By Rachel Woolf
Comparisons between the Coronavirus pandemic and World War Two have been very appealing to a prime minister who wishes to channel his inner Churchill. A centenarian veteran pacing his garden with the help of a walking frame provided a perfect tableau, linking heroism in the face of the pandemic with that of the fighting forces.
The trope of war has also penetrated the commentariat. In a discussion about the texts between the Prime Minister and a businessman who was allegedly vacuuming up favours, a panellist commented on BBC 2’s Politics Live on 22ndApril, that the pandemic was giving rise to:
“the sort of profiteering for which people were imprisoned during WW2.”
This put me in mind of the satirical song penned by my father in the early months of WW2.
I'm a simple sort of fellow, with nothing to conceal
I dabble a little in sandbags, in butter or in steel
And as I wend my wealthy way, one thing I learn is true,
There's one eternal Golden Rule: The profits come from you!
Do it on the largest scale if you’re a profiteer
Buy a hundred million cheap and see you sell them dear!
The little man may go to jail, but I’ll be made a Peer,
For I'm a perfect, patriotic, purse-proud profiteer.
I’m too old to serve my country by marching in the ranks,
But money is needed in plenty for aeroplanes and tanks
And so I try to make my pile at the very fastest rate,
To do my bit by lending it as War Loan to the state.
Do it on the largest scale if you’re a profiteer,
Do your duty undeterred no matter who may jeer.
While you are serving at the front, I’m serving at the rear
For I'm a prudent, plutocratic, purse-proud profiteer
In the nation’s fight for freedom I help in every way,
You value a thing more highly, the more you have to pay.
A penny here, a penny there, on bread and meat and tea,
It’s such a modest price to pay for true democracy.
Do it on the largest scale if you’re a profiteer.
Make your millions while you can, for peace may soon be here,
And so I say, Long live the War and Long live my career
For I'm a potent, parasitic, purse-proud profiteer.
We had lock-down; they had blackout. During the Phoney War of 1939 all theatres within a radius of central London were required to be dark. The avowedly left-wing Unity Theatre fell just outside this boundary. It took full advantage by putting on rapidly-written topical shows in which, as Colin Chamber’s book The Story of Unity Theatre reports, “the political manoeuvring behind the smokescreen of a war effort was attacked”. They played to full houses.
The Profiteer, which “typified the main thrust of the revue” comes from a show staged in November 1939 called Turn Up the Lights. The show’s title has a curious parallel with current events. It comes from a statement by George Bernard Shaw that the blackout was unnecessary because Nazi bombers could find their target by radar. Shades of recent lockdown criticism?
The song was published by the Workers Music Association for a price of 6d. The cover shows the words to be by Arthur Pooley and the music by John Berry. Both are pseudonyms, used because it was thought quite risky to be so openly critical of the government. When asked why he chose his name, my father, the lyricist, would reply that he was feeling “Rather Poorly”. The music was by Van Phillips, an American big band leader of some trans-Atlantic fame.
As The Profiteer suggests, one comparison with wartime that can be made is the far- reaching extension of state control over finance and the widespread use of emergency powers.
In 1939 there might have been opportunities
“… to make my pile at the very fastest rate,
to do my bit by lending it as War Loan to the state.”
In the pandemic usual procurement requirements have been by-passed, leading to contracts being awarded for supplies like personal protective equipment (PPE) in ways that the National Audit Office concluded “have diminished public transparency.”...The lack of adequate documentation means we cannot give assurance that government has adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement... While we recognise that these were exceptional circumstances, there are standards that the public sector will always need to apply if it is to maintain public trust.”
There is now increased scrutiny of the way contractors with connections to ministers have been given preferential opportunities and the accusations of one-rule-for-them-and-another-for-us are drowning out the rallying cry of all-in-this-together. The fast-moving sleaze allegations, stonewalling and denials may well have moved up or down some notches even as this piece leaves my laptop.
During the war the Ministry of Information controlled the media. How the present incumbent of Number 10 - and also, domestically, of the flat above Number 11, which his journalist sibling remarked was “maybe in need of spiffing up” - must wish for the same. That might have relieved him of the bad press from even normally well-disposed news sheets in recent weeks.
But despite all these attacks on him in the media, Boris Johnson may yet benefit from another difference between the pandemic and WW2. Elections, while postponed, have not been stopped. The Conservative Party may score well with voters in the polls on 6th May, if the success of the vaccine roll-out is considered more important than the probity of the government.
The UK’s Vaccine Taskforce (VTF) procured enough vaccines earlier than almost any other country. Had the enterprise failed the person who led it would have merely been accused of being a member of the ‘chumocracy’ - friends of ministers who were awarded jobs and favours because of who they know rather than what they are qualified to do. The VTF’s success, and that of the NHS in rolling out the vaccination programme so effectively, has allowed the government to appear victorious in fighting Covid-19. They also serve to temporarily deflect attention from the horrifyingly high death toll resulting from a reluctance to wage a proper war at key stages of the pandemic. ‘Arms’ is a word that has taken on a different meaning in this battle, as people, in age order, roll up their sleeves to receive their jabs.
But ‘victory’, as has constantly been intoned, will come from the data.
In his day job, Arthur Pooley was Dr. Barnet Woolf, a scientist and statistician – see
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnet_Woolf. During WW2 he was a statistician in the War Office’s Directorate of Medical Research analysing issues such as the efficacy of penicillin treatment of battle wounds.
If alive today, he would have been glued to the next-slide-please Downing Street briefings of the medical and scientific officers, casting an expert and critical eye. A twitter post in September 2019 recalled a relevant comment:
“Remember Barnet Woolf's definition of statistics as that branch of mathematics which enables a man to do twenty experiments a year and publish one false result in Nature.”
In 1945 his much-cited statistical research on infant mortality in large towns of England and Wales from 1928-38 was published. This starkly demonstrated how poor social conditions caused infant deaths. It was described by a scientific reviewer in 1996 as “a model study of inequalities in health”. During the war, evacuation of ill-nourished children threw light on this shameful poverty. There was a recognised need for the state to intervene positively to support nutrition. Indeed I was a post-war beneficiary of the “cod-liver oil and orange juice” regime, as immortalised in the title of a Scottish song of the 1960s. By contrast currently, on the pandemic home front, tens of thousands of parents have been forced to rely on charitable donations to food banks to feed their children. A campaign by a 23 year-old footballer to get the government to provide free school meals to children during the school holidays caused the Government to U-turn, but at least one Tory M.P. argued against extension of the scheme on the grounds that it would increase dependency on the state.
This, in 2020, would seem to echo the Profiteer’s assertion in 1939 that
“You value a thing more highly, the more you have to pay.”
Those following the news of the “spiffing up” of the Prime Ministerial residence, might consider this also applies to his choice of wallpaper.
Rachel Woolf, who loves pseudonyms but can’t keep them secret, has poems in competition winners’ collections, anthologies and journals in Scotland, Ireland, England and the USA. Her publishing persona, about to come on stream, is La Louve. The inaugural book will be The Enigmatic Mysteries of the Iconic Triptych by Bérengère. It includes a quote, appropriate for Only Connect, attributed to Arthur Pooley, the pseudonym adopted by Rachel’s scientist father.
Rational thought is so-called
because it so often appears
to be strictly rationed.
From ‘The Extent of Unreason'
Professor A. Pooley, Dalston Press 1935