I got it wrong

I used to shoot.  I’m not talking about an air rifle to deal with the rats that worried my chickens, nor even a shotgun to shoot clay pigeons. No. My deep, dark un-English secret was once not a secret and very English indeed.

Back in the Boer War that my great-grandfather went to, the British Army comprehensively lost (not something you’ll see in The Sun or pretty much anywhere else) in large part due to the fact they couldn’t shoot for toffee. A man called Lord Roberts decided that TrueBrits ought to be able to shoot, so in the early 1900s pretty much every town in the country suddenly found itself with a Rifle Hall and some with an outside rifle range as well. Just look at an old Ordnance Survey map. You will be surprised.

A long time later, despite how old I am now, aged fourteen I went along every Thursday to Trowbridge Rifle Club. It was held in the local Territorial Army centre in a town where soldiers from Warminster School of Infantry were forbidden to wear uniform in the shops in case they were targetted by the IRA. There was a six-wheeler Saracen kept in a shed behind the TA centre and if you don’t know what that is then I am very pleased for you. Times change for the better. You could see it through the cracks in the doors.

We had a pub called The Saracen, too.

Thinking about it now, there was probably an armoury somewhere in the building, but we’d brought our own guns. I was about to say they were all .22 rifles, the best of them being the BSA Martini-action rifles directly descended from the ones that didn’t do much good at Rorkes Drift, but some people brought along much more exotic fayre, .22 target pistols and the odd chrome-plated .38. Neither of which they were allowed to shoot in the basement range, but that wasn’t the point. It was the lure of the things.  What wasn’t totemic was the discipline around guns, which wasn’t optional or in any way advisory. As a kid you always knew someone close would have been very prepared to knock you to the floor if you’d started arsing around with a gun, loaded or not. I’m not justifying any of this. It was a long time ago. It was the way things were there and then.

I went to Israel after I left school and some things happened where a gun would have been a useful social tool. Pretty much everyone else was carrying one, from the IDF guys with 9mm Lugers stuffed in their waistband to the little family I recall at a beach, where the child was just about able to walk, Mummy looked dark and slinky and utterly stunning and Daddy had a big pistol kept in a replica US Cavalry holster hanging from a belt thrown over his shoulder as they strolled with an ice-cream, the way Daddies there do. Or did then, anyway. I haven’t been back.

My first job out of university was teaching kids to shoot on a camp by a lake in Wisconsin, in a summer of guns, Chevrolets, pine trees and an Indiana cheerleader called Nancy-Jean. I’m not even making this stuff up. By that time I already had, quite legally, after a tussle with Wiltshire Constabulary, my own Model 28 Smith & Wesson. It was nominally a .357 Magnum, but the recoil was as hard on the hand as the cost was on my wallet, so I normally made my own .38 Special cartridges using a punch and a mould on the kitchen worktop in Bath.

When I got my first job in London I spent my first pay cheque on a government surplus 1911A1, a .45ACP semi-automatic. According to the serial numbers it had been built in 1944, but at two different plants, the frame in one and the slide in another. Word on the street or at least in the gunshops you could then find in London (Trafalgar Square, Edgware Road, New Cross, Totteridge and I think another two if I can remember right) these had been languishing in an Israeli armoury since 1948 before being dumped on the market nearly 40 years later.

Dumped was about the word. It took hundreds of pounds to turn my Colt into a decent competition pistol. The magazine well was bevelled out so the magazine would load more easily, the sights replaced, the hammer shaved down so it didn’t nip the web of your hand, the backstrap replaced so make the grip more gripable, the barrel replaced with a Barstow one worth the name, the slide stop and magazine button made bigger and easier to use, the recoil spring replaced and a special retainer installed for it to make it all work more smoothly, before the frame was matte chromed and the slide re-blued and rubber Pachmayer grips wrapped around it. On top of the £200 or so I paid for it as-was, I think it probably cost something like £600+ to customise it.

It was only ever used where it was allowed to be used, on a licenced range, in competition and as I’d done before and would again, I won a few shooting competitions. Somewhere there’s still a little pewter cup I’ve never thrown away.

And then one day Hungerford happened and I didn’t so much want to be around shooting and then Dunblane happened and the government took my guns away. The Smith & Wesson had been sold years before. So had the Mossberg pump-action shotgun that I can’t now fathom what ever possessed me to buy, but there were two injustices, at least, about taking my Colt.

I have very little idea why I had this stuff. Nor so much of it.

Firstly, the original compensation was an arbitrary £150. I appealed and finally got the money I’d spent on it. More galling was a letter I got from my MP when I wrote to him, which said the confiscation was essentially so that the government could be seen to be doing something. They didn’t see fit to do anything about some seriously dodgy policing that played a large part in both the Hungeford and Dunblane massacres, where in the latter the senior officer who over-ruled police who had met Hamilton recommended he should never get a Firearms Certificate and the fact he was in the same lodge as the senior officer who oddly retired on the grounds of ill-health shortly after the last cartridge case hit the floor was never mentioned much again.

Nor were the allegations that Michael Ryan at Hungerford had a history of complaints about his behaviour that would usually disbar him from ever getting a Firearms Certificate, which he also got practically by return of post rather than the months the police usually dragged it out for. Nor was the serious allegation that while he ended-up shot, Michael Ryan didn’t shoot himself at all, not least by an obliging press that didn’t seem to think the coroner’s photos of his body needed seeing any more than the judge thought they did.

I was annoyed. I thought it would make no difference to armed crime at all. I went wholly along with the whole mantra, that bad people do bad things. A gun is only a tool. People kill people. The only gun control you need is a sharp eye and a steady hand.

And then somehow, without even meaning to, I grew up. I was totally wrong. If you take guns away, sure, people can still get them. But somehow they can’t get enough of them easily enough to walk down the High Street shooting people, or they’d have to make more effort to do it, or they’d have to talk to people, or all kinds of real-life obstacles to killing kids in a classroom in a couple of minutes.

Take the guns away. Nobody needs a 30 round magazine on a rifle however many deer they put on the table. Hardly anyone came back from WW11 and bought a Garand to put venison on the table. They’d seen what modern military weapons could do.

And so have we. And maybe that’s the issue. We’ve fetishised violence, from action movies to Presidents yelling about crusades to video and PC games where if we’re not peering up Lara Croft’s shorts we’re admiring the way she twirls her own brace of 45s. It’s dumb, it’s childish and it needs to stop. When I became a man I put away childish things. That included my guns.

 

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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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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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And there were no bananas

 

Once upon a time in a land long ago I used to read Viz, before the news made it indistinguishable from the laughable guff we’re daily told is really really true.

One of the characters in Viz was Mrs Brady Old Lady, whose conversation, alarmingly like mine, veered towards the past when she could hear at all, something that bothers me occasionally too. Mine isn’t just advanced age but what used to be called ‘Cocktail Party Deafness.’ Which means the little hairs inside my ear vibrate in such a way that although I can hear a phone ring three rooms away if there is no other sound, if more than one person is talking then I can’t make out their voice from all the other sounds. It’s very isolating and it varies, so people assume it’s selective. Mrs Brady however, used to talk about bananas a lot. Or rather, the lack of them. Thanks to U-boats, and the need to import things a little more central to the war effort than prickly fruit.

Scarce though bananas once were, 200 years before that pineapples were even more scarce. If you go to Cambridge and look up at the roof of Clare College, to Bath and look up at the roofs at The Circus, to Stow-On-The-Wold and walk down the hill to the west, to where there was once, even longer ago than when I lived there, an abortive attempt to build a spa town in the middle of the fields, the only remains now being one not-very-big stone house, you’ll see they’ve all got something in common. Pineapples on the roof.

Pineapple envy

That’s how scarce they were in the 1700s. Pineapple bling was the kind of thing the Beckhams would have gone in for, if Posh Spice could have born to wear an Empire line frock and Becks sported a tricorn hat. Pineapples said something about a person; chiefly ‘Loadsamoney!!’

That’s all it was about. ‘We have so much money that we can afford pineapples and we’re not afraid who knows it. We’ve actually got so much money we can put gold pineapples on the roof.’ Ok, everyone probably knew that it was only gold leaf on the rooftop pineapples, but still, they got the message.

 

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On a hostile shore

The story of Shingle Street has fascinated me for years. One man wrote three separate books about it, all proving to his satisfaction that nothing happened there. Or rather, that something didn’t happen there, the something being a German invasion repelled by fire in 1940.

Shingle Street strikes me as an unlikely place for a serious landing for a number of reasons, the biggest being that the nearest land across the Channel is 140 miles away. That’s a long way for any boat, even today, when it’s going to be shot at and harassed for the entire voyage by airplanes and any naval vessel going, At a respectable fifteen knots that’s still nine solid hours of sea crossing, a lot of it in daylight if the invasion was going to be in summer. And the logic continues; if the incoming invasion fleet couldn’t be harassed by the RAF or the Navy, then surely a shorter route would have been better anyway.

Apart from anything else, Shingle Street is exactly that. Shingle. Horrible stuff to walk on, let alone run and I would have thought almost useless as terrain for wheeled vehicles. Tanks might have an easier time of it, obviously.

The other issue is simply where it is: on a peninsula. Any glance at a map shows how easy it is to isolate the place. Once ashore the river Alde acts as a partial natural block to the north; both the Deben and the Orwell effectively block a breakout to the south. Not a half mile away a deep water course blocks egress to the nearest road. Crossed by a bridge, its guarded by a rare WW1 pill-box which though far from impregnable (like the even more rare 1940 two-man cast-iron pillbox in a hedge a few miles to the north) would have been an ideal place from which to blow the bridge.

And yet two things come to mind. A military friend told me about the importance of Caen to the Allies in 1944, as important as Antwerp, simply because if you need to get men and vehicles and munitions ashore in big numbers quickly then the thing you need is a dock. Ipswich may have turned into the same heap of rubble Caen was reduced to if there had been a real invasion at Shingle Street. The other is that since Napoleon’s time, the military has clearly thought something was going to kick off on this lonely, isolated strand. There are not one or three or four but five Martello towers in a two-mile sentry line down to Bawdsey.

And Bawdsey was where the crucial Home Chain radar was tested and centred on, the sheds full of boffins that the Graf Zeppelin came and parked itself over for a while, back before the war for reasons that were, as Hunter Thompson used to say, never made clear. But I think we can guess they knew something was going on and wanted to make a point: that they knew. And that the last time there were Zeppelins over Suffolk people got killed.

But  I still don’t know. I need to talk to someone in the army. If you know anyone who is and who wouldn’t mind being interviewed, get in touch.

 

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Reeling in the years

For the past fortnight I’ve been teaching on a film set. The law, it’s thought, says that if you’re under sixteen you have to have three hours of education per day, or no ten year-old actress on set. And in this case, that means no film. So me.

For once, living on the edge of a haunted airfield in the middle of nowhere is a desirable attribute, especially given that it takes me just twenty minutes of idling along country lanes to get to the most remote location on the edge of the country, where the road ends pointing its finger towards Holland.

We had a go at some Maths I couldn’t do and did some reading and writing and times tables, as much as we could with too much hot chocolate available. I had a look over the email her day-school teacher had sent. It said there was scant regard for number place, which simply isn’t true. Or it isn’t true now, anyway. She read some of the Short Shakespeares, starting with Midsummer Night and got bogged down in the utterly lovely Twelfth Night.

A ten-year-old can now write a 1,000 word story. Her spelling leaves something to be desired in the first draft, and there is far too much…..punctuation in the modern stylee especially when it comes to recorded speech. A very little of her grammar is Estuary, but there hasn’t been much time to correct this given the other stuff what we done.

We read Sredni Vashtar, the fantastic tale about the sickly boy whose pet ferret kills his aunt. Comprehension: 100%. Eyes like saucers. And I did a pretty darned good reading, though I says it as what shouldn’t myself and that.  I somehow don’t think her school had touched Saki. They ought.

The only time we had a bit of a falling out was over Modern European History, as well we might. I know it’s supposed to start at 1945, but that’s impossible. If you start at 1945 then there’s no accounting for the USSR at all, not unless you go back to at least 1917, so you might as well start at 1914. The fact that the Queen’s family name was Saxe-Coburg Gotha came as an alarming surprise.

“Do you mean the Queen is actually….German?”

Well, her family was. And her husband was born in Greece. And George I was so adamantly German, and the King, that he could never see why he should bother to learn English, which is probably why so many English words borrow so heavily from German to this day.

So the October Revolution because the Czar’s army was a bit fed-up being asked to run at the enemy shouting in the hope that they could get guns from the dead enemy. If there were any of the Czar’s army left. A tactic that their own sons would be forced to adopt twenty-odd years later with their new political rulers’ guns pointing at their backs. Don’t take my word for it, ask Guy Sajer, a Frenchman who was there shooting at them from the front. And the division of Europe and the Iron Curtain, and the first meeting of the UN being in the Methodist Hall opposite the Houses of Parliament in 1946, but first Yalta in 1942, but before that the Non-Aggression Pact and the Danzig Corridor then not one atom bomb but two and Burgess, Philby and Maclean and Blunt and Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall and Michael Caine and EOKA and India and Pakistan and the Fall of Empire, which my own school never even acknowledged as actually having ever happened, and here we are at Bentwaters airbase, the site of the Rendlesham Forest UFO mystery, which was to have been a front-line airfield when the Russain tanks rolled across Northern Europe again and BAOR and BFPO 52 and the soldiers didn’t come home and refugees and….. I had to stop there on the board, because I’d run out of board for my timeline, which had loops and arrows and inserts where I’d had to put in the Great Depression and Five Year Plans and the pub Lenin used to drink in off City Road.

I had to stop there on the board, because I’d run out of board for my timeline, which had loops and arrows and inserts where I’d had to put in the Great Depression and Five Year Plans and the pub Lenin used to drink in off City Road.

I thought of watching Dr Strangelove and sketched in how utterly magically, Werner von Braun who was responsible for tens of thousands of people’s deaths, dead in the rubble of London, evaporated into nothingness when his V2 hit Highbury Corner and cinemas and fields and tens of thousands more slave labourers forced to build the rocket launch sites and the uncounted thousands more buried alive when the RAF blew the underground facilities to pieces, quite surprisingly, given a man on the radio ended up dancing the Newgate jig, Werner von Braun was suddenly officially Not A Nazi At All by the time he got to Houston. Apparently it was all a bit of a misunderstanding but hey, people make mistakes and would he like to build a much, much bigger rocket, with this crazy new thang called radio telemetry and we could call it, maybe not the V3, but Saturn V. It’s got a nice ring to it, nein?

When I came in the next morning the board had been wiped clean. I asked who had done it. No answers. Nobody saw anything. Then my tiny actress appeared. She’d done it. No sorry. It was a mess. History was all over the place, so it had to go. It was really irritating. She said she was OCD.

I asked how come she was surrounded by empty water bottles and a crisp packet on the floor, none of which were mine, but apparently that doesn’t count. It’s history. It’s really messy stuff. And I have to agree.

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A long time dying

This is the second blog post with something about dying in the title. I don’t want to do it and although one day I’m obviously not going to get out of it, that isn’t today or any day I’ve got planned. No thanks to the GPs at Leiston surgery in Suffolk, who felt that if I only bucked up and stopped moping about dying they could get on with whatever else it was they were doing when they couldn’t be arsed to give me a blood test.

If they had it would have found something I thought I had, on the basis of no evidence other than a word in my head since I was fourteen. Thrombosis. A blood clot. Mine was a rare one, in the iliac vein.

The iliac vein is a big one. It goes up your left leg and crosses over your spine, just about at the back of your belly button. Your femoral artery crosses over it in front. If you fly for more than an hour you ought to read the next bit carefully.

When I was in the womb my iliac vein grew curled around my femoral artery. When I got on an airplane and we went up through the clouds my artery expanded, as arteries do. Hugely. I’ve seen it on close circuit TV. I don’t recommend this and nor does any doctor I ever met. It gives you nightmares for a week. But I didn’t know that then. Just the way I didn’t know my own blood in my artery was crimping my iliac vein tight shut against my spine.

When blood stops flowing it clots. Mine clots fast. Cuts that other people have for a while disappear on me. A couple of seconds of pressure on a cut finger on me and it stops bleeding. Inside me, a big blood clot grew. A deep vein thrombosis.

These aren’t fun. Apart from messing you up when they’re stopped, slowing your circulation right down, the much more dramatic danger starts if they begin to move. Veins bring blood back to the heart, via the lungs. If you get a lump of blood stuffed into your lung, just like a bullet, by the time it’s stopped ripping things up you can be unhappily drowning in your own blood.

If it goes through your lung to your heart the fun just multiplies. The ‘Out” side of your heart has smaller holes than the “In” side. Your blood clot will go through your heart and jam in the exit holes, blocking the artery. Your heart is only designed to do one thing though and that’s pump. Which it will keep on doing until you die. Unfortunately, if your artery is blocked that might not be a very long time coming, because as any Mech. Eng. knows, fluid doesn’t compress. Your heart will keep pumping blood but there won’t be anywhere for it to go. Until it rips holes in your heart, after which it will go everywhere, unlike you.

But that might not happen. Your travelling thrombosis might slide right through your heart, through the artery and go on up into your brain. If you think you had problems before then you didn’t know what a problem really was. With the other stuff you die. Quite painfully and hopelessly, true, but at least quite quickly and nothing much else happens to you. A blocked artery in your brain though, that’s a whole new barrel of evil kittens.

I didn’t want a stroke. I didn’t want to have to learn how to eat with a spoon or shout abuse at the sound of my own name or have someone clean up after me more than our paid cleaner already did when she didn’t skive out of cleaning by standing very, very close to me and smiling a lot while she talked to me for two hours, an arrangement which suited us both at the time.

I didn’t want any of this. And I didn’t want to go on living the life I remembered my mother’s family living, or several of the older males anyway, sat in chairs inside in summer, sleeveless jumpers on, next to a roaring coal fire. Eleven years ago this year I knew exactly how they felt. They got fat and blocky because every time they moved their joints hurt and because they didn’t move their circulation got worse and they got fatter. And colder. And on, more and more miserably, uncomprehendingly on. I thought it was normal. I thought that’s what happens when you get older. When you have a congenital medical condition, it is. They didn’t

I thought it was normal. I thought that’s what happens when you get older. When you have a congenital medical condition, it is. They didn’t know what it was before they died uncomfortably. I do. And I find it very, very hard to forgive a GP surgery that took three years of my life because they simply couldn’t be bothered to do a blood test.

 

 

 

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When I was dying

I have to credit the amazing-notwithstanding-that-it’s-true title to a friend. She had pneumonia and because she smoked and I think because a lot of different reasons, she thought she had something else. It didn’t matter. It didn’t hurt. There was just no energy. Just every day the light burned a little lower.

I had it once, about a year and a half ago. I can’t remember anything much of that time, apart from being cold and having no energy and the light seemed strange all the time. Yellow. I wrote an entire screenplay in two weeks, the most productive two weeks I’ve ever had, despite that I was ill.

That wasn’t the time I was dying. That was eleven years ago this January past. The fact that I didn’t die had nothing to do with the incompetence, penny pinching and venality of the GPs at Leiston surgery in Suffolk and everything to do with the genius of my surgeons at Ispwich General, which isn’t a phrase I thought I’d ever be using.

I knew something was wrong. I felt old and cold and slow all the time. My joints hurt and there was something wrong with my feet. For three whole years it got worse, until I was wearing a sweater deep into the summer and two sweaters and the heating on at my desk in September. I just thought it was what happened as you got older. The vomiting was unusual, I thought. Every so often, maybe every three or five or seven weeks or so, I’d be hit with a pain inside me so huge that it dropped me to my knees vomiting. Ten minutes later I was fine. Shaken, but fine. I thought for a while I might be losing my mind. It made no sense.

I went to the doctor. The word thrombosis had been going through my head for years and I don’t know why to this day. Nobody in my family had ever had one, to my knowledge. I was just over forty. I was suddenly flying long-haul quite a bit, but I had my stupid flight socks and drank water and did all the exercises you’re told to. And still I’d wake up five miles high and know I was dying. A flight from Miami to Limassol via London in Business Class was one of the worst of my life. No amount of free champagne and luxury bedding got rid of the feeling that the sand was running out and most of it was already gone.

The first doctor felt my calves, because in Suffolk that’s apparently how you look for a thrombosis. He didn’t find one but said sometimes doctors never find out what’s wrong with people. Next please.

I tried another doctor after he suddenly retired with a mental illness. This one was a female army doctor. Nothing wrong with you if you can cycle twenty miles, I was told. Buck up.

But I didn’t. The next GP decided to test for testicular cancer. It’s the fashion, apparently. If you’re under 25 anyway. And the doctor gets a little sub for testing for it. Flattering though it was to be mistaken for a slip of a lad albeit one with wonky balls, that still didn’t explain the cold, the joint pain, the vomiting. Who cares? Next please.

By the third December I thought my life had gone on quite long enough if it was going to go on like this. I remember cycling out on an errand and taking a short cut back across a field. I wasn’t sure where I was exactly, the light was fading, my fet were soaked and cold and my ankles hurt and I did not want any more of this. I stopped in the middle of the field for a while, but moved on again. I didn’t want to stay in the field. I didn’t want to be anywhere.

A few days later we went to Portugal. It was nothing. I was cold, sick, hurting and felt alone, the way I felt almost all of that time, which was hard on the person who was there with me throughout. When we got back I drove us to Wales to stay in a cottage with relatives. I recall the drive through the dark. I remember walking on a wet beach. I remember driving back and being dropped to my knees with pain tearing me apart in a car park, somewhere I will never see again. And as always, ten minutes later the pain had gone. Just the memory of it stayed.

A few days after we got back the nightmares started. I got practically no rest for three nights. The fourth night I woke from a nightmare to go to the bathroom and found my left leg hurt incredibly as soon as it touched the floor. I thought I must have been lying oddly. I thought it would be ok.

When I woke in the morning it still hurt. More. My left leg was about a third bigger than my right leg and the colour of a raspberry. My partner called the doctor, the same doctor who had been insisting there was nothing wrong and it was probably all in my head. Even he had to admit there was a problem now.

I went to hospital by taxi because it was quicker than getting an ambulance out to me in the remote corner of the world I live in. The boy doctor in Casualty was scared witless. He arranged a scan immediately, the thing I’d been asking my rubbish GPs for, because I thought I had DVT – Deep Vein Thrombosis. The boy doctor told me my situation was, as he put it quietly, ‘grave.’ I had been telling his colleagues that for three years.

There was a simple blood test that diagnosed DVT at the time. It cost 80p to administer, but the reason Leiston surgery said they didn’t want to use it was because it sometimes gave false positives. In other words, it told some people they had DVT when they didn’t. If that happened they’d have an ultrasound scan, the kind I was having now.

It turned out I didn’t have a DVT. I had either three Guinness Book of Records DVTs or five massive DVTs. Either way they couldn’t really work out how I wasn’t dead. I didn’t say I’d been there and got the T-shirt. It just felt like that anyway.

I was lucky to find a brilliant surgeon on my ward who gave me a choce: join my experiment or go on Warfarin/Couperin for the rest of your life. Which he said would probably be about ten years because after that on Warfarin you’re quite likely to uncontrollably haemorrhage one day. No choice.

The tale of how I got stented can wait for another day.  It didn’t hurt then and unless I get really tired, or get a bad cold, or both, as now, it doesn’t hurt at all. When I have a cold and get tired it hurts in a way painkillers won’t even touch. But at least I’m not dying now. Although, like my friend, I remember when I was.

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He never touched my dicky

We watched Withnail and I today in class. I meant it to be a full visual equivalent of a textual analysis, but I’m not convinced it worked as an exercise. The key points (‘Bring us the finest wines known to humanity/Are you the farmer?/Flowers – tarts! Prostitutes for the bees!/We’ve gone on holiday by mistake/I called him a ponce and now I’m calling you one./I’ve only had a few ales…“) might have had me stuffing a scarf in my mouth to stop from screaming with laughter, but it wasn’t laughter shared with my group, for once. Maybe it escaped them. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe – frighteningly –  it’s an age thing.

When I wasn’t laughing I was smiling in memory. The scene where the ludicrous Uncle Monty visits the cottage in pursuit of the narrator, gulled by Withnail into thinking he’s on a promise always reminds me fondly of a place and a person I used to go to a lot, down in Dorset. A house full of good food, happy disorder and it has to be said, lots and lots of wine. But more importantly, sunshine and words tumbling out of all of us, ideas and jokes and stories and the easy, so easy obligation to entertain, above all else, whatever else we could contribute. Say anything, so long as it was entertaining and not hurtful or unkind. Withnail, for me, is a love song to that time, a place rediscovered sometimes when I visit and always happily recalled.

Before that, we ran through Mr Wu. Now ok, a Chinese friend of mine hates this song. Intensely. Not for any casual racism, because there isn’t any in it. Mr Wu scorching George’s best shirt isn’t anything to do with him being Chinese and everything to do with him being in luuuurve, a condition which apparently smote Mr Formby quite regularly.

And the joke, apart from the irritating little cod-Chinese musical coda that’s been used ever since The Mikado, and for all I know before that? As usual, George used innocuous words you could happily say to your granny. It was the words he didn’t use that made the joke.

Now Mr. Wu, he’s got a naughty eye that flickers, you ought to see it wobble when he’s ironing ladies’ blouses.

He does the same again when he mentions that Mr Wu has a laundry kind of tricky, he’ll starch my shirts and collars but he’ll never touch my waistcoat. To get that one you probably need to know that stiff, starched formal waistcoats to wear with a dinner suit used to be called dickies. But once you do you can’t listen to the song without laughing. I can’t anyway. 

Should I be giving my kids a thorough grounding in 1930s smut, the kind of thing that had my mother foaming at the mouth? Given that five Formby songs taught one class 127 new words once, I think so. We’ll see tomorrow.

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