Archive for March, 2007

Something better to do

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

On Friday, Peter Mandelson didn’t turn up for Radio 4’s Any Questions and Jonathan Dimbleby wasn’t making excuses for him. Pointing out that Mandelson had cried off on the basis that he had to give a speech in Istanbul Dimbleby also mentioned that we might have caught Peter giving a radio interview the day before in London. He sounded frankly pretty pissed off. Meanwhile, he apologised to the audience.

I can imagine the ‘phone calls, the last minute realisation that Mandelson wasn’t actually going to turn up and then, the urgent conversations about who could fill the space, would they willing and would they actually be free to do this on a Friday evening. And it’s more than just finding someone who can talk and turn up. If that were the case they could probably ship in Ian Paisley or any number of my chums but they want someone with a bit of a name and the balancing political views. And, in this case, someone near to Dublin.

There is a certain contempt for an audience and the hosts in last minute cry offs. A friend tells me that when she lived in Italy and entertained quite a lot her Italian guests would call about 4 o’clock in the afternoon to check out who was coming and then would accept or decline depending on the answer. A refusal at that point, apart from the catering problems tells you quite a lot (including the fact that the cryer off is a hanger-on rather than someone who might be interesting or significant themselves. Real stars always turn up short of the plague).

My own particular no-show is, interestingly, a woman journalist for whom the word ubiquitous was created. Reviewing of the newspapers – she’s your woman on TV or radio; book choices, film reviews, feminist comment, religious or racial opinion she’s up for it. So when I worked for an Oxford institution we invited her to do a 5 o’clock seminar. We asked weeks in advance with the carrot of a clever audience, a genial host world famous in his field, verging on national treasure status and the promise of a decent dinner in college and she accepted.

Time came near, the publicity was out and our advertised speaker was not available by ‘phone. Two days before the event she said she’d be a bit late for the appointment because she had been urgently called to do Pick of the Week but could manage to get up to us about 8.30. Bit of a shame that the college wouldn’t shift the whole of the dinner or that the odds of getting an audience at 8.30 on a Friday night were pretty small, even for her. My colleague who worked at another Oxford Institution told me that invited to give a lecture to follow a reception and dinner she barely managed to get to the podium two minutes before the lecture causing anxiety all round as a disappointed audience waited, not sure if the lecturer would turn up.

Which is why, when I saw this woman advertised as a speaker at a serious college in their politics series of lectures I was interested to know what the ubiquitous one who have to say. Turned out that poor old thing couldn’t make it because of family problems and Charles Kennedy had to do the gig at the last moment. I was much relieved to see her on the Andy Marr’s sofa just a few days later doing the newspapers. Seems the unfortunate woman is fated not to get out of a studio – perhaps she ought to change the habit of a lifetime and just turn down invitations, politely.

A place to call home

Monday, March 19th, 2007

The Daily Telegraph has become exercised about the housing shortage. Apparently houses worth over £2 million are being kept off the market because their owners can’t find anywhere to downsize to. I’m aware of this problem because my brother and his partner could sell their house in Croydon, have found the house they want in Sussex but the man who owns that can’t find anywhere to move to.

The Telegraph highlights one of the causes. but I don’t see, and maybe it isn’t relevant, the effects of people buying up houses as an investment for their “portfolios”.

I read of a local man in Oxfordshire who had purchased 50 houses for investment. The Dorset village where my husband’s family lived for centuries, is now almost entirely empty in the week. My father-in-law knew the names of all the people who lived in these houses and worked the fields or on the estate when he was growing up there in the 20s and 30s. Now these are second homes.

I hate housing being used as simply for investment though I can’t in all honesty blame those who can do it. But surely one of the effects must be the fracturing of communities and a dividing between the property rich and those who just can’t afford to buy. The raw separation between high earners and the rest of us is so damaging – in health, in education and in life expectancy to say nothing of happiness and a sense of security.

I was castigated by a woman for sending my children to independent schools. Apparently she “happened to believe there is such a thing as society”. But she didn’t seem to think that her own second home in Glasgow had any damaging effects on society. It’s very acceptable to have a go at people who pay for education but there seems to be a reluctance to make the same judgements of people who deprive communities of housing and (until the slump) reap massive benefits.

Tony Blair doesn’t think it’s the inequality that matters, it’s the general economic health that matters. He’s wrong although I’m sure he would like to think otherwise given the vast disparities in wealth during his government.

Trickle-down doesn’t work and every bit of decent research shows that it is the difference that matters. Not being able to afford to buy a roof over ones head despite working full-time seems to me to be damaging, not just for the individuals affected but for the rest of the communities. For the house or flat that young people beginning family and professional life might aspire to, to be bought up by development companies or by the property wealthy to increase their already bulging fortunes is profoundly wrong in my view. I’m fortunate enough to have a house (just the one) in a pleasant neighbourhood, which is also a home. I just wish that other people could have them too.

Job done (not)

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

Reading in the Observer last Sunday of the apparent poor treatment, verging on neglect, of the soldiers being treated at Selly Oak hospital was truly dispiriting. For blessed baby boomers like me it seems incredible that anyone in hospital should suffer the way that was reported in the newspaper – young men lying in soiled beds or in extreme pain without analgesia because there were “no relevant staff on duty”.

I went in to nursing over 30 years ago for a variety of reasons that I’ll not list, one of which I will happily admit (now) was the inspiration of Florence Nightingale. Since then, my admiration for her has if anything increased as I realize her great contribution to military health, to medical statistics and, of course, to professional nurse training. I couldn’t fail to recognize the latter, training as I did at St Thomas’ Hospital at her training school.

Two of the earliest war correspondents sent the reports which energized her and stirred the stubborn dedication that sent her to the Crimea and the hospital at Scutari. One was the Times correspondent W H Russell and the other Thomas Chenery who in 1854 wrote for the Times of London

‘it is with feelings of surprise and anger that the public will learn that no sufficient medical preparations have been made for the proper care of the wounded. Not only are there not sufficient surgeons – that, it might be urged, was unavoidable – not only are there no dressers and nurses – that might be a defect of system for which no one is to blame – but what will be said when it is known that there is not even linen to make bandages for the wounded’ The greatest commiseration prevails for the suffering of the unhappy inmates of Scutari, and every family is giving sheets and old garments to supply their want. But, why could not this clearly foreseen event have been supplied? It rests with the Government to make enquiries into the conduct of those who must have so greatly neglected their duty’

To see the serious, smooth faced young man whose picture is on the front page, to know that he was injured seriously in the horrible terrain of Iraq and was then, according to his parents, left all night in his own excrement appalls me as a former nurse and as a human being. In 1854 there was public outrage and a public fund to relieve the soldiers suffering was set up. The story of Miss Nightingale and her nurses was an inspiration to the public and to others who went to relieve the distress, most notably Mary Seacole who ran a boarding house hospital and had to wait over a century to have a real public recognition. Miss Nightingale’s unique contribution must be her great organizational skills and especially her use of statistics “God’s work” as she believed it to be.

She revolutionized the care of the military. Now those services have gone. The medical personel who are in the services are of the highest standard but the specialist care of the military hospital, the unique understanding and empathy from people who have experience those terrible personal challenges have gone. Must we have another public rising to re-make what has been dismantled? And is there any chance at all, that in the age of 24 hour “news” and story piling on story that there could ever be that channeling of anger and compassion from the public? Makes me wonder what it is that we readers, viewers, listeners, consumers want all that news for.

Walking home through wonderland

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

I have an ambiguous relationship with Oxford, where I live but today it was unequivocally beautiful. I walked back from work along one of the loveliest parts of the university city, along a gravel path which runs from a cobbled street between two ancient colleges. From one college I could hear someone playing gentle jazz piano and as I went past the chapel window of Merton College, the sun hit the stonework, the cherry tree was out and the organ was playing inside.

All this sunshiny luvliness though rather reminds me of Sherlock Holmes telling Watson about the horrors that lurk behind the “smiling face of the countryside”. Despite the Morse factor I don’t know of that many murders and certainly not of the intricate and Byzantine type of the detective story. Although it is always possible that the murderers in Oxford are just better than anywhere else and don’t get caught out. Indeed knowing how ruthless the callings of both academia and medicine can be I’m often surprised there aren’t more unexpected vacancies in the higher reaches of the university ladder. Perhaps it is the words that wound the more whilst leaving no visible scars.

But there is something of the stifling gilded cage about the place. There are things so wonderful – brilliant, spirit enhancing choirs, fantastic enthusiastic campaigners, original thinkers who change the thinking of whole societies and others who set up Oxfam and Earthwatch and so much more. So it is a little churlish to rail against this little jewel. But, but, how delighted I was when I read a book by an author who knows exactly what this city is about. Charlotte Mendelson says it all for me.

The problem for me of course, is that having become somewhat inoculated against some of the worst excesses of the place, I’m now turning a bit native. By which, I mean of course, that I wasn’t born here at all so I’m merging with the melee of transients and tourists who people this place. (According to a recent review, the group least represented among the university work force is native Oxonians although the transience can quite easily exceed 25 years or more). For the most of us there is always the knowledge that we make no mark on this obviously ancient and self contained, self satisfied city. I knew of a man who was a student here and fell in love with the learning, the debate, the greenery and the river, the whole youth and beauty thing; the drawing out of his skills and the making of his mind. Poor man could never get over the experience and his family felt that it was the separation from paradise that led to his early death from drink. Not the first by any means. This city does not have much of a heart I suspect but it can certainly put on a pretty face.