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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Still haven't got it

I am beginning to feel a little left out. I still haven't managed to "get" Twitter. I know I ought to throw myself into it to be able to really benefit. But I can't. It just seems to demand too much time. And I can't just leave it on in the background as it starts to annoy me like a television left on in a room when you are having an interesting conversation.

I like RSS. I like the fact that I can make time to read things that I am interested in without extraneous noise.

Occasionally I'll spot something go by on the Twitter Gadget on my iGoogle home page and follow the link. But generally I go to Reader first. I like the more considered pieces rather than the instantaneous.

I will accept that Twitter is good for asking questions that are not answered by search engines.

Maybe it's me. But Twitter just strikes me as too needy...

Friday, January 29, 2010

How not to run a bank

Today we launched a new learning programme for Bankers called SMART CB. Together with the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland, we are offering a fast track route for senior managers to obtain Chartered Banker status. Below is an excerpt from my speech at the launch event.

"I should like to tell you a little story to underline the importance of professional standards in banking that is a little closer to home than you might expect.

I want to tell you about my great-great-grandfather, George.

From the early 19th century the Greenways were bankers in Warwick. Although initially very successful, the bank was taken over by my great-great-great-uncle Kelynge Greenway after the death of his father. Under the terms of his father's will, £25,000 in capital was removed from the bank leaving just seven pounds to the remaining partners. That the bank survived the withdrawal of £25k at all, is a testament to its strength up to this point. What happened next is an object lesson in how NOT to run a bank.

Kelynge asked his brothers, Thomas (a Colonel in the army), George (a solicitor and my great-great- grandfather) and Charles (an architect) to join him in the bank. Now, you would have thought that with only seven pounds to their name, they would take the opportunity to recapitalise the bank.

But no, they decided instead to run the bank with NO CAPITAL WHATSOEVER! According to the British Banking History Society in December 1886 of the banks £278,000 of assets, £210,000 were the partners' overdrawn accounts and this included extensive tramway speculation (grandpa George was also the Chairman of the Magdeburg Tramway Company).

The bank failed on September 6th 1887 after their agents in London, Glynns, refused to honour their cheques and the trial of the partners began on October 27th. George was sentenced to five years' penal servitude and Kelynge to 12 months' hard labour, Thomas escaped sentence due to his "almost complete ignorance of banking" and Charles had died five years previously.

grandfather Walter told me that his father Cate (who had been 11 at the time of the crash) never spoke of the affair. One can only speculate on the impact it would have had on a young boy but he overcame it, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the army, serving in India and China ultimately winning the DSO at Gallipoli. Indeed you will be glad to hear, my family has steered clear of banking since; sticking almost exclusively to the things it knows about namely teaching and the military.

I think it is safe to say that neither George, Thomas or Charles knew of the canons of lending; still less of how to properly assess credit risk. It is clear they knew absolutely nothing of best practice in capital ratios.

I think it is also safe to say that my family knows the fundamental importance of professional standards in banking.

Mark Twain once said, "History never repeats itself but it often rhymes". I don't think you need me to point out the parallels between my ancestors' short-comings as bankers and the factors which contributed to our current economic situation.

There is a wealth of knowledge in the path to Chartered Banker and knowledge is, I believe, the only long term way to profit. I hope it is a path that you join us on."

I thought I'd share this here as it was only through working with CIOBS that I found out about this element of my family history.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Janaury blog posts are often about resolutions. Big, sweeping, ambitious pieces. But I haven't made any resolutions this year. I shall simply state two objectives:

1. To simplify wherever possible
2. To have fun. Or more specifically, since I don't think one can simply will happiness to exist, to try not to miss opportunities for enjoyment

That latter one sent me on an enjoyable five minute diversion. I was sure that there is a Samuel Johnson quote about happiness along the lines of, "Any plan for merriment seems doomed by its own nature". I eventually found it as:

"Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme for merriment."

But not before I had throughly enjoyed his wit and 'resolved' (eek) to try and read more of him.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The tale lessens in the telling

I've just watched a documentary on diarists presented by Richard E Grant. In it he suggests that diaries are an attempt to make sense of that which does not. I can' t think of a better explanation of the urge behind this blog. To try and unravel the knot which is my wife's death from cancer.

I have been sorting things at home this weekend. My daughter is five in a couple of weeks and I am trying to move her out of my bedroom and into her own room (she has slept with me since Jelena's death last May). I wonder whether I have allowed this to continue because it is as comforting to me as it is to her... In any case the only way to do this has been to involve her in the grand project of the creation of her new bedroom, choice of colours, furniture etc. I am converting Jelena's old study because it is adjacent to my room in case she is frightened in the night.

This has meant the sorting out of a lot of old files and difficult decisions over what to keep and what to give or throw away. We cleaned out Jelena's wardrobe a couple of months or so after the funeral with her sister and nieces all in attendance so everyone got something to remember her by. In fact we did a fairly poor job because one of the wardrobes is still almost full. I just cant summon up the strength to face it.

I am trying to put together an archive for my daughter but somehow it feels wrong that I should edit it. For instance I found in a file of memories Jelena, amongst all the (fairly predictable) schmaltzy romantic cards and letters I had written her early in our relationship, had kept a letter I had written her after we had had a blazing row which resulted in me storming out of the house. In the letter I had tried to say all the things that you don't get to say in fights between long time partners because you both know too well how to push each others buttons. But I wonder if this should be preserved...

I wonder if one of the reasons I am so drawn to writing about this is that Jelena wasn't. She fought her cancer all the way to the end. She didn't write a letter to her daughter or record a video because that would have been an admission of defeat. Am I compensating for something I feel she has been cheated from.

Consequently, I never really talked to Jelena about death or dying. That wasn't my role. I was her advocate. It was my job to find another oncologist or surgeon if the one in front of us didn't want to do what she wanted or said something she didn't like.

You don't plea bargain with death.

I imagine, although I don't know, that changing doctors is fairly commonplace for those who fight cancer over a protracted period of time. It is only human to start to blame the doctor for your continued illness after all they are the one giving you all the bad news. So we moved around a lot. Jelena fell out with British surgeons who, in her eyes, would cut first and ask questions later.

I had bought Jelena PPP's most expensive health insurance several weeks before we were married because we wanted to have children. We were living in Moscow at the time and didn't really want to trust the state health care. Unfortunately most international health schemes viewed pregnancy as a self inflicted illness and didn't provide cover. However, if you weren't pregnant when you took out the PPP policy of for three months afterwards they would cover you. So I took out that one. This accident probably gave Jelena an extra ten years of life.

Moreover, having this policy meant that she could be treated for her illness almost anywhere in the world (apart from the USA which was too expensive). So we were able to shop around for oncologists and surgeons and consequently spent quite a lot of time in Germany (about whose health system I cannot sing enough praise). But even if we had not had the insurance policy to fund it I am fairly sure we would have travelled in our fight to beat Jelena's cancer.

Jelena was a fighter to the end.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Where is the beginning?

It seems appropriate to begin writing around midnight. My wife Jelena died of ovarian cancer last May 12 at around fifteen minutes past midnight. She had fought the disease for 11 years having been initially diagnosed two weeks or so after our wedding in June 1998.

I am not sure what I aim to achieve with this blog. I acquired the address almost 18 months ago and this is my first post. My initial thought was to blog about my wife's illness while she was fighting it. Partly as therapeutic reflection for myself but also to put something 'out there' for the spouses and primary carers of other cancer patients. There seems to be no shortage of literature for cancer sufferers but an absolute dearth of information for those that support them.

I procrastinated or decided not to start because it felt somehow disloyal to Jelena for me to blog about her illness while she was alive. It was "her" illness after all. Although to me it very much felt like "our" illness. And this feeling of disloyalty is at the heart of being the supporter of someone with cancer. It is an asymmetric relationship and this takes its toll over the years.

I remember very early on in her fight, probably after her third cycle of Carbo-Taxol in the winter of 1998, she said something to me which introduced the idea which was to eat away at me over the years.

'You know the one thing that keeps me going... It is your absolute conviction that I'm going to be OK'

I pulled her to me and hugged her because I didn't want her to see my face. Inside my head I was thinking,

'Sh*t! But those are just words. You're going to die'

I had, of course, done my research. Jelena had been diagnosed with a stage 1c left ovarian adenocarcinoma (she also had a rare genetic disorder called Lynch syndrome type II which essentially meant that she had lost her father and all of his brothers to cancer). She had had only a left salpingo oopherectomy (they only took out the ovary with the tumour) and adjuvant chemotherpahy because she desperately wanted to have children and had ignored the advice to have a radical hysterectomy and bilateral oopherectomy. With this diagnosis at the time Jelena had a five year survival expectation of around 90%. But somehow I got it into my head that she had a 5% chance. Like most reasonable, educated, balanced 29 year-olds.... I had completely panicked and failed to take in the most important bit of information.

My ignorance is not really the issue here although it contributed. The problem was that now Jelena had cancer I could no longer tell her everything. She could cry in the night about how scared she was and wail about the injustice of it all. I could not.

What she said to me was,

'...the one that keeps me going... is your absolute conviction that I'm going to be OK'

What I heard was

'I want you to lie to me. I need you to lie to me. You can't tell me how scared you are. I'm not strong enough to carry your fears...'

Neither was I but that is for another day.

If you are the primary carer of someone with cancer, please find someone you can talk to about your fears. It will make your life much much more bearable. I laboured under some kind of demented superman complex that I could carry my wife, her family and my own on my back for almost three years before I got any real help. I have been seeing a therapist on and off for about 8 years and this blog may become an extension of that process.

I set myself no targets with this blog. I will simply reflect upon the time I spent walking with Jelena and cancer and see what I learn along the way. I hope to unwind some of it in order to be as good a father as I can to our four year old daughter. If that is in some way helpful to others then that will make me happy.