Please get in touch with us – but it may not be easy

We all know by now how difficult it is to get hold of a doctor. I have got hold of a couple of nurses recently, and there is a lot to be said for that – in fact, some might say it is the better option. Quite exciting, even. As I only needed a blood test, I was certainly fine with it. It was a pleasant experience. 

I haven’t had the result of the tests yet, but that’s only to be expected. 

Fortunately I have not had to contact any civil servants recently; the newspapers are full of the ridiculously slow response time from various Home Office departments (if that’s what they are – they may have become detached); so I don’t need to add to that mountain of paperwork. Besides, I’m working from home.

There’s sadly very little you can do with people who won’t respond, or who make it difficult for you to do the simple thing you want to do. I would like to cancel my BT Sport subscription, but there is nowhere on the vast and varied BT website where you can do that. I am summoning up my reserves of strength to give them a ring.

This kind of thing extends even to the deceased, I discovered after my brother died just before Christmas. In due course I received a letter from the Bereavement Services department of my local council, which seemed nice. It mentioned certain services they could offer concerning the grave. 

There was no indication what you should do if you wanted this service, or wanted to know exactly what it was. Or didn’t. The only phone number given was the general council number, which I eventually rang. There was a queue, of course, but they rang me back a couple of hours later. Fortunately I was still at home.

After I explained what I wanted, they tried to put me through to the Bereavement Services department, but this proved impossible: they weren’t picking up. I would like to say the line was dead, but in the interests of accuracy, I can’t. It just kept ringing. 

Their preferred method of communication, a recording eventually  informed me, was by e-mail, which they gave at high speed. I got it, which must have been disappointing for them.

I wondered, since e-mail was their preferred method of communication, why they didn’t put their e-mail address on the letter they sent me. Presumably this would have been too straightforward. 

I e-mailed them, and got a fairly quick response. The letter gave some details (not all, of course), and included both their e-mail address and a direct line phone number, which they had presumably discovered somewhere, or just installed.

I am fairly resilient, but I can imagine some bereaved people might get quite upset by this sort of thing. Frustration can do funny things to you. So I have a small bit of advice for the council. You can ignore people who don’t have their bins collected, but do try to make things as easy as you can for people who have just lost a loved one. It’s not that hard, is it?

Don’t believe this: it’s just a headline

I remember the moment when I saw my first speed camera. It was in the early 1990s, on my way back to Norwich from Scotland. I was overtaking a lorry, and it flashed its lights at me. At first I thought the driver was just annoyed that I was passing him – some people are like that – but in fact he was warning me. As I regained the left-hand side of the road I saw a strange machine at the roadside ahead. Instinctively, I slowed.

I did not get fined. In fact, unbelievably, I have never been “caught speeding” by a camera. Either that, or I have a friend in high places who cancels all my transgressions before I am even aware of them. 

I certainly exceed the speed limit on occasion. So do you, unless you are a really bad driver. But with apologies to my friends in the media who believe otherwise, that is not speeding. Speeding is driving recklessly fast, so as to endanger the lives of myself or others. When the news machines report that speeding has increased over recent years, what they mean is that the speed limit has been exceeded more often, and people have been caught doing it. Not so easy to get into a headline, but there you are. 

Unsurprisingly, exceeding the speed limit happens more often when you keep lowering the speed limits, under the illusion that this is a safety measure. It would be interesting to know how many accidents have been caused by compulsively law-abiding people reluctant to accelerate, when that could have got them out of the danger zone. (And of course you have greater control of a vehicle when you’re accelerating than when you’re braking.)

I wrote headlines professionally for years; so I understand how it works. “Speed kills” is a great headline, but of course it isn’t true. Ask any physicist. “Twenty’s Plenty” is a lovely headline, but it’s not true either. Unfortunately most government is now done by headlines; so of course the move is towards 20mph speed limits, despite the fact that on nearly all roads they are totally unrealistic.

I have just been to Scotland again, and I am sad to report that driving in the Highlands has become less enjoyable. That is partly the fault of the tourism industry, which has lured convoys of motor homes on to the previously unspoilt acres of the North Coast 500. But it is also the creeping tendency to introduce speed cameras (mostly mobile ones, operated by unmarked police cars) on to certain routes. 

Is this civilisation? The beautiful A93, approaching Braemar from Balmoral, has an old sign reading roughly (I quote from memory) “No double white lines in centre of road”. This leaves the driver wondering what to do about it – pretend they are there or take advantage of the fact that they aren’t? This kind of thing lifts the spirits. 

Now, however, at close to the same spot, Auchallater Bridge, the highway authorities have installed traffic lights, when the only thing that makes them necessary is the space taken up by the lights themselves. Lights have not been needed there for decades. Why plonk them in now? Is this civilisation, or something even worse? Of course they produce queues, which means the road is more dangerous. Ho, hum. 

Are Highland roads dangerous anyway? They are quite tricky to drive because of the rises and falls and sharp corners, but if you drive there, you know that. In fact it makes you especially careful.

What really makes driving hazardous in the Highlands (as in many other places) is potholes. These have become so dangerous that even Masterchef contestants have been complaining about them, and I can report that the most eagle-eyed of us comes to grief occasionally. This is something that could be put right immediately, if only local authorities could get their priorities right. In case it helps to focus their minds, I will point out that potholes are extremely dangerous for cyclists.

As are speed bumps, another ludicrously dangerous invention. But I’ve said enough. Too much, probably.

Unexpected role of the King

In chess, the only piece that cannot be captured is the King. If he loses, he dies. Checkmate: the king is dead. There is no coronation. No funeral, either. 

The Queen, on the other hand, can be captured. But in her prime she controls the board, sweeping all others before her. Sound familiar?

The role of the King during the game (most games, anyway) is strangely negative. Usually he squirrels himself away, trying to stay safe while his subjects mop up the opposing army. It is only in the endgame – if things go so far – that he emerges, marching up the board to avenge his lost subjects and, in the ideal scenario, winning the day with the help of one or two of the survivors.

He cannot win the game on his own. If his army is annihilated, he is helpless. The most he can hope for is a peace treaty. 

What about the other pieces? The Bishops are restricted to only half the number of squares on the board, which seems theologically sensible. No-one wants Bishops popping up everywhere in a haphazard sort of way, like ill-considered Knights. 

Rooks (you may think of them as castles, but they come from the Persian word for a chariot) shoot up and down, and from side to side, which can be dangerous. Pawns only go forwards, which I suppose is what you want from an army, but they are the only piece that can be promoted, becoming any other piece except – you guessed it – a King. Just as well.

All this may come as a disappointment to Charles III, who is crowned this coming weekend. If he plays the game, we should expect him to hide away in a castle (or behind a chariot) for quite a long time while others get on with life and try to sort the country out. 

I feel this would be a Good Thing. If he emerges prematurely from hiding and tours the board, going to summits, interfering in tricky decisions and exposing himself to harm, he could come to rather rapid grief. So could those subjects who gather round trying to protect him. 

I am not suggesting he should stay at home till all his subjects get annihilated, of course; rather adopt a moderate, laid back approach and get a good rest at the same time. 

Somewhere like Balmoral, perhaps. Or Sandringham. You can get a good game of chess in Norfolk. 

Has artificial intelligence taken over already?

Artificial intelligence may be a real threat to mankind. So much so that Elon Musk is now diving into the whirlpool with the intention, he says, of combating the influence of potentially destructive left-leaning chatbots – in much the same way that he attempted to bring some balance and free speech to Twitter.

This would give us hope, he says. Others may disagree. Eliezer Yudkowsky, one of the world’s leading experts in machine intelligence, says we should shut down all AI research now, before AI shuts the human race down.

I am no expert in that area, but it occurs to me that AI – or whatever you want to call it– may already be shutting down humanity without our realising it. 

We are gradually becoming more and more obsessed with ludicrous, divisive issues, on which we are not allowed to comment in a sane way because certain words and phrases are becoming misrepresented as offensive. This kind of AI seems to be taking over schools, colleges and charitable organisations, as well as councils, broadcasters and the police. Innocent people are being victimised, apparently because they have human intelligence and not the carefully regulated, empty, dead-brained, barren artificial kind.

Fringe groups that should be banned because their sole aim is to disrupt society are given publicity. Yes, I’m talking about Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and their friends. Their actions are destructive, but so are their aims. Who in real life, thinks net zero is a good idea?

Well, loads of people actually, because artificial intelligence is infectious, and very, very good at propaganda – so much so that it seems to many that this destructive behaviour is really for the good of mankind, and anyone opposing it is selfish and arrogant, when in fact the opposite is the case. 

Politics no longer works, because we have no choice, except between various parties all crammed with artificial intelligence and saying roughly the same thing. Meanwhile, we have lost the war on words. Anyone using a sensible alternative route is now on a rat run. Anyone with an alternative point of view is a far-right conspiracy theorist. Climate crisis, anyone?

George Orwell, we need you now. 

The advantage of living on the edge

Many years ago – in the 1950s and 60s – I went to Hemsby a lot. We used to rent a bungalow in the dunes furthest from the sea, accessible by a road with interesting ups and downs. It was the way the greengrocer got to us, in the days when the entire shop came to you and not just parcels. 

There was no internet, of course, and there were no mobile phones, although there were rudimentary slot machines in the bright new emporium in the village. As I recall, you put an old penny in, and if you were successful, you got it out again. Pretty exciting. There was also a juke box, playing up-to-the-minute tunes like Last Train to San Fernando.

There were no trains to Hemsby, which is on the east coast of Norfolk, but there was a double-decker bus, which used to turn round in the field just down the road. Sometimes I used to go and watch it. I was easily amused, and quite happy, I seem to recall.

From our bungalow we had to negotiate a steep footpath to get to the sea. It went down into what we called The Valley, which was an area of grass, ferns and bushes where you could play football and cricket, or just sit out of the wind and have a picnic. The Valley ran from the centre of Hemsby (south a bit) up to Winterton (north a bit). It still does, actually. 

To reach the sea, you had to climb the other side of The Valley by a sandy footpath (there were a maze of them) and then – after surveying the wide expanse of beach before you, possibly with the help of a telescope – tumble down into the soft sand and, if you had time, walk to the sea. It was quite a trek. 

There were bungalows on that second stretch of dunes: you might pass them on your way to the sea, if you took certain paths. They are no longer there, because it is too dangerous. Further down the coast, similar bungalows have been falling into the sea with some regularity, because the sea is no longer miles away. It is eating away at that second row of dunes, and will soon break through. The Valley will be no more, and – well, you can guess the rest.

Climate change, I hear you say. Well, obviously the climate changes, but it may not be what you think. Two hundred years ago, for instance, I am told there were no dunes, and the lighthouse at Winterton, now a holiday home more than half a mile from the beach, was adjacent to it. 

The dunes built up and now, of course, the story is about erosion, and whether it can be stopped. The question that interests me, however, is why people choose to live on the edge. where they are clearly at risk. The answer turns out to be that it is beautiful. It is a conclusion I came to after visiting Santorini, where stunning homes decorate the rim of an extinct volcano – except that it isn’t extinct. It is simply dormant at the moment. Risky? I should say so. 

I rather admire people who live at Hemsby, even though it is not quite Santorini. And I do so because they are bucking the trend. The depressing truth about life in the 21st century – in the UK anyway – is that what concerns people most is staying alive. Health and Safety. Accident statistics. Ludicrously slow speed limits. 

I suspect this may be because so many people believe that this life is all there is. You might describe that as a dangerous delusion, and I would agree. If you spend most of your life trying to make sure you stay alive, what you are doing is refusing to live life as it should be lived. Jesus Christ said he came to bring abundant life – real life. Rainer Maria Rilke said: “Beauty’s nothing but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear, and why we adore it so is because it serenely disdains to destroy us.” 

By “terror” he meant the deep reality beyond the deadly routine. Helen Keller, who should know, said: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”

I never thought of Hemsby like that. But I wish I had.

The Lost Princess

This is the opening of a downloadable short story that I wrote a few years ago. It’s never been published. I hope you like it.

The east wind had been blowing for days, and it was good to feel the warmth of the sun at last. Anne watched the tide push the water up river: it was high today, almost on to the path.  And apart from the calls of birds, and the sound of the air pushing through the reeds, everything was quiet. 

This was how Anne liked it. The tall reeds hid the big house in the distance, and she felt as if the world was made just for her. She loved the house, but it was so busy. People coming and going, lots of work being done – sometimes, she thought, just for the sake of it. She tried not to get involved, although of course there was plenty for her to do, and if she hung around, jobs would find her.

That was why she liked the Fen. The quiet paths through the reeds, the tangled roots of the trees by the river.  The coots and the grebes; the geese and the swans. The secluded spots where she could just stand and look, as she was doing now, with nothing and no-one to disturb her.

“Hello.”

It’s all there in black and white – or is it?

We all have secrets. Obviously I can’t tell you most of mine, but one I can reveal is that I used to train journalists. This was in the days when people read newspapers in order to find out what was going on.

In order to ensure that the reader got a fair crack of the whip (apologies if this now comes under the heading of violent and therefore forbidden language), we used to have an ABC of news writing. Oh, yes. Cutting edge stuff. The A stood for Accuracy; the B stood for Balance; and the C stood for Clarity.

We were aiming in those far-off innocent days to tell the whole truth, and if there were two views on a subject, to give them both. If there were many views, we tried to say so. Another word for this was Objectivity.

There are still some journalists who try to do this. But nowadays objectivity has largely gone out of the window. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is that there are certain things we cannot say. 

At one extreme, this borders on the absurd. In America recently five black police officers murdered a man, who was also black. This was frustrating for many people because it fell outside what they considered the norm: white people being violent towards black people. Sadly, there is a history of that kind of thing in America. One US journalist wrote that the policemen killed the black men because they had “internalised white supremacy”. Another claimed that the murderers were “carrying water” for whiteness. 

Obviously this is rubbish. Sorry: I can’t say that. 

Nearer home, there are other things we cannot say – because they are not regarded as “sensible”. The consensus is against them. 

I have always reacted against the word “consensus”. To me it means I am not allowed to hear or talk about certain views because most people, or certain “experts”, don’t hold them. To me, this seems a great way of covering things up. And, as Tolstoy said, “most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives”. And ours. Tolstoy didn’t say that last bit.

If you can get the Government behind you, or the BBC, You’re made. People never get to hear the opposite views. As Bertrand Russell said, “There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action”. Or by the BBC abrogating its responsibility. Russell didn’t say that bit either.

So now no-one can put forward different views on climate change, and no-one can suggest that covid vaccinations may have adverse effects. All this can conveniently be lumped under the heading of “conspiracy theory” – instead of being considered as alternative points of view that we can consider. If that kind of talk were allowed, pillars of the way we live would tumble: the applecart would be turned over in a momentous way. Net zero, carbon capture, wind farms and lockdowns would all be pointless. Among many other things.

OK, I’m getting on a bit. It’s a new way of life. But to me all this abandonment of the ABC of journalism eats away at our freedom, like data manipulation and hidden cameras. It must be very hard for someone with basic, revolutionary, lively ideas of freedom and openness to work in journalism nowadays. I said that. There may be other points of view.

Let’s hear the views of the minority

I am in a minority. I always was, because there’s only one of me – a fact that most people find reassuring.

Most of us find comfort in being part of a group, which is why schoolchildren seek the approval of their peers as part of growing up. That is how gangs start, as well as friendlier social groups.

Teachers – well, good teachers – try to manage this process by reassuring individuals that they can be independent, that they have value as individuals with specific talents never exactly reproduced in others. This is a liberating concept. 

When we try to build communities, it is tempting to forget that they are made up of individuals. Some of the worst communities on the planet have demonstrated this. 

Unfortunately it is not always easy to tell whether the community you’re forming is good or bad. It may have what you think are excellent aims, but if this means that those who disagree with those aims are ostracised, disenfranchised, expelled or worse, then your community, whether large or small, is a bad one.

This is reflected in the current tendency to think there should be only one permissible opinion on each of a wide variety of issues that face us in the 21st century. When it comes to gender, diversity, speed limits, climate change, covid, vaccinations, lockdowns, restrictions on movement, cycle paths etc etc, if there is only one acceptable view – whether it claims to be for the good of society or not – that is, in my minority view, dangerous for the society in which it occurs. 

Democracy works on the principle that the views of the majority get preference. This is fine, as long as the views of the minority are permitted, and heard – and not dismissed because the consensus is different. I like the observation of Michael Crichton, who said that “historically the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled”.

Not long ago a Tory MP with views on covid vaccinations that do not accord with those of most of us expressed these views in Parliament, as he is entitled to do. I am glad he did. I would like to hear as wide a variety of views on key issues as possible. But he was immediately dumped on from a great height by people determined he should not be heard, including the Prime Minister.

He was accused of being anti-Semitic because he said the covid vaccine was “the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust”. This may not have been a wise thing to say, but it is in no way anti-Semitic. He was not denying the Holocaust. He was not belittling the Holocaust. Quite the contrary. He was trying to emphasise what he believed to be an extreme danger to people in general.

We may or may not agree with him. But the fact that senior politicians and others felt they had to misrepresent him in this way is in fact quite worrying, and would make any independent-minded person think he might have been saying something that we weren’t supposed to hear. What better way to “gag” him than to denigrate him, present him as worthless and make people feel guilty for listening to him?

This particular MP is clearly no longer part of the gang. Should we be worried? Yes, I believe we should. We could be next. 

Exit, pursued by Christmas

It has been the strangest of Christmases. My brother Andrew, who had a disrupted life and was never at peace, is at peace now. He died suddenly of choking, followed by cardiac arrest, on December 23.

He is in a much better place. This is not to say that the Coventry care home where has been for nearly ten years was a bad place: on the contrary, it was excellent, and the staff were lovely – distraught when he died at the age of 74. 

Over the years Andrew has been in many different places, some better than others. He was a “miracle” baby – the first to survive an after-birth operation to correct obstructions in the lower abdomen. But as a result he had many other difficulties – repeated bilious attacks as a child, general fearfulness and other mental and emotional problems. He was hard to live with. He undoubtedly found us had to live with.

He went to school and even had jobs for a while, but we believe he was assaulted on a couple of occasions. Our father had died when he was seven, and eventually he was too much for my mother to handle, and in his late teens he went to live with a psychologist friend in Coventry. 

Andrew Jonathan Lenton, at Winterton in 2009

He has been in Coventry ever since. When the friend died, in the  early 1990s, he moved into a series of different situations. He tried living in sheltered housing, but called the emergency service so often that he had to move to where he could be looked after. 

He had several encounters with the police, involving behaviour dangerous to himself or others. There was no intent: he simply did not make connections. On one occasion he was brought home after being found cycling on a motorway. 

He said he wanted to remain in Coventry after our mother died in 1994; so he did. Together with our other brother, Phil, I visited him quite often, and he stayed with us in Norwich on many occasions. I think he enjoyed this: it was quite hard to tell. 

I took him on holiday once, to Northumberland, but this was so out of his routine that he could not cope. I had to take him home halfway through, which left me with three days alone in Northumberland. It was May, and unseasonably warm. 

He has had several severe physical and mental relapses which landed him in hospital, either in Coventry or Warwick. Coming to Norwich gradually became impossible, though the care he received at Minster Lodge in Coventry stabilised him for a longish period up to his death.

In his happier moments he loved walking, watching construction workers and, for quite a long time, cycling. He believed in God, despite what some may consider a very raw deal in life. He was good-looking and had an infectious smile, as well as a genuine sense of humour. With some exceptions, he liked people. He was not stupid, but he forgot a lot.

We won’t forget him.

Please ask about my background, if you can bear it

I am unlikely to be invited to upmarket functions. But if I were, and if, while minding my own business, I was approached by someone – a lady-in-waiting, say – who inquired about my name, background and family history, I should be delighted. 

The conversation would probably not last long, because none of the information likely to be gleaned would be very interesting. In fact, I might get annoyed at being treated in such a cursory manner and tweet about it afterwards. But probably not.

True, I was born in Earlham Hall, Norwich, but that’s only because it was being used as a maternity home just after the war. The second world war, since you ask. 

The rest of my family history its less impressive. The words “agricultural” and “labourer” appear often, and my paternal grandfather’s line comes down to us from just outside Peterborough – a hamlet called Norman Cross, which was largely swallowed up when the A1 in that area became a motorway.

His mother’s name was Archer, and she came from Harlestone, near Northampton and close to the Spencer pile at Althorp. In fact her parents’ gravestone at Harlestone is suspiciously swish: could there be a connection? You tell me. Please.

My father’s mother, on the other hand, came from Sheffield, which is obviously more exciting. Her name was Booth, and she claimed to be related to the founder of the Salvation Army, which I suppose is possible, though not traceable.

I could go on, but perhaps the lady-in-waiting would be more interested in my recent history. Between the ages of five and 11 I lived in Coventry, but we returned to Norwich after my father died. 

I can remember a great deal about what Norwich was like in those days – the livestock walking down Ber Street to the cattle market just below the Castle; the ships loading and unloading at the mills on King Street, where my brother worked for a while; the railway goods yard off Grove Road; the slums replaced by Rouen Road; and Prospect House, where I would later work on the Eastern Daily Press, now sadly in reduced circumstances.

What is the same? Certainly not St Stephen’s, which was a bustling street full of cars, cycles and pedestrians. But the Market, the Castle, the stunning Cathedral and the relatively new City Hall (where I also worked) look very similar. 

By now the lady-in-waiting is receding into the far reaches of the room, smiling in a distant sort of way.