Friday, 22 August 2014

Steel-clad castle - an icon of inequality?

A statue of Nye Bevan looks over towards Cardiff Castle from its plinth at the end of Queen Street.  I walked past the other day and wondered what he would have thought if he was alive and standing there - as the huge metal barricades block his view of the Castle and other iconic buildings, causing traffic jams throughout the region, closing schools, requiring nearly 10,000 extra police officers and costing an unspecified fortune - and all in a part of the UK where the NHS he worked so hard to put in place, and most other public services, are close to financial breaking point.

When we first heard that Obama and the NATO entourage were coming to Cardiff it did seem quite exciting. We were told the region would benefit financially through a boost to trade and extra funding.  But now it's hard to see how that can possibly happen when we're all advised to avoid travelling and keep well away if we can.

Will any of the regular people of Wales catch a sight of the President or any other world leader as they purr along behind the steel and are ushered inside to enjoy their high-end Welsh cuisine? Very unlikely. Will the delegates pay any attention to the demonstration outside calling for economic justice and peace? The beheading of an American journalist is nothing other than horrific and appalling, but why is it so much more appalling than the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of "nameless" mums, dads, children and siblings each day in the middle east, and the misery reported on almost every page of my newspaper today from all around our globe?

Yes, our world leaders need to talk to one another. They need to listen to one another, and more importantly they need to actually listen to the people of the world and not barricade them out of earshot.  It's hard to believe in Western leaders who preach about freedom and democracy from fortified castles, and carry on cashing in from arms sales around the world.  It's hard to give money to international aid efforts with enthusiasm, when we suspect that global corporations hover overhead like vultures ready to sign lucrative contracts and cash in on the suffering and rebuilding efforts.

What is about to go on here in Wales feels like a large-scale parallel to my week-in-week-out struggles to be listened to when I talk about the injustices faced by children with disabilities, the rationing by prevarication and bureaucracy, and the unnecessary exhaustion faced by their families.  Richard Dawkins' comments on Twitter about the supposed moral obligation to abort a foetus with Down's syndrome have provoked outrage, but "it's so sad" is still a common response to children with disabilities.  He maintains, whilst pretending to apologise, that his view is logical.  But the real problem for him is that he has clearly never known anyone, intimately, with Down's syndrome and  appreciated their value. In fact, as several special schools across the Vale of Glamorgan close and reopen on a single site in Barry, following a similar pattern in Cardiff, it's starting to feel like we have made a U-turn in society and are now on the road away from disability equality.

Rather than a beacon of hope, this steel-clad NATO summit increasingly looks like a miserable monument to all that is wrong in our increasingly unequal, violent and distrustful world.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Eat your vegetables!

I was reading Oliver Burkeman's column in yesterday's Guardian - about the challenge of getting children to eat vegetables and do other things that are "good for them". As well as being generally contrary, which thankfully most people grow out of, children want to live in the moment, to simply be and to seek pleasure. Oliver suggests that just putting vegetables in front of children and telling them to eat them because they are delicious would work better...... Maybe!

Owen is learning the piano and loving it. He practices without being told each day, and I think part of this is that I try hard to get the balance right between getting him to persevere with pieces he finds difficult, but also leaving him to put his pieces to one side and just explore different sounds and figure out the songs and the TV theme tunes that are playing in his head. He needs to enjoy the process of learning and not just the progress and the competition with his classmates, although these are also motivators.

I've been struck lately by my own attitudes to my two children as they learn and develop. Imogen's cerebral palsy has meant that she has not naturally had the same opportunities to explore as Owen.  Compared with other children her age her spatial awareness is less sophisticated and position words such as "behind", "next to" etc still cause confusion. How much of this is due to her lack of opportunity at a critical time when other babies are starting to move about, fall over, manipulate objects, poke things into holes etc?  How much is due to damage to the part of her brain that controls this understanding?  It's hard to say, but it is clear that her parents and teachers have an essential role in identifying these gaps in the building blocks of her learning so that she can make solid progress.  This applies to almost everything - personal care, physical development, reading, numbers etc.  For someone as lacking in patience as me this is a very slow process that can be deeply frustrating.  It also means that sheer relief can detract from my pleasure and pride in her achievements.  Owen, on the other hand, seems to make progress all by himself, taking every opportunity to ask difficult questions, climb on things, draw and write and figure out which piano notes sound nice when played together.  And I mostly just watch with pleasure.

This morning at church our vicar Trystan was talking about how our fears can paralyse us and stop us from enjoying the journey.  He is fearful of flying, but I think my biggest fears are about the future.  Both of my children are making really good progress, but when I look ahead what do I see?  Will Imogen be able to pass exams, get a job?  Will she be able to do things in her life that are valued by others and by herself?  And what about Owen?  As inequality increases in the UK it is hard to look ahead without anxiety.  It's no good just getting a degree now; it has to be a good degree from a top university or your child might still not be able to find a job, or have to do three jobs to pay the bills. So instead of just enjoying Owen's progress maybe I need to check that he's ahead of others his age so we don't lose out in the big competition of life.  Obviously I can't deny that this competition exists and escape from it entirely, but I must make sure I don't let the fear and anxiety dominate.

If I'm not careful all of this anxiety relegates my children's childhood simply to a period of preparation for adulthood.  That is crazy when you think about it, because childhood in many ways is the best bit! Do carrots exist only to provide you with essential vitamins so you "grow big and strong", or are they also about enjoying the experience of growing, preparing and eating them? Is a run in the park just about getting a cardio workout to avoid getting overweight or getting into the first team, or can it also be about enjoying the experience of running, the sounds, smells and wildlife around?

So, will Imogen will be able to do things with her adult life that are valued by others and herself?   In fact she is doing those things every day now.  She brings and derives huge pleasure to and from those that she spends time with, as well as with a large community of people who follow her progress online. Did Jesus say "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, because they are the  leaders of the future"?  No. He said "for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these".  Now.