Keep Calm and Carry On to the Theatre

You know how it is, when you haven’t heard news of an aviation disaster for months, then, just ahead of the date when you or loved ones are due to fly off on an adventure, everything with wings seems to have been repainted in the livery of vulnerability. You save up for a new household appliance, and on the day it’s scheduled to arrive you read a sobering piece in the paper, about how the model you’ve chosen is prone to catching fire or exploding without warning.

On a personal existential level, the last thing you want to hear is that the wonder drug you’ve been taking for more years than you care to remember, is suddenly banned in some countries, on the grounds that long term use can cause irreparable damage to the very parts you were hoping to preserve. Similarly, with surgical procedures, I don’t want to be confronted with nightmare scenarios ahead of my own imminent operation. I’ve read the ‘literature’ about anaesthetics, risks of infection, risks of bleeding, risks of tissue damage, risks of DVT, etc, etc. I’ve read and inwardly digested. That obligatory information is now stored away in a securely locked cupboard, in a room of my mind that only gets used on very special occasions.

So I should not have let my curiosity get the better of me when I spotted George Monbiot’s update on his own health. In a few brief sentences, poor George’s experiences were unravelling much of the goodwill and reassurance I’ve received from family and friends, ahead of the big day. He stopped breathing in the recovery room. He had a nasty post-op infection, and muscle spasms so violent, he found himself “…curled up on the floor, nails hooked into the carpet.” I have to stress at this point that George’s reasons for being subjected to the surgeon’s knife are in no way related to mine. But even so, a surgical intervention is a surgical intervention.

The truth is, I haven’t had an operation under general anaesthetic, for 57 years. Yes, that far back, when a tonsillectomy was commonplace among young children. When hospital wards were cavernous and intimidating, and parents were requested to leave their offspring with a starched uniform before melting away quietly. It was for the best, you know.

The nurse who conducted part of the pre-op assessment for my 2018 theatre trip smiled when I recalled my childhood trauma. She went on assure me that things have changed a great deal over more than half a century. Phew! Actually, one interesting fact she shared with me, was this: cataract patients used to spend five days on their back, following surgery. Each day day they were raised a little until, eventually they were sitting upright.

I have to say, this nurse’s light touch and and caring manner, not to mention her many years of experience, brought my stress levels pretty much back to normal. Raised, yes. But not through the roof.

These times in our lives, when our fate is effectively in the hands of strangers in masks, are full of imponderables. But these things I do know. My surgeon is Greek, and he graduated at University of Athens Medical School. Also, things have progressed, largely for the good since a nurse, in 1961, straight out of the Ladybird “People at Work” series, administered an insipid pink pre-med which left me fully conscious all the way to theatre, where I delayed proceedings not once, but twice. First, with a request for the loo, and secondly, with earnest enquiries as to what would happen next. What happened next was, a rubbery appliance was placed firmly over my nose and mouth.

And then I woke up. That’s the one thing I sincerely hope will remain unchanged.

The Beach is Back

Call it coincidence, a sign of the times, whatever. But in the past week or so, there has been a spate of articles centred around so-called ‘bullshit jobs”. When the words of people like David Graeber reach my eyes and ears, they are actually preaching to the converted. In fact, I’ve been banging on about invented jobs for years. I know about such things. I have form. At least two posts I held whilst working in an academic institution, were literally made up for me, by senior managers, on the hoof. Or should I say, on the back foot? How can we honour his permanent contract without paying him too much? Graeber would have recognised them, instantly, as “bullshit jobs”. He has much to say on the matter, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s a flavour: “Support staff no longer mainly exist to support the faculty. In fact, not only are many of these newly created jobs in academic administration classic bullshit jobs, but it is the proliferation of these pointless jobs that is responsible for the bullshitization of real work — real work, here, defined not only as teaching and scholarship but also as actually useful administrative work in support of either.”

So when I hear that 70 tonnes of sand is going to be dumped outside the Southampton Guildhall, to recreate a 480 square metre beach in the city centre, guess what I’m thinking. Yes, what kind of starved imagination dreams up a menu of beach soccer, foot volley, sumo wrestling, tug of war, art workshops and sand castle competitions to be played out in the city’s ‘Cultural Quarter’?

According to the Daily Echo, “…a “deckchair trail” around the city will offer the chance for sunny selfies leading to the giant beach.”

Look, I’m not a party pooper, honest I’m not. It’s just that, HELLO, Southampton is a port on the south coast, and there’s a lot of easily accessible where-the-land-meets-the-sea. Plenty of places where you can enjoy a paddle, seashells, salt water, wildlife, and a temporary escape from bullshit, while you’re demolishing a Mr Whippy.

Are you on InstaSnapFace?

About a week ago, I read that 700,000 under 25s will leave Facebook in 2018. Actually, the figure has risen substantially since then. Who knows what to believe? The consensus among those who monitor these things is that youngsters are leaving Facebook in droves. Why? Well they don’t regard it as a social media place to call home, anymore. At least, not since the over 55s moved in. And move in we have, en masse. So while we login with our virtual elbows out at all angles, the kids are sliding off to Snapchat and the like.

Of all the social media platforms I’ve tried, Facebook is where I feel most comfy. I was late to the party, but I’m still here, and lost all fear of turning into a pumpkin, a long way back. I do have a Twitter account, that I torment myself with. Just can’t seem to get the hang of it. I enjoy reading informative, clever, and funny tweets. I’m a dab hand at retweeting and my hashtag skills are more than passable. I just don’t think I’m either outrageous enough, famous enough, provocative enough or confrontational enough to prompt reactions and responses from other users. I still blog, obviously. But blogging isn’t what it was when I first started nine years ago. A lot of my old favourites have gone the way of pubs and small cinemas. They’ve shut up shop and moved on. Maybe due to a drop in visitors, or a drying up of ideas. Most of those who are still plugging away, appear to be largely talking to themselves. This is what happens when the comments boxes become unwittingly redefined as one-way systems. “Hey, I really enjoyed this post. How long have you been engaged in the hobby you took so much trouble to tell us about?” No answer. The younger generation would probably shout a flat-toned “RUDE”, as they flash by blogland en route to Instagram.
Remember the term, ‘kidult’? No? Well it was quite popular at one time, for describing a person going through adultescence. In other words, a grown up occupying a generational space reserved for much younger people. Mainly under 16s. It’s a place where you can end up if you get carried away in your enthusiasm for the new and shiny. Worse still, you can appear tragically hip, in the sense that you’re overtly attempting to get down with the kids. It nearly always ends badly.
Am I bovvered, though? Nah, not really. I don’t have any Facebook friends under 25, to my knowledge. We more mature types like to exchange thought provoking stuff, you know. Works of art, informative articles, humorous video clips, archive footage, snaps of the grandchildren, an account of our aches and pains, and examples of our various talents and achievements. All pretty harmless stuff.
But all this talk of the generation gap has sparked a memory. When I was still in the world of work, I got talking to a second year undergrad about music. We often spent a few minutes discussing the latest ‘sounds’. Then one day he said, “Hey, there’s a band you really need to check out.”
“Yeah, what are they called?”
“The Kinks. Have you heard of them?”
“Well, funny enough…”
I wonder where that young chap is now? Well, he isn’t so young now, for a start. He’ll be around 40. Too old for Snapchat, just right for Instagram. Who knows, I might bump into him again on Facebook!

Oh Yoko!

I read, recently, about ‘The Riverbed’, a three-part installation by Yoko Ono. The mention of her name immediately filled my head with a collage of images. The full frontal nude pose with Lennon, the floating presence amid the death throes of those loveable moptops, her film no.4, ‘Bottoms’, the bagism, the bed-ins, the wailing and the screeching. But also, a music album.

At some point around 1975 I acquired a copy of of the Yoko Ono album ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’. It was very likely a gift. Exchanging gifts of music was still a thing then. Although I can’t recall the precise source, I do know that it was a secondhand copy. Probably bought by mail order from the legendary Cob Records, in Porthmadog – a cursory glance of their website indicates that they’re still in business. I used Cob almost exclusively back then. Selling off the stuff I got tired of, and using whatever Cob paid against bands that were new to me, usually on the strength of a single track or the recommendation of a friend.
I can’t honestly recall playing ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ very much. The excellent New York band, Elephant’s Memory, mitigated the wobbly vocals to a certain extent, but this was a double-album, for goodness sake!
So, how did I ever get a soft spot for Yoko? It certainly wasn’t her gift for delivering a song. Perhaps it’s her openness, her existence as an experimental entity. Perhaps it’s the enduring commitment to peace and love, in spite of everything that’s happened to her on a personal level. The mental health issues, the miscarriages, the pain of being separated from her daughter for almost three decades. Not to mention the cold blooded murder of her husband.
She continues to prompt and provoke us to a point just short of shocking. She makes us think, she forces an opinion. Avant-garde interloper responsible for the break-up of the ‘Fab Four’, or a conceptual pioneer who has challenged us for more than half a century?
Back to that double-album. There’s a track entitled, “What a Bastard the World Is”, and I get the feeling that Yoko has spent the best part of her life making every effort to counter that bleak statement, with love. The two-fingered peace signs have become a trademark of a sort. They are relics used as parting gestures during camera calls and interviews. However, idiosyncratic Tweets from her Twitter account – “Get a telephone that only echoes back your voice. Call every day and talk about many things.” – may signal that, in her 85th year, her restless feet are happiest when treading the unknowable. Some forty five years after the release of that double-album, her mind appears to approximate an infinite universe of ideas.

Breakdown and Renewal

I used to get annoyed with shoddy customer service, but now I have some sympathy with those caught up in the career-crushing culture of the call centre. What prospects for those poor souls who spend their days anchored to a screen, stuck to a script, with little room for improvisation? Holding your nerve, under a barrage of customer queries and complaints, with only a meaningless mission statement for protection, must be hell. Every shift, a series of repetitions, punctuated only with beeps, clicks and, the occasional expletive.

So I was patient with the man who answered my call to Green Flag, today. After the obligatory security questions, he half-heartedly asked how he might help. I explained that the renewal price for my breakdown cover had shot up, and I had been forced to look around for a better deal.
“Yeah, well, you called us out this year, didn’t you?”
“Home start, yes. A duff battery.”
“Yeah. And your car’s 13 years old. More likely to go wrong.”
“Okay. So I’m being penalised for calling you out, and for owning a 13 year old car?”
“Yeah. What prices are you being quoted online, just out of interest?”
“AXA offers the same cover for less than half the price Green Flag have quoted me.”
“Is there a price for Green Flag, online?”
“Yes. It’s cheaper still, but with a £40 excess and a limit of only one call out.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t compete with that.”
“But you’re the same company, aren’t you? Green Flag is Green Flag?”
“Yeah, but it’s the internet, innit? Everything’s on the internet, these days.”
That was basically the sum total of the conversation. I chose not to renew with Green Flag, and I’ve gone with AXA, instead. I’ve nothing against the assistant who handled my call. He was probably struggling to stay awake. At least, that’s how it seemed. What drives me to despair, is the inertia. As consumers, we’ve been conditioned to seek out the best deal, go compare, compare the comparisons, and then haggle. Firms are waiting to oblige us with a service second to none. I actually wanted to stay with Green Flag…for the right price. Instead, a short way into an unremarkable conversation, I was only offered a rather phlegmatic take-it-or-leave-it option.
I’m only surprised I didn’t hear, “Yeah well, you’re just a consumer, and you’re at the end of a contract. It’s a throwaway society, innit?”

Face it

Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and shadows will fall behind you. – Walt Whitman

Just fourteen short years after the war, Spitfires were still in action. While I was filling my head with times tables an entire squadron was parked up under the yew tree by the school gate, invisible to anyone who wasn’t equipped with a vivid imagination. The perfect camouflage. At playtime it was another matter. Engines roared into life, and after a little taxiing into position, we were ready for take-off. Our wingspans were short (we were only five years old) but it made no difference to the levels of determination with which we carried out our missions. Once airborne, we circled the school, looking for enemies to shoot down. If that failed, we made do with ‘buzzing’ small groups of girls, who often retaliated by lobbing tangled skipping ropes at our short trousered rudders.

Just as we were oblivious to how unlike Spitfires our little selves appeared, so we were generally oblivious to the way we appeared to each other. For instance, the fact that I, at one time, sported a strip of bright pink elastoplast on each side of my ointment-smothered face, during a ringworm infection, prompted little response from my school friends. Although one did suggest we might like to play cowboys and indians, and I could be the leader of the latter, as I was already wearing warpaint.
A few years later, my face played the willing host to impetigo. I was more self-conscious by now, and I knew I looked a mess. As I stood on the front doorstep of my friend’s house, I imagined, with increasing anxiety, the reaction of his mum when she would open the door, to be greeted with a florid array of spots and sores, complemented by my holed jumper and oversized trousers that barely stayed up, even with the aid of a tightly pulled elasticated snake belt.
To my great relief, she merely smiled sweetly, stooped towards me and said, “Hello. Have you called for David?”
“Well, come in, come in. David’s in his room. I’ll call him.”
And that was that. No fuss, no wincing, no wrinkled up nose, no excuses that David was otherwise engaged. He eventually appeared, half running, half tumbling, down the stairs. His plans for our time together, echoing across the enormous entrance hall, without a pause. My appearance was, seemingly, no big deal. No surgical masks required.
When I almost lost the sight in my right eye, due to a playground incident, the ambulance man who ushered me through the backdoors of my hospital ‘ride’, and into a nauseating haze of antiseptic and petrol fumes, simply asked in a cheery voice, “Blimey, what’s the other bloke look like?”
By the time I was about twelve, I learnt that it was entirely possible to obsess about the shape of your head. At fifteen, it was more about nose, emerging ‘bum fluff’ and teeth. Ah yes, teeth. Long before people in the dental profession launched themselves on a quest to crown everyone’s gnashers from ear to ear, a succession of orthodontists had endeavoured to straighten my rogue incisors by means of braces that, out of the mouth, resembled something more likely used to catch vermin, rather than a device to aid cosmetic perfection. In any event, the main culprit was eventually knocked out in a school punch up. The resulting gap drew few comments beyond the odd, casual observation that I had taken on the appearance of Alfred E. Neuman. Which was fine because everyone in my gangly group of friends was reading every available copy of MAD magazine, feverishly.
Funny thing, physiognomy. My gran used to tell me my face was an “open book”. Others have said my eyes are a dead giveaway. No one ever suggested my face was my fortune, and no one has said my features resemble that of an unmade bed, at least, not to my…uh, face.

Who are you, again?

I do enjoy a bit of Facebook. The exchange of news, views and general information. It’s a place for sharing, and it can be quite an education, in a social media kind of way. People love to share, and they love to share for a variety of reasons. Pure generosity, uncontrollable enthusiasm, loyalty to the cause, etc, etc. But nothing gets shared quite as quickly or widely as the news of someone’s death. It’s customary, when one of these announcements pop up, to react with a sad emoji, or leave a short comment by way of a condolence. Easy enough if the dead person is a name you know. David Bowie, Bruce Forsyth, Alan Rickman. More recently, Cyrille regis, Jimmy Armfield, Dorothy Malone, Bella Emberg, and Peter Wyngarde.

Then there are people you feel you should know, Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries, Jim Rodford, bass player with The Kinks, ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke of Motorhead. Ray Thomas of The Moody Blues, for goodness sake. He played the flute solo on Nights in White Satin! So, for these people, it’s just a sad emoji, and no comment. Which feels like you’re short-changing the poor souls, but there you go.
Finally, the individual luminaries that you’ve never heard of in your entire life, yet almost everyone else seems broken beyond belief at news of their passing. I’m holding my hands up and saying here and now, in the jigsaw of my existence, there are great gaping spaces where these giants should fit. Which means that recently, I have discovered an Ursula K. Le Guin shaped piece missing, not to mention the Nicanor Parra piece which would, I suspect, go a long way toward completing the Chilean poet part of the picture. Actually, that’s not true. Virtually all the Chilean poet pieces are missing or lost. Some may have been eaten by the ghost of Rin Tin Tin.
Well, I said Facebook can be an education. My education, these days, seems to consist more and more of Googling newly departed ‘names’, previously unknown to me. 
Eventually, I might be able to award myself an Albert Einstein emoji. After all,didn’t he claim, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”?