My week: Lockdown, CNN and Biden

Tuesday, Nov 3rd Day 1

Lockdown 2 is due to come into force on Thursday because of the pandemic. I drop in on friends in the afternoon as it will be my last chance to see them for weeks. Stephen asks his daughter, aged 3, “who’s going to win the American election?” “Joe Biden!” she says. We all agree that Biden is set for a landslide, based on the polls. I retire to bed at 11pm to watch CNN, my channel of choice for election coverage, and Twitter is on my phone. I discover that all the British journalists I follow on Twitter are also watching John King and his magic wall. But he and Wolf Blitzer are getting tetchy. What’s going on in Florida? It’s turned midnight and the eyes of the world are on Miami-Dade. John King explains that the Cuban Americans are likely to vote for Trump whose campaign has accused the Biden camp of being socialists. I switch off at 2 a.m. when the state stays red, but can’t get to sleep. How could the polls have got it so wrong?

Wednesday, Nov 4 Day 2

When I check in with CNN, John King is having a lie down and Chris Cuomo is hosting the election coverage. He’s out of his depth. But it’s already clear that Biden is creeping back with another pathway to the presidency without Florida. I’ve been invited to the seaside by two friends who’ve included me in a social “bubble” so that I won’t be lonely during Lockdown 2. It feels like normal life there. I arrive in time for dinner in a Brighton restaurant where every socially distanced table is taken. When we leave, the centre of Brighton is heaving with pre-lockdown revellers, and police are trying to control masses of people crowded into one street. When I go to bed, Michigan and Wisconsin have been projected for Biden. John King is explaining that despite the early vote count in Pennsylvania being for Trump, the mail-in ballots are expected to be overwhelmingly for Biden, particularly in the cities. Nevada, Arizona and Georgia are also in play, according to CNN Key Race Alerts. It’s another sleepless night.

Thursday, Nov 5, Day 3

Lockdown 2 has arrived. My Twitter feed is full of witticisms about John King. “It’s been 12 hours since we saw John King. Can we just take him a coffee and make some noise outside his door?” says one. I go for a long walk in my “bubble” along the South Downs way, in thick mist, and there’s only one conversation. I’ve made a bet with my hosts that Biden will flip Pennsylvania. The battleground states are “too early to call” according to CNN, but Biden is making steady progress in Pennsylvania although Trump still leads. That night we watch The Reluctant Fundamentalist on TV. I retire to bed to check the news headlines: Trump speaks just before midnight. I’m stunned by his petulant accusations about vote stealing. Jake Tapper, who looks exhausted, shakes his head and says, “so sad. Pathetic.” Anderson Cooper goes further, he says Trump is like “an obese turtle on its back, flailing in the hot sun, realising his time is over. But he just hasn’t accepted it, and he wants to take everybody down with him, including this country.”

Friday, Nov 6, Day 4

I return to London and enforced solitude. I’m 20,000 words into my latest novel but haven’t written a word all week. I’m in a small Silent Zoom daily writing group and one member checks in from Long Island. We discuss Trump’s outburst. I switch on CNN to discover that Georgia has ordered a recount. But it doesn’t matter. Biden can still get the 270 electoral college votes to win even without Pennsylvania if he can take Arizona (already called early for Biden by Fox News) and Nevada. But if Trump can’t hold Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, his presidency is doomed. “No need to rush the count, no need to deny the math,” says John King in the face of a barrage of tweets from Trump saying STOP THE COUNT. Tensions are boiling over in the streets with Count Every Vote protests facing off against Trump supporters.

Saturday, Nov 7, Day 5

Every official interviewed on CNN is being asked how long before we get a result? A Biden victory is now inevitable. It’s a sunny day and I go for a walk on Hampstead Heath with a friend, which is allowed under lockdown rules. She knows a “secret” lane to avoid the crowds. I realise that other friends live on this street. Shall we knock on the door? In London, social etiquette is to book an appointment sometimes months ahead because of people’s busy lives. We ring the doorbell, and of course they’re in. I want to give them a hug, but it’s not allowed, so I pat their dogs instead. My friend and I are walking back over the heath at dusk when my phone goes mad. She’s got alerts from the New York Times and Washington Post. Biden is president elect after winning Pennsylvania, and I’ve won my bet! I want to hug my friend but we remain socially distanced. There’s a whiff of marijuana as we walk past groups of people settling down to watch the sunset over London. My friend asks whether I’d like a celebratory glass of wine in her garden, even though we know we’re not supposed to in Lockdown 2. Throwing caution to the wind, we sit outside in the cold with some crisps and olives and, of course CNN on her laptop. It’s still only 6 p.m and my friend and I aren’t allowed to go inside together. I return home to watch the pictures of Americans spontaneously dancing in celebration, and feel very alone.

Scenes from the “land of the upright men”

A radiant young woman roars on her motorbike into a grimy courtyard under the reproachful eyes of a tethered ram. Another, studying for a French degree, stands for a photo with dignity outside the two-room hovel where she sleeps on the concrete floor with her mother. A life-size model of Santa Claus is playing the saxophone in the airport terminal, And the wigs, the wigs! Why spend hours getting your hair braided when you can put on a wig?

These are some of my indelible memories from my just-ended trip to Burkina Faso, my first to West Africa. I was there with Fred Eckhard, Kofi Annan’s former spokesman who founded the Burkina Women’s Education Fund which pays for its grantees’ university studies.

“Bonne arrivée”, the Burkinabè say when welcoming travellers. The people of Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest countries, are cheerful and enterprising, as evidenced by the stalls that line the main roads out of the cities, crowded with motorbikes and cycles. The young women we met, all in their 20s, are inspiring in their determination to overcome the grinding poverty in which they’ve been raised. All of them have multiple siblings, many of whom live at home. Ursula is applying for a Fulbright scholarship with her degree in translation and interpretation. Clarissa, who is completing a nursing diploma, came to an open house event with us in Koudougou, the country’s third largest city, and brought along her excellent test results. Haoua, the girl on the motorbike, has a Master’s in Project Development but is working as an accountant while trying to get back into her specialist subject.

As you might expect, the sanitary conditions are dire. As soon as you leave a main road you are bumping up and down along dirt tracks of red earth, scattering chickens as you go. Yellow fever jabs are obligatory and anti-malaria pills recommended. I was also aware that Burkina Faso lies in the meningitis belt. While we were waiting for Haoua and her half-sister, another woman brought over a green plastic jug filled with water for us to drink. Foreigners are advised to only drink bottled water. I had a moment of panic – we’d already shaken hands with everyone and even kissed some of them, to cries of “bonne arrivée”. Now what would it be, bilharzia, meningitis or river blindness? Fred whispered to me that as guests we should take a sip. It’s meant to cleanse the palate of lies, apparently. I put my lips to the rim then handed it back. So far, so good.

Haoua’s father is a Muslim with four wives who was elected village chief a couple of years ago. She’s now a fervent Catholic, but when she converted to Christianity, nobody batted an eyelid. In Burkina Faso – which means land of the honest, or upright, men – about half the population are Muslim and the other half Catholic, and the two communities live in harmony. Indeed inter-faith couples can end up having four different marriage ceremonies – in church, at the mosque, at the town hall as well as a traditional wedding.

But the country’s religious tolerance has been tested by the growth of the jihadist threat. Terrorists have struck Ouagadougou three times in the past three years. The northern and eastern border areas are under curfew and 800 schools have closed. I heard that girls in the “red zone” are being forced to wear headscarves. Just before I arrived, a young Canadian travelling with an Italian went missing on the road from Bobo Dialassou, one of the country’s main tourist attractions, to Ouagadougou. A European aid worker told us over lunch that “tourism in Burkina is dead” as a result of the attacks. He and others pointed out that the jihadists are mainly coming from outside the country and the Burkinabè resilience may help overcome. But people are scared. Several of our charity’s grantees expressed concern for relatives living in the red zone which is now under a state of emergency.

Rita, the medical student, knows that she’ll be sent to a rural area to work after she qualifies. I asked her what she would do if she was sent to the red zone? “I won’t go,” she said. “It’s too dangerous.”

Exploring a WWI family mystery

On a gorgeous day this week, I returned to the imposing Thiepval memorial which commemorates the 73,000 British and South African soldiers killed in the Somme during World War I who have no known grave. I wanted to pay my respects to William Penketh, and the other young people who died in the carnage of the Somme battlefield, to mark the centenary of the Armistice in my own way. It’s always poignant to find the inscription on the memorial to Private William Penketh, who joined the “Liverpool Pals” to serve with the King’s Liverpool Regiment at a time of patriotic fervour, and who was killed at the age of 18 on July 30th 1916.

   It’s terribly moving to visit the small, well-tended cemeteries of the Somme. My favourite is Lonsdale cemetery, from where you can see the Thiepval monument across a field of flowering rapeseed. The rows of white Portland stone mark the resting place of so many British soldiers killed in the carnage of the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916. It’s hard to hold back tears from the cumulative effect of seeing that date replicated on the headstones of soldiers as young as 18, 19 and 20.  The British army on the Somme sustained a staggering 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 deaths, on that date.

   So what about William Penketh? Was he a great uncle? Alas no! He was from the Seaforth branch of the Penkeths, whereas my branch comes from St Helens in Merseyside, all of 14 miles away. According to his service records, he was posted to the front on November 7th 1915, but that’s all we know. My research since returning from the Somme this week has pulled up two other Penkeths, William and Ernest, who were also killed in World War I. My heart skipped a beat when I saw that they both hailed from the same Thatto Heath area of St Helens where my great grandfather Francis Edward Penketh lived with his family. But after checking with with an uncle who has looked into our family history, we drew a blank again.

On my mother’s side of the family, we have a wartime hero, whose name is inscribed on the Tower Hill memorial which commemorates the merchant seamen who lost their lives at sea. Captain William Henry Bullock went down with his ship, the SS Canadian, after it was hit by a German torpedo outside Liverpool on April 4th 1917. He made sure that everyone on board was evacuated, but then made the tragic mistake of going back to his cabin for the ship’s papers.

And yet it’s not the heroic and bemedalled Captain Bullock who’s in my thoughts on this Armistice weekend. It’s 18 year old William Penketh, the relative I never had.