Category Archives: Life & Philosophy

Lockdown as a catalyst for togetherness

It’s mental health awareness week in the UK. Social and broadcast media are full of appeals for people to be kind to one another; to look out for one another; to talk to somebody – anybody – if you are feeling anxious, or alone or unhappy. And that is all absolutely to be applauded. For far too long, those who have struggled with poor mental health have been stigmatised and made to feel that their ill-health is somehow a sign of personal weakness or a lack of resilience. Thankfully, the whole tone of the conversation around mental health has changed. It is no longer taboo to talk about how we are feeling. We are actively encouraged to speak up if we are feeling stressed or low or having a bad patch. Funding and support for acute services for those who are most adversely affected by poor mental health is still inadequate, but it is slowly improving.

One of the big concerns around the current coronavirus crisis has been that lockdown and enforced isolation as a result of the need to socially distance or (in some cases) fully shield, will lead to a surge in demand for mental health and wellbeing support services. There is some anecdotal evidence to support this hypothesis, although it’s likely to be some time yet before we will know the full extent of the impact on overall demand for services. There is no doubt that some people will have experienced a deterioration in their mental health as a result of the interruption to contact with social support networks that is an inevitable consequence of the lockdown regulations. Interestingly, however, the lockdown may turn out to have been a good thing for young people who would normally have been completing high stakes exams in schools and universities at this time of year. With most of those exams either cancelled altogether, or downgraded insofar that their significance in calculating final degree grades or determining whether or not students progress into the next academic year has been significantly reduced, their role as a stressor has been almost completely removed. Similarly, students have almost all returned to their family homes and are now back in the social networks that are often (though not exclusively) less stressful than university or private rented accommodation.

For others, the sense of isolation that is an obvious danger of lockdown, has been mitigated by the ability to engage with family, friends and support services through any number of video call platforms across the internet and mobile phone networks. In my own experience, this has been the case with regular, weekly video calls to family members in Llanelli and Cambridge (as well as those a little closer to our home in Cardiff). Paradoxically, we have probably talked more to family members during the past eight weeks than we had done before all this. It’s another example of the profound changes that have taken place in some aspects of life during the crisis that are likely to continue in similar form afterwards. The quality, ubiquity and ease of use of these technologies is now such that the need to travel long distances to ‘see’ family and friends on the other side of the country has been significantly reduced. This is a potential win:win – closer and more regular interaction with family and friends and a reduced environmental impact as travel reduces.

Coronavirus is a horrible thing; and for those who have been infected and made ill by it, those who have lost loved ones as a result of it, or whose mental health has been impacted because of it, it’s a terrible thing and not at all to be downplayed or dismissed. But some of the social changes that have been brought about during the crisis may yet prove to have some lasting positive implications too.

Imagining life after covid

“Creativity is born of chaos, even if it is somewhat difficult to glimpse the possibilities in the midst of the confusion.” – Charles Handy

Yesterday’s post attempted to identify the rationale behind the change in the messaging around coronavirus in England. I suggested that a return to a strategy of herd immunity was one possible explanation for the move away from Stay Home towards something a little less directive, and a lot more ambiguous. The post focused on the possible short term implications of the change and the danger that the relaxation in the approach to restrictions would lead to a second spike in cases in the short term. That danger remains, but I wanted to be a bit more upbeat today, by focusing not on the short term dangers that still exist, but rather thinking about how our way of life might change in the longer term as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

It seems pretty clear that work for those of us employed in administrative and management roles in the service sector (defined in its widest sense), work will never be the same again. Many organisations in the public and private sectors who had previously been wholly dismissive of the idea that mass home working could be a good thing, have had their world view turned on its head. The genie is out of the bottle and conversations are already turning towards ways in which we can turn current office spaces into collaborative workplaces where homeworkers come together for one or two days a week to discuss projects and new initiatives. The banks of nondescript desks (or worse, divided cubicles) are likely to be significantly reduced in number, and organisations will be looking at ways to reduce their footprint in expensive rented office blocks in city centres and commercial districts. But as well as the place of work changing, it’s likely that we will also see a new approach to the way that work is managed. Management by outcomes will necessarily replace the presenteeism (monitoring staff by hours at the workplace rather than productivity or getting the job done); and there will be a change in the approach to working hours, with much greater flexibility to fit the working day around caring responsibilities, for example.+

And the shift to home working on a regular basis as a matter of course is likely to have other knock-on effects to our way of life. It seems inevitable that there will be a reduction in congestion and commuter-stress as less people routinely travel to and for work. More meetings will be conducted virtually through e-conferencing and shared working will exploit the functionality in on-line collaborative tools like Microsoft Teams and equivalent Google products. This should have a major positive impact on work:life balance as people spend less time getting to and from work and are less tired and anxious as a result. The shift away from city centres and commercial districts as business hubs could be bad news for the retail and hospitality businesses that depend on employees for much of their weekday trade. However, many of these have necessarily already changed their business models to cope with the last seven weeks of lockdown restrictions. It’s likely that decentralisation of businesses away from urban centres to suburban areas will be coupled with a continued expansion of home delivery services. It may even by the case that new businesses will spring up close to suburban and residential areas to cater for the needs of home workers who are looking for local workspaces outside their homes. A kind of cyber café but catering not just for nerdy teens, but also for home workers who need to spend some time in a more social space, or simply get away from the house for a while. It’s a kind of Costa Plus or Starbucks Extra offering – a decent working space and secure, high-speed internet connection and good quality coffee and carrot cake available to order!

More people spending more time at home could well lead to other changes too. Local shopping districts will benefit from greater footfall. People will have more time available for preparing and cooking food, and will have more disposable income as commuting costs are halved or more with the shift to mainly home working. Those local producers who have already introduced home delivery services for everything from fresh fruit and veg to meat, cakes, cheese, and beverages will be in a strong position to capitalise on this new market in the longer term. Deliveries will become more and more efficient as people are at home much more and available to receive products at the first time of trying.

The wider impact on communities could be truly revolutionary. As investment in high speed broadband is rolled out across the length and breadth of the UK, places that have historically been dormitories for workers travelling into regional urban centres could be transformed. Rural and former industrial areas that have become used to a daily morning migration to work in the nearest city will see more people spending time local to their homes and with income to spend. More than that, though, people who spend more time in their home communities are more likely to feel socially connected to that community and to take a more active interest in what is happening there. Parents working flexibly for at least some part of each week will have more time to support school activities; libraries (often already equipped with excellent internet connections) could become local support centres for home workers; sports clubs and leisure centres will have the opportunity to expand services to meet an increased demand from people who have more free time during weekdays and early evenings. Community pubs and local restaurants will become the places where people will go to meet and chat and fill the need for social engagement that was previously met in the office kitchen or around the apocryphal water-cooler.

It’s a vision of the future that has huge potential. Re-positioning work as part of a healthy approach to life that is centred in communities but virtually connected to the organisation and the wider world. The last seven weeks has given us a glimpse of what that vision could feel like in reality. I started this post with a quote from Charles Handy, and it is fitting that I should finish with one :

“We are all prisoners of our past. It is hard to think of things except in the way we have always thought of them. But that solves no problems and seldom changes anything.

Almost didn’t make it today

It’s been a close shave today. 27 days in and for the first time this November, I almost didn’t get round to publishing a post. An unexpected call earlier this evening meant that I spent two hours away from the house (and the laptop) doing something infinitely more important. I’m actually glad that I was able to respond to that call and to be there when I was needed. Blogging is quite a selfish thing to do : selfish in my case because quite a lot of what I write is about me; and also because (despite all appearances to the contrary) it does take some quiet time, away from everything else, to compose a daily blog. It’s a privilege that I don’t take for granted, and I know that I’m lucky to have the time and space to be able to do it. But it’s also important to keep things in perspective. I really do this for me – and I’m incredibly flattered that one or two others read this stuff and occasionally comment on it. But it’s really not that important in the great scheme of things, and this evening has reinforced for me the truth of statements like : enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. None of us know what’s around the corner, and living life as fully as we can, day by day, is a goal that we should all strive to achieve.

Normal inane drivel will return to this blog tomorrow. Keep smiling everybody!

Reflection on the UK/US politics in 2019

I’ve tried to steer clear of blogging about politics so far this year. The general election campaign in the UK and the impeachment hearings in the US are dominating the news programmes, and both stories are incredibly depressing. Last Saturday’s Haiku verses seemed to go down well with the reader of this blog, so I’ve used the format to give some form to my thoughts on politics in the UK and US at the moment. I’ve left them as a series, although each is also capable of standing on their own. They’re a bit downbeat and defeatist, I’m afraid, but that’s kind of where my head is with all this at the moment.

Politics '19
On the altar of ego
Truth is sacrificed

Liars parading
Feeding prejudice and fear
Stirring base motives

Immigrants are tarred
Remainers labelled traitors
Others all to blame

Votes can't fix this mess
However you cast your vote
Politicians win


					

Learning from the past to understand the present

I was struck by a story from my neck of the woods on the BBC News website today.

The Welsh Assembly’s Culture Committee has released a report into its review of history teaching in Wales; and among the recommendations is some clearer direction and guidance on the key historical events and topics in Welsh history that must be covered as part of the national curriculum here.

It’s only been fairly late in life that my own lack of history education has become really clear to me. I only did one year of formal history after the age of 14, completing an accelerated ‘O’ level (yes – I’m THAT old) in the UK’s social and economic history (effectively the story of the Industrial Revolution). Prior to that, the only thing that I remember from secondary school history lessons is some stuff about the Tudors. This has meant that my understanding of why things are as they are in the UK, British Isles and European continent has been severely underdeveloped. I am grateful that two books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the last twelve months have started to fill in the gaps for me. I have previously reviewed Fergal Keane’s excellent memoir on the history of the island of Ireland on this blog. And I mentioned earlier this month that I was currently reading Simon Jenkins’ A Short History of Europe from Pericles to Putin. I will write a fuller review of this one later in the month.

What I wanted to reflect on today though was the fact that it is only through reading these histories that I have come to a fuller understanding of the challenges that the UK now faces as it wrestles with conversion of the Brexit referendum result into something that can work in practice. Only those with no appreciation of the history of the island of Ireland, the political compromises inherent in the creation of the Republic of Ireland; and the social, political and emotional knots that had to be untangled in creating the Good Friday Agreement, can believe that anything approaching a border between Ireland and Great Britain could ever be acceptable.

Similarly, understanding that the European Union’s roots are firmly embedded in the series of diplomatic and commercial partnerships that emerged after 1945, is critical to an appreciation of why so many French and German politicians in particular find it so hard to understand the UK’s position. The EU as we know it today has been a gradual journey from an initial steel and coal cartel in western Europe, to a wider Economic Community and then the European Union as we have it now. Its origins are very much in a desire to ensure that there could never be another major conflict in Europe; and to provide some social democratic barrier to the emergence of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in the late 1940s and into the 1950s.

It’s interesting to speculate whether part of the reason why a small majority of people voted in favour of Leave in 2016 is because most people’s knowledge of 20th Century UK history is focused on the World Wars and the causes of them, rather than on the 75 years since and the peace and prosperity that has been achieved through closer collaboration with our continental neighbours. Similarly, in a Welsh context, I am embarrassed to say that I had virtually know understanding of the resentment that was generated in mid and north Wales as a result of the flooding of Welsh communities to provide water to English Cities. Cofiwch Dryweryn as a movement and rallying point for Welsh independence was a wholly closed book to me as a child growing up in Cardiff.

So on balance, I find myself supportive of calls for a common core to history curriculums. A series of themes and topics that helps today’s children to better understand their local history, their place in the United Kingdom, and the reasons why the European Union emerged and is so fiercely defended on the continent, seems to me like a very good thing to be doing – irrespective of whether we end up Leaving or Staying.

How have we come to this?

Every now and then I stumble across something that makes me wonder how on earth we got to this state. Admittedly, this does happen more often now than it used to when I was younger; and I would grudgingly admit that I have recently become more grumpy about things that would have passed me by completely a decade or two ago.

Today’s double-take moment came with a Tweet that referred to today as “World Kindness Day”. Initially, you think : ‘Oh! That’s nice’. But then you think : what sort of world are we living in that it’s necessary to designate a special day to remind people to be kind? Surely kindness is as natural in the human condition as breathing? Who are these people who spend so much time being unkind that we need to have a special day to remind them that courtesy, decency and looking out for one another might be worth a try?

But then I thought about it again and it suddenly all became very clear. So much of our public discourse now is mediated through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like, and so much of the content on those platforms is nasty, brutish and short. It is much easier in 280 characters to launch an ad hominem attack on someone with whom you disagree, than it is to attempt to engage that person in debate. And the lack of forums in which people can properly engage with ideas rather than rubbishing the people who hold those ideas, has percolated into our wider public discourse. Worse than that, the ubiquity of social media and our obsession with it, means that all too often we walk around with our eyes fixed on our screens, so utterly self-absorbed that we miss out on the chance to see opportunities to be kind.

Anyway, I hope that you have had the chance today both to do something kind, and to be on the receiving end of a kindness.

Day 8 : A departure from the daily challenge

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas’ beautiful, anguished poem seems appropriate for today’s blog post. It’s a departure from the November daily challenge theme, but I hope you’ll forgive that. For the second time this year, a team in work were today coming to terms with the untimely death of a colleague. Grief affects people in different ways and over different timescales; but the initial shock and overwhelming sadness is common to everybody on first hearing the news. That was the general mood in the team this morning. But it soon began to develop into something else : a realisation that so much of what we get anxious or irritated about is so inconsequential in the great scheme of things. There is – quite literally – so much more to life.

So as I drift into this weekend, I am resolving to care less about the things that matter so little; and to pay much more attention to the things that are truly important. My commitment is to rage against the dying of the light by seeking to reflect the light and lightness of life much more brightly.

Well – that came around quickly…

It’s fair to say that I am now a regular blogger. As long as your definition of “regular” is daily for thirty days in November each year. I’ll be honest, I came very close to not bothering this year. November is actually turning out to be a very busy month for me – personally and professionally. The paradox, of course, is that busy-ness is what makes blogging that much easier. The more I do, the more material there is to describe and reflect on. So, on balance, (and despite your groan of despair, dear reader!), I am going to embark on another monthly blogging marathon.

What is different this year, though, is that I am going to take some inspiration from the “New Things November 2019” action calendar that was sent to me by C. recently. To be clear, the message that went with the screenshot of the calendar was : “Not sure if you were thinking of blogging during November but this could be an alternative maybe? Something away from a screen – well mostly!” With my best interests at heart, the intention was to get me to NOT blog, but to do a load of different things instead.

My counter-suggestion of combining the two – trying a load of new things AND blogging about the experience, elicited the text equivalent of an exasperated sigh! Anyway, I’m committed now. And today’s task – to make a list of new things to try out this month – has been completed for me by the Calendar itself. Tomorrow, I will be “broadening my perspective and reading a new paper, magazine or website”. If you have any ideas on what I should have a look at, please comment below and let me know. As long as they are legal and accessible, I’m prepared to put aside my prejudices and have my horizons broadened!

Introducing Flo

At about this time last year, I wrote about the psychological warfare that was being waged against me by my wife and daughter in pursuit of their goal of securing agreement to us buying a dog. It was a carefully orchestrated campaign, and one that led to a final, grudging acknowledgement that a dog might be a good thing for us to own at some future point.

Fast forward twelve months, and I am delighted to confirm that my resolve has held firm. We still don’t have a dog. We are though, some four months into a house share with a far more manipulative addition to the family.

Introducing Flo.

Flo (or Florence to give her her full name) is a British Blue, a short hair breed that loses very little hair and so meets the dual test for any four legged incomer to this house : maximum cuteness and minimum stimulation of allergic reaction!

It’s fair to say that Flo pretty much now rules our house in a way that I would have thought unthinkable when we first brought her home. She spent the first two hours with us hiding under the sideboard in the living room but she has definitely found her feet since. There is literally nowhere that is now out of bounds to her.

I’ll be honest, I never considered myself to the sort of person who’d end up with part-ownership of a cat. Having been allergic to fur since childhood, even spending time in a house where there’s a cat usually leads to much sneezing and wheezing. I’d looked on cats as being somewhat aloof. However, I’m increasingly coning around to the idea that you don’t really ever own a cat. Rather, the cat becomes the centre of the home, deigning to all you to share her space – but always on her terms. Jean Cocteau describes this co-existence perfectly : “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.”

However, it is H.P. Lovecraft who perhaps best sums up what it is to share your life with a cat : “In its flawless grace and superior self-sufficiency I have seen a symbol of the perfect beauty and bland impersonality of the universe itself, objectively considered, and in its air of silent mystery there resides for me all the wonder and fascination of the unknown.”

In case it’s not already abundantly clear, I’m smitten with our kitten!