Sunday, 27 February 2011

Journeys of hope and opportunity, no matter the weather

Tomorrow is the last day of what meteorologists call winter here in the UK. I heard this snippet last night on the weather forecast and it occurred to me that we all take so much for granted, even something as apparently mundane as the weather forecast. Most of us wouldn’t give a second thought as to what lies behind those few minutes of daily weather news.

Stunningly, the UK Met Office (the people responsible for our weather forecasts), employ more than 1700 people, and the Met is ranked the world's most accurate forecaster, using more than 10 million weather observations a day, an advanced atmospheric model and state of the art technology to create 3000 tailored forecasts and weather briefings a day!

It was Robert Fitzroy who is credited with making weather forecasting a reality. Fitzroy was by all accounts a remarkable person. Most famous for being the Captain of the HMS Beagle, on its world voyage which served as the inspiration for the equally famous Charles Darwin and his defining work: 'On the origin of species'. Interestingly, Darwin originally was studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, before being sent to the University of Cambridge to study a BA in theology in order to become a parson. That he met Fitzroy and accompanied him on voyage of discovery that lasted five years and as consequence, develop and publish so many challenging ideas, was pure serendipity.

Fitzroy, was also an accomplished author – publishing the 'Weather Book' in 1863. This book was said to be way in advance of the prevailing scientific opinion of the time. Rather more unsuccessfully, Fitzroy was also the second Governor for New Zealand (1843-1845).

And as we all now know, last Tuesday (22nd February) a massive earthquake hit the New Zealand South Island city of Christchurch killing some 146 people and causing massive damage to much of the city centre. As I write this blog some six days later, there are said to be still more than 220 people missing in Christchurch and the surrounding area. Thousands of other people have been affected. I have two children and four grandchildren living in New Zealand, thankfully they all live on the North Island and are fine.

The BBC’s use of a headline, ‘the people and city of Christchurch will recover’, made me think about the work of my colleague Julie Repper. A few years ago she wrote a thought provoking paper about discovery being the new recovery. For those of you who don’t know recovery is a concept used in mental health care that captures what Julie describes as the process of moving forward, of rebuilding a satisfying and meaningful life with mental health problems, of finding new meaning and purpose in one’s life. This process can become a personal journey of discovery.

Two qualities appear to be crucial in individuals being able to make this journey: hope and opportunity. Without hope (and this can be hope for all kinds of different futures) few of us would even begin the journey of discovery. Without opportunity (in particular to access the things we value and which give meaning to our lives) then the journey becomes futile.

As we think about the people of New Zealand facing what is perhaps their greatest natural disaster, embarking on what will be a long journey of discovery and recovery, we should also keep in mind that hope and opportunity are not qualities to be taken for granted if our own lives are to have purpose and meaning. Reminding ourselves of this occasionally is important, but sometimes difficult to do, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery noted: “on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”

Sunday, 20 February 2011

A Different Week, and a Different Beach, Revelations at Morcambe Bay

Monday was Valentine’s Day. At the end of the day I had more roses than Inter-flora, more chocolates than Thornton’s, and more cards than Hallmark… …well maybe that was a Valentine’s Day 30 years ago!

In reality this years Valentine's Day was a rather subdued affair but as it turned out, Monday was only the quiet before the storm. The rest of the week was a great deal more challenging and at times, exciting.

Monday afternoon was devoted to a leadership event which for lots of reasons simply did not capture my imagination. I felt the three and half hours might have been spent a great deal more profitably. When the facilitator told yet one more tedious story to illustrate her point, something about bus drivers and conductors, I fervently wished I was on the No 6 Bus traveling to somewhere sublime. I have said it many times in papers published on leadership and team working, but again reiterate the point that for me leadership (and team working) is better caught rather than taught.

Tuesday came and went in a blur of intense College Executive meetings; an afternoon of investigative interviews that at times were reminiscent of therapy, a very quick glimpse of the past/present/future and a glass of wine at Alistair’s leaving celebration. Wednesday there was more work to be done on the academic scoping exercise. This is an exercise aimed at exploring where possible synergies exist across the taught programmes in each of the three Schools. By the end of March we should, as a College, be in a position to take some decisions over what the future shape of the College might look like.

The exercise was prompted, in part, by the increasing turbulence in our operating environment – the NHS. The changes that are occurring and those the Government are planning, have far reaching implications for all health and social care organizations engaged in preparing the future workforce. Likewise, the last two days of the week were about working with colleagues to think about how the University could become more cost conscious as a way of dealing with the challenges raised by so much economic uncertainty

I have say I was skeptical about what it was we were being asked to do. My concern was why we were going off to the Midland Hotel, Morcambe Bay. Now my perception of this hotel (admittedly based upon the reviews in the Sunday Times Weekend supplement) was of an extremely over priced and over the top renovated Art Deco Hotel. I was perplexed as to why we were going to discuss cost consciousness while possibly spending so much money in the process.

The reality was very different. The deal the University had agreed with the Hotel was a really good one, (but let’s face it how many people want to spend time at a beach in North West England, during a cold grey February?), and despite having to battle through the rush hour traffic of Lancaster to get there, it was as cheap as staying at the University. We did however, have to endure spam sandwiches for lunch and there was no wine provided at dinner! Despite a multi-million pound renovation project I thought the hotel was already past its best. For the first time in some 20 years I found myself sleeping in a single bed… …not good.

On the other hand the two days of discussion, exploration and decision making were brilliant. I became, overnight a cost conscious convert and, have no doubt, will subsequently be described as a cost conscious evangelist. I was really turned on by the creative opportunities in being given organizational license to really change the way we view the world. And it is the way we view the world that makes the difference - we can really change things by role modeling our values and our vision. It was intoxicating stuff.

Whilst in the School of Nursing & Midwifery we had already started to think about and indeed implement some of the ideas exchanged at the retreat, there was much more to learn. The two days were a great opportunity to learn from others, and I can’t wait to get back to business tomorrow to share ideas and see what we can do. However, the two days also gave me pause for thought. Sometimes I can be too enthusiastic about what I feel, and that can turn others off big time. I  know that I need to take greater care over how I express myself and what it is I feel so as to keep others engaged – for me this will be an interesting challenge!

And of course it would be wrong to write a blog this week without mentioning the tremendous things going on in the Middle East. The wave of people power is truly astounding, and I have been an avid reader of every newspaper and TV report describing developments. My heart goes out to all of those who have chosen to raise their voice in protest over oppression. I feel humbled. Simply trying to compare my problems with those of people dealing with theirs on the streets of so many countries has been tough.

My problems this week have been many, but there has been one area that has dominated. This is my ongoing battle with HMRC over what they believe to be an underpayment of my taxes. Talking with them about this is very difficult. On average it takes some 18 minutes between the HMRC automatic answer service picking up and actually speaking to a real person. Having done this three times this week, it is sobering to think that is nearly an hour of my life wasted waiting for HMRC to speak to me.

Salt was rubbed into the wound yesterday as I listened to the news about Barclays and what appearred to be a very modest amount of tax paid on the profits made last year. Barclays are the 10th largest bank in the world. I can remember as a young man in 1974 closing my Barclays’ Bank account in protest of their investments in South Africa which encouraged segregated banks and other forms of racial division. Although I didn't go to University until much later in life, I can recall many University students at the time were being encouraged to apply for emigration to South Africa as a form of mass people protest.

It all seems tame now in comparison to what is going on today in so many of the Middle Eastern countries where people continue to be oppressed, and so many people are being killed and injured as they raise their protest.

Back here in the UK, I think its really important that we try and keep all these people in our thoughts and hearts.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Beaches, Lunches, Reading and Quiet Contemplation

This week has been one of quiet contemplation. I have been up in Scotland on a week’s annual leave. It is the first time I have been here at this time of the year. The weather has been a mixed offering of frost, ice, torrential rain, high winds and brilliant sunshine. Despite the fact that most places are closed until March, the compensations have been considerable.

The hills have been completely deserted, the woods empty of people, and the beaches places to walk upon without seeing anything move except the tide coming in and then going out again. However, it took me until Tuesday (some four days) before my mind cleared sufficiently and I was able to really enjoy the opportunity to truly relax.

Since then I have been able to let my hair down, as this picture shows. This photo did provoke some unkind comments about how many dog owners grow to resemble their dogs over time. As Billy Connolly might say, I prefer to think about it as a windswept and intresting look, and I am not talking about Cello.

One of my New Year resolutions was to try and have a proper lunch break once or twice in a week. In the six weeks since then, I have managed to do this only on three occasions. However, this week I have enjoyed a two hour lunch every day. The local village has a pub (The Anchor), with a roaring log fire, real beer, and enough of a vegetarian menu to make lunch interesting. Whilst my waistline has expanded considerably, my stress levels have tumbled and I even had a couple of after lunch naps – allegedly!

As some of you will know, I also have a voracious appetite for reading novels while away. At Christmas I bought a Kindle. I have found books much easier and quicker to read in this format. Ordering new books is also very easy. So having loaded up with a dozen new bestselling novels I was looking forward to sitting there, glass of wine in one hand, Kindle in the other. Well it simply refused to work, It was a frustrating start to the holiday and I am sure added to my inability to relax. Amazon managed to fix it remotely yesterday but my faith in this new technology has been challnged. I have never yet had a book that refused to open its covers to prevent being read.

Fortunately I did have three books in my work bag, Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference, and Arthur Kleinman’s Writing at the Margin. Not Lee Child, or Dan Brown I admit, but good reads nevertheless. I was reading these in part preparation to shape my thoughts for a paper on bricolage and the importance of context to mental health research and practice as explicated in therapeutic and research conversations. Kleinman’s work has been a favorite of mine. He’s a great anthropologist and his work is always fresh provocative and challenging. While constructing my PhD, I drew upon his thinking on the way our use of metaphors can help us better understand relationships.

Whilst I have not made much progress towards my paper, I have discovered why some older men start relationships with younger women. Apparently such relationships contribute to human longevity and the survival of the human species. Much evolutionary theory suggests that individuals should die of old age when their reproductive lives are complete, generally by age 55 in humans. Whilst late fatherhood provides no benefit for the older man’s personal survival, the pattern (of reproducing at a later age) has a positive effect on the population as a whole.

However, sitting in the Anchor this week and watching two or three couples with young children struggling to have a relaxing lunch has absolutely reinforced my view that with five children and five grandchildren I think I have already made a positive contribution to the population as a whole. I also discovered day time TV, so for me it might just be a case of recording every episode of Midsummer Murders, Jamie’s 30 minute meals and Come Dine with Me, booting up my Kindle more often, ensuring I have lunches built into my calendar, and counting the days to the next break!

And for all those good folks at HM Revenue and Customs, I had thought my contribution to the National Debit had been paid in full. Thank you for bringing to my attention the fact that over the last few years it clearly hasn't been. I am clearly in your debit. 

Friday, 4 February 2011

Gone for a Walk!

I have gone for a long walk on a lonely beach...

  back on the 13th!