Calling home

It took four years to win the Inmarsat account. But we did win it in my other life, when I was a researcher/analyst. We did something nobody else had ever managed to do and when St Peter asks me why I should be let in, I’ll be able to say something very few people can. I helped 800,000 people make a phone call.

Way back but not so long ago that I can’t remember, someone at Inmarsat, then an NGO which owned all the satellites that let ships talk to the rest of the world, had an idea. Maybe, he thought, maybe the crew would like to make a phone call now and again. Maybe they’d like to phone their mum or their wife or their girlfriend, that kind of thing? He wondered how much they were spending on phone calls. And he accidentally got me in the FT and made me famous enough for people to recognise me at conferences in Australia, quite a long way from here. It was a suddenly different world.

I thought about it today because I was looking for some data to practice some pivot tables. We didn’t have them back then when the research was done. We put interviewers physically onto ships in Southampton and Singapore, after ruling out Baltimore and a host of other locations either because they duplicated (ie the ships at Southampton mostly went to the other port as well) or they were too complex and hostile to get into. At Baltimore for example, every single wharf was owned by a separate company; there was no way we could get onto enough ships in time.

Singapore was hostile enough. The entire interview crew managed to get themselves arrested as stowaways there, which is no mean feat for middle-aged, middle-class English ladies with clipboards. We’d trained them well. On every ship they went to they were told to get specific permission from the captain, no matter that we already had permission from the owner via the agent. They went onboard and asked where he was.

The tradition at the time and presumably still is that if the captain’s cabin door is open you can go in and if not, not. But it was open so they did. The captain was in his cabin. Sadly  he was entertaining a newly-acquired friend fairly vigourously and called for the ship’s Mate who was told to get rid of the interviewers pronto. In fact, get them arrested. The Mate asked what for? The captain said the first thing that came into his head, his mind being on other things. Stowaways. The Mate went away and came back quite quickly. The interviewers weren’t reassured by the fact he was now carrying a rusty Sten gun dug up from some totally illegal hiding place in the bilges, which he prodded them in the back with all the way down the gangplank. The Docks police had had a call that something was going on, drove up and arrested the ‘stowaways.’

It all turned out alright in the end. But it’s about time I wrote it all up.

 

 

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It tolls for thee

This week’s earth-shattering event wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn finally getting it into his head that opposing the government might be a way to win some votes, or Michael Gove pretending that banning plastic straws was something he could do to save the world if only that pesky EU wasn’t stopping him, dang nabbit. Oh no.

It was the death of Nic Grundy.  Who never existed. For those few beyond the Pale who don’t know, the Grundy family are the local yokels in BBC Radio 4’s hardy perennial drama The Archers, billed as an everyday story of country folk. It’s markedly light on things like incest and racism compared to every country village I’ve lived in, where I’ve heard the district nurse insisting that two local families hadn’t managed to get out enough on a Saturday night in her professional opinion. But as radio drama goes, it does, every evening after the seven o’clock news and a marathon collation on Sunday for the weekly worship. Clary and Eddie begat Wiwyum and Edwurd and Wiwyum shacked up with Emmer. Except she got very bored very fast and one Christmas took up with Edwurd while Wiwyum was off to the shops, so far as I could gather. I’m going to stop the voices now because it’s getting silly. Er.

After a breakdown William took up with Nicola, whose name was obviously shortened to Nic who this week cut her arm on an old picture frame and shortly thereafter died. Several people online claimed, with a straight face, that they were in mourning. Not ‘moved by the drama.’ Not ‘touched’ but ‘in mourning. Not for 300,000 people being homeless. Not for 100,000 people dying unnecessarily in the UK thanks to government spending cuts according to the UN, but because a minor character in a radio soap has been written out. The words ‘moral compass’ seem a bit pointless some days.

The character died of sepsis. And dear reader, it could have happened to me. It did to my great-uncle. After a lifetime of messing about with bits of metal one day he got a bit of swarf stuck under his fingernail. It can’t possibly have been the first time he got cut by a piece of metal but it proved to be the last. He got what was called then ‘blood poisoning’ and died in short order.

Because of that I’d always made sure my tetanus shots were up to date, thinking that would fully protect me from anything I might catch from a cut. I reasoned that my office wasn’t exactly the most hostile environment. I was wrong on the first count. Tetanus is a rare bacterial infection, potentially fatal but not, as I’d assumed, the only one going. I cut my right index finger on something. I couldn’t even remember what it was. It was a bit stiff the next day, so I cleaned the wound and slapped some disinfectant on it and a new plaster. It was worse the next day. My finger was swollen. The day after I couldn’t type well at all and my finger was a different colour as well as being swollen and painful.

I was lucky enough to work in the same office as a pharmacist. When he saw it he told me to get to a doctor that day, now, get out of here, unless I wanted to maybe lose my finger or maybe lose my life. I did.

I got a huge dose af antibiotics, promised faithfully to finish the course of tablets and within three days my finger was pretty much back to normal and in a week I couldn’t see any real difference between that finger and any other ones I have.

Sepsis can kill you in days. But I’d have more sympathy for people mourning a fictional radio character if they ever spared a thought for Biggles, Algy and Ginger as they languish in a care home.

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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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Mixed messages

When I left the hospital on Saturday they told me it would be two to three weeks before I got the results of my MRI scan. Tessa Jowell was on the news last week. She has a brain tumour. She was saying how they can grow 1 cm in a month. This is not something you want to happen inside your head. It isn’t designed with much spare space in there. If things like golf balls start growing, it isn’t long before they push other things out of the way. You’ll notice when you start screaming or your left arm stops working, or you fall over a lot or go blind. This is why an MRI scan is quite a good idea.

Given the 1cm a month thing, waiting 3 weeks to be told ‘ah ok, yes, you do actually have a brain tumour and it’s now 7.5mm bigger than it was when we did the scan’ isn’t something to comtemplate calmly. I rang the doctors on Monday.

We chatted about how no problem the MRI scan was. I did my little joke about Kraftwerk to show how I wasn’t afraid and the person at the doctors laughed politely, which is quite easy to do when nobody’s told you that you might have a brain tumour. It was 11:01 am, because the doctors’ never gets results before 11. I thought those 60 seconds were a decent interval.

The docs hadn’t got any results. They still say the scan was urgent, even though the hospital filed it under not. They thought maybe the hospital downgraded it, but how they could before they did the scan wasn’t explained. Thursday. If I don’t hear anything by Thursday call the doc and they’ll chase the results, but they thought that if the scan had showed I had something the size of a grapefruit stuck inside my cranial cavity then the results would have come pretty fast.

I don’t know. I’m getting odd popping noises in both ears now, and I’ve got a bunged-up nose. The noise in my left ear is still there, as it has been for a year, but it isn’t as loud as it was. I think this is far more to do with some inner ear infection than a brain tumour. And the tossing and turning all through last night in bed was due to the fact the moon was full. I knew it was going to be a hag-ridden night when I saw the moon white above the trees at four in the afternoon, when I went out for a walk. I’d put a courgette and lentil and aubergine stew on low. When I got back at half past five with the owls hooting the stew was perfect. I hope I don’t have a brain tumour. I probably dont. But I don’t know.

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Kling klang muzik

If you like Kraftwerk you’ll love an MRI scan.

I had mine today to see if I’ve just got tinnitus or a brain tumour. After making sure I wasn’t sneaking bits of metal into the scanner I got a calming chat to make sure I didn’t freak out in there. You get earplugs to put in your ears and headphones to put over them.

“It can be a bit noisy,” the guy said, but what else he said I don’t know, as I told him, because I’ve got these ear plugs and headphones over them, just like you told me….

There’s a bit of vibration. If you don’t like being in confined spaces then just shut your eyes and it won’t bother you. I very nearly fell asleep. I just don’t understand what the fuss is about.

Now the wait for the results. The hospital told me three weeks which makes no sense as this was an urgent scan and it’s been done. I’m phoning the surgery on Monday.

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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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Reeling in the years

When I was a kid we periodically had no money. Oh, how times change! One of the things then that made life more inconvenient was cars. Specifically, the way they’d fall apart.

Rust was the big killer. It killed a Morris Minor we had, that a scrap man took away and put £1 through the letter box. We thought we might have to pay him. My 14 year-old infatuation with a beautiful Fiat was sensibly sidelined, as Fiats lasted about 20 minutes back then. My first VW Beetle had a hole through the door. A friend’s Peugeot had a hole in the floor you could put your feet through, although it wasn’t recommended. Household monthly budgets would have a similar sized hole driven straight through them when MoT time came and the word ‘sills’ conveyed an almost supernatural dread.

Probably the best.

It was MoT time for my lovely old Saab this week. Or in fact it wasn’t, not until 27th, but as the car’s somehow inexplicably alarmingly 18 years old this year I got the MoT done three weeks early just in case. It was just as well I did.

I replied to some email that came to me from I know not where. It promised that my MoT would be done for £20, not £35. That someone would come and pick my car up from my house and test it and bring it back.

That if anything needed doing they’d phone me before the test, in case I decided that at that age it just wasn’t worth doing. But at that age, at my age, I discovered that I don’t know anything about cars and their ages any more.

A friend’s BMW just died. Literally. It was about eight years old and I quite coveted it, but a month or so ago she switched on, drove down the lane and found that after two hundred yards there just wasn’t any engine. The cam chain had snapped, because someone clever had decided that they shouldn’t use cam chains but cam belts instead, that instead of lasting the life of the car, pretty much last just about 40,000 miles or four years, after which you’re on borrowed time. She got a couple of hundred from a garage which claimed it was doing her a favour. I don’t know if they said ‘luv,’ as well.

And it makes no sense. Cars used to have a life of about six years before they were in falling to bits zone. Rust killed them. Now that it doesn’t, engine life seems to match the useful span of an Austin Allegro. Except on cars as old as the Saab, which still have steel chains doing the business.

The internet garage as I think of them, had a surprise for me. Emissions, guv. Old, innit? Two litre turbo annat. Failed on emissions. Prolly yer catalytic converter. Could be yer fuel injectors but I reckon iss the injector. £650 guv. Plus the VAT acourse. Want us to get on and do it this afternoon?

Oddly, no, I didn’t. I didn’t really know what to do, not least as the garage told me that ‘the law’s changed’ and if a car fails its MoT now, it’s failed. My cunning plan to use the spare three weeks wouldn’t work. I was stuffed, stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a piece of scrap metal. Except it was all a lie.

After I’d calmed down and decided not to lie in the A12 on a dark night I checked online to see a way around the ‘grey area;’ I was told now surrounded the MoT. And it’s what garages used to call total bollocks. The idea that you can’t drive a faield MoT car is true enough, but the old MoT is valid until it would have expired by date, not duie to whatever else has happened. It’s on the government’s own website, clear as day.

As for the catalytic converter. £130 on Ebay, £120 to fit it and we’re back in business. Almost. The Saab failed the re-test back at my proper garage in the next village, after they’d bolted on the new catalytic converter and surprised themselves and me with a reading that implies the government ought to be paying me for cleaning the air each time I start the engine.

There was a hole in the rear wheel arch, inside. Now, I know it’s muddy and around here there’s pretty much no point cleaning your car until March, what with silage, mud, ice, suicidal pheasant and this week kamikase hares littered around the lanes. But it’s a pretty major part of the MoT test. Sills, guv. Another day, £150 cash, with no funny forms and percentages to do and the lovely walnut dashboard reflects my less-worried face again.

Next the brakes. And Ebay again, sourcing £50 discs for a ludicrous £8.33 each, proper Unipart ones, for reasons unclear to me and which astonishes the garage. But that’s the thing about living in an old-fashioned place. You can talk to people and they’re quite happy to share the work you can do with the work they can do. I’ve got a knack for finding things (not like that, officer). They’re just nice and they do that rare thing now: what they say they’re going to do, when they say they’re going to do it.

So cue up the Springsteen car songs, push the button to roll the hood down (yes of course I’ve had the hood down this year. Last weekend in fact, at the request of a friend’s young son and his mate, back from football. Yes obviously we froze. It’s January) and try not to imagine another friend’s description of an encounter she had in the back of one of these.

Try not to imagine because she’s tall and there’s no room in the back. And because it wasn’t my car. And most of all because it makes me inexplicably jealous. But that’s another story altogether and besides, the wench is nowhere near dead.

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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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