Please Note

When I was much younger, there was fire in my belly and words in my head, and I had half an idea I could write for a living. The recurring advice from established authors and journalists was, “keep a diary”. In a letter I still have, from Jilly Cooper, the emphasis is very much placed on making notes. Sadly, I’m not a natural diarist or note-maker. Throughout eight years of various academic studies, I barely wrote a single word more than was necessary to get me a pass mark. As for remembering events from the past, I rely solely on my memory, although despite best efforts, my powers of recall can sometimes result in the original monochrome being remade in glorious Technicolor. On the flip side, traumatic episodes may be softened, even obscured.

I’ve had to sharpen up my record keeping act of late, though. Some things must be logged with pinpoint accuracy. You really can’t keep a cancer diary for someone in a half-hearted manner. Every symptom and side effect must be recorded ahead of the nurse-led review that comes two days before each new cycle of chemo. I have to practice words like Metoclopramide and Dexamethasone so that I can quote them with confidence. Missing an entry or omitting a detail is not an option. There’s too much at stake. This is heavy duty treatment, and the rapidly filling ‘sharps’ bucket in our utility room proves it. Amongst its contents are symbols of modern medical science and brutal reminders of less enlightened times – spent Baxter’s bottles, tubes, syringes and other prescribed paraphernalia.

In this neck of the woods we get by on a daily dose of pure, distilled, wishful thinking, and as strange as life is right now, thankfully, the view we have of the outside world is largely seen through the lens of our own bubble. Distortion is the new clarity.

There are moments of magic though. A neighbour phoned to let us know when the window cleaner is coming next. She went on to tell of a mother and two baby hedgehogs she’s been feeding each evening. Apparently, as darkness falls, the patch of grass where the spiky visitors take their food, is subtly lit by a solar powered light … in the form of a cow. Something worth noting down, I thought, because it made us smile.


That thin line that we all walk. You know, the one that requires balance and concentrated effort. The one that you lose your footing on from time to time, causing you to gasp and reach out for something that’ll save you from falling. The shifting, invisible division between good fortune and bad, happy and sad, genius and madness. The difference, all too often, between life and death.

I’ve neglected this blog all too often, for the lack of something interesting to say. But in recent weeks, I’ve had so much I wanted to say, but have been, until now, unable to type the words. My wife, Mags, was officially diagnosed with a life threatening condition on the 1st June. She underwent major surgery nine days later. A seven hour operation that only 15 in a 100 pancreatic cancer patients are offered. Only 9/100 actually undergo the full procedure. Despite the wonders of modern medical technology, CT scans don’t always show everything that’s lurking. A point put to us only minutes before Mags went to theatre. They have to be honest. Proof, if proof was needed, that the truth can and does hurt.

The operation was a success, and Mags is now in week eight of recovery. She’s eating well, and her energy levels are returning. We walked almost 2km yesterday. She will need to take pancreatic enzyme supplements before every meal, for life. No big deal in the scheme of things. She isn’t diabetic, but still checks her blood sugar levels once a week.

Soon she will begin six months of chemotherapy. She is petrified. Who wouldn’t be? 12 cycles via a PICC line. The last of three concoctions are delivered from a pump which is worn at home, and removed by a visiting nurse after 46 hours. Then 12 days rest before the whole process begins again. This is what her oncologist calls ‘insurance’. It’s brutal, but it offers the best chance for the best outcome.

So this where we are at folks. One day we were enjoying a family outing, all picnics, fresh air and sunshine. The next day, literally, symptoms presented themselves. The thin line had turned into a tripwire and sent us sprawling into a world of urgent blood tests, worried expressions, scans and consultations. Suddenly we were holding on to each other. Nothing else would do. Suddenly we couldn’t think of anything beyond living. Suddenly our world was distorted and unrecognisable. It was a place that invited us to sink, having discarded the crust of certainty that had proved so dependable throughout the years.

We have shed tears and shared fears and, even though we’ve been together for the better part of half a century, we now know the most startling truths about each other and ourselves.

Dear friends have urged us to stay strong, and for the most part I believe we are doing just that. And we are looking forward, feeling for that thin line one tentative step at a time.


A Day of Thoughts

Life has a hard edge, doesn’t it? Sometimes, no matter which way we turn, it’s impossible get comfortable. Even the simple escape of sleep is laced with fears and challenging obstacles. Who hasn’t woken in the wee hours with the troubles of the day playing in a loop, usually to some random tune? What someone once described to me as having the “washing machine head”.

The news should be avoided at all costs, but we’ve evolved into a species that has to know. We’ve long passed the point of accepting those things we can’t change. We get the facts, do our best to verify them (sometimes), stew in them for a bit and hand them on, usually through social media. Like some weird and twisted relay race, the baton of breaking news moves from hand to hand, at great speed, and there’s never a finishing line in sight.

About a week ago Mags and I went for one of regular walks. The air was ringing with birdsong, the sun was on our shoulders, and the air was fresh. In the hedgerow a tiny blue butterfly moved woozily against the green. We had no idea what it was called, but it was a thing of beauty, and that was enough. A brief moment of delicate blue. A life as large as any other. A dancing purpose. A cushion against that hard edge.

The Kids are Alright

There’s a very human moment in series three of Fargo, when Sy Feltz breaks down in his wife’s arms and sobs. The reason? Bewilderment, plain and simple. The chaos that has arisen all around him has pulled the last remaining threadbare remnants of certainty’s rug from under his feet. It’s still his world, but he no longer recognises it.

I know the surreal nature of Sy’s situation only too well. In my own dark days, more than 25 years ago, I didn’t have bodies, blackmail or life threatening criminals haunting my every waking hour. But I had enough emotional disturbance going on to stretch my anchor lines to the limit. My own nadir was marked by a particularly frightening episode of disorientation. Driving to work, along an all too familiar route, I found myself, inexplicably, in a cul-de-sac I didn’t recognise. I had no recollection of making the turns that brought me there. I just arrived, confronted with half a dozen unidentifiable bungalows, seemingly bent on wrapping themselves around me, and not in a friendly way.

That was a long time ago, and my life has long since been purged of that exceptionally toxic mix of circumstances. But in recent months something has gradually dawned on me. My world, beyond family and friends, is becoming harder to recognise. My own rug of certainty has frayed under the traffic of insidious mixed messages and mischief making. The scuffmarks of racism, intolerance, pollution, political skulduggery, and outright inhumanity are indelible. It’s all out of shape. Pulled this way and that, alternately, by hope and despair.

Here is the news: the grown ups have lost the plot, and only the kids can save us. I truly believe this. I applaud the youth striking for climate action. My heart feels lighter when I see Greta Thunberg say her piece, in the same way that it did when Emma Gonzalez stuck it to the NRA and Donald Trump and called BS in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

My own grandchildren are often aghast at the way some people in society are treated. The eldest, offers a well practiced and passionate ‘thumbs down’ to those in positions of power, who have abandoned their responsibilities. The twins (aged nine) simply dismiss what I would call unjust and callous, as mean and unkind. They already know, as do many of their peers, that the world we’ve shaped for them is unacceptable. But new patterns are way beyond the design stage, the means of production is being rallied. The kids are about to weave their own rug for the future, and they have already chosen the certainties with which they wish to bind it.

What Kind Of Animal Are You?

A colleague once confessed that, during a works outing, she and a few others had assigned animal identities to various individuals in the department. Without too much coaxing, she revealed that I had been labelled a sloth. She didn’t elaborate on the reasons. Probably just as well. Aside from long forgotten childhood role play, this is the only time I can recall being compared to another animal type. Anyway, the tag doesn’t stick. I’m not particularly slow in my movments, I don’t have long arms, and I pay close attention to the length of my nails. My tree climbing efforts are pathetic.

There’s another animal I’m not, and that’s the political variety. At least in the sense of turning myself inside out to make a point. It’s not that I can’t articulate my thoughts and views. It’s more to do with the nature of debate. The walking, talking reference books who spill out their favourite quotes, cite political theorists, regurgitate selected media opinion. Too often an exchange of passionate, yet mutually respectful, arguments fall foul of the need to be right, and it doesn’t take long before a sanctimonious sledgehammer is wielded to crush an honestly expressed walnut of opinion.

So now, like millions of others, I tend to keep my political opinions largely to myself; occasionally sharing them only with those who have learnt the knack of agreeing to disagree.

I saw a clip of Jarvis Cocker recently. He had been invited to appear on BBC Politics Live to talk about Brexit, as he was supporting a second referendum. Perched on one end of the panel, he looked like an exotic exhibit, a celebrity curio. While Toby Young, at the opposite end, had the demeanour of a man poised to berate his neighbour for clipping the hedge and disturbing his Sunday afternoon nap. Jarvis opened his mouth and calmly told it the way he saw it. A pain-faced Toby Young responded with a well rehearsed diatribe in the way the pub know-all is apt to put every egg-sucking grandmother right. It struck me that this is pretty much how ‘common people’ are addressed by those who don’t necessarily know better, or have all the answers.

It’s not the zeal that’s frightening; we live in desperate times, so it’s to be expected. But it’s the arrogance, the contempt, the dismissive tone aimed at those voices that are not in tune. What happened to reason, and gentle persuasion? How does the quest to make a better world so often include turning a blind eye to the very humanity we seek to save?


What Goes Around Comes Around, usually at 33⅓ rpm

Almost fifty years ago my parents gifted me my first record player. It was a homemade affair, obviously put together by the hands of an enthusiast. It had been well loved, but the peeling sticky-backed plastic, and a temperamental lid didn’t bother me. I was blinded by prospect of being able to play my own music in my own bedroom whenever I wanted. A new kind of freedom. I knew nothing of stylus wear, and frankly couldn’t have cared less about dust accumulation or the taboo surrounding thumbprints across the grooves.

But gradually I caught on. Acquiring words of wisdom from better informed pals, regarding the care and conservation of the precious vinyl. In a few short years I would spin my way through a Dansette Trent (complete with a detachable that stored away cleverly, locked to the from of the main unit), a Steepletone, a Marconiphone, an ill advised foray into PrinzSound, Dixons own brand of hi-fi disappointment.

At last, in 1973, I parted with a fortune – well, £400+ (sale price) – on what was, undoubtedly the best set up I’ve ever owned: the Sony TC-161SD Cassette Deck, AKAI AA 8080 Tuner Amp Receiver, Linn Sondek LP12 turntable, and Leak 2060 speakers.

I’ve had various combinations of kit over the years, but nothing that compares with the above. I haven’t managed to escape the format merry-go-round either. Vinyl, cassette tape, CD, mp3, flac, etc, etc.

And what did Mags and I get for Christmas from our daughter and family? A Crosley Executive Deluxe record player, that’s what. And it’s great. New life breathed into what little vinyl I had stored away in a dark cupboard. I’ll be doing the rounds of the charity shops in the New Year. Who knows what I might turn up for the turntable?

I Belong, Where?

“A good traveller is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveller does not know where he came from.” – Lin Yutang

Years ago I read about a man who packed in his job, bought an old mobile library with his savings, and set about converting it into a home on wheels. Stories of this sort can start a person dreaming. Imagining a nomadic lifestyle, with the freedom to roam wherever. I did the job resignation bit (many times) swapping some mind numbing routines for something a little more adventurous, and with less responsibility. Like the time we took off on a whim to travel Scotland and its islands. As it was, the caper was unromantically short-lived, due to Mags succumbing to infected blisters. Our time away, though, was anything but boring. An alcoholic lunch in Ardrossan, stormy crossing to Arran, a bluebell wood with herons nesting in the treetops, camping on a beach where the only flaw was the washed up, rotting calf that came to rest overnight only yards away from our tent flap. More of that, another time, perhaps.

I’ve almost finished ‘Stopping Places’ by Damian Le Bas, the author from Gypsy stock, who writes of his quest to understand more about his people and their travels. Several times I’ve paused to share short passages with Mags. Sayings that I’ve only ever heard my Grandad use. Familiar lifestyle habits of a man who spent the larger portion of his life working in the woods, making hazel hurdles and thatching spars, bundling up pea and bean sticks and securing them with twists of green wood. I know he had dealings with Gypsies, particularly those who camped close to his woods at various times of the year. One man, George, a gigantic figure to a small lad, in heavy brown jacket and trousers, used to call on Grandad from time to time, with some implement or other that he couldn’t sharpen or set the teeth on. When the job was done, he’d thumb coins from his hand into Grandad’s palm. This may have been the solitary thumb’s only real use. The rest of his fingers had been lost to a circular saw blade.

Great Uncle Jim, youngest daughter, and pony.

My Gran’s twin brother, Jim, definitely had something about him that was unsettled, nomadic and, like my Gran, he had a love of horses. Both their father, and paternal grandfather had been grooms. An explanation of sorts, maybe? Jim ran away to join a circus at the age of 16. A little known fact that has come to light in the years after his death. But showmen, circus folk and Gypsies are itinerant, and it’s so tempting to speculate that Jim might have been trying to connect some dots. Like Damian Le Bas, maybe he had a strong inner sense of belonging that required investigation.

I don’t think I’ll be pulling up sticks any time soon. Reading about the escapades of others will do me fine. Speaking of which, I must check out ‘Salt Path’ by Raynor Winn. Not least because part of her journey takes her along the coast of Cornwall, the only place I’ve lived, other than Hampshire where I actually felt I belonged.