Monday, September 01, 2014

The Ashya King debacle

About twenty years ago our daughter died from a brain tumour, so the story of Ashya King is a sombre reminder of how acutely painful things must be for his parents.

Not only that, but we were faced with much the same dilemma about proton beam therapy. In those days it was being used by an American hospital and at the time of our daughter’s illness a UK girl’s parents raised enough money to try it as their last resort.

Sadly it didn’t work and that little girl died, but no doubt many technical improvements have been made in twenty years. The medical advice we were given suggested proton beam therapy had no real prospect of success for our daughter. The limited researches we were able to carry out tended to confirm that.

So our daughter was given Temozolomide which was then an unlicensed but promising drug. We think it certainly added a few months to her life.

So how do the police become involved in such an impossibly difficult situation? How does it help Ashya’s parents even if the UK medical advice was right and proton beam therapy has no prospect of success? How does it help Ashya?

No doubt the errors of judgment and the nuances will come out soon enough, but it is surely appalling that they have to come out in a Spanish court. As far as I can see his parents merely wanted another roll of the dice, hoping to tilt the odds in Ashya's favour – just a little.

Who can blame them?

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Suicide: a big issue

Following the tragic death of Robin Williams, suicide has caught the public's attention, especially because of the sensational news coverage, about which Mary Hamilton had some trenchant criticisms (htp: Anna Raccoon). Hamilton showed how the reportage contravened the Samaritans' media guidelines, which aim to prevent the ripple of self-destructive behaviour that can come after a high-profile case.

A somewhat more responsible follow-up came in this weekend's Mail On Sunday, in which Fifi Geldof revealed her own history of depression and substance abuse. Although her difficulties appear to date from her parents' divorce, Geldof says, "Depression just exists. It doesn’t have to be for a reason." She also says that she never seriously considered suicide, because "there are people that would hurt. And quite frankly there’s been enough death in our family. It’s not something I would do to them." And several times, she refers to putting on a mask, so that even her father would not know what she was going through.

The Samaritans' guidance echoes that first point: "There is no simple explanation for why someone chooses to die by suicide and it is rarely due to one particular factor." And the second point is corroborated by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which lists some protective factors:

  • "Receiving effective mental health care
  • Positive connections to family, peers, community, and social institutions such as marriage and religion that foster resilience
  • The skills and ability to solve problems"
But as the Samaritans observe, "effective mental healthcare" is often not sought or provided:

"Most people who make suicide attempts or who die by suicide are not in contact with healthcare services in the month before their attempt or death. Only half of all people who die by suicide have ever been in contact with specialist mental health services.

"The medical and/or psychiatric conditions that could lead a person to take their own life are potentially treatable."

The third thing, the mask, is a challenge. I had a friend in a different town who had been showing signs of depression, yet when a mutual friend bumped into him one day and put him on the mobile to me, he seemed far brighter, perfectly normal even - and that was the last time we spoke. It happens to the roughest and toughest, too, as ex-SAS soldier Andy McNab recounts in "Seven Troop" - McNab contrasts the British Special Forces' lack of access to/ fear of accepting mental health care at that time with the US Army's, where counselling for these high-stress performers is routine and not seen as some kind of admission of failure or weakness. The problems of stigma and hiding rather than seeking help, are addressed in this heartfelt and disturbing article on TIP News.

Mental health issues are far more important than one might gather from TV news and drama programmes. The risk of being murdered in the UK is around 1 in 100,000 per annum, whereas suicide is about 12 times more common*. In the United States, the murder rate is higher - about 4.8 per 100,000 population - but still dwarfed by the suicide rate, which is very similar to Britain's. In Japan, one of the safest countries in the world in terms of violent crime, the contrast is even starker: 0.3 for murder, but 21.4 for suicide.

It's well known that suicide is more common among males than females, and the rate also varies with age, but there are surprising regional variations too. In small communities blips in the absolute figures make more of a difference to percentages, and stigma may also affect statistical reporting. That said, it would seem that far and away the worst risk for suicide is in Greenland (83 per 100,000), followed by Lithuania (31) and South Korea (28.1).

Contrariwise, and still bearing in mind the statistical caveats, we see that other nations can have a very high murder rate and yet be relatively unaffected by suicide - e.g. Haiti at 10.2 for murder, but apparently no recorded self-murder. However, for 70 out of 110 countries reporting in both categories, suicide is as big a problem as murder, often far bigger.

Perhaps these two categories could be taken as, respectively, very crude indicators of good social order, and (shall we say) good or healthy psychological order. At any rate, the World Health Organisation has said (in 2012) suicide prevention is "a priority condition globally... suicide is a major problem and... it is preventable... The lack of resources – human or financial – can no longer remain an acceptable justification for not developing or implementing a national suicide prevention strategy."

What are we doing about it in the UK?

Scotland chose to tackle this issue quite some time ago, and has seen significant progress:

"Since 2002 – when the target was originally set as part of the Choose Life strategy and action plan – we have seen an 18% reduction in the suicide rate across Scotland."

England followed - ten years later - with its "Preventing suicide in England: A cross-government outcomes strategy to save lives" - and produced its follow-up report a year on, here.

Better late than never.

______________________________

* (but the ONS suggests the figure is 8 in 100,000 instead - see page 3 here).


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Carswell on Tomorrow's News



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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Sponsored narratives

Almost all public narratives are sponsored. For centuries life was dominated by narratives sponsored by religious and political elites, although the word sponsored is perhaps a little mild for those rough and ready days.

The only other narratives must have been private local narratives conducted in the home, in the fields or the alehouse away from censorious ears. Mostly forgotten now.

These days the situation is much the same. Virtually every public narrative is politically or commercially sponsored although that particular dividing line has become blurred. Sponsored religious narratives are less common than they were. Sponsored academic narratives may or may not have political or commercial backers, but this is a complex area.

Sponsored narratives aren't necessarily false or even misleading, but sponsorship casts a shadow over their veracity. It corrodes the altruistic possibilities of human discourse, inserts covert sympathies, manipulates emotions and loyalties, inserts the levers of power into the very heart of our language. 

Sponsoring a narrative isn't purely a financial matter though. Money certainly comes into it, because publicity comes into it, but so do the endless subtleties of social caution and that ingrained fear of new ideas we all know too well. Above that we have the advisory phone call, the discreet lunch, the country house party, the raised eyebrow, the nudge, the wink and the old school tie. 

Even Marxism soon became a sponsored narrative after the Russian revolution. Many fell for it and quite a few wormed their way into UK governments. As working conditions improved, socialism morphed into just another sponsored narrative. Sponsored by unions, powerful bureaucracies, charities and well funded pressure groups. Eventually sponsored by government itself - all governments of whichever political hue.

So perhaps we who immerse ourselves in the fascinating possibilities of unsponsored narratives are not likely to achieve much apart from a few pinpricks. The reason is obvious enough – it’s why narratives are sponsored in the first place - to ensure that most people only encounter them.

For example the BBC only broadcasts sponsored narratives. I’m sure this accounts for its servile treatment of the Royal Family and why it still broadcasts shows such as Songs of Praise. In spite of the BBC’s left-leaning political sympathies, vague sympathy for the monarchy and the C of E are still sponsored narratives. On the whole, republicanism and atheism are not.

For the same reason, the BBC was bound to broadcast the orthodox global warming message simply because this is so obviously the sponsored narrative. In comparison with Big Green, climate scepticism is an unsponsored narrative, although there are hints that energy policy debacles may yet change all that.

UKIP too has problems with sponsored narratives. The supposed racism of UKIP voters is clearly a sponsored narrative, as is the fruitcake meme. UKIP will have to do something about that, most likely by avoiding genuinely radical reform. In other words, by avoiding unsponsored narratives and by easing its way towards more sponsored narratives. UKIP will have to become mainstream in order to become mainstream

Sponsored narratives are fact of life. We’ll never get away from them.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

The day I met the Queen

Actually, as far as I know I’ve never met the Queen unless she goes around in disguise. In which case she could be the woman with the ugly dog but I don’t think so. Yet what if I did meet her unexpectedly in an informal setting?

Imagine a gentrified provisions shop out in the country somewhere. Instead of driving past we stop for a little smackerel of something. While we’re mulling over a tempting cheese counter, in walks this little old lady in a headscarf. By the way, speaking of cheese, never buy Stinking Bishop – it’s outstandingly unpleasant.

To continue. Something tells me the headscarfed one is Her Royalness, so what do I do? Now as I’ve never met the Queen, I’m not primed with the peasant’s section of the royal protocol manual (73rd edition), such as no high fives and no backslapping bonhomie.

However, even without the manual I’m sure I’d dredge up some kind of appropriate behaviour. I’d be suitably polite and deferential of course - and not just because the big chap next to her might have a machine pistol tucked into the waistband of his trousers.

The point I’m making with this absurdly improbable scenario is that I’d still manage to dredge up certain behaviours I’d never actually used before. So if I’ve never used them before, where did they come from?

Lots of places obviously – TV for example, but maybe the most interesting answer has to do with our repertoire of behaviours. We’re pretty good at adapting to circumstances, even those we’ve never come across before. As we all know, we only need a degree of similarity to something we’ve already encountered and off we jolly well go.

We do exactly the same thing when our beliefs are challenged. It doesn’t matter how good an argument might be. If it challenges our belief we can dredge up something to meet the challenge and send any would-be challenger packing. Always.

We all know this but many folk still seem to assume that belief is somehow a matter of rational choice. Supposedly we weigh our options using reason as our trusty guide. Absolutely ludicrous notion but there we are. Take a look around if you don't believe me. No, belief is a fixed repertoire of behaviours, a standard way responding to certain verbal or written challenges.

I imagine those challenges are mostly blogging or chatting in the pub or office, but the point is the same. Belief is part of our repertoire of behaviours, essentially no different to my repertoire of possible reactions to meeting the Queen.

It’s only when we understand this that we introduce the possibility of scepticism, that strange ability which seems to bring free will within reach. For habitual sceptics, the response to many challenges is not wholly automatic. Beliefs can be challenged. 

Not many and not easily, but the possibility isn’t completely closed.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Pottery Cottage murders

Not far from yesterday's Beeley Moor walk is Eastmoor, where the Pottery Cottage murders took place in 1977.

The Glasgow Herald April 28th 1977

Four shots were fired by police marksmen at an escaped rapist, William Hughes, before he stopped a frenzied axe attack on his hostage Mrs Gill Moran, and collapsed dead an inquest was told yesterday.

The shootings occurred after a car chase through Derbyshire and Cheshire, which ended when Hughes crashed at a police roadblock.

The Chesterfield inquest was on Hughes who escaped while being taken from Leicester Prison to Chesterfield Court. And on Richard Moran aged 36, his daughter, Sarah, and Mrs Moran's parents, Mr Arthur Minton, aged 72, and Mrs Amy Minton, aged 70.

The four members of the family were found by police in their home at Pottery Cottage, Eastmoor, where they had been killed by Hughes...

...Hughes suddenly cried, "Your time is up" and raised an axe above his head. Inspector Pell said he fired at Hughes's heat [sic] but Hughes began to attack Mrs Moran. Two more shots did not stop Hughes. Detective Constable Nicholls then fired one shot and Hughes collapsed. 

The jury returned unanimous verdicts of murder in the case of the Morans and the Mintons, and justifiable homicide in the case of Hughes.

So given the tragic circumstances, as good a result as could have been expected - Billy Hughes shot dead. Had he survived he could still be alive today as capital punishment was long gone.  

Yet Moors murderer Ian Brady is still alive, the man and his grotesque crimes still festering on in the public memory. In my view this is a worse outcome than in the Hughes case. How can that be? 

I think there are cases where certain crimes are so appalling that they must be given a decent burial. I know the arguments, we all know them, but there are cases where the only thing to do is consign them to the past. 

One cannot do that for surviving friends and relatives, but the crime itself can consigned to the dismal history of human wickedness. If that means burying the perpetrator then so be it. 

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The road to Sheffield

Had a fine walk across Beeley Moor today. We reached the moor via the adjoining and delightfully named Gibbet Moor above Chatsworth. Imagine trudging across high moorland on a bitter November afternoon only to have a moorland gibbet cheer you on your way.

Beeley moor is like that even though the gibbets are long gone. At least I think they are. The moor is attractive in summer but even then there is something a little grim about the place. An extraordinarily atmospheric area even on a clear day. I love it.

Today the heather was out in force and the views excellent with very good visibility. Not easily captured on a photograph though - the superb expanse of it under a vast sky.




The moor is steeped in history from Hob Hurst's House to a number of old guide stoops such as this one directing travellers towards Sheffield. 

These stone guideposts, or 'stoops', were set at intersections of packhorse routes, were required by an Act of 1697. Beeley Moor is particularly rich in examples. They fell into disuse in the second half of the 18th Century as Turnpike roads superseded the old packhorse routes.


Is that a local hand I wonder - with three fingers?

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Scotland and secession

1. Why is the pound such an issue? If Blair had had his way we'd all be in the Euro now.

2. Why worry about Scotland's dysfunctional economy? The UK as a whole is dysfunctional. It runs chiefly on debt it has no intention to repay, plus a system of helping City swindlers to thieve from the people and then taxing them to support the low paid and unemployed whose misery they have helped to create. If we're all off to Hell in a handcart, at least we can allow the Scots their own cart.

3. Perhaps the plan post independence is to slash benefits and build a Scots Sangatte by the border with England.



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