Nicola Barry

Monthly Archives: September 2012

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To pleb or not to pleb…

Manners aren’t just for us plebs, Mr Mitchell

Whether the Conservative Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, insulted police officers at the gates of Downing Street with the word “pleb” or not, it is clear that something about his manner was amiss.

Thomas Hobbes (article on manners / pleb)

Thomas Hobbes – Required reading for politicians

Good manners are about defining social boundaries – the sorts of things which are acceptable and unacceptable in everyday life. It may not be so much that Mr Mitchell forgot his manners – more that he is one of these people born with a silver spoon in his mouth who never had any in the first place.

Being polite costs nothing. Rudeness, on the other hand is very costly. It destroys relationships, ruins businesses and can even bring down politicians.

Nevertheless, rude is where it seems to be at these days. Cinema and theatre audiences talk, whisper, hum, make phone calls, unwrap sweets and suck them noisily the whole way through a performance. It can be quite unbearable.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like a person who holds open doors when I am about to walk through them. Even if you don’t approve of holding open doors, there is no need to charge through first then leave the door to bang in the next person’s face. Yet you see that sort of behaviour all the time.

Nobody says “sorry” anymore – other than in a TV ad for compensation. The only time you hear “excuse me” these days is when some twit adopts an American twang and tries to challenge something you’ve just said. You say something you happen to believe and they respond with that idiotic: “Excuse me?”

Good manners spring from the very essence of a person’s being. They have their basis in morality. Manners are about respect – never more so than when they involve those in authority. Some maintain it doesn’t matter if you eat peas off your knife or chew with your mouth wide open – tossing food around it for everybody to see – as long as you treat your fellow human beings well.

There’s more to it than that, though.

If you have ever had the misfortune to sit opposite someone in a restaurant who uses knives and forks like drumsticks, is under the impression they can talk at the same time as chew food, then you know that basic table manners are crucial.

The truth is that our moral code depends for its survival on the consent of the people practising it. After all, there is not really any punishment for people who behave badly other than social exclusion, as in: “He’s a rude so-and-so, stay out of his way”. Civility is coming apart at the seams. No one is interested in being polite anymore. People are ambitious, impatient and inconsiderate.

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes said: “By manners, I mean not here decency of behaviour; as how one man should salute another, or how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of the small morals; but those qualities of mankind that concern their living together in peace and unity.”

Perhaps Andrew Mitchell should read this great work and then resign.

Article focus: pleb / Andrew Mitchell

Photo: creative commons

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Breast cancer awareness

Breast Cancer Awareness Ad: heaven forbid we see actual BREASTS!

For God’s sake, what next?

breast cancer awareness : early signs

Early signs of breast cancer.

In Scotland, an innovative, hard-hitting breast cancer awareness campaign on TV has actually managed to cause offence and now has to be shown after the 9pm watershed.

The ad shows actress Elaine C Smith holding up a series of photos of women’s breasts to highlight the risks of cancer.

No, hang on, I forgot to say these are not young and pert breasts like, say, those of the Duchess of Cambridge or glamour models who grace Page Three. These are more average breasts; those of real women with Elaine C Smith’s face above each pic.

She lost her mother to breast cancer and has done this commercial because she cares. She was quoted as saying, “Maybe it’s time we knew what the signs of breast cancer are, what to look for. If it saves one life, I don’t care who I offend.”

The first time I saw the ad, I admit I did a double take, thinking what the hell was that? I am so unused to seeing ‘real’ naked women that I got a shock. Of course, that is what makes this campaign so brilliant.

I find the fact that people are objecting to women’s real, imperfect breasts offensive beyond belief.

Cancer is the scourge of this age; a cruel, vicious illness which eats people away from the inside. It can take hold quickly or slowly, depending on how fast the disease decides to spread. Look around your office or factory, look at people on the train or bus home and you can bet that many of them will have been touched by cancer, directly or indirectly.

It is not all black though. Progress in the care of people who have cancer has been astonishing to say the least and advances are being made all the time to ease pain and slow down the speed with which the illness spreads.

Some forms of cancer turn robust, athletic human beings into living skeletons who would not have been out of place in Auschwitz or Dachau.

That is why charities beg for money for research. Awareness-raising adverts such as Elaine’s should be seen by everyone, by people young and old. It beggars belief that no one bothers to ban Page Three girls yet idiots clamber to relegate such a brilliant campaign into the twilight hours.

Some of you will remember Clare Short, the MP who campaigned for years to ban Page Three girls; a woman who must have known her Bill outlawing the models would be bound to fail yet she always has an answer, a way of dealing with her critics. When she received a rowdy reception from some Conservative MPs, Clare Short said very loudly: “If you mention breasts, 50 Tory MPs all giggle and fall over.”

Clare referred to Page Three as pornography – because it parades perfectly shaped, or, rather, re-constructed, women in front of men, a million miles from the normal female form. Pornography sells images of a manufactured “ideal”.

The row over this breast cancer advert proves that pornography debases women – simply because it refuses to sanction the female form as it really is. And, surviving after breast cancer is not always as easy as it sounds. There must always be a niggling doubt. You need to know a few years have passed before you dare believe you are really going to survive.

Uncertainty is created by malignant cells. These tend to lead a chaotic life, a bit like hooligans causing trouble at a football match. Nobody knows whether they will just sit there thinking about being hooligans or totally run riot, trying to create devastation wherever they go.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so, please, don’t look the other way when you see real breasts on TV highlighting this never-ending battle.

Neither look the other way when you see the pink ribbons and collection tins. Never assume it won’t happen to you. That’s not the point. Cash, and plenty of it, is what matters here. The more money there is in the pot, the more optimistic we can all feel.

 Photo: Creative commons

Article focus: breast cancer awareness


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Making Faces: new Channel 5 series

Facial prosthetics

A series starting tomorrow night on Channel 5 will follow the work of a team of experts at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Birmingham, who help patients who require facial prosthetics due to illness, accident or a birth defect.

In this life, your face is your passport; the means by which others know you. That is why having a face which has been Girl in Mirror: for  facial prosthetics articlehorribly distorted in an accident, badly burned or eaten away by cancer is to inherit a hell on earth. People stare and point and say things.

It might not be so terrible if strangers reacted with horror to your face once. But to get that same reaction 1,000 times a day must be nothing short of unbearable.

We all make judgments about others on the basis of how they look; scrutinising the minutiae of their faces to assess their response to us. However, the usual rules don’t apply when a person is disfigured. The response the rest of us always look for is a positive one. But what a disfigured person reflects back is unpleasant:  the furtive nudge, the sudden step backwards. When you’re disfigured, it can be so difficult to relate to people because your face refuses to express the emotion you feel.

Reactions can be unbelievably hostile, the sort of ‘you can’t bring him in here, I’ve got my customers to think about’ attitude. Some disfigured people only leave their homes after dark, maybe to take the dog for a walk. The darkness shields them from insensitive remarks they’d have to listen to if they went out during the day.

In this youth and celebrity obsessed world, ugly still equals bad and beautiful, good. We still deal in extremes. At one end of the spectrum, you have the Marilyn Monroes, the beautiful people. At the other, you have the so-called freaks – people who are disfigured, burned, suffering for umpteen different reasons.

The eye of the beholder

The point is beauty and ugliness are in the eye of the beholder. We can only hope that disfigured people will find their own way of dealing with all the double-takes, the gawping, the kids asking embarrassing questions.

The Government loves to pass laws; tell us what to do and what not to do. In this case they can’t. You can’t legislate to make people like and accept you. You can’t force them to love what they see as ugly.

If only people would remember that a person who is disfigured doesn’t much like the way they look either. So, the person who has the problem and the one who observes it are actually of one opinion.

Article focus: facial prosthetics
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photo by: Cea.

NHS care today

My NHS experience: Not quite as ‘hip’ as the Sixties

If you think about it, everything happens in hospital. Most of us are born there, die there, have children there and go there when we are seriously ill. When I left the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary after a second NHS hip replacement operation (I had the first one last year)  due to a childhood disability which had meant many years spent in a wheelchair and on crutches, the experience got me thinking…

The NHS founder William Beveridge

William Beveridge: Is this what you had in mind?

After the Second World War, in 1948, the Beveridge Report heralded the arrival of the NHS. It was a big step forward, the democratisation of medicine. You no longer had to be rich to see a doctor. We all put money into the same pot and the subsequent amount serviced the nation’s medical needs.

But if William Beveridge were alive today, after repeatedly turning in his grave, I reckon he would, quite rightly, be appalled at what has happened to his brilliant concept.

At one end of the spectrum we have amazing neonatal care for premature and seriously ill babies; at the other, the equally laudable service delivered by intensive and coronary care units. In between, however, if my recent experience is anything to go by, is a black hole, pockmarked with the odd bit of good luck and a postcode lottery win.

And, I am not referring to the doctors and nurses here.

The good, the bad and the ugly

With all the NHS cuts, it takes a very special person to care for the sick, to carry containers of urine and worse, to wash sweaty bodies and dress wounds despite the ever-present risk of infection. I don’t wish to paint a Florence Nightingalesque picture of caring women in veils tip-toeing about with candles. These are people who also make life and death decisions as part of their everyday work. The ERI has some first-rate staff.

The tragedy of the 21st century is that so many young nurses suffer from burn-out. They have too much to do and too few resources with which to do it.

The NHS is a wonderful idea: care for everyone whenever they need it and nothing to pay at the point of delivery. But, since my childhood in the Sixties, hospital procedures have changed dramatically. Back then, I had bones repeatedly re-set, pinned into position so my legs turned outwards instead of in. I was in traction for months on end. If I wasn’t in a wheelchair, I was on crutches or walking with sticks. I limped. I couldn’t walk or run or play games at school. I became a disabled person, inhabiting that strange world in which you imagine – and society reinforces your belief – you are not as good as other people. I was a second-class citizen, a cripple.

This was the Sixties, well before Political Correctness and disabled people knew their place, which was, effectively, at the back of every queue going. But, on the upside, then, a visit to hospital for an operation was a calm, leisurely affair, and you were admitted the night before surgery.

These days that is probably considered too costly, and, by the way, they need the beds. Now, on the day of the op, you have to report to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary by at least 7.15am.

At least checking in was quick and painless. But then I was escorted to a room to wait and my husband, Alastair, was immediately sent away. What they don’t tell you is that everyone scheduled for morning surgery is called at the same time, you have no idea where you are on the list and you are given nothing to eat or drink.

It’s a bit like waiting at a foreign airport for a delayed EasyJet flight.

Fortunately, this time I only waited an hour before I was taken away and someone drew, with a black felt pen, a large black arrow on the area for surgery.

Enhanced recovery?

No longer do the medics give you anything to calm you down before going to theatre, and, despite having had a lot of operations in childhood, I was shaking like the proverbial leaf when they wheeled me towards the men with knives. Nor do they like giving general anaesthetics anymore. At a seminar beforehand, you are told, in no uncertain terms, that a general anaesthetic is a far from favoured option.

The hospital prefers to use an epidural with the option of sedation. They call this ‘enhanced recovery’, meaning you are not out of your face for days after surgery so you are allowed home more quickly. There is a room next to theatre where I was given a numbing injection and asked to lie on my side while the anaesthetist explained what he was doing.

When I woke up I felt fine – no anaesthetic hangover and no ghastly catheter. Instead I now had a pair of tight white stockings, a pillow between my legs to stop them crossing over, as well as an oxygen mask. The only real sign I had undergone major surgery was the self-administering morphine drip, which is a real boon. You squeeze the pump when you need the drug and it saves the overworked, underpaid nurses having to come back and forth with pain relief.

My operation took time as the brilliant surgeon, Mr Paul Gaston, tried to remove a number of metal pins from childhood. One or two complied but the others stayed firmly embedded in my bones. The hip, like the previous one, was a great success.

It really was only when I awoke on the ward that I began to notice failures in the care system. Last year, the pain had miraculously vanished when I woke up. There was some wound pain but nothing like this. How can I best describe pain? Stabbing, burning, a gnawing ache? This was the worst I had ever experienced. I presumed it was because the search for old bits of metal had taken a while and I was feeling the consequences. But what really happened was, on the first night, the cannula (a form of drug delivery) containing the painkiller had not been correctly inserted into my vein. I had gone eight hours without pain relief. By then, the pain was unbearable.

Then, there was the time it took to replace the morphine-equivalent pouch. In the middle of the night, a wonderful female anaesthetist, called Kirsty, had re-inserted the cannula and the pain vanished, almost miraculously. But by lunchtime the following day, the cannula was out of the vein again. Was it my fault for being so restless? Maybe, but, given what had happened the previous night, why didn’t anyone check?

The more I complained, the more I felt like a nuisance. The hospital felt more like a torture chamber than a place of expert care. I was frightened for the first time ever. I felt sorry for the nurses who tried to help me; who were rushed off their feet; who looked as if they needed a month to recuperate on a desert island.

Then I was told I needed to vacate my hospital bed on the Saturday, just four days after the surgery and the one day my husband has to work all day for a Sunday paper. I thought they would keep me one more night. Instead, I was bundled out into the chilly night air, at 9pm. The journey home was painful and unpleasant.

A researcher visited me on the ward to question me about ‘enhanced recovery’. I told her I thought it was nothing but jargon for clearing beds. She said most young people disagreed with me. They couldn’t wait to get home.

Hmmmm! In 40 years, the NHS has undergone dramatic changes – not all for the good.


Article focus: NHS care

Photo: creative commons


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PANORAMA – Elderly people drinking

Elderly people drinking

Worried? No, my gran drinks more than me!

Old and Boozing: Why are so many elderly people drinking to excess?

That’s the subject of tonight’s Panorama.

If Joan Bakewell is right, old folk are squirreling away bottles of wine and spirits in a secret stash at home, getting sozzled night after night and quietly going gaga as a consequence.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists say people over 65 should drink a maximum of only 1.5 units of alcohol a day. That is the equivalent of about half-a-pint of beer or a small glass of wine – fine if you suddenly decide to take up driving all day and all night and can’t drink anyway. Not fine if you want to spend a few hours in the company of pals and enjoy yourselves.

Apparently, older drinkers are less able to process alcohol and it can interact with medication they may be taking for other ailments. While that comes from the school of the blindingly obvious, alcoholism in older people can be mistaken for other conditions related to ageing – such as dementia.

The current advice – 14 units of alcohol for women and 21 for men each week – is based on research on young adults – a fat lot of good.

Presumably, most people over 65 do not go out clubbing every night and prefer to drink cheap supermarket vino in the house – secretly, so they can fall over in the privacy of their own homes. No one knows about it so, obviously, no one researches the subject.

The fact is, the older you are, the less able your body is to handle alcohol. Also, getting blotto will make an older person more likely to have accidents, falls and fractures.

Anyway, all those who object to this warning to old people must know that we are living in a nanny state. The trouble is nannies are useless to Scots because we refuse to listen to them. As a nation, we prefer to completely ignore all sensible advice, however good its intention.

So, nanny state says, ‘drink up your juice, eat up your five-a-day greens and abandon forever that 8lb burrito in batter, smothered in guacamole and double cream.

But we refuse point-blank to take this interference lying down. We shout and bawl. We stamp our little feet and throw a mighty tantrum. “No, nanny, we will not put on our collective nightie. No, nanny, we will not go to bed now”.

On and on it goes: nanny says, ‘If you have hit the magic number of 65, drink nothing but one tiny glass of wine a day and stub out those grotty cancer-causing fags’ and ‘if you won’t exercise, go up to bed without any supper, especially if you were planning on having yet another bag of chips or a fatty burger or three.’

We just reply: “Go take a long hike, nanny dearest, and leave us alone to fester’.

We are bad, bad, bad people. We are a nation of fat, lazy consumerists who attempt to thrive on sugar, salt, fat, alcohol and wheeze-inducing smoke. Apparently, we are eating and drinking so much we can barely get though our own front doors without the aid of a crowbar.

For those reasons, we really should listen to nanny otherwise – never mind drinking too much after 65 – most of us will have departed this mortal coil long before then. A third of people who experience problems with alcohol do so later on in life, often as a result of traumas such as bereavement or feelings of loneliness and depression.

Drink is not the answer to any of those issues. We all know that.

Most of us experience loneliness at some time in life. The old cliché is so true: which of us has not felt lonely in a big crowd, however much drink we consume? Loneliness is a feeling of emptiness, a feeling of separateness from the world.

There are different degrees. It can be anything from a vague feeling of unhappiness to a deep sense of personal despair. And a person’s fear of rejection can be so great they won’t even attempt to make friends or develop relationships. Learning to deal with loneliness, without taking to the bottle, is an art in itself: trying to develop a positive attitude, focussing on others instead of yourself.

In Scotland, for a lot of people, the sole purpose in going out at night is to get as drunk as a skunk. Even though the number of alcohol-related deaths is three times higher than those caused by drugs, there is still this popular belief that getting blitzed equals having a good time.

And, it can be difficult to refuse a drink in Scotland, not from fear of snubbing people when they are being hospitable, more worry about peer pressure. A simple “no thank-you” should suffice.

What does it take to persuade the average Scot you do not want a drink? Does it have to be: “No thanks, I’m performing brain surgery first thing in the morning.”

But that won’t work for the over-65s – most of whom are retired.

Photo: creative commons
Article focus: Elderly people drinking


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