Thursday, December 09, 2010

Yes, that's all very well, but back in the real world...

Listening to the university fees debate in the House of Commons, I've been half-expecting someone to say, "We lived in a shoe box on a motorway, so I had to lick poison off the landlord's boots to earn a place at university," especially after David Blunkett tried to out-anecdote everyone else. Per-lease! So far, I haven't heard anyone talking much sense, though I did have to go to the loo a few times and tidy up the kitchen. And do any of the MPs persuade anyone else with their prepared speeches, apart from being able to say to their student constituents, and their mummies and daddies, that they did their best? I doubt it.

So, this is how I see it, Madame Deputy Speaker:

There are too many students doing too many courses. Limit the numbers, especially for things like media studies, photography and so on, that have the highest graduate unemployment rates. The market's already saturated with them. You may say that other countries are increasing student numbers, but they're facing similar problems, so expect them to change too.

The argument that a university degree makes you a better, more well-rounded person, with more employment prospects, doesn't seem to be supported by the evidence. It's more important to spend money on education at the bottom end, so that kids study philosophy and are taught to think, and to get rid of specialist schools, academies and GCSEs. Have comprehensives where everyone has to do a broad syllabus, including languages, working towards a Baccalaureate qualification, so there are no easy options. Then universities might not need to spend money on remedial classes for undergraduates whose English and Maths is poor. Refuse entrance to science courses for would-be undergraduates who don't accept that evolution is true - why should anyone waste time on them? Some of these idiots want to be doctors! Raise the standard of teaching, which isn't good enough, and pay teachers more. Incidentally, research has shown that a good teacher isn't necessarily one with a first class degree. His or her personal qualities matter just as much.

Make degrees mean something again, because they're for the brightest and best. The Association of Graduate Recruiters says that we need fewer graduates, and that action must be taken to correct the “devaluation” of degrees in recent years. Degrees seem to be on everyone's wish list, together with owning their own home, having lots of foreign holidays, and more than one car, but never mind the quantity, what about the quality?

Push for more apprenticeships and vocational courses, and more help for would-be entrepreneurs with socially-useful ideas. Raise the so far unmentionable matter of population control; discourage families from having more than two children, with expensive tastes and high expectations.

The numbers are unsustainable. Too many people, too many students, too many courses. We might have been able to afford free tuition for everyone if we weren't in so much debt, if the numbers weren't out of control, if the Labour Government hadn't taken us to war in Iraq (the £9+ billion it's cost us would've come in handy), if the number of undergraduates was kept at a sensible level while ensuring fair access.

The Liberal Democrats have become convenient scapegoats while Tories are happy for them to take the flak and Labour MPs conveniently ignore the fact that they commissioned the Browne Report, and would almost certainly have raised fees if they were still in power. I've never heard so much sanctimonious drivel for .. well, actually, it's not been that long. Do shut up, the lot of you.

PS: While I was blogging, Twitter was frenzied with stuff about the student demo: parents complaining that their schoolkid darlings were at risk of kettling or being trampled by police horses, while being denied their "rights"; others being nasty about the police superintendent who suggested that schoolchildren shouldn't be there; stuff about lighting fires, etc. Meanwhile, @Rose_Darling wrote, "Judging by the VI-formers being interviewed on the BBC right now, I'm wondering whether they should go to uni. They're really inarticulate." Quite. On 24 November the BBC interviewed some students. One said, "This is what happens when they oppress us students for so long." Another said, "Our rights are being impeded on." I'm guessing they were from the remedial class.

15 December - more on devalued degrees. Norwich firm on regional news programme said that despite high unemployment, they have trouble recruiting graduates because they're just not good enough. Was also told last night by someone who's studying for a masters degree while looking for a permanent job that employers look for people with higher degrees because first degrees aren't enough any more.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Men are expendable

During the recent BBC TV series, Escape in Time, where two families compete to complete tasks involving skills that were familiar to Victorian farming families, presenter Ben Fogle commented on the gender divide, observing that the men did all the heavy and dangerous work. The social historian he was with said that this was normal, because "men were expendable". Women did the domestic tasks, raised the family and the young animals, fed the poultry and so on, while men did jobs that needed physical strength, often involving working with dangerous machinery or animals. This was because women had to be protected, said the historian; they were required to care for the family; it was more important that they survived than the men. I'm not sure how this worked when they were widowed and lost their homes and means of support, but I guess that many widows either remarried or coped on their own.

It reminded me of the social history I've managed to absorb about marriage, and that a significant proportion of the population didn't marry in the 19th century because they weren't considered marriageable - they didn't have any skills or assets to bring to a union. The rich married to seal family contracts and so on, while the poor looked for partners who were useful because they had skills and strengths. The weak and feeble were a poor prospect. An old nursery rhyme illustrates this:
Sukey, you shall be my wife
      And I shall tell you why:
I have got a little pig,
      And you have got a sty;
I have got a dun cow
      And you can make good cheese;
Sukey, will you marry me?
      Say Yes, if you please.
I've quoted this at school marriage conferences quite often.

It would be a mistake to assume that women had an easy time of it, because they weren't expected to do dangerous work. Childbearing was dangerous enough, and they did physical work for long hours. Men may have been expendable, but some were just useless. I found this when I went to work on a Shropshire dairy farm in the 1960s. My boss sacked a labourer when he hired me (because I was cheaper, at £4 a week plus my keep), but the man in question was a lazy so-and-so. His wife complained that he drank most of his wages and didn't believe in exerting himself if he could avoid it. Still, I should have been paid the same as him, but this was before the Equal Pay Act.

Before health and safety regulations, farm workers had to be extra careful but if they did get hurt they generally didn't make a fuss. I conducted a funeral for a retired farm labourer once. He'd accidentally sliced off a toe while working in the fields - the weather was so cold at the time, he didn't even notice at first. He picked it up and put it in his pocket, and carried on working for another ten minutes, before he was persuaded to get help. That story reminded me of the French and Saunders sketch about the two countrywomen, where one accidentally chops of a finger, then throws it to the dog.

I suppose you could say that 21st century life is much easier than 19th century life for wimps and weaklings, and those who can't make cheese.

Photo: Men with early corn harvesting machine, Suffolk, from 'The Farm and the Village' by George Ewart Evans.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Family values

In last week's NSS Newsline, the question "What would be your advice?" was asked about a query in Coleen Nolan's advice column in The Mirror. The questioner began,
I'm furious after discovering recently that my mum's been taking my five-year-old son to church behind my back when he stays with her at the weekend.
Some of the answers in this week's Newsline made me wonder about the respondents' abilities to relate to their own families, so I've belatedly joined in the debate by writing to Newsline.
The responses to the Catholic grandmother who took an atheist’s child to church story in last week’s Newsline were interesting, but two in particular made me laugh. One wrote that “Anyone who abuses her own mother by using her as a free baby-sitter deserves all she gets!” Abuse? For taking advantage of a grandparent’s willingness to babysit? Give me strength! That’s how families work, surely? Then another wrote, “I would tell the old bag that if she persisted I would find another babysitter and she would not have any further contact with me or her grandson again and remind her that her actions were and should have been obvious to her were contrary to the way I intend to bring up my son.” Oh dear. Old bag? He doesn’t know the woman, yet he calls her an “old bag”? These two would make appalling agony aunts/uncles!

Over the last week or so I’ve been treated to some vitriol dished out by an Islamophobe in response to a story on the Suffolk Humanist group’s website. Among other things, this ignoramus claims that exposing children to religion, Islam in particular, is “child abuse”. I get the impression that there are quite a few readers of Newsline who share this view. I’ve found that people who’ve expressed such opinions haven’t known any Muslims or few (if any) followers of other religions. Instead, they parrot the caricatures they’ve read on the most reactionary websites or in the tabloid press. This is ignorant and lazy. They don’t see religious people as just people; they see them as representing the worst aspects of the fundamentalist versions of their religions, regardless of their culture, ethnicity or, most importantly, their behaviour. It’s indistinguishable from the sort of ignorance we’re treated to when the Pope makes ill-informed comments about atheism, lumping us all together with Nazis, or whatever.

Anyone who’s confident enough in his or her own values to tolerate other people’s irrational opinions or behaviour will convey, by example, a relaxed attitude to his or her children, who may learn to understand that people, in general, don’t necessarily think clearly or act sensibly. As long as you do, what have you to worry about? A clergyman I know was caught in the act of kissing an atheist (me) in the local crematorium vestry. A member of staff, in mock horror, said to him, “You kissed an atheist!” “That’s all right,” said my friend, “it’s not catching.” That’s my attitude to religion. There’s a world of difference between organised indoctrination, when children are never exposed to other beliefs or religions that might contradict what they’re being taught, and being exposed to beliefs or religions that are different from their parents’ beliefs. This is why I’ve come to believe that withdrawing children from RE lessons in school is not a good idea; in some Muslim communities, the right of withdrawal is being used to keep children in ignorance.

The Catholic grandmother in the newspaper advice column was clearly unable to comprehend her daughter and son-in-law’s position, and was possibly determined that her grandchild wouldn’t end up in hell for lack of the necessary instruction. Or it may just be that she wasn’t going to allow her baby-sitting to interfere with her church-going. Whatever the reason, this family should be talking to one another, not writing letters to Coleen Nolan. Most of what goes on in a Catholic church service would go over a five-year-old’s head and when he’s a bit older he’s likely to find it all rather boring, if he doesn’t already. If he’s included in sensible discussions about what various members of the family believe at home, as long as they’re appropriate for his age, and if he’s taught about various religions in school, it will become clear to him that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in religious teachings. He should also be encouraged to question his parents’ beliefs and values, without anyone getting upset. The most important thing for him to realise is that no questions are off limits, and that we can still love people in spite of our differences. His grandmother may give up her attempts to turn him into a good little Catholic when he bombards her with questions she can’t answer.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Comedy Christians and Pagan hedonists

There are Christians with a sense of humour (I've met some) but the plonkers who've been whingeing that the BBC gave more attention to a bunch of Druids than to them over last weekend clearly don't have one, or they'd realise just how silly they were. The Telegraph reported,
Mike Judge, spokesman for the Christian Institute, said: “I understand the BBC might choose to concentrate on something for one day, but I consider it to be symptomatic of a much bigger problem across the BBC ... They down-play Christianity and up-play paganism which is unreflective of British society. It does create an atmosphere where it’s OK to marginalise Christians.” 
Marginalise? If only!

Hallowe'en (October 31st) is All Souls Eve, the night before All Saints Day in the Christian calendar, when they're supposed to pray for "the departed faithful". The departed unfaithful can go to hell, presumably. What few people realise is that it's another example of the church claiming a much older festival, Samhain, when pagans have always celebrated the coming of winter. The old festivals celebrated around the Northern hemisphere make much more sense than Christian ones, even to those of us who aren't religious, because they mark solar and seasonal events, which had real significance for our forebears. When you were dependent on the sun's warmth and the weather for your survival, pre-modern conveniences, it was natural to mark the special days in the solar calendar with festivals.

The main solar festivals were the midsummer and midwinter solstices (the longest and the shortest days) and the spring and autumn equinoxes, when night and day are of equal length. The Christians, realising that they couldn't stamp out the old ways, simply made up stories to fit them. So the midwinter solstice, which is on 21st December, became Christmas. The early Christians didn't celebrate it at all for the first four centuries, and the Puritans under Cromwell banned it, but people would insist on enjoying themselves in midwinter anyway.

Then there's Easter. Some say that the name comes from a pagan goddess, Eostre or Ostara, but apparently she was invented by Grimm. The egg is a symbol of fertility, and people have been celebrating the arrival of Spring and new life, when crops started growing again and animals started breeding, since long before the Christians decided it was when Jesus was crucified. Christians and pagans each had their own myths and I really couldn't care less, but I'd rather celebrate the arrival of Spring than a death.

So far, the Christians haven't managed to spoil the midsummer solstice with their silliness, and they don't seem very interested in the autumn equinox, but give them time...

The midwinter solstice festival is much older than Christianity. It's been celebrated in the Northern hemisphere as the festival of the death and rebirth of the sun, when people drank and ate to excess, masters and servants swapped places, and so on - feasts and parties! I bet the BBC won't mention that though, for fear of upsetting those Christians who insist on carping on about "the real meaning of Christmas". Killjoys!

Photo (c) M Nelson - Midwinter sunset.

Postscript: This post was edited after I was criticised for a creative explanation of Easter. Regardless of my casual disregard for the history of the Easter goddess myth, my point was that the Christians have no exclusive claim to any of these festivals, which have been celebrated in different ways at different times. The 21st century versions seem to be more commercial than anything else, which is extremely irritating.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Suffolk County Council - save it or lose it

Wouldn't it be great if our politicians used the brains they were born with? How does this make sense to the numpties?

At its meeting on 23 September 2010, members of Suffolk County Council were asked:

  1. to agree the recommendation from Cabinet that the future role of the Council will be an enabling one (focussing on becoming a strategic body with much less service delivery), based on the Council’s New Strategic Direction of transforming public services through collaboration and strengthening communities while reducing costs by 30%.
  2. to approve the further development of a model to reshape the Council to ‘divest’ services; reduce its size, cost and bureaucracy and build community capacity to enable Suffolk citizens to take greater control of their lives.
The motion was passed with 52 members voting in favour and 11 voting against.

If you're in Suffolk, please sign my petition. Just click on the banner...


And if you're really keen, go to my Save Suffolk Services blog to download some petition forms and collect more.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The BBC and the Pope

I've complained to the BBC about its coverage of the Pope's visit -

'The BBC’s coverage of the Pope’s visit has been completely OTT. The tone adopted by most reporters and correspondents on BBC News verged on the obsequious. I agree with the British Humanist Association’s view of the news last Thursday, that there was “no analysis of the Holy See’s destructive policies and no guest talking about them, no balance – only Catholic attendees of the events were interviewed. Correspondents repeated the Pope's insulting views on secularism and non-religious morality with no critical analysis at all.” The Pope aligned atheism with Nazism, infuriating thousands of people like me, and spoke about “aggressive secularism” – there’s no such thing. I wonder how many of the BBC’s staff know what secularism means? There was no attempt to challenge this nonsense. Hitler and most Nazis weren’t atheists. It’s well known that many Catholic clergy were enthusiastically involved with Nazism, while most of Germany’s atheist and free-thought organisations were banned. Was this ever pointed out? No, Pope Benedict was allowed to make any preposterous statement he liked, without challenge.

'Things didn’t get any better over the weekend. I heard BBC reporters, on TV and radio, interviewing Catholic priests and laity about the Pope’s comments on faith without challenging claims that it’s being “marginalised”, which is totally untrue. Robert Piggot, the BBC’s Religious Affairs correspondent, was interviewed today (Sunday 19th September). He ended his contribution by saying that the Pope’s message was, “Do you really want to live without the moral underpinning of religion?” This was left without comment – no mention that a significant proportion of the UK’s population live good, decent lives without religion, and that Catholicism’s claim of “moral underpinning” is debateable.

'So, not only were we expected to watch and listen to an unbroken stream of Catholic PR, courtesy of an inexplicably biased BBC, the news schedules were completely dominated by it. Why was it considered necessary to have simultaneous Pope coverage on both BBC News 24 and BBC 2? And why was this uninterrupted by any other news for long periods, even when all that was going on was someone trying to find something interesting to say while we watched the Pope’s convoy speeding through the streets from a helicopter, or while the faithful congregated in various parks in anticipation of another open-air church service? I was enjoying coverage of the Great North Run, until that too was elbowed aside to make room for the Pope, while other channels covered the Battle of Britain service and the Liberal Democrats conference.

'I can’t help wondering if BBC producers hadn’t been instructed to adopt an uncritical approach to the Pope’s visit. Why else should it have been so nauseatingly deferential? The BBC News team has alienated many previously loyal viewers and listeners, including me. I think we’re owed an apology. I know we won’t get one from the Pope – he’s incapable of seeing his errors – but maybe the BBC might do something to restore its reputation?'

If you want to complain too, go to BBC Complaints.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I didn't fight cancer, I've survived it (so far)

I was disappointed to read today,
The British Humanist Association (BHA) has expressed its sorrow at the death of Lord (Andrew) McIntosh of Haringey, following a long fight with cancer.
I wasn't disappointed over Lord McIntosh's death - he seems a perfectly decent chap, but I had no idea who he was until I read he'd died - but I was disappointed that whoever wrote his obituary for the BHA resorted to that old cliché about a "fight" with cancer. People don't fight cancer, or do battle with it. Some (like me) survive it, and others don't. And if you don't, it's not because you lost a battle or didn't try hard enough.

You read the same clichés in the press almost every time someone of note dies, and it really pisses me off. Independent columnist Christina Patterson, also a cancer survivor, wrote about cancer metaphors,
It was Susan Sontag, writing 25 years before she herself died of cancer, who warned of the dangers of "illness as metaphor". "Theories that diseases are caused by mental states," she wrote, "and can be cured by willpower are always an index of how much is not understood about the physical terrain of a disease."
Lord McIntosh was ill for a long time, apparently, but if he had any sense he didn't waste any precious energy fighting or battling cancer, which would have been exhausting and utterly pointless. If he was as sensible as we're led to believe, he'll have taken care of himself, got plenty of rest, and made the most of the time he had, in case he didn't have much more of it.

Oh, and the BHA's report is headed, "BHA mourns the death of Andrew McIntosh..." I know I'm being picky, but the BHA is an organisation, not an individual. It can't "mourn" anyone. Only those who knew and cared about someone who's died can mourn him or her, as I'm sure Lord McIntosh's family and friends do.

PS: Was reminded by a Twitter friend that John Diamond said, "Cowards get cancer too."

PS, February 2016: Jon Land in The Independent - "The four phrases we need to stop using about cancer - and the one we should use more often."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

British education - what a mess!

Here's another reason why I didn't vote Labour over the last few years: specialist schools and academies. Whose barmy idea was it for schools to specialise in the arts, business, science or IT, among other things? Ed Balls was education minister, wasn't he? Well, I wouldn't have voted for him. Children need a broad general education. How can a child who starts to develop an aptitude for science be given the help he or she needs if he or she attends a school that specialises in the arts? Or a budding musician do well in a business school? Most children don't know what they want to be or do until they're past the basics, and what if they find they're in the wrong school then?

Of course, many schools apply for specialist status so they can gain the extra funding that goes with it. I've heard that a school might go for IT status, then when they've got all the PCs they need, switch to another specialisation so that they might get, oh, I don't know, sports equipment? As for academies run by religious organisations, they should never happen.

The result of all this specialisation is that kids may end up with the wrong exam results for the courses they'd really like to do, finding out when it's too late. I bet that happens often. The problem with some faith schools (particularly Muslim ones) is that some kids give more weight to religious teachings than to academic ones. An increasing number of science faculties are finding that some undergraduates reject the theory of evolution, yet expect to study biology or medicine. Crazy!

Watching Dateline London today, I was interested to hear Agnès Poirier talking about the French Baccalauréat. They were discussing the usual media reports about A level results, and whether they've got too easy, or whatever, and the competition for university places. Agnès said that French kids don't get to choose which subjects to take, as British students do. No opting for A levels in your strongest subjects. You do them all, including two foreign languages. They all study philosophy - if only they did that here! Because France is strongly secular country, there's no RE. Not surprising that a small number of British schools are teaching the International Baccalaureate, which the universities like.

Meanwhile, what's the Government doing? Leaving education policy in the hands of politicians with pet projects, such as "free" schools. It's much too important to leave it to them. Ed Balls or Michael Gove - they're as bad as each other. They're both failures.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reposts to follow

By request, I shall restore some of the stuff I deleted, but it'll take a while.

The wrong sort of people

There's a hoo-ha in New York over the objections to a "mosque" being built on "Ground Zero" - the site of the 9/11 disaster. The fact that it isn't a mosque, nor is it to be built on Ground Zero but several streets away, and that there were Muslim victims of 9/11, seems to have been overlooked by the grim-faced, placard-waving bigots who are making a fuss, claiming that the area is "hallowed ground". You'll find a gentlemen's club, burger joints, betting shops, and all the usual inner-city rubbish on this "hallowed ground", so why not a mosque?

After I'd posted several of these links on my Facebook page and Twitter, a friend sent me a link to this page: The 9/11 holocaust and the ground zero mosque.
If Americans were polled today and asked which city they associate with “ground zero,” would any answer “Hiroshima” or “Nagasaki”? Most likely, very few — even though the anniversary of the nuclear bombings has only just passed.
Paul Woodward makes a lot of sense. He doesn't mention the murderous regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia or the orgy of killing in Rwanda just a few years ago. There are many other examples. It's interesting how some episodes have been claimed by one political or religious group or another to further their agendas of vengeance, conveniently ignoring all the untidy evidence that might have clouded the picture of victimhood, such as America's support for Israel and its aggression in the Middle East, which has turned countless young Muslim men into potential martyrs for Islam. What all of it demonstrates is that humankind is the most dangerous species on the planet, not just because it's over-breeding and making the planet uninhabitable - some areas faster than others - but because it has always been willing to kill the wrong sort of people. As far as I'm concerned, the wrong sort of people are the stupid, prejudiced and ignorant ones, because they're dangerous, but I'm not about to kill anyone.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nothing to see here

Sorry if you were expecting to read some fascinating blog posts. There are none. There might be, soon, or there might be some boring ones.

I've decided to make a fresh start.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Images of torture banned in Italian schools

Catholicism stopped being the state religion in Italy in 1984, but the Catholics don't seem to have noticed. I was asked to write a report on a Humanist conference in Turin in 2007 (a conference I didn't actually attend), where delegates spoke about the Vatican’s interference in state affairs and its parasitic presence in all areas of public life. Among other things, the church interferes with education, enrolling thousands of religious teachers who're chosen by bishops and paid from state funds.

Now the Italian government is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn a ban on classroom crucifixes - the government, not the church, for crying out loud! The case against crucifixes was won by a woman who argued that her children were entitled to a secular education. The BBC report doesn't say whether anyone's pointed out that images of a tortured and bleeding man nailed to a cross aren't appropriate interior decoration in schools, especially primary schools. British Catholics presumably don't have a problem with it. No wonder they're all so f****d up. Say your prayers children, and don't have nightmares.

Update, 18 March 2011
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that crucifixes are acceptable in the continent's state school classrooms, describing them as an "essentially passive symbol" with no obvious religious influence. In its judgment, handed down in Strasbourg, the court found that while the crucifix was "above all a religious symbol" there was no evidence that its display on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils.
Atheist Ireland has an interesting reaction to this:
Today’s judgement lays down many important points of human rights law in favour of secularism, and it leaves open the possibility of further legal challenges about crucifixes in classrooms where the overall school environment is not secular.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

There'll never be enough jobs

Free market capitalism is not capable of creating enough employment for the population that exists now.
Michael Goldfarb, speaking on the BBC's Dateline London, 26th June 2010

There's been a lot of argy-bargy about the loss of jobs because of the coalition government's budget deficit cutbacks. I've stopped listening, mainly because most of the people who've been commenting about this are talking as though we're going to get back to some sort of "normality", but only of we do things their way. We're not going to move forward by trying to recreate the past, especially as what's happened in the past hasn't had a lot to do with planning. No, we've lurched along, behaving as though economic growth could continue forever, without considering the several elephants in the room.

As Goldfarb pointed out, the population has risen. It's still rising, and I don't mean from immigration. People in the developed world go on having babies because they like having babies and think they can afford them, and who'd be brave enough to tell them they shouldn't? A couple who were filmed for a BBC report about an area of high unemployment last week had several children, and so did all their neighbours. Though they were unemployed, they said they aimed to spend at least £2000 on their kids at Christmas. No money, and no sense. In the developing world, there are too many babies for different reasons.

No one has a right to a job. I've never believed that because it doesn't make sense. Any old job? Even producing toxic products or the tons of junk we cram into landfill? You hear it every time there's an industrial dispute; pickets saying they want their jobs back, whatever those jobs were, regardless of how unprofitable or unnecessary the business. No one has a right to a job that pays silly money. It's nonsense to claim that a six-figure salary is the "going rate". It's all artificial. Fifty years ago, even allowing for inflation, there wasn't such a huge differential between the highest and lowest paid. It snowballed, this culture of greed, and now it's melting.

We import too much food. During the war, we dug for victory. Before long, we'll have to do it again again. The British have got used to being able to buy cheap food. UK farmers are going out of business because of the derisory amount they're offered for products like milk, for example. We employ fewer people than ever on the land, due to automation. There are seasonal blips, when an army of foreign workers comes to pick our fruit and vegetables; British workers can't or won't work in the fields for a minimum wage. Now, with the financial crisis, consumers will expect their food to be even cheaper. It can't be. You can't have cheap food unless you're willing to grow it yourself, or someone's making a loss, or farmers overseas are growing cash crops that soak up all their precious water - and that's another developing crisis.

We waste resources producing stuff that no one really needs and that we can't afford, collectively, then we waste even more resources moving it about the country. Ever heard of peak oil? It's time for rationing, because it's running out. If we're sensible, and I'm afraid we're not, we'll stop wasting resources. That means that all those people involved with wasting them will be out of a job - HGV drivers, car manufacturers, oil central heating suppliers. And so on.

Currently, the jobs under threat are in public services. People want public services but don't like paying for them. If unemployment goes up (and it will) there won't be enough money to maintain public services as we've got used to them. Pared-down services, back to basics, like it or lump it...

And why is all this? Basically, too many people. You can't create jobs simply to keep people employed, so they'll have money to spend, ensure growth, and carry on regardless.

Stop whingeing. Get used to a simpler life style. Don't have more than two babies, preferably one or none. Be prepared to pay for food or grow your own, and do without luxuries, like foreign holidays.

What the politicians won't do, because some of them are as deluded as the majority and the rest are too chicken to spell things out, is take drastic action. You think what's happening now is drastic? Ha!

What can we do?
  • Work at population control.
  • Try a damn sight harder to reduce CO2 emissions.
  • Eat less meat.
  • Grow more food using traditional labour-intensive, crop-rotation methods.
  • Encourage the development of new energy-saving technology in any way possible.
  • Change planning laws to allow increased energy generation by natural means, ignoring nimby objections.
  • Teach children more practical skills in schools, so they can make and fix things themselves.
  • Penalise businesses that create waste and produce junk, and encourage socially useful businesses.
If this sounds like communism, it's not, but it does mean less personal freedom to behave like a selfish prat. So shut up and lump it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bring them sunshine

The French are currently debating whether or not to ban the burqa, while some in the UK would like to ban it here. So far, almost all the debate has been about religion and social cohesion. Last week, Jenni Murray (on Woman's Hour) interviewed UKIP's Nigel Farage and Salma Yaqoob from Respect, whose views are diametrically opposite. It was disappointing that the issue of women's health wasn't even mentioned. It seldom is.

Vitamin D is essential to good health and requires exposure to sunlight for its synthesis. It can be obtained as a dietary supplement but we get most vitamin D from sunlight on the skin.

Before the 1956 Clean Air Act, British skies were full of pollutants from domestic and industrial coal fires. Children were born with rickets, a condition that causes severe bone deformities, as a result of their mothers' vitamin D deficiency, or they developed it when very young. After the act, rickets was virtually eliminated in the UK. Now it's on the rise again, partly due to inactive, indoor lifestyles, and partly due to the burqa. Women who cover themselves from head to foot in dark garments, or who stay indoors in poorly lit homes, risk not only their own health but that of their children. Areas where there are large Muslim communities report the greatest increases in cases of rickets. There's also an increase in cases of osteoporosis and other conditions resulting from vitamin D deficiency.

While pro and anti-burqa arguments fly back and forth, with opinion divided about a ban, it seems to me that there's another way to deal with the problem.

Most people know that smoking and drinking too much alcohol are bad for you, and they're bad for the baby during pregnancy. Most people know that a healthy diet and exposure to sunlight is essential for good health. There are public health campaigns on smoking and alcohol, but efforts to educate people about vitamin D deficiency have been patchy and half-hearted. A full scale, in your face campaign to persuade Muslims to abandon the burqa is overdue. Unlike smoking and alcohol, which are addictive, burqa-wearing is due to religion, or a particularly backward type of religion that's all about sexual repression. Why should women and children suffer serious health problems because of these daft ideas, and why should the NHS have to deal with avoidable conditions as a result of them?

The link between wearing the burqa and conditions due to vitamin D deficiency have been well known for some time in Pakistan and in Middle Eastern countries. I can't help feeling that government inaction may be due to an unwillingness to cause "offence" to Muslims, the sort who are quick to take offence. Male Muslims take offence, while Muslim women, including those who adopt the burqa voluntarily, suffer the consequences.

Read more:

Bugger the Burkha; Lancashire Telegraph - 56 cases of rickets; The Food Standards Agency - Vitamin D; Vitamin D deficiency in UK Asian families; Prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency in South Asia; Wearing the burqa is neither Islamic nor socially acceptable - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Illustration (c) M Nelson 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What does "assisted suicide" or "mercy killing" mean, anyway?

Since the aquittal of Kay Gilderdale for the attempted murder of her daughter Lynn recently (see previous posts), other people have been confessing to killings, or failing to prevent people from committing suicide. One was Ray Gosling, a rather odd man who'd previously publicly aired his financial problems. He says he smothered a sort of friend who was dying from AIDS-related illnesses, though he was vague about the details. Another was Barrie Sheldon from Suffolk, who says he helped his wife, who had Huntingdon's Disease, to hoard prescribed drugs until she had a fatal dose, then went out while she took them. She didn't die then - it took another four days.

Now the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, has introduced some new guidelines on so-called "assisted suicides". According to the Guardian,
Starmer made it clear that relatives who actively help a terminally ill individual to die are not covered by the guidelines and individuals could be expected to be charged with murder or manslaughter.
Kay Gilderdale could still face criminal charges.

The BHA has contributed to the debate. Andrew Copson is quoted as saying,
Terminally ill or incurably suffering people do not have full autonomy and choice at end of life, and those that are vulnerable are still at risk because legal safeguards, which would accompany the legalisation of assisted dying, are not in place to protect them from coercion or other malice.
It's still a muddle. No one who pleads that he or she killed someone to be "merciful" should automatically be believed and treated sympathetically, however much the victim appeared to be suffering, without a full criminal investigation. That would give the pro-life lobby a huge advantage and set back the cause of legal euthanasia by decades.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dr Crippen and the "militants"

Yes, I know I wasn't going to write any more about this, but...

I came across a Facebook page, FMS/CFS/ME Information. Not sure I want to be a "fan". There seems to be some sort of a letter-writing thing going on, about Dr Crippen and The Guardian, not sure why, but it could have something to do with an article called "the ME debate", which I tend to agree with.
ME is surrounded by a sad potpourri of cod-science, misunderstanding, prejudice, anger, denial and indifference. Both doctors and patients are to blame. Doctors are victims of their rigid training. If the history, examination and tests do not produce a diagnosis, the doctor's wiring starts to overheat and there can be only one conclusion. The patient must be mad. "Mad" is a diagnosis. The doctor sighs with relief. The patient cannot win.

Some people with ME are even more blinkered than the medical professionals. Patients with chronic illnesses such as cancer or heart disease sometimes get depressed and are helped by psychiatric treatment. You cannot suggest this to a militant ME sufferer.
One of the few treatments offered to ME patients is access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT. Oh dear! The "militant" sufferers that Dr Crippen refers to don't like this at all. They think it means they're being dismissed as loonies. Maybe some of them are, especially the very screechy ones. However, the idea behind CBT is to encourage people suffering from a variety of problems to rethink their attitude towards those problems, and adopt a more realistic one. What's wrong with that? However, maybe a cheaper alternative might be to offer assertiveness training on how to state your case effectively, without appearing to be a loony. That'd help. "Brain fog", a common effect of TBI (this bloody illness), isn't an excuse for not thinking.

I've noticed that whenever I've attracted lots of negative feedback on this blog (the last time was when I blogged about men who use prostitutes), there's not much in the way of rational argument on offer, which is why I don't approve many comments. When someone doesn't have a reasoned argument to offer, he or she will often resort to sneering, or name-calling. My mum used to tell me, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." Maybe not, but they annoy me. When I was about eight, I'd get into trouble to for thumping idiots. Nowadays, I'd rather ignore them.

Dr Crippen wrote about "the many who march under the ME banner but who have nothing wrong with them other than an inability to cope with life." He's right. I've met them. No wonder it's so hard to get some doctors to take ME seriously. How can you take someone seriously who wears a little plastic box on her belt that (she says) focuses "healing rays" on her body? Or someone who swears that she's really, really ill with ME, but arrives at a support group meeting out of breath after a session at the gym? Or people who say, "ME? Yes, that's what's wrong with me. I get awfully tired..." before going on to describe a typically hectic lifestyle, with copious amounts of alcohol thrown in.

The sooner they work out what this bloody illness is, and offer a foolproof test, the sooner we can disassociate ourselves from the inadequates. Oh, and before anyone takes that personally - if the cap fits, wear it, otherwise don't be so bloody silly.

Note: This post has been reinstated after it was deleted, with all my other posts, some time ago. Consequently, all the comments were deleted too. As I anticipated, there were some that were strongly critical, but that's not why I deleted them.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

More on managing ME, and Dr Ben Goldacre on systematic reviews

I knew that my previous blog post would upset people. After years of trying to convince doctors, the Benefits Agency, the Daily Mail, Uncle Tom Cobley and All, that ME (or whatever you want to call it) is a real physical illness and not a form of hypochondria, it's understandable that some ME patients should be a bit touchy about the subject. So, just in case you didn't get it last time, I didn't say that ME isn't real, or that severe sufferers are all malingerers. According to Dr Charles Shepherd's definitions, I fall into the "severe" category, but since definitions of ME are so muddled and confusing, I'm beginning to wonder if there is such a thing; practically everyone I know who's been told that they have it, or thinks that they have, has a different set of symptoms. It seems to have become a convenient way to define a whole bunch of illnesses we know very little about. Take myalgia (the M part of ME) for example; myalgia means pain in a muscle or group of muscles. Some people with "ME" have myalgia, some don't. I have aches and pains from time to time, apart from the pain of arthritis, but I couldn't say they had anything to do with ME; it's about 22 years since I was diagnosed, so I don't remember whether they decided that there's anything wrong with my muscles, apart from flabbiness.

Those who do have a lot of pain shouldn't rely on morphine long-term, as Lynn Gilderdale seems to have done. It's an opiate, it's addictive, and is soon tolerated so that it becomes less effective and the dose has to be increased. It also causes constipation, which is likely to be a problem if you're not moving much anyway. Codeine, which can be used in combination with paracetamol, is also an opiate, and can also cause constipation. Paracetamol can cause liver damage in heavy doses - I've conducted a funeral for a young woman who took an overdose and didn't tell anyone for two days, by which time the damage was irreversible; she died two weeks later. I've used codeine and still do, from time to time, but I'm very wary about using it a lot, since it's addictive. I have pain from the arthritis in my spine but have hardly needed to use chemical pain-relief since I've learned pain-management techniques, partly from my physiotherapist and partly from a pain management course. Knowing what tends to exacerbate the pain is helpful. The other important things are movement (to avoid stiffness and spasm), distraction techniques (learning to take your mind off the pain, in similar ways to the de-sensitising to sound I mentioned earlier), and various therapies, such as applying heat. I'm still in pain - always will be - but I can live with it.

One of the causes of weakness in ME appears to be mitochondrial damage, which inhibits the body's ability to convert energy. This explains the delay in reaction to exercise; on a good day, you might feel well enough to go shopping or carry on gardening for longer than you know is good for you, only to find that you slump into achey exhaustion a day or two later, for days at a time. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. The answer isn't to avoid any exercise, but to know your limits.

In my last post I suggested that something might have gone wrong with the way that Lynn Gilderdale's condition was managed, so that she deteriorated into a brittle-boned, physically spent young women with a very old body, and then persuaded her attentive, caring mother Kay that she should help her to commit suicide. This drew indignant comments from a couple of people who took the suggestion personally, as they clearly identified with Lynn Gilderdale. That's the trouble with trying to talk objectively about ME and its consequences. There are two extremes; on one side, those who deny that there's any such thing (it's psychosomatic/depression/hysteria); on the other side, those who get very upset at the merest suggestion that we might question the science, the management methods, or whatever, because they imagine you're questioning their experience. Well, I suppose they'd be right. I am questioning the experience of some people with ME, specifically people like Lynn Gilderdale, and I am questioning the ways that some people manage their ME, because I think they might make things worse for themselves.

One of the things that I find depressing about ME is the victim mentality of so many of those affected by it. Some teenage girls in the developed world (those in developing countries have other things to worry about) do seem to exploit problems, like eating disorders, to attract a lot of attention to themselves. If they also have a physical illness, do they get perverse satisfaction from this, by using it to justify their attention-seeking? The statistics show a gender inbalance. Boys' problems are more likely to manifest themselves in violence, often towards themselves.

So, before the touchy squad start shouting abuse at me again, I'm saying that having a teenage psychological disorder about something like body image, diet, self-obsession of various sorts, plus an illness that physically restricts normal behaviour, is a recipe for trouble. Just as a teenager with anorexia can be amazingly resistant to any efforts to change her behaviour and eat sensibly, so might a teenager with ME resist any attempts to change the management of her condition, by exploiting her parents' concern and sympathy.

After I wrote the last post, I read an article in the Guardian by Emily Levick, who corresponded with Lynn Gilderdale online. Several things struck me about her account of her illness:
"I slept well into the afternoon and was wide awake all night."
Yes, I know a bit about that. I've stayed awake late at night, and then slept very late next day. We do need more sleep than most people, but we need to sleep at night, when the body tells us that we should be asleep. Re-educating the body involves waking up at a reasonable time, using an alarm clock if necessary, and staying awake. An afternoon nap is fine, but not so long that you can't get to sleep at bedtime. It's all about adjusting your internal clock. It's more difficult to maintain a normal sleep pattern when you can't exercise, because exercise naturally makes you physically tired. When you feel tired all the time, night will blur into day. Disturbed sleeping patterns are also common with depression - depressed people sleep longer. It's natural to feel depressed about being ill, but it can become a vicious circle.
"All day, every day, I lay in bed..."
Why? The more you lie in bed, the weaker you'll get. Moving around, even a little, helps to prevent the serious problems that result from inactivity. Anonymous, who commented on my last post, said that exercise makes ME worse. Not true. A total avoidance of any movement (which counts as exercise) makes ME worse. Use a wheelchair, lie on the sofa, practice some stretching exercises, but don't stay in bed for long periods. Eventually, you won't be able to get up, not because of the ME, but because your muscles have atrophied through lack of use.
"I could not cope with visitors, even if I didn't see them - just the knowledge that there was someone in the house (other than my parents) was too exhausting to contemplate."
The knowledge that there was someone in the house? You're telling me that that was due to the ME? Please!
"My curtains remained closed all day to keep out the daylight..."
Sensitivity to light can be be a problem with many conditions, including migraine, but persistently avoiding daylight can lead to serious physical problems because the body needs it to be able to absorb vitamin D. Without it, you lose bone density (one of Lynn Gilderdale's problems) and develop a variety of other problems. Women who wear the burka develop serious health problems because of vitamin D deficiency and their children may have rickets, a completely avoidable condition.

Instead of staying in a darkened room, it's better to wear sunglasses or filters over normal spectacles. The wrap-around kind, favoured by Bono, way make you look like a dork, but they keep out light from the sides as well as the front. I wear them when I need to because I have macular degeneration, an eye condition that causes sensitivity to light.

Anyone who's too ill to go outside without help might be carried or pushed outside on fine days.
"... any sound had to be quiet, and any activity (such as my mum reading a page or two of a book to me) could last no more than a few minutes..."
Sensory sensitivity can become exaggerated for psychological reasons. Anyone who's conscious of an annoying noise, for example, may become so fixated on it that they notice it when hardly anyone else does. Two examples...

I live within a couple of miles of an air base; so does my friend Ron (he's actually further away than me). The air-sea rescue helicopters are based there, and they often fly overhead. Ron hears them several minutes before his wife does, or anyone else, for that matter, and has been writing letters of complaint about them to the base because he says they ruin his enjoyment of his garden. He's tuned in to the sound they make, so that he anticipates it even before it gets close enough to bother most people.

A friend who works for a local authority recalls receiving frequent letters and phone calls from a tenant who complained about a noise nuisance in his block of flats. He took special equipment out to the flats, several times, and couldn't detect anything. It turned out that what the tenant heard, and was highly tuned into, was slight hisses and clunks in the pipework that fed the central heating system from the communal boiler. No one else noticed it, and no one complained, but because the tenant had become obsessed by it, he did.

It is possible to treat extreme sensitivity like this psychologically, such as by hypnosis. When dogs become hyper-sensitive to sounds, like any sort of bangs, after being frightened by fireworks, they're treated by gradually getting them used to sudden noises in stages, from quiet to noisy, until they build up a tolerance.

With all these sort of things, the answer needn't be avoidance, but adjustment.
... the amount of food I could eat in one go could fit easily into an egg cup...
The stomach shrinks if you don't eat much. The answer is to eat small amounts of nutritious food more frequently and gradually increase the amount. The gag reflex, common in anorexia patients, is self-induced in anticipation of doing something you don't want to do. You can observe the same thing in very young children who are allowed to develop food fads. If strong flavours or smells are off-putting, start with bland food and drink and gradually introduce more flavour. Again, small children raised on bland diets tend to develop very conservative tastes. Their palates haven't been educated.

I doubt that I'll be writing any more about this for now. I'd rather use my limited energy resources on other things, unrelated to illness. I hope we won't hear any more sad stories like Lynn Gilderdale's. We might not, if more people with ME and their carers were taught coping strategies that avoid making a bad situation worse.

Oh, as for the fuss about the XMRV research (mentioned in the comments on my last post) - maybe caution is called for. Dr Ben Goldacre (who's questioned the "alternative therapies" offered at the private Breakspear Hospital in Hemel Hempstead, where they "treat" ME) has spoken about "the startlingly new idea of systematic reviews" on BBC radio. We could do with a few of these before ME patients get excited about the next "cure" announcement.

I'm going for a lie down. If you see any spelling or other errors here, let me know and I'll sort them out later.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

More questions than answers

The case of Lynn Gilderdale, the bedbound ME patient whose mother was persuaded to inject her with morphine and air - so-called "assisted suicide" - has got me wondering.

Among other things, Lynn was described as being in "constant pain". Was she seen by a chronic pain specialist? If not, why not?

She had osteoporosis, apparently, so that her bones were very fragile and she'd had fractures from just being moved in her bed. How had she been allowed to get into that condition? Lack of any exercise and sunlight would have caused it, not the ME.

She was too weak to move or even speak. Muscles atrophy through lack of use; years in bed will do that.

When did it all start?

The Guardian reported that Lynn shared her thoughts through Live Journal with online friends,
Many of them were girls and young women who suffered the same illness; some, such as Lynn, had been confined to their beds and housebound for years as a result of ME.
Why do we hear so much about girls with ME, and hardly anything about boys? Is there a tendency for teenage girls to exploit other people's sympathy when they develop problems, such as eating disorders, so that being ill becomes a form of escape?

Why do we hear about these young women's reliance on their carers, usually parents or spouses? What about those who don't have anyone to care for them? Do they quietly waste away in hospitals or care homes? If so, I've never heard about them.

I've been ill for 23 years but I don't have anyone to look after me. If I've had a setback, it's taken a few weeks to regain some of the physical strength I've lost due to inactivity - I'm currently taking short walks most days, after doing very little while recovering from an infection. If I didn't make an effort, I'd inevitably become weaker. Do the carers for these young women do too much for them? Do the young women resign themselves to victimhood?

I watched the Richard Dimbleby Lecture by Terry Pratchett the other day, and I agree with him that, in certain circumstances, we should have the right to die. However, I suspect that Mrs Gilderdale was manipulated into killing her daughter, that the process started a long time ago, and that it need not have happened.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Women and religion

In the New York Times, Nicholas D Kristof asks,
Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer. So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women?
Mr Kristof's question betrays a commonly held naive point of view and an ignorance of history.

Anyone who's taken more than a passing interest in the development of religion, particularly monotheistic religion, will have observed that most of it is a form of organised misogyny and a convenient way to legitimise the theft and control of women's bodies and property. I first took an interest in the feminine in mythology as an art student in the '60s, when I made goddess figures in two and three dimensions and read about them in art history.

"Faith" is part of a con. It usually requires the faithful to submit to a higher male authority, which is effectively the manifestation of a collective wish for power. Hence the monotheists' obsession with sex; it's only by enforcing control over procreation that one can be reasonably sure that your progeny really are yours, and that your goods and chattels will be inherited by the right male heirs. Throughout most of the history of Christianity, society has been ruled by ecclesiastical law that determined what women could or couldn't do. Women were (and still are) regarded as second or even third class citizens, forced into marriage by their male relatives, unable to inherit, always the guilty party in cases of sexual indiscretion. This is still true in Islamist states, while British law regarding women's rights has only been changed in our favour relatively recently.

In the pre-Judeo-Christian era, religion in and around the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was matriarchal. Women were equal or even dominant. The paternity of children wasn't considered important or even recognised, as the whole community cared for them. Modern Pagans still value the feminine and treat women with respect, unlike adherents of the newer religions who portray Paganism as uncivilised. It's interesting how, as Merlin Stone pointed out, the history of matriarchal religions has mainly been written by male historians, whose interpretations of the sources were heavily biased.
Every religion oppresses women. I talk about the Koran because I know this book best. It allows for torture and other mistreatment, especially for women. And I despise the Sharia laws [the code of law based on the Koran]. They cannot be changed. They must be thrown out, abolished.

Taslima Nasrin (1962- ), Bangladeshi physician, poet, feminist and novelist.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

ME and me, and the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail upsets people. A lot of people. It's a rubbish newspaper, so I never read it. However, last week it upset people with ME because of its online poll, asking, "Do you think ME is a genuine illness?" So far, most people have voted yes. This was after they published a report headed, "British experts say ME virus is a myth," which was widely interpreted as suggesting that ME is a myth. ME/CFS sufferers got very indignant.

The basis of the Mail's story was the news that British researchers had failed to replicate the results of some hastily published research in the US that appeared to link ME with a retrovirus called XMRV. There were some premature claims that this might mean a "cure" was possible, and some ME patients started pestering their doctors for antiviral drugs, in the expectation that they'd get better.

Trouble is, few people understand ME, let along the science being reported in sensational terms in the newspapers. There are a number of conditions that are poorly understood, including Multiple Sclerosis and other diseases of the central nervous system. Although the World Health Organisation has classified ME as a neurological condition, a British committee at NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) haven't agreed to accept this, as some of them say that there isn't sufficient evidence for the cause of ME to say that this is true. The campaigning organisations for ME patients have been cross about this, especially as there's a body of opinion that ME is psychosomatic. I don't believe that's NICE's position and suspect that their caution is justified. It's likely that ME is neurological but, so far, it's been hard to prove. There's certainly no agreement that it's caused by a virus though, again, this is likely.

So, on the one hand you have ignoramuses like the Daily Mail journalists (I use the term loosely), and on the other hand you have thousands of ME patients who are desperate for something, anything, to offer them hope that they can get well. Some do get well, or much better than they were, without any special treatment, just a sensible health management system, like my friend's daughter. She was ill at school, took things easy through her A levels, graduated from university despite catching meningitis, and is now happily married and working full-time. She has to eat sensibly and get enough rest, but she's much better than she was. I, on the other hand, have got steadily worse, but our circumstances (and ages) have been very different.

It saddens me that so many ME patients waste an awful lot of money and energy searching for effective treatment. One of the problems with a poorly understood condition is that there are always quacks, some very impressive ones, offering hope. I've heard of people spending tens of £thousands, making themselves more ill in the process. The only thing that gets better is the quack's bank balance. One was overheard laughing about his gullible ME "clients", saying it was easy money. He probably read the Daily Mail.

One of my online friends with ME/CFS has blogged about the Daily Mail and the suggestion that the illness isn't real, and I've commented on her blog. My apologies to those of you who've read my previous post about it, but here's what I wrote:

Everyone with ME/CFS seems to suffer a different set of symptoms, or some different ones. I know a lot complain of pain, but that's not one of my problems, fortunately, as I have enough pain from arthritis in my spine.
Most of the time I try to ignore my ME. Of course I'm conscious of my limitations, but I don't actually spend much time thinking about it or worrying about it. I don't spend any time at all looking for a cure or treatment, as I'm pretty sure that's a waste of time. It's easier (for me) to just take each day as it comes and avoid situations that I know will exacerbate my problems. There are, of course, occasions when you know that doing something will inevitably make you feel like shit for days afterwards, but if they're worth doing, I'll still do them.

I don't much care whether other people think that ME isn't real either. The people who really know me, the ones who love me, they know what's real. I've refused well-meant offers of "help", such as suggestions about various forms of quack therapy, and been accused of not wanting to get well. I really can't be bothered explaining myself in those situations.

My history (the potted version) started 23½ years ago, at about the same time that I had bleeding from a nipple. 2½ years later, I was diagnosed with ME and breast cancer, after several hospital consultations. A young hospital doctor asked me if I thought there was any connection. I said I thought that the only one was likely to be that my immune system had a lot to cope with. If the cancer hadn't been slow-growing, I'd have been dead before they got around to working out what was wrong. It showed up on a mammogram ordered by a consultant who probably thought it would shut me up to find there was nothing there.

I was working as a supply teacher when I became ill. Ironically, I often covered for a teacher who was frequently absent with ME. It's been prevalent in schools, among staff and students. After a few months, I found that I couldn't walk the length of a school corridor without clutching at something for support. I was so unsteady on my feet that I wouldn't have blamed some kids for thinking I was drunk. Then there were mornings when I started to drive to a school, only to have to turn around and come home, I felt so ill. The jelly legs have continued to this day.

I had to give up teaching, since my health was so unreliable. Because I was a supply teacher, I didn't get any sick pay or a pension, so it was difficult, especially as I was a single mother. Eventually, with my GP's permission (he said he thought a limited amount of work would be good for me or I'd get bored, then depressed), I started doing some freelance work from home. I started doing funerals too. At one stage, they became so popular that the workload was making me more ill, but I trained more people and handed over the work to them.

I've had to have surgery several times over the last 23½ years; two operations for the cancer, one major operation for a prolapse, and another to pin a broken ankle (I fainted after a few days with a stomach bug and woke up under the kitchen table). They tried to do two of them using regional anaesthetics, because of my ME and heart problems, but they didn't work, so I've had four general anaesthetics and each one has set me back considerably. After the last one, the physiotherapists at the hospital didn't understand why I couldn't stand, let alone walk, while I was recovering. They expected me to use crutches. I couldn't.

I do use a whole battery of aids though - a Motability car (used less frequently these days), a mobility scooter, a wheelchair (when there's someone to push it), a stairlift, an electric bed, a board over the bath so I can shower (I can't get in or out of the bath), a walker I use around the garden, walking sticks (different colours for different occasions), and various other small tools. Now that I'm not working much, I have more energy to cook, instead of relying on deliveries of ready meals. That helps now that I'm aiming to lose 4 stone, so my poor tired body has less weight to carry.

On bad days, I sometimes cry from frustration. I swear a lot. But most of all, I'm glad to still be here, and I'm trying to do more reading and painting while I can, because I'm losing my sight with macular degeneration. Within the next few years, I'll have to give up the car. Living in the country, that won't be easy. Ho hum. Shit happens.

The Daily Mail prints such a lot of rot, why should we be surprised that it suggests we're imagining all this? Sod them.