Monday, 16 September 2019

"Someone saved my life tonight": who invented injecting?

It’s been a while since I posted anything new on my blog.

For a start, I've had a very busy 2019 in various unrelated ways, and a summer spent outdoors working in my garden has left little time for keyboard musings.

But perhaps more sadly, I have felt somewhat disinclined to share too many thoughts online, when having in June attended an event* for people with diabetes from  across Europe, sponsored by a medical device company, I witnessed an outbreak of online criticism levelled against “bloggers” and “advocates” (neither are terms that I warm to or identify with - I’m just a person who enjoys writing and was encouraged by others to share my thoughts online)

It's easy to overstate the levels of antagonism, but it is nevertheless sad to find oneself attacked by strangers for taking opportunities in good faith, enjoying them and aspiring to use them for the greater good, or for just sharing thoughts that others might enjoy reading. It was equally sad in late June to see similar criticism levelled at a number of HCPs and people with diabetes who had been invited to a reception at 10 Downing Street, hosted by our T1D (former) Prime Minister. Again, there was discourtesy and insensitivity on display, but I was encouraged to see the supportive voices eventually outnumber critics in a big way.

So I have kept relatively quiet over the summer, leaving blog posts and GBDoc tweetchats to others, but thought it was perhaps time to share some thoughts that I was invited to deliver to a small group of people with diabetes (interestingly, many drawn from the Instagram diabetes community, which to an extent exists in a separate bubble from the Twitter and Facebook ones) at an event* organised by BD needles last Saturday, to assess their starter packs for people starting injection therapy.

So read on for a post adapted from my talk, as a committed MDI-er, on the continuing importance of injecting, together with a bit of history of this easily taken for granted therapy.

I have lived with my unwanted friend Type One diabetes for almost 22 years, as many readers will already know: I developed the condition at the end of 1997, shortly after my fortieth birthday, and have been fortunate enough to live well with diabetes throughout the subsequent years.

Among the reasons for this is the online diabetes community, which has brought me so many new friends and opportunities in recent years. Like many others, I have learned and shared more about diabetes in the past six years than I did through “official” channels in the first sixteen.

However, any online community can falsely magnify things, including the voices of those who choose to talk a lot. One of the things that the online diabetes world most magnifies and therefore exaggerates is the role and extent of technology in diabetes management. 

Perhaps because the community is mainly the province of younger people (I use that term very vaguely, meaning perhaps the under 40s), it can seem as if most people with Type One use an insulin pump and some form of continuous glucose monitoring system, and indeed that many of them are technophiles, busy working on DIY closed loop systems.

Through my online interaction with other Type 1s, I have seen and heard much about the benefits of pumps and DIY closed loop systems, and I warmly applaud those who have driven progress in this area. But it’s not for me. The fact remains that I, and 1000s like me, are highly unlikely to be offered an insulin pump on the NHS, and quite frankly, I remain unconvinced that the potential benefits are significant enough for me to bother pursuing the matter.

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of the UK’s 400 000 people with Type 1 (and a significant number of those with Type 2) are treated with multiple daily injections: the surprisingly vague national figures put the overall number using a pump in the UK at around 10%, with huge variations according to age group and geographical area.

Arguments rage about access or lack of it to this technology, but the fact remains that for the foreseeable future, injections will be the means of delivery of insulin for the vast majority of us. So some very rough mathematics suggests that every day in the UK something between 1.5 and 2 million insulin injections are administered, the vast majority of those done by the patients themselves - people with no medical qualification.

It’s mind-blowing when you stop and think about that: up to 2 million instances every single day of a life-saving, yet potentially dangerous and easily fatal substance being injected in homes, workplaces, shops, schools, parks, on trains, boats and planes, in cafés and restaurants, on barren mountain tops and on busy city streets, at all hours of the day and night. There’s a heck of a lot of injecting going on out there, much of it discreet and unseen.

So it’s pretty important that we get it right!

Injecting has a pretty bad name. For most people, it has associations with immunisations at school or with drug addicts in bus shelters. Anyone with diabetes has experienced ridiculous comments along the lines of:-

“Oh gosh, you are brave, I couldn’t stand injecting myself”

To which we wearily respond:

    “Erm, I think you would if the alternative was a slow and lingering death”

Like anyone, I wasn’t thrilled when back in January 1998 I discovered that I would be sticking a needle in myself several times a day for the rest of my life, but of course you get hardened to it, usually in no time. However, far from fearing injections, I soon came to value them, and have never really had any issue, physical or mental, with administering them. But what do we know about injecting insulin?

Well, whilst we rightly honour Sir Frederick Banting for his discovery of insulin therapy in 1924, perhaps we should also salute Irishman Francis Rynd, Frenchman Charles Pravaz and above all Scotsman Alexander Wood.

Francis Rynd
Charles Pravaz
Alexander Wood
Who? Well, whilst the concept of injecting (forcing liquids through a narrow tube) dates back thousands of years (there is evidence that the ancient Egyptians knew about it), it is these three scientists who collectively are responsible for the invention of the hypodermic syringe in the mid nineteenth century. This was less than 200 years ago, so we shouldn’t take that for granted any more than insulin itself. I hadn’t heard of them until I started doing a little research, and I bet few readers will have heard of them. Click on their names above and Wikipedia will tell you more.

Injections of various kinds are familiar to all of us, but of course familiarity breeds contempt, and like almost anything that we do repeatedly and continuously, we who inject multiple times a day become careless, take shortcuts and stray from what we were taught as the ideal way of doing things. I have written about this in a previous post.

At the risk of sounding like a repentant sinner at an American evangelical convention, I have to admit that I am less than assiduous in following all of the generally accepted guidelines, and occasionally neglectful of the entire lot. To my cost?

Well not exactly, but since learning more about lipos (thanks to my lovely HCP colleagues on the FIT Board), I have been carefully avoiding over-used sites, and guess what? My insulin sensitivity has improved and my requirement has fallen, both quite significantly!

I genuinely think that Lipohypertrophy is the Cinderella of diabetes issues. We PWD and those who care for us are all so bothered about avoiding hypos, dealing with the uncomfortable highs, pursuing elusive “flat lines”, over-reacting to the TMI that many of us now get from our Libres and CGMs, that we overlook the insidious damage that we are doing to our too-easy-to-reach tummies. And judging from my own experiences and what I hear from others, checking our injection sites and advising on injection technique are a frequently missing part of our consultations with HCPs in clinic.

Perhaps it’s time we all started to think rather more about injections. Whilst for those who don’t have to do it regularly, injections are a rare and somewhat intimidating experience, for those of us who do it multiple times daily, it seems almost too easy, taken too much for granted. Perhaps we should all pay more attention to to  technique, site rotation, size of needles etc. For example, I spent the first 20 of my 22 years with diabetes using the 8mm needles that were the norm back in 1998, blissfully unaware that current thinking among HCPs is that 4mm are best for everyone, regardless of their BMI. And whilst my eyes are screened annually, my feet jabbed at every visit, questions asked about my “control”, my highs and lows etc., nobody has ever asked about, let alone examined, my (frankly less than alluring) midriff.

So there you are: I stand before you a longstanding disciple of injecting and a born-again advocate of good injection technique. May I publicly thank my friends on the FIT Board for their wise guidance and friendship, and I hope that we will perhaps all resolve to move good technique just a little higher up the agenda.

And let's remember, “Someone saved my life tonight”. Well actually several someones have  helped save our lives: as well as Banting, let's hear it for Messrs Rynd, Pravaz and Wood - the unsung heroes of diabetes care?

There you go, there’s always a song title! Thank you for reading.

In June 2019 I was invited by Abbott Healthcare to DX Lisbon, a gathering of people with diabetes from across Europe. My travel, accommodation and subsistence was paid for by Abbott.

In September 2019 I was asked to speak at Shaping BD, an event in Birmingham to assess an education pack for people starting on insulin injections. My travel and subsistence was paid for by BD.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Never forget where you've come here from: 100 years of the Long Family

As those readers who follow my Twitter or Facebook accounts will perhaps have seen, I organised and hosted a remarkable family reunion on the Easter Sunday just gone, gathering almost all the living descendants of my late grandparents, Rev'd Walter Long and Amy Denby, who were married exactly 100 years previously, on April 19th 1919. There were forty people present, aged 1 to 87, representing four generations of Longs - here we all are:-

The event, held at Exeter College Oxford (where five descendants, including myself, have studied as undergraduates) was a great success, and although very much a private affair of interest mainly to those attending, there has been much interest and comment from others, such that I thought it worth publishing what I said on Sunday as a blog post. Those who attended can then read what was said, and others, if interested, can learn something about an ordinary couple from East London who lived good lives and raised a lovely family.

So here is my speech, with a few photos to add some context:-

First and foremost, thank you for being here! Forty people from four generations; one child of the marriage, all nine grandchildren, eighteen great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. Nine of us here today were present on a similarly sunny day in April 1969 in Warwick for the Golden Wedding. Here we are back in 1969...

And here's the same crew 50 years later, attempting to recreate that image, although changes in height made it difficult...

There are photos of that which most of you will have seen, and I have just about got over my resentment towards my late mother, who made me and Chris dress formally on a day when everyone else of our generation looked cool and casual. I NEVER wore that wretched short trouser suit again. But it was a lovely day, still quite clear in my mind and it is a huge pleasure to see this still growing family gathered here today, fifty years on.

Diabuddies and first cousins-once-removed
 - me and Elinor 
Let me share a story of how today’s event came to happen: it all started back in February 2018 with a meeting in a noisy bar off Fleet Street in London between me and Elinor Crawley, my first cousin once removed. How we came to be in that bar is a long story relating to she and I being members of a small and exclusive club which we neither of us chose to join - people with Type 1 diabetes. 

In telling Elinor a bit about our shared family history, it dawned upon us that we were approaching the centenary of Walter and Amy’s marriage. The following day, I had arranged to visit Miranda for lunch and so I shared our realisation about the upcoming centenary, and we decided it was an event worth marking with a family reunion.

So here we are, and in case I forget, let me thank Elinor and Miranda for their support, and of course my wife Sue for all the work she has done to help make today happen.

I have been doing quite a lot of digging and researching about Walter and Amy in recent years: I guess it’s an age thing, but with a bit more time on my hands, the stimulus of the TV programme Who do you think you are and the ease of online research, it quickly becomes absorbing and enlightening to learn about your family’s heritage.

And though of course we’re all biased, I have to say that by any standards, Walter and Amy were an extraordinary couple, whose story, and that of the generations since, tells us much about the social and economic history of the past century or so.

Most people these days like to claim authentic heritage from the wrong side of the tracks: like the four Yorkshiremen in the famous Monty Python sketch, many folk are fond of talking down their own privilege and talking up their working class, poverty-stricken credentials.

Well rest assured, Amy Denby and Walter Long have impeccable salt-of-the-earth credentials. He was certainly no champagne socialist (he was famously t-total for a start!).They were both born in London’s East End, on the same street in Bermondsey, she one of four children of a tie cutter, he one of twelve children of a wire worker.

Both families had in the previous generation come to London from the countryside: by far the most eye-catching ancestor is Walter’s grandfather, the splendidly named, and even more splendidly bewhiskered Amos Buckle, a shepherd from Wescott in Buckinghamshire. Amos was one of the first recipients of the newly introduced old age pension in 1908 - I have a picture of that event. 28 of us here today are descended from this gentleman, and I for one am very proud to say so. There are 100s of more distant cousins out there if you look on Ancestry.

Amos Buckle
But back to Walter and Amy: that they both knew the harsh realities of working class life in the early twentieth century there can be no doubt. Yet both individually and as a couple, they transcended their humble beginnings without ever forgetting them and through their long and successful marriage fostered the diverse inheritance which is met here today.

They were married on Easter Saturday 1919, at the College Chapel in Stepney Green, East London. 

The Baptist College, Stepney Green (Chapel on right)

The college and its chapel have long since been demolished, but the portal still exists, enjoying listed status yet now totally overgrown with weeds, standing behind security fencing alongside one of the key intersections on the Crossrail line. I visited the site a few weeks ago, and found it weird to think I was standing where, 100 years ago, that newly married couple had stood. Sadly, there appears to be no photo in existence of their wedding.

The College Chapel Portal
However, I do have in my possession several boxes of papers and photographs relating to Walter in particular: far less relating to Amy, but I guess that’s the way it was in that generation - she was very much the supportive Minister’s wife, often alongside him or in the background on photos, yet those of us who remember her as a mother or grandmother will I’m sure share my view of her as a pillar of wisdom and unshakeable good humour.

Walter Long in his prime
Walter’s life is by contrast documented in great detail, and he was truly a remarkable man: not so much a minister of religion, but rather a social worker in a dog collar. Studious and self-educated, gregarious, affable yet slightly stern when necessary, he touched the lives of hundreds whilst raising a family which has gone on to reflect so many of the diverse values which he espoused throughout his long life.

Mr Pastry
His work for almost forty years with the Bell Street Mission in London’s then severely deprived Marylebone district is what stands out, and only the other day I found a very recent entry on an internet a page of memories of Bell Street which fondly recalled Mr Long the Minister, whom the children nicknamed Mr Pastry - do a google image search and you’ll see why - he bore a strong resemblance to the comic character of that name.

The holiday home in Bognor Regis which he set up and helped build took inner city children for seaside holidays of which some fabulous ciné footage survives and is on a DVD I have made. He was a Labour councillor on Marylebone Council for many years, and the Crematorium there in which both his and Amy’s funeral were held was very much his project.

He espoused many causes: unitarian christianity of course, but also pacifism, internationalism, abstinence from alcohol, animal rights and above all a very pragmatic brand of socialism.

"Trust Baldwin"
- Walter didn't
Beyond the facts there are many stories, no doubt exaggerated and improved over time, on which Chris and I were brought up. Among our favourites are that he graffitied a famous Conservative poster from the 1929 election campaign changing it from “trust Baldwin, he will steer you to safety” to “trust Baldwin he will steer you onto the rocks”; or that he heckled Ramsay McDonald, whom he saw as a traitor to the Labour Movement, at a rally to such an extent that McDonald turned to an aide and said “Who is this man?”

He was a man of principles, yet was also by all accounts a skilled operator who knew how to make friends wherever it was expedient to do so. He befriended engine drivers and persuaded them to make an extra stop behind his allotment to save him the long walk to Wembley Park station; he was skilled at getting extra petrol coupons during the War, on the grounds that he needed them for his essential pastoral work.

But the best story, which I so hope is true is from a visit to Greece which he made in the early 1930s: on presenting his passport at customs in Athens, the official inspecting it looked concerned on reading the page labelled occupation, disappearing into a back office then re-appearing with his superior, who pointed at the passport and said in broken English:

 “You Minister of Religion?
“Yes”, replied Walter.
“McDonald’s government?”
“Yes”, replied Walter, still unaware of what the problem was and thinking that the official was just showing off his awareness of British politics.
“One moment please” said the senior official, asking Walter to sit down.

A short time later, a chauffeured limousine appeared and Walter was invited to sit in it, accompanied by the official, and it was only as he was taken on a guided tour of the city’s sights and churches that he realised that the Greek officials had assumed that he was the government minister responsible for religion. Apparently, he didn’t let on, claiming he didn’t want to cause further embarrassment, yet enjoying his free trip round the sights.

If that sounds a bit dishonest he was also disarmingly honest: he loved his cars, and was more than once stopped for speeding: on one occasion, quite late in his life, he was stopped in a 30 MPH zone by a policeman who asked the elderly clergyman in his Morris 1100.

“Would you mind telling me how fast you were going sir?”, asked the officer, expecting the usual attempt to get away with it by saying “about 33 MPH”. Instead of which, Walter, gloriously oblivious to the speed limit said “Ooooh, fifty or sixty at least!. The cop was so nonplussed by such honesty that he let him off with a friendly warning, especially when told that the reason for speeding was that he was on the way to a hospital visit.

Amy, Ronald, Walter, Arthur - 1921
So yes, a top man, a top couple. It is right and proper that we are all meeting here today to celebrate their lives. And lest I dwell too much on stories, possibly apocryphal, of what he got up to, let us above all remember today a loving couple who raised four children against a background of troubled times, and who embraced the post-war world with grace and enthusiasm, being for us loving and generous-minded grandparents.

Perhaps we should be toasting their memory with a non-alcoholic drink, but let’s quietly forget that for today. 

Please join me in raising a glass to 100 years of a good, long story and in particular let’s drink to those 1919 newlyweds - Walter and Amy.

And now can I ask their surviving son Peter, as the oldest here present, to cut the cake which Miranda has commissioned for today's celebration:

Please take away your cake and also your wedding-style favour: this contains a piece of paper impregnated with wildflower seeds for you to plant, and some words, almost certainly written by Walter himself, which were read at his funeral:

Unto my friends I give my thought.
Unto my God, my soul. 
Unto my foes I give my love. 

These are of life the whole.

Nay, there is something - a trifle - left: 
Who shall receive this dower? 
See, earth-mother, a handful of dust! 
Turn it into a flower!

What lovely words! I hope we will all go home with fond memories and a renewed sense if togetherness.

I hope family members will enjoy reading the words that they heard on Sunday, and others may find something of interest. If you're a reader of my blog posts, you will know that I always give them a title from a song and post a link to it. This one gets it's title from a Take That classic from their early years - Never forget where you've come here from

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

I like driving in my car: glucose monitoring at the wheel.

"I like driving in my car”, sang Madness back in 1982. And for better or worse, many of us do: it may be potentially dangerous, expensive, selfish and environmentally harmful, but driving is one of the pleasures of adult life in the modern world. Passing the driving test is one of the great rites of passage of life for those of us fortunate enough to have the means to do so, and in contemporary society, the private car has given us access to choices in our working lives and leisure time that were unimaginable only two generations ago.

So the ability to drive, safely, affordably and comfortably, is something which we cherish, and any loss of the ability to do so is hard to bear. As the Royal Family recently experienced, convincing an older person whose faculties and judgement are past their best, that the time has come to give up their car and their licence is a difficult business. And for those of us who live with a medical condition which might impair our ability to drive a car, the thought of losing our freedom to drive is a painful prospect.

Thankfully, for many of us living with Type One Diabetes and treated with insulin, that prospect is one which, with good management of our condition and a bit of luck, we can avoid. Yes, we have to renew our licence every 3 years, and in so doing we have to re-confirm our fitness to drive and authorise the DVLA to check that fitness with our doctors, but for the most part, we get our new licence and drive like everyone else.

However, it’s not like everyone else, because we - quite rightly - have to undertake to check our fitness to drive on each and every occasion we get behind the wheel. In many ways, this is no big deal, given the fact that people with Type One are constantly monitoring their fitness to do anything, all day and every day.

But it’s the means by which we can carry out that monitoring which has, until recently, been one of the most burdensome aspects of living with diabetes. An accurate finger prick test requires our full attention, a washed pair of hands, the use of both hands, somewhere to dispose of a test strip contaminated with blood and a tissue to clean up afterwards. Self-evidently, this is not possible whilst driving, so people with Type One have to stop the car in order to test, as well as testing before every journey. I suspect that many of us do what I always do, erring on the side of higher glucose levels for a journey of any length - a strategy which, if repeated regularly brings its own risks of insidious long-term damage and potential complications.

So the recent decision by the DVLA to accept the use of CGMs and Flash monitors for testing our fitness to drive has been a most welcome development and a victory for common sense. Click here for a PDF of these latest, updated, guidelines.

It is clear that the information provided by CGM or Flash is not just sufficiently accurate to be regarded as a safe proof of fitness to drive but is actually far better than the snapshot figure provided by a finger prick test. Back in 2017, I produced a short report for the APPG for diabetes on this topic, showing how a Libre result with its trend arrow was infinitely more helpful - not to say safer - than a finger prick test result. This was presented to the DVLA as part of their deliberations, so I like to believe that I played my own small part in bringing about this decision.

Click here to see this document.

But what about testing whilst driving? This is a grey area, although this section in the DVLA guidelines appears to state that we are not allowed to do so:

"If you are using a glucose monitoring system (RT-CGM or FGM) you must not actively use this whilst driving your vehicle. You must pull over in a safe location before checking your device. You must stay in full control of your vehicle at all times. The police can stop you if they think you’re not in control because you’re distracted and you can be prosecuted."

I think this merits further thought and potentially some guidance and clarification. As things stand, the change in the DVLA rules speaks of CGM or Flash as an alternative to finger prick testing before driving, and every two hours thereafter to ensure that blood sugar levels are safe and stable. However, given the ease of using CGM or Flash, is it not safe, or indeed desirable, to test whilst driving? Here, we stray into more complex territory, that of driving with due care and attention. Is it safe to use and read a monitor whilst driving? And for that matter, is it legal? 

Let’s deal with the legal first: I am ready to stand corrected, but as I see it, the legality of using a CGM of Flash reader whilst driving is less than clear, with a very important caveat: the use of the mobile LibreLink App, or any other diabetes tech which uses a mobile phone, is clearly illegal as far as I can see. The law has expressly forbidden the use of any handheld communication device whilst driving, so the use of a phone for LibreLink or similar would be illegal in the same way that it is illegal to us a phone’s satnav function. See this page from the CPS which gives good guidance on the legal definitions of handheld communication devices, and as far as I can see makes clear that using a smartphone app to check blood glucose is illegal.

But of course, the FreeStyleLibre reader is not a communication device and so is it is not technically illegal to he holding one whilst driving. But is it safe? 

Well in my view, yes. I now keep my Libre reader on the dashboard (on one of those non-slip mats), where it is within easy reach and I feel that to turn it on, swipe and read is safe and helpful, provided that the driver chooses a suitable moment and road situation: stopped at lights, driving along a quiet, straight road etc. It is no different to, and subject to the same common sense rules as, changing radio station, adjusting the heating or even eating a travel sweet (my pot of jelly babies is always to hand whilst driving).

My Libre Sensor on the dashboard
Moreover, and indeed more safely, someone else can take a reading. With a Libre sensor on the driver's left arm, a passenger in the front seat can easily swipe and check, and I have already asked my wife and daughter to do so for me with me at the wheel.

Am I right in extolling the virtues of occasional checking whilst driving? I hope so, and certainly, in my own mind, I am significantly safer now than when following the previous regulations requiring a finger-prick test every two hours: I suspect that I was far from alone in being somewhat liberal in my interpretation of that rule. We all know that a lot can happen to blood sugar in two hours, and the idea of driving for two hours without knowing the current BG level, let alone the direction of its travel, seems now to be rather foolhardy, and the ability to keep tabs on that level, even whilst at the wheel, seems to me to be a very positive and beneficial development.

My thanks to FreeStyle Libre campaigner Nick Cahm for giving a second opinion on this piece: his post here was the original stimulus for my writing this post and is well worth a read.

Disclaimer: This post, like all else that I write, represents my personal views and experiences. I have no medical or legal qualifications or expertise, and all people with diabetes who drive should ensure that they drive safely and legally at all times.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

I am a Rock: Why are the British so bad at languages?

I try very hard to be an optimist and I genuinely think that in many - indeed in most - ways, the world has become a significantly better place over my lifetime. However, there is always stuff going on to counter that rose-tinted view of the world, both in my own life and in the wider world, and just occasionally things crop up which make me succumb to feelings of doom and gloom.

One such thing greeted me in this morning’s news (February 27th 2019), with the not exactly surprising revelation that language learning here in the UK appears to be in meteoric decline, according to a survey by BBC news. The story is here:

For a linguist it makes depressing reading, and it is difficult to resist the temptation to link this apparent decline in our willingness as a nation to engage with the language and culture of other countries as symptomatic of the same narrow-minded insularity that drove a (very slim) majority of Britons to vote to leave the EU back in 2016.

As a retired languages teacher, I am relieved to say that this is now for me just a subject of deep concern, rather than one of professional survival, but that doesn’t mean to say that I am not very sad to see it happening. We Brits have always been bad at it, but why are we getting worse at learning languages? And why are we not more worried about it? In short, why are we so arrogant?

When I graduated and came into language teaching in the early 80s, the future for language learning looked bright. We were relatively new members of the EU, and as a nation we were rapidly becoming more familiar with our European neighbours thanks to easier communications, the boom in foreign holidays, growth in trade and a love affair with cuisine more interesting than the “boiled beef and carrots” on which our parents’ generation had been raised. It’s very hard to believe now, but pizza and pasta were exotic rarities as recently as the 1970s, whilst wine was a drink for the well-to-do or for special occasions, and baguettes, croissants and quiche were words encountered only in French lessons at school. Languages were valued and booming in schools, and a move away from élitist grammar-based teaching, with more emphasis on practical communication skills - listening and speaking - promised a bright future for the subject.

That’s the way it was in the first 25 years of my teaching career: modern languages (in the case of my school French and German) were part of the core curriculum alongside Maths English and the sciences and whilst some didn’t like them and weren’t very good at them, there was a feeling that, like Maths, language learning was somehow “good for you”. For me, a pragmatic and good-humoured approach to teaching, combined with giving pupils the opportunities for fun trips to foreign parts, made it relatively easy, and certainly enjoyable, to teach languages.

In my small school, with around 100 in each year group, all pupils took GCSE French or German, and A-Level entries of between 10 and 20 for my main language, French were the norm as recently as the early 2000s, with many of these going on to read the subject at university.

So what has gone so badly wrong with language learning, and in such a short time? These days, taking a language to GCSE has become just an option, taken up by just a few keenies, and as a result, A-Level language teachers in many schools and colleges often struggle to recruit more than a handful of candidates, with formerly mainstream languages like German having become the preserve of a tiny minority, as confirmed in today’s news report.

Part of the answer lies in a perfectly laudable broadening of the curriculum over recent decades: more apparently attractive, relevant and  - dare I say - easier subjects like Business Studies, Psychology, Photography, Physical Education and Media Studies have all proved to be an irresistible temptation to pupils burdened with a “must pass” core of English, Maths and the sciences. Moreover, some very poor choices made by the exam boards who devise specifications at GCSE and A-Level have served to make languages statistically a very risky choice for pupils, with top grades elusive. This, combined with schools leaders’ nervous pursuit of league table success has led to a “perfect storm” for languages in schools.

This is very, very sad, and in my opinion very damaging to our long-term success and well-being as a society, at two distinct levels:

The first is self-evident and practical: our unwillingness to engage with the language and culture of other countries is deeply harmful to trade and business. We hide behind the excuse that “everybody speaks English”, failing to realise that the wheels of commerce are driven by human interaction and good manners, which often amount to no more than making an effort to meet others halfway. Yes, the detailed negotiations for that lucrative contract may be carried out in English, but the small-talk and goodwill that underpin it may be immeasurably strengthened by a simple greeting in the language of the host, or maybe a “please” and a “thank you” at mealtimes or a comment about the weather. It’s amazing how much ice can be broken by trying to use just a bit of school-level language.

And please don’t tell me that speaking another language is difficult: much of the rest of the world is bilingual, and we are reminded all the time by the many lovely and capable people from across Europe who have in recent years come to live and work in our country how easy it is to become fluent in English, one of the subtlest, richest and most illogical of all languages. We all meet them every day: think of that every time you are served in a restaurant or a coffee shop, helped recover from illness by a doctor or nurse in hospital or greeted by a hotel receptionist, many of whom are non-native speakers of English.

Or how about footballers and their managers? Is there a better and more expressive user of English than Jürgen Klopp? Does anyone in Manchester speak better “Manc” than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer? These guys, and those who play for them have mastered our language because they have lived and worked here and absorbed our culture, not because they took school and university examinations.

Which brings me to the second reason for valuing language learning, a less obvious but equally important one. Yes, we need to be far better at the practical business of communicating in other languages, but what about the hidden benefits of language learning, beyond the obvious ones?

Language learning has multiple subtle benefits, way beyond the straightforward business of communicating. Thanks to the previous successes of our education system, the highest levels of every profession here in the UK are massively enriched by the presence of linguists, who benefit enormously from the subtle transferred skills derived from their knowledge of another language. Among my ex-students of A-Level French are numerous doctors, engineers, scientists, business people and teachers, as well as actors and media journalists, all of whom probably seldom if ever use their A-Level French, yet still benefit from it every day. Modern linguists, and their close counterparts classicists, are everywhere in the professions, but I fear that they will become fewer in number over time, and those professions will be the poorer for it. It came as no surprise to me when I discovered recently through my post-retirement work in the diabetes community that the Chief Executives of the two main diabetes charities in the UK, JDRF and Diabetes UK are, respectively, a Cambridge linguist and an Oxford classicist.

I took a degree in French and German at Oxford University, yet my ability to speak fluent and colloquial French comes not from my studies at Oxford, but from a year spent living and working in a small town in rural France where nobody spoke English, and playing for a non-league football team there. However, this is not to belittle my Oxford languages degree, far from it: studying for a traditional university degree in Modern Languages, with its emphasis on detailed translation of literary texts, and above all the reading and critical analysis of vast quantities of literature in the original language has given me skills such as absorbing and processing information, understanding a variety of viewpoints, and writing concise and focused English which served me well throughout my professional career and continue to do so in my post-retirement work in healthcare advocacy.

I very much hope that we can arrest the decline in language learning before it gets too late, but at the risk of concluding on a gloomy note, I fear the damage has already been done. I am loathe to politicise this issue, but it is difficult not to see a connection between the mentality of Brexit and that of our unwillingness to prioritise and promote language learning. Perhaps we are at the darkest hour just before dawn, and if a post-Brexit Britain is left marginalised, as well as culturally and materially impoverished by the short-sighted and misguided decision of a particular generation, perhaps future generations can right this wrong. I hope so.

Oh,  so what's the song title for this post, as is my wont? It’s almost impossible to find a song about languages, so I’ve settled for a wonderful Simon and Garfunkel song whose lyrics I profoundly disagree with, yet whose title sums up where we seem to be heading. 

Great song, shame about the meaning: I am a Rock

Friday, 1 February 2019


This is an update and edit of a post from 2016 about one of those little-known and neglected festivals - Candlemas - that could do so much to help brighten our year, especially in times like the present, which are both literally and metaphorically dark and depressing. I plead guilty to "going on" about seasons and festivals, but as always I hope that I can help those who are sceptical or dismissive of religion to see that following and  commemorating the life of Jesus of Nazareth can give a form and pattern to our secular lives and provide opportunities for constructive reflection, which need not necessarily be tied to religious belief or practice.

Did you know it was Candlemas Day tomorrow, February 2nd? (or Groundhog Day if you prefer a more secular/american version) Did you know it's actually still Christmas? Well, to be accurate, it's still Epiphany, which is a season, strictly speaking part of Christmas, lasting from January 6th until this Saturday February 2nd - Candlemas Day.

Candlemas is a rather forgotten festival, marking the last day of the Christmas festivities, and traditionally the day on which a Christmas Crib is put away, having been left in place when all the other decorations came down on 12th night. In our house, the two cribs stay defiantly in place until February 2nd, having only been completed with the addition of the Three Kings at Epiphany.

Our beautiful Nativity scene, bought in Ireland in 1981.
Candlemas Day commemorates a perfectly credible event in the life story of Jesus of Nazareth: the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, six weeks after his birth, as told in the Gospel of St Luke. It involves no miracles, no supernatural happenings - just an ordinary, but very moving, story of an old man's encounter with a little boy around 2019 years ago.

Holbein's Presentation of Christ
Presentation of a child was - still is - a rite of passage for a Jewish child, but the story is told of an old man in the Temple, Simeon, who on seeing the infant Jesus brought for Presentation, declared that he had seen the "Light of the World",  and could now die happy. His words give us the Nunc Dimitis, a familiar part of the traditional Evensong:-

"LORD, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel"

It's easy to see how this recognition of Jesus as the "Light of the World" developed into Candlemas: a festival of light in the depths of winter is an appealing idea that long pre-dates Christianity, so the Church took it over in the same way that Christmas and Easter were "christianised" versions of earlier festivals. What's surprising is that neither the Church nor the exploitative commercial world has ever made much of Candlemas in the way that happens with Christmas, Easter and various Saints days.

I think that's a shame. If ever there was a time of year when we need a nice little extra festival, it's surely the end of January/start of February. It's famously a depressing time of the year, with "Blue Monday" in mid-January  officially designated the most depressing day of the year. So surely, we should jump at the chance to have a little celebration at this gloomy time of the year. A bit of light in the darkness, just as Jesus was, and is, a shining light of goodness in an often dark and evil world.

In recent years, the church has adopted Christingle as a festival of light, but rather unwisely Christingle gets crammed into Advent and so gets rather caught up in the pre-Christmas busy-ness. Caught between the church's unwillingness to sing carols and celebrate during the restrained and dignified season of Advent, and a desire to anticipate the coming of the Light of the World, Christingle seems to my traditionalist mind  to be rather an incongruous intrusion in Advent.

So how about we start celebrating Candlemas a bit more? A nice, low-key affirmation of light in the darkness of February, with perhaps a wholesome winter casserole at a  candlelit table. How about a drink to celebrate the end of dry January? 

And as for music, well the playlist, both sacred and secular, is wonderful: Love Shine a light, Shine, Candle in the Wind, If I can Dream, Blinded by the Light, Ray of Light, any Nunc Dimitis, Lead Kindly Light (music composed by my 3 x Great Grandfather), Christ is the World's true Light - even Shine Jesus Shine if you really must. And in these cold dark days at the start of this year, 2019, the airwaves of mainstream radio are dominated by one of those brand new yet timeless masterpiece songs that could have been composed and loved at any time in the past 70 years: Jack Savoretti's gorgeously Godfatheresque Candlelight. How appropriate for the season! If you haven't heard it yet, click here and it'll charm you. I've added it to the fabulous Candlemas playlist at the bottom of this post.

It's not an original idea to mark Candlemas. It's a day steeped in folklore, derived from the idea that the end of winter may, or may not, be in sight. The Americans call it Groundhog Day - when this animal emerges from its burrow after hibernation and goes back in if it sees its own shadow - and this recognises the not unreasonable idea that if the weather is sunny and settled at the start of February,  there is every chance that winter will re-appear before Spring finally gets going. The same idea is present in an old English rhyme:

"If Candlemas Day be bright and fair,
then half the winter's to come or mair;

If Candlemas Day be dark and foul, 
then half the winter was over at Yule"

So let's celebrate Candlemas. Whether as a Christian wishing to acclaim Jesus as a shining light in an often evil world, like a candle in a darkened room, or just as a welcome relief from the doom and gloom of January and a chance to keep those Easter eggs at bay, it's worth a go.

Close the curtains, dim the lights, pour yourself a nice glass of red, light a candle or two, and enjoy the winter whilst looking forward to summer. Here's a Candlemas Spotify Playlist:

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It’s been a while since I posted anything new on my blog. For a start, I've had a very busy 2019 in various unrelated ways, and a su...