Let’s get just a tad busier again …

Let’s get just a tad busier again …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How the years roll by

A very long time ago!

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

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

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

I still have my collection of Beatle mania!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep well.

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The past is another country; they do things differently there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[quote from L P Hartley The Go-Between]

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What might the Coronavirus pandemic be doing to our brains?

‘Use it or lose’ it is the key message we receive about keeping our brain on top form.  So how will these weeks of screen-based experience affect our neuronal circuits?  We are social animals and yet now, for the most part, are carrying out both family and work engagements online.  Well, thank heaven, as even five years ago I don’t suppose we would have had the technology to keep companies and teams working together on projects in quite the efficient way that they can today.  And yet it is just not the same thing, is it?

A friend of mine who lives alone wrote poignantly this week “it aches having no touch of human flesh” and that is the crux isn’t it.  Touch is a basic human need.  Babies who do not receive loving touch can die, so without it we can wither.  In many homes across the world isolated people are aching for human contact beyond the screen and there are weeks of loneliness stretching ahead of them.  There’s a silence of battling along through the longing.

And I wonder what it is doing to children’s brains, not to interact with their friends and peer group in the real world?  The tussle of the playground and classroom are where we build our identities and come to understand why we get along with one group of friends and not with another.  We then build our close networks of support – tribes, or however you like to describe them.  Chatting online to friends is simply not the same as the rough and tumble of school life, especially as young children are not always adept at phone conversation.

Teenage years are when the brain goes through radical change, trimming away at neural pathways that are no longer needed and building new ones, as new information and events occur in the young person’s life.  For girls particularly, the rich chatter of girlfriends is key to building a sense of self and also of support.  It’s a time to share experiences of growing up, first bras, first periods, confidences, fears and excitements.  Social media, as we have learnt, can be both wonderful and terrible, a great source of support and fellowship but also a hell of bitchiness and vitriol.  How much harder to navigate this when one is not actually seeing one’s close friends in the flesh but sitting alone in a room, isolated.  However much one might receive love from parents, it is not the same thing as that camaraderie of friends.

The brain has plasticity, which means it physically changes according to the tasks we give it.  It is well known that London black cab drivers have a larger network of neurons around the area for spatial awareness.  But should they change career, so their brain will adapt and change, as all our brains do.

So what will these weeks of screen do to developing brains, I wonder?  We already hear of the tendency for teenage boys to isolate themselves in their rooms to play endless screen-based games.  In Japan this phenomenon is known as hikikomori and over half a million young people, boys in particular, have been identified as shunning social contact.  Studies in Japan, South Korea and Spain have found a link with internet addiction.  This kind of pattern could too easily develop as habit in many teenage boys across the world now, as sports and other companionable activities are closed to them.  Making boundaries around screen time will become all the more important.

We have been reading the neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield’s essay “You and Me: The Neuroscience of Identity” published by Notting Hill Editions, in which she investigates what happens in the brain as we build a sense of identity.  She is interested in consciousness and how much develops unconsciously from our environment but she also describes her observations on how screen-based activities shape our brains, just as any other activity does so, but potentially differently in the two-dimensional world.

In the context of Coronavirus, for example, if young people spend six hours a day in home-schooling compared to face-to-face school learning, how might that alter the way the brain adapts to the information it receives?  The majority of information enters us through our five senses and, in a classroom, a child is hearing other people, sensing their physical presence, listening to a teacher impart knowledge, asking and answering questions, feeling their body on a chair, perhaps exchanging glances or smiles with others in the room, maybe tasting a glass of water and I suspect we can all remember a sense of the smell of the schoolroom?  In my case I can remember the sounds of the playground, echoing hallways, teachers’ whistles, the ghastliness of Bronco toilet paper and an all-pervasive smell of over-boiled cabbage!  Screen-based learning is better than nothing but certainly is not the same holistic experience, which I would prefer any day, cabbage and all.

As a business trainer I know that everyone in a room gained so much from the live interaction of a workshop environment, information shared by me but also knowledge and experience shared one to another, quite often in the form of jokes or amusing stories.  So much learning was gained in the room, and there are plenty of studies to demonstrate that the more senses that are used in education the better the memory of that information.

But the other problem about screen-based activities is that there can be objectification, particularly in games where so often the violence implicit within the game would be totally unacceptable in real life.  Yet because it is on screen there is a detachment from empathy and a focus on the often brutal and cold result of winning, activating the dopamine and serotonin systems that also play a part in addictive behaviours.  The fast pace of these games and activities could be a reason for an increase in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as the young brain is exposed so frequently to a world of fast action-reaction.  The kind of books my generation read as children are now regarded as far too slow and boring!

Unlike in real life, these games do not have a consequence in the real world, so it is easier to detach from any sense of reality.  A study of 1400 college students in the USA a few years ago showed a decline in empathy over the last thirty years, with a particularly sharp drop in the last decade.  Studies have not so far showed any direct causal link but it doesn’t take a lot to realise that two-dimensional screen time will inevitably be rewiring the brains of our young and it is wise to keep an eye on how they develop their social skills in the real world.

This is not in any way intended as any kind of rejection of technology.  It is absolutely marvellous – within boundaries.  I have been using Zoom for meetings and it works very well, though I am aware that for those who are shy or awkward it can make people feel ‘on the spot’ in a way that sitting around a meeting table does not.  Yes, many working people will continue to work remotely after this is over but I also know many others who directly miss the creativity and shared problem-solving that you experience when you are in the same office as team members, colleagues and clients.

FaceTime and Skype are marvellous inventions to keep families who are separate in touch and see the faces of children and grandchildren but I long to be in the room with those grandchildren and be able to giggle with them and hug them again.  I have two friends who have recently become grandmothers and are aching to hold their new grandchildren.  Then there are other grandparents I know who simply can’t manage the technology and so miss out. And this is not to mention those having babies in these circumstances who may not be able to have husbands or partners with them. Nor the heart-breaking end of those dying in hospital or care homes without the comfort of a loving hand.

And it isn’t just relationships.  Other factors feed our minds and souls.  Theatres, movies, concerts are cancelled.  And so again, the technology comes up with brilliant methods to screen live performances of National Theatre plays, Met operas, classical and pop concerts.  It is marvellous … and yet it is just not the same as being there.

As Darwin pointed out, as a species we survive by adapting.  And adapting we are.  I thank God for the techie brains that can create and develop this amazing software that keeps us in touch and keeps us learning.  I also thank God that our brains can adapt with care, thought and compassion in this current situation as I see and experience an inspiring number of acts of kindness and consideration.  Under the surface of our courage there is fear, pain and longing and this, also, will be building patterns of neural circuitry. We are complex creatures stirred by thought, spirituality and emotion.  All can be a source of comfort.  So let’s embrace technology but at the same time remember that our human links to others are precious and essential to our wellbeing.

Just as our brains are now adapting to screen-based communication, we shall need to consciously reboot them back into face-to-face contact once this pandemic is over. And, just like if we don’t speak French for some time we get rusty, this may take more focused effort both for we adults and for our young.  But how great will that be!  Keep well.

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Life in the Days of Lockdown

I wake up with a sense of disbelief every morning.  I have to pinch myself to remember that we are indeed living in this dystopian nightmare of a global Coronavirus lockdown.  That it’s really true that all the huge and beautiful major cities of the world are empty, that office buildings are vacated, that planes are grounded, restaurants and cafes closed, that people are at home and discombobulated in their efforts to pretend that life has some kind of normality.

I never did enjoy dystopian novels or movies.  No way would I watch the Handmaid’s Tale.  But I can’t escape this one, can I?

This week our creative writing class shared pieces on ‘The Invisible Enemy’.  The pieces written were poignant and thought-provoking and raised to my consciousness some of the fears and emotions I had been trying to keep at bay.  Would I survive?  Would my loved ones survive? How would our health service cope?  What will the impact of this economic shock be on my sons and grandchildren and my extended family?  Every day I think of my nieces, nephews, too, and wonder about the impact on their lives today and into the future.

And imagine if one was in a care home or heading towards the end of one’s life, one might be wondering, quite legitimately, whether one would ever see one’s children or grandchildren again, especially if they live the other side of the world.  People are quick to be judgmental about air travel but forget how essential it is when close family live far away.  Few of us would wish to be separated or unable to see our loved ones.

These existential concerns are very real and sadly they haven’t been created by Hollywood.  We can’t just switch them off.  They have been created by unhygienic practices in a Wuhan market and it’s pretty depressing to listen to a representative of the Chinese Government on the radio telling us what a wonderful job they have done collaborating with the WHO.  I am far more interested in them taking responsibility for the part that their lack of regulations has done in bringing the rest of the world to a standstill and in the premature deaths of thousands of people.  I would like to hear them say they will take control and alter these practices in future and be more aware of their responsibility for the wellbeing not only of their own citizens but also the wellbeing of the world’s population and economy.

Another theme of this situation is those who see it as a ‘message’.  That somehow this event is here to tell us something about the way we live.  Well I am not a believer in magical thinking, that there is some deity or force in the sky pointing fingers at us.  But it is human nature to try to make meaning out of events, so it is hardly surprising that people are doing this.  And that’s fine, as long as they realise that their own interpretation is just that.  It is a narrative they are telling themselves and not some universal truth or message from above.

In this message I have heard on Facebook that we should now turn away from industry and capitalism and read books.  A nice idea but it doesn’t feed us.  I think we need to be careful of idealistic anti-materialism when in fact the last decades have raised so many millions out of poverty worldwide.  Do we really want them to go back to hunger?  I watch the workers in India struggling to get on trains and coaches at Modi’s behest and worry, as they do, that they are about to experience extraordinary hardship.  We need to be careful that our idealism doesn’t throw huge swathes of the world’s population backwards into destitution.  The world has relied on India for technology, help desks and more.  Their welfare system is not capable of protecting them any more than I suspect is Africa’s. Let’s look after the planet, question greed, but tread carefully to ensure that we don’t make others suffer too much in the process.

We are now in the hands of the scientists and medics who are doing the detective work and analysis of Covid-19.  They are trying to improve testing and create an antibody test.  This latter is the one I am waiting for but I shall be thoroughly fed up if I discover that, having been sick for over a fortnight, I have not, in the process, built up useful antibodies to Covid-19.  Then we shall hope for a vaccine.  And let’s applaud the marvellous scientists who over the last centuries have saved so many lives with the vaccinations they developed.  Our great-grandparents’ generation were not so lucky.

And so how does our idea of ourself change on the inside when the world changes on the outside?  Is there some subtle shift of identity when we can no longer live life the way we did before, no longer see and hug our families, go to galleries or museums, pump iron at the gym, eat at nice restaurants?  For sure we are thrown back on our own resources and no-one more so than those who live alone.  The prospect of weeks ahead with no visitors is surely a kind of torture for most people but particularly those who are alone.  They will require depths of resource in order to thrive in solitude.  Thank heaven for technology!  Even ten years ago we would not have had the access we do to teams and conference calls and house parties.

I think the stillness does invite us to go inwards, if we are brave enough to allow ourselves to do so.  It has been so easy, in this brilliant creative and innovative world of the twenty-first century, to amuse ourselves endlessly with external activities.  Children have never been so entertained or social, and nor have we as adults.  As the world stops, so we are thrown back on ourselves and I suspect it will release aspects of our creativity we may not have known we had.

I wonder how the world will change as we come out of this shutdown.  What will be lasting changes and what shall we soon forget in the years to come.  One thing I have personally learnt is that the love of and for one’s children runs even more deeply than I had imagined, both ways.  Secondly, the kindness of neighbours – food, newspapers, medicines, jigsaw puzzles and colouring pads presented generously to us on our doorstep to keep us from going mad or hungry!

And with that thought in mind one of those kind neighbours has given us a 500 piece double-sided jigsaw puzzle of identical plants… think of us!  I shall let you know how we get on and hopefully it will keep us sane.  In the meantime, keep well and as happy as you can.  The blossom is telling us it is spring, the green shoots on the trees are budding and the landscape outside the window is ever-changing.  Even in a lockdown, nature bursts forth.

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If this is coronavirus it’s no fun

It’s day 10 of feeling totally pole-axed.  I have never experienced such utter fatigue in my life before.  But of course they are not testing you, unless you are Prince Charles or some celebrity, so I don’t know if I have Covid-19 or not.  But I suspect I have.

It started with a cough and a relatively mild set of symptoms.  After a few days I started to feel aches in my joints and muscles and my temperature went up.  At that stage, though, I felt well enough to potter about the house, call friends and family, and do the ironing.

It was last Sunday when things turned for the worse with my temperature going up further, shivers, coughing, aches and dizziness.  But I don’t mean sick enough for me to go to hospital.  No, just to feel totally isolated from any kind of medical help because 111, whom we had phoned when David showed his first symptoms, told us just to stay at home.  Then when I tried to call just to check out my own worsening symptoms, I hung on for nearly 2 hours but gave up.  Our GP surgery just refers us to 111 so there is no back-up.  This leaves one feeling alone in more ways than one, with far less medical support than one would normally have.  I don’t envy those who have conditions that need attention.

But of course I see that it is those who have major breathing difficulties who must get priority.  The rest of us who are merely staggering from bed to bathroom with no energy even to even pick up the phone to a friend, must wait to get better.  Hopefully.  And I am one of the lucky ones as I have a doctor in the house.  He can’t cure my symptoms but he does a good job of bringing me soup and cups of tea. My heart goes out to those in the NHS caring for the critically sick.

What has been marvellous, though, has been the kindness and care of our sons.  We have six between us!  Every day there is a call asking for a progress report on our symptoms, how we are doing, whether we have enough food, whether we are going nuts yet.  As a parent it is such a special feeling to experience the tide turning as the young look after us and ensure our wellbeing.

When the self-isolation factor first started to hit home I felt incredibly sad.  My son called and I sobbed down the line about how much I would miss my lovely cosy times with them and with the grandchildren, the school runs, the bath times, the outings, the sleepovers.  Patiently and kindly he talked me through it “Mum we want you there for their 16th birthdays… this is just a few weeks.  Try to think long-term.”  It’s lovely to feel that they really don’t want us to peg out, even though several of my own generation feel we would sacrifice our own lives for the financial wellbeing of our offspring.

Atal Guwande in his book Being Mortal said that it helps to have daughters as one gets older.  I feel much comforted by the care our sons have shown us in these last few days, including delightful bouquets for Mother’s Day, dropping off soup and bread and tasty delights on our doorstep.  Daily calls and FaceTime with the children.  It’s like receiving a giant hug from both our families.

Neighbours also have been extraordinarily kind and generous.  Our immediate neighbour dropped off homemade pasta sauce, muffins and fruit, another friend some delicious cake, other friends ask frequently whether we need any provisions at the shops.  We are blessed to live in Layton Place where there is such a strong sense of community.

Luckily Ocado has delivered for us and will be doing so again this Friday.  Not sure how it will go after that as when they first started their online queuing system, I would find myself at the end of a queue of 6500 but when I looked today the queue was 27,500!  But hopefully some of those people who have been laid off in the hospitality industry can now be redeployed to help with deliveries.

It is those who live alone who most concern me.  It takes a lot of determination and creativity to amuse oneself and not allow spirits to drop into despondency and loneliness.  I hope friends and family will keep calling them as we are, indeed, so very unfamiliar with our own company in a world where we have been able to pop out for a coffee, a sandwich, a walk, a gallery, a movie… and now we have none of those things to call on.

I thought David and I might amuse ourselves with a jigsaw puzzle – little did I realize that most of the jigsaw puzzles on Amazon would already be sold out.  Great minds!  I just long to have enough energy even to do a bit of adult colouring.  Right now I can do nothing but sleep and cough.

The annoying thing is that I had just joined the Vitality Health policy which includes incentives to keep fit via points towards an Apple watch, special discounts at Virgin Active.  For the first time since we moved to Kew I was really enjoying going to Virgin Active in Chiswick Park and working out and swimming.  And now I am ill and can hardly move.  How frustrating.  However, as this bug removes all hint of an appetite then at least I should not be putting on weight.  Hopefully once it lifts David and I will be able to revert to some home exercising.

I may feel sorry for myself right now because I am ill but it is the young I really worry about.  Their careers and financial wellbeing have been thrown into complete disarray as the world comes to a halt.  Thank heaven for technology and all it can do to keep companies operational, for teams to continue to meet online and carry out their work remotely.   We shall need everyone to be ready to get up and running again once this period is over.

I wonder how my grandchildren will remember this time.  They are used to such an active life of friends and activities in comparison to our own childhood.  And I certainly don’t envy parents trying to encourage their children to sit down and home school.  What a task! 

We shall get through it all, no doubt, but there will be loss and tragedy in the midst of survival.  And we shall be changed at the end of it.  It makes our world even smaller and more integrated.  Now, as well as a butterfly flapping its wing in Brazil potentially causing a hurricane in Florida, we shall also have to watch out for unsavoury practices in any small market of the world and be aware that it could wipe us all out.  Each one of us as individuals holds a responsibility for the wellbeing of others throughout the world.  We shall, I think, learn more about global love, compassion and care, hopefully. And about grit and determination.  And probably creativity.  Keep well everyone.

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Should we keep calm and carry on?

David has been ill over the last few days with a temperature and a bit of a cough.  We called 111 and they say that those with mild symptoms are not being tested, so we don’t know if he has Coronavirus or just a winter bug. 

It makes sense to me that the NHS should not be swamped by people suffering from mild symptoms.  Nor should A&E departments be inundated by the worried reasonably-well.  The time to act is when symptoms are severe.  Other policies taken by countries responding to the Coronavirus make less sense to me.

I had an email from a friend in Montreal yesterday saying that she and her nearly 80-year old husband are taking care of their grandchildren every day now because the Montreal schools are closed.  However much they love their grandchildren, they are exhausted!  You have children at a younger age for a good reason – we have less energy as we age.  Asking elderly grandparents (the ones most at risk), to take care of their grandchildren doesn’t make much sense to me. 

I don’t see the point of closing schools when parents would have to take time out of work to take care of them.  We need working-age adults to continue working.  School closures will cost this country billions and would also play with young people’s futures.  After all, it is peak time for GCSE and A level revision, for degree exams.  These exams are of key importance to future careers and university entry.  Talk of sending children home for four months is putting a huge amount of pressure on already anxious young people.  The majority of the young and middle-aged who get the virus only experience mild symptoms

I do worry that measures that bring the global economy to a standstill will result in far greater damage to an even larger number of people than the virus will affect.  If major companies, and global airlines like British Airways, SAS and Virgin, are near collapse, this will be the experience of businesses worldwide.  Thousands of people could lose their jobs.  That means no National Insurance, no PAYE, no VAT winging its way into government coffers.  In fact, the opposite.  Governments are making extraordinary promises to compensate small and large businesses for their losses and will then potentially end up with large numbers of people on benefits.  How can they make these promises when the potential sums involved are so huge?  And what is the human cost of allowing companies to go broke?  Many more people living in poverty, which has its own health risks.

It makes sense to me to keep younger and middle-aged adults working.  How else are shelves going to be stacked with medicines and food, how else are public services going to function, banks going to care for our money, pension companies protect our savings, insurance companies continue to cover risk, factories going to provide us with necessities?  In a complete lock-down nothing gets made, nothing gets distributed, supplies dry up.  Surely many more people are going to die from lack, and those who have chronic illnesses or are receiving other medical treatment are going to be unable to receive help?

Coronavirus is an old people’s illness.  It has apparently been nicknamed the “boomer remover”.  Well great, as a Baby Boomer myself that doesn’t exactly cheer me up, inevitably.  Much as I dislike the thought, I can see that there is some sense in asking the over 70s to self-isolate.  After all it is us who are most at risk, specifically those over 65 with underlying health conditions.  But four months?  This seems excessive. 

We Boomers have never been a particularly compliant generation and I do wonder how this will impact our mental health.   What will governments do when we all go stir-crazy, stuck with our own company?  For those living alone, to be forced to isolate can cause desolation and loneliness.  For those in care homes not to receive visitors is like torture, and several care residents have written to say they would rather die earlier than be forced to end their days without seeing their families.  Maybe it’s a strategy.  After all, if we kill ourselves, or those with whom we are confined to barracks, it will relieve the need for our social care! 

On the other hand, I do question why Italy, Spain and other countries are in such severe lock-down, preventing the younger generations going to work, children stuck at home away from friends, parents cooped up with irritable teenagers.  Locking we oldies up does make more sense to me than stopping the world and jeopardising hundreds of thousands of people’s businesses, livelihoods and incomes.  And at least we can finally clear out the garage, and deal with that enormous pile of filing that has been sitting there for two years.  But then what …?

To keep people indoors is going to require a great deal of bureaucracy.  Who will decide whether a trip to the shops or to a relative is valid?  How on earth will the already stretched police force monitor movement?  Will we get visas to travel to the next street or town?  It will surely require a huge amount of administration. 

It seems the question of whether we can build herd immunity for the future is unproven, as is so much about the Coronavirus.  It is only a few months since the first case, and no-one really knows precisely what will happen.  Will those quarantined go on to get it later?  Will those who have suffered from Covid-19 now have immunity?  In a world where people travel all the time it will probably be well into 2021 before we can understand the statistics and know which policy really worked best. 

I am not in Government, thank heaven, having to make these very difficult decisions.  I listen to the  epidemiologists and respect their diverse opinions, but the decisions that are having to be made go way beyond public health.  The impact on the economy, on supplies of food and medicine, on infrastructure, transport, on people’s families and friendship support systems, all need to be taken into consideration and all, ultimately, influence our health and wellbeing in both the short and long-term. 

A university professor advised that the government should treat the population as adults.  That those who are vulnerable can choose not to travel on public transport, go to the theatre or to a football match.  That those who are vulnerable can choose to stay at home or work from home and self-isolate.  Individually we need to step up and act considerately and responsibly. Sadly, of course, not all of us behave like adults, as we have seen from the bulk-buying of toilet paper etc. 

The Government must listen to its advisors, and issue regulations that we are not necessarily going to like.  I wouldn’t wish to be Boris Johnson or any other leader right now.  He is under pressure to change tack as UK policies are out of line with the rest of the world.  Personally, I am not convinced by the world-in-complete-lockdown strategy.  The trouble is that politicians need to be seen to act and I just hope that if he changes the approach, he doesn’t bend to pressure for purely political reasons.  We shall see.

In the meantime, wherever you are, I hope you keep well.

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Stop talking, just listen!

Walking down memory lane

This is what a friend of mine told me when he introduced me to Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata.  It takes quite a bit to shut me up but I did what I was told and shall be forever grateful.  For listening, truly listening, is an art and a focus of sensory attention that transports one into a far deeper place.  I had always found Wagner difficult to enjoy but another friend explained how to listen beyond the voices and again it transformed my experience of hearing it.  I shall always remember listening to Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto, followed by Thomas Tallis’ sacred choral music, in the quiet of a room overlooking the sea, and an evening when a jazz pianist played me Debussy’s Clair de Lune on his grand piano.  There are some moments one never forgets and I think I have been fortunate to have friends who taught me to stop talking and just listen!

We have become so used to muzak, hearing it in lifts and shops.  I remember what I used to call “aircraft landing music” that was piped through the speakers on take-off and landing.  A ghastly tinny sound designed to calm us down.  Nowadays we play music on hifi, iPhones, Alexa or Sonos but people tend to have it playing on in the background rather than really hearing it.  In previous eras, without such technology, people played live music to a small audience of family and friends after dinner.  All that has changed and unless one is at a concert it is too easy, in my experience, to only half-hear the subtleties and complexities of a piece.

Why am I thinking about this?  Because I have been reading a book called The Music Store by Rachel Joyce, who wrote The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  This is another quirky and whimsical book that has deep undertones of emotion, relationships and human responses to life’s challenges.  It features a man who runs a music store stocked only with vinyl records.  He has a gift for intuitively knowing what piece of music a customer needs to hear – a little like the concept of prescribing a poem to heal an illness, whether emotional or physical.

Funnily enough this reminded me of a period of my life when I used to wake up in the mornings with a different song in my head that seemed to be giving me a message about which direction to go in my life, what to do.  It was rather like a psychic juke box and often would give me a wise intuitive message.  Sounds weird, I know, but it did happen.  After all, the unconscious works in mysterious ways!

And so, as I have travelled over the last fortnight through some childhood haunts in Portugal and then on to sunny Marrakesh I have been allowing my mind to wander over the pieces of music that have changed me or marked a moment of my life.  I shall share with you some of my musical moments in case your mind might wander back and be stirred to do the same…

The songs of our childhood

The songs my mother used to sing around the house were influenced, certainly, by our years living in Estoril.  “Uma casa Portuguesa” sang my Mama, along with her records of Amalia Rodrigues, queen of the Fado, which skips between mournful and joyful with little in between.  Not everyone’s taste, I know, but, being sentimental souls, the moment either my sister or I hear the first chords we start to cry.  I heard Amalia Rodrigues once, in the Algarve, many years later and had tears running down my cheeks all evening as it reminded me of my parents and their happy times in Portugal and their sadness at leaving to return to England.

My mother would also sing Oh my Papa, Somewhere over the Rainbow and Oh my darling Clementine.  I find it interesting that although she suffered from a nervous breakdown for several years of my childhood my abiding memory of our home was of her singing as she cooked or tidied.  My sister remembers her singing Put another Nickel in … Music, Music, Music.  With my father it was Nat King Cole, or the Missa Criolla which used to bring tears to his eyes. I wonder what songs your parents sang or played? 

I am reminded of my brother when I hear the Searchers’ Needles and Pins as he used to sing it around the house when we were in our early teens, emphasizing the Needles and Pins-a.  And I remember him playing a record over and over on the turntable in his bedroom when he first fell in love in his teens.  Well, I expect we have all been there, haven’t we?

The 60s and onwards

My first 45rpm was Little White Bull by Tommy Steele bought with my pocket money when I was about 9 years old.  The second was Rawhide.  I had a crush on Clint Eastwood! But I quickly followed my older sister into Elvis Presley, Billy Fury, Dusty Springfield and later, when she returned from a few months in Madrid, to Spanish, Mexican, French café songs and Tom Lehrer.  Until we both found the Beatles of course and my proud claim to fame is that I was number 36 of the Beatles fan club aged about 12 years old – ah, what a talent-spotter!  I saw them live at the Finsbury Park Astoria in January 1964 – couldn’t hear a word of the music but it was so exciting. Then ran away to see the Rolling Stones in Weymouth.  Never to be forgotten.

The 60s was full of fabulous songs.  When I imagine being on Desert Island Discs I try to pick out what I would choose and What a Day for a Daydream and Waterloo Sunset would have to be included.  It was such an amazing time for music.  It would be incredibly difficult to choose just 8 pieces of music and have space to include the classical and sacred too.

The minute you hear a tune you are right back where you first heard it.  Perhaps a first holiday or disco.  That makes me think of Creedance Clearwater Revival playing in a disco on my first holiday with a girlfriend to the Algarve when I was 18.  Music is so evocative.  I can still picture the place and the feeling.

I went to a very musical school, Cranborne Chase in Wiltshire.  Harrison Birtwhistle was our musical director.  Of course he then went on to great things but my recollection of him was putting on some music for our school orchestra to play which consisted (in my ignorant head anyway) of clashing chords followed by silence followed by more clashing chords.  Sorry, Sir Harrison, as he is now, I am afraid your compositions went right over my head.  I tended to look forward to nights in the dormitory listening to Radio Luxembourg or Radio Caroline under the pillow, philistine that I am!

Where the music takes you

Music can take you to joy or to tears.  Whenever I hear Roberta Flack’s Killing me Softly with his Song I am reminded of a broken heart.  Your Song by Elton John reminds me of getting married in 1971.  Did you have a tune you both sang?  Shortly after our son Daniel died of a cot death in 1976 a good friend took me to see A Little Night Music and I sobbed my heart out to Send in the Clowns.  Then Elton John sang “Daniel”.

Classical music paints pictures in my mind, transporting me to imagined landscapes that are not only visual but also emotional.

The words never die

I am rather horrified by how many pathetic lyrics I can remember in my head.  If only my addled brain could remember as many relevant and current facts, figures, names and dates instead!  But no, I have the lyrics of almost every single pop song I ever sang along to, stored in some neural pathway or other so whether it was the 1950s or the 60s, 70s or later I can still sing along to Magic FM or my Spotify Playlists. 

I hate the sound and lyrics of rap, hip-hop.  Drill music fills me with fear.  These seem alien to me, somehow so different to the seeming innocence of the songs of my youth.  And children’s programmes are frenetic – worlds apart from dear old Uncle Mac and the Teddy Bears Picnic!  However, I can still sing along to the nursery rhymes I heard on Children’s Favourites and my grandchildren seem to tolerate my efforts.

I do still remember the words, also, to all those hymns, carols, prayers and psalms we sang at school and beyond.  I love sacred music – Allegri’s Miserere, Vivaldi’s Gloria take me to a spiritual place somewhere inside.  I have requested that these to be played to me in my last days, whenever that may be.  And then there’s the music of nature – birds, wind in the trees, rain on the grass.

Music to enjoy as we get older

Nowadays I love songs like I’m Still Standing by Elton John or Let it Be from Frozen as they remind me of times with my grandchildren, singing along or dancing whilst sharing a holiday with them. 

T’Pau’s China in my Hand reminds me of my older son going to his first pop concert at Wembley aged about 12.  My younger son enjoyed Bon Jovi as a teenager.  Later we ended up, my two sons and I, at the Hotel California in Mexico – another of our favourite songs.

As I get older I like to play Brian Adams’ The Summer of ‘69 as that reminds me of being 19 and full of youthful optimism.  I still can’t sit still and hear that song.  I have to get up and dance. 

I have just enjoyed one of the best evenings of my life at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville listening to country music.  David and I saw Leonard Cohen on his last tour.  It was an outdoor venue, the Mercedes centre in Surrey, and it poured all night but he sang his heart out and the band were eclectic and brilliant.  We had rain dripping down our faces but Leonard kept on singing.  Dance me to the End of Love is our song.

So keep playing those old records that make you feel young – the medics have proven that it is good for us.  But we don’t need them to tell us that, do we?!

All this inspired by reading this book The Music Store.  So thankyou Rachel Joyce!  Over nearly 70 years there have been endless moments of music but I hope this might have taken you back, maybe reminded you to stop talking, listen more, and remember which songs and pieces of music have made a difference in your lives. Or made you think that you might encourage a partner, child or grandchild to delve into the wonders of silently listening to music – whether it’s Beethoven or Taylor Swift.   I would love to hear your experiences of music if you feel like writing to me about them…

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The stories we tell ourselves

As humans we define ourselves and our lives by the stories we tell ourselves.  But those stories are often constructed from a faulty memory and aren’t always true.  They can be helpful or unhelpful.  For example, I used to say “I had a really happy childhood” and I think I did, in the main.  But then friends would point out that it can’t have been that easy, necessarily, to move from sunny Portugal to the grey North of England when I was 4, change schools frequently, nor can it have been easy that my mother had a depression for several years.  So how happy was my childhood really, I wonder?  Was it a story or the truth?

Thinking about it now, I believe that this story was, in fact, quite a helpful one to me.  Whether by nature or nurture I am someone who prefers to look on the bright side of life and if I embellished a little of my happiness in early years then I think this has been more useful than me dwelling on all the aspects of life that were missing or could have been better.

On the other hand, creating a fantasy can just equal a denial of reality, so I am grateful to those friends who made me delve a little deeper into my feelings about my past and helped me to put it in context. 

The stories we hear from our parents can shape our sense of ourselves should they categorise us as siblings.  My older sister was always referred to as “the intelligent one”, my brother mad about cricket and me mad about ponies.  It’s too easy for parents to label siblings in ways that box them into a story that may simply reflect a passing phase.  But those stories one picks up from parents about religion, politics, the way things should or should not be done, linger on into our adult years.  I suspect I am not alone in catching myself checking whether I am still, years after their deaths, trying to gain my parents’ approval!  And, therefore, I continue to re-define what was fact and what was opinion, what was theirs and what is mine. 

There was a period in the 80s and 90s when therapists tended to focus their clients’ attention on what was wrong in their childhood, to find something to be angry about or someone to whom to direct blame.  Whilst it is helpful to understand one’s childhood patterns, I fear this has led to the tendency to focus on the negative, the sense of victimhood and offence that we witness today.  Being a victim of an event or experience deserves compassion and understanding.  But it can disempower us and will not change whatever experience we have had in our past.  How can we change or right wrongs for ourselves or others if we continue to adopt a helpless-hopeless perspective?  And we need to be honest with ourselves that adopting the role of victim does have a pay-off in that it may well gain us special attention.  It can also mean that others treat us more gently.  But it may silence those around us from speaking the truth, which may be less helpful.

The habit I notice when listening to stories on the radio recently is the way people begin their sentences with “as a single mother”, “as a black person”, “as a trans…” “as someone from a poor background” and I wonder what their purpose is in mentioning these statements.  Are they asking for special treatment?  Or are they proud of the way they are identifying themselves?  It’s a question.

I have been wondering what stories Harry and Meghan have been telling themselves.  It seems they have decided that the world is against them in the UK, that the grass is greener and quieter in Canada, although I gather they are already encountering paparazzi in the woods around their house.  It’s a valid decision, of course, though I feel it is a shame.  A few unpleasant media stories or tweets do not add up to the opinion of a whole country.  If politicians, celebrities or journalists took the trolls and criticism too seriously we would silence a whole population.

Harry has done such good work with his Invictus and other projects, Meghan was welcomed and, as an intelligent, articulate, successful and beautiful woman could have been an amazing role model for black, mixed-race and ethnic women growing up in the UK.  She could have done so much to aid integration in our country, which, when you look at the far-right movements developing across Europe and the world, is, after all, a pretty tolerant place.  And so I wish they had told themselves a different story.

As I enter my 70th year, I become aware of the stories I have been telling myself about ageing. I listen to the stories my friends are describing of what it means to get older and be reminded on a daily basis that one’s body is not what it was!  I remember how, when I was in my early 40s and much slimmer than I am now, I decided I was too old to wear jeans.  Where did that come from?  I chose to open a new chapter and still happily wear jeans today.

There have been times when I have felt older than I do today, despite a younger body.  That has reminded me that age is, in fact, a number and the stories we tell ourselves about what it might be like to reach a particular age can often be totally inaccurate.  We have a delightful neighbour, Jack, of 90 who is lively and great company and looks about 70 years old. I am a colleague of Shirley Conran and, in her 88th year, she is still full of life, ideas and energy.  And so I am having to re-adjust my expectations and associations of age and be open to the possibility (but not certainty) that it could be better than I had feared.

The stories we tell ourselves shape our daily existence, our mental and physical health. We need constantly to reflect on what scripts are running through our minds, stop and check whether they originated in our own hearts and minds or elsewhere, and whether they are useful or damaging.

I heard a few examples this week that made me think further about this:

When discussing a rugby player who had sadly died young, his team were putting on a match, saying “it’s what he would have wanted”.  Of course, they don’t know what he would have wanted but it was a useful story as it brought the team together to comfort one another and to celebrate their lost friend.

The son of a friend of mine who had recently started a new job had an accident and broke both elbows.  He comforted himself by saying it was a sign that he needed thinking time.

A friend broke their ankle on the ice the first day of their skiing holiday but rather than moan about how unlucky they were, they told themselves that they were lucky that they had not broken their neck!

We shape our identity around these stories of whether we are a lucky person, whether a meeting with a spouse was destiny, whether what we have achieved in our lives has been successful enough or not, whether our lives have been good enough.  The important message, I feel, is to listen to what is in our mind, challenge outdated stories and create a narrative that helps us live well today, in the moment, and supports us in facing our future, whatever that may be.

I wonder what stories have you told yourself?  And whether you have had cause to question and alter them over the years?

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Creating the new decade

What shall we hope for in 2020 and the new decade? I feel sure that many of us will share similar positive outcomes of good health, world peace and more, if not the precise approaches of achieving them.

Right now I am wondering where all the self-help gurus have gone?  The ones who told us to visualise a better future and act as if we had it?  Deepak Chopra and his message of the universe being pure potentiality from which we could create matter from the ideas we formulate in our mind?  Wayne Dyer who told us “you will see it when you believe it” or Anthony Robbins and his encouragement to “awaken the giant within”?  I couldn’t have made the changes I did in my life in 1992 without their messages. 

I feel we have lost some of their creative optimism and have just experienced a decade of too much negative focus.  Don’t we need to get back on our horse of positive thinking and visualising?  How else can we make positive changes in this world or in our own lives?  Shaping the problem is helpful.  But change cannot happen unless we develop ideas and solutions and imagine them happening.

So, with a new decade ahead, here are some of my own hopes for 2020 and beyond, perhaps to stir a few ideas of your own, whether you agree with them or not …

  1. I was never a great fan of John Bercow as I questioned his objectivity as a Speaker but I must say that I did find his Alternative Christmas Message echoed some of my own thoughts.  That democracy needs to be valued and supported. That we need to be able to be friends with those who think differently to us. That many politicians are trying to do their best (and watching the Christine Keeler series demonstrates how sleazy they were in the 1960s). Either way, let’s not, in the next decade, feel we have to zip up if we disagree with someone.  But let’s demand truth, honesty and ethical behaviour from our politicians and also politicians who have expertise and experience beyond being an MP.
  2. May Brexit go through with a pragmatic mutually-beneficial deal and may we forge new and strong alliances as friends and trading partners with Europe and the rest of the world through conversation, negotiation, and mutual respect.
  3. Wise world leaders – leaders who are intelligent, thoughtful and who seek the best for those they govern, maintaining peace, cooperation, stable economies, harmony and who spend time listening and shaping a future world that will benefit the majority.
  4. A revived and refreshed NHS where the investment is placed carefully into well-considered strategies that enable effective service, with staff who feel valued and fulfilled.  Where those in senior positions recognise that systems need to be reviewed and revised to provide the services patients require in a changing world where younger staff are demanding flexibility.  I suggest also that those who are trained in the NHS need to have a commitment to working within the service for a certain number of years – 5? – after being trained.  And that the NHS becomes a learning organisation where the term ‘witchhunt’ becomes irrelevant.
  5. And on the subject of health, I pray for a breakthrough in the treatment of Type 1 diabetes to enable my beloved 8 year-old granddaughter to lead an easier life.  And of course many other medical breakthroughs for cancer, Parkinson’s, MS, and other chronic or acute ailments that limit lives and quality of life.
  6. On that theme I hope for respectful and compassionate social care for all those who are needy or vulnerable, young and old.  And for us oldies a care system of support in the home and in specialised homes that adapts to individual needs, perhaps with the assistance of AI.  And, personally, I am all in favour of dignity in dying and would wish to decide the time of my own death without having to trot off to Switzerland.
  7. A demotion of the bureaucrats who seem to have ended up running our lives with their spreadsheets and tick-boxes.  Yes, we need them but we don’t need them to lead every aspect of our lives.  So often these people are young and think in administrative or politically correct ways, lacking creativity or strategic thinking.  So often they have no real understanding of the context or running of the organisations they are regulating or assessing, and have never actually run a business or service – whether business, health, education, prison or police – themselves. They have therefore seldom had to be accountable in the way those they are assessing are responsible.  Can we please put them in their rightful place as supporters of a service but not continue to allow them to be authoritarian dictators of how things should be run. 
  8. Demote the voice of celebrities who express opinions on health or politics in order to attract brownie points to themselves rather than truly having the wellbeing of others in mind.  If the young are relying on these people for their news and opinions then these influencers need to be accountable for getting their facts right and, when expressing opinions, make it clear that this is what they are doing and not describe those views as facts.
  9. Make everyone using the internet put their correct name rather than being able to hide behind some pseudonym like Mickey Mouse or Hercules from whence they can spout rubbish or be absolutely rude, bullying or horrible to others without being identified.
  10. A mature online society.  It’s all so new and no-one imagined that the whole of society would be mirrored on the web, it’s darker aspects as well as higher aspirations.  Who thought, when it was first considered, that the internet would be used to groom kids, sell drugs, radicalise ISIS followers, influence the young to watch porn at an ever earlier age?  Let’s open our eyes to this and educate the young to know what to be aware of and what to avoid.  The tech companies can do their bit but can’t be expected to police millions of uploads a day – it has to come back to individual responsibility and transparency.
  11. Teach everyone history – it’s a subject that has such bearing on the present and the future.  Lessons within of patterns and repeats plus learning a discipline to read in depth, to analyse and think critically.  How else do young people gain perspective on how good today is unless they realize that our yesterdays were often far worse?
  12. More young people reading newspapers.  Apparently the numbers of young reading papers has reduced to 20%.  I am afraid that strikes me as appalling.  There’s so much you happen upon in a paper that you just don’t chance upon online.  Plus comment and analysis by professional journalists who have expertise in their subjects, who you may or may not agree with. Of course it takes time to read a paper.  So can we encourage them to slow down, read, reflect, think.  Our future democracy depends on it.
  13. More talking, less screen-time.  Developing empathy, courtesy and understanding of others and becoming mature enough to manage differences.
  14. Find solutions to Climate Change.  I am all in favour of the young protesting but would personally prefer that they spend their Fridays at school rather than on the street.  Make Fridays a laboratory day for STEM subjects and get them working on solutions.  Please.  And let’s envisage both corporate and government action plus also major changes of habits on an individual daily basis that maintains our environment.
  15. Abolish the concept and practice of fast fashion.  Create materials that last and that can also be recycled easily.   The young can’t blame us Baby Boomers for ruining the environment (which we certainly never meant to do) if they continue to do so themselves.  Celebrities can model this by wearing the same clothes more often.
  16. Better rehabilitation procedures for the mentally sick, prisoners, the homeless, drug addicts, alcoholics.  They all need, as we all do, to be given lifeskills to manage money, rent, interviews, work, as well as the specific therapies to move out of situations where they feel powerless.
  17. Debating LGBTQ issues in a calm and deliberate way so that all those involved in such decisions can have a chance to be heard.  Making sure the rights that they obviously deserve do not infringe on the rights of others – whether in sport, prison or changing rooms.  And ensuring young children are not persuaded into major chemical or surgical changes until they fully understand the consequences of what this might mean to their lives and relationships.
  18. Harsh punishments for organised crime gangs and their leaders whether in the field of drugs, migration, sex traffic, burglary, etc.  We don’t want to end up like South America or the Mafia where the crime gangs run a parallel policing system of fear and brutality.  Let’s get on it fast and recognise that there are criminals who bring a different type of crime into our country and that we have been naïve about this, to the detriment of many victims living here.
  19. But let’s move on from victimhood, misery memoir, the seeking of offence.  Let’s encourage those who are quick to blame others to build resilience, to recognise that being offended is part of life, to have bad things happen to us is part of life, to be anxious and somewhat depressed as teenagers is actually a very natural and normal phenomenon, to worry about exams likewise.  Let’s not over-pathologise these states. Share the stories, of course, but can we move away from gaining street cred for trying to be worse off than someone else?  Keep hope in the equation. Self-esteem can be gained by working through challenges and creating a good-enough life for oneself.  Help those who really need helping and encourage others to work through their fears and build resilience.
  20. Finally let’s all envisage a healthy and cooperative world, a more harmonious UK, the possibility that we can create success out of uncertainty.  We are a nation of enterprise and innovation so let’s value that. 

There’s so much more – reducing poverty, creating opportunity. What might you seek to create in your own life?  What might you like to see or achieve in your life for yourself, your family, friends, clients or colleagues by the end of the year?  Or by the end of the decade?  If we don’t take time to imagine it we can’t create it.

Think about the inventions of science, medicine, design, music – they all came from an inspiration of someone’s thought or idea.   It was all there in the potential of the universe, ready to be created once someone thought about it.  We can do the same today, a collective optimistic and positive picture of our future.

I send you a heartfelt wish that we can, between us all, create a happy new year and new decade.

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