A Long Time in Politics


As Christmas approaches, for the last 20 years or so I’ve been playing my viola in a ceremony of lessons and carols in Glasgow.  Each year, I take part in an elaborate gavotte of my own confection, in which I am asked to participate, and I assume an anguished air and say, “Oh I don’t know… I’m so rusty.”  Eyebrows are raised to the ceiling.  Then I agree to do it.  This theme had a variation this year as, understandably, the service will be virtual.  “Oh, I don’t know, you know, me and IT…”  Eyebrows are raised.  Then I said okay.  I had to watch the conductor and listen to the piano accompaniment, through earpieces, on one device, and record on another.  By some miracle it worked.  Greatly encouraged, I set about recording my contribution to an extended family birthday tribute to a cousin in the USA.  I was commissioned to recite a little Burns, and also to send a personal message.  I found myself quite unconsciously hamming up my Scottishness, raising a glass of particularly good Islay single malt, proposing a toast, and descending into some bastardised ancient highland patois. 


Just when I thought I’d made peace with IT, I got an email from a financial institution with whom I do some business, to tell me that they had been hacked, and advising me to change all my passwords.  My first thought was, is this real?  I phoned them.  Yes, it was real.  I duly changed all my passwords, feeling a great nostalgia for the days of pen and ink, cheque books, high street banks with safes and vaults, and managers devoted to ideals of probity, confidentiality, and trust.  I’ve always thought that internet banking is a con.  The bank gets you to be your own bank teller, and so there is no need to employ one.  Everything is transacted online, so no need to have a High Street outlet.  The masters of the universe can sit back and watch the coffers swell. 


Got home at dusk to see the multi-coloured flashing lights of two fire engines on the street, awfully near where I live.  But it wasn’t me.  It was a neighbour.  And it wasn’t a fire.  A carbon monoxide alarm had gone off.  It turned out to be a false alarm.  Now I don’t use gas, so I don’t have a carbon monoxide alarm.  But I wondered if I were being cavalier.  I do have a gas heater which I keep in reserve in case the electricity gets cut.  So I duly invested in a CO meter.  It came along with a heat detector.  At home, I have high ceilings.  I will spare you the excruciating description of my hapless attempts to install the heat detector.  I’m thinking of writing a series of tales about an inept antihero who barges through life leaving a wake of destruction behind him.  Captain Maladroit.  It will be largely autobiographical.  Up at the ceiling, I worked myself into a lather until I was overcome by a wave of intense nausea.  Maybe that was the effect of the carbon monoxide.  Whatever.  That’s it, with me and DIY.  Finito. 


Got my overseas Xmas cards off.  It crossed my mind to include a Round Robin update that would be entirely confabulated.  “Elizabeth and Barbara are hugely enjoying life at Magdalen, and Gonville and Caius…”  I asked a fellow Glaswegian if he knew the nearest post office that would be open.  Have you noticed the way we Glaswegians have a habit of putting the accent of any denoting word on the second syllable?  “There’s a Post Office in Renfield Street.”


On BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week, Donald Macleod reached the end of his year-long study, 250 years after the great man’s death, of Beethoven.  The week has been dominated by the late string quartets.  Somebody asked me to guess which Opus Mr Macleod would choose to end this huge project.  The end of the last quartet Opus 135?  I thought not.  Too quirky.  Muss es sein?  Es muss sein!  I went for the second movement of the last piano sonata, Op. 111, with its ethereal, other-worldly quality.  Music from beyond the grave.  In the end, Mr Macleod chose the last movement of the fifth symphony.  Good choice.  I will seize fate by the throat! 


After Strictly (n my pnn, HRVY&Jntt r gng t wn), caught a snatch of The Wheel with Michael McIntyre.  It took me a while to figure it out, and I was reminded of Pointless, which took me forever to figure out because I’d flick on the telly to catch the six o’clock news and would only catch the dénouement.  Why would you want to score zero?  Pointless.  In The Wheel, helpful or sometimes helpless celebs orbit the contestant, one of three brought up from a dungeon, to choose one out of four answers in a series of multi-choice questions based on a variety of topics.  If the contestant gets the answer right, he or she lodges a considerable sum of money in the bank, and proceeds to the next question.  Get it wrong, and the contestant is sent back to the dungeon and the next contestant is selected at random (another revolving wheel).  Winner takes all, and can double the purse with a final question if not risk averse, or perhaps half it, or even leave with nothing.  Who devises these premises?  I’m sure if I’d heard the pitch on Dragons’ Den, I would have been like the man at Decca who turned the Beatles down, or the man in a hundred publishing houses who turned J. K. Rowling down.  “Let me get this straight.  You stick the contestants downstairs and may never see two of them at all?  That could cause resentment.  It’s like that Michael Caine movie The Prestige, in which an illusionist is despatched to an underworld and can only distantly here the appreciative applause of the audience.  I’m out!”

Yet I was gripped.  The man who eventually won £28,000 had a warm television personality.  He was devoted to his daughter, and also happened to be vertically challenged.  He had the audience vote, and their sympathy.  I was willing him to win.  Well, it wasn’t the Reith Lectures (Mark Carney this year I think).  Lord Reith must be spinning in his grave.                        


It has been called “the last throw of the dice”.  David Frost still talks to Michel Barnier, and Boris Johnson still talks to Ursula von der Leyen, but they are running out of time, and Westminster is glooming us up that the UK and the EU may reach the end of the year without a deal.  If so it be, may I say I find this to be as utterly incomprehensible as it is utterly reprehensible.  Imagine taking four and a half years to do, precisely, nothing.  From the point of view of a medical practitioner, and especially an emergency physician, failure to make a decision is disgraceful.  That is not to say that in a given situation, doing nothing might not be the right option.  In medicine, this is called “masterly inactivity”.  I used to say to the anxious worried well, “Let’s hold our nerve, and keep a watching brief.”  You might even decide to stop doing something in order to do nothing.  An elderly patient on polypharmacy (is that a description of the UK, or the EU, or both?) is failing despite your best efforts, so you decide to withdraw all treatment to see what happens.  We call it “a trial of life”.  But making such a decision is not the same as indecision.  You have to make up your mind, and do so under the pressure of time constraint.  It seems to an emergency physician striving to make a difference within “the golden hour”, that to strive for four and a half years to do something, then fail to do anything, is to be weighed in the balance and found wanting.  That begs the question, whose fault is it?  “Ours”, or “theirs”?  I would say both.  It’s a collegiate failure, an inability to compromise, to find a way.  It’s a damning indictment of the ruling class.  Every day, refuse collectors pick up the refuse, nurses tend, carers care, teachers teach, midwives deliver, and undertakers bury, while government ministers shuttle diplomatically to and fro, and do, precisely, nothing. 


December 7th.  On this day, 79 years ago, “a day that will live in infamy”, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour.  And we all know how that ended.  So let us hope our politicians keep talking to our neighbours.  As Kate Bush said to Peter Gabriel, “Don’t give up.”              

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