spell

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on January 9, 2021 by telescoper

It’s bitterly cold in Maynooth today. We haven’t had much snow but it sure is freezing. As I write it’s 1pm and the temperature is only -4°C. I went to put some stuff in the wheelie bin just now but the lid was frozen shut.

At least I’ve now figured out how to switch this thing on, so I’m nice and cosy indoors.

Outside it’s a different story though at the moment the garden is full of birds tucking into the food I’ve put out for them. They need food to maintain their body temperature or they will freeze to death. I can tell you that these days they’re emptying the feeders at a considerable rate of nuts.

The birds seem to be getting a bit more adventurous. The other day I went out to out refill the bird feeders and the robin who seems to think he’s in charge of my garden bobbed into the kitchen through the open door. He looked around, seeming very unimpressed, did a little poop on the floor and left the way he came in.

The robin is pretty much constantly visible in the garden these days, patrolling his territory and occasionally picking fights with other birds. I saw him have a go at a jackdaw yesterday. You’ve got to admire his nerve.

I’ve seen the resident wren a few times too. Wrens only eat insects so I was curious as to how they survive the winter. I’m reliably informed however that there are still plenty of insects (and other arthropods) around at this time of year. Many hibernate in various crevices (under logs, stones etc., or in nests). Other insect species are still active as adults throughout winter, e.g. smaller flies and moths, and some true bugs.

Meanwhile the swans on the Royal Canal have been having to cope with the ice by learning to skate (not entirely successfully):

Anyway hopefully the extreme cold will keep people indoors to reduce the rate of Covid-19 transmission.

Níl tuile dá mhéad nach dtránn

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on January 5, 2021 by telescoper

The title of this post is an old Irish saying that in English means “There’s no flood so high that it won’t recede”. The relentless increase in Covid-19 cases over the last few days is starting to make me wonder whether it is true.

Even with 7-day averaging and a logarithmic y-axis the rise looks very steep. On a linear y-axis the new cases look like this:

It’s even more dramatic without the 7-day smoothing:

The numbers for deaths on a linear scale look like this:

After doing extraordinarily well through the summer, things have gone very badly wrong. The standard measure using for comparing countries is the 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 population. On that measure Ireland is now on 674.4, with some counties over 1000 (Limerick, Louth and Monaghan). That’s not quite as bad as the latest figures for London, but getting there.

By staying in and reducing the number of contacts now we can influence what happens in a few weeks, but we know the results of Christmas and New Year infections haven’t fully filtered through into cases numbers yet, let alone deaths. It’s like standing on a beach watching an enormous wave coming at you and knowing you can’t do anything to get out of the way.