Note: This is a purely personal record of a by no means unique experience, intended for family and friends. It is of little or no interest to anyone else. Comments appended at the end of the post will be read and appreciated but I shall not respond to them for the time being, anyway. I shall add to this post from time to time to bring the diary up to date.
Tuesday 16 April 2013: Operation day. Waltz athletically into the hospital, wondering what has prompted me to volunteer to have a replacement of a knee that’s functioning pretty well, most of the time, anyway. But the consultant orthopaedic surgeon, Mr F, insists that if I leave them, both knees will become unbearably painful, and that if I defer replacements much longer I’ll be too old to survive what is a very major operation. (I’m 80 next year.) Convinced, I ask Mr F about the possibility of having both knees replaced at the same time, to get it over — I recently met a middle-aged lady who had had both knees replaced only a few months earlier and who seemed to be in very good nick. Mr F laughs lightly: “At your age? Out of the question. You wouldn’t survive a double knee replacement.” Rather thought-provoking.
Later same day: I have chosen an injection in the spine rather than a traditional general anaesthetic so when I come to in the recovery room surrounded by sinister gowned figures I feel none of the discomforts (sore throat especially) usually associated with regaining consciousness after an operation. But I’m still completely paralysed from the waist down. Very odd feeling.
No pain so far. But someone told me solemnly that a knee replacement is the most painful of all such ops, appreciably worse than a hip replacement as the hip has almost no moving parts to stretch and contract the surrounding mutilated muscles and tissue. Pity I can’t stay half-paralysed until the tissue has healed and the pain worn off.
Wednesday 17 April: Well, it certainly hurts now. An array of painkillers of varying efficacy is provided. Most have the disagreeable side-effect of severe constipation. At this stage am quite content to be constipated as the relatively pain-free alternative to either the dreaded bed-pan or being forced to get out of bed and stumble to the loo on the faintly comical Zimmer frame. Fortunately am still catheterised so liquid waste pours uncontrolled into capacious bag on the floor.
Thursday 18 April: Catheter removed, quite a nasty sensation. Find I have no bladder control, resulting in unseemly rush to get at bottle under the bed before it’s too late (it usually is). Nurses promise that control will return. Hope they’re right.
Am got out of bed to hobble about briefly on Zimmer frame. Left (damaged) leg very painful in vertical position even when not weight-bearing. Taken in wheel-chair to first of many sessions in the hydrotherapy pool. White hospital stockings peeled off both legs for first time which is a relief. Struck by extraoridnary beauty of young hydro nurses: hard to believe they are all sadists until they get their slender but strong hands on you. Warm water in the hydro pool is pleasantly soothing but the exercises, mostly involving forcing left leg to bend at the knee further than it can go, are excruciating. Sweating profusely from pain into the warm water. Have a token shower, supported by Zimmer as usual. Back to the ward where white pressure stockings are put on again by patient nurse who understandably can’t get stocking onto the left leg without forcing it to bend well beyond point of tolerance. Indicate the effect of this by screaming. This earns contemptuous look from nurse.
19 April: Beginning to settle into routine of moderately effective painkillers for two days, constipation, manage without painkillers for next two days, start of end of constipation, resume painkillers. Annoyingly, virtually impossible to read, despite early morning delivery of the Guardian, whole stack of books beckoning on Kindle, and inviting pile of old unread copies of the London Review of Books. Pain is the biggest obstacle to reading, followed by constant interruptions for measuring blood pressure and blood sugar, delivery of quite nice looking meals for which I have no appetite and generally can’t force down (last meal arrives at 5:30pm!), and the ceremony of the presentation of the relevant pills from the locked safe on the wall, each humble pill checked and double-checked before being handed over to me to swallow it. Pill deliveries have been divided up into an elaborate timetable under which certain pills are delivered at set times that bear no relation to reality or convenience. The only real pleasure of these days is the morning mobile call to J,. and her two or three daily visits.
22 April: New knee perceptibly more swollen (and painful) than three days ago. Mr F, the consultant, on his morning visit, examines it and pronounces everything normal. The swelling will come and go for the first week or two. Nothing to worry about! Admittedly before the operation the leg suffered from pronounced lymphoedema (swelling due to damage to lymphatic drainage system caused by a bike accident seven years ago) and a badly twisted calf muscle from tripping in early March in Charleston, SC, so there may never be the complete recovery to be expected of a previously healthy leg. (Suppose I should have thought of that before choosing to have the left knee done first, or at all.)
23 April: Discharged and allowed home on probation! No improvement so far in swelling and pain despite agonising hours of exercises in water and out of it. Beginning of a serious ordeal for J, barely two months younger than me, for whom putting on the infernal stockings without reducing me to a howling infant is an almost insurmountable challenge. Various bits of invalid equipment now litter the house — a raised toilet seat with handrail, an invaluable 4-foot grabber operated by a trigger, the essential white plastic bottle ingeniously shaped to accommodate the male anatomy, non-slip bathmat….
26 April: Unaccountably feeling much better. After visit to hydro at the hospital (involving painful contortions getting into and out of the car, J standing appalled and unable to help), feel up to a visit to the Ms, our near neighbours, about 200 metres from the house. Limp across on crutches over tricky cobbles, flagging towards the end. Revive after refereshing Lapsang Souchong and manage to limp back to the house. Navigate the stairs to the bedroom and fall on the bed, exhausted.
27 April: Swelling and pain worse than ever. Badly constipated. Worst day yet. No sign of any improvement except in ability to raise left foot from the floor by about two inches if absolutely essential.
28 April: Feeling very poorly. Back-ache from trying to sit up in bed without proper support from pillows. Hollow laughter on reading several kind messages hoping that the “improvement will continue”. What improvement? Nature makes it impossible for people to conceive that anyone won’t have started to get better two weeks after a major operation. Of course there are indeed improvements in a couple of marginal areas but the main problem of swelling, pain and restricted leg movement is no better and often worse.
Series of domestic disasters designed to aggravate the already barely tolerable heavy load on J. The new washing machine delivered and installed by John Lewis, highly reputable UK store, bucks and bounds around the kitchen when it reaches the Spin mode, severely bruising J’s hands and arms as she struggles to subdue it. The installers forgot to remove some retaining bolts used for transporting the machine. John Lewis promise a replacement, apologetically. Some painting and decorating due to be done during my absence in hospital has to be postponed pending delivery of new washing machine. The shower in the spare bathroom that I was going to use (because it’s easier to struggle into and out of the bath there) turns out to be broken and seized up. The cold tap in the downstairs loo suddenly gushes water, unstoppably, of course on a Sunday evening. Call out plumbers from Yellow Pages and pay Sunday evening rates (our spelendid plumber neighbour is away).
Monday 29 April: An hour of exceptionally expert physiotherapy (not in the hydro pool) followed by 45 minutes of extraordinarily effective massage by a trained lymphoedema massage nurse (an attractive Portuguese-Angolan). Could almost feel the hard lumps of grossly swollen tissue being gently softened and partly dispersed. Now permitted two 10-minute crutches-assisted walks in the garden daily, and to sit at the dining-table or the computer with wounded leg pointing south — both banned until now. But still no reduction in the swelling or, therefore, the constant distracting pain. Bending the leg at the knee still very limited and sometimes agonising.
One of the worst things about the experience, apart from the obvious ones, is that one’s forced into solipsism. All days and all conversations are focused exclusively on the condition of The Leg and the rest of the ancient carcase to which it’s attached. Not only does one become solipsistic: one’s infantilised, by total dependence, difficulty in performing simple actions, fighting to head off mounting obsession with excretory functions, constant moral pressure to try harder with the horrible painful exercises, with the threat, sometimes explicit, that if you don’t “try harder”, you’ll never get better. The language used by most of the medics is that of the nursery. “Try and slide your heel back a little further for me!” “How are we feeling this morning?” (We?)
The physios keep reminding me that it’s less than two weeks since the operation and that I mustn’t expect miracles. The swelling will begin to go down, the pain will begin to recede, but it will all take time. Meanwhile I feel distinctly weak and poorly most of the time, have to force myself to eat, dread the interminable reaches of every night. Still, must think positive: J gallantly went out specially this evening to buy me a bed-rest contraption, to enable me to sit more or less upright in bed, built roughly on the principles of a deck-chair. This will make a big difference and spare me much back pain. My crutchmanship has earned me qualified praise. I haven’t so far been plagued by my usual intermittent but severe tinnitus. I think my mouth ulcers may be retreating, slowly. The sun’s been shining and I have a lovely view from our bedroom window. I am surely losing some weight and I’m not even tempted by wine, whisky or any other such tipple. Today I managed to drag on a pair of shorts completely unaided Out there in the real world thousands are being reduced to penury by a vicious ideology-driven government and I don’t even have to wrestle with my conscience over whether to go on protest marches, deliver Labour Party leaflets or attend dismal ward meetings. J contnues to cope cheerfully and contrives somehow to conceal her utter exhaustion. On Sky Arts 2 (television) overweight Austrians are performing the most hilariously overblown pretentious version of The Messiah I’ve ever seen or heard, and laughter is therapeutic. I’m forced to concede that things could be worse. But not much.
Wed. 1 May: At last some glimmerings of progress, no doubt to celebrate MayDay, the socialists’ festival. In the past 48 hours the swelling around the knee (and down the calf) has definitely begun to subside, although almost imperceptibly. The physios swear that the maximum extent to which I can bend the leg at the knee has increased from 55 to just over 80 degrees (don’t ask me to explain) in the past week. I can raise my left foot about an inch off the floor, which is an inch more than a week ago. But each of these dazzling achievements comes at an atrocious price in toil, tears and sweat, if not so far in blood. I live on a diet of paracetamol and Tramadol, the latter offset by prunes and laxative in a delicate balance. Apart from the prunes, virtually all food is nauseating to me, a totally unfamiliar experience. I force down what I can, and J labours mightily to titillate the worn-out appetite, but inevitably I get steadily weaker. Now that I’m allowed to have a few minutes’ walk each day in the open air, perhaps some vestiges of appetite will creep back. But it’s not easy to fit in a mini-walk into the iron schedule: ice leg; do painful exercises; eat; go to the hospital for more hydro, dry-land physio, or Manual Lymphatic Drainage (or MLD) massage, the latter looking faintly suspect from its, or rather her, website, but certainly seeming to produce benefits. Anyway, even if it’s bogus, it’s soothing and restful. (Another session is due tomorrow.)
None of these activities looks particularly time-consuming, but if you could see me putting on shoes or manoeuvring myself into or out of the car, even with anxious assistance from J, you’d begin to understand that everything takes around seven or eight times as long as it did in those dear long-ago careless days Before the Op.
Feelings of tightness, short of pain, around the chest (left-hand side only) are beginning to disturb me a little. I think it’s muscular, associated with back-ache caused by too long leaning back on the iron mini-deck-chair on the bed, but I’m instructed to mention it to the GP when I see her on Friday, although what she can do about it is hard to imagine.
Exhaustion continues, of course — a given by now. Still, I mustn’t lose sight of those glimmers of progress. “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better, and better…” Apparently it worked for M. Coué.
Last night I slept through without once having to get up because of pain or the more usual compulsions. Well, I was awake every now and then, but went back to sleep. Wonder if I can pull that one off again!
Friday 3 May: Feeling poorly again. Luckily have appaointment with GP to review progress (progress?) 10 days after the operation. After half an hour’s wait in the GPs’ waiting-room in considerable discomfort, the young Muslim woman next in line for the GP tells J that her husband (me) looks so ill that she’s willing to swop places and let us go in first. As I hobble in to the GP’s surgery on my crutches, sweating and struggling for breath, the GP looks horrified.
“I’ve never seen you so pale and grey before. Are you having chest pains?”
“Yes, among several other things.”
She helps me onto a treatment couch in the next-door treatment room, fastens an oxygen mask over my face and sends for an ambulance. Less than an hour later I’m being examined by a young and beautiful doctor in Accident & Emergency at St George’s Hospital Tooting, our big NHS teaching hospital, after a battery of tests and more oxygen in the ambulance. I’m moved along to the assessment ward. More tests of every kind imaginable. Finally, at around 10pm, I’m allowed to go home. None of the tests suggests that I have had or am about to have a heart attack. Another equally beautiful young doctor stresses that if my chest pains recur at any time, I’m to call an ambulance and come straight back to St George’s.
Saturday 5 May: After a good night’s sleep, I get up and almost immediately feel the familiar chest pains again. (Actually more tightnesws and pressure than pains.) Suppress awareness of this in hope that I’m imagining it. Eat some breakfast and sit to send a couple of long overdue emails when the awareness of the chest ‘pains’ forces me to admit to them to J. She calls an ambulance. The big yellow van fills the road outside our house in the Mews. 25 minutes of ECGs, blood tests, blood pressure tests, more oxygen, etc., in the ambulance before the young woman member of the crew drives off with us ensures that everyone in the Mews is aware of our mini-drama. Back to A&E in St George’s. Much longer waits this time before anyone examines me. Again moved to the assessment ward. More tests. Decision to keep me in overnight – to my releif, because much as I hate night-time in a hospital ward at the mercy of idle and tyrannical night shift nurses, surrounded by genuinely sick fellow-patients wailing, groaning and shouting fruitlressly for “NURSE!!!”, I don’t feel well enough to go home and know it would be unfair to J if I did. In fact, the nurses on the night shift on this occasion are pure Florence Nightingale, the few other patients are either to sensible or too unwell to make a sound all night, and having gratefully taken a powerful sleeping pill along with all my otherr pills, I fall almost instantly into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Sunday, 5 May: 2:10am: awakened by one of the Florence Nightingales hauling my arm from under the sheet to wind a blood pressure sleeve round it and take my blood pressure. After this I fail completely to go back to sleep and lie there in the semi-darkness wishing my wounded leg didn’t hurt so much.
4:30am: more tests. Find some paracetamol and take a couple of them. They don’t seem to have any effect on my leg pain.
6:00am: More tests. A peculiarly horrible breakfast arrives; eat a bit of it. More nurses appear. A phlebotamist comes to take a few more tubes of blood out of my arm, apparently on the orders of the cardiologists, a mile or two of corridor away. Am told that the cardiologists will decide by remote control whether to take me over for stress echocardiogram tests and if necessary an angiogram, or whether to say that in the absence of evidence from 10,000 tests of anything amiss with my heart, arteries, etc., they will advise my discharge (again). Am told to expect that The Team will arrive at any time to deliver their verdict. Sure enough, The Team arrives, led by a kindly and authoritative lady Professor and comprising four or five young women doctors all in visible awe of the Professor and scribbling down in their notebooks everything the Professor says. The kindly and sympathetic Professor asks me to describe exactly what has happened, which I do for the 35th time. She listens intently, then examines my chest and belly minutely. Her murmured commentary is faithfully recorded by her retiunue. Finally she tells me that there is no evidence of heart-related problems: that her conclusion is that the chest pains are muscular, probably related to the stresses of using the crutches, aggravated by borderline anaemia following the operation; that they will supply me with batteries of pain-reliever pills; and that once again I may go home. I have been added to the waiting-list for a stress Echo test which I will probably be invited back to undergo in four or five weeks’ time. With a gentle, humane squeeze of my hand, the charismatic Professor is gone, her retinue streaming behind her. A few hours later, loaded with innumerable boxes of pills and other medicaments, J and I are home, happy and utterly exhausted.
I had mentioned to the Professor the paradox (and my disappointment) that despite having been admitted twice to St George’s Hospital on suspicion of a recent or impending heart attack, and having spent many hours in the hospital’s excellent care, I had never one seen a cardiologist. The Professor agreed that this was disappointing and paradoxical. But apparently so many patients are admitted with chest pains that the cardios can cope only with those whose test results include specific symptoms suggesting a heart problem. None of mine did. Fair enough, I suppose.
Despite all these excursions and diversions, I’ve missed only one session of physiotherapy because of the chest pains scare: just as well, since the key to eventual recovery is evidently the intensive physiotherapy and hydrotherapy that prevent the damaged muscle and tissue surrounding the new artificial knee from hardening and forming scar tissue that would permanently prevent mobility of the joint and require a return to the operating theatre — back to square 1. An intolerable prospect! But the constant lengthy sessions of physiotherapy, the long arduous exercises performed on the bed, the floor or chair, the constant 30-minute sessions icing of the knee to reduce swelling, and the interminable time it takes to climb up or down stairs or pull on a pair of shorts or do anything else that normally takes seconds, add up toa surprisingly demanding routine.
Wednesday 8 May: Still feeling distinctly below par. Latest theory seems to be dehydration. I think I’m subconsciously afraid to drink much liquid because I know the more I drink after about 4pm, the more frequently I’ll be going to the loo during the night, each such expedition currently requiring a giant effort because of the knee, crutches, problem getting the wounded leg off the bed and onto the floor and later vice versa, plus other apparently trivial practical problems which loom large at 2:10am, 3:40am, 4:45am, etc. etc. Also drinking much of anything liquid makes me feel nauseous. Fortunately or otherwise I have absolutely no desire for alcohol in any form. (Nor for food, less fortunately.)
I really feel like an old man at last – not too surprisingly, considering that that’s what I am. It’s just that the operation has made me around ten years older. Anyway, all the medics promise that it will eventually become less swollen and less painful and that moving will become easier. Of course it’s possible that they are all lying…
Friday 10 May: Back to my GP to report on my hospital stays and review progress, if any. She is much relieved to see me looking reasonably well, in contrast to the old grey breathless figure whom she had despatched by ambulance to hospital the previous week. We agree that the absence of evidence of any cardiac event (so far) is welcome. The GP is sceptical about the need for some of the drugs prescribed and provided by the hospital when I was discharged. I share her scepticism and agree to stash them away unused, unless the situation changes. GP prescribes an alternative painkiller and a fresh supply of the most effective, somewhat addictive, sleeping pills.
Afternoon: another taxing session in the hydrotherapy pool at the (original) hospital. Standing on one leg, waist-deep in warm water, when the one leg is “the operated leg” (not supposed to be called “my bad leg”), proves unexpectedly painful and difficult. Showering and changing in the tiny dressing-room afterwards with another elderly gent who has had a hip replacement (kid’s play compared with a knee replacement, of course) we agree that it’s one of the great failings of medical science to be unable to offer an effective pain-killer that doesn’t also cause vile constipation. We also agree that it’s only when constipated that one remembers how ill and nauseous that condition makes one feel.
Get home exhausted but manage to write a few overdue emails before collapsing into bed. I take one of the GP’s sleeping pills and two of her new painkillers in the hope of calming down my aching leg — the operated one, which I insist is also the ‘bad’ one.
Saturday 11 May: Wake up at about 6:30 to the dizzy realisation that for the first time since my operation I have had a whole night’s uninterrupted sleep and that on waking up I detect no significant pain from the ‘bad’ leg. Joy! Six cheers for my GP! It’s probably a one-off success but it proves that it can be done.
Sunday 12 May: Paying a heavy price for the good night’s sleep of Friday night, produced by painkillers from the GP that contain codeine. Feeling ill and depressed all day. Forced to resort to laxatives again. Perhaps it’s better to put up with the pain and throw away the codeine — and the laxatives. But that’s not how I feel when the pain in the knee and thigh wake me up at 1:25am, 2:45am, 3:20am and so on until the radio comes on at 7:15am.
Monday 13 May: The mysterious chest pains continue but they seem to have become less frequent and less severe since I started using only one crutch, under the right arm, while indoors. This may suggest that the pains in the left-hand side of my chest have been either caused or aggravated by over-dependence on the crutch under my left arm, over-compensating for the weakness of the left knee and leg.
I have good days (and nights) and rather more bad ones; it’s too early to read any significance into either. I’m told not to expect any appreciable relief from the swelling and pain until eight to twelve weeks after the operation, and so far it’s only four weeks since I had it. They say that I should notice a further improvement six months after the op (which takes me to mid-October), and that after one year I should be virtually back to normal (April 2014). I suppose at that point I shall have to decide whether to have the other knee done as well, which will put paid to 2014-15 if I do. The other knee is apparently even more badly worn than the one that’s just been carved out. It will be an appalling decision. I prefer not to think about it.
Whether it’s a good day (or night) or a bad one seems to be at the whim of the gods, but also partly dependent on the state of the perpetual duel between the pain-killers and the laxatives, another impossible choice. Yesterday was grim; today has been a lot better. Tomorrow will probably be bad again. No long-term trend can be extrapolated from these random changes for the better or the worse. The medics all insist that the thing is taking its normal course and that it will all get gradually better over the next six to eleven months. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?
Thursday 16 May: After another bad and mainly sleepless night of pain and discomfort, a rather good day in which my mobility does seem to have improved and an ingenious cocktail of painkillers has largely silenced the swollen knee’s protests. Am now allowed to limp round the house without crutches (except of course when tottering up and down the stairs) and to go out of doors for walks with only one crutch instead of two. The swelling is obstinately resistant to vigorous physio massaging from calf up to groin, but I have to remind the physios that the leg was swollen (souvenir of a bad bike accident seven or eight years ago) even before the knee replacement operation just four weeks ago. It may be too much to hope that physiotherapy for the knee op now will restore the leg to anything resembling its condition eight years ago.
Feel entitled to celebrate improvement in mobility — I can actually bend the operated leg at a sharper angle than just a week ago, and can cautiously put some weight on it with only occasional buckling — although it’s far too soon to interpret it as the start of a process of release from pain, forecast for around a month from now at the earliest. Unfortunately when I received my initial visit from The Good Fairy almost 79 years ago, she forgot to deliver a ration of stoical patience among the package of virtues being distributed.
Friday 17 May: A stunningly good night, thanks to a single Zopiclone which had roughly the effect of being hit on the back of the head by a baseball bat. Unfortunately Zopi is somewhat addictive, although at my age…. Only begin to regain consciousness at around 10am. No doubt the leg was hurting like hell all night but I was blissfully unaware of it. Zopi 1, knee 0.
Extract from today’s report by J to friends:
Brian’s leg continues to be as painful as he had been warned it would be but his mobility is getting better and the leg is making good progress. He is still pretty knocked out by the experience. It’s no wonder that Mr F [knee surgeon] warned him a couple of years ago that if he left it too long to have the replacements he wouldn’t survive the operations. It’s obviously a very major shock to an ageing body. He has good days when he eats with some relish and looks more like his old self but, just now, after a session of hydrotherapy, he is absolutely down again. It’s going to be a long haul. But the New Yorkers [NYC-based daughter and two granddaughters of university age] are arriving on 3 June and we have various events planned during their stay involving the whole family so that should kill or cure.
Kind, solicitous and perceptive messages (and comments appended below) continue to arrive from good friends and much-loved relatives, many of whom have gone through much worse than anything I’m currently experiencing. I love to receive and read them and re-read them. Thank you profoundly for every one.
Watch this space!
Earlier this month (October 2012) J and I enjoyed a Viking river cruise on the Elbe from Berlin to Prague. In response to several requests, J has written an account of the trip, including some of the personal and historical events of which we were reminded on our visits to some of the towns and cities along the way — not only Berlin and Prague, but also Wittenberg, Torgau, Meissen, and Dresden in the former East Germany, and Litomerice in the Czech Republic.
J’s article is at http://www.barder.com/a-cruise-up-the-elbe-october-2012. Do spare a few minutes to read it if you have any interest in this part of our old war-torn continent. (If you haven’t, don’t bother!) The article ends with a link to the web album of photographs taken during the cruise — we used to call them ‘snaps’, less grandly and more appropriately in my case — which, having read the article first, you’re also welcome to browse through.
Please append any comments, corrections or other reactions as Comments to this blog post, not to J’s article.
Dear Aussie friends,
We want you to know how distressing J and I have found the news and images of Queensland in these last days and weeks. As far as we know none of our old Australian friends is still living in Queensland, although one dear couple, our former neighbours in Canberra, now live up by the coast in northern NSW and we’ve been worried by reports that the floods might have been crossing the state border. But the medium-term consequences will, we suppose, eventually hit all Australians, assuming that the fearsome costs of reconstruction will have to be shared equitably around all the Australian states, and anyway there can’t be many Australians outside Qld who don’t have friends and relatives there somewhere and who won’t be anxious for them; some indeed mourning.
It seems to us especially hard that a country as well organised as Australia, and a people as sturdily resourceful and independent to the point of bloody-mindedness as you Australians, should be struck down and damaged so terribly by a force of nature against which no advance precautions or ingenuity could have had any appreciable effect. Many potential victims have clearly been saved by the courage and resourcefulness of rescuers but others have suffered dreadful fates with friends and relatives powerless to do anything for them, a horrendous thing.
We watched with great admiration a press conference the other evening (well, it was evening here in London) by Anna Bligh, the Queensland Premier, whose courage and determination convinced me without any need to Google her that she must be a descendent of him of the Bounty and State House, Sydney (she is). I thought she was marvellous and her tribute to her fellow-Queenslanders brought tears to the eyes, as did the moving moment when for a few seconds she was choked with emotion and couldn’t go on. I don’t know how she’s regarded as a party politician and for all I know she’s a hard-bitten female version of old Bjelke-Petersen, but that evening, confronting a disaster of such epic proportions, she came across as a Churchill, to this red-eyed Pom anyway. If Ms Gillard (from Wales?) does half as well as valiant Anna, she’ll be all right. That, at any rate, is how it seems from far, far away.
Of course as we have watched the maps on television showing the areas of worst flooding we have been constantly reminded of so many visits in the past to Queensland: especially perhaps the long two- or three-day drives across a continent for Christmas holidays in Tugun, not a great beauty spot but with a fantastic beach and such good eating and drinking in easy reach. I used to sit and soak in the sun in the whirlpool (spa) on the roof of the block of holiday apartments where we stayed, watching the aircraft taking off from and coming in to land at the little airport at Coolangatta just down the coast, right on the state border. (That apartment block has been developed into a much more sophisticated amenity since our day, but the roof-top spa is still there!) On the last leg of the journey to Tugun we used to stop off at a Sizzler and eat a sumptuous meal (in 2006 all the Australian branches of Sizzler were closed when rat poison was found in their salads, but we didn’t know that at the time). We used to drive along the coast past Palm Beach and Mermaid Beach to Surfer’s Paradise, stopping off here and there for a swim and glorious sea-food lunches and suppers: all wonderfully vulgar and brassy and not for the fastidious. From Tugun we used to drive inland into the hills and valleys, exploring. We adored it all.
A couple of times we went up to Noosa Heads, which we loved, and once to Cairns, which we didn’t, much. We did an official visit to Bundaberg, were shown over the big sugar mill and rum distillery (of course), and had dinner with the mill manager and his family at their home (he and his wife told us sorrowfully of the terrible table manners of the Americans: they had had a young American exchange student to stay with them and she had horrified them by cutting up her food before eating anything, laying her knife on the edge of the plate and only then eating the chopped-up remains with her fork. Worse, she had been distressed and angry when politely corrected by her hosts). They complained also of the uncomprehending remoteness of their far-away government and it took us a few moments to realise that they meant the one in Brisbane – federal Canberra could have been on another planet.
We had a fabulous family holiday one year on Heron Island, with the best and most spectacular snorkelling in the world, and took in Gladstone and Yeppoon and Rockhampton before and afterwards. The island was almost wholly unspoiled in those days. Then there were so many good visits to Brisbane, often staying with our Consul-General in his lovely tropical-style suburban house, and visiting state ministers and parliamentarians and newspaper people and trade unionists and businessmen. Once, on a visit to Brisbane, I had a long talk over an excellent hotel breakfast with John Howard, who couldn’t have been more friendly and forthcoming or less pretentious, whatever one might think of his politics. I wonder if Wikileaks has laid hands on my subsequent reporting telegram. The modernisation and upgrading of Brisbane between our first stint in Australia (1973-77) and the second (1991-94) represented an extraordinary transformation. We wonder how much of that transformation has been washed away in just a matter of days.
It’s heartbreaking to think of what has been done in so short a time to, presumably, almost all these wonderful places which for so many years have been delivering such happiness to so many people. Remembering how quickly Darwin was rebuilt in more up-to-date condition after the devastation done by Tracy, we know that Australian can-do will get Queensland up off the floor faster and with less fuss than anyone else in the world could possibly do, and that Queensland Redux will be even more brilliant than the Queensland we used to love to visit. Nevertheless, what a fearsome task awaits them! How to know where to begin? Where will the money come from? Australia more than almost any other major economy has ridden largely unscathed through the global financial crisis, only for this to hit it. Fate is not mocked. Will there be an international Queensland Appeal? Or will the world look away on the pretext that Australia has the resources to rebuild unaided, and that what money can be squeezed from our own ship-wrecked economies is better spent helping the flood victims in Brazil and Sri Lanka, as if it was a zero sum game.
At any rate, this maudlin reminiscence is merely meant to tell you that Australia’s many, many friends among the Poms are watching in appalled sympathy, fingers crossed like plaits, in a few cases perhaps praying, the rest of us simply hoping that the nightmare won’t last too terribly long. What a shocking thing it’s been. We’re so sorry.
B and J
London, UK, 15 Jan 2011
Update (19 Jan 2011): The inimitable Australian expatriate Germaine Greer, in a long article in the Guardian of 15 January 2011, commented on the flooding of her native land in markedly different terms and tone from those of our letter above, which we had sent before we read Dr Greer’s piece. Although many of Dr Greer’s points of both asserted fact and vigorous opinion contradicted some of what we had written in our letter to our Australian friends, on careful reflection we have not judged it necessary, for the purposes of this post, to make any changes at all in what we wrote, apart from the addition of some hyperlinks and minor explanatory material for the benefit of non-Australian readers. But we sincerely hope that Dr Greer will be rescued without further delay from the Queensland tree in which she seems to have taken refuge from the flood.
At the end of 2010 the admirable Caroline Lucas, Green Party leader and sole Green MP, had a letter in the Guardian lambasting Labour for inconsistency: the former Labour government had introduced university tuition fees but now Ed Miliband was opposing them; Labour had introduced semi-privatisation of parts of the National Health service but now Labour in opposition was denouncing the Tory-led government’s plans for handing the whole thing over to private providers; and so forth. “Across the board, Labour simply cannot oppose coalition plans without laying themselves open to the charge of hypocrisy.” Much as I admire Ms Lucas, I thought this was a deeply unhelpful line of attack: there should be rejoicing over a sinner that repenteth, not accusations that the former sinner is a hypocrite for renouncing her former sins. On New Year’s Day the Guardian published my first (but I hope not my last) letter of 2011, an only slightly truncated version of the text I had submitted:
Like many other Labour supporters I’m a devoted admirer of Caroline Lucas, but her letter (Dilemma at the heart of Labour’s opposition, letters, December 31) does nothing to help Labour to use its time in opposition to shed the incubus of New Labour’s past aberrations, in order to re-emerge as a party committed once again to civil rights, fairness and equality, and the rule of law — including funding higher education out of progressive taxation. Ed Miliband showed in his first speech as leader a reassuring awareness of the need for a fresh start, if Labour is again to become an electable party of the liberal centre left. If Ms Lucas insists on undermining his efforts, as her letter seems designed to do, the only remaining left-liberal alternative to the coalition will be a minority one-person Green Government led by and solely comprising Caroline Lucas, admittedly an attractive proposition but one which even she will hardly regard as viable. It’s in the Greens’ as well as in Labour’s and the country’s interests to help Labour to disengage from the negative elements in New Labour’s record and start again with a clean sheet based on Labour’s core values, not to screw down the Blairite shackles even more tightly. Happy new year, Caroline!
* * * * *
In a recent post on my own blog I criticised our prime minister and a tabloid for using as a stick with which to beat the Human Rights Act (HRA) a case in which the immigration authorities’ inability to deport an Iraqi Kurd, years after he had failed to stop after running over and killing a little girl, had actually resulted from a failure of the UK prosecuting authorities and the police to charge him with an appropriately serious offence, and not from any restrictions imposed by the HRA. The same post has been republished on the admirable website Labour List. In both forums it has prompted a number of exceptionally interesting comments, some of them passionate, some almost incoherent, some based on legal expertise and factual knowledge. Yet the whole tone of the comments on the one blog has been, as usual, completely different from that of the comments on the other. I wonder why this should be — and also why a post on this particular (mainly rather technical) issue should arouse such vehement reactions? Whatever the explanation, it seems to me a good example of the immense virtue of the interactivity of blogs: only on the Web can those who object to an article, or passionately support it, give vent to their arguments and emotions — provided that the blog-master is reasonably tolerant about what she allows to be said on her website and what she’s driven to delete. (I use “she” and “her” as convenient and non-sexist shorthand for “he or she” and “his or her”, in accordance with the best recent practice.)
* * * * *
A titanic struggle has been going on over the future of control orders — those euphemisms for preventive detention under virtual house arrest for people who have never been charged with, still less convicted of, any offence, and so are entitled to the presumption of innocence, all on the mere suspicion by the security agencies of some connection with terrorism. The LibDems, to their great credit, have always opposed these wretched totalitarian measures and Nick Clegg has reportedly threatened to make it a deal-breaker for continued participation in the coalition government if control orders aren’t scrapped. The respected organisation Liberty has campaigned vigorously for abolition, strongly supported apparently by the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, and the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, both Tories. The political commentators have been reporting that a decision to abandon control orders was imminent, the price of keeping the LibDems on board. But now the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who has been heavily leaned on by the intelligence and security agencies and the police, has weighed in for their retention, supported by Lord Carlile, the former government reviewer of terrorism laws (who has always tended to support the status quo after having had access to all the files on the suspects), Sir Malcolm (“at this moment in time”) Rifkind, and the rest of the usual gang who like to terrorise us with threats of bombs going off all over the country if New Labour’s vast array of illiberal security measures is reduced by the smallest enlightened reform. Lord Carlile gave the game away by reminding his fellow LibDems that they would be blamed if control orders were abolished and a terrorist outrage occurred soon afterwards (never mind the claims of liberal principle, protect yourself against any accusation of being soft on terrorism just in case something bad happens and you get the blame). Now the Guardian reports that control orders will probably stay, with some softening of their sharp edges as a leaky life raft for Nick Clegg. One despairs.
* * * * *
Vote ‘No’ in the referendum on AV! One of several reasons for opposing AV is elegantly explained in a letter in the London Review of Books of 2 December 2010 from one Bill Myers of Leicester, to whom I would gladly send a bottle of cheap Cava if I knew which Bill Myers he was:
Whatever Ross McKibbin may say, opponents of AV are not ‘cave dwellers’ (LRB, 18 November). AV maximises the votes of extremist candidates, since anyone voting for them knows their second preference votes will still count, while the second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated have no impact on the result, though as many as 40 per cent of the votes may be affected. In constituencies where the Labour and Lib Dem candidates are the leading contenders, for example, only the second preferences of Conservative, UKIP and BNP supporters will matter. It is possible, however, that if their own candidate is defeated, Labour voters would prefer to be represented by an ‘honest-to-God’ Tory than a ‘pragmatic’ Lib Dem. The second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated should take precedence over those of the least successful candidates. Under the standard counting procedure, AV is demonstrably less democratic than first past the post.
Right on, Bill.
* * * * *
We’re reeling from a disaster-ridden evening in which J cooked our first ever goose, for a festive supper with her sister and her partner. A tub of hot goose fat got accidentally spilled on the tiled floor of the kitchen, which still, after being swabbed repeatedly with assorted chemical cleaners, closely resembles an ice rink. J thinks that some of the clothes she was wearing may eventually become wearable again after repeated buffeting in the washing machine; the rest she has thrown away. My efforts at ‘carving’ this huge creature had me trying to tear its limbs off with my bare but goose-fat-covered hands, straight out of a feeble and unfunny sitcom. The derisory quantity of dark brown meat that I eventually managed to hack off it were indistinguishable from over-done lamb, reminiscent of some third-rate Greek restaurant. Luckily J had done all the usual trimmings, which were fine, and plenty of red and white liquid went gratefully down four hatches. All pure Feydeau. Could anyone find a use for a tub of goose fat, by any chance? Not the one that went to lubricate the kitchen floor, of course. Uh-oh: J warns me that there’s only one tub left and that it’s reserved for me to fry my eggs and bacon in. Offer regretfully withdrawn.
This is another collection of thoughts about a few of the events and controversies of the last few weeks, seen from the perspective of a committed supporter of the Labour Party who is also an unhappy critic of some of the things our governments have done since the glad confident morning of 2 May, 1997, as well as one who is proud to acknowledge their many successes.
* * * * *
It seems out of character for the prime minister to have tripped up so badly when he told the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry that under his Chancellorship defence spending had risen in real terms every year. His subsequent admission that this was a mistake (in four years of the period the defence budget had fallen in real terms) has naturally been seized on by the Tories and the generals, admirals, etc. as further evidence for the accusation that as Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown had starved our forces of the funds necessary for the equipment, vehicles and helicopters required to protect our servicemen as they have fought the various wars to which they have been committed. Two things need to be said about that:
(1) The “year on year” mistake has obscured the more relevant truth that over the period in question there was indeed a substantial 12% real terms increase in defence spending, in contrast with the equivalent period under the Tories, and even leaving aside the extra cost of Blair’s various wars; and –
(2) The defence budget overall is quite big enough for the purchase of almost unlimited quantities of body armour, helicopters, heavily armoured transport vehicles, night vision equipment and anything else needed for fighting wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the spending priorities of all three services are decided primarily by the generals, admirals and air marshals, not by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If they choose to allocate so much of their budgets to fearsomely expensive toys such as Trident and the nuclear deterrent generally, to Euro-fighters and aircraft carriers and new generations of battle tanks designed to fight the Russians on the plains of central Europe, so that almost nothing is left for the unglamorous equipment needed for street fighting in Basra or Helmand, whose fault is that? The British commanders in the field must also take some responsibility for the shortcomings: if British troops lack the helicopters or other equipment needed to undertake specific operations with a reasonable degree of protection, their commanders shouldn’t undertake those operations.
* * * * *
I fear that the BA strike has a wider significance than questions such as the right staffing levels of aircraft cabins and how much BA cabin stewards and stewardesses (if that female form is still permissible?) ought to be paid. At its heart is the proposition, apparently accepted unquestioningly by all three major parties, that most of the horrendous costs of recovery from the current economic and financial slump should be borne by ordinary middle and working class people through cuts in their wages and salaries (dressed up as wage ‘freezes’, part-time working, etc.), increases in taxes on even the lowest paid, such as VAT, and sharp cuts in public services on which the most vulnerable people in society depend most heavily. Meanwhile the investment bankers and hedge fund managers whose greed and perfidy got us into this mess are back in business with their huge bonuses and indecent salaries, largely at our expense. If the few working people who are still members of trade unions perceive this distribution of burden as unfair and unacceptable, and if their bosses, supported by Labour and the Tories alike, obstinately insist on exploiting the recession to impose it on them anyway, we may be in for many more strikes. Most of the media seem surprised and outraged by the spectacle of organised labour trying to protect itself with the only weapon it has got against a ferocious and unwarranted assault on their standard of living. Things can only get worse.
* * * * *
I’ve been surprised by the number of my friends who have fervently agreed with a Times article of 9 March 2010 by David Aaronovitch denouncing the continued search for the truth about the Iraq disaster in the Chilcot Inquiry on the grounds that it’s all old hat, and that “it’s time to move on”. Well, Mr Aaronovitch would say that, wouldn’t he? He got the whole thing badly wrong back in 2003 and later, supporting the war and continuing to argue that it has all been worth-while, despite the mountain of evidence being expertly marshalled by the Chilcot Inquiry to the contrary. Those responsible for this act of criminal folly are still trying to persuade us, e.g. in their evidence to Chilcot, that they were right to abandon the UN diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis peacefully when they did because the French had made it clear that whatever happened in the future they would always veto any UN resolution authorising the use of force. In fact, in the famous TV interview on which this assertion depends, President Chirac had said exactly the opposite, as the transcript shows (and as demonstrated by the documentary evidence available for example in the comments on an earlier blog post of mine) — and as the French government made clear at the time in urgent messages to No. 10 and the FCO saying that their position was being misinterpreted. Did Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Gordon Brown, and the rest of their Cabinet colleagues, knowingly misinterpret the French position, as they continue to do? If not, why didn’t they or their officials read the interview transcript and the messages from Paris, and stop using the misinterpretation as the main justification for going to war prematurely and without UN authority? Perhaps Sir J Chilcot and his colleagues will discover and publish the answers to these rather fundamental questions, even if David Aaronovitch and others now find the whole thing boring.
* * * * *
Fortunately it’s unnecessary to say anything here about the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church over child abuse by priests, since everything that needs to be said about it has been said in an admirable article in the Independent by Johann Hari. It’s available on the Independent‘s website, here, and is well worth reading if you haven’t read it already.
* * * * *
According to the Guardian, the sainted Vincent Cable of the LibDems has assured the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury of his willingness to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer if there’s a hung parliament after the forthcoming election. This seems to make rather a lot of assumptions. I wonder what Nick Clegg, Cable’s less well known leader, thinks of it. It’s always rash to attempt predictions, especially of election results, but I still persist in my expectation that there won’t be a hung parliament, whatever the current polls might say, and that the Tories will have an adequate overall majority in the house of commons to enable them to govern on their own. That expectation is strengthened by the latest public humiliation of Messrs Byers and Hoon and Ms Hewitt — and by the timely (but undoubtedly fortuitous) pregnancy of the new media favourite, Mrs ‘SamCam’ Cameron. I also persist in predicting that a Tory overall majority will be a disaster for Britain, to be prevented if possible at almost any cost.
* * * * *
On a more personal note, I wonder how many people know what a lovely place Wells in Somerset turns out to be, and what a superb cathedral it has? The most dyed-in-the-wool and bigoted atheist (such as me) couldn’t fail to be moved by Choral Evensong in Wells Cathedral, sung gloriously every day of the year by its magnificent choir. There’s a fuller account, with pictures, of the splendid week that J and I have just spent in Wells here – but don’t all rush at the same time to the website of the Swan Hotel to book the Cathedral Suite there; there’s plenty of time for everyone. (Actually, not having converted such knowledge as I might have had of international affairs into cash when I retired, we couldn’t afford the Cathedral Suite, but our Standard Room was absolutely fine.)
 See Stephen Grey, Cracking on in Helmand, Prospect magazine, Issue 162, 27 August 2009:
In Whitehall, meanwhile, government officials seethed at what they regarded as General Dannatt’s opportunism in using recent casualties to spread the blame for three years of bloody stalemate. As seen from London or Washington, the story of Helmand was more often of commanders who pushed soldiers into harm’s way, sent back endlessly optimistic reports, and extended the conflict beyond the resources and political will available back home. Their complaint has merit. Politicians dispatched troops to Afghanistan, but Nato generals decided how to deploy them. Most of the crucial decisions—from sending troops to defend the platoon houses, to “mowing the lawn,” to Panther’s Claw—have been made by soldiers. If an operation was launched with insufficient troops (or helicopters) it should not have been launched at all.
I’ll be Away From Keyboard from early on Monday, 12 Oct until late on Thursday the 15th, spending a few days with old friends in Edinburgh. During that time I shan’t be posting on Ephems or anywhere else, nor responding to comments here or on http://www.labourlist.org/home. See you again soon!
More disconnected reflections on the past week’s news and experiences:
I’m no great admirer of Gordon Brown, but once again you have to feel sorry for him. His visit to New York for the UN General Assembly and the historic Security Council meeting chaired by President Obama was in many ways a personal triumph: he was widely hailed as the architect of the global response to the recession, “honoured as world statesman of the year at a VIP-packed gala dinner at which the award was presented … by the veteran US former secretary of state Henry Kissinger”; he earned international respect for a major speech to the General Assembly containing concrete initiatives on climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, poverty and shared prosperity, and was a co-sponsor of the historic Security Council resolution, unanimously adopted, calling for a world without nuclear weapons. A few days ago he was in Berlin developing a new initiative on Afghanistan with the Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Yet he comes back from New York to be vilified by the media because there wasn’t time for a formal bilateral meeting with President Obama — whom Brown sat next to (or only one seat away) in the Council. Obama inevitably took advantage of the presence in New York for the UNGA of numerous world leaders to talk privately to those with whom his contacts are rare. He and the UK prime minister meet often and talk on the secure telephone even more often. Yet even the Guardian treats us to a banner headline proclaiming that Obama has snubbed the unfortunate Gordon. Truly, no man is a prophet in his own country. Fair enough to take Brown as we find him, warts and all: but the UK media never seem to notice anything but the warts.
* * * * *
Earlier in the week I was stopped and searched by an extremely courteous police sergeant under the infamous Article 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. I had just emerged, with my wife, from Green Park tube station; we were walking through the park on our way to have lunch with some old friends from university, all of us septuagenarians. Under section (3) of Article 44, authority to stop and search anyone “may be given only if the person giving it considers it expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism“. The sergeant smiled drily at my speculation that I had been singled out for this treatment because of my beard, presumably an almost infallible pointer to terrorist proclivities. A search of my back-pack failed to reveal a bomb, but the sergeant was pretty suspicious of my sachets of powdered sweeteners (“Splenda“, actually: strongly recommended). I suppose any copper must hope to have hit pay-dirt when coming across white powder in a beardie’s rucksack. He took my wife’s word for it that it was only sweetener, and refrained from tasting it. There followed a fairly lengthy ritual of identification, the policeman laboriously copying details of my driving licence, the time and location of the search, and the provision of the Terrorism Act under which he was acting, onto elaborate forms. He gave me faint, barely legible copies of these, “in case you wish to lodge a complaint against my conduct or against the system, Sir”. I assured him that I had no complaint against him personally: his conduct had been impeccable. As for the system, I had already made vociferous public complaints against it ever since the enactment of the pernicious law in question. I assured him that I would continue to do so. So I must assume that my name and details are now irrevocably recorded in some police database under the heading of ‘terrorist suspects’. Not really funny, I suppose.
* * * * *
I was glad to see a letter in the Guardian on 22 September (I can’t find it on the website) making the points, not to my knowledge made elsewhere in the media, (1) that the ‘fine’ of £5,000 imposed on Baroness Scotland, the Attorney-General, by a government body called the UK Border Agency for her failure to make a photocopy of the passport of her Tongan housekeeper was ludicrously and disproportionately severe considering the laughably trivial nature of her ‘offence’ (it’s not even a crime); and (2) that things have come to a pretty pass when British citizens can be arbitrarily fined to the tune of thousands of pounds by a government department without any vestige of due process. Another unpleasant feature of this non-event has been the opportunistic rush by the Tory shadow home secretary and his LibDem counterpart to demand that Patricia Scotland should “consider her position” — mealy-mouthed Westminsterese for “resign as Attorney-General”. And yet another unpalatable aspect is the fact that the law imposes on all of us this mad duty to photocopy the passport and other documents of any foreign person whom we employ, in a brazen attempt to make us do the UK Border Agency’s work for it.
The UK Border Agency has acknowledged that Lady Scotland had not “knowingly” employed an illegal worker, and had “taken steps” to check her housekeeper’s documents, so her sole offence was the failure to photocopy them. Did the opposition spokespersons hollering for her resignation raise any objection to this barmy and oppressive provision of the Immigration, Nationality and Asylum Act 2006 when it was scrutinised by parliament? If not, they should shut up. It’s especially sad that all this should cast a shadow over Patricia Scotland’s distinguished career (thanks to the Daily Mail, needless to say) when hers has been such an inspiring example of sheer talent and hard work, taking a girl from Dominica in the West Indies, the tenth of a family of 12 children, to Britain as a young black immigrant, to a starry career as a barrister, to ministerial appointments and a seat in the House of Lords, and then on to the position of the government’s principal legal adviser with the right to attend Cabinet. The Daily Mail and those demanding her resignation must feel very proud of themselves.
* * * * *
Continuing down through Green Park after my brush with the law, we cut through to Pall Mall via the passageway leading past Bridgewater House, one of the magnificent buildings lining the side of the park. Designed by Barry in 1847 for the Earl of Ellesmere, the house is still privately owned, unoccupied most of the year other than by a caretaker and his wife. This week, however, it was the centre of vigorous activity, as dozens of workmen dismantled a gigantic stage, supported by extensive scaffolding, over the grounds between the house and the park, and laboured to remove the massive cantilevered steel canopy that had been erected over it. The stage and canopy had been built, so we gathered, for a party last weekend for some 400 people, given by an unnamed host who was staying at the time at the Ritz, just at the top of the park. It had taken more than two weeks to build these massive structures, and seemd likely to take at least another two weeks to dismantle them and take them away. No doubt some restoration of the grounds underneath will also be necessary. I just thought you’d like to know. It must have been some party.
There’s been a lot of snow today in our corner of south-west London: around 6 or 7 inches (I still can’t quite come to grips with snow in centigrade) from the stuff that fell overnight last night, plus the stuff that has been falling all day; and more is forecast for this evening and tonight. There are a few pictures to flick through here. (Click the first one and then move through the rest using the arrows at the top.) I’ll put a specimen below as well.
Some snow pundit on the radio says that the UK record for snowfall remains 89 inches in County Durham in 1949. Be that as it may — and I for one don’t believe it — today’s modest blanket is both pretty unusual and faintly alarming. There are no buses running in London today, and very few trains or tubes (subway trains). As it happens, J. had a medical appointment up in north London in the early afternoon. Even if we had managed to struggle through the snow to the nearby railway station and had been lucky enough to get one of the very few trains stopping at it, followed by similar luck with a tube from Waterloo, there could well have been real problems over the return journey home, and being stranded in north London wouldn’t have been a lot of fun. (It’s been well below freezing all day.) Fortunately, or otherwise, the medic who had been due to see J. answered his mobile to say that he wouldn’t be able to get in today, so we’ll try again tomorrow, although there’s no evidence that it will be any better then.
We have lived, worked and driven assorted modest cars through far more sadistic winters overseas: two in Moscow, three in Warsaw, four in New York, one on the great lakes in Canada; so we still have the clothing, the shovels, the stiff long brushes, the de-icer fluids, and some familiarity with the varying uses in ice and snow of the reverse and second gear facilities of the modern car. We also know about the importance of grit. In Moscow just clearing the snow from the car and scraping the solid ice from the windscreen each morning, then digging out the snowdrifts immediately in front of the wheels, was a formidable task, and I was younger, fitter and leaner then. I used to go out into the great courtyard and car park of the foreigners’ ghetto at 1 or 2 in the morning, wearing six layers of heavy clothing and a fur hat, to start the engine of our humble Ford Cortina and run it for half an hour so as to improve our chances of getting it started in the morning and so get in to work. Often others who had not taken the same precaution would appeal for a tow-start when they heard the Cortina engine cough into life. I once towed a Saudi First Secretary for about four miles along the snow-drifting avenues of Moscow before he managed to get his huge American car started — and when it did, he very nearly drove it into the back of me.
Now there’s nothing like as much snow here in our Mews, it’s not nearly as cold, and the car starts at the first twist of the key in the morning without the need for a midnight warm-up. All the same, the effort required to clear the snow from on top of and in front of the car and to clear a track out into the exit road from the Mews has increased in proportion to my age and waist-line, and by the end of it I was uneasily remembering the statistics of old age pensioners, some a decade younger than me, dropping dead from heart attacks from similar exertions in English snow-storms. I seem to have survived, so far, to fight another day (tomorrow). But the knowledge that the car on the ice-bound roads could well be the only way of getting to a doctor or a hospital Accident & Emergency department in case of a sudden medical problem affecting either of us is a little depressing. Luckily these things don’t generally last long in this country, courtesy of the Gulf Stream. But those old generalisations seem no longer to be operative now in the age of Global Warming. Roll on summer! No doubt the unprecedented heat-waves will kill twice as many old age pensioners as the snow.
My pre-new-year resolution for this diary entry is to resist the temptation to write about the credit crunch, global warming, the bankers, George Osborne, the Pope, the stock exchange, Governor Sarah Palin, the Daily Mail, the weather, Jonathan Ross, the flu epidemic or Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately I seem to have broken that resolution already. So I’ll say a word about Christmas cards instead. For the first time this year J and I aren’t sending any — well, hardly any. For years now J has done all the tedious work of buying and writing the cards, addressing the envelopes, getting the stamps, and struggling out in the freezing fog to post them. Apart from the freezing fog, J was doing this even when we had several hundred official cards, as well as our private ones, to send out from foreign parts, all those years ago. I have always thought that just about the sole convincing reason for sending Christmas cards was to have a contact at least once a year with old friends with whom we would otherwise lose touch. Now that’s much more easily achieved by the occasional e-mail, exchanges on the blog, even the odd telephone call, without all that business of reindeer in hard copy, manual work with the pen and the stamps, and excursions to letter-boxes — all so last century. What’s worse, because of the dire new Post Office postage pricing rules which involve measuring the envelopes as well as weighing them, you really have to take all the cards to the post office to be measured individually before you can safely post them.
J however explains our new non-policy on Christmas cards far more incisively. She puts it down to ‘senile inertia’.
+ + + + +
A few years ago, when I was involved in that splendid institution the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability (non-profit, non-NHS, but many of the patients funded by their local health authorities), I used to pop in to see one long-stay patient, who had been severely disabled by an asthma attack as a young curate but whose mind and, especially, sense of humour had remained (and still remain) unimpaired. His Christmas e-mail reminds me that his website is a real treasure-trove of jokes of every conceivable kind, many really funny (and that’s not just the few that I have contributed). The best thing I could find this year in reply to his message was:
“There was a little confusion at the meeting there at the White House when President Bush was told that Obama was coming. He said ‘Oh, you mean we caught him?’” (David Letterman).
Well, it made me giggle, anyway.
+ + + + +
Yet another admiring programme about Prince Charles has been on television recently. Some of it has been (presumably unintentionally) revealing. I loved the bit where HRH explains why he likes to be accompanied at all times by a member of his staff with a pen and a notebook. “If they don’t write down everything I say, it gets forgotten and nothing ever gets done.” Boswell, where art thou?
The Princess of Wales, Camilla (to give her her rightful title, even if she has been prevailed upon not to use it) has a walk-on part in the programme and performs it with notable grace. If and when the Prince succeeds his mother on the throne, Queen Camilla (to give her her rightful future title, even if she continues to be prevailed upon not to use it) shows every sign of being an excellent Queen Consort and probably an extremely good influence on a potentially wayward monarch.
+ + + + +
Tony Travers, the director of the Greater London Group at the LSE, had an interesting piece in Tuesday’s Guardian about what he called “a catalogue of struggles between the Conservatives and Scotland Yard”, of which the latest round has been the denunciation, now retracted with apologies, by Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, of the Tories’ alleged and denied role in publicising Quick’s private address in the Daily Mail (damn!), forcing him and his family to move to a different address. Quick, head of Special Operations at the Yard — not head of counter-terrorism as commonly said, although counter-terrorism is one important element in his command — is in charge of the investigation of two years of systematic leaks to a front-bench Conservative MP by a Conservative activist and civil servant at the home office. A potentially useful debate on the rights and, especially, wrongs of party-political leaking by civil servants to anti-government MPs has unfortunately been sidelined by the huge row over the arrest for questioning of the MP in question by Quick’s coppers, and the search of the MP’s parliamentary office for evidence. The police didn’t have a search warrant for the latter activity, but they did have written permission for it from the parliamentary Serjeant-at-Arms, which seems to me just as good. Anyway, such has been the hysterical uproar over the treatment of the MP by the police that it now looks as if the original police investigation of systematic leaking from the home office may be abandoned, much to the obvious relief of the more perceptive Tories. If there’s really a “struggle between the Conservatives and Scotland Yard” going on, I know whose side I’m on, for once.
The last sentence of Mr Travers’s article, by the way, referring to the two adversaries — the Tories and the Metropolitan Police — reads:
Both sides are better than the other would have us believe.
Who, I wonder is this “other” who would have us believe something? Obviously an unidentified third party. It’s a pity that good clear expressions such as “each other” and “one another” are being supplanted more and more by “both”, in this context ‘both’ inaccurate and ambiguous.
+ + + + +
J and I listened with nostalgic attention to the live radio broadcast this afternoon, Christmas Eve, of the traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. We have been overseas for each of the past six or seven Christmas Eves so this was the first time we had heard the live broadcast for a long time. We were both sadly disappointed. The King’s choir, world-famous for its clarity and purity of tone, sounded muddy and even under-rehearsed. The boy solo treble who, as always, introduces the service with “Once in Royal David’s City” sounded understandably but regrettably nervous. The new carols sung for the first time in this event sounded tuneless and inaccessible (surprisingly: at least one of them was by the late Peter Tranchell, who composed great quantities of memorably tuneful music for cabaret and musical comedies when I was a Cambridge undergraduate, rather a long time ago). Even some of the old, familiar, traditional carols had been tinkered with for no discernible purpose unless to irritate. To cap it all, the nine lessons were almost all read by the usual assorted King’s big-wigs and small-wigs in a mannered and distracting style, with strong stresses in odd places.
Perhaps the Festival has always been like this and it’s just that when we were younger we didn’t notice, or didn’t mind. Now we do.
+ + + + +
Polly Toynbee, the Guardian‘s resident humanist and secularist, headed her Christmas column: “My Christmas message? There’s probably no God,” a partial quotation from a poster message that’s to appear shortly on a fleet of London and other buses in a new secularist campaign: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life“. This seems to me to strike all the right notes. No dogmatic assertion that God doesn’t exist: just a suitably cautious reminder that on the balance of probabilities and the available evidence so far, his existence is more improbable than probable, and thus no more a sensible hypothesis on which to build our lives than any other improbable proposition. The advice to stop worrying about it also seems apt, given the pervasive guilt and obsession with sin relentlessly propagated by much religion. And the exhortation to enjoy life pithily reminds us that it’s — probably — the only one we’re going to get, so it’s no good putting up with misery and oppression now in the vain hope that it will all be all right in the next one. Polly’s article has prompted the predictable tsunami of abusive denunciation from the dwindling ranks of the God-fearing faithful: 723 comments in Comment is Free, and counting; and a raft of laughably feeble ripostes on today’s Guardian letters page, including efforts by a Right Reverend, a Prebendary and a Rabbi, arguing variously that religion has contributed wonderful art, poetry, etc. to our culture; that “belief in atheism” is no more “rational” than “the adoption of religion” — breathtaking!; that Ms Toynbee’s liberal values are “largely based” on “Christian principles” (so much for millions of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Druids and flat-earthers); and that Polly shouldn’t attack religion at Christmas time. One letter denounces the invitation not to worry, because “True religion demands that we should be worried about our world, particularly in these troubled times, and take our lives and our responsibilities seriously.” Controversial stuff! Judging by those 723 comments on the Guardian website, the Toynbee column will have attracted a massive postbag of letters about the Toynbee column and submitted for publication in the paper. If those selected for publication today were really the best of the lot, God help the religious lobby (so to speak)! Sensible Christians like the intellectually rigorous and clear-sighted Revd. Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney, must be thinking: “with friends like these….”
+ + + + +
We returned, J and I, on Sunday from another cruise, this time aboard the biggest and newest ship in the UK cruise fleet, P&O's Ventura. Our private ship's log, or diary, of the two weeks afloat, is here. You can see a selection of the photographs I took, as we wended our way round the Mediterranean, here (guidance on how to view them is given at the end of the diary). They may give at least as much of the flavour as the diary. It will be obvious that this was no adventure cruise to brave the pirates of the Indian Ocean, to see giant penguins or the stone statues of the Galapagos Islands, or to experiment with our breathing in minus 30 temperatures at the South Pole. It was devoted almost entirely to kitsch.
It was a very good holiday, but somehow we don't think we'll want to cruise on quite such an enormous ship again, even if we can afford it once the slump now about to engulf us has done its work on our modest savings. And if Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah – but that's for the next post. Watch this space.