Equality – a search for the Holy Grail?

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…

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49762140

https://www.ft.com/content/cdd95ffa-664a-11e7-9a66-93fb352ba1fe

https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/10077-gig-economy-pros-cons-workers-employers.html

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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. 

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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!

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An intention to harm?

“I didn’t mean to hurt you” we say when we inadvertently do or say something that offends or hurts another person.  And, if we are lucky, the friend, colleague or family member will know us well enough to accept that there was no ill intention meant in our words, even if the impact of those words was somewhat hurtful.

But in today’s world there seems to be little forgiveness allowed for an occasional mistake or slip of the tongue, or even a different opinion.  Judgement rains down hard on anyone who questions current liberal dogma.  A suggestion that carrying out surgery on young children who may be uncertain of their gender could be potentially be both dangerous and damaging leads to the accusation of “transphobe”.  Expressing a concern that England is a small place and that the potential of a population of 70million in a few years’ time needs to be addressed by planning for over-crowding of transport and under-capacity of infrastructure leads to the accusation of “racist” even if no word of ethnic make-up of that population was spoken.  Any query about the workings of the EU bureaucracy, the corruption that exists within Eastern European countries or the anti-LGBT rights expressed in Poland is met with an accusation of being an ignorant ‘Leave’ voter even if the person didn’t vote Leave.  You aren’t allowed to question.  If you do, you are a traitor in the eyes of the ‘woke’ brigade, where political correctness silences debate.

Even President Obama has made a speech about the dangers of this woke culture, http://c.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-50239261the censorious judgement of calling others out on this, that or the other opinion that does not fit into the current trend of attitude.  And, in this Stasi-like atmosphere, intentions are disregarded.  Yet there is a huge difference between someone who deliberately intends to incite racism or prejudice versus someone who happens inadvertently to say something that offends.  But in today’s world it is only the impact that matters, not the intention.  And that impact is subjective and personal and there are certainly those who seek to be offended.

We can all be offended by the opinion of others if we allow ourselves to be.  But our response to any situation or comment is our choice and we can surely take the time to delve a little deeper and discover the true feelings and motives behind what someone is saying. 

Judgement is given because of the ‘impact’ that a statement is perceived to have made and too often people – especially on social media – are not interested to explore and investigate what someone really meant.  It’s the heavy hand of censure that is administered like an assassin’s axe.  The accusation of ‘racist, transphobe, Islamophobe, Nazi, white supremacist, nationalist’ etc. being issued as a weapon to silence or shame that person into changing their opinion, or at least not expressing an honest opinion.  “If you’re not with me, you’re against me, and you’re a bad person”, is the charge.  The battle of ‘goodies versus baddies’, when the reality is many good people simply having different viewpoints.

It’s just so divisive and many writers, including myself, are nervous of putting our heads above the parapet for fear of saying something that someone will find offensive.  We see female politicians and others resigning under this vicious onslaught.  Apparently, this fear of speaking up is also happening in schools as pupils are nervous of asking or answering a question in case they don’t apply the current verbiage, only to be castigated by another member of their class.  Should a writer dare to say something biological but apparently radical such as women don’t have penises or men with penises aren’t really women, they get no-platformed and harangued by the crowd.  Someone choosing, for fun, to dress up in another nationality’s costume is accused of offending that nation through ‘cultural appropriation’.  It seems one can’t have a joke or a party without someone choosing to be offended. 

And so I worry about Greta Thunberg and her venom and hatred of the older generation.  Of course, my and other generations have made mistakes but it was for certain that we did not intend to threaten the wellbeing of the world.  The intention was to enhance people’s lives through better science, heating, transport, medicine.  The unintended consequences of these marvellous developments are thoroughly unfortunate.  But there was no conscious intention to upset the planet.  The goal, and indeed the result, of these inventions and advances has been to enhance people’s lives and health beyond measure over recent decades.  But we are now realising there was an unintended cost.

But the intention doesn’t matter, it seems.  Those who invented and enjoyed the technical and scientific advances of recent times are evil folk who have to be blamed.  Hatred has become the language of accusation.  This is a poisonous energy in the world.  Not only does it divide but it also incapacitates.  If everyone thinks the world is dying why not give up and adopt a helpless-hopeless position?  This helps no-one, neither the individual nor the globe.  Encouragement to find solutions could surely galvanise a more positive motivation to live sustainably and create innovation.  But we can’t speak up for optimism, however rational or scientific, because we will be categorised as a climate-change-denier.

For me it is those who are absolutist in their certainty about the future, whether it is about climate change or Brexit, that are the ones to be worried about.  None of us can truly predict what the future holds as who’s to say that we won’t find brilliant solutions to our current and future problems?  But if one says that life has improved over the last fifty  years, that we have reduced pollution in London even since the diesel congestion charge, one is immediately considered to be someone who doesn’t at the same time recognise that the environment, life, culture and society will always require adaptation.  As they always have.  Both apply – that things have got better AND that they still need work.

The language of woke, supposedly liberal, views is filtering into our everyday world of life and work.  Many years ago, when tendering to offer some professional coaching and training to a local Council, I was asked not only what ethnic background I came from but also whether I was heterosexual or lesbian.  What business is it of a potential employer to ask about my sexual inclinations?  I don’t see this box-ticking political correctness as an advance.  Nowadays apparently such tendering or recruitment forms can ask you to identify yourself within several different versions of whether you are a man or woman, what sort of man or woman you are, or are you ‘none of the above’?!  We are living in an age that is denying the benefits of knowledge about biology, science and, in the anti-vaccine campaigns, medicine.  These people can’t know how many children died of measles, polio or whooping cough.  In thinking that everyone is oppressed they can’t know that in my lifetime those who were gay were criminals, those who were black were segregated, those who were women were not allowed to work or take out a mortgage.  Actually we have come a long way and are probably the least oppressed of any generation that has lived. 

When people do or say something we don’t agree with they are often coming from an intention to improve the world in some way, just as we are.  It may not be our way but it is always worth digging deeper into people’s motivations to discover what lies behind their view or their action.  Don’t judge people on your own subjective perspective.  Start a conversation. There may be something you don’t know or understand.  Ask them why they support Trump, why they voted Leave, why they think men who identify as women one day and not the next (and vice-versa) do so.  You will learn something for sure.

With a potentially divisive time coming up with our UK election, consider this.  Most Conservative, Labour, LibDem or other politicians are aiming for a better health service, better education, safer and happier society.  Despite cynicism about our politicians I honestly don’t believe that their intentions are to worsen our lives.  But each party will come at these goals from different perspectives.  If we don’t listen to the intention we don’t get the story and we block off the ability to gain from other people’s ideas.

There is so much more to be achieved in this world from sharing and collaborating on the problems we face than on silencing the group who disagree with us.  We don’t have to be offended by someone who inadvertently says something that may upset us.  They may come from ignorance or even from light-heartedness.  We can be curious, and we can, without pointing accusatory fingers, share some thoughts from both perspectives.  It could even start an interesting friendship.

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On the Road, USA

From Tennessee, North and South Carolina to Georgia the word we heard over and over was “Impeach”.  It took me back to a trip we did to Washington DC in the early 1970s when all the car stickers read “Impeach Nixon” following the Watergate scandal.  Quite a flashback.  And having thought we might escape the endless speculation and search for facts in the discussion of Brexit, we ended up hearing the journalists’ endless speculation about impeaching Trump instead.  Every programme we watched.  The rest of the world might as well not exist when you travel in the USA. 

But it’s a great country to visit.  Staggering landscapes and different cultures, architecture and town-planning in each place.   The Brits snigger about the Americans not having passports or travelling outside their own borders but quite honestly where’s the need?  They have every kind of vista and recreation they could possibly require in their own country.  And to travel anywhere they have to cross an Ocean which, until recently, was extremely expensive. And still costs a fair whack.  I would say the majority of Americans we met on this trip had not been anywhere else.  It didn’t make them boring.  However, we did become aware of treading carefully on their politics in the South.  It is Trump-land, generally speaking, though we did meet some who were just as embarrassed about Trump as we are about our Westminster shenanigans.

I had been nervous about the driving.  I needn’t have been.  As Paul Theroux says in his excellent book Deep South “travelling in America is unlike travelling anywhere else on earth…Breezing from place to place on wonderful roads seemed so sweet, so simple.”  Where, in my youth, I used to get impatient at the slow speed limits, now I found it a delight to travel slow, enjoy the view and not feel hassled.  Even in the mountains near Highlands, North Carolina, the road tripped back and forth around twisty corners but it was nothing like as challenging as driving the narrow twisty roads one meets in France, say, where not only is the road narrow and precipitous but one is likely to get stuck behind a group of cyclists, making it impossible to overtake.  You don’t find cyclists on American roads.  No joggers.  No walkers.  No bikes.  Just cars.  But then it was nearly 100 degrees!

“Don’t walk the streets after dark” the Security Guard in Memphis told us the night of our arrival “there are crazies out there”.  And indeed we did see a few wildish looking folk and I came up with the 3-letter acronym TGFU – Thank God for Uber!  Wherever we found ourselves, in whatever seedy part of town, we could call up a clean car and, generally anyway, a polite driver with whom we could have an interesting conversation as we were driven safely back to our hotel.

But we had a good time in Memphis nonetheless.  Visiting Sun Studios and learning of the talent-spotter and entrepreneur Sam Phillips who set it up and recorded artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf and Roy Orbison among many others.  An example here, as we found in many of the stories we came across on our visit, of someone who had a vision and, despite difficulties, maintained the determination and resilience to achieve that success despite set-backs.

Then a visit to Graceland, Elvis’ home, described as a ‘mansion’ although in size not much larger than many a middle class home in the UK these days.  We were impressed, as many others have been, by the cosy and warm feeling of the house.  Somehow one could sense that as a man Elvis was sentimental, loved his Mum and grandmother, and enjoyed being generous to family and friends.  Seeing the photos of him as an extremely handsome young man and hearing his wonderful voice reminded me of my childhood when my older sister played his records on 45s, or EPs as they were known.  Good times.

And so on to Nashville along the IS40 in our Chrysler Standard SUV.  A comfortable car to drive despite the enormous trucks that surrounded us on the Interstate.  We were told by one of our Uber drivers that the IS40 between Memphis and Nashville is known for drug traffic, as FedEx trucks bomb along there and the police apparently watch out for them.  I was glad I didn’t know that beforehand!

Everywhere we went we heard great country music.  Both of us love it – tuneful, a bit soppy and always within a storytelling context.  Our night at the Grand Ole Opry was one of the best of my life.  We even saw Kevin Bacon and his brother singing as a duo there.  And we noticed that there, and wherever there was an audience, the compere would ask the US Veterans to stand up while the audience applauded their courage and acknowledged their contribution.  These announcements of recognition occur also in train stations and airports.  This contrasts with home where, apart from the Chelsea Pensioners, there seems to be too little acknowledgement of our own troops.

Nashville is party city.  Music booms from every corner and there are hen and graduation parties galore, parading around in open top limos and trucks, drinking and waving to the passers-by on the pavements.  A funny idea, really, a ‘look-at-me’ past-time that does seem a little pointless, although no doubt fun for those involved.

Some things were hard to find.  Fresh food.  A convenience store.  Milk.  It was near impossible to get a cappuccino.  I have got so used to a morning cup that it never occurred to me that America, home of Starbucks, would so seldom be able to offer me a cappuccino.  And so it had to be the usual revolting (in my opinion) American filter coffee.  And with taxes and 20% tips on top.  That takes some getting used to when the pound is so low against the dollar!

The weather was near unbearable in Memphis and Nashville.  It was unusually hot even for them, although we heard that similar temperatures had been experienced for a long period in 1954.

Next stop was Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s hotel and theme park which was far more elegant and comfortable and far less bling than we had imagined.  Country music played in the hotel and the theme park, both of which are set in pretty wooded countryside. The ’bling’ moment was at the Dolly Parton Stampede, which is a sort of Wild West show with Native Indians, cowboys, horses, buffalo, long-horned cattle being corralled, wagons, piglet-racing, chase-the-chicken racing and more.  It was all huge fun and set in the context of the Civil War, the North against the South as a competition within the audience.  I reflected that we probably wouldn’t allow the piglet-racing nor the chicken-chasing in the UK as the RSPCA might forbid it but all the animals involved looked thoroughly healthy and well-tended.

And everywhere we went we found good manners both from adults and children alike.  Very polite ‘good mornings/good afternoons’ and ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ used frequently and a friendly welcome.  The Southern accent and hospitality is renowned and we certainly experienced it along the road and especially once we reached Highlands in North Carolina.  A wealthy gentile town that reminded me of Wimbledon Village or Virginia Water, where we felt a real sense of community and family values.  There are many churches of all denominations here as elsewhere and, on the Sunday, the Main Street was full of smartly dressed folk making their way to one church or another.  I felt the focus of that neighbourliness when I was having to reverse out of a difficult blind spot and a kind lady spontaneously knocked on my window and said she would help me out by checking the traffic behind the truck parked at my rear.  I was very grateful. 

And beyond that we didn’t see CCTV and few radar speed traps.  One is not coddled at all in terms of checking in to a hotel (no passport requested). Picking up the rental car they just pointed to a row of cars and told us to choose the one we wanted.  No instructions, no information whatsoever.  So when we needed fuel we didn’t know whether it was diesel or petrol.  There was no notice on the car at all to signal what it might be.  Luckily there was a guy filling his car who told us he thought it would be petrol.  Luckily also, he was right!

We visited the civil rights museum in Memphis and this reminds one of the terrible barbarity of humans one to another.  The legacy of the Jim Crow policies of segregation are still felt and when David travelled the Southern States in 1963 the audiences were segregated in the jazz clubs he went to.  In Savannah and Charleston, at the end of our trip, we visited plantations and saw the dreadful conditions of the enslaved.   There was little mention of the slave masters in Africa who sent them there, which I felt was an omission.  And the sad part is that slavery and trafficking of humans still exists today, all these years later.  But then human cruelty can be witnessed throughout history – the holocaust, Pol Pot, Stalin, the wartime ‘comfort women’, Chairman Mao and many many more.  The question we need to keep asking is how to stop it happening again.

Something I noticed was that we saw virtually no Asian or Indian families here.  A map of Nashville showed where different populations live.  It reflected how like attracts like – Jewish communities, Irish communities, Hispanic communities, Afro-Caribbean communities come together there as they do in other places. Inevitably one is drawn to an area where there is a cousin, aunt, uncle or friend.  It’s human nature. 

On another note, I did begin to wonder whether orthopaedic surgeons were involved in the design of loos.  I couldn’t imagine how the larger American managed either to sit down let alone get up from sitting positions that were almost on the ground.  The pressure on dicky knees and hips must be enormous.   Good for business perhaps?!

It’s been hard to escape the tomato ketchup bottle or food wrapped in a bun.  But every so often, and particularly if you look hard, you do find excellent restaurants offering superb food.  And expensive food, in pleasant surroundings.  But the norm is fast food and chips still served on plastic trays in plastic cups with plastic straws.  Talking of which we only saw one roof area of solar panels and no wind farms where we have travelled.  Concerns about the environment were rarely witnessed. 

But there are signs warning of $1000 fines and prison  for littering.  This reminded me of the Arlo Guthrie movie Alice’s Restaurant.  The roadsides are, as a result maybe, far cleaner than ours.  I was always horrified by the amount of litter and debris we passed as we drove down the A31 from London to Winchester.  Surely we should educate our children and adults to respect the countryside more by increasing our own littering fines?

What else?  We saw far fewer dogs than we would here.  And I didn’t see a single cat so it’s lovely to get back to Chico. 

The stories we heard in the historic houses we visited in Savannah and Charleston brought to mind the tough life people experienced.  Of a house buzzing with mosquitoes and bugs, even as one ate one’s meal, or slept.  Of yellow fever, diptheria, death in childbirth, smallpox, infant mortality.  Story upon story of loss – human and financial.  Then the resilience of a widow or widower to pull themselves back up again. 

Savannah was saved from the bulldozers by a group of seven feisty and determined women who bought up the historic houses, one by one, restored them and protected them from planners who had wished to turn them into car parks.  We heard similar stories in Charleston.  Both towns are fabulous examples of planning and architecture, though our Uber driver told us that urbanisation was forcing rattle snakes and poisonous spiders into the town centres now.  She had just been bitten by a Brown Ransom spider that kills off cells.  She thought it might have been in her car – I was glad to get out!

Our train ride from Savannah to Charleston on Amtrak’s Silver Meteor was extraordinarily slow-paced.  And late.  Where seats and carriage numbers would have been allocated by computer and online booking in the UK, here it was done by hand, on pieces of paper depending on where you were headed.  For a country that has led the digital revolution this seemed somewhat archaic though worked fine, and the service we were given was both friendly and helpful.

So what do I take from all this?  That good manners and a friendly and curious approach to others brings with it a richness of sharing and information.  That it was not so long ago that life was very harsh in so many ways and that medicine and science have enabled us to live so comfortably and well now that illness and death, though natural, seem to offend us.  That the spirit of enterprise brings with it resilience.  Get knocked down and you find ways to bob back up again if you possibly can.  The sense of not being ashamed of business – that hard work brings with it meaning, innovation, the ability not only to care for one’s own family but to employ others and pay the taxes that enable a reasonable infrastructure for all.  Of course it isn’t perfect but for us everything worked like clockwork.  I would recommend it! And despite warnings, we didn’t see a single gun, other than in a Museum!

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I worry for the girls …

I went to a talk the other night by Frank Dikotter, the author of How to be a Dictator.  He mentioned at the beginning of the evening that all the dictators he had profiled were men.  So, at the end of the lecture I asked him whether he could have chosen a woman.  His immediate response was “well it is still a man’s world.”

And it is. Just look at the photos or news coverage of political or business meetings from around the world and you mainly see a majority of men around the head table.  I am not seeking a world of women dictators but despite all my generation’s protestations for women’s equality there are still major gaps that need to be addressed, particularly financially, but also in terms of how women are encouraged to think about themselves as confident individuals, independent of men.  I worry about the insidious ‘put-downs’ that occur to keep women in their place, which are by no means a domain of the older generation but sadly are witnessed in the behaviours of young men too.  For that reason I worry for the young women of today … and those growing up to be women in tomorrow’s world. 

I question why so much publicity and praise is being given to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian view of a future world in The Handmaid’s Tale.  It fills me with horror and I have no desire to watch it or read the book. There is far too much subjugation of women still occurring globally to wish to watch more fiction on the subject.  In my experience of my own life and the lives of my clients it is far more useful to imagine a picture of the world one is seeking to create rather than to hold images of a world one would hate to live in.

If it is ever to be a world where the balance of power is equally shared by men and women we have a great deal of work to do.  Perhaps it is the perennial concern of the older generation to be anxious about the world their grandchildren will enter and, as you know, I am in the main an optimist.  But there are aspects of what is happening in the UK and the world, with the ease of access to porn, the violence being shown to women in Africa, India, the Middle East, South America to name just a few, the huge increase in reports of rape here, that makes me uneasy.  Of course we don’t want to convict the innocent but surely it is obvious that there are only a minority of women who raise these issues without due cause.  Neither the police nor university departments, where girls report being unsupported over complaints of rape or harassment, are taking sufficient action to keep girls safe.  These are intelligent young women who are shocked to find themselves victims of sexual misconduct.

The growing tendency for young boys and men to view porn is leading to more of this hideous habit of bullying girls and women to feel they have to sink to the demands of partners.  Whilst we have spent our lives promoting women’s confidence, the technical revolution of sadistic and misogynistic digital games and apps has led to an undermining of what we have built up.  I mentioned ‘hazing’ in a recent blog but have just come across ‘stealthing’ which is where a man removes a condom half way through making love.  Isn’t that appallingly callous and cruel? 

Why do young men feel that they can treat girls in such a disrespectful and cold way?  Perhaps it is the objectification that comes through viewing porn and violent games.  The #MeToo campaign has uncovered women’s experiences of men and it doesn’t make good reading.  (Though at the same time women should not be opportunistic in claiming harassment where there may have been none.  Nor should men be judged online without a legal process.)  But the stories imply that the sense of entitlement that my generation experienced lives on today.  A man’s world still.

And talking of safety, we are back to my old chestnut of trans people in girls’ changing rooms in schools.  A leaked set of guidelines from the Equality and Human Rights Commission is recommending that those who identify as transgender or are ‘exploring their gender identity’ will be allowed to use the changing rooms of their chosen gender and would also be allowed to sleep in single-sex rooms on school trips if they identify with that gender.  Tanya Carter, of the Safe Schools Alliance, was reported in the Sunday Times 15.9.19, as saying she was appalled by this approach which ‘ignores the rights of girls’.  Girls at several schools have been told they can no longer wear skirts, although at other schools boys are being told they can wear skirts (it’s a mad world!).  Many schools are adopting trousers for all. 

The natural enjoyment of being different and experimenting with fashion is being denied to girls.   They are being expected to dress and behave like men rather than embrace the fun of difference.  On the one hand this is all being done in the name of ‘diversity’ but the simple diversity that exists between boys and girls, men and women, is now being obliterated. 

And the trend continues into school and professional sport.  Transgender players will continue to be able to compete in the category they choose, even if it is patently obviously unfair to do so. 

All this in order to make a small percentage of the population more comfortable, which is fine except it has the potential for making others feel uncomfortable.  It all seems thoroughly undemocratic.  Who has asked girls how they feel about these changes?  Or you?  Or me?

Of course trans children and adults should be treated with respect, compassion and consideration.  My question is how much consideration are girls being given?  But any time anyone expresses an inkling of concern on these issues one is labelled a transphobe and told to shut up.

The difficulties continue into adult life, it seems to me.  There remains the problem of tax on sanitary products, which makes a natural occurrence for 50% of the population financially onerous, especially for poorer girls and women.  And is still unacknowledged in its debilitating impact on women in the workplace and in sport, who are expected just to grin and bear it, as they have for centuries.

Then there’s childbirth.  This has become more efficient in some ways but less caring in others.  Young women in our family have been sent home 5 hours after a first baby.  No time to adapt in the safety of a hospital, to learn more about feeding, nappy changing, bathing.  Chucked back into the home where you are totally dependent on the kindness of a husband or family to help you get your strength back and become more confident.  In my mother’s day new mothers stayed in hospital for up to four weeks to adapt to becoming mothers.  In my time I was in hospital for 10 days after a Caesar. My daughter-in-law was back home in 24 hours after a Caesarean.  I cannot imagine how I would have coped, as all I can remember is the pain and exhaustion!

And, as a recent survey found, there is little care for the mother after birth.  Apparently there is funding for a baby’s health check but not for the mother!  Many new mums are hardly given any time with a health visitor or GP to give them a health check, let alone advice and comfort in what can be a hugely anxious time.

Maternity leave is helpful but at the same time leaves women open to being left behind in skillsets and the career ladder.  It is only women who can carry children to create the next generations –  the technology hasn’t advanced to alter that particular role yet!  So, for the sake of all humanity, surely they need support.

Motherhood leaves women way behind financially.  In a recent UBS study of male and female finances they calculated that a wife not only forfeits a year’s salary on maternity leave but, with all other factors taken into account, is likely to be 43% less well-off than her husband at the end of her life, even if they have similar qualifications.  Part of this is also that women can still assume that a man will take care of their investments, which can leave a woman exposed should they become widowed or single.  The UBS report “Own your worth: why women should take control of their wealth to achieve financial well-being” points out that many women defer thinking about their long-term future and, as a result, end up with less pension.

Guidant Financial reported recently that more women are starting their own businesses.  This has been a trend for some time.  Having run a small business myself I know that it can give one more control over one’s time, not having to fit into an organisational system or answer to a boss.  However, one always has to answer to clients and it is extremely hard work, often with less pay and certainly with less perks in the way of sick pay, holiday pay or the ability to put sufficient funds into a pension. 

Fathers are far more involved with their children and the home than they ever used to be, which is great.  The sharing is good.  Yet Ruth Davidson’s resignation recently has once again highlighted both the emotional pull of motherhood and also the conflict that arises when one has to let go of a job one loves yet can no longer manage happily.

The world needs women’s voices and perspectives.  Governments and organisations need to reflect the world in a balanced way.  We can be every bit as skilled, competent and intelligent as men in a multitude of different careers and ways but we may see things differently, may pick up something that someone else has not noticed, may approach a situation from another angle.    Yet becoming a CEO or an MP is daunting when one can be judged more harshly and become the recipient of brutal trolling.  I take my hat off to those women who have stuck their head above the parapet and have to work their way through revolting tweets with threats of death and rape.

We must be vigilant to protect what has been built up in our culture and society.  I would hate the cultural or digital habits of young men to push women back down to any lower status.  The key now is to encourage young women to expect and demand good things for themselves in work and life and to command the respect of others, not be self-deprecating.  And for young men to see that women are their equals. 

We really don’t need awful images of women being subjugated as we see in The Handmaid’s Tale.  Do we?  Let’s build the images of young women happily running organisations, families and countries alongside their male counterparts, equal but different.  Knowing their worth.

Just to let you know that we are off on a road trip in the USA next week so I shall be silent for a few weeks while we drink in the atmosphere and music of Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia.  Will report back!

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Is our democracy in danger?

I can’t pretend to be an expert on the law or on democratic process but the current complex conflict over Brexit: deal, no-deal, call for a general election, refusal to call an election, delay a general election, throws up so many questions for me.  Do you find the current shenanigans as confusing as I do?  Parliament claims to want a deal but didn’t want the deal and now they have secured that there will be no ‘no-deal’ nor an immediate election.  Unless, that is, Boris Johnson resigns or calls for a vote of no-confidence in himself.  Hmmm…

The trouble is that I am not really sure which side is being the less democratic.  On the one side Boris Johnson was accused of being anti-democratic as a result of his decision to prorogue Parliament.  But the Court has ruled that this was not illegal and in fact quite a normal event.  Also, as it is Party Conference time, the argument is that there will be few days actually lost to debate what has already been debated for 3 years.  But the timing was obviously not lost on Boris.  The cat was most definitely intended to be put among the pigeons.

So now Boris has lost but he is claiming to want to push through Brexit even if it kills him (which, of course, some hope it will).  He sees it as ‘the will of the people’ and is also prepared to give the people a vote on this through a General Election but, quite contrarily as I see it, the opposition parties do not go for this.  Why?  Because they don’t have much chance of winning.  So rather than give the people the chance to vote they would prefer to withhold that opportunity from the population of the UK.  Is that democratic?

You might think from this that I am a supporter of Johnson.  I am not.  However, I am concerned about the voice of many ordinary people being silenced by Parliament when MPs are, in fact, there to be the spokespeople of the electorate.  I am also concerned that there is little or nothing, in the narrative of those opposition parties who wish to block Brexit, to address some of the legitimate concerns of the Leavers. Surely these voters deserve a considered response to their worries as much as any other voters.  And some solutions.

On the other side, the opposition parties cry ‘shame’ that they are being silenced by the shutting down of Parliament, which is certainly a heavy-handed move.  But have they not all just had three years to debate a deal? And rejected May’s eventual deal three times in the Commons?  What kind of rabbit do any of them think they can pull out of a hat at this stage?  And in the meantime is it not absolutely sensible for the government to prepare for no-deal?  May was criticised enough for not having done so.

After all, having made a ‘no-deal’ impossible, this removes any bargaining power from whichever party might be negotiating with Brussels in future.  They have tied themselves in knots because surely, in any negotiation, you do have to keep the possibility of walking away on the table.  Don’t you?  Unless, as in most private divorces, there is a legal structure that outlines what is a fair outcome for both parties.  But this protection doesn’t seem to exist in what feels like a wild-west divorce.

I may have voted Remain but I do seek fairness of approach and what I am seeing is exactly what leads a population into extreme government – the ignoring of the sentiment of the people by Parliament.  The historian David Starkey commented this morning that it is a dangerous moment when Parliament overrides the will of the people, which effectively it has done by blocking a snap election.  It feels to me as if both sides are being high-handed with democracy.  Boris through proroguing Parliament but the opposition parties by preventing the election.

After all, everyone has been clamouring for another Referendum, saying it is time to put it back to the people but when given that opportunity they block it.  The election effectively provides the equivalent of another referendum (provided, of course, Labour can decide what it stands for, leave or remain).  But no, the other parties look at the polls which give Boris and Farage the potential majority and say they will only hold an election when it suits them and, in the meantime, insist on kicking the Brexit can down the road, whatever the French say.

But the people did vote Leave.  And we can no longer say that they don’t know what they voted for.  Project Fear has been well and truly publicised for three years.  So the current polls suggesting that Brexit and Boris/Farage would nonetheless potentially win an election has to reflect the fact that, despite the negative forecasts about how this country would fare on a no-deal Brexit, there are still a large number of people who want to exit the EU anyway.

Now have you noticed how there is suddenly talk of it only being an ‘advisory Referendum’, although this fact has hardly been mentioned as a challenge to the result over the last three years.  Why on earth wasn’t this status raised immediately in 2016 so that the Government could use the result as a sounding board and tackle some of the issues raised.  But no, they rushed headlong into Brexit.  Surely those opposed to the result could have made more of this argument at the time and allowed us to find solutions to the problems, besides exiting the EU?  But now we are well and truly stuck and it has unsettled our democratic processes.

What has always made me uncomfortable is the narrative about the Leavers all being ‘Little Englanders’ and ignorant idiots.  It is so disrespectful as there are plenty of thoroughly intelligent and successful people in that group.  It feels high-handed and begs the question whether the people who talk like this are harking back to days before universal suffrage.  Perhaps they regret that the vote was ever granted to all.  It feels as if some elitist metropolitan attitudes are suggesting that, as in previous centuries, some votes count for more than others.

It was only a century or so ago that universal suffrage was passed.  Prior to that only men, the wealthy and the educated had the vote.  The lower classes weren’t deemed clever enough to know how to vote.  Workers and women had to wait until the twentieth century for their moment.  Are those who are unhappy with the Referendum result equally feeling that perhaps universal suffrage has been a bad idea – that after all there are some people in the UK who don’t know what’s good for them?

There seems to be no will to listen and respect opinions that differ to our own, or to find solutions that encompass some middle ground.  I believe that this is what May was attempting to do, albeit without success or panache.  Instead each side is now adopting battle zones through the courts, parliament and the press and overriding the other party in any way they can, seemingly for political ends.  It doesn’t feel particularly democratic.  It feels dangerous.  And it divides us as a nation.

The Brexit negotiation has been a disaster for us all.  There is so much to be gained through alliance and there are many ways to achieve that outcome.  Would it not now give us all an ounce of hope if, whichever Party leads us into the future, they are able to pull this country together after all this fiasco?  I am not averse to seeing Boris land in a ditch but I do want all voices to be heard and for our country to be united in some kind of central common ground again.  We can’t take democracy for granted.

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Heading for immortality?

There seems to be an obsession with longevity at the moment.  Endless research on this, that and the other food, magic pill or habit that will keep us alive for longer.  Though personally I am not convinced that I wish to live for longer.  Why do the scientists think this is such a great goal, I wonder?  I gather there are various experiments in the US to maintain life, including cryotechnology, which only makes me think of the crazy consequences of freezing people depicted brilliantly in the antics of Woody Allen in his film Sleeper!

But for me, it looks as if I could be quasi-immortal!  Two pieces of research released this year demonstrate, firstly, that it’s the inconsequential contact we have with strangers every day that keep us healthy, happy and alive.  Secondly, that optimists stay healthier and live longer.  Oh, and incidentally being a grandparent helps too. Yay! 

Mind you, as I say, I am more interested in being healthy than living forever but it seems like good news, nonetheless.  And why does this work for me?  Well, as most of you who know me would agree, I am an optimist and a positive-thinker (why else would I have called my company Positiveworks?!).  And now that we have moved to Kew Village we are experiencing a delightful number of everyday chit-chats with neighbours, florists, baristas, and newsagents, alongside all the jolly conversations we have at the Avenue Club where we study French, wellbeing, yoga, creative writing and more.   I have never lived in such a friendly community before. 

In my early life we lived in Surrey, near Oxted, and I remember that my young nephew, who lived in Wandsworth, used to comment to my mother, his grandmother, that she seemed to know “everyone” in the High Street as she walked alongside him.  And she certainly knew several of those people by sight, as did I as a child.  But after Surrey, I moved to London and that is, in the main, the land of anonymity, which, I have to admit, quite suited me for much of my life.  As a busy working Mum I enjoyed choosing who I spoke to rather than bumping into people. 

Here in Kew we bump into someone we recognise, if not know intimately as friends, every day.  It is an extraordinarily friendly place where we just have to walk down the street and some stranger will smile at us.  And what an interestingly nice feeling that is, after all, isn’t it?  Especially for this latter part of life.  I am really coming to enjoy these brief encounters.

I wonder what it is about a chance meeting that makes us happy.  There is obviously something that happens in these moments that is meaningful and boosts our mood. Does receiving a smile from a stranger somehow reinforce the idea that the world is a good place, that the majority of people are pleasant and not out to do us harm?  It doesn’t matter whether that person is local or comes from the other side of the world, a few words exchanged with a stranger or someone one only sees randomly definitely makes one feel that all is good with the world.  So, go on, smile at a stranger today and make them live longer!

Now those of us who are optimists have often been accused of being unrealistic.  But ha, it seems that for health and longevity we have the answer after all!  And, of course, we have a point, don’t we?  Wouldn’t the world fall apart if there were more evil people than good, more chaos than order?  On the whole, most of the time, the world is far from perfect, but there are enough good folk in it to remind us that positive thinking isn’t as ridiculous as some people consider it to be.  At least one spends each day feeling relatively happy, which is good for our immune systems, and then if something bad does happen then one has energy in reserve to manage it.  Whereas the pessimists must spend each day rather anxious and miserable and then if the inevitable bad thing happens they will be facing it from an already-depleted physical and emotional state.  Won’t they?  I am sure you might have some personal view on that, so do share it.

To be honest I wouldn’t have started my business Positiveworks unless I had optimism – nor would any entrepreneur begin a venture unless they believed in it and thought positively about it.  How could they?  They can’t prove it will work until it does work.  In 1992 when I set up the company I had some qualifications, some good training and coaching products but no clients.  Noone knew me from Adam but somewhere in my gut I believed I could make it work.  In my own small way, I did. 

And apart from business, we need optimism and positive thinking if we are playing sports, running a public sector organisation, treating patients as a doctor or therapist, teaching children from all backgrounds, managing a health condition, making a change. 

Or, indeed, running a country.  I am sorry, I have great respect for Philip Hammond but I personally don’t think an Eeyore has the right credentials to run a country and make it successful so I am glad he didn’t stand for PM, though I am far from happy with the Tigger of a PM we do have.  Talk about extremes… For when I talk of optimism I am not speaking of Pollyanna thinking.  Not thinking that everything in the garden will always be roses.  I am referring to rational optimism – being optimistic about things that have a relative potential for success or positive outcome.

One of the things that concerns me most these days is that politicians and voters alike talk this country down.  There are plenty of bad and embarrassing things happening in the rest of the world too.  We certainly aren’t the worst.  But because we are divided on this never-ending topic of Brexit people choose to put the country down at the same time as denigrating the opposite side, whether a Remainer or a Leaver.  Whatever happens we are absolutely going to need to think optimistically about ourselves and our ability to rebuild our economy, our relationships with other countries and bring together this divided population of ours.  We can’t do that on pessimism and negative thinking.

So I am happy that something (was it being born in sunny May, a genetic gift, or an experience of childhood) has made me an optimist.  And perhaps as an optimist I also tend to believe that the majority of people around me do not wish me harm and are friendly, and so have frequent inconsequential and yet meaningful chats and conversations with people in this village, on the tube, waiting in a lift and more.  It has felt quite natural for me to do so, though perhaps now I should make even more of an effort to embrace positive thinking and smile at strangers, to keep myself healthy.

But ultimately, do we really want to be immortal?  I don’t think so.  Healthy, yes, but to live longer and longer just for the sake of it certainly does not fill me with optimism or joy, so I shall leave that to those people who are choosing to cryogenically freeze themselves for the future.  If they are as amusing as Woody Allen when they thaw, life won’t be so bad.  In the meantime, who might you smile at today?  And how might you develop an optimistic thought about life despite Brexit and Trump?!  Please do.  We need all the positive and optimistic thoughts we can get.

PS. you can now download our book Reclaim Health A recovery strategy when doctors can’t explain your symptoms for free on http://reclaimhealth.org.uk/?page_id=280
http://reclaimhealth.org.uk/?page_id=280

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The politicians we deserve?

Boris Johnson’s threat to suspend Parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit is a worrying one as it seems to put two fingers up to the norms of our Constitution and to democracy.  We hear that the electorate want a ‘strong man’ as leader though I have yet to meet anyone personally who says this.  For me the idea of a strong man as leader makes me shudder.  I think of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Kim Jong Un and many more throughout history who have caused great harm.

Now, a wise leader would be good and in wisdom there is some strength but it is not the strength of the bully.  It is the quiet strength of seeking to do what is right and what is in the benefit of the people, in this case the United Kingdom.  But this focus cannot be in isolation as “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” [John Donne]  The leader has to think beyond their own shores as everything that happens within a country impacts the world, and vice versa.  And in today’s world more than ever.

But wisdom isn’t a word we hear a lot.  We hear idiotic words and soundbites from our politicians that are often meaningless and get contradicted the next moment with no sense that this lack of continuity demonstrates a flakiness of purpose or intent.

The Queen is obviously as dismayed by our current band of politicians’ inability to govern as the rest of us.  The expenses scandals and the favours for office leave us rather disgusted that we are being led by people in all parties who would sell themselves for a peerage or to massage their egos in some way. 

So why have we ended up in this situation?  One aspect that comes to my mind is that many previous ministers and politicians served in the armed forces.  Of course many mistakes were made in warfare but they potentially learnt more about leadership within that military environment – the need for a vision, a strategy, to pull a team together to fight alongside one another, to protect one another in the face of onslaught. 

For better or for worse there was also an educational system that raised young men for these officer roles as war was the norm in previous times.  This is now an outdated concept but it could be of benefit to our country for schools to focus more on the skills of leadership, not in the model of the ‘strong man’  but in enabling young people, girls and boys, to consider what it is to analyse a threatening situation, to problem-solve, to seek multiple potential methods of approaching that situation and then galvanise people to tackle it, even if there is some danger to be faced.

Everyone loves to put this country down, including our own politicians, despite the fact that others see it as a land of opportunity and relative fairness.  Have we overlooked the concept of loyalty to one’s country in the fear of right-wing nationalism?  Surely there is a middle way.   We can feel proud of our country and yet retain a sense of being a part of the world beyond.

There are people in every country of the world who seek a sense of belonging, who wish to be part of a community. These people might congregate around a church, synagogue, mosque or a local hub and value continuity of their cultural and social norms.  There is a place for this and it does not mean that those people are necessarily racist or seek to prevent others leading their own lives.  But there can be an arrogance among the Westminster political class that leads them to lecture rather than to empathise with those who enjoy tradition, berating them for being uncomfortable with change instead of valuing them for the contributions they make within a society.  There is never just one ‘right way’.  There are surely many ways of living this life of ours.

“Liberalism is alive and thriving” Jo Swinson stated after her election as leader of the LibDems in July this year.  But how liberal is liberalism these days?  We don’t want politicians who live in an echo-chamber.  Don’t we want politicians who are broad thinkers and have the ability to make decisions on the basis of a range of information and sentiment?

When I worked on the biography of Harold Macmillan it was well-known that he and other MPs spent time reading.  How well read are our politicians?  How much knowledge of history and philosophy, or political ideas, shapes their thinking?  How many take the time to go to the theatre and have their mind opened to new ways of perceiving situations?  Or to classical music concerts to be moved by the beauty and disciplined creativity of an orchestra?  How many consider that they are role models and have a duty to give the population a lead on art and culture beyond the inevitable supposedly-trendy must-do gig of being photographed with rappers at Glastonbury?

Whilst I am sure there are some politicians who harbour a real sense of wanting to make a difference, I fear there are other career politicians who just wish to have power and status.  For what are the qualifications to become a politician?  It seems that you just have to have a British Passport, be 18, have some money for your campaign and then make enough noise to get noticed.  There is no question of what A levels, university degrees or professional qualifications might be required.  There is no mention of ‘character’, ethics, values or purpose in the advice on ‘how to become an MP’.

Personally I don’t think anyone should become an MP unless they have spent time in other sectors beforehand.  A vast majority of the companies in the UK are SMEs.  Perhaps budding MPs should see how difficult it is to run a small business when politicians walk roughshod over them and give them no sense of future direction around which they can build their strategies, budgets and plans.  Perhaps they should get experience of running a large department and understand the complexities that exist within the NHS, Defence, transport, technology and business before being made a Minister of an area they know little or nothing about?

And then what about professional development once in the job?  What about appraisals, 360 degree feedback, some sense that the person is self-observing and learning from mistakes?  What about personality profiling, communication skills, assertiveness, management and leadership skills?  Whenever some beknighted MP does take the initiative to get some training, coaching or development there is a howling about it costing money.  But don’t we want our politicians to be competent, professional, to hold power with conscious intent?  To develop self-knowledge, critical thinking, delegation skills?  Perhaps even to develop wisdom?

When will politicians realize that we see through shallowness and flakiness?  When will they recognise the power and value of moral capital?  Of believing in something but not being deaf to other viewpoints, being open and listening to diverse opinions but having the wisdom to stop, analyse and reflect on the direction they believe to be right and not bow to populist pressure.  Then having the honesty to let us know where this is intended to take us.

No, I don’t want a strong leader.  I want a competent one.  I want someone wise enough to consider and reflect.  Someone who knows they are fallible and is not too arrogant to ask for advice and heed it.  Someone who can unite others to go with them. I certainly don’t want someone who forces their hand just to get what they want.  There lies dictatorship.

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Reclaim Health – our new book is just published!

If you are experiencing persisting physical symptoms such as stomach cramps, severe fatigue, exhaustion, pain in your muscles, over a period of several months, it is likely that you will go to your doctor in the expectation that they will be able to diagnose your problem and prescribe treatment to alleviate your symptoms.  Should they tell you at the end of your appointments and investigations that they can find nothing physically wrong with you this can be bewildering and disheartening.   It can be equally confusing for the doctor, who is trained to diagnose and prescribe and may well feel frustrated that he or she cannot help you.

GPs estimate that approximately 50% of patients in their waiting rooms do not have a fixed pathology of disease that they can detect.  So what is happening?  

Over the past five years my partner Dr David Beales, who was a GP himself for some 30 years, brought together a team of experts to research and seek solutions.  We called ourselves the Reclaim Health team and the outcome of this collaboration is our book Reclaim Health: a recovery strategy when doctors can’t explain your symptoms, just published on Amazon. Click this link .

This book is for those who have or are experiencing these medically unexplained symptoms.  In writing this, we have benefited hugely from having two expert ex-patients in our team, Julia MacDonald and Janice Benning, both of whom were severely unwell for more than 10 years with chronic fatigue syndrome.  They used the tools and strategies in this book to reclaim their own health and have since then applied this process to many clients, with excellent results.  Janice and Julia were able not only to provide us with their experiences but also help us to present our findings, tips and techniques in this book in a simple yet powerful way, knowing that when you are unwell you do not have much energy to read, let alone read anything complicated. 

We initially approached this as a research project, obtaining funds from the National Institute of Health to research the literature and Janice and Julia then ran a pilot course to test recovery techniques, which we accomplished.   One of the keys to success is to give an empowering explanation of the symptoms a patient is experiencing, within the context of their immune system.  For more information on this please click to see David’s article.

The two GPs in the team, David and Gina Johnson, have added the science and their practical experience of working with these patients, addressing how the interconnection between mind and body can influence symptoms. I have contributed the coaching processes that can help a patient pursue their goals of wellbeing and return to their lives as healthy individuals, breaking through old patterns and persisting through everyday challenges. 

I suspect that any of you reading this may either have experienced these symptoms yourself or know someone who may be struggling to reclaim their health.  Do take a look at it on Amazon and buy a copy or send one to a friend you think may benefit.  As a not-for-profit team, we have kept the price intentionally low, at cost, £4.83 so that as many people as possible will be able to take advantage of the experiences, science and helpful techniques included in this book.

As a client has commented: “I use my Reclaim skills all the time, and life is good.  Forever grateful.”   Others can benefit too – both those with symptoms and those medics, coaches, therapists, HR teams, or family and friends who are supporting someone who is suffering from problems such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, Irritable Bowel. 

It is such a shame to feel so debilitated that you can’t participate or enjoy life. People arrive at this place for many different reasons when their level of tolerance – physical, mental, spiritual – is exhausted.  Sometimes people feel so unwell that they can’t enjoy their partner, children, work or even the hobbies they used to love.  But as with anything in life this can lead to habits, conscious or unconscious, that keep you stuck and then returning to health and life can seem scary, like too big a challenge.  The task can look too steep and so people end up feeling helpless and hopeless.

But it doesn’t have to be an exhausting challenge.  Gradually, small step by small step, people begin to take control of their lives again – their thoughts, emotions, physical strength, flexibility and energy.  They notice when they are ‘doing’ negativity or pessimism.  They begin to develop the ability to say ‘no’ to people they have found ask too much of them.  They begin to tune into their bodies and recognise when they need to rest or sleep, when and what they need to eat, what exercise re-energises them, or when they just need to be still, perhaps to meditate or reflect.  They begin to define the lifestyle, relationships and environmental choices that nurture them, the creativity that inspires them and to regain a sense of purpose and meaning.  And key to all of this is compassion – compassion for self and compassion for others.

Sadly many people are told that they will never recover from these kinds of chronic and debilitating conditions.  We would like to encourage them to believe that they can – and include plenty of case studies in the book of those who have turned their lives around to reclaim their health.  So I shall just finish with one example of a client in his 20s, Edward, who gave this feedback after sessions with Janice:

“I thought my life was over, but 2 years later I have climbed Snowdon and celebrated with a pint!  I wouldn’t have the energy to watch a park run, but now I run it. Knowing there was another way that would allow me to live my life was the most liberating and emotional experience.”

We believe that this book provides that help so do click here to take a peek at it and let us know how you, or anyone you know who reads it, gets on!  Do visit our website www.reclaimhealth.org.uk. We would love your feedback.

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