Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Testing, testing: Everything's Gonna be Alright

A quick and time-sensitive post, which I hope will serve to inform, reassure and possibly even persuade.

It's all about testing for Covid-19, and specifically about the oft-maligned lateral flow tests which have become so familiar to many of us. I felt moved to write up and share some thoughts here and on Facebook because I have today (18-08-21) done my twice-weekly lateral flow test with one of the new-style kits for the first time. 

I had heard that there was a new version coming soon, but hadn't realised they were being issued until I opened a new pack, received yesterday.

The new version is significantly different to the ones which have become so familiar, and a significant improvement from what I can see: 

  • no need to swab in the mouth, which for me has always been the most uncomfortable bit. Just once in each nostril, twisting x5 each side.
  • the extraction tube is pre-filled with the fluid, so no need to "decant". It has a peelable top, making it rather reminiscent of the insulin pen needles, so familiar to diabetes peeps.
  • the swab is a bit shorter, more robust-feeling and was to me less irritating in the nose.
  • the test cassette looks different, but has the same functionality (although on mine today, I couldn't get my phone's QR reader to recognise the code, so had to enter it manually).
  • the extraction tube holder is a small, reusable plastic plinth, not the rather large and ungainly cardboard box.
  • 4 drops not 2 on the cassette, then ready in 15 minutes, not 30.

So this morning's test felt like a re-learning experience, but once we get used to it, these will be very easy to do, and can become as much a part of daily routine as cleaning teeth, and just as easy.

I'm not sure how widely available these new-style tests are - I always get mine by doing an online order via the NHS app, which is always a quick and flawless process, with next-day delivery, but if you haven't used a new style test yet, I hope this post gives you cause for some small optimism (I am far too easily excited by novelties).

And finally a bit of shameless pontificating: if you haven't been a regular LF test user, I am a firm believer and highly recommend it. They may not be 100% reliable, but are surely a whole lot better than not testing, and I find it reassuring to be told twice a week that I am unlikely to be infected as we all get out and mix more.

We keep being told that we are at or near a pivotal point in this pandemic, but I have to say that to me it really feels like it right now: The opening up and deregulation of a month ago has not led to the apocalyptic infection rates that so many keyboard warrior experts were all too quick to predict, and although the daily rate remains high and hospitalisation and death rates are still alarming, we appear at the moment to be getting tantalisingly close to striking the balance between hiding from and living with the virus. I am not convinced that New Zealand's much-vaunted "Zero-Covid" approach is sustainable in the longer term, and their decision yesterday to lock down the whole country for one confirmed case cannot go on forever if they want to remain part of the world's trading and tourism community. 

I am, and always have been, shamelessly rose-tinted in my view of life, so anything I say about the pandemic or anything else has to be seen through that filter, but I am keen to get on with my life. I shall remain cautious in my approach to what I do and where I go, but as I am not really a fan of crowded noisy places, there is not much that I want to do that is particularly risky. I am desperate to get along to the Unibol Stadium to watch the Mighty Wanderers again, and I have plans for visits to London for exciting events in the coming few weeks, which include rail travel and hotel stays, but I won't be found in a crowded nightclub or a busy bar. I shall continue to wear a face covering for the foreseeable future on trains and in shops, for my own and others' reassurance, but I refuse to live in fear, and shall not waste energy getting annoyed about those who choose not to wear a mask.

So - getting back to the purpose of this post - I hope that regular and easy testing will prove to be a small price to pay for the freedom to begin to live a little again.

And a song title for this post? How about a forgotten 90's classic Everything's Gonna Be Alright by Sweetbox, still one of the cleverest samplings of classical music in my opinion, and a great message for a vision of a post-pandemic life.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Sweet Caroline: How a minor hit from fifty years ago became a ubiquitous football anthem


Truly, we are, living in strange times. Strange days indeed - most peculiar, mama (kudos to any reader who can identify that song lyric without googling it)

With numbers testing positive for Covid-19 here in the UK surging, the government is nevertheless relaxing the restrictions with which we have been living for fifteen months. Cue joy and relief, but also much social media driven anger and condemnation, barrack-room expertise and prophecies of doom and gloom....Let’s wait and see.

Yet as the UK and its government once again risks being cast in the role of international pariah, the country is at the same time riding a wave of excitement and national pride whipped up by the performance of England's football team, guided and led by the admirably restrained, palpably decent, thoughtful and eloquent Gareth Southgate.

In 2018, the unexpected success of his young squad in reaching the Semi-Finals of the World Cup in Russia briefly diverted attention, lifted the mood and unified the nation at the height of the agonisingly long process of leaving the EU. Oh to be back in such simple, carefree days….

Three years later, an even younger squad has gone one step further in the delayed Euro 2020 Tournament and at the time of writing, the nation (well certainly its media) is in a state of heady excitement and euphoria at the tantalising prospect of the squad bringing to an end to the fifty-five year wait for a major tournament win in our national sport.

Southgate's squad are more than just a group of footballers more gifted than their predecessors of several generations past. They are a thoroughly admirable group of young men, schooled by their clubs and in no small part by their national coach in the appropriate behaviours, attitudes and responsibilities that come with their status as richly-remunerated national heroes. Gone, it seems, are the days of laddish “boys will be boys” behaviour, of responding to media questions with contemptuous clichés or even open hostility, and of hiding from the bigger issues in society.

The 2021 squad is a rainbow coalition in some ways reminiscent of France's golden generation which won the World Cup in 1998 and the Euros in 2000. It is a team of thoroughly modern English footballers, many with recent family origins from outside the country, yet every one of them proudly flaunts their patriotism and pride in wearing that shirt with its iconic three lions. The likes of Marcus Rashford, Tyrone Mings and Raheem Sterling have been unafraid to speak out against racial and social injustice, whilst Harry Kane, in some ways every inch the cockney diamond geezer of yesteryear, wears his LGBT+ armband with manifest comfort; men like him in the not-too-distant past would probably have exhibited the tribal homophobia and intolerance which was once endemic among the white working classes.

Rashford in particular has become a national treasure thanks to his off-the-field advocacy for children like he once was, and that he did so last year with steadfast politeness and respect for those in power was a remarkable achievement. He may be an angry young man from the wrong side of the tracks in Wythenshawe, but his anger at social injustice is nuanced and constructively channelled.

Other players, like Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Calvin Philips not only look like schoolboys living out their dream, but behave with the gratitude and humility that in the past was often lacking in those paid a fortune to do what most of us just have to do for fun. Win or lose against those stylish and talented Italians on Sunday night, these young men have done themselves and their manager proud, and I for one will be eternally grateful for the joy that they have brought us in this toughest of years.

And then there's the music...

Heady days need a soundtrack, as we have been so effectively reminded by all the nostalgia for the summer of ’96, but unlike in 1996, the 2021 soundtrack is strangely retrospective. In 1996, Britpop was at its height, producing some of the best new material that had been written in a generation, launching stellar careers for the likes of the Spice Girls and solo Robbie Williams, whilst David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the under-rated Lightning Seeds created their singalong masterpiece, Three Lions. That song is everywhere right now, almost always murdered by a tuneless drunken chorus, but it is in my view truly a work of genius. It's wonderfully English, not triumphalist as many think, but rather a self-deprecating tale of repeated failures and near-misses, laced with the pride which we as a nation seem to take in plucky losers and the timid but very real longing for redemption.

Of course, Three Lions has been at the forefront of our giddy ride to the Final of Euro 2020, but it is being run close by Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline, which we have heard belted out by players and fans after every win, gleefully joining in with the “dah-dah-dah”.

This has set me thinking, as often happens with my musically addled brain: how is it that certain songs achieve iconic ubiquity years after what was initially a thoroughly underwhelming chart performance?

Sweet Caroline is a perfect example.

Neil Diamond was for some years a respected but unheralded songwriter, until he broke through in the UK with Cracklin’ Rosie in late 1970. He had written I'm a Believer for the Monkees and other successful songs, but his name was little known on this side of the Atlantic, and when he finally achieved modest success as a singer, he was to me and my teenage contemporaries the sort of singer that your granny liked, a crooner no less. Sweet Caroline had been written and released in 1969 in tribute to JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy, and made no mark whatsoever on the UK charts. Two years later, it was released as a follow-up to Cracklin’ Rosie, and reached No 8 in our charts. For the next thirty years or so, it was largely forgotten, but then early in the 2000s it started popping up at the sort of disco that goes with every modern wedding reception - the sort where dad dances, granny kicks off her heels to reveal her true undignified self and ten-year-old boys do a knee slide across the floor. A similar thing happened to Can’t Take my Eyes Off You, another minor hit from the late 60s by an American crooner dressed in a pullover - Andy Williams.

Next, DJs responsible for after-match playlists caught on to it, and in no time everyone knew it, such that when your team pulled off an unlikely escape from relegation and the fans partied like they had won the League, Sweet Caroline, dah-dah-dah became a song of triumph and joy. Then as Wembley filled up this summer with fans for the first time in over a year, England started winning, and the rest is history. Neil Diamond’s accountants must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Many songs have had a similar trajectory; here’s a few more that were either unnoticed at the time of release, or in some cases derided:

Tony Christie’s Is this the Way to Amarillo, written by the wonderful Neil Sedaka and containing some of the cheesiest rhymes ever attempted (Dawning-Morning, Amarillo-Willow-Pillow, Marie-Me, Ringing-Singing, Maria-See her etc ) made it all the way to No 18 in 1971 (there’s something about that year!), then remained forgotten until Bolton’s comic genius Peter Kay imbued it with post-modern irony for 2005’s Comic Relief, such that it became a mass singalong song. I maintain that one of the happiest moments of my entire life was when I was one of 27 000 fans at the Reebok Stadium in  May 2005, celebrating as Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers team of misfits and has-beens secured European football to the tune of Christie’s Shala-la-la-la-la-la-la-la – Diouf-Diouf.

The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles made it to No 11 in 1988, then remained forgotten until revived years later, again by a combination of mobile DJs and football fans; likewise, Jeff Beck’s Hi Ho Silver Lining (No 14 in 1967, No17 in 1972) and even Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, which has never even made the charts, yet achieved anthemic status after Liverpool’s 2005 Champions’ League win and the England Cricket Team’s Ashes win the same year.

Even Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now was a relatively modest UK No 9 on its first release in 1979 at a time when the now legendary band had passed their first wave of success and were seen by many music fans to be an example of outmoded, overblown and over-produced pomp-rock. Forty years on, it is everyone’s favourite singalong song.

The list could go on, and many will have their own favourites to add to this list. They all date from the days when singles chart position and longevity was very much the test of a song's success; since around the turn of the millennium, chart success has mattered little, indeed few of any age could name the current Number One at any given time. Yet despite failing that test at the time of their release, these songs have become enduring and ubiquitous. What do they have in common? Well not a lot really, other than that intangible thing called a damn good tune, often a brilliant hook and above all something we should just call singability.

Let’s just hope we’re still singing Sweet Caroline at 10pm on Sunday night, and that “good time never seemed so good” proves to be true. I think we all deserve that pleasure.


Tuesday, 15 June 2021

"Walking on the Milky Way": some thoughts for Diabetes Awareness Week 2021

Some thoughts for Diabetes Awareness Week, to an extent recycling things which I have said before, but worth modifying and repeating, precisely in order to raise awareness. When talking about diabetes, I have always tried to strike the balance between melodramatic self-pity and “no big deal”. My talk at TAD back in 2017 attempted to put this across by portraying diabetes as “something and nothing” and four years on from that talk, and twenty three years on from diagnosis, that’s still my view. I genuinely find it hard to get annoyed by diabetes, or by others’ attitude to it; I am, however, very aware that for others this is not the case. I am sure that I would have found it far more of a burden if it had interfered with my carefree youth, or indeed if I hadn't had the benefit of the monitoring technology which we too easily take for granted. However, I am fortunate to be gifted with a temperament that doesn’t easily get annoyed, so for me diabetes remains a severe irritant rather than a burden. 

However, the one thing that consistently irks me in the perception of diabetes among those who don’t have experience of it is the widespread sense that Type One Diabetes is a condition that affects the young, which as I have written before, overlooks the fact that it can and does come on at any age, and that it stays with you for life.

I am resolutely anti-ageist: when I was young, I had many friends who were much older than me, and now that I am in my sixties, I have friends of all ages, including many in their twenties and thirties. I enjoy, but don’t crave, the company of others, and have always enjoyed most the company of people who are less than obviously like me. So I tend to find friends among those who have little in common with me, be it interests, occupation, tastes, gender or age. I believe that I am age and gender blind to a good extent, and I still feel no different mentally to the child, teenager or young adult that I once was.

However, in diabetes terms, I often feel compelled to draw attention to my age, given that persistent sense that the Type One Diabetes with which I live is often thought of as a young persons’ condition, whilst Type Two Diabetes is often associated with older age. Neither is true.

The theme for this year’s Diabetes Awareness Week is Diabetes Stories. Diabetes is a condition where there are as many stories as there are people living with it, but sharing stories is important, not least because others may read, recognise and draw comfort from similarities, and perhaps most importantly, because others may recognise symptoms and seek potentially life-saving help. My own story serves to remind others of the fact that Type One can strike at any age, and that once it does, it is there for life – a life which can and should be no shorter than anyone else’s. My story is a good illustration of the former, and I have every intention of ensuring that it proves to be a good illustration of the latter.

I was diagnosed at the end 1997, at the age of precisely 40. Until then, I had lived a life with minimal contact with the health service. I had the standard childhood illnesses, with the associated spells off school before the age of 10; I then managed an entire secondary school career without a single day's absence through illness. I fell off my bike at the age of 13 and suffered a straightforward arm fracture, which mended in the standard six-week time frame. And that was about it. Prior to my diagnosis with diabetes in 1997, I had worked for 17 years as a teacher with a total of about four days off sick (two lots of two). My doctor's surgery was a place unfamiliar to me.

Moreover, I was a slim, healthy and active person: as a child I had walked or cycled to school, played football as a recreation and spent holidays fell-walking with my family. As an adult I cycled to work, tended an extensive garden and walked from my home to the local shops rather than driving. And I still do.

Then, at the age of 40, I had a very bad case of 'flu - real ‘flu -  in the week running up to the Christmas break at school. A week's absence off work the first time ever, but no real cause for alarm: there was a big epidemic that winter (1997-98) and a number of colleagues were off at the same time. Then, on the day after I had started to feel better again, my condition took a nosedive, and I went to my GP, alarmed at this apparent recurrence of an illness from which I had just recovered. I felt tired, thirsty and run-down, but just thought it was a hangover from my first real illness in years. A routine urine test revealed very high blood sugar, and an alarmed GP informed me that she was pretty sure that it was diabetes, referring me to her colleague at the practice who was the specialist in diabetes. I was briefly thought to be Type Two, but with symptoms persisting and getting worse, it soon became clear that I was Type One, and my over-riding emotion was one of relief, not fear. I had found the cause of what, with hindsight, had been a malaise which had crept up on me through that autumn, with a battery of symptoms, all of which had been quite easy to explain away.

Foremost among these symptoms was the raging thirst. I had always been a thirsty individual, so the feeling of extreme thirst on hot days, after exercise, or after a meal was a familiar one. On a number of occasions that autumn, I therefore explained away extreme thirst by circumstances such as a salty snack, or a dash for a train on a warm afternoon. Moreover, it was in the late nineties that the sensible but now overstated and ubiquitous obsession with hydration really took hold. Not that many years ago, we didn’t all walk around clutching a bottle of water, and footballers played a full 90 minutes in the sunshine without taking hydration breaks. So if it doesn’t sound daft, thirst became fashionable in the late 90s, and I subconsciously bought into that fashion.

Another creeping symptom that autumn was extreme tiredness, but back in those days, my autumn working life was absurdly busy. As a Head of Sixth Form, it was the season of university applications which used to be submitted by an immoveable December 15th deadline, and with 100 or so applications needing detailed references, no administrative support and little timetable remission I did most of that work in my spare time before school, after school and through very long evenings. It was exhausting, so any possibility of it being exacerbated by a medical condition didn’t cross my mind.

And then there was weight loss. I was never overweight, but had like most people gained a bit as middle age encroached. But then I started to notice a bit of looseness in trousers, requiring one notch tighter on the belt, or shirt collars feeling a bit loose. Fair enough, I thought. Losing a few pounds around the 40th birthday was a welcome bonus, I thought, to being very busy and physically active, often with barely time for lunch or snacks.

Looking back, I was ignoring symptoms that should have rung alarm bells, but it took that dose of flu to bring it to a head. I assume that my diabetes came on gradually over those weeks, but that week’s illness gave it the boost that made it impossible to ignore. My HbA1c on the day of initial diagnosis was 22.1, and rose to 33.1 a couple of weeks later - just before I started on insulin. (I love that I can now look up those numbers on my NHS records)

The fateful numbers

Once the insulin started to have an effect (and that effect comes on almost instantly, as anyone with Type One will tell you), I was soon back to normal. By the Easter four months after diagnosis, I led my annual residential school trip to France with about forty pupils and five colleagues. I continued to do this every year whilst it remained part of my role at the school. By the June six months after diagnosis I was planning, setting up, organising and running the end-of-exams Ball for 200 Sixth Formers, a demanding job I undertook every year. In day-to-day terms over the remaining twenty years of my working life, I continued to take on all that life and work throw at me, with an unblemished attendance record in a very stressful job. I never missed a day due to illness through all that time.

But let's not pretend it's easy. Living with Type One Diabetes is a 24/7 challenge that we face on top of all as that we do in life, whatever that may be. You can never forget or overlook it for more than a few minutes. Every action, every piece of food or drink, every event needs to be thought through. Any departure from routine is potentially risky. Most infuriatingly, insulin - the treatment that you self-administer every day in order to preserve your life - is precisely what threatens to bring you down in day-to-day terms. I think is fair to say we have a love-hate relationship with it!

And please, if you're reading this and someone of any age whom  you know or love is showing diabetes symptoms - often now called the “Four T's” (thirst, tired, toilet, thinner) – do consider the possibility of Type One Diabetes. It is not at all related to lifestyle, diet or condition. It can strike at literally any age, not just in childhood and adolescence. And above all, it should hold no fears for the person diagnosed or their family. It will be a lifelong nuisance, which is fully controllable thanks to the wonders of insulin, increasing availability of sophisticated ways to administer it and very clever ways of monitoring blood sugar. And it won't stop you doing anything, eating anything or living a long, healthy and happy life.

If you are familiar with my blog, you will know that all my posts are given an appropriate song title, with a link to the appropriate song. My title is a song from my DiabetesPlaylist which I think is one of the most under-rated singles of the past few decades. OMD’s Walking on the Milky Way just about qualifies as a diabetes song in terms of referencing a chocolate treat which is NOT off limits for people with Type One, but for me it is a bitter-sweet recollection of lost youth tinged with dignified acceptance of the passing of time and creeping old age. It is melancholy yet triumphant, and this summer celebrates the 25th anniversary of its release in the iconic summer of 1996. A brilliant introduction, a fabulous bridge, a soaring chorus and an outro that sounds like a recessional organ voluntary. If you're old enough, it'll take you back to the summer of '96. And if you're not, a chance to get to know a fine song that you missed.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

“The Land of Make Believe” – in which the late Shirley Williams became PM


I hesitate to write about politics here, but I have long since realised that the bubbles in which we live -  both real world and online - are very small, meaning that my posts are read largely by people of remarkably similar mind-set. I have therefore concluded that there is little risk of causing offence by breaking the traditional “no politics, no religion” rule. And in any case, there is only so much that can be said about diabetes without repeating oneself or others, so I have always taken opportunities to write about other topics, if only for the enjoyment I derive from gathering and expressing thoughts.

So here’s a piece about Shirley Williams, a politician whom I greatly admired, who died this last Monday, April 12th 2021 at the age of 90. One reason to write about her is that I have been forcefully reminded of the passing of the years by my recent Ruby Anniversary, which inevitably brought reflections on the world of 1981 and what has changed since then, so her death 40 years after her greatest fame was somewhat more poignant for me. Given that you have to be over 50 years old to have any clear direct memory of Shirley Williams in her prime, I hope that those who do not remember the events of the early ‘80s will be interested to read my perspective on those interesting days, particularly as I also had an indirect personal connection to her which may be of interest.

Deaths of the famous rightly provoke much reflection and retrospection; this week of all weeks in particular, as the passing of Prince Philip gave us a foretaste in “Operation Forth Bridge” of what will happen when we finally get to “Operation London Bridge”. On the whole I have appreciated and enjoyed the way in which Philip’s death has been marked, and whilst the haters have been rather too visible on social media, I think the vast majority of us recognise and understand that a remarkable man who achieved a great deal in an enormously difficult role deserved to be the subject of such attention, respect and even love.

But the less well documented death of Baroness Shirley Williams perhaps deserved greater attention. It reminded me that she was a politician whose contribution to recent history could perhaps have been much greater. The fact that I was obliquely connected to her through a mutual friend who was her mentor has given her death added significance for me.

She is certainly one of several “might have been” figures of recent political history, notably on the centre left, taking her place alongside Tony Crossland, John Smith, Alan Johnson, David Milliband and Ed Balls as people who had more to offer than political circumstances allowed, and who might perhaps have steered the country on a different course had they had the opportunity to become Prime Minister. Obituaries such as the one linked to her name above, or this from the Guardian rightly drew attention to her self-confessed shortcomings, but there is no doubt that she was for some years considered to be a potential Prime Minister.

So what was my connection to Shirley Williams? Well she was a close friend and protégée of my late family friend Margaret Higginson, who was Headmistress of Bolton School (Girls’ Division) from my mother’s time as a teacher there. Margaret was one of the leading educationalists of her time, a mildly eccentric, lovable spinster, a “schoolma’am” whom my mother had befriended back in the seventies by including her in many of our family events and outings, recognising that being an unmarried headmistress of such a prestigious school was in fact a lonely job, especially in the holidays. My mother popped her head round the door of the Head’s study on the last day of term and found the normally stoical Miss Higginson looking tearful, and when my mother asked if she was OK, she admitted that holidays were a lonely time for her. Mother invited her for tea a couple of days later, and she gladly accepted. Thereafter she became to me and my brother Chris an aunt-like figure, a frequent visitor to our home, an extra on family outings and a guest at our respective weddings. She loved serious conversation, and I remember her talking proudly of an ex-pupil named Shirley from her time teaching in London, who had become a Labour MP. Despite leading a traditional grammar school, which under her headship became an independent school rather than turning comprehensive, Margaret was a socialist intellectual, whose headship of Bolton School was characterised by constant reminders to the girls in her care that they were privileged to be at the school, and therefore morally obliged to give back to society both whilst at school and in their lives beyond it.

As Shirley Williams rose to prominence, becoming a Cabinet Minister under Harold Wilson’s third administration in 1974, I was always aware of her connection to Miss Higginson and I followed her rise to prominence with not only that personal interest but also with admiration for her manifest authenticity, her ability to connect to people and her espousal of moderate socialism.

Sadly, her cabinet career proved to be short-lived: a few years after her joining the Cabinet, the country had moved on in a contrary direction. Harold Wilson resigned out of the blue in March 1976, provoking enduring conspiracy theories, and his successor Jim Callaghan fell victim, like another unelected Labour PM Gordon Brown 30 years later, to a sense that he was a weak leader without the full authority of an electoral mandate. A badly-judged response by his government to public sector strikes in what became known as the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79 allowed the Tories under their new leader Margaret Thatcher to portray Labour as being in the pockets of over-powerful trade unions, and to perpetuate a narrative which has persisted to this day that the late 70s were a period of chaos and decline. My own memories of the period, and to a good extent economic, social and political data, beg to differ.

Nevertheless Thatcher was elected, and whilst the event was rightly heralded as a step forward for women’s rights, it was already clear that Mrs T was, as Spitting Image so cuttingly portrayed her, more like a ruthless, ideologically driven man in women’s clothing. I was living in France at the time, and on more than one occasion I had cause to caution ill-informed female French feminist friends who were excited by Britain’s taking a leap forward for gender equality by electing a woman Prime Minister. “Attention - du point de vue politique, c’est un homme” are words I recall uttering more than once to bemused observers.

I don’t think that history has proved me wrong, but for a brief period early in Thatcher’s reign, a very different woman, Shirley Williams, offered a tantalising glimpse of what a less dogmatic female leader could offer the country. In early 1981, with the country reeling under the effects of the first doses “Thatcherism”, by which what was now very clearly a radical right-wing government was seeking to roll back the power of the Trade Unions and the State with a degree of ruthlessness which, however justifiable some of her aims, was proving difficult for many - including me - to stomach. Unfortunately, the Labour opposition was doing what losing parties often do in response to heavy defeats, namely shifting to its own extremes under the worthy, admirable but unelectable Michael Foot. Interestingly, history repeated itself, as it always does in politics, when Labour under the equally unelectable Jeremy Corbyn handed Boris Johnson and Brexit victory on a plate in 2019.

However, in 1981, things suddenly got very interesting. Despairing at Labour’s lurch to the left, a new “Centre Party” was formed by a group of four ex-Labour ministers, David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rogers, who left their party and formed a new group, the Social Democratic Party. I was delighted: the SDP was a natural home for me, having long called myself a social democrat, not least because of my admiration for what social democracy had achieved in post-war West Germany. I was newly-married and by two coincidences the SDP story became entwined in our lives in a manner which was briefly exhilarating and exciting: Firstly, in autumn 1981 Shirley Williams bravely announced that she would fight the safe Conservative seat of Crosby, North Liverpool in a by-election caused by the death of the sitting MP. The newly-retired Miss Higginson - or “Higgy” as she was always known to us -  announced that she would campaign for her protégée, indulging her own lifelong moderate socialism, free of the need to supress her true political colours. Moreover, in her famously and lovably insensitive manner, she invited herself to stay with us in Southport, having realised that she could commute with my wife to Crosby throughout the final week of a campaign which was by then making national and international headline news.

Shirley Williams campaigning in Crosby, Autumn 1981,
flanked by Bill Rogers & David Owen

Then there was a second coincidence: a colleague of my wife’s, a young maths teacher named John Backhouse, was standing as the Labour candidate in the by- election. Backhouse was typical of the Merseyside Labour Party of the time, extreme left and with little grasp of the realities of life in Thatcherite Britain, but it quickly became apparent that Shirley Williams was a real contender, thanks to her erudite, eloquent, pragmatic and moderate policies and her engaging and caring manner. My wife’s school was very much a centre of activity during the campaign, and as Higgy came home every day with tales from the doorsteps of Crosby, we felt genuinely connected to a story that was causing so much attention. On the eve of the election, with a sense of a political earthquake in the air, we attended an SDP rally, accompanied by Higgy, addressed by all four of the now famous “Gang of Four”. It was a truly exhilarating event, with the feeling of a new political beginning very real. Shirley Williams duly won a decisive victory in what had been a rock solid Tory seat and for a few months, with unemployment soaring and Margaret Thatcher proving to be divisive and inflexible, it really looked as if this centrist force could consign Thatcherism to history as a short, failed experiment.

But then in April 1982, General Galtieri’s Argentinian Junta took the fateful decision to invade the Falkland Islands, giving Thatcher the opportunity to transform herself almost overnight into a latter-day war leader, dispatching a task force to an ultimately successful old-fashioned war with a frankly incompetent and ill-equipped enemy. The political tide turned, Thatcher won two more elections, transforming the UK forever, and the SDP died a long and lingering death. I had joined the party and done a bit of door-knocking and leafletting for the May 1982 local elections in Southport, but it was immediately apparent, even on the doorsteps of Birkdale, that Galtieri had unwittingly saved Thatcher.

Shirley Williams lost her seat at the next General Election, and remained a public figure of significant influence, as the many tributes paid to her have acknowledged, but never came anywhere near power again. As a peer, she exemplified exactly what members of the House of Lords should be, namely a wise old head and a mentor and advisor to younger, less experienced politicians of all persuasions. She was a frequent guest on shows like BBC’s Question Time, often as a nuanced voice of opposition to prevailing trends, and her lifelong pro-European views came to the fore during the grim years of national infighting over Brexit.

Meanwhile, centenary commemorations of the First World War brought fresh attention to her mother Vera Brittan’s wonderful book “Testament of Youth”, as powerful a telling of the impact of that conflict on those left behind as I have ever read.

I met Shirley again relatively late in her life when she was a speaker at the memorial service to Miss Higginson, held at Bolton School in 2010. It was a difficult day for me, as my brother and I took our mother, who was at the time displaying rapidly worsening symptoms of the Alzheimer’s Disease which was about to consume her, and in the event that was the last time she attended any sort of public social event. Shirley Williams was eloquent and generous in her tribute to Higgy, and was every bit the sharply attentive conversationalist that her public persona suggested.

Her death leaves me reflecting, not for the first time, that politics at the highest level is not really a game for those who display the most authentically human, or should I say humane, qualities. My own fifty-plus years of keen interest in politics tells me that almost all of the most appealing characters - from all parties - are those who never sought, or were overlooked for, high office: Alan Johnson, Sir Peter Bottomley, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Harriet Harman, Ed Balls, Alan Duncan and many more. Conversely, the most successful Prime Ministers of modern times - Churchill, Wilson, Thatcher, even Blair were successful despite very apparent character defects which made them less than attractive to many, yet eminently electable, highly successful, and indeed admired by many. I cannot help but speculate that history may add Johnson to that list. 

I don’t believe this "nice guys don't win" thing to be confined to politics: in many walks of life, the toughness required to be a successful leader is difficult to find in “nice” people, and certainly in high-profile management roles, most obviously football management, the ruthless streak required is commonly found to be an essential prerequisite for success. It is no coincidence that I, a pragmatist, conciliator and conflict-avoider, never sought seriously to climb the greasy pole of school management.

A depressing conclusion? Well perhaps it is, but then again, I do believe that it “takes all sorts”, and among the many things that the past year or so has taught us is to value authentic human values such as kindness and generosity, and to look for true heroism among the unsung heroes like nurses and research scientists, and to value those who say less and do more. The relative silence emanating from the White House since January has been a refreshing pleasure after the incessant nasty “noise” generated by its previous occupant. The meek may not inherit the earth, but the earth is a better place because of them, and thankfully they are in the majority.

It’s my blog, so it needs a song title: how about The Land of Make Believe by Bucks Fizz? A UK No1 from the heyday of Shirley Williams and the SDP in early 1982, a song derided at the time but now rightly lauded as an overlooked classic. The “land of make believe” is the one where the UK elects a modest, gentle, conciliatory Prime Minister, but by a nice coincidence, the writer of that song claims, somewhat spuriously I have to say, that it was an anti-Thatcher song. Really? 

Something nasty in your garden's waiting 

Patiently, till it can have your heart

Try to go but it won't let you 

Don't you know it's out to get you running 

Keep on running 

They're running after you babe..

Maybe it is an anti-Thatcher song. Either way, enjoy it here, and think of an alternative reality from 1982 onwards in which Galtieri hadn't invaded the Falklands, Thatcher had only lasted one term, and Shirley Williams had risen to high office, even PM. 

Now that is, truly, a Land of Make Believe.


Monday, 8 March 2021

I hope I'm old before I die: Type One Diabetes in older age


“I hope I’m old before I die” sang Robbie Williams in 1997, in a clever re-working of the iconic line from the Who’s “My Generation” - “hope I die before I get old”

To compare those two lines, written just over thirty years apart, is in itself is enough to provoke thoughts about changing attitudes since the sixties:

Pete Townsend’s words from 1965 reflect the pervading sense in the sixties that to be young was everything, and that the older generation had nothing more to offer than outdated, suffocating values and attitudes which were being swept away by the tide of youth culture. I am just about old enough to have sensed, understood and identified with that attitude at the time, which still makes me feel a little guilty: I don’t think that in my own childhood and teens I valued and respected my parents’ and grandparents’ generations as much as I should have. Being born and brought up on constant reminiscences about two world wars fostered in those of us born in the 50s and 60s a sense that the first half of the twentieth century had been something of a failure, best forgotten. In later decades, the so-called generation gap, so apparent in the 60s, has become far less of a thing - look at the universal affection from all age groups for the likes of Captain Sir Tom Moore. In more general terms, it is certainly true that observation of Remembrance in November has grown in importance and reach since my childhood, despite the fact that the World Wars have receded into the memories of very few.

By the time of Robbie Williams’ words from 1997, and in the years since, older age has become a desirable goal as much as a fear, and old people somehow don’t seem old in the same way that they did when I was young. The likes of the Stones, Springsteen, the surviving Beatles, Sir Tom Jones and Dolly Parton are still musically active and admired by all generations, and national treasures like Sir David Attenborough and Dame Judi Dench are idolised and revered by even the very young, not despite but because of their age: it is certainly no longer a young person’s world. All of those mentioned are way beyond pensionable age, yet when I was a child, pensioners were men in flat caps and women with blue rinses who sat on park benches, went for a nap in the afternoon and complained about “long-haired layabouts” and “loud and vulgar pop music”. No wonder Pete Townsend wanted none of it - although at 75, it looks as if he didn’t get his wish!

So as I grow older, I still feel that I have much to look forward to, and my appetite for and anticipation of what the future holds feels in many ways the same that I felt when I was a teenager looking forward to the adult world. I like being retired: it feels like a reward, a well-deserved period of freedom and choice, after so many years of subservience to the demands and stresses of the workplace. I am, like many of my generation, more than a little irked that the Coronavirus Pandemic has stolen over a year of my remaining years of good health and active life, but I am optimistic that I have enough years of fun left before I end up sitting in a care home watching TV all day.

And then there’s diabetes….

I live with Type One Diabetes. It’s a condition which could impair my ability to enjoy life, and even foreshorten it if I am unlucky. So I have good reason to hope I’m old before I die! And at 63, I’m doing alright - so far.

Those of us who live with Type One get mildly irritated (and some get angry) when muggles living without the condition misrepresent diabetes in one way or another. For those of us living with Type One, generalisations in the media about “diabetes” without mentioning type are a familiar irritant, and well-meaning excitement from others about cures and reversals that they have read about induces mild amusement rather than resentment in me.

But another common misconception about Type One is more annoying for the likes of me (diagnosed at 40, alive and well at 63): the perception of Type One as a disease of the young.

Wrong on two counts:

  • Firstly, young people get it, but they don’t die of it, nor can they be cured, so they get old, just like anyone else.
  • Secondly, you can develop Type One at any age.

If you are lucky and prudent, you will live to a ripe old age with Type One Diabetes, whatever your age at diagnosis. Look at these figures recently published for people living with Type One in the UK:-

So if we regard 40 as the approximate midpoint of a full life expectancy, then it’s not far off a 50/50 split: almost half of those living with Type One diabetes are over 40, and over 13% of them are over 70. Type One is far from being a young person’s condition, and as diabetes care, monitoring and insulin regulation improve, there is every reason to believe that the number of “Type One oldies” will grow - I certainly hope so. The very success of treatment and care for Type One diabetes since the discovery of insulin therapy in 1922 inevitably leads to there being a growing cohort of older people with Type One. The discredited epithet “juvenile” for Type One still persists enough to sometimes gives the impression that it is a young peoples’ condition, which it of course isn’t.

The number of older people living with Diabetes UK medals for milestones of living with diabetes is already remarkable: recipients of the Alan Nabarro Medal (50 years), the Robert Lawrence Medal (60 years), the John Macleod Medal (70 years), and the HG Wells Medal (80 years) are living proof that diabetes is no barrier to a long, healthy and fulfilling life, and it is my personal pleasure and privilege to count medallists Lis Warren and Pete Davies in particular as great friends from the diabetes community. DUK medallists recently held their first get-together, sadly only on Zoom, but a personal triumph for organiser Lis Warren, who does so much to promote the welfare of people of ALL ages living with ALL types of diabetes. 

Diabetes UK Medallists at their recent Zoom get-together

It is a small personal ambition of mine to reach the milestone of a Nabarro Medal, despite my relatively late start: I’ll have to make it to age 90 to do so, but why not? I cannot help but wonder what it will be like to live with Type One at an advanced age. I accept that I am too old to have any prospect of being cured of Type One, and I also accept that whilst the health of older people is much better than it was even in the recent past, I will over the years that I have left become weaker, frailer, more forgetful, less capable and so more dependent upon others. I think that the particular needs of those living with Type One in older age is an area which will require greater attention and investment as their number increases.

Another aspect of this issue is more subtle: perhaps consideration should be given to the portrayal of people with Type One in material about the condition - leaflets, websites, magazines and the like. Pictures of people with Type One, and of things like insulin pumps, CGMs, flash monitors are overwhelmingly of children or of bright, attractive young people. Try typing "Type One Diabetes" into an image search and you will not see many older people. The subconscious impression is propagated that this is a disease of the young, or that the devices and therapies used to treat it are the province of young people. This is, perhaps, the case at present, but as the techie, looping generation ages, and things like CGM and flash become the norm rather than the exception, so we should surely see these devices on bodies of all shapes, sizes and - crucially - ages. Access to pumps, flash, CGMs, closed loops and other dia-technology yet to be discovered should not be regarded as “just for younger PWD” and become more of a priority for those of more advanced years.

So yes, I do indeed hope I’m old before I die and indeed by some measures I am already fulfilling that wish. I hope that my older years with Type One Diabetes will be enjoyable, healthy and active. 

But to borrow another line from Robbie's song, I don’t think I’ll ever live to see the day the Pope gets high - unless, of course, he develops Type One Diabetes at the age of 84. Now that would be a story....

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

The Only Way is Up: getting the Covid-19 Vaccination

Two days ago, on Monday, 8th February, I received my first Covid-19 vaccination. I feel moved to post an account of how I came to get it, how it was and how it felt afterwards because I was blown away by the positive response of others on social media when I posted news of my good fortune. 

I was at first a little hesitant to do the “I've had my jab” thing on social media, fearful that it might look rather smug and “look at me”. I sought the opinion of a wise and trusted friend who often shares my views on such matters, and she assured me that to post about it would be welcomed by many. She was right. I am a very small voice, but if enough small voices say the same thing, they become a loud and influential voice. I am pleased and proud to learn that vaccine take-up is so high in the UK, but worried that it has been low in certain groups. I hope that anyone reading this will be reassured that it's the right thing to do, for themselves and for everyone. We all owe it to each other to talk up the good news of this rollout, not least given how much else has apparently gone wrong here in the UK.

I was aware that the UK’s vaccination programme was going remarkably well, and that as a man of my age living with Type One Diabetes, I could reasonably expect to be called sooner rather than later. However, I was thinking maybe sometime in March. I was more anxious for others in my household, three of whom work in schools and two of whom are required to be there in person; I am in the fortunate position of being able largely to control my own exposure to others, although I have throughout the pandemic resisted the urge to hide away and attempt to eliminate all risk.

Then last Friday, my younger daughter, who has mild learning difficulties, received a call from our GP inviting her to come for a vaccination on the following Monday, at the end of the working day. We had not been aware that she was in Priority Group 4, but they explained that all with a registered learning difficulty are classified as such for vaccination purposes.

Great news, we thought, not least as her work as a welfare assistant in a primary school exposes her daily to risk.

Then on the day of her appointment, we got another call from the GP practice: they had more doses than anticipated, enough that if I and my wife were able to come along too, we could all three have our vaccinations. We are both in our early sixties, and of course I have an added background risk through diabetes.

The whole process, from notification to injection, exemplified all that is good about how the UK’s programme is working. It felt personal and local, and strengthened my sense that the vaccine rollout will prove to be UK Primary Care’s finest hour. Ours is a relatively large practice in a small town - Ash Tree House in Kirkham, Lancashire; we have been patients there since moving to the area in 1986. Over the years, the practice has been there through all our medical needs of those 35 years, and many of the staff, clinical and non-clinical, have been known to us through personal or other professional and personal connections. We have had many occasions on which to feel grateful for their work.

In the case of this vaccination, communication was by phone, and was cheery, concise and personal. Our appointment was at the clinic in Kirkham, a place familiar to us from when the children were little. Not an ideal venue for a mass vaccination programme, but the most suitable NHS building in the town.

On arrival, we were greeted by a man and a woman marshalling the Car Park in hi-vis jackets, wrapped up against the bitter cold and wearing masks; only when we got near did we and they realise that we were old and good friends, former neighbours with whom we remain in touch and with whom we still socialise - well we used to! Another great thing - volunteers doing their bit: they are both retired police officers.

They, and everyone whom we saw throughout the process, were friendly, upbeat and welcoming. A young woman from our practice (a member of the admin staff) was at the door, letting people in one by one from the queue shivering outside the building. She herself was clearly freezing, and had to repeat the same words to everyone, but did so with a cheery smile, an apology for the wait, and an apologetic tone that suggested she was well aware that her questions checking our status were almost certainly superfluous.

The Practice Manager who checked us in and showed us to the waiting area recognised me and greeted me by name - such is life in a small town community. Her manner, at the end of a long and busy day, when she and everyone had clearly been on their feet all day, was positive, welcoming and reassuring. There was, throughout the building, a palpable sense of togetherness and teamwork in a less than ideal setting.

After a short wait in a room carefully adapted with temporary screens for distancing purposes, we were called through to be vaccinated. My wife and daughter received their jabs from one of the GPs, I from a practice nurse. It was quick and painless.

Side effects? Yes, entirely as predicted, and no reason whatsoever for alarm or hesitancy. We all had some degree of flu-like symptoms: shivery, achy, and lethargic. But very much just the next day, and by now (the second day) I am fine, as are they.

And which vaccine? Ours was the Oxford AstraZeneca - very much the dominant and default vaccine in the UK at present, for well-documented reasons. I have to say I wanted it to be that one, for the very silly reason that I am genuinely proud to be a graduate of a university whose scientists have done so much to develop and bring this vaccine to us at such astounding speed. Not long ago, the pernicious spirit of Trump and Brexit was claiming that we had all “had enough of experts”. I always thought this was dangerous nonsense, and if there’s one thing the Coronavirus pandemic has taught us, it’s that we sure need our experts. And Oxford University, so often criticised as élite and out of touch, has done us all a favour by reminding us that we need expertise and excellence, we need élite places of learning, we need places that select the best, and it’s not entirely their fault if those who prove to be the best do not come from the broadest of social backgrounds – that is an issue for society to address, and I wrote about it here

So there you are: a positive story in a year of gloom. It is my fervent hope that I shall soon see loads of posts on social media of people I know having had their jab. I shall get the same pleasure seeing that as others appeared to get from mine, and it will reinforce the sense that we are, despite all the caveats and warnings, heading to a better place as the days start to get longer and warmer. And just as we so joyfully did at that Olympic Opening Ceremony back in 2012, let us celebrate and be proud of our NHS, and all who work in it. 

Thank you, NHS, Thank you, scientists. Thank you, experts.

I need an optimistic and upbeat song as a title – how about The Only Way is Up?

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Lead Kindly Light: A Candlemas connection to an ancestor to be proud of.

“Lead Kindly Light” is not exactly on the A-List of well-known hymns, even to regular churchgoers, but it has long been well-loved by fans of choral music. The tune to which it is most commonly sung these days, Sandon, was composed by my 3x Great Grandfather Charles Henry Purday, a nineteenth century composer and musician who sang at the coronation of Queen Victoria. Purday is better remembered as a music publisher, and as a pioneer in the movement for copyright law reform, but Sandon remains as his best-known musical legacy. 

Purday's appealing melody, and the plaintive yet comforting words written by John Henry Newman at a time when he was feeling troubled and alone, make it a particularly appropriate piece for our difficult times:

However, it also works well as a title for some thoughts on Candlemas, one of many neglected or forgotten Christian festivals which could do so much to help brighten our year, especially in times like the present, which are both literally and metaphorically dark. Before moving on to that, have a listen to my Great-Great-Great Grandfather’s composition, sung here by Ely Cathedral Choir:

So, what of Candlemas? Among the many reasons why I follow and commemorate the life of Jesus of Nazareth is that doing so can give a form and pattern to our necessarily secular lives and provide opportunities for constructive reflection. Candlemas Day could be seen as a landmark in the Christian year, a moment of ending and new beginning. It falls towards the end of winter as we start to see the first signs of spring. Candlemas is a rather forgotten and neglected festival, marking the last day of the Christmas Season, 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.

Candlemas commemorates the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, six weeks after his birth, as told in the Gospel of St Luke. Presentation of a child was - still is - a standard 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. 
Simeon's words give us the Nunc Dimitis, a familiar part of the traditional Evensong. I personally find these among my favourite words from scripture, replete with meaning and comfort:-

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 often designated by expert psychologists as the most depressing day of the year. A case of being paid a lot of money for stating the obvious if ever there was one. So surely, we should all 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 me to be rather an incongruous intrusion in Advent, which deserves better.

So how about we start celebrating Candlemas a bit more, with or without the Christian overtones? 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, Christ is the World's true Light - even Shine Jesus Shine if you really must. There's a 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 - 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:

So keep an eye on the weather on February 2nd, and celebrate Candlemas that day, or maybe the weekend before or after. 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 link to my Candlemas Spotify Playlist:

Testing, testing: Everything's Gonna be Alright

A quick and time-sensitive post, which I hope will serve to inform, reassure and possibly even persuade. It's all about testing for Covi...