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.

Reflections on Hay

Hay on WyeIt was warming up for The Festival here, the annual pilgrimage for a quarter of a million (or so my landlady tells me) literary, arty, philosophical types to the Kingdom of Hay. For so it was declared by Richard Booth, the instigator of the global fame of this book-centric town and its ‘largest arts festival in the world’. Over the next week or so the population of around 5000 will be swamped by incomers and I hope they have fat wallets, for this pretty town deserves it. With its river, derelict but hopefully being rebuilt castle, a cheese hall, more pubs than you can shake a stick at, even more restaurants, cobbled streets, high-class delis and knickknack shops it has a lot going for it. People on early morning walks even say hello to you.

I think the closest I can get to a one word description is ‘genteel’, although in a positive life affirming way. It feel safe, happy and comfortable in its skin.

I’m in Wales but the local accents don’t give it away – or perhaps I have yet to meet a true local, for this is certainly the sort of place likely to fill with a well-off middle-class eco-warriors. Throw a stone across the river with a strong arm and it would land in England. I know this because I read it in a guidebook.

Did I mention books? Since Richard Booth’s first bookshop – and by the way his original is beautiful, airy and well-organised and with a cafe that encourages encourages you to stay even longer – over 30 more followed. It takes very little research to recognise that way over 1 million second-hand books are offer in this small town. You name it and you can buy it here. From publishers’ overstocks to antiquarians (aren’t they just old books?) and even a whole shop devoted to books about railways. This is book porn without the porn books, although it would not surprise me to find a little corner somewhere selling early- or high-class porn as well. As for me, I headed to the cookery sections and found everything from the ubiquitous Jamie through Anton Edelman to vintage professional kitchen guidance tomes. A mere £12.50 released three into my possession and not only will they occupy a few hours happy reading but two of them (Picnics by Claudia Roden and Creative Cuisine by the aforementioned Edelman) will even prove useful in my own culinary adventures.

The Thursday market was due the morning after I arrived. Advertisers as from 0800 onwards I guess I should have expected that it might not have been up and running as early as a French equivalent would be but nonetheless it, and a smaller flea market the following day, added colour to the already interesting streets. Some of the flea market vendors even had sufficient bravado to have a few second-hand books on offer. I resisted the temptation to buy one of Nigella’s early oeuvres.

So, lasting impressions. Pretty place in a gorgeous setting, amazingly friendly and helpful locals (one, when I asked directions, even came down from his ladder and went inside his house to get me a free town guide before giving precise and detailed directions to my dinner venue), shops and activities that will surely keep everyone occupied. What’s not to like? I will be back.

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…

Bleeding patients/patience!

Not todaySo,today’s the day. Some 10 months after the initial discovery of my pituitary adenoma I am scheduled for surgery and arrive at Leeds General Infirmary at 0700 as scheduled. Interviews with one of the surgical team, the anaesthetist, the nurse, a CT scan of my face…and then the wait…

Let me cut to the chase – at ca 1400, I leave LGI because my surgery has been postponed. While I was waiting another patient had a brain bleed and needed the bed in the High Dependency Unit that had been reserved for me. I totally understand this and am really pleased that someone more in need than myself was able to have their needs met. Sitting in reception at the same time as myself was another old guy who was waiting for surgery on a ‘proper’ brain tumour that had been discovered only 3 weeks ago. He too was waiting in the hope of an HDU bed and I would be very happy for his needs to also come before mine.

So here am I writing this while hacked off, tired, slightly hungry (although the first thing we did after seeing the surgeon – of which more later – was to go downstairs to Costa for a sandwich and a coffee) and relieved that we have also rescheduled.

The surgeon (Mr Phillips) came to see us, full of apologies explaining the situation and recalling that he had only had to cancel a couple of these procedures in 10 years of doing 1 or 2 a week. The issue was not surgery but the HDU bed that the anaesthetist insists I need because I have slight to moderate sleep apnoea. (I wonder about the relative costs of wasted theatre/surgeon time c.f. wasted HDU time). Apparently the target for rescheduling is 4 weeks, and I was really pleased that he had remembered my Turkey trip around which today’s date had been arranged. To cut a long story short we agreed that there was no fundamental reason why the rescheduling could not wait until late June when my sailing in Turkey was over. My vision had not significantly deteriorated in the 12 months since the first Goldman Test, no other symptoms had emerged, the prognosis was not threatening so we were both cool about the postponement. The only significant risk is that there is a big bleed – causing serious headaches and blackouts, so we would know about it – and that’s no more likely in the future than the past. Bearing in mind that this thing has possibly been growing in my head for 20 years this seems a risk worth taking.

I keep surprising myself about the calmness with which I find myself handling this. Those of you who know me well might not recognise ‘Calm Geoff’, although I do know from my own self-reflection that when things get serious I find myself very calm, rational and far from the extrovert gobby loudmouth many of you will recognise. Yes, I know that I have felt stressed – a low level background most of the time, although it was surfacing yesterday before the ‘distraction therapy’ of a visit to the theatre (Chicago at Bradford Alhambra, since you ask, which was very good). Even so, my stress levels this morning can’t have been too bad because my blood pressure and heart rate were perfectly normal for me. Red Heart Hanging on Branch Something tells me that somehow this may be more stressful for those around me than for myself and I can only thank Suzanne from the bottom of my heart for her help, support, forbearance and love throughout it all.

Time to pack my bags

Keep calm and packI went for a 3rd pre-operative assessment this afternoon. Firstly, congratulations to the booking service who moved my appointment on the phone when I rang to point out that they had chosen a date when I would be in France. Straightforward as usual – they do seem very efficient in pre-op assessment – with BP, bloods, cardio, height & weight and medical history checks. All seems to be well, pending return of the bloods.

Secondly, congratulations to the nurse in pre-op (I’m so sorry I didn’t catch her name) who went out of her way to ring up and get me an appointment for an updated Goldman Test – even to the extent of offering me alternative appointments (nobody has ever done that before).

All my questions – about whether, contrary to the impression given in the letter asking me along for surgery, I would be staying in overnight (yes, probably for a couple of nights unless I react badly to the procedure); about whether or not Suanne would be able to accompany me to the theatre (yes); about relative trivia such as clothing and what to bring with me ( a small overnight bag, “slippers and dressing gown if you have one but don’t go out and buy them because you will be in a surgical gown most of the time”)…

Turns out that the nurse I saw used to work in neurosurgery, so I discovered that I will not be having a vacuum cleaner shoved up my nose after all – it is aparrently referred to as a ‘globsucker’.

So, I am now ready to rock ‘n roll, just need to pack my bag next week – Suzanne has booked us to go and see Chicago on Thursday night so that should take my mind off having to get up at 0600 to be at the ward by 0700. I still feel quite laid back about the whole procedure, let’s hope that continues. My only concern is whether I will be able to take a pre-planned trip to Belgium later in the week I expect to be discharged. Last minute decision I think.

We have a date!

mature-man-smiles-from-his-hospital-bedWell, after  many months of waiting I have a date for my operation.

A few days ago my surgeon’s secretary rang and spoke to Suzanne (I was out), asking if I could come in on 18th March. She said no, and reminded them that we had already corresponded and agreed that in view of the lack of urgency and my pre-existing arrangements, 1st or 8th April would suit my personal agenda much better. No problem, we will let you know…

Well, they have done and on Friday 8th April I will be going in to Leeds General Infirmary for day surgery with a 2 or 3 day overnight recovery stay. Whoopee, the long wait is nearly over!

I have to admit to paradoxical feelings. One the one hand delight that the wait is nearly over and that I face an apparently complex yet straightforward procedure; on the other the perhaps inevitable nervousness consequential on facing a general anaesthetic and having a camera, drill/saw and vacuum cleaner shoved up my nose to extricate this adenoma. All the same, it’s going to be another talking point and at least in principle it’s not life-threatening like heart surgery could be.

Somewhat astonishingly the date, and the next few days that I will spend in hospital, does not clash with ANY pre-existing appointments. HOWEVER, I am scheduled to travel to Belgium (by land) starting on the Friday after discharge. I will have to discuss this with the surgeon.

The interesting thing is that before then I will probably have to go through a third pre-operative assessment as the second one will have time-expired. I wonder if the system can synchronise these events? If I do have to it’s no real problem, just a hassle of scheduling half a day when it might actually take 30 mins like last time!

Hey ho, off to hospital we go.

ADDENDUM

On detailed reading of the letter something seems to be missing. The letter refers to it being a ‘day case’ ward, with no mention of whether or not I will be staying in hospital to recover. All my previous discussions have indicated a 2 or 3 days stay.

I wonder if this is yet another example of not connecting the dots?

9 months too late!

Another pack of stuff from the hospital today, from my Key Worker who will apparently “…act as a point of contact for you to provide information, advice and support.” Well, well well…

The content is great, with one possible exception, and I will come back to this later. The intrigue is that it’s 9 months too late! The ‘setup’ in the letter is :

  • “Following your appointment with Mr Phillips..” – which happened over 5 months ago
  • “…you have attended the pre-assessment clinic…” – twice, once 4 months ago and once about a month ago

It seems that my Key Worker will “..aim to visit me while (I am) an inpatient…to complete an holistic assessment which looks at any needs (I) may have”, although as she may not see me during my inpatient stay “..I will contact you …2 weeks after your discharge for routine follow-up.” So she only aims to visit me and if she doesn’t then my holistic needs assessment will not get done (or might get done 2 weeks after discharge, I’m unsure). Now this might just be poor wording or it might be that I am not ‘guaranteed’ a visit and holistic assessment of my needs before I am discharged, which is slightly concerning.

And it also seems that I have to contact her when I get  date for surgery – how difficult is it for the hospital to let her know?!

Anyway, grump over and on to the material content. As I mentioned above, most of it is very helpful, or would have been had I been given it at diagnosis.

  • A good leaflet from MacMillan explaining about the pituitary and tumours (although the phrase “usually always benign” might need clarifying!).
  • A leaflet about my Key Worker, who I now read I can “…expect to be given soon after your diagnosis…”. Well, if 9 months is soon then there is no wonder the NHS is in a bit of a state.
  • A leaflet about the Leeds Specialist Pituitary Service and their Multi-Disciplinary approach.
  • A leaflet from The Pituitary Foundation – who I had earlier found to be a good source of information, although if you read this column regularly you might recall that I found their support group somewhat less than supportive.
  • Finally a leaflet which while informative raises a totally new issue to me about Steroid Replacement Therapy. The letter offers the leaflet on the basis that “…it is usual to be prescribed steroids following surgery…! Well that is news to me, indeed I recall a discussion in which I was told that, because it is a non-functioning tumour and i have few adverse symptoms, it was quite likely that I would not need any ongoing drug treatment. Does this nurse know something I don’t? Is this a standard letter issues without thought or consideration of the individual circumstances?

So here we are again, some great and helpful stuff mixed up with processes that don’t seem to recognise me as an individual and which raise new questions (will my key worker see me in hospital to plan an ‘holistic assessment’? Will I be prescribed steroids and if so how come nobody has previously mentioned a cortisol deficiency?)!

I’m pleased that I am going to have the opportunity to draw the whole saga to the attention of the powers that be in LTHT and highlight a few areas where improvements in the patient experience can be made.

Meanwhile, I have booked a flight to SW France for late March in anticipation of surgery in early April.

Coming soon…

Well, things are moving forward again and I have a few bits and pieces to add to the story so here goes…

Firstly back to that sleep apneoa. We already know that my consultant decided that a mask would be more hassle than it was worth. He had also commented on how long it had taken for me to get to see him. The letter he sent me and my GP also mentions that fact and that he will ‘look into’ why it took so long. I look forward to hearing the results of his ‘looking into’. On a slight downbeat note, I was contacted by the customer experience team with a suggestion that the film unit would contact me in early January to arrange some filming. Well, it’s long gone early January and so far no response. Perhaps they need a chase.

I also had an encouraging interchange about the timing of my surgery. As nobody was contacting me, I contacted the surgeon’s secretary asking when I might be listed. The answer was ‘March’ – but when in March I wondered? So instead of simply asking, I explained a couple of constraints (my birthday on 20th when I don’t really want to be in hospital and a trip to Turkey in July which will involve flying) and wondered if my surgery date could be fitted around that. The response was encouraging “We will do our utmost to accommodate your request…”.  A known date would be good, but this commitment is an improvement on simply not knowing.

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.