Watching the first spell-binding episode of Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Dr No was repeatedly struck by the revelation that modern humans are giant biped ants. We live in colonies, ruled over preposterous queens — Jiang Qing, Mao’s fourth wife, and key player in the China’s Cultural Revolution, got a lot of air time in the first episode — and organise ourselves by the division of labour. We have workers (the likes of Dr No, and most of you), soldiers (our NHS frontline heroes) and drones (politicians and the mainstream media). Colonies readily attack other colonies, be it the maskers attacking the anti-maskers, or the lockdown fanatics attacking the lockdown sceptics. Like ants, we swarm, and frankly, the only discernable difference that Dr No could make out between a swarm of ants and a swarm of humans is that the ants know exactly where they are going, while the humans don’t have a clue.
Clive James once wrote about how he agonised over getting metaphors right. His efforts certainly, to use a clichéd metaphor, bore fruit. One of Dr No’s favourites describes Demis Roussos. ‘His stage manner reflects the opulence of his domicile. There is an immense reserve of inner warmth, as in a compost heap.’ Then there is the near perfect description of Barbara Cartland. ‘Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.’ Neither are kindly, but it is not the TV critic’s job to be kindly, but to observe, and in the writing add something, and James’s writing is perfectly larded through and through with metaphors that add richness and flavour, like the marbling in a fine piece of beef.
“When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.” An Old Jew of Galicia, quoted by Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind (1953)
Competent enough when reading out Google finance reports, Radio 4’s Simon Jack falls apart when loaded with a ministerial interview. Even with the bar set as low as it is these days on the Today programme, and the minister for jabs having all the appeal of a lump of blu tack stuck on the seat of your pants, Jack approached the interview like a teenager rugby tackling a brick wall, only to crumple through lack of preparation. Attempting to ask why individuals with learning disabilities weren’t being prioritised for vaccination, given their high covid mortality rate, it soon became apparent that the interview was to be as illuminating as mountain of Welsh coal slag. Click. The sound of silence filled Dr No’s kitchen.
There is a rather good video satire of Ivor Cummins on Caption Generator. In the interests of balanced coverage, Dr No offers this alternative version, of Hancock’s desperate last days in his bunker as the pandemic fizzles out and the government starts to lose control over the people. WordPress does not appear to allow embedding of video from Caption Generator, so here is a link to a tweet that has a link. Or you can use this direct link.
Perhaps the most putrid specialty in a profession that has more than its fair share of stinkers is public health medicine. A natural bunker for malfunctioning medical Mussolinis and failed physician Pinochets, public health medicine has evolved an alien and grandiose medical culture in which they who practice it are above mere patients. Instead, they have populations. Just as Mussolini engineered a society in which the trains ran on time, so public health physicians would have it that the population abstains from fags fizz and fornication, downs its five fruit and veg a day, and, armed with a faecal occult blood testing kit in its hands, opens its bowels on time. Their vision, like their ideological forebears, the Stalinists and the Nazis, is one of the nation state as a boot camp for health, a vast breeding ground for a pure population free of disease, infirmity and disability, all watched over by health marshals wearing caps emblazoned with the rallying yet blinding cry, Health for All, and All for Health! What could possibly go wrong?
Covid! The very word is like a bell, to toll me back from my sole self to thee! Dr No continues to wonder about covid entries on death certificates, and how and why these entries do or don’t end up in ONS’s weekly counts of covid deaths. Unlike the pin-ball wizardry of counting every single death within twenty eight days of a positive covid PCR test as a covid death — an indiscriminate and robotic definition — one hopes, rather forlornly, that a modicum of medical effort on the part of the doctor completing the medical certificate of cause of death, or MCCD, followed by sensible coding of underlying cause of death by ONS, might give confidence that when we sidestep Donne and send to know for whom the bell tolls, then at least the count of tolls for covid are reasonably accurate. But are they?
Dr No is surprised. Today’s ONS England and Wales weekly mortality report does not show the fall in deaths he confidently predicted in his last post. The rate of increase has certainly slowed, but there is no gainsaying the fact that the total number of deaths registered in England and Wales in week 2, 2021 has gone up compared to week 1, 2021. Wales did in fact show a slight fall of 28 deaths, but England’s 318 extra deaths meant an overall rise. This is against a backdrop of both Scotland and Northern Ireland reporting recent falls in the number of weekly deaths. Nonetheless, England and Wales, or rather England, deaths did rise, and a rise is not a fall. Is part or all of Dr No’s hat destined for the slow cooker?
Our government, and its PR machine, the mainstream media, have got the covid death caldron nicely on the boil. “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire, burn; and, caldron, bubble… Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog…Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.” At first glance, the recent daily covid death counts are alarming, but are the reported covid counts real? Is there a worrying excess in all deaths, or just a normal seasonal rise? The answers to these question are most readily found by looking at all cause mortality. Although all cause mortality is coarse grained — in truth it has no grain, it is just a single count of all deaths — it nonetheless has one cardinal virtue that comes about precisely because it doesn’t try to be too clever, it is robust. The diagnosis of death is rarely got wrong, and the UK has a reliable system of death registration. We know how many people have died overall, and when and where they died.
One of the features of this winter’s covid–19 wave that has perplexed Dr No, and indeed many others, is the lack of the normal lag between rises in positive tests, admissions and deaths. In the normal course of events — and as we are so often told by political and media experts — admissions lag behind cases, and deaths lag behind admissions. Yet when we look at the chart above, which presents various measures for England — the methodology will be explained shortly — the lags are rather conspicuous by their absence. From around about Christmas Day onwards, tests, positives and admissions have been in lockstep, while deaths have shown a lag, but only a short one, of about seven days. The peaks in both positives and admissions — both are currently in decline — are only two days apart. None of this makes any sense at all.