Let’s think about life and death

Let’s think about life and death

The Coronavirus crisis has raised some of the deepest questions we humans ever face: what is the value of life?  Is quality of life more important than length of life?  What is the meaning to us personally of our lives?  What gives us meaning, a sense of wellbeing, a sense of purpose?  These are big questions and we very often are too busy to give them adequate consideration but this virus and all it signifies in terms of the limits it is making on our lives, makes us reflect on these big questions, doesn’t it?

Aged 70 now I look back and ask myself what has given my life the most meaning and the greatest sense of love and fulfilment?  Work, sure, but at the heart of it are my sons and now my grandchildren.  The love and joy I feel when I am with them and hear their news, the pain I feel when they are struggling, is what, for me, life is all about.  Deep connection and care about what happens to them, their wives and their children.  This is far more important to me, at this stage of my life, than my own life.  They are the future.

Certainly I want to be around for them and to watch the grandchildren grow but I think there are many of my generation who do not want our children’s lives and livelihoods to be sabotaged by trying to shield us oldies.  The hardship that will occur if there are further lockdowns will be financial and emotional, both here and in the rest of the world, as we are all so inter-connected these days.

And if regulations prevent me from seeing my children and grandchildren, siblings, cousins and close friends, then what is life worth?  And for those poor souls who are sitting alone in care homes without their family to visit, without live entertainment to spark their minds and memories, what purpose each new day just for the sake of breathing and being a living entity if that living entity has no joy or purpose?

I am fed up with this “don’t kill Granny” thing.  I would rather be killed by spending an extra day with my grandchildren than live for months on end without them and, who knows, maybe die of something completely different in that time period anyway? There are no guarantees in life in this situation or any other.  I know a friend who doesn’t dare hug his young grandson in case that grandson gives him coronavirus and then has the burden of his grandfather’s death on his shoulders for the rest of his life.  Could we grandparents not write a letter to our children and grandchildren stating clearly that we are of sound mind, understand the risks and consequences, and choose to be with and hug our family on our own volition because life isn’t worth living if one cannot do so, therefore removing any potential guilt from those we love?

Yes, we are supposed to be protecting others and the NHS but perhaps we could also elect simply to stay to die at home?  That may sound brutal but a non-life may not be worth living.  Those who do feel vulnerable then could themselves just stay at home and keep out of harm’s way.  These are choices we need to consider.  The anti-social behaviours we then witness in people deliberately spitting or coughing on others should be punished harshly for that is intentionally seeking to harm another, which is quite different.

Some elderly people are making the point that this situation is worse than the war.  Although there were bombs dropping and one’s loved one might be away fighting, one could at least hug those who were there.  One could enjoy a laugh and a drink with friends or family.  Theatre and song carried on.  One didn’t have to view other people or one’s neighbours as potentially lethal company.

Is death itself so frightening if life loses its purpose?  I personally don’t think so.  I have now been with three people on the moment of death, my baby son, aged 9 weeks, who died of a cot death, my father, and my mother.  These transitions from life are extraordinary and I feel privileged to have been present in them, despite the pain they caused. In that moment, the person one knew leaves us and one is only left with the inanimate body, and one’s grief.  There are so many myths and religious narratives about life after death that we can become muddled I think, for no-one can prove what it will be like.  May it not just be a big sleep, perhaps, putting us out of pain, and therefore not so very bad? 

We are listening to endless ‘science’ and medical advice but the advice is polarised into those who argue that this virus is not such a dangerous disease for the majority of people and we should seek herd immunity and those who argue for a focus on risk, fear and lockdown, whatever the ‘collateral damage’.  Just as in many other areas of life, whether medical, legal, economic, the experts can differ in their analysis.   Doctors are human and there are fads and fashions in medicine as in any other area of life.  My baby son died for being on his stomach, which was the erroneous advice of the 1970s, based on research that had little to do with infants.  As soon as this was recognised and babies were put on their backs, the number of cot deaths reduced.  We need to heed the science but at the same time be aware that they can get things wrong.  There is far more uncertainty in this world than they like to let on.

Old age is full of conundrums.  We are supposed to be happy to do nothing in retirement, to rest after a lifetime’s toil.  But this isn’t always the answer.  My father was managing director of a cork company one day and retired the next.  Sadly he found little to exercise his mind and interest in retirement and died only a few years afterwards, as many others did in those circumstances.  Our immune systems respond to being engaged in life, and the sense of wellbeing and fulfilment this gives us.  Luckily today, men and women who retire are finding many areas of interest through part-time or voluntary work, or even jumping out of planes for charity, and these keep them alive.  Literally.  Yes, the pull towards activity, whether it is climbing a mountain, sailing the Atlantic solo, pot-holing and other risky endeavours is endemic in us.  If we became totally averse to risk, to the idea, as has been expressed, that ‘one death is a death too many’, then we would ban tobacco, alcohol, skiing, horse-riding, cars, bikes and more, and then one might well question what is the point of life?  We live with risk every day.  It’s a part of living.

We already know that there is a big increase in non-covid deaths.  There will be an increase in mental illness too if we insist on keeping people in fear and isolation, in care homes, mental institutions, hospitals and prisons.  There will be untold suffering if thousands of people become unemployed.  I doubt any one of us would wish to be the person making these difficult decisions but I hope that the men at the top of our government – and I still assert there are not enough women’s voices at the top – will think in broader terms and understand that humanity has been lacking from the policies and practices we have so far experienced, where young and old die without their families being there to hold their hand.

Listen, if you can, to Dear Life by Dr Rachel Clarke which is being serialised on BBC Radio 4 at 9.45 every morning this week, to hear about the essential nature of compassion and humanity needed within medical practice. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000msx0 . And read my nephew Dominic Cavendish’s moving article about the importance of live entertainment in care homes where those deprived of faculties and families nonetheless come to life when they can sing. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/live-music-can-save-care-homes/

When I look back on my life, some of the happiest times have been in doing the simplest things – playing French cricket in the garden, or Monopoly by the fire, with my parents and siblings, going for a walk with my sons and grandchildren, sitting watching tv as a family or, now, cosy nights watching box sets with David.  Yes, I had pleasure from travel, or (dangerous!) from galloping my horse across the New Forest, and huge fulfilment from my work as a coach and trainer but things outside the home – whether work or other activities, were never as enjoyable if there was discord or sadness within the home.  The harmony and connection I received within the family always coloured everything else I ever did, and still does.

We are social beings, our sense of self shaped by family and friends.  Deprived of touch, love and contact we wither.  We also need nature in its glory to remind us that life is worth living. People in care homes are currently potentially being denied all those.  So let’s adjust to uncertainty and risk, which is the true nature of life.  Let’s try to find a way to get through these next few months by being mindful of the health of others but at the same time maintaining contact with those we love, and by continuing to do the things we love, so we know the value of life and, at the same time, are not so fearful of death.


Working from home can be lonely and limit growth

Are business leaders really thinking of the long-term business and emotional consequences of their staff permanently working from home? It may have been a delight for some people not to have to commute and to spend time at home but for others it has been lonely and isolating.  We have had an exceptional spring and summer: how will it feel once the English winter of grey clouds, cold and rain arrives, I wonder?

Many years ago I was on the Committee of the Work-Life Balance Trust.  Our aim was to get work-life balance, flexible working, job shares and home-working on the agenda of Government and business.  We did a pretty good job and since that time, back in 2002, work life has transformed in many ways and working options are far more readily accessible than they were then.

But the point of the changes we were lobbying for was to enable people to have autonomy over their lives and flexibility to manage family, work and life in a more manageable way.  We were not suggesting that companies enforce home-working on their staff and whilst I accept and understand that we needed to do this during lockdown I am concerned at the tendency for organisations to now demand that all or most of their staff continue to work from home.

Home-working suits some people more than others.  Those at the top of businesses and therefore making these decisions are no doubt living in pleasant houses in nice surroundings and are likely to be – though not always – in settled relationships with children either at home or who have left home.  They are also at the top of their game whereas those they manage are on a career ladder, which is far harder to climb without access to the hubbub of an office or shared space.

I’d like these leaders to give a little thought to those who are living in cramped apartments without much personal space, or having to stay with their parents longer than they might otherwise have done, or are in a flat-share where the other person is also home-working and potentially talking too loudly on their phones, or interrupting.

They may have young children, toddlers, babies, making a noise and demanding their time.  I know quite a few stressed parents who have had to work well into the early hours of the morning after having to supervise their young children during the day.  People can do this for a short time but a loss of sleep does little for cognitive capacity or the immune system in the long term.

There are those who are extravert who love to spend time with people and can’t, so have to make more of an effort to create their social life outside the office.  Or an introvert who too easily becomes a hermit.  Or someone living with an abusive partner who used to get some relief and support from going to an office and now is stuck in hell.

Some people can manage the discipline of a home-working day, others get distracted and pet the cat or fill the washing-machine.  The environment of an office gives people structure, routine, a sense of purpose and contribution, whether this is in the public or private sector, a doctor’s surgery or factory.

Many of my generation and our children met their spouses at work – you spent time together, had much in common and ended up falling in love.  Much harder to do that from the isolation of a flat, Tinder or no Tinder. So how easy will it be for young people to forge new relationships and meet their future spouse?  These young are sitting at home behind a screen all day with hormones raging and no place to go – not surprising we are having all these illegal raves!

Then there is all that you are missing that can enhance your career – watching how your bosses comport themselves in the office with their fellow senior managers, with their direct reports, with clients.  One can learn so much from just watching people walk about an office, or hearing how they discuss a business project on the telephone.

How will a boss ‘spot’ the person who has talent beyond what they are currently doing?  It is so often that one perceives the hidden talent in others through a chance remark, or in observing how well they manage a particular situation.  So much harder to do this when all you receive is emails or online output, only seeing the person physically via Zoom. 

The creativity of a group of diverse people or diverse thinkers come to more innovative solutions than any one person on their own.  Someone you bump into in the corridor or chat a problem over with on the other side of the desk can often have the answer to a challenge, or the information you require.  They can share with you what has worked or not worked, inform of best practice whatever kind of organisation you work in.

There are meetings – often thoroughly tedious and unproductive, perhaps, but one does learn how to chair, how to speak up with an idea, how to listen, and can gain the cross-fertilization of information from other departments.  And the banter that lightens the discussion can often bring a negotiation to a close more easily than plodding through a process in the sterile world of online meetings.  Plus the fact that many deals are done at the coffee break, and that you forge social and business relationships with colleagues who can remain an important part of your networking circle for the rest of your life.

Yes, I know all this can be done on Zoom or Microsoft Teams or whatever but it is just not the same.  I remember some of our clients discussing flexible working many years ago and remarking that one had to be careful that people didn’t go ‘native’ – that meant that they almost forgot who they were working for, lost that sense of pride or belonging.  The solution was to make sure they came into the office frequently enough to bond and remember the organisation, product or service they were representing.

Of course, people can save themselves from the ordeal of commuting.  I remember some of my clients leaving home regularly at 4.30am and not returning until after 8pm.  Too long a day.  But now the trains and tubes are empty and all those small businesses that relied on the working population for their income will go bust.  And if the economy goes bust we all suffer – and not just us, people all over the world who may supply the goods from India, South America or the Far East, could face poverty.   People suggest that the provincial cities may revive as a result of these changes but if everyone is stuck away on their computers all day there is no great reason for this to happen.  We have to get out and about.

And what does all that sedentary computer time do to our bodies and brains, I wonder?  Our brains are plastic.  They alter literally every day as we think or adapt to new tasks or ways of working or living.  Habituating to seeing people through a screen rather than in real life is bound to change our perceptions, limit our social and emotional intelligence, potentially also our empathy.  We are detached, possibly less able to pick up those intuitive messages that you gain from a tiny cue of body language, tone of voice, eye movement, that gives away how the other person is feeling or what they are planning.  So much harder to do this through a screen.  And as for our physical health, many people had gyms within their office space and would use them before or after work or in their lunch break.  This could possibly be harder to find, and more expensive, where they live.

Wonderful to have flexible working, to be able to work from home for part of the week.  But it needs to be a choice and something that is negotiated by a manager and their team individually.  This blanket decision that some organisations are making that everyone should now work from home does not make financial sense as far as the nation’s economy is concerned.  It does not make social or emotional sense and it cannot make sense with regards to personal growth, team development and the nurturing of individual and organisational enterprise.  For the majority of people this virus is not deadly but certainly those who are vulnerable can choose to shield at home, or wear masks, gloves, visors, but for the rest of us reasonably healthy folk let’s get back to the fray and try to reboot our economy, otherwise we shall all suffer. 


Patients left isolated within a failing NHS system

The NHS is, of course, of great benefit and value in our country and does amazing work.  Near miracles are performed every day.  We have leading edge processes and first-class front-line workers but nonetheless many patients are being short-changed within a system that does not function in a coordinated or compassionate way.  It is failing us.

As you know, David has Parkinson’s Disease, and alongside this many other of the uncomfortable and disturbing symptoms that interrupt quality of life as we get older.  It breaks my heart to see the endless flow of NHS appointment letters arrive on his desk, some with appointments for high blood pressure (a dangerous condition) for September 2021 (surely you cannot justify a wait of a year?), others giving him a ‘pre-assessment appointment’ after the date of the process for which he is supposed to be having that pre-assessment.  It is cruel, as he has to spend so much time then trying to rearrange said appointments, or chasing up results, but only getting through to robotic administrative staff who say they don’t have the papers, or can’t help him.

He feels alone and lost within a system that does not function as it should, nor care.   And how many others around the country are in similar situations, many of them, like David, with serious conditions that require action?  I suspect very many.  Each department seems to operate in a vacuum, as if one part of our body does not relate to another.  I have listened for many years now to David making calls to some NHS department or another and getting either no reply (endless ringing tone or musac) or the monotone voice of some administrator who, quite frankly, seems to care nothing for his wellbeing.  “I don’t have those records … It’s not my responsibility … you will have to ring x department…” and so the merry-go-round goes in circles again.  And, in the meantime, David becomes exhausted and despondent. 

So who is eventually accountable?  All one hears from those who work within the NHS is that they are powerless and victimised and it’s all the Government’s fault, whichever party is in power.  As some nurses shared on a workshop we ran many years ago now, when asked what they were good at they replied “we are very good at moaning”.  But that doesn’t improve things unless those working within the NHS come up with solutions and make change happen.  After all, if some GP surgeries perform really well for their patients, so can other GP surgeries.  If one hospital can function well, so can another.  It is about leadership, coordination and willpower to make change happen for the benefit of patients.

But the NHS is a sacred cow.  We can’t say anything about it without looking thoroughly disloyal, a traitor to the cause.  But, I am sorry, we cannot maintain the effectiveness of any organisation or process if we are not willing to analyse – and there is a difference between analysis and criticism – and work out how to do things better.

The UK has experienced a large number of deaths and a large number of excess deaths during this Covid period.  It is hardly surprising when it is just about impossible to get to see a doctor.  There is no-one there for us.  One almost has to bash a door down to get to have any kind of physical diagnosis of a problem that cannot be diagnosed over the telephone.  Many people don’t like to make a fuss.  Others don’t even realise you can make a fuss or change an appointment that has been issued a year in advance.  So people will be left ill and dying at home, feeling isolated and alone, with no-one there to help them.  We can’t accept this.

Even in our supposedly world-class hospitals a friend of mine has recently had appalling treatment, told she had a fracture in her left thigh followed by a phone call several days later to say that oh no the fracture was actually in her right thigh, followed by a phone call several days after that to tell her that woops there isn’t a fracture at all and the radiographer reading the scan had made a mistake.  Another was told they could go off blood-thinning medication that was actually crucial to him staying alive.  Yet no-one seems accountable and the stress and anxiety such mistakes cause is certainly detrimental to people’s health. These problems also add to the huge cost of medical errors and claims.

But sadly one rarely feels ‘held’ by a consultant within the NHS system these days.  Young women have thoroughly lonely pregnancies, with no continuity of care, seeing different people each time, having to repeat endlessly – as David has to today – who they are, their histories and problems. 

In David’s case he wasted a whole year of ill-health with no action due to lack of continuity of care.  He saw five different doctors and only on the last occasion, after months of discomfort, was told that what had been proposed by the first doctor was actually contraindicated.  This is a year during which his quality of life was severely interrupted.

Putting people in this isolated state of stress seriously depletes their immune system.  For David or other elderly, chronically or severely ill patients to have to be shunted from one department to another, receive appointment letters that make no sense and then have to hang on the line all day not getting a result leaves them depleted, anxious and desperate.  It just isn’t good enough.  We need to say so and get something done.

Trying to make changes within the NHS is well-nigh impossible, though.  It is an enormous and unwieldy organisation with such a huge workforce that makes it almost unmanageable.  Over the years I have known many thoroughly competent management consultants and change agents who have tried, over many decades, to tighten up what has been a failing system for years but without success.  The NHS is happy to pay ridiculous quantities of money to the major management consultancies and then, having ticked that box, just put the report on a shelf and do nothing about it.

The Government has stipulated that all patients over 75 should have a named doctor but some of today’s GPs don’t seem to buy into continuity of care, or whole-person care.  They don’t seem wish to follow in the footsteps of the old-fashioned family doctor, as David himself practised, where you felt one person knew you, your family, your home, and your ailments and would hold you through these periods of sickness.

With today’s technology, patients should be able to hold their own records and all NHS departments should have access to all records at all times.  It should be dead simple.  But the Trusts operate like little empires, getting financially rewarded for logging each individual episode.  This is not good value for money for taxpayers and needs to be radically overhauled.  It’s not fit for purpose.

People will surely die prematurely within a fragmented service, especially now that the sole focus seems to be on Covid-19.  We need to wake up and start to remember that people have a whole variety of ailments that require attention and that the system needs to care as much for the emotional wellbeing of patients as the physical because each impacts the other. 

To have a healthy population we need an NHS that has lines of communication and accountability that are far better than they are at present.  If anyone has solutions or ideas about how to improve these systems please share, or write to your MP, or do something because it really is breaking my heart to watch David struggle through this every day.


£10 to eat out: maybe stop and think about it?

I was talking to a friend of mine last week who had been investigating the £50 mend-your-bike scheme that the Government has offered in order to get us healthy through cycling more.  She said it was an extremely helpful website, giving her access to all kinds of cycling stores and resources locally that she had not realized were there.  At the same time, as she came close to submitting her request for the £50, there was a paragraph suggesting that the person completing the form should stop and think whether they really needed this £50 to fix their bike, or could actually afford it themselves.  She decided she could not justify the status of really ‘needing’ it, so cancelled her request.  She will, nonetheless, fix the bike herself.

Good for her, I say.  And it brought to mind my mother, who died in 2001, saying to me for many years that she felt bad about free prescription charges but that there was no way of paying the money back into the NHS.  I know many of us are uncomfortable with receiving the heating allowance that comes in every year whether you need it or not.  Again, it would be good to donate that money specifically to those who do need it, particularly those in one’s local area, but instead one has to pass it on to charity where it goes into a larger pot and one can’t be sure what happens to it. 

Now, in August, people are being offered the £10 Eat Out to Help Out scheme to help boost restaurants.  And yes, it is great to get our hospitality sector back in action.  They need us.  But do I really need the £10 of taxpayers’ (many of whom may be worse off than I am) money to pay for this?  No, I don’t.  It doesn’t feel right.  Will I eat out, yes, absolutely as I am thoroughly keen to get our economy going again. And I enjoy a good meal out.  But I am uncomfortable about others paying for my delight in visiting a restaurant.

The conversation with my friend brought to mind how this key question “do you really need this?” needs to be placed more firmly in people’s minds.  We are so lucky to receive so many benefits in this country and as older people we receive many advantages on transport, in galleries and museums and many other opportunities to save cash.  Of course, it is true that we are generally living on fixed incomes – a pension, or income from savings, and are not in the position to generate more money through enterprise or hard work.  However, I do think it would be good to consider more often how we could pay back the advantages we receive, and not just when we are old. 

TFL is haemoraging money at the moment, as are the bus and train companies yet we still get free travel.  No doubt the services will decline as a result as you can’t run a business without customers.  We oldies shall no longer enjoy the privilege of a free television licence after the age of 75 unless we receive pension benefit.  It is quite a sizeable sum of money so it will make me ever more critical of the gains I might (or might not) receive from this licence – especially as we find ourselves more and more often watching Netflix or Prime as the terrestrial stations seem to offer such dross, other than the occasional period drama … or Line of Duty.  (I would probably pay for the licence simply to watch the latter if I had to!)

So, what I am suggesting is that we think more carefully about the various government schemes on offer and appreciate them.  There has already been criticism of certain celebrities and companies who have taken advantage of the furlough scheme despite having pots in the bank.  I know it can be horrendously difficult to run a business, and especially a small business.  When I ran Positiveworks, I soon learnt the need to put money aside for the time when a client merged or got taken over and a new CEO would ditch all the old contracts, or my contact left, or there were budget cuts.  Unlike those who become used to a regular salary and the perks of holiday, sick pay and pensions, in a small business you literally count every penny and know that what you earned one month you may not earn the next.  Covid must present a nightmare.

Certainly this pandemic is harsher and more challenging than anything I ever faced before and my heart goes out to those who have slaved hard to build businesses only now to watch them collapse.  I am fortunate to have retired, to have (at the moment anyway) some money coming in to pay the bills, though the interest from savings is near the negative.  I would rather that any £10 or £50 offer, or any government scheme, go to those who are struggling. 

This translates, in my mind, to anyone of any age who is the recipient of benefits, so that they consider whether they might give something back in some way, perhaps through voluntary or community work.  It is an expectation that has been missing and I think it would do our society good to be reminded of our individual responsibilities to the wellbeing of the whole, as we have been reminded during this pandemic.

I don’t mean to sound like a goodie-goodie.  Anyone who knows me knows that I certainly don’t fit that bill.  But I have thought for a long time that we need to make more emphasis on what individuals can do for their country and their communities rather than always looking to seek what the government can do for us.  I wonder if any of you agree?  I suspect you will have some creative suggestions as to how people might do this, in one way or another.

I think these government schemes for bikes and meals are innovative offerings and a much needed shot in the arm for health and the economy.   I certainly don’t want to discourage people from getting out there and enjoying eating out again.  Then cycling afterwards!   I’d just like people to stop and reflect on it all a little in the process and appreciate how lucky we are, despite the virus, to be the recipients of these initiatives.


If this were a war would we have the moral fibre to win it?

Commentators and politicians have referred to this Coronavirus pandemic as a war.  There is talk of taking similar financial actions with budgets and taxes as were taken in WWII.  There is talk of the need to ‘pull together’ and to adopt behaviours for the sake of others and the country.  But this enemy is invisible.  Its outcomes are devastating but there is no ‘invader’, no external enemy we can gang up against. 

And so, seeking someone or something to attack, we gang up against policies and actions taken by government, or scientists, health ministers or policy makers, demanding of them that they give us certainty and get it all right.  Of course, we need to hold people to account but no-one gets it all right in warfare, whether the enemy is invisible or not, and when something so unexpected hits us the ‘science’ is unproven.  People clutch at straws as to what is the correct course of action and whatever anyone does, it is criticised.  Listening to this is disheartening.

Stress depletes our immune system and we have quite enough of it without the BBC reinforcing it.  I, for one, can’t bear to listen to the Today programme these days, nor watch the BBC 10 o’clock news.  It is just too depressing and not good for my mental health.

I don’t believe that this endless stream of pessimism and negativity helps to keep us, as a nation, healthy.  It brings me to the conclusion that we would not win a war were we suddenly faced with one.  We are too divided and too frightened.  It is this fear that will, quite literally, potentially be the death of us.  Our immune systems will be depleted, our mental health affected, and we shall, in one way or another, get both weaker and sicker.  Somehow we have to find the will and determination to push through the fear and we need help in doing so. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think the BBC is invaluable and there are some brilliant programmes, though I must admit that I do despair of their comedy programmes and surely they could have done better with The Archers?!  It is their news and current affairs programmes that I question.  During the Brexit negotiations all we ever heard, night after night, day after day, was Brexit Brexit Brexit.  The rest of the world could have gone to hell in a handcart as it just didn’t get coverage.  We have become more and more parochial and provincial.

Now, with the Covid crisis, we have been treated night after night to terrible scenes in ICU, haggard doctors, dying patients and on the Today programme more harrowing stories of tragedy.

These stories gave us few useful facts.  The purpose seemed to be to stir our emotions.  They did not encourage us to feel that we could fight this battle.  They simply left us feeling powerless.

Even if there was good news, the journalist presenting a story would always go in for the kill and either play their usual cat-and-mouse game of trying to demonstrate that nothing in this country is working, or end what could have been a positive piece of news with some phrase such as “of course this is unlikely to work…”

Meanwhile the appalling attack in May by ISIS on the maternity ward run by MSF in Afghanistan hardly got a mention.  Putin seemed able to hang on to power until 2036 with almost no comment, we hear a little about China, but the rest of the world may as well not exist.

I am not looking for propaganda, as we had in the war, but I am looking for balance, for there are many uplifting stories of survival and grit but they aren’t mentioned.  What we get is one story after another that will ramp up fear and one story after another, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, that ramps up guilt, even within the young who had absolutely nothing to do with this murder, nor with the slave trade or Empire.  All of this depletes immune systems and quite frankly the young have enough to cope with.

The health of the nation and the mental health of our young depends on balance.  The purpose of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy is to help individuals see the facts, gain perspective and balance and work out the best, most rational and helpful way of managing difficult situations.  That requires looking at any situation objectively and within its context, then challenging and changing distorted or unhelpful beliefs.  What I observe is that journalists are not challenging distorted truths when they hear them.

It was probably understandable that the government used fear during the early days of the lockdown.  “Stay home, stay safe, protect others and the NHS”.  This sense of duty tinged with terror that our NHS wards would spill over with the sick, resulted in us protecting the NHS but we now realise that this was to the extent that we patients have not been protected against all the other everyday but also chronic and dangerous illnesses that we may experience, like stroke, cancer, heart disease, and more.

A public service broadcaster could surely take some responsibility for the morale and wellbeing of the nation it serves, not through propaganda but through factual rigour?  I would expect a broader analysis of situations and events, a balance of historical perspective, some optimism in the midst of the pessimism.  It certainly exists.  It was not just the doctors on the front line whom we should applaud.  So many workers have been keeping this country going – technology, power, heating, deliveries and food supplies, refuse, roads, pharmacies and so many more.  Did we see them on the news?  I didn’t. 

You cannot win a war by bombarding people with terrible images and scaring them half to death because you deplete the reserves and defences of your people, leaving weakness through which the enemy can barge through.  A polarised nation is not one who will have the cohesion or grit to win a war, whether it is against a visible or invisible enemy.  The Putins of this world would lick their lips. The virus has its own strategies to attack the vulnerable.

In the light of a potential second wave, this is a call for a review of both the content and also the way news is presented.  We are in a specific and threatening situation that is taking a very real toll on our emotional and physical resilience.  There is no certainty and no end to the virus nor the economic consequences of lockdown.  Surely we deserve and need to have broader perspective… and just a little glimmer of hope!


Governing in the garden of good and evil

During the coronavirus spike in March and April we experienced incredible kindness and community spirit.  This seemed to be mirrored across the UK, with neighbours taking care of neighbours and with individuals and families abiding by what was, in effect, similar to house arrest.  We accepted that for the good of all, we must stay indoors and not mix with others, in order to avoid the spread of this unpleasant and sometimes deadly virus. 

And then, a few months on, we watch the other side of the beast that is we humans.  Walking through Kew Gardens and tripping up over litter – discarded disposable nappies, cans, papers, tissues.  How could people be doing this when so recently they seemed to be demonstrating such considerate behaviour?  It got worse, of course, with tons of litter being dumped on Clapham Common and other open spaces after illegal raves, or the protests where statues were toppled and police who had nothing themselves to do with the George Floyd murder, were attacked and injured.

I feel we are witnessing an interesting conflict between the opposing forces of dictatorship versus an almost equally authoritarian movement calling for a form of anarchy.  Unlike the movements of the past, where there was an identifiable group of fascist right or communist left, one finds people from all walks of life on both sides.

On the side of authoritarianism, we see in China, the heavy-handed demands over Hong Kong citizens, including the removal of books on freedom and democracy, and further undemocratic actions within China, including the incarceration of the Uighurs.  In Russia we have just witnessed Putin’s predictable manoeuvre to ensure that he rules into his dotage.  Then there’s Trump, though I do have higher hopes that the US Constitution will protect the world from his worst excesses. 

On the other side we have real forces at work that are encouraging anarchy.  Forces that wish to disrupt and overturn the institutions of government, defund the police and perhaps, in the terms of the anarchist Emma Goldman, institute a ‘sovereignty of the individual’. Governments were, in her view, harmful as well as unnecessary.  Governments, she argued, do not care for the individual but only that the laws are obeyed, systems in place and the exchequer full.  And yet, I would say, life has moved on since she wrote in 1910 and the welfare state depends on that exchequer.

There is a call for ‘right-think’ on both sides of this argument and those who speak against the current regime, whether in China or Russia’s dictatorships, or in the dictatorship that is the woke social media, get cancelled and silenced.  And so we see the Hong Kong protesters holding up a blank sheet of paper and, as a writer I am concerned that this will be the state of affairs for us all unless we fight back.  I am glad to see that, today, writers have written a letter condemning this bullying ‘cancel culture’. 53330105https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-53330105

There are specific and identifiable leaders in China, Russia, the US, Philippines, Brazil but we don’t really know who the people are who are deciding what is politically correct or not in the arena of woke social media.  They are the shadowy mob, able to hide themselves behind some weird online name.  But they wield huge power and are succeeding in bullying universities and organisations to sack academics and staff who do not follow their right-speak.  Online, people get cancelled or threatened with death or rape, ostracised for having a view that does not conform.  Such is always the beginning of any dictatorship, for, as Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the movement invades the territory of the mind, removing a human being from their beliefs and opinions – the essence of what it is to be human.  People can no longer speak or state the truth of what they feel or believe and so are reduced simply to being a body.

For those pushing for revolution and the disruption of government institutions and the police I question whether we are capable, as Emma Goldman would argue, of organising ourselves to live fruitful and meaningful lives without the structures of a government system?  She speaks of ‘intelligent minorities’ who are capable of overthrowing government systems, sometimes through violent means to overthrow government systems.  Isn’t this what we are seeing today?  When we look at the breakdown of law and order on recent protests, parties and street gatherings are we really imagining that individuals could create a society that provides for food supplies, roads, drains, light, health and education, without the structures of government?  Personally I doubt it.  They may not be perfect but they do actually do a reasonable job. 

In Seattle, where the police retreated from a precinct for the BLM protests, the crime rate soared, so how does a call for police defunding protect a population?  Certainly, the American police need retraining and a culture change.  But our police operate by consent and we have witnessed their bravery in terrorist attacks and in maintaining law and order.  Of course, they need to be monitored to ensure they are fair but when we weaken their ability to act on behalf of the majority, we are likely to see higher rates of crime, as experienced now in the USA, and that benefits no-one.

Those advocating anarchy and disruption hark back to a time when life was harmonious, and we lived off the land.  They don’t seem to have read their history books and forget the huge famines, the early deaths, infant mortality, tribal warfare and utter discomfort and lack of hygiene of everyday life.  Visit any ancient culture – Egypt, Africa, India, South America – and one finds a history of brutal conflict.  We aren’t actually very good at living in harmony with one another and there have been plenty of greedy and cruel leaders who have slaughtered millions, well before capitalism.

In the main these days we all get along incredibly well compared to even the recent past, as Europe was ruled by dictatorships, where certain groups were incarcerated or silenced for holding the wrong beliefs until the early 2000s.  And what has happened in the past can happen again.

The limiting of our voices is dangerous.  In our case, here in the UK, it is not governmental dictatorship but dictatorship by this invisible mob.  There is no identifiable leader seeking power but a mob of individuals buying into some form of Orwellian Doublespeak.  But no problem will ever be solved when the truth is masked and silenced, as you can’t solve problems without being able to shape them accurately.

But Orwell himself described freedom as the right to tell people what they do not wish to hear.  And we must fight for this right, otherwise we are lost as human beings, as individuals, families, communities and nations.  We must stand up against bullies who threaten us or shame us into silence and so I am glad that we are offering passports to the citizens of Hong Kong, that we may well rile China, Russia and Saudi Arabia by pinpointing individuals whom we believe to have been involved in assassinations.  For we stand on our values and we are lost when silenced.

Thomas Hobbes believed that the brutish nature of mankind required strong government and yet we are too easily turned into sheep, as we have seen during lockdown.  People have emerged confused “what can I do now?”, forgetting their ability to self-direct and apply common sense.   John Locke wanted to preserve human rights through limiting the monarchy’s control and this is what we have fought for over the centuries in the UK.  I believe in my lifetime we have done a relatively good job of preserving and increasing human rights, equality, diversity of opportunity, including collaborating on political, scientific and medical initiatives globally.  Through this, and trade, vast numbers have come out of poverty.  Does this mean that I believe more should not be done?  Of course not – there is much to do but I don’t believe improvement will come by overthrowing what we have built up, by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

We have to accept that human beings are both altruistic and selfish.  And that means all of us.  There is no perfect human, no perfect government, no perfect or totally fair world.  That is idealistic.  Obama has just spoken to young people, suggesting that their tendency to point a finger at another for saying or doing the wrong thing too easily makes them feel virtuous and self-righteous.  Words like “should, must, ought to” generally reflect a self-oriented demand of the world or others but, as Obama said, we might do better to help the young accept the fact that we are fallible human beings living within a fallible system of community and government, both good and evil, wherever we inhabit the world.  There is no perfect but there is, for sure, a pursuit of excellence and improvement and that’s what we need to focus on.

So let’s beware the bullies who advocate anarchy.  It is no fun.  If we have to fight for everyday resources, we do not have the time or energy to create, whether that creativity is a business, invention, law, book, play, work of art, medical breakthrough or musical composition.

And let’s beware the bullies who advocate dictatorship or threaten us as individuals or, as China has done, as a country, should we not do what they say.  They are equally dangerous.

We must stand up for ourselves and what we believe in.  A healthy democracy depends on diversity of opinion unrelated to skin colour, class, age or gender.  We have to fight for this or we shall indeed be lost.


I fear we Baby Boomers may end up being ‘cancelled’ by our grandchildren

I am watching the tearing down of statues with increasing concern.  Where will it stop?  Human beings, and therefore our history, has been brutal, but we are complex creatures.  Our lives are set within a historical and social setting of specific perceptions and norms and so it is difficult to judge these from a different period, where those norms have changed. 

We are good and bad and sometimes terrible.  Should we excuse the terrible? No, of course not.  At the same time if that person has done good, either through philanthropy, politics, or a creative enterprise, do we destroy their works – ‘cancel’ them, in today’s terms?  If so, then it is likely that most buildings, books, paintings and more would need to be destroyed, globally.  After all, there are many politicians who did some good but lived within a particular era and certainly many painters, writers, thinkers and musicians who were flawed individuals and treated others badly.  Where will it end?  As Orwell predicted, it starts with books and statues … but ends with people. 

So I fear this current uprising could move us towards a fascist silencing of all those who do not fit the perfect model as described by today’s young.  Probably, particularly, people of my generation, who have lived through different times and many periods of change and whose opinions they do not wish to hear, particularly around feminism, transgender, veganism.  I have heard several friends mention “I can’t say that in front of my children/grandchildren.”

I was born in 1950.  Homosexuality was still illegal until 1967.  Married women were not allowed to work or to take out a bank account or mortgage in their own name until 1975.  When I came to England from Portugal in 1954 it was a mainly white country and it was not until the 1960s and the break up of the Empire that we received large numbers of black and ethnic groups.  It was not the welcoming place they had hoped for and it is not a period of which we should be proud, any more than we should be proud of the bias that still continues in this and other countries today against those who are different.  But sixty years is not a long time in history: it has taken millennia even to begin to change attitudes to women and yet in many parts of the world women are still treated as second class citizens.

Difference can instil fear.  We are all biased and prejudiced in one way or another and we need to recognise it.  A few years ago, I was lost in Oxford on the way to a business meeting.  Two young men came up the road and I asked them for directions.  It was only halfway through my question that I realized I had addressed myself to the white man and not the black.  Perhaps somewhere in my brain there was a thought that he might be more local?  Either way I was mortified when I realized my unconscious bias and quickly thanked them both.  It was a lesson for me.  At the same time, one of the people who was dearest to me in my life, for 44 years, was from Jamaica.  So, as I say, we are complex beings.

Bias is a basic and tribal part of the human psyche: friend or foe, threat or ally, fight or flight?  It happens in all countries and cultures too – African, Indian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and beyond.  I am sure we have all heard stories where a black, Muslim or Hindu family has not been happy to welcome a white person into their family.   Difference of skin colour, behavioural habits, or religion can create divides. If the man killed by the US cop had been white would it even have reached the newspaper?  It is important to look at situations in the round, soothe the fear where possible, as, anger and violence just reinforce fear, closing minds rather than opening them.  Having lived through these periods of change, I can see the enormous progress of integration that has been made in these areas; black mayors, politicians, CEOs, medics, academics.  But naturally there is more to be done.

But if you are a young person who has not read history, particularly modern social history, then you do not see this progress.  You just see injustice, and of course there still is injustice, as the world is not a fair place and human beings have always, through their nature, found it tricky to provide a just environment for all.  Where equality has been attempted, it has taken away people’s freedoms and yet those who were or are in power in Communist-style regimes are generally every bit as power-hungry and greedy for large cars, mansions and servants, as those who hit the hierarchy in other regimes.

And so some of us oldies (and I certainly don’t speak for all of them as I know plenty of people who might disagree with me), who have observed the changes, may see things differently to the twenty-somethings.  The words we use can be judged to represent an out-dated attitude that we may not actually hold, for words have changed over the years but they remain in our neuronal memory.  I know many of us are nervous of becoming demented in case they all trip out of our minds and onto our tongues!  If they did, it wouldn’t necessarily convey a current perspective but it might convey the memory of a childhood rhyme we sang in the playground.  For homosexuals were referred to as queer where now they are gay.  Blacks were referred to as negro, then coloured, then back to black and now People of Colour.  The language changes as we go through life and we all have to keep up but occasionally, by mistake, we use the wrong word and the young are quick to judge us as ‘bad people’ for doing so.  Yet we aren’t necessarily bad people.  We are people of a particular era, making a mistake.

It is the hatred and intolerance, of which they accuse others, that I find distressing.  It has led to a loss of free speech in universities, to a puritanical, self-righteous and virtue-signalling set of perspectives and behaviours that judge and blame others, while possibly not judging themselves.  Are they any more perfect or any less flawed than most of us?  They are of their era, as we are of ours.  Some of the statues they build today may well be pulled down by future generations.

But to decide to silence people who do not agree with them is wrong and it is the slippery slope to fascism and dictatorship.  They use shame to silence – one small question about whether the transgender lobby might not be too harsh on JK Rowling and on the rights of women, or whether we question the disruption caused to ordinary workers by the methods of Extinction Rebellion, whether veganism is healthy, or an observation about the lack of social distancing on the Black Lives Matter protests and one is automatically put in a box as a ‘bad person’, without discussion.  We are assumed to be opposing the movement when we may, in fact, simply be asking a specific question about it.

For life is full of nuance.  One can agree with a lobby but not with its methods.  One can have a perfectly legitimate question about evidence, about analysis, or statistical background.  I have heard statements in interviews recently on television and the media that lack historical truth but are not challenged by the journalists.  Yet the facts behind a protest are important, as facts stir emotions and erroneous facts stir erroneous emotions.

Of course, racism is wrong.  Of course, the slave trade was a horrific and inhumane period.  Of course, the death of George Floyd was an appalling event.  But one murder does not mean that all police are murderers.  That is simple logic.  And so all police should not be treated as if they are murderers, any more than if one black person commits a crime, all black people should be treated as criminals.  This is what they accuse the police of and state that it is unfair.  It is unfair, so don’t mirror the treatment.  It doesn’t serve the purpose well.  Be clear about the actions required for change so that people can catch up but don’t treat the police or the rest of us as if we are shameful sinners. 

Stereotyping others in the way people dislike being stereotyped themselves polarises rather than integrates and unfortunately the media are reinforcing this polarisation by talking of anyone who is concerned about the removal of statues as ‘nationalists’.  It isn’t nationalist to question where this all ends.  It is perfectly possible that certain statues and street names have had their day, but does this mean that we pull down all statues that might have negative associations without proper discussion and debate?  Do we destroy books and paintings that may have been created by men or women who are judged by today’s light to have behaved badly in some way?  This could mean Tolstoy, Dickens, Darwin, Cromwell, Picasso, Peel, Rhodes, Gandhi, even Mandela, and countless more.

Many other countries have had Empires, racism, slaves and colonies so it could result in the destruction of many buildings in this country and abroad – the Coliseum, the Egyptian tombs, mosques, Roman pillars would all have to go.  Libraries, museums and art galleries would be empty.  But Churchill?  He may have been a flawed character and made mistakes, been a man of his era, but for heaven’s sake he played a major part in protecting the UK, Europe and the world from the worst racist in modern times, Hitler.  This world and our lives today would be very different were Churchill not to have played that part in history.  I can’t imagine anyone would really wish to live in a dictatorship ruled by such fascism?  So let’s not pander to this over-emotional desire to deface Churchill’s statues or cancel his memory.  We should not tolerate it. 

There are black voices today who are challenging the “continued oppression narrative” that draws on history to blame others.  In my coaching sessions, I found that the stance of oppressed victim does not serve a person well.  Whether this is due to colour, gender, age, childhood or marital abuse, trauma, sexual preference or any other oppression, it is more effective for that person to change and empower themselves.  One can’t change the past, but one can choose one’s response to it in the present so as to influence the future.  And, in historical terms, this generation alive are surely the least oppressed in the whole of human history.  So, let’s build on this progress and stop talking about oppression, as it creates a sense of helpless victims rather than of people who can democratically make change happen.

I sincerely hope that I shall not be ‘cancelled’ or silenced as I grow old, for we do have some stories to tell and may gain perspective over the years.  I am very happy to debate with those who disagree with me, as long as the listening goes both ways.  Many of us think we know everything when we are young.  As we get older, we realize we know very little and that life is far more complex than we imagined.   

We are all fallible.  The bad has to be balanced in the light of any good we do, as I don’t believe any of us would wish solely to be judged on our errors and mistakes.  This leads us down the road to the Stasi and the Thought Police.  No space here for redemption.

We can all play a part in designing the future to be a more integrated and just place. We need to recognise our own unconscious bias, whatever our colour, gender or creed, to identify the individual behaviours we each can adopt to create a society where we can live freely and harmoniously, in mutual respect.  Cancelling voices does not take us there.


Let’s get just a tad busier again …

Do you remember that adage “ask a busy person”, indicating that a busy person will always get things done whereas someone who is slower never finishes the task you requested of them?  I feel we have all slowed down – or most of us have.  I certainly have.  I had so many grand intentions when I heard of the lockdown and expected it to last several weeks – that 2 foot pile of filing that has been sitting in its tray for two years, finishing off the book I had started five years ago, clearing out the garage, doing a Marie Condo on my wardrobes.  Have I done them?  No, I am ashamed to admit, not a single one.

I am not alone in this.  What has happened to us?  I think that in many ways we are suffering from the numbness of shock.  Rather like post-traumatic stress, we are in a period of discombobulation.  Or perhaps that is just the older members of society.  I know of several of us who would normally be active but are just about managing to do one or two zoom classes or conversations a week and then feel exhausted.  Several of us who go upstairs with a goal of doing something but by the time we have reached the top of the stairs have forgotten what it is, our brains turning to butter somewhere on the way up.

We have all suffered a shock.  Overnight we had our health threatened, our freedoms limited, and our most basic needs such as family, friends, food, medication and access to doctors taken away from us.  The reaction is a kind of paralysis, where our energy is being drained by the underlying emotions that we may unconsciously be experiencing. 

Our fear has been ramped up by the press coverage.  Terrifying scenes of ICU units shown to us morning, noon and night, accompanied by tragic anecdotes of loss.  This served a purpose to keep us frightened and at home.  No doubt we all also experienced fear for our own health, or those of our loved ones, some frustration at the limitations, fear at the economic prospects for ourselves, our families, children, our country and the global economy.  How many people will lose their jobs worldwide, how many will have difficulty feeding their children as the impact of this global lockdown takes effect?

Personally, I feel it is now time to get busy again, that we need gradually to crank ourselves up.  Maybe not to the frenetic pace of previous times but we can’t allow this malaise to continue for too long without catastrophic results to the nation’s health, wellbeing and economic prospects.  The question that is difficult to answer is how much of a risk to life Covid-19 is in the future and how much its threat should dictate the shape of our lives now.  As the statistics evolve, we need to analyse how much of a hazard coronavirus is in comparison to many other everyday threats that we tolerate.

Some shops are about to open but what about the hospitality industry?  It’s summertime.  Many pubs, restaurants and cafés have large enough outdoor spaces to allow them to open again, providing for a reasonable distance between people.  If supermarkets, chemists, newsagents and small convenience stores can do this, surely they can make relevant changes to protect their customers too?  Do we really want our pubs to go out of business?  They have been part of British life for centuries but if they stay closed much longer, they will go bust – they were already having a tough time before all of this.

Likewise, surely it is not beyond the realms of ingenuity for the parks and gardens to open again?  As Museums and Galleries are used to staggering entry, then gardens, the National Trust parks and other green areas could provide timed entry to a specific number of people and give their staff masks and gloves.  Without this the towpaths and pavements become ridiculously packed with people and this is far less healthy. 

Now that hospitals are under less pressure, I think many of my generation – the over 70s (by a week!) – do not wish to be ‘protected’ by others.  Yes, there are more risks but we know that there are other factors that can make people more vulnerable to Covid-19 than just the number of age.  Those of us oldies who are reasonably fit and healthy may not be at any more risk than men, but no government is going to suggest they should be shielded or locked away (well I can think of some I would like locked away, of course!).  And most of us are loathe to put our children’s and grandchildren’s futures and careers in jeopardy for our sake, so accept that in order for them to live a normal life we will all need to live with more risk.

I have now had the Covid-19 antibody test and it was positive, demonstrating that I did have this nasty virus.  Phew – I would have been fed up if I had experienced 5 weeks of illness without having had it!  I am not sure where it gets me other than that it does show that my immune system has rallied some antibodies to conquer the invasion of the virus and this should give me immunity from succumbing to it again.  Hopefully so.

It was a bit of a fandango getting enough blood out of a finger-prick device for the test tube, so it was very useful having a Doctor in the House as David then took some veinous blood from my arm.  A little unnerving when I thought afterwards that he hadn’t done this for over twenty years but it was obviously like riding a bicycle as he found my vein far quicker than many doctors and nurses have done over recent years.

So what now?  Sadly it doesn’t look as if we shall find a cure or vaccine for this illness in the immediate future and we cannot keep the world in standstill indefinitely.  There will be too much ‘collateral damage’ of those who lose their jobs, those who die untreated for cancers or heart disease etc within our health system, and potentially worldwide famine.

Previous generations had to accept that there were illnesses such as smallpox, polio, TB, diptheria, measles, scarlet fever that threatened their everyday lives.  We have been so fortunate that vaccination removed these threats but we probably need now to accept that Coronavirus could be with us for some time and some people will get ill and sadly some people will die.  But many people will die also if we don’t get life back to some more normality.

The world is gradually opening up and we have so much to learn from this episode in terms of lifestyle, methods of government, systems of logistics, environment, health and infrastructure.  I don’t see the point of endless blame.  We are where we are.  Let’s just focus on how we can ensure this does not happen again.   Every country, government and health service has made mistakes, experienced problems with PPE, testing kits and care homes.  What can we share and learn?  It must be time for the WHO to pull the world together into an objective global investigation and analysis of how this pandemic began, what went wrong, what went right and how the world can work more effectively and cooperatively together in future to make sure it doesn’t happen again. 

It feels logical to me that this investigation begins in China, yet I have read comments that suggest it is racist to mention the word China in this context.  I am no fan of Donald Trump but surely it cannot be racist to state that the virus started in China?  It did.  No-one has changed the title of Spanish flu claiming racism and if Coronavirus had started in the UK would we/could we have played some racist card?  I doubt it.  The world needs to work together now to protect not only individual wellbeing but also the global economy, not to mention the mental and emotional health of the world’s citizens.

The way forward will require analysis and objectivity.  We need party and global leaders (where are the LibDems by the way?)  to work in a more aligned way to get us out of this mess.  In that, they have to admit that it is mainly guess work and no one person can claim to have THE solution.  There is always a scientist, economist or medic who will contradict the research of another. 

So let’s just make a constructive start to get our lives back: act, then stop and analyse, adapt, review, adapt and keep trying.   And for goodness sake, let’s ditch the 14 day quarantine idea.  We are a hub for business and tourism.  The government is going to need every penny of tax it can get but there won’t be any tax if people can’t regenerate their businesses. 

There are those who say that this way of life should continue.  It is idealistic to imagine we can all slow down to a halt indefinitely and all will be well. I don’t believe it will.  We may be able to evolve some different systems but if this happens overnight millions will starve, especially in areas of the world with no welfare state.  “It’s the economy stupid” is not some nebulous capitalist concept: it is people’s livelihoods, mortgages, rents, salaries, bills, debts, bankruptcies and ultimately poverty.  Trade is part of life and has been for the whole of human history.  It also pulls people together across borders.  We can’t afford to bring it to a sudden standstill.

For sure we are going to need the most massive coordination of effort to get this country (and the world) back on its feet again.  That requires us all to begin to pull ourselves out of our numb states and get just a tad busier, while still respecting precautions. We shall have to hope that we can crank up our energy and get our brains working again for the good of all!


How the years roll by

A very long time ago!

I am about the be 70 tomorrow.  How can that have happened?  I still feel about 18 on most days – except when I do something stupid like trying to exercise with Joe Wickes.  As I struggle to get up from a squat I suddenly remember, oh yes, these bones have been on this earth rather a long time!

It’s fun to look back but also sobering.  We are watching Normal People.  I am not enjoying it any more than I enjoyed the book.  It makes me cringe and reminds me of the time when I really was 18 and falling in love with unsuitable boys, going on dates, teenage parties where there was too much unwanted fumbling.  Much of it was excruciating: awkward conversations and the boys you fancied often didn’t fancy you, the ones you didn’t did, etc.

But the music was fantastic. I was Beatles-mad and no. 36 of their fan club – what a talent-spotter!? If I hear some Motown or Stones I can still dance all night, even if I can’t move the next day!  But of course we aren’t normal people at the moment so I can’t have a party, can’t dance the night away except in my kitchen with David.  And today’s teenagers and young adults are being deprived of those identity-shaping experiences too.  They can’t meet up, can’t kiss, or get drunk with their peer group friends.  I hope this changes for them soon.

I still have my collection of Beatle mania!

But of course our parents and grandparents experienced worse – long years of separation, no communication, threat of death by bombs, not knowing if sons, lovers or husbands would ever return or would return changed.  And so in many ways we are the lucky ones and I hope this period ensures we do not take for granted all the freedoms and pleasures that we have enjoyed over the last few decades.

Do we learn anything as we get older?  Returning to Normal People, the series has sparked a debate in The Times between James Marriott, who argues that the raw emotions we feel as young people shape our identity, and David Aaronovitch, who argues that it is when one gets older that one feels emotions more deeply.  I think I wandered around in a fog when I was young.  Things seemed to happen to me without planning.  There was little reflection or understanding.  Inevitably, as I have gone through life, I have experienced the great highs of love, motherhood, grandparenting, friendship, of career and of the amazing places I have been fortunate enough to visit.  But alongside that, the pains have, I believe, felt deeper, the losses and bereavements more poignant.  And our identity continues to be shaped, shaken and stirred throughout our life.  It doesn’t stop when we reach 21.

I didn’t have any sense of a ‘career’ until I was about 42. Work was just something I did. I didn’t give it any proper thought in terms of a trajectory.  I would have loved to have been a foreign correspondent had I been brave enough.  But I wasn’t.  So I worked with books, in publishing.   I always made sure that it was interesting, and that the people I worked with were stimulating, but I didn’t think about the future at all really. Yet amazing things happened along that journey.

And so now what?  In lockdown I am discovering all kinds of ways I have to adapt.  No cleaner, for a start.  I know it is lazy of me to say this when I am retired and should have all the time in the world to clean the house but I simply don’t enjoy it.  And maybe someone else needs the money, so I am happy to give it to them.  I am now fed up with cleaning the kitchen floor for the nth time and the pile of ironing fills me with fatigue.

I have learnt to chat, organise our book club and residents’ committee meetings on Zoom.  I have just started to become a virtual babysitter for my 4 year old grandson, Max, via FaceTime.  Of course, his parents are in the house but as they work full time, should both of them have business meetings concurrently, the iPad gets turned on at Max’s end, I have mine on here and we play ‘virtually’, me with my toys here and him with his toys there.  He has even worked out how to call me himself now, and, amusingly, how to mute himself so I can’t hear what he says!

What do I hope for now?  Gratitude takes one a long way towards contentment I have discovered.  I feel so lucky to have met the people I have met, family, friends, colleagues, clients and acquaintances of all kinds.  Look around you and count your blessings.  It changes the shape of your day.  I am also thoroughly grateful to those of you who have the patience to read these blogs and to those of you who respond, though that is by no means a requirement.

Right now I hope life starts to get back to normal so that our young can keep their careers and enjoy the pleasures I have enjoyed.  I long for our theatres, galleries, museums and concert halls to be open again.  We are so fortunate to have this amazing resource of talent and skill here in the UK.  We can’t let it die as a result of Covid.  I hope the young can one day travel to the far distant places I have been lucky to visit, by environmentally-friendly transport systems.  And I long for us all to be able to be together again in family groups and friendship groups.  I never thought I would wake up to this kind of world on my birthday, that’s for sure.  We have lived through post-war austerity, recessions and more austerity but we ain’t seen nothing yet, I fear.  Hold on tight!

In the meantime, we have updated my poetry website, www.babyboomerpoetry.com which is, as you will see, a trip down memory lane of some 70 years.  There are some reflections of ‘Normal People’ type moments here too.  Take a peek, it might remind you of some happy or even cringe-worthy memories too…!

Keep well.


The past is another country; they do things differently there

That was us.  Just a few short weeks ago.  A past where we could go to work, drive our cars, hug our families, fly to another country, have meetings, go to the shops, eat or drink at cafés, bars, pubs and restaurants, stay in hotels, go off for a weekend jaunt.  My goodness, we did indeed do things differently there, didn’t we?

And how quickly we seem to have adapted to this new radically limited lifestyle.  The majority of us are socially distancing, living in glorious or ghastly isolation, learning how to use Zoom, running businesses, home-schooling, making time to have a ‘drink’ with friends on FaceTime or Skype, chatting to children and grandchildren on screen.  We have been extraordinarily compliant considering that we had only a short time to prepare for such a lifestyle, especially as this lockdown threatens not only our health but our emotional and financial wellbeing too.

But we need a plan now.  A step-by-step suggestion of how we can get out of this situation.  We can surely accept that this process will be under continuous review and that changes and reversals may need to be made.  But for the sake of people’s wellbeing we do need to have a vision of the future that is not the world in standstill.

We are threatened with financial ruin as a country, as businesses, families and as individuals.  This pandemic could lead to unemployment on a scale we have never seen before, and potentially to famine for many.  In creating a plan, I personally would like to know that those advising the government are emotionally intelligent, rounded people.  I worry that the decision-makers appear to be mainly male and predominantly from the public sector, civil servants and academics.  Whilst none of those things, in themselves, signify that they are not rounded or emotionally intelligent, they do appear to be theorists and thinkers and I hope that there are those close to the Cabinet who are also capable of tapping into the emotional experiences and social needs of our population.

There is already ‘collateral damage’.  Those who are awaiting cancer treatment or surgery that has had to be postponed; those in the middle of IVF who can no longer proceed despite the fact that the biology of a woman’s body will not standstill in the way that life has; couples and families separated by being unable to fly to see one another; families unable to be together for births or deaths; marriages postponed; domestic violence on the increase, amongst many other consequences.  We can’t let this happen for too long, can we.  It is cruel and inhumane.

I would like to know that there are more people with skin in the game who are influencing decisions.  That is major business leaders, self-employed individuals, small business owners, shopkeepers, front-line doctors and nurses, farmers, teachers, carers, mothers, grandparents, teenagers, and more.  Those who have experience of running organisations through economic challenges.  Those who are currently having to tackle first-hand the very real financial, emotional and practical consequences of this pandemic.

And so to the future, for that is another country too, and we shall need to do things differently when we get there.  To make good decisions about how we shape and achieve the best future outcomes for the UK and globally, we need diversity of thought, experience and approach.  Big picture thinkers as well as those well versed in detail and facts.  Those who understand the loss, grief, anxiety and isolation that people are feeling.   

We shall surely need to accept that there will be a risk to certain people as we ease the lockdown.  Those who have specific risk factors can maintain whatever isolation they choose but if we have, indeed, passed the peak and the NHS has coped, then can we not be allowed to get back to some kind of normal life?  Most particularly, businesses, and other enterprises and organisations, now need to start working again as otherwise the consequence to the economy will lead to far worse suffering and death, not only in the UK but worldwide.    If there is to be a second wave, then this will occur at whatever time we lift the lockdown, won’t it?

But we live in an era of ‘safetyism’, where risk is also another country.  In the last decade, the prospect of anyone getting ill, injured, or dying has become almost unacceptable.  Tolerance of mistakes or accidents has lessened and often become a matter of litigation.  Children are not allowed to play with conkers, nor go out to play without supervision on the assumption that it is a more dangerous world, despite the fact that statistically apparently it is not.  Adults are limited by endless health and safety regulations. But risk is a natural part of life.  I think previous generations understood this better than we do.

Should it be mandatory for the over 70s to stay at home?  I certainly hope not.  One lively friend in her 80s questioned recently whether she and her husband would ever be allowed to join the human race again before they die.  A brutal thought.  There are also younger people with more risk factors than some of the older generation, but we can hardly lock them up in the way it is suggested that we oldies might be incarcerated!  I believe we are happy to comply with reasonable limitation but the prospect of staying home for months on end while a vaccine is found, is unacceptable.

Are we not now going to have to muscle ourselves up to live with the prospect of Coronavirus being a part of our lives for the foreseeable future, as we do flu, pneumonia or cancer?  As long as the NHS is capable of offering support, is it not going to be far worse for everyone in every way if we insist on a continuation of this lockdown?  It is a horrible situation for any Prime Minister to face. Perhaps we have to give the Government permission to take such risks?

And as for this potential future, I hope we shall value key workers of all kinds more emphatically. I hope we shall continue the kindness and sense of community that we have seen within families and neighbourhoods.  I hope doctors and nurses will be better equipped and also better supported emotionally to deal with the cases they face every day.  I hope Public Health England will review their procurement and administrative procedures.  The UK has a great history of enterprise so I hope that this period of downtime will release some creative and innovative thinking in entrepreneurs, those in health, sustainability, and in those in the arts.  Our theatres, music and dramatic arts are some of the best in the world.  I trust these will return to feed our spirits soon.  I hope there shall be an unleashing of creativity and positive energy as we are released from lockdown.  We shall certainly all need to work extremely hard to recover what has been lost.

But please, please may we soon know the steps by which we can access this future, whatever its shape.  We need a plan…

[quote from L P Hartley The Go-Between]