The Importance of Pawns; Chronicles of the House of Valois

In this book by Keira Morgan the year is 1514 and the French monarchy lives in splendour, moving between its various palaces and castles throughout the territory known as France. The populace ekes out a living from the land or from serving and providing services to the nobles. Participation in war is another form of employment for the impoverished males of the region, offering the prospect of enrichment through pillage and plunder, provided that death does not prevent them from achieving their aim.

The book (which I read as an ebook) opens as Countess Louise d’Angoulême admires her image in the fine Venetian mirror her son, Francois, has given her. She feels that he has acknowledged his filial devotion to her by means of the costly gift. Aware of the impending death of Queen Anne, the wife of the elderly King Louis XII, Countess Louise is determined to further the marriage of her son to Princess Claude, thereby installing him as heir to the  throne.

The machinations that Countess Louise sets in motion in order to achieve her aim are presented in a lively and convincing way throughout the novel. The author undoubtedly knows her history and has also done extensive research into the life and times of the French court in the sixteenth century, bringing to life the characters who throng the court. This applies especially the principal characters – fifteen-year-old Princess Claude, her sister four-year Princess Renée, and their governess and confidante, Baronne Michelle de Soubise. Matters become even more complicated when the dying Queen Anne appoints Countess Louise d’Angouleme governess of Princess Renée, much to the consternation of young Princess Claude.

The book provides a graphic account of life at court, the way policies are pursued, royal marriages are arranged and how the relations between the various individuals proceed as they try to make their way through the convoluted paths of statecraft and the conduct of everyday life.

The characters are portrayed as well-rounded individuals, though to what extent their thoughts and emotions really reflect what happened at the time is unknown. We know for sure that after Queen Anne’s death, King Louis XII married Mary Tudor, younger sister of England’s King Henry VIII, and that no children were born to them. Consequently, after his death Mary could return to England and marry the member of the British nobility with whom she was romantically involved.

The author has done an excellent job of bringing that period and those individuals to life, with attention to detail regarding dress, behaviour and the way matters of state were conducted. Presumably there is some veracity in the events depicted. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the intricacies of French history and life at court in the sixteenth century.

To Be a Refugee

I was born in London in 1942. My parents were refugees, stateless and penniless. The fact that I was born where and when I was gave me the right to remain in England, and hence also enabled my parents to remain there. It was wartime, London was being bombed, but it was still a safer place than their homeland of Germany, where their parents were being carted off to concentration camps and murdered at that very time. That would have been their fate, too, had they remained there. They had committed the crime of being born Jews.

Watching television today, with its grim images from Ukraine of men, women and children, both old and young, traipsing for hours and days through frozen wastes and towns full of destroyed buildings, in a desperate search for shelter and refuge, brings to life in the most graphic manner the ordeal that throughout the generations my ancestors and those of most other Jews, somewhere along the line, doubtless went through. After all, Jews have not always been made to feel welcome in the places where they may have once settled and, under the circumstances of the time and the whims of whatever ruler or government were current at the time, were forced to uproot themselves over and over again and try to find a new resting place.

This went on for two thousand years until the second half of the twentieth century, when Israel was founded.

It’s true, over the years some Jews found a relatively safe haven in various western countries, America, England, western Europe and the Scandinavian countries first and foremost. But let me remind those who think that the gates of those countries were opened wide for Jews trying to find a new home that in America the quota system introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century restricted entry to Jews from Europe to those who could find a guarantor to put up the fee required by the authorities. Not everyone had relatives there who could and would provide the costly ‘affidavit’ which was the sine quo non for entry into the country.

For every Jewish refugee seeking to enter England a sum of money had to be guaranteed either by persons residing in the country or they had to bring it in themselves. Since the Nazis stripped most Jews of every penny they owned, as well as preventing them from taking money out of the country, this served as an additional obstacle to emigration and absorption in another country. My parents were in the fortunate position of having relatives in England who – albeit reluctantly and belatedly – put up the money to guarantee their entry. This was only after Kristallnacht, the Pogrom action throughout Germany, when synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed and Jewish men arrested and sent to concentration camps. Most Gentiles were not targeted by the Nazis, so there was no need for them to seek refuge elsewhere.

Even for the acclaimed Kindertransport project, when ten thousand unaccompanied Jewish children from Europe were allowed into England, each child had to be guaranteed by a family there that was ready to take them in or, alternatively, by one of the various Jewish or Quaker organisations that undertook to place the children upon arrival. The UK government’s decision to allow the children into England was made contingent upon their not becoming ‘a burden on the British taxpayer.’

And so, although it sounds unpleasant, the demand by the Israeli government for refugees from Ukraine to be guaranteed by relatives in Israel or produce a not inconsiderable sum of money is not so unreasonable, or at least not unprecedented. This has always been the way countries have tried to regulate the influx of others seeking a new home or sanctuary from the horrors that await them if they stay where they are.

The existence of Israel guarantees some form of protection for Jews wherever they might be, and now the country has opened its gates to a limited number of non-Jews too. There is a lot to be said for the magnanimity and generosity of this small country in allowing those in need to gain entry, but the need for a Jewish state remains the ultimate objective that Israel’s leaders should bear in mind.

Ukraine

One’s heart goes out to the men, women and children caught up in the devastating and unprovoked attack on their country by their powerful and greedy neighbour. The sight of women carrying children as they tramp along frozen roads and fields in an attempt to find shelter and safety is truly heartbreaking. The scenes of destroyed buildings and rubble-filled streets cannot fail to elicit our sympathy and pity.

Ukraine is the place from which my husband’s family originated. When just-married Rachel and Mordechai Shifris left their homeland and families in the early 1930s, having met on Hachshara in Lvov, they came to what was then Palestine as Halutzim. They both left extensive families behind which they were never to see again.

Ukraine, or the part of the world known variously as Galitzia or Poland, had been soaked in the blood of Jews for many years. The Nazis who invaded and conquered the territory in WWII had no difficulty in identifying, rounding up and murdering Jews. The local population was only too happy to help. The history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine and eastern Europe in general, goes back a long way.

I’m not trying to pin the crimes of their ancestors on the current generation of those now being forced to flee, but I find it hard to detach my view of current events from my knowledge of those of the past. The czars of Russia, who ruled most of the surrounding area, were notoriously anti-Semitic, confining Jews to the Pale of Settlement, and preventing them from participating fully in civic life. The Orthodox church did nothing to stop pogroms and bloodshed, even encouraging the local communities in their murderous rampages.

The Ukrainian nationalist leader, Simon Petliura, was at the forefront of the political movement agitating against the Jews in the early part of the twentieth century. Instigating pogroms all over Ukraine in the name of Ukrainian nationalism, he caused the deaths of many thousands of Jews, the destruction and theft of their property, accompanied by unrestrained assaults on women and children.

A few years ago I picked up a book entitled ‘Adieu Volodia’ at a second-hand fair in central France. This turned out to be an engaging novel (in French) by Simone Signoret describing the lives of immigrants from eastern Europe in Paris in the 1920s. Little did I imagine that I would be thrust into the heart of the struggle of Jews to escape the hardships of their former In the book I read that the arrival in Paris of Petluria caused consternation and fear among the capital’s Jewish denizens, and it was only his assassination by a Jewish gunman called Sholom Shwartzbard there in 1927 that allayed their fears. The Volodia of the title was a cousin of one of the main characters who was killed in far-away Ukraine.

My sister-in-law, who belongs to a group of people in Israel who keep alive the memory of Chortkow, the town in Ukraine from which their families originated, visited the area with the group a few years ago. She found neighbours who remembered her parents’ families, but of course there was nothing material to recall where they had lived and what they had once possessed. Her opinion of Ukraine and the Ukrainians is far from sympathetic, and I’m sure that many people whose families originated from that part of the world are in agreement with her.

So, while I wish no ill to the unfortunate inhabitants of current-day Ukraine, the shadow of the past refuses to leave me. Today the refugees are ordinary folk, just like you and me, who have been forced to leave their homes in order to seek safety. But not so long ago it was our kith and kin who had to run away or be killed by their neighbours and countrymen.

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider reading one of my 8 novels, all available on Amazon, and from my website: www.shefer-vanson.com

The Human Condition

My TV consumption is usually limited to the (extended) evening news, plus the occasional cookery programme, provided it does not involve a competition. I do not watch reality TV or competitions of any kind.

But the times they are a-changing, and Europe is teetering on the brink of something ominous. And so, one afternoon I left the book I was reading and joined my OH to watch a programme on the History Channel. Within a few minutes I found myself drawn into a fascinating documentary about the USA’s preparations for WWII.

As we all know, the USA, led by President Roosevelt, preferred to stay out of the war in Europe, and it was only after December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, that the Americans joined in the war. However, this was not something to be entered into lightly and the necessary armaments and instruments of war had to be manufactured as rapidly and efficiently as possible.

I started watching the programme only after the beginning so don’t know what it was called, all I know is that it proceeded to show in a thorough and extensive way how the various logistical problems were solved. America was the most advanced industrialised country in the world, but was not geared up for producing weapons of war. By dint of the resolve of Roosevelt and the men working with him, American industry was mobilized to manufacture weapons of war rather than the goods and services that had hitherto been produced. Thus, the assembly lines and resources of the Ford factory in Michigan that had been churning out automobiles were converted in order to manufacture aeroplanes. This was a far from simple undertaking, but eventually, by cooperating and combining resources with other manufacturers the ultimate result was the Douglas bomber, which played a seminal role in the Allied victory.

Similarly, the American fleet did not have enough ships and aircraft carriers to carry the war to the Atlantic Ocean. The shipyards in the San Francisco Bay area were too small to produce the quantity and size of vessels required. Here, too, a concerted effort combined with innovative shipbuilding practices enabled the shipyards to produce 1,400 vessels in three years, compared with only 23 ships in the decade prior to 1940.

In addition, the Chrysler plant in Detroit was converted from the manufacture of automobiles to the production of tanks. Women began working in the factories and on the assembly lines, replacing the men who had been called up.

Altogether, a concerted effort of adaptation, ingenuity and cooperation enabled America to fight in Europe and eventually, together with Britain and the Allies, to win the war.

On the evening of the same day I watched a programme on Israeli TV showing in graphic form the events that led up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 C,E, The colourful images and dramatic recreation of the events leading up to the final cataclysm depicted the rivalry and enmity between the different groups of Jews in the city, so that each sector fought against the other rather than combining forces against the Roman army. The defeat that emerged in the final event constituted an object lesson in how the folly, vanity and stupidity of human beings can lead to disaster.

Thus, two TV programmes depicting events two thousand years apart, and a huge contrast between two approaches to resolving a problem, taught me an important lesson about the human condition.

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider reading one of my 8 novels, all available on Amazon, and from my website: www.shefer-vanson.com

Mes Amis, Mes Amours

In this novel by Marc Levy two Frenchmen in their thirties, one separated the other divorced, and each one with custody of a child, are living in London. As the book begins they are sitting in a park in Paris, watching children play and guessing how long the man on a nearby bench has been divorced. (This book is in French, and is part of my quest to read in that language from time to time.)

Antoine, who is divorced, has already established himself in London, where he has opened an architectural office and has acquired part of a house in a pleasant Kensington street. His friend, Mathias, has just lost his job in a Paris bookshop, and Antoine suggests that he join him in London just as an opportunity arises for him to take over a bookshop specializing in French books in the same area. Mathias duly moves to London (in pre-Brexit times this presented no great bureaucratic difficulties, and the Eurostar train made travel between London and Paris quick and hassle-free), joining Antoine in his house, which they convert from two flats into one unit.

In addition to the bookshop and the architectural office, the quiet street contains a café-restaurant run by Yvonne, an older woman who is also from France, as well as a flower-shop run by Sophie, who is younger (and French too). Various other (non-French) characters make brief appearances in the narrative, mainly Mr. Mckenzie, who helps to manage Antoine’s business and is also sweet on Yvonne, and Mr. Glover, the elderly Englishman who is the former owner of the bookshop taken over by Mathias, and who is also very fond of Yvonne. Mr. Glover retires to a cottage somewhere in Kent, and Yvonne promises to visit him there one day.

The children, Antoine’s son Louis and Mathias’ daughter Emily (both aged about eight), are good friends, growing up together as brother and sister, and playing an important part in the lives of their respective parents. The two go to school together, play and watch TV together after school, and constitute objects of affection as well as occasionally also something of a burden for their respective fathers.

When Mathias meets Audrey, an attractive French journalist, matters become complicated, impinging on the friendship between the two men. Among the house rules imposed by Antoine was that they would not use babysitters or bring women into the house. Naturally, it becomes increasingly difficult for Mathias to adhere to this injunction, and his frequent infringements of it begin to affect the relations between the two friends. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Mathias suffers from vertigo, and is unable to tolerate ascending in a life to a restaurant on the top of the high-rise OXO building. Among the more endearing facets of the book are the frequent references to actual physical locations in and around London, presumably based on the author’s knowledge.

Antoine and Mathias take their children on a short vacation to Scotland, where they visit and stay at various castles in search of the ghosts which supposedly haunt them. They devise a plan to renovate Yvonne’s run-down café, and this venture is achieved over the course of the weekend when she finally goes to visit Mr. Glover in Kent. What happens then is unexpected, and as the book draws to a close all the individuals have reached decisions about what they are going to do with their life.

In the epilogue, grown-up Louis and Emily are sitting on a park bench, taking bets on how long the man on a nearby bench evidently caring for a child on a swing has been divorced.

While not being particularly profound, this book gives one an insight into the workings of the mind of French men, as well as some idea of what life was like for French exiles living in London on pre-Brexit times.

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider reading one of my 8 novels, all available on Amazon, and from my website: www.shefer-vanson.com

A Beethoven Feast

Being able to hear all five Beethoven piano concerti played on two successive evenings was a rare treat. This was provided by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, conducted by maestro Steven Sloane, and brought Beethoven’s immense oeuvre in this realm into sharp and impressive perspective.

On the first evening we heard concerti nos. 1, 3 and 4. Each one was played by a different young Israeli soloist, all of whom were amazingly talented and assured, playing with aplomb and grace. On the second, shorter, evening we heard nos. 2 and 5, thus ending with the magnificent last concerto, known as the Emperor. My unprofessional but accustomed ear did not pick up a single false note or tone in any of the performances and, as ever, I went away full of admiration for the amazing and talented young pianists Israel seems able to produce, including one young man who is Palestinian. Those two events were truly inspiring, providing nourishment for the soul and the mind.

Another admirable feature was the fact that two of the soloists were women, and their performances were in no way overshadowed by those of their male colleagues. To play a Beethoven piano concerto requires stamina and fortitude as well as talent, technical ability and application, and all five of the soloists displayed all the requisite characteristics in abundance. To hear Beethoven’s enormous range of power, expressive ability, sensitivity and musicality played with prodigious verve, precision and bravura is an experience not to be forgotten.

Was there a fly in the ointment? Yes, of course there was. This was represented by certain members of the audience. In these Corona times the audience is usually spread out in such a way as to leave an empty seat between people from different households. Although it isn’t always possible to keep to this rule, my husband and I certainly try to do so. Even so, there are always people sitting in the rows in front of us (we usually sit in the last row) and further along in the same row, and it is virtually impossible to avoid seeing what they are doing. Thus, people who insist on bobbing their head around or moving hand or arms to demonstrate their familiarity with the music (and after all, who isn’t acquainted with it?), constitute a constant nuisance and irritation to people like us, who are accustomed to the custom of sitting still in a concert. After all, the conductor does enough head-bobbing and hand-waving to keep the music going without assistance from the audience. Maybe someone should point out to them that the kind of behaviour that is customary in a rock or pop concert is not appropriate for one of classical music.

The latest addition to the litany of disturbances impairing our enjoyment of concerts is the ubiquitous mobile phone. I’m not talking about the people who forget to turn their phone off, so that its sudden ring constitutes a brutal intrusion into the music, disturbing the whole audience, and probably the musicians as well. What I’m referring to are people sitting near us who cannot bear to be parted from the screen of their phone for a single second. Why must one check one’s phone for messages while in a concert? To my mind, the beauty of a live concert lies in the opportunity it provides to focus solely and entirely on the experience of the moment, the live performance of great music, instead of listening to recorded music or even a live performance at home, where there are a million and one distractions.

All the same, the various trivial annoyances are never going to prevent me from benefiting from the pleasure I derive from attending a concert.

Consumers Revolt

In the same week as the government announced a rise in the price of fuel and electricity several major food importers and manufacturers in Israel proclaimed that they would also be raising prices.

For once, instead of the usual passive acceptance of their fate, consumers in Israel took action. Led and encouraged by commentators in the various media (TV, radio, newspapers, social networks), the indignation of the average consumer at being subjected to yet another price hike was expressed in a general boycott of their products.

Thus Osem, one of the major producers of such basic items as pastas, snacks, processed foods and sundry other foodstuffs, suddenly experienced a 25 percent drop in purchases of their products. Osem was once a publicly-traded Israeli company but was taken over by Swiss-owned Nestlé a few years ago, and became a private entity. No longer was its balance-sheet open for public review and its profits and financial management were hidden from view. To a great extent, under its new name as Nestlé-Osem, while the paychecks of its senior executives were no longer a known quantity, they were acknowledged to be extremely generous. Dividends were also paid out, but not to shareholders, as there were no longer any of them.

Other companies, whose names were less well-known but which also controlled a large part of the market for toiletries and other items, also announced price-rises of their goods. Many of them are monopolies in their field, leaving the consumer little choice in the matter of selective purchasing.

The commentators were at pains to publicise the names of the various producers while detailing the products they controlled. It did not take long for people to sit up and take note of what was going on, though I did not hear of any action on the cards by the government to stop what was tantamount to their acting as a cartel. Functioning as a cartel is illegal, and I have been personally warned not to ask my professional association to publish translation rates as if it did so it would be liable to prosecution as a cartel!

Strangely enough, no one (as far as I know) has pointed a finger at the government and accused it of being responsible, at least in part, for the price rises everyone is so het up about. But everyone knows that electricity and fuel – as well as taxes and customs charges — are basic inputs that are involved in one way or another in the import, production and distribution of all goods. How has this gone unnoticed? We know that world prices of energy of various kinds have gone up, but the shekel is currently one of the strongest currencies in the world, obviating the need to raise prices. And in any case these would surely not have had to be immediately passed on to the population at large.

As a result of the outcry, some major manufacturers have said that they will defer raising their prices until after the upcoming Passover (Pesach) holiday, when there usually is a sharp rise in food purchases by the public. But that is little consolation, as we know that the blow will fall then. So many Israelis are struggling to make ends meet, whether they are young families or old-age pensioners, and it is a sorry state of affairs when what was once a society based on egalitarian values becomes one in which homeless people freeze to death in the street and many families cannot afford heat, light and food.

A New Ad-Venture

For some time now I have been hearing and reading about audiobooks. Members of my family have told me that they listen to them while on long car journeys or taking long walks. The idea seemed alien and remote to me. After all, I have been addicted to the printed word since childhood, and cannot bear to be without something to read at all times. It’s true, I do manage to read ebooks on my iPhone and iPad, but still prefer to hold a physical book in my hand.

But after writing eight books in the last ten years I felt that the wellspring of my inspiration was beginning to dry up, so I decided to attempt to create an audiobook of one of my books. As it happens, I was wrong about that wellspring drying up, as the muse did resurface and inspired me to embark on writing a new book, but that is something that will progress slowly and organically, leaving me time and energy for my new venture.

I decided to narrate the book myself, as it seemed appropriate for an author to narrate his/her book themselves, and also because I couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it.

The first hurdle to be overcome was that of equipment. One of my sons generously provided me with a good-quality microphone into which I could read the text of the book I had chosen. I decided to start with my first novel, ‘The Balancing Game; a Child Between Two Worlds, a Society Approaching War,’ containing fictionalized accounts of my childhood in postwar London and my experience of living in Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, when I was heavily pregnant.

The second step was to install a suitable program in the PC in my study and to equip myself with headphones. My son helped me in this too, and then it was time for me to take my first steps into unfamiliar territory. Needless to say, my initial attempts were not very successful. I was completely unused to speaking out loud and – even worse – hearing myself. I was fascinated by the markings that were produced on the screen, tracking the volume, spacing and nature of the phrases coming out of my mouth, and even though I eventually came to find these helpful, at first I had considerable difficulty understanding them.

After my initial attempts, I ventured to send a sample of what I had managed to produce to members of my family who were accustomed to listening to audiobooks. “There’s background noise and I can hear you turning the pages of the book as you read,” was one comment. “One can hear the clock ticking,” was another. What was I to do? Yet more hurdles to be overcome. The body of my computer, which produced a faint whirring noise, was moved off my desk by my obliging hubby and set down on the floor, as far away from the microphone as possible. The clock was taken off the wall. I was told to read from my iPad instead of the physical book (this involved enlarging the print of all the ebooks in it).

The last impediment was to find a time when I was not too tired and there were no extraneous noises from the street outside (cars starting, garbage trucks working, dogs barking). Fortuitously, I found myself suffering from jet-lag after visiting our other son in the USA. And so, instead of struggling to get back to sleep at 3 a.m., I decided to get up, have a quick cup of coffee, and sit down at my desk.

Thus, for the last few months, I have been keeping to that routine, getting up around 4 a.m. and reading out part of a chapter every morning. I have come to enjoy the daily encounter with the words I wrote several years ago describing the life I once lived. The beauty of the audiobook program is that it enables me to erase a segment if I stutter or stumble or misread a word or a phrase, as I often do. After reading out each paragraph I listen to it and either redo it or leave it. Consequently, it takes me about two hours each morning to record some twenty minutes of text, but I think I’m slowly getting better at it.

If nothing else, the experience has increased my admiration for the tech-savvy members of my family, as well as the people who read the news on the radio without coughing, stumbling or misreading, as I do.

The job of tying all the ends together and creating a passable audiobook still remains to be overcome. Hopefully, in a few months’ time I’ll be able to inform the world of the new audiobook on the market. Watch this space.

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider reading one of my 8 novels, all available on Amazon, and from my website: www.shefer-vanson.com

Where the Crawdads Sing

This novel by Delia Owens has been on the bestseller lists for a long time, so when it was offered at a reduced price in a local bookstore I bought it, intrigued by its strange title. I still don’t know what a crawdad is, and I don’t believe anyone does unless they are an accredited expert in animal biology and behaviour, as the author is.

The book opens with a description of a five-year-old girl, Kya, who is watching her mother leave their home, a tumbledown shack in a marsh area of North Carolina. What follows is a moving account of the way the family lives, with an abusive and violent father who causes all Kya’s siblings to leave home at one stage or another, eventually joined by their mother. The little girl struggles to survive, essentially on her own, though her father does put in an occasional appearance and even supplies cash with which she buys basic supplies in the nearby town. She is shunned as ‘marsh trash’ by the local inhabitants, and manages to avoid attending school except for one day which is a traumatic experience for her.

The surrounding marshland features prominently in the child’s life. She learns to find her way around in it, to eke out a living from it by strabbling for mussels and eventually by catching and smoking fish, which she barters for clothes from a local African-American storekeeper. The physical and natural world of the marsh area is described very graphically by the author, and almost constitutes a character in its own right. The birds and insects are described with intelligence and insight, evidently the result of extensive observation.

Over the years Kya collects objects connected with the birds and wildlife of the region, and establishes a relationship of sorts with a local boy, Tate, who is also interested in the marsh wildlife. She matures into a beautiful, if somewhat eccentric, young woman, but feels abandoned when Tate goes off to college in another town. Another young man, Chase, comes into her life, but their relationship is somewhat tenuous. Eventually, after various complications, Tate comes back to her, and they resume their relationship, each of them involved in studying the flora and fauna of the region in one way or another.

After many twists and turns, Kya is put on trial for the murder of Chase, whose body has been found at the base of the local fire tower. What happens next is unexpected, even shocking, and eventually the mystery is solved, albeit in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner.

Still, ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is a good read, combining interesting characters and plot with a fascinating account of a region which seems as remote to me as anything from outer space, and could equally constitute a science fiction saga.

The Corona Effect

When it all started, just about two years ago, everyone thought that the nasty bug known as Corona, or Covid 19, would soon come to an end. When it didn’t, precautionary measures were put into effect, with lockdowns, quarantine and the wearing of masks. People had to keep a certain distance from one another, and social mixing was either discouraged or actually forbidden.

Keeping apart from one another became a natural way of life. Physical proximity to anyone other than one’s immediate family was suddenly seen as a threat to life and limb. No one wanted to end up in hospital on a life-support machine, cut off from almost all human contact. Horror stories of children unable to bid farewell to a dying parent or, worse still, husbands and wives unable to do the same for one another, abounded.

Our lives, our whole way of living, changed. Doing the weekly supermarket shop became an almost insurmountable challenge. Deliveries by masked strangers who left packages of groceries outside the front door and departed without a word was virtually the norm. One refrained from opening one’s front door until the delivery person had left.

Sometimes going to a shop or store was inevitable, and the experience was well-nigh traumatic. The other people there were regarded as a threat. You inspected the other customers to see if they were masked, and if so, if the mask was properly over their mouth and nose. Going round a store was more like a law-enforcement operation than a normal daily activity. Everyone was regarded with suspicion. Everyone was a potential threat.

And so, either little by little or in one fell swoop, our social and cultural life came to an end. Travel abroad was more or less impossible. There were no more concerts, theatre performances or public lectures, and their replacement by Zoom or other screen-based interaction constituted a poor substitute for the things that had formerly made our lives more meaningful and interesting. Almost everything that had improved the quality of life disappeared. I feel particularly sorry for young people, who should be able to go out and enjoy life, but instead are being restricted to minimal contact with others.

And then, a year ago, the vaccinations appeared, and there was hope that our normal way of life could be resumed once more. The roll-out of vaccines went at different rates in different countries, but essentially the Western world seemed to be on the brink of a return to normality. That, however, was not to be. The swell of people opposing vaccination for a variety of genuine or spurious reasons has remained steady and is still a threat to those of us – the majority – who have been vaccinated. It’s a case of people who accept science and those who oppose it, and for the moment the minority that adheres to prejudice, superstition and/or delusion is able to restrict the freedom of everyone else.

It has become natural to avoid normal human contact. It has become customary to regard anyone who doesn’t wear a mask as an anti-social being. And so, from a fairly gregarious, average person I find myself turning into a misanthropic, distrustful churl, someone who shuns human contact, preferring to remain alone inside my home rather than venture out and mingle with other human beings.

The problem is, I don’t know if I can ever go back to being the person I once was.