Category Archives: Leadership

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…

poppies at Tower2In May this year I will be accompanying a group of friends visiting the scenes of some of World War 1’s battles in Belgium and Northern France. I have to admit to ambivalence about this trip because the history has never especially interested me and I do not feel as compelled as I was when having the chance to visit Auschwitz. In fact, that lack of imperative is why I agreed to go – to explore my own responses, or lack of, to one of the world’s most traumatic eras.

As part of the preparations, one of my friends has just revealed some personal history that is leading him to be ‘holding the German side’ when we visit France in April. I’m not going to share his words, but am happy to post my response.

Thanks for that my friend, some details of which I was not aware and which bring your situation to life. For me you raise an interesting point about what might be ‘nationality’.

If I have a ‘position’ on this, and I guess we all have even if it is implicit, then it is probably that of being human.

I don’t particularly feel as if I belong to any nation (or community of nations – EU), although when asked where I am from when I am abroad I usually say something like “Leeds, from the North of England”; that’s accurate as a description of where I currently live (I was actually born in Hull, so some would say that is where I ‘come from’ and I actually feel more like an ‘Ullite than a Bradfordian) and helpful if the questioner really wants to know the answer. Ultimately the labels we use to describe our places are transient and I’m happy to be a Yorkshireman, English, British, European, a citizen of the World…all of which are accurate.

As for the visit, I’m really pleased that we are recognising both sides of this conflict. It’s too easy to accept the victor’s account, believe it to be true and forget that there are other narratives. After all, the Milgram stuff demonstrated that in certain circumstances we might all do wicked things and I honestly do not know how I would have reacted as a 20 year old German given a ‘do or die’ imperative when faced with an instruction to do something horrendous. It’s easy to be ‘correct’ and propound humanitarian positions from the comfort of our relatively well-heeled safe armchairs but I suspect that in the het of battle things are different. Remember one of my beliefs – “we are all doing our best all the time” – and how it applies in the moment, in my particular circumstances. I get really upset when I hear about those young men who “gave their lives”; NOT THEY DIDN’T, THEY HAD THEIR LIVES RUDELY TORN FROM THEM, sent to often hopeless causes by politicians who sat comfortable in their bunkers calculating whether a particular loss of life/attrition rate/collateral damage was worth it. And it still happens. What’s worrying is that we now have a cohort of politicians, of all flavours, who (like me) have no direct experience of the horror of war and must surely have less of the inner abhorrence that their fathers and mothers had.

Recall that I have also raised the topic of ‘women in war’, without having been able to find anything much to commemorate their experiences – it’s a strangely male occupation!

Finally Calais. Another sad example of the consequences of abused power, ethnic cleansing, religious zealotry, whatever. I have written elsewhere recently that ‘we’ might feel and act very differently if it were our own homes and lives under attack, if there were millions of Brits living in the squalid conditions that so many migrants have to suffer, being so desperate that they choose to cross the North Sea in creaky boats, our children washing up dead on foreign shores… We all make our own choices about how to respond and although nobody has yet suggested it, I would love to find a way to make a contribution as we pass by those poor souls near Calais.

 

Behind the screen

Behind the curtainSo, what is going on behind this screen? Well, let me share something with you.

For a while this morning I thought I was watching a man die. Not a good feeling.

I was sitting quietly enjoying my coffee when an old man standing outside the shop with his wife (or maybe daughter) just keeled over and fell, head crashing to the floor. My instant reaction was “What should/could I do?” before realising that I was impotent. You see, I have no first aid training and beyond putting the man into the recovery position (which was not necessary as he happened to have fallen in exactly the right position) I could have done little except check if he had a pulse and, I guess, make some amateur attempts at CPR in the event that he didn’t have a pulse. Impotent.

Fortunately within seconds  a couple of passers by who it seemed to me knew what they were doing stopped and then 10-15 seconds later one of the security guards for the building turned up and started checking pulse etc. whilst one of the ladies who first stopped was ringing someone (presumably 999?).

Frustration turned to concern for the man. He was very grey and there was blood coming from his mouth. The first security man, eventually there were 4 or 5 moving on the gawpers, calmly checked his pulse and I saw a twitch of the old man’s mouth as he appeared to answer a question. The longer it went on, by now perhaps 2 or 3 minutes but who knows as we don’t put a stopwatch on these things do we, the more I could see the old man slowly yet clearly moving his mouth.

His wife, or was it daughter, was there and I finally found something to do. She was clearly shocked and I decided that a chair would be in order so I picked one up from the cafe, took it outside, a gentle touch on the shoulder, a gentle “I see you are trembling, perhaps you might like to sit down” and 5 seconds later she was sitting down. I had done what I could.

The medics arrived after about 5 minutes and maybe another 5 minutes passed before the screens that you see in the picture were wheeled around the scene and the man had some privacy while he was treated.

Some time later he was wheeled away on a stretcher, clearly alive and I hope not too seriously injured.

All in all it was as smooth a response as you might hope for (with the exception of the screens, which might have arrived earlier and maybe those who tended to his needs in those early minutes did actually save his life. Because I didn’t.

I am left reflecting on my own impotence in this situation.  What is the minimum that ‘one’ might hope the average man or woman in the street to be able to offer someone in these circumstances and do I have those skills. Should I train as a first aider on the offchance? Fortunately this was a crowded place and equally fortunately others appeared and did the necessary, but what if I was in the middle of nowhere and something similar happened?

 

Do protests matter?

worlds-most-pointless-protest-signsDo protests ever change anything?

I was listening to R4 yesterday about the forthcoming protest outside the Conservative Party conference and it left me wondering why they bother. I suspect that many people will feel better that they have got together with like-minded individuals and made their views known and that’s probably good.

However I wonder if anything substantive ever actually changes as a consequence? The Poll Tax, sorry “Community Charge”, might be cited as an example but there is loads of evidence that it was so unpopular that it would be abandoned anyway by whoever succeeded Thatcher. Years of CND protests and marches have left us with enough nuclear bombs to reduce the population of the earth to minus zero; the ‘Million Man March’ against Britain’s involvement in Iraq certainly did not achieve anything…

So, are marches nothing more than shows of solidarity that sooth the participants’ psyche (‘at least I did something’) or do they really influence future events/decisions?

Reflections on friendship

LoveAs I have mentioned elsewhere, I am almost overwhelmed by the outpourings of support and expressions of love that have come my way since disclosing my current pituitary challenge. I am immensely grateful for all of these and I find myself reflecting, as I would, on the processes happening here.

All of the things that have been said to me have been supportive, and some not only been wonderful but also somewhat unexpected. Unexpected not only in content but the fact that they have been said at all.

I am left wondering how often we fail to express our deepest feelings for others. Whether we keep that love, respect, appreciation, recognition, whatever ‘under our hat’ or whether we choose to express it. Are we perhaps more able/willing to write down our innermost thoughts? Do we take those thoughts and feelings for granted, always assuming that the other person somehow knows through some mysterious process how much they are valued?

Let’s not hold back. Let’s express our love for each other, our respect for someone’s ability, our recognition of someone’s contribution – whilst the emotion is hot rather than leaving it to cool down and lose its power.

So, whoever you are reading this, THANK YOU. It’s important to me that this blog is not just a piece of self-aggrandisment but also something that others find interesting for whatever their own reasons.

Migrants, refugees, hordes, people…

Refugees

Refugees

This is a thinkpiece, and perhaps inevitably something of an opinion piece as well, about the current challenges faced by people fleeing for whatever reason from the Middle East.

These people, for whatever other label we choose to apply to them they are all people – mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, neighbours, friends – have all chosen to travel thousands of miles, often in appalling circumstances and at risk to both lives and future financial capacity, to escape a regime that dehumanises them in so many ways. Ethnic cleansing, oppression of women, forced combat status, simply being in the wrong place when an oppressive (and yes I reaise that is MY values surfacing) regime decides to start shelling or gassing or raping and pillaging or abducting women/children/men – add your own reasons for wanting to escape ISIS/ISIL/DAISH. As an aside, why do so many politicians insist on using a label – DAISH or DA’ESH – that is known to be offensive? It would certainly piss me off if every time someone referred to me I was called “tosspot” and I would not be likely to engage with them on neutral terms – here is one explanation from The Deconstructed Globe:

In all of the Arabic countries, ISIS is referred to as DAISH, which is short for ‘Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq wa al-Sham’, Arabic for the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (Syria).  What makes the Arabic acronym interesting is that the Arabic word  ‘دعس‘ , or daish, which means to ‘tread under foot‘ or ‘crush‘.   I’ve been meaning to look this up for a while, and I’m glad I finally did.  The Arabic acronym is pejorative and clearly hostile, unlike the English word Isis, which is the name of a powerful Egyptian goddess.

But back to the people massing on the shores of Europe. One might argue how great it is that we have created a culture/economy that is so successful and, by and large, accommodating that people want to live here. Does it have to be a culture/economy that is restricted to those of us living here now? Let’s be honest, much of Europe’s success has been built on the Imperial past of the UK, France, Germany, Austria. An Imperial past that, to be very polite, ‘drew on’ the resources to be found in those far-flung lands where we managed to impose our will. We cannot deny our implicit connection to the oilfields of the Middle East, any more than we can dismiss our earlier pillaging of India, Western Africa, the Caribbean etc.

It was us that drew the lines on a map delineating most of the Middle East. Lines that crossed traditional tribal or other groupings, just as the lines dividing India from Pakistan led to discontent that remains today.

It was us that armed and supported regimes that turned tyrannical and now we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma about how to support whom in the mess that we helped create.

It is us who, if we believe the conflicts to be religious in catalysis, refuse to remember the death and destruction wielded in the name of Christianity. Crikey, if we think the Sunni/Shia division is baffling then how do we account for the Cathars driven to extinction by ethnic cleansing by a Pope who did not like their particular form of Catholicism.

But back to today’s people and ‘our’ response to the reality that so many hundreds of thousands see themselves living a better life in Europe. Can you imagine yourself so dissatisfied with what is happening where you live that you set off to walk thousands of miles across countries you have never visited, across desert with little water or food, carrying your life possessions on your back with your wife, children, mother, grandmother in your company. The when you get somewhere near your destination – Europe – you find it necessary to pay mmore than your life savings to an unscrupulous human trafficker who packs you so tight in an unseaworthy vessel that your mother slips overboard never to be seen again, your child dies of the crush in a locked below-decks compartment and your wife is raped in front of your eyes by those traffickers who you so hoped would lead you to a better life? Go on, imagine it. I have tears in my eyes as I just write these sentences. These people are HUMANS like you or I, with desires and dreams like you or I, but without the ability to make them happen.

You finally make it to your destination, only to find that instead of the dream you are living in the open air or under a plastic sheet with thousands of others who made it. You are treated as criminals by regimes who you believed were more compassionate than the one you escape. You are held in detention centres while some bureaucrat driven by Political will, decides whether HE thinks it was worth all your sacrifice to get here.

We were happy to accept, even encourage the inhabitants of many of our former colonies to come to our textile factories, our buses, our shipyards, our hospitals. We were even magnificent, albeit probably not magnificent enough, in helping thousands escape the Nazis. Yet here we are making it difficult, and more difficult by the day, for those who look up to us, who value our freedoms to share in them. How selfish. How uncaring that we pay for fences and razor wire to stop a few thousand desperate migrants/refugees/whatever coming over from France. How petty-minded that when Germany has accepted over 800,000 such people we are resisting a few tens of thousands. How ridiculous that we spend millions on arming and training and even bombing one or other regime in the Middle East while we refuse to help those fleeing from the carnage.

Let’s find a way out of this situation that treats these poor people as human beings, that shares our wealth with them (maybe the oil companies could ‘repatriate’ some of the profits they make out of ‘their’ oil to the people in such dire straits) and that positions us as a beacon of human responses to human challenges. We need to address both the cause and the effect, we focus on the effect because it is here in our backyard whereas the cause is thousands of miles away in foreign lands so many of us do not understand.

Refugees welcome in german footballWhat a delight to see German football fans with signs saying “Refugees welcome here”. What a delight to hear of Icelandic families offering their homes to refugees.

And what a shame on us that 67% of the population think that sending the Army to France to restore order is an answer!

And one final question. How much is it costing us to resist the few thousand in Calais, compared to how much it would cost to treat them as deserving humans and find room for them in our so-called compassionate society?

A barbecue on a boat?

Dinner arrives!“How will we barbecue fish on a boat?” was the obvious question. But we can deal with that later.

The prospect of a week sailing a yacht through the waters off the Turkish coast had brought six men, of varying sailing ability, together. The experienced skipper had assured us of all the usual – day long yellow sun, cooling breezes, warm deepest blue waters – and then tempted us with the further prospect of catching our own fish as we sailed. Well, could I resist? There is little better than eating fish so fresh that it was swimming around only minutes before being cooked. I recalled the fishing expeditions with my dad. Evening sessions on the beach in Hornsea or some other East Yorkshire resort. My job to find the wood and light the fire on which the first fish we caught would be cooked. One eye on the rod waiting for another unwilling victim, one on the frying pan where our supper lay cooking to perfection. Could we regenerate that passion, that atmosphere, that unforgettable smell on board our 40foot yacht?

Let’s take a look at those six willing victims volunteers.

The most experienced, our skipper – let’s call him Jon – had enough certificates of competence to be able to sail our 40 footer across the Atlantic let alone around the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean.

Next – calling him Geoff will protect the innocent – was an older version of that callow youth who accompanied his father around the coast when he was young. His childhood had been spent in and around boats of one sort or another, in on or near water. He had later learned to sail dinghies when his not inconsiderable bulk helped hold them in the water when less well-upholstered persons might have got blown over.

Wynn and Adrian, old greying friends, professed to being happier half way (or more) up a Himalayan peak and turned up with their Nepalese or Burmese T-shirts, Factor 50 (they knew all about the effects of the sun reflected off the snow, or sea), layers of technical clothing and ice-axes (OK, I lied about the ice-axes). They were up for anything and keen to learn.

Chris, the psycho (sorry, psychologist/counsellor/therapist) would undoubtedly have a key role in holding us all together when the going got tough.

And last but by no means least was Henry. Henry needed a change. He had recently retired from his long-held post at a prestigious university and was free, easy and available – although what prospect there was of romantic entanglement when we spent all day cooped up with five other red-blooded married blokes was hard to imagine.

So there we all were, enthusiastic yet largely unskilled. Willing to be led and educated by our brave skipper who proceeded to show us not only how to tie a bowline with one hand (try it yourself) but also the other delights he had brought with him. Carbon fibre rod, multiplier reel, lines, spinners and hooks galore. Yet apparently not quite the right lure for the huge great tuna, grouper, gilthead bream and other delights promised on turkishculture.org . A visit to the tackle shop beckoned.

Aladdin’s’ Cave would have looked tawdry compared to this place. Tempting the unwary fisherman in with garish offerings of soft rubbery lures, trapping him once inside with the prospect that any one of this cornucopia of delights could be just the one for that big fish and holding out the prospect of rewards unimaginable once it had been tied on to a bit of string and flung out the back of the boat. The walls covered with photographs of great fish and the even greater fishermen into whose firmament we could enter if only we bought the right tackle. “This one, Sir, will guarantee to seduce any local tuna onto your hook”, “How about this green and yellow imitation squid, or perhaps this with five different yet similar lures all on the same piece of wire?” (The wire being necessary for when the sharp teeth of the tuna bit into the lure and raised the angler’s heartbeat.) Fishermen find it hard to refuse these emblandishments and we walked out with the latter five-temptation setup, eager to get out on the water and catch our supper.

Fast forward – well, as fast as a Force 3 wind will allow – to mid-afternoon on Day1. All sails out, sailing as close to the wind as we can get, relaxing into an easy cruise to our dinner destination and out comes the fishing rod. “Time to catch dinner”. The little rubbery pseudo-squid dangle wobbly on the end of the metal trace as yards of line pay out behind the yacht. And then we wait, and wait, and wait… For today was not going to be our lucky day and dinner tonight was pasta and tinned tuna.

The next day followed the same pattern – we are going too slow, too fast, bouncing around too much. Not a nibble. Not even a change of tactic – replacing the by now infamous rubber squid with a garish spinner – tempted even a tiddler to bite. We knew that there were fish to be caught, every time we moored we found either a thriving fish market or some local restaurant’s fish tank packed with a range of treats that we could only dream about; the posters on the tackle shop window seemed to be advertising someone’s reality, just not ours.

By Day 5 we were beginning to wonder if we would ever catch our own supper. We had heard that the scent of women on the lure was more likely to attract the objects of our desire (fish, not women) but with six men on a boat that was out of the question. Perhaps Chris would come into his role, holding our psyches together amid an ocean of disbelief and hunger?

We moored that evening in a secluded bay with a rickety jetty and just one little restaurant. Drifting up to the landing we shouted out to ask if they could feed six of us and if they had any fresh fish. Encouraging nods and waves beckoned us over, by which time the one son who spoke broken English had been summoned. “We have fresh swordfish” sounded encouraging, so we settled down for a beer or two noting that the service was slow even by Turkish standards and wondering how come our Turkish guardian had time to phone his friends when he could be preparing our dinner. As we finished the starter of inevitable Hummus, Aubergines, Dolmades our friendly son – we never could understand his name – remarked “Fish here soon”. Good, that is what we were there for. A further beer arrived and then we heard the gentle and unmistakeable sound of a small outboard phut phutting in the bay; louder yet louder until it turned the headland and was clearly heading in our direction. It seemed like all of a sudden there was activity on a scale totally unanticipated; one son sent off to the shed to get something, another off to help the little fishing boat moor, yet another encouraging us to come and see.

Well, having a look at the boat mooring would pass the time, so off we went beers in hand. Big smiles all around and we were informed “Fish here”. The phone call had been to a local fisherman, who had promised to deliver fresh fish to fulfil our order. Not just Fresh fish, but fresh swordfish. Not just fresh swordfish, but three of the glistening silver and blue beauties. The smallest about 2 feet long, the biggest perhaps 5 feet from the crook of the splayed tail to the pointy tip of that fearsome sword. Eyes disproportionately large to help them see in the depths in which they hunted their own prey; bodies of pure muscle shaped to enable speed; a sword not used for spearing other less fortunate fish but to slash at supersonic speed through a shoal of prey stunning one or two who were to become the latest snack.

A large plastic sheet was hastily laid across one of the restaurant tables while help was sent to find the ancient weighing balance – you know the ones you see on the old photos, with a sliding weight on the top. But how to get these huge soon-to-be-dinners onto the vicious looking hook to weigh them? Another excursion to the shed revealed a length of rope with which the tails and heads of these slippery beasts were tied together. Two of the medium-sized sons held the pole on their shoulders and the weighing apparatus was hooked on. Slowly the fish were eased into balance and the fish eased into the air. We could not establish the total weight, but the more experienced amongst our crew reckoned on about 50kg in total. The fisherman had had a good day. An unknown amount of Turkish Lire exchanged hands and dinner was on!

And what a dinner. Can anything beat the taste of freshly caught fish barbecued on the wood from local vines and olives, basted in rough olive oil and herbs from the hillside only 50metres away? Potatoes sliced half a centimetre thick were cooked in oil with garlic, olives, onions and yet more herbs – soft and unctuous. A simple local salad of lettuce, tomatoes that had been on the plant less than half an hour ago, raw onions still warm from the earth they had rested in until very recently and yet more local olive oil.

THIS was gourmet eating and after all our disappointments we still ate barbecued fish, and never had to meet the challenge of how to do it on the boat.

Words on White

handwriting Words on White

Thoughts written across blank pages. Meaningful at first yet now empty of meaning. They start as a thought stream, slowly re-forming into something with which to buy bread, wine, tomatoes. Slowly making meaning not only to me but to those with whom I will work.

This seemed both important and useful at the time, yet I know they are both important and important, use less and useful. A necessary, or so I think, step on the journey to a new path. A path not just me, but for what I hope to help others to discover. Sometimes we are both willing and happy to just wander, yet I find so often others (and that includes parts of me) seek help or permission or a route map or even the illusion of safety. For that is what it is – it is all an illusion, a carefully crafted one designed to keep us safe, an illusion ultimately of our own making yet so richly informed, likely even guided, by others. The Bible, the Torah, the Tao – all I guides yet only guides, for ultimately we must all find our own path to righteousness, enlightenment, that new job, whatever…

The words call out to me. They no longer capture me. Sometimes they shine a light in the darkness, sometimes they block out the very light I am seeking.

They are only words.

This is only a book.

Nothing is real.