Making sense of tragedy and chaos – why it is important to be an expert witness.

The election of Donald J Trump to the Presidency of the United States knocks the UK’s Brexit vote into a cocked hat. It seems likely that the reasons for both votes is very much the same, that being the backlash from the silent less-qualified majority who have seen their work and home conditions deteriorate substantially in comparison with the affluent better positioned minority over the last decade. Very much a repeat of the Brits’ sacking of the Experts this side of the pond it appears.  I quote from the Telegraph: “I think people in this country,” declared Vote Leave’s Michael Gove, “have had enough of experts.” His fellow Brexiteers were quick to back him up. “There is only one expert that matters,” said Labour MP Gisela Stuart, also of Vote Leave, “and that’s you, the voter.”

I am old enough to remember the rise of Margaret Thatcher, her election in 1979 seeing the demise of the Labour party for a generation until its re-emergence under Tony Blair in 1997 with New-Labour.  One of the funniest books written about the period is John O’Farrell’s ‘Things can only get better – Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter‘, which carries many immortal lines.  Try this one:

“Like bubonic plague and stone cladding, no-one took Margaret Thatcher seriously until it was too late. Her first act as leader was to appear before the cameras and do a V for Victory sign the wrong way round. She was smiling and telling the British people to f*** off at the same time. It was something we would have to get used to.”

The book starts by identifying the author’s early years in Maidenhead, living around the corner from Claires Court.  Dickensian images of collieries and slag heaps are conjured in the opening stanzas, and we are transported into a Cookham where (he writes) “the down-trodden classes are barely able to consider a life other than work, and where leisure is unheard of”.  The landscape of Maidenhead has necookham-workhousever been scarred by ‘mining’ per se, but pretty much every other element of the poverty of the 19th century has been experienced here in the Royal Borough and wider area. The Cookham Workhouse was built in 1834/5 and provided for 200 inmates, and any vagrants and beggars overnight, because sleeping rough was not permitted within the borough.  In the map of the whole area, the workhouse is shown sitting as a cruciform building, halfway between the Infirmary and the Isolation hospital; they knew in those days that there were no cures for the infectious diseases of their times, and such patients needed to be kept completely separate from those who were more generally infirm, from injury hospitalisations to the chronically sick. St Mark’s hospital and its attendant graveyards stood ‘helpfully’ nearby.  We know all of this because local experts have chronicled these events of the time and established as best they can the steps that led to improvement in care and provision, and their important work continues to the present day.

Whether writing about the 19th, 20th or 21st Centuries, our local and national communities have experienced challenges beyond endurance. Earlier this month, we marked the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of the battle of the Somme, the worst ever conflict ‘event’ in which the British infantry have participated. We now know of over 12,000 British child soldiers who lost their lives on the Somme, whose presence there had been actively encouraged by families, friends and the wider society at large. It was only when the carnage of that battle came to light in 1915 that families began to ask for their children to be sent home; parents had simply no understanding that their sons would be fighting and dying, rather than supporting behind the lines.  The experts of the day did not consider conscription necessary, since so many troops could be mobilised through volunteering alone.  Once the casualties became clear, so their views changed and the number of children permitted to join up rapidly dried up.

With the wisdom of hindsight this year, we are also exploring the ‘casualties’ of 50 years ago, at Aberfan, in which 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives. Their school was engulfed in a slurry of mud and stone: “More than 1.4 million cubic feet (40,000 cu metres) of debris covered a section of the village in minutes. The classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were immediately inundated; young children and teachers died from impact or suffocation. Many noted the poignancy of the situation: if the disaster had struck a few minutes earlier, the children would not have been in their classrooms, and if it had struck a few hours later, they would have left for the half-term holiday” – Wikipedia

The owners and ‘experts’ alike were not allowed to get away with their preliminary excuses, and the official enquiry blamed the National Coal Board (NCB) for extreme negligence.  The memorial at Aberfan replicates in its own way what the War Graves commission does so well for the war dead – every child is known, named and remembered. I quote from the same Wikipedia article: “A study into the disaster’s long-term psychological effects was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2003. It found that half the survivors suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some time in their lives, that they were more than three times more likely to have developed lifetime PTSD than a comparison group of individuals who had experienced other life-threatening traumas, and that 34% of survivors who took part in the study reported that they still experienced bad dreams or difficulty sleeping due to intrusive thoughts about the disaster”.

I write this post as we learn of that a plane carrying 77 people, including a soccer team from Brazil, Chapecoense, crashed on the outskirts of Medellín, Colombia, killing most aboard. Early signs are the plane experienced complete power failure, with the pilot reporting having no fuel, crash landing just a few miles from its destination. Emergency services are mobilised all over the hill side, 7 survivors have been found, and the president of Brazil has declared a period of national mourning. It’s a major tragedy, right up there with the Munich Air disaster of 1958 when , a plane carrying 44 Manchester United players, known as the Busby Babes, and officials were returning from their European cup match against Red Star Belgrade. 23 adults died; “the crash not only derailed their title ambitions that year but also virtually destroyed the nucleus of what promised to be one of the greatest generations of players in English football history. It would take 10 years for the club to recover, with Busby rebuilding the team and winning the European Cup in 1968 with a new generation of “Babes”.  No doubt air travel in the longer term in South America will be made safer, as it was following the Munich disaster, but that’s only going to happen if experts painstakingly piece the evidence back into sufficient shape to draw conclusions.

At the same time, more local in the UK, the spectre of child abuse has raised its head again, in the same sport of football. This time there are suggestions not just of cover ups, but of institutional bribery to ‘pay victims off’ to keep the club’s name out of the press. I have not idea of where this latter expose will take us, but suffice it to say that there won’t be a police force in the country not having to deploy its officers to sift through the allegations, investigate as appropriate and hold both individuals and corporations to account. Such additional pressures can bring services to their knees, but it is essential that we respond and deal with matters with great care and expertise.

Our own hospital services of 2016 are facing incredible challenges of resourcing, where ambulances are unable to discharge their injured and sick, as there are no hospital beds into which to admit them, because we cannot discharge those in hospital with sufficient speed into caring environments back in the community. Those community resources are being stretched to the limit both by an aging population and by this age of austerity in which we have every year to do more with less, and that requires very considerable expertise indeed.

We do live in interesting and immediate times, in which our past history serves to remind us of lessons past and lessons learned. I have no doubt that we require great expertise every day, and that as an educator I must lead my school and learners therein, both adults and children, to gather what skills we have, hone those and develop others anew, to be able to cope with all the circumstances that an uncertain future may bring. I can’t believe we must accept ‘Beyond truth’ reasons as vaid. Whatever rhetoric politicians have used to win elections and plebiscites, we in the real world need to remember falsehoods when spoken or given as evidence.  There will come a time when those that cause the disasters that inevitably follow lies and deceit will need to be held to account. Not just by our judicious use of the ballot box, but of civil, criminal and international courts of tribunal as well. Our need for expert witness is as real now as ever.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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