On the Road, USA

On the Road, USA

From Tennessee, North and South Carolina to Georgia the word we heard over and over was “Impeach”.  It took me back to a trip we did to Washington DC in the early 1970s when all the car stickers read “Impeach Nixon” following the Watergate scandal.  Quite a flashback.  And having thought we might escape the endless speculation and search for facts in the discussion of Brexit, we ended up hearing the journalists’ endless speculation about impeaching Trump instead.  Every programme we watched.  The rest of the world might as well not exist when you travel in the USA. 

But it’s a great country to visit.  Staggering landscapes and different cultures, architecture and town-planning in each place.   The Brits snigger about the Americans not having passports or travelling outside their own borders but quite honestly where’s the need?  They have every kind of vista and recreation they could possibly require in their own country.  And to travel anywhere they have to cross an Ocean which, until recently, was extremely expensive. And still costs a fair whack.  I would say the majority of Americans we met on this trip had not been anywhere else.  It didn’t make them boring.  However, we did become aware of treading carefully on their politics in the South.  It is Trump-land, generally speaking, though we did meet some who were just as embarrassed about Trump as we are about our Westminster shenanigans.

I had been nervous about the driving.  I needn’t have been.  As Paul Theroux says in his excellent book Deep South “travelling in America is unlike travelling anywhere else on earth…Breezing from place to place on wonderful roads seemed so sweet, so simple.”  Where, in my youth, I used to get impatient at the slow speed limits, now I found it a delight to travel slow, enjoy the view and not feel hassled.  Even in the mountains near Highlands, North Carolina, the road tripped back and forth around twisty corners but it was nothing like as challenging as driving the narrow twisty roads one meets in France, say, where not only is the road narrow and precipitous but one is likely to get stuck behind a group of cyclists, making it impossible to overtake.  You don’t find cyclists on American roads.  No joggers.  No walkers.  No bikes.  Just cars.  But then it was nearly 100 degrees!

“Don’t walk the streets after dark” the Security Guard in Memphis told us the night of our arrival “there are crazies out there”.  And indeed we did see a few wildish looking folk and I came up with the 3-letter acronym TGFU – Thank God for Uber!  Wherever we found ourselves, in whatever seedy part of town, we could call up a clean car and, generally anyway, a polite driver with whom we could have an interesting conversation as we were driven safely back to our hotel.

But we had a good time in Memphis nonetheless.  Visiting Sun Studios and learning of the talent-spotter and entrepreneur Sam Phillips who set it up and recorded artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf and Roy Orbison among many others.  An example here, as we found in many of the stories we came across on our visit, of someone who had a vision and, despite difficulties, maintained the determination and resilience to achieve that success despite set-backs.

Then a visit to Graceland, Elvis’ home, described as a ‘mansion’ although in size not much larger than many a middle class home in the UK these days.  We were impressed, as many others have been, by the cosy and warm feeling of the house.  Somehow one could sense that as a man Elvis was sentimental, loved his Mum and grandmother, and enjoyed being generous to family and friends.  Seeing the photos of him as an extremely handsome young man and hearing his wonderful voice reminded me of my childhood when my older sister played his records on 45s, or EPs as they were known.  Good times.

And so on to Nashville along the IS40 in our Chrysler Standard SUV.  A comfortable car to drive despite the enormous trucks that surrounded us on the Interstate.  We were told by one of our Uber drivers that the IS40 between Memphis and Nashville is known for drug traffic, as FedEx trucks bomb along there and the police apparently watch out for them.  I was glad I didn’t know that beforehand!

Everywhere we went we heard great country music.  Both of us love it – tuneful, a bit soppy and always within a storytelling context.  Our night at the Grand Ole Opry was one of the best of my life.  We even saw Kevin Bacon and his brother singing as a duo there.  And we noticed that there, and wherever there was an audience, the compere would ask the US Veterans to stand up while the audience applauded their courage and acknowledged their contribution.  These announcements of recognition occur also in train stations and airports.  This contrasts with home where, apart from the Chelsea Pensioners, there seems to be too little acknowledgement of our own troops.

Nashville is party city.  Music booms from every corner and there are hen and graduation parties galore, parading around in open top limos and trucks, drinking and waving to the passers-by on the pavements.  A funny idea, really, a ‘look-at-me’ past-time that does seem a little pointless, although no doubt fun for those involved.

Some things were hard to find.  Fresh food.  A convenience store.  Milk.  It was near impossible to get a cappuccino.  I have got so used to a morning cup that it never occurred to me that America, home of Starbucks, would so seldom be able to offer me a cappuccino.  And so it had to be the usual revolting (in my opinion) American filter coffee.  And with taxes and 20% tips on top.  That takes some getting used to when the pound is so low against the dollar!

The weather was near unbearable in Memphis and Nashville.  It was unusually hot even for them, although we heard that similar temperatures had been experienced for a long period in 1954.

Next stop was Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s hotel and theme park which was far more elegant and comfortable and far less bling than we had imagined.  Country music played in the hotel and the theme park, both of which are set in pretty wooded countryside. The ’bling’ moment was at the Dolly Parton Stampede, which is a sort of Wild West show with Native Indians, cowboys, horses, buffalo, long-horned cattle being corralled, wagons, piglet-racing, chase-the-chicken racing and more.  It was all huge fun and set in the context of the Civil War, the North against the South as a competition within the audience.  I reflected that we probably wouldn’t allow the piglet-racing nor the chicken-chasing in the UK as the RSPCA might forbid it but all the animals involved looked thoroughly healthy and well-tended.

And everywhere we went we found good manners both from adults and children alike.  Very polite ‘good mornings/good afternoons’ and ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ used frequently and a friendly welcome.  The Southern accent and hospitality is renowned and we certainly experienced it along the road and especially once we reached Highlands in North Carolina.  A wealthy gentile town that reminded me of Wimbledon Village or Virginia Water, where we felt a real sense of community and family values.  There are many churches of all denominations here as elsewhere and, on the Sunday, the Main Street was full of smartly dressed folk making their way to one church or another.  I felt the focus of that neighbourliness when I was having to reverse out of a difficult blind spot and a kind lady spontaneously knocked on my window and said she would help me out by checking the traffic behind the truck parked at my rear.  I was very grateful. 

And beyond that we didn’t see CCTV and few radar speed traps.  One is not coddled at all in terms of checking in to a hotel (no passport requested). Picking up the rental car they just pointed to a row of cars and told us to choose the one we wanted.  No instructions, no information whatsoever.  So when we needed fuel we didn’t know whether it was diesel or petrol.  There was no notice on the car at all to signal what it might be.  Luckily there was a guy filling his car who told us he thought it would be petrol.  Luckily also, he was right!

We visited the civil rights museum in Memphis and this reminds one of the terrible barbarity of humans one to another.  The legacy of the Jim Crow policies of segregation are still felt and when David travelled the Southern States in 1963 the audiences were segregated in the jazz clubs he went to.  In Savannah and Charleston, at the end of our trip, we visited plantations and saw the dreadful conditions of the enslaved.   There was little mention of the slave masters in Africa who sent them there, which I felt was an omission.  And the sad part is that slavery and trafficking of humans still exists today, all these years later.  But then human cruelty can be witnessed throughout history – the holocaust, Pol Pot, Stalin, the wartime ‘comfort women’, Chairman Mao and many many more.  The question we need to keep asking is how to stop it happening again.

Something I noticed was that we saw virtually no Asian or Indian families here.  A map of Nashville showed where different populations live.  It reflected how like attracts like – Jewish communities, Irish communities, Hispanic communities, Afro-Caribbean communities come together there as they do in other places. Inevitably one is drawn to an area where there is a cousin, aunt, uncle or friend.  It’s human nature. 

On another note, I did begin to wonder whether orthopaedic surgeons were involved in the design of loos.  I couldn’t imagine how the larger American managed either to sit down let alone get up from sitting positions that were almost on the ground.  The pressure on dicky knees and hips must be enormous.   Good for business perhaps?!

It’s been hard to escape the tomato ketchup bottle or food wrapped in a bun.  But every so often, and particularly if you look hard, you do find excellent restaurants offering superb food.  And expensive food, in pleasant surroundings.  But the norm is fast food and chips still served on plastic trays in plastic cups with plastic straws.  Talking of which we only saw one roof area of solar panels and no wind farms where we have travelled.  Concerns about the environment were rarely witnessed. 

But there are signs warning of $1000 fines and prison  for littering.  This reminded me of the Arlo Guthrie movie Alice’s Restaurant.  The roadsides are, as a result maybe, far cleaner than ours.  I was always horrified by the amount of litter and debris we passed as we drove down the A31 from London to Winchester.  Surely we should educate our children and adults to respect the countryside more by increasing our own littering fines?

What else?  We saw far fewer dogs than we would here.  And I didn’t see a single cat so it’s lovely to get back to Chico. 

The stories we heard in the historic houses we visited in Savannah and Charleston brought to mind the tough life people experienced.  Of a house buzzing with mosquitoes and bugs, even as one ate one’s meal, or slept.  Of yellow fever, diptheria, death in childbirth, smallpox, infant mortality.  Story upon story of loss – human and financial.  Then the resilience of a widow or widower to pull themselves back up again. 

Savannah was saved from the bulldozers by a group of seven feisty and determined women who bought up the historic houses, one by one, restored them and protected them from planners who had wished to turn them into car parks.  We heard similar stories in Charleston.  Both towns are fabulous examples of planning and architecture, though our Uber driver told us that urbanisation was forcing rattle snakes and poisonous spiders into the town centres now.  She had just been bitten by a Brown Ransom spider that kills off cells.  She thought it might have been in her car – I was glad to get out!

Our train ride from Savannah to Charleston on Amtrak’s Silver Meteor was extraordinarily slow-paced.  And late.  Where seats and carriage numbers would have been allocated by computer and online booking in the UK, here it was done by hand, on pieces of paper depending on where you were headed.  For a country that has led the digital revolution this seemed somewhat archaic though worked fine, and the service we were given was both friendly and helpful.

So what do I take from all this?  That good manners and a friendly and curious approach to others brings with it a richness of sharing and information.  That it was not so long ago that life was very harsh in so many ways and that medicine and science have enabled us to live so comfortably and well now that illness and death, though natural, seem to offend us.  That the spirit of enterprise brings with it resilience.  Get knocked down and you find ways to bob back up again if you possibly can.  The sense of not being ashamed of business – that hard work brings with it meaning, innovation, the ability not only to care for one’s own family but to employ others and pay the taxes that enable a reasonable infrastructure for all.  Of course it isn’t perfect but for us everything worked like clockwork.  I would recommend it! And despite warnings, we didn’t see a single gun, other than in a Museum!

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I worry for the girls …

I went to a talk the other night by Frank Dikotter, the author of How to be a Dictator.  He mentioned at the beginning of the evening that all the dictators he had profiled were men.  So, at the end of the lecture I asked him whether he could have chosen a woman.  His immediate response was “well it is still a man’s world.”

And it is. Just look at the photos or news coverage of political or business meetings from around the world and you mainly see a majority of men around the head table.  I am not seeking a world of women dictators but despite all my generation’s protestations for women’s equality there are still major gaps that need to be addressed, particularly financially, but also in terms of how women are encouraged to think about themselves as confident individuals, independent of men.  I worry about the insidious ‘put-downs’ that occur to keep women in their place, which are by no means a domain of the older generation but sadly are witnessed in the behaviours of young men too.  For that reason I worry for the young women of today … and those growing up to be women in tomorrow’s world. 

I question why so much publicity and praise is being given to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian view of a future world in The Handmaid’s Tale.  It fills me with horror and I have no desire to watch it or read the book. There is far too much subjugation of women still occurring globally to wish to watch more fiction on the subject.  In my experience of my own life and the lives of my clients it is far more useful to imagine a picture of the world one is seeking to create rather than to hold images of a world one would hate to live in.

If it is ever to be a world where the balance of power is equally shared by men and women we have a great deal of work to do.  Perhaps it is the perennial concern of the older generation to be anxious about the world their grandchildren will enter and, as you know, I am in the main an optimist.  But there are aspects of what is happening in the UK and the world, with the ease of access to porn, the violence being shown to women in Africa, India, the Middle East, South America to name just a few, the huge increase in reports of rape here, that makes me uneasy.  Of course we don’t want to convict the innocent but surely it is obvious that there are only a minority of women who raise these issues without due cause.  Neither the police nor university departments, where girls report being unsupported over complaints of rape or harassment, are taking sufficient action to keep girls safe.  These are intelligent young women who are shocked to find themselves victims of sexual misconduct.

The growing tendency for young boys and men to view porn is leading to more of this hideous habit of bullying girls and women to feel they have to sink to the demands of partners.  Whilst we have spent our lives promoting women’s confidence, the technical revolution of sadistic and misogynistic digital games and apps has led to an undermining of what we have built up.  I mentioned ‘hazing’ in a recent blog but have just come across ‘stealthing’ which is where a man removes a condom half way through making love.  Isn’t that appallingly callous and cruel? 

Why do young men feel that they can treat girls in such a disrespectful and cold way?  Perhaps it is the objectification that comes through viewing porn and violent games.  The #MeToo campaign has uncovered women’s experiences of men and it doesn’t make good reading.  (Though at the same time women should not be opportunistic in claiming harassment where there may have been none.  Nor should men be judged online without a legal process.)  But the stories imply that the sense of entitlement that my generation experienced lives on today.  A man’s world still.

And talking of safety, we are back to my old chestnut of trans people in girls’ changing rooms in schools.  A leaked set of guidelines from the Equality and Human Rights Commission is recommending that those who identify as transgender or are ‘exploring their gender identity’ will be allowed to use the changing rooms of their chosen gender and would also be allowed to sleep in single-sex rooms on school trips if they identify with that gender.  Tanya Carter, of the Safe Schools Alliance, was reported in the Sunday Times 15.9.19, as saying she was appalled by this approach which ‘ignores the rights of girls’.  Girls at several schools have been told they can no longer wear skirts, although at other schools boys are being told they can wear skirts (it’s a mad world!).  Many schools are adopting trousers for all. 

The natural enjoyment of being different and experimenting with fashion is being denied to girls.   They are being expected to dress and behave like men rather than embrace the fun of difference.  On the one hand this is all being done in the name of ‘diversity’ but the simple diversity that exists between boys and girls, men and women, is now being obliterated. 

And the trend continues into school and professional sport.  Transgender players will continue to be able to compete in the category they choose, even if it is patently obviously unfair to do so. 

All this in order to make a small percentage of the population more comfortable, which is fine except it has the potential for making others feel uncomfortable.  It all seems thoroughly undemocratic.  Who has asked girls how they feel about these changes?  Or you?  Or me?

Of course trans children and adults should be treated with respect, compassion and consideration.  My question is how much consideration are girls being given?  But any time anyone expresses an inkling of concern on these issues one is labelled a transphobe and told to shut up.

The difficulties continue into adult life, it seems to me.  There remains the problem of tax on sanitary products, which makes a natural occurrence for 50% of the population financially onerous, especially for poorer girls and women.  And is still unacknowledged in its debilitating impact on women in the workplace and in sport, who are expected just to grin and bear it, as they have for centuries.

Then there’s childbirth.  This has become more efficient in some ways but less caring in others.  Young women in our family have been sent home 5 hours after a first baby.  No time to adapt in the safety of a hospital, to learn more about feeding, nappy changing, bathing.  Chucked back into the home where you are totally dependent on the kindness of a husband or family to help you get your strength back and become more confident.  In my mother’s day new mothers stayed in hospital for up to four weeks to adapt to becoming mothers.  In my time I was in hospital for 10 days after a Caesar. My daughter-in-law was back home in 24 hours after a Caesarean.  I cannot imagine how I would have coped, as all I can remember is the pain and exhaustion!

And, as a recent survey found, there is little care for the mother after birth.  Apparently there is funding for a baby’s health check but not for the mother!  Many new mums are hardly given any time with a health visitor or GP to give them a health check, let alone advice and comfort in what can be a hugely anxious time.

Maternity leave is helpful but at the same time leaves women open to being left behind in skillsets and the career ladder.  It is only women who can carry children to create the next generations –  the technology hasn’t advanced to alter that particular role yet!  So, for the sake of all humanity, surely they need support.

Motherhood leaves women way behind financially.  In a recent UBS study of male and female finances they calculated that a wife not only forfeits a year’s salary on maternity leave but, with all other factors taken into account, is likely to be 43% less well-off than her husband at the end of her life, even if they have similar qualifications.  Part of this is also that women can still assume that a man will take care of their investments, which can leave a woman exposed should they become widowed or single.  The UBS report “Own your worth: why women should take control of their wealth to achieve financial well-being” points out that many women defer thinking about their long-term future and, as a result, end up with less pension.

Guidant Financial reported recently that more women are starting their own businesses.  This has been a trend for some time.  Having run a small business myself I know that it can give one more control over one’s time, not having to fit into an organisational system or answer to a boss.  However, one always has to answer to clients and it is extremely hard work, often with less pay and certainly with less perks in the way of sick pay, holiday pay or the ability to put sufficient funds into a pension. 

Fathers are far more involved with their children and the home than they ever used to be, which is great.  The sharing is good.  Yet Ruth Davidson’s resignation recently has once again highlighted both the emotional pull of motherhood and also the conflict that arises when one has to let go of a job one loves yet can no longer manage happily.

The world needs women’s voices and perspectives.  Governments and organisations need to reflect the world in a balanced way.  We can be every bit as skilled, competent and intelligent as men in a multitude of different careers and ways but we may see things differently, may pick up something that someone else has not noticed, may approach a situation from another angle.    Yet becoming a CEO or an MP is daunting when one can be judged more harshly and become the recipient of brutal trolling.  I take my hat off to those women who have stuck their head above the parapet and have to work their way through revolting tweets with threats of death and rape.

We must be vigilant to protect what has been built up in our culture and society.  I would hate the cultural or digital habits of young men to push women back down to any lower status.  The key now is to encourage young women to expect and demand good things for themselves in work and life and to command the respect of others, not be self-deprecating.  And for young men to see that women are their equals. 

We really don’t need awful images of women being subjugated as we see in The Handmaid’s Tale.  Do we?  Let’s build the images of young women happily running organisations, families and countries alongside their male counterparts, equal but different.  Knowing their worth.

Just to let you know that we are off on a road trip in the USA next week so I shall be silent for a few weeks while we drink in the atmosphere and music of Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia.  Will report back!

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Is our democracy in danger?

I can’t pretend to be an expert on the law or on democratic process but the current complex conflict over Brexit: deal, no-deal, call for a general election, refusal to call an election, delay a general election, throws up so many questions for me.  Do you find the current shenanigans as confusing as I do?  Parliament claims to want a deal but didn’t want the deal and now they have secured that there will be no ‘no-deal’ nor an immediate election.  Unless, that is, Boris Johnson resigns or calls for a vote of no-confidence in himself.  Hmmm…

The trouble is that I am not really sure which side is being the less democratic.  On the one side Boris Johnson was accused of being anti-democratic as a result of his decision to prorogue Parliament.  But the Court has ruled that this was not illegal and in fact quite a normal event.  Also, as it is Party Conference time, the argument is that there will be few days actually lost to debate what has already been debated for 3 years.  But the timing was obviously not lost on Boris.  The cat was most definitely intended to be put among the pigeons.

So now Boris has lost but he is claiming to want to push through Brexit even if it kills him (which, of course, some hope it will).  He sees it as ‘the will of the people’ and is also prepared to give the people a vote on this through a General Election but, quite contrarily as I see it, the opposition parties do not go for this.  Why?  Because they don’t have much chance of winning.  So rather than give the people the chance to vote they would prefer to withhold that opportunity from the population of the UK.  Is that democratic?

You might think from this that I am a supporter of Johnson.  I am not.  However, I am concerned about the voice of many ordinary people being silenced by Parliament when MPs are, in fact, there to be the spokespeople of the electorate.  I am also concerned that there is little or nothing, in the narrative of those opposition parties who wish to block Brexit, to address some of the legitimate concerns of the Leavers. Surely these voters deserve a considered response to their worries as much as any other voters.  And some solutions.

On the other side, the opposition parties cry ‘shame’ that they are being silenced by the shutting down of Parliament, which is certainly a heavy-handed move.  But have they not all just had three years to debate a deal? And rejected May’s eventual deal three times in the Commons?  What kind of rabbit do any of them think they can pull out of a hat at this stage?  And in the meantime is it not absolutely sensible for the government to prepare for no-deal?  May was criticised enough for not having done so.

After all, having made a ‘no-deal’ impossible, this removes any bargaining power from whichever party might be negotiating with Brussels in future.  They have tied themselves in knots because surely, in any negotiation, you do have to keep the possibility of walking away on the table.  Don’t you?  Unless, as in most private divorces, there is a legal structure that outlines what is a fair outcome for both parties.  But this protection doesn’t seem to exist in what feels like a wild-west divorce.

I may have voted Remain but I do seek fairness of approach and what I am seeing is exactly what leads a population into extreme government – the ignoring of the sentiment of the people by Parliament.  The historian David Starkey commented this morning that it is a dangerous moment when Parliament overrides the will of the people, which effectively it has done by blocking a snap election.  It feels to me as if both sides are being high-handed with democracy.  Boris through proroguing Parliament but the opposition parties by preventing the election.

After all, everyone has been clamouring for another Referendum, saying it is time to put it back to the people but when given that opportunity they block it.  The election effectively provides the equivalent of another referendum (provided, of course, Labour can decide what it stands for, leave or remain).  But no, the other parties look at the polls which give Boris and Farage the potential majority and say they will only hold an election when it suits them and, in the meantime, insist on kicking the Brexit can down the road, whatever the French say.

But the people did vote Leave.  And we can no longer say that they don’t know what they voted for.  Project Fear has been well and truly publicised for three years.  So the current polls suggesting that Brexit and Boris/Farage would nonetheless potentially win an election has to reflect the fact that, despite the negative forecasts about how this country would fare on a no-deal Brexit, there are still a large number of people who want to exit the EU anyway.

Now have you noticed how there is suddenly talk of it only being an ‘advisory Referendum’, although this fact has hardly been mentioned as a challenge to the result over the last three years.  Why on earth wasn’t this status raised immediately in 2016 so that the Government could use the result as a sounding board and tackle some of the issues raised.  But no, they rushed headlong into Brexit.  Surely those opposed to the result could have made more of this argument at the time and allowed us to find solutions to the problems, besides exiting the EU?  But now we are well and truly stuck and it has unsettled our democratic processes.

What has always made me uncomfortable is the narrative about the Leavers all being ‘Little Englanders’ and ignorant idiots.  It is so disrespectful as there are plenty of thoroughly intelligent and successful people in that group.  It feels high-handed and begs the question whether the people who talk like this are harking back to days before universal suffrage.  Perhaps they regret that the vote was ever granted to all.  It feels as if some elitist metropolitan attitudes are suggesting that, as in previous centuries, some votes count for more than others.

It was only a century or so ago that universal suffrage was passed.  Prior to that only men, the wealthy and the educated had the vote.  The lower classes weren’t deemed clever enough to know how to vote.  Workers and women had to wait until the twentieth century for their moment.  Are those who are unhappy with the Referendum result equally feeling that perhaps universal suffrage has been a bad idea – that after all there are some people in the UK who don’t know what’s good for them?

There seems to be no will to listen and respect opinions that differ to our own, or to find solutions that encompass some middle ground.  I believe that this is what May was attempting to do, albeit without success or panache.  Instead each side is now adopting battle zones through the courts, parliament and the press and overriding the other party in any way they can, seemingly for political ends.  It doesn’t feel particularly democratic.  It feels dangerous.  And it divides us as a nation.

The Brexit negotiation has been a disaster for us all.  There is so much to be gained through alliance and there are many ways to achieve that outcome.  Would it not now give us all an ounce of hope if, whichever Party leads us into the future, they are able to pull this country together after all this fiasco?  I am not averse to seeing Boris land in a ditch but I do want all voices to be heard and for our country to be united in some kind of central common ground again.  We can’t take democracy for granted.

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Heading for immortality?

There seems to be an obsession with longevity at the moment.  Endless research on this, that and the other food, magic pill or habit that will keep us alive for longer.  Though personally I am not convinced that I wish to live for longer.  Why do the scientists think this is such a great goal, I wonder?  I gather there are various experiments in the US to maintain life, including cryotechnology, which only makes me think of the crazy consequences of freezing people depicted brilliantly in the antics of Woody Allen in his film Sleeper!

But for me, it looks as if I could be quasi-immortal!  Two pieces of research released this year demonstrate, firstly, that it’s the inconsequential contact we have with strangers every day that keep us healthy, happy and alive.  Secondly, that optimists stay healthier and live longer.  Oh, and incidentally being a grandparent helps too. Yay! 

Mind you, as I say, I am more interested in being healthy than living forever but it seems like good news, nonetheless.  And why does this work for me?  Well, as most of you who know me would agree, I am an optimist and a positive-thinker (why else would I have called my company Positiveworks?!).  And now that we have moved to Kew Village we are experiencing a delightful number of everyday chit-chats with neighbours, florists, baristas, and newsagents, alongside all the jolly conversations we have at the Avenue Club where we study French, wellbeing, yoga, creative writing and more.   I have never lived in such a friendly community before. 

In my early life we lived in Surrey, near Oxted, and I remember that my young nephew, who lived in Wandsworth, used to comment to my mother, his grandmother, that she seemed to know “everyone” in the High Street as she walked alongside him.  And she certainly knew several of those people by sight, as did I as a child.  But after Surrey, I moved to London and that is, in the main, the land of anonymity, which, I have to admit, quite suited me for much of my life.  As a busy working Mum I enjoyed choosing who I spoke to rather than bumping into people. 

Here in Kew we bump into someone we recognise, if not know intimately as friends, every day.  It is an extraordinarily friendly place where we just have to walk down the street and some stranger will smile at us.  And what an interestingly nice feeling that is, after all, isn’t it?  Especially for this latter part of life.  I am really coming to enjoy these brief encounters.

I wonder what it is about a chance meeting that makes us happy.  There is obviously something that happens in these moments that is meaningful and boosts our mood. Does receiving a smile from a stranger somehow reinforce the idea that the world is a good place, that the majority of people are pleasant and not out to do us harm?  It doesn’t matter whether that person is local or comes from the other side of the world, a few words exchanged with a stranger or someone one only sees randomly definitely makes one feel that all is good with the world.  So, go on, smile at a stranger today and make them live longer!

Now those of us who are optimists have often been accused of being unrealistic.  But ha, it seems that for health and longevity we have the answer after all!  And, of course, we have a point, don’t we?  Wouldn’t the world fall apart if there were more evil people than good, more chaos than order?  On the whole, most of the time, the world is far from perfect, but there are enough good folk in it to remind us that positive thinking isn’t as ridiculous as some people consider it to be.  At least one spends each day feeling relatively happy, which is good for our immune systems, and then if something bad does happen then one has energy in reserve to manage it.  Whereas the pessimists must spend each day rather anxious and miserable and then if the inevitable bad thing happens they will be facing it from an already-depleted physical and emotional state.  Won’t they?  I am sure you might have some personal view on that, so do share it.

To be honest I wouldn’t have started my business Positiveworks unless I had optimism – nor would any entrepreneur begin a venture unless they believed in it and thought positively about it.  How could they?  They can’t prove it will work until it does work.  In 1992 when I set up the company I had some qualifications, some good training and coaching products but no clients.  Noone knew me from Adam but somewhere in my gut I believed I could make it work.  In my own small way, I did. 

And apart from business, we need optimism and positive thinking if we are playing sports, running a public sector organisation, treating patients as a doctor or therapist, teaching children from all backgrounds, managing a health condition, making a change. 

Or, indeed, running a country.  I am sorry, I have great respect for Philip Hammond but I personally don’t think an Eeyore has the right credentials to run a country and make it successful so I am glad he didn’t stand for PM, though I am far from happy with the Tigger of a PM we do have.  Talk about extremes… For when I talk of optimism I am not speaking of Pollyanna thinking.  Not thinking that everything in the garden will always be roses.  I am referring to rational optimism – being optimistic about things that have a relative potential for success or positive outcome.

One of the things that concerns me most these days is that politicians and voters alike talk this country down.  There are plenty of bad and embarrassing things happening in the rest of the world too.  We certainly aren’t the worst.  But because we are divided on this never-ending topic of Brexit people choose to put the country down at the same time as denigrating the opposite side, whether a Remainer or a Leaver.  Whatever happens we are absolutely going to need to think optimistically about ourselves and our ability to rebuild our economy, our relationships with other countries and bring together this divided population of ours.  We can’t do that on pessimism and negative thinking.

So I am happy that something (was it being born in sunny May, a genetic gift, or an experience of childhood) has made me an optimist.  And perhaps as an optimist I also tend to believe that the majority of people around me do not wish me harm and are friendly, and so have frequent inconsequential and yet meaningful chats and conversations with people in this village, on the tube, waiting in a lift and more.  It has felt quite natural for me to do so, though perhaps now I should make even more of an effort to embrace positive thinking and smile at strangers, to keep myself healthy.

But ultimately, do we really want to be immortal?  I don’t think so.  Healthy, yes, but to live longer and longer just for the sake of it certainly does not fill me with optimism or joy, so I shall leave that to those people who are choosing to cryogenically freeze themselves for the future.  If they are as amusing as Woody Allen when they thaw, life won’t be so bad.  In the meantime, who might you smile at today?  And how might you develop an optimistic thought about life despite Brexit and Trump?!  Please do.  We need all the positive and optimistic thoughts we can get.

PS. you can now download our book Reclaim Health A recovery strategy when doctors can’t explain your symptoms for free on http://reclaimhealth.org.uk/?page_id=280
http://reclaimhealth.org.uk/?page_id=280

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The politicians we deserve?

Boris Johnson’s threat to suspend Parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit is a worrying one as it seems to put two fingers up to the norms of our Constitution and to democracy.  We hear that the electorate want a ‘strong man’ as leader though I have yet to meet anyone personally who says this.  For me the idea of a strong man as leader makes me shudder.  I think of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Kim Jong Un and many more throughout history who have caused great harm.

Now, a wise leader would be good and in wisdom there is some strength but it is not the strength of the bully.  It is the quiet strength of seeking to do what is right and what is in the benefit of the people, in this case the United Kingdom.  But this focus cannot be in isolation as “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” [John Donne]  The leader has to think beyond their own shores as everything that happens within a country impacts the world, and vice versa.  And in today’s world more than ever.

But wisdom isn’t a word we hear a lot.  We hear idiotic words and soundbites from our politicians that are often meaningless and get contradicted the next moment with no sense that this lack of continuity demonstrates a flakiness of purpose or intent.

The Queen is obviously as dismayed by our current band of politicians’ inability to govern as the rest of us.  The expenses scandals and the favours for office leave us rather disgusted that we are being led by people in all parties who would sell themselves for a peerage or to massage their egos in some way. 

So why have we ended up in this situation?  One aspect that comes to my mind is that many previous ministers and politicians served in the armed forces.  Of course many mistakes were made in warfare but they potentially learnt more about leadership within that military environment – the need for a vision, a strategy, to pull a team together to fight alongside one another, to protect one another in the face of onslaught. 

For better or for worse there was also an educational system that raised young men for these officer roles as war was the norm in previous times.  This is now an outdated concept but it could be of benefit to our country for schools to focus more on the skills of leadership, not in the model of the ‘strong man’  but in enabling young people, girls and boys, to consider what it is to analyse a threatening situation, to problem-solve, to seek multiple potential methods of approaching that situation and then galvanise people to tackle it, even if there is some danger to be faced.

Everyone loves to put this country down, including our own politicians, despite the fact that others see it as a land of opportunity and relative fairness.  Have we overlooked the concept of loyalty to one’s country in the fear of right-wing nationalism?  Surely there is a middle way.   We can feel proud of our country and yet retain a sense of being a part of the world beyond.

There are people in every country of the world who seek a sense of belonging, who wish to be part of a community. These people might congregate around a church, synagogue, mosque or a local hub and value continuity of their cultural and social norms.  There is a place for this and it does not mean that those people are necessarily racist or seek to prevent others leading their own lives.  But there can be an arrogance among the Westminster political class that leads them to lecture rather than to empathise with those who enjoy tradition, berating them for being uncomfortable with change instead of valuing them for the contributions they make within a society.  There is never just one ‘right way’.  There are surely many ways of living this life of ours.

“Liberalism is alive and thriving” Jo Swinson stated after her election as leader of the LibDems in July this year.  But how liberal is liberalism these days?  We don’t want politicians who live in an echo-chamber.  Don’t we want politicians who are broad thinkers and have the ability to make decisions on the basis of a range of information and sentiment?

When I worked on the biography of Harold Macmillan it was well-known that he and other MPs spent time reading.  How well read are our politicians?  How much knowledge of history and philosophy, or political ideas, shapes their thinking?  How many take the time to go to the theatre and have their mind opened to new ways of perceiving situations?  Or to classical music concerts to be moved by the beauty and disciplined creativity of an orchestra?  How many consider that they are role models and have a duty to give the population a lead on art and culture beyond the inevitable supposedly-trendy must-do gig of being photographed with rappers at Glastonbury?

Whilst I am sure there are some politicians who harbour a real sense of wanting to make a difference, I fear there are other career politicians who just wish to have power and status.  For what are the qualifications to become a politician?  It seems that you just have to have a British Passport, be 18, have some money for your campaign and then make enough noise to get noticed.  There is no question of what A levels, university degrees or professional qualifications might be required.  There is no mention of ‘character’, ethics, values or purpose in the advice on ‘how to become an MP’.

Personally I don’t think anyone should become an MP unless they have spent time in other sectors beforehand.  A vast majority of the companies in the UK are SMEs.  Perhaps budding MPs should see how difficult it is to run a small business when politicians walk roughshod over them and give them no sense of future direction around which they can build their strategies, budgets and plans.  Perhaps they should get experience of running a large department and understand the complexities that exist within the NHS, Defence, transport, technology and business before being made a Minister of an area they know little or nothing about?

And then what about professional development once in the job?  What about appraisals, 360 degree feedback, some sense that the person is self-observing and learning from mistakes?  What about personality profiling, communication skills, assertiveness, management and leadership skills?  Whenever some beknighted MP does take the initiative to get some training, coaching or development there is a howling about it costing money.  But don’t we want our politicians to be competent, professional, to hold power with conscious intent?  To develop self-knowledge, critical thinking, delegation skills?  Perhaps even to develop wisdom?

When will politicians realize that we see through shallowness and flakiness?  When will they recognise the power and value of moral capital?  Of believing in something but not being deaf to other viewpoints, being open and listening to diverse opinions but having the wisdom to stop, analyse and reflect on the direction they believe to be right and not bow to populist pressure.  Then having the honesty to let us know where this is intended to take us.

No, I don’t want a strong leader.  I want a competent one.  I want someone wise enough to consider and reflect.  Someone who knows they are fallible and is not too arrogant to ask for advice and heed it.  Someone who can unite others to go with them. I certainly don’t want someone who forces their hand just to get what they want.  There lies dictatorship.

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Reclaim Health – our new book is just published!

If you are experiencing persisting physical symptoms such as stomach cramps, severe fatigue, exhaustion, pain in your muscles, over a period of several months, it is likely that you will go to your doctor in the expectation that they will be able to diagnose your problem and prescribe treatment to alleviate your symptoms.  Should they tell you at the end of your appointments and investigations that they can find nothing physically wrong with you this can be bewildering and disheartening.   It can be equally confusing for the doctor, who is trained to diagnose and prescribe and may well feel frustrated that he or she cannot help you.

GPs estimate that approximately 50% of patients in their waiting rooms do not have a fixed pathology of disease that they can detect.  So what is happening?  

Over the past five years my partner Dr David Beales, who was a GP himself for some 30 years, brought together a team of experts to research and seek solutions.  We called ourselves the Reclaim Health team and the outcome of this collaboration is our book Reclaim Health: a recovery strategy when doctors can’t explain your symptoms, just published on Amazon. Click this link .

This book is for those who have or are experiencing these medically unexplained symptoms.  In writing this, we have benefited hugely from having two expert ex-patients in our team, Julia MacDonald and Janice Benning, both of whom were severely unwell for more than 10 years with chronic fatigue syndrome.  They used the tools and strategies in this book to reclaim their own health and have since then applied this process to many clients, with excellent results.  Janice and Julia were able not only to provide us with their experiences but also help us to present our findings, tips and techniques in this book in a simple yet powerful way, knowing that when you are unwell you do not have much energy to read, let alone read anything complicated. 

We initially approached this as a research project, obtaining funds from the National Institute of Health to research the literature and Janice and Julia then ran a pilot course to test recovery techniques, which we accomplished.   One of the keys to success is to give an empowering explanation of the symptoms a patient is experiencing, within the context of their immune system.  For more information on this please click to see David’s article.

The two GPs in the team, David and Gina Johnson, have added the science and their practical experience of working with these patients, addressing how the interconnection between mind and body can influence symptoms. I have contributed the coaching processes that can help a patient pursue their goals of wellbeing and return to their lives as healthy individuals, breaking through old patterns and persisting through everyday challenges. 

I suspect that any of you reading this may either have experienced these symptoms yourself or know someone who may be struggling to reclaim their health.  Do take a look at it on Amazon and buy a copy or send one to a friend you think may benefit.  As a not-for-profit team, we have kept the price intentionally low, at cost, £4.83 so that as many people as possible will be able to take advantage of the experiences, science and helpful techniques included in this book.

As a client has commented: “I use my Reclaim skills all the time, and life is good.  Forever grateful.”   Others can benefit too – both those with symptoms and those medics, coaches, therapists, HR teams, or family and friends who are supporting someone who is suffering from problems such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, Irritable Bowel. 

It is such a shame to feel so debilitated that you can’t participate or enjoy life. People arrive at this place for many different reasons when their level of tolerance – physical, mental, spiritual – is exhausted.  Sometimes people feel so unwell that they can’t enjoy their partner, children, work or even the hobbies they used to love.  But as with anything in life this can lead to habits, conscious or unconscious, that keep you stuck and then returning to health and life can seem scary, like too big a challenge.  The task can look too steep and so people end up feeling helpless and hopeless.

But it doesn’t have to be an exhausting challenge.  Gradually, small step by small step, people begin to take control of their lives again – their thoughts, emotions, physical strength, flexibility and energy.  They notice when they are ‘doing’ negativity or pessimism.  They begin to develop the ability to say ‘no’ to people they have found ask too much of them.  They begin to tune into their bodies and recognise when they need to rest or sleep, when and what they need to eat, what exercise re-energises them, or when they just need to be still, perhaps to meditate or reflect.  They begin to define the lifestyle, relationships and environmental choices that nurture them, the creativity that inspires them and to regain a sense of purpose and meaning.  And key to all of this is compassion – compassion for self and compassion for others.

Sadly many people are told that they will never recover from these kinds of chronic and debilitating conditions.  We would like to encourage them to believe that they can – and include plenty of case studies in the book of those who have turned their lives around to reclaim their health.  So I shall just finish with one example of a client in his 20s, Edward, who gave this feedback after sessions with Janice:

“I thought my life was over, but 2 years later I have climbed Snowdon and celebrated with a pint!  I wouldn’t have the energy to watch a park run, but now I run it. Knowing there was another way that would allow me to live my life was the most liberating and emotional experience.”

We believe that this book provides that help so do click here to take a peek at it and let us know how you, or anyone you know who reads it, gets on!  Do visit our website www.reclaimhealth.org.uk. We would love your feedback.

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Feeling left behind? … Don’t read this over breakfast!

Do you know what Hazing is?  I certainly didn’t until very recently and am horrified to discover that it is happening in this country, at our universities.  For those of you who don’t know, it involves initiation practices that have come over here from the States, I believe.  It includes revolting, humiliating and sometimes painful rituals to initiate new students into a group, rugby club, university or college.  I have heard about people having a chilli put up their rectum, a young girl blindfolded and taken into the countryside and left in a wood to find her way home, apple bobbing to fish dead rats from buckets with their mouths, people being forced to drink excessive quantities of alcohol.  It is a dangerous horrible practice and it seems that it is happening at a university near you without us oldies realizing it.  Do we want this for our grandchildren?

It made me aware of how many dubious behaviours are occurring here without me knowing.  It makes me feel left behind, out of touch and anxious to spread awareness, as surely we should be fighting to stop any kind of humiliating ritual, whatever its cultural provenance, from happening here.  Isn’t this contrary to any kind of human dignity or protection of human rights?

But the only way I really hear about what’s happening is via younger people, whether they be nephews or nieces, sons or daughters, so I suspect that many people are blissfully unaware of some of the practices that I consider abhorrent and would like to challenge.  Here are a few examples, as well as the Hazing examples I gave above…

Breast ironing.  This is only just coming to light but social workers and doctors must have known about this practice for some time without publicising it.  The British Medical Journal, 4 May 2019, carried an article reporting that some 1000 women and girls in the UK may have been subjected to what can only be described as abuse.  For those of you who have not heard of this practice it is breast flattening, where a young girl’s breasts are ironed, massaged, flattened, or pounded down to reduce their size, supposedly to protect girls from sexual attention and delay sexual development.  It is common to some parts of Africa and the Cameroon.  This is described by the UN as gender-based violence and causes significant harm.  No perpetrators have yet been prosecuted in the UK and it seems that there is general ignorance of a repugnant practice that amounts to child abuse.  How can we prevent it if we don’t know about it?

Female Genital Mutilation.  We do now have more information and awareness of this practice and yet there has only been one prosecution.  As with other practices there seems to be a veil of silence being held by people who must surely know where it is happening and who is perpetrating it?

Boys and porn.  It seems that people take it for granted that young boys will have access to porn these days but how have we allowed this to be so easily available?  As with the above behaviours, it introduces expectations of young girls to perform and live up to the habits of porn stars.  One of these is to shave off all their pubic hair, which is apparently now commonly done by teenage girls in this country.  Why?  It seems to suggest that girls are being infantalised for the pleasure of boys and men.  It suggests that the ability to take pride in being a natural woman is being removed from them.

Young wives being used to produce children and then divorced and deprived of seeing their children.  This is hideously cruel but apparently is carried out by British husband who send their wives away to Pakistan and other countries once they have produced children.  This practice was reported as long ago by 2012 by the BBC but is still happening.  Does this require education, or a legal change to protect mothers and ensure they can see their children after divorce?

The Black Web.  I hear about this but I haven’t a clue what it really is or how on earth to access it (not that I would wish to).  It’s a bit like a black hole – it exists but doesn’t exist for most of us and heaven knows what unpleasant things are being shared on it but is there no way to stop people accessing it, if it is showing illegal material?

Cutting and self-harming.  This didn’t really seem to exist in my school days, certainly not in the numbers that are now being reported.  How sad.  But we must remember that teenagers are groupies, they do what other members of their friendship group do and so it is a practice that becomes infectious, as does anxiety.  And in some ways the more we publicise it the more we fan the fire, don’t we?  It is excellent that we understand that it is happening, certainly, as we can then support those who are undertaking this harmful practice and understand what is leading them to do so.  However, it strikes me that the more the media blow it up the more likely it is for a young girl to feel the odd one out if she isn’t self-harming or suffering from anxiety these days.  My experience is that we were all anxious as teenagers – there is so much ahead that is uncertain – but we accepted that it was just part of life, a stage we had to go through until we gained a little more control.  Of course we must support those who are mentally sick but perhaps not over-pathologise those who are experiencing the usual teenage angst?  But perhaps if I was subjected to some of the changes above I might have become equally anxious.

Social media versus newspapers.  Yes, we all know about it but what I didn’t know until recently was that young people are getting all their news from Instagram or Twitter.  They aren’t reading newspapers.  And this means that they aren’t reading comment or analysis, they are just reading headlines and getting snapshots of information rather than any kind of broad or in-depth information with which to make decisions or form informed opinions.  And then they vote and have our future in their hands.

I remember Sundays as the most boring day in the week in my childhood home as my parents tucked themselves behind The Times, Observer, Telegraph and read them from cover to cover.  Whilst I was bored it nonetheless gave me a role model that this was something adults enjoyed doing – getting information about the world, discussing it, debating views, etc.  And so we children of our era learnt that newspapers were interesting things to read and have around.  I have followed suit and always had newspapers and journals strewn around the house so my sons have probably experienced equal boredom to my own.

The thing with physical papers is that one sees more than one ever does on line – the odd little paragraph in a corner of a page, an article one might not have considered to be interesting but proves fascinating.  I find that online one misses a lot as much of it is reliant on one’s searching for articles rather than that randomness of glancing across a page or two and seeing something that catches the eye.  And then of course papers like the Standard are even shedding the experienced critics who inform us of their opinion of books, theatre, film, etc. so that one gets the views of any old Tom, Dick, Harry or Henrietta who may or may not have any real knowledge of the subject at all.

And so here I am feeling left behind, as I am sure most older people have done in every generation, as all kinds of new habits and practices infiltrate one’s life and society.  But some of these behaviours seem thoroughly disrespectful to humanity, and to women and girls in particular, so surely we need to know about them in order to challenge them?  What do you think, I wonder?

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Who’s the real bigot?

Words like bigot, Nazi, fascist are being bandied about at rapid speed these days with little understanding of the real meaning of the words or their sorry history.  Nor does there seem to be a recognition that the person accusing others of bigotry might actually be as much, if not more, of a bigot than the people to whom they are addressing their accusation.

Bigot means a person who is intolerant towards those holding different opinions and today it is used by those who often want to prevent others expressing their opinions.  This may be student unions who no-platform lecturers or academics who do not hold their views.  It may be those who express an opinion on race, immigration or culture who are not allowed to have concerns that may well be legitimate.  It may be either Remainers or Brexiteers who are unwilling to listen to the arguments of those whose opinions differ to their own.  It may be those who express concern about the stance of the transgender lobby.  It may be Trump-haters or supporters, Tory-haters or supporters, and so on.

We are not living under a communist regime.  We do not have the Stasi or other secret police patrolling our streets for dissidents… yet!  The word Nazi has an altogether more sinister meaning, with all its inherent anti-semitism and fascist authoritarianism.  Surely these are inaccurate descriptions of someone who happens to holds differing views to someone else on the topics raised above. But using them raises the emotional atmosphere, conjuring up death camps and dictatorship. It’s a shaming exercise.

And it can well be the supposedly ‘liberal’ person who is throwing these criticisms in other people’s direction.  It seems to me that we are living in a very illiberal, but supposedly liberal, society where unless you hold the ‘woke’ view you are labelled a bigot, Nazi or fascist.  This is loose language.  And who, really, is the bigot in such cases?  Surely someone with views on immigration, Brexit, gender or other topics has the right to be heard?  Surely the person who dismisses other people’s views out of hand is equally a bigot?  Surely a more constructive way to pull other people’s views into one’s own direction is to hear their concerns, their rationale and try to understand their point of view?  Silencing people only stimulates anger, resentment and division.

Recently Julie Bindel, founder of Justice for Women, was attacked and called a Nazi after she gave a talk at Edinburgh University on women’s sex-based rights.  She lectures on her concerns about gender identity being accepted on the basis of self-definition alone.   This policy is resulting in male-bodied ‘women’ having the right to enter women’s changing rooms, women’s prisons and toilets.  For these views she is labelled a bigot, Nazi and transphobe for her legitimate questions about how female a male with a penis identifying as a woman really is and how much of a threat they might pose.

Who is the bigot here?  Julie Bindel for expressing her disquiet that these policies are becoming practice despite no national debate or legal basis?  Or the person who tries to get her no-platformed?  Who is the bigot when someone living in an area of high immigration expresses their concern at feeling a stranger in their own country, at the cultural and social implications to themselves and their families, but is told flatly that they are a racist, fascist, Nazi?  Bigotry is silencing those with whom someone disagrees.  And we are witnessing far too much of it at the moment.

No doubt I would be labelled a bigot for having concerns myself when I went to the theatre last night and the sign on the Ladies welcomed people of any gender-identity entering the area.  I confess to being disturbed about men with penises who decide they want to identify as a woman entering my changing room or toilets.  We know that male on female violence and sexual harassment is statistically far higher than vice-versa and so these areas that were safe spaces for women no longer feel so safe. 

There is a time in every child’s life when a parent allows them to go to the lavatory or into a changing room on their own.  It is a part of their journey to independence.  But I confess that as a mother or grandmother, I would feel far more hesitant to allow a young girl to go into these areas alone if I knew a man might be there changing or doing his business. 

There are intimate things a young girl has to learn – managing periods, how to insert a tampax or lillet.  I remember this wasn’t as easy as it sounded when I was 13!  These are sensitive issues for women, issues that men identifying as women do not have to deal with.  And call me old-fashioned but men tend not to worry so much about care and hygiene as they don’t always have to sit on a seat.  I remember for myself, and know with my granddaughters, that many girls do care about these things.  How can it be that girls and women are just supposed to put up with this change to their private spaces without any proper debate or discussion?  Instead, anyone who raises the matter is labelled a transphobe or bigot despite the fact that those people are often compassionate and tolerant of those who have gender issues.  Can there not be a third way? 

People are denigrated for being binary thinkers about gender and yet those with whom I have discussed the transgender issues end up equally binary – a man wanting to be a woman or a woman wanting to be a man.  So who is the confused one?  If there is a third or other category that people wish to be known as then so be it but I am sorry, for me otherwise biology wins.  A woman with womb and ovaries is not a man, a man with a penis is not a woman.  They can wear what they like and consider themselves as whichever sex they prefer, but please don’t just call yourself a woman and enter a young girl’s private space without agreement.  I worry that the trans lobby is actually turning the clocks back on the rights women have won in the last fifty years.

I worry (a lot of worries here I notice!) also about how Mermaids and Stonewall are lobbying for sex change treatment in children far too young to know what their future will be like, whether they are a man, woman or trans.   A young child can have no real knowledge of gender, sex or relationships

What I don’t understand is that millenials are demanding safe spaces everywhere – in universities, to be warned that they are about to read a disturbing fact in a history book, or even in Shakespeare, for others not to appropriate their experience or culture, etc.  And yet when it comes to transgender they go along with the current thinking that girls and women don’t have to have safe spaces.  I don’t get it.  Women are once again being silenced and then being called a fascist, Nazi or bigot if they protest.  Again, who is the bigot?

In sport men who have had all the benefits of testosterone, the bone and muscle formation of a man, quite apart from all the cultural messages men receive, decide they are a woman and want to compete against women whose bodies are formed in a completely different way.  To me this doesn’t seem fair but anyone who complains is called a transphobe.  I have just been reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez which covers the historic legacy of how women have been written out of a multitude of situations.  I don’t wish to witness women’s needs once again being eradicated in the name of a supposedly liberal movement that is far from liberal. 

I worry greatly at this intolerance of language and debate.  You learn far more from standing in other people’s shoes, seeking to understand their issues and evidence.  The Socratic and Aristotelian method was to argue from the opposite perspective.  This broadens your mind, sharpens your thinking and has a greater likelihood of taking all opinions into account in final decision-making.  This would apply as much to Brexit, Trump, Corbyn, far-right or far-left policies, gender, immigration and more.  It is a debating process that would be beneficial to introduce into schools so that people stop making their minds up from very little information, stop shouting abuse at others before they have understood where they are coming from, and genuinely try to understand one another.

Again, call me old-fashioned… and is that such a bad thing? … but respect for others and their opinions, polite and calm discussion, can help us all understand one another better.  As Jonathan Haidt argues in his excellent book The Righteous Mind, good people have different opinions to our own but we should not label them evil, Nazi, fascist or bigot unless we are very sure of our facts and very sure that it is not us who is being the bigot.

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The absence of leadership can leave a dangerous void

There’s a theme of disillusionment with politicians and leaders today.  A movement to eject current leaders with the concept that there may be someone better, a greener grass, beyond.  However, as I look around the world I am not convinced by the alternatives we have on offer at the moment and worry that it is easy to get rid of a mediocre Prime Minister or a deranged President but not so easy to be sure that their replacement will be any better.

Ukraine is about to authorise a comedian to be their Prime Minister.  The 5 Star movement in Italy was founded by Beppe Grillo, another comedian.  The danger here is naivete and inexperience, which can lead to that person being manipulated by forces they don’t understand.  With key countries such as Ukraine this presents a real danger as President Putin is a world-class strategist who still has his eye on Ukraine.

When we look at the Arab Spring, Egypt, Syria and beyond, there was a successful movement to replace the old brigade but far too little thought put into who would replace them.  And this can lead to anarchy, as we have seen in Libya, which often can be worse than what came before, the rule of law breaks down, infrastructure disintegrates and economic depression is an almost inevitable consequence.  One needs to be clear about a vision of the future.

Division provides an impetus towards potential revolution – the gilet jaunes protesting against the elite, is an example.  In fact the movement against the elite is often a signal that a revolution is in the air – lawyers, writers, academics begin to be pilloried and eventually interned. Erdogan has been doing this with surprisingly little kick-back from our press or the EU.  Even in the UK there is a sense of anti-elitism in the air and also a limiting of free speech, as is evidenced by the no-platforming of lectures and events which somehow do not fit into the politically correct zeitgeist.

The criticism of the middle classes is another signal of revolution.  The centre ground gets lost, the extremes come to power.  But to the detriment of stability and balance.  The middle classes are almost always the backbone of a country quietly getting on with life.  On the whole they have more to lose.  They tend to value education, aspiration, economic stability, peace, low crime rates in the areas in which they live.  You tend to find them as councillors, volunteers and on parent school boards.  You find them running small businesses and right now that squeezed middle is not only under some financial constraint but also under attack from the press who tend to ridicule those aspirations, or from those who envy that lifestyle, however justly gained.  People tend only to see the economy in terms of the big powerful organisations at whom they love to throw stones.  They too easily forget that some 99% of businesses in the UK are SMEs – small entrepreneurial enterprises employing only a small number of people.

Revolutions are bloody.  Surely to be avoided if evolutional change can be achieved.  And the problem with the way our own political landscape appears at the moment is that we have factions and no-one is in the centre ground.  People promote the Lib Dems as the party holding the centre but by naming their stand as “Bollocks to Brexit” they have as effectively put two fingers up to the Leavers as the dreadful Farage has done to the Remainers with his Brexit party.  Both are divisive.  Neither give any hint, as far as I can see, of what they will do to bring the country back together again or to take care of the concerns of those who stand for opposing views.  Both the Labour and Conservative parties are too divided within themselves to lead a united country.  So what next… there lies the void.  There lies the danger.  It is into this absence that oddball narcissists such as Farage or Johnson can slide.

I have been amazed by how little in-depth debate there has been about the future of the EU or the future of the UK after whatever deal is or isn’t done.  We have heard endlessly from Laura Kuenssberg and Katya Adler on the BBC commenting narrowly on the Brexit negotiations.  We need new viewpoints, new perspectives. 

We haven’t heard enough, in my view, about the build up to the European elections within other EU countries, the challenges, policies and strategies that are being discussed in other capital cities.  The mood of the people in these countries.  What is happening in Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Croatia?  We hear endlessly about Macron and Merkel but not enough information about the other 25 countries.  Yet this information is key to how we think about ourselves in the UK in terms of our future relationship with the EU.  We haven’t heard enough about how any government will address the perfectly legitimate concerns of the losing party here, whether this is the Remainers or the Leavers.  We haven’t heard enough about how any government will mend the bridges that have been broken here or what they will do to maintain relationships with our close or distant allies.  The conversation and comment has been far too narrow.  I feel I still have far more questions than answers.  I am happy for anyone to provide me with more information …

And this leaves a leadership gap because we aren’t being given an accurate or desirable picture of a future that we can agree on.  I look at the options we have for leaders in the UK and am not convinced by any of them, unfortunately.  We don’t want a ‘strong man’ as they can tend to turn into egotistical dictators but we do want someone who listens to the concerns of the whole country and has a practical vision of how to take us forward in a united way.  I just don’t see this person evident at the moment… do any of you?

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The Blame Game: Did the Baby Boomers really “steal” the next generation’s future?

I have to admit to being fed up with being accused of “stealing” the younger generation’s future.  The word stealing implies intention to cause harm to another person, to deliberately deprive them of something that is theirs.  I don’t buy into the concept that my generation of Baby Boomers, who seem to be the target of any blame game that is going at the moment, intentionally stole anyone’s future.  Nor do I think we are necessarily any more selfish than any other generation – lucky, yes, that we have not had a war on our territory during our lifetime but we have had our own struggles nonetheless.

We are living in an era where it’s the norm to look for others to blame for anything that is causing pain or discomfort.  I don’t find this useful.  Identifying yourself as a victim is disempowering and ultimately unhelpful.  It makes others into persecutors – often a subjective labelling that also removes responsibility from those who consider themselves victims by ignoring the part they may themselves have played within a situation.

At the present time we Baby Boomers are being blamed for, in The Guardian’s words of 27.7.11, creating an “environmental mess”.  The Extinction Revolution protests accused us of “stealing their future” by treating the planet the way we have.  I really wonder how they can declare that they would have treated it better given the knowledge and circumstances we were born into?  It is easy to look back through the lens of today’s world and say people did things wrong.  They cannot honestly say they would have done any differently because they just don’t know how they would have acted had they been born, like I was, in 1950. 

We are a species who learns through invention, experimentation and review.  There was a time when if you fell into the River Thames you would have died from pollution.  Today fish swim in it because we learnt not to treat it as a sewer.  In 1974 F Sherwood Rowland discovered that CFS aerosol spray was causing the ozone layer to diminish. Action was taken to restrict the use of these aerosol cans.  Predictions are that the ozone layer should have healed by the 2030s due to this change.  We moved from petrol to unleaded and then to diesel because we were informed that it was better for the environment.  That was erroneous and so now we move back to unleaded or renewable/electric fuel for our vehicles.  We continually learn from science and change our behaviour.  We don’t yet know whether the changes we have been making on behalf of the planet will overturn the damage done but habits are changing.

As so much criticism is being thrown our way I want to remind Baby Boomer readers and perhaps enlighten younger readers that not everything we did in our lifetime caused things to get worse.  We were a generation whose teenage years were overshadowed by the fear of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and we certainly protested and went on CND marches to protect the planet from nuclear holocaust.  We marched against Apartheid and refused to visit or buy produce from South Africa, as well as standing up against many other iniquities.

We didn’t, as the younger generation do, have stag parties in some far flung part of the world.  We went down to the local pub.  Hen parties didn’t exist.  We had no concept (and still don’t!) of single-wear clothing due to not being able to be seen in the same clothes twice on social media.  We frequently made our own clothes and often wore them until they fell apart.  The idea of buying an item of clothing only to wear once (other than perhaps a wedding dress) seems criminal to me and an appalling waste. 

In the main we didn’t fly as young people.  We went by ferry, train or car as aeroplane travel was hideously expensive, unreliable and with few routes.  It was only when Clarksons, Freddie Laker then Easyjet and Ryan Air came on the scene that it opened the skies to the masses.  And there has been some benefit from that in that more people have integrated with other cultures and broadened their minds through travel.  Did we have fun?  Yes of course we did and took advantage of new inventions and opportunities.  Any generation would.  We did not, at that time, understand the impact on the climate of air travel but today’s engines are far less polluting than the original jet engines were and so, again, we are learning.  There was no intentional “Let’s go ruin the planet for our children!”  We happen to love our children, grandchildren, great nieces and nephews and beyond.  Why would we have done this deliberately?

The property prices are another accusation thrown at us and again I would like to remind people that many of us lived in thoroughly damp, grotty flats (in my case with condensation that fell from the ceiling and snails that crawled up the walls) which we shared with 4-6 strangers, sometimes happily sometimes not.  But that was what we could afford.  We then bought wrecks that we did up.  Houses that needed rewiring, central heating and a complete overhaul and did much of this ourselves, living in a building site for one to two years with the long-term vision of having a decent house to live in.  Which we created.  As more people wanted to visit London and as more women worked, property prices went up and I am sorry that this has made it so difficult for the young to buy or live in central areas.  But let’s not forget that it impacted our ability to buy ‘up’ as our families grew and that interest rates were 17% at times, with no credit cards to fall back on.  So it wasn’t all plain sailing.

We came into a country that desperately needed rebuilding after the war.  My memories are of bomb sites, very basic housing and economic challenge.  Through the 60s, as we became teenage and young adults, we railed against the Establishment on behalf of those who wanted a more class-less and equal society.  The music industry opened up wealth to a large number of people who would never have had it, as did sport.  In business, people from all spheres came into white collar jobs. Many of our generation built businesses from scratch and employed thousands of people.  Some of this built on Victorian industrialisation but much of it was new innovation, resulting in many of the technical and medical advances that current generations enjoy today.  People worked hard.  They didn’t expect that wealth or success would come unless they made it for themselves.  Doctors worked around 120 hours a week.  Many professionals worked well over 60.  We jut got on with it.

As many statistics have proven, global poverty has reduced over these decades as office jobs have provided incomes for many people worldwide.  People trying to overthrow capitalism do so at the peril of many people whose livelihoods depend on it and whose living standards have improved because of it.  Of course there are excesses that need to be tempered, as there have been in any generation and in any area of the world (look at the wealth and selfishness of dictators of poor countries through the ages).  Strong, greedy and selfish leaders have existed throughout history and well before industrialisation or capitalism. 

Our generation have fought for gay rights, women’s rights, racial equality, flexible working, equal pay, disabled access.  We haven’t got it all right – of course not – but many people have tried to create a fairer world.  The hippies of the 60s and 70s were for love not war, for the organic ‘Good Life’ of growing your own vegetables and setting up organic farms.  Friends of the Earth was established in 1969.  The Clean Air Act was first passed in 1956.   The first “Earth Day” was 1970. Amnesty was founded in 1961, Greenpeace in 1971.  We haven’t been deaf or blind to environmental or humanitarian issues.

Much of what has gone wrong in terms of pollution is through individual thoughtless behaviour such as chucking litter along a road or into the sea or river.  The world’s oceans and beaches have been littered with plastic bottles and cans for decades.  Some of it from individual action and some of it dumped by business or governments.  There needs to be far more focus on teaching children individual responsibility at school so that they don’t drop litter and they do become active participants in the global community.  Then when they do get into responsible positions they will hopefully make decisions that maintain a healthy world.

There has certainly been a failure of global leadership on the environment during the past decades.  I don’t understand why it hasn’t been obligatory for all new homes to have solar panels.  Nor do I understand why supposedly ecologically-friendly products are still offered in plastic bottles.  We have a long way to go and hopefully all generations can work together to take care of our planet.

But I don’t appreciate having one generation telling ours that we have stolen a future that is also my children’s and grandchildren’s future. Those school strikers who speak in this way haven’t entered the adult world yet and they will find it’s a more complex business than they might imagine, where many well-intentioned supposedly environmentally-friendly policies actually prove to have negative unintended consequences.  So it’s easier to point fingers than it is to get it right.   We didn’t get it all right but I would be surprised if any of us went out there with the deliberate intention of “Let’s ruin the planet” for future generations! 

Inter-generational division is counter-productive.  Let’s stop this blame game and work together to support action that will protect our natural world.

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