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War in Europe

It has been both deeply shocking and, in some senses surreal, watching the coverage of events in Ukraine.  As the French President Emmanuel Macron said earlier in the week “War in Europe no longer belongs to history books” as the Russian invasion has led to the largest conflict in Europe since 1945.

Worldwide, violent conflict has been all too present in the 77 years since the end of World War II.  However, with the exception of the conflict in the 1990s in Yugoslavia, Europe has not experienced a major war in that period, certainly not involving one of the major powers. In the last fortnight all of that has changed with deeply concerning consequences both for the people of Ukraine but, perhaps also, more widely.

The novel The Lost Summer which I published last year was focused on the events of the First World War. A major reason for wanting to write it was to try and envisage what it would feel like to be part of the generation whose was world turned upside down by the outbreak of hostilities which claimed millions of lives. In researching the novel, I read a large number of accounts of the War written by participants, either combatants or civilians. 

The First World War was distinguished by being the first large scale conflict following the introduction of universal primary school education across Europe.  This led to a flowering of personal accounts not just from historians and generals but also from ordinary soldiers.  They bring a graphic reality to the horrors of war, the terrors of battle and the events which writers witnessed either at first hand or at a distance.

Reading the coverage over the last 10 days of what has been happening in Ukraine there is an eerie resonance with those earlier accounts of war and its impact.  However, in contrast to the accounts of the Great War which emerged gradually through the conflict and over the decade or so following it, there is a complete immediacy about the reports of what is happening in Ukraine conveyed through social media posts and real time interviews and coverage.

History never does repeat itself, but it is possible to hear very strong echoes in what is happening today of past events.  Wars have since prehistoric times been all too frequent occurrences.  The destructive power of weaponry has increased but the challenges and questions asked by war have long roots.

Several themes stand out.  Why do we fight wars?  With the long sight of history so many of them seem a pointless waste of life, not leading to what they set out to achieve or like the First World War sowing the seeds of the next conflict in their wake.  And yet, at the time there are many good and noble reasons which bring men to fight.  The determination of Ukrainians to defend their country from Russian forces has been inspiring.  In 1914 many young men were motivated to defend “little Belgium” from the German invader, a feeling enlarged by reports of atrocities by German troops and the arrival of Belgium refugees in Britain.

The second issue is whom are fighting?  In the last week there have been arguments that the struggle does not rest with the Russian people but only with Vladamir Putin and those close to him.  One of the themes I tried to explore in The Lost Summer was the idea, often vividly expressed in the first-hand accounts I had read, of how close soldiers at the Front could feel to men on the enemy side who were going through exactly the same horrors.  That its ultimate expression in the Christmas Truce of 1914 where soldiers from the two armies fraternised in the middle of No Man’s Land.

The final question is when do we stop?  In the First World War my reflection was not that it was wrong to go to war but that, at some time in the war, the enormous carnage and suffering it inflicted on both sides should have been sufficient to warrant a serious attempt to bring the fighting to a close.  That would have inevitably involved some compromises and would have meant it was harder for either side to claim that they had won the war.  It might, however, have saved thousands if not millions of lives.

At present it seems straightforward that the Ukrainians should continue to fight for their independence and liberty and that we in the West should support them if, by necessity, through indirect means.  One hopes that this will lead to some positive outcome, but it is hard to be able to foretell where this war will lead to.  There are enormous risks for all parties in a long drawn out and increasingly desperate struggle.  A plan for peace is as important as a plan for war.

My last observation is that behind all the analysis of military and diplomatic strategy war is a story of ordinary people both combatants and, in modern warfare, inevitably civilians too.  Ordinary people whose plans for their lives, a month ago, were very different from the reality they are living out now.  Ordinary people who have had to face up to the traumas of death and separation and the destruction of their homes and livelihoods. Ordinary people who have stepped up to the challenge of the times with great fortitude and courage.  Ordinary people who have had to face up to the experience of taking the lives of others.

War is the most terrible of all human inventions.  We had thought in Europe that we had put it behind us.  In the last couple of weeks, we have had to realise that that is not the case.   It leaves us with a lot to think about.     

The most sufficient man in Wales – a St David’s tribute to William Morgan

If you’d asked me previously to name the most significant figure in Welsh history, I’d have been inclined to suggest a toss up between Owain Glyndwr, David Lloyd George or Nye Bevan.  This St David’s Day I’d like to suggest Bishop William Morgan, the author of the first translation of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, into Welsh.  In doing so he contributed enormously to the survival and development of the Welsh language and, beyond that, to shaping the identity of modern Wales.

William Morgan was born in the 1540s in Penmachno near Betws y Coed in North Wales and his birthplace is still in the possession of the National Trust. He was the son of a tenant farmer of moderate means.  Like many a Welshman of intelligence in later times his path to prominence was through education.   First when he was invited to be educated at Plas Gwydir alongside the sons of the Wynn family, the local landowners and one of the most significant and ambitious gentry families in Tudor Wales and subsequently at St John’s College in Cambridge.

Morgan spent between 1565 and 71 at Cambridge, being ordained a priest in 1568 in Ely Cathedral and building the skills in Greek and Hebrew which were central to the project of translating the Bible into his native tongue.  Leaving Cambridge, he became vicar at Llanbadarn and later at Welshpool and then Llanrhaedr ym Mochnant where he stayed until 1595.  It was there that Morgan completed his translation of the Bible.

The story of the translation of the Bible into Welsh is a fascinating episode not only into the history of Wales and the Welsh language but also as a window into the wider struggles of the Tudor period.  In the 1560s the fate of both the Protestant Reformation and the regime of Elizabeth 1 were in the balance.  Elizabeth had successfully restored the Protestant religion but its roots, in particular in the peripheral areas of Britain such as Wales and the North of England, were shallow.  The Rising of the North of 1569 had demonstrated the strength of the old religion and was followed by growing international pressure on Elizabeth.

Despite its later image as a centre of non-conformism, Wales was slow to adopt the new religion and retained, in places, a considerable loyalty to Catholicism.  There were fears that Wales might have become a focal point for catholic insurgency in the way which happened in Ireland.

A big barrier was the issue of language.  The impact of the new faith was limited when its channel of dissemination was the English language which was as inaccessible to the majority of Welsh people as the Latin tongue used by the Catholics.  It was a belief of Welsh Protestants like William Morgan that translating scriptures into Welsh would be the key to opening the country to the new teaching.   It was a view that Elizabeth and her Government was prepared to back.  Unity of faith would do more than unity of language to promote support for the Tudors.  In 1563 an Act of Parliament was passed granting the right to read the scriptures and Book of Common Prayer in Welsh and putting a duty on Welsh bishops to arrange translations.

It took 25 years to realise this ambition in full and it was in 1588, the same year as the Spanish Armada, that Morgan’s translation of the Old and New Testament was published.  The book had to be printed in London, due to the absence of a printing press in Wales, and the work was probably financed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  It was an instant success and became the most important book in the Welsh language.  While others had been involved in the endeavour it was Morgan’s achievement to bring the project to conclusion in a way which brought universal approval from his contemporaries.

Morgan’s talent was to combine high standards of scholarship with a literary understanding of the Welsh language.  Not only did the Welsh have the Bible in their own language, but they also had a translation which modernised and enriched that language in the process.

Following a further edition published in 1628 Morgan’s translation provided the standard version of the Bible in Welsh until 20th century.  His work had a heavy influence on work in the 19th century to standardise the grammar and orthography of the language.  Morgan navigated the complexities of southern and northern dialects and judiciously combined accessible spoken Welsh with the weightier idioms of the literary language.

Welsh was the only Celtic language into which the Bible was translated in the 16th Century and was one of the first non-national languages where this happened.  Both facts have a crucial relevance in the story about the survival of the Welsh language and its ability to make the transition into a functional modern language. A delay of fifty years might have made a crucial difference in whether the language survived or not.

In a broader sense William Morgan contributed signfiicantly to shaping the character of modern Wales, first in confirming its identity as a distinctively Protestant nation and in adding to its cultural and educational identity.

Unlike Ireland and Scotland, the issue of the language has been a defining political issue in Wales.  It is thanks to William Morgan and others working alongside him that we have a language to fight for which still does so much to define the specialness of our land.

Always look on the bright side of life – a blog for Christmas

The arrival of the omicron variant has cast something of a cloud over the preparations for Christmas this year.  After a period when we had started to think that we had put Covid behind us, the new variant has managed to create a renewed sense of anxiety and pessimism.  In some senses this is a worse feeling than we experienced in the first phases of the pandemic, both because of the aggressive nature of the new variant but also because it has dented a sense of hope that we had escaped the worst.

The last two years have been tough both practically and emotionally and have taken their toll on the mental health and wellbeing of many in society.  As we work through the next couple of weeks and its impact it is worth thinking about those factors which best protect our wellbeing in times of uncertainty and stress.

As I have described previously in this blog, I have just published a novel “The Lost Summer”, a historical story set in the First World War.  Part of my objective in writing the novel was to try to imagine what it might have felt like to be a participant in that extraordinarily dreadful conflict and to have experienced the physical and psychological trauma it brought to a generation.  As I imagined to be case with the main character, Michael Davies, a young officer and reluctant soldier, many were driven to experience severe mental distress, either on account of the awfulness of what they went through or because of the unbearable moral choices they had to make on the battlefield.

I also tried to imagine the things which helped people survive that trauma.  For my hero, his relationship with the girl he met in an idyllic summer before the War in the South of France, was key, both because she, more than anyone else, understood the dilemmas he was facing but also because she symbolised his sense of hope for a life beyond the conflict.  In addition, and as was so eloquently expressed in the many first-hand accounts of the War I read in researching the novel, he was kept going by his loyalty to the men he was leading and fighting alongside.  That sense of commitment inspired amazing acts of bravery and sacrifice. 

Important too were those in leadership roles.  The Great War may have been caricatured as a conflict where lions were led by donkeys, but as contemporary and subsequent studies have shown the quality of first line leadership made an enormous difference to protecting the mental health of those under their command.  It is still the most important protective factor in any work environment, in particular one under stress.

Finally, there were moments were moments beauty which broke though the horrors of the destructive powers of the guns.  A moment where, in a brief interlude when the guns are silent, the sound of blackbird can be heard on the battlefield, a reminder of the resilience of nature and a harbinger of future hope.  

The sense of being able to retain hope in the bleakest of circumstances is one of the defining messages of the Christmas festival and one which we may need more this year than usual.  At the winter solstice there is a powerful image of having reached the nadir of the year when days are shortest and nights are longest but with the sure knowledge that, however gradually, the light will return.  That sense of hope, uncertain in appearance but sure in its reality is very comforting.

Not just in the seasons but also in our affairs it is important to nurture a sense of hope.  In particular given our media’s need constantly to shock us, we can often feel that hope is squeezed out by anxiety or cynicism.   The most profound changes in human attitudes and experience start a long way out, small sparks of light in the midst of the darkness which steadily build into something deeper and more profound.  Unlike the seasons those changes may not be inevitable but the hope that things must and can be different is a crucial first ingredient.

I saw that at first hand when I was fortunate enough to be involved in the work of Time to Change to tackle mental health stigma.  When it was started it seemed inevitable that the negative stereotypes which dominated media headlines and a lot of spoken and, just as importantly, unspoken attitudes to mental illness would continue.  Time to Change tried to create a sense of hope that change was possible.  It offered a source light by which people affected by mental illness could tell their stories and in doing so attracted others to do the same.  The hope was justified and within a decade quite a profound, if not complete, shift attitudes came about. 

So, for me that image of light in the darkness is a very central part of the message of Christmas.  Just as we can be confident that the seasons will turn and the days will lengthen we can nurture a hope that good times will return and that injustices will be overcome.  Hope, of course, needs action to realise its potential but hope can often be the first essential step on a journey.

Always look on the bright side of life.

The Lost Summer

I’ve experienced an enormous pleasure and sense of achievement, this autumn, with publishing my first novel, “The Lost Summer”. Writing it has been a real labour of love over nearly 17 years but also something I have greatly enjoyed.  There has also been a clear sense of privilege writing about the period of the First World War and putting myself in the shoes of a special, but at the same time ordinary, generation.  A generation, whom I knew briefly as a young person through my grandparents and other relatives and who had to face up to the moral and physical challenges of one of the most dreadful human conflicts which has ever taken place.

I wanted to use this blog to describe some of the experience of writing the novel and immersing myself in the world of the First World War.

I have always enjoyed writing and the ambition to write a novel has been something which, in a vague sort of way, I have held since childhood, but it was the summer of 2004 where that ambition crystalised into something more definite. We were on holiday in the South of France, staying in an area near the Pyrenees which provides the backdrop for the first part of the novel.  The place encouraged the spurt of the creativity which I often feel more intensely on holiday and in less familiar surroundings.  The indulgence of imagination, as it has been throughout the process of writing, provided some respite to the challenges of my professional life and during the holiday I wrote enough to give a shape to the project.

As I said it took me nearly 17 years to write the novel and get it published. As such it has been a marathon not a sprint and completing it, I feel, has much in common with running a marathon, something which I have done once in my life. When you start training for a marathon it is hard to imagine that, as a man in your mid-40s which I was at the time, you will be able to complete such a daunting physical challenge. So, it was for me for with writing and determination and, most importantly, perseverance are essential qualities for the task.  Just as with a marathon it is crucial, psychologically, to break down the task of writing a novel into smaller goals and I found the structure of writing chapters of around 3000 words a very helpful device in moving the project forward. 

It has also been helpful to be writing in the digital age as the ability to easily review and edit the writing, as it emerges has been essential.  This has also helped as my sense of the plot has evolved over the life of the project in ways which have necessitated some reshaping of the material at various times.

Another quality which has helped in writing has been that which I describe as being an intellectual magpie.  I probably lack the intense personal creative imagination the best writers possess but the ability to collect and process ideas and insights from across a wide range of authors I have read, and experiences has helped in framing the story and building out some of the substance of my narrative.

In writing about this period and in particular the sections directly concerning the War direct research is also crucial.  Over a number of years, I have read extensively about the First World War.  At the centre of this has been the consumption of a wide range of first-hand accounts of the War, not just the famous ones like “Goodbye to all That” or the works of the First World War poets but also many accounts of ordinary and, otherwise, unknown soldiers.  Some of these are contemporary accounts, others written after the War. All of them are immensely powerful because of the enormity of the events and suffering they witnessed.  As well as the horror of battle they are also good at describing the rhythm of life at the front, the interspersion of moments of intense horror with long periods of waiting and boredom.  It also helped me to spend some time visiting the battlefields in Belgium and France, including those of the Somme where the main action of the battle scenes is set.

While not an easy task I have enjoyed the process of writing. The ability to immerse myself in an imaginary world of my own creation, in the way I love the worlds created by other authors has been very special.  The hardest thing has been to decide when to stop and when, in some sense, the work is good enough.  After publication it is very easy to be aware of how you could have made it better and that is something you have to live with or at least take into the next project.

The final thing to comment on is the experience of trying put oneself in the shoes of that generation who went through, and lost so much, in the First World War.  As I have heard and read some many contemporary accounts of the War, I have often asked myself the question of what I would have done and what would have happened to me had this been my generation.  The novel is in part an attempt to answer that question and to imagine the dilemmas facing a young man of liberal and idealistic disposition who is faced with the horrors of a barbaric conflict and who, ultimately, has to face up to the experience of taking the lives of others.  For Michael Davies, the hero of the novel, it nearly crushes him mentally and psychologically and I wonder how I would have coped.

If you would like to read “The Lost Summer” you can get it at the following link:

The Lost Summer: Jenkins, Paul: 9781800160361: Books

Mental Health in Schools

In many ways mental health problems are, often, best addressed in settings away from the formal structures and locations of the NHS.  Building support and understanding in the places where people spend much of their time such as work or educational settings has a particular benefit.

For young people, schools are a crucial setting and it has been an encouraging part of national policy in recent years to recognise this and to make some investment in building up the clinical and other capacity in schools to prioritise the need of young people with psychological and emotional difficulties.

This week I had the pleasure of speaking at the launch of an excellent new publication in the Tavistock Clinic series. Child Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in Primary Schools covers a range of the experience of Tavistock staff working in primary schools, including mainstream and specialist provision.  It is a moving and powerful account of clinical work alongside a range of young people with significant difficulties which are impeding their capacity to develop both emotionally and educationally.

This topic has always been of particular interest to me, being the son of two primary school teachers.  As a child, the discussion at teatime was often dominated by my parents’ accounts of some of the most challenging pupils in their care and the difficulties they were experiencing.  Less formal help was available in those days and my parents often had to rely on their own common sense and intuition in dealing with those children and their families.   

Amongst every group of young people there will be a spectrum of psychological and emotional difficulties.  Many of these do not require a clinical response but there are a significant minority of children who do with the Department for Education estimating in 2019 that there are 14 children in the average primary school with difficulties at a level requiring highly specialist intervention.

At this age mental health difficulties rarely present as diagnosable conditions but, more frequently, as development problems in dealing with emotions and making relationships. At their root can often, though not always, be the legacy of some kind of trauma or other adverse childhood event.

As well as the issues for children themselves and their families, such difficulties often acted out through disruptive behaviours provides a real challenge for teachers and the school. It is tempting, but very destructive to respond in a punitive way to protect the learning experience of other children.

 Embedded clinical staff, including in this case, specialist child psychotherapists can offer significant help in this situation.  As well as providing individual or group therapy for some of the children and families with the greatest difficulties clinical staff can also provide a crucial pair of eyes, picking up clues and signals to help teachers and others better understand and respond to challenging behaviours.  Finally, there is the scope for clinical staff to provide support for teaching staff on how their process the emotional burden of their own work and the projected distress of young people.

The book which I would thoroughly recommend for anyone with an interest in children’s mental health and education describes in a way which is moving and accessible a detailed picture of this work.  It includes chapters from practitioners but also some very powerful interviews with family members including parents and kinship carers.

There are there are three themes I would like to highlight further.

The first relates to the significant stigma which still surrounds mental health difficulties, in particular when these manifest themselves through challenging behaviour.  Any parent will recognise the difficulty of having a “naughty child” but when this plays out constantly in any setting then it can create an unbearable burden for parents and other carers.  Families are reluctant to seek help and expose themselves to what they fear will be a judgment of their parenting.  This can be particularly acute for families with any previous experience of engagement with social services where they may judge difficulties may be the precursor to them losing their children.  The provision of support in a school setting can be a more reassuring offer which is easier to accept than a formal referral to CAMHS.

The second theme in the book is the importance of any school-based provision adapting itself to the constraints and rhythms of school life. This can be about space, the cycle of the terms and the starts and endings which are intrinsic to the school year.  It is also about the social dynamics of the school and details such as how children are taken out of class to attend therapy and how this impacts on the opinions of their peers.   For teachers the key strength of embedded provision is availability of clinical staff, the scope for informal consultations about children who are worrying them and the lack of barriers to escalation when required.

The final reflection is about the impact of the work and the nature of improvement in young people’s mod, behaviour and sense of wellbeing when it works.  Mental health work is not mechanical, and its impact can sometimes not be linear and progress can often be made in small steps.  Over time however those small steps can build to make a more fundamental change in a young person’s ability to manage their distress and participate in the social and educational life of the school. 

We know we face a big challenge around the mental health of the young generation.  There are some peculiar stressors facing the current generation and, despite new investment, there are very significant levels of unmet need.  There is such a compelling set of arguments to prioritise young people’s mental health.   As we develop what is available schools should be front and centre of our efforts.

Facing up to our past

History has been a major part of the public debate about race which has taken place since the death of George Floyd last summer.  Some of this has been about the emotive topic of statues but there has also been a wider and important conversation about the role of Britain in the slave trade and the wider consequences of our imperial past.

Some argue that history is irrelevant to a contemporary consideration of these issues: that then was then and now is now and that we, somehow, operate today without any reference to past.  I strongly disagree and, on this question, as on many others, I firmly believe that a knowledge of the past is crucial to a better understanding of what is happening in our own times.  

In this space I can thoroughly recommend David Olusoga’s Black and British as an excellent guide to the issues.  This is the best kind of history, broad in its sweep, compelling in its narrative and clear but balanced in its interpretation of events.  Despite all of this it is, at times, a difficult read for a white British, middle class reader, challenging both my ignorance and complacency about some significant events in the history of this country, events which still shape the present in which we live.

The book covers a lot of territory from the first attested evidence of people of black African descent living in Britain in the Roman period to the riots of the 1980s in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol.  It has, however, two overarching themes.  First that of British involvement in the transatlantic Slave Trade and the legacy that has left, both in Britain, across the world.  Secondly the attempt to give Black Britons of different generations, a place and a voice in history which, until recently, has been denied to them.

In 1844, at the peak of liberal Britain’s genuine but somewhat self-congratulatory pride in the abolition of slavery in British territories the future Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston said in a speech to the House of Commons:

“If all crimes which the human race has committed from creation down to the present day, were added together in one vast aggregate they would scarcely equal the amount of guilt which has been incurred by mankind in connection with this diabolical slave trade.”

In reading the description in Black and British of the trade and its consequences for millions of Black Africans I was driven to agree with this assessment.  We are used to using the Nazis and the Holocaust as the ultimate benchmark for evil, but I think it is hard not to look at African slavery and reach something of a similar conclusion about a trade in human beings which Britain played a leading role in for over 150 years, which underpinned a significant amount of the wealth of the country, and which was supported by much of the British establishment.

Britain also played a major role in the abolition of the slave trade and Olusoga is generous in his acknowledgement of this remarkable movement, not just its leading lights such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp but also the widespread public campaign represented by 1.5 million signatures on petitions calling for the abolition of the slave trade.  A movement which he adds involved, for one of the first times in British history, many women and, while often forgotten, black British campaigners such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano.

However, it is not just through that lens that modern Britons need to learn about the slave trade.  We also need to face up to the details of a British trade, which in the 18th century alone, transported in appalling conditions 3.5 million Africans in 11,000 separate expeditions, stripping them of their liberty, dignity and in many cases their lives.  Nor can we attribute all the guilt for these events to slave traders and those who invested directly in the trade when so much of the commercial success of our country was built on the profits of slavery. 

This is not only about removing the statues of slave traders with any implication that we can erase those aspects of our history but about a determination to ensure these are events which we insist should be a core part of education for all and the story we tell about our identity as nation.   Just as it did for the abolitionists for whom education about the slave trade was a key aspect of their campaigning work, such a focus is not about diminishing our national identity but, in acknowledging all of our past, helping us strengthen the moral compass through which we look at contemporary events.

Olusoga, like all good historians, has resisted the temptation to write about more recent events.  However Black and British is not just a good history book.   It is highly relevant to thinking through our response to the challenges of confronting racism and inequality in the 21st century, issues which have their roots firmly in what has happened in the past.  Along with much I have learnt at first hand in my professional life in the last year, this book has taught me much about what I still need to do to be a champion of racial equality.  I am grateful for that, however uncomfortable are some of the truths I have had to face up to.    

Leaving Home

Last month marked a very significant rite of passage as we completed the sale of the house my parents had bought in August 1963 and in which I had spent virtually all of my childhood. 

I have written before of the impact that a sense of place has on our identity and, while I have chosen very much to identify with my Welsh roots, Birmingham and the West Midlands has done much to shape who I am.

Before the sale, I deliberately made a last visit to Solihull, in part to have the chance to say goodbye to the house and to some of the special places of my childhood.  Despite all the change in the wider world in that time, for the most part, they looked remarkably familiar and unchanged.  

I particularly enjoyed visiting some of the little wild places I had frequented as a child. Against the backdrop of suburban blandness, they provided such exciting places of escape.  I was still part of that lucky generation who were able to enjoy the freedom to roam at an early age, denied to my children, and Coldlands Wood (featured in the photograph at the top of this blog) was one of the places where I and my friends used to gather for all kinds of games of imagination (few of them probably would have passed a risk assessment). Those days sit at the centre of my memories of a happy childhood.

I had the chance too to walk past both my schools.  Both of them did a good job in helping to nurture my academic abilities and broader interests in life.  I particularly valued the emphasis my secondary school placed, not just on narrow academic achievement, but on music, drama and mountain walking, all of which have been lifelong pursuits.  I was lucky to be taught by many teachers whose commitment to their profession went well beyond the 9-5. 

The place has also left its mark on me.  As a child, and particularly a teenager, I had something of a love-hate relationship with Birmingham and Solihull.  The centre of Birmingham with its motorway moat and horrific subways was strikingly ugly in the 1970s (it has got better since) and the place could at times feel constraining and limiting.  By the time I went to University I was very keen to get away.

As is often the case, I have grown fonder of both since I left.  Birmingham is not the most beautiful city in the world but it has many strengths.  I was lucky to benefit from its strong cultural heritage: the CBSO, the Birmingham Rep, it’s lovely Art Gallery with its collection of pre-Raphaelites and its sporting venues such as Edgbaston and the Reddings (home of Moseley RFC and sadly now a housing estate).   It is a welcoming city and Brummies are, for the most part, friendly and down to earth.  Even the much-maligned Brummie accent is much more colourful and interesting when it is heard on local soil.

More than anything I love the sense of modesty and lack of pretension which I associate with the West Midlands character.  My mother always looked askance at people who she described as “having a bob on themselves”.  While proud of their city and its institutions Birmingham is happy to consider itself a “second city”.

Birmingham has always been a place which has attracted people from outside, my father included, and it was in Birmingham that I first learnt about diversity and the value of difference.  The presence of different communities in the city be they, Pakistani, Caribbean, Welsh or Irish very much felt they enhanced the city and added to its strength.  For me, as a teenager, that was epitomised by the bus ride from home, through Sparkhill and Sparkbrook to the centre of town.  While racism is no more absent in Birmingham than anywhere else, that positive image of different people, from different backgrounds sitting together on the bus has remained with me. 

In thinking back on my childhood and my time in the West Midlands my last thought has to be with my parents and the happy and stable home they created for us.  Like all families we had our challenges and issues but my parents did their best to give us the best start in life.  Many are not so lucky.

In many ways I left home when I was 18 and went to university and my parents never stood in the way of me making my own way in the world.  However, there was something reassuring over the years that they and my childhood home were still there and that I could return and recharge my emotional batteries. So inevitably there is some sense of adjustment now that they are no longer there and my connections with the city where I grew up are broken. 

Time to Change

It has been a special but sad experience to attend, in the last couple of weeks, a number of events to mark the end of Time to Change, the phenomenally successful programme which, since 2007, has been working to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination in this country. I had the honour, while I was at Rethink Mental Illness, of being closely involved in the establishment and development of the programme.  There is nothing I have done in my career which is more significant.

In sharing some of my thoughts about Time to Change it is right to start with the numbers.  Between 2007 and 2018 Time to Change achieved a 12.7% improvement in attitudes.  That is equivalent to 5.4 million people with improved attitudes.  That is a phenomenal level of change for a programme of this kind, especially one operating in an area where attitudes were seen as entrenched and constantly reinforced by negative stereotyping in the media.

These numbers are very much borne out in the reality of public discourse where it feels that there has been a sea change in the public willingness to talk about mental health and to accept those who are affected by mental health problems.  The programme has also always been concerned that any improvement in attitudes translates into improved experiences for those affected by mental health problems.  The reported experience of discrimination has always been a key part of the evaluation of the programme which fell by 11.5% over the first phase of the programme between 2007 and 2011 and which have shown further improvements since.

Success was not always guaranteed and there were many who were sceptical of the ability of such a programme to make a meaningful or sustainable difference.  After all attitudes towards mental illness, which had been tracked consistently in this country since the 1990s had either been static or declining.

The programme, however, got some important calls right.  I want to pick three, in particular.

There first was to base the programme on a commitment to partnerships.  Historically the sector had been very fragmented with a tendency to compete rather than collaborate.  The decision of the two largest charities in the sector Mind and Rethink Mental Illness to work together on the programme, rather than pursue separate initiatives, was significant as was the commitment of the rest of the sector to rally behind Time to Change.

Just as significantly there was a risk that the experiences of different types of mental illness might be seen as inimical to each other with a suspicion, for instance, that while it might be possible to shift public attitudes around anxiety and depression it would never be possible to do the same for schizophrenia.

Time to Change took the bigger picture and committed itself to the view that all aspects of mental illness would benefit from a shift in public attitudes.  For the most part that has been borne out.  This was not a case of picking easy middle of the road messaging with the aim of avoiding upset.  The programme made a conscious effort to deal with different narratives of lived experience.  I was particularly proud of the advert “Schizo the movie” which deliberately spoofed the horror film portrayals of mental illness only then to cut through to the everyday experience of someone living with schizophrenia preparing their breakfast.

A commitment to partnership also extended to thinking about the message of Time to Change was taken out into communities, workplaces and schools.  The Time to Change pledge, signed in the end by 1556 organisations employing 4 million people, was indicative of this approach.  Indeed, the world of work has been one of the areas where some of the greatest shifts in attitudes have occurred.  In 2006 a survey of employers by the Shaw Trust indicated that 41% of employers thought there would be nobody in their workplace affected by mental illness.  By 2010 that figure has fallen to 11%.

The second choice related to the commitment to evidence and evaluation.  The programme deliberately took account of the learning drawn from other international anti stigma work such as that in New Zealand and Scotland.  However, the decision to invest substantially in the evaluation of Time to Change was crucial to the sustained funding of the programme and to decisions about its direction and strategy.

The third and most important choice was to put lived experience at the heart of the programme.   The whole model of change for the programme was grounded on the principle of connecting people through the currency of personal stories of mental health problems and on the premise that where people knew others in their circle of families and friends their attitudes towards mental health problems tended to be more positive. 

It still takes some courage to share a personal experience of mental illness but that was so much more the case in 2007.  The bravery of those who first told their stories, both celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Alistair Campbell and Ruby Wax but also many ordinary people was so crucial in building the messaging and impact of Time to Change.  Those who made the first move opened the doors to others and there followed a flood of individuals in many different sectors of life:  sport, politics, business to name a few who stood up to share their own experience. As I know from our own family experience the normalising of conversations about mental health is, in its own right, a powerful therapeutic intervention.

As Time to Change comes to an end I have a number of reflections.

As I said, at the start of this blog, there is an enormous sense of privilege in being involved in such an important initiative and with such a special group of people.  Time to Change should not take all the credit for the change in attitudes towards mental health and the increased political priority and funding which has followed.  Its role, as a standard bearer for change, however has been undeniable.

Next there are lessons which can be drawn from what has been achieved in reducing mental health stigma and discrimination by those campaigning to deliver change in other areas such as poverty and race equality. 

Finally, there is the recognition that, despite what has been achieved, there is still much to do to tackle the stigma and discrimination relating to mental illness.  It is still time to change.

A long year – lessons from the pandemic

Anniversaries are always important times for reflection.

It’s been a year now since pandemic took hold and the decision was taken to start the first lockdown.  It’s almost hard to recall how dramatic those events were and how normal the constraints and reality of the last year have become.

In this country at least the pace of vaccination and the fall in the number of cases points to the possibility of moving out of lockdown and returning to some kind of life beyond the pandemic by the summer.

To mark that anniversary, I wanted to highlight some of the personal and professional lessons have I learnt from the last 12 months.

 It would not be an understatement to say that it has been a challenging time for most of us.  The worst of it, from a personal perspective, was the loss of my mother, last June. The issue was not so much the fact of her death in itself, she was 92 and had dementia.  Rather it was the impact the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions had on the quality of her last months of life and the constraints it placed on our ability as a family to be with her at the end and to mark her passing with the normal rituals of grief. Many families have been through the same or worse.

In other respects, I have been lucky.  I and the rest of my family have kept well.  I have continued in employment and have been able to adapt pretty easily to working largely from home.  While it has not been an easy year for my children, they are grown up and have not had to experience the major disruption to education and life chances that others have had to cope with. 

So, what are the wider lessons from what we have been through.

The first is to acknowledge the positives of how we have collectively coped and adapted.  I have seen that very clearly in the NHS where I work.  Staff have moved mountains to continue to care for patients, despite unprecedented levels of need and major practical and emotional stresses, and in some cases heightened levels of personal risk, in doing so. The same is true of many public services, in the fullest sense of the word, which have kept the essentials of life going through the last year.

That is not to ignore the mistakes which have been made. I, for one, favour some kind of public inquiry into the pandemic, not because I want to find scapegoats but because it is crucial that we learn the lessons of what has happened.  One thing that is clear is that, as a country, we were not adequately prepared for the pandemic and it would be negligent to assume that this kind of threat will not happen again, even if we emerge relatively soon from the acute phase of this crisis.

So, beyond the general experience what have been the more specific lessons.  I want to pick out three.  There are, of course, many more.

The first is inequalities.  The pandemic has highlighted very graphically the extent and impact of inequalities in Britain.  Mortality from Covid 19 has been much higher in minority ethnic communities and, for all sorts of systemic factors, the burden of the pandemic has fallen heavily on poorer socio-economic groups.  The pandemic has highlighted the economic fragility of many individuals and families dependent on benefits or low paid and insecure employment.  While the short-term measures taken by the Government to alleviate the economic consequences of lockdown have been significant and welcome there is real risk that the longer-term economic consequences of the pandemic will be felt disproportionately by lower income families and that inequalities are, as a result, further increased.  We ignore this at our peril.

My second lesson is around the importance of local places and communities.  In the last 12 months I have spent more time in the place I live than any time since the 1970s.  On the whole it has been a positive experience which has made me much more appreciative of my immediate surroundings.  I hope the world after the pandemic will have more of a local focus and that the move to blended models of work will allow us to eliminate the need for many unnecessary journeys. 

However, there will also be challenges.  It is hard to know exactly how radical the changes will be in our patterns of living and what the consequences will be for the physical infrastructure of our cities and towns.  Many urban places owe their origins to being focal points for trade and exchange and this could be under a profound threat if the shift from the high street to online commerce accelerates further.  There is again a real threat that such changes will further exacerbate inequality and impact disproportionately on communities that have already been hollowed out as a result of deindustrialisation.

My third point relates to the media and the quality of public discourse.  The pandemic appears to have worsened a trend towards an ever more polarised and intolerant level of public debate.  The voracious appetite of the media to fill a 24-hour news cycle and the impact of social media has fed on and fostered a collective sense of anxiety.  We need to reflect on what we can do to correct this and to create a space where facts and the nuance of legitimate difference between points of view are given greater prominence.

Like wars, the pandemic has been a collective period of trauma.  How we deal with the aftermath of that experience will have much to say on what its long terms consequences for our society will be.  Good things can come out of bad experiences.  The First World War gave women the vote, the Second World War gave us the NHS and the modern Welfare State.  What is it that we most want to create as the legacy to the pandemic and what is our collective will to create it?  That is the big question for the next 12 months.

The Dig

Like many others I enjoyed the portrayal of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo burial in the Netflix film “The Dig”. Sutton Hoo remains one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries in this country and its circumstances need little elaboration to make excellent drama.

When I was at University, I was involved quite a lot in archaeology.  Watching “The Dig” reminded me of some of what was very special about excavation and the world of archaeology.  This blog shares some of those reflections.

Archaeology is an interesting discipline: one third craft, one third science, one third poetry. 

The aspect of craft is epitomised by someone like Basil Brown, the self-taught local archaeologist in “The Dig” whose knowledge of landscapes, and above all soils, and mastery of the  technical skills of excavation are more than a match for his academic (and social) superiors.  I was lucky enough to work alongside real craftsmen on some of the excavations I attended.  Those were the days when the archaeological workforce was often a mixture of students, like me, and unemployed people on Manpower Services Commission schemes.  One individual, in particular, stands out in my memory, the neatness of whose digging and the clarity of the features he exposed was outstanding.

Science is also central. Archaeology is many ways a magpie discipline using wider developments to help address its own questions and there have been big developments since the time I was involved in excavations. 

The secret to archaeological interpretation is stratigraphy and the ability to distinguish different layers of activity on a site and to date them by linking them to an independently verifiable point in time.  The introduction of radiocarbon dating at the end of the 1940s was the major breakthrough in this respect and over time the sophistication of this techniques and other approaches to the scientific dating of artefacts have increased enormously.

Similarly geophysical surveys have opened up the ability to explore sites without invasive excavation which by necessity destroys the evidence it is investigating.  While much archaeology these days is done in advance of development there is sometimes a question about whether it is the right thing to open up a site or whether it is better to wait until the development of techniques allow less invasive exploration. 

Finally, there is the poetry.  Archaeology is inevitably partial in what it can tell us about the past.  There is an enormous space for interpretation which still requires imagination and creativity. From my experience much of that task is carried out in the pub.  I have very fond memories of evenings listening, over a few beers, to lively debates about what the finds on the site we were excavating meant in terms of the activities of our ancestors.  There was a particular frisson to discussions around features described as “ritual”.  In part it was an archaeological catch all term for things for which there was no practical explanation for what has been found, but it was also a lovely reminder of how our species has always been interested in more than the utilitarian aspects of life.

I have three other observations about archaeology and how it has helped shape, for me, a wider view of life.

The first relates to the issue of migration.  One of the constant challenges for archaeological interpretation, in particular in the absence of historical records, is whether changes in material culture are the product of the movement of people or just of ideas and objects.  With the growing precision of DNA analysis this debate has become more sophisticated.  Whatever the events in any given period the archaeological record highlights the ubiquitous nature of movement and exchange as the catalyst for human development and challenges the simplistic concepts of national identity.

The second is the democratic impact of archaeology.  While the eye may be captured by high status discoveries such as Sutton Hoo, most archaeological discoveries relate to ordinary activities and ordinary people, people who, in most periods, would have left no other record of their lives.  Archaeological discoveries have broadened our understanding of periods with no or only limited historical records and of people and activities that would otherwise have remained invisible to us.  Those discoveries have helped us to rebalance our understanding of certain periods and corrected some of the inevitable  biases of historical accounts.

The final observation is how much archaeology has to do with death.  Burials and burial rituals, such of those of the ship at Sutton Hoo, form a major part of the archaeological record.  They cast a light on the most significant event for any of us and the beliefs which different generations and communities have had about the meaning of death, what might come beyond and the ongoing presence of our ancestors in the world.  Those windows into the beliefs of those who have gone before about death and mortality can help us in how we interpret that most inevitable reality of our own lives.

The highlight of my archaeological career was when I was given the chance to excavate the central burial in a Bronze Age round barrow at a site just outside Radley near Oxford.  The burial contained an intact beaker pot, one of the most iconic objects from any period of history, and the skeleton of a young child.  It was a very profound moment to have the privilege of contemplating, at the remove of several thousand years, another life, cut short all too early but nonetheless special. It is memory which will live with me all of my life.