Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Columnist’s Life

'Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.'

    Thus wrote George Orwell in his 1946 book, Why I Write. His words will no doubt find support and understanding amongst many readers and writers alike. It might be construed that one raison d'ĂȘtre of newspapers in general is to see through such political rhetoric and bring to the public's attention the hidden aspects and undertones of a news story. That was certainly the reason behind my recent column on the subject of the current reforms to the National Health Service (Scunthorpe Telegraph, Friday 1st April 2011). The article may have appeared on April Fools' Day, but readers of this newspaper are not foolish. Recognising the truth when they read it, the feedback from you in response to that particular article has been considerable.

    All of which leads me to the question as to why I write a column in the first place. Many questions abound in the minds of columnists (at least they do in the brain of this particular one): What purpose does the column serve? Does anyone (apart from my mother) actually read the articles? What should I write about? Do people care what I write about? Are there particular issues that interest people more than others? Those are just some of the thoughts which pass through my brain on a weekly basis as I sit in my cold and draughty garret tapping away at the keyboard.

    The answers to my many and varied questions are less readily accessible than the original queries. It is certainly the case that my editor cares about the subjects I choose; otherwise I would have my copies returned to sender with a red reject stamp accompanied by a large redundancy cheque (do I hear my editor saying 'dream on'?). Ostensibly, my column is supposed to be health-orientated; which on most occasions it succeeds in being, even if it does take a few detours through the world of poetry and literature. However, there, as Shakespeare's Hamlet would say, lies the rub. Whilst many people throughout Northern Lincolnshire have taken the trouble to write or speak to me in person in order to express their views on the column's subject matter, their desires in respect to the future content of the column seems to be quite varied. Some would like to see more on medical politics; others appreciate my occasional attempt at humour, whilst a further group wish I would write more about poetry and literature, even to the extent of requesting that I publish my own poems in the column. Ultimately, my editor has the final say in such matters, and unless I am commissioned to write on a different subject matter, the column has to continue (in respect to my own commission) to be health-orientated. However, I do promise to try and take the occasional meander into other, more erudite pastures to try and satisfy everyone. After all, you, the readers, are the final arbitrators over whether the column is worthwhile and meeting your needs. So, please do keep the feedback coming in and, in turn, I promise to continue burning the midnight oil for you. Meanwhile, a Happy Easter to you all.

First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Easter 2011

Monday, May 30, 2011

Second Thought for the Day

Interviewed by Lucey Jarrett in the ALCS News (Spring 2011), Russell T Davies remarked:

'... gradually I came into contact with writers, and realised they were ordinary people. This was before I realised that they are all, in fact, mad.'

Thought for the Day

A marvellous quote in the ALCS News (Spring 2011):

'The freelance writer is a person who is paid per piece, or per word, or perhaps.'

                        Robert Benchley (1889 – 1945)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Snap a Quill

Whilst in recent conversation with Penny Grubb (www.pennygrubb.com) , crime-writing author and Chair of the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society, I remarked that there ought to be a literary equivalent to the acting world's 'break a leg' salutation when wishing a writer good luck in a forthcoming venture.

The suggestion from Penny was 'snap a quill', which seems wonderfully appropriate.

So, over to the rest of the writing world – who knows, it may be a phrase carried on into the literary centuries to come!

Happy Talk

'What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?'

So begins the famous poem by the Welsh poet, William Davies. There can be no doubt that the lives of many of us are under pressure; not only because of the current economic climate and the (often difficult) changes thereby necessitated at home and within our workplaces, but also through a predilection for the tendency of those living in a western society to squeeze more and more into each day and week, until the months and years become but a passing blur - so much for the 1970s concept that computers (for example) would make life easier for us all, and allow for greater leisure time.

    Holidays are a time when many of us realise the undesirable qualities and true nature of our working lives. It was the topic of leisure that was on William Davies's mind when he penned his 1911 poem. It was also something he took very seriously, living his early adult years as a tramp (I recommend to you the Wikipedia website for a fascinating account of his life). Leisure was also the topic on my mind when I pensively sat overlooking the terraced farm land and distant slopes of the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus last week, where life in the hillside village of Pissouri is still conducted in the slow lane of time. Whilst there, I pondered on the various blessings of my life, some of them immediately tangible; others less so, such as the privileges of being a Freeman of the City of London (it is such a great comfort to know that, should I ever be hanged for treason, it will be by means of a silk-rope: so much easier on a delicate neck).

    Of course, as individuals we have a myriad of ways of finding happiness, and it doesn't need a trip abroad or the quasi-benefits of an archaic preferment to discover happiness within our lives. Being happy and feeling free of stress are often two overlapping concepts. It was therefore interesting to learn about a new campaign recently launched by the likes of the Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, and our own poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Called the Action for Happiness Campaign (http://www.actionforhappiness.org), and drawing on research by the London School of Economics, the campaign aims to encourage and assist the British to rediscover the pleasures to be found in even the most simplest of lives.

    We all know that stress is, in its extreme, bad for our health. However, how many of us make the time within a busy week to sit still for even a short while and reflect on the pleasant aspects of life? Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of the Quaker practice of sitting quietly still for at least one hour per week? For, as William Davies ended by saying: 'A poor life this, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare'.

First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Friday 15th April 2011

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Coffin

I this week discovered that a poem from my first collection was used at a recent funeral.

It is always a momentous occasion to send a piece of work out into the world for public consumption, as one never quite knows how it will be received. It is therefore rewarding to know that some poems subsequently take on a life of their own.

The poem in question is The Coffin, taken from the collection A Journey with Time (ISBN 978-1-4092-2847-9), first published in 2008.

The Coffin

A lifetime encased:

your boundless intellect and

energy, swathed in

a vast cloak of achievement,

simply borne by two trestles.

©Copyright Robert M Jaggs-Fowler 2008

Friday, May 06, 2011

Looking into the tea-leaves

Anyone who has opened a box of Twinings tea will be familiar with the quotations on the inside lid. One is from George Gissing (a 19th century English novelist), who is reputed to have said 'The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind to happy repose'. It is in the spirit of trying to induce even a mild state of euphoria that I am now drinking a large cup of Breakfast Tea whilst writing this article. However, the conversion is proving to be a challenge, and I will explain why.

My medical career began in 1980, when I entered a London medical school with tremendous enthusiasm and the single focus of qualifying and practising medicine. Even then, I knew I wanted to be a GP, despite various professors trying to sway me in other directions. I was one of the lucky ones, having previously gained a place in one of the country's top grammar schools, and then, with the aid of a decent student grant, topped up by a small scholarship award. I was, as the saying goes, upwardly mobile.

    After several years of working a long and arduous passage through a variety of junior hospital jobs (120 hour weeks were the norm), I landed in North Lincolnshire and had the great fortune of being offered a medical partnership. For the major part of the past twenty-one years I have tried to offer a decent quality of service to my patients; many of whom, by virtue of living within a small community, I would now call friends. The long working days and pressured demands have been compensated for by the firm belief that I have been helping others in need and putting something back into society.

    Now, in 2011, the present NHS reforms have overturned my enthusiasm and ideology. Whilst it is true to say that I still enjoy the individual patient-doctor relationships of everyday general practice, the pathway the NHS is now being forced down makes me increasingly look for alternative ways of spending the next decade of my working life. Such a statement comes as a surprise to many who have known me for a long time. However, the truth is, I (and many others on a national basis) fear for the future of general practice in particular and for the future of the NHS in general. Along with a large proportion of my GP colleagues, I can see through the political rhetoric of 'giving GPs the power to run the NHS'. Whilst it is true that we are to be given the responsibility of keeping within restricted budgets (not a bad thing when dealing with tax-payers' money), the exhortations of the Secretary of State for Health that the reforms are going to 'free up GPs to spend more time with patients', 'empower clinicians to make the decisions', 'liberate the NHS', and that 'the majority of doctors support the reforms' are, many of us believe, far from the reality.

    It is true that there are a few doctors who are enthusiastic about the changes. There are slightly more who are pragmatically getting on and trying to make something decent out of the reforms. However, the majority of GPs are disquieted and fearful; certain that the changes will see greater privatisation of NHS services and hospitals, a loss of experienced managers, greater demands on GPs' time in respect to running the service rather than treating patients, increasing pressures to achieve unreachable targets, insufficient money to provide a decent service, closure of some hospitals and surgeries, and ultimately a dismantling of primary care as we know it. Of course, GPs will get the blame when it all goes wrong (nothing new there), whilst those presently in Government, who should carry the responsibility for the wholesale destruction of our national health service, will have moved on to pastures new. In the meantime, it is you, the patients, who will suffer.

If you think I write as a burnt-out fifty-year old GP who can no longer stand the pace, you are quite wrong. However, I am angry, demoralised, and reflectively surprised that I should find myself seriously considering a career change after years of enthusiasm for life in medical practice. I strongly believe that the nation needs to wake up to what is happening before it is too late. Don't swallow the political rhetoric without reading the label; there are some serious side-effects to these present reforms, and many of them are yet to become apparent. Use your wits and start asking questions of your MPs and doctors. Seek out the truth and then decide whether you personally wish to influence the changes before it is too late.

There, I have said my piece. As I drain my cup, I am mindful that Noel Coward once asked 'Wouldn't it be dreadful to live in a country where they didn't drink tea?' I quite agree, although I find myself wishing I hadn't used a tea-bag; a few tea-leaves may have helped decipher the future. As it is, looking at the bottom of my cup, there is nothing there. Then again, perhaps that is also the future of the NHS as we know it...

First published by in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Friday 1st April 2011

The Power of Love

Looking through my writing archives for the month of March, I came across the following article, initially published in my weekly column for...