How has debate become so toxic?

How has debate become so toxic?

I find it extraordinary that in a country where education, and higher education, reaches a larger proportion of the population than it did in my childhood, the tenor of debate and conversation has become so debased and divisive.  Instead of raising the quality of discussion, we have ended up with people picking up a headline or soundbite from news, newspaper or social media and acting as if they know everything about it, when in fact it turns out that people have seldom read the whole article, let alone the report, book, or listened to the debate to which they are referring.

This happens often and, most recently, in relation to the report on race by Dr Tony Sewell and his team.  Commentators are comparing him to Ku Klux Klan, to Nazis and to slave owners.   As the report is written almost entirely by people of colour, if white commentators were to say this we would, most certainly, be called racist.  But these commentators are not all white and Trevor Phillips, writing in Monday’s Times, regrets that more white voices have not joined the fray.  Well, here I go and people may say I have no right to comment but I believe, perhaps mistakenly, that I live in a country where free speech is valued.  Also I have lived in the UK since 1954 and in London since 1968 so I have seen a lot of changes with my own eyes.

The furore began even before the full report was published.  The viciousness of the pushback has been vitriolic and, in my view, abhorrent.  Especially as even those who have been interviewed on the radio have admitted that they have only read ‘parts’ of it and, as others have articulated, that the report is far more nuanced than critical comments would suggest.  As the report itself argues “too much of public debate is ill-informed or uninformed”*.  That doesn’t stop people blasting off their emotional opinions.

What I genuinely don’t understand is why people of all ethnic backgrounds can’t give credit where credit is due?  Sure, there is much more to be done on racism and, contrary to what one hears, the report states this several times over [e.g. ”Outright racism still exists in the UK.”*].  However, the problem is that people seem to assume that if one praises the steps that have been taken, then one is at the same time suggesting no more needs to be done.  This is illogical.  It isn’t what the report says.  But it is a tendency that the statistician Hans Rosling in his book Factfulness termed the ‘negativity instinct’**.

Rosling related that when he quoted statistics demonstrating that progress in some field had been achieved, his audience would assume that he was saying that everything was fine, when he was saying no such thing.  The principle he asserted, which I totally agree with, is that if people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing will work and lose confidence in the project.  If this is the case, they can lose hope in progress and give up the effort, which helps no one.  Hope is essential.  Measuring progress not only gives us hope but can also identify next steps.

The voices criticising the report seem not to want to acknowledge that progress has been made.  Perhaps they hold vested interests in the status quo of the racism debate?  Perhaps they are the more radical BLM supporters who actually want to end capitalism, dismantle the police and other institutions?  But, as the report states, this kind of “over-pessimistic narrative” could be in danger of “alienating the decent centre ground, a centre ground which is occupied by people of all races and ethnicities”*.

I don’t know.  All I know is that the UK is a very different place to the country I grew up in during the 1950s and we need to acknowledge that progress AND, at the same time, identify what we can all do to improve things further for all those who live in this country.  “Bias, bigotry and unfairness based on race may be receding but they still have the power to deny opportunity … if we are to build trust in institutions and organisations, we must be willing to investigate evidence of racism and be prepared, as a society, to root it out.”*  For this to happen we all need to work together, in collaboration and cooperation, not division.  It benefits us all.

Since the 1960s we have seen the Equal Opportunities Act, we have diversity policies in organisations, we have interpreters in the NHS, legal and social systems to help those who cannot speak English.  Children in schools now celebrate Eid, Diwali, Ramadan and other ceremonies, not just Christian ones.  In fact, there is such sensitivity around this that the nativity play itself has been in danger of being cancelled.  A friend of mine was the only black Jamaican girl in her class at school in 1964.  If anything, those statistics have reversed in certain areas. 

Is there more to be done?  Of course.  But for those of us who have seen these changes, please can we recognise progress where it has been made?  No business would survive if it never gave honest feedback about what needs to be improved.  Equally, it is essential to give feedback about what has been done well.  Identifying best practice enables an organisation to support behaviours and actions that build successful models of progress.

I am a woman, so I represent roughly 50% of the population yet we are still also being discriminated against but I would never deny the progress that has been made in my lifetime to the position of women.  Is there more to be done?  Of course.  But women are far less ‘institutionally’ discriminated against than they were when I was young but there is still work to be done, especially, it seems from recent reports, among the young and their peer groups.  And in this there are responsibilities on all sides to adapt and work towards a better world.

So, on race, I can see that the way history is taught needs to be balanced, but not skewed.  I don’t personally understand how it is helpful for young black children to have all the history of slavery kicked up in their faces now?  How does it make them feel about themselves?  How does it help them to feel a part of our now very diverse community in the UK, many of whom have also suffered terribly?  It seems to me that having this brutal history revived could well undermine their confidence rather than help them to feel they have as equal and empowered a voice as others in their classes or universities.

Why not point out to them also all the many role models who have made it into senior positions in our society rather than rub their noses into what isn’t going well, or what happened 200 years ago?  We have, if I can use the acronym one more time before, hopefully, it is ditched, BAME mayors, MPs, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Cabinet ministers, celebrities, lawyers, barristers, musicians, television presenters, senior doctors and consultants, senior managers and leaders within both the public and private sector, specialists on that bastion of Britishness, the Antiques Roadshow.  Don’t let’s forget this progress.  Don’t let’s dismiss it.  It means something

If we are all silenced, cancelled or whatever you like to call it, because should we dare to speak up we are subjected to rape threats, murder threats, ludicrous associations with evil people, accusations of sins we may not personally have committed, then all debate is over and we are in a dictatorship of the unelected, just because they shout louder and say the most extraordinarily insulting things.

I don’t believe this helps the cause of those who have come to our country and wish to live here with the open and equal opportunities that we continue to attempt to create.  I believe it helps us all if we acknowledge the progress that has been taken and then agree between us, in a creative and consensual way, the steps that need to be taken to gain further improvements.

Racism is, or has been, a human response to difference.  It happens everywhere and it swings both ways.  Most agree that there is less discrimination than there was, and many enjoy rich relationships with people from different backgrounds.  There has to be a will for change and integration from all parties.  If people are criticised by their own community when they attempt to integrate, for example in joining the police force, then this has to be openly discussed in order to find alternative approaches.

I don’t believe any marriage would survive if both parties kept pointing fingers at the wrongs that had been done between them in the past.  There are many and complex details behind the headlines and soundbites and we need to understand them in order to find better solutions to what holds people back, whatever their background.  We need to recognise people for their character and contribution rather than the colour of their skin.

Let’s build on progress, not enflame a war of division.

*quotes from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, The Report, April 2021

**Factfulness, Hans Rosling, Sceptre, 2018

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Released from lockdown – how does that feel?

We’re about to be let loose.  Or just a little anyway, step by hopeful step.  It seems extraordinary that we have been under near house arrest for a year now, unable to see family and friends, to work, mix and do the normal human and sociable things we do.  It is going to take a bit of getting used to, I suspect.

Several people I know have said they will find it frightening to go out and about again, to travel by tube or bus, let alone by plane.  They can’t imagine being inside in a room with other people for a dinner, party or festivity.  That feels a bit sad to me and I was happy to hear Sir Richard Sykes, Chair of the Royal Institution, on the radio this morning encouraging us not to be ‘cripplingly cautious’ but to embrace the fact that in the UK we have had a fantastic vaccination programme and, in addition to that, he suggests that many more people will actually have, asymptomatically, had Covid-19 than are statistically recorded, so will have some kind of immunity.

But of course we have to be watchful and I think many of us have become near hermits, unused to making the social effort to entertain others.  I look back on the sort of dinner parties I used to host in the 1980s and 90s and wonder how on earth I did it.  The thought of cooking for others again is both exciting but a tad daunting!

I have been reminding myself of how we do, eventually, persuade ourselves to come out of dangerous situations and accept that all of life has an element of risk. And, it seems, we shall have to adapt to accepting that coronavirus may well be a continued risk for us all going forward.

For me, in my lifetime, I can remember the IRA bombs of the 1970s and how I would occasionally leave a tube train at the next station if I heard an Irish voice in the carriage.  Nonetheless I remember taking my darling niece up to see Father Christmas at Selfridges because we all agreed that we should not be forced to limit our lives out of fear.  Both she and I treasure that memory.

The same, of course, happened after 9/11, and 7/7 – different voices but the same impact.  I would leave the train.  And be nervous, in the 80s, of hijack, then in the Noughties I would fear people putting bombs in shoes or bottles.  More recently we have had the Islamic knife attacks.  We have had SARS and Ebola scares. All these events make people nervous for a while and then gradually life returns to normal.

When I fell down the stairs one morning at South Kensington station (stupidly carrying my laptop case so that the strap dangled and caught in my shoe) it took me quite a while to feel safe on stairs.  Even now I am far more careful to hold onto the handrail.  But I certainly do go downstairs as I couldn’t live a normal life without having ‘faced my fear and done it anyway’, as the book by Susan Jeffers advocates.

But what happens is that gradually we do start to venture out again and with each adventure, when we return safe, we build our resilience and sense of comfort. 

As Sir Richard Sykes said this morning, children need to get back to education, students to universities, people back to work.  The young need to frolic and pair-bond, the elderly need to see their children and grandchildren, and, eventually we hope, hug and be hugged.

So grasp the nettle and let us all work together to bring back some kind of normality.  We need to get back to work, or poverty will rise worldwide exponentially.  We need to create, have ideas, start new businesses or put our all into whatever business or enterprise we are involved in.  We shall soon need to embrace teamworking and being back in an office – people can’t possibly be as efficient if they are permanently working from home, nor can junior staff or apprentices learn a thing about work unless they watch those who are experienced carrying out their tasks.

But I hope there will remain more flexibility of choice at work, with some homeworking enabled within some time spent with colleagues and clients. 

I think we would all fester if we stayed at home forever, not mixing with others on a face-to-face basis, listening to their views and perspectives, enjoying a good debate or conversation over a glass of wine or cup of tea.  It’s what life is made of.  And for entrepreneurs in particular.  Take the Industrial Revolution, without sharing their ideas in coffee shops and clubs, the inventors may not have had the stimulation to advance our lives in the way they did. 

And what does staying isolated do to our immune systems in the long run?  Surely we need to mix with others to build up immunity to the everyday bugs, small children particularly?

We shall have to remind ourselves to put our glad rags on, finally get our hair cut, coloured, styled, and wear something smart.  We might rather enjoy it in the end but it will probably feel a little weird at first.  I can’t remember the last time I wore high heels and I shall no doubt wobble around on them to start with but at 5’2 I am usually very happy to have that little ‘lift’.

The process of which I write is known, in psychological terms, as ‘exposure theory’, eg the more we do something we are nervous of the more we adapt to the situation, proving to ourselves that we can survive despite discomfort.  Gradually, through repetition, we become at ease with the challenge.  People apply this theory, one might just call it common sense, to a fear of spiders, or flying, to giving presentations, or to social anxiety, so we can apply it to coming out of Covid-19 lockdown too.

I wonder how you are feeling, yourself?  Excited or a little nervous?  What is the first thing you would really love to do?  Is there one thing that will remind you that the world is returning to some kind of new normal?

Of course we can’t be certain that the journey out of lockdown will not be without its setbacks. We shall have to keep alert to ripples or waves of Covid return. But, if as many people as possible get vaccinated in the UK then we could be set fair for life returning to normal. But this is back to a future where coronavirus is likely to be one of the additional risks we have to face in our daily lives, like flu, cancer, or car accidents.

Personally, as the vaccination programme progresses, I think every government in the world could well be saying to its population “your country needs you” to come out of isolation, wear a mask, don’t breathe unnecessarily on others, but come out, work hard, create, spend money, go to the pub, go to the theatre, stay in hotels, eat out at restaurants, buy new clothes and get our economy, and life, going again. What we do in our own country ripples out to the whole world. 

So live, love and be merry. Step by hopeful step.

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International Women’s Day 2021 and its ramifications

What an extraordinary week we have just experienced for women.  Firstly, the Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell interview, secondly, the arrest of a police officer charged with the murder of Sarah Everard, thirdly, the celebration of International Women’s Day and fourthly, this weekend, Mother’s Day.  Sadly, the two former events highlighted the continued victim narrative and experience of women but the third, a celebration of how far we have come in my own lifetime but how far we still need to go.

The fact is that women still feel wary when they go out at night.  There is a continued threat of harassment or assault.  This means that around 50% of the world’s population feels under threat from the opposite sex in how they go about their daily lives.  What an extraordinary thought that is.  Certainly, there are parts of the world where a woman is not allowed to go out in the daytime even, or without a chaperone.  In one way or another, many women have their freedoms curtailed.

This has been the case for centuries and we still have much to alter to reach a time where women truly have equal status in this world with men.  But it is really only in my lifetime that women – and that is more often women in developed countries – are able to work, to take the pill, to get control of their lives, to be able to divorce without shame or without losing access to their children, to own property and get credit or a mortgage in their own right.  For previous centuries it was not considered necessary nor attractive to educate women.  My own mother, when she went to university in the 1930s, was accused of becoming ‘a blue stocking’ for demonstrating her intelligence.  And she was not alone.  Even today some men can be threatened by an intelligent woman, or a woman with a career or salary perceived to be more successful than theirs, so women may be encouraged to hide their light under a bushel.

Reading the French philosopher, Michael de Montaigne, this morning in his essay on Social Intercourse, he talks of women as potentially benefiting from poetry as “it is a frivolous, subtle art, all disguise and chatter and pleasure and show, like they are.”  It struck me, reading this, that it is only in today’s world that women can have the potential to be fully themselves rather than the toys of men as they had to be in previous times such as his, and inevitably this continues to turn the tables on the old ways of relating.  As Caroline Criado Perez suggests in her brilliant book Invisible Women, it is not always the intention of men to forget the needs of women: it simply doesn’t enter their heads to consider what those needs might be, whether designing bullet-proof vests for female police officers or technology for health apps.  So, not necessarily a conspiracy against women; simply a blind spot.

Why can’t we rub along together happily as equals but different, I wonder?  Is it the hormones?  Certainly, the physical differences between men and women give men the advantage out on the streets.  But it is more than this.  It is the legacy, I believe, of all these years of women having to be subordinate to men because they simply couldn’t look after themselves without a husband or a brother.  Without work they could not survive, without contraception they were constantly pregnant or busy with many children.  Even the wealthy could not avoid this – Queen Victoria apparently did not enjoy being pregnant but nonetheless ended up with 9 children.  And she had plenty of staff to help with those – imagine what that was like for a woman living in poverty.

Even once we started to be able to control the number of children we had, and to be able to work and even rise to be Prime Minister or CEO, we had to fight for equal pay and this fight continues, particularly during this Covid pandemic.  It makes me sad to think of Sarah Everard, a successful and delightful young woman from all accounts, having her life taken just for the simple act of walking home.  It makes me sad that Meghan Markle should have felt such a victim of circumstances when she could have been such a role model of success for all to see had she been able to manage the situation in which she had placed herself.  We women have to keep reflecting, observing, analysing, adapting and asserting ourselves so as to move out of a sense of victimhood.

And we have to change and collaborate, for sure.  I have personally run Leadership for Women, Management for Women and Assertiveness for Women courses in business, alongside coaching many bright women managers who nonetheless often were the subject of some discrimination and crude comments and jokes.  This needs to become a zero-tolerance fact.  Sure, don’t crush humour and banter, which are often the spark of life, but not if those are to the detriment of another human being.  I suggested many times to the organisations in which I worked that it would be helpful to work with men to help them adjust and adapt their behaviours in this new world but could not sell this idea to the still mainly male senior managers.

Boys and young men could benefit from considering what kind of men they want to be in a world where women do have equal status.  The kind of treatment women receive in schools and universities where their photographs are graded by boys or men in terms of their attractiveness must stop and must be harshly punished by the authorities of the school or university.  It is totally unacceptable and only perpetuates the feeling that it’s only a woman’s looks that matter.

Fortunately, the kind of tragedy that struck Sarah Everard is unusual but the newspapers are still far too full of stories of women being murdered or attacked.  It is, to me, an extraordinary feature of men that they have to hit a woman or abuse her rather than just leave her.  Laura Bates’ book Everyday Sexism demonstrated, as do many experiences reported in the papers, that everyday discrimination continues.  The endless television and film crime dramas of women being attacked doesn’t help.

I end on a more positive note, however, that the Oxford Dictionary has been persuaded to change its definition of ‘woman’, now describing words such as “piece”, “bint”, “baggage”, and “bitch” as only ‘derogatory or dated’ terms.  However, much of the definition still has subordinate connotations of women. 

Words matter, actions matter, the ability to enjoy our freedoms matter.  But don’t let us, as women, be victims, nor turn men into persecutors.  The majority of men are considerate, so one murder does not make all men evil by any stretch of the imagination.  Let’s try to collaborate and cooperate as human beings in this world, to create an environment where everyone can walk the street safely.  I am sure we want this for ourselves, our parents, friends, partners, siblings, children and grandchildren.  Working within schools, universities, workplaces and families to change the macho culture and laddism that still exists so that everyone regards one another with respect has the potential to create a better and safer world for us all.

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Have I passed my sell-by date? Rethinking gender…

“Do you identify as a woman?” I was asked last week, by the 119 Vaccine Appointment hotline service.”  I was somewhat taken aback by this question and replied “I am a woman”. 

Did that question feel ok?  Not really.  I felt old, out of sync, out-dated, out-moded, maybe past my sell-by date.  But “oh” I thought “this is the new norm, so I had better get used to it.”

But must I?  I feel fine with my chromosomes and I feel happy in my skin as a woman.  Telling someone I identify as a woman doesn’t speak for how I feel about myself as a woman, a woman who was once a girl, a daughter, a wife, who is now a mother, grandmother, sister, partner.

Of course, the roles of men and women have changed enormously from my birth in 1950 when women were still unable to work, own property.  They would have found it socially unacceptable to say they were lesbian, let alone trans-gender.  But then, also, the science was not available in those days to enable any change of sex.  And, shockingly, homosexuality was still illegal.

So no doubt it is time to discuss, once again, the roles of men and women.  There has been a furore over the Etonian master, Will Knowland’s, Youtube video Knowland Knows.  He was sacked because he refused the disciplinary demand to take the video down but the video itself, which I have watched, whilst very provocative, did seem to be quite timely in the questions it was posing – eg what kind of man do you young boys want to be when you grow up?

In case you have not read about this case, Knowland created the video as part of a series of class debates on topical subjects intended to encourage critical thinking.  It was to be followed by a debate created by a female colleague, exploring the topic from another perspective.  But that was not to be, as Knowland’s approach was deemed anti-feminist, so the video was not shown.  The debate was not had.

Speaking for myself I never had any discussion at school or as a young adult to explore what it might mean to be a woman, or what sort of woman I might consider trying to be, or to emulate.  There were few female role models when I left school in 1967.  Now, of course, girls have plenty of women to look to, and it seems to me that a class debate to help girls determine the qualities they admire or abhor would help them shape their decisions.  It is, after all, a far more complex world than it was when I started out in life.  Today there are, I think, more opportunities and yet, perhaps, more threats.  Or is that just how it looks from my 70-year-old perspective?

Is it not a good and wise thing to help young men reflect on masculinity?  To stop and think about what it is to be a man in today’s world?  Much is made of ‘toxic’ masculinity but we should not forget the fact that men can also be just, gentle, protective, chivalrous, respectful of our equality.  For men can be all things, as women can be all things, and likewise the LGBTQ community, for we are all unique and multi-faceted.

There is still much that is being remoulded in relationships.  In my parents’ generation the majority of women were housewives.  In my generation many of us worked ‘until’ we got married or had children.  Some of us, myself included, then carved out a career for ourselves later but the idea of a ‘career’ was still fairly new to us.  Today’s women are definitely plotting a career path though are often knocked sideways or backwards when they take maternity leave and, according to reports during covid, are often bearing the brunt of balancing home-schooling with work.

But younger men and women certainly appear to share the chores and childcare in a far more equal way, though this can still be an uphill struggle in some relationships.

I think what concerns me in all this, and particularly in the kind of question about identity that I was asked, is that there has been little discussion on the changing role of men, women and the LGBTQ community in the general population.  We read a great deal about it in the press and are the recipients of this new language and the rights that are being given by governments here and across the world but have you personally been asked your thoughts on the matter?  I haven’t, and would like to be but am aware that anyone who has an innocent, or intelligent, question on the subject is often shamed into silence on the presupposition that any doubt or question indicates that the person is a bigot or transphobe, where maybe they are perfectly open to change but would, quite simply, like to be asked.

I suspect others will have opinions that are worth listening to and I worry that the actions being taken are being influenced by a few strong lobby groups but not by the general public.  Could it not be that some people, if asked, might come up with some really innovative ideas about how we all live together and flourish in a world where I might, or might not, choose to ‘identify’ as a woman?

If laws are being changed to allow someone to identify as a man without any kind of medical consultation or diagnosis, as they are now in several parts of the world, then presumably I should be able to enter any one of the male bastions of privilege by simply telling the receptionist I am a man?  

But what I fear more is that many more young girls, especially those growing up in cultures where women are regarded as second-class citizens, will opt to become male because there are more privileges open to them if they do.  And then what?  The Chinese one-child policy did not have happy outcomes.  When we mess with science, nature, biology we can skew the natural world and the result can be too many males, which presents many problems. 

I am delighted that minds are more open today and that those who felt outsiders no longer need to do so.  I would just like to understand more about who is making the decisions that will be shaping our new norms, and to feel that we had greater opportunity to participate in the debate that will shape the lives of our grandchildren.  We are talking about complex and sensitive areas.  People are getting their heads around these new perspectives and may not, like me, know what they truly feel about it yet.  But they deserve a voice and should be able to ask questions without being silenced.

We all benefit from helping all individuals within our society to prosper but within this change I would still prefer to say “I am a woman” rather than “I identify as a woman”.  I am interested in how others feel about this.  I am sure it would be a lively discussion! 

But maybe, as I say, I am out of date, and feeling, as every older generation has tended to, somehow out of step with what is being shaped by the younger generation.  Quite probably.

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Endings and Beginnings

Planet earth with some clouds. America’s view.

A momentous day.  The day President Trump left office and Joe Biden was inaugurated as 46th President of the United States.

“Don’t tell me things can’t change” Biden said.  And they are going to need to, in the U.S. and the rest of the world.  And things do change and have changed.  In my lifetime, some things beyond recognition.

It has been a year of endings for many people across the world, in death through Covid and other conditions.  I have lost two wonderful and dear friends of some thirty plus years to cancer in the last six months.  This signifies the end of long and valued friendships.  It also signifies the beginning of the end of expectations of future times together for us, but particularly for their loving partners who have to now change and adapt to life without them.  And this is being mirrored within families and couples throughout the world.

Biden talked of boldness and it is boldness that is required as one steps into a new beginning.  It is boldness that we in the UK shall need to rebuild businesses, relationships, partnerships within our borders and beyond.  And personally, I do not doubt that we have the energy and grit to do this if we set our minds to it and don’t listen to too much pessimism or negativity.

I felt moved as I watched the inauguration.  I love America and have visited many different states over the years.  It is a beautiful diverse country of stunning landscapes and we have always been welcomed by warmth and hospitality wherever we went.  It is a huge land mass to be ruled under one President and in the last week or two it has stood at the top of a precipice that looked almost like potential civil war.  It struggles with its history of racism, of civil war, of how much or little to get involved in the business of other nations across the world.

But I would rather a strong America to be the main economic power in the world than I would China, with its lack of human rights.  Sure, America gets much wrong, and has done, and has some history also of lawlessness, white supremacy and gun-toting groups.  Nonetheless at its core it keeps pressing for democracy and liberty, and we all need to clean up our acts to ensure that democracy is not tainted by corrupt practices.  Here as much as anywhere.

Beginnings require a significant shift in personal identity.  Who was I, who am I now, who shall I become?  This is as true of nations as it is of individuals.  I have wished with all my heart that this kind of questioning could have been asked of us all here in recent months so that we could embrace some sense of who we want to be in the world in the future.  Leaving the EU has been another ending and yet is also a beginning and we need to remember this.  We can, surely, unite enough to work towards the rebuilding of our sense of self-respect, a sense of recognition that we can be a force for good in the world, the whole world and not just a part of it, and that this activity doesn’t just reside in government but requires a contribution from each of us to push through the struggles of Covid, Brexit, economic uncertainty and recession and come out the other side with a sense that we have done our best.

Unity doesn’t mean we all have to agree with one another.  That would be both boring and unproductive.  It would be unlikely to lead to any kind of creativity or innovation.  But unity can mean being humble enough to know that one doesn’t have all the answers, so can listen to other ideas and accept that one might learn from them, and vice versa.

Speaking the truth, even if it doesn’t get the result one wants, helps formulate a new identity within a new beginning.  It’s too easy to shelter behind a fib, hide away from speaking one’s truth or expressing one’s needs.  I encourage you to consider how this manifests in your own life.  Are you telling those you love how you feel?  How you might feel lonely?  How you need a helping hand, emotional or practical, to get through this pandemic?  And are you watching out for others who may also be struggling?

We have experienced our own struggles here in the UK and we have watched the struggles of the US over the last four years and particularly in the last four weeks.  Life is a struggle and it is full of endings and beginnings.  So perhaps now is a good time for us to think about what that means for us in the next year or two. 

For me, personally, this year is the year for me to try to write my novel, and so I have to restructure my life to give me time to plan, reflect, write and edit.  It means a new beginning for me, as writing non-fiction, as my previous books have been, is very different from writing a novel and I haven’t a clue whether I am writing rubbish or something worth reading.  And so I need to think of myself in a new light, as someone who could write a novel, accepting that it will be extremely hard work and a struggle, and will require me to develop new aspects of myself.  And not lose sight, in the midst of that, that I have it in me to finish.  And all this requires that I adjust my sense of self, my identity, in this new beginning.

I wish Biden the best of luck with the enormous challenge that he faces.  I hope we can mirror some of the aspirations he expressed in his inauguration speech, to come together in honesty, ditch the lies, stop the manipulation of facts and work together to pull through the difficulties that face the world at the moment.

And for those of you facing new beginnings in your own lives I wish you also the boldness to step up to the challenge and to take care of yourself in the process.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if, at the end of 2021, we could look back on the year and see it as a time of transformation and feel that we did our best to turn our lives, and the lives of others, around for the better.  Hopeless optimist?  Or possible dream …?

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Rising above blame and shame as we enter 2021

If a partner, friend or colleague points the finger of blame at you, how do you feel?  Does it motivate you and empower you to do better? Maybe, sometimes?  Or does it alienate you, lower your esteem and sense of agency?  Do you sometimes end up finding ways to blame the other person for what you did or didn’t do?  I suspect all of us have done this at least once or twice in our lives…

We seem to have had almost a decade of blame, accusations of offence, or labelling others for things they may not personally have done, nor intended to do.  But in my own experience of life and my work as a business coach, shame, blame and guilt are not great motivators, in fact they tend to divide people rather than bring people together.  Also, while we blame others we do not always take responsibility for our own part in problems or situations.

We have now had years of shaming around political division, social division, Brexit, Tory versus Labour, Republican versus Democrat, XR, BLM, LGBTQ, accusations of cultural appropriation, the mistaken use of a particular word, even shaming against the use of the full stop, which is apparently an aggressive way to sign off texts and causes offence to some.  All these causes matter.  Everyone needs a say, but surely no-one should be silenced or cancelled, unless they are inciting violence.  People certainly can benefit from being enlightened about the true facts of history, as every nation has tended to skew how their history is taught.  Language and behaviour needs to be reviewed in the light of cultural changes but the potential for offence through difference of opinion is part of life.

It always surprises me that much talk is given to diversity policies but that these only seem to be skin deep as when it comes to diversity of opinion there is, it seems to me, extraordinary intolerance.  There has been too much of an emphasis on “my view is the right view” which is basically both divisive and fascist, whether the person speaking it is on the left or the right.

If we are to create a better world in politics, trade, equality of opportunity, diversity, health, education, social cohesion and the environment then we shall need to unite in our efforts.  But if one group points fingers of blame or shame at another group for events or actions that they may not personally have been involved in, then this can alienate and divide rather than motivate people to draw together to act in a united way, focusing on the greater good.

In our work in business, when a leader or manager wanted a team or an individual to take specific action we asked them how that person would need to feel emotionally in order to be motivated to take the action.  For example, if they hadn’t been communicating sufficiently with a client would shame and a wagging finger of criticism help them do this or would empowerment and confidence-building be more likely to help them carry out the task that would most benefit the organisation?  And if empowerment was selected as a motivating force what did the boss need to say and do in order to make that person feel empowered to take the desired action?  This way the responsibility for the action is shared and each has a reason to help the other, working together towards the shared goal.

Or, take another example, if a people-oriented person had failed to fill out administrative spreadsheets that they considered boring, would it motivate them to be shamed for not completing them or would it motivate them more to understand how that form-filling would help others?  And if the latter, then the boss would need to help that person understand how people would benefit from the data in those forms because this would be more likely to get a result.

I have heard people in most countries of the globe criticise their politicians as ‘incompetent’ in how they have managed this covid crisis.  The reality is that there was no magic bullet, no certain science, some countries locked-down, others had curfews, others allowed 3 people to congregate, others allowed 10, some closed schools and shops, others didn’t.  There has been no huge logic or certainty in all this.  But in the process, trust in politicians around the world has diminished.  We certainly need to criticise and analyse the decisions made in our name and yet we don’t have to buy into the endless complaining or self-denigration that this ends up being, do we?  Does that help us feel empowered to move forward for the benefit of all?  Can we accept that mistakes have been made and make every effort to take personal action to remedy the situation – whether this is masks, gloves, hand-washing, self-isolation or vaccination?

When I was helping women in the workplace to feel empowered, it did not help them to succeed for them to continue to believe “it’s a man’s world.  I am invisible. It’s unfair.”  This sets up a body language of defensiveness and victimhood that can have the opposite effect, as it divides that person from others.  It is more helpful for that person to stand tall in their own shoes, remind themselves that they have something to contribute, that they are part of the solution.  It helps that they do not point fingers of blame at others because blaming and shaming alienate.  It helps that they bring into the workplace a sense of confidence that they are seen, are appreciated, are a useful part of the team.  Change occurs through acting ‘as if’ you are already part of the team, part of the solution.

The greater good, in the future, is surely that we pull ourselves out of this Covid crisis through hard work and enterprise.  If Brexit is going to happen, which it is, as the act has been passed, it surely helps no-one, at this point, to fight it because if it is happening then the greater good for oneself, one’s children and grandchildren, and the population in general, is to work together to make it work in the best way possible.  When it comes to equality, the greater good is to enable others to feel equal through individual action and words.

Without a crystal ball no-one can be sure that their view is best, as the future has not yet happened, so might we rise above this tendency to virtue signal, which is a one-up one-down way of communicating and become more curious about why others hold different views?  In my experience there is often more in common in these conversations than one might have imagined.  There have always been divisions in approach between generations and groups but there was less vitriol in the past, I feel, more curiosity.

Research shows that the most creative teams are those who offer diverse knowledge, experience and ways of looking at things.  As Einstein said “we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking we used when we created it”.  We need different perspectives to find solutions to our problems.

For we usually have something to learn from those who think differently from us, don’t we?  I get my best advice from those who think differently to me, for sure.  A nugget here, an insight there, some aspect that had never occurred to me but had occurred to them.

Surely this is how we can create a better world, with less focus on divisive finger-pointing and taking offence and a greater focus on ‘how can we best do this together?’  Because it is in all our benefits.

Happy New Year.  A vaccine is on its way.  A light in this winter darkness.  May 2021 indeed be a better year for us all.

Helen

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What will sustain us?

The Christmas after our divorce, back in 1992, was a time I, and I am sure all of us, dreaded.  My father had died that year, the boys were with their Dad, and I was waking up on Christmas Day alone for the first time in my whole life, aged 42.  I was seeing family for lunch but Christmas morning had always been a time surrounded by family – my parents and siblings for the first 21 years of my life and then husband, kids and Christmas stockings in adulthood.  I wondered how I would sustain myself that morning on my own.

In the end it turned out to be a rather mystical experience.  I made a good breakfast for myself and then took myself into the sitting room and sat beneath my beautiful Christmas tree, with Vivaldi’s Gloria playing on the CD player.  I just sat there for a while, quietly listening to the music and letting my eyes go into gentle focus on the tree and its lights.  Everything seemed to become a little magical and I felt held by the tree, the music, and the presents I then opened from my friends.  I have never forgotten how a moment I dreaded actually became one of the most spiritual experiences of my life, where I felt connected and at one with everything.

It makes me think about how life can surprise us sometimes, and how, in these lockdown days of Coronavirus, we need to find ways to take ourselves out of the worry and into the now, to music, to nature, to the beauty all around us that we so often take for granted.  I still occasionally pretend I am a tourist visiting London for the first time and am always delighted and taken aback with its architecture and elegance, the parks, gardens, landmarks.  Wherever you are, this can be an uplifting experience and you can also take in the trees, birds, the crunch of the leaves on the pavements, the joy of children jumping in puddles as children have over the generations.  Watch children come out of school at the end of a day, sense their excitement about Christmas or a tooth fairy: it’s infectious. 

It’s about opening our eyes to the richness of those things around us.  It can be fun to walk about our home in a similar way – not as if we are seeing it for the first time but that we are remembering where we bought a painting, where we read a book, when we bought a piece of furniture, with whom.  It’s about remembering the fun and treasured memories of our life, the pottery a son made when he was 8, a letter a daughter wrote to you aged 5, a picture painted by a grandchild.  It’s about taking time to stop, remember, appreciate yourself and all those experiences.

When we are alone, or feeling down, it’s too easy to forget all the things one has achieved, small or large, in one’s life.  In our creative writing course we are encouraged to take a piece of paper and spend 10 minutes writing down things we feel proud of, or happy memories, or places we have seen.  And the friends and family who have been and may hopefully remain a part of our lives.

Music is so important, I find.  Listening to Portuguese Fado makes me cry – that’s helpful, as I don’t find it easy to cry and it can spark off the tears that needed to flow about something.  Listening to country and western makes me smile and dance – probably me at my happiest!  I don’t think my sister will mind me sharing that she listens to the Beatles and it reminds her of the happy times of her life with a friend in Paris, then with her late husband, Leo, those carefree moments of youth, and she feels younger, more agile, the years of age slip away.  The delightful thing is my daughter-in-law shares this enjoyment and I have just handed over to her a suitcase full of my Beatles memorabilia (I was a Beatle-maniac!).  Lovely to have it appreciated!

Some spiritual teachers might say this kind of practice feeds the ego but I think we need a little ego, just not too much.  Nothing would get done in the world without some ego.  It’s easy to sit on a mountain top and meditate away one’s ego, far harder to do so in the real world!  In the real world we have to earn money, find something fulfilling to do, make our lives meaningful in some way, and still do the chores.  But we do have to manage our egos, that’s for sure.  It doesn’t help the world if we all become boastful, like President Trump!

And so, I believe we can find a place inside us where that ego feels in harmony with oneself and the world outside, where it is quiet but steady, with a feeling of contentment and a feeling that we belong in this world around us and feel at one with it, which was the state I reached sitting under my Christmas tree that morning back in 1992.

I feel our spiritual leaders have been woefully silent during this coronavirus pandemic.  They could have given people so many words of comfort but I have heard few.  They could have reminded people about gratitude, which helps us so much to notice what we can appreciate in our lives, who does sustain us, who is there for us.  They could have reminded people about forgiveness, as resentment only eats away at the person holding the resentment when the person who did the deed might be living a life blissfully unaware of the hurt they caused.  They could have reminded us of kindness, and how when we carry out an act of kindness we are also being kind to ourselves.  They could have reminded us of trust, trust that “this too will pass” and, where we have little control, then to do what we can but trust that life has good times and bad, always has and always will, and hopefully good times will return.

So whether you are about to spend Christmas alone, or in a different way this year, or are perhaps someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas but does, nonetheless, usually get together with family or friends over this holiday period, slow down your senses, open your eyes to the outside beauty of the world and, at the same time, connect with that quiet inner self deep within and find some peace and sustenance.

Wishing you well…

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Celebrating World Diabetes Day 2020

Dexcom continuous monitor

It’s 100 hundred years since Sir Frederick Banting and his laboratory team discovered insulin and we began to understand how it interacts in the body.  I knew nothing about Diabetes Type 1 until my bright and beautiful granddaughter Emmeline was diagnosed with it aged 8.  It came out of the blue and presented a steep learning curve for her, my son and his wife, and for me as a granny. 

Emmeline, like many other children living with Type 1, is stoical and determined to live her life in the way her other friends do.  Nevertheless, the reality is that her life has been changed by the diagnosis and that she and her parents have to be aware of the level of her blood glucose 24/7.  Keeping her, and the other approximately 29,000 children living with Type 1, within normal blood glucose range takes time and attention.

Her childhood cannot be the same as another child’s as she has to weigh and measure everything that she eats, including any sweetened or fizzy drinks, calculate the carbohydrate content, and adjust the measurement of insulin accordingly.  When she comes to stay, I have to get with the programme in terms of weighing and measuring and monitoring everything to keep her well.  Attention continues into the night, as her levels can raise or dip, and need correction, whatever the hour.  She has to carry her emergency bag of glucose and syringe with her at all times in case of hypos. 

But life for today’s children is vastly improved from the days when a prototype insulin pump was as large as a backpack.  Nowadays an insulin pump will fit into a pocket, like a small mobile phone.  And continuous monitoring is available through technology that keeps check of levels and sends them to a parent’s smartphone so that the parent can be in a business meeting many miles away but can alert the child and their school that a correction needs to be made, or a glucose pill swallowed, to rebalance the level.

And my granddaughter has received brilliant and world-class support from St Mary’s Paddington and the Hammersmith Hospital and JDRF (Junior Diabetes Research Fund) provide a resource of emotional support and information, as well as being the largest non-profit organisation carrying out research into Type 1, its causes, symptoms and treatments.  Their aim is to create a world where Type 1 no longer exists through discovering how to prevent it.

But for now it is not preventable.  There are many misunderstandings about diabetes and the key is the difference between Type 1 and Type 2.  Type 2 is a lifestyle problem.  Type 1 is an auto-immune disease.  This means that it is not due to a child eating the wrong thing or living an unhealthy lifestyle.  It is due to that child or person’s immune system malfunctioning to attack and destroy the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.  Insulin is crucial to life and needs to be managed carefully as otherwise it puts pressures on various areas of the body such as the brain, kidneys, eyes and nervous system.  The management of insulin levels has vastly improved the risks.

I wish the media would be more careful in their reporting of statistics around diabetes, as they often lump both Types together and do not make the distinction between Type 1 and 2 in their reporting.  It is this laziness that perpetuates many of the myths around Type 1 and it’s time they became more knowledgeable about the difference.

The symptoms are significant thirst, needing to go to the loo often, and fatigue.  It takes a parent being on top of this to notice, google and take the child to the doctor.  They often require hospital treatment to rebalance and start the process of finger-pricking, injections and monitoring to achieve normal range levels.

Although today’s technology means that a child’s life is less disturbed than they used to be, there is, nonetheless, a process of loss, both for the child and their parents and, I would say, for the grandparents.  I have personally found it inspiring to watch the courage and fortitude of Emmeline in managing her life with its new preoccupations, and also watching the tender and attentive care of her Mum and Dad in ensuring she has all she needs to keep her well.  And, of course, one has to also remember those with other conditions, who are worse off, and those with Type 1 in other parts of the world who do not have the marvellous support my granddaughter has.

JDRF and other organisations and labs are doing amazing research to try to (a) prevent Type 1 and (b) treat it.  They talk of developing an artificial pancreas, as the pancreas basically stops functioning with Type 1.  I read yesterday of a student at the University of Huddersfield, Tyra Koslow, who has invented a blood glucose monitor for managing type 1 that can be contained within a futuristic-looking earring that resembles a tiny Bluetooth earpiece.  It requires only a normal ear piercing and can pass radio waves through the earlobe to monitor the user’s blood.  I am sure that during Emmeline’s lifetime there will be some amazing progress in technology.

In the meantime, those living with Type 1 will find that even if they do the same thing each day, or eat the same food, their levels are likely to be unpredictable.  They vary according to weather, exercise, temperature, and stress.  Hormones impact levels so there are variations when going through puberty, or, for girls, pre-menstrual or menstrual, as oestrogen levels make the body resistant to insulin.  It can be difficult to control the levels perfectly, for sure, and as a child grows their body and hormones change, so managing the levels is a continuous adjustment according to their needs.

You may know people with Type 1 and not realise they have it, nor understand the demands it places on children, parents and adults to manage their health.  Frank Gardner, the journalist who was disabled by a terrorist bomb, has said on television recently “what people don’t see is all the stuff that we have to deal with beneath the surface”.  He describes it as the ‘iceberg’.  You only see what is shown above the surface in Type 1 but below the surface there will be fingerpricks, injections, input of carbs and calculations, changes of monitor and pump sites. 

Happily now there are people in the public sphere talking of their experience – ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, James Norton the actor, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist who played at Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding, all of whom have the condition.

And so I shall be celebrating World Diabetes Day today in honour of my beautiful and courageous granddaughter, of whom I am incredibly proud.  To show solidarity, on Saturday 14 November, people are being asked to wear blue nail varnish and post photos to raise awareness, so this is what I am doing! 

And if any of you feel like giving any small amount to my Just Giving page for JDRF (Junior Diabetes Research Fund) then of course I shall be thrilled, as every pound or penny helps towards their fantastic research.

But either way, the main thing is to bring you some of the awareness of this condition, of which I knew nothing before Emmeline’s diagnosis in 2019.

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We need to believe in ourselves or we’re sunk

Winter is coming.  We need to bolster ourselves up individually, and as a country, to withstand the challenges we face as a result of the Covid pandemic.  We need to rise above party politics, race, gender and culture to work together to turn our lives and the economy round.  It is in all of our interests to believe in ourselves and the UK.  That is not a nationalistic or populist statement.  It is common sense.  It is about being grateful for the environment in which we live.  It is about noticing what we have in common rather than what divides us, for a divided country is an unhappy country. It is about gathering together to get ourselves out of this mess.

I am so fed up with the endless rhetoric emphasising our failures and divisions.  How does it help any one of us to stress this rather than to draw us together as a group?  News presenters seem to delight in highlighting bad news, where the government has got something wrong, or where they can catch out some politician or spokesperson.  There is a sense of “gotcha” pleasure – but where does it get us?  Perhaps they think it will keep their audiences this way.  Personally, I am not so sure.

I heard someone say recently that “if you create a villain, you start a war.”  With identity politics, race, gender and culture wars we have created far too many perceived villains and are starting far too many wars between us all, that serve little purpose other than to make everyone unhappy.

And unhappiness has consequences.  I have heard of three suicides and an attempted suicide in the last six weeks.  It is totally irresponsible for people of power and influence to be so negative about the UK.  The success of this country benefits every single person who lives here, rich or poor. 

There are constructive ways of analysing and articulating solutions.  Pointing fingers at politicians, scientists, business leaders or others will not get us out of our current problems.  Analysis is productive, negativity is not.   Waiting and expecting all the answers to come from politicians, scientists or others will not bring about any magical solutions.  It is up to us, you, me and every individual in this country to begin to regain a little pride in what it is like to live here, to notice the beauty of the countryside, appreciate the history, culture, architecture, science, innovation, the arts.  You are likely to feel happier as a result and we are far more likely to pull ourselves out of this hole faster if we let go of the tendency to push those with different opinions away, and start to work together. 

Matthew Syed in his article on ecosystems in The Sunday Times this week writes of how a lifetime of observing one ant in a colony would tell you nothing, whereas seeing the colony as a coherent organism that solves problems, demonstrates their powers of problem-solving, building methods of housing, and feeding the group.  He argues that this is the secret of our species too, for the way we create progress is through the complex interplay of people and institutions.  The individual plays a part but it is their interaction with others in their community that achieves change.  Working together is a survival mechanism, for “when we curtail our sociality, we curtail our humanity” and, I would add, our innovation.

Are we really as bad as the media and the chattering classes like to make out?  After all, where is the country that gets everything absolutely right?  There isn’t one.  Every nation and culture has made mistakes in their past and continues to do so.  That’s life.  There’s much criticism of Western values and the way we live here but quite honestly I am horrified by how women are treated in many other areas of the world.  We have fought hard for equality of gender, race, sexual preference and creed and we need to hold on to these rights.  We do not want to walk mindlessly into a world that takes us backwards, by allowing the endless criticism of the way of life here in the UK to blind us to what we have achieved.

Of course, mistakes have been made over Covid-19 but the situation is far too complex to be able to say with any certainty yet which countries actually got things right over Covid.  Whether Labour, LibDem or Conservatives were in power the fact is they would all be getting some things wrong. Politicians around the world have their weaknesses and right now I wouldn’t want to be any one of them, of any party, anywhere.  Countries who locked down early and insisted on masks have nonetheless got second waves too. We know also that there are other countries who, if given a referendum, could well vote to exit the EU.  It is not specifically a British perspective.  There are plenty of other countries that have issues over race. Kemi Badenoch observed that she thought the UK was one of the better countries regarding racial tolerance.  The French-Tunisian comedian Samia Orosemane commented recently that audiences in the UK are more open-minded than in France.  Let’s consider that.

Personally I have travelled to many countries and believe that whilst our democracy and its institutions are not perfect they actually work reasonably well – or did before Covid knocked everything for six.  If it were really so bad why would so many people want to come and live here?  Could it be that people who report being happier in other countries enjoy a media who are not so consistently negative and critical of everything that happens within that country?

We face a rocky road ahead and a competitive one.  I read that Chinese millennials today are feeling confident, assertive and proud of their country.  We can’t afford to allow ourselves to fall into some  helpless-hopeless state.  Without work people lose their way.  They have less structure in their lives, less fulfilment, less social life and support.  We have to get this country up and running again, and the economy prospering, otherwise we shall have many more suicides, depression and poverty.  That would be tragic. We need to lead ourselves away from this future.

Any entrepreneur will tell you that you have to be an optimist to make a company successful.  As a country we now need to learn to be more optimistic again, ditch the self-flagellation and galvanise ourselves into action to take a few risks, return to work, start new enterprises.  Don’t buy into the criticism and negativity.  It is up to us, our aspiration and our effort.

I have been re-reading a book by Dr Joseph Murphy called The Power of the Subconscious Mind.  In it the author argues that it is essential to feed one’s subconscious with the positive images and thoughts of the goals one wants to achieve.  Our thoughts are like seeds being planted in the soil of the future and if we plant negative ideas that is what we shall reap.  He also describes the conscious mind as being the captain of the ship, telling the subconscious what to do, where to go.  I have witnessed this in my work.  It works, for without a sense of direction we wallow in confusion and go round in circles.  We need a vision to strive towards.

Gratitude goes a long way in this endeavour.  Let’s notice and talk about what is working rather than what isn’t. Let’s not create villains or victims.  It doesn’t help us feel good or become economically prosperous.    We need to think, talk and describe the potential of the UK in positive terms.  We need to get out of the habit of talking critically about everything that happens here.  It isn’t about pretending there isn’t room for improvement.  Of course there is.  But we must see that there is a way to cooperate and make things better.

So let’s give ourselves a break!  In every country there are those who suffer and those who thrive.  To enable more people to thrive, here and around the world, where others with less support than we have and depend on our success, we have to unite and believe in ourselves.

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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.

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