Monday, 27 February 2012

A hospital visit

A good friend of ours has gently pointed out that I've given no indication on my blogs of how Jane is doing after her tumble from the loft ladder before Christmas (see Bathing in kindness and grace) - for which I apologise. The answer is that she has done very well. It was, I believe, a comminuted fracture of the collar-bone near the shoulder which required more plating than expected. However, it was neat job and she now has practically full movement restored, and is back to her normal activities, such as driving, being my carer, and even going back into the loft! Not that she is free of aches, particularly after a strenuous day like last Thursday.

That was the day of my postponed appointment at the Spasticity Clinic at the Oxford Centre of Enablement. (I apologise to some of my family, that's its real name. There's no PC alternative description for this particular symptom of PLS, the tightening of the muscles which makes my legs try to cross and my feet tread on each other.) It was the first time that Jane had had to transport me solo including getting the wheelchair and me into and out of the car. Parking at the Nuffield Hospital is difficult at the best of times, but worse mid-morning. We had to resort in the end to parking in the road, using our blessed blue badge. It meant that getting me out of the car was harder than usual and the trek to the clinic further x 2.

As we were waiting, rather longer than we'd anticipated, my physio, Lesley, turned up and accompanied us to see Professor Kischka (as well as his nurse and a student!). As Lesley had promised the professor was very pleasant, only missing the point once. He wanted to see me walk, and, as I normally use a rollator at home, the nurse scurried off to find me one. The unfortunate thing was it seemed to have been adjusted for a four-foot-six granny rather than for me. It wasn't one of those which has easy-adjust nuts, so I somewhat foolishly tried to walk with it. You can picture the scene - a consulting room with seven bodies in it, me hunched over this walking-frame on wheels, like one of those toy racing grannies on tiptoe. It wasn't exactly a good example of my normal shambling gait.

And the drama didn't end there. The consultant decided he'd like to see me on the bed - a broad plastic-covered couch with nothing to hang on to. Now at home I have this great device, the bedleaver, on to which I can hang and rotate as I assume a recumbent position. There, there was nothing. So I duly tipped over backwards and my lumbar muscles which I'd bruised last summer went into spasm and it was AGONY! And I YELLED! No one knew what had happened. I was more than usually inarticulate - even Jane couldn't fathom what I was saying, which was, "Get them to shove a pillow under my spine!" Anyway, eventually I was tipped upright again and stood on my feet..., and calm returned. The outcome was that the doc recommended a general muscle relaxant (low dosage). Not botulinum toxin, I was relieved to hear. I know some of our friends would have taken delight in my having botox treatment, personally I don't relish the idea of fat needles stuck into my muscles once every three months - especially having watched Junior Doctors - Your life in their hands, and the young medics' painful attempts to put in cannulas. The prof assured me he's very good at it, which I'm sure is true. Another friend recommends wine. I think I'd prefer that! I'm just not sure whether you can get Alsace Riesling on prescription.

Not surprisingly Jane could feel her shoulder that evening. Not that that stopped her taking the dog out when we got back home. One by-product of walking the hound is that we now have snowdrops in our garden, courtesy of another walker who was having her front garden made more manageable. I have always had a soft spot for snowdrops, but you do of course have to plant them "in the green" rather than as dry bulbs for the best results. One day our garden will look like this. Well, I can still dream!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Sheer brilliance at Stratford

The only downer on it all was that I couldn't watch the climactic speech, because I knew beyond doubt that it would make me blub like a baby, if I saw as well as heard it. Not that it was sad, you understand, just fantastically packed with emotion. But we've just had one of those weekends to savour. We had our good friends, Anthony and Ruth, with us for a couple of nights,  sandwiching a visit to Stratford topped with a meal at Le Brasserie Blanc in Oxford. They are entirely positive people, whose company we always enjoy.

Anyway, this time, I'd chosen The Taming of the Shrew, about which I've always been ambivalent, reinforced by memories of the Burton/Taylor film, directed by Zeffirelli in the 60s, which I recall as a story of a man bullying a woman into submission. I might have missed the subtleties of direction, but it remained a problem in my mind. Jane had also read the play and not found the scenes when Petruchio "tames" Kate much to her taste. One thing this production potentially had in its favour was that its director was a woman, Lucy Bailey. I couldn't see her creating a celebration of misogyny. It would be interesting if she made it into a feminist tract. However, she did neither. Remarkably, she illuminated Shakespeare's text in a way that rang entirely true, and produced a play full of life, humour and intensity, and in which, at the end, you felt both Kate and Petruchio were the winners and the rest, to put it bluntly, were "Losers". In the opinion of our party it was the best Stratford production we'd seen together yet. It was very funny, very clever and very moving.

Faithfulness to the text was key. Unlike the Zeffirelli film, this production started with the alcoholic tinker, Christopher Sly, being "ejected from a country pub and carried to a Lord's house, where he slips into a drunken coma. He awakes and finds himself in the world of Padua and its inhabitants, caught in a dream he seems unable to escape from...." So the programme note explains the beginning. The dream, if it is one, includes Sly being dressed and treated as a lord himself, and then settling to watch the play. The set was extraordinarily simple and clever, looking like a huge double-bed with a house façade behind curtains at the head. Sly remains on stage virtually throughout, and meanwhile the Lord also watches unobtrusively from different places in the audience.

Then begins the Shrew part of the play, or the play within the play. The plot is well known: the rich Baptista Minola who won't let his younger daughter, Bianca, marry until the older Katharina is off his hands. The trouble is, no one wants to marry Kate who has been labelled as a "shrew"; it's true to say that she's feisty to the point of uncontrollable. Bianca, as her name suggests, has a not altogether deserved reputation for mildness and is clearly her father's favourite. She assembles a trio of suitors; Kate is unwanted, until Petruchio arrives on the scene. He's just lost his father and is in search of a fortune. It's clearly not only the money that attracts him to her. Somehow the actors, Lisa Dillon and David Caves, succeeded in creating a chemistry of attraction between them despite the battle which she appears continually to lose, starting from her unwilling marriage within a day.

The final scene (in which I had to avert my eyes!) reveals her as transformed from the bride no one wanted to the wife everyone wishes they had - and it's not because she's submissive and downtrodden. She has amazing dignity and authority. She began as a shrill-tongued harridan to whom nobody listens; in her final speech you could have heard a pin drop, on stage and in the audience. I like the suggestion that this is something she's learned from her husband with whom she goes from arguing in staccato questions to listening in silence. In this production, she kneels having delivered her last lines and places her hands on the ground:
"And place your hands below your husband's foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease."
In response Petruchio does the same. And you sense that they've become a partnership of equals and not a constant struggle for ascendancy, and so Petruchio invites Kate, "Come on, and kiss me, Kate", "Come, Kate, we'll to bed" rather ordering her.

Rather than there being a wedding at the end as often symbolising harmony after confusions, the weddings take place earlier in the play and are all dis-ordered in some way. Kate's final speech is the great instrument which establishes the restoration of order and sanity. Lisa Dillon delivered it perfectly.

As we drove home, Ruth pointed out the Christian message in the play, particularly the play's portrayal of marriage, "submitting to one another" (Ephesians 5). And I mused on the message of grace of which there are traces, such as the "worthless" Sly being dressed in the Lord's robes with rings put on his fingers and witnessing another story of an unlovable person loved, albeit roughly, into love and universally admired beauty. I wonder if such roughness is the price of redemption......

You might enjoy the two main actors discussing their characters and relationship:
Lisa Dillon and David Caves in discussion. And although Saturday was the last day it was on at Stratford, it is going on tour to Newcastle, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Richmond on Thames and Bath - so you could get to see it. It's brilliant. You will enjoy it - I guarantee.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Broadcast goodies

I don't spend the whole weekend glued to the tv or radio, I really don't. But this weekend I did pick up some good moments at various points. For example, my bedtime listening on Saturday was The Moral Maze when the discussion was the morality of monarchy - which seemed to be an attempt to examine the moral justification for the institution, things like service and representing nation. The form of the 50 minute discussion is four of the six regular interrogators subject four expert witnesses on either side of a debate to cross-examination. That evening I was surprised to find myself unpersuaded by the royalists and most impressed with avowed republican, Professor Stephen Haseler. He was pugnacious and entertaining, especially in his exchange with the Blairite Matthew Taylor: "Let me ask you a question, as a democrat and as a person who's been in the democratic process: do you you want a say in who your next head of state is, or do you not?" "I'm quite happy with the situation as it now is -" "You don't want a say?" "No, no - Let me answer your question and then move on very quickly. I'm quite happy with the situation in which the person who effectively is the leader of our country politically is the Prime Minister and is elected, and we have a constitutional monarch." Interestingly I heard one of the arguments used by Taylor in defence of the monarchy, that most people were happy with it, used the next night to justify the introduction of Islamic rule into the post-spring Tunisia. It's hardly a moral argument, more a political one. Anyway, it was quite fun to hear one of the inquisitors having their bubble punctured!

Then on Ski Sunday there was a really inspiring item on paralympic hopeful Peter Dunning. He'd been a paratrooper in Afghanistan who, days before coming home, was in a armoured vehicle which ran over an IED. The driver was killed; he lost both his legs. "I was literally knocking on the door (of death); but, thank God, no one was in!" His first reaction in coming to after a week in intensive care, with his family round him, was "I don't want to be here - if this is going to be my life. I don't want this to be my life." In rehabilitation he got the opportunity to try out skiing, monoskiing. He described the glorious feeling of freedom, gliding down the mountain.
"In hindsight, looking back over it all, what are your overriding feelings about it all?" asked skier, Graham Bell.
"People may think it's the most strangest thing that I'm saying, but I think that getting blown up is one of the best things that's happened to me. I'm such a different person than I was. Before I was a bit of a lads' lad; now I'm more focused, more determined, and everything, to achieve what I want to achieve, like getting to the Paralympics, and progressing on from there."

It is an extraordinary statement to make, and yet it's one that resonates with many people who have endured disasters. First reactions may well of despair, and yet I have no doubt that now Peter Dunning is blessing the doctors who saved his life rather than giving up on him, and the physios whose persistence got him walking and then skiing on his prosthetic limbs. The moral must be: don't assist people to give up, assist them to live.

There was an item last night on BBC's Countryfile programme on rural road safety, or rather lack of item, presented by John Craven (about 10 minutes in). It was filmed in Lincolnshire which has had significant success in reducing fatalities on its roads. In the course of his report, there was on remarkable interview with the mother of an 18-year-old, John Van Spyk, who'd been on his motor-bike and killed when a young driver did a rash overtake of a slower moving vehicle meeting the bike head on.

In due course the young driver was taken to court charged with causing his death, "but Emma, John's mother, felt he had suffered enough. 'When the driver appeared in court, you did what many people would think was a remarkable thing. You wrote a letter to the judge asking him not to send this young man to prison.'
'Yes. I couldn't see that on top of everything he had been through being in jail away from his family and support network was going to help him. He was obviously very, very contrite, and he kept on saying, "I just didn't see him, I didn't see him."'
'And he didn't go to jail, did he?'
'No. No, he didn't. I believe he had a driving ban and community service.'"

I couldn't help admiring Emma and thinking how wise she was (and incidentally the judge for listening to her), and contrasting her spirit with the thirst for retribution so often broadcast, the "I'll never forgive him" which simply leaves the bereaved embittered. And I wished that parliamentarians and magistrates had an ounce of her wisdom and common-sense in the response to last summer's "rioters". I gather just for being present, not actively involved, you can expect a two-year jail sentence - which is plain daft, doing exactly what Emma sought to avoid for her son's killer, being away from his family and support network.

There was another moment of broadcasting gold in the same programme (about 30 minutes in) when "very lapsed Catholic" presenter, James Wong, visited the Benedictine Quarr Abbey in the Isle of Wight for a day. It was a short piece, but had a hugely resonant minute when he walks down to the shore looking over the Solent with Father Luke. As the sea washes the shingle at their feet, the monk talks quietly about the significance of the spot to him. He preferred it when mist shrouded the mainland and there was more of a feeling of being on an island. The sea for him was a picture of eternity, and pieces of land had over time been washed away from where they were standing just as parts of our lives are absorbed into eternity. Then he turns to James Wong. "Do you know the poem Crossing the Bar by Tennyson?" Wong confesses he didn't. But I did. In fact I'd sung it in a setting by Hubert Parry when I was at school. A bar is a sand or shingle bank, for example outside Cowes, protecting the harbour. Tennyson had a house in the Isle of Wight. In Tennyson's poem, he uses it as a metaphor for life and dying (coming into the harbour). Father Luke quoted the last two lines, but here's the whole poem:
Sunset and evening star,
  And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
  When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
    Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
    Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
    When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
    The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
    When I have crost the bar.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Men behaving badly

Why are Englishmen so awful at personnel management? How is it possible for the FA board not to have consulted their highly-paid team coach before making a team decision as crucial as removing the captaincy from John Terry? It beggars belief.

The FA Chairman, David Bernstein
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Terry retaining the captaincy - and you can argue either way with some reason - it's plain as a pikestaff that to fail to consult Fabio Capello, his boss, beforehand, was plain insulting and bad management. It leaves me wondering how much a free hand he'd ever been allowed. It was convenient to pin the World Cup blame on to him. Since then, however, he seemed to have created a successful and promising team with prospects for Euro 2012. But the point is that if you employ a man at an annual salary of £6 million, the least you can do is afford him the respect to do his job.

Fabio Capello
It's not surprising if Capello had been hopping mad to have heard the FA's decision post facto. He must have felt he was up against the Mafia. Even more so, when he was expected to keep silent. When he spoke up, the Mafia would have shot him; the FA fired him. He was a strange creature in their world - a man of principle, a manager who expected his team to maintain standards, someone who said it as he saw it, someone who actually believed in "innocent until proved guilty". What a surprise, when a man of such eminence in the football world, said, "I'm sorry. I manage this team. That's what you pay me for. I make the operational decisions. You can advise. I decide"! And don't tell me he resigned! He was pushed - probably by being told, "Like it or lump it, Fabio. We've decided."

It's not the only example I've come across of what can only be described as crass personnel relations in organisations. Somehow managers regularly miss the blindingly obvious in how to treat their employees. Perhaps it's an aspect of their ambition that has pushed them up the ladder. You tend not to look at the fingers you're treading on, otherwise you'd never get on and up. I wonder whether it's a particularly male thing. I think of the different headteachers under whom I served. Without doubt the best two were women. Outstanding was Sister St James, a splendid upright fireball of a nun, who had brought an all-girls' convent school to be a highly successful mixed comprehensive. She was respected by staff and students alike, and yet had time for all alike as well. The other was Freda Storrar, who'd worked in industry before returning to education to take on one of the toughest upper schools in Cowley. She too had that combination of integrity and humanity. I hate to admit it, but three of the four male heads under whom I worked were not in the same class. They weren't bad, but they weren't as good. The exception was a retired head brought out of retirement to fill in a term's gap between appointments.

In other contexts, I've seen either first-hand or through friends repeated managerial crassness, usually at arm's length: in the Health Service for example nurses expected to operate new IT systems without having been given the training and with no time allowances; coordinators told to write up their own jobs with a view to being down-graded. I could go on. I looked at the Football Association's website. There's a page which proudly proclaims The Decision Makers. It's the list of the Board members, of whom there are 12. No prizes for guessing how many are women! I believe 51% of the world's population are female. Maybe there is a Women's FA. Maybe more men than women do play football. But maybe we don't need to look any further than the Board to understand why the members are such crass "decision makers". (In case you were wondering, the answer, of course, is 0.)

I don't make a habit of agreeing with our Prime Minister, but I think he might have had a point when, talking about women in board-rooms this morning in Sweden, he said, "The evidence is that there is a positive link between women in leadership and business performance, so if we fail to unlock the potential of women in the labour market, we're not only failing those individuals, we're failing our whole economy."
Vicky Beeching

Meanwhile the Church of England General Synod, this week, returned to the vexed question of creating women bishops.... Coincidentally, I imagine, singer/song-writer, blogger and academic, Vicky Beeching, posted a blog entitled God has given Christianity a masculine feel, says John Piper. He's a well respected and popular author and preacher in America. Unsurprisingly Vicky rebuts his thesis, and set me wondering what I honestly feel. There are getting on for 100 comments following Vicky's post (mine's near the end!). I have to say I am now positively in favour of women in positions of pastoral leadership in the church. I wasn't once. My one reservation, and sadness, is that it can become a further cause of disunity within both the church (C of E) and the Church (worldwide). I'm hopeful that, with humility, it's possible to disagree but not divide.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


I was thinking of blogging about the FA's high-handed taking managerial decisions out Fabio Capello's hands, and England cricketers collapsing, and rugby-players surviving, but sometimes such momentous matters are put into perspective by something intensely personal. And so today sport, and politics, can be forgotten.

The reason is that when I opened my laptop this morning there was a message from Dave Moss, which still has the potential to make me well up. It was the news that his wife, Jozanne, had died. She is one of the most remarkable friends I've never met. I think it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who described us as an "odd couple". He kindly provided the foreword to the book Jozanne and I wrote together, I Choose Everything, with the sub-title, "Embracing life in the face of terminal illness".

We'd been put in touch when Dr Peter Saunders met her on a trip to South Africa and she'd read my first book, My Donkeybody. A young mother of two and a primary school teacher, she'd been diagnosed with MND a few years after me and mine was the first book written from that situation by someone with a similar faith to hers. I'd been wanting to explore further the implications of terminal disease for faith in a book, and when she began to send me things she'd written for friends out of her experience they seemed to me to provide exactly the practical groundings my reflections needed - and so the book came to be written. Jozanne had a translucent sort of faith which spoke to people of all shades of viewpoint. As Jozanne's decline was quite rapid, we were delighted when the publishers, Monarch Books, planned to publish the book in summer 2010. We weren't sure how much longer she had for this world.

Clearly she was a fighter, and of course she had every reason to remain for her children, Luke (13) and Nicole (11), but now her fight is over, as the prayer beautifully puts it:
Support us, O Lord,
all the day long of this troublous life,
until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes,
the busy world is hushed,
the fever of life is over
and our work is done.
Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging,
a holy rest, and peace at the last;
through Christ our Lord. 


She died peacefully with her husband, Dave, and her two children beside her at home. My overwhelming feeling is of the privilege of having "known" her and worked on our book together. They say teachers have a greater influence than they are aware of. Jozanne undoubtedly inspired, and will inspire, many more people than she ever dreamed possible. It's a curious aspect of weakness faithfully borne that it can have such an effect. She had no doubt that her ultimate home was "to be with Christ which is far better", and I have no doubt she is now discovering its truth. My only regret is that I never met this lovely woman in the flesh. However, one day, Jozanne, I trust I will meet you and enjoy your smile.

Finally, a quotation which would fit Jozanne from Charles Dickens, born 200 years ago today:
"Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts."

Thursday, 2 February 2012

(Sir) Fred the Scapegoat

As I've observed before, we seem to have developed a predilection for scapegoats in our public discourse. Rather than discussing and dealing with the complex causes of problems, we seek out an individual, or some individuals, to hang blame on. Usually, of course, in matters of politics, ethics and even as far as sport, it's never the fault of one individual. The failure of the England rugby team in New Zealand wasn't just Martin Johnson's fault, and yet the press were quick to bay for his scalp. The collapse of our cricketers against Pakistan wasn't one man's fault. The corruption of the press wasn't the work of one woman. It was a culture created over the years by public appetite and corporate greed. Corruption in the Met and financial laxity among parliamentarians was a result of rising amorality in public life in general.

This is the rather powerful painting by the pre-Raphaelite artist, Holman Hunt, of The Scapegoat as described in the Pentateuch. Every year on the Day of Atonement the goat is chosen by lot out of two, and is driven out into the desert symbolically carrying the sins of the people from the previous year. Hunt captures not only the physical isolation but also the mental desolation of the scapegoat. However the point in this case is that the victim is not a person but an animal. No doubt there's a surge of sympathy from animal-loving readers, and yet the point is that this is precisely what we try to do to human scapegoats. At least we get them out of sight and hopefully out of mind.

The latest hate-figure to be driven into the wilderness is, of course, the former boss of RBS, Mr Fred Goodwin. As many others have pointed out, he isn't a bad man and he wasn't a bad banker; but he was chief executive when the bank made one disastrous acquisition. Let's be clear: it was a decision approved by the shareholders and the board, recommended by merchant bankers, passed by the FSA and presumably by the Treasury. Fred Goodwin didn't bring down either the bank or the economy single-handed. And yet the politicians bayed for his public humiliation and, sadly, the Queen constitutionally obliged and stripped him of his knighthood.

Andrew Strauss, England's able and successful cricket captain, was honoured with an OBE in 2011. Should he have it removed after the debacle of the crushing defeats in Dubai? The idea is absurd, and yet the principle is the same.

It seems to me too easy a debating-tool to single out an individual as the encapsulation of an issue. It's too easy to identify him or her as the problem itself, and therefore to claim that you've solved it with their removal. There's a sense of satisfied blood-lust which has a very uncivilised smell about it. And I'm sad to say that that our politicians and our journalists indulge in it with increasing frequency and ferocity.

I was watching the first programme, Protecting our Children, last night and I have to say that my heart ached for all involved, especially the family, whose parents clearly had inadequate role models for parenting and seemed to have no wider family to support them. The father in particular was completely out of his depth both in fathering and in dealing with kindly but highly articulate social workers. It was a painfully sad story. One thing that struck me was that dad's only recourse was to blame their young social worker, who "has always had it in for us". It was, it seemed to me, that primitive reaction to a mess to pin the blame on someone else, i.e. to find a scapegoat. In his case it was excusable, because he had such limited personal resources. However from first-class Oxford graduates, on whatever side of the political spectrum, who are trained to think and to argue issues through in the premier debating chamber of the country it is inexcusable. It is simply a lazy and low form of populism. 
It also avoids addressing the real underlying issues, and in that respect is simply laying up trouble for the future. The action preceding the animal scapegoat was for the people to examine and admit where they'd gone wrong. Without that we may feel better, but we get no better. As the Wikipedia article puts it:
"Since this goat is sent away to perish, the word 'scapegoat' has come to mean a person who is blamed and punished for the sins, crimes or sufferings of others, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes."