Life in the Days of Lockdown

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.


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.


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.


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…


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?


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.


The Season of Goodwill?

Differ, debate but don’t demean

In this divided country of ours, where political parties are reviewing the recent election, I am returning to the writings of Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and The Coddling of the American Mind, How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure).  The theme of why good people are divided by politics and religion is a particularly apt subject for the Christmas period, I think.  And I really hope that in the decade to come we learn to listen more and be curious about other people’s opinions rather than judge or shame them for having an opinion different to our own.

People have rushed to label others.  Those who voted Remain have labelled those who didn’t as either stupid or uneducated (which obviously can’t be true of millions of people), Leavers have labelled Remainers as arrogant and undemocratic.  Those who voted Labour or LibDem have labelled those who did not vote like them as bad or nasty people (neither of which, again, is likely to be the whole truth). Those who voted Tory accused the others of being Marxist, etc.  I don’t remember a time in my life where there was so much name-calling as in recent years.

Can we stop this mudslinging I wonder?  All the parties claimed in their election campaigns to seek healing, though none of them explained how they would do it.  Ultimately it is down to individual human behaviour as to whether we continue to box ourselves into corners.  

These polarised attitudes can put us at odds with friends, family, colleagues and neighbours.  Is it really what we want?  Aren’t people entitled to approach problems from different perspectives?  Isn’t that what makes the world go round (as well as love, of course)?  On the whole I believe the majority of people in this country are basically good, hard working individuals doing their best for themselves and their families.  There are, of course, bad and nasty people in any society in any part of the globe but I don’t believe they represent the majority of our fellow countryfolk.  There are people who seek to kill others or steal but no one was voting for such a thing in either the Referendum or election.

There are always serious issues we must stand up for in life, sure, but might we begin to open our hearts more to those who have different views to our own?  We don’t have to agree but we can differ, debate and not demean one another. We may discover that their intentions are as noble as yours. 

I believe Jonathan Haidt’s model of 5 Moral Foundations could shed some light on the recent election result here in the UK. And I suspect he would not have been surprised by the election result last week.  Despite being a Democrat, a speechwriter for John Kerry, and a man of liberal views, he came to the conclusion, through his research, that left-leaning liberals do not embrace as many value-sets as the centre or right.  In what Haidt describes as ‘the conservative advantage’ he found that Republicans understood moral psychology better than the Democrats and therefore were elected more often.  Could the same be said of Conservative and Labour here, I wonder?  For sure both the Labour Party and LibDems need to have a good look at themselves and understand why the silent majority turned away from their liberal offerings because it is in all our interests to have three strong and functioning parties in Parliament.

Haidt’s model of 5 Moral Foundations identifies values that influence thoughts and behaviours.  These Morals were divided into

  1. Care
  2. Fairness
  3. Loyalty
  4. Authority
  5. Sanctity

Haidt discovered, through research surveys, that everyone – left, right and centre – reports being influenced by the first two of these values – Care and Fairness.  Across the board, responders shared the belief that concerns about compassion, cruelty, fairness and injustice shaped their judgements about right and wrong. 

The values of Care and Fairness are therefore shared by all.  However, there has been an insinuation, through virtue-signalling, by left-liberal supporters that they are personally far more fair and caring than anyone of the centre-right.  Yet his research would suggest this isn’t necessarily true.  They may just hold a different set of solutions to the problems they face.

When it came to the three values of Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity the story was quite different.  Haidt’s studies showed that Liberals largely reject these values and, in fact, can be quite derisory of those who hold them.  Notice, if you will, how today’s commentators are referring to values such as patriotism – a form of loyalty – as “working class” or nationalistic. Notice how the immediate response to the Referendum outcome in 2016 was for liberal journalists and Remainers to downgrade the result by claiming it was “working class” views and demented pensioners that had led to this “stupid” outcome.  Notice how the Tory landslide of 2019 is referred to as solely due to the “left behind” (“who obviously know nothing about the world”, being the implication) when of course it cannot have been just the left behind who voted in this way.  Don’t these terms strike you as somewhat patronising?

An example of Loyalty is those who feel loyal to their country and community.  This doesn’t make them stupid or nationalist.  Those who enjoy living in a community and culture where they feel they belong are not necessarily racists.  We see communities all over the world – Muslim, Hindu, Polish, Jewish – choosing to live within neighbourhoods where they can develop the social resources to feel at home. Those in the UK who feel unsettled that their communities have changed beyond recognition should surely not be pilloried as philistines.   Especially not by those who can well afford to move elsewhere should they choose to do so. 

The instinctive human need for a sense of belonging (loyalty) to place, land or a social community is human and actively supports our wellbeing. 

Since my childhood there has been a dramatic shift in how people challenge Authority.  Most of us would never have dared to tell a teacher, doctor or police office to “F-off”.  It just wasn’t done.  I accept that many of my generation have been responsible for challenging authority and especially the Establishment.  Some of this has been successful – the Establishment is certainly more diverse than it was in the 1950s or 60s though I do wonder if we haven’t simply replaced the old Establishment with the new liberal metropolitan elite establishment, as it is called, who don’t truly understand the general population any more than the old one did. 

However, today people reject the authority of science, biology, experts, politicians, medics, police and more.  They seem to think it acceptable to make up facts about science or biology if they can convince enough people on social media to believe what they say.  But this challenge to authority needs surely to be balanced within the context of law and order, facts, manners, and the need to respect others without being fundamentalist.  Respecting authority may have motivated voters towards Boris Johnson but they may equally have done so for fear of the over-powering authority of a socialist state. 

Living in an era that followed on to the terrible dictatorships of left and right in the 20th century we are no doubt wary of those who take authority and yet people seek and can benefit from a good leader, so we should surely not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We don’t want strong leadership or bullies but a family, organisation or country does benefit from a vision, sense of purpose and a set of morals by which to live.  Creating an organised system that protects this vision can liberate people to be creative, to work together, aspire and achieve new inventions or services that can benefit all.

Research has shown that more liberals are drawn towards city life and towards change.  Those who live in the countryside tend to value continuity and stability.  I guess this isn’t surprising.  These are generalisations but perhaps demonstrate, all the same, that we need all kinds to make a world and to make a society that functions well and where people get along with one another. Change is good but continuity and stability have value too.  
A tolerant democratic structure should protect a flow of ideas through freedom of speech.  Neither anarchy nor dictatorship protects the individual as well.  Authority, in balance, has its place.

Sanctity does not necessarily equate to religion but can certainly refer to giving reverence to those around you, whether human, animal or a part of nature.  We see it today in the trend towards vegetarianism, the sensitive treatment of animals, the protection of our environment against Climate Change, the protection of the vulnerable.  Whether you have a religion or not there is something sacred and mysterious about this world of ours, is there not?

Proportionality is a word that Haidt uses and, in my view, needs to be raised to greater consciousness in the next decade. Perhaps, post the election, the Labour Party would do well to understand that loyalty, authority and a sense of sanctity are not ‘right-wing’ but human.  Many, if not all people value loyalty to friends, family, colleagues and country.  Many, if not all, have some sense that a social group of any kind, anywhere in the world, benefits from respecting authority, provided that the authority does not over-reach its powers.  Many, if not all, hold some sense of sanctity either in terms of a religious belief, a belief in the wonder of nature, of science, of the need to respect those around us.

Whether we voted Leave or Remain, Tory, Labour, Green, LibDem or independent, we are not so different as humans, though we may well believe in different ways to approach the problems we face.  Perhaps, as we come towards the Christian rituals of Christmas – which, incidentally, many peoples of different religions nonetheless celebrate – we can focus more on what connects us rather than on what divides us.

Happy Christmas.


Equality – a search for the Holy Grail?

Last night I watched Dr Zhivago again.  I hadn’t watched it for many years and, as a book, it changed my life.  My teenage years were spent deep in Boris Pasternak’s poetry and Russian novels.  I was inspired by Communism, by the promise of equality for all.  But what does that mean in terms of human nature?  And what does a teenager actually know about the world, when they haven’t had to earn a crust, be responsible, take care of a family, pay taxes?  One can be idealistic, for sure, but reality hasn’t yet properly sunk in.

And so the rhetoric of equality that we hear during the current election debate interests me, as it was the same words that were spoken in Zhivago, in the Revolution, by the people, by Lenin.  For Marx, apparently, equality did not negate difference – “for each according to his ability, to each according to his need’.  But he was a critic of capitalism, which is hard to defend in a world where the capitalist system has raised so many millions of people out of poverty around the world.  But, of course, not everyone. There are those ‘left behind’.  And there’s the rub.

There are those who suffer who have need of help and should receive it.  There are those who struggle but however much help you give them may well continue to struggle.  There are those who wish for security who will only ever have a fragment of their need met, as we all live in an uncertain and insecure world.  There are those who thrive on risk, change, new ideas and for them the idea of a secure job where every day is the same is anathema.

How to govern in such a world?  Of course, there never has been a perfect government in any part of the world.  Ever.  And I doubt there ever will be.  Human nature is deeply hierarchical.  Way before capitalism, men – for it was usually men – would seek power over others and others would be ruled by them, some happily in search of a quiet life, others champing at the bit in frustration that they had little autonomy.  Cast your eye across the globe and you will find the history books of every land populated by Kings, Emperors, Tsars, war lords, Sultans, Elders, Chiefs, Presidents, Prime Ministers and now Chief Executives or Managing Directors.  At the other end of the scale there exist the Untouchables or perhaps slaves.  More recently you will find a very large group who would call themselves ‘employees’, some of whom are happy with their lot and others who aren’t. The term the “working class” is surely outdated as the majority of people today are working.  And those who lived a very simple life within that label of “working class” in my childhood may now have second homes in Spain, Tobago, Greece, and more money than those in professional classes, or have become professionals themselves. That’s what I call progress.

Is it realistic to imagine that we can all be equal when the very nature of the human being is to be unique, to be aspirational, to seek fulfilment and purpose, to desire to protect our loved ones and families?  And perhaps for others, in that same uniqueness, just to want to live hassle-free and not be pushed?

In my own experience I remember one assistant in Positiveworks who was eager, helpful, efficient and worked hard.  I remember another, in the same role, who came in late, smoked six cigarettes a day – each one involving a good twenty minutes away from the desk – and made thoughtless mistakes.  Were they worth the same salary?  How do you calculate?  I certainly didn’t think so.

I have been raised within the context of trade and business.  My great-great grandparents taking a major risk in 1742 to buy cork forests in Portugal – well before it became a civilised tourist destination – and develop a trade in cork.  It was a third world country and I admire their pluck.  They didn’t make huge wealth but worked extremely hard, with many worries, and employed a considerable number of people as a result. 

Were they to have become billionaires would I have decided that they were ‘bad’ or ‘greedy’ people who didn’t deserve such wealth?  I don’t think so because I question at what stage the State decides that you have made enough and that it should take the rest for the people to whom  it chooses to give it.  £100,000?  £1million? £5million £50million?  What arbitrary sum would the State see as ‘too much’?  Especially if one was paying one’s taxes, potentially giving money to charity and philanthropic causes, creating wealth not only for oneself but also for others? Many wealthy people have started their businesses in a garage or on the kitchen table.  They had a good idea and worked hard, usually with passion, often putting their personal homes on the line, no sick pay, holiday pay or pension, to create their vision.  It isn’t a huge number of people who do this but they innovate and, in this day and age where employment law is strong, their employees are generally well treated in comparison to previous times, where toil was the name of the day. Let’s not tar everyone with the same brush.

But you get people who are disillusioned in any profession.  You can be a senior manager earning excellent money but fed up with the way the CEO is running the business or a client is treating you.  The gig economy gets a lot of flack but when you look at surveys, the majority of people working within it enjoy their flexibility.  Some don’t and some employment practices certainly need improving.  Sure.  But do we have to kill off a whole 4-5% of our economy for the sake of the few?  Isn’t it better to change the way it is run to ensure fair contracts but not dictate to entrepreneurs that they must employ x number of people full time because there are many businesses that simply can’t survive in that way.  I know that I worked myself to death in order to bring in sufficient fees to pay my assistants… and then there were times when I simply couldn’t bring in enough and had to let them go.  I felt awful about it but I was human and there was no way, at that time, that I could make enough money to cover salaries as well as pay my own bills.  This is a problem in France, where social taxes are so high it makes it well nigh impossible to start a small business.

Then how much trust do I have in the State to make good decisions with my taxed income?  In my lifetime I can’t say I am that impressed with the way any of the governments since 1950 have run the country.  I am not convinced that they would do any better job with my taxed money, were I a billionaire, as my observation of governments is that they tend to squander money on idiotic projects, paying huge sums to expensive management consultants in the process of frittering away our hard-earned taxes rather than spending it on necessary infrastructure, health or education.  But, as long as the process is fair in its rewards then an imperfect system is all one can hope for.

With nationalisation I question why I would assume that a civil service department could run this any better than the current ‘experts’ of the private sector?  We hear of helicopters ordered by the Defence Department that can’t fly in cloud, ships that are unseaworthy, etc.  Recently I heard that the Home Office are setting up visa systems for fruit pickers… but forgot that daffodils need cutting.  My memories of the 1970s are of British Rail trains being unreliable, of strikes, the 3 day-week, trying to cook and eat supper by candlelight and of inefficiency that led the poorest to suffer the most. People have become so used to comfort, power, mobiles, wifi, electricity that I suspect these conditions would seem unbearable to people today.

In hitting out at big tech, big pharma or successful companies, what about the small shareholders who legitimately bought shares and will inevitably lose out through nationalisation?  And the pension funds?  I question why anyone would start up a business here when there is a likelihood of the State taking 10% of my company even if I have run it efficiently and am treating my staff well?  Surely this is private property?  It reminds me of the scene in Dr Zhivago when Zhivago returns to his house to find it full of strangers, expropriated by the State, who have dictated that a family of 5 should be able to survive in 50 sq metres, so any house above this size would be open to house as many families as the square footage would allow.  According to the bureaucrats of the revolution private property and the right to a personal life were declared dead in the search for a Bolshevik utopia.  And we know what happened there – a hierarchy within the Communist leaders who expropriated houses, dachas, chauffeurs and luxuries for themselves whilst starving their people.  Followed by Putin and the oligarchs.  Plus ca change.

There’s a line in the movie asking “which lot of hooligans will govern this country”.  It made me think of the UK.  Now.  When Zhivago questions the Bolshevik authority he is told “your attitude has been noticed” and of course Pasternak’s lover was tortured in a gulag for her association with him.  A revolution is not a pretty sight.  Capitalism is not the cause of inequality.  Inequality sadly has been sewn into the history of humanity at every level.  It doesn’t make it right but the reality is that people are different and whilst there should be equality of pay for those doing the same job, there will be inequality elsewhere and a doctor who has studied medicine for seven years and worked hard deserves a decent salary and more, certainly, than someone without those skills or dedication.  Devising a fair system for all is not a simple matter.

I believe in a mixed economy of private companies and entrepreneurs providing opportunities for income generation for others, alongside a welfare state that does what it can for those who need help.  I don’t see those who need support as “weak and oppressed” as I hear on the radio, as this is surely disrespectful.  And, in terms of history, we are living in one of the least oppressed eras. Holding positive expectations and aspirations of others is key to unlocking an individual’s potential. So treating them as a helpless victim does not perform this service.  Austerity has certainly been harmful but, if we are honest, we don’t know what any other party would have done with the budget (or lack of it) that occurred after the crash of 2008.  With a stronger economy hopefully whichever party gets in can now address this on many levels.

In politically correct terms I might be labelled “an enemy of the people” for daring to say that inequality is likely to be here to stay.  I seem to be against the current Utopian zeitgeist.  I certainly wish for fair treatment of all. And I want a pragmatic government who understands that human nature is to be creative, to aspire, to innovate.  I want a government that will support such innovation as it can benefit the whole of humankind.  But personally, I don’t believe that a totally equal society is possible, nor that it would necessarily be any happier than our current situation.  It would surely discourage people to shine.  And people will always find something to moan about one way or another.

We have a huge amount going for us in this country and, as a recent BBC survey has uncovered, far less to be divided about than we might imagine.  People are still flocking to come here and our economy is holding up pretty well considering the three years of Brexit chaos that precedes this blog. 

I don’t know which party will get in on election night but I hope they will remember that the UK is populated with thousands of small or medium-sized companies such as my family’s cork business, often run by dedicated and hard-working entrepreneurs and their staff. There are greedy people in all spheres of life but I would suggest that the majority are decent folk, here as elsewhere.  So I hope they are not treated as if they were tax-dodging bourgeoisie in need of punishment.  I hope they are acknowledged and respected for what they bring to their country in the way of employment, goods and services.  We shall see…


A journey of reinvention: the conflicting pulls of older age

Is this the journey of life, I ask myself?  To continually reinvent ourselves?  We begin as tiny babies and hopefully are taken care of by reasonably kind parents.  We grow up, have children, become grandparents … and then what?  The stages of life are complicated and confusing and the pulls between family, friends and personal interests continue into later life.

I have become aware of how tricky it can be, post-retirement, to decide where to live and how to divide one’s time.  I am delighted that David and I have moved to Kew as this allows me – presently at least – to be near enough to my sons and grandchildren to be helpful.  It also allows David’s sons to visit and for him to be be present enough for them.  It is my observation that grandfathers are not needed so frequently in the practical sense but are immensely important as an anchor of emotional support for children and grandchildren alike.  A rock.

Kew also provides us with new friends and plenty of interests and entertainment on our doorstep.  But I am aware that we are fortunate in having both family and friends within a relatively close environment.  We know plenty of people who have children and grandchildren in far distant countries and are put in the position of having to decide whether to stay close to friends as they get older and frailer, or whether to move nearer children.  But if one has lived far apart for any length of time then moving nearer children entails the upheaval not only of moving house and country but also making a completely new set of friends later in life.  Otherwise one is thrown back on depending on one’s children – one of life’s little circularities!

With the pressure not to fly due to climate change, these decisions are all the more poignant, as inevitably one wants to stay in close contact with blood relatives wherever they are.  It is human nature.  And, in my experience, the bond a grandparent feels with a grandchild is one of the most precious experiences of our lives because we have more time to cherish it.  Also, as older people, the innocence of childhood is wonderful to regard: bright eyes, youthful skin and energy!  A life ahead of them.

Inevitably, though, one’s adult children and grandchildren have their own lives.  Busy lives, just as ours were.  So one absolutely needs to build one’s own life, wherever one is.  That is all the harder, though, if, in later life one has to upsticks and move to be near one’s offspring.  We are lucky in Kew to have the Avenue Club where we meet other energetic folk of our age, and live in a friendly street.  But this certainly isn’t the case in many other places.  It wasn’t when we lived in Hampshire.  Many older people are lonely.  They have children and grandchildren nearby but miss their peer group of friendships, with all those memories they share of growing up and living in a particular era.

And so, looking back, I am aware of all those stages of transition from childhood to teens to adult hood to marriage, parenthood and grandparenthood.  I remember how delightful it was when the children were young and enjoyed one’s company, and we theirs.  I recall the day they returned from school as teenagers and more-or-less said “Hi Mum, bye Mum” as they started to develop their own lives and found one far less interesting to be around.  The phase of eyes-raised-to-the-sky when one says something and the “Oh Mum…!” spoken in disapproval, despair or disagreement.  Friends were an essential prop to me as a parent at that time.

The rupture of the empty nest is very real and harsh, in its way, as the home becomes both quiet and empty. After so many years of tending for others, one finds oneself wandering around Waitrose wondering what food it was that one liked, having spent so many years buying food that others enjoyed.  It is a time of seriously revisiting and questioning one’s own identity.  Who am I after all these years of being a mother?  What do I enjoy?  How do I want to spend this extra time when I used to be cooking or chatting or just hanging out with my kids?  And, for a period, we continue our lives as adults, working, travelling, enjoying life for we have to be there for them and yet reinvent ourselves as an individual.  As Khalil Gibran says wisely in The Prophet:

Your children are not your children

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite

And he bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness,

For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

It is when we become grandparents and then enter this latter stage of our lives that we begin to feel more vulnerable and we once again check and revisit our identity.  Who are we now that we are not working? Do we have the time and energy for voluntary work?  How shall we stay well?  How much time will our children want to spend with us?   If we do get ill how shall we manage?  Do we have sufficient finance for care?  Is it best to stay near close friends or move ourselves to Canada, Singapore or Australia to be closer?

But then even if we move near our children there is no guarantee that they won’t be offered a job somewhere else.  Then what?  A friend of mine had her son and granddaughter living ten minutes away in London.  Next thing her son gets a job in Spain and now she can only see them occasionally.  She and her husband miss them very much.  And what might happen when, inevitably, she or her husband dies?  Will the bereaved partner then move to Spain too?  Loss brings these questions all the more sharply into focus.

I am aware, also, that as grandparents we have a sort-of sell-by date.  In the early years we are loved and appreciated.  In the teenage years the grandchildren inevitably, and rightly, have their own lives and hopefully will visit from time to time.  But we must be independent enough not to be a burden, if possible.  For that reason, we need our own circle of friends to amuse and support us, and we them. 

I guess this sounds a bit miserable.  I don’t mean it to.  I am simply reflecting on the stages of life, the circles, twists and turns and how each transition demands that we reconsider who we are, what we enjoy, and reinvent ourselves.  And this isn’t just for those of us who are parents or grandparents as of course there will be those reading this who do not have children.  In this case friends, cousins, nieces and nephews are all the more important.

I hope sincerely that I shall not become a burden and I, like many of those I speak to, hope that one day soon there will be a dignified way to exit this life should we become too infirm to enjoy it.  In the meantime, I thank my lucky stars to be here in Kew and close to my sons and also friends.  But there is no guarantee that things will stay this way and I, like others, must be ready to adapt to any more changes should they occur.  One never knows what is around the corner.  Adaptability remains the key. 


Make the Most of your Sixties: Artificial Intelligence and Ageing

“Make the most of your sixties” my sister told me “you’ll find your friends getting ill in their seventies”.  And how true that is.  I have friends in their sixties who have become ill but there is a reality about the number of people I know in their seventies who have one ailment or another, and sometimes several.  It is unsettling, especially when one hears about how the NHS is already struggling.  What will happen when we Baby Boomers move into our seventies and eighties? There are so many of us!  Plus the population is expanding, putting even more pressure on doctors, hospitals, infrastructure.  It leaves me feeling vulnerable.  How will we receive care should we need it?  Could Artificial Intelligence be the answer?

The problem few people talk about is demographics.  Many of the senior consultants and doctors are the same age as I am – late sixties, coming up 70.  They are retiring.  Many doctors are retiring early because they take can’t take the pressure.  This is not just a UK problem, it is world wide.  After all, it was a World War 1939-45, so the Baby Boom occurred globally and that generation, my generation, are retiring not only from medicine but from senior positions in organisations of all kinds.  And the numbers don’t add up – there are simply fewer people in the generation below, so the immediate problem cannot be remedied easily.  All these political accusations being bandied about that “we just need to hire more doctors” aren’t realistic.  Where will they get them from when there is a shortage of doctors not only in the UK but in Canada, France and elsewhere.  You can’t train medics overnight.  And immigration will only deprive other countries of this expertise.

This morning on Radio 4’s The Life Scientific we listened to Demis Hassabis, an expert in AI.  He spoke of how his company has worked with Moorfields Hospital, who had a shortage of staff for optical scanning, whereby the computer system actually scans patient’s eyes more efficiently than human doctors.  How marvellous.  If we can provide a more effective service with the help of computer intelligence, let’s do it.  After all, look how much more we understand about the human body since we have had X-rays, MRI and CAT scans.

I became interested in technological methods of care when my mother had a stroke back in 2001.  She had an alarm she was supposed to wear around her neck, but of course she didn’t wear it at night so when she got out of bed to draw her curtains in the morning and collapsed on the floor she didn’t have it on her.  And even if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to press it because she didn’t have the capacity.  The stroke had damaged her ability to function.

The worry about collapsing on the floor, slipping and breaking a hip, having a heart attack or stroke when one is alone is a concern that affects many of us.  These incidents are real – two of my mother’s friends experienced lying on a bathroom floor for 6 hours.  My mother was lying on her bedroom floor for a similar period before we reached her.  A horrible, cold, lonely and frightening experience.

After this I became aware of the vulnerability of living alone, as I was myself at the time, at any age.  I started to worry about my sons, of university age, getting drunk and falling down the stairs on their own.  I woke up to the fact that so many people are living alone.  Problems can occur at any age.  I knew of people in their 40s who had aneurysm or other unexpected events.  How to protect someone without interfering in their independence?

I came up with the idea of what would now be known as an app but the technology wasn’t there then – that someone would simply press one key on their mobile phone and their relatives would know they were ok.  If they didn’t press it there would be an escalating system to check whether they were ok.  BT were developing wrist bands to monitor heart rate.  There was talk of simple movement pad detection to be placed in bathrooms or beside kettles to set off an alarm if they weren’t used for several hours.  Technology can help. In today’s world these apps do exist, thankfully, though could become yet more sophisticated and personal, and I am sure they will.

With Brexit there is talk of us losing the EU nationals who provide care, hospitality and support services but several of the EU nationals (incidentally who think we should just get on with Brexit!) I have spoken to over the last year resent the fact that all they hear is that if we leave the EU people are moaning that they “will lose their cleaners”.  “Surely we are more than that” they say.  And of course they are, as many immigrants to the UK are actually far better qualified than the jobs they end up doing.

And this high standard of education is another challenge for our ageing world as when someone has a degree, MBA, MSc, MA or PhD they are hardly likely to want to do menial jobs such as care.  The world is already a more educated place and those of us who live in the more developed areas have leant on the help we have received from countries that were behind our curve.  There are larger numbers of young people in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.  But with the world population becoming more educated and professionally qualified will they want to be cleaning up after our mess?  We will need to look for different solutions.  Could AI can help us?

So, as I look at turning 70 next year the reality of becoming part of this massive ageing statistic (through no fault of my own I should point out!) is a little daunting.  The NHS is creaking but no party is brave enough to radically transform the way it operates.  Blair, as a Labour PM, could have done it but didn’t.  And so it continues to struggle and with the UK population due to hit 70 million in coming years how on earth will we manage to take care of people.  The demographics don’t add up. See graph.

And so that is why, when my 8 year old granddaughter told me she was doing a robotics course, I said “brilliant darling, please come up with solutions to provide robots to cook, clean, get us out of the bath, pour us a G&T, talk to us as companions and make sure we comfortable in our old age and don’t end up lying on the floor with no one noticing…”

I sincerely hope that she does!