Tuesday, 26 October 2010

News about Alfred Ebenezer

Quite out of the blue I had some more background on my great grandfather, in the form of an email from my second cousin, Brian, who tells me he was at Cambridge at the same time as my oldest brother. He'd hit upon this blog.
Alfred Ebenezer Wenham ("AEW")
"AEW had three sons. William, Basil and Douglas. Douglas's elder daughter, Barbara, was my mother. My brother, sister and I all grew up in and around the Lickey; so I knew, and still know, The Old Rose and Crown. I was at school at the building higher up the hill, now known as Hillscourt. But it closed as a boys' school and now is the HQ and training centre for NAS/UWT.  I called in there recently and little has changed with the original buildings.  The Union has put up many extra buildings, but kept the main house. 
"The Old  Rose and Crown is now the clubhouse for the municipal golf course as well as being a pub/café.
"AEW is buried in the Lickey churchyard where the headstone refers to him being ‘of the Lickey and Oban’ where he moved to in 1918. He died at Oban in 1933. I have been shown round Kilbowie, Oban, by the caretaker. It is an outdoor recreation centre now, having been for a while a boarding house for schoolchildren coming in from the Isles each Monday-Friday." Fascinating - and various of his descendants have nursed fantasies of buying Kilbowie back as a dream holiday investment!
The old Kilbowie blighted by utilitarian council architecture
but still with the magnificent view over the Sound of Kerrera
Strangely enough when we first moved to Stanford in the Vale we found that one of Basil's daughters, Marcia Williams (if I remember right), lived in Great Coxwell about six miles away. In fact we still have a beautiful* horse rug with Basil's initials on it which she gave us. It rides around in our car! (*Jane protests that it's not beautiful, merely useful!!)

Funny old world, as one of my sons would say....

Monday, 25 October 2010

A great day

Today we had a brilliant afternoon out. We were due to be meeting our friend, Elizabeth Berner, to whose husband, Tim, I dedicated I Choose Everything. He had MND for 20 years. He inspired me with the conviction that terminal illness is not a curse but even a blessing - a severe one admittedly. But we're certainly not victims. That has really helped me. Anyway, we'd arranged to meet at The High Table on the High Street in Oxford. http://www.thehightableoxford.co.uk/
So Jane and I drove in and, miraculously, found the last disabled parking space in the centre. Someone was just driving out of it. It was a clear crisp day, with bright blue skies shining on the mellow gold Oxford stone of the colleges. Getting in to the restaurant was a bit of comical struggle. Jane and a waitress heaved the wheelchair, and then a passing young man offered to help - and in I went. Soon Elizabeth walked in and we ordered our meal.

The food was excellent; the service was delightful; but what made the meal was just being with someone who exactly knew what we're going through, as she and Tim had been there before. So I could pass on some of my salad to Jane and Elizabeth. She was tuned in to me and understood what I was getting at. We talked about families, teaching, Shakespeare, faith, her time at Oxford, as well as incidentally illness. And it was just a really lovely time.

Life isn't bad, is it?

Figures and facts?

Wow, there was a lot of money talk last week, wasn't there? The winner of the eurolottery jackpot claimed their record £113 million + jackpot and wished to remain anonymous - which of course did nothing to stop the press from trying to winkle them out. They'll become only the 589th richest person in the country. That must say something about the level of personal wealth in the UK. Remember the expression "two a penny" (old money, of course!)?

And then there was the Wayne Rooney story, which ended up with him being offered a contract of something like £250,000 A WEEK to stay at Manchester United for five years. I think that's a total of £65 million (Oops! Almost put billion. £65,000,000). That's just wages - add to that sponsorship deals, Wayne - My Secret Love Story, photos, ads, interviews etc and I imagine you can more than double it. No doubt a cut from that goes to his agent, accountant, bodyguards etc, but even so it sounds a lot of money to be kicking about.

Then Mr Nicholas Clegg assured students that a cap would be put on the tuition fees. Good news - until they heard that it would be £12,000 per annum which would mean a total of £36,000 for a normal three year undergraduate course, and if, like me, you did a PGCE teacher training year, £48,000. That of course is paying for your course. Meanwhile students, being human beings, need to live somewhere and eat something and perhaps wear some clothes. A modest outlay, I'm told, would be about £6,000 p.a.. which would leave you owing £54,000 after 3 years, and £72,000 after 4 years. I heard a government minister telling us that this wasn't technically a debt, as you wouldn't have to start paying back until you earned a living wage and if you didn't finish paying it off before you retired then they'd write it off. I thought that was sheer sophistry. He failed to mention the interest that would be quietly ticking up like a taxi-meter year by year.

Two things strike me about this: one is that a few months ago said Mr Clegg was all for abolishing fees, and now here he and Mr Cable are saddling students with frightening debts. OK, I know - that's politics. The second is more fundamental. We are being told how intolerable the national debt is; that our country can't afford to service it; that the debt culture has been the root of our problems - and yet part of the answer seems to be to compel the younger generation into crippling debt at the beginning of the career. The message seems to be that the government approves of personal debt and, in fact, indirectly is using it to service the national debt.

Close to home, someone I love showed me an article by the Times' Personal Finance Editor, Andrew Ellson. I think Newscorp (which owns the paper) supports the government; and so the headline was striking: "Osborne's chainsaw slays the vulnerable". He writes, "Victims of the massacre abound, but among the carnage, a couple of groups stand out for having been particularly cruelly treated. The first is the sick and the disabled. There is little doubt that many who are fit to work languish on disability allowance. Yet the changes announced this week were not an attack on the workshy. We already know that tougher medical examinations will force people off incapacity benefit and on to jobseekers' allowance. But this week Mr Osborne chose to limit the benefits of those who pass the test and are considered genuinely too ill to work. After one year, anyone who is sick or disabled, who has more than £16,000 in savings or whose partner earns more than £150 a week, risks losing the benefit.  Some people argue that that is fair enough. They suggest that the state can no longer afford to help those who can help themselves, even if they are disabled. Perhaps. But there is an equally credible argument to say that the £2 billion saving could more reasonably have been found somewhere other than the pockets of the disabled. After all, assets of only £16,000 when you can't work are nothing.... Despite the impression given by Mr Osborne during the speech, the other vulnerable group that could suffer is poorer pensioners. Indeed the decision to discontinue the supplement to the Winter Fuel Allowance next year could cost more lives tan the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined" (Times 23.10.10).

It left me wondering about people whose illness or disability has forced them into early retirement before state pension age. Disability Living Allowance may be just the income-boost they depend on. Is that to be taken away if they've got modest savings, tied up maybe in their home?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

It's good to talk

I really don’t know what to write about. Should it be more about the Chilean miners? Or about our celebration here for Jane’s big birthday? Or should I just vent my frustration over BT’s seeming inability to restore our internet connection, after more than a week?

Let’s get the negative out of the way first. On Friday 8th our telephone suddenly stopped working. Jane did all the checks that British Telecom say, otherwise they threaten to charge you if the problem turns out to be to do with your equipment. (Do you remember the days of service?) Then we rang them to let them know, using a mobile of course. The usual rigmarole of pressing numbers on your key-pad. After several attempts we worked out the route to talk to someone. Well, said a lady from India, you should have be on again in two days…. Saturday came and went, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday came. “She probably meant two working days,” said Jane sagely. Sure enough, the phone rang, and a man perceptively commented, “It seems you’re back on line now, and I won’t need to come out.”  Presumably he was not in India.

However, when I went to turn on my computer, there was no broadband. It seemed they’d restored the one and cut off the other. So Jane rang up the helpline again. Did the same checks. No joy. “We’ll ring you back in twenty minutes,” said a lady from India. A few hours later, we thought we’d better try again. This time a man from India came up with some different suggestions, with the same result. “We’d better send out an engineer to you. The earliest we can do is…Monday next week.”  Were they sending him from India? I wondered. Jane, to give her due, did protest that we’d had the problem a long time now, and they seemed to have caused it. But that was the best they could do, they said. Never mind that the internet is my main means of communication. So we had to wait and meantime pick up emails at the admirable Cornerstone.

On Monday afternoon having waited in from 1 o’clock the BT Open Reach van duly arrived at 4.45ish. Judging from his outer London accent he obviously hadn’t just arrived from Bangalore. How nice to deal with a person face to face! Jane discussed the situation with him. He did the same checks and more – and confirmed that the problem appeared to be at the exchange. He’d go round at once and try to check what the problem was, if he could get in. We asked him whether the call centre was in India. Yes. Minutes later he rang to say he’d not been able to get access but was activating the job for the next morning (Tuesday). Apparently all calls go via India, including the engineers’, and apparently they all get stacked in a queue. Tuesday morning came – along with a phone call from India. “Were we back on line?” “No.” “Try unplugging the router and plugging it back in.” No change. “Well, we’ll be working on it.” All day we waited for the green light to come back on, and then gave up and went to Cornerstone for coffee and emails. A message was waiting for us on our return. Someone would be coming out again to do something undecipherable within the next 24 hours. They would phone to let us know. At the time of writing we’ve heard nothing. I’m generally regarded as a patient man…! (Oh yippee! They’ll send an engineer… Guess when! On Saturday….)

So it was a good thing we had the distraction of Jane’s BIG BIRTHDAY. How considerate of her mum, I thought, to have the forethought all those years ago to ensure it fell on a Friday! Which meant that we could celebrate all weekend. Which is what we did. The family descended en masse and created a banquet on Saturday. Jane was surprisingly unfazed when, after an expedition to the rec and Cornerstone with her grandchildren and parents, 
The star of the show
Enter the Duchess
she walked into a houseful of family and friends. She’d been canny enough to follow the principle of ‘Ask no questions; told no lies’. However the new bicycle, aptly called the Duchess, did take her by surprise, thanks to the complicity of our next door neighbours, Rob and Jane.

To be honest, it probably helped not having internet for the weekend, as there was no temptation to subside behind facebook in the evening. Or even to write my blog! We could just concentrate on enjoying each others’ company.

On Monday night I watched the Panorama programme about the San José mine rescue, and reflected what a minuscule inconvenience it was being without internet for a matter of days. There were the miners for seventeen days entirely cut off from the world, knowing nothing, not even whether anyone was looking for them, nor whether they’d ever survive to see their families again, nor whether they’d retain their sanity…. I wasn’t sure whether the programme was the start of a media debunking of euphoria about the rescue, as we were promised revelations about safety failures. It particularly concentrated on the stress on one miner and his partner – and I think in the event did a good job of showing a bit of the deep psychological impact those 69 days had and will go on having. It ended with shots of him running (as he had down the mine) on the beach with his brother.

Besides the introduction when Jeremy Vine had used the word ‘miracle’, there was no mention of the miners’ faith, in contrast to the interview with Alf Cooper on the Radio 5 Live Drive Programme last Wednesday by a distinctly sceptical Peter Allen. However that is well worth listening to: http://www.cms-uk.org/Portals/2/mp3/Alf-Cooper-mine-interview.mp3 The Rev Alfredo Cooper, as he’s rather charmingly called, recounts the wave of prayer that went on and, most strikingly, the 34 in the mine (when we all know 33 miners were rescued). The miners say Jesus was there with them. One can understand a BBC interviewer having difficulty with that! Like King Nebuchadnezzar peering into the fiery furnace! “Did we not cast three bound into the fire?…. But I see four men unbound… and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3.24,25). The miners certainly emerged into the light of day looking remarkably fit and well, thanks to good nutrition and clean clothes – and, I tend to think, the best possible Company. Maybe, when there’s no light, in the depth of human predicament, you see most clearly, if you’re prepared to open the eyes of faith.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Buried by good news

Some people contacted Radio 5 Live today, I gather, complaining about the extent of the news coverage of the Chilean mine rescue. “It’s not as if England have won the World Cup.” Who on earth, I wondered, could be so put out that their bit of news was being eclipsed? What an extraordinary complaint! 33 trapped miners struggling for survival for 69 days being brought from death to life – a modern miracle indeed. I suppose some football freaks might consider England winning a miracle too, but actually that is only a game. This is life.

The launch of the Resistance Campaign – do you remember? – 3rd June this year. It’s a coalition of Disabled groups who were campaigning against any possible legalisation of physician assisted suicide. You probably don’t, because it was buried by the Cumbrian shootings. I regretted at the time that the Resistance Campaign failed to hit the headlines, but such is the nature of the news media.

However this story, Operation San Lorenzo, is of mythic proportions, of even greater magnitude than Apollo 13. 33 men buried half a mile beneath a mountain for 17 days without any communication with the outside, waiting, for all they knew, for a lingering and inevitable death. The cavern where they were trapped they called Hell (“This hell is killing me”). The camp above in the Atacama Desert, where the rescuers and the miners’ families were, was called ‘L’Esperanza’ – Hope. The capsule was called The Phoenix. All the imagery is full of potency: from imprisonment to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to life, from hell to heaven, rebirth, resurrection, miracle…. I was puzzling with Jane about how they were located by the probes in this huge 130-year old mine. Subsequently I heard the President’s chaplain, Alfred Cooper, describing the prayer meeting that was called when news of the disaster broke, and then how the eighth probe was deflected off a rock into the space where the miners were trapped.
“The first miracle, you believe?” asked Matt Frei, the BBC anchorman. The chaplain (who, incidentally, has links with our local parish church) was in no doubt that there were numerous miracles as well as enormous resources of engineering and scientific skill. It was remarkable that the night of 12th/13th was completely clear at San José, whereas apparently almost always it is smothered in cloud, “a pea-souper”. It meant that the helicopter taking the men to hospital was able to fly freely. As one of the miners, Mario Sepulveda, said, “I’ve been with God, and I’ve been with the devil. They fought – and God won…I grabbed God’s hand. I never doubted that He would bring me out.”

The consistent message of the miners was that they always had faith (whether in God or not) and they were determined not to give up. When the rescue capsule reached them, they sang about the One who loved them. They talked about the struggle, about fighting to live. And of course the families were praying in “Hope”. And the world watched – and it was good news. My first ever blog entry was about the determination of the triathlete, Jessica Harrison, who trained relentlessly – and for me was an example of not giving up. Well, this, the longest ever mine ‘disaster’ to be survived is an even more powerful. inspiration never to give up. The baby born to one of the miners a few weeks ago says it all – she’s named Esperanza. Hope. Above all, thirty-three men are alive. Thank God – you really should. 

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Sideways thoughts

I think I must be an addict. There's no other rational explanation for my enjoyment of the BBC programme, Waterloo Road. It's far from realistic. In case you don't know, it's basically a soap set, not in an East London square, but in a Rochdale comprehensive school. Never has there been a school where so many teachers have children in the school or so many affairs or with such a high turnover of headteachers; nor where teachers arrive and leave at the same time as pupils - in fact if you want to find out about schools it's the last place to look. But this last episode did have lessons germane to child benefits, or rather the crucial nature of investing in families - and I don't necessarily mean in monetary terms.

The Fisher family (the headteacher's), for example, is quite disfunctional. The parents are at loggerheads; one daughter has disappeared; the other daughter is in rebellion and the son is bullied and bulimic. But it doesn't end there, as other students get drawn in, of whom one, Vicki, is left homeless at the end of the episode. The parents are so absorbed in their work and their mutual antagonism that they are oblivious of the havoc they are causing in their children. And the point is that it is extends way beyond the nucleus of the immediate family. It's actually rather a good study of the complications of family life. Clearly there's more than enough income in the Fisher family for them not to need any benefits. Their problems are nothing to do with money, but to do with communication and relationships.

I must say it's good news that NICE has approved the use of drug treatment for the early stages of Alzheimers'. It's a welcome indication of investment in caring for those of us with incurable illnesses. In all the hoohah about public-sector pensions I suddenly had a sideways reflection on the economics of state pension provision, and that was this: the cost of palliative care for those with shortened life expectancy should be offset against the saving in an 25+ year pension bill. In an interview with Lord Hutton this morning, I heard the striking fact that the average life expectancy is 88. In other words, euthanasing the terminally ill can't be justified on economic grounds because we already save the exchequer.

Dancing, dentists, doctors and media megaphones

Today I opened an email from an old friend of mine, which began, "Did you see Anne Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing? I thought she was hilarious!" I did as it happens, and I thought she was a hoot, clearly determined to prove a match for the saturnine Craig Revel Horwood. It was a welcome diversion from my personal struggle at the moment....

Which, don't panic, is nothing worse than a disintegrating tooth. And that, I'm glad to report, has been sorted (moreorless) by the marvellous NHS special needs dental service. A shame it happened on Saturday morning but I was given an appointment at Didcot on Monday afternoon, and the nice young dentist smoothed it down and the jagged razor in my mouth disappeared. Worse things happen at sea. In fact I did wonder what I'd have done in the old days: presumably Jane would have taken a file to it and I'd have swigged a lot of whisky.

For some reason, I lost half of this blog after I'd written it. Don't know what happened. I think it was commiserating with Celtic Manor with the wettest Ryder Cup ever. Still it's all come good in the end, if you're European.

 Shame it wasn't on terrestrial tv, as radio commentary of golf, day after day, is dreadfully dull. Interminable whispered descriptions of little balls whizzing through the air and falling down holes. It was a relief to turn on Radio 5 on Friday and hear the Punch and Judy tones of Kermode and Mayo's film review.

Anyway, instead I recommend reading Peter Saunders' blog about the launch of a new pro-euthanasia Health Professionals' lobby group next Wednesday. No doubt it will get lots of media coverage, as Dignity in Dying (the old Voluntary Euthanasia Society) has friends in the business. His main point is that it will get a lot of attention but represents a vast minority of health professionals. Don't be deceived... You have been warned!