Stop talking, just listen!

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!


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, 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.


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!


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!