Sunday, 15 October 2017

Don’t they know it’s not Christmas?

It’s the middle of October. The trees are turning orange and gold; the squirrels are burying nuts; it’s time to get out the warmer woollies.

And the next festival (how we need them to brighten the shortening days) is Halloween. And so, yes, there are pumpkins in the markets and wizards in the toy shops. 

So why are there fireworks, already, sparkling and twinkling and crackling, filling the dark skies with  colours. Don’t get me wrong, I love fireworks - but we’ve another three weeks till bonfire night (here in the UK at least).

Even worse - there are Christmas decorations in the shops. Red and silver and winter green. Giant gift displays. And the background music in John Lewis last week … (brace yourself) … O Little Town of Bethlehem. Yes, with more than two months to go, the shops are already trying to tell us that our great aunt Nellie can’t live without a scented candle or several. You’d best try those fairy lights because you can’t possibly be the only home in the village without a flashing Santa by your front door. 

More than two months - that’s over a sixth of a year, and already we are bombarded with Christmas. 

I understand that shops are having a hard time at the moment as we tighten our post-referendum belts. I understand that many families need to spread the cost of Christmas. It is an expensive time of year and the prospect of debt can only make things harder. However, do these hard-up families need their children winding up to the big day, asking for this latest that gizmo or that whatnot - for weeks and weeks and weeks. It’s fine for Mum and Dad to hide whatever under the bed for a month or few, but how hard must it be to have little a Harry pleading each time they do the weekly shop.

There’s more. With the shops full of Christmas trinkets, Halloween and Bonfire night risk drowning in the tinsel. And where is the space for those who don’t recognise Christian festivals to have their moment in the spotlight? 

I’m privileged to have friends all over the world. I know it’s Diwali next week, and so shall light a candle or three to celebrate. And please, if I have Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist (or any other) visitors this week, please tell me if you have a festival before the end of the year, and I’ll light candles for you too. And if you have a birthday - let us all know. You, too, need your own celebrations. I might save you a firework.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Winter plans.

I've usually got my winter plans sorted by now. At the first sign of autumn chilliness I'm researching flights and plotting itineraries.

But this has not been an ordinary year. The move - to a town where I knew no one - was an upheaval. And my house is still not sold. I have a tenant but at the moment all the rent is going into those keeping the house comfortable for her. Which means I need to be a bit more creative on the finance front.

That said, the winter looms. I love my new flat, but the prospect of January in the U.K. still feels like some sort of punishment. And my batteries need a bit of a recharge after this last year.

The solution - well, it's obvious to me. And a quick email exchange with Tika has sorted the basics.

Yes, I'm going back to Nepal for a few weeks. Not to trek or tackle tigers. But to rent a self-catering room in Pokhara. A place where I can potter about, spend time with old friends, and probably wander about in the foothills of a mountain or two.

Last time I was in Nepal the country was picking up the pieces after the earthquake. And many of you contributed to my little fund to rebuild a house. The need was overwhelming - but we could make life better for one family. Well, we have raised enough to make life better for two families, and money is still coming in from the sale of the ebook and being used to support the village health centre.

And so, while I'm there, I hope to make it to Chitepani and take a photograph or two, so you can see just where the money has gone.

The rest of the time - I'll potter about, and read and write, watch a sunset or two. And I'll try to steer clear of the crocodiles.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

When private lives become public.

I don't suppose many of you have been that bothered about Ben Stokes being involved in a brawl in Bristol last week. Young men having a bit more to drink than is sensible and then throwing their fists around is hardly original. And, given the nuclear stand-off between America and North Korea, or the plight of the Rohinja Muslims, it hardly warrants any attention at all.

Maybe that's why the newspapers have been full of it - something insignificant to get agitated about to divert attention away from what really matters.

For those who don't know, or don't care, who Ben Stokes is - he's a member of the English cricket team. And the timing of his misadventure is critical as they will shortly be touring Australia and playing for the Ashes. Which (and I say this as a cricket obsessive) is just one of many entertainments around this winter but will not make a dent on world progress.

Yet that hasn't stopped the papers and cricket pundits from throwing opinions around. Even though all they have to go on is grainy CCTV footage and a brief police report, that has been enough to demand retribution that extends far beyond anything the court may or may not impose.

For - to be clear - this is in the hands of the police. Is it their job (not the press or social media) to establish the facts and to decide, with the CPS, whether to press charges. If they do, it is for the courts to impose a sanction. That is their job. 

And once that is all done and dusted, then the matter, surely, is closed. 

But we live in an age when everyone, it seems, is entitled not only to have an opinion but also to throw it around to make sure everyone hears. That CCTV footage is all over the Internet - without any evidence of what preceded it, or what came next. But that hasn't stopped demands for the most punitive measures to be taken against Stokes’s career as a cricketer. Anything the legal system may or may not ask of him is nothing compared with the humiliation insisted on by some the papers and cricketing bigwigs.

Ben Stokes is not alone. He is just one of hundreds of public figures who do foolish things when they are young. And the newspapers exploit them all to sell thousands of copies. Misinformation breeds online. The result of all that is private lives becoming public property. 

I can't begin to imagine where I'd be now if all the stupid things I did when I was young became public property. And you? Or maybe you were saintly.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

What if ... malaria reaches America?

I wonder how many of you have caught the snippet of health news from Asia … the emergence of a lethal strain of malaria that is resistant to current treatments. 

I knew it was there in Cambodia, in a remote corner of the country on the border with Vietnam. Apparently it has now spread to Thailand and Vietnam - and so, potentially, into the ‘mainstream’ malarial areas. There has been a drive to eradicate malaria from the Mekong delta (using preventive measures such as bednets and sprays, plus experimenting with vaccines), but if this strain reaches the Mekong all those efforts will be undone.

The biggest worry is that it will spread to Africa - virulent strains already kill thousands every year, where treatment depends on proximity to a health centre and preventive measures are hit and miss.

I know that in Malawi everyone is given bednets in an effort to control the disease, but many find them unbearably hot to sleep under, and fishermen find the small mesh invaluable for trapping small fish. I visited a school and saw bednets full of holes. When I mentioned malaria people simply shrugged: it was just one more hazard of living in Africa.

But a lethal strain is more than one more hazard. It can easily spread far more widely than ebola or the Zika virus and kill more than thousands.

So, will there be panic in the western press? Not at the moment. After all, it is contained in areas that tourists and western businesspeople rarely visit. And our climate ensures that anyone returning from a malarial area cannot bring the virus home with them … so we've got nothing to worry about, have we?

But just suppose it reached, say, the industrialised parts of India which are building trade links with the west? What would we do then? How many businesspeople would happily wander around in an area knowing the local mosquitoes carried a strain of malaria that might kill them? What will happen to post- Brexit trade then? 

What if one stray mosquito found its way to the swamps of Florida? 

Oh the drug companies would swing into action then. Millions of dollars would be ploughed into research. More millions would be invested in education and preventive measures across the world.

Maybe malaria has to reach America before those deaths in Africa and Asia are taken seriously.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Anyone for hospital food?

One day, when I was in Malawi, we drove past a hospital. On the opposite side of the road, among the trees and mud banks, was a village of tents and shacks and makeshift food stalls.

‘For the relatives,’ Everlasting explained. (If you don't know who Everlasting is, click here!) ‘They know what people like to eat - so they can bring tasty food to the sick people in the hospital, good food that will help them get better.’

I don't know how many of you have sampled hospital food recently. But I've come across it twice in the past few months - and in two very different hospitals. Even so, the experience was similar.

Breakfast - cereal, and toast and tea - if you're lucky. You need to be awake when the nurse has five minutes to get it for you. Miss that window, and you have to wait till lunchtime. 

Most hospitals give you a lunch menu the day before. But there is no guarantee that they will have whatever is it you have asked for - or if it will be palatable. (Meals are cooked in a central factory, up to three months in advance.) Which is just tough for anyone with a special diet - or even a vegetarian (hardly a ‘special diet’ these days).

Tea - is a tired sandwich or soup that began life in a tin.

It's the cuts, of course - diets reduced to a bare minimum. No thought of offering something tasty and tempting to encourage sick people to eat. Which is why, if you should be visiting a hospital at lunchtime, you will see so many people arriving with plastic boxes full of something truly tasty. ‘They know what people like to eat - so they can bring tasty food to the sick people in the hospital, good food that will help them get better,’ as Everlasting said.

80% of the population of Malawi live in poverty. So it's not surprising that it's a challenge for hospitals to provide adequate nutrition to patients as well as treatments and medication. 

But in a wealthy economy like ours? There may be a conversation to be had about whether patients should make a contribution towards their food. But, as things are, patients with relatives nearby who have the time and energy to provide good nutrition will fare better than those with no one. Yet another division between those who have family to fight for them and those who are alone and abandoned.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Rationing the news.

I have to make myself watch the news at the moment. The political shenanigans in the UK and America are painful enough (the bungling might be comic if the potential consequences weren't so catastrophic) - but they pale into insignificance in the light of the recent onslaught of ‘natural disasters’. (The ‘..’ indicates a recognition that some of these may be the result of man-made climate change.) 

As one storm followed another - have we forgotten those who died in the mudslide in Sierra Leone? The floods in Asia that I wrote about last week, and those in China? Hot on their heels came the storms and hurricanes currently battering the Caribbean and America. A huge earthquake in Mexico has been relegated to the inside pages of the newspapers. 

Everywhere, or so it seems, people are homeless. Refugees from Africa and the Middle East brave the waves of the Mediterranean. Bangladesh - those areas not under water - are flooded with Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

It’s overwhelming - all this need and trauma. But we still have to deal with the realities of life. Domestic stuff has to go on - we need to decide what to have for supper and if we have enough milk. Lawns need mowing. Children need kisses before heading off to school.

I can only speak for myself here - I have to ration the news. If I catch every bulletin I risk being paralysed by the sheer extent of it all. But that way madness lies. And failure to look after the daily trivia helps no one. But there are times, when I musing over which book to choose in the library or picking over apples in the market, that I find myself reflecting on the insignificance of such choices. 

It's a dissonance that I find deeply uncomfortable. I don't have a solution - and maybe that's fine. We should not turn our backs - nor our feelings - on the millions of people in such terrible need. But there is no point on wallowing in their reflected misery - we have lives to lead. Few of us are able to  up sticks and do anything practical to help (though we can contribute to appeals). All we can do, it seems, is notice the enormity of it all and then keep the show on the road in our own small corners of the world.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Why are some floods more floody than others?

You can't have missed the pictures of floods in America. The impact of the storm in Texas and Louisiana has been truly shocking - and the heroism of those working to help those in need cannot be underestimated. Thousands have lost everything, and are now homeless. The water is now receding in places but the clear-up has yet to begin.

You might have missed the extent of the floods in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and now Pakistan. I've seen the occasional bulletin on the news programmes and passing pictures in the papers, but nothing like the coverage we've seen (here in the U.K.) from America.

So, just in case you think this is nothing more than a heavy monsoon, here are some figures. These floods have gone on for weeks - and there is more to come. Thousands have died. And (according to The Guardian) forty million people are affected. 

That's right - forty million people. 40,000,000 people - people just like you and me.

Now I don't wish to minimise the distress of those caught in the floods in America. Their trauma runs deep and their need for help is urgent. Already the relief effort is predicted to cost billions of dollars and Congress is being asked to help.

But I've no idea what it will cost to clean up the devastation in Asia. I know one of the most urgent needs is clean water (available in bottles in America) to forestall a cholera epidemic. I know they need mosquito nets to prevent malaria running wild. Local people are doing what they can. Friends of mine in Nepal have given blood and blankets. 

So where is the international relief effort? I am certain it's there. Volunteers will be working their socks off trying to provide shelter, food and health care. But who will pay?

Where is the disaster relief appeal? 

We've grown accustomed to disasters such as this prompting international appeals for money. It's the only way to raise the sums needed to scrape the surface of such huge need. So why not this time?

Or are we so focused on those wading through water in America that those in Asia somehow don't matter quite so much?

(When I raised this on Facebook I ruffled a few feathers. How dare I accuse anyone of racism, that sort of thing. But sometimes feathers need a bit of ruffling, don't they?)