Tuesday 31 August 2010

Is NHS Direct the wrong prescription?

As a stern, unbending Tory, I naturally applaud the idea of cutting Government spending. But the cuts need to be made with the keen eye and steady hand of a top surgeon, not by a half-blind madman wielding a scythe.

If you had asked me a year ago whether it was right to scrap the NHS Direct helpline, as the Government plans to do, I would instantly have agreed that it was a huge waste of money, providing cushy jobs for nurses and succour for hypochondriacs.

But that was before I took the huge leap into the unknown of becoming a first-time parent, and faced the endless succession of coughs, rashes, swellings, bumps and abrasions that probably amount to nothing but might just be the herald of that potentially fatal condition you would never forgive yourself for failing to detect.

My wife has found the nurses of NHS Direct invaluable at providing timely advice and reassurance. Her many friends with year-old babies all speak highly of the service, too.

How can it possibly save money to get rid of it, when in most instances the alternative would be a visit to a GP or an A&E Department, at infinitely greater cost to the NHS?

The minister concerned says that the same service can be provided more cost-effectively through the new “111” non-emergency number, now being piloted right here.

And the key, money-saving difference? Apparently fewer qualified nurses manning the phones and more “trained telephone operators”. I am pretty sure that is what they also call those helpful people manning the telecoms and IT helpdesks; the ones who can’t actually answer any question that isn’t on the cards they’ve been given to read out. These provide precisely the same information as the “frequently asked questions” that anyone with half a brain will have read on the website before picking up the phone.

The only value I have found in these services is the entertainment of asking a wholly unexpected question such as “What’s the weather like in Bangalore, then?” and listening to the frantic shuffling of paper at the other end.

Apart from cost, NHS Direct apparently has to go because GPs don’t like it. The Government’s Big Idea is that GPs are the linchpin of the NHS and should basically run everything. Well, Coco the Clown may well be the linchpin of the circus, but that does not mean we should take his advice on how to erect the big top.

And have you actually tried getting to see an NHS GP lately? Once upon a time I had a doctor who knew me and my medical history; now I see a different locum every time I go to the surgery, and usually have to wait a day or more to do that.

My practice has gone down the route of allowing appointments to be booked online, weeks in advance, so that every slot with one of the partners is filled by forward-thinking repeat visitors, rather than patients with chaotically unplanned illnesses.

Many friends face the alternative madness of the 8.30a.m. telephone roulette, with the phone on permanent redial, because appointments can only be booked on the same day.

House calls? You must be joking. My sick neighbour waited most of a day for the out-of-hours service to chauffeur a mainly German-speaking locum all the way from Penrith.

I don’t blame GPs. If someone had offered me a vast pay rise to work 9-5 Monday-Friday instead of being on call 24/7, I would have grabbed it, too. But unless we can recapture something of the spirit of my parents’ Dr Gilchrist from the 1950s, prepared to turn out at all hours and in all weathers to take a look at a sickly child, I would urge the Government to think long and hard before flicking the “off” switch on NHS Direct.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Newcastle beats Manchester every time

There was a large contingent from Tyneside in Manchester last Monday night, and not all of us were there to watch the football.

Those of us who went instead to see Corrie!, the stage play celebrating 50 years of Coronation Street, were almost certainly better entertained, at lower cost, and left for home in a much better mood.

The play brilliantly condensed into a couple of very funny hours half a century of complex plot lines, including Ken’s aspirations, Deirdre’s incarceration, Peter’s bigamy, Tracy’s cruel hoax about who had fathered her baby and her subsequent well-planned descent into murder. And that was just the Barlows.

There was also the plain speaking Ena Sharples, the beehived Bet Lynch, Gail with her consistently appalling taste in men, Richard Hillman’s murderous rampage and the death of Alan Bradley beneath the wheels of a Blackpool tram.

True, there weren’t actually any of the stars of the show on stage, apart from a narrator played by Liz McDonald’s jailbird husband, but more than adequate compensation was provided by having about half the cast, past and present, in the audience. Mrs Hann only focused on characters whose names begin with “R”, and came away with our programme autographed by David Neilson and Barbara Knox. Feel free to feature the question of who they play in your next pub quiz.

All this was greatly appreciated by the row of Geordies behind me, and by the audience as a whole, who kept nudging each other excitedly as another familiar face hove into view. It would be fair to say that, on the evidence of the evening’s attendance, the typical Coronation Street fan is female, and in receipt of an old age pension. Though surely this cannot be true of the viewing audience as a whole, or the advertising slots would all be filled by purveyors of stair lifts and incontinence pants rather than retailers of bargain sofas.

Coronation Street only became a passion of mine about five years ago, after a lifetime of treating it and every other soap with patrician contempt, when I reluctantly got into the habit of watching it with a former fiancée. I gradually came to realise that the quality of the writing is surprisingly high and the convoluted plots compelling. I also began to wish that my own life could be filled with as much unlikely incident, and was seriously disappointed when our wedding did not feature an arrest or punch-up, or the surprise arrival of someone claiming to be already married to me or my bride, ideally with a string of children in tow.

Still, as I said to Mrs Hann, better luck next time.

The only criticism I could possibly make would be this. Why do the designers of British arts complexes habitually make them so difficult to reach, leave and navigate while there? The Barbican in London is a well-known nightmare, but The Lowry in Salford runs it a very close second. After the show we found ourselves wandering aimlessly around with a crowd of other people looking for colour coded car parks, which had not offered the slightest hint of their shade on the way in.

Still, we need not have worried because the clever plan of having multiple bottlenecks between The Lowry and the nearest motorway meant that when two theatres, several cinemas and Old Trafford all disgorged their crowds at the same time, complete gridlock resulted. It took us over an hour to cover the first mile of our journey home, including 45 minutes just to exit the car park. The words “never again” were uttered repeatedly, and with feeling.

Once again I was moved to reflect how much I prefer catching my theatre in Grey Street. Do go and see Corrie! if it comes to Newcastle. But Manchester? I’d stick with watching Weatherfield on the telly.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

An old man's strange idea of heaven

Two issues are currently dominating the silly season columns of the national press: the decline of topless sunbathing and the fate of the British pork scratching.

As it happens, I am deeply concerned about both, since after many years of reflection I have concluded that heaven for me would be sitting in a deckchair on a beach, drinking a glass of cool (but not cold) English ale, eating a big bag of pork scratchings and watching a group of underdressed young ladies playing volleyball.

If they could be persuaded to sing a bit of baroque opera at the same time that would be absolute perfection, but I recognise that even paradise has its limits.

Where to find such a heaven on earth? Well, certainly not on Bamburgh beach last Wednesday, when the question was not whether it would be proper to shed the top half of a bikini, but whether to wear one overcoat or two while sheltering behind the windbreak. I had bought toddler Charlie his first bucket and spade in Seahouses, along with one of those little windmills I used to enjoy at his age. I sensed that his first visit to the seaside was not going to be a complete success when the top of his windmill promptly blew off.

So we adopted Plan B and went on a rain-lashed cruise around the Farne Islands, where Mrs Hann hoped to fulfil her lifetime’s ambition of seeing a puffin. If we’d gone last month she could have seen 35,000 of them, apparently. Now there were just two left, floating dozily on the sea and wondering where all their mates had gone. But at least they saved my day from being an unalloyed disaster.

True, Charlie also went “wow” at the grey seals. But then he said “wow” when he found an empty coat hanger in the bottom of our wardrobe this morning, so he may be quite easily impressed.

In short, at the end of four days trying to sell Northumberland as the ultimate holiday paradise, it is only my cunning ruse of allowing my passport to expire that is now keeping us from a beach where the sun might actually shine.

At least I thought the scenery on the Continent might have a point or two in its favour, but I read that the pendulum has swung back (as pendulums always tend to do) and topless sunbathing is increasingly considered outré and indecent. Poor little Charlie. By the time he’s old enough to appreciate that sort of thing, the beach babes will presumably all be shrouded in burkas.

Could it be coincidence that some in the health police are lobbying to mass medicate all milk with added Vitamin D, because we are no longer getting enough of it from sunshine? Which might, of course, be related to the health police’s previous warnings about the dangers of contracting skin cancer.

You can’t win, and I’ll tell you why. Because we’re all going to die of something, whether we follow their well-intentioned advice or not.

So what of those pork scratchings, you ask? Articles are being written elsewhere claiming that the health police are trying to ban them, but my usual extensive research has uncovered only a mild suggestion from the Food Standards Agency, in a pre-World Cup advice leaflet, that fans might like to consider nibbling unsalted peanuts rather than scratchings while watching the match in a pub.

But now someone has been daft enough to raise the subject, no doubt an anti-scratchings campaign will soon be hurtling down the slipway. Clearly the only sound advice about this and any other pleasure is to enjoy it while you can. Just as, with the benefit of hindsight, I now wish I had spent more time on beaches with my uninhibited female friends back in the dear old 1980s.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Who really deserves to be famous?

Last week, as every week, the front pages of our national newspapers were dominated by pictures of attractive women. Two in particular caught my eye.

The first was the “supermodel” Naomi Campbell, tragically inconvenienced by being summoned to the International Criminal Court to reveal her mind-numbing ignorance of Liberia, its president and the appearance of uncut diamonds.

The second was the British doctor Karen Woo, cruelly murdered as she went about her selfless work of helping the sick in one of the most godforsaken corners of Afghanistan.

Now, which of those two was more deserving of public recognition and reward? The question is surely a “no brainer” – or a “Naomi”, as I have just decided to rebrand it. But that is not how our system works.

We are told that most of the young these days aspire above all to be famous. Not famous for anything in particular, just a celebrity of some sort. And to think that, in my day, most schoolboys had no higher ambition than to be an engine driver. I certainly didn’t.

If fame is your desire, it is entirely logical to seek it by, say, taking your clothes off, caterwauling or kicking a ball about. Because, let’s face it, the people who try to do some good in the world are only going to make major headlines if they get killed or screw up in some important respect that can be presented as a “scandal”.

This is not the fault of the media, incidentally. They are merely in the business of selling newspapers or TV advertising by giving us, the public, what we want. Which is, apparently, a steady supply of people whose minimal talents we can relate to. We enjoy sharing their early triumphs, then usually turn ever so slightly jealous when they rub our noses in their wealth and reveal how wearisome they actually find us through their attitude to photographers and autograph hunters.

Next comes the best bit: revelling in their inevitable downfalls as they succumb to drink, drugs, financial overstretch, marital disagreements or what the tabloids like to call “The Big C” (which they always pledge to beat, but so rarely do).

None of this is new. It was going on when I was a lad. It was just that the sums to be reaped from attaining celebrity status were massively smaller - but then so were the rewards for being a chief executive or a successful banker.

In the olden days, they had local celebrities to keep them entertained; they sat on a gate in a smock with a straw in their mouth and were known as the village idiot. At the top end of the scale, one fool with a bladder on a stick might rise to the dizzy heights of court jester.

All are dust and ashes now – forgotten as surely as most of the front page celebrities of today will be in 30 years’ time.

I cannot really lecture on this, having done remarkably little good in my own life and clearly hankering after some public recognition by writing a newspaper column. But I would strongly urge the young to consider that their lives are going to be short and uncertain; that they only get one chance at them, so far as we know; and that it might, on the whole, be better to focus on leaving the world a better place than on winning a contract with Simon Cowell.

For as Lord Byron put it, “What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.” And, as one of the most notoriously scandalous mega-celebrities of his day, he surely knew what he was talking about.

Or, if you insist, follow the fine example of Naomi and simply wonder “Who’s Lord Byron?”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

What's wrong with some respect, mate?

One of the great milestones of my life was the first time a shop assistant called me “sir”, as opposed to “son” or “ye thor”.

Turners camera shop in Pink Lane was the place, the year 1968 (making me 14) and I was planning a major purchase: a new film cassette for the cheap and nasty “own label” camera someone had conned me into buying, instead of the Kodak Instamatic I really wanted.

I naturally suspected that the assistant was taking the mickey and looked over my shoulder, expecting to see the older figure he was addressing. But blow me down if he didn’t say it again a couple of times, and almost seem as though he meant it. It put me in a good mood for days, and made me a loyal customer of Turners until the business expired.

Compare and contrast my experience of last week, as a white-haired bloke, approaching the till at the PC store in Kingston Park clutching the cable I needed to connect my computer to some other electronic gizmo. The price was an amazing £23.99, for something that can’t have cost more than a quid to make, albeit encased in at least a fiver’s worth of packaging.

“All right, mate?” the youth behind the till enquired. I was sorely tempted to point out that we were neither in a sexual relationship nor friends, making the word “mate” wholly inappropriate. It’s the speech I normally deliver to white van drivers who ask me for directions, shortly before they drive off in a flurry of screeching tyres and unprintable obscenities.

But life is short, so I decided to grit my teeth and let it go. Even when he proceeded to call me “mate” at least twice more during the simple process of ringing my purchase through the till. I just made a careful mental note never to shop there ever again.

Don’t retailers cover this sort of thing during the “staff training” sessions for which they all seem to close for half an hour every week? The only possible commercial justification for addressing a middle-aged customer as “mate” would be if the store had blood pressure monitors on special offer at the point of sale, and a demanding sales target to be met.

Or axes, possibly. If they had had one of those to hand I might well have bought it and used it to underline how I felt about their approach to customer service.

Apparently this is an age thing. My wife informs me that it is completely unrealistic to expect any sort of formality or respect from the young. They’re just not taught it any more.

Well, here’s a business-winning idea for retailers everywhere. Why not follow the fine example of B&Q and recruit older workers instead of spotty youths? (Thinking about it, can it be pure coincidence that B&Q does sell axes?)

In a PC store, the OAPs may not have a clue what they are talking about but then neither do most of the customers, so at least it will be an entirely level playing field.

They probably won’t swear, they certainly won’t wear trousers with the crutch below their knees (though they may have waistbands halfway up their chests), they will have some grasp of mental arithmetic, a smattering of common sense, and they won’t address your customers as “mate”.

Surely that has got to be a win-win situation for retailer and customer alike?

Mind you, when I got home, I realised that I had bought the wrong cable, but could not face going back for a refund or replacement since this would doubtless involve being patronised as a technologically illiterate old moron. So that was £23.99 straight down the gurgler. Back of the net, mate, as a rude young retailer might well put it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.