Archive | March 2016

Madame Hadley’s dancing school

I had an email from a very old friend this morning and I do mean very old (sorry Marjorie). We met when we were four years old you see, which was 81 years ago, and we were both pupils at Madame Hadley’s eccentric dancing school in Streatham. So now I’m going to take you all on a wander down a very ancient memory lane. Please indulge me.

In those days lots of ambitious mothers sent their daughters to dancing schools in the hope that they would turn out to be ‘another Shirley Temple’, who was then at the height of her fame. Schools and newspapers cashed in on the idea. There were lots of headlines about Sutton’s little Shirley Temple, or Southend’s, or Streatham’s. Here’s the Streatham group lined up for a publicity shot in 1935. I remember those outfits very well indeed, they were made of blue silk and decorated in sequins and we all thought we were very grand in them, I think the top hats were made of cardboard but it was the romper suits that impressed us and our mothers.

I have to be truthful and admit that I can’t remember Madame Hadley very well. She had a formidable bosom and red nail varnish on her fingers and sometimes wore a very splendid blue silk dress. But I can remember her calling out the steps as she taught us, ‘Shuffle step, shuffle step, shuffle 1, 2, 3, 4, ONE.’ Don’t ask, I’ve no idea what it means now. But I liked Madame Hadley and she certainly knew a lot about publicity and how to get good ‘shots’ for the papers which duly took them up. I particularly like this one of three of her ‘stars’ crossing Streatham High Road with a policeman to hold up the traffic for us. Important or what?  I was the black cat and my partner the white cat was called Betty Mackie. I can’t think how I remember it, but I do. Where are you now Betty?

Here we are again on a flat roof somewhere posing with part of the troop around us. I’ve no idea where it was, probably a block of flats, there are certainly a lot of buildings behind us. I wonder now what happened to them during the Blitz. The outbreak of the war was a mere four years away when those pictures were taken. Most of us left the group when we were evacuated and I don’t know what happened to it afterwards. Everything changed and changed quickly. Such is war.


Let me tell you a story

as Max Bygraves used to say. There’s been so much on social media about what is happening to the NHS that I thought it about time I shone the light on an excellent hospital run by a superlative matron and just by way of contrast on another and quite different hospital unit run by a bully.

But to begin at the beginning. Three years ago, I took a rather spectacular fall backwards down an embankment at Arundel and broke my pelvis. The place where I fell wasn’t exactly the best location from which the paramedics could retrieve me, being in a watermeadow surrounded by trees alongside the river. The three paramedics who came to rescue me were kind, skilled and extraordinarily strong, which was just as well because they had to carry me up the embankment, over a style and along a footpath. It was quite a palaver but they gave me morphine to dull the pain and encouraged me all the way. At the local hospital I was diagnosed with a broken pelvis and watched over all night in a ward along side the A&E department. The kindness and care of all the staff was superb.

The next morning, though, my troubles began. There was no bed for me in that hospital nor in my local hospital in Bognor, so I was sent by ambulance to another hospital in Midhurst. It was a culture shock. I’d not been there more than an hour before I was visited in the ward by two nurses in a stripy uniform who told me quite clearly that their job was ‘not to help me’ but ‘to help me help myself.’ Sadly, I soon discovered that they meant exactly what they said. I was lifted off the stretcher, put in a wheelchair and left. And as there was nothing else to do I watched what was going on and took notes.

The ward was run by a brisk sister who rushed through the ward at regular intervals, looking fierce and not taking any notice of anyone in it. Her nurses followed her example. They didn’t even say very much to us when they pushed us down to the dining room for our lunch. It was without exaggeration the most repellent meal I’d ever eaten, or tried to eat. I discovered later that the food was prepared and cooked in a factory in Wales and heated up in a microwave. I ate what I could of the main course and was then told to pick a sweet and given a choice of three things, all of which were full of sugar – which I don’t eat being diabetic. I tried to explain to the sister but it just made her cross, ‘Well,’ she said ‘you’ll just have to have a diabetic sweet, that’s all,’ and brisked away to find one. It was a pre-packaged jelly with bits of fruit in it. Knowing how careful I have to be with sweets I read the contents and found, rather as I expected, that it was sweetened with Canderel. So the next time the sister came rushing past our table I told her I couldn’t eat that either because Canderel gave me the runs. She was extremely cross with me. ‘You’re so clever!’ she sneered. ‘I can see we are going to have trouble with you.’ From then on she had me in her sights.

The next morning when I had a bowl of water put on the bedside table beside me so I could wash, she arrived and instructed me that I was to tell my family to bring me in some soap. ‘I don’t like scroungers,’ she said. ‘You can’t expect us to provide soap.’ It was the first time I’d heard the word ‘scrounger’ used to a patient and tried to tell her that I’d been brought into hospital straight from the field where I had fallen and hadn’t had time to go home to get a sponge bag and soap. But she walked away without listening.

That night the other two patients in my ward were in difficulties. One had, had a stroke and couldn’t speak although she struggled to try and tell people what was wrong. The other who’d talked to me very sensibly during the day became a different person at night, getting up and stripping the bed and moving the furniture over and over again. The night staff who said they came from ‘Team medical’ were very kind and patient and put her back to bed every time she got up. They tried to talk to the stroke patient and they lifted me out of my bed so that I could use the commode. Absolute dears. But in the morning bossy boots was back snarling and snapping and disapproving of everybody. By that time I was noticing that her staff were very wary of her and didn’t want to do or say anything to make her cross. In short, she was a bully. On my second day I asked to be sent to Bognor.

It took three days before a bed was found for me there and I never was so glad of anything in the whole of my life, because the difference between the two places was quite mind-blowing. I was greeted at the front door by two nurses and a matron and taken up to a ward, undressed and lifted into a bed most gently and given painkillers and settled for the night. From then on there was always somebody to lift me in and out of bed and push me down to the toilets and the wash-room and sit and talk to me and generally look after me. On my second day there, the matron arrived by my bedside to ask me how I was and when she’d discovered  that I was settled in and I’d told her how kind her staff were being, she asked me if there was anything else I needed.

‘Well,’ I said ‘I don’t suppose this is possible, but I’d love a shower.’

She gave me a big smile ‘that’s perfectly possible,’ she said ‘come on, I’ll give you one’. And she did, the matron herself, washing me very gently, shampooing my hair, even drying it afterwards. I felt like a new person. I was in that hospital for 3 weeks and had plenty of time to see how her care and compassion for her patients permeated the entire hospital. She was and I’m sure still is, a star and she showed what an enormous difference leadership makes in any organisation. Respec’!








Gobbeldegook, Newspeak and downright lies

I better warn you right at the start that this blog has fangs. It’s about the hideous way the Government has persuaded the electorate that the NHS is seriously in debt and has to make cut-backs, and the way they’ve implied it’s because the NHS has been overspending. That is simply not true. Our NICs and taxes have been handed over to private suppliers and not given to the NHS as they should have been and were designed to be. The NHS is seriously in debt – it has a £22 billion black hole so we’re told- but this has been deliberately caused by Government action. The closure of A&E departments was deliberate and led to the remaining A&E’s being put under greater pressure then they had the means to cope with. And I’m using the word ‘deliberate’ advisedly.

Bit of necessary history now because there is nothing new about this, it’s been planned for a very long time. A secret plan to privatise our NHS was given expression as long ago as 1968, when a man called Arthur Seldon – who later became Thatcher’s privatisation policy advisor – wrote a pamphlet called ‘After the NHS.’ He was followed later by Letwin and Redwood who wrote their privatisation manifesto in 1988 and called it ‘Britain’s Biggest Enterprise: ideas for radical reform of the NHS’.  I bet very few of you have heard of either of these publications. It’s all been very carefully hidden from us voting plebs, but it’s there if we can find out where to look for it and we know what the words mean.

For a start the weasel word ‘reform’ always means privatisation when it is uttered by a Tory politician. It is Newspeak and this Government is very good at it and very good at smokescreens. When they say for example that they are going to shut 34 ‘DGH’s’ what they are talking about are your district general hospitals. They think their use of capital letters will veil the truth. There is a new weasel word about nowadays too, which is being much mouthed. It is ‘devolution’ and what it means is ‘denationalised’. They are hoping we won’t notice that either. But we are getting wise to you kids!

The times are changing. Junior Doctors are now out on the streets telling it like it is. They know that their NHS is being starved of funds to put money into the pockets of rich, private medical organisations and they also know that they’re being deliberately blamed for it. They don’t like it and have finally turned.

The ambulance services are under pressure too and are saying so because parts of their service has been handed out to private tender and the genuine NHS ambulance services that are left can’t cope with the increased demands that they now have to contend with.

The 999 service has been deliberately diluted by having a large part of it handed over to 111 which is run privately and with a totally untrained staff, whose only ability is to fill in the forms they’ve been given by their bosses. Everywhere you look you will see signs of private profit being put before public need.

I will say again what I’ve said before. You cannot be half pregnant, you either are or you aren’t. If you’re going to have a health service geared to providing help at the point of need in the way our NHS was always intended, you cannot allow part of it to be private and therefore dominated by the need to make a profit. Need and greed are incompatible.

This entry was posted on March 17, 2016. 8 Comments

Six degrees of separation

Six degrees of separation or poetry and dum-dum bullets part 2.

This is going to sound like a very unlikely story, but I just can’t resist telling it.

A fortnight ago I had an email from an old pupil saying thank you to me for giving her “a love of literature and language which has been a life long gift” I was thrilled to bits with it, wrote back to tell her and thank her and then wrote a blog about it.

Now this morning I’ve had another email from my pupil which has blown my mind. I should tell you at the start that her married name is Rickard, although she had signed herself originally with her maiden name by which I knew her at school. Now she has taken our story a surprising stage further, she sent me two photographs and both of them fairly jumped out of the email at me.

The first was a face I recognised at once, because it belonged to a very old and valued friend. His name was Derek Rickard and he was my right hand man when I was secretary of the Streatham CND Group back in the sixties. He’d been a conscientious objector during the war and had been sent to prison where he’d been treated rather badly, although he never said much about it.

When I knew him, he was a passionate member of CND helping to organise our
local group on its annual trip from Aldermaston to London, handing out leaflets of a Saturday morning, delivering newspapers, entirely and wonderfully dependable. He was one of the most principled men I’ve ever met and it turns out that the man Sally Cooper married was his nephew.

Hows that for the six degrees of separation? The sad part of the story is that he died some years ago, but the second surprise of the email was that Sally had found a picture of the two of us at his funeral. To say this has made my day is putting it ridiculously mildly.

This entry was posted on March 16, 2016. 3 Comments

About ducks and Dumbo

Yes, that really is a duck perching on my roof, I didn’t believe it either the first time I saw it. How could a web-footed bird possibly land on a narrow, tiled ridge? I thought elderly decay was setting in and that I was seeing things but no, the next time I looked it wasn’t just one duck but three! A duck and two drakes. I watched them fly down into my garden and reconnoitre the fish pond – at that point in the ponds history it was yet to be visited by a heron and wasn’t netted – so they took possession, swam happily about and stirred up all the mud.

The next year, they were back again although this time they encountered the net, because my fish had encountered the heron, who made a hearty breakfast of them.

As time has gone by my neighbours and I have all got quite used to them and we greet their arrival as a sign of Spring! But I still haven’t worked out how on earth they managed to land and to keep their balance. It makes me think of the song in Walt Disney’s film Dumbo, “Ah think Ah’ll ha’ seen everything, when Ah see a elephant fly”. And it reminds me of Obama’s wonderful slogan during that first election campaign “Yes we can!”

Or to put it another way, you never know what you’re capable of until you try. Very encouraging creatures ducks and flying elephants.


This entry was posted on March 11, 2016. 2 Comments

How to breed a bully

Leo Tolstoy writing to Mohandas Gandhi during a long and fascinating correspondence, quoted a well known truth “It is natural for men to help and to love one another, but not to torture and to kill one another.” It is something that puzzled these two great men. If compassion and mutual assistance is natural, as it plainly is, how is it that there are men and women about who take delight in abuse, torture and killing. 

I think some of the answers to the enigma can be found in a book first published in 1857 (yes, seriously). They are as true now as they were when it was written, for the book is a blueprint for how to produce an elitist and a bully. It is called ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ by Thomas Hughes and it is set in the Rugby, the school he attended himself. So how is this transformation achieved, from a child who could be caring and loving to one who will prefer torturing and belittling?

The rules are really quite straightforward and depend very largely on an existing class system. Right at the start of the book the coach driver taking young Tom to school enlivens the journey by telling him about a fight between a group of Rugby scholars whom he calls “the young genl’m’n” and a group of Irish navvies whom he calls “reg’lar roughs”. The distinction is significant for he and the boys and Tom himself all accept that these are two completely different sets of human beings and that the ones from Rugby are superior. He is delighted when he hears that their leader has called out to his gang, ‘Let the Pats have it about the ears’. A derogatory term you see. It is the way these superior young men refer to a class they consider lower than their own. Oiks, plebs, shirkers, benefit cheats, the terms are many and varied but they always imply inferiority. The fight the coach man describes was as unpleasant on one side as the other. As a writer, I would call both gangs ‘louts’, certainly not ‘genl’m’n’ and ‘plebs’. But the idea of this uniformed superiority is deep seated. Just take a look at this picture of Eton boys arrogantly looking away from a group of working class kids who are gazing at them in amazement and you will see it in essence.

A posh uniform is a necessary ingredient to the process, but what had also been done to these superior boys to make them feel it is quite in order to push other humans around and hurt them.

Well for a start they’d been sent away from home to boarding school, when they were much too young and very vulnerable and afraid, and with good reason. For there were bigger boys to bully and hurt them and a master with a cane to correct them and they were on their own amongst strangers, grieving for home, where they would have at least of had a more or less sympathetic nanny to comfort them and feeling totally lost. Many learnt young that one way to avoid being hurt is to play the clown (think Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt) and they certainly had to acquire a stiff upper lip, because showing you are afraid makes you more vulnerable to bullies.

From this situation, the little boys were sent to prodigious public schools like Rugby and Eton. In Tom Brown’s day, newcomers were caned by the bigger boys, who were given the job of looking after them and were called “prepostors”. They were aptly named because their behaviour really was preposterous. Not only did they cane, but they tossed the newcomers in a blanket until they hit the ceiling. It was very frightening, as Tom Brown observed, describing “the feeling of utter helplessness and leaving his whole inside behind him sticking to the ceiling” but he had already learnt to understand that “What your real bully likes in tossing is when the boys kick and struggle, or hold on to one side of the blanket and so get pitched bodily on the floor; it’s no fun to him when no one is hurt or frightened.”

Later on in the book the worst bully in the school who is called Flashman holds Tom so close to the fire that it scorches his legs. The child does not complain. It is not the done thing. You endure being hurt because you have understood that eventually you will be a ‘big boy’ and can hurt in your turn or to put this in another way, your ability to be compassionate and loving is steadily being destroyed. It is an appalling indictment of an appalling education system. And it turns out one generation after another of wealthy, elitist, arrogant, uniformed thugs. Take a look at these guys, in their fancy superior uniforms.

What can we do about it, we ordinary, compassionate, loving plebs?


This entry was posted on March 9, 2016. 4 Comments

Poetry and dum-dum bullets

Earlier this week, I had an unexpected email from a girl I taught in a London grammar school, way back in the sixties. She’d had an email message suggesting that she thank a teacher and she was thanking me. I asked her if I could use part of her letter in this blog and she said of course, so here it is:

“I remember you getting us to move all the desks in the classroom, so we could act out the required Shakespeare texts and setting up a poetry club, encouraging us to write our own verses. I vividly remember, and can recite to this day the verse ‘your baby as gorn darn the plug ‘ole’ Perhaps not a good example of fine literature, but an example of the fun that we had in your class. So thank you for instilling a love of literature and language in me which has been a life long gift.”

I felt like cheering. No tell the truth, I actually did cheer because she’d given words to what I always believed was the most important thing about being a teacher, that learning should be fun. The ‘Plug ‘ole’ poem was a deliberate part of it. I used it every time I had a class who’d had “good” poetry pushed down their throats until they were fed up to the back teeth with it. I used to tell my polite but disgruntled pupils that we were going to have a poetry wallow. Their homework was to bring any poem or verse that they’d found fun and enjoyed, nursery rhymes, rude rhymes – they loved rude poems – and I recited the ‘Plug ‘ole’ to them as an example of what I meant. It always worked like a charm. So here it is in full:

Dahn The Plug-‘ole

A muvver was barfin’ ‘er biby one night,

The youngest of ten a tiny young mite,

The muvver was pore and the biby was thin,

Only a skelington covered in skin;

The muvver turned rahnd for the soap orf the rack,

She was but a moment, but when she turned back,

The biby was gorn; and in anguish she cried,

‘Oh, where is my biby?’ – the Angels replied:

‘Your biby ‘as fell dahn the plug-‘ole,

Your biby ‘as gorn dahn the plug;

The poor little thing was so skinny and thin

‘E oughter been barfed in a jug;

Your biby is perfectly ‘appy,

‘E won’t need a barf any more,

Your biby ‘as fell dahn the plug-‘ole,

Not lorst, but gorn before!’

So what about those dum-dum bullets?  When they got older and were beginning to develop their own tastes in poetry and often to write verses of their own, I told my classes that poetry was like a dum-dum bullet which surprised them, because in the reality of the first world war, they were hideous weapons. They entered the body and then expanded, doing appalling damage. But a powerful poem does much the same thing, only in an entirely positive and joyous way. It enters your mind, sings through your senses and expands endlessly. If it’s a really good one you never lose the joy and understanding you get from it.

As my lovely ex-pupil said “a love of literature and language which has been a life long gift.”






This entry was posted on March 4, 2016. 2 Comments

I’ve had a message from the Government

Or at least I think it’s a message from the Government. The headline across the top of the paper certainly says ‘Government responded to
the petition you signed.’ As well they might. It was a very clearly expressed petition. ‘The government has no mandate to privatise the NHS and should cease immediately.’ We couldn’t have put it more succinctly. But I was a little surprised that someone from the Government should actually have answered it.

There were no surprises in what they said. Their answer was a standard piece of government propaganda and obeyed Dr Goebbels rules to the letter. ‘If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big one’ the great Doctor said, and low and behold they started off with a very big one. ‘The Government is not privatising the NHS.’ Well, well, well. So what have all those demonstrations been about, the ones demanding that local A&E’s should be kept open and not closed and the enormous and angry demonstrations by junior doctors with their wonderful, biting placards?

Those of us in the know have been aware of their intentions to demolish our NHS for a very long time. A certain Mark Britnell let the cat out of the bag about their intentions long before they were first elected, speaking at a conference in America run by the 20 billion dollar private equity firm Apax Partners, he promised that ‘In future the NHS will be a state insurance provider not a state deliverer.’ You can’t put it any clearer than that. He then went on to advise
his audience that, if they wanted to make a killing from the breakup and sale of the NHS, the best time to do it would be in the first two years of a new Tory government.

So here we are almost 6 years down the line and the demolition of the NHS is well under way, and even this ‘Government response’ admits it, although in such a way that they plainly hope we are not going to understand what they are saying. ‘The NHS Support Federation claims that £13 billion worth of contracts have been advertised between April 2013 and April 2014,’ they say blandly and go on to point out that ‘This represents a very small proportion of NHS spending of approximately £112 billion.’ or, as they put it in other words ‘ only 6.3% of total NHS spend’ and they don’t explain how much of it has gone to private providers. That 6.3% amounts to £7 billion. And it’s OUR money, that has come from our NIC and our taxes to pay for OUR NHS. Can you see the feathers I’m spitting?

Is it any surprise that our doctors have taken to the streets? There’s a price to pay for this privatisation and it’s being paid in local hospitals and surgeries up and down the country. They are being deliberately deprived of the cash they need, they’ve had to watch as A&E’s and maternity wards were closed and doctors, nurses and support staff were laid off. And as if that weren’t bad enough, they are now being blamed for what is happening. It’s no wonder they’re exhausted and demoralised and are leaving the profession in droves.

This entry was posted on March 3, 2016. 3 Comments