Tuesday, 27 December 2016

You Have been loved: an appreciation of George Michael

Christmas Eve 2016. I was enjoying my family’s tradition of a pre-Christmas evening meal and, as always happens when we gather, conversations about music were inevitable. My 29-year-old son, a gifted, knowledgeable and dedicated choral singer, startled his two sisters, both also experienced, talented and committed choristers, by stating that George Michael was the best interpreter of rock and pop songs of his and any generation. His elder sister, never short of an opinion and never one to shirk a good-natured argument, was surprised that her brother, a rational scientist with a professed love of some of the great choral works should heap such an accolade on a rather unlikely idol. However, a brief discussion of the merits and scope of George’s work and technique led quickly to appropriately harmonious agreement. We listened to Last Christmas, reminiscing as so often before about that iconic video of the snowy Alpine holiday. 

Just 24 hours later, George Michael was dead, the latest of the so-called curse of 2016, triggering an outpouring of sadness and an unprecedented spike in downloads. Quite a 2016 bookend to the January demise of David Bowie. The media have, of course, had a field day, with his musical legacy and personal demons analysed to the Nth degree and celebrities and pundits all chipping in with words of tribute. It has become an all-too-familiar routine.

So just how good is George Michael? Is my son right? Or are we all getting carried away with the prevailing media-led sentiment? For me, the answer is that he is entirely deserving of the praise, regardless of the untimely death. And of course I now have the memory of that Christmas Eve conversation as proof that we are being led by genuine musical discernment, shared across two generations.

Perhaps that’s a good starting point. Any artist whose appeal can transcend different audiences and different eras is worthy of special attention, and of course Bowie passes that test as well. George Michael bestrides the turn of the millennium with almost perfect symmetry, from bursting on to the scene in the 80’s, all gleaming teeth, rolled up sleeves and highlighted hair, through the social activism and remarkable generosity to good causes of a mature rock star to a prolonged and troubled mid-life crisis with an all-too familiar end on Christmas Day 2016. Along the way, he has earned the admiration, either unbridled or at least grudging, of everyone from impressionable teenage girls to earnest gay activists to staid schoolteachers like me – and indeed my son, thirty years my junior.

George Michael was multi-talented: a songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and charismatic stage presence. But I think it is indeed, as my son suggests, as a vocalist, as an interpreter of his own and others’ songs, that he deserves the strongest praise. He could do joyful exuberance or profound melancholy with equal alacrity, and is one of the few singers who could take a song strongly identified with another artist and come up with a cover which improves on it.

Let’s take the joyful exuberance first: the Wham songs being endlessly replayed in recent days are so palpably full of life that it is unbearable to imagine their singer taken from us so relatively young and from such a manifestly unhappy life. Listen to Bad Boys, Wake Me Up before you Go-Go, Club Tropicana and Freedom and you hear fresh-faced youth singing for fresh-faced youth about fresh-faced youth. George’s voice smiles and sparkles like his teeth and the highlights in his hair, in a manner which is at once effortless yet crafted. Listen to any of the repeated lines (like “but you know that I’ll forgive you” in Freedom) and it comes out slightly differently each time it occurs, with delicate vocal twirls like the flourish of a master pâtissier icing a cake. Whether improvised or planned, I neither know no care; imagine those same lines sung with just the straight melody line and the song is immensely diminished in impact. The same remarkable vocal twirls are there before the lyric even starts in Last Christmas in that improvised “Oooh”. A superb example of the human voice as a musical instrument. You may not have noticed that vocal, but take it out and the song has lost something small but hugely significant.

Then there’s the profound melancholy. It’s there in Last Christmas, of course, but is all over his work, and of course a glaring sign of a deeply unhappy private life. Careless Whisper is the enduring favourite, loved by all generations with its recounting of the timeless and familiar theme of guilt after temptation. Everybody knows and loves that soaring saxophone riff and the chorus hook “I’m never gonna dance again” that could be the title but isn’t. But therein lies, in my view, a little touch of genius: the title is only heard once in the whole song, at the start of verse 2. Written by 17-year-old George, it is a hugely emotive yet restrained song, which tugs at the heartstrings as well as any lost love song ever written. Yet for me, the less often heard A Different Corner, from 1986, is an even better song. For a start, it repeats that subtle trick of the title being heard only once – such a clever and seldom used device in songwriting. But whereas Careless Whisper sounds like a tale of youthful indiscretion (cheating on your girlfriend at the School Disco?) and what might have been, A Different Corner sounds more like a divorcee’s lament for what very much was, with a more profound sense of loss. The aching sadness is again in the vocal: “Little By little, You brought me to my knees”, and the emotion that George conveys in his voice is simply awesome.

There are numerous other sad songs, of course, perhaps most famously Jesus to  a Child, written following the tragic death of his partner. Lots of great songs have been written about loss, but George Michael’s striking and daring choice of simile, unusual yet totally apt, is what makes the song so memorable. You have been Loved was not written as a tribute to Princess Diana,  but became one, whilst Don’t Let the Sun go down on me seems like a plea for a break from life’s woes. 

That song, in which its author Elton John, who had a big hit with the original recording, appears as a guest vocal, stands as an example of one of many where George takes an already well-loved standard and performs it with such respect and sensitivity that it arguably betters the original. He recorded a whole album of them in 1999 when he released Songs From the Last Century, and his rendition of great songs like Stevie Wonder’s As and Queen’s Somebody to Love shows his remarkable talent for interpreting the emotions of others. The former was a duet with Mary J Blige, one of several such collaborations which perhaps say something of his humility and generosity of spirit: in 1987, for example, he proved to be more than the equal of the legendary Aretha Franklin with the powerful Knew You were Waiting. And of course he had one of the key lines in the original and best version of Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which in just a few words exemplifies not only his gift for conveying emotion but also his ability to collaborate so effectively with others.

Much has been made since his death of George Michael’s extraordinary, and often secretive, generosity. That facet of his personality surely indicates, above all else, humanity and generosity of spirit, and that, together with the most beautiful of singing voices, has left us with a legacy which will long outlive him. Truly, George Michael, You Have Been Loved.

Friday, 23 December 2016

A Wombling Merry Christmas: an appreciation of Mike Batt

Among the Christmas hits that dominate the airwaves and form the soundtrack to any visit to a supermarket, garden centre or restaurant from mid-November onwards, one of the less commonly heard is Wombling Merry Christmas, which was a Top Ten hit in 1974, riding that year’s wave of popularity of the furry eco-warriors and their pre-news TV show. At one level, it’s just another identikit Christmas song of the sort that has been churned out over the years: a catchy tune, with cliché lyrics overlaid with sleigh bells. And of course in 1974, a 7” single was a perfect stocking filler for children who had fallen for the lovable litter-pickers and their music. It couldn’t fail at the time, but is now too often overlooked.

But listen again, or to any of those songs performed by a band of men dressed in furry costumes, and there’s a lot more to it than just a novelty song. Yes, it’s got all the Christmas clichés, but there’s more than a touch of class about the melodic progression, the orchestration and the production. It bears the unmistakable hallmark of the versatile musician Mike Batt, who wrote, produced and sang all those Wombling songs and a whole lot more besides. He’s one of those musicians whose versatility and breadth of musical skills mean that he risks being overlooked or regarded as a lightweight: not cool enough to be a respected rock musician, not serious enough to be a respected classical musician. This is a pity in my opinion, and his work over five decades merits more recognition than he gets. A bit like Wombling Merry Christmas.

Take those Womble songs for a start. Batt’s ability to write and produce songs in any style shines through: from the theme of the TV series came their debut single, The Wombling Song with one of the best melodic introductions I know, played on the French horn, hardly a staple instrument of pop and rock. He's fond of featuring more unusual instruments in his songs, a bit like another of my heroes, Roy Wood.

Batt followed that initial success up by cleverly exploiting the Womble craze while it lasted, with a series of pastiches of musical styles. Remember You’re a Womble with its violin hook, is a country square dance; Minuetto Allegretto dares to rip off Mozart of all people, while Wombling White Tie and Tails cleverly evokes the Hollywood of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. And of course there’s the already mentioned Christmas song. Novelty songs all of them, but a clear indication that their writer/ producer knows his music across a very broad range of genres.

Since that lot, we haven’t actually heard Batt much. He released one single in his own name, the theme song for a mid-seventies TV series Summertime Special - it's another “annoyingly good” song called Summertime City, but then concentrated on writing, arranging and producing. If you know your 70’s and 80’s pop, you’ll be familiar with all the songs, but you may be surprised to learn of Mike Batt’s involvement in at least some of them. In 1975, he turned a traditional folk song, All Around my Hat, into a big hit for folk band Steeleye Span, then in 1979 he wrote and produced Bright Eyes for the film Watership Down, giving Art Garfunkel his biggest solo success. Bright Eyes is the archetypal Mike Batt song, characterised by clever chord progressions that somehow tug at the heart strings and clever use of that most bitter-sweet sounding of instruments, the oboe. It always reminds me of one of my favourite French songs, La Montagne by Jean Ferrat, an achingly sad eulogy for the rural way of life lost in the late rush to urbanisation in post-war France. You don’t need to understand French to get this song, and even if like me you do speak French, you won’t understand all the lyrics, but you’ll get the feel of it. Like Bright Eyes, it just sounds sad and wistful.

Mike Batt certainly knows how to write a sad song. If you want to wallow in your misery after a failed relationship, try any one of these three Mike Batt compositions from the early eighties, all written for established artists: Please Don’t Fall in Love by Cliff Richard, A Winter’s Tale by David Essex and I Feel like Buddy Holly by Alvin Stardust. They won’t cheer you up, but they’ll put your sadness into music, never mind words, and assure you that however unhappy you are, someone else has been there as well and made a damn good tune out of it.

Talking of good tunes, you probably didn’t know that the main theme from Phantom of the Opera is in part a Mike Batt song. But it is, and in this case it was the lyrics, not the tune, that he co-wrote. And he also produced the Steve Harley/ Sarah Brightman version of that song, which served as such an effective trailer for the show.

Then there’s Katie Melua. Although her success is often rightly credited in large part to the late Terry Wogan’s championing of her work on his breakfast show, it was Batt who wrote much of, and produced her debut album Call off the Search. And the break-out single, still her best known song, Closest Thing to Crazy, is archetypal Mike Batt. It’s a sultry, jazzy song that sounded like a years-old standard as soon as it came out. One of those songs that you think you know the first time you hear it.

Perhaps that’s the thing about Mike Batt. In some ways, his music is a bit derivative, but what’s wrong with that if it’s done so well? He’s so good at writing in so many styles that he risks being seen as a jack of all musical trades, lacking in specialist talent or originality. He certainly deserves to be regarded as more than just “the man behind the Wombles”, but those songs alone deserve a lot of credit. I wish you all a Wombling Merry Christmas.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Life is a Rollercoaster: Diaversary Reflections

This is an update and re-edit of a post previously published as My Diabetes Story. Today (19-12-2016) is my diaversary, a term used by people with diabetes to "celebrate" the anniversary of the day when they discovered they were to live the rest of their lives with an incurable but manageable condition. I was diagnosed on 19th December 1997, at the age of 40, and here's the story.

Until that age, I had lived a life with minimal contact with the health service. I had a couple of standard childhood illnesses, leading to a couple of spells off school before the age of 10; I then managed an entire secondary school career without a single day's absence. I fell off my bike at the age of 13 on the first day of the summer holidays 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 four days off sick (two lots of two).

Moreover, I was a slim, healthy and active person: as a child I cycled to school, played football competitively 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, as 1997 came to a close, with Robbie Williams' enduring classic Angels dominating the airwaves and the Tellytubbies bagging the Christmas No 1, I had a very bad case of 'flu in the week running up to the Christmas break at school - a week's absence for the first time ever. No real cause for alarm: there was a big epidemic and a number of colleagues were off at the same time. Then, on the last day of term, 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 and a long, hard term's work. A routine urine test revealed very high blood sugar, and an alarmed GP (parent of three children whom I taught) 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. He told me to "cut out all sugary foods" and see if the sugar level fell. This puzzled me somewhat, as I have always had a famously "unsweet tooth"- there was little or nothing to cut down on. However, I agreed to do so, and came back a few days later - just before Christmas - to discover that my sugar level was higher than ever. "OK, said the doctor, we'll put you on medication" He was assuming, from my age, that I was Type Two. Looking back, I have to say this was a questionable diagnosis in the face of all evidence - I was slim, ate healthily and exercised plenty - but again, I went along with it and took the pills for a few days (including Christmas Day). 

It was only when I reported back with an even higher blood sugar level and no sign of feeling better that he finally wondered if it might be late-onset Type One. Off to hospital I went (only as an out-patient), where a consultant agreed it certainly must be Type One, and referred me to the clinic to learn the noble arts of injection and blood testing. I did all this without missing any days off work, despite feeling very tired. My school were very good to me, and as I live near to the school, I was able to come home for a rest at lunchtime and leave early when not teaching.

Two different insulins, two pens 
- my permanent companions.
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 undertake every year. In day-to-day terms over the 19 years since, I have continued to take on all that life and work throw at me, all with an unblemished attendance record in a very stressful job. I am certainly not a burden to anyone, and other than the cost of my insulin and test strips, the annual flu jab and my annual clinic review, I don't bother the NHS at all.

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. And for me, the uniquely infuriating challenge is that 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!

My Diabetes drawer - all the stuff we need to keep going

And yet it could be worse. Let us not forget that. It was a lot worse until the discovery of insulin therapy by Canadian Frederick Banting in 1922, when Type One was in effect a death sentence. It is a whole lot worse in many less fortunate countries where access to insulin is still limited or non-existent.

The 400 000 of us who live with the condition in the UK have good cause to be grateful to our doctors, nurses, designers and makers of insulin delivery methods and blood testing kits who enable us to live normal, active lives. I am particularly grateful that I discovered the FreeStyle Libre, a clever monitoring device which helps me to stay one step ahead of my blood sugar levels.

And then there's the silver lining to this cloud: my fellow diabetics. People with diabetes are remarkably supportive to each other and in recent years have used the internet to create a wonderful community, known as GBDoc in the UK.

What's the collective noun for diabetics?
In one of the best illustrations there is of the good side of social media, thousands of diabetic people of all ages, both genders and all backgrounds regularly support, help and encourage each other online in a spirit of togetherness and cheerful acceptance of a condition which can at times make its victims feel frustrated and lonely

It's no fun having Type One, although it is fun being part of a worldwide community of people who are very good at making the best of a cruel stroke of luck. I certainly feel that having diabetes has enriched my life and made me a different person with a more interesting life.

With diabetes, we are reminded every minute that Life is a Rollercoaster. We've just gotta ride it.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

With a Little Help from my Friends

The reason for the title of this post will become apparent when you have read it. I am always very reluctant to use my blog or social media to be negative and critical, but I feel the need to pass comment on a matter which has already attracted much comment elsewhere. Diabetes Care.

I won’t bore readers who already know me with chapter and verse on my Diabetes story – it is in this post if you don’t know it. Suffice it to say that I have been most fortunate, in that I have lived for almost 19 years with Type One with minimal complications, good health and no significant impact upon my life and work. All I would say is that this is thanks in no small part to my own efforts, the care and concern of my immediate family, and in practical terms, the input of the health care professionals with whom I have dealt on a regular basis. Diabetes is hard work, all day, every day.

Six years ago, as a result of my consistently unproblematic condition, it was suggested to me by my hospital clinic that I should be discharged to the care of my GP practice. At the time, this was a welcome and appealing suggestion, which I willingly accepted. I had always found the six monthly clinics a nuisance rather than any help: I had to take an afternoon off work, which for a teacher means setting work for classes, travel to a crowded hospital with (at the time) appalling car parking problems, then sit for ages in a stuffy waiting room between various stages of a ponderous and inefficient process (one room for weight and height, one room for a BG tests, one room for seeing the doctor, another if necessary for seeing the nurses.) I always had a brief and frankly unnecessary chat with a consultant, who congratulated me on how well I was doing, exchanged a bit of small talk and sent me on my way. All very nice, but of no clinical value if the truth be told. The most meaningful and useful input was from the hard-pressed nurses, who scuttled from room to room, stopping to chat in the waiting area to check if I was OK for pens, was my meter OK etc.

The prospect of replacing all this with a convenient appointment at my local GP, ten minutes’ walk from home, was most attractive, and I took it. So for six years, I had this annual review, essentially just a standard GP appointment, but with a doctor who is designated a diabetes specialist in the context of the practice. I still had my twice yearly HBa1c test, annual retinopathy check, foot check and all the right questions from the doctor, so I was happy, and continued to have “good” control and a good HBa1c result (albeit creeping slightly upwards into the 8’s)

Then came the GBDOC. Again, no need to repeat the story – it’s here. But the GBDOC meant that I started to be able to “compare notes” on diabetes care with others. First of all online, then face-to-face with some, as I became more involved with the community. I was becoming more interested in my diabetes, not least with my children grown up and independent and my work life reducing to part-time semi-retirement. I started to realise that I was perhaps being short-changed on my care compared to others, and that perhaps I now knew more about diabetes than the experts who were caring for me. This suspicion was increased when in October 2015, after 6 months’ use of the FreeStyle Libre (which, needless to say, I had discovered via the GBDOC!), I presented at the GP practice with a sudden fall in HBa1c at my annual review. A clearly impressed doctor asked if I had been “doing things any differently”, and when I mentioned the clever little device that was enabling me to react to and control BG levels so effectively, he was stumped. He’d never heard of what many believe to be one of the most significant advances in diabetes management technology, and earnestly made a note of the name of the device. Fair enough, I thought. He’s a busy GP, not a consultant. And a nice guy, manifestly caring and conscientious.

I decided that it was time to see whether the hospital knew any better, so I ‘phoned the helpline to the nurses which I had been given back in 1997 and had never used. I also wanted to ask about a DAFNE course as a way of adding to my growing expertise in diabetes management. The helpline operates from 11-12 daily, is on voicemail until 10:59 and after 12:01 and engaged for the rest of the time. Have they heard of email? After repeated re-dialling, I got through, only to be told that as I was no longer a patient of theirs, I was ineligible for the DAFNE courses at their hospital, and whilst they could advise me over the phone in response to another query, namely about getting a new injection pen, they were really doing me a favour. I thanked them courteously and resolved to get referred back to the hospital.

And so it came to pass that yesterday, Monday 28th November, I went on a sentimental journey back to the clinic I had attended for all those years. Some things have improved: there’s a smart new multi-storey car park, with modest charges and loads of spaces. The hospital entrance has been rebuilt and extended, and feels like a provincial airport or a railway station, with well-designed waiting areas, big-screen TVs everywhere, and branches of Costa, WH Smith and M&S Simply Food. I actually knew of these changes, as I had been to the hospital for other reasons (most recently visiting a pupil newly diagnosed with diabetes as it happens!), but even the clinic had moved on….a bit. There was an automated check-in system, which worked. Someone had realised that it makes sense to do weighing, measuring, handing over the urine sample and testing BG all in one room with two people, rather than three rooms with three people. So far, so good. And having done all that, I was seen within 15 minutes of arrival, and starting to feel I had made a good decision.

But then I went in to see the doctor. A consultant, I presume, although not the named person on the appointment. No sign of #hellomynameis. He was a pleasant, courteous man, but he just asked how I was, waited 5 minutes for a screen full of data to appear, and told me what I already knew from my recent GP review, that I had “excellent” control, and enquired about how I managed my diabetes.  I told him that I had started using the FreeStyle Libre 18 months previously and proffered my tablet screen full of Libre data. He looked blank, then startled. He had clearly never heard of it. I repeat, a diabetes specialist in a large teaching hospital at a clinic had not heard of a device which has been the subject of worldwide interest and is widely thought to be a big step forward in diabetes management. His response suggested that I was extolling the virtues of some quack herbal remedy: he showed no interest in my screens full of data, didn’t ask to see the scanner or the sensor, and clearly wanted the conversation to end, and to move me on to the nurse who would discuss my request for a DAFNE course.

Fortunately, my time was not wasted. The nurse had heard of the Libre, readily agreed to refer me for DAFNE and agreed that as I now had so much data about the minute-to-minute progression of my BG, it made sense to try fully to understand the impact of different foods on levels.

I returned home mildly amused rather than annoyed, to be told by my daughter that there was a voicemail for me on the landline. It was the hospital doctor I had seen about an hour previously, asking me to phone back, giving a bleep number and saying “there was something he needed to talk to me about” but that I had already left the clinic. Yes I had left the clinic, because he and the nurse had told me to.

I was mildly concerned, my wife panic-stricken. A phone message from a doctor asking me to call back and bleep him, less than an hour after I had seen him. Surely a sign that something was amiss. What hideous complication had reared its head that needed such an urgent response? I needn’t have worried. He just wanted to know if I ever suffered from any hypos, if I tested before driving, if I had had retinopathy screening and a foot check in the past year.

Yes, I do have hypos, it’s what happens when you have diabetes, but fortunately I know the signs and deal with them. Yes, I do test before driving, it’s the law. (as well as testing 20+ times a day with this mysterious new gadget). Yes, I have just had retinopathy screening and a foot check – it should be on my records. And that was it. He had clearly forgotten some of the script, and needed to call me to get the answers rather than risk being accused of negligence. I put the phone down and reassured Mrs L that I was not suffering from some hideous life-threatening condition which had shown up as a result of a finger prick blood test and a sample of wee.

So there you go. My journey from hospital care to GP care and back to hospital care. I think I’ll continue to rely on the GBDOC for advice and information. There are several doctors there, including consultants, who are happy to tweet and interact with patients who aren’t even theirs. And there are hundreds of people with diabetes just a tweet away, all with their own experience and expertise, all of whom are there to help. In fact, I’ll just get by With a Little Help From My Friends

Oh, and I look forward to meeting DAFNE next year.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

We have reached that time of year when Christmas music, be it sacred or secular, assaults our senses. The canon of secular songs forces its way into our consciousness from early November onwards whether we like it or not, and even though many of those songs are on our guilty pleasures list, it is difficult to avoid tiring of them before Advent has started, let alone Christmas. I try in vain to avoid them until well into December, yet have to admit to a frisson of childlike excitement when I hear Fairytale of New York or I Wish it could be Christmas every Day, to name but two, for the first time each year. And when Perry Como sings It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas I have to agree with him.

Fortunately, sacred Christmas music is a little easier to avoid, in that it is less commonly heard in supermarkets and garden centres, but one is nevertheless likely to have sung O Come All Ye Faithful several times before we get anywhere near the “Happy Morning” on which we can sing “Yea, Lord We Greet Thee”. These days, the John Rutter standards are also likely to have become over-familiar by mid-December if you are involved in a church, school or choir, and I must even admit to a certain weariness with the standards such as Hark the Herald, While Shepherds Watched, Silent Night and even Away in a Manger.

Yet there are a number of wonderful Christmas Carols which are neglected, and would be unlikely to feature in the answer of any non-churchgoer asked to name their Top Five Christmas Carols. I would cite as examples See Amid the Winter’s Snow, Christians Awake (which can really only be sung on Christmas Day, and so in my memories of childhood carries a unique feel of excited Christmas Morning services) and above all, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.

If you know a lot about me, you’ll now see where this post is heading: It Came upon the Midnight Clear is indeed a Unitarian carol, the only one to have reached the mainstream, written by Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876), an American Unitarian Preacher and first heard in 1849. It is, and always has been, my favourite Christmas hymn. And yet it is not exactly cheerful or festive, and some would say not even Christian. All the better for it, in my opinion. I am never sure how well known it is in our secular age, but I think any churchgoer will know it. For those who don’t, here it is, performed by the peerless Choir of King's College Cambridge in 2006:-

The first verse seems to be heading in a relatively orthodox direction, evoking traditional images of a still and silent night interrupted by the song of the Angels:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold!
Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven's all gracious King!
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Yet Sears was writing at a time when he was preoccupied by events in a turbulent world, and with threatened revolutionary rumblings in Europe and the United States' war with Mexico on his mind, he portrayed the world in a later verse as dark, full of "sin and strife," and not hearing the Christmas message:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

So here we have the Christmas message of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Men well and truly deflated. At this point, we are in the same territory as Greg Lake’s much-loved anti-Christmas song, I Believe in Father Christmas, which brilliantly debunks the peace and goodwill message. It Came upon the Midnight Clear could indeed be construed at this point as an anti-Christmas hymn. It has in the past been criticized for not even mentioning the Christ-child. British scholar Erik Routley wrote that "the hymn is little more than an ethical song, extolling the worth and splendour of peace among men."

So not very Christian then? Well perhaps not. Yet it is most ironic to learn that Edmund Sears, author of this "humanist" carol, was in fact a very much a Unitarian Christian. "The word God may be uttered without emotion," he told his congregation, "while the word Jesus opens the heart, and touches the place of tears." For Sears, Christ was the incarnation of the Divine Word, and a mediator who alone could bridge "the awful gulf between God and man." In other words, he saw Jesus Christ as the metaphorical, rather than literal, son of God. Pretty orthodox Unitarian Christianity: God reaching down to humanity, through his metaphorical son as a prophet, but his "peace" contingent upon a human response rather than by divine intervention.

Although as a Unitarian, Sears rejected the doctrine of original sin which is so central to mainstream Christianity, he saw all human groups and individuals as having the potential for evil. At the same time he wrote of people as fashioned in the image of God and blessed with varying degrees of development in their spiritual nature. So there is always the prospect of redemption, of good overcoming evil, leaving room for optimism and an uplifting conclusion to his hymn about Christmas which has become his only legacy of significance.

So for me, the most appealing aspect of this carol (other than Arthur Sullivan’s beautiful melody) is the optimism of the last verse, which never fails to lift my spirits in the face of so much that’s wrong in the world:

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years,
Comes round the Age of Gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Naïve optimism? Arguably so at the end of 2016, a year in which we have so often been reminded of mankind’s capacity for stupidity at best, downright evil at worst. Yet if we can’t have hope at Christmas, seeing the coming of the Christ-Child as a symbol of light and warmth at the darkest and coldest time of the year, then truly we have given up on life.

Monday, 14 November 2016

A letter of hope

A few weeks ago, I was asked by one of my many friends from the online community to write a "letter of hope" addressed to those new to Type One diabetes, either in their own right or as parents. 

The lady concerned, Maureen, lives in Australia and has a son with Type One. She finds that in Australia, with its smaller population and vast size, it is less easy for people with diabetes and their families to connect with each other, and so she is putting together a website of resources. 

You can read about her project on her blog here: 

So this is what I wrote, and I offer it here as my piece for World Diabetes Day:

Dear Dia-buddie,

You, or your child, have just been diagnosed with a condition. Not an illness, not a disease, but a condition.

It’s a shock when it happens. Right now, it must seem to you and your loved ones to be pretty bad news. I hope you haven’t just heard a load of “don’ts” and “can’ts”, but it’s those that stick in your mind. Diagnosis with diabetes can seem very negative, and to be fair, medical people have to make sure you keep yourself well and don’t do anything to make things worse.

The trouble is, most people know a bit about diabetes, and they tend to remember the bad stuff, or the wrong stuff. Everyone thinks you can’t do this, can’t eat that, must be careful about this, shouldn’t do that.

Everyone claims to know someone with diabetes – but then it turns out to be Type 2, because that’s far more common.
Some will even be callous enough to tell a tale of their auntie, uncle, grandad or someone who had diabetes and went blind/lost a leg/died.

So how about a dozen positives:

•It won’t kill you.

•It won’t even make you feel ill much of the time.

•It won’t stop you doing anything.

•You can eat whatever you want.

•You can refuse food you don’t want and blame diabetes – nobody will dare argue.

•You’ll get free prescriptions for life.

•You’ll get regular health checks for life.

•You get some really cool techie stuff: pumps, meters etc.

•You can eat sweets and claim it’s a medical necessity. (it sometimes is)

•You can get out of a boring meeting by claiming your blood sugar is low/high.

•If you’re at school, you can jump the lunch queue.

•You will meet the most awesome people, your fellow diabetics.

I’m not just trying to make you feel better. I have lived with diabetes for almost 19 years, having been diagnosed out of the blue at the age of 40. Prior to that, I had been a fit and remarkably healthy individual. I still am. Diabetes caused a few weeks of adjustment, with some anxiety – more on the part of my family and friends than me, if the truth be told. But very soon after diagnosis, I resumed the busy and active life that I had always led, and I’ve just carried on that way.

Managing my condition is just a small part of personal care, no different from washing, shaving, going to the toilet, getting dressed etc. It fits around what I do just like those other life’s essentials do.

Diabetes doesn’t make your life any worse than it was before. It just adds a complication, like so many other complications that life throws at you at various stages.

But it gets better than that. You might find this hard to believe, but I genuinely believe that diabetes has enriched my life, developed me as a person, given me some of the loveliest friends I could wish for and is a whole lot of fun.

Let me explain. It’s all thanks to the internet and social media, so only in the more recent years of my life with diabetes. Once we in the UK realised that there were other people with diabetes out there, it suddenly dawned on a lot of us that the very randomness of diabetes makes a delightfully random community of people, whose different lives, ages and circumstances are all over-ridden by one big thing that we have in common – diabetes. It’s called the GBDOC (Great Britain Online Diabetic Community) and there are variants in many other countries. It’s a guarantee of friendship and mutual support which is truly life-affirming, and is used by people with diabetes as well as parents of children with diabetes. The good thing is we don’t even talk about diabetes all the time, yet we know we have that in common. We’re just friends.

So I have one big piece of advice for anyone diagnosed with diabetes or whose child is diagnosed with diabetes: find someone else out there who knows what it’s all about and connect with them. A problem shared is a problem halved? Well, as far as I’m concerned, a “problem” shared stops being a problem and becomes a source of friendship, support, fun and much laughter.

Live long and bolus!

Born 1957
Diagnosed Type One Diabetes 1997
Still thriving 2016

Sunday, 13 November 2016

I Vow to Thee my Country

I Vow to thee my Country is the obvious title for this post. I used to have mixed feeelings about this hymn, feeling that it perhaps glorified war and praised blind obedience. But I was wrong. It speaks eloquently and movingly of the values of those generations from the first half of the 20th Century who gave their lives, or scarred the rest of their lives, so that we who came along later could enjoy the fun, freedom and prosperity which they didn't. It also speaks, in the second verse, of a more noble and ideal kingdom, of which we all dream. And it's a perfect song for this rather different post:

This is a sort of guest post, but an unusual and special one for Remembrance Sunday. It is written by my late Grandfather, Cyril Edward Cyphus (1895 - 1989), because 100 years ago, he was one of tens of thousands of soldiers who were living in that man-made hell called the Western Front. He was 21 years old in 1916, a gentle country boy, born and raised in the village of Littleworth in Oxfordshire, where his mother was the village schoolmistress.

Cyril was a gentle man as well as a gentleman, a church organist by profession. He lived to a great age, so I knew him well, as a thoughtful, cultured and good-humoured man. The last thing I could ever imagine him doing was fighting. Yet he had felt obliged to answer the call of King and country, and so found himself on the Somme, having enlisted earlier in 1916, undergone a brief period of training, and sailed over to France in August 2016.

Here is a picture of him in his army uniform:-

He wrote his memoirs later in life, and described what it was like to live through two World Wars. Of course unlike so many others, he did at least survive, or else my mother, and so I, would never have existed. Here is a very precious picture of him, taken not long before he died, when he met his first great-grand-daughter, my first child Felicity. It features four generations, with a young-looking me and my late mother Margaret:

Whilst serving on the Somme, he contracted trench fever, and was brought home for a period of convalescence. He subsequently volunteered for the Tank Corps, and was back in France as a tank driver for the breakthrough which eventually ended the War. I will post further extracts as later events reach their centenary.

Here is the section describing his life in the trenches during the autumn of 1916:-

"For the next few months my memory is rather hazy which is understandable. Rations did not always reach us at regular intervals. There was one period, I remember, when food did not reach us for about 36 hours. By the time rations reached, us, a little had been taken here and a little there, and in spite of casualties they were always in short supply. Some buildings   at   Arras   remained badly   damaged,   but   in   most of the towns and villages in the area only rubble was left and there was little life.

There had been continuous heavy firing for a long time, and it still went on with no time to clear up the mess or bury the dead. Mules struggled, along carrying their loads with the greatest difficulty, for the roads were full of shell holes, some very deep, and the artillery of both sides was pounding away over our heads.

Occasionally one would come across an arm or a leg half buried as well as dead mules as we proceeded along the communication trench. Rats abounded everywhere. On one occasion I tried to sleep within a few yards of a long range gun and at another time I would be standing on the fire-step in the front line staring out into the darkness and very lights popping up from different directions, so heavy with sleep that the only way to keep awake was to arrange my fixed, bayonet in such a way near my helmet that I was awakened every time I began to nod. Although fraught with danger, looking out into no-mans' land in darkness was such a strain that survival did not seem to matter.

Two hours on the fire-step and four hours in the dug-out at the back of the trench, among the rats was the order of the day - and night - in the front line, but of course one often had to do extended periods as casualties mounted.

Back in the dug-out it was difficult to keep one's food from the rats who would nibble through a canvas haversack in no time. Names like Bapaume, Albert, Frecourt etc., had little meaning for they hardly existed, but the statue of the figure of the Virgin Mary in a horizontal position on the ruins of Albert Cathedral was a well-known land-mark.

There was a network of muddy trenches, the stench being drowned by the smell of chloride, the never-ending sound of guns, large and small, with sporadic bursts of machine-gun fire, and at night, very lights provided a continuous fire-work display. Ours were much inferior to those of the Germans, as was the case of all other material and equipment. Sleep could only be had in snatches. One was so miserable with filth and vermin that only one thought was uppermost in one's mind: a forlorn hope of eventual release. A remarkable sense of humour on the part of the lower ranks particularly made these conditions tolerable, and kept one alive with a glimmer of hope. During these months an extraordinary sense of optimism based on ignorance kept me going.

Early in November 1916, owing to pressure from the public, the authorities in the War Office decided to release some of the soldiers who had been in France since 1914 or 1915 and replace then with NCO’s and men who had been holding safe office jobs in England. These men arrived in the front line having had no training and no experience in trench warfare. One of these NCO’s was put in charge of our section of the line while I was on duty in the front line, and being new to France, he did not understand that there was no place for "red tape" in the front line and this made him unpopular among the men.

I had been put in charge of a gas alarm, in case of gas attack, when I as taken ill with a high temperature.    Now because men so often faked illness by chewing cordite or by other means, little notice was taken of anything but wounds. However it was obvious that I was in a bad way and this new NCO gave me permission to lie down in the dug-out. Soon a young officer came along and asked why there was no-one in charge of the gas alarm. The corporal had omitted to send anyone in my place and would not admit it, and I was hauled before the officer and charged with leaving my post without permission, a serious offence. I was remanded and sent to report to the nearest MO and because of my obviously weak condition, another private was sent with me to carry my rifle and equipment as well as his own and to struggle along two miles of communication trench to the Medical Office where the MO. arranged for me to be driven to the nearest Field Ambulance.

A field ambulance was a group of Nissen huts a safe distance behind the lines which served as a temporary hospital for men with minor ailments who were usually sent back to the front as soon as they were well enough. The beds were covered with three blankets of a dark brown shade which was infested with bugs (or fleas) and there was a staff of RAMC orderlies to attend to us, but not a woman in the camp. The chateau in the grounds provided accommodation for the staff, who lived in comparative luxury.

During the three weeks that I was there, I was entirely isolated from anyone I knew and cut off from means of communication as no letters were forwarded. This was particularly hard for me, because I was there for my 21st birthday and none of the parcels or letters sent to me ever reached me!"

I hope that readers of my blog will appreciate this insight into what Cyril, and thousands like him, went through. Truly, those of us born after these events have nothing to complain about, however "stressful" our lives may seem.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Sa Jeunesse

Sa Jeunesse. Your youth. A French song title for this diabetes-themed post. It's a song wrtten and performed by that incomparable Franco-Armenian nonegenarian chanteur Charles Aznavoura singer-songwriter sadly under-recognised in the English-speaking world. It's a eulogy of youth, and as such is a song tinged with melancholy about the passing of time: the title comes as the end of a refrain that exhorts young people to make the most of their youth while they can: Il faut boire jusqu'à l'ivresse sa jeunesse: drink up your youth until you're drunk on it

Not a bad piece of advice in my view, but I'm more inclined to say enjoy every part of your life, because in many ways, the best is yet to come as well as being in the past.

Aznavour is clearly troubled by the ageing process: some of his best known songs like Hier Encore and La Boheme express the nostalgic regrets of a middle aged man who wishes he was young again, and in so doing, he gives voice to feelings that we all experience to some extent. Where did our life go? It's a theme as old as time itself.

All this came to my mind recently when reading a blog by Amber, one of my gbdoc friends, called Diabetes is an invalid excuse, a cri de coeur from a young person suffering from diabetes burnout. In it, Amber makes reference to the fact that as a teenager she can't easily do what young people want to do - go out, party, stay out late, drink. This got me thinking about the differing burden of diabetes at different ages, an idea which has come into my mind a lot in recent years, as I have got to know so many fellow Type Ones who, unlike me, were diagnosed as children or teenagers. For them, it is very difficult to "drink of the fountain of youth".

I've said it before in blog posts: I feel lucky to have missed diabetes as a child, teenager or young adult, so I am no expert on life as a Type One at those ages. However, it seems to me self-evident that there are multiple extra issues with the condition for those who are diagnosed young. 

For very young children, of course, the issues are for the parents as much as the child. I shudder to think of the worry and heartache felt by parents having to deal with such a fickle condition, and in effect needing to act as the child's pancreas. I entirely understand why a prominent member of the GBDOC, parent of a T1D child, styles herself Understudy Pancreas, and I can well imagine the multiplied worry when a child starts school, or moves from primary to secondary. 

But let's not forget the child! How difficult it must be to be fussed over, to be told not to do this, or be careful when you do that. Childhood has become so risk-averse in modern times, but for the diabetic child there's a whole extra layer of risk, and it's a real risk as well.

Then there's teenagers. Imagine being landed with a condition that inhibits your freedom just at the time in your life when you want to start to express that freedom. Imagine the difficulty of taking over your own testing and insulin dosing after your parents had been doing it. Imagine the daft and often downright nasty things that get said at school to kids who inject themselves, prick their fingers and sometimes start acting strangely. Imagine the extra complications to sleepovers, sport, parties, trips and holidays. And all of this before we even mention the effect of growing up, puberty and hormones. All of it more fraught with complications for girls than boys.

Then for mid and later teens, the expected lifestyle is so fundamentally incompatible with diabetic life that I really feel for them. I wasn't exactly  wild in my Sixth Form and student days, but nevertheless enjoyed my fair share of late nights, missed meals and generally carefree spontaneity. If a young diabetic wants to enjoy drinking and clubbing, the hazards are self-evident. And goodness knows how awkward it must be explaining the injections, or worse still the pump and tubing, to someone on one of your first dates. "Don't touch me there.....you'll rip my tubing off!" "Take your hands off my...Libre!"

Even for younger adults, diabetes is no friend. Busy lives, building a career and setting up home all carry risks, and what about parenthood? I hear many a tale of sleepless nights with new babies made worse by diabetes. And let's not even mention the potential minefield of pregnancy. I so admire the women I know who have trodden that path with diabetes in tow...

I guess what I'm saying is that Type One diabetes is best suited to sedate middle age - which is the age I was when I got it. Through #GBDOC I have in recent years got to know many other Type Ones, nearly all younger than me and the majority of them female. Unsurprisingly, most of them seem to have a more difficult time with diabetes than I normally do, but then I'm a man in my fifties who leads a pretty sedate and largely predictable life. Type One, male and middle age are a good match  I think.

So I guess this post could be termed The Seven Ages of Diabetes. There are, I know, potential problems with every age, and I prefer not to think about my old age and diabetes (imagine becoming forgetful about injections....aaargh!). Perhaps I should just conclude by once again thanking all the Type Ones of every age whom I have got to know through #GBDOC, whose willingness to share their experiences of diabetes has taught me so much about the condition we all share. I salute each and every one of you, whatever your age.

Monday, 26 September 2016

It's Only Words

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me". Well, I'm not so sure. This familiar saying came into my mind when pondering this post featuring my thoughts about an old and over-familiar issue: words and diabetes.

I always like to use song titles for my blog posts, so a 1968 Bee-Gees song, Words, covered more recently by Boyzone, fitted well. "It's only words" says the song, but words are powerful things, and people with an incurable condition get quite upset by ill-chosen words that lead others to misunderstand, under-estimate or even stigmatise their illness. Especially if those careless words come from professional journalists who should know better.

It happens regularly in the media, and the UK's mid-market tabloids have a particularly poor record in this respect. The Daily Mail upset a lot of people with diabetes this last Saturday (24th September 2016) with a sensationalist front-page banner advertising a diet to "beat diabetes" and "save your life"

The article was accompanied by a photo of some attractive women, all of a healthy weight and looking fit and well, having apparently beaten diabetes with diet alone. 

Firstly and most predictably, people from the #gbdoc, an online community dominated by Type Ones, rose up in anger at the failure of the headline to differentiate between Type One and Type Two. My own grumpy and fairly obvious tweet (see below) attracted a good number of likes and re-tweets, with people inevitably taking the Mail to task for failing to differentiate in its headline between the types of diabetes and pointing out the impossibility of a cure for Type One.

We Type Ones have good reason to get upset, because we cope every day with a condition which struck us randomly through no fault of our own. And it was nothing to do with what we ate, how much we exercised and how we lived our lives. It was, quite simply, the fickle finger of fate. Yet time and again, we find our condition misunderstood or confused with the more common Type Two. "Gosh, have you still got diabetes?" said a former boss of mine a few years ago as we sat down to eat and I got out my testing meter and insulin pen. I smiled politely and confirmed that yes indeed, I did still have it, because it's incurable. Other Type Ones will have no doubt shared a similar experience.

However, to get upset that people confuse Type One and Type Two is futile and a little unfair. Before I had diabetes, I didn't know the difference, so why should I expect others to do so now?

The real issue is defining people by a medical condition of whatever kind. Words, labels of any type, are blunt and potentially hurtful instruments. To kid people that they can "beat" diabetes with a diet is a dangerous and misleading claim, which can sell newspapers but has very limited scientific credibility as regards Type Two, let alone Type One. The point is that nobody sets out to be ill with any condition of any kind. Our lifestyle, diet and environment make us prone to all sorts of illnesses, some of which are preventable and curable, some of which aren't. All require medical expertise, creative thinking and the help of new technology, and I for one am very grateful to have access to all of those in varying degrees. Simplistic claims of "miracle cures" and sensationalist generalisations about cause and effect help nobody.

Words, especially printed and online words, are powerful and enduring, and all who trade in them should be aware of and sensitive to their power. This recent article in the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper which likes to think of itself as a responsible broadsheet, contained a number of generalisations and inaccuracies, starting with a monumentaly insensitive headline about "24000 diabetics dying" (just stop for a minute and think what a child newly diagnosed with Type One would have thought on seeing that headline). Quite rightly, it attracted criticism from the diabetic community and the author did not respond graciously to that criticism. And the author concerned was their "Science Correspondent", of whom one might reasonably expect a high standard of research and a good measure of attention to detail.

As the song says: "It's only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away" Very true. Take note if you are a journalist, or even just a user of social media.

Patience.....or patients?

It's an old joke, based like many on the rich supply of homophones in the English language: “You need patience to be a doctor” 😂😂...