Jumping for joy

Ireland the Labrador greets me by jumping high in the air whenever I come to take him for a walk.

The two of us met about six years ago through The Dogshare Collective. One of his human family had suffered an injury at that time and needed help with his care. I started taking him out in the afternoons, and continued doing so long after his owner’s injury had recovered.

Ireland was bred to become a guide dog for the blind, but due to a minor defect in his own vision he was withdrawn from training and made available for adoption as a family pet. Large, friendly and exuberant, he loves playing with other dogs and like most Labradors he has an insatiable appetite. We have enjoyed many outings and adventures together (search the Animals section of my website to see illustrated posts about my walks with Ireland, also with my other dog share Buddy).

Having a dog brings great benefits – physical, mental and social – also involves great responsibilities. There are many people who are not in a position to have a dog of their own but would like to have a relationship with one. And there are many dogs who, often because their owners are out at work all day, need additional exercise and company. Within New Zealand The Dogshare Collective exists to put people from these two groups in contact with one another.

On Rangitoto

Rangitoto viewed from Cheltenham Beach

On a lovely sunny autumn day Brian and I visited Rangitoto, the volcanic island a short ferry ride from our home.

Disembarking from the wharf

We walked up the steep track towards the summit.

Lava beside the track
Auckland’s CBD in the distance

When we last visited some years ago we made it to the top, but not this time. Not only do we have less stamina nowadays, but the upper parts of the track are quite hazardous after the recent floods. So we went back down and sat in the sun to eat our packed lunch (there are no cafes on the island). Afterwards we walked along the coastal path towards Islington Bay.

On the coastal path

I was going to write a short description of Rangitoto, but thought AI might do it better. The following text was generated in a few seconds by ChatGBT.

Rangitoto Island is a volcanic island located in the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland, New Zealand. It is one of Auckland’s most iconic landmarks and a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

Geology: Rangitoto Island is a volcanic cone that emerged from the sea around 600 years ago, making it one of the youngest islands in the Hauraki Gulf. It is part of the Auckland volcanic field, which consists of around 50 volcanic cones and craters scattered across the Auckland region. Rangitoto’s distinct symmetrical shape and its dark volcanic rock create a striking visual contrast against the blue waters of the gulf.

Natural Environment: The island is predominantly covered in dense vegetation, including native New Zealand flora such as pohutukawa trees, ferns, and shrubs. The pohutukawa trees, with their vibrant red flowers during the summer months, have earned Rangitoto the nickname “the Red Tree Island.” The island’s rugged landscapes and scenic trails provide opportunities for hiking and exploration, allowing visitors to experience its natural beauty up close.

Recreational Activities: Rangitoto Island offers various recreational activities for visitors. The island is accessible by a short ferry ride from downtown Auckland, making it a convenient day trip destination. Upon arrival, visitors can embark on walking tracks that lead to the summit of the volcano, offering panoramic views of Auckland’s skyline, the Hauraki Gulf, and the surrounding islands. Exploring the lava caves formed by ancient volcanic activity is another popular activity on the island.

Cultural Significance: Rangitoto holds cultural significance for the local Māori people, who consider it a sacred site. The island’s name, “Rangitoto,” translates to “Bloody Sky” in Māori, which is believed to originate from a historic battle that took place there. The island is home to archaeological sites, including Māori pa (fortified village) remains, which reflect its historical importance.

Conservation and Protection: Rangitoto Island is part of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park and is managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) in New Zealand. The DOC focuses on preserving the island’s natural environment, protecting its wildlife, and maintaining the integrity of its volcanic landscapes. Visitors are encouraged to respect the island’s fragile ecosystem by following designated tracks and leaving no trace behind.

Overall, Rangitoto Island offers a unique blend of natural beauty, volcanic history, and cultural significance. Its accessibility, diverse flora and fauna, and recreational activities make it an attractive destination for nature lovers, hikers, and those seeking a memorable experience in the Auckland region.

Animal exports; a moral dilemma

A ban on the export of live cattle, sheep, goats and deer from New Zealand will come into force this month, following years of campaigning by the SPCA backed by widespread public support. But we are having a general election in October 2023, and the National and Act parties have stated that if they come into power, live animal exports will be started again.

This practice is both cruel and unnecessary. A position statement from the SPCA has described the stressors on animals undergoing sea voyages lasting weeks or months: fear and anxiety, exposure to disease, overcrowding, overheating, motion sickness and more. Some animals die on board, and in 2020 almost 6,000 drowned when a livestock container ship en route from New Zealand to Saudi Arabia sank off the coast of Japan. And, depending on the adequacy of health and welfare in the destination countries, animals may be subjected to further suffering when they arrive.

There are alternatives to live export. Animals for food could be slaughtered here and their refrigerated carcasses exported. For breeding purposes, semen and embryos rather than live animals can be used.

This issue presents me with a moral dilemma. I don’t want to see the Labour Party returned again; since they have been in government New Zealand has gone backwards with falling standards in healthcare and education, increased poverty and crime, increased racial divisions, billions of dollars wasted on idealistic projects which have never been completed. Until now I had been firmly intending to vote for either National or Act, but how can I justify supporting a party which will reinstate live animal exports? Several letters published in the NZ Herald newspaper, including one from me, have expressed this dilemma. I have written to the party leaders, and my local MP, to protest the policy and I hope that if enough other people do the same they will revoke it. If not, is the only answer not to vote at all?

Books I’ve enjoyed #13

The current interest in issues of gender identity prompted me to read Radclyffe Hall’s autobiographical novel The Well of Loneliness, which was banned after its publication in 1928 but is now regarded as a classic. It is about a girl born in the late Victorian era to a wealthy family living on a country estate near Malvern. Despite being biologically female, ever since early childhood her appearance and behaviour has been obviously masculine. Although her parents feel greatly puzzled and concerned by her condition they never speak of it. When she grows up and falls passionately in love with another woman, her mother is forced to acknowledge her nature, and rejects her as “a sin against creation”. During later life in London and Paris she achieves success as a novelist and forms a loving relationship with a younger woman, but is eventually unable to withstand society’s condemnation of “inverts”. Nowadays her condition would be more widely accepted and she would be a candidate for sex reassignment surgery. This sad book contains sensitive descriptions of the main character’s tribulations, and of English country life as it used to be.

I listened to the audiobook version of Prince Harry’s memoir Spare. It is well written (by a ghost writer) and Harry narrates it fluently, He comes over as a fun loving but often troubled man whose most positive experiences have been his army service, his charity work with wounded veterans, and falling in love with Meghan. Although the text contains plenty of interesting material, it is pervaded by the author’s sense of victimhood, entitlement, hatred of the press and resentment towards the royal family. I feel these attitudes can only partly be justified by the trauma of losing his mother when he was eleven years old, terrible though that must have been. We await the next episodes of his life story.

Clare Chamber’s novel Small Pleasures is set in the suburbs of London during the 1950s. Jean is a middle-aged unmarried woman who works as a journalist on a local newspaper and lives with her demanding elderly mother. Her drab existence is enlivened after she begins research for a feature about a young girl who is allegedly the product of a virgin birth. The details of Jean’s domestic life, and the development of her character as she becomes emotionally involved with the girl and her parents, are engagingly described in a style reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym. It must have been difficult to devise a satisfactory ending to the story and the last few chapters are not up to the standard of the earlier ones. Despite this criticism I very much enjoyed the book.

Books I’ve enjoyed #12

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, which won the Booker prize in 2019, is a series of vignettes about 12 women, mostly black lesbians in London, whose lives intersect. There is no punctuation and in parts the writing resembles free verse rather than prose. Neither the style nor the subject would normally have appealed to me, but having been given this book as a gift I felt obliged to read it, and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s semi-autobiographical novel My Dark Vanessa has attracted much controversy, with one reviewer calling it tragic, repulsive and infuriating. As a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Maine, the narrator willingly entered into a sexual relationship with her 40-something English teacher. Their affair continues to impact her life many years later, especially in the light of the MeToo movement. It would be far too simplistic to describe this psychologically complex situation in terms of victimhood, abuse or even rape. A challenging but absorbing read.

Turning from books about the intricacy of sex and gender issues in today’s world to a refreshingly straightforward memoir of wartime service. A Spitfire Girl by Mary Ellis describes the work of the ferry pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary, who transferred aircraft between RAF bases in World War Two. This remarkable woman flew over a thousand planes of 76 different types, ranging from Spitfire fighters to Wellington bombers. After the war she continued a long career in aviation, and died in 2018 at the age of 101.

I was feeling guilty about never having read Middlemarch by George Eliot, published in 1871 and widely considered the best English novel of all time, so I bought myself a copy for Christmas. I can see it is a monumental achievement, but with so many long descriptive paragraphs I am finding it hard going and have given up my intention of reading one chapter per day. I think this shows how much writing styles have changed over the years, also how my own attention span has got shorter presumably due to continual use of electronic devices.

I’ve been reading some lighter modern novels as well and will mention just a few. Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is an elegantly written, quietly disturbing short book set in the 1980s in a rural Irish community dominated by the Church. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex, inspired by a real event, is about the disappearance of three men from a lighthouse off the Cornish coast in the 1970s, and how the unsolved mystery continues to affect their wives many years later. Lastly, being a fan of psychological crime stories set in Oxford, I am enjoying Ruth Ware’s The IT Girl . A man serving a sentence for the murder of a college student ten years earlier has died in prison – but was he guilty after all?

Two dogs

Although I don’t have my own dog, I have the pleasure of knowing several local ones, and regular “dog sharing” arrangements with two of them: Ireland the Labrador and Buddy the Cavoodle. This involves taking them for walks, and sometimes keeping them company while their owners are out. I love both dogs equally, but they are so different from one another it can be hard to believe they belong to the same species, canis lupus familiaris.

Ireland the Labrador

Ireland is a confident, exuberant big black Labrador nearly six years old. He loves everything life has to offer: going for walks, playing with other dogs, riding in cars, and most of all he loves eating – almost anything except kidneys. His only fault is a tendency to bolt towards any source of food, such as a picnic or a discarded pie, which he can smell from far away. I have been walking him for about four years now and his joyful greeting when I come to see him always makes my day.

Buddy the Cavoodle

Buddy, a second generation Cavoodle just coming up to his first birthday, is a more sensitive soul and prone to anxiety even though he has been raised with the utmost kindness. He is gradually becoming more confident, and now enjoys going for walks although he was previously reluctant to leave the house. He still hates car travel, and in further contrast with Ireland he is indifferent to food, and often has to be coaxed into eating. Buddy is a very handsome dog, with an affectionate nature. He loves cuddles and is still small enough to sit on my lap.

The characteristics of Ireland and Buddy are typical of their respective breeds. For example it is well established that Labradors are obsessed with food, and that Cavoodles are prone to separation anxiety. Although the way that dogs are treated and trained has a big influence on their development, research has shown a clear genetic basis for inter-breed differences in personality, behaviour and intelligence. https://theconversation.com/genetic-research-confirms-your-dogs-breed-influences-its-personality-but-so-do-you-196274. Doing similar research on humans would be considered racist and unethical nowadays.

Thoughts on later life

“…we believe a full life is one that gets richer with age … rediscovering lost passions and plunging headfirst into new ones … embracing new experiences … bringing joy and meaning to every moment.” This is a shortened version of the text on the website of Ryman Healthcare. Is it realistic to expect old age, whether or not in a Ryman retirement village, to be so idyllic? Or is it more likely to be dominated by adversities such as loss of health and vitality both mental and physical, lack of occupation, reduced income, bereavement, loss of status, social isolation, and the prospect of death whether feared or welcomed? I expect it depends a lot on individual attitude.

Quite a number of my own contemporaries have died before reaching old age, having for no apparent reason developed some fatal disease, usually cancer. Others are still alive and during my recent holiday in England I had the pleasure of renewing friendships with some of those I have known for a long time – from high school, medical school, or hospital jobs in Southampton and Oxford. Since coming back home I have also met up with my New Zealand friends. Our conversations often touched on the question of how to adjust to retirement.

Almost all of us, in our 70s or 80s, have the good fortune to be living in comfortable circumstances with reasonably good health, family connections and ample money, allowing plenty of choice about how to spend our free time after leaving paid employment. My friends described a wide range of activities including charity work, looking after grandchildren or animals, gardening, travel, socialising, entertainments, reading, writing, cooking, painting, crafts, sports, fitness classes, music, academic study, spiritual practice.

Everyone seemed fairly content, especially those who were pursuing some compelling interest, or simply enjoying the freedom to relax and do just what they liked. Others, more introspective, found their lifestyle pleasant enough but questioned whether they were making the best use of whatever time might remain. Some were missing former jobs which had involved contributing to society and being recognised for it. They had not been able to find a type of voluntary work which made full use of their abilities and experience.

One woman who is highly artistic stated that the most vital thing was to express creativity, if only for oneself. I agreed that creativity is very important but felt that the resulting products should be shared with others. There is an example of these differing views at home, where my husband and I both spend a lot of time writing. He does it primarily for his own satisfaction and does not care much whether anyone else ever sees it. In contrast, I like to publish my work in the hope that some readers will benefit from my medical books or enjoy my novels – while trying not to be too flattered by good reviews or too upset by bad ones, for the Stoic philosophers advised against seeking appreciation. They said that the best way to live – at any age – is by striving to be a good person, and focusing only on things you control.

Books I’ve enjoyed #11

Many books have been written about the Second World War, but there always seems room for more, and my two non-fiction choices for this post provide entirely different perspectives. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larsen is an extensively researched account of Winston Churchill’s first year as wartime prime minister, 1940-41. I found the book very easy to read, partly because the detailed information about political and military events is brought to life by personal insights from the diaries of Churchill’s daughter Mary, his private secretary John Colville, and members of the Mass Observation project. Even though Churchill had his flaws and made some decisions which proved misguided, it is impossible not to admire his tremendous energy and stamina, his optimism and determination, his skills as a leader and orator which inspired the British people during the darkest days of the war.

In complete contrast is the extraordinary book When I Was Someone Else by a French journalist, Stephane Allix. During a spiritual retreat in Peru, Allix had a vision of a German soldier dying on a snowy battlefield, followed by scenes from the man’s life, and including his name. Allix became obsessed with this vivid experience, and from military archives discovered that a soldier of that name had served in the brutal Totenkopf division of the Waffen SS, and been killed during the 1941 Russian campaign. Allix was able to contact surviving relatives of the dead man and discover facts which corroborated the content of his vision. Having first assumed that the vision represented a past life of his own, Allix later concluded this was not so, but that the soul of the dead soldier had contacted him in search of forgiveness and healing. I did not know quite what to make of this book, but it will be of interest to students of paranormal phenomena such as reincarnation and spirit communication.

Turning to fiction, as usual I’ve been reading mainly mysteries and psychological thrillers, and I’ll mention two of them which were written by health professionals. Deadly Cure by Mahi Cheshire is about the rivalry between two young female doctors competing for a job at a research institute developing a vaccine against cancer. When the successful candidate gets murdered, suspicion falls on her rival. Some of the medical content is not credible, as the author – herself a doctor – would no doubt admit. But dramatic licence is allowable in fiction, and as light entertainment I found this short book quite gripping.

More grounded in grim realism is The Family Retreat, by clinical psychologist Bev Thompson. The story is narrated by a burnt-out GP who, with her young family, rents a summer holiday cottage near the Dorset coast. She makes friends with another woman who has children similar in age to her own, and they share some pleasant seaside picnics until a dark secret is revealed. This is a rather sombre read, with much reference to mental disorders and troubled relationships, and constant soul-searching by the narrator raising such questions as how far doctors should take responsibility for their patients’ lives, and why so many women submit to being imposed upon by men.

“No good deed goes unpunished”

Actions intended to benefit other people sometimes backfire. They may be perceived as interfering and controlling, or even have tragic results.

I’ve been thinking about this since watching a brilliant performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore by NZOpera and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. In the melodramatic plot, set in fifteenth century Spain, Count di Luna is obsessed with the heroine Leonora. But she is in love with Manrico the troubadour, and spurns Luna’s advances. There is bitter rivalry between the two men and eventually Luna gets Manrico imprisoned and condemned to death. Leonora, in what she sees as a noble sacrifice, offers herself to Luna if he will spare Manrico’s life. But when Manrico learns of Leonora’s plan, instead of being grateful he is disgusted and appalled, and denounces her. Meanwhile, rather than give her body to Luna, she has taken poison. Manrico is executed, and Leonora dies.

The old adage “No good deed goes unpunished” often applies in real life. During 2020 and 2021, the New Zealand government responded to the pandemic by imposing a strict system of lockdowns, mandates and border closures to protect the health of the population. These well-intentioned policies did limit illness and death from Covid in the short term, and gained admiration from around the world. But were they justified when weighed against the long term costs? Businesses failed, unvaccinated workers lost their jobs, other diseases went undiagnosed and untreated, old people were confined indoors and prevented from seeing their relatives even when they were dying. Despite continual exhortations to “be kind”, ugly rifts developed between those who supported the restrictions, and those who resented losing the freedom to direct their own lives.

On a more everyday level, think of the dinner guest who volunteers to do the washing up, only to put things away in the wrong place and break the host’s favourite mug.

My conclusion? It’s good to offer help to other people – but only if it’s done with unselfish motives and if they want to be helped.

Memoirs of an Oxford medical student 1967-70

Osler House, Woodstock Rd

More than 50 years after graduating from Oxford University Medical School, I found a boxful of letters and diaries which I had written during my clinical course. To a naive 20-year-old from a rather sheltered home background, whose first degree at Leeds University had involved more work than play, life in Oxford was a revelation – intellectually, socially and emotionally. My memory for the past is fairly patchy and though I clearly recall some of the people, places and events described, I have forgotten many others which were obviously significant at the time. I was known by my maiden name, Jenny Collins.

The course was mainly based at the old Radcliffe Infirmary in Woodstock Rd. For some attachments we visited the Churchill Hospital, where I would later become a junior doctor and eventually a consultant, Cowley Road Hospital, and the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre. The Radcliffe Infirmary was closed in 2007 and its site is now occupied by university offices. The hub of student life was Osler House (not to be confused with the present clubhouse of the same name on the John Radcliffe site) an 18th century listed building in the hospital grounds. Downstairs was a lounge, bar and kitchen. Morning coffee and afternoon tea were provided free. Upstairs were bedrooms for use when on call. There was an attractive garden with a croquet lawn. Each student also had an attachment to an Oxford college – mine was Somerville – but being postgraduate did not live in. My first few months were spent lodging in Summertown with the mother of a family friend, the widow of a bishop and a keen supporter of Moral Rearmament. After I had moved into my own flat, my former landlady continued to invite me for dinner on Sunday evenings.

Our intake contained only 18 or 20 students. Being divided into even smaller groups for clinical attachments, we got a great deal of individual attention from our teachers. For me, as one of the few women in a male-dominated environment, this was often of a kind which would not be tolerated nowadays. As well as clerking patients we were given considerable responsibility for practical procedures such as taking blood, putting up drips, lumbar punctures, delivering babies, and assisting with surgical operations.

There were periods of intense activity – on take for medicine and surgery, night deliveries in obstetrics, preparing for exams. But otherwise the pace of work was fairly leisurely and allowed time for a vibrant social life. Lunches, dinners, parties and outings were frequent and usually involved vast quantities of food and drink. I sang in the hospital choir and in my final year played a good fairy in the students’ pantomime, Tingewick. I must have done a certain amount of studying but most of my free time seems to have been spent entertaining friends for supper or afternoon tea, making my own dresses, listening to pop music, or walking around Oxford which was then a peaceful place with few cars. Several of my friends did have cars, and when they were driving north would give me lifts home at weekends. It was a privileged and mostly hugely enjoyable life which, I imagine, was far more relaxed and informal than for clinical students today.

Much of what I wrote is too trivial, personal or libellous to publish, but maybe I will adapt some extracts for a series of blog posts, a memoir of a novel. Meanwhile I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who remembers those times.