Why?

Housing2

“We don’t deal with people, we deal with bricks and mortar” Housing Officer, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

I will never forget those words. They were uttered at an event in North West London which aimed to get the various services utilised by people with mental health problems, to work together. The Housing Officer’s comment is now given extra significance by the fact that only a few years after it was said, the preventable deaths at Grenfell happened on her patch.

I write the week after the first anniversary of this outrage (I can’t use the word tragedy), and am recovering from the effects on my crumbling frame of walking silently and marching noisily with those affected – families of the dead, survivors, local residents, firefighters, mental health professionals, and others who, like me, care deeply.

I have been reflecting on why I involve myself every month in the Silent Walk and attend as many events as I can. The reasons are complex and intensely personal. I hope to unravel some of this in this blog. It would seem to be a mixture of empathy and fuelled partly by anger.

Empathy

I have lived with the effects of extreme trauma most of my life but particularly after an incident in Belarus spun out of control and led to the death of my Manager and colleague. I have written about this in other blogs in detail. I was dispatched to “sort things” by my employer Aberdeen City Council whose primary objective was to avoid political fallout. There politicians were behaving extremely badly that day and this reckless behaviour led to unnecessary deaths. I entered a gothic horror mortuary to identify remains believing firmly in the narrative I had been given about this “tragic accident”. As Victor Frankl said:

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

GrenfellArt6

I will never forget the day the Leader of the Council turned up at my flat late at night drunk and told me what had really happened, that the meaning that had kept me going through it all started to crumble. We had been lied to. I had been manipulated. Before she had even known they had died but were simply missing she had a superhuman, or rather inhuman, drive to protect her position. She found my dead manager’s camera, took out the film, brought it back to Aberdeen and had it developed in a private lab. She showed the pictures to me that night and I felt vomit rise up to the back of my throat.

Then of course, I started to struggle to keep the myth of what really happened going. I was already warned I had an “over developed sense of justice” so I had a need to tell the truth. They had a need to suppress the truth. Inevitably this was going to end in destruction. It led to PTSD.

Much of what helps people with trauma is “Management of Meaning”. Frankl knew this. I feel the trauma rising in me when I feel powerless. When I sat up watching online the horror of Grenfell unfold, I felt powerless. This in a nutshell is my WHY. It is WHY I turn up and do the monthly Silent Walk. This is WHY if I can, I shake the fire-fighters’ hands and thank them. I look into their eyes. I can see the trauma in those who were there that night. This is WHY the key, I believe, is collective action which unites the strengths of the community so they are not consigned to a box marked “victim”.

I became a victim. I bought into the messages I was given that I had no right to participate, no right to a say, no right to claim assets while dominated by deficits. It took a very long time for me to break the walls of the box down.

 

Anger

Grenfell and the response to it has consumed me with anger. Quite simply, I need to channel that anger in a positive direction or it turns in on me.

And anger is a major part of the grieving. I know what it is to be negated for having the gall to speak inconvenient truths to those in power. I know what it is to see blame being distributed to anyone and anything other than those who were actually responsible. At one stage, I was summoned to the Chief Executive and made to swear in front of a Justice of the Peace, that I had properly briefed the colleagues who died prior to going to Belarus on potential dangers. I still remember the exact words of my reply:

“May I remind you my job was to provide information on safety in Belarus, not to advise officers senior to myself how they should conduct themselves when abroad”.

It was inevitable that Survivor Guilt set in as I absorbed on some unconscious level, that I was somehow responsible. As I started to become unwell, the truth kept spilling out of me. At this stage, I had to be extinguished. And they very nearly managed it. However, if there is such a thing as “recovery” from something as extreme as this, it is not about “getting a job”, it is about finding my voice. These days I choose to be a voice rather than an echo.

Speakout

So much of this is familiar to me. Yet I am well aware I come to this with a degree of privilege. Despite my circumstances, I am certain the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea agreed so readily to house me and then did so in the “posher” end of the Borough as I was still able to come across as one of their tribe – white, educated, middle class. The first property that came up was in North Kensington. I was informed I was allocated that property in error and soon was headed to Chelsea. There there was just as much anti-social behaviour but it was carried out by a public school educated son of a barrister who had relapsed on crack and set up a drug den in his flat right above me.

Assumptions, including my own, bother me. Some of the ignorance around Grenfell, the hate and bile belching from the Twitter accounts of some (usually anonymous) individuals, has really affected me. I have been trolled online in the vilest of ways as have many of the others who speak out in support of the Grenfell community.

“They were all illegals” “They were scroungers” “They all had foreign names” “Green was chosen as it’s the colour of Islam” “Why were these people allowed to live in Kensington in the first place?” “Why don’t they just get a job”.

Khadija

In fact, the people of Grenfell do not fit those stereotypes. Take for example the case of the super-talented Khadija Saye above.

I also compare this hate-filled narrative with the story of Bassem Choukair – a very popular and hard-working member of the great team at M&S in Earls Court Road. He died, his wife – a nursery teacher – died, her mother died, and their three beautiful daughters died. Bassem was so devoted to his team that he phoned from the tower at 2.30 am to leave a message for his manager that he would not be in to work that day and he was sorry for letting them down.

This, and countless other individual stories of the human beings who were incinerated in their own homes that night, just does not fit the picture the haters would have us believe.

Bassem

The book of condolence signed first by his colleagues then members of the Earls Court community and beyond gave a picture of a funny, friendly, dedicated family man. I know they miss him terribly.

Bassem2

Once again, the haters choose to ignore facts like these.

In essence, Grenfell just like Chernobyl in which I was involved, Piper Alpha, Hillsborough and so on brought out the worst in humanity, but also the best. When Chernobyl happened, people were kept in the dark and were out rehearsing for the annual May Day march. M’aidez. Save Our Souls. First they took the officials to safety. They even got the sheep out before the people. It was easier of course to keep the lid on information in those days. It is not so easy now.

I have been showing solidarity with the North Kensington community since the day of the fire. The Devil may well be in the detail, but so are the Angels. Here are some small examples of things I have heard or witnessed personally over the past year which restore my battered faith in humanity:

  • The rise of Leadership in a community that previously believed no-one would listen to them. This already started with the renewed confidence that started to develop when Emma Dent Coad was elected our MP. The winds of change had begun almost imperceptibly to blow. When people from the Grenfell community were finally admitted to give testimony in the first Council Meeting after the fire, I heard them speak with such eloquence, dignity and power. This was community leadership being revealed before our eyes. I have never seen Leadership as being about hierarchical power but something citizen-led that was familiar to Lao Tzu:

LaoTzyLeadership

  • The courage of all kinds of people who went towards the fire to try to help. I am thinking of the nurse at St Charles Hospital close by. He was up early for the Ramadan tradition of pre-dawn meal Suhur.  He ran towards the tower along with other Muslims and started to do what he could. He distributed water along with the group to which he belonged who are all from Sierra Leone. After that, he went to work and did a full shift on a ward on which I have been a patient many times. That group from Sierra Leone lost one of their number in the tower.
  • On one of the silent marches I noticed a small boy with his Mum. He was sticking a picture he had drawn of his best friend Mehdi who died in the fire, on a pillar which had personal messages written on it. I spoke to his Mum. She told me of the support he was getting at school, but that his older sister also lost her best friend. She was at that stage still too traumatised to come out of the house.
  • Members of the CNWL NHS Foundation Trust Grenfell Support Team told me how one of them was working with a small boy who had lost his father. A tattered item of his Dad’s clothing was found in the wreckage. That staff member made a blanket from the tatters for him to hold close.
  • The firefighters of Red Watch Paddington ran the London marathon in full kit. Some were still traumatised from having been first responders on the day of the fire. At the Justice4Grenfell march on the 18th I spoke to a number of firefighters who were either directly involved in the incident or who had been impacted upon particularly by the blame that was being dumped on them from a great height. Every Silent Walk I do, see the firefighters on parade and I feel in my gut the intensity of the emotions they are feeling.
  • On the day of the anniversary, I met a number of survivors. I met a friend of Bassem Choukair, who was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the six members of the Choukair family who died that day, pushing another survivor from the 9th floor in his wheelchair. To me this signified a great deal.
  • The space under the Westway where the Wall of Truth is situated and from which you can see the Tower, has evolved into a meeting place and a sanctuary.  There is a library. There are sofas set out. There is a chess club. There are candles. There is art. There is a piano. There is always someone on hand to listen, to chat to, or simply to sit in silence. These were not provided by some Social Services team, but came from the community members themselves, the grass-roots from which something about hope, about strength, repair and yes, justice, has tentatively started to grow.

seedsofhope

Thursday was about grief, about mourning and commemoration. The crowd of an estimated twelve thousand people marched from the Wall of Truth, up Ladbroke Grove, past St Charles Square where I was once housed in a homeless hostel, to St Marks Park where there people of all faiths and none joined the Muslim community in Iftar – breaking the Ramadan fast.

The highly emotionally charged silence spoke in many ways louder than words. In contrast, we marched through Whitehall on the 17th of June to demand action. We chanted, we shouted, we demanded. Of course it gave us a channel for anger. But among the chants there were again those tiny shoots of hope. In one of the many impassioned speeches, I heard words which are music to my ears as they sum up my own motivation in life.

“It is time to stop doing ‘for’ and start doing ‘with'”

And my favourite chant resounding through the streets of Whitehall:

“What does Community look like?” “THIS is what community looks like”

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This Community has empowered itself and the genie is out of the bottle and once this has happened it is impossible to stuff it back down. The days of being at best passive recipients of the largesse of the privileged, at worst, the silent victims of their prejudices are over.

Provided they do not succumb to the divide and rule that so often those at the top of the hierarchy utilise but combine strengths, there is hope for the survivors and families of Grenfell and the local community.

 

 

RIP Bassem Choukair, Khadija Saye and the seventy others in whose name change will come.

 

 

 

An unqualified success – a tale of workplace bullying.

Bullying has been a feature not only of my early work as the “brainy one” in my school, but also throughout my working life. My most recent experiences of this were at a well-known Healthcare Think Tank where a former mentor found he could not cope with what he saw as my unmerited “rise to fame”. It was a very destructive experience and I knew that a blind eye was being turned by the organisation involved. I also knew that at the base of this was HIS insecurity further warped out of shape by a serious dollop of jealousy.

It was ever thus but when I was younger I turned it in on myself. I assumed the negativity I was receiving was due to not being good enough so I tried harder and had even more spectacular results. I didn’t realise that this was only making them worse. They resented the mirror I shone on their mediocrity, on their insecurities.

Jealousy

I know that bullying is rife in any hierarchical organisation and the NHS is no exception. There remains a culture of delay, deny and defend. There is a LOT of fear around of speaking openly about this. In my talks to staff, I allude to my own experiences in Aberdeen City Council of the extreme end of workplace bullying. There are distinct parallels with the NHS. It was very hierarchical. There was a lot of brittle narcissism at upper levels. We were at the mercy not only of unethical managers but also unaccountable politicians. There were constant “restructurings”. The place was driven by fear. When I talk about my own experiences it seems to give NHS people permission to talk, often privately at the end of presentations, as it is of course NOT about the NHS. If you note any parallels I would have to say “you might think that, I could not possibly comment”.

Bullying at work2

Here is a more in-depth account of the extreme bullying that went on in Aberdeen City Council in the 1990s:

Our Chief Executive Donald McDonald BA MSc MIEE MIME was placed in post by our Councillors chiefly one Councillor James Wyness who became Lord Provost, as he had a reputation for “getting things done”. The end always justified the means in their eyes.  For someone so apparently well-qualified, I found it really odd that he spoke a very bizarre form of English. He was from the Western Isles and so a lot of his English was a direct translation from the Gaelic. What I do know is he established a regime of fear which permeated throughout the entire organisation.

Bullying culture

I seemed to be immune personally from most of it as he needed me to persuade Mikhail Gorbachev to visit Aberdeen. He lashed out at me once and only once and that was enough to cause my skin on my neck to flare up as though I had been burned. I witnessed him pick up box files and throw them at a colleague. I remember him in the corridor late one night calling the Director of Personnel some choice names that owed more to Anglo-Saxon than Gaelic. I had to walk past them and I noticed he was able to break off immediately from being as high as a kite, berating my colleague within an inch of his life to address me like an avuncular uncle “now you get along home now. It’s very late” only to ratchet the volume straight back up again as soon as I had gone past. I remember thinking at the time that this was scarcely normal behaviour.

Fear would descend on the building as soon as he arrived. He had a highly paid whipping boy whom I shall call Phil. Phil was utterly terrified of Mr McDonald. He would do his bidding no matter what, even when his wife was having a miscarriage. Mr McDonald had noted a small mark on the 52 sets of papers for fully Council and required Phil to photocopy the whole lot all over again. Phil complied leaving his wife to go through her trauma alone.

We had purges too. McDonald suddenly took against a particular pen produced by the Tourist Board. If we had one of these in our possession we were to hand them in immediately or they would be Hell to pay. He actually hated the creator of said pen then Director of Aberdeen Tourist Board Gordon Hendry who seemed to fashion himself on Tom Selleck and certainly left McDonald behind in the charisma stakes. McDonald looked like a member of the mafia crossed with a farmer from the Outer Hebrides. No wonder he loathed Gordon. It manifested itself in an immediate obsession with removing from the planet all trace of this particular pen. Anyone caught with one was presumably off to the Gulag.

Our scouts would let us know when McDonald’s car pulled into the underground car park. The message would be relayed to the nerve centre where those of us who had daily contact with him worked. Phil for one would at this point start giving off an odour like an animal in fear.

Skunk

One morning I arrived in the office early. Phil was there almost in tears in hysteria. He quivered

There’s no milk for Mr McDonald’s tea.

Why don’t you nip down to the shop and get some before he comes?

Brilliant! Great. Yes. Brilliant!

And off he shot off down the spiral staircase like a Daddy Long Legs on speed. I imagine him stopping the traffic on Union Street and knocking old ladies out of the way in the queue in the shop in his drive to make sure all McDonald’s beverage needs were met.

McDonald duly arrived. Phil made tea to his precise specifications and did the usual routine of cowering outside the door trying to hear if McDonald was in there and whether he might be on the phone. He finally knocked and was summoned into the lair.

A few moments later, Phil shot out at great speed and I heard this bellowed behind him

Next time, if I want a fucking cup of tea I will fucking ask for one. 

That little scene was absolutely typical. He seemed inordinately paranoid and particularly of those he deemed “intellectuals”. We were soon to find out exactly why this was…

Stalin

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my Unison union representative finally reached the end of her tether and outed McDonald not only for failing to disclose his prison sentence for fraud and theft, but also stating loud and clear that “fear stalks the corridors of the Town House” in an endemic bullying culture all emanating from the top.

All Hell broke loose. McDonald called me into his office and seemed to be soliciting my support

You know I am not a bully don’t you?

bullying at work

The staff were divided between those of us brave or mad enough to come forward, and those who ran for cover. We held clandestine meetings in the Sportsmen’s Club and we had to knock three times (and ask for Rosie) before we could get in. We needed to be wary of spies. These gatherings were interesting almost as much for who wasn’t there as for who was not. The majority were in the latter category. An inquiry of sorts with a QC was called and we were asked to submit written statements. I had kept notes of incidents, dates and so forth where I witnessed colleagues being subjected to anything from verbal abuse to physical assault. I knew he was going to see the statements. I knew it could be career suicide. I wrote my statement and recall clearly standing at the post box hesitating and then thought

I have to be able to live with myself and my conscience. Would I expect colleagues to write in support for me if I went through something like this?

At that I shoved it into the post box. This led to an interview with the QC. When I read the typed version of what I had supposedly told him, it was so watered down as to be almost unrecognisable. I realise now how naïve I had been. The QC had been chosen specifically by our politicians for good reason. Perhaps there was a Masonic connection but what I do know is that he was not impartial. I also knew McDonald knew where bodies were buried. He had enough on each politician with any power to render them terrified that he would take them down with him.

He had managed to get away with a rap on the knuckles after the findings of the so-called QC but this was far from the end of the matter.

I had managed to arrange the Gorbachev visit. Here he is arriving at Aberdeen Airport.

Gorbachev

He delivered his “Peace Lecture” at 1k per table to a sell out audience at Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom largely consisted of oil companies doing business with Russia. In addition to this commercial enterprise, he was to be given Freedom of the City. This required a lot of meaningless ceremonial and I could tell Mikhail Sergeyevich found a lot of it highly amusing. He was shaking with laughter after I told one of his aides that the Council had decided to name the dessert at the lunch after the ceremony “Perestroika Pudding”. I recall distinctly that he looked directly across at me after the aide whispered in his ear, took his dessert fork and stabbed the meringue dessert straight through the middle causing it to collapse.

My favourite moment of all though was during the Freedom Ceremony itself. Both Mikhail Sergeyevich and Donald McDonald were to sign a formal charter. Mr McDonald struggled to get the lid of the pen off. Time stood still as he fumbled with it trying with his meat pie fingers to sort it out but it would not budge. With an extremely quizzical expression, Mikhail Sergeyevich took the pen from McDonald and simply pulled the lid off, handing it back to him with a very wry smile.

Now the letters after McDonald’s name indicated that he was a highly qualified engineer with a Masters and membership of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and Institute of Electrical Engineers. This would be quite a rare combination indication a man of exceptional ability. In the audience, was someone from the Aberdeen University Engineering Department. The inability of McDonald to get the lid of the pen off, planted the seed of suspicion in his mind. He didn’t know it yet but McDonald’s regime was about to collapse.

Next morning I came into work early to get a call from our Press Officer who had become a friend and fellow conspirator. She was in a state of high excitement so I legged it across the road to her office in the other building. The wife of the suspicious university lecturer was a friend of Margaret’s. She had contacted Margaret in the evening of the ceremony and told her that her husband had checked up on McDonald and discovered that not only was he NOT a member of any engineering Institute, he had no MSc. His entire CV had been a fabrication and he was the highest paid official in our City. No wonder he despised us “useless academics” so much. He knew he was a fake. He knew he could be found out at any time.

Now we needed to get the message out there. I had the task to get McDonald to sign a letter to show that on that date he was still using those letters after his name. Margaret had tipped off a journalist from the quality press in Scotland and I hot-footed it with the hot letter in a brown envelope. This is how the story got out. Margaret and I joined forces to leak it. It was ALWAYS the women who acted. Always.

After the article appeared in the Herald my Mum was worried that it might not get noticed so she photocopied it and distributed it to all the taxi drivers at the taxi rank in Back Wynd. Taxi drivers had been given a rough time by the Council so they were ready to get the news out. After that the press went haywire. The local tabloids picked it up. It was all over the papers and in the Town House we were buying every single edition in case there were any new details coming out.

McDonald’s dictatorship had collapsed. Was he punished? No, he was allowed to take early retirement with a massive payoff. Like I said, he knew where bodies were buried so justice was never really served, but he was gone. The Labour Group who had an overall majority voted through the payment with the exception of two Councillors who just could not countenance this payoff. They were both bullied by their Comrades and they both had breakdowns. One, a firefighter, ended up seriously ill in our local mental hospital. It did not do to have a conscience under that regime.

What interested me was the distinction between those of us wired to do the right thing, despite personal risk, and speak out, and those prepared to hide behind the wall until it was all over. I naively had an unshakeable belief that the truth would out. I still have it. Would I do the same again if I found myself in such an extreme situation? Actually I would. I might do it differently. I might make more of an effort to ensure my own safety but ultimately, I would not be able to live with myself unless I told the truth.

I had been told early on that I would never make a good local government officer as I had an “overdeveloped commitment to honesty”.  How right he was…..

Truthtelling

 

 

Alison in Blunderland.

When I arrived fresh out of university to start my new job in a local authority it was before the advent of technology. We had a typing pool and I was allocated one which would be responsible for deciphering my handwritten scrawl. I would get it in my In Tray, correct it, send it back and this process could go on for some days on a loop. I however of course had to type in Russian myself so I was instructed in the various processes involved.

I was told I had to make two copies. On one I had to hand-write the word PINK. I asked why. They said “how else will we know which one is the pink one?”. I felt myself disappear down the rabbit hole. In my naivety I then said “but it’s not pink”. She adopted the manner of someone trying to explain an iPhone to an elderly aunt. “Well, pink disnae photocopy”. That’s clear then. I tottered back to my office wondering when the Queen was about to shout “Off With Her Head”.

Off with her head

Then I discovered the obsession with grades. We had an Admin Officer who knew everyone’s grades and referred to people accordingly. “Well I heard that 5-8, say to that 9-11” etc etc. As a PO 5-8 I was advised I was in the elite and therefore had the right to a swipe card to the Water Door. I fantasised about what this was – some sort of medieval sluice or underground spring. In fact it turned out that back in the 60s it had been the home of the Water Board but the name had stuck.

No-one questioned any of this. Except me.

I wonder why so many simply follow such nonsensical meaninglessness seemingly without question whereas there are people like me who get into endless trouble by saying like an annoying three year old “But WHY?”

 

bc862b3afde7bb39bda16eb9db545fa9--mad-quotes-mad-hatter-quotes

 

This was all a useful training ground for my time with the NHS both as a patient and someone attempting to work on the inside.

Take a (not very) random example – the NHS Horizons Team. I was contracted to them for over two years via a Parcel of Rogues called Capita. I am much happier organising my own travel as I get very anxious and it helps me feel a modicum of control. Plus, as I have a Disability Railcard it actually SAVES the NHS money to allow me to do this. Not so. This group of self-professed rebels adhered rigidly to the policy of booking through some agency charging way over the odds it seems. “But WHY?”

The procurement process made the case of the pink paper that wasn’t pink seem perfectly normal. I had to pretend that I was a company delivering training and development events. I had to promise that I had checked the passports of all my staff. I also had to confirm that I was providing polystyrene cups at my non-existent training events. I finally had to provide evaluations of my non-existent events from my non existent trainees. “But WHY?”

As a patient, I have fallen down the rabbit hole many many times. I am currently occupying an acute bed that I do not need as I became so unwell with stress from working with the above team that I was unable to look after myself. Paramedics were so concerned they issued a formal safeguarding alert. At the point of admission, there should have been joined up working between the NHS and social services on working towards a safe discharge. Apparently however, I had to be declared medically fit before Social Services would take any action. Yesterday I was declared fit and there was not a social service bod to be found anywhere near me. So I am in a bed much-needed by someone else as if stuck in some surreal version of the Peckham Travelodge. “But WHY?”

Last night I encountered the arcane and labyrinthine process of trying to get pain relief at night in hospital. I have some joint and bone thing going on which from time to time gives me quite unbearable pain. I get asked to grade my pain from 1-10 and this was a 10 without a doubt. I felt sick and dizzy as a result of it. I asked for help at around 9pm.

I waited. I waited some more. Then about midnight I went to ask where they were at with getting me help. The responses included “we tried very hard to get a doctor.” I asked for specifics of just what they did. The answer was “we wrote your name in the book”. Off I went spiralling down the rabbit hole again.

rabbit hole

This time the Queen said “we have to prioritise, you know”. I discovered this book is where the details of anyone in pain or needing fluids etc at night have to be handwritten by staff. It is a bog standard notebook. Every ward has one. Then if a doctor happens to swing by, they will look at the book and decide from there whether someone needs to be seen. If pushed, the nursing staff will track down the Site Manager and based on, I don’t know, casting the runes, will then decide to proceed to contact the doctor or not which was clearly what happened in my case. By this time I was pacing the corridor in agony. The two nurses on duty told me they agreed with me, that they were both from other countries, in neither of which would such a system be tolerated. It added to their pressure and led to delays or total absence of care during the night for people like myself in dire need. This is in a hospital with its own cinema and an indoor palm tree garden. The reliance on the notebook from the local Rymans or wherever is such an anomaly. “It’s the way we do things round here” “But WHY?”

The way we do things round here

People are apparently too scared to question unless their minds are wired like mine. They are ready to accept a piece of white paper is rendered pink by writing PINK on it.

BUT WHY?

 

emperors-new-clothes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Si Ye Pambili. We MUST go forward together

Colonialism

Councillors did not restrict themselves to embarrassing the citizens of Aberdeen at home and in Europe. We did long distance humiliation too. Another of our Twin Towns (we had five) was Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. In fact a visit there was one of my earliest foreign trips in my role as International Relations Officer.

I had already felt a great deal of unease at the unequal nature of our relationship with Bulawayo. It seemed entirely based on us sending them stuff through our Bulawayo Trust which was run by a lovely colleague who was an ex para and would at least ensure the stuff we were sending was in good shape. The fact that the people of Bulawayo had no say in what we sent was not on the agenda. There was an expectation that they would be good and grateful for our largesse. I used to call it our “rusty lawnmowers for Africa Programme”,

We had been invited to send TWO delegates to an Oxfam conference being held in the City. My Councillors in their infinite lack of wisdom decided they needed to send twelve. Ten Councillors to reflect the political composition of the Council and two handbag carriers/nursemaids i.e. myself and my colleague who ran the Trust. Oxfam were horrified. It meant our hosts according to protocol would have to cover our costs and provide a programme to keep us entertained which was a huge expense and hardly fitting given the theme of the Oxfam conference was tackling poverty. The sheer arrogance of our Councillors meant that of course they basically said “Awa an’ bile yer heid” (Translation: One finger salute to Oxfam).

I realised very quickly that the Town Clerk of Bulawayo was a very astute man with a wicked sense of humour. He was to find ways to let our huge delegation know what he thought of us. After an all night flight we were treated immediately to tea with the Governor of Matabeleland North and a lengthy detailed lecture on their economic forecasts for the next year. I watched the Councillor for Torry nodding off into her plate of Madeira cake chortling to myself. Then the fun really started. We were taken from there to visit a sewage farm. There a very enthusiastic sewage farmer showed us how they were purifying human waste into water and irrigating fields with it. The stench was something to behold. This lovely farmer LOVED his work. He had a way of saying “sludge” that I still remember to this day. I thought it was hilarious. Our lot were expecting the VIP treatment and here we were, straight off the plane after a ten hour flight and now knee deep in excrement.

Then we had our first meeting at the “Mayor’s Parlour” (they retained a lot of colonial throwbacks in language and behaviour). They were very hierarchy-minded so we were seated around the table according to rank so I was right at the far end along with my colleague Doug. The head of our delegation whom I shall call Ray was not very bright and permanently attached to a hip flask of whisky. He was later to fall in the Zambesi due to drinking a flask full of Bells and I was expected to fish him out. Not. Back to this first meeting,  I remember cringing inwardly when I could tell the Town Clerk was trying to tell him that we need to redress the power imbalance. This was way beyond our Ray who said exactly the following

I know. If we give you some of our rain, you can give us some of your sun.

I am quite sure my expression of utter horror at the patronising crap emanating from our elected representatives will not have gone unnoticed by Mike Ndubiwa the Town Clerk. I had said not one word throughout. I was still very new and utterly overwhelmed. Suddenly Mike Ndubiwa turned his attention to me and said “I want to hear what YOU think”. I stammered a lot but managed to get over my view that any relationship based on one side giving and the other receiving could hardly be called a partnership in international cooperation. I then burst into tears as I was utterly terrified as I thought I had said the wrong thing.

Bulawayo TOwn Hall

Shortly after the meeting Mike Ndubiwa took me aside and said he had been very impressed by what I had said. He said

You are the only thinker in your group. I am sending them to the football as it is their level. You will be going to the races at Ascot. Make sure you are smartly dressed and then I want you to come back to me and give me your impressions

So I found myself in the owners’ enclosure at Bulawayo Ascot with the gin and tonic set, an entirely white crowd apart from one Asian. These were the remnants of the Rhodesians and they were clinging to the old ways with what I felt was a real sense of desperation. I met only one woman who appeared to have a social conscience. She was a Scot running a community shop in a poor area and actually had some friends who were black. The others seemed to interact with the black population solely through their maids. It was fascinating. They were in a bubble. They clearly knew this bubble was very close to bursting.  I feel there was an aura of enforced jollity around. The were dancing on the edge of an abyss and knew it.

This is what I reported back to Mike Ndubiwa. He was satisfied and again reiterated that I was the only thinker in our group. He liked Doug well enough but said he was a “doer” and not a “thinker”.

We were shown some fascinating initiatives in Bulawayo. I loved what they were doing in former Townships now renamed “High Density Suburbs”. They were providing people with a basic “shell” house at low cost with enough space so they could extend when their circumstances allowed. The services such as electricity were installed by cooperatives of formerly unemployed young people who had been trained to be electricians or plumbers etc in their own community again at very low cost. Now I know this stuff was Assets Based Community Development in action. I didn’t know what the way I thought and felt was called, I just knew it was right.

Culturally, I could see how much Bulawayo had to offer us in Aberdeen. Any non-white person in Aberdeen at that time would be stared at mainly because it was such an unusual sight. I met up with the fantastic Amakhosi Theatre Company, Black Umfolosi the musical group and the artists who made sculptures out of welded metal from the Mzilikazi art centre. I could see such potential for a genuine exchange rather than a patrician donor/recipient arrangement that replicated colonialism in spades.

weld art

Once back in Aberdeen I presented a seventeen page report to my Committee with my proposals for ways in which we could create a more reciprocal relationship with Bulawayo. I was sick with nerves before the meeting as I thought my report was not good enough. Now I know that most of them will not have read it. However, they had to justify the spending on their junkets to Zimbabwe so my proposals were agreed.

Alongside my projects, the junketing continued. We went back again to the celebration of the foundation of Bulawayo as a City. This is where I must thank Joshua Nkomo. I as a very pale Scot was sitting in the VIP area with no cover over  us. Now I had met Joshua Nkomo in the morning. I told Mike the Town Clerk that I had seen him that morning I was told he was still Harare. So just about to die of sunstroke I was very grateful for the arrival in a Daimler of Mr Nkomo.  He sat in his seat in front of me. He was so huge, the shadow  was big enough to save me. Thanks Joshua.

Recently I attended a celebration outside Zimbabwe House in the Strand. Though it was raining throughout there was pure joy, and a true sense of optimism.

At Zim High comission

I am grateful to the people of Bulawayo. I learned a lot from them about Colonialism. I see so much of it in Healthcare regarding Patient Engagement.

We will give you a Tesco voucher or a biscuit and a pat on the head for yet again bleeding your pain against the walls in the hope that something changes. Do they change or are the old ways so entrenched it can be surface-level only? Those with power are mightily loathe to give it up but can put up a great façade. Those who shout most loudly about being Agents of Change in my experience tend to be the most resistant to change as soon as it affects them….and that goes for politicians of any race, and public servants in healthcare or any other field.

I hope for the sake of Zimbabwe and come to that, for the sake of our NHS, that change it is finally coming.

 

 

 

 

The Truth Will Out

My return to Aberdeen along with the coffins containing the remains of my colleagues was the start of a spiral downwards for me. I was still under the illusion that this had all been a tragic accident.

In my office, a bunker had been created of those in the know who were desperately trying to keep a lid on the whole thing. I was admitted into the bunker. I was told I was to visit the widow of my colleague Iain who drowned as and when she needed me. I agreed as I felt that I had been in her place, the last one to see her husband should have been her. She had a four week old child and a four year old child who did not understand what happened to her Daddy.

I attended funerals reluctantly and an official memorial went out live on radio. I translated for Mikhail Gaponenko from Homiel. We will retain happy memories of them, is how he concluded his speech.

Then I found out. The Leader of the Council and I will name her, Margaret Smith was there that day. As soon as it became clear that Iain and Ann were missing she took the film out of Ann’s camera. I still wonder to this day what kind of mind would immediately go into “hide the evidence” mode. She had the photographs printed privately and in a drunken state, arrived at my flat late one night to show me them. They were disgusting. They showed what was beyond a drunken party featuring Belarusian and Scottish politicians. I mean, how dare they have an orgy without me invited? The Chief Executive Anne Mearns put it to me in true Jean Brodie style “I understand there was something of a libidinous gathering”. I am not averse to the odd Belarusian piss up but this was something else. It looked vile, degrading and devoid of any standards whatsoever given that this was an official visit paid for ultimately by taxpayers.

And the horrible truth was that Ann and Iain met their deaths as they were having sex behind the boat. They were at a blind spot where they could not be seen by the captain. So when the boat became loose of its moorings the Captain could not have seen they were there, he turned on the engine and the result was their deaths. I met the young man in charge of the boat that day. He went to prison. He did not deserve to.

How this impacted on me was immense. I knew that Iain was not the saintly father figure that his widow thought he was. I was still visiting her always accompanied by an HR officer and listening to her “he was such a lovely man” stories. The truth started rising in me. I could feel it growing up and taking hold of my throat. I begged to be released from my “dealing with the widow” duties as I might just tell her the truth.

The Belarus Embassy were very supportive at this time. A group of them went to Selfridges to buy toys for the two children who lost their father. They handled it all with such humanity and genuine caring that I will never forget. However they wanted assurance that there would be no legal action against Belarus. I was assured and believed, that there would be no such action.

With that in mind, we arranged a visit to Homiel for the widow and her family. We had lunch on the boat that was involved that day and in Belarusian style, they set out a place at the table including glass of vodka, for the departed. On reflection I recall the representative from the Ministry of Transport trying to tell us the truth. But we were all so engaged with ensuring the widow would not find out what really happened.

I recall with absolute clarity when the world turned upside down for me. On the last day, the widow and her brother produced a legal document. They were going to sue the Republic of Belarus. They had assured me that the visit was entirely to help them cope with the death of Iain. I had no idea at all that there was another agenda. We had played into this by not being honest as to how they died. The Belarusian Government agreed to pay compensation covering all educational fees for the two children. The widow swiftly remarried and relocated to South Africa.

The effect on me was immense. Even my parents had a visit from the Lord Provost telling them not to talk to me about any of it. There was panic in the air and I, as acknowledged truth teller was a danger to them.

The pressure on me to lie is what caused my PTSD.

Time is a River Without Banks.

I sensed already that no good would come of Ann, my boss, visiting Belarus. We were together in Belgium the week before at a conference. We were in Place des Martyrs before going to visit the chapel where the statue known as Our Lady of Aberdeen is situated, Ann would not take a card featuring the statue of Mary with an anchor presented to Brussels by Catholics of Aberdeen . At that point I just knew.

I was having counselling at the time with a wonderful nurse as the stress of my work was still affecting me. I remember telling her that felt in my guts that Ann should not go to Belarus.

The day it happened, I was called to the office of my CEO who said she and Iain another colleague were missing presumed drowned. They decided to send me over to Belarus immediately. It is a good job I had my passport in my desk. I headed for London to get a visa. I was contacted at this point by a wonderful detective from Grampian Police. He offered to come with me as he knew about repatriation of human remains. He was a friend of my Dad’s. We met at Gatwick and the whole adventure started.

The British Embassy in Minsk failed to meet us on arrival. Just to add to the general madness, France were playing Belarus in a World Cup qualifier. This meant there were no hotel rooms to be had. I bribed our way into a suite. Then I bribed a random driver to take us the next day to Homiel.

By this time. they had found what remained of Ann. She had been dragged into the propellers of a boat and was dismembered. Iain was dragged down after her so he drowned and was found further down the river. They had dredged the river and found some ten other corpses. We have no idea to this day who they were.

Before going into the mortuary, I asked them to tell me what I was going to see. I wanted to minimise any shock. In true Belarusian fashion they thought I meant I did not want to see their private parts. They placed embroidered doylies strategically on each corpse like Belarusian folk art fig leaves. Somehow their doing so helped me get through it. I was kicked in the back by a leg of one of the corpses on stone slabs. But most of all,it was the smell I can’t forget. There was a forest of bodies and no refrigeration.

We identified what remained of Ann by fragments of her hair and one eye. There was so little of her left. Iain was on a slab, bloated through having been in the river for so long. They waved his right hand in my face. They were trying to get my confirmation that I recognised his wedding ring. Belarusians wear their wedding rings on the right hand. The Detective stood behind me in case I passed out.

He was no wimp. He had worked on the Piper Alpha Disaster but he cried. I didn’t. All I could think of was the families waiting at home for the return of their loved ones. I wish I had cried. I was sowing the seeds of PTSD without knowing it.

We had a meeting with the Homiel Council and I sensed who was involved  that day. Detective Inspector Neil said he could see in my body language who I knew was partly responsible. Apparently I leaned slightly across the table towards this man. According to Neil I scared the living daylights out of him by that one simple movement. It goes to show how precarious the balance of power can be.

Neil was all for getting in the international undertakers Kenyons to take over. I started kicking him under the table as I could sense how important it was for the Belarusians to be involved as they felt deeply responsible. I whispered “let them do this”. I dismissed the largely useless representatives from the British Embassy and went with my gut feeling that we could do this ourselves in partnership with our trusted Belarusian friends.

We needed to find aluminium to line the crates that the coffins would be transported in. They took us to a watch factory who donated not only enough aluminium but also plaques for the coffins. The coffins were provided by Belarusian carpenters.

Neil got to know the Belarusian Militia over a very drunken lunch. They were worried that he was investigating them which he was not. He had small key rings of handcuffs which he handed to each Belarusian policeman. He asked me to translate “this is for your wife”. It was a clever way of using police humour to build trust. He then decided to phone my Dad back in Scotland. He said “your daughter is a gem”.

The only time I cried was I was translating the death certificates on an ancient Soviet computer which kept crashing. I wanted to find a better word for “raschlenenye” than “Dismemberment” to make it easier for Ann’s family. There is no other word.

Given I had chartered a planeload of Aberdonians to visit their project partners in Belarus, there were a lot of us in the City at the time.  I arranged a memorial service at the Orthodox Cathedral so we could all mark this shocking event. My one major memory of this was the arrival on the scene of the man from the watch factory. He was rather drunk but he lurched his way to the front of the cathedral and crossed himself. It was his day off, but he wanted to pay his respects. This is the spirit of Belarus. They cared and felt personally responsible for what happened. It was not their fault.

FA5FFF90-9F60-4A4E-B60A-42E73B502A57

Homiel Cathedral

Neil and I drove behind the refrigerated lorry. It was a hot summer. We had to make sure the lorry was cold enough. It meant stopping off every ten minutes or to check the temperature.

The Belavia plane was not big enough to cope with the crates so we sent them via Frankfurt on Lufthansa. I met before that with our Ambassador Sir John Everard in a car park. I just said “give me blank letter headed paper with your signature on them so I can fill in any details they require”. At the airport I felt my handbag was heavier than it should be and realised that a kitten had attached herself to it.

I was still under the illusion that this was all a tragic accident. It was only when I got back to Aberdeen that, after a visit to my home late at night by the very drunk Leader of the Council who was there that day, I was made aware of what really happened that day.

What traumatised me was not the horrific scenes but the hypocrisy and the cowardice of those who sought to hide the truth. It instilled in me a lifelong loathing of people who live according to these warped ‘values’. These are themes that will recur in future blogs, from talking about the aftermath of the accident up until more recent times and my experiences with certain parts of the NHS.

Certainly, my life was changed forever by the experiences around the events of that day. I bear the scars even now and the fact I am writing this as an inpatient in hospital on my mobile is testament to this. Time, as Chagall described in his work, is indeed a river without banks and I may never reach the shore.

F2EBD9E2-6FD1-4C37-9578-48B323E0B525The River Sozh, Homiel Region, scene of the accident

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Don’t Mention the War

Part of my role as International Relations Officer at Aberdeen City Council was to help organise hospitality for foreign groups and individuals. This ranged from school groups to people like Mikhail Gorbachev. There were many levels of hospitality ranging from tea, and an Aberdeen rowie during the day, to the full shebang – met at the airport by a piper and an evening “do” with dinner, entertainment, and general expensive jollification. There was also a very nice dining room in the Old Town House where foreign delegations would be treated to silver service lunches.

There was bureaucratic rigmarole involved of course. I will try to unravel the lump of cold spaghetti that represents the relatively simple (one might think) process of issuing invitations. I will try to be succinct. Here was the process.

  1. I shared admin staff with the Lord Provost from whom the invitations ostensibly came.
  2. Admin Officer would don her “Lord Provost’s Secretary” hat and start handwriting the invites often to receptions I had organised myself, so I did not require an invite as to my mind it was part of my job to be there.
  3. I would occasionally catch her handwriting an invite to myself. I would try to wrestle it from her but no, there was a process to be gone through.
  4. My invite would be put in an envelope, addressed to me, and put in the internal mail which was then sent across the road to St Nicholas House where the proletariat worked. It would then be franked and sent back across the road to me to the same office and land on the very same desk, where it had started its journey.
  5. The very same admin person would then don her “Alison’s PA” hat and would personally open the same envelope she herself had sealed. It would be logged in my mail book and then at that stage it would finally arrive in my in tray.

I could not believe no-one questioned any of this. It was like something out of Gogol.

Now to the receptions themselves. Funnily, there was never any problem getting Councillors to attend the evening shindigs. All the liquid spirits being doled out on trays by waitresses were automatically double measures and many a Councillor would pour three of those into the one glass.

The problem I had was getting anyone at all to come along and greet groups of students for example, being received during the day where all that was on offer was tea and the ubiquitous Rowie.

Visual aid

rowie

I used to have to leg it along the corridor to the Councillors’ Lounge where what I called the “Politburo” would spend all day dribbling and enjoying all the free food. I would be carrying the solid gold civic chain, determined to find at least one of them compos mentis enough to represent the Lord Provost to welcome the group. This was never ever easy.

One day I got it badly wrong. We were welcoming a group of students from Dresden and there was no-one around at all to do the official bit. Then I spotted an ‘elder statesman’ whom I will call Jimmy. He was a Tory Councillor who for some weird reason always addressed me in Arabic. He was incontinent so you had to be mindful of where you sat in the lounge. He also smelled like the Aberdeen fishmarket but needs must. I shoved the gold chain around his neck, unstuck him from his seat and virtually dragged him through to the formal reception rooms.

They were very earnest East Germans. Their translator tried to make conversation with Jimmy.

Has Herr Burgermeister ever been to Dresden?.

It was at this point a shiver went down my spine as I suddenly remembered Jimmy’s role in the RAF during the war. Too late….

No, but I HAVE seen it.

My life started flashing before me along with an image of John Cleese.

It looked very nice just before we bombed the smithereens out of it….

Fail on my part. Definite fail.

Sometimes it was not my fault however. My Chairman at this time was known locally as Marco Polo such was his fondness for “fact-finding missions” overseas. He travelled so often and was of a “certain age”, that he would sometimes forget which country we were in. For that reason, I will call him that throughout this tale.

On this occasion he was leading our delegation on an official visit to our Twin City of Regensburg in Bavaria. The whole of Scotland had been linked with Bavaria in 1948. Our Councillors LOVED it there. No work at all, lots of free beer and general carousing in the guise of forging international friendship and understanding.

Regensburg

There was a clue at breakfast that all was not at all well with our Marco Polo. He announced

I am awa oot for some Francs.

I was sitting with a lovely Councillor who was a fire fighter and so actually attached to reality unlike some of them. I clocked it immediately

Did you hear that?

The Councillor was not unduly worried.

It’ll be a slip of the tongue.

I thought to myself:

I think we’re in trouble.

It was our final day, so the local Oberburgermeister and Burgermeisters were gathered to give us a final reception at which Marco Polo was due to give a speech. A number of those were rather elderly distinguished gentleman who would have seen active service of various sorts with the Wehrmacht at the very least. I downed a few Franconian wines as I just knew it was all going to go badly wrong.

Marco Polo got up to make his farewell speech on our behalf.

I downed another glass.

He commenced thus, in particularly poor French

I would just like to say, Mercy Boocoop pour le Hospitalitay.

Stunned silence. He was however on a roll.

And it all reminds me of the day I led the victory parade through the streets of Bordeaux having notched up more than a few dead Nazis on my rifle.

A chill descended. I had been doing the Nancy Reagan thing of standing behind him hissing

It’s Germany. We’re in Germany but to no avail.

We were ushered to Munich airport pretty sharpish after that.

There were very many more incidents of cringingly embarrassing behaviour by our City Fathers eg Councillor B asking via a PA system at an international conference in Belarus  for a penknife as

I want to scrape ma feet.

Cue Japanese delegation leaving to commit Hare Kiri in the car park.

And we nearly lost one in the Zambezi. I think we took a hippo back by mistake as they were similar in shape and the level of debate from him improved dramatically on our return.

But the most shameful incident of all is what led to the death of my colleagues in Belarus and the conduct of the Councillors but particularly the then Leader. I believe I will soon be ready to talk about this in full, but that is for another time.