Letter from Aberdare

Roy Noble
Writer, Broadcaster, Bevan Commissioner

Roy Noble Daffodils photo by Hazel Guppy

The other evening, in our house, we broke the ‘stay at home’ isolation directive during this coronavirus pandemic. At eight o’clock we stepped outside our front door to join in the nationwide ‘clapping for carers’ applause in support of the National Health Service staff. My one regret was that I forgot to use the old school handbell that I was given when I left the world of education. Oh yes, as neighbours, we were all in self-isolation, but yet, we were together, social distancing, in a group and part of a massive crowd stretching to every corner of our country.

On conclusion of the gesture, conversation was thrown to neighbours opposite and shouts of approval sent up the road. Greg, of Number 4, and I also considered and wondered at the bright light in the sky to the west. Was the planet Venus still out in support this late in the month of March? Was it a slow-moving aircraft, a hovering helicopter (although there was no aircraft noise), or was it a quietly surveying UFO? Intriguing. In the end, my money was on a well-lit drone, sent up by someone living just off the Hirwaun Road.

Occasions such as the other night make the mind meander, reflect and ponder… Isolation, yet in a crowd. I turned over a relatively recent page from memory. Lying abed in Ward 7, Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr Tydfil after my medical drama eighteen months ago, at about eight o’clock of an evening, I became aware of a low-pitched hum. It proved to be the window blinds automatically easing down to close.

Now, I would venture to suggest that the lights of Merthyr Tydfil were never going to challenge Las Vegas for colour and intensity… but I needed to see them. They were my link with the outside world. In the hours that followed, darkness was joined by a relative: isolation. A feeling of isolation and vulnerability, even though I was in company, other patients in their pen and the ever-attentive support of the night shift staff.

Oddly, that feeling of being cut-off from the world had happened before, twice, both in a medical landscape. In 1962, South Wales was hit by a smallpox epidemic. International sports events were called off and life became threatened and insecure, even for students like myself, who felt, naturally, invincible. I ended up in the sickbay, having been felled by the smallpox vaccine jab. It was a quarantine corner that, gradually, became crowded.

A few years earlier, in my embryonic early teenage span, I ended up in Morriston Hospital late at night, having fallen off a flat roof in the dark. Don’t even ask or wonder as to how it came about, it was embarrassing for an acne-bedecked thirteen-year-old and very, very painful. After I came ‘round from concussion, the first diagnosis at A&E was a broken leg, two broken arms, a possible fractured skull and missing front teeth, left embedded in the concrete path below the roof. A reassessment the following morning reduced the injury list to half a page… two broken wrists.

On that first night, isolation and loneliness set in, even though the sounds of the night, coughs and worse, gave me hints that I was not entirely alone. I was to learn later that I was in a ward of thirty beds, all in the one long room. The camaraderie of the early mornings and the dawning day raised the spirit, even though they were the old days. Matron, clearly a direct descendent of Boudicca without any blood mix, would  ‘pay a call’. If you were ill in bed, you had to be ill tidily; no crimpled bed sheets tolerated. Visitors were constrained in numbers, two to a bed, no children allowed; children had to be held up to a window to wave to their grandparents, much like, in some cases, these days of coronavirus non-contact, of course. If you found yourself as one of three around a bed during ‘visiting’ and the clarion call went up that ‘Matron was on her way’, you quickly looked for a bed with just one visitor, or none at all, then swiftly moved to it, indulging, possibly, in intimate medical conversations with someone you didn’t know at all. Wales, of course, is a village, so common ground was quickly established as to where they were from and did they know ‘so and so’ from that neck of the woods. We Welsh are not nosy; we are merely, genuinely, inquisitive and interested! It’s in our DNA. We are a sociable tribe.

The hospital regimes, and the wider health field, had order, respect, responsibility and discipline in those days, it was accepted. Society, these days, in many scenarios and in the minds of those who challenge  norms at every turn,  does not allow that acceptance to lie comfortably with their freedom of everyday life as they see it. Selfish behaviour, by a sizeable minority, in the face of directives given during this health crisis, is proof of that. Social distancing, reasoned behaviour and self-isolation are far from some wayward minds. Thank heavens for the reasonable majority.

Mind you, there are always the ‘chancers’ to deal with, looking for a way ‘round the system. I know of one county which has sent out the gendarmerie to close a number of pubs, who had, unofficially and quietly, stayed open for loyal locals. The clientele did maintain social distancing, they argued, they all just sat at different tables.

The coronavirus crisis is testing in the extreme for everyone, causing immense stress in the health and care sectors in terms of provision. The cohesion of society is being stretched beyond measure, but communities will rally and individuals will respond wonderfully.

The simple event of that special night, the 8 o’clock ‘clapping for carers’, gives hope. Neighbours, who years ago perhaps lived in a street where, over the back wall, a ‘chat and check’ unofficial care system was in place, could, possibly and hopefully, just have resurrected that system last night. People who had lived cheek by jowl for years without knowing or acknowledging each other may have moved around the corner, or up a flight level, in their state of living and being. Communities may have come together in regard, service and concern. Relationships may have become warmer, closer. I have a strong suspicion that life has changed and will continue to enhance in the coming months, in our attitude towards our fellow beings, on this planet and on your road. The community and national spirit of goodness will prevail.

Good will come from this extreme adversity. The National Health Service, the world-known NHS, will grow from this. It will be re-energised, even further respected, a pillar and backbone of what this country is and stands for. It is vital that, once this crisis is over, the NHS, over the combined sectors of health and care, will be encouraged and supported in innovation and development. It is a jewel.

I am privileged in being a Bevan Commissioner. The Bevan Commission is a think tank formed by the Welsh Government, but is independent from it. Commissioners vet and view progress and performance in the health and care sectors of Wales. They represent a cross section of professional and highly respected practitioners, managers and academics, with huge swathes of past or present experience across the whole spectrum of health provision and practice. Through advocates, who have experience of treatment within the NHS, and exemplars, who are innovative practitioners, the Commission gleans ideas, procedure and possibilities and canvasses boards and government to instigate action. I hasten to add that I am at the ‘pavement level’, the patient and customer end of the service. I receive views that are hugely contributory and constructive, the refreshing place where a spade is truly called a spade, and I use that shovel as well as I can.

Now, I know that the Welsh are caustic about committees. The cynic would say that the big moment in any committee is when it forms a sub-committee. I have heard all the clichés, even down to the basic one that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Well, let me reassure you, the Bevan Commission is a thoroughbred, whether a horse or a camel, and don’t forget, worldwide, there are classic races for both.

As for the NHS staff, over the past weeks and in the face of pressures yet to come, they have displayed an extraordinary selflessness, professionalism, commitment, co-operation and sheer bravery. The number of volunteers, hundreds of thousands, who have joined its ranks to help, express a groundswell of support, and, indeed, to show love for the service, is truly uplifting. The care sector should also be warmly included in that cwtch we extend to them. A cwtch, that cuddle which in Wales, as we know, is 50% more in expression and gusto. For now a cwtch metaphorically speaking, of course, in view of social distancing.

I am lucky. I have Elaine to share our self-isolation. I cannot go into a studio to broadcast at present, because of my ‘vulnerable’ age, and I cannot volunteer in any way, because of the same reason, so I have to put my mind to other things. I have been writing, in this case children’s books, which are to be published very soon. Perhaps I should try, again, to learn how to play a musical instrument. In my desk drawer, recently, I found the three mouth organs that had suffered my previous attempts at musicality. It will be easier, perhaps, if I extend my Country music repertoire. It’s about time my rendering of ‘Gypsy Woman’, after three pints, is extended into a full album of offerings.

I have heard other tips on how to use the time productively. Call someone on the telephone, if you are able, just to maintain contact and chat. Make a list of ‘to-do’ things, like getting rid of those photographs depicting places you don’t even remember, de-clutter, or make an inventory of the socks or such, to throw out when the time comes. If you are not online, and very many are not, if you have no computer and no mobile phone, do check out official advice by radio, television or newspapers.

On the ‘things-I’ve-been-meaning-to-do’ list, years ago, I decided to reduce my New Year’s resolutions down to one per year. The first year, I vowed to get a bus licence. I’ve always loved buses; they were chariots for adventure years ago. I achieved that. Year two, I vowed to learn the Argentine tango. A woman from Tumble taught me, but she was too vibrant for me and when she wrapped her leg around my thigh, no blood was getting to my ankle at all… I had severe pins and needles. We reverted to the waltz.

Finally, in year three, I vowed to get in touch with old friends of mine from years ago that I had been selfishly too busy, or so I believed, to contact. In two cases, I was too late. They had passed on. Now there’s a sobering lesson in life’s priorities. Keep in touch or get in touch.

As I write this, the birdsong at 5 a.m. is long gone but the morning fly-past of the Canada geese will soon be heralded by their squawking, being led by their squadron leader in V formation as they head for the lake in Cwmdare. My gaze out of the window, just above the keepsake school handbell I mentioned earlier and the Welsh sheep from the Grog shop in Ponty, takes in daffodils, the complex architecture of the vast trees across the road, something I rarely appreciated in busier days of yore, the blossom on some smaller trees, brave budding leaves on others, Maerdy Mountain drawing its line across the clear sky to the south-west. There is a small dog out for his walkies, yapping at nothing in particular. Small dogs are bigger yappers than their larger cousins, I find; it must be a territory thing. The mural I view eases the breathing and quietens the crowded mind. Spring is here.

Sunday, 29 March at 1 a.m. saw the clocks spring forward one hour. Ah, how good it would be if the planet’s spin could hiccup a spring forward of four months, so we could see clearly and appreciate an even brighter horizon than the one on display through this window this morning.

Stay safe and be secure and healthy in this adversity that is testing us all.

Pob bendith i chi pob un, every blessing to you all.

Roy Noble