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.