Monday, March 30, 2009
Tomorrow, April 1st, is being called by some "Financial Fools' Day", as activists get ready to protest against the G20 gathering in London by marching in four columns representing the "four horsefolk [sic] of the apocalypse" to meet at the Bank of England at noon.
One of these is a former Playmate of the Month called Marina Pepper, who now writes books, including Spells for Teenage Witches: Get your way with Magical Power. Another is Chris Knight, a "radical anthropologist" who teaches at the University of East London, one of whose books is Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture. I am reminded of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, wherein economist Joseph Schumpeter (above) states that capitalism is ultimately doomed because it "would spawn a large intellectual class that made its living by attacking the very bourgeois system of private property and freedom so necessary for the intellectual class’s existence". (Lawyers for Ms Pepper please note - I am not accusing her of being an intellectual.) This theory was bleakly and believably novelised by Ayn Rand in her classic Atlas Shrugged.
The main thesis of the protestors seems to be that through the capitalist phenomenon of globalisation, people in charge of investing other folks' money, chiefly bankers, have gotten out of control and led much of the world into a financial crisis which we, the people now have to pay for. So far so good, but the relatively few bankers who precipitated this crisis appear to have done so without the help (or indeed knowledge) of world leaders, and it is hubristic of those leaders to think they can cobble together a solution in a matter of hours when it took allied leaders and expert economists 22 days to put a shape to post-war finances in 1944's Bretton Woods conference.
If the leaders are hubristic, then the protests' arrangers are living in la-la land in thinking that they can bring off a peaceful protest, given the inflammatory language used by Prof Knight et al, urging people to "take our protests to the belly of the beast", "burn the banks" and "eat the bankers" (no thanks, I get terrible heartburn). What do they expect?
If violence should occur, activists of this sort always have a convenient whipping boy. The first stroke was lashed last week when The First Post's Matthew Carr opined that levels of policing at this gathering of leaders representing "90% of global gross national product, 80% of world trade and two-thirds of the world's population" was asking for trouble.
What is, in fact, asking for trouble, is the financial situation which is neither going to be alleviated by any amount of horsefolk of the apocalypse in London, nor resolved by a big meeting of bigger egos that will last, at the very most, for less time than a police officer's shift.
Outside of the G20, Ukraine, which has signed a deal tying European Union to invest billions in the gas pipelines it depends on and aroused the ire of the behemoth to the north-east in doing so, looks to be heading towards bankruptcy amid a bitter struggle between its president and prime-minister that is benefiting ultra-nationalist parties; Pakistan, of course a nuclear power, is also cruising towards ruin as it half-heartedly struggles with the terrorists osmosing across the line on the map separating it from Afghanistan.
Within the G20, from China - vying with Russia for the title of the world's biggest rogue state - has come a book calling for French president Nicholas Sarkozy to be "punished" for meeting the Dalai Lama, and outlining its wish to do to the world what it is presently doing to much of Africa; and Argentina is also heading for the financial crash barrier.
But I get the idea America'll still end up getting blamed...
In short, things are bad. But then again, they've been bad before, and they'll be bad again. It's the good bits in between that make it worth it; the little graces that often have little to do with money. I don't know if we'll have to take the advice of the unreleased World War II poster to keep calm and carry on, but one thing that possibly even Schumpeter failed to appreciate is capitalism's ability to make accomodations - that's how it survived the attritions of well-meaning liberal-socialist new beginnings all over the globe.
There's an old curse that I've heard attributed both to the Jews and the Chinese - "may you live through interesting times". I hope April 1 in London is as boring as it can be. But if there are casualties or worse, Professor Chris Knight can blame the traditional enemies of democracy all he wants, but he may have to answer to the University of East London, Great Britain and even abroad for his troublemaking.
I pray that the police have as uninteresting a day as possible on April 1.
On Wednesday, 1 April, a newsagent called Ian Tomlinson collapsed and died of a heart attack while making his way home close to where the riots were going on, but not taking part in them. An inquest has returned a verdict of natural death. Three witnesses say he was attacked by riot police. This is contested, but the witnesses appear to have forgotten the reason the police were there, being their own aspiration to "storm the banks" and "burn the bankers". Mr Tomlinson is survived by a wife and children, who have not blamed the police.
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Saturday, March 28, 2009
The context was the part played by Now in a recent documentary by Louise Redknapp looking at the last taboo about eating disorders, "pregorexia" - compulsion to lose weight during and just after pregnancy.
I've long been aware of the singer, who performed with Eternal and as a solo artist, presenter and model who is usually known by her first name, but she appeared firmly on my radar last March with a documentary called The Truth about Size Zero, during which she put herself through a gruelling diet and exercise regime to reach the magical dress size (UK size 4). She was beginning to experience a morbid satisfaction in the power dieting gave her over bodily appetites when she achieved her goal, but was crying uncontrollably and forgetting lines: her nutritionist, Dr Adam Carey, was at the point of withdrawing his cooperation.
She spoke to Dr Carey again as presenter for the first of three documentaries on The Truth about Beauty, where she investigated the effect of "celebrity culture" on women who are pregnant or have recently given birth. At one point she started crying while interviewing an anonymous pregnant woman who was so desperate to control her weight and appearance that she admitted to having eaten only one apple during a two-day period. Carey referred to a woman whose eating disorder was so easily triggered that she saw pictures of pregnant women in a famine-blasted part of Africa and thought "if they can do it...".
For me, things started to get really interesting was when Size Zero veteran Melanie Chisholm (Mel C of the Spice Girls and easily the outfit's best voice) joined Louise in a taxi; they pored over an issue of Now, and found an item referring to Redknapp's pregnancy, saying she had "gone into hiding" because she was "massive".
Louise would later secure an interview with Abigail Blackburn, who became editor of Now in March 2008. When the celebrity confronted her about the remarks concerning "hiding herself away", the woman whose career depends upon finding nasty things to say about celebs made a comment about everything being passed by their lawyers. If it was meant to be threatening, Louise had obviously survived more convincing challenges, and asked about the "massive" comment. After an unsuccessful attempt to wriggle out, Ms Blackburn eventually admitted that her magazine operated on a system of chinese whispers.
But whispers in magazines with huge circulations can be damaging, as Louise found out when she interviewed the poor pregnant lady who was subsisting on apples. Things got worse: going to California (why do shows about body-image tend to visit L.A. and thereabouts?) she met a lady called Jocelyn Cisco, who had given birth to a wonderful child five months previously, and was about to go in for a procedure called a "mummy tuck" or "mummy makeover" - tummy tuck, breast lift and liposuction.
This is concerning. During labour and for some time thereafter, a mother's blood thickens as a mechanism to limit the catastrophic potential of a haemorrhage. Just so, the surgeon, a Dr Delgado, commented while operating on Ms Cisco that "this is a lot easier than exercising", and added that the most risky cosmetic procedure was a tummy tuck (abdominoplasty), because of the risk of potentially fatal blood clots. (I don't know if it's related, but an article in Medical News Today stated that the incidence of blood clots in cosmetic surgery could be reduced by prophylaxis - preventative measures.)
Now runs a line in spotting "baby bumps", a term which isn't in my Chambers dictionary, but is defined by etymological blogger Lynneguist as an "abdominal protuberance evident in pregnancy". From what I'm able to make of the phrase, which according to Lynneguist only made the Oxford English Dictionary last year, it denotes undeniable visual proof of pregnancy, but Now predicates the term of celebs where I can see no "bump" at all. The subtext, I think, is that the magazine will act like the bully in the girls' playground, and inform the world that any woman in the public eye who dares put on any weight beyond what it declares acceptable is pregnant. Look at the image of Tess Daly, presenter of Dancing on Ice, to the left, and see if you can discern a "baby bump". Maybe I'm just thick or male (if there's a difference), but I can't.
There are also pics posted of actress Kate Hudson and singer Claire Richards, with arrows for the sake of those whose minds have been so numbed they can no longer read. I'm not being facetious - looking through the mags, both Maxima and Minora agreed that after about ten pages the insipid text had them sufficiently somnolent so as only to be able to see the pictures.
Thankfully, in the documentary Louise went to San Diego to visit a group of women who had started a site called The Shape of a Mother, celebrating the post-partum female figure. The site, which also deals with issues such as loss of a child and infertility, was set up "to help women love their new bodies" and not seek such dangerous quick-fixes as those offered by Dr Delgado; and also as an antidote to internet chat-rooms frequented by pregnant mothers desparate to lose weight after the fashion of Britney Spears, Jessica Alba or Christina Aguilera - or, more precisely, not to give the playground bully more evidence of their abdominal protruberances than they have to. Significantly, after her "mummy tuck", Jennifer Cisco confessed she'd never had the opportunity to see another mother's abdomen post-birth.
Louise and Jamie Redknapp's son Beau was born in November 2008. As well as being a cause for rejoicing, it gives us a time-fix for whenabouts the documentary was filmed. So I imagine it gave Abigail Blackburn some time to put together a special edition of her magazine called Now Celeb Mum & Baby. Its fairly innocuous content belies its function as a cynical manipulation of public opinion, published two days before the documentary aired.
But where's all this coming from? I think Radagast hits the nail on the head when he writes that "our society's obsession with boosting children's self-esteem is encouraging 'a narcissistic generation' who [are] focused on themselves...undermin[ing] the traditional role of the family in forming children's emotional and social upbringing." Blackburn's tawdry rag both feeds on and exacerbates the parasitic need to raise one's own self esteem by knocking that of others until cause and effect are indistinguishable, like Ouroboros eating his tail. The prospect of a thick ear for taking people down is gone, replaced by the promise that the sky's the limit, depending upon how many - often fragile - human beings you're prepared to step on.
Louise was extremely worried about the prospect of having nine weeks to slim down after giving birth in order to do a photoshoot as the official face of the lingerie company Triumph. After negotiating with a rep who was initially rather pushy, she won a six-week extension - and even then her personal trainer tried to persuade her not to pursue her goal-weight so stringently. I feel sorry for those who, finding themselves upon the altar of celebrity, feel for whatever reason that they cannot fight for their rights, but it is heartening that they - and others whom our broken society has deprived of proper role-models - have found a champion in Louise Redknapp.
Claire Sweeney's big fat...
Body image isn't all it looks like
Thursday, March 26, 2009
BREAKING NEWS: I published this post yesterday on the misuse of rules intended to combat terrorism: this morning, the Government has demanded that social Networking site Facebook hand over records of British citizens accessing it - click here to read why Gordon Brown's no friend of Cambridge Conservative Parliamentary Candidate Richard Normington. I get the Adam Smith Institute e-bulletin, and was interested in the quote at the bottom of this week's:
We are rapidly entering the age of no privacy, where everyone is open to surveillance at all times; where there are no secrets from government.How true, I thought: especially in Great Britain, where, among all the other intrusions into our privacy, we have four million CCTV cameras - one for ever four people on the island.
William O Douglas (1898-1980), America's longest-serving Supreme Court Justice
Glasgow is Scotland's largest city, and had 400 of the damn things in 2006. I remember, when I lived there, a consultation process concerning where to place them in one particular area, not too salubrious, where the councillors were extensively lobbied by individuals who turned out to be working for drug-dealers keen to protect the places where they did business. But that's nothing compared to the 40,000 cameras estimated to have been in place in London the next year.
You might say that the need for maintaining law and order over-rides our right not to have our images examined by overt and covert cameras, and that would be a fair point: but it doesn't work in practice. There was an outcry when jewellers in London's Kensington district were prevented from distributing the image of a conwoman who had stolen thousands of pounds worth of goods taken on CCTV, on the grounds that it would contravene her human rights. When 16-year-old Oliver Wheen jumped through hoops to get access to CCTV footage that would identify the thief who had stolen his iPod from a school changing room, going so far as to make a freedom-of-information (FOI) request to Brighton and Hove Local Authority to see the footage, he was frustrated at every stage - because his viewing the pictures "would infringe the rights of the thief."
As annoying as this is (an iPod costs more than anything I possessed as a teenager), Manchester band The Get Out Clause demonstrated a cool take on surveillance when they performed their single Paper in front of CCTV cameras in the city and requested the footage under FOI rules - successfully, surprisingly, although guitarist Tony Churnside noted that some firms merely procrastinated until they could legally destroy the images.
But all this becomes small meat compared to the human wrongs perpetrated by authorities and lawyers around CCTV images. For example, the Telegraph's Martin Beckford reports that a social work department placed a camera in the bedroom of a couple with learning difficulties to monitor how well they looked after their child - who slept in a different room. Unusually, the department found itself on the wrong side of the Human Rights Act, not having observed Government guidelines on maintaining the couple's privacy.
I say unusually, because privacy is an ever-rarer commodity. Beckford continues:
Recent figures show three-quarters of local authorities have used powers granted under the [anti-terrorist] Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to spy on residents suspected of putting their bins out on the wrong day, allowing pet dogs to foul the pavement or breaking school catchment area rules.Here's another one for the list: last December, Raymond Brown reported in the Cambridge News that Cambridgeshire County Council had used surveillance techniques intended to investigate terrorism against Rashmi and Dips Solanki, who were suspected of employing paper-boys without permits in Melbourn, a village south of Cambridge.
So you would think that a little bit of private enterprise in the field of CCTV would not go amiss. But no: news broke today that Alex Dolan, a science teacher who captured shocking footage of misbehaviour by school authorites while filming undercover for a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary in 2005, has been banned from the classroom for a year. Despite the fact that she found abuses like the worst-behaved kids being sent away on a trip on the day of a scheduled OFSTED school inspection, the General Teaching Council did not accept that what she had found justified undercover filming of pupils (who could be captured on the street by a Google Streetview car), and it possibly revealed more than it intended to when it said that there were no "exceptional circumstances".
So what does the future hold for a society in which we have no control over our image except if we can get human rights lawyers excited; where we can appear on Google but we can't access images of people who have stolen our property; where, in Great Britain, we have one-fifth of the world's CCTV cameras, but they only solve 3% of crimes? The only answer I can think of is that if the rights of the state continue increasing at the rate its responsibilities to its subjects wither, the future holds a widening sense of revulsion leading to the current disaffection reaching tipping-point, which I hope can be contained by the ballot-box.
Monday, March 23, 2009
We are and always will be convinced that despite his desperate problems his life is worthwhile and is worth preserving as long as it is possible to do so without causing him undue pain.The case was not without inconsistencies: OT's parents showed the court footage of the little boy smiling when his feet were tickled, and stated that some of the nurses believed that OT experienced happiness; whereas the Telegraph's Caroline Gemmell reported that one of the medical staff, Dr C, told the court that "the boy would 'certainly' be dead by the age of five...[and]conceded that OT was suffering from a very rare disorder about which not much was known, but said it was "very, very, very unlikely" that his condition would improve." [My italics.]
Something that struck me about the affair was a remark by an unnamed British Medical Association (BMA) spokesperson that "Cases like this are very distressing and we have every empathy with the parents": this is the language of counselling, and bears no relation to medicine.
The remark appeared in an article entitled "Courts are right to make decisions on Baby OT treatment withdrawal cases, said British Medical Association".
However, in another context referring to the end of life, last year the Director of Public Prosecutions let it be known that it is not for the courts to make law in cases of euthanasia (unlike Debbie Purdy's, the doctors in baby OT's case were seeking permission to visit non-voluntary euthanasia upon the child, and succeeded).
Flitting over to the other side of the pond for an earlier case, I found out today from Wesley J Smith's blog, Secondhand Smoke, that Tirhas Habtegiris, a "dying, uninsured cancer patient", died in hospital in Baylor, Texas, in 2005. Her ventilator had been shut off because her family could not afford to keep her alive long enough for her mother to come over from Eritrea and hold her daughter while she died. Her family say she was conscious over most of the 15-16 minutes it took for her to suffocate.
What had exercised Wesley was an article by Ronald Bailey, a "libertarian transhumanist" (avaricious Terminator fan) who contrasted Habtegiris' penurious death with that of Terry Schiavo, who was on a ventilator for seven years before her allegedly abusive husband won a court case to have life support - in this case a feeding tube - removed. Bailey asked, what "obligation do physicians, hospitals and the rest of us have to pay for the health care of others?"
Bailey links to "hardcore libertarian" (rapacious Wall Street wannabe) Steven Landsburg who, in an article called Do the Poor Deserve Life Support? analyses the situation with the semi-psychotic utilitarianism of Mill Sr that Mill Jr tried so hard to destroy:
If you ask people—and especially poor people—what their most dire needs are, you'll find that "guaranteed ventilator support" ranks pretty low on the list. OK, I haven't actually done a survey, but I'm going out on a limb here and predicting that something like, say, milk, is going to rank a lot higher up the priority list than ventilator insurance.Although I realise British and American health systems are different, what I'd like to note that Habtegris' family were not requesting an eternal deferment of death, merely enough time for her mother to be brought over from an all-but failed state and hold her daughter while she expired. Just as Baby OT's parents wanted up to five years of life with a little boy who liked having his feet tickled.
In fact, I'll go further. The back of my envelope says that a lifetime's worth of ventilator insurance costs somewhere around $75. I'm going to hazard a guess that if, on her 21st birthday, you'd asked Tirhas Habtegiris to select her own $75 present, she wouldn't have asked for ventilator insurance. She might have picked $75 worth of groceries...Tirhas Habtegris would probably have taken the cash. Then she'd have gotten sick and regretted her decision. And then we as a society would have been in exactly the same position we were in last week—deciding whether to foot the bill to keep Ms. Habtegris alive a little longer.
As much as I think Steven Landsburgh's ideas are foul, he is at least honest, which is slightly easier to stomach than the BMA's dissembling when it speaks of the "quality of life" of a baby which they have no way of assessing. Likewise, Baroness Warnock has said that dementia sufferers have a "duty to die; just so, hospital managers have defended plans to refuse operations for groups including the elderly "because of the higher risk of complications on the operating table for unfit patients", while one the other hand one in three in a survey of hospital and family doctors said "elderly patients should not be given free treatment if it were unlikely to do them good for long".
Sometimes we pro-lifers are accused of concentrating on abortion, but the euthanasia movement has a powerful head of steam right now because of the truths and rights that were crumpled and torn in the fight to de-recognise the humanity of unborn babies - a process which has also tied women more securely into the structures of oppression from which the original feminists sought to free them. Cast adrift from moral certitudes, courts in, for example, the UK, the US, France and Singapore have prosecuted doctors for failing to kill a child during an abortion, effectively recognising what LifeSiteNews calls "wrongful life" - a concept powering some doctors' determination that Baby OT and Tirhas Habtegiris had to die.
It's certainly a matter of money, but it's also more: a pathological need to control other peoples' lives, and the very same inflated sense of self-importance which compels some of those who seek euthanasia to involve not only health-care professionals, but also judicial systems and even governments in the attention-seeking path to their self-destruction. (Some, similarly narcissistic, reciprocate for their time in the sun: former health secretary Patricia Hewitt is calling for the legalisation of what's already being called "suicide tourism").
In 2006, echoing the confusion that reigns over people's rights at the end of life, an Italian court declared that an unborn child did not have a "right not to be born". It sounds like a fillip for the pro-life movement, but in reality it's as vacuous as saying Jade Goody did not have a right not to die from her endstage cancer, and echoes statements that Baby OT had a right to life, but not a right to be kept alive.
In the US, giving care to somebody who is bound to die is called futile care, a title that is at least more honest than the language of empathy and distress. Given that all lives will be interrupted by death, all care is ultimately futile. But we give it anyway, because we recognise that in the midst of life's compromises, to give without hope of return is good, makes us more human, makes us something more than the earthly account-book detailing the money we will generate minus what is required to keep us going long enough to die in a loved one's arms.
Related post: Baby RB and the misery of medics
Sunday, March 22, 2009
It turned out that a figure who was threaded through my boyhood and who was now known as the oldest altar-boy in Glasgow had died. I'm smiling as I write this, remembering his good humour and his tall tales. He was a beacon in some pretty dark times as the drugs trade moved into much of the area, and many people who could afford to moved out. He had a quickfire wit that never spilled over to sarcasm, and was always seeking to put his talents to God's work in whatever way he could. He was part of the area since the first half of the twentieth century, and the area is something less without him.
Lord, may your good and faithful servant rest in peace.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Sometimes, the story of two runaways catches the imagination of a nation, if not a continent.
It was 1998: these two, being taken to an ignominious fate, escaped and were recaptured. Not happy with this, they escaped again and crossed the River Avon, after which the police were called out; by the time they were surrounded again the eyes of an entire media machine were upon them. But like their human counterparts, Butch and the Sundance Pig were only taken after a long fight. By this time, of course, questions had been asked in Parliament, and if they had been returned to the Malmesbury abbotoir, there would have been an international outcry: Japan had sent journalists to the quiet Wiltshire town, and American war reporter Donatella Lorch declared that the pigs had become "celebrities".
There's a lot to be said for pigs, I think - mainly because we find it easy to have empathy with them. For example, when Patricia Piccini wanted to raise awareness of human-animal hybrids, she used pigs as a model for a sculpture called "The Young Family", of which a painting is reproduced here. A scientist friend of mine experimented on mice in order to further essential research, but told me he wouldn't have been able to experiment on pigs, because they look too intelligent. In fact, if celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall had campaigned for the rights of stall-farmed pigs instead of battery hens, the whole phenomenon of intensive farming would be on its last legs right now - but Whittingstall has his own organic meat to promote, and his biggest seller is chicken.
Maxima tells me that when she and her classmates were called "pigs" at school by boys who probably fancied them but were scared to admit it, the reply was that the epithet stood for "pretty intelligent girl".
But I don't think former Labour MP Helen Clark intended the word as a compliment when, tired and emotional in a bar, police were called to eject her when she became abusive to the Portuguese barmaid.
Clark was elected MP for Peterborough as a result of having been selected by Labour out of an all-woman list. After being voted out in 2005, she threatened to join the Conservative Party but didn't do so - so I guess distributing the Mae Wests and the parachutes was a waste of time.
She was an MP at a time when the police were being inundated with new paperwork and targets. I don't mean to say that as a Labour MP she was intimately involved with that - but in a sense that's the point: Tony Blair told MP's to spend more time in their constituencies, and while they did this - and I realise that in Labour, just as in any other party, there are MPs who are passionate about both their constituencies and Parliament - one of the many agendas enacted was that of trying to turn the police force from an effective body devoted to keeping the Queen's Police to a warm fuzzy group who would never stand in Labour's way again. Thankfully, due to the influence of old hands, they are yet to succeed completely.
Where this is coming from is the Miner's Strike of 1984-1985. This was ostensibly a strike over the issues of closures, pay and conditions, but what National Union of Mineworkers head Arthur Scarghill had in mind was unseating Margaret Thatcher's government, after the fashion in which the NUM had forced Edward Heath to ask Great Britain "who governs?" in 1974 under the general secretaryship of Lawrence Daly. To cut a long story short, the NUM lost, and paid for Scarghill's dream of revolution by seeing mines closed all over the country.
But there's a question I haven't answered. What became of Butch and the Sundance Pig? They were bought by the Daily Mail, are alive and well in the South of England Rare Breeds Centre & Country Park, and a film has been made of their story. From what I hear, fame hasn't gone to their heads. So far, at least - but I think they're smart enough to know when they're onto a good thing.
Clever animals, pigs.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Rebecca Smith, the Telegraph's medical editor, reports on a litany of failures so distressing that it's difficult reading. For example, some patients had to clean bathrooms themselves, other complained of being left in their own excrement for hours, and one woman, admitted for treatment for bone cancer, caught both MRSA and Clostridium Difficile (C. diff), and had been so ravaged by the latter at her death that her body had to be placed in the coffin in a sealed bag.
In the same paper, Ms Smith has alleged that NHS executives put NHS targets and cost-cutting "ahead of patients", to the extent that between 27% and 45% (between 400 and 1,200)of deaths in emergency care were higher than one would expect - leading to the accusation that "Not since Harold Shipman was still in general practice have NHS patients been so dreadfully betrayed" - Harold Shipman being the GP from the north of England who is reckoned to have murdered over 200 of his patients.
I don't think the statement is hyperbole: for the hospital's board of directors to have carried on regardless in ignorance of the attrition being suffered by the people they were supposed to serve - an allegation made by a local journalist on Jeremy Vine's talk-show this afternoon - is corporate manslaughter at the very least.
Julie Bailey, founder of the pressure group Cure the NHS, also appeared on the show: Ms Bailey's mother Bella died at the hospital in November 2007 aged 86, and helped her daughter keep a diary of the abuses happening on the ward. The campaign's website, which contains a page linking to harrowing letters of complaint, is dedicated to her memory.
Bailey made a surprising allegation on Vine's show, that people who came forward to make complaints were being "paid off", but I wasn't able to make out if this was by the hospital or by the Healthcare Commission, which is currently investigating abuses.
But where are the people who allowed the abuses to happen now? Well, the Healthcare Commission is soon going to be wound up and replaced by the Care Quality Commission, which will be headed by Cynthia Bower, former chief executive of the West Midlands Strategic Health Authority - which had the responsibility of checking the performance of hospitals, including Stafford General. I imagine that the Government couldn't give the post directly to Harold Shipman because, having committed suicide in prison, he's otherwise engaged. (Ms Bower was also named one of the Health Service Journal's 50 most powerful people in health service management policy, along with Alan Johnstone, Secretary of State for Health, who was forced to apologise to Parliament for the fiasco.)
Julie Bailey also pointed to Stafford MP David Kidney, who did a summer's work experience at Stafford General Hospital and said it was ok, although he now says that the Healthcare Commission report is damning.
It all comes back to targets. Targets and tickboxes are part and parcel of games theory as applied to politics and service delivery, and essentially says that if you give people targets and leave it up to them as to how to achieve them, they will excell themselves because they want to be rewarded for good performance. But if all managers and their masters see are ticked boxes without getting onto the floor and working with their employees, this debâcle is entirely unsurprising. Managers are allowed to get away with it all because they are insulated from workers on the ground by byzantine ranks of administrative staff.
Targets don't just infest the healthcare industry - the vice-chairman of the Police Federation has complained of frustration that crimes are being downgraded by the Crown Prosecution service "to hit Whitehall targets for reducing the number of unsuccessful trials".
David Kidney goes to pains to emphasize that "although there are some criticisms of individual staff actions in the report, the criticism is mostly about the systems". Fair point, but the systems are not sentient: they were put in place by managers and management consultants. A whitewash whereby a couple of senior figures are sent on gardening leave and the rest of the blame is forced down to nurses and receptionists (who had to assess emergency patients because of staff shortages) will not be acceptable, nor an attempt by powerful people to claim the Gordon Brown prize for getting out the lifeboats for the ship you've just scuttled.
And neither will be a situation where the Stafford General Hospital is investigated by the woman who failed in her duty of ensuring standards were upheld the first time - even if Harold Shipman wasn't available.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
I read my first detective novel at the age of ten or eleven. It was Dorothy L Sayers' Five Red Herrings, featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and set in the Scottish hills of Galloway, and started a love affair with the genre that continues. I went straight onto Sherlock Holmes and still revisit his adventures, as well as being passionately interested in "new" cases, for example as collected in The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures.
My Mum liked what she called "nice" murders, for example TV adaptations of Agatha Christie's Hercules Poirot or Miss Marples novels, or as investigated by US tecs Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote - based on the books by Donald Bain), or Dr Mark Sloan (Diagnosis Murder). Maxima also prefers more light than darkness, and likes M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin and Martha Grimes' Richard Jury; she's currently enjoying Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana-based series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
Their tastes are a little saccharine for me, but they have a point: murder is never "nice" or anything near to it, but the point of murder fiction is similar to that of horror - to let us approach a dangerous situation from the safety of the distance between oneself and a book, radio, TV, cinema or any of the many platforms from which fiction can be presented. And, like horror stories, detective fiction is mainly composed of morality tales, detailing the consequences of our stepping over lines that shouldn't be crossed for very good reasons; essentially worked examples illustrating the Ten Commandments.
Most examples of the genre proceed upon such similar lines that in 1929 English Catholic theologian and writer Mgr Ronald Knox wrote a "ten commandments of detective fiction", one of which stated that "no Chinaman must feature in the story", a dig at Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu character. I wonder if the British UK series "The Chinese Detective", starring David Yip as Detective Sergeant John Ho, was a knowing wink at this?
Although a fan of televised police procedurals like Juliet Bravo, Softly Softly and, of course, Z-Cars, I've never been a big adherent of the written version until Inspector Morse proved a welcome exception. When Colin Dexter decided that Oxford had been saturated with Wagner-tinged murders and called Morse to Holmes's bosom I was lost - until I met Detective Chief Insector Alan Banks, subject of an award-winning series of novels created by Peter Robinson in 1987.
My first Banks novel was 2001's Aftermath, which turns the traditional detective fiction format on its head: it starts with the accidental solving of a series of missing persons cases, and proceeds to detail the grim aftermath of this discovery and of the attrition of police work in general upon Banks, his team and the people around them. It's probably Robisnon's darkest book and, like many works which explore our shadows, his most profound. He himself found it difficult to write because of the echoes of the horrific activities of Fred and Rosemary West, and of those of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka in Canada, which Robinson has called home since 1974.
Robinson comments himself that Aftermath "isn't a comfortable book; it’s a book that involves and challenges the reader" - and this, I think, is the point of great fiction: it takes you out of yourself and into somebody else's world in such a way that you find you've been looking into a mirror, a process which can be as uncomfortable as it is enlightening.
More than any genre, I think, in detective fiction the mirror is also societal - in The Man with the Twisted Lip, Arthur Conan Doyle presents an environment reflective of the burgeoning drug-use of the times as opium was on the point of passing the baton to heroin:
She had the surest information that of late [her husband] had, when the fit was on him, made use of an opium den in the farthest east of the City. Hitherto his orgies had always been confined to one day, and he had come back, twitching and shattered, in the evening. But now the spell had been upon him eight-and-forty hours, and he lay there, doubtless among the dregs of the docks, breathing in the poison or sleeping off the effects.Banks' main police characters fall in and out of love, like each other a little less some days than others, and on occasion make a right royal mess of their private lives. On the other hand, he presents us with Jamaican team-member Winsome Jackman, whose good moral sense is often a godsend to her colleagues, and the enigmatic but brilliant Scene-of-Crime Officer Stefan Nowak.
Robinson's 2008 title Friend of the Devil deals with further consequences of events that were uncovered in Aftermath, reflecting how chains of cause and effect can roll tsunami-like through the years. In his present work, All the Colours of Darkness, which I'm reading right now, references to Shakespeare's Othello and Harry Potter are just two of the cultural threads which run through the plot - as well as the music: while Morse was purely a classical aficionado, Banks' tastes include John Coltrane, Madeleine Peyroux and Maria Muldaur as well.
And when I sadly put All the Colours of Darkness down for the last time, I can pick up a dog-eared book I found while doing a shift in XV, the Draughty Old Fen's charity shop: Five Red Herrings. Perfect.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Because when you got to know him, you could see that substance use had not completely effaced his humanity. For example, when his banning order was published, a woman, a senior citizen, wrote into the same paper recalling how Lexie had always helped her across one of the roads he was banned from, it being notoriously difficult to cross.
There's been much opposition to individual and collective banning orders from the more liberal element in Cambridge, but it was the making of Lexie, because he had much less opportunity to bump into the people he scored drugs from. Another key component in deferring an inevitable death from organ-failure was the policy of the drug-agency he collected medication from, that if any alcohol at all was detected on the breathalyser, the medication was withheld. This didn't stop him drinking, but it meant he had to put the cans of super-strength lager to the side at a specific time so that he wouldn't fail the breathalyser test the next morning.
Unfortunately, when the contract to run the drugs-service was put out to tender, the conditions set down for bidding precluded breathalyser tests. That's another story; but the consequences for Lexie were that the complex machinery of carrots and sticks that mitigated the effects of his substance use upon himself and society was irretrievably broken, and his behaviour became much harder for the dedicated staff looking after him to manage.
What effect will Lexie's actions have on his life after bodily failures terminated the death that composed much of his time on earth? God knows. But it's very difficult to get into a situation where you're addicted to one or more substances by yourself - something the police in Cambridgeshire are showing their realisation of by differentiating less between big and small fish, and merely asking whether somebody is a fish.
In a society whose values are so topsy-turvy that smoking a cigarette in a public toilet carries harsher penalties than injecting heroin in it, I hope senior police officers will close their ears to those who enthrone rights high above responsibilities, and move towards zero tolerance of all drug crimes.
I pray that the Lord grant eternal rest to Lexie.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
In 1963, Robert Silverberg wrote a short story called To See the Invisible Man, which was included in the science-fiction author's compilation Needle in a Timestack. In the piece, the unnamed protagonist tells how he was "branded" as invisible as a punishment for the crime of "coldness" - refusing to unburden himself to his fellow man. After his year's invilisbility, in which he is imprisoned in an open society where nobody is allowed to interact with him on pain of being branded invisible themselves, he reaches out to an invisible, and is arrested again on the opposite charge: "not for the crime of coldness, this time, but for a crime of warmth" - how like the treatment of figures in the public eye, I thought upon reading it.
I was reminded of this story when I happened into the living room where Maxima was watching Piers Morgan, former editor of scandal-sheet The News of the World and multiple dismissee, interview Katie Price (former glamour model Jordan) for his modestly-named series Piers Morgan's Life Stories.
I later learned that the blurb for the episode, which was a repeat, had promised that there would be a "revelation". Ms Price was talking about how, as a teenager, she had done a fashion shoot for a man who had turned out to be a paedophile, then found herself somewhere she had not intended to go, as I have often seen happen to people when I was a psychiatric nurse, and on these occasions you have to be careful not to let who you're talking to open up so unprotectedly that the beast in the basement flies out and can't be put back in.
So I was annoyed to see Morgan press Price repeatedly to say what had happened to her as a young child at the hands of "the wierdo in the park", even though, struggling not to cry, she indicated it was the first time she'd spoken about it. Eventually he admitted defeat and said he wasn't going to press her further because she was obviously upset.
Price is famous for pneumatic modelling sessions and has doubtlessly fuelled many feverish fantasies for male adolescents of all ages. However, once she managed to cross over into writing, she embarked on a signing tour for her autobiography and found that as many women as men were interested in the often-harrowing story of her life. One thing she complained about to Morgan was that she had no control over what "celebrity" magazines said about her. Her popularity guarantees extra revenue for any publication carrying her image on the front page.
This is precisely the complaint which Gerry McCann, whose daughtedr Maddy was abducted from Portugal in May 2007, has made today in front of the parliamentary Culture, Media and Sports Committee enquiry into press standards about what he christened the "Kate and Madeleine show", referring to groundless press accusations that his wife had collaborated in the child's disappearance:
To see a front-page headline insinuating that you were involved in your own daughter's disappearance, it was incredibly, unbelievably upsetting...Madeleine was made a commodity and profits were to be made.Kate McCann in fact, commented on press priorities while the Portuguese police leaked insinuations about her to cover for their unprofessional conduct. Since her dignified behaviour deprived the more manipulative tabloids of the opportunity to cast her as a victim, she was attacked for the crime of looking after her appearance (although looking at pictures of her you could see her becoming increasingly drawn and thin) and she confessed to her mother: "If I weighed another two stone, had a bigger bosom and looked more maternal, people would be more sympathetic".
This was, ironically, a rough description of the mother of a later abductee, Shannon Matthews, with whom Kate McCann had to endure many negative comparisons - not least because Matthews willingly acceded to the demand for a victim - so much so that gutter journalists had trouble in believing the courtroom dénouement of the affair, that Karen Matthews had cooperated with the abductor in order to try to attract rewards for her return similar to those offered for the return of poor Madeleine.
Morgan's former organ News of the World is a main offender in the rush to commodify attractive young women by turning them into fodder for the consumption of those men who populate the realm of the lowest common denominator which, as public figures often show, is by no means the preserve of any one social class; the objectification is often effected through display of the breasts which may well be, as in the case of Price/Jordan, somewhat enhanced. In his "reflections on the grandeur and misery of the body" Three Forms of Sudden Death, F. Gonzalez-Crussi refers to an old saw from the Jalisco area of Mexico saying that "stronger is their pull than a pair of oxen's on the yoke".
Price has had enlargement operations for various reasons, citing one of them during the interview with Morgan, that she could make men feel attracted to her without their being able to enjoy the pleasure of her company. Gonzalez-Crussi refers to women who are "sacrificed to the cultural values of the dominant group in the society to which [they] belong", and proposes as their Patroness St Agatha, who was tortured under the orders of the Emperor Quintianus by having her breasts cut off, and is often depicted as carrying them in a dish. Price has since had a reduction, perhaps a sign of her having experienced some healing since her marriage to singer Peter André, the first man she trusted.
Before meeting André, Price had had an abortion when the father of her unborn child abandoned her; she considered another when carrying son Harvey, who was born blind and disabled (regarding which she was labelled "the mother from hell" for not playing the victim), but had the strength to walk away. I thought I saw a glimmer through a glass darkly of one of the smaller redemptions that prepare us for the most important one.