Tuesday, 18 September 2018

The spreading wen

There’s a scene in Yes, Minister in which the minister, Jim Hacker, and his private secretary, Bernard Woolley, are being driven to Oxford for Hacker to be wined and dined at one of the Oxford University colleges. On the M40 a thought occurs to Jim Hacker, why there are two really good roads to Oxford (M40 and M4) and none to any of the ports, such as Southampton, Dover or Lowestoft. “Nearly all the Permanent Secretaries went to Oxford,” replies Bernard, “and most Oxford colleges do really good dinners…”

I was reminded of this when the local news was again about the “brain-belt expressway” announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond (Oxford University), in his autumn statement designed to run between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge. Before the summer holiday the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling (Cambridge University), announced, “We expect to make a decision on the preferred corridor for the Oxford to Cambridge expressway this summer.” Five days ago an indicative route (Option B) was announced, which local naturalists say is the worst of all possible options. “The potential impact on biodiversity of corridor B is so serious that the route should have been discounted entirely” (Estelle Bailey, BBOWT). The potential cost was estimated as just less that £3.5 billion in July 2017, but we know how public spending estimates escalate. It’s projected for completion in 2050. It’s proposed to build lots of houses along the route (lots means, I read, a million – the equivalent of three Sheffields); and so London creeps north. The impact on biodiversity would of course be huge.

Will the Prime Minister, Theresa May (Oxford University), have enough energy or will power after Brexit to question the sense of the scheme? What do you think? You might think that I who had the immense privilege of spending some of my education in both Cambridge and Oxford would be an enthusiastic supporter of this vanity project. I know that it has lots of fancy justifications behind it dreamed up, no doubt, by dutiful Oxbridge civil servants. However there is already a fledgling restoration of the former Varsity railway line starting from Oxford, which could extend to Bedford and Cambridge and have far less impact on the environment and, one would imagine, cost less. More public transport must be preferable to more private cars and juggernauts. And there's something called the internet.

What most perplexes me is what has happened to the famous Northern Powerhouse once so loved by the Tories? Perhaps it was defenestrated along with young George Osborne. So HS2 gets only as far as that great northern city, Birmingham. Heathrow gets enormous investment with yet another runway, while regional airports which are accessible to most of the country remain undeveloped. No one, it seems, has the political courage proactively to resist the metropolitan drift which clogs the infrastructure of the south-east and starves the rest of the country.

It was William Cobbett in his Rural Rides (1830) who described London as the Great Wen (sebaceous cyst) and asked, "But, what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, 'the metropolis of the empire?”
The answer is that, though the empire is long gone (despite the illusions of some Brexiteers), the monster has continued to spread and no amount of green-belt sticking plaster has been able to restrain it and it is as ugly and unnecessary as a boil, since no one has the courage to squeeze it and nourish other parts of the body politic instead.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Always look on the bright side - or count your blessings

Today has been a particularly good one. For one thing it's suited me being a tad cooler. I don't want the summer to end too soon. It would be nice to have a sunny holiday.

At the moment my lift is receiving its six-monthly health check from Ashley, our regular lift engineer and emergency doctor. He is such an expert even in Pollock lifts which aren’t his stock in trade. What's more, he's a lovely guy. These regular services are one of the benefits that I receive because of my incapacity.
Our old Yeti
Earlier in the day we drove to our nearest Volkswagen dealer as the time is coming to change my Motability vehicle. Sadly the fashionable Skoda Yeti is no longer being produced and so I’ve done my research and decided a Touran – which is a bit bigger - is my best bet. VWs have a delay in their production, I gather, as they’re working on their emissions…. So it looks as though we’ll have to wait for a few months to take delivery. But Motability are good and should allow us to keep our Yeti until the Touran is ready. The Motability scheme which provides cars, insurance, servicing etc using the mobility component of your PIP (Personal Independence Payment, the replacement of the old Disability Living Allowance) is great – as long as you receive it. However it’s far from a foregone conclusion, these days, that if you’re disabled you’ll be allowed it. A very helpful and efficient chap called Kit steered us through the process of ordering.

Then before that I had an appointment with the podiatrist. These happen every six weeks, and I have them free on the NHS after I almost pulled a nail off a toe with my rollator a couple of years ago. I never quite know who I’ll see as our local surgery is part of an area podiatry service. But today a new rather skilled podiatrist called Lottie dealt with me. My toenails are not a pleasant phenomenon, but she soon had them sorted out. I hope she treats me again.

As we returned home for lunch and considered how much help we received, we reflected that although having MND was not a choice we’d ever ever make, I am really well provided for and have a lot to be grateful for. To cap today off, Pete and Jane, two of our best friends will be coming round tonight to have supper.

Above all and beneath it all, of course, is Jane. I read this sentence while waiting for the podiatrist: “Caring for a loved one is among the most selfless acts that can be imagined.” Yes, spot on. I’m a lucky man.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Drama on and off the stage

Last Saturday we went on our annual visit to Stratford on Avon with our good friends, Andrew and Ruth. This year we saw Romeo and Juliet. I went with a certain amount of trepidation lest I wept uncontrollably and antisocially at the tragic dénouement. In the event I needn’t have worried. I was in more danger at Mercutio’s death (played brilliantly and controversially by Charlotte Josephine). “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
Charlotte Josephine, Raphael Sowole (Tybalt), Bally Gill (Romeo), Josh Finan (Benvolio)
I am peppered I warrant for this world. A plague on both your houses!” 

The two houses are of course the feuding Capulets and Montagues, whose constant street brawls disturb the streets and squares of Verona. If only they’d thought of playing football! Falling in love with a Colombian or a Swede would have been so less problematic. The rival parties could have fought it out in the Federation of International Falling Acts World Cup – and no one would have got hurt, far less killed.

Which brings me to last night’s game. I have no doubt that we are all rejoicing that England are actually through to the World Cup quarter finals, and even more that they have overcome our penalty shoot-out bogeyman, not least for the remarkable Gareth Southgate’s sake. There’s an excellent article in today’s Rochdale Herald celebrationg the achievement which is well worth the read: Miracle declared in Moscow.

BUT what has happened to “the beautiful game”? I’m renaming FIFA the Federation of International Falling Acts, because it seems that the players now spend almost as much time on the turf as on their feet. Not everyone is as high-profile or as suspect as Brazil’s Neymar (watch him here), but
everyone seems to do it, as a way of alerting the referee when the player feels miffed, aggrieved or fouled, or has merely lost the ball. Diving, falling, play-acting, holding your head because it’s been bumped or your ankle because it’s been kicked, or throwing one’s hands up to claim a throw or a corner and other theatrics are common place. And in case you think, I’m pointing the finger at Colombia in particular, I’m not. 

It’s a virus that has infected the whole game and England are by no means immune. Grow up and get on with the skilful game of which you’re undoubtedly capable and which we all enjoy watching. Or in the words of Henry Newbolt's  unfashionable poem, “Play up, play up, and play the game.” And by "play up" Newbolt didn't mean "behave like a child".

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Undivided by Vicky Beeching

“Don’t give us any spoilers,” one of my friends warned me today when I told her I was intending to review Undivided by Vicky Beeching. So I shall try not to.

One of the classic errors when writing about a book is confuse its genre, for example to treat fiction as though it’s a work of history. Of course Pride and Prejudice has a historical context, but it’s not a historical chronicle. So we need to avoid judging a book by what it’s not claiming to be. Such is the mistake made by the one hostile review I’ve been sent. Vicky Beeching, both in her Preface and Final Disclaimers, makes clear what she is writing. “This is not a theology book or an academic essay; it’s a memoir.” It is a category mistake to regard it as polemic or political. It is a personal memoir. It’s a contemporary story of one very gifted and prominent young musician struggling with her sexuality in an antagonistic culture. In effect, she simply says, "This is how it was for me."

So how does Undivided do as a memoir? For me it was eye-opening and harrowing. Although I’ve met Vicky once, I had no idea of the pilgrim’s progress she had been through. Now I understand a bit more. She is extraordinarily honest about her life, her thoughts and her faith – something which lies at the heart of her being.

In her early teens, Vicky realised that she was gay. For her it immediately created a conflict because at an even younger age she had committed herself to faith in Jesus Christ, and the evangelical culture in which she was brought up considered the two incompatible. One could not be gay and a Christian. And so for the next twenty years of her life, living in the heart of that particular Christian world, she struggled to be free of her nature and was constantly in fear of her orientation being uncovered. That struggle led to despair, many tears and the point of suicide.

Having myself grown into a similar world, I recognised the situations that she describes as true to life, from youth camps, to inappropriate use of the Bible, to double standards, and courageous stands. I also recognise the honesty of internal questioning and doubting to which she admits. It’s clear that her sexuality is not a result of nurture. Her family and her heroes of faith are staunchly conventional in their teaching on the matter. Her sister is straight. She grows up wishing she was too.

The reason that Vicky’s story captured the headlines like no other is that she was arguably the most popular female song-writer and worship leader of the noughties on both sides of the Atlantic, and in the US the Christian music business is a multi-million dollar concern. Educated in theology at Wycliffe, the evangelical hall in Oxford, her musical gift gained an added theological depth, so that when she went to the States in her early twenties her talent was recognised and she was soon signed up by EMI. She was in demand in mega-churches and on radio stations across the country. Her tour schedule was gruelling, much of it in the southern Bible Belt, where there was particular antipathy to the LGBTQ+ movement. As is now well known, it was her physical health that put a stop to her stellar life as a Christian song-writer and performer, and brought her back to England for urgent treatment on the National Health Service.

Having admitted to herself that she needed to come out in order to become whole and live free from shame, Vicky then went through a rigorous study of the Bible, which remained the foundation of her faith, in order to see whether she had come to the wrong conclusion. She highlights two occasions, in Brompton Oratory and St Paul’s Cathedral, which lead her to the conclusion that she was right. “God was letting me in on a new perspective, one of radical acceptance and inclusion. ‘Do not call unclean what I have made clean’ echoed round my head and heart. The person I’d always been – a gay person – was not something to be ashamed of. God accepted me and loved me, and my orientation was part of his grand design.”

In the final section, “Into the Unknown”, Vicky writes about her interview with Patrick Strudwick which was published in The Independent newspaper in August 2014, and grabbed the headlines worldwide within 24 hours. Read it here. The fall-out from her admitting that she was gay beggared belief and, I am deeply sorry, reflected very sadly on the Christian community to which I belong and which she still calls hers. It extended for beyond disagreement into contumely, condemnation and threats. Practically her music was widely boycotted and engagements cancelled or not renewed, drying up her income stream and threatening her livelihood.

When she was a child, Vicky’s ambition was to be a missionary like her much loved grandparents. If there is any happy ending to this gritty book, it must be that she is now representing faith in unlikely places, most of all in the LGBTQ+ community, where her Christian faith in the face of all odds is recognised and given a voice.

So, who should read Undivided, and why?
First, let’s start with people like me: straight Christians, brought up to be suspicious or judgmental about homosexuality. It gave me vivid insight into really what it is to be differently orientated in a still intolerant community. The book is dedicated “to the memory of Lizzie Lowe, a fourteen-year-old British girl who tragically took her own life in 2014 because she feared telling her Christian community that she was gay”. It’s almost impossible to grasp the nature and power of that fear until you read a memoir as well-written as this.

Secondly, gay Christians should read it, especially if you’re young. You will find you’re not alone, and that it’s possible to be gay and Christian, and have as full and fulfilled a life as anyone else. In fact, it would be so for any gay person no matter of what faith.

Thirdly, everyone should read it, wherever you stand. It is an honest insight into authentic living. It is a moving account of a hard-won liberation from fear and shame. And it's a good read.

I suspect there are many young people worldwide who are in a similar situation to Vicky’s. What she has given us, by virtue of her former popularity in the Anglophone world, is a view through a magnifying glass of their experience. We may make of it what we will. We may embrace it and support their freedom. We may dismiss it and resist any change. We may simply choose to take note of it. What we may not do is ignore it. I'm reminded of Martin Luther's apologia, "Here I stand. I can do no other." Please read it from beginning to end. Thank you, Vicky Beeching.

PS I still think The Wonder of the Cross is one of the greatest worship songs ever! How tragic that Vicky is no longer considered as acceptable in worship.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

No! Minister, first aid won't do in schools

I hope you don’t mind, but I must get this off my chest.

There I was, sitting in the passenger seat, returning from an over-night celebration at Ashburnham Place in Sussex. It was exactly a week ago. It had been a happy and sunny time. As we often do, we had the car radio on and we were listening to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 – Jane’s choice of course. Jane Garvey introduced an interview with the Minister for Schools, the jolly old Nick Gibb MP. Usually I enjoy whiling away the tedium of roads like the M25 with a diverting radio programme. However, not this time. This time I found my temperature rising.

As it was exam time (indeed two of our grandchildren were at that moment wrestling with maths and Spanish), the conversation was about the ever-increasing stress that young people were under with the proliferation of testing from the earliest years. This appears to be one contributory factor to the disturbing rise in young people’s mental health problems. No sooner are they out of the exam room than they are on to their phones comparing answers. But more fundamental than that is the constant focus on exams and preparing for exams throughout school careers – because of course schools are rated on exam success rate, and as a result the teaching is skewed from education to exam-performance. What a wretched perversion! I think the minister justified it by saying life was full of competition and kids need to be prepared for it.

And of course he mentioned the PISA ratings (the Programme for International Student Assessment – devised by the OECD, which tests 15-year olds in maths, reading and science and then ranks countries by their performance). He reckoned that the UK’s rating was improving. How pernicious the whole system is! Our government is obsessed by our PISA rating. It therefore puts pressure on schools by ranking them, by results. Governing bodies and heads therefore pressurise teachers to get results from their pupils. And the ones on whom all that pressure eventually falls are the students themselves. It’s the inverse of that old saying, “Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite’um; little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.” In the case of schools it’s the students who bear the weight of the pressure of the teachers, the governors, the politicians and the self-appointed OECD on their backs… And we’re surprised that they have mental health problems?

Oh, but don’t worry. The Minister had an answer. Counsellors. The Government is providing money so that schools can appoint counsellors. Now I value counsellors and therapists most highly, and I’m very pleased that there will be funding for school counselling services. I’ll be interested to hear how their recruitment gets on, though as one listener suggested they will be easier and cheaper to recruit than physics teachers. BUT it seemed to me rather like a government faced with a cholera epidemic saying, “Don’t worry. We’ll pay for a lot more nurses. Then everything will be hunky-dory.” No, in face of an epidemic, if you can, you sort out the water supply and the sanitation. You go to the source of the problem. And in the case of schools the problem is excessive academically oriented testing. 
Of course, Mr Gibb had an answer for this too: doing away with continuous assessment (which could be part of some courses) relieved the pressure experienced by students. I was very glad when Jane Garvey quietly pointed out that the opposite was true for some pupils for whom facing a single critical exam was far more stressful. Counsellors patching up students who have cracked under exams is not the answer, Minister. The problem is the system and that is where your attention should be focused. A very good place to start would be to jettison your obsession with arbitrary PISA rankings (as suggested in Professor Aeron Davis’s excellent and eminently readable book, Reckless Opportunists – Elites at the End of the Establishment). Our children’s well-being is more important than that.  

Monday, 25 June 2018

Reflections after a holday in Wales

Pen-y-Banc Farm, Llanwrda
Eight days ago we returned from a sunny and delightful week’s holiday in rural Camarthenshire, not far from Llandovery overlooking the Towy Valley. It’s a place we’ve been to a number of times in the past, a holiday cottage set in what should be a show garden. Our hosts were the amazing Kenneth and Gill, who over twenty years have converted a run-down farmstead into a place of beauty and a haven for wild life. The reason I call them amazing is that as well as being the epitome of hospitality they have made the transformation in the years since they retired.

Across the Towy Valley
My one sadness is my inability to explore the garden intimately in my wheelchair. However Jane brings back photos from around the paths – and I am able to sit in the back garden and enjoy the view over the valley to the Black Mountain.

For us one of the joys of that part of Wales is that is relatively accessible from our home, and yet it feels remote. Crossing the Severn Bridge is not exactly like crossing the English Channel, but there’s a faint sense of that as you go through the toll booths and all the traffic signs change to bilingual, with Welsh coming first. Talking of roads, what a joy they are after the terrors of our potholed, pock-marked tracks! Even the most minor of country tracks have scarcely any potholes. The Welsh government is often cited by Tory ministers as an example of Labour mismanagement, but I have to observe that they are a hundred times better at maintaining their roads than the English administration. I guess it’s a matter of allocating funds. In England local authority grants have been cut by 49.1% since 2010. Maybe it’s because the government allows local authorities 52 times less per mile to spend on local roads than it spends itself on major roads. And it's not just the roads that the cuts affect.

Just this morning I met a chap with a very complex medical condition who needs a support worker. The funding for support has been taken away, so that he now has to pay for his carer – which is taken from his pensions. When he suggested he might do without the support, he was told that wasn’t possible, and he would have to go into a home – funded by the sale of his assets. Apart from his small bungalow he has precious few assets. Meanwhile in a neighbouring council, there’s a team of social workers in child protection, half of whom are off ill with stress. The pressure on remaining team-members is scarcely imaginable. (Think of a half-strength football team in the World Cup, with the nation's expectations on them.) Such is the human cost of economising all in the name of cutting the national deficit. The people it hurts are not those who decree it, because, of course, if anything goes wrong, they'll not get the blame.

Carreg Cennen Castle
How it is that Wales manages to maintain all its roads so much better than England, I don't know. Perhaps there's a strong lobby of Geraint Thomases. Certainly we met a road race of lycra-clad cyclists on the road home. (By the way, am I the only one to mourn the passing of leisure cyclist in normal clothing on normal bikes?) Nevertheless I'm grateful to Wales that I'm still able to enjoy its excellent roads, its beautiful gardens and castles, and its coast. We'll be back.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Whingeing poms

Last night illustrated perfectly what I was arguing on 26th February in Infantilising Sport. By a last minute whisker England squeezed a final winning goal over Tunisia in the FIFA World Cup. Unfortunately I was watching the game with the BBC commentary. The commentators were full of indignation about the referee, who should, they reckoned, have awarded at least two penalties for clashes between the defence and English captain, Harry Kane.

"What," they said, "was the VAR referee thinking of? Why did he not tell the ref to look again? Isn't that's what VAR is for?" Oh, look at the Tunisians; they're getting in the way. Even after the end of match when we'd won, what were the pundits talking about? The missed penalties - surprise! To give him his credit, Harry Kane was quite philosophical about it.

I know it's the ancient English custom, as our Antipodean cousins termed it, "whingeing Poms". It's not fair. Maybe the Tunisian commentary team kept harping on about English diving or whatever they saw....

Perhaps the commentators, both BBC and ITV (who are equally prone to whingeing), should have a copy of the archetypically English poet, Kipling's poem If:
"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;...
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!" At present, we are further from such equanimity than we have been for many a long year.

Nevertheless, lest those who know me well accuse me of insufficient national pride, congratulations to Gareth Southgate and his team - of course!