Saturday, 18 February 2017

How do you know what it feels like? (1)

From the trivial to the serious: this occurred to me when I first tried to learn to ski – and second and third, gave up after that.  I am not naturally athletic (not even vaguely) although I swam and played tennis to an acceptable social standard when young.  So skiing was always going to be a challenge.  There weren’t any slopes in South Africa so my first ski trip was in my twenties after I had moved to London.

Somehow I couldn’t get my body to do what seemed to be required. Admittedly a loathing of being cold and fear of falling didn’t help – the snow might have looked soft but the nursery run was hard packed.  It occurred to me if only there were some sort of suit – sort of physical virtual reality – that I could put on and then it could move my body in the way it was supposed to go. Once experienced then perhaps I would have a better chance of succeeding.

After a few more attempts it struck me that, while the family were all loving it, I was hating it and I didn’t want to spend my very hard-earned holiday being cold, miserable and scared, so I gave up. It was also cheaper to be the non-skier!  The best holiday was in Vail, Colorado where they have the most fabulous public library with huge picture windows, comfy armchairs and a fire where you could sit and read and look at the beautiful scenery. I met the family for lunch and in the evening and had a wonderful holiday.

Now for the more serious: about seven or so years ago I realised two things, firstly that if someone spoke at a meeting of ten or twelve people, I was having difficulty hearing the person at the end of the table.  Secondly at my Livery Company’s annual banquet at Mansion House where the tables are wide and against the background of 250 people talking enthusiastically, I was struggling to hear the person across the table from me.

There are various ways of doing this yourself, but I took a hearing check over the phone. The result was that my hearing was “normal for my age” - most unsatisfactory.  I was furious as it seemed that the assumption was that as I got older I would get deafer and that would be OK.  About two years before that I had experienced deafness in one ear after a bad sinus infection and it still felt “blocked”.  I went to see a specialist and he confirmed that I did have hearing loss – the upper register, and that the infection had caused a narrowing in the ear but this was not relevant.

Whether I wanted to do anything about it was entirely up to me.  The loss wasn’t severe but I was finding it inconvenient.  I have never forgotten his explanation. If you have lost some hearing, the brain makes up for the bit you don’t hear.  If someone is talking very quickly or with an accent or in a noisy environment, it takes the brain a bit longer and the concentration required is greater and that’s when you run into trouble. In a noisy environment you sometimes just give up.  That is why deafness can be socially isolating. 

The next blog will be about how this related to “how do you know what it feels like”.  If you have hearing loss you will understand and if you don’t, please read.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Our confused relationship with celebrities and T P-T

The year I first moved to London, 1965, saw the premiere of what was then a controversial play “The Killing of Sister George”.  The controversy was about the assumed lesbian relationship between the characters but my abiding memory is something quite different.

To set the scene – in South Africa there was no television and there were very few radio serials – I have a vague recollection of my mother listening to one in the morning called “Dr Paul” but it did not have the universal following of, say, The Archers or Mrs Dale’s Diary. (The play is supposed to be a parody of the killing of Grace Archer in The Archers.)

Sister George, a “much loved” character in the radio serial is written out and the various motives and relationships play out.  The part I remember most strikingly was the curtain going up on one scene and the stage is full of flowers sent by devoted radio listeners. Yes, this is a parody but surely people wouldn’t actually do this?  It’s a character in a soap opera for goodness sake.  No one died!

Moving on – how can we think we have a relationship with a famous person who doesn’t even know we exist?  It may be the subject of a teenage girl’s fantasies but surely no more?

There is much discussion about whether celebrities should take advantage of a public platform to make political statements – the BAFTAs, Oscars or even from the stage at the end of a play. I am not sure.

However, famous faces can bring much to the discussion and particularly to charities. The producers of soap operas are very careful to work with charities when they address issues such as cancer, domestic abuse, etc so that not only the storyline is accurate but that viewers know where to get help if needed.

Celebrities speaking out on issues, particularly on those that involve them or their characters can make a difference.  Look at the discussion around domestic abuse accompanying the Helen and Rob storyline in The Archers.  If Louiza Patikas spoke out about abuse would we listen?  – but if we knew that she is the actress that played Helen Archer – we would listen to every word even though that doesn’t make sense.

This brings me on to my own ‘relationship’ with a celebrity. In the early 2000s the IT girls were the thing.  Leader of the pack was Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.  She was everywhere, the paparazzi loved her, she had a column in the Sunday Times and her life seemed there for everyone to see.

A PR company that was advising Breast Cancer Campaign persuaded the Sunday Times and Tara to use her column to promote a lunch with her in the private dining room at Mosimann’s to raise money for breast cancer research.  The lunch sold out, we made money (and recruited a fabulous new committee for our major fundraiser the Pink Ribbon Ball) from the guests.

My memory is of someone who was bright, engaging and full of life.  She charmed everyone. She said all the right things and made everyone feel that they were her friends and she was delighted to be there. Believe me not all celebrities are that gracious! We were all caught up in the fun of it and left the lunch feeling cheerful. That is a great talent.

She repeated this at a Pink Ribbon Ball subsequently, although then the strain was starting to show.  So much has been written about her complicated and tragic life, the flame that burned too brightly:  I just hold the memory of that lunch to remember her by.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

I hate New Year's Eve

Always have done, always will do. I am not sure how or why it started.  As a child it passed me by apart from the fireworks. I don't like loud sudden noises and avoided firework displays.  Why can't they have fireworks that don't crack but whoosh or swish. They still look lovely and all dogs and cats would be grateful.

We have had some enjoyable celebrations: friends of our Swiss family had a party where the children melted pieces of lead and dropped them into cold water and the shape would predict the year ahead.  We were the only two people who could speak only one language, and that included the multilingual children. We watched the fireworks on the river from a half a mile away - distant bangs!

Another in Los Angeles with friends of my sister's, formerly from Hungary. Rather curiously a strong smell of cooking cabbage wafted across the house just before midnight. That was the traditional Hungarian cabbage soup that partygoers had to fortify them for the journey home in sub zero temperatures (not the balmy LA evening).  But I'm all for traditions.

Some of the pleasantest and least stressful were at my neighbour's, the lovely Stella, everyone knew someone and no one knew everyone and we all lived within walking distance. No false jollity, simple food, a glass of champagne and home to bed.

Yes there have been some dire parties, false jollity with drunks lurching towards you at midnight, never mind driving on the road or throwing up on the Underground.  It isn't the actual evening but for me there is always a sense, of not quite doom, but something nasty lurking in the woodshed in the following year. I am more than happy to see the back of 2016.  We have lost some dear friends, some ridiculously young.  The awfulness of Syria, never mind other places in the Middle East and Africa.  Bloody Brexit, who knows what will happen with Trump, too much to worry about, and probably other things I haven't thought of. The dance macabre has been whirling around.

Our family has been blessed with a good year  I have a new role as chair of the trustees of the Institute of Health Visiting which is exciting and am very involved with the Needlemakers charity which will give away more money this year.  All good.  But still the cloud of expectation.

In my religious days (lost faith in my twenties, but that's another story), from a child I was very moved by the symbolism  of Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.  I probably believed it literally for a while but even when I didn't it gave hope.  The 10 days between the two are known as the Days of Awe. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement, but if you atone for your sins and ask forgiveness you have until Yom Kippur to weight the chances for a good year in your favour. God can't forgive you for hurting others, you have to ask directly.  In the same way as you might write a Christmas card to someone you haven't seen for a while, this is also a time to get back in touch. Then the Book is sealed and what will be will be.  Somehow I'm OK with that (no I don't take it literally) it is, it will be and somehow you have to get through it the best you can.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Did my grandmother or mother write this?

Our maternal grandmother used to write a lot – mostly thoughts on odd pieces of paper and notebooks and also letters to the newspapers – often published.  She travelled a great deal and wrote wonderful letters.  Our mother used to write too.

When our mother died my sister found this poem - handwritten on paper - at the back of a photograph of our father and I wonder if it was written by our grandmother (or mother) or is a published poem.  Can’t find it anywhere. It is  not really my sort of thing - I am probably too literal to be whole-hearted about it.  Yes, it is dated but very much of  its time – probably 1950s.  

Facing the Worst

It’s courage you’ll be needing when you have to face the worst
It’s courage you’ll be wanting then, so pray for courage first
Strength of will to meet and tackle what you have to do
Nothing less than that will get you by or pull you through

When crosses must be shouldered that you have to face alone
Out into the darkness on a road to you unknown
When something happens calling for the best that on you lies
Hold your head up to the light and to the challenge rise

When you think that God has failed you and the last hope gone
Think again, keep going, never doubting, struggle on
Lean on Him when in the dark, you’re lost with none to lead
Wordly goods won’t help you then – it’s courage you will need.

It is handwritten and signed “love Mum” - whether it was published, written by our grandmother or mother - I have no idea! If you can identify the source, please leave a comment - I don't publish them but I do read them and will acknowledge.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Thoughts from abroad (2)

I won’t only write about conversations with cab drivers but following my ‘one is anecdote, two is evidence theme’ – there are a few more, some a bit scary.

The first conversation was with the 'man on the plane' returning from his first visit to London. He had already voted and is Trump's man. "I'm anti-establishment and government is corrupt. It doesn't matter that he is not experienced; he will pick good people like Reagan did.  Reagan was just an actor before."  No comment from me about Reagan having been Governor of California and President of the Screen Actors Guild – how many other Presidents have been long-serving union members?

Our Uber driver who collected us from Baltimore airport arrived in DC from Pakistan three years ago.  Much discussion between Number One Husband and him about cricket - he plays in a league there. He doesn't have a vote but tactfully said it was too close to say who would win.  He then asked if the Queen could change the government or laws if she didn’t like them - quick lesson on constitutional monarchy. He then asked how they will choose the next monarch.  He likes the young one – I think he meant Prince William not Prince George.

Driver number two in DC, judging by his accent, was local. He was unsure about the election. His comment was "Clinton’s been in government for 20 years and I'm not sure what she's done. He would be different but he's got some really crazy ideas." 

I didn’t expect to be so overwhelmed by The Lincoln Memorial.  A bit like when I saw the Taj Mahal, despite great familiarity with the image, the scale rocks you back on your heels. Given that we were in the nation’s capital during an election, perhaps we paid more attention to the words inscribed on either side. One is the Gettysburg Address and the other is the Second Inaugural Address which includes the words "one eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union but localized in the Southern part of it". And later "It may be strange that men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces."  How fitting that the new museum charting the history of African Americans is close by - fully booked however. 

Not far is the wall with all the names of the military who died in Vietnam.  There was a large group of Veterans visiting, each in a wheelchair with a helper and with baseball caps stating what they were veterans of.  This was during the campaign when Trump was talking about illegals, building a wall etc.  We did notice particularly that so many of those names are Hispanic.  

We had no engagement with the war in Vietnam but for me it was the first war we were seeing in real time. Sitting on the sofa, watching people being bombed. Also on television at the time was that magnificent series "The World at War" which showed film taken on the same week during WW2.  Neither seemed real; too awful to be able to get to grips with or so relentless as to numb us. Just as the daily footage of refugees trying and sometimes failing to get to Europe is on our screens now.

The next Uber driver said he didn’t know who he was going to vote for “she is a crook and he is a crazy man”.  But the most depressing conversation was with the Uber driver in Philadelphia.  He is in his mid-fifties, born and raised in the city and, apart from a few years in Florida has lived there all his life. He used to work customizing cars.  He said “I’ve been married ten years, my wife is from the Philippines, she’s legal, I made her legal and she has a good job as a night supervisor. You can’t believe anything on the news, it is all lies.  My wife is very busy on social media – there you see the truth. We are voting for Trump, she thinks we need a strong man like Duterte.” 

Finally Uber is getting a bad press here and we don’t really use it in London – if you are of a certain age and live in London you can travel for free which we take full advantage of.  However the drivers in the USA seemed uncomplaining and we had a very good experience apart from one who tried to drop us off at the wrong place.  We had a women driver in New York who used to drive a yellow cab – she preferred Uber as it was more flexible.

I will write again, but no more politics. 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Thoughts from abroad

I am a bit paranoid about blogging or posting on Facebook or Twitter while I am away. Apparently if you have a break-in, insurance companies check social media to see if you are “advertising” that you are away from home before they pay out.  Told you I was paranoid. We were in the USA late October and the following blogs are about our visit.

Visiting our close ally and friend is complicated. We don't need visas but have to apply for an ESTA form online. There is a customs form to fill in on the plane; you then stand in line to self scan your passport etc; receive a printed form and then stand in line to go through the usual with an immigration officer.  We were visiting family in New York and Philadelphia but our visit to Washington DC was strictly “cultural”.  When we responded to the immigration officer that we were there on vacation, she asked what we were planning to do. To my reply “visit art galleries and museums” her response was “Is that it?”.  Well, yes but I threw in visiting family as well.  Surprisingly the luggage wasn't through yet but, once collected, we then stood in line again to hand in our customs form. (Our cases were opened and searched on the return journey – a form inside indicated that this had been done.)

One assumes that visiting the USA a month before the presidential election might generate conversations about politics, theirs not ours. We were sure Clinton and Trump would figure in conversations especially as Husband Number One insisted on asking everyone their views.

We finally worked out how to use Uber and it worked perfectly and was substantially less than taxi fare.  Yay!  Just as well because conversations with Uber drivers followed a theme that made Hillary’s “certain” victory look less likely.

One is anecdote, two is evidence...

This was once said – as a joke – in a scientific meeting I attended.  In a scientific context size means a lot, which is why large scale clinical trials are required for new drugs or treatments.

When it comes to market research, including opinion polls, we rely on “representative” polls of relatively small samples, in relation to the market or population size, to make our judgements. Although all sorts of factors are built into these surveys, the opinion polls for the last UK general election, the UK referendum and now the US Presidential election have proved woefully inadequate.

Then there is “the man on the Clapham omnibus” – this Victorian invention is still used in the courts when they need to decide whether a party has acted as a reasonably educated and intelligent person would.
Then there is the taxi-driver survey: when the only type of taxi driver in London was the “black cab” driver and he (!) was usually a Londoner, this was quoted as a guide to how Londoners thought.

Based on our cab/Uber driver survey in three cities, Trump was a shoo-in. The conversations were not miles away from some of the Brexit discussions (apart from those who had reasonably thought through reasons): – we need a change, I’m tired of the establishment, I don’t think he/they will win anyway, it’s a protest vote etc etc. Most had heard of Brexit, had no idea what it was about but were aware the vote “had gone against the establishment”. I am not sure that it was as clear-cut as that, but that was the impression.

To be contd.....