Thursday 29 October 2009


Some conversations are really significant. They change how you feel, right there in an instant, and suddenly everything is different.

Having an MRI scan was one of the most distressing experiences of my life. It wasn't physically uncomfortable but, for someone who finds hospitals nigh-on-unbearable, it wasn't easy. Lying there, unable to move, trapped inside a claustrophobic space with nothing to think about except why you are there...

Then come the weeks of waiting. I'm still not sure which is worse - the scan itself, or the period that follows it. Days dragging by, slowly creeping towards that date in the diary, when the consultant will discuss the results.

And then, this afternoon, it was finally my turn to go in and "take a seat Mr McNeill" and talk for a moment...

...and hear that the scan had come back clear.

Some conversations are really significant. Thank God.

Friday 9 October 2009


In the third week of Party Conferences, it would be easy to despair when reading how far the tabloids have to dumb down their political coverage. As our country approaches a general election, and at a time when the developed world faces incredible economic pressures, the two principal arguments for Britain seem to be:

"He's got no sense of humour."
(therefore Gordon Brown and the Labour party are somehow unsuited to run the country)

"He's got a posh accent."
(therefore David Cameron and the Conservative party are somehow unsuited to run the country)

This isn't The X-Factor! Worryingly, these are becoming the front-page, headline issues. However, if the public does dig deeper they will, eventually, be presented with other arguments such as:

"Gordon Brown got us into this mess."
(conveniently and blatantly ignoring the impact of global recession on the country)

"David Cameron doesn't know what it's like to live on £90 a week."
(as though any of the party leaders have to live on £90 a week - and as though having someone with this sort of experience would be better than silly things like economics, business, diplomacy, etc.)

Anyone who is engaged by this sort of insightful journalism would do more good eating their ballot paper than voting with it.

So whatever happened to the real political argument? Well, it's true that the difference between left and right is much smaller than it used to be. Tony Blair won 3 elections by taking the centre ground - he understood that the unions and militants would sound more appealling to the country if they shut their mouths. David Cameron seems to have a similar strategy, bringing the Conservatives right in beside Labour, and adopting a more compassionate stance. With both parties trying to be masters of the middle, there is naturally less division, less fodder for robust political debate.

But surely there is still room for some intelligent discussion. Surely there are different centrist approaches that merit debate? Or have we reached the point where a talent show phone-vote is the only vote that matters?

Saturday 3 October 2009

The Riddle Of The Sands

Just finished reading The Riddle Of The Sands by Erskine Childers, a wonderful espionage tale set in the first few years of the twentieth century, while Britain still had a vast Empire, and war had not yet coloured the way we think of Germany.

Presented as a factual account of events, it is told from the viewpoint of Carruthers, a lowly clerk at the Foreign Office who, being at something of a loose end, accepts an unexpected invitation to join an old acquaintance, Davies, who is yachting in the Baltic. The yacht is far from luxurious, but the two men renew the friendship forged during their time at Oxford and set out to navigate the coastline.

As time goes on, and they begin to explore the sands around the Frisian Islands, Carruthers and Davies are drawn into a dangerous mystery. Why are they being watched wherever they go? Who is the sinister Herr Dollmann and why did he try to run Davies aground? And what is happening on the Island of Memmert that they are not supposed to see?

It's an compelling story and the writing, though somewhat archaic in style, anchors it perfectly in its period.

There's an enjoyable film adaptation from 1979, starring Michael York and Simon MacCorkindale. It's beautifully shot, and notable for a rare performance where (for artistic reasons) Jenny Agutter kept her clothes on. Being already familiar with this film took nothing away from the book - and although they digress in some details, the heart and spirit of both versions are the same.

And one final thing about this remarkable story? Erskine Childers' book - dealing as it does with the German invasion of England - was published in 1903, more than a decade before the outbreak of the First World War. Whether foresight or coincidence, it certainly makes you think.

Thursday 1 October 2009

It's a strangely sad thing to realise that the person who was once your parent, is now your child.