Tripped up by road works

I fell over yesterday. It was nothing. I’ve done it before, but I have to admit to a strong feeling of concern as my forehead hit the pavement rather hard, and blood started flowing. When I say flowing, I mean oozing.

I had been trying to avoid a young woman (not something I do often) and at the same time skip round a heavy road works item that had strayed on to the pavement. I know road works are designed mainly to obstruct cars, but clearly they’re expanding their repertoire. 

I was a bit stunned and lay there for a moment. Don’t let anyone tell you that people in distress are ignored: as I got to my feet I was quickly joined by several young women and a roadworks contractor, all of whom were extremely solicitous. One woman, who worked in the hospital, wondered if she should call an ambulance. I said no. I don’t like to cause trouble, especially for me. I’ve been to A&E before. 

My wife was if anything more stunned than I was, because of course she didn’t know what I had managed to achieve in the way of injuries and broken limbs. Happily my guardian angel had been alert; so I hadn’t broken anything. Nothing visible, anyway. I did have a bit of a headache, and one of my fingers was an interesting shade of black. 

My spontaneous care group decided against the ambulance in the end, and one of them located a nearby chemist on her phone. She thought I could get help there. I thanked them all profusely, and people began drifting away. 

So my wife and I strolled up to the chemist. I’m not sure if “strolled” is the right word, but it was fairly slow. Unhappily the pharmacist was on a lunch break, and no-one else could help in a practical way. One of them thought it might be illegal. However, they did sell us some wipes and some plaster and some painkillers. Oh, and some bottled water. They weren’t allowed to give me a glass of water, because, well, I’m not sure. But they clearly couldn’t. Possibly because it was a branch of a nationally known chemist, and… well, I’m not sure. Again. 

I don’t blame them. I expect they had rules. But their response contrasted sharply with those who had rushed to help me in the street. 

I was not feeling too bad by now. My wife was also starting to recover. So we wandered down the lane to have tea (or was it coffee?) with a friend, who had been waiting patiently and had kept us a seat.

I had a reasonable sleep, and today I don’t feel too bad, though I have to admit to feeling a bit dizzy when I tried to undo the trapdoor to the loft. My wife insisted on going up there instead of me. So that was all good. I do feel a bit tired, though. Back to normal, in fact.

Water, water, everywhere

Failing to tune into the dire warnings broadcast after a night of rain  – I had after all been asleep – we ventured out on to the roads of North-East Norfolk, and found water everywhere.

It was a Sunday. I discovered later that major roads in different parts of Norfolk were thigh-deep in water, and some had been closed. Merrily, we headed for the Broads. Of course. Why wouldn’t we? 

We noticed quickly that the fields were very wet, but until we turned off the main road at Stalham, it didn’t make much impression. Damp is normal in this part of the world.

There was not much traffic about, but oddly as we turned off the main road we found ourselves behind three other vehicles – two cars and a van carrying scaffolding equipment. That’s OK, we thought. We’re heading across country. They’ll be going somewhere else.

Amazingly all three of them turned left and immediately right, on to a narrow country road. Our bad luck, we thought. That was our route. It turned out to be good luck.

Only a few yards on to the country road there was a significant covering of water. Our first instinct was to ask ourselves how deep it was, and whether we could get through it. There had been several scary stories recently about cars trapped in water which hadn’t looked that deep.

At least, that would have been our first instinct, but ahead of us were those three vehicles – instant measuring devices. All of them ploughed on, quite hesitantly but persistently, and we simply followed, round corners and through junctions, because if they could get through, so could we. And there was always the scaffolding…

The water had poured off the fields and overflowed out of neighbouring ditches. There was almost as much water as road. But it was only a few miles, and we followed, and followed… until we reached our destination: the small village of Lessingham (good name), where there was an exhibition in the village hall, focusing on the neighbouring village of Happisburgh and its battle against the encroaching North Sea. 

As it happened, my mother-in-law had been born just down the road. I mentioned it to the woman serving tea and cakes, but it was too long ago. We decided not to go and look at the house, because it might have been very wet, and it was only a mile or so from Eccles, which had finished disappearing  under the sea well over 100 years ago. Who knew how soon we would hit the ocean? The water seemed to be winning everywhere. 

As we were in the area we drove up to Happisburgh through more standing water on the coast road and found the disappearing car park, put in place only ten or 12 years ago and now about to be abandoned as the cliff edge makes its unexpectedly swift way inland, eating houses as it goes.

I got out of the car to have a look, and fell over a random fence into the cliff top mud. I won’t be able to do that much longer. 

Are you a victim of complexity? Don’t worry, we know what we’re doing

The media sensation that has become known as the Post Office Scandal has appalled many people. The realisation that an apparently untouchable elite group has been able to sacrifice innocent people in order to facilitate their own privileged existence has quite naturally aroused deep emotions in many – not just those who suffered and are still suffering.

This one will run and run – quite rightly, because the selfishness, ruthlessness and callousness of the “top” people involved, and their reluctance to compensate victims, is so marked. And we are angry because we know it could have been us who were falsely accused, charged, imprisoned…

But in our modern society a somewhat similar scenario plays out in many different areas. The common factor is our increasing helplessness in the face of complex organisations.

At the lowest level, if you are “caught” by a speed camera and are convinced that it is faulty, what can you do? If you take it to court, magistrates will accept what the camera says, and the only way you can challenge it is by spending money on having the camera tested. Even then, how do you know you will get an accurate result?

Councils everywhere spend money on “improvements” whose main outcome is to close or obstruct roads for months. If they have so much roads cash to spare, they could of course fix the thousands of potholes that are a real hazard to all road users – especially cyclists and emergency vehicles. But this seems too small a problem for them to bother with. Tell me about it. Better still, don’t.

What about banks? We have seen recently that if a bank does not like your political views, it may try to block your account. How do you contest that? 

And universities? if you apply for a top job in academia, or even a simple place on a top college course, you may find yourself rejected, not because you are not good enough, but because you are insufficiently diverse. Too white, too male… And of course, you can’t say so.

More serious, perhaps, is what happens in the sacred worlds of science and medicine. 

We are inundated with one-sided views on climate change. We may not agree with the so-called experts, but there is nothing we can do about it. UK net zero is a ridiculous idea which will likely make us poorer and weaker, and even if we accept the dubious mechanism suggested, it won’t have any measurable effect. 

But how do we combat it? A consensus  of scientists gets together and says that no other view is possible, and to make sure this appears true, they block scientists with other views from senior posts, and even from peer review publishing. They also infiltrate and bully compliant news organisations like the BBC so that no dissenting view is reported. 

Bad enough, but what is happening in medicine may be even worse. Senior, experienced doctors have their careers blocked because they question the efficacy and safety of Covid  jabs, or suggest other treatments. How long will it be before those jabs become compulsory for everyone – at least if you want to travel? Good news for drug companies, of course. 

What if you, as a private citizen with a functioning brain, notice that those who have all the recommended jabs still get Covid – and that illnesses generally are more frequent than they used to be? You may therefore be convinced (rightly or wrongly) that those particular jabs are not conducive to your wellbeing. There is plenty of evidence in that area. Have you seen it? Or have you been told that it is the work of conspiracy theorists? 

I can see how someone might have said that to those sub-postmasters. Dodgy computer programming, you say? What is this, some kind of conspiracy theory? We don’t have to listen to that. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. GIve us all your money. Die, if you like.

What I achieved in my life

I am reaching the age – or perhaps I’m past it –  where you start looking back and working out what you’ve achieved in life. Early on I was aiming to be a novelist, but it was easier not to be. I was never very career-orientated, maybe because I didn’t have a father to give me a push (he died when I was ten). I guess I never really knew what was going on, as my friends will no doubt confirm.

However, I was fortunate to marry a lovely girl who became a lovely woman – and still is. Between us, we produced a son of whom we are immensely proud for many reasons, and he – with a bit of help – came up with two exceptional grandchildren. Let me get back to the lovely woman, though. 

Despite giving some wrong answers in the 11-plus, she was head girl of her secondary school and, with the right encouragement at the right time, took a large number of O-levels (GCSEs). Eleven, I think it was. Best in her year at Norwich City College, she progressed to teacher training college, where she excelled at history and even more at teaching. She was a natural.

Like me, however, she did not push herself forward, and although she was a gifted deputy head fairly early on, it was some time before she became a head teacher. When she did, however, it became rapidly clear that she was brilliant at it. Her 19-pupil village school quickly grew to 80, and required building expansion. She adopted a pioneering method called Philosophy for Children which opened the door for less academic children while also encouraging the others. 

When she retired she turned this into a partnership with another teacher, and the two of them travelled across the country, introducing P4C, as it was called, to many other schools. 

Later she was recruited by the Norwich Diocesan Board of Education to act as a mentor to head teachers in church schools across Norfolk – or a Diocesan Schools Support Officer, to give her her proper title – and she proved a natural at this too. They loved her. I could understand that. I love her too. 

Earlier this month, having been one of the first DSSOs, she retired (again) after 15 years as the oldest. She received a lovely send-off, including large bouquet and Christmas meal at the Marlingford Bell, plus gift voucher and eulogy.

Now I have her to myself. Or I would do if she wasn’t so full of energy and keen to be involved in family, church, orchestra and community (as long as it’s not early in the morning).

Needless to say, while struggling to keep up, I am hugely proud of her. I hope that doesn’t sound patronising. I am honoured to be her partner. What did I achieve in life? I am married to Dot. Any questions?

How about taking a break from progress?

When I was working as a junior clerk at the City Hall in the mid-1960s, paying council bills by using a room-sized prehistoric computer, I used to walk home, mostly. One day I was not feeling so well; so I called in at my doctor’s surgery on the way. He diagnosed an upper respiratory tract infection – and gave me something for it. 

Obviously I could not do anything like that now. For one thing, computers are much smaller, and anyway I can pay bills using my iPhone.

And I couldn’t call in to see my doctor, because the NHS has advanced so much that discussing something with a doctor is laughably old-hat. Or just impossible.

Over the past couple of months I have developed an illness which resulted in my going to A&E, staying in hospital a couple of nights, having a catheter fitted and after I went home, receiving appointments on different days in different parts of the hospital, which I dutifully attended.

Because of the catheter  – and the delay – i got two infections and had to take two courses of antibiotics. I am now taking five pills a day, at least three of which I suspect are unnecessary. But I can’t call in and talk to a doctor about it. I am scheduled for an operation: I know what it’s for, but I still don’t know why.

At least I found a nurse who would take my catheter out. That’s the thing about the NHS. Individuals are often very nice, but it’s all too specialised. It’s a jigsaw that nobody puts together, and so am I.

A lot of other things have gone downhill too. A large number of the streets round here have been closed to traffic; others have had speed bumps installed, which is idiotic on every level.

Back in the 1960s, when I wasn’t walking, I often rode a bike. If I rode it on the path I could expect a passing policeman to feel my collar and get me fined. Scooters were for children, and the bikes did not go very fast because they had three gears at the most and were heavy. No cycle helmets; no Lycra. There were no cycle paths – or as a friend of mine puts it, we always had cycle paths. We called them roads.

Was everything much slower then? I don’t think so. You could get quick answers to questions by something called a telephone, many of which were available in red boxes on most streets. There were much fewer regulations generally, which helped. If something went wrong, someone came and fixed it. Road works were completed at lightning speed. People worked in offices, and you could find them there. They generally responded to you quickly, because that was their job, and they took pride in it.

So what happened to progress? Shouldn’t things get better? Depends what you mean by progress, I suppose. I think we should have a few years – or decades – without it and see what happens. As Ogden Nash put it, progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on far too long.

Peace and love in Israel: is it possible?

When I visited Israel at the beginning of 2020, everything seemed fairly peaceful, although there was a rumour going round that a nasty new virus was becoming a threat. At the airport they asked us if we had been to China. We hadn’t.

We stayed in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, from where we visited Caesarea Philippi. It was the furthest north we went, and according to the Bible, the furthest north Jesus took his disciples. From there we could see into Syria and Lebanon, and we were told that the area was closely monitored because of the latent threat from across the borders. 

Later we sailed on the Sea of Galilee. It was a moment of memorable calm and beauty. 

Eventually we travelled further south and stayed in Bethlehem, where we met – unsurprisingly – many Palestinians. If we had stayed in Bethlehem another couple of days, we would not have been able to leave easily, because it was locked down. Covid had arrived.

From then on we had our own problems, but the problem within Israel/Palestine was ongoing. And it will remain ongoing because men of violence want it to be. The history of the land is complicated, and no-one is completely innocent. It is undeniable that many Jews and Arabs would happily live side by side – and have done so over the years. Many would be happy with a two-state solution, but this is rejected by Arab leaders even though the projected Palestinian portion of the country has always been much larger. 

In the end this is a typical case of wanting it all, and in order to get it all, generating hate and violence, not caring whether your own people suffer in the process. Few people are happy with the current relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, but the military readiness and restrictions have been forced on the Israelis because they have been repeatedly under attack. Undoubtedly some Israelis have taken advantage of this, but most just want to live in peace. 

And how do you live in peace with someone who hates you? The obvious way is by showing strength in defence. Watch the usual spaces. 

But I suppose that as a Christian my answer – much, much easier said than done – is to show them love. Of course we know what happens then. Jesus was a Jew, after all. He was also a Palestinian. Someone could get crucified. The question is, do we believe in resurrection? 

Short fingers and a beautiful poet

I have short fingers, which is bad for a number of reasons. If you’ve met me, you may not have noticed, and so I’m taking a risk in pointing it out, because longer fingers are quite attractive, and I don’t want to put you off.

The real problem with short fingers – apart from the aesthetic element – is that you can’t reach as much as people with longer fingers. The same goes for arms, but that’s another issue. I’ve noticed that weather presenters quite often have long fingers, possibly so that they can reach more parts of the country, although that doesn’t seem to improve the weather. Still, you can’t have everything.

My particular problem with having shorter fingers (or should I say length-challenged fingers?) is that it’s more difficult to play the guitar. I was always sort of aware of this, because the guitarists I admired (like Albert Lee) have noticeably long fingers.

So I struggle with bar chords. It’s not the only thing I struggle with, but it does make a big difference. Which is why, a few years ago, when the question arose of making a little music together during a historical project, a friend of mine asked me the astute question: “Can you play bar chords?”

Reader, I couldn’t. So the idea of my playing guitar with her was abandoned. This doesn’t mean I can’t play the guitar – indeed I do, regularly. But not in a professional sort of way. Obviously.

The astute friend in question was none other than prize-winning poet and singer Caroline Gilfillan, who I have collaborated with on a number of poetic, largely guitarless projects, and all that stuff about fingers is really an excuse to mention her here, because she died recently of cancer.

She wrote beautiful poetry and had the knack of winning prizes in many competitions, not because she had long fingers but because her use of words was magical. She was amazingly creative – splitting her time most recently between Norfolk and the Lake District, though she was born in Sussex and sang in women’s bands in London. She also wrote detective fiction.

Others who know her better will be able to say more, but it was a pleasure to be her friend for a while and to enjoy her company. These words she wrote in one of her poems fit her quite well, and they are words that I love and often repeat; so I am going to leave you with them, with love:

Under her cloak of skin she, too, pulses like intercepted light.
She too is rock and rolling out of sight.

You asked for it – or did you?

Consultations by public bodies have long been used as a rather obvious device to pretend that they are acting democratically. “Well, we did ask you,” they protest indignantly when questioned.

But of course we know the truth: consultations are presented in such a convoluted way that anyone wanting to protest just gives up trying, leaving the on-message working-from-home gangs – with time to kill and knowledge of the system – to pretend that they represent the majority.

Sometimes this blows up in the faces of the faceless bureaucrats (not easy, you have to admit). Recently low-emission zone schemes have provoked so much public anger and frustration that direct action has been taken – or plans have been reversed in the face of last-ditch anger from the normally silent majority. 

The Alliance of British Drivers is commendably alert to twisted bureaucratic behaviour. It points out that many CONsultations (get it?) are designed to produce the answers that councils want, citing a recent example, when people were asked  for their views on a council’s Climate Action Strategy. 

“Each question had four options to be rated in order of importance. Therefore anybody filling out the consultation had to rate one measure as the most important. If the participant thought all measures proposed were a waste of time and money (as many of our members would), they could not proceed to the next item. Therefore all completed surveys guaranteed full support for ‘climate action plans’.”

Councils are prominent in their use of such tricks of the trade, but “charity” pressure groups are similarly proficient and get very tetchy when they themselves are not consulted by the Government. But why should such single-issue groups get special treatment? We all know what they’re going to say. We also know that it may not be true, because they tend to confuse views with facts. In just the last few days it has been revealed that many of the “facts” presented to Parliament on wildlife trophy hunting were quite wrong; one prominent environmental group has been accused of twisting facts over the years, particularly over nuclear energy but also in other areas. Well, that’s all right. I’m sure we all do, because we have individual views, and facts are notoriously hard to establish. As individuals, though, we simply have a vote, and no special access to Government.

When the RSPB tweeted a particularly rabid rant at the Government, they attributed it to a junior employee “going rogue”. I’m not sure age is a factor, but Michael Deacon was right in the Daily Telegraph to zero in on the “insufferably self-righteous opinions” and “sanctimonious delusions” of many activists.

Most of us tolerate such things – but only up to a point. The point being roughly when the Government starts to believe them. Sadly, that point is reached more and more often.

The alternative reality at the end of the road

Life is hard, but it bounces. So while variously tinted media chew away at loosely disguised propaganda about the state of the nation – and indeed the world – there remains within our grasp an alternative reality, known usually as friendship.

This can easily be undervalued. A chat with a friend may not seem to yield much of substance, but there is a depth to it which builds up over the weeks and years. It does not depend at all on political agreement – some of my closest friends do not agree with me on issues that may in other circumstances seem critical. It does depend on kindness, on liking each other and, if this does not seem too extreme a term, love. 

A group of neighbours in our city street meet one day a week, outside (weather permitting), for a drink and a chat. We obviously have a lot in common. We live in the same part of the same cul de sac in the same city. But we also have a lot of differences. We come from different parts of the world; we have different skills. 

It started during covid, when one couple were kind enough to go to the supermarket for us for several months. It has developed into an eagerness to help each other and to just enjoy a talk now and again. As usual it depends to an extent on one person to keep it going – what we call the street meet, anyway – and it is not me. 

A church is another place where this sort of thing can happen – not surprisingly, since the whole of Christianity is based on love. Our own church is an example of an extraordinary and loving mix of people who are diametrically different in many quite startling ways. 

Outside of a physical environment like a street or a church (or a club), this sort of thing happens most often in a family, whether close or far-flung.

Last weekend our grandchildren – one of whom is at university, with the other (thanks to excellent results this week) about to go – came and stayed with us for a couple of nights. At the same time our friends from Canada, who were originally English, came to stay nearby. It so happens that these friends are also our grandchildren’s step-grandparents, through a process so unlikely that it is tempting to write a book about it. 

So what? It was a magical weekend. On the Saturday at Blakeney, Norfolk, we all gathered for a meal and an evening walk out on to the marshes, looking for meteor showers. And on the Sunday the non-Canada four of us took the opportunity to visit one of the places that held many childhood memories – Winterton, which to our delight was resisting, at least temporarily, the influx of the sea: the once-loved café has been replaced by three log cabin food and drink stalls that are so attractive that they were visited a few minutes after us by the actor Tom Hiddleston. It was in the paper. We shall no doubt be talking about the near-miss for some time. In a friendly sort of way.

Dirge from a disappointed driver

Can you remember when highways authorities saw it as their job to improve driving conditions? This seemed to work well for very many years, but now the worm has turned, and up-and-coming highways engineers seem to see it as their job to make life as difficult as possible for motorists. I imagine this is for environmental reasons. 

Or maybe it’s to get their own back on all those elderly people who find cars essential to reach shops, church, friends and so on. After all, most of us survived lockdown; so why not carry on staying at home? Meanwhile the structure of the city is changed to make life easier for those young and fit people who ride scooters and bikes – and who ride them much faster than we used to, because we only had three gears.

In my home town of Norwich the only route through the centre of the city has been closed to cars. Meanwhile two key road junctions have been blocked simultaneously for weeks, for work that seems considerably less than essential. But even if it is essential, why does it take so long? We are being lulled into accepting ridiculously long periods for a road to be out of action.

Meanwhile the police close roads for the most trivial of accidents that could be dealt with simply and quickly. And speed limits are getting slower and slower for no good reason. Slowness does not save lives: in many cases it makes roads more dangerous, provoking a lack of concentration and increasing frustration.

To increase my sense of claustrophobia the council has now decided that I cannot drive out of my cul de sac at all for two hours on Sunday because lots of people are running round the city. The fact that I need to get out during that precise time is neither here nor there. Well, it’s here, and not there.

Public transport? Good, if you live by a bus stop and want to get to another bus stop at a time when the buses happen to be running. But some of us oldies are not so mobile. In point of fact I live close to buses and a rail station; I can walk and can manage. But there are many for whom this is not true.

I don’t want to come over as having a victim mentality. But I can’t help thinking that things could be much better. Don’t get me started on the ludicrously shaped roundabouts on the NDR, for instance – they simply invite accidents. And what is the most urgent need on all our roads? Repairing potholes. Doesn’t seem to get much priority, does it? I wonder why.