Resting in Wensleydale

In 1975 I was doing teaching practice in Garforth near Leeds. Colleagues were going on their annual walk to the Yorkshire Dales. I had never walked there. I had done the Lake District the previous year with a friend and enjoyed walking but my teenage years had been spent exiled in Suffolk far away from the Yorkshire’s hidden delights so I was keen to go and have a look. We parked at Starbotton in Wharfedale, walked up to Buckden Pike, a magnificent vista. Then along to Hubberholme for lunch at The George Inn. Here I recall having foot-pumped real ale and quail egg sandwiches. Never since I have seen foot-pumped beer. We drank too much and retuned on a winding river walk, or was it the amount we had drunk, to the cars at Starbotton. I was smitten, this countryside spoke volumes to me and I have been coming back ever since. I have camped by myself and with my family and with friends, have stayed in so many beautiful cottages in all the different Dales and came year after year in autumn/winter with friends where we discovered the autumnal beauty of Swaledale. I have come for the day to do selected walks again and again until my feet can no longer do that. 

Only two years ago in memory of those trips my children arranged my pre-birthday mystery weekend to Gunnerside and I was able to renew my association with my favourite national park. We took a ride up to the famous Tan Hill Pub (pictured below). I had tried to do this previously with friends J and R on a wintry trip to celebrate my 60th but had, in my car, slipped and slide in the icy weather and could not get up the hill and we never got there. So after all these years I made it. As a surprising postscript, in the Gunnerside pub, the Cow and Calf Inn, my children had arranged for J and R to join us for the evening and the children then cooked a wonderful meal, a great memory in a great place.

This week I have been staying in Wensleydale in a small village called Hunton. Just outside of the National Park I found it a great vantage point by car to most of my favourite Dales – Wharefdale, Swaledale and of course Wensleydale. My visits now are firmly by car as walking is just not possible, but driving along on a lovely sunny day is just heart warming and restorative. I cannot now explore the nooks and crannies of the hills but I can appreciate the landscapes and the dry stone walls, such a singular feature of the Dales and around almost every corner is a beautiful village nestled as if carved out of local stone to provide a perfect village Haven. I never tire of discovering yet another village, hopefully with a quaint tea room to enjoy and unwind or a small shop where I can wantonly buy something I don’t need but brings yet another little memory of the Dales home. This time I bought a flat cap, made by Swaledale Woollens. I also bought some miniature original paintings in Leyburn. I will stop one day.

On the first morning I had watched the weather on TV and saw this picture of Reeth looking down from Fremington Edge. I decided I wanted that view. I knew where it was but could not walk up there. I set about finding a route by car. At first I went in the wrong direction towards Marrick but then I saw a sign saying High Fremington. I went gingerly up this single track pot-holed ‘road’, hoping I would not meet another car. Eventually I came to a bridal path and got out. A gap in the wall revealed Reeth in all its glory below. I got my picture, see below.

There is something about the Dales which induces in me a calming and relaxed feeling. If I ever were to move anywhere I could think of nowhere better than the Dales and if pushed Swaledale would get my vote. My lack of mobility would not make it an ideal move for me now though as I simply could not get the most from it. The walks, the bike rides, the hills, are such a vital part of breathing in the full impact of being here. Around 10-12 years ago I used to come walking here with a friend and we did around 12-14 miles on each daily trip and those memories still stay with me. But even though my experience of it is more limited I now take photos, something I did not do in my youth so my experience of the Dales is distinct and still captures the imagination of it.

Friends, J and R, mentioned above, joined me halfway through the week and we explored more of the Dales, reaching Arkenthwaite Dale on Friday when we met other friends, J and S, in their lovely cottage in Langethwaite. An isolated courtyard opened up over a tiny bridge to reveal lovely cottages, originally lead miner, one-up, two-down cottages, converted now into some lovely cottages, like the one we visited and it’s own pub. Majestic.

I never tire of my visits up to the Dales and this was no exception. The world can be such a harsh and difficult one at the moment and this simple escapism was just great. I’ll let the photos do their job to speak to the beauty of this national park. Enjoy. 

I feel mature at last

Its been strange celebrating my 65th birthday this week for lots of reasons. I think for people of my generation 65 was a significant ‘coming of age’ point as it was the default retirement age when I was young though no longer legally binding today. Nevertheless, I have become an OAP, an old age pensioner. Senior citizen Senior if you like. On FB this week someone wished me well and called me old timer, tongue in cheek i assume. Well, never did the words ‘old timer’ have such a welcome ring about them. I made it to 65, pretty cool! So excuse me if i wallow today in reaching this age it just feels good. Here’s a collage taking you through my changing shape and size.

I got the usual cards and best wishes from close family and friends but what struck me too is how birthdays are now spread across social media. In some cases whilst it feels good to get best wishes from Yorkshire County Cricket Club and Barnsley FC you do feel it’s just an algorithm and I doubt anyone at BFC or YCCC really gives a damn. But on Facebook and twitter it gives many people a chance to wish you happy birthday and that takes a decision for people to do. It’s just nice to get upwards of 100 best wishes from those you know well and those you know less well. It was good to share the evening birthday meal with my son whose birthday is next week and a 23 year old also having her birthday on 11th May which of course we share with Salvador Dali, Irving Berlin, Holly Vallance, Eric Burton, Phil Silvers and Jeremy Paxton, not that I got a FB message from any of these good souls. Admittedly some are no longer with us but Jeremy must have time on his hands now!

It was never a foregone conclusion that I would reach this distinguished age. This seemed particularly challenging since my diagnosis in 2012 when the medics speculated two years, though I had conjectured whether I would make retirement age since my first bout with cancer in 1982-3. Your sense of immortality is blown away by such illnesses and I have been conscious of my mortality ever since. Not that this is a morbid thought. Far from it, its a logical thought following a life threatening diagnosis. Strangely it pushes you to think about dying and death and having put that into some kind of context, I have found myself focused on life and living. Its as if, having to come to terms with one’s mortality, it is just the stimulation you need to make you focus on your life and the richness of that rather than the barren wastes of the end of life. My Dad had had a heart attack around this age and though he survived that time it was another reminder of how life can slip away too easily. I would recommend a bit of introspection about the ‘final frontier’ to rid yourself of any demons in your head and to make sure you use the time productively and positively. I am trying to do just that. 

I know people are living longer now. Europe is getting older. The ratio of Europeans over 65 years to the working population (known as the old-age- dependency ratio) has increased steadily from 21% in 1990 to 26% in 2010. This figure is projected to reach 34% by 2025 and 52% by 2060. But yet we remain surprised when a pop star or other celebrity icon dies at 50, 55 or 60. We assume that life will stretch into the distant future and that our main problem will be finding a way to feed ourselves as government policies against the elderly make long term economic survival a bit like a lottery. But we do not question our very existence and yet many will die before or soon after retirement. 

Companies and workplaces seem a long long way away from preparing people for a gradual transition to retirement. Some stages of the working life – access to further education, child care and elderly care responsibilities are improving but i saw no sign of assistance towards understanding retirement in my circumstances and it was a particularly hard change for me. I loved my work and had not really considered retirement until my health kept telling me ever more insistently I could not cope with full-time work. I was supported to make a phased retirement very well but no wider help and I was left under my own steam to determine how i might deal with this time. Consequently I slipped into retirement reluctantly, uncertainly and a little bemused. A year on I am still grappling with this and without a partner I have no one to work it out on a day-to-day basis though friends and family do help a lot.

I think I am getting there now and beginning to organise my life in mostly satisfactory ways. I wish I had more energy to pursue more things or to complete projects but that is something I am also seeking to come to terms with, how my health impacts on my daily plans. But mostly now it’s good and at 65 I feel a growing maturity. I can think of no better words to complete this piece than the aphorism by Stephen Fry who proffers: 
“I don’t need you to remind me of my age. I have a bladder to do that for me”

My week in photos.


Earlier this week I was intrigued by an article in the Guardian called ‘The age when you hit ‘peak loneliness’ – and other life milestones’ thinking if I have ever felt lonely now is that time. In fact it described Peak loneliness for men as age 35 which was very surprising. At 35 I was busy with two job halves each of which demanded around 70% of my time, I was a single parent for growing 6 and 3 year olds, I was still playing cricket and had a rich seam of friends and family to support me. It felt challenging, unrelenting, exhilarating and busy but certainly not lonely. Now all men are different but for me at least loneliness did not figure at all. 

I hinted above now would be my peak age for loneliness (65 this week, a genuine OAP!!) and I want to make it clear it’s all relative and I do not objectively feel lonely but just a little more so than a year ago when I retired. I think work has defined so much of my life that it’s absence in the past year has created gaps in my time which I have had to engineer to find things to do. I suppose I became so used to leaving home to work, travelling with work and attending events, conferences etc for work that my downtime at home was minimal. I was happy to spend time alone, relaxing, re-charging the boundaries, catching up on TV and seeing family and friends. It was good to be alone, away from the hurly-burly and my main leisure pursuit being cricket, as chair of my local club, I could be down at the club 5-6 nights a week in the summer. Life seemed balanced and no time to regret the absence of a personal relationship, lack of knowledge of my neighbours or what was happening in the village. My son still lived at home so life felt busy and fulfilling.

Retirement speech 28.4.16

Fast forward to retirement and what was happily tolerated potentially become significant gaps in my timeline. I still don’t know my neighbours, my son now has his own home, nearby. I have very little interaction with the town though recently joined a Book Club partly to rectify that. I am now president of the cricket club but that is much more a passive engagement and maybe crucially I do not have a personal relationship. I have to say I do not want a personal relationship for lots of reasons but it would make my experience of retirement significantly different. It is perhaps easier to experience loneliness when you are on your own and stuck at home more than you want or desire. 

I still like my solitude as a respite from that gregarious side of me which now takes more effort. But I like my solitude to be freely chosen and at the moment some of that time is forced on me through ill-health and gaps which I now notice post work. Ill-health in itself is miserable but when it stops you doing what you want to do, it’s frustrating and a bit isolating. I spend too many days just sitting, watching too much TV but with no energy to do anything more constructive, even reading can be difficult some days. I miss planned trips out to watch Yorkshire, identified as a retirement goal, or to get out to Nature reserves or just the countryside to take photographs, another retirement goal. I fail my personal deadlines: finishing my novel; preparing photo year books; exploring Yorkshire; and watching cricket. In these circumstances the tug of loneliness comes over the horizon to be resisted and rebuffed. 

But what other peaks does the article indicate to which I can aspire to reduce this solitude. Not much hope given in this article I am afraid. Peak age for learning a new language is 8 so Spanish classes may prove difficult. Peak age for female attractiveness for men of all ages was 20-23 so way beyond that for me! Peak creativity is, according to the tests, 25 which may explain why I am finding it difficult to complete my novel. But like all psychological tests which determine these apparent certainties it depends what you are measuring as creativity to validate the results. My peak age for wariness about psychology was around 22 and I have maintained healthy scepticism ever since. 

Peak age for chess is 31 based on a study with grandmasters so another career choice is missed. Peak age for contentment varies according to whether you are married, 40 or single 27. I was not yet married at 27 and no longer married at 40 so cannot identify with these ages. My contentment was at its height from 2002-14 as was my creativity as I produced an array of work achievements I remain very proud off and my two children were becoming adult and making me very proud. I feel content now too as I have no ambitions left and feel entirely comfortable with that position. Peak age for depression for men is 50 which hopefully means I have less chance now to become depressed than I would have 15 years ago. (I can use psychological insights when it suits me of course) The final peak was for Nobel prizes which are normally given later in life so maybe, just maybe, there is still a chance I guess. So which Nobel Peaks might I aspire to?

I think I am nearing my Nobel Peak for ‘Caring-less’. I still care about people and the world but I have also reached that point where I am happy to let some of the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ to pass me by. I think the complete lack of testosterone in my body may have contributed to this, I do not have the anger or aggressiveness about matters I might have once exhibited. I have somewhat belied this position in recent weeks as the anger of the mass media towards Labour has made me rant on political matters on FB something I normally avoid, but generally I am letting go. I am much more likely to be animated about the sighting of a yellowhammer than the results of the French elections or the fate of Boris Johnson. 

My second Nobel Peak would be for ‘reaching old age’. I am chancing my arm here as it is Thursday before I reach my 65th birthday but this seems likely now and I consider that the greatest achievement in my life and worthy of a gong. At 59 and with a two year prognosis this milestone seemed a long long way away. But I have survived, I am still here and hopefully with a fair wind will get a year or two yet and if this does not warrant a celebration and a recognition I don’t know what does. So what buffers me against depression, loneliness, and my declining chess ability and keeps me contented, optimistic and fulfilled is existence itself – every day I extend my life expectancy. There is nothing so enervating as waking up and thinking yet another day to enjoy. I want the Nobel Peak for ‘glass half full’!

My week in photos

Whitley Hall CC
On the boundary at Worcester
Swan at Worcester
Worcester Cathedral
Blue cornflower

Family ‘enjoying’ a cold day in Pembroke

“The past is a cupboard full of light and all you have to do is find the key that opens the door.” from “Behind The Scenes At The Museum” by Kate Atkinson

It’s a unique and lovely occasion when you get to spend some holiday time with your two children, re-living those wonderful times when they were young. The hurly burly of a hectic work life in the late 80s and 1990s combined with single parenthood meant the rollercoaster of daily life when they were young was always hectic, unpredictable, certainly tiring but rewarding in equal measure and a bit unrelenting. When it came to the summer holidays I needed time to switch off and take stock so I took the majority of my holiday in August often having a 3 or 4 week stretch both to disengage from work and to spend loads of time with H and J. Mostly we went to Dorset and would camp near Chesil Beach at a little place called Fleet just past Weymouth. 

H would always find friends and J would join in. I would relax, read novels (the only time in the year I had the time), forget work and unwind. Each day we took it in turns to choose where we went having the extent of a coastline which stretched from Swanage on the east to Lyme Regis in the west. We each had our favourites but Durdle Door was a collective hit. Studland, Lulworth Cove, the lost village of Tyneham and Warbarrow Bay, Weymouth of course, West Bay, and my personal favourite Lyme Regis were frequently visited. We must have done this for 8 or 9 years and it remains such a good memory. We did lots of other shorter holidays elsewhere but this was our core summer respite.

Fast forward to May Day Bank holiday 2012 when I was whisked off by H and J to a mystery pre-birthday destination. The long weekend was organised, funded and planned by them and I was just the hapless passenger. In May 2012 I was suffering from a UTI which had hospitalised me in Hong Kong and would do so again on my actual birthday (11th May) when I would be in there for three weeks and lose more weight than on any other diet plan! Friends had suggested I was not well enough to travel but H and J had booked it all and I did not want to disappoint them. 

Despite this concern we had set off on what proved to be a six hour plus drive which involved stops every 20 minutes. I got to within 20 miles of Weymouth before I realised the destination. This showed how ill I was as this was the prime holiday destination for us when they were young as described above. It set the tone for subsequent years though only a few photos remain from this first trip. They repeated Weymouth the following year with me back to reasonable health. Wonderful memories re-kindled by these two visits and new memories made. Old haunts visited though I had to let them explore Durdle Door on their own as I could no longer walk down the steep hill and steps see collage below.

Each year they have kept the destination secret as I seek endlessly to catch them out, though my guessing is usually not far off the mark. All the holidays mark a significant occasion or occasions when the place was visited by the three of us. It becomes a renewal of those memories whilst exploring them afresh with older eyes. I love the conversations, the meals, the places visited and the accommodations. All carefully sourced by H and J.

In 2014 Whitby was the destination, one of my all-time favourite places. I love this place and have experienced it as a child myself, when courting as a young man, brought H and J here many times, been there with family and friends. I like it out of season on a cold, clear crisp winter’s day when the seascapes, the iconic abbey and the houses on the hill plus the harbour provide a lovely backdrop and the Magpie cafe the perfect fish and chip venue.

2015 saw the destination as Gunnerside in Swaledale, which had been our favourite winter destination with friends from Liverpool throughout their childhood. We used to stay in cottages in many parts of the Dales, and in cold sometimes snowy weather take them on long walks and then enjoy some hearty food and ghost stories. Many many happy memories in the Dales. I had guessed Swaledale on departure but they were upping the stakes and produced an extra surprise when we were joined by my close friends, J and R, for dinner, a most wonderful occasion, lamb shanks in red wine, cooked by H and J. 

Last year we went to The Hague in Holland staying at a lovely airBnB place and enjoying BFC’s promotion to the championship at a local pub. I had taken H and J on trips to Holland when they were young using the overnight North Sea ferry from Hull to Rotterdam. This became part of the trip and they loved having the run of the ferry. We camped in Gouda, we stayed in The Hague and visited Amsterdam and it helped H develop her lifelong love of Holland which was further enhanced with a student exchange to The Hague during her photography degree. It was a lovely weekend and we were joined by H’s friend, Y, for a lovely Greek meal on the first evening. Another success.

So this weekend has been and at the time of writing the 2017 trip. Can’t believe we are on our sixth annual nostalgia trip. This represents the length of my survival with few signs of it not lasting a year or two yet. H and J will be running out of ideas! As always I had no idea of the destination which my kids know I really hate not to know but all sorts of interrogation failed to reveal it. I had my suspicions of Pembrokeshire as we had camped a couple of times in Little Haven in 1988 and 1989. In 1989 just a week after we left the campsite there was a double murder on the pathway near the site. Rumours abounded this was part of an IRA plot but in the end many many years later it was resolved and unconnected. It made it a memorable visit.

Anyway in a wonderful double bluff I was wrong-footed again. Well the secret was resolved in clever fashion. My son had driven me down the country and my betting was still on Pembrokeshire. He said we were early so why don’t we go via Worcester, where he was at university. I am going to watch cricket in Worcester this coming Friday so J suggested I booked the Premier Inn which overlooks the ground. So I do that and suggest we pop in to check car parking. J agrees. He then has a smug look on his face as we get out the car and he suggests taking our bags in. This turns out to be our destination. My room, as the picture below shows, overlooks the ground. Great area to explore and a wonderful surprise.

From my bedroom window
A Mexican meal

But each year the surprises get more intricate and so this year proves. The twists and turns of this weekend continued. We are out eating at a wonderful Mexican restaurant which I last visited with J the night before his graduation and where the selfie below was taken. They play the double bluff and announce that tomorrow we are leaving Worcester to drive to a cottage in Little Haven, Pembrokeshire. My original guess as the destination. So they have defeated my detective work yet again. Be great down there no doubt. And so we are about to explore the Pembroke coast unfortunately in the rain which was a pity but would not stop us exploring. We had an early lunch booked at The Swan in Little Haven. (See collage below). Then we drove down passed Broad Haven, Nolton Haven, Newgate and finally St David’s and its magnificent cathedral come into view. A few pics to wet your appetite.

Leisurely we will spend our final evening here before returning to Worcester tomorrow to drop H off then home. Lovely weekend, lovely memories.

Have I really made up my own mind?

This is not a party political broadcast. We all vote the way we want to, and many do not vote at all. But I am concerned about the way in which we make decisions to vote. Whilst political parties occupied similar terrain as in the Thatcher, Major, Blair eras the impact of the media was less significant as variants of the same neo-liberal market-led philosophies meant the choices were more to do with sound bites and personality than substantive policy difference. This is no longer the case. We have choices, stark contrasts in political futures which make this election one where we need to think for ourselves. How easy is it to be sure we hear the right messages and not a message wrapped around another more subliminal message designed to undermine the original message. One example of many illustrates this.

Just watched lunchtime news on BBC. Started with footage of Corbyn’s opening speech on the key issues. The commentary talked about this being great for a rally or demonstration but could it work for the country? It feeds into the image that Corbyn can lead a political demonstration but not a government. I have heard people repeating this, though the evidence about it is slight. Also the last time I looked at political demonstrators turned leaders need we go further than Mandela. One does not disavow the other but the seed is carefully planted. This then gets repeated ad nauseum and becomes the refrain of the ordinary voter who merely confirm a prejudice, it is not easy to do otherwise. Like them or not labour has many specific policies which are worthy in their own right so why spend time talking about the myth of the demonstrator rather than talk about real policies. There are three issues to consider: how can we get to what people are actually saying and meaning?; how can we stand back from the cloak which the media presents politics behind? And how can we know the unknown? Five tips:

Be sceptical of any attempt to direct your attention to single issues

Of course May will try and say this is all about brexit. But ask yourself why, when the brexit changes are going forward seemingly without the need for an election. The House of Lords, which the Tories have never sought to abolish, suddenly becomes an ‘unelected body’ because it does its job to question government Acts. But what is reported can govern our responses. But this is a general election and is not about single issues even if the media tells us so. 1979 saw the election distorted around law and order and other key issues were ignored. Or the 1983 election where the Falklands war dominated? Make sure you get behind the detail of the policies. What are the issues which concern you the most and what are each party saying about those issues? All the key concerns – the economy, health, education, work, railways, care system, minimum wage, pension triple lock, taxes – and many more. Seek out the detail. 

Understand why Corbyn appears to be such a threat

 Corbyn has broken the neo-liberal political consensus in ways which threaten big business and corporate dominance. You would not have noticed this under Blair because he was torylite and thus followed the same basic tenets. Corbyn explodes this and so the attacks and distortion have become more ferocious. Ken Loach analysed the early days of Corbyn and the media presentation of him and it was seen to be shameful. Robinson and Kuenssberg of the BBC are Tories with Tory backgrounds and it’s not just what they say it’s what they do not say. Labour has many reasonable policies and they don’t get debated. May has no policies other than I need to be a leader without opposition, hardly democratic, and refuses to talk to anyone. Yesterday did a session and refused to allow questions. This was an outrage for an election period yet not reported. Break free of these simplistic and distorting images. 

Adopt a fresh approach to understanding the election, find the authentic voices

This is such a serious issue and it is vital to leave behind the main media and dig deeper. This means listening to campaigns on the streets and through social media get at the key issues. Compare the detail of the party manifestos. Make your own mind up, turn off the BBC and don’t listen to the Tory spin of the media. Seek authentic voices. Less than a week in and I feel for the future of this country. Please share and get people to find the true voices out there, the media will distort. It’s the weight of news around us which we do not fully appreciate. It’s all around us, on TV, on the radio, in the papers then repeated in the streets, cafes, pubs, it is hard to stand back and not be influenced by it.

Deconstruct the forms as well as the content of debates 

May will spend the election like she has done since becoming PM bad mouthing Corbyn and refusing to answer questions. Replay any PMQs and you will see this plainly. She will focus on parodying Corbyn so that those at the periphery of him will believe it. Her hectoring tone belies a lack of conviction and policy. No evidence that Corbyn is weak as portrayed in the media, he has stood up to ferocious foul play within his own party, he has not flinched from his beliefs and he has continued to drive the same ideas and concern for people with integrity and honesty which is at the heart of my own philosophy. In May’s hands I could be without support from the NHS in the next two years they are crushing that service along with the public sector in general. 

It’s has to be about policies not personalities

Americanisation of the political world has made elections a beauty contest, who presents themselves the best, wins. It is not only superficial it allows a good orator or a good PR team to stop the electorate thinking about the real issues e.g. Trump. May, and Cameron before her, did the same. It was that approach by Cameron which got the brexit disaster as he thought he could bully people as he had done over the Scottish referendum. Corbyn has never engaged in such tactics. He talks about policies not personalities. This makes him appear mundane and ordinary. What gets me down is the words I hear about Corbyn – delusional, weak, out of touch, unelectable, rudderless, detested etc etc – I really don’t know what evidence supports this. I am happy for people to argue against his policies but they never do. It’s smear, disregard or shout. For once we have an election based around actual ideas. There is clear water between them, argue it out like grown-ups. Corbyn never engages in personality politics yet he gets criticised as having no substance. The exact opposite is nearer the truth. No one says it better than Socrates:

Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”

Seek out what you don’t know, look behind the headlines, debate the key ideas and leave alone the reductionism of personality politics. 

My week in photos.

Lots of colour
Collared dove in flight

A ‘typical’ week in my life

Has this week been typical? I do not really know what passes for typical anymore. Each week is such a moving feast or occasional famine and this week has been a bit of both. It promised to be a nice relaxing week leading up to the Easter break with time to catch up with old friends, two lunches booked in and time to keep moving on my personal projects. A more difficult and uneven week ensued.

Dry stone wall
Devonshire Arms, Beeley
In the village of Beeley
Beeley in mono

Monday saw me driving out to the Peak District to meet up with two ex-students of mine in the wonderful little village of Beeley. It was a lovely run, the sun was shining and the world seemed relatively benign. All of us in our 60s perhaps it was inevitable that ailments, illness, chronic and acute, dominated the conversation. All of us try to be active but have to drive against our bodies which sometimes let us down, but I am jumping ahead. It was a delightful meal though the chicken liver starter may have returned to haunt me. We talked a lot about the NHS and our experiences of it, the role of alternative medicines and the way in which cutting and privatising puts unreasonable pressure on services. It was as if I was going to take on a live case study on the basis of our discussion. But without doubt lovely lunch, lovely company and good mutual support.


Tuesday was a quiet day but I did one significant thing which was to replenish the bird feeder so that the varied small birds which visit continued to come and this would give me some solace as the week progressed. By the evening I was feeling a little unwell with abdominal cramping. I hoped it would pass.

Wednesday was my second lunch in Sheffield with ex-colleagues. But I woke up to stomach upset, nausea, cramps and diarrhoea. I had to cancel my lunch, disappointed but realistic. As the day unfolded this decision was vindicated as I deteriorated but will save readers a description of what was happening. I believe I had another bacterial infection probably campylobacter which I have had before and memories of the chicken livers rose in my mind. As the day progressed all plans were abandoned and I struggled to deal with this debilitating moment. My son came over in the evening and apart from his stoical skills at cleaning he was concerned about how I looked. So to the NHS. 

We rang the out of hours doctors, a quick assessment and we were advised after discussion to ring an ambulance to go to A&E. We did that but was advised to contact NHS 111. So we did. Another phone assessment followed and they suggested we contact the out of hours doctors. I was feeling light headed anyway so this odd circular phone journey contributed to this dizzy feeling. This time I was referred to the urgent care centre at the hospital and we set off. At least we were now next to A&E and after another assessment we ended up in a cubicle in A&E. I was decidedly dehydrated so saline drip was set up, paracetamol infusion and blood tests. There was a lot of waiting but staff do care and as I have always found with NHS staff physical care is done without complaint or hesitation. So they looked after me for over two hours whilst the test results came back and the drips did their magic. I was tired but felt something was happening. Eventually the doctor came explained that all the blood tests had come back good so no other problems ancillary to this gastro attack were evident. Kidneys were doing good! He would admit me but quietly said it could be a few hours as I would need a side room because of the infection. I pondered and decided my own bed might be good. Wearily we made our way home and around 1.30 am I fell into a fitful but relieved sleep.

I tell this story in detail as it illustrates for me the gem that the NHS is even if you can see how it struggles to cope with demand. A newspaper article in the Guardian later in the week highlighted how Easter duty Rotas are empty for many A&E departments as they cannot get enough doctors and all sorts of incentives are being offered. The doctor who dealt with me saw me after all the assessments were done, looking tired but spend time with me explaining the options, answering my queries. It is such a hard job, unrelenting, always surprising and I for one was so grateful. Undermining the NHS as this government are intent on doing is the biggest social tragedy unfolding in thus country, particularly if you include the breakdown in care provision. I got dealt with, I feel grateful but I feel uneasy about the future. I will be back no doubt and hope the service is able to help then. 

Thursday and Friday were recuperation days. Any plans I had at the beginning of the week had been abandoned as slowly and haltingly I started to improve. I slept and spent all day in my armchair watching TV but admiring the bird displays in my garden. With my camera handy I snapped away, watched how they came and went, saw the bossy Starlings take over for a few minutes to give way to the charms of the colourful goldfinches, robins, greenfinches, sparrows, dunnocks, collared ducks and the ever present blackbirds. It suited my mood and got me through the week. It has become such a pleasure to watch birds and delight every time I spot a new one. When I have managed to get to bird hides and spotted new birds it feels a real achievement. A simple joy. I cannot easily walk so access to the countryside is limited though I am working on assisted mobility as I write. This may improve access and enable me to capture birds in their natural habitats. But below are some collages and sample pics of this week.

Collage 3
Collage 2

My week ends today on Easter Sunday, still feeling fragile, but ready to use the NHS in a different capacity as I had a CT Scan this morning. Though the hospital was very quiet to be able to get such work done on a Sunday was good. The two staff I saw were chatty and relaxed and even managed to find one of my infamously disappearing veins without having to resort to the dreaded back of hand. In and out in ten minutes job done. I will always say I have value for money from the NHS. When my family are older will it still be there?

So a mixed week, some dark moments and another week before I feel properly well again but the birds helped, my son and friends helped and the NHS certainly did. Not typical I hope!
Finally some more birds, what else this week!

Another blackbird
Blackbird again
Blackbird leaning in tune with the branch
Blackbird always about

I don’t know

Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”’ Wisława Szymborska

If you have had children or spent time with them when they are young you will have enjoyed that incessant ‘why’, ‘what’s this for’ questioning demonstrating a natural tendency to openness, ‘I don’t know so I will ask’ and an inquiring mind. This can be an incessant refrain but must be welcomed. Then as we grow into young people and adults this open questioning can and more often does stop. We may still question things but can learn that to show our ignorance to our peers can lead to ridicule and so we become more circumspect. Good teaching at this young age can maintain our capacity to question, analyse, reflect and critically assess issues before us. For those lucky enough to have a university education it is in the essence of ‘graduateness’ to develop these critical faculties. It can be more difficult in the world of work where apparent certainties can close our minds to the alternatives.

In work we often become receivers of instructions presented as fact. These certainties can be uncomfortable for the inquiring mind who want to subject instructions to examination and enquiry. Many will accept such instructions thus obviating the need to think but maybe also sacrificing their joy in a job which can become routine and repetitive. We should follow good practices but not at the expense of understanding and engagement.

These patterns of behaviour can become entrenched. At one end of the spectrum we have those whose utter belief in their own voice and views will close off debate and questioning, and, at its misaligned best, we would find the ‘narcissist’ whose only reference point is his own perceptions of the world around him. I use the male pronoun as in my experience these are often men and can often be people in power, trying to Trump everyone else for instance!

I came across one such person for two years when working. It was the most difficult time I ever experienced in what was an overwhelmingly great work life. There was a complete inability to see things beyond his own perspective even when confronted with the facts. He would rarely if ever say ‘I don’t know’. If you challenge the `narcissist’ you may be forced into a battle not of your choosing. You begin to lose confidence in yourself as you are presented with ideas which do not hang together but which are delivered with force and sometimes threat. This is the extreme end of the spectrum but particularly present amongst people who hold power and who believe they know best.

Engaging in critical thinking

I was attracted to this topic when attending a conference for trainee probation staff this last week. I have always enjoyed shaping in students this capacity to be reflective, critical and questioning. In my remarks my key message to them was to develop and hold on to this capacity. It can come naturally but it can also be taught as long as the work environment then encourages and fosters it. I think I was lucky to be educated and then trained in an era (1970s) which encouraged reflective practice. For me the true mark of a professional is that ability to think out of the box, to say ‘I don’t know’ the solution here, or reflect and critically assess options and alternatives. I always questioned a student who did not ask questions as behind their certainties often stood an inflexible mind. But the circumstances of work even for professionals in the modernised managed world of work has made it harder to maintain that perspective. But, would you want a surgeon who may be expert in all the latest techniques and procedures but confronted on the operating table with an unknown problem not being able to think out of the box and seek advice from colleagues and/or critically evaluate what she can do?

Too often we become receivers of instructions and/or possessors of certainty in the task. It is perceived as a weakness if we say I don’t know. This stifles good professional practice and risks mistakes based on perceived wisdom. Ironically the rise of more evidence-based policies feeds into this tendency for certainty and is at the heart of standardization of practices. Research, evidence, knowledge must always remain provisional as practice will change and develop, in is in the very DNA of professional practice. In this respect I have always preferred the phrase ‘evidence-informed practice and policy’ as better reflecting the need to know what is known, but to think out of the box in complex unpredictable situations to seek more informed solutions. Even if our work roles demand us to appear in control and knowing the solutions do not let that inner voice saying ‘I don’t know’ stop. 

Although more popular before the millennium, the notion that organisations can provide a learning environment where the capacity for critical thinking and reflective practice is not only allowed but encouraged remains a worthy goal. The various schools of thought talked of ‘learning companies’ or ‘learning organisations’, the need remains pertinent in today’s world. If we reduce levels of training or provide ‘technical’ courses which teach skills and procedures but do not stimulate the questioning we could be heading for future problems. However uncomfortable it is for the manager their task is not just to direct and control what goes on but to facilitate reflection to get at the best possible practice.

For me this is not just about work but is a style of engagement which works in families, in voluntary groups, with young people and with receivers of care. Asking others what they think, expressing openness to think and re-think makes participation and engagement more likely and outcomes more sustainable and shared. The current focus on ensuring the service user voice is heard is at the root of this thinking as the professional maybe an expert but not necessarily have empathetic understanding. So why not ask, open yourself up to debate and challenge and as the quote says exercise the continuous ‘I don’t know’.
My week in photos

Headingly in sunshine
Going to a hundred
The old Pavilion
A Yorkshire crowd loving their cricket
First ball of the season
Broken bird table
A bridge before home
Engaging at the conference: a collage