Tuesday 29 May 2018

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to Cliff Curtis, its old Aristocrat among Galanthophiles

A galanthophile is an enthusiastic collector of snowdrops or 'galanthus' and in Britain there have been keen collectors since at least the mid 19th century. Some are commemorated in the names of snowdrop species or cultivars and thus join the aristocracy of the snowdrop world. The nurseryman, James Atkins of Northampton was one of the earliest and his tall, early-flowering, robust Galanthus 'Atkinsii' is still widely grown.

Cliff, who recently died, will also be immortalised by his tall 'Cliff Curtis', with its clean markings, pristine rounded flowers with long clawed outer segments like small white spoons.

When Cliff and his wife Joan moved into their 18th cottage, in Chapel Street in the village of Hacconby in Lincolnshire in the 1960s it stood on an old farmyard half acre plot, filled with rubbish and old sheds which provided a comfortable home to the Curtis's pigs. Then, when small-scale pig farming became uneconomic, the garden expanded and then took over and eventually became the home of 500 varieties of snowdrops. Cliff meanwhile was employed as a groundsman working for the Lincolnshire Local Education Authority.

When interviewed six years ago Cliff said : "Alpines were my first love. We used to have an alpine house, but now we concentrate on the troughs." He was referring to their ranks of aged stone feeding troughs salvaged from farm sales. It wasn't until the late 1990s that his serious snowdrop collecting began and he entered the lower ranks of the galanthophiles when he got down on the ground on his knees to appreciate the subtle differences between varieties. As he said : "Snowdrop people always have muddy knees and their bums in the air."

In 1948, when he was 83 years old, the galanthophile, Edward Augustus Bowles or "Gussie," discovered the cultivar, which he named 'Ketton,' at Ketton Cottage, which stood near Peterborough and introduced it to the public in the 1950s before he died in 1954.

Gussie had been forty years gone when Cliff's love affair with galanthus began, and in pursuit of that passion he tracked down the Ketton Garden where he discovered and announced 'Peardop.' Then, from elsewhere, came 'Little Joan,' named for his wife and of course, 'Cliff Curtis.'

The fact that rare snowdrop bulbs exchange hands for hundreds of pounds led him to declare in 2012 : "This is not a nursery. It is a hobby gone mad, although we do sell off the surplus bulbs at our open days. Sometimes, however, I wish I had realised earlier in my life that snowdrops can be much more profitable than pigs!"

Not surprisingly Cliff was often invited to inspect colonies of snowdrops in old gardens and
where sought a longed-for “yallery’un” or “green-tipped’un” that might be hiding just behind the next tree.
'Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste snowdrop, venturous harbinger of spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years.'

From Wordsworth's 'To a Snowdrop.' 1819.

Sunday 27 May 2018

Britain is still a country, but Labour is no longer a party for an old politician called Ken Livingstone

Ken, who has been forced to make an inglorious departure from the Labour Party at the age of 72, after a membership of 50 years, had once had a political career which had taken him to the leadership of the Greater London Council in 1981 followed by two terms as Mayor of London.

His long final act of political suicide started in 2016, when Labour was convulsed by its first row about antisemitism in the party. Naz Shah, an MP, had apologised and was briefly suspended from the party after she shared a Facebook posting in which had suggested relocating Israel to the US as a “solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict”. It was then that he took it upon himself to defend Shah, and gave an interview in which he argued that Adolf Hitler had supported Zionism, the existence of a Jewish state, “before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.”

His suspension from the party, but its decision not to expel him led to large scale uproar in its ranks and when it was once again convulsed by antisemitism in March this year, it was his name that repeatedly came up. In addition, he was held partly responsible for the political damage which was done in the last round of local government elections, when Labour failed to win Barnet Council in London, as had been expected, when Jewish voters turned away from Labour.

His final conclusion was that the long running row over anti-semitism had become “a distraction” and he resigned his membership of the party before the final hearing ever took place.

Ironically, it was in his first term as the newly elected Mayor of London from 2000–04 that he achieved his greatest success as a politician, when he was suspended from the Labour Party and stood against and beat the official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson.

It was during this time that he :

* came out in support of a proposal for the 2012 Olympic Games to be held in London and insisted that the Games be held in the East End to promote urban regeneration.

* introduced the fleet of articulated over a hundred "bendy buses" to replace the old Routemasters, the design for which dated to the 1950s.

* gave the green light to clean power and with his 'Energy Strategy' committed London to reducing its emissions of carbon dioxide by 20%, relative to the 1990 level, by 2010.

* pedestrianised the north side of Trafalgar Square, transforming it into a public space with a cafe, public toilets, and a lift for the disabled.

* set up Britain's first register for same-sex couples, which, while falling short of legal marriage rights, was seen as a step towards the Civil Partnership Act 2004.

* introduced a traffic congestion charge covering 8 square miles in Central London, charging motorists £5 a day for driving through the area in an attempt to deter traffic and as a result reduced it by 20%.

* introduced the Oyster card system, the smartcard for use on the Tube, trams and buses which reduced passenger queues.

Having run London pragmatically for 4 years, he was returned to the Labour fold to win again in 2004, before Boris Johnson halted him in his tracks four years later, but in his second term he failed to  match the reforming zeal of his first term.

"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."
Mark Antony reflecting on the death of Julius Caesar 

Sunday 20 May 2018

Britain is still a country, but should be no country, for old men 'fighting' cancer

It was 4 years ago that Dr Kate Granger published her article in the Guardian entitled :

Having cancer is not a fight or a battle
Why is military language used to describe cancer? These words are meant to help patients but can have the opposite effect

Kate, who was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumour, usually seen in teenagers, was 36 years old when she died 2 years ago.

She wrote :

* 'In my world, having cancer is not a fight at all. It is almost a symbiosis where I am forced to live with my disease day in, day out.'

* 'To fight it would be "waging a war" on myself. I have used chemotherapy on two occasions to bring the cancer back under control and alter the natural history of the disease. I submitted myself to this treatment gently, and somewhat reluctantly, taking whatever each day had to throw at me. I certainly didn't enter the process "with all guns blazing".'

* 'When I do die, I will have defied the prognosis for my type of cancer and achieved a great deal with my life. I do not want to feel a failure about something beyond my control. I refuse to believe my death will be because I didn't battle hard enough.'

* 'And that's the problem; in my view the language used around cancer seems to revolve around wartime rhetoric: battle, fight, warrior, beat. While I recognise that these violent words may help others on their journey with cancer, as someone who is never going to "win her battle" with this disease, I find them uncomfortable and frustrating to hear.'

* '"She lost her brave fight." If anyone mutters those words after my death, wherever I am, I will curse them. I would like to be remembered for the positive impact I have made on the world, for fun times and for my relationships with others, not as a loser. I do not want to feel a failure about something beyond my control.'

* 'I do understand why this military language has penetrated the media, charities and everyday life. It is meant to evoke positivity at an unimaginably difficult time in someone's life. But I think it can have the opposite effect and we need to challenge it and to break away from how we have been conditioned to think and speak about a disease that will affect one third of us at some point.'

Kate's words resonate with me because, having been diagnosed with bladder cancer at the beginning of 2016 and then, after a course of eight doses of chemotherapy (it would nave been nine, but my white blood cell count was too low), I submitted myself to a surgical cystectomy. In my five and half hour operation, my surgeon removed not only my bladder and prostate, but also my appendix and a dozen lymph nodes and, in a masterpiece of new plumbing, constructed an ileal conduit out of a section of my colon which allows me to live without a bladder.

And here we are 4 years after Kate's article and Macmillan Cancer Support has just published its report 'Missed Opportunities', in which it makes the point that fighting talk' can leave cancer patients unable to talk about death and dying.

Given the fact that British culture that men show fortitude in the face of adversity and given the fact old men are statistically more like to experience some form of cancer than young men, it is probably true to say that it is still to be regretted that old men are still caught up in the business of fighting their cancer.

Owen Jones said recently in the Guardian about the death of his father from prostate cancer : 'Our culture poorly equips us to deal with grief, a combination of death being treated as a macabre taboo subject and a particularly English awkwardness with raw emotions. It’s also – and let’s be honest about it – that the expression of emotion is portrayed as weakness in a patriarchal society.'

Adrienne Betteley, Specialist Advisor for End of Life Care, at Macmillan Cancer Support has said :

* 'We know that ‘battling’ against cancer can help some people remain upbeat about their disease, but for others the effort of keeping up a brave face is exhausting and unhelpful in the long-term.'

*  'We need to let people define their own experiences without using language that might create a barrier to vital conversations about dying. For health and social care professionals, there is often a fear that the person is not ready to talk about dying. We know, however, that making plans while receiving treatment allows people with cancer to retain a sense of control during an emotionally turbulent time.'

* 'Future planning before a person’s health deteriorates is also strongly associated with lower hospital death rates. When staff have a record of where someone would like to die, that person is almost twice as likely to die in the place of their choosing as well as have other care preferences met and fewer emergency admissions at the end of their life.'

It was Susan Sontag’s 1970s 'Illness as Metaphor' which argued that metaphors create moral judgments against patients and aren’t helpful.

Some organizations have now turned towards more neutral terminology.and instead of “fighting” cancer, people “undergo” treatment for cancer; “cancer-free” is preferred to “cancer survivor” and, as for a disability, it’s something you “live with,” rather than “conquer.” The most common substitute for a battle is "a journey" which is a good fit, because we’re already used to the concept of life as a journey. It also encompasses the idea of companions and of people with earlier diagnoses’ acting as guides.

When the DJ Danny Baker was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 53 in 2010 he said :

"I’m just the battlefield, science is doing the fighting and of course the wonderful docs and nurses of the brilliant NHS" 

Like Danny, I was not the one doing the fighting, rather it was the brilliant Urology team at my local hospital who were fighting the bad guys, by proxy, on my behalf.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Britain is no country for old men with prostate cancer


Sunday 13 May 2018

Brexit Britain is no country and a country for an old lord called Arthur Wellesley : His Grace, the Ninth Duke of Wellington

"Men, we must never be beaten ! Stand firm. What will they say of this in England ?"
Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The 72 year old Arthur Charles Valerian Wellesley is the 9th Duke of Wellington and took his seat in the House of Lords as an 'elected hereditary peer' in 2015. This means he was chosen by the other 42 Conservative hereditary peers and took his place alongside the other 91 hereditary lords and ladies who, in turn, sit alongside the other 530, the 'life peers', who are appointees of variable merit, ranging from those who have distinguished themselves in other walks of life, to those who have distinguished themselves by being long-pocketed donors to political parties.

On the face of it, the fact that, that in the 21st Century, the Duke of Wellington can have a say in the legislation which governs Britain is a scarcely believable anachronism. As Andrew Rawnsley said in the Observer today : 'On this we can agree. In a less absurd world, the 9th Duke of Wellington wouldn’t be sitting in Parliament. It is beyond ridiculous and all the stations to absolutely ludicrous that you get to occupy a seat in one half of our legislature because of the military feats performed by an ancestor more than two centuries ago. You wouldn’t trust your brain to a neurosurgeon whose only qualification for the title was that his great-great-great-grandfather was a neurosurgeon. Yet Britain’s uniquely comical set-up still reserves seats in its parliament for hereditary legislators.'

It is with supreme irony that lords like the Duke are putting a break on the proposed Brexit legislation the Conservative Government is trying to force through Parliament. His contribution was to table a successful amendment that removes the March 2019 deadline for Britain's departure from the EU which is not such an unreasonable idea given the mountain of work which still need to be done before Britain's departure from the EU. It has earned him the particular ire of the leading Brexiteers.

In fact, altogether, the Lords have made 14 amendments to the withdrawal legislation and as a result Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin rages against the House of Lords for its “defiance”. Self-appointed Brexiteer-in-Chief, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has threatened : “It is not a loved institution… It raises the issues of reform.”

The Sunday Express newspaper attacked the good Duke, who receives EU subsidies to maintain his landed estates with the headline :

On Wednesday, Martin Kettle wrote in the Guardian : 'Suddenly, soft Brexit can happen. Thank the Lords' and 'The assault on the Brexit Bill – inspired by the Duke of Wellington – has emboldened Tory moderates. This could be their moment.' As Mrs Thatcher said : "It's a funny old world" - the more so that the hero of the Remainers has manifested himself in the shape of an old lord who has no real right to be there in the first place.

Saturday 5 May 2018

Britain, already no country for old men with prostate cancer, is now confirmed as no country for old ladies with breast cancer

We know that Britain is no country for old men with prostate cancer and Jeremy Hunt, the Government Health Secretary, came to Parliament on Wednesday to confess that up to 450,000 older women in England may have somehow fallen off the breast cancer screening system, thanks to a computer glitch. He said it was likely there were women who “would have been alive today if this had not happened” and that up to 270 lives may have been shortened.

This is explained, but not excused, by a faulty computer algorithm and a glitch that wrongly cancelled some women’s scans and crept in accidentally in 2009, during the setting up of a pilot project. However, as Gaby Hinsliff said in the Guardian : 'Nonetheless, eight years is a hell of a long time for nobody to notice. Older women – that perennially invisible group – can be forgiven for wondering whether it would have happened to anyone else.' 

The women in question would have been in their late 60s when their scans were cancelled and perhaps in their 70s when they started getting sick. They’re of the generation that waits to be served, doesn’t like to bother anyone and trusts the people in charge to know what they’re doing. When the letters stopped coming, they must have just assumed they’d had their quota from the National Health Service and they were of an age when old ladies, as well as old men, get used to dropping off people’s radar. But isn't it to avoid such human blind spots, that algorithms are used by our public services exist in the first place? Aren't machines meant to excel at routine tasks like churning out appointments and not make emotional judgements about what you can expect at your age ?

You might expect that :

Jeremy Hunt would have seen to it that the 450,000 unscreened women, no doubt, some of them very worried indeed that they might be suffering from undiagnosed cancer, would be treated to a Rolls-Royce of a help-line to provide them with information from trained clinicians and allay their fears. A Public Health England spokesperson indicated that would be the case and said : “We are committed to ensuring that affected women and their families receive all the support they need. We are aware that the helpline is busy, particularly at peak times. We have built additional resilience into the system to ensure that as many people are able to receive support as possible.”

In fact, in the event, that was not the case because :

* the contract to run the help-line was given to Serco, a multinational outsourcing company that runs government services, including prisons, and call-handlers were told about the news at noon on the day Hunt revealed the issue in the House of Commons and training in how to handle calls was delivered two hours later with the helpline up and running by 4pm.

* as one handler said : "We found out at noon and were delivered training at 2.30pm. We were then taking taking calls live at 4pm. Normally we get two weeks training and this was one hour and a half It is ridiculous, there’s no way we could take in all that information in that amount of time.”

* in the event, call-handlers with no medical experience had only one hour’s training relied on a cheat sheet of symptoms with one, who contacted the Guardian, saying the sheet was “all over the place and hard to understand. It looked like it had been typed up and sent out as soon as possible.”

* handlers were given a booklet which included a page that listed symptoms of breast cancer, which they were supposed to go through, if need be, with the callers,

* as one handler said : “I felt ashamed knowing what had happened to these women, taking these calls when I am not medically trained, have no counselling background and am in no position to help them. Other people I work with feel the same. A girl who was working yesterday said taking calls was horrendous as people were getting really upset. People also cannot deal with the volume of calls coming through. We are not trained to be dealing with those type of things.”

* the three call centres in Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle were inundated with 5,000 on Wednesday, rising to 10,000 on Friday.

Not unsurprisingly, Jonathan Ashworth MP, the Shadow Health Secretary, said : "It seems the outsourcing firm Serco is running the hotline with staff who have no medical background or training in counselling, responding to women on these calls. There are of course huge questions that remain unanswered about this tragic scandal but the government’s priority must also be to ensure adequate resources are in place to give women the help they need.”       

The rushed response to setting up the helpline is even more inexcusable when one realises that the Government had known about the screening error since January.

The late Rita Towsey and Trixie Gough, their story : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxzLLHDaW3