Author Archive

An Open Letter From One Patient To Another

Dear W,

Sorry to hear the news and good luck with the operation. I’m not a big fan of giving advice – I dread it actually – but I remember feeling lost, pretty much from diagnosis onwards. The below is an effort to at least give a badly drawn map as per Holub’s poem. It may not be a route to anywhere sensible but it is, at least, a route that has been taken.

You’ll do it wrong
I spent most of my time feeling like I was being told off by, or letting down, the people I loved. It wasn’t until in remission when talking to a charming woman at the Marsden hospital, a fellow patient, that I learned we all do it wrong. We were laughing about how cross people got with us. As she said, “I’ve just never managed to have cancer the way people want me to.” Well neither did I. And I suspect neither will you.

Tick, tick, boom
For me, the period before the operation was surreal but fine. Lots of phone calls, medical records, CT scans and the like. Then hospital. Then waking up. And then the slow process of it sinking in. When I was asked before the operation if I was OK, I could honestly say yes. Everyone else seemed far more upset than me. It was only afterwards, when everyone was breathing a sigh of relief, that everything began to unravel. And at that point, everyone else tends to look a bit surprised and ask “What’s wrong?”. It took me a while to realise that there is a delay. It only starts sinking in when most people think you should be fine. I wish I’d been ready for that.

It’s not a cold
I suppose beforehand I’d thought I’d get cancer and then get better in the same way you catch a cold and then recover. You don’t recover, in that it won’t be the same you. You won’t necessarily be worse, or weaker, or better, or stronger, but you won’t be the same. As my Dad said, more succinctly, when I asked him about his prostate cancer and how he coped, “mortality’s a bitch”.

Brief your nearest and dearest
Tell them the following: “Don’t stand on ceremony. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t worry about how I feel. I need your help.”

Ask them to let you know they love you. Ask them to actually say it, not just assume it’s understood. You’ll not feel very lovable and it’s easy to forget. Last but not least, tell them you love them too.

Much of the discomfort I felt came down to a combination of my not wanting to ask for help and (I think) my family, my girlfriend and my friends not wanting to intrude or do things wrong. That was a two-way problem. For me, as the delayed reaction kicked in, and as I started really needing help, I felt more and more of an imposition. Hospitals made me feel like meat, mortality made me feel like a dark cloud. As a result, The one thing I never wanted to have to do was ask for help. Or ask for visits and company. I didn’t want to have to ask for meals to be prepared because chemo was making me sick and exhausted. As far as I was concerned, it was so obvious I needed help and support, putting me in a position where I had to ask for it and actually say something like “Will you come to chemo with me?”

The flip-side, and one I was too self-absorbed to see, was that others needed to feel that they could help and that they were doing things that were useful.

I was lucky in the end. I didn’t realise quite how lucky till a little later. Regardless of how unpleasant, grumpy, and lost I was, friends, family and the woman I loved just turned up. They didn’t ask for permission, they just said they were visiting. They didn’t ask what I wanted to read, they just brought things.

So tell them to turn up whenever they want. I far prefer the memory of struggling to work out what to do with a compulsory two tubs of chicken soup than wondering why colleagues 5 minutes down the road didn’t find time to visit.

Company not consolation
Most people I knew didn’t know how to deal with this sort of illness. Some, and it is usually your closer friends and family, are happy just to squeeze a hand or sit with you and talk crap. Because it is a serious illness, though, other seemed to feel they needed to be more sincere and heartfelt than they normally are. You will almost certainly be called brave, stoic, maybe even a soldier or a trooper. You may hear that it’ll be fine, that you’ll get through this or that people are there for you, whatever you need.

The difficulty is that if, as I did, you spend more than a few nights weeping, feeling scared and feeling alone, all of these platitudes only serve to highlight the fact that it is you, and not them, that is ill. It’s an odd feeling having people visit and them leaving with you feeling worse. But however awkward, it is worth remembering that all the visitors do mean well. It is company, not consolation, that is helps.

Hunt out the happy people
There seems to be a tribe of people who are happy. Not in a forced way, or for show, just happy. Children like this naturally. I loved seeing my nephews destroy my hospital bed. I loved seeing Julia and Luke turn up and be more cheering at that age than I could ever have been. I was lucky enough, too, to meet several in hospital. Beh Zad, who was so cheerful he wanted to chat all the way through the night. Nigel, who’s behind-the-curtains running commentary, during my first barium enema gave me and the nurse fits of giggles. More poetically, I had a bed opposite a cabbie who was a member of this tribe (despite having a stomach that look liked it had been napalmed). I still remember laughing at his argument with his neighbour.

Him: There’s blue sky up there behind the clouds.
Neighbour: And what’s behind that? Space. Infinite bloody nothingness.
Him: Not quite. Space and stars. Infinite nothingness and infinite twinkling possibilities.

The tent-pegs of hope
People of all walks of life will surprise you, in good ways. A dinner lady at work took me under her wing, a nurse burst into tears and gave me a hug, a cleaner in the hospital brought me an unasked for cup of tea, a fellow patient told me I had a good heart, my old babysitter was sister on one of my wards and a bowls champion called Jack came in to see if I was OK because he was worried about me. I found things easier if I made a conscious effort to mark these things down. They’re the tent-pegs of hope.

As a projection it’s almost certainly not going to map onto your circumstances. I do hope it might help in some small way, though and I wish you all the best.


Why 21st Century Education is half-baked

Perhaps it’s the bias of the medium, but spend much time online among teachery types and you come across a whole host of slightly hackneyed tropes. There is the “Shift Happens” video, Sir Ken Robinson, the “guide on the side vs sage on the stage” mantra, factory-model schooling is bunk, and long, well-meaning pieces about 21st century learning like this and this. None of it, I think, is particularly wholesome.

That’s not necessarily because it’s wrong. Yes, there is a lot of waffle around 21st century skills Harry Webb has pointed out, but there is also good sense there in places. Some of it I agree with, some not. But all of it I find disheartening and half-baked.

The OECD have a peculiarly dry piece about the shifts taking place in education and learning. Take this snippet, for example.

“Value is less and less created vertically through command and control-as in the classic “teacher instructs student” relationship-but horizontally, by whom you connect and work with, whether online or in person. In other words, we are seeing a shift from a world of stocks, where knowledge is stored up but not exploited, and so depreciates rapidly, to a world of flows, where knowledge is energised and enriched by the power of communication and constant collaboration. This will become the norm. Barriers will continue to fall as skilled people appreciate, and build on, different values, beliefs and cultures.”

Well, hooray for the focus on learning communities, but does anyone else find this sort of thing soulless, almost completely so? It is education as management speak, learning as an economic need.


Today, though, I came across a piece by Cyril Norwood.

The education that has so far been given to the people is at most partial and second best, and has little in common whether in range or in spirit with the universal education that may be. It was but the least possible with which the people would be contented and it was calculated to equip not citizens but servants… But education has to fit us for something … so incomparably precious that it will save a man from being a mere unit, a cipher: it will give him a life of his own, independent of the machine. And therefore at any cost our education must never sink to the level at which it will be merely vocational.

This has crystallized matters for me and made me realise quite why I think 21st century education is half-baked. In all of its rhetoric, the focus is on the learner; that, I believe, is “a good thing”. 21st century learning focuses, though, on the learner almost solely as an economic unit, as “a cipher” that needs preparing for a job that doesn’t yet exist. In doing so, it ignores the learner as a human, as a person with hopes and aspirations beyond the machine. Education, as Sir Cyril says, should never merely be training.

People vs Ideas

Ed Catmull might be my new hero.

“Which is more valuable, good ideas or good people?

No matter whether I was talking to retired business executives or students, to high school principals or artists, when I asked for a show of hands, the audiences would be split 50–50. (Statisticians will tell you that when you get a perfect split like this, it doesn’t mean that half know the right answer—it means that they are all guessing, picking at random, as if flipping a coin.) People think so little about this that, in all these years, only one person in an audience has ever pointed out the false dichotomy.

To me, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.

In any given Pixar film, every line of dialogue, every beam of light or patch of shade, every sound effect is there because it contributes to the greater whole. In the end, if you do it right, people come out of the theater and say, “A movie about talking toys—what a clever idea!” But a movie is not one idea, it’s a multitude of them. And behind these ideas are people. This is true of products in general; the iPhone, for example, is not a singular idea—there is a mindboggling depth to the hardware and software that supports it. Yet too often, we see a single object and think of it as an island that exists apart and unto itself.

To reiterate, it is the focus on people—their work habits, their talents, their values—that is absolutely central to any creative venture. “

Reasonable Doubt

I like this story to explain reasonable doubt. (From Sam Leith’s wonderful “You talkin to me?“)

“A man is in the dock, accused of murdering his wife. Although the body was never recovered, all the evidence points to the defendant: his car boot was filled with baling twine, bloodstained hammers, torn items of his wife’s clothing and suchlike. He had abundant motive – as the cashing in of a huge insurance policy taken out on the eve of his wife’s death demonstrates. And no sooner was his wife reported missing than he was holidaying in the Maldives with his pneumatically enhanced twenty-three-year-old mistress, his Facebook page filled with photographs of him in a pair of Speedos and a snorkel, grinning his murderous head off.

Nevertheless, his lawyer at trial pulls off a remarkable coup de théâtre.

‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,’ he says. ‘The prosecution has presented you with a mountain of evidence that tends to show that my client is guilty of the crime with which he has been charged. But that evidence means nothing. For not only is my client not guilty of his wife’s murder, but no murder has in fact taken place. My client’s wife is alive and well. And I can prove it. It is now five minutes to midday. At precisely midday, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, those doors over there will open –’ he indicates the main doors into the courtroom with a flourishing sweep of the arm – ‘and my client’s wife will walk through them into the court.’

Gasps, naturally, go all round. For the next five minutes, the eyes of the presiding judge, the jury and every functionary of the court are glued to the main doors. Eventually, the heavy hands of the courtroom clock tick round to midday and a solemn bong is heard. The doors remain tight shut.

‘Well?’ says the judge. ‘Your promised miracle has not materialised.’

‘Indeed not,’ replies the defending barrister. ‘But every single one of you was watching those doors in the expectation that it would. In the absence of a body, that is surely an object demonstration that there remains a reasonable doubt over my client’s responsibility for his wife’s disappearance.’

‘Very good,’ says the judge. ‘However, I ask the jury to note that the only person in the courtroom not watching the doors was your client.’”