Thursday, 27 January 2011

Free stuff

Disruptive to the last, even a picture of the thing will not allow itself to be positioned correctly in this blog...

As I consider Saturday 2 October 2010, blog time and real time are about to mesh together for a brief moment. Composing this near the end of January 2011, I find it rather hard to believe that I once rode a bike with any frequency. A few days after the events I am about to record the course of my treatment and life changed quite dramatically, such that I look back over my vigorous October self with a degree almost of envy. I am getting a bit ahead of myself here, but all will become clear over the course of the next few entries.

This is a rather long way of saying that on the Saturday in question I took a modest bike ride. The purpose was to get to my not-so-local surgery for the flu jab for which I was now eligible. The ride was enjoyable and refreshing as the last remnants of the Indian summer were still eddying in the autumnal air. Entering the surgery however, I came upon a world that to me was somewhat alarming, as I was in the company exclusively of people who were the other side of 60. No doubt there were a variety of reasons entitling those in the surgery to receive the jab, but it seemed the principal uniting factor was that of age. Suddenly I felt old, although not sufficiently demotivated to forego the privilege of the free and valuable injection. My entitlement of course rested on the fact that my immune system was now significantly compromised.

A positive point was that, by now, I was feeling quite blasé about needles and so the inoculation was experienced without fuss and incident.

Afterwards I went to the nearby pharmacy to thank the chemist who had recommended the routine blood test that had led to my diagnosis and to report to him on what the test had revealed. I have been using the services of this pharmacy over many years, since moving to Twickenham in 1986, and have seen the business expand and develop as a result of this dedicated man's hard work. From the variety of medications either dispensed in, or bought from, his store over the decades he must surely have a pretty good idea of my medical history beneath his impressively impassive exterior.

On this occasion he gave me the further valuable information that I would now, as a cancer patient, be entitled to free prescriptions and and advised me on the procedure for applying. It's not all bad then!

I cycled home in the enduring good weather and in the afternoon received a supportive phone call from our vicar. It is hard to exaggerate how much his pastoral concern meant and has continued to mean over the weeks that have followed. The same goes for every kind contact that friends and family have offered me during the course of my illness. People differ greatly in the style and content of their support, but what I feel is their love.

Buoyed up by the cycle ride I did 10 press ups and felt fine with that.

In the evening another dear friend came to call and brought with her the gift of a plant. This same friend is also responsible for our having in the kitchen a jar of ash from the Icelandic volcano that caused such havoc to air travel earlier in 2010: a rather special gift, that one.

A gift of gerbera.
The plant is named after the 18th-century German botanist, Traugott Gerber, a friend of Linnaeus.
It is related to the sunflower - this one is the colour of the setting sun.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

A significant birthday

Friday 1 October 2010 was to see a great celebration, as it was the day of a very close and dear friend's 50th birthday party.

In the morning however it was my turn to receive cards and a number arrived with the morning delivery: from the governing Council of the church where I work and from friends. I have been both surprised and moved by the messages of support, encouragement and love received from people in a number of different areas of my life and work, sometimes little expected. I treasure and will keep them all.

The party was to take the form of a dinner upstairs in one of the locality's best-loved restaurants and would be my first social engagement since diagnosis. It was a rainy day and I spent much of it in bed, gathering my strength but at the same time doing some work and giving thanks once more from the benefits of information technology.

In due time we set off for the happy event, to which we had eagerly been looking forward. The restaurant is a building of warm character, whose entrance is a short leafy walkway. Unfortunately, but this is only a minor misfortune, when it was under previous ownership, my wife and I had a very good meal in the downstairs restaurant, but which was marred by the presence of the only other couple in the room, who argued most unpleasantly and, we suspect, with one eye on their supposed “entertainment value". I still fondly remember the white chocolate ice cream however.

The young staff on this current, happier, occasion took our coats, offered us Champagne and ushered us up the panelled stairs to the party. There was a small anteroom filled with a happy noise of conversation and there were many familiar and much-loved faces. I have to say that it was a relief initially to be talking to people whom we had met before, but to whom there would be no need to talk about medical matters.

At the due time we were summoned to the dining room where a number of round tables were laid out. We were sitting with a couple to whom we are very close and another couple to whom we are less close but with whom conversation is always warm, lively and interesting. These were all people aware of my condition and with whom I could be quite open about my experiences, which was a contrasting relief to that felt in the anteroom. All the keen to know how I was doing and I am glad to say that on this occasion I felt happy and normal, if a little tired and overwhelmed after the experiences of recent weeks.

Normally when confronted with a menu to choose from I dither over what I am to eat, but I was glad to see fish as one of the choices. Eating fish always makes me feel healthy, so I went for the trout, which proved itself both fresh and deliciously prepared. Also, since I had been told that it was fine for me to drink alcohol in moderation, I did exactly that.

I spent quite a while talking to a friend both about one of his ancestors and about the house this man had built, which had in due time been bought by George Harrison. My friend and his wife had recently been able to visit the house and speak to George's widow, after which they were given a tour by the estate manager. You can find footage on youtube from which this clear that the late Beatle held this house in great affection. It is a place of unusual character, as my friend's ancestor was very much an individualist, at least so far as his taste in architecture went and the house has many unusual features, including distinctive gargoyles and a trompe l'oeil water garden. It clearly meant a lot to my friend to have been able to see this place for himself and I was riveted by his account of it.

George Harrison MBE (1943-2001)
The tallest Beatle, by half an inch (source: Stephen Fry)

Happy birthday speeches followed, after which our friend and her husband circulated among the tables to talk with as many of their guests as possible.

As we were leaving, one of the other guests asked me the fateful question “how are you?" to which there could only be an honest answer, not least since I knew that his wife has a similar condition to mine, although different in its character, symptoms and treatment. It is an odd feeling to carry a secret inside yourself and in some ways the sense takes one back to childhood: like a child one holds the knowledge, eager to share it with some and withholding it from others and with that withholding comes a sense of reserved power. The more positive side of the coin perhaps is the need to preserve personal space by not “spreading oneself too thin".

I have to say that I was rather tired at the end of this evening, although nothing could detract from the enjoyment of it. What did take away pleasure however was my awareness of how shrunken I looked in clothes that once fitted me so well. I was going to have to get some new trousers.

The Wrong Trousers
A classic,  instantly.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Lit. crit.

 Once again, readers, I am feeling a disjunct between blog time and real. It is my own fault, of course, for allowing such a gap to grow between the time of dictation and the events I am recalling and reflecting upon. For example, I have just had a bit of a battle with my dictation software, as it simply refused to launch, rather like a Morris Minor on a frosty morning. I have therefore reinstalled the software, but in the process lost a very real (and precious) hour.

In real-time, I should advise you, we are now fully embarked on the Good Ship 2011, whereas I am now going to refer to the events of 30 September 2010, which was a Thursday. Staying with 2011 for just one small moment more, however, I will tell you that one of my New Year's resolutions is to bring blog time closer to real time.

On the Thursday in question my friend R came over for lunch, a chat and a stroll. We had lunch in a cafe just around the corner from my house that has recently changed hands. This being Twickenham, the cafe is replete with rugby memorabilia: scarves, cups, ancient team photographs showing people no doubt now long deceased, but in the prime of youth and vigour when first captured on film. The cafe is in relatively new hands, the previous owner having taken her business in-house at the RFU Stadium, but leaving all the memorabilia behind at her old place. The new owner is a retired policeman, who has got off to a good start with tasty food and a pleasant ambience.

My appetite at the time recorded being in good order, I enjoyed my lunch of BLT and coffee. We followed lunch with a stroll by the river, which we as a family turn to time and time again as a place to take visiting friends, since there are always pleasant vistas, mature trees and the relaxing sounds of wildfowl (if you like that sort of thing).

I was particularly keen to spend time with R, as he is always excellent and uplifting company. Also, as he is not southern English, but Canadian, there can be an ease and immediacy about his conversation that is refreshing to a life-long suburban Londoner like me. He inhabits the world of books, being a writer of travel guides and stories, now working both on a novel and a self-help guide for people seeking work in middle age. He manages book projects as well and did some wonderful work for the church where I work. Sorry to go all post-modern and self-referential on you, but I was particularly keen to have his views on how I was doing with this very blog.

Let us just say that his comments were a great encouragement, the main message of what he said to me being to remain authentic and honest in what I put down for your reading and, I hope, interest and entertainment. I will certainly try...

His message was repeated in one of the books he proceeded to lend me and to which I have referred previously, that is If You Want to Write by Barbara Ueland. This is based on lectures this energetic woman, now departed, gave some decades ago for the encouragement and inspiration of hopeful writers. She is firm in her belief that most, if not all people, have writing of quality within them, but that they need to believe in themselves and have the courage to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards or even mouths to microphones. If you're keen on writing, do get this book: the enthusiasm and energy in it is potent and infectious.

Reading is of course the writer's fuel; at least this is how I justify my book addiction to myself. In anticipation of time on my hands, I had recently made some significant purchases, hoping both to educate myself in history, particularly the histories of the two world wars, and to understand more about how to write clearly and effectively.

My current reading: oh for a hundred eyes like Argus, as well as additional limbs and a swathe more time!

Monday, 3 January 2011

A walk in the park

I awoke on Wednesday 29 SeptemberIn still plagued by tiredness, but respite was soon enough granted by a welcome invitation from my sister-in-law to have lunch and a stroll in nearby Bushy Park.

Lunch would be in the recently opened Pheasantry Welcome Centre, which looks out over one of the more landscaped areas of the otherwise rugged ancient deer park, itself lying opposite the gates of Hampton Court Palace. Owners of houses surrounding the park are required to pay a rent known as “freebord”, which I believe was originally to compensate King Henry VIII in the event that deer escaped from the royal hunting grounds into the neighbouring land. The Royal Parks, to whom this charge is now payable, have recently caused a bit of a kerfuffle by raising the annual amount, although it seems to me quite a modest sum for the privilege of looking out over such beautiful park land.

The architecture of the new Centre is rather unimaginative and its stark angular modernity sits uneasily amid its mature leafy surroundings, but it is proving very popular and is a particular a magnet for young mothers meeting for mutual support and needing a place to park the increasingly colourful and sophisticated buggies that convey the rising generation along our streets. A further welcome feature of the cafe for parents is that their offspring who are old enough to go out and play can be easily viewed through the large plate glass windows giving out on to the park.

The Pheasantry Welcome Centre. Am I being harsh about its lines?

The food and drink on offer in the cafe were however a welcome contrast to the metaphorical coldness of the building itself and I decided on a bowl of gnocchi and a mineral water, followed by carrot cake and a cappuccino. All of these were good.

A typical helping of gnocchi, an idea going back to Roman times, though not made with potato back then, as they so often are now. Delightful little fellows, all the same.

Cappuccino, said to have originally been concocted by Capuchin friars from coffee left behind by fleeing Turks in 1683. The colour of the brown froth supposedly resembles that of the monks' habits. Of course the holy men would not have had one of those noisy Gaggia devices at their disposal, which renders the story rather suspect.

After lunch, we went for a walk under the still leafy trees and along the side of the waterway that runs through this area of the park. Our modest circuit completed, my sister-in-law drove me home.

Part of the Pheasantry Plantation (photo taken at a later date, but leaves still abundant and green).

Energised by the food, the walk, the beauties of nature and my sister-in-law's company and conversation, I was able to do some more work. It really felt as if normality were possible, at least for now.