Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The most stupid questions are the ones people don't ask

How often have you been in a meeting when someone used an expression, or referred to something, which everyone else appeared to understand, but you didn’t have a clue what they were talking about? And in that situation, how easy did you find it to ask?

I must confess that this happens to me quite regularly. Perhaps more than most because I’m a non-engineer working for a company where the majority of managers have an engineering background, and so I’ve had to evolve ways of dealing with it. But I think most people, if we are honest, would agree that it is a common occurrence, and if being very honest, that we don’t ask “what on earth are you talking about” often enough.

For what it’s worth, in my experience, if you start with “Please forgive me if this is a stupid question, but can you explain to me …” then most of the time people will try to make you feel better with “That’s not a stupid question at all.” (Even if they think it is.) And quite often someone else who was trying to pluck up the courage to ask the same question will tell you afterwards that they were glad you did it for them.

One group of people who have to develop the knack of asking apparently silly questions, and often get unfairly pilloried for it, are judges. Last week in St Albans Crown Court Mr Justice Seddon Cripps had the temerity to ask what a sofa bed is. Cue much tabloid tittering along the same lines as greeted the judges who over the years have asked about the identities of Gazza, the Teletubbies, or Linford Christie’s lunchbox.

But if we stop and think for a minute it becomes obvious that, if we find ourselves in court, perhaps falsely accused of some offence for which a conviction might mean twenty years in prison, we would be grateful that the person presiding is not afraid to ask questions. As Libby Purves put it in today’s Times, a judge is paid to understand the law: why should he (or she) be embarrassed not to know who Jade from Big Brother is?

All too often the fear of looking like a twit can stop us asking people what they mean. But in some circumstances the consequences of not asking the question can be much worse – and looking like an even bigger twit is usually the least important.

On that note, here are a few silly questions which should be asked more often here in West Cumbria

If complex maternity services are moved from Whitehaven to Carlisle, what will happen to expectant mothers in West Cumbria who suddenly develop severe complications and need those services urgently?

How will residents of Millom who don’t have a car cope when they need an emergency prescription and all the chemists in the town are closed?

If there is a problem because volunteer lifeguards do not appear to meet the necessary standards, can we try to provide training and assistance to get them up to the standard rather than abandon efforts to provide a lifeguard service on beaches where people have recently drowned?

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Another Modest Proposal

Over coffee this morning after church, one of the ladies mentioned that she and her family had just come back from the Isle of Man, where they had had a very good short holiday.

This sparked off a thought I have had before: why not establish a ferry between Whitehaven and the Isle of Man ? If you want to get from West Cumbria to the Isle of Man there is not good direct route and you probably end up driving to Fleetwood to take the ferry. It’s equivalent to getting from the tread of a wheel to the hub by going 180 degrees round the rim before going up one of the spokes.

There is a general consensus that one of the things we need to do to boost the economy of West Cumbria is to build up tourism. The wider the package we can offer, the easier this will be to acheive. The ability to take a quick trip to the Isle of Man could be used to provide an additional boost, certainly to tourism in West Cumbria and probably in the Central Lakes as well.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Are TV Replays fair to Umpires and Referees ?

I used to greatly enjoy watching first-class cricket, but the trouble with watching this sport is that most of us just can't spare three or five days at a time to watch a game. I have not managed to attend a match in person since that glorious morning at the Oval twenty years ago when England last won the Ashes. That's if you don't count about half an hour's play of a match against New Zealand which was otherwise rained off.

However, so many of my work colleagues have been raving about how good the present test series is that I have been unable to resist the temptation to watch some of it for myself. Yesterday I was working in my office at home in Cumbria with an internet panel open with the scoreboard. When something really interesting like a wicket or Flintoff's century came up I nipped into the living room to catch the replay on the TV.

I have been delighted to see England playing so well, but could not resist a degree of sympathy for the Umpires. They have to make a decision on the spot, using the Mark One eyeball, at a speed of 1:1 and with no replay. Admittedly one of their options is to refer to the Third Umpire who has the advantage of a slow motion replay and a zoom camera, but if the first two umpires did that all the time the game would slow to a crawl.

If under these handicaps an Umpire or Referee makes a mistake, everyone who watches the TV can see slow motion replays with a zoom lens of what actually happened, and it is very easy to make someone who has made a decision without such advantages look like a twit.

At the start of their first innings yesterday, Australia lost three quick wickets to Leg-Before-Wicket decisions. The replays showed that one of these decisions was almost certainly right, another was probably right, but the remaining decision was probably wrong.

Is it unfair to show this ? Well I suppose it probably is, but I can't see that banning TV from showing the replays is going to do anything but make matters worse. You don't get improvements in performance without watching to learn where you get it wrong, and if the original action takes place in public it is unreasonable to stop people making an assessment in public - of the Umpires as much as the players.

If football and cricket matches are to be decided on the field rather than in law courts, we have to continue the tradition that Umpires and Referees are right even when they are wrong - and if we start trying to suppress the information when a decision is wrong that will simply undermine confidence in referees and umpires.

It is awkward that everyone can see when an Umpire makes a bad mistake, but at least we can also see that they get the majority of decisions right. And if they did not, something could be done about it.

As I write this, England have enforced the follow on against Australia, which is the first time anyone has been in a position to do this to an Australian test side for 17 years. Australia need 37 to avoid an innings defeat with six second innings wickets in hand. I have learned never to make overconfident predictions about sporting events or elections, but that is a good position to be in.

Whether or not we get the Ashes back, my colleagues were right: there really has been some good cricket in this series. Hooray !

Brother Roger R.I.P.

I spent most of the last week completing our house move to Cumbria - clearing the last of our things from the house in St Albans where my family have lived for 45 years was something of a major exercise.

As we returned to Cumbria after leaving the old house for the last time, I was horrified to learn on the radio that Brother Roger, founder of the Taize community, had been murdered a few days previously. He was 90 years old, and was stabbed to death during a service in front of 2,500 worshippers by a mentally disturbed woman.

Brother Roger founded the interdenominational Taize community in 1940 as a refuge from war. He was a protestant but worked to heal the divisions between churches of all denominations and was accepted by Catholics almost as one of themselves: at the funeral of Pope John Paul II he received communion in his wheelchair from the then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict.)

A special tradition of prayer through singing which began at Taize has had a huge influence on many of the churches I have visited during the past two decades. In St Mary's Marshalswick where I sang in the choir
for many years, we had regular services in the Taize style once a month which were often very moving and attracted dozens of visitors from other churches in St Albans. St Mary's in Gosforth where my family usually worships since moving to Cumbria often includes a Taize chant in the communion music. Brother Roger himself once said that He who sings prays twice - once in the words and once in the music.

Sometimes when something terrible happens a strong religious faith can help you to deal with it, but there are other times when an evil event is real challenge to that faith - you ask yourself, "How can God allow
this ?" The senseless murder of a 90-year old man who had dedicated his life to peace, and and probably probably done more than any other person in the 20th century both to bring churches together and replenish the spiritual power of church music round the world, is one of those times.

At Brother Roger's funeral yesterday his successor, Brother Alois, prayed for forgiveness for the woman who killed him. "God of goodness, we ask you to forgive Luminita Solcan, who, in an act of wickedness,
ended the life of our Brother Roger," he said yesterday. "Like Christ on the cross, we say to you, 'Forgive her, for she knew not what she did."

That is quite typical of the forgiveness which Brother Roger exemplified in life, and which his death will have no power to end.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Stand up for local hospitals

I wrote a week ago that I become increasingly concerned about the
future of local health services in West Cumbria. Since then the problems have become more and more obvious. Now Labour politicians who during the election a couple of months ago were proclaiming loudly that there is no threat to local hospitals have realised that there is and are frantically trying to set up NHS managers and officials as scapegoats.

It is time for Copeland's MP to make clear whether he still believes, as he said at the election debates and in the local press during the election, that there is no threat to West Cumberland Hospital.

If he does still believes that, he may be the only person in West
Cumbria who does, following the suggestion that some maternity services could move to Carlisle, the changes to Windermere ward, and two high-profile resignations of greatly respected doctors. If he doesn't, he should encourage his colleagues to work with the local NHS to save local services. Either way local Labour politicians should desist from making dark hints in the press about the need for local NHS officials to resign. There is something deeply offensive about the sight of Labour figures who were only too happy to quote Marie Burnham's words about the hospital during the General Election now turning round and trying to evade responsibility for their own statements by blaming her.

Along with about 40 other local residents I attended the Forum for
Patients and Public Involvement in the local NHS in Whitehaven Civic
Hall last week. There were some very powerful speeches from carers who have concerns about the impact of changes in the way mental illness is dealt with. Very sadly some of the most moving contributions came after the press had gone. There is a case for dealing with different types of mental illness in adjacent accommodation rather than in the same ward. However, it is very important that existing provision should never be withdrawn until a fully adequate replacement is in place, and there appear to be legitimate concerns about whether the changes to Windermere
ward meet that objective. Few people like to even think about mental
illness but it will affect most families at some time: for example one person in five who lives past the age of 80 suffers some degree of dementia. The suffering which will be caused if we do not provide
adequate support to those with mental illness and their carers does not bear thinking about.

As I said last week in the context of maternity services, we have an
excellent hospital in the West Cumberland and some brilliant staff who work there: we should be proud of everything they have achieved there and work to keep and improve it.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Despite all the assurances I become increasingly concerned about the
future of local health services in West Cumbria. This is not because I doubt the integrity or good intentions of the people who are running the Primary Care Trusts and the Acute Hospitals Trust, but because the right decisions will have to be taken to keep our local hospitals viable.

In the run up the election I met many members of staff at West
Cumberland and Millom hospitals and I was extremely concerned at the low level of morale amongst excellent doctors and nurses. Two recent high-profile resignations and the response to them do nothing to convince me that this has improved.

The idea of a "Health park" was put forward and this would be one way to kick off a positive strategy for the future, but to date it has not had support at higher levels. And now there is a suggestion that some maternity services might move to Carlisle.

I strongly support the need to retain full maternity services at West Cumberland Hospital and the "Don't move our mums" campaign.

The West Cumberland Acute Hospital Trust faces difficult choices to
maintain a wide range of services to the highest standard, but the problem with the idea of reducing the maternity department at Whatehaven to a community midwifery unit has unfortunate consequence which do not just apply to maternity services, important though they are. Nor is it just about the problem if expectant mothers have an impossibly long journey to give birth - though the trek to Carlisle would be unacceptable for mothers from Whitehaven let alone Gosforth or Millom.

If safe hospital care is to be provided, the different services are
needed to support each other and there has to be a critical mass of
medical expertise. Loss of one speciality can endanger others and cause a domino effect. Each service moved to Carlisle or Newcastle brings us nearer to the point where it ceases to be possible to maintain a district general hospital in West Cumbria.

I believe that the Trust are sincere in their statement that they want to keep a District General Hospital in West Cumbria, but if this is to be achieved we must send out positive signals at every opportunity and campaign to stop the drift of services to other areas.

Reduction of maternity services would not just be a bad thing in its own right but would send all the wrong signals to potential hospital staff.

We have an excellent hospital in the West Cumberland and some brilliant staff at the hospital: we should be proud of everything they have achieved there and work to keep and improve it.

Monday, August 01, 2005

What Islam says about Terrorism

In the aftermath of the bombings in London, it has been fairly
widely remarked that such acts of terrorism are not compatible with the Muslim religion. This statement has come both from Muslims themselves and leaders of other faiths. However, I continue to read or hear comments from people who question whether the Koran does in fact support acts of indiscriminate violence. Maybe the people who say such things missed the adverts in most papers placed by British Muslims saying "Not in our names." Maybe they also missed the fatwa issued by the British Muslim Forum, with the approval of more than 500 UK Muslim clerics, scholars and imams, on Monday 18 July. I found it very powerful, and worth repeating below.

"We wish to express our sincere condolences to the families of all the victims of the London attacks. We pray for the swift recovery of all those who are recovering from injuries. There are many questions emerging from the London bombings. One of the most important questions is what does Islam say about it?

To answer this question Muslim scholars, clerics and Imams from all
over the UK have been consulted to issue this formal legal opinion (fatwa) so that Muslims and non-Muslims can be clear about Islam's stance on such acts.

On behalf of over 500 clerics, scholars and Imams the British Muslim
Forum issues the following religious decree:

Islam strictly, strongly and severely condemns the use of violence and the destruction of innocent lives.

There is neither place nor justification in Islam for extremism,
fanaticism or terrorism. Suicide bombings, which killed and injured
innocent people in London, are haram - vehemently prohibited in Islam, and those who committed these barbaric acts in London are criminals not martyrs.

Such acts, as perpetrated in London, are crimes against all of humanity and contrary to the teachings of Islam.

The Holy Koran declares:

"Whoever kills a human being, then it is as though he has killed all
mankind; and whoever saves a human life, it is as though he had saved all mankind." (Koran, Surah al-Maidah (5), verse 32).

Islam teaches us to be caring towards all of Allah's (God's) creation, not just mankind. The Prophet of Islam who was described as "a mercy to the worlds" said: "All creation is the family of Allah and that person is most beloved to Allah who is kind and caring towards His family."

Islam's position is clear and unequivocal: murder of one soul is the
murder of the whole of humanity; he who shows no respect for human life is an enemy of humanity.

We pray for the defeat of extremism and terrorism in the world.

We pray for peace, security and harmony to triumph in multicultural
Great Britain."