Thursday, December 18, 2014

Manage your people like Alan Titchmarsh

Over the last couple of years, I have taken up gardening. It sounds boring but there are so many aspects to it that I've realised that even people who have been doing it for decades still have things to learn.

One of the first things I've learned is the concept of “right plant, right place”. Each plant has its preferences; for moisture – does it like to sit in damp, clay soil, or does it prefer well-drained soil? Similarly many plants have a requirement for acid or alkaline soil. If you put a shade-loving plant into full sun, it’ll probably wither and quite quickly look rather sick. It won’t be having a good time, and neither will you get the best out of it.

In short, if you put a plant in conditions that it likes, and make sure it has the essentials, it can’t help but grow.

When I reflect on this, it occurs to me that this is a fairly good metaphor for leadership and management. What do I mean? Well, think about it a little. If you put a shy person into a position that requires, say, presentations to customers, then it’s not likely that you’ll get the best out of them. Put an active person who thrives on pressure and adrenaline into a routine job that rarely changes, and pretty soon that person will look just as out of place as an alpine plant in full shade.

You could argue that it’s easy for gardeners. All they have to do is look up the plant in a book and put it in the conditions that suit it, or maybe vice versa. Perhaps you want to know what’ll thrive in your shady, damp garden – so you look for plants from woodland environments. Dealing with people isn’t quite so straightforward. That’s where the skill as a leader comes in. You need to know your people well enough to know if they want well-drained soil, or cold wet clay, and whether they are happy to bathe in full sun, or better given some cover.

The metaphor extends beyond just putting the right people in the right place, though. So you've chosen your plants, and rooted them firmly in the correct soil. What then?

Well, obviously, you need to water them – but it’s not as simple as that. When they’re first planted, most plants need a really good soak to get them started off, but if they’re planted directly in the border they can usually be left alone unless it’s really dry.

The other thing that needs to be done is to keep the plants fertilised, and that doesn’t just mean dumping “manure” on them. You know what I mean. The fertiliser has to be selected for the plant too. If you’re trying to encourage lots of leafy growth, you need a fertiliser high in nitrogen. Fruit plants and vegetables need more potassium and phosphates.

If you want your plants to take a particular direction, then it may be that you need to point them in the right direction with a trellis or other such support. Whatever you do with them, the plant knows how to grow. It won’t grow any quicker or more lusciously whether you dig up the roots to appraise them, measure their growth daily, or put them into league tables along with the other plants. Neither will they respond to being shouted at or threatened with disciplinary action. If the conditions are right, the plant will grow.

Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, referred to the “Law of the Farm”. There is a natural order to things. You can’t sow seeds and then somehow farm “smarter, not harder” to make them come up the next day. You can’t get more carrots from fewer seeds.

Yet when it comes to looking after our people, what do we commonly see? People put into positions that they are plainly unsuited to. Employees that are insufficiently fertilised, or given the wrong sort of fertiliser. Some are even not watered when they need it. There will even be some people who are allowed to grow plenty, but in the wrong direction, or – even worse – left to dangle without any support whatsoever.

Yet despite this neglect in the most obvious ways, we see plenty of examples where people have their roots dug up to see how fast they are growing, or having their growth unfairly compared to a totally different type of plant. Would you even consider punishing a slow growing foxglove? Or insist that bluebells flower all year long?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why Democracy is broken in the UK

Today, July 10th, sees a public sector strike across the country in protest about, well, everything really. It is accompanied by the usual objections about union turnout. What seems to be new this time around, reeking of desperation, are the objections about the timing of mandates.

Francis Maude appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning complaining that the NUT last went to ballot its members two years ago on strike action. Funny that, because I seem to recall the last General Election being two years before that. Is Maude seriously suggesting that before each Bill is put before Parliament, that we need to have a General Election? The answer is obvious, of course he isn’t. The rhetoric employed by every Government since 1979 seems to be that unions must not take decisions that are unpopular with Government, and that Government will change the law about this if necessary.

The biggest and most ridiculous of all of the usual complaints about strikes, as well as being the most frequently employed, is that of turnout. It would appear to be a basic plank of democracy that when a vote is called for, the opportunity to vote is given to all qualified & relevant persons. Those that feel strongly either way will vote, those that don’t may choose not to. The motion is carried by the side with the largest majority. It’s a concept which is simple enough, and fair, and that’s why people have fought for it over the centuries. Why should any other model be applied to trade unions? The fact of the matter is, as Dave Prentis of Unison said on Today this morning too, Unions got a 70% response until the Thatcher government made strike ballots by post a compulsory mechanism. The Tory way with Unions is to tie both their arms behind their backs, challenge them to a fight, and then complain when the Union starts to kick them.

There has been lots of talk about thresholds for strike vote turnout recently. Boris Johnson has weighed in repeatedly ( despite his last election victory being based on a 38% turnout. The hypocrisy from the Tories goes even deeper though. In 2012 the “flagship” policy of Police and Crime Commissioners fell flat with voters as “fewer than 15% of voters turned out in the 41 English and Welsh police areas electing a PCC, a peacetime low.”

Surely even the Tories would have to concede that the election of a Police and Crime Commissioner is more significant to the daily business of everyday people, than a single day of strike action by public sector workers?

Even if we ignore the hypocrisy firmly embedded in the Tory argument, if we try to contemplate what would happen if the strike thresholds were introduced, what would that look like? If the threshold was not met, what would happen? Would the vote have to be run again? Would the vote be banned from being run again for a specified time period? Neither seems very attractive.

The other central plank of democracy is that what is good for one is good for all, in that the voting model is common across all systems, whoever they shall benefit. On that basis, let’s imagine what would happen if no politician could be elected without at least a 50% turnout. Every seat in Parliament. Every local Council seat. Suppose in next year’s General Election, half of the seats had a 51% turnout on average, and the other half had a 49% turnout on average. What would Parliament look like then? Presumably the votes would have to be re-run for all seats, so that the votes for the remaining seats weren’t influenced by the outcomes of the first half. Imagine the complaints from elected MPs! Supposing that Parliament was allowed to continue while elections were rescheduled, who would be the Prime Minister while we waited for the other 300+ seats to be decided? This is rather patently a shambles waiting to happen, and equally obviously is why it would never be implemented.

Often, when we see issues being debated in the Commons on TV, the number of members on each side is in single figures. What is the turnout, on average, for legislation in Parliament, and how can we have confidence in these votes when so few members are present to debate the Bill they are voting on?

The big issue, which no politician dare express or verbalise, is that politicians want us to realise that THEY are in charge, and it’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us. They want us to be governed by rules which they would abhor for themselves. Occasionally, this trait is expressed more clearly than others, and Theresa May seems to be the person most likely to leak it. The appointment of Elizabeth Butler-Sloss to head up the inquiry on child abuse within Westminster is a clear example. It must have been harder to find someone so obviously connected to this issue, than it was to find someone with no perceivable link. It was the same when Tom Winsor was appointed the Chief Inspector of HMIC. Winsor had no credible skills or background that made him suitable for the role of Chief Inspector, other than the fact that he had recently written a report – ghost written by Government – that decimated police pay and conditions and infuriated serving officers. The appointment of Winsor was solely to show the police who was in charge. The Butler-Sloss appointment, like Winsor, is a clear two-fingered gesture to the public, and it says “We are in charge. We can do what we like, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Monday, February 3, 2014

Empty Threats

A few evenings ago, I watched "Made In Dagenham" for the first time. If you've never seen it, the film is a fictional account of a true event; the struggle of female machinists at Ford's Dagenham plant for equal pay. From a distance of more than 45 years, it seems incredible that anyone would think that it was ever acceptable for women to earn half the wages of men doing similarly skilled jobs.

However what caught my attention was the rhetoric employed by one of the characters, Robert Tooley (played by Richard Schiff). I am, of course, aware that this is fiction and that the dialogue has been dramatised. I can well imagine though that similar sentiments were expressed by the real protagonists representing Ford.

Tooley is a Ford executive who is flown over from Detroit to break the Dagenham strike. He realises quickly that he needs to undermine the support the women are receiving from the (mainly male) union. Tooley tells Monty Taylor, one of the union stewards, that if Ford pulls out of the UK, then there will be no members paying union subscriptions and he'll be out of a job. Tooley also flatly states that businesses can't afford to pay men and women equally, and that they will go bankrupt if forced to. Taylor takes immediate steps to marginalise the female strikers.

Eventually, with the plant at a standstill, the Employment Secretary Barbara Castle meets with Tooley. With a voice laden with impending doom, Tooley tells Castle that if the female strikers get their way, Ford will no longer be able to produce cars at a profit. Tooley issues an explicit threat that Ford will make their cars elsewhere.

History records that Castle helped resolve the strike, bringing the women's pay to 92% of the men's rate almost immediately, and that this dispute paved the way for the Equal Pay Act of 1970. The Act came into effect in 1975.

Contrary to the expectations of the prophets of doom, the sun rose the next morning, and fell beneath the western sky the following evening. Ford carried on making cars, in the UK, and at a profit. With the passage of the 1970 Act, businesses up and down the country continued to function despite paying women equal pay for equal work.

I suspect that two things worked in the favour of the machinists. The first was that there was a Labour government, which until the 1990s was proud of its working class roots and would stand up for the rights of the ordinary worker. Secondly, Barbara Castle was an extraordinary woman with extraordinary conviction. A lesser person, male or female, might not have dared arrange such a radical solution to the strike. I have no doubt that a Conservative government would not have produced such a favourable outcome.

Why is this relevant today? Earlier I drew your attention to the rhetoric. We can see now with hindsight that this was not an objective business case talking, but instead it was greed taking priority over principle and using threats to bolster its case. It is doubtful whether Ford really would have pulled out of the UK. I suspect that when it came down to it, the logistics didn't stack up. Ford knew that they had a lucrative customer base in the UK, and that whilst it would have been possible to supply the UK market with cars from overseas, it wouldn't have been practical with the required volume.

The point I am making here - albeit perhaps not too clearly - is that we are hearing similar threats made by various parties with vested interests. Banks claim that their best employees will leave if their bonuses are capped or stopped, and other similarly impartial commentators have voiced the opinion that Labour's proposed reinstatement of the 50p tax band is anti-business and will cause businesses to leave the UK. These are the same people who claimed that the introduction of the minimum wage in 1997 would cause a recession. It didn't.

Maybe we should just take their threats, like Tooley's, with a pinch of salt. Greed should never come before principle. It won't happen today though. I couldn't honestly say whether with the current Government it is caused by greed or cowardice. Maybe both. Neither serves the interests of the country.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Word on Unqualified Teachers

The "unqualified teacher" row has been around for years. Independent (i.e. private) schools have used teachers without teaching qualifications for years. A degree in the subject you are teaching is often enough to secure a position at such a school.


However, Nick Clegg has recently fanned the flames of this debate by openly criticising the policies of his Cabinet colleague Michael Gove.


There are, of course, supporters of the unqualified teacher model. One could argue for the better results claimed from private schools. Martin Stephen of the Telegraph makes a good argument for passion and experience over mere qualifications.


However, to solely use the results that private schools obtain as justification of teachers without Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) is fallacious. There are a whole host of other factors which influence these results, and these are well articulated by a new teacher experiencing a private school for the first time here.


As with a lot of public sector jobs, teaching is a profession that attracts a lot of ill-founded criticism and an excess of confidence that "anyone can do it". One user on Twitter even announced that he "could teach kids history in my sleep & I am not a qualified teacher". That may indeed be the case, but there are several things wrong with this statement.


Firstly, and most obviously, teaching a narrow band of one subject to a group of willing children can be done on a one-off or irregular basis. Many schools use specialists in a given topic to come into schools and speak to children for a session or two. That does not make them teachers. It might seem to be splitting hairs to say that "to teach" and "to be a teacher" is not the same thing, but it is nonetheless true. To be a teacher requires a consistent level of tolerance, dedication and energy that few are willing to give. Teaching is truly a vocation rather than a job. It is also true that there are people employed as teachers who are a poor fit for the demands of the role. For them, it is just a job.


It may also seem to be fussy to ask "and how many of the kids in your class would absorb the knowledge you gave"? Ironically, some of the most vocal critics of teachers seem to be the best educated themselves. Their most recent experience of teaching would have been during their time at University, on the receiving end of an almost wholly didactic and one-way exchange of information. At this point, it would be useful to point out that children (usually the under 16s) and adults learn in different ways. Someone who can't explain the difference between andragogy and pedagogy shouldn't be allowed anywhere near an educational institution. For example, I hold qualifications to teach adults in Further Education, but this would not, nor should it, qualify me for teaching children of any age. A fundamental part of teaching is the acceptance that individuals, adults or children, learn in different ways. My experience here for children is extremely limited, but, for instance, some adults will happily learn all they need from reading a book, whereas another adult needs to learn in a more practical environment. Good teaching recognises that these different learning styles exist, identifies them in individuals, and structures the teaching matter to suit.


It's true that modern teaching methods can be perceived as quite prescriptive, but teaching should reflect the best of the current thinking in education. This is intended not only to give each child access to the best methods, but to give a consistent application of them regardless of the area of the country you live in, or your economic background. We can question, rightly, whether the methods currently taught to teachers are the most effective methods. Many teachers may say that they are not, however the point is that a consistency is brought to teaching. Continue research into teaching methods, by all means, and update the model with the best of the current thinking. Let every child benefit from this development. Unqualified teachers risks an uneven application of this skill. Even if the most effective teacher in the UK happens to be unqualified, we need to learn, absorb, and distribute the reasons for this success, not isolate it.


There is an irony at the heart of this issue that I have not seen discussed elsewhere. Do we really have an Education Secretary whose policy it is to disregard the qualifications it has itself created and overseen? What message does this send to children and young people of today? "Get your qualifications, children, and in future another Minister will singlehandedly render those qualifications irrelevant?"


If it is really true that the outcomes from private schools are better, if social factors can somehow be isolated, then perhaps we need to determine why this is. Whilst it is true that private schools use teachers who do not hold QTS, many private sector teachers qualified in the state sector. This gives an academic rigour to teaching methods which further benefit from the lack of interference from unqualified & ignorant busybodies such as the Department for Education. Here's an analogy; you can be a qualified and competent gardener, but if someone comes along who insists on digging up the seeds to see how they are growing, then it's likely the end results won't be great.


On the other hand, you could just shrug your shoulders and say that unqualified teachers are the natural and inevitable outcome from a Government of arrogant, privileged chancers who think that they know better than a qualified expert.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Corruption By Any Other Name

You wouldn’t know if from the news coverage, but the other night the NHS was effectively privatised. The vote in the Lords was carried by 254 votes to 146. The following morning, the dangers of fizzy drinks made it to the BBC radio news, but the privatisation of the NHS was not newsworthy enough and was only a minor link on the BBC news website.
The National Health Service is a treasured institution in this country, as Owen Jones eloquently detailed here. That the Health Service has been privatised is scandalous enough. That it was voted into private ownership by Peers (including Labour Peers)that have business interests in healthcare companies that stand to benefit from a privatised NHS is nothing short of a national scandal. In any other country, we would call this corruption. In private sector business this is referred to as a “conflict of interest” and is strictly banned by companies with even the most tenuous grasp of ethics. Lords and MPs have a duty to register their business interests in the Register of Members Interests, but there seems to be nothing to prevent them from voting on issues in which there is clearly a conflict of interest. The BBC coverage doesn’t mention this conflict of ethics.
Even during the debate, Health Minister Earl Howe said “There is no Government agenda to privatise NHS services – quite the contrary.”
The Oxford Dictionaries defines “privatize” as transfer (a business, industry, or service) from public to private ownership and control”. Whilst you could argue that the NHS remains, for the moment anyway, in public ownership but if private companies are providing the services and equipment, they almost certainly have control.
It is a commonly heard statement made by politicians of all parties about the NHS remaining “free at the point of delivery”. This is a point that may be a comfort to the public. However, “free at the point of delivery” does not mean “not for profit”. Private healthcare is free at the point of delivery if you are a member of a private scheme. Just to illustrate the pointlessness of this phrase; water, gas and electricity are all free at the point of delivery. Whilst some people still have pre-paid gas and electricity meters, I don’t think there’s anyone pushing 50p into a tap to get water out of it.
I have never understood the logic behind outsourcing, let alone privatisation. I simply do not see how it can be cheaper for one organisation to outsource work to another, for the second company to make a profit, than it was for the first organisation to do the work in the first place. This seems to be based on the myth that the public sector is slow, bloated and inefficient, whilst the private sector is lean, fast and efficient. I’ve worked in the private sector for over 20 years now, and I’ve volunteered in the public sector. Yes, there is a degree of waste and inefficiency in the public sector, but it is a fallacy to think that it does not exist in the private sector. The Olympic security farce involving G4S should have banished this view. In a previous piece, I wrote about how public services need to be effective first, and efficient second. Nowhere is this more true than in health.
The central concept of the NHS was clear. The Health service will be available to all and funded entirely from taxation. When Bevan created the Health service in 1948 – at a time when national debt was more than twice as high compared to GDP as it is now – it was never intended to make a profit, not least for the people who voted to introduce competition. Last week, the Lords effectively voted to stuff public money into their own pockets.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Politics? It's just religion in an ill-fitting suit

Every few years, an event occurs that explains some of the more complex social constructs. It was the sense of community and patriotism in Britain in the 1940s that kept the country together during World War 2, and stopped it descending into a chaotic free for all. You could reasonably argue that neither exist in Britain today, and ask what would happen if we had to relive the Blitz today.

It’s been said, and is actually now something of a cliché, that the inauguration of John F. Kennedy brought an optimism to the world and especially America that resulted in initiatives like the Peace Corps and Freedom Riders. A whole generation, used to being directed and controlled by their elders, suddenly realised that it was within their own gift to take command of their destiny, and forge their own path. The Torch had indeed been passed, as Kennedy wished it to be known.

History also now records Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 as the point where that same empowered generation lost their innocence and their trust in Government. That encouragement and enthusiasm had the shroud pulled over it in Dallas, and in its place emerged bitterness and cynicism for which Vietnam and Watergate became the perfect outlets.

The release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990 was deserved reward for all those who campaigned not only for his freedom, but for the end of Apartheid. It illustrated – as the Civil Rights struggle had done 25 years previously – that small ideas become big movements. They gather momentum that carries all before it. Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

Of course, this past week has seen the death of Baroness Thatcher. It was predictable that there would be strong feelings expressed on both sides of the debate. No one, when asked what they thought of Mrs Thatcher, ever replied “Meh…”

To be honest, I’ve avoided almost all of the media coverage. Not just because of my views of her, but because it was always going to be endlessly and depressingly repetitive, and if I wanted that I’d watch EastEnders. I’ve been vaguely following on Twitter the reaction to the coverage, and it’s been even more rabid than I expected.

Ever single-minded and to hell with the consequences, Thatcher had the gall to die over a Parliamentary recess. This left Cameron in something of a quandary. He recognised that after incurring the swivel-headed wrath of the Conservatives over the equal marriage legislation that he badly needed to mend some fences with the party and its members. If he waited until Parliament reconvened the following Monday to lead tributes to the former Prime Minister, he’d have been accused of not being sufficiently respectful. He had to overcome the scepticism of Speaker John Bercow who rightly concluded that it would be unprecedented to recall Parliament for such an event rather than a national emergency. The request was granted on the basis that tributes be discussed in the form of Parliamentary debate, which allowed some of the speeches from Labour members to be extremely critical of Thatcher and her legacy. This did not go down well with the Conservatives, especially Sir Tony Baldry who asked Speaker Bercow to intervene. Bercow, himself a Tory, showed remarkable neutrality to insist that everything was in order and members be free to criticise as well as praise.

Ultimately, something occurred to me which explained the fanatical reactions, and even the reactions to the reactions. Politics is just religion with statistics. Statistics instead of parables and ancient tomes. It is nothing more than an ongoing argument about what will happen, what is happening, and what has happened – and all done with liberal use of carefully selected statistics, expertly nuanced in order to make one’s case more persuasive. Each political persuasion would have you believe that their version is the only real Truth, and that they – and only they – are the chosen ones. This religious zeal inevitably causes historical revisionism. On Radio 4’s PM programme, Thatcher biographer Charles Moore objected bitterly that the BBC was repeatedly referring to her as “divisive”. Someone who has – by definition – studied her life and career in depth would have known that the Party was split into “Wets” and “Thatcherites” long before there was a leadership election in 1990 and she was dramatically flung out of Downing Street by her own party. If that’s not divisive then I don’t know what is.

Could it be that as society becomes more secular, it gets more political?

The analogy seems to work remarkably well. Outgoing Governments are metaphorically nailed to the Cross, and held up as not only the example but the cause of all that is wrong in the country today. Each party has its diehards – the real zealots, and at any opportunity will try to convert any poor soul unfortunate enough to have been indoctrinated with the wrong version of the Truth. Every few years, a person comes along who has sufficient personality and vision (although usually more of the former and rather less of the latter) to cause otherwise normal thinking voters to abandon their cause and cross to the Dark Side. Thatcher was one of these, and so was Tony Blair. Cameron isn’t, which is why after thirteen years of Labour and the country arguably in a poor condition, he still couldn’t win a majority. For what it's worth, I put Ed Miliband in the same category as Cameron in this regard.
This is clearly a trick missed by the ancients. Just think how lethal Jesus would have been armed with PowerPoint slides illustrating the number of litres of water turned into wine. The lack of room at the Inn would have been a perfect platform to criticise the social housing provision in Jerusalem. Maybe the Disciples were actually the first Think-tank? Perhaps the Last Supper would have been roundly criticised as a bunch of ne'er do well benefit cheats living it up at the expense of society. Say it quietly, but the Bible might even have been the first product of what we now know of as Spin Doctors.
Robes and dog collars have been replaced in today's society by an ill-fitting suit bought on expenses.

Who knows who will be the next Messiah of British Politics?


Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Life Too Ordinary?

A psychologist would probably tell me it's my age. Mid life crisis or something like that. Last night I had a cold chill run down my spine as I looked ahead into old age. Before I describe how and why this happened, I need to rewind a little.

I started playing cricket at about 9. As I grew up, got taller and stronger, I became a useful-ish fast bowler for middling-to-poor club sides in Somerset. I could bat a little too, when luck was on my side. I enjoyed playing, knowing that I was playing at the top of the range that my talent, such as it was, would allow. For various reasons - girls, work etc., I stopped playing at about 22. At some stages I'd been playing four or five games a week. I'd grown tired of the commitment and wanted to be able to spend my weekends how I wished.

My awareness of my increasing age - and waistline - encouraged me to have a comeback at the age of 37. I was keen to play again, even though I knew I wasn't fit. I suffered through the pulled hamstrings and backache and completed a season for my local village side. I still had all my old kit, even the broken bat that my father had given me for my 16th birthday. It was no use, but I kept it regardless. It dawned on me one day that not only had the famous West Indian bowler whose name endorsed my boots died some years previously, but the boots themselves were literally older than several of my team mates.

Here I must digress to a little anecdote that amused me greatly at the time. If you go to B&Q (other DIY stores are available) and buy a packet of screws, the label will say on it "average contents - 50" and you think "well, that's reasonable. The packets are machine fed, so maybe there are a few packets with 49 screws, and a few with 51. No big deal." Anyway, so I went to replace my aged boots, and bought a sparkling pair of new Puma boots from the sports shop in town. As I got them home, and opened the box, I saw this printed on it;

"Average contents; 2"

My mind was filled with visions of people opening the box to find, to their astonishment, an inexplicable third boot, whilst elsewhere some poor unfortunate was having to hobble out to bat with only one boot on.

The contrast in age was also apparent one day when I was batting with one of these younger lads. He was cross that I had refused a sharp run from his batting. "Come on Martin," he said, "there was a run there!"

"Not at my age there wasn't...." came the reply.

Anyway. After that first season, I realised that I was no longer able to play at the levels that I had set for myself in my teens. They say that it's common for a professional's eyes to have "gone" around the 38-40 mark. Maybe this was why my batting had gone to pot, and my reactions slowed noticeably. Regardless of the reason, I decided that I would be unable to invest the time in order to bring myself back up to my own standards, and rather than frustrate myself every weekend, I would stop playing altogether. I sold all my equipment on eBay and I've never looked back or been back to watch the team play.

The reason for all this rambling is that last night I was watching "24 Hours in A&E" on Channel 4. They had a chap called Frank who was in hospital having fallen at home and not been able to get up. In transpired that Frank was 90. I was shocked. I said to my wife that he looked at least 15-20 years younger and what  remarkable shape he was in for a man of his age.

Then the chill set in. I've often felt that I hope to die before becoming an encumbrance on my wife or my children. However for some reason, whilst watching Frank this feeling was palpable. The thought occurred to me "what happens if - at whatever age it occurs - I get that feeling of frustration that I can no longer do the things that I want to be able to do? That feeling that caused me to abandon playing cricket because I could no longer emulate my teenage self? What if I'm not as able as Frank?"

It was a sobering moment, and even more than twelve hours afterwards, while I write this, it's emotional. How do you adjust to these things?

Maybe what made it worse was that Frank was still full of life and character at 90. He has more of that than I do now, at 40. Frank used to run a circus and had a colourful life that the hospital staff queued up to ask him about.

Me? I wrote some dodgy software. What I wouldn't give to feel at 40 the way Frank feels at 90.