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Fighting the plague: history repeats itself

It is strange how often history repeats itself. As the Covid-19 pandemic has swept around the world over the last year I have often wondered how Thomas Kelly, the Irish doctor whose remarkable story I told in Fighting for the Empire would have reacted.

He was at the epicentre of a battle to stop the plague spreading to India 115 years ago and had to combat plague deniers, opposition to vaccinations and more.

Captain Thomas Kelly was in his mid-30s and serving with the Indian medical Service. He had just returned from Tibet and was already overdue his seven year leave back to Ireland, which he had left in January 1897. Instead of returning to the Emerald Isle, his superiors packed him off to the remote province of Seistan in Persia (present day Iran) where the plague was decimating the local population and threatening the trade routes between Iran and India.

It was dangerous. Previous medical officers had caught the disease and died. Over two years the population of the town of Nasratabad, where Kelly was based, had been reduced from 2500 to 300.

Kelly knew what he had to do to eradicate the plague and it included persuading locals to burn the clothes and possessions of plague victims. This was deliberately twisted by local religious leaders who started rumours flying that the British doctor and his helpers were burning the Koran, dressing the women in nice clothes so they could seduce them and using new medicines – inoculations – to spread the disease.

Rampaging mob
Fear, ignorance and religion are a potent mix and on 27 March 1906 a mob of 500 started rampaging through the streets of Nasratabad, quickly burning down a small Belgian hospital before turning on the British consulate and Kelly’s temporary laboratory, where just six British officers and 20 Indian sepoys were stationed.

Kelly and the commanding officer, Captain Macpherson, went outside in an attempt to pacify the mob but the situation was already beyond control and they were beaten and stoned, retreating, bruised and battered into the main consulate building as the troops inside fired warning shots over the heads of the rioters.

The rifle shots were sufficient to alert the Russians in their consulate in the immediately adjacent sister town of Husseinabad to the seriousness of the trouble that was brewing. They were in a rather stronger position in terms of military forces as a detachment of Cossacks [Russian cavalry] had recently been posted there and they were quickly on their way to disperse the baying crowd, some of whom were by then on the roof of the besieged consulate with flaming torches. The Russians knew that if they burnt out the British the riot would gather momentum and they would be the next target: they were protecting their own interests as much as those of Kelly and his British colleagues.

News of the attack on the consulate quickly spread round the world, hitting the British papers just four days later.

“BRITISH CONSULATE MOBBED. AN OUTBREAK IN SEISTAN. The following telegram, says Reuter, has been received in St. Petersburg from Teheran:—”A fanatical Persian doctor named Kukema incited the population of Seistan against the European doctors, who had begun to take the plague sufferers from their houses to the hospitals, destroyed the medicines and surgical appliances, and attacked the British Consulate. The Consul himself and the British doctor were beaten with sticks and the Customs-house was only saved by the timely arrival of the Russian Consul with Cossacks.

“The responsibility for the outrage rests with the Governor of Khorassan, who, acting contrary to the orders of the Persian Government, sent the fanatic to Seistan to declare that no epidemic of plague existed in the province and that the reports of its prevalence were the inventions of Europeans.”

It took two years but Kelly rid Seistan of the plague.

The Kelly story is told in Fighting for the Empire.

Slavery: Lloyd’s is right to review the past but it must address the present too

The decision by Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, to scrutinise its 300 year old archives to gain a fuller understanding of how insurance supported the slave trade is very welcome. It should help historians gain a clearer picture of the extent of the trade and how it operated. No-one should hesitate to applaud such a positive step.

Lloyd’s has already acknowledged as “shameful” the role the marine insurance market played in facilitating the slave trade and has pledged to find ways of contributing financially to appropriate causes by way of reparation. This new investigation should give a sharper focus to that desire to make good for the sins of its forebearers. It may also raise more awkward questions.

It is very likely that some of the archived insurance policies record how the slaves that were transported across the Atlantic and to Europe, including the United Kingdom, were acquired and from whom. This will remind people that sometimes one of the key elements of the slave trade was their initial capture by African slave traders, although it was always European money that provided the incentive. It may also expose whether any Lloyd’s underwriters found devious ways of insuring slave ships after Britain outlawed the trade in 1807.

Exposing the crimes of the past is all well and good but it means little if not matched by actions in the present.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that almost 25m people worldwide are caught in modern slavery as forced or coerced labour, with a further 15.4m girls and women trapped in forced marriages. These are shocking figures.

If Lloyd’s wants to make a positive contribution to addressing its past, it should also investigate the extent to which its syndicates insure businesses that benefit from modern slavery. This will cause great discomfort in some quarters. One of the largest groups of modern slaves are the million plus Uyghurs imprisoned in Xinjiang, many forced to work on production lines for Chinese manufacturing companies. There is a lot of Chinese money in the London insurance market and it is very likely that somewhere an underwriter is insuring a business that benefits from the brutal exploitation of the Uyghurs. Lloyd’s should ferret out these connections – and many more linked to modern slavery – if it wants to hold its head high on this issue.

Planning for the end of cash is essential

Fifty years ago today the UK made the momentous jump to a decimal currency. It was not without its doubters and certainly not without its opponents, but it worked. Now, we are faced with the prospect of another fundamental change in how we use money: the end of the cash economy.

This has been creeping up on us for several years but has been turbo-charged by the pandemic. Unlike decimalisation, however, we do not seem to be planning for it and that is creating unnecessary anxiety. The government, the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority need to address this urgently. The Bank has at least begun to acknowledge the challenge society now faces: “…the barriers to alternative payment adoption may have been permanently broken by Covid”, it said in its recent bulletin on Cash in the time of Covid.

Last year, cash transactions dropped significantly, following years of already step decline. According to data from UK Finance, in 2008 60% of payments were made in cash, dropping to 28% by the end of 2018. Before the pandemic it was projecting a further fall to 9% by 2028: we are probably close to that already, although there may be a modest reversal when the economy fully re-opens.

In the face of these trends it seems inevitable that cash will be almost completely redundant by the end of this decade. We need to accept that inevitability and start preparing accordingly. Too much of the discussion around this topic seems to be aimed at finding ways of preserving the use of cash, striking a Canute-like pose against the relentless march of the digital age.

Protecting the vulnerable
There are vulnerable groups who are going to need a lot of help and support to come to terms with the disappearance of cash. People who have no fixed address and have a very poor credit history need financial products tailored for them. Groups that we must not lose sight of too are people with controlling partners or who are caught in abusive situations, including modern slavery. We should see the end of cash as an opportunity to confront these problems, not say we need to preserve cash because we don’t have a better answer.

We should have considerably less sympathy for other groups wanting to preserve the use of cash, from the cash-in-hand tradesmen to organised crime, especially drug crime.

What we have to do is to help the estimated eight million UK citizens who are still outside the digital banking system to ease their way into it. In the short term, this means preserving their access to cash through bank branches and ATMs.

Bank branch closures are a more immediate concern than the decline of ATMs, as they still provide an essential service to many people using cash and cheques. The banks have an informal “last branch standing” agreement which needs to be enforced by the FCA and needs to embrace the Post Office counter network too. For at least the next five years we need to ensure that all but the most remote communities have relatively easy access to at least a part-time branch.

This seems a better option than asking shops to agree to hand out cash even when the customer is not making a purchase. This would be likely to quickly increase the number of shops that opt out of trading in cash completely.

Peak ATM has passed
ATMs proliferated in the last decade, peaking at just over 70,000 in 2015. Since then it has been a story of decline but the latest figures show there are still 54,300 cash machines in operation, the vast majority free-to-use. This is back to 2004 levels. How much further this availability can fall before becoming a serious problem is hard to know.

Peak ATM: Over 70,000 in 2015, now 54,300

We have all got very used to the luxury of most towns having dozens of ATMs but that comes at a price – and that raises one of the most difficult questions in this transition away from cash. Who pays to maintain a service for a dwindling number of people? If you accept that this number will include some of the most vulnerable then just slapping charges on the use of cash will hardly help them and would not be politically acceptable.

This has to be part of the transition planning, however, as the cost per ATM transaction – currently about 21p – will only rise as fewer transactions go through an under-used network.

Alongside these practical issues are a plethora of other concerns, largely around trust. Banks are still not liked and there are legitimate fears around cyber security and the control of personal data. These all have to be addressed, although I would rather one of my cards was hacked than I was mugged in the street for a wallet full of cash. Banks and businesses have to keep ahead of the criminals and be open and honest when they fail, otherwise this battle to win hearts as well as minds over to the idea of a cashless economy will be lost.

There will come a day when the cash economy is a topic studied in economic history alongside the barter economy. My guess is that day will come sooner than many are prepared for.

Incompetent, vindictive EU has validated Brexit

The unedifying spectacle of the world’s wealthiest countries squabbling over supplies of Covid vaccines will have one lasting-effect: it will validate Brexit in the minds of many British citizens.

It has been easy to criticise the UK government for its many obvious failings in the face of the coronavirus pandemic but its vaccine procurement and distribution programme is a shining light in that gloom.

By contrast, the European Union’s stumbling, tardy attempts to lead a continent-wide programme is a car crash. It certainly wasn’t helped when the French Pasteur Institute threw in the towel admitting it couldn’t produce an effective vaccine, leaving it with fewer EU-domiciled producers than it originally anticipated. But there is no excuse for the way it has behaved over the last week.

When the EU Health Commissioner, Stella Kyriakides (pictured above), pressed the panic button last weekend she started down the road that led to last night’s shambolic, humiliating volte face by the EU over Northern Ireland.

Any objective assessment of how and why the UK is doing so well and the EU so badly has to point the finger firmly at the EU’s procurement and approval processes. Kyriakides’ initial attempts to turn the blame onto AstraZeneca, with the implication that it was somehow favouring the UK over the EU when there are two separate contracts in place, were laced with threats that seemed out of place when facing the challenges of fighting a global pandemic.

EU President raised the temperature
Instead of pulling back from the heavy implications that the UK was getting more than its fair share of the vaccines, the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, encouraged that narrative, adding threats of export bans. She waved around a contract that she claimed gave her legal authority for such drastic actions. I am no lawyer, but if she seriously thinks phrases such as “Best Reasonable Efforts” give the EU the authority to behave in such a high-handed manner then I think she needs to get some better lawyers.

While EU leaders were falling over themselves to raise the temperature of the debate and politicise their procurement failings and contractual problems, the UK government wisely stood back. This was, after all, a commercial dispute.

Last night, the EU left Johnson, Northern Ireland political leaders and the Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin with no option but to step in. What was profoundly shocking was how, after years of Brexit negotiations rightly prioritising the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement, the EU was prepared to jeopardise it the moment it suited them. Thank goodness sanity prevailed as midnight approached.

The EU has heaped humiliation on top of incompetence. If the Commission was a government, von der Leyen and Kyriakides would be facing calls to resign: Kyriakides should certainly go.

Wiser voices prevail
The source of those wiser voices that prevailed in Brussels last night might be a little surprising. Michel Barnier, no friend of the UK, was one of them. He spoke a lot of sense in an interview in The Times this morning.

Barnier: Injecting some sanity into the EU position

“We are facing an extraordinarily serious crisis, which is creating a lot of suffering, which is causing a lot of deaths in the UK, in France, in Germany, everywhere. And I believe that we must face this crisis with responsibility, certainly not with the spirit of one upmanship or unhealthy competition,” he says.

“I recommend preserving the spirit of co-operation between us. This is the substance of my message today, because we are unfortunately going to have many chances in the coming years to show solidarity.

“Reciprocally. In the fight against terrorism, climate change, financial crises, disasters.”

This row will have a lasting effect on British attitudes to Brexit.

This clumsy, ill-thought out, vindictive move by the EU to deflect attention from its incompetence, has done more than Johnson, Gove and the Brexiters to advance the argument that the UK is better out of the EU than in it. Those soft Brexiters who might have been wondering whether they backed the right option in the 2016 referendum, are now thinking that a bit of chaos at the ports is a price worth paying if we continue to get our vaccination programme running ahead of almost the rest of the world, and far, far ahead of Europe.

The EU has ensured that opportunities to argue for the UK rejoining the EU will be fewer and the case much harder to make. This will have implications for the debate over Scottish independence too. The EU couldn’t have dealt Johnson a better hand if it tried.

Insurance: 180 years of the often good, sometimes bad and occasionally downright ugly

One of the great joys of 2020 was being asked to contribute to the series of historical reviews to commemorate 180 years of continuous publication of Post Magazine, now known as Insurance Post. Researching, interviewing and writing several articles for the ambitious series was a wonderful way of escaping from the turmoil of a blighted year.

The final article in the series was a review of the chaotic years of scandal, losses, fraud and eventual reform and reconstruction at Lloyd’s in the 1980s and 1990s. This was a period that I experienced first hand as editor of Insurance Age (from 1982) and then Post Magazine (from 1986) and immersing myself in it for a few weeks brought many memories flooding back. It was also an opportunity to speak to many people who were involved in the market then and I am grateful to them for giving me so much of their time and sharing their recollections and insights.

Insurance Post kindly let me share the final article more widely: it can be downloaded here.

The other articles I contributed to the 180th anniversary series during the year were:

War & Terrorism in the 19th and 20th centuries – charting the impact of war and terrorism on the British insurance market and its contribution to the major conflicts of the last 150 years

Post-War Corporate Collapses – including Fire, Auto and Marine, Vehicle & General, Equitable Life and Independent

Tackling Arson – including the notorious 1920s Fire Raiser Leopold Harris and his 1990s counterpart Peter Scott

19th Century insurance Frauds – some of the most colourful and gruesome frauds ever perpetrated

Other articles in the series looked at the revolution of direct insurance and the topsy-turvy years of rapid expansion and merger mania that swept loss adjusting – Part 1 and Part 2

David Coleridge: guided Lloyd’s through the storm

David Coleridge, who was chairman of Lloyd’s for two tumultuous years in the early 1990s, passed away on Boxing Day, aged 88.

Those two years, 1991 and 1992, saw Lloyd’s caught in the perfect storm of poor – often corrupt – underwriting practices, huge losses from disasters and natural catastrophes and the chaotic unravelling of the notorious LMX spiral. Lloyd’s was staggering towards the brink of collapse and it was Coleridge that bought the market time and laid the foundations for its revival under his successor, David Rowland.

He was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) on 7 June 1932, the son of a wealthy cotton broker and a descendent of the poet Samuel Coleridge Taylor. He was an avid collector of first editions and vintage volumes of the poet’s works, the most famous of which was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. That story of a seafarer battling his way through massive storms offered a parallel to Coleridge’s time in the chair at Lloyd’s.

After education at Eton and national service he joined a Lloyd’s broker before moving to Sturge in 1957. Over the next 20 years he built this up into the largest underwriting and members’ agency at Lloyd’s and steadily become more involved in the governance of the market.

He succeeded Murray Lawrence as chairman just as the storm broke over Lloyd’s. The July 1991 annual meeting saw the full fury of Names, many facing bankruptcy and personal ruin as Lloyd’s reported huge losses, turned on the market’s bosses. Coleridge, who had paid his own losses just the day before the meeting, bore the brunt of this anger. For six long, highly-charged hours he stood at the lectern answering every question, suffering every insult and sharing in the pain of those whose wealth was being destroyed by Lloyd’s. It was a personal triumph and, in the view of many, created sufficient breathing space for the work to start on saving Lloyd’s (This story was told in my recent review of the period for Insurance Post’s 180th anniversary series).

By the autumn of 1991 he had recruited David Rowland to head up a Task Force with a brief to review everything, including the cherished unlimited liability, and, crucially, the capital structure. When this reported the following year, with its radical proposals to introduce corporate capital, Coleridge was initially hesitant but he eventually recognised that Rowland’s proposals offered the best hope of saving the market. He also realised that it would need a new man at the helm and stood down as chairman at the end of 1992 with Rowland taking his place.

Coleridge was approachable and patient with anyone he believed wanted to listen to what he was trying to do to turn the market round. He was brutally dismissive of those he identified as the market’s enemies.

Rowland is often, rightly, credited as the man who saved Lloyd’s but without Coleridge there would have been no Rowland era. Indeed, there may have been no Lloyd’s to save.

He remained one of the dwindling band of individual Names at Lloyd’s to the end of his life.

• This tribute was first published on the Insurance Post website on 29 December.

The world of work has changed: Let’s stop fighting it

For well over a quarter of a century we have been talking about how technology will revolutionise the world of work, liberating people from the rigid routines of commuting, the need to live near city centres, fixed office hours and excessive travelling. It hasn’t happened. We’ve automated plenty of things but have never really got round to addressing the way we work and the culture of presenteeism that underpins it.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken that world to its foundations but we are expending enormous amounts of energy trying to rebuild it. Why?

Of course, governments and business organisations will take the short-term view and panic at the sight of deserted city centres and empty trains but this is essentially a very short-sighted view.

People who can work from home have proved that it can be done and that productivity does not suffer. Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests productivity actually improves once people are not spending hours commuting, socialising after work or merely sitting at desks trying to look busy just to impress their boss.

We have embraced Zoom, Teams and other platforms in a way that has made people wonder why they used spend so much time travelling – often overseas – for face-to-face meetings that can easily be conducted virtually.

The work/life balance for many people has improved enormously and they are not going to let that benefit that go without a fight. One point that seems to have been too casually brushed aside in the panic to get people back to city centre offices as schools return is that with children out of the house many people will actually find working from home even easier. There is also the fear of travelling on potentially crowded trains, very understandable given the number of people who do not wear their masks and the propensity of trains to be one of the prime sources of infection in normal winters.

It’s not for everyone
Let’s not for one minute kid ourselves this change millions around the world have found one of the welcome side-effects of the pandemic is comfortable for everyone, or without its disadvantages. Many people do not live in places where it is easy to work from home. They may feel lonely and isolated or be at stages in their careers where the close mentoring and support available in a structured office environment is invaluable to them. We need to focus on solutions that involve hybrid working patterns, enabling people to make the choices to suit them. HR departments are going to have to develop a new suite of outreach skills to ensure that everyone is supported properly.

Governments and local authorities are in full panic mode about the damage to city centre businesses. So they should be. Not because people do not want to go back but because they do not have the right solutions. We are entering a phase of what economists call creative destruction and we need to embrace it, not fight it.

City centres are not going to return to what they were. That means businesses will fail, railways that relied on over-charging commuters will struggle and commercial property prices will slump. That is the destructive phase and governments need to step in to support those most hurt, the small businesses like the sandwich shops, bars and street food vendors.

Massive potential
The creative phase has massive potential.

People working from home will not want to sit in their houses all day, every day. They will want to meet people, collaborate and socialise with others. Some of that will be done back at their old offices – so they will need to be re-purposed to support collaborative working – but much of it will be done locally. This is one of the big opportunities we must seize: the opportunity to revitalise the struggling high streets of suburbia and provincial towns. Grants to help small businesses relocate from city centres would be a good start.

There is also a real opportunity to tackle social mobility and diversity. If people are not forced to move near city centres for work, often spending a huge proportion of their income on living costs, then businesses can recruit people from anywhere in the country. Where you live will no longer be a constraint on where you can work. There is a great opportunity in this for imaginative employers.

No-one pretends creative destruction is an easy force to manage but embracing it could bring great benefits and finally deliver that revolution in the way we work that has proved so elusive.

A publishing milestone: 180 years of innovation

Today marks an auspicious day in the world of publishing as it is exactly 180 years since Post Magazine first appeared on Saturday 25 July 1840. This was just seven months after the introduction of the Penny Post and it was the first publication anywhere in the world to be sent by post – hence its name – although it was always dedicated to covering the insurance market. It therefore ranks among one of the most significant commercial innovations of the nineteenth century as millions of specialist publications are still sent by post everyday.

This publishing innovation was the brainchild of John Hooper Hartnoll, editor of the Kentish Mercury. It was a bold move back in 1840 to create a magazine devoted to insurance that would be sent by an untried postal system. Sir Rowland Hill’s Penny Post replaced an expensive postal service that would have made any publishing venture economically impossible. It cost 8d (3.5p) to send a letter from London to Birmingham and 11d (4.5p) from the capital to Liverpool. The new system cut that to 1d (0.5p). On the front of that first issue, Post Magazine summed up the opportunity it was exploiting – “Remarkable Application Of The Reduced Postage”, it declared.

The first issue of Post Magazine with a Penny Black

Among the many adverts in the modest eight-page publication that Hartnoll produced from his office at 3½ Wine Office Court, just off Fleet Street opposite the Cheshire Cheese hostelry, was one from the Independent West Middlesex Assurance Company boasting “IMMEDIATE BENEFITS OFFERED to the PUBLIC. Life and Fire Insurance Rates reduced to 30 per cent. Per Annum Lower than any other Office”. The icing on this particular too good to be true cake was the promise of “A liberal commission allowed to Solicitors and Agents”.

Big advertising budgets, generous commissions, lower rates: all of these are familiar hallmarks of frauds and corporate collapses in the insurance industry right up to the present day.

The Independent West Middlesex had been founded just four years earlier by a doctor, two lawyers and a fourth gentleman who had a reputation as a smuggler. Obviously, a sufficient number of solicitors and other insurance agents were attracted by the promise of high commissions because by December 1840 it had taken almost £250,000 (over £25m at today’s values) in premiums. Having given a quarter of that back to the greedy agents, the four directors split the rest between them and fled the country.

We have no record of whether Hartnoll was ever paid for this advertisement but this early brush with fraud inspired him to dedicate the publication to exposing many other scams over the next 30 years of his editorship. That robust independence has been a hallmark of Post over the generations, a model followed by many other specialist publications. The full history of Post can be found on its website.

Insurance Post today: front cover of the current issue

Today, it is known as Insurance Post and is still covering the insurance industry.

This publication has been part of my life for almost 40 years, having edited it, re-launched it, laid the foundations for its events and awards programmes and I still write for it today. It is a privilege to have played a small part in such a great publishing story and to have worked with so many fantastic people along the way.

Telling the WW2 story of the Little Ships of Jersey

This week I should have been in Jersey taking part in the re-enactment of the rescue of the demolition crews and troops from St Malo in the middle of June 1940. Of course, the pandemic knocked that on the head.

Instead of a full re-enactment, yachts from St Helier Yacht Club staged a sail past around the harbour at St Helier led by Fiona (pictured in St Helier harbour), one of the 20 little ships from Jersey that answered the Admiralty’s plea for help in 1940. This was covered for the BBC by Robert Hall, a network correspondent who has been in Jersey for the duration of the pandemic and he kindly asked me to provide some context for his report.

BBC report on the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of British troops from St Malo by the Little Ships of Jersey, broadcast on 15 June 2020

The last-ditch rescue of the demolition teams was part of Operation Aerial, the largest element of the evacuation plan that swung into action after Dunkirk. When Dunkirk fell on 4 June there were still around 160,000 British troops, 25,000 Polish and Czech troops and almost 30,000 civilians who still needed to be rescued from France as the German forces swept through the country. During the rest of June they were brought back to England through ports along the Normandy and Biscay coasts. St Malo was one of those ports.

Over 20,000 troops had been evacuated from St Malo and as the Germans approached the demolition crews were sent in to do as much damage to the port facilities as possible in the time that was left. The problem was how to get them back as large ships were by then potentially in range of German guns and planes. This is where the 20 Little Ships of Jersey came into their own.

• This story, along with many others, some never previously published, will be in my book Bring Them Home: Churchill’s Second Miracle of Deliverance. This is almost complete, although this week’s broadcast has prompted more people to contact me with their relatives’ stories: I am very grateful to them and will weave as many of them as possible into the narrative.

More about Operation Aerial and my book

Routine is vital: We’ve got form on that front

I was very impressed by an interview on BBC News yesterday with journalist and presenter Joan Bakewell. She spoke about the importance of creating and sustaining routines while we sit at home, isolated from everything we consider normal.

Bakewell is 86 and explained that she had been unwell for some weeks before the coronavirus started its deadly progress in the UK. As it emerged as a threat she asked her doctor what she should do and was advised to self-isolate. She took this advice and so already has several weeks experience.

She stressed the importance of creating routines and sticking to them, including exercise, reading, taking up new hobbies and generally keeping busy in as structured a way as possible. It was persuasive and very pertinent.

I have worked for myself for nearly seven years and have long got used to working from home. From the start I eschewed the novelty of sitting around in my pyjamas all day. Get up, get dressed, have breakfast and start work has worked well for me. Never let yourself slide into having lazy day. By all means give yourself a day off but do it with a sense of purpose. I have run my life that way with a degree of success. It might help others now facing that challenge suddenly and unexpectedly.

The British have some interesting form in maintaining routine in the face of adversity. I have found a couple of stories in my many researches for my books.

One is told in Fighting for the Empire, the story of my wife’s grandfather, Thomas Kelly, a doctor in the Indian Medical Service.

In 1904 and 1905 he found himself in a remote province of Persia fighting an outbreak of the plague that was threatening to get out of hand. It was a desolate place and a very dangerous job. The famous Swedish explorer Sven Hedin arrived while Kelly was battling the menace of the plague. He was accommodated at the British Consulate (pictured) and could hardly believe the British determination to maintain certain standards and routine. Only a few weeks before an angry mob had attempted to burn this building down.

“Six Englishmen, without ladies, were staying in Seistan, and with them I spent nine memorable days. Englishmen have a knack of making themselves at home in whatever part of the world their lot may cast them, and even here in this wretched Nasretabad they lived much as in London. They did not come unshaved to luncheon in the great saloon, and at dinner they appeared in spruce attire, with starched shirts, dinner jackets, and patent leather shoes. And then we sank into the soft armchairs, and took coffee, with prime cigars, and, while the gramophone reminded us of the divas and tenors of the great world, whisky and soda were served, and we talked of Iran, Tibet, and the plague. We were in high spirits; and it was difficult to believe that all the while the angel of death was roaming about in search of his hapless victims.”

In the book on the evacuations from France in June 1940 I am currently writing there is the story of the playwright Rupert Downing and his escape from Paris to a port near the Spanish border on a bicycle. This took the best part of two weeks as he and a female colleague battled through the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing the advancing Germans.

Downing was especially proud of his attempts to maintain some sort of standards – “some thread of tradition, custom, civilized habit, whatever you like to call it”. Having packed his shaving kit he was determined to make use of it every day, even when it meant crouching by a cold stream as dawn broke. It was an objective he proudly achieved.

These things matter in times of crisis and stress. Perhaps we can learn from them and from Joan Bakewell.

Stay safe.