February Update

Poetry might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but most people like a cup of tea, or coffee. To reach a wider audience, I have decided to launch a brand that will see my poetry and designs featured on a variety of products ranging from ceramic coffee mugs and travel mugs to iPhone covers, and pillows.

The brand, Buddy’s Pantry is named after Buddy,  my stepdaughter’s adorable, but mischievous border collie who has a love of food, which he will help himself to if he can get away with it! In time, I will be setting up an online UK store and sourcing quality goods specifically for the UK market. In the meantime, I am testing the market with some ideas using the online store Society6. Society 6 caters for the US and international market and offers an impressive array of products to which those with a creative bent can add their designs. 

I have used some of my more light-hearted poetry and have included verses and stanzas from Need for TweedFour Little Paws and Together Forever. Four Little Paws has not yet been published or posted and is a short poem inspired by Buddy’s penchant for sneaking into my stepdaughter’s room for a cuddle on her bed.

I recently had confirmation of my invitation to join the judging panel for the 2017 Never Such Innocence First World War poetry competition. This excellent competition is open to children aged 9-16 from the UK, Ireland and Commonwealth countries. It is a huge privilege to be invited to judge and I am looking forward to reading everyone’s entries. The closing date is 10th March, so if you or anyone you know wants to enter, you need to get your entries in soon – you have to be in it to win it!

Paperback sales hit a spike in the run up to Christmas, but have dipped since; thankfully e-book sales continue to be buoyant. I am struggling to find the time to write at the moment, but am planning to have a new book of poetry and memoir out before the end of the year. In the meantime, it would be lovely to think that some of my friends and readers are supping their morning coffee from a mug that has carried my words into the world!

Buddy’s Pantry on Society6

Never Such Innocence Competition

 

 

 

A Subaltern’s Love Song Redux

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone. I thought I would share my tongue-in-cheek re-working of Sir John Betjeman’s famous poem. Note to non-UK readers, a Subaltern is a term for a junior officer in the British Army. Aldershot, also known as The Home of the British Army is a Garrison town near the border between Hampshire and Surrey.

UNDER ALDERSHOT SUN

Miss J Hunter Dunn, Miss J Hunter Dunn

Alas no more found under Aldershot sun

Your like has been gone for many a year

Place taken by loud ‘ladettes’ drinking beer

 

Innocent courtship of tennis has passed

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn would I’m sure be aghast

Down roads ‘not adopted’, woodlanded ways

After dark in the car park, ‘dogging’s’ the rage

 

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn

The Surrey Heath drug dealer’s armed with a gun

Late night in Camberley, oh what a sight

The shock of a violent closing-time fight

 

Miss J Hunter Dunn, Miss J Hunter Dunn

How mad I am, sad I am to see what’s become

Once-pastoral Surrey, all gone to seed

Your letters from ‘Betjers’ by burglars thieved

 

With speed and grace, you played on the court

On a warm summer’s eve, who would have thought

That in verse you’d be immortalised, forever young

A pure ‘English Rose’, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn

 

© Barry Alexander 2016 (with gratitude and apologies to Sir John Betjeman)

My Nursing Birthday

Today is my nursing birthday. On this day, twenty-seven years ago, the January 1990 group of students at Sussex Downs School of Nursing commenced their three years of training. On that dim and distant morning, we all assembled in the common room of the staff accommodation at All Saints’ Hospital, Eastbourne to receive our initial briefing from our nurse tutors.

Built in the gothic style, All Saints’ was an imposing building complete with a beautiful chapel that had stood since the 1860s. A former convent hospital, All Saints’ had been taken over by the National Health Service in the 1960s and was dedicated to continuing care of elderly patients and the rehabilitation of stroke patients. On these wards, we would put into practice the fundamentals of nursing care that we would learn in the School of Nursing that was based at Eastbourne District General Hospital on the other side of town.

During those first few weeks of training that I learned and applied the skills of my profession, I also discovered how physically and emotionally demanding my chosen profession could be. Along with my classmates, I would learn the patience required to communicate with elderly people suffering from severe dementia or rendered unable to speak by strokes. I would also learn the practicalities of the Sisyphean task of managing (all too often failing to manage) patients’ continence.

As I look back on twenty-seven years’ experience, it occurs to me that I also experienced my first taste of being on the receiving end of toxic leadership at the hands of the ward manager on the ward to which I was seconded. Feared rather than respected, this woman seemed to delight in making my life a misery and almost compelled me to quit my nurse training in those first weeks; it is only thanks to the support and friendship of others that I remained. Had I not done so, there would have been no military nursing career, no tours of duty in far-flung war zones and perhaps no writing. I am in little doubt that the resilience and determination forged in me during my first months in nursing contributed to my abilities to cope with the crucible that was Helmand Province. I will never know what the ‘path not taken’ would have looked like and it is perhaps best to not dwell on such thoughts.

The public image of nursing has been battered over the years. Whilst in the nineties, the popular press was still inclined to refer to us as ‘Angels’, more recently, one might be forgiven for believing that an admission to hospital will lead to an untimely demise. Although I firmly believe that care and compassion must remain at the core of the profession’s values, nurses are not angels but highly trained professionals. The last time I worked as a military nurse in a NHS hospital, the staffing levels meant that competent nurses struggled to deliver the care they wanted to give. The resulting pressures were such that nurses’ capacity for compassion and ability to provide care were pushed to the limit. I found strong parallels between the NHS ward and the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

All Saints’ Hospital has long since closed and has been tastefully transformed into luxury apartments; Sussex Downs School of Nursing was long ago absorbed, first by the Sussex and Kent Institute of Nursing and then the Healthcare Faculty of the University of Brighton. Much has changed and I am sure much will change in the future and not all for the better.

Sadly, I have long since lost touch with most of the January 1990 intake but will never forget those with whom I shared those early years of my career. On this, my nursing birthday I salute my professional brothers and sisters.

Surviving Christmas with Military Planning

It may not be an austere setting, but if you’re hosting a family ‘get-together’ this Christmas, your home may very quickly resemble a warzone. These are my Top 10 planning tips to get you through the Festive Season:

  1. Plan early, plan twice. As this military adage suggests, you would should allow plenty of time to make your plan as well as execute it. Last Minute dot com may cut it as a website, but it won’t see you through the holidays unscathed.  Have a contingency plan and be prepared to enact it in the event of your cooker blowing up or your much-loathed long lost cousins turning up.  I would like to emphasise that I  can’t tell you what that contingency plan should be, only that you should have one.  As they say at the Joint Services Command and Staff College; this is about how to think, not what to think.
  2. Set a timeline. Christmas Day is a complex event.  You know that you want to deliver the Turkey to the table at 1300hrs so that everyone can eat drink and be merry before settling down to watch Star Wars at 1530hrs. To make sure that you maintain the initiative, you must plot the key events on a horizontal line and work back from them – the meat, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, Christmas Pudding all take different times to cook so be prepared and do the maths. Don’t forget to factor in Big Bird’s defrost time if you’ve purchased a frozen Turkey. Although for the adults, the day revolves around food and drink, little ones have a different agenda. You may consider plotting a separate timeline for the kids and running it in tandem.  Add oldies into the equation and you may need a third timeline.  Plot the key events for all (dishing up, present-giving etc.) and make sure the separate timelines for each group converge at these times. Military planners call this a synchronisation matrix.
  3. Analyse the Human Terrain. Okay, so let’s be brutally honest.  If your family is going to survive the holidays intact, you are going to need the skills of an accomplished peacekeeper in a vicious inter-factional war. Period. If grandparents are going to be present, you can bet your bottom dollar that you and your siblings will revert to caricatures of your juvenile selves in their presence.  Sometimes the different factions manage this themselves by creating enclaves (the Smiths remain in the living room and the Joneses camp out in the dining room), but this is not a given and they will all have to come together at the dining table.  Work out the Friendlies, the Hostiles and the Neutrals; differentiate between those with reconcilable and irreconcilable differences and plan your seating arrangements accordingly.  Work out who the key leaders are and influence them (plying them with drink usually helps too).  Just remember that nobody will ever forget that time that Uncle Bob got drunk and insulted Aunty Judy’s prize begonias and that you must keep these two warring factions as far apart as possible; perhaps you might want to suggest that one Uncle Bob goes to his in-laws for Christmas and visits you at New Year instead.  If you have more than one dog in the house, do a doggie terrain analysis too.
  4. This will be tough, there will be casualties. You might have the best operational plan, but if you don’t have a sound medical plan, your troops will lack confidence in the system that is there to care for them.  Anticipate the following:
    1. Penetrating trauma – from broken glasses and clumsy post-imbibement knifework.
    2. Blunt trauma – usually from child-on-child / child-on-adult combat.
    3. Eye trauma – from flying champagne corks and nerf darts.
    4. Psychological trauma / battle fatigue – the hosts are the primary ‘population at risk’.
    5. Disease and Non-Battle Injury – alcohol intoxication, abdominal pain, acute exacerbations of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases such as ‘flu may rear their ugly heads during your Christmas operation.
  5. Delegate responsibility. You are the commander – the responsibilities rest on your shoulders, but you can’t possibly do everything.  You need to appoint a second-in-command / Chief of Staff. Allocate tasks, provide the resources required and trust everyone to do their jobs, but do check on their progress.  You will probably find that there is no shortage of willing volunteers.
  6. Work out phases. There should be a natural and sequential phasing to your Christmas.  Consider using the concepts of Preparatory Operations, Shaping Operations, Decisive Operations and Stabilisation Operations to guide your thinking.
  7. Sustainment. Someone once said that amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics. Thankfully it’s not the 1970s and you will probably find that the shops are open until late on Christmas Eve and you may even be able to get some emergency supplies on Christmas Day. If you have planned well, you will have established stocks of essential supplies (food, drink, wrapping paper, sellotape, toilet paper, kitchen roll, batteries etc.) throughout your house using the echelon system, which might look like this:
  • F (Fighting) Echelon – everything you need to sustain you through the contact battle – located in the kitchen, living room and dining room. Emergency rations will usually be found wrapped in foil and dangling from the branches of the Christmas Tree
  • A1 Echelon – immediate resupply of F Echelon consumables, located in the spare bedroom, home office, and pantry/larder.
  • A2 Echelon – replenishes A1 Echelon stocks. Located in the garage and shed.
  • B Echelon – replenishes A2 Echelon stocks. Longer lead time for obtaining these items. Typically located at Waitrose, Tesco, Aldi or Lidl. Urgent operational requirements can usually be obtained at the 7-11.
  1. Training.  You need to get into serious shape for Christmas Day, if you eat healthily and drink sparingly throughout most of the year, use the December party season to get into tip-top shape to ensure that you can cope with a gargantuan dinner and don’t resemble an empty wetsuit that is burbling nonsense after your first glass of ‘vino di collapso’.
  2. Remember Murphy’s Laws. From “the box said it came with batteries” to, “unwrapped at 0600hrs, not working by 1600hrs” and “the bloody Turkey’s still frozen” remember that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Fans of Clausewitz will recognise this as friction and the fog or war.
  3. The Decisive Act. Known to devotees of Clausewitz as ‘schwerpunkt’, there will be a decisive act which determines the outcome of your Christmas. In an ideal world, if you have planned well, it will be the delivery of a perfect dinner in a harmonious atmosphere with smiling happy children, all pleased with their presents. In the real world, this is less likely (just remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy). For many of us the Decisive Act will be when, faced with chaos and carnage, we decide to “stuff the Turkey and drink the wine.”

© Barry Alexander 2016

Black Friday

Blinded by temptation
An offer too good to be true
Consumerism blinded ‘sheeple’
Line up in the queue

Doors are about to open
Anticipation mounts
Regressed back to animals
The predators are poised to pounce

Rampage through the store
Let the jostling begin
“I saw it first!” “Hey that’s mine”
Angry voices above the din

Enmity rising, fighting starts
Warfare breaking out
Violence among the high-stacked shelves
Puts the crowd to rout

Moms, dads, children scream
Panicking to flee
The melee of the bargain-crazed
In aisle number three

News that night is somber
‘Man stabbed to death in the mall’
Was that cut-price flat-screen TV
Really worth his all?

Stretcher – Bearing in Difficulties by Gilbert Rogers

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Stretcher-Bearing in Difficulties (Art.IWM ART 3801) image: An image of two stretcher-bearers running through a trench under heavy fire. They carry a wounded, possibly unconscious soldier covered in a blanket. The ground is covered with mud and debris adding to the difficulty of their escape. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23054

 

I love this painting, to me it epitomises all that it means to be a combat-carer in time of war; the threat of death or injury, the sheer physical hardship and the willingness to place oneself in harms way for the benefit of others.

Not only do I love this painting, I know it well, for it used to take pride of place on the wall of the Officers’ Mess at the Defence Medical Services Training Centre, Keogh Barracks near Aldershot. When I was based there as a student and later as an officer instructor, I would spend much time regarding this work of art, marveling at the detail.  The actual painting is large – large enough to warrant the installation of a wooden balustrade to protect it from the high spirited antics of junior officers on Regimental Dinner nights. The sheer size of the painting is what enables the artist to convey the detail.

The bearers are under heavy shell fire and it is clearly not the height of summer, but this is dangerous, hard physical graft. The lead bearer is wrapped in a sheepskin jerkin and he appears to be wearing extra layers of fabric over his battledress trousers, yet he wears his sleeves rolled-up, ready for graft, the strain of the carry showing in the rigid tension of his muscular triceps and forearms.

As anyone who has taken part in a military log race or stretcher race will be able to tell, the angle of both men’s arms indicates that they are not hanging around. The front man is pulling hard, the exertion is clear on his face while the rear man is driving forward too; leaning in to the weight of the stretcher and casualty.

The stretcher bearers have two good reasons for moving as swiftly as possible. The first is the bursts of shellfire that are impacting on the parapet of the trench as they pass through it.  In this section of line, the parapet seems to run at little more than head height , perhaps indicating that they are in a communication trench rather than a forward trench. The shallowness of the trench here renders the bearers more vulnerable to devastating fragmentation injuries to the head, neck and chest. The second is the condition of the wounded soldier.  In painting the face of the casualty, Rogers has captured perfectly the waxy, ashen faced appearance of a man who is in the advanced stages of hypovolaemic shock and is struggling on the verge of circulatory collapse. If the two bearers do not get their patient to a surgeon soon, the chances are that he will die.

As a combat carer in a more recent and far less intense conflict, I can identify with every aspect of the painting. Not for the first time I am confronted by an image with which, barring differences in uniform, weapons and equipment, I am instantly familiar.  This underlines the enduring and fundamentally human nature of war.

As we approach Remembrance Sunday / Armistice Day in the UK and Commonwealth and Veterans’ Day in the USA, please take a moment to think of the courageous and compassionate Medical Services personnel of all Armies who have placed their lives in danger and all too often made the ultimate sacrifice so that others may live.

Major Barry Alexander is the author of ‘On Afghanistan’s Plains’ the true story of his experience providing medical support on the ground in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

 

 

 

Kate ter Horst – The Angel of Arnhem

One of the main characters in the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far is Kate ter Horst, portrayed by Liv Ullmann.  I didn’t realise until I did some reading recently, that it was Kate ter Horst and not Liv Ullmann who provided the narration for the opening title sequence of the movie.

The movie tells how this amazing lady gave permission for her home to be used by the Regimental Aid Post as a place to provide care for the wounded men of the British Airborne.  Kate ter Horst became known as the ‘Angel of Arnhem’ for the part she played in providing comfort and aid to the wounded and dying airborne soldiers.  Although she was reportedly uncomfortable with the accolade, it is easy to see how she can have been regarded as such by the young men in her care.  One such paratrooper is reported to have said to her “you’re lovely, just like my mum…” shortly before passing away.  Although she played host to the Aid Post, Mrs ter Horst was not alone in her actions.  Many households showed tremendous kindness to the embattled soldiers that sought refuge in the cellars of their homes.  That kindness was reciprocated; in one instance, a young Private soldier saved the life of his hosts by shielding them from the blast of a grenade that had been lobbed into the cellar.  In protecting the civilians, the soldier gave his life.

Many years before A Bridge Too Far, Mrs Ter Horst also featured in the movie Theirs is the Glory, a black and white docudrama filmed amid the ruins of Arnhem little more than a year after the battle.  One scene shows soldiers collecting water from a radiator leak, which lends realism to the film.  Apparently Kate ter Horst resorted to similar measures to provide water for the wounded to drink; draining radiators and the lavatory cistern.

The winter following the Battle of Arnhem was tough.  The German occupiers meted out severe punishment in revenge for the aid that the townspeople had rendered to the British.  Tragically, Kate’s oldest son, Pieter Albert was killed by an anti-tank mine in a meadow near the River Rhine.

Made an honorary Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for caring for the wounded, Kate died after being hit by a car outside her home in 1992.  I have read that Randall Martin, the young Airborne doctor who had set up shop in her home all those years before, rushed to be by her bedside when she died.

© Barry Alexander 2016