Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: January, 2016

The joy of swimming alone in Adulthood II

For ten minutes one morning last week, I had the swimming pool all  to myself. There are few things at my stage of life more sublime than swimming through unbroken water. I even had a guardian angel sitting in his high chair to look over me.  Perhaps, I thought, I should hire the swimming pool for my exclusive use.

I am not in that league of the 62 billionaires camped out in Davos  who own half the world’s wealth.  Incredibly I am , according to Oxfam , among  the privileged 1% of the richest people in the world. This means I can afford a season ticket at Prudhoe Waterworld and could even hire the entire complex for a day if allowed to do so.

But my morning swim is as much about belonging to the select group of early birds who brave the waters at that time in the morning. The backchat  at the end of the lane or under the showers about  the cost of dental treatment, the declining health of our parents or  the poor performance of the football team  are all part of a long running soap opera. In some cases, these are people I have  seen with their clothes off for over twenty years.

I was presented with a tee shirt last week by one of the other swimmers inscribed with the words “I swim therefore I am.” So, I take this opportunity, on a week, when this column has been shunted  from a Monday to a Tuesday  to restate who I am.

In case you are under any illusion, this column is really all about me. Some weeks this underlying theme is more cleverly disguised than on others. As any longstanding reader may recall, I am a man struggling with retirement. Aged 66, I stand on the diving board of what the American social anthropologist, Mary Catherine Bateson, calls Adulthood II. Should I jump in and make a splash?

It is the age of “active wisdom”, according to Bateson in her book ‘Composing a Further Life’ lasting twenty years or so if we are lucky. Full time work is completed and infirmity has not descended like a fog around us.  If I make it to the grand old age of ninety, I have a one in three chance of dementia.

It is “a time for perspective and reflection combined with the willingness to consider new ideas and acquire new skills, to speak up about issues that will affect future generations, particularly issues of the environment, and engage in bringing that future to pass”  Don’t our cousins  have the gift of the gab?

Bateson says that Adulthood II is a gift and offers new choices. In my case, there is an additional  gift  of a small pile of pills  prescribed  to maintain my membership. My choices depend partly  on the buoyancy of economies on the far side of the world but which somehow pay my pension.

It may take time to assess the possibilities, Bateson warns.  I emphasised this point to Jean Burnside, who retires this week after leading St Chads and then the Key Project brilliantly in a  voluntary sector career spanning thirty years.  Enjoy  the sunshine I tell her, but It will take more than a week in Madeira  to adjust to the next stage of your life.

“Old men ought to be explorers” T S Eliot believed but few he feared “found new lands”.  There is however no harm in looking.  I am increasingly convinced that one should sail, if not swim, towards such uncharted territories without looking back.

However this past week  Simon Stewart, the man with the impossible job of running the NHS,  has  said the government should be cutting back on the generous benefits  available to the twoers in order to fund their needs later in life. He calls for a new political consensus on how to fund social care to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS in 2018.

Pensioners are pandered to by the politicians because they turn up at the ballot box . The triple lock on pensions means that the extra 2.5% in my pocket  every year until 2020 will prevent the Chancellor meeting his deficit reduction target. The extra 2% allowed  for local authorities to spend on social care will go nowhere near meeting the needs of those at the end of their lives. Stewart goes up in my estimation for speaking the unspeakable.

I was amused that one of the elderly ring leaders of the Hatton Garden heist travelled to the scene of the crime on his Freedom pass. As a lifelong criminal, this was a man hanging on to Adulthood  and that was his downfall.

I will myself brandish my bus pass next week to travel to Hexham for the ever popular Hexham Debates on justice, peace and democracy. The ninth series starts next Saturday at 11am at St March Church  with a talk by Professor  Chris Kilsby from Newcastle University on why we need to hurry to tackle climate change. The hall will be full of twoers changing the world so get there early if you want a seat.

published in The Journal Tuesday 26th January 2016

photo taken by Jan Hepburn in Sydney Australia

More oz 004

Raise a glass of your finest wine to Sally Davies for telling us to drink much less

I raise a glass to propose the health of Dame Sally Davies. She is brave to recommend that we all drink much less. When I first heard the news, I wondered if this might just be a tipping point in our love affair with alcohol.

I should explain that I go back a long way with the demon drink. Quite by chance, my first real job was working in a psychiatric hospital with alcoholics. In the mid seventies, alcoholism was seen as a disease that bore no relation to how the rest of us enjoyed a drink.

In the mid eighties, I was running one of the first public health campaigns to promote the idea of sensible drinking levels for everyone. There was growing support for the idea that the incidence of alcohol problems was linked to the rising level of alcohol consumption. Then I moved to a new job in Newcastle and the rest is history.

I have continued to be bemused by our recreational use of a dangerous drug with ever greater abandon. As a nation and as a civilisation, the vast majority of us mange the stresses and strains of life in a partly pickled state.

If going fishing is the most popular participant sport, going drinking must be the most popular social activity. A huge industry does its best to encourage us to indulge. My convenience store gives over ever more space to the bottle department and bars in town give discounts for triples.

There is a considerable deficit cost of alcohol related accidents, injuries, crime and abuse estimated by Alcohol Concern at £21bn a year. The connection between social drinking and problem drinking  is now taken for granted.

As a social historian, I wonder whether our obsession with alcohol will seem as strange in years to come as the gin palaces of the eighteenth century or the opium dens of the nineteenth century now seem today. Drugs of choice change.

Who would have predicted fifty years ago that smoking would have become so vilified, to the extent that I feel sorry for smokers huddled outside their office building or hospital ward. They get all the best gossip, a smoker colleague tells me.

The main reason for the decline in smoking was the increasingly strong evidence that smoking causes cancer. Smokers have a one in two chance of developing cancer. Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer of Health presents just the same evidence for alcohol consumption. Drinking even modestly increases the chance of cancer and about 60 other diseases.

In the first revision of ‘safe’ drinking limits for twenty years, informed by the latest scientific evidence studied over two years by panels of experts, we are advised to restrict alcohol intake to 14 units a week, for both men and women, and to have several alcohol free days each week. At this level, we have just under 1% chance of dying from alcohol use.

In bar room terms, this means an average of a pint of beer or a glass of wine a day. And this means that it will difficult to enjoy a night out or a meal with friends as we have come to know and love it. The new guidelines will take all the fun out of drinking.

No soon was the ink dry on her 44 page closely argued and referenced report, than the critics condemned Sally Davies as a party pooper promoting a nanny state.  They say she wants to turn us into a nation of teetotallers just like a major in the Salvation Army.

This Dame is no zealot. She just says we should make up our own minds based on the best evidence available. We take a risk every time we cross the road and have to decide whether the risks of drinking even at modest levels are worth it.

The tipping point, according to the sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, is “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire”. It happened with unleaded petrol and with zero tolerance to crime in New York.

There is just a chance that the new guidelines will be a tipping point in how we drink alcohol  especially if the government  has the courage to take on the alcohol industry and commits the funds to back it. Remember that the point of a tipping point is that you do not see it coming.

The environmental campaigner George Monbiot argues we should only eat meat on high days and holidays. Livestock account for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions and bacon sandwiches bring on heart disease. There is no need to become a vegetarian as long as the beef is served up sparingly and, I suggest, accompanied with a very good glass of red wine.

I would like to see a society in which we become connoisseurs of fine wine, malt whisky and craft beers which are brought out on special occasions and not used as a pick me up tonic on tap. It would be a world in which the appalling cost and misery of alcohol problems has largely disappeared. Sally Davies’s report is a step in that direction. Cheers.

published in Newcastle Journal Mon 11th January 2016