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.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Revival of the Full English

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will know that I am an enthusiast for the full English breakfast as well as for Apple techie devices. Well, this morning my friend D kindly invited me to join him for such a treat bright and early in the morning: sausage, egg, fried bread, baked beans and bacon, washed down with excellent coffee and seasoned with lively conversation. You’re only young once, eh?

This set me up well for a quick (actually I don’t quite do quick yet) trip into town to arrange for further work on my laptop, which is finally showing signs of hard drive failure. It will perform tasks happily for about ten minutes and then start loitering around like a shiftless schoolboy smoking behind the bikesheds; it will get lively again for a while, only to slope off again in due course to light up another gasper.

A friend goaded me by email today, saying that he thought Apple devices never broke down, fnaar, fnaar! Not so, they wear out like any other piece of kit, although their durability is better than many other machines. His gentle jibe did however prompt me to think about just what it is I like about Apple kit: excellence of design and functioning, that extends to the packaging and the retail experience. I have worked with PCs often enough to know that I just prefer the stuff bearing the fruity logo: PCs are a means to an end that is very often at variance with your own plans, while Apples have soul. No one is perfect, though…

There is something further of a medical nature that I have been meaning to share with you for a while, which is that the recent chemo has cleared up my psoriasis. This is what I expected to happen, since that dismal disease (much much commoner than Waldenström’s) is based on abnormally quick turnover of skin cells, just the sort of activity that will be curtailed by the cell-slaying (cytotoxic) action of chemotherapy drugs. Skin cells normally develop and die over 28 days, whereas the process is accelerated to four days in psoriasis. The significant metabolic increase leads to a proliferation of blood vessels and therefore to redness and inflammation, in addition to scaling as the abnormally developed cells are shed. The whole thing is an utter bore, requiring time-consuming applications of ointment in order to try and maintain a reasonable appearance and flexibility of the skin and minimise soreness and discomfort.

At the moment I am pretty bald, although I have managed to keep the sparse hair that did not fall out in hospital. I half expect the psoriasis to reassert itself once my hair makes its comeback, but these moments of freedom are very welcome.

Thursday, 6 October 2011


The airwaves and cyberspace have of course been full today of the news that Steve Jobs has died. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a signed-up, paid-up Apple user and fan. I got an iPhone shortly before my diagnosis last year and there is no doubt that it has made dealing with life considerably easier and more pleasurable than it would otherwise have been over the time that has passed since. Exaggeration? Absolutely not. It is too late now to write to the man, as I meant to do, and thank him for the difference that his visionary approach to technology design and manufacture has made to me, but I want to record my gratitude for his life and work all the same. 

It is worth seeing the wise and inspiring address Jobs gave to students at Stanford University in 2005. He delivered this after the initial diagnosis of the cancer that has now taken him from our midst. In it he had this to say about the recognition of one’s own mortality:

"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

In other news: the car failed its MOT, one reason being that it had a second worn tire that Kwik Fit had not spotted and another being that the new tyre they replaced yesterday was incorrectly fitted. Mercifully the MOT garage did not charge for its labour to out these things right and we now have the certificate that will keep us legally on the road for another year.

While the car was in the shop, I called on my friend P and we talked about a variety of things over very good coffee. A fair slice of time was given over to discussing my intentions to write historical fiction and it was encouraging to find certain lines of thought I had been having independently echoed in my friend’s thinking. Just now I feel as if my mind is a sponge, absorbing facts about my central character (a real person) and facets of his times. Sooner or later, greater form and shape will have to be given to these elements, but for now the collection process feels good.

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)
This poignant take on the Apple logo, the work of a Hong Kong designer called Jonathan Mak, was in fact produced some time ago, but has apparently been causing quite a stir in cyberspace today.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Letting in Light

OK, so I a getting a bit ahead of myself with the title of this entry, but where’s the harm?

My brother and I got together today to begin working through the intricacies of the application for planning permission to put a modest window in the rather stark north wall of our Brittany bolt hole. The window will be in plain wood and measure roughly one square metre but it still requires official approval from the local mairie. Mercifully most of the form can be ignored as the questions relate to rather grander projects than ours, but we will still need to submit it in triplicate with numerous illustrations.

My brother has gone away with a copy of the official plan of the land to work out the overall area in square metres and we will get together again in a couple of days with a view to tying up loose ends and sending our documents winging over the Channel.

Other fun today has included getting a new tyre fitted to the car in the hope that it will now squeeze through its MOT tomorrow. The local Kwik Fit is right next door to my GP’s surgery, so while the mechanic was at work I ambled across to arrange a blood test in a couple of weeks’ time as well as a flu jab, for which I am eligible, marching as I do in the ranks of the immunosuppressed.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Harvest and Disappointment

This morning my brother came by, freshly back from Brittany and bearing gifts: windfalls of walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts and apples; organic beer from the Lancelot brewery; cider; chocolate.

We looked at photos he had taken of the recent trip and discussed things achieved and things needing to be done at the house, including the installation of a window. We will get together again tomorrow to compile our application for planning permission.

Come the afternoon and it was time for another first since my recent treatment: a trip up to London on public transport. Journeys there and back passed off smoothly and without incident, although at the moment bounding up escalators is beyond me. The purpose in hand was my regular follow-up appointment at the hospital, preceded inevitably by a blood test.

To an accompaniment of Robbie Williams proclaiming in song for the umpteenth time that an unspecified female offers him protection the phlebotomist inserted a needle in the soft inside of my left elbow and drew off two vials of the red stuff. Within five minutes a printout of the basic blood counts was in my hand to take with me when I saw the doctor one floor down.

I was sorry to note that my haemoglobin was low, at 9.2 (around about the level it had been when I was diagnosed just over a year ago). That explains why I am not ascending stairs or walking anywhere with any great gusto at the moment: my system is shorter of oxygen than is ideal. Until the time came to see the doctor I defused my anxiety by burying myself in my current read, in which Cicero has just secured incontrovertible evidence of the conspiracy by the psychopathic Catilina to overthrow the Roman republic (which would have spilled lots of the red stuff).

The doctor was reassuring about the low haemoglobin, saying that levels of this vital substance can “bump around a bit” in the aftermath of a stem cell transplant and associated ghastly chemo. Nevertheless he has arranged for a further blood test to be carried out by my GP in a couple of weeks and for me to return to the hospital in a month.

Back on the train and in a subdued mood I rejoined Cicero and his chums.

Not an explosion in a Curly-Wurly factory but a representation of the haemoglobin molecule.
Iron is needed to synthesise this. Nuts (see above) are a good source of iron, so the nutcrackers could be getting red hot over the coming weeks.

Monday, 3 October 2011

How I Spent Summer's End

I drove a car today for the first time since my recent treatment. The car in question has to have its MOT in a matter of days and one of the tyres has reached the end of its legal life. The vehicle is a bit ancient and it turns out that the tyre needed is an unusual size not usually stocked by Kwik Fit. They have ordered one that will be fitted the day before the MOT. Brinkmanship or what?

The third phone call in a week to my current internet provider finally yielded the MAC code I needed to migrate to a new provider. A very dismal performance by Pipex, who were a day over the limit of five days set by Ofcom for the supply of this information, but I will not be complaining (they will just never get my business again). Next week all should be up and running with BT, so I have started to organise informing my email contacts of the forthcoming change of address. Then there will be the fun of entering my new address in the various websites I am registered on, not least this one.

I also acquired a rhyming dictionary and discovered there is only one one word that rhymes with hoity-toity. Answers on a postcard, please...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Oh, I do love to be...

By 11.30 yesterday morning it felt as if the day was ruined, but how wrong we were. Mind you, we had been on the road for an hour and only travelled about 11 miles. Our daughter is at the University of Kent at Canterbury, which means that, to reach her, we either have to join the M25 within 11 miles of Twickenham and hare round that alienating stretch of tarmac in an anti-clockwise direction or else cut south through Kingston, Surbiton, Chessington and endless suburban sprawl and join the M25 further along. Figuring that the sun would have drawn multitudes to the M25, we did the cut south, which turned out to be a disaster. By the time we got to Epsom I was consumed with hatred of England, particularly the overcrowded south-east, and resented everyone else’s using the public roads at the same precise moment as us. “Why can’t they all just [expletive deleted] stay indoors?”, I raged unreasonably. The delays were further complicated by numerous roadworks and, by the time we finally reached London’s orbital motorway, I was feeling nauseous from too much looking down at the map and wishing I was back home languishing on The Sofa of Convalescence.

In due course, once we were finally in the flow of travelling and could reasonably forecast when we would arrive in Canterbury—managing our daughter’s expectations by text message and dosing ourselves on Classic FM (whose offerings yesterday morning were more soothing than the un-comic Handel opera offered by Radio 3)—our mood began to lift. We eventually reached our daughter’s accommodation, in the shade of an expansive oak and other mature trees, by about 1.20pm.

Once we had offloaded the things she had asked us to bring, including her bike, and had a brief snack it was time to decide how we wanted to spend the day. As she had been confined to quarters by illness for most of the week, we decided to head north to the coast and see Whitstable. A pleasant, short, rolling drive followed by what turned out to be a happy wrong turn landed us at the west end of the town, where we found a very pleasant pub with a small shady garden looking down towards the sea. After some very good mackerel paté, a cold lager and time spent gazing out over the water and enjoying the sight of small children playing happily in the pub garden the earlier dark mood had completely evaporated.

A man arrived at this table shortly after this photo was taken to savour a cooling pint. The sun shining through the tall glass was a gladdening sight.

We then ventured into the heart of Whitstable, marvelling at the variety of characterful buildings, many weatherboarded and proclaiming that this had been a fishing town for centuries. We parked at the eastern end and then spent a happy couple of hours wandering the length of the high street, its numerous eateries offering fish and seafood, most notably the local oysters, “Whitstable Oyster” being an EU-protected geographical designation. The street also housed an extraordinary number of estate agents and we indulged in our occasional pastime of seeing how local property prices compared with our own area (very favourably, as it happened).

A shaded backstreet of Whitstable.

On the way back we turned down the street where the actor Peter Cushing lived for 40 years and then emerged on to the seafront, where walking was now a bit easier as the sun was lower in the sky and the air was slightly cooler, although still balmy. There were some very tempting refreshment stalls and we all agreed that we deserved an ice cream.

Walking back to our car along the seafront.

Once back at our daughter’s lodgings, we enjoyed a cup of tea with a couple of her housemates, well-mannered, considerate boys both and it was then time to decide what we would have for our main meal. After much indecision, we plumped for a trip into Canterbury for some sort of italian offering, pizza in my case, washed down with San Pellegrino mineral water, whose label was in English and, intriguingly, Indonesian. This being, in all likelihood, the last Saturday of an unusual heatwave, the incomparably historic old town was heaving with people, including significant numbers of hen parties in fancy dress: all glitter, fairy wings, devil’s horns and a generous tracing of tattoos—will body art ever go out of fashion now, I wondered? We tried a couple of places before finding a third that was able to offer us a table in reasonable time. The food and service were good, but it was now late and my wife and I would not be home much before midnight. No matter, we had been granted a wonderful day. Our daughter’s house seems to have become quite a destination for neighbours and we left her happily joining in the lively conversation in her crowded kitchen, relieved and glad to see her so much better after her tricky week.

The drive home was smooth and uninterrupted and we covered the 90 miles in good time, our heads finally hitting the pillow shortly after midnight. I was tired but not, unlike a week ago, utterly wiped out. Progress!

Bright morning arrived a few hours later and I decided to go to church for the first time since my recent treatment. After the service my wife and I walked across the burning expanse of Marble Hill Park to the café, which was threatened with closure not so long ago. Today it was proving itself by doing thriving business. We bought coffees and took ourselves a little way down the path to sit in the shade of a tall and graceful ash tree, where we remained for the best part of two hours, enjoying the sight of all ages making the most of the uninterrupted sunshine. Odd, though, isn't it to be feeling this degree of heat and seeing autumn colours at the same time? In my case over 50 years of annual visual conditioning are being disrupted.

I love the elegance of the ash, with its dark, slender branches and profuse, delicate leaves.

A relaxed day has followed and soon it will be time for Downton Abbey. Do pardon me if you are not a sucker for the country-house vibe.

Peter Cushing (1913-1994), who often played the good guys in classic Hammer horror movies.
There is a Wetherspoon pub in Whitstable named after him; appropriately the building was obviously once an Art Deco cinema.