Family News December 2020

Above is the cover for Claire’s new book, which has recently been published both in print and free online (link below). It is based on archive records from three London psychiatric hospitals and covers all aspects of care, policy, problems and life in those institutions.

Civilian Lunatic Asylums During the First World War: A Study of Austerity on London’s Fringe 

Although the two of us have hardly been out of the house except for walks since March, we seem to have more than ever to report this year. A year ago, Benjamin had just started his first civil service job, Samuel continued working in Parliament and Jacob at Open AI in San Francisco, and we all thought we were building a better world. Those jobs are still going on, but we’re no longer sure about the better world. Benjamin is right at the heart of events, working for the EU Transition Cabinet Committee in the Cabinet Office – though even with that job, 90% of his work is done from home online. It’s hard to believe that back in February, Michael was in Germany for the Jewish-Christian-Muslim week there.

Sadly, the lockdown came too late to save the North-West London Jewish community from a lot of heartache. Many were seriously ill, especially around Leo Baeck College, where Michael teaches, and sadly his colleague, Rabbi Neil Kraft, died of a Covid-19 infection. On 19th March, Benjamin, Samuel and his girlfriend Claire Yip moved in with us, and they stayed until 19th August. We were so fortunate to be able to make full use of our new kitchen and three showers. We had not stocked up, and shopping online was complicated at first, but we eventually managed to get everything needed by five hungry adults, the three younger ones all vegan.  Our life was greatly helped by Benjamin’s cooking and baking skills—he soon had a sourdough starter going and we had the most amazing fresh bread. We also had some fascinating discussions and debates about the state of the world at the dinner table – discussions which we have continued online as part of our Sunday evening weekly video calls. For the first three months of the lockdown, our car was out of action and we were unable to get it repaired until July, but then we started weekly Sunday morning walks in Hertfordshire. It’s amazing how rural it can be on London’s doorstep.

We were very fortunate to have a wifi that managed (just) to cope with five of us working online at the same time, and even more fortunate that all our work activities were able to continue. The number of emails doubled as everyone tried to make new arrangements for everything. Claire was able to pursue her publications and her history, and Samuel’s attempts to point out government short-sightedness continued tirelessly – he was asking back in 2019 why pandemic planning did not appear in party election manifestos. Benjamin found himself working on how to attract overseas students for 2020/21, and Michael was helping colleagues with some very difficult and emotional discussions about safety at funerals. As so many of us know from the lockdown, each day seems to pass slowly, but the weeks and months so quickly. With 100 meals a week being prepared in our kitchen, there was always lots to do around the house and outside in the garden — it was really fortunate that we did not move to a smaller place back in 2018. This year, being near the shops and public transport has become meaningless, but having a larger house with a garden, pleasant views and good neighbours has been amazing. Claire has been learning Arabic calligraphy, and our Arabic lessons have resumed after a maternity break for our teacher Nazmina.

Claire and Michael have been on our own since August, when the rest of the family moved out. Samuel and Claire went back to his flat in Whitechapel, while Benjamin took a flat with friends in Lambeth Walk, right by the Imperial War Museum, so he could walk to work for his new job in the Cabinet Office starting in September. We continued to restrain our going out, as we realised the second wave was coming. Sadly we are still in the middle of it, as London recorded its highest number of new cases ever on 4th December. This does not feel the right time to be doing any new activities with others. But for the most part, we have both enjoyed the extra time benefits of being able to attend the theatre, cinema, work meetings, lectures, and do teaching, research and learning, all from the comfort of home. Michael found himself doing something he never expected to go back to, when Leo Baeck College asked him to teach beginner’s Classical Greek. He currently has three classes at different level, with a total of ten online students. His work with Oxford Three Faiths Group has continued on line, and he has also been busy campaigning for better mental health services with Harrow Citizens, teaching at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, and struggling with trying to learn his Arabic vocab for the weekly tests our teacher Nazmina sets us.

Claire has been doing history much of the time, including writing chapters, articles and blogs, lecturing online, planning another book, editing newsletters and answering history of psychiatry queries from media, public and colleagues as historian in residence at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The annotated transcript of a College witness seminar Psychiatric hospitals in the UK in the 1960s went live earlier this year (free to download), and another one about the 1970s is being planned. She is enjoying working with junior doctors, historians, GPs, radiologists, psychiatrists, psychologists and others on a variety of history projects. She has had many unexpected and wonderful chats via skype or zoom, with people she never expected to meet, let alone get to know.  Some of our walks have been amazing – such as collecting sweet chestnuts at Hatfield, bringing them home, cooking and eating them, and the cupboards are stocked with various jams – damson, crab apple and cloves, blackberry, rosehip and more – all from fruit we have picked in the garden or growing wild. The sloe gin is maturing (sloe-ly) and we are looking forward to 2021.

Publications by our boys:

Benjamin Hilton presents the results of his MSc research with Abhijay Sood and Tim S Evans   Benjamin Hilton presents the results of his MSc research with Abhijay Sood and Tim S Evans

Jacob Hilton presents some of his AI research   

This is about teaching a computer how to play a simple computer game.

And finally, a really important article by Samuel Hilton and Caroline Baylon on planning for a pandemic. It deserves wide circulation. 

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3 thoughts on “Family News December 2020”

  1. Hello! Thanks for your Christmas card. Happy Chanukah!

    I’m intrigued by the Effective Altruism initiative. Have come into contact with the ‘Global Philanthropy Forum’ and offshoot ‘African’ ditto., both US-based but the African one has had a meeting recently in London. I wonder if Sam has come into contact with any HNW individuals who could be interested in establishing Peace Studies at Oxford? Anyone with whom it would be good to meet and chat about that – that would be marvellous?

    Best wishes,

  2. Belatedly (due to illness) I write to congratulate Claire on the forthcoming publication of her book by Palgrave Macmillan – a top-rank publisher.
    Taking up one point in your news I was very interested to see when travelling through Exminster a few years back that the Asylum there had been turned into a very nice housing development.
    I am delighted that your family are progressing so well and engaged in such valuable careers.
    Very best wishes for 2017.

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