Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The new Ségolène: where was she when we needed her?

Gordon Brown needs to study the phenomenon of the new Ségolène Royal: where he has trouble ever saying he’s sorry for anything, she has turned the apology into a powerful offensive weapon.

She must have got herself some new advisers. I’ve never seen her this effective before. You may remember ‘Ségo’, as those of us who liked her called her, and indeed continued to call her when we couldn’t stand her any more. She ran for president of France against the ghastly Nicolas Sarkozy, 'Sarko' to his many detractors and few friends. He, thanks at least in part to her miserably incompetent campaign, now holds the post.

At an early stage a journalist asked her for her view of the vexed question of Turkish entry to the EU. To demonstrate her qualifications to lead from the front, she replied that she would consult the French people and then make up her mind.

I thought that this might be a low point from which she could recover in the following months. Sadly, it was far from the low point and things actually got a great deal worse before she was soundly beaten by Sarko.

Today, however, she seems transformed. Sarko keeps coming up with ill-informed and ill-mannered comments about others, including other heads of state. Ségo has taken to apologising for them, first to the president of Senegal, recently to the Prime Minister of Spain. She tells them that Sarko does not speak for France, a brilliant way of positioning herself as someone who does. It also draws a clear demarcation between herself and the demagogue opposite.

Her apologies have also made the governing party apoplectic with rage. They denounce her, they question her sanity. If it hurts them that badly, it must be achieving its aims.

Where did she learn to be so effective? Who has she taken on to teach her?

And why, oh why, didn’t she do it back in 2007 when it might have prevented our having to put up with Sarko for five years?

Saturday, 25 April 2009

No easy road to virtue

The pursuit of happiness is, as we all know, an inalienable human right. And tolerance is one of the great qualities: the exhortation to believe that I might be wrong, the starting point of all tolerance, resonates deeply with me.

In theory at least.

The problem is that while I’m committed to contributing to the sum of human happiness, I do also believe that there are times when a little solemnity is called for. In particular, I’d like a solemn approach to be taken to working out in the gym. This is facetiously referred to in some quarters as a ‘leisure activity’. Leisure? It’s not for nothing it’s called a work-out. I can’t handle it in the evening which means I have to go in the morning before work, and that means getting up at one of those stupid hours that should only exist in the afternoon. ‘Ah, five o’clock,’ you think, ‘time for a cup of tea’ until you realise it’s the other five o’clock and what you really need is several powerful coffees, delivered from a cup only because you can’t get them intravenously.

Once I’ve done an hour’s leisure at the gym, I’m ready for eight hours in the office just to recuperate.

What this means is that I need an atmosphere in the gym of quiet, or perhaps morbid, introspection. You get your head down and work your way through the pain.

I’ve learned to put up with the muzak all gyms seem to pipe in these days. Sonic wallpaper, I can ignore it. What I don’t need is the cheerful Irishman who seems to be there every day. He likes to ask me how I am. How I am? I’m a soul in pain. Isn’t that obvious? But he can never be silenced. He offers me advice. When I’m really saying ‘disappear and die somewhere’ but actually pronouncing ‘really? I must give that a try’ he always ends up telling me ‘well, it doesn’t matter anyway, just as long as you’re enjoying it.’ Enjoying it? What sort of a masochist does he take me for?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m in favour of good cheer more or less anywhere. I’m happy to crack jokes at a funeral. But in the gym: per-lease. A little silence. A little decorum.

Which brings me on to tolerance. This guy means well. Can’t I just smile and be nice to him? Can’t I think to myself ‘we all have our ways of being, and his is no worse than mine’?

No, I can’t. He just gets on my nerves. He has a way, whenever he’s pumping weights, of exhaling noisily each time he makes an effort. Now we should all exhale during the effort phase of exercise. Good practice. But do we really have to sound like Thomas the Tank Engine starting off? That feels to me like someone saying ‘I’m exercising much more vigorously than you are.’ I keep wanting to go over to him and say ‘Would you be so kind as to stop making that infernal noise? Please?’

But I don’t. I smile. I say ‘hello’. I say ‘goodbye’ as I leave without revealing my sense of relief.

So my gym work has become as much a spiritual as a physical endeavour. I’m keeping myself in shape and learning tolerance too. A double benefit.

But believe me – it’s hard work.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Liverpudlian amusements

It’s wonderful to see the great old city of Liverpool emerging from the decline into which it fell in the seventies and eighties.

Of course, it originally became a great old city only thanks to the slave trade, but hey, no-one’s perfect and they saw the error of their ways back in the nineteenth century. So it was sad to see them sink as low as they did at their worst.

Danielle and I celebrated the rejuvenation of Liverpool by a visit first to Crosby Beach, just to the North of the Docks, and then the city. We went with our neighbour Melanie and her eleven-year old son George.

The Angel of the North

Crosby Beach is famous for the work of Anthony Gormley, sculptor of the Angel of the North. He’s put 100 cast iron human figures on the beach, scattered randomly, and all the way down to the water – in fact a lot of them are immersed at high tide. Seeing them is eerie and magical.

Crosby Beach with the figures scattered across the sands

Louche encounters on Crosby Beach. The character in the middle didn't have much to say for himself

In Liverpool itself, we found a spot with one of those kid-trap fountains: you know, the water jets spring out of the pavement and tempt kids to run through them. First time, they get away with it. Second time, maybe they get away with it. They get more and more daring. Suddenly, they’re caught right in the middle as the jets come up and soak them.

George tempts providence

Inevitably George travelled home in his own personal puddle. A Liver-puddle perhaps?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Freud, air blindness and twins: it's not all bleak out there

Since it’s sometimes good to dwell on good news stories amidst the gloom, here is my distillation from far too many hours spent in the car listening to BBC radio last week.

A lot of the better stories were related to what was in itself a sad event: the death of Clement Freud, grandson of Sigmund and brother of Lucian, chef, broadcaster, wit and one-time Liberal MP. A full list of the anecdotes quoted about him would fill several pages, so here’s just one: the BBC replayed a comment he made during last year’s scandal about MPs putting their wives on their payroll – when he was an MP, he said, the tradition was that you paid your secretary and slept with your wife.

Another story concerned Jim O’Neill who had a stroke and went blind while piloting his Cessna, 5500 feet over Yorkshire. Air Traffic Control couldn’t talk him down so RAF Wing Commander Paul Gerrard flew alongside him and did it instead –saying ‘a little to the left – a little to the right – keep coming down’ until he was back on the ground. O’Neill returned to the airfield last week to thank the people who saved him, including Gerrard. This time, though, he was flown in by a friend: he’s beginning to recover his eyesight but not to the point of being able to fly himself yet.

The third was the experience of Nina Whear. She suffered an aortic dissection. I’m not sure what one of these is but since it involves a tear to the wall of the aorta – the great artery leading from the heart – it’s hard to imagine that it could be good news. It’s particularly bad if you’re about to give birth to twins.

She was rushed into her local hospital and then to the specialist heart centre at Papworth. Ambulance crew told the BBC that they expected none of the three to survive. She was given a 7% chance of pulling through, the chaplain at Papworth visited to say a prayer with Nina and her husband and then left them alone to say goodbye to each other.

An obstetric team was flown in by helicopter from Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge. They delivered the twins by caesarean section and then cardiac surgeons took over. It was a matter of amazement when she came to: she later said, ‘when I woke up after the operation I couldn't talk, but I tried to signal to the nurse to say that I couldn't believe I was alive, although I don't think she understood what I meant.’ All three are now recovering well.

William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who was the model for Citizen Kane, said ‘news is something somebody doesn't want printed; all else is advertising’. Real news is bad news, but what a pleasure it is to come across something more cheerful from time to time.

Saturday, 18 April 2009


British news has been dominated for a week by ‘Smeargate’. It’s been brilliant. It’s a huge scandal, kept alive by the media and Conservative politicians brimming with self-righteous indignation and synthesised hurt feelings.

It’s about some ugly smears almost published against Tory leaders.

Yes, that’s right, ‘almost’. They didn’t actually appear. A close but soon to be ex-adviser to Gordon Brown, Damian McBride, sent them by e-mail to Derek Draper who planned to run an anti-Tory website ‘Red Rag’. A Conservative blogger got hold of the e-mails and sent them to the papers, and the coverage hasn’t stopped since. McBride was fired, Gordon Brown, who has difficulty pronouncing the ‘S’ word, actually said ‘sorry’, but there was no let up.

Now, McBride seems a nasty piece of work. The smears even contained rumours about the wife of one of the targets, which is about as odious as these things get. But McBride has been fired, to the relief of Labourites as much as anyone since McBride was not above attacking colleagues if he felt they might oppose him. Brown, however slowly or reluctantly, has apologised. None of the material was used. Shouldn’t it all be over?

Oh, no. Because this is a dying government. The atmosphere reminds me of the mid 1990s. That was a time of constant damaging revelations about the then Conservative government. It’s hard to remember them all, but among the most notable were Cash for Questions, where MPs had accepted payments to ask potentially embarrassing parliamentary questions of Ministers, the jailing of Jonathan Aitken who had perjured himself in a libel action over allegations of corruption in office, and the jailing of Jeffrey Archer, one of Thatcher’s darlings, also for perjury when he falsely denied having paid for sex with a prostitute. The atmosphere had moved decisively against the Tories, after a decade and a half in power. Nothing they did could find favour and any transgression, major or minor, received maximum publicity, so that people already convinced of the need to vote them out at the earliest opportunity could feel justified in their decision.

Today the mood is the same, but this time against their successors. Any stick can be used to beat Labour. That’s why they can be attacked even for allegations they didn’t actually make. So David Cameron and his friends go on kicking up a fuss about ‘Smeargate’, milking it for all it’s worth.

Of course, maybe I’m wrong and Cameron is really as upset as he claims. If so, perhaps he’s too sensitive a flower for the brutality of political life. Might he not be better off retreating to the safety of one of those nice, secluded Oxford Colleges, such as All Souls?

If he did, I’d love to be the first to wish him well in his alternative career. Sadly, however, I think we’re much more likely to see him in Downing Street than in Oxford.

God help us all.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Enjoying the Strasbourg tarts

Our trip to Strasbourg over the weekend had everything going for it.

I’m deeply cynical about weather forecasts. The truest words I’ve heard recently on the subject were in the film Weather Man when Nicholas Cage, playing the forecaster of the title, points out that he actually has no idea what the weather’s going to be – it’s all guess work. So I was doubly delighted by the fact that the forecasters kept telling us the weather was going to turn lousy only for it to stay gloriously mild and sunny. Lovely to be able to enjoy the light and the heat, lovely to be able to see the forecasters exposed yet again.

Strasbourg is justly famous for its tarts. We took a great deal of pleasure from the type you eat: we had tartes flambées in the balmy evening warmth, outside a micro-brewery which also supplied us with some excellent beer, eloquently described by our host Mark. If you don’t know tarte flambée or Flammekueche as it’s called in dialect, it’s time you found out. Alsatian flat food to one English colleague of mine, Alsatian pizza to another, it’s worth the trip on its own.

Alsatian flat food: worth the trip

But like Pygmalion, I feel if you really want to enjoy a tart you should make one yourself. So, egged on by my wife Danielle and my hostess Amynah, I did just that. For the first time in my life, after decades of experience as a consumer of the things, I actually made my first apple tart.

And what a triumph it was. It was just like so many other apple tarts I’ve tasted.

A huge leap forward for me, an infinitesimal advance for mankind…

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how much pleasure one can take from doing something exactly like everyone else?

For more on the pleasures of our trip to Strasbourg, see our host Mark’s account, with its exemplary discretion and understatement:

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Easter Tale

There’s something poignant about the image of the Roman Legions folding their tents and leaving Britain in 410 to meet the Visigoth threat to Rome, while the British had to face their own Barbarian invasions alone. It feels like a story of painful loss, even though I know that when all's said and done, the Roman Empire was really just a highly effective army and some excellent administrators: merchants of death and pen pushers, not what I would normally count among my objects of nostalgia.

In any case, the Anglo-Saxon invasions set us on the route to the development of cricket, a vast improvement over gladiatorial combat in that it delivers suffering and humiliation over far longer and with far more devilish sophistication.

At the time, however, Britain lost a cultured civilisation. The language vanished without trace. Where the French still speak their Gallo-Roman Latin modified to meet the strange accents of the Franks, in England we speak a language developed from our Germanic ancestors. The Latin words it contains are mostly later incorporations from the French of the Normans.

Christianity too took a huge step backwards. There’s evidence of Christian presence as far north as Manchester in the late second century (amazing how quickly these new religious fads can spread). However, real conversion got going only after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion in the fourth century.

And the legions were gone less than a century later.

In poured the pagan invaders (invited in, initially, by Britons to fight their neighbours, which just goes to show the danger of domestic disunity, to say nothing of trying to gain an advantage by bringing in powerful outsiders to reinforce your side…). Christianity was more or less eradicated. It survived in Ireland although, ironically, it had originally been brought there by missionaries from Britain.

When the dust had settled, the Irish in turn sent missionaries back to Britain, setting up monasteries in Iona off south west Scotland, and then further afield including the great centre at Lindisfarne on Holy Island, off north east England. The illuminated manuscript of the Lindisfarne Gospels is an outstanding monument to the artistry and skill of the monks gathered there.

Since it’s Easter Sunday today, this is perhaps a good time to remember St Columba, to whom Iona is dedicated, St Aidan who founded Lindisfarne, and the many others who kept alive the flame of Christianity when pagan dominance in England made contact with the mother church in Rome dangerous if not impossible. So here’s a little Easter story about them.

In the seventh century, Pope Gregory sent missionaries to England. They started the process of conversion from Kent, in the South, founding the archbishopric of Canterbury while they were there. As they moved up the country, they came into contact with the Ionan group, based on the monasteries in the North.

Now Christianity’s aim is to bring us consolation and peace. Remember the key Christian message? ‘Faith, hope and love, these three: but the greatest of these is love’. So when the Roman missionaries met the Ionans who’d striven so hard to keep Christianity alive, did they embrace them and praise them for their efforts? ‘You’re dating Easter wrong,’ they said. During the time when the Ionans were cut off from Rome, the Pope had decided to change the way the date of Easter is calculated, and the Ionans were still using the old way.

So did the Ionans in turn say, ‘hey, we’re all Christians, and all subject to the authority of the Pope – tell us the new rules and we’ll apply them’? They said ‘this is the way we’ve always calculated the date and it’s always been good enough for us so we’re sticking with it.’

A date. That was the subject of their dispute. Which Sunday in March or April they were going to choose to celebrate the resurrection. As though the most extraordinary thing about the resurrection business was a date.

The Council of Whitby was summoned in 664 to settle the issue and King Oswiu of Northumbria decreed in favour of the Romans. So the English started dating Easter like the rest of Europe. The power of the Northern monasteries was broken, and authority for the Church in the North of England moved to the Archbishopric in York. Nearly fourteen centuries later, while the Catholic Church in England has its centre in London, the capital, power in the Anglican Church is divided between Canterbury, little more than a large market town in Kent, and York, a historic and beautiful city but long since overtaken in economic and political power by its rivals. Of the two centres, superior authority resides with Canterbury – the triumph of the Romans over the Ionans is enshrined in the structure of the Anglican Church today.

Power, control, intolerance of difference, all in the name of a Church built on Love.

I suppose we should be grateful that at least no-one was burned at the stake.

Happy Easter, everyone.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Strasbourg: a taste of gentility

It’s great to be back in Strasbourg for the Easter Break.

We’re guests of our good friends Mark and Amynah. Mark recently described the extraordinary pastry and chocolate shops Christian as ‘our favourite café’ :

This is like describing Manchester United as ‘a football team from North Western England’, champagne as ‘bubbly French wine’ or George W. Bush as ‘not as astute a statesman as one might have wished’. Each statement is strictly accurate but it leaves out so much through understatement that it loses the essence of what it’s describing, a telling illustration of the truth not being the same as the whole truth.

My friend and colleague Gary Ferguson always speaks lovingly of his own visit to Christian, referring specifically to the twenty types of hot chocolate on the menu (there are actually about eight, but hey, Gary’s a salesman, making up in overstatement for what Mark loses in understatement). Partly to make a sort of displaced atonement for Mark’s faint praise and partly to honour Gary’s fond memories of the place, I made a pilgrimage there on the first day of my visit to Strasbourg. I savoured a Papuan hot chocolate in the glorious surroundings of the place, with its violent décor of burgundy and puce, a colour scheme that goes out through the other end of hideous to its own strange charm.

Christian: elegance by way of an assault
on the sense of sight
While there, I texted Gary to tell him I was about to enjoy my hot chocolate. He texted back that he was working on a customer proposal. Though I replied to tell him how deeply envious I was, his final text suggested he wasn’t convinced of my sincerity.

Christian is in the centre of Strasbourg, in the rue Mercière which enjoys one of the best views of the city, straight onto the west front of the Cathedral with its lace-like tracery. The whole place is gentility itself: as I walked into the place I saw two middle age ladies sipping their chocolate with a priest, a scene straight out of a Balzac novel.

The Cathedral from the rue Mercière as seen by Mark

That was a sharp contrast to our entrance into the city that morning, across the bridge from Germany. The customs post had been burned out, and so had the information office, the pharmacy attached to it and the Ibis hotel a little further on. When I’ve seen scenes of rioting, it’s always been on TV, while the incident is actually happening. This was the first time I’d seen the aftermath. The NATO leaders have gone, as have the protesters. But the local people are still trying to clear up the mess. I imagine too that some are wondering when and whether they’re going get their jobs back. Since I don’t suppose the NATO leaders were influenced by the damage the protests caused, if they even know about it, that’s probably the only lasting impact it’ll have.

Meanwhile, congratulations to the French police. They caused a lot of inconvenience to friends of ours going about their legitimate business in the city centre but were unable to prevent buildings being torched at the border. Our good friend Félicie, for instance, had to get an escort to her office, through the lines of police protecting the city centre from dangerous individuals such as her.

Of course, she is a lawyer, so potentially capable of doing far more damage than just a few Molotov cocktails, but I don’t think their reasoning was that smart.

Anyway, the whole mess hardly bears thinking about. It must be time for another visit to Christian, to reinforce my comforting belief in the essential gentility of life.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The mixed blessings of spring

Blessings are never unmixed, are they?

There’s a real feeling of well-being in the fact that Spring has at last got going (well, it has for us in the Northern Hemisphere: I can only send commiserations to friends in Australia, South Africa or Latin America.)

It really is spring, too. That in-between season, when it’s gloriously warm in the sun, but in the shade or after sunset, the cold comes back in all its crispness. The French sum it up by saying that the ‘fond de l’air’ isn’t fully warm yet. That roughly translates as ‘the bottom of the air’ though the original is a little more, well, elegant. Either way, the idea is exactly right: we’re not yet in summer when the whole of the air is warm and we can sit outside in shirt sleeves and enjoy the balmy evenings even after the sun has gone.

The spring is also the best time of year in England (we don’t really do summers, anyway – we just get milder rain). Right now, the leaves are beginning to unfurl, the grass is bright green and tree after tree is erupting in different colours of blossom. It all happens so suddenly too: at the end of March we drove to Edinburgh and noticed how few lambs there were in the fields; on the way back, we saw several flocks with lambs among them; this weekend, driving to Oxford, we saw lambs everywhere.

What was particularly surprising about Oxford, though, was how far ahead they were there. Less than two hours south, they’re a week or two ahead in leaves and blossom (the cherry is flowering already). At least it tells us what we can look forward to.

So it’s a wonderful time of year. But blessings are never pure, as I said: the grass is a glorious green, but it’s also growing. And that means getting the mower out.

Mowing grass is one of those particularly tedious tasks like doing the washing up. You’d like to be able to get ahead of the game but you never can. Once you get started on washing up, it’s fairly easy to keep going, isn’t it? The difficulty is deciding to plunge into the ghastly task. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could wash all the dishes twice or three times and then not have to do them at all for a few days?

The same thing occurred to me as I attacked the grass last weekend. I went over it again and again. Somewhere deep in my subconscious must have been the feeling that if I could really get the grass licked, good and proper, once and for all, it might think twice about growing back too fast.

Doesn’t work. It was already looking unkempt again on Tuesday. I’ll be getting the mower out again far sooner than I’d like and having to work up the energy to start the process all over. It’s taught me that having only a small garden isn’t a wholly bad thing: at least the mowing doesn’t take too long.

From which I conclude that though blessings don’t come pure, fortunately nor do curses.

Completely irrelevant postscript. I used to find it funny that Japanese speakers referred to their mothers as ‘haha’. Of course that’s only amusing to Westerners. But then I discovered that in Japanese ‘ha’ is a tooth.

One tooth is just a tooth, but two teeth is a mother?

What does that indicate about the mordant nature of maternal relations in Japan?

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The mystery of the missing days

It’s the fifth of April, the last day of the fiscal year in Britain. What better time to spend a few moments thinking about why this country’s tax authorities work to that calendar?

It feels like another one of those classic British eccentricities, like why our most expensive private schools are called ‘public schools’. That one is all to do with the link between public schools and the Black Death. Depending on your political viewpoint, you’ll regard that link as astonishing or entirely appropriate. Either way, the mid-fourteenth century plague wiped out one in three of the general population but two in three of the priesthood, leaving the country perilously under-supplied with the educated men who staffed the administration. In the coming decades, steps were taken to get a lot more young men into education. One of the major initiatives was to break from the old system of schools associated with great households and which took students only on invitation – private schools – and set up schools to which anyone could apply – public schools. They weren’t, however, state schools or necessarily free.

As for the fiscal year, throughout the Middle Ages four great dates spread reasonably evenly over the twelve months were viewed as the moments at which significant contractual decisions came into effect or debts were settled. These were the quarter days: Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas (25 December). Why was 25 March called ‘Lady Day’? Christ, we were told, was born on Christmas Day. Given that the tradition is that there were lambs in the fields at the time, this seems deeply unlikely. But the Church swallowed that implausible belief, and then worked backward from it on the equally questionable basis that a pregnancy lasts exactly nine months. Consequently, Christ’s conception must have occurred on 25 March. So it was ‘Lady Day’ because it was the Feast of the Annunciation.

More importantly, it was the also the traditional first day of the year. This is why the tomb of Elizabeth 1st shows her as having died in 1602 although she died on 24 March 1603, the last day of the previous year in the old reckoning.

At that time the tax year and the calendar year were exactly aligned and both started on 25 March.

Then the Catholic Church decreed that we were counting dates incorrectly. Pope Gregory XIII decided in 1582 that the time-honoured Julian calendar, named for the illustrious Caesar himself, should be replaced by one called after himself and which he claimed stuck more truthfully to the real movement of the sun and moon.

He was right, as it happens, but, hey, in this good Protestant land, why should we honour decisions of the bishop of Rome? There was probably a hidden agenda anyway.

Even Catholic countries took a while to adopt the new calendar, giving up ten days each time as they did it. Then little by little the Protestants of Continental Europe switched to the new system, but there is a grand tradition in this country, honoured to this day, of distrusting the motives of Continentals, so we stuck to Julius and only gave in to the new system ages after everyone else. It’ll be the same with the Euro, you mark my words.

Finally, Wednesday, 2 September 1752 was followed in Britain by Thursday, 14 September: the time it took us to come round to the idea meant that we had to lose eleven days rather than the ten of the Continent. Apparently, there was serious discontent in parts of the country as people reacted angrily to the theft of eleven days of their lives.

Whoever else lost eleven days, it certainly wasn’t going to be the tax authorities. So they just delayed the start of the new year.

If you’re smart at arithmetic, it won’t take you long to work out that 25 + 11 = 36 which, given that March has 31 days, takes you 5 April. And indeed that was the new start of the tax year, until 1800. At that point the Julian and Gregorian calendars diverged by another day (because there was a leap day in 1800 in the Julian calendar but none in the Gregorian – century years are not leap years for three centuries out of four – those of you who noticed there was a 29 February in 2000 need only live another 91 years to establish that there won’t be one in 2100). So from 1800 the British tax authorities had their year starting on 6 April. They’ve made no further adjustments since, so that’s where it's stayed.

As so often, what looks like eccentricity on our part turns out, when you investigate it closely enough, to be simply pure, unadulterated logic.

Incidentally, we weren’t the last to switch to the Gregorian calendar. The Russians didn’t manage it until the twentieth century, and only following a Communist revolution, at which point they had to write off 13 days. That’s why the political event that brought the Bolsheviks into power and made the shift in calendar possible is known as the October Revolution, although it happened in November.

And you thought there was no fun to be had from history?

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Unenthusiastic about interesting times

‘May you live in interesting times’: we all know it’s a Chinese curse. Funnily enough, there’s actually no evidence that it’s Chinese at all, but then you don’t need much evidence for things we all know to be true. In any case, Chinese or Western it conveys an important truth: it isn’t always in our interest for things to be interesting.

It’s also not reassuring to be told there’s nothing to worry about. It’s probably marginally worse, though, to be told we ought to be worrying hard. Tonight we got a letter from our Member of Parliament, here in Stafford, telling us just how bad he feels about the way things have been in our local hospital and urging us to urge him to do something about it.

His message isn’t reassuring, but though he may be jumping on a bandwagon that’s already gone past, he’s not wrong. Stafford Hospital has been through some interesting times recently, in the sense of the curse. Standardised mortality rates sound pretty dull things, but they hide far too interesting an underlying truth: for Stafford Hospital, that truth is that between 400 and 1200 more people have died after emergency treatment there over the last three or four years than should have , given how ill they were. 400 to 1200 people – that’s a reasonable size village.

Now there’s something you’d have to call interesting.

Obviously, I’ve never been that keen on having an accident or falling severely sick. But until things get sorted at my local hospital, I’m keener than ever to avoid either fate.

The management team has changed. I’m certain that whatever else happens there in the next few months, making sure that care quality improves is going to be way up there on their agenda. I don’t think the new management can be in any doubt that anything less would be severely career-limiting.

How did things go wrong in the first place? Well, there was a major move to control costs and make the place more financially secure. They were making nurses redundant even though they were already below established numbers. They cut too deep and quality went.

As it happens, I spend a lot of time working on hospital costs. Every day I work with some clever people on complex problems: how do you calculate hospital costs sensibly, how do you work out just how much it’s costing to treat a particular patient for a particular condition, just how do you avoid errors that will make things look cost effective that simply aren’t?

It’s an exciting challenge. And it’s worth it. As a rheumatologist from one of our client hospitals recently told a conference I attended, if you don’t know where you’re wasting money, then when the cuts start – and in today’s climate, there’s no doubt they’re going to start sometime soon – you’ll not be cutting waste. You’ll be cutting care.

That’s what they did at Stafford Hospital. And a village died.

So I’m delighted we’re working on getting the problem of hospital costing right. Because if we do that we might be able to avoid other hospitals getting quite as interesting as Stafford has been in recent years.

And healthcare is an area where being boring is just fine with me.