CategoriesLegalHarrogateThought of The Day

A Career in Law?

This is my presentation to the 6th formers at St Aidan’s and St John Fisher’s schools, Harrogate, in June 2022.

(When giving a presentation, I usually write a transcript, then depart from it as I go. What follows is my notes – not what I precisely said)

 

Hello, I’m Andrew Gray. I’m a solicitor and the founder of Truth Legal solicitors of Harrogate and Leeds. I set up Truth Legal ten years ago, when I was 32.

Truth Legal is, primarily, a David v Goliath law firm – i.e. we tend to act for the little people who are enforcing their legal rights against a stronger opponent.

I also run a non-profit political tech project called The Harrogate District Consensus, as well as two other companies. And I host The Harrogate Podcast and I also blog.

I’m married to a lawyer and we have two kids.

And I have a confession for you budding law students: when I grow up, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life.

So, if you don’t know what you want to do with your life, don’t worry. You’re in good company. Remember: life is about the journey, not about the destination.

…………………………..

This talk is collection of true stories, interspersed with questions for you. These stories shaped my life and my career.

In one of my stories, I will explain why I am sitting down to deliver this talk and why I have pre-recorded it.

I’ll take a Q and A at the end. You can ask all the cheeky questions, if you wish, such as: how much do lawyers earn?

……………………………………….

My first story.

Let me take you to Monday 15th August 2005: this was my first day at work as a trainee solicitor. I had secured a good training contract – which is 2 years of working as a trainee solicitor – with a large Manchester law firm.

My first day had gone well, though of course I had been quite nervous about it. That evening, I drove to Manchester Piccadilly Train Station to collect my girlfriend (now my wife). I parked opposite the station, leaving my border collie dog in the car. I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, so it’s fair to say I didn’t look much like a lawyer.

I jogged across the road, heading towards the station entrance. As I did so, a car pulled up, and a big guy got out. Instead of walking towards the entrance, he walked straight towards me. I got the sense that he meant trouble.

As our paths crossed, he slammed me to the floor and put his fist in my face. It was like a scene from a movie. “You’re under arrest,” he said.

Stunned, heart pounding and mind reeling, I spluttered: “What for? Where’s your ID? Where’s your ID?”

He didn’t reply.

“I’m going to put you in a van,” he said. Menacingly, he kept looking up and down the street.

Now, I came to the only sensible conclusion: I was being kidnapped. I offered him my wallet, my phone, my car keys, but he wasn’t interested. I was definitely being kidnapped.

I had no choice. I had to escape. After all, my dog was in the car watching me take a beating!

I still don’t know how I did it, but — somehow — I managed to wrestle my attacker off me. In the process, I lost my shoes, wallet, phone, keys. Barefoot, I ran as fast as I could, screaming, “Help! Call the police!” Unfortunately, the streets of Manchester at 11pm on a Monday night are pretty empty.

I took a left, under a long bridge, running as fast as I could. Then, I hid in a nook, where the bridge melded into another bridge. When the coast was clear, I started running again until I found two Royal Mail workers who were cleaning vans. Covered in blood and barefoot, I asked that they call the police.

Almost immediately, two police officers arrived in an unmarked car. I told them my story and they put me in the back of their car – once I had seen their IDs! They agreed with me: they thought that I had thwarted a kidnapping. So, they radioed headquarters to report the incident and we returned to the location of the incident, to hunt for my attacker.

Scouring the streets, we came across two police officers who had arrested a 20-something-year-old bloke: he was a similar age and build as me, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. My two police officers got out to find out what had happened. When they returned, they explained that there had been an armed robbery in the area and that the man who had assaulted me was in fact an off-duty British Transport Police officer, who was trying to make an arrest. The off-duty officer thought that I – Andrew Gray – was the armed robber! It was all a case of mistaken identity. Hahaha!

Turning midnight, I demanded that my attacker – the police officer – return to the station to explain himself. When the errant officer returned, he shook my hand and apologised. He explained that he thought that I had a gun or a knife. His senior officer hosted the meeting.

When I asked the officer why he didn’t show me his ID — hence why I fought him off and fled! — he had the gall to deny that I had asked him for his ID! Why else did I offer him my belongings, I argued? Not the actions of your typical armed robber.

After only a few hours’ sleep, bloodied and battered and dazed, I started my second day as a lawyer.

Budding law student, I have some questions for you:

  1. If you were me, would you have sued the police? I didn’t sue.
  2. Would you have represented me in a case for compensation against the police force?
  3. If the police officer was charged with assault, would you have represented him in a Magistrates’ Court?
  4. If the police officer lost his job for his actions, would you have represented him, as his lawyer, in an Employment Tribunal?

That awful experience gave me 3 key insights.

First, people in power lie – think Boris Johnson over Partygate. In my case, the Police Officer did not have his ID with him, otherwise I would not have resisted arrest.

Second, witnesses – as I was – have false memories. When I recounted, to my assailant’s senior officer, what I remembered, I explained that my attacker got out of a green coupe car. But this was not so: the car wasn’t green, and it wasn’t a coupe. I wasn’t lying. The lesson: even honest witnesses have false memories.

Third, as a lawyer who has represented hundreds of injured people, I understand that the psychological/mental distress of an incident is often more debilitating than the physical effects. I know, because I developed an anxiety disorder which led me to move away from the city, here to Harrogate.

………….

Re-winding somewhat, I bet you will want to know what grades I got for GCSEs: they were above average but not outstanding. For A-levels, I took Geography, Classics and Business Studies. My grades were sound, but not spectacular.

For my degree, I studied my passion, which was, and remains: politics. More precisely, my degree was PPE: Politics, Philosophy and Economics. I don’t have a proper law degree.

For university, I went to my first choice which was Manchester University: it was the best one closest to where I lived. I got a 2:1, only just.

Another true story, which shaped my life and career:

………………………………

In 2001, one week before I was due to graduate from university, my best mate, whom I had lived with for three years, was crossing a street at night with his mates. Unbeknown to him, some kids, with criminal records as long as your arm, stole a car, took a load of drugs, and then drove as fast as they could, determined to knock someone over.

They murdered my best mate: driving at 65mph in a 30pmh. He died instantly. A few days later, I went to the murder scene. Next to a shrine of flowers, police forensics officers had painted white circles on the road to show where they had found various parts of my friend and his possessions.

Mercifully, the brilliant police officers eventually caught the three killers. I attended the trial. Each of the three killers had their own solicitor and their own barrister: 6 lawyers defending them, all paid for by the taxpayer. My friend’s family was, in simple terms, represented by the Crown Prosecution Service’s lawyers.

The jury convicted the three of Death by Dangerous Driving (not murder), and they were sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Budding law students, I have some questions for you:

  1. Each of three defendants, needed two lawyers. Would you have defended them, even in the knowledge that they were guilty? Would you shake their hands when you meet them in the cells?
  2. Do you believe that every person deserves access to the best legal advice?
  3. Would you have derived any professional satisfaction from representing the victim’s family to secure a conviction?

……………………………………………………….

After my politics degree, and particularly after that horrid death, I went travelling and then set up a political organisation, always guided by my passion for politics. I worked as a Classroom Assistant for a time to see if I wanted to become a teacher: no way! Teaching was tough, with more stress than law.

In a moment of honest introspection, I realised I had a number of personal flaws which I needed to correct, if I wanted to get into politics. First, I was far too shy, incapable of giving a presentation like this. Second, I was intellectually disorganised.

I knew that some of the best politicians had been lawyers. Therefore, law was my answer! Lawyers help people: politicians try to help more people.

Budding law students: I want you to name some famous lawyer politicians.

Ghandi, Mandela, Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Tony Blair, Dominic Raab.

But why has law created so many politicians? That’s worth your consideration. There are 5 reasons:

  1. Intellectually capability.
  2. Exceptional communication skills – both written and oral.
  3. They usually want to make the world a better place, by helping people.
  4. Ambitious and competitive.
  5. Work hard.
  6. Our work gives us a deep insight into human nature: we go face to face with the best and worst of humanity.

Some of you might, secretly, think that any person who could represent murderers must be capable of deception and therefore be perfectly suited for politics, but that has not been my experience of lawyers.

…………

Therefore, with my head, more than my heart, set on law, I undertook the Post-Graduate Diploma in Law at York Law School. It was the toughest intellectual year of my life: cramming three years of a law degree into one year! People call this the “law conversion course”.

On that course, I mixed with fascinating people; people with degrees in a range of eclectic subjects, united with the desire to become a lawyer.

After that year, with – essentially – a law degree under my belt, I had to decide whether I wanted to become a solicitor or a barrister. I opted for the solicitor route, and I don’t regret it.

Let’s set out the difference between a solicitor and a barrister.

There are far more solicitors than there are barristers. There are around 135,000 solicitors, but only 15,000 barristers. In simple terms, barristers tend to most of the work in courts, standing up, making their arguments and cross-examining witnesses, as you might have seen in the Johnny Depp trial. Solicitors tend to have the in-depth, long-lasting relationships with clients. Solicitors instruct barristers when things get complicated, or when the matter goes to court. Solicitors tend to have more paperwork to do!

Barristers, I reckon, tend to be more intellectual, more flamboyant. Barristers tend to be self-employed, working in groups called “Chambers”. Solicitors tend to work at law firms, otherwise known as a solicitor’s practices.

Judges – who are the most senior of lawyers – tend to come from the barrister side of law, rather than from the ranks of solicitors.

In law, other than the barrister or solicitor route, there are other divisions which you ought to know about:

  1. Lawyers tend to practice Criminal Law or Civil Law.
  2. Lawyers tend to practice Litigation or Transactional Work.
  3. Lawyers tend to act for Individuals or for Businesses.

The number of areas of law is too long to list, because there are lawyers for every area of human interaction. Some examples of the variety of area of law:

Human rights, church law, charity, military law, international law, environmental law, immigration, banking law, crypto law, defamation law and many, many others.

Lawyers do tend to specialise in one of two areas of law.

…………………………………………………

Another true story:

After qualifying as a solicitor in Manchester, I moved to Leeds. I worked for a law firm which acted for large businesses. I hated the experience, but I am grateful for it. I was a commercial litigator – which means that I was, in simple terms, suing people who owed my business clients, money.

Vividly, one day I recall evicting a young family from where they lived. They owed a lot of money to my business client. Just as the bailiffs were knocking on the door to evict the family, the mother rang me up and begged me to call off the bailiffs. I couldn’t.

I cried, possibly the only time in my career.

Question for you budding lawyers:

Question: could you act for a business to evict a family from a property when they owe your client lots of money?

Or would you rather defend the family?

……………………………………………

Back to my journey.

After working for a massive law firm, which acted for trade unions, including teachers, when I still a very junior lawyer, I set up my own law firm. In fact, I was one of the most junior lawyers to ever set up a law firm.

It was the best decision.

Why is “Truth Legal” the name? Well, I am a Quaker, which is a religious group. Famous Quakers you might have heard of, include: Lloyds, from Lloyds Bank; Barclays, from Barclays Bank; Cadburys, of chocolate fame; and many others.

Quakers believe in five main ideas: pacifism, environmentalism, equality, simplicity and Truth i.e. speaking the Truth. Hence Truth Legal. I wanted my law firm to embody my values. My advice to you, whether you choose law or not, is that you should let your values – and not your parents’ values – guide you.

……………

And why am I sitting down to deliver this important presentation and pre-recording it? Because I have been quite poorly this last year or so, which has a legal element connected to it. I have gone from running marathons to becoming disabled, as defined in law under the Equality Act 2010.

Why? Because, over my lifetime, I have had to take some very strong antibiotics, which saved my life. Unbeknown to me and unbeknown to doctors in the UK, the big pharmaceutical companies who manufactured these antibiotics, were getting heavily sued in the United States because of the nasty side effects. Yet these potent drugs were still being sold in the UK.

Eventually, these antibiotics were mostly banned in the UK, but by that time, the damage to me was done.

Some questions for you, budding lawyers:

  1. Would you represent someone like me in a claim for compensation against the massive pharmaceutical companies and their legions and expensive lawyers who caused me, and lots of people like me, injury?
  2. And could you see yourself as the “expensive lawyer”, acting for the big pharmaceutical company defending claims from people like me? After all, antibiotics save far more lives than they damage, and every business and person should be allowed legal representation.

…………………………

Let me finish with some general advice to people considering a career in law.

  1. Ask yourself whether you can truly excel at something if you are not passionate about it. I would be inclined to follow always your passions.
  2. Law is a very tough job, with a great deal of stress. If you want an easy life, don’t be a lawyer. (But teaching, other professions and most jobs are tough too.)
  3. If you like helping people, law could be for you. Law and politics are similar to me because it is all about helping people. Lawyers help people and organisations often through the most awful situations. Politicians create those law.
  4. I recommend that you let your life speak. Realise that it’s about the journey, not the destination. The police officer who attacked me gave me a gift: my law firm now specialises in assault cases. My friend who was murdered on the road: we deal with road traffic accidents. If you cry at your desk because you’ve just helped a business to evict a tenant, you know that area of law isn’t for you.
  5. Be familiar with technology: law and most other careers, are going to be radically changed by tech. So, be prepared to keep reinventing yourself. Lawtech will bring access to justice to millions of people: whereas one lawyer can only help one client at a time.
CategoriesHealthPoliticsHarrogateThought of The Day

UFOs, Covid deaths and Poverty

Partygate, the despot-like re-writing of the Ministerial Code, Russian aggression and energy price hikes, all dominate the British news. Remember Covid? Well, Covid news has been – thankfully – consigned to the dustbin of history. But what ought to be on everyone’s lips is the US Congressional Hearing into UFOs.

Only 90 minutes of the hearing was held in public, but during this time, those of us who bothered to engage with it learned that, in simple terms, the US Government believes that UFOs are real. Sure, the Pentagon officials under questioning did not categorically say “UFOs exist”, however, they could not say what else the numerous UFO sightings could be. These officials stated that US pilots have been reluctant to make reports of UFOs for fear of looking foolish. Just imagine if all pilots, not just in the US military, felt able to make such reports – then how many incidents would need investigation.

In a rational world, the confirmation of UFOs ought to be a cause for great intellectual debate, but it isn’t. Social media, coffee shops, workplaces and anywhere else where conversation takes place, would, in a world populated by rational humans, be awash with talk about UFOs. For a start, all religious belief and history would be in need of reappraisal.

It seems to me that, we, as a species, cannot countenance the admission of something which, in its acceptance, would mean that we have to reconfigure of all our hitherto-held views. We are unable to process this information. So, we shut our minds to the facts. Ignorance is bliss. Let’s hope that aliens do not share the human desire to colonise others.

…………………………………………………………………………….

But, what do UFOs have to do with Covid? Let me explain.

Only political nerds like me follow Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Several months ago, one such request – not made by me, I should add – piqued my interest. A wily individual asked Harrogate Borough Council to set out the number of deaths, each year, from 2015 to 2021, split between cremations and burials.

Now before you scroll down, I challenge you to affix, in your head, answers to the following questions. I have asked the below questions to a number of intelligent people, none of whom came even remotely close to accurately guessing the answer to question 3.

  1. In Harrogate, do you think that deaths are broadly even for the years before Covid – 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019?
  2. What, if any, impact did Covid have to deaths in 2020? Up or down, and by what percentage?
  3. Then, with those guesses fixed, ask yourself: what happened to deaths in Harrogate in 2021?

The following is the data provided by Harrogate Borough Council.

Year               Cremation                                 Burial

2015 1580 171
2016 1581 137
2017 1609 184
2018 1640 145
2019 1543 175
2020 1890 155
2021 512 47

 

Is that what you expected, particularly for 2021? I very much doubt it.

If, like me, and like everyone I have previously asked this question to, you didn’t foresee that the average deaths fell in 2021 by 68% from pre-Covid levels of an average of 1,753 people per year to just 559, then why were we all so wrong? At the time of writing, circa 75% of the population have had Covid. If Covid was so potent (which it was in 2020), why are more people alive today in Harrogate than there ought to be, given the number of people who have had it? Covid is still here: a number of my colleagues have recently had it and it was nasty and long-lasting.

Evidently, Covid was a massive threat in 2020, increasing the number of deaths in Harrogate by 14% (an extra 300 deaths). But, astonishingly, deaths then fell by 1,194 in 2021, which means – bizarrely – that Covid has saved lives in Harrogate. I struggled to write the previous sentence, but I must be led by the evidence.

The reasons behind these surprising stats must be multifactorial and should be forensically interrogated. What did Harrogate do right? Or was this just a case of wealthier, greener areas faring better than other places?

Most people confronted with this evidence usually retort, with: “The reduction in deaths must be down to the reduction in road traffic accidents.” Not an unreasonable suggestion, but an inaccurate assertion predicated on a miscalculation of the number of road traffic deaths per year. Pre-covid, circa 1800 people were killed on the roads in the UK, each year. Covid reduced these deaths by around 11%. By my estimations, Covid might have saved the lives of circa 6 people in the Harrogate area who, in normal times, would have died on the roads. This does not explain why more people are alive in Harrogate thanks to Covid.

Frequent readers of my blog will know that I was and remain fiercely critical of the Government for its slow response to the pandemic. As Dominic Cummings has stated, our Government’s clear and obvious early errors killed thousands of people. But deaths from Covid, based on Harrogate data, appears to have petered out much before vaccines were rolled out. Certainly, Covid is frequently a very unpleasant illness, with Long Covid having many similarities with my maladies. However, unless you broadly guessed the death figures for 2021, you must admit that you have been hoodwinked, when considering the Harrogate case.

Given that nobody I had spoken to was aware of these facts, I sent the story to two local news outlets. One editor published the story and the second did not. The second editor thought that this data – and its concomitant questions it raises – wasn’t newsworthy, much to my disbelief. The first editor, who ran the story, subsequently told me that this was one of the least read stories that the publication had had!

Like with UFOs, perhaps people don’t want to face facts. We simply cannot countenance re-evaluating everything that we thought we were sure of. But as Karl Marx once replied, when asked what his favourite maxim was, he said, “Question everything”.

……………………………………………………………

 

So shocked I was by Harrogate’s figures that I decided to FOI Blackburn and Salford councils, given my connection to the areas and given that their populations significantly differ from Harrogate – ethnically, socially and economically. Here are their figures:

Blackburn

 

Year 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Cremations 1217 1250 1238 1298 1,260
Burials 382 387 396 536 511

 

Pre-Covid, Blackburn saw an average of 1,623 deaths per year. The first year of Covid saw – similar to Harrogate – an increase of deaths by 13% (Harrogate was at 14%). However, unlike in Harrogate, deaths in 2021 were 9% above pre-Covid levels: a significantly different direction of travel to that of Harrogate. Covid has been lethal in Blackburn.

 

Salford

 

Cremations

Number

2017 1824
2018 1746
2019 1742
2020 2183
2021 1800

 

Full Burials
2017 276
2018 285
2019 261
2020 325
2021 278

 

Pre-Covid, Salford saw an average of 2,045 deaths per year. In 2020, deaths increased by a whopping 22.7%, with an additional 463 deaths. Undeniably, Covid was very dangerous to the population of Salford in 2020.

In 2021, there was an increase in deaths on pre-Covid levels of 22 poor souls, up 1.6% on pre-Covid levels. As with Salford, the pattern in Blackburn was markedly different from the Harrogate experience.

My thesis is that these figures speak to the general lower life expectancies in poorer areas. Nothing new in that analysis, of course. Assuming that we as a country find these stark differences unacceptable, surely to even-up life expectancies (including between men and women, with women living on average 4 years more) ought to be central to our national conversation, but it isn’t. Rational aliens have nothing to fear from us.

 

CategoriesLegalHealthThought of The Day

The “D” Word

This April Fool’s Day it is fitting to write that I have become….. disabled. There, I have written it.

But I cannot easily say this out loud.

How can I – Andrew Gray – have become disabled? I’ve run two marathons; completed the national Three Peak Challenge; and played competitive football until this time last year. My high fitness levels were always a source of pride. I can tell you how many goals I scored in each competitive season, and for pleasure, I often play back some of the goals in my head. Those were good times.

But this issue – this definition of “disability” – has gnawed away at me over the last few months. In my head, I knew that I needed to write down my thoughts, for in writing I usually find clarity, but I had no prompt. That is, until just now.

Minutes ago, I finished a telephone call with a very good friend, one whom I have played football with countless times. He kindly enquired about how I was doing, without making a big deal about it (which I much prefer). Replying, I struggled to say: “I have fluoroquinolone associated disability. There is nothing that the doctors can do for me.” Ouch. I couldn’t fully finish the sentence. It’s the “D” word which bothers me most.

Perhaps, in my head, disabled people were, I thought, born that way, and have known nothing else. Or, perhaps I thought, that such unfortunate people had suffered a freak accident, leading to their predicament. Of course, I knew that people often become disabled over time – as has happened to me – because I have represented so many of them as their lawyer. Yet, subconsciously, I must have thought that it couldn’t possibly have happened to me. To me! I was fit and able.

In the darkest recesses of my head, “disability” must still have conjured up images of a wheelchair-bound people, even though the legal definition of disability, as set out in section 6 of The Equality Act 2010, has been hardwired into my brain ever since I represented disabled people pursuing disability discrimination claims. It seems that what I knew as a lawyer somehow didn’t connect with what I thought, at a deep, flawed and irrational level.

And yet, possibly, the nomenclature – the terminology, the definition of “disabled” – perhaps is unhelpful. Or just unhelpful to me. In my blog profile, I list all the things that I am, to an outsider, before finishing that “I hate labels”. Does the label – disabled – help me? Does it help others? It must.

And why does it upset me to say out loud: “I am disabled!” I am, in law, disabled. Perhaps I need to own it.

Am I bothered that “I don’t look disabled”? Do I want the condition to be more physically obvious? No, no way, though I am sure that my subconscious craves more obvious signs to the world that I physically struggle: a ready-made excuse as to why I sometimes cannot do something. If I can’t stand up on a train to let a pregnant woman sit down, should I have to explain myself?

Logically, when my day is going well, I must be happy, right? But, then, subconsciously, I feel guilty that I am functioning well. There is guilt in feeling capable, able. And yet there is guilt when feeling incapable, unable.

I suppose that I should make much more of an effort to care even less about what others think. And, I wonder what other prejudices and silliness lurks in my subconscious.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPolitics

Ukraine

Like many people, these last few weeks, I have been glued to the news regarding Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine. I have read and watched vast amounts about the conflict in the hope that I could form a sensible view. My experience as a Burma campaigner taught me to be sceptical of popular opinion – opinion usually based on scant knowledge of the subject.

On Twitter, I have seen hundreds of smashed and deserted Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, land rovers and logistics vehicles. I have seen circa one hundred captured Russians, mostly conscripts, and, sadly, seen dozens of dead Russian soldiers and slain civilians. I have watched Russian planes and helicopters be shot down. I have seen Russian cruise missiles fly overhead and watched Russian cluster munitions land in residential zones. The “pornography of war” available for those who seek it, all consumed on my phone.

Furthermore, I have watched some right-wing US pundits applaud Putin – reminding their audience that Biden’s son was caught up in some sort of scandal in Ukraine. I have listened to Democrats remind us that Trump’s impeachment centred on a call to the Ukrainian president.

Like many caring British people, I have been appalled by our Government’s shameful attitude to refugees. Our European friends have taken 2.6m, whereas we have taken – reluctantly – a few thousand. Even Ireland has taken 5,000.

I have watched most news channels show their audience how the Ukrainians are creating stockpiles of Molotov cocktails, and I have seen some be thrown on Russian vehicles to deadly effect. I think of how most media outlets treat the wars in Yemen and between Israel and Palestine, and note the double standards.

Today, our family signed up to offer our spare room to a Ukrainian family. We would have signed up yesterday, but the website crashed. Sadly, I have little confidence that the Government will accept our offer, or the offers of the other thousands of people.

My personal analysis of these last few weeks:

  1. The background to the conflict goes back decades and is complex. The West, NATO, EU and Ukrainians have all contributed to the state of affairs: however, as complex as it is, I believe that this is a conflict that demands that sides are taken. And I side with Ukraine. In my lifetime, this is a resistance which satisfies all the criteria of the Just War doctrine. I see parallels with why George Orwell fought fascism in Spain in the 1930s (and nearly died).
  2. The response from the West, including the reportage, makes it clear just how racist most of us are, and that how – we humans – are content with the mental contortions of double standards. I ask myself: would our family have signed up to host an Afghan family, in the way that we have volunteered to house a Ukrainian family? The question was never asked, but I don’t know that we would have done. I am ashamed to write that sentence. I need to interrogate this thought.
  3. It can come as no surprise to watchers of this Government that they did not foresee the risk of a humanitarian disaster, even though they had been predicting an invasion for some months. And it comes as no surprise that the Government’s instincts towards Ukrainian refugees was inhuman, bureaucratic and at times patently dishonest. Their instincts and ability to govern – the two key areas of competency for any government – are not fit for office.
  4. The Russian armed forces, though numerous and though fighting in their backyard, are largely clueless, lacking in professionalism and leadership; devoid of ethics; ill-equipped, with poorly maintained equipment; lacking in logistical support, air support and modern communications; and their soldiers lack the will to fight, given that they have been misled.
  5. We, in the UK, are at war, just not a kinetic one. These days, war is fought through economic policy, cyber attacks and good, old-fashioned supplying your enemy’s enemy with weaponry. I doubt that most British people are aware that we are waging war. We are, so expect a Russian response.
  6. The Russians offered settlement last week, yet few outlets properly reported it and its terms are not being discussed. Very simply, Russia demanded recognition of Crimea as Russian; recognition that Donbas and Luhansk are independent states; and amendments to the Ukrainian constitution to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU. From where I am sitting, this offer ought to be accepted. The lack of attention on this settlement proposal should give us all pause for thought: who benefits from the continuation of this war?
  7. Putin has gravely miscalculated the response from the West and over-estimated the capabilities of his forces. It is doubtful that he is receiving accurate information. I suspect that his health is in serious decline.

I have no idea what might come next.

CategoriesPoliticsHarrogate

Harrogate District Consensus launches

It has taken me a lifetime to come to the point where I have this week (though I feel dreadful) launched www.HarrogateDistrictConsensus.org.

A Tory at school, then in Labour, with a one-year stint with the Lib Dems, with a dalliance with Change UK, I feel unusually placed to launch this political tool. Other than fascists, I admire all people who engage in politics, particularly those who stand for election, of all stripes. Giving your time and experience to matters political is an altruistic pursuit: to want to help people you will never meet – who will never thank you – is humanity at its finest.

Inevitably, technology will begin to play a role in our democracy. We must test the available technology. The Harrogate District Consensus uses Polis: I didn’t create this awesome technology. Polis was created by the wonderful people at the Computational Democracy Project in Seattle. Polis will improve and perhaps other technology will supplant it.

The granular polling data which Polis produces will assist all decision-makers, officers and candidates in advance of May’s important elections.

For posterity, here are some of the news reports written about HDC by the local democracy reporter, Jacob Webster:

https://www.harrogateadvertiser.co.uk/news/politics/the-new-anonymous-voting-tool-to-find-harrogates-consensus-on-key-issues-3590895

The new anonymous voting tool to find Harrogate’s consensus on key issues

CategoriesLegalHealthHarrogate

A Life-Affirming Stay in Harrogate Hospital

(These are my musings, written in hospital, more diary entry than blogpost)

In Antibiotics, I trust

 

It’s 23:51 on Saturday 12 February 2022. I’m back as an in-patient at Littondale Ward, nearly four years ago to the day that I was last in here when I had sepsis. My drip pumps fluids into me. It’s been a tough few days.

 

I’m the youngest on the ward, by 30 years. So, everyone asks me – what I do for a living. It’s always a bit tricky to talk about it at such times.

 

I have Pyelonephritis. Essentially a kidney infection which has risen up the body. 111, ambulance, A and E and now however many days I need to stay here.

 

I’m glad I came in when I did. If I didn’t, kidney damage can be permanent. Perhaps it still will be. I read that this condition kills 7.4% of people who get it. But I suspect that most are older men.

 

I’ve been treated fairly well. The staff are very pleasant. Due to my temperature, I was placed on the Covid unit for 6 hours, which makes sense. No lunch or tea. Thankfully, this evening Julia delivered my bag, complete with food. I don’t know what people do when they have no loved ones close by.

 

I haven’t seen any specialists, but that will come. Staggering to the bathroom (details to be spared, suffice to say that it’s unpleasant) with my drip tripod-thing-on-wheels, with my blood visible up and down the tube, is something I’d like to forget.

 

My advice to any reader is to understand your body and to dispassionately read around your medical condition, making your own mind up. We know our bodies best. Night.

…………………………………………………………………………..

I’ve become like a phone charger

 

Well, that was a memorable night. Dehumanising on one level, yet I’m filled with immeasurable gratitude for the endeavours of my carers, working Saturday night shifts, doing the work of the angels. My eyes fill with tears as I type that sentence, for I couldn’t do this for a living.

 

Dehumanising in that, for the nearly 24 hours I have been here, I’ve spent most of that time connected to a drip. Each time the drip is changed – from this antibiotic, to another; to fluids and anything else I cannot figure out – nobody really asks for my permission. They just do it. I feel like the utility phone charger in a hotel: used by all the guests, often roughly but necessarily so, repeatedly being plugged and unplugged.

 

The legal case of Montgomery- which deals with patient consent in a medical setting – has crossed my mind each time, for it was frequently being breached, but perhaps this was the right thing to do, though not strictly lawful.

 

Bathroom “breaks” are a frequent challenge. Each “success” feels like scoring a goal.

 

Update:

 

Urologist has just told me I need to stay another day, and that it doesn’t seem likely that I’ll be able to go on holiday next week with the kids. I’m quite upset.

 

The man next to me still snores – it’s 9:30am – as he has done all night, at such a high decibel level that I could claim for noise-induced hearing loss. He’s disrupted those of us under 80 in here, but I only feel pity for him, as he looks so unwell. He sounds so unwell. I wish him well. Sleep, though, might help the rest of us to recover.

 

………………………………..

The Kindness of strangers

 

It’s 19:40 on Sunday night. My neighbour – out of the blue – has bought me a gluten-free snack. He’s the one who kept us all awake all night with his mammoth-like snores. He must have heard my repeated requests for gluten-free food, often to no avail. It’s really touched me. We haven’t really spoken. I’ve always known that humans are 99.9% good: this gesture is life-affirming.

 

A new man arrives. He’s far younger than me and clearly very poorly. We’re all rooting for him, but nobody has said a word. It’s unspoken. There’s always someone worse off in here.

 

The nurses change the elderly men with such dignity. I’d rather not hear it, or smell it – for their sake and mine – but it truly is inspiring. I bury my head in my phone.

 

And then we all overhear a doctor giving the “end of life” discussion to an elderly man at the other end of our 6-man ward. Does he want his heart restarting, if it fails? I’m watching football on the iPad, unable to concentrate on it: what will his wish be? Will his heart stop tonight?

 

The inhabitants of this ward shouldn’t have all heard that, particularly the new guy, gasping for air. That was such a delicate conversation. The doctor was, simply, perfect, though. Not an easy conversation to have with someone. When the time comes for me, I’d want to be spoken to like that.

 

I guess we are all bearing our everything in here. I can’t work out whether it’s appalling that this lack of privacy pervades in 2022, or whether this war-type spirit is good for us all.

 

One chap has the sweetest of sweet tooths, almost childlike in his requests for biscuits. It makes everyone smile. Who knew that the NHS does chocolate milk on tap?

 

The staff are unfailingly kind. I’ve never been anywhere where the staff are universally so willing to help, and they don’t stop either. And they’re so diverse, far more so than the population of Harrogate. The accents do cause some of the elderly men some confusion.

 

In macro terms, the structure and processes of the NHS need an honest rethink. But the kindness on display from the staff here is unsurpassable.

 

I hope to go home tomorrow (which I do).

 

CategoriesHealthThought of The Day

Poisoned by antibiotics?

It’s time for another dull health update. Today, my neurologist copied me into a letter which he sent to my GP. In it, he asks what types of antibiotics I have had over the years, speculating that I might be suffering from fluroquinolone toxicity. He asks whether I have ever taken ciprofloxacin (Cipro). Boy, have I taken Cipro! It’s the only antibiotic I can recall taking for the innumerable bouts of prostatitis which have plagued me for years.

In the US, there are class lawsuits against big pharma for the damage that these antibiotics have done to thousands of men. Stemming from these actions, the EU investigated the issue, leading to an EU-wide memo warning of its dangers. Relevant to me, the European Medicines Agency demanded that Cipro and others was not prescribed for chronic prostatitis.

In March 2019, our Department of Health advised GPs not to prescribe these antibiotics, unless in exceptional cases. The guidance notes that some people are left with permanent nerve damage. Perhaps this is where I am now.

Frankly, I am numb, at the thought that I’m stuck at 65% (if that) of capacity, permanently. Will I ever be able to work full-time again? Will I ever play sport again? Or run again?

And what trajectory am I now on? If permanent Cipro poisoning is the diagnosis, does this actually change anything?

In the last seven days, I have: attended the funeral of a good friend’s mother; met with someone whose son committed suicide; learned about my friend’s husband, who buried two of his children before they turned 12, due to an inherited condition; and caught up with another friend who has just lost their mother.

There are no guarantees for any of us. Everything has changed but nothing has changed: life is tough and unpredictable. Enjoy it! Time to book a holiday.

Lessons to Learn

Foolishly, well before now, I should have started researching why it was that I kept on succumbing to infections. In yesteryear, each infection would have killed me. It’s only of late when I have bothered to ask this fundamental question. More fool me. Repeated prescriptions of weapon’s grade antibiotics could never be the answer.

And as for the NHS, it could have saved us all tens of thousands of pounds by investigating why these infections occur. Upstreaming, holistic approaches to medicine must quickly become the way that we as a society tackle health issues. Quick fixes, like antibiotics, just push the problems down the line.

CategoriesInternational AffairsTravelThought of The Day

Almost Lost in Translation on the Longest Day (in 2004)

Below is a copy of my email to some friends, which I sent in August 2004, from Yunnan Province, China. That day, I had saved an American’s life. As I typed, I was knackered, discombobulated and tearful.

I record this email here, for posterity, for my children, as well as a record of what I thought – at that time – of Chinese medicine and their approach to SARS. This makes more sense to me now, 17 years on, given the initial approach of the Chinese government to Covid.

I really detest my writing style – so many typos! But more than the typos, I don’t like the tone of the person who wrote it – me – particularly the cultural tone. I am glad that I have changed.

As at a few years ago, Greg was still alive and well. We remain connected.  

………………………………….

Dear All,

I write this email to you a different man that wrote the last. I have a lump in my throat, a potential tear in my eye and I am semi delirious through lack of sleep.  Maybe this should not be in an email but I have nobody else to talk about it with.

Last Monday was to be my last day in China as my flight from Bangkok was today, however, I had been placed on a waiting list to extend my stay by one week. The kind lady in Bangkok had bought my story that I was ill in China and granted me my extension. Delighted, I returned to my guest house to break the great news to my two travelling companions.

So, we decided to go to something called the Tiger Leaping Gorge in a remote hilly area of Yunnan bordering Tibet (dont worry if you have never heard of it because I hadnt either). The gorge is possibly the largest in the world, with 3900m between the top of the mountains and the Yantse river below. The only problem we had was that the gorge was closed because of the wet season which made it even more prone to landslides than before. Many travellers and locals had died on this gorge.

We arrived in a ghost town. Only one cafe open and managed by an eccentric Aussy woman called Margo. After settling into our hotel, which for some bizarre reason possessed a western loo, we returned to the cafe to pick up some info on the next day’s trekking. She made us some delicious food which did not contain the following: chicken feet, heart, head, eyes or bones. We began to settle down and drink beer.  Margo told us everything that we needed to know, including the fact that we must start walking at the crack of dawn and the first three hours would be a 1000m assent.

As we relaxed, whilst listening to Savage Garden, Margo received calls from other points along the trek that an American couple that had set off from her cafe hours earlier were in serious trouble. She began to panic but we continued to drink beer as there was nothing we could do and the beer was good.  As the afternoon became evening and the locals had begun their annual torch festival, the heavens opened. We made friends with an American (yes, another American traveller in China) and a shy Chinese guy called Wang Wei ‘Wrong Way’. More calls came in from the almost deserted Gorge that the American couple were in need of desperate help. We just sat, drank and watched a local child in beautiful traditional dress pull the wings and legs off an unfortunate huge insect. More calls came in.

Suddenly, out of the rain, emerged a Chinese man, shaking. He was saturated and scared. The atmosphere amongst us five travellers changed. The problem was here. An American woman burst in a minute later in a state. Her boyfriend, Greg, was in the local hospital across the river. He was seriously ill. He set off in the morning with a cold and when he was 3000m up his chest began to hurt, he vomited, went into a fit and fell 5-feet down the gorge, landing on his head and swallowing his tongue.

Margo called the US embassy (a bunch of useless bloody morons) and I ran to the ‘hospital’. Can you imagine what this ‘hospital’ looked like in a rural village of 1,000 people? I found a crowd around the patient and the American girl, Liz, wailing. The patient, Greg, had his eyes open, fixed in one position, whilst he was in a constant fit. His arms and legs moved uncontrollably, as they had done for the last three hours and continued to do so for next 12 hours. I cannot think of a hospital I would less like to be ill in.  The crowd around the bed consisted of 15 people, including the drunk chief of police, a doctor, some nurses and anyone else who wanted to see a foreigner in risk of losing his life with only Wrong Way who could translate for us. Liz was delighted that there was a Westerner around who understood what she was saying.

I cleared the room, with the help of Wrong Way. Greg, the patient, continued to scream and fit. I assembled the doctors in the next room and, with the help of Wrong Way’s very broken English, I managed to understand that Greg was in danger and that we owed 700 yuan (80 US). The consensus was to take him by ambulance (van with flashing lights) two hours to a little city with a better hospital.

It took 8 men to carry Greg, with drips coming out of him, to the van. Liz wanted me in the van, as a friendly face, even though we had never met, and Wrong Way got in to help translate.  The journey was crazy. Greg was unconscious, but yet his arms and legs would not stop. Liz talked to him throughout. The journey was undertaken at midnight on roads that were prone to landslides, through the rain. To make it worse for me, I had been drinking most of the afternoon. I called all the people that Greg knew in the US, insurance companies and anyone who would listen to me on my mobile, as you need a special phone that is registered with the communist regime to call abroad (bastards).

We got to the hospital OK and were put in a ward with a bemused old man. There was only one doctor on duty and nobody that spoke English. The nurses filled him with drips, as Wrong Way tried to explain what had happened. Greg’s breathing deteriorated, and nobody seemed to know what to do. The night was horrid. We took him to have his brain scanned. Wrong Way held his head in place and I pinned his legs down, as Liz held his hands and tried to talk to him but he couldnt hear. We think that the scan was OK. No blood on the brain. Small mercy.

We took him back to the ward where there was urine and blood all over the floor. A vision of hell. In China, there is a rather do-it-yourself approach to health care. We had to hold the oxygen over his face and often had to hold the drips in place.  One vision that will live with me forever is Wrong Way holding Greg’s hand in place from pulling his drip out, whilst Wrong Way slept. I tried to doze but needed to reassure Liz that he was in a good place which I didnt believe. Liz didnt sleep and just talked to Greg with more love than I have ever witnessed.

The morning came and so did 30 non English-speaking doctors. The monring was so horrible. His condition got worse and his heartbeat was erratic at best. Liz remained calm. I tried. Wrong Way tried explaining what had had happened and I rang International SOS to get Greg out.  He was moved to another room with an expectant mother. Doctor after doctor came in. It was such a novelty to see a Westerner, especially one naked, having a fit for hour after hour. Every medical student came for a look and so did every patient in the hospital and those visiting those already in hospital. In fact, I feel sorry for all the other patients who lost the doctors and visitors just to see Greg. The Chinese had no shame: they stared with impunity at someone close to death because he is Western.

Greg’s father, with the help of me on the phone, managed to organise a medical evacuation but it was so hard to do. I think the fact that his Greg’s father is a wealthy state representative must have helped. I took call after call from his parents and made calls to speed things up.

All of a sudden, the situation got worse. He stopped breathing. There was 15 doctors around his bed trying to save him from an illness that they have only seen six times before and they all died. Liz, who was wailing, was taken to another room to be interrogated by another 15 doctors using a local business man who spoke quite good English. I remained with Greg, threatening law suits to International SOS, whilst crying at the same time. I was put onto an English doctor who reassured me that the Chinese would intubate him but they hadnt. Muppets. Eventually he was intubated and his life saved for the time being.  Maybe I should mention that this is the place where SARS started and the Chinese’s botched response to it began.

Greg stabilised and he was eventually intubated. International SOS got their act together (once a massive cheque had cleared) and called the hospital. All was not over. The doctors had a meeting where THEY were going to decide what to do. My mission was to stop them touching him again until the plane from Beijing arrived. Are doctors the world around so condescending??  Just as China seemed like hell, Wang Wei ordered us the equivalent of a KFC and paid for it. This single gesture was magic. The only time that Liz smiled. She is the strongest of women at 23.

The plane was now fours away with English-speaking, English trained doctors, onboard. I granted myself a smile. When things get good over here something always happens that reminds you that sometimes this place is so backward. The police arrived. Three menacing brutes in uniform and two pretty female undercover agents who wanted to know why were at the gorge and how the accident happened. Liz had to sign yet another form – all in Chinese – but what did it say? Who knows.

At 6pm, 26 hours after the accident there was a commotion at the door and the crowd pulled back from the door. It was the SOS team!!!!! YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. They spoke English and they knew what they were doing. The equipment that is standard in the West fascinated the Chinese doctors. It took two hours to move him onto the trolly with crowd now at standing at 40.

I will never forget two things. First one, English-trained doctor and one English trained nurse could do what 30 Chinese doctors and 10 Chinese nurses could do. The second was a Chinese doctor saying to the English trained doctors that the patient’s salt levels were low and the better doctor retorting ‘It’s irrelevant’. The Chinese doctors looked on with disbelief. We could trust these two angels from the sky. Liz’s credit card had maxed so I paid half of the 700$ so he could be discharged.

The crowd and I waived the ambulance off, shattered.  According to the insurance company, Greg is still alive and is in Hong Kong. My prayers are with this man that I have cried over but have never spoken to. If he recovers, both Wang Wei and I have been invited to the wedding.

Dont reply. I had to write it.

Andrew

on a lighter note, never tell a Chinese hairdresser that you only want a little bit off your hair and show them a small space between your fingers to show them a small amount as they will cut it to that size. I now have a number three all over and wear a hat to cover my shame.

CategoriesEnvironmentPoliticsBusiness

The Crowd Wisdom Project

Welcome to the world: The Crowd Wisdom Project!

 

Spawned from my passion for, and frustration with, standard party politics, particularly local party politics, 2022 sees me launch the CWP. Founded as a birthday present to myself in 2020, had my health not been so topsy-turvy in 2021, CWP would have launched six months ago.

 

CWP springs from my prediction (which must be a borderline future fact) that the way we vote today – with a pencil and paper in a voting booth – will modernise. With bank branches closing, so that most people – regardless of age – now do their banking online, voting – the last vestiges of a bygone era – will – must! – change.

 

The recent election for the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner in North Yorkshire witnessed a shameful 13.5% turnout. The victor – who remains a councillor twice over AS WELL AS BEING the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner – secured circa 3.5% of the possible votes. This is not a mandate: this is a stain on our democracy.

 

My hope for the CWP is that, in a small way, CWP nudges us towards a fairer, more consensual system of decision-making.

 

So, what is the Crowd Wisdom Project?

 

CWP – run through the not-for-profit company, Consensus Politics Limited (by guarantee, not by shares), uses open source, copylefted machine-learning technology – Polis – to run online conversations. These facilitated conversations are living, breathing, thinking affairs, unlike all other survey tools before it. Polis has been used to seismic effect in Taiwan, revolutionising their decision-making, whilst quelling antagonism. (Taiwan certainly has much to teach us about responding to a pandemic.)

 

Polis was created by some altruistic geniuses at the Computational Democracy Project in Seattle, led by Colin Megill. My hope is that I contribute to the development of, and awareness of, Polis – a tool of enormous potential.

 

Polis allows all voters to anonymously suggest statements and for all voters to vote on all statements. Polis then finds the consensus points and the cohorts within a group of people. Polis allows shy people (like me, believe it or not) to ventilate their thoughts. Social media works by pouring petrol onto disputes: whereas Polis is interested in the best ideas, not the ideas most shouted about.

 

When a Polis conversation is over, transparent organisations send the detailed reports to the voters. Of course, organisations don’t need to adhere to the discovered consensus points, but if they do, they know that the issue has been fully explored and that the best ideas have come to the fore.

 

With CWP, I offer my time, expertise and resources to environmental groups – at zero cost to them – to help them to find the best ideas and help build consensus, and compromises, around these positions. With New Year’s Day being the hottest on record, I fear that this limited effort is too little, too late. To save the planet we all need to make dramatic compromises in how we live: Polis could help us to find those compromises.

 

CWP will also help community groups at the half the cost we charge businesses (business being charged £150 per Polis). For business, as I have found with my law firm, anonymous Polis conversations work very well for navigating tricky issues such as Covid risks, as well as for planning for future business strategy. I also believe that Polis’ anonymous modus operandi could work well for improving the mental health of a workplace.

 

I have always been obsessed with the power of good ideas: what CWP does best is to unearth the finest ideas. Humans have it within us to solve all human-caused problems. With my health uncertain (and isn’t this so for us all?), I want to be as potent as I can be in 2022. Wish me luck!

And if you know of any business, environmental group, community group or political group who are brave enough to try the very best of technology, please give them my details.