Where are all the time travellers?

In 2009, Stephen Hawking held a party in Cambridge. No one came. After the event, he sent out invitations to time travellers from the future to attend. Since none of them had shown up, he claimed this as experimental evidence that time travel is not possible.

He raises a fair question: if time travel is possible, then where are all the time travellers?

Hawking’s light-hearted experiment is far from conclusive, of course. Here are four possible reasons for the absence of visitors from the future, one or more of which might explain the no-shows.

1) Time travel takes a lot of energy.

Science fiction focuses on the idea of sending actual people, bodies and all, back in time. It’s obviously a great advantage from a storytelling perspective, but viewed scientifically, it makes little sense.

“That meeting could have been an email.” These days we don’t, as a rule, send people halfway around the world on an aeroplane when a video conference works just as well. Why? Energy.

The argument holds up even more strongly with time travel, which we’d have to assume  would be far trickier – and, without entering into the possible mechanics of it, more energetic – than geographical travel.

An extraterrestrial observer of Earth might ask, “If humans have discovered nuclear technology, then where are all the nuclear explosions?” If time travel turns out to be as energetic and potentially dangerous, it’s perfectly conceivable that it will be regulated by the same sort of restrictions we place on nuclear power and weaponry. Hence no trips to Cambridge 2009 for a party, however congenial the host.

2) Time travel kills the time traveller.

Let’s run with this energy idea. We’d rather send an email or text message than a human messenger carrying bits of paper. For similar reasons, it’s not really plausible that we’d send an actual human back in time. Presumably at some point in the process we’d have to disassemble the molecules of the traveller’s body and put them back together. Putting aside the Trigger’s Broom question of whether that would actually be the same person, or just a copy, I struggle to think of a method via which ripping someone’s entire body apart to the level of individual molecules wouldn’t kill them.

Okay you say, but what if we could digitise consciousness, and send that back in time, to be placed in another brain and body, whether that would be artificial or some sort of permanent or temporary donor? In that case, you’d still be left with the original person at the transmitting end of the process – effectively, you’ve produced a clone, rather than an actual time traveller.

So if the process leads to the death, or at least the problematic cloning, of a human being, it’s not something you’d do for frivolous reasons.

In fact, the more you think about it as a serious proposition, the less sense it makes that you’d decide to send an actual human back in time, whether you’re talking about their entire body or just their consciousness. Why not just send a message? What are you trying to achieve?

Which brings us to our third question.

3) What’s the point?

So it’s likely that time travel would be a difficult, costly (in terms of energy and money), and dangerous process. The question would therefore be: what’s the object of the exercise?

Again, with the aim of constructing interesting stories, science fiction tends to concentrate on a “many-worlds” or “multiple timelines” approach, where a time traveller can go back to a point in history and change something, thereby altering the future and perhaps avoiding some global catastrophe.

Our experience of time doesn’t really back that up though. The past has already happened. If time travellers have gone back in time, whatever the consequences of their actions, we’re already living with them. It’s a tricky concept for us to accept on a philosophical level – what becomes of free will for those time travellers, if whatever they do leads to a future which they know is already fixed? But that’s more of a problem for us rather than Physics – from the point of view of the latter, a “fixed single timeline” model makes far more sense. Indeed, quantum physicists are finding and discussing instances of potential “retrocausality” – events in the present being determined by events in the future. Free will may not come into it, on a subatomic level at least.

“One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem with changing the course of history—the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.” – Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

If that is the case, then you’d have to ask: what exactly would be the point of travelling backwards in time? If history can’t be changed, then what is there to be gained in a perilous and costly trip to visit it?

Any or all of these might well be a factor. But there’s one more point which provides sufficient explanation on its own.

4) Time travel requires a receiver as well as a transmitter.

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he didn’t immediately have the ability to contact anyone in the world remotely. He could only talk to the one man who also had a telephone.  Since that’s a far simpler process than time travel, why wouldn’t the same principle hold?

Again, science fiction is largely fixated on the ability to send people back to any point in space and time. But how would that location be identified and fixed – especially the spatial element? It would clearly require a second set of equipment, which by definition hasn’t been invented yet. Just as Professor Bell couldn’t call anyone who lived beyond the reaches of his nascent telephone network, so time travellers can’t reach any location where time travel hasn’t been invented yet, because there’s no one to pick up the phone.

In other words, time travel into the past is – or should I say, will be – only possible as far as the point in history at which time travel is invented, and not before.

And that’s why no one came to Professor Hawking’s party.



Further reading / viewing, which deal with plausible models of time travel, or other aspects discussed here :

Books: Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan) , Re:Zero (Tappei Nagatsuki), The Order of Time (Carlo Rovelli)

TV: Westworld (HBO, Seasons 1 & 2)

Movies: Bill and Ted (1989/1991), Predestination (2014)

Posted in Books, Cinema, Mathematics, physics, Science, Science Fiction, Time travel, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Coronaclassical 9: Opening Up

Strong reactions emerged over the weekend to leaked reports that the UK is about to allow orchestras and choirs to return to work, with severe conditions of 3-metre distancing and limits on numbers in the same room (eight instrumentalists, or six singers). It’s struck a nerve coming at the same time as flights are resuming and shops are re-opening. If it’s safe to go to Primark, why can’t we be allowed to make music properly?

I fully understand – and share – musicians’ frustrations, especially when so many of us have been left in the financial lurch by the eccentric gaps in the UK government’s support schemes. We need to get back to work. But we also need to take care. For one thing, sitting in the same room with colleagues for several hours at a time is clearly not an equivalent situation to spending twenty minutes whizzing around a large shop. (Although spare a thought for the shop workers on their long shifts.) The time element of viral load continues to be overlooked in favour of distance, but it’s at least as vital.

Evidence continues to emerge that asymptomatic carriers are major spreaders of the virus, and so relying on self-reporting or temperature checks isn’t enough to ensure safety. This isn’t just a case of trusting your colleagues not to turn up and cough all over you.

Furthermore, as the increasing advice to wear masks should tell us, the sense that the spread of the virus takes place in the air at least as much as it does via surfaces is increasing almost daily – although this might be much clearer if our politicians allowed themselves to admit the possibility that they got it wrong at the start. And other signs show us that this may be, above all, an indoor virus.

Perhaps, despite all that, we’re willing to take the risk. That may well be our impulse now, but professional orchestras do tend to be acutely aware of even relatively minor health and safety risks to their members – and quite rightly so. Would hacking away at the safest scientific advice in the interests of an early return to work really stand up to that level of scrutiny?

As I’ve discussed before, a health risk of, say, 1% might seem negligible to us as individuals. But put 1000 people in an auditorium, and that translates to the near-certainty of an event – not necessarily exactly 10 people each time, but even if we’re lucky and it’s only one, try picking out the unfortunate individual whose health or even life you think is worth sacrificing. The Indigo audience survey showed clearly that our supporters have misgivings about the safety of returning to venues too soon. We need to earn their trust, and sending out the message that our livelihoods take priority over their health is not the way to do that.

It will continue to be increasingly frustrating for us to watch colleagues in other countries return to work earlier than us, reaping the rewards of more competent governments, many of which have also been far swifter and more generous in their financial support of the arts.

But we can’t fight facts, and the worst approach to opening back up would be to lurch through a tentative first step and then swiftly have to take two backwards. To get through this, we need to get the virus under control nationally. We need an effective system of rapid testing, so performers and audiences can sit together knowing that they aren’t infecting each other. And in the meantime we need financial support to ensure we’re all still here ready to go when it’s safe to do so.

The remedies are clear, but they’re not easy nor painless to apply. Frantically searching for less gruelling alternative treatments is, I respectfully suggest, a waste of time and energy. Let’s buckle up and take the medicine.


Posted in Art, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, Science, singing, Theatre, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A4 Avant

This is an Audi A4 Avant TFSi: “T” because it’s got a turbo, “F” because – you know what, I have no idea. Letters on the back of cars are like the medals on the Duke of Edinburgh’s uniform: you assume he earned the first couple but at some point they just started lobbing them on there like kids’ sticky darts. “Avant” is Audisch for “Estate”, which I can’t explain either. Maybe it’s a comment about what eventually happens to members of the avant-garde, they end up driving business-grey German family estates.


I hope you like this picture, for which I had to break several traffic laws. It was taken on the Afsluitsdijk, which is a 20-mile causeway between Friesland and North Holland, the building of which created a 1100 square-kilometre freshwater lake. The Dutch are really into that sort of thing, and you would be too if your entire country was below sea level. Along the Afsluitsdijk there are several points at which you can stop and buy a souvenir so that you can remember the great time you had staring at the vast grey nothingness of the North Sea and being unimaginably cold.

As you will already have noted, this car is a bit classier than usual, and its job was to drive me on a 900km audition round-trip. I could have kept the car from Budget for a couple of extra days, and if I’d had known it was going to be the Volvo I might well have, but on the other hand, as I explained before, it could have been a Hyundai. Of course you could turn up to an audition in a Hyundai, just as you could walk on stage dressed as Nick Slaughter from Tropical Heat, and when the casting director asks for your CV you could hand him a turd in a shoe box; but in these matters there’s could and there is should.

In other words this was some sort of attempt to give the impression of being a serious grown-up professional, and that’s exactly what this car is – it is serious and grown-up and professional.

The A4 is a modern design classic, neither frozen in time for fear of buggering it up like the Fiat 500 or the Mini, nor actually buggered up by misguided tinkering like the Honda Civic. Every update to the A4 has given it slightly pointier elbows and a slightly more furrowed brow, showing that its design team know exactly what the car is all about. It is serious and grown-up and it means business.

I will pull it up on two points. Firstly, the built-in sat nav is like having a Commodore 64 in the dashboard. It’s so horrible that I drove straight around the block and back to my front door to pick up my Tom Tom. Fine, you can switch it off but it’s odd to lumber half your dashboard with something so useless. Secondly, the stalk for Resume Cruise Control is right next to the stalk for FLASH THE DRIVER IN FRONT OF YOU LIKE AN ARSEHOLE IN AN AUDI, which might explain a lot about the reputation of Audi drivers, and certainly left me wishing I knew the hand signal for Es Tut Mir Leid.

Other than that everything about this car is good, the engine is good, the ride is good, the gearbox (Audi’s trademark superfluous 5th gear notwithstanding) is good, the interior is good, fuel economy is good, load carrying from Ikea is good. It’s all good. And it’s very very good at driving on motorways, and even better on Autobahns, where it will drive extremely fast with only the slightest raise of an eyebrow. In fact, after 900km not a single thing about it bugged me – I’m almost certain it’s the least annoying car I’ve ever driven.

The thing is, there’s that involuntary moment after you’ve been married for a while when a stunning woman in a crowd turns your head, and then on closer inspection you realise it’s your wife, and you know that if you were single you’d marry her all over again. If that sort of feeling is a factor in your choice of car, an Audi A4 Avant is never going to make your heart skip a beat when you catch its eye across a crowded room. But on the other hand, being the least annoying car ever as a basis for wedded bliss also has a lot to commend it.

Rented from: Sixt Den Haag
Country of origin: Deutschland
Country of use: The Netherlands / Deutschland

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1800cc turbo
Power: 88
Performance: 84
Handling: 74
Style: 72
Comfort: 81
Luggage: 87
Max passengers: 4
Drivetrain: FWD
VFM: 8/10

Written and originally published March 2016

Posted in Cars, Hire Car Top Trumps, Motoring, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coronaclassical 8: Freelancers and Impotence


PARENTAL ADVISORY: this article contains bad language and adult subject matter.

Sir Arnold: Power goes with permanence.

Sir Humphrey: Impermanence is impotence.

Sir Arnold: And rotation is castration.

– Yes Minister, Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay


“If you saw it, then why didn’t you report it?”

It’s a good question. A friend has recently moved to a new job in the classical music world, and has just had her eyes opened to the industry’s not-so-proud tradition of sexual harassment for the first time. It’s not the first thing she asks me. The first thing she asks me is,

“What the fuck is the matter with all these wankers?” 

Another good question, to be fair.

As the conversation continues, she asks if I’ve ever witnessed any such behaviour myself. The honest answer is only once, kind of. 

I’m sitting in an armchair in a dressing room at a major opera house. Watching the clock, trying not to watch my colleague changing. She’s asked me to be here as some sort of chaperone/bodyguard – there must be a technical term for it, but I skipped most of my music theory exams – since a senior colleague in a position of authority has been doing the rounds of the dressing rooms, conveniently enough always during the point in the female singers’ pre-show routine where they’re in their underwear. Make-up, wigs and costumes often have to go on in a particular order, so changing the routine isn’t an option. Neither is locking the door – they can’t be secured from the inside, and anyone backstage seems to be able to get in if they want to. Sure enough, regular as clockwork, here he is. Slightly taken aback to find his quarry with company. He takes it in his stride, courteous and charming, although I am not charmed. The rest of the evening passes without incident. I perform the same function twice more, and for the final performance (I’ve flown home by this point) she arranges for another trustworthy friend to be present. She later relates that the Lothario appears to realise what is going on by now, but again, all passes without further incident and that’s that.

That’s as close to first hand as I’ve ever been. I’m lucky: as a heterosexual man, I’m almost never on the receiving end of sexual harassment, and if I have been then I’m almost certainly too stupid to have noticed. Why didn’t I report it? I think about it a lot. 

Firstly, I didn’t really witness anything untoward – my presence was intended to prevent that, and it worked. So in itself my testimony wouldn’t add up to much. Secondly, my colleague didn’t want to take the matter any further, and it was her story to tell or not, as she saw fit. Had she decided to pursue it, I hope I’d have been brave enough to back her up.

But the truth is, I’d have to take a very deep breath before reporting any such case. And that’s because I’m a freelance artist, and potential victim of harassment or not, I’m dispensable, and therefore vulnerable.


In her scintillating book Opera, or the Undoing of Women, Catherine Clément speculates that the reason opera houses so often demand that their prima donnas are foreign is less to do with the lure of the exotic, and more about removing them from their native environment and support network, increasing their vulnerability and ensuring they don’t get too powerful. As with most of her more compelling hypotheses, it applies to all singers, not just her fragile divas. Like any singer, I’ve occasionally been on the end of some pretty rancid behaviour, and when it’s happened abroad all I’ve wanted to do is get home safely in one piece. The idea of pursuing justice and correction is a long way from my mind.

There does appear to be a rule of thumb the world over that a huge number of singers rarely, if ever, appear at their “home” company. It’s a global art form, and there’s generally a glut of supply, so casting directors have a whole planet of singers to choose from. But you do look at some cast lists, taken over an extended period, and wonder at the absence of local talent. Audiences, meanwhile, often don’t seem to realise that singers don’t get to choose where we sing – we have to wait to be invited.

My colleague Axel was an exception, having appeared regularly as a freelance guest artist for his home opera company with great success. After many years of dedicated service, he moved to live elsewhere. Before leaving, he took the trouble to tell the company’s director (a non-native) that he’d be delighted to come back any time he could be of use to them, since appearing there meant so much to him. He was told that he should be grateful for what he’d been given. He hasn’t been invited back since. The colonial masters have spoken.

My point is, a singer who finds herself the target of harassment at work might first turn to her fellow cast members for support, only to find that they are in many ways as vulnerable as she is – freelance visitors, far from home, interchangeable and dispensable, however willing they are to help. Increasingly this may even apply to the chorus, and sometimes even the orchestra too. 

This wasn’t always the case. The last remnants of it have all but died away in the UK, but a generation or two ago, opera houses had a backbone of permanent company principals: a genuine company of artists. Far easier, with that far greater degree of security, for singers to call out bad behaviour by colleagues, or to support them when they’re the victims of it. Not that sexual harassment wasn’t prevalent in the old days… but if anything our current situation makes it even harder to deal with.

Might we return to such a system? The answers to our current problems surely lie ahead of us, not behind, and even before this extraordinary crisis, the world had changed. Aside from anything else, permanent singers cost a UK company more than freelancers, with National Insurance, holiday pay, pensions and so on to be thrown into the mix. Our new friend Rishi Sunak has been one of the more impressive members of the government during the current crisis – admittedly that’s leaping over a bar which is not so much low as subterranean – but you sense his largesse might not last much longer, and already fresh rumblings about the supposedly privileged status of the Self Employed have been emerging from his direction. Canny employers will already have been looking closely at the fine detail of the IR35 legislation in preparation for potential battles ahead.

However, we face more urgent problems. The state will, we hope, at some point soon step in to ensure that our most valuable arts organisations and institutions don’t go bankrupt and disappear forever. But as freelance musicians, we rely entirely on performance fees as the mechanism for passing on the industry’s funds to us. In an era where few if any of us are permanently affiliated to a company, when those companies aren’t giving performances, how can the industry accurately target support for us too? Assuming that safeguarding our futures is considered as important as doing the same for buildings and administrative staff, that is.

No one made much fuss while it was happening, but perhaps companies are also beginning to realise what they lost when their permanent principals were quietly allowed to drift away without being replaced. The recent situation at the Royal Opera, where a performance of Don Carlo had to be cancelled since there was no cover for the lead soprano, and no time to fly anyone in from elsewhere (international opera’s addiction to carbon-intensive solutions to foreseeable problems is a topic for another time), would never have happened in the old days, old lags assure me, when there would have been several Elisabettas in the House at any one time.

Given time, any system will eventually expose its own flaws. It’s all very well taking down a figurehead like Placido Domingo, but if you leave intact the system that allowed him that amount of unchecked power, you’ve achieved nothing. Domingo should know that well enough himself, given how often he’s been on stage at the end of Tosca; even when Scarpia dies, the soprano still loses. 

Power corrupts, and positions of unsupervised power will tend to attract those who are least well-equipped to resist the corruption. It’s entirely right that the accusations against him were taken seriously and that he faces the consequences, but once the dust settles it’s the system that produced and enabled Domingo which needs closest examination. Any industry which allows as a matter of course, for example, a situation where certain male artists are only allocated male wardrobe and make-up assistants, keeping female employees well away from those dressing rooms for their own protection, has more fundamental problems than the behaviour of one individual, however prominent.

“If you saw it, why didn’t you report it?”

Power goes with permanence. This job is, has somehow become, my life. I hate it and I love it and I can’t live without it. Every time I stick my head above the parapet, I risk losing that: casting is a subjective process, and choosing one singer over another for a role, whatever the real reasons, cannot be challenged and requires no justification. I’m expendable. I know it. They know it. They know that I know it.

Impermanence is impotence. I’m scared to speak up. I want to work. I want the conductor, director, casting director, designer, critics, sponsors, audience, colleagues, company managers, chorus, wardrobe assistants, the guy who does the stage door night shift and the taxi driver on the way home, to like me. Because I want to be invited back. To be a freelance artist is to live your life like a startled rabbit, constantly checking for potential danger to your career. I want to help, to be an ally. But above everything else, I’m scared, an addict terrified of being denied his drug.

Rotation is castration. What would change that? Is there a way to keep us in one place for longer? To feel we belong, so that we can set the standards, draw the lines? To allow some of us to put down a few roots for once? Give us permanence, and with it will come the power to speak out. Then, perhaps, some of us might be able to help. If we’re brave enough.

Posted in Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, Theatre, Travel, What they don't teach you at music college | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Coronaclassical 7: Living with Covid-19

Reproduced here is a series of Tweets I sent out on April 19th, soon after recovering from the main symptoms of Covid-19. Day 1 was March 30th – I’m now exactly two months in, and the symptoms have all cleared except for the shortness of breath, which reappeared a couple of weeks ago. Doctors seem to think that should improve slowly, although as they point out there’s no way of knowing for certain, since at this stage no-one in the world has had this disease for more than six months.

1. Since many of you have been asking – here’s a brief rundown of my experience of life with “mild” #COVID19. Firstly – I’m alive and feeling almost like myself for the first time in over 2 weeks. I just had a cup of coffee and it was great.

2. Because I avoided hospital and pneumonia, technically my case was mild. In reality, it was anything but. I’ve had shellfish poisoning a couple of times, and the closest analogy is that it was as bad as that, but in slow motion over a couple of weeks rather than a couple of days.

3. Days 1-3 were a mild cough. Day 4 I made chicken soup at lunchtime and then collapsed into bed just feeling hot and exhausted. Day 5 I perked up again.

4. Day 6 was when it really hit – a proper fever (38-39 degrees), extreme fatigue, cough deepening causing an inability to breathe properly.

5. Day 7 those symptoms worsened, and on Day 8 I was in trouble – my breathing had quickened and shallowed, the fever wouldn’t shift and I was alternating between shivering and sweating uncontrollably. Extreme fatigue and drowsiness, and almost complete loss of appetite.

6. My heartbeat was rapid and erratic, and blood oxygen levels getting towards dangerously low levels. I had a bag packed for hospital at this point.

7. I got some antibiotics for the cough – to cover any possible bacterial infection – via NHS-111. Hard to know whether they helped – I did seem to produce a bit of gunk once they kicked in, but the fever remained persistent.

8. Day 9 was a bit better and just enough to keep me out of hospital. I was still struggling with fever, extreme fatigue and drowsiness – sleeping 18-20 hours a day – diarrhoea, nausea, tingly skin, and more than anything with breathing – it felt impossible to get enough oxygen.

9. Day 10 – 14 were very similar, with the symptoms seeming to take it in turns to give me a proper going-over. As soon as one aspect improved, another would kick in. The impossibility of getting into a rhythm of being ill was one of the things which made it so exhausting.

10. At this point my partner was also down with Covid, and with two kids at home we were grateful for the stockpiling – and the emergency supply package from the amazing Melinda Hughes. 

11. Day 12 (Good Friday) I got seen by a GP at a special Covid hub centre – the effort of getting dressed and driving over there made me feel like I was going to collapse. But my oxygen levels seemed good – and improved with mild activity – and my chest sounded ok. Reassuring. 

12. I’d had a constant fever for over a week by now, and I was beginning to have trouble working out what was going on. I’ve been watching Breaking Bad, and kept waking up thinking the house was surrounded by police and worrying about where all my illicit dollars were stashed etc. 

13. From around Day 16 onwards things began slowly to pick up. The diarrhoea had eased, although my appetite was still non-existent, & there were periods where my temperature dropped to near-normal. I began to go for short walks around the block after dark, which felt like marathons.

14. That gradual improvement continued. This is now Day 21, and I’ve been more or less fever-free without paracetamol for three or four days now. My breathing feels almost normal, the cough is a lot better, and I’m only sleeping for 12 hours a day or so. 

15. So I’m almost feeling myself again. Hope that’s useful and answers a lot of your questions. 

16. Bear in mind, all this comes under “mild symptoms”. In reality it completely wiped me out for two weeks and more. Worth considering when we’re thinking about the practicalities of  lifting lockdowns etc.

17. PS advice re preparing for getting hit: do stockpile! Think about a week or two where you really can’t go out, how would you cope? Especially if you’ve got kids, pets, dependents etc.

18. You’ll need paracetamol – two weeks’ worth is 7 packs of 16. (Bear in mind you can only buy two packs of pain killers at a time.) Think about where you’re going to ride this out. You’ll need a lot of comfortable, loose clothing – because of fever sweats I was having to change clothes 2 or 3 times a day at some points. Get a desk fan.

19. You’ll also need lots of fluids – 2-3 litres a day, and you probably won’t feel like eating or drinking anything. Keep track of how much you’re drinking. Get a reliable thermometer and a blood oxygen monitor if you can.

20. Most importantly, do NOT get sucked into the nonsense of “battling” the illness, carrying on as normal, stiff upper lip and plough through it etc. This isn’t a war. Get yourself organised, cancel everything and go to bed. You fight a virus lying down.

21. For some context – because I avoided hospital I haven’t been tested, but my partner tested positive on Day 4 of my symptoms, so in my case we’re 99% certain.

22. I’m mid-40s and otherwise fit and healthy, and I do breath control for a living. Those breathing exercises really do help and I can’t see any harm in starting now if you can stand it.

I hope that proves useful to someone. If anyone has any further questions please don’t hesitate to drop me a line. Singers in particular may find this excellent article by Molly Noori of interest for further reading – the pattern of her symptoms is remarkably similar to mine: Can I Sing Yet? 


Posted in Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Science, singing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A1

When I was learning to drive in my mother’s 950cc Fiesta, there were four gears and life was a lot simpler. You knew where you stood with four gears. First was for starting off, second was for going slow, fourth was for going fast, and third was for getting from slow to fast. The best gear was third, because the most fun thing about driving isn’t going fast, it’s accelerating, by which I mean the Physics definition of accelerating, which includes going round corners. Which you did in third. The thing is, at the time, when you were in third, you always thought you wanted to be in fourth sometime very soon, so you never really appreciated third gear while you were in it.

At some point soon after that they made a fifth gear, which was sort of fine because you just got to fourth and then eventually remembered there was another one up and across and so that was fifth.


This is an Audi A1 Sportback S-Line and it has six gears. On paper I thought this would be a good thing on the basis of more-is-more. In practice and with hindsight I think five is plenty if you’re not planning on driving at 100mph+. What six gears means is that whichever gear you’re in, it never feels like the right one – a feeling which is exacerbated by the car, like most modern cars, constantly nagging you about which gear it thinks you should be in. They should just admit what they’re up to and have Patricia Routledge do voice recordings of the whole range of carps. I took fourth as a test case and tried to find a speed at which Hyacinth was happy with me staying in this gear for more than fifty yards. I can report back that fourth gear on an Audi A1 is designed for going at a constant 43mph.

There is also an Audi thing called Drive Select (or that’s what the button said), which allows you to choose between two modes called ‘Dynamic’, which is fun but burns a lot of fuel, correction, which is fun because it burns a lot of fuel, and ‘Efficiency’, which is a lot cheaper but should really be called ‘950cc Fiesta emulator’. The point of shelling out for the sporty model is presumably that it’s more entertaining than the cheaper versions, an experience almost immediately ruined by having one’s inner Hyacinth querying whether we should really be burning this much petrol when there’s a perfectly good and much more economical alternative available at the press of a button.

In S-Line version the handling is very good, at the expense of having a ride quality which feels like when you used to go sledging but only had one sledge between three of you which your big brother would hog so you’d end up having to go down the solid-ice rock-studded sledge slope in a bin bag.

Also it had a built-in Sat Nav with the world’s stupidest route planner, meaning that when I was looking for the Celtic Manor I ended up in McDonald’s. Although perhaps that was just another manifestation of Efficiency mode.

So look, this car popped up on the Avis website as a guaranteed-model option (for an extra twenty quid or so) – that’s worth looking out for if you’re hiring and you like cars. I was quite excited at the prospect of having it for a weekend, and in the end if it wasn’t quite as much fun as I’d hoped then that’s probably my fault more than the car’s (including the fact that it turned out to be a colour which I’ve always reserved exclusively for my first Ferrari). And when I had to hand the keys back I was genuinely sad for a moment.

The thing is, if it came to buying one, I’m not sure who this car is for. If I had been born female I would have been called Jennifer, so my parents tell me. Jennifer Jones would have felt that the A1 Sportback is cute but not as stylish as a Fiat 500 or Mini, not as tidily efficient as a Polo, and not as much fun as one of those mental Fiestas like off the remake of The Sweeney.

As for male manifestations of current selves, what blokes, unless they’re undertakers or harpists, really want in a car is a boot. That’s because the boot is the automotive equivalent of the shed – it’s a place down the end of the thing where a bloke can put Stuff and forget about it for six months. Show me a man in a hatchback and I’ll show you a man who feels there’s something missing in his life but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Unless he owns a shed.

Rented from: Avis Birmingham Airport
Country of origin: Germany
Country of use: UK

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1400cc
Power: 77/100
Performance: 82/100
Handling: 88/100
Style: 75/100
Comfort: 46/100
Luggage: 60/100
Max passengers: 3
Drivetrain: FWD
Value For Money: 8/10

Written and originally published February 2016

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Coronaclassical 6: Fine Dining at Fast Food Prices

A pair of photos has been doing the rounds this week. One shows the interior of a crowded plane. The other shows a theatre in Germany, with an audience of 200 sitting socially-distanced in a 1000-seat auditorium.

Several singers have shared the diptych, most seemingly under the impression that it provides a watertight case for re-opening theatres immediately.

Meanwhile, the first results of Indigo’s After The Interval survey of UK audiences were published, and the report makes fascinating reading. In particular, two figures caught my eye. In response to the question “Would any of the following help you to feel safe and comfortable going to an event at a venue again?”, the most popular answer was “Limits on the number who can attend” at 76%. Later in the survey, the same audience was asked how, if at all, they’d be willing to contribute financially in order to help companies ensure a successful re-opening after the economic challenges of lockdown. The least popular answer by some distance was “Increasing ticket prices”, a mere 18% replying that they’d be up for that.

The two photos were originally posted by my fellow bass-baritone Michael Volle, and the flight seems to have been from Berlin to Wiesbaden (or nearby), where the concert was taking place. It’s a short trip, and Germany appears to have its epidemic pretty well under control. Leaving aside the question of why so many people chose to fly a 500km journey (are we really still doing that in 2020?), the implied question of most of the re-posters is: if the plane is safe, how come the theatre isn’t?

A more fundamental question might well be: is that plane really safe? Believe me, this is the first time I’ve ever seen singers point at a photo of a crowded plane cabin and tell us how perfectly healthy it looks. Furthermore, with two-thirds of commercial airlines’ fleets reportedly grounded, the idea that it’s business as usual for them seems a little tenuous.

(A more pertinent question might be whether bailing out airlines is the best use of public money, when, for example, arts organisations and individual artists could be financially protected for a fraction of the cost.)

As for the sparsely-populated theatre, you’d want to know whether the audience enjoyed it (although since the excellent Mr Volle was singing I’d imagine they very much did), and would they be willing to come back regularly under the same circumstances? Did they maintain social distancing on the way in and out, and would they have been able to do so had there been an emergency evacuation? Does a magic distance of 2 metres really give you indefinite protection from an infected neighbour, even over the course of two or three hours?

And, the bottom line, did they pay five times the price of a regular ticket in order to be part of an audience one-fifth the size? Everything else aside, you’d assume that at least the airline made a tidy profit on that crowded flight.

The Indigo results suggest that the answer to that last question would be, for most of the UK public at least, an emphatic: No. Even if, courtesy of some Houdini-level contortionism, you could squeeze half the usual audience in and maintain safe distancing, mere double-price tickets wouldn’t cut the mustard: for 82% of respondents any increase at all in prices would be unmanageable or unacceptable, despite the fact that almost as great a majority want to see a substantial decrease in audience numbers.

It seems a huge contradiction in terms. Of course we’re being a little unfair – we don’t know that exactly the same people answered both questions, and even if they did, were the two factors to be linked more closely in a different survey, the numbers would almost certainly shift closer.

Even so, there’s the problem in a nutshell: people want an improved product, but they don’t want to pay for it. In the UK it’s a particular issue, and not just with the arts. It’s at the core of British politicians’ problems over the National Health Service, which is free at the point of delivery, funded directly from tax. But for at least a quarter of a century the idea of raising income tax, for example, has been off the table. Even the last Labour leadership, the most left-wing for a generation, was only able to suggest tinkering a little at the upper margins for fear of making themselves electorally untouchable.

As with the British taxpayer, our average British theatre- or concert-goer seems to want a top quality service at bargain basement prices.

How do we in the arts get around this? Within living memory our answer in the UK has almost always been to cut costs, to make the product cheaper and more efficient. But even before this crisis hit, organisations had already cut away most of the flesh, and many had been hacking away at the bare bones for a while too. And the important thing to realise about highly efficient systems is that they are, for the very same reasons, also highly fragile – as the last couple of months have surely proven beyond any doubt.

Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. In the year I was born, Britain had precisely no Michelin-starred restaurants. Now there are 67 in London alone. Within a generation, a fair number of the British public have been persuaded that an exceptionally good dining experience is worth splashing out on. Not every night or every week perhaps, but once in a while on a special occasion, or to make an occasion in itself. That’s hardly come at the expense of cheaper restaurants or fast food outlets: it’s a different product, quite clearly a different concept entirely, and therefore people’s expectation of what a reasonable price for it is also instinctively different, without there being a contradiction.

Over the same period, budget airlines have been one of the travel industry’s major success stories, and their premium-price competitors have struggled in their wake. Many have taken our approach of attempting to slash their costs, as a result often ending up providing the same sort of experience as their budget competitors, only less well done and still at a higher price. Neither one thing nor the other.

So the rules are different for different products. Consumers view air travel differently from buying food, and buying fast food differently from paying for a fine dining experience. If you saw a fine dining restaurant had cut their costs so drastically that they were charging fast food prices, you might quite justifiably have doubts over the quality of the meal. And whereas you can probably forgive Five Guys for occasionally forgetting the jalapeños, a sub-par fine dining dish misses the point completely.

Let’s look again at those two photos. Health risks aside, the plane passengers realised quite some time ago that air travel is not really much fun, and you may as well grit your teeth, get it over with and do it as cheaply as possible. The fun starts when you arrive at your destination.

That’s where we come in. In another part of the Indigo survey, respondents were asked how they’re currently feeling about the possibility of going to live events again. Only 19% said they’d be comfortable attending as soon as venues are allowed to reopen. It reveals a dangerous gap between our instincts as performers and those of our audiences. I filled in the survey myself – thinking as a potential ticket buyer rather than a professional artist – and was surprised at how cautious most of my answers were. We might do well to bear in mind that a low probability of individual consequences still translates, given a large enough population, to a near-certainty of a number of infections and deaths.

And so we might also do well to take a little time, have a little patience. Our desire as performers to get back on stage, share our art, and make some money is perfectly natural. But we need to make it clear to the public that none of this is worth a moment of risk to their health and lives.

That aside, high art needs to be exceptional, unforgettable, or at least aspire to that. Popular culture aims to entertain you for an evening; we should be aiming to transcend your physical world and change your lives. Fast food versus fine dining. A packed auditorium, under safe conditions so that those present can fully engage in the moment, is no guarantee of that miraculous transformation, but it’s surely a key part of a genuine theatrical experience.

So for the time being we need to take every care not to risk infecting our audiences with a deadly disease; and by the same token not to infect the very qualities that make our art worth sharing in the first place.

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Coronaclassical 5: Spinning the Wheel

“Leicester were 5,000-1 to win the league but ended up as champions. What are the odds of that happening?” – Neil Lennon

Les Croupiers Casino, Cardiff, June 1998. For the previous three years I’ve been working as a schoolteacher, but I’m about to head off to music college, so tonight I’m keeping my cash in my pocket: I’m going to need every penny of it. My colleagues Dave and Iwan, by contrast, are on a roll. Come to think of it I never saw them lose, but I suspect they did so in private, or perhaps my memory has become selective. 

Either way, for once they’ve decided to quit while they’re ahead. Having cashed in, Iwan finds a £10 chip in his breast pocket – “for emergencies”. Rather than bother the cashier again, he gives it to me and tells me to see what I can do. 

I’m a cautious gambler when it comes to my own money, but this is a free hit, so rather than hedge my bets I saunter up to the nearest Roulette wheel and place it boldly on Zero. 

Someone else’s money, someone else’s winnings.* It was worth it for the reaction when I returned only a couple of minutes after setting out, carrying £360 worth of chips. What were the odds of that happening? Well, that’s an easy one – assuming a fair wheel, precisely 36 to 1, or a smidgen over 2.7%.

Watching how people decide to grapple with numbers, and how they apply to our everyday lives, is endlessly fascinating, and the reams of statistics being spewed out during the Coronavirus era so far has provided plenty of opportunity for doing just that. What’s the fatality rate of Covid-19, and how might that compare to the chances of dying from other causes, we all want to know? Reading between the lines, I guess we mean, what are my chances of dying from it?

It’s really the wrong question. The probability of me dying eventually from some cause or other is 100%. Beyond that, the application of population-wide statistics and probabilities to individual lives is a tenuous affair at best: it’s simply not what they’re designed for. The half-life of an element can tell you pretty much bang-on what proportion of a large sample of its atoms will have decayed during a certain period. But if you’re sat there looking at any particular atom on its own, you’re back at the Roulette wheel. 

Let’s say you’re facing a serious medical operation and the surgeon – as they are wont to do these days – informs you that it has a 99% survival rate. That sounds good, you think. 99 out of every 100 patients make it through. But it’s hardly any consolation if you’re the 1 who doesn’t – in fact, it’s probably even more annoying knowing how improbable your death was.

A newspaper columnist this week, as part of an argument to send children back to school, quoted 0.03% as the likelihood of dying of Covid-19 for under-18s. Let’s for the moment assume that’s roughly right. As an individual parent you might think that sounds fine, a chance worth taking. But the only concrete meaning of that number is that, given 10 million or so children of school age nationwide, it translates to the racing certainty of 3,000 deaths (and that’s without factoring in the health risk to their teachers). So as a national decision-maker, you might well view that percentage quite differently. Grieving parents would hardly be consoled by the reassurance that their child’s death was statistically exceedingly unlikely.

But hang on, I hear you cry – around 15,000 children are killed or injured in road accidents in the UK each year. We don’t re-organise our entire lives around that, do we? 

Putting aside the question of whether we should look again at the idea that this is a price worth paying for the freedom to drive our own cars, the suggestion that we make no allowance for road safety in our everyday lives is clearly nonsensical. In fact the layouts of our cities are in huge part devoted to allowing for and containing the risk from human-operated vehicles. Imagine for a moment what a town centre without traffic would look like; or perhaps as a more realistic exercise, visualise what a city without human-operated, individually-owned traffic could look like. No need for car parks or parking spaces, far safer junctions and crossings, cleaner air. If we invented the modern automobile today, I wager no-one would dream of putting one under the fallible, volatile control of anyone who could pass a short test, and allowing them to plough through our midst largely unsupervised.

So we’ve made about as many concessions to road safety as we’re willing to make, and presumably we’ve decided that 15,000 dead or injured children a year is something we’re happy to live with as a result.

Terrorism? The Daily Telegraph recently claimed that “over the last decade, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on British soil was about one in 11.4 million per year.” I suppose that gives us an average of six deaths a year, and a significant degree of disruption to our way of life.

What about flu, you ask. An average of around 17,000 people in England and Wales have died from influenza in recent years – it’s worth noting that this has varied greatly from 2,000 to 28,000 (during the particularly deadly season in 2016). Why are we fretting so much more about the Coronavirus? 

In fact, if and (let’s all pray) when there’s a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the precautions against it may well end up looking very similar to our current regime for flu: free vaccines for the most vulnerable, and available to all, and the NHS geared up for a huge increase in hospital admissions in the event of a bad season. Of course, that might change as our medical scientists gather more data and come to a better understanding of how this new virus operates.

That latter point is crucial, and should underpin every discussion currently taking place on the topic. If you hear anyone speaking with anything resembling absolute certainty regarding any aspect of the current science around Covid-19, please approach with care. The point about all these numbers – overall mortality rates, probability of dying from it, “R0” and so on – is that they require an awful lot of data to establish to any great degree of accuracy, and the gathering of that data in this case is still in its early stages. Plus, they’re still strictly speaking only a measure of what’s happened in the past, not necessarily an accurate prediction of what may come next.** Science is the process of establishing and quantifying the degree to which we don’t know things. The upshot of that is that there is no such thing as a “scientific fact”.

I’ve left air travel till last. There hasn’t been a fatal commercial air accident in the UK since 1989 – so to put it another way, the probability of you dying in a plane crash in this country is currently my lucky Roulette number: zero. The number and complexity of precautions we take when it comes to commercial air travel is immense compared to most other forms of travel.***

Grasping the connection between these two statements is the key to understanding the dilemmas surrounding our current crisis.



* – In fairness to Iwan, he bought us all dinner at Charleston’s afterwards. This was the occasion on which I invented the rare fillet steak with onions, mushrooms, peppercorn sauce and a pineapple slice on top. It didn’t catch on.

** – I’ve heard researchers suggest that one of the effects of SARS-CoV-2 might be to turn every carrier into a zombie after 12 months. Presumably it’s a reminder that as yet they, and consequently we, have little idea what might be around the corner. 

*** – This article provides a lot of food for thought on how we respond to air and road accidents.

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Coronaclassical 4: Missing You

You don’t get to choose what you’re remembered for. We were sitting listening to Tim Pigott-Smith at the end of an acting class. He’d come in as a last-minute replacement, and had worked through some exercises, leaving the final half hour or so for a relaxed Q&A. 

In the nicest possible way he was name-dropping a little, giving examples of memorable performances he’d witnessed by great actors. Somehow the topic got around to acting drunk, and he cited Michael Caine in Educating Rita as the best he’d seen. It was Thursday afternoon towards the end of a gruelling week, and despite our enthusiasm, our body language was distinctly low-energy. He mentioned that he’d worked with Caine on one of the worst movies he’d ever made, set in a World War 2 prison camp. Cogs in the brains of Robert Murray and myself – the two football fans in the class – began slowly to turn, and then more rapidly to whirr and whizz. “You’re talking about to Escape To Victory!” He was talking about Escape To Victory. From that point on the remainder of the session was hijacked, and a first-rate actor with a career spanning decades was obliged to answer questions about Pelé and Ossie Ardiles and John Wark and Sylvester Stallone, to the exclusion of the entirety of his other work. 

There’s a lesson for young performers I suppose. You should always be careful about signing a contract, since once you’ve done so and you’re out there doing it, people will assume that this is what you do, what you’re happy doing, and it may well be what they end up remembering you for, whether you like it or not.

That week of National Opera Studio classes at the National Theatre was unforgettable, and I still lean on many of the lessons learned there today – as well as Pelé’s friend, we had sessions with Toby Jones, Erica Whyman, Nigel Planer* and several others. (In one of those situations you’d never foresee before you start out in this odd career, I was called out of Planer’s session by a phone call for me at reception, which in fact turned out to be a fake message from the real Harrison Birtwistle who was auditioning upstairs and wanted to hear me. The audition turned out to consist mainly of being photographed beside a table. It’s a long story for another time.)

Tim Pigott-Smith, best-remembered for his work with Mike Summerbee, was on hand because he was appearing in Eugene O’Neill’s three-play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra at the NT. I must have been impressed with his session since I went along to see it the following weekend. Tim’s character Ezra Mannon died halfway through the second play. Oh, sorry – Spoiler Warning. In opera, he’d have been allowed to take a solo curtain call at the next interval and go home for his tea. The last thing I expected to see was him hanging around for the curtain call several hours later, but sure enough there he was – not even for a solo call, but a regular team-effort company bow. I loved him for it.

Theatre curtain calls always strike me as an affair for grown-ups, although they tie themselves up in as many knots as we do worrying about them. What are they for? Why are they so variable and capricious? Since when and why have audiences started booing the antagonist, and do we ignore it or play up to it or what? Why can’t we all just go home? Do any of these people even remember which character I played?

The most extreme example of the latter question came in Barrie Kosky’s production of The Nose at Covent Garden in 2016. The entire huge cast, bar the lead, had (almost) identical prosthetic noses fitted, and so we paraded onto the stage at the end in our threes and fours to receive the baffled approval of a squinting public. In fact, after make-up none of us in the cast had much idea who any of the others was either, which was quite a liberating feeling backstage, in the manner of the story about Brian Clough and the Nottingham Forest trainee. **

Singers in the time of Coronavirus seem to have divided into two distinct groups. Those who are bombarding their social media friends and followers with daily online performances from their front rooms. And the others who are seemingly struggling to summon the motivation even to maintain their usual practice routine. Extroverts and introverts? There are plenty of performers who fall into both categories, or a combination of each at various times. I wonder how they correlate with those who enjoy curtain calls and those for whom they’re an ordeal.

I’m definitely in the latter category. I’m always very clear in my own mind how well or otherwise I’ve performed, and while I’m glad if I sense an audience has had a good time, it doesn’t change how I feel about it. I’d much rather have a one-to-one chat with audience members in the foyer bar afterwards – that’s when you get the real feedback. Like any crowd, an audience can’t really begin to make sense to you or itself until viewed as a hugely disparate collection of individuals.

But don’t go away thinking I don’t miss you. Just that it’s more about what’s happened to us all, the slice of life we’ve shared together during the performance: it’s about the journey rather than the destination. Simon Callow typically puts this far more eloquently than I ever could: “What matters much more is what has passed between us and the audience over the course of the evening. Of course that may involve applause – especially if it’s a musical – but even then, it’s the minute-by-minute interplay (as often as not silent) that really counts; the sense of communication, the engagement with an audience.” 

That’s exactly what I miss. And, introvert or not, what I’d love to be part of again someday soon.



* – Nigel Planer’s session was the day after Russell Osman’s friend Tim’s, and upon being told we’d been working with him, Planer described how he’d had to apologise to Pigott-Smith for photo-bombing him at stage door in character as Nicholas Craig. The latter’s book ‘I, An Actor’ is one of the greatest works of theatrical insight ever published, and for one thing coins the term “actoplasm” for the oral emissions of a stage performer – the physical range of which is currently a hot scientific topic.

** – Clough phoned the training ground and asked to speak to one of the coaches. The teenage trainee who had picked up told him, “You can f*** off.” Clough, justifiably incensed, demanded, “Young man, do you know who this is?” The trainee replied, “Yes. Do you know who this is?” Clough told him he did not. Trainee: “In that case you can definitely f*** off.”

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Coronaclassical 3: Keeping Going

There’s a story about the first shadow cabinet meeting after the 1997 UK General Election which has popped into my mind a few times over recent weeks. After eighteen years in office, the Conservatives had just been dealt a thorough drubbing at the hands of the electorate, and met to discuss their strategy options against the newly-formed Labour government. There were a few new faces around the table, brimming with ideas and urgent enthusiasm about how to cut Tony Blair’s lot down to size. After a few of them had finished breathlessly brainstorming, Michael Heseltine stretched out his veteran legs under the table, leant back and crooned “Ladies and gentlemen – I suggest we all calm down and pace ourselves. We’re going to be here a long time.” *

Several articles this week have bravely grappled with the concept of socially-distanced theatrical performances, and how they might work. There’s particularly good back-of-the-envelope work from Zach Finkelstein here, and others have reached roughly similar conclusions via various configurations. To sum up, you would probably do well to get anywhere near 50% of a regular audience into the usual auditorium space – in reality, something closer to 25% is much more realistic. 

That means you’d need to quadruple your ticket prices to hit the same break-even as before – or perhaps you’d only need to double them if you could halve your costs, somehow. If you found yourself in optimistic mood, you might approach the relevant authorities, or a sympathetic sponsor, to subsidise the shortfall. 

Even then, for most venues, serious health and safety issues would remain. However successfully we configured the performing and listening space, you’d still need to be able to evacuate people safely in the event of a fire, and show that even without such an emergency, the normal process of getting in and out wouldn’t cause any dangerous sub-2m bottlenecks. 

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra have just bitten the bullet and given their first post-lockdown socially-distanced performance – but note that there was no live audience. One of the things that makes this possible for the BPO is that they have a well-established paid subscription channel, which taps into last week’s discussion.

There remains the question of what is a safe distance, and as we learn more about how this virus transmits itself, the news seems to be anything but good, especially for singers and wind players, with revised estimates of safe distancing ranging from 3m to 5m to there being no safe distance at all. The German approach to re-opening churches made particularly sobering reading for my lot, involving an effective ban on singing altogether.

I have no desire to pull the rug from under the huge amount of innovative thinking that’s going on – a blank canvas approach to our current challenges can only lead to good things in the long run. But we need to be realistic. As Michael Volpe of Opera Holland Park this week put it with characteristic directness: “Whatever it does, opera (and other art forms) would be best advised not to try to find a way to continue doing the same things in the same way based on half the audience. I guarantee that won’t work.”

In other words, for all their invention and ingenuity, the various responses to socially-distanced performance are short term solutions at best. Even if they could be made to work financially, under current conditions there would remain a fully justifiable reluctance among many of our audience members to put themselves at risk. What live performance art needs in order to get back to normal lies largely on the medical side of things: better treatments, a reliable system of testing for immunity, and ideally and most importantly, an effective and widely available vaccine.

Now the good news, or grounds for cautious optimism at least. There are signs that even the most sluggish governments are grasping the urgent necessity for widespread testing, and that the technology for reliably doing so is developing quickly. The understanding of effective treatments is deepening all the time. The evidence seems to be moving away from the idea that the virus mutates rapidly, at least to any significant extent (bad news if we were hoping for a miraculously benign mutation, but good news in the hunt for a vaccine), and South Korean researchers seem to have found an explanation for repeated positive tests which doesn’t involve the possibility of contracting the illness more than once.

While progress is being made on vaccines at a historically unprecedented rate, we do need a dose of realism about the timescale. Even if an effective vaccine were developed tomorrow, some aspects of the research into potential side effects can’t be rushed – for example, there’s no way of knowing how it might affect pregnant women in under 9 months – and the process of manufacturing and distributing a vaccine to billions of people in a short space of time has simply never been tried before.**

What the medical scientists have already achieved is staggering, but we need to take on board that they need time, and that is what our lockdowns are for. The sacrifices we as professional performing artists, as with many other walks of life, are being asked to make are huge. On an emotional level we’re being denied the activity which keeps many of us sane, and the financial safety net for most of us is minimal, or in many cases non-existent. 

But spend ten minutes talking to any healthcare professional working on a Covid ward and you’ll know why we’re doing it. Every day they watch their patients – not to mention their colleagues – suffer and die, trying desperately to work out why. They come home every night broken. And every morning they put themselves back together and return to the front line. 

Every day we can keep going through this buys them the time to save lives. It might well be a while yet. But let’s keep going.

Originally published 3rd May 2020


* – Admittedly a paraphrase rather than a direct quotation. I’m also deducing it was Heseltine, since the account I read didn’t name him – but I distinctly recall him sitting directly facing me in the front row of a Nelson Mass I once sang at the Houses of Parliament, and he adopted that exact pose. He has very long legs.

**- Consider also the question of universal uptake of a vaccine. Let’s say we establish the infection mortality rate of the virus at around 1% for most groups, as currently seems likely – that’s 1% if you catch it. You’re then asked to weigh that risk against a yet-to-be-established level of risk of as-yet-unknown side-effects from a rapidly-developed vaccine, for you and your family. It could well be a far from a straightforward decision.


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