I want change

December 31st is usually the time we think about resolutions, things we want to do or changes we want to make for the future but April 3rd also seems as good a time as any.  After 321 days of breast cancer, 130 days undergoing various treatments (to date, medical interventions aren’t finished yet),  277 days of stress and worry as to how I’d provide for my dependants during and after treatment (to date, livelihood interventions aren’t finished yet either), some of the people I considered friends abandoning me and my family being thrown into crisis that will leave everyone with scars I want change.

I live in a so-called modern first-world country, part of the Western wonderlands where breaches of human rights, homelessness, poverty, discrimination, malnutrition and persecution are all supposed to be so frightfully awful that they couldn’t possibly happen here.  l live in a country that shakes its head and tut-tuts at China, Syria and Pakistan. My country needs to learn the saying “people who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones.”

While I was in Bristol last week I saw more homeless people than I’d seen since the 1980’s. These were not the New Age Traveller kind of nomadic homeless, they were people in late middle age, of pensionable age or older. Several of them were older women carrying everything they owned in a bin liner and a few Tesco carriers that had also seen better days. One of the women was almost blind – cataracts she said – as the assistant in the coffee stall sorted through a small collection of copper coins that wasn’t enough to buy the coffee. She gave it to the old, blind woman anyway with a smile that asked ‘how did this happen to you?’  I was pleased to witness some human compassion at an individual level because the temperature that evening was -3c by 7pm with windchill taking it down to -8c. Afterwards I wondered if the coffee cart girl would be in trouble with her boss for her small act of kindness or if she’d make up the shortfall in takings from her own purse. I suspect the latter. People cannot afford to be out of work in the current climate since even those who have paid into the system for most if their adult lives receive little or nothing in return when hard times befall them.  Being out of work and out of luck is the most likely reason I saw so many older homeless people last Thursday evening.

Whenever there’s a recession and unemployment figures rise the behaviour of employers changes too. A friend of mine was made redundant at the end of last year. He’s a bright guy with plenty of high-tech experience to offer and a young family to support. Although he’s attended several interviews, he told me the process for every vacancy is long and drawn out. The time from application to interview can be months rather than weeks and companies are asking candidates to attend upwards of five interviews with different people over anything up to three months before responding to say they’ve changed their mind and won’t be taking the vacancy forward at this time. Another friend of mine was made redundant 2 years ago, she too is bright and well skilled. After a year searching for work she took up a contract post but that too is now coming to an end. She fears the market is in a worse position today than it was when she took up her contract and with no other source of income she isn’t sure how she’ll continue to pay her mortgage.

As a breast cancer patient it seems I’m expected to take care of myself, (there has been very little support outside the standard medical activity), continue to provide for my dependants including my teenaged son whose student loan falls more than £2k short of his accommodation costs let alone providing any money for his food, transport, books, etc., pay all my bills on time and in full, remain positive about the future (because being anything other than positive is bad when you have cancer) and remain hopeful that everything will be alright in the end.

Normally I’m positive, I seem to be wired up that way however there are some very cold and harsh realities of being a cancer patient in my modern first-world country in 2013 as follows:

  • there is significantly limited / no help available whether that’s psychological support, help with normal household activities (eg gardening, cleaning), getting to and from hospital appointments, etc.
  • the best drugs aren’t made available until you’ve suffered the worst side effects because they’re too expensive to provide upfront
  • employers attitudes to people with cancer vary greatly and it’s not just small companies who treat people disgracefully. A cancer patient has as much chance of securing alternative employment as a snowflake in hell.
  • having cancer is expensive. There are items cancer patients need to buy to take care of themselves and they cost money. Eating healthily, plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and avoiding junk/processed food is more expensive than eating supermarket ready meals.
  • the need for psychological and emotional support isn’t just the domain of the patient, their family also need support and it is rarely if ever forthcoming.

I want change. Not just for cancer patients but for everyone who has paid into the system and appears to get nothing in return. I want to see the elder folk of my country with roofs over their heads, warms beds and food in their stomachs, not living rough on the streets. I want future generations of cancer patients to be given the best drugs without having to suffer hideous side effects first because the drugs are too expensive so patients are treated like guinea pigs. I want employers to act responsibly and with some degree of integrity – remember cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke can strike anyone,  you could be next so consider how you might like to be treated before trampling all over today’s patients. I want professional psychological and emotional support to be available to people and their families for a nominal cost – not £40 – £60 per session as it stands today and I want supermarkets to consider their role in promoting a healthier society, one that will live longer and thus contribute to their profits for longer, by making healthy foods available without scandalous levels of mark-up. Start working with local farmers and you’ll help the national economy as well as reducing your air freight costs and offering fresher produce in store.

Already I can hear the politicians screaming “but these are difficult times, the country cannot afford all this.” And to that I say bollocks. We spend c.£39bn on defence plus c.£11.5bn on international aid, £54bn on local and national government (excluding budgets devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).  That’s over £100bn…. I don’t think we’re getting value for money when my elders sleep rough on the streets, my fellow patients are suffering physically and psychologically and our disabled folks are quite literally disabled from cradle to grave in education, the workplace and the benefits system.

I want change.

We are living in truly remarkable times

Horse watching

Horse watching (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Three news items struck me yesterday so much so that they inspired a mention because they show we are living in truly remarkable times.

1. The Pope resigns.

I’m agnostic so have no affiliation to any particular religion, however today’s news that the Pope has resigned came as a surprise. This is history in the making.  The Pope was appointed in his late seventies and has decided after c. 8 years that as an octogenarian he no longer has the strength or energy required to fulfil his duties as effectively as he would wish. I’m sure this news was a shock to the Catholic Church and as our news has reported, it breaks with the tradition of a Pope holding office until his death. I respect the Pope for his decision; acknowledging that his age and health were impinging on his ability to fulfil his duties and dealing with it by going against the expectations of so many people must call for a lot of soul-searching. Whether you like him or not and irrespective of your personal beliefs, seeing someone who is courageous enough to go against centuries of tradition to do what he believes is right for the greater good of his organisation is pleasantly refreshing.

2. We’ve been eating horse meat.

I know this is common practice in many parts of the world but in the UK horse meat isn’t typically sold or eaten.  In the last week a new and growing scandal has emerged since the discovery that food sold in many of our major supermarkets as beef, e.g. Burgers, mince,  etc has been constituted of horse meat to a greater or lesser extent. One particular brand of ready-made lasagne was found to be almost entirely horse meat. Most people I’ve spoken to aren’t overly concerned that they’ve eaten horse products. What’s irritated them is that the practice took so long to uncover and supermarkets and food manufacturers failed to identify problems in their supply chain or manufacturing processes. The question many people are asking is if horse meat can be passed off as beef, can meat that is unfit for human consumption also be slipped into our food?

3. One in Four have no support

Recent research by MacMillan Cancer Support has identified that one in four people in the UK go through cancer diagnosis and treatment alone. Many have been abandoned by friends and family following diagnosis, for some the cost of travel prevents people visiting and for others they simply have no-one in their lives to offer assistance or friendship.  Medical staff involved in the research state that a significant number of those who are unsupported refuse treatment or are unable to get to hospital appointments. Many have gone without meals as they’ve been too unwell to cater for themselves. In a country that is densely populated, it’s remarkable that 25% of cancer patients have no support. What is even more remarkable is that this country is supposed to be an exemplar of human rights yet it is failing this section of society, leaving them to fend for themselves and, lets not beat around the bush here, die a horrible death if they’re unable to attend for treatment or refuse it because they cannot cope on their own.

Some of our politicians ought to consider taking a leaf from the Pope’s book. The horse meat in our food is a scandal no doubt driven by greed and the desire to make a fast buck.  The MacMillan 1 in 4 research is a truly shameful reflection on our modern-day society, a failing welfare system and people who just don’t care as long as they’re seen to be managing a national debt all their parties were in no small part responsible for creating.  Not so long ago people with no friends or family to care for them would’ve received state funded help at home, now they have to be at deaths door before they qualify for any assistance. (I know because I’ve looked at the Disability Living Allowance criteria).

We live in truly remarkable times where money drives greed, dishonesty and despair in equal measure. Welcome to the 21st Century Britain you won’t hear about in tourist information publications.

United Kingdom: stamp


Local history

When I have time on my hands and I’m not researching cancer, coaching other people or recovering from chemo I explore local folklore and legends to gain more of a sense of the history and beliefs in the region I now inhabit.

We’re situated in a very rural area where many of the settlements date back to the Iron Age.  There are a few houses, some farms and two pubs.  We have no mains gas or drainage, no street lighting and no superfast broadband – fibre will never reach us.  In stormy weather we have no electricity or water and if it snows we are cut off from the rest of civilisation.   We have amazingly beautiful countryside, diverse wildlife, very funny local farmers (two pubs and nothing else for miles may well be responsible for the rampant joviality out here) and plenty of folklore.

There are many ancient stories some of which are more far-fetched than others and there are also a number of antediluvian rituals that continue to this day. These include orchard wassailing and the crowning of the mistletoe queen and holly prince which takes place in early December.  It’s an interesting part of the country and vastly different to the life I led for 30-odd years in major cities.

My nearest city is Worcester where there is evidence of a number of witch trials, torture and burnings.  But an even more bizarre tale concerns the original door to the cathedral. The story goes that during the 1000’s Danish vikings frequently invaded Britain and one such raid took place in Worcester.   The vikings were vicious pillagers and ransacked the town as well as the cathedral.  Anything of worth was stolen including chalices and decorative items belonging to the church.  Not content with this sizeable hoard, one greedy viking decided to steal the sanctus bell from the bell cot.  The sanctus bell was heavy and cumbersome and the viking became separated from the rest of his group.

Thinking the raid was over, the townsfolk came out from their hiding places and found the lone viking attempting to make off with this sacred artefact.  Angry at the desecration of the church, the thefts and the damage caused to their homes, the people of Worcester captured the viking and flayed him alive.  His skin was pinned to the door of the cathedral as a warning.  The original door has been conserved and testing revealed the skin pinned to it is human and dates from the correct period; some fragments are preserved in the cathedral crypt.

I like Worcester, it’s a small city with some very old buildings, unique shops and a fascinating past.  The residents no longer flay vikings and although theft happens, it isn’t rife.  Here’s a collage of the cathedral for you to enjoy, I haven’t included the skin!

Worcester cathedral




For some reason I woke up this morning thinking ‘hmm, this is almost like being in the 1980’s.’  I wasn’t sure what prompted the thought but I decided to play with it anyway. I became a teenager during this decade and here is what I recall.

At times there were a lot of fluorescent colours and some shocking fashions but if the ’80’s had a colour it would be primarily grey; the ominous kind of grey that pushes everything else out of the sky in advance of a torrential storm.  This slate grey decade saw another devastating period of recession and debt accompanied by a discontented populous.  Spiralling unemployment meant many UK people lived in poverty; I remember strikes, soup kitchens and violent riots.  My father was working as a paramedic during the uprising and my mother and I listened to the radio and watched TV praying he and his colleagues wouldn’t get caught up in the trouble.

In spite of so many awkward predicaments at home, my country was also at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.  I can still recall ships burning and sinking, troops dying, so much politics and propaganda.  There were international conflicts too – Iran and Iraq, Lebanon.  As a teenager with a poor sense of geography anywhere outside Europe seemed very far away to me but I was always acutely aware that I was witnessing the nameless face of human suffering. These tragedies weren’t the exclusive domain of wars or conflicts either; human suffering filled the headlines following Bhopal and Chernobyl both of which I remember quite clearly.  I found these catastrophes deeply disturbing because I thought they should have been preventable.

In a period with a significant element of gloom, the 80’s also welcomed the rebirth of a long-awaited American space programme. I watched as many of the shuttle launches as I could and had high hopes for what these new missions might teach us.  I was making an amphora during a ceramics class when news of the Challenger disaster broke. Dreams of a new age of discovery were wrenched from the minds of a handful of sixteen year olds that afternoon.

I have fond memories of the ‘special relationship’ between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, not because I was overly interested in politics but because both were relentlessly lampooned by the sardonic Spitting Image TV programme. Thanks to public service broadcasts I also have the first AIDS awareness campaigns indelibly etched into my brain – I saw the government health warnings so often back then. People were genuinely scared about the mysterious arrival of this unseen killer in our midst.

If the ‘80’s was a sound, it would be Pac-Man and pop music.  Pac-Man and other arcade games became firm favourites on my brother’s new computer, a brilliant Christmas present at the time; but one of the things I enjoyed most as an ‘80’s teenager was music.  There were a vast array of great bands, a thriving, diverse music scene catering for almost every taste and of course Live Aid and its noble mission to put a name to the face of human suffering in Ethiopia. Despite the ’80’s desperation and economic distress, being a teenager back then meant listening to some decent music.

Thinking about it, I realise that an 80’s song prompted my waking thought this morning.  I suspect I’d been dreaming this tune on a loop before the shift from sleep to wakefulness occurred.  It’s an unusual song to dream because it wasn’t mainstream and I rarely hear it played these days. Nonetheless The The – Heartland was the song that made me wake up thinking ‘hmm, this is almost like being in the 1980’s.’

This is the land, where nothing changes,
the land of red buses & blue blooded babies,
This is the place, where pensioners are raped,
& the hearts are being cut from the welfare state,
Let the poor drink the milk, while the rich eat the honey,
Let the bums count their blessings, while they count the money.

In its day this was quite a hard-hitting song, it described a little too graphically the experience many people were having at the time. Unfortunately I now know where my waking thoughts came from….

This is the land where nothing changes.

Britain (I can’t bring myself to include the Great anymore) is, in my opinion, in quite a mess at the moment.  We have more sleaze and scandal than the Chicken Ranch on a quiet day; it’s impossible to escape and it seems to embrace almost every aspect of society. Finance, media, politics, social services, law and order, health care and the church – almost everywhere I look there is something filthy and menacing oozing out from underneath the very foundations of my home land. Not content with societal skullduggery and shenanigans we are also in the midst of an un- Cool Britannia where food banks are springing up more rapidly than Tesco Express because the poorest of our people can no longer afford to feed themselves. People too poor to feed themselves have no hope of feeding their animals so our green and not so pleasant land sees over 100 pets abandoned every day.  I shudder to even think about what might be happening to the children of the least fortunate among us.

In the 1980’s when I was a teenager I had a little pride about being British in spite of all my country’s problems. I thought we’d pull ourselves out of the mire.   I’m older now and it saddens me but there is so little to be proud of in the Britain I inhabit today. Once again I am witnessing the nameless face of human suffering but it’s right here on my doorstep in this land where I’m growing older and nothing really changes.