Friday, 26 June 2020

Protest for a fair election at Belarus embassy

Belarusians living in the UK protested outside their Embassy in London yesterday (25 June) at the start of the Presidential election campaign. With the three most likely opposition candidates still in jail, and reports of intimidation of supporters of opposition candidates attempting to sign their paperwork to stand in elections, few are expecting anything like a free and fair election. One demonstrator told me that most opposition leaders over the past 25 years have been jailed, gone into exile or disappeared.

Candidates need 100,000 signatures to stand in the presidential elections. Supporters were queuing in the streets to add their signatures to their candidacies. One candidate, Sergei Tikhanovski, was detained on 6 May after participating in protests at Belarus's strong ties with Russia. His candidacy was "banned".

The current president, Aleksander Lukashenko, has been in power for five terms, starting in 1994. He has been the subject of occasional sanctions by the EU and the US over free and fair elections.

A demonstrator told me that while Belarus has always been a "very patient country", the Covid-19 crisis, and the Lukashenko regime's attempt to downplay the impact of the virus, has brought people out on the streets. Doctors who became whistleblowers on the full extent of the Covid crisis have been arrested. There were chants (in English) of "Enough is enough" at the Embassy demo.

There were around 50 demonstrators when I turned up, I heard that after I left numbers went up to 200, with another demo planned for Sunday for those Belarusians living in the UK who couldn't make it into Central London on a workday. There were simultaneous demos at other embassies in Europe.

Some wore traditional white and red Belarus shirts with the traditional embroidered pattern, others had a printed T-shirt version of the same. Others wore "We are the 97 per cent" T-shirts, a reference to two online polls that put support by voting intention of Lukashenko at just 3 per cent.

Lukashenko has naturally been gathering signatures for his presidential candidacy, with civil servants reportedly intimidated into signing these. Opinion polls without permission from the Academy of Sciences are now banned in Belarus.

Some demonstrators had brought with the the white, red and white striped "independence" flag of Belarus, in use in 1918 and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, until its replacement with the current flag in 1995. The current national flag is basically a modified flag of the old Belarusian Soviet Republic with the red star removed.

A protester told me there were embassy staff among the protesters, it wasn't clear whether they were there keeping an eye on protesters. The Embassy curtains were in any event drawn. A Mongolian diplomat from the Mongolian Embassy next door was watching from the roof.

The presidential election is on Sunday 9 August. Expect a strong opposition turn-out at the polling station at the Embassy in London.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Discover Dunwich 2

I edit Discover Dunwich, newsletter of Dunwich Museum, of which I am also a trustee and volunteer. Issue 2 is now out, it's a Covid-19 coming out of lockdown special.

The current issue features Stuart Bacon's recollection of discovering the Dunwich Bank Wreck and the remains of Dunwich churches in the Dunwich Dives all those years ago. There's also an archaeology update - a core sample shows that Dunwich was probably already an important port in Saxon times. There's a look at our newly acquired Board of Trade hydrometer and at the Dunwich Bank Wreck cannon's near identical (but better preserved) sibling.

You can download Issue 2 as a pdf here. Issue 1, from 2019, is here.

Dunwich Museum is still closed due to Covid-19. The trustees are developing a Risk Assessment aimed at some sort of social distancing re-opening soon (possibly allowing in only one party at a time). We can't give a date yet. Meanwhile, @DiscoverDunwich on Twitter showcases the treasures of the Museum online. Watch the @DiscoverDunwich account for updates on re-opening.

The Museum normally earns most of its income from donations from visitors, but there have been none this year. It is short of cash, please consider making a donation.

The Body of a Mighty Giant from Deposits magazine

My article - co-authored with Tim Holt Wilson – on "The Body of a Mighty Giant" is in the latest issue of Deposits magazine. It tells the story of the bones of a "giant" dug up in 1651 in Brockford Bridge, Suffolk and offers a possible palaeontological explanation. It surveys others palaeontological finds from the area. It's here. Deposits is produced by UKGE, the UK's largest geology equipment and fossils and minerals supplier in the UK, based in Reydon, Suffolk.

It's behind a paywall, but I will publish the article here when the First British Serial rights expire and the copyright reverts to Tim and I.

Skull of an African forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) in the Grant Zoology Museum, UCL, London

An attempt to get a COVID-19 test

I ACCOMPANIED a friend who went to get a COVID-19 test in London, or tried to.

My friend was a teaching assistant in a school in Enfield, who was teaching children for vulnerable families who still attended school during the lockdown. Except most of them didn't, their parents didn't want them to go to school. He ended up spending most of his workdays on the phone to parents at home, and devising activities for the kids to do at home. A couple of months before, he'd lost his sense of smell, it was only gradually coming back. This being the most obvious symptom of COVID, I persuaded him to get himself checked out before a return to school, just so he was covered if anything happened, he could say, "I told you so."

We had often gone for lockdown bike rides together along the Regent Canal and the River Lea (keeping 2m apart), and on this occasion my friend announced he'd booked a slot for a COVID test, that was going to be in Lea Valley Park, in Edmonton, not far from the IKEA. The Lea Valley Park is just off the River Lea towpath, so he thought he'd check in for his test after a nice bike ride. I said I'd go too, and wait outside.

When we got there we found it was - surprise, surprise - a bit of a shambles. Firstly, it was DRIVE-IN only. That's right, in a city where at the last estimate, 30 per cent of households owned a car. Most of these 30 per cent of our vast city are in the suburbs, car ownership (or access to a car, via a car club) is much less in the inner city. This is also a city that has been actively discouraging car ownership and car use for at least the last 20 years. The staff (typically untrained and unprepared) blamed "the company" - another example of government outsourcing to private companies clearly not up to the job. Staff suggested my friend should ring a cab and get the cab to drive them the very short distance through the drive-in. Did they have any numbers for local cab companies? No.

My friend gave up, and went back to teach not knowing whether he had Covid or not. Properly briefed staff could have told him that an antibody test, rather than a test for whether he still had COVID, was coming soon and would be more appropriate anyway.

A man on his bike turns up at the coronavirus testing centre at Lea Valley Park, London. Note that the member of staff (in reflective vest) is not wearing a mask.

Waiting for Cummings

IT TURNS out I live five minutes away from Ockenden Road, home of Dominic Cummings, controversial special adviser to the Prime Minister. I knew he had to live somewhere in Islington, because early on in the controversy around his eye-test road trip to Durham, news footage of him showed a street that had those distinctive Georgian houses you get round here that scream "Islington."

I stumbled across Cummings's street by accident. Walking to the shops on Essex Road one day, I came across this graffiti scrawled across Tesco's. My first thought was, ah, this must be where Dominic Cummings lives.

Sure enough, the right turn off Essex Road opposite the graffiti was Ockenden Road, and down the bottom of the street on the right was a house with outside it two of the most polite cops you could imagine. There was a car-load of photographers with their long lens cameras out on the street immediately outside. They were looking bored - it was early afternoon so no one was expecting Cummings for a while.

I came back in the evening in the forlorn hope I might catch a glimpse of Cummings and the circus around him. I wasn't actually that interested in Cummings himself, more in talking to my photographer colleagues to see how they were getting on. As Chair of NUJ London Freelance Branch I was aware that some of them had lost all their work, I wanted to find out from them as they stood around waiting what it like working during Covid for those who were still working.

There were a half dozen or so photographers around, talking to the very polite cops. They were from Camden nick, a police station whose beat is the boundary of Islington and Camden. They seemed quite media savvy, when I asked them whether there was Section 60 Public Order Act order in force in the street, they said they were "unaware" of any such order and directed me to the Met press website. They seemed used to checking Press Cards courteously. When their colleague strolled up to have a word with them, it was "Evening, gents!" to the press pack. (A colleague had heard a rumour that a Section 60 had been declared in Ockenden Road, which turned out to be baseless.)

There was a van full of Paddington Green cops that was parked round the corner in Southgate Road. (Ockenden Road is right on the edge of Canonbury, in the "bit of Islington that thinks it's Hackney" in the words of my Islingtonian brother.) A plainclothes cop with a rather obvious radio and a rather more obvious Met Police stab vest on appeared on the corner of Southgate Road. Later, a red Diplomatic Protection Squad van cruised very slowly around Ockenden Road and surrounding streets. It had tinted windows so I had no idea whether it was full of coppers or not.

Photographers I was with on the Cummings stake-out were mostly from agencies such as Associated Press, or outlets such as Sky News website. One of them said that their sports writers had all been furloughed, while the sports photographers had been transferred to news photography. With nothing coming out of sports or the cultural and showbusiness beat, there was a need for more straight "news" to fill pages. Photographers were getting calls from their sports photographer colleagues at railway stations, asking what the deal was about byelaws on filming or photographing people at stations. They'd never done this sort of work before. Their regular news colleague were happy to help.

There were a few protesters waiting over the road, some of whom were clearly Cummings's neighbours. From WhatsApp traffic on my local Mutual Aid Group (MAG), it seems that some of the MAG activists live in Ockenden Road. When the Black Lives Matter thing started, people from the MAG were prominent in organising a "die-in" in Ockenden Road around the disproportionate numbers of BAME Covid-19 deaths

Cummings seemed to be working late at the office that night, I gave up waiting for him to show and went home at about 8.30. Not long after that, from my garden I heard a wail of police sirens coming up Essex Road, and heard a police helicopter overhead. I realised that these were sounds I'd heard every evening for the past few days.

London freelances get together

I was briefly interviewed for an article for NUJ Branch, the NUJ's Covid-19 emergency newsletter, mentioned in dispatches for chairing union branch meetings of around 80 members on Zoom. Tools such as Zoom were developed for decision-making in corporate hierarchies, not for union democracy! I'm on page 02, "London Freelances get together", by Frances Rafferty. It takes me two full days to prepare a Zoom meeting of NUJ London Freelance Branch. I couldn't have chaired them without help co-hosting the meetings from my co-chair Nick Reynaud-Komiya, our Social Media Officer Nicci Talbot and my editor on the Freelance, Mike Holderness.

Appearance on Weird Tales podcast, talking about big cats in Suffolk, woodwoses and mummified cats

I recently appeared on the Weird Tales Radio Show podcast, hosted by my colleague Charles Christian, who I persuaded to rejoin the NUJ after a quarter of a century. (He refers to his NUJ membership in the intro.)

You can listen here. It's a couple of minutes short of a hour. I hope to later add links to my articles on the subjects covered, in the order in which they are discussed in the podcast.