Monday, 27 October 2014


Some years ago my father was invited to attend the sixth Commonwealth Lawyers Association’s conference, in Nigeria. It was an eventful session, held in Lagos, and he and his fellow delegates experienced various adventures, including a late night knock on a hotel bedroom door – when opened, a handbag was flung over the sleepy occupant’s head into the room, the woman, who had rapped on the door and was standing in the corridor, commenced shrieking at full volume “He’s got my bag and he won’t pay me.”, implying that the poor lawyer had retained her for her charms, but then expelled her from the room without compensation. 

Another member of the party was arrested for taking a photograph of Taiwo Olowo’s Monument (an interesting cenotaph to a basket-weaver’s apprentice who rose to high political office and whose memorial is reputedly made from melted down pennies donated for the purpose). The Lawyer, whilst recording the sight, inadvertently also took a picture of a person who happened to be standing near the railings. This bystander vehemently insisted that, because his photograph had been taken, his image and hence his soul was now inside the camera and so the camera should belong to him. A policeman was summoned, who agreed with the stranger’s argument, and so the unfortunate lawyer, who refused to relinquish his camera, was incarcerated until his colleagues rescued him. 
Taiwo Olowo’s Monument 
The group of lawyers seemed to be cursed with bad luck, an impression compounded when my father fell ill.

"Head Ache" by George Cruikshank
Published in 1819
My father’s symptoms were odd, in addition to severe stomach pains, a high fever and facial swelling, blood seeped from his eyes, he found light uncomfortable and whenever a person reached a hand towards his head his hair stood on end. In concern his colleagues asked the hotel to source a doctor. A smartly dressed gentleman in a suit arrived carrying a traditional doctor’s bag. He took my father’s pulse and blood pressure, listened to his breathing with a stethoscope and then, with a degree of assurance, announced, in a thick accent: 
“Sah, I know what’s wrong with yo’. Every night a juju demon comes to yo’ room, to grapple fo’ yo’ soul. He holds yo’ by yo’ hair, while trying to grab yo’ spirit, an, as he battles for control, he hurts yo', hence yo’ bleeding and bruising.”
Although this opinion provided an explanation for my father’s hair-raising symptoms, he was sceptical as to the accuracy of the diagnosis. However, feeling dreadfully ill, he was keen to recover and so asked the doctor what could be done. 
“Well Sah, yo’ can trap it in a web of happy laughter, or, yo’ must leave and hope it’s a local juju that won’t come after yo’.”
Given the circumstances, happy laughter seemed highly unlikely, and so my father opted to leave. He boarded the next flight to London. On arrival in the UK he immediately took himself to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Central London, in the expectation that another doctor might propose some more comprehensive treatment.
"Trap it in a web of happy laughter!"
He was swiftly diagnosed as having Lassa Fever. Like Ebola, Lassa Fever it is a viral hemorrhagic fever with vile symptoms and can become an epidemic (technically a situation where there is an attack rate of at least 15 cases per 100,000 people for two consecutive weeks). My father was placed in isolation within the hospital and responded well to treatment. Unlike Ebola, Lassa Fever can be transmitted through an airborne route, and not just via contact with human bodily fluids; with hindsight he probably risked infecting others by flying out of Nigeria, although if he had remained it is most likely that he would have died. There was no known epidemic and at the time he did not appreciate what was wrong with him.

Multimammate rat
Lassa fever is usually caught from rat urine or feces
His illness came to mind because of the huge media coverage of the current Ebola epidemic. According to a World Health Organisation statement made this past weekend, almost 5,000 people have died of Ebola and over 10,000 have been infected to date.  The recovery rate in West African hospitals is often as low as 7/10. Part of the issue is that there are few modern medical treatment centres and, despite the efforts of brave specialists, such as Médecins Sans Frontières(MSF), people have little more than a bucket, disinfectant and salted water to treat infected individuals and protect other members of the family. MSF are now trying to speed up the availability of a vaccine. 
Ebola symptoms - not unlike Bubonic plague
Like Europe in the Middle Ages, there is fear and shame within the communities where the virus is prevalent. If epidemics are not controlled their impact can be devastating - in England 1.5 million people died from the Black Death (Bubonic plague) between 1348 and 1350 (out of an estimated population of 4 million).
Illustration of the Black Death from theToggenburg Bible from Switzerland (1411)
source: Wikipedia
The Hospital for Tropical Diseases is unique in the NHS; it is the only hospital that is specialist in tropical and travel related illness. As an aside, the establishment of the Hospital for Tropical Diseases echoes some of the current approaches towards treating people tackling Ebola in Africa. In 1821, following a meeting in the “City of London Tavern”, it was agreed that (with support from public funding and patronage of King George IV) a floating hospital, for the relief of the sick, would be established to treat people infected with tropical diseases. Initially the hospital was set up on a series of former naval ships, the first of which was HMS Grampus.  Just last week it was decided to send a hospital ship to assist people assisting with the Ebola virus. RFA Argus, a ship with a 100 bed medical complex, as well equipped as most NHS hospitals, set sail to Sierra Leone on Friday, loaded with supplies, equipment and personnel to provide support to members of the Armed Forces, specialists and aid workers who are building medical centres in West Africa and training local doctors and staff how best to treat the virus.

RFA Argus

As time progressed, the Hospital for Tropical Diseases decided that it needed a more permanent base and hence moved to dry land. We can all learn from the medical specialists’ foresight. It is important for people as well as organisations to move with the times.

A Tropical Disease ward, 1907
For an intelligent species, humans are surprisingly poor at change. This is, in my opinion, particularly the case within the workplace. The Chartered institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM) are currently working together to determine what the most effective workplaces could be like in the future. The majority of organisations still rely on command and control management styles and open plan office spaces with individual offices for managers and leaders, thereby reinforcing the hierarchy. However, in our rapidly varying environments, where:

  • swift responses are required
  • there is a cornucopia of information available on which to base decisions, and
  • technology and social media has broken down barriers to access

old-style management is, at the least, disadvantageous and can be detrimental to a company’s and its people’s ability to achieve objectives. The reasons for the problem are not surprising – most people in authority have learned their managerial skills within a traditional environment, so many managers still believe that the only ways of getting results are through authoritarian practices and management by attendance – emphasising obedience and physical presence over performance and outcomes. This problem can be exacerbated by the fact that narcissistic managers are frequently promoted into leadership roles, according to research from BI, the Norwegian Business School. In essence, bad bosses are more likely to land the top jobs, because they are the ones who possess the traits most likely to ensure that they are considered for promotion or selection – self-driven, vain, selfish, task-focused, but usually lacking vision and empathy. Most of us, at some time, have worked for someone we felt was a bad boss. Maybe they took credit for your work, criticised or continuously amended your contribution or simply rarely spoke to or included you.

Bad behaviour from the top filters down through an organisation. Poor leaders, especially self-serving ones, are disinterested or oblivious to the impact their behaviour has on others. Their eyes are fixed on their personal objectives, but they seldom take time to build rapport, trust and understanding with their team. Good managers appreciate that their actions will influence team motivation and hence performance. Research undertaken by the Hay Group shows a 30% differential in team performance that can be attributed to the culture within a workplace and that 70% of team culture is influenced by a manager’s interaction with their team. 
According to a survey undertaken last year by the Forum, 91% of employees feel that trust is crucial in their relationship with their manager, whereas only 48% of managers saw the value of a trusting relationship for both performance and retention. Perhaps opinions will turn – a US supermarket learning the hard way this summer – family owned Market Basket was reduced to chaos when 25,000 workers walked out, after they felt that senior management had betrayed colleagues and the former CEO (who was ousted in a coup by his cousins). Workers believed that Arthur T.(the popular CEO) was supportive and cared about the workforce, whereas his cousins, lead by Arthur S., were driven solely by greed and shareholder returns). Customers refused to cross the picket lines and suppliers rescinded contracts – at the height of the dispute it was costing the business $8.5 million per day. The cousins were forced to back down and the former CEO has been reinstated and acquired majority shareholding with external backing.
Market Basket employees and supporters on strike
in support of ousted CEO Arthur T.
Rather than learning the hard way and having hair-raising, loss-making experiences in business, we need to reconsider the environment and manner in which we expect people to work. People are sentient beings and it is individuals, not the workplace itself, that cause problems. We have the capability within us to learn from past mistakes, cease clinging to old practices and attitudes and face the future with collaborative optimism and honesty.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Looking Behind the Eyes

“For a while you could see the silent helpless suffering of the brain behind the eyes”
a quote from William S. Boroughs’ seminal novel “Naked Lunch” – a book that not only has had a fundamental impact on American literature/on-screen entertainment over the past fifty years (I suspect that “Breaking Bad” can trace its roots to Burroughs’ influence on what is deemed acceptable and/or a powerful form of satirical observation on society), but Burroughs’ work has also influenced Western culture and the way we think.  2014 is the centenary of Burroughs’ birth, he was born in the same year as the great Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas (another artist I admire and whose evocative words have influenced modern writing) both talented, but troubled, men who are hailed by their nations. I suspect that Burroughs has made the greater impact on global society. He certainly has influenced a wide number of writers and musicians (Burroughs is depicted next to Marilyn Monroe on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album; he made a huge on Patti Smith, she spent much of her youth hanging out with him and Ginsberg after meeting her soul-mate Mapplethorpe; according to Lou Reed the Velvet Underground would not have happened without him; Steely Dan who named themselves after a dildo in Naked Lunch; David Bowie - who used Burroughs’ Cut-up technique to create lyrics for his own songs – was clearly a fan as were many of the early punk bands, including the British group the Doctors of Madness, who themselves were a significant influence on the early European punk scene).

William S.Burroughs
Doctors of Madness’ lead singer/guitarist, Richard Strange, now an eclectic trailblazer of London’s underground Arts scene, was commissioned by the South Bank to put on the centenary celebration, “Language is a Virus from Outer Space” (another Burroughs’ quote) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as part of the London Literature Festival. I had the privilege of being invited to attend both the event and after-show-party by my friend Peter Cook. Peter is himself a capable musician with an interesting background in some ways not dissimilar to Burroughs’: having worked within both the pharmaceutical and higher education sectors before writing books and founding his business consultancy (Burroughs was a pest exterminator and his exposure to insect killing chemicals (“Bug Powder”) and cockroaches clearly formed part of his inspiration for Naked Lunch, Burroughs also taught at universities and wrote books, but there the similarity ceases as Peter is neither a Heroin addict nor guilty of man slaughter).

Doctors of Madness album cover - Figments of Emancipation
I think Burroughs would have enjoyed the evening that Richard created – a smorgasbord of dance, poetry, film, music and even a reunion of the Doctors of Madness (who had not played together since 1976), they were joined by Def Leppard’s Joe Elliot to sing “Suicide City”. A delightful French lady travelled from Lyon with her daughter, specifically to see the band – despite not speaking any English; she had been a hard-core fan in the 1970’s and, on hearing of the planned reunion, she came to London, armed with an original poster for her heroes to sign. She wept tears of joy while I translated her comments to the band’s remarkable electric violinist, Urban Blitz, and kept murmuring:

“Mon Coeur bat comme une adolescente.”

Death, madness, infatuation and a deliberate hunt for an alternative experience of existence were themes for the evening, an eloquent echo to Burroughs’ own life. Most of us seek escape occasionally – losing ourselves in a good book, drowning our sorrows, seeking refuge in the past (even to reliving the emotional infatuations or seeking the comfort of our youth). Burroughs’ obsession with hallucinogenic drugs epitomised his desire to encounter a different actuality. As an adult, he believed that his ability to write was grounded in the traumatic death of his common law wife, Joan.  He shot her when drunk at a party in Mexico. By reputation a fine marksman, he was aiming to shatter a glass balanced on top of her head, but proved to be no William Tell

Most people only know of Burroughs through Naked Lunch and David Cronenberg’s film of the same name.  What many fail to appreciate is that Burroughs was a complex man, who viewed himself as an outsider and who felt things deeply. In his old age he lived alone with cats as companions. In his autobiographical novella, The Cat Inside, there is a paragraph that hints at the man concealed from the public gaze: 
“I have said that cats serve as Familiars, psychic companions. “They certainly are company.” The Familiars of an old writer are his memories, scenes and characters from his past, real or imaginary. A psychoanalyst would say I am simply projecting these fantasies onto my cats. Yes, quite simply and quite literally cats serve as sensitive screens for quite precise attitudes when cast in appropriate roles. The roles can shift and one cat may take various parts: my mother; my wife Joan; Jane Bowles; my son, Billy; my father; Kiki and other amigos; Denton Welch, who has influenced me more than any other writer, though we never met. Cats may be my last living link to a dying species.”
Psychedelic Cats illustrated by Louis Wain
Wain suffered from Schizophrenia
You can deduce that William S. Burroughs understood whom the people were who had influenced and made him into the man he became. Each of us is shaped by the world around us. With hindsight I can understand why I have behaved as I have – for example, as a teenager I was insecure and desperate to feel loved. My parents had undergone an acrimonious divorce and, being a decade older than my siblings, and away at boarding school while they were growing up, I felt very exposed and alone. My now stepmother (with whom I have managed to establish a good relationship) banned me from living with her and her children and belittled me in front of her and my father’s friends. Her and my parents’ apparent disinterest hurt me deeply. Although I was precocious and superficially sophisticated I needed to feel cherished and cared for; after a few nights of sleeping in my car and using my gym for washing, I broke into my former family home, abandoned and derelict. I made myself a nest out of old curtains and towels and created for myself a strange place of refuge and comfort. It is partially in response to what happened to me and how it made me feel, that I now go out of my way to try and make life easier for others. I genuinely care, especially for those struggling with inner demons or individuals finding it hard to cope with change. It is not surprising that I was pleased to be one of the UK’s HR Directors supporting #HR4MH (HR for Mental Health) when the movement was founded on Twitter early in 2013.

I started writing this post on World Mental Health Day (10th October 2014), when I had the memorable opportunity of visiting St Andrew’s Healthcare – one of the UK’s largest mental health charities. Headquartered at St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, the charity was founded by public funds and a significant donation from the Spencer family (of Lady Di fame). The Northampton hospital opened in 1838. Its walls have witnessed the gradual change towards mental health support in England over the past 175 years. I had the privilege of chatting to an inspirational group of staff and patients – they told me of amazing achievements - on both personal and societal levels – St Andrew’s is pioneering change in the way that offenders are treated with psychiatric support as an alternative to prison sentences and can already demonstrate impressive reductions in reoffending; one of the leading clinicians within women’s mental healthcare has been instrumental in changing the law on rape in England and Wales; and some of the people I spoke with had turned their lives around with support from the charity. I spent time with a horticulturist who really understood the value of working with plants and seeing growth and development (my mother use to teach pupils in a deaf and blind school how to recognise plants by smell and touch and at times I would accompany her) – the healing impact of nature on people should never be underestimated.

Many famous people have struggled with mental health, former champion boxer Frank Bruno has been sectioned at St Andrew’s on a number of occasions, other well-known people who have suffered include: Buzz Aldrin, the astronaut; the poet John Clare; the world-renown politician and statesman, Sir Winston Churchill (who referred to his recurrent depression as his “Black Dog” that followed him wherever he went); the composer Malcolm Arnold (another resident of St Andrew’s); Jim Carrey the actor; the writer Charles Dickens, who suffered from depression; American President Abraham Lincoln, who battled depression and suffered severe anxiety attacks; Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher has lived with Bipolar Disorder and severe depression for decades; Billy Joel, the singer, admitted himself to hospital for treatment after a suicide attempt; the comic genius Robin Williams who, regrettably, lost his battle earlier this year; and my favourite author Mervyn Peake who suffered from Parkinson’s as well as dementia, (his family established a prize in his memory, to celebrate the creativity of sufferers), Peake was given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in a bid to cure him. Ernest Hemingway, the American author, committed suicide shortly after ECT in 1961, expressing concerns to his biographer over the treatment’s impact on his ability to think and remember.

It is clear, just from the above list, that mental health can touch people in all walks of life and ages. Indeed at least a quarter of us will suffer at some stage. I have experienced depression, initially triggered by an adverse reaction to malaria tablets, and know what it is like to feel trapped deep in a well of despair, unable and unwilling to connect with others. The feeling is worse than the isolation and misery expressed in the Rolling Stones’ ballad, “As Tears Go By”, although, for me, the song evokes some of my emotions at the time.

Rolling Stones “As Tears Go By” 

When I worked in the Financial Markets I became friends with the amazing Canadian director of a leading global bank. He established the Swaps markets, now a major instrument in global economics, and was captivatingly eloquent as well as very bright. He confessed to me that he was bi-polar – at that time he feared to make it public knowledge, as he dreaded the stigma and probable discrimination. His honesty and insight had a profound effect on my thinking. This weekend I had a discussion with a lady who is battling mental health and fears that she is losing much that she values and has fought so hard to achieve. She was at a low ebb as she could see her career slipping away. People are usually frightened by those who are different from them. Often it is easier to ostracise and remove opportunities, rather than being supportive. By doing so we risk losing out on amazing skills and outlooks that could make all of our lives better. I am writing this post to encourage you to think before you judge. I urge you to look behind the eyes and try to understand and ease the suffering.