Saturday, 29 November 2008

For Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and Rivka and Chabad in Mumbai.

We've had recourse to Chabad. Twice, so far. The first time in Bangkok, Thailand. I contacted them when 'Zach' was holed up in hospital, after 'Rickey' had managed to find him on that manic journey from the borders of Laos through an opium filled haze to the room overlooking the tropical gardens and the motorways of Thailand's major city. The local Chabad representative came in to visit him, bringing a menorah because it was close to Hanukah, as well as food and drinks and general good humour. Rickey wasn't quite sure, fearful that they might be there to 'evangelisize' him. I told him that they weren't that interested in converting those who had not been of the faith beforehand. As it was, he had plenty of discourse with them, trying his best to dissuade them from religion to hedonism. They weren't convinced.

The second time was last year, when 'Sam' and I were compelled once again to go and bring Zach back to this country. Another horrendously expensive repatriation. Three days in Chaing Mai. Beforehand I'd made contact with Rabbi Nehemia in Bangkok who put me in touch with Moyshi in Chaing Mai. Even in these far-flung posts, the Lubavitch make sure that there's somewhere for weary travellers to find a Friday night dinner or a break from the intensity of their journeys.

Moyshi and his Israeli helper Yossi had been to visit Zach in the 'cage'. This was a separate area of the whitewashed, seemingly harmless looking psychiatric hospital wherein Zach was once more incarcerated. I had received an anxiety ridden phone call from Moyshi before we'd left. 'You have to get him out of there,' he told me, almost breathlessly. 'Otherwise, he'll die...' When you hear something like that, you're not quite sure where you go or what you do. Apparently Zach was in a large cage with the demented and the criminally insane. I told them to do whatever they could to help. And they did.

The two Chabadniks moved Zach into a private ward. They visited him daily. They contacted the British consular offices. They took him in food and drink and clothing and stayed with him, talking to him so that he should once again feel that he was a human being. This was nothing particularly new to them. They'd done it many times before and asked nothing from us for so doing.

What Moyshi and Yossi did was no different to what other Chabad outreach workers do worldwide. It's no different to what Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife Rivka did in Mumbai. Their view was to help others, while living a very simple life themselves. They would have provided succour for travellers, a meal or two and other help should someone have health issues or, as above, acute mental health problems. Why they particularly were singled out and murdered in the backstreets of an Indian city is a heinous crime and one that can never be forgiven. There's no excuse that anyone can make.

When I spoke to my sister about why Nariman house had been attacked, she thought it was because it was 'near the hotels'. That wasn't the case, I explained. The terrorists had chosen to go to Chabad house because there were Jews there. Once in there, they bound their hostages and murdered them because they could. I was touched by the young Mumbaiker correspondent on our satellite Indian station. She was in tears after Nariman house had finally been cleared of its terrorists. 'Did you know,' she said, 'the Rabbi's baby who was saved by their cook celebrates his birthday today. He's an orphan because his parents have been killed and will celebrate that for the rest of his life.'

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The explosion in mental health disorder and Britney's search for love

I gave another one of my talks this week to an extremely nice and genteel school in the west of London. I'm not sure that it was one of my better endeavours but I'm always critical of myself. After all, this is a completely new aspect of my day - giving talks to kids about the dangers of mental illness and drug abuse. It's something that I know something about - after all, there's the experience of living with someone who has both. However, I do sometimes wonder whether I'm talking into a void. It's still daunting standing up in front of twenty or thirty A-level students and expect to hold their attention, while at the same time trying not to bore or watch anyone roll their eyes or yawn behind his or her hands!

Towards the end of the question-and-answer session, I asked them a question. "How many of you know people who have mental health problems?" I was astonished to see that more than three-quarters of the class raised their hands. Including the teachers. That's considerably more than the statistics portray. Indeed far more than the one-in-four currently believed. Extraordinary.

What was even more extraordinary was that at the end of the session, when everyone was filing out of the classroom, a student came to me and enquired if he could ask me a question. "How do you cope?" he asked. I looked at him. "Why do you ask that? Is there a problem in your own family?" Yes, was the answer. He wanted to know what you do when someone you love has had numerous sections and when your family can't talk about it or share their fears and emotions with one another. I understood exactly what he was talking about and felt so sad for him. My answer was the 'detachment with love' aspect of coping. You put your loved-one into a metaphorical box and tuck it away and take it out and think about it when you are feeling strong. Sounds somewhat whimsical and patronising but it helps. It was difficult for me to think of things to advise, apart from suggesting that he get some help himself too. Someone to talk to who will be there for him and to give him coping mechanisms. I hope he does.

I then saw the latest in the Britney camp. Mum says that Britney was nuts because all she needed was love and affection. And now, having got all her love and affection, Britney is well and happy. Jolly good. Talk about denial...

Saturday, 22 November 2008

John Kettley, arctic winds and the cold of my childhood

When I was a child, Novembers all seemed to be freezing cold. I remember chapped legs that rubbed together and knee high socks and short skirts. We didn't wear tights then. I'm showing my age. I remember black nights and frosty mornings and wet, steamy kitchen windows where rivulets of moisture ran down the panes into puddles along the paintwork onto the skirting boards. I remember seeing my breath in the frigid air when I ran home from school and waiting at Mile End station for the next train to Upton Park, when all the passengers on the dim platform kept jiggling around and slapping their hands together because the gusts of arctic wind throughout the tunnels flew under their coats and scarves and hats and it was really cold!

This week the papers and the television channels were full of how cold it was going to be this weekend, as if we never have cold air in this country. We were going to have 'an arctic spell'; there would be frost and biting winds and snow! What? Isn't it winter? Don't we have cold weather in winter? Why do we have to be warned to 'stay indoors' and 'wrap up' and not to go anywhere in Norfolk because they might well have 'one inch' of snow! Golly! How exciting to have winter in winter!

Yesterday it started off pretty mild but, as the day progressed, it did indeed get colder, so that by evening people were in their winter coats and some even had gloves on and scarves around their necks. I took the dog for a brief walk into the village and on my way back home I spied a little boy walking along with his mother and sister. He was wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. That's it. Mum carried his anorak. Gosh, he obviously didn't feel the cold! Maybe I should have tardissed him back to the 1960s of my childhood and he would know what cold weather is. As it is, he didn't have a clue about those 'arctic winds' and the 'unseasonable' weather fronts that John Kettley and all the 'experts' were raving about.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

'Misery Memoirs' and Mrs. Briscoe's lament

I suppose that I, too, could be sued. By 'Sam', "Where am I?" he could demand. "Am I an absent husband?" Or 'Beth' when she was younger. "You hated my piercings!" a scowl of contempt. "You made me take them out!" Or even 'Zach'. "What? The book's about me? But didn't you say that I was charming and good looking or clever?" You may have read in the papers that a London lawyer, Constance Briscoe, is being sued by her mother. Yes, her mother. For having written a memoir called "Ugly." The things that Connie wrote about mum and her step-dad are not true, claims Mrs. Briscoe senior. Well, well, well. Wot a surprise!

Now, of course, the papers are full of hugely smug articles by gloating journalists about how ghastly these misery memoirs are. How the public are now well and truly fed up with them and how it's so 'pornographic' to expose one's 'personal pain' on the written page. Pornographic? Hardly. I agree that many memoirs have to be fictionalised. It's illogical to consider that a child can remember in all graphic detail what happened to them at age four. James Frey even admitted that his story A Million Little Pieces was a work of fiction, thus setting in motion the considered opinion that all memoirs were lies.

The problem that we now have, however, is that everything published is genred (my word - I quite like it) meaning that it's no longer apposite to qualify a book as autobiography, biography, fiction, non-fiction - you get the picture. It has to be put into a new breed of genre, so that, unless it's written by a celebrity, a memoir is thus described as a 'tragic life story' or something akin to that. Can't people decide for themselves? And who's doing the qualifying?

Of course the publishers only have themselves to blame. Once they saw how successful readers' interest has been in life stories, they've insisted on churning out book after book after book, with little consideration as to how practically each and every publication resembles the last. How many more books can be published that purport to show the abuse that appears to be so prevalent in the western world? I suppose that I can be accused of hubris here. After all, isn't my book also included in Amazon's 'Tragic Life Stories'? Yuck.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Vanity projects and 'Of Time and the City'

It was an interesting weekend for vanity projects. Two, fact. The first was yesterday afternoon. T and I decided to spend a lunchtime at the Renoir in Bloomsbury. Feels so decadent, driving to the cinema on a Sunday afternoon, among heavy traffic and drivers intent on stopping at every green light and rushing ahead on red. Almost like being in Rio! Without the weather and the favellas. We pitched up at the cinema with a few others (literally a few) and paid our rather exhorbitant £10 per ticket. Is it me, or have the prices of cinema tickets been hiked in the last year or so? Seems extraordinary to pay so much. I must be getting old...

I wanted to see 'Of Time and the City' because I believed it was going to be the renowned director Terence Davies' 'homage' to Liverpool. I thought that the archive footage would capture how Liverpool had transcended from poverty to 'The City of Culture.' Nope, that would have been too easy. What it was, was a hodge-podge. For instance, Davies hates the royal family. Fine, he's entitled to his opinion but what did that have to do with Liverpool? His narration, like his direction, was intrusive and irrelevant and tedious. His use of music to illustrate points was, on the whole, quite wrong. What did The Hollies' 1969 version of 'He's not heavy, he's my brother' have to do with the Korean War? And Davies' repeated use of quotes that he then quoted as if he was writing an appendix for publication, was, in fact, ridiculous. It was, indeed, a vanity project and one that should have stayed in Davies' front room for his accolytes and family to watch on a rainy, wet afternoon when there was nothing better on tv.

The second vanity project was a personal hymn to forty-five years of marriage. A couple of years ago a friend of ours decided to learn to play the piano. Having learned in doubble-quick time, she set out to compose and write a number of love songs. These she dedicated to her husband. Unbelievably brave, she then recorded an album and performed it live on stage last night with a band - sax, drums, double-bass and piano. It was, her husband declared, "The first and last time that she would do so". Ok, so she was not the greatest singer but it was an utterly memorable and unique occasion. It's quite something to invite a hundred people to hear you sing for the first and last time. Is that vanity?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

'Baby P', 'Responsibility' and what it means in 21st century Britain

Hasn't it been a depressing week? We know that we are in some kind of recession. Redundancies are happening all around us but the bankers who largely contributed to all this are still getting their bonuses. No sense of responsibility there.

Then we come to the appalling case of little Baby P. I wasn't going to write about this as I thought that there was enough in the newspapers and on the airwaves but you can't get away from it. There's something utterly Dickensian about it and how the virtuous and arrogant woman in charge of affairs can so blithely wash her hands of the whole event. The blame lies with the mother and the boyfriend and the lodger, all of whom were complicit. But the authorities knew, had evidence, that the child was the subject of the most awful abuse. He was visited sixty times. How many times does a child have to be visited before the file is flagged up with the obvious question: "When do we take him into care?"

'Care'. That's a great word in this country. Just like their mantra of 'care in the community.' It's basically a reason not to do anything at all so that someone take responsibility. It's a way in which the buck can be passed from one department to another; from one 'care worker' to another, so that no one actually is in possession of any kind of responsibility to another human being.

It has left me with this empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know that this is, or hope that this is, an unusual case but somehow I don't think so. Letters had already been written to what had been perceived the 'right channels.' No one bothered to follow them up and the woman who was so disgusted with the way that Haringay Council was carrying out its remit vis a vis children was herself made a victim. We are living in a surreal world where everything is turned on its head and the concept of ultimate responsibilty has evaporated.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Despondency and depression at the thought of the NHS

I really have a fear of getting ill and growing old in this country. The thought of ending up in some 'care' home in a grey turning off a motorway, shoved into a wheelchair to stare through a dirty window at a dirty, sodden, gloomy rainswept car park, fills me with dread. However, what is more horrendous is the thought of getting ill and being at the mercy of the NHS and even the private sector.

I noted in the weekend paper how Richard Branson revealed that he wouldn't allow his father to be operated on in an NHS hospital as he couldn't find one that wasn't riddled with MRSA. I'm not surprised. Nine years ago my father-in-law went into his local hospital in the south of England for an excrutiating backache. Four weeks later he was dead. He'd caught the deadly bug. It was only because the medical staff were presented with four professionals - his children - three of whom were solicitors, that they tried everything, they said, to save him. I balked at the tracheotomy. What was the point, I pondered, when he was obviously going to die in any event?

Last year, when Zach was taken into the local hospital, in extremis, unable to walk because of some mysterious illness where he had developed a ghastly rash over his legs and they had swollen so badly that he was in excrutiating pain, he was left in A&E in a wheelchair for four hours. This was after I had rushed him to hospital. On arrival I looked for a porter. None was to be found. I dashed into the hospital, searching for a wheelchair. There were none. This was a hospital! Finally, someone saw me desperately seeking help. They managed to find a wheelchair that was being used to house magazines - and this while the traffic warden was harrassing me to move my car.

So we stayed in A&E those hours until he was seen and I was almost completely wrecked at this stage - mania, drugs and now a mysterious illness had rendered me to the brink of my own breakdown. Zach was taken to a single room on another floor. There was the possibility that it was something highly contageous that he may have caught while travelling. The nurses wore plastic aprons and covered their mouths. The young doctor who examined Zach wore no coat or gloves. He carried a chart that he continued to fill in while making his exam. When he came out of the room (I had been watching him from behind the glass), he came over to me to shake my hand. He hadn't even washed his hands. Is it surprising, then, that MRSA is so prevalent in our hospitals when even the doctors don't even wash their hands after examining patients? Was this a one-off? I wonder. Richard Branson is surely right in his assessment but I don't even think it's better in the private sector here.

For a comparison, consider this: Yesterday afternoon my daughter had to go into the A&E department of a large hospital in Tel Aviv where she now lives. She'd been suffering terrible stomach cramps and felt simply awful. On admission they examined her (the doctors wear scrubs and coats and gloves). They took bloodwork immediately and x-rays. They told her that they wouldn't let her go until they diagnosed what was wrong. Within fifteen minutes she had the blood test results; within the same time the x-rays. They diagnosed what was wrong and, after having put things right, she was able to leave. The hospital was new, clean, bright and airy. It was efficient and even though she had to wait for over an hour to see someone, she had faith that they would be able to help. I have no faith here. It makes me despondent and depressed.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The power of BBC Radio 4 and the Machiavellian machinations of the X Factor 'Judges'

Gosh , the power of BBC Radio 4! Number one in 'Drug and Alcohol Abuse' on Amazon; Number one on Drug Addiction on Amazon and Number three in 'Tragic Life Stories' on Amazon. I only wish that somehow they would rename their categories. I sent an email and asked whether, as the book is actually about someone who suffers from Bipolar disorder, that maybe they would put it into their 'psychology/psychiatry' category. I received an email saying that it has been - but can't find it there! Anyway, the fact is people are finding the book and buying it in far greater numbers than hitherto. Let's see how long that lasts!

It was great, finally, to go into the studio. Chris Wilson, the producer of Excess Baggage, made the point that it was the first time that mental illness and travel had been used as a topic for discussion on Excess Baggage. I don't know whether it's a first for Radio 4 in any kind of formatted programme. If it is, then maybe here's the opportunity to explore it further. We could only cover a tiny amount of the travel aspect of the book in the small window that had been set aside for me. I'm absolutely certain though that a whole programme wouldn't go amiss! There's loads more to speak about. For example, what it's like to have one's passport confiscated at the border of an Asian country; what do you do if someone you're travelling with is jailed abroad because of a manic breakdown; how to approach your travel insurance people when your friend is incarcerated and what mental health coverage exists for those of us who have any kind of mental health problem? So much to think about. I believe that I shall have to put this to him...

I've no idea how many people heard me - but I've had loads of emails and text messages from people from whom I hadn't heard from in ages and who had heard the broadcast. So many people who recognised my voice but didn't know what had happened to 'Zach' over the last eleven years. "Buy the book," I told them, "there's so much more in there..." I hope that they took my advice and then told their friends. Who knows how much this resonates with their kids? Their kids who've been travelling across the world and who have had so many experiences like this? Then it was back to the weekend and The X Factor.

Isn't it funny, that when presented with talent, that the British public vote for mediocrity! I know that I shouldn't generalise here but I'm upset. My act got knocked off The X Factor! Laura White, a really talented singer, supplanted by the hideous Daniel whose hair takes on a colour of its own, week after week. Shall I join the conspiracy theorists here? Those who believe that someone Machiavellian, like a Louis Walsh or a Simon Cowell voted off the strongest singer in the bunch because she actually had real 'star' quality? It's all very shallow, I know. But I'm human too and I love talent contests! I love it when real people demonstrate that they have something that the rest of the population doesn't: the ability to sing someone else off the screen and shine.

Well, Saturday nights won't be the same. I'm not going to bother now. Mediocrity (apart from Alexandra, possibly) has won out. Rachel? Off-key, shouty and a tedious persona; JLS, with their terrorist scarves, very middle-of-the- road. The little boy should stick to singing in the local choir; Diana - spare me; Ruth? We all know what Simon sees there.... Who else? Who cares?

Thursday, 6 November 2008

'Excess Baggage', Amazonian jungles and tasteless imagery in Selfridges, Oxford Street

On my way to Broadcasting House this morning, sitting upstairs of the number 13 bus, I was driven past Selfridges. To my right, Marks & Spencer was done up in red and green chains and to my left, the windows of Selfridges were encased in what appeared to be green hedges and twinkling lights. The window displays were sparse. They consisted of one or two items of local designer-wear transported aloft in hermetically sealed bubbles. Nothing too over-the-top one can observe - apart from the price tags on the shoes, boots, bags and dresses. However, what caught my attention was what was written across each display: "The More the Merrier." Hmm... A bit tasteless in this age of credit crunch, job loss and banking monopoly. But don't those words symbolise why it is that we have reached this appalling stage in our evolution? 'Buy', 'buy', 'buy'... Put more and more on credit. "Because you're worth it!"

I eventually pitched up at the BBC where, sitting on their deep leather-bound armchairs and with Terry Wogan and Radio 2 coming out of ear-high pa systems, I then observed the man himself appearing from behind the security glass, a healthy glow to those well known cheeks. Odd that he could be in two places at once...!

So I've finally recorded my piece for 'Excess Baggage.' It goes out on Saturday morning at 10.00am. I've no idea how many people listen to the programme, deftly presented by John McCarthy, and whether or not, having listened to the broadcast, people will want to buy the book. One only hopes so. I only hope that I didn't go off on my usual tangent. Trying desperately to incorporate as much as I can into my interview, without either be boring, repetitive or too harrowing. It's a fine line. It was a rather surreal segue from 'Excess Baggage's' other guest, Dan, talking about being a missionary in the Amazon jungle for thirty years to bring Christianity to a tribe who don't count numbers, don't have words for colours and don't understand that Barak Obama is now the leader of the western world! (OK, that last bit is a slight exaggeration...), to discussing how not to travel the world while mad.

Western materialism certainly wasn't an intrinsic necessity while Dan and his family lived in the jungle and it hasn't been a party to Zach's travels - apart from the times that he called us in extremis because he was down to his last sou and asked if we could very kindly wire him a few pounds. It shouldn't be a party to anyone's life now and it's in pretty poor taste that such a blatent and immature take on what Christmas represents is splashed all over the windows in Selfridges, Oxford Street.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Katherine Jenkins, drugs, addiction and hubris

Yet another article about drugs appeared in the glossy supplement this weekend. This time three women spoke about their addictions. One had been addicted to pain killers, another to coke and the third to cannabis and ecstacy. All were, to all intents and purposes, 'successful women.' The former two are now 'rehabilitated'; the other is still addicted, unable to pass one day without a spliff.

On the same day is the Katherine Jenkins story, a disingenuous piece about her having lied to a journalist some weeks before her having signed a multi-million dollar deal with Warners USA. Having been asked by the journalist whether she'd ever used drugs, she answered in the negative. "Now," she states, tremulously, "I want to come clean about this". Sorry about the pun. I think that they call this 'damage limitation.' She was never a heavy user, she states. Just a few lines of coke at home with friends, or in the loo at a club; or some of the old meta-amphetamines or a cake of hash. She never 'smoked' it, she says, as if that makes it better.

Tomorrow night on tv there's yet another documentary, 'Mum loves drugs, Not me.' This a week or so after Hannah's exploits with heroin were shown for all to see. And we see more of Amy, Kerry and Kate.

What does this say about our society? That it's awash with drugs? That no one has the moral fibre to say 'No' if others around are skinning up or drawing white lines on table tops or toilets or cooking with unusual ingredients? Katherine Jenkins hopes that having disclosed her drug abuse while she was a student, she can now present as a poor wayward child who was misled. How could she know, she asks, eyelids fluttering, that she would ever be this successful? How was she to know that the consequence of success means that there are only too many 'friends' who will be delighted to spill the beans about her forays into mind numbing and illegal happiness and ride on the coat-tails of her celebrity?

Oh, I know that I can't talk. I've lived with an addict and know full well what addiction is and I'm pretty sick of it all. I just wish that there were some cohesive messages in all this but there's not. Katherine Jenkins comes 'clean' about her drugs use because it suits her, not because there's any advice that maybe what she did was not advisable for anyone. She said that she didn't want to be like Amy. Well, who does? She says that the drugs made her depressed. I'm sure that they did but would any of this have come out were she not now the beneficiary of this huge recording contract?