Category Archives: Leadership

Facebook Friend or Stalker

I love Facebook, it’s free, it’s simple, it allows me to keep in touch with family and friends (both ‘real’ and virtual) wherever they are in the world. Yes, it gets a bit full of adverts occasionally – but I have found a cool Add-In called AdBlockPlus that will block most of them as well as allowing configuration of lots of other potentially irritating features of FB. FB don’t like it and keep trying to get in it’s way, but so far ABP have managed to keep ahead of the programmers employed by Mark Zuckerberg, so give it a go.

So I use FB regularly, it is always on in both my phone and my laptop, I post several times a day and read my ‘Friends’ posts at a similar frequency. I rarely think about the consequences of my posts, having already paid a lot of attention to who I accept as a Friend, who I include in the various audiences allowed to read my posts, what I post etc… I work on the basis that, despite my best efforts, everything I post will probably be available to anyone with sufficient expertise anyway and so avoid posting photos of various bits of genitalia or being gratuitously offensive.

But a recent conversation has got me thinking about those ‘Friends’, one of who has admitted to reading posts but never posting anything themselves. My first, and admittedly rather extreme, thoughts were that this practice is in the same territory as stalking and that I would UnFriend the individual. Clearly it is not stalking, but I’m still very uneasy about someone who sucks stuff in about others’ lives but never gives anything out. How would I respond if a physical friend spent their whole time listening to my conversations, looking at my photos without ever speaking themselves or showing off their own family snaps? How long would I keep accepting that person into my house or inviting them to the pub? Would I question their motives for the apparent friendship? Isn’t friendship about a mutual exchange of information?

One part of me is interested in what lies behind this behaviour, another part thinks that even if I knew, what would I do with that insight and would it make any difference to how I feel?

So what would YOU do in these circumstances and why? I would really value your insights into the situation – please comment below. I promise I will share all comments (unless you specifically ask me not to).

Bursting my bubble

As an experiment and in an attempt to get out of my bubble and seek to understand some of the thinking, I committed myself to reading some of the right-wing media supporting Trump – in particular Brietbart as it seems to be perceived as the source of much of the thinking and supportive comment.
I don’t know if I want to continue.
The bile, the hatred, the racism, the conspiracy theories (one today being that ‘they’ are letting in “TB ridden” refugees so they can infect the true Americans and in turn collapse the country) are overwhelming and horrendously alien to my own mindset and values. Some of it makes the Daily Mail read like pink fluffy liberalism.
I guess that the real worry is that the publishers and many (most?) of their readers truly believe all this stuff, much as the relaitvley uneducated (by which I mean ‘do not really understand how the media works’) left and right in this country believe their own mouthpieces. The Guardian is no more ‘correct’ than the Telegraph.
Having been involved with the media over the years I believe that I do understand how most channels will represent even the most innocent story in a way which suits their agenda. Just think of the headlines and stories written about HS2 (not that HS2 is necessarily an ‘innocent’ story, it’ just a very good example of my point):
  • “Billions invested in UK jobs”
  • “Billions to be wasted on foreign trains”
  • “Trade and industry helped by faster journey times”
  • “Thousands of homes blighted”
  • “Property values near route rocket”
  • “Hedgehogs tunnels to be built”
  • “Lesser Spotted Winklewort habitat under threat”

You buys your paper and you takes your choice. None of the above are ‘wrong’, just different views on the self-same scheme. But unless the promoters of a scheme seek to understand the positions of other stakeholders the chances of accommodation are almost zero.

So it is with Trump, Brexit etc – bile in response to their bile just generates and even stinkier swamp, hatred in response to hatred just sets parties at war with each other, denial of positions closes down any possibility of change. As Stephen Covey said in his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, ‘Seek first to understand’. And you can only ever understand if you are willing to risk bursting your own bubble and investigating those things with which you disagree.

Getting better all the time

I have been delighted to spend most of today in the highly pleasurable company of 25 committed people working in the opthalmology team at Leeds Teaching Hospital Trust. We were working on how to improve the patient experience in their department, with me volunteering my time to the process as a patient representative.

I was delighted to be involved, having been fairly vociferous about the weaknesses (whoops, improvement opportunities!) that I came across during my recent journey through their system (not opthalmology though). Not being one to just complain (and I nearly lodged a formal complaint at one time, before realising that complaining would only lead to effort being committed to investigating my complaint rather than actually making improvements), I offered my services as both a patient and someone who claims to know a fair bit about organisational change and process improvements. That offer was taken up and so far I have been filmed telling the story that is contained in previous blogs, I have helped redesign some customer letters. Now the real hard work starts.

LTHT is one of just five trusts in the country chosen to pilot an approach to process improvement imported from Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle. In turn they have adapted The Toyota Way – a highly structured approach to continuous improvement. LTHT are putting the patient at the forefront of their efforts in the belief that by getting this right, other things (including costs) will fall into place. That they are taking this philosophy to heart was evident by the warmth with which I was received and the attention that was paid to my observations and suggestions.  From my perspective, ‘patient first’ is a major shift and challenge in an industry that has traditionally been medic-led and where the stereotype (and all stereotypes are rooted in some reality) is of patients being called for the convenience of the staff not the patient.

A further aspect of the methodology (now branded “The Leeds Way”) is expressed as ‘Inch wide, mile deep’. Rather than looking widely across a process (‘mile wide’), they choose relatively tiny little areas (‘inch wide’) where improvements would have a big effect and study them in huge detail (‘mile deep’). So today we had a look at the core of the outpatients process (in their jargon – Pathway), searching for those few inches that needed deep study. We found them, and what was a delight was to find that the key areas of study related to minimising patient waiting times. The data was compelling – for new patients, they would typically spend around 90 minutes in the department, only 30 of which were actually spent with the specialists they had come to see; so of my 90 minutes in the department I spend a whole hour waiting for something to happen! Definitely room for improvement.

Lots of detailed investigations needed before further review by the team. However, my purpose here is not to delve into the detail of the improvement process so much as to praise the approach. Not only the approach of the improvement team and their methodology but perhaps even more the openness, creativity and enthusiasm of the range of people in the room (ranging from me and a volunteer through to General Managers, Clinical Directors and no less than the Deputy Chief Executive/Chief Nurse). Worthwhile and sustainable  improvements tend to be made by those directly involved in the processes and I feel that people left the room enthused, committed and somewhat more empowered than they arrived. Job well done.

Flood risk management – do we need changes?

FloodsEarlier today the (D)Efra Committee published its review of arrangements for flood risk management. I posted my initial response on Facebook and I stand by what I said there – essentially that the call for a new strategic authority and ‘floods czar’ is misguided. This piece explores more of the issues.

There is a real risk that the report is seen as either a knee-jerk response and/or politicking, yet there is some good (if not novel) stuff in there as well as at least one major flaw.

First the good. Well, that is the vast majority of the recommendations. It’s always good to have p(P)olitical backing, but let’s not get the idea that any of these recommendations are novel. Numbers 1-7, which are the obviously ‘operational’ ones are already developing here in Yorkshire and were long before this report was ever thought of.

The idea of a whole-catchment approach mirrors that of the Catchment Based Approach that Defra set up and funded for ‘environmental’ concerns and bringing those two approaches to catchment management closer together is one of my key aims.

Storing water and land management is a no-brainer, although I remain to be convinced that we should compensate farmers (especially) when the flood plain that they own gets flooded. After all every time it floods they get free fertiliser and soil and owning a flood plain surely means that you understand (Or should do) the issues. So many of our flood plains have been commandeered for other uses and I can get quite frustrated when people complain that their local flood plain floods.

Sustainable drainage systems – it’s taken at least 30 years since the water industry started funding research for SUDS to become mainstream. It’s about time that developers were compelled to install best practice SUDS whenever development of any size is undertaken. Every little bit helps. I believe that much greater emphasis now needs to be placed on retro-fitting SUDS. We have millions of hectares of hard standing in our cities and our roads and by adopting the ‘every little bit counts’ philosophy we can slowly but surely make inroads.

Maintenance and dredging – a sensible recommendation but I feel that insufficient emphasis was put on the very limited usefulness of dredging, especially after the then Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, effectively gave farmers and IDBs carte blanche to dredge in her knee-jerk reaction to the 2015 flooding.

Flood warnings and public understanding of risk – Whilst I have put these two recommendations together, the first is primarily technical and the second to do with communications. Nonetheless they are sides of a coin, without the former we cannot effectively deliver the latter. The key issue is one of active engagement at all times. The history of the EA, which I acknowledge is changing albeit very patchily, is one of ‘Decide, Announce, Defend’ and this has left a legacy of mistrust. They have also tended, IMHO, to consult rather than engage and only to do so transactionally and late, rather than recognising that collaboration demands ‘upstream’ (sorry, but I could not resist!) effort to build trust and understanding in order to be able to reap that when needed.

The rest of the recommendations are clearly relevant at a national strategic level and all except the last make absolute sense and should be acted upon as soon as possible. However, I take exception to the suggestion that a new governance model be created.

There are certainly multiple agencies involved in FRCM and whilst these all need to be involved, I fail to see how creating a single national FCRM body helps co-ordinate them. We already have such a body – the Environment Agency – and my personal and local intelligence suggest that they are doing an increasingly good job in trying circumstances (for which read ‘shortage of funds’). I might argue that a desire to address a democratic deficit has led to a proliferation of agencies with responsibilities, to the detriment of strategic planning. Only a cynic (moi?) would suggest that this also pushed spending and spending decisions out of the hand of national agencies and so allowing government to have an arms-length relationship with these strategic challenges.

Finally, separating the ‘environment’ and ‘flooding’ arms of the EA risks fragmentation of addressing ‘watery’ issues. There is already a, fortunately closing, gap between the two arms of the EA and separating the functions can only make it even more difficult to identify and deliver the collaborative multiple benefits that are undoubtedly available when we work together.

A useful document that doesn’t add much in practice!

Memories…and emotions

aberfan_1_smI was just watching a BBC Breakfast item about Aberfan. Now if that name means nothing to you then you are probably less that 60 years old. For those of us old enough to remember, it was probably one of those iconic moments in your history that you remember more vividly than most. It certainly is for me.

The item was about the 50th anniversary of the disaster  which was a catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip in the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, on 21 October 1966, which killed 116 children and 28 adults. The tip slid down the slope right into an through the primary school and the film footage (very little outside broadcast in those days) showed hopeful but unexpectant men digging and women waiting to hear of the fate of their loved ones. All those mothers waiting outside the school still bring tears to my eyes, as did watching the item and the old footage.

I was intrigued by the unavoidable tears prompted by the memory and in turn the link between emotion and memories. It’s well-known that linking emotion to events helps consolidate them in long-term memory and enable retrieval. (For once, I am going to give a Wikipedia link, because it has an excellent summary of the field). This works in all directions – positive events, traumatic episodes – and one of the ways we work with clients using NLP techniques is to dissociate a traumatic memory from the emotion, thus helping people overcome phobias and to move on from ‘difficult’ situations.

Likewise the idea that it is ‘better’ to give experiences than things, on the basis that a positive experience is more likely to be remembered than some bit of plastic tat that ends up forgotten in the back of the garage.

So how do you create, for yourself or others, events that have some positive emotional content? Fill that memory bank with positives.

What did we not hear?

earsTwo blog posts in one day – something interesting must have happened!

Amidst all the gloating, rage, disappointment about the referendum result, my great friend James Traeger reminded me, by posting this blog, that I am a change leadership professional. So here is a short piece reflecting on the outcome from that perspective.

There is a view that many of those voting for Brexit were essentially casting a protest vote. Protest at austerity, protest at uncontrolled immigration, protest at who knows what… What they are saying is that they have not been heard. As a good change professional (well, I think so anyway!) I need to recognise and be able to work with the difference between hearing someone and that person being heard; the difference between my ears listening to the words and my heart and brain listening for the meaning. I need to seek out and learn from the naysayers and the resistors, for sooner or later their grievances will surface and get in the way of progress. Listen to them properly, explore with them what lies behind their position, for only then can we start to change their minds.

We are also repeatedly told that effective change relies on a positive vision of the future. It is not enough to say what is wrong, we need some idea of what might constitute right. Yet here we are with a campaign about getting Britain out of the EU. Where is the compelling narrative of the future? Where is the roadmap for change? Where are the guiding coalition, the leaders? And where were the leaders who could understand and articulate the interlinked, systemic, nature of the argument (shame it wasn’t dialogue)?

Effective change leaders acknowledge the past, picking out and retaining the good whilst changing the bad. Not here, the baby risks being thrown out with the bathwater.

Finally, and for me this is almost above all else, effective change leaders are honest and humble. They don’t make promises and then change their minds; they don’t pursue their own agenda at the expense of the greater good; they recognise where things have gone  bit dodgy and set about repairing the damage…

Oh, for politicians of any hue who have studied and practised effective change leadership!

All change at Little England

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EU - inoroutWaking up at 0500 my wife whispered in my ear that it looks as if the majority have voted to leave the EU. I can hardly find the words to express the whirl of thoughts and emotions running through my body at a decision that leaves me wondering what our country has come to that we have a majority of voters who believe we can return to greatness by separating ourselves from one of the largest trading and social blocks in the world. I have been disappointed to be on the losing side of general elections, but never as disappointed as this.

The pound is already lower than for 30 years and I hate to think what will happen when the stock exchange opens. The years of instability we now face while trying to disentangle ourselves from the EU and negotiate alternative trade deals around the world. will hardly encourage inward investment (not that the Little Englanders will want that, after all those foreign Johnnies had better get their nose out of our business) and will likely lead to yet more of the bloody awful austerity that was not caused by the EU but by the greedy banking classes. Egocentrism wins.
I am sad that so many people think that closing our borders to people who make a net contribution to the economy is a good thing and just hope that those countries in which so many of our friends and relatives now live are not so small-minded and will allow them to continue living there. Those emigrants relying on incomes based in sterling have just had their incomes cut by 10% overnight, I doubt that they will thank you for that.

Isolationism has never been a good thing.

I’m trying to fight off my anger at this ridiculous decision, not because I am not angry but because it was anger that led to it. Unfortunately that anger got directed at the traditional enemy – ‘the other’ – rather than the real source of it, our own government and banking classes. For the first time in my life I now start to wonder whether there is a way to bypass a democratic decision. Shall we now pull out of TTIP, NATO etc because they cost us money – but recall that the money will not be spent on the NHS or roads it will be spent propping the pound up in order to make trade with our ex-friends affordable to them.

A sad, sad day and one which really makes me wonder about continuing to live in such a self-centred, little-minded country – but of course why would any other Europen country now want me there either?

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The EU debate – worst of two worlds?

UnlikeEU - inorout,I suspect, many others, I will be voting in the EU referendum. Moreover, I have a predisposition to vote to stay in based as much on my own biases and prejudices as any hard data. Therein lies the biggest challenge that some of us face. I would like to be able to decide on a rational basis, upon indisputable facts about the various issues at play in what could be a defining decision on the future of our nation. But it’s a political arena and it’s hard to know what’s fact and what’s propaganda. It’s increasingly irritating that the debate (I would rather it was dialogue) is revolving around competing fears of what will happen if we stay/leave.

It is, of course, all speculation for nobody can actually know the consequences of the decision – especially when the consequences rest in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats of dozens of other countries around the world, to say nothing of the multinationals and bankers.

Where to go for this elusive ‘objective truth’? Well, accepting that there is no such thing leaves a hole which can only be filled with whatever sources are available. Newspapers? Each has their own agenda. Broadcast media? Some certainly seem to have an agenda, but what about the good old BBC which is required to be balanced? Well balance seems to consist of allowing equal airtime for opposing views and an attempt to provide independent analysis, but to me they are primarily a vehicle for lobbyists to air their views and I’m getting less and less interested in hearing what Dave or Boris want to tell me, especially when the tone of the debate gets more and more aerated.

So perhaps we can turn to that treasure trove of knowledge the internet? Same story here, what is ‘truth’ and what is propaganda? What about friends – either the real ones or those who simply carry that label on Facebook? Well one who meets both of those descriptions, and whose intellect I have long been impressed with, started posting some apparently objective analysis. But how do I decide it is objective? Academic references and seemingly independent research institutions and think-tanks are subsequently picked apart by others. How do I know they are independent? I don’t, they just somehow seem to be unconnected with the usual sources, but I know no more about their funders that the next man.

I guess where I am going is that, apart from the philosophical position, there is no ‘objective truth. All that exists is a series of more or less biased positions and/or data promoted by individuals some of whom clearly have personal agendas.

How then, do I decide which way to vote? Some (Boris’ camp?) seem to believe that we (the country, or perhaps big business) would be better off freed from the strictures of the EU bureaucracy who they suggest inhibit our ability to make our own decisions about how to live or whether it is OK to sell undersized bananas. One might argue (I do) that they believe in the power of free markets. Others (Cameron?) might want out because they recognise the looming United States of Europe and want to continue believing in a Great Britain that died with the Empire a generation ago. It does seem to me that the long-term vision of the founders of the EU was either hidden from the country when we first voted ‘In’ or our politicians missed it at the time.

Where are the ‘big beasts’ speaking on behalf of the concept of a united Europe? One that is not a United States but which shares enough values and beliefs to keep us from attacking each other for another 50 years; one that values solidarity and communality; one that enables free trade across one of the biggest trading blocks in the world; that facilitates free movement of people across borders that are but temporary artefacts created by politicians?

So in the end I guess I will vote based partly on my preference for the latter philosophy and partly on a belief that the uncertainty caused by exit will be more detrimental than the current dysfunction. For the system certainly needs change and maybe a narrow margin of stayers might give Dave et al a renewed mandate for tougher renegotiation of the way the institutions work.

Discuss. Please.

Connecting the dots – or not!

Connecting the dotsFrom the very beginning of my (ongoing) journey, I have felt that nobody was ‘connecting the dots’. I mentioned in earlier posts the feeling that I was being seen as a sequence/collection of symptoms rather than a whole entity presenting with a single syndrome. Well, recent experiences reinforce that feeling.

Loyal readers will recall that my operation, originally scheduled for 8th April was postponed (for very understandable and acceptable reasons) and has now been rescheduled for 24th June. On the day, and during a conversation with ‘my’ surgeon (actually one of them as I understand there may be as many as three finally involved!) we agreed the new date and he said “I will dictate a letter this afternoon confirming the date”. So the letter arrived on 25th (?) April. It was a helpful and informative letter, but with header details of ‘Dictated 08 Apr  … Typed 21 Apr’. Does it really take nearly 2 weeks to get a letter typed up?!

Anyway, it didn’t actually matter – at least in terms of the medical process – although I had been left wondering for over a week about whether or not the situation might have changed.

Next, in early May, I get a letter inviting me to an Endocrinology Outpatient appointment on 28th June. If you are observant you may have noticed that this is only four days after the surgery, for which I expect to be in hospital for at least three days! Puzzled, I rang the Referral and Booking Service Cluster 5 as suggested. After the usual security clearance and explaining my puzzlement that I was being invited for an outpatients appointment on a day when I might conceivably actually be an inpatient, I was informed that this was an appointment that should have happened last December, being a routine follow-up 3-4 months after my initial appointment. Yes, you read it right, it should have happened 15 weeks ago! I hope the recording of the phone call shows that I was polite!

Clearly the booker (or whatever her job title is) was not going to be able to resolve the puzzle and credit to her for giving me the phone number of Dr Murray’s Secretary and transferring me there and then. I explained that I had been referred for surgery that had yet to happen and wondered if this was a post-surgery appointment. I remain unclear about what had actually happened, suffice it to say that she volunteered to cancel this appointment and send another out. All that after a 2-minute wait while I hear her very clearly explaining how to do something unrelated to my call to a colleague in her office.

So yet again we appear to have disconnected dots – the Endocrinology Team not being aware of, or not acting on, the information that my surgery had yet to happen. And what happened to the appointment that should have been arranged for December?

It’s got to the stage that first I laugh at it and then I get on sorting things out myself – I am left wondering what someone less stress-resilient and less organisationally-aware would do.

On a more positive note, I went along to spend an hour or so in front of the cameras for the Patient Experience Team last week. Having contacted them and offered my experience as both a patient and change leadership wallah, they have been working away seeking opportunities to use my experience to reinforce the case for and help them improve their administrative systems, most especially appointments. I am delighted to be able to help in any way I can, I suspect that others might have found this journey much more traumatic than I and I reinforced my key message that the admin processes are as important as the medical processes in the overall care of patients. After all, the letter is for many people their first contact with the hospital and it is the ongoing route through which long-term patients are kept informed of appointments etc. Organisations who rely on good customer service, and the NHS must surely be one of those:

  • have  easy and transparent ways for customers to contact them,
  • they respond quickly to any changes in either the patient’s or the organisation’s situation,
  • they explain very clearly what the customer can expect,
  • they find out what the customer wants and do their best to meet those wants,
  • they constantly check how their customers are.

Some way to go here, but to hear that they will be looking at Kaizen/Lean/Toyota methodologies (and that I will be involved) is reassuring and a future partnership with Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, who have radically improved their systems using these methodologies is encouraging. The journey will be challenging, tough and rewarding and I look forward to being part of it.

A trip back in time

DSC_0279I don’t know who Walter Elliot was, nor how old he was (maybe nobody did) when he died in a foreign field. This was the first name I noticed, perhaps because he came from West Yorkshire; others had no names, yet others no graves.

At the rising of the sun and in its going down, we shall remember them

I hope that someone here in West Yorkshire remembers him.

“How about we spend one of our sessions in Belgium exploring the World War 1 sites” was an innocent enough suggestion a couple of years ago. And it gained traction, and the plans slowly formed, and a decision was made that he Spring 2016 meeting of The Brookfield Group would be based in Ypres, Belgium.

Rail tickets were booked, minibus hired, accommodation sourced, schedule suggested and eventually on 13th April I set off for Winchester. By the time we got to Dover for an early afternoon ferry on Thursday 14th there were 11 of us; by the time we got back to Calais on 18th there were still 11 of us, but we were changed men.

I have posted before about my responses to visiting Auschwitz and reading that post in conjunction with this one could make sense.

I am not aware of any family connections to WW1 and much less interested in history generally than some of my colleagues in Brookfield, and I agreed to go on the basis that the trip would at least enable me to explore my ‘attitude’ in the light of hard experience of visiting the sites of some of the most prolonged and bloody battles. I am so pleased that I went and was abe to share the experience with a bunch of men who have come to know each other well and are able to support each other through thick and thin. Many of us needed that support.

This is not a travelogue, but perhaps listing some of the places we visited would help, so here goes (in no particular order) – The Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, the Commonwealth cemeteries at Tyne Cot, Poperinge, Croonaert, Dantzig Alley and others, The Menin Gate, two memorials to the Welsh contingent, Talbot House, Langermark German Cemetery, the Paschendale Museum, reconstructed trenches at Bayernwald. We saw and revered the resting places of hundreds of thousands of poor young men of so many nationalities; we wept; we laughed; we wondered about the existence of a ‘just war’; we debated (somewhat pointlessly, for who really knows how they will respond in extremis) how we might individually respond if the call came to fight for our country; we took photographs; we bought souvenirs; we left only footprints.

But I left more than footprints, part of MY heart now lies in those foreign fields. The part of my heart that cannot help but pour out in sympathy for those poor young men, those sons of mothers and prides of fathers, who had their lives so rudely torn from them in a conflict that so few of them probably understood. I find myself unable to agree with the mantra so often seen “They gave their lives…” NO THEY DID NOT! The lucky ones had their lives extinguished by a well-placed bullet or massive explosion – over in a flash; the unlucky ones were wounded with inadequate medical support whose job anyway was to get them fit enough to go back and be shot at once more, the even more unlucky spent hours/days in the cold wet trenches with their feet rotting perhaps wondering how much longer this war that would be over before Xmas was going to last before going home with what we now label PTSD but in those days was not recognised and go getting no support as they were unable or unwilling to talk about their horrific experiences; worst of all were those 306 men who were summarily court-martialled and shot at dawn for desertion or cowardice.

I can hardly call them ‘highlights’, perhaps a few more memorable moments:

Flags list major conflicts since WW1 finished.

Flags list major conflicts since WW1 finished.

The exit from The Flanders Field Museum in Ypres – there hangs a series of banners listing the major conflicts that have happened since the end of the war to end all wars. Tragic.

 

DSC_0296

The gardens at Talbot House in Poperinge. A haven for those able to spend time away from the lines – humanity in amongst inhuman carnage. Talbot House was behind the lines and Poperinge was never taken by the Germans. It was the origin of the humanitarian movement TocH, who still work supporting and bringing together disparate parts of society.

 

 

Tyne CotTyne Cot – the largest Commonwealth War Grave containing nearly 12,000 marked graves, over 8000 of which contain unidentified remains as well as names of over 34,000 British and New Zealand soldiers whose remains are still missing in the Ypres Salient.

Eternally watching over them

Eternally watching over them

Finally, Langermark, one of the few German cemeteries. The Germans repatriated most of their fallen. This moving sculpture watches over both named and  unidentified remains of tens of thousands of German fallen.

 

At times it seemed that the only way I could deal with the assault on my senses was to dissociate from what I was witnessing, yet to dissociate would weaken the impact. We now have a generation of politicians who like me have never faced the reality of war, dissociation enables them to send more young men to die in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and all of the many conflicts around the world. Is the ‘war’ against ISIS any more just than WW1? What view would a utilitarian take of war? Is the participative democracy that we believe in and send people to defend and impose really much better than a benevolent dictatorship? Would fewer people die and/or live at least acceptable lives has Saddam, Assad, ISIS etc been allowed to do what they were doing for longer? Conflict is generally ended by enemies sitting down talking to each other, should we be more prepared to spend longer talking before getting the guns out?  Unanswerable questions, but questions we should surely explore openly and often, let’s not allow a ‘war is the answer’ mindset to proliferate.

How do I feel now? A host of words come to mind, but I have yet to find a label for a complex set of emotions that includes anger (unwanted because anger only fuels disputes), sadness and disappointment that the lessons have yet to be learned and so many around the world still think that the way to resolve their differences with others is to send more young men to their graves, grief for those who suffered (some briefly and some for many years after the conflict was over), helplessness to prevent it happening again, pleased that I went on the trip, disconcerted that the prickliness that I often manage to control leaked out during those times when my internal editor was tired out.

If you get the chance to go on such a trip please take it – you are likely to learn about yourself as well as history.

ADDENDUM

I finally managed to capture these thoughts a couple of weeks after our trip:

I saw graves and names beyond count
Graves with no name and names with no grave
I heard the gentle hum of the traffic, the whispering of the wind in the trees, the gentle twittering of the birds
I tried to hear the grim sounds of battle, the cries of agony, the last whispers of millions of lives being extinguished
I felt it all and I felt nothing
The despair, the passion, the pain
The hundred years of separation and the lifetime of privilege
I cried and I cry now that lessons have to be learned anew by each generation
Young lives are too important to waste in pursuit of some ego or ideology
No more, no more
If only, if only…