Thursday, 5 November 2015

If ye break faith with us who die...

In Flanders Field the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

There is always debate at this time about the poppy and whether it should or shouldn't be worn, whether it glorifies war or is purely an act of remembrance. As with everything that endures over a long time, its meaning can become muddled and incongruous-usually because we have lost the meaning or because we anachronistically place our own flawed interpretation onto it. It has become a political instrument though it was never meant to be and I am a little irked by its detractors.

I am not one of those who dogmatically insists that everyone should wear a poppy, not would I insult or criticize you whether you did or did not! Neither would I post one of those passive/aggressive Facebook declarations which threatens and vilifies for either wearing or not wearing a poppy. To me the essence of the poppy is about choice- when it first began a huge majority of the population was proud to wear one-mainly because they all knew or had lost someone in the terrible war. As time moves on the remembrance is more distant and perhaps more collective, but certainly in my own case I remember the young men in the family (great uncles) who had no chance to live their lives as I have done. I like the poppy for its simplicity, for its symbolism. I don't see it as jingoistic or political and I certainly can't associate it with racism.If it is perceived as such-then the fault lies with those who have tried to use the poppy to promote a right wing nationalistic interpretation-not the poppy itself.

I refuse to abandon it or wear a "white" poppy on the strength of this. The whole point of the poppy is that it is red-to symbolise the blood spent for our freedom. The white apologist poppy is almost an insult-what's the point? Nothing is more poignant than the silent fluttering of the thousands of poppies falling from the ceiling of the Albert Hall at the end of the Remembrance ceremony. Each one representing the fallen-yours and mine... and even the apologists. It has nothing to do with glorification and sentimentality, it has to do with humanity and loss... and remembrance. So, although I would never wish to inflict my choice upon you... please don't try and denigrate mine and many others who are still proud to wear the poppy, in thanks for those long past and in the hope that by remembering we might one day stop the bloodshed and aggression in the world. We have not yet learnt from our mistakes, but if we extinguish remembrance, because it is not always presented in the way we would like then we have lost an important lesson. 

So I will wear my poppy and will not be made to feel guilty because it might represent something it isn't meant to! Flanders Fields by Canadian McCrae is poignant, because he was there. He died of meningitis and pneumonia at the Canadian Hospital in Boulogne-a less obvious casualty of war and buried at Wimereaux Cemetery. He experienced the worst of the war but he believed he was making a difference and believed in what he was doing-as most men at the front did. Who are we a hundred years later to criticise and denigrate the beliefs of a man who was proud to sacrifice his life-not just for his country but for the "Empire"? To do so is not only anachronistic but also a little insulting. We might not hold those views now-but we have no right to manipulate them into a time when things were very different.

"If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields."

In the same cemetery lies my great uncle John Wilkinson-one of three uncles who died. He was rejected at the start of the war due to poor eye-sight, but was recalled in 1917 when men were needed to replenish the human cannon fodder. I am sure he went with the same beliefs as McCrae-I am also sure they must have questioned why they were there, but that is part of the tragedy of war-which is probably as true today as it was then. The poppy still stands for those men and as simple as it is I think it does its job admirably.

In Flander's Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

This is a party political broadcast on behalf of ... the confused!

I say I am not political. However, I am political. Political with a small p -in a more holistic way-not in a red/blue or yellow way...political in a human way. As long as I remember politics has been discussed in my environment-as a child at the tea table, at my Nannies, at my Grandma and Granddad's, through the news on TV and in any gathering of more than two or three. So you might think I would have a distinctive political leaning. Well you would be wrong.

My politics has veered left to right, right to left through the years, cherry picking certain elements, admiring certain political strengths but never coming down wholly on one side or another-mainly because I have a distinct aptitude for seeing value in many opinions and being persuadable. In fact I have reached a point where I don't think there is a party to represent me totally.

Today, has brought this into sharp relief. I have to declare I have found what Jeremy Corbyn has had to say quite refreshing. He appears to be honest, steadfast and genuine-time will tell I suppose and some of what he says convinces me. Obviously, there are bits that I have problems with-mainly due to personal circumstances-son and husband working in the nuclear industry, my town reliant on the success of Trident... but his stance on the NHS, housing and refugees resonate well! 

Then I think back. My brief flirtation with Thatcher (ok ok  I know-I grew out of it) but again-circumstance defined some of that too- a GLC mortgage-when we were struggling to get a house in London, the feeling in the early days that if you work hard you are rewarded. Then Maggie lost it totally and became a raging dictator...

I remember the feeling of euphoria when Blair and new Labour emerged from the ashes of old Labour! The sort of politics that seemed all encompassing-a genuine guy and all that! Then Blair lost it totally and became a raging dictator and got us into an illegal war-well we know what that led to...

So middle of the road it was. Lib Dem -a bit loosey goosey and less extreme than the other two.Well that turned out well! An alliance from hell with the Tories-and this lot more about elitism than ever-no room for social mobility and removal of much of the public service built up in the halcyon days of Labour.

So look to family, friends and acquaintances. I have a schism in my family-one half rabid red -t'other bright blue! So no help there! Friends-a spectrum of colour! On the red team- I have to say-united in hatred of Thatcher and all things Tory-but shades of red from cerise to pink! This highlighted even more with the Corbyn issue-I have friends I would previously have marked as just socialists... now? Well hard to say what to call them-disagreeing as vehemently with each other as if they were on different sides. Blue team-Tories more united and gloating over the Corbyn emergence and believing everything the Murdoch press tells them. 

I don't think I am a stupid person-but I am confused! I believe British politics is in a mess and the electorate are fed up with disingenuous politicians who only seem to be concerned with image and self-promotion. I know this is not all politicians-but the public do tend to tar all with the same brush! I think this is why Corbyn is appealing to so many-he has, on record stuck to his guns for 40 odd years. We might not like what he says and we might fear the effect he will have-but what you see is what you get! Its that and his traditional views on housing, education and the NHS which are impressive-he actually does believe in fairness and equality. I don't know if he's good or bad for the country. He is in opposition now and I don't know whether he will lead Labour to victory. But at the very least he has promoted a massive debate and I believe he could be exactly the catalyst we need to kick start politics again and throw off the shackles of this elitist, unsympathetic, feudal Tory government. Surely anyone who can promote this level of debate and rock the foundations of a political system which has become unreliable and untrustworthy must be for the public good.

So, come voting day-what type of party do I want to vote for? One that values people, all kinds, all creeds, colours and persuasions. One that cares for the old, the young, the sick, the disabled, the homeless, the weak, the vulnerable... one that watches the pennies and spends on the right things and values public service. One that invests in children and education-but allows professionals space and doesn't quantify success with league tables, one that pays nurses and doctors properly and doesn't stop people's drugs because they are too short a party that cares. It remains to be seen if JC is the new messiah! One can hope-or dream...

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Unexpected adventures

Don't you just love spontaneity? I do! Today after a good walk to Bosun's Locker for lunch a friend and I noticed the ferry boat for Piel Island was in-we suddenly decided to go for it! Boat rides are always exciting and we were giddy as a couple of school girls (well quite mature school girls it has to be said). We alighted on the jetty at the island and proceeded to explore the medieval castle! It was just as I remembered it-it must be 20 years since I last went! Obviously, those familiar with Out of Time Secret of the Swan know that George and Sid visit the island too. So it was great fun locating where the action occurred!
Ferry to the Pile of Fouldray

                                                                                                             We found where I had located the oubliette! Even though I knew there was no such item-I couldn't help but look for it! We wandered for some time and reflected what a great place to take children to! The ferry was a fiver return and you had from 11am till 5pm to return! The beaches and the castle make it a rich adventure for any child-add a picnic or bar meal from the pub and you have a fine day out! Entry to the castle is free courtesy of English Heritage                                                                                   
Gate house
The outer ward

 Anyway... back to our explorations... suddenly we came upon the stone below! I had never seen this before and a shudder of deja vu or something prickled my neck! It said Aug 193? The final figure looked to be either a 4 or a 9! For my purposes it has to be 1934... the exact year George and Sid explored! How weird -reality mimicking fiction-or is it the other way around? 

I think George and Sid might have more adventures after today-after all its too good not to follow up isn't it?
The Keep

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

We're all going to the zoo...

Another trip out was to the South Lakes Animal Park at Dalton. I am not a lover of zoos but this one has its conservation message and breeding programmes so as the young man we were trying to entertain wanted to go we gave it a whirl. Ignoring the annoyance of parking at the now defunct entrance and then having to find the new one, parking was quite extensive. It was quite a trek for anyone with mobility issues however... or pushing a buggy as we were.
We had a long wait in very hot sunshine but when we arrived at the cash desk we could buy a variety of options. We chose the cheapest-which allowed free entry for the boys. It cost £31 for two adults-we declined the offer of paying to feed the animals. One of the things we chose the zoo for was because Baby Jonah likes trains. We located this and found we had another payment of £1 each to pay. It was irritating again as I queued in a long line-by which time we also wanted ice cream-only to be told this kiosk didn't take cards and I would need to queue again! So we didn't bother and just got the tickets.

We saw lots of animals and the most popular part was the open safari trail. It was exciting for the children and terrifying for the granny and auntie to see emus and lemurs in close proximity. 
Some of the animals were easier to see than others and I don't think the heat helped with the smell. My personal impression was that there were lots of good ideas but it has an unfinished and slightly grubby feel to it. I know there is major reconstruction going on but some attention needs to be given to the general tidiness and appearance. However, as a family-if you purchase the best option and hold out against the gift shop, ice creams and extras it could be a cost effective day out. There is plenty to do-places to eat a picnic, a new adventure playground and the different animal experiences -all in all a good day.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Further adventures

Well nobody can say we don't get out and about! We had another couple of trips in lovely sunny weather this week.
We decided to take Great Grandma with us and this meant we had to look for somewhere with easier access whilst balancing with the needs of a young child! We had a delightful lunch at The Swan Hotel at Newby Bridge, al fresco as it turned out-very hot and sunny. We had sandwiches, drinks and a child's meal, spending around £40 for four of us-average I would say for a Lake district hotel. 

We sat beside the lake under the trees, with space for the six year old to wander and play. There was also a small adventure trail for children which is a good distraction whilst waiting for food to arrive (it was very busy). The wasps were a nuisance around the tables and it might be an idea to put out some citronella candles to ward them off. Otherwise a very pleasant repast in beautiful surroundings.


We then moved on to the more child centred activity of Fell Foot which is a National Trust property. Access was fairly easy although parking was tight due to the vast numbers of visitors. 

Parking for non NT members is free but the cost is reasonable anyway. The grounds are beautiful and give open access to Lake Windermere which is a magnet for all children in hot weather. It is perfect for a picnic and you can easily spend the whole day there. The shop has the usual array of goods-high on the agenda drinks and ice-creams and the Boathouse cafe has delicious refreshments to sample indoors or out. A day here could be as cheap as you can make it-if you take a picnic you don't need to venture to the cafe and shop. Other activities include rowing and the ferry to Lakeside. A grand day out for any family.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Holiday adventures

As a Grandma it's quite hard trying to make the school holidays fun. So I have been trying to get out and about with Noah- but couldn't help noticing how expensive things can be. This made me think that collecting a few really good activities together in my blog might useful to other Grans and hard pressed parents too. So I am going to post some visits and let you know what they are like and whether they are value for money over the next few weeks:

Obviously, I will begin with Furness Abbey-an often forgotten little place-but one familiar to anyone who reads this blog. 
It is a fantastic place which can take up a few hours for any family.
The Infirmary
It costs £4.20 for adults with concessions for seniors,children (U5s free) and local residents. Once inside there are extensive open grounds and ruins. It provides an adventure for curious children and is great for hide and seek (no climbing on the ruins though). There are picnic tables, toilets and hot and cold drinks available in the shop, which is well stocked with all kinds of things for both adults and children alike.
Of course as well as the shop there is a splendid little museum housing      a range of interesting artefacts including the amazing Abbot's crosier and ring found in 2010. Take a picnic and you can spend the day there and tire your little ones out too!
The abbot's crosier (courtesy of English Heritage)

Today we went to another English Heritage property-Stott Park Bobbin Mill. This little gem is accessible from the Newby Bridge turning to Lakeside. It was fascinating and held the attention of our six year old. Again a fab day! We went on Bob's trail and won a small prize for collecting the letters and then we were fascinated by the tour of the mill! Lots to see! Again a shop and refreshments available and lots of picnic tables in a beautiful setting. After out picnic we went a walk to the top of the hill to discover the lovely High Dam! It was gorgeous trekking through the woods and looking at the flowers, trees and wildlife and the view at the top was breathtaking! Noah especially loved the echo he produced at the top! All this for a mere £6.80 per adult and £4 for children-again concessions and family tickets apply.

More later....

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Dissolution and disillusion

I have actually been doing some research this last couple of weeks-in between my new job at Furness Abbey, winding up the TA training business and grandma duties! The only trouble is-it does distract me from the actual task of writing. Procrastination is the thief of time as they say-but when is dressed up in dusty tomes and interesting historical research it almost feels justified. I have been itching to write for weeks but just can't get on with it. I wrote 30 lines the other night and thought I had done well.

However, back to the research... I have been looking into monastic issues-partly because I was putting together a mini project for a school. I was uncovering the usual stuff and confirming; my image of the "monk" is mixed-I want to think that "our" Furness Abbey monks were a devout, caring and sincere lot... well they would be wouldn't they? Yes, I know about the abuses of the church, sale of indulgences and pardons-after all I did do Chaucer at uni... But not our lot! Not in Furness?
This Guest house has sheep in it!

So, it has been illuminating reading about what they actually DID get up to! When I take folk on a tour of the abbey, we start in the Outer Court, near to the Guest house and post monastic stables. "Here," I always say, "Is a safe haven for travellers. Travel was hard and dangerous in the middle ages and in monastic and religious houses people could be assured a safe bed, food and prayer-sort of a medieval Travelodge." So I was stunned to discover the record (first seen on Rievalux abbey Facebook page) of a fight which broke out at Furness between the monks and travellers. This resulted in three travellers being stabbed! So not quite a Travelodge then?

Of course I knew all about the "murder" at the abbey-I even included it in my last book, "The Cistercian Conspiracy". Three discontented monks decided to oust poor Abbot "L" or "T" depending on which interpretation you read. They bumped him off with deadly nightshade in the communion wine-and then disappeared! In the church, with the nightshade... sort of a Monastic Cluedo.
Courtesy of English Heritage

Then there was Abbot Alexander Banke! A truly nasty piece of work. He evicted the villagers of Sellergarth, destroyed their homes so that he could extend the Parkland-for more sheep and hunting! His monks voted him out at one point but he managed to force his way back in again. I sincerely hope he does not turn out to be the abbot who was found avec crosier in the presbytery. He would be arrogant enough to want to be buried so close to the altar-but I'm hoping it isn't him! 

Then, reading about the dissolution in terms of the abbey, I discover that Roger Pele the final abbot-turns out to have given in pretty quickly and handed over the keys after a little persuasion from Thomas Holcroft -the King's officer. He also managed to gain a pension and the living at Dalton church!

So maybe old Henry was right to turf them all out? Maybe life in the cloister was as corrupt as outside? 
Looking towards the presbytery

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Coming up for air

Sometimes you have to wonder what life is all about! Things move on at breakneck pace and you seem to be so busy you actually don't accomplish much. Sometimes you have a time in life when things happen around you, but impact massively on what you are doing and you seem to lose any control that you might have had.

Well-that's what has been happening here since January. So not much done in the way of writing-but this will be remedied soon! I have acquired a new job too! One I wanted since I was 17-to work as a Historic Properties Steward at Furness Abbey. I have been on a circuitous route to get here-but here I am! Its great-first task of the day is to check the abbey and walk around-what a way to start the day! How lucky am I? I get to see my "precious" -the crosier to you and chat about the abbey and its history to anyone who will listen! I am only part time-but it is perfect! I love it-though not before I worried myself sick over the practical stuff... once again it became clear I learn by doing! Practice makes perfect of course! 

In my spare time-I do the work for Furness Abbey Fellowship and we are busy organising the Medieval Fair-which is 5th September this year! I am also freelancing as an author/historian and working in local schools so I almost have the best fit for a job I could hope for! Granted I am not earning megabucks-but the job satisfaction outweighs that! Plus there is enough time to spend with grandchildren and family-which can have no price put upon it!

Its curious how life takes you down strange paths-a daily voyage of discovery! It isn't always what you wanted or thought it would be, but it is never boring. Sometimes its best just to embrace it and build from what you are dealt! Not easy-but always a challenge! Back to 9-5 or a school day? Don't think so! Variety is the spice of life and long may it continue!

Monday, 16 February 2015

Heritage hugs and selling the ground from under our feet

Have to share this fab video of an amazing group of people who are battling to support and conserve the most complete Iron Age Fort in Britain at Oswestry. They have been valiantly battling the developers and Shropshire Council to protect the fort from the encroachment of planned housing on the foothills of the fort. So much for setting and sense of place? This obviously resonates with our own battle for the setting of our own heritage site-Furness Abbey. So it was fantastic to see this little video showing a Heritage Hug! Over 400 people climbed the hill and joined hands surrounding the summit! It signals a sea change in people's attitudes. The little man is standing up to the big business developer and the intransigent council. These people are from all ages, backgrounds and are definitely not Nimbys-which is usually the cry when people stand up for heritage or green field. Nobody benefits directly from opposing the encroachment onto a historical site. So you can guarantee that the motivation is genuine and not a conspiracy against the capitalist society.

It looks as though we may have a bigger fight on our hands. Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse-the Lake District National Park decide that it is a good idea to sell off bits of land -previously donated or gifted to the nation, to preserve and conserve. So what happened? Does this mean that despite good-intentioned people in the past who had the foresight to save our landscape from the march of urbanisation have suddenly become irrelevant. When did the National Park get the nod from the "nation" the common people whom this park was created for, to sell off tarns and lakes? Bad enough that local aristocrats begin to sell off mountains, but a national body too? This has got to be one step too far! People will not stand for it-they will join together and oppose these high handed moves. Power to the people and more of it!

Here is the petition to start the ball rolling

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Perversions of history and a surfeit of Tudors

We are a contentious lot! I have been enjoying the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and in my little world I could not imagine the arguments and vitriol this has stimulated in the press! I totally devour historical fiction and love to read the many interpretations by various authors. Afterwards I often research, read or investigate the historical truth (well truth as far as historians allow) and make up my own mind. I like historical accuracy. I try very hard to be historically accurate in the facts I present in my novels-but they are fictionalised history wrapped around some real and incontrovertible facts. This is the way I believe Mantel and co work too-we can rarely KNOW what a historical character felt or emoted, we can only imagine the unpublished reactions to events in history and we can only surmise unrecorded conversations. In other words we fill in the gaps. I would argue that even in the serious tomes which are produced by "historians" there must be some poetic licence and interpretation. Bias must also creep in to some extent but I am shocked at some of the commentary following this massively successful piece of literature.

For starters I was pleased to read a piece by my favourite historical fictioneer-CJ Sansom who specialises in the Tudor period with his infinitely splendid Shardlake series. He analysed the series and made a fairly balanced judgment; inputting some of his own opinions about the anti-hero Cromwell. This foolishly led me onto read the next few reports in the national press. I stumbled across a rather reactionary piece in the Catholic Herald- a bastion of the Catholic press (who knew they had their own press?). This piece was incredible in its bias-in my opinion, I couldn't believe that this man and his story-dead these 500 years was being used to rake up old religious differences. To claim that admiring Cromwell is encouraging anti-Catholicism is a bit OTT! He was a reformer-true and disliked Rome-but nowhere does Mantel suggest he is admirable. She humanises him, but why not? He was ruthless and ambitious-a follower of Machiavellian teaching, but he did have a human side. He wept at the news of Wolsey's death -this is a matter of record, but does that not suggest his humanity could have extended to other situations too? One can perhaps have a grudging admiration for his efficiency and powerful politics; but I am sure nobody out there would really use him as a role model! As for anti-Catholicism... I very much doubt that anyone with those intentions has awaited Mantel's novel to develop those feelings and give vent to their prejudice. The time is too far removed.

I moved onto the next column by a certain David Starkey Esq. I should have know not to read on! I have read some of his history; not all bad but not all good either-but he has spent a lifetime studying history so I assume he does get it right sometimes. He is a right wing chap of course, so in certain instances this must colour his interpretation-after all we all have our own little preferences and nuances. However, he truly slated the "deliberate perversions of history" in Mantel's work (which took 5 years research by the way-so she ain't making it up.) He doesn't appear to understand the term "historical fiction" and berates Mantel for her "total fiction" and "lack of evidence". 

I am with him on accuracy as far as it goes-but there are massive gaps in our knowledge of the conversations, emotional responses and the human snippets of history. We occasionally catch glimpses in the historical record, but as anyone  else who has done a year of a Masters in Historiography will know; all history is interpretation. After all, much early written history comes from one source. Monks. Now as much as I have a soft spot for all things monastic, they didn't exactly have no agenda! They reported according to their standpoint-which was Roman Catholicism. That isn't to say that there is no accurate history in there, but there have been extravagant claims which with hindsight can be seen as a biased interpretation. Whoever writes the history has an interest or a preference -in fact we know that the Tudors tried to rewrite history to prove their validity as a dynasty for example. So as pure as history might seem, it is open to manipulation and propaganda (see Goebbels/Hitler's interpretation of history).

I believe that historical fiction is often an introduction or taster, providing a framework to give us the feel for the time. Certainly, in my "Out of Time" books I present the story as fiction-but I research the nitty gritty and try to accurately portray the times I describe. However, I would not present it as factual. In fact I go to great pains to add an author's note explaining where and why I have taken liberties. I follow the school of Anya Seton and Barbara Erskine, flowing seamlessly (I hope) between historical periods and present day. I use these books in schools in the hope they will interest, inspire and eventually encourage a love of history and will draw the readers to extend their knowledge and engage with the physical history around us. 

So what do I think of Wolf Hall? So far so good! This week I felt there were rather too many ponderous and meaningful silences-with Cromwell's impassive face concealing his calculations for his next move. It captures the period well, it modernises the characters enough for us to connect with and the characterisation is nothing new. We have a slimmer Henry-but he was still an athletic chap at this point, the usual suspects are all there and live up to my own visualisations. The difference is, this story is from Cromwell's perspective and it is that which makes it compelling. Not because I idolise or admire him but because it is his story with Henry and Anne and the rest as the supporting cast for a change. I will read no more commentaries-I gave up when I saw the headline "Damian Lewis took inspiration from Harry and Wills". And I dread to think what lies in "Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day". All I can say is-with all the detractors I think both books and programme are refreshingly different and at least 100% more accurate than "The Tudors" ; where it was thought "less confusing" to amalgamate Henry Vlll's two sisters into one. But then that was from the US not the BBC and despite the advantage of Jonathan Rhys Davies and Henry Cavill and the Hollywood touch, it does not hold a candle (literally) to this production.
Gratuitous photo of Furness Abbey-the 1st large abbey dissolved by Henry Vlll and Thomas Cromwell in 1537

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Born asleep: A story of loss and hope

Thirty four years ago today, on a pretty similar bleak, grey day that only January can produce I was just walking into a parallel bleak grey mindset that has remained a part of me ever since. I was a patient in the then locally infamous Newham Maternity Hospital at Forest Gate awaiting the birth of our first child. A naiive 23 year old, I read every childcare and pregnancy book available to man and even borrowed my friend's midwifery book. This was either a blessing or a mistake because I devoured this too-pragmatically observing that although some awful things can happen-most people deliver safely.

My pregnancy was uncomfortable, I enlarged to the size of a small blue whale, had constant sickness, fatigue and raised blood pressure. My registrar (I never saw the consultant until the day of delivery-he was much too important)was contentious from the off-disbelieving my dates. As a young "primagravida" (I picked up all the terms) I was suspected of knowing nothing... or having a brain... and when I argued and said that I had felt movement at the correct time for a first baby-she dismissed it as wind.  She then reset my dates from 17 January 1981 to 28 February 1981!

I felt massive panic! I knew I was a novice at this pregnancy game but I knew my dates were not that far adrift. Cutting a long and painful story short-at about lunchtime on 11 January a baby monitor was strapped to my expanding girth and there was no rhythmic heart beat-just a dull empty crackle. 

Then, the worst 36 hours of my life began. I eventually delivered a 4lb 8oz boy at 10-30pm on 12 January 1981.The breech birth was incredibly traumatic, painful and it was only due to the skill of the midwives that I came through in one piece. The NHS at its best-and its worst! Forest Gate Maternity hospital was busy, overcrowded, under-funded and had a bad reputation due to various cases of baby death and professional mistakes.(Sound familiar?) We had many complaints and indignities throughout the process-but the skill of the midwives got us through. A catalogue of errors would have made a lawyer rub his hands and I am sure we could have sued successfully.

We discussed with our GP what action to take-we were never inclined to litigate. After all-this would not bring Jonathan (that's what we called him) back, it wouldn't make us feel better and nothing positive could come from this. As far as we could see, it would put more financial pressure on an already restricted service. Instead we made formal complaints and decided next time to attend University College Hospital-which we did, under the amazing "Prof" Brant-the total antithesis of the consultant I had previously had. Later, I had equally excellent care at Furness General Hospital with my last child in 1993. 

I blundered through the stages of grief and adopted the approach that if people ignored that we had had a baby-I would tell them! Cathartic for me -maybe not for them!There was no grief counselling then! I had my first piece of published writing in Parents magazine and campaigned for recognition of stillbirth-it was still taboo in '81! Luckily, people like Esther Rantzen suddenly began campaigning for better care and charities like SANDS (est 1978) started to gain a higher profile. I went onto have four more pregnancies-resulting in three live births.So NHS fails: one NHS successes: three! Had I litigated I think I would still be firmly locked into the anger stage of grief and may not have had other children, so I am glad I made the choice. 
Stillbirth is something, until you or someone you know experiences it, that people believe is rare and consigned to the history books. Sadly it isn't. Its still far too common. Amazing leaps forward have been made in pre-natal care and some very premature babies now survive. I myself was premature weighing only 3lbs-again because the placenta didn't function properly-but due to an amazing obstetrician Mr Garth Stoneham I survived and so did my mum. It seemed incongruous that I survived in 1957 and yet my son died in 1981. However, I do believe, that despite the standard of care I received, with a failing placenta, confusion over dates, a breech birth, I think retrospectively we would have been very lucky to have a successful outcome, but of course we will never know. 

Thankfully, according to research "Perinatal mortality rates have fallen by a third since 1982. It is felt that general improvements in healthcare, midwifery and neonatal intensive care are bringing about the gradual decline in deaths". 

I do become concerned that a lack of funds, resources and staff; which certainly contributed to my loss, is once again becoming apparent today. This always leads to a vicious circle of low staff morale, damage to reputations and possible closure. I hope that this will not happen! In an overworked system someone with problems or fitting the at risk demographic will be less secure.

According to research on 2012 "a study of stillbirths in England showed the risk to be significantly higher where the growth restriction was not detected antenatally, suggesting this is an important avenue for reducing stillbirth rates in the future. It concluded strategy should focus on improving antenatal detection of growth restriction and subsequent management of pregnancy and delivery!"

 Surely, with the correct level of resourcing this is am area which can be improved. It is very hopeful, as long as financial cut backs don't prevent such progress. I am not foolish enough to believe that all stillbirths can be eradicated; it is part of natural selection; but any improvement for mothers is good and I like to think that as few people as possible would go through this traumatic experience as possible. Which is why we must fight tooth and nail to retain the quality of the NHS and ensure that we demand the continued support for our local services. Standards must always come under scrutiny and care must continue to improve. However, continued bad publicity and criticism must reduce-we could complain ourselves out of a service at all! Newham Hospital was soon replaced by a new and hopefully better hospital; but this won't happen at Furness-more likely the maternity service in its current form will disappear. Funding restrictions can be disguised as "improvement". Thirty four years on don't let us slip into the past-to an under-funded, poorly valued system used as a political football by the Tories! It's our NHS let's fight to keep it!