CategoriesLegalHealthQuakerismBusiness

Leaving my own law firm after a decade

(Due to poor health, three of my colleagues at Truth Legal are buying my shares in a Management Buy-Out. A few days ago, I gave a speech at our 10th birthday party in Hotel Du Vin, Harrogate. Below, is my speech, though, I have omitted all the personal comments that I made about my wonderful team, as well as removing the never-ending list of “thank-yous”. For posterity, I record here what I said that night. As with other speeches, I write down what I will say, just in case I get lost. Another time, when I have processed it, I will write more about this monumental decision.)

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10th party truth legal

Welcome, everybody, welcome to the Truth Legal 10th birthday celebration!

 

Somehow, we made it!

 

Wow, I’m honored that you all came here today to celebrate with us. Thank you.

 

I hope that you all have an excellent and useful evening, and that you drink the bar dry.

 

For those who don’t know me, I’m Andrew Gray. I’m the founder of TL and its my job this evening to explain how we got here and to say a gazillion heartfelt thank yous.

 

How did we get here?

I’m going to explain how we did it, and I’m going to introduce you all to our team, most of whom are here today. After all, a law firm is really just a collection of people.

 

When I left my last law firm, Thompsons, where I used to work with Navya, Sarah, Catherine, David and Julie, Hardev, Shabana, Joel and Sarah, I was either going to be at stay at home dad, or was going to set up a law firm.

 

Crazily, I was only four years qualified and my wife and I had two kids under 2, the youngest of whom just didn’t sleep. And still doesn’t sleep. It must have been the option to sleep in an office which made me set up.

 

I shall let you into a secret: as you would imagine, I calculated the costs of setting up a law firm and working out how far we could last on our meagre saving and on Julia’s maternity pay. I then added up all family outgoings. Although it would be a scrape, as Personal Injury law firms aren’t paid for a few years, I thought we’d get by. So, I handed in my notice.

 

A few weeks later, I realized that I had forgotten to take into account our mortgage payments.

 

So, TL only came into being because I can’t budget or count.

 

Why Truth Legal?

 

Because I am a Quaker. If you don’t know Quakers, think of Rowntree, Llloyds, Barclays, Cadburys and Waterhouse, Judi Dench. Essentially, we believe in equality, sustainability, peace, simplicity and Truth – hence Truth Legal.

 

For me, a law firm had to be about something more than just making money. I wanted a law firm that would take a stand. Be unpopular, if needed. Do the right thing.

 

And I believed it then and still today, that there’s no point in living in a democracy if you can’t use the laws enacted by our representatives, because you can’t afford a lawyer.  Access to law should be akin to access to the NHS.

 

(Here came lengthy thank yous to all the staff individually and to our friends, clients and suppliers)

 

Finally, before we talk about what happens next, let me tell you about our MD, Georgina Parkin. When she was a trainee solicitor, she took a new phone enquiry. She said that the caller was a “Secretary” and that the secretary was making the call with “a member”. When I pushed her, she said that the Secretary was a typist who does a variety of rolls in an office. The caller was a “General Secretary” of a Trade Union!!

 

Despite that blip, Georgina has been the safest pair of hands. She qualified quickly; became a director; then perhaps the youngest Law Society President; became our MD; became a mum; and then an equity partner. That’s a meteoric rise and we wouldn’t be where we are today without Georgina.

 

The Future

Initiated by me, because I am not able to work as I once did and I don’t want people generating profit for me, I am pleased to tell you all that we have agreed a Management Buy Out. Georgina, Louis and Navya will be buying my shares and I will become a consultant of the firm.

 

My wife asked me to not to quote Boris Johnson who finished with “Hasta La Vista Baby”.

 

So, I’ll finish with:

 

“In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here”

 

CategoriesHealth

Good Pills, Bad Pills

(Warning: another boring health post, recorded here in the hope that it might be of use to others)

 

Of all the numerous and weird symptoms that I have endured these last few years, none has had a greater impact on my quality of life than the chronic fatigue. When doctors ask me which one symptom that I would prioritise them curing, then fatigue would be it.

 

The neurologist who diagnosed my poisoning by strong antibiotics – the fluoroquinolone antibiotics – explained to me that the fluoroquinolones permanently damaged the mitochondria in each cell.

 

Simply put, the mitochondria is the “powerhouse of each cell” in the body. You certainly don’t want that damaging. What befuddles me is that there seems to be very little research on the mitochondria despite its central role throughout the body. Why is this? So much remains unknown about the body. My guess is that over the next decade the mitochondria will become follow the gut as the area of medicine that the everyday person will become far more aware of. I may stand to benefit from this likely zeitgesit.

 

Fortunately for me, I have been working with an excellent nutritional therapist, Jessica Barfield of Enjoy Nutrition. After extensive research, Jessica recommended that I try some new (and very expensive) supplements aimed at enhancing the damaged element of the mitochondria. The pills are https://www.researchednutritionals.com/product/atp-fuel-optimized-energy-for-serious-mitochondrial-needs-gmo-free/.

 

Frankly, as with all other supplements I have taken – and there’s been dozens – I didn’t expect any improvement. However, within a week the fatigue was reduced by 80%. Of course, I wonder if this is simply the placebo effect in operation, or perhaps just coincidence. I’ll never know, but I will keep taking them. Good pills!

 

And as is all too common to chronic illness sufferers, the ups are usually followed by a down. And so it was for me again.

 

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Recently, with another delightful but low-level infection rumbling away, on advice from the consultant, the GP prescribed me with light-touch antibiotics for 6 weeks – trimethoprim. I’ve had lots of this antibiotic before without any dramas.

 

With no expectation of side-effects, I commenced the course. Within one day – so after only two tablets – my family noticed that I developed three round, red blotches on my face. Immediately, I stopped taking them, and reported the impact to the GP. I then filed a Yellow Card – which is a report about the side effects of a given medication. Another set of bad pills?

 

(Incidentally, the nobody-can-believe-she-made-the-Cabinet, Nadine-Dorries, answered a question about Yellow Card reports in relation to fluoroquinolone antibiotics here.)

 

What this means is that there’s even fewer antibiotics I can turn to when – as will inevitably happen – another infection strikes. And with so few antibiotics to turn to, there must be the risk that I develop resistance to these. Such is life.

 

CategoriesHealthPoliticsHarrogateThought of The Day

UFOs, Covid deaths and Poverty

Partygate, the despot-like re-writing of the Ministerial Code, Russian aggression and energy price hikes, all dominate the British news. Remember Covid? Well, Covid news has been – thankfully – consigned to the dustbin of history. But what ought to be on everyone’s lips is the US Congressional Hearing into UFOs.

Only 90 minutes of the hearing was held in public, but during this time, those of us who bothered to engage with it learned that, in simple terms, the US Government believes that UFOs are real. Sure, the Pentagon officials under questioning did not categorically say “UFOs exist”, however, they could not say what else the numerous UFO sightings could be. These officials stated that US pilots have been reluctant to make reports of UFOs for fear of looking foolish. Just imagine if all pilots, not just in the US military, felt able to make such reports – then how many incidents would need investigation.

In a rational world, the confirmation of UFOs ought to be a cause for great intellectual debate, but it isn’t. Social media, coffee shops, workplaces and anywhere else where conversation takes place, would, in a world populated by rational humans, be awash with talk about UFOs. For a start, all religious belief and history would be in need of reappraisal.

It seems to me that, we, as a species, cannot countenance the admission of something which, in its acceptance, would mean that we have to reconfigure of all our hitherto-held views. We are unable to process this information. So, we shut our minds to the facts. Ignorance is bliss. Let’s hope that aliens do not share the human desire to colonise others.

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But, what do UFOs have to do with Covid? Let me explain.

Only political nerds like me follow Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Several months ago, one such request – not made by me, I should add – piqued my interest. A wily individual asked Harrogate Borough Council to set out the number of deaths, each year, from 2015 to 2021, split between cremations and burials.

Now before you scroll down, I challenge you to affix, in your head, answers to the following questions. I have asked the below questions to a number of intelligent people, none of whom came even remotely close to accurately guessing the answer to question 3.

  1. In Harrogate, do you think that deaths are broadly even for the years before Covid – 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019?
  2. What, if any, impact did Covid have to deaths in 2020? Up or down, and by what percentage?
  3. Then, with those guesses fixed, ask yourself: what happened to deaths in Harrogate in 2021?

The following is the data provided by Harrogate Borough Council.

Year               Cremation                                 Burial

2015 1580 171
2016 1581 137
2017 1609 184
2018 1640 145
2019 1543 175
2020 1890 155
2021 512 47

 

Is that what you expected, particularly for 2021? I very much doubt it.

If, like me, and like everyone I have previously asked this question to, you didn’t foresee that the average deaths fell in 2021 by 68% from pre-Covid levels of an average of 1,753 people per year to just 559, then why were we all so wrong? At the time of writing, circa 75% of the population have had Covid. If Covid was so potent (which it was in 2020), why are more people alive today in Harrogate than there ought to be, given the number of people who have had it? Covid is still here: a number of my colleagues have recently had it and it was nasty and long-lasting.

Evidently, Covid was a massive threat in 2020, increasing the number of deaths in Harrogate by 14% (an extra 300 deaths). But, astonishingly, deaths then fell by 1,194 in 2021, which means – bizarrely – that Covid has saved lives in Harrogate. I struggled to write the previous sentence, but I must be led by the evidence.

The reasons behind these surprising stats must be multifactorial and should be forensically interrogated. What did Harrogate do right? Or was this just a case of wealthier, greener areas faring better than other places?

Most people confronted with this evidence usually retort, with: “The reduction in deaths must be down to the reduction in road traffic accidents.” Not an unreasonable suggestion, but an inaccurate assertion predicated on a miscalculation of the number of road traffic deaths per year. Pre-covid, circa 1800 people were killed on the roads in the UK, each year. Covid reduced these deaths by around 11%. By my estimations, Covid might have saved the lives of circa 6 people in the Harrogate area who, in normal times, would have died on the roads. This does not explain why more people are alive in Harrogate thanks to Covid.

Frequent readers of my blog will know that I was and remain fiercely critical of the Government for its slow response to the pandemic. As Dominic Cummings has stated, our Government’s clear and obvious early errors killed thousands of people. But deaths from Covid, based on Harrogate data, appears to have petered out much before vaccines were rolled out. Certainly, Covid is frequently a very unpleasant illness, with Long Covid having many similarities with my maladies. However, unless you broadly guessed the death figures for 2021, you must admit that you have been hoodwinked, when considering the Harrogate case.

Given that nobody I had spoken to was aware of these facts, I sent the story to two local news outlets. One editor published the story and the second did not. The second editor thought that this data – and its concomitant questions it raises – wasn’t newsworthy, much to my disbelief. The first editor, who ran the story, subsequently told me that this was one of the least read stories that the publication had had!

Like with UFOs, perhaps people don’t want to face facts. We simply cannot countenance re-evaluating everything that we thought we were sure of. But as Karl Marx once replied, when asked what his favourite maxim was, he said, “Question everything”.

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So shocked I was by Harrogate’s figures that I decided to FOI Blackburn and Salford councils, given my connection to the areas and given that their populations significantly differ from Harrogate – ethnically, socially and economically. Here are their figures:

Blackburn

 

Year 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Cremations 1217 1250 1238 1298 1,260
Burials 382 387 396 536 511

 

Pre-Covid, Blackburn saw an average of 1,623 deaths per year. The first year of Covid saw – similar to Harrogate – an increase of deaths by 13% (Harrogate was at 14%). However, unlike in Harrogate, deaths in 2021 were 9% above pre-Covid levels: a significantly different direction of travel to that of Harrogate. Covid has been lethal in Blackburn.

 

Salford

 

Cremations

Number

2017 1824
2018 1746
2019 1742
2020 2183
2021 1800

 

Full Burials
2017 276
2018 285
2019 261
2020 325
2021 278

 

Pre-Covid, Salford saw an average of 2,045 deaths per year. In 2020, deaths increased by a whopping 22.7%, with an additional 463 deaths. Undeniably, Covid was very dangerous to the population of Salford in 2020.

In 2021, there was an increase in deaths on pre-Covid levels of 22 poor souls, up 1.6% on pre-Covid levels. As with Salford, the pattern in Blackburn was markedly different from the Harrogate experience.

My thesis is that these figures speak to the general lower life expectancies in poorer areas. Nothing new in that analysis, of course. Assuming that we as a country find these stark differences unacceptable, surely to even-up life expectancies (including between men and women, with women living on average 4 years more) ought to be central to our national conversation, but it isn’t. Rational aliens have nothing to fear from us.

 

CategoriesLegalHealthThought of The Day

The “D” Word

This April Fool’s Day it is fitting to write that I have become….. disabled. There, I have written it.

But I cannot easily say this out loud.

How can I – Andrew Gray – have become disabled? I’ve run two marathons; completed the national Three Peak Challenge; and played competitive football until this time last year. My high fitness levels were always a source of pride. I can tell you how many goals I scored in each competitive season, and for pleasure, I often play back some of the goals in my head. Those were good times.

But this issue – this definition of “disability” – has gnawed away at me over the last few months. In my head, I knew that I needed to write down my thoughts, for in writing I usually find clarity, but I had no prompt. That is, until just now.

Minutes ago, I finished a telephone call with a very good friend, one whom I have played football with countless times. He kindly enquired about how I was doing, without making a big deal about it (which I much prefer). Replying, I struggled to say: “I have fluoroquinolone associated disability. There is nothing that the doctors can do for me.” Ouch. I couldn’t fully finish the sentence. It’s the “D” word which bothers me most.

Perhaps, in my head, disabled people were, I thought, born that way, and have known nothing else. Or, perhaps I thought, that such unfortunate people had suffered a freak accident, leading to their predicament. Of course, I knew that people often become disabled over time – as has happened to me – because I have represented so many of them as their lawyer. Yet, subconsciously, I must have thought that it couldn’t possibly have happened to me. To me! I was fit and able.

In the darkest recesses of my head, “disability” must still have conjured up images of a wheelchair-bound people, even though the legal definition of disability, as set out in section 6 of The Equality Act 2010, has been hardwired into my brain ever since I represented disabled people pursuing disability discrimination claims. It seems that what I knew as a lawyer somehow didn’t connect with what I thought, at a deep, flawed and irrational level.

And yet, possibly, the nomenclature – the terminology, the definition of “disabled” – perhaps is unhelpful. Or just unhelpful to me. In my blog profile, I list all the things that I am, to an outsider, before finishing that “I hate labels”. Does the label – disabled – help me? Does it help others? It must.

And why does it upset me to say out loud: “I am disabled!” I am, in law, disabled. Perhaps I need to own it.

Am I bothered that “I don’t look disabled”? Do I want the condition to be more physically obvious? No, no way, though I am sure that my subconscious craves more obvious signs to the world that I physically struggle: a ready-made excuse as to why I sometimes cannot do something. If I can’t stand up on a train to let a pregnant woman sit down, should I have to explain myself?

Logically, when my day is going well, I must be happy, right? But, then, subconsciously, I feel guilty that I am functioning well. There is guilt in feeling capable, able. And yet there is guilt when feeling incapable, unable.

I suppose that I should make much more of an effort to care even less about what others think. And, I wonder what other prejudices and silliness lurks in my subconscious.

CategoriesLegalHealthHarrogate

A Life-Affirming Stay in Harrogate Hospital

(These are my musings, written in hospital, more diary entry than blogpost)

In Antibiotics, I trust

 

It’s 23:51 on Saturday 12 February 2022. I’m back as an in-patient at Littondale Ward, nearly four years ago to the day that I was last in here when I had sepsis. My drip pumps fluids into me. It’s been a tough few days.

 

I’m the youngest on the ward, by 30 years. So, everyone asks me – what I do for a living. It’s always a bit tricky to talk about it at such times.

 

I have Pyelonephritis. Essentially a kidney infection which has risen up the body. 111, ambulance, A and E and now however many days I need to stay here.

 

I’m glad I came in when I did. If I didn’t, kidney damage can be permanent. Perhaps it still will be. I read that this condition kills 7.4% of people who get it. But I suspect that most are older men.

 

I’ve been treated fairly well. The staff are very pleasant. Due to my temperature, I was placed on the Covid unit for 6 hours, which makes sense. No lunch or tea. Thankfully, this evening Julia delivered my bag, complete with food. I don’t know what people do when they have no loved ones close by.

 

I haven’t seen any specialists, but that will come. Staggering to the bathroom (details to be spared, suffice to say that it’s unpleasant) with my drip tripod-thing-on-wheels, with my blood visible up and down the tube, is something I’d like to forget.

 

My advice to any reader is to understand your body and to dispassionately read around your medical condition, making your own mind up. We know our bodies best. Night.

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I’ve become like a phone charger

 

Well, that was a memorable night. Dehumanising on one level, yet I’m filled with immeasurable gratitude for the endeavours of my carers, working Saturday night shifts, doing the work of the angels. My eyes fill with tears as I type that sentence, for I couldn’t do this for a living.

 

Dehumanising in that, for the nearly 24 hours I have been here, I’ve spent most of that time connected to a drip. Each time the drip is changed – from this antibiotic, to another; to fluids and anything else I cannot figure out – nobody really asks for my permission. They just do it. I feel like the utility phone charger in a hotel: used by all the guests, often roughly but necessarily so, repeatedly being plugged and unplugged.

 

The legal case of Montgomery- which deals with patient consent in a medical setting – has crossed my mind each time, for it was frequently being breached, but perhaps this was the right thing to do, though not strictly lawful.

 

Bathroom “breaks” are a frequent challenge. Each “success” feels like scoring a goal.

 

Update:

 

Urologist has just told me I need to stay another day, and that it doesn’t seem likely that I’ll be able to go on holiday next week with the kids. I’m quite upset.

 

The man next to me still snores – it’s 9:30am – as he has done all night, at such a high decibel level that I could claim for noise-induced hearing loss. He’s disrupted those of us under 80 in here, but I only feel pity for him, as he looks so unwell. He sounds so unwell. I wish him well. Sleep, though, might help the rest of us to recover.

 

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The Kindness of strangers

 

It’s 19:40 on Sunday night. My neighbour – out of the blue – has bought me a gluten-free snack. He’s the one who kept us all awake all night with his mammoth-like snores. He must have heard my repeated requests for gluten-free food, often to no avail. It’s really touched me. We haven’t really spoken. I’ve always known that humans are 99.9% good: this gesture is life-affirming.

 

A new man arrives. He’s far younger than me and clearly very poorly. We’re all rooting for him, but nobody has said a word. It’s unspoken. There’s always someone worse off in here.

 

The nurses change the elderly men with such dignity. I’d rather not hear it, or smell it – for their sake and mine – but it truly is inspiring. I bury my head in my phone.

 

And then we all overhear a doctor giving the “end of life” discussion to an elderly man at the other end of our 6-man ward. Does he want his heart restarting, if it fails? I’m watching football on the iPad, unable to concentrate on it: what will his wish be? Will his heart stop tonight?

 

The inhabitants of this ward shouldn’t have all heard that, particularly the new guy, gasping for air. That was such a delicate conversation. The doctor was, simply, perfect, though. Not an easy conversation to have with someone. When the time comes for me, I’d want to be spoken to like that.

 

I guess we are all bearing our everything in here. I can’t work out whether it’s appalling that this lack of privacy pervades in 2022, or whether this war-type spirit is good for us all.

 

One chap has the sweetest of sweet tooths, almost childlike in his requests for biscuits. It makes everyone smile. Who knew that the NHS does chocolate milk on tap?

 

The staff are unfailingly kind. I’ve never been anywhere where the staff are universally so willing to help, and they don’t stop either. And they’re so diverse, far more so than the population of Harrogate. The accents do cause some of the elderly men some confusion.

 

In macro terms, the structure and processes of the NHS need an honest rethink. But the kindness on display from the staff here is unsurpassable.

 

I hope to go home tomorrow (which I do).

 

CategoriesHealthThought of The Day

Poisoned by antibiotics?

It’s time for another dull health update. Today, my neurologist copied me into a letter which he sent to my GP. In it, he asks what types of antibiotics I have had over the years, speculating that I might be suffering from fluroquinolone toxicity. He asks whether I have ever taken ciprofloxacin (Cipro). Boy, have I taken Cipro! It’s the only antibiotic I can recall taking for the innumerable bouts of prostatitis which have plagued me for years.

In the US, there are class lawsuits against big pharma for the damage that these antibiotics have done to thousands of men. Stemming from these actions, the EU investigated the issue, leading to an EU-wide memo warning of its dangers. Relevant to me, the European Medicines Agency demanded that Cipro and others was not prescribed for chronic prostatitis.

In March 2019, our Department of Health advised GPs not to prescribe these antibiotics, unless in exceptional cases. The guidance notes that some people are left with permanent nerve damage. Perhaps this is where I am now.

Frankly, I am numb, at the thought that I’m stuck at 65% (if that) of capacity, permanently. Will I ever be able to work full-time again? Will I ever play sport again? Or run again?

And what trajectory am I now on? If permanent Cipro poisoning is the diagnosis, does this actually change anything?

In the last seven days, I have: attended the funeral of a good friend’s mother; met with someone whose son committed suicide; learned about my friend’s husband, who buried two of his children before they turned 12, due to an inherited condition; and caught up with another friend who has just lost their mother.

There are no guarantees for any of us. Everything has changed but nothing has changed: life is tough and unpredictable. Enjoy it! Time to book a holiday.

Lessons to Learn

Foolishly, well before now, I should have started researching why it was that I kept on succumbing to infections. In yesteryear, each infection would have killed me. It’s only of late when I have bothered to ask this fundamental question. More fool me. Repeated prescriptions of weapon’s grade antibiotics could never be the answer.

And as for the NHS, it could have saved us all tens of thousands of pounds by investigating why these infections occur. Upstreaming, holistic approaches to medicine must quickly become the way that we as a society tackle health issues. Quick fixes, like antibiotics, just push the problems down the line.

CategoriesHealthThought of The Day

Amor fati: Morvan’s Syndrome

I’m writing, this evening, for the first time, in a long time. Not about party-gate 1, 2 or 3; not about Reckless Boris; not about my booster jab; nor about party-pooper Omicron. As ever, I’m writing about my health.

Right now, this boring topic has me in a pensive, yet creative, mood. For posterity, and to help others, I want to record what I know – and feel – at this time.

A few hours ago, my neurologist informed me that he thought I had a rare condition, known as Morvan’s Syndrome. I haven’t heard of it either. Of course, he wants to run some more tests, but he seemed unusually sure of himself for a consultant, at a first appointment.

Given just how rare this condition is – with only four reported cases in English medical literature, according to the British Medical Journal – this blog will be one the few pages about Morvan’s Syndrome online. Facebook – usually a good source of groups about rare health conditions – has only one group, with 89 members, and no postings in ten years!

Though limited information is out there, here’s what I know so far:

  • Apparently, there’s medicine for this, which allows a sufferer to live a normal life.
  • But other reports suggest that frequent blood transfusions will be needed, every three weeks.
  • In 20% of cases, it’s fatal.
  • It normally strikes men, at a similar age to me.
  • It’s likely caused by an autoimmune condition.
  • Covid has triggered more reporting of the condition, so now is a “good” time to be diagnosed with it.
  • In the UK, only a lab in Oxford can do the analysis of the bloods.
  • Cancer is often the cause of it (which I think is unlikely for me!).
  • Some people spontaneously recover.
  • Some sufferers can go for months without sleep.

During 2021, I’ve had a number of potential diagnoses. Like the others, perhaps this one will fall by the wayside, too. I hope so, but if this is my fate, I’ll lap it up. I’ll adapt. I’ll be useful. I’ll own it. I’ll wear it.

CategoriesHealthPoliticsHarrogate

Tory Contenders and Covid Deaths

Reflecting on the shameful vote this week by the majority of Tory MPs to support disgraced Tory MP Owen Paterson, and then for the Government’s immediate volte-face, my sense is that a potential challenger to Reckless Boris will soon break cover.

It is noteworthy that 109 Tory MPs didn’t vote for the Andrea Leadsom’s Putin-esque amendment (including Harrogate’s Andrew Jones and Ripon’s Julian Smith), with six Tory MPs voting against. Of the six, my analysis is that only Mark Harper MP is a potential challenger to Reckless Boris.

Harper previously stood for leader and has been critical of lockdowns. Candidly, I have not heard any chatter of Harper standing, but in most parties there is usually someone waiting in the wings for their moment to usurp their leader and this is such a potential moment. Thatcher had Heseltine, Major had Redwood, Blair had Brown, Cameron and May had Reckless Boris. But who challenges Boris?

If not Mark Harper, then Skipton and Ripon’s, Julian Smith MP – who took the unusual decision to demand the resignation of Phil Allott – is an unlikely, but potential, contender. He may trigger a leadership race so that others break cover.

My reading of him is that he is an honourable MP who is embarrassed by the Tories – yet again – descent into sleaze. By most accounts, Smith is meant to be a safe pair of hands, as judged by his time as Northern Ireland Secretary. In addition, Smith is unassailable in his constituency. By attacking Reckless Boris, with Brexit done, Smith is unlikely to suffer censure by his local Conservative Association, for the people in this area – particularly in Skipton, home to Skipton Building Society – abhor financial impropriety.

Watch this space.

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Out of the 830,000 people estimated to be living in North Yorkshire, according to figures collated by the North Yorkshire Outbreak Management Advisory Board, since Covid arrived in February 2020 there have been 559 excess deaths. According to Public Health England, in the same period, there have been 1,227 deaths where Covid was mentioned on the death certificate. Most deaths occurred during the first and second peaks.

Working on the assumption that dozens of deaths would have occurred indirectly because of Covid – for example, because people didn’t summon an ambulance for fear of catching Covid in hospital, and then dying at home; or because cancers went undetected – my educated guess is that around 400 residents of North Yorkshire sadly perished directly due to Covid.

There are 634 days between 1 February 2020 and 31 October 2021. Circa 400 deaths, in 634 days, for an above average-aged population, in a fairly prosperous and spaced-out population. Dreadful, but if you ask residents of this area, as I have done, what their own estimates of deaths in this area is, most likely you will get estimates into the thousands. In my social circle, the highest estimate I have heard was 10,000. Now that, if correct, would be rightly terrifying.

Each death, each Long Covid survivor, is tragic. But the figures, dispassionately analysed, are a cause for optimism. With our vaccines and boosters, armed with our knowledge and experience of this virus, though we must be cautious, though we must crush all new variants, we must enjoy life again.

CategoriesHealthThought of The Day

Dysautonomia 2: The Sequel

When your daughter theoretically starts to design the colour scheme for my custom-made electric wheelchair (I have not ordered one, for clarity), to enable me to attend her dance performance, you know that my world has turned once more. Yes, dysautonomia is back: worse – and yet better – and as baffling as ever.

After one month of passable, acceptable health, the weirdness returned. But for how long, I don’t know. Three months on and one month off: I’ll take that.

Genuinely, I am not down about it. I’m not! Saddened for its impact on others – sure – but as the only constant is change itself, we all must adapt. Moaning about it will only make the situation unbearable. Human’s adaptability has been the key to our success.

When some months ago the likely prognosis was the horrifying Addison’s Disease, I discovered that both JFK and Osama Bin Laden suffered from it. Neither lived long lives, but they were certainly eventful. My guess is that their condition turbo-charged their ambitions. They must have known that the condition had reduced their life expectancy.

Which reminds me – most pretentiously – of a letter which Proust wrote to a Parisian newspaper in answer to this question: if a scientist proved that the world was about to end in the near future, what would happen? His answer:

“I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future delays them occasionally.

But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

This condition isn’t life-threatening, just life-limiting – if seen that way. Life is random. Live each day as if it’s the last.

CategoriesHealthEssaysThought of The Day

On Wasps, On CBT, On Oxbridge, On Change   

As a six-year-old, I had a crush on a classmate. I’ll refer to her as ‘S’.

One pleasant summer’s day, our family went on a walk, along a former railway line, behind our house. After a few minutes, I spotted S and her family: they were walking straight towards us. Inevitably, our paths would cross. This was going to be so embarrassing, I thought.

Thinking quickly, unbeknown to both families, I ran up the steep, wooded embankment, crouching behind a bush. Soon, S and her family would pass by, oblivious that I had evaded them. Blushes, spared.

Breathing deeply, as S’s family passed by below, what appeared to be golden pellets fizzed into the air from under where I was sitting. It was quite an enchanting sight, like being surrounded by all the local tooth fairies.

Then – ouch, ouch, ouch. Whatever these supernatural flying creatures were, they were attacking me. And it really hurt.

With greater speed than I have ever mustered, I hurtled down the embankment screaming, running past S and her family, making it to my own. So out of breath, in pain and distressed, I was incapable of explaining what was happening.

Quickly, my parents grasped that I was covered in angry wasps, crawling all over my tracksuit, stinging me repeatedly. With S and family watching on, my father stripped me down to my underpants and began jumping on my clothes. With superhuman strength, my mother picked me up, then ran the 600m, or so, back to our house, where she put me in a bath of warm water to which she added vinegar. Whether the vinegar helped, I do not know. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

In all, I was stung 12 times. My mother gave me 10p per sting: it felt like a good bargain. This bounty certainly cured my tears.

To this day, I have no idea what S and her family made of this hilarious incident. My bet: they don’t even remember it.

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It wasn’t until my 20s when I realised that I was quite nervous – understandably so – around wasps. Entering my 30s, unbeknown to me, this phobia became progressively worse. Into my late 30s, I couldn’t be in a room with a wasp, generating great hilarity to everyone else and significant embarrassment for me. To defend and deflect, I would tell the tale of S and my 12 stings. It is a good story.

When lockdown struck, “normal” people spent more time in their gardens, but I couldn’t. “Normal” people would barbeque, but not me. Frustrated, my wife enquired about CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – on the NHS. After screening that my need was only during wasp season, months later, my online sessions commenced with a super therapist.

I must confess that I thought that the sessions were going to be a waste of time; however, having represented hundreds of clients who had needed CBT, I was at least intrigued to know what it was all about.

Through these sessions I realised how ingrained and life-impacting my phobia had become. As homework, my therapist asked me to look at photos of wasps on the internet. To my surprise, I couldn’t, often peering through my fingers, before moving away from my computer. Looking back, I do not possess the word power to describe my disgust and fear at looking at such images. In my defence, images of wasps on a screen are – of course – far larger than wasps in real life!

Over time, lesson by lesson, always completing my homework, I made great progress. By educating myself about the vast number of wasp species and their role in the food chain and in pollination, I learned to respect – if not to love – wasps. Yes, I now love wasps! No more do I reflexively run away at the sound of a buzz in my vicinity. My mind, reprogrammed.

So confident I am now that I often work in the garden under the wasps’ favourite bush, alongside our mini-orchard – also a favourite haunt of my yellow and black friends. With my new hobby of drawing, I even sketched one (don’t laugh – it’s below) to prove my mastery. As evidence to my therapist of her success, I sent her the below photograph of my new workstation. I think it made her day.

Recently, I took my family to the fateful embankment, and, in a ceremonial manner, I buried a dead wasp that I had been asked to study. Of course, I didn’t kill that wasp, for it was already dead. Squishing wasps is not for me: instead, I open a window, because now I can.

wasp drawing workstation in orchard

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Walking in the garden now, I feel – oddly – powerful. Unafraid. Although I am proud of this small achievement, what excites me most is my mind’s – and anyone’s mind – ability to change, at any age. If my neural pathways can be re-wired in relation to something trauma-caused and developed over 35 years, in just ten online sessions, then a world of possibility has opened before me. And before you. But why didn’t I tackle this defect sooner?

Though not everyone will agree, the myth that many in my generation was implanted with – and which persists somewhat to-date – is that by the end of your formal education, the quality of your mind is supposedly set in concrete. As a result, your successes will flow from howsoever far your mind managed to develop in that time. I shall call this “The Fixed Mind Myth”.

First, so we were told, your life chances were allegedly moulded by your GCSE results. Next, your A-level results laid the foundations of your future. Thereafter, so the story goes, for those who attend university, the ranking of your institution and your grade determined your life. From that point, the condition of your brain was permanently affixed, incapable of improvement, your intellectual position in society, stuck. Fail at school and your life was over.

Until recently, I imbibed that bile. But where did The Fixed Mind Myth emanate from? And is it true?

For an answer, I’ll turn to a philosopher, whose name I shall withhold for now. He wrote:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”

This black and white analysis was from Karl Marx. The Fixed Mind Myth – if this was, as I propose, a society-wide notion – then according to Marx, it was disseminated by the ruling class. (Like him or loathe him, Marx’s criticism of capitalism has merit, but his hazily sketched-out model for a communist utopia was flawed.) I must proceed with a warning: there is always danger in overly simplistic analysis of complex issues, but as this isn’t an academic essay and as I have no training in biology (where, surely some answers also lie), I shall concentrate on this class issue.

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Born in the year that Thatcher (educated at Oxford) came to power, my first 18 years were lived under Conservative rule. Unquestionably, the Tories are the party of the ruling class and they have dominated British politics. Through their control, we can thank, or not, the Conservative Party for most of the successes and failures of the British state, including its myths.

Due to centuries of the ruling classes attending Oxbridge, coupled with predominant Tory rule (there is a connection), the notion that life was fixed by the time you finished formal education, was all-pervasive, inescapable. Beneficiaries of this system had no reason to contest it. The rest of us accepted it as gospel – well, that’s my firm recollection. And with Oxbridge forever top, everyone else’s place was set by their proximity to it.

Recently, Michael Gove’s time at Oxford University – which he left 33 years ago – was reported in The Times. Joining Gove, Reckless Boris and on-his-jollies-during-a-crisis Raab, attended Oxford, so did Dominic Cummings, Rishi Sunak and Theresa May, not forgetting Tony Blair, too. Matt Hancock studied at both, infamously hiring his “friend” from university. It is no surprise that today’s ruling coterie mostly attended Oxbridge: they always have.

Perhaps today’s politicians reached their lofty positions solely because of their exceptional talents, but perhaps Marx was onto something: that to attend Oxbridge guaranteed a place in the ruling class, and that The Fixed Mind Myth was then promoted by those who studied there. Once ensconced at the top of the academic hierarchy, to maintain your position in society, it was logical to proffer The Myth, brazenly or subconsciously. The Myth would therefore make sense to those who promulgated it and to those who heard it. With most Prime Ministers having studied at Oxbridge, the evidence was compelling, so it would have seemed. In addition, as I have previously blogged, clans help their own, only making matters worse.

One of the reasons why white bread became the most popular type was because, historically, only the rich could afford it. Similarly, orange carrots became the dominant type due to their popularity with the Dutch Royal family. In both cases, the predilections of society’s top strata, influenced all below.

Certainly, those who make it to Oxbridge today had academic talent at the time that they sat their exams. These students are likely to become successful – by traditional definitions of success. However, there are countless examples where this is not so: examples of non-Oxbridge students making it; of people without a university education, against the odds, becoming successful in their chosen fields. Some of the brightest and original minds that I know did not attend university.

Having worked with hundreds of lawyers, my anecdotal evidence is that an Oxbridge education does not always lead to the production of the best lawyers. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t. And those who become successful – as traditionally defined – without an Oxbridge background, have done so in spite of their “ignorance” and impeded by this class-based myth. This is because talent is not solely determined by formal education; because the brain is malleable, capable of growth at all ages, as I experienced. Some of the best lawyers I know obtained unenviable grades.

In these observations, I make no criticism of those who attended Oxbridge. Zero. Many of my friends attended. Is there an element of envy on my part? Perhaps: you decide. I’m also acutely conscious that, for some, an Oxbridge qualification may well be detrimental, perhaps pushing people into careers that ordinarily they wouldn’t have selected, because that’s what Oxbridge graduates are meant to do. Conceivably, the sense that, by attending Oxbridge you had made it, may well deter some students from continuous self-improvement, thereby leading to a less full life. And like the writer of a one-hit-wonder, who then spends a lifetime trying to recreate that magic, attending Oxbridge might feel for some as if it was the pinnacle of their existence, with everything downhill from there on in.

Irrespective of whether you concur with my observations, I hope that we can agree that attending Oxbridge is a thing. It is the sun around which the rest of us orbit.

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The philosopher, Nietzsche, who taught me much, instructs us to form our own codes by which to live and thrive. Nietzsche disdained traditional values, taboos and sacred cows, recommending that we move, amongst other ideas, Christianity and alcohol to the “deleted items” box in our heads. He said we should contest all doctrines that hold people back, however prevalent they are. Nietzsche, though a precocious talent, easily capable of attending Oxbridge, would have found the Oxbridge experience and all its accompaniments, suffocating. Never would he have promoted The Fixed Mind Myth.

On the contrary, he encouraged us to metamorphose from who we presently are, to, he called it, the camel, then to the lion, eventually becoming our true selves when we finally return to being a child: unburdened by society’s strictures, living in a liberated state of creativity and play. Only few “Supermen” (and women) make this mental transition, he said. Sounds delicious to me, it does, un-stung as well, and worthy of another blog.

Nietzsche is credited with the notion that ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Perhaps sitting on a wasp nest was, after all, worth it. Those working-class wasps had been encoded to protect the hive at all costs, even to their detriment. What they needed was Marx, CBT and Nietzsche. Until my CBT, unconsciously I have been defending The Fixed Mind Myth. No more! The mind is flexible, plastic, hungry to grow.

I wonder which other ruling class-originated ideas that I should confront, and what unhelpful mental models I need to discard.