Heavy Grasshoppers

11 December 2020

Not many people are keen to get old.

There are some advantages to it. Wisdom, hopefully, though the number of daft old folk around reminds us it’s not guaranteed. And leisure: we can retire and wear our slippers all day if we want. We can spoil the grandchildren. We can get discounts on travel.

grasshopper2But there’s no escaping the downside, as I myself (now aged 80) am discovering. The obvious one is health issues. While we oldies are hugely grateful for our medical services, we would prefer not to suffer those issues in the first place. We remember fondly the days of our youth, when we didn’t know the meaning of arthritis, prostate enlargement, gammy knees or heart problems.

Mental and emotional issues develop in old age, too. Some, like Alzheimer’s, are massive and intrusive, the elephant in the room. But others are more subtle. Speaking for myself, I’ve realised that what could be called my ‘coping capacity’ has reduced. Challenges that, not too long ago, I would have taken in my stride are more daunting now.

An example, you say? OK, take the grocery order from the supermarket. During the coronavirus lockdown, my wife and I took to ordering groceries online and having them delivered to the door. A real help. But on the second or third occasion, I somehow failed to confirm the order by the required date and, the day before delivery was due, we discovered it had been cancelled.

It wasn’t the end of the world. We had a well-stocked freezer, and a small local shop where we could get the basics if required (though at a higher price, and with face-masks and strict social distancing). But we were both amazed at how this setback shook us. Uncharacteristically, it rocked us both to our emotional foundations. Ridiculous, I know, but true.

As I thought about it afterwards, a phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes (chapter 12) came to mind that sums it up perfectly. The writer is describing old age in poetic language. He says, for instance, that in old age ‘the keepers of the house tremble’ (the legs grow weaker). ‘the grinders cease because they are few’ (dental issues), ‘those looking through the windows grow dim’ (poor eyesight)—and more. But the one that stood out for me was spot on for my ‘coping capacity’: ‘the grasshopper shall be a burden’ (verse 5).

I looked it up. Most modern versions translate it differently, applying it to difficulty in walking. But the underlying Hebrew is capable of ‘the grasshopper shall be a burden’, and the older versions, like the AV and RV, run with that.

It’s a marvellous expression. A grasshopper is no weight at all. It can hop onto your shoulder and you won’t even know it. But in old age it can feel more like a turkey sitting up there. That sums up my situation perfectly.

What can I do about it? As for prevention, not a lot. It’s an inescapable feature of my old age. So I have to focus on what to do when a heavy grasshopper jumps up there.

Not panic, obviously. Breathe a prayer: ‘Help me with this, please, Lord!’ Mentally step back from the situation to get it into better perspective. It isn’t, after all, a major disaster. My house hasn’t just been bombed and my loved ones slaughtered. I haven’t had a heart attack. It’s just a circumstantial grasshopper, and no sensible old chap is going to let that get him down, is he? Take stock of the situation and decide what practical steps I can take to move forward. Simple, really. But easier said than done when the turkey’s claws are biting into my shoulder and its weight is threatening to floor me.

All this I intend to keep doing. With the Lord’s help, cope I shall, until, as Ecclesiastes puts it, ‘the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’ (verse7).

Proud to be…?

20 August 2019

I’ve lived in Cornwall, England, for the last six years, but I’m really a Yorkshireman. Born in East Yorkshire, I moved to West Yorkshire with my parents at the age of seven and lived there for the next 45 years, apart from three years away at university in Bristol.

yorkshire puddingPeople sometimes say to me, ‘I bet you’re proud to be a Yorkshireman.’ But I’m not. That doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of it, of course. It’s just that I don’t think ‘proud’ is the right word. I’m certainly content to be a Yorkshireman. I love the county, especially the Yorkshire Dales. I sing On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘At with gusto. I’m partial to Yorkshire puddings with my meat and veg, I throw in the odd ‘Eee, by gum!’ when chatting, and even though I’ve travelled the world and lived in other places, my Yorkshire accent still gives me away.

But I can’t really be ‘proud’ of something over which I had no choice. I didn’t ask to be born and raised in Yorkshire; it just happened to me. A few circumstantial blips, and I could have been born instead in Mongolia or Stoke-on-Trent, in Italy or Peru.

My concern about being ‘proud’ of such things, I suppose, is because of its inherent danger: this kind of ‘pride’ can so quickly slide into partisan-spirit, animosity towards outsiders and a general increase in hate and isolation. The situation in Northern Ireland is a perfect example.

Here in Cornwall, I come across locals who trumpet their pride in being Cornish. With most of them, it’s harmless enough. There are many aspects of Cornish life and history to rejoice in: pasties, glorious scenery, the Cornish language (which I’m loving learning), and much more. I have been warmly welcomed by all the Cornish people I’ve met, and I feel very much at home among them.

But there are a few whose ‘pride’ in being Cornish approaches what, to me, are the dodgy fringes. One chap refuses ever to sing ‘God save the queen’ because the queen is English and he isn’t: he’s Cornish. If you’re unaware of Cornish sentiments, I need to explain that cornish pasty2people here who have been away for the weekend, may reply, when asked where they’ve been: ‘I went to England.’ Yes, seriously.

I sing with a local male voice choir, and some of us also do a bit of social singing at local events. One of the favourites in our repertoire extols the virtues of all things Cornish, and the last verse goes as follows:

And when you cross the Tamar
Into this promised land,
There’s one thing to remember,
One thing to understand:
That Cornwall’s not a county
Just sited in the west,
But Cornwall is a country.
It’s the land we love the best.

Fair enough. There is a Celtic heritage in Cornwall, of which the Cornish make much, and I’ve no problem with that, provided it doesn’t slide into animosity towards anything non-Cornish. In most cases it doesn’t. Yes, when England are playing Wales at rugby, some will cheer for Wales because of the shared Celtic heritage, but it’s mostly done with a smile and no real ill-feeling towards the English.

In other cases it comes close to the danger-zone. The unofficial Cornish anthem, Trelawney, can skirt the rabble-rousing boundaries when sung in certain settings, followed, as it often is, by the shout, ‘Come on, Cornwall. Give ’em hell!’ And the other anthem-contender, Hail to the homeland, gets a bit sentimental and silly when it declares:

Hail to the homeland!
Of thee we are a part.
Great pulse of freedom
In every Cornish heart.
Prompt us and guide us,
Endow us with thy power.
Lace us with liberty
To face this changing hour.

Just how a ‘homeland’ can do such metaphysical things is beyond me, and most who sing it, I’m sure, don’t give such questions a moment’s thought. They just sing it, feel a warm sentimental fuzz, and have no thoughts at all of crushing the English or resorting to a punch-up. ‘It makes you,’ they would say, ‘proud to be Cornish.’

All I’m arguing for here is the need for awareness and caution, lest a natural and harmless enjoyment of one’s heritage—or sexual orientation, or religion, colour, class, race or whatever—crosses the line to become a ‘pride’ that leads to animosity, division and potential violence.

Diversity is to be recognised, accepted and maybe even celebrated. But ‘proud to be…’? Let’s be careful. In the meantime, I’m a happy Yorkshireman, delighted to be accepted in Cornwall (where my wife’s roots are), and rejoicing in both Yorkshire puddings and Cornish pasties, a pint of John Smith’s or a pint of Tribute. Can’t be bad!


20 April 2019

I’m old enough to remember when we used hymn-books in church. Most were in their umpteenth printing, and any typos that had crept into the first edition had long since been corrected. The spelling and punctuation were immaculate. Being a nit-picker by nature, I liked that.

Then churches began using overhead projectors for the words. The transparencies, written by any Tom, Dick or Harry who owned a coloured marker, displayed a horrific variety of errors. Things didn’t improve when, later on, churches moved on to data projectors. These days, I wince weekly at the glaring errors of spelling and punctuation up there on the big screen and try to tell myself it doesn’t matter. I should be focusing on the meaning of what I’m singing. But it’s hard work, like somebody telling me, ‘Never mind the crocodile in the lake; just enjoy the swim.’

One particular error annoys me: the mix-up of two words that both occur regularly in Christian songs. One is ‘Oh’, and the other is ‘O’. These are two quite different words, with different meanings and usage, but since whoever types the songs into the system rarely seems to know that, they are frequently wrong. For years, I didn’t know the difference myself, so I can’t blame you if you don’t, either. But as I’m enlightened now, I’ll share the light with you.

Let’s start with the word ‘O’. This always goes before someone’s name or a title—and nowhere else. It’s a formal style of addressing someone, usually someone of superior rank to yourself, as in the hymn, ‘O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end…’ or the song, ‘O Lord, you’ve done great things…’

The other word is ‘Oh’. This is an interjection, a word that conveys strength of feeling. It usually begins a statment of deeply-felt longing or strong passion, one where an exclamation mark at the end is appropriate. So we have the hymn, ‘Oh, how I love Jesus…!’ and ‘Oh, make me understand it, help me to take it in…!’ Or, ‘Oh for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s worth!’

So there you have it. Oh, what a marvellous thing education is!

New broom?

12 June 2018

I’ve seen a couple of sad scenarios recently, both in workplaces. A new boss or supervisor has been appointed. They arrive, and within a week or two have managed to create chaos and upset all their underlings. The result? Bad feelings all round, soured relationships between them and their staff, and a poorer service to the folk the business serves.

broomThis happens too often, so, from the wisdom that has accumulated in my old age, I offer some advice to you if you’re about to take on a new post that carries authority.

‘A new broom sweeps clean’ says the proverb. And that’s the problem. You go into your new post determined to make your mark, to stamp your authority on the setup and to crank up the levels of progress and efficiency. You’ll sweep out the way things were done before you arrived and lay a new carpet, one with your name woven into the design in capital letters.

Well, here’s the advice: don’t do it!

Why? Because it never works out well. In the end, people are what count, and your relationship with the employees you are now in charge of needs to be kept as sweet as possible. Over the years, many of them will have helped shape the way things are being done, so if you barge in and bin it all, you are effectively saying to them, ‘You’re a bunch of visionless incompetents’—which won’t make them like you.

Far better to let the existing systems carry on for a month or two, while monitoring them carefully. Focus on getting to know the employees under you and seeing what makes them tick. Yes, some of them might be lazy and self-serving. Take note, and bide your time. But most will be decent people, keen to do a good job for the company and to enjoy their work. Note them, too, and bide your time.

In due course you will be ready to make some changes. But evolution is always better that revolution. Introduce the changes gradually and carefully. Consult first with a few trusted folk, asking them how they would view it if you were to introduce this or that change. You won’t be able to please all of them all the time, whatever you eventually do, but the fact that you have at least consulted them will weigh in your favour.

Then check your own motives. Why do you want to make big changes? Could there be just a smidgin of pride in you that says, ‘Haha! I’m the one in charge now, and I’m going to show them who’s boss’? That’s not a sound reason for changing things. Are you secretly power-hungry, getting a dark sort of satisfaction from making people dance to your tune?

Or maybe there’s a level of deep insecurity in you that craves recognition and obedience from others. If so, you will be bound to over-compensate by becoming authoritarian to a degree unwarranted by your position. And that will alienate everybody.

So, be a new broom with soft bristles. Sweep slowly and sensitively. Keep people on your side. Let them see that you consider them more important than systems and targets. And so may the company prosper! Imagine the after-work conversation between two of your employees, where one says to the other, ‘Tell you what, it’s been tons better working here since [your name] came.’

Measuring The Unmeasurable

27 September 2011

I’m a tidy-minded sort of person. I like to see things sorted. Measured. I don’t like vagueness and loose ends.

So I welcome one of the major changes to affect schools and schoolteachers in recent times: the renewed emphasis on the measuring and tracking of pupils’ progress. Not that this approach ends with the pupils: teachers, too, must be ‘performance managed’. And then, from time to time, the whole school gets assessed and categorised according to its results. The inspectors come in, scrutinise everything and everybody, and give you the equivalent of a mark out of ten.

school-recordsHaving been in contact with schools for most of my life—first as a pupil, then as a teacher and most recently as a school governor—I’m happy to see this insistence on standards. It’s a welcome development from the days when too many teachers breezed through each day with barely a hint of planned lessons, and where the mark they gave a pupil at the end of the year wasn’t far from ‘think of a number’.

But there is a danger in the new passion for standards and record-keeping. It is to do with the fact that some things are more measurable than others. Give little Fiona a reading test on a set text. Count the number of mistakes she makes and deduct that from twenty, or whatever, and you have a meaningful mark. You can say with certainty whether she did better than Richard or Shania. But other areas can’t be so neatly assessed.

Richard, for instance, has a younger brother smitten with leukaemia. The whole family has been disrupted for well over a year by the upset: one parent or the other spending nights at the hospital with the sick child; the worry about whether he will come through and live to see another Christmas; related financial issues; and the focus on the sick child that inevitably sometimes robs Richard of attention.

Everyone agrees that Richard’s progress in school has been adversely affected by all this. But how do you take that into account when it comes to school tests and record-keeping? Yes, Richard would have done better with his maths and reading if he hadn’t had to cope with the trouble at home. So do you add a few percent to his actual score to take account of that? If so, how many percent? Probably you shouldn’t, say the purists; you must record only measurable achievement.

So what about the child whose parents are going through a protracted and acrimonious divorce? Home tensions are high. Nerves are jangling. What allowances, if any, do you make for that child when doing the measuring? And what about the boy whose dad, in his forties, collapsed and died of a stroke at work last month, causing the poor lad’s concentration-levels to plummet? How do you fit him into the measuring system?

Teachers, too, have their ups and downs, and there’s no less of a problem in knowing how to take account of hard-to-measure factors in assessing their progress. This year the Head of Geography is happy because she has seen 78% of pupils manage a Grade A, B or C. But after the summer break the pressure is on for her to raise the percentage next year. Indeed, her incremental pay rise may depend on it.

If the new intake proves to be a ‘good cohort’, that is, one with a high average IQ and mostly from stable homes, she can expect to improve on last year’s figures. But what if it’s a ‘bad cohort’? What if there is a high percentage of not-too-bright pupils, many of whom would never make a Grade A, B or C if they stayed in school till they were twenty? And what if, for some reason, a majority of them happen to come this year from dysfunctional families, with attendant emotional and learning difficulties?

The Head of Geography does her very best. She puts extra hours in. She maybe gives after-school tuition to the most needy students. She motivates her departmental staff as best she can. Everybody works their socks off all year but, in the end, the pass-rate at A, B or C turns out at only 61%.

The members of the Performance Management team frown at the figures before them as the Head of Geography enters the room for her annual assessment. ‘What went wrong?’ they ask. ‘This drop in standards can’t be allowed to pass without censure.’

What is the poor staff member to say? Should she tell it like it is? ‘Well, I’m afraid they were a pretty dim bunch this year—the dimmest for years, in fact. And more than half of them are from seriously screwed-up home situations. All of us in the department have worked our very hardest with them, but you can’t expect us to make a work of art out of duff materials.’

Personally, I like that. It’s honest, and it’s probably a fair assessment. Of course, the teacher would use less bald vocabulary and wrap it all up in bland education-speak. But whether you call a spade a spade or an agricultural implement doesn’t alter the basic situation. And if I were on the committee I’d be voting for the Head of Geography to be granted her incremental rise, even though the measurable results fell short of the goals set for the year. After all, this year she and her staff probably worked harder than ever precisely because of the tough materials they had to work with.

The moral of this tale, I suppose, is that while we do well to measure the measurable, common-sense dictates, at the same time, that some key factors in the educational process cannot be measured with precision. And it’s here that a little human warmth and understanding needs injecting into school stats and performance management meetings to oil the cogs in the school machine.

Without it, the system’s in for a seizure.


4 June 2011

slutwalkA Toronto policeman started it all. In a health and safety talk to students he touched on the issue of sexual attacks on women and dared to say, ‘Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.’

Now, groups of women are marching across major cities in Canada and the USA to champion their right to dress how they want—provocatively or otherwise. They call the events ‘slutwalks’. The topic has crossed the Pond to British TV. One guest on the news this morning took the marchers’ side: ‘The only issue is that rape is wrong,’ she declared. ‘No-one has the right to tell women how they should dress!’

I nearly choked on my muesli, because in my view the Toronto cop deserves a medal for his insight, his reality and his disdain for political correctness.

Yes, rape is wrong. Always has been; always will be. It can never be justified. But once we move beyond that black-and-white tenet we enter a world of grey. A lot of the grey surrounds how sexual desire is triggered, which is different in men and women. I’m making some generalisations here, but women respond largely to who is making the sexual advances, to the atmospherics, to ‘romance factors’. Men, by contrast, are switched on by visual stimuli—and that’s about it.

It’s no good holding forth about how we think things should be in this respect. We need to come down to earth and face realities: this is the way things are. This is how men and women are wired, and nothing is ever going to change it.

So if a girl dresses provocatively—and I don’t need to spell out what that means—any normal guy who sees her is ‘turned on’. Whether she intends to create that effect or not is neither here nor there. It just happens. As far as the guy is concerned, her sexually provocative appearance yells, ‘Come and get me!’

Many men, of course, take control of their impulses. And so they should. But not all men do. Some will react at the most basic level and yield to them. These are the ones who will jump a girl tottering (due to high heels and too many vodkas) down the street at 3am after a clubbing session, drag her into some bushes and give her what they believe she is asking for.

Then there is an outcry. And rightly so, since rape is wrong; full stop. But some of the outcry is unjustified. It comes from indignant women who rave that they want to be treated with more respect and not just as sex objects. Fair enough. Women are more than sex objects and deserve to be treated with respect. But respect has to be earned. And there’s where our friendly Toronto cop chipped in with his advice. Ninety-nine percent of men would, if they were honest, agree with him.

Provocative dress is fine in the marital bedroom, but it doesn’t belong on the streets, or anywhere in public. To drive through any city centre late at night is to drive through a meat market, with acres of naked female flesh on display sending out just one signal to all the males in the vicinity. And women who don’t realise what that signal is—as interpreted by any typical man—need to wise up quickly.

I gather the poor policeman has been forced to apologise for his remarks. No doubt he was thinking of his job and his pension, both of which would likely have been on the line had he refused. But he really had nothing to apologise for. He was wise, he was practical. He was right.

Nice U-Turn

20 February 2011

Our current coalition government, I feel, is more of a good thing than a bad one. The Tories and the Lib Dems stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum, so neither party can do all it wants, which means we get steady, middle-of-the-road legislation rather than the more extreme variety we’d get if either party had things all its own way.

Unfortunately that doesn’t stop the Labour Party, now in opposition, from trying to trash everything the coalition does. I’ve always disliked the adversarial nature of our government system, where the party in opposition feels duty bound to scorn every decision made by the party in power. Even when a decision is clearly in the nation’s general interest the opposition will find some way of making it look foolish. I’m not touting here for any party in particular; it was just the same when Labour were in power.

uturnThe proposed sale of vast tracts of publicly-owned forest is a recent case in point. It was clearly a money-making idea at a time when the government was trying to get the nation out of debt. But the universal outcry from the public showed them how deeply unpopular this proposal was, and now they assure us that the idea has been scrapped. Good.

And what was the opposition’s line in all this? When the sale proposal was first made they cried ‘Shame!’ and accused the government of sacrificing public amenities on the altar of financial gain. Fair enough. So you’d think they would have been the first to cry ‘Well done!’ when the proposal was dropped. Instead, they pointed the finger of scorn while chanting ‘Weak government’, ‘Climb-down’ and ‘U-turn’.

That’s not good enough, in my view. It tells us that the opposition’s main focus is not upholding what’s best for the nation but making the government look daft. That’s a self-serving and childish attitude, the kind of thing one expects to see in a school playground but not in the halls of Westminster.

Yes, maybe the government should have done a bit more research into public opinion before coming out with the forest-sale proposal. And yes, if a government reverses its policy too often it is going to lose the nation’s confidence and so be legitimately branded weak. But personally I’m delighted that the government had the guts to scrap this particular policy and, even better, to stand up in the House of Commons and bluntly admit, ‘We got it wrong’.

‘Well done!’ say I. When your car’s about to smash into a road-block a U-turn may be a frustrating necessity but it’s also the right and sensible thing to do. That’s what happened here and applause, not scorn, is in order.

Good old NHS

9 November 2010

For overseas readers, the NHS is the British National Health Service. It guarantees free health-care to all British citizens. And it’s marvellous!

True, some have to pay a token amount towards their medication, but the elderly, the needy and other vulnerable groups pay nothing. If you need an operation, it’s free. Consultations with top-notch medical specialists cost you not a penny.

nhs logoI’ve travelled in many parts of the world where medical care is simply unavailable, or of desperately poor quality, or comes at such a high price that only the richest can afford it. Compared with all these options the NHS is an unmitigated blessing.

Over a decade ago I developed an irregular heartbeat. ‘An electrical glitch,’ the cardiac specialist concluded after I’d undergone various tests at the local NHS hospital. They put me on medication to control it, and I’ll be on it for the rest of my life. So every three months I pick up a prescription from my doctor’s surgery, take it to the local pharmacy and pick up my pills. And because I’m over 60, it’s all for free.

More recently I realised my hearing was deteriorating and needed to do something about it. Within weeks I had a consultation with an expert audiologist and two weeks later became the wearer of a high-quality digital hearing aid behind each ear. These cost me nothing and they have made the world of difference. When I’m running out of batteries I drop in with my record-book at the local audiology centre and pick up a new supply, all for free.

So I often exclaim, ‘Thank you, Lord, for the NHS!’ Can you blame me?

I’m immensely grateful that I don’t live in one of the world’s poorer countries where such service would be unimaginable. Some years ago, in Zambia, I overheard a British visitor talking to a Zambian national about hospitals. ‘I can’t stand hospital food!’ she complained. To which the Zambian replied, ‘You mean they feed you in hospital in your country?’ Yes, if you find yourself in the local hospital in her town in Zambia your relatives have to come in with food for you, otherwise you get nothing.

But it’s the Americans who puzzle me the most. President Obama has been working hard to push through a programme of medical care that would guarantee provision to the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Good for him, I say! Yet strident voices condemn him outright for it. Most puzzling of all, so-called Christian voices denounce him as an instrument of Satan, or as the Antichrist himself, for even daring to think up such an idea! Surely to make provision for the needy is Christian in every sense? I just don’t get it.

Maybe someday I’ll grasp what the Evangelical Right in the US is all about. In the meantime I’ll continue to be grateful that I don’t live there and to draw upon the good old NHS—and thank God for it.

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