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Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

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Why Doctor Doesn’t Always Know Best

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By MARCUS STEAD

How often do you question the advice your GP gives you? Are you aware of the intense lobbying that takes place between pharmaceutical giants and local GPs? Do you know how many more prescriptions are issued in the UK compared to just a decade ago?

My story, about how a prescription I did not need left me with serious health issues, should act as a warning for everybody. Here is the story of what happened to me, and the alarming evidence I discovered about why GPs prescribe so many unnecessary and sometimes harmful drugs:

During the summer of 2017, the toenails on my right foot became discoloured and brittle. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but I was in no pain whatsoever and didn’t feel the need to bother my GP with it.

Around late October or early November, I visited my GP about an unrelated medical issue that has since been resolved, and I showed him my toenails in case the two problems were connected. He said that he thought it very likely I had a fungal nail infection and that I’d have to go on a ‘tough’ course of tablets if that turned out to be the case. But first, he wanted me to provide a toenail sample so they could attempt to grow fungus on them in the laboratory to determine whether they were infected.

A few days later I dropped off my toenail sample at the surgery in the small container provided, and was told I would receive a letter in the post in due course. A number of weeks passed and I heard nothing. At no point was I in any pain, and the fresh nail near the bed was showing signs of becoming healthier and more ‘normal’ looking. Whatever the problem was, my body appeared to be finding its own way of treating it.

Shortly before Christmas, I received a letter asking me to make an appointment with my GP to discuss the results, but the letter stated this was no cause for alarm and that it was routine procedure. The Christmas holiday period meant there was a delay in getting a non-urgent appointment, so I did not see the GP until early January.

Terbinafine PictureOn this occasion, I saw a different GP, one I had never met before. She told me that the results showed I had a fungal nail infection (as expected). She took a quick look at my feet, and said that she would be prescribing me Terbinafine (sometimes sold under the brand name Lamisil, though not in my case). I was to begin with a 28 day course, which was to be followed by another 28 day course on repeat prescription, with a view to me taking the tablets for around six months.

But first, I would need a blood test to check my liver function was normal. Upon hearing this, I was immediately suspicious as to whether these drugs were really necessary. After all, I was never in any pain, I wasn’t feeling any ill effects, and by this stage a substantial part of the nail bed was looking healthy, as more fresh nail gradually appeared.

However, I went ahead and had the blood test about a week later. A further week passed and I phoned the surgery for the test results. I was informed that my liver function was ‘normal’, and that my prescription would be ready for me to collect within a few days.

By the time I collected my prescription, it was around the third week of January. I was very wary about taking the tablets. It struck me as a huge overreaction to a problem with a mild infection that was gradually clearing up by itself. At the absolute most, I should have been prescribed Terbinafine in cream form. The instructions stated I was to take one per day. Against my better judgement, I took my first Terbinafine tablet the following morning.

Within an hour, I sensed something wasn’t right when I went to the toilet and my urine gave off a copper-like odour. By the following evening, I was beginning to experience serious side effects.

First of all, my sense of taste was much diminished. I managed to eat a meal that evening, but I didn’t enjoy it. By the following day, I was suffering from an upset stomach, mild diarrhoea, a fuzzy headache, and a dry mouth.

Within a few days, eating a full meal became difficult. I had no interest in snacking between meals or eating desserts, and my portion sizes were much reduced. All food tasted like cardboard and my stomach had a ‘full’ feeling, even if I had eaten virtually nothing.

By the end of my first week of taking Terbinafine, the side effects became more serious. I was unable to sleep for more than about four hours at a time, and I began to suffer from very low moods for no apparent reason. I have suffered from tinnitus my whole life, but the ringing in my ears became louder and more intense than before. I found it difficult to concentrate on anything for long periods, which is very unlike me.

The days dragged by and the situation did not improve. Eating was a chore, I was permanently tired, I found it hard to focus due to continual ‘brain fog’ (not easy when I make my living through writing and broadcasting), my mouth was dry, the mild diarrhoea continued, and it was badly affecting my quality of life. I drank very little alcohol during this period, partly because of my lack of appetite, and partly because I dreaded to think what this Terbinafine was doing to my liver.

After three weeks of taking one Terbinafine tablet per day, I had lost a stone in weight, a dangerous amount to lose in such a short space of time. I looked noticeably thinner and my general wellbeing was suffering considerably as the symptoms intensified. A friend, who is no stranger to tough and gruelling medicine as a long-term cancer survivor suggested that a chat with my pharmacist would be a good idea, so I did exactly that.

I am quite a big fan of pharmacists. I find them more open-minded and less ‘preachy’ than GPs on the whole, and I strongly recommend them as a first port of call when suffering from mild health problems.

I took my packet of Terbinafine and the accompanying leaflet with me to my local Boots store and the pharmacist showed me to the private consultation room. I explained the situation to her and she read the leaflet, which listed the possible side effects. I had experienced most, if not all of them by this stage.

When I told her about the drastic weight loss and deterioration in quality of life, she without hesitation advised me to stop taking them. What happened next struck me as extraordinary.

The pharmacist, a bright woman in her late 20s or early 30s, told me that she, too, suffered from a fungal nail infection some time ago, and had refused to take the tablets upon reading the side effects and discovering that a blood test would be needed prior to starting the course.

Instead, she did her own research (how many GPs do that?) and discovered a far less severe course of action. She bought a bottle of white vinegar from a supermarket and a packet of cotton wool sticks.

For the next six months, twice per day, she would wash her feet, dip a cotton wool stick in the white vinegar, and wipe it under and on the bed of the infected nails. It required a lot of discipline, her boyfriend said she smelt like a chip shop, but over time the infection cleared up.

She advised me to do the same thing, and to ‘do a bit of Googling’ to discover alternative ways of treating it. I bought a bottle of white vinegar on my way home from Boots, but I didn’t feel the urge to ‘treat’ my nails in any way as by this stage a substantial part of my lower nails were clear and healthy-looking. But I have a plan of action if the situation changes.

Needless to say, I stopped taking the Terbinafine immediately. I had a little rant on my Facebook wall about the experience that same evening, and a hospital doctor wrote a comment below my post saying that prescribing Terbinafine was a massive overreaction and there was no way she would take it.

My health began to improve somewhat within 48 hours. I was able to eat and digest a full meal, but was not enjoying it particularly, and I still had no interest in desserts or snacking. The ‘brain fog’ gradually began to clear within a week.

That said, more than a month later, I am still far from fully ‘back to normal’. I still have a number of symptoms including a dry mouth, a skin rash on my hands and difficulty sleeping for more than a few hours at a time. My sense of taste is still much-diminished, and I have lost a further half a stone in weight. I am eating food, but I’m not enjoying it.

In other words, I was given drugs I don’t need, for a problem I don’t have, and whose effects I am still suffering from more than a month after I stopped taking them.

So why did this happen? We have an overly-deferential relationship with GPs in this country and with the NHS in general. Yes, they do a lot of good, but there are fundamental flaws in the system and they are far from always right.

The term GP stands for ‘General Practitioner’. As the name suggests, they aren’t really ‘experts’ in anything, but have a basic understanding of most areas of medicine. That is not to say all GPs are bad, or that everything the GP tells us is wrong, but we DO need to question what we’re told far more often. Yes, GPs have gone through medical college and passed numerous exams. But what they are told becomes dated very quickly, as new drugs become available and medical understanding increases.

To keep their medical understanding up-to-date, GPs frequently attend seminars, tutorials and networking days put on by major pharmaceutical companies, complete with hospitality (nice lunches etc). The drug companies provide the food and a pleasant setting (a conference centre or hotel) and in return they get the opportunity to ‘talk up’ their latest products. This strikes me as dangerously close to bribery. At its kindest, it can be described as ‘lobbying’. What these representatives are NOT going to do is give totally unbiased, independent advice about their products to the GPs in attendance.

These companies are often huge multi-billion dollar organisations who have a vested financial interest in getting people to take these drugs. They do not put on these events for GPs and provide hospitality for fun. They have huge pockets and a deep focus, and they know that such events influence the way GPs prescribe drugs. Even on a day-to-day basis, the average GP surgery is full of stationary, equipment and gadgets containing the branding of these companies, subtly and subconsciously reinforcing the message that prescribing their drugs is automatically a good thing.

This very obvious conflict of interest is not given anywhere near enough publicity. The number of prescriptions issued in the UK has increased 50% in 14 years, and GP surgeries spend half of the NHS’s drugs budget. Prescriptions for painkillers have increased 50% in 10 years. In Blackpool, one in five adults takes so-called ‘antidepressants’. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of young people prescribed so-called ‘antidepressants’ increased by 54%. In Jersey, the number of people being prescribed ‘antidepressants’ increased by 48.5% in the six years between 2010 and 2016. The average person in the UK receives FIFTEEN prescriptions per year.

Re-read that last paragraph. Those statistics are extraordinary. And when we consider how heavily lobbied GPs are by the pharmaceutical industry, these figures begin to make sense. Over the last few years, the drugs industry has paid $13 BILLION in fines in the USA alone for a range of unethical activities, including bribing doctors to prescribe their drugs.

GPs are, for the most part, ‘repeaters’ rather than ‘thinkers’. How many GPs seriously question what they’re being told, firstly at medical school but especially in seminars put on by pharmaceutical giants, or give anywhere near enough thought to the fact it’s in the interest of these huge companies to get as many people as possible to take these drugs? And how many GPs are courageous enough to send substantial numbers of patients away from their surgeries WITHOUT the prescription drugs they were expecting?

We need to be much more aware of the dangers of overprescribing antibiotics and the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance. One of the major challenges GPs face is distinguishing between viral and bacterial infections. Viral infections do not require antibiotics, but if a person has a bacterial infection and is not prescribed antibiotics, patients can die and doctors can get sued. Therefore, to avoid taking a chance, GPs resort to prescribing antibiotics for all infections, even though this presents far bigger risks in the long run.

A solution to this problem would be for GP surgeries to buy the machinery that instantly tells us whether the patient has a viral or bacterial infection via a blood sample. The problem is that the machinery costs £700-£800 and each test costs £4.50. But he NHS would recoup these sums when we consider that viral infections would no longer be treated with a prescription of antibiotics, and that the cost of the tests would be when offset against the cost of ‘free’ prescriptions, available to all patients in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with a substantial number of less well-off people in England.

We take the ability of antibiotics to fight off infections for granted, but their effectiveness is declining as viruses evolve to resist them. It is no exaggeration to say that without antibiotics, life on earth as we know it would end.

Without antibiotics, many medical procedures simply wouldn’t be possible. It’s not just the case that doctors would not be able to treat your infected finger. They wouldn’t be able to do any more bone surgery. They wouldn’t be able to treat cancer. They wouldn’t be able to run intensive care units in hospitals. These are harsh realities, but they are also facts.

Drug companies aim to prescribe as many pills as possible to maximise profits, but it is certainly not in the interests of the human race to see antibiotics lose their effectiveness . 97% of patients in the UK who ask their GP for antibiotics are prescribed them. Younger people reading this may live long enough to see this doomsday scenario unfold unless swift changes are made in our attitude towards antibiotics. It is estimated that superbugs resistant to antibiotics will kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined within 30 years.

The culture of GP surgeries does not lend itself to a thoughtful, flexible course of treatment, with appointments generally lasting ten minutes or less, so a dogmatic ‘prescription cure’ is seen as the easiest and quickest way of resolving any issue, often without addressing the root cause, or assessing the side effects and long-term impact of the drugs they prescribe.

Perhaps the most dangerous example of this is how GPs treat people with depression. There is a conventional wisdom among drug companies that ‘depression’ is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, known as ‘the Serotonin theory’. The scientific evidence backing this up is underwhelming to say the least. The drugs companies even kept the finding of their own research secret until compelled to release them by Freedom of Information requests.

There is likely to be a far more pragmatic explanation – people become ‘depressed’ because bad thing have happened to them, and the way our society operates is largely to blame. Why are so many people so unhappy in modern Britain? Families are not as close as they were 50 years ago, and are often spread out around the country or even across the world. There is no sense of ‘community’ in many areas. All too often, people do not have a ‘support network’ in their lives. They may have lots of superficial relationships with work colleagues and others, but in many cases they won’t feel ‘close’ to many people living locally.

A child who has grown up in an unstable household with an alcoholic parent, an absent father, or a single mother with a series of ‘boyfriends’ coming and going (who may well dislike the child), will very likely carry large emotional scars well into adulthood. The child who was bullied at school will not forget it as an adult.

A lot of people who claim to be ‘depressed’ are actually alcoholics. Alcohol is a depressant and those who use it to attempt to temporarily numb the pain of experiences they are having in their lives are doing themselves no favours whatsoever. They are using alcohol as an excuse not to address the problem at its core, and when the affects wear off, they feel more depressed than they did before, and so the vicious circle continues.

But how many GPs who see a patient who claims to be suffering from ‘depression’ will seek to address its root cause, or send them for appropriate therapy, when they can prescribe so-called ‘antidepressants’ and get them out of the room within the 10 minute appointment slot? Very often, GPs diagnose depression using the ‘PHQ-9 depression questionnaire’, which is loaded with negative questions and does its best to force you to think about how miserable your life is and how unhappy you are. It does not contain questions to balance it up such as ‘how often do you feel positive and optimistic about life?’

Unsurprisingly, the PHQ-9 questionnaire was devised by a drugs company that makes ‘antidepressant’ pills. This is not a coincidence.

Nic Barrow

Nic Barrow

Nic Barrow, a therapist, and a friend of some years, shares my deep suspicion of ‘antidepressants’, partly because of his own experiences when he was younger. He says that he gives people who come to him claiming to be depressed five pieces of advice: 1. Cut sugar out of your diet. 2. Work like mad. 3. Surround yourself with three to four positive people. 4. Exercise rigorously two to three times per week. 5. Develop a purpose for living that is greater than yourself.

Most of us spend far too much time staring into hypnotic gadgets, or sitting at desks, or slouching on the sofa, or taking our cars for journeys of less than a mile. A brisk, half-hour walk each day is a good remedy for a lot of psychological problems people think they have. It also reduces the risk of obesity and cancer. It’s a win-win deal. If a more drastic remedy is needed, cold water swimming helps anxiety and depression. Our bodies respond to cold water in a similar way to an anxiety attack. As the skin cools down rapidly, the body enters a state of shock, flooding the blood with stress hormones. Once the initial shock wears off, the chemical surge leaves swimmers feeling euphoric, as the ‘skin stimulation’ releases adrenaline.

Exercise, diet, friendships and a job that makes you feel fulfilled are usually the keys to resolving issues relating to ‘depression’. Even if the solutions described here don’t work for absolutely everybody, it is surely advisable for them to get to the root cause of the problem with the help of therapy rather than to rely on pills.

To paraphrase Dr Robert Lefever, I want my moods to change. I want to feel happy when I achieve something worthwhile, or when a sports team I support wins. I want to feel sad when somebody I know dies, or I see an injustice while watching the news. This is all part of the human experience. So-called ‘antidepressants’ prevent people from fully experiencing life’s highs as well as the lows. Furthermore, the evidence they actually work in helping people suffering from depression when compared to placebos is also shaky to say the least. But even if they do offer some relief, it’s a treatment of the symptoms rather than the root cause.

And it gets more serious, still. There is a growing body of evidence that so-called ‘antidepressants’ have dangerous and unpredictable side effects. I have personally witnessed how somebody I know underwent a deeply unpleasant personality change after taking them. More than 40 million prescriptions for SSRI antidepressants were handed out by doctors in the UK last year. In a small number of cases, evidence suggests the devastating side effects can lead to psychosis, violence, and possibly even murder.

In July 2017, the BBC broadcast a Panorama documentary about this very subject. They focussed on the case of 20-year-old James Holmes, who had no track record of violence or gun ownership, but at the 2012 midnight premiere of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado, he murdered 12 and injured 70 people. The programme showed there was substantial evidence that the drugs he was taking may well have played their part, and this was by no means an isolated example.

Further analysis of this can be found by reading ‘Cracked’ by James Davies. I can also recommend two clearly-written and straightforward articles on the subject by Dr Marcia Angell, a distinguished American doctor, and certainly no crank, which can be read here and here.

But the scandal surrounding prescription drugs goes way beyond so-called ‘antidepressants’. There is no evidence that opioid painkillers work beyond the first four to six weeks, and cause serious side-effects beyond that. In the long term, they may well make the pain worse, not better, and the withdrawal symptoms can be deeply unpleasant.

Raised blood pressure, raised levels of cholesterol and type two diabetes are not ‘diseases’. To a large extent, the risks they present can be remedied by exercise and moderating their diet. Giving patients supportive programmes for exercise would be more effective than medication, such as encouraging them to join walking groups.

Instead, there has been an intense campaign by the pharmaceutical giants to get more and more older people to take Statins (though the age at which people are encouraged to take them is getting younger and younger due to lobbying), and, as usual, GPs have followed this advice. Indeed, in recent weeks, a number of newspaper articles have appeared that have stated that ‘half or Britons’ will be offered ‘high blood pressure tablets’, while curiously the word ‘Statins’ failed to appear in any of them, which struck me as extremely odd. Most newspapers who covered the story did so sympathetically. It was as though they were relying on a press release from a pharmaceutical giant for their story, or maybe it was a press release from the NHS, who in turn had been lobbied by a pharmaceutical giant. If it carried the ‘NHS’ tag, it would make the press release appear more trustworthy.

Statins have a considerable number of common side effects, including a sore throat, nosebleeds, headaches, constipation, and muscle and joint pain. I have two stories from older people I know personally, who have had negative experiences with Statins.

One friend of mine, a man in his mid-70s, had been suffering from joint pain and mobility issues for some months. Upon reading an article in the Times about the side effects of Statins, he decided to stop taking them, and within days, he phoned me to tell me of an astonishing improvement in his mobility and overall health.

The other story comes from a man in his 60s who works as a writer, and he complained of a ‘brain fog’ soon after beginning to take Statins, though it cleared up fairly quickly soon after he stopped taking them. This is merely anecdotal, but it does appear to me as though a lot of people who take Statins become much more ‘doddery’ and unclear in their thinking, though it does appear the effects are reversed when they stop taking them.

Indeed, there is now growing evidence that Statins and even hayfever pills could be driving antibiotic resistance by changing the growth of bacteria in the human gut. Surely we should at the very least pause the mass prescription of Statins with this in mind?

The information in this article may appear shocking and outrageous, but we need to consider how medical advice has changed within the last 50 years. The Thalidomide scandal was a particularly prominent example of ‘bad medicine’. But those of you old enough to remember the 1970s (I am not!) will recall how after donating blood, you would sternly be told to take iron tablets. This is now considered completely unnecessary, possibly even harmful.

Furthermore, in the 1970s, burns were treated using greasy creams, which is now considered one of the worst things you can do. It was around the same time that X-ray machines disappeared from shoe shops, and today, we are told that X-rays should be kept to the absolute minimum.

Even in the last 15 years, the piles of old magazines have disappeared from my GP surgery waiting room, as they are considered a means of spreading viruses.

As times change, medical advice changes with it. The heavy lobbying by multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical giants is causing numerous drugs to be accepted and prescribed without sufficient scrutiny. 50 years from now, we will look back on this as a major scandal.

In the meantime, we ought to be far more questioning about what we are told by our GPs and be wary of the multi-billion dollar forces that influence them.

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Written by Marcus Stead

March 21, 2018 at 1:46 am

Theatre Review: King Charles III at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

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This play isn’t for everyone. If you have no interest in constitutional matters, or are not a serious thinker, it’s probably best that you stay away.

I have long believed that the death of our current Queen will have a far deeper and more profound effect on this country than most people realise. When that sad day comes, as it inevitably will at some point within the next 15 years or so, a lot we currently take for granted will suddenly and abruptly become far less certain.

Nobody under the age of 70 has any meaningful recollection of a time when Elizabeth II wasn’t our Head of State. Our current Queen is kind and dignified, but it is a myth that she has remained carefully neutral on political matters.

For example, she did not speak out when she might have done about the surrender of our independence to the European Union, which badly damaged her own position, turning her from a Sovereign into just another EU citizen.

In 1998, Her Majesty went out of her way to endorse the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement, and helped Mr Blair bamboozle Ulster’s Protestants into voting ‘Yes’ to a gradual and on-going surrender to the IRA godfathers.

In her 2004 Christmas Day broadcast, she proclaimed that ‘diversity is indeed a strength’ effectively endorsing the multiculturalism many oppose and dislike.

In other words, the Queen has always sided with, and aided, the government of the day, even if it damages herself and the Crown. Her reign has been steady but highly predictable.

By contrast, Prince Charles is a man of unfashionable opinions and strong conservative instincts (not Tory, by the way, a party which often does some very un-conservative things). I am sorry that the climate change lobby has got to him, but he has a great deal of value to say when he expresses opinions that embarrass the government on matters such as selection in education, rural affairs, medicine, social cohesion, opportunities for young people and modern architecture.

And it’s this entirely plausible conflict between Charles and the government of the day that provides the pretext of this play. The plot is relatively simple to understand: The Queen has died, and Charles, as King, holds his first weekly audience with a slippery Labour Prime Minister, Tristram Evans, who explains that he will shortly be asking Charles for royal assent for a parliamentary Bill that will severely restrict the freedom of the press.

The King’s respect for our country’s ancient liberties kick in, overriding any personal bitterness he may feel for the treatment he has received in the press over many decades. He refuses to support or sign the Bill, thereby invalidating the unwritten rule that the Monarch will give royal assent to all Bills passed by Parliament. The battle between government (supported by a two-faced Tory Opposition leader) and Monarch develops, yet Charles stands firm. He appears to share my sentiment that Parliament, on all sides, is dominated by career politicians who think and behave like teenage social liberals who know little and care nothing of our national heritage and ancient liberties.

Charles attempts to exercise his right to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, which triggers protests, especially in London. The Duchess of Cambridge plots a solution, which involves William publicly offering to be a mediator between the government and his father. He announces this at a press conference without his father’s knowledge, and, seeing this as betrayal, Charles reacts angrily but ultimately finds himself forced to abdicate in favour of William (and Kate), who signs the Bill and restores the status quo between king and parliament.

The playwright Mike Bartlett, still only 35, clearly has a deep appreciation of Shakespeare and has borrowed ideas from Macbeth, with the ghost of Diana meddling as she plays Charles and William against each other, while the Duchess of Cambridge is revealed to have a ruthless, cruel and ambitious streak.

Robert Powell, one of Britain’s most versatile and diligent actors, is excellent as Charles, while his appearance has barely changed at all since I watched him alongside Jasper Carrott in The Detectives during my childhood in the 1990s.

Jennifer Bryden is spookily convincing as the Duchess of Cambridge. She looks, sounds and dresses exactly like her, while adding a much darker side to her character.

Another stand-out performance comes from Tim Treloar as the shifty, devious Prime Minister with a comically exaggerated Welsh accent thrown in for some light relief, while Lucy Phelps as Prince Harry’s rebellious, socialist, republican girlfriend Jess Edwards provides an important subplot.

A favourite scene of mine is when Prince Harry gets talking to a kebab vendor, who ponders: “When does Britain get so cut down, that it’s not Britain anymore?” He goes on to list the shrinking of the armed forces, and the demise of the NHS and Post Office as signs that Britain is a shadow of the country it once was.

Director Rupert Goold’s careful casting and attention to detail gave the play authenticity. It gets the balance right between entertainment, fun and wit, while still providing a powerful commentary on the monarch’s role in society and an entirely possible conflict in the not too distant future.

The play left me even more concerned about the future of this country than I was before. Britain is an increasingly divided and mistrusting country, and there are simmering tensions behind the orderly façade of law-abiding civility. The political classes consist of youthful, careerist politicians, PR men, retread Marxists and Europhiles who think the country should be governed by bureaucrats in Brussels.

The political establishment is loathed by millions, with both major political parties kept afloat by State funding and dodgy millionaires, rather than the membership fees and donations of ordinary people. If Charles did get involved in such a conflict for real, he could, with some legitimacy, claim to speak for many of the majority of people who did not vote for the government of the day.

Reform of the political establishment is a much more pressing concern than reform of the Monarchy, the House of Lords and the judiciary.

One of the biggest contrasts in the play is between the reassuringly wise yet outspoken Charles and William and Kate, who are youthful and popular.

William and Kate’s popularity, both in the play and in real life, is worthy of further analysis. Unlike Charles, they have never expressed a controversial view on anything. Like the current Queen, they play it safe and are never likely to criticise, let alone attempt to block, the government of the day.

Their popularity is superficial. Young British people, especially women in their teens and 20s, very often treat celebrity gossip with a religious reverence, and feel they must take a deep interest to fit in with their friends. They are interested in William and Kate in much the same way they are interested in the Beckhams and the Kardashians. It’s the celebrity they want, not their role as a constitutional monarch and defender of ancient liberties, which few know nor care very much about thanks to nearly half a century of inadequate comprehensive education.

If you managed to make it this far into my review, you’re the type of person who absolutely must go and see the play if it tours within reasonable commuting distance. I travelled from my Cardiff home to Cheltenham, and it was worth every penny and every bit of inevitable inconvenience on the creaking rail network.

This play deserves much greater attention, and should be made into a film or a TV serial. It provides a thought-provoking yet entertaining peek into a scenario that may well unfold for real one day quite soon. 10/10

Written by Marcus Stead

March 6, 2016 at 6:18 am

Preparing the BBC for the Next Decade

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Here is a short analysis of the situation the BBC currently finds itself in. In it, I look at how the BBC can prepare for the next decade and continue to do what it does best under the backdrop of tighter funding and a government that is ideologically opposed to its existence in its current form.

The BBC prepared for the digital revolution remarkably well during the 1990s. For all his faults (and they are many), the then-Director General, John Birt invested both money and resources in creating, building and maintaining the BBC’s online presence as the internet became an integral part of people’s lives in what was, looking back, an astonishingly short period of time.

Praise too for Birt’s successor, Greg Dyke, who pulled a masterstroke with his pivotal role in creating Freeview. As he admitted much later, Freeview flooded the market with ‘dumb’ boxes, with no card slots or encryption technology,  meaning they were incapable of turning the BBC’s channels into ‘pay as you go ‘ services at a later date.  This effectively secured the long-term future of the licence fee.

However, as the multi-channel era took off, the corporation lost focus, and began to battle on too many fronts. The licence fee ‘pot’ was spread too thinly, there were too many new services, and too many attempts to mimic the commercial sector.

A combination of the new licence fee settlement, recently-announced initiatives plus political pressures ahead of next year’s charter renewal means the BBC needs to save a total of £650 million over several years.

This chart is several years out of daBBC spending graphicte but it provides a rough idea of how much the various BBC services cost, but there are a few glaring omissions, such as the £75 million it now provides to fund Welsh language channel S4C.

Yet it provides an adequate guide to how money could be saved without compromising what the BBC does best.

Here are my suggestions:

Axe BBC Three (saving £112.9 million per year). Yes, we know this is becoming an online-only service from January, but there is a strong case for closing it completely. It was created with the aim of attracting the ‘yoof’ audience and being a sort of young, ‘innovative’ creative hub, but there has been a huge amount of trash on the channel like Freaky Eaters and My Manboobs and Mewhich have no place on a public service broadcaster and are clearly attempts to compete with the ITV2 and MTV demographic. Most of BBC Three’s successes have been imports, repeats from other BBC channels and films. If, as its supporters claim, it really has been a successful creative hub for comedy and other ‘talent’ (I see little evidence of it personally), the controllers of BBC One and BBC Two need to become more creative themselves when commissioning new output, especially comedy.

Axe BBC 6 Music (saving £11.7 million per year).  This is, to a large extent, providing a copycat service to those available on commercial digital radio, however, what’s innovative about it could be continued by moving it to off-peak slots on Radio 1 and Radio 2.

Axe BBC Asian Network (saving £13.0 million per year). We are a multiracial society, and that is welcome, but an increasingly large number of people, including our own Prime Minister, have gone on record as saying they do not believe in multiculturalism, which means something quite different. In a stable society at peace with itself, you can have many races, and many faiths, but you can only have one culture, in other words, one set of laws and values upon which we all live. It therefore follows that it is unwise to spend licence fee money on a service that encourages Asian people who have made Britain their home to look backwards towards the place from which they came, rather than towards their future here with us. It’s the role of a public service broadcaster to help them to integrate and adapt, rather than to segregate. Besides, from what I’ve heard of the Asian Network, it appears to be a largely Pakistani and Bangladeshi service, rather than a truly Asian one. Plus it’s only available on FM in a small part of Britain.

Axe the BBC News Channel (saving £57.5 million per year). This was a well-intentioned idea of John Birt’s when it was launched in 1997, but technology has moved on rapidly in the years since, as is the way we consume news. In 1997, the internet was still in its infancy and smartphones were some years away. Today,the vast majority of people have the internet in their homes and an ever-increasing majority have smartphones. The concept of 24 hour news channels is far from obsolete, but with the BBC providing news across a plethora of platforms, the BBC News Channel is an unnecessary luxury in this day and age.

In addition, I propose major reforms to the BBC’s local radio network (current budget approximately £146.5 million per year). 

At its best, BBC local radio provides an excellent public service for the areas it serves, while news and sports coverage has largely disappeared from many commercial stations during the last 15 years.

At its worst, BBC local radio provides endless hours of stale, formulaic programming, typically phone-ins about dog poo before Granny Adams pops in to the studio to tell us about her prize-winning parsnips.

Another interesting issue is guests. If, for example, an author has a new book they want to promote, they will often be booked to do a number of interviews on BBC local stations across the country. They will be asked to attend the nearest BBC studio to where they live, and will, over the course of a few hours, do a series of near-identical interviews to different BBC local stations. This strikes me as expensive and unnecessary.

I would change this, so that there are eight hours of truly local public service broadcasting throughout the day, but during other periods (lighter, entertainment-based programmes), one programme would be networked on all 39 BBC local stations in England, as well as BBC Radio Wales, Scotland and Ulster, with short news and travel bulletins still remaining local throughout the day.

A typical weekday schedule on BBC local stations would look something like this.

6:00am Breakfast (local) – News, sport, travel, weather and entertainment for your area. A lighter, localised version of the Today programme.

9:00am Simon Bates with the Golden Hour (networked from Plymouth) – Bates already presents the breakfast show on BBC Radio Devon, which can continue, and he follows this with the Golden Hour, which could be networked to the whole country.

10:00am Jason Mohammad (networked from Cardiff) – Music, chat, competitions and special guests.

12:00pm The Lunchtime Phone-In (local) – Political figures from your area answer your questions. In the second hour, experts from law, medicine, cookery, gardening etc take your calls.

2:00pm Martin Kelner (networked from Leeds) Two hours of entertainment, chat and music.

4:00pm Drivetime (local)  News, sport, travel, weather and entertainment for your area. A localised version of the 5 Live Drive programme.

6:00pm Sport (local) – Sports news and discussion for your area.

7:00pm Mark Forrest (networked) – An improved, livelier version of what’s already in the slot. There will remain local opt-outs for live sports commentaries.

10:00pm Allan Beswick (networked from Manchester) – The king of late-night phone-in radio in the North West during the 1980s returned to his old timeslot earlier this year, and this would be networked to the entire country.

1:00am As Radio 5 Live

This, I believe, strikes a solid balance between protecting, even improving what BBC local radio does best, while removing the bland, the formulaic, and the duplication of services. Across 42 stations, the savings would be considerable.

Back to television: There are rumours that the BBC Four TV channel is under threat. With a budget of £67.8 million per year, it’s a bargain, and is a superb example of what the BBC does best. It is, without doubt, genuine public service broadcasting. It MUST be protected at all costs. It is distinctive, and is not a gap that could be easily filled by the commercial sector if it closed.

One final note: The BBC needs to stop competing with the commercial sector when it comes to populist, formulaic programming. By all means innovate and create its own popular formats (Strictly Come Dancing is an example of something the BBC created that became mainstream and popular) but there is no case for the BBC spending £22 million to buy the rights to the format of The Voice. That is a clear abuse and waste of licence fee payers’ money. This sort of thing belongs on the commercial sector.

These proposals would save the BBC £280 million per year, at a conservative estimate, and I haven’t even touched on the way the BBC could save money internally, with a simplified, smaller management structure and more frugal use of resources.

These are tough, radical proposals, but if carried through, would reinforce the BBC’s commitment to public service broadcasting, while also continuing to inform, educate and entertain.

Thoughts welcome……………

Written by Marcus Stead

September 8, 2015 at 6:23 pm

Posted in Comment, Opinion, Review

Twitter Trolls, and How to Deal With Them

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IT’S an unfortunate fact of modern life that everybody in the public eye will, at some point, be subject to abuse on social media.

And I do mean everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an A list movie star, a member of parliament, a parish councillor or a journalist on a local newspaper,  if you are in any way known to the wider public, sooner or later abuse will come your way.

Twitter is by far the worst platform for abuse. It differs from Facebook in that you are not communicating with friends and acquaintances, but with the wider world, complete strangers who know little or nothing about you, your life, your work and your beliefs. What’s more, you have a 140 character limit in which to make your point.

On Twitter, even those who are in no way in the public eye are subject to abuse. Having a few strong opinions is enough for absolutely anyone to be abused, or ‘trolled’ as it’s now known.

I have long since become accustomed to banal attacks on Twitter. Sometimes people have read my work and dislike it. Sometimes petty jealousies from former colleagues resurface. On other occasions, my simply criticising the content of a television programme can lead from a barrage of abuse.

It is usually at its worst when Question Time is broadcast on Thursday evenings. If, as David Dimbleby suggests we do each week, and tweet with ‘#bbcqt’ at the end, you can be sure that no matter what you tweet, you will be subjected to some deeply unpleasant attacks. A few typical examples of how a comment translates in the minds of your attackers:

Uncontrolled mass immigration is bad for this country = You are a racist who hates immigrants.

Britain would be better off outside the European Union = You are a racist and a xenophobe.

Marriage should be between a man and a woman = You are a homophobe, a Nazi and hate all gays.

The Tories are right to make cuts to public spending to bring the deficit under control and to encourage the unemployed to find work = You hate unemployed and disabled people. You’re ‘Tory scum’.

The most aggressive mob by far are what I call ‘liberal bigots’, a group of people who pride on calling themselves ‘tolerant’, but don’t really mean it. What they actually mean is that they are tolerant of you only if you share their views: Pro-EU, pro-mass immigration, pro-multiculturalism, anti-austerity, anti-Tory, pro-gay marriage, pro-Islamic, pro-Palestinian, pro-Russell Brand.

They suffer from ‘liberal superiority complex’, namely that they think they’re better than you because they are liberals, not because there is any strength to their arguments. The fact they are liberals is enough. Anyone with views different from their own is fair game for abuse.

One of Twitter’s main weaknesses is the 140 character limit, which does not allow for thoughtful, well-developed arguments, and is instead a friend to the soundbite and the ‘Smart Alec’ comment.

It’s generally pointless trying to debate with such people under these conditions, but sometimes I give it a go.

Around a year ago, I appeared on a Channel 4 programme called ‘The Complainers’. On the day of broadcast, all contributors received an email from the production company advising us of how to deal with abuse on social media, which broadly, and rightly said, don’t engage in debate with abusive people and block them immediately.

For those of you who didn’t see it, the programme itself took quite a light-hearted tone. During the short few minutes in which I featured, I was seen walking around my estate reporting broken street lights, vandalism and dog fouling to my local council using the FixMyStreet app (I’d recommend it, by the way).

The Twitter response was mostly positive – most said things like ‘good on you’ and ‘that’s interesting – I’ll download the app’ and there were a number of humorous remarks that were in good taste. In the weeks that followed, I was approached a few times while out in public, and at the two weddings I attended in the months that followed I got talking to people who’d seen the programme. In real life, nobody was anything other than pleasant and good-humoured.

Inevitably, there were about six very aggressive people on Twitter. All, bar one, were people I’d never heard of, and were swiftly blocked.

The exception was Chris Jameson, a middle-aged ‘box office supervisor’ of a theatre in Harrogate, who had hurled a series of tedious insults at me in the previous 12 months, dating back to when I had commented, during an episode of Educating Yorkshire, that the headteacher, Mr Mitchell, had not behaved appropriately by putting his feet on his office desk and repeatedly addressing a pupil as ‘mate’ as he reprimanded him.

Jameson had drifted in and out of my Twitter feed in the period since, often responding to points that weren’t made. He also developed a habit of taking screenshots of my feed and making comments of his own. It became quite an obsession. All quite sad really….

I’d largely forgotten about/ignored Jameson until last weekend, when, late on Saturday evening, I experienced an instance of social media abuse far worse than anything I’d gone through before. I’ve come to expect a little abuse every time I give a radio interview (usually about sport) but I hadn’t done so on Saturday. This was on a totally different level.

I had never even heard of Victoria Chipp until late on Saturday night. She works for the recruitment consultants, Badenoch VChippblogpic1and Clark in London, but is originally from Harrogate, perhaps coincidentallyVChipp blog pic 2 the same town as Jameson, perhaps not. She is also a ‘rugby groupie’ and raises money for rugby union charities in her spare time.

I can only assume she had been drinking when she began ‘debating’ the EU referendum with me late on Saturday evening. The picture on the left is how the discussion began.

It declined in quality as the discussion went on, and the caption on the right shows how we parted. The rest of the discussion consists of her resorting to cheap, clichéd insults, often in semi-articulate English, often replying to points that weren’t made. She preferred to think of me as a caricatured ‘xenophobe’, immigrant-hating eurosceptic, when in reality I had not posted anything that could lead any logical person to reach that conclusion.

On Sunday morning, I received further correspondence from her friend, Katy Bowling, who had the nerve to accuse me of being ‘childish’ with my responses to the foul-mouthed Miss Chipp. Earlier on Sunday morning, Bowling had annoyed England rugby international James Haskell on Twitter (he went on to compare Bowling to ‘Ronnie Corbett in drag’ before blocking her).

I’ve since received self-pitying emails from Bowling, who insists she hadn’t been drinking, but was suffering from food poisoning at the time. She also describes Chipp as an ‘inspirational woman’. I kid you not!

VChipp blog pic 4

Back to Sunday. This was getting tedious. Chipp had accused me of ‘asking for her phone number’ the previous evening. This was an outright lie. Here is the screenshot of what I actually said to her. As you can see, I offered to give her my phone number so we could continue this discussion in a (hopefully) more adult way outside the confines of Twitter. It takes a far braver person to debate an issue over the phone than to hurl drunken insults from behind their keyboard. As you can see from the screenshot, I did not ask for her phone number, which, in any case, is easily obtainable on at least one rugby fundraising website!

VChipp blog pic 5

As the day wore on and their dreary, foul-mouthed ramblings continued, she was joined by her friend, the opera singer Ben Sweeney (no, I’ve never heard of him either). A little later on, Chris Jameson decided to join in, with his usual lack of wit:

VChipp blog pic 6

If Jameson had a fraction of the intelligence he thinks he has, he could have looked up my CV online with relative ease and discovered that by the time I was Chipp’s age (25), I’d already had three books published, and that I’ve worked in newspapers, magazines, radio and online, and have work published across all platforms on a frequent basis. There again, maybe he wasn’t trying to be funny and he really is a ‘bodybuilder’, albeit one with a muscle wasting disease…..

He also decided to post this feature in my local paper about my appearance on The Complainers. He’s put the word ‘journalist’ in inverted commas, as though me being in this feature somehow disqualifies me from being a journalist.

VChipp blog pic 8

This weirdo’s fascination with me continued. He went on:

VChipp blog pic 10

Well, as anyone who saw The Complainers will know, I don’t ‘spend my evenings’ ‘pointing at bags of dog dirt and broken street lights’. As the programme made clear, I simply report such things to the council using an app when I’m out and about. All pretty mundane stuff compared to his peculiar Twitter stalking……

Chipp herself didn’t get any better as Sunday dragged on:

VChipp blog pic 11

Chipp clearly isn’t all that bright. There is no such thing as a ‘wrong fact’. It’s an oxymoron. In the space of a day, she had called me a ‘chav’, a ‘wanker’ and a ‘prick’ on Twitter. I hadn’t resorted to any such language, yet she was claiming to be the victim of a campaign of abuse by me, without a shred of evidence to back it up. There’s more. A LOT more. But it’s too dreary to post on here.

I got bored with this tirade of verbal diarrhoea from Chipp and her keyboard warrior friends and blocked the lot of them. Life is too short to waste too much time on people like that.

One final twist to this episode. Some months ago, a person I’d never heard of called Matthew Bullman asked to become my friend on Facebook, saying he was a fan of my work. I don’t normally allow people unknown to me to become a Facebook ‘friend’, but he’d been complimentary so I made an exception.

Over the course of a few months, he had occasionally joined in Facebook discussions but had generally said very little. On Sunday, he followed me on Twitter, having previously been largely inactive. As you can see from this screenshot, on Sunday he was supportive of me and sent me a sympathetic message (see the bottom of the shot and work your way up)

By Monday evening, he had blocked me from both Facebook and Twitter, and had joined Jameson and Chipp:

VChipp blog pic 13

There’s just one problem with what Bullman says about me – none of it is true! For a start, I’ve never, ever fixed a street light in my life, let alone done it for a living. At no point in either The Complainers or in the Wales Online feature was such a claim made.

Secondly, I don’t often use the terms ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’ in my work, or indeed in conversation. There are two reasons for that:

1. I’ve never heard definitions of either term I’m happy with.

2. Generally speaking, both are used as terms of abuse, as Orwell pointed out more than  60 years ago.

All these people are now blocked and are out of my life. Any further abuse by them will be reported to Twitter directly, or, if necessary, the police.

I’ll probably never know for sure what motivates these people. At a guess, Chris Jameson is disappointed with the way his life has panned out and/or hates the fact I outwitted him in our original Twitter argument. For a man who claims not to like me, he spends a great deal of time discussing me on Twitter.

What motivates Victoria Chipp? Evidently, she is not as clever as she thinks she is. I suspect she is just an attention-seeker.

As James Haskell pointed out when he was irked by her friend Katy Bowling, maybe, deep down, they hate themselves and resort to attacking others to make themselves feel better. I never had Haskell down as a philosopher before Sunday but he may well be onto something with this. That might well explain Jameson’s lengthy periods of attack against me.

To end as we began, I am certainly not alone with this. More than once, a well-known sports star has handed me their phone to let me see the daily tirade of abuse they endure on Twitter. I’m amazed so many of them continue to use it!

One friend of mine, an inoffensive and affable radio broadcaster, told me he gets a barrage of abuse at least once a week, simply for expressing his opinion on a sporting fixture or TV programme during his show.

I don’t want to waste too much more of my time on these sort of saddos, so am going to take a new approach, and I’d advise all readers of this blog to do the same:

At its best, Twitter can be a fun, engaging place, to monitor opinion, share humorous remarks, and to help and inform people. At its worst, it can be a vehicle for anonymous, vile ‘trolling’. Not every tweet deserves a reply. If a person wants to make a stupid comment, be rude, and think they’ve won an argument against you, let them think it. It’s not your concern. Your time is too precious to waste trying to educate and persuade people who have no intention of engaging in civilised discussion.

Focus your time and energy on those who deserve it.

Written by Marcus Stead

June 9, 2015 at 6:13 am

Posted in Comment, Opinion, Review

30 Years On: An Honest Assessment of the Miners’ Strike

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By MARCUS STEAD

It’s 30 years since the end of the 1984/85 miners’ strike, and in the coalfield of South Wales, a version of events has gone down in folklore that bears little resemblance to the facts.

The conventional wisdom dictates that Margaret Thatcher had some kind of mad vendetta against the mining communities in general, and that her policies are somehow to blame for everything that’s gone wrong in these communities in the years since.

This crude, caricatured thinking conveniently ignores numerous inconvenient truths, such as that Harold Wilson’s government closed far more coal mines than Thatcher ever did (Wilson closed 260 to Thatcher’s 154).

The ‘blame Thatcher every time it rains’ rhetoric also ignores the reality that between 1997 and 2010, the party most former miners loyally support, Labour, had an unbroken period of government (on-going if we include the Welsh Government), and did little to seriously improve these communities or the lives of ex-miners and their families.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It’s easier and more comfortable to run with the theory than to face up to the reality that the miners themselves need to shoulder much of the blame for letting themselves be manipulated by National Union of Mineworkers president Arthur Scargill’s vanity, hypocrisy and madcap leadership.
On this sad anniversary, it’s time for a reassessment. Nelson Mandela believed in truth and reconciliation as a means of healing a society.

First must come truth, for without it those 30-year-old wounds cannot heal. It’s not morally right to continue to indoctrinate the young with the ‘Thatcher’s evil’ version of events, nor is it right for the miners themselves to continue to present Scargill as a hero, for it was his recklessness that led to ultimate defeat and the eventual destruction of the mining industry.

Let’s start at the beginning: The coal mining industry of the early 1980s required enormous government subsidies. In 1982/83, the stated operating loss per tonne was £3.05 (around £10.20 in today’s money), and international market prices for coal were about 25% cheaper.

The industry itself was losing around £1.5 million per day (around £4.6 million by today’s figures), making it an intolerable and unsustainable burden on the taxpayer.

Several years before the strike, the Thatcher government made it clear that to return to profitability, the mining industry would need to modernise, invest in mechanisation, and yes, there would inevitably be subsequent job cuts.

The pretext of the strike was a very modest proposal by Ian MacGregor, head of the National Coal Board, to close, over a period of time, just 20 of Britain’s 170 coal mines with the loss of 20,000 jobs, spread across northern England, Scotland and Wales, undoubtedly difficult for those communities affected, but peanuts compared with what happened in the years immediately after the strike.

Three years earlier, the Thatcher government backed down from plans to close 23 pits after Yorkshire NUM members passed a resolution to strike if any pit was threatened with closure for reasons other than exhaustion or geological difficulties.

Following MacGregor’s announcement, Scargill made an unsubstantiated allegation that the government had a long-term strategy to close 70 pits.

There was absolutely no room for manoeuvre with Scargill. Not a single job loss, whether as a result of pit closure or modernisation in working practises would have been acceptable to him. His demands were to intensify to an absurd degree later on.

Arthur Scargill in recent years.

Arthur Scargill in recent years.

Crucially, Scargill, a man of infinite vanity, never called a full, national ballot, which would have strengthened his moral case enormously, and would become a legal requirement when the Trade Union Act 1984 came into law shortly after the strike began.

Upon the enforcement of the Act, striking miners were not entitled to state benefits due to the lack of a national ballot, and Scargill shamefully decided he would rather force miners, their wives and their children to rely on handouts and charity for food and clothing rather than call a ballot and ensure they had the safety net of state benefits to keep them in an acceptable standard of living for the strike’s duration.

Each mine had an individual ballot, with 18 of the 28 pits in Wales voting against strike action. The way ballots were held in pits that voted in favour was also highly dubious, with Betws and others holding a show of hands rather than a secret ballot.

In other words, miners may well have felt intimidated into voting in favour of action, even if they knew it would be self-defeating. Indeed, that year’s Trade Union Act, soon to be enforced, made secret ballots a compulsory precursor to strike action.

Intimidation was the main method used by NUM militants of spreading the strike across the many South Wales pits that didn’t vote for it and didn’t want it, with flying pickets appearing at mines as men arrived for work. This was confrontational, anti-democratic and bullying behaviour from Scargill and his apparatchiks.

Scargill’s other gross miscalculation was to begin the strike in the spring, when demand for coal had peaked. Unknown to most at the time, the Thatcher government was well and truly ready for the strike.

It had stockpiled enough coal to fulfil the country’s energy needs well into the future, thus ensuring the NUM could not hold her government to ransom the way they did with Heath, Callaghan, and indeed Thatcher herself in the near-strike of 1981.

Striking miners protest in London.

Striking miners protest in London.

By the summer of 1984, Scargill’s demands had intensified and become even more ludicrous. Preventing pit closures was no longer enough. He now also demanded, amongst other things: A four-day working week; a substantial increase in wages; retirement age brought down to 55; consolidation of the incentive bonus scheme, development of 40 million tonnes of new capacity; new investment to expand all existing pits.

There were other demands, too, but these are the ones that stand out as the barmiest. There was no way the Thatcher government could possibly give in to them.

Scargill himself was now a regular fixture not just on the heavy political TV programmes, but also on light entertainment chat shows, where he made no secret of the fact he was a Marxist who wanted to bring down the democratically-elected Thatcher government.

This was now a straightforward battle between parliamentary democracy and mob rule led by a union baron who didn’t even legitimise his own strike with a full, secret ballot. We should all be glad that parliamentary democracy won, including the miners who lost their jobs.

As time went by, a minority of miners in South Wales returned to work, believing the strike to be futile and knowing it wasn’t in the best interests of themselves, their families, or the long-term future of the industry. They were subjected to cruel taunts of ‘scabs’ by their colleagues, for abandoning a strike that was only ever going to end one way.

It wasn’t just name-calling. Many strike-breaking miners had their properties vandalised, faced physical violence, and were shunned by former colleagues when the strike eventually ended.

One other highly irritating aspect of the strike’s legacy is the way people in mining communities try to romanticise and sentimentalise it, by talking about the sense of community, the togetherness, and of fighting for principles.

The reality was far less happy. The lack of money coming into their homes meant miners were reliant on union reserves for food, as well as parcels from Paris, Amsterdam and even Russia.

Striking miners depended on money gathered from charity collections in town centres to pay their household bills, with public sympathy gradually eroding as the months rolled by as the futility of the strike became apparent, all while Scargill lived a life of luxury cars and properties paid for by his members.

Strains were put on marriages, long-standing friendships were tested, and there were several violent incidents where innocent people tragically lost their lives.

Due to the sheer length of the strike, many pits permanently lost their customers, at a time of extensive competition in world coal markets as well as a concerted move towards oil and gas power production.

There was to be no way back. The NCB accelerated the closure of pits on economic grounds, resulting on a far greater loss of jobs over a far shorter period of time.

The knock-on effect of widespread pit closures was massive. In many valley towns, the pit was the main employer. It was going to be extremely difficult to encourage new jobs to the affected areas to fill the gaps.

Long-term unemployment became a very real problem. Areas that were known for their Protestant work ethic, close families and tight-knit communities began a downward spiral into crime, poverty, drugs and welfare dependency.

Of course this is something to be regretted, but former miners owe it to themselves, and to future generations, to acknowledge that were it not for Scargill’s gross mishandling of the conflict, the speed and scale of pit closures would have been far less severe, as indeed would the social impact that followed.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm

Remembrance Sunday Reflections

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PoppyEarlier this year, I caught up with veteran broadcaster Shaw Taylor, shortly after he revived his role on Police 5 after a gap of 22 years.

Shaw, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, was one of Britain’s most versatile broadcasters, able to be sombre and authoritative, or light-hearted and self-deprecating, depending on the occasion. From the 1950s until he largely retired at the end of 1992, he took on roles as varied as quizmaster, crime fighter, talent show judge and sports commentator.

For many years, his ability to set the tone made him ITV’s commentator of choice on Royal Occasions, as well as at the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph, taking on the role Tom Fleming, and nowadays David Dimbleby provides for the BBC.

Shaw understood that the job of commentating on the ceremony was a difficult one. For much of the time, the pictures speak for themselves. Say too much, and you are intruding on a private moment of grief. Say nothing, and you risk leaving younger generations ignorant of and perhaps unable to understand the emotions one experiences at times of war.

Having done his bit during the war, Shaw was well-qualified to articulate these emotions. He was called up from his London office job in 1943 to serve in the RAF, but even as a young man, he wore his trademark glasses, and short-sightedness dashed his hopes of becoming a Spitfire pilot. Nevertheless, he was very active at RAF Ventnor Chain Home Radar Station on the Isle of Wight, before being posted to Japan in the autumn of 1944, and finally Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he was now a Leading Aircraftsman and worked as a teleprinter operator.

Eventually (at some point in the late 1970s or early 80s), ITV stopped covering the Cenotaph, and, on its final year, Shaw wanted to add something that would underline the sheer futility and waste of war but at the same time hint at the comradeship that developed amongst those who fought it.

Keep ‘em peeled! Shaw Taylor in his famous Police 5 pose

Keep ‘em peeled! Shaw Taylor in his famous Police 5 pose

Late on the Saturday night before the ceremony, Shaw sat with a blank piece of paper and gazed across the brightly-lit London skyline that he had once seen in pitch darkness lit only by the flickering flames of the blitz. He began to write a poem, and the following morning, as the Band of the Brigade of Guards struck up with ‘Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’, and the dwindling numbers of First World War veterans straightened their backs to lead the parade past the Cenotaph, Shaw picked up his microphone and began to read out his poem, ‘I Watched Him Go’.

At the end of the broadcast, the ITV Midlands franchise, ATV, was inundated with calls from viewers wanting to know who wrote it. Shaw could only answer that it was his hand who wrote it, but who guided his hand he will never know.

The following year, although ITV no longer covered the Cenotaph ceremony, the TV Times printed the verses relating to the armed forces that Shaw had actually broadcast the previous year. The verses dedicated to the civilian services, nursing, the fire brigade and the police were added by Shaw in 1995 and broadcast by the BBC during celebrations to commemorate the end of the Second World War.

Shaw intended for the poem to reach the young, and he realised its impact when he was contacted by Chris Murray, a teacher of English at an academy in Strasbourg, France. Part of his course was the study of war poets such as Rudyard Kipling and Robert W. Service.

Murray came across the fighter pilot verse of ‘I Watched Him Go’ in a book about the RAF, and not knowing about Shaw’s broadcasting career, assumed him to be a war poet. He made contact and Shaw sent him the poem in full.

Among the works of all the more famous poets, his students voted ‘I Watched Him Go’ to be the poem that most affected them in underlying the futility of, yet at the same time the strange comradeship that develops in times of war.

As we commemorate the centenary of the start of World War One, it seems appropriate to share Shaw’s poem in full on this Remembrance Sunday.

 

I Watched Him Go by Shaw Taylor

I watched him go

He climbed the trench a yard ahead of me

And hardly topped the ridge before he

Stopped stock still, and sagged.

I caught him as he fell.

Our arms entwined we slithered down

The wall of stinking mud until

We hit the duckboards at the bottom.

His eyes stared up “Why me?”

They seemed to say “Why me?”

I lit a fag and gave it him,

He took one puff, enough,

That’s when he went, I watched him go,

The smoke still trickling from his lips.

 

I watched him go.

The boat’s side caving in my ribs.

With shoulders hunched and fingers numb

With cold, I grasped his hands.

Above the gale I heard a yell

“Hold on – for God’s sake hold!”

And realised the voice was mine.

He couldn’t hear. I’d not the strength

To haul him in – nor he

And all the while the greedy sea

Kept dragging him away.

Our fingers touched and parted. Just a kid.

That’s when he went, I watched him go,

His head held back for one last breath.

 

I watched him go.

His wingtip not ten feet from mine.

“Red Leader Bandits Angels Five”

I heard the call and so did he.

He grinned and raised a thumb.

I knew the sign – the first one down sets up the pints!

And then they ran, those round black holes

From near the tail. A perfect line

Of perforation straight to him.

The forward jerk, the smile transfixed,

That’s when he went, I watched him go.

A twisting spiral trailing smoke.

 

I watched her go.

Her nurses cape held high to shield her from the heat

We kept the hissing jet of water neat

And straight towards the yellow fangs of flame.

Why did she yell and run bent low towards the blaze?

What did she see? A figure? Shape? A trick of light?

I wedged the writhing nozzle tight

Beneath my arm to keep a sodden path

Between the burning timbers

And the heat crazed walls.

That’s when she went, I watched her go,

Amid the rumbling roar and showering sparks.

 

I watched him go

He hurtled past so fast I laughed.

I’d never seen a policeman run before.

And then I saw the child

In open space, it’s face turned up

Towards the whistling shrieking sound.

The ground came up to meet them as they fell.

The child secure, held safe beneath

A shrapnel shredded tunic seeping red.

That’s when he went, I watched him go.

A shield of blue above the unharmed child.

 

They’re all gone now.

 

Their names an unremembered line

On Rolls of Honour glanced at now and then

By those with nothing else to read.

A breed of men and women I was proud to know,

And yet, I never think of them except

On days like this – and sometimes in the lonely night.

And then I wonder why they went?

What hand reached out and took them

In their prime? A time of grief

For those held dear.

Good God, you must have heard

Their prayers you must!

Or is there no-one there to hear?

 

(Copyright Shaw Taylor)

Written by Marcus Stead

November 9, 2014 at 3:37 am

What Can We Learn From Germany?

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We have to admit, however grudgingly, that the right team won the World Cup. There was no obvious stand-out team for most of the tournament, but following their 7-1 annihilation of Brazil in the semi-finals, it was clear that Germany had by far the most balanced team.

They didn’t have a megastar player like Ronaldo or Messi, but there were no significant weaknesses in the team either. To use that tiresome cliché, Germany were ‘efficient’. The rest of the football world is playing catchup.

But it goes beyond football. In terms of economic growth and an approach to life, we in Britain have much to learn from modern-day Germany. It’s very easy to get to Germany in this age of the Channel Tunnel and cheap flights, but it’s remarkable just how little most Britons know about our old rival.

Last year, the BBC made a fascinating programme called ‘Make Me a German’ in which journalist Justin Rowlatt and his wife, Bee, spent a week in Germany and tried to live life as typically as an average German would.

They went to great lengths to get the specifics right, and consulted an advertising agent who had done much research in this area. Everything from the time they got up in the morning, to the supermarket they shopped in, to how they spent their spare time had to be as typical of the average German family as possible. So much so, that they left two of their four children with the grandparents in London, as the average German birth-rate is 1.4 children per couple.

The findings of this programme were fascinating, and each aspect of life can teach valuable lessons to us here in Britain:

Work

Germans work less and earn more than we do. Two thirds work for small and medium sized businesses, most of which are family-owned.

There is no Microsoft, Apple or Amazon in Germany. These are specialist businesses – they tend to do one thing and do it very well. In this instance, Justin went to work at a pencil factory that exported all around the world.

The way they prepare young people for work is different. In Britain, the emphasis is on getting young people to university, even if that means saddling them with huge debts with no guarantee of a good job at the end of it. In Germany, more than half of young people do apprenticeships, something far less rare in Britain due to social snobbery and businesses being unwilling to shell out the costs of training someone up.

There is a sense of loyalty – a lot is expected of the staff but in return the company will do certain things to try to retain them. Like everything else in the programme, Justin’s job at the pencil factory was average and typical of the country.

Germans typically work an eight hour day, which includes an hour for lunch, in which Justin went for a hot meal at the heavily-subsidised staff canteen.

The work itself is hard and disciplined. You are there to work, not to discuss your personal life, gossip about celebrities, or spend half the day on Facebook. You owe it to yourself, your colleagues and your employer to do an honest day’s work.

One of the ways the pencil company helped its staff was by a doctor carrying out regular health checks on the staff. This also gives staff the chance to discuss minor medical matters, something that in Britain would involve making a GP’s appointment, which could quite easily take them away from the workplace for around half a day.

The pay is good, and although wages don’t really rise much above inflation, job security is high. In Justin’s case, he earned €2,250 per month. In addition, he received a transport allowance and extra for working shifts, taking his total monthly salary to €2,802 per month. He also received 30 days holiday per year.

There are taxes to be paid: Income tax, health insurance, pension insurance, unemployment insurance and payment towards nursing care. Justin also pays less tax because he and his wife have children (more on that later).

On top of his salary, Justin will receive a production bonus. It’s yet another incentive to work hard and not let your colleagues down.

Compare this to Britain, where the culture is work long hours in insecure jobs, have the bare minimum of holiday leave, have to rely on a very basic, bureaucratic healthcare system in the NHS, as well as make your own provisions for your old age in terms of nursing costs and anything beyond the miserly state pension.

Housing

There is no property owning fetish in Germany, and unlike Britain, there is no social snobbery attached to renting. Taking out a huge mortgage just so you can say you ‘own’ your own home is not the norm. More than half of Germans rent, including many in well-paid jobs. As ‘typical Germans’, the Rowlatt family lived in a fairly spacious rented 1970s apartment.

Wives and Children

This is where Britain really has lost the plot. Radical leftist and New Labour disciple Patricia Hewitt described stay-at-home mothers as a ‘problem’. Many British women consider being out of the house working, and dependant on the state and an employer rather than a husband as being ‘liberated’. The role of the parent has largely been taken over by the state in the form of ‘childcare’, namely handing very young children over to strangers whose attention will be split between yours and other children.

British ‘childcare’ is a very peculiar concept indeed. Many lower income families have no choice but to do it. Those with higher incomes often decide to let one parent (usually the mother) to stay at home, while making significant sacrifices. They rarely complain, but many draw the line at having to pay taxes to subsidise ‘childcare’ for other families of similar means where both parents choose to work.

We have to wonder why Ms Hewitt and other New Labour apparatchiks are so keen on this. Separating children from their parents as soon as possible so that the state can install its conformist values on them has long been one of the key cardinals of communist regimes, the sort which many New Labour ministers supported in their youth (Hewitt, Reid, Clarke, Mandelson, and others). How many of them still hold these views deep down, but are too politically savvy to say them in public?

Things are very different in Germany. The tax system is unashamedly designed in such a way that it is both affordable and practical for mothers of young children to stay at home and bring them up. There is a social stigma against mothers who go out to work, called ‘raven mothers’. Germans rightly understand that young children require a level of attention that cannot be provided by a stranger in ‘childcare’. They teach them such things as table manners and appropriate behaviour, which would be very welcome indeed in Britain where children running around restaurants and making a noise on public transport has become increasingly common in recent years.

As toddlers, children typically spend a few hours each day in kindergarten, which costs just a fraction of ‘childcare’ in Britain, but these take a very different form. In the programme, Bee took her children to an outdoor kindergarten in a forest. Toys were banned, children bonded with nature and developed their communication skills with each other. Importantly, they also learnt to clean up after themselves and the site was spotless as they left. They seemed happy and content – they were allowed to be children and spent time in a natural environment, rather than in stuffy rooms with computers and plastic toys.

Primary school doesn’t start until the age of six and the school day is short. At secondary school age, there is a three-pronged system which sends children to schools that best suit their abilities and natural skills. There isn’t some cruel ‘Eleven Plus’ style exam to determine this, instead, it takes the form of a discussion between parent, pupil and teacher, and the decision can easily be changed if it turns out to be the wrong one.

Shopping

The overwhelming majority of Germans shop at discount supermarket chains, with Aldi having by far the biggest market share. Credit cards are frowned upon – the German word for ‘debt’ is the same as the word for ‘guilt’ – ‘schulden’, and people mostly pay for things with good honest cash.

Leisure Time

Social life in Germany seems more varied and more interesting than in Britain, where millions come home from work and spend night after night watching television, barely knowing their neighbours or having much to do with the wider community. In every German town and city, there are lots of ‘societies’ where people take part in purposeful social activities. In this instance, Justin joined a singing society (a particularly popular activity), a group of about 30 people, male and female, from a varied age group. There was plenty of time for eating and drinking both in the interval and afterwards, but the singing itself was structured and had a purpose.

Sunday

In Germany, Sunday is a genuine day of rest. The shops are closed and people are expected to behave quietly. Noisy activities such as drilling and mowing the lawn are prohibited and police have the power to impose fines, on a scale of proportion, for people who violate such laws. In this programme, there was an incident (possibly staged) where the Rowlatt children were making a noise that disturbed the neighbours, and they received a visit from a neighbour, a policeman, who informed them of the Sunday laws.

In Britain, the Sabbath was largely abandoned in 1994, when the Sunday Trading Act effectively turned the day into one of shopping and spending, rather than worship, relaxation and family.

Football

The way in which German football clubs are run is radically different from those in the English Premier League. In Germany, the fans own 50% plus one share. Tickets for good seats cost around €15, meaning ordinary fans can easily afford to watch their teams play.

The English Premier League is to a large extent predictable, with leading clubs more-or-less buying a place in the near the top of the league. There is a soullessness about it. Well over half the clubs are now under foreign ownership, and there is a real sense of detachment between the clubs and the communities in which they are based. The stadiums may be full, but the atmospheres are flat as ordinary fans are priced out of the ground with corporate interests and the well-off filling the seats.

Many foreign owners see buying a football club as a snobbish status symbol, the same way insecure men in Britain buy Porsches to draw attention to themselves. Another motive for a person of extreme wealth to buy a football club is that it can effectively become a form of money laundering.

The way German clubs are structured prevents this from ever happening to them, and what’s more, they’re very successful! German clubs have been far more prevalent in the latter stages of the Champions League than their English counterparts in recent seasons, and, as is now blatantly obvious, a far better structure is in place to ensure the German national team has a good supply of talent. The matches themselves are played in atmospheric, noisy stadiums populated by real fans.

In conclusion, German people, it seems, do not take their lifestyles for granted. The country was flattened and bankrupted after World War II, and it required hard work, discipline and good management to build it up. Much more recently, the cost of reunification in the period after 1989 was hugely expensive. Today, Germany is effectively bailing out countries caught up in the Eurozone crisis.

Personal financial responsibility is taken seriously. As we’ve already established, debt is discouraged, while people on average save far more of their incomes, allowing banks to loan out far more to people starting their own small businesses.

Germany will continue to face difficulties and challenges in the years ahead as the Eurozone crisis continues, yet in terms of work, family, leisure and overall quality of life, there is much we in Britain could learn.

Written by Marcus Stead

July 21, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Posted in Comment, Politics, Review