Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The national UNhealth service?

I heard on the news this morning of a suggestion to give everybody over 55 medication for high blood pressure - "to prevent heart attacks". I despair. How about concentrating on people who NEED medication, not doing a blanket 'everyone has high blood pressure so we'll make them all take pills' exercise? Or is it another ruse to get us to pay even more? I've often wondered if our PM goes back to Scotland when he has a medical problem because, of course, the Scots don't have to pay for prescriptions, or whether he refuses to let the English off the charge as a punishment for Bannockburn or the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

If our befuddled leaders want a crusade, I can give them one. My brother is a long-distance lorry driver. He isn't an overweight beer-swilling moron with an IQ of 3, which is what most people seem to think lorry drivers are. He is slim, eats sensibly, has an occasional glass of red wine and is 62. Our family have a history of heart problems, so when he had some intermittent chest pains, he paid one of his 'blue moon' visits to the GP. Result, tests. Result, he has a 10% reduction in the function of his heart. Result, DVLA have taken his HGV licence away. All that I can understand and have no problem with.

Now this is where it gets silly. Before the NHS will do anything about his problem, he must either have a heart attack, at which point he will either die or get the operation he needs, or further tests must show a minimum of a 15% dysfunction BEFORE he is eligible for any treatment.

So, he is left too ill to work but not ill enough for treatment. Unless he pays for private treatment, of course, in which case, he can have the operation tomorrow, provided he pays the cash. He has worked all his life, never claimed any kind of benefit and the first time he needs the system into which he has paid for almost 40 years, it tells him to sod off. He isn't sick enough or rich enough. Why don't the preventative lot do something about that instead of assuming that everyone over 55 has high blood pressure? My brother is lucky. His boss is keeping his job open on the understanding that he will get treatment as soon as possible. He is also lucky that he has an understanding consultant who is trying to help.

Where he is not lucky is that the hospital keep 'losing' his file or 'not receiving' correspondence from the consultant. His pathetic - and in my opinion, negligent - GP suggested he get a "van driver's job". Perhaps the GP thought that having to load a van, drive to a very strict timetable and jump in and out of the van unloading and delivering parcels was the answer for someone who has a heart problem and less stressful than watching someone load his wagon, driving it to a destination in a reasonable time and then watching someone else unload it. Perhaps the GP was just ignorant about a van driver's duties or too focussed on his budget to actually give a monkey's cuss about his patient. Perhaps he should consider another career rather than medicine, one which doesn't come under the heading of a "caring" profession. Perhaps someone ought to do the same thing to him. I'd certainly like to.

So my brother is left with few options. He can wait for a heart attack to solve the problem, but risk dying in the process. He can save up the thousands of pounds needed to pay for the operation before he has a heart attack, but with no job and therefore no income, the heart attack will probably win the race with the bank balance. Or, maybe, just maybe, the hospital might 'find' his file, pull their finger out and get him the treatment he needs to become what he wants to become. A man doing what he is trained for, paying taxes and once more being a useful member of society.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Living by the rules

They say the best cure for depression is vigorous physical activity. The way I feel at the moment, the best physical activity I can imagine would be packing all our belongings and moving to a bedsit in the south of France. Leaving Britain. I would have liked to say leaving England, but in a lot of eyes, the words England and English are a pejorative – mostly Scottish, Irish, Welsh and, of course, Robert Mugabe’s eyes. Strange then that we have a Scottish PM and Scottish speaker who have presided over the one thing that has sickened everyone in the bit of Britain east of Wales and south of Scotland.

As yet more of our “Honourable” members are revealed to be anything but, I feel like most of the electorate. I would hazard a safe guess that if asked, virtually all of us normal mortals – the ones who go out to work the longest hours in the whole of Europe, pay increasing amounts of tax for decreasing amounts of services and try to be honest – we would say with one accord that we all feel cheated. Not one journalist in any of the bulletins I have heard, watched or read, has asked if we are surprised. I would hazard another safe guess that the answer would be a resounding no. Revealing, don’t you think?

Does all this furore have a silver lining, or, like the ‘cash for honours’ scandal when even the then PM was questioned by police, will it be swept under the Westminster carpet? It must be bloody mucky under that shag pile by now. Well, I suppose one good thing is that, once again, we are showing the “Dunkirk spirit” and beginning to pull together.

There are a few questions I would like answered, though. Has any MP claimed for a mirror, or are they all too ashamed to look into one? Why was a now retired MP allowed to claim £7000 odd (reduced, I believe from £13,000 odd) for bookshelves, when I have managed to house my hundreds of books in shelves from MFI which cost about £40 each? How many of the 16 sheets was the MP in the one-bedroomed flat using at a time, or had he forgotten to claim for a washing machine? Could somebody also explain which part of the pipe repair under the tennis court was furthering parliamentary duties? Was he having his electorate round for tennis parties, perhaps?

How come they can all pay these “mistakes” back so readily? Did they have the money all the time? And, most important of all, how can anyone not know they have paid their mortgage off? Apart from any other paperwork received from the financial institution who lent the money, you have to say what you want doing with the deeds to the property you now own outright, don’t you? Or are we meant to believe that not only are our politicians too busy to oversee their own expenses claims, they also pay large sums – just look at the tables of expenses for staff – to people who are as financially inept as they are. Any ordinary person who was caught – not volunteering are they, we have to catch them – doing this would have been not just instantly dismissed, but looking at the inside of a prison cell. Anyone want to join me hazarding another guess that nobody will go to jail?

The second homes thing has to go. What I believe is that there should be two huge Salvation Army type hostels built adjacent to each other in London, one for male MPs and the other for female MPs. No money changes hands. Bedding, security etc is paid for by the taxpayer, but we don’t pay for food or cleaning. I have to pay for my food and if I want a cleaner, I have to pay for that, too. So can they. The taxpayer can also pay for shuttle buses to take them to and from Westminster. They can work in their offices and sleep in their bedsits, like millions of normal people have to. Their pride – and ours – has to be because they are serving their country, just like the thousands of poorly paid soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, except that the MPs don’t get shot at on a regular basis.

For years, I have said that anyone wanting to be a politician is, by that very declaration, not fit to be one. A two-edged sword. Nice to be proved right, but the depression at what their fraudulent antics – and I believe it is fraud – have done to our already tarnished reputation makes me ashamed to say that I am English. When the mother of parliaments starts shafting her children, perhaps it is time we all left home.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Being there

A long time ago, someone asked me what I was most frightened of. Answer: Not being there. I remember when my daughter was small, that fear that she might need me and I wouldn't be there was all but overwhelming. I wonder if it is the same for all parents. There is nothing that can produce such a physical shaft of pain as thinking that your child is hurt and may be calling for you and you are not there. I was 12 when Brady and Hindley were on trial. In later life, I worked with one of the officers on that case. He was a hard-bitten, cynical, granite copper, but even he broke down on hearing the recordings made of Lesley Downey crying for her mother. I can only imagine what it did to that poor woman.

It is an impossible lesson to learn that you can't always be there, though, isn't it? Be it for your child, your partner, your parents, even your pets. Our retriever is now 13 and although he is shaky on his back legs, he is still avid for his food and his walk - more of an amble these days. It isn't so long ago that we had to walk a few paces in one direction until he came hurtling past us, then wheel round in the other direction until he came hurtling past again. We would do this 5 or 6 times until that initial explosion of energy was gone and he could settle into a walk we all enjoyed. Now, it is more usual for us to stop and wait for him to catch up. So, my fear is that on the rare occasions I have to leave him, I worry that he will be all right on his own. Stupid, but there you go. He sleeps on the floor at my side of the bed, so close that I have to reach over him with my feet to find the floor. Perhaps he not only feels safe there, but also knows that I feel better if he is there, too. I hope that one day I wake up and he has just gone quietly over the Rainbow Bridge. Easier for both of us than that last one-way trip to the vet. Because the "being there" syndrome brings a whole raft of responsibilities with it. If it does come to the vet trip, it will be me who takes him - the last loving thing I can do for a dog who has given us 13 years of fun, laughter and love. Yes, I will make sure of being there.

Friday, 8 May 2009

A writer on writing

So, how do writers write? I get asked this by friends who appear slightly embarrassed about the fact that someone they know is a "writer", as if it is something apart from the other arts like music or painting or whatever.

And the answer is that each individual's writing methods are different. I treat it like a job - 8.30-4.30 with a break for lunch and, if the weather is nice, a walk down to the sea perhaps. I used to start at 9, but need half an hour to look at e-mails, answer them and - OK, I admit it - spend a few minutes playing Mah-Jong Titans. But, at 9 on the button and occasionally before, my working day begins. I write very quickly. A good day is 4000 words. That is a good day, not necessarily a good 4000 words. I just bang out the words. I don't polish until it is finished. Some days I need to plan by hand - and it has to be good quality paper and a fountain pen, usually my silver Schaeffer Victorian Heritage Legacy and its gorgeous Florida Blue ink - you see, even the tools of the trade have to feel right. The dog has become used to me having conversations with myself just to see if the exchanges sound believable. My office looks like any you will find in a commerical company, except that my desk is huge because I need to spread out - or as my husband puts it, cover the surface with crap.

The last thing I do each day is to jot down three things I have to do next day, so that I am not sitting there wondering where to start. I like to have several projects on the go, not necessarily on the page, but certainly in my head. My husband will end a long mutual silence with the words 'You're thinking again, aren't you?'. And, it's true. My mind is seldom away from a plot, or listening to the "song" of people's speech, their mannerisms, the news about their lives. Writers harvest all that and use it without conscience. But mine isn't the only way, of course. I know one writer who only writes three days a week in the afternoons, who polishes as she goes along, another whose daily target is 1000 words and stays at his desk until they are written. The one thing all writers have in common, be they household names or obscure scribblers, is that we all write. How we write is immaterial. That we write is the point, and, as Wordsworth advised, we "fill the paper with the breathings of our heart".

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Music for a while...

Is there anyone on the planet who doesn't like music in some form or other? I know I couldn't exist without it, which is probably what convinced me to make my amateur sleuth a professional singer - well, that and the fact that I am familiar with the world of singing. When some artists work, they listen to music to see how it influences what they paint. I know one painter who regularly paints beautiful swirling backgrounds to Pink Floyd. I write to English pastoral music and last year found a fantastic 3-disk set issued by the National Trust. There are the usual suspects on it, like "The Lark Ascending", but also some gems from our lesser known composers like Bridge and Coates. I can be having the day from hell, but if I put on Williams's "A Quiet Stroll" or Binge's "Watermill" and I can't help but smile and breathe out. A lousy day can be expelled by switching on the Roland piano, playing back recorded accompaniments and having a damn good sing. My day is lousy no longer. I can't answer for the neighbours' day, of course. One man's Bach is another man's... well you get the idea. Singing is wonderful exercise. It gets the heart going and puts the singer on an emotional high. Dancing has the same effect, so next time you're feeling low, switch on your music, open up your shoulders and give your cardiovascular system a good workout. Whether you're a fan of Mozart or Metallica it doesn't matter. Just let rip. Music. There's no finer food for the soul.