Thursday 18th December 2014

If ever there was a week when you might want to utter the old cry, “Stop the world: I want to get off!” this was surely it. We’ve seen tragedy and farce, true heroism and bathos, the highs and lows of the human condition, indeed.

First, tragedy and heroism. On Monday the world watched the Sydney café siege end in mayhem and death. Arguably there were no surprises. Self-styled fundamentalist Sunni preacher-turned-gunman Man Haron Monis was known to police and government, yet still got hold of a shotgun. That background will be pored over in Australia, but it’s too easy to demand that all suspicious characters be locked up: that way lies oppression and the suppression of human rights.

The siege ended in a shoot-out, with two hostages killed. Yet out of the misery comes at least some comfort about the nature of people at their best. It seems those two gave their lives to save others. Details remain sketchy, but it appears the café’s manager, Tori Johnson, attempted to grab the gun, a powerful example of man taking ultimate responsibility for his customers. Reports suggest the other victim, Katrina Dawson, used her body to shield a pregnant woman.

In the depths of despair, at the moment of barely imaginable madness, two people showed true heroism and generosity of spirit, sacrificing themselves for their fellow hostages. It’s uplifting, tragic and humbling all at once.

It’s almost insulting by contrast to move on to the farce and bathos of UKIP’s latest disasters. Parliamentary candidate Kerry Smith stepped down after being recorded describing a local LGBT group as “effing disgusting old poofters”. He also joked about “shooting peasants” and described a woman with a Chinese name as a “chinky”. His defence was that he was on sedatives at the time. In vino veritas: if people speak the truth under the influence of wine, do they also reveal too much when on sedatives?

The official in charge of vetting the party’s election candidates admits he spends half his time “weeding out the lunatics”. UKIP certainly attracts nutters: one of the few accurate comments to come out of Conservative head office in the last few years was that description of UKIP as “a bunch of swivel-eyed loons”.

In some ways, it’s inevitable. UKIP is a protest party. Its ideology and its support base don’t grow out of any vision for a particular kind of society: its basis is entirely negative, founded on a xenophobic dislike of foreigners, of Europe, of immigration.

Neither politicians nor the media are good at looking at history: but I often think we should look back to the Weimar Republic, in the chaos of which Hitler built his powerbase. He too became elected on an entirely negative message, blaming the Jews, blaming the punitive Versailles Treaty: surrounded by his own bunch of influential, charismatic nutters, he built the Nazi ideology and powerbase.

Nigel Farage isn’t another Hitler: but, when you see “ordinary people” interviewed in the street declaring their support for him because he allegedly “tells it how it is” about immigration, and spouting an incoherent, intolerant message of hatred and fear, I wish they would watch themselves on TV and decide whether they like what they see.

Returning to Sydney, I’m not sure if Man Haron Monis was following any coherent fundamentalist Islamic message: I suspect he was one of those disturbed, unstable characters who will find any cause in which to act out their sad, mad fantasies with fatal consequences.

On such topics I know I risk sounding complacent, wishy-washy, boringly middle-of-the-road. Nonetheless, when we see how extreme views expressed by UKIPpers lead to hatred (and, as a background to Kerry Smith’s downfall, an astonishing amount of backstabbing amongst its own), and when extremist religious ideologies furnish platforms or motivations for homicidal maniacs, perhaps more of that old-fashioned British reserve, caution and tolerance is precisely what we need.


Thursday 11th December 2014

How often things disappoint! Sometimes bad luck intervenes so that a moment of triumph turns to dust and ashes in the mouth. Other things (such as Christmas, on occasion) are subject to such an extreme build-up that the reality isn’t as amazing as expected.

Worst of all is, perhaps, the shattering of illusions.  I remember the first time I discovered an idol to have feet of clay. It happened at a pantomime, when I was a very little boy. I don’t remember the detail, but a scene ended up with a mysterious hooded figure being revealed as…. a female Santa Claus in a skimpy, tight-fitting costume. Nowadays dancing Santa-chicks are commonplace: then, it seemed like a betrayal. I knew it wasn’t really Santa, and somehow it was so wrong as to be insulting.

Mind you, Santa isn’t what he was. According to a recent report, Father Christmas is nowadays portrayed as carrying a good two stone less than he used to. What happened to the round, jolly guy roaring “Ho ho ho!”? Apparently he’s taken to eating salad: as a result he’s relatively svelte compared to his old self. I’m sure he’ll live longer, his cholesterol count will be prodigiously lower and he’ll be much less at risk of developing type 2 diabetes: but I can’t help feeling the “Ho ho ho!” will also be less deep and cheery.

Almost every day something occurs designed to take the shine off someone’s life or ambition. Did you want to be a judge? Forget it: it’s not the job it used to be. Government hates paying barristers or secretaries, so judges now spend all their time on a laptop doing the admin for the cases they’re hearing.

Nonetheless, you say to yourself, they get a jolly good lunch. No more: even those have gone. High Court judges, I think, still get waiter service at lunchtime, though Chris Grayling has cancelled Sky in their Lodgings. But humbler judges get only a sandwich, possibly a microwaved M & S meal, or use the kitchenette provided. A judge? use a kitchenette? In the good old days, when judges would ask “Who are The Stones?” no one would have expected them to boil a kettle, let alone knock up a salade niçoise in the judicial kitchenette.

Some people and institutions continue to thrive. It’s now against the law to make any film or TV series in Britain without a role for veteran actress Dame Maggie Smith. That other dame, Judi Dench, marches on too. Despite her character, M, being bumped off in the last Bond movie, she was recently invited to MI5 HQ. Real spooks clustered around her, asking what the Secret Service was really like. Bemused, she retorted, “I’m the fake one. You’re doing the job: ask yourselves.” I’m not sure whose illusions were more tarnished in that encounter.

Meanwhile the Trafford household suffered significant disappointment with regard to the Elgin Marbles. That pinnacle of peerless classical Greek sculpture has been preserved for more than a century in the British Museum, deaf to Greek protestations that they should be returned. The Establishment wouldn’t trust something so precious to a chaotic and bankrupt nation: instead it’s lent bits of them to the morally bankrupt regime of Vladimir Putin, or at least to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It’s called cultural diplomacy.

This has outraged all sorts of people: those who feel strongly about Putin; and the Greeks who are understandably beside themselves with rage.

Thus the papers have been full recently of images of that magnificent river god. Magnificent? To be honest, nowadays he looks a bit discoloured and shabby. “He hasn’t even got a head,” my wife commented dispassionately, adding that the carefully carved reproductive organs also appeared somewhat diminished.

In truth, she used a blunter, coarser form of English. But if I repeated those words here, I’d shatter your illusions of me too.


Thursday 4th December 2014

A week or two ago I was asked by an education magazine to write an article about “gravitas”. Is that elusive quality, defined by Wikipedia as “weight, seriousness and dignity”, still a requirement of headteachers?

Great headmasters [sic] of old simply oozed gravitas: the famous Dr Arnold of Rugby; Edward Thring of Uppingham, founder of the Headmasters’ Conference (HMC); in literature, Mr Chips and the formidable Dr Locke of Greyfriars.

As for J K Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore, revealed by a survey as teachers’ favourite fictional teacher, does so enigmatic a figure really possess gravitas? And do people expect heads to have it nowadays?

They do and they don’t! People want heads to be generally approachable, humane, caring: nice guys, indeed. Yet they must have that aura of authority and power when necessary.

Presumably we want the same from political leaders: but do we get it?

The clubbable (and pubbable) Nigel Farage, despite his intolerant opinions about Europe and immigrants, cleverly presents himself as the sort of easy-going guy you can enjoy a pint with and not worry about being “politically correct”.  David Cameron, meanwhile, too often appears aloof. He assumes gravitas at need, but is too easily caricatured as a posh boy.

Ed Miliband is, well, still seeking his identity: he’s not winning over the electorate, and his caricature is Mr Bean. Notwithstanding their particular challenges and sorrows, at least they make an effort.

By contrast three other parliamentarians, currently much in the news, have behaved dreadfully. Former Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell lost his libel action against The Sun last week, the judge deciding he “probably did call police officers plebs” and upholding the evidence of the constable he abused.

The judge reckoned an ordinary sort of person wouldn’t have thought of using a word like pleb. His judgment implies on Mitchell’s part a certain view of those who are beneath him, acknowledging the use of such a word was “politically toxic”.

What is it that makes politicians feel they’re so important that, when they’re having a bad day, they can abuse others, particularly those who are appointed to keep them and the whole of government safe?

I can’t answer that. Yet such behaviour is clearly commoner than we had perhaps thought. Also last week, a cabby was so outraged by the scorn heaped on him by former MP David Mellor that he recorded it. Mellor called that a shabby thing to do: but the driver might argue that, if you’re a former minister, a QC and an award-winning radio presenter (facts that Mellor catalogued at the top of his voice), you don’t need to launch into a tirade because your day’s not going well. To be fair, Mellor has since apologised unreservedly on his LBC radio show.

A little earlier Labour MP Emily Thornbury was obliged to resign her shadow cabinet position after tweeting a picture of a house in Rochester festooned with England flags and a white van parked outside it. Wow! The patronising assumptions implicit in the Islington-dwelling MP’s tweet are breath-taking.

Let me sound for a moment like a tabloid headline-writer: who the hell do these people think they are? As soon as you have to tell someone who or what you are, and assert your dignity, you’ve lost the battle.

Surely all of us know that: all of us outside North Korea, at any rate.  Teachers learn it in about the first three weeks in the job. Are MPs so insulated that they begin to believe in their own superiority? That’s a terrifying thought – all the more because it’s probably true. They seem never to learn.

I don’t rejoice in the highly visible shaming of three public figures. But I do wish more of our leaders understood that they are there to serve, not to despise, ordinary people: and that truly great human beings consciously abandon status rather than constantly seeking to reinforce it.


Thursday 27th November 2014

I’ve said it before, but it’s not easy being middle-aged. I think we should regard the topic of being in our 50s like a sleeping lion: better left alone, and certainly not to be poked with a sharp stick.

Except some fool always stirs things up. I blame Mariella Frostrup who recently appeared in the papers looking, it has to be admitted, pretty good at 52 and declaring it’s a great age to be. Everyone got excited and started drawing comparisons. Madonna’s apparently an icon for people my age, though I’ve never felt the need to wear pointed metal-ware on my torso. Even Johnny Depp’s 51: when he appeared at last week’s Hollywood film awards I reckoned he looked a lot seedier than I do, though he’s a few years younger.

It seems we over-50s are now expected to adopt a particular lifestyle. When I passed the hurdle, I thought I was only required to have the odd midlife crisis. Yes, I changed job and moved to Newcastle, settling full-time in an area where I’d regularly holidayed for more than a decade. That was more a decision than a crisis.

I did experience perhaps one when I bought my 1998 Mercedes sports car. I love the retro approach of lifting off the hard top in spring and storing it in my neighbour’s garage (I haven’t got one), pressing the button and seeing the hidden hood unfold gracefully. So elegant, so German.

Unfortunately my fellow columnist David Banks was blind to its classic magic (still purring effortlessly and without trouble after 112,000 miles). He accused me the other week of driving a 23 mpg gas-guzzler, mocking my attempts to source cheap fuel.

Heartless! Anyone who really knows me understands I wouldn’t drive anything so extravagant: it does a cool 26 miles to each gallon cruising through the Northumbrian countryside, roof down, soaking up the sun, enjoying the warmth. Okay, I lied about the last bit: fortunately it has such a powerful heater that, as long as Mrs Trafford wears three extra layers of clothing, she doesn’t suffer frostbite between Wooler and Newcastle.

It gets worse. The papers are convinced we 50-somethings grew up in a drug-fuelled atmosphere of Woodstock, Hari Krishna and free love: “If you can remember the 70s, you weren’t there”, goes the saying.

Age is finally perhaps dimming my memory of the 70s. But what I really recall is, well, not quite being there. I took up jazz partly because I thought playing the trumpet would attract girls. I was wrong. By the time we’d packed up after a gig, they’d all disappeared. We always blamed the drummer for being too slow.

Universities in the mid-70s were allegedly thick with marijuana smoke: so did my 1970s pass in a drug-induced haze? No. No one ever offered me any. Possibly beer fitted better than wacky-baccy the mediaeval music I was studying. For most of the 70s I was indubitably naïve and mostly bemused: and, at well over 50, I’m not sure much has changed!

Apparently I’m off the pace. Recent articles suggest my generation is hooked on booze, illegal drugs and rampant sex.

We certainly have a sense of freedom: we don’t have to dash home to relieve the babysitter nowadays. But even after a self-indulgent meal or an evening at the Theatre Royal we Traffords, walking home, meet the serious party-goers just setting out. When the streets of the Toon are alive with revellers, we’re home, catching the late news with a cup of tea.

Free spirits? Maybe. Wild children second time round? Hardly. Nowadays we’re ready of an evening for the proverbial pipe and slippers.

Except that the pipe is now outlawed as dirty, smelly and carcinogenic. And slippers? Hell, they’re the sort of thing your mum and dad used to wear in middle-age: you swore you’d never, ever be like them. 


Thursday 20th November 2014

“Now, children. Here’s another newlesson for you. Your mummies and daddies are useless at teaching you about healthy eating, obesity, smoking, drugs, alcohol, sex, and extremism. The government’s no help either: so it says your teachers must tell you all about those things so you don’t grow up into fat, drugged-up, drunken, murderous sex-maniacs with heart disease.

“Neither those nice people in Parliament nor your mummies and daddies have a clue about managing money either, so the Archbishop of Canterbury has asked his schools to teach you about that too. Won’t that be lovely?”

Excuse the Joyce Grenfell bit. Justin Welby vowed on his appointment as Archbishop to put payday lenders out of business by competing with them, forming credit unions in Anglican churches. People are encouraged to save and borrow in small, structured, protected ways with no rip-offs: it’s proper, moral social enterprise, balancing good sense with Christian care for one’s fellow human beings.

This scheme is designed to help the poor, the struggling, those who so easily and too frequently fall prey to the payday lenders (who have finally had their wings clipped by government) or, worse, the unlicensed loan sharks into whose hands they too easily tumble.

The move gives rise to enjoyable pleasurable headlines. “Jesus saves and so will children”, proclaimed The Times. It reminded me of the old 1980s joke strapline: Jesus saves - and Keegan puts it in on the rebound.

Welby’s idea has now been extended to children: credit unions are operating in a few primary schools. The intention is to set up a pilot of 100 primary schools. If that proves successful, the scheme could be rolled out across England, not least because a quarter of all primaries are church schools.

It’s about education. The primary school credit union is just one way of teaching kids that, if they take care of the pennies, the pounds will come of themselves. Many a mickle maks a muckle, as they say a little north of here.

Like motherhood and apple-pie, this junior saving scheme’s hard to argue against. It is the children’s own money, and it accumulates. But it’s not real life. They’re not required out of a limited income to put money aside for electricity or gas: to fund and control their mobile phone bill; to plan buying nutritious but inexpensive food rather than cheap and unhealthy or organic and overpriced, for example.

I’m not against this plan: I just don’t believe it will change our nation or even its attitude towards money. The realities of earning, of unemployment, of tax, rent and interest on loans are harsh things which we can’t (and shouldn’t) replicate for children.

I was only half-listening to the radio when the credit union news was announced. Mrs Trafford and I looked at each other, and knew we were thinking the same thing.

“It’s all very well to talk about teaching children to handle money,” she commented sagely. “But when will anyone persuade the bankers to behave honestly or politicians to manage the nation’s finances sensibly?”

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, said this week that bankers who misbehave shouldn’t just lose their bonuses: money should be clawed back from their pay.

Is that all? How can major banks be found guilty of illegally fixing the LIBOR rate, paying massive fines to government (a nice earner for it, by the way), but none of the fiddlers face criminal charges? It was daylight (well, overnight) robbery.

It’s clear the money-cowboys think themselves immune from regulation (let alone from common decency and honesty): notwithstanding the LIBOR scandal traders blithely carried on rigging the foreign exchange (Forex) market.

Politicians fiddle while the money burns: David Cameron predicts another global meltdown; testosterone-fuelled bankers and traders get off scot-free; and Joe Public, I guess, will pick up the pieces once more.

If I were the archbishop, I’d keep praying hard.


Thursday 13th November 2014

Remembrance Sunday passed off without incident. There were all kinds of security concerns, although safety was maintained as unobtrusively as ever, but no one did anything inappropriate.

In fairness, we Brits tend not to mess up the big occasions. Though it depends what you mean by big, perhaps. Singer Robbie Williams recently made an entirely inappropriate contribution to the birth of his child. While his wife Ayda was in the throes of labour, Robbie both insisted on singing the song Frozen and posted a video. Eventually she called a halt – to the singing.

This past week my spleen has been stirred by the emergence of the major stores’ spectacularly inappropriate Christmas adverts. Nowadays this shameless, tasteless marketing is even a news item. Newspaper pundits have been comparing them and passing judgement.

Everyone’s talking about the John Lewis advert, featuring Monty the penguin. I get the circular connection. The best Christmas is a white one: snow means cold; penguins come from snowy and icy regions (not entirely, but we’ll let that pass); so the presence of a penguin suggests a white Christmas.

There’s a little boy who, with Monty the penguin inexplicably sharing his bed (imagine the fishy smell!), observes couples kissing and enjoying being together. In the final scene (does this count as a spoiler?), Monty is found a mate – but is revealed to be just a toy, after all. The idol has feet of clay, or of fluff.

And the moral? The video purports to be about Christmas bringing people together: but it isn’t. It’s about persuading us to spend money at John Lewis.

Marks and Spencer has two tiresome fairies flying about changing people’s lives, bringing happiness to children and love to lonely people. The critics called this one classy: I’d say kitsch.

Waitrose presents us with a moral tale, a little girl striving to make gingerbread for her school’s Christmas fair. I hope teaching colleagues up and down the country will resist the temptation to use this one for assemblies about discovering resilience and persevering when things go wrong – a metaphor for life (it’s the sort of thing we teachers do).

Only this film isn’t a metaphor for life: it’s much more prosaic that that, claiming that, because Waitrose employees have a stake in the business, their service is better. Meanwhile the music is repulsively schmaltzy.

Did I feel like eating the little girl’s beautiful gingerbread? No. This was the third cloying advert I’d researched on YouTube: far from wanting to eat, I considered sticking my fingers down my throat.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s old Scrooge exclaiming, “Bah! Humbug!”  At my age it’s true I have curmudgeonly tendencies. Last Christmas I wrote an entry (unsuccessfully) for a Christmas Song competition: it was supposed to be wacky, a bit different. The first two lines of my chorus went:

          “I’ll be spending Christmas at mine,

          All alone with a bottle of wine.”

 It was fantasy grumpiness, of course:  in truth I love a family Christmas.  But I find this ceaseless commercialisation hard to swallow, and wrote my song tongue-in-cheek as an antidote to the annual overdose of festive saccharin.

Oh, I nearly forgot the Aldi advert, a dull series of Christmas dinner tableaux with a swinging soundtrack, the latter later revealed as being played by Jools Holland. What a great outfit! But what possessed him to get involved with rubbish like that?

The money, stupid! All that Christmas glitz is about one thing: not family; not love and togetherness; not even about a baby born in Bethlehem. It’s about commerce.

There’s nothing wrong with businesses making money: that’s what they’re there for. But commerce masquerading as the Christmas message is, well, inappropriate. That word again.

Why don’t the big store chains stop competing to produce over-glossy, over-hyped rubbish and give the money to charity instead?

I know the answer. But I just thought I’d ask the question.


Thursday 6th November 2014

This Sunday marks a big anniversary for me. On 9th November 1989 I was appointed to my first school headship, an unusual success in three respects: I was young, a musician and an internal applicant. Celebrations naturally followed.

But something else was happening, something so momentous that even our partying had to stop for the BBC’s Nine O’clock News.

The Berlin Wall, symbol of Communist tyranny, was crumbling. Berliners tore it down the next day: but on 9th November East Germany’s communist regime caved in and opened Berlin’s crossing points to the West.

They were heady days. The Communist Bloc was imploding. People across Eastern Europe were taking to the streets, asserting and (amazingly) winning their democratic rights. The old dictatorships were approaching their end.

I wasn’t about to change the world: but I was taking on a significant responsibility with the privilege of leading a school of some 700 children. The challenge and excitement were intoxicating and in that way, if no other, I felt at one with the tide of democratic change sweeping across Europe.

I’m now in my 25th year of headship, in my second school. Is it still so heady and intoxicating? Of course not. I’ve grown older, hopefully wiser, perhaps more cynical: I certainly have the benefit of experience. It’s not so instantly thrilling, but the satisfaction’s deeper.

Democratic Europe, too, has had to mature and learn from experience. Not all that experience is good.

The countries on the western side of the former Communist Bloc are making the most of being part of democratic Europe. Indeed, I’ve done some work with the Council of Europe on education for democracy and been humbled by those members’ forthright recognition of the difficulties and of the hard work needed to make democracy flourish.  

By contrast, the nations closer to the old Moscow centre are less secure in their democracy. Ukraine is divided and looks fit to continue tearing itself apart in near-civil war for some time. Too many of its people perhaps feel themselves Russian rather than Ukrainian for any settlement to be easily reached.

And what of Russia itself? It seems to me there are, schizophrenically, two Russias. Many citizens enjoy the relative freedoms now compared to the old days. The shops are full. And people can make and spend money.

Yet corruption is rife and jealously protected by President Vladimir Putin and his cronies. They appear to hark back to the old days: but then, when Putin came to power, observers commented, “Once a KGB man, always a KGB man”. Thus the old passion for grabbing and clinging to power is alive and well in his present-day Russia. And, predictably, the country’s ills are blamed on the old enemy, the West, nowadays more demonised and hated by his circle than ever.

I’m told we should watch Putin’s new English-language TV station, Russia Today: its obsessively anti-western propaganda is hilariously delivered deadpan by English presenters oblivious to the power of irony and satire.

We take our UK democracy too easily for granted. Yet it’s a fragile thing: look at Ukraine and Russia. Those heroic Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Albanians and all who took to the streets in 1989, deserve our respect. So this weekend, before our own Remembrance commemorations next week, let’s call to mind those who died in the struggle, whether scaling the Wall to escape or demonstrating against their Communist oppressors, and those who lived and built those democracies.

We should honour those recently liberated nations as members of the European Community instead of parroting the Putin-like utterances of those who wilfully turn what are seldom justified concerns about immigration into ignorant, xenophobic rants and who, given a chance, would build our walls as high as the old Berlin Wall to keep them out.

I’ll raise a glass to 9th November 1989. Not to my historical career advancement, but to the Fall of the Wall.


Thursday 30th October 2014

What is it about going to the doctor? I don’t know about you, but it always makes me nervous. Well, not so much nervous as feeling a bit like I used to feel, as a little boy, when summoned to see the headmaster (obviously before I learned from personal experience how nice heads are!).

My doctor’s charming, helpful and understanding. Nonetheless, before any appointment with her I can’t resist going through a ritual: trying to be a bit thinner; counting my units of alcohol in the past week; in effect, doing everything I can to avoid a telling-off, despite the fact that she never does tell me off.

I’m not unique. Many blokes my age have a relationship with our GP that is complex, given our limitless human capacity for self-deception.  What then should we make of government’s bright idea of paying GPs £55 every time they diagnose dementia? Will that change my relationship with my GP? Will she be eager to earn a little more by spotting the early signals of my losing my marbles? My doctor, for one, is rather better than that.

What’s this about? We go to doctors expecting highly trained, well-informed and impartial advice. Impartial. Not constrained by rationed resources, shortage of money or even absence of cures: we want a diagnosis and then the best treatment available. And, notwithstanding the current travails of the NHS, in Britain we still generally get the best, particularly if our illness is serious.

Politicians suggest doctors are slow or unwilling to diagnose dementia. There may be a number of reasons for this. First, the NHS is poorly placed to cater for it. In fact, the elderly whose dementia takes them to a point where they can’t be cared for at home have to fund their own care, at an average cost of £600 a week.

That’s a huge burden, encompassing the heartbreak of selling people’s homes to fund it: but, although research continues into the causes and possible cures, dementia is not currently a major cost to government. At best, then, the plan might produce the negative consequence of identifying dementia patients without additional resources to treat them. Then there’s the fcat that a GP can’t actually diagnose dementia: that’s a specialist’s job.

The greatest nonsense of this £55 wheeze lies in politicians’ assumption that dangling money in front of GPs will make them behave in a particular way. There are perhaps grounds for arguing that, if someone is paid to manufacture 50 widgets per hour, the promise of extra money might encourage them to produce 60. Even that simple scenario constitutes dubious management theory, however, and falls down when applied to the work of a professional.

Doctors are professionals. To be a professional means you keep going until the job is done, not knocking off at a certain time or after a certain amount of money has been earned.

This plan is a gross insult to medics, the vast majority of whom are committed, thoughtful and tirelessly caring. They follow a vocation, indeed.  To attempt to pressure doctors into making diagnoses of a particular type is as daft as suggesting we pay judges a bonus for finding more people guilty of rape: or traffic wardens for issuing more parking tickets. Oh, that last one’s already been tried.

We need to achieve better, swifter diagnosis of a condition that’s a growing problem: but this is not the way to do it. Doctors’ apparent reluctance to diagnose isn’t designed to annoy government: they’re cautious in identifying the condition because it’s difficult. That, too, is the professional response.

That cuts no ice with politicians who always want change immediately and who, besides, have always distrusted the professions: that’s principally because dedication, vocation and selflessness are qualities alien to most of our ruling class.

I wonder: shouldn’t we pay doctors a bonus for diagnosing such political quick fixes as, well, demented? 


Thursday 23rd October 2014

We laid my Mum to rest last week. She was 92, born into an earlier era, living through a World War into decades of rapid technological and social change. We said our farewells without too many tears, sad, yet knowing her time had come. Such is mortality.

Mum enjoyed a long life and a happy and contented retirement: she loved all her large family with whom she kept closely in touch. She’d suffered some heart trouble for the last four years, but her final illness was only a few weeks long. In fact, on 8th July she and Dad celebrated 70 years of marriage: they were married just after D-Day. She was on great form that day, enjoying a huge celebratory family lunch and only got ill later that month. It was almost as if she’d been hanging on for that landmark event.

I’ve rarely seen such a crowd pack into a church for a funeral. That sign of support and respect was uplifting and, in truth, all of us laughed more than we cried that day: we celebrated a life that touched many, many people, not just the 5 children (I’m youngest), 14 grandchildren and (so far) 16 great-grandchildren. Just the other week we took a photo of Mum, with her youngest great-granddaughter, 6 weeks old.

This column isn’t about bereavement but about parenthood. I confess that, focusing on Mum’s old age as she slowly faded away, I’d started to forget her influence on my childhood: as my sister gave the eulogy, memories flooded back. There was the worldly wisdom that a parent passes on: Mum had an enormous stock of proverbs and traditional wise sayings. We’d quote the old northern advice to “never cast a clout till May is out”, though even in darkest Somerset they no longer sewed children into their underwear for the winter. We learnt the old weather rhymes: when the oak is out before the ash… all those.

She sang nursery rhymes endlessly. When we became parents in turn my wife and I frantically bought books so we could pass that knowledge on in the same way. I still recall Mum’s guidance on cryptic crosswords: for example, a clue mentioning salmon will invariably involve an anagram of the synonyms lox or ling.

I’ve always taught in multicultural city settings, often describing my mono-cultural Anglo-Saxon background as dull compared to so many of my pupils. Nonetheless I’m always excited to see vestiges of the Saxon or Viking cultures that combined to create my ethnic background; in Durham, for example, or (as last week, when we saw the Lion King) in Sunderland, where I glimpsed the 7th-Century tower with the doorway that the Venerable Bede used at St Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth.

Last week I was reminded forcibly that it’s parents who pass on the folk-memories, the deep culture that underpins all of us. My Dad was a busy village doctor, enjoying just 12 hours off a week: they accepted the division of labour and it was Mum who gave the time to mix and enrich the soil of family and culture, tradition and values in which we children were rooted.

I hope I did the same for my children. They certainly knew and sang every nursery-rhyme in all the books we could lay our hands on! I still quote the awful old jokes and curious rhymes I remember from my childhood. They make the family groan, just as we groaned at Mum.

You can’t describe a death at 92 as a tragedy: though parting still hurts. It is, though, a rite of passage. While we keep a loving eye on Dad, admiring him, his energy and determination at 93, we’ve gone through a stage, a process: not just saying goodbye to someone who was always part of our lives; but realising, perhaps more deeply than we’d ever done, just how much of her remains in us.


Thursday 16th October 2014

 Who’d be a parent? I was one once, but fortunately grew out of it. In my day job I inevitably witness in enormous numbers the fruits of other people’s attempts at parenting, some better than others!

 There are handbooks, of course: but when you’re busy being a mum or dad there’s no time to read those books. Most of us just muddle through, doing our best. And, to be fair, most of us get it pretty well right most of the time and our children grow up into generally well-adjusted and successful adults.

 Still, this coming weekend will see a debate in London, entitled Battle of Ideas. One of the debaters will be Dr David Eberhard, Swedish author of last year’s controversial book How the Children Took Power. Dr Eberhard concluded that his country had created so excessively child-centric an approach that Swedish children had become “porcelain dolls”, too emotionally fragile to be challenged in any way.

 We Brits haven’t created porcelain dolls, he says: instead we’re so obsessed with safety that we wrap them in cottonwool, not even letting them cycle or walk to school.

 He could be right. Sustrans, the cycling charity, found in a 2010 survey that almost half of children would like to cycle to school: only 4% are allowed to do so. Moreover, Dr Eberhard says that, while young people are knowledgeable about sex, they’re so overprotected that they have no idea about taking physical knocks or dealing with the casual cruelties of everyday life, having had no experience of taking responsibility for themselves.

 If he’s right, who’s to blame? Not parents alone: we nowadays inhabit an obsessively risk-averse world.

 The Health and Safety Executive is at pains to stress that it’s not against risk, merely requiring that risk be assessed and minimised. Yet, amid ill-informed cries of “Health and Safety gone mad”, ancient traditions like rolling cheeses down steep hills are cancelled: headteachers ban conker-fighting; and kids, well, kids just don’t play out like they used to.

 It’s tempting to say we should man up, that schools and parents should simply be more robust. But when things go wrong, there is a horrendous outcry. The modern sophisticated psyche will not accept that accidents sometime happen. Someone has to be responsible: someone must be blamed; and someone has to be compensated.

 I admire the people (teachers and others) up and down the land who organise Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, adventurous activities, rock climbing, even rugby matches. All produce occasional injuries, but all are thoroughly risk-assessed and the risks are minimised. So much protective clothing is worn for every activity now, the makers of masks, mouth-guards, body-armour, knee- and elbow-protectors and shin-pads must be making a fortune.

 I don’t begrudge any that, and I’m grateful to all the teachers who fill out those countless forms so that the young can enjoy great experiences and learn from physical challenges. I never tire of saying fare fewer life-long memories from a child’s schooldays are drawn from classrooms on a Thursday afternoon than from those cold, wet expeditions in the hills when, inexplicably, the map-reader gets the group 180 degrees out and still five miles from the campsite as darkness falls.

 That’s also when young people learn about leadership, which is not about behaving like Rambo or Batman in tough situations but finding the joke to encourage the team on that rain-drenched trek or that losing sports match when spirits are low. The word in the right place, the hand on the shoulder: that’s what children really need to learn about.

 My granddad always claimed there’s a providence that protects drunks and small children, both of whom usually emerge from scrapes unscathed. He was right. But if we totally deny that providence and instead reach for the insurance certificate for our comfort, we risk denying our children both a childhood and the chance to mature and prepare for adulthood.


Thursday 9th October 2014

You know what they say: a puppy’s not just for Christmas. It’s true.

We Traffords have never been pet people but last spring our younger daughter bought a beautiful Labrador puppy. Bruno stayed with us in the summer and was adorable, fun, hilarious – and all-absorbing.

The point about having a puppy is that you can’t just let it alone. It’s a lot of work. You can’t even take it for walkies without equipment: the lead; that thing that flicks a ball; the little treats to help with training; and, rightly, the ubiquitous plastic bag.

Don’t forget the bag! I was walking Bruno down the medieval high street of Wells in August, celebrating my niece’s wedding, when he abruptly dropped a large one.  I was immaculately dressed – but bagless. I stood astride the pile of ordure, directing pensioners’ mobility scooters around it while desperately phoning my daughter to bring the necessary!

More experienced dog owners probably avoid such moments: certainly the family declared me hopeless at managing Bruno. I reckon he just doesn’t recognise the natural authority of a headteacher.

Bruno has a character both loving and lovable: but, even at their most sentimental, my wife (besotted with Bruno) and daughter (his owner) know he’s just a dog.

Other animals, or their owners, apparently blur that line. Take chimpanzees. They’re our very close relatives, and it’s perhaps natural that concern is frequently expressed about their treatment. Medical experiments on primates render us nervous: they’re too close for comfort.

Nonetheless, even chimps are still animals. Till now. In a case to be heard in New York’s Supreme Court five judges must declare whether or not a 26-year-old chimp called Tommy has “human rights”.

Tommy lives in a cage in a trailer-park in Gloversville, New York State. He watches a lot of TV. Steven Wise, lawyer and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, has brought the case because he wants Tommy released into a chimpanzee sanctuary to live a wild and natural life.

He believes Tommy should be considered a person in the eyes of the law. The legal argument is that chimpanzees are capable of intelligent thought and making reasoned decisions. The underlying rationale is that, by insisting we treat some animals as people, Wise plans to get them better living conditions.

Wise claims Tommy stared at him blankly: though the cage was dark, he attests that he could see the chimp was unhappy. The manager of the trailer park, although not mounting any legal defence, commented that Tommy likes watching cartoons. Asked whether he was unhappy, she said she couldn’t tell as Tommy hadn’t spoken to her recently.

If nothing else, the case will provide material for endless discussion in the media. Nonetheless, even if Wise wins his case for Tommy, I can’t see floodgates opening in terms of human/animal rights. My neighbours won’t suddenly start keeping rhinos or great white sharks as members of the family because they have personality. My life or safety aren’t about to be compromised.

One thing upsets me when the whole animal thing gets so far out of proportion. It troubles me that one of the richest charities in this country is a donkey sanctuary in Devon. I don’t support animal cruelty: but while yet another child abuse scandal is uncovered in Manchester; while thousands of young people are living rough on the streets of UK cities; while child porn and exploitation are rife; and when, in other parts of the world, girls are denied an education, children starve or are killed or maimed by warfare and disease; I think we should focus our minds and spend our money on more important things.

Wise reckons that, if we start regarding animals legally as people, they’ll have to be treated as people.

I’d go a stage further. Why not start treating people (that’s ALL people) as, well, people too? The world might be a better place.


Thursday 2nd October 2014

Here’s an announcement to put everyone’s mind at rest. No nude or even saucy pictures of the Traffords will appear on the Internet, let alone on Facebook or splashed across the media.

No, really. For a start, we don’t take such pictures! More to the point, if we did, we wouldn’t be daft enough to upload them to the Cloud.

You may think I am, once again, stating the “bleedin’ obvious”. But the obviousness doesn’t seem to have struck celebrities in whose lives or, rather, in whose physical attributes there’s rather more public interest, particularly of a prurient nature.

A number of curvaceous Hollywood starlets, for example, were outraged back in August when naked pictures of them appeared on the web, apparently hacked from where they’d been safely stored in the Cloud.

Safely? Look, I don’t understand how my phone and MacBook seem to share pictures between them, but they do. It means I never lose snaps: but I’m overwhelmed by the sheer volume.

I live with the fact that I’m not really in control of my photos. That’s OK with me because I’m careful not to take pictures that might later embarrass me or lay me open to blackmail.

And I’m not in the public eye! Apparently, though, those who are put themselves at risk nonetheless. They still Tweet compromising pictures and then complain when they go viral.

 First actresses: next a Tory minister. Brooks Newmark (father of five) sent explicit photos of himself (including, as one paper put it, “a photograph of his genitals”) to an undercover journalist posing as a model.

 We teachers seem to spend our lives warning boys and girls against messaging explicit or compromising pictures of themselves even to their closest, most intimate friends:  because, when they do, they lose control of them.

I just about remember being a teenager: I was as unwilling as any other to listen to advice. In this harsh modern world, when young people find themselves on the receiving end of cyber-bullying, with humiliating or obscene pictures circulating, irreparable damage is done. They emerge from the episode very much sadder, but a little wiser.

Doing crazy things is part of being young. Sometimes kids have to learn the hard way.

But how a grown man and politician can make such a fool of himself baffles me. It was so daft and stupid that I actually feel sorry for the guy. While I can’t imagine any circumstance under which I would want to send a picture of the Trafford crown jewels to anyone, I feel a little sympathy for someone whose stupidity’s so harshly punished.

One might also feel sorry for his boss, Prime Minister David Cameron. Newmark resigned on the eve of the Tory Conference: it was embarrassing to both party and leader to lose an admittedly minor minister in that way.

A bigger headline was caused by the defection of the appropriately named Mark Reckless to UKIP. Banner headlines about the party “reeling” were an inevitable consequence.

Do the Tories really need to reel? I’ve no brief for any political party, but I can’t help feeling that they might be better off without both characters. One committed an act of extreme folly, while the other… You guessed it: he made a spectacle of himself by sexting to a Mirror journalist.

Reckless lost friends through a resignation calculated to inflict maximum PR damage: but his former party is surely better off without someone at its nasty end (in a week where it just got nastier, in several conference speeches) who sought to shaft it by joining a still nastier party that embraces intolerance and xenophobia.

As delegates wend their way home from the Tory conference, I hope they’ll have learned two pieces of wisdom: keep your kit on when wielding a camera; and turn your phone off when unclothed.

To expect to derive any more wisdom from a party conference is, I fear, too much to hope for.


Thursday 25th September 2014

Weekend headlines said that one of the most important children’s charities operating in three major UK cities will close at Christmas unless government steps in with “significant funding”. 

I just can’t get my head round this.

If you don’t recognise the charity’s name, Kids Company, you may know its larger-than-life founder Camila Batmanghelidjh, remarkable for her habit of wearing such brightly-coloured voluminous clothing and a turban that she reminds me of a large and friendly tea-cosy (no offence).

When you see her in the flesh and hear her speak she burns herself into your memory. She’s a true visionary, gifted, driven, compassionate and utterly non-judgmental about the young people she works with. Kids Company supports 36,000 disturbed and vulnerable children and young adults in London, Bristol and Liverpool.

The charity depends for its continued work on the generosity of a few celebrity philanthropists including Harry Potter author JK Rowling; the band Coldplay; comedian Michael McIntyre; artist Damien Hirst.

Last month Camila had to ask Coldplay to send their annual gift early in order to meet bills: that donation’s around £1.3m.

She explained: “I have to raise almost £2m a month and everyone I could beg from during the summer was away on holiday. We had queues of children who in term-time get free school meals waiting to be fed, and we had to pay for their therapists accompanying our children on activity holidays”.

Camila is not a woman given to despair. Quite the opposite. She’s one of those extraordinary human beings who appears to be able to do the impossible: her charity does the impossible every day of the week. Without the support of those wealthy celebrity donors, she says there would be “many thousands of children on the streets of London and Bristol, exposed to criminality, rape and homelessness”.

She takes in children and adolescents who’ve been raped, prostituted, abused and exploited by gangs, who have grown up in drug-and crime-ridden homes without care or support.

She doesn’t just feed and clothe them: she finds them healing, care and the love they’ve lacked all their lives. One study of her charity’s work found that young people treated by it for an average of 1½ years had reached a point at which they were once again capable of normal emotional reactions.

Her charity’s work is mainstream by any standards. These are children in need, on the streets or in abusive homes, whose rescue and cure (and I mean cure) depends on wealthy individuals who are reached by Batmanghelidjh’s unequalled networking skills.

But hold on! Don’t we have a welfare state? Aren’t Health and Social Services there to pick up those very cases and put them back together? Don’t we pay taxes to fund that necessary support? Should the state rely on even so uniquely gifted a mover and shaker as Camila Batmanghelidjh to do its job for it?

I could broaden this argument. Why do I regularly dip into my pocket for the Great North Air Ambulance? Now helicopters are a mainstream and standard means of getting urgent cases to hospital, why are we asked to fund them as an extra? Why are they not part of the admittedly massive bill the government shoulders for running a Health Service?

Some activities and good causes can never receive enough money: charities researching heart disease, cancer, strokes, everything else; many excellent causes were supported by sponsored participants in the Great North Run. Such research will soak up as much money as can be thrown at it, all in the interest of achieving major breakthroughs.

I find it hard to accept that the care of children abused, neglected, raped and exploited on the streets should be left to an independent charity while government turns its back.

And I can’t see how our society can claim to be either caring or compassionate while it depends entirely on donations to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

 

Thursday 19th September 2014

At last, at long last everyone’s busy saying nothing: at least, I hope so. The BBC banned employees from saying anything at the Last Night of the Proms (“Rule, Britannia – or whatever we’re now called”). Quiet should reign while Scotland votes.

Now I’ll have my say!

Today Scotland votes on whether to become independent. I’ve never heard so many half-truths or statements designed to mislead as during this campaign. Supporters of the union employed scare stories: Scotland won’t be able to use sterling: banks will exit; prices will soar; it’ll become another poor relation of the European Union, which might not let it join.

Separatists’ extravagant claims portrayed a promised land cherry-picking choice bits of the monarchy and currency: a golden age of oil bonanza; a Scottish health service making England’s NHS look like something in the Third World.

No wonder the polls swung from one day to another. No wonder many Scottish voters wavered, pushed hither and thither by conflicting, grotesquely exaggerated arguments.

Maybe the Yes campaign stems from resentment at an ancient Anglo-colonial past.  Athelstan, the tenth-century first real king of England united Wessex and Mercia, moved north and subjugated the Viking kingdom of Northumbria. Next he induced the Welsh and Scottish kings to swear fealty. When the Scots rebelled, he brought armies by sea and land as far north as Inverness. He established peace of a kind, bought with unimaginable bloodshed.

Next came Edward I: Longshanks left bloodshed, burning and mayhem in his wake.  After the 17th-Century Jacobite rebellions Scotland was treated dreadfully, and Anglicised. Even now the lairds of the great clans I hear generally speak with cut-glass English accents. Nonetheless, despite earlier wrongs, England and Scotland were brought together not by conquest but by mutual consent, through the Act of Union of 1707.

My argument for preserving the union has nothing to do with ancient history or constitutional law. I just think it’s madness for our nations to fragment. People in Essex are different from those in Dumfriesshire. Great! Who’d want all to be the same? Diversity is a hallmark of Great Britain, created by the mix of these islands’ indigenous ancient races and the marvellous variety of other ethnic backgrounds who have joined our population over two thousand years. That’s something to celebrate, not a problem.

How that contrasts with the Middle East where subsets of Islam, Sunnis and Shi’ites, oppose one another with atrocity, torture and death. That conflict makes Northern Ireland’s historical Troubles look like a picnic.

Okay, you’ll say: if the Scots vote Yes, we’re not going to be at each other’s throats. There won’t to be militias patrolling the border or warlords raiding: no return to our Northumbrian bastles and fortresses when Reivers come south.

But still. Scotland comprises a tenth of the UK’s population. A nation of 5.5 million people on its own is small to cut out its place in this rough world, notwithstanding the blandishments of Alex Salmon. Meanwhile the UK will be diminished, not in number so much as by the loss of the cultural heritage, pride and history all the component nations share. We’ve achieved great things together, not least in concluding two World Wars. Notwithstanding a murky colonial history (also shared), together we’ve contributed massively to world peace in the last century.

At least we can say politics have become exciting: in Scotland voters are engaged. Central, south-east-centred government must learn the lessons of alienating voters throughout the UK, not just north of the border. We North-Easterners resent Westminster’s distance (I mean a gap in understanding, not the length of a train-line). To the Scots a London Parliament feels still more remote, and distinctly uninterested.

Devo-Max won’t heal that wound. What we need is more efficient, more sensitive, more equitable, more engaged government from London.

Only that will heal the division that has led to this vote: and that’s assuming we’re still together tomorrow.


Thursday 11th September

Regular readers will know I’m a fan of the medical profession. My family’s full of doctors and nurses. I’ve grown up with them, seen the joys and the frustrations. To me they’re real professionals, people working with a vocation and not counting the hours.

Sadly, nowadays we’re witnessing scandals about poor care in hospitals and abuse of the elderly in care homes, seeing damage caused by government cuts, managerialism and non-stop reorganisation: the current administration is quite as incorrigible in its tinkering as the last. 

The system’s close to collapse. Ask anyone serving on a local health trust’s board and you’ll get the same view: the National Health Service is being saved from falling apart by dedicated, hard-working professionals who somehow stand between a system that just about hangs together and its disintegration.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so.

Here’s a small example. Back in July my parents celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. Maybe subconsciously, my 92-year-old Mum had been hanging on for that great day, because only a couple of weeks later she suffered a stroke. Expecting the end we gathered around her hospital bed. Yet, as Mum has done so often, she rallied: she’s now in a nursing home, needing 24-hour care but in no more immediate danger than she has been for the past four years.

The other Sunday she suffered a fall. A doctor was called, a weekend out-of-hours service. No doctor came. Not all of Sunday.

No one wanted to phone 999: Mum doesn’t want to be admitted to hospital. But she needed an x-ray, as her knee was very painful. At last an ambulance responded to a 111 call.

The excellent senior paramedic gave mum painkillers and booked transport for the next morning to take her the 20 miles for an x-ray.

My sister was up at the nursing home at 9.00am sharp to meet the ambulance: it didn’t come. The paramedic had exceeded his authority, she was told, and couldn’t order transport. Nor could the nursing home. It had to be the GP, the one who never appeared.

Some three to four hours later transport was fixed, and Mum taken to x-ray. The good news was that the knee wasn’t broken, merely bruised, nothing to be done with such an old body and brittle skin. Eventually, about 9.00pm, my sister and she were returned to the nursing home.

Dad phoned his GP to complain about the non-appearance of the Sunday doctor. “Nothing to do with me,” said the doctor. “It’s entirely run by the NHS: but I can send you details of where to complain.”

And that was that.

It’s not clever to be ill out of hours. And it’s clearly not a good idea to expect to see a GP over a weekend. Hospitals complain about people attending A&E with minor complaints. Why blame them? At least they can find a doctor there.

This NHS malaise sits ill with my memories of being a GP’s son. We kids never got driven straight home from anywhere: Dad would always  “just pop in” to the maternity hospital to check on the new arrival or stop outside a farm to check on a broken limb.

We didn’t complain: it was just what doctors did. And we were rather proud of our doctor Dad, selfless in his vocation and highly thought of by his patients.

Countless doctors and nurses are still generous with their time. The seriously sick still generally find care that is second to none.

Nonetheless the system is crumbling. The health service is close to collapse: and all the silly new targets or inspections in the world won’t put it right. Successive governments have got us to this point, always in denial about the scale of the problem, always measuring, cutting and reorganising, never creating or revitalising.

They can’t even balance the books. Meanwhile, as always, it’s the ordinary people who suffer.


Thursday 4th September 2014

How would you feel if …. ?

You have a five-year-old child with an incurable brain tumour. The required medical treatment is invasive and painful. Between you, your partner and you have managed to be with him every minute of every day: nonetheless he seldom smiles, has lost the ability to speak and, even though you’ve accepted that his is a terminal condition, it is unbearable to watch.

What would you think if …?

In desperation you trawl the Internet for alternative treatments. You discover one in the Czech Republic, a new therapy which consists of firing photons at the tumour. It claims success in some cases: but it’s expensive and not available in the UK and certainly not on the National Health.

How would you react if …?

The doctors at your child’s hospital are discouraging about the idea of an alternative. They clearly dislike patients or their parents Googling medical conditions, pointing out that the radical Czech therapy doesn’t work in every case and that, besides, it’s not available here. You suggest that you could sell some overseas property you own in order to fund the treatment if you took him to the Czech Republic.

What would you do if …?

At that stage doctors get a little defensive, and strongly refute your suggestions. In fact, so discouraging are they that they forbid you to take your child out of hospital. In fact, there’s a threat (not entirely specific, not entirely clear) that, if you try to remove your child, they will obtain a court order to prevent you from doing so.

How would you cope if …?You’re so desperate to find a treatment that has an effect on your child’s tumour, and so bewildered by the refusal of the medical team currently treating him to consider an alternative, that you and your partner take him out of hospital and transport him abroad where you start trying to sell the property whose sale will fund the alternative treatment.

What would you say if …?You then find that the authorities back home have involved the Crown Prosecution Service and Interpol, issued and international arrest warrant and arranged for the police in the country in which you find yourself to carry it out. The accusation is that you are doing real harm to your child.

How would you feel if …?

You find yourself banged up in jail, your partner also. Your child is alone in a hospital where people speak a foreign language and no one he knows is near him, although he’s used (at the age of five) to having family support around him 24/7. It’s more than a day before even his brother is permitted to see him: and you still aren’t allowed to.

Would you laugh or cry if …?

Forty-eight hours later, you’re finally released from jail. Back in the UK the CPS isn’t even quite sure if any offence has been committed – but you’d been held in custody while extradition proceedings dragged on, legal arguments raging around the nature of your alleged criminal offence – until they decided it wasn’t one. Meanwhile your child is still in that foreign hospital with only limited visits from family members, and even now you have a 300-mile journey to reach him.

Frankly, none of us would want to be there. It’s a tale of desperation and despair almost unimaginable to any parent and almost unbearable to read. Fortunately, “it couldn’t happen here”.

Only it has happened. This is an extraordinary tale of human misery, institutional insensitivity and heavy-handed bungling by international law-enforcement agencies.

Earlier in the week the Prime Minister called for common sense to prevail in what he called a tragic case (and he knows about terminal illness in a child). I can’t help feeling that, given even a scrap of common sense, the whole mess, apart from the illness itself, could have been avoided.