In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

The sky is cloudy, the coast is nothing clear. Is there anything we should be doing ?


I was contacted recently by a friend and colleague now retired. She was an NHS mental health worker, who gave her all for years flat out, feelingly and wisely. Now she paces and grieves. Here is a slightly abridged version of what she wrote :

“I have met with several ex-colleagues recently. On Saturday I bumped into [one] who said that the cuts are getting worse and worse. He said that [another old colleague], is retiring soon, willing to work part-time, but there may not be money for that.

From another source, many middle managers have been issued with ‘job at risk’ notices.

I am aware that [the local NHS Trust] have many project managers doing what sounds like a time & motion study at present, seeking savings. The group doing this will obviously cost millions to present a recommendation on how to save millions.

I spoke to a project manager last week. He said that unless the public make a noise about what is going on, the outcome will be dire.

Is there anything we should be doing ?

Catch up soon.”

I am entirely certain that the situation described here by my friend is typical of NHS Trusts and similar organisations all over the country. At the same time, the present government is claiming to be safe-guarding the NHS and seeks credit for doing so.

And here is an abridged version of a message sent to me by another trusted and experienced friend of high calibre. I recognise all too clearly what the person is saying and see it as recording another experience from the care services that is typical and country-wide. This person works for a charity in the voluntary sector, but I believe my NHS colleague would echo it too :

“It was lovely to see so many clients at a recent open event but it was difficult not to feel sad about how the changes imposed on the project recently have compromised the level of support that we give people and the overall standard of our work- in as much as the emphasis all seems to be on documenting, tracking and promoting what we do and thus not having time to deliver the service we claim to be running!

It’s the staff party today and I know it’s going to make me cross listening to senior management putting their usual fatuous spin on things.

I know I shouldn’t be so cynical but it’s very difficult not to be.

Here is the reply I sent to my NHS friend :

“…I have used your question to think round the whole topic, as best I can. For the question is central and tortures us, and many many others.

It is basically the same as asking, what can we do to put things right that are so very wrong ? How can we stop this degenerative process unfolding inch by inch, mile by mile, day after day, year after year, victim by victim, group by group, this wasting disease nibbling away at what makes our Society human ?

What is happening breaks the heart, breaks many many good hearts. One yearns to stand against it and push it back. Stem the tide. Unmask the lies. Expel the liars. Protect the soft tissue, where the heart is, and where the most vulnerable are, as usual made to suffer the most.

Actually I think the question can be broken down into parts. Partialising makes one feel a bit less helpless, if nothing else.

1/ How can we make sure the truth is told ? That’s a mountain in itself. Then another mountain :

2/ how can we make sure that the truth is heard ? How do we attract the necessary attention, achieve the necessary credibility ? Then, and separately :

3/ how can we make sure that it is heard in the right places, not just where the impotent victims are, and our natural allies, but where the perpetrators are, the unconverted – and so powerfully that something might actually be done about it ?

For instance, the famous ATOS. A few years ago the truth about their activities started leaking out, in dribs and drabs, through this or that good Guardian and Independent journalist. That in itself was an achievement, probably requiring large effort and courage from a lot of people. Quite a few others kept blogs and found other platforms of public witness, which described the appalling robotical work being done by ATOS creatures and functionaries and the heart-breaking stories that resulted. At length, several MPs brought up the subject in the House. The issue even appeared on the BBC website. Then at last we heard that ATOS were being given the push, to be replaced by other companies who would presumably do exactly the same job but more invisibly. For the Benefit cuts have continued, and the ATOS role is still called upon and found acceptable. The odd horror story continues to surface from time to time – this or that suicide, this or that very ill person being classed as fit for work, etc etc. And sometimes the stories get into the news. But that slight ground-swell that built up a while back, following huge efforts by many, has died down these days and the stories are more isolated now. The perpetrators of the policies that inevitably result in these consequences and stories must be feeling reasonably secure that the public don’t mind enough for there to be serious repercussions. The Guardian readers may grind their teeth, as usual. But not the readers of the Sun or the Mail, not the supporters of UKIP.

We are in dark times, when righteousness is tongue-tied and wrongfulness spilling over with catchy slogans and other propaganda techniques ; when the solid foundation stones of right principle seem lost to view, lacking sufficient power or clarity to sustain us. It seems difficult even to articulate what is right, let alone to defend it, and even more to make sure that it is put into practice and properly supported there. I have linked just below to another example, concerning the prison service. Bad things are going on there too. In fact, bad things are going on wherever community needs skilled support and holding. This recent example is a report on a person whose appointed task was to speak the truth and articulate the requirements of good practice in the prison service. Out he goes.

So, despite all that official talk in support of whistle-blowing, if you speak out you still lose your job. It’s safe to shut this man up, as the voters and the unregulated hooligan press who both manipulate and feed off the voters, see prisoners as easy targets and won’t regard Hardwick’s witness or his loss as mattering.

Obviously, you and I are safer to speak out than most. We are no longer in formal employment, so we need not be in fear of losing our livelihood. I have another advantage, my blog, which gives me a bit of a platform from which to sound off opinions. And behind the blog is the charity Hyphen-21, of which you are a Trustee, which can takes positions on its web-site that are more carefully arrived at.

I know that we must keep speaking out as best we can, as and when we can. We must put on record what we see and what our colleagues are able and willing to tell us. We must keep holding up good practice as a kind of beacon, if only to measure the growing distance between good and bad and keep people mindful of where and what good is, so that they can return to it when or if conditions and wisdom are restored.

And keep exploring ways of securing a larger audience so that what we say is heard to a significant degree. I think there is some value in articulating a position, witnessing to wrong-doing, even if the audience remains restricted to your own “kind” and constituency and are relatively impotent politically – in our case, fellow care workers. It helps that constituency, I think, to be given clear words from a place of support, which describe and thereby validate people’s own experience. At some level, it will have helped many a prison worker, reeling from the ongoing cuts and malign and incompetent re-structurings, to know that Hardwick stood his ground and fought for good practice to the point of job-loss. But let’s explore ways to reach as many of this “kind” as possible, more than I reach at present. And still better, find ways of going beyond those circles too.

But what to say, how to say it, what to target, how best, how strategically to use our very meagre resources ?

I see no way of actually stopping the local developments you describe. They are local versions of what is happening everywhere. Are some local managers the cause of this ? No, they are merely being swept along by it. If you were to replace them, their replacements would simply continue where they had left off. I think one of the first things that happens when and where there is oppression, is that the oppressed start fighting one another. Blaming local managers, in my view, is merely following that model. The real culprit lies a long way elsewhere and that should be the target.

I am going to list what I myself am doing. It can never be enough, or anything like it.

I have come to the conclusion that I should offer whatever support and validation I can to people I know who are in the hottest seats and under the greatest pressure.

1. Here is a “Fable” written ages ago. It is about how to direct your energies, where to place your intervention. I do find it quite helpful myself, in fact, and it’s guiding me a bit now (I am about to publish all sixteen “Fables” as a book – they are all of them already up on my blog. Does anyone have time to read them ? An author called Iain McGilchrist has made that time and has said this : “When I wrote a book about the structure of the brain and its influence on culture, I did not expect for one minute that it would inspire artists, poets and musicians in the way that it has. I find it deeply touching to be asked by Rogan Wolf to write a brief forward for these clever and insightful prose poems – for that is what they are. He feels my book provides a fitting context for them. But their beauty and the imagination that created them are all his. They are full of wisdom that we need very badly to hear. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do..”  Dr Iain McGilchrist, author of “The Master and His Emissary—The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.”)

2. At regular intervals I send a poem to a few people I know, who work at senior level, fighting for standards while under pressure to surrender them, and who have agreed to my little idea. I call it “Poems for Between Times” and the poems are put in a perspex display stand on their work desk or nearby window sill. I want the poems to speak to them in spare seconds during their crushing day. One of them has told me that the poems provide her with an oasis, a large reflective space where she can place herself if only for a few seconds from time to time. It behoves all of us to help these people cope in whatever way we can, however small. I call myself “poet of fraught frontiers” and I call this small circle of people my “public”.

3. This blog is a facility and feature in the landscape, which can offer sustenance and where ideas and information can be shared. I shall keep uploading entries onto it.  You can help me increase its readership by telling people about it who you think might give some time to reading it. And ask them to give their friends its address as well.

4. After all my years in mental health work, I have a lot of material on the subject which I want to bring together, some of it archival, some of it very grumpy, all of it trying to articulate a standard and description of good practice, in contrast to much present work which is not just coloured by cuts and PR masking-tape but by fundamentalist dogmatism and nonsense, quite a lot influenced by the commercial model, of which user consultation is part (“we must shape ourselves to whatever our ‘customers’ want – since health is what we sell and we are merely shop assistants, mere suppliers of retail”). I already have a new and distinct website set up for the purpose and quite a lot of the material presently on the Hyphen site will be updated and brought over to the new one. This site will be called Mental Health Witness. There are several pieces of that title already on the blog. They constitute a series. That series too will be transferred over.

5. Dear friend, I am a poet.  The pamphlet of poems from the “Poems for...” collection, which I have been working on for all these months, has now been printed, paid for by the NHS Trust concerned. With its photographs, it looks really good. It will be launched in March, I hope with some press coverage. It will be made available in a large number of NHS waiting rooms free of charge. I don’t think there’s a precedent for the idea anywhere in the country, at least not  of such high quality as this. It’s a tiny thing but for me it’s a bright little light in a large darkness. Maybe publicity we attract for this initiative will give us a platform for campaigns in other spheres.

6. Did I dare to say I was a poet ? Still daring, here’s some more. I have pasted in below a few excerpts from a poem called “Speak, Parrot.” I have posted up my version of the poem in full elsewhere on this blog (see “Where One is, the Other must be”). The poem is long and sparkly and angry. It begins mostly as a translation of the wonderful original by John Skelton and then in its second half it becomes my words aiming at targets which are contemporary and not local. But even the people I accuse at the end of “Speak, Parrot” are in a sense just images of the real culprit, which I think ultimately are human escape mechanisms at work in all of us, which all of us need to take on. For the real culprit is human surrender to greed and regressive callousness in face of anxiety and modern conditions. We have retreated into the left hand half of our brains, ruled by a savage god called “Me n’ Mine,” which seems to call upon us to destroy Society and finally our whole environment, thereby sacrificing our first-born to the fire, as once the Canaanites did, who worshiped Moloch/Baal.

Here now are the excerpts. This year is election year. I shall want to shout these words from a great height, from the security of my cage. I shall be desperate for people to hear me :

“…The sky is cloudy, the coast is nothing clear.
Truth has put away her tresses of fine gold.
Selling and Spinning infest with their foul air
All the languages of our fractured world.
The Lord of Felony has become so bold
He has brought Law and Justice as well as all trust
Under His sway. Our cities turn to dust.

Like Parrot, the Truth is caged. Outside in the street
Felony’s slaves and creatures sing their song.
Up and down upon untaxed horses they strut
Kicking the poor aside as they canter along.
Much money, we know, is spent for wrong
Purposes, for poor to stay poor, and Lord on top.
And caged is Truth and Love and Youth and Hope…

“What price the soul
In Buy and Lie Land,

My lord ?
“What price ?

The soul ? Ah yes.
The sole’s a kind of fish

I point at once a year
before my darling

orcish cameras
to show the plebs their plaice

and my dynamic qualities
as Prime Minister.

My sole is sought
my sole is caught

my sole is bought
at the lowest price

and in a trice
and tastes so nice

when ridden out
on an old police horse…”

“………..Now Davie.orc ,
Head Rude-boy of Blingland, our lawless State,
Please smear us with your latest lie. (We rate
Our leaders by their lies). You torture the poor,
Davie.orc, then claim to be Christian. What’s more,

You say you’re gifting them their dignity.
“Come to me, you fucking plebs, and hear
My hymn to Enterprise. For Truth, I say,
Is just another regulation. Clear
Away all measure and restraint, all fear
For our children. I only need to lie to you,
To make you mine. What better can I do ?…”

Might you forward this to project managers of your acquaintance ?

With affection