Statements of the bleeding obvious #201: Nice doctors really do make a difference!

It’s amazing how many times what’s billed as breakthrough new research really just confirms what we already understand from experience. Stuff like the fact that singing is good for us and can prolong our lives. That dogs and other animals lift the spirits of long-term hospital patients … as well as mostly everyone else. That laughter is infectious. That lovesickness is a genuine state.

OK, so we’re in an era where it’s possible and considered desirable to research esoteric and non-fundamental subjects. I’m cool with that — non-fundamental subjects like these actually make a lot of difference to our daily lives bringing cheer and happiness, often in dark times. So providing evidence that they really do achieve what  we intuitively feel they do is fab … even if the headlines they provoke seem more like statements of the bleeding obvious than radical insights into the  human psyche.

It most definitely is good to know that singing regularly could prolong my life — I do enough of it after all. It’s a bonus to know that, as well as the immediate buzz from   opening your larynx and letting rip, it’s a gift that keeps on giving in the all-of-life context. Also great to know empirically that my love of animals — near obsession it has to be said — is healthy. That bringing animals into hospitals is genuinely therapeutic and can bring comfort to people in pain or despair. Who hasn’t ever listened to a friend break out into a great belly laugh and  been been compelled to laugh too? Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone … so true. And love sickness? Well, it’s been a while since Apollo fired an arrow into my tender  heart and catalysed all the turbulent symptoms I described in an earlier blog You Make Me Sick! But I haven’t forgotten the visceralality of it all — there’s no question in my mind, it’s a lurg just as debilitating as a fluey cold.

At the weekend, I read another about one of these completely unsurprising research findings. Can A Nice Doctor Make Treatments More Effective? Well dear reader, if you were in any doubt on this count, according to new research by Stamford University in the US, having a doctor who is warm and reassuring actually improves your health. REALLY? Who knew? Most of us I would have thought. I found this astonishing non-news in weekly round up of good news from the New York Times. It’s full of great stories and I love it.

Last week comes Romeo the Sehuencas water frog to my inbox. Romeo is a very rare creature. He was thought to be the last of his type. No Juliet to be found anywhere, let alone on ‘yonder balcony’. Day after endless day, sad Romeo croaked out “Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou Juliet?” from his home in a Bolivian museum. Actually what he said was, “ribbet, ribbet, ribbet …” but where’s the poetry in that? Cutting to the chase, biologists had pretty much given up their search in the remote and inaccessible areas of Bolivia where said Juliet might have been found. Then behold! There she was. Juliet the miracle frog — a potential mate for our lonesome hero. Being the only two Sequencas water frogs in existence, it was set to be a fine romance and I’d love to be able to say, “and they both lived happily ever after”. But even for a frog with only one possible mate, the chemistry still has to be right. Imagine the pressure! Without mincing words, would you be prepared to shag some random stranger to preserve our species? Fine if it’s George Clooney.  Not so fine if … well, the list is endless. But then again, unlike Romeo, no one I know is faced with the decision to take one for the future of our species and it’s easy to be precious when we’re in no imminent danger of extinction … unless we keep  messing with our natural habitat that is. All joking aside, a lot is riding on our precious frog prince. Let’s hope the chemistry is there and they soon start producing copious numbers of wee froglets to perpetrate their froggy line.

But back to nice doctors. Apparently the simple things a doctor says to you can have an impact on your health outcomes. Even a brief reassurance can relieve symptoms faster. The reassurance is more efficacious when it’s said in a kindly manner rather than barked out as a “you’ll be fine” afterthought when you leave the surgery. You can’t quite get away from the fact that the doctor has to be skilled and competent as well as nice. However, most of us have been on the receiving end of one of those grumpy types whose you mistake me for someone who cares demeanour is more likely to cause you to lose the will to live altogether than get well. Their cool indifference renders you as articulate as … well .. a frog .. when you try to describe the pain that was giving you hell until it magically disappeared nano-seconds after you made the appointment..

Anyway, the conclusion of the research was that doctors who don’t connect with their patients my risk undermining a treatment’s success. Apparently doctor-patient rapport is much more than the sum of it’s feel good parts. It’s a important aspect of medical care that significantly affects a patient’s physical health. Are you kidding me? It really does feel like a statement of the bleeding obvious that someone who is kind and sympathetic as well as good at their job is likely to achieve a better result.

The article ended by questioning what this means in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. AI opens the possibility of not having to go to the doctor for minor health issues. If interacting with a human being and hearing words of encouragement is part of the cure, this begs the wider question of whether our increasing isolation is actively bad for our health. As the opportunities and need for actually connecting with a fellow human in many aspects of our lives become progressively fewer, what collateral damage are we setting ourselves up for. Romeo the frog couldn’t help his plight. We can, and yet we continue to write people out of the script of our lives. When us humans humans actually get together face-to-face is, we open up the possibility for  laughter and  love. For conviviality and banter. We get to share the good and help each other through the bad times. You don’t need to be a Stamford luminary  to recognise that gentle and kind connections with other people — Doctors and the rest — are seriously good for our health and unkind, cruel ones are not. Comforting to know this is now “proven by scientists”.

 

Happy New Year … you’re under arrest!

Two burly, unsmiling cops barge into my office and stride purposefully to my desk. “Frances Manwaring?” the taller and meaner of the barks at me. “Er … yes,” I say a little tremulously, wondering what they want. “Frances Manwaring, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent … ” As the cop reels off my Miranda rights, I wonder if I’m in the middle of a nightmare. I pinch myself to be sure, but voice drones on…

OK, so I didn’t get arrested — just wanted to build the drama of the piece. But seriously, it was how I imagined things might have gone down if my business partner hadn’t gone to collect our mail from our PO Box on Tuesday. This is a rare event — nothing of any use comes by snail these days so weeks can go past without either of us stirring our stumps to go and pick up whatever dross has gathered dust. In this case it had been only been a relatively short gap since the last visit and that only because I’m in the middle of a transaction in the UK with an antediluvian, seemingly technophobic insurance company for whom physical mail, for some unfathomable reason, is the only way it will communicate.

Anyway, back comes John with a bundle of letters, mostly bank statements and the usual junk promos. While we’re on the subject, what is it with banks? Mine seem hell-bent on squandering whole forests by continuing to send paper statements, even though I’ve opted for digital versions more times than Kim Kardashian changes her handbags. But I digress — back to the main event. Because I’m hoping to find a reply from the annoying UK insurer, I don’t just lob the whole lot into the recycle bin as I often do. Thats an inspired decision as it turns out. Irritatingly, the hoped for insurance missive isn’t in the stack. Instead, lurking amongst the wad of bank statements, is a formal looking item with “OPEN IMMEDIATELY!” emblazoned on the envelope. How intriguing I think … how very Alice in Wonderland. Then I notice the Ministry of Justice crest and figure it must be something follow up from the Jury Service stint I did in early November. Being a complaint sort of person (!), I open it immediately as instructed without any concerns. But a brief first scan of the the short letter almost stopped my heart.

Nothing magical about this missive! Turns out it’s a summons to appear in court on Thursday at 11am. I’m reading it on Tuesday at about 4.50pm, so the imminence is pretty alarming. Has to be a mistake I think. Must have read it wrong. Reading it again does nothing to alter my first impression — it’s definitely a summons and it’s definitely addressed to me, so not a case of mistaken identity. And the heinous crime that requires my presence in court? A speeding infringement from mid-2016. The letter contains a helpful, but not very imaginative infographic (being MD of a creative agency, I’m quite up on what makes a good infographic) depicting the scary steps involved in the apocalypse triggered by this infringement. If you don’t pay the fine instantly, you get a reminder and some grace to stump up (Step 1). After continued ignoring of reminders (Step 2), the up the ante with a summons to court (Step 3). Failure to appear leads to arrest (Step 4).

Poorly rendered though this infographic is (note to self – send our credentials to MOJ and see if they need a new creative agency), I’m now more than a little freaked out. Us head girl types don’t get summoned to appear in court, it’s just not in our DNA! Anyway, it’s now 4.59pm and I panic dial the Ministry’s 0800 quicker than you can say Great Train Robbers to see WTF is going on and what I can do about it. I thank my lucky stars to find someone still taking calls (at a government agency) after 5pm and I have a very convivial conversation with this saintly person who clearly doesn’t think I’m an axe murderer. Having cleared that up, we quickly cut to the chase. The problem turns out to be a timing issue. I’d just moved house at about the time it happened, so didn’t receive the original fine notice (thanks whoever moved into that house after me and didn’t forward my mail). Then I didn’t notify my change of address to the powers that be before the reminder was sent out, so I also didn’t receive that (another heartfelt thank you to the new incumbent).

It was a little un-nerving how much information about my movements my new BFF was able to access while we were talking. I did vocalise somewhat stridently (not too stridently as I didn’t want to get offside with MOJ) my disappointment and surprise that only the one reminder appears to have been sent, and that there had been no subsequent communications until this summons to court more than two years later. In any case, I had to agree it was a fair cop as I hadn’t sent the change of address out immediately and it was therefore on me that the documents never found me. As you can imagine, I threw in a few mea culpas at this point. I’m sure youll be very happy to know that all it took to fix the problem was a credit card and $60 of creditworthiness. I certainly was! The irony of it all was that the original fine was only something like $12, the rest being penalties and court fees which couldn’t be waived because of my failure to notify change of address. However, she assures me I dont  have to make an appearance in court appearance and the long arm of the law wont be reaching out for me and we’re done. Phew!

Later, I pondered the astonishing amount of effort that goes into a minor misdemeanour when so much other big crime goes unchecked. That’s a story of its own, but there’s another side to this issue. I’ve moved several times in the last few years. I’m pretty diligent about sending out change of address notices to people like the Transport Authority, and I genuinely thought I had notified them all after that particular move. Apparently not. Some time ago I decided to get around this by using my business PO Box as my personal address to avoid all the hassle involved.

But my point is how easy it is to get offside with the law. Many people less advantaged than me also move a lot for all sorts of reasons, including financial or family difficulties. Many more have temporary addresses or no address. For sure, a proportion of these won’t own or drive cars, so won’t be in line to clock up traffic offences. However, I’m sure many of them do and I wonder how much of our policing time is spent arresting people who, like me, didn’t ever get the fine notices in the first place? Being generous, I’m sure most of us would actually stump up, particularly as they offer payment terms.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing with the law. Curtailing the speed at which people drive makes us all safer and I do try to stay within the legal limits. I’m sure there are recidivists who never pay and deserve to be prosecuted because they clearly don’t care about the consequences. However, from this experience it’s easy to see how quickly things can escalate and suddenly you’re in trouble. I’m sure I wouldn’t actually have been banged up, but I might have landed a criminal record if I’d been convicted. I ended up thinking there but for the grace of God go I if John had postponed his trip to our PO Box by 2 days. Timing is everything! Happy New Year indeed.

Ghosts from Christmases past #2: Hip hip hooray!

Spending Christmas in hospital would not high on my Dear Santa wish list. I apologise in advance to all those dedicated and wonderful doctors and nurses who are rostered on through holidays to look after the hapless hoardes who are ill or break themselves at Christmas. Nope, those guys do a heroic job. But hospital at Christmas – it’s just not living the dream is it? It has to be said, I have been one of the hapless Christmas A&E admissions, having snapped my Achilles tendon on holiday on Christmas Eve a few years ago and I was truly grateful (a) that it happened in the early morning so I wasn’t competing with all the drunks that clog the system later in the day/night and (b) that those dedicated and wonderful types were with great good grace (amen) to put this Humpty together again without any kings’ horses or men in sight.

Still and all, a festive hospital visit is just not anyone’s top choice as a holiday destination. And yet, fifteen years ago, it actually was. I needed what is amusingly referred to as ‘elective surgery’. Elective because you can, in theory, choose whether to have it or not, and when, as the condition doesn’t need to be dealt to at a particular time — i.e. it isn’t life threatening. The whole elective thing is laughable. Big yeah right! In many cases there is a choice, but that happens when your surgeon accepts that your pain is so extreme that you’d likely go insane if you had to bear it for a nano-second longer.

To give you the back story, I had both hip joints replaced in my late thirties. I was unusually young, but by no means unique. There were a number of things wrong with me each one of which on its own wouldn’t have been much of an issue, but collectively combined to wreck the joints. Because of my age, my surgeon held the surgery off as long as he could because he was worried about future complications — the prostheses only last so long and there are only so many times you can effectively replace the replacements because apparently you run out of femur to play with (sorry if this is a little close to the … er … bone for some). It was all about probabilities. How long the replacement joints would last, how long I would live If the first was shorter than anticipated and the latter longer, I faced seeing my life out in a wheel chair. In any case, my condition deteriorated at a rate that would have made an Apollo Space Craft seem laboured. Movement became very limited, quality of life nose-dived and ultimately the pain became so bad he relented. I had both of them ‘done’ within a year of each other. Happy days!

Anyway, the ops were a tremendous success. I got my life and mobility back, the pain was miraculously gone and I was a happy little camper. Then several years later comes ‘The Fall. Before you get worried about my state of innocence, I don’t mean fall in the Biblical sense. No, my fall was getting a bit carried away at an al fresco party and missed my footing in the dark on the edge of some concrete circle we’d turned into an impromptu dance floor. Seemed like a great idea at the time. Wouldn’t have been too big a deal if I hadn’t landed so hard that one of my prostheses came loose. Back to limping, pain and the certainty of more surgery.

This time, there was no question of the surgeon putting up a fight — the revision clearly needed to be done and it was only a question of when. Luckily for me, I have a private health care plan which meant I really was in a position to choose a time that would be the least disruptive to my life. The first slot that my surgeon could offer was just before Christmas, meaning I would be in hospital for Christmas and Boxing Day. The next option was weeks away and, once I’d thought about it and got over the poor me aspect of it all, the Christmas timing was actually ideal. The private hospital I went to was very close to my house, so easy for family visits and minimal unscheduled time off work.

In all seriousness, apart from the fact that undergoing surgery of this sort is not a walk in the woods, once I’d got over the immediate effects of the anaesthetic and the post op trauma had passed, it was actually quite fun. I had a lovely big airy room on the corner of the hospital all to myself. The nurses were a great bunch, some were old friends from previous incarcerations. I think they were grateful to swop stories with someone who was under 85 to be honest as they dropped in more than was strictly necessary and we had a lot of laughs. It didn’t stop there. I had had more visitors than I probably would have had at home, and I didn’t have to lift a finger on the festive cooking front. The food wasn’t half bad, particularly a pretty yummy (for an institution) roast turkey dinner on the big day, washed down with one of those cute little miniature bottles of a hearty red and the decorations were pretty flash. Best of all, I didn’t have to suffer through all the endless repetitions of canned Christmas music. By the way, does anyone other than me find the whole idea that Santa sees you while you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake a bit creepy and stalkerish? Anyway, I was out by New Year and well into the familiar rehab routine.

Now that we’re in the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, there’s a bit of time to ruminate about stuff. This morning, in one of those desultory conversations one has with friends and family, my mother and I somehow meandered into comparing the vintage of our artificial joints. Tragic, I know but hips seem to be our family thing. We’ve all had them done. Big difference is when they were done; grandfather (late eighties and only one), father (early eighties and only one), uncle (well into his sixties and only one), mother (both — late fifties and early sixties) and sister (mid-fifties — one so far, but counting down to the next). Then there was me in my late thirties, not sure what happened there! Anyway, my mother’s first prosthesis is a venerable 25 whereas mine is a stripling at 20. No-one really knows how long they will last because everyone’s activity levels are different. Equally the vast majority of the recipients of artificial hips are quite old and so it’s difficult to measure average lifespans as the first one generally sees them out. However, 20 is thought to be a pretty good age, so mum and I were musing how much longer ours would hold out.

We also reprised a regular foray into imagining what our parallel universes would have thrown up  if this amazing technology had not been available to us. To be honest, It doesn’t bear thinking about. If we’d been born before the middle of the last century, we’d both likely be cripples, even if either of us was still alive.Early attempts at hip replacement were carried out in Germany in 1891 using ivory to substitute for the femur head. These were attached with nickel-plated screws, Plaster of Paris and glue. Hmmmm. Not surprising this approach didn’t take off. The pre-cursor to current techniques was pioneered in 1940 in South Carolina by US surgeon Dr Austin T Moore who performed the first metallic hip replacement surgery.  A more sophisticated version – the ‘Austin Moore Prothesis’ — was introduced in 1952 and is apparently still used occasionally. Like modern hip implants, it is inserted into the medullary canal of the femur, and depends on bone growth through a hole in the stem for long-term attachment. Another apology here if this creeps anyone out!

It’s always so tempting to think about the golden age that we perceive existed in our grand parents’ eras. Apparently, every generation since the newspapers rolled off the early printing presses felt this sort of nostalgia for imagined glories past, underlined by a fear of change and what it means for the future. Every time I get caught in this sentimentality for the halcyon past, all I have to do is think about my great good luck in living now and being on the receiving end of the incredible medical science and technology that is our norm. Even with all the problems we’re facing as a species, I’m grateful from the bottom of my soul that surgical advances have allowed me to live a full, pain free and normal life. When I think of Christmas miracles, my hospital experience in 2003 would have to be one of them. If we can achieve all this, surely we clever, inventive Simians, can find the tools to figure out the other stuff. Hip hip hooray to that!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghosts from Christmases past #1: What a cracker!

Earlier in the week I did one of my favourite parts of Christmas — delivering Christmas gifts for my (Moxie’s) Wellington-based clients. While I was arranging my gaudily sequined Christmas hat as jauntily as I could and wondering whether I could still get away with this look, I had one of those incredible déjà vu moments as I remembered a ghost of myself from a Christmas past.

Thirty years ago, almost to the day, a lovely friend Daniella and I, resplendently festooned in Miss Christmas costumes, were hauling sacks of giant Christmas crackers around the streets of the City of London. We were delivering the contents of said sacks to commercial real estate agents and the crackers were a promotion to announce that the owners of one of the city’s newest tower blocks had decided to break down the floor space into smaller units for rent. Well, dear reader, what a buzz! Everyone was thoroughly into the festive spirit (some literally) and we turned heads, stopped traffic and generally had great banter with the people we passed. Lot of ‘you better be good for goodness sake’ sort of jive. It has to be said, the hats were coy, the skirts short, the heels high and the legs long. Of course, the clichéd red velvet and faux white ermine outfits had their own tacky but exotic allure. In these highly PC days donning we then this gay apparel might appear like the ultimate in objectification. Back then, we just saw it as a bit of harmless fun — it was for my business, no-one forced us and, in any case, we probably thought we looked ‘hot’ and enjoyed flaunting it. A whole topic for a different blog!

This cameo role was related to a business that I tried to help a friend’s son Ralph get off the ground. He’d already started it, but it wasn’t gaining traction beyond his immediate locale. We called it Absolutely Crackers!and the giant crackers for the city building were one of our biggest successes. In its short life span, Absolutely Crackers! really rocked the corporate promotions market — we made bespoke, weird and wonderful crackers for a range of iconic brands including Arsenal Football Club and top end chocolate manufacturer Charbonnel et Walker. Then there were the sumptuous crackers designed to match the splendour of art deco Pullman Carriages on the Venice Simplon Orient Express.  Fillers for these were white silk evening scarves for men and exquisite hand-painted ones for women from VSOE’s merchandise range. For a city broker, crackers made from the Financial Times were the perfect accessory for their annual bash.

The jewel in our crown was creating the invitations to CBS Records (now Sony Music) Christmas party in 1988. I don’t recall how we got in front of CBS — might have been via my then husband who was involved in music sponsorship — but we put together a very ambitions proposal for they invites which they, somewhat amazingly, accepted. In retrospect, they probably went for it because we ludicrously under-priced the whole gig.

The theme for the party was ‘Old English’ and, let me tell you, these weren’t just any old crackers. No, no, no, these were masterpieces of ingenuity and engineering. What we proposed, and they ultimately got, were individually boxed crackers — we designed a sleek triangular box to make them easy to post or courier to the who’s who of the musical world that were on the invitation list. In keeping with the theme, the crackers themselves were made from a beautiful burgundy and gold paisley patterned paper and the gifts were boxed miniatures of Glen Fiddich. Nice touch we thought even though Glen Fiddich is clearly not English. Nor is it even that old, having been founded in 1886, but good luck getting boxed miniatures of mead! Anyway, CBS seemed to agree that the single malt met the spirit … hem hem … of the occasion.

So far so good. The glory of the piece was the invitation which was hand-written by a calligrapher using medieval ornamentation on the lettering and then reproduced on parchment style paper. Most sane people would simply have rolled the invite up inside the cracker. Not us! No, we figured that to be authentic, they needed something else. So the invite was rolled, tied with red satin ribbon and then sealed using a custom designed CBS seal and traditional red sealing wax. The scroll this made was glued to the top of the cracker and the finished articles looked amazing.

And that’s where the wheels fell off. We had to assemble 350 of them. Anyone like to hazard a guess how long it takes to hand seal 350 parchment invitations? What calibre of satin ribbon can withstand the heat of the sealing wax being dripped onto it? No clue? We didn’t either. I can remember sitting at home at my kitchen table, the ceiling paint slowly blackening with the somewhat greasy smoke from the melting wax, my fingers progressively covering with Band Aids as the skin reddened and blistered, and the frustration grew as each ribbon sample melted down. I think we finished them off in the Board Room of my day job. (Happily I had a great boss who thought the whole cracker madness was great fun and might even have been the genius behind a device that got created to allow us to make about 10 ribbon seals simultaneously.) Anyway, the crackers were a huge hit even if we made no money out of them (on account of never having done anything like this before — has anyone?  — and not being able to price them effectively). But hey, luminaries like Mick Jagger and George Michael got our crackers … and what price a few first degree burns between superstar friends!

But how did crackers get incorporaed into the Christmas lexicon in the first place? It’s not like Matthew’s Gospel told us of wise men bringing gold, frankinsense, myhrr … and … er … crackers. You can sort of understand where Christmas trees and all the Easter paraphanalia like eggs and bunnies got adapted from the pagan festivals the Christian ones replaced. But crackers were unashamedly commercial. Wikipedia (bless) tells the story of how one Tom Smith was first to market.  He apparently created crackers as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). But the novelty wore off, sales of bon-bons slumped, and Smith sought new promotional ideas. Apparently, he added the “snap” when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on a fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by trinkets. This new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (i.e. Cossack), but quickly morphed into the onomatopoeic “cracker”. The other elements of the cracker we all know and (many of us) love —the gifts, paper hats and mottos — were all introduced by Walter Smith (Tom’s son) to differentiate their product from competitors who’d grasped the opportunity and got on the cracker bandwagon.

Back to Absolutely Crackers! Despite the genuine success of some of our promotions, the cracker empire never eventuated. Behemoth’s like Tom Smith still dominated the retail market and made it pretty much impossible for us to succeed. Without cracking (sorry couldn’t resist it) the retail market, relying on promotions was too random as they didn’t happen evenly during the year. Our vision was to make the cracker a ubiquitous part of the corporate party circuit, not just at Christmastime. Instead we coped with high stress peak times during October – December which, fun though they were … and they were … were also unsustainable. In any case, as with CBS, we didn’t really know how to price the jobs properly and lacked the confidence to just think of a big number and double it, then double it again, so we didn’t manage to build any reserves.

We did try quite hard to get into the ‘high end’ retailers like Harrods, Fortnum and Mason and Asprey but other independents peddling top of the line product, had got to them first. Asprey in particular offered eye-wateringly expensive crackers at around fifteen hundred quid for a dozen. Think gold plating and diamonds designed for wealthy Saudis! We didn’t have the working capital to really get stuck into this level of ostentation. In the end, we decided to throw in the towel and, with extreme regret, closed our little factory unit outside Hereford. I re-focused on my day job which likely pleased my long-suffering boss, and Ralph went off to study drama.

Despite this, I loved Christmas crackers  long after Absolutely Crackers! went to the big Christmas party in the sky and have re-prised my cracker making skills for family and friends on many occasions over the years. To me, specially designed crackers are like icing on the cake of my table setting themes. I also found them to be a very personal and loving way of wrapping carefully chosen gifts. I guess my feelings about table settings and crackers were akin to the way others offer love through food. However, it’s increasingly hard not to be sickened by the overt consumerism of this time of the year. All the advertising for too many things we don’t need and there’s no place to hide behind the knowledge of the damage we consumers have wreaked on our environment.

Apparently there’s a memorial water fountain to Tom Smith and his family at Finsbury Square in London. Perhaps this is another monument that ought to be removed? Crackers may well be a beautiful augmentation of the Christmas table and add some fun to the moment. But it is only a moment and they are just another layer of landfill when it all comes down to it and we need more of that like we need to colonise Mars. Well actually, we probably will need to colonise Mars if we don’t stop creating landfill like crackers, but I’m sure you know what I mean. I’ve stopped making or buying them even if I have to psyche myself to step away from the tantalisingly presented boxed sets in stores and mourn the creative opportunity loss for my table decorations.

Having said all that, all that remains is to wish you a cracker of a Christmas and a very happy New Year full of peace, joy, hope and love.

Peace on earth and good will to all?

Good heavens, it’s December — where in the name of all that’s holy did 2018 go? It seems like only yesterday I was decking my metaphorical halls and boggling about the speed at which 2017 was evaporating. Does any one else experience December a bit like an annualised Grounhog DayA month when everything seems to repeat itself bringing a sense of  déjà vu and some difficulty in separating one year end from another?

It’s the time of year of dementedly cramming in everything that needs to be done in the count down to Christmas. The lure of the holidays beckons like a Siren call and you start to feel a bit over it all. As the weather hots up and the time runs out, it’s so easy to get a bit tetchy and lose sight of age old seasonal calls for peace on earth and good will to all. These become more compelling every year given our current reality and the scary future outlook we’re facing on many counts. Whatever religion or spiritual philosophy you embrace, surely the prospect of peace on earth and goodwill to all should be front and centre of everything we do if we are to leave any sort of joy to the world of our children and grand-children?

But, sometimes it all feels overwhelming. What can any individual do in the context of so much dysfunction? Well, lots actually. There are so many examples of incredible individuals who have changed the world through their inspiring lives. Clearly there’s the holy trinity of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi and their ilk. Amazing as these Titan’s of human rights were, the heroic and very much less travelled paths they walked fell a bit beyond most of us. But there are many less known others throughout history who have shown what can be achieved with vision and compassion. People like Henry Dunant who found the Red Cross in 1863 and whose humanitarian ideas gave rise to The Geneva Conventionin 1864.  People like The Tank Man, who stood in front of a column of tanks from the People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 armed only with his shopping bags. This unknown hero became an ionic image from Chinese pro-democracy protests which were brutally suppressed through weeks of clashes between with government forces in which thousands of people were thougtht to have been killed.

For sure, not everyone has it in them to show bravery like The Tank Man, but little things matter too and the ripple in the pond effect cannot be under-estimated. I’d say it would be wonderful to inspire those “I want what she’s on” responses and to infuse random strangers with our positive energy. As I said in my previous blog, I am a big fan of the kindness movement and the possibility of step change through benevolent influence. However, in the same vein, it’s the little things that can also be the most irritating and potentially destructive causing a chain re-actions of negativity and aggression, sometimes leading to violence.

I was sharply reminded a few days ago as I was walking briskly along the pavement (or sidewalk depending on where you live), enjoying the sunshine and day dreaming happily about the summer holidays. God was most definitely in his heaven and all right with my world. Then it wasn’t! What is it about people in groups? Do they forget that their group is simply a subset of the rest of humanity? Apparently so! Imagine my irritation when a clump of ‘yoof’ ambled towards me oblivious to my presence, or right of equal passage on the public footpath, forcing me to step into the road to be able to get past them. How inconsiderate I thought. How rude! Channelling Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high”, I swallowed the “screw you” (or other expletive) that was begging to be lobbed at their retreating backs and strode on trying to get my dander levels under control!

I haven’t often felt pavement rage like this since I lived in London. In those years, we used to talk about aggressive walking – i.e. elbows and handbags as weapons being fair game to get through the milling, chaotic melees that were Regent and Oxford Streets in the lead up to Christmas. In bustling metropolitan places like Central London or New York where the populations are in the multi-millions, it’s often impossible to do as you would be done by pavement wise. In places like New Zealand’s capital of Wellington with its paltry 450,000 (and that’s the whole region, not just the city itself), not so much. There really is no excuse for pavement hogging here because we don’t have the rivers of people to contend with and it’s doubly annoying because there’s generally no need for it.

In the busiest places however, necessity is the mother of invention. There is a sort of acknowledged pavement etiquette which is applied by most people for the sake of everyone’s sanity and wellbeing. This is particularly true during the twice daily king tides of people flooding out of the underground stations in the morning and then receding back into them in the evening. Minor decisions about people flow are made intuitively and constantly whilst navigating these human tsunamis. Situational awareness is a critical survival skill.

It’s not just inconsiderate people that cause problems. Artless tourists are another source of rage to locals. When I started sifting around, I was quite entertained to find that there are studies about the walking speeds of locals versus tourists and workers versus shoppers. There are even groups lobbying for the introduction of fast and slow lanes and texting lanes on pavements that are colour-coded to achieve directional flow. Trouble with any sort of pavement regulatory system — voluntary or imposed — is that not everyone’s going in the same direction and you might want to cut across the flow to get into a shop. This can be life threatening at peak times — you’d have more success crossing the Spey River in full spate after the sprint melt.

In summary, when we take to the pavements, forget good will to all, simple good manners, courtesy and politeness all too often disappear faster than you can say Donald Trump. Oops did I mention the ‘T’ word? It seems a shame that the concept of good manners is ow so very much equated with a stiffling colonial past. There’s been a lot of talk over the last months of ‘incivility’ in the political arena. Taking it outside of politics, perhaps incivility is the contemporary articulation of the ancient proverb ‘manners maketh man’? (For man, read men, women, LGBTs and children). Whatever name you give it, I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing almost a soulful longing for a kinder, more considerate society and world. And where better to start than in the way we interact with our fellow humans on a daily basis?

The earliest known reference to the proverb “manners taketh man” was in the writings of William Horman, who lived between 1440 and 1535 and was headmaster of the very famous English schools Eton and then Winchester. Horman’s book ‘Vulgaria’ (translates from Latin into something like ‘everyday sayings’ or ‘common sayings’) is a collection of proverbs that were in common use, so it may have been around for many years, even centuries before Horman’s time. The proverb’s meaning has come to be that your mannerisms and characteristics make you who you are. That people are judged by their manners and conduct. But in its earliest use, it likely had a broader meaning – that manners make us human —  that politeness and etiquette are what prevent us from falling into savagery.

Well, it certainly feels pretty savage when a phalanx of people fail to give way on a pavement forcing you to walk on the street. It’s also quite savage when someone crowds you at a check out or tail-gates you in a place where they have no possibility of overtaking. Those shouted cell phone conversations some people insist on having in public that disturb the peace — a legal offence in many countries and most definitely savage. Ditto people who talk through movies or concerts. Call me old fashioned but I’m still a big fan of those very under rated ‘magic words’, please and thank you . And would it really hurt for drivers to acknowledge my courtesy with a wave? So many of them don’t. Barging in front of me in a queue is not a winner either! And please don’t sit at my dinner table texting or checking your social media conversations — I believe that’s called excessive virtual socialising.

I don’t want to go through my days having spasms of irritation and being a victim of these every day acts of thoughtlessness that spoil my buzz. I’d say manners are still a fundamental need of a civilised society. We just need an updated version for our current reality in which we struggle to deal with over-population and resort to smart devices as the universal panacea. Manners might not cure all the evils of the world, but what a different place the world would be if we really could extend goodwill to all — we might even succeed with achieving peace on earth. Amen to that.

 

 

Be yourself no matter what they say

On a road trip a couple of weeks ago, my playlist dished up a song by Sting that I hadn’t heard for a while — An Englishman in New York. Glad though I was to be reacquainted with this old favourite, it’s been stuck in my head since like … er … a stuck record.

The Englishman in question was the infamous eccentric gay icon Quentin Crisp, who moved from London to New York in 1981 (incidentally the year I moved to London from Scotland as an starry-eyed post-grad). Crisp – or Denis Charles Pratt as he was born in 1908 — apparently came from a fairly conventional suburban English background. How he then made the leap from that to wearing make-up, painting his nails and including items of female clothing in his ‘look’ is anybody’s guess. Well actually, that’s not quite true. His autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, which ultimately became a cult TV production starring John Hurt, made him a household name from the mid-seventies and removed the need to guess about his Genesis.

Quentin Crisp was many things in his time; a ‘rent-boy’, a professional model for life-classes in art colleges, a raconteur — his one man show filled theatres for many years in Britain and America — as well as a TV actor and personality. But it was the interviews he gave that fuelled the legend, particularly his take on manners and the cultivation of style, both of which he wrote about at length. He famously labelled himself as “one of the stately homos of England”.

I admired him hugely for his commitment to living life on his own terms in the certainty that everyone has a right to fulfil their true and unique potential. He seemed to accept that flying in the face of convention would not be a comfortable ride, particularly when you don’t evangelise the party line on divisive issues such as gay rights, and openly criticise wildly popular figures such as Diana “the people’s Princess”. While the ‘outrage factor’ certainly added to his allure, it also brought vitriolic criticism and disapproval. Whether or not this bothered him, it certainly didn’t change him. As Sting so elegantly put it, “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile. Be yourself no matter what they say.”

Thinking about this concept of being yourself, no matter what they say, it’s always been one that’s been very dear to my heart. While I’m no rebel, like Crisp, I’ve always rated individualism and done my best to foster my own. Our human DNA seems to be infused with deep-rooted tribal instincts. In my own case, despite many years as an ex-pat, I still identify strongly as a Scot. But this only goes so far. Much as I like being around my own kind, I’ve never wanted to be one of the pack. For as long as I can remember, I had a highly developed sense of my own individuality which has always seemed to me to be a precious thing that made life fuller and more interesting.

Very early on, I found my own sense of style which I’ve built on through the years. I can remember teetering around the cobble stones of my alma-mater, Saint Andrews University, in the depths of the Scottish winter wearing outrageously precarious shoes and a moss green corduroy pencil-line skirt and jacket which I made myself. That was one of a number of similarly outstanding, if impractical ensembles in my wardrobe. I mention this only because it was a time when most of my peers were content with uniform blue jeans and Guernsey jerseys.

Moving to London post grad was like diving into a cornucopia of opportunities for self-expression. I found my spiritual home working in international media where anything goes, and idiosyncrasy was par for the course. With the natural advantage of statement hair of the blonde cork-screw variety I was the right fish in the right pond. Of course, I hated my hair with a passion when I was a violin-playing nerdy kid, but it became a real asset during those  years for its sheer ‘out-there-ness’. I used to festoon this riot of tresses with all sorts of bows, bands and ornaments.

Coming back to Quentin Crisp, it takes courage to keep your faith. It’s much easier to wear the uniform, join a tribe, embrace the jargon. Several times in my life I’ve tried very hard to contort myself into being something I’m not — to conform to the expectations of a partner or to succeed in a job — with all the success of a gaudy tropical fish trying to survive in the freezing waters of Southern Ocean.

I’ve lost my way badly on a couple of occasions, somewhat ironically coinciding with a compulsion to straighten my hair! At one point I took a job in the Masters of the Universe realm of venture capital and attempted to become a ‘suit’. But even on the conservative end of my spectrum while I was trying to be one of them, my clothing selection was severely career limiting. I remember being sat down by my then boss for a talk about dressing for success a little like parent broaching the topic of sex education with their teenage daughter. He underlined his point by giving me a very chic and very suitable briefcase for Christmas the first year. I tried to confirm. I really wanted to. If nothing else, the financial incentives were very compelling. But after three years (I’ve never been a quitter) I did both of us — me and the firm involved — a sanity returning favour by understanding that Corporateland was not my natural habit and I’ve never ventured back.

I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige. That was the best articulation I could find of my belief in the need to embrace our own uniqueness. It seems that as we grow up we’re conditioned out of liking those sparkly jelly shoes and garishly colourful ensembles most kids revel in. After all, they’re tawdry gewgaws that should be consigned to the dress up box as we grow up aren’t they? But who is the ‘they’ that impose the boundaries on our self-expression and creativity? If my sense of self says I lust after purple boots with fringes, what’s stopping me? That would be the crushing tyranny of good taste and what’s appropriate for my age and stage. But seriously, who cares? If a visual cacophony is what does it for you, why not? After all, girls just wanna have fun … even vintage ones like me.

I’ve just returned from another multi-year walk in the ‘who am I?’ wilderness. Every time I come back to my senses and remember the answer, I’m reminded of the Ivy Compton Bennett quote, “A leopard does not change his spots, or change his feeling that spots are rather a credit to him.” Unsurprisingly, my hair’s curly again and I’ve regained the feeling that it’s still rather a credit to me.

Be yourself, no matter what they say!

 

Clothes to dye for!

I could never be a naturist! Not that I have any particular beef about naturism per se — if you want to attend Nudefests and retreats, compete in the Naked Olympics, go skinny dipping of a summer’s night, or simply get your kit off and hang out in the buff with your family and mates around the BBQ, good for you. Each to his or her own I say. I salute every human being’s right to self-expression … even if I salute it more if they don’t express this particular form anywhere near me.

No, my aversion is because if I ever had a rush of blood to the head and decided this was the lifestyle choice for me, it would deprive me of one of my greatest pleasures in life — clothes. Clothes (and this is a broad church that includes shoes and accessories) have always felt like an extension of my personality. My clothing selection is as much a barometer of my mood as whether I’m bouncing around like some Latter Day Tigger or in a Garbo-esqeue “I vant to be alone” frame of mind.

When I was a wide-eyed graduate, just let loose on the world, I pondered becoming a fashion buyer and worked in Harrods of London for a few months to try the idea on for size … as it were. It didn’t fit! I hated the place. Before that I also pondered becoming a historical costume adviser for stage or TV. This wasn’t as random as it sounds with an honours degree in Medieval History that included a finals paper on fashion in the English and French Courts during the very specific period of 1330 — 1380. I was mesmerised by the whole concept of the form and function of clothing in defining society and this period is recognised as marking the emergence of recognisable fashion. The fourteenth century saw the introduction of a raft of innovations including buttons and laces enabling much more figure hugging attire than the previous tabard shapes. Imagine the liberation of no longer having to sew yourself into your garments!

I’ve never liked being regimented or told what to wear … or not to wear even. I’m strong on the importance of individuality and uniforms are anathema. I think there is a lot of truth in the saying that there would be no wars if there were no uniforms. At one point the Harrods department I worked in decided to put us in some prissy polka-dot dress with a white collar as our uniform. I hated it with a vengeance — likely the tipping point in my abortive fashion career. But in terms of self-expression, it’s the clothes that are the vehicle not the brand, which can become just another uniform. Reading the coverage of the Tear Drop Ethical Fashion Report this week, which evaluates the performance of leading fashion brands each year, made me glad I hadn’t persevered. The multi-trillion-dollar apparel industry is apparently the second dirtiest industry in the world after oil and gas. These days clothes really are to dye for!

I don’t say this lightly. I went to a thought provoking event a couple of nights ago — Fashun Statement — organised by and featuring some of the inspirational kiwi fashionistas who are at the forefront of the eco-fashion movement. It was both uplifting and horrifying. Horrifying because the first half was given over to looking at the state of the global fashion industry. If you have hopes for the continuation of this planet in any form that includes life as we know it, the statistics are mind-bogglingly depressing. As I’m sure you know, the biggest culprit is “Fast Fashion”. This is the design and distribution of cheaply made clothing  “take, make, waste” behaviours.

Fast fashion uses innovative production and distribution models to dramatically shorten fashion cycles by getting garments from the designer to the customer in a matter of weeks instead of months. This has seen the number of fashion seasons increasing from the traditional two main ones each year (spring/summer and autumn/winter) to as many as fifty to a hundred micro-seasons. I can’t find stats later than 2014 but at that time, the average person bought 60% more clothes than they did in 2000 and kept them half as long. The numbers are increasing exponentially as ever more people in countries like China and India move up the economic ladder. Clothing consumption is projected to triple by 2050 requiring three times as many natural resources compared to what was used in 2000. And what happens to all these disposable ‘rags’? On average, garments are worn only nine times before being binned, creating Everests of additional landfill. Oh and don’t be fooled by conscience salving clothing bins. Apparently, many of these castoffs get exported to emerging nations (if anything is done with them at all), often destroying local businesses and jobs that can’t compete with the influx of our detritus.

One of the presenters showed images of inhuman and abysmal working conditions in factory sweat-shops where people barely achieve subsistence wages and rivers are turned all the colours of the rainbow from industrial waste flowing freely from dyeing shops making rivers and drinking water toxic. For all too many of the big labels, supply chain ethics are sill … er … totally unethical and transparency seems to be something that happens in a parallel universe.

Then there’s the industry’s ecological footprint. Issues like the amount of water and energy required to grow crops like cotton which are the bedrock of the industry. Producing just one cotton shirt apparently requires 2,700 litres of water — enough to keep one person alive for 2.5 years. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides despite using about 3 percent of the world’s arable land. Polyester production uses less water but is highly carbon intensive. About 20 percent of industrial water pollution is due to garment manufacturing, while the world uses 5 trillion litres (1.3 trillion gallons) of water each year for fabric dyeing alone, enough to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Let’s not forget the oceans of fuel required to ship the flood of new clothes around the world. Clearly, I already knew some of this, but hearing it was a real wake-up call nonetheless.

To everyone’s relief, after the shock tactics came the uplifting part — hearing the inspirational stories of the presenters. Despite being the co-founder of a start-up myself who has evangelised a new technological product in tricksy places like the Middle East, I can’t imagine the true grit it takes with only a few hundred dollars to go somewhere like Indonesia and find a way to set up a manufacturing outlet that is clean, good for the workers and good for the planet. Other than shared admiration for the David v. Goliath success stories we’d heard, in the networking sessions, there was a lot of talk about the growing demand not only for emerging ethical clothing products but also for clothes-swops, re- and up-cycling, getting back to the good old-fashioned (pun intended) concept of actually mending things, using found objects to make accessories from and similar. Online options like TradeMe in NZ and eBay elsewhere offer unlimited potential for the discerning second hand bargain hunter.

The destructive cycle of unchecked consumerism can’t go on — assuming infinite resources when we all know they’re actually finite is not a winning ethos for us humans. Some fashion companies have already acknowledged this and are testing new models like renting jeans, taking back old garments for re-cycling and incorporating “slow fashion” into their business models for competitive advantage.  The only real answer though is to convince people to buy less. Actually, to buy much, much less.

I want things to change — I don’t want my clothes habit to go the way of so many other things that have become taboo because they’re bad for me or the planet and I am encouraged by all the amazing people blazing the trail towards change. I just hope it’s enough. On a personal basis, I’ve stopped being such an avid consumer — I think much more about what I buy and try to find things that will last and which are from environmentally responsible organisations. I know that it’s not always easy or possible to make ethical choices, but at least understanding what’s at stake is a big motivator.

Coming back to my theme of clothes as a statement of individuality, I don’t see finding your own personal style as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything — that remains 42. But tapping into your inner and unique fashionista can be a wonderfully rewarding journey of discovery about who you are and what you believe in. It’s not about the clothes themselves, it’s more the qualities that set you apart from your peers. It’s about standing for something.  After all, if you don’t know who you are, how can you know you’d like to hang with, love and be loved by, what you want your life mission to be or what your position on religion, politics or any of that stuff is?

Perhaps this all sounds very superficial? Obsessing about clothes when many older people can’t afford to stay warm in the winter and a large chunk of the world is starving does seem frivolous to the point of indecency. Believe me, I’m checking my privilege as I write, but you don’t need money to find make your own statements as the incredible 98-year-old New Yorker, artist and performer Ilona Royce Smithkin (featured image) has shown over the years. To me, she epitomises self-expression with elan and flair. This short video about her take on this is well worth watching. I think that if more people were like Ilona and sure of who they are and were prepared to stand up and be counted, not huddle together like so many sheep in the rain, we might be able to actually do something about all the troubles in our world. As Vivienne Westwood famously said, “you have a more interesting life if you wear impressive clothes.” I’d substitute “individualistic” for “impressive” but thinking about the redoubtable Ms. Westwood’s fashion journey, I get what she meant!

Featured Image — check out this wonderful portrait of Ilona Royce Smithkin and many others equally good at HayDave, to whom thanks.

 

Stranger in a strange land?

My sister and I launched a satirical magazine for women a few years ago. It was written for women like us who were looking for an alternative to the usual drivel dished up by the ‘glossy’ mags and it sent up the whole genre of outrageous cosmetic claims and superficial crap that they peddle.

As part of this, we created frankly ridiculous quizzes for people to complete, spoofing the absurd ones in some mainstream women’s media. You know the type — Which Disney Prince Is Your Soul-mate? Can You Tell The Difference Between A Designer Handbag and A Cheap Knockoff? Does This Sexy Body Part Belong to Luke, Liam or Chris Hemsworth? While it’s actually tempting to linger over the Hemsworth hiatus (Chris for president I say), my point is, it’s all such utter bollocks.

Ours were so much better… Is My Mummy The Queen of England? Should I Wage War On My Neighbours? Are You Wonderwoman? Flicking through these old mags again recently, the one I liked most was Is My Partner An Alien? In fact, I liked the idea so much I found myself burning to find out. Then I remembered the inconvenient truth; I don’t currently have a partner. Undeterred, I decided to answer the quiz from my own perspective to see if I myself was an alien (forgetting for a moment that we had invented the quiz and therefore it was as much bollocks as the ones in the other magazines).

Much to my astonishment, my answers provided conclusive evidence that I was, in fact, an alien. I was quite taken aback by this. If true, clearly I’ve been suffering from whopping amnesia about why I’m on earth amongst humans — some sort of deep under-cover operation? If so, I have no sense at all of the otherness that I figure I should be feeling as a stranger in a strange land. Most of all I wondered where the space ship was parked.

In all seriousness, in the current international climate, the question “Is your partner an alien?” is no joke. Setting aside for a moment the Close Encounters extraterrestrial type of alien in our quiz, down here on earth, in law, a human alien is a person who resides within the borders of a country and is not a national of that country.

We all like to belong. To fit in. To identify with others. Be recognized by our kind and recognise others like us. We like our tribes. Us humans have a prime-evil, almost visceral need to identify with kindred spirits. Unfortunately, looking at the world scene right now, for many this goes beyond the simple comfort factors of a sense of belonging to  issues like identity politics, fanaticism, bullying and terrorism against people who are different or believe differently.

I’m an expat, but an expat by choice not circumstance and living in a place with a lot of similarities to the country I left. Even after more than two decades, I still miss aspects of my previous life deeply but there are no barriers to going back and I can visit as often as I wish or, more realistically, can afford. In some ways, I’m lucky enough to have two countries that I think of as home. I can only imagine the anguish of people who have no place. Refugees running in fear of their lives, forced to leave everything precious and sacred behind. What must it be like to have lost everything you hold dear? Then there are ‘over-stayers’ who’ve built lives that are as fragile as butterfly wings in a gale. Living lives that force them to be constantly looking over their shoulders, stalked by the fear of being torn away from their friends and families and deported.

Particularly at this time of year, my heart goes out to the people all over the world for whom life turns on the whim of others and who feel alien on a daily basis. I just read a heart-rending article about the atrocities suffered by Rohingya refugees who’ve fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh with whole villages burned after soldiers butchered the men, raped the women and girls and mutilated and burned babies. And yet despite their horrendous ordeal, there is no happy ending in sight for these ‘aliens’. Bangladesh doesn’t want to take them. Nor, apparently, does anyone else and there are even suggestions that the best option would be repatriation!

From the bottom of my soul I believe we should treat such people with the milk of human kindness. But it’s complicated. I watched as my birth country, the UK, absorbed waves of aliens, many arriving with religious belief structures as their guiding stars and for whom adherence to religious law was more important than adherence to the law of our land. We lived in a duality where everyone knew there were places — whole cities even — where the law’s writ didn’t fully run. The clashing cultures of nationality opened up deep divisions and dislikes. Un-crossable Rubicons flowed where political correctness enabled and then tacitly ignored horrors in our midst like ‘honour killings’, where there was often no justice to be had for many and discontentment bred the shame of home grown terrorists.

I don’t know where the answer lies, but I don’t believe we can just shut our borders and lock out any and all outsiders. I hate the ‘Little Englander’ mentality that spawned BREXIT or the isolationist America First thinking that is gaining ground in many western countries with its underlying shades of white supremacy. We need to be better than that and find ways of getting over our tribal affiliations with their deep-rooted prejudices.

Maybe salvation will ultimately come from the intervention of some as yet undiscovered but highly evolved extraterrestrials who’ve found the answers! Perhaps said ETs could helpfully start by removing for scientific experimentation fanatics and cavemen leaders like Trump and their offensive Banyonesque henchmen who fan the flames! Particularly at this time of year, I’m reminded of the age-old and still highly valid concept of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

A man’s a man for ‘a that

I’m a Scot and a lifelong fan of the poetry of Robert Burns, a pioneer of the Romantic movement. While Burns is more often remembered as something of a ladies man, “the greatest hours that ere I spent were spent among the lasses o”, he was also a towering advocate for social equity.

Reading the headlines over the last few days, one of my favourite of Burns’ poems A Man’s A Man For ‘A That written in 1795, has been often in my mind. More than two hundred and twenty years after his death, the insight and aspiration of the piece remains profound.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

 AMEN!

British and Irish Lions 2017 tour — a world in union!

I was lucky enough to be given tickets for the second test in the British and Irish Lions 2017 NZ tour last weekend in Wellington. It was epic and that was only the atmosphere in the stadium. To be honest, the atmosphere was what I went for and it didn’t disappoint. The Lions … Lions … Lions chant from the sea of red supporters was electrifying and compulsive and it’s been ringing in my head all week. In my book, the antics of rugby’s ‘Barmy Army’ — the glorious, enthusiastic, contagiously cheerful, campervan-enabled mas of Lions supporters — has been the main event of the tour, rather than the rugby itself. And no one could ever accuse these guys of having succumbed to beige!

There’s something improbably beguiling about tens of thousands of good-natured fans prepared to travel all the way round the world, leaving their summer for our winter to roar on their heroes. In a world where sports followers all too often split into to fanatical nationalist and tribal divisions and go to war, this tour has left it’s eccentric, but heart warming grace in a lot of hearts here.

I would have loved to be at last nights tour finale in Auckland. Instead, I went for the armchair experience helped along by a spectacular dinner and some very good wine. And what a match it was. Nail-biting to the very last with some incredible play. The big disappointment? It ended in a draw and we have to wait so many years for the re-match as the Lions only tour NZ every 12 years. The consolation for a dichotomized ex-pat like me? That it ended in a draw and both sides therefore won.

In truth, the All Blacks should have taken it out — they had their chances, but the British bulldog in me reveled in the doughty ‘we will never surrender’ spirit of my compatriots as they fought on to the last gasp, evening the score in its dying moments. I can tell you, I didn’t know whether to sing Rule Britannia, Swing Low, Flower of Scotland, Men of Harlech, Ireland’s call or Pokarekare ana for that matter.

With an English mother and a Scottish father, I’m a half-breed. Thinking about it, I’m actually more of a ‘bitsa’ if you go back another generation or two. In addition to both of those not always harmonious nationalities vying for prominence in my loyalties having lived in both countries for close to equal time, there’s also Irish, French and German. If you go back even further there’s likely some Viking in the mix. After a couple of decades in NZ, there’s now also a fair dollop of Kiwi super-imposed on it all.

When I was a kid, I used to watch test rugby with my father — one of the few things deemed OK for us kids to stay up late for. I can still remember the excitement building during each pulsating match and dad’s highly vocal ebbs and flows as points were won and lost and Five Nations slugged it out for national glory or against one of the great touring sides like the Springboks. But when the All Blacks were involved there was an extra frisson. An exoticism that few other teams could match. After all, they had the Haka and who could every forget the first time they saw one performed? The spine-chilling moment when the All Blacks line up and lay down the challenge to the opposition. It’s a primal declaration of intent. To my childish eyes, it was truly awesome. Decades later, it still is.

Living in New Zealand, it’s very easy to support our local side. They’re just …er … so good … and they win so often … and this country’s rugby mad … and you get caught up in it all. In all seriousness, the All Blacks truly are one of the world’s great sporting brands and one of this little country’s enduring successes. It’s hard not to succumb to their might and glamour, particularly as supporting Scotland can be bit of a test in its own right. On numerous occasions we may well have sent the English homeward to think again, but we’ve never beaten the All Blacks in 30 attempts, the first being at Murrayfield in 1905. That’s not ever. Never. Not even once. OK there have been two draws so it hasn’t been a complete whitewash and you have to take the wins where you can (as it were), but it is a teeny bit one-sided and depressing even for the most ardent fan. Mostly I’m just happy if we lose respectably. Ditto England, Ireland and Wales in the context of the All Blacks.

But last night I was proud to be a Brit! Progressively during this Lions tour, the land of my fathers (and sisters and cousins and aunts) has reclaimed me. The improbable alliance that is the British and Irish Lions is uplifting in a world where there is so much strife. As once BBC commentator put it, “they (the Lions) have done it once again, from disparate parts and across old enmities. In a modern world often focused on cold commercial gain and a narrow nationalism, they remain an idea apart and a reality to inspire. As you watched the two sides merge for a shared team photograph at the end, red shirts mixing with black, Englishmen with arms round Irishmen, a Welsh skipper congratulating a Welsh man of the match, a Scotsman ending as the tour’s leading try scorer, then you did understand what it was all about, after all.”

If people like these from places with deep-seated ancient grudges and not a few contemporary ones can set them aside and revel in the moment, there’s hope for us humans and our world. 

Photo from The Daily Mail