Opinions, hopes, dreams and discussions – on every topic from health to welfare, me to you, politics to parenting. Ready for some conversation?
Dawn Faizey-Webster is a remarkable woman who I was lucky enough to interview in 2014 for the Daily Telegraph. Last night, that account was commended in the Guild of Health Writers Award, which was really pleasing.
Of course, it is nice to get recognised by your peers for your work, but mostly it gives me a chance to highlight her story one more time.
Dawn has Locked-In Syndrome; she cannot speak or move much more than a slight lift and turn of the neck, or control more than her intensely expressive left eye, and its immediate facial muscles. Yet she has wit and warmth, and her intelligence is undimmed. When we spoke, Dawn had just been awarded a 2:2 honours degree in history, a course she studied painstakingly over six years, using a sophisticated computer programme that picks up words when she stares at them for a sufficient number of seconds.
In addition, she has a laptop that can be controlled by subtle head movements, allowing her to use the internet, send email and do her academic research online. She can type at a rate of about 50 words an hour. Each three-hour exam took her three weeks to complete. Her plans were then for an MA in history of Art, followed by a PhD.
Dawn has the most amazing family too: Alec, 80, Shirley, 75, and little brother Mark, 54; plus her son Alexander, now 14.
Stories like hers stay with you, as they should. My commendation is simply another tribute to her candour and confidence.
Flesh Wounds is a memoir written by Richard Glover, a best-selling author, presenter on 702 ABC Sydney, very funny chap and also – full disclosure – my much-loved cousin. Currently available in Australia or via Amazon, its appeal is worldwide, I think, partly because the subject matter takes us with Richard to Lancashire on his search for his English roots. Partly because the elements explored in the book are so universal: family; love; secrets; abuse; Tolkein. (Note to publishers: how about an English edition?)
The book itself is an ‘anthropological’ exploration through Richard’s family; a mapping of the historical whys and wherefores as well as the practical geography of his childhood in suburban Australia with parents who drank, partied, argued and parted, all the time seeming to ignore the small boy who they happened to share a house with. As Richard said in an interview: “I wouldn’t call it a horrible childhood, it’s an imperfect childhood. And that’s really common – we all have an expectation of a perfect childhood but I’d say maybe 40 per cent of people don’t get the parents they ordered. Maybe 60 per cent say their parents never gave them the love they wanted.”
Most readers will think he is being over-generous in a style we know as prodigiously his – that sort of Yves Montand-shrugability, dashed with irrepressibly optimistic Tigger-ness. Yes, life was appalling at times, the text does say, but ‘This isn’t Angela’s Ashes’. It was awful, but he was saved (as many are) by real, adult, available and honest love, when he met his partner Debra Oswald.
If you want to hear him talk about the book and his family, there’s a great podcast here.
Some will want to find a sub-text or read between the lines for on-going horror or heritable flesh wounds. But Richard is straightforward: ”So many people had inadequate childhoods but we’re not all insane or self-harming or miserable.”
Richard’s message is inclusive and universal: ”We just found the love we needed elsewhere”. It’s OK to look back in anger or hurt, but it’s also OK to look forward in hope and love.
He makes me think of the poem by WH Auden September 1, 1939 and its difficult line: ”We must love one another OR die” which Auden apparently wanted changed to ”We must love one another AND die.”
In the first version of the line, we see love as an act of hope in a terrible world. In the second, as an act of despair. But I think Richard’s book switches that about.
That manic love of the first version as the only alternative to death leads to romanticised despair. In the second version of the line, I like to think of Richard choosing hope and love as the answer to an imperfect world around him, and even despite all his early experience to the contrary.
After alternately scowling and then nodding in agreement at Iain Dale’s short book The NHS; Things That Need to Be Said (Global; £8.99), I have to hand it to him: this will be uncomfortable reading for some.
I was – to be fair- quite surprised at how often Dale and I agree: we both think that staffing needs to be looked at more closely. That there are managers who are paid far too much, a creeping tendency to over-qualify all staff, and that if we don’t find ways to get women back into general practice (indeed all specialities) after maternity gaps, the country is throwing away knowledge and skills.
I don’t agree with him about NICE – I’ve interviewed scientists and doctors around the globe who envy us NICE. They salivate over a scientifically respected truly independent group of experts who are prepared to make the hard choices the rest of us baulk at.
Anyone who watched the #NHS2billion series on Channel 4 will be grateful surely that they don’t have to decide between patients.
And I think Dale chooses soft targets in asking if we should treat binge drinkers and the regretful tattooed. The true choices are between this expensive cancer drug and that expensive cancer drug. Whether you think a patient with late stage liver cancer or late stage kidney cancer is more deserving will very much depend on your personal history and experience.
NICE does save us from those inevitably partial decisions.
But I agree with him that Health Secretaries should be kept in place longer. And that we badly need to get our act together regarding mental health care.
The best bit about this book (sorry, Iain, all those chapters and then my eyes lit up with joy at the list on P95 – love a list!) is his ‘’50 Things Which Could Make the NHS Better’’.
I scored 29/50 – possibly more than I thought I would. I still don’t agree with Dale on quite a few core points – for example: that I should
13: Accept that the profit motive is not anathema in healthcare
And I have never been able to get my head around the Localism Agenda to even understand why:
16: The NHS should accept the localism agenda
BUT the entire short book (though pricey! there’s the profit motive in action for you) makes for really thought-provoking reading.