Generally Speaking

‘Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging.’

Thank you for helping me to remember that.

I don’t think I said very much.  I was looking at the little horse

I had suggested we stopped walking for a moment, ostensibly to look at the little horse (and photograph it, complete with its stumpy legs, as you see in the picture), but actually so that I could write down my precious new idea before I forgot it again.

Something about Reason – that was what I had been saying as we walked together yesterday morning – Authority, and what was happening in today’s world to Truth. There was some new way of putting it together that had come to me suddenly last night when I was in the last stage of consciousness before going to sleep. Too close to sleep to summon the willpower to rouse myself and write it down. In case it evaporated in the night.

Which of course it did.

A few hundred yards back, as our path emerged from the woods, I had started talking about the funny sense you get of some idea that you’ve lost – a feeling, a sort of fleeting glimpse. And the way the more you look to clarify what it was, to try to pin it down and bring it back, the more it retreats. Like some shy animal into a hole. Or like a pea stuck up a child’s nostril in our health centre treatment room years ago (I always think of that one, for some reason) and all you’ve done is drive it further into hiding, until even the elusive sense you had of it has evaporated as well. (I also think of it as the left hemisphere of my brain struggling to pin down and fossilise something that is semi-consciously, shimmeringly, alive in the right. But I’ll come back to that.)

This time, for once, and thanks to her, my idea did come back. But as I whooped and spoke out loud my flash of amazing insight, and then spoke it again, louder, her response was disappointingly low-key. Despite her having been my life-long soul-mate and collaborator, who has had, as I often say, ‘all my best ideas’, this shining new inspiration of mine had struck less of a spark with her than, let me admit it, the little horse.

When we got home I was still delighted with my idea and no less convinced that it would find receptive minds somewhere, so I sat straight down and posted it as one of my rather infrequent tweets. My Twitter profile tells me that I have just passed 300 followers, but my offerings rarely if ever provoke a response. But this one, I felt, would be special, and I took care in highlighting some key words as hashtags, and adding a line of explanation ‒ shrewdly judged, I thought, to hint at both its originality and its importance. Like this:

The above screenshot was taken two days later, and as you can see from the empty icons along the bottom, once again I had failed to make any impression, let alone spark some new kind of viral pandemic.

But I consoled myself with something I learned years ago from reading Edward do Bono – that genuinely new ideas always seem strange, or funny, or off-the-wall, otherwise people would know them already.  So, I told myself, this was all a good sign, my idea really was new. But another time perhaps I might try to spell it out a little more carefully.

Sure enough, another time presented itself lower down the same Twitter feed.  An item by the indefatigable James O’Brian caught my eye. (@mrjamesob ‒ he of the 755.1K followers!) His tweet was about Jacob Rees-Mogg claiming in parliament that Boris Johnson was ‘the most freedom-loving prime minister… for at least 100 years’:

O’Brien commented: ‘He’s going to go nuts when he finds out what’s happened to our freedom of movement’

Aah – the ambiguity of the word ‘Freedom’! Just the kind of cue I needed. So I added my idea, carefully reframed, to the comments underneath:

I am thinking that the ‘Freedom’ populists talk about includes freedom from what can seem the terrible Authority of Evidence, Reason, and Truth itself.
I am wondering whether this is an explanation for these people’s otherwise incomprehensible immunity from popular censure.

It was one of some 250 others, but in spite that, this time there was a response. Within 24 hours it had been flagged as Liked by no less than 21 people, and one of them had passed it on to their followers.

So now I’m going to take this to another stage. I’m going to use this blog to ‘unpack’ the idea that was phrased in the words of my late-night inspiration, as they came back to me the next morning on our walk, and to try to tease out and pin down why it seemed, and still seems, so meaningful to me.

Not just for readers who are kind enough to have got this far, but for me. Because, believe me, I am not writing this stuff straight off. I am using the writing of it, over what is turning out to be the best part of a week, to test out, confirm, and hopefully to explain, why somewhere in this idea I had is lurking a truth which is worth sharing. And here I return to the idea that this is a matter of using words as a left-brain tool to tease out and pin down a richly complex but amorphous conception in the right (see Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece, The Master and His Emissary, for his definitive account of the divided brain).

It was this process that I discovered three or four decades ago when it dawned on me that my Amstrad personal computer could be used as a revolutionary tool for recording ideas in a new form, a form that was fixed and provisional at the same time, and which then made it easy to progressively hone them.

That was when I was still deeply immersed in the life and work of a family doctor, with a stable list of patients whom I knew extremely well, in many cases over decades and several generations. Out of this experience, which in the modern world was already almost unique, I began to draw what I called ‘notes and jottings’, setting down things that struck me as surprising during my daily consultations. Surprise, I already knew from my reading De Bono, was another of his signals that something you’ve noticed conflicts with your existing picture of the world, and therefore that you should be paying it attention (because your existing ideas might be wrong)..

For years I worked like this on what I called my ‘project’. Just for fun, just out of private curiosity. But gradually I began to believe I had something worth contributing, so that my humble collection of thoughts developed until it was accepted for publication as my book, The Paradox of Progress. And after that, for me, the rest was history.

Although that digression does have some relevance to what I am getting at, it was mainly about the method I’m going to use. So, back to the short sentence I started with and let me try to work out why I found it so meaningful:

Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging’.

First I should recall that as I went to sleep that night my preoccupation was still with the mystery I had been addressing here just a few days earlier: why almost half of America voted to give Donald Trump a second term, in spite of his record in his first. And I knew from the appreciative comments I was receiving, and indeed from the hit count on the blog ‒ by far the highest since the travelogue I posted here four years ago from our Golden Wedding trip up the west coast of North America – that I did seem to be able to contribute usefully on this subject.

So, that was the context, let’s start by asking who I was thinking of when I said ‘they’?

Easy – I meant the populists, specifically Trump. From the outset he set out to challenge authority, and his followers loved him for it. Because that picked up on a deep-seated, human resentment of authority. Which we can all understand because, to a greater of lesser extent, we share that feeling.

We hate our lives being constrained by rules, originally from our parents ‒ however much we loved and needed them ‒ later at school – then in adult life, both at the workplace and outside it ‒ e.g. speed limits on roads or the latest footling regulations on the use of garden pesticides.

And there is a tension in all of us between on the one hand our realisation that these constraints on our freedom are essential in a civilised society ‒ we know we can’t all choose which side of the road to drive on, or the voltage of our electricity supply ‒ and on the other hand our human desire for autonomy and freedom of action ‒ for the dignity and challenge of basing our actions on our own decisions.

It is that freedom that is at the heart of Americans’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of their ‘sweet land of liberty’.  Perhaps my two formative years at High School in Washington DC ‒- mentioned in another earlier post – has made that assumption second nature to me as well.

This kind of resentment of authority is more acute when such constraints on our freedom come from a source which we perceive to be alien. Which is why so many British resented ‘Brussels’, however generously we have been represented in the decisions taken there, and why the Westerner we met in the canyon in Capitol Reef National Park so bitterly resented being prevented from exercising his dogs in that fragile environment by distant ‘Washington!’.

But I also meant authority as a concept, in the way that Shakespeare personifies Love in his song, Who is Sylvia? – ‘Love doth to her eyes repair/To help him of his blindness/And, being helped, inhabits there’.

Which is why I spelled Authority with a capital A.

Trump attacked Authority in all these senses. He didn’t just rail against the Washington ‘swamp’. He didn’t just tell his followers, as Michael Gove told his in the UK, that they had ‘had enough of experts’. He didn’t just sack officials who failed to echo his every, self-contradictory whim. All of that is obvious, all of that has been rehearsed endlessly by critics. With zero effect on his followers.

The deeper idea that struck me as I went to sleep that night was that Trump went much further ‒ he attacked the very concept of Authority by attacking the foundations upon which legitimate Authority rested. His cheerful and absolute disregard for Reason and for Truth (which I also capitalised in my sentence) made him wildly popular with great swathes of supporters precisely because, as I suddenly realised, Truth and Reason were themselves aspects of the overbearing authority which had, step by ratchet-step throughout the modern era, progressively constrained their freedom of action, and even freedom of thought.

Here again, I have my own reasons for understanding this. My freedom of action as a doctor was progressively subjected to more and more constraints as my career went by. That was the background story to my forty years as a doctor. And that, and my attempt to resolve the resulting conflicts, was largely the subject of the book I wrote as I approached retirement.

On the instant I qualified as a doctor the way I was perceived by society changed. This was symbolised by my moving from the highest risk category for car insurance (as a medical student) to the lowest.

As my years as a junior hospital doctor progressed, I acquired steadily more freedom of action, but the ultimate clinical responsibility always rested with the consultant who headed the team–my ‘chief’. It was the chief who, at least in theory, faced the music when something went wrong.

And eventually, when I became a GP with my own list of patients, I took on that mantle of responsibility myself. I had nobody over me and nobody under me ‒ one of the many things I loved about the role. I also loved, although it was as daunting as it was stimulating, what now seems the extraordinary privilege of ‘clinical freedom’.

Clinical freedom did have its boundaries, which were policed with notorious severity by the General Medical Council. But that august body mainly concerned itself with drugs, sex, alcohol, and criminality. Freedom to treat our patients in whatever way we judged best remained to all intents and purposes absolute.

It made for a heady time when being trusted brought out the best in us a great deal of the time. But it also left too wide the door for bad practice and, crucially, for ignorance of what was an ever increasing cascade of scientific advances.

The end of those days can be traced with some accuracy to an editorial in the British Medical Journal of Saturday 29 October 1983. Headed The end of clinical freedom Its opening paragraph summarises what was a pivotal moment in medical history:

Clinical freedom is dead, and no one need regret its passing. Clinical freedom was the right‒some seemed to believe the divine right‒of doctors to do whatever in their opinion was best for their patients. In the days when investigation was non-existent and treatment as harmless as it was ineffective the doctor’s opinion was all that there was, but now opinion is not good enough. If we do not have the resources to do all that is technically possible then medical care must be limited to what is of proved value, and the medical profession will have to set opinion aside.

From then on, the changes were relentless. The god of Clinical Freedom was dead, only to be replaced by the god of Evidence Based Medicine. For the first time, government ‒ specifically Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1990, a year which my generation of GPs remembered for ever after as ‘when the darkness came’ ‒ saw its opportunity, as paymasters of the National Health Service, to call in what had been, ever since 1948, the independent contractor status of GPs. So began the imposition of more and more external rules and constraints on our practice. This, I have to say, was with the enthusiastic support of our Royal College, the academic body of British general practice, which saw nothing in the trend but progress.

And, writing this now, another new thought strikes me. For the first time I have an uncomfortable realisation that the success of my book, for success it undoubtedly was, may have been because it struck ‒ surely not, heaven help me, like Trump! ‒ a populist chord with fellow GPs.

It also struck a chord amongst people from outside medicine who happened to come across it. Perhaps that was populism as well? One of them, for example, wrote from a ballet school in Switzerland to thank me for it, saying it was ‘just the same for them’. Quite recently a farmer in the North of England emailed me out of the blue to say the same.

So, this ‘paradox of progress’ that I tried to analyse in the context of NHS general practice, seemed to pervade more generally. Throughout contemporary society there seemed to be a perception that making things better was making them worse.

Perhaps my own sense of impotence in the face of the terrible authority of our increasingly systematised world was lurking somewhere in the background to my supposed flash of inspiration into the mystery of Donald Trump?

Perhaps it was like this: Many of us feel trapped by the inescapable Authority of Logic and Reason which underlies Progress ‒ what Trump did, which accounts for his astonishing immunity from censure by half of a vast and superbly educated nation, was simply to throw Logic and Reason out of the window.

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
   Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
   “They are merely conventional signs!

Extract from The Hunting of the Snark Lewis Carrol 1832-98

And can’t you just see the attraction! What do you do when some clever clogs ‘fact-checker’ keeps some tedious count and says your hero has just passed 20,000 lies on the public record? You say, ‘I don’t believe they were lies – that’s just another opinion, there are alternative facts which say the opposite.’    On with the party!

Just the same with the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Just the same with Covid-19 when it manifestly didn’t ‘vanish like magic’. Just the same with the ‘hoax’ of climate change. Just the same with dozens of wild claims over the last four surreal years.

But Trump’s truly radical innovation, I think I now see, is to take things one stage beyond this: He says ‘what the heck do numbers matter ‒ they are just numbers ‒ they are ‘merely conventional signs’. What is this stuff called ‘truth’ which you keep throwing at me? What is this thing called ‘reason’? It is time to cast ourselves free from the shackles of these outdated concepts which have enslaved us for so long! Time to see this monster ‘science’ for what it is –a conspiracy against our heritage of freedom, which preachifies of nothing but encumbrances to our rights to frontier lives, to the drilling of oilwells, to the driving of giant cars, to the building of private armouries of guns. Americans were born free. Born to think freely, like birds up in the air. Yet everywhere their consciences have been chained by this foul imposter ‘evidence’! 

And once a leader convinces people that their chains are mere illusion, and gives them permission to ignore such outmoded constraints, to think without the shackles of reason, and to believe everything they want to believe is true, the people are wildly grateful. Wey hey, let the good times roll! It is the coming of a new Messiah.

Of course such a leader can do no wrong, for in this new New World, wrong is meaningless and has nothing to do with the case.

Perhaps it is time to return to the little horse, and leave further consideration of this for another day…

‘I’ve always had my doubts about you lot’

On with the celebration

It is of course deeply worrying that so many Americans voted to give Donald Trump another four years – after everything they know he is, and everything they know he has done. We wonder what can possibly have got into them.

But I think there is a dark side of human nature that is there, to greater or lesser extent, in all of us, and right-wing political messaging plays to that side and presses that hidden button with perennial effect.

It occurred to me years ago that this explained the appeal of Margaret Thatcher in this country – she allowed people to feel good about their natural greed – she gave them permission, in that penetrating and convincing voice of hers, fixing them with that piercing eye, to be selfish. They breathed a huge sigh of relief, and they were incredibly grateful to her as she let them release the long held brakes of conscience.

President Trump, on top of this, and in an even louder and more dominating voice, has given people permission to ignore science, to dismiss informed and expert opinion, even to question truth itself. He has allowed them to feel good about waving their guns and being irresponsible. He tells them all this will Make America Great Again, and they shout the glad tidings to the rooftops together.

The support of many who voted for Trump was absolute, and they really did believe in him whatever he said and whatever he did. They had a devotion which was effectively religious in its intensity. As he famously boasted, in their eyes he could do no wrong.

But others must have voted for him reluctantly, more fearful of the alternative. Such fears were doubtless boosted by biased media coverage and by micro-targeted misinformation conveyed by the unbridled wild horses of social media.

But Trump did, for once, say something close to the truth when he said he had the good fortune to be opposed by the weakest candidate in presidential election history. Joe Biden’s age, making him potentially the oldest President ever, his low profile during the Covid-blighted campaign, his perceived lack of mask-shrugging machismo (entirely contrary to his record, of course) and his gentle, reasonable style, must have raised doubts which were easy to fan.

And, although for understandable reasons it has been little remarked, his running mate must have been a worry too. Many welcomed the choice of Kamala Harris with jubilation as a historic landmark. But others, knowing his age meant there was a more than usual chance of him not surviving for the full four years, clearly saw her as a person who might at any time become their President. And for some, even among those of relatively liberal convictions, a President who was young, who was a woman, and who was a woman of colour, all at the same time, must have been just a little bit too much revolution to contemplate all at once. And it can hardly have been as widely known in the USA as elsewhere that the world leaders who have shown the wisest, most mature, and most effective premierships during the Covid pandemic have all been women.

So, I think there are good reasons for long term optimism, on top of our short-term relief and glorious celebration for Joe Biden’s victory.

First I think Joe Biden’s success, by whatever margin the final tally reveals, is of far greater significance than that mere figure. Trump had a great deal going for him, and he still lost. Only the third serving President in recent history to fail re-election, this was a crushing defeat for everything he stood for. That is good news indeed for the world.

And second, there is the fact that, given the right kind of leadership, which Joe Biden by his record and by his dignified and statesmanlike behaviour in victory, shows every sign of giving, that better side of human nature can be brought to the fore once again. Not only in individuals, but in the psyche of the nation as a whole. And by example, perhaps the world.

It is even possible, as Americans look back on the extraordinary events of the last four years with the cool light of retrospect, and scales fall from eyes to right and left, the presidency which is now ending will be seen as a terrible warning, and people will wonder what might have been the consequence if it had gone on, and shudder at how easily that might have happened.

But now, the cloud of four years has lifted, let us enjoy our celebration.

A grain or two of truth

W.S.Gilbert put a lot of himself into Jack Point, the tragic jester in The Yeomen of the Guard – the nearest thing to serious opera he and Sullivan wrote together.

Yeomen of the Guard 2004 me as Jack Point

I was lucky enough to play Jack Point myself, one of a number of roles I had over the years with our small town’s amateur operatic society. Alton Op & Dram – AODS for short.

Naturally, people see Gilbert first and foremost as a jester – his wit and brilliance with rhyme and meter have rarely if ever been equalled.

But I remember being aware as I played this role that there was another side to Gilbert, that he also wanted to say serious things about human nature, about society, about scandals in high places. Which is exactly what he is saying, through his character Jack Point in this great song that I – a recently retired doctor in the town, no less – had the joy of singing:

Winnow all my folly, folly, folly and you’ll find
a grain or two of truth among the chaff

Gilbert’s librettos were full of truths, surely one of the reasons why so many amateur companies did little but ‘G&S’, and in some cases nothing but G&S, for generations.

Here, for example, is one of my favourites: Private Willis (no relation) is on sentry duty outside the House of Lord’s at the opening of Act II of Iolanthe, and he tells us:

I am an intellectual chap and think of things that will astonish you“.

Like this one:

That every boy and every gal That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal Or else a little Conservative !“.

Surely that is an enduring, and rather depressing, truth. That people seem to be born pre-stamped with an indelible political polarisation. Just as true today as it was at end of the 19th Century – it’s hard to think of a better response than Sgt. Willis’s baleful “Fal, lal, la !“.

It is well known that Gilbert’s ‘grains of truth’, aimed at the highest places in society, made him unpopular with the establishment. Thus we have his splendidly-named Lord Mountararat in Iolanthe, recounting without apparent irony the glories of British history:

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte, As every child can tell,
The House of Peers, throughout the war, Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well.

That is supposed to be why, in spite of his peerless verse being at least as important as Sullivan’s music in the phenomenal success of their collaboration, Gilbert was never knighted.

You may say that he asked for it. Time and again he depicted his highly-placed characters as figures of ridicule. The Major General in The Pirates of Penzance is so ‘modern’ and educated that, although he can ‘write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform‘ he actually has no idea ‘what progress has been made in modern gunnery‘, and no more of ‘tactics than a novice in a nunnery‘.

In HMS Pinafore Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, advises anyone wishing to follow him and become ‘ruler of the Queen’s Navee‘, to “stick close to your desks, and never go to sea“, just as he had done. This was a jibe at the notoriously land-lubber Admiral of The Fleet of the day. But as today we see political cronies devoid of appropriate experience being appointed to senior defence and intelligence positions on both sides of the Atlantic, Gilbert’s jesting once again speaks of something timeless about the human situation.

Iolanthe 1998 – Lord Chancellor

One final example: the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, another part I once played (Think Nightmare Song – I cherish the memory of managing the dress rehearsal and all six performances without a single slip), sings a long list of naughty things that (other) judges get up to, which he has promised himself he will never, ever do. For example:

My learned profession I’ll never disgrace
By taking a fee with a grin on my face
When I haven’t been there to attend to the case
(Said I to myself – said I !)

But it wasn’t just senior figures he lampooned, he also directed his barbs at contemporary trends. The whole of The Mikado is a spoof on the then prevailing fashion to admire all things Japanese. The comic names of the characters – Pooh Bah, Pish Tush (noble lords) and Yum Yum, Nanki Pooh (the love-lorn central couple) – were among many aspects which would today be regarded as diplomatically suspect, to put it mildly.

Another hot topic at the time was Darwin’s Origin of Species. So Gilbert had his go at the explosive new suggestion that mankind had descended from the apes. In Princess Ida he gives Lady Psyche a song in which she tells the tale of an ape’s attempt to win the love of a certain ‘Lady fair, of lineage high‘. The courtship was not a success:

He bought white ties, and he bought dress suits,
And he crammed his feet into bright tight boots –
And to start in life on a brand-new plan,
He christened himself Darwinian Man !
But it would not do,
The scheme fell through –
For the Maiden fair, whom the monkey craved,
Was a radiant being,
With a brain far-seeing –
While Darwinian Man, though well-behaved,
At best is only a monkey shaved !

Another contemporary trend was aestheticism, and specifically the cult of Oscar Wilde. In a scarcely disguised parody, he has Bunthorne in Patience – revealing in confidence to the audience – ‘am I alone, and unobserved? – I am‘ – the shocking truth that his professed æstheticism is merely ‘affectation, born of a morbid love of admiration‘:

Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high æsthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediæval hand.

And every one will say,
As you walk your flowery way,
“If he’s content with a vegetable love which would certainly not suit me,
Why, what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!”

I will finish with my own last G&S role – The Pirate King in AODS’ 2009 production of The Pirates of Penzance.

Pirates of Penzance 2009 Pirate King

Here we have Gilbert once again pointing out the essential amorality of establishment norms.

Frederick the apprentice pirate has reached his age of maturity and is about to return to the respectable world, where he will feel obliged to seek the extermination of his beloved former companions. He urges the King – me in this case – to render such unpleasantness unnecessary by accompanying him back to civilisation.

No, Frederick,” I reply, ” it cannot be. I don’t think much of our profession, but, contrasted with respectability ‘banking for that matter’ (topical ad lib this – for early 2009) it is comparatively honest

The second verse carries on in the same vein:

When I sally forth to seek my prey
I help myself in a royal way.
I sink a few more ships, it’s true,
Than a well-bred monarch ought to do;
But many a king on a first-class throne,
If he wants to call his crown his own,
Must manage somehow to get through
More dirty work than ever I do,

Here we have another ‘grain or two of truth among the chaff.’. The idea that people in low places – even actual pirates – are more honest than people on high has powerful resonances today. Knowing life in this small town as well as I do after my career here as a family doctor, I see absolute honour amongst small people almost every day.

Gilbert the tragic jester puts this advice into the mouth of his alter ago Jack Point:

He who’d make his fellow, fellow, fellow creatures wise,
Should always gild the philosophic pill.

There was so much more than mere comedy in this verse, and in these extraordinary roles. Which is what makes Gilbert great, and for me what made it such a privilege to perform them.

Why I am not ‘moving on’ from the Cummings affair

This is based on a letter I sent yesterday to my MP, who is a Conservative back-bencher and former Minister.

I cannot express how profoundly worried I am by the fact that Dominic Cummings is not only still in post, but still wielding extraordinary power in Westminster. I want to know what on earth this means. And I want to know what hold this deeply-sinister man had over the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, the Minister of Health, and even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that led them to trash their moral authority, and in the case of the Attorney General her clear duty under the Separation of Powers, by making public statements on the record in defence of what was so obviously indefensible behaviour.

They tried to take us all for fools, but it did not work because we are not fools. The resulting loss of the government’s moral authority, and its abject failure to punish Cummings’ gross irresponsibility, has been the cause, not only of further national humiliation in the eyes of the world, but of an unknowable number, possibly in the tens of thousands, of coronavirus deaths which could otherwise have been avoided.

‘Move on, nothing to see here’

I know the Prime Minister wants us to ‘move on’. I know he has declared the Cummings affair ‘closed’. But that is the trouble with throwing away your moral authority – you lose the right to respect for such appeals. If it had been me that had behaved as Johnson and the others have behaved, I would in addition have lost the right to something even more precious, something beyond price, my self-respect.

But in my small life, and in the small lives of my father, and of my closest friends, that reputation for honour, for integrity, has not been thrown away. And nor has that self-respect. And that is why we do not ‘move on’. And that is why the Cummings affair is not ‘closed’.

It simply beggars belief that with our proud history of scientific, medical and governmental excellence, the UK’s, and specifically England’s, response to the coronavirus pandemic has been one of the worst, or even by some measures the worst, in the entire world.

Mr Johnson has shown himself incapable of the slightest shame or apology for his dreadful performance. But as an intensely patriotic citizen, I personally feel a deep sense of humiliation for my country. While Johnson obviously thinks apology is a sign of weakness, people worthy of admiration see it as a strength. This government has brought shame on us all and all I could say to my own MP, who had been Minister of Education under Mrs May but escaped reappointment by opposing Johnson, was to congratulate him on his good fortune in not being part of it. The current attempt to shift blame onto senior civil servants just underlines the sub-Trumpian rottenness of these third-rate people, whose only qualification for office was their unswerving commitment to the imbecile cause of Brexit.

Which brings me to my explanation for the extraordinary immunity of Cummings. There is only one issue which is sufficiently massive to explain the bizarre dominion of this ‘unelected bureaucrat’ (to use one of the Brexiters’ favourite phrases). Having been the Director of the Vote Leave campaign, he has chapter and verse on aspects of the 2016 referendum which render its result invalid and he has threatened to spill the beans if he is sacked. That would cut the ground from under the government’s sole uniting cause and place them in a wholly untenable position. Avoiding that is more important to them than anything else. Even the health of the nation and its international reputation.

New World

Many of us are finding the simplified life enforced by this strange, strange coronavirus lock-down to be providing us with an opportunity to do things like sorting out records of the past. I have been looking at an album of my own childhood photographs which is bringing back memories of what is probably the most dramatic dislocation of my entire life.

I had my eleventh birthday in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And in the middle of a change in my life so great that the new world I was about to enter would not seem to have the slightest connection with the one I was leaving behind.

Looking back some sixty five years later, I remember most vividly that feeling of disconnection, together with a pervading sense of unreality – a weird feeling that this tremendous thing wasn’t really happening.

Read more…

Protecting the River Wey in Alton

written by Glen Skelton and Jenny Griffiths

A group of 14 volunteers from Alton & Villages Local Action for Nature (part of Alton Climate Action & Network – ACAN) is working with Glen Skelton, the Wetland Landscapes Officer from Surrey Wildlife Trust, to protect and improve the health of the River Wey in Alton.

River volunteers

Glen has trained the volunteers in how to check for pollution incidents and get them investigated. Through Riverfly surveys, they will also track changes in the numbers of riverflies in the river, such as mayfly and caddisfly larvae and freshwater shrimp. They can then help to restore the river in those areas with low numbers of these insects, the areas that need the most urgent help.

Celebrating our river – a chalk stream

The River Wey has only two sources – we are fortunate that one is in Alton. The Wey runs from Alton all the way to the Thames at Weybridge. The North Wey between Alton and Farnham is the only part of the River Wey that is a chalk stream. Chalk streams are so important – there are only about 200 in the world, and 85% of them are in the southern half of England. They are one of Earth’s rarest habitats. Chalk streams are full of gin-clear alkaline-rich water which comes from springs in the chalk aquifer – water stored underground, with a stable temperature all year round. The river bed is gravel or chalk with shallow banks and an abundance of aquatic plants.

‘Gin-clear’ water

Their headwaters dry up in warmer months (known as a “winterbourne”).

Pressures and problems

Unfortunately all is not well with Alton’s river. Alton is a built-up area and this causes pollution of the river from sewage, road run-off and even dishwashers connected up to the wrong drain. Pollutants bring unwanted nutrients into the river causing algal blooms, which starve the river of oxygen and kill fish and insect life.

On the outskirts of the town, soil run-off from fields gets into the river after heavy rain and flooding, often travelling down roads. The sediment covers the river bed gravels, smothering aquatic plants and invertebrates. Sediment also transports pesticides and fertilizers again causing suffocating algal blooms. The headwater streams that feed into the main river, such as the Caker stream, are important spawning sites for migratory fish such as the brown trout. The eggs need lots of oxygen, but get smothered by the sediment. The fields at the top of Brick Kiln Lane have been releasing large amounts of sediment into the river during this winter’s rains turning it brown and smothering the gravel.

Soil running off from fields and down Brick Kiln Lane…

The impact of this could clearly be seen at Flood Meadows

…and into the source of the river Wey half a mile away.

We need to work with landowners to keep soil on their fields, encouraging the use of herb- rich field edges to trap soil run off or planting crops which hold the soil together in the winter months.

Kings Pond

Kings Pond, Alton

Kings Pond collects all of the sediment coming downstream and is slowly filling up. Also the large amount of food thrown in to feed the water fowl creates a nutrient-rich soup which damages the river. This has been picked up in Riverfly surveys which have shown low numbers of invertebrates in the river downstream of the pond. In an ideal world we would find a way to bypass the river around Kings Pond, allowing plant and invertebrate species downstream to bounce back.

Climate Change

Headwater streams are the first to be affected by climate change. As our world gets warmer, springs are drying up earlier each year. Ancient populations of brown trout

An ‘important’ brown trout

that have been isolated in headwaters for millennia are starting to get into trouble as flows decrease and waters warm up. These trout are so important for helping to renew trout populations reduced by pollution downstream.

Re-naturalising the river

The river in Alton has been straightened in many places. The uniform channels lack variation in flows and deeper water crucial to support a range of different species, and they offer little refuge for fish species to escape predators. Overwide channels also drop sediment during low flows. But we can help. Creating a more sinuous channel through the use of berms (barriers) can help to speed up flows, cleaning the gravels and helping aquatic plants to re-establish, supporting fish and invertebrate life. The Wildlife Trust and volunteers have already re- naturalised the river in this way at both the Lamports and Flood Meadows. AVLAN is open to all and welcomes new volunteers at any time. Get in touch through the ACAN website www.altonclimatenetwork.org.uk or email altonclimatenetwork@gmail.com , or contact us through AVLAN’s Facebook page.

Posted here on behalf of the Riverfly partnership.

ACAN – making a difference.

One year ago Alton Climate Action & Network did not exist. This post is an account of how much has been achieved since then – of our ambitious plans for the future – and of how much we believe there must be a future. (It also explains why I haven’t written much else here recently.)

It’s not that climate-change awareness wasn’t already alive in our town. Following our long-established town Greening campaign and our 2015 rally in support of that November’s COP21 Paris Climate Talks, Energy Alton last March organised a door-to-door survey of popular attitudes to climate change. This demonstrated widespread concern and willingness to make changes (albeit small ones, and largely focusing on single-use plastic).

The same month The Alton Society, Alton Local Food Initiative, and Energy Alton combined to show the powerful French film Demain (Tomorrow). This inspired those of us who saw it with the urgency of the need for action and showed just how much local initiatives can have far-reaching effects.

So, a small action group formed and began to sign up supporters, to set up a database of individual and group contacts, and to establish a public profile. My wife was a member of this core group and I became involved, not just because of my obvious sympathy, but because I knew how to set up things like email accounts, altonclimatenetwork@gmail.com and social media accounts, for which we used the handle @altonclimate on Facebook and Twitter.

I was also asked to use my experience with a Desk Top Publishing program to try out some designs for a logo. After playing around with various ideas I came up with this combination of font, colouring and background image that seemed, largely by happy chance, to work rather nicely.

Meanwhile, the core group set about building on the unprecedented impact on public consciousness that had been generated that Spring by the triple-whammy of peaceful Extinction Rebellion protests in London, the extraordinary Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, and the outspoken broadcast by David Attenborough. So the group began a Climate Awareness Stall at the Farmers’ Market in the High Street and appearances on our local Wey Valley Radio, both to continue monthly thereafter.

In June things really hotted up. We advertised the existence of the new group though an editorial for Round & About magazine, delivered free through every door in the area, and we paid for a multi-page ‘Green pull-out’ in the Town’s newspaper, The Alton Herald.

The banner I designed for the front page of the Alton Herald’s ‘Green pull-out’

And we ran a stall at the Town Council’s Community Fayre in the public gardens that month.

Open meeting flyer

But the big event was on the 17th with the Inaugural Open Meeting in the Alton Assembly Rooms. Our Chair, Jenny Griffiths, did the welcome, before introducing a trio of deliberately short presentations. One speaker gave a frank but ultimately optimistic view of the crisis facing the natural world, a second spoke powerfully from the perspective of Extinction Rebellion activism, and our County Councillor, Andrew Joy, had come straight from a Cabinet meeting in Winchester with the incredibly-timely news that they had decided that very morning to recommend to the full Council the immediate declaration of a state of climate emergency.

Discussion Groups. For the rest of the meeting everyone moved to their favoured topic labels fixed to the walls, and then spread out into discussion groups, some of which overflowed onto the lawn around the war memorial outside.

  • Green Spaces
  • Food
  • Less Stuff
  • Transport
  • Energy
  • Building Standards
  • Lobbying
  • Information and Outreach

These are a couple of the pictures I took of the meeting, which I put together with some video and subsequently posted as a short movie sequence on our Facebook page. (I seem to be able to post it here as well!)

In July we attended meetings by both District Council and County Council to lobby in support of their respective, successful, proposals for the declaration of climate emergency.

For those who are strangers to the bizarre way we organise local government in England: a town of 16,000 population like Alton has its own Town Council, with limited power, which is subject to a District Council (East Hampshire – population 120,000 – based in Petersfield) which is subject to a County Council (Hampshire – population 1.4 million – based in Winchester) which is subject to National Government – population 56 million – based in London. Got that?

The AVLAN garden leaflet

In August the Green Spaces group, which had by then transmogrified into Alton & Villages Local Action for Nature (AVLAN), produced a popular wildlife-friendly gardening leaflet. Which I put together on my computer.

We had a friendly and productive meeting with our elected Councillors at District and County levels, getting to know each other and establishing relationships of mutual respect.

Our window sticker

And we produced a centre-spread feature for Round & About magazine which included a ‘Climate Aware Household‘ window sticker.

For this I used the old drone image of the Alton Climate Rally which we held in 2015 in support of that year’s crucial COP21 Paris Climate talks. Slightly cheaty to split it in half and do a semi-repeat for the top, but again, it seemed to work.

In September the Food Group began a course of cooking instruction classes, majoring in ecologically-sound ingredients.

Cook and Eat together ad.

The take-up was small, but there was great enthusiasm, and in retrospect the team reckoned that through secondary contacts they had reached around a hundred different people.

Next we met with Gilbert White Museum in Selborne to discuss joint approaches to GW300 – celebrating the 300th anniversary of the great naturalist’s birth.

The Lobbying and Campaigning group, under my all-too inadequate chairmanship, lobbied key figures in the District Council to take the ‘Golden opportunity to incorporate strong environmental standards in the redraft of the local plan (currently under way)’. But with little apparent effect. 1,000 new homes are being imposed on Alton and there isn’t a solar panel in sight! Still less a heat pump.

And on the 20th we organised a popular demonstration in the market square in support of the International Children’s Strike. The photo I took from the window of the Town Hall was used to dominate the front page of that week’s Alton Herald, which, significantly, carried a supportive editorial feature inside.

My photo – and with a strongly supportive editorial feature inside.

October was another active month, when another subgroup brought its plans for a Repair Cafe to fruition.

I discovered an unsuspected talent for mending clocks. No matter how simple the repair (the one above required nothing more than cleaning up corroded battery terminals) the owners were, as you can see, over the moon with gratitude. It it continues to be an immensely rewarding monthly experience.

Our display in the town library

Also in October we contributed to Energy Alton‘s Home Energy Day, and mounted a display in the Town library.

In November we contributed more editorial material to Round & About magazine and set up our stall at the splendid Eco Fair at Gilbert White’s House in Selborne. Then my wife’s efforts with the Town Council to promote tree planting met with partial success as we assembled on one cold morning to be photographed with the Town Mayor and a developer around a suitably-labelled sapling that the latter had been persuaded to plant. A small beginning, but a beginning.

And the main event of November was our second open meeting, when the group leaders took it in turns to describe their achievements so far, before we split up to discuss how best to move things on in each area. ACAN sponsored a special running of the community bus to bring people to the meeting from the edges of the town, but this did not actually make a big contribution to what was another excellent and enthusiastic turnout.

December saw another key development – the opening of the Community Cupboard in a scout hut which was conveniently situated towards the more needy end of the town. For each session volunteers picked up unsold food from cooperating supermarkets (most of them quickly came on board) and handed it out to anyone who wanted it. Just after Christmas one store gave a whole batch of turkeys which had arrived too late for them to sell. They made sure that one of these, plus some vegetables, went to a woman who had literally no other food in her house.

So began 2020. January saw our members being asked to advise schools on making their grounds more wildlife-friendly and on two specific school projects – a ‘design an eco-hero’ competition, and an ‘eco-conference’.

The first of our columns in the Alton Herald

January also saw our website altonclimatenetwork.org.uk go live and the first of our regular two-weekly columns appear in the Alton Herald.

At the same time we saw our influence on our MP apparently reflected in these words from his new year message in the same paper:

We should be positive as we face the great challenges of the 2020s. Top of the list is climate change…

Ongoing activities throughout this time included establishing and maintaining positive relationships with all three layers of local government and with our MP. We continuously engaged with the public and spread the word in every way we could. When the occasion arose we promoted rail travel and other aspects of sustainable living by example. Sometimes we got evidence that people who had initially reacted with hostility to this sort of thing did eventually become more thoughtful.

Working with the District Council’s Climate Change Champion Cllr. Ginny Boxall, we are working to improve the planting of green spaces around the town to beautify it and improve biodiversity.

Sadly, it was necessary on a number of occasions to write letters to the local paper challenging climate science deniers. After debating whether these people’s missives, often immensely long and grossly misleading, were best ignored, we came to the view that, as had happened in the case of the organised denial of the link between smoking and diseases in the last century, they must never be left unanswered. So, along with other responsible correspondents, we did answer them. And the perpetrators often bounced back with further and even longer examples. And so it continues.

To some extent we have written to national media, including the BBC, mainly to congratulate them on the increased climate crisis coverage which so marked the year.

Not the least important of our functions is to provide mutual support to one another as we engage on a daily basis with the frightening realities of the climate crisis, and confront the intractability of its denial.

The big development for the future is the Community Hub. Thanks to generous donors and grants from town councillors, we have been able to hire a vacant room in the Community Centre for the coming year. There we intend to develop a whole range of our activities from a permanent base, as well as introducing new ones. As I write we know we have secured sufficient funding to go ahead, and, once again, I have been busy using my wholly-amateur skills designing a logo and a flyer.

Here is the second draft that I have just sent out to everyone for approval.:

Mending things

I just mended my grand-daughter’s clarinet.

One of the notes wasn’t sounding and we played around until we’d tracked it down to one of the bottom key covers not closing snugly onto its sound-hole. (Apologies if this isn’t the correct nomenclature, I’m an amateur) When you looked closely you could see a fatal gap remaining under the pad when you pressed its key higher up the instrument. If you held the cover down directly with your finger (we discovered) the note came out perfectly. Lift it off again and it stopped. You could play a little trill like that. And we did.

The diagnosis was clear – the ‘close that cover’ message wasn’t making it through the intricate arrangement of shiny levers.

Part of the ‘complicated system of levers’

There was a concert imminent and phone calls were being made to try to find a spare clarinet. People were unhappy.


Now I have something of a reputation for this sort of thing which I cherish. Ever since, many years ago, when I did some trivial mending job – putting a wheel back on a toy car or something – and its little owner went toddling around the house holding it up to people and explaining ‘Gran’pa fix it‘.

Life doesn’t get much sweeter than that.


But now that treasured reputation was on the line – musical instruments being on a different level of delicacy and complexity from model cars. The best I could come up with was to suggest weakly that the pad might be dry (did that happen with clarinets?) perhaps we could make it plumper by moistening it with something? The young owner mentioned the special grease she used for the cork-lined joints of the instrument, and that sounded the sort of thing. I duly smeared some of that about with a wooden toothpick.

Absolutely useless.

So I put the instrument down while we attended to other things. Until stubborn curiosity drew me back for another look. And this time, as I pressed the keys idly up and down, I saw something new – one of the pivots seemed to be slightly sloppy. It looked, it seemed to me, like wear in that joint. Did that happen with clarinets? Were they supposed to be oiled?

Not sure, but it never had been.

Perhaps that was it?

One way or another, it was looking like a professional job.

But again I couldn’t resist one more look, and suddenly the penny dropped – that glorious eureka! moment: A little silver rod projecting from the mechanism, which I had noticed earlier and assumed was meant to be like that, was in fact the axle of the faulty key which had become detached from its socket. So the whole bearing wobbled slightly when you worked the key. I pressed on the end of the little rod with my finger and sure enough it started to move. Not the whole way in, but that was OK because I could now see a tiny screw slot across its end. All I needed, I announced to the company, was a suitable screwdriver to finish the job.

While my wife was searching in her handbag for the little glasses-repair kit she always carries (!) our young musician remembered that her equipment did indeed include a tiny screwdriver, for which she had never found a use. Exactly what I needed, this enabled me to screw the little axle securely home, completely abolishing the fatal floppiness.

And lo, the clarinet was sounded, and a torrent of melodious arpeggios poured into the grateful air.


Emboldened by a similar success with a drain plug in our bathroom sink (not to mention the hall clock triumph which I described in an earlier post) I recently volunteered my lack of expertise for the new Repair Café at our Community Centre.

Arriving with a few tools on the inaugural morning I was so conscious of the presumptuousness of what I was doing that I very nearly turned away and went back home.

But I did go in, and the first person in the queue happened to be a former patient of mine who greeted me like a old friend. And before I had time to demur, he and his broken item – his Father’s old mantelpiece clock – had been allotted to me.

The clock had three problems – it hadn’t run for 25 years, two pieces of wooden molding had become unglued from its case, and it needed a thorough clean.

Just the case left to mend.

I told him I had absolutely no expertise with clocks and he urged me to go ahead anyway – it was broken and there was nothing to lose. So I freed up the nuts that held the movement in place and eased it out.

Far from my comfort zone

It appeared to be fully wound, and as I gently prodded the balance wheel it oscillated a few times before slowing and stopping. It seemed to me that somewhere the mechanism was sticking. So I told him I did have a cheap and cheerful fix which had worked with a clock at home, and again he told me to go ahead.

So I gave it one judicious blast of WD40.

And that was that. It worked. I prodded the balance wheel again (this, I suspect, is again not a technical term) and this time it didn’t stop. I set the hands and it was still showing the right time when he left.

Dismantling the face, cleaning it, and replacing the fiddly-little screws that held it in place was the second and by far the longest job. And then it came to mending the wooden case.

It was obviously a simple gluing job, but I didn’t want to send him home with everything swathed in tape while it set. So I used a tip I once found on the web: we didn’t seem to have any PVA glue, so I mixed up some Araldite (epoxy resin) which we did have, and put a good blob of that in the middle of each piece of loose moulding. Then, and this is the clever bit, I put superglue in several different places on the same joints, and then pressed the pieces together until the superglue held. Handled gently, this would give time for the epoxy resin to develop its tremendous strength. Bingo!

Well. To say he was delighted is putting it very mildly. He wrote the most fulsome and heartwarming letter of appreciation anyone received that day.

Satisfied customer

Our Member of Parliament turned up at the next Repair Café the following month. Recognising me as a retired doctor and a persistent correspondent about issues very far removed from the mending of clocks he expressed surprise to see me there as one of the repairers.

But I pointed out that I had been a GP – a generalist – and that the mending of people in general practice had meant that doing things for the first time, using that amazing thing, educated common sense, had been the daily currency of that job. Or words to that effect. And that was why I had loved it so much.

I opened my book The Paradox of Progress with an anecdote about mending a dislocated kneecap (for the first and only time in my career) on a house call in the middle of one night, to make a similar point. It is here for anyone who is interested.

A lot on my mind

It just occurred to me to count up the number of poster/flyer projects for different events that I am currently designing, negotiating and getting printed. Four! Each for a different event I am currently involved in.

Until I made the effort to think of them all at once – and it was a real effort – I simply hadn’t realised there were that many. So that at least explained why I was getting the stages they were at – drafting – seeking comments & redrafting (repeat ad lib) – posting online – arranging printing – a bit muddled in my mind.

Read more…
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