I cannot let the 70th anniversary of this nation’s National Health Service pass without some comment.

We are extremely lucky to have it and it is one of the remaining things which make it good to be British.

I’ve always known that but it is only during the past five years, when I had a serious health problem for the first time in a life during which I hardly ever had to consult a doctor, that I really appreciated how lucky we are.

rainbow over Airedale General Hospital

Rainbow over Airedale General Hospital, one of the places I’ve been looked after very well

Extraordinary people

It’s not just the service itself but the people working in it. I’ve been in hospital a few times during the past few years, first to A&E, then three times for surgery, and now frequent visits both to our local medical centre, four hospitals and one other specialist clinic. Scans in what could be terrifying machines seen before only in SciFi movies, things inserted where I never had imagined things could be inserted; I even overcame my fear of the needle, so much so that the quarterly stab in the stomach with what one nurse told me was more like a screwdriver (I’ve never dared to look) has become a relaxed jolly chat. One gave me a sticker declaring ‘I’ve been brave today’; it’s still proudly displayed in the campervan.

General anaesthetic

I learned that having a general anaesthetic was a surreal experience not to be missed unless necessary on medical grounds; on the other hand observing my ward bedfellows it was clear that epidurals were to be avoided. Another surreal experience was looking at my internal mechanics thanks to one of those devices inserted where I never dreamed I would allow.

The staff during every visit, on every phone call, receptionists, doctors, surgeons, nurses, nursing assistants, phlebotomists, cleaners, people bringing food and drink, volunteers bringing newspapers and sweets, medical secretaries – all were simply wonderful. They made the inevitable pain on some occasions not only bearable but forgettable.

Nurses at work

I’m so glad I had the opportunity during stays in hospital to observe nurses at work. Always clearly overworked and subject to bureaucracies which, as a former senior manager, horrified me – clearly designed to protect the institution from possible litigation rather than to protect the patient – were cheerfully overcome for the patient. So much so, I referred to my stays as more akin to a holiday camp than a medical institution. I experienced both private rooms in a private hospital, paid for by the NHS, and six bed wards in an NHS hospital. The first was superb but I preferred the companionship in the six bed ward. There was no difference to the care.

Junior doctors

I was proud to join a picket line of ‘junior doctors’ (a silly terminology – they are often skilled, experienced, well-qualified doctors). Talking to them it was clear that their first concern was not pay, but the danger that the present Government was selling out the NHS to private, profit-making interests.

Of course there are enormous problems to be overcome if the NHS is to continue to provide the outstanding care it does, not least the aging population helped to live considerably longer lives. Yes, some of the inefficiencies not in the control of the medical staff could be cut out but the amounts of money required will still be tremendous. I know that I’m not alone in saying that if a specific tax were introduced to provide extra money to the NHS I would not object. I’m certainly among the majority sick to death of the politics of both left and right preventing an acceptable solution.

Priorities

Then there’s the matter of priorities. When I was writing as a journalist in Romania I published a feature on what I called the ‘disease of poverty’ – tuberculosis. The director of a hospital I interviewed told me that if he had the money being poured into heart transplants – benefitting tens of people – he could eradicate tuberculosis, benefitting not tens, but tens of thousands.

So, on your 70th birthday, thank you NHS. May whatever or whoever protect you from the politicians and big business and, the usual Romanian birthday greeting: La Mulți Ani! – to many (more) years.

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Photo of the new passport coverMy new passport, needed for my forthcoming trip to Romania as my then current passport expired on 19 August, arrived the other day, renewed using the ‘beta’ on-line service; very pretty and apart from one ‘blip’ a very efficient service.

I chose to use the on-line service because it is £10 cheaper, and I thought it would be quicker. It may have been quicker and certainly would have been except for one unexpected holdup.

As we don’t have a suitable ‘blank’ background at home for a passport photograph I decided to go to a passport photo specialist rather than risk my photo being rejected, which you are warned could result in delays.

Faulty photo recognition ‘robot’?

The first step in the on-line process is to submit your photograph. It was rejected on the grounds that it appeared that my mouth was open. Looking at the photo with a human eye this was clearly not the case. I wrote back to the service saying their ‘robot’ obviously had a faulty algorithm. Nevertheless, I had the photo redone and submitted the new one. It was rejected again.

As I knew the photo was a good likeness and met all the criteria I decided to submit my application with the ‘rejected’ photo. From thereon the service was extremely efficient.

Tracking your application

You can choose to ‘track’ progress of your application by receiving either an email or a text message. I chose both. Sure enough I received messages such as that my application had been received, that my expiring passport had been received (a condition), that my application had been accepted, and finally that my new passport had been despatched. All very efficient. It arrived a day after the final message and my cancelled ‘old’ passport a couple of days later.

The ‘new’ passport has an increased number of security features which I’m sure will make it extremely difficult to forge or to change. Among these are that the extra pages are really ‘pretty’, featuring scenes such as ‘iconic British innovations’.

So, all-in-all an excellent service but that photo recognition robot needs a brain transplant!

PS. I have no idea why the IPad changed the colour of the passport cover from maroon to blue; we’re not out of the EU yet.

Picture of the church in Iasi in which Petronela and I were married

Our ultimate destination, Iasi. This is the church in which Petronela and I were married

I’ve done it. I’ve booked the ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland as the first stage (or is it the second?) of a summer trip to Romania, repeating the trip of last year though more leisurely and with a rather different, less direct, route to the Romanian border (yet to be finalised).

Definitely to be avoided is Budapest, a beautiful city along the Danube but a nightmare to navigate, literally life-threatening. The M0 motorway around the city is a death trap with some of the worst driving you’ll see anywhere in Europe, tailgating at 100km or more (last year I just avoided a 5 car pile up). We’ll also avoid a camp site near Munich where a left-over from the Nazi regime almost had me abandoning my usual peaceful disposition; in fact the facilities at the site looked not a lot different to an imagined WW2 concentration camp.

For bloggers who do not regularly read my posts I should explain why the decision to go is a momentous one. I was waiting for my medical consultant to say it was OK (you’ll find things about my medical condition in past posts) but, in the end, I thought I’d go anyway and made the ferry booking. Romania has superb doctors!

Recording on film and digital

Having made one momentous decision, I thought I’d go for broke and make another – begin to post again on my almost abandoned classic camera/film photography blog, grumpytykepix. But I’ll be recording our trip here, having abandoned the horrible Facebook which I used for previous trips. For this I’ll use digital camera or iPad (and perhaps a little C41 film which, both monochrome and colour, I can get processed and scanned in Romania). So I might be able to do one or two posts on grumpytykepix, or when using ‘legacy lenses’ on a digital camera.

Mini, our classic mini which took us there and back without a problem in 2006

We (ie my wife Petronela (P) and I) first did this trip in 2006, in a classic mini, camping – not a single problem so the toolkit, just a screwdriver and 1/2in spanner, were not needed!

VW camper: Lofty2Romania

In 2015 we did the 4,635 miles round trip in Lofty, our 1972 VW camper; a few problems – part of the ‘fun’ of the ‘dub’ –  but P didn’t appreciate it much. And we had mother-in-law shouting to be let out as we navigated multiple one in three hairpins in the mountains. Unfortunately I can no longer handle him for long journeys.

Lofty with me, having just caught the ferry back as the stern door closed. Late arrival resulting from a ‘little’ problem solved im record time by a superb Dutch garage

In 2016 we did it by flying (I hate flying, or rather I quite enjoy flying but hate the waiting, often chaos, and being ripped off in airports now). It’s a pity as Jet2.com, which I like, is only 15 minutes away at Leeds-Bradford airport. Hiring cars when in Romania also was not good, not financially nor for the nerves with 1,000 Euro deposit possibly to be lost thanks to some crazy Romanian driver.

Dacia Duster: Dusty2Romania 1

Last year we did the trip in Dusty, our 2013 Dacia Duster. Really wonderful but taking both our two-man tent and a large one with kit for 6 people to take P’s parents to Transylvania strained even the really capacious Duster. This year we’ll take just our 2-man tent and put the parents in ‘pensiune’ (B&Bs) when we take them somewhere.

Why not Hull ferry?

As we live in Yorkshire you might wonder why we don’t use the ferry from Hull to Holland. It’s a night sailing so apart from the fact that we enjoy a daytime crossing (I love the sea), the mandatory cabin makes it expensive. The disadvantage of using Harwich  is the long drive, the most obvious route, A1 and A14/M11, being dreadful. So we’ll leave early in the morning and take a lazy drive down through Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, camping for the night a few miles from Harwich at a pleasant camp site behind a pub (Stranger’s Home) before taking the morning ferry. The pub has decent food so no cooking for me!

First stop over the other side, for a night, will be Arnhem, on one of the excellent Dutch camp sites (Camping Warnsborn) – only matched by those in Austria and some in Germany. We used it last year on the way there and back.

A picture of The famous Roman acrostic (and palindrome) or word square in Cirencester in the UK.

The famous Roman acrostic (and palindrome) or word square in Cirencester in UK.

I so love this blogging world. Over the years I have made blogging friends (friends in the true sense) from several countries; I have learnt so much about things of which I would not even have been aware were I not an avid reader of other blogs; and recently, the day before yesterday, I added a new word to my vocabulary, a rare occurrence having been an insatiable reader of books of many kinds for around three quarters of a century. I’m as excited as I would be finding a rare piece of ancient Chinese porcelain for 10p at a car boot or flea market. The word is: Rambunctious

As an aspiring writer (of fiction – I had a successful career in what you might call ‘documentary writing’), reading something with excellent use of the vast English vocabulary thrills me; lazy writing, with restricted vocabulary, makes me despair, the overwhelming example now being the liberal sprinkling of ‘the f… word’ throughout a piece. I’m no prude; it used to be a good word to use when riled; now, it having been made meaningless, we have been left without such a word.

Rambunctious – an 19th century north American word

Back to rambunctious; a little research found that it was was a north American word coined in the early to mid 19th century and, surprise, used in the Financial Times in 2011.  I was so excited at its discovery I just had to use it; I’m no poet but I decided to rush off an acrostic poem for today’s meeting of our writers’ club, ‘Writing on the Wharfe’. Here it is:

Rare is the day when
After years of devouring books –
Many times, when young, with a torch,
Blankets over my head
Until the battery failed –
New words, or even just one, are added to my vocabulary.
Came a blogger new to me,
Tasted, drawn by, my comments to another blogger friend,
Introducing her young grandsons as ‘rambunctious’.
Oh what a word to savour!
Uncontrollably exuberant, wildly boisterous,
Such am I today – rambunctious

Thanks are due to ‘atticsister’, an antique dealer and blogger from Illinois who was brought to my blog by my comments on the blog of my good blogger friend Ilze from Latvia. She described her grandsons as rambunctious. What is more, she also described them as ‘tikes’, calling to mind my own grandmother who often called me and my younger brothers that when we were being unruly.

 

 

What remains of herbal teas brought back from Romania last summer, foraged by my ‘honorary grandmother’

I began to appreciate herbal teas only due to an experience during my second year in Romania, 1994. They are relatively little drunk in Britain, at least by the general population, compared to Romania and, I know now, Latvia.  The Romanian experience changed my view and what followed changed my life.

I’ve posted before about how I began to teach in Romania (due to mistaking the word ‘marfă’ for ‘mafia’). I’ve not posted before about two life-changing experiences. The first was an introduction to herbal teas; the second, in the same place, was when I say I was ‘born again’, half Romanian.

Introduction to herbal teas

The ‘county’ inspector for English, who persuaded me to stay in Romania to teach English in a top high school when my planned six month stay finished, invited me to accompany her on a visit to a village school, in a village called Sadova, not far from the town of Câmpulung Moldovenesc. I was feeling really ill with a dreadful cough, sore throat and high temperature which I had not been able to shake off as I usually could. I almost called the visit off.

At some point we visited the house of a/the young English teacher. I  was clearly suffering and struggling to eat something (obligatory when visiting any Romanian home). She asked to be excused, went out the back and climbed a little way up the steep grassy slope to the forest, seeming to be picking flowers. She returned with a handful of leaves and flowers. She boiled some water, poured it on the plants, added some honey and after a few minutes gave me a mug full of the brew to drink. A strange taste for me then but it seemed discourteous not to drink it.

An hour or so later I felt completely well!

I’ve no idea what those plants were – at the time my Romanian was sparse – but now I’d call the brew ‘ceai de multe plante’, ‘tea of many plants’.

Born again in Bucovina

View of Sadova and surroundings

Sadova

The second experience I find impossible to describe adequately. I was back in Sadova but alone. I cannot remember how I got there but I climbed up the steep slopes through the forest and came across a grassy clearing, sun filtering through the tall fir trees, the air full of the scent of them, so sat to catch my breath. An extraordinary peace came over me and the light seemed to change to what I can only describe as magical. The cynical might say I hyperoxygenated from the climb. I’m sure that is not the explanation. I’ve no idea for how long I sat but when I left I felt a different person and I still have that feeling every time I cross the border into Romania, more so when I enter the Bucovina.

I say I was ‘reborn’ there and have been in love with the Bucovina ever since. Several years later I managed a project there with egg decorators, made many friends, and now visit the region and those friends every year.

Romanian herbal ‘teas’ – collecting romanița

I said above that I was introduced to herbal teas in Sadova. That is not quite true though that was the first time I drank one. In the first couple of months in Romania I collected ‘romanița’ (chamomile) beside the impressive river Prut in a little village called ‘Broascăcești’ (which no one I tell of it believes exists – maybe it’s a local popular name – my translation, ‘village of frogs’). I was taken there by my wonderful host family, at or around Easter 1993, to visit relatives. A lady, perhaps I met her/danced with her at a wedding, persuaded me to collect romanița with her the following day. My memories are fragmented but I do remember the village was flooded when we arrived and we had to abandon the car (ubiquitous Dacia, one of only two makes of cars seen 25 years ago, Romanian Renault 11) and take to a cart pulled by a bullock.

Now we bring back to UK ‘teas’ gathered by my ‘honorary grandmother’ each year (those remaining from last year are pictured). More recently I’ve learned about many more from my good Latvian friend Ilze, from her blog ‘a day in the life of a latvian mom’, along with fungi (‘mushrooms’) of various kinds, vegetarian recipes, about her fascinating country (of which I knew little) and much more.

Romanian foraged ‘herbal teas’ I know (I may not always spell correctly):

Those brought back to the UK
Păducel – Hawthorn
Ceai de tei – Flowers of the Linden tree
Mentă – Mint
Salcâm – Acacia (also my favourite honey)
Soc – Elder flower
Gălbanele – Marigold
Cimbru de câmp – Wild thyme
Coada soricelului (mouse tail) – Yarrow
Sunătoare – St. John’s-wort
Trandafir – Rose

Others I know
Romaniță (mușețel) – Chamomile
Coada calului (horse tail) – Field horse tail
Patlagină – Ribwort plantain
Bradul – The fir tree
Leurda – Wild garlic (we collect in UK for salad)
Osul iepurelui (rabbit’s bone) – Restharrow
Țelina – Celeriac
Urzica – Nettle (we collect in UK, young, and use like spinach)
Vișinul – Sour cherry (my favourite fruit, especially in Romania)
Zmeurul – Raspberry (another favourite fruit)

There are good reasons to bring back herbs and fruit even if available in the UK: both soil and air are cleaner in the Bucovina, truly ‘organic‘ (a stupid term, all food is ‘organic’ – recently adopted ‘bio‘ is as bad – but you’ll know what I mean).

Photo of cup with a few coins in the hands of a beggar

Photo by York Press

A lot of bloggers make a little money selling their ‘products’ through their WordPress blogs – self-published books, courses in anything from writing or photography to cookery, using Photoshop or other applications, and a wide variety of other products. Of course I cannot have any objection to that; it seems to me that it’s a valid use of a blog. I have some sympathy also with students who offer something in return for a small ‘donation’.

But when it comes to what amounts to ‘begging’, the on-line equivalent of sitting in the street with a begging bowl, I find it difficult to accept. It works at various levels.

Sponsorship

First there are the requests to ‘sponsor’ a blog, the argument being ‘if you like reading my blog please give me some money to allow me to continue’. What about the millions of bloggers who just give us a good read, often giving excellent advice too (foodie and photography blogs spring to mind), fitting their blogging activity around the ‘day job’?

Donate

Then there’s the ‘donate’ button. This is often accompanied by a text with an explanation similar to that given with requests for ‘sponsorship’.

On-line begging bowl

Finally, there’s the simple on-line equivalent of the begging bowl, a blog post which just asks for money because the blogger needs money for anything from day to day living to help with medical bills.

Many of us will respond to the street beggar with a little money or, better, a hot drink or some food when they seem to be a genuine case of hardship. Money needs more thought as it will often go on drugs. And of course there are the street beggars who have a daily take only dreamed of by many hardworking people with a ‘day job’. Spotting them can be difficult as they are often put on the street by a ‘minder’ who takes most of the money. This is particularly prevalent in Romania.

What brought on this post?

There’s a Romanian blogger who I’ve followed for a few years. As the number of posts asking for money increased my reading of his posts, usually several a day, has decreased. I have in the past bought some of his ‘products’, more as a way of giving a bit of help than that I wanted the ‘product’. But now, for me, he’s overstepped the mark.

His latest story is that he will be made homeless unless he pays overdue rent of several hundred dollars. It began with requests to help with dental bills. I had some sympathy with that as it would be difficult to work well if in continual pain. Bloggers sent him really substantial sums of money. Then he asked for money to buy a video camera to make his video clips. My sympathy evaporated but it seems he received the money. Then the story was that his laptop had crashed and he needed money to buy a new one. Again he seemed to receive it readily. Now he says he hasn’t been able to pay his rent and will shortly be evicted, made homeless!

Romanians to whom I’ve related this story have been furious; it’s the kind of story which has brought Romania into disrepute. Having worked with Romanians for over a decade and spending a lot of time in the country since, I can assure you that most Romanians are hardworking given the opportunity (for many this, sadly, meant emigrating).

As I said above, I no longer read many of this blogger’s posts but was drawn to comment on one recently, one of several which seemed to assume that we all want a large number of followers. I felt obliged to point out that not all bloggers want this and gave the reasons; in my case because I try to respond to all comments and ‘likes’ (with some exceptions) and I just could not deal with large numbers.

How many comments ‘not approved’?

What is really sad is that my comment on his blog, which did include a mild admonishment about ‘begging’, was not approved so no one other than the blogger in question has seen it. So I must assume that any other comments expressing unease about ‘begging’ have been similarly withheld.

So, I have to ask here: do you think this type of ‘begging via blog’ is acceptable or not, and which type oversteps the mark? Do you think I’m being unreasonable?

 

The author, pointing to the window in the picture 'And interesting paragraph'Today was the second stage of the ‘Evocation’ project but this time I was one of the four writers, not the photographer. So unfortunately I don’t have a picture with all five performers as I did with the first stage – only of the four paintings and one of me with the painting which ‘evoked’ my story.

David, with a picture of a Norwegian ffiord gave us a wonderful mixture of myth and fact spanning from Viking times to the present day; Jo, with a drummer boy and his fife-playing companion on the battlefield, had us shedding a tear; James, given the unlikely subject of a couple of horses in a snow storm, had us in stitches. Sam (Samuel Moore) surpassed his usual brilliant self with astounding virtuoso performances of his flamenco compositions ‘evoked’ by a combination of the picture and the writer’s interpretation of it.

Unfortunately I cannot give you the three other stories as the authors may wish to enter in some competition and previous publication would prevent this. So, sadly, you have only my ‘Evocation’, as follows.

An interesting paragraph

Haynes King, who painted this picture called ‘An interesting paragraph’, was born in Barbados but came to England in his 20s. The two female figures are typical of many of his paintings but what has struck me more is the window, which also appears in several of his works. As I am a keen photographer it was his use of natural light, reflected from the newspaper to illuminate the reader’s face, which particularly appealed to me. I think the light and the newspaper are clues to the time of day: quite early in the morning.

The painting 'An interesting paragraph' by Haynes King.

Haynes King’s ‘An interesting paragraph’. Apologies for the reflections; it’s behind glass

When I first saw this picture I immediately thought of the Brontë sisters, though the environment is wrong – a quite humble cottage rather than a vicarage. Nevertheless, I chose to think of two young spinster sisters, relatively well educated so they can read and are quite well informed of world events. Research failed to uncover the date of the painting, only the date it came to this Gallery. So I chose to date the scene as 1865 and believed these sisters would have read Wuthering Heights and something from Charlotte and would have been aware that the male pen names of Currer Bell and Ellis Bell hid two talented women authors. Intelligent, well-read, they surely have dreams of meeting their own heroes and taking at least a small step up in society.

So, we might imagine the following conversation:

Here’s an interesting paragraph Emm. It says that slavery has been abolished in the United States of America. What do you think of that?” Sitting in the window reading a newspaper by the morning light, Lucy enjoyed scanning the paper and calling her sister’s attention to things she found interesting. Although she could read herself, Emily was happy with this usual arrangement.

Emily thought deeply before she replied: “It seems strange to me that a nation which fought so hard to win independence, freedom, from Britain, could retain slavery for so long. But of course there’s effectively been no slavery there for a while. How long ago was it abolished in the British Empire, thirty years or more?

Yes, something like that,” Lucy paused, then continued, “But I think we still have some kinds of slavery here, in particular for women. Because we can’t vote for members of parliament it’s very difficult to change that. It seems sad to me that the Brontë sisters felt it necessary to publish their wonderful stories with men’s names for the authors. Otherwise no one would have taken them seriously.”

Emily, always the more proactive of the two sisters, said thoughtfully, “Maybe we should try to do something about it. It’s all very well leaving it to a few ‘posh’ women in London but maybe we could push from the bottom of the pile. I kept the story about those women in London who set up a society; we could write to them. What did they call themselves? I can’t remember.”

Oh, I think it was something like ‘The Chelsea Society’, but that’s not right. It was ‘the something society’, a place in London but I can’t remember exactly,” Lucy replied.

After a minute’s silence, Emily shouted “I’ve got it, ‘The Kensington Society’, that was it! Please see if you can find that story I cut out.”

Yes that was it, and I cut another from the newspaper about some movement in Manchester. Maybe it would be better to write to the women in Manchester; we could ask about forming a group here, even go to one of their meetings. We could get a train from Leeds”. While speaking, Lucy jumped down from her window seat, shuffled through a drawer, then, “Here they are”, waving the cuttings.

What does it say about Manchester?” Emily asked.

Lucy quickly scanned the cutting: “Oh, only that some women were thinking of setting up a society, not that they’d done it. But there is a name of a woman who was interviewed about the idea – Lydia Becker. There’s no address, but we could write to the paper I suppose.”

Yes, let’s do that Lu. Meanwhile we can make a poster proposing setting up some kind of group locally and see what response we get. We might even get some more free-thinking men, our own Mr Rochesters!” Emily paused. “Even a Heathcliffe would be interesting,” she added, with a mischevious glint in her eye.

So, there we’ll leave our sisters, busy with paper and pen, with the hope that they did find their heroes though they would not get the vote in their lifetimes.

It was not until 1918 that women got the vote in the UK, and they had to wait another ten years before all women over 21 got the vote on the same terms as men. But the slavery continues even today, for example by women frequently being paid far less than men for the same job. Can you believe that, more than 150 years after my fictional conversation evoked by Haynes King’s painting?

You’ll find more information about our club, ‘Writing on the Wharfe’, on a recently created public Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/writingonthewharfe/