Wednesday 17 February
Every few years the good people of Glasgow are presented with the unedifying spectacle of their political leaders engaging in civil war. In the traditions of the city, a metaphorical stiletto in the chest is preferred to back-stabbing. These episodes usually occur when one Labour administration is replaced by another: old scores are settled and new loyalties rewarded. The current council leader, former MSP Frank McAveety, is reported as attempting to weaken the role of councillors and officials who were associated with his predecessor, Gordon Matheson. As part of this, the director of communications, Colin Edgar, has been removed from his post and transferred to one of the authority’s controversial 'arms-length’ organisations.
Given the Labour Party’s dominance in the city for many decades, it is not surprising that among the elected members there should be factions, since there are only so many formal posts and consolation sinecures to go round. Those who are passed over feel a sense of resentment and form alliances with other 'outsiders’. What then happens is that energies tend to be devoted, not to representing the interests of constituents, but to undermining the administration and hoping for a change of regime. Instead of reflecting seriously on why Labour has lost so much of its traditional support in Scotland, the 'old guard’ continue to display the arrogance of a complacent organisation unused to real challenge. At the next council elections in 2017, the SNP will be hoping to disturb that complacency. At present Labour has 45 councillors, the SNP 29 (including two defections from Labour).
Reading the latest account of Glasgow’s internal politics brought to mind a former neighbour. He was a quiet, decent man who worked in a minor capacity in Glasgow City Chambers for a number of years. As a former soldier, he was used to following orders and deferring to authority. However, he was appalled at what he witnessed on a daily basis – the absurd self-importance of office-bearers, the plotting, the deals that were negotiated outside formal meetings, not to mention the poor quality of many councillors and some officials. By the end of his working life, he had lost all respect for those he was expected to serve.
Thursday 18 February
I visit a lady who will be 90 later this year. She is mentally alert, a keen reader (including of Scottish Review) and has an informed interest in politics and current affairs. Her physical health is good for her age, though she has faced major surgery in the past and now has reduced mobility. Despite this, she remains positive in outlook and manages to live independently in an apartment within a retirement complex.
In the course of our discussion, I pick up a few tips for future reference about potential conversational pitfalls among the elderly. My friend is not impressed by those contemporaries who dwell too much on their personal health matters, sometimes offering an unsolicited medical history to listeners (and showing little interest in the problems others may be facing). She also cautions against the tendency of some senior citizens to boast about the achievements, real or imaginary, of their children and grandchildren. Then there are the travel bores, those who insist on repeated accounts of exotic destinations they have visited and 'important’ people they have met on their travels. Living in the present, she feels, is more important than indulging in vicarious experience or nostalgic recollection. Memories are important but they should not be used as a substitute for engaging with one’s current situation.
I take my leave feeling that I have been on the receiving end of a useful tutorial on the challenges of old age. The irony is that my tutor was once one of my (mature) students.
Friday 19 February
What do you think is the biggest cause of deaths among men under the age of 50? Road accidents? Cancer? The surprising answer is suicide. Some groups, such as farmers, are especially vulnerable, with one self-inflicted death in the UK every day. Particularly for those running small farms, the relentless pressures of long hours and social isolation, combined with the fall in dairy prices, delays in subsidy payments, and the effects of sustained bad weather, can push some men over the edge. Ready access to firearms means that it is easy to take that final step. Suicide rates are also much higher among the most deprived sections of the population compared to the least deprived.
The BBC is currently broadcasting a series of programmes, called 'In the Mind’, which focus on various psychiatric conditions, ranging from post-natal depression to bipolar disorder. It is estimated that one in four people will experience some form of mental illness over the next year. The NHS cannot cope with the demand for treatment. Most GPs don’t have the time to do more than prescribe drugs or refer patients to more specialist services. In some parts of the country there are long waiting lists, particularly for young people. For those who are desperate and facing an immediate crisis, this is inadequate, and there have been a number of tragic incidents resulting from the psychotic behaviour of people who have not received timely help. Some deaths in police custody have arisen from a failure to identify the serious mental health problems of individuals who have been detained.
One of the admirable aims of the BBC series is to reduce the stigma attached to psychiatric conditions. As part of this, I think it would be helpful to pay more attention to the wider social context which may help to trigger the visible symptoms. We need to pay heed not only to the individual stories and family dynamics of sufferers, but also to the ways in which society exerts pressures which some find intolerable. The fast pace of modern living, with its high (sometimes unreasonable) expectations and obsession with material success, can intensify feelings of personal inadequacy. From certain perspectives, withdrawal from the competition to achieve 'success’ can be regarded as a sane response. That leaves us with the uncomfortable thought that it may be those who conform, who join in the rat race and accept its values unquestioningly, who are mentally disturbed. Maybe our society is as much in need of ‘treatment’ as those individuals who are identified as requiring psychiatric help.
Saturday 20 February
The death of Harper Lee, author of the bestseller, 'To Kill a Mockingbird’, has prompted a number of lengthy tributes. Most refer to her reclusiveness and unwillingness to grant interviews. This is a quality she shared with a number of other famous writers, including J D Salinger ('Catcher in the Rye’), Thomas Pynchon ('The Crying of Lot 49’) and Booker prize-winner (twice), J M Coetze ('Life and Times of Michael K’ and 'Disgrace’). There seems to be something rather contradictory in writers, who presumably wish their work to be widely read and appreciated, being unwilling to engage with the public about their motivation and thinking. On the other hand, it can be argued that what really matters is the work itself, not the personality behind it. And, as Harper Lee once famously remarked: 'It’s better to be silent than to be a fool’, a piece of advice that many current 'celebrities’ would do well to follow.
It is doubtful, however, whether new writers nowadays would be allowed by their agents and publishers to adopt a low profile. High visibility is all the rage. Authors are expected to have well-designed websites and active twitter accounts, and be willing to appear at short notice on television programmes and literary festivals. I almost feel sorry for them as they trudge from one tedious event to another, expected to offer pearls of wisdom in response to fatuous questions. I say 'almost’ because some of them clearly enjoy the 'camaraderie’ of these occasions where they can mingle with literary groupies and engage in glad-handing with fellow artists. Beneath the surface jollity, however, there is often an undercurrent of rivalry and bad-mouthing. It’s rather reminiscent of the Labour administration in Glasgow, though usually conducted with greater subtlety.