Resignation Syndrome

Ylena is just nine years old, the daughter of asylum seekers, currently living in Sweden. Shortly after arriving, while her mother was pregnant with her baby brother, she was afflicted with a strange illness. From being a very active young girl, she became listless and tired, she wouldn’t explain what was the matter, then she stopped talking altogether, she wouldn’t eat and she wouldn’t even get out of bed even to go to the toilet. There were no signs of any identifiable disease. The doctors were perplexed. All they could do was keep her alive by tube feeding, maintain hydration and hygeine, treat any infections, massage her limbs and prevent pressure sores. For most of the time, she slept in nappies like a baby. It is now five months since she became ill. Her parents are beside themselves with worry, not only about Ylena, but also the family’s immigrant status. The Swedish government has informed them that when their 13 month temporary residence expires, they will be deported. It was because their lives were in severe danger that they were forced to escape their country of origin and seek asylum.  They fear they will all be killed if they return.

Ylena is not the only child to be afflicted with this strange condition. It has been observed in the children of many asylum seekers in Sweden, and often occurs in clusters of friends or family members. It has been called Resignation Syndrome because it seems like the children afflicted have given up on life, but although the children are non responsive, their pulse and other physiological signs react to the presence of other people.

All the children affected by Resignation Syndrome have witnessed severe trauma often directed against their mother or father in their country of origin and the family is under threat of deportation. It is like, having witnessed extreme abuse, they cannot cope with the anxiety that their life will again be threatened. If their parents are taken away, how will they survive?  It is like the children have gone into a state of dissociation, like ‘Sleeping Beauty’.  But the illness tends to recover spontaneously if the threat of deportation is lifted.  Thus it seems that the cause of the illness is the extreme insecurity and the treatment is hope.

This epidemic has only been reported among asylum seekers in Sweden. Is this because Sweden has taken in a disproportionately large number of immigrants in recent years, but their policy for asylum has now become more strict, maybe because a few people were feigning illness to stay. But Resignation Syndrome is not faked.

Although the standard Swedish health policy has been to support life and wait for the illness to recover spontaneously or not, there is one clinic where they have instituted a radical new treatment. The children are separated from their parents and accommodated in friendly, comfortable surroundings, where staff play and engage with them in a positive way. There is, however, one strict rule; nobody is allowed to talk about deportation. Separated from the constant threat, children start to recover often within days and most make a complete recovery. But then they have to return to their parents and the threat of deportation.

There are clearly similarities between Resignation Syndrome and other unexplained illnesses, notably Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Anorexia nervosa and perhaps some patients with severe constipation predominant Irritable Bowel Syndrome, all of which may be instigated by trauma. Perhaps the epidemiological links with insecurity and the therapeutic influence of hope apply to all of them. The beneficial effect of removing the children from an environment that is toxic is also important. Illness isn’t just about medicine, politics and culture can have an important influence.

This post was inspired by Crossing Continents, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last Thursday.

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Hot-Milk

Rose is paralysed. She cannot walk or even feel her legs. The doctors do not seem to know what is wrong. So Sofia has accompanied her mother to see Dr Gomez, a charismatic doctor/healer with a clinic, built in white marble ‘like a spectral beast’ on a hilltop in Almeria, Southern Spain. Throughout Deborah Levy’s new novel, Hot Milk, we are never quite sure whether Gomez is just a clever practitioner, who is trying to create the conditions where Rose has no alternative but get well, or whether he is a charlatan preying on her vulnerability to fund his clinic.

Ever since Rose was abandoned by Christos, Sofia’s Greek father, she has been dependant on her daughter to care for her. Bound by chains of control and dependency, Sofia has struggled to find her own life. She trained to be an anthropologist, interested, of course, in kinship, but she works as a barista and in her spare time, experiments with sexual relationships with both men and women. Her obsession with Ingrid, whose ‘body is long and hard like an autobahn’, seems to mirror her dysfunctional attachment with her mother, while with Juan she plays out a desire that is never quite reciprocated.

A little more than halfway through Sofia, throws a vase on the floor. The vase is a replica of an ancient Greek krater. In the shards Sofia sees “the ruins that were once a whole civilisation”, an image of her mother’s shattered life in Greece. When she takes a week off to visit her father in Athens, a city broken by economic collapse, she finds him shacked up with his child bride and baby daughter in small apartment. She sleeps in an airless storeroom on a camp bed that collapses as soon as she lies down on it. Upon leaving, she discovers her father has made a will leaving all of his not inconsiderable wealth to the church.

Back in Spain, she goes swimming in the sea and notices her mother walking over the sand. Her legs are clearly working fine. She swims though a swarm of medusa jellyfish which sting her into action. “My love for my mother is like an axe,” Sofia says. “It cuts very deep.”

Later, she offers to take her mother for a drive, but at a viewpoint high in the hills, she wheels her mother to the centre of the road. In the distance she sees a white lorry approaching. So she leaves her and drives off. When she returns to the apartment her mother is already there. Without a word, she walks into the kitchen to fetch Sophie a drink.

Deborah Levy’s novel is not a great read. I could not easily sympathise with any of the characters. The men seemed not to care, the women self centred and acting out of a sense of injustice or grievance. The stark desert landscape, the relentless sun, the chained Alsatian on the beach that won’t stop barking, the sea full of poisonous jellyfish; they all seemed to represent Sofia’s life in confined exile. She uses her desperate, ambivalent sexuality as a gesture of freedom from her dysfunctional relationship with her parents that she cannot relinquish, but that in turn threatens to be an obsessional entrapment. Ingrid calls Sofia a monster. Perhaps she is. She is certainly not a heroine I could warm to.

Hot Milk isn’t a long novel, but it is heavy with meaning, like a poem. In the first few pages, Sofia drops her computer and its screen shatters. “My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else”. Perhaps that is a clue. Deborah Levy’s book about identity and entrapment. Sofia floats through her life like the poisonous jellyfish which drive the tourists away from the white-hot beach. Her her mother’s illness devours her past, her father’s new family render it meaningless, and her relationships with Ingrid, with Juan, with the inscrutable Gómez, seem to evaporate like spray on hot sand.

Perhaps her trip to Spain with her mother marks a fracture in her life, a life that has been on hold because of her mother’s incessant demands and her confusion of her mother with herself. When her mother limps painfully, so does Sofia. “My legs are her legs.”, she says. Only now, it seems, they can both walk away independantly, but to where?

Hot Milk is a powerfully hypnotic narrative of a troubled life, containing a constellation of disturbing symbols, that continue to haunt me long after I turned the final page.

Darkest HourThe continued vacillation among those who would rule us is so depressing. It feels like a capitulation, a retreat from a position of power and influence to a place of deep insecurity. David Cameron need not have called the referendum. It was more about political survival of the Tory government than what was in the best interests of the country. He was the man in charge and he bottled out. And now Mrs May, our self proclaimed ‘strong and stable’ leader, is being held to ransom by a European Union, who are no doubt fed up with Britain’s prolonged ambivalence over the whole European project. Many on both sides of the political divide complain and threaten to undermine the process. Their hearts may not be in it, but the people have voted. Britain is alone, cast adrift from Europe. So do we wring our hands and go back to Europe cap in hand and plead for a good deal or do we strike out alone and make the best of it?

It is not the first time, our little island has been alone. In May of 1940, Hitler’s panzers had raced through Holland, Belgium and into France. The total British Army, 300,000 men, were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. The House had lost confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had tried to appease the Nazis, and somewhat reluctantly appointed Winston Churchill to lead a coalition government.

Joe Wright’s film, ‘Darkest Hour, covers three weeks during the month of May 1940 from the time Winston Churchill was appointed prime minister to the evacuation from Dunkirk. Much of it was shot in the gothic gloom of The Houses of Parliament or in the underground war rooms in Whitehall. Gary Oldman was a surprising choice to play Churchill. He needed a lot of prosthetic work to transform his face and body. Nevertheless, his manner was convincing, though was Churchill really such a clown? Was he so volatile? Kirsten Scott Thomas, playing Clemmie, was a wonderful foil for his excesses. As she remarked, ‘he is just a man‘.

The action centred around the arguments within the War Cabinet.   Lord Halifax favoured contacting the Italians to broker a negotiation with Hitler. Churchill was having none of it: ‘You do not negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its jaws!‘. But he felt worn down by the reality of the situation and the sheer burden of responsibility. The most moving part of the film, totally fictitious and heavily criticised, was when Churchill hopped out of his car and took the tube for the last bit of his journey to Westminster. He got into conversation with the people in his carriage and asked them what they thought of the idea of negotiating with Hitler. They had no doubt. ‘Never‘, they all cried. Churchill then quickly drafted his famous speech to parliament and delivered it to resounding acclaim. ‘We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Within the next few days, the British Army was evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk by Churchill’s flotilla of little boats. And a few months later, the RAF delivered their own riposte to Hitler’s invasion plans. ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few‘. Such stirring stuff. I was born in 1945, just after the war. My father had served in the RAF. It was in my DNA.

Churchill’s genius was the way in which he sent words into battle to inspire a nation. Politicians since then have aspired to do the same thing, but, with few exceptions, they have lacked courage and conviction. And so, we have arrived at our current depressing state. For a current generation, ‘now’ might be seen as their darkest hour. Only this time, the threat has been self inflicted and there seems no plan and little sign of redemption

spotted flycatcher

Last week, I brought a cardboard box in from the outhouse to dismantle and put into the recycling. As I went to pick it up several hours later, a large reddish-brown moth flew out and fluttered against the window. I had to let it out even though I knew that with the temperature dipping towards freezing, it was unlikely to survive. Moths and butterflies have declined by 50% since 1990. The moth snow storms that I used to see in the headlights while driving along quiet country roads in summer are no more; I rarely have to clean squashed insects off my car windscreen. Also gone are the clouds of flying insects that used to cluster around the gas light in my tent. Perhaps if I had caught my moth it and put it in a matchbox, it would have survived until next summer and I would have made a gesture. But I didn’t.

Even if my moth had survived and laid a million eggs, it would have made no difference. The bigger picture is overwhelming. A group of amateur scientists from Germany has just reported the results of a thirty year survey of flying insects caught using Malaise traps in 63 nature reserves throughout the country. The results are shocking: a 75% decline in the biomass of all the flying insects over 30 years; 82% if they just included the summer.

We already knew there has been a dramatic decline in honey-bees (45% since 2010) and butterflies, but this is the first reliable study that has included all flying insects. Flying insects pollinate 82% of flowers and are food for 60% of birds as well as 100% of European bats and many freshwater fish.

Insectivorous birds have also shown a dramatic decline. Spotted Flycatchers always nested in the road where I live, perching on telegraph wires to dive for insects, but it must be 10 years since I last saw one. Cuckoos are specialist feeders; they especially like those big hairy hawk moth caterpillars, like those of the Tiger Moth. I still hear them on the moors a few days each year, but they have disappeared from the valleys. Swifts, those screaming ton-up mobsters that used to race around the village in May and June have also disappeared. It’s the same picture with Redstarts and many of our summer visitors from Africa. Overall, farmland bird numbers have dropped by 55% since the nineteen seventies and numbers of common insectivorous birds such as starlings, swallows, thrushes and warblers have fallen by 35%.

The reason for the decline is almost certainly due to the widespread use of pesticides; that and the increasing amount of land given over to arable and the intensive planting of monocultures. Rachel Carson realised why this was happening way back in 1962 when she wrote ‘Silent Spring’. Meadows of wild flowers at a rarity in Britain now. Instead we have wide swathes of what are essentially poisonous deserts where the insects and the creatures that feed on them cannot survive. Although the German survey was conducted in protected nature reserves, these were surrounded by poisonous agricultural land. Even corridors of hedgerows and wild flowers at field margins have been grubbed out and ploughed over.

Of course, environmentalists will want to know how representative the German study is, though the fact that it was conducted carefully over 30 years and many different sites must suggest the similar results would be seen in other areas and countries employing intensive agriculture. Similar studies should be instigated in other countries, but we can’t afford to wait another 30 years for the results. We have to act now.  It may be that wilder regions in countries, like Scotland and Finland, or islands that employ organic farming methods, might retain their flying insects and have a much more healthy biodiversity.  If so, we will need learn from them.

Could these trends ever be reversed? Should governments just ban pesticides forthwith? Is there a political will? Would it make any difference? How can we protect the environment when there is so much anxiety over rising populations and food security? Notwithstanding that argument, 30% of our crops are pollinated by flying insects.  If that were to fail, we would soon have a food crisis and insufficient resources to rectify it.

Similar arguments apply to marine environments. On the same day that I heard about the German insect study, I also learnt that the proposal of the Tasmanian summit to establish an enormous marine sanctuary in eastern Antarctica has been blocked by Russia and China because they wanted to protect their rights to fish there!

The threat to life on our planet by climate change, intensive agriculture, land clearance, not to mention global conflict, are now too urgent and important to be left to individual nations. We need to establish an international organisation with the authority to legislate on the measures that must to be taken to protect the planet and to hold individual states to account. But I guess things will have to go past the point of no return before politicians have the will to act. We are living in such dreadfully insecure times, I wonder if there is a connection between the threat of environmental disaster and the rise of populism? Is it all a desperate quest for somebody to make it right?

 

 

 

Hoatzins-ecuador

The Hoatzin

They were all over the path and on the field beside it. There must have been about 50 of them scampering about, twittering to each other and occasionally bending forwards to peck at some insect or seed. They were Japanese pheasants, slightly smaller and much duller than our own magnificent pheasants, which we regard as indigenous but were actually imported by the Romans from their natural range to the east of the Black Sea. I ran closer and they scattered and ran away, behaving not so much like birds but like little dinosaurs. It reminded me of a scene from ‘Jurassic Park’. Flying is a last resort for pheasants; with their small wings and large bodies they can only make it to the next copse or area of scrub. Other ground nesting birds, the American Road Runner, which is actually a type of Cuckoo, the Stone Curlew, and the Great Bustard, also seem to resemble dinosaurs more than they do birds.

So have birds evolved from dinosaurs? Our notion of dinosaurs, large lumpen grey-green reptiles that roamed through swamps or terrifying blood thirsty monsters as large as a double decker bus would seem to make that highly unlikely.  Nevertheless, the discovery of the Archaeopteryx is Southern Germany in 1861 shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species, seemed to settle the question beyond any doubt. This strange creature, which was about the size of a pigeon, but had a skeleton like a lizard and wings with flight feathers, was heralded as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. Only a few specimens were discovered, but deep in Amazonia there is a strange bird that sort-of resembles Archaeopteryx. This is the Hoatzin. I spotted one once while travelling up Rio Negro beyond Manaus in a small motor boat. It was about the size of large pheasant, with a bald face, big maroon eye, punk-like spiky crest and the most striking rufous red wing and tail feathers which it displayed frequently. The Hoatzin is the sole member of the family, Opisthocomidae, which is thought to have split off from the evolutionary trajectory of other birds after the extinction of the dinosaurs. This weird chimera eats fruits and leaves, which it ferments in its chambered crop like a cow. For this reason, it is also called ‘the stink bird’. Hoatzins are too heavy to fly far, preferring to spend most of their time eating and calling noisily to each other. The chicks have one other curious atavistic feature, claws on the first two digits of their developing wings, which, together with the claws on their feet, help them climb trees. So that was it: the evolution of birds from dinosaurs rested on the Archaeopteryx, a strange bird living in the Amazon basin that resembles the  Archaeopteryx, and few other strange creatures, such as the Hesperornithes, large seabirds that resembled divers but had teeth, and the flightless ratites (Ostriches, Emus, Rheas, Cassowaries, Kiwis and Moas).

Nevertheless, for more than a hundred years, the fossil trail from dinosaurs to birds ran cold. No new feathered reptiles were discovered. Palaeontologists muttered about freak mutations, but nothing seemed to make much sense. Then twenty years ago, in the sediments of prehistoric lake beds in Liaoning Province, North Eastern China, local farmers started finding strange fossils.  These were identified as dinosaurs but they all had feathers. In many cases these were just hollow quills with tufts that probably served to insulate them from the cold, but some had flight feathers and wings, which were probably used for display before they evolved for flight. Under normal circumstances, the soft tissues of fossils, including feathers, would decay and be eaten by insects, but the Liaoning lake beds were covered by a layer of volcanic ash, which preserved the structure of fossils in great detail. The fossil beds are so extensive and the specimens so numerous that new discoveries are being made at a rate of one a fortnight.

Palaeontologists now have a complete fossil record of the evolution of birds from Therapod dinosaurs, depicting the development of every change: reduction in size, a light, air-filled skeleton, flight feathers, a beak like structure, the loss of teeth and a unique system of air sacs for breathing. Microscopic examination of the feathers has even revealed melanosomes, little packages of colour, so it is likely that like birds, these small theropods were multicoloured and probably used their plumage for display.

Dinosaurs were the dominant species on Earth for 200 million years between the Triassic and Cretaceous epochs and over that time achieved a remarkable diversity. They were extinguished when a six mile wide asteroid plunged into what is now the Gulf of Mexico, 65 million years ago, but they did not die out completely. The survivors evolved into birds and crocodiles as well as a host of reptiles. But why was it that birds survived while most other groups died out? Was it their small size? After all, it was the shrews, that survived to diversify into mammals. Could they have escaped the destruction of their habitat by flying? Did their covering of feathers allow them to survive the prolonged volcanic winter at would have followed the asteroid impact?

The recent discovery of these spectacular dinosaur fossils in Liaoning overwhelmingly supports the hypothesis that birds are descended from theropod dinosaurs and is probably the best-documented major evolutionary transitions in life history.  As ever, these new discoveries raise lots of new questions, but what an exciting time to be a palaeontologist. The irony is: this exciting discovery comes just as we are on the brink of another species extinction.

 

 

london-brexit

It wasn’t so much a problem when human beings lived in small hunter gatherer tribes of 20 to 40. Then, they worked together, sharing the tasks of hunting, foraging, making fire, cooking, shelter, defence to ensure their survival. The dilemma occurred after they learnt how to grow, harvest and store food and to domesticate wild animals and were able to settle in stable communities that grew to hundreds and then thousands of people. This necessitated the allocation of roles for purposes of food supply, trade, defence and public health and a system of laws to regulate societies.

Initially such city states were ruled by strong or powerful kings; warlords who defended the community and organised the people by force. As the threat of invasion receded, this type of leadership could so easily become tyrannical and burdensome. Democracy or ‘rule by the people’ was introduced in Athens in about 500 BCE. Plato, writing at the time, feared that allowing people to govern themselves would lead to anarchy or mob rule, which would inevitably revert to tyranny or dictatorship. It is perhaps no surprise that he favoured a benign oligarchy of philosophers, but what arose in Athens was a somewhat larger more representative ruling body of ‘free’ citizens, that excluded slaves, foreigners, women and children.

As states increased in size, direct rule by the people led to chaos and inertia. It had to be managed. Democracy’s dilemma has always been how to guarantee the right of every citizen to have a stake in the running of the state, while ensuring that decisions regarding defence, food supply, trade, property and public health could be made under sound logistical and moral principles without undue argument and delay. The answer was to elect or appoint people who could represent different factions within the community. However, only those with sufficient political and moral training were considered able to supervise the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the state. Some states created an extra tier of organisation to safeguard effective governance. The government of ancient Rome offered power to the people through the election of tribunes, but political authority was held by the senate, who listened to the tribunes and transformed the will of the people into workable laws. America’s congress is based on the Roman model with a house of representatives and a senate. Each state within the union appoints two senators. While representing the interests of each state in the political process, they review and debate bills, treaties, and proposed legislation and oversee the president’s administration.

An ideal democracy, while acknowledging the diverse opinions of the electorate, must, none-the-less modify voter preferences to ensure good government. Such transformation of popular needs and concerns into effective legislation needs to be conducted with transparency, honesty and equity, ensuring that the opinions of different factions are heard and debated in order to attain a workable consensus. Moreover, the legislative, executive and judicial roles of government should be kept separate so that each is independent. Finally, the decisions of government should be carried out in accordance to a written constitution, which is nevertheless subject to periodic review.

How many modern democracies operate entirely according to those principles? The answer, of course, is none, although most claim accountability to the people they represent. Practical expediency necessitates at-best, compromise and at-worst, subversion.  As a system for running a state, Churchill once declared that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.

In his recent book, ‘Democracy and its Crisis’, the philosopher, Professor Anthony Grayling, outlined three reasons why modern democracies, particularly those in the UK and US, are failing. They are: governments are too self serving of their own class and faction, the electorate is inadequately represented and insufficiently informed and there is too much interference in government by external agencies.

An Elected Dictatorship.

In the UK, the prime minister and her cabinet effectively run the country, subject to the ‘approval’ of parliament. They organise both executive and legislative functions of government and are only accountable to the people inasmuch as they can either be endorsed or rejected after five years. Bills may be delayed by resistance in The House of Lords, but they cannot be blocked. Even the judiciary lacks the power to strike down laws made by parliament, although it can ask parliament to reconsider laws that contravene legislation on human rights. In the nineteen seventies, Lord Hailsham called the UK system of government an elective dictatorship. This has not changed.

A similar system exists in the United States.  Executive authority resides with the President and the House of Representatives, though the senate does have the power to overturn legislation. For a good part of the history of the United States, there has been a de facto combination of powers with the legislature and executive, both houses of congress and the President working together when the same party has a majority in the house and the senate.

The distortions and inequities of the electoral system and party divisions means that governments of both countries do not represent the diverse views of the population or even majority public opinion. Instead, the executive government represents the background and experience of those members, the President or Prime Minister have appointed. You would at least think that the executive could be held to account by their individual members, but the reality is that in the UK they are bullied, bribed and blackmailed by the ‘whips’ into supporting the party line. It was the whips made sure that article 50 was triggered for Britain to leave the European Union, even though the result of the referendum was only ever meant to be advisory document and only 37% of the electorate voted for it. On a matter as important as leaving the EU, a two thirds majority would have ensured that the people truly decided. Unfortunately, the executive was able ‘to make it up as it went along’, partly because Britain does not have a written constitution. Even party manifestoes are less an agenda for the next parliament than a wish list that may be discarded as situations change.

Both the current UK and US governments could be accused as being out of touch with the electorate and only serving the interests of a small executive group. History teaches us that such unrepresentative government can lead to envy, riot, and replacement by a more populist regime, risking another form of dictatorship. This has already happened in the US while in the UK, an alternative government is biding it’s time, waiting for the current incumbents to implode.

Representation

Government should represent a diversity of views, but the absence of proportional representation in the ‘first past the post system’, operated by both the UK and the US, means that certain views are under-represented or not represented at all. Climate change is arguably the major threat facing mankind, yet tackling it is only championed by The Green Party in the UK. Although, over a million people voted for the Greens in 2015, only one member was elected. And in the United States, Donald Trump, a candidate with no qualification for parliamentary leadership, won more states, even though  Hillary Clinton, with three years experience as Secretary of State, got 3 million more popular votes. The major parties argue that proportional representation would lead to coalition and weak government, but coalition would mean greater representation of the views of the electorate and less manipulation by class based ideology and powerful external agencies. As such, it would be more democratic.

Fake News and Bullshit.

External agencies, particularly the news media have too much influence on both the electorate and MPs. Post truth, fake news, distortion, propaganda, ad hominem attacks, even the caricatures of cartoonists like Peter Brookes create what political commentator and presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, Evan Davis, calls ‘bullshit’ and can all too easily affect the way people think and vote. Bullshit is the political journalist’s stock-in-trade; they are there to probe, to question, to stir things up. It gives them access to the levers of power without any of the responsibility? But it none-the-less undermines our faith in any kind of government. Many people were manipulated to vote for Brexit by exaggerated fears of foreign intervention and immigration?

Social media has made this much worse. Google and other social media outlets can create profiles of every voter. This allows them to target voters in key constituencies or states to swing the vote in a particular direction.

Government can be manipulated by donations from rich individuals or sponsorship from big corporations, while within government, networks of military and civilian officials have a major influence what the executive decides.

For the Many not the Few.

Most MPs and members of the US congress have grown up at a time of peace. Britain and the USA and most of Europe have had no wars on their soil for over 70 years. This may explain an attitude of complacency on the part of government. David Cameron – remember him – failed to factor in a vote to leave the EU or appreciate the inherent inequality in income and opportunity that many in Britain suffered. ‘For the many, not the few’ chimes with the resentment and aspirations of lower paid workers. They are fed up with excuses and inaction, fed up with being fobbed off with the same tired old rhetoric that promises everything and never delivers, fed up with the brouhaha of party politics, fed up with the way the news media create a crisis out of everything. Although we may recognise the criticism of the government of the day and the promises for something different and better as just so much bullshit, we nevertheless are drawn in by somebody who promises to transform the political arena into something different, more can-do. This is the appeal of self appointed populist leaders like Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, though only the latter can claim hard won experience of government.

So now, a hundred years on from a proletarian revolution in Russia, the US seems threatened by a new form of tyranny while British democracy is rapidly losing all credibility and influence. Can we ever pull ourselves back from the brink and reform the democratic system? Or do things have to get much worse before there is the will to change them? Can we introduce a fair system of proportional representation? Can we reform parliamentary procedures and abolish the party whips? Can we ensure transparency of funding for elections? Can we abolish the manipulation of elections by profiling and targeting voters? Can we in Britain replace a defunct House of Lords with an effective and more representative senate, able to challenge the executive when necessary. Can we increase the political effectiveness of local communities? Can we hold the media to account to fact-check what they publish?

It seems that if we are ever to change our system of democracy, we need to be more involved. Government is too distant and centralised. If people could become more involved in local government, they would understand the workings of democracy. Then their deliberations could feed up to higher levels of government. But how many would wish to be involved? Call me an old cynic, but my experience in running a charity suggests that most people would rather others did it for them. Perhaps if we educated our teenagers to understand how democracy works and gave them the vote at 16, they might feel motivated to make a difference.

 

John McEnroe

But they were. It was like life and death to each of them. They were remarkably alike, both in history and temperament. Both were tennis prodigies. Bjorn Borg was just 15 when he played in Sweden’s Davis Cup team and beat the number 20 in the world. He was 19 when he won Wimbledon for the first time. John McEnroe was only two years older when they met on Centre Court. But how did they become so determined to be the best in the world? Was it all to do with their parents? While their mothers gave them the love and self belief, it was probably their strict fathers who forged that backbone of steel that meant that neither could ever give up. Confident of the stability of the family and the sole focus of their parents’ ambition, they had to be the best. It was unacceptable to be mediocre. Good enough was no good at all!  If they were not the best, they were nothing.

Tennis is a gladiatorial contest, in which you live or die by your own skill and will to succeed.  Perhaps it is only teenagers have that obsessional drive and dedication to satisfy the ambitious love of a demanding parent.

The young Bjorn Borg had a volatile temperament and could lose it when he was not winning and had unfair line call. He was trouble. It was only when his coach, Lennart Bergelin, who had also represented Sweden in the Davis Cup and ws once number 9 in the world,  told him to channel his fury into the next shot and not waste it by ranting at the umpire, that he began to change. He became the ice man, turning the air conditioning in his hotel room down to zero to keep himself totally cool, totally focussed. McEnroe called him the machine, but his psychological mechanism had a tightly coiled spring, that was only be released when he got on court. McEnroe probably had the same degree of aggression; his rants at the umpire released the pent up tension, allowing him to gather himself and stay in control.  The 1980 Wimbledon final was the perfect match: ‘the ice man’ versus ‘superbrat’.

McEnroe had the upper hand to begin with and won the first set. The commentators were already writing Borg off. But in second, Borg served an ace and announced his recovery with a vengeance. He won the third as well. McEnroe looked flustered and confused before the beginning of the fourth, but Borg said, ‘C’mon. It’s a great match’. That set was so evenly matched, it went to a tie break. Borg had six match points, but McEnroe came back each time, gaining two match points which Borg nullified. McEnroe eventually won the tie break by a phenomenal eighteen points to sixteen. They had to play a fifth, but that also went to a tie break, which Borg won. it was an amazing match, the like of which has never been bettered on Centre Court. McEnroe won the respect of the British crowd on that day and although he never stopped ranting, he was great entertainment and had many supporters.

Psychoanalysts might say that the McEnroe’s rants and Borgs tightly controlled narcissistic rage were Oedipal expressions of aggression at the harsh parent who had first call on their mother’s love. But if so, how did they grow out of it?

Borg played McEnroe the next year but lost and retired from tennis. He said at the time he didn’t mind losing. Something had changed. Perhaps he had nothing more to prove. He was persuaded to come back on the tour some years later but was never good enough. The fire had gone out. Perhaps getting married, living abroad and starting his own business distanced him from the influence of his parents. McEnroe is still playing tennis, competing in veterans tournaments and commentating on radio and television. For a time he tried to be a rock star, but it didn’t work. He has mellowed, become more thoughtful and developed an engaging, self deprecating humour. He doesn’t have to win any more. It is like they have both grown up. Tennis is no longer life and death. There is more to life. Their narcissism had been tempered by the realisation that they have to work with others to be at peace with themselves and successful in life. They have been socialised. Borg is a successful businessman with a big fashion company in Sweden. He is happily married and has three children. McEnroe, as far as we know, is also contentedly married with five children. Borg was his best man.

The Swedish biopic Borg/McEnroe has been released this and is in cinemas now ,