Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Art in times of trouble

That, or something similar was the title of a TV programme I watched tonight while I enjoyed a simple supper of omelette and chunky potato fries (rustic oven chips to my Brit audience).

It made me think about how I value my eyesight, and how driven my own world is by the visual image, especially since a friend of mine is losing his sight. I cannot imagine a more visually driven person. Whenever he calls me his first words are usually, ‘Jenny, you just MUST look at this website” He is so disappointed if he happens to catch me away from my PC screen so I can’t instantly respond with equal enthusiasm to what has inspired him, or my PC is on a go slow and I can't get to what he is looking at fast enough.

I cannot imagine how I would respond in the situation that someone said the awful words "You are going blind", but I know I would be angry. Angry that medical science couldn’t intervene to save my sight, but most of all angry that there was so much of the world that I HAVEN’T seen - from places in the UK to active volcanoes in Hawaii, and so many works of art only ever seen as tiny pictures in a book or at best, computer screen sized.

A few years ago, as a birthday treat, my (now estranged) husband took me to an art exhibition.Monet’s paintings were on show in London and such was the enthusiasm to see them, the gallery was open all night. We went in at 1am and for me, time stopped. I had never realised that the canvasses that were so familiar to me were so HUGE. A couple of years later, we visited Monet’s home at Giverny where those paintings were born, and I had the same sense of wonder, all over again.

The art programme I watched showed paintings from miners whose work created over 50 years ago reflected their toil in the mines and their lives above ground. Images of chimneys, yes, and big families, smoky pubs and things you would expect, but also a wonderful one of two men with their racing whippets.

It also showed the paintings that were stored in the same mines during the war while London was being bombed and discussed whether money spent on publicly owned art is a good social investment. In the news this week was the story about paintings previously owned by banks who were bailed out by the Government. Certainly we have the right to see those works, since our taxes saved them from being sold to pay off some of the debts. A free exhibition please.

I'm not putting links to any images in this post. If you have to go and look for them for yourselves, it might make you remember them better.

It was a very different image that inspired and lifted me today. I am helping with my sailing club’s junior training week. A dozen or so youngsters from as young as nine are learning to sail in the sheltered waters of Chichester Harbour. My job today was to drive the club's 21ft launch 'Sinbad' which acted as a ‘mother ship’ and I was helped by Fiona, the mother of two of the children.

She didn’t have a camera on board, but I got some shots on my mobile phone of Eve and Ralph as they zoomed past us in a lively breeze. I realised later that I had just missed the shot I really wanted because Eve turned her head to look at her sail. The sheer joy of achievement in her expression will stay with me for a very long time, as will the happy smiles of the ones who came alongside us with the instructor, and swapped places with others waiting their turn. Those smiles stuck, even after the inevitable upside-down moments.

It is ironic that today’s society is so evil thinking that I can’t share those pictures with you all and really need to delete them after I have transferred them on a memory stick for Fiona, just in case someone wonders why I have them on my phone. What a sad world that I can’t keep them and let them brighten a dark winter day in the future when creeping age and creaky bones have put an end to my own active sailing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Weasel words to the front line

At this moment I have less respect for the British Government and our Prime Minister than I have ever had.

Gordon Brown's assurances that British troops in Afghanistan are adequately equipped stands starkly against statements of the most senior military personnel that have emerged in the last few days.

Mr Brown clearly realises that he is up against a wall here, and it would have been impossible for him to directly admit that he has ignored military pleas for more money and more equipment. However he could have at least said that he took on board what was said and would listen to the people who are in command in Afghanistan and also to the families who are bearing the grief of loss.

There are those too who wonder exactly what the conflict in Afghanistan is supposed to achieve. Some may even feel that this is a war by the 'Christian' western world on Islam especially since George Bush spoke of it in a term they find repugnant - as a crusade. I'm not hearing enough of what I would like to hear which is that the people of Afghanistan themselves want us to help them fight against extremists in their own country.

If Britain and America are to continue to have support for this conflict, they must clarify and publicise their aims and ensure that they are aims that are achievable and that the whole of our population can be comfortable with.

This is NOT expressing any lack of support for the troops themselves which is a very different thing. If our Government are going to ask our armed forces to go and engage in wars and conflicts for whatever reason, those troops have a total right to be properly equipped.

They also have the right to speak out if they believe that their comrades are dying unnecessarily because someone here wants to cut budgets, and so do the bereaved families. I salute those who have chosen to put their lives on the line for world peace and security.

I don't want to hear any more excuses and lies and face saving from our PM and members of the Government, I want to hear promises that they will do everything they can to ensure our armed forces in Afghanistan get the equipment THEY say they need.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ageist BBC ousts Arlene

It's been a bit of a stressful week as you will have seen from previous posts, and it was only listening to BBC's Broadcasting House this morning that I caught up with something the rest of the world knew about on Thursday.

Alesha Dixon is to replace Arlene Phillips on Strictly Come Dancing. Now Alesha was a worthy winner of the show in 2007, but she does not have Arlene's training or knowledge of dance, or her sharp eye of what works visually on the dance floor.

Ballet star Darcy Bussell will also participate in the judging, and will help competitors with training in the later stages of the show. No problems there, she's a professional dancer and I will respect her opinion.

Arlene Phillips caused a lot of controversy in the last series when audience favourite John Sergeant went out, but the show enjoyed a lot of extra publicity as a result. She can be a very acid and picky judge, but the world of dance is incredibly competitive and very hard work and she is an extremely driven and demanding person.

There was a rumour as long ago as 18th June that Arlene might be due for the chop, and she hinted strongly about it on her Desert Island Discs appearance on July 3rd. (not available on Iplayer due to some rights agreements with the family of show originator Roy Plomley).

The BBC have been widely criticised for this change and the reasons for making it seem pretty weak. The show and the judges were perfect as they, were and there was no justification to change a successful format.

There is more than a sniff of ageism about this although BBC 1 Controller Jay Hunt has denied it saying that Arlene was the 'obvious one to change'.

Well Mr Hunt, it is not obvious to me, or to the show's millions of followers and I don't expect Alesha to have the skills or the presence to shine as a judge, good as she was as a competitor.

Len Goodman, regarded as the head judge of the Strictly Come Dancing panel has said that he is sorry to see Arlene go. We have not heard from her nemesis Craig Revel Horwood with whom Arlene has had some spectacular disagreements.

Arlene will, thankfully not be leaving our screens altogether - she will be joining former Strictly competitor Christine Bleakley on the One Show as a special presenter and commentator on this year's programme. I think we may find out more about how this change occurred which may not be totally flattering to the BBC's image.

It isn't goodnight Arlene just yet.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

DWP and ESA - the final straw

This morning a conversation with the DWP and a look at my bank account knocked me back into depression and leaves me even MORE disgusted with the way that the ESA system treats claimants suffering from mental illnesses and breakdowns.

I was expecting the notification in the post that I hadn't got enough points on the medical assessment to be considered not fit to work.

I wasn't expecting a total ZERO score, based on the form I completed and the medical - it's just so nonsensical. Didn't they read what I said and listen? Even on the points where I KNOW I made it clear I had problems, there is still a zero score.

Next, I checked my bank account as my cash card was not giving me anything. I then found out that my benefit had already been stopped without any warning whatever. Good thing I still have some savings to fall back on, but will be a few days before I can organise to get it into my current account.

I called the DWP again. Apparently, they will re-start the benefit and backdate it but ONLY when I return the appeals form. Had they sent it out, as I asked yesterday? No. They say they have now. They have a two to three month queue for hearing benefit appeals, by which time I might just possibly be well enough to think about work again.

It is a very stinky and cruel system that withdraws benefits from vulnarable people, leaving them without any income whatever, and without warning. Had I gone through all this a few months ago, it might well have pushed me back towards the suicidal feelings I was experiencing at that time and could easily do so for someone else.

And then there's the council tax benefits section. Apparently the DWP managed to write to THEM before they wrote to me, so they were on the phone saying that I had to complete yet MORE forms.

At the moment I am drinking tea, later on it might be something stronger. I have a feeling it will be a sleepless night again, or I stay up and compose letters to Yvette Cooper, my MP David Willets, David Cameron and a few more blameworthy others.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Depressed? Don't expect help from the DWP

Six months ago, a series of personal and financial crises sent me even further into deep depression than I already was. The illness behind it all is hypothyroidism, a condition which, if not adequately treated leaves you exhausted, mentally and physically and unable to deal with life at its best let alone its worst.

If some idiot at my local Job Centre had not given me incorrect information, I might have already been claiming the benefits to which I was entitled and had my previous GP had not been so totally useless my condition might have been better treated and things would never have got that bad. At least I had the strength to go and demand a referral to an endocrinologist and then the energy to insist I saw someone fully trained who made a change in my medication.

When I did get the right information from the Citizens Advice Bureau, which was to apply for ESA, the benefit that has replaced Incapacity Benefit, I was still struggling to deal with daily life. Just applying for ESA is an unnecessarily stressful experience. As a result of the incorrect information I lost two months of benefit and help with my mortgage which could not be backdated because there is a limit to backdating any benefits regardless of the circumstances.

The main form that you are required to complete is designed with two situations in mind.
1. You are suffering from an illness that makes you physically unable to work. You have to describe in minute detail how this affects every aspect of your life and is quite intrusive and personal.

2. You are mentally incapacitated to the point that someone has to complete the form for you.

There is nothing in between. The form simply does not deal with the whole spectrum of mental illness around depression. I made some angry notes on the form to that effect, but they were just ignored.

At some time later two things will happen. You will get called for a medical interview and a 'job-related' interview. The medical interviews, in my area at least are subcontracted to a company called ATOS who employ so-called health professionals to conduct an assessment partially based on what you wrote on the form.

The remainder of the assessment is anything but personal. They have a computerised system with a series of check boxes which they complete without showing you which boxes they ticked. They do ask you questions and also add some detail based on what you say. The outcome is simple. The boxes result in a score. If you don't score high enough, you are disqualified from ESA. I would advise anyone going to one of these medicals to get help from anyone you can, and know what they are supposed to do. Then, if they don't conduct the medical assessment properly, make a formal complaint to ATOS themselves and to the DWP.

More of what to do in a moment if you are scored too low to stay on ESA.

The other interview is aimed at trying to get you back into a job if you don't have one. The Job Centre gave me a leaflet for an organisation called the Shaw Trust. The leaflet claimed that they could 'get you access to training' by which most people would assume that they actually had funds to do this. Wrong. They have lists of other organisations which may or may not be able to fund the training you need, but it is very limited. What I would need, IF I was well enough to return to work is some very specialised very focussed training in specific software languages that have become the lingua franca of website development in the last few years. The Job Centre had already denied me this, so I'm not hopeful.

Now you would think that you would get the medical interview out of the way to establish whether or not you really were fit for work rather than putting more stress on you by forcing you to attend the job related one. No, the system is arse about face, a situation even admitted by the Shaw Trust.

At one of the job-related sessions the interviewer told me fairly bluntly that people with depression frequently did not tick enough boxes to stay on ESA. Therefore the sessions that I went through with them are now pretty well pointless, because once you are on JSA (the current name for unemployment benefit) a whole load of different conditions apply as to what training you can get. And of course you are then required to start a new claim for JSA with a whole load of new forms, no getting away with just going from one benefit to the other.
Moreover, you are then taken away from the people who were just getting to know about you and what you needed to get back to work and shoved back into the JSA system which is so overloaded at present it can't cope anyway.

I wrote a few months ago about the farcical situation of the Government announcing 'training initiatives' which just don't materialise at the delivery point. I can tell you that, according to a friend trying to get appropriate training from the Job Centre, those funds still are not available where and when they are needed. Still pie in the sky then. This was the previous blog post.

The alternative, which I found today that I am going to have to go through, is the appeals procedure for ESA. It is another stressful and upsetting situation which is anything but helpful for someone not properly recovered from depression and still getting their system back in balance on new hypothyroid medication.

What concerns me most is that processing these forms will result in a lapse of my benefits and even if they are re-instated and backdated pending the appeal, I may be without any income at all for weeks.

When I saw my new GP a week ago, she said that it could take another six months before I get my medication levels completely right and really start to feel well again. At least she is prepared to listen to me and not just rely on blood tests - more box ticking which led to the decline in my health in the first place.

There are very severe shortcomings in the way that ESA is being administered and my fear is that people who have been treated for depressive illnesses are being thrown into this back-to-work system far too soon and may relapse, possibly dangerously.

Before the latest economic decline, we were told that Incapacity Benefit was being replaced by ESA with the aim of getting more people back into work. Well Ms Cooper (Yvette Cooper is the new Minister for Work and Pensions) Mr Brown, there are even fewer jobs now and even less resources to help you get one.

Perhaps you had better just quietly adjust those tick-box scores and let a few more people stay on ESA where they should be anyway.