I’ve just experienced an unexpected and intensive 10 days of exposure to some of the inner workings of our remarkable National Health System.

My poor Dad was rushed in, via ambulance, to A&E at the Royal Surrey Hospital late one night and moved through the system thereafter, from A&E to the EAU (Emergency Assessment Unit) and then to the Frensham surgical ward.

We visited every day, and became immersed in the medical processes and jargon, as well as the infrastructure surrounding what is akin to a small city.

We got used to the nuances of the parking options, the Costa coffee queues, M&S snacks and the vagaries of the creaking lifts. We made sure we smothered our secular hands in the anti-bug gel dispensers. We filled out endless menu choices for a disinterested patient. We harassed the nursing staff for updates. We listened to medical advice on Dad’s changing diagnosis. We hoped. We prayed.

With my loving son’s hat on, words can’t adequately describe my gratitude for the care and attention given by everyone at the Royal Surrey. From the paramedics in the ambulance, to the nurses and doctors in A&E and the EAU, to everyone on the ward – the tea-trolley wheeler, the pharmacists, the endlessly patient nursing staff, the young doctors, the consultants, the surgeons, the nutritionists – we thank you all.

But with my ex bean-counter’s hat on, it’s hard to see how a system this professional, caring and so committed to the perfect solution for everyone – free at the point of service – can be sustainable.

Net migration is now running well in excess of 300k every year. The average life expectancy was around 60-65 in the 1940s and 1950s, when the Beveridge Report formed the basis for the current NHS. Today’s average lifespan is closer to 80, and is expected to be close to 90 by 2030.

I don’t know what the solution is, other than forcing those who can afford it to pay for some medical treatment, in order to ensure that it continues to be free for those less well off.

(cartoon courtesy of Gary Barker)

But I do suspect that the current system – and more importantly, its staff – will inevitably buckle with fatigue and stress, if we expect them to continue to provide this level of care and commitment for an ever-increasing and ever-ageing population.

(cartoon by Graham)

In the meantime Dad is back home, with more drugs to get through every day than Amy Winehouse managed in a year, and a series of follow-up appointments to look forward to.

But without the NHS, he would probably have left us many years ago.

Welcome home, Dad. And thank you to Mr Beveridge and the NHS.

Movie review – Amy

No less a vocal luminary than Tony Bennett rated Amy Winehouse as good a jazz singer as Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington. This was after they had recorded a version of Body and Soul together in 2011 at the Abbey Road Studios in London, for Tony’s Duets album.

Four months later, she was dead.

Asif Kapadia’s movie Amy contains some heart-rending insights into the singer’s brilliant, short, troubled life.


Original and previously unseen video clips of her life and music show a girl with an incredible raw talent, but who never came to terms with her parents breaking up and who found it impossible to deal with subsequent stardom.

A combination of bulimia, drugs and alcohol led to her early, but tragically inevitable, death at the tender age of 27.

Alongside her hauntingly perfect jazz singer’s voice, trenchant lyrics scroll across the screen, telling the story of failed love affairs and a sad person.

This is not an easy film to watch. But it is a brilliant piece of documentary movie-making, from the same team as the award-winning Senna.



Movie review – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Do you like surprises?

I’m not usually a fan, especially after luring Gill to a party at the local pub for her 50th birthday, and being lambasted because she had her walking boots on, was wearing entirely the wrong outfit and hadn’t washed her hair.

But we went to our second Screen Unseen movie surprise last night, at the Odeon in Guildford, and lucked out. Again.

The title – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – sort of sums up this film. Cool. Kooky. Offbeat. Darkly funny.

17 year old Greg has a strategy to get through High School in Anywheresville, USA. Make no friends. Avoid contact. Stay alone. Other than superficial eye contact and head nods with all the disparate school factions.

The one possible exception is Earl, with whom he creates remakes of classic old films. Death in Tennis. Eyes Wide Butt. Senior Citizen Kane. The Turd Man. You get the idea….

But Earl is just a co-worker. Greg’s rules don’t allow him to be called a friend.

His survival strategy is working. Until his Mum forces him to go and visit Rachel, a classmate who has leukemia.

Greg and Rachel form an unlikely friendship, in an awkward kind of way, and it forces Greg to break a few of his rules and – reluctantly – to think a little differently about life.

The dialogue, soundtrack and characters combine to make a really interesting, thought-provoking, emotional indie movie.

Thomas Mann as Greg and Olivia Cooke as Rachel steal the show, but a host of peripheral characters add considerable lustre. Nick Offerman plays Greg’s highly alternative Dad. Connie Britton is Rachel’s sad Mum, and Jon Bernthal is Mr. McCarthy, the coolest teacher you could ever want to teach you.

If you like intelligent, non-conforming independent movie-making, I reckon you’ll love this.

And I hope I haven’t spoilt any surprises.


Book review – The Circle

Imagine a world where all your online activity is in a single, safe and entirely transparent place.

Imagine a world where tiny cameras – some known, some unseen – are everywhere, potentially eliminating most crime and allowing a disabled person to share the experience of climbing a mountain, as if they were there.

Imagine a world where you can’t be offline and anonymous.

Welcome to The Circle, Dave Eggers’ utopian world where a single all-powerful tech company – think Facebook, Google and Twitter all rolled into one – becomes so integral that governments use its systems to implement democracy. Well, why wouldn’t you when the results of a vote can be known within minutes rather than days, and at zero public cost?

But is this really utopia…..or the end of the free world?

Mae Holland, a young arrival on the Circle’s campus, quickly rises up the ranks. Her own minor offence allows her to see the error of her independent ways, and she succumbs to going fully transparent, sharing her Circle evangelism with millions of followers. A voluntary Truman Show!

Will Mae realise the dangers of the Circle becoming completely closed, or is she really a complete convert?

Dave Eggers raises some challenging questions for our increasingly tech-dependent times. And having worked for a US technology business myself, some of the work practices and ethos certainly resonated.

But somehow, as a story it felt a little contrived and some of the characters feel as though they’ve been parachuted in to the narrative, in order to expound some of the author’s contrary views.

Nevertheless, it made me think…and what more could you want from a book than that?

Movie review – Dark Horse

I’ve always admired horses. Usually from afar, as I’m allergic to them.  But occasionally I’ve got up close and personal with one, thanks to the temporary tolerance gained from drugs. Non performance-enhancing ones, obviously.

My wife Gill was the proud and incredibly loyal owner of a lovely Cleveland Bay horse called Whizz. Although his name turned out to be completely inappropriate, as he suffered a few injuries in his younger life and ended up being an expensive, indolent, hungry pet for most of the 20+ years Gill had him. I told you she was loyal.

I rode Whizz once. He took me through some low-hanging trees on Elstead Common, and also made my nose and eyes stream for 24 hours.

Gill and I have ridden horses together on honeymoon in Ireland, and on holidays in Canada, Corsica and – very recently – the Camargue in southern France.

So it was an easy decision to go and see Dark Horse last night at the Yvonne Arnaud Film Festival.

Expecting a good old far-fetched plucky underdog (underhorse?) story, this magical movie turned out to be a documentary. And how much more moving it is, being about a real horse and real people, rather than pumped-up feel-good fiction.

Beautifully written and directed by Louise Osmond, it tells the scarcely believable story of how Jan Vokes, a barmaid and Asda store cleaner, decides to breed a racehorse. She, her tattooed and toothless husband Brian and local tax accountant Howard Davies become the main players in a 23-man syndicate from the local village of Cefn Fforest, dying on its feet since the coal pits were closed in the 1980s.

They cough up £10 a week to send the newly bred Dream Alliance to a posh training yard, after he spent the first part of his life in a make-shift stable on scrub land in the stagnating village.

What follows is an incredible journey for the horse and everyone associated with him. It’s partly portrayed as a rags-to-riches story, the working class villagers and the scrap-heap horse taking on the wealthy owners and their thoroughbreds in the sport of kings. But mostly it’s a tale of tenacity and unremitting passion, from both Dream Alliance and his motley human syndicate.

The characters involved are what makes the film come to life, and I defy you not to shed a tear or two as the story of Dream Alliance unfolds.

And I didn’t need to take an antihistamine tablet.

The Isle of Purbeck

In 1953 my Mum and Dad spent their honeymoon in Swanage, on the Dorset coast.

In the 1990s, we spent a couple of idyllic family holidays on the Isle of Purbeck. My two young nephews dug sandcastles on Studland Bay beach,  floppy hats protecting their youthful skin from the unexpectedly searing heat. We walked decent stretches of the vertiginous coastal path, from Swanage to Winspit and then inland to the quaint village of Worth Matravers. We explored the natural wonder of Brownsea Island, and we drove miles in search of elusive Solero ice creams.

And now, good friends have a home near Corfe Castle. We’ve been lucky to spend weekends there with them in recent years, and the love affair with this still largely untamed part of the country continues anew.

It’s a Famous Five, or Swallows and Amazons type of place. Its rolling inland hills, perfect beaches and plunging coastline remain relatively unspoiled, and driving through Wareham always make me feel like I’m returning to the innocence of childhood.

In reality a peninsula rather than an island, Purbeck stretches from Wareham in the north, east from Brownsea Island to Swanage and Durlston Lighthouse, and west as far as Worbarrow Bay along the scintillating – though sadly eroding – southern coastline.

Corfe Castle bewitches you as you drive on the Wareham to Swanage road, its ghostly remains perched high on a hill above providing a history lesson.  Fortunately, the Parliamentarians left enough standing in 1646 during the English Civil War for it still to be an interesting National Trust destination.

Swanage probably hasn’t changed much since 1953. It’s a charming English seaside town, originally a fishing port but developed as a tourist destination from the early 19th century. Enjoy its sandy beach, fish & chip shops, characterful pubs and restaurants. And abundance of Magnum ice creams.

Inland, explore Purbeck’s rolling landscape on foot or from a horse or bike saddle. The scars from old quarries, where the island’s eponymous marble and limestone have been extracted since the 12th century, somehow only add to the natural landscape, rather than detract.

The crumbling Jurassic coastline in the south is equally magnetic, pulling you in to walk its helter-skelter contours. Venture west as far as Kimmeridge and Worbarrow Bay, before heading inland to caught-in-time Tyneham.

Its villagers were suddenly asked to leave late in 1943, expecting to return after the army had finished its war training activities. Sadly, they never returned. The army retained the village and surrounding area as Ranges, but at certain times you’re allowed back to the village to see the church and school-house exactly as they were, more than 70 years ago.

Wander along to tiny villages or hamlets with beguiling names like Langton Matravers, Church Knowle or Steeple.

But, best of all, go to the wholly unique Square and Compass in Worth Matravers. There can be no better reason to live in England than to go to this charming village on a warm, summer’s day and find your way to its whacky hostelry, an alehouse since around 1776. Order pints of award winning beers or home-pressed traditional cider from cramped counters inside, listen to live music in the sloping garden and enjoy a pie or pasty from its unashamedly traditional, limited menu. This is as far from being a gastro pub as Nicola Sturgeon is from being English.

After enjoying 3 pints of mind-altering, coma-inducing Kiss-me-Kate cider at the weekend, listening to quirky folk music, sprawled in the sunny garden with old friends, I think I’d like my ashes to be spread here.

And I hope the Isle of Purbeck remains untarnished, so that honeymooners, 9 year-old boys in search of an ice cream and ageing scrumpy hunters alike can enjoy its special charms for many years to come.