Tuesday 8 September 2015

The End

Can you enjoy driving on the M25?

I did last Sunday early in the morning. It was cold but sunny and the significant but below average traffic moved fast and skilfully in a sort of anarchic dance between the lanes. I don't know if the other drivers were enjoying themselves but I  thought it was fun interacting with them at high speed (and in full compliance with the law and the Highway Code).

The experience was all the better for listening to the morning service on Radio 4 live from Albany Road Baptist Church, Cardiff.

I dare say the religious content of the service was uplifting for Baptists and probably for other believers too but I was really only tuning in for the music.

The highlight was Cwm Rhondda with those most familiar English words -  "Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah" - but what made it memorable was that for once they sang it right, that is with just two notes not three on the word "heaven" as in in "bread of heaven".

It may not seem a big thing but for years I have been enraged by this careless weakening of a great hymn (I bet your church gets it wrong or you would find it did if you ever went to it).

Did it start because people couldn't handle the elision required in the second verse ("strong deliverer" needs to be sung "strong deliv'rer")? But then in the third verse the congregation reaps the ungainly reward for their mistake as they mumble "songs of praises" as "songs of pray-ayses" and look at each other thinking the writer of the words must have had an off day and possibly the composer too.

William Williams Pantycelyn - or perhaps the translator Peter Williams - and John Hughes must be spinning in their graves.

Musing on this it came to me (at about the point I passed the exit for the M1 in my anti-clockwise orbit) that perhaps I should say something about this on my Blog, an idea which had not occurred to me for some weeks as you can see from the record below.

And then I thought "why?".

The truth is, and I didn't realise this at first, that the purpose of this Blog ended when I vacated my office at Hafal.

Most Blogs are written for the benefit of the writer and I was honest enough to say so. The Blog was a way for me to sound off while letting those better qualified than me - users of mental health services - do most of the talking on official Hafal channels.

Of course the M25 has no end but I do not propose to drive around in circles and so I made the decision (as I took the exit onto the M4 and towards home) that the Blog should end...here.

Thursday 30 July 2015

More Important Things

Getting to grips with R S Thomas...


In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only, a hill lights up
Suddenly, a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn, in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich
With looking. Have care
The wealth is for the few
And chosen. Those who crowd
A small window dirty it
With their breathing, though sublime
And inexhaustible the view.

This is one of his simplest poems superficially  but so deep and politically incorrect by modern standards – but too interesting just to see in those terms. Good to share with some friends because the first five lines so much describe our times camping at Caerfai with the violent changes of light and weather.

I like how he deals in a few words with the modern preoccupation with cosmology (“the extent of the spectrum” – yes, quite, so what, Dawkins. Elsewhere RST shows how the universe is actually terrifying not reassuring).

And after that it could be described  (not casually but accurately) as a bit fascist (RS wouldn’t have cared of course, and nor should we too much) because, I am fairly sure, he meant that only a special kind of person could understand – and that wasn’t just to exclude non-Welsh people but people “without soul”.

It is especially exclusive that the reference to crowdedness is quite obviously not about volume but the attitude of the observers  - and a rather nasty transference about the dirty window.

No getting away from it – some kind of celebration of the Nietzschean Superman.

A big theme is also going on about wealth – a gentle ridicule I suppose and again a bit fascistic.

Then you go back to the beginning – he started by saying “In Wales” for a reason. I could go on for hours about what he meant line by line but he certainly didn’t obscure it – Larkin gave him credit for lucidity (which doesn't preclude layers of meaning) in spite of calling him “Arsewipe Thomas”.

Friday 12 June 2015

Source Of Pride

Well, what do you know? I have been awarded an M.B.E. in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to mental health service users and their carers and families.

I am absolutely delighted and very proud to receive this honour. Beyond doubt this is a tribute to the success of Hafal which has achieved so much since its creation 12 years ago.

The great thing about Hafal is that its achievements depend on the hard work and dedication of its active and well-informed members – people with a mental illness and their carers – supported by a fantastic team of staff and volunteers and a dedicated Board of Trustees; and my own work has also always depended on the patient support of my dear wife Sheila. This honour must therefore belong to all of them as much as to me.

Hafal's Chair Elin Jones has kindly said: "This is great news: a fitting tribute to Bill’s hard work and a source of pride for everybody in our wonderful organisation. Bill inspired us to make Hafal a great charity which makes a real difference to the lives of vulnerable people."

And Hafal's first class new Chief Executive Alun Thomas adds: "Members and staff alike are delighted at this news both in appreciation of Bill’s professional success and also out of affection for an excellent friend and colleague."

Diolch yn fawr i bawb! And what a pleasure it is to see Hafal continuing to thrive today - a fantastic summer campaign promoting social life alongside great developments in services including a growing criminal justice role across Wales which is very exciting - follow the links to the right of this post to find out more...

Tuesday 5 May 2015


I never believed those people who said that when you give up full-time work you find you don't have time to do anything; further, I resolved not to be one of those people who fills their time with unimportant chores (possibly protracted deliberately to fill time) so that they are eternally busy.

And yet I do not seem to have time even to write this Blog. Why would that be?

The reason I write now after many weeks of silence is that I have finally been brought to a complete standstill by...pain. I had a tooth pulled a week ago and it didn't heal properly. I won't assault you with too much information but anybody who has experienced "dry socket" will know what I am talking about (a recent chatroom conversation on Mumsnet compared the pain with childbirth - I won't go there but you get the idea). I am sitting here marginally sedated by Cocodamol and numbed by Ibuprofen, surrounded by the apparatus of dental cleansing - and so, finally, I have time for you, loyal readers.

The filling of my time could be due to unhealthy things: perhaps sheer inefficiency arising from not having the same need to value my time and plan it economically - I dare say there might be some of that; more sinisterly there might be a fear of purposelessness and redundancy - I'm sure some people do fear that but I'm fairly confident that I'm secure on this one; or it might be that I fear that empty time might lead to dark thoughts better avoided or denied - ooh, well, nobody would dare be sure that wasn't the case but I don't sense any ghastly neurosis waiting to break out into my consciousness.

No, I think rather that I have just saved up over most of a life-time a massive list of things I fancy doing, many of them trivial, and the consequence is a disorderly NHS-style waiting list of things to do which never seems to get shorter. What I do need to do is prioritise sensibly, not necessarily do things as they turn up - and that I have not yet done.

But time enough and, if it is true that time goes faster when you are enjoying yourself, then it must mean something that the last five months (five months!) have seemed like as many weeks only. And there is a worry - Time's winged chariot hurrying near - I had better get on and do the really important things.

Although it is important not to get obsessed by mortality...

One of the things on my list which I have now completed was to read (or reread) Philip Larkin's poetry and discover more about him. I had previously read Andrew Motion's rather prissy biography Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life and have just read James Booth's Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love which is less well written but an important corrective confirming Larkin's warmer side.

It is well known that Larkin never settled down with a partner but rather kept two, sometimes three girlfriends at a firm geographical and personal distance over many years. Both biographers put this mainly down to a fear of intimacy and defensiveness about his creative space but I think it is simpler than that. Larkin had an acute consciousness - and fear - about death from an early age and made it clear that this did not just dominate his thinking and feeling but also made everything else pretty much not worth anything. This is what stopped Larkin living with anybody in spite of his passionate nature.

Compare the equally Eeyoreish Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard who broke off his engagement to the lovely Regine Olsen, arguably shattering both their hearts and compromising their whole lives (they were passionately in love), because he saw that their relationship had to end in tragedy (one of them had to die first). But they were only young, too young you would think to worry about that.

Danish Eeyore Soren Kierkegaard

Crikey! This might seem extreme to us but it would only have made sense to Larkin...

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel
, not seeing
That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

English Eeyore Larkin with long-term but but not live-in girlfriend Monica Jones

Of course we can all see what he means - he couldn't be deceived by religion and he couldn't buy into what he saw as Epicurean philosophers' sophistry ("specious stuff") about how you "can't fear nothingness".

To me the ability of thoughtful people to enjoy life and thrive in it in spite of Larkin's inexorable logic is a profound mystery, more interesting than questions about the veracity of religion (which most people know the answer to if they are honest with themselves).

Even conventionally religious people may have to address Larkin's oblivion problem because their common sense tells them the truth. Michel de Montaigne feared death - and it stalked him through his daily life - until he had an epiphany. This was precipitated by what is now called a near-death experience when he collided with another horseman when out riding: after that he never feared death again and had a rare old time in spite of some painful kidney stones (now, a chap ejecting one of those through his urethra is probably competition with childbirth).

French Eeyore Montaigne - until age 36 after which he had fun

It would be great to be able to tell you what Montaigne worked out at his moment of truth but, although I am a fan and although he wrote much about the incident and its effect on his thinking, it isn't actually that clear what he means. What he does say, and this is important, is that plenty of sensible people don't fear death overmuch: this is a mystery but it isn't as though some philosophers had found the secret to contentment in life - on the contrary the explanation of the mystery must lie in observing - and engaging in - life, not just in detached theory.

Much depressive illness self-evidently must also have its source in Larkin's problem so there are reasons beyond the philosophical to enquire into this. Personally I feel I mainly inhabit the mysterious rather than the Larkin side of the matter - but I can't say exactly why.


Like Eeyore Larkin had a sense of humour underneath all the grumpiness, perhaps an indication that he could have found his way out of the hole he found himself in. The other of the two greatest poets of the twentieth century, R S Thomas, was even more austere and his sense of humour was well-hidden if just about discernible. They did meet at least once: Larkin described him to his friend Kingsley Amis as "Arsewipe Thomas" - and, in another example of the casual racism which upset Motion so much, said that his one redeeming feature was that at least he didn't seem particularly Welsh!

Welsh Eeyore R S Thomas - really the quintessential Eeyore

Tuesday 10 March 2015

In A Pickle

Many years ago I attended Welsh language evening classes for two hours one evening a week (in winter) at the former Whitland Grammar School.

On the first day two out of a dozen students were late so we started 10 minutes late; the next week four were up to 15 minutes late and we started 15 minutes late; on the third week six were late and we started 20 minutes late (two anyway arrived later than that); on the fourth week there was a similar level of difficulty and the teacher proposed that in future we all agree to start half an hour later but everybody would "undertake to arrive on time".

This attracted much support but I became the most unpopular member of the group by pointing out that I didn't want to stay half an hour later into the evening which this would inevitably involve. The teacher said we wouldn't do that but just do a "reliable" 1.5 hours - this was popular because of course learning a language in a two hour session is hard work. I pointed out that we had paid for 2 hours.

The truth was that this was only in part an example of that very human conspiracy which often occurs between teachers and students to alleviate their shared hardship in the painful process of education. It was actually much more to do with that universal challenge about timekeeping which blights our lives and costs time, money, and peace of mind.

Now as a manager I was never a martinet about timekeeping in the sense of penalising people for being late - and of course I too was occasionally late for work, about twice a year on average I think. But I believe that 90% of lateness is the responsibility of the person who is late, variously a result of their poor planning, but also sometimes rudeness, selfishness, or (and this is the tricky bit) a subconscious desire to sabotage themselves and their own interests or else (I'm afraid) to anger, humiliate, or patronise the other person or people whom they are meeting.

Habitual lateness is not endearing and should not prompt indulgence but some honest observation and offers to help.

These thoughts are prompted by the extraordinary announcement by English local government minister Eric Pickles that motorists will be given 10 minutes "grace" when their car parking ticket or meter expires. He says this will ease the problem of petty officials fining people a minute or two after expiry.

Now I have some time for Pickles as he has a good instinct in wanting to remind local authorities in England that they are there to serve their community not to run them around and get in their way (and who will advocate that LAs in Wales too need reminding of this? Step forward Leighton Andrews AM, our local government minister, who like Pickles is making the right noises about not taking any nonsense from the local bureaucrats).

But this parking thing is just nonsense. A moment's thought will tell you that everybody will just add the 10 minutes to the time they have officially to park and they are just as likely to get back late as they were before - perhaps more so as they have to make the extra effort of adding the 10 minutes to the figure on the ticket or meter with the potential for miscalculation.

And, of course, the citizen will react exactly the same to the wretched warden who slaps a ticket on them - most with resignation and some with verbal abuse or worse.

And what was the upshot in Whitland? My "Twelve Angry Men" protest won the day - it was agreed that the teacher would start the lesson exactly at the original advertised time so long as at least one person was present. The result was that there was little lateness, we got the 2 hours we paid for, and we went home on time.

But the seething resentment towards me remained...

Wednesday 4 February 2015

World Of Seeming

Parmenides as imagined by Raphael

Having slagged off the Imitation Game in my last post I was expecting to do the same with my latest cinema excursion to the Theory of Everything (about Stephen Hawking's first marriage) which my Mum took me to, this time at the excellent Theatr Mwldan in Cardigan.

I assumed this too would be a politically-correct homily to British ingenuity with predictable stereotypes constructed by a committee of right-on producers pressing the buttons of a soft, middle-class audience looking for a benefit-of-hindsight, self-righteous confirmation of their liberal viewpoint: that was certainly what the Imitation Game was about and it increasingly irritates me as I recollect it.

I had a potential further problem of distraction which was that the film was largely shot in St John's College, Cambridge where I went. I was astonished to find that they didn't just use the exterior views but went inside too - so I recognised my own rooms and the choreography of parties between staircases which were no doubt similar in those few years before my own time (the bunk bed didn't ring true - there was squalor enough having to walk across a mediaeval court to get a bath but never bunks).

I should also confess to some prejudice towards Prof Hawking based (unfairly I now feel) on the assumption that he is taken more seriously by reason of his disability.

And yet...

This was a charming and subtle love story, amazingly well-acted, which was hugely uplifting. Talking to my Mum afterwards I realised that oddly the film had no anti-heroes: many including the main characters showed weakness but everybody tried to be decent. That could sound boring but actually it seemed realistic, and why shouldn't it? It was especially surprising that the obvious cheap shot of of having somebody prejudicial towards Hawking's disability was not exploited - amazing. It was also so clever to portray Hawking's development of a sexual relationship with his nurse in a way which was understandable and sympathetic.

See it - it's good for you.


The one weakness in the film was that it tried to make something out of his scientific theories being an antidote to religion. This worked to an extent at a human level, including an understated contrast with his wife - and her lover - having a Christian background. Rather like Darwin's personal and marital dilemma.

But it was a clumsy distraction and, besides, the real Hawking has rightly eschewed that interpretation of his work.

I haven't read Hawking's book any more than the 10 million people who bought it did. But I suspect that he isn't very interested in the implications of his theories for religion, perhaps realising (unlike the messiah of the blindingly obvious Prof Richard Dawkins) that such matters were wholly resolved anyway in the 1780s in Britain - and actually worked through before that by Montaigne and before that by Lucretius, based on what Epicurus said, and first articulated by Parmenides before that (well, on my interpretation). Indeed Parmenides' challenge against the inexorability of time in cosmology is - unsurprisingly for thoughtful philosophers - rather akin to Hawking's theory, surely.

Those people who have been able to complete a career in the world of seeming (as Parmenides described the timeline of history) with time to spare can then look at the world of truth - a sensible way to divide a lifetime, I think and have chosen. This is not the business of Stephen Hawking but perhaps he assists by breaking down the assumptions of the seeming world?

Thursday 29 January 2015


Towy Valley apocalypse - note the sheep trapped on an island - they were rescued later

The apocalyptic weather at the beginning of January - the Towy took over the valley fields - was a reminder of our frail footing in a potentially violent physical world. This has some resonance as I have been reading Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve - How the Renaissance Began, the true story of how in 1417 papal bureaucrat Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered a manuscript of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura (written around 55 BC) in a remote German monastery.

Republication of this humanist epic poem, claims Greenblatt, kick-started the Renaissance, challenged the stale Catholic orthodoxy of those times, and changed the course of history.

This is, frankly, a massive exaggeration but it fits well with an unintentional theme in my own reading and discovery over the last two years and further back...

I have previously commented on schoolboy classicists' highly partial opinions about ancient authors. Hence we all hated Caesar (self-important boaster), Cicero (ditto and self-righteous with it), and Virgil (fawning patriotic propagandist with prissy hero Aeneas).

By contrast we all loved Lucretius whose poem is a great hoot full of greater truths. The Latin title means "On the Nature of Things" and it's a long, scientific analysis of reality covering everything from atomic theory and astronomy to sociology and biology. Underlying it are the twin concepts that the universe doesn't require divine intervention to make sense and, in contrast, life and all matter lead a sort of erotic dance through time which makes up the nature of existence. Madonna put it rather well:

You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl
Some boys romance, some boys slow dance
That's alright with me

Lucretius based his ideas on those of Epicurus - famous for his Carpe Diem philosophy but less so for a fully-fledged cosmological explanation which L was the first to set out. Epicurus lived in Samos which I visited a couple of years back (here I am in his bath...)

And my hero Montaigne followed Epicurus by renouncing public life - as did Horace, another follower who put his political life behind him to retire to his Sabine farm.

And Shakespeare, allegedly a follower of Montaigne (but I doubt it: see this post) - also retired to Stratford relatively young - it is often said because he was "played out" (forgive the Shakespearean pun) but I also doubt that (see this post).


You don't get change from £5 if you have a cup of coffee and a sticky bun in Starbucks but for that price at the cinema in Fishguard on selected mornings you get coffee, sticky buns (or indeed bara brith), and a ticket for the latest film releases - as I found last week.

I last visited this venue (now known as Theatr Gwaun) in 1968 to see Zulu (not a latest release - it came out in 1964 - and no coffee and bun then). I enjoyed it, I recollect, especially as I didn't know who was going to win. I have seen it since more than once and it has slowly evolved from the predictable through self-parody and finally into disinterest although I have found some amusement in singing improbable words along to the Zulus' war chant.

This time the film was less satisfactory - the Imitation Game, all about Bletchley code-cracker and computer whizz Alan Turing.

Now I can see why film-makers have to simplify and manipulate a plot to make it fit the genre etc but this was just risibly unlikely and contrived.  At one point after years of unproductive work the fictional Bletchley team has the brainwave of trying to identify frequently used words in the Germans' messages, a consideration which (duh!) would have been identified on day one obviously.

The last straw was having the fictional Turing blackmailed by reason of his homosexuality into conniving at betrayal of secrets to the Soviets during the war, so reinforcing the stereotype of gay people pre-legalisation being bound to betray their country. Ouch!

This film has received rave reviews.