When death and illness become a part of everyday life

When death and illness become a part of everyday life

“Old age is a bummer” a dear friend of mine said as she arrived for lunch the other day. Well, she actually said something rather stronger, but you get the gist. And that is so true. She’s going through medical problems and trying to work through the complexities of our National Health Service, so, yes, it is a bummer, for her, and for many of us.

Few people warn you about the challenges of old age – although my dear sister did advise me to make the most of my sixties as everything would get worse in my seventies! And how true that has been. But most of us don’t like to think about it, do we, old age or vulnerability, until it lands on us?

Every week now we hear of a friend who is ill, or someone who dies. I hadn’t realized how resilient I was going to need to be at this age, and, looking back, I realize I probably wasn’t as understanding of my mother when her friends were dying as I could have been. I do remember, when working on the biography of Harold Macmillan, how lonely he found it, in his nineties, being one of the few people left of his generation.

So, how do we become resilient within this environment, especially as the medical services seem to have pretty much collapsed, and we are warned that social services are unlikely to be able to provide care for us later, even if we do have enough money to scrabble together to pay for it?

To plan or not to plan, that is the question. Whether it is easier to admit defeat and pack up one’s things and move to a smaller house, or flat, or bungalow, or transfer to one of those posh blocks where they provide restaurants and swimming pools and medical suites if one has the money. Or bury one’s head in the sand and continue as one is?

Of course, our children worry about us falling down the stairs, fracturing something, and making our old age a drama that no one can easily manage. But many of us aren’t ready to give up our lifestyle or our homes. The homes aren’t particularly big but may not be totally practical when we become old and gaga and can no longer climb the stairs, etc. Yet old age often also brings the joys of grandchildren, and one does want a living space large enough to allow them to stay. Indeed, inevitably we want to hold on to the life we are having for as long as possible, be close to our friends and do the things we enjoy doing while we can.

We moved to a smaller house a few years ago, in an area that I consider to be perfect for this time of our life as we are three minutes from the tube, a pharmacy, doctors, Tesco and village shops, plus we have Kew Gardens to walk in. However, it is on three floors and right now my knee is playing up and it takes me quite some time to walk up, or down, to answer the door. What if I need a new hip, how will I manage then?

But on the other hand, one could say that the stairs keep us fit. A friend of mine whose father lived in the States in a residential home with a lift, completely lost his capacity to climb up even one set of stairs.

So, I guess it is about living in the moment but keeping an eye on the future. For sure, thinking about what one wants in the last days of one’s life, making that living will, ensuring one’s will is totally fair and can be easily understood and executed. For myself, I believe in talking to my children about my wishes should I suddenly be taken ill or incapacitated. Others don’t want to have these conversations. Fair enough. There’s no perfect way to live, no perfect way to die.

But for me, also, in order to become resilient enough to keep happy within these changes of old age, it is about touching a sense of the intangible in life, the spiritual, or whatever you want to call it. The small but powerful essence inside us that accepts that life is finite and wants to find some kind of peace and grace within oneself, and with life and relationships, before one moves on to whatever there might be on the other side, even if that is nothing. For me, this takes some solitude, peaceful music, time in nature, time with grandchildren who have that essence somehow still inside of them, and of course spending time with their parents, one’s own children! What is more precious than this?

I recommend, again, Michael Ignatieff’s book On Consolation, which has many examples of how those who have faced illness and death found some consolation and courage to manage it. This can be through writing or journaling, music, prayer, one’s marriage, family. friends. As we think of this, it feels important to consider the legacy we want to leave, the memories we would like people to hold of us, the events that may help them think warmly of us and the times we have spent together.

Those ripples last a lifetime. My grandmother died when I was 17 yet I still remember her every day with such love and affection, remember the times we played cards together, watched horse races, went for walks with our dog. And so, of course, I hope that when I am long-gone, my gorgeous grandchildren will have a few happy memories of the times we are having now, too.

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A Sense of Place

There was a feeling last weekend, with the celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee, that we came together as a country, putting aside some differences for a brief spell.  That, in our respect and gratitude for a woman who has dedicated her life to the service of us all, in the best way she could, we were drawn together, whether we were monarchists or not.

Yes, of course you can say that she has lived in luxury and been taken care of well by those who work for her. Yet would you wish to be so much in the public eye as she has been, as much as all those who are in the Royal family are? I certainly wouldn’t. I would hate it. The normal things that befall many of us – tragedies, parenting, divorce, conflicts – are all carried out in front of us, at the mercy of the judgement and criticism of the crowd, then chewed over and talked of for years, in the media across the world.

Some people were saying that the flag-waving was old-hat, that it belonged to a past era of British history and was somehow distasteful. I would ask them to look around at other countries and notice that we seem to be far less critical of others taking pride in their nations, than we are of ourselves. The Italians, French, Spanish and many nations wave flags happily on specific days of the year, and the tribal aspect of football or rugby matches is clear for us all to see. I don’t see there is anything wrong with this, unless it becomes so insular that it excludes others or leads to invasions of other territories.

We can surely value a sense of belonging in our land, perhaps the place we were born, but certainly in the place we live. It is a natural human sentiment and rises above politics or monarchy or republicanism. It is about the place, the land, the people who live in it. And that’s what we saw last weekend as communities came together to arrange celebrations, to talk with one another and celebrate together.

For whatever government is in power, we can be proud of and loyal to the country in which we live. There has been so much endless criticism and backbiting in recent years in the UK and I believe it comes from people mistaking the leader of a political party with a country.  One may criticise Boris Johnson and yet still love England. One may have detested President Trump and yet still have a great affection for America. They aren’t the same thing. The Government is temporary, and of course it can shape what is happening in a country, but it is by no means the whole story.

The divisions that have occurred over recent years are more marked than in previous eras and it saddens me. There were more cross-party friendships in times gone by, there was more friendly debate and discussion between people with different opinions, less of the echo chamber that has evolved from social media. I hope we can go back to this as the tendency to think of those who don’t agree with us as ‘bad people’ is unhealthy. It is as bigoted as those we accuse of being bigots. It means we are closed, not willing to open up to new ideas, to admit we might be wrong, or that we might learn something from others, even if we don’t change our opinion on a subject.

In her 1991 Christmas broadcast, the Queen said “Let us not take ourselves too seriously. None of us has a monopoly of wisdom.” Wise words and words that lead us to be open and question, rather than close our ears and imagine we know everything in some self-righteous way. A little humility goes a long way.

The endless criticism of the UK is self-destructive. You can be sure that not everyone in Ukraine supported President Zelensky when the war started out in February, yet when their country was under attack by Russia the Ukrainians came together in their pride of place, willing to fight and die for their country. This sense of loyalty goes far deeper than any political party. It’s visceral.

Perhaps we can learn from it and realize that politics is important but ultimately all political parties come and go and, ultimately, also all of them are, in their own ways nonetheless striving for better health, better education and peace for their nations. We can all disagree about the ways to achieve these goals but let’s not fight amongst ourselves so fiercely in the process.

The history of civilization is a history of warfare and brutality. Read about life in this country only a few centuries ago and realize that it was bleak, a very basic way of living, and that we have come a long way, through hard work, scientific and medical breakthroughs, and teamwork. We are an extraordinarily diverse country in comparison to the year of the Coronation, and most of the time we get along pretty well. Walking around London one knows that one is mixing with people from all over the world, with a huge variety of opinions and political loyalties, and yet we get along, enjoying the privilege of living in one of the most civilised countries of the world, in an era of unprecedented comfort and peace. Long may it remain that way.

I think there was a great sense of gratitude to the Queen in the celebrations last weekend, and also a question of whether people would have felt the same if it had been President Johnson or President Starmer. Does an elected president have that same continuity, I question?

Nothing is perfect but gratitude goes a long way to make us happy and cooperative.  Focusing on an appreciation of what we do have, even in the midst of challenges such as inflation and high prices, is far better for our mental health than focusing on lack. We have rather torn ourselves apart in recent years, and the cancel culture in which we live does not help.

As Kenneth Clark said in his programme CivilisationWe can destroy ourselves with cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as by bombs.” Let’s not do that. As the Queen said in her 2008 Christmas broadcast “When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat; instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.” Let’s do that now, to the best of our abilities.

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The Best Days?

I have been reading Justin Webb’s excellent autobiography, The Gift of a Radio, My Childhood and other Train Wrecks.  He is younger than I am by about nine years, and yet much of what he writes about his childhood and school years sparks memories for me, especially as we have just had a school reunion of my own school, Cranborne Chase, where I spent my days, for better or worse, from 1962-67.

One of the topics that was raised at our school reunion was how unkind we had been to our teachers, recognising all these years later, that several of them had suffered horribly during the war, if not in battle, then in concentration camps, through displacement, or just in keeping the home fires burning. We girls, born in 1950, knew little of this, other than the stories we gleaned from parents or grandparents and were often left confused by what was not said rather than what was said.  As Webb writes, we eventually woke up to what had happened to these teachers through war films or, later, through the superb series The World at War with its images of scorched buildings and Laurence Olivier saying, “nobody lives here now.”

How those words symbolise the way in which our lives have turned circles. We grew up in the aftermath of World War II and experienced for ourselves the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust through the Cuban Missile Crisis. And here we are again, with Putin, his hand on the red button, threatening the world with oblivion.  We were able to laugh about it later, watching Dr Strangelove, but it is no laughing matter seeing all the scorched buildings in Ukraine and wondering where this will lead us as we are, once again, going to sleep fearing that there may be nuclear holocaust.

Despite the fears, my year group agreed that we had been lucky in so many ways, to live in that post-war era and experience the optimism of the 60s as teenagers, to go to a school that encouraged us to think and question, although it really didn’t prepare us in any way for academic life or, in fact, for life in any way. We arrived in the world as innocents, wondering what we were supposed to be doing, caught between the 1950s messages that woman should be in the kitchen, and the feminist writings of Simone de Beauvoir and later Germaine Greer. Most of us had been given the message that we should become wives as soon as possible and I think none of us had been given any useful career advice at all.

Despite this, I think we were all delighted to see how each one of us had ploughed an interesting course. The school was very arty and musical. I was good at neither but, with a young Harrison Birtwhistle as our Head of Music, I was infused by the love of music and art and many of my year group had become musicians, artists and sculptors. For myself, as a writer, we were lucky enough to have Stevie Smith visit, and the Liverpool poets among many others. Some of us became teachers, one, in all her modesty, a Dame, and some professionals. One way or another, our minds and hearts were stimulated, and how lucky we were in that.

But, of course, there were those who were unhappy at the school, and much is written about the damage that boarding school does to one – cold dormitories shared with a bunch of strangers miles from one’s parents and having to find one’s one way through the whole experience. But in that we found friendship. We may have been beastly to our teachers, in a St Trinian’s sort of way, but we agreed that we were seldom, if ever, beastly to one another.

So, if the school reunion has the potential for giving us anything, what I found, sitting in a room with my year group over fifty years after we left school, was that our support and friendship for one another was still palpable and, whether we see one another again or not, this friendship has provided, I think, a strength at the core of us that helps us withstand the tragedies and mishaps that have befallen us in our lives, as well as the moments of success. For that I believe, we are eternally grateful.

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The Middle of Things

So are we in the middle, the late middle or the early-ending of our lives, I wonder?  Probably the early-end, for as the days go by the odds stack against it being the middle.

We drive the same paths, sing the same songs, and yet our minds and bodies are an ever-expanding network of experiences, sadnesses, joys, anticipations, regrets, and, yet, there is still hope, for without hope it would surely turn into some kind of an end.  Yet hope for what?  A better future?  That is quite hard to maintain as one ages and fears for one’s children and grandchildren in this world where war rages and where climate change eats up the resources we need for survival.

But hope we must, for it is hope that leads to innovation, to enterprise, to believing in a better future, or the creation of a better implement, or software system, or scientific solution, or a better way to heal the sick, or educate our children.  Without hope there would be no new enterprise, no new business, no policies, no books written or artwork painted.

Though in moments of hope-lessness there can be beautiful poems written, paintings created, music composed.

A terminal diagnosis puts us close to the end, though no one can be sure when the end will be, unless one chooses to go to Switzerland.  So it may still be a sort-of middle but equally a beginning – the beginning of a journey of experience through that diagnosis and one never knows when the middle occurs, perhaps until the very end when one might reflect that one has been through the middle of that journey last week or last month.

But a sudden death throws someone straight into an ending.  There was a beginning, of that person’s life, but they never knew when or whether they were in the middle, or the late middle, until the end is ruthlessly thrown at them.

In Ukraine they lived lives at many stages of beginning, middle and end but were then all flung into the beginning, of a war, and terror, and none of them know whether they are still at the beginning, in the middle, or moving more quickly towards an end.  But what might that end look like?  That is a cliff-hanger.

So we live on a cliff-hanger every day of our life, somewhere between beginnings and middles, in life, career, marriage, parenthood, illness, crossing a road, until we reach the end.  And some of us will be conscious that we are at that end and others may never know.

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We can’t Let it Go

Ukraine

This morning I watched a short clip of a young Ukrainian girl, Ankita Jain, singing Let it Go, from Frozen.  She sang to her family and companions in an underground bomb shelter.  It was heartbreaking, as I thought of my granddaughters, and other children around the world, singing this same song in the safety of their homes.  I am sure parents and grandparents of small children everywhere will be as moved by this as I was. 

There are common threads with children throughout the world nowadays that didn’t exist in the same way when we were young.  The Harry Potter books, Disney movies and songs transcend language, place, and culture.  We can be brought together through the childish delight of story, imagination, and dreams.  And, of course, Russian children love these too, I am sure.  But to see the fear and sadness on the faces of the Ukrainian children sheltering or running from Russian bombs is heartbreaking, and makes it very difficult to feel we can continue to sit and watch this war, without somehow taking more action.  But how to do this without triggering something far worse?

In our creative writing courses, we are reflecting on the middle of things, on how beginnings, whether of events, stories, relationships, can be dramatic, full of hope, or, alternatively, as in Ukraine, dramatic but shocking.  Endings bring things to a conclusion, either a happy one, disappointing maybe, or tragic.  But the middle is where the uncertainty lies, where there are more questions than answers, where one doesn’t know whether the decisions and actions one is taking are the right ones or the wrong ones, whether they will lead one towards that happy conclusion or towards something one can’t even begin to imagine.  And right now we are in the middle of things.

It made me think about how we can become desensitised to information when we watch it endlessly on television screens, and how important it is not to allow this to happen.  We cannot let this war go into some kind of normality, because to be invaded and bombed by an aggressive neighbour with an occupying force is not something anybody deserves.  We have become too complacent over recent decades, imagining, or not even bothering to think hard enough, about the fact that the world does throw up dictators from time to time and we need to be awake to that fact.  Perhaps we were too comfortable, having reached a place in the free world where life is fairly easy for the majority, despite inequalities.  Putin has never truly masked his intentions, for anybody looking.

It is important, of course, to give ourselves some respite from the ghastliness of this war, of watching the suffering of the Ukrainian people, the ruthlessness of Putin.  It is important to enjoy the day we have been given ourselves, to be grateful for a home, a comfortable bed, hot running water, drinking water, working drains and food.  Yet not to forget about what is happening in this not-so-distant country where people were enjoying all those same simple needs themselves only a short time ago.  We cannot allow ourselves to be anesthetised to unfolding events.  We must keep watching.

I hope that those who develop the legal and political structures and requirements of the institutions of government learn, yet again too late, that dictators should not be allowed to change a constitution to enable them to rule for long periods without a democratic vote.  Francis Fukuyama wrote that the end of history might be said to have been reached by liberal democracy, but the reality is that we cannot ignore psychology or the human condition.  To do so is both ignorant and naïve.  There are bad people in this world, as has been witnessed in many different areas of the globe throughout history, for whom power is the goal.  Yet again, government officials should review the checks and balances of their institutional systems to ensure that these people do not get into powerful positions where we end up in a state where one ruthless man paralyses the rest of the world into a position where they do not know what to do.  I have written before about how wrong it is, in my opinion, that people can rise in politics without all the psychological profiling, qualifications and references that one needs to prove when applying for a job in business.  There seems to be extraordinarily little professional development, 360 degree-feedback systems, or challenges to prevent the people who lead the countries of the world becoming bullies and dictators.

In this war, it is so difficult to know where there is a compromise to be had in this situation.  As a Ukrainian said on the radio last week, if an invasion force came into the UK would you be happy just to give away Wales or Scotland?  Of course not.  So, the Russians should not be allowed to annex the Eastern areas without a democratic vote on the subject.  Sanctions and actions against oligarchs may make an impact in the longer term though the oligarchs can be prey to the Kremlin’s henchmen too, of course, so may not have as much influence as is imagined.

A week ago, I was fretting about whether I could write certain things about free speech in my blogs.  Today this seems petty, and yet it isn’t because what happens in our personal everyday lives remains important.  But now the priority has changed, and I feel so helpless as I watch this young child sing in her bomb shelter, watch families run from the bombs.  We give money, we sanction, we pray, but, in this middle part of this war, where we know not its outcome, we cannot let it go.

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How the hell did this happen?

The writer and provocateur, P.J.O’Rourke, has just died this week.  He wrote a book called How the Hell did this Happen? and I wake up every day and wonder the same thing.

How is it that, after a century where women’s rights progressed beyond all expectations, in the West anyway, our rights are now being depleted day by day?  That women’s spaces are being infringed, women pushed aside in their own sports competitions, the words that describe women are being deleted, porn sites are encouraging sadistic practices that endanger a woman’s life, misogynistic practices still exist in police and government circles? 

How is it that in an ante-natal class questionnaire the options given were “Pregnant Person, Father, Other Parent, Support Person, Other…”  yet the person who is actually giving birth, eg the Mother, gets no word to tick in that questionnaire?  How the hell did this happen?

How is it that Professors and academics in universities worldwide are being subjected to horrific harassment for stating facts?  That they are being surrounded by chanting students, dressed in black balaclavas, and hounded out of their jobs by young people who seemingly have nothing to lose, as there is no redress against them for what is outrageous, violent, and unacceptable behaviour?  In previous times I am sure they would have been ‘sent down’ as the phrase went.  Wouldn’t they?  And why not now?  I heard a teacher of twelve-year olds comment that ‘the boys are out of control’.  Again, are professional lecturers and qualified teachers to be bullied by children who know little of the world?

How the hell is it that J K Rowling, who has lit up the minds of children across the world and got them reading books of several hundred pages, is now cancelled because she spoke facts about womanhood?  That Professor Kathleen Stock is hounded out of her job for a similar reason, that the poet and writer Kate Clanchy is cancelled because she dared to describe a pupil of hers as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’ yet Monica Ali in her latest book Love Marriage describes a character as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’ and yet I haven’t heard a movement to get Monica Ali cancelled?

How is it that when someone makes a simple statement, as Adele did recently, that she loves being a woman, she is suddenly accused of being transphobic?  Surely, we have been endeavouring for some time to get young girls to celebrate being women in order to feel empowered?  Enjoying being a woman, or enjoying being a man, does not mean that you are anti those who do not identify in this way.

How is it that students of books by Shakespeare, Jane Austen and many others are being given trigger warnings in case they read something that they might find offensive?  Surely that is the point of books – to draw attention to the many different facets of humanity.  We cannot whitewash history or whitewash the reality of human behaviour and the human condition, without failing in our efforts to educate young people about the history of the world.  Depending on your nationality, sex, creed and colour, the past may have been misrepresented, and it is right to correct this, but we cannot change the past or wipe it out, or we learn nothing.

Yet how is it that young children today, who are blameless of the specific crime, are being harangued in their classrooms, and blamed for slavery, racism, colonialism, and imperialism that occurred over a hundred years ago?  How can this be anything other than divisive?

There is little logic in these arguments we are ‘waking up’ to.  There is endless contradiction.

For how is it that if only Jewish actors should play Jews in theatre or film productions then surely only people of colour should play people of colour, and therefore, with that logic, only white people should play white people?  Which is where this all began … because our history in this country consists of mainly white inhabitants, but this left actors of other ethnic origins without parts (just as were there to be plays put on in Africa there would be few parts for white actors).  So theatre directors started to open up the possibilities, where male parts were acted by females, where English kings or queens were played by people of colour, even though this is not accurate to history.  Surely any actor should be able to play any part because that is what acting is all about?  Isn’t that diversity, rather than narrowing down the pool of actors to Jews or Catholics or anything else?  Where is the logic here?

How is it that writers are told they can only write characters similar to their own ethnicity and lifestyle for fear of being accused of ‘cultural misappropriation’?  This removes all fiction from our shelves, basically, as each book would only be able to have one character.  Inevitably writers of fiction have to inhabit the characters of people of different genders, race, age, backgrounds and more.  These dictats make no logical sense in the creative process.  Nor does the fact that a white model can be berated for cultural misappropriation if she braids her hair but when a person of colour dyes their hair blonde, or straightens it, they are not accused of cultural misappropriation.

How is it that if women are to be referred to as “people who menstruate” there is no call so far to refer to men as “people who ejaculate”?

How is it that we are not judging works of art by the artwork itself but by the artist’s perceived flaws?  Why can works of art be removed, plays discarded, books banned from library shelves, words deleted, by some anonymous, often junior, board of judges with little life experience?  They make these decisions like an invisible mob, but, again, often with many contradictory arguments as their so-called ‘evidence’.  Yet that evidence is not seriously questioned by frightened academics or wary politicians who do not want to lose voters; the often flimsy and ill-considered ‘evidence’ is not put through any just legal process or investigation.

How is it that the statues to slave traders are removed but there is very little protest on the streets about the modern-day slave trading, or today’s appalling treatment of citizens in various parts of the world by people of their own race or creed?  Why this endless harking back to previous centuries, instead of honestly facing the problems we see today in various parts of the world?

We only have to see what ISIS or Al-Shabab are doing in Africa, Mali or Mozambique, where it is not about race but about terrorism/religion, to wonder why there is not more coverage and protest at the barbarous brutality that is being meted out in these parts of the world?  There was almost no coverage of the barbaric murder by ISIS of mothers and babies in the maternity unit of an Afghan hospital last year.

How is it that those concerned for the climate can blockade the M25 and mess up the day of thousands of ordinary people but don’t take the trouble and expense to go to Moscow and blockade Putin’s roads in protest at his pollution of the climate through his military manoeuvres?

Are we seeing trigger warnings for The Kite Runner, or A Thousand Splendid Suns?  I haven’t noticed that we are, yet, despite being well-written and informative, they are deeply upsetting books.  But not written by writers who can be accused of white privilege.

The depressing, undemocratic fact is that these protesters are trying to disrupt our society and they seem to have enough spare time to try to destroy the institutions of law, the police, and government by focusing on history, on the past, and by undermining trust in the way things are run.  Of course, there are bad things that go on but there always have been bad things going on and we continue, as human beings, to endeavour to address them and improve matters.  Surely, we can find ways to live together that do not divide or cancel?

We should not be frightened into silence or agreement, we should not shrug our shoulders and disregard these infringements of our rights and liberties for that would be going back to the 1930s, to Nazis, or the Stasi, or to the incarceration in gulags of poets and writers during the Cold War, and we all know what atrocities happened after those early book burning mobs were not stopped.

We absolutely cannot let that happen again, for those periods of history were, indeed, utter hell.

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The website will see you now …

Are you as fed up as I am at continuously being told to “refer to our website”?  Whether it is a doctor, the local council, an airline, one’s insurer or more-or-less anyone one is trying to get hold of, one needs to be tech-savvy.  And incredibly patient!  There is an expectation that you will own a smart phone, that you will have easy access to wi-fi, an online computer and the ability to search the web and input data into a website.

I am not alone in getting incredibly stressed in filling out the forms necessary to go to the theatre, or travel to another country.  When we travelled for a short trip to Greece last year and I had to get to grips with the Passenger Locator Form both to enter Greece and then again to come back home into the UK I couldn’t upload the various documents I was supposed to upload, or the Covid Vaccine QR codes or whatever, and it led to some very tetchy and stressed moments at the end of our holiday as I tried to tick all the boxes.

Last night when I tried to call my health insurer, I was told there were “56 people” in the queue before me so “please refer to our website”.  When we were ill with Covid and tried to call 111 and our GP, again we were told to “refer to the website” for information.  As a member of the older generation, it seems to be a minefield and we are all expected to have learnt to deal with issues by computer rather than simply by talking to a human being – which is often far more efficient and helpful.

These systems are often set up by young people.  Very clever young people, I acknowledge.  But, being young, they don’t realise that one’s eyesight gets worse as one gets older so one often can’t read the ever-so-cool tiny print they design, and may not know how to enlarge it.  They don’t realise the stress it causes to be told that you have been locked out of a bank account or online service and that they have sent an authorisation code to your mobile – which is two stories upstairs and getting up there to retrieve it isn’t easy for those with bad hips or knees.  Then when you finally get the phone and hobble back down, slowly, step by step, to the computer, the allocated time for entering the *** authorisation code into your computer has run out.

But it isn’t just the older generation who have a problem.  It is those who have less money and therefore less access to a Smart phone or to a computer at home.  There is a rather arrogant assumption by those setting up these systems that everyone will abide by them and be happy with them.  But we aren’t, necessarily.  It might make life easier for the service provider, but it often doesn’t make life easier for the client or patient.  It just adds to one’s stress level, which reduces one’s immune system, which makes one’s problems or illness even worse.

I can remember the day not so very long ago when one could book a face-to-face appointment with a doctor without trouble, or call a bank without having to wait an hour or more in a queue to talk to a human being.  And very often a human being who can sort the problem out in a few seconds.

But I am not a complete Luddite.  I do see that technology can be of enormous help to us as we go through life and age.  In fact, I am surprised we haven’t got further with it by now as when writing the book AGE MATTERS, I was talking to several tech companies years ago about how technology can be used to alert people to health and other problems.  Of course, the Apple watch and other gadgets are available but again they are often expensive so those who have less money are unable to afford them.  These watches and other such gadgets can detect whether you have a fall and call the emergency services, can see whether you have atrial fibrillation, low oxygen levels, or are walking asymmetrically. It seems to me we should by now be able to offer, either on the NHS or very cheaply, gadgets that can detect movement or non-movement, so that if someone living alone has not gone to the toilet or boiled the kettle it sends an alert.  Or analyse one’s urine or stools in the toilet to identify any health problems.  I know that these gadgets are available, but many don’t know about them, and they can be expensive.

So, I guess my plea is that tech developers take these factors into consideration as they design new systems.  Consider that people contacting a service provider may be frail, blind, disabled or not that tech-savvy.  Or may not be able to afford the computer or phone required to do so.  In the coming era of AI this will be increasingly important so can those in the industry please consider those of us who find some of these online forms difficult and stressful and provide more help, and simplicity.  And as they develop the technology that will be supporting us by our side in the coming years, make it as human as possible – eg capable of adapting to those of us who struggle with it. Oh dear, this probably sounds like Grumpy of Kew!

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A Possible Dream for 2022?

Back in the year 2001 I bought an apartment in Nice.  I had inherited a little money after my mother died.  I had thought of buying a small flat in some less-than-salubrious area of London and renting it out, which could have brought in income but also could also have caused me stress, as managing rented apartments is not always plain sailing.  Instead, my mentor suggested to me that I consider investing the money in an apartment somewhere sunny.   It felt very frightening at first.  Could I afford it?  I was on my own, running my business Positiveworks, and not sure whether I had it in me to make such a move into a positive experience. 

Nonetheless, I took his advice and bought the apartment in Nice, a beautiful city with everything I could possibly want to relax, think, write my books.  I hadn’t imagined I would make friends there but, in the end, I did make many good friends who I miss today, now that I have sold the flat.  But this is an example of how, sometimes, one has to take a leap into the dark and go for something one isn’t sure about, that makes one anxious but is appealing in some way despite that.

One of the friends I made in Nice was an inspiring lady called Anne Naylor who ran a group called the Possible Dream group.  I went along to some sessions.  We sat around in a room and each person expressed a possible dream – it could be that they needed a new fridge but didn’t have the money, or a new car, or a relationship, or world peace, or to alleviate hunger.  Any dream was expressed and accepted and those attending joined their energy and good wishes to the person whose dream it was.

But there was one person whose comment has stayed with me all these years.  He said “I don’t think we can fully imagine a dream that we might be living because we may not have reached that moment where we can even envisage something greater than the kind of life we have now”.  He continued to say that he could never have imagined, a year beforehand, that he and his wife and children would be living in the hills outside Nice and having a dream life that he would never have thought possible even a few months ago.

I can relate to that, as I could never have imagined the adventures and experiences I enjoyed whilst running Positiveworks.  Had you told me even a year before I set the company up that it would take me around the world, meeting fascinating people and giving me a lifestyle of immense joy (and challenge!) I would not have believed you.  Had you told me in 1999 that I would own a flat in Nice I would not have believed you either.

I wonder if you can think of experiences and situations that have occurred in your own lives that turned out better than expected or that you could never have imagined at a previous time?

And so, I feel this concept of the possible dream is especially important now, as we enter 2022.  It has been another annus horribilis with Covid and many global events that have shaken the world.  It is too easy, and no help to anyone, to get into a negative spiral of helpless hopeless talk about how awful everything is and how incompetent everyone is, etc.  Where does it get us?

Of course, there has been loss and I am not minimising the reality of the stress, bereavement and challenge people have experienced over the last two years.  But might we not now consider how some possible dreams that we could not have envisaged some time ago, have come about?  I think an appreciation of what we have experienced can be a platform for launching ourselves further. For example, when the Coronavirus first hit the world, people assumed it would take years to make an effective vaccine.  Instead, it took a few months.  People assumed that individuals would not comply with isolation rules and yet the majority did.  In the UK both the vaccination, the testing and the booster programmes have exceeded expectations and outpaced other countries.  And if this is our ‘war’ then at least we have had heat, light, and plenty of television programmes to watch.  And none of the bombs that our parents experienced. 

And beyond that, the last few decades have seen large numbers of people around the world come out of poverty and hunger and into employment.  Focusing on how terrible everything is will not help to keep them there, nor help bring others out of destitution.   In the 1960s we thought we would be decimated by a nuclear bomb.  We weren’t.  In the 1970s we all assumed that the UK was finished, that we would become a third world country, but instead things turned around and the pessimism people were expressing then was not realised.   But pessimism is more likely to pull us down, even now, whereas realistic optimism is more likely to help us innovate, and create, and pull ourselves back out of the hole of 2020-21.

Better, surely, to look forward, to imagine possible dreams, and realize that we may not be able to see how exciting those events might be from the place we stand now.  Better, surely, to talk of possibilities and things we and others CAN do rather than what is going wrong?

So, I wish you a happy Christmas and suggest that maybe you spend a little time imagining a possible dream for your own future, that of your family, your community, your country, the world.  Why not?  It could cheer you up and you might even find that fate surprises you sometime in the future and gives you something even beyond what you are able to dream today.  Who knows…?

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When “kindness” can be cruel

Samantha Price, the head teacher of Benenden, who also holds the influential position of President of the Girls’ Schools Association is suggesting that parents – and presumably grandparents too – do not criticize the ‘woke’ attitudes of their young.  This sounds to me like yet another limitation on free speech, and this time within the family.  I already know several parents and grandparents who say they cannot discuss certain topics with their children or grandchildren and that there is little way of bridging the gap of perspective or understanding between the generations.  In effect, they are silenced because the young simply block their views.  Yet, surely, these kinds of debates and discussions within the home are an essential training ground for life?

There are always intergenerational disagreements.  It is a fact of life that those who are younger will have new ideas, different ideas, and many of those ideas are innovative and much needed.  As part of the Baby Boomer generation, our parents disagreed with much of how we dressed, the music we listened to, the way we protested.  Yet, as a generation, I think we were pretty woke.  We made significant changes in the arena of social justice, opening up equality and better rights for women, gays, ethnic minorities and more, and were concerned for the environment.  So, I don’t think we should be perceived as some kind of stuck or blocked old fogies who are not open to new and good ideas.  But we are, I think, critical of fundamentalist approaches and intolerance to just debate.

All generations benefit from intergenerational discussions around the dinner table.  It fosters analysis, communication, and critical thinking, as well as knowledge about different people’s lives and perspectives. Older people may have started off as radicals and adjusted their views.  But it doesn’t mean to say they aren’t open to the ideas of their children and grandchildren.  I learn a huge amount from both.  But I hope, also, that they will be open to listening to our own experience of having lived long lives, of living through periods of history, as my generation has, with much of Europe under communism or dictatorships, where freedom of speech was very much limited.  Of having parents who fought in World War II, of experiencing the Cold War.  But, also, of reading history and getting the broad scope of the human condition.  We can all learn from one another if we listen.

But where the Head teacher talks of woke being all about ‘kindness’, she is ignoring the fact that what is kind to some, is most definitely not kind to others, and I would put her own pupils within that group.  It is girls’ lives, more than any, that are being impacted by the acceptance of some of these woke views.  Specifically, the way that the language around girls and women is literally being deleted before our eyes.  The 35-year-old daughter of a friend is having a baby this month but is not called a woman or a mother but a ‘birthing person’ on the forms she has had to complete.  Girls and women who compete in sports will now be up against men who wish to live as women but have all the advantages of a male body – strength of skeleton and muscles, larger lungs etc.  This is kind to the trans women but distinctly unkind and unfair to the girls or women competitors.

Similarly, girls or women who need to take refuge from violent partners may now end up in a refuge where men also reside, living as women, but not being women.  This can remove the security that women have felt in these homes.  Then there is the question of prisons where women prisoners have been sexually attacked by men who identify as women who have been allowed to be housed in female areas.  We can go on to talk about hospitals, toilets, changing spaces.  All these impact girls and women and, in my view, their private spaces need to be protected.  If we can’t rely on head teachers of girls’ schools to understand how the rights that our generation have fought so hard for are being eroded by the woke agenda then who will stand up for our daughters and granddaughters?

I don’t believe that being ‘woke’ is this kind fluffy thing that Samantha Price seems to suggest.  It is incredibly intolerant.  People are losing their jobs, their livelihoods, their reputations and their mental wellbeing as a result of young people pointing their intolerant and accusatory fingers at those who have different views to them.  This isn’t kind.  It is positively cruel. 

Look at the students who ousted Professor Kathleen Stock from her role at Sussex University.  They weren’t even courageous enough to stand up for their own views.  They chose to disguise themselves in masks and paint, covering their faces. 

And Professor Stock was talking biological fact.  She simply says that a trans woman can choose to live as a woman, can have hormone treatment or surgery, but will never be a biological woman in terms of chromosomes.  They can live as a woman but they are not a woman.  How will these schools teach the facts of life and biology if the truth is to be cancelled?  Will they teach false science just to pacify this group of children?  Surely that is not kind as one day they will have to ‘wake up’ to reality?

One thing I am glad about is that she says we must not demonise boys.  Certainly not.  We all have fathers, sons, grandsons, brothers, uncles of whom we are fond and we know that the majority of men are kind and respectful.  Most of the men I speak to are equally worried that the words that identify women, and the spaces that protect women, are being eradicated by the woke brigade.  But there are men who aren’t, and it can help, I believe, to teach boys about the effect that testosterone has on their bodies – that raised testosterone can cause them to take risks that they would not take at other times, both sexually and with physical aggression.  This is helpful information for all boys and men. 

Just as girls and women can also behave badly and have to understand the chemistry of their own bodies through oestrogen, periods, pregnancies, menopause.  Knowledge of the biology helps us manage the behavioural effects of the chemistry that lies within us.  But this knowledge won’t be taught if we have to pretend the chemistry doesn’t exist and is just part of a chosen gender identity.

It is a tiny minority of aggressive lobbying groups who are influencing these movements, and teachers should educate their pupils as to who is behind these lobbying groups and what their political or other agendas are, not pander to them.

Social justice comes in many guises, and it seems to me that those who follow this strict woke agenda are only thinking in narrow terms.  They are not looking at the serious consequences of their policies to others, especially girls and women who have, to be honest, suffered, and still suffer, hugely in terms of equality of opportunity.  Less so in the West, but just look how quickly things are turning around in Afghanistan, as they have in other parts of the world previously in history where women’s rights are often the first to go.

So please, teachers, stop and reflect before you tell the older generation not to challenge the ideas of their offspring for this only encourages the already intolerant attitudes of those young people to shut us up.  I, for one, shall continue to question and challenge perspectives with which I do not agree.  And would expect others to challenge me too.  Surely that is the whole point of living in a liberal democracy where free speech is a part of our lives.  But we should never take that freedom of speech for granted.  It can be gone in a second if we don’t fight to protect it.

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Is the novelist a dying breed?

As many of you know, I have spent the Covid lockdown writing a novel.  This is a new venture for me.  I have written seven previous books, six of them non-fiction, in the area of personal and professional development, plus my collection of poetry.  But writing a novel is a completely new experience.  When I write non-fiction, I have a reasonably clear idea of whether I am doing a decent job of conveying my subject but with fiction, until someone else reads it, I simply haven’t a clue if it is complete rubbish or something that will engage the reader.  It is a daunting project and a steep learning curve.

However, writing a novel in 2021 is even more daunting, as on top of the normal writer’s doubts, there sit the censorious voices of today’s cancel culture.  So, it becomes twice as unnerving, with a feeling that the Orwellian or Stalinist thought-police are watching over my shoulder, looking for offence, seeking to accuse me of saying something that might upset or hurt someone, distorting my meaning or intention. 

I wouldn’t be doing my job, though, if I bowed to these voices.  Surely the point of a novel is to move you, sometimes to upset you, even to the point of tears, horror, disgust and, yes, offence?  A novel can broaden your experience, take you to places you have never been in real life, place you in situations you hope you will never experience yourself.  Through this medium, an author can raise the reader’s level of empathy and help them understand what it might be like to experience something different, horrific, tragic or, equally, joyful.  And open doors of perception.

Dickens took his readers to places they might well have been grateful for not experiencing themselves but which raised their level of awareness for the poverty and hardship on Victorian streets.  Jane Austen experienced quite a narrow social life but her powers of sharp perception of the human condition raised her readers’ awareness of the machinations of society, the ambitions, bitchiness, unrequited dreams, jealousies and rivalries that they may not have noticed without her brilliant observation.  Solzhenitsyn took us to all the dark places of the Russian gulags.  And, among many others, was cancelled.

I, for one, don’t want to live in a country where I feel that writers could be silenced just because a minority of people – who may not even be forced to read a particular book – should choose to feel offended by what they read. 

Where is the reader’s sense of responsibility for their own response to a book, to what they read or hear?  For, as the Stoics would remind us, it is not the book or situation itself that is a problem necessarily but our own response to what we are reading or experiencing that gives it meaning.  The reader requires self-knowledge to become conscious of their own prejudices before accusing the writer of prejudice or bias.

The wonder of reading is to broaden the mind, to take one’s mind into different perspectives and consider the views of those who see or experience the world differently.  That is why this whole concept of ‘cultural misappropriation’ makes no sense whatsoever in the arena of fiction.  No author would ever be able to write anything other than a memoir, and then only from the first person, as they could be accused of speaking for others whose lives they may not understand.   But none of us fully understand another person.  This is what imagination and creative writing is all about.

Every author has to put themselves into other people’s shoes – if one is a female writer then we have to imagine male characters, people older than ourselves, people who come from other backgrounds, other countries, other eras, different sexual inclinations.  It all takes imagination and no one is claiming that it is perfectly factual.  It is a work of fiction, so one is needing to describe and imagine situations beyond one’s own experience.  But in today’s world in the UK, writers are being criticised for writing about characters from other cultures, or about gays when they aren’t gay, or ethnic groups when they don’t belong to that group.

If we follow this narrow argument, we shall never have any more fiction to read.  Nor thrillers, because surely those advocating for no ‘cultural appropriation’ could not expect every thriller writer to have experienced the horrific scenes they describe.  And what about science fiction, or fantasy?   It is ridiculous and it is a gross infringement of freedom of speech and creativity.

Which takes me back to my own novel and the concerns all this raises in me as I start to edit and finesse the book.  If J K Rowling’s agent and publisher can punish her for her views about women, then I don’t have a hope in hell of getting an agent or publisher if they choose to buy into the current cancel culture of bullying and fear that insists that words such as ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ are now unacceptable.  For if a publisher should read my blogs and tweets, they will see that I firmly believe such words should remain a part of the English language, both written and spoken, and they may not like that.  

Then my novel is set partly in Russia, between the 1990s-2006, so will I be accused of cultural misappropriation in describing Russian characters living through that period?  Inevitably I include male characters in the book.  Will I be accused of writing about people and situations of which I have no personal experience?    But what else do novelists do but write about people who inhabit their imagination?

I heard this week that John Updike, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and even Shakespeare, are now facing the cancellation lists for their misogynistic views but how does it help us to treat people of previous generations, who had very different perspectives and norms, as if they were writing today?  They were men of a certain age.  Expecting people of bygone days to have the same cultural perspectives as we have today, does nothing to celebrate how we learn through the ages, how we are all, in our way, far more ‘woke’ than people were even two decades ago.  Surely the whole progress of civilisation is to become more conscious of the subtle factors of life and humanity that were not realised before.  Within this progress we cannot possibly expect that people of earlier times should have had these perspectives.  It’s rather like condemning a 3-year-old for snatching a toy when we know that as we learn and develop that child will become more empathetic and aware that this is not an acceptable act.

I sincerely hope that we shall soon return to a place of common sense where people recognise the fact that it is absolutely necessary for us to be offended, insulted even, as we go through life.  It can give us self-knowledge, can enhance our humility and help us understand that we may well not be perfectly correct about our opinions because there are always others who have different opinions.  This could give us an insight we hadn’t noticed before.  And it can develop that entirely essential skill of resilience.

So, I shall pursue the completion of my novel over the next few months and shall endeavour to silence these unelected censors looking over my shoulder …. and my own inner doubting demons too, of course!

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