imagesWe currently have a government that is trying to persuade us to rethink the way we use the NHS. Why? Because, in my view, they want to privatise it.

That means, we will have to find the money to buy insurance to pay for our treatment, or stay sick. Once they have managed to achieve their goal, they will pay lip service to some sort of free medicine for the poor, or as they call them, hard-working families (on a minimum wage that doesn’t support anyone, properly).

I have recently come up against the way our NHS dentistry service works and it’s been a shock. There is clear guidance on the NHS England website, telling you exactly what you can expect to pay when you visit the dentist, if you are an NHS patient. I’ll repeat it – it’s clear what you should get and what you should pay. So, why was it that the only NHS specialist treatment available to me on NHS Band 2, meant travelling 200 miles from where I live to attend a dental hospital. The sort of treatment suggested would take several appointments – my dentist wasn’t sure how many – so that would mean several round trips of 200 miles. Why? Because, according to the practice manager, there were no dentists in my area who would be prepared to carry out this work on the NHS.

I was offered a consultation at a near-by practice at the cost of £210 for an hour. When I protested, I was offer another dentist, at a cost of £120 for the initial consultation. No treatment costs, but likely to run into several hundreds.

I stuck to my guns and said I wanted an NHS dentist and couldn’t afford to go private. The answer was the same. Travel the 200 miles to a teaching dental hospital (where, it seems, I would be a guinea pig for students overseen, thankfully, by a consultant) or go private.

Concerned, I contacted NHS England and asked for their advice. The rules are quite clear. All dentists have a responsibility, if they cannot do the work required, to find another NHS dentist within your area, who can. I was told by NHS England to go back to my dentist and ask for clarity. I was told to ask the practice manager why they could not refer me to an NHS specialist in my area and, did I really need the treatment?

My other concern was the attitude of the practice manager, whose reply to the above questions were as follows: The practice did not have the right equipment to carry out the work, the practice manager had had many conversations with the NHS and the issue was the lack of funding for NHS dentists. Finally, as a patient, I was, unfortunately, caught in the middle.

When I expressed my concern for the NHS, saying that if I could not find a dentist to treat me on the NHS, my long term health might be affected, the practice manager laughed, and told me I shouldn’t worry myself about the NHS!

I have no complaint with my dentist. Competent, caring and experienced, my dentist asked me to come back for a further free consultation. I was able to discuss the situation again and received the promise that more investigations would take place to try and find me an NHS specialist, who would carry out the work, in my area. That was reassuring. I agreed to help, by doing my own research and contacting NHS England again. But, I did write down my thoughts on the practice manager and his attitude and asked my dentist to pass them on, and take them on board.

I don’t like to acknowledge the unpleasant notion that NHS dentists are being underfunded and therefore, need to persuade patients to go private. I don’t like to think that maybe, if you need a referral, this is how they may encourage you to become a private patient. I don’t want to even consider that NHS dentists may have subtle pressure put on them by practice owners, to encourage patients to leave the NHS and ‘go private’. Private fees are astronomical, if you need more than a quick check-up and you don’t have insurance. NHS dentistry is not free at the point of delivery, but increasingly, I feel a subtle pressure on me, to become a private patient, because my NHS dentist is not able to refer me to a specialist, unless I paid private fees.

Not many people of my age will contradict what a person in a white coat tells them. If told they need to go private, many will either not go to the dentist again, or get into debt to comply. Signing up to an insurance policy may not be possible for people living on pensions, but not poor enough to be eligible for benefits. The notion that everyone with grey hair is either ga-ga and will accept whatever they are told, or are wealthy enough to pay hundreds of pounds for treatment – because, after all, we are the generation that own our own houses and had our university fees paid for, with grants – is all wrong.

I know the NHS is not a bottomless pit. However, there is a general perception that anyone older than fifty will be a huge drain on services, in the coming years. Mixed messages are not the answer. People of my age HAVE paid for our health provision, we have paid throughout our lives, so why should we be expected to collude with this subtle destruction of one of this country’s greatest and most innovative reforms – free healthcare at the point of delivery.

Good teeth are one of the most important indicators of general good health. As far as dentistry is concerned, adults have had to pay a share, and that must continue, but the pressure to ‘go private’ is growing and how soon will we start to accept that ‘private’ is the norm?


Jane Bellamy and Michael Berenger in The Tameness of a Wolf by Lyn Ferrand  A play that looks at the way mental illness can impact on a marriage.
Jane Bellamy and Michael Berenger in
The Tameness of a Wolf by Lyn Ferrand
A play that looks at the way mental illness can impact on a marriage.

I have a friend, married for a long time, who tells me that after all the years of living with her man, he still cannot communicate effectively with her or their children. There has been no growth or development in the way he interacts with them, no expansion of his understanding of their emotional needs, their inner lives, who they actually are. She describes it as living with a programmed robot, with a setting stuck on ‘practical’ – that means he will do all the physical tasks he is required to do around the house, he holds down a job, he is well-behaved in company, polite and friendly, indeed, a regular Mr. Nice Guy. Yet, when it comes to showing empathy, or treating her with caring respect, a gaping hole appears in his behaviour.

For a long time, my friend made hundreds of excuses for his behaviour, thinking it was something she was doing, that maybe, she was not living up to his expectations as a wife and mother. She turned herself inside out to please him, to make life run as smoothly as possible. She even ignored his disinterest in the kids, the way he always shrugged when big decisions had to be made and left her to make them, how if he was unpleasant or gave her the silent treatment and she showed any emotional reaction to this behaviour, he simply argued his corner, until she capitulated and accepted his excuses. He rarely apologised and when he did, the apologies were never heart-felt, and always accompanied by another raft of excuses. Throughout all of this, she went to work, ran the house, dealt with all the correspondence, made all the decisions, took responsibility for everything, until one day, feeling exhausted and almost suicidal, she did something extraordinary, for someone like her. She asked for help.

She contacted a Woman’s Refuge in her area. After a long conversation with a councellor, a light went on in her head. What she had been experiencing was either severe emotional abuse or her husband was on the autistic spectrum and could never behave any differently, because the kit that would enable him to do so, simply wasn’t there, in his brain.

She began to look more carefully at all the years she’d spent with this man. The flaws were the only things she could see. She knew that somewhere in her mind, happy memories were hidden, but she simply had no warm recollections of happy times; she could only recall a long catalogue of disasters she had spent hours sorting out, on his behalf.

Her kids were grown up and she was older and wiser. She considered her marriage was in ruins and although she tried everything she could to regenerate it, she knew it was moribund. Her husband now slept in another room and hardly spoke to her. Her children moved away and had little interest in her life. One of them admitted she thought her mother an idiot to put up with her father’s behaviour. It was obvious they had more insight and clearer perspective of the way things had been, than she did. For her, the realisation was like the slow drip, drip of water on a stone and she hadn’t noticed when the water was becoming a flood.

At such a crossroads, my friend became distraught. How would she choose? If he was just an emotionally abusive man, then leaving him would be the best decision to make, but if he was autistic, how could she possibly leave him? If he had such a disability, how could she abandon him? She couldn’t.

She tentatively suggested he see the doctor again – he had suffered bouts of depression in their marriage.  He agreed and was given a long course of therapy. My friend is waiting for answers, for a diagnoses, for anything that will help her live her own life and not his. But so far, the medics have been inconclusive in their assessment. She has now been told that he may have a personality disorder, exacerbated by an unhappy childhood – another reason not to leave him and because she has no bruises or black eyes, there is nothing tangible to accuse him of. Emotional abuse does not leave physical scars.

While emotional abuse is recognised by organisations working in the field, it is still a form of abuse that has huge consequences for the well-being of the men and women on the receiving end of such behaviour. My friend continues to live from day to day, never knowing when the next episode will occur. She has become a shadow of the person she once was, but because she is kind, warm and considerate, because she has loads of empathy and an innate understanding of people, because she is patient and intelligent, she is staying in the marriage and living a sad, unhappy life, until the experts can define what is really going on in her husband’s psyche.

Treating mental illness, in all its forms, needs better funding. It is still a Cinderella service in the UK. So many people suffer in silence, unable to change their lives or get help, because of the stigma attached. Emotional abuse should also receive a higher profile and should not be sensationalized, as it often is in the media, particularly when celebrities are involved.  This type of abuse can be very subtle, but nonetheless, very damaging. The line between emotional abuse and behaviour that is on the autistic spectrum is difficult to define but one thing is clear, anyone involved should be given the best of help, not get lost in a system that cannot accomodate them or manage their situations effectively.

My film THE LOST CHILD, looks at what happens to children when one of the parents is suffering from a mental illness. By using a drama based on careful research to pose questions for professionals, service users and others, the film addresses the training needs of multi-disciplinary staff groups working in the field of child protection, adult mental health, parental mental illness, domestic violence and marital conflict.

Listening to the real-life story of my friend has strengthened my resolve to make my film more accessible through a website. It will soon be available to download, so watch this space.

The Lost Child


Just found another spelling kistake!
Just found another spelling kistake!

I haven’t written my blog for a few weeks as I’ve been deep into my third novel. It’s a huge learning process for me and working on my third attempt, I am beginning to understand how difficult the craft is.

When I started my first book, I had the blinding enthusiasm of a novice, sure it would be a doddle.  After all, loads of people write books, so it couldn’t be that hard, could it? Usually I’m quite a thoughtful person. I like to consider every aspect of a project before I jump in, feet first. Something shifted in me when I attempted my first novel.

How arrogant was I? When I completed the first manuscript draft, I felt sure I would be nominated for the Booker Prize, if not the Nobel Prize. Of course, I didn’t tell anyone I felt this way. I was sensible enough to keep quiet about it, but I’d had a measure of success in my previous career, so I was quite certain I would excel in this new one and everyone would recognise my genius…

Once my novel was out there, thanks to my publisher I had a sneaky feeling that perhaps my book wasn’t the piece of brilliant fiction I thought it was. Not because it wasn’t being read, but because when I saw it in print, after the initial thrill, I started to find fault. It’s inevitable, a good friend who is a much-published writer, earning a living from her books, told me. And, it’s part of the learning curve. You’ve given birth and now you can see that the little darling, your book, has eleven toes and a few nasty warts on its face. You still love it to bits, but naturally the malformations glare out at you every time you read it.

These days, I approach it all with  a pragmatic acceptance that I will, no matter what, write a lot of trash before the book is done. So I have set up a routine for myself that helps me maintain my sense of humour and grounds me. First, the discipline. I go through a ritual before I can write a single word.

Virginia Wolfe said “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  I have a room of my own. As for the money, I’m waiting. My little room looks out over a small stream surrounded by shrubs and often litter, blown in by the wind.  So my first job is to scour the outside for litter. Once done and the offending stuff deposited in the trash, I move on to the next item in my obsessive start-up agenda. Now, coffee must be made. Not the ordinary type – spoon in the instant jar, hot water and a splash of milk. Nope. Beans are essential. I wander around the kitchen waiting for the grinder to do its dirty work, then I place the black substance into the machine and wait. The drip, drip and the smell set my brain cells to writer mode.

I move into my space, a comfy chair with a bendy back and a pink seat, put the steaming coffee cup on the mouse mat and look at the screen. Looking at the screen for a long time in crucial. I’m still a student of my art, even though I’m a ‘mature’ one, and we all know that the luxury of being a student means you can spend time looking at the screen. After ten minutes or so – I’m quite frugal – I take a deep breath and open the ‘file’. By that, I mean my book file, the one where my work stares back at me and silently yells ‘rubbish!’

I read through the last chapter and then look at my notes. I have veered way off course, rambling on indulgently. It’s time for a serious edit. Most writing is the hard graft called editing. It’s like cutting your toe-nails. You know it has to be done, but doing it is a pain the the neck and takes deep concentration, if you don’t want a slipped disc or a missing toe. That’s what editing your own work feels like. But it’s an important part of learning your craft and believe me, you learn a great deal.

By this time, it’s about eleven o’clock and time to take a little stroll. Fresh air and exercise is important, as the brain cells start to die off after two hours glued to a thousand words. (I love Twitter because you have to write a mini story in 140 characters). Every writer should practice this. It teaches you to be economic…

Now, the time has come to concentrate. You have to have a certain sort of courage in these days of self-publishing. Writers, unless they have the money to employ someone to do it, have to edit their precious work themselves. And here is where the courage comes in. People out there will read your book and sure as eggs is eggs they will focus not on the story or the creative energy you have distilled into your work or the characters that spoke to you in the middle of the night, but on that missing speech mark, that wrongly placed comma, the paragraph that was too long, too short, too wordy. They will tell you, nicely, of course, how the book should have been written. If you are sensible, you will accept all these critiques with thanks and an awareness that you can learn something from everyone.

If you are fortunate to get a few accolades, BE HAPPY! Humility, when you are a learner, like me, is like a warm blanket and should be around your shoulders at all times. When I have written book number fifty, I might pat myself on the back and say, ‘bloody well done!’ But for now, I just want to enjoy the process and the excitement of seeing the new world I am creating develop and expand  on the page, see my characters grow, feel the atmosphere of the novel envelop me as I write – the smells, the sights, the moods of this newly formed universe. It’s magical.

If you have ever wanted to write, don’t wait, get on with it. Start by reading everything you can lay your hands on, good and bad. You have to saturate yourself in words, after all, you can’t learn to swim in a pool without water. It doesn’t matter if you think your first attempts are unreadable dribble. Enjoy the feeling of pressing the delete button or tearing up the paper and starting again; it’s a bit like going to confession, your bad work has received absolution and you can start afresh.

Don’t fret about your inability to spell, or punctuate. Focus on what you, an individual with your own unique set of thoughts and feelings, want to express. We all have things to say. Be brave and put the words down, they will stay put, or be as malleable as putty, or happily disappear; whatever you choose. You are in control and you have that enviable power we all want in our lives, to make things change on the page. Just by shifting the emphasis of a sentence, moving the dialogue to a different pace, altering a location, reshaping a character’s personality, you can drive your work in a different direction.

In my humble opinion, no computer game or trashy TV soap can rival the excitement of writing, or indeed, reading. In your own quiet space, and there is always one to be found in the busiest household (when my kids were small, under the stairs was a good one) you can enlarge the vista of your life by delving into the mind of another writer. I think writers do this. They allow you to take a look at their most radacal thoughts and ideas, the intricate worlds that have formed in their minds and have been transcribed into words on a page. How intimate and wonderful is that?