Friday, 20 January 2017

What Do You Believe? (And Will It Save You?)

"What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!
In form and moving how express and admirable!
In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!
And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"

"Hamlet", Act 2, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare. 

I am about to write a very personal blog. It's going to be one from the heart, I think. For as I sit here in my comfortable home, my dad is lying in a hospital bed, drugged on morphine, going through the last vestiges of his life. He has advanced lung cancer, among other things, and we were told recently that he has deteriorated somewhat, and that the end can be expected within weeks, perhaps days. Dad himself remains remarkably sanguine, saying at one point that he probably got six extra months life by initially being treated for a problem with his liver, which inadvertently led to the discovery of the tumour on his lung. Had he not gone into hospital then, he protested, he may well be dead already. "So who's crying?", he said. "Not me". Occasionally this stoic acceptance of his fate takes a surreal turn as the drugs kick in and his mental confusion becomes more visible. A few days ago he turned to my mum and I, saying that there were quite a few famous people on the ward, and that Gary Barlow had visited him, brandishing a tin of assorted biscuits - just the sort you get at Christmas!
But while my dad may not be crying and has, as I say, an exceptionally practical attitude towards his own demise, saying often that his years on our green earth have been interesting and eventful and that any time given him now is a bonus, what about those he leaves behind? Me, my mum and brother. My mum is, I feel, trying to put a brave face on, but the mask occasionally slips to reveal someone stressed and sometimes astonished at the vagaries of existence. "I just wish life could have been kinder", she says, and I concur, wanting to cry. Indeed, mum's words seem to me to have a similar emotional impact to that of the lines spoken at the end of Yasujiro Ozu's magnificent film, "Tokyo Story", where one of the character's simply states, "Life is disappointing, isn't it?" My brother is typically laid back but clearly concerned. And as for me, I seem to be bumbling through it all somehow, only occasionally beginning to realise the gravity of dad's predicament. I may  be brushing my teeth or watching TV, and the sudden thought will go through my head, "my god, my dad's dying!"
Indeed, it is the finality of the situation which seems so overwhelming. My dad may be here for the next few weeks or days, but soon enough he simply won't be. What we call consciousness will simply vanish into the ether, it seems, never to return. Or will it?
Some take solace in the belief that we don't really die, but that our souls just move on to some different, spectral plane. For some this is heaven, although I can't say that I believe that my dad will soon be sitting on some fluffy cloud, looking down on us benevolently. Indeed, someone once told me that Freud believed that the whole religious concept of an afterlife was born out of man's inability to accept the finality of death. And then, one can, of course, look to the other end of the spectrum and read some Albert Camus, the existentialist writer and philosopher who said that the fact of death makes life absurd. Also, there's the musings of perhaps the greatest melancholic of them all, Shakespeare's Hamlet, who, after his father's murder at the hands of his uncle, speculates that, in the end, no matter how great we may be in life, death is the great equalizer, rendering us into nothing more than food for worms. Add to that the poetry of that great miserabilist, Philip Larkin, who said that all experience was put in perspective by the fact of our mortality, making all things appear equally meaningless, stating that "Hours giving evidence/ Or birth, advance/ On death equally slowly." 
But in the end, to me, believing in the pointlessness and futility of existence seems a bit, well, pointless. For, as Jeanette Winterson says in her autobiographical book, "Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?", we are generally meaning-seeking creatures who crave a way of understanding and making sense of things. As one such creature, I try to look on my father's imminent death as not in the least pointless. Death is perhaps what gives life its true significance, the fleeting, ephemeral nature of our existence making our all too short time all the more valuable and important. And indeed, if the way we live and what we leave behind matters, then my dad can, I think, be proud of himself, and go to his rest satisfied. I grew up hearing of his generally unhappy childhood, which seemed to be sorely lacking in affection. Knowing that he leaves behind him not any harm, but only love shared and now remembered, gives me the solace that his was a life well lived.
But, no matter what we believe, it will never save us from our ultimate fate, and if, as Freud suggested, mankind has essentially invented religious beliefs in order to make death more bearable, then surely one man's tranquil and often humorous acceptance of his own passing is worthy of note. Indeed, it is my dad's own such acceptance that will forever stay with me and last, at least until my own sloughing off of this mortal coil, as an enduring example.

Since writing this blog, my dad has passed away. He died on 11th January, peacefully.              


Saturday, 15 October 2016

Looking for Somewhere to Film your Apocalyptic, Zombie-Infested, Dystopic Sci-Fi Movie? Why not try Stoke-on-Trent?

So, the dystopic science fiction film, "The Girl With All the Gifts", recently opened to largely favourable reviews in UK cinemas. The film stars, among others, Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and newcomer Sennia Nanua. It's set in the near future where humanity has been ravaged by a fungal disease, with those affected losing their ability to think freely, eventually turning into flesh-eating, zombie-like creatures known by survivors as "hungries". The only hope for humanity's survival is a small group of hybrid children who also crave human flesh, but somehow retain their ability to feel and think.
The movie has been widely advertised and, as I have said, has garnered several favourable reviews, some calling it an unusually intelligent addition to the zombie genre. However, what you may not know is that a small portion of the film was shot right here in my home city of Stoke-on-Trent. A few years back our city centre, Hanley, acquired a new bus station, leaving the old one largely derelict, and it was here that the film makers came to shoot. It seems that this barren, urban wasteland was exactly the sort of place that location scouts thought suitable for the post-apocalypse environment of the movie. I know that with my own love for cinema I should have been proud and excited to have such people visit our city, but I can't help but wonder what this says about our once fair home. Indeed, although the majority of the movie was shot throughout the Midlands, the fact that the film makers also chose the Russian district of Chernobyl as a location for shooting doesn't exactly fill one with confidence. The area known most famously for its nuclear disaster and radiation-infected land indeed still looks like a bomb hit it, and that Stoke was thought of as somehow comparable doesn't say much for its own aesthetic qualities.
I have written before in this blog of how Stoke-on-Trent was a once thriving industrial area, but which has now become a largely run-down, deprived place, sorely in need of inward investment and regeneration. We have many problems with poverty, unemployment and illness, and indeed, I can think of times when I have actually thought that some parts of Stoke look like they've come out of some kind of post-apocalyptic nightmare. The people, although not uniformly, often look ill and visibly poor. Many carry walking sticks, crutches or use mobility scooters. Perhaps, upon seeing Stoke and its residents, the makers of "The Girl With All the Gifts" felt that maybe they'd save some money on special effects and make-up! OK, so maybe that is a bit unfair, but the fact remains that if you're looking for somewhere to film your apocalyptic, zombie-infested, dystopic sci-fi movie, Stoke-on-Trent may be all too suitable.          

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

While Paralympians Look to the Stars, Why are Most Disabled People Still in the Gutter?

I don't know whether you're aware (then  again how could you not be), but the Paralympics recently took place in sunny Rio. It was a particularly edifying Games for our Team GB, as they are affectionately called, who returned to Britain this week triumphant, having won an incredible number of medals (64 of which were gold) and coming in second place with only China doing better. How could one fail to be proud of such a magnificent, almost super-human achievement? How could one fail to be inspired? How could one fail to have one's mind opened about what disabled people are truly capable of? Indeed, it seems to have been an aim of Team GB and the Games itself to inspire a whole new generation of Paralympians, and they appear to have been successful even in that regard.
But, enter, stage left, one cynical, old fart: i.e. me. Don't get me wrong, I'm as impressed by our athletes as the next person, and when I see people like Ellie Simmonds or Sarah Storey clutching their medals closely to their chests, you may even see a little tear of pride and also sheer astonishment from me at what they have achieved. However, watching a debate involving disabled people on Channel 4 only a couple of days ago, I was left feeling that while our Paralympians may be looking to the stars, most disabled people are still struggling to lead independent lives, a struggle  not helped by current government policy towards such people. Indeed, the anger that was clearly displayed during the discussion showed that most disabled people are certain of who is to blame for their predicament, with most of their ire reserved for the Tory government. While a lone Tory MP protested that the government was spending more and more money on disabled people, his argument was flatly drowned out by the many stories of real-life struggle, prompting the chair of the debate to ask, at one point, that if the government is spending so much money, why is there such a stark contrast with the reality of peoples' lives? The Tory MP attempted, somewhat lamely and to no avail, to transfer some of the blame to local councils and CCGs, but the others remained unconvinced.
Indeed, some of their stories were harrowing, telling of the difficulty of living even a dignified, let alone independent, existence, without sufficient money and support. One woman told of how some of her friends had been forced to wear clothing normally reserved for the incontinent, as they were not being helped to the toilet. Another spoke of similar problems which the current crisis in social care has brought about, saying how she was expected, on occasion, to go to bed at 7 o'clock in the evening and remain there until morning. As she stated, as an intelligent, young, outgoing person she would appreciate the chance to go out and live life to the full, but this is not an opportunity afforded people like her in these days of austerity, it seems. As ever, even if you do manage to get out, access to places remains a problem, with another woman complaining of how she had been refused entry to her train home because they felt her mobility scooter was too cumbersome to be put on board, when in fact it would only take up as much room as an ordinary wheelchair. Others spoke of the indignity of having to be reassessed for benefits, one man describing the process as like being "prodded in the chest" and asked if you are "really" ill. Others, it seemed, simply could not restrain their anger, saying that the government was not only responsible for such indignities, but that it even had "blood on its hands". By deliberately designing policies which targeted disabled people, they claimed that, in some instances, this had resulted in deaths, particularly in cases of people in severe mental distress who had taken their own lives.
All in all, the stories were in stark contrast to our Paralympic glory, and having watched the debate in its entirety, one came away with, some would say perhaps the ungenerous and unpatriotic feeling, that our Paralympians were, in the end, simply pawns in a game of propaganda. They seem to promote the notion, perhaps inadvertently, that all is well in the land of the disabled and that if only one is determined, resilient, motivated and willing to work hard one can achieve anything. Perhaps we forget that  a large portion of their success is down to having enough funding and support from the National Lottery, and that if only such generosity were extended to the normal, average (I think I've heard that phrase somewhere before) disabled person, they too may be able to look to the stars, and not be left to flounder in the way that they currently appear to be.

Friday, 19 August 2016

A Sorry State.

After writing in my last post about how the Tories, under Theresa May's leadership, seem to want to convince us that it is they who are the true party of social justice, I thought I'd just give a taste of what's happened to mental health services in Stoke-on-Trent since the Conservatives took office. It's a sorry tale, told from my own perspective, full of sound and fury and signifying, hopefully, a great deal. As I take the pulse of our beloved NHS, it's once mighty pounding now seems but a faint, hollow, weak ticking, drowned out by the roar of the philosophies of free marketism and austerity.
It has always been my aim in this blog to give a positive spin on people's ability to recover from even the most severe of mental illnesses. By using my own experience as an example, I have sought to say, in numerous posts, that leading a so-called "normal" life is possible, given the right support and treatment. However, as I look at the sorry state mental health services appear to be in within my own locality, I am beginning to think that such things, if not entirely eroded, are certainly becoming more difficult to achieve.
I was actually discharged from secondary care for the second time around 18 months ago. By all accounts, this should really be a success story. I have recovered well and achieved many things. But, not everyone shared this perspective. My GP, for instance, said to me that he was "extremely annoyed" that I'd been discharged as, according to him, I should be being monitored, if only because of the nature of the medication I take. Indeed, I have been told in the past that my condition is a chronic one which would require life-long support, but this belief seems to have soon faded in the light of the many cuts that have been made to our mental health service. Those in practice have argued that these are not the days of the long-stay asylums and when well enough, people have to be discharged. However, with the central government policy of austerity cuts came thick and fast. Around 34 nursing jobs were lost, our local resource unit was closed, and the group I attend once a week was forced out into the community and the staff who once facilitated it were withdrawn. Indeed, the group remains my one avenue of help, but without professional support and dwindling numbers of attendees, it is hardly the dynamic aid to people's recovery it was in days of old. So, it may be suggested that this is merely progress by some, but to others, my GP for example, it is an abrogation of responsibility on behalf of mental health services. He sees it as people being wrongly discharged back into his care, and we all know of the strain faced by GP surgeries. Even within our group, it has been noted that more and more people are being discharged from secondary care, only to find scant support beyond that point.
After expressing his anger at the way I had been dealt with, my GP, who had been with me for many years, also seemed to let me down, leaving to work at a different surgery. So  now it seems as if any professional who really knew or understood my history of illness has gone from my life, and I'm left feeling slightly unsure about the quality of the care I'm receiving. In fact, you could say there's very little care or support there at all. Indeed, with the group as my one avenue of help, my life may well rapidly descend into one of loneliness and isolation. The voluntary work I once did has all but dried up, so I'm left with plenty of time to ponder just where my life is headed and to wonder what is going to happen. Will I find a way out of this, or with the way things are going, will it just become increasingly hard?
Even the group I attend, as I've suggested, is not without its problems. To give one example, a new member was introduced to the group (a couple of years ago now) by an Occupational Therapist. It so happened that she had discharged him from secondary care and had sought out our group as something which may have given him at least some support. We welcomed him in, as it is a rarity that those who come to our group are not made to feel welcome. He liked the group and so was left with us, but after only a couple of weeks began to complain of suicidal thoughts and indeed, had harmed himself with a knife which he had taken to his stomach, wrists and neck. This was no empty bleating either. I saw the marks which had been left myself. He asked me for advice, to which all I could say was that he should return to secondary care. But he didn't want to and the result has been that, on occasion, other members of the group have had to act as some kind of de facto nursing team. We asked for help but in the long run received none, and I still can barely restrain my anger at the OT who saw fit to not only discharge a clearly unwell man, but to bring him to a group which she must have been aware was a  user-led entity without even the slightest bit of professional support.
So, as  our mental health service seems to decline more and more, it would appear that more and more unwell people will be left to virtually fend for themselves. And I wouldn't begin to feel safe even if your problems are of the physical kind. Only yesterday I read of another local hospital losing beds. Management justified their loss by saying that this would give more people the opportunity to be cared for at home. Without adequate social care one wonders how this will happen without disastrous consequences, and indeed it was the same rationale which was used by mental health services to try to paper over the fact that cuts were being made and it was going to hurt. Our local drug and alcohol service is also going to be affected, and as many feel such addictions are self-inflicted one can't imagine any great public outcry over that.
However, a public outcry is exactly what should happen, Our beloved NHS is being dismantled and is falling apart in front of our very eyes. It is sometimes hard to know who exactly to be angry at when one receives shoddy care, but for me one must trace things back to the source of the problem, and that is our current Conservative government. Welcome to the era of Tory social justice.                  

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Will the Real Party of Social Justice Please Stand Up?

So, after "Brexit" and all the ensuing hue and cry, here in the UK we are finally getting a new Prime Minister. After David Cameron's resignation later today, Theresa May will go boldly where only Margaret Thatcher has gone before her by becoming the second female Prime Minister of our green and pleasant land. Indeed, it seems that May wants to usher in something of a new era for the Conservative Party, and has spoken of being that much fabled of things, a "One Nation" Tory. As such, it seems she wants to create a land of social justice, where opportunity is open to all, not just the privileged few, and  where things like tax avoidance and evasion by large corporations are scorned and tackled with an iron fist. But, hold on a minute, before we get carried away here, this is Theresa May isn't it? That would be the same Theresa May who was previously Home Secretary and, as part of the last cabinet, oversaw some of the most divisive and destructive policies to have ever been implemented by any UK government. The same government that has seen the rise of the food bank, the stagnation or reduction of wages, the spreading of the zero hours contract and the corresponding shrinkage of workers' rights, not to mention its ongoing zeal to privatise more or less everything, cut funding to public services and thereby create crises in social housing, social care, the NHS, education and mental health. In the light of all that, is it really possible that May can stand there, with a straight face, and profess that actually, her party is the real party of social justice?
At the previous general election, Ed Miliband made similar appeals, but was roundly vilified in the press and generally made out to be some kind of left-wing radical, which he decidedly was not. The upshot was, though, that so-called "red" Ed lost the election and then scarpered seemingly as fast as he could. In stark contrast, the media has yet to tackle May about her new position and its jarringly evident contradiction to the reality of Tory governance, and she is, by most accounts, reported to be a statesman-like, calming character - something which our nation sorely needs at this moment of historical import and turbulence.
Meanwhile, in much the same way as Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn is raked over the coals for being of the "hard left", for his style of dress, for his lack of leadership skills. But does anyone really listen to what he's saying? While May is allowed to concentrate on policy, Corbyn is left defending his position as leader of the Labour Party, seemingly facing a challenge from most of the PLP. It doesn't appear to matter to the media or the public that May might be something of a hypocrite, but it does seem to matter what colour tie Corbyn wears. Nor does it seem of any importance to them that Corbyn is by far the more sincere and principled person with a proven record of fighting for a fairer society.
So, as the Conservatives steal Labour's clothes, the Labour Party itself is said to be "in turmoil", and with the media's seeming inability to point out the hypocrisy in May's position, and with an electorate who seem, at best, misled, at worst, unable to remember one day to the next, it may as well be as if the last six years never happened. And, of course, we all know that the "real" party of social justice is the Conservative Party.