Wednesday 5 April
It is good to know that members of the House of Lords have their finger on the pulse of the nation. Parliamentary time yesterday was devoted to the vexed subject of actors mumbling on BBC dramas. In 2014, the audibility of dialogue in a production of 'Jamaica Inn' attracted sustained criticism. The latest offender has been the adaptation of Len Deighton's 'SS-GB'.
The debate in the upper house attracted contributions from the rather pompous Lord Fellowes, the man responsible for that tribute to aristocratic nostalgia, 'Downton Abbey', and 'Lord Dobbs', whose 1990 'House of Cards' gave us a keen insight into the world of political intrigue. A feature of the latter (scripted by Andrew Davies) was a wonderful performance by the late Ian Richardson who spoke directly to camera, thereby ensuring that his articulation was crystal clear. During the exchanges in the Lords, one Conservative baroness, Lady Rawlings, said that viewer dissatisfaction would diminish 'if people spoke clearer', a form of words that suggests she should put her own grammatical house in order before pronouncing on the elocution of others.
Perhaps I shouldn't mock. If their lordships continue in this vein, the case for major reform – or even abolition – of this institution will be strengthened. Meanwhile, we should try to be tolerant of the antics of the inmates as they indulge in various types of therapeutic release in their subsidised care home – a comparison that takes me neatly to my next item.
Thursday 6 April
Today I visited an elderly lady who is having a trial period of a month in a care home. I shall call her Mary. Until recently, she was able to manage in her own flat with the help of carers coming in daily. Physically she is frail but mentally still quite sharp, apart from the occasional memory lapse.
Most people would find it difficult to make the transition from relatively independent living in familiar surroundings to a regime that is controlled by others in a circumscribed environment. Even so, I was shocked when the first thing Mary said to me was 'I hate it here' and several times spoke of a desire to 'escape'. She longed for 'a breath of fresh air' but her restricted mobility means that she always has to be accompanied by a member of staff. Although the most recent report on the home from the care inspectorate rated it as 'very good' and staffing levels seemed reasonable, residents were confined indoors most of the time.
I met Mary in a large public room where many other residents were sitting. It was evident that several were suffering from dementia. Although staff were giving assistance to several individuals, little conversation was taking place. Rather loud music was being played and, when I inquired about this, I was told that it was 'easy listening', designed to have popular appeal. I had the subversive thought that, if I were a resident, I would certainly sabotage the sound system.
It was not yet noon, but Mary was told it was time for her lunch. She said she did not feel like eating but was persuaded to go to the dining area. I accompanied her and was surprised to see that all of the tables in use were occupied by a single resident. No doubt there are good reasons why some are best left to eat alone but the socialising possibilities of mealtimes were not in evidence.
Mary is not a relative of mine so I have no power to influence what will happen after the trial period is over. As I drove home, I thought of those tragic cases where elderly people go missing from care homes and are found dead some days or weeks later. It is usually implied that they became confused and disoriented. I could not get rid of the suspicion that maybe some were trying to escape.
Saturday 8 April
It is rare to hear subtle political analysis from military leaders, but the interview given in this morning's Today programme on Radio 4 by General John Allen was an exception. Allen served as a special envoy to Barack Obama and was a critic of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign. Asked about the implications of America's air strike on Syria, he said that there needed to be a strong connection between military strategy and political aspiration. As yet, that had not been convincingly articulated. Military action without an informed awareness of the political context was dangerous.
Allen suggested that the seeming inconsistency of President Trump's pre- and post-election position on intervention in the Middle East was an example of how the rhetoric of campaigning could soon encounter a head-on collision with the reality of the world, requiring rapid adjustment. He also cautioned that great powers should not get angry, though they should have a good sense of their international moral obligations. Their actions should be designed to further their political objectives, whether trying to counter Islamic terrorists or removing tyrants, such as President Bashar al-Assad.
The interview deserves to be used as a model of how to answer questions clearly and directly, drawing on specialist knowledge and experience to encourage listeners to think seriously about complex and difficult situations.
Sunday 9 April
I spend the morning drafting a long letter of complaint to my local council. The background is complex and defies easy summary but the council is attempting, retrospectively, to claim council tax on a property jointly owned by my late sister. My involvement derives from my role as one of her executors. The process of selling the house and settling the estate was drawn out because of difficult negotiations with the other joint owner. From my perspective, the council’s handling of the matter was marked by delay, confusion, poor communication and insensitivity. I have an email from a council employee apologising for the upset, inconvenience and frustration (her words, not mine) caused by the council’s actions.
Despite this, the legal department continues to press for payment of the sum it thinks is due. I would estimate that the cost of council staff time spent on the case already exceeds the figure that is in dispute.
In my letter, I make the council an offer to show that I am not motivated by any personal financial interest. If the matter is dropped, I will undertake to donate an equivalent sum to a charity providing support to people suffering from the same medical condition as my sister – and to provide evidence that I have done so. Do I think it likely that the council will accept my offer?
Based on my previous research into a number of public organisations, I wouldn't bet on it. Faced with a challenge, bureaucracies tend to adopt a stance of assertive authority and soon lose sight of the facts, never mind any sense of fairness. They try to wear complainants down by sending out standard letters and refusing to engage directly with the specific issues that have been raised. The matter might end up in court where the decision could hinge on the responsibility of executors (if any) after an estate has been settled, particularly where they have been subject to official incompetence. Fortunately, I am of a robust temperament and am not intimidated by that prospect.