A little lane in Islington

Islington wasn’t always Islington. Or rather, it was, but the meaning of the name changed over the years, as meanings do. Just in my own life-time it transformed from a place where there were precisely two wine bars (The Actors Retreat with its lethal wet spiral staircase outside leading down to the basement it was in and Serendipity, or Dips as it usually was for those whose office was next door, literally two doors down the corridor in the upstairs of the converted tram garage we thought was so wonderfully trendy) to a place lampooned on TV as being full of them.

Keith Waterhouse wrote about how rubbish it was when he moved in and how rubbish it still was in 1970ish. Even when I moved into Bromfield Street (formerly King Edward Street, but after that business with the Simpson woman, well, you know…) it was endearingly crap. There was a bombsite at the end of the road known as the Cats Carpark, because it was infested with feral cats that animal protection people trapped, neutered and released back to the carpark staffed by huge tough-looking blokes who seemed like extras from The Sweeney and may well have been, all of whom kept a weather-eye out for the cats and their helpers. There was a shop where you could buy second-hand gas cookers for £50, like something out of Minder. A barber which was also a tailors, Chapel Market for fruit and veg and a strange, tiny shop that sold the oddest of odd things, freshly made pasta for about £40 a plate-load. So far ahead of its time and all long before that godawful multiplex cinema was astral-projected straight into the middle of our manor. Prostetnic Vogan Jeltz would have been so pleased.

Don’t Panic

While Hotblack Desiato was a bona fide estate agent the house next door was a squat, which was a pain because they kept having loud fights until one night the police literally carted everyone away, after which it was blissfully quiet. There was a gay pub at the end of the road which regularly had its windows put in, as gay pubs did in those days, usually by the National Front according to the graffiti. Quite why a group of young men exclusively fond of each other’s company in skin-tight jeans, figure-hugging shirts and big rufty-tufty boots should have been so exercised about gay pubs was always a bit beyond me. I wasn’t that comfortable when I went there when I first moved in one winter, not knowing it was a gay pub and the warmest clothes I had were motorcycle leathers, but I never got clothes right in London anyway. It didn’t make me want to smash their windows.

Not having much money I read a lot. One of the books I read was the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which featured Islington quite a lot. Douglas Adams still lived there in those days and if you read the second book in the five-part trilogy carefully enough you could find his converted warehouse easily enough, round the back of Screen on the Green.

He and I shared the same parking garage, in a time when it seemed totally normal to drive around Central London, cutting down along the route of the 19 bus along Roseberry Avenue and Picadilly to get to the M4 and westwards. Every year Douglas Adams got a brand-new Porsche 911. Every year within weeks the inside would be even more fantastically messy than my cars get. He always had in those blissful pre-satnav days, a huge envy-making AA roadmap of the UK. I mentioned this to the Significant Other of the time, and added that if I was Douglas Adams the temptation to paste the words Don’t Panic on the cover would be simply too much. She said that was why I wasn’t Douglas Adams.

I moved, Douglas Adams died and the Hitchhikers Guide is back on the radio. I hate to say it, but it’s nowhere near as good as it was. It’s not just that the voices have got older. Maybe it’s because now we have iPads the idea of the Guide itself is so much more ho-hum than the oh-wow-wouldn’t-that-be-great thing we thought it would be, in a world where the USSR still had a huge wall around it and for any right-thinking person the EU meant cheap drinks and sunshine a zillion light-years from the rain and aggro of what became bafflingly trendy North London. Trust me, the past was a different country. They did the Hitchhikers Guide differently there.

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One good thing

My doctor told me I might just possibly have a brain tumour, but not to worry. To be fair, she phrased it slightly differently, telling me if not to park that thought, which is about as effective as not thinking about elephants, then that we could think about that after the results of an MRI scan, which she far from comfortingly scheduled urgently.

While I bravely primed the people who might have some passing interest in my untimely demise on the offchance that at least some of them might rent their clothing while I could still witness this event, I did some fairly serious thinking about stuff. The best thing I did was to buy two tickets to the Django Reinhardt festival at Fontainebleu.

Assuming I don’t fall off a ladder or get run over, it seeming statistically unlikely that I have a brain tumour rather than just an irritating form of tinnitus, in July I’ll be sitting in the sun with a friend listening to how back in Nagasaki the fellows chew tobaccy while the women wiggy waggy woo, and rather hoping there might be some of that in the offing shortly thereafter despite previous assurances to the contrary. Now all I have to do is find-out how to get there without bankrupting myself on Eurostar. I’ve outlived Django already. He died of a brain heamorrage long before MRI scanners had ever been thought of. Nine seconds of searing pain and no more. There are much worse ways to go.

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Making it better

I had to go for an MRI scan some weeks ago now. I still haven’t been told the result. This is somewhat worrying given that there was a chance that I had a brain tumour, hence the scan. I still haven’t been told I haven’t got one.

What I have been told instead is that on March 2nd I have an appointment at the Ear, Nose & Throat clinic, which seems to indicate something on a different level of panic and discomfiture.

I’ve had a ringing in one ear for about a year now, after a batch of students who coughed so loud I had to actually stop a lesson gave me a massive cold. I had to have my ears syringed because I couldn’t hear anything and I didn’t think my hearing improved much afterwards, although I could hear a warning tone in the car when the soft top wasn’t latched that I’d thought had stopped working. And that, my doctor thought, could have been the problem. Not the soft top on my car, but the fact the ringing was only in one ear, not both.

Going to an ENT clinic isn’t quite in the same league as gamely battling the effects of a foreign body the size of a grapefruit inside my cranium, so hopefully no gaily-coloured headscarves to hide the baldness after the chemotherapy, no brave smiling and none of that strange unearthly beauty the dying seem so often to have. Or it could of course be that it’s just the ones with a strange unearthly beauty that get photographed.

Either way, unless the ENT clinic is just to give me better hearing in my last few weeks on earth, odds are that I don’t in fact have a brain tumour, despite the loudness of the ringing in my left ear this morning. I think it could have been done a better way though.

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Forty-three times twenty-six plus fifty-two

It isn’t a maths test, although of course it is. It’s the number of dead from the London Borough of Barking alone, in the years 1914 to 1918. Thier names were listed on plaques on thier memorial in the park. I didn’t have a pen so I needed a way to remember the numbers I’d counted.

In case your maths is rusty, it’s 1,170. A lot of the names are the same and while I can think well, obviously a lot of people are called Smith or White, when a surname is Wiffen and there are two sad inscriptions with different initials after them, they have to be related and I’d guess, closely.

Appropriately, death in the shape of a bullet or a lungful of gas or simply being atomised by an artillery shell or drowning in mud being no great respecter of rank, there are no inscriptions on the plaques on the memorial in the park to tell us now whether they were corporals or private soldiers or colonels. If you read anything about the First World War of course, you’ll know that only rarely, when a stray shell obligingly evened things-up did the most senior officers get killed or even wounded by anything more directed than gout or a heart attack.

One of Britain’s most lauded sons, Earl Haig, never bothered to visit the front line trenches at all. He was the man who condemned the ‘cowardice’ of the Pals battalions when they failed to advance to his satisfaction. In his mind they were shirkers, riddled with blue funk as a function largely of them being working class chaps; in reality they were riddled with Spandau bullets, failing to ‘do their bit’ due to the inconvenience of being dead. Prior to that he’d issued orders forbidding them to fire while they advanced; they hadn’t had much training, they couldn’t hit a grouse rising off heather and all in all it would just have wasted ammunition, he felt.

As it was, the artillery barrage supposed to stop the German machine guns only stopped them while the barrage was on. When it lifted and the whistles blew to advance in the British trenches the boys from the factories and potteries and mines rushed up their ladders and walked, as ordered, across No Mans Land. They’d had tin triangles sewn onto the back of their packs so the General Staff could see where they were from a safe distance. Through binoculars it was clear the attack bogged down early, the triangles not moving. The Pals brigades weren’t funking it. They were dead.

It can’t be unreasonable to doubt the sanity of anyone who ordered the exact same action again and again and again, year after year after year, Michael Gove.

The memorial didn’t give the dates or the locations of the sons of this forgotten borough whose glory days ended in a hail of copper-jacketed munitions. Walking around Barking you can see the ghosts of  proud buildings erected between about 1890 and 1914. There’s a fine Magistrates Court embellished with Art Nouveau curlicues and at the entrance to Barking Park itself a little Nursery with round windows sporting elongated keystones which presumably was given to the Park Keeper in the days when massively-subsidised housing wasn’t seen as akin to choice-robbing Communism. The First War killed more than just people. Go to Barking and look around.



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Playing up

It was, one thing and another, a bit of a day. I was supposed to take a school trip to Norwich but due to them speaking English a little less ably than they thought  – and darn it, I’ve told them again and again that the secret to speaking English is we usually don’t mean literally what we say, or at least, not without more) – they left without me so I had to drive there and catch-up with them, which didn’t put me in the best of moods. I had to find somewhere to park and it was sleeting a bit. By the time they left at 1615 after a bit of very strangeness on the pavement over which I shall draw a discreet veil, I’d drunk less than a pint and half of anything all day. Which isn’t enough.

Then the headlights on the car shorted on so I couldn’t dip the main beam. Fixable certainly, but not on a Saturday evening. Every other car blasted its headlamps at me (FFS, look, I’m not doing it ON PURPOSE, alright?), I took the dreaded Caistor turning by accident because I was sick of being on the ring road however much I knew that here be dragons and you don’t go on that road if you’ve any sense at all.

Because it’s seriously strange, is why.

Because it’s about 70 years ago there.

Because there aren’t any towns or signposts that mean anything and no GPS that works there and most of the time your phone doesn’t either. It took nearly two hours to do a journey that should have taken about 45 minutes. It was like Stephen King’s folds in the map story, those strange places where the map doesn’t really line up when you unfold it, the gap in the road and maybe gaps in more than that.

All of which combined to give me a staggering, ripping headache that paracetamol didn’t even touch, which worried me hugely, which made it worse. I got to my friend’s house and let myself in with no opposition from her dogs. Everyone was out. I sat in the kitchen and stroked the dogs for half an hour or so, on my own. And magically no headache by then. Not a brain tumour at all. O a very variable one if it is.










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The runaround

Not actually a track by Dion and the Belmonts, but what happened to me this week. I spent last Saturday getting my head scanned to see if the ringing in one ear was caused by something wrong with my ear as I suspected, or by a brain tumour, which my GP thinks ought to be checked to see if it exists. In which case a ringing in one ear will be a fairly minor thing to worry about, like making sure the front door of a bombed-out house is locked.

The scan was fine if urgent so not entirely what I’d call fine, it being my head we’re talking about. What was less fine was being told the results would be with me in three weeks. A brain tumour can grow 1cm a month.

I phoned my GP for the second time on Thursday. No, they said, they hadn’t got any results. Call the hospital. After taking ten minutes to get through their incomprehensible automated options that made me think I already had a brain tumour and would definitely get one within thirty seconds if I had to listen to any more options I couldn’t then select, I got through to the MRI department. Three weeks, they repeated. I pointed out that this was an urgent scan. Three weeks again.  For a brain tumour. A bit of a silence. What was my name again?IT’s too cold to do cold sweating, but I did some anyway.

Was I a GP? Well no. Not really. The hospital refused to give me any results. MY GP would have to write to them. They didn’t specify whether a quill pen would be better than a biro but they weren’t moving on the writing thing. I phoned the GP. Who emailed instantly and then did something rather sweet.  They told me the hospital wouldn’t be arsing about like this if the scan had showed there was something majorly wrong in my head. Other than a high-pitched whining unrelated to working with children and a tension headache, obviously. It’s not a clear result yet. But it’s quite likely to be. We think.































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A sharp intake of breath

I had a really bad cold last year. It seemed to go on for weeks. I got what my doctor hesitated to call full-on pneumonia but she couldn’t think of anything else to call it. I had my ears syringed for the first time ever and I had ringing in my left ear afterwards. I went to Dorset trying to impress someone lovely with my hiking abilities which was slightly marred when she practically frog-marched me up a hill. And remained resolutely unimpressed, or at least she didn’t show it in a way I’d entertained.

My left ear has kept on ringing, or more accurately making a high-pitched whining noise but I teach so I’m used to that anyway. Two weeks ago it got really loud so I went to the doctor again. I thought she’d do much the same as my friend in Dorset; recommend neck massage, decline to do it herself and just be very nice. She didn’t. Instead, she sent me for an MRI scan to see if I have a brain tumour.

On Wednesday I still hadn’t heard when I was going to have this done after ten days so I rang the doctor. Odd, they said. It’s an urgent scan. I did the sharp intake of breath then. Phone the hospital. I did. They said it wasn’t urgent. At which point I had to put them right on some minor details. Like the fact I might have a disease which now that A Cabinet Minister has it will see attention and urgent something must be doning left right and centre. Given that Tessa Jowell’s government was quite keen on privatising the NHS and she seems keener on magical thinking and untrialled wonder drugs (wasn’t there an Austrian who did that too?) don’t expect anything much to change.

I phoned the doc again. It is urgent. We’ll email them now. I phoned the hospital and said I’d stay on the line until the email came in. It duly did seconds later. Oh yes. It is urgent. How about Saturday?

No four weeks, no rationed health service bullshit an American tried to tell me is normal in the UK on Facebook this week. Just the same as I’ve always experienced with the NHS: once something is flagged and it’s a dangerous thing they act fast and effectively. It’s always been the same with doctor’s appointments too in my not overly-funded rural area: if you need an appointment urgently then you get one. If you want an appointment that fits in with your lifestyle then you can obviously wait.

So I might have a brain tumour. And I might die within the foreseeable future rather than as an inevitable indeterminate abstract. My friends’ reactions, those I’ve told, have been mixed.

An ex is devastated and can hardly speak. My Dorset friend is taking her forthright view that there are lots of other things it could be. A friend in Spain is thinking of me. One in Portugal too, and making jokes to hide her shock. The biggest surprise was a very old friend who took the opportunity to launch into an attack on unspecified waste in the NHS, in her view substantiating this by recounting how she had to sit around Out-Patients with her son once.

I think she missed the point. If you’re in Out-Patients then you self-evidently are not a medical priority. I remember sitting there once, years ago, with a painful burn all one Sunday afternoon after I soldered my wrist to a car battery by wearing a metal-strapped wristwatch, which at least taught me to never wear plebian fashion ever again.

Today is Friday. A brilliant friend is driving me to the hospital tomorrow, in case it’s not great news, in which case she says I won’t feel like driving.

I don’t know what the news will be; that’s why we’re checking. But I do know that I won’t be charged a single penny for this scan. Not one. And if you want treatment free at the point of use, or you want to be bankrupted, then you need to ask specific questions and think very carefully next time you vote. Because one thing I do know from this. One day it will happen to you. As surely as the sun rises your sun will set for the last time. It really does toll for thee, and not a toll of the kind Jeremy Hunt thinks is a brilliant idea. You are not going to get out of this alive. How much do you want to pay first?


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A disc brake is a lovesome thing, God wot

Oh, it just IS, alright?

Just look at it. Someone stuck this on a lathe and literally turned a lump of base metal if not into a pearl, to stretch my Shakesperean metaphors, then into something beautiful and useful that can actually save your life.

Can you see it? I think they’re lovely.

Even more so as instead of costing £50+ each (obviously you need four of them on your car) these cost less than £9 each, direct from the manufacturer Unipart, not Stan’s CutNShut as I suspected when I first saw the price.

No, I don’t know why either. It makes no sense to me. I just said YES PLEASE very quickly indeed and they arrived today.



And if you half-recognised the quote the rest of it goes like this.

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot–
The veriest school
Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not–
Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign;
‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.

(I didn’t write it….)

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Living in the past

In Suffolk it’s always about 40 years ago, but for the past two days it’s been a lot more than that. There was a big storm. It woke me up before the alarm at ten to seven yesterday morning. It’s now seven pm the next day. The electricity has just come back on.

I live in the old brewhouse of a Georgian country house. Everything here is electric. There are no fireplaces in a brewhouse. Luckily, one of my things has been fire. I like making fires. I always have. Which also means I have lots of things to set light to things. No, I don’t know why either officer, but it’s been pretty useful, frankly.

For hot drinks (vital for boosting morale among the troops, skipper) I had my trust Kelly Kettle handy, which is essentially a double-skinned metal chimney. You put the water in the cavity aroujnd the chimney and light a fire at the bottom. It takes one Financial Times special report on engineering investment opportunities in Botswana to boil a litre of water. The only issue was that I had to do this outside, having no fireplace.

Quite a good incendiary bomb.

Heating food was another matter. I have used the firebox on the Kelly Kettle as a stove base, last April in Dorset and idyllic though it was, not something I wanted to repeat kneeling on gravel. I had two other options though, a hexamine stove and an antique Primus. If you have one of these, do yourself a favour and put it straight on Ebay so that someone else can stick a towel under the tap before their kitchen catches fire from the spray of burning biofuel. To be fair, it worked ok-ish on paraffin but I switched to something more environmentally-friendly. Which was a good idea until I became the endangered species. Junk it.

The hexy stove was at nominally safer. Issued by the gazillion to the German army under the name of the Esbit stove and to the British army as hexamine stoves, these burn little white tablets that burn smokelessly to not give away your position to the enemy for exactly seven minutes, enough time to just about boil a pint of water. Two tablets one after the other are enough to re-heat a family-sized amount of vegetable stew to boiling. It’s probably a very good idea not to touch the metal stove for a bit, I found.

Yeah, bye, Alladin….

So much for cooking and drinking. Lighting was another issue. I have a Tilly lamp but after the first pressurised paraffin incident I wanted to avoid another, quite urgently. Luckily I have two Bi-Alladin paraffin lamps. These would have been better if I had mantles for them but they cost about £20 each, so I don’t. Without them they burn dimly unless you turn the wick up high, in which case they guzzle fuel. The good corollary of this is they produce a lot of heat, which was frankly welcome.

Candles. Tea lights. A wind-up torch. One of those stupid headlamps (no, what are they actually FOR? Really?) Best of all, for Day One anyway, was my old paraffin lantern, taken off the boat for the winter.

Day Two wasn’t so good. I think maybe the wick had burned down and I made a hash of taking it apart to adjust it. More accurately, taking it apart, like the motorbikes I used to have, that was pretty easy; it was the getting it all back together so that it actually works that proved problematic.

All in all it was a good learning experience. It taught me that just because something looks good doesn’t mean it’s any good for you.  Admittedly, chosing slightly more partners on that basis in the past would have been a better idea but it’s not a perfect world. It taught me that simple solutions are the best solutions. And that I need to sort out off-grid electricity, at least for basics like lighting, as soon as I can.

Apart from candles (light, cheap, warming, nice ambience), people stopped using old things because they found better things. Not necessarily high-tech things. Just better thought out. Now all I need to do is shake the hexamine headache and I’ll be fine. The past is another country. They do things differently there. And a lot of the things they did were dim. Literally.


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Undead babies

Ok, I stole the title from Martin Amis. Me and Marty, we’re like that, you know (elaborately mimes two clenched hands)? But for all that, this actually happened. I didn’t dream it. And I have absolutely no explanation for it. It happened, as many of the most memorable things in my life, in Dorset. Specifically in Lyme Regis, or even more specifically, outside it in the Undercliff. Magical though it is, you can’t see much in there because it’s a ravine, so all the lovely seascapes you came there for are invisible most of the time, so we planned our walk to do both: walk out along the beach, then when we’d got fed-up falling over slippery rocks in the wrong shoes, cut up one of the streams leading off the cliff, find the Undercliff path and go home that way, preferably via the Volunteer.

Pond-hopping along the beach seemed hard work back then and I was really pleased to find it was just as hard when I went back last April, after far too long away. New boots, new coat, new someone I was with that day, but the same Lyme magic, the same sun sparkling off the blue water, the same smell of expectation and hope. It’s just a place that makes me happy, for all its oddness. And what happened was more than a bit odd.

We found some fossils because you can’t avoid it, but most of them, as always, are about three feet across and cemented into rocks that must weigh about a hundredweight so no point even trying to take them home, apart from the fact that I know zip about fossils and I never worked out what you’re actually supposed to do with them. It was Easter, but it’s Lyme, where the sun shines and we didn’t know much about the tides. We learned about them later in our lives and very nearly ended them, but that’s another story for another time.

We knew all the streams flowed down things called chines, little valleys which if they weren’t actually paths would let us scramble up into the Undercliff and find the path. Some of it was literally a scramble, so we did. About half-way up we met a group of people coming down.

It wasn’t imagination but they looked like something out of a Lidl advertisement: clean, long-limbed, Tuetonically athletic and casually blond. About seven of them, aged from late twenties to early sixties. We all said hello. From the back of their group, up the hill, they were passing things down to the bottom and being too far apart they were throwing the things to each other like rugby players cheating. Small packs, a blanket roll. Something else.

As it went past me I had a strange thought. When they’d gone I talked to my friend and asked her what the people had been throwing down to each other, passed by a six or ten foot throw, one to the other. She looked at me, worried. She asked me what I thought they’d been throwing, slightly disturbed, in that English oh-silly-me-it-couldn’t-possibly-be-but-I-thought way that people do when they’re actually seriously worried and don’t want to scare the person they’re talking to.

What we thought one of the things they were throwing, happily, confidently and practiced, down the cliff, one to another, was a baby. Even now, twenty years on, we’re both still sure it was.




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