The leaders of all three major political parties, and most of their parliamentary followers, have responded with predictable horror to the recommendation of a 9% increase in MPs’ pay made by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). IPSA was created in 2009 by the Parliamentary Standards Act and is tasked with independently monitoring and controlling MPs’ expenses, pay and pensions. The 9% pay increase recommendation is just one of a number of proposals in a detailed and comprehensive report, ‘MPs’ pay and pensions: a new package’, which (as its title suggests) sets out a carefully balanced package under which MPs would not only receive a 9% pay increase, but would also suffer significant reductions in their pensions, severance pay and allowances. Although these proposed reductions would not fully offset the proposed pay increase, they would reduce to perfectly manageable proportions the net cost of the recommendations to the taxpayer.
Yet with few exceptions, politicians and the media have focused in their condemnation of the IPSA report exclusively on the proposed pay increase, neglecting to point out that this is largely offset by proposed reductions in MPs’ other emoluments. The BBC’s Political Editor, Nick Robinson, for example, has been shamelessly roaming the streets with a piece of paper announcing the 9% pay increase proposal, showing it to random passers-by, and inviting them to express their shock, horror and dismay to camera. This kind of shoddy journalism has had the obvious and predictable effect of inciting yet more public animus against the IPSA recommendations (or one of them) and against politicians generally. Not only have MPs been demanding that the statutory power and responsibility of IPSA be ignored and the pay award vetoed (which, to be legal, would require a fresh Act of Parliament): some have been promising not to accept the award if it is granted. This hair-shirt act is all very well for MPs with lucrative extra-parliamentary sources of income, or private wealth: it does scant service to MPs, especially those with families, who have chosen to regard being a member of parliament as a full-time job.
Every MP, including even the party leaders, and every serious media commentator, knows perfectly well that for many years cowardly governments have held down MPs’ pay for fear of the wrath of the tabloids, playing on general public distaste for politicians. Independently calculated proposals for periodic pay increases have been regularly vetoed by equally timorous Labour and Conservative governments, with the result that MPs’ pay has fallen further and further behind that of comparable occupations, including that of parliamentarians of almost all similar countries. The discreetly understood quid pro quo for this underpayment of MPs’ salaries was an explosion in MPs’ expense allowances, administered by the Parliamentary staff with the greatest laxity, as part compensation for inadequate pay. It suited everyone to turn a blind eye to this obviously unsatisfactory compromise, until a leak to the Daily Telegraph in 2009 of details of widespread abuse of MPs expenses exposed what had been going on, resulting in general public outrage, the termination of the careers of the worst offenders, and greater or lesser penalties imposed on most of the rest.
IPSA’s recommendations are meticulously argued and documented in its 74-page report. As far as I’m aware, none of its critics in Parliament, the government or the media has taken the trouble to dispute any of the report’s arguments, facts and figures underpinning its balanced recommendations. In denouncing the proposed pay increase, and demanding that it should not be implemented, MPs and commentators are implicitly calling for a return to the bad old days when MPs and governments determined their own pay and allowances. This almost universally negative reaction is based almost entirely on fear: fear of the tabloids, fear of a public opinion already prejudiced against politicians, and fear of their own inability to explain and defend the rational and statutory underpinning of the complex of recommendations in the IPSA report. As so often, the defining characteristic of those who govern and legislate for us is cowardice.
One postscript: IPSA says in its report that it found no evidence that inadequate pay for MPs had had a damaging effect on the calibre of candidates for election to the House of Commons. This seems to me the one element in the report that is wide open to question. It is far from clear what kind of evidence could be produced either to negate or to confirm the proposition that, in the terms of the cliché, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Better pay and conditions, better work practices, more reasonable demands on MPs’ time, a work description based on a rational interpretation of the Constitution, greater freedom from the tyranny of the Whips and local party activists – all these things could reasonably be expected to appeal to people of strong character, sound principles and a commitment to public service, and attract them to what should be regarded as the honourable profession of politics. Such reforms are no doubt mostly pie in the sky. One of them, decent pay and sensible pensions and allowances, is now on offer. All the signs are that it will once again be thrown away, the victim of prejudice, ignorance and cowardice.
[Note by Brian: The following is a blog post written for Ephems by an Australian friend of long standing about the Australian Labor Party (ALP) leadership contest on 26 June 2013 between the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, and her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, whom she had herself displaced as party leader and prime minister three years earlier. A 'spill' is a leadership contest prompted by a challenge either to an incumbent leader by a rival or vice versa. A 'caucus' is a meeting of all the MPs and Senators of a party in the Australian parliament. 'John' is the writer's husband. Australian elections to the House of Representatives are due to take place in September 2013. Now read on…]
I’m furious, devastated, incredulous…. at Julia Gillard’s defeat by Kevin Rudd.
When we heard that there’d be a leadership spill, called by Julia, at 7 pm, I said to John that I’d put my money on Julia. Not because I thought that she’d win the September election so should be supported, but because she is so determined, so feisty, whereas Kevin Rudd has been a wilting lily when it’s come to leadership contests. The rumoured leadership challenge in the last few days looked as if it was in the same category.
So it was a shock that Julia lost 45 – 57 to Rudd.
As one commentator said, it was a case of caucus members assessing their electoral chances. The polling has been devastating for Labor. So in the last few weeks when leadership speculation emerged, yet again, it was against the background of the possibility of Labor losses such as the party hasn’t seen since 1966. In other words, lots of jobs lost. You could ask, well what’s changed recently? And the answer can only be, time. It’s getting closer to the election date, 14 Sept, and as it gets closer I guess incumbent politicians lose their nerve.
What is infuriating is that Labor, under Julia Gillard, has introduced some very progressive policies – a carbon tax (OK, they were pressed into it by the Greens, but that was more a matter of timing than of policy itself), a disability insurance scheme, a new and significant education funding mechanism, general dental care, plain packaging for cigarettes, increased funding for mental health care…. and that’s just off the top of my head. But recently an opinion poll showed that people supported the policies of Labor, but not the Labor Party itself.
Could it possibly be because Julia Gillard is the first female PM? Sounds very defensive, until you take into account the attacks from the shock jocks and the Murdoch press. Alan Jones’s references to ‘Ju-liar’ now seem so mild. Oh, he did say that she ought to be taken out to sea in a chaff bag, hopefully to be sunk there, but that is all mild compared to the sort of obscenities that have emerged since. It’s not mainstream, admittedly, but it defies reason to suggest that the appallingly sexist, disgusting stuff that’s been circulating hasn’t had its effect on mainstream commentary.
You over there could well ask what’s the difference between the tossing out of an unpopular PM, Julia Gillard, and the tossing out of a popular PM, Kevin Rudd, 3 years ago? To my mind, Kevin Rudd’s deposition was one which only the Canberra insiders – and the ALP numbers men/women – understood. In vote-winning terms: it was a loss of nerve, as Rudd’s popularity, although declining, was not at election-losing level. However, he hadn’t delivered much. Much was the promise, but…. So I was willing to go along with that assassination.
The public however was not. It wasn’t until last year that Labor politicians bared their breasts and admitted to why they’d axed Kevin: he was impossible to work with. Meanwhile the public perception was that Julia had knifed Kevin. Paul Keating was allowed to knife Bob Hawke, the incumbent PM, in 1991, but Julia, a woman, was not.
Julia has been dogged throughout her term as devious, a PM-slayer. Various slips – like the “no carbon tax under my government” – as they have been publicised, have contributed to the image of untrustworthiness. All bollocks, but what can you do with a print media dominated by Murdoch?
In the next few years or decades there’ll be a major revision of Julia Gillard’s reputation and record. She’s been a terrific driver of policy, an extraordinarily effective negotiator, right from the day she negotiated the arrangement which created stable government out of a hung parliament, and an incredibly courageous person.
The morning after:
I’m not the only one to be devastated at the treatment meted out to Julia Gillard. Debate is raging over whether she was or was not the victim of misogyny. And if so, why.
People who know her personally, politicians and press alike, say that Julia Gillard is a warm, witty, likeable woman. Coming from a migrant background – her parents came from Wales to Australia when she was a child – she has acknowledged that the work ethic of her working-class parents, and the opportunities open to them and their children here in Australia, are what inspire her to work for a free and fair society. Education has always been a priority, as have workplace relations where she made a name for herself in opposition when she faced off then Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott.
But somehow her warmth of personality couldn’t penetrate the TV cameras. And has she been criticised! For her (strong Australian) accent, her nasal tone of voice, her nose, her ears, her choice of clothes, her choice of partner….
Is she to the Right or Left in the party? Once upon a time she was labelled Left, but that label slipped years ago when she engineered, or at least supported, the ALP’s cringeing policy towards asylum seekers. That was in 2001, and in the elections of that year, Left-inclined ALP supporters took their vote elsewhere, swelling the Green vote to an unheard-of 10%.
Since coming to office, the Left label has fallen off completely: why do a deal with the miners that would satisfy them but reduce by billions the projected revenue from a super-profits tax? why go back on her own policy of holding non-government school funding at current Australian dollar levels while increasing government school funding in real terms? why propose (pre-2010 election) postponing for three years any price on carbon? (and then go back on that?) why undo the humane treatment of asylum seekers and for that matter go perilously close to failing Australia’s obligations to the Refugee Convention which we’ve signed up to?
Because she could. Because she had to, in a hung parliament. Therein lay the conundrum. From very early on it was hard to see what Julia Gillard stood for, but that very problem had as its flipside: that she could negotiate, and she could get results. No mean feat in a hung parliament. She did what the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, defied her to do – led a government that went its full term.
And just the opposite to Kevin Rudd who promised much but achieved very little other than a huge and growing in-tray. It was a well-known Canberra secret that departments leapt at the chance to put up policy documents for signature by Deputy PM Gillard when PM Rudd was out of the country. She always cleared the backlog!
Another opposite is her grace and her dignity, exemplified by her offer to quit politics if she lost the ballot. And she has kept her word. Kevin Rudd, by contrast, never stopped undermining her leadership, from way back before the election of 2010 when (his) damaging leaks unsettled the Gillard campaign, to his destabilising efforts throughout her tenure of office. He has hung around and hung around; Julia Gillard has always been fighting Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and at the same time the disloyal former prime minister and one-time Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd.
The brutality of her treatment was not confined to Wednesday 16 June, but has been a constant for three years. And yet she has introduced reforms which will make big changes to Australia for decades – and I mean ‘reforms’, not merely ‘changes’.
But it is the morning after. I find myself sharing the sadness in the looks of those of her colleagues who deserted her, clearly reluctantly. Yet there is at least some hope now that Tony Abbott will not win the election, and there is even an expectation that the size of his victory if he does win will not secure him control of the Senate, hugely important in ensuring that the legislation of the present government will not be overturned.
At least there’s going to be a real contest.
A reason for tuning in again to what has been a very depressing scene for the last year or so.
On Friday, 14 June, the Guardian reported that David Cameron had done the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, the special favour of arranging for him to “visit the Queen” during his visit to London. The Guardian’s Mr Wintour was apparently unaware that as the head of one of the Queen’s many other governments, Mr Harper needs no help from Mr Cameron to pay a call on his head of state [see http://www.barder.com/3981]. My letter to the Guardian pointing this out has not been published.
Not to be outdone, an unsigned story in today’s Guardian (17 June), on page 5, reports that at the 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad “The UK delegation was headed by the Queen, with Prince Philip also in attendance, along with Gordon Brown….”. No doubt the Canadian delegation was headed by the Queen of Canada, the Australian delegation by the Queen of Australia, and so forth, and the whole shebang was chaired by, er, the Head of the Commonwealth (i.e. the Queen).
The Queen could be forgiven for complaining that she’s expected to be everywhere at once.
It’s easily and widely forgotten in Britain that “Her Majesty’s Government”, or HMG, headed by Mr Cameron at Westminster, is only one of the Queen’s 16 governments around the world. The Queen has been the head of state of 32 countries in all, the UK being just one of them. According to Wikipedia,
The Queen has had 12 British Prime Ministers, second only to George III, who had 14, and two more than the number had by Queen Victoria. She has also had 14 New Zealand Prime Ministers, 12 Australian Prime Ministers and 11 Canadian Prime Ministers. The Queen has had a total of 157 Prime Ministers during her reign.
Ignoring for the purposes of this note the intriguing reference here to ten British prime ministers who were “had by Queen Victoria”, I just want to make the point that any of the Queen’s prime ministers naturally has automatic access to her whenever he or she needs or wants it. A telephone call, letter or email to the Palace is all that’s needed. All 16 of her prime ministers are heads of government of independent sovereign states, and all are of equal constitutional status — even Mr Cameron. The prime minister of Canada discusses Canadian and international affairs with the Queen of Canada; Mr Cameron discusses British and international affairs with the Queen of the United Kingdom. When the Queen is visiting The Most Honourable Mrs Portia Lucretia Simpson-Miller, ON, MP, Her Majesty is the Queen of Jamaica. She’s the same person but she acts in different capacities.
So it was surprising to read in the Guardian newspaper of 14 June (yesterday) a report by Patrick Wintour according to which:
The prime minister was meeting continued resistance from his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, over critical plans to require countries to reveal the true beneficial owners of shell companies and trusts. The measure is vital to combatting money laundering, fighting tax evasion and turning tax information exchange into something meaningful.
Cameron laid on the diplomatic red carpet for Harper, giving him the rare honour of speaking to both houses of parliament, a visit to the Queen and a lengthy bilateral meeting at Downing Street. But Harper is worried about exposing private Canadian tax affairs and fears complications arising from Canada‘s federal structure. [Emphasis added.]
I submitted a letter to the Guardian drawing attention to this constitutional nonsense:
The suggestion that in his efforts to win over the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, to the cause of transparency over company ownerships for the G8, David Cameron has “given him the rare honour of … a visit to the Queen” (Cameron faces 11-th hour battle over G8 objectives, 14 June) ignores the reality that as the prime minister of one of Her Majesty’s Governments (namely her Canadian government), Mr Harper has precisely the same right and opportunity of access to the Queen as Mr Cameron, the prime minister of another of HM Governments. Mr Harper needs no help from Mr Cameron in arranging to see the Queen.
14 June 2013
With remarkable self-restraint, I forebore to mention the Guardian’s spelling of ‘combating’, focusing [sic] instead on the constitutional issue. My letter hasn’t been published (yet, anyway). I suppose it’s regarded in the newspaper’s letters section as nit-picking — as, indeed, it is. There are about 35 million Canadians, less than a half of 1 per cent of the world’s population, and it would be surprising if as many as 1 per cent of them read the Guardian. I doubt if Mr Wintour is kept awake at night by the thought of a maximum of 350,000 Canadians wincing when they read his blooper.
I submitted the following letter to the Guardian on 1 June, in reply to a Guardian editorial inexplicably supporting the proposal now being espoused by the government for a given number of an MP’s constituents to be allowed to ‘recall’ him or her, either ending his political career or forcing him to vacate his seat and stand for re-election in a by-election:
The Guardian should not be supporting the idea of constituents having the right to recall — ie dismiss — their MP between elections, however many of them might vote to do so (Editorial, 1 June). Fear of de-selection already makes too many MPs slaves of their constituents, especially their local parties. They already tend to spend too much time as untrained and unqualified social workers in their constituencies, doing work that should be done by local Councillors and social workers, at the expense of their real jobs at Westminster — holding government to account and ensuring that the laws they pass are fit for purpose.
Not only must MPs try to avoid de-selection by their local parties: their careers depend on the approval of the party Whips, with their threats and bribes to compel them to vote according to their parties’ instructions, not their own best judgement and conscience.
We already see a House of Commons largely comprising automatons, lobby fodder with only rare signs of an independent spirit. Adding the power of recall at the whim of constituents would inevitably aggravate this dismal situation. We should remember Burke’s dictum that your MP owes you “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” The time to get rid of an unsatisfactory MP is when he or she stands for re-election, not at random times between elections whenever he incurs momentary unpopularity by some act of brave defiance.
1 June 2013
The Guardian publishes my letter today (4 June) but with the regrettable deletion of the vital Burke quotation in the penultimate sentence, thereby much blunting its effect.
A variant of the ‘recall’ proposal, not mentioned in my letter, is that a defined number of an MP’s constituents should have the power to recall him or her in retribution for some kind of ‘misbehaviour’. This too seems to me misconceived. If an MP is convicted of a criminal offence of sufficient gravity (as defined by law) to warrant it, he or she should automatically lose his seat and be disqualified from standing for re-election, as is already the case. If an MP has been found to have broken parliamentary rules of some kind but not to have broken the law, it should be up to parliament, not some arbitrary percentage of his constituents, to decide and impose an appropriate penalty, but not including expulsion from the House (which defies the judgement of his constituents who elected him). Some arbitrary proportion of an MP’s constituents are not equipped to act as some kind of combined judge and jury: even an erring MP is entitled to due process. Once an MP is elected, unless he commits a serious crime, he should be left to get on with it, free to risk unpopularity and controversy between elections and held to account for his record only at the next election.
Of course an MP elected as the candidate of a specific political party owes his seat and his loyalty to his party, but not when that loyalty comes into conflict with his best judgement and conscience. The threats and bribes deployed by party whips (and mentioned in my Guardian letter above) are in obvious contempt of parliament: anyone outside parliament who attempted to bribe an MP to vote in a particular way, or who threatened to terminate his political career unless he voted this way or that, would rightly be hauled before the Bar of the House, lectured, humiliated and punished. It would be very good discipline if the leaders and whips of the parties were made to rely on argument and persuasion to get their MPs into the desired voting lobbies, and not on blackmail.
Say No to the recall of MPs!
The new Norma Percy production in the Brook Lapping series of contemporary history documentaries is “The Iraq War”, showing on three successive Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC2, starting this Wednesday, 29 May. Norma Percy and Brook Lapping have won numerous awards for their documentaries on, for example, Iran and the West, The Death of Yugoslavia, the Second Russian Revolution and The End-game in Ireland. Their special feature is an uncanny ability to persuade the leading protagonists in each of the crises they have covered to take part in the programme and tell their own sides of the story, sometimes with startling frankness — everyone from Gorbachev to Milosevic. The new programme on the Iraq war should be well worth watching, if Norma Percy’s past productions are anything to go by. It ought to be a good curtain-raiswer for the long delayed report of the Chilcot Inquiry.
Full disclosure: I have no financial or other stake in Brook Lapping except that Brian Lapping, Norma Percy’s Executive Producer, is an old friend from university days and an outstanding television producer. There’s more about Norma Percy at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norma_Percy. I think it’s safe to say that Brian Lapping the television producer is not related to the Brian Lapping of Brian Lapping Massage, Bloomington, Illinois.
There are many cogent and valid arguments against using drones to assassinate terrorist suspects in other peoples’ countries, invading Muslim or other countries on false pretexts, and keeping our troops in Afghanistan a day longer. But, contrary to a mass of media comment, fear of providing a motive or excuse for terrorist attacks in Britain can’t be one of them. We can’t allow terrorist blackmail to determine or influence foreign policy. Anyway, Islamic extremists will never be satisfied by our abstention from invading “their” countries: they object equally strongly to, for example, our practice of educating girls, the way western women dress, pop music, and failure to adapt our laws to Sharia.
The outrage in Woolwich could never have been prevented by modifying our foreign policies in the way the perpetrators demanded. It was a straightforward murder, a matter for the police, not for politicians fatuously portraying it as a threat to our way of life and calling for national unity in sub-Churchillian rhetoric. The prime minister makes a nonsense of his call on everyone to ‘keep calm and carry on’ by cutting short his official talks in Paris and rushing home to chair Cobra meetings, as if a single gruesome murder with a political motive constituted a national emergency.
Any article, letter, tweet or statement which says that nothing can excuse or condone the murder of an innocent soldier on a London street, and continues with the word ‘but’, betrays a hopelessly muddled mind. Predictably, today’s Guardian is full of them.
(Apologies for the long absence of political or other commentaries on this blog. The reason is spelled out at length at http://www.barder.com/3942. It will be some time before normal service can be resumed, I fear.)
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.
Wednesday 22 May: Two sessions at the hospital this afternoon, half an hour with my usual physiotherapist and an hour with the lymphatic drainage massage expert. By the end of these my leg feels as if it’s been put through a wringer. But between them these two energetic pummellers have added six or seven points to the angle at which I can bend my leg so I suppose it’s worth it. Until now, it’s been one of my better days, having had a restful night despite an almost total lack of sleep. Spent much of the night composing limericks about knee surgery. At around 4am this morning several of these seemed so outstandingly brilliant that I was considering sending them to my knee surgeon in the morning. But in the cold light of day (about 6am) I had to acknowledge that they are utterly inane.
Thursday 23 May: 1:20am. Whether or not because of the hard pummelling of the leg yesterday, it’s painful enough tonight to make sleep seem a hopeless ambition and even a moderately comfortable position in bed unattainable. I get up very quietly (although it takes very little to wake J up, unfortunately), limp about from room to room to stop the leg seizing up, and take another (different) pain-killer and a couple of the pills that have been prescribed for my occasional bouts of really intolerable tinnitus but which also tend to send me to sleep. Decide I might as well bring the Knee Diary up to date while I wait for these latest chemicals to start working on my system. Actually I wonder whether the cumulative effect of all the chemicals that I now imbibe in one form or another every 24 hours might be to affect my consciousness in some way. I certainly experience a curious sense of unreality as (with J’s help at almost every turn) I stagger through each day’s almost indistinguishable routines, crutch-assisted descents and ascents of our rather steep narrow stairs, crutchless limping around the bedroom and the kitchen, forcing down small quantities of carefully chosen food that just six weeks ago I would have wolfed down with unseemly greed, icing the leg, doing my exercises, into the car to go to the hospital for more physio, back to the bedroom to ice the leg and do the exercises again. And always the pills. And the horrible scratchy white hospital stockings, from toe to groin, to guard against deep vein thrombosis — with luck I’ll be allowed to discard them when I see the consultant surgeon again next week. And always the pills, and the pain that the pills sometimes dull and sometimes don’t. Often it’s the knee itself that seems to hurt, as if the hunk of steel and plastic that has replaced the old worn-out joint has the capacity to produce pain. Perhaps a pain chip is embedded in it to mimic real knee pain.
1:45am: No sign of pain reduction or sleepiness so far. Reflect on progress. I get irritated by continuing flow of kind messages welcoming recent signs of progress in recovery when in fact I often feel just about as unwell most days as I did two, three, even four weeks ago. But I have to admit to myself that the knee and the leg in which it has been skilfully inserted have made perceptible progress over the five weeks since the operation, in mobility, bendability, capacity for weight-bearing (with occasional bucklings), and beginnings of reduction of swelling, although in that department there still seems a hell of a long way still to go, especially as the leg was already quite badly swollen (from a bike accident seven years ago) even before the knee replacement, and it’s probably too much to hope that any amount of pummelling by the physios, and of painful exercises on the bed or on the floor, will make much impression on that old injury and its consequent swelling. The most I suppose I can reasonably hope for is to get the swelling down to what it was before the operation five weeks ago.
No wonder the whole experience is having this consciousness-altering effect when all I can write about at nearly 2 o’clock in the morning is the state of the damn knee and the difficulty of getting any sleep. Those in pain tend to (a) obsess about their own condition and (b) bore the pants off everyone else on the subject. I should be writing about the gruesome decapitation on a street in Woolwich yesterday afternoon of, probably, an off-duty [Muslim] British soldier returning to his barracks, and the way the prime minister has cut short his official visit to Paris to “rush back” to London to take control of the crisis, pausing only to utter a fatuous sub-Churchillian statement about how Britain will never ‘buckle under’ to terrorism and has always defeated the terrorist threat to our way of life by expressing the bulldog spirit, etc. etc. — as if squadrons of passenger planes hijacked by crazed Islamicists had spent all day flying into all our landmark public buildings. Whereas all that has happened so far is a single murder, admittedly of exceptionally obscene brutality, carried out by two men shouting gibberish about their determination to keep on fighting until we leave “their” countries alone. Since both men seem to have spoken, or shouted, in broad south London accents, one wonders which “their countries” could be – Afghanistan and Iraq, presumably, Libya possibly, although I doubt whether either of the ‘suspects’ has ever been anywhere near to any of these countries. Apparently they hung about at the scene of the killing for about 20 minutes, shouting and gesticulating about having carried out the will of Allah and being filmed doing so on the mobile telephones of passers-by, waving bloodstained hands and knives and a meat cleaver. My guess is that they wanted to be killed (‘martyred’) by the police and security forces but they took so long to get there that this became a bit of an anticlimax and anyway when they did manage to get shot, they were only wounded: when the police finally arrived, the bloodied ‘suspects’ tried to rush the police vehicle but a policewoman emerged from it and shot them both, not immediately fatally — both are in (separate) hospitals undergoing treatment for their gunshot injuries and under armed guard. The home secretary immediately summoned an emergency meeting of COBRA (stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) to discuss the emergency with various solemn functionaries, confirming that Cameron, cutting short his Paris trip, will be back in time to chair another COBRA meeting at the crack of dawn today, i.e. in a few hours’ time. All a gross over-reaction to what is probably a single private act of jihadism with a single (Muslim) victim, hardly a threat to our whole way of life as represented by Cameron at his joint press conference with the unfortunate French President Hollande, who looked as if he was wondering what on earth Cameron was on about.
One sad by-product of this murder and the official over-reaction to it is that it has driven off the front pages and the lead stories in the TV news bulletins a much more sobering statement by the generally hyper-conservative IMF telling Osborne to inject some instant new infra-structure spending and tax reductions into our flagging economy to stimulate demand and spending even if it involves a short-term additional increase in government borrowing. Osborne is wilfully misinterpreting this as praise for his existing austerity programme which as everyone on the left and the right can see is visibly failing and going nowhere. There’s nothing like a gruesome murder of a single unfortunate individual on a London street to take UK minds off the spectacle of even the IMF counselling a change of direction in the obsessive pursuit of deficit reduction even it will mean additional government borrowing in the short term. But the government is having to borrow billions more than its own forecasts anyway to finance its own failure. As Ed Balls has been predicting for three years now, austerity isn’t working but Osborne dare not deliberately change course and borrow even more in the short term to pump some demand back into the economy and start to restore domestic confidence, for fear of exposure as a failure and a fear that he’ll get sacked and relegated to the back benches as a failure. Balls talks very appositely about the ‘automatic stabilisers’ but Osborne shows no sign of knowing what they might be.
2:30am: Well, that makes a change! But the new painkiller seems to have become a pacifist, the leg is protesting at being marooned in front of the computer and sleep seems as far away as ever. Debate whether to struggle down to the kitchen to make myself another mug of Ovaltine or perhaps a clear beef consommé to while away the time until it starts getting light. Decide this would be defeatist and that the only thing to do is crawl back into bed, lie on my back with the leg stretched out and have another go at some limericks to pass the time until daybreak and the new day’s fresh assault with chemical weapons.
 I thought I had heard the murdered British soldier described on television as a Muslim, but I now find that this was a mistake and there has been no such report.
2:43am: At last! My eyelids have started to droop. Back to bed before I wake up again.
Tuesday 28 May: Exactly six weeks since the knee replacement operation. Had a good night (lightly chemically assisted) but feel weak and seedy all today.
Extract from reply to kind message from old friend:
I’m getting appreciably better at moving around and bending the damaged leg but still feel generally lousy three days out of four, with problems of pain and insomnia most nights. I’m seeing the man with the scalpel tomorrow for a review of ‘progress’ and am devoutly hoping that he will permit me to discontinue the horrible scratchy hot white hospital stockings, toe to groin on both legs, which if so will mark a real improvement in my condition, trivial though it sounds. But the official forecast – no significant improvement for 8 to 12 weeks after the op, then another at six months, complete recovery after about a year – seems likely to prove accurate, and the operation was only six weeks ago today. (I’m only gradually coming to terms with the near-certainty that I’ll have to go through it all over again, probably next year, to replace the other knee, even more badly worn than the one just replaced.) … Thanks again for the expressions of sympathy. I have probably been exaggerating current unpleasantnesses although it hasn’t felt like an exaggeration at the time of writing, and doesn’t now!
Wednesday, 29 May, the final entry in this log: Visited my consultant orthopaedic surgeon, Mr F, for a routine review of the knee just six weeks after the operation. At last some rays of light and hope! Mr F is obviously astonished to see me get up from my chair in the waiting-room without having to lever myself up by the hands and arms, and then walk at a reasonable pace in a straight line to his room, holding but not using my walking stick (no crutches). Apparently all this is distinctly unusual at only six weeks. Once up on his couch, bending and stretching the leg, with Mr F cautiously feeling, manipulating and pressing it, I’m even more gratified that he’s even more admiring of what seems to have been exceptional progress in the mobility of the knee joint and surrounding tissue, although it’s still badly swollen and intermittently painful. Apparently many patients much younger than me make appreciably less progress in the first six weeks. On this basis, Mr F predicts, I will make an excellent recovery — but it will take time.
All this is very good for morale, and unexpected. But more boosts are to come. Yes, I can dispense at once with the miserable white hospital anti-DVT scratchy stockings. Yes, I can drive the car whenever I feel sufficiently confident (happily it’s an automatic so there’s nothing for the left leg to do). Yes, I can have a bath instead of a shower, once I’m satisfied that I can climb out of it. Yes, I can take my powerful sleeping pills every night for a few weeks, reducing the frequency gradually, without risk of addiction. Best of all: I probably won’t ever need to have the other knee replaced after all. Once the new knee is fully operational, around a year after the operation, it will take most of the strain, relieving the other knee of a lot of the stress and thus reducing further wear and tear on it. Discreetly checking my date of birth, Mr F reckons that with one good knee in place, the other will probably see me out — excellent news, if slightly double-edged…. So I probably shan’t have to go through all this again after all.
There won’t, I’m warned, be any dramatic reduction in pain levels, especially at night, for several more weeks. I’m still only able to walk, or limp, for limited distances, and longer outings will not be possible for some time. Painkillers will continue to fight their dismal war with laxatives for the foreseeable future. No sudden recovery is to be expected. Regular sessions of punitive physiotherapy continue for at least another six weeks. I’ll continue to have good days and bad days, perhaps in slowly improving proportions. Things should start looking up about 6 months after the operation — next October. But today’s review has cheered me up more than anything that’s happened since the scalpel sliced open my leg on 16 April, which feels like forty years ago. Hurrah!
And on that somewhat belatedly cheerful note, I close this diary for ever.
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. And thank you for not expecting answers to every one of them.
A final PS: several kind friends have enquired about coming over to see us while I’m still recovering (i.e. for the next six to nine months). For the next two months a lot of our time will be spent with our New Yorker family, daughter, granddaughters and sundry boy-friends and suchlike, all arriving at various times during the next week or so, popping over to the continent and returning, and going back to New York in relays. Meanwhile for my part an amazing amount of time is committed to constantly icing the swollen knee and repeatedly performing the fiendish exercises to which I’ve been sentenced. Ordinary everyday activities like getting dressed and having a shower take five times as long as they did before. Of course fleeting visits for a 10-minute chat are nearly always welcome — but at pre-arranged times, please, in case I’m out having more physio or seeing the GP or something. I’m sorry to say that more extended visits are going to have to wait for a few more weeks. But do check the position (please by email) in two or three weeks’ time if you might be able to pop in for a chat.
This blog is on extended holiday while its owner is writing a book (of which more some time later). But it’s impossible to let Margaret Thatcher’s death pass without adding a few drops to the torrent of comment that has predictably inundated the country’s media, including a river of crocodile tears from a number of the prominent Tories who brutally deposed her when she was no longer electorally useful to them. It’s crude and unseemly to celebrate anyone’s death, but there’s an obligation on any self-respecting commentator, even a humble blogger, to try to tell the truth about the dead as well as the living. ‘Nil nisi bonum‘ is an irresponsible motto when it comes to judging public figures and their records.
For an assessment of her overwhelmingly negative legacy, it would be hard to improve on today’s Guardian editorial, here. It’s required reading: respectful, judicious and balanced.
However, it’s perhaps worth adding one point that’s easily overlooked, perhaps because it’s contentious. Mrs Thatcher’s ferocious assault on the power of organised labour, welcomed by many as a corrective to the excessive power of the unions but carried to unforgivable extremes of destructiveness, made a major contribution to the rapidly widening gap between the richest and the merely average earners in society. It was the theft of an indefensible share of the nation’s income by the top earners and owners of obscene amounts of wealth which steadily ate into the earnings of ordinary people and the below-average poor, forcing them to shoulder a growing burden of private debt if they were to maintain their standard of living, let alone to improve it year by year. The avaricious banks and other financial institutions were happy to go on lending even to the most obviously impecunious borrowers, and it was this (not just in Britain) more than anything else that eventually led to the banking collapse which in turn caused the steep recession that is with us still, six years later, now aggravated by the perverse and economically ignorant policies of Messrs Cameron and Osborne. But the origins go back to Margaret Thatcher and her deliberate destruction of the capacity of organised labour to defend its legitimate interests. It’s as if she consciously set out to demonstrate the kernel of truth in Marx’s perception of capitalism as containing the seeds of its own destruction.
The lady’s other attacks on many of the features of post-war Britain that had helped to bind us together in some degree of solidarity, rather than dividing us into selfish and greedy individualism, are well described in the Guardian editorial. It’s enough here to confirm that almost everything that Margaret Thatcher stood for, this writer finds abhorrent.
It’s only fair to add that on the two occasions when I came face to face with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister during my time in the diplomatic service, once when she came to Lagos for discussions with the Nigerian government, and once in London when I accompanied the then Polish foreign minister on an official visit, she could not have been more charming and friendly. During one-to-one meetings with her, she would ask me for my opinion on some current issue, and — in striking contrast to most other politicians great and small — she then listened carefully and without interrupting to what I had to say. I have it on unimpeachable authority, too, that in her relations with her own staff at No. 10 Downing Street, and again in contrast with some of her predecessors and successors, she was invariably kind, thoughtful, and solicitous of their and their families’ welfare.
Perhaps the main lesson to be learned from this extraordinary woman’s extraordinary career in public office is that we should beware of “conviction politicians”, so unshakably convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they are impervious to rational advice to consider the possibility that they might be wrong. Some bloodshed and much human misery might have been avoided if it had not been for the blind obedience to their convictions of Margaret Thatcher — and of her later successor in No. 10 who in too many ways adopted her as his role model, Tony Blair.
David Cameron certainly seems to have got more than anyone (probably including himself) expected out of the EU budget summit. But before we all go overboard with the congratulations, we might register three churlish reservations. First, the UK contribution to the budget will actually increase, even if the reduced overall budget negotiated in Brussels is approved. Indeed, if the Commission makes full use of the concession that it secured from the heads of government under which it can vire spending between one year and another, enabling it to spend more in the first year or years of the budget period so long as it spends less thereafter, the UK contribution might well go up quite steeply in the first year or two. The Europhobes who dominate the Conservative party in parliament and the country won’t like that, and UKIP will hate it. Secondly, there are already warning signs that the European parliament may refuse to approve the budget. Thirdly, the reduction in the overall budget negotiated by Mr Cameron and his austerity-loving allies in northern Europe has been obtained at least in part by axeing EU infrastructure projects that are urgently needed to provide a stimulus to the stagnant economies of many EU countries. Keynes, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
It’s difficult to be optimistic about the chances of lasting improvements in the standards of patient care in numerous failing NHS hospitals in the wake of the sickening revelations about conditions in the Mid-Staffs Hospital Trust. There simply aren’t enough Florence Nightingale-type nurses and health-care assistants in the whole UK, even when extensively supplemented from the Philippines, the Caribbean and west Africa, with the fervent dedication and inspired motivation to provide the number of committed nurses needed by the enormous NHS. The only way to eradicate the negligence, indolence, arrogance and indifference to patients that characterise a huge number of NHS ward nursing staffs is to subject them to regular unscheduled and challenging visits by hospital doctors, including especially consultants, and by hospital managers from the chief executive down. Sadly, in my limited experience anyway, these exalted beings are very rarely to be seen on the wards except on the consultant’s ritual weekly rounds, escorted by a flock of terrified junior doctors and other hangers-on, when the courage of Achilles would be required by a patient daring to venture to complain about conditions on the ward and the deficiencies of the nursing. Revenge following the departure of the great man (or woman) and his or her retinue would be instant and terrible. The same applies to any hospital employee venturing to complain of shocking defects on the wards, either to his or her superiors in the Trust or by whistle-blowing to the media. Unfortunately the managers are mostly too busy filling in interminable forms for the Department of Health, or devising cunning wheezes to disguise their failure to hit the innumerable targets imposed on them, to spend time in the wards, observing and talking to patients and nurses; and the consultants are similarly too busy earning enormous fees from their spare-time private practices to spend a couple of hours each day on the wards checking on the welfare of the patients for whom they are supposed to be responsible. Of course there must be many laudable exceptions – surely there must be? – but there is too much anecdotal evidence of disastrous mistreatment of helpless patients in NHS hospitals to allow either satisfaction or optimism about the scope for real reform. Give men and women unaccountable power over others, and sooner rather than later it will be abused, as happens every day in our prisons, boarding schools and the armed forces, as well as hospitals. Having said all that, the NHS remains a precious national asset, and the latest revelations of what most of us knew already must not be exploited as an excuse for the programme of NHS privatisation by stealth on which the coalition government is clearly bent (in both senses).
At a time when the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are being reduced to homelessness and penury by the benefit cuts imposed by a government obsessed by the case for austerity and ideologically incapable of ensuring an equitable distribution of any genuinely necessary sacrifice, big business and high finance in Britain and elsewhere in the recession-ridden western world have more cash than they know what to do with. While the incomes of ordinary working people are being steadily eroded by inflation and cuts, those of the highest paid and the possessors of the greatest wealth are apparently casting around for investment opportunities promising the highest returns on capital, regardless of their longer-term consequences for society. Needless to say, such returns are rarely available on investment in socially useful projects that might re-inflate demand in the economy and restore some measure of prosperity to those who have been most badly damaged by the recession. Instead, unbelievably, the investment bankers are back at their old tricks, devising complex derivatives and selling packaged debts to each other. According to a front page report in today’s Financial Times, “Sales of securitisations such as asset-backed securities and collateralised loan obligations are now at a post-crisis high, as investors seek out higher-yielding securities. Many bankers are experimenting with new assets which can be bundled and sold to investors, as well as new deal structures.” Once again investors are buying packages of debts whose complexity makes the calculation of overall risk impossible, with the strong likelihood that yet more bubbles will be blown and blown until they burst, taking banks and investors down with them. We are back to leveraged (i.e. debt-financed) buy-outs, this week of Virgin Media and Dell Computers, the latter aiming to go private and thus insulated from the prying of regulators. It’s as if 2007-08 had never happened – for some. In the words of the song, when will they ever learn?
As usual, comments on this post are very welcome, be they approving, condemnatory or corrective. But please don’t send comments by email: write them in the comments box at the foot of this post. And this time, please don’t expect a response to your comment, however provocative it might be. Ephems will be at sea, literally as well as metaphorically, for the next few weeks, paying for internet access by the minute at exploitative rates. Your comments will be read from time to time, the ship’s satellite connection permitting, but answer will come there none. Emails and messages from this website may be read occasionally, but they will almost all go unanswered. This blog will have other, less important, things to do. Au revoir!