CELEBRATIONS.

Three very important things to celebrate; first the seventieth birthday of the NHS, secondly a hundred years since women won the vote and third amazing technology. I’ll begin with technology, is there one machine which has altered women’s lives out of all recognition. Of course it is, the automatic washing machine, you probably use yours several times a week as I do mine. I remember watching my mother possing the clothes before the first washing machine appeared in our lives, it was the late 1950s. Washing clothes was physically laborious and time consuming, it usually took most of the day. Now its so quick and easy, I throw the clothes  and the washing tablet in, close the door and press the button. I walk away and the machine does its work, easy!

    The computer, another amazing machine I would find hard to live without, this is mainly a fun recreational machine, the same is true of the television set, although it appears that rubbish proliferates at a tremendous rate. The computer frequently seems to have a mind of its own, from time to time I lose my temper and switch the thing off and walk away. Its probably my limited technical ability that causes the problems. Making meal usually calms me down.

    The setting up of the NHS seventy years ago, a service that has saved many lives and enabled most of us to live longer pain free lives. Something that we in this country can be really proud of, it improved the lives of so many millions of people. The cost of this amazing service is paid for out of general taxation and most importantly it is free at the point of need. My most recent connection with the NHS was a hip operation which gave me back the ability to walk, I am now independent mobile person. The cost of providing this extremely valuable service continues to rise, new drugs and new treatments are being developed. Most people are already paying their taxes but there is one group of people who could contribute much more.

     The Professor Danny Dorling having studied the facts and figures has worked out that this fantastically wealthy group could in fact contribute much more in a wealth and income tax. He calls this group the 1%; the rest of us are mathematically the 99%.  Dorling states the average income in the UK in 2007 was £24,596 and this times 15 is £368,940  and that is the mean 1 per cent income. A society with huge inequalities of income, and the UK is such a society is on a path to more criminal behaviour and more unrest and violence which can erupt anywhere. Such a society is moving away from a healthy, prosperous and peaceful condition into a very unhappy condition.

     This year is a very happy 100th anniversary of the first time women in the UK were allowed to vote.  In New Zealand women already had the vote, some came over to England to enjoy the celebrations which were taking place in London. Women had to be thirty or over and householders, it was another ten years  before women got the vote on the same terms as men.

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THE PLEASURES OF RETIREMENT.

Many of us look forward to retirement, myself included, some activities are lost but reading, writing, talking, watching television or listening to the radio or even just sitting thinking, last as long as eyes and ears and mind remain active. Eyes and ears can be helped to extend their range, such is the power of the National Health Service. The NHS is a much more prominent  part of my life, than it used to be when it began in 1948. I give thanks to Aneurin  Bevan, Sir William  Beveridge and all the other politicians and civil servants who assisted at a rather protracted birth.

     I have recently discovered two authors who in their different ways add much to my pleasure in the English language; one is Bill Bryson, an American who now lives in England and has written many factual  books  in such an exquisite and delightful way that a person as static and non-scientific person as myself feels that I can understand a little more of the modern, ever-changing world in which we all live than without Mr Bryson I could ever hope to.    The second writer is also an American who writes for the New Yorker, is Adam Gopnik. In 1995 he moved with his wife and baby son from New York City to Paris, why I enjoy his writing I find hard to say, although clearly I am one of an ever growing band . He enjoys life both in New York and in Paris, his book about Paris is,” Paris to the Moon .”

Gopnik is a happy man in another book, ” At The Strangers’ Gate- Arrivals in New York “. He writes of the setting up of their first home together with his young beautiful wife, Martha, and very little money. Both he and Martha are studying so the only apartment they can afford is a very small basement complete with cockroaches. Somehow the young couple accommodate themselves to these dreadful conditions. He comments on her choice of beautiful clothes, amazingly their love blossoms in horrible conditions. The writer choses the most apt words:

“And meanwhile all the ambitions really came together, as a single task, around the only thing I have ever been any good at! putting the right set of words in their one possible order.”

I do hope it is not too late for me to emulate Mr. Gopnik. The years have rushed past me with an unforgiving speed. A word which has recently become part of my vocabulary is ‘downsize’. This involves  so many different activities my head is in a spin. What to keep but much more importantly what to get rid off. So much stuff!  Books, papers, files, folders, clothes I haven’t worn in years, crockery, pans too big for our smaller appetites. Well truthfully I’m a great fan of ready meals, vegetables to pop in the micro-wave, pies, pasties, fresh soup in a plastic container, cakes covered in delicious cream and icing. My brain warns me too much sugar, too much salt, if only they didn’t taste  so delicious!

     I try to be sensible, I have to confess sometimes I’m tempted. The woman that I used to be decades ago is still part of me. The visible part shows all the signs of ageing; missing teeth, short sight, creaking, aching bones, forgetfulness of what happened last year or worryingly last week. I am quite partial to a little snooze after lunch. My brain is still functioning, indeed my understanding is more perceptive than when I was in my twenties. If only I could move as easily as I did just a few years ago. Stop moaning, I’m really very fortunate. Him and me we look after each other and at the moment we are doing alright. Ive just read something, I don’t remember where, that the only moment that matters is the present one. I’ll keep that in mind.

TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGING.

Idly looking through my emails, I read one about interesting facts and figures including the age range in different populations. One category stood out, the towns with the largest percentage of an older population, this immediately caught my attention. (you can guess why). At the very top of the list was the city of Sunderland, the city of my birth and the first thirty years of my life. I immediately asked myself the reason for this strange fact.

     When I was a child several large industries: ship-building, coal mining and engineering employed thousands of men. In the twenty-first century those industries are totally gone. I wonder what industries have taken their place, the one which springs most readily to mind is education. By law every child from the age of five years must go to school and a very large percentage stay there until the age of eighteen      Education is a very labour intensive occupation and has a   very high rate of turn over, teachers burn out many of them in less than five years.  As a former teacher I have complete understanding of their daily trauma, the government has introduced a system of frequent testing which many children fail, the corollary is that in fact the teachers are failing. Many teachers decide to leave before they are pushed while they still have command of their own senses.

     In addition  to primary and secondary schools, the city has its own university. This developed over many decades from a small technical college teaching the draughtsmen, engineers, the skilled men of the shipyards and the mines the more focused education they needed to take up their skilled work, the Sunderland Technical College was established in 1901, a time of increasing industrial activity.  In the 1950s the college expanded the number of courses it taught to include : typing, business English, short-hand, also O level and A level subjects such as French and German.

In 1969 the Technical  School of Art and the Teacher Training College were absorbed by the then Polytechnic. The activity continued every day  from 9 am to 9 pm. In 1992 the college gained university status.

    In the years  2016-2017, there were 10, 725 undergraduates and 2,300 post graduate students. The university also had a bases in London and Hong Kong, the motto chosen was, ” Sweetly Absorbing  Knowledge.” Pharmacy and Naval Architecture were also part of the specialist areas. It was regarded as one of the best universities in the North-East of England. There were two campuses in the city; the Sir Tom Cowie campus based around St Peter’s Church, and Scotia Quay and Panns Bank across the river from  St. Peter’s campus.  In depth learning in this area has a very long history going back to the monastery established by Benedict Biscop in 674 AD.

     There is currently in place a new ten year strategy costing around £700 million to create 300 new academic posts and increase the size of the university to 21,000 students, especially more international students; including a state of the art Media Centre near St. Peter’s Church. This is by far the biggest economic enterprise of the county.

Durham City.

This small city is the administrative centre of the county, the civil servants who organise the public amenities work in a building on the riverside. In addition  Durham city has a hospital and on the outskirts a prison both employing a lot of people. It would seem that most jobs in the future will involve providing a service for people rather than producing goods to buy. According to the economic expert Robert Peston the UK is still a rich country, perhaps the wealth could be shared out more fairly.

AMAZING WEATHER.

Friday 20th April, 2018, so far so perfectly ordinary, I switch on the radio, just like every day, 8 am the weather forecast. An excited voice announces that this is the warmest April day for seventy years, I put my cup down, can this be true? The announcer states again, the last time this temperature was reached in the month of April was 1947. I was eight years old, living in an upstairs flat with my parents and sister. I can’t claim to have any memories of this special day, I went to school as usual, ran around in the playground and enjoyed my lessons but nothing stands out. My mother was keen to get through the next few weeks, she was due to give birth to my brother in July. Of course no-one had any idea that the baby would be a boy.

My dear brother was born on the twenty-seventh of July 1947, he was a hungry, healthy baby, I was almost nine years old  and my sister was seven years old.  Dad was recovering from rheumatic fever, so all in all Mum had a very busy life. There were no labour saving devices, washing, cooking, cleaning required enormous amounts of physical effort and it all fell to Mum’s lot . If I could say there was plenty of money around that would have been a great help but alas there wasn’t. Buying the essentials necessitated much careful calculation, again that fell to Mum and somehow she managed it, a Wonder woman indeed.

PLUS AND MINUS.

    MONDAY 14th MAY.

I’VE been managing a budget for some 5 decades now, quite a small budget and one affecting only members of my own family. In day to day terms I’ve had to learn more about economics, for someone who has passed no maths exams this was pretty scary. I understand the money which is coming in and the money which is going out. My financial dealings are pretty limited and remain largely the same from month to month. The financial dealings of a country, the UK, are huge and incredibly complicated. The basic premise is that the services everyone needs in a peaceful, prosperous, civilised country needs: health care, education, support for the sick and disabled,an affordable decent housing system, a prison service and well maintained roads should be paid for out of taxation. The alternative that these essential services should be paid for privately means that only the very few wealthy and privileged people can afford them. The 99% die younger, most lack education and live in cramped, deplorable housing. This was the situation until the late 1940s when the Welfare State was set up.

     I was born a few years before the Welfare State came into being and I am very grateful for the support I have received. As a teenager I had my appendix removed the treatment and care was provided free at the point of need. I attended a good school, my transport to the school was also free and in my last year my mother received a small allowance as there were three younger children in the family. From the 1950s my family lived in a decent affordable house which was provided by the council. The majority of families were in the same position as my own.

    In the twenty-first century the same type of poverty is returning, more people are now unemployed, good food has become beyond the reach of many families.  Food banks have again appeared to feed children in the holidays. Hospitals, and doctors and nurses are now so overworked that the care of patients is threatened. Newly qualified teachers are leaving the profession in the first five years, this has seriously detrimental effects on the children who need the most help.

     Austerity is now the preferred policy, this means cut-backs in all the areas that most of us depend on from time to time. Of course the results are painfully obvious; young people ill-prepared for the rapidly changing world in which they find themselves, older workers continue with long-term debilitating illnesses and there is growing anger from the disappointed hopes and dreams of a growing section of people looking for work.

     At the same time a tiny number of  people, the economist Danny Dorling calls them the 1%, who are in fact getting more and more fabulously wealthy. They have huge influence with the politicians and their special ability means that they are entitled to their enormous rewards.

SUMMER IS A CUMIN IN !

Bank holiday Monday, sunshine all day long, blue sky and a gentle breeze, we haven’t had a bank-holiday like this in decades. Has something changed, Britain moved closer to the Mediterranean ?  Whatever the reason it has been a lovely day. I had a little walk wearing my sunglasses, clothes too of course, fewer than usual. Said hullo to a few neighbours busily doing gardening, the birds were singing, all seemed right with the world, if only for a little while.

     Resolved to sort out pressing problems, where does all this rubbish come from? Some the postman brings, an endless supply of adverts, no interesting letters at all. But treasures turn up unexpectedly, an extremely interesting man called Steven Pinker appeared on the internet, talking about our society in a very clever way. I think I understood most of it. He talked about the power of words, I found it fascinating.

WORDS, WORDS, WORDS.

I’M  a very lucky person, I discovered very early a fascination with spoken and later with written words. I have no memory of learning to speak or learning to read; my passion for words continues to this day. I have a little room full of books and papers, you could say overflowing, periodically I have a purge and some papers find themselves in the recycling bin and a few books in the charity shop. Then seemingly by magic they start re-appearing. Written words have great appeal, I choose the books I want to read and I write whatever comes into my head. Written words cast a spell, they transport me to a different place, a different time and new friends.

     One of my new friends is Adam Gopnik, an American writer who writes about modern culture, he makes me smile. There is no greater compliment I can pay him, the book I’m reading at the moment is, “Paris to the Moon.” Gopnik moves to Paris with his wife and baby son. The writer is a Canadian who has lived in Montreal, in New York and now in Paris, he writes for the New Yorker which will now be receiving his copy from Paris. He is a man who enjoys life and this comes across clearly in his writing, alas I’m a person who has not travelled far from the place where I was born. Nonetheless the built environment has a very powerful impact on me and as Gopnik points out each place has its own cultural atmosphere. I live in a small city, Durham, which is dominated in every way by the two magnificent buildings which dominate the landscape, the Cathedral and the Castle. both these buildings date back to the medieval period. These buildings  give the city a permanence and an importance which perhaps  to some degree have ebbed away. The Castle is now part of the University of Durham and incoming students contribute a large part of the revenue brought into the city, further expansion is planned.