Monday, 12 October 2015

Assad - or the deluge

Picture from Russian bomber over Syria (Channel 4 News)
There was an unusually arresting interview on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme on Saturday. After a report by John Simpson (1 hour, 30 minutes into the programme) on Russia's activities in Syria, Justin Webb interviewed the former ambassador to Bahrain and Syria, Peter Ford, who after retiring from the Foreign Office went to work as UN representative for refugees in the Middle East until 2014. he had just returned from the area. He should know what he's talking about - and, it seemed to me, he did.

The interview so struck me that I transcribed it in full (you can listen to it here - after 1.30 in).

Do you think it’s fair to think of the Russian action bringing things to a head in a way that for all the short term costs might in the long term be a good thing?
Yes, I think that the Russian action is extremely positive. As John Simpson said… the Assad government had been on the ropes; a few months ago it had been haemorrhaging young men, who incidentally have been flocking to Europe, being unwilling to be conscripted. The Syrian army was down from a maximum earlier of about 300,000 to 80,000; it was on the ropes. The Russians have come in to redress the balance. And NATO, instead of sounding petulant and churlish, should actually be grateful to the Russians who are exercising some adult supervision; and what is happening is actually grist to the mill of Jeremy Corbyn who argues that NATO has lost the plot and is in fact often a risk to British security.

But in what way though could it be a long-term solution for Assad to be bolstered, because John Simpson made the point that he is more powerful in the short term, but in the long term all this does potentially is put off the day when he has to go and Syria has to be sorted out?
Oh, I totally disagree. Assad does not have to go. Let us not be brow-beaten by David Cameron repeating this mantra. I was in Northern Jordan a few days ago: I spoke to a young refugee, a teenager, a girl. I asked her, “Who do you blame?” She said, “We blame them all. We blame the jihadis for coming to our village and forcing us to flee - and we blame the government for not being strong enough.” Not strong enough! Many Syrians have this grievance against the government; so the government can hardly be blamed when it does try harder and now, with Russian support, is more likely to prevail. The choice - (Interviewer tries to interrupt) - I’m sorry, the choice cannot be shirked. It’s Assad or the deluge. NATO leaders need to address this question, and answer it to the people, like me - the voice of the ordinary man. I’m afraid we’re not getting this from the Labour Party in Britain. I don’t know why they’re nervous about tackling the government on this, because this actually a point of weakness in the government’s story. They’re not answering, “Who will replace Assad?”

Yes, but they’re nervous about saying they support Assad, and that Assad is the long-term solution because he has murdered so many of his own people, and they know, or they suspect, that he is such a divisive force, because of that in sectarian and political terms, that he could not be a realistic long-term leader of Syria.
That’s simply untrue. There’s every prospect that things could return to the status quo ante if the military campaign of Russia and Syria - 

Really, even after all the barrel bombs and the killing? 
Yes, he’s never going to be popular with everybody, but which Middle East leader is?  The truth of the matter is that Assad is supported by a good 40% of the Syrian people.  That is more actually than voted for David Cameron.  

Are you seriously expecting now that following on from the Russian action and if this is bringing things to a head on the ground in Syria and indeed in the air over Syria that there is a serious diplomatic volte face now in the West and that people follow what you’ve been suggesting this morning as a serious prospect in diplomacy?
No. That would be too much to expect, but what is realistic to expect is that the West should pipe down, take a deep breath, let the Russians get on with it, NATO should continue to do what it can to fight ISIS, but it should not undermine the one force with boots on the ground, which, as John Simpson said earlier, is the only one likely to prevail against ISIS. It is totally shambolic to have a policy which is mutually contradictory.

You talk about boots on the ground. John as you say mentioned it. There’s no realistic prospect of Britain putting boots on the ground and there is occasionally discussion in America about the options that it might have had in the past for doing it and more discussion in the last few days. Is it realistic? Is it too late now for outside powers, not just in the West, but other outside powers, to intervene themselves, possibly with the UN, now that the Russians seem to be on board with some kind of action? Is that realistic or simply not?
   No, I’m afraid that is not realistic. Western powers have impaled themselves on this policy of calling for the downfall of Assad. Anyhow it’s probably a good thing that they not put boots on the ground. But they can help, by, for example, lifting sanctions on the Syrian economy which penalise only the poor Syrian people. This is one reason why so many are fleeing Syria - the Western sanctions, about which we never hear a word. 

Well, at the end of that admirably long interview I had a number of thoughts. One was how refreshing it was for the BBC to have had the courage to allow another voice from the government party line, which, Peter Ford is right, we do hear repeated like a mantra. It's like a PR-generated slogan - if something's repeated enough, people will come to believe it. Another was how very undiplomatically frank and outspoken this former ambassador was. I should imagine it did his career no favours. But hopefully there are still those within the diplomatic service who tell their political masters the truth as it is. And finally I wondered whether any of our political representatives would take a blind bit of notice of what is an admittedly inconvenient but patent truth, and be humble enough to confess we've got it wrong again. The story we hear so often is not the whole truth. What is true is that thousands have died and millions have lost their homes - and we are not helping.
Part of wall war memorial in Tartus, Syria (Channel 4 News)

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

An antidote to World Cup Fever

No doubt by now my English readers are recovering from Saturday's experience of cold turkey so heartlessly administered by our Australian cousins, and the owners of ITV are vainly trying to persuade advertisers that the viewing figures for future fixtures will be unaffected. And meanwhile some women are refraining from reminding their dearly beloveds that, after all, it's only a game.

The Rugby World Cup, anticipated as the next great sporting event in the country after the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, already shows signs of going the way of all flesh. I suppose the consolation for the RFU is that they have already sold tickets for the potential "hot" matches at vast prices to corporate clients and individuals. The best hope for them and the broadcasters must be that at least one of the home nations comes good and so preserves some great British enthusiasm for the whole show.

The famous tackle on Jono Lomu in 1995 (AP Photo/John Parkin)
Meanwhile it was all put into perspective for me by Miles Pilling who's in the middle of raising cash and awareness for MND with brilliant photographer, Cristian Barnett (26 Miles 4 MND). Miles, like me, has the PLS form of MND. I spent a couple of hours a few weeks ago on a photoshoot with them for their project. He sent me a link to the story of Joost Van Der Westhuizen. I did know about this legend of South African rugby, their scrum half in the World Cup winning team celebrated in the film, Invictus. The championship took place in 1995, a year after Nelson Mandela being elected president of South Africa, and the alliance between Mandela and Francois Pienaar, the team captain, did much to heal the rift left by apartheid.

Van Der Westhuizen's first symptom occurred seven years ago, but it was not until 2011 that he was finally given the diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the commonest, rapid form of MND, with a prognosis of two to five years. Last night I watched a series of YouTube clips (a documentary and some interviews) which vividly and painfully illustrate the nature of the disease. Early on he talks about about his determination to fight the disease and to set up a foundation mainly to provide care and facilities for sufferers of MND (the J 9 Foundation) - 9 being the scrum-half's shirt number. Here are three of the clips: A Life of Two Halves, with Jim RosenthalInterview with Dr Mol (South Africa)The Rugby Show.
At home with his rugby memorabilia (Gallo Images for ESPN)

I ended by reading an article by James Peacock for BBC Sport, Joost Van Der Westhuizen: still fighting on his deathbed, which, despite its sensationalist headline, is well worth a read. At one point he reminded me of my co-author of I Choose Everything, Jozanne Moss, also a young parent of a boy and a girl, when he says, "'But I know that God is alive in my life and with experience you do learn. I can now talk openly about the mistakes I made because I know my faith won't give up and it won't diminish.
'It's only when you go through what I am going through that you understand that life is generous.'"

You do realise that even for an outstanding sportsman such as Joost Van Der Westhuizen there is much more to life than the glamorous and lucrative world of professional sport - there's his family, there's the gift of being alive, and there's God. There are more important things than winning. There's living.

(PS Apologies for the malfunction of the link to the good BBC article. My fault. It now works.)

Monday, 14 September 2015

A politically momentous weekend

What an interesting weekend on the domestic political scene! Great rejoicing among Corbynistas as their man was elected as the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. It's a very important role. There was a helpful blog-post by theologian Ian Paul: Why Jeremy Corbyn is just what we need, in which he argues that "there are lots of reasons why anyone concerned for truth, justice and Britain’s long-term welfare should welcome Corbyn’s appointment, as it challenges some key features of the current political scene." He suggests that despite the media's prejudging assault on him and some bonkers policies he might provide just the shake-up or wake-up that Westminster politics needs. It's certainly true that the majority of the population feel alienated from politics and voiceless, despite the proliferation of mass communication. On the other hand one of my Labour-supporting friends believes he's a danger to the country and "unfit" to be leader, "let alone PM".
All pictures from BBC website - note the sample
of our bumper apple crop in the foreground 

Then on the Friday there was the debate in the Commons about assisted suicide. Jane and I gained a certain amount of opprobrium (and friendly comments) as we were interviewed by the BBC's remarkable Caroline Wyatt and featured quite a bit on radio and TV. We are sometimes mistakenly regarded as campaigners. The truth is that we are just two individuals who will say what we think about the issue when asked. And like anyone who has been associated with MND we also understand the dilemmas and pain of terminal illness; we realise what a complex issue it is. 

There were two points in the day when I thought proponents of the Bill were quite illogical. One was when Lord Carey (retired Archbishop) cited Tony Nicklinson as his prime example of why the bill was needed. The bill would have done nothing to help Tony, whose prognosis was more than six months and who would have been incapable anyway of self-administering a lethal dose. The example illustrated in fact the direction that supporters of the bill hope to take it: to extend it to those who are not terminally ill and to legislate for others (medical professionals) to take life. It implies the beginning of euthanasia. Which is why I am glad it was so resoundingly defeated in the vote.

The other thing I noted was when Rob Marris was proposing his bill, near the end, he said, "I do not know whether I would, if I had a terminal illness and a prognosis of less than six months, but I and many others would find it comforting to know that the choice was available—to have the option of choosing a dignified and peaceful end at a time and place and in a manner of my own choosing at my own hand." I couldn't divine why this principle should be limited to the last six months of life. We none of us know when we're going to die, but this doesn't stop us from living full and fulfilling lives. To say, "If only I could choose my time and manner of death, I'd be happier," seems to me illogical and immature, and a carte blanche for suicide. However, maybe I'm not entirely logical to say I understand and would not condemn someone who felt desperate enough to take their own life....

We need to accept that life is a gift of which we are privileged to be part. Life and death - it's the circle of life.

 • You can read further thoughts of mine here: I'm ill with MND but still don't want assisted dying in Britain - Daily Telegraph. The headline isn't mine. I think it's unhelpful to call PLS a 'terminal' disease.
 • You can see Jane and me being interviewed in the last video clip on this report:

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Assing about in Devon

For a change, something a bit lighter - but not less important for all that, since such times take on a special significance when you have a chronic deteriorating condition.

Last week we returned from a week away with all our family. They're all busy people; in fact one of them is in the throes of completing his master's dissertation. So their giving up a week of the year to spend in the company of Jane and me means a lot. Not that we don't have fun together, but a wheelchair grouch imposes limits on what can be done.

We stayed in a large house in mid-Devon which Jane had found through the New Wine magazine. It was in reach of her parents and so we were able to call on them - which the great grandchildren enjoyed. The weather was of course mixed - but never bad enough to prevent us doing what we wanted. Not far away was Dunkeswell Airfield from where on the Saturday a continuous stream of sky-divers flew and gave us a grandstand display of their descents against a clear blue sky and even out of the clouds.

On the Monday we drove to the National Trust house at Knightshayes Court, once owned by the Heathcoat-Amory family. Our granddaughters dressed up as below-stairs servants. In the magnificent billiard room there was a series of corbels depicting fables. Near the door was this one:

Not a fable I'm familiar with, but it seems to refer to this one from the Latin writer, Phaedrus. "A donkey saw a lyre lying in a field. He approached the instrument and as he tried to strum it with his hoof, the strings resounded at his touch. 'What a beautiful thing,' said the donkey, 'but completely inappropriate, since I don't know anything about music. If only someone better equipped than myself had found it, my ears would have been delighted by heavenly melodies!'" 
So it is that talents often go to waste because of some misfortun(trans. Laura Gibbs). Sort of apt!

The next day we continued with the theme of donkeys, and visited the vastly over-endowed Sidmouth Donkey Sanctuary. Suppressing my reservations about how much money is donated to animal charities, I enjoyed the morning. It is free to get into and has pretty good wheelchair access (and posh disabled loos). An excessive number of photos were taken of the old ass with the sleek-looking donkeys. 
Looking at my stomach explains the notice!
Silent fellowship of asses
And of more importance the girls didn't seem to tire of  viewing the unexpected variety of donkeys. Then we had the exclusive use of Blackbury Camp for our picnic.
Under the greenwood tree

I mustn't forget to mention the two discoveries of our holiday. The first is the excellent Ashill Inn. Last year we went to have our final meal at Clyst Hydon's Five Bells. Now it's a bit out of our price bracket; and so we were delighted to find somewhere which suited us just as well and served excellent food. It's not stodgy pre-cooked microwaved pub grub, but a freshly cooked, locally sourced, delicious menu. Good wine list and local beers, I'm told.
At Ashill Inn
The game of Mölkky

The other is the game of Mölkky, to which one of our family introduced us. It's from Finland and it's a sort of sophisticated and longer version of skittles, but with the mölkky thrown rather than rolled. All generations could take part. Sadly my lack of coordination and muscle power meant I scored nothing when I played, but that didn't stop me enjoying it.

Life is good.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The letter The Guardian didn't print

A week ago, when I was away on a much-needed break with my family, the media, led by The Sun, was full of the case of Mr Bob Cole, a councillor from North Wales, who was due to commit suicide on the Friday afternoon in the "Dignitas" self-styled clinic in Zurich. It was clearly a media-event  pre-orchestrated by the pro-euthanasia lobby in this country. ITV had contacted me for an interview on the Thursday, but I wasn't then well enough to oblige. So I did the next best thing I could and sent a letter to The Guardian newspaper, before we left on holiday.

This was what I wrote:


I am sad to learn that The Sun has lent its megaphone in support of what appears to be the latest salvo in Dignity in Dying’s campaign to legalise assisted suicide.  No one can fail to be moved by Mr Cole’s suffering nor that of his late wife.  However the campaign threatens to open a Pandora’s box of unintended and dangerous consequences for those of us who suffer from chronic, terminal or disabling conditions – and indeed ultimately for our whole society.

Mr Cole is quoted as having “no wish to die in pain without any dignity”.  Neither do I.  I have a very slow form of MND, and although I don’t relish the prospect of dying I have confidence that my dignity will not be sacrificed and my symptoms will be well managed, thanks to advanced palliative care pioneered by the hospice movement.  Ironically, in our sophisticated culture, the populist campaign is based on an immature fear of the process of dying.  Rarely is that process easy, and as our population ages so the difficulties increase.  However short-circuiting the process, which is what Dignitas and assisted suicide offer, merely adds to fear and militates against acceptance of the inevitable, and good dying.  Deliberately ending life, also known as killing, is no way to go.  Expanding and investing in palliative care, which is real compassion, is the better way.  

The vast majority of disabled and vulnerable people are protected by the law as it stands, and fear any change.  To pass a law which admits that some lives are less valuable or worthy of protection, as has happened wherever euthanasia or assisted suicide have been made legal, is a thoroughly dangerous precedent.  I trust MPs resist the loud siren-call of press magnates and listen to the voice of informed reason.  Keep us safe.

Yours etc

Sadly, The Guardian, whilst making quite a thing of the event, chose not to print my response the next day. I am sorry because I think that opinion formers such as journalists and law makers such as MPs need to be made aware that euthanasia is not a good universally acknowledged - anything but.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Euthanasia - there is a better way

I talked to a professional carer a few weeks ago. She had been caring for someone with terminal cancer to the end. After that she had been on holiday, and had met another carer, a nurse, who'd worked in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legalised. He too had been caring for a cancer patient. The doctor had prescribed lethal drugs for his patient but would not administer them. (In Switzerland doctors aren't allowed to do the actual deed.) But the nurse was compelled to do it, although it ran counter to his conscience. I presume the patient had requested it.

However the effect on the nurse had been catastrophic. Can you imagine being forced to kill someone when your whole conscience and all your convictions forbade the taking of life? How would you live with yourself? The answer for that nurse was to abandon his vocation and to drown his guilt in a cocktail of drink and drugs. It was taking him a long time to rehabilitate himself, and the scars and nightmares will never leave him, I imagine.

Such is one seldom considered effect of legalising assisted suicide. There are always others involved. There is always some impact on their psyches. It might inure them to the event - which cannot be desirable. Or it might scar them as it did that French nurse.

A Labour MP, Rob Marris, has tabled a private member's bill in the House of Commons for 11th September after MPs return from holiday. It's basically the same old bill that Lord Falconer tried to introduce in the Lords last year, and will be fraught with the same old dangers which have restrained our legislators wisely from going down the same route as Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and a handful of US states. Open the door to "assisting" others to die and you open a Pandora's box of unforeseen consequences. My local MP rightly pointed out that, in Britain, we lead the world in palliative care. Our response to the physical and emotional pain of terminal illness must be to show compassion by extending and developing this further - not by letting people die when they most need encouragement and assistance to live. As evidence from other countries has shown, a right to die would for many be a duty to die. I hope other MPs will also fiercely resist this Bill for that reason.

There is a better way.

Being present at someone's deathbed is always momentous, but usually it is a necessary and healing part of grieving. It can't be that, if one is contributing to the death. But if one is there accompanying the dying person and sharing in their struggle to depart, there is no guilt in the memory, only a sense of a compassionate task well completed.

Two of my great friends have died within the last ten days. They were both men of faith. One died in a hospice and the other died at home. The passing to new life is never easy. It wasn't for them either, but it was peaceful. I suppose the body is very attached to physical life. Matt Redman's song Bless the Lord, O my soul was being sung as one friend died and will be sung at the other friend's funeral:
"Bless the Lord oh my soul
Oh my soul
Worship His Holy name
Sing like never before
Oh my soul
I'll worship Your Holy name.

And on that day
When my strength is failing
The end draws near
And my time has come
Still my soul will
Sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years
And then forevermore

Whether you have faith, as my friends had, or not, a "natural death" is better than an unnatural one. Hard, but free of the dangers and peculiar consequences which accompany the intentional shortening of life. 

Saturday, 27 June 2015

A night out in Oxford As You Like It

Last night Jane and I enjoyed an evening out in Oxford. We had gone to see  one of my favourite plays, As You Like It. It was an open-air production in the courtyard of Oxford Castle, with a small company and minimal props. However, it was a clear night and the moon rose behind the castle keep, providing whatever might have been lacking in atmospheric scenery.

In case you don't know, the plot is as satisfactorily convoluted as any Shakespeare comedy, involving a usurping duke banishing his more likeable brother from court into the Forest of Arden, where other courtiers including Rosalind, the bad duke's niece, and her best friend, Celia, his daughter, and Orlando, Rosalind's would-be boyfriend, also end up.... The two women are the heart of the play (with Rosalind having the most lines of a female character in Shakespeare) and they were last night. The last time we saw As You Like It was at Stratford in the RSC production which starred Pippa Nixon as an outstanding Rosalind in 2013. She displayed all the emotional complexities of her character. So it's perhaps unfair of me to compare Laura O'Mahony's winsome and lively portrayal with such a stellar performance. Of course it did not quite match. But Abigail Preece's Celia was, to my mind, as intelligent and interesting as Joanna Horton's at the RSC - a lovely performance. This Rosalind and Celia were equally convincing bosom pals.
Photo from GB Theatre

There were some production details with which  I was not comfortable. The major one was to exchange Duchesses for Dukes (both played by the versatile Clare Denton). Although the director, Edward Blagrove, explained it as one holding on to power "in a masculine way" while "the other offers an open and sharing world in her feminine guise", it somehow did not convince me. A major element of the play is how Rosalind proves herself ultimately more effective than all the men - hence Shakespeare gives her the epilogue. To replace them with a woman took away a visual symbol, and theatre is both verbal and visual. The result is that this Rosalind is made to appear somewhat light-weight. Another niggle for me was the caricature that was made of Sir Oliver, the priest. It was one of those outdated annoying TV portrayals (like Derek Nimmo in All Gas and Gaiters) which goes for cheap laughs. The play does not call for it.
BMH production of Macbeth at the castle

However, my reservations cannot detract from what was a thoroughly enjoyable evening by a talented small company of actors. (Watch out for Wayne Browne as Touchstone's bit of audience involvement!) It runs until 4th July and on the night we saw it there was still room for more audience, even though it's an intimate venue. If you've never seen the play - and even if you have, of course! - , I recommend making the trip. The weather forecast is good next week! The details are here.