Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Besides being a Christian festival, and whether or not it was an usurped pagan festival date, Christmas in our modern world, to my mind, is for children. When my own children were small we tried to add to the wonder and magic that attends the festivities. Presents were hidden before the day, decorations transformed the house overnight on Christmas Eve, stocking were hung for Santa Claus and we did what we could for mutual fun and enjoyment. And of course there was the Christmas lunch. Prepared with care and a great deal of hard work, mainly by The Wife, the repast was enjoyed (sprouts and all) in mid afternoon. Games were played thereafter, charades, board games and others. Children grow, of course, and we had to adapt our traditions and practices accordingly involving the children in the preparations as their ages dictated, but trying always to create or maintain that sense of magic which attended our family Christmases.

As the children left home to begin their own traditional Christmases, our arrangements necessarily shrank but the ethos prevailed. Eventually our last child left home and our Christmas dynamic changed irrevocably. Two of the children, now adult, are still within visiting range and so we tried initially to perpetuate our traditions as far as possible, the late onset of the decorations, the after-dinner games and so on, but for various reasons it was not a success. This year we thought that major surgery was necessary; we decided to dine out for Christmas lunch.

The great day dawned with The Wife feeling at a loose end with no dinner to cook, but the family arriving for breakfast. After breakfast came the present exchanges and coffee with much delight and laughter and the time until needing to depart for lunch passed very pleasantly. The Wife doesn't drink so she volunteered to be the taxi driver and we arrived at our chosen venue in good time. The place was packed, unsurprisingly, many apparently just drinking.

From then on Christmas lunch turned into a very poor imitation of a pub lunch. From waiting 40 minutes beyond our booked time for a table, through inedible turkey and tired vegetables, to inadequate dessert portions the experience was lamentable. However, the company was exceptional, the conversation entertaining and there were laughs aplenty. In some unfathomable way the shared vississitudes served to unite our party to the extent that this Christmas was at least as enjoyable as the best of them, the ghost of Christmas past. 

We are considering a similar venture for 2015 but the venue and the details may change as there will be a new infant on the planet, and Christmas is for children first, isn't it?

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Them and Us

I am a visitor. I like to visit historic monuments, stately homes, museums, gardens, parks, art galleries, and just about anything that allow the public access. Many of these places charge an entrance fee (sometimes quite a large one) and some do not. Many of them offer refreshment facilities and toilets, some do not. Some of them are clean and some are not. Many have information in the form of a guide book or leaflet, and some do not. What they all share is that they are public amenities, paid for and maintained on behalf of the public (I exclude the privately owned properties, although it could be argued that public revenue is helping them to remain part of our heritage). 

I am therefore dismayed, nay appalled, when I find that the public has abused their access by littering, scrawling graffiti, vandalising, and generally creating filth and mess. The attitude of 'it's someone else's job' or 'I've paid to come in, so it's ok'  is widespread and so some facilities decline first in appeal and then in popularity and finally in any worth. And it is the fault of not just the great British public, nor even of the great unwashed, but the authorities who have responsibility for these places. I'm aware that attendants, curators, wardens et al cost money which will inevitably come back on the consumer, but is our history, our heritage, our future in the shape of our children's  crounded education worth such ill consideration? It seems to work on Orkney.

Recently I holidayed in Orkney. For those who have not been you are missing something unique. In this day and age to experience complete and utter darkness and silence at night is to understand better the cacophony of modern life elsewhere. Frustrations abound for the townie such as the lack of the larger chains of shops, reliable internet access and patchy mobile phone coverage, but in exchange there is a surface serenity. Most Orcadians are self-employed, but there are jobs available for those who are prepared to work but they may not be in your preferred career. Working is the norm in Orkney and I saw no evidence of deprivation. Many appeared to travel to work by ferry onto a neighbouring island, or by driving from one end of Mainland to the other, but the attitude is friendly and pragmatic.

This brings me back to my theme. I am, as I said at the beginning, a visitor. On Orkney I visited many historic sites including St Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall, Skara Brae, and Maeshowe. I also walked some beaches and cliff tops. There were some small remote heritage sites such as the Earl's Bu and Kirk near Orphir, and all of them, ALL of them, were clean, graffiti free, open even if unmanned, and many of them were free to enter. What did it for me was the small remote site near Orphir. Signposted off the main Kirkwall to Stromness road down a narrow farm track, the site was open with clean (spotless) modern toilets, an automated audio/ visual presentation lasting about a quarter of an hour, a well-tended centre full of information in the form of pictograms, and deserted. In England I have no doubt that the toilets (if they existed) would be uncared for, the audio/ visual equipment would have been vandalised or stolen, and the information boards vandalised. 

So what is it about Them and Us? Is it that the English are naturally dismissive of other people? Or that the Scots, particularly here the Orcadians, are obsessively "house proud" ? Can two halves of the same island nation be so innately diametrically opposed to the same situation? I believe not. No doubt there are some Scots who are hooligan just as there are some English who are publicly "house proud". One has only to visit some Scottish towns and cities on the one hand, or some public-access sites like Chatsworth House or the New Forest on the other to see that it has little to do with geography. No. I believe that it has everything to do with education. Not formal education necessarily, but the wider sometimes street learned education to which we are all subject. Parents undoubtedly have a crucial role, and an attitude such as I witnessed some years ago when a litterer was confronted and replied "well I'd finished with it" (the offending article dropped in the street) can only have been home grown. 

Britain doesn't have to be dirty, defaced, litter-strewn and exhibiting appallingly selfish attitudes. I fear that many from other countries who come here to live must be appalled and perplexed by the generally dirty state of Britain, especially since many countries seem to be immaculate. The margins of motorways and other main roads are frequently littered with rubbish, plastic bags, take-away wrappers, and even dirty nappies. Why? Lots of these items must have been discarded from moving vehicles the occupants of which could easily retain the said items until home or reaching a proper litter bin. Lazy? Ignorant? I think it's probably a little of both. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In Defence of the NHS, part 2

In an earlier post on this subject I praised the hospital staff for their care and consideration of me, and others, during a short stay. I also lamented the attitude which I experienced of some GP receptionist staff. Although the person about whom I complained was very rude and uncompromising, maybe there is a deeper concern, perhaps endemic, which could give rise to such an attitude.

Since hospital I need certain medical equipment to enable me to live a normal life. A specialist nurse advised me, and supplied an initial stock of the equipment, together with the details necessary for re-ordering. When the re-order was necessary my preferred supplier advised that the local GP reception had reduced the order by 75%, had refused to deal with them again, and made no arrangement to inform me! Once again, on enquiry I discovered that notwithstanding my changing need my GP surgery will deal with only one supplier and is dismissive of the others.

There are certain implications in all this. the most charitable is that their preference is for economic reasons. Since the surgery do not pay the supplier directly (the bills are paid by the NHS centrally) the economies, if any, have to be procedural. Dealing with only one supplier provides for less confusion among staff, fewer destinations for prescriptions etc., easier training and control and a stable system. They also may be better able to assist patients with queries about the supplier and to smooth the path to hitch-free supply.

Contrast this with an alternative scenario. How much disruption to the GP's system would the presence of a competitor supplier cause? True there would be the possibility of the wrong document being sent to the wrong supplier, but with electronic mail and the innovation of the Electronic Prescription Service (EPS) this is negated. A little more training of staff may be necessary, but only concerning document recognition. An alternative supplier may be cheaper for the NHS, surely a consideration, and if they are found unreliable in their dealing with patients or GPs they can always be replaced; is that the rub?

When I was in commerce one of  my responsibilities as a manager was to deliver value for money. Our agents (other companies) were always under review, and they knew what was expected of them. If my company were not receiving the revenue expected, or the service agreed, meetings were arranged to thrash out any difficulties (on either side) and if matters continued to be less than satisfactory the agent was replaced. Why should that not happen in the NHS? I have no evidence to suggest that it doesn't other than the aggressive stance taken by the surgery and their operation of an apparent monopoly.Do they serve the best interests of the patient who ultimately pay their salary, the GP who directly employs them and has a tight budget to run, and the NHS which constantly tries to fit quarts of expenditure into pint pots of income? I'd like to think so but it should be transparent - it is MY NHS after all.

Competition is healthy for any business so long as it is fair, it forces prices down and service levels up. If a company is found wanting in any area the competition will eventually eliminate the laggard or force it to change. Monopolies on the other hand are incestuous, inflated, anti-improvement, and generally loss-making. Without profit there can be no new investment, no expansion to attract more staff, and probably no development. The company stagnates, becoming out-dated and fossilised, benefiting no-one. So the employees suffer, the patients too and the GPs and ultimately the NHS. Sound familiar? And all for the want of diversity.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

A great day out

As a member of an amateur operatic society in my youth I got used to dressing up and appearing in public, but there was always physical separation between them and me. To appear among the public, in costume and role playing would make me feel somewhat eccentric, but some do it on a regular basis. Today I visited Basing House, or at least the ruins of it, and witnessed for the first time something of a civil war re-enactment. There were Royalists in large hats with feathers and Parliamentarians in helmets and armour. Muskets cracked and a three-pounder cannon boomed. Orders, alien to modern ears, were rapped out and men with sixteen feet long pikes snapped to it. 

The site of Basing House is huge. The house used to be the size of Hampton Court Palace, in its prime, but was in fact two houses, the old (11th century) and the new (16th century) standing side by side. During the English civil war the owners of the house, Royalist supporters, together with their tenants and staff held out for three years against the Parliamentarian siege until eventually Oliver Cromwell arrived in person with six thousand troops and a very large gun. Holes were blasted in the walls, the postern gate was breached, and Cromwell's troops were in. Within forty five minutes the occupants were either dead or captured and the house was ablaze. Cromwell ordered its complete destruction.

The re-enactment does not seek to replicate the siege or its outcome, it is merely a flavour of the seventeenth century on the site of a historical event. What it does replicate is the costumes and weapons in as authentic appearance as possible. I cannot speak of the methods used to make them, but those materials used, wool, iron, wood etc are true to the age. Certainly the appearance is impressive, as is the knowledge of the event and the enthusiasm of the participants. The noise and smoke generated add to the atmosphere which is more than could be said for the younger children present who cried when the guns went off, but the afternoon was very pleasantly passed in the warm October sun.

Speaking to one or two of the participants it is clear that historical re-enactment is an absorbing hobby which takes many of them around the country. New recruits tend to be chosen as the early bodies, while the more experienced get to be musket men (a shotgun licence is necessary) or artillery men. There is an emphasis on safety, as you would expect, and the womenfolk also participate in the more craft related activities like lace-making or basket making. Cooking is also done in seventeenth century style (and we all got to take part in its consumption!), and there is a scribe and clerics. Truly something for all. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014


  I do not understand politics, I have never understood politics, and I shall never understand politics. When the referendum on Scotland's future was being held someone on my Twitter timeline suggested that if Scotland voted 'yes', David Cameron should resign. I failed to understand this since the referendum was not his idea, and was not involving anyone not resident in Scotland. When I protested I was told that it is the honourable thing to do since dissolution of the Union would happen on his watch. 

No one, so far as I saw, suggested that Mr Salmond should resign if the vote was 'no'. In the event he did, but as the referendum was his idea and he is the First Minister of Scotland should not his resignation have been mooted in the event that he lost? This seems to me to be manifestly unfair.

One of the founding principles of UKIP was the UK leaving membership of the EU. Of course they were, and are, unable to make good on their principle, but the Tories, currently in government, have promised a national referendum in 2017 if returned to power. To me the natural course for UKIP would be to align themselves with this promise, thus being in with a chance of extricating Britain from the clutches of Brussels. Even without themselves having power after 2015 (the mountain is simply too high and too steep for them at this time) UKIP voters, by ensuring a Tory majority could achieve at least one of their fundamental aims. But no, UKIP leaders have decided to align themselves more with the left of British politics, where no national referendum is in prospect (indeed Mr Milliband has explicitly ruled it out) thus falling at the first fence!

To me this has the effect of weakening not just UKIP's argument on Europe, but by extension it must surely call into question every other "principle" for which they campaign. Added to this is their reversal, within 48 hours, of their proposal for a "luxury tax", and their public embracing of the Tory defector Mark Reckless. Mr Reckless apparently lied to his erstwhile Association Chairman only two days before defecting about being solidly Conservative and willing to campaign for them in the coming General Election. By openly welcoming Mr Reckless UKIP have, to me, lost any remaining credibility as a political party. They now appear as a shiftless bunch of egotistical opportunists who no longer know what they want, but are prepared to say anything, do anything and sacrifice completely integrity of their party, their leaders and their voters for the temporary glare of the limelight. 

But, as I say, I do not understand politics.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Family Ties

For the first time I more than a year my family gathered together for a celebration meal. Besides my daughter and two sons and their spouses there was the addition of a two year old, so we were eight at table. 

Number two son and his American wife volunteered to provide enchiladas, in our kitchen, and started work around 10 am. Using two slow cooking crock pots, and other mysterious gadgets chicken was prepared as was the sauce. Care had to be exercised to cater for dietary needs and personal tastes, so that finally three versions were provided. 

Salad was prepared also in two bowls to avoid a peppers contretemps. Beer was on hand for those who wanted it as was Coke, water, and just about anything else people might need. Abigail joined us at table, although she had eaten separately, and a convivial atmosphere ensued. Short work was made of the enchiladas, beer, salads et al and we sat and chatted for a while. Abigail entertained us with her two year old prattlings until her bedtime.

Number one son and his Norwegian wife (mainly her!) provided home-made ice cream, meringues, and strawberries in a sort of do-it-yourself Eton mess kit which, being delicious, was soon devoured! We then settled to a game or two of Cards Against Humanity. Hilarious, rude, irreverent and all round good fun the evening sped by.

It was a good evening. The Wife and I certainly enjoyed the experience and it was great to see the family together. The next opportunity will be at Easter 2015 so here's hoping that the experience can be repeated successfully then.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In Defence of the NHS

In nearly 72 years I have been incredibly lucky to never have been in hospital. Negative stories about the NHS are legion, but I have long suspected that those stories are about either unfortunate individuals on the receiving end of poor decisions or care; or about the leviathan bureaucracy that accompanies the institution. In mid July I had the opportunity to experience at first hand the UK's flagship institution, second only to the monarchy.

I had an appointment for an intimate procedure which would include at least one night's stay. All of the staff I encountered, from the off-duty nurse who directed me to the right area, to the Registrar who oversaw my procedure, were friendly, helpful, approachable and professional.

The ward to which I was assigned had just 6 beds, but was only a “bay” of about 5 similar bays which made up men's surgical. The whole unit is staffed by about 20 people from staff nurses to domestics, overseen by a Sister. They work incredibly hard. Our staff nurse was busy and on her feet from 8am for 12 hours (with breaks) and I not once detected impatience, irritation or anything other than a smile and a willingness to help. Sometimes one had to wait due to a more urgent need elsewhere, but the pleasant disposition never faltered. The night staff were just as attentive and caring, even performing routine tasks by torchlight to avoid disturbing sleeping patients.

One patient required surgery and was collected, in his bed, around 10 pm, destined for theatre. Some two hours later they wheeled him back, quietly, talking in hushed tones (not quite a whisper), and shielding a light from the rest of the ward. The ward staff had tasks to perform before they could leave him to sleep, and they went about their business as quietly as possible.

The food was adequate in quantity, not a serving that one might get at home, but bearing in mind the sedentary nature of one's stay it was enough. I certainly didn't feel hungry after eating. The variety on offer for each meal was reasonably extensive without being confusing, and there was always the chance of something extra for later on offer too. 

The secret, it seems to me, was that each ward had its own housekeeper whose job it was to oversee ward organisation, meal arrangements and cleaning regimes. There seemed also to be a spare room so that at intervals each ward would be moved in rotation enabling deep cleaning to be carried out. All in all, I was almost sorry to leave after three days, so welcoming and relaxing were the staff. I have nothing but praise for the dedication, hard work, caring attitudes, and reassurance I found on this my first foray into this arcane world.

Then there was the local GP's receptionist. On being discharged from hospital I was provided with certain equipment, which I needed, and was instructed in its use. I was also advised to ring up the supplier of that equipment to arrange future supplies, which I did at the earliest opportunity.

Two or three days later I had a phone call early morning from the receptionist complaining that I had used the wrong supplier as her system didn't recognise mine and in future, if I wanted to use the surgery I had better use her designated supplier, whom she failed to identify!

I think the difference in these two episodes can best be categorised by professional versus rank amateur. I'm willing to believe that Ms receptionist is good at her job vis a vis the doctors, but she has no people skills at all. Worse, she seems to believe that but for her no one understands the NHS, which would collapse under its own inefficiency if she weren't there to save it. People like that (and I am told that many doctors' receptionists are like it) get the NHS a bad name and the service, both to the public who pay them, and the surgeries who directly employ them would vastly benefit from some retraining or dismissal. These people are effectively the shop window of the NHS, the customer service representatives, and attitudes need to, and must, change. Many surgery receptionists deal with elderly and vulnerable people, and all of them deal with the sick with conditions ranging from relatively trivial to life-threatening. Many patients get confused when unwell and some are, alas, confused due to age or infirmity. To be faced with a harridan such as I encountered (and have formally complained about) is unhelpful, rude, arrogant and unnecessary. Save the NHS, get rid of the attitudes and those who exhibit them, and let's have a truly caring, helpful and world-class service.