Category Archives: People Watching

Smell the coffee, make a difference

If you click the picture a charming video plays. Please take a couple of minutes to watch. I think this makes an effective point, and one with which I agree. These days I make sure to spend time smelling the coffee, so to speak. For years I rushed, head down, trying to do good stuff. When my parents died I realised how much I had missed and how much I had made other people miss in my hurry to be good. In my hurry to be good I had been, perhaps, less effective. Now I take time to sit on my front steps and watch the birds in the sky and listen to their songs; I watch people as they hurry by, perhaps missing things too; I watch the clouds and wonder how to paint them properly and then go and try; I smell the earth. I still make a difference sometimes, and still try to be good: I work doing things I believe in with people I admire and respect, but I don’t do it exclusively any more. I also choose words for stories, colours for paintings, actually hear the music I am playing. My life is the better for it and I think I make a better difference now. Working smarter not harder is a cliche, but it is a cliche because it makes sense. I just wanted to share the point…If you have some interesting work, let me know. I am your woman.



The Power of One

I am outing myself as an Only Child. Not only an Only, but also dual nationality and on the easy end of the autistic spectrum with synaesthesia thrown in for good measure. Good grief, I am even professionally interested in myself.


There are tensions and delights to be had from all the above. I am Irish/English, and until I started school at a convent where I lived in London I had thought I lived in Wexford with trips to Dublin. I only ever met Irish people and they only ever talked about Irish things. My streets were Irish streets filled with Irish people and Irish papers. We visited Ireland many times and it was where Family was and where Family happened. Good stuff was there. So………slowly realising we lived in London and I was a little bit English was a bit of a moment. And the accent! Well, that was finally knocked out of me once I hit Grammar School in the Shires. As a bright pupil I was lucky enough to have earned a proper education for which I am grateful, but no room for diversity back then! Conform or suffer, the stuff of Grammar and Boarding Schools throughout the  Counties back in the day, and I am not sure it has changed much.  I chose not to suffer. Well, not too much……….

That flaccid grip on national identity has an upside. As an Only I am not a natural joiner, I stand back and evaluate, I overthink, buying into something is not an easy gig for an Only and that apartness, the sense of being outside, brings strength as well as missed opportunities: strength to say no, to weigh up friendships ruthlessly, to maintain integrity and authenticity even at the expense of relationships or career choices – to maintain rightness. Juggling the Irish English that is deep inside is made easier by the lack of joinership – without that need to be within, to join, there is less of a sense of loss of identity as the roots are not firm but swim and sway back and forth under the connecting Sea. The downside is the crushing disappointment that can be had if what one has bought into is revealed to be corrupt or decayed. Childish disappointment in an adult can be corrosive. And that smug integrity can mean an intolerance for others who disappoint, personally and professionally. But, topically, this background makes it easier to understand current cultural issues: amidst the multitude of “communities” that take root around the UK many individuals claim to be ignorant of some of the dreadful things some people within those communities plan and commit. Nonsense. An entire community that can maintain its identity so precisely within another host community does so only by knowing what is happening within and either supporting it or allowing it and by controlling its members. I do not believe those protestations of innocence that are paraded on the tellybox when an atrocity happens. They are not credible. I was on the verge of radicalisation myself – although of course we didn’t know what that meant then –  as a young girl with family members in Sinn Fein when the IRA was casually sold to us as a romantic and necessary part of our culture. My apartness saved me then, and I am grateful for it.

I was “home” recently in Enniscorthy. Travelling alone allowed me to reflect as much as I needed to: I went to see family and friends, spent time simply watching and hearing the Slaney and listening to the birds and the horses, soaked up the familiarity of the places and enjoyed the simaltaneous detachment that is in the DNA of an Only. I watched and listened – something Onlys do a lot. My synaesthesia means that listening is an often joyful and often inadvertent experience, as well as sometimes complex and distracting. The sound of the horses hooves on the turf became a very visual experience for me, the birdsong I enjoy every morning provides a colourful backdrop to activity. I can be surprised by a visual experience from an unexpected sound or some music that I had not expected to hear – delightful, if a little unnerving at times! And Ireland has the best beach on the planet in Curracloe, and I spent time there too. My children all had their first experience of sand there as babies, deliberately.  Saving Private Ryan was filmed there. The fine pale sandy beach is in surroundsound and stretches away right and left fringed by the magnificent dunes and rushes, and the ocean, with its mauves and greens and blues rolls away to the horizon where everything surely falls off and magically glides back home………It fills the vision and the senses and recalibrates everything within a few short breaths.

I also spent some time at my parents grave. No comfort there, I thought, just pain and grief. I was on the verge of an internal meltdown as I sat on the edge of the grave and ran my fingers through the pebbles and stones covering what remains of my parents. And then, a tiny dog appeared from nowhere. Genuinely, I was sitting in the centre of the graveyard and the dog had not been visible, and then he was, and he made a fuss of me and insisted on sitting on my lap and I had no option but to fuss him and talk to him. And slowly the world righted itself again and things came back into focus. Job done, he ambled off, only to return magically just as I was about to leave, insisting on a final fuss and chat. Small wonders make ones day. And as a wise friend said, The universe can be a calm and comforting place , the gentleness of its messengers can heal and support in the most unexpected ways.

So, in a circular way, we are back at Integrity and Rightness. A part of grief grows directly out of regrets: regrets for things done and not done, for mistakes that can never, now, be put right, conversations that can never, now, be had, and love that can no longer be shared or spoken.  However we treasure our integrity – my integrity – it will always fail somehow. And that is because we are all flawed and broken to some extent and we will forget to do things, or will choose activity that we later regret. And sitting there next to the place my parents now share as they shared so many years together before that, I started to understand it better. In the end we are all alone with our grief and our regrets as well as with our triumphs and achievements.

I feel grateful that things conspired to make me aware very early on of the Power of One. It made me a better leader and a worse follower, oddly both non-judgemental but also intolerant of hypocrisy, created in me an over-thinker but thoughtfully balanced that with a resilience and drive that has led me along a fabulously interesting and rewarding pathway. Not an easy companion but I hope a rewarding one for those who choose to be close to me, and I cherish those who choose to be so. Celebrating your own Power of One and connecting with that solitude that nourishes, you will discover the strength within. Trust me, I am an Only!





Freedom this Bank Holiday Weekend……..

Every morning I wake up and whatever else is happening I recognise my good fortune and articulate my gratitude. I think about the day ahead, and reflect on the day before. This morning, looking out of my study window at the world outside my thoughts drifted down a path that pondered Freedom.

Living in a democracy, perhaps I am politically free, although that is dubious given how much people pay to become politicians and how much it costs them to retain power. Their wealth supports their power grab.  But I have a vote which matters and for which people gave their lives, so partially free perhaps and indebted to those courageous people.

I am free to work and earn my living, earn my self respect. Dependent on the people above to enable jobs of course, and dependent on me doing a good job.

I am free to marry whoever I choose, and that freedom has been refreshingly extended recently, partly because of our democracy and our right to lobby and protest peacefully – although that too is under threat when police measures so obviously discourage peaceful protest and peaceful and passive campaigners are taken to court for exercising their peaceful rights.

I am free to have a religion or not have a religion, but sadly not free to express serious doubts about religions because the weight of those religions are impacting my own, and their money and votes talk.

I am free to live in the expectation that I will not be abused, although that too is impacted by others who might disregard my freedom to live safely and securely and the impotence, ineptitude and apathy of those who might want, or be tasked with, protecting me.

Despite the limitations, I live in what we call a free society. But on what does my freedom depend?

While 9 year old girls can be bought and sold and abused and raped in “marriage” in some cultures, how can I be free?  While a country with whom my own country does business and exchanges money and with whom we have a relationship, is passing into law the right to stone to death someone who has sex with someone who is married but will not pass a law to protect those children who are being sold off how can I be free? When cutting into a child  of any genders genitals and mutilating them is accepted and condoned, how can I be free? When entire corporations condone the use of an animal slaughtered in a way that my society had rightly decided was barbaric and disallowed but which has, somehow, become acceptable again, how can I be free? How can I ever be free when my fellows are trapped?

Our freedoms are bought with our courage and our vigilance. Without the bravery of the people who marched, fought and died for my right to vote I would not have that democratic right; without the real struggles of people who valued freedom I would still be my husbands property and married to someone chosen for me; without serious campaigning and people prepared to endure hostility and violence I would not be able to earn a living wage. The key to life is movement, when we stop struggling and moving we die and that liberty is lost .

My freedom is your freedom, and yours is mine. As fellow humans, as people, we share the right to the freedoms that do not reduce other peoples freedoms. I will never be really free until all people are free and for that reason I will continue to strive for freedom for all of us. Freedom from the tyranny of crime, substance mis-use, abuse and the after effects of abuse, poverty, violence, oppression, political deviance, homelessness, fear and prejudice. In my small life there are opportunities to make a difference and I have an obligation to take those opportunities and pay back some of the debt I owe. It is my pleasure to do so.


I am looking out of my study window enjoying the birdsong, the breeze and the people passing on the pavement below. I can do this and I can write about it because of my liberty. Let us value those freedoms and strive to enable everyone to experience the same liberation. Let us not take our eye off the ball and let in those who want to reduce our freedoms – there are many of those, and the most dangerous are those who do it only because they believe they are right, who have a belief system that values their own principles and degrades mine. The picture outside my study window is beautiful because it is my view and I value the things in it, and one of the things I value most is that those things are not reducing anyone else. As I play golf this afternoon I will rejoice that I have the freedom, means and desire to do so, and can enjoy the wonderful company of my friends. We all deserve a life worth living, in freedom and in peace.

Have a great bank holiday weekend!













Food Glorious Food?

Sharing meals allows us to come together and spend quality time with each other. It increases communication and understanding.  How many of us had our first experience of another culture through food? And coming together to prepare and eat food is part of many rituals and traditions. Food plays a big part in faith and in worship. When one shares in the Eucharist, it is said to be a  sharing of Christ’s body and blood, and worshippers are reminded of their responsibility to share all our meals with others. As St John Chrysostom once said, “You have tasted the blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognise your brother…You dishonour this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone judged worthy to take part in this meal.” Most faiths and religions have food rituals, most cultures have food rituals and norms. Food is significant. Food rituals – cutlery or lack of, how the food is produced (is it Halal? Organic? Vegan? Kosher?), how it is presented, how it is eaten – matter deeply to us all. The only people for whom those things no longer matter are the hungry, and even then I have known seriously hungry people refuse non-kosher or non-vegan food. So it is quite simply that important.


How many times recently have we heard about nurses now being expected to “feed and wash” patients for a year before they train? How many times do support workers and health professionals refer to “feeding” their patients or clients? The act of eating is reduced, for some, to the passive “feeding” offered by “carers”. It is reduced, for the care-givers, to a task to be got out of the way before the serious business of training, the important job of “nursing”, can be carried out. This simple attitude reduces human and humane care giving to the status of animal welfare. Now, let us acknowledge that there are similarities between the two, and animal welfare is very important. But in offering to care for and support other human beings we need to respect and acknowledge their humanity, and one of the few things that identifies humans as distinct from other animals is the development of specific and identifiable social rituals, especially around food, and the food rituals often define what we are as people: they indicate and specify how we live, what we believe, what matters to us.

The attitude that accepts us saying we are going to “feed” people when what we should  mean is that we are going to help them to eat or support them to eat is the same attitude that allows nurses and care givers to say things like “I have done Mrs Brown” when they mean they have helped or supported Mrs Brown to wash, or dress, or change her colostomy bag, or any of the other deeply personal, uncomfortable and intimate things carers do for us.  Those words, casually used and casually accepted, reduce our collective humanity, remove our independence. They remove the respect for our humanity that we properly expect our nurses and carers to demonstrate. They allow the casual neglect – and even the active cruelty – that we have seen in Winterbourne and at Stafford, and the many other places that have not yet hit the headlines. How can we pretend to be surprised by those events when we use the words that support the attitude of neglect and cruelty?

The words we use define how we behave, demonstrate how we think.  Let us challenge the use of words that encourage patient-passivity such as “feeding”, let us encourage the words that support active care such as “supporting, or assisting, to eat”. The former gives us a picture of food being shovelled into a patients mouth as a “carers” task, the latter gives us a picture of  someone in control of their food, being helped to perform their own task.  Notice the difference between “bathing” someone and “helping someone to bathe”.

When we become vulnerable through age, illness, disability or other reasons we often lose the option of privacy or dignity only because of the attitudes of the people tasked with supporting and assisting us. There are many discussions about why care can be poor, and often the poor wages are cited. And that is a factor – pay peanuts and you get chimps, and low wages do not reflect the importance of the job – but there is never, at any price, wage or  reward any excuse for reducing another persons humanity, for dragging away another human beings respect and trampling on their dignity. Individuals are responsible for their own behaviour and we should expect people recruited to care and support to behave properly – but the modelling of those good behaviours will flow from the leadership. If the people leading the services and the organisations do not demonstrate the crucial behaviours that indicate respect, humanity and the support of autonomy and independence for all then the people following those leaders will have no incentive to do so.

If you offer someone care and support, please, feed your dog but support your patient to eat.

Real Lives for Real People

I love eating and drinking………actually what I was going to say was “I love eating and drinking in different places” but I could just have left it at those first five words!!

Anyhoo……I like trying out new and very different places to eat and drink. I enjoy a sophisticated restaurant as much as I enjoy a greasy spoon, depending on how I feel and where I am, and I guess also on with whom who I am eating. Being veggie makes it a bit of a hit and miss affair sometimes, but that says as much about the restaurant as it does about my dietary habits. Eating out isn’t just about the food though – it’s nice to go out for a meal with friends or the Old Man or alone, and one of the best evenings I have had in a while was when my three daughters and I went out for a pub dinner in Ireland one evening recently, simple fun, talk, hugs, food and some good beer and a bit of an unplanned but very necessary private wake for my Mother.

Just like the meal in Ireland when my daughters and I relaxed into an informal evening oiled by a few beers and some traditional food, some of the best and most rewarding meals out have been in simple surroundings with basic food. On that occasion we  had good company which didn’t intrude but kept us happy, was amusing and warm with a charming smile, and made us feel happy. Where I live now in the UK there is a simple eating house called Aminas. It serves basic but well cooked food in a simple environment and with a smile, and when my Mother and I used to go in there they always accommodated her wheelchair without a fuss, no big deal, just one of those things. That felt nice. And very different to places like some coffeehouse chains (not Cafe Nero which is always a pleasure) where there is hardly room to walk never mind place a wheelchair, the staff generally grump around and behave as if they are doing you a favour, and bring out the vacuum around 16.30 so that you don’t outstay your welcome and hold up these young things pretending to work there from their evenings merriment spending their wages to which you have contributed for the pleasure of being grumped at.  And the punters in the coffeehouse in question are often a little, well, homogenised and dull.

In Aminas it is possible to sit for hours watching people and not get bored. All human life passes through the doors and gets a welcome and a smile. I sit and read the paper or scribble bits of dialogue overheard from other tables and find endless interest and fun, and there is a communal feel to the place, the feeling that whoever you are you will be welcomed and the tea will always be hot and strong, the eggs perfect and the toast just right. People smile and greet one another and the odd bit of behaviour that might attract attention elsewhere simply doesn’t. It is, in short, a place of comfort and good tea and a fab people watching venue. The meals are always the sort of meals that people actually want rather than what they say they want and they hit the spot perfectly.

I love splendid food in rich surroundings, look forward to experiencing complexity of cuisine and maybe a new taste and a bit of fine dining, but for simple all round daytime pleasure and people it is the coffeehouses like Aminas that get my vote. Like the B&B in my hometown in Ireland where we stayed last month, Killurin Lodge in Castlebridge, Wexford,where the food was terrific (the breakfasts were like the ones I have at home but oh so much better and I didn’t have to wash up or chop the fruit……bliss. And the cooked breakfasts made with the eggs laid that morning by their own hens were pitch-perfect) and the accommodation was so comfortable, the room actually seemed to cuddle me the bed was so soft and clean and warm. But the glue holding the entire experience together was the people: warm and caring, charming and fun, they made it the kind of place you recommend and re-visit, and especially given our own rather sad reason for being there (funeral, estate sorting and other things you prefer not to think of until it is too late) they made it easier and less traumatic simply by being kind and pleasant.

So, however the environment is dressed up, as long as it is hygienic, it is the people that make a meal memorable and comfortable. And the same goes for any business: however well presented the premises and however pretty or clever the advertisements, if the people are not warm, friendly and go the extra mile it is still a second rate business and less likely to attract returns and recommendations. Whatever the surroundings, what the punters will remember are the receptionist who did not smile, the lengthy wait as other appointments run over time and no explanation is offered, the arrogance of the people on the front line, the lack of a handshake or even worse the flip-flop handshake of someone in a hurry who doesn’t care if they impress or not . No amount of pretty wallpaper or plantpots will rectify that. This principle applies whatever the business. The guys who managed my Mothers funeral last month and my Dads three years ago, Brownes in Enniscorthy, were terrific. They were warm and kind without being so kind as to prompt loss of control, charming and gracious, sensitive and surprisingly amusing,  and absolutely perfect in what they had to do, slick and practiced at the graveside as much as they were warm and charming in their offices. I couldn’t have asked for more.

There is a great emphasis on the environment in the delivery and inspection of nursing and residential care services, and quite right – it matters and should be taken seriously. There is no justification for shabby premises or tatty decor and to deliver support services in a poor environment simply sends out the message that the people using the services do not matter enough to smarten it up. Not acceptable.

BUT, some of the warmest and most person centred services I have encountered have been delivered in untidy and less than perfect environments. Not shabby, not neglected, not dirty, just lived in and comfortable. The kind of places that don’t mind if knitting is left lying around or books left open and squashed, where the odd sock on the bedroom floor or a few plates in the sink aren’t a hanging offence and there is evidence of people actually living there rather than inhabiting the space where their “care” is delivered or, worse, getting in the way of the staffs routine and tasks. The people living in the house own the space, and they matter and have lives, and that is shown by the stuff lying around and the “real life” gribble. People don’t, as a rule, live in hotel environments, so why should we expect people who need support to do so?  My house is perhaps more shabby and untidy than most, stuffed with paints and paintings, books and papers, files and guitars. And I love it like that. Maybe a little tidier……perhaps I shouldn’t find, as I did recently, the tin whistle I was looking for weeks ago under the piano along with some coins, two books and a half eaten biscuit. And actually my office area is as organised as can be with filing cabinets and desk clear and easy to manage. But where I live, where I relax and do other stuff, is comfortable and interesting, and we all need that.  Inspectors and commissioners need to bear that in mind when assessing services – look under the surface and into the heart of the place and accept the gribbly every day living stuff that makes a house a home. Hospitals and clinics are not the same, they are workplaces where people visit for treatment and move on. Homes, places where people live and have lives, should always be treated differently with different criteria, so that the people living there can really live there. Real Lives – that’s what we want. It’s what attracts me to Aminas (along with the perfect fried eggs and the wonderful people-window…) and what everyone deserves whether we need support or not. And frankly, if we don’t need support today tomorrow could be a different story. Would you give up your Real Life because you needed help to wash and dress or support to shop?

Real Lives for Real People. Now that’s what I call Living.

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