Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Best fun in ages

I suddenly realised going to gym was worth it last Saturday when I went tobogganing for the first time in 15 years. I know it’s tempting the devil to say I didn’t get a stiff muscle or a pulled ligament after spinning around on the steepest hill near our village for a truly joyful hour, but if you have to put up with questions like “what, at your age?” from Youngest Brother-in-law afterwards you might as well boast.

Not that the trip started off so cheerfully. Husband and Sons announced we were going up to Dry Hill. I privately thought “they’ll never get the car up there and I will go to the gym”, but I was informed I was going too, whether I liked it or not. I suppressed all comment as they tried first one hill and then another to make the assault on Dry Hill, only to find the car wheels spinning and retreat unavoidable. Privately I rehearsed the conversation we would be having with the AA: “Well, er, when you ask whether the trip was essential, Husband and Sons have a joint age of 12 and seemed to think it was. No, we didn’t bring a spade now you mention it. Yes, I do agree we are a bunch of irresponsible idiots.”

While pondering this humiliating exchange, an Alfa Romeo was seen to crest the hill. At which point uproar broke out in the car. “If HE can do it in THAT car, then our Volvo certainly can.” With Volvo’s name at stake (Youngest Brother-in-law sells Volvos so we have standards to uphold) Sons heaved the car out. And we made it – to find a cheerful group of 20 or so who had got there before us, including one party with a picnic set. Only in Britain you might think. Best fun in ages.

Panic buying?

I think there are times Prime Ministers should give us all a good ticking off. And now is just such a moment. Why on earth have we started panic buying food? Confronting the empty egg and bread shelves on Saturday I recalled the dismal days back in the seventies when – for reasons I can’t now remember – we had regular salt and sugar shortages. I was at the time the Consumer Affairs reporter for the Croydon Advertiser – no laughter please, the Croydon Ad is an admirable title. It was a job I was very bad at, as it happens, and from which I escaped with the Editor’s agreement after only a few weeks because I found hanging around supermarkets indescribably tedious. But I was infuriated then by the whole idiocy of stockpiling. Then and now, most of it is being done by people who are not at any risk of being marooned. Once the supermarkets said “two bags each only” it all stopped. As Husband grimly observed on Saturday, the trouble with irrational shoppers is that the only rational response is to start doing same. Can we please all STOP?

Monday, 11 January 2010

Ferrets in a sack

If you ever doubted that it's governments who lose elections, may I present in evidence the events of last week? Just as the Conservatives are getting into a spot of bother over their policy on marriage after their New Year pre-election launch, a coup attempt against the Prime Minister by two former Cabinet ministers hits the headlines, and Hey Presto Labour have started the year just exactly as their opponents would hope, fighting each other like ferrets in a sack.

By the way, I don't go along with all this Dumb & Dumber stuff about Hoon and Hewitt. Senior Parliamentarians of their type - ie publicly very loyal - just don't launch a coup attempt against a sitting Prime Minister unless they are (a) desperate to see something happen and (b) believe that they have some backing. Their actions just highlight the profound malaise within. Cameron can certainly breathe a sigh of relief. Labour let him off the hook.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A happy and healthy New Year!

Did you bin 2009 with relish or look back at a particularly happy year?

At the party where we all grouped according to our view of it, my sister-in-law and I immediately 'binned' the year as both of us had discovered we had medical conditions requiring rather urgent treatment. Afterwards, I felt guilty. Indeed, I thought in reality I should view it as a lucky year because when I needed them those amazing doctors were there, telling me to stay calm and just let them get on with sorting me out. Which they did.

This isn't just a way of thanking them - although I do very much want to thank them - but also to remind me and others of things we overlook in the UK. The unusual condition I had was only 'discovered' some 30 years ago - by experts in this country, who also developed and then improved the treatment. The hospital where most of this work was done still provides expert diagnostics and advice for consultants treating patients with it. Was I humbled? Yes. And, yes, it did also dawn on me that in many (most?) parts of the world this wouldn't have happened.

We are a very argumentative nation. One of the key points put to me years ago by a favourite history teacher is that we are constantly complaining - our politicians rarely get lionised, in fact we rarely have a good word to say fro them until they retire, or die. Her point was that this is actually a great strength - we don't often do uncritical acclaim and this helps maintain a free society. But we do also take it too far - there's a time to recognise that sometimes the services we recieve, the thought and managerial skill behind them, as well as our trained front-line staff, can be amazing. So just as the battlelines are drawn up for a very important election, and we prepare for a positive fest of complaining and whingeing about everything, I just want to put on the record - apolitically of course, this is a totally apolitical statement - that last year I was deeply grateful to all those people whose names I will never know but who together took decisions on research and treatment which meant that years later, when I popped up on the radar, a lot of other people knew just what to do. Underneath it all most of us do - at least occasionally! - realise what a fine country this is.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Quality not quantity

What will get our 'mother of Parliaments' back in a position of respect? Why did I read Cameron's rumoured plans to run Parliament through August next year - if his party is in power - with a sinking heart?

I just don't know that having our legislators sitting throughout next summer is quite what the doctor ordered if they are just going to continue to spout the kind of tedious politico-speak which has become the norm. It's quality not quantity that counts.

What we need is a return of the Awkward Squad, people who are proud to serve as constituency MPs and actually don't give a stuff, to use the technical term, about being promoted. They can be an absolute pest, they cause the Whips to foam at the mouth, but they're just the people who stand for something because they think it's right. The House needs a lot more of them - people who have lived other lives and aren't in awe of party leaderships.

And while we're at it, more of the late-night rows which I used to enjoy in the Palace bars when I was working there as a jouranlist would help to ge tthe place back to where it should be, full of life and argument and - occasionally - the kind of brilliance which commands national respect. Not the shrivelled husk I hate to think it (almost) now is.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Gordon Brown

I have quite a number of criticisms I could make of Gordon Brown, but lack of courage in dealing with the fact that he is blind in one eye is not one of them. I have long admired Mr Brown's stoical determination to do his job and make no public fuss about it. With a member of my own family affected by partial sight, I have some appreciation of the true cost of that determination.
Most people have little idea how much of a problem loss of vision can create - from the obvious issues around personal safety through to failing to recognise someone or being assumed to be lacking in alertness because they have not spotted signs or information at a distance. It can be upsetting and painful to be with someone who has such a problem when you realise what they do suffer, and so often uncomplainingly.
This week's row over the letter Mr Brown wrote to a mother who has lost her solider son is a case in point. Her suffering is of course unimaginable, and she is entitled to remonstrate personally with her Prime Minister about what she sees as his inappropriate letter and the more fundamental issues over equipment for the armed forces. But, in truth, I have been glad to see the tide turn around the letter. It was sincerely written to try to bring her some comfort. If his writing is poor and some letters not properly formed (all faults I have, without the excuse of poor vision) I think that is secondary to the effort he made in writing to her. No-one other than the lady he wrote to needed to say anything about his handwriting. I dislike our national tendency to jump on people for imagined failings. Mr Brown may not be popular, and indeed we may think he is very unlikely to be Prime Minister for longer than another few months, but attacking him for his handwriting and failing to acknowledge the extraordinary way he deals with his own disability struck me this week as shallow.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Bombing of The Grand

Twenty-five years ago I was a young political correspondent reporting on the Tory Party Conference. With a one year old son at home, I couldn't bear the separation and my husband arrived in Brighton for the last night with our gorgeous curly headed son in his arms. At the end of the evening we headed for The Grand Hotel - that's what you always do on the last night, and, Sam - ever cheerful in his pushchair - was no barrier. My husband was happy Sam was there as he attracted a crowd of BA stewardesses. We dropped any pretence of early bedtimes and stayed there enjoying ourselves till the early hours.
I think of that scene when I play back the events of that conference. Our cheerful departure to a nearby hotel. No we didn't hear the explosion. No mobiles then, I first got the news from early morning tv and ran back to The Grand to see the scene of utter devastation.

In the conference centre, we journalists milled around each other trying to piece together our thoughts before filing copy (I was an evening paper journalist). Someone said: "you know this was an attempt to assassinate the entire Cabinet". It was the first time any of us appreciated quite the scale of what had been attempted. I walked into the hall, and there on the platform was a dignified figure, sitting quietly and calmly. Mrs Thatcher. She had declined security advice to leave, and felt she must show by her presence that the IRA weren't going to defeat our democracy by bombs. On that awful morning I was so glad to see her there, expressing by her quiet dignity an overwhelming moral rejection of IRA violence.

Party conferences never have been quite the same since. Security fell like a heavy curtain. A certain innocence was lost. I remember sitting with Sam afterwards and trying to connect that happy evening to the picture of carnage I had seen myself but hours later and the shocking human consequences. They could have been even worse - the bar had closed earlier than usual (many journalists would otherwise have been there when the bomb went off). But above all it is Mrs Thatcher I remember.