Monday, 22 May 2017

An intake of breath

I’m in the grip of nervous anticipation; this week I will have my first conversation with Chantelle, an enterprising young woman and entrepreneur, based in South Africa, who, whilst studying to become a clinical psychologist, has found the time to establish a charity, Educating Athletes, which seeks to support aspiring athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds through their secondary education, by providing financial, academic and emotional assistance. Chantelle and I have been paired through the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme, with whom I have been a mentor since the Programme was established. The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, in partnership with Comic Relief and the Royal Commonwealth Society, created the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme in honour of The Queen’s 60 years of service to the Commonwealth, with the goal of helping the next generation to achieve their aspirations.

Chantelle will be my third Queen’s Young Leaders mentee and I can’t wait to get to know her. I hope in some small ways I can help her achieve her goals. I find it immensely rewarding being a mentor; I learn so much from the people to whom I am introduced, not just about them, their challenges, visions and hopes, but also I gain an insight into myself, and a better appreciation of what I value. The Young Leaders really are inspirational – they blow new energy and insights into me, and the others who come into contact with them. (The etymology of “inspirational” comes from the Latin “spirare” meaning “to breathe” and was originally used to refer to a divine or supernatural being imparting a deep truth or idea – each of the Leaders I have met to date is driven by strong personal values and a vision of what they hope to achieve).

If you are interested in mentoring an extraordinary young person, and, by doing so, helping them to make the world a better place, then contact Frances Brown, the Education and Mentoring Director for the Programme. She is based at Cambridge University, in the UK and her email is Over the course of its five-year life span, the Programme aims to discover, celebrate and support young people from every Commonwealth nation to transform their own lives and the lives of others around them. I have had the good fortune to mentor Edmund, who is based in Kenya and has founded a thriving charity, the Xavier Project, that is now functioning in a number of countries, it provides support to refugees and their families; and a young lady, Seini, who works as a volunteer in Papua New Guinea and champions equality for women and the necessity of learning from past generations so as to reduce the negative impact of decisions that we make and the actions we take now.

In some ways, Seini’s vision is the theme of the ballet I went to see on Saturday night - Ghost Dances, performed by Rambert at Sadler’s Wells

Ghost Dances was inspired by the moving book written by Joan Jara, the widow of the Chilean teacher, theatre director and folk singer, Victor Jara, who was kidnapped and then murdered shortly after General Pinochet’s brutal coup in 1973. Joan wrote her heart-rending record of events in Victor: An Unfinished Song, it describes the rise and then loss of this inspirational and creative man.

Victor Jara
Her words have moved others into confronting the horrors of oppression and have inspired many to strive for a compassionate and more humane world. Chile suffered a period of intense and ruthless repression following the coup, an estimated 35,000 civilians were put to death and thousands more imprisoned and tortured. Ghost Dances was last performed at Sadler’s Wells 14 years ago, which is where I first saw it. The memory of that performance has stuck with me as if it was yesterday. Each time I have seen the ballet I have been reduced to tears. I remain appalled by the horrific manner in which we treat our fellow man – we seem incapable of learning from our past - look at the ghastly bombing in Manchester this week, the ongoing war in Syria, terrorism in Nigeria, Sudan and Mexico, the list feels endless. We will only change the world for the better if we take personal responsibility and inspire others to do the same.

Some who disappeared in Chile during Pinochet coup
picture taken during demonstration in Santiago on 40th anniversary of coup.

So, what makes a person inspirational?

Do people who inspire have to have overcome something in order to make an impact on others? Probably not, but they do need to demonstrate bravery, hence the phrase “having the courage of their convictions”. Most of the inspirational people I have known have willingly walked a different path from those around them and have not been afraid to buck the trend. My grandmother has been a major source of inspiration for me (and still is, despite no longer being here to act as my mentor) – she was born the illegitimate daughter of a housemaid in rural southwest Scotland. Through her own drive and determination she studied hard, qualified as a nurse, emigrated, married an engineer (who was involved in pioneering exploration in the Middle East) and she herself became a significant influence in the region and in London on their return. Her husband died when she was still young, but she raised two children – both of whom became notable people – my father was the Attorney General of Hong Kong, he is an exceptional lawyer and remains a Bencher of Middle Temple, and his sister married my father’s best friend from Cambridge and became the wife of the Lord Mayor of London as well as a champion of charitable causes. Humble roots need not hold you back if you have values, drive and determination. My grandmother was very popular with my father’s friends - her flat became a haven, a place where they could study and debate topics of interest. She always encouraged people to think, to believe in themselves and to act with integrity. Every day I think of her (and miss her) but her spirit and lessons, in how to live life well, remain with me.

My grandmother

Inspirational people clearly care – and are usually driven by a greater cause, rather than their own self-aggrandisement.

They have an understanding of their environment and are aware and appreciative of others, but they are also self-aware and comfortable in their own skin. Empathy and authenticity – both are needed to carry people with you.

Most of the inspirational people I have met have been humble and very grateful for the opportunities they have had – be that an education or the ability to mix with and help others and/or the assistance others have given to them – they seldom seem to appreciate that people give to them and support them in their cause because of who they are and what they do.

A person cannot be inspirational through fine words alone – they need to “walk their talk”. I know that I will never be inspirational because, all too often, I fail to follow my own advice, when I should be leading by example. For example, I work stupid hours instead of spending time with precious loved-ones. I’m not aware of anyone when on their deathbeds saying: “Thank goodness I finished that extra spread sheet” – in the modern workplace it is all too easy to get sucked into the morass of demands and timelines and thereby lose sight of what’s important.

Working late - by TULP
Most inspirational people are surprisingly pragmatic and well-grounded – they know their goals, but are willing to adapt the path and pace in order to ensure that they get there. They seldom take themselves too seriously as they know that the praise and accolades (when they come) are for what they do and not just for who they are. In ancient Rome a victorious General was permitted to process in Triumph in a four-horse chariot through the streets, wearing a laurel crown and a toga of imperial purple. For that day he was viewed as above other mortals and near divine. However, he was required to conduct himself with dignified humility - a slave would travel with, standing behind him in the chariot, whispering reminders of his mortality to help him escape hubris. The Ancient Greeks and Romans even had specific goddesses who enacted retribution against people who succumbed to hubris – in the ancient Greek religion it was Nemesis and in Roman times, Invidia.

A panel from a Roman sarcophagus showing the Triumph of Marcus Aurelius
Capitoline Museum, Rome

Truly inspirational people do not engender envy in others, instead they encourage people to become the best they can be.

Inspirational people seem to breathe encouragement and confidence to do the right thing into those around them. No wonder I am waiting to speak with Chantelle with bated breath and a degree of nervous anticipation. It is nearing my time to inhale.

"Breathe" - Pink Floyd

Breathe, breathe in the air
Don't be afraid to care
Leave but don't leave me
Look around and choose your own ground

For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry
And all you touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be

Run, rabbit, run
Dig that hole, forget the sun,
And when at last the work is done
Don't sit down, it's time to dig another one

For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race toward an early grave.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017


This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, but I, and many others, live with mental health issues much of the time.  I could talk to you about depression and the importance and value of being there for friends with a range of mental health problems, however, the matter I would like to share here is the struggle of coping with dementia in a loved one. Although not a mental illness per se, dementia is a "mental disorder" that is defined by a reduction in cognitive capability, with the cause originating in the brain.
    "Dementia is an 'umbrella' term used to describe a collection of symptoms associated with physical changes in the brain which result in the gradual loss of mental functions such as memory and the ability to use words or to carry out previously familiar tasks.
Dementia encompasses a number of conditions, the three most common being:
      ·      Alzheimer's disease, which accounts for approximately 60 per cent of cases
      ·      Vascular dementia (20 per cent)
      ·      Lewy body dementia (15 per cent).”         
definition provided by the Social Care Institute for Excellence, London

  • There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025. This will soar to 2 million by 2051.
  • 225,000 will develop dementia this year, that’s one every three minutes.
  • 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia.
  • 70 per cent of people in care homes have dementia or severe memory problems.
  • There are over 40,000 people under 65 with dementia in the UK.
  • More than 25,000 people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups in the UK are affected
  • The forget-me-not is widely used as a symbol in healthcare to indicate a person suffering from dementia - in hospitals the flower is placed in patients' files and above beds so that nurses and staff can easily identify individuals and plan their care accordingly.

Almost a year ago my mother was rushed into hospital with sepsis and two pulmonary embolisms – one on each lung. A mix up between her doctor, the local pharmacy and herself resulted in her being taken off blood thinning drugs nearly 18 months ago, but not having the alternative medication prescribed to her provided by the chemist and as a result she developed blood clots that moved into her lungs. A brain, like any other living thing, when starved of oxygen, begins to die. The clots and sepsis, by preventing oxygen circulating, have exacerbated my mother’s early-onset dementia. She will suffer from cognitive impairment and poor mental health until she dies.

There are various signs that can, and in my mother’s case do, indicate dementia:

  • Trouble with memory (most commonly short-term memory issues – such as being unable to remember what was for lunch, while still being able to list all the actors in the amateur dramatics production in which she played the lead role over 50 years ago)
  • Having problems finding the right words – even common words used every day
  • Confusion – I am mistaken for my mother’s cousin (over 30 years my senior) and she has introduced me to my sisters explaining to me that she has 3 daughters
  • Being forgetful/misplacing things – such as keys, hair-combs or her purse
  • Loss of her sense of direction – she does not trust herself to find her way home or to direct me if I drive her to places
  • Fear of doing things or being left in a place that is not familiar
  • Becoming repetitive (my youngest son says this is a blessing, as she can relive the pleasure of hearing good news a number of times during a conversation, for example, each time it is repeated, during the course of a meal)
  • Losing the plot – quite literally. I took my mother to the theatre and she struggled to follow the storyline of the play and at times she struggles to participate in a conversation.
  • Unable to perform daily tasks – my mother can no longer cook for herself and, unless encouraged to do otherwise, would probably happily remain in bed
  • Mood changes – it’s odd, my mother used to have a fierce temper and was very demanding, but now she seems content in herself, despite the above list of problematic symptoms. She is not in pain, she sleeps well and is happy.
  • Change in a fondness for certain foods or tastes - my mother has developed a very sweet tooth and now no longer enjoys fizzy drinks
  • Losing time - often my mother is unaware of the day or year, although her passion for wildlife means she is usually aware of the season.

In many ways it is harder for those who knew her earlier in her life to cope with the change – my aunt, my mother’s younger sister, finds the current situation deeply distressing. Most of the time my mother is unaware of the alteration that has happened in just a year. For me, at times, the situation is heart breaking. I hate the fact that my sons will never know the fiercely intelligent, fascinating, attractive woman that she was (and to me still is).

The pint is not hers!

If you are interested in understanding dementia, or even if you are not, I urge you to watch Barbara’s Story – a film developed by nurses at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals in London. It is a powerful film about Barbara and her experiences during a hospital visit. It was designed to raise awareness of what it is like to suffer from dementia and to enhance the way we interact with a person who suffers from the condition. It is used for training of medical staff and others and has been shown to numerous people around the world. Be warned, you may find it very emotional to watch. There are six films in total compiled here into one viewing.

It is only by talking about mental health that we can end the stigma. Mental health is a struggle but it is not a disgrace (and it is a struggle not just for those suffering, but also for those people who love and care for the people who are afflicted). Intolerance, indifference and cruelty are disgraceful. I am here because I want to try to help, to understand and to offer what support I can. If you want to talk I will listen.

If you want further information or someone else to speak with try these:

·   Samaritans available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you need a response immediately, it's best to call on the phone. This number is FREE to call. 116 123 (UK)

·       MIND, the mental health charity: Website ☎ 0300 123 3393

·       Rethink Mental Illness: Website ☎ 0300 5000 927

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Returning with a spring in my step

I have really missed writing this blog, but there are times in all of our lives when other priorities need to take precedence over our own pleasures – if we care about other people then we cannot put ourselves first. Since I last touched a keyboard my family has suffered death, illness and deep disappointment and my job has been the most demanding I can remember in what is a long career. 

I write this because I enjoy doing so; it is very satisfying finding out relevant information and verifying my facts. However, it is a personal indulgence and not a necessity. I have missed putting words on a page, and now that things feel a little calmer, I’m back.

Louis Warner Sculpture - Returning
It feels appropriate to base this piece on communication (as, to me, that is what a blog is all about – even if I am only talking to myself). 

Photograph by Saratola Ban
Today is International Dawn Chorus Day – a chance to listen and recognise one of Nature’s daily wonders. I am fortunate in that when I am in Somerset, with my mother and sister, I listen to the Dawn Chorus most days – the power and quantity of birdsong is much greater than you will hear during most of the rest of the day. (Today the Chorus in London was quite restrained, but there was excellent BBC coverage, with live coverage from India to Ireland, from midnight until nearly 6.00am earlier today.) 

wren singing on hawthorn
There are many theories as to why birds sing first thing in the morning – some say that it is due to “temperature inversion” – when a layer of cold air is trapped close to the ground by a warmer layer above.  The boundary between these layers acts like an acoustic mirror reflecting the sound, so that it travels further. In addition, dawn is a good time to communicate (as the light is less good for foraging, and a bird might as well do something useful once it is awake), perhaps most importantly, singing at daybreak enables a bird to signify to rivals and prospective mates that it has survived the night, is in robust health and able to put on a good show. More promiscuous birds, such as blue tits and reedbuntings, may opt for a bit on the side courtesy of a Dawn Chorus introduction (so the Chorus is an avian aural form of Tinder), while others, who are fiercely territorial (such as blackbirds and robins), use it as an opportunity to intimidate their adversaries. I suspect the message for many of us from the Dawn Chorus is the importance to take best advantage of the opportunities available and select times to communicate that will ensure maximum impact and optimum outcomes.

I have just finished reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty – my CEO gave it to me as gift, as it had made him laugh. It is an excellent read – a witty, no-holds-barred, satirical take on attitudes towards racism and society in the USA. There is one statement, made by the main character near the end of the book that has stuck with me:

“I think about my own silence. Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear. I guess that’s why I’m so quiet and such a good whisperer, nigger and otherwise. It’s because I’m always afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep.”

Given the prevalence of elections (France is voting for its new president today – either Macron or Le Pen will be a clear break with tradition, my guess is that Macron will win; the UK has an election in early June; and Germany goes to the polls in September), we should all be mindful of the promises politicians make and the likelihood of their being able to honour what they say. Similarly, we, the people, need to make our thoughts and hopes known. We must appreciate that the inclination towards remaining silent and not making a stand for what is important can have severe repercussions. Not turning out to vote is as damaging as voting for something because you don't believe that what you are voting for will actually happen, just to "make a statement". We need integrity and determination to see us through the challenging times ahead.

Earlier this year there was an atrocious terror attack on members of the public and a policeman on Westminster Bridge near the UK Houses of Parliament on 22nd March. I am a governor of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and we discussed the medical response to the attack at our recent Board and Governors’ meetings. Everyone was immensely proud of the way in which medical and other staff of the Trust responded - rushing to provide support (St. Thomas’ Hospital is located at the opposite end of the bridge to where the attack occurred). However, we were bemused by the decision to take casualties to various hospitals a significant distance from the disaster site when St Thomas’ was so near and had appropriate facilities – the decision as to where casualties should be taken was part of the wider London terrorist attack plans that had not previously been communicated to the Trust.  These plans, that ensure that there is a pre-determined response in the event of a terror attack or other incident, were devised by the Department of Health and NHS England – I appreciate the need for secrecy and tight security measures, but perhaps further consideration regarding the proximity of leading hospitals and medical facilities and the sharing plans with relevant parties would make things easier if there is ever such an awful event in the future.

Duke of Cambridge visiting St Thomas' Hospital in London
to thank staff who helped during the terror attack
Press Association photo
After the horrors of the terror attack in March, London felt different. On the 23rd I went in to work as usual but the tube was surprisingly quiet at rush hour – many people chose to travel by bus, rather than using the tube, or stayed at home, perhaps after seeing the numbers of police guarding the entrances to Underground stations. The blog London Wakes, written in response to the occurrence by my friend David D’Souza, resonated with me. In this post he urges people to “build a bridge”. He is right, like Beatty’s comment in The Sellout, silence is often the product of fear and if we want a safer environment we need to speak, discuss and understand. Elaine Dang was a victim of the terrorist attack in Nairobi in 2013 when al-Shabaab opened fire in a shopping mall killing 67 people. After the event she remained traumatised long after her physical wounds had healed. She came to appreciate that the only way to dispel her fears was by enhancing her knowledge and awareness, in her case of Muslims and Islam. Since 2013 she has gone out of her way to learn and make connections and now she appreciates that the heinous actions of a few do not justify labelling a whole group as dangerous and she is no longer afraid; we all need to engage and gain understanding, especially with and from groups and people we don’t know well, if we are going to make the world a better, safer place. Hiding from the unknown, sharing in “group-think” (by only communicating with like-minded people who support our own world-view) exacerbates distrust and misunderstanding.

Photograph by Daisuke Takakura
In a much smaller way, after the Westminster terrorism event, I made this discovery for myself. That week I was trapped working late on the Friday and only escaped the office after most people had been out for hours, celebrating the end of a traumatic week. There was a very noisy crowd at the tube station when I got there – of particular note were a group of men, who had clearly been having a good time and were raucous. I kept my head down and tried to avoid catching their eyes (how very British of me). However, they got into the same tube compartment as I did and their loud banter continued. One of them deliberately sat down beside me and became insistent on starting a conversation. Not wishing to seem rude or wanting to attract further attention from the wider group, I responded, cautiously at first. It transpired that they worked for a subsidiary of a large German bank and that they had indeed been socialising for hours. A senior colleague was over from the States. He had been very kind, when one of them had been working in America, and they wished to return the hospitality. He had taken their colleague to a Blues bar so, having shown him a traditional British pub, they were heading off to see The Stranglers in concert at The Academy in Brixton.

Stranglers playing at Brixton Academy March 2017
I asked what the man I was talking to usually did in his spare time and he told me he wrote. It transpired that he used to work night shifts, which impacted on his ability to spend time with his daughter. He used to read her a story before he left for work but after a while she said she wanted him to tell her something different. He asked her what she wanted to hear about and she gave him some ideas and named some familiar objects – this was the start of his making up stories for her. Each night he would tell her the tale he had crafted during the previous night’s security shift, before being given the subject matters for the story for the following day. He has five year’s worth of tales crafted with love and his story made me see him as a sensitive and caring man, rather than the intimidating person he had seemed to me when he got on the train and forced me to speak. I walked home with a grin and a spring in my step. The world is a surprisingly good place – and made even better when we communicate.