Issue 387
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When the pandemic was at its most lethal, the worst hours of the lockdown day were between 5pm and 7pm, when that daily press conference would deliver unintelligibly bad news, before your phone would light up with WhatsApp messages of the most gallowsian humour. Tasked by the BBC with steering that information onto a regional grounding, within those prime time hours and way beyond, was David Gregory-Kumar. Few positives came from the period, but David’s ability to break down and explain the life and death complexities of COVID, simply and with humanity, was one of them. We spoke about those early months and what it’s like to try and make sense of madness, on behalf of three million people.  
When you first learned about the virus did you have an inkling of quite how big a deal it would be?
No. When we got our first case I must have done a little studio sofa chat about it. I think, looking back, I was overly reassuring. There are two ways you can go as a journalist, you can either sound the alarm or try to reassure, and I tend to err on the side of being reassuring. And at the time nobody knew it was going to turn out quite like this. Was I wrong to be reassuring in those early days? Maybe. Probably. There’s stuff we know now that we simply didn’t then — like masks. The science was telling us masks were not necessary, which was information we relayed and now we know better. Back then we were focused on surfaces and hand washing. And now, literally years later, the emphasis is very much on masks first. And in the early days I also made the comparison to flu that so many did, and in a way that comparison still stands true. People do die of influenza. But, yes, I was overly reassuring and that’s something I wrestle with from time to time.

How rapidly did things escalate for you, professionally?
At breakneck speed. It became very hard in the early days to get accurate hospital data because the NHS’s national press team, sort of, took control and what was coming out was very much a macro outlook. And, of course, my job is to get the regional side of things. Casting my mind back, gosh, it really split the audience. On the one hand there were those immediately affected by COVID, sometimes in intensely tragic ways. And on the other, there were those who simply couldn’t grasp what all the worry was about. And my job was to try and link that disconnect. To try not to alarm people, but also make clear how bad things really were. And they really were bad. 

How was it going into work, when so few people were doing so?
Very odd. The Mailbox [home of BBC Midlands] was, of course, shut and there was access via only one security door. Walking through town was utterly eerie. I mean it can still be incredibly quiet but I would barely see anyone at all from my walk into town from the Jewellery Quarter. It was only police, people with mental health issues and the car park attendant who I’d wave to every day. And that was it. Bizarre.
Did you feel susceptible because you, like all key workers, still had to go to work?
I guess I did. It is a very dangerous virus and, pre-vaccine, fears were heightened. It took a while for the BBC to sort out how it was going to work, understandably. But we quite quickly got much better at putting the programme out with the vast majority of staff working from home. I mean, in the early days recording a Zoom call was, technically, extremely hard. Now it’s second nature. And I just remember it was Mary and I on the sofa most days just sat [laughing] increasingly further and further apart. And there was the point where you can tell that we had to start doing our own hair, because we, frankly, began looking terrible. For weeks on end I’d sit in a certain position so you couldn't see quite how bad my hair was. But there was a real bunker mentality. We were trying to tell the story, but also trying to fill a half hour of live television often with little detail and little ability to do the things we would normally do. The point when everyone was tuning in because they needed to know what the hell was going on was the exact same point where, scientifically, we had the least information.

Was there a moment where you realised this was, more than likely, the biggest news story of your lifetime?
I think it dawned on me rapidly, rather than there being one specific moment. When people you know start getting sick — whether you’re a reporter, or a viewer at home — that really brought it home for many of us, don’t you think? My brother’s a nurse and I remember him telling me he’s just moved his car so they can bring in bigger freezer trucks to expand the morgue. Doing what I do has been, at times, relentless, but it’s nothing compared to what the NHS workers have done.

Do you apply yourself differently when you're aware that this is probably the biggest story of your career?
Maybe. I’m always honest about what I don’t know and that became doubly important at the onset of the virus. We were inundated with questions about the rules and, eventually, about the tier system. But that was helpful as a reporter. That was something I knew I could understand, learn and, hopefully, relay in an easily digestible way. But there were times… [David pauses for thought]… I mean if the government is struggling to grasp a lot of what’s going on, we’re going to struggle too, right? And that’s a position we were in a lot. And, of course, as the data started to come out it was a case of explaining those numbers.
I found that’s what you were best at. Explaining calmly and clearly what the situation was, whether good or, more likely, very bad.
Thank you, but Rob England is the unsung hero of this bit. He’s a data journalist with BBC England. In the early days people were publishing numbers in various forms of media and we simply didn’t know where they had got them from, both locally and nationally. There seemed to be a race to publish statistics and the outcome of that was, maybe, less than reliable stories. But we got very good, very quickly at getting data, scraping it, analysing it, formatting it so it was easily understandable and running it, safe in the knowledge it was accurate. And Rob was a big part of that.

How did the questions you received from viewers change over time?
You won’t believe how many questions about getting a haircut we received early on. And then, the questions became a lot more sombre. Questions about funerals started coming in. More and more.

And there’s still a lot of virus out there of course.
Exactly. Here we are talking relatively normally and it feels weird. Normality has become odd.

Do you feel under pressure to know more than anyone else watching?
Oh God, yeah. And so I should, because I need to know more than most. I’m not saying I need to know the same amount about epidemiology as a professor of the subject, but I need a broader understanding of arguments and counter arguments than most. But equally, I have to own up when I get things wrong and that can happen. I think viewers appreciate that. More so during a crisis, in fact, than in a far more trivial news item. The tougher the subject matter, I think, the more forgiving the audience. It’s funny the things people can get upset about that seem so tiny in the grand scheme of things.
You have a skill for being reassuring, but without sugarcoating the numbers. Is that something you learned, or do you think that's something you've had in your nature?
So, I am a scientist. I'm a physicist. I did a PhD in physics, so I do understand the numbers and the stats, which I think some journalists maybe struggle with more than me. It's really easy to look at numbers and get overexcited, or overinterpret them. So I'm probably more comfortable and most journalistic when giving an honest assessment of numbers. And, honestly, a lot of the time you are saying “in two weeks, I'll be able to tell you if this is good news or bad news” and that’s just as frustrating for me as it is for the viewers. The way the disease works, it makes reporting on it, and reacting to it, incredibly tricky. People are more infectious before they know they have it, and then it has this lag before infection shows up, and a further lag before for the deaths and hospitalisations accrue. I have some sympathy for people in authority because it never looks like it's a major problem at the point where you have to take action. It’s always afterwards when you realise you should have taken action.

But understanding the numbers is one thing, delivering that news to the region is another. You seemed adept at both. You’re a scientist, absolutely, but it was the humanity in your delivery that most hit home.
I mean, I'm trying to understand the numbers as a human myself. I want to know how safe my husband and daughter are, too. What my friends and family are facing. I worry about my friends in hospitality in Birmingham too. This has been so hard for them. I don't want to alarm people without reason and cause real harm to the pubs, coffee places and restaurants I love and the people who run them. And I think one good thing at this point is people are good at understanding risk. Get jabbed, wear a good mask, wash hands. Take an LFT before meeting big groups or vulnerable people. We've learned all this stuff together.
Were there moments where you’ve known more than you’ve been at liberty to say?
Never. We were literally watching the 5pm press conferences at the same time as you and learning as you were. And sometimes those press conferences would be crammed with new information and some would have little to no new information. And either way I’d have three minutes to get either nothing across or far too much across.

Are you tired?
There are sleepless nights, for sure. More for this story than all the others put together, I suspect.

How easy, or otherwise, is it to stay neutral?
You've got to be neutral, but that doesn't mean you can't be critical of decisions being made. I think the two things that it was obvious were mistakes, and should be called out as such, were the delay in the autumn lockdown — that had a massive effect on the figures — and then trying to keep Christmas of last year as some sort of celebration. That was just… well, it was just crazy. The knock-on effect for just one day was a huge peak in all the worst numbers.

In the studio, is there a degree of 'calm swan' above the surface but paddling, or maybe even panicking, like hell below?
Sort of. When Paddy [Michele Paduano] started getting access to hospitals there were [David pauses for a long while and clears his throat]. There were… "Oh My God” moments. I wouldn’t say they were moments of panic but moments of realisation, absolutely, that this thing was unpredictable and awful. I think most of us had that moment, didn’t we? And then there’s the added challenge of explaining large numbers of deaths in a way that also acknowledges that every single one of them is a mother, or a father, or a friend.

You did that well. Do people come up to you and tell you, you did a good job?
Well I went on holiday to Spain. Just being able to travel was emotional in its own right, but on the way out the chief steward turned to me during the meal service and said “you don’t need to pay for those gin and tonics. Thank you so much for how you’ve reported the pandemic.” And I got a bit teary in the middle of our package deal flight to Tenerife. And then, during Pride, I had several people come up and say thanks too. And it’s that sort of stuff that really does make it feel like there was some point to it all. For me, at least.

And where are we now with the virus?
I think you have to remember that so many people have had a terrible experience with COVID, losing loved ones, having continuous disruption to education and businesses, coping with long term symptoms. You can't gloss over that. But if we look at the big picture, well then it's actually looking okay. Thanks to the vaccines, this Christmas was so much better than a year ago. I know everyone wants to just get straight back to normal but that's not how this will work. But I think the summer could be pretty normal, and hopefully next winter will be almost normal. Fingers crossed. Till then, get jabbed, keep testing and, personally, I'm still wearing a mask for now.


Time-poor and culture-starved? The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra are offering antidotes to both on Wednesday 9 February. Their new Rush Hour format has, mercifully, nothing to do with the Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan buddy cop franchise and everything to do with experiencing a full-on orchestra in a one hour concert, making this a perfect post-work injection of culture. February’s concert will deliver music inspired by the natural world, with guaranteed recognisable tunes from film and TV. With tickets at just £13 this packs a punch for value. Trade the blaring horns and car engines in the hometime traffic for an hour at Symphony Hall to switch off and enjoy some of the world’s best orchestral music. Tuuunes will include excerpts from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, which Disney+ subscribers might recognise from Disney’s Fantasia 2000; Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Barry’s Out of Africa theme, from the Oscar-winning 1986 film. Make it home in time for The Chase Celebrity Special (also one hour) and feel smug you’ve fitted it all in on a dreary Wednesday evening.


As Veganuary draws to a close carnivorous eyes will be wandering meatward, once more. Introducing the growler, from sought-after street food traders, Kitsch Kitchen, the creation of Stourbridgeon, Natalie Collyer. Natalie launched Kitsch four years ago after juggling the project alongside a full-time job as a restaurant manager. A self-taught cook, local pubs took the first punt on her with beer garden-based pop ups. "It was a huge risk," she says, "but it was definitely worth it. I dabbled in lots of different cuisines but going back to my Black Country roots felt right and the response has been overwhelming. I started off with Bostin' Cobs before going the full hog with growlers [pictured, £8]. The original Bostin Black Country Growler is a hollowed out tiger loaf, filled with skin-on fries, 12-hour cooked pulled pork from my dad's butchery, stuffing and gravy. It also works with Balti, Chinese chicken curry and chilli con carne." Kitsch Kitchen are one of eight traders signed on to appear at Stirchley's Stir Stores in February and March, the entire rostrum of which is right here. Kitsch cook February 9 and 10.


Meet Winnie Nip. Not literally, she's not behind you. I don't think. Winnie's the illustrator of The Winnie Project. It’s taken her a little while to get used to calling herself an illustrator as it’s always been more of a hobby. She's kind of modest, to be honest. Winnie never attended Art School — which is jaw-dropping — but she did study Art History at the wonderful Barber Institute, and she now works in a marketing agency, as well as being part of the Birmingham Design Festival team. "Despite not studying practical art," she says, "I’ve always been that friend who gifts illustrations to mark special occasions, but I never really thought I’d ever sell my work." It wasn’t until lockdown that she began a regular series of doodles on Instagram. At the time there was a rise of COVID-19 related racism (which Winnie herself was a victim of) and it was through her doodles that she "found that the internet can be a really amazing, supportive space where I didn’t hide away being Chinese but instead drew all about it!" Winnie began sharing everyday things, from family anecdotes to her favourite snacks from the Chinese supermarket. "Often these were stories that I’ve never really shared beyond my family, like memories from our family take-away or ridiculous things my family get up to. These stories about my British Chinese upbringing and life are so real and vivid, and illustrating them has been really therapeutic and fun. Without realising, my illustrations became a celebration of East and South East Asian [ESEA] culture. When I post the pictures, my favourite thing is seeing people respond with their own stories. There’s a really lovely, collective pride that comes with sharing and, ultimately, it makes me feel less alone." After a few requests for prints, Winnie opened her Etsy shop in September 2020. Her prints mainly feature snacks and Hong Kong-related themes, with buyers ordering prints as far afield as Australia — and some also going out to Hong Kong. "Some of my favourite prints are my Lunar New Year [LNY] pics. In many ESEA households, decorations are put up for LNY and feature lucky phrases, with the aim to welcome in as much good fortune for the year ahead." Auspicious Fish (above, £10) features two golden fish and the phrase 年年有餘 (in Cantonese, this is nin nin jau jyu) which means to have ’surplus every year’. In Chinese, ‘fish’ sounds similar to ‘surplus’ and so they've become a popular motif during the LNY period. Lucky Dolls (below, £23) is based on a traditional LNY decoration known as 福娃 which translates to ‘good luck dolls’. "Growing up," says Winnie, "we’ve always had a few of these slightly creepy decorations blue-tacked to doors at home and I decided to create a cuter version." In the print, each doll is holding a scroll, which features two auspicious New Year phrases written in traditional Chinese: 恭喜發財 (gung hei faat coi), which means ‘wishing you happiness and good fortune’ and 心想事成 (sam soeng si sing), which means ‘may all your wishes come true’. Originally a watercolour illustration, Winnie hand paints extra gold details on each. 


Brum's bartender-in-chief, Robert Wood, with this week's top tipple...
"I don’t often find myself in Brindleyplace; too many chains for my liking, other than the shining beacon that is Pulperia. I had all but written it off, but then I began to hear noise and underground mumbles around a new Persian restaurant named Qavali. Now, the Persian empire once spanned from modern day Iran into Turkey and into northern India. That is a lot of cuisines under one roof. Qavali is pure escapism — from the moment you set foot in the door, your senses are whipped away. The menu comes complete with stories (yes, actual stories) that inspired each drink. Their Orange Princess cocktail tells the tale of a prince who falls in love with a beautiful maiden born from an Orange tree. There’s an adventure, a troll and a chicken, but suffice to say they all lived happily ever after. The cocktail itself was a perfectly executed adaptation of a classic cocktail known as a Corpse Reviver No.2. Each of the ingredients were influenced by some part of the fable; from the Bergamot Vodka made by the excellent Portobello Road, to the Lillet aperitif wine providing bitter orange notes. A delightfully fresh introduction from both lemon juice and pink grapefruit liqueur, allows the saffron to shine through the vibrant citrus notes of the bergamot and bitter orange. A stunning accompaniment to the excellent Lahori lamb chops and the beautifully executed biryani."


Coinciding with the release of Belfast, another coming-of-age story is hot off the press. Birmingham-born multidisciplinary artist, Osman Yousefzada will launch his new memoir, The Go-Between, at the Ikon tomorrow (January 28). Osman takes a very different look at a very different place, but still through the eyes of a child growing up amongst the political, religious and cultural backdrop of 80s Brum. Raised in a Pashtun community in the middle of Birmingham’s red light district, the memoir has been welcomed as a window into a hidden community but also a portrait of the artist, defining his inspiration to be a fashion designer from observing his mother as a seamstress. Osman is perhaps best known for dressing the rich and famous, but you'll have also seen his work recently in the city centre. He worked with Ikon on a co-commissioned project, Infinity Pattern 1, covering the Selfridges building with the tesselating pink and black shapes to present the concept of a world without borders. Ikon hosts the book launch of The Go-Between and welcomes Osman to discuss his memoir with Sara Wajid MBE, the Co-CEO at Birmingham Museums. Autobiographical concepts of connectivity, community and hope can be seen in Osman’s previous work, and from the reviews of his memoir, this will be one fascinating insight into his experiences of balancing the divide of juxtaposed lives and cultures. Tickets are free, the book is £14.99.
Sixes Social Cricket open their bars and batting nets in the Mailbox today. More

If 24 hours of Harry Potter movies isn't your idea of pure hell, The Mockingbird Cinema has you covered, Feb 5, £34.95.

Meanwhile, if being able to actually see your Valentine during a celebratory meal is a priority, then this blindfolded evening of 'romance' at the Botanist isn't for you. The world's gone mad, mate. £45!

A splendid Valentine's option, though, can be found at Botanical Gardens, where the excellent Ox & Origin are on food and the equally excellent Wine Freedom are on drinks. £59pp

Ramen doyens, Koba Ko, will be doing six days of the good stuff at Kilder. Details

Comedian, Guz Khan, plays Solihull's The Core, tomorrow (Jan 28), £19.80.
Custard Factory fine diners, 670 Grams, have launched a new 15-course tasting menu, priced at £70 on Wednesday and Thursday and £80 on Friday and Saturday. That's not bad, eh?
WORDS: Tom Cullen

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