Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Books I Read In February

'Brother Cadfael's Penance' by Ellis Peters
In terms of story chronology, this is the final book in the Cadfael series; it is set in the 1145.  There is a prequel, 'A Rare Benedictine' (1988) which was the 16th book in terms of publication but is set in 1120.  I intend to read it in the coming weeks. 

This is not one of the stronger books in the series.  Its format is like that of  'The Summer of the Danes' (1991) in that Brother Cadfael is taken away from his monastery at Shrewsbury and is involved on the fringes of high level politics.  In this case he goes to the ecclesiastical centre of Coventry where there are abortive peace talks between the two sides of the long-running civil war, Empress Matilda and King Stephen.  A murder occurs during the talks and once they break up one of the suspects, a young man, Yves Hugonin, that Cadfael met six years earlier in 'The Virgin in the Ice' (1982), is snatched by relatives of the victim.

Cadfael goes into Gloucestershire to secure Yves's release, so violating the terms of his temporary release from his monastery.  He also discovers the whereabouts of his imprisoned illegitimate, half-Syrian son, Olivier de Bretagne that he had met only twice before, in 1139 and 1141.  Olivier is a supporter of the Empress and is now in his thirties, expecting his wife, Yves's sister, to give birth.

The story is interesting in a number of aspects.  There is much discussion about reconciliation between fathers and their adult sons, not just Cadfael and Olivier but also Philip FitzRobert who imprisons Olivier and Yves and his father, Robert of Gloucester, Matilda's half-brother.  The book, seeing the meeting for the final time of Olivier and Cadfael is a suitable ending to the series.  The description of a small castle in a rural setting and it coming under siege and assault covers aspects not usually featured in the Cadfael series.  However, Peters handles it well giving a good perspective of the hazards within the walls. 

The central difficulty with this book as with 'The Summer of the Danes' is that the murder feels very bolted on to what is primarily a story about the political situation.  Similarly here the resolution to the murder is delivered very simply without Cadfael having to use his skills to unmask the killer.  I suppose Peters felt compelled to include a murder in each of her Cadfael books, but this would have been that bit better if she had left it out and simply stuck to the political machinations and resolving the abduction of two of Matilda's soldiers.  Overall the series ends a bit with a whimper but fortunately with the large personal issues for Cadfael resolved.

'The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century' by Ian Mortimer
This book shares a characteristic with a couple of history books that I read last year, notably, 'Hidden History. The Secret Origins of the First World War' by Gerry Docherty & Jim MacGregor and 'P├ętain's Crime' by Paul Webster in that the authors feel they are putting forward such a radically alternative perspective on the history they are covering that throughout they have to keep insisting that what they are saying is so very different from anything you may have read on the topic before.  First, such incessant haranguing becomes very tiresome to the reader.  Second, it is probable that the vast majority of the people who have picked up the book are interested in the authors' perspectives and in many cases will already accept their line of argument; they do not have to be persuaded again and again.

Mortimer believes he had created something called 'virtual history'.  He uses this in a very different way to Niall Ferguson for whom it represents counter-factual history.  Instead Mortimer uses it to refer to what was called in my youth, 'everyday history', i.e. history of a period seen from the viewpoint of ordinary people rather than the rulers and elites.  The focus is on day-to-day life rather than battles and political machinations.  I know such history was pushed aside in British schools by the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1992, but even so children still get some of it when they have to pretend to be evacuees or Victorian chimney sweeps or increasingly, passengers on the 'Titanic'.  Certainly for people of my generation, everyday history was in fact the norm.  Mortimer conveniently forgets all the books especially in the 1970s and 1980s which took the same perspective of him.  I even remember the Usborne Time Traveller books which still seem to be in circulation.  Yes, they were aimed at children but like Mortimer's book involve the perspective of a time traveller on the period featured and focus on ordinary life in the times 'visited'. 

Mortimer would have been better off persisting with the conceit of the reader being a time traveller.  This is largely forgotten and only pops up occasionally.  Instead you feel as if you are being led around by a prissy lecturer who is as eager to show you how foolish you are, as he is to actually engage you with what he is addressing.

Setting aside the patronising tone that pervades the book, it is reasonably well written looking at different aspects such as towns and villages, travel, food, medicine, etc. in turn and viewing them for different social classes.  There are new aspects which are revealed notably on crime.  The chapter on literature of the time is really different in nature and indicates the motives behind Mortimer's interest in the time and the place.  Mortimer has gone on to produce similar books on different time periods.  I do not know whether he maintains the patronising tone in these and maybe given their success most people who buy the books do not seem unhappy about it.  If you can remember other 'everyday history' books on the Middle Ages you probably have no need for this book.  It is a useful reference if you want to set fiction in 14th century England or if you have never read or been taught about how people lived in that context.

Friday, 20 February 2015

More UK Government Harassment Of Diabetics

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I have Type 1 diabetes which comes about because of a disease or a failure in the body, typically before middle age rather than Type 2 which tends to arise from obesity or old age.  For some reason the current government is particularly hostile to diabetics.  As I noted in 2013 we are treated as if we are drug abusers and if involved in a car accident that was not out fault we can be arrested and the perpetrator let off:   The difficulty the police have with diabetics was re-emphasised recently as new laws are coming against drugged driving.  Diabetics are being told to carry medical 'evidence' or face being arrested as if we were abusing heroin or cocaine.  This is ironic because, unlike drug abusers, diabetics are highly aware that with care they can maintain good health and prolong their lives, so they tend to safety-minded rather than reckless.  In one step, however, people with a disability (diabetes has been considered a disability legally since 2005 in the UK) are now assumed to be on the same level as criminal and drug abusers.  I might as well have a letter from my doctor tattooed on to my body to ensure that even if I am beaten unconscious by the police who decide to stop me, the medical evidence cannot be lost.

Anyway, today's posting is about something slightly different.  Britain has long been proud of its state-run health service and its welfare system.  However, there has long been a concern that provision should only go to 'deserving people' and that both run the risk of abuse from 'scroungers' and 'fiddlers'.  Diabetes is one of ten conditions which means you get free prescriptions.  The reason for this is that I take four injections per day of two types of insulin and I take four other sets of tablets.  Each prescription lasts me twenty-eight days (when the doctor gets it right, sometime they only prescribe a fortnight's worth).  At the current rate of £8.05 per item I would be spending £629 (US$968; €849) per year just on the medicines, this does not include the needles for the two insulin injectors or the blood test strips which tell me my blood sugar levels and which I have to use 30 minutes before every time I drive and then every 2 hours of a journey, so getting through a pack of 50 a week very easily.  An acquaintance of mine in the USA has to keep down a good job to fund his Type 1 diabetes and it eats into the money he has for rent and food, the costs there are so high.  The UK prescription charge is a fixed rate not what I would have to pay to buy this medication and appliances on the open market.

With the drive of the coalition government to reduce public expenditure to the level of the 1930s they are incessantly trying to hunt down and charge people who are defrauding the system, that is unless they are high salary tax avoiders or bankers.  Today Diabetes UK reported that many legitimate diabetics were being fined for apparently trying to defraud the NHS (National Health Service) by claiming exemptions from prescription charges.  It was stated in the news that most of those affected were people diagnosed before 2000 when the need to renew your exemption certificate every five years was introduced.  Before them you had a certificate for life because at present Type 1 diabetes is incurable.  The NHS Business Services Authority said it was down to the individuals to make sure that they complied with the rules as they now stood.  What was neglected on the news was that even people who do still face fines.

I have had Type 1 diabetes since the 1980s.  In 2000 I was told by my pharmacy in East London that they could no longer serve me without an exemption card so I got one and have renewed it every five years since.  I have a current one at the moment.  However, even this has not spared me for receiving a fine of £96.60 (US$148; €130).  The letter was very threatening and starts from the assumption that you are guilty.  There is only a tiny section which tells you how to contest the charge laid against you.  If you do not pay within a month they add another £48-50 on to the fine.  Obviously I rushed to contest the fine, though of course they were not there on the weekends.  They finally admitted that they were wrong. 

Apparently the problem arose because they had an old address for me and that did not match the one I was now using.  I asked them how it came about that they did not have my latest address.  Every time I move house I have to register with a local doctor and from there my new address goes on to my NHS file and is not only used by the local surgery but also hospitals in the surrounding area so that they can call me for associated checks on my eyes, my feet and my diet.  I could not understand why they did not receive the same information as I had been at this address for seven months already.

It turns out that the NHS Business Services Authority is not connected to the NHS records system so every time you move you have to inform them separately.  All they do is compare fee-exempt prescriptions coming in against a list they hold and if something does not match then they send out a fine.  What this seems to be is a private company doing something for the government as so often is the case these days.  It does not bother with the processes in place and simply applies its own rules, funding itself from the fines it gathers.

There is a further unpleasant aspect to the Business Services Authority's approach and that it utterly disparages the staff working in pharmacies.  As I collect a prescription from mine every two to four weeks, I am well known in there.  However, every time I go in, I have to produce my exemption card and it is checked by the staff even before they accept my prescription.  Clearly however the Business Services Authority has absolutely no trust in the assiduousness or the capabilities of the pharmacy staff even when dealing with patients they are very familiar with.  Their whole approach is an insult to these professionals.

One can imagine that similar cases will come forward from those with one of the other nine conditions that have been treated in the same way.  I do fear that given this government has overseen two steps to harass diabetics what will happen in the next five years if the Conservatives are even part of the government let alone if they have a majority.  This is despite Prime Minister David Cameron having had a disabled son.  What will he next steps be?  To ban diabetics from driving even though no-one has shown any evidence that they are any great risk and certainly not more than the speeding Clarkson-wannabes who apparently are in full health?  Will the next Prime Minister choose to follow the path of Winston Churchill in the 1900s and seek the sterilisation of those deemed to be at risk of 'sullying' the Great British blood?  By 2020 will I find myself at a risk of not simply an unwarranted fine but a summons to an institution to house me where I will never return from and will be lost to 'complications'.  Remember the Nazi regime killed 70,000 disabled people even before they started the Second World War.  Diabetes is an 'unseen' disability so if people with it are suffering harassment what can be expected for those with more visible conditions?

P.P. 24/03/2015 - The Penalties
Just to sum up how horrendous the prejudice is against diabetics these are the penalties now in force that I will suffer as a Type 1 diabetic if someone decides to crash into me.  In contrast, they may walk away with absolutely no penalty.  This comes from the UK government official website:

"Prescription medicines

It’s illegal in England and Wales to drive with legal drugs in your body if it impairs your driving."

However, if you are involved in an accident that was not your fault they still can arrest you as if it was, because as a Type 1 diabetic you are no longer considered to be like normal people.

"If you’re convicted of drug driving you’ll get:
  • a minimum 1 year driving ban
  • an unlimited fine
  • up to 6 months in prison
  • a criminal record
Your driving licence will also show you’ve been convicted for drug driving. This will last for 11 years."

So all I need to spend time in prison and get a criminal record is to have one of those Clarkson-deluded speeders shunt me.  If this is not discrimination against a minority, I do not know what is.