Wednesday 29 June 2011


I must admit I am so chilled on my holiday that I only caught up this morning with news of the "Taking the Wheel" campaign which reached Denbigh Town Hall yesterday.

Hafal Practice Leader Caroline Jones reports: "We've had a good discussion on how people with serious mental illness can take control of their lives."

Speaking on what empowered her, service user and carer Ann Edwards, 52, said: "Finding the right medication has been the greatest help for me.

"I had a breakdown when I was 24. Everything got on top of me, it was bewildering. However, it didn't take me long to find the right medication. There have been side-effects, it makes me put on weight, but I'd say my medication has been the main thing that's kept my schizophrenia under control, that's kept me balanced."

Ann cares for her husband, who also has a serious mental illness. She says attending carers' meetings has helped her manage her caring duties and her own recovery.

She said: "Going to meetings helps me a lot. I've made a few friends and found that sharing my thoughts with others makes me feel less alone.

"I get stressed at times, sometimes I have a little cry, but I've learned to manage my illness myself. I make the decisions about my recovery. I sort out a lot of things for my partner and me, we work together."

Caroline says that while it is crucial that clients are involved in choosing the right medication "this is only part of Hafal's broad ‘Whole Person' approach to recovery which encourages our clients to look at a variety of areas in their life including issues like accommodation, finance, training and education."

Quite so, Caroline, and you can see our recovery guide here.

Now I am off for another scramble around the coast (smothered in sun-block having turned beetroot in yesterday's uninterrupted sunshine) followed by more fishing. Will the elusive bass fall to my running ledger cast at low water beyond the tidal zone? Almost certainly not but hey-ho.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Noisy Clown

I'm on holiday (my mate Nick says it's pretentious and self-important to say you're "on leave" and I think he's right) and today I achieved a dubious variation on the triathlon concept - a 9 mile walk, 4 mile cycle ride, and 50 yard swim. The last bit was unimpressive not by reason of the cumulative physical strain but because the temperature is somewhere between "Titanic" and "The Cruel Sea". You can just see me in the picture framed by two tankers waiting to get into Milford Haven. I brought my shorty wet-suit (Asda £12.99) to the beach but don't wear it as it's a bit wussy to cheat unless you are snorkeling or similar.

I have also polished my Ray Mears credentials by finding a big specimen of parasol mushroom (macrolepiota procera) which we enjoyed for breakfast. It's great just fried in butter but our Mitteleuropäischer cousins (especially the Bohemians) like to dip it in egg and breadcrumbs first and make an excellent veggie schnitzel (usual warning - don't pick unusual mushrooms without expert advice unless you are yourself an expert: mistakes can be fatal).


The idea of Central Europeans as cousins is topical. We heard earlier in the week that geneticists have established that English people are closely related to the Germans. This was hardly a surprise as everybody knows that England was run, with a bit of help from the Romans, by the Welsh (then called Ancient Brits) until the Germans (then called Angles and Saxons) arrived and pushed them back to the fringes. But the Sun newspaper is agitated about this news and has provided practical self-testing tools for worried English people to check their propensity for humourlessness, leather shorts, beach-towel crimes, megalomaniacal bids for world domination, etc. But Sun readers will no doubt reflect carefully and appreciate that they are as much the cousins of Handel, Goethe and Frederick the Great as they are of that noisy clown Richard Wagner, wicked supremacist Oswald Spengler, and, yes, him. We can all choose which of our relations we should emulate.

Monday 27 June 2011

More Pollacks

It's my birthday and I spend it fishing with my brother in West Wales at a favourite "mark" which involves a difficult climb down a cliff on a promontory overlooking St Brides Bay (my picture shows the view higher up looking west to the scattering of rocks south of Ramsey Island). But the reward is being able to cast into deep water and so increase the chance of good size fish - pollack, mackerel, disappointing wrasse or highly-prized bass - especially in not so good weather and modest tides, both conditions applying today.

We find an elderly lady already down there using sand-eel under a float. She explains that she is a widow whose husband on his death-bed earnestly begged her to promise him not to climb down this very cliff after he was gone, an understandable request as it is a dangerous spot. But she was clear at that time that she would climb the cliff in future to fish. So I said "Did you tell him a white lie to put him at his ease?" She was surprised by this and said that on the contrary she told him she could not make the promise. On reflection I think she made the right ethical call on this. It is a mistake to over-indulge people nearing death about matters in the future. She may have given her husband a little anxiety but I dare say he respected her honesty. And of course she could go ahead and take the risk of climbing the cliff in future (as she had for some years) without a qualm.

Feathers don't work so I try a rag-worm 5 feet under a float. Nothing happens when I cast it 30 yards and leave it for 15 minutes but when I reel it in it is grabbed violently when it is just a few feet from the rocks. The rod bends double when I strike and a huge pollack is landed with some difficulty, sufficient for my and Mrs B's dinner. That's all we catch but the old lady very kindly gives us two pollack which my brother takes home for his dinner.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Môn Mam Cymru

Hafal's intrepid microbus crossed the water courtesy of Thomas Telford to Wales' premier island bringing the “Taking the Wheel” campaign to Holyhead where service users and carers have been discussing the campaign’s theme of empowerment during today’s event.

Hafal's family worker Cathrin Jones (pictured above with some of the state-of-the-art touch-screen technology with which the vintage van is rammed) reports:

“We’ve had a good discussion on how people with serious mental illness can take control of their lives today.

“One factor often neglected is that users have their own caring or parenting responsibilities. For example among the service users we support on the island there are people who as well as dealing with their own mental illness have partners with physical disabilities.

“Users' own caring responsibilities are covered as one of the eight life areas in the Mental Health (Wales) Measure and we certainly hope it’s something that is included in the new Care and Treatment Plans which come into force when the Measure is implemented on January 1st 2012.

“Unfortunately, this issue has often been neglected in the past as there is a tendency to concentrate on immediate symptoms of service users’ illness rather than also looking at their wider life including their responsibilities for others.”

Good point. We await publication of the Measure's Regulations following the recent consultation - we fear that there won't be consistent planning for patients' responsibilities as mums or dads or other caring duties unless there's a specific place in the Care and Treatment Plan format to record it in (or to confirm that they don't have any such responsibilities for the time being)...

Giraldus Cambrensis called Ynys Môn the "Mother of Wales" because of her alleged capacity to feed the country. He couldn't have predicted that she would also be able to heat and light much of Wales with her two Wylfa nuclear reactors pumping out nearly one billion watts (output which might more than double if they replace the reactors).


I am contemplating the excellent feedback we had last week from a major training event on treatments for serious mental illness. We went into detail about both medical and talking therapies, assisted by our good friend and leading Welsh mental health pharmacist Wendy Davies from Cardiff and Vale LHB and the pioneering team of talking therapists from Hywel Dda LHB.

Discussion about antipsychotic and other mental health drugs has been clouded in ideological squabbling over the years, between the antipsychiatric "movement" on the one hand and over-defensive doctors on the other. Much of this debate has left out the people who matter - the patients and their families who aren't interested in philosophical hair-splitting about the nature of mental illness but who do want the best treatments available to aid recovery and improve the quality of their lives.

Information, negotiation, and being prepared to try things out are the way forward for patients who still often find it hard to get their own view heard let alone be offered choices.

I do think there is an important but neglected point which has been lost in the fog of controversy. Some patients (by no means all) tell us rationally enough that the side effects arising from their specific experience of antipsychotic medication for them outweigh benefits which they acknowledge (of course sometimes treatment just doesn't help but that's quite another matter) so that they want to discuss whether they might manage better without medication.

I do not detect much sympathy for this group of patients who are not behaving irrationally, still less trying to make an antipsychiatric point, but trying to achieve the best result for themselves. However, they are often labelled "non-compliant" and lumped together with patients who might indeed be failing to take their medication by reason of their mental illness.

Nobody is pretending that it is easy to distinguish rational and less rational reasons why patients form their opinions about medication but there should be much more effort put into talking therapies which directly address symptoms of serious mental illness or else assist people to adapt themselves to live successfully with their symptoms rather than take drugs which can severely debilitate them.

Is it not reasonable, for example, for some people who hear voices to wish to come to terms with that symptom and avoid using powerful and toxic drugs in an attempt to dampen down or remove those voices, if that works better for them? But where is the support for such an approach? Is it considered seriously as an option?

Of course this isn't going to work for everybody and may indeed only be a serious option for a minority of those with psychotic symptoms, at least on the basis of current knowledge (whereas the use of medication for lower level mental health problems could and should be drastically reduced). Our strong advice is that patients do not stop taking or reduce their medication without discussing the issues with their doctor. But there is no harm in asking, especially if you are having a lot of problems with side-effects (and, anyway, a different drug might improve matters).

For Hafal's comprehensive guide to treatments for severe mental illness, both medical and psychological, see here.

Monday 20 June 2011


There is no simple explanation of why Shakespeare wrote such a nasty play as The Taming of the Shrew, a production of which by the Festival Players Theatre Company I saw yesterday in Dinefwr Park.

There is much good stuff in the play but you can't get away from the essentials of the plot which involves the bullying and abuse of a single-minded woman into submissive, blind obedience by her jocular and borderline psychopathic husband, apparently a satisfactory result for the playwright. People who don't know Shakespeare well might find this unsurprising, considering the play was written over 400 years ago, but in fact this is quite out of character for the open-minded WS who wrote good parts for women (well, men playing women) and clearly had no perception of them being in any way inferior.

Some people think that the Merchant of Venice is also a "problem play" because of the portrayal of Shylock but it has never seemed to me that the play is antisemitic - Shylock is indeed wicked but also all there as a human being. But there's no getting round the discomfort of this play.

In recent years many actresses have played Katherine's submissive speech at the end of the play with heavy irony, implying that she doesn't mean it but is somehow playing along for laughs or to avoid further abuse. But that is a bit desperate and hats off to this production for playing it straight and letting the audience judge for themselves.

Maybe the only explanation is that Shakespeare was crudely and unjustifiably expiating some fiercely held personal feelings (if so this was unusual because his work is frustratingly short on clues to his personality). Did he leave Stratford because he was bullied by Anne Hathaway? Or was there another woman he had taken up with in London who ran him around? Only the discovery of a cache of his private letters will tell us. I once shocked the Church Warden of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, by suggesting that they dig him up and see what was buried with him, notwithstanding the curse he placed on his grave...

Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,
To digg the dvst encloased heare.
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he yt moves my bones.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Every Little Helps

The “Taking the Wheel” campaign microbus reached Ebbw Vale Tesco's today in the unseasonal rain but spirits were not dampened.

Hafal Practice Leader Pam Johnson said: “We’ve been particularly interested in looking at how service users can take control of their recovery by creating their own recovery plans – a key area in the Taking the Wheel campaign.

“Today staff and clients were talking about an exciting new development which means service users can gain qualifications accredited by Agored as part of their work in developing and implementing their own recovery plan."

Indeed they can - contact Irene Hogan at our Training Centre for details.

Interesting factoid: apparently Tesco takes 1 in every 9 pounds spent by shoppers (a figure I don't find hard to believe as they seem to get most of mine).

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Time for a Haircut

I like Hafal's Dave Smith's personal story about stigma which he tells us as the new Time to Change initiative is launched this week by Hafal and our partners Gofal and Mind Cymru (see the story and further details of the campaign here).

Dave, who is on the Time to Change Wales project board, says: "The story I always tell about stigma relates to one occasion when I got my hair cut. The hairdresser said: "Day off work?" I said: "Yes, I have every Monday off." She asked me what I did for a living: I told her I worked at a mental health project helping people to recover from serious mental illness. She said that was a good line of work to be in and asked: "What got you into that?" I told her that I had a mental illness myself and suddenly the speed of the scissors literally doubled! She couldn't get me out of the shop fast enough!"

The three mental health charities have joined forces to launch the new national programme which aims to challenge the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness. The campaign is funded by the Big Lottery, Comic Relief and the Welsh Government.

Dave explains further: "During the campaign there will be a strong emphasis on combating discrimination by giving the public the opportunity to hear the stories of people with lived experience of serious mental illness. The campaign will not be about criticising people for their lack of knowledge on mental health matters; it will be all about giving them good information and providing opportunities for understanding. There will be no finger-wagging."

Hair-dressing venues - male, female, or mixed - make an interesting reference point for measuring levels of discrimination. Throughout my youth the gents' barber shop in Ammanford provided me with valuable insights into prevailing attitudes as they changed in the 1970s. I well remember the first female barber being taken on and the large sign telling customers that they could wait for a male cutter if they preferred. I recall that the very young and very old were happy with the revolutionary concept of a woman cutting their hair but the middle-aged (people my age now I suppose) often took up the option to refuse (and it's a sure bet that sales of prophylactics dropped like a stone). I was fine with it though I recall some embarrassment as a teenager having my hair cut by a lady barber in late and evidently uncomfortable pregnancy - frankly an intimate experience and it was all she could do to reach across to my head with the electric clippers.

Monday 13 June 2011

The "Smoke" and Mirrors

An eventful and extravagant weekend in the "Smoke", "Great Wen", or whatever you choose to call England's venerable capital city.

On Saturday we celebrate Mrs Blog's birthday at Welsh-Italian chef-off-the-TV Angela Hartnett's Murano restaurant in Mayfair. We last went soon after it opened three years ago when Hartnett was still working under Gordon Ramsay but she is doing just as well independently. The £30 lunch is a best kept secret - not disastrously expensive and every mouthful exquisite and served by the most professional team. Best dish a ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon juice) of bream - sensational (or "historic" as Michael Winner would put it).

After that we stroll up Piccadilly to see Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit at the Apollo Theatre with a celebrity cast including Alison Steadman, Hermione Norris, Robert Bathurst and Ruthie Henshall (who gets my Oscar playing the spiteful ghost of first wife Elvira). The production is fine - "workmanlike" is the word I'm looking for - but doesn't fully zing or quite bring out the subtle satire on the self-satisfied toffs which Coward intends. Nevertheless a memorable performance.

On Sunday we motor up from Farnham to the South Bank in order to board the "Golden Salamander", a panelled and mirrored old gin palace with two fine salons hired for the afternoon by my Mum to celebrate her birthday. 60 guests, family and friends from Wales, England and further afield, some of whom I haven't seen for many years, enjoy lunch and refreshments as the stately vessel glides easily down to Greenwich then fights the tide back up to the Festival Hall. The Thames is a grand river and this is a great way to see London in style.

The Great Wen (meaning "boil" or any source of corruption) is a coinage of soldier, MP, and defender of the rural poor William Cobbett (1763 - 1835) whose grave in St Andrew's, Farnham my brother and I inspect on Saturday evening. Cobbett, who served two years in prison for seditious journalism, distrusted paper money, bankers, and other financial speculators; and he blamed tea for weakening the nation because (Public Health officials please look away now) it had replaced beer as the breakfast beverage of choice for the British labourer. He also wrote excellent advice on gardening including this tip for killing slugs - fill a small cloth bag with lime, then walk up and down the garden after dark patting it vigorously so that a cloud of the powder descends on the ground. Any slug touched by the lime is a goner. This actually works. You really cannot afford not to read this Blog.

Friday 10 June 2011

Quibbles and Nitpicking

Take a look at the new Attitudes to Mental Illness - 2011 Survey Report. This makes interesting reading and, although the authors emphasise some positive changes, the change since 1994 is pretty slight and there are evidently a number of areas where there has been no positive change.

Also, am I being picky or does the report make some rather simplistic assumptions about what is a good or bad attitude to mental illness? For example, it is assumed that it is "good" to agree with the statement "Mental illness is an illness like any other". Of course we know what they are driving at but actually many reasonable people would not agree, believing that physical illnesses as a group share obvious characteristics not shared by mental illness. So how many people not agreeing are perfectly reasonable people without prejudice and not ignorant about the facts about mental illness?

And another one: it is assumed that you are out of touch, ignorant, or prejudiced if you don't agree with the statement "Mental hospitals are an outdated means of treating people with mental illness". Again you know what they are trying to get at but this is sloppily expressed because the most progressive approach to treatment would acknowledge the role of the right sort of mental hospital in the treament of some patients some of the time.

Looking at the statistics suggests to me that younger people may have refused to accept the "politically correct" but actually sloppy and simplistic statements not through prejudice but because they analysed the statements rather carefully. Anyway here are the suspect stats...

Notwithstanding my quibbles and nitpicking this is an important report and gives valuable insights into how we might influence attitudes and behaviour not through preachy condemnation but through information and, above all, promoting contact and discussion between the public and people affected by mental illness.

Thursday 9 June 2011


There is much attention today on Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s embattled position on sentencing reform. The Sun has him on their front page as a Teletubby living in Laa-Laa Land – ie out of touch with what (the Sun asserts) the public wants to be done to offenders. All this is overshadowing the closely-connected issue of women in prison and the report published this week by the Women’s Justice Taskforce. Allow me to rehearse some of what’s in that report...

Over the past 15 years the women’s prison population has risen from 1,800 to over 4,000 today – an increase of 114%. Most women serve short sentences for non-violent crime and for those serving sentences of less than 12 months, almost two thirds are re-convicted within a year of release. The average cost of a women’s prison place is £56,415 a year. By contrast, an intensive community order costs in the region of £10,000 - £15,000.

The Taskforce was established in 2010 to take a fresh look at an old problem this time focusing on the economics, structure and accountability of women’s justice. Its membership includes senior representatives from the Magistrates’ Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, probation, prisons, women’s centres, politics, the media and former offenders.

The report makes clear that the current economic climate and the government’s proposed overhaul of the justice system provide a timely opportunity to look again at how women’s justice is delivered. The government's programme to reduce unnecessary imprisonment should be accelerated, and the money saved from the women’s prison estate reinvested to support effective services for female offenders in the community. Many of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside of the justice system in health, housing, and treatment for drug addiction and, of course, mental illness.

Women released from custody having served a sentence of less than 12 months are more likely to reoffend than those who received a community order; in 2008 the difference in proven reoffending rates was 8.3%. An estimated 17,700 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment and only 5% of them remain in their own home while their mother is in custody.

However, while women’s prisons are funded centrally through the National Offender Management Service, women’s centres rely on a wide range of funding sources to enable them to supervise court orders and deliver services for vulnerable women in their area. The Taskforce heard evidence from the manager of one centre that was reliant on 37 different funding streams, with a mixture of statutory and non-statutory sources, all with different methods of evaluation and reporting arrangements.

There is a crying need to get serious about diversion based on good evidence of what works (and not what the Sun says), to close women’s prisons and to reinvest in mental health and other services.

Hafal’s Link Service has a specialist team assisting Welsh women prisoners in the two main prisons which take women from Wales, Eastwood Park and Styal. Our experience bears out what the Taskforce is saying. No amount of reform of the present system or good will from professionals will make prison an effective, humane, or cost-effective means to deal with the great majority of women prisoners of whom some 30% have a serious mental illness and far more have lesser but significant mental health problems.

I challenge anybody to name a greater, ongoing scandal in our society than the treatment by the state of those 30% of women and 10% of male prisoners with a serious mental illness. Britain’s prisons are anyway a matter for public shame as repeated reports by HM Inspector show. But that we knowingly place people so seriously ill and vulnerable within these dangerous and dysfunctional environments is diabolical.

See the Taskforce's report here and for details of Hafal's Criminal Justice Link Service go here.

If you disagree with me then my therapeutic advice is to deal with your punitive apoplexy by playing the Sun's "Lob a Hush Puppy at Ken Clarke" game here until you've got it out of your system and start to see reason...

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Good Will, Flexibility and Patience

Following her visit to Ceredigion last week the microbus has crossed the Teifi and thrashed her tiny air-cooled engine to arrive safely at Guildhall Square, Carmarthen today for my home county's "Taking the Wheel" event.

Hafal's lead in Carmarthenshire Jonathan Willey says: "A display of the work our project provides has taken pride of place at our event today. There's been plenty of refreshments and information on hand for visitors too. Those who've wished to test their knowledge of mental health have taken part in our mental health driving test quiz which has proved a lot of fun.

"Our popular campaign camper van and racing simulator have been on hand for visitors to view and enjoy; visitors have been able literally to ‘take the wheel' as they've raced in the simulator which has been exciting."

Clive Evans, 47, who has schizophrenia and attends the Hafal Ammanford Resource Centre talks eloquently about how he has taken the wheel: “Since moving to Ammanford two years ago my life has changed completely thanks to support from Hafal Ammanford, Sŵn y Gwynt Community Mental Health Team and friends.

“I feel that for the first time in my life people have listened to me and what I need. Hafal helped me put together a programme to make changes which led to me reducing my medication, joining a gym and learning how to use a computer. I feel I’ve come a long way in a few years. Hafal staff have provided me with the support to make positive changes to my life; I now have freedom to move on after many wasted years.”

Yesterday I bumped into colleagues from MDF the Bipolar Organisation and the Mental Health Foundation - our two partners in the Campaign - and we agreed the initiative is going really well. A quick reminder that the Campaign aims to support patients to...

- Take the driving seat in managing their own recovery from mental illness

- Make use of their new rights under the Mental Health Measure

- Make choices about the care and treatment they receive – and who provides them

- Develop and manage services themselves

- Engage with the providers of mental health services so that they can get more involved in planning and commissioning those services

Meanwhile a quick tribute to Andrew Macintosh, his two stalwart volunteers David and Morgan, and the other staff and volunteers keeping the bus on the road. As you can imagine the 22 local events plus two big shows present major challenges in organisation and staffing. Hafal doesn't have any fancy, dedicated display team so all this requires a lot of good will, flexibility and patience - not least when the 21st century car alarm system lets us down yet again while the 1960s German engineering carries on reliably!

Next stop Blaenau Gwent...


Sunday 5 June 2011

Watteau Jeeves

What do you think of my newly acquired landscape? The frame is a bit wonky but otherwise a fine piece. It is not a French landscape picked up for 8m euros (the going rate for a Watteau) but was easily composed by me today using handy frames positioned by the National Trust which seems to have got a sense of humour at long last (see the step-back view below).

Equally quirky the Trust has installed "talking seats" one of which I tried out today. Some seats apparently have the voice of the definitive player of Jeeves (and campaigner against discrimination towards people with a mental illness) Stephen Fry but mine had that of the naturalist Iolo Williams who talked me through the scenery very personably. See the unlikely story of the seats here.

I also enjoyed an interesting take on the late 18C French political landscape (spot the forced link) in Trinity College Carmarthen's Scarlet Pimpernel with a particularly sinister Chauvelin (those "damned Frenchies'" wily head of covert operations) played by a woman. The Pimpernel also turned out to be female (the character not just the actor) in this version. And why not? The original author Baroness Orczy could scarcely complain that this deviation from her improbable plot stretched credulity any further.

Friday 3 June 2011


Monte Carlo has nothing on this. Today's stage of the "Taking the Wheel" Welsh Rally finds the chrome on our 1964 VW microbus catching the intense sun-light as it glides around the scenic corniche overlooking Cardigan Bay and comes to a dignified halt on the sea-front in Aberystwyth.

Anna Bellingham, Hafal's Aberystwyth-based Training and Development Manager, says: "Our popular campaign camper van and racing simulator is on hand for visitors to view and enjoy; visitors are literally able literally to ‘take the wheel' as they race in a camper van rally simulator which is proving to be a lot of fun. There's plenty of information on serious mental illness available for people to take away, too."

Anna says the message from service users to come out of today's event is one that resonates throughout Wales, that is the lack of move-on accommodation for service users currently having 24-hour support."

Service-user led organisations Hafal and MDF the Bipolar Organisation Cymru have joined forces with the Mental Health Foundation to support the campaign which will empower people with serious mental illness to:

• Take the driving seat in managing their own recovery from serious mental illness.

• Make use of their new rights under the Mental Health (Wales) Measure.

• Make choices about the care and treatment they receive – and who provides them.

• Develop and manage services themselves.

• Engage with the providers of mental health services so that they can get involved in planning and commissioning those services.


Believe it or not the Prince of Monaco attended a St David's Day luncheon in Monte Carlo this March which was also graced by one of our Principality's respected royalty - I mean of course Dame Shirley Bassey. What the Prince made of the Welsh rabbit and cawl on the menu was not reported. Although, come to think about it, just as Aberystwyth on a sunny day looks very like Monte Carlo so too Monegasque cuisine is oddly familiar: Barbagiuan (a cheese'n'leek pastie - no really, I kid you not); Socca (a heavy pancake - what we call a crempog). At the risk of sounding disloyal I wonder if like us they go to France if they want something decent to eat.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

As Flat As Any Flounder

Still oppressed somewhat by minor health problems (now including gout in my big toe) I managed to get out on this last long weekend when my friend Nick comes to stay. I gave him some options and he rejects fishing in favour of visiting the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival.

This was in general as annoying as last year (see this post) but the trip was made worthwhile by a lecture by Adam Nicolson about his book on the making of the King James or "Authorised" Bible in the early 17th Century. When God Spoke English makes intriguing reading as the largely forgotten committee which "project-managed" the translation comprised some surprising and far from puritanical characters.

For example, the poor old Dean of St Paul's, John Overall (who went to the same college as me and Nick though he must have worked harder than us we agree), had cleverly managed to woo and marry one Anne Orwell, reputedly the most gorgeous girl in the realm. But he was so busy translating the Bible that she strayed with a passing Yorkshire aristocrat. As the courtiers versed cruelly...

The Dean of St Paul's did search for his wife
And where d'ye think he found her?
Even upon Sir John Selby's bed,
As flat as any flounder

Nicolson also enlivens his talk by comparing the Bible project with the Millennium Dome fiasco which he had a part in as some kind of official historian. But as he admits the comparison breaks down in as much as, unlike the Bible, the Dome was a spectacular waste of time and money without any useful legacy.

Incidentally Nicolson, son of the writer Nigel Nicolson and grandson of the writers Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson, also wrote the excellent Sea Room about the remote and uninhabited Shiant Isles in the Hebrides.

Like last year I'm keen to get away from the self-congratulatory atmosphere at the Festival so we head off to the ruins of Llanthony Abbey, the Dissolution of which was a consequence of the Reformation just as it later brought about the creation of James's Bible. As a good Catholic Nick mourns the passing of this ancient priory but I unsympathetically point out that the ruins are picturesque and the old crypt is now a pub. So Henry VIII wasn't all wrong.


James I also had gout and the illness has traditionally been associated with privilege. However, although the highest incidence of this painful condition in the UK is in affluent Surrey the second highest is... Merthyr Tydfil. So I feel reasonably democratic in my mercifully mild suffering.