It’s Festival Time Again!

The sun is out, the schools are on holiday and the festivals are in full swing.fringe

The Fringe by the Sea Festival is held every year in August in the seaside town of North Berwick. Stalls and marquees are set up by the harbour, just below the Seabird Centre and a packed programme of speakers, workshops, personal development therapies, music and kids’ activities is filled with visitors from all airts and pairts, as we say hereabouts.

Parking in such a small, popular spot is difficult, so to ease the congestion, and do our bit towards saving the planet, we left the car at home and took the bus there. It was a leisurely deedle-dawdle through pretty little villages, their roadside stone cottages filled with kaleidoscopic flowers, and past fields of barley and brassicas, with stunning views towards the Firth of Forth and the Bass Rock. It took twice as long as driving but who cares? We weren’t in a hurry.

We settled ourselves into the Spiegeltent ready for our first speaker, Doug Allan. He is a film cameraman who has worked extensively with David Attenborough on series such as Blue Planet and who specialises in filming in the Arctic and Antarctic. He had many stills and film clips which had us gasping in amazement at the beauty of the Poles and appalled at the damage we are inflicting on it. Doug spoke strongly about the need to act now, not just as individuals but to force governments to do far more now otherwise, as he called it, we face climate breakdown. He gave the audience much food for thought.

Ian Rankin is one of Scotland’s most successful crime writers and his character, Inspector Rebus, now retired, refuses to do just that. Ian has recently donated 50 boxes of his manuscripts and correspondence to the National Library of Scotland, and his interviewer had picked out some of the items that were in the boxes. Rejection letters, letters from the likes of Ian Crichton Smith and Alexander McCall Smith, a certificate for reciting Burns’ verse aged 8 or 9 – all brought back memories of his early life in Cardenden, his first attempts at writing a novel and his later successes, and the problems of introducing a pet in his books. The body count can rise exponentially but whatever, happens, don’t harm the dog – or forget to mention it. Readers apparently get very upset by that. And all spoken about in his trademark casual, friendly manner.`Ian Rankin

The following week, the Edinburgh Book Festival opened in Charlotte Square. It has now grown so large and successful that it has spilled out into George Street as well. What better occupation than to wander round a tent filled with books, books and more books! I know of no greater pleasure than to spend time in among books, browsing and reading snippets of them before choosing some to buy. So much, much more satisfying than clicking on Amazon’s website and waiting for the purchase to be delivered. And as for downloading on to a kindle…. a featureless, bland experience. And after buying them (as usual, far more than I meant to) carrying them home in the special Book Festival bag, cradling them carefully on the bus until, at home, I can settle down to reading them. Bliss!books

But before that, speakers Kaite Welsh and Caroline Lea spoke about their historical thrillers set in Edinburgh and Iceland. Kaite’s book, The Unquiet Heart, was triggered by the Edinburgh 7, the first women to become medical students at the University, and who suffered many trials and tribulations in their attempts to become doctors. Kaite’s main protagonist finds herself defending her fiancé from a charge of murder while trying to study medicine.

Caroline spoke about her love and knowledge of the old Icelandic sagas and the belief in the supernatural, still apparent today, among some Icelanders. Her book, The Glass Woman, begins with a hand apparently waving from the sea ice and the attempts by some men to bring it back on shore despite one of them, in particular, not wishing to do so.

Then to something completely different – afternoon tea with food writer and broadcaster, Ghillie Basan. While munching our way up the plate stand and sipping at the whisky supplied, we listened to Ghillie talk about her life experiences which had developed her love of spices and flavours and how to match whisky to various foods. Despite living as she described it, in ‘the back of the back of beyond’ in the Scottish Highlands and frequently being snowed up in winter, she still manages to produce interesting and flavourful meals, helped by her kitchen drawers packed full of spices which she obtains from her spice merchant in Istanbul. Her latest book is Spirit and Spice, where she talks of her life with food and includes many mouth-watering recipes.afternoon tea

Plenty of food for thought in all of that!

 

 

Coronavirus Lockdown: Fergie Ferguson and the Wee Bogeyman

I was a scriptwriter for the children’s Radio and TV programmes on the BBC for many years and wrote loads of stories for them. Here’s one I wrote about Fergie who was pestered by a wee pest, the bogeyman. I hope your kids and grandkids enjoy reading it.

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Fergie Ferguson was a clockmaker who lived in a little village on an island off the west coast of Scotland where the great Atlantic Ocean smashed and crashed on to the shore. He spent his days mending and repairing clocks and when he’d fixed them, setting them at the correct times that they could chime along with the rest. For Fergie Ferguson’s house was full of clocks. They sat on every surface in every room of his house and stood on every square of floor he had.

From every room in his house could be heard the tick tocking of his clocks. Some were slow, deep sounds….

TICK …. TOCK…..

….others were busy, hurried rhythms…..

ticktockticktock….

….and others were so quick and quiet you had to put your ear tight up against them in order to hear them……..

tick tock tick tock

All day long, the sound of ticking and tocking could be heard through the house. It was so loud it drowned out the thunder of the Atlantic waves crashing on the nearby shore. Fergie didn’t notice the noise, he was used to it but not many people came to visit because they couldn’t stand it for very long.

One day a visitor came to stay in Fergie’s house. Fergie hadn’t invited him and he didn’t even know he was there until one morning, Fergie got up as usual.

He was just in the middle of washing his face when he stopped.

‘Something’s wrong,’ he said to himself. ‘Something’s not right.’

He stood and listened, the water still dripping off the end of his nose and his hands all soapy. He could hear the clocks all ticking away – the big grandfather clock with its deep slow tick….

TICK …. TOCK…..

the clock that sat on the mantelpiece with its quicker ticking…..

ticktockticktock….

and the little clocks whose ticks could hardly be heard…..

tick tock tick tock….

….yes they were all there and none of them had stopped.

But still Fergie was sure that something was wrong. He quickly dried his face and rushed downstairs. Then it dawned on him.

‘They’re ticking the wrong way,’ he said. ‘My clocks aren’t going tick tock any more, they’re going tock tick.’

He listened carefully to each one. Sure enough, every clock was going tock tick. The big grandfather clock,

TOCK….TICK

the clock on the mantelpiece,

tockticktocktick

and the little quiet clocks….

tock tick tock tick.

‘Who’s done this?’ he shouted. ‘Who’s been tampering with my clocks?’

It was then that Fergie heard a little chuckle. It was so quiet that he scarcely heard it over the ticking, or rather tocking, of the clocks.

‘A bogey-man!’ said Fergie. ‘Don’t tell me a bogey-man has moved in.’

There was another little giggle.

‘Come out, you wee rascal!’ Fergie yelled. ‘Come out and show yourself!’

But of course, the wee bogey-man didn’t.

Fergus spent all day putting his clocks right so that they went tick tock and not tock tick, and then after supper he turned his whole house upside down looking for the bogey-man. 

He didn’t find the wee man so at midnight, tired out, he gave up and went to bed.

It was very early the next morning when Fergie suddenly awoke. This time he knew at once that something was wrong. Very definitely wrong.

‘My clocks have lost their tick,’ he cried jumping out of bed and scuffling for his slippers in the half light. Sure enough, all his clocks were just going tock.

The big grandfather clock said, 

TOCK………..TOCK…………TOCK very slowly and sadly,

the clock on the mantelpiece said 

tock – tock – tock as if it had a limp 

and the little clocks seemed to start and stop all the time,

 tock. tock. tock.

Fergie was furious. ‘Just wait till I catch you, you wee menace,’ he yelled.  

The wee bogey-man just laughed. Fergie chased after it till the sun was high in the sky but he did not manage to catch it or even a glimpse of it. All he heard was its laugh leading him a merry chase.

The rest of the day Fergie spent fixing his clocks so that they all went tick tock again. That night he was so exhausted he fell into bed with his clothes and boots on. When he woke the next morning, it was to the sound of the Atlantic Ocean crashing on the shore nearby. Fergie listened for a moment then leapt out of bed.

‘Where are my clocks?’ he shouted. ‘I can’t hear any of them.’

He ran downstairs and there they all were, still keeping good time but silently. Not a tick or a tock from any of them. 

‘What have you done with all my ticks and tock, you wee pest?’ he yelled. ‘Give them back to me at once.’

But the wee bogey-man just laughed.

Fergie hunted high and low throughout the house looking for his ticks and tocks. It wasn’t until he took the lid off his teapot that he found them all crammed in and desperate to get out. It took Fergie many hours to sort out what tick went where but at last all the clocks were back to their usual tick tocking.

‘I’ve had enough,’ said Fergie, mopping his brow. ‘You win. You can have this house to yourself. I’m leaving.’

The wee bogey-man was quiet. The next morning, Fergie was surprised to find that nothing had happened to his clocks overnight, every one was ticking and tocking as it ought to.

But Fergie’s mind was made up. He hitched his pony to the cart and loaded all his belongings and all his clocks on to it. The grandfather clock with its deep

TICK…TOCK..

the clock from the mantelpiece with its

ticktocckticktock

and all the little clocks with their quiet

tick tock tick tock.

Then he shouted ‘Giddy-up!’ and he and his pony set off for a place as far away from the wee bogey-man as he could find. But the noise from the Atlantic waves crashing on the shore was so loud that Fergie didn’t hear a little laugh coming from the back of his cart!

I collected many of the poems and stories I wrote for the BBC into A Drop of Rainbow Magic   leaving blank pages for the children to use their imaginations to illustrate the stories in their own way.

For young readers

There’s a First Time for Everything

I thought for a change I’d post one of my short stories that I had published. This one was in an Australian magazine and I was delighted to buy a copy in a New Zealand newspaper shop where we were holidaying at the time. The photo, no prizes for guessing, is Sydney Harbour Bridge which we have driven across, walked across and climbed to the top of.

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There’s a First Time for Everything

“Is this your first?” I say.

She nods and chews her bottom lip. She is just so nervous. I try to think of ways to calm her. I put my hand on top of hers. It’s cold and there’s a tremor which she’s trying to conceal.

“Don’t worry. Everything will be fine, you’ll see. It’s an everyday thing; hundreds of people are doing it, no problem.”

She nods again and this time a glimmer of a half smile flickers over her features. She’s so young, it makes me feel ancient, though forty isn’t nowadays. Her pale skin has a flare of spots round her mouth as if she’s been touching them and spreading them around. Fine, mousy blonde hair falls over her eyes and her cheeks and I want to tell her to pin it back so that she can see clearly. 

As if I’ve spoken aloud, at that moment she digs into the pocket of her coat and pulls out a blue sparkly hair-band. It’s so little-girlish I can’t help smiling. She drags it over her forehead, capturing the wayward strands of her hair and revealing a high forehead which she’s obviously been trying to cover up. She looks even younger, like a modern day Alice. I grin at her, aware that I probably look like the Cheshire Cat to her, my teeth revealed in the rictus of my smile. I’m not feeling terribly confident myself.  

“I don’t want it to hurt,” she stammers. “That would be awful.”

“It won’t,” I reassure her. “Not nowadays with all those new drugs and things. Before, it used to hurt something terrible, but that’s all past. It’s all quite painless now.” I hope she doesn’t notice my crossed fingers behind my back. I can’t stand pain and I certainly don’t want to even think about it.

“I hope it won’t take too long,” she says and her voice has disappeared to a whisper. Her hands are shaking even more.

“It will be over before you know it,” I say. I take hold of both her hands to still the trembling. “Stop worrying. You’ll be fine, believe me.”

“Excuse me.” She jerks her hands away. “I have to go to the loo.”

She rushes out and leaves me alone. I look around at the equipment waiting to be used. It’s all clean and sterile, instruments neatly lined up in their plastic wrappers, Through the frosted glass of the window I can just see the vague shape of the chestnut tree in the driveway. The candles on it are large and white and pregnant with fruits to come. The branches quiver in the freshening breeze. They remind me of her hands.

When she returns, there are two red spots on her cheeks but she looks calmer.

“Feeling better?” I ask.

“Yes, thanks. It’s my first time, you see, and I don’t want to make a fool of myself.”

“You won’t,” I reassure her. “You’ll see. You’ll soon get used to it. I have every confidence in you.” But I don’t. Not with shaky hands like that.

“Take some deep breaths,” I suggest. “They’re supposed to be calming.” So she deep breathes for a few minutes, her chest rising and falling as she does. I frantically think of other ways of helping her to relax. 

“Exercise,” I say. I’ve read somewhere that exercising releases endorphins which calm you down. “Couldn’t you run round the block? Do press-ups? Touch your toes ten times?”

She’s looking at me as if I’m demented, which I admit, I’m getting close to. It’s those shaky hands. I have to drag my mind back from the horrible pictures they’re trying to sneak into my brain.

I’m just about to run out of the room myself when the door opens and a man in a white coat enters.

“Good morning Mrs Brown,” he says to me. “I’m here to supervise Janine as she does her first filling. We don’t want anything to go wrong, do we?”

“No,” we both chorus wholeheartedly.

I lie back in the dentist’s chair and watch as Janine reaches for the drill. Her hands are steady as a rock. I relax and close my eyes.

Not that any of us can go to the dentist these days! Keep safe, keep well and may your teeth stay healthy!

Coronavirus Cycling

We are pleased that our house overlooks what is unfortunately known as the Suds Basin but which has a circular cinder path around the so-called basin. As the playpark for the kids has been shut due to lockdown, this has become a popular area for the children to ride their bikes round.

suds basin

And round and round they go; some are super confident and have races with each other, the smaller siblings trying desperately to keep up with the older ones. But it’s the toddlers on their balance bikes that I love watching, from their first tentative attempts at pushing them along to eventually whizzing down the slope just as fast as the older brothers and sisters. These bikes apparently teach them how to balance quicker than  ones with stabilisers so that they can graduate to pedal bikes at a younger age.

balance bike

The first bikes at the start of the nineteenth century were like that, and known as hobbyhorses, with the young gentlemen scooting along the highways just like today’s toddlers. But as they were heavy on the shoe leather, Doc Martins being unknown then, they did not prove popular. Then in the 1830’s the pedal bike was invented; some claim that Kirkpartick Macmillan from Dumfries was the one who should be credited, and cycling really took off with women also learning to ride.

veolicpede

My own experiences of learning to ride a bike were rather fraught. My parents rode a tandem so in order that I did not curtail their outings, my father acquired an old sidecar from a motor bike and affixed it to the tandem. I did not enjoy the view, six inches from the ground, of two pairs of muscly legs, one decorated with immense  varicose veins, going like the clappers. Looking back, it’s a wonder the sidecar did not separate from the tandem as they rounded bends or rode across Glasgow’s tram lines.

tandem + sidecar c1948

I graduated eventually to a red tricycle, second-hand of course, which I had for many years until I eventually mastered the art of riding a two-wheeler. My method was to prop the bike against a wall and try to climb on putting both feet on the pedals before actually moving. If I had been able to do that, I’d have joined the circus!

jeep

Today’s children are so much more confident and it’s a great way to use their hour of exercise this way. Their parents are also joining in so maybe after lockdown eases, we’ll have many more bikes on the road and a lot less cars.

If you’re interested in what it was like growing up after World War Two, then read A Scottish Childhood, a compilation of the articles I wrote for the magazine, Scottish Memories.

Coronavirus, Cabbages and Curious Carrots

This has been an ideal opportunity for people to get out into their gardens. Sales of compost, fence paint and plants have been doing well and are even out of stock in some places. My local garden centre, though closed, has been running an excellent online ordering and delivery service so we’ve been busy, especially during this nice weather, in the garden. Thank you Merryhatton garden centre!

Ours is a new garden, (originally a block of new laid turf on a slope) so this time last year we had a wee man round to make me three raised beds, a patio area and dig out another bed so shrubs this year are coming into flower for the first time. Pieris and exocorda (Bride’s Bouquet) are in flower and remind me of our previous garden, while clematis montana is coming into bloom as well as a dwarf rhododendron.

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pieris

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exochorda (bride’s bouquet)

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clematis montana

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dwarf rhododendron

But my pride and joy are the cabbages! I planted seedlings in the autumn, covered them with fleece and left them to get on with it. We ate the first one the other night and it was so tasty and no doubt very good for us.

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Along with the cabbages, I put in carrot seedlings. They are also doing well but I’m not exactly sure what in fact they are. Typically, I can’t find the wee stick with their name anywhere so they’re either old style yellow carrots or perhaps, parsnips. The foliage is lush but not quite as carroty looking as what I grew before. Any ideas folks?

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I planted potatoes in two of the raised beds after last year’s roaring success with a crop. The chips were to die for! I got criticised last year for writing more about them than publicising my books but hey ho, you can read my books any time. And if you want to buy them, the link for one of them is at the bottom of the page.

Anyway, the potatoes are starting to appear though the ground though it will be a while before they’re ready. I wonder if we’ll still be in lockdown then? But we will hopefully have a crop of new spuds to eat with melted butter dripping over them. Yum!

 

Coronavirus: Jigsaw Joys

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Halfway there!

These strange days, jigsaws are enjoying a surge in popularity. They’re a cheap way of passing the time, engaging the mind and achieving a feeling of fulfilment on their completion. I find it very relaxing to rummle* through a box of jigsaw pieces until I find a piece I’m looking for. It is so satisfying to click it into place and make a little more of the picture appear.

Here are 5 facts about Jigsaws you may not have known:

1)    The first jigsaw was made by an English cartographer, John Spilsbury in 1767. He painted a map on to a flat piece of wood and cut round the boundaries of the countries.  He called them Dissected Maps and used them to teach children geography.

2)   They weren’t called jigsaws until around 1900, after the tool used to cut them out  and even then it was a misnomer – they were cut with a fretsaw. But the term ‘fretsaw’ doesn’t quite have that ring to it.

3)    At the start of the twentieth century, jigsaws looked very different to today’s. They were cut around blocks of colour with no transferring of detail across pieces so there was no way of knowing which piece went where. Neither did the pieces interlock so a hasty move could upset the whole thing and spoil hours of effort. On top of which, puzzles didn’t come with a picture, although they were given a title which could be misleading, so there was no way of knowing what you were creating. In fact, having a picture of the completed puzzle was regarded as cheating.

4)   During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, jigsaws were very popular as a cheap form of entertainment. They were now made from cardboard and could be mass produced and hence inexpensive. Companies used them as giveaways promoting their products and as advertisements.

5)   Jigsaws are now laser-cut and can range in size from 4 pieces to over 50,000. The largest jigsaw (though it is debated) was constructed in Vietnam in 2018  by the University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The puzzle (an image of a lotus flower) was 48 feet by 76 feet and contained 551,232 pieces.

6)   Ok, I can’t count! In March 2020, the jigsaw manufacturer, Ravensburger, reported a 370% increase in sales. There are a lot of us out there in isolation, rummling through a box of pieces looking for the right one.

*  rummle: a Scots word meaning to search through a pile of stuff eg your underwear drawer, a box of jigsaw pieces, looking for something that you can use.

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Finished!

Coronavirus: Pandemics in the Past

This is an article I wrote on the history of pandemics in Scotland.

Scotland and its Pandemics

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As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world, we are controlled by government restrictions as to what we may do. All schools and non-essential shops and businesses are closed, all places of entertainment and leisure are shut, while leaving our home is restricted to once a day for fresh air and exercise, and vulnerable people are to stay isolated for anything up to 12 weeks and perhaps beyond. All social gatherings are banned. Those who do not obey are fined.

Nurses and doctors wear protective equipment and patients are isolated. Curbs are put on panic buying and foreign travel is heavily restricted. 

And yet, this is not a modern way of coping with an epidemic. A 16th century Scot would be only too familiar with such clamp downs on personal freedoms. These type of restrictions in the face of a pandemic are centuries old.

One of the first recorded reports of a pandemic was by a monk by the name of Bower, from the monastery at Inchcolm. Plague had entered Scotland in 1349 from trade with Asia via Mediterranean countries and killed two-thirds of the population, including 24 canons in St Andrews who were infected from attending the dying.  In 1361, it struck again, killing one-third of the population.

1498-99 saw the plague revisit Edinburgh and the Lothians and restrictions were put in place. All taverns and schools were closed and there was a 10pm curfew. All residents had to take a turn guarding the town gates to prevent the entry of food and goods from infected areas. Any English cloth brought in had to be burnt. Punishments for disobeying those rules were banishment or death. 

In Haddington in East Lothian, dogs and pigs had to be kept in a yard rather than roaming the streets. Children found out and about were put in stocks and whipped, a teacher running a school would be banished while all shops and stalls were closed.

The need to cleanse contaminated places was recognised. Cleaners were employed at the rate of 12p a day to wash and smoke out infected houses.

In Edinburgh in 1500, more restrictions were introduced. The main market in the Lawnmarket was closed and anyone bringing in goods without permission was punished; women were branded on the cheek and men had a hand cut off.

All members of a household with a plague victim had to avoid contact with anyone for 12 days.

1505 saw further regulations. Illness must be reported within 12 hours and each close had to have two people in charge of identifying those who were ill and organising the cleansing of their abode.

plague-doctor

Plague Doctor

Plague continued to be a problem until 1514 with even stricter rules coming into force. Clearing of rubbish was instigated and all beggars and indigents were driven out of the city.

But by 1530, the plague had returned and continued to do so until the early 17th century. Punishments were still harsh, branding being a popular choice though a man who attended church, knowing his wife had the plague, was hanged.

The importance of cleansing the homes and goods of those infected was recognised and in Edinburgh in 1574, John Forrest was appointed to be in charge on pain of execution if his efforts at containing the plague were not successful. Apparently he succeeded,  as in 1585 he was again in charge of cleansing houses and homes deemed to be infected.

Those with plague were taken out to the Burgh Muir as were their contacts, where they were kept separately. Others were kept shut in their homes with food and drink being supplied until they either died or recovered. The townspeople were not to congregate around the close mouths and the muck and ordure was to be removed from the streets.

The Great Plague of 1665 in England did not reach Scotland though sporadic outbreaks occurred over the next two hundred years.

The last instance of bubonic plague happened in August 1900 in Glasgow in the Gorbals. Situated down by the River Clyde where ships from abroad were docking and foreign sailors coming ashore, it was no wonder that the plague was brought there from the many other overseas ports infected with it. At first it was thought to be typhoid which was much more common then, especially in the overcrowded and unsanitary houses in the Gorbals area. But a doctor recognised the symptoms of plague and measures were immediately introduced.

Rats were suspected of being the carriers and an army of rat-catchers was sent out to try to eradicate the creatures. Glasgow at that time, was well used to outbreaks of infectious diseases and its hospital system, although pre-dating the National Health Service by almost 50 years, was prepared and ready to deal with the outbreak. Its quick response meant that, in all, the plague was confined to a few streets in the area with 35 people infected and 16 dying. 

1n 1898, it had been shown that it was the fleas on rats which were responsible for spreading the disease, but the Glasgow public health authorities suspected that human contact was transmitting it. With the overcrowded conditions in the Gorbals at that time, the rate of spread suggested just that. The Medical Officer for Health immediately set up an investigation and identified Mrs B, a fish hawker as being the first person to fall ill along with her grand-daughter. They then identified anyone who had attended her wake and quarantined them. In support, the Catholic Church banned wakes of those who had succumbed to the plague. The plague was then successfully contained and quickly eliminated.

plague streets

Spread of the plague, Glasgow 1900

Recent research in 2019 by the University of Oslo found that indeed, the authorities were correct in suspecting human contact to be the means of transmission and that the killing of rats did very little to control the plague. Had the authorities not responded so quickly in identifying and quarantining those infected as well as their contacts, the plague could have spread beyond those few streets.

We have become complacent over the years with the advent of antibiotics and other medicines but now we are faced with a pandemic that is out of control and which does not respond to the medicines we have. We have reduced our medical facilities to a bare minimum, now inadequate and unable to cope with such a spread of disease. So we are having to fall back on to the old ways, used for centuries and effective if strictly applied and endorsed with severe punishments. 

We have a long way to go before Covid 19 is eradicated – for the time being. Let’s hope the lessons from history will be learnt.