Hidden truths, unspoken lies.

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Last week the report into the needless deaths at Gosport Memorial Hospital was published. It revealed that at least 450 lives of patients admitted to this hospital were shortened ie in Plain English, people died, due to inappropriate prescribing of heavy-duty opiates. In a hard-hitting foreword to the report, the Chair of the Independent Inquiry the Rt Reverend James Jones uses terms sadly very familiar to harmed patients and families, and to those of us deemed “whistleblowers”, “troublemakers” and “vexatious complainers”. These include “obfuscation”, “closing of ranks”, “betrayal”, “powerless”, “anger”, and “frustration”. I have not experienced direct harm in the same way as these families, but being of the “speak truth to power” type, I am painfully aware of these terms.

What has come out has left me with a deeply unsettling feeling of deja vu and an equally intense foreboding for the future.

I have a reputation for a clearly reckless tendency to say when the Emperor is in a state of undress, and have not hesitated to do so in my sometimes life-draining experience of working as an “outsider inside”.  I have done so for years within the NHS and other healthcare organisations such as the Kings Fund who, despite being nominally “independent”, in fact tend to mirror exactly the culture about which they claim to be “thinktanking”. Perhaps therefore it is no surprise that I am burnt out, worn out and only starting to emerge over the side of the rusty skip onto which I have been chucked.

It came as something of a surprise therefore to be approached by two radio stations for my views on Gosport. I did not relish this and had to give some thought as to whether to agree. In the end, I decided that those of us who feel able to speak out, must use every opportunity to get our points across. As I am not directly affected by the outrage at Gosport, it is not easy to dismiss me as “angry brigade” which is what I know happened to the families raising concerns. I have seen this happen time and time again. People are unheard. People’s anger and frustration builds up, becomes embedded and in the absence of an outlet, can boil over leaving the person unable to trust anyone in authority at all. This plays right into the hands of those in the system as it becomes much easier to negate and shove in the “difficult patient/carer” box. And so the merry-go-round spins on…

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And so I found myself being interviewed by Radio Scotland and by Julia Hartley-Brewer on Talk Radio with which I had not been familiar. Julia HB was all too familiar. It was going to be a challenge,  as our views on most things are at polar opposites.

I think I managed to get over my views but we were of course limited by time constraints so I decided it merited a blog. This is a complex issue that goes back decades and is about deeply ingrained cultural norms, attitudes and group-think. I will attempt to unravel my spaghetti-headed thoughts on the whole thing:

I am shocked at the scale of what the inquiry unearthed but sadly, not surprised. Both through being a long-term patient, and until I became ill again with work-related stress, a consultant to healthcare organisations, I have gained a wide perspective of the culture of the NHS. Despite the rhetoric, it remains a very defensive culture and I believe this defensiveness is due in no small part, to fear.

People genuinely are afraid to speak out and they are right to be, as those who blow the whistle often face dire consequences. Also in a target-driven, highly pressured culture where there is significant bullying in places, it has been demonstrated that even the most compassionate people get cut off from their own values. Mid Staffs was a case in point. Families who have experienced avoidable harm, in my experience, do not want revenge or massive lawsuits and compensation, they want accountability and the assurance that this will not happen to any other family in future. These families are a source of real insight into what needs to change and can be a huge part of the solution if allowed to be. Trouble is, they tend to be seen as a threat and stonewalled. This fundamentally has to change.

I have over the years experienced excellent care delivered by dedicated staff often doing so under extremely difficult circumstances. I do not wish to be seen as attacking the NHS. In fact I am devoted to the principles on which the NHS is founded. It “belongs to the people”. National NHS organisations hold it, ostensibly, in trust for us, the citizens. It is essential therefore that they hear us and work with us, and that means when things are going well, and crucially, when they are not.

It is the latter part of this that causes problems of course.

The culture of defensiveness – the taking to the bunkers in times of crisis, the unwillingness to “wash dirty linen” in public – goes back way before even the twenty years since concerns started to be expressed regarding Gosport.

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In 1959, psychoanalyst Isabel Menzies-Lyth published a study of systems in hospitals describing the culture there as a defence mechanism against the anxieties raised by caring for people in life and death situations. The study looked at the behaviour of nurses on a highly pressurised teaching ward. There is much in this study of relevance to the debate still ongoing about NHS culture. Menzies-Lyth found that:

1. Efforts were made to create a distance between nurses and the patients. Instead of nurses concentrating on one or two patients they were required to do different tasks for different patients. This ensured that close relationships could not form and kept patients at a “safe” distance.

2. There was a tendency to depersonalise, categorise, and deny the existence of the patient as an individual. Beds would be made in the same way, and patients fed at the same time. Hospitals were highly controlled and regulated which offered real opportunities to hide behind procedures when faced with intensely emotional situations.

3. Staff often denied their own emotions. A “good nurse” was seen as a nurse who would not get too attached to a patient. Physical detachment achieved by the regular movement of nurses from one ward to another supported this psychological detachment.

4. Procedures and rituals were used to minimise the need to make decisions deemed too stressful and which had the potential to generate fear due to uncertainty.

5. Responsibility and accountability was deflected

6. There was a level of “purposeful obscurity” where it was not clear who was responsible or accountable for what and to whom. This enabled responsibility to be applied in general terms rather than directed at one individual.

8. Staff avoided the impact of responsibility by delegation to superiors. “Tasks,” she “were frequently forced upwards in the hierarchy so that all responsibility for their performance could be disclaimed.” Nurses tended to carry out mostly tasks well below their individual capabilities.

9.  There was a tendency to avoid change. “Change,” she wrote, “is an excursion into the unknown.” Terrible consequences might follow. It was easier to hide behind “we’ve always done it this way”.

One quote from this work which resonates today given the experiences of the late Dr Kate Granger when she became a patient leading to the #HelloMyNameIs  campaign is:

“By allowing for ritual task performance by depersonalising relations with the patients, by using organisational hierarchies, nurses contain their anxiety. Thus a patient becomes “the kidney in bed 14” or “the tracheotomy in ward B”. In this way, nurses limit the anxiety they would experience if each patient were to be dealt with as a full human being in need.”

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This report happens to be about nursing staff. I do not wish this to seem like an attack on nurses in particular. In fact in Gosport some nurses did try to alert management as to what was going on and got nowhere. However, others have acknowledged that they turned a blind eye and one is on record as saying she had no idea why she had done so. In truth, the tendencies referred to in the Menzies-Lyth study apply to any professional group working in an under-resourced, over-pressurised hierarchy particularly one subject to constant “reform”. It is little wonder that the constantly shifting sands contributed to the culture of fear which then manifested in the sort of behaviour observed by Menzies-Lyth.

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I should know.

My career before diagnosis with PTSD was in exactly such an environment. I did not work in the NHS but in a local authority. We were subjected to constant restructuring, having to apply for our own jobs, and to interference by elected politicians who created conflict as what they demanded was often not the same as what the management required. This rather chaotic environment created fertile soil for the growth of petty dictators who were lauded for “getting things done” in the sense that Mussolini got trains running on time. The impact on the human beings who were being placed under intolerable pressure to meet the targets imposed from above was glossed over. Our Chief Executive was a bully with deep insecurities particularly around those of us he deemed “intellectual” or “academic”. He had good reason for his paranoia. He was exposed (by myself and a colleague as it so happened) for having falsified all of his qualifications. That came after our trade union had exposed him as a bully and chief perpetrator of an organisation-wide culture of fear. He was not sacked. He knew where bodies were buried.

I too put up with a lot of it and indeed did turn a blind eye to unacceptable things like Councillors fiddling expenses, as I was absolutely devoted to the people in the communities overseas with whom I worked. My doctor kept begging me to leave for the sake of my physical and mental health. I could not countenance that as I believed I WAS my job. Without that identity, I simply did not exist. So I carried on. It was a disaster waiting to happen. My colleagues were killed in Belarus in a rather scandalous episode the circumstances of which I was expected to cover up. I could not do that with something of this level. I took to alcohol to create the level of dissociation required to keep going. I see this a lot in the NHS. NHS staff are well-represented in the AA meetings which I now attend.

One day, I was sitting in a management meeting. I was asked a question about one of the communities with which I was working, as I recall, in Zimbabwe. I realised that at that moment, I had NO opinion. I had become frozen. I did not care one way or the other. I knew then that something profoundly wrong had happened to my personality. I knew deep down that I cared deeply but I had become completely distanced from my own humanity. I packed up my desk that day and did not go back.

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When I first heard about Mid Staffs I was horrified of course. I asked myself how on earth could staff become so detached from the values that made them go into healthcare, that they would walk past clear instances of neglect and abuse.

It was extremely uncomfortable to reflect later on, that in fact, I had gone through the same process myself. And if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.

This is not to say that staff should not be accountable. Absolutely they must. However, we need to look at those at the top who are NOT on the front line, not subject to the consequences of their own management styles, and ultimately, paid enough to shoulder accountability. The problem is that the upper echelons of the NHS contain more than their fair share of narcissists who lack insight, empathy, and have become so detached, so convinced of their own importance, that they profoundly will not believe this song is about them, to quote Carly Simon.

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There are good people at those levels too who have generally survived through being in that grey area of being neither too openly good, nor openly bad. Despite the sound-bites to the contrary which emanate from the Transformista Cult, they do not rock boats, and they do not draw too much attention to themselves either good or bad. They have drifted upwards, unfettered by too much scandal, or too much success. They KNOW very often that the unacceptable is going on, but seem unwilling or unable to do anything about it. There were some very good people from the upper ranks of the NHS on the Expert Advisory Group who endeavoured to advise Jeremy Hunt on the design of the new Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch. I was a member. I received more than one message from these highly-paid individuals saying that I was the only one with the guts to express openly what they were all thinking. It reminded me of when I spoke out about the bullying in my old organisation along with a few other courageous/foolhardy types. The majority of people told us they were fully “behind us”. What they meant was a considerable way behind us, behind a wall made of bomb-proof concrete.

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I was asked on Radio Scotland what I believe the solution is…not an easy ask in a ten minute interview.

Firstly, I am NOT an expert. I am an observer. The outsider/inside role with a range of healthcare organisations has however, given me a genuine “helicopter view” of the current landscape. I have given up on trying to change the mindsets of the narcissists  at the top which is a waste of effort, or inject courage somehow into the veins of the good people at the top so that they start to risk saying it like it is.

I prefer to concentrate on the leaders of the future. I am given some hope when I meet with the new intakes of the NHS Graduate Scheme every year on their first day. They are very bright, their minds are open to new ideas, and they have not (yet) been got at. I like to think I am able to plant some seeds that in some maybe, just maybe, that will enable them to grow into leaders with integrity and the courage to speak truth to power, leaders who are not afraid to torpedo the boat if necessary rather than just conference-hop loudly proclaiming their radical “boat rocking” credentials but not doing anything that might disrupt the status quo.

A few years ago I worked with my first intake of Graduate Scheme trainees. I had yet to be aware that I seemed to be able to influence through the manner in which I shared my experiences as a patient. There was a very overwhelming response to what I said from the new trainees. Some came up to tell me what had motivated them to want to work in NHS management, some became tearful as they had only just realised the enormity of what they were doing and the potential to impact on the lives of ordinary people.

One trainee sent me an email during her first placement. She on her first ever night shift in A&E. She wrote:

“I just want you to know that I am remembering what you said in every patient that I see”.

This is why I choose to lay my painful experiences bare over and over again in the hope that in some small way I can make a difference. I must believe that it will. It is what makes me drag myself off the floor and somehow carry on.

The other key part of any solution will of course be a radical change in the way patients and families are perceived in the system. We are NOT the enemy. We are more than capable of understanding the reasons for errors, that human beings are fallible, and that staff are very often burnt out and drained. The tendency to retreat to the bunkers as soon as the shit heads towards the fan is doing NO-ONE any favours. I am painfully familiar now with the shut-down that happens when a failure or short-coming is exposed. Despite the fact that we would deeply respect professionals prepared to say “I got this wrong” and look at how to work different, very often the response is to batten down the hatches and we are met with a Berlin Wall of silence.

No wonder then, in a system so divided and divisive, we can be forced into Them and Us tribes.  Instead we need to be able to meet in the no-mans-land between the opposing armies as genuine partners, each with a deep understanding of what it is to walk in the shoes of the other.  This means that we must be present where the real power lies, at governance levels. We should not be limited to token patient story at the start of a board meeting, but as an equal member of the board itself.

Until this happens, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes. The NHS can’t afford this and neither can the citizens – the patients and families who stand to lose a great deal if, and indeed when, another Mid Staffs, another Southern Health, another Morecambe Bay, another Gosport hits the front pages.

Are you an NHS Leader hiding until it’s all over, or do you have the guts to free yourself and your subordinates from the merry-go-round?

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Reflections of a Burnt Out Revolutionary

I write from my room in a mental health unit. After many years of bleeding my often harrowing experiences in the health, social care and housing services all over the walls of conference halls and training rooms I find myself depleted of resources both physical, mental, and spiritual. I feel my skin has been sandpapered off very very slowly until finally I am left with my organs barely held together with a wafer-thin membrane. I was very close to taking my life last week. I do not say this lightly.

Why did I bother to give 100% of my mind and soul to trying to improve the culture of our NHS? You may well ask. In truth, it is now twenty years since I was diagnosed with PTSD and ended up homeless and hopeless, as described in other blogs. Using my experiences in the hope that no-one else ends up there has never been a “job” for me. I have had a single-minded and utterly sincere belief in the adage that the truth shall set us free.

I was prepared to traumatise myself over and over like the proverbial boot stamping on a face forever, if one, just one, person might go on to work differently as a result of what I told them.

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I fought hard against the commodification of qualities like Empathy and Compassion and the dilution and co-option of concepts in which I firmly believe, such as Patient Leadership and Co-production.

It is only now in hindsight, sitting on a ward after a serious bout of suicidal despair at being next to destitute despite all that I have given particularly to the NHS, that I realise I was commoditised and co-opted myself. In return for what I hoped would lead to a level of security ie a “real” job, I allowed NHS England to silence me to some extent, to dilute what I believe and what I have to say. That failed of course, and I now meet the consequences.

I am far from out of the woods regarding my health and the spectre of homelessness is always present. I am tired on what feels like a cellular level, let down and heartbroken.

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For this reason, I have decided to blog my thoughts on these issues now. I am not sure whether I will get through this particularly dark patch and there are things I do not wish left unsaid..

There are words galore on the subject of involving patients/families/citizens. We are an “untapped resource”. There is a “power shift”.  We are being “put” at the centre.

Simon Stevens, at the time of writing Head of NHS England, wrote this in the Five Year Forward View:

More broadly, we need to engage with communities and citizens in new ways, involving them directly in decisions about the future of health and care services”.

“None of these initiatives and commitments by themselves will be the difference between success and failure over the next five years. But collectively and cumulatively they and others like them will help shift power to patients and citizens, strengthen communities, improve health and wellbeing, and—as a by-product—help moderate rising demands on the NHS”.

Fine words, but is this revolutionary, new or even at all meaningful?

Discussion on the changing relationship between patients and the health and care system has been going on since before I was born. In 1964 journalist Gerda Cohen wrote in What’s Wrong with Hospitals “patients are becoming impatient of being treated like chipped flowerpots in for repair”.

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Even more tellingly, she wrote extensively in this book, about her observations of a psychiatric ward. In those days of course long-term, if not permanent, admissions were the norm. I very often use this quote from the book in my presentations:

“Self government by the patients must involve pretence because as soon as they encroach on real power, they are brought up short”.

Again, remember this was in 1964 and my feeling is apart from in some isolated cases, this remains true today.

At the time Cohen was making her observations known and for some considerable time afterwards the Medical Model prevailed and to a large extent still does albeit with a veneer that might suggest otherwise. In the Medical Model, the healthcare professional is the expert in control and the patient is there to be ‘fixed’ like that broken flowerpot. Interactions tend to be one way with the health care professional telling us what needs to be done. The focus is on diagnostic labels and finding a box in which to slot the “problem”.

So many of us have more than one health issue going on at once funnily enough. Right now for example, an extended period of extreme work-related stress has led to depression, anxiety, a recurrence of my childhood epilepsy with grand mal seizures, chronic back and leg pain and the discovery while all of this was being investigated of a large growth in my uterus. I am unable to work and so poverty and sheer terror at the possibility of being unable to sustain myself and my cat has further added to the mental health symptoms. I am at separate clinics for each of these issues. I found out that the Pain Clinic was unable, on discovering the growth, to refer me directly to Gynaecology in the same hospital but it all had to go through my GP. The GP surgery could not refer me without seeing me. I was however by this time an inpatient in hospital in another part of town due to bed shortages in my own area. I have had to wait to be transferred back to my Borough, feel well enough to go to the GP surgery in order to set in motion the referral back to the same hospital. That process when I eventually dragged myself to the GP, took roughly two minutes. I was also advised that the Pain Management clinic had no ability to liaise directly with my mental health team. Surely the two issues are linked and impact on one another?

Don’t talk to me about “integrated” or “coordinated” care. These are fine words once again, but the reality of my current experience is very different. Each symptom is treated individually by different healthcare professionals working in separate silos with little or no collaboration with those in other departments.

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Who has the genuine “helicopter view” over this fragmented, landmine-strewn landscape? The patients and their families of course. We have to find ways to negotiate our way through the maze when we are often at our most vulnerable. We patients know to our cost that this narrow, fragmented approach is at best frustrating, at worst actively damaging. Many never make it out of the maze. I sense their spirits are still trapped there, desperately trying to find the way to the centre or to the exit.

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And despite all our efforts, those of us passionate or mad enough to push for real change for no personal reward, largely remain recipients of “care” rather than truly equal partners.

This is certainly true in Mental Health. My current experience involves being ignored, negated and not even worthy of being asked directly what my name is. Despite standing right next to a nurse, she leaned across to a colleague, stabbed her pen in my direction and said “what is HER name?”. I already feel like an utter failure for ending up here again.. This sort of thing may seem minor but makes me feel subhuman. It feels like a different planet to the world I occupied when I had a contract with NHS Horizons when we blithered endlessly about rocking boats, being pirates, not following rules etc ad nauseum. Let me take you by the hand, Chief Transformation Officer, and I will lead you to the front line of an acute mental health ward….

Patients have not taken this paternalistic attitude lying down. Already in the 1960s, at individual and collective levels, patients were starting to demand more control over their own treatment and have a genuine influence in the development of the services which they used.  The first patient groups were forming and the notion of the patient as something other than a passive recipient of care began to emerge.

Largely this development seemed to have been welcomed but with some trepidation. In a debate on “Hospital and Patient Welfare” in the House of Commons in 1964, the MP for Abertillery the Rt Hon Rev Llewellyn Williams despite declaring himself suspicious of the new patient organisations as a potential refuge for “chronic bellyachers”, he does however go on to state:

What concerns me is the question of human relationships. This is the nub of the matter. In the post-war period we have witnessed incredible medical technological advances. Surgical skill seems to go from one new wonderful discovery to greater discovery still. We have discovered drugs which are indeed miracle-working. One would wish that there were a comparable advance in human relationships”

Policy since then has gradually seen the reframing at least in terms of rhetoric of the role of the relationship between the patient and the wider healthcare system – from the NHS and Community Care Act of 1990 where the formal requirement to engage and consult was first established to more recent Policy such as the Berwick Review which recommended that:

“Patients and their carers should be present, powerful and involved at all levels of healthcare organisations from wards to the boards of Trusts”.

Once again, fine words indeed…and there’s an endless stream of them it would seem.

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Here’s an example from Think Tank Land. In its 2014 paper on Collective Leadership for example, the Kings Fund recommends:

Organisations such as the centre for Patient Leadership also stress the importance of seeing patient leaders as a resource for change in health and social care organisations. Much like multidisciplinary team-working, collective leadership with patients would require a redistribution of power and decision-making along with a shift in thinking about who is included in the collective leadership community”.

All well and good, but having been an Associate at the Kings Fund, my observation is that behind the glossy facade there festers a culture that is as hierarchical, and toxic as the worst parts of the NHS. There IS no “collective leadership community” there. This is a nice soundbite to describe a fantasy world.

Formal policy leaves us in no doubt that we are “putting the patient at the centre”. This statement in itself is riddled with power imbalance. “We” ie the professionals, on “our” ie the professionals’, terms, will “put” the patient at the centre. When I hear that, I see myself as a pawn being placed on a chess board by some giant in a suit. I am never the Queen, just the pawn.

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Traditional Patient and Public Involvement, still largely based on collection of data and feedback, and at best having a token pawn or two on a Committee, more often than not, stops short of sharing power at strategic levels. Advances in digital technology and Social Media have already changed fundamentally the nature of how we patients interact with the health and care system and outdated systems for formal Patient and Public Involvement are falling more and more behind the pace of change.

As it states in the Five Year Forward View:

“We have not fully harnessed the renewable energy represented by patients and communities”.

There are yet more fine words which do not stand up to close scrutiny. The energy of patients and carers is not infinitely renewable. We are a finite resource that that risks depletion through ineffective, wasteful and tokenistic use.  Simply repeating declarations that we need to involve patients and carers in new ways with no indication of how this is to happen, in a glossy policy document or declared loudly from the platform of a glitzy conference, is not enough. I have waited for real action in this for years now. My head is bashed out of shape from its frequent collisions with brick walls. I am not sure I wish to continue to water dead flowers.

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The words of the Reverend Llewellyn Williams from 1964 ring equally true today with the added urgency from the NHS increasingly struggling to do more with a great deal less. Relationships remain at the heart of the matter, and the key to fostering sustainable working relationships is collaborative and partnership working in which power is genuinely shared at all levels including and in indeed, in particular, at Board level where the strategic decisions are made.  

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But where are we at Board level? By that, I mean having equal say in decisions, not just a “patient story” as the after lunch “inspirational” slot to wake everyone up after too much corporate buffet.

There is a smattering of Patient Director posts pioneered by courageous trailblazers like David Gilbert, but that is about it in terms of having an equal say in decisions at the most senior levels. This is a wasted opportunity. It limits vision.

Why do they fear our presence at these levels? Is it that they themselves have Imposter Syndrome? Is it simply that they have fought tooth and nail with much fur flying to get hold of power and are mighty unwilling to cede any of it especially God forbid, to a patient?  

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One Trust clearly fears patients to the extent that their CEO had the bright idea of having a red chair in the Board Room to remind people of the importance of “the patient”. These invisible patients are ideal. They are guaranteed not to cause trouble or ask any awkward questions. It struck me there may be a market for flatpack patients to cover all engagement needs. There could be supplements for the so-called “hard to reach” and a Premium service that would also take into account the need for diversity.

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Where does the much misunderstood term “Co-production” fit into this? Co-production is often considered a synonym for patient/service user involvement. The reason for this is that the system tends to co-opt and dilute more radical concepts in order perhaps to be able to slot them into existing structures which can SOUND radical but in fact be rendered “safe”,  and less challenging than the business of actually transforming existing structures and systems.

In The Challenge of Co-production, the New Economics Foundation defines it as follows:

“Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours. Where activities are co-produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change” 

The key words are “equal” “reciprocal” and “agents of change”. It is not a synonym for public engagement, service user/patient involvement or consultation. It is not just allowing people a say in decisions about themselves individually or collectively, and above all it is not something which retains power in the hands of professionals with the patient or service user brought in at a later stage. Do you believe you are “doing” co-production? If so can you honestly say that it sits on the two way street of reciprocity, that there is true equality, and the patients/carers/citizens involved are truly able to effect change on their terms?

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The term Co-production was first coined by Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom at Indiana University. The key finding in her work in the criminal justice system in Chicago was that public services were shown to work best when designed and run by a combination of professional expertise and community insight. Ostrom’s work divides participation into individual and collective levels.  This is very relevant to health care. We can participate as individuals in terms of how we reclaiming power over our own health and in sharing decisions with professionals, but we can also link up with others either with similar issues or set of values to participate on a wider level in order to create the social movement that is mentioned in the Five Year Forward view.

Co-production was taken further by Professor Edgar Cahn, a US civil rights lawyer and speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, who suffered a massive coronary at 45. Time spent pondering in his hospital bed upon the resulting apparent loss of self and achievements before he was ill. He used this time well as he went on to found the Time Banking movement – the practical means whereby those declared useless by society for whatever reason are now valued for their assets, skills and life experience.

I read his seminal work “No More Throwaway People” and it immediately resonated, particularly regarding the feeling that his heart attack seemed to rob him of more than just his health.

“I didn’t like feeling useless. My idea of who I was – the “me” that I valued – was someone who could be special for others, who could do something they needed. And here I was, a passive recipient of everyone else’s help” (Cahn, 2000)

I have long observed that the power-holders can far more readily accept the idea of patients as individuals “taking responsibility” for their own health wrapped up in the pretty gift wrap of “self-management” but not quite so keen on the idea of collective influence, of strength in numbers, of a genuine social movement that is as social movements should be – inspired, mobilised, developed and led by the citizens themselves. Social Movements are just “FAB” as long as they are run by the officially endorsed Tranformistas, bureaucratised and stripped of any energy, fire and challenge which might just run the risk of the Bastille actually being stormed.

Cahn describes himself as a Hellraiser, and as such co-production has a major hellraising element. He described me as a Hellraiser when I was lucky enough to meet him. I take this to mean the definition of an Activist by Eve Ensler.

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We are out there, both inside and outside the NHS. Despite its claims to the contrary the NHS remains firmly based on Command and Control. The culture I have noted from my time working within national NHS bodies, is the antithesis of that advocated by Ensler, Cahn and countless others. There is a deep-seated fear of genuine activism that might just shake up the status quo and every effort is made to create pseudo-activists by such initiatives as the School for Healthcare Radicals. Real radicals do not need to be taught. Real radicals do not need a badge to proclaim themselves rebels. Real radicals who really do rock boats in their drive to challenge injustice and “make it better” run the risk of ending up like me – burnt out, chewed up and thrown on a corporate slagheap.

I will conclude this reflective piece with the words of Edgar Cahn, a man who would run a mile from wearing an “I am a radical” badge. His actions speak louder than empty words.

“We will be unable to create the core economy of the future so long as we live in a bifurcated world where all social problems are relegated either to paid professionals or to volunteers whose role is typically restricted to functioning as free labour within the silos of the non-profit world.

It will take massive labour of all kinds by all to build the core economy of the future – an economy based on relationships and mutuality, on trust and engagement, on speaking and listening and caring – and above all on authentic respect. We will not get there simply by expanding an entitlement system that apportions public benefits based on negatives and deficiencies: what one lacks, what disability one has, what misfortune one has suffered….Finally, because time banking and co-production grow out of my life and work in the civil rights movement, I have to add that hell-raising is a critical part of co-production and of the labour that it entails and must value. Those with wealth, power, authority and credentials hold those assets as stewards for those who came before and in trust for those yet unborn.” 

 

As for me. Was it worth it? Right now, I just do not know the answer….

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Spaced out. A Highland Fling & my first Full Rasputin.

Though the bulk of my work in Aberdeen was running projects in Belarus and Zimbabwe and also looking after foreign delegations such as the belching Chinese of Kunming, I ended up in some rather unexpected places too.

One of these places was the then semi Secret City of Zhukovsky, centre of aviation and space research. It is in Moscow Region and now just part of the City but then it was only starting to emerging from official non-existence.

Zhukovsky was deeply involved in space programmes. Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, trained there at the Gromov Flight Research Institute in the City.  It was also where they test flew the MiG fighter aircraft.

How I ended up there had nothing whatsoever to do with any of that stuff. The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra had approached my office to try to find an amateur orchestra with which they could link in the USSR. The best orchestra in this category, which is still very much alive, was the Zhukovsky Symphony Orchestra. Zhukovsky was a City of Scientists and so it was considered important to give attention to the cultural side of life to keep these top brains from losing the plot perhaps. We were put in touch with the orchestra through the Soviet Embassy and off we went to meet them.

The first visit I don’t remember very much. I was billeted with a family as there were no hotels for foreigners what with the then “Secret” status. I was right at the top of a tower block with a lovely teacher and her mother. What I do remember is the MiGs flying lower than our floor almost deliberately weaving through the tower blocks.  You could see the whites of the pilots’ eyes. I was to realise that Test Pilots are a breed apart. Their job is to take a plane to extremes to check whether it is going to crash. It gets to their heads after a time, I can assure you.

We then invited people from the Zhukovsky City authorities and the orchestra to the UK to attend the annual shindig concert by the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. The orchestra would travel down through Scotland collecting musicians and Caledonian Society types otherwise known as “teuchters”  in what was described as a ceilidh in a distillery on a train. The Royal Albert Hall concert replicated that. It was normal to see kilt-clad madmen doing the Highland Fling in the Albert Hall boxes. I remember I ended up dancing a Gay Gordons in the corridor of the RAH with the First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy. It wasn’t the kind of concert to which the Russian orchestra were accustomed but I think they loved the anarchy of it all.

From that, it was decided a Cultural Agreement would be signed between Aberdeen and Zhukovsky which of course required an official visit by a delegation led by our Lord Provost, of whom I have written previously, the Director of our Art Gallery Ian McKenzie-Smith, and myself.

This time, it was way more formal than the first visit. We had constant KGB presence and were filmed at all times. In terms of accommodating us, they clearly had a problem due to aforementioned lack of hotels for foreigners. That was why, in the depths of winter, we found ourselves in the middle of a snowy forest, in a sanatorium for former military and KGB Officers. I have stayed in some strange places in my time, but this really was something. All I could hear was the wind howling through the trees. There were lots of people in white coats floating down corridors like the ghosts of KGB past. One night Ian came knocking at my door. He’d had a note shoved under his door in Russian and asked me to translate it. I remember exactly what it said

Comrade, your appointment with the Gynaecologist is at 8am tomorrow morning.

Colour drained from Ian’s face

I don’t have to go, do I?

One evening, we were invited to join the inmates at their “social evening”. They all seemed to operate in slow motion so I am pretty sure they were all heavily drugged probably to prevent them from regressing to the old days interrogating people in the Lubyanka which might not help the therapeutic process what with pulling one another’s teeth out and connecting their bits to the electrics. This evening took the form of a visit by two well-past-their-prime “ballroom dancing professionals”. When I try to visualise them, I can only think of the two ballroom dancers on Hi-de-Hi. They were more barnacled than sequinned.

Hi de Hi dancers

I however decided this was so bizarre I might as well join in. I was up on the floor doing the tango, the cha-cha, the quickstep (the not-very-quickstep in the case of my dance partners). I had done ballroom dancing as a teenager and hated it but was very good at it so these KGB retirees got treated to my full repertoire including a bit of Saturday Night Fever which seemed oddly apt. The upshot of it was, I was declared best dancer and was given a collection of Marina Tsvetaeva poetry as a prize. I treasure that book still.

We were given the privilege, so I was told, of being shown their aviation and space facilities which to be honest I found rather deadly dull. Who cares if it’s the biggest wind tunnel in the world? I hate flying anyway. However, the former test pilot accompanying us, Sergei (name changed for obvious reasons) was of a great deal more interest. Actually he was also our KGB minder as I later found out. My late Mum always said I was never going to settle for a fisherman from Buckie and she was right. A KGB Officer, half bonkers due to being a test pilot whose plane had spectacularly failed the test, with a wife in tow somewhere was IDEAL! This started a long distance romance of sorts which was great in that I didn’t really do intimacy so having a few countries between us most of the time was rather helpful. I could then go over there when I felt like it and more importantly, leave when I felt like it.

I spent a week with him at the St Petersburg Air Show with a bunch of fellow truly off-their-trollies pilots. They had made their own aircraft out of God knows what – bits of string and sticky back plastic one imagines. They had flown from Moscow to Canberra on these things. They told me the only medical supplies they had on board were vodka and pure alcohol. One was for stomach complaints the other for colds. I can’t remember which way round.

I was introduced to the famous Cosmonaut Igor Volk. He was leader of a group of Cosmonauts named the Wolf Pack (Volk is Wolf in Russian) and had made many successful missions into space. He was to be the pilot of their equivalent of the shuttle – the Buran. It had been test-flown already to the edge of space and I got to sit inside it. I have a burnt tile from it in my flat somewhere. I didn’t think much of this encounter but on return to Aberdeen started to get letters from space enthusiasts telling me how lucky I was. My impression of Igor was that he had been a bit scrambled by going into space or it might just have been the vodka/pure alcohol combo.

Igor V

At this time in my work I was getting increasingly stressed due to the bullying culture in Aberdeen City Council. After a particularly stressful visit to the Soviet Embassy when they locked me in, I started getting migraines where I would be unable to see properly for several hours. On another visit to Sergei, I arrived off the overnight train from Belarus to Moscow, looked in the mirror and said out loud “God you look like shit”. The migraines were every day by now. Sergei noted this and decided without telling me, to do something about it. That something was unforgettable.

He said we were going to the home of a TV producer. Sergei ran a TV station as a sideline. We sat having tea and nice normal chat in this Moscow flat and then it changed…

They started telling me about this famous “Healer” who was a medical doctor but used his apparent “special powers” in his work at a major Moscow hospital.

Sounds really interesting I said, trying to be polite.

Maybe you would like to meet him?

I thought to myself,

Yes in the fullness of time, roughly on the day of the freezing over of Hell.

He’s in the next room. We’ll bring him in to help you.

At this point I remember thinking I am not ready for the Full Rasputin, I am happy with my Migraine tablets from Boots thanks very much etc.

When he appeared, he wasn’t at all Rasputin-like which was slightly disappointing. He was an ordinary looking Russian in a bad jumper. I did not want him sitting opposite me as I didn’t want him delving into the dark alcoves of my mind. Sergei beckoned for him to sit opposite me. He said

She doesn’t want me to sit there, I will sit here

Oh Fuck.

I was still holding my cup of tea – a nice Lomonosov china number with saucer – and the teacup was rattling as I was shaking so much by this time. He sat next to me and said precisely this

Do you want to know why you looked like SHIT this morning? (repeating my exact words to myself on the train).

I had given in by this time as I knew he was for real. He stood behind me. I heard him crack his knuckles. He put his hands on my head. There was immense heat. He took his hands away and I felt what I can only describe as an emission of a vast rush of energy escaping right out of the top of my head.

He then sat and told me a few things about myself. He said

Your problem is, you are ready to give people 100% and when you only get 30% back your Soul gets weaker.

This was true then and still is.

The migraines were really because my working environment had become so toxic. The Chief Executive was the Stalin of the Western Isles. He would physically and verbally assault colleagues at all levels so there was an ingrained atmosphere of terror throughout the building. This Healer started to talk about this which again was rather freaky. He said not to worry as something was about to happen.  I was not convinced. It was all very well to be doing flashy Healer stuff in a room but to sort out a maniac from Stornoway working in an office in Aberdeen remotely from Moscow would have tested even Rasputin himself.

I got back into my flat after this extraordinary trip, dumped my bags and without even taking my coat off, turned on the TV. There was my Trade Union rep being interviewed on the news, for the first time going public about the bullying culture perpetrated by the Chief Executive. The first words I heard her say were

Fear stalks the corridors of the Town House.

Things were about to change drastically, just as the Healer predicted….

But that’s for another blog.

 

 

A Half Dead Mouse. I try my hand at Highland witchcraft.

I am walking slowly up a spiral staircase in the pseudo baronial Old Town House Aberdeen which has on the walls, portraits of Lord Provosts past. Their eyes seem to swivel disapprovingly in my direction as I go by. They are not a particularly attractive bunch…

I was to discover many of the living ones were none too pleasant either. But I wasn’t even there yet. I was 23. It was my first “real” job. I was their first ever “Twinning Officer” which was forever being mistaken by locals for a brand of herbal tea.  I was going to be in charge of Aberdeen’s town twinning activities which were many as our local elected members loved their “fact-finding missions”. I have yet to find out what facts they were looking for given some of the things they used to get up to on these overseas trips.

This was all to come however. I was still only half way up the stairs a crisp suit, my first one, that Mum had bought for me in John Lewis sale.

I felt inadequate and scared as I spiralled upwards round the statue of Queen Victoria. I was to imagine many times over the next few years that if I threw myself off the staircase I would end up impaled on her crown and bleed all over the geraniums at her feet.

Turned out they had forgotten I was coming so there was no place for me to sit. I said “I don’t mind, as long as I have a desk”. The response was “Desk? Who said anything about a desk?”. That should have been a hint that things were not as they ought to be.  I was given a space in an office later deemed too good for me. They later made up for the splendour by ensuring I had rubbish furniture. There were depressing oil paintings in there of sad orphans on loan from the Aberdeen Art Gallery Reserve Collection. It was very clear to me why they were on reserve….

On my first meeting with my new manager, a Scottish version of Sir Humphrey Appleby,  I was told two important facts – one that the Lord Provost (our equivalent of Mayor) was “a bastard on a good day”, and two, that Aberdeen had agreed to Twin with a “Russian” City. I summoned the courage to make two points.

1. This City, Homiel, was NOT in Russia. It was in the then Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic

2. I followed up this shock news with, “have you looked on a map?”.

Homiel was the centre of a region heavily contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl four years before. As was their wont, a bunch of our whisky-laden Councillors had met their vodka-laden counterparts while seeking facts together aka some jolly in France. They had been seen coming, as they had undoubtedly been bragging about oil revenue and the £28 million Common Good Fund otherwise known as Robert the Bruce’s Sporran. The historic and binding deal was sealed, making our Cities friends for life, through thick and thin, dictatorship and plutonium.

Regarding my manager’s first point about the “Leadership Style” of the Lord Provost,  I quickly realised that he lived up to his reputation. He could be ignorant, mean-spirited, gruff, and downright nasty. On day one with no warning, he summoned me to lunch in the restaurant where our elected Members got their daily free meals. They were all ears awaiting the initiation ceremony – a young lassie about to be served up on a plate. More palatable than the lukewarm mince and tatties nae doot. I had not been told a thing about an upcoming visit by a Japanese delegation and when the summons came, I had appealed to my boss for help. His response was to run in the opposite direction like a daddy long legs possessed.  Feeling extremely unsure of myself I joined the Lord Provost. He didn’t say much but got to his feet and shouted “fa’s ‘at” (translation “who’s that?”) at one of his political opponents. The guest in question was a well-known business leader and so was “ahead of himself” right away, which was a clear fail in the Lord Provost’s eyes.

Then his attention turned to me. I sat there clearly being played with, dismissed as an idiot as I could not answer any of his questions, which he had clearly anticipated. When I watch my cat play with a half dead mouse am reminded of many such experiences at the hands of our elected members. I wasn’t to know at that stage that their issue was usually rooted in a firm sense of their own inadequacy made up for as far as they could, in power games, pomposity and a fondness for ceremonial robes. Early on, the Lord Provost had decided I was not up to the job. It helped this semi-literate ex railway shunter to reduce those he feared to zero.

I now understand with hindsight, that I had been propelled into a toxic working environment where to be declared “ahead of yourself” or worse, “clever”, was not a compliment. I was considerably younger than anyone else in my position. I was very raw material and raw material needs to be coaxed lovingly into the finished article rather than trampled on.  I translated the messages I was getting re my lack of suitability for the job, my being “above myself”, into “must try harder”. I now know this was the last thing the powers that be wanted. It was to be an early lesson that if one values self-preservation above all else, the key is to achieve a kind of nameless, faceless mediocrity that attracts no attention, either positive or negative.  This has been true throughout what passes for my working life. The mediocre are able to climb unnoticed up the ranks. The result is those at the top of the ladder are often subconsciously acutely aware of their own inadequacy, and seek to make up for it by protecting themselves with a brittle narcissism.

The other “not good enough” message I absorbed came from the stitch-up that had happened around my recruitment. I was offered the role but was deemed too young and green to be given the advertised salary for my post. I was offered the position on a lower rate and advised I would have training and support to enable me to grow into the role. This was speaking my language. I had never wanted position as an end in itself and would far rather have worked my way up the ladder on merit. I was also not at all confident in my own abilities and so I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

The first seeds of suspicion were planted when I came across a “Confidential” letter in which senior officials were congratulating one another at their success in getting me to accept a low salary and for the savings they had made as a result. There was no mention of the training and support that I had been offered, and indeed, my then boss was to deny emphatically that these promises were ever made.

I also found out that the elected members had not been informed of this deal so they expected me to put up with the abuse that they believed the higher grades merited. I was handed on a plate to the Lord Provost who commenced a campaign to bully me out of existence.

We went early on to Belarus via Moscow. He was so delighted to be making his first visit to the Socialist Paradise that was just about still the USSR. I can imagine his shock when he was to find at Sheremetyevo airport that he was treated with equal disdain to the rest of humanity shuffling through customs being quizzed about possible weapons-grade plutonium or birdseed in our luggage. It was of course MY fault. He dragged me by the arm across the concourse in search of this anticipated but non-existent VIP treatment. He was a long-standing Communist and discovering the reality of the dying embers of the USSR was too much for him.

On my return, he used every possible opportunity to denigrate me, belittle my work and even my language skills despite his own abilities in English being rather limited.
I was to discover that I may be plagued with anxiety, even terror at times and a crippling lack of self-belief but when against a wall, something in me seems to kick in. I turn and I face head on whatever it is and whoever it is.

I had an ally in the form of the Council’s Public Relations Officer. She was profoundly disliked as not only was she a well-known figure in Aberdeen from her previous TV career, she had also married into a high-profile local family who owned a number of important businesses and amenities in the City. Margaret was being put through the same mincer as I was. She was older than me and became a friend and mentor. We resorted to black humour for survival. We even tried witchcraft. We would sit in the Press Gallery during Council meetings willing the Lord Provost to keel over, in the way he would have wanted, in full throttle rant in the Council chamber. Our plan was to sprint down the spiral staircase and over the road to Oddbins for a bottle of Dom Perignon so that we could toast his departure.

I soon unleashed my talent for creative disruption.  One day I came in early and stuck a big Room 101 poster on the grand wood-paneled door to the Lord Provost’s suite of offices. The trouble was, the inhabitants of our baronial building had not read Orwell and the TV programme was yet to exist so it was lost on them. It made me feel considerably better however.

I then sought a practical plan of action. I sensed that it needed some public acclaim for HIM, to make him understand my worth. I spotted an International Relations’ award and KNEW this largely meaningless gong would impress Comrade R in the style of winning a Stakhanovite medal, or the Order of Lenin. I entered and won an award for my work in Belarus and Zimbabwe “Best Contribution to World Harmony” at a ceremony at the Savoy and he had to go with me to London to accept it on behalf of the City. He had broken his leg so I was in effect his carer, which was a profound change in the dynamics between us.

There was what I now know is a power shift happening and this was to become a theme throughout the fragments of my life.

When we got back from London, I was called into the newly-arrived Chief Executive Donald McDonald, the Stalin of Stornoway, of whom very much more anon. McDonald was blithering that “something has happened to the Lord Provost”. He had apparently been to see him and demanded that I be given an assistant and a serious pay rise. I left McDonald’s office to a hearty “your days as a trainee are over”. Later that day, the Lord Provost publicly apologised to me. He said he had been unfair and that he hadn’t been aware of my status as “trainee”.

Shortly after that, my nemesis retired from office. The last time I saw him was on the street. I was in formerly “his” car, the chauffeur-driven Civic Daimler, having been at the airport seeing off a VIP. He was at the bus stop in the Aberdeen rain.

I waved at him. He waved back. A week later he was dead.