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21 July, 2017
Watching the film ‘To Sir with Love’ on Sunday – I was surprised how much it affected me.  Made in 1967, it’s about Sidney Poitier as a temporary teacher in a rough London East End school; most of the kids, already switched off from education, amuse themselves tormenting staff.  Poitier’s calm respectful manner – the dignity he offers and expects from his class, gradually wins them over.  While it wouldn’t stand serious critique, the film made me cry; 50 years ago it probably influenced where I chose to work.             In my twenties I became a detached youth worker with an exciting group of young men in notorious street gangs; they were violent, unstable and frankly scary – I don’t know what I was supposed to be doing.  I was freelance, untrained and unsupervised; it was a stupid and reckless thing to do and I got what I deserved – a rude awakening. Some 'sair' memories from that period, but there were things I needed to learn - and some of us can only learn the hard way.             'To Sir with Love' is a beautifully acted story about an extraordinary individual - an idealised hero; that's what I wanted to be - a famous champion on behalf of disadvantaged young people. But in real life, heroic do-gooders tend to be self-absorbed - take themselves too seriously; lack of accountability and burnout are problems. Genuine social progress happens through millions of daily acts of goodwill, by ordinary people - boring, mundane, consistent. Beware the fevered exploits of would-be heroes. - Read full bulletin

14 July, 2017
In the garden – on my knees with a trowel – a blissful trance.  Become vaguely aware of someone speaking – look up to a tall, thin student-type – respectfully asking me to fill his water bottle.  To my own surprise, I round on him angrily for this intrusion - the inconvenience of it; get his refill grudgingly.  Later I try to justify my rudeness – but can't.  It’s no surprise to me that I harbour such selfish impulses – but to let them spill out is not acceptable; I’m ashamed and need to ponder this outburst.             Next day, uptown for a haircut, I pop into Waterstones for a browse and a bowl of soup.  Going up to the café, I share the lift with a chap in an electric wheelchair; I’m determined to be a model of attentive courtesy – (which I suspect disabled people hate).  When the lift stops, he can’t get his chair to reverse – wheels squint; his body language says ‘leave me alone’ but I’m ineptly trying to assist.  Without warning the lift slams shut and whisks him away; I'm left standing – wishing I’d kept out of it.             I wonder if this growing impulse to withdraw is an inevitable aspect of old age.  Early in life our own needs dominate – then, when we are less needy, a period when we can see and respond to the needs of others.  Eventually the whole thing goes into reverse – more and more energy going back into meeting our basic survival needs.  Then I think: for goodness sake – all that guy wanted was a drink of water. - Read full bulletin

07 July, 2017
On Sunday I willed myself to watch George Best: All by Himself - on BBC 2; Daniel Gordon’s documentary shows his subject at his most glorious (on the pitch) – and at his most abject – as a shambling, self-pitying drunk; but always as someone who mysteriously, commanded widespread affection.  On September 4th, I’ll quietly celebrate 16 years without alcohol – remind myself how little we understand of how addiction works; why some folk escape – while others destroy themselves.  My sense is that we are in the realm of the psyche (soul) rather than medicine.             Many dear friends, over the last 50 years, have, like myself, been addicted to alcohol; we would discuss the almost ‘mystical’ euphoria it brings.  For many, this ‘high’ proved too ‘fundamental’ to live without – so they ‘managed’ their addiction as best they could; I was unable to do this and it was killing me.  The decision to quit was taken by me – but by a part of me deeper than conscious will; it’s as if Eros and Thanatos – life and death – contested the outcome – in the ‘underworld’ – and then informed me.             The Guardian journalist Tanya Gold posted a ‘felt’ piece last week (confused and brave) – about how alcoholism continues long after we stop drinking; 15 years sober, she describes her uneasy co-existence with the negative voice in her head that still plots her self-destruction: “If I am unwary, she can plunge me into the deepest despair – and I have learned to construct an obstacle course to thwart her; it is made of ordinary human love – nothing else works.”  Good thinking Tanya. - Read full bulletin

30 June, 2017
Age 8-12, I spent four years at a posh boarding school in England run by Jesuit priests; predictably I caught some of their missionary zeal for social justice – which I've spent much of my life trying to understand – no complaints.  With old age, I more frequently avert my eyes from distressing events – the garden helps; but the Grenfell Tower horror was an event of a different order – with a message our society cannot ignore: ‘Citizens at a certain level of poverty count for nothing’.             I can’t imagine a more literal representation of the words ‘poverty trap’ than the burnt-out remains of that tower block; I’ve forced myself to imagine parents throwing their children from several floors up, in the hope they might be saved – because we must all stay angry enough to sort this.   Across the UK – a growing number of poor people have little prospect of finding a decent place to live; we can make the Grenfell outrage into a tipping point in national life.              Garden Centres are increasingly overpriced – I get better value plants from Morrison’s supermarket; Wednesday I’m in the café of their Edinburgh, Ferry Road branch, having lunch.  The dozen customers are noticeably poorer than me, a 'pinched' look – at the next table a mother and two toddlers share skimpy rations; I want to buy them a slap-up meal – how arrogant is that!  I reflect that we live alongside unnecessary levels of child poverty – which we find ‘tolerable’ – or we avert our eyes; until another Grenfell Tower erupts. Angela McRobbie at Open Democracy. - Read full bulletin

23 June, 2017
A reader sent me a 12 minute TED talk by USA psychiatrist Robert Waldinger; he's talking about his role as the fourth director of the longest study of adult life ever done – 724 men tracked bi-annually for 75 years – to explore what keeps people happy and healthy.  The lesson from thousands of pages of surveys is not about wealth or fame or hard work – it’s simply that people who are more socially connected to family, friends and community – are happier, healthier and live longer; it seems happiness is mostly about our relationships.             I also enjoyed this interview with a successful New Zealand social entrepreneur called Roy Avery.  He points out, that early in the evolution of our species – everything was a social enterprise; the earliest 'villages' were formed by people working together to survive – developing facilities to be used by everyone – the commons.  Working for the common good was the norm – until 'scale' distorted everything; now money is deployed more for private than community benefit.             A film on BBC Alba this week showed how on Barra - life is still lived according to community values; we see the eleven hundred islanders – living small and slow enough to deeply feel their community.  Watching the film, I imagined that, if I were young again, I would choose this 'shared' way of life…  But, of course, most young people leave the islands - in pursuit of imagined wealth or fame; it takes the wisdom of later life to appreciate what really matters. Perhaps it has always been thus – always will. - Read full bulletin


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