Wednesday, 19 September 2018

An Irish border

Belfast is a youthful, vibrant, wonderful city, but one holding a dirty secret. When I first visited N. Ireland, some roads from the international airport were still blocked with coiled barbed wire and towering machine gun turrets. I came each month and watched the sectarianism being slowly dismantled, the small roads opened up again, and an air of peace spread across the ground. People from both North and South worked together at Almac in Craigavon for common purpose, and there was an air of pride and achievement in their joint labour.

This summer, I visited Belfast itself for the first time, and found a city still divided. The peace lines are great walls of brick and iron, reaching up to 7 meters, topped with razor wire, and emblazoned with graffiti. They have proliferated since 1969, and there are now over 21 miles of them. The police stations along this border remain fortified, and each evening great gates close many of the roads, effectively imposing a night time curfew.

These walls seemed to put the immigrant control lines of Hungary and Macedonia into context, and make the current disagreements over a customs border with Ireland laughable. In a major European city within the UK, this is shaming.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Country Interlude


Walked with the dogs at the weekend round the fields I see from my study, before resting half way, sitting quietly on a stile. Suddenly something breathed into my ear and pressed my shoulder. I jumped up to find a horse with its head in my face. It had been the other side of the meadow when I sat down, and I hadn’t thought more about it. 

He lives in the seven acre meadows beyond my window. The people who own it break horses, and I watch them leading their young mounts in circles on halter training. Later they graduate to the bridle and saddle, and are led past our house for their road work, ready for their new owners. The grey is one of two older horses, used perhaps to lead the young ones. The land is prime building land, and NIMBY-like I hope it is not sold for development, or instead of looking out on a meadow with spring hares dancing, and deer upon the hill, I will look out on a field of small cramped brick housing and smell the fumes of commuters.

Then, turning round, a bunch of blackberries thrust themselves into my mouth. Almost an inch across, dripping with juice and honey sweet, they fell into my mouth at the lightest touch. Sometimes country living has good rewards.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Backing Labour

Have rejoined the Labour Party, to support  care and fairness rather than to support the eccentricities of the present leader. I was last a member in Middlesbrough, a town strongly labour with a massive and vocal support base that ended up so vitriolic against any disagreement that it drove me out for 40 years. But I have taken the risk, and returned to the fold.

My first meeting this morning. This meeting was gentle, caring, well led, and thoughtful calmness. One person came late - the representative for women's issues - appologising that her child was playing up this morning. He'd had his first day at school this week, and for a dare had opened a drain and jumped in with both feet. His shoes were black with oozing slimey mud, so she'd put them in the washing machine. "Luckily they were Clarkes," she said, "they came out again quite OK".

Someone raised the looming problems of Brexit and the possibility of shortages of food and drugs, and wondered what should be done. The chairperson (I am becoming conscientiously PC these days, so I won't specify chairwoman) immediately pulled the meeting back to the local issues.

"No one knows what will happen, and I can't get a position from the Central Party about the attitude we should take towards a second referendum. The important things for this branch are to build support for the struggling food banks, to publicise the increasing number of impoverished children, when the prime-minister promised to eliminated child poverty by 2010, and to pressurise for more support for the school bus service, because the poorest children are forced to use schools they can walk to rather than schools of their choice, as the parents can't afford the bus fares." All, I thought, very worthy issues. I must go again.


Friday, 14 September 2018

Anticipating Finality

Each day, Ann posts a new poem on "No Coward Soul is Mine", her poetry site on WordPress. Each poem is deeply personal or introspective, usually reflecting the mournful reaction to a soul of unease. Many reflect the people closest to her - the strained relationships or deep injustice or betrayal.

She has a unique voice: beautifully crafted simple themes, minimally rhymed, punching home a message of truth. They invariably move me deeply: to tears, or to make the hairs on my neck bristle. If challenged for their source or meaning, she cheerfully proclaims "Why does everyone think my poetry is about them? It about everywoman or man!" Today's is:

 "Finality":

He died
now it is as if he never lived,
never drew breath
or held another's hand,
he is gone
and given up to death
never more
will he taste the joy that was his home,
his garden now is but a field of weeds
all he held most dear has moved on,
the man he was is forgotten,
buried deep
now his life is lost
those he left will grieve
and then move on
It could be about the great loss suffered by all who grieve, or - with two cancers with potentially fatal endings - could it be interpreted as a life beyond my own? I will not ask. Ann would always reply, "Why must everything be about you?"

E. spent yesterday in Cambridge, removing the pain of memory by revisiting shared places. He phoned to say he would take dinner there, and be late back. Clearly there were a lot of memories for so brief a time together - let's hope they are assuaged.

Ann's cousin Allan is visiting, and over the weekend will come Ben, Lucy and their families. Last weekend it was Matthew, who wanted a picture of "me and dad". Is everyone mourning before I'm gone? Do they all share secrets unknown to me? To have a deep and hidden cancer is mentally wearing. I am tired and feel weak, and I don't know if it is physical or psychological. But I'm not on the death bed yet - I dread to think how they will behave with that finality in the air.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

A (very) short break

After walking the dogs in Clare at lunchtime, I drove back onto the drive to take Edwin's place as he was to be away for a few days. Ann came running out, phone to her ear. "You'll have to park back on the road," she said. "Edwin's coming back."

Today, Edwin should have been in Denmark. He left Cambridge and the train to London. Only after boarding the Heathrow express did we learn he had had a disagreement with the friend he was flying out to stay with. He got off at the first terminal and caught the next train back.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Someone doesn't like the music of MRI


A call from the hospital to go to MRI came the next day, as there was a cancellation. Edwin took me in as Ann can't drive with her plastered arm. Three hours later I was in a theatre gown under the great magnetic tunnel, ear plugged and headphones on listening to Abba at full volume, to drown the clicks thumps and strange buzzing of the pulsing power sweeping my bladder. It took about 35 minutes, but they wouldn’t share the results.

In the second scanner was a lady who went in with me. I know she was 84, because she had to give her date of birth. She was in a wheel chair, and very deaf – her daughter kept shouting the questions and instructions to her, before helping her from the chair to the MRI bed. She has scarcely laid down, when she started screaming and refused to continue, so they had to wheel her out again. Edwin said her daughter was furious because she’d wasted her time – not to mention the lost MRI time for another needy patient.

They gave me the appointment for a CAT scan while I was there, so two days later Mary-Anne drove me in again for that. Again, they refused to show me the pictures or discuss it. And I thought they were trying to become more transparent and share patient details with we “customers” – I horrid name for a secretive service.


Thursday, 6 September 2018

A Dismal Day


It was not the best of days. Edwin took me to hospital, Ann being unable to drive. The unit on the urology ward is new: the Johanna Finn Diagnostic Unit. The wall plaque tells us it was opened by the one Johanna Finn, just a week or two ago. Ms Finn must be well thought of – usually these units are named after former great surgeons. LinkedIn describes her as a CX at West Suffolk, but don’t explain the term, which seemingly can mean “Customer Experience” or “Chief Executive”. Perhaps she sat on the name selection committee, and someone put her name forward to save any arguments.

The waiting room was filled with rows of elderly men, all looking solemn and concerned and uncomfortable. One, clearly more tense than the others, rose to speak “in confidence” to the receptionist. “Can I be allowed to go to pee?” he pleaded. “I’m bursting and I can’t wait.”
“No,” she replied. “You have to have a full bladder. You’ll have to cross your legs”.

I said, “I think that’s good advice for all of us,” and certainly there was a lot of wriggling and a number of looks of grim determination. But she did agree to go through and see where he was on the list, and managed to get him in next. He came out grinning like a school boy, and went behind the counter to touch her shoulder and thank her. I thought he had come alone as he walked to the door, but then an even older man, stooping over a stick, got up and went out with him.

“He’s a funny escort,” I mused, “he doesn’t look fit to care for anyone.”

“They’re a gay couple,” Edwin explained. “It’s sweet.”

Gradually men were called in, and left, generally looking relieved and smiling. Then my turn came. The radiologist was white-coated, brisk and efficient. “Lie on your right side,” she commanded as the cold jelly slid across, looking for one kidney, then the other. She turned me to the screen. “Those are the kidneys,” she pointed out. They both have cortical cysts, but that’s normal at your age. No masses.” Then she lay me on my back and scanned the bladder. Her silence was an ominous portend. “Right that’s all done,” she said. “You can go back to the waiting room.”

The surgeon was a turbaned Sikh, and clearly both knowledgeable and confident. “Do you know what’s involved?” he asked.

“Well, I did six months' house surgery on a GU ward,” I said guardedly, “so I did a lot of catheterisations, but I always hoped I would never have to go through one.”

He did the necessary, but I can’t pretend it wasn’t painful – like having a knitting needle pushed up, with sharp pains all the way. Then when it was over, he turned me to face the screen, “There’s a growth,” he explained. “You will need to come in to have it removed. Do you have a relative here you would like present?”

I said, “Yes, my son, Edwin. You’ll spot him. He’s the only young one, with a beard.” The nurse went out to call him.

Edwin later told me he knew it was bad news when she put her head round the door and called his name. “I thought, ‘I’m not on their list!’”, and looked round hoping there was another Edwin. But there wasn’t one. When we came out, I was the only one told to sat down, and given a pad to fill out all my details. Everyone in the room looked sympathetic, but relieved that it wasn’t them.

We went for a meal in the evening, to the Red Lion at Horseheath. There was nothing on the menu for Ann or Edwin that was both gluten-free and vegetarian, so we retired to the bar to finish our drinks before moving on to the local Indian. Then the waitress came through with a hand-written list the chef had drawn up, of dishes he could put together for them, so we all trooped back in. 

The food was wonderful, and we decided to split a bottle of wine. The waitress said the wine would be complementary, as an apology for not having a suitable menu, so the dismal day finally ended on a good and positive note, and I returned home to a good dose of my favorite medicine: Bruichladdich Islay Barley, at 50% proof and unwatered – as sweet as honey dew, and the very best amnesiac.