What the Dickens?

Advent 4  On shopping

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I don’t sleep so much now I’m old, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have to go to work! 

Also, since I discovered audio books, I can just plug myself into my earphones and listen. I like value for money (the influence of that thrifty childhood again) so I go for long reads – hence Dickens.

Thinking about Advent and preparing for Christmas, I quickly arrived at the topic of shopping. At this point I googled for pictures of the grocers’ shops I remembered from the 50s. Then I noticed that these were pretty thin on the ground, although pictures of older shops from the 19th & early 20th centuries were common. But, guess what? They looked much the same!

Had Charles Dickens walked into the grocers on the corner of the road where I lived at five years old, he would have felt quite at home. The dark wood fittings; the large block of butter from which a lump of the requested weight was scooped with a flat wooden spoon; the ornate cast iron till.

Most of my friends and I ran errands from an early age. Far fewer people had cars, so side roads were often empty. We children were accustomed to considering the streets our territory. All of us were thrown out of the house to play. Housework, washing and cooking were much more onerous then. Children underfoot were an unwanted hindrance.

I was scared of the grocers. It was gloomy and confusing. You had to ask for items, which meant you had to memorise exactly what you had been sent to fetch.  I doubted my competence and the grocer in his Dickensian apron wasn’t very helpful in prompting, though he must have known what my mother usually bought. She went there all the time. We didn’t have a fridge, so had to buy perishable items day by day.

My experience might not have been quite the equivalent of Scrooge sending a boy for the biggest goose on Christmas morning, but it wasn’t that far off.

Yet I’m glad I grew up in a time when children were generally expected to be self-reliant and to be useful, whether in going for messages, or in removing themselves from under busy adults’ feet.

In braving the grocers, I learnt to face up to uncomfortable situations and to put aside my own individual qualms in the interests of the general good. 

Even, if in this case, it only amounted to ensuring there was sufficient butter to put on the bread for tea!

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The Bonny Blair Award for Cupidity, Spin and Evasion

The Clear Winner by a Country Mile.

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Since first getting involved in the campaign to win Justice for LB, I have tried to believe that no hospital trust could be entirely without principled leadership. I kept hoping that somewhere in the management and governance of the organisation, there had to be somebody who was prepared to ask awkward questions and not be satisfied by generalities, corporate spin or glossy awards.

I admit defeat.

I’ve seen a lot of burying bad news and economy with the truth in my time, even been party to it on occasion. I’m no saint.

But even I cannot credit the calculating and bare-faced shamelessness of the treatment that LB’s family have experienced from the Health Trust responsible for the preventable death of their healthy son.

LB’s “mum” – never referred to respectfully by her professional title, Dr Ryan – was an immediate target for undermining and defensive suspicion. She committed the cardinal sin of having an honest, outspoken blog, in which she from time to time used strong language. She was also outspoken about her grief and distress, and refused to see these as unreasonably extreme. She didn’t want to be helped to conveniently “move on”. She howled and stormed online.

No wonder she was identified as a dangerous hazard. She and her sympathisers had to be silenced, obstructed and discredited at all costs. Surveillance called for!

As her spontaneous campaign for justice sprouted and grew, other worrying data and cases came to light. This does not seem to have alerted anybody governing the Health Trust to the likelihood that something, somewhere in their organisation was badly wrong. Rather it gave rise to renewed efforts to fight off any such suspicion, by fair means or foul.

So where does the story end?

There’s still a chance for someone decent at the Health Trust to suggest an alternative approach.  Something other than rendering life so unendurable for grieving families that they give up and go away.

I would love to think it might be so.

Other than that it’s the long slog through all the legal procedures to force the Trust, kicking and screaming every step of the way, to face the fact that the award they most richly deserve is the one in the title here above.

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It Was Always Thus

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As I follow Sara’s terrible account of her slow ongoing torture by the Health Trust whose systems and employees caused her son’s preventable death, I am continually reminded of Dickens’ Bleak House, the first book I studied when I went to university.

It might seem a depressing choice, but it is a good preparation for dealing with the law and other public bodies.

Sara, in her last post, asked how people experience working for public services today.  I fear many of them would recognise Dickens’s Court of Chancery all too well. Cases drag on interminably,  “complainants” become increasingly desperate, their anger either fading into depression, or taking over their lives to the detriment of every other facet of their existence. Relationships break down under the strain.The only beneficiaries are the legal firms growing fat on fees.

Yet today’s LA and Health Trust employees surely cannot be likened to the miserable clerks inhabiting Dickens’s dark world, aware of the situation and sufferings of their clients, but powerless to make any change?

While today’s offices may be brighter and have more ergonomically designed seating, power relationships still remain the same and all the information technology in the world doesn’t change that. Basically, just like Bob Cratchit, employees do what they are told. They know from the example of whistleblowers that, if they don’t, all the employment legislation in the world won’t protect them from being rendered unemployable.

In any office there are nasty people who will take advantage of every regulation and directive to be deliberately obstructive, just as there are others who will do their best, within the constraints of their situation, to be helpful. The majority simply grow indifferent.

That is why #deathbyindifference is so accurate.  Indifference is the default setting for any institution where the majority of employees feel little commitment or calling to their work, where they are powerless to change things and/or have cut-back practises imposed upon them. Patronised (at best) by their employer through tawdry rewards and dumbed down “training”, they soon grow cynical and bitter.

No amount of external inspection or internal paperwork can safeguard clients if the workers simply don’t care. Situations go wrong because nobody bothers to check or to follow up some concern in a timely fashion, or to make sure some point of information was accurate. In the end, somebody lies dead.

In Bleak House Dickens decried the indifference of his own day

Dead, your Majesty.  Dead, my lords and gentlemen.  Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends. Dead, men and women born with heavenly compassion in your hearts.  And dying thus about us every day.

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Yet we don’t live in Dickens’s times. Change has been made for the better. It was brought about by the determination and campaigning of individuals who cared. Those who campaigned to force the law to take children out of the mills and the mines, to free the enslaved, to educate the poor.

In JusticeforLB, and JusticeforNico, we have a campaign for our own age. It is daunting and depressing at times, but we tread in the footsteps of all those who battled against the entrenched practices and injustices of the past.

It isn’t easy.

Fighting for the little people never was.

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On Smiling Villains and Beacons of Hope

Life’s lessons 11 on Betrayal, Hope and Staying Sane

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I always knew that people you loved died. My mother kept one photo by her bedside, the one of a beautiful child I never knew, the sister who died of meningitis before I was born.

I suppose I came into the world in a bid to take away some of that pain.  I certainly provided a bit of noise and distraction. I was never an obedient or obliging child. At the very least I must have tormented my grieving family in such a variety of ways, that they were diverted from dwelling on their sorrow.

In those days you didn’t talk about things. You just got on with it. I don’t know whether it was better or worse. 

When my father died suddenly I remember the teacher who drove me home saying gruffly “Well, I don’t envy you the next days, but we all have to go through it, sooner or later.” I didn’t need him to say more. I knew his words were kind. He was a good man and he had been through the war.

But now, coming towards the end of life, I think that sudden death is not the worst thing to bear. The hardest thing to carry with you, the hurt that defies healing, the lasting bitterness that weighs you down and oppresses your spirit, is betrayal.

So often in the posts related to Justice for LB you hear that pain expressed – that people, who should have cared or protected, betrayed the trust placed in them. They then multiplied the hurt of that betrayal by lying and denying their actions.

Grief, allowed to take its natural course, becomes liveable with in time. It is something we all have to face, like my old teacher said, and in one way or another we muddle our way through to a bearable sadness.

But the cruelty of having to struggle against the odds to establish the truth of a neglectful, untimely, preventable death removes the opportunity to come to terms with loss, obstructs the channels of regaining joy in life.

That the NHS, the service that once shone like a beacon in a naughty world, should be the monster we have to fight, is the grossest betrayal.

Yet somehow this fighting has to be done without losing our sanity. We have to be able to find courage for the battle and believe that we will achieve peace of mind in the end.

Sara has to talk to the Chair this afternoon. We wish her strength and discernment. He may well be a decent man lost in the mire of corporate spin.  He is trapped, restricted in what he can possibly say, but he deserves the chance to act for the good. Sara is giving him that opportunity. Let us pray he is brave enough to take it.

Nowadays I always speak to the people trapped in call centres as human beings. I say to them “Look, I know you have to say these things and it’s not your fault, but this is the help I need.”

It’s surprising how people can act well, when their humanity and the reality of their situation is recognised. Fortunately psychopaths are in the minority, even if it doesn’t always seem so these days.

When my first email account was hacked, I set up another Yahoo account and emailed the hacker at my own address. I explained I was an old lady who hardly went anywhere and that nobody would ever believe I was trapped in Lagos and needed £2000 to get home, so I would be really grateful if I could have my contacts back.

From some distant corner of the developing world he emailed me back to say he was really sorry. He was ashamed of what he was doing but he did the job to fund his way through college as he had no sponsor.

He sent me back my account.

“God Bless Us, Every One!”

Life’s lesson 4 on What doesn’t change and what might

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As a child I had to learn large chunks of the King James Bible off by heart. It was quite common in the Scotland of that day. As a result I still carry the echo of these around in my head.

One day I was on a train going to some conference or other on change in the public sector.  As I half-heartedly scanned the conference papers, all of a sudden one of those echoes slipped into my mind.

“The poor you have with you always.”

I had always felt this was a rather ungracious comment for the saviour of mankind, but all of a sudden it fell into place.  Not just the poor, but the learning disabled, the sick, the neglected, the old and the despised.  All the vulnerable populations in any society. Every generation and community has to choose how they treat their weakest members.

That’s something that doesn’t change.

Another echo I carry around in my head is of the literature I had to read at school.  A lot of it is just too long nowadays, but before digital technology and wall to wall entertainment, there was more time to fill.  Now I’ve gone back to the great Victorian writers in audiobooks.  They’re particularly clearsighted and scathing on the dark side of politics, business and charity.

That’s another thing that doesn’t change.

So why are we so surprised and hurt that we still have to fight the  injustices in our own society?

I suspect it’s that we swallowed our own post World War 2 publicity. We thought things were changing.  People were better off, healthcare was much improved and more accessible, secondary education was universal.  We all had more stuff.

We overlooked the dark side.  The increasing power of the state, the surveillance and intervention of officialdom in aspects of life that had previously been a matter of personal choice.

No wonder so many of us feel guilty and unhappy about aspects of our work. We’re the Bob Cratchits of today, sitting shivering at the modern equivalent of the clerk’s desk , at the mercy of a corporate Scrooge. And our Scrooge isn’t going to be visited by the three ghosts of Christmas. Our Scrooge is hanging on to his money and looking to make more.  Tiny Tim is going to his grave.

But I sense we’ve reached a tipping point. Too many articulate, educated, stroppy people are now affected. Government, local and national, might get away with fobbing off the poor with crappy services. Hampered by lack of education and resources, they’re too disadvantaged to put up much of an organised fight.

It’s organisation and persistence and ingenuity that is dangerous to the corporate Scrooge. It’s the sustained guerilla campaign that undermines, as it increasingly gathers support from a disgruntled, disparaged citizenry. 

That might just tip the point in the right direction.

That might just make a change.