Saturday, 29 August 2009

Trafalgar Square

This is the leaflet about Lois on the plinth that I hope to hand out to anyone who is interested.

Lois is dressed as a pigeon.

Many statues of humans around London have a pigeon sitting on their heads – so Lois had a statue of a man on hers. The statue is a miniature of Anthony Gormley’s Iron Man, which can be found in Victoria Square in Birmingham.

This is a sort of double role reversal joke, the pigeon underneath and the man on top and the live animal underneath and the solid object on top.

Many statues show some aspect of military history so Lois has a replica of the Dickin medal, which is awarded to animals for bravery in war. Most of the recipients have been pigeons (32 out of 54 in the last war).

Lois is also holding a twig and an egg. These represent nest building and future generations. The parallels in human statuary are the orb and sceptre. Actually the orb, which should have a cross on the top, represents, in iconography, the saviour of the world – in pigeon equivalent an egg must be exactly that - the possibility of future generations. What else would the world be saved for?

So although this Plinthing may look like a fairly simple joke, it is in fact an artistic representation of respect for past deeds, home and future – surely exactly what the plinth is all about.

Lois is an artist who currently works almost entirely in machine embroidery. She can be contacted at:-

Friday, 28 August 2009


This weekend Lois and I are going to London. Lois has a place on the Trafalgar Square Plinth on Saturday at 4.00pm. If you happen to be in the square on Saturday you may see what looks like a huge pigeon on the plinth.

Lois makes machine embroidery; I call it Fabricolage – putting fabrics together in a collage – stuck together by wild machining. Most of her art has quirky hidden messages in it so this pigeon will have a person on its head. The costume is a sort of embroidery, only in three dimensions and plinthed rather than framed.

Actually the ‘man’ on her head will be a model of Anthony Gormley’s Iron Man, the statue in Birmingham – just to pay some homage to Gormley for having the great idea of the plinth. An aside about the Iron Man here - Someone in one of the Birmingham newspapers obviously hated the statue and the paper rad a poll to find out Brums most loved and most hated statue. I think they planned to have the Iron Man removed if it came last. The amazing thing was that the Iron Man won both polls - most hated and most loved statue. What more could you ask from a work of art.

Lois will also be wearing a mock up of the medal that gets given to brave animals in war. Most of the winners have been carrier pigeons, taking messages that have saved soldiers lives.

Wikipedia says - The Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 by Maria Dickin to honour the work of animals in war. It is a large bronze medallion, bearing the words "For Gallantry" and "We Also Serve" within a laurel wreath, carried on ribbon of striped green, dark brown and pale blue. Traditionally, the medal is presented by the Lord Mayor of the City of London. It has become recognized as "the animals' Victoria Cross". The medal was awarded 54 times between 1943 and 1949, to 32 pigeons, 18 dogs, 3 horses and 1 cat.

It seems only right to add that as a touch because so many of the statues in London have some sort of military connection. Mostly they have boring looking men on them – and usually a pigeon or two.

I doubt if all those pigeons standing on top of statues are protesting at the lack of recognition of animal bravery but at least for an hour on Saturday the roles will be reversed.

Thursday, 27 August 2009


A fun day of sorts today – I had an appointment at the local rheumatology department. I have a sneaky suspicion that it’s not actually run by the NHS and is in fact an offshoot of First Great Western railway. I come to this conclusion because last year I never caught a FGW train that was on time and I’ve never had an appointment at rheumatology that started on time.

Today was no different; I was there at 9.15 for an appointment at 9.30 and actually seen at 10.40. It does give an opportunity to study what goes on.

At the entrance to the outpatient area there is a device that delivers antibacterial hand gel and a sign that says please use before entering this area. This time a few more people used it – probably motivated by the swine flu, mostly I’m the only person that touches the stuff. I guess everyone thinks it’s mindless bureaucracy but actually rheumatologists use some drugs that depress the immune system – Methotrexate for instance, so people in the patient area could be at greater risk of infection, and hand hygiene is an important protection

They always take my blood pressure and it’s always about 15 points lower than it was in cardiology. I’ve told them each time I come and they always tell me that their machine is more accurate. Is that likely? Would the hospital put a more accurate machine in rheumatology than in cardiology? Today there was a woman sitting next to me who’s been to cardiology as well. Her blood pressure is also 15 points lower in rheumatology than it is in cardiology. I told them about it again but I’d be prepared to bet nothing will have changed next time I go.

There’s another feature of sitting in that queue – the booping alarm. I call it that because I know the sound so well. I have no idea what it is but it goes off every time I’m sitting on those chairs at the end of the corridor. If you time it for several minutes you get six boops in 62 seconds, once every 10.333333333333333333 seconds, you can tell how long I’ve been listening. There is something of a contradiction in that alarm. It’s obviously important to someone, otherwise why have an alarm on it, but it’s not so important that anyone bothers to turn it off. It’s obviously like the hand gel – it matters to someone but no one knows who.

There is something about communication in that place. The last time I went the doctor I saw suggested I see the hand surgeon. OK by me, my arthritis can get me down and gradually joints in my fingers are fusing together. Sooner or later I’m going to have solid sticks protruding from my palms, so I thought seeing the hand surgeon would be a good idea. Three months later I saw him.

‘Why have you come?’ he said.

‘The rheumatologist sent me.’

‘Well there’s nothing I can do for you – the kind of arthritis you have is going to go on all around the joints even if I put in a new one.’

We did eventually agree that if my fingers go stiff pointing in a really useless direction the surgeon can at least make them move a bit and point somewhere more useful. They will still hurt.

Did I need to wait three months and spend two hour at the hospital to tell me that? The hand surgeon is sitting in the same clinic and the same desk as the rheumatologist who set me off on this unnecessary visit. Even if they can’t bring themselves to talk to each other they could stick notes on the desk. Some communication must be possible.

Would it be an awful pun about the rheumatology department to say it was disjointed? I promise I’ll get back to the novel, so long as my fingers keep pointing the right way.

Saturday, 22 August 2009


The debate about the release of Al Megrahi is fascinating. I have no idea what I would have done if I were Scottish Secretary, but I do find the different uses of the word compassion worth exploring.

All the commentators from the USA who have been given air time in the UK have said things along the lines of, ‘Where was Megrahi’s compassion when he planted the bomb that blew up the plane.’ What has that got to do with anything? Surely compassion is a one-way thing, I don’t feel compassion as a kind of swap deal. I don’t say I’ll be compassionate towards you so long as you’ve been compassionate towards me.

From a UK perspective it is often remarkable how often Americans invoke a Christian God in their support and thank him for anything good that happens to them. I have no problem with that, though sometimes it is a bit weird when all the participants in a competition think that God will be working for them and some end up as winners and others as losers. What I do find strange is that all that teaching from Christ about turning the other cheek, about compassion, seems to have passed America bye. They only seem to have read the Old Testament – all that stuff about an eye for an eye.

The issue with Megrahi is that he was a man dying a long way from home. He may also have been a man who did awful things, that’s why he was in prison. It is perfectly OK to say that his crime was so awful that no consideration should be given under any circumstances to his release; but he was sentenced under Scottish law and within that law is a provision for the relevant government officer to exercise compassion. I guess it must have been possible for the prosecution to argue that the provisions for compassion should be rescinded in Megrahi’s case and his sentence should have been life with no provision for compassion. As far as I know they didn’t do that, or if they did the judges did not accept the plea. He was not sentenced to life without compassion.

Scottish law requires the Justice secretary to consider compassionate release when asked appropriately. Megrahi had the right to make that request, based on his condition and not his crime, just as he had other rights like not to be tortured or beaten up in prison. Because Scotland is a civilised country, prisoners have those rights, as they do in many countries. If we make compassion some sort of swap deal, something to trade, something that has conditions, then we risk ceasing to be one of those civilised countries.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Fiction and Health CAre

The current debate about health care in the USA presents a difficult dilemma for someone like me with a health care background that is also trying to write fiction.

At an emotional level I would love to see the USA adopt a health system that gave coverage to the whole population. On the other hand such a system would be such a loss to the entertainment industry and fiction in general.

Take for instance the Film As Good as it Gets, starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. It is a great film that pulls apart all sorts of different layers of human emotion. Without the completely screwed up American health care system the film makes no sense at all.

Helen Hunt, in the film, has a son who has asthma; he gets poor medical care because she can’t afford to see a specialist, and has to take him the hospital emergency rooms when he has a bad attack. He has no continuity of care, no real depth of diagnosis, and we suffer with him and with her. Her ambivalent attitude to charity, in effect to Jack Nicholson offering to pay for her son to be looked after properly, is based on having acquired a set of values that believes that everyone must somehow look after themselves, even though fate deals us all a different hand.

There is another story line in which the young gay artist who lives opposite Nicholson is beaten up and then effectively bankrupted by his health care bills as he recovers from his injuries. This allows the exploration of various attitudes to art, to Gays, and so one. Altogether a great film made all the better by brilliant acting.

You simply could not make that film and base it in the UK because we all know that the story line makes no sense. Over here we all know that the NHS gives the best care that it can to everyone regardless of means, and has done for sixty years. The story of Helen Hunt’s son simply could not happen in the UK.

I’m prepared to admit that you might be able to make a story out of a scenario where what he needed was some very expensive drug, that only works now and then. You might just squeeze a story out of such a one in a million chance, because sometimes we don’t fund those because we need to make the most of the NHS funds to do more good for more people. We all know that those stories are very uncommon and didn’t really apply to us. Hard to make a whole movie out of that, though you might manage an ad for the Republican party. In the US the Helen Hunt story line could happen to virtually every waitress in the USA, that is it’s power.

The gay artist story doesn’t wash either, you might just manage some sort of plot line about prejudice against gays, we do have that over here, but the idea of being bankrupted and made homeless by health care costs is just ridiculous. It doesn’t happen in any country with a sensible system of social solidarity, and that includes the UK, most of Europe, Australasia and Canada. Fortunately for us the movie industry is mostly based in the USA and they still have these wonderful plot lines.

The American health care system leaves their citizens with shorter lives than most of Europe and condemns a significant proportion of the population to live in fear of sickness and unnecessary suffering, but hey, surely that’s a small price to pay for some great movies.

Monday, 10 August 2009

A Rag Doll Falling

I have a dilemma; I’m in the middle of editing and redrafting my current book. Do I put some of it on here as I go along? I’ve always been inspired by John Steinbeck’s Journal of a novel – it’s the notes he kept while he wrote East of Eden. According to the blurb he wrote the book in a series of notebooks, writing the novel on the right hand pages and notes to his publisher on the left hand page - Journal of a Novel, is the left hand pages.

If you know the novel then it is interesting in itself, but what I found even more dramatic was the insight it gave into John Steinbeck in action. Every day he got himself into the mood to write, sometimes talking about issues of character development or plot, but other times he was dragging an old portable air conditioner out of the basement and trying to make it work or any number of other minor tasks. The sheer stamina behind his creativity is enormous. The first time I read it I found it almost impossible to read more then a few pages without wanting to get up and DO something.

Blogging about a book as I’m writing it seems like a similar thing, but for sure my blog won’t be as inspiring as Steinbeck – well probably not.

On the other hand it seems like a fun thing to do and it might serve the same purpose – get me going, or keep me moving. Watch this space.

- Oh the book's called A Rag Doll Falling.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Today Programme

I write this in the hope that the BBC has some cunning computer programme, or paid hack in the basement, that surveys blogs looking for any mention of their programmes.

I had to drive to Birmingham early yesterday morning so I found myself listening to the Today Programme for longer than usual. It’s worth doing now and then just to confirm that they still have their usual faults on display.

The news of the day seemed to be the announcement of Barclay’s bank’s trading results. The results were expected at ten past eight, so do we get an item telling us that – no, we get a piece telling us what the result is expected to be and we get it several times in the hour before the actual statement.


Why is it necessary to tell me what they think it is going to say before the official announcement? What is wrong with waiting till ten past eight and telling me the actual facts?

Yet again they reinforce the notion that opinion is more important than fact, that assumption is more important than evidence. It seems to be impossible to announce anything on the Today programme without first of all having some BBC pundit tell me what the announcement is going to be and what it is supposed to mean. There is a clear message that I, the listener, must be incapable of thinking for myself; that I am incapable of understanding anything without being told before-hand what it means.

The programme obviously has massive contempt for its audience. Actually that may not be misplaced; if you read the comments from people who email in, you can see that most of them are one liners from people who have already made up their mind, whatever the facts. Most of the comments are inane, I won’t quote examples because all you have to do is log into the BBC and look at comments on almost any programme on almost any day and you will see what I mean.

Whoops, there I go doing what the BBC does and telling you what to think – read some of the comments anyway, maybe I’m wrong, and you can write back to me and correct me and we could have some genuine debate.

So, end of first rant, I hate pre-announcement and pre-prejudicing of the news.

My second complaint is their lack of numeracy. They get in such a mess about very simple issues of numbers. Yesterday there was an item about reporting of child abuse – the numbers of calls to a child-line have gone up since the Baby P case. The reporter did seem to have cottoned on to one key question – have the actual numbers of child abuse cases gone up or has there been more reporting? The problem was that he seemed incapable of asking the question clearly enough. It’s a simple question – has the proportion of false alarms gone up? That’s what he was trying to say but somehow the simple word ‘proportion’ seemed to escape him.

Why might calls have gone up as a result of publicity surrounding baby P?

First of all each case might be reported more than once, could be quite likely, given that the authorities in the baby P case kept ignoring the abuse.

Second people could be more aware of the issue and report at a lower level of suspicion – again quite likely given all the blame whizzing around the media – people might report their suspicions earlier just to be on the safe side in case the shit hits the fan.

There is a third and serious possibility – abusers might be doing their abuse more often because they conclude that the authorities were so lackadaisical in the case of baby P that the chances of being caught are low.

Fourth it is possible that authorities are taking action earlier, or in less serious cases because they don’t want to end up in the newspapers.

Finally it could be that until baby P there was under reporting and that has now been corrected to some extent.

So what we need to know is how many real cases are there that have been investigated and found to be real, compared to how many have been reported; and are the cases on average more or less serious?

Why do we want to know this? Most likely because we wish to be reassured that child abuse is being dealt with effectively. The ideal result is to find that the proportion of false alarms has not risen and maybe that the seriousness of the cases has, on average dropped a bit. That would tell us that the public were being vigilant but not frivolous, and that social services were on the ball and a bit more alert than previously and it would suggest that there was not some vast reservoir of unreported cases out there that were still unreported.

Did we find that out from the Today interview – no chance - all we discovered was that there were more calls from the public to the response line and we were left with no idea as to what was really going on.

These simple questions arise whenever one looks at surveillance data of any sort. If the numbers of some event have gone up we need to know whether it is because we have got better at noticing and counting or whether there is a genuine increase. These questions arise whether we are talking about epidemics, or crime figures, or breast screening, or car accidents – the sort of stuff that is the bread and butter of the Today programme, so why can’t they have someone on it who knows how to understand this sort of data?

These two stories both say something about the Today programme and it’s mission in life. I imagine, if asked, that they would say they were seeking to inform the public, I expect there is some clause in the BBC charter to justify their existence.

It is called the Today programme and it goes out before 9am. That makes it inevitable that most of the things that may happen today have not happened yet. So what can they do? They could report in a dead-pan way what was scheduled to happen over the next 24 hours. That might be a bit boring, so they spice it up by telling us what they think will happen and what they think it might mean. It sounds OK when put like that, after all if it were boring their audience would drop and because we know it hasn’t dropped it must be OK? No, that doesn’t follow because we also have to think about what sort of society they contribute to and what it might do to us all. If they convince us that opinion matters more than facts then we end up with a society that never learns and such societies become extinct. The same thing probably happens to societies that don’t value numeracy.

If we are all doomed to live in our own opinions then nothing will get better and it’s all the fault of the Today programme.

Am I going too far in that conclusion – well I once heard John Humphreys (the doyen of the Today programme) speak at a conference – he said there were two rules in journalism first simplify, and then exaggerate. Over to you John.