PART THREE (OF AN UNPLANNED TRILOGY)
DAY 10. SATURDAY 21 MARCH
THE VERNAL EQUINOX…
… and I wonder to myself if the vernal equinox might be a complication arising from Covid-19.
It’s now established practice. I get to the kitchen first, make my coffee, have breakfast and the girls follow at their leisure—or when I’ve prepared breakfast for Vivien and then skedaddle. I look forward to Shabbat breakfast because that means challah and jam instead of the usual fare of tehina or peanut butter or almond paste! This time, one slice of challah with the date and orange jam that Roz brought on her last visit and one slice with the seedless raspberry jam I brought back last week from the UK (actually, I brought two back and that ought to do me until the end of confinement, whenever that may be!)
And then, prohibited from going outside, I ready myself to face the stairs and the exercise bike. This time, it’s 19 circuits (950 steps) and 45 minutes on the exercise bike. After that, it’s time to settle in to the new norm. In other words, things repeat themselves and it’s a little bit of reading, a little bit with photos and so on.
I find that not being able to get out at all adds to the general tedium. I’ve been back 8 days and in real life, I see Vivien and Arneath but keep my distance, I’ve seen our neighbour with whom we share the building once, when I went for some air in the small area in which the cars are parked and he motioned to me that I shouldn’t really be outside at all. I chose to differ and said that the restriction was to stay within the home and as far as I am concerned, the car park is part of the home. And I also said hello to the neighbour from across the street who was out walking his dog so I warned him that potentially, I’m a social leper in that I spent a few days abroad and as punishment must stay away from healthy people. He laughed and we exchanged a few words.
Lunchtime, afternoon, dinner. All came and went and then we settled down to watch a some drama on TV and our choice this time, The Knowledge, a play originally broadcast on BBC TV over 40 years ago and written by the late Jack Rosenthal, which traces the trials and tribulations of several men and one woman who sign up to take “The Knowledge”, the examination that London cab drivers must pass in order to become licensed drivers of a black cab, which involves knowing all streets, street numbers and buildings of interest within a radius of 6 miles of Charing Cross. We watched the first half with the second coming the following night.
The examiner, a Mr. Burgess, played by Nigel Hawthorne of later Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister fame, gave a superlative, unforgettable comic performance based on a real-life, notoriously sadistic examiner, ably abetted by a strong cast, which included Jonathan Lynn, who was later to write, with Antony Jay, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. In the play, Lynn plays the star pupil, a person whose close male relatives are all cab drivers and he passes with flying colours before all the others. As a celebration, two of his Knowledge buddies take him for a drink, which he initially refuses stating that he’s Jewish and doesn’t drink. He ends up inebriated, rides his motorbike home and is breathalyzed, loses his licence, is banned from driving for a year — and then decides to emigrate to Israel!
Writing this reminds me of an instance about 20 years ago when we were living in Belsize Park in London and for some reason, I took a cab home from Central London, something I rarely ever do. I got into the cab and gave the driver the address and off we went. Just before we turned into Antrim Road, the driver asked me if I wanted the library end of the street (there was a public library directly opposite our flat) or the other end; he then explained that he hadn’t been up that part of London for over 25 years. I was astonished as all I had said to him was the address (street and number).
Having said all this, it was time to retreat for the day, and before I knew anything about it, it was …
DAY 11. SUNDAY 22 MARCH
06.10. I’m early this morning but I’ve got a busy day ahead! (Laugh along with me). I’m too late to hear the 6 o’clock news so I hang around after I’ve eaten till the news comes on at 7. Five minutes in the morning and five in the evening are as much as one needs.
I receive a message from my nephew, Daniel, who last night took a picture from his apartment of the Ma’ariv (evening) service at the synagogue next door to him. A minimum of 10 adult males needed for the deity to take heed, but a minimum distance of 2 m needed to prevent the virus, if present, being spluttered on to a neighbour. So the solution couldn’t have been simpler — pray spaced out in the street.
Then it’s up and down, up and down followed by time on the bike. I manage 1,000 steps (Yes!) but only 30 minutes on the bike because today I have my first online exercise class scheduled for 10.00 hrs with Tamar, the person who runs a Gyrotonic studio where I’ve been going for the past few months once a week. I described the Gyrotonic training method as leaving me in something of a quandary: is it a variation of the Chinese torture method or some sort of mediaeval torture for dealing with miscreants. Actually, it’s described as a training method based in principles of yoga, dance, tai chi, and swimming. The emphasis is on rotation and spiraling movements that don’t have end points and it also builds core strength, balance, coordination, and agility. So at 10.05, there’s a buzz on the computer and I log on with Zoom and have a lesson that lasts for an hour and after which, and I find this hard to believe, I feel better than after a face-to-face session. Really hard going but definitely worth it.
Just as I finish with that, the telephone rings and it’s the order from the supermarket. The order had been confirmed on Friday afternoon but they had changed the delivery time from between 3 and 5 in the afternoon to between 5 and 7 and here they are at 11.15 in the morning. I mention this to the delivery man who is screaming something in Arabic into his mobile and he tells me that the schedule has been changed, which was obvious to me without him having to tell me that. He dumps the goods into the elevator and leaves me to see to the rest, which is probably just as well. By the time Vivien and Arneath return from their morning walk, I’ve managed to put everything away in its place though several things are missing from the order but I had more or less expected that.
That more or less takes care of my morning and by the time I’ve eaten lunch, it time for a short nap. When I emerge from my slumber, I feel the need to read something that isn’t news or about photographs so I scan the bookshelves in front of me and choose Roy Foster’s Luck and the Irish, delivered initially as a series of lectures at Queen’s University, Belfast about 15 years ago and concerning the changes that have occurred in Irish society and the Irish economy, mostly in the past 50 years. Reading through the first chapter, it made me realize how conservative my secondary school education had been. European history ended, basically, with the Counter-Reformation; nothing of note happened after that; Irish history was provincial in the extreme. How Ireland has changed and I look forward to finishing the book later this week.
After our isolated dinners, it’s time to see what’s on TV. I shun the news because I can always read the main points in tomorrow morning’s paper without having to listen to the almost panic-stricken voices of the newsreaders and commentators and without having to see and hear “that man”. It’s interesting how the Minister of Health has been sidelined in all this confusion, which is just as well, as he seems to be telling people who ask him that the Messiah will arrive before Passover to deliver us from the bondage of the Coronavirus, just as we were led out of Egypt all those centuries ago!
We watch the end of The Knowledge and then, after some reading, so to bed… and it’s
DAY 11. MONDAY 23 MARCH
Breakfast and then it’s out onto the stairs where I manage 21 circuits, i.e., 1,050 steps. I surprise myself again. Then 40 minutes of the bike, which is made a little easier by the appearance of the smiley that I had missed on previous days.
And I’m ready to face the day, which, it appears will be rather like the previous ones. Somewhere in the middle of the morning, I go downstairs to check the mail in the mailbox where I meet my neighbour. Instead of the usual “How are you?” I get “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to put a foot outside the home.” Here, we have the same difference of opinion as the other day and I realize that the difference is lost in translation of the word “bayit”, which in Hebrew can mean either house or home. I interpreted it as “house”, meaning that the parking area and the postbox are within the limits to which I can extend my activities. He begged to differ.
Then followed more or less the same course as previous days. After our disconnected lunches, I’m reading. Whereas yesterday’s chapter of Luck and the Irish, dealt with the economy was a little dry, today’s chapter takes on the changing role of the Catholic church in Irish society and the increasingly liberal attitudes of the population, especially the younger population in the cities, leading to a large proportion leading secular lives. This was a revelation, even though I knew it had been happening.
And in the evening, instead of a film, I discovered that the talks and discussions from Jewish Book Week 2020 that had been held in London the week I was there have all been either recorded of filmed and are online or downloadable as podcasts. We chose to watch and listen to Norman Lebrecht interviewed by Trudy Gold about his new book Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World 1847 -1947, followed by Elif Shafak talking to Sam Leith about her latest novel, 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World, and her personal stories of being brought up by her mother and grandmother in a conservative neighbourhood in Ankara and about the street on which she lived in Istanbul. Fascinating — as are her books.
And then it was sleeping time and before I realized it, I was at …
DAY 12. TUESDAY 24 MARCH
Breakfast, stairwell and exercise bike. This is becoming the routine. Today, I do 1,050 steps (21 circuits) and 30 minutes on the exercise bike. And on the last circuit, I notice that there are three weeks worth of newspapers that will have to be disposed of on my release from temporary bondage.
After that it’s routine. Write a little, play with some photos, read a little more of Luck and the Irish. And then just after noon, a WhatsApp comes in from Gerry in Liverpool, a short piece of advice that he received from someone in Israel, a short essay written by a young epidemiologist at Yale University. I read it — it’s short and very much to the point — and it explains that things will get far worse before they get better. That’s the way epidemics and pandemics work and we need to understand that it will be several months before things get back to normal, but they will eventually. Maybe by Chanukah/Xmas we’ll be over the worst.
Here was somebody who understands spelling it out in plain English. I sent to piece to people I thought might be interested and let them come to terms with it for themselves.
And then it was back to Luck and the Irish. Chapter Three, entitled “The party fight and funeral”, deals with the transformation of Fianna Fáil, the “natural party of government” during the period, with the focus on Charles Haughey who was in and out of the office of Taoiseach (Prime Minister) between 1979 and 1992. I can’t remember smiling and laughing as much for years while reading a serious book. While the Irish economy and society was undergoing rapid and radical change, the politicians of Fianna Fáil were cashing in on the developments, Haughey the principal among them. He enjoyed the good life and didn’t mind where the money came from and where it went.
Haughey was said to have amassed €45 million due to corrupt dealings, which he denied until the very end, when Roy Foster quotes him as admitting in court, the straw in any reputation he might have had left in him well and truly broken: “I now accept that I received £1.3 million from Mr. Ben Dunne and that I became aware that he was the donor to the late Mr. Traynor in 1993 and furthermore I now accept Mr. Dunne’s evidence that he handed me £210,000 … in November 1991. In making this statement, I wish to make clear that until yesterday, I had mistakenly instructed my legal team.” In other words, until the day before the trial, he had been lying through his teeth and now that the evidence was out in the open …
The Economist, the weekly newspaper I have read regularly for the past 50 years put it this way in his obituary in its issue of June 22, 2006: “Charles Haughey was a technicolour politician in a monochrome landscape. He burst onto the Irish political scene at a time when it featured dull men distinguished only by their austerity. Elected to the Dail in 1957, the flamboyant Mr Haughey quickly became the foremost member of a group tagged the “men in mohair suits” for their smart clothes and brash ways. … History may well judge that he was the most gifted Irish politician of his generation. But it is harder to argue that he put those talents to good use. … Mr Haughey used [the coffers] of his Fianna Fáil party as his private piggy-bank. He was a flagrant tax-evader: when the authorities finally caught up with him, he had to sell his estate to pay them. Even his greatest fans would not call him fastidious. It was best to call him simply “Boss”.… Days before his death he warned a British journalist who was getting too nosey: “My arms reach far, and people have been found floating down the Thames.”
However, what made me smile and laugh as I read this chapter was the scale of the corruption. I mean, we know that several Israeli politicians have been imprisoned, other have been indicted and yet others are being investigated for corruption but Haughey and Co. were in a different league. Our guys couldn’t possibly even conceive of the scale of corruption that existed at the top of Irish politics three and four decades ago, let alone operationalize it. Compared with Netanyahu and some of his minions, Haughey was at the top of the Premier League while they are Third Division (North) or whatever it’s called today.
There was one quotation that had me laughing out aloud, very loud. “ … in his early, more unbuttoned, days he was good copy. To catch a vote, the playwright Hugh Leonard wrote, he would unhesitatingly ‘roller-skate backwards into a nunnery, naked from the waist down, singing “Kevin Barry” in Swahili’”.
At this point, I remembered Marlena’s entreaty from last week, which was that as I was unable to go out and take pictures of the external mundane, then I should attempt to take some of the internal mundane. So …
After that my mood lightened a lot and for afters, (after our separated supper, that is), we watched the first half of the Prom dedicated to the music and songs of Stephen Sondheim on his 80th birthday in 2010. Wonderful.
And so to bed … and it became …
DAY 13. WEDNESDAY 25 MARCH
I’m beginning to realize that when my release date comes on Friday, I’m going to have nowhere to go. I listen to the news and it seems as if new restrictions on movement to be announced this evening. We’ll be able to go out singly but mustn’t venture more than 100m from the house so I’ll have to take a tape measure with me and work out how far away 100m is. (According to Google maps, it’s exactly 100m from the gate to the end of the street but as I’m allowed to buy food in the greengrocer’s, I can make it that extra 10m without incurring a fine or imprisonment. That regulation notwithstanding, I understand that I am still permitted to walk to the supermarket to buy food, 550 m away. However, that advice from my daughters is that supermarkets are probably the most likely place in which meet a Corona-carrier.
So after breakfast, it’s the stairs again—22 circuits, 1,100 steps followed by 30 mins on the exercise bike. After that, I find a couple of fiddly things to do before Tamar ZOOMs me up at 11.00 a.m. for an hour’s gyrotonic stretching and breathing. Amazingly, I feel great after an hour and again I find that doing the exercises at home much more satisfying than going to the studio.
It’s time for another picture of the internal mundane! My sister in London suggested that she organize a family ZOOM seder, seeing that so many of us are going to be on our own this year. Sounds like a good idea although it will probably be grossly abbreviated. Holding the kids’ attention at the best of times isn’t easy but over the Internet?
By the time the afternoon comes around, more or less finish this week’s edition of The Economist and it’s back to Roy Foster and the Irish. It really is an entertaining book, well worth the read. I wrote to him to thank him, hardly expecting a reply but got one anyway in which he wrote: “It was a mischievous little book in its way, published just before the economic crash which in some ways I intuited, in some ways didn’t. I was right about Mr H, though, and I suspect you are right about Mr N. Penguin’s libel lawyers went through agonies as Haughey and Co. were alive when it was going through the press.”
Evening brings attendance at a virtual shivah for our friend Zvi Silver who passed away last week from Covid-19. Although the eulogies delivered by Zvi’s two sons, Jason and Gary, were very moving, I found the experience of being part of a virtual meeting of this kind to be very strange, indeed—but I’m glad we were there in spirit.
And before I knew where I was, it was …
DAY 14. THURSDAY 26 MARCH
I wake up late this morning — 07.00. I can only presume that the silence in the street has something to do with that. It’s as quiet as Yom Kippur and likely to remain that way for several weeks, if not several months. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus tracker reports almost half a million confirmed cases throughout the world, of which almost 2,700 are here in Israel. Thus far, there have been over 22,000 deaths, eight of them in Israel. We’re in for the long haul, it seems.
Out on the stairs, 23 circuits, 1,150 steps followed by 40 minutes on the bike, all of which I report to the kids. Up till now, the responses have been “Bravo” and “Keep it up”. However, today, the responses were: “Be careful; don’t overdo it!”; “This is great Abba. Just be aware of overdoing it, as your immune system is lowered a bit when exercising hard.”; “Make sure you stretch your muscles, especially calf and front thigh muscles. If you don’t they will eventually cramp.”; “Most Important is to stretch when you’ve finished, before your body cools down.” So it’s nice to know the children are looking out for me. Actually, the last circuit this morning was a little tough so I think I’ll limit it to 1,000 steps a day from now on.
And then it’s time for some more mundane interior photographs.
And then, nearby, the oil pourers had been cleaned so I looked closely at them and decided that if I moved them, they were no ordinary oil pourers but a pair dancing a very graceful minuet.
In the evening I had the longest telephone conversation in my life (almost 90 minutes) when John Western called me from Syracuse, NY and among other things we discussed the content of the memory book I’ve written. I now have a much better idea of what I need to do. I’ll wait another couple of weeks and see if anyone else turns up with comments and review before getting down to the job of editing it. And in the course of our conversation, we came across so many things that we had in common. I couldn’t believe that it was over 30 years since we shared an office for a couple of weeks while each of us was on a short stay at LSE!
Vivien and I watched the second half of the Sondheim 80th birthday Prom from a decade ago and enjoyed every second of it and then it was time for bed — my own bed in our own bedroom this time after over three weeks elsewhere.
And then Friday morning came. It was …
DAY 15. FRIDAY 27 MARCH.
RELEASE. DISCHARGE. FREEDOM. Well, sort of.
Daylight Savings Time as arrived in Israel and we are now GMT+3, with Europe following in the early hours of Sunday morning, so we wake up at 07.00 and listen to the news. After Coronavirus numbers, we are fed a little more information about the strange happenings in Israeli politics that happened yesterday afternoon when Benny Gantz, who the previous week had been charged by President Rivlin with the job of trying to form a government, had himself elected Knesset speaker, allowing the formation of an “emergency” unity government with and under Netanyahu.
As in the past year and through three election campaigns, Gantz has over and again solemnly promised never to join a Netanyahu-led government, citing the premier’s likely indictment, his actual indictment and his impending trial, it will be interesting to hear how he explains this away to the hundreds of thousands of voters who thought they were voting for something else though I am doubtful as to whether he will even bother. It turned out that Mr. Gantz has learned the arts of politics and deceit over the past year and is no more than just another lying politician. And he’s just another politician who will probably have to learn the hard way that a promise from Bibi (to rotate the Prime Ministership in this case) is rather like dipping your head into a barrel of sewage water. It stinks. And as many have discovered before, once he’s used you, he’ll dispose of you by tossing you straight back into the sewage system. As my Beersheva colleague David Newman posted yesterday on Facebook: “I think I know my way around Israeli politics. I didn’t believe anything new could surprise me any more. But ……” I couldn’t have agreed more. The age of the Israeli Erdogan has finally arrived!
It was weird to open the gate and go outside … into a street. What a strange feeling. Very little traffic, no public transport. The sounds of the birds have taken over Tel Aviv.
Task #1, get rid of the papers and then go in search of bread. Most of the people on the street are walking their dogs and the dogs seem pretty disinterested in what is happening around them. And why not? I’m supposedly allowed 100 m from the house but can go further if I’m shopping for food. Almost the first thing I noticed was the sign below draped on the balcony of the first house on Bodenheimer Street, which made me smile.
And then it was off to the bread shop where I joined a line to buy bread. In we go, maximum of two people at any one time, it seems. The man in the shop when I join the queue is masked and gloved. The gentleman in front of me has a mask that almost covers his entire face, has plastic gloves and is wearing some kind of plastic apron and refrains from entering the shop at all, declaiming his order from the sidewalk. I enter, buy some bread, pay the bill all within a minute and a half, pop into the greengrocer nearby for a couple of things and walk home.
What an odd fortnight it has been indeed!