Time traveller

Last night I dreamt about him again. 

I often do, at least once a week. He drops in on us quite unexpectedly, staying only a day or two as he takes a break from his world travels.

To say that it’s a delight to see him is a cosmic understatement. Such joy and hugs and laughter. I know that he’ll be off soon, and I know there’s no point trying to persuade him to stay longer. He does what he has to do, as always. I go with him to the airport to see him off.

Last night he turned up when we were in Bradford, a place that has pleasant associations from my childhood. Sometimes we’re in Nottingham, but mostly we’re in Co Wicklow. Of course in my dreams it’s not the real Nottingham or the real Old Longhill near Enniskerry, but that’s what my dream tells me. We’re all there – all five humans anyway: Petra the dog (he always said Petchra) hasn’t yet appeared. Despite his later adolescence in Dublin and his student days in Manchester, they haven’t yet featured, nor has Southwell where he was a chorister. 

He always looks well and is his bouncy cheerful self. I don’t know what his business is as he travels the world, but whatever it is I have no urge to ply him with questions about what he’s been doing or intends to do: I’m just ecstatic to be with him. He probably couldn’t tell me anyway, for he never was anything other than impulsive and spontaneous. 

The curious thing is that this time travelling son of mine is always somewhere between 8 and 15 years old. He’s very young to be so assuredly independent, but that’s entirely in character too. In my dream I wonder how he gets through airport red tape and security, but doubtless he charms the authorities as he charmed others.

He would have been 43 next Tuesday, and next Friday is the fifth anniversary of his death. 

Conversion: church and gym

A bit churchy but don’t be put off.

The Church of England is, to put it mildly, wetting its knickers about attendance. No punters, no moolah. In a bid to save money it’s dumping ordinary clergy and leaving posts unfilled. It’s still appointing bishops and administrators, but that’s modern management for you.

Church hierarchs – and let me assure you that I yield to no-one in my admiration for and loyalty to the church politburo – think that mission initiatives will sort it all out. There’s a whole series of blogs I could write on the idiocy of this, but though I’m convinced that there are too many people on the planet and humanity needs culling, death from boredom reading this blog is not the way to do it. So let’s move on.

In a recent Church Times piece, a senior cleric suggests that missions could be held in gyms and cafes. A retired colleague, Dean Henley, pointed out on the blog Thinking Anglicans some of the difficulties of this in a gym, bearing in mind “the sound of the thumping treadmills, the pop music, the grunting and the slamming metal of the weights machines” and that most of the participants wear headphones. “It might not be the right time to ask if someone is saved as they attempt the downward dog in a yoga class.”

He is absolutely right. I go further.

People who don’t use gyms often have a mistaken view of what goes on in them. Perhaps they see them as social clubs with people chatting, gossiping, making deals, arranging dinner parties, having a pint or a gin after sitting on a bike for 5 minutes in the latest designer gear, peering into mirrors saying “does my bum/belly look big in this?” Like a golf club, I suppose (I’m not old enough to play golf, so I wouldn’t know for sure).

I’ve been a gym rat for over 40 years on and off. What I see are people with focus, determination, discipline, and commitment to healthy living. They mind what they eat and drink, so church functions with their farinaceous and sugar-laden fare are for them (and me) evil. 

For us, gym = church. There are all sorts, conditions, faiths, races, ages, shapes and sizes. The atmosphere is businesslike and purposeful. No gossip, socialising or preening – there just isn’t the time when you’ve got to be back at work. The admiration of someone with a fine physique is not accompanied by snide remarks or by belittling those without, as would often be the case in equivalent circumstances in church where cattiness can be woeful. On the contrary, in gyms there is acknowledgement of the courage it takes to start a journey: mutual encouragement.

So I ask myself: what would anyone who takes physical wellbeing seriously enough to be a gym regular want or need of church? What does church have to offer that gym does not? 

Every good thing that church provides is available at the gym: companionship, common purpose, community, ritual, discipline, time out from the daily grind. People mind their own business but are happy to help when asked. No bossy interference.

And the gym provides one thing that church does not: a sense of achievement.

Does the church offer anything that gyms do not?

Yes. The threat of damnation. Indeed, the church harps on incessantly about this: after a good sing, it has people grovelling for being miserable sinners. Now, given that many of us use the gym as therapy for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, being brought down low by this medieval control-freakery (control is what it’s all about) is not conducive to mental well-being.

Gym wins hands down.

The church politburo has it the wrong way round. If they are serious about spreading the message of Jesus Christ – life abundant – then rather than running mission initiatives in gyms, they’d be better off making gyms of all the churches. A different sort of conversion.

Cambridge exam memories 1975

I qualified as a doctor in June 1975. As I’ve explained before, since autumn 1972 I’d attended King’s College Hospital in south London but nevertheless remained a student of Cambridge, albeit one who was “using” King’s for the clinical course – a Cambridge cuckoo in a London University nest. At that time Cambridge didn’t have enough resources to look after all its own students (similarly for Oxford, but that’s a dump so we don’t mention that car factory on the upper Thames).

It was, therefore, to the city on the edge of the fens that I repaired for all exams – written, face-to-face, and exams with patients. In those days that meant taking the 36 minutes past the hour from London Liverpool Street calling at Harlow, Bishop’s Stortford, Audley End and Cambridge, then on to Ely and King’s Lynn. 

I have two vivid exam memories from summer 1975. 

The first is the Obstetrics and Gynaecology clinical exam.

“Monkhouse to the patient in bed 23”. I was instructed to take a history from her. So I did.  After about 10 minutes, the examiner hove into view to give me the third degree in front of said lady. The examiner – coincidence or what? – was one of the King’s consultants, Michael Brudenell, a descendant of the Charge of the Light Brigade Brudenells. If he recognized me, he didn’t let on.

Surprisingly, his first words to me were “why would Mrs X know more about her pregnancy than most people here?” A strange question, you might think. In those days I was a very quick thinker and I said without hesitation “because she is a librarian”. Think about that – he wanted to know if I’d been thorough enough to discover her occupation. I most certainly had – such attention to detail was drummed into us from the beginning. 

Then: “what advice would you give Mrs X about feeding her baby?” Without hesitation I said “breast, for breast is best.” “Come, come” said Mr Brudenell, “explain yourself”. “Because” says I “cow’s milk is for cows, and human’s milk is for humans”. Then I thought “you fool, Monkhouse, this is not the time for being a dick”.

Mr Brudenell looked at me for about three seconds – which is a very long time when your underpants are at risk of being soiled. “Haw, haw haw! Very good, Monkhouse. Off you go.”

And that was that.

He didn’t want to know if I’d read the latest research (I hadn’t), or knew the likely cause of a very rare disease found only in Papua New Guinea (I didn’t). All he wanted to know was that I was safe, thorough and coped under pressure. He evidently thought so. Perhaps he liked my impertinence.

By the way, I am right. Cow’s milk is more poisonous to humans than is generally acknowledged. Think snot, allergies, bellyache, bloating, belching, colonic dysfunction, farting, lactose intolerance, and more. As a child of the 1950s in a Cumberland village I had milk from an uncle’s cows poured down my throat. I speak from sad experience and numerous unnecessary hospitalizations. It was another hospital consultant at King’s – can’t remember the name – who said that cow’s milk should come in bottles labelled “poison”.

The other 1975 exam memory is being grilled by three eminent surgeons, all professors or Knights of the Realm. It went something like this.

Examiner: Good morning. Take a seat. Name?

Me: Monkhouse (no such thing as Christian names then).

Examiner: College?

Me: Queens’.

Examiner: And which medical school?

Me: King’s, London.

Examiner: Haw, haw, haw, a royal flush, eh? Haw, haw!

After I’d picked myself up from rolling around on the floor in fawning laughter, I was shown a radiograph (x-ray) of a wrist. There was a fracture of the bone at the base of the thumb where it meets the wrist. I recognized it.

Me: Ah, a Bennett’s fracture.

Examiner: Good, Monkhouse, very good. Pause. Tell me, who was Bennett?

Me, confidently, looking smug: a nineteenth century Dublin surgeon.

Examiner, surprised: Oh. Long pause. Quizzical look. Was he really?

Me: I’ve no idea. I was just guessing. There were so many eminent nineteenth century Dublin surgeons, so I thought the chances were good.

Examiner: Haw, haw. Very good.

Then followed a brief discussion of fractures that can result from falling on the outstretched hand, before I was dismissed. 

The irony is that Bennett was indeed a 19th century Dublin surgeon – in fact (how spooky is this?) he was one of my kind-of predecessors at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. There must be a God after all. The commonest wrist fracture, by the way, is named after Abraham Colles, another of my Dublin predecessors – perhaps the most famous of all. See what I mean.

It was very entertaining. Comedy really.

The stirrer stirred

I became a Clerk in Holy Orders at the end of June 2006, just over 14 years ago. 

When I was accepted for ordination I was working as the Foundation Anatomist in the new Graduate Entry Medical School of the University of Nottingham, sited in Derby. It was the plan that I continue in that job and in my “spare time” be an unpaid clergyman, a bit like the post-WW2 French worker priests (Mr Google will tell you more).

Shortly after beginning training in 2004 I began to feel that this wasn’t right. Given a personality with more than a few obsessive traits, I could see that I would want to do both jobs too well for my own good, and would therefore do neither properly. I applied for a change in status from non-stipendiary (unpaid) to stipendiary. After a bit of huffing and puffing and form filling I was sent for two more interviews at one of which the interviewer’s first words to me on opening her front door were “are you insane?” I was accepted for full-time ministry and in July 2006 I began as Assistant Curate – jargon for apprentice – in Wirksworth.

People confuse Wirksworth with Worksop. Wirksworth is an ancient lead mining village near Matlock on the edge of the Peak District. It’s a bit like a northern version of Rye in Sussex, full of nooks and crannies, curious houses (semidetached, one above the other, not next to it), tightly packed lanes and hills. It has a remarkable artistic presence displayed at the annual Wirksworth Festival. It attracts retired professionals, artists and academics thus providing a thriving intellectual life, far exceeding what you’d expect from a population of under 5500. 

Hidden away in the middle of town (village really, but they have notions) is the large cruciform church. When you find your way through one of the ginnels you are confronted by a charming cathedral close in miniature, so unexpected it quite takes your breath away.

Here it was in 2006 where under the watchful eye of the Rector David Truby I began to learn the ropes of being a parish priest. Some Assistant Curates have a terrible time with trainers who are inadequate or feel threatened. Not so David – the prospect of having a trainee (me) seven years older fazed him not one iota. He knew his job, and I my place—and it was a good place.

Though a brief curacy, only 20 months, it was a time of extraordinary richness. It seems incredible that so much happened in so short a time. Without a doubt the highlight was the explosion of ideas at the theology discussions at the Curate’s House, and the gin afterwards. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but I began to see that rather than a priest (whatever that means, and nobody knows in the C of E these days), but a rabbi and a prophet, comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable. I have spent my entire working life provoking others to think and learn, and shake them out of their complacency, and – let’s face it – there’s no more apposite word for the C of E. 

After about 18 months, the Bishop invited me to go as incumbent to parishes in west Chesterfield. Perhaps wrongly I felt that an invitation from the Bishop was not to be ignored – wrongly for maybe that post was not right for me. I recall being grilled at an introductory meeting by a host of posh people in twinsets, pearls and blue rinses (and that’s the men) and thinking “beam me back to Wirksworth” with a good few profanities thrown in. I could have said no, and maybe I should have, but back then I was more inclined to heed the “advice” of bishops than I am now.

West Chesterfield is wealthy and socially very conservative: expensive properties behind electric gates: they are inclosed in their own fat and their mouth speaketh proud things. Yes, I know I shouldn’t judge, but my response was visceral. I had a similar response – worse – when a couple of years later I applied for the post of Vicar of Helmsley and associated villages. After having been driven around the area and told of the local landowners – Sir This, Lady That, and Lord Howsyourfather, my guts screamed “get out of this hellhole”.

Despite the many good things and lovely people in west Chesterfield it would be true to say that I spent much of the time railing like an Old Testament prophet (Amos – read chapters 4 & 5). Paradoxically – and maybe because of this – my time there bore fruit in, I’m told, the loosening of attitudes, the widening of vision, the involvement of more people than just the elect few, and most particularly in the nurturing of vocations. I was moved at a Derby Cathedral ordination in 2019 to meet six Chesterfield people who said that I’d kicked them up the backside on the journey to ordination or readership. 

We need people to stir us up, but it comes at a cost to the stirrer.

Unexpectedly, 2011 saw our daughter in Dublin having problems such that we felt we should be closer at hand. There was no point looking for a job in the diocese of Dublin: those jobs tend to be reserved for the up-and-coming with a great future in front of them, rather than a 61-year-old has-been with a great future behind him. However, the diocese that covers the south east of Ireland had a few vacancies. I contacted the Bishop and was offered the incumbency of Portlaoise, one hour from Dublin. 

My intention was to stay there, for there is much about Irish life that is good: the Irish look forwards, outwards, onwards, and are well educated. Unfortunately I found myself in the midst of a huge row between one of my parishes and the diocese. I was aware that there was a problem, but in my arrogance I felt that my experience enabled me to handle it. I was wrong. You cannot begin to appreciate the bloody mindedness and bone-headedness of some Church of Ireland farmers. As time went by, with solicitors’ letters flying in every direction, and Susan becoming more and more affected by what it was doing to me, the writing was on the wall. The crunch came when the diocesan policy that caused the problem was rescinded. My work had been in vain, the rug pulled from under my feet. I was livid. My successor didn’t last as long as I did, and neither did his.

Fortunately, the post in Burton hove into view. It has been a good end. It has included civic and town centre ministry to which I took like a duck to water, never losing an opportunity to berate MPs and fat men in swords and uniforms on civic occasions. I also had charge of an Anglo-Catholic church in an urban priority area, where I developed a real sense of anger at the way in which the C of E – and society – ignores the poor, not least the white poor. To my great satisfaction the church became the venue for the Burton night shelter for the homeless. Despite all the goodness of my ministry in Burton, though, I felt that I could have done more: I’d been in post only 14 months when our elder son died. I was never the same again.

I was thinking of staying in post until I was 70 in June 2020 but I had such a bad chest infection in early 2019 that I reconsidered. When you’re single-handed in town centre parishes with schools, Advent and Christmas are relentless. So I retired in October 2019. I said to Susan that since she’d followed me around for decades, it was her turn to decide where we ended up. With friends in Burton, Derby, Wirksworth, Chesterfield and Nottingham, good train, air and bus connexions (this matters since my eyesight is very poor and Susan’s deteriorating) we moved across the road.

The C of E does not look kindly on retired incumbents staying in the parish where they were last at work because of the possibility of interfering with a successor. There’s no chance. I need seemly liturgy, decent music and thoughtful preaching. In today’s C of E you’re more likely to get second-rate game-show hosts who are purveyors of doggerel songs, playschool prayers and infantile preaching.

So I’m thinking of becoming a pagan.

It’ll take me back to maypole dancing at Langwathby May Day in the 50s and 60s, only this time naked. What a prospect.

Sarf London medic

In previous posts, I’ve explained why going to see the doctor can be dangerous, and why we should treat mental illness with compassion without embarrassment. This piece is much more personal.

The Cambridge medical course was and is six years long, three in Cambridge 1969-1972, three on the wards 1972-1975. In my day the hospital at Cambridge couldn’t cope with 250 medics each year, so it was the custom for almost all of us towards the end of second year to apply for a clinical place in another medical school for years 3-6. Most of us went to one of the London schools, and I ended up at King’s College Hospital on Denmark Hill (Camberwell), not too far from the Peckham of Del-boy. Peckham has now been well gentrified, but it most certainly was not so then.

In late summer 1972, a couple of weeks before the course was due to start, I arrived in London on the overnight sleeper from Carlisle, and met up with David and Steve, two more Cambridge medics, in search of student bedsit(s). We stayed in north Clapham with another friend who had already begun work in the Bank of England. I remember most vividly the invertebrates slowly sliming across the “bathroom” wall. Salubrious, huh? 

King’s was in south London but my two mates were attending more central medical schools: David in Whitechapel, east London, and Steve in Hammersmith/Fulham, so wherever we ended up, we would have to travel. We allotted ourselves search areas: mine was Paddington and north Kensington (think Grenfell but long before).

After a few days up and down the smelly and stained staircarpets of shifty letting agents, we settled on renting a basement flat on the South Circular road between Clapham Common and Balham (gateway to the south). It had its good points. It was a short walk to Clapham South tube, the living room and bedroom were spacious, and the gaff had its own side entrance. Less good were the fact that the bathroom and bog were just an incompletely partitioned area of the kitchen, culinary and other smells blending appetisingly, and the second bedroom was actually a cupboard under the stairs up to the ground floor. 

We were not in the least put off by any of this, not even by the flock wall paper that I see in my mind’s eye in the living room with its scenic eye-level view from the bay window of discarded cans and dog turds on the pavement. We invited a nonmedic friend of Steve’s to share the rent. He was a Nigel Planer (The Young Ones) type – lanky, lugubrious, long black hair – and was supposed to be at some college or other but as far as I could see spent most of his time on a mattress in the tiny, smelly, windowless under-stair cupboard with his girlfriend, doubtless engaged in mind-improving activities with mind-altering substances.

This meant that David, Steve and I shared the bedroom. Three blokes. We got to know each other pretty well. Single beds before you ask.

I had a daily commute across town of 3.5 miles each way. No car in those days. I knew nothing about London buses, but as a rail nerd I had a working knowledge of tube and rail networks, so my journey was 100 yards walk to the tube, two stops on the Northern Line to Clapham North, across the road to Clapham railway station, two stops to Denmark Hill station, 200 yards walk to King’s. I did it on foot sometimes along Acre Lane through Brixton – pleasant enough if I wasn’t pressed for time.

My first student attachment was at Dulwich Hospital, a couple of miles from King’s, up and over Dog Kennel Hill, one of the steepest in south London. A year later, after Susan and I were married, I cycled a fair bit, and up and over the hill got me quite fit.

Three things I remember quite clearly from my time at Dulwich.

The first is that there’s nothing new under the sun. Peter Friedlander, a most delightful and gentle consultant physician in his late 60s, told us that his first line treatment for any stomach upset was liquorice. “Oh sure”, thought we, “what would an old codger who was at medical school in the 1930s know of modern all-singing-all-dancing medicine?” Well, boys and girls, he was absolutely right in this as in so much else. Liquorice root is indeed the active ingredient of several therapies. Just because it comes from a plant and not a laboratory doesn’t mean it’s no use—the opposite in fact. Also from plants come aspirin, morphine and digitalis, and from mould, penicillin. Dr Grundy in Cambridge drilled into us that these drugs are four of the five essentials you need to have if stranded on a desert island. The fifth is insulin. (By morphine people actually mean heroin – diamorphine – but they have a fit if you call it that.)

Dr Friedlander also taught us that for patients on a lot of drugs, it’s often wise to stop the lot and see what happens. You see, the trouble is that drugs interact with each other, and when several are taken together they have unpredictable effects that make things worse. That message—keep it simple—still informs just about everything I do.

The other Dulwich realisation was that sometimes—often in fact—the best thing to do is let someone die. Too often I saw patients suffer unnecessarily just for the sake of being kept alive for an extra week or two or month or two, often in great distress. Why? Well sometimes it makes the doctors feel they’re doing something (doctors like you to think they’re omnipotent), but also sometimes—and I saw this in ordained ministry too—because family members use someone else’s pain as a weapon to score points off each other.

It was while I was living in Clapham South that Susan and I rekindled our school friendship. By then she was a primary school teacher in Droylsden, east Manchester, and one weekend in late 1972 she came to visit the grubby basement. An evening walk to Clapham Common found us in the Windmill tavern. I, then a junior clinical medical student, asked her to marry me. The wedding would have to wait four years, said I, until I was earning. 

So, dear reader, we were married within months in August 1973.  But all that’s another story. Until then, I leave you with this vignette from my bachelor social life at that time.

The year is 1973, the time Friday evening. The story concerns four young men attending King’s College Hospital Medical School who were taking an evening stroll. As they proceeded from Camberwell in a north-westerly direction towards The Oval, a thirst descended upon them somewhere in salubrious north Brixton.

“Behold, seest thou yonder hostelry?”
“Yea, verily. Let us hie thither and slake our thirst.”
“Aye, aye. Come, let us make haste.”

It was the Skinners’ Arms on Camberwell New Road. The four knights did enter.

“If it be thy pleasure, fair wench, we parchèd wanderers each desire a tankard of thy most toothsome nectar.”
“Most certainly, wandering knaves,” quoth she.

Some time and several flagons later, behold the lights did dim. Music rang forth and lo, a lady materialized on the podium. The knaves salivated in eager expectation. The performing lady gradually divested herself of her habiliments until she stood before the assembled company in a two-piece bikini that didst cover only the barest of essentials. She had a midline scar below the umbilicus.

“Ah, comrades, spiest-ye the scar?” saith I (for yes, I was one of the four). “Perhaps the lady hath undergone an hysterectomy.”

It was not that the utterance itself was foolish, but rather the volume at which it rang forth, for the intended whisper cameth more as proclamation. If thou understandest that, thou dost apprehend the nub of the issue.

“Thou art mistaken, fair friend,” quoth the lady, “for ‘tis an appendix scar.”

And having uttered those very words the bikini-clad performer hied herself to the bench at which the knaves sat, and reclined on the knee of the writer, and polished his spectacles with one of her removèd undergarments.

Now, the knaves were, admittedly, very junior medical students, but they possess’d enough anatomical knowledge to know that appendicectomy requirest not a midline incision but rather a right-sided incision. Nevertheless, they sensed that circumstances were not propitious for elucidation. They felt that discretion was in their interests, and without further quaffing or quoting they legged it back to their lodgings. The young men were lucky, methinks, not to have been set upon by the lady’s supporters. 

The moral of the story? To draw conclusions from observations is good, but proclamation of same should be judicious if one wants to avoid getting one’s head kicked in.

In the dark?

Burton Hospital Eye Outpatients, 26 June 2020

Exchanges between hospital staff (HS) and me.

Me            Good morning. Outpatients, 9.30.

HS            assumed: can I have your name please?

Me            Sorry I’m deaf, can’t hear.

HS            still not loud enough: can I have your name please?

Me            I need to see your lips move, so please can you take your mask off? 

This does not go down well. After giving the requested information:

HS            We don’t seem to have your phone number. Can you let me have it?

Me            after having given it: that’s odd, you know, because somebody rang me last Monday to tell me about the appointment, and somebody rang me yesterday to confirm that I would attend.

HS            bluster bluster.

Me            Upstairs as usual?

After an affirmative nod, up I go. Upstairs is laid out differently from last time. I normally sit on the left to be near the place where staff call for patients, since none of them speaks very clearly. After about 20 minutes having been ignored:

Me            Am I in the right place?

HS            Have you had your temperature taken?

Me            No.

HS            Well, you should be over there in a red chair.

Me            after moving: It might be a good idea if the receptionist were to tell people that.

HS            There are notices in the lift and on the stairs.

Me            thinking: Notices? Notices? In small print? FFS, this is an eye clinic.

But I merely smile and relocate my backside.

Before long my sight has been tested, my right retina scanned, and in I go to the consultant. All very pleasant, though taking longer than usual. The consultant is very gently spoken and not easy for me to hear.

HS            What sort of surgery have you had?

Me            perplexed since he has the notes in front of him: Well I had the procedure that fries the ciliary apparatus last year and in 2018.

HS            Here? In the theatre downstairs?

Me            Yes.

HS            You had retinal surgery (not a question).

HS            No, not here, that was in Derby in 2008 by Mr Chen.

Him           So what was the operation here?

Me            after dredging my memory: cyclodiode laser treatment.

HS            Here?

Me            Yes, twice. You have the notes there: is there no record?

HS            Well, I can’t find them. Those records are digitized and kept offsite. We are completely in the dark.

Boom boom!

Me            trying to keep a straight face: that’s crazy ridiculous.

HS            shrug of the shoulders: That’s the way it is. Tell me when you had the cyclodiode.

So I did, and he wrote it down.

Ocular pressure on both sides is good. Glaucoma on the right is under control. It turns out I have a substantial cataract on the right, as well as glaucoma. Because that’s my only functioning eye, and surgery carries the risk of my being left totally blind, his advice is to live with the cataract until normal daily activities become impossible. I’m happy enough with that. I ask if successful surgery would mean that I could drive, to which the response is probably not.

After these moderately entertaining exchanges, he rationalises my seven lots of eye drops to five.

This is good, except that he insists that the drops I use should be from individual sachets without preservative, rather than with preservatives from a plastic bottle (cheaper). It seems the preservatives are damaging my corneas. He tells me that I must insist that the GP prescribes the individual sachets and not the generic drops in plastic bottles. Knowing as I do how difficult it is even to get a GP appointment, I express doubt that this will work and tell him why.

HS            Oh well, that’s the problem we all have to deal with. Good luck.

Then I’m dismissed with cordial farewells and I pootle off to hospital pharmacy to get the first new prescription. Do you know it takes 50 minutes to find two boxes, put them in a plastic bag, and give them to me?

I don’t fault the treatment one little bit. Burton Hospital has been very good to me. But I do wonder about administration, record keeping, the ability of one computer system to talk to another, and the difficulty people seem to have in imagining what it’s like from a patient’s perspective. 

All hail the NHS!

Experts and skeptics

Sayings of Richard Feynman, Nobel prizewinning physicist:

  • There is no harm in doubt and skepticism, for it is through these that new discoveries are made.
  • Science is organized skepticism of the reliability of expert opinion.

In our response to covid, we are witnessing the lack of expertise of experts.

We assume that science is incontrovertible. It may well be.

Scientists, however, are not. They are human. When they “speak science” to us, we do well to remember that actually they are speaking not science, but science as interpreted by scientists. Not the same thing at all.

We observe scientific phenomena. Observations rely on our senses and intellects. We measure scientific phenomena. Measurements rely on instruments and techniques. In biological science we observe and experiment on animals, human and non-human. Animals have “personalities”. They are not predictable. Personalities influence responses.

When a scientist inspects cells or tissues under a microscope, they have been pulverised in all sorts of ways to render them observable. If yesterday’s work is to be compared to today’s and next week’s, you need to be pretty damn sure that all the conditions and chemicals and temperatures that held yesterday are absolutely identical to today’s and next week’s. This can never be. 

There are so many variables in biological science. It is very messy. Mathematics is pure. Physics is almost pure, but is a bit messy since it has to be observed. Chemistry is messier still. Biology is very messy indeed, as I explain above. Messiest of all are things like psychology and social science, the latter once defined as the study of those who don’t need to be studied by those who do.

In the biological sciences, it’s necessary to amass a large amount of data. Those data must be tested, time and again, and robust statistical analyses applied, before even tentative conclusions can be drawn. 

I’m not saying that it’s not possible to draw conclusions in biological science. But it is time consuming and laborious, and it requires meticulous work from researchers whose personalities are well suited to meticulous work: focussed, capable of paying attention to detail and possessed of almost infinite patience. A bit anal you might say. Being on the autistic spectrum certainly helps.

Most of all, scientists must be impervious to the pressures from themselves and others to get their results to conform to expected patterns that suit their own ideas or those of the organisation and funding bodies for whom they work. 

In short, scientists need to be uncontaminated by personal bias. Good luck with that.

You see, the problem is that scientists—experts—are human.

Back in the 4th century, Evagrios the Solitary said “there are three groups [of demons] who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three.” Evagrios clearly had a profound knowledge of human psychology.

The third of those demons, seeking the esteem of men, is by far the most insidious and dangerous. And that is at the root of the sin of the expert, of the scientist in general, and indeed of humanity.

We all want to be well thought of. It is good for the sake of pay, pension, reputation, self-esteem and ego. But seeking the approval of others requires that we choose those whose approval is worth having. Therein lies the problem.

The ego of an unscrupulous scientist can lead to his ignoring inconvenient results, even fabricating data. It can lead to a pet model overriding observed data, the latter being squeezed and deformed to fit the model just as the ugly sister’s toe was amputated so her foot might squeeze into the glass slipper. Researchers employed by drug companies are particularly vulnerable to such pressures in order that their results will best enhance company profits, and thus reputations and prospects.

I need not perseverate. You can see how the demon of seeking esteem infects us all—and in the realm of science, you can I hope see how such pressures and biases can distort the interpretation of biological data.

And that brings us to covid.

In the covid case we are dealing with a novel virus. People use that word, and yet they don’t see that novel carries with it uncertainty and unpredictability, for if something is novel we can not reliably assume or deduce anything on the basis of what we have known heretofore. When a scientist comes along with a model, people latch on to it. “We need something,” they cry; “this is something; this will do”. 

Well, it might not do. Indeed, it did not do at all.

They, we, should assume nothing but instead proceed cautiously, adjusting and refining our ideas on the basis of data, rather than on the basis of some preconceived model. Instead we did the opposite: “we have a world expert modeller; we know better than the rest of the world; we know what the virus will do”. We certainly do not know what the virus will do, or how we will respond to it. 

What we need is constant wariness, a readiness always to adjust, refine, question. As Richard Feynman is reported as saying, “Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.” 

Experts, I repeat, are human and subject to all the deceptions and foibles of human nature. The problem is that we put too much weight on what they say. We treat them as infallible. We do not question them. We should. We need dissenters to say, “hang on a minute; what if … ?” Unfortunately dissenters, whistle blowers, are rarely if ever applauded. Richard Feynman could himself be a skeptic, for former US Attorney General William Rogers said of him “Feynman is becoming a real pain in the ass.” 

We need more, many more,  pains in the ass.

Looking ahead

I suspect that Floyd and Colston riots are in part manifestations of frustration and inconvenience of a policy drawn up on the basis of expert opinion insufficiently questioned and now seen to have been ineptly handled. The spark, I’m in no doubt, was anger at the behaviour of the Prime Minister and his adviser.

We are in for months of civil unrest—the rest of the year and possibly more. The privations, unemployment, business failures and shortages of covid will be as nothing compared to those resulting from the now almost inevitable hard brexit. The shysters in government will use the former as serendipitous cover for their treacherous and self-serving pursuance of the latter.

Politically, I have no axe to grind. In my time I’ve voted for everything except the Greens. But I come to the view that the best option for the immediate future would be an early uprising that would replace this morally bankrupt government with a “war cabinet” that includes Mr Starmer who already has acquired the gravitas and discernment that eluded most of his predecessors and that far exceeds anything in the present administration. Quite how this uprising could be provoked is something to ponder. 

It’s interesting to note that following the Irish general election months ago, there is still no government in Leinster House. And yet Dr Varadkar remains Taoiseach, the Irish go about their business, and two days ago the lockdown was eased considerably. 

Who needs a government? Who needs politicians? We urgently need loyal dissenters.

Ad multos annos

When I was about 10 I sometimes wondered what it would feel like to be 70. Now I know.

I also wondered what it would feel like to be dead. I’ll get back to you on that.

I’m glad to have reached this day, for I’ve long had a niggling suspicion that I might not. I’ve outlived my mother by three years, and if I manage another 12 months I’ll have outlived—just—my father. My sister is seven years older and still going strong, but then women tend to last longer, my mother excepted.

Life has fallen into several compartments: Langwathby: Penrith and Carlisle; Cambridge; London and marriage; Nottingham; Dublin; Derby. Then came ordination after which the pace of change quickened: Wirksworth, Chesterfield, Portlaoise (Ireland again), Burton. Ten house moves since marriage in 1973 and four Irish Sea crossings with resultant administrative hassle of tax, banks, utilities and whatnot in UK and Republic of Ireland, the latter involving both punts and euro. Susan and I became experts in organising moves from one jurisdiction to another, again and again. We learnt the value of renunciation—chucking out—physically and psychologically.

For much of the time, trying to juggle this with the demands of family, career, job politics, and being English in Ireland in the late 80s, I felt like a rabbit in headlights. This was not helped by the agony—and I mean agony—between 1988 and 1991 of living in Ireland while having first both sons then one at boarding schools in England until they were ready for Irish secondary school. Think ferries, overnight drives, unaccompanied flights for the boys, nine or ten times a year. Other people seem to cope well with such like but I did not. In the 1990s I needed lots of help. And later I came to realise that, as with many parents, the job, and in my case the students, got a better part of me than my family did. Thankfully, the feeling of guilt is now behind me.

The children navigated the turbulence of adolescence in a new country, and settled there making great friends and going on to college. Victoria married an Irishman, and Edward took Irish citizenship. Hugh, the middle one, went off to pursue his childhood American dream. After travelling around, then in order Seattle, marriage, fatherhood, and Wasilla (Alaska), he and his family ended up in Texas near his wife’s folks, where in The Great Catastrophe of 2015 he died. When I saw him last we were planning road trips “if I’m still alive” said I, to which he replied “you’ve thirty years in you yet”. He didn’t even have thirty days.

But the rest of us are still extant. We talk to one another and we love each other unconditionally and unlimitedly. I could not have survived without them.

So what does it feel like to be 70? 

My blood pressure is 135/80, give or take—woefully shocking for someone who consumes eggs, salt and butter in industrial quantities. It just goes to show that you shouldn’t listen to doctors or take statins. My resting pulse (lying in bed first thing of a morning) is just below 60. I feel better than I did 10, even 20, years ago, funny turn notwithstanding: https://ramblingrector.me/2020/05/07/a-funny-turn/. 

In my head I’m immaturing with age, I feel like a stroppy teenager. Long may it continue.

I have a great future behind me.

It feels fine.