Saturday, December 27, 2008

Harold Pinter 1930-2008


Two quotes from Harold Pinter who died over the Christmas holiday:

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false” (1958).

A long life-time later:

“When we look into a mirror we think that the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of the mirror that the truth stares at us.”

“I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.” (2005, Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance Speech).

These two sets of statements strike me as inconsistent with each other, unless, of course, one accepts the premise of the first that life is paradox, mystery, impenetrable, un-pin-downable. In which case we can either ignore or accept the implicit condradiction in his words, or do both simultaneously.

An interval of fifty years separates the mind of the young, emergent Pinter and the older, wiser Pinter. Pinter the Elder lays down the Law of Obligation, an inescapable call to duty, to mental struggle, to the obligations of citizenship, concluding, “If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man” (Nobel acceptance speech ).

Now I do wonder how he came to this point of pessimistic certainty, this dogmatism. Perhaps he was frightened into it by the thought of how his Nobel acceptance speech might be received, although he had little time for critics, once saying, “I find (them) on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people”.

I don’t share his concerns about human dignity, or think that maintaining human dignity is the province of politics, the responsibility of a political citizenry, or even a social project to be embarked on by writers. Less tinkering, say I- less “building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”, less chariots of fire and ceaseless strife, if you please. Less doing - more being?

I do like Harold's portrait at the head of this page. So very intense, so very "fifties" - the angry or at least agonised young man of the day, amongst many. He was very handsome too, as well as gifted.


My contract to serve as an Honorary Hospital Chaplain to Mid-Essex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Farleigh Hospice has recently been renewed for another year, although I can hardly be said to have discharged it very completely over the last year. There are very few calls on the services of a Buddhist Chaplain in Mid-Essex, and I haven’t “put myself about” very diligently at the Chelmsford hospitals that comprise the Trust, although I’ve responded to the infrequent calls that have been made from time to time.

I’ve also taken occasional Communion with the Christian ministers and volunteers, a very agreeable and uplifting ‘ecumenical’ ceremony held each Wednesday lunchtime.

The Trust already offers meditation classes for staff, so there seems little point in setting up another “stall” for potential meditators, even if I had the time and the skill to run classes, which I don’t.

Work is progressing in Buddhist circles, I’m informed, on developing a structure to accredit and approve Buddhist Hospital Chaplains more widely (there are at present very few of us in post). I have reservations about this move - not that I’m against a Buddhist presence in hospitals, but because it seems unnecessarily restrictive and bureaucratic, and I’m not sure who will come forward to do the approving and accrediting the new scheme calls for.

I wouldn’t feel in any way equipped to approve another person for the role. Who am I to judge another, and what would I be using as a yardstick to measure their acceptability? Some people toss criteria like “trustworthiness”, “empathy”, “reliability”, “warmth”, “well-versed in Buddhadharma” and so on in to the arena. But what do these mean, and how are they properly assessed or quantified?

Others would require an attestation from a “Buddhist spiritual leader or teacher” about the candidate’s “good standing in the Buddhist community”. Well, I don’t know how I would meet that one - I couldn’t, not ever.

But if you are interested in a chaplaincy or chaplaincy volunteer role, write in to me and I will put you in touch with developments, so you can bring your own influence to bear on what is decided, before the die is cast, so to speak.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Positivity - glass half-full or half-empty?

We were recently approached by a seasoned Buddhist who is inspired to build a Buddhist Hospice here in the United Kingdom - a place where a dying Buddhist could be fully supported in their practice as they neared the end of their life, a modern, well-appointed place where holistic care could be given to the highest standards by Buddhist attendants.

This is a noble aspiration, and it was put to us with unusual fervour and enthusiasm, notwithstanding the challenges inherent in such an undertaking. The person who made the proposal didn't know about our own existence when he first conceived the hospice idea, and only learned about the Trust via a third party, which led to his telephoning us.

My first-off response was to greet the proposal, saying that I would personally lend whatever resources I could to such a venture and, further, that the Buddhist Hospice Trust would do whatever lay in its power to help. I thereby surprised myself at my own positivity.

I think my response was called forth by the positivity of my counterpart, the one who made the proposal; but also that it came from a general attitude of positivity that I have cultivated this year, although I can't say how I've done it. I've meditated on positivity a few times, and - of course - positivity (and cooperation) were advertised as themes for the year on the website, and in planning the conferences that didn't happen. One can only wonder - but there it is - a glass half full of readiness to help, open-mindedness, and belief in miracles!

At the Mandala meeting we met up with the man who wants to run with the hospice idea and see it through to fruition, in company with like-minded others as a project to unite all traditions, generating the fund-raising and voluntary-service capacity needed, and within a open time-frame. This fellow's enthusiasm is infectious, and there's no doubting his determination to realise his dream, his ability to entrain others, or his experience of the British Buddhist scene (whatever that might comprise).

We had an interesting discussion. I'm not at all an expert on hospice work, and I did suggest to him that he might better consult people who are about what's involved in developing a hospice service from scratch. My views on hospice work are, it must be said, at least idiosyncratic; but one does not have to be a specialist to know that hospices in general are 'retrenching' financially and in other respects, that end-of-life care is changing, so that it is likely in future that more people will die 'at home' than in a hospital or hospice bed. This doesn't of itself imply that a Buddhist hospice can't be achieved, nor that it oughtn't to be: let what will be announce itself, and who knows what may happen.

What I was able to point to, from my own experience of care-provision (in nursing and residential care environments, as well as in hospitals), is the high cost of care. It is not so much in capital costs that hospice care comes dear, but in recurrent costs - the monthy bills, as the following "back-of-an envelope" calculations may show. These are my own raw figures, and they may only be rough approximations, but - as far as I can honestly say - they are realistic, and give some idea of what might be involved.

The figures offered are based on a notional hospice offering four in-patient beds for terminally ill or dying people requiring end-of-life care, including palliative care (pain- and symptom-relief, specialised nursing, and on-call medical support). The figures represent estimated monthly outlay, based on a twelve calendar month year.

Rates/Council tax £ 200
Utilities (Gas. electricity, water, sewage) £ 800
Insurances £ 120
Maintenance of fabric/repairs £ 100
Technical equipment (hire/replacement) £ 160
Food/drink (based on 4 patients and eight
staff) £ 300
Cleaning materials and consumables (e.g.
paper towels, toilet rolls, gloves etc) £ 160
Stationery/stamps/office sundries £ 80
Telephone/Internet £ 60
Nursing staff (based on 6 Whole-Time
Equivalents [WTE] for 24 hour cover x 7 day week and employer's NI) £7,200
Care Assistants (based on 6 WTE at national
minumum wage including employer's NI) £4200
Administrator/clerk-receptionist/payroll staff 1 WTE £ 900
Housekeeping staff (cleaner/laundrywoman) 1 WTE £ 750
Cook/Kitchen Assistant 0.5 WTE £ 400

Total £15,430

You may agree this is a lot of money to find monthly, and could call for a professional Fund Raiser, probably full-time. Let's say (if we include her necessary expenses and the resources of publicity she would need to do her crucial work) another £1,400 a month. That adds up to a rounded-off total of £200,000 annual recurrent running costs.

Food for thought, but my cup's still half full, and I'm up for further debate and analysis on the matter. Are you?