Saturday, 31 December 2011

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Surely I am not alone in wondering at the fact that another year is nearly over. Many too are now commenting in the media about what an extraordinary year it has been, with political convulsions across Europe and the Arab world and continuing economic confusion and stagnation.

The Roman god Janus
Beginnings and transitions were his department and January is named after him. Since he watched over entrances and exits, we also get the word "janitor' from him.

Someone at least was happy as I encountered him in our local garden centre a week or so before Christmas, although I wonder what fate has befallen him since. Did he find a buyer or is he even now on his way back to to some distribution centre on the basis that he found himself in Twickenham on “sale or return”?

Karaoke Santa, stuffed not with turkey but with animatronics and cheesy tunes.

Horrible things happen all the time: a teenager fatally stabbed on Boxing Day in London’s Oxford Street; an Indian student shot and killed at point blank range in Manchester in an attack apparently motivated by racial hatred. These are but two examples of the way that lives can be lost in an instant, the perpetrators surrendering to the red mist of rage and hatred that maybe lurks in all of us. The soul needs good food just as the body does and we are what we eat. What are we feeding on? What are others tucking into or even being forced to consume? I was saddened in the closing weeks of this year by the death of the writer Christopher Hitchens. Although I disagreed with him on matters of faith, among other things, it always seemed to me that his was a voice one could trust because of his fearlessness in seeking the truth and speaking it in some of the finest language we will ever hear. A good diet therefore, even if some of the meat was rather tough.

Christopher Hitchens (1948-2011)
His brother Peter, paying tribute, quoted Hilaire Belloc’s “Dedicatory Ode”: “From quiet homes and first beginnings, Out to the undiscovered ends, There’s nothing worth the wear of winning But laughter and the love of friends”.
I'll raise a glass to that and to his memory.

For me it has been a year of treatment and recovery, significant intake of chemo and other medications, numerous blood tests, two bouts of hair loss and, as we enter 2012, hope that my disease has been kept at bay (my third CT scan and bone marrow biopsy, both expected in the next couple of months, should establish whether this is the case). I have had much rest and spent relatively little time doing the work I am paid for. Family ties and friendships have deepened wonderfully and new friends and acquaintances have entered the scene. I have been grateful for the very best that the National Health Service can provide and rather less appreciative of its worst offerings (I refer of course to the food). This has been a year of personal remaking and the development of new interests in writing and history. I am looking forward to the future, buoyed up by exciting discoveries made in the genetics of Waldenström’s and the hope that these offer for the development of new and even more targeted and effective treatments.

I hope for a happy, healthy and peaceful new year for all of you. See you somewhere, some time after Big Ben has next struck twelve.

The amaryllis in our kitchen, an early Christmas present bursting into bloom just as the old year ends.
It has two up on Janus, as its blooms face in four directions. Perhaps it is taking stock of the fleeting present as well as scanning what has been and looking towards what will be.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Sawbones Spells It Out

You could be forgiven for thinking that I had abandoned this blog, but it is not so. I have just been writing Christmas cards instead along with a family newsletter. I have held off writing one of these last since 2004 and have this year proceeded with caution and restraint, mindful of Simon Hoggart’s two satirical compilations of other people’s misfired festive bulletins. We decided to base our letter on a selection of photographs and a minimum of text to lessen the chances of our getting above ourselves and risking scorn.

I have learned today, although this news has been clearly on the horizon for some months, that I will have to undergo a small operation in mid-January. I have debated whether to go into any sort of detail about this here, as the problem to be remedied is in an area of the body notable for being fraught with embarrassment. Nevertheless, if this blog has been about anything, it has been about a medical journey and a true description of any journey should be able to accommodate the bits where the skies darken, the rain falls and the going gets less pleasant. So it is that I am going to tell you about my arse, or, for transatlantic readers, my ass. If you find the word a bit much at whatever hour you are reading this, I can only apologise, but there is something bold about the very sound of its single syllable that clears a path through self-consciousness and it has a perfectly respectable and ancient etymology, so far as I can discover. We all have one, after all…

This morning I presented myself at the fifth floor of the Rosenheim Building of UCLH, meaning that the only floor of this doomed structure I have yet to visit is the fourth. The fifth is where the colorectal surgeons, among others, are hanging out until the building comes down to make way for something new and shiny. The clinic was running two hours late and the tiny waiting area was very crowded, two doctors having been prevented from coming into work by personal circumstances. One of them had a “plumbing problem” at home and the charming consultant I eventually saw had a bit of a chuckle with me at the irony.

Readers who followed my recent stay in UCLH for high-dose chemo and stem cell graft will recall that my low immune system allowed an anal abscess to develop and that great was the pain thereof. Although the abscess itself did not last that long, subsequent healing of the area has not been complete, as is not unusual, and a tiny tunnel has been formed between my rectum and The Great Outdoors. This is known as an anal fistula and the kind surgeon did a few little drawings to explain how these wretched things develop and to illustrate the various procedures that can be used to induce them to put up and shut up.

After a brief examination, he said that he would recommend “laying open”the fistula, that is to say cutting it open to create a wound that would then, with regular dressing, take about six or seven weeks to heal. The operation would take about ten minutes and be under general anaesthetic. I should be able to go home the same day, although I will have to get to Central London by 7am. My return to work in the new year will be disrupted and somewhat delayed.

In somewhat subdued, but resigned, mood I wandered down Tottenham Court Road looking for somewhere not too crowded to have a light lunch. I took my time over a ham and cheese baguette and sipped the comforting froth of a cappuccino sprinkled with chocolate and nutmeg, calming my nerves by watching passersby through the large windows of the warm café. I took the slow train home from Waterloo so that I could read at a relaxed pace and enjoy the small bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut that in the circumstances of this particular day I felt I had earned.

Another sort of butt

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Love of Three Objects

The church that my wife and I attend encourages its members to join “Life Groups”, a zappy name for small groups that meet regularly in homes for friendship, mutual support and encouragement, study, prayer and general fun.  Over the 21-plus years we have been at the church we have been fortunate to be in groups whose leaders have been unfailingly creative in varying the diet of activities.

This Tuesday, for example, we went to spend the evening in the dwelling of our farthest-flung member, which is a canal boat moored at the bottom of one of the hills of North Middlesex, part of that county which has disappeared from the structures of local government but which lives on in the hearts of its residents and the drop-down lists used by website designers (I have on more than one occasion not been able to complete an online purchase without selecting the otherwise vanished entity as part of my address). As well as sharing fruit, cheese, dips, wine and juice that we had brought, the members of our group (eight on this occasion) had been asked to talk about up to three objects that had been especially important to us in the course of our lives.

A rich and beautiful evening it turned out to be, as we gave each other time to tell something of our personal stories and were introduced to some very interesting items. In the end “objects” was interpreted loosely, as some of us had brought pictures or used objects as symbols of a particular time or activity that had been important to us. Our host produced a photograph from 1854 of his great-grandfather in military uniform sitting proudly on a horse; the gruff-looking gentleman (the ancestor, that is, not our host) took part in the Charge of The Light Brigade and survived, finally dying in 1915. Someone else brought along the black velvet cap that he was entitled to wear as the recipient of a PhD from Cambridge, its style reassuringly unchanged since the 16th century and its tassels containing threads of real gold. We saw a postcard of Bath, the ancient town holding happy memories for one of our members. Another spoke of her love of family and social history and produced a volume of old family photographs—some of its subjects tantalisingly unidentified—as well as tiny envelopes containing letters from the time of the First World War. Yet another told us of how she had come on her own from Hong Kong at the age of 16 to study piano and been welcomed by a distinguished English musical family, the memorial service of one of whom she had attended that very afternoon.

These are the things I took to the gathering.

First, the walking cane that my grandmother brought back from Iraq (which she generally referred to as Mesopotamia) in the years just after World War I. This is its second appearance in this blog. It is not, I think, ebony, as I once believed: its dark colour seems to come from staining rather than being natural to the wood. Granny used to tell me how she and my grandfather had courted all those years ago and of romantic boat trips on the Tigris, of Arabs in long robes armed with rifles. She gave me the stick on my twenty-first birthday and it reminds me of many happy hours spent in her loving company; it speaks of my childhood and of its place in the family story, which I am in fits and starts documenting; it speaks of her youth (she lived to 101) and carries with it a distant echo of my dignified and beloved Grandpa, who died when I was eight; it testifies to the past of our nation, the troubles of Iraq to this day resting in part on Britain’s imperial ventures in the early 20th century.

The stick with the silver snake head

Can anyone tell me what the Arabic says?

Or this bit?

Next came the third drum that I ever bought, in a shop on the Portobello Road, in 1977. I still have my first percussion instrument, a very cheap pair of bongos purchased in Oxford, as well as the second, a Kenyan drum of indifferent quality made for the tourist trade and bought at the Ideal Home Exhibition, of all places. It was however the aluminium darbuka pictured that  first fed back to me a sound that encouraged me to develop as a player, although I never learned to play it in any authentic Middle Eastern style. Particularly satisfying were the cracking high notes achievable at the edge of the head, contrasting with the deep booming tones produced towards the centre, the fruit of the drum’s flaring shape. The drum does not have its original vellum head or plastic hoop, the hoop having broken in rehearsal when I cranked the tuning up too high for the flimsiness of the plastic. I was at the time in a group called Cloud that led worship at Holy Trinity Brompton (then getting better known as “HTB”) until 1988. Cloud was an eclectic mix of classical players and pop-folkies who, when I joined them in 1981, had to cluster around one or two microphones. I was their first regular percussionist, having—most unlike my then timid self—approached the group’s leader and principal songwriter, Phil Lawson Johnston, after an evening service. Cloud had already brought out three albums of original material and was planning a fourth; by the time the group disbanded a total of seven albums had been produced. My wife-to-be heard the sound of this drum on our recordings when she worked in Uganda in 1983 but we did not meet until 1985, when she joined the group. Cloud’s material is difficult to track down these days, never, so far as I know, having made it on to CD, but I did find a cover version of the song they sang at our 1987 wedding here. Our voices were less schooled than those on display in the clip, but the singers have reproduced the harmonies used on Cloud’s 1982 release Hallowed Ground, whose opening track began with a pattern on the darbuka.

Yashica FR, the last camera the company made with a brass body (it's heavy!)

Finally there is the single-lens reflex camera that my father gave me when I was in my late twenties, sensing my growing interest in photography. He had lent me one of his own cameras when I went to stand on Ludgate Hill to watch the wedding procession of Charles and Diana in 1981. Sadly only a few of my photos of the day and none of the gathering dignitaries and celebrities actually came out, as the camera failed to wind the film on, although this was not apparent while I was shooting as the frame counter had continued to work. Dad clearly decided that the time had come for me to have a more reliable camera of my own and so we made a trip to Tall’s Cameras in Twickenham (long since disappeared). The camera still works, although I have not used film for many years, abandoning it in 2003 when I bought my first digital point-and-shoot. I miss slides, which were my preferred medium with the old Yashica, but one has to be an earnest and determined person to use film these days and I was never into the paraphernalia of the darkroom. The camera reminds me of my father, who died in 2005, and of his own love of photography, for which he had a natural aptitude.

Darbuka, perfect for accompanying belly-dancing (although this one never has, shucks!)
Still visible is the sticker of the long-defunct London Drum Centre.

On Monday I had learned a bit more of the personal history of a friend of the family. We had gone to have lunch with my mother-in-law and also there was the friend, who is a very spry 91. He told me after the meal about his having worked in Hamburg for some months before World War II and mentioned that he had been able to get a sighting of Hitler. The dictator’s name passed through the cosy English room like an electric shock. My mother went to the same city as an army nurse after the war, but by then the inhabitants of the centre were eking out a living in the basements of devastated buildings.

Friday, 25 November 2011

God is Small

Over the last few days my attention has been drawn to small things. In part I have David Attenborough’s current enthralling TV series Frozen Planet to thank for this. This week we could view, miraculously: tiny polar bear cubs born to a mother half asleep in the midst of the brutal Arctic winter finding their way to suckle on milk nine times richer than the human variety; starfish failing to escape a deadly column of salinated ice snaking down to their previously secure habitat; a fragile emperor penguin chick being cradled in its father’s feet and so kept away from contact with icy ground that would kill it in seconds. There are many miracles here: the sights themselves, of course, but also what goes on behind the lens in the accumulated ingenuity and determination of the film crews, the technology required to brings us the images and transport the crews to achingly remote and hostile environments.

Emperor penguins and chick (this one made it through the winter).
Among many adaptations that enable it to survive on land and for up to 18 minutes underwater is unusually structured haemoglobin that allows the bird to function with low blood oxygen and not lose consciousness.

Yesterday, I went to my places of work, St Olave Hart Street and St Katharine Cree (both in the City of London), for the first time since my recent treatment. My main destination was St Katharine’s on this occasion, of which more in a moment, but I called in first to St Olave’s, mainly because I love it. One of the few mediaeval churches left in the City, it is a place that rarely fails to touch those who enter it from the mad rush going on outside. Rehearsal was under way for one of the musical recitals that have taken place there at least twice a week for over 50 years, the acoustic enabled by the 15th-century stone interior and 20th-century wooden ceiling (as well as some now rather tired carpet) being quite peerless. The trio performing were a bit out of the ordinary as their performance would include elements of improvisation, including an invitation to the audience to submit their mobile ringtones, on which the group would then create musical variations. The micro builds the macro.

On then to St Katharine Cree for her Patronal Festival, the annual celebration of the saint. St Katharine of Alexandria was a scholar in the 4th century and, in recognition of her status, the address at the Patronal Festival traditionally focusses on the meeting place of faith and intellect. The speaker this year was Andrew Briggs, Professor of Nanomaterials at Oxford University, who treated us to a lightning summary of his work, which is aimed at assembling and arranging infinitesimally small components for use ultimately in quantum computing. This is bleeding-edge science and a practical quantum computer—incomparably faster than current digital computers—is some years off (say 10, for the sake of putting some sort of figure on it). His title was “Your God Is Not Small Enough”, encouraging us to see God as concerned and involved with the small, often hidden, details of our lives, just as He is with the great things: the World, the Universe, Space etc. It is in the outworking of small decisions and behaviours that our life is built. Heady stuff, not least because it came with the authority of a man who has spent over 30 years studying the tiniest of structures and I fear that I am not beginning to do his fine talk justice. The micro builds the macro.

St Katharine Cree on a previous occasion.
Architecturally unique in London, the present building was consecrated in 1631 by Archbishop Laud,  whose conduct of the consecration liturgy–small actions in the fabric of one day–was used by his enemies
to help build a case of crypto-Catholicism against him and so led to his execution.
Photo by Esperey
I made a small purchase earlier in the week: highlighters with which to mark up the texts I read to research the historical figure on whom I plan to base my fiction. Will this micro build a macro?

An iris in a Sussex garden, Spring 2011
It reminds me of Jesus's words about some of the small things in the world, when he urged his followers to consider the lilies of the field, who "toil not, neither do they spin, yet Solomon is all his glory was not arrayed like one of these".

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Sleepless in West London

I slept very badly last night. No, I should rephrase that: I slept very little last night. There was a main reason and a subsidiary reason. The minor reason was that at about 8.15pm I had drunk caffeinated coffee. The major reason was that my wife and I had reached an important decision at around 11pm. I am not able to share this with you yet, as it affects quite a number of other people, but I can assure you that the choice we have made is a very happy one and that no animals were harmed in the making of it. The fact is: my brain just would not switch off, other than for about two hours all told, during the hours of deepest darkness.

In consequence I am feeling a bit spaced out today, although not dozy, which surprises me. I have in fact just done ten press-ups in part of my bid to recover some sort of physical fitness. No really, no need to clap…well, if you insist…

Our daughter went back to university yesterday evening, having spent a few quiet days with us reading and preparing for her next seminars. Being selfish for a moment, it is very interesting for me that she is studying history just as I am getting into the subject after thinking for most of my life that I had no aptitude for it, other than of course applauding it  as “a Good Thing”, as the authors of 1066 and All That would have put it.

Cartoon by Royston Robertson
You can see more of his work at

Speaking of history, I took delivery a couple of days ago, courtesy of Amazon, of a second-hand book in pristine condition. I was pretty excited about this, as the work is a brief life of the figure about whom I am planning to write a historical fiction and therefore the best place to begin my background researches in earnest. I was a bit concerned when I opened the package as the book still bears a red and white sticker proclaiming it to be the property of Reading University Library. Inside the cover however there is another assertion of the library’s ownership, but with the word “withdrawn” clearly stamped across it. The copy is in such good nick that I wonder if anyone ever read it during its time in Reading. It would be sad if they didn’t.

I am getting back into regular work mode as strength returns and am just about to start putting together some publicity for a monthly lecture series beginning at St Olave Hart Street in the new year (yes, we are nearly there). Ideal work to do at home, away from the ringing phone and the whirring printer. Before I go, here is an image that a friend kindly shared with me after reading the last blog entry.

Heaven's Court
A scene from the 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death, another instance of cinema showing the influence of earlier art and particularly recalling the sense of scale and perspective apparent in Satan in Council by John Martin.
In the film, an RAF bomber pilot (played by David Niven) is given another chance at life after a mixup by a heavenly bureaucracy. The heavenly scenes were shot on a vast scale and the film cost £320,000 to make (a huge sum of money at the end of WWII).

Friday, 11 November 2011

Graphically Put

On Tuesday 8 November I had one of my regular a follow-up hospital appointments and my wife and I decided to make a day of it by going to an art exhibition beforehand: Apocalypse at Tate Britain.

This is a rehabilitation of John Martin (1789-1854), who worked in the Romantic tradition, in particular as an artist of “the Sublime”, which can be defined as “the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic…especially [referring to] a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” After initial failures and discouragements, he made a name for himself as the painter of vast, spectacular canvases mainly on Biblical or historical themes.

John Martin (1789-1854)
In the middle of his career he turned more to printmaking, again having success, notably with wonderful illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The Creation of Light

Satan in Council
The Prince of Darkness addresses his minions from atop a mysterious sphere. In this illustration Martin makes ambitious use of the mezzotint technique,  most of the image being given over to inky blackness.

Martin has influenced filmmakers and their designers.
Here the evil Senator Palpatine addresses the Galactic Senate in Star Wars. The scene is reminiscent of Satan in Council.
His efforts to market and distribute a series of Biblical illustrations were however less successful and led to financial difficulty. He also devised a grand scheme for the construction of an integrated sewer system along the Thames Embankment and drew up a plan for a railway encircling London. These proposals were visionary and displayed considerable engineering competence, but they were not taken up, it being left to others to pursue these ideas later in the 19th century.

It was time for Martin to go back to big artworks and the centrepiece of the exhibition is the three enormous paintings painted in the closing years of his life, The Plains of Heaven, The Last Judgment and The Great Day of His Wrath. These caused a great stir when put on public display and have a spectacular impact even now.

To my eye, the first two images in this series suggest why Martin fell out of favour in subsequent years, his stock reaching an all-time low in the opening decades of the 20th century. The first one shows a grand vision of Paradise, with rolling green country in the foreground sweeping away to the dazzling domes of the Heavenly City and massive mountains in the far distance. It is beautiful in many ways, but too gaudy and literalistic, with the deep ultramarine of the sky proving sickly. The second painting shows Christ sitting in judgment. On the left side of the picture are those who are being admitted to Paradise, including, tellingly, Low Churchmen and a number of identifiable historical figures (I think I spotted Shakespeare). On the right a train hurtles over a cliff into the eternal darkness of a vast chasm, while in the foreground the damned cower and fall in terror, their number notably including Roman Catholic clerics and The Whore of Babylon. A bit naughty all this, particularly in view of Christ’s injunction that we should not judge lest the finger of judgment point right back at us.

The third painting is however in a different league both in the competence of its conception and execution and in its power to resonate with contemporary sensibilities.

The Great Day of His Wrath
This pixellated version cannot do the massive image justice. Again the debt cinema owes to Martin comes to mind: on the right of the picture whole cities are perched on the surface of the land that is being turned through 180 degrees, reminiscent of some of the scenes in Inception.
Martin’s command of scale and technique is awe-inspiring, even when his pictures do not entirely convince.The critics of his day could be very sniffy about his work and attention was often drawn to the fact that he began his career as a decorator of glass and ceramics rather than in the fine arts; they were particularly hostile to the shades of blue he employed, as their vividness seemed in particular to hark back to his origins as a decorative artist.

In the end it was the smaller works that often had a deeper impact on me, including one from his late years.

The Last Man
The last survivor of some apocalyptic event stands in a landscape of corpses unnaturally lit by a sickly sun.
This theme was treated by other artists of Martin's day and feeds directly into modern preoccupations with plague and disaster. The expression on the man's face is poignant in the extreme (you will have to take my word for it, I am afraid, or go and see the exhibition).

After a light lunch in the excellent café in the gallery’s basement, we had about half an hour to take in some more paintings and we decided to stay with the Romantics, being bowled over by some large-scale works by JMW Turner.

My abiding thought as I look back on the day is that contemplation of a painting is the most extraordinary experience. In most cases nothing (sometimes maybe a sheet of glass) stands physically between the spectator and the work of art. The decades—in some cases centuries—can fall away as you examine the object and try to tease out what it said to its original viewers and what it can mean to you. Great art or music can often take us by surprise, but it is the physicality of visual art that often overwhelms in all its perishable vulnerability.

On Wednesday 9 November it was time for moving images, which John Martin’s work surely anticipates. I am sure Tintin has his detractors but I have yet to meet one. It was with some excitement that I and five others, including my brother and son, met at the cinema in Richmond to see whether the talents of Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and their team of actors, artists and technicians had brought the Belgian boy reporter convincingly to the big screen. The Secret of the Unicorn cleverly conflates at least three of the original Tintin stories and turns an innocent bit-player from one of them into an arch-villain, but the whole is done with such obvious love for Hergé’s creation that Tintin fans all over the world must be for the most part delighted. There was one episode where I thought the CGI and motion capture (of which the entire film consists) had perhaps been allowed to get the upper hand, but the whole experience was most enjoyable and has been worth the wait.

The cover of Tintin in Tibet, the first image of Tintin I ever saw as I unwrapped my godmother's present one Christmas nearly 50 years ago.

Spielberg's offering is not the first cinematic treatment of Tintin. This is the cover of the book of a French film that came out in 1961, whose title translates as the "Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece", which as been described as "the best Tintin story Hergé never wrote".

A scene from the current Tintin movie, in which Captain Haddock aims the wrong end of a bazooka.

My favourite scenes were of a 17th century sea battle, which reminded me of one of the Turners we had seen the previous day at the Tate.

The Shipwreck (1805) by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851).
There is a story that Turner arranged to be lashed to the mast of a ship in as storm in order to be able to treat such a scene  authentically, although this is thought to be of doubtful veracity. The canvas is massive and the image very vivid, different in style from the misty compositions that we chiefly associate with this great innovator.

Good news at the hospital on the Tuesday, by the way: my haemoglobin is now up to 11.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Rubber Hits the Road

Our son turned 21 last December but it was only last weekend that he enjoyed our birthday present to him in actuality rather than in anticipation. Although the glories of this particularly splendid autumn are now fading, it was pleasant weather and golden colours that buoyed our spirits when we took him and our daughter-in-law to the racing circuit at Thruxton, just to the west of Andover, last Saturday.

We had bought him a “driving experience”. We thought it would make a change from something of the more tangible kind although the distinction between experiential and tangible is looking increasingly thin the more I think about it. Here are some moments from the day.

After a 30-minute briefing about the track and how to take corners, followed by a circuit as a passenger, our son gets into the driving seat of a Porsche Carrera, a family first.
The rubber hitting the road on one of four laps.
Thruxton also offers rides in Peugeots like these. It is the fastest circuit in the country, we were told.
Offspring also got four laps in this Ferrari, which Thruxton is phasing out as it is rather venerable, although much loved.
I think it was at this point that I went green with envy.
We watched proceedings from this platform. The building next to it has a blue plaque stating that it is of historic interest. The circuit is based on the perimeter road of a wartime airfield. The airfield is still in action for light aviation and small aircraft were taking off over our heads throughout our time there.
While this was going on and through the ensuing week the rubber was hitting the road for the European Community, in particular the Eurozone, in particular Greece. The global economic system is such that none of us is untouched by the implications of the specific crisis with the Greek economy; after all the Chinese are being asked to lend a hand, or rather more money than a balanced mind not high on intoxicants can imagine. I have watched events unfold on the European stage with more fascination than that space normally affords and have felt at times as if the UK could get seriously sidelined if we do not play our cards right. I say “we”, but the EU is of course where any notion of direct democracy and influence by common people gets stretched to and beyond its limit – just look what it’s doing to my metaphors. Nearly 100 years ago power struggles took the whole continent to war and once again the juggernauts of conflicting interest are crashing into one another. Surely we will never go to war within Europe again, but there could be more violence in individual countries. Furthermore our economy will take a colossal bashing if there is failure by any European country to meet its obligations, as the City of London is the leading world market for credit default swaps, which few understand but which sound particularly noxious.

On a personal level I am limbering up to face again a matter that I hoped had been put to rest a few months ago. I am currently signed off work, but my good friend and employer, Father Milligan, told me on Friday that he needs to pick my brains on the vexed matter of the office’s photocopier leasing contract. If you have been reading this blog for a while you will know just how much I relish that prospect [irony alert].

Time to de-stress and stroke the cat.

The aforesaid Smudge, photographed yesterday on her favourite bar stool, from which she can survey the whole kitchen.
I love the way cats tuck their paws in when they relax.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Battle of the Hemispheres

This has been a rich week, full of a wide variety of thoughts and activities, but let me waste no time in bringing you up to date on the condition of the MacPherson struts on my car, referred to in the last blog post.

In short, I learned yesterday on a return visit to the garage that they are indeed sick and on their way to the scrapyard. While on some cars they are allowed to wobble a bit, Vauxhall has advised that this is not normal on our car. Although in the interests of safety I will take the car back to the good mechanics next week for the problem to be fixed, my wife and I are pondering how to manage our motoring needs and finances. I have just had to renew the road tax as well, which, suffice it to say, is considerably more than it used to be, particularly since our car is ten years old and therefore deemed to be more polluting than some. An endless roundelay of expense…

In my darker moments I suspect that traffic calming measures (or—if we look behind the veil of weasel words—those annoying bumps in the road so beloved of our and other local councils) are sponsored by the manufacturers of shock absorbers and suspension systems, since a number of mechanics I have spoken to attribute greater wear and tear on such systems to “sleeping policemen” and the like. In case I am starting to sound like Jeremy Clarkson, let me assure you that I welcome slower speeds in built-up areas. I just wish we could be more like the French, for example, and use chicanes rather than humps to enforce speed limits and protect people and wildlife in our towns and cities. So much more elegant, daaaahling.

A chicane.
Note the possibilities for landscaping and a measure of beautification of the built environment. Drivers of emergency vehicles prefer them too.

Our daughter came home from university at the weekend to reunite with some friends as well as with us. We were also joined by my mother-in-law for a couple of days and by our son and daughter-in-law on Sunday. Full house and roast beef for lunch. The house went quiet again on Monday as my wife took her mother away for a couple of days in Canterbury, also giving our daughter a lift back to uni. I was therefore on my own from Monday to Wednesday, enjoying left-over meat and veg from the weekend.

I was not entirely alone though as I was reunited on Monday with my laptop, which had been with the geeks for over a week having a new hard drive installed. Mercifully all my data and applications were salvageable, but the process of “cloning” the original drive was very slow as the poor old thing was really ailing. All now seems well and here I am typing away, not any more having to wait for minutes at a time for my words to appear on screen. I also had the dubious company of The Sopranos and watched several episodes back to back, finally reaching the end of Season 3.

Tuesday morning saw me engaged in the first conference call I have experienced in about 30 years. I have in recent weeks been asked to be the English language moderator for a discussion forum for Waldenström’s sufferers that has been set up here. The website is a joint venture between the “rare disease” organisations EURORDIS (in Europe) and NORD (based in the USA) and you will see that a number of uncommon conditions are represented. The WM “area” has just gone live, so the moderators had a discussion and briefing over the phone this week: Paris, London, Belgium and The Netherlands all talking together. Early days, but we hope this will be a useful resource for sufferers, particularly in countries where there is little mutual support readily available and limited information or research. The site has facilities for translation of posts and articles into English, French, German, Spanish or Italian. If we can forget the troubles of the Euro just for a moment, this is surely a good example of what close international cooperation can offer.

Talk of research brings me to strands of thought that have occupied me much over the last couple of days. I have recently become increasingly interested in the ideas of Iain McGilchrist, in particular as set out in his (demanding) book The Master and His Emissary. McGilchrist is both a scholar of English and a distinguished psychiatrist. His thesis in the book (which I am still reading) is that the left hemisphere of the brain specialises in specifics, categorisation and detail, whereas the right brain is more “big picture”, creative, visionary. He goes on to argue that the left brain has become progressively dominant; some even describe it as “bullying” the right hemisphere. As a result we have experienced society and government becoming more controlling and “bean counting”, with the arts and humanities progressively marginalised in mainstream thinking and planning. You can download the introduction to the book from his website, but a wonderful graphic overview (and the man’s voice) can be found here.

For those of us disquieted by the increasing subservience of academia—sciences as well as arts and humanities—to the demands of the market, such observations strike a loud chord. Yesterday I received the termly magazine from my old university, which contained three articles on the theme “Whither the Humanities? Uncovering a global crisis in our midst”. These articles made fascinating reading at a time when academics in the quest for funding are being called upon to justify “the impact” of their research. The point is made powerfully several times in the articles that any division between arts and sciences is in point of fact artificial; also that distinctions between pure and applied research in the sciences are of little meaningful value. One example given is of Bertrand Russell’s philosophical investigations into logic and language: what could be more tweedy and wreathed in a fog of donnish pipe smoke? The truth is however that such work “paved the way for the artificial languages essential to computer science”. If carried to their natural conclusions, the prescriptions of some economists, politicians and civil servants would reduce us to drones, cogs in the mechanisms of production, to be discarded once we have ceased to be of economic value.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).
You will have to imagine the smoke.

I am passionate that we must resist such tendencies and make the case for the value of excellence across all academic disciplines, otherwise we will wake up to discover that we have created a whistling desert considerably more comprehensive than the Taliban did when they blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan. As one of the academics quoted (anonymously) in the university magazine put it: “If you believe knowledge is expensive, try ignorance”.

Yesterday I picked up my blood test result from last week and was buoyed up to see that, though inevitably approximate, the measurement of my haemoglobin had just made it into double figures. Things are looking up. Before I went to the surgery I had coffee and a typically animated and wide-ranging conversation with my friend, C, touching among other things on writing and the matters I have been obsessing about above. As we came out of the café we saw, sitting at a table outside, a very well known rock musician, a legend as it happens.

I have found myself thinking much about this man since and seeing him as representing a fusion of science, technology and art. Rock music rests on, among other things: our knowledge of electricity and acoustics, electronics and amplification; the heritage of the guitar, with all its associated craftsmanship and the knowledge and manipulation of diverse materials; musical theory and its associated physics; the architecture of performance spaces and their skilled construction. All the great instruments and all the great venues in the world are however nothing without the musician: his vision and creative drive; the development of his skill and technique, allied to his heart and life experience. Rock music is not new, for heaven’s sake: it rests on the accumulated knowledge of centuries, millennia even.

Impact? Don’t make me laugh.

Jack Black as Dewey Finn in School of Rock (2003),
demonstrating powerfully the richness of popular music's heritage and the complexities of its interactions with many different facets of life and society.
So there.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Individually Made


It was an extremely cold radiant morning when I took our main car to the garage for its MOT and annual service last Thursday, 20 October.

As I turned into the drive from the main road I saw two vintage cars parked to the side, one a gleaming black Ford Mustang and the other an older looking, less sporty car in a deep shade of maroon. I drew to a halt alongside this second car and spoke to its proud driver, who turned out to be one of the garage's owners. He told me the car was an Alvis dating from 1949, the year my parents were married. I admired its lines, the bold front wheel arches sweeping up towards the bonnet, the mounted chrome headlights and shape of the cabin harking back to the design and construction of horse-drawn coaches.

Having handed my ignition key over, I set off for home on foot, invigorated not only by the freezing air but also by the knowledge that I was dealing with people who had a deep seated love of cars. I was confident my own rather mundane vehicle would be in safe hands.

When the mechanic reported on the condition of my car later in the day, he mentioned that, although an MOT certificate had been granted, the inspector had remarked that there was movement in the MacPherson struts forming part of the front suspension. This was normal in some cars but he was not sure whether it was a characteristic of our ten-year old Vauxhall. It was therefore left as an "advisory" item and he would check with the manufacturers and come back to me.

This conversation came back to me as I was cleaning my teeth this morning and led to a little realisation, which is that my perception of my illness has shifted somewhat over the year since diagnosis. I no longer (although low points no doubt come and go) habitually think of myself as having a blight called "cancer". I now see the disease as an element of my particular constitution, in especially positive moments as a mark of individuality, just as much so as the quirks in construction of different cars.

Incidentally MOT documents are now all plain black and white, with no colour coding to differentiate certificates from failure or advisory notices. Cheaper to print in these times of cuts. Anyway, that's all for now. I'm just going to collect some acorns to make "coffee".

Alvis TA14.
This one's a bit more sparkly than the one I saw and has lovely white-walled tyres, but this was the colour all right.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Life Blood

What a beautiful autumn we are having, at least so far and in this part of West London. The air was bright and crisp and fresh as I walked briskly (yes, you read that adverb correctly) to the GP's surgery for a blood test shortly after 8am. The other people I saw about at that time were either heads down for the station or exercising dogs of varying sizes. The walk to the surgery takes me across a sizeable common called Moor Mead and over the River Crane, tamed into a culvert in the 1930s. Mature trees, on which the leaves are lingering in the absence of battering rains, shade the pavement. This is the site of an annual fair, for which the weather is generally glorious and occasionally foul, as it was this last July, when we gave it a miss.

Blood tests are available at the surgery on a "drop-in" basis and so I took my place with a number of others, allowing myself to speculate on what concerns had brought them there on this particular morning: an innocuous nosiness on my part, surely?

It was all over very quickly after the inevitable "sharp scratch". This is the expression which nurses and phlebotomists nationwide use to announce the insertion of the needle; it must be the NHS-approved wording. The nurse recommended that I collect a printout of the result myself in a couple of days, just in case the local laboratory fails to send the result to UCLH, where I am current being treated.

After a slightly less jaunty walk home I had most of the morning still ahead of me. I occupied much of it straining my eyes to read a report on the nation's economic prospects that I had seen recommended in an online comment on another, briefer piece on the activities of the banks. The reason I had to strain my eyes is that I am without my laptop for (what I hope will be) a few days and am dependent on my phone for jaunts into cyberspace.

The article is here:

It makes sobering reading, its basic thesis being that the growth forecasts of the Government are unrealistically high and that unless there is major relaxation of the restraints on small and medium-sized enterprises there is no hope that we will avoid major economic crisis. In many ways we are worse off than Greece, Portugal and Ireland, say the authors and macro-economic measures to stimulate the economy, notably quantitative easing, have conspicuously failed. Time to liberate the supply side, the report concludes

While I think they are not hard enough on the role of the banks and other financial institutions in creating the present mess, they do make the telling point that asking Britain to downscale the role of financial services in its economy would be like asking the Gulf States to give up oil. Life blood, indeed.

So much for reality. I am now going to dive into fantasy for a little while and watch "Spooks" (on my phone, of course).

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Techie Trials

I could have called this "Closeted with Computer 2" but in fact what has kept me from blogging these last few days is an issue with my iPhone arising out my recent change of ISP and, consequently, of email address.

In short, I found myself unable to update the apps on my phone as the password for my iTunes account would not be recognised however many versions of new and old passwords I keyed in. It is extraordinary how frustrating and time consuming such failures can be, such are the expectations of speed, seamlessness and ease of use we pin on modern communication devices and the IT companies that flog them to us. And (sharp intake of breath) I have not found my favoured Apple to be blameless in this.

The reality is that, beneath the shiny interfaces and smoothly clicking keys lurk tiddly squiddly widdly lines of code that can trip us up as we seek ever more connectedness. In my case, what I did not (in all innocence, m'lud) appreciate was that over the years-we are talking since 2004-I had managed to create two iTunes accounts. Now, there are some people who have need of more than one account, but I am definitely not one of them. The reality was laid out for me by two Apple technicians who in two detailed emails catalogued the precise dates when the accounts had been created and had their passwords changed.

It is quite apparent from reading the online discussions between various Apple users who have managed to do the same thing that there are traps for the unwary in the way the company's systems for online purchases of music, media and apps are set up, although of course to an IT specialist the systems may be perfectly sound and logical. The human mind is not a computer though, in spite of superficial resemblances, any more than chimpanzee is a human being. Apple mostly does the intuitive interface thing really well, but in the matter of online identities its trademark ease of use is somewhat lacking.

Anyway, we are where we are, with the result that most of my music has been bought on one account and my phone apps on the other. I could close one of the accounts but then I would run the risk of not being able to reload some of my purchases or playing them on other devices. It is here that technology meshes with intellectual property rights, since the rights to, say, play a particular song attach to the account through which it has been bought and not to me: they cannot be transferred and accounts cannot be merged.

The nightmare is over. I have a clear understanding of the two accounts and their related passwords and life has moved on after what has been a particularly constipated three days.

I still love my phone of course, which has a lovely new operating system, downloaded this week. I am writing this entry on it, as it happens, since I have finally had to bite the bullet and take my laptop back to the local geeks for a new hard drive to be fitted. The old one was stalling every few minutes and also could not be backed up: both warning signs of drive failure. I am told the new drive should be installed in a few days and I will then have a further 250 gigabytes to fill with silly photos, blog posts and the like.

I have not been shut away with digital devices all the time. I have managed three good walks. Two were to the GP: for a flu jab (which passed off without incident) and to address a trying little problem that has arisen as a result of the recent chemotherapy (whose details I will not trouble you with, yet at any rate).

My wife and I have also continued our tour of National Trust tearooms, taking advantage of the radiant autumn sunshine yesterday to visit Claremont Landscape Garden, just a short trip in the car from here. Portions in the tearooms are invariably generous and so we shared a large slice of excellent chocolate cake (although the orange and poppy seed and the date and walnut were both equally tempting).

There is a wonderful amphitheatre that leads down to the lake at Claremont. Great slopes for children to play on, although the NT of course has to post notices warning that the little tikes should be supervised at all times. I would love to show you a picture but technology at this stage will not permit me. Grrrr!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Closeted with my Computer

Isn’t contemporary life a rich and wonderful thing? At the weekend there we were lapping up 18th-century refinement and interior decoration and taking tea with the Tudors, whereas for much of the last three days I have been grappling with that most absorbing of activities: changing internet service provider. Not that I regret this, having now emerged on the other side of the process without too many scars.

As promised, the router (or “Hub) as BT likes to call it arrived in good time on Monday. “Nice one”, said the delivery man as he handed over the plastic-wrapped box, although I am not sure if he was referring to the excellence of the product he had just delivered or to my house (in which case, thanks very much) or to the accomplishment of his mission—perhaps to all three. With any new piece of technology I always feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation and so I decided to have lunch before disconnecting my old kit and setting up the new.

Basic set-up was very easy, so that soon we were connected to the internet, as evidenced by the rather lovely blue lights on the Hub, but we hit some complications when it came to getting email to function, as I could receive messages but not send. The recommendation from customer service was that I try and sort this out with them the next day, as they do not always have all that they need in place to help a customer straight away. I was happy to postpone as my old address was still working.

Yesterday therefore I rang them again and, after downloading a little bit of software, gave the very helpful and patient technician, who was thousands of miles away, control of my computer. It turned out that the automatic set-up of my email with the new provider’s details had made an incorrect entry in one of the relevant boxes and that, once that was amended, everything worked as it should.

The next task was to advise my friends, family, associates and acquaintances of my change of address. The system choked on an email to over 200 addressees and so I had to split the recipients into groups and send five separate emails. So far so good with that. The rest of yesterday was taken up with amending my address on banking and other sites of varying degrees of frivolity and seriousness, a surprisingly time-consuming process, particularly when some organisations send you an email in which you then have to click a link to confirm the change. Facebook was particularly irritating in this regard, as their email kept not arriving. I let them cool their techie heels for a bit and the procedure worked when I tried it a few hours later.

There have been a few loose ends to sort out today, but I think all is now in order. My wife meanwhile is fighting her own battles to alter her address on various websites, not so easy as her computer (an, ahem, Windows PC) is stroppier than mine and keeps flinging pop-ups at her.

Tomorrow I go for my free flu jab. It’s all fun around here, I can tell you.

Here, apropos of nothing, is a dramatic example of what can be achieved with Lego.
Mind you, it could be taken as an illustration of what it feels like to cope with reluctant technology...

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The King's Face

Around the walls of the small strongroom the subdued gleam of old silver reflected the modest light: salvers, platters, flagons, an enormous ice dish.

My attention was not however drawn to these trappings of opulent country-house entertaining so much as to the considerably smaller objects displayed in the cases occupying the centre of the room: coins and medallions that spanned just over two millennia, beginning with an ancient British gold (gold!) coin from about 65BC.

My wife and I were back yesterday in Osterley Park, which we visited a few weeks ago but this time we had arrived in time to go around the house, the weather being much more conducive to indoor browsing than the gentle warmth that had marked our previous trip and had been perfect for wandering in the spacious grounds.

We had spent the previous couple of hours in wonderment at the time and effort that Robert Adam had put in over a period of 17 years in remodelling a Tudor mansion into a gracious and refined villa for the Child banking family. Room after room showed borrowings from the decorative and architectural styles of several ancient civilisations, all integrated into harmonious schemes, none more impressive than the three state rooms designed for use by the monarch, should he or she ever be in the vicinity and need a bed for the night. At the time these particular rooms were created the throne was occupied by George III and his persistent ill health prevented his hobnobbing with the gentry. So it was that the rooms were never used for their intended purpose, although the Childs put them to work impressing actual and potential clients of their bank, making sure that their visitors absorbed the bank’s corporate ID by including the family’s emblem of the marigold in the decor at every available opportunity.

Visiting a National Trust property is a much more interactive experience than it was a couple of decades ago, with a choice of guidebook or audio-guide. Alternatively you can wander around with just a floor plan and quiz the volunteers who are to be found in each of the main rooms. This is what I like to do as you often hear facts, anecdotes and even speculations that do not make it into the more formal guides. There is however only so much one can take in on any one visit, so that by the time we reached the “downstairs” areas of the house, we were feeling a bit jaded and craving refreshment in the tea room that occupied the substantial converted stables a short walk from the house.

I am glad though that we lingered in the strongroom and found the coins: the few metres of display spanning so much history; the collection having been assembled by the 9th Earl of Jersey, the last family occupant of the house before it passed to the National Trust. My attention was drawn to a small gold coin about a third of the way along the cabinet, the monarch’s head on it not shown in profile, as has been usual from ancient times onwards, but rather full face, looking straight out at whoever gazed on the image. There was no mistaking the broad features and the suggestion of obesity: it was Henry VIII, among the most notorious of rulers and one whose life and activities still exert a compelling fascination. He used to scare me as a child as I imagined that no one could last very long in his company without being beheaded or at least imprisoned.

With images such as these he made sure his face was known to his subjects, although I imagine it would have been the more exalted of them that got to handle this particular coin. Alongside was  a piece of baser metal, the image stamped on it similarly unmistakable. I found myself wondering how many hands these now rare items had passed through and by what circumstances they had come to rest here in a cellar in West London within a stone’s throw of one of the busiest airports in the world, the thrum of traffic on the nearby M4 motorway constant just beyond the trees that shielded the house from wider view.

We made it to the stables in time for a much needed cup of tea and, in my case, extraordinarily good lemon drizzle cake; my wife had a scone and jam, always a favourite with her. Earlier we had learned that tea was originally the preserve of the rich, kept under lock and key and controlled by the lady of the house. It would typically cost £10 a pound, which by my very rough estimate would place it on a par with truffle or caviar today. It was said to have extraordinary life-enhancing, even life-prolonging powers. Come to think of it, we are still debating that.

Today we have had a good day with my son and his wife, taking advantage of the milder weather to walk by the river after lunch. They have been devouring The Sopranos several episodes at a time and have completed the first two seasons, which I only lent them as many weeks ago. As I have only just started the third season, they will have a bit of a wait before they can progress with the story of everyone’s favourite mobsters. I have therefore sought to distract them with the first five series of The West Wing. That should keep them quiet for a bit.