Hasta La Vista Médico!

‘Your call is very important to us… blah’

I tuned out again as I looked at the time on screen. Not too bad, just the sixteen minutes so far.

I tuned back in as the recording of some electronic background music, unrecognisable so no copyright, so no royalties payments, ambient ersatz, faded out. Was I going to be…’Your call is very important to us, please continue to hold and you will be connected to an agent as soon as possible.’

No I wasn’t going to be…connected to anyone. Not yet, maybe never. The last time I’d called a doctor the system had sounded different, there had been a number in the queue countdown. That had been reassuring in a way but obviously had provoked some adverse comment or reaction as we had gone back to chirpily annoying slack mouthed Essex Girl vapidity. When did sitting in blind hope there may be an answer become preferable to a realistic announcement of the wait length? Some idiot focus group assessment no doubt.

The previous few occasions I remembered being on this system my call had been so important I had been cut off after half an hour and dead aired. On occasion I had been returned to a ring tone that went on presumably to eternity as it never reconnected with the chirpy vapidity. Vapid chirpiness? You choose. I have been transferred into an electronic abyss by the system and been greeted with bemusement after I rang back and explained it was me again. I have been transferred, waited in some holding room limbo and then been answered by the same receptionist, my apologies; Care Navigator. You know how desperate a service is by how arcane and Byzantine the renaming of basic functions and personnel becomes. Receptionists now stand as gate keeping Care Navigators and must be informed of your most intimate physical and mental secrets if they are to deign to allow you the vague hope of speaking to, not necessarily seeing, a doctor.

Name, date of birth and address are not the three questions you must answer to pass the Keeper of Care Navigation, that is but the First Test.

The system seems to be designed to keep you from seeing a doctor, not facilitating or Navigating towards that consummation devoutly to be wished of seeing someone qualified to know what is wrong with you and having it treated by them.

Nineteen minutes on the screen and they were still convinced my call was important to them. I had the computer screen up because I needed the number to call. I used to be able to make appointments online but when everyone realised you could do that, appointments were booked up as far as the system would go – usually a month in advance. So that stopped. They were looking at new ideas when Covid arrived like a Godsend for them. It suddenly was not only understandable they would suspend as many face to face appointment interaction opportunities as possible, but it was welcomed as a means of preventing the Dread Plague. So we went back to phoning for appointments. But phoning for appointments for telephone calls not actual appointments. I’m beginning to think GPs are being replaced by AI algorithms.

Don’t laugh. The idea is out there and we are being softened up to accept the ‘inevitable’ surrender of our health outcomes to machines. There are already causal machine learning algorithms that allegedly do a better job of diagnosis than 70% of GPs. Just don’t ask who decided the percentages. But given how the world works, say Goodbye to Dr Foster up to his middle in a puddle in Gloucester and say hello to the Cyberdyne Systems Doctor T101 up to his abs in Skynets new Care Navigation Sector, ‘Hasta La Vista Baby!’

Twenty six minutes and there’s a disturbance in the Force, and a human voice tries to say ‘Hello’ and then coughs.

Before I can be rerouted I say ‘Hello’ to grab the attention of what sounds like an actual human Care Navigation Assistant.

We politely go through the poker playing of what I want. I lead out big and bet a Doctor’s Appointment for my son. She raises with a request for his date of birth etc. I call, revealing his details with faultless memory. We get another card and I check. She bids an offer of would he be available this morning? Stunned I am about to see her when I decide I’ll call and wait another round. Yes he would. She goes all in with The doctor will ring this morning then. I see her. He wants an appointment. She reveals a Royal Flush of Doctors always ring first and she cannot book face to face appointments. I am broke and wander off to the balcony overlooking the bay and ask if may borrow a Casino Webley.

She feels pity and we eventually agree they will ring back after eleven o’clock and he can just mumble that I can speak for him. He can’t marry without my permission and he can’t join the army without my say so but I can’t speak to a doctor about him.

Now all I have to do is try and wake him up. I feel a certain amount of schadenfreude, tinged with karma not entirely unrelated to being woken at four in the morning by the sound of him practising a Metallica tune on his electric guitar. I mean it’s not what I want, but you know, who am I to argue with the demands of Doctor Arnold?

He’ll be back.

We hope.

Thoughts on Perchance to Dream

I hope no-one thought the last post; ‘Perchance to Dream’ suggested any portents of doom chez Farrish. It didn’t (no more than usual anyway!). It came from an idea that popped into my head years ago when I had walked my son to school and was returning home to start work. He’s sixteen now so that must be at least five or six years ago. [I just checked the properties of the original file that contains the notes I made when I got home – I was a bit out in my guess – it was June 2013!] Here are the first lines of the note I made as sipped my cup of tea in front of the computer as I started my day’s work:

narrative of a life (short, but engaging) coming to a crisis – medical? Possible heart attack? Arrhythmia? Brief overview of how he got there – past work and personal relationships, marriage divorce, successes triumphs, failures. Building seemingly inexorably to this moment when life may be ending

Narrator wakes in hospital.

After that the notes develop into more complex versions of the narrative, none of which precisely mirror what came out in this short version. Initially as you can see it didn’t start with an awakening. There was a longer story of a life which suddenly experiences a traumatic event and unconsciousness from which the protagonist awakes and resets. It was a simple idea, and hardly original. It’s almost a Bobby Ewing moment (one of the stars of the eighties TV series Dallas left and his character killed off in an episode which drove the story arc for 31 episodes. And then the actor returned and the preceding 31 episodes were written off as a dream!].

One of the development ideas in my notes was that the protagonist realises he is younger than the previous narrative leading up to the emergency suggested he was. Is this a dream, a portent of what might happen if he doesn’t take another path? Does he have the choice still to make? What if he does something different? Can he remember the choice he made that led to the situation he was in when he became unconscious? Was it so bad and the alternatives so clearly better that he wants to change anyway? A sort of ‘Sliding Doors’ moment with an active choice.

I’m not sure exactly where the idea came from. It may have been from the first time I suffered a bout of Atrial Fibrillation (AF), I see that AF, or more precisely arrhythmia, is mentioned as a possible trigger. Not that I lost consciousness or anything but it’s creative fiction right, not journalism. I didn’t realise my first AF had happened so long ago – but there it is, time stamped and unaltered.

I wonder if life looked a little bleak at that moment and I was thinking what might have happened had I made other choices. I don’t remember wanting to change anything much, and I’ve always found it a pointless exercise in reality. You can’t go back and change anything. You might not like where you are but you start where you are each day. The only changes you can effect start here and now. But as an intellectual exercise I have looked back. I would need to be a very unreflective person not to. My life has hardly been a straight line in career or personal development terms. One divorce, three or four careers, depending how you cut them up, lots of small jobs in between, remarried, three kids (one deceased) Moved house seventeen (?) times – lived where I am now for fifteen years, longest I’ve ever been in one place. Hard not to think what if I’d made different snap decisions over the years to the changes I’ve made at different times. So maybe that was the only origin of it: idle curiosity. Wondering what it would be like if what I was doing right then, walking home from that junior school, looking forward to a cup of tea and writing, turned out to be a moveable feast? If I woke up thirty years prior to that day and made a different choice? And how do you know it would turn out differently, or better?

I didn’t do anything with the idea. Probably because, as I said, the whole thing seems a bit nugatory to me. It can’t happen and although in creative fiction anything can happen, I probably didn’t feel invested in it enough compared with what I was doing at the time.

So why come back to it? And why write such a small thing when obviously it had legs to be bigger? The simple answer is that I came across the note in a list of ‘ideas’ I sometimes keep (not very assiduously) and decided it sounded interesting enough to play around with. The deeper answer to why I was looking, and why I picked this idea over any other frankly escapes me. I was just trawling for ideas.

This short version has turned slightly circular, which I don’t think I had in the original notes. As well as the ‘portent’ moment idea outlined above I had a version which started with waking from a near death experience, or at least the protagonist believing he was waking from one, living quite a long life after that and then waking from that to return to the first dream not in a circular situation but in a point in a narrative where it was no longer clear what was a dream and what was reality. I think this may well have been tied into some reading I was doing about the possibility of a multiverse of infinite possible existences. I still found the idea ‘cute’ and wanted to write something based on it but a quick version appealed rather than a long crafted piece as I wanted the pat on the back feeling of completing something. I have lots of ideas and stories in process but I wanted to progress something to an ‘end’ state simply for the mental hit of ‘completion’.

Having done that and kicked the concept around a bit, I have more desire to work on a longer version of the warning from the future idea. I’m glad I wrote this version as it helped crystallise some storylines for me. It feels a little derivative as it is perhaps, but it jump started my desire to write something based on it, reminded me to look at my ‘ideas’ folder more (and add to it. Note to self!).

And on the plus side, you didn’t have to watch 31 episodes of prime time 1980s TV which turned out to be completely irrelevant!

Sad Strange News

Strange day yesterday. Walking into the village to pick up a prescription for my wife I bumped into the grandmother of a friend of my son. Nothing very unusual there except it has been recently.

Her grandson and my son went to the same school from four until twelve. They played together, went swimming together at least once a week, and were inseparable. Even when he moved several miles away he still came and stayed with his ‘nan’ at weekends and went swimming on Fridays with my son and played with him the rest of the weekend.

They started seeing less of each other about three or four years ago for a whole raft of reasons on each side which made it practically difficult to see each other as much. And then Covid came along and everyone was shut up and isolated it became more and more difficult to meet. As a result, although his grandparents only live a couple of hundred metres away I saw less and less of them. Most of the boys’ communication became through electronic means – mostly via games consols and some texting. No longer required for lifts or pick ups at night I stopped wandering down to his nan’s and chatting about life.

I’ve been chatting to the family; grandparents, auntie, father and mother since the boys went to  school and we’d pick the kids up and walk back through the park and watch them falling off slides, swinging into each other and running around like kids do. Being an older dad it was easy to talk to the grandparents because we were roughly the same age.

 So when I almost literally bumped into his nan and we were talking yesterday, it all felt perfectly normal, slotting back into a routine like a comfortable pair of slippers. Until I realised the absence of one person from her list of people she was catching me up on. Grandson, son, daughter, granddaughter, no husband. Then she mentioned that her daughter had  moved back in with her so she wouldn’t be alone. That left two choices and at that point you have to ask if you know someone don’t you? I stumbled through the ‘Oh is your husband…’ and they aren’t divorced, the poor man died last October. Which made me feel bad on so many levels. I hadn’t realised was the  biggest one obviously, through the whole, well nobody told me, how bad an acquaintance am I, why didn’t my son’s friend mention it etc etc.

We did the whole, how awful, I’m so sorry, which is no less true for being a little trite. I didn’t know him as well as her but I liked him. She told me how it happened, very sudden and unexpected in his sleep and she is puling through. I said if there was anything I could do even at this late stage etc, and meant it and still do.

But niggling away was something odd and a bit worrying.

I could have sworn that I spoke to him recently. Not in the last few days or anything mad like that, but the place and the ambience is so clear it makes it very odd timing. I know exactly where it was, he was stood outside the local pub by the chairs and tables set out for customers. As I walked past I said hello and stopped and exchanged a few words.  I’d like to say it was something profound but it was simply the usual how’s things, boys all right, this weather’s weird type of thing. Particularly the weather, because it was sunny and warm not that usual in Wales. Which I had filed neatly away with the early warm spell this spring. Except obviously it couldn’t have been. Could it?

It’s one of those tricks of memory born of how we store information and associate circumstances – outside pub, warm weather, recent hot summer – association made. There were obviously warm dry days last summer and I’ve just missed the intervening six months out in my memory store. But it really feels a lot more recent than that.

I know it’s just one of those blips, like how people miss a man dressed in a gorilla costume crossing behind a video scene (google it) but boy does it seem as if it was three months ago not a year.

My respects to him and his family and I hope his grandson and my son remember they are good friends soon.

But it still feels like I saw him three months ago.

ABANDONED ANGELS?

Remember clapping for those ‘angels’ in the NHS two years ago?

I wrote a poem about it at the time and some thoughts based on the practice and the poem https://gfarrish.wordpress.com/2020/04/30/clapping-in-the-dark/

https://gfarrish.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/interpreting/

I didn’t clap myself. Not because I didn’t, or don’t, support the workers in the Health Service, I do.  But they aren’t ‘Angels’, they are human beings who need to eat and be warm. I was suspicious at the time that Government encouragement of this practice was likely to be the full extent of their appreciation of the efforts of key workers to keep the country going.

As I wrote at the time:

‘Clap by all means but remember that we need a health service that delivers care as needed regardless of ability to pay, by people we value: from Consultants via junior doctors, nursing staff through to ancillary staff. Remember it and be prepared to protect it now and in the future from those who want to turn it into a profit machine for their shareholders and CEOs. Clap for people, for human beings who rely on us as we rely on them. And make sure our respect remains part of normality when all this is over.’

I’m sure most people’s respect for those key workers remains as high as it was when they stood on their doorsteps. I’m not sure that includes the Government.

 Among many others who kept things running in those difficult times and are needed now, the RCN is due to ballot members for strike action in the autumn. That’s right, the Royal College of Nurses, the union in the nursing world which traditionally does not strike. Other unions in the health world have in the past taken a more confrontational approach to ensuring pay and conditions for their members. The RCN have generally been of the opinion that more can be achieved through quiet dialogue, understanding and negotiation behind the scenes. They finally seem to have run out of patience with being fobbed off with jam tomorrow for their vocation al dedication.

Shortfalls in nursing staff, extra hours demanded for the same eroded pay levels and terrible conditions have finally pushed them over the edge into unprecedented action. They haven’t of course decided to take industrial action, but the very idea that the RCN is balloting for it should give everyone, not least Government, pause for reflection.

I don’t like strikes, they show a failure to meet needs, by both workers and employers and that there is intransigence somewhere. Let’s hope the parties concerned in all industrial negotiations realise this and that we don’t need to see industrial action in particular in hospitals and surgeries. But we should remember that clapping fed no nurses, no children of nurses, nor kept them warm in winter. Clap if you must, but a practical show of appreciation; funding proper staffing levels, encouraging young people into training by bursaries, and paying them properly would go a long way to put some real muscle behind that applause, and would be at least as welcome.

REMINDER

Growing down the centre of my ring finger, left hand, is a groove. A neat, one millimetre wide, one millimetre deep channel running from the cuticle to the distal edge or tip of the nail. In fact beneath the cuticle to the proximal fold. Its beginning, physically presumably lies just beyond this in the nail root under the skin at the base of the nail. Temporally it lies around sixty years in the past.

My cousins lived on the edge of the village. Where I had motor vehicle exhaust to breathe on the way to school or shops they had the odours of pig muck, silage clamps and occasional whiffs of grass and foliage. My back yard was flagged in part and cinders for the rest, surrounded by a six foot wall which, when rather than if, you climbed it and dropped down the other side, left you in cobbled streets lined with smoke blackened terraced cottages. You walked through their overgrown garden, hopped the slack wire fence and landed in ‘the field’. The field was a neutral space between habitation and country, a DMZ between village and farmers. From a child’s perspective a huge swathe of grassland swept up the hill to Mr Ward’s farm where the country proper started, cows grazed and splatted, pigs rooted, chickens clucked, a cockerel crowed and men with tractors and odd machinery still walked and worked the land before farming became the loneliest job in the world.

The grassland was mowed and managed off to the right of the field but the left was generally left long in a meadow, hide and seek played, dens made in it, wild flowers picked, but not Mother’s Die, just in case. You probably know this as cow-parsley, but where I grew up it was Mother Die or Mother’s Die and remains so in my head still.

Down the field from where Ward’s land began to the bottom road where my Auntie’s house stood ran a track.  It wasn’t paved or tarmac covered. At some stage someone had casually, lazily and without much thought for anything other than trying to get a grip in the wet for poor quality 1950s tyres scattered a thin intermittent layer of loose chipping over the sandy ground. Not the fine graded chippings you got on the driveways of the bigger houses lying off country roads in the distance, but the odds and sods left over from the process, ranging from cricket ball size chunks to tiny lentil sized grains.

Compaction by farm vehicles, cars and feet had, over the years, compressed this into some sort of  surface marginally more traversable for wheeled traffic than grass and mud and sand, but only marginally. What it did provide in summer was a fast, bumpy, exciting go kart track for the enterprising children of the village. When I say go kart, stop right there with the Lewis Hamilton visions and skip back a few generations to odd planks of wood hammered, occasionally screwed if there as an adult involved in the construction, together with filched pram wheels and, if you had a Barnes Wallace among your constructors, a steerable front axle! One of the locals was a revolutionary designer and had a steerable rear axle but this was felt to be a design flaw rather than a promising innovation.

If my Uncle John was around, the rules were, generally to stay in sight of the rear window and no off roading to gain more speed before hitting the track, and one driver, one passenger max at a time on the descent. This was more summer bob sleigh territory than motor sport. Power was leg and gravity. Approved safety wear was; boys in shorts and shirts, girls in summer dresses, no helmets, no elbow pads, knee protectors, or any other protection come to that. My uncle was in the house that day and so we should have been okay and obeying the track safety rules. But you know how it is, two people max meant people waiting at the top, a long wait as pushing and pulling the finely crafted machine uphill was much less thrilling than riding down. So driver, navigator, rear gunner and engineer/supernumerary noise maker rapidly became the standard crew. We were all getting tired and near to calling it a day but one last death defying ride seemed to be required. Pretty sure Peter was driving, I think I may have had the ‘brake’, it was a piece of wood you hauled on but frankly I don’t think it was connected to anything. We decided that just going a bit further up would be fine and perhaps to extend the experience for the probable last run of the day, a short(ish) pre track grass hill run in would be best.

It certainly got the speed going although there were ominous squealing noises coming from the axles almost immediately. Progress was held in check a little by the dry grass on the slope but as we negotiated, a loose term, the entry onto the track proper that residual braking disappeared and we seemed to leap forward. Not just the axles were squealing by now. I knew we were fine in a straight line, we would bump and trundle our way down the hill and come to a more or less dignified stop where the hill ran out, the chippings were deeper and the emergency brakes (feet) could be safely deployed. Unfortunately we had joined the track higher up than the position we normally started from and our recce had been faulty. This meant that we joined the track at an angle and had therefore to apply steering correction to stay on the track. This automatically set up a slight yawing motion on the loose surface , but in addition we had to immediately counter steer as the track took a sharp opposite turn to the place we normally began our descents.

All those fighter pilot films where they lose control and the camera is thrown from side to side for a bit before flicking into a slightly nauseous spiralling motion were what happened next, without the benefit of being in a padded cinema seat. I have no idea how far we got down before it all became blurry then scrapy and painful but it felt like section two of the descent went on longer than section one. We all had cuts, grazes, a bit of gravel rash and bruising but I remember thinking as my finger went under the rear wheel somehow, that that felt a bit worse than the rest.

We limped ignominiously into the house. I was most definitely crying. Cuts and bruises were nothing new, but I was most decidedly of the opinion that nails shouldn’t be sticking up like that and there seemed a bit too much blood to come out of one finger. My mother soothed most minor bumps and she was there, but I knew I’d been right that this was bit more than a simple plaster job when I was wheeled before Uncle John. John was a nurse and although by then very high in the local mental health hierarchy, retained enough of his wartime nursing to be quite capable of dealing with this. He always had a bit of a scary authoritarian feel to him for me, but that day he was so brilliant for a small child in pain and more importantly worried about things being different than they should be. It was only a nail of course but it had been ripped from the quick and bent back at a weird angle. He cleaned it without killing me, talked to me to distract me, flicked the thing back into place, which I can assure you hurt a tad, and dressed it.

My mother hovered wanting to ask all those questions mothers want to ask and that I was not sure I wanted to hear the answers to.

‘He’ll be fine. It might come off but I don’t think so. Keep an eye on it, but I think he’s probably going to have a bit of a minor mark grow down the nail. It might be permanent but nothing to worry about.’

He was right. The nail stayed on and the damaged bits grew out. All except for that little groove nobody except me notices, but which reminds me of sunny childhood summers long ago, and also reminds me that, even though it was scary at the time, it came from fun and childhood isn’t or shouldn’t about being cocooned in cotton wool.

RUSHDIE: EVEN LE CARRÉ NODS

I respect and admire John Le Carré as a writer of superlative fiction, not just an espionage genre writer but an incisive and revelatory examiner of our politics, international relationships and the human condition. I like most of what I have read of him as a man as well. There is one area however where I thought him naïve and his reaction so unlike him as to be unfathomable. As he is no longer around to explain, it may be unfair of me to expound on it. However I am so small a fry that even had he been with us, my views would not have crossed his radar let alone warranted a response, so I don’t feel it too unfair.

It’s about Salman Rushdie. Obviously not the unprovoked attack on him this weekend, as Le Carré was no longer with us to know about it. Rather it was his attitude to the reaction to the Fatwah issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Rushdie for his work ‘The Satanic Verses’. In 1989 Le Carré initially said he respected Rushdie’s stand and then said the longer he thought about it the less sympathy he had with Rushdie’s position. There was some suggestion at the time that this may have something to do with a review Rushdie wrote of Le Carré’s ‘Russia House’. In this Rushdie seemed to perpetuate the sneering that ‘literary’ authors have for ‘genre’ ones by saying, “Le Carré wants to be taken seriously … close – but this time anyway – no cigar.” As if the author of ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” needed Rushdie’s imprimatur of seriousness.

Whatever the cause, the bad feeling continued in low key until in 1997 there was an exchange of letters, with interpolation from Christopher Hitchens, never one to pour oil on trouble waters, which fanned the flames. It degenerated a little into a tone not dissimilar to the exchanges on Newman and Baddiel’s ‘History Today’ television sketches.

The key phrase which I felt was oddly out of kilter with Le Carré’s general writing was this one:

“ My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.”

There surely is a law of modern post Enlightenment culture that ensures just that? Adherents of ‘the great religions’ (who decides which are great by the way? Is it a numbers game? Oldest first? Or what? Do ‘small’ religions have to put it up with being insulted?) are surely aware that their omnipotent god is big enough and omnipotent enough to sort things out without their earthly intervention? Apparently not. He also wrote that: “My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers’ camp.”

Now Rushdie and Le Carré made up fifteen years or so later but Le Carré couldn’t just say sorry and move on. He added:” “I admire Salman for his work and his courage, and I respect his stand. Does that answer the larger debate which continues to this day?” And what was that larger debate in 2012?

“Should we be free to burn Korans, mock the passionately held religions of others? Maybe we should – but should we also be surprised when the believers we have offended respond in fury? I couldn’t answer that question at the time and, with all good will, I still can’t. But I am a little proud, in retrospect, that I spoke against the easy trend, reckoning with the wrath of outraged western intellectuals, and suffering it in all its righteous glory.”

An easy trend? I wonder after Charlie Hebdo, the persecution of the teachers in Batley last year and not least what happened to Rushdie himself this weekend whether Le Carré would still write: “The pain he has had to endure is appalling, but it doesn’t make a martyr of him, nor – much as he would like it to – does it sweep away all argument about the ambiguities of his participation in his own downfall.”

I think I’ll leave the last word to Salman Rushdie:

“John le Carre is right to say that free speech isn’t an absolute,” he added. “We have the freedoms we fight for, and we lose those we don’t defend. I’d always thought George Smiley (le Carre’s most famous character) knew that. His creator appears to have forgotten.”

CHARLIE YATES: BELATED THANKS

Someone online recently asked me rather pointedly how much longer I thought I would be around. It wasn’t done in a solicitous manner.

Now I’m not bothered by his desire for me to shuffle off this mortal coil asap. It was said because I was annoying them, deliberately as it happens, over a stupid campaign of hate he is waging on someone else. I was quite please with the effects of my opposition to his bullying. It had obviously got under his skin.

So far so social media – although this is on rather an obscure platform and is not going to join any of the vaunted Twitter Wars, thank goodness – but it did make me consider time frames for mortality.

If this were as a new thing I’d probably score one for my ‘opponent’, but it is a thought that has crossed my mind for some years. You get to a certain age and you do don’t you? Don’t you?

Well I did, and do.

I suspect it first hit me that I wasn’t going to live forever was when the father of a friend of mine called at our house one early evening in July 1974. His son had just returned from a climbing expedition in the Dolomite mountains and he wanted to let me know that his climbing partner and my school friend Charlie Yates (Charles David Halton-Yates) had just been killed in a climbing accident on that expedition. Thankfully Tim was physically okay, but he had the trauma of seeing Charlie die. He still climbs I believe.

I was numb. We hadn’t been friends that long despite us being at the same school, but we had plans to meet up after his return from climbing and before we went off to university.

The ‘what might have been’ of that friendship has stuck with me ever since that day.

It also alerted me to the fact that despite that feeling of invincibility we both had at nineteen with the world at our feet, that we were in reality quite fragile beings in the greater scheme of things.

Since then of course I was lucky enough to go on and have many more opportunities to test how fragile, and fortunately so far survive relatively unscathed.

It would have been easy in many ways to overreact to that warning shot across the bows from fate and take as many precautions as possible. I certainly toned down my aspirations to climb and stuck with hill walking and scrambling as my adrenalin producers. It didn’t stop me doing other things though; playing rugby, lifting weights, running, hill running, long distance walking, and taking interesting jobs here and there that entailed a measure of risk. So a few broken bones – nose, thumb, cheek bone, collarbone, ribs – sprains, muscle tears, a couple of hundred stitches, knocked out teeth (only one missing in the end – I bit the others back into their sockets, which surprisingly- 40 odd years later still there – works better than you might think) and a couple of serious concussions and I’m good. And I enjoyed whatever games, exercise, work I was doing when I got them, which is more the point than a catalogue of injuries. I certainly wasn’t bored.

I don’t know how much I owe to Charlie, but I suspect a lot. The months before he died were great getting to know him and I remember a chat in the school Reference Library just before summer when we talked about plans for the next year. One of the feelings he imparted was that anything was possible and you should give life a good try before it was over. Tragically his ended all too soon, but while he was here he lived according to his beliefs and gave an example to us all not to waste our time on earth. That gave me a little courage to go and try and do the same. I wasn’t as adventurous as Charlie but I’ve had a far more interesting life for having known him, however briefly.

So the answer to my internet interlocutor is, dunno mate!

Probably not as long as I had hoped when I was running up hills or lifting weights, but longer than I feared at other times when I found myself in sticky situations.

But if it were tomorrow I’ve enjoyed it far more than I could have imagined, and in no small part that is thanks to the inspiration Charlie Yates gave me all those years ago.

Thanks Charlie, RIP.

NEW METERS FOR OLD

I received a letter today.

A rarity these days of electronic mail and twitter and facebook and Instagram etc. (None of which, bar email, I use, as I get pestered enough with crooks, charlatans and other assorted detritus trying to sell me a pup, without wading through more of the stuff on multiple platforms).

The letter, delivered with moderate speed by ‘Royal Mail’ – nothing to do with HM the Q these days, just another for profit company. The letter was a contract service, delivered  by ‘Royal Mail’ for another company; ‘The Delivery Group’. There was no date on the envelope, there very rarely is in these days of electronic stamps, which makes a mockery of the confidently worded ‘Date as postmark’ notes I still receive on bills etc. But this letter claimed to have been printed on 28 July 2022. Assuming this was correct, far from a wise move, but let it pass, this took six days (four working days if we exclude the weekend, although at the moment I still get a Saturday delivery) to arrive. Not bad considering I am still waiting for a package posted twelve days ago in mainland UK.

Is it only me that thinks it odd to have a company, whose primary role is to deliver things, not  delivering  them but paying someone else to do that? Presumably at a profit. So somehow The Delivery Group are making a profit from OVO (which I’m paying for) and Royal Mail are making a profit to deliver the letter to me. But Royal Mail charge me full whack, and an increasingly hefty whack at that, for delivering a letter they don’t want to but are forced to by the terms of their ‘purchase’ from HMG. How come they are keen to deliver annoying, I will come on the contents of the letter in a moment, letters for below what they are prepared to deliver letters for me and the other sixty plus million citizens? Looking at it like that, it is unlikely to be an economy of scale thing is it?

But what was this wondrous missive I received?

About four years ago I had a completely, or almost so, unprovoked moan about the lies being used to foist Smart Meters on people.

Nothing much has changed. Talking heads are wheeled out at regular intervals on Radio Four programmes to extol their virtues and to hint darkly that those refuseniks who have not yet taken up the kind offers from Government and companies alike are dedicated to the destruction of human life, and indeed planet earth itself; with more or less Gaia depending which faction of the Beeb is producing the slot concerned.

The letter was from my new energy provider, OVO which to me looks like a misspelled beef extract cube rather than the latest conglomerate to swallow up SWALEC. It offered me, guess what? A Smart Meter.

They are supporting the Government’s initiative to install smart meters (to be fair they have lost the caps) in every home. ‘It’s how we build an energy system that’s powered by renewables.’

Wait a minute.

No it’s not. You build a system powered by renewables by investing in wind, wave, hydro, and solar power. Does the smart meter know where the power has come from? Have they tagged the electrons? (they don’t flow through the wire by the way so that’s a non starter even in theory). No, this is a lie.

The benefits having the ‘smart’ meter are now apparently:

‘More accurate bills’ – how? I read or they read the meter installed at the minute. Is it inaccurate- if so I want a refund – or is this another red herring? Is the ‘smart’ meter inherently more accurate? I don’t actually know that but I don’t see how and as they aren’t going to be giving me something for nothing I doubt it.

‘See your energy use in £ & p’.  I’m not sure I want a device following me all the time saying ‘you’re going bankrupt and we’re buying another yacht in the Bahamas’ when there is nothing I can to alter my usage.

‘If you switch supplier you won’t need to change your meter.’ I don’t with the old meter. This isn’t a benefit, just a tidying up of a fault with the initial smart meter roll out.

‘They help build a greener, cleaner, energy system for us all’ – in the ‘explanation’ for this one, they claim they make the grid more efficient. How? I’ve spoke to a professional engineer who works on the power distribution grid and he has no idea how it could, beyond you looking at the horrific numbers and turning everything off. Which I do anyway.

As far as I can see the purpose remains the same, to make meter readers redundant, and cut costs. I am very suspicious of the ‘internet of things’ and suspect the other benefit to companies is to make cutting supply easier by remote computer control.  I see no way this helps combat climate change. Certainly for the effort involved it would be better to start addressing wasteful industries use of power, but unfortunately we have outsourced most of those to China, so have no control whatsoever.

So again, for the moment, no thanks, stuff your Smart Meter until you show me a real benefit for me and the planet.

Change is…good?

‘We trained hard…but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.’

This marvellous quote was one of my father’s favourites about working life and he, like much of the internet still apparently, believed this to be the work of the Roman courtier and author Petronius Arbiter. It appears to be based on a much later and less high flown work: ‘Merrill’s Marauders’ by Charles Ogburn Jr. 1957.

Its origins however, do not deflect from its inherent good sense.

Many civil servants of my father’s era had a copy of this quote on, in or near their desk as governments and policies came and went.

As a critique it has lost favour in office life, as to openly express such doubts of a modern touchstone would be tantamount to career suicide. The illness is now endemic throughout the business world:

Managing change

Welcome and embrace change, with a positive attitude

Understand the need for change

Look for opportunity to improve areas of the pub and business

I want you to look at that and have a think about it.

It’s from a ‘person specification’ for a job. In this case it is for bar shift leader posts at JD Wetherspoon pubs.

Now I didn’t pick this example because it is Wetherspoons, that’s just a bonus.

Just because it is from a prime example of self important, ‘entrepreneurial’ 80s (1979 actually – what a fascinating time coincidence) exploitation doesn’t necessarily make it a perpetuator of moronic management speak. 

The section heading is ‘managing change’ and we all know how important that is, don’t we? We certainly do if we’ve ever had to sit through some wonk from HR telling us how what’s happening to the section, division, region, company, country is inevitable and yes, vital to… whatever the excuse currently is for squeezing an extra dime from the workers and concentrating ‘rewards’ in the hands of those who ‘made it all happen’. Some of us might nod sagely, many of us will wish we’d gone sick for the afternoon and some will think, ‘well why? Why is there a change?’

Change may be necessary. Change may indeed pre-empt or rapidly respond to other circumstances beyond our control to preserve what it is that as a person, a family, a company or yes, a country we need to thrive and flourish. But many times it is simply the way new managers show they are ‘new’. It is the way people who can’t manage people, manage ‘systems’. It’s the way the latest borderline psychopath heading up whatever societal unit we are considering gets their laughs, by making others jump through pointless hoops. It’s change for the sake of change. Because ‘change is good’.

So, had a look at it?

‘Welcome and embrace change with a positive attitude.’

That’s the first requirement.

Not – ‘understand the need for change’. That’s second.

‘Look for opportunity to improve areas of the pub and business.’ Comes third.

That last one is the one I can wholeheartedly support, and would put first. That seeks to identify changes that may make a positive difference, for the business, for the workers, for the managers.

My Second would be, ‘critically assess why that change has not already been made’.

My Third would be to embrace and promote well thought out improvements and strenuously contest meaningless and costly cosmetic change for the sake of looking busy.

Being aware of the need for change in the right circumstances is a valuable management skill, continual change for the sake of being seen to do something on the off chance your change may coincide with the appropriate circumstances is at best the frenetic activity of a talentless buffoon who has attended too many management teach ins. At worst it is the tool used to destabilise people and systems, and allow exploitation of a fearful workforce.

How Hard Can it Be to Give Books Away?

How hard can it be to give a book away?

This isn’t about anything I’ve written.

I used to sell books for a living and now I have ceased trading as a business the remaining volumes are taking up space I want to use in other ways. These are military related books so have a niche market and they tend to be the ones that weren’t snapped up by those with general interest or specialists. They are middle of the road titles, too obscure to be popular, not rare enough to be collectors’ items.

So what do you do with them?

A few I’ll give a home to myself, but as for the rest?

I’ve tried offering them for free on forums and sites where people interested in such material gather and I’ve given some away for the cost of postage.

However, a fair number remain. I offered them to local charity shops who declined (I have mentioned this reluctance to take hard backed books before. Their shredder can’t cope with them if they don’t sell in their allotted time on the shelves apparently). My local council’s advice is they don’t want them for paper recycling and suggest I should sell them online, give them away or donate to a charity shop!

So it looks like landfill.

There is such a noise about recycling and waste and climate change, but when it comes to practical answers everyone would rather tick boxes if in power, or be a shouty activist gluing themselves to something rather than addressing practical issues.

I suppose that one has to accept that if there are too many copies of The Victorian Army in Pictures lying around compared to the number of people who are interested in such an arcane subject then, despite my dislike of the concept, destroying them is the only answer. I was going to say ‘pulping’ them but how one gets them into the supply chain for pulping is beyond me. The web is full of the story that the glue used in the manufacture of books makes them unsuitable for recycling in that fashion. But I thought that was the fate of all the remaindered books once they have dropped down through the food chain of remaindered book shops and car boot sales. What happened to that concept? What happened to remaindered books shops?

Amazon I suppose. A boon in many ways, a massive disrupter of a lifecycle in another.

The bit about not pulping books as they are unsuitable for recycling sounds like dribble to me. It certainly wasn’t true 19 years ago when TBS Returns (a subdivision of Random House) used to shred, pulp and recycle into cardboard tons of remaindered overstock every day (they took books from 25 other publishing houses as well as their own overambitious print runs).

So why not now?

TBS (The Book Service) is still going as a distributor (now part of the behemoth Penguin Random House owned by German based private conglomerate Bertelsmann – you wonder how monopolies legislation is implemented). I couldn’t say if they still pulp ‘unsuitably glued’ books but I doubt I could get my small stock into their factory even if they do. It does seem to suggest however that the internet story about used books being unpulpable is just another urban myth in digital clothing.