Saturday, 25 December 2010

Well, it is Christmas...

If on the previous day I had been quite energetic, Tuesday 28 September saw me back to my everyday, anaemic self, not much able to exert myself beyond small clerical tasks.

I managed to make myself reasonably useful though, spending some time advancing a couple of projects for the church where I work, both of these artistic in nature: one musical, the other relating to the plastic arts (memorial sculpture to be precise). The latter I cannot go into detail about (at least yet), but the former is a commission by the church for a 40-part vocal work setting extracts from the Diary of Samuel Pepys, our most illustrious parishioner. This is to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the start of the Diary in 1660 and the first performance will be one of a number of special events taking place at the church this year. The composer, Benjamin Till, is keeping a blog about the project, which can found here. Although (in real time) the piece has already been premiered, Benjamin is continuing the blog, which each day includes a look at what Pepys was up to on the equivalent day 350 years ago. Well worth following!

In real time, what is more, it is now Christmas Day, so let us break the narrative continuity for a while longer and end this entry with St Columba’s blessing, which dear friends have sent to us with their Christmas card. Here it is, a typically Celtic form of prayer, addressing God as an all-enveloping, nurturing presence:

Be thou a bright flame before me,
Be thou a guiding star above me,
Be thou a smooth path below me,
Be thou a kindly shepherd behind me,
Today, tonight and forever.

Happy Christmas, wherever and whoever you are…

St Columba (521-597), originally from Ireland and founder of the Monastery of Iona.
Although the monastic community was dissolved in the Scottish Reformation, Iona remains a place of great spiritual significance and pilgrimage. John Smith, Tony Blair's predecessor as Leader of The Labour Party, great valued it and is buried there.

Monday, 20 December 2010

CT results

My appointment with Dr M, the haematologist, at 11.30am on Monday 27 September was for review of my CT scan. You will remember that the arrangements over the appointment for this scan had caused me considerable grief during my stay in hospital the previous week.

The results, when finally delivered to me, were therefore something of an anti-climax, as they revealed nothing unexpected. Why on earth am I playing this down? This was of course the best possible news, as the scan showed no sign of any tumours, but only of the swellings to various parts of my lymphatic system that had been revealed by Doctor M's physical examination at my initial appointment with her on 3 September. It is strange how actually experiencing an illness differs from one's previous imaginings in those little scenarios we all play through in our minds as our brains prepare us for the ups and downs of life. Or is it just my brain that does this? Answers on a postcard, please...

So, for the record, this is what Doctor M reported to me as I looked at the shadowy images on her computer screen: low-volume cervical lymphadenopathy; significant mediastinal  and sub-axillary lymphadenopathy (worse on left); significant para-aortic lymphadenopathy; moderate splenomegaly. In other words, slight swelling of the lymph glands in my neck; more significant swelling under my armpits (worse on the left side); significant swelling of the lymph nodes in my central chest; similar swelling of the nodes in my abdomen near the aorta and on a level with the lumbar vertebrae; moderate enlargement of the spleen.

When I first saw the long words (mediastinal, para-aortic) in a written report some time later, they were more alarming than they appear now. The goal of treatment is of course to destroy the deposits of cells that are causing the swellings and I'm glad to report (breaking through momentarily from blog time into real-time as I dictate this) that the swelling in my neck, present for many years, has gone down. Progress!

Before each consultation it is necessary for me to give several blood samples, which are immediately taken away for cell counts to be measured and discussed with me when I see the doctor about 20 minutes later. I should be getting used to giving blood by now, but the insertion of sharp metal into one's person is always intrusive, if not always painful (some practitioners being better than others, but all of them operating within acceptable limits).

One effect of so much surrender of my vital fluid is that I cannot get worked up about vampire tales and am therefore more than indifferent to the current fad for these. Can somebody please tell me why they are so modish? Vampires as a metaphor for the bankers leeching us of our life savings, perhaps? Probably not: a more obvious explanation is possibly that the current vampire stars are extremely photogenic, even if their cheekbones are improbably sharp and angular. Vampire cheeks, in fact, rather than vampire chic.

Count Orlok, the vampire in Nosferatu (1922), a fine example of, er, German Expressionism.
Whatever. Definitely a host you do not want providing room service.

Béla Lugosi as Dracula (1931).
Rather more of a matinee idol than Orlok.
Squillions of dollars later, the yummy stars of the Twilight franchise.
Vampires so mainstream, they will probably soon be giving their names to jeans, perfumes and all that paraphernalia.

Upon my return home I experienced my most energetic day yet since the stay in hospital and enjoyed doing some work at home, thus helping to keep body and soul together and food on the table.

Here, breaking into real time once again, is a cartoon just seen in The Spectator.
The man in the cap is saying "They're wikileeks".

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

At my brother's house

By the early hours of Sunday 26 September I was still dreaming very lucidly as I fell asleep: Morpheus up to his old tricks. I was also rather wakeful, as I still had traces of the itching recorded in my last entry.

I was not unduly worried by the lack of solid sleep, as I was in for a gentle day at my brother's house. The rest of my family would be celebrating my wife's younger brother's 50th birthday, but I was not yet up to social gatherings of that length and liveliness.

So it was that I sat at the kitchen table in Teddington chatting to my sister-in-law and my brother, eating crisps and snacks and drinking mild Brittany cider (moderate drinking of alcohol being acceptable in my present condition). My sister-in-law is a very good cook, who always prepares tasty food, and it was a pleasure to spend time in the welcoming kitchen while a dish of lasagne was given shape and substance.

A demonstration of cider apple-pressing in southern Brittany (August 2010).
The apples (little unpromising green things visible in basket took the right) are crushed by a horse-drawn mechanism (not visible in picture). The resulting pulp is mixed with the straw visible under the ratcheted press shown here. I am not sure about the reason for the straw, but imagine it helps to strain the juice and also to confine the apple pulp while it is subjected to the relentless pressure of the press.

The juice is collected and poured into the barrel shown, from which it is drawn off, ready to be sampled by the expectant crowd.
The apple pulp and resulting juice oxidise very quickly in the open and, hence the dark brown colour. Don't be put off though; it tasted superb!
The shirts and hats are rather natty, don't you think?
 This demonstration took place at a festival of bread baking, by the way

There was no rush and the creation of the dish helped encourage my returning appetite as the room filled with warmth and aroma. When the time came to eat I was fully ready and tucked in with relish, even coming back for a second helping. Fruit crumble, which I love in all its variants, followed and this became for me a perfect meal.

The afternoon was spent in further conversation, browsing the papers and just enjoying the comfort of the house, enhanced by the sight of rain falling outside the windows. Better on this occasion to be in than out!

In due time I was ferried safely home to be reunited with my wife and family, who had themselves, praise be, had a good day.

Happy birthday, brother-in-law!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Phased, dazed and not amazed

I woke on Saturday 25 November feeling, as Spike Milligan once (nearly) described it, like I had been hit with a sock full of cold custard. I had taken an antihistamine pill to deal with the severe itching that had assailed me the previous day. This particularly affected my arms and legs: bearable but only just and probably the result of the cocktail of antibiotics I was still taking following my discharge from hospital.

Drowsiness is a well-known side-effect of antihistamine and I felt wobbly on my legs for most of the morning. In fact I still felt pretty weak for most of the day, but not so much that I was unable to face watching a DVD of Mamma Mia with the family in the evening.

I was completely unprepared for the onslaught on the senses that this film presents, with its overwrought acting and highly saturated colour palette. It is set on a Greek island but really could be anywhere, although it has to be said that the transplanting of Americans and Western Europeans to the relatively exotic location of the Mediterranean and the permanent sunshine heighten the sense of unreality that pervades the film. The principal culprit however for that same sense is the nutty and unresolved plot, upon whose wild improbabilities the valiant crew of extremely fine actors proceed to impale themselves one by one. I really do shy away from the notion of men's and women's films, but this particular flick strains this reticence to snapping point. It is like watching a drugged-up hen party through a kaleidoscope. 

The comedy is painful and forced for the most part, but there are moments of light, not least from Colin Firth, the contrast of whose stock-in-trade English reserve with the hysteria of those around him creates comedy in itself. Perhaps more unintentionally comedic was the strangled singing of Pierce Brosnan, courageous but inevitably doomed.

Some of the cast of Mamma Mia meet to plot revenge on the scriptwriters

The whole preposterous confection is of course redeemed by the wonderful, sometimes sublime, Abba songs, which are surely among the finest creations in any music.

You know who: melodies, harmonies and arrangements to die for.
Anni-Frid Lyngstad (aka Frida, the brunette) is now in fact Her Serene Highness Princess Anni-Frid Synni Reuss, Countess of Plauen following her marriage to a German prince of the former sovereign House of Reuss in 1992. The prince sadly died of a lymphoma (type not known to me) in 1999.

The only ones among us not at all impressed by the experience were my son and his girlfriend, who would much have preferred either a more serious movie or some schlock horror (zombie flicks being a particular favourite of theirs and mine at the moment).

It was truly time for bed.

A scene from Shaun of the Dead, a great spoof zombie movie.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Food, glorious food!

I woke on Friday 24 September feeling both wiped out and with a low appetite.

In fact, I have minimal recollection of the events of the main part of the day, although they would have included my eating breakfast and lunch out of necessity rather than enthusiasm. Will you therefore forgive me if I take a small diversion to reflect on my experience of hospital that had just ended?

In some lights the account of my stay in Aspen Ward could appear tinged with ingratitude for the many acts of both duty and kindness I received from the numerous members of staff I encountered. Also, I have in recent weeks spent a number of hours viewing and participating in the discussion board set up by IWMF, which–you will recall–is the foundation set up in the USA for sufferers from my particular lymphoma. From this it is apparent that our American cousins have to spend much of their time negotiating the small print of health insurance contracts before they can be sure of receiving the treatment that they need. As you will see in due course from my own dealings with the NHS yet to be recorded here, we in the UK face our own battles to secure treatment, particularly with more esoteric substances, but our struggles are as nothing compared to those across the Atlantic. The NHS is a system that is beyond the wildest dreams of most people in the world: access to healthcare that is essentially free at the point of need, that fulcrum of stress and anxiety.

The system is of course imperfect. What is so frustrating however is that some of the imperfections should be so easy to rectify that much misery could be averted on a daily, no, an hourly basis. For example, at the root of the delay in my CT scan appointment was a clerical error by the ward over the actual time of the appointment: having been told by me of the time of the appointment and shown the hospital's own letter confirming same, some person or persons on the ward proceeded to record the time as an hour later than it should have been. This basic error was compounded by the staff administering the appointments in the x-ray department, who failed to respond to requests both for information and action from my brother and from other hospital staff. At least, I think that’s what happened, such was the tangled mess of communication that became apparent.

My fervent prayer is also that there is some creative soul out there who could address the whole issue of the soundscape of hospital life: the bleeps, buzzers, bells and hooters (all right, I made up the last one) that fill the air and torment both conscious and subconscious mind. We are so used to suppressing conscious awareness of the noises that pollute our everyday modern lives, particularly in the city, that we are for the most part unaware of the stress that has been caused to us physically and psychologically. Against my utopian instincts bottom-line, bean-counting arguments can no doubt be marshalled in profusion; nevertheless the health service of all places should be the one that addresses itself to the healthy use of sound.

What then was positive about my experience in hospital?

At the most basic and vital level an infection that could have killed me or at least made me seriously ill was defeated. For this and for all the efforts of hospital staff to attend to my various medical needs, I must remain ever grateful. There was (with one notable exception) good humour from most staff that made this potentially alienating time much easier to bear. When deficits of language placed wit and repartee beyond reach there was at least kindness.

The hospital as a whole also generally gives the impression that it is run efficiently for the benefit of patients. On entering the building there is a bustling energy that is quite palpable and itself gives one hope that here at least one will be well cared for.

Hospital food was far from all bad, the lamentable tuna salad of my penultimate day notwithstanding, although there is always, it seems, the proverbial “room for improvement”.

Sausage Casserole: my first meal as an inpatient.
6/10 for this one.
Mention of food brings us back to the crowning moment of Friday 24 September, which was chicken korma prepared in the evening by my daughter and my son's girlfriend, upon both of whom be countless blessings. Indian food is just about my favourite of all and the warm spicy aromas met my returning appetite halfway. The meal that we shared that evening cheered me no end as it was clear evidence of returning health.

My wife was elsewhere, having gone with my sister-in-law to see Così fan Tutte at Covent Garden, a welcome respite for her as well as a musical treat. For me on this occasion however a wholesome meal was sufficient pleasure and, with the company of my family added to the mix, gave me renewed strength.

A scene from Così fan Tutte by the wondrous Mozart, like so many dramas from the past a tale of mistaken identities.
I wonder if the fascination of such tales was helped by the scarcity of mirrors and the lack of photography.
Disguises of course still make for great stories: witness nearly any episode of Spooks.
Note also how steamed up we get about the sporting (if that be the word) of the niqab.