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Brother Mark is a pseudonym of The Reverend Dr Robert Jaggs-Fowler, a clergyman, physician, writer and poet. His biography can be found at: www.robertjaggsfowler.com

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reminiscences on a Train


It is raining.
Flecks on the glass become droplets,
coalesce into rivulets, turn horizontally
and gather pace as
the train outraces the rain.

The shower becomes a downpour,
then a storm. Spouts of water
bounce off passing streets; torrents 
gush from downpipes, overpowering gutters, 
converting roads to rivers. And 

with each moment the scenery changes;
the years roll back, until I sense the
cold, biting wind of a Yorkshire dale;
your hood-framed face smiling through
a curtain of dripping water.

I hear, too, the wind raging around
a cliff-top cottage on Lundy Isle,
as you sip wine by candlelight;
and I sense the humidity as you shower
outside amidst the heat of a Maldivian storm.

With every cloudburst, the dust
of the years is washed away, revealing
memory after memory until the
scene settles on two stone steps
within a Lincoln doorway, framing

an umbrella,
and two people, twenty years younger;
and I know the intensity of that
rain-soaked moment when
I knew.

© Copyright Robert M Jaggs-Fowler 2011

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Growing up is hard to do


I think the line ‘growing up is very hard to do’ was part of the lyrics from the song ‘Heart of Gold’ by The Kinks (a 1960s London rock band, for those who think history is anything that happened before 1980). If having an octogenarian father who believes he is a perpetual teenager wasn’t enough proof of that proclamation, three recent conversations most certainly proved the point.

The most recent involved a professional conversation with an eighty year old lady, who declared upon leaving my consulting room that there was nothing wrong with her that a young man couldn’t fix. Unfortunately for that particular spirited lady, the local NHS budget doesn’t presently run to the provision of such therapies; at least not at present, but who knows what may be round the corner with the new Health and Social Care Bill?

Reversing in time, the second conversation was one overheard in a village pub in the Yorkshire Dales last week. Please picture two octogenarian men, both wearing cloth caps and tweed jackets, sitting at a small wooden table, and each supping a pint. In walks a third such character, with a profusion of hair protruding from beneath his cap and obscuring his collar.
           
‘You need a haircut, George.’
           
‘I had one last September,’ came the reply.

‘Just how old do you think you are?’

‘76 next birthday.’

‘Ah, a mere youngster. That’ll explain it then.’

However, those two conversations just added to what I had already perceived closer to home one month ago. The occasion was dinner with a friend, who is normally a respectable, suited, high-powered business man. For the sake of clarity, he is in his forties and I am in my fifties. We were dining in a rather splendid establishment in East Yorkshire when the conversation turned to an ‘App’ called ‘Foursquare’ that one can download for mobile telephones and other such devices. It allows the user to ‘check-in’ to wherever they are. This in turn allows their friends to keep track of their whereabouts. Points are gained for every ‘check-in’, and there is a table ranking one’s friends in respect to their week’s activity. In addition, if you have checked in the most times to a particular location, you become the ‘Mayor’ of that establishment; a fact that is then made known to the entire electronic world via Twitter, Facebook and any other social networking facility available. It is rather pointless and somewhat childish. It is also exceedingly good fun, and had us both near to hysterical laughter; especially when my friend discovered that I am now the Mayor of the Elsham Railway Crossing and also the Barton Recycling Plant.

Traditionally, 18 is considered to be the age we become adults. However, a survey by the financial company Scottish Widows concludes that we are more and more delaying taking on the roles and responsibilities of adulthood. Apparently, half the population didn’t feel like responsible adults until they were 25. More intriguingly, 49% of those who don’t presently feel like a grown-up think they will never do so.

The population of our country may be an ageing one, but it would seem that there is proof that the aged are getting younger, in mind as well as in body. As Bernard Baruch (American presidential adviser) wrote in Newsweek in 1955, ‘To me old age is always fifteen years older than I am’. It would appear that his concept has firmly crossed the Atlantic.

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday 29th March 2012)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Book of Genesis Guide to Pensions


I recently set myself the challenge of reading the entire Bible in preparation for a Master’s degree in Spirituality, Theology and Health.  Of course, I have read it through before; twice in fact; once when I was in my teens and again in my twenties. Thereafter, I have only dipped in and out according to need or the time of year. This time I am aided by a version called the Bible in One Year, which neatly divides it into 365 manageable chunks.

The first thing that struck me as I commenced my literary marathon, apart from being reminded of the difficulty presented by certain Hebrew names, is that Old Testament characters lived to an astonishing age. For example, we are told that Adam lived 930 years and Noah managed 950 years. Abraham only managed 175 years, but that is still fairly good going by today’s standards. Theologians will no doubt be able to explain this in scholarly terms. However, having read the latest dietary advice from HM Government, I have developed a theory of my own; but more of that later.

There is an old saying that proclaims ‘you are what you eat’, and we increasingly have the evidence to support such a bold statement. Few of us now cannot know that we should avoid unsaturated fats, reduce our cholesterol intake, increase dietary fibre, eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, moderate our alcohol consumption, and stop smoking if we hope to live to a healthy old age. It seems that the maxim ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ is no longer enough for the modern era.

The latest exhortation from Westminster is that many of us still eat too much red meat. Of course, red meat has featured in the British diet for generations. Roast beef, lamb shank, steaks, sausages, bacon, burgers; they all feature high on the communal list of our nation’s favourite dishes. Changing such entrenched habits can take a lifetime. However, the truth is, not to do so can also cost a lifetime. The evidence is mounting, and in today’s parlance, carnivores are not cool.

The proof is in a paper recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers studied 100,000 people over a 28 year period. In so doing, they came to the conclusion that every 3oz of red meat eaten each day increased the risk of dying from cancer by 10% and heart disease by 18%. Processed meat holds even greater risks: for every two slices of bacon or one hot dog, the risk rises to 16% in respect to cancer and 21% for heart disease.

Scientists have for a long while studied what is generally known as the Mediterranean Diet, and have shown that this may well hold the secret to good health and longevity. Rich in fish, chicken, beans, nuts, fruit and low-fat dairy products, the Mediterranean diet does not contain a high percentage of red or processed meat; which brings me back to the Book of Genesis.

We know from the Bible that the diet of 4,000 years ago was typically composed of fruit, grains and fish; the ‘fatted calf’ was a precious commodity and as such was only killed on religious feast days and for other special celebrations. In essence, the likes of Adam, Noah and Abraham followed an ancient version of the Mediterranean Diet. Now, Biblical scholars may well show that there are disparities in the way they measured and recorded time in those days. However, one thing is for certain, the health of our early ancestors certainly seems to have prospered in the absence of a diet rich in red meat. It has just taken us a long while to remember that fact. So, if the Government wants us all to change our habits, perhaps the pension companies should also be warned to adjust their actuarial tables and take into account the Old Testament effect.

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 22nd March 2012)

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Space


It all started when I looked up to a clear night sky this week and was captivated by the proximity of Jupiter and Venus; two very bright planets surrounded by a myriad of small stars in a black sky of nothing much else. That led me to thinking about the subject of space, both in terms of the universe, and also at a more down-to-earth level in respect to the space between us as individuals; that ‘area of unoccupied ground’ as the Oxford English Dictionary describes it.

Space is very important; it gives structure and meaning to things. For example, without the small spaces between these words, you would not be able to easily read what I have written. Art galleries use space to display their works of art in a manner which can be appreciated; small objects often have a vast area between them and the next artefact, and this emphasises the beauty or intricacy of the item concerned. We also see space utilised in public, often with large garden areas, squares or parkland around important buildings in order to accentuate the grandeur of those buildings.

As individual human beings we also have a need for space. Whether it is the space around your favourite chair at home, your desk in the office, the nominated area of the car-park with your name on it, or that bit of the beach temporarily claimed for your family, we cherish those defined areas and easily become perturbed if something happens to erode that personal territory.

For humans, psychological spaces are equally important. Most of us understand that ill-defined distance that needs to be kept between two strangers if we are not to appear threatening to, or to feel threatened by, the other person. Being invited into that personal space is a sign of accepted friendship and increased intimacy. A hug or a kiss requires crossing that no-man’s land between you; a process which, in its infancy, is often a highly charged moment whilst each person weighs up the other person’s reaction to the apparent intrusion.

However, the opposite is also true. When people are too tightly bound to each other, it is possible for one or both to feel constrained and restricted; we speak of ‘breaking free’ from a relationship, or use phrases such as ‘I need some space’. It is notable that the dictionary also defines space as the ‘freedom and scope to live and develop as one pleases’. In ‘The Prophet’, the Syrian writer Kahlil Gibran, considering the subject of marriage, said ‘let there be spaces in your togetherness’. Just as with trees in a forest, human beings need space to grow and develop within a relationship. We also need space to be seen as the individuals we all are; just as with the objets d’art in the art gallery, or important public buildings.

Yet, though space is important, it can also work against us and cause social divide. The act of inviting someone into your space can be an important act of friendship. Such actions can even help to break down barriers between cultures and communities, and help to remove a sense of isolation that people often feel in the most crowded of places. Reaching out to someone from a different culture or social background, making contact across that psychologically dividing space, can have a profound impact and change lives for the better. ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ wrote St Matthew in the Bible (chp.25, v35).

So, just a few moments of staring into a night sky led to several hours of re-evaluation as to how I see and treat the space around me. Do I have enough personal space to psychologically grow, and do I allow sufficient space around others that they might do likewise? Am I too protective of my space, erecting barriers to keep people out of it? Do I do enough to welcome people into my space? These are important questions if harmony is to exist within our lives and relationships. Space may be an area of emptiness, but I suggest that it is also one of our most valuable commodities, being worthy of our respect and consideration.

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 15th March 2012.)

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Ultimate Charitable Donation

For many years, I have had the great fortune to travel widely in the world. However, on several continents I have very sadly been witness to a dissonant contrast between rich and poor within the same country. The scale of such poverty is fortunately far beyond what we now see within our own country, and almost has to be seen to be believed.

What has often struck me most in such situations is the manner in which the richer members of the given society almost blindly ignore their starving, ill and dying neighbours. Although opulent wealth, mansion-style houses, serviced swimming pools and expensive cars sit cheek-by-jowl with crowded slum dwellings in shanty-style townships, there is little evidence of organised relief from the rich to the poor. It is almost as though the high walls and fences that divide the two disparate populations form an invisibility cloak, allowing the poor to see the rich, but not the converse. As a result, the rich throw large quantities of unwanted, but perfectly edible, food away, not thinking to donate it to their neighbours and thereby perhaps salvage a human life or two. Meanwhile, the poor and destitute can only look on with pleading eyes and outstretched hands; watching helplessly, whilst what they need most is wasted and ruined in landfill sites or rubbish incinerators.

Sometimes the distressing images are shown on our television screens, albeit sanitised by distance and, quite significantly, the lack of smell. The immediate impact on our senses and emotions is therefore reduced. However, we still usually profess a sense of indignant shock, fuelled by the sight and knowledge of what is happening; often with a profound sense of disquiet and a resultant desire to help.

To our shame there is a poignant analogy in this country, which we choose to ignore. For us, it is not so much food that is blatantly thrown away in sight of those who are desperate for help in saving their lives; it is our bodies – our hearts, livers, lungs and kidneys; organs that are of no use to us once we have finished with them, but could be the difference between life and death for our still living, but seriously ill neighbours. Instead, many of us ignore their pleas for help and choose to bury perfectly good, functional organs in cemeteries or submit them to the incinerators of the crematoria. The analogy between our actions and the foreign scenes described above cannot be ignored.

In the UK alone, there is a 7,800-strong transplant waiting list. Sadly, every year some 400 people die in A&E departments without attempts being made to utilise their organs. Even sadder is the 35% refusal rate amongst families who are asked if their loved one’s organs can be retrieved. However precious that person was in life, their organs are no longer any use to them; but they could save the lives of up to four or more other people. Not to offer the organs to those in need is akin to throwing away a decent meal in front of a starving man.

As a result, the BMA has re-opened the debate on whether organ donation should be made compulsory, with the possibility of keeping dead bodies artificially ventilated until the organs can be retrieved. Clearly, this is a controversial move and will no doubt spark an intense ethical debate. It is, however, a debate that is urgently needed. Shamefully, many more of us say that we would be willing to receive a donated organ than would be prepared to donate our organs after death. That is a disparity which has to be morally wrong and we need to work hard and fast to alter our society’s double-standard and ensure that our own death gives life to those who still have a chance to live. Society may not be ready for the BMA’s debate, but it is one which is long overdue and must be had. After all, organ donation is the ultimate in charitable giving. For more information call the donor line on 0300 123 23 23 or go online to http://www.uktransplant.org.uk

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 8th March 2012.)