Tuesday, 20 December 2011




This disappointing follow up to Borat was on TV so I watched it out of lethargy and with slight voyeurism; I knew there would be endless gratuitous nudity and Sacha Baron Cohen, famous for his green “mankini” is an attractive man.
I was well punished. The first half of the film was a slow ramble around unpleasant permutations of anal sex. We even saw him having his anus bleached, some poor woman in an overall labouring away at his back end.
I struggled to think myself into the joke, it took effort but the joke was there – ghastly Bruno has an obsession with be coming famous. Everything in the plot was geared to that simple story. We were in for a little parable about modern folly.
From about the middle the film got better, and faster, as Bruno reached America and began hitting numerous US targets; stage mums who would sacrifice their children’s safety to get them into a film, any film, a gullible black American TV audience were outraged that he appeared to have adopted a black childe, he even became a recruit in the US army, and regaled his horrified homophobic comrades with gay banter. Whatever you think of him, Cohen is certainly fearless, death defying when he gave cheek to a twitchy middle-eastern war lord.
I realised that Cohen is really Roger Cook all over again. I was watching the Cook Report, with added depravity and visceral hatred. In Borat, Cohen visited and lampooned the peasant villagers who helped to murder his relations during the war. That film was the most ruthless riposte to the Holocaust I’ve seen. Bruno is at the revenge game again; a detestable Aryan who by being gay is also a victim, Cohen uses him to torment people he sees as dangerously oppressive; bigoted blacks, stupid women, evangelical Christians, bone-headed soldiers and American red necks.
Bruno makes constant references to Hitler, which his victims naturally don’t recognise, and as a puppet of Cohen the supposedly gentle Bruno is fuelled by loathing. It’s a pity he can’t get himself transported back to the Third Reich, where he would undoubtedly get right up Hitler’s fat nose and one can only imagine what he would do with his neurasthenic henchmen.
Despite Bruno’s reckless adventures I didn’t learn anything new or get many laughs from the film, but I wasn’t meant to. It was made by and entirely for the delight of Sacha Baron Cohen. It was a tonic to see someone enjoying himself so much.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The state we're in


The strange idea of making the ugliest towns in the UK, “shit towns,” as one author put it, into cities goes on. Wolverhampton was thus adorned recently, and still looks pretty much the same despite this fairy dust. Beautiful and picturesque contenders such as Luton, Croydon, Medway, Southend and Blackpool, are hoping to be chosen in the Queen’s diamond jubilee year, and other elements have caught on to this strange egregious trend.
Lutfur Rahman the ambitious Mayor of Tower Hamlets is trying to get his area of east London turned into a separate city, or more I suspect into full secession from the rest of the UK.
He has just persuaded the Mayor of Philadelphia, the aptly named, Michael A Nutter, to write to the Queen praising the borough’s (non-Islamic) heritage because the Liberty Bell was cast there in 1752.
This is all a little worrying to those of us who still see London, “flower of cities all,” as one entity although sprawling badly, and wonder how part of a city can be hived off to make another city.
Of course over here we all know that the idea is for Lutfur Rahman to extend his power over what has become his own Islamic fiefdom. But do his American friends know this?
As so often seems to happen the Americans are well meaning but naïve – and one has to ask again, why can’t they read up a few facts on a place before they go and start messing with it?
M A Nutter looks as if he might belong to the Nation of Islam brotherhood himself, but whether he does or not I doubt if he has ever read Private Eye’s accounts of Rahman’s greed, his gross spending on his own office, worse than any MP would risk these days. Or worse still newspaper reports on the state of things inside the Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets.
In April a woman was prevented from working in a pharmacy because she wasn’t fully veiled. There has been a prolonged, violent attempt to turn this part of London into a “gay free zone.” Adverts showing women in skimpy clothing are banned. There are constant calls for Sharia and the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation says that Tower Hamlets is ruled by “Talibanist thugs.”
Last year there was an organised protest against Christmas, calling it “Evil.” Extremists in Tower Hamlets say they are going to “take the fight to the enemy.” That’s us and moderate Muslims.
If they get city status, over the other ugly contenders, it will be an interesting place to visit, probably with its own strict dress-code, passport and currency. The government would never be daft enough to allow it – would they??

Friday, 16 December 2011

The run up

Friday 16th December. 2011

Racing around, writing cards, wrapping, wrapping, wrapping, finding gift tags, sticking on old ones that I've had in the bottom of the wardrobe since the 1970s, sending out cards in reply to cards from people who weren’t on my list, giving out gifts and going out every night.

I bought myself some Dover sole a few days ago and haven’t been home enough to eat them – that is how I like my life to be.

This run up to Xmas is almost the best bit, an exhausting, breathless canter up to Midnight Mass, the big lunch, and then – what? I used to go into mourning for Christmas Day for about three weeks after but I have come to like the tranquillity of Boxing Day, which shows how old I am.

I was busy wrapping the last few presents whilst listening to a Radio 4 play about the founding of the EU after the war, as an iron and steel agreement, by someone appropriately named Jean Monnet, who wanted economic integration as a way to avoid future war, ie to stop Germany attacking France yet again.

During the play he implied that Britain had let France down during the war and was making unreasonable demands. Ces't plus change or whatever. Quite interesting but shameless propaganda from the BBC who must think we listeners are gullible fools.

Also to my delight today realised that the “bendy bus” has really gone. Not only did D Cameron go to Europe and do something to please the British public, but the mayor has also done what he said he would, and given us back something that looks like a real British bus.

Public transport which shifted from convenience to coercion, has now budged back to something on a recognisable human scale; in memory of the old London bus, these new ones are short, square, double decked, you are not allowed to jump on and off, but at least all the seats face the same way. No more of that horrible forced social engineering when passengers had to sit eye-balling each other. that was fun for psychopaths but tedious for the rest of us.

The 207 to Shepherd’s Bush was a kind of nightmare but now I no longer have to look directly into the ghastly faces of people from my worst nightmares, and they no longer have to look at me.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

And Statistics

On Monday 12th after a weekend of entertainment and entertaining, I got the results of my three monthly blood test.

Before I went in to see the doctor, I sat in the clinic praying; please don’t let my CA125 go up. I was aware that this was a pretty hopeless prayer, as the test was in, for better or worse.

I remembered Rabbi Lionel Blue recently saying bleakly, “Don’t pray for miracles just pray for courage.” You need that as you sit there looking at other women’s faces, wondering what they are going through.

At the previous test, my count was seven, up from five. That rise in the wrong direction made me almost sick with anxiety. The normal CA125 for cancer is anywhere under thirty five. One of the doctors told me hers is twenty, but the fact that it had gone up not down upset me. It had been five the time before. This marker of cancer is not accurate, but we are all obsessed with it.

This time it was down to six, and not only that, the young woman doctor was quite optimistic about my future!

This is the first time I have felt any reassurance that I might live beyond a couple of years. This doctor is young, perhaps she doesn’t think like the others yet, she was focussing on me as I am, not on statistics. Or maybe there is really no reason to be gloomy. Incredible.

“Your CA125 was only 60 when you had the cancer,” she said. Some people register in the thousands. I have pointed that out before, but it didn’t seem to mean anything positive. And there was that laughing and chuckling Dr Argawal saying, “With that level of disease it is unlikely the chemotherapy will work.” Adding for good measure, “It will be back in two months to a year.”

Well here we are nineteen months on and going strong.

“I eat a lot of nuts,” I said as the doctor began to examine me. It must have sounded rather odd, if she was listening. But oncology doctors probably hear more hysterical rubbish than any other sort.

As she prodded about my mind began rummaging through the fragments of statistics I have picked up since I first Googled the disease when this all started. I tried jamming these disjointed pieces together into a jigsaw:

Good: The CA125 was only ever at 60

Bad: I was 54, statistically the worst age to get the disease.

Good: The cancer cells were identified as endometrial which respond well to chemo, unlike glass cells which are more lethal.

Good: The cancer was well contained within the ovary (so it said in a letter)

Bad: It had moved in an odd trajectory into the lymph node in the groin and two nodes inside, making it a stage 4.

Good: The operation to remove the cancer went well. "Such a good process," said the young doctor.

Bad: The odds of surviving a stage 4

Good: The longer the remission the better the chances

At home in bed later I wondered if I can ever relax again. If I drop my guard, even in sleep, it might sneak back.

Have I learned anything from my short walk in the Valley of Death?

I think Yeats said, “We begin to live when we see life as tragedy.”

So I am living now. Is it better than before, and if this hadn’t happened, where would I be?

Saturday, 10 December 2011

London Life

Sat 10th December.

I’ve got a bad cold but trying to prepare a Christmas lunch for tomorrow. One of the knobs on the little Turkish “Beko” cooker came off in my hand. I stuck its parts together with glue and shoved it back, hoping it will see me through. Then while I was cooking a rather fiddly thing with potatoes I realised I had no hot water, and with it no heating.

Rummaged around for the letter from British Gas giving my policy number, which sits below their words: “ Sit back, relax and continue to enjoy expert service for another year.”

They said they would come out between 12 - 6pm. I felt vaguely anxious all afternoon, a feeling I associate with depending on the Royal Mail for anything. At 4pm they rang to say they can't come out as there are "too many calls."

They begged me to reschedule, I stood firm. Then they said they would only come if I was in an emergency category. I didn't mention the lunch tomorrow, but I said I have flu, rather than a cold and it’s freezing here. Not good enough. So then I had to tell them I have been having treatment for cancer. It was embarrassing having to say that, just to get them to perform a service I am already paying for!

Also, how is it we have got so much unemployment but they haven't got enough engineers?

Any how, when my guests get here I hope to have everything assembled somehow. Or I might put the food in the oven and go to bed, they can serve themselves and bring me Lemsip!

- The engineer arrived at 8pm and told me the boiler needs “flushing,” not quite as bad as having to buy a new one. British Gas charge about £850 to do it.

Look it up on line later and saw that a lot of companies do it, nearly all of them for about £400.

- British Gas came again the following day as I was preparing my Christmas Sunday lunch. Even though they had come on the wrong day they got the right door for the first time ever.

- Monday – another text from British Gas saying they are coming round. They must really like it here. Wonder if I can find them something useful to do.

Happily they didn’t show up.

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Maltese Cross Society

7/12/11 Mail on Sunday Christmas party.

It was the first paper I worked on when I somehow entered the magical kingdom of Fleet Street in 1984. I got a staff job at the paper in 1988 after an interview with the ladies who started the Greenham Common campaign. Then I quickly bought my first flat. Mrs Thatcher, say what you like about her, had opened a door for comprehensive school types like me, and we were all rolling in money. I didn’t use my own bank for years, just Lord Rothermere’s.
I was a little nervous as I approached the Brittania pub in Kensington, cranking myself up for seeing people from the past. I decided to make it a “no arse-holes evening,” avoiding anyone who’d gnashed their teeth at me or wanted to fill me with wrinkles.
The champagne was gushing like a faulty spigot, just like old times. A seamy old editor was leaning on the nearest bit of bar. He was much hated in his time but for some reason always liked me so I managed to survive just beyond the reach of his death ray. He grabbed me round my waist and I leaned on him, going into a kind of swoon of false bonhomie for a few minutes.
“You’ve got one really strong friend high up,” he said. Not him of course. I didn’t think he was talking about God either, and felt rather hopeful. He named someone on the Telegraph who hasn’t given me a lick of work since I left the Mail nearly six years ago. In fact we have no contact at all and he puts it about apparently, at least according to this old boy, that this is because I once quoted him on my blog.
I remember that, ages ago. The Mail had its first ever gay executive and he made a small joke about the Daily Mail being on Derry Street, calling it “derriere street.”
I think his reaction suggests just how much he wants to get back to the Nirvana that is the DM, at least if Lord Rothermere is still writing the cheques and he's terrified that anything might prevent it. This kind of neurosis, the clinging to a job, the thought of a career seemed almost quaint.
I unwound myself to wander down into the long bar, past Peter Tatchell, standing with the editor of the Tribune. This was a bit of a stumper, a clutch of lefties, as if I’d come to the wrong party. Peter is surely a modern day saint, he probably walks through walls into any party he chooses.
Attenuated with a kind of famished look, but burning within he reminded me of William Tyndale, the Protestant martyr. I tried to say this to him but it came out as William Caxton and he looked a bit puzzled. When I got the name right, he agreed he would die for his beliefs.
In the meantime he’s working on a feature for the Daily Mail. One of the few people who can say that whilst sounding quite innocent. But I was surprised as when I was there I arranged to interview him twice, with some difficulty as he didn’t like the Mail at all, and both times our meetings were cancelled at the last minute by Paul Dacre. Peter was on his hate list then.
At the other end of the bar I saw Chester Stern, now a little bent and crinkly. We share membership of the Maltese Cross Society; he once went there on a job, got as far as Valetta airport where they took one look at him and put him back on the plane. I went to Malta for the Daily Telegraph, spent a week there looking at the place, wrote what I thought was a fair piece, and got a letter from the Minister of the Interior telling me on no account to ever return. The bit about “on pain of death” was implied. The great Anthony Burgess once tried living there. He lasted three months before they put him in a taxi, took him to the airport and sent him back to the UK post-haste.
“You can go there now probably,” said Chester reassuringly. Who would want to? If I’m going to risk concrete sling-backs it has to be somewhere better than that lump of burning rock. I remember the black flies on what passed for the beach.
He started his career on a police newspaper, The Bill I think, in the days when Peelers were straight men who kept out of politics. He knows more about their doings than most. I told him he should use all this knowledge to write a book as most British people are strangely fascinated by the force, or perhaps puzzled would be a better word.
I trawled the room meeting people from the past, some I’d known only briefly but because it had been “on a job” it remained memorable. Leaning on the bar, large handsome and benevolent was Ron Johnson, as I called him, or Jon Ronson as he is. My memory for names vanishes with alcohol. When we were together on a job, about twenty five years ago, sailing around the Amalfi coast fruitlessly hunting for Charles and Diana, he had been rather lean and mean. I didn’t like the rat pack and felt rather scared of him. I remember sitting opposite him at a silent breakfast overlooking the Bay of Naples, feeling very uneasy.
“That photographer who was with us has terminal bowel cancer,” he said. “At least we are still going strong.”
Well up to a point. There were more similar tales to come; a snapper I knew when I first started work now has terminal cancer of the jaw, one of the really cruel ones. They’ve taken some of his tongue. Another has extensive prostate disease. But there are still quite a lot of us; thinner, fatter, written off but still hanging on. A few people seemed to be looking at me as if I’d come back from the dead, or was doing a turn as the pub ghost.
It’s not just the print media that’s dying, but many of us who made it what it was. The God’s have cursed us for our lippy, gabby hubris.
Above the increasing hubbub I could hear voices marvelling and mourning the expenses we used to get. It was the best of times, it was the worst. The journalist Nick Cohen reminded me about sub-editors as we used to know them, when they were also well paid and powerful: “Now look, Mr Dickens. It is either the best or it’s the worst, it cannot be both. The editor won’t like it.”
He also told a long joke, with a lot of arm waving about two subs in the desert who finally find an oasis of fresh water. One of them immediately pisses into it.
When his colleague asks him why, he says, “It looks so wonderful I just have to improve it.”
I spotted an MP standing in a corner, smiling. Couldn’t remember his name although I could clearly remember that he began life on a council estate. He often appears on Question Time, serving up the usual flannel. The person standing by me, a good diarist, couldn’t remember who he was either. We put this to him and he laughed happily, admitting that he is David Davis.
Eventually reaching a table of food I saw Anne Atkins, Christian polemicist. She has sprouted soft white curls, and dressed in a voluminous gown sprigged with jewels she looked like Elizabeth I without her red wig. She surprised me by saying she doesn’t like doing Thought For the Day on Radio 4.
“All so last minute,” she said vaguely. I wonder if that is because of her pressing demands as a wife and mother or something to do with the Today Programme ringing her up ten minutes before they broadcast.
The pub was bursting with women, of all types. There were youngish Russian looking prostitutes with elaborate yellow hair and tiny sequinned skirts, and older girls who’d been made famous by the papers; Nancy dell’Olio and a former mistress of Lord Archer. One of the dolls said she had been getting unpleasant letters from Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, known to us all as Sir Julian Fellowes, purveyor of Sunday evening comfort to the gentry.
“Mad,” she says, “utterly mad.” Fascinating, but I had missed the beginning of the story about how they fell out.
At one point just as I was getting fuzzy I was surrounded by women with the yellow doll hair and plastic faces, slit eyes, distended lips and airbrushed teak coloured skin. They seemed to be peering curiously at me and I was as puzzled by them as if they were a tribe from the New Hebrides. We had no way of communicating and I quickly escaped.
There were the ladies who made it into journalism by being pretty and posh. I spoke to one who’d lost her husband a few years back, when her children were small. She smiled down at me with the condescension of a Mitford, with no need of concerned kindness from the likes of me.
In the loo I listened respectfully to one of the Dimbleby gels grieving about her lack of pregnancy. She said she was about to start IVF, many rounds probably, with financial family support. She obviously really loves children as she said she would be happy to adopt.
“But as we are upper middle class and my husband is an army officer the odds are stacked against us,” she said.
Extraordinary that there are social workers who would prefer that a child stay in local authority care growing up to lead a life of crime, rather than let it become a prosperous little Dimbleby! It’s like a dark fairy-tale, a production of the Nutcracker or Oliver which begins and ends in the orphanage.
Then there were the old hackettes like me, slightly dusty, wasted and worn, wall eyed with clinging on to the last vestiges of work in the print medium. I can only hope that, in the words of Primo Levi, there will be a long, mild autumn for all of us.

Now that the time presses urgently,
And the tasks are finished,
To all of you the modest wish
That autumn will be long and mild.
Primo Levi

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

What is it about Watts?

At the weekend I visited the G.F Watts Memorial Chapel in Compton, Surrey, and the gallery dedicated to his painting and sculpture. It has just been refurbished with £11 million from lottery funding, with another £100,000 needed.
It's really quite extraordinary, such a lovely gallery for such a terrible painter.
It was the first time I'd walked around an art gallery and hated everything on the walls. Well there were a couple of very free oil sketches, including one of Florence Nightingale, but he did very few of those. He favoured the large, heavy, dark history/religious paintings already out of date by the second half of the 19th Century.

Flapping round in long cloaks and strange hats, he fooled the philistine English and may be even himself. Lacking imagination and courage Watts was an utter plaigiarist; each painting a laboured pastiche of whichever artist he was keen on at the time. Despite a life of wealth and celebrity, invited into all the salons of the eminent Victorians to ply his painterly trade, he never found his own voice. His work is a lesson to all would be creative artists - if you can only imitate others, give up.
His favourite phrase was apparently, "the utmost and the highest," which probably referred to his fees. Perhaps he was the Damien and Tracey of his day?

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Looking for a new England


The couple in the top flat above me have sold their flat for quite a good price and moved out. They sent me a text asking to meet up so we could say goodbye before they went. I bought them a card and managed to meet them outside, loading up the removal van.

It was nice to be able to see them before they went. He said they were looking forward to their new home “in the country."

“It’s a lovely old fashioned English place,” his wife said, beaming. "Like a village."

He is Belgian and she is Asian – but like many British people they are making the flight from multi multi cultural London to go in search of England.

They might not really have ever been there, but they think they know what it looks and feels like. At least they are certain enough to know that this is not it, not it at all.


Bert, one of my mother’s neighbours, has died aged 90. He is about the last of the parents of my friends I knew as I was growing up.

I used to see him sitting in the Wheel pub with his pals. That hostelry went four years ago, sold off by the brewery for building land, replaced by “executive dwellings.” Now Bert too has been turfed over, in his case hopefully topped by a nice piece of granite. I hope he is now raising a pint in the heavenly Wheel on the other side.

When his family and mine were near neighbours, our lane was a compact little world, linear but short, knew everyone on both sides; Mrs Whittingham with the big teeth who rarely went out, Mrs Yardley whose son married a Mooney. Mrs Lewis who had a sexy son. The Lamberts, their mother wore a turban left over from the war, next to them a Catholic family which seemed rather strange, and I knew my father deeply disapproved of Catholics. Mrs Handley whose quiet, elegant husband had been something in the RAF, then there was Betty, my mother’s friend a single lady who taught maths at the High School. She excelled at gardening and calligraphy. So it goes on up the lane, and down our side. Next to us, Miss Mayland and her sister Mrs Soames. Miss Mayland surprised everyone by marrying a Scotsman when she was in her 50s, this was so wildly unconventional that no one was really surprised when she died soon after.

Next to them lived Miss Farmer who taught at my primary school. On my first day there I was told that she often hit her pupils, but only the boys. She was a large ungainly woman with a skin the colour of parchment. She lost her black cat, Sooty. He went missing in the orchard and fields once at the back of our gardens. He was found dead, strangled in a hedge and there were rumours that the man who owned the land had killed him.

I felt sorry and took two tiny pictures that I’d bought on holiday to school to give Miss Farmer to cheer her up. I remember her taking them from me with an odd look on her doughy face. Years later I heard that this small gesture had broken her and she’d had to rush home. Another teacher came in for the afternoon.

The village was composed of long standing farmers, middle class families with children, and a few single women teachers who were highly active and impressed everyone with their long exotic holidays to places like Burma and Egypt.

After the war a council estate was built to house overspill families from Wolverhampton. It immediately gained a bad reputation. Respectable people didn’t go there, but they speculated on the people who did live there, who were generally thought to be a bad lot. I am not sure why as there was hardly any crime whatever. Probably rumours of drunkenness and wife beating. There was one vaguely dark skinned family. The father was Irish and the mother had apparently made off and left him with four children. This family was famous in the village for being “bad,” and the children felt separate from us at primary school. One of them did break the law in his late teens, by breaking into our chemists. People say he was looking for drug money. This caused a lot of excitement and talk but was so far beyond most people’s imagination and so was quickly forgotten.

My parents and most of these people in the lane knew each other well because they all belonged to Toch H a charity set up for servicemen during the Great War. The women met on Tuesday nights, the men on Fridays. My father also did the accounts for the Scouts. I was so relieved that this didn’t involve any kind of uniform.

At Christmas these people in our lane held, or at least drinks, sausage rolls and crisps. We went from house to house eating and stealing sherry.

In the summer there were weekend fetes, each charity in the area booking a Saturday on the school field or by the village hall, culminating in the great Flower and Produce show, held in Codsall Wood, the next village in the grounds of the local manor house. This had been the home of the Gaskell family, which had been wealthy since the restoration of Charles II whom they helped on his flight into exile. Once they gave the house up in the 1980s, it was used by the local authority for adult education classes, heavily patronised by the single ladies. There were also village “treasure hunts,” by car, with everyone following written clues. Betty almost always won this.

I didn’t take much interest in what my parents and their pals did outside the home, they only existed for me inside it, my father in his chair next to his ashtray, and my mother in the kitchen, or standing surveying her terratory, from her ironing board. She ironed everything, pants, socks, large cotton handkerchiefs, and my brother's work jeans, taking pride in putting sharp creases down the front of each leg.

Most of the people in the lane had small jobs, teachers, electricians, sanitary inspector, gas board, travelling sales, but they all had good sized houses with gardens, a car outside and a two week holiday away once a year. Bert and his wife Dorothy went to Weston Super Mare every year of their married life until old age.

Children went to the local state schools and then university – no problem.

What a settled life that was, and I can’t see that that generation or mine, “drained the economy,” and “ruined” it for the next generation as we are now accused. Life was rather non-acquisitive. The adults I knew hardly drank. Bert only started going to the pub regularly in old age. My parents and their friends never resorted to buying things on hire-purchase as it was called, that would have been considered as bad form as buying cake instead of making it. Credit cards were unknown. In our house there was one cheque-book which lay in a draw rather guiltily, only taken out for grand purchases, after the matter of buying or not buying had been debated for months with my mother usually against it.

The adults around us didn’t swear, get divorced or expect much out of life. Perhaps in the great back-wash of the war they didn’t want any more excitement. By the age of eighteen I had to get away. I wanted the great unknown, and felt that by losing myself in the world I would find myself.

I expected to find fulfilment and success, and of course I didn’t realise that the village I had left behind would melt away like Brigadoon, in this case buried under new bricks, roads and metal fences. Much of the local farm land has been sold for building, the lanes widened and girded by metal fences for the sake of safety we never needed before. Traffic lights illuminate every junction and large signs tell everyone where everything is, just in case anyone gets lost. It is in fact now more of a small town, an adjunct of Wolverhampton than a village.

The summer fetes, even the flower and produce show have stopped as no one has time to organise them. The manor house has recently been sold to a private developer. The village along with the people I knew has vanished.

“That’s progress,” my mother says, echoing traces of a creed British people really believed just after the war. When she says this I look at her in astonishment, as if she'd declared that the world is flat.

The post man doesn't even ring once


Is there anything these days more likely to lower the spirits than that small red and white card on the mat, c/o the Royal Mail logo, sweetly headed:

“Something for you”

Sounds quite cosy but it’s something that you will probably never get.

The Royal Mail now earns £1 million a day. Its pre-tax profits have tripled since last year when they made a £67 million profit. This is strange because as far as its customers can see, it is an impoverished organisation, on its last legs. Services of the past – several deliveries a day and a reliable first class postal service have gone the way of stage-coaches and swallow tail coats.

When you go into the big post-office in Acton it reminds me of the post-office in Katowice, Poland, when the communists were in; overcrowded, full of angry, resentful people, only two counters open and a sense that what you might be trying to send might not be worth it.

Getting one of their jocular cards through your letter box is worse than going to one of these lousy offices. When the card arrives you have two options. The PO encourages you to have your missing mail re-directed, on line. On their web-site you tick their calendar for another delivery day – they can’t give you a time, probably because they know there isn’t one. Twice I've sat at home all day waiting and waiting and nothing has been re-delivered.

It’s probably best to take the second option - take a bus or drive to the sorting depot, which is even more miserable and crowded than the post-office.

Driving there has its problems. The council has recently tightened up all the parking restrictions outside this office in Ealing, so it's illegal to stop there. People waiting in the long line which snakes past the tiny war-memorial to posties shot in France, around the dirty room and outside onto the pavement, all get neck ache twisting their heads around looking out for wardens, anxiously jangling their car keys, ready to run. The joys of living in present day London.
Yesterday, it happened to me. There it was on the mat, promising a world of stress and fright. It said a “packet,” in fact a large portable halogen lamp for use in the studio, had been delivered at 1350 but I was apparently “not at home.” Infuriating as I was there all day.

At 8am today I rang a postman who used to deliver here, you can never usually get
through to anyone in the post office by phone, but he once gave me his
mobile number as he also does computer repairs and other nefarious jobs on the side.

I asked him about this non-delivery and he put me straight through to the postman who’d left it.

“I knocked but you wasn’t in,” he said nastily. I asked why hadn’t just rung the bell.

“I never ring door bells,” he said. “I ain’t standing around waiting for people to answer bells.”

I knew and he knew that I knew that he hadn’t knocked or rung, just shoved the card through the door and gone back to his cosy van. My post is regularly stuffed through the letter-box on the ground floor.

I heard my voice rising, fighting its way through his layers of thickness. Not a good idea, but he came out with such a load of sad piffle to excuse his laziness.

My “friend” the posty with the phone said the man would bring the “packet” round the next day. But would he? I spent the day full of doubt about this and at the same time I didn’t believe he would appear.

At 2.45pm he arrived. One lamp for the use of. What a relief. Postman Pat, unshaven, no hat or tie, handed it to me sort of sideways, without coming right down the steps, without a word, a rather disgusted look on his thin mouth, as if I’d forced him to do me a big favour.

At least I got it. When I was in hospital a book arrived from E-bay, and a CD of photos from a friend. These were apparently “tracked,” what ever that means but for some reason the RM only holds onto these “Royal Mail Tracked” "packets" for one week. They sent back my book and CD to the senders who never got them, and no one has seen them since.

I've also had a parcel go missing from a safe "cubby hole" outside too. At least it said on the card that the parcel had been put there but the postman who left it, or otherwise, couldn’t be tracked.

I was interested today 4/12/11 to hear the very strange news that this Christmas post-men will not be allowed to accept large gifts, nothing over £30 and these must not be given as bribes, or in hope of a better delivery service than the neighbours.

Do people give their post-men tips? I rarely see them and hardly ever get the same one twice. I don’t know them and I don’t know my neighbours enough to know anything about their postal deliveries.

What kind of people now compete over the post? In this road I suspect that most of us are unemployed, or “job-seekers” as they are now called. It’s nice to think that somewhere there are streets of people working so hard, running such successful businesses from their homes that they have to bribe their loyal mail men to help them. Or this strange pronouncement perhaps shows that the mysterious profits from the royal mail are being used for filling their executives and press spokesmen with hallucinogenic drugs and alcohol.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Royal correspondence

On June 7th I wrote to the new Duchess of Cambridge asking if she might take an interest in the charity, Ovarian Cancer Action.
No response. I rang the office at Clarence House today. They only got my letter on October 4th for some reason, well at least they got it, and as they have had 60,000 other letters they are just getting ready to reply now.
Picture some poor person beavering away below stairs in the great old palace, opening and passing on all those missives. I wonder if the girl herself ever gets to see and touch the letters.
The woman I spoke to wouldn't say how many people they now have to employ opening Kate's mail but she says it's "quite a few."
A new example of job creation, and she says, "very exciting and wonderful."

Monday, 14 November 2011

A job at last

I went to an Xmas fair on Saturday, at St Martins in Ealing and manned, if that is the word, the tombola. There is a first for everything!
The tombola barrel was an old thing with peeling paint. Fr. Bill said it had been around since the war, and it did look as if it might have fallen off the side of a Spitfire.
It wouldn't spin properly and the door kept coming off, letting the tickets flutter out. I spent hours on Friday night cutting up cloak room tickets and folding them, and sticking labels on bottled and horrible objects, 0 - 5. It was hard work, and I had two problems, the tickets and the children.
Winning tickets kept getting back into the barrel, so they would come up again, some how, don't know why as there were so many other tickets in there, and there would be no prize for them. So I had to take a prize number off an object and give it to them, which meant another rogue number was still in side.
The children were rather trying too. They had to have free gifts if they didn't win anything and I gave away stuff right at the end, but they never seem to say "Thank you." When I said the word to them rather pointedly they would give me a killer stare that clearly said I'd over stepped the mark and forgotten the deference owed to them.
One little girl in glasses, who had her face painted like a cat, but looked like an owl, couldn't leave the barrel alone and kept spinning it, sending tickets flying out, and her sister, painted to look like a butterfly, wanted to put her rubber ball into the thing, she did this several time and eventually went off and left it in there.
The other problem was that all the stuff donated by Fr. Bill, endless tins of fruit and veg, and bottles of pasta sauce and dried pasta from the back of his cupboards. They turned out to be over their sell-by date and people kept bringing them back and crossly demanding something else - so more rogue tickets. A lot of young children won bottles of wine. I was handing one over when this officious woman who was supposed to be busy selling pork buns, came over and told me I wasn't allowed to give alcohol to children! I kept on giving it to them as I was too confused already to work out any alternative, telling them to hide bottles under their clothes. One little girl burst into tears and didn't want to take the bottle, I forced her to, and ordered her to give it to her mother. Her mother came up later, really pleased, the girl was baffled, obviously not a wine drinker, yet.
There was a good outcome - I made £60 or more on the stall, the event made £2,204. The vicar got all his old food back, and went I home with home made ginger mulled-wine mix and fairy cakes.

Poppy Sunday

Remembrance service at St. Michael’s, Bedford Park. Beautiful singing by choir and good bit of organ blast during the National Anthem, before we trooped out to the small war-memorial. Not quite enough strength there though, as if the poor old organ can’t rev up enough.

During the silence, disturbed only by the buses beyond the hedge, it was hard to know what to focus on. My mind flitted about, there are so many people to remember; that young man filmed while being shot through the head in Vietnam. Edith Stein going off in the cattle truck to Auschwitz. Edith Frank, Sophie Scholl, Wilfred Owen dying so near the end of his war. Marshal Foch who lost his son and son-in-law on the same day.

The Great War remains upper-most, the day is still really about them. And it’s still infuriating that the whole thing happened at all – an unnecessary catastrophe, off shoot of a worthless struggle about empire, which led to even more social collapse, and hecatombs of dead. I don’t mean that the empire was entirely worthless, but going to war with Germany about it was like two thieves fighting over stolen goods.

Remembrance or not


It’s odd how Londoners pronounce the word poppy. A little girl pointed at mine and said, “puppy,” and I looked around, wondering what she meant.

Potter down to Shepherd’s Bush to try to find a poppy brooch in Westfield shopping centre, as I can’t keep the plastic stem things on.

Hardly any poppies are worn in this part of town, no one is selling them in or near the vast shopping centre. Inside, the shop assistants don’t wear them, not even in cosy old Marks & Spencers.

Perhaps some idiots worry that it might be a religious or political symbol. For me it’s about death, nothing else; remembering people who died caught up in recent conflicts, including Germans, French, Turks, Italians etc.

Not sure that also applies to people who joined the Condor Legion, Gestapo, Einzatzgruppen, Arrow Cross groups, or the NKVD.

In the quest to end poppy misery, I roamed around, floor by floor until I found Swarovski the jeweller, as they had been advertising some little crystal poppy brooches for £15. In this shop the Japanese looking staff stared blankly at me, they’d never heard of them. Finally got a little cloth brooch with a good clasp from among the racks of girly things in Accessorise.

I hope I am not turning into a “poppy fascist,” but I wore my lone poppy proudly on the crowded bus home but also felt slightly uncomfortable. Perhaps people wearing them were all sitting up the front of the long bus, because I didn’t see any around me, just drab, worn out looking foreign mothers with babies and Somali lads in odd knitted tops talking into their i-phones.

I do wonder what all this new enthusiasm for the poppy is all about. A few years ago I distinctly remember there was very little public interest and elderly people would sit outside M & S in Kensington with their full poppy trays, looking very gloomy. People no longer seemed willing to give money to wounded soldiers or think about the past.

Perhaps that was due to the economic boom that was on, and Tony Blair’s attempt to turn us into a land without history. Well all that is over now and the poppy has become a rallying point, the only symbol of cohesion we have left as a country, and I think people are clinging to it rather desperately.

Backing the wrong pale rider


Hear that Evelyn Lauder the woman who founded the pink ribbon breast cancer campaign has died, aged 74, from ovarian cancer.

She did wonderful work of course, but ignored ovarian cancer, the most lethal of the gynaecological diseases. It has no popular ribbon or badge and remains the Cinderella sister of breast cancer. If only she had sold tiny ovary mascots as well.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Self portrait as a member of the WI

Money Matters


Just sold a piece to the Daily Telegraph about Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, comparing her experiences to mine. She discovered details about her real mother recently, then met her supported of course by her new lover, super shrink Susie Orbach. You couldn’t do much better than that. I met mine when I was 19 just after I left home to become a student and hadn’t a clue what I was doing. In both cases it didn’t end well.

That money, £350, plus fee for doing some on-line work for Private Banking Magazine, will pay the £500 for the short portrait painting course I’ve just signed up for at Heatherley’s School of Art in Chelsea.

Twenty years ago I was getting £500 a piece and had so much work I never stopped. Now I am living hand to mouth, like a student; just the way I thought I wanted to live when I was about twelve and anticipating life’s challenges as nothing more than exciting adventures. I saw myself as a kind of Tin Tin. I had a white cat at the time called Blossom who could have stood in for Snowy. Be careful what you wish for I suppose, and be sure to marry Captain Haddock at some point, even if you find him boring and his breath smells of fish.

Of course I still believe that fame and fortune follows. I hope I’ve still got enough time left for it!

A friend of mine says that in the photograph of me, on the front of my book, Inside, about teaching in HMP Wormwood Scrubs, I don’t look at all well. Not surprising as I was at the time, unknowingly, fizzing with cancer. Remember myself at that time, all the symptoms boiling and bloating away, and how I just ignored them.

Take a painting, a self-portrait where my head is replaced by a Victoria Sponge, to the vicarage in Ealing as a present for Fr. Bill. He insists on giving me £10 for it. This is my lucky day. He is my Dr. Gachet.

Also take him a quince and apple tart. Try to explain that the quince seemed a bit tough, much more so than the apple so he will need to re-heat the pie slowly so it cooks a bit more. As usual he wasn’t listening.

He was mumbling on about the C of E – and the shenanigans at St. Paul’s. There are of course a few vacancies there now, and there will be jostling for new positions. When one goes we all move up one.

Some lucky vicar will soon be getting more pay and a nice cosy, 17th century vicarage. Fr. Bill won’t be applying.

“The ambition of clerics is terrible in London,” he says peering into his empty fridge. “It’s a shark-pool and very few can get to the top.

“But the important thing is being a good vicar of a demanding parish. What ambition is better than that, and my ambition is achievable.”

I wondered if Ealing, once the golden suburb of the west, is really that demanding.

He says it’s now very big and full of “all sorts,” later he referred to that fact that the parish is now barely Anglican or even Christian.

“You are running hard to keep still,” he said. “There is no money. But in the end the C of E in the diocese of London will be brought down by dry rot.”

Apparently the fabric of the buildings, churches and vicarages is all rotting away, returning to the damp earth, helped along of course by the new voracious breed of metal thieves.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Disgusted of Acton


I’ve got to stop reading newspaper columnists as they get me so stirred up. Of course I’d love to have a column of my own, what an off-loading of bile, what a superb weekly defaecation that would be. One reason I fell out with the Mail was that they wouldn’t unpigeon-hole me from Features and give me the chance to comment.

Like most people I can only sit back and read the opinions of wealthy journalists, writing with elegant fountain pens from their homes in Chipping Norton and Pewsy, about an England I do not recognise.

On Sunday Dominic Lawson declared that he is not worried about predictions that the UK population will soon rise to 70 million. When he was a newspaper editor I believe he used to commute to work by helicopter. I doubt that he now uses the bus or tube, or that he and his family have to struggle to find an NHS doctor or dentist and wait for appointments. He probably doesn't have to worry about his place on a housing list or getting his children into goodish schools which have a preponderance of English speakers. I don't think he is likely to find himself living in an area which suddenly becomes an ethnic ghetto.

More power to Mr Lawson, he is a good, ballsy chap, but like most wealthy people he doesn't see or feel the effects of mass immigration and population growth. He doesn’t have to look at the everyday vandalism of this country.

Tubercule 2


Grab a seat, grab a Metro – it’s almost an obsession. A feeling of failure and misery descends if I fail to do either.

There was a photo in the Metro of Olympic diver Tom Daley looking at his clay likeness in Mme Tussauds. It was amazing - not a thing like him. The putty nose was a completely different shape to his, one being convex the other concave.

I wonder what kind of people work at the wax works what they are trained for, certainly not getting a likeness for portraits.

Opposite me a young boy aged about seven playing some kind of computer game on an i-phone with his father. They were totally concentrated but occasionally the father would get annoyed with the boy for pressing the wrong button and snap at him, then remember he was supposed to be playing a game and speak to him more gently. The younger son went over to join them. He sprawled on his father’s knee nearly kicking the bored, fed up looking man slumped next to them. The father told him to apologise and immediately the boy made a small involuntary gesture offering the man a toy tractor he was clutching in one hand. For a moment I imagined this dreary commuter taking the toy and playing with it happily.

In another carriage I saw a young couple with a boy of about three lying in a pushchair. The child had a look of pain and discomfort, wrinkling his brow and I realised that this must be what he does, how he looks just before he falls asleep. His mother leaned over putting her fingers lightly onto his eye-lids while his father began stroking his head. In a few moments he was asleep.

I am fascinated by these little family scenes. I’ve never seen a child being badly treated on the tube, although I have seen that on buses and in parks, when I never know what to do about it and I can’t forget it afterwards.

There is another kind of domestic group, headed by the braying parent, sometimes audible on the tube, but they tend to travel in 4 X 4 and family saloon, so you mainly see or rather hear them in public places.

Yesterday, 5/11/11/ I was sitting in a café in Devonshire Road, Chiswick. It was the kind of place that has real looking cakes and bits of filo pastry with spinach, where customers pointedly walk out if you start using your mobile. To avoid their disapproving looks I sat outside, looking at a free copy of the Times and listening to a well dressed man called Max bawling his head off at his small son Otto, aged 3.

"Otto you must listen to your teachers. Otto, we must see this, a new Leonardo exhibition starting soon. Would you like to see it? I am going to phone Granddad and tell him.

“Hello! Max and Otto here. Look you must come with us to the Leonardo exhibition it’s starting soon at the National Portrait Gallery…”

“The National Gallery,” I piped up from behind him.

His braying stopped dead. It reminded me of one of those moments at night in an Africa hut, or a long-house in the jungle, when there is a terrible racket going on from geckos, birds, bats, cats and monkeys jumping up and down on your roof. But if you clap your hands or scream, “Shut up!” There is a sudden moment of tense, shocked silence, before they all start up again.

“Oh, thanks,” he said and went on at full volume, “It’s the National Portrait Gallery. Otto is dying to go. He’s a precocious three year old who won’t listen to his teachers.” Etc etc.

I don’t suppose poor Otto wants to listen to anyone at all by now. I’m surprised he doesn’t go round in ear-muffs. I don’t think I had any teachers at all when I was three. I didn’t have to go down that tortuous road until I was four, and then only in the mornings.

Father and son shuffled off down the street, I hadn’t heard a single word from Otto, and I was left wondering just who his monologue was for, not Otto who plainly wasn’t listening, not me sitting behind him, or granddad. Perhaps it was for the people of Chiswick at large, part of a Chiswick symphony of braying, bragging and deep groaning self-satisfaction.

Happy if paltry news

My friend in Toulouse has named two of her stoutest hens Jane and Kelly.

Long may they scratch about in the good French earth and avoid the foxes waiting everywhere to devour them.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Tubercule 1


Travelling home by tube last night I had to sit next to some horrid oik with the white plugs in the ears, from which came a sound like a swarm of maddened mosquitoes. I was a victim of the new curse of “sodcasting,” the playing of loud noise on public transport.

He looked Latin American and was reading, O Americano Tranquillo, by Graham Greene. I thought of pointing out the irony of this to him, but I think it would have been wasted.

When I changed at Earl’s Court I sat next to another of them, not reading anything this time, just blank. I swapped seat to sit across from her and glare.

Monday, 31 October 2011


As you get older living in London gets to be more of a trial, this is of course unless you have made the shed loads of money you intended to make when you first came here.

Services are cracking, even the post is bad and the neighbours, well. On my right there was a young couple. I used to chat to them outside but I heard yesterday that they’d left. I felt a slight shock – why didn’t they say goodbye? Am I mad. Would anyone in London bother to do that?

It’s not just London mind-you. The English are not a very neighbourly lot. My mother’s next door neighbours recently left after 25 years. They’d been very good to her and when they said they were going she was upset, privately, and became slightly depressed. Then one day they were gone, without a word. She was more upset, but felt slightly better when she discovered that the people on the other side of her house were very angry about this silent exit. In fact the whole lane was annoyed. It was considered at least very rude. But in London we don’t have delicate feelings like that anymore.

The English are not a friendly people, and the northern races are not known for their hospitality. But England is probably the only place where even invited guests feel they should apologise for turning up.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Coffee Morning


Week promises to get gloomier as I now have to pay my car tax. I started to get worked up about this several months ago because I mistook the date, and tried to pay on line. As I haven’t got to have an MOT it seemed more complicated, then they wanted information about the CC. Not just a bit but which category it came into. I wasn’t in a good state of mind at the time and nearly blew a gasket, as old motorists used to say. I went out and looked at the disc and saw I had two months to go and nearly died of relief.

Now it was the time to try again, this time by taking all my documents in a large folder to the Post Office. This was the big one in Acton. Although it has large premises only two tellers were open. As we queued up I had a feeling of doom. Quite a long way behind me an old man in an anorak who must have had sharp eyes, suddenly started up a great peroration against people like me:

“They come in here to pay their car tax. I ask you. Last time the bloke didn’t have any of the right forms and we all had to wait while he went off to get them. I ask you, it’s not right, it shouldn’t be allowed. ”

Acton is full of mad old buffoons like this. If they’ve got sticks they are dangerous. I gave him what I can only describe as a cool look.

At the counter I had all the right forms already filled in. The Asian lad behind the counter seemed quite sympathetic to see the nervous wreck in front of him and as I tried to jab the wilting papers under all the bars he tried to help by plying his fingers under the grill to drag them through. We both struggled but I had everything needed, paid the £100 and left as quickly as I could.

The next thing will be forgetting to put it on the car in time and getting a fine. That happened with my parking permit. I can’t understand it as I am a methodical person, making lists of everything I have to do each day. I must have some kind of brain moth, nibbling out tiny holes for comic effect.

I was on my way to the church coffee morning at St. Martin’s in Ealing. I bought two cream and jam sponges to celebrate getting through this tax ordeal.

At the vicarage Fr Bill was fussing about his quince jam which is too runny. He offered me a jar; he doesn’t usually so I think he was pleased to see the cakes.

He was also worrying about Christmas. St Martin’s is having its “Christmas Bazaar” bizarrely with font with snow on it and images of the Three Wise Men very soon in early November.

He says Advent, previously a time of austerity, is now the new Christmas and the “Kingdom Season,” in November, the new Advent.

“In 25 years time we will be having Christmas in August,” he said glumly. “But that might be better as August is so quiet.”

If that happened of course preparations would begin in May, and in time that would become the new Xmas, which would then begin in winter again.

He is planning to write an academic paper on the forces that have produced this situation. But he says that the church has always accommodated itself to fashion.

Maybe in the past that was a deliberate thing, absorbing pagan rituals and art work, but I wonder if they are even conscious of all this, and not just being carried blindly along. The church hardly opposes fashion these days.

I suggest that Bill should write a letter to the Church Times rather than an academic paper, as there are far too many of those around.

A friend of mine who has recently begun a flower arranging course tells me she is going to have to write essays about it. She has to write a thesis on which woman has inspired her most in life and then make her arrangements relate to that. I think she better choose Winnie Mandela or one of the women involved in the Arab Spring if she wants to get through. Are there any flowers shaped like grenades?

But Fr. Bill is determined to write a paper. He asks me to front the bric-a-brac stall. That is what my life has come down to and I don’t have anything better or more useful to do.

In the evening my friend rings again. She is feeling much better, and I feel a horrible uncertainty rolling away again, just out of sight. She is so kind and brave that she is worried that she has scared me.

I re-boiled the quince jam and that worked, it gelled much better. But it's too sweet for my taste. Quince as a savoury with that strange, flat, indeterminate taste is much better.

Autumn Chill


A friend I met in the chemo clinic called. Her voice sounded different, calm but very cold. She said she had some symptoms; bloating, constipation, those dreaded early signs of ovarian cancer. Feel my heart go bang and then a bit sick.

The next day walking into Chiswick in the beautiful Autumn light, consider that it is unlikely statistically that both of us can survive for the next five years.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Bad nights

I am working on a small painting called “Insomnia,” showing my arm reaching out in the dark for the buttons on my digital radio, as it does several times a night. It contains my glass of water and my tissue, essential items on the long journey into night. It sums up a large part of my life at the moment, I am sad to say. Voices from the ether broken up by short bouts of sleep.

Evenings and the early hours are difficult. It’s then that I start to feel odd symptoms, and at the moment I wonder if the cancer has come back (as predicted so strongly by doctors) but I can’t tell because symptoms are hidden behind these problems I’m having with the botched hernia op.

I am still bleeding and praying, literally, that the anti-biotics will work so I don’t have to go under the knife again. It is a real game of chance. I resent that my life has gone like this, so full of darkness and shadows.

There is a special problem for a single, childless person who gets a diagnosis of cancer because there is not enough to distract them and turn them back towards LIFE.

I meet other people with cancer, I hear stories all the time, my life is full of it, but if I had children their needs would come first and I would be preoccupied with getting them ready to face the world, to use their talents. It would be the start of their lives with everything ahead.

The nearest I got to parenthood was writing about Dada. I invested in myself, maybe it was a poor investment.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Good News

Shortly after saying I needed some good news I got a call from Roz at Hounslow Animal Rescue. She told me that a cat I rescued from a house where he had no name, no toys, no litter tray, has now been successfully re-homed and now answers to the name of Sidney.

She also sent me some lovely photos of him in his new abode. After spending a year living in a smelly darkened room under a bed, hiding from a violent, deranged boy, he seems to have gone to a completely cat-friendly home, with heated cat seats, toys, feline igloos, cat flaps a warm office to patrol, and lots of attention. One extreme to t’other, although he does have to negotiate his space with Alf, another young male cat.

I have written a piece about rescuing this cat which will be in the December issue of the Salisbury Review.


So I have achieved something recently, but I am spending most of my time, at least this week, in mid October, living very like a cat; seeking out warm spots, curling up and lapsing into sleep.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Not a Lucky Day

Yesterday, Oct 17th wasn’t exactly my best.

Apart from hearing that I might have to be reopened like an old tin, it says on the new anti-biotics that I can’t drink, for seven days. I have just bought a case of wine from Virgin Wines, who seem quite good, very friendly and offer a lot of discounts. I am craving a glass of Cavallino Brachetto d’Acqui II Cascinone 2009 but it just has to sit there unopened.

Also spoke to the people at National Insurance, HM Customs & Revenue, which they of course call Revenue and Customs, and learned that I won’t get my state pension until I am 65. Boy I could have done with that money sooner than that – not that I know what it will be. If you want a forecast to find out that bit of bad news you have to ring another number.
I know a lot of women who got their pension at 60. They must be about £50k up on the rest of us who were born a bit later. I also know many women who say they will now have to work till they drop. This pension change has been particularly hard on women. What a mistake to ever say we were exactly the same as men!

What I need now is some GOOD NEWS, not connected with the Bible. You only get that sort of thing when you have done something practical to bring it about. I missed the art exhibition entry due to the haematoma, I have entered a travel writing competition – but mostly my days are empty, lacking structure and purpose.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Running Battle

I’ve had a reply to the complaint I made about the strange man who attended me when I went into A & E in Hammersmith in early September.

“O’s” colleagues apparently describe him as "unassuming and quiet." No, that does not reflect my experience when I was with him. He came across to me as extremely cocky but also chaotic. He gave the impression by what he said, or did not say, and his manner of being dangerously unprofessional. He never introduced himself or gave his job title, which is why I tried to see his name on his ID card and made a note of it. He had me worried from the start. There was no "breakdown in communication," as the letter of reply says, his communication skills were nil.

According to the letter he discussed with me what he was doing and what the bags of fluid were for, and found out what I had been prescribed. I pointed out to him the pills I'd bought back in with me, some anti-biotics and Tramadol. He looked at them for a few seconds and threw them back into my bag without a word.

He has apparently told them that he offered to “clean and dress” my wound. “He noticed that the dressing was oozing.” There was NO dressing. That came off when I had a haemorrhage at home. He did not offer to clean the wound. He said there was "vaginal bleeding,” which there wasn't. He’s told them that when I refused to let him get into my knickers he asked a female nurse to clean the wound and change the dressing - who was that nurse? The letter doesn’t say. It does mention a nurse Tan.
She was the nurse in blue I to spoke to, telling her I was afraid of O.
She stared at me blankly, laughed and went out. Apparently she doesn’t remember that at all, but strangely despite not knowing what I said, she came back regularly and kept checking on me.

The letter doesn’t mention why O offered to keep my blouse and my bag and "bring them up later."

He’s not got off Scott free mind you. Apparently he has been reminded of the Trust’s “conversation at work policy,” because he spoke Arabic and ignored me completely when another man appeared and they took me up to the ward.

Running Sore


My CA125 which detects cancer in the blood has gone from 5 to 7 this is not
really bad as normal is 0 to 35 but I am sorry it has gone up at all. I have
had readings of 75 before the op to remove the ovaries, then 9, 7, two 5s
and now 7 again.

But I am not surprised really with all this going on with the hernia. I had the op on August 31st and the wound is still bleeding. Today, as I was in the clinic, the surgeon who did the op had a look at the wound. He says the mesh he put in is probably infected. They have given me more anti-biotics and an appointment at Charing Cross hospital to see an expert. I might have to have the whole thing again, or at least be opened up to take out the mesh. I am really fed up with this!

Trot around Tescos buying healthy (ie life saving foods) thinking, “this is not really working. I can’t live like this," – I mean the cancer check ups, the fluctuations between numbers, not all the other extra stuff.

Three months trial


My three monthly visit to get the results of the blood test is looming. It doesn’t get any easier; it’s like going on trial for your life every few weeks. I feel OK but who knows, no one until the doctor looks at her screen.

Why did this have to happen to me? I am still saying that. The title of this blog is wrong; I am still surprised.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

That England

Lying in bed recovering from the op, then the complications and now the keloid, a growth of bleeding mushrooms up my middle, bits of bad news drift towards me. Some stand out like sudden cramp; the plan to put 2,000 new homes on the hallowed village of East Coker, the number of African children arriving at Heathrow where they are then sold into slavery or given to “witchdoctors” who for some reason live in the UK but make a living selling human blood.
I grew up in a small country whose saints were Enid Blyton, Johnny Morris and Sir Kenneth Clark. Where has all that smallness and distinct cosiness gone?
Perhaps I have just turned into a little Englander. As people get older they always think their country has gone to the dogs and a feeling of nostalgia is deep in Anglo-Saxon culture.
Wouldn’t I be feeling the same sense of threat and despondency about the country if I was living in 1939? I don’t think so because in the past we were allowed to name an evil when we saw it. We could name it and get up and at ‘em. This new culture of equivocation and cultural relativism has castrated us more successfully than a Turk with a scimitar.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011



Back to Garry Weston Centre at Hammersmith for my three monthly blood test.
While I was in there I asked dear Dr. Blagdon to have a butchers at my butchered belly, with its still bleeding wound.
She looked at it and immediately said, “Oh, you’ve got a keloid. Most unusual, you only normally see them on Africans.”
When I got home I naturally looked it up on line – “Keloid or Crabclaw,” a benign tumour forming on a wound through infection and the over production of collagen.
It was first written up in medical notes in Egypt in 1700BC and named in Europe in 1806.
The lurid photos on line with people with things like purple potatoes hanging from their ear lobes, slaves who’d been flogged and the whip marks had formed intaglio patterns, and necks with swollen lesions were much worse than mine, some small comfort.
Hearing this was all a bit much. What strange thing is my body doing now?! Instead of going to a reading of the Tempest I slipped home and hid myself away.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Recovery or nearly


Steve Jobs the founder of Apple and rich as Croesus died last night. Another one who has made it through the hated veil. In a speech some time ago he talked about death. “No one wants to die,” he said with feeling. “Even people who think they are going to go to Heaven don’t want to die to get there.”

My operation wound is still bleeding. I have to keep applying dressings but I made it to Piccadilly today, 34 days late, for the Degas exhibition. I'll go again soon to do some sketching. It was bigger than I expected. I can’t stand up for long and get pulling pains if I try to lift anything, but one day soon I will be able to remain upright at parties again, with a drink, or two in my hand.


The moral of all this is - if you have an hernia wear a truss, or an “appliance” like your old Dad or uncle used to do, when they didn’t expect any surgery.
I got home six days later, thanks to a lift from the ladies of the church again.
At home I could get some darkness, quiet and good food, at least the seedy, nutty rolls and butter provided by a friend.

The feeling of loneliness I’d picked up like an infection on my second visit to hospital lingered and I felt annoyed and frustrated. I made a complaint about the lack of chaplains. They got back to me and said, in modern parlance, “We got it wrong.” They are apparently over-stretched, being cut back, and phased out. I am not sure who pays for them, the NHS or the C of E.
Putting my money where my mouth is, I have decided to do some hospital visiting myself. There is a course to learn how to do it starting in the Spring at Hammersmith. Hospitals are so bleak now that this is obviously a badly needed service. I am not sure the doctors at Victor Bonney will be pleased to see me turning up again, and it might be a problem that I only speak English and hardly anyone else does, but I will give it a try.

I also made a complaint about that strange man who frayed my nerves when I spent those hours lying on a bed in A & E.
At first I was told, “More training is possibly needed.” You can say that again. But what I’d like to know is HOW someone like that got the job in the first place? Is the NHS using some agency to recruit people from abroad on the cheap – like Tesco’s and Morrison’s?
Later I heard he had been ticked off for speaking to the wheel-chair pusher in a foreign language in front of me. Apparently that is “unacceptable.” But as the NHS at least in London, is chiefly an employer of foreign workers, how can they expect anything else?


My next visitor was the surgeon in charge of the department. He arrived with two young doctors and was obviously worried. I soon realised why.
He sent one doctor out and the other stood by looking nervous. “My genitals have swelled up,” I said cheerfully. The young doctor looked shy.
“Well they will,” snapped the surgeon. “I didn’t know it was you,” he said.
What could he mean?
“You are the person who wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph about us last year,” he said angrily, his large smooth round jaw thrusting down at me, as I lay there like a smashed turnip. I had to admit that what he said was true.
“What you said was all wrong,” he said. “But we didn’t feel we could reply.”
I asked what had been wrong. I wrote that we were sent home too early. I still believe that. My wound opened when I was at home and I had to rely on community nursing which was pitifully poor.
He said that going home early was all part of a new project to get patients mobile more quickly after an operation. Because of my article, he said, the doctor in charge of that new scheme had decided not to go ahead with it. Well that was news to me, as I certainly landed home very quickly.
I tried to sooth him by saying that the ward certainly seemed much nicer now; the nurses were much more polite.
“This ward has always been good,” he boomed. “Nothing you wrote changed anything. We have won awards.”
Then he said, “The nurses tell me you are tweeting. There is something like that going on.”
It was a great final shot as I lay there feeling beaten and scared. All the staff thought I was up to something, when I wasn’t. My old phone doesn’t know how to tweet.
If he was worried because I, as a journalist had just been readmitted as an emergency, his way of dealing with it was certainly pugnacious. No quiet apology or suggestion of a private room, just jaw out, surgical gloves off. Well I could take it. I have known too many newspaper editors to be surprised by that sort of male behaviour.
When the next nurse came to my bed I asked her if she thought I was tweeting. She stepped back looking surprised then blank. She couldn’t understand enough English to know the word “tweet.” I asked other nurses and got the same result. Later two young English student nurses appeared, real jolly hockey sticks types, very incongruous, like a sudden switch back to 1980 or earlier. When I asked them they laughed and said they knew nothing about it.


A young Afro-Caribbean girl in the opposite bed was disgusted by the Rumanian woman and after one of her blasts from mouth or backside, would use an air-freshener all around her own bed.
She went home and I was left with the gypsy woman, who added to her repertoire of noises with a mobile phone on full blast. There would be a burst of rustic music, singing, then she would scream into the phone, at all hours of day and night. The little nurses were powerless to stop her. I don’t think she knew what silence was. I asked the nurses, with difficulty as they didn’t understand me much either, to ask her translator to tell her to put the mobile on silent. It didn’t happen so I asked to be moved and they obliged me.
I was back in a larger ward. Opposite me was an Australian girl was crying because she said she couldn’t have children. I asked her about her partner. She said he was in Australia but he was “unreliable,” and they were breaking up anyway. My Polish friend told me in a text, to tell the girl to pray to John Paul II as apparently he is very good at getting women pregnant, or go to the shrine or Our Lady at Guadeloupe in Mexico. I didn’t bother.
Doctors came to scrutinise my abdomen, which looked like a smashed up turnip, with bands of blue and yellow. They looked worried and some murmured apology or at least regret that this had happened. They set up a drip with antibiotics.
I noticed with some fascination that my genitals had swelled up. There was something like a rubber band over the top and they hung below like rough pieces of MDF. There was a granular feel about the skin, perhaps like cardboard rather than anything harder. I could tell all this might take some time to put right.
Next to me was an elderly Afro-Caribbean woman who seemed well educated. She had visitors during the day, unlike me, and I enjoyed listening to their conversations.
One morning as we were having breakfast a young black nurse came in the ward and shouted at us: “Good morning Ladies! Don’t you want to see each other?” She tore back all our bed curtains and tried introducing me to the lady in the next bed who was eating her breakfast. We both ignored her.
She tried this again one night, bursting in and shouting, “We are supposed to be able to see you!” and tore back all our curtains. I put mine back immediately but in the night when I had to make my treks to the loo, I saw that some women had put their curtains only half way back, as if a little afraid of disobeying orders.
Curtains were the only thing we had to keep out the permanent light, and to give us some privacy. In bed I could see the days stretching out in their barren, antiseptic way. Some of the ceiling tiles are lights and while you wait for the final drugs round that signals the end of the day, you have to lie on your back looking up at them until they finally put the lights out at about midnight. There is no real darkness and no quiet, no where to hide, except being your curtains.

I was woken one morning by a trudging elderly black nurse with a face like a pot-bellied pig. She came at me with the thermometer thing they put into your ear, banging it so hard on the side of my head that I groaned. She tried again but failed to get it in to the hole and trudged off without a word. Another case, I thought, like Omar for wondering, how on earth did someone like that get the job? Later I heard some of the doctors joking that the nurses couldn’t even take a temperature properly.
In the day time I was back with my hedgehog brain, feeling humiliated about my lack of visitors. Now our hospitals have moved to Sparta, when visitors did come they could have a hard time. Alec, the handsome young editor, visited me on his way to and from work and one evening went off to get some coffee. The nurses are not allowed to make any drinks for visitors. Instead of telling him that there was a small vending machine in the kitchen, they directed him downstairs again to the Costa Coffee shop. That was closed so he went off looking for somewhere else. He was nearly half an hour away. I pottered off to the nursing station to ask if they knew where he’d gone. There was a young east European woman doctor sitting there.
“You must love him very much if you are so worried when he goes to buy coffee,” she said with an unpleasant sneer.
I was taken aback and retreated to my bed to wait. He eventually came back with his oversize polystyrene cup. He was cheerful as he’d got the gist of the place – a functioning, grinding machine as utilitarian and hard as an old mill or work-house. He gave me a couple of pounds to give the nurse for a paper the next day and I was extremely grateful as in the rush to get into the ambulance I hadn’t put any cash into my bag. How can you keep cash in a modern hospital anyway?
How I longed for the old WRVS trolley ladies, my mother’s friends now long dead, or the kindly husband I have never found.

The vicar from Ealing had contacted the chaplaincy at Hammersmith, there was a photograph of three beaming chaplains on the wall, asking them to visit me, but they never came. I was also and worrying about asking anyone to give me a lift home for a second time, worried about my cat, and realised uneasily that all that food I’d bought for when I couldn’t shop was slowly mouldering away in the fridge. Would I be able to get anyone to shop for me?

Oh dear, oh dear!

I entered A & E at Hammersmith Hospital at about 5.30pm as an emergency re-admission. I was put on a bed in a side room and felt very glad to be there. A young woman doctor who might have been Greek, or from the Middle East perhaps, took blood from me and I didn’t see her again. An elderly man with short cropped grey hair then came in. By his swaggering, ebullient manner I thought he might be another doctor but he never introduced himself or told me who or what he was. When his ID card turned over I saw that he was called Omar or Omer X. I suppose I better not write his name. The photo didn’t look anything like him, showing a round faced youth with bushy black hair.
He told me a doctor had ordered him to give me “a prescription for medication,” this worried me as the doctor hadn’t mentioned it. He set up a transfusion stand and I think gave me fluid to re-hydrate me. As he did this he said, “Did the doctor flash or flush, flash or flush?” I couldn’t understand his English and he seemed to get angry. His loose flapping lips, like wet grey mushrooms went into a thin line and he said mockingly, “You don’t remember what the doctor told you?” I didn’t know what he was talking about.
He said he had to examine me and looked between my legs. He said he could see “vaginal bleeding” and would need to take my knickers off. There was a very large bleeding operation scar clearly leading down from my navel, nothing to do with the vagina and I told him he could not remove my clothes. He said he had to or they would be angry with him on the ward when we went up. I still didn’t know who he was and didn’t feel I could trust him at all.
He flung out of the room, then came back suddenly and began talking about giving me a prescription again, as if he was a chemist. I showed him the drugs I’d stuffed into my bag before I got in the ambulance. He examined the label then tossed them over his shoulder back into my bag. He asked me if I had “moved my bowels?” made a crude gesture of defaecation and left again.
I could hear voices nearby from a room on my left, so I got up and went to see if I could find someone to help me. My mobile had no signal so I made a call from the hospital phone to Fr. Bill at St Martin’s in Ealing to tell someone where I was. He was about to leave for Scotland but contacted the hospital chaplains to ask them to find me. I also asked to see a woman nurse. While I was doing this Omar appeared again, sitting at a computer on the nearby desk. A white Englishman was clearly irritated with him, asked him what he was doing and kept calling him “Squire.”
Back in the side room a woman nurse who might have been Japanese, wearing a dark blue uniform appeared. I told her that I was scared of this strange man who kept coming in. She laughed and appeared to dismiss my fears but she kept coming back into the room to check on me.
I asked him several times how long I would have to wait to get up to the Victor Bonney ward. He was always vague and I didn’t think he was doing anything about it. I felt trapped and had no confidence in him at all. He was the most laughable person in a medical coat I have ever met.
At about 9pm a large black man like a Nubian warrior arrived with a wheel chair to take me up to Victor Bonney. As we went out my blouse fell off the bed and I asked him if he would pick it up. He said he was not allowed to. I asked Omar if he would get it for me. He was reluctant and said he would “bring it up later.” He also suggested that I should leave my bag with him.
There is the old tradition of Triage in A & E dating from the time on the battle field when quick decisions had to be made about who could be saved and who should be left to die. There was also a tradition in those times of the battle field scavengers, the Thenardier character who plunders corpses. I wasn’t dead yet or born yesterday, so I said a firm no and took my bag with me.
On our long, gloomy way up to the ward Omar spoke what sounded like Arabic to the man pushing the chair and they ignored me entirely. At one point we met a young man anxiously looking for the maternity ward. Omar told him to come with us as we were going there, which we weren’t, it was on another floor. Every word that came out of his flapping mouth was rubbish. I told him to find his way back to the entrance and ask again but the two men sent him out of a side door into an alley way.
In the cavernous empty lift they carried on their conversation and I felt as if I wasn’t there, which was lucky as I was uneasy with them and didn’t want their attention to fall on me.
Back in VB I was so relieved to escape from Omar. If I had been more ill or more naïve what might have happened to me by now? I think my pants and my purse would have been raided.
It was Saturday so most of the ward had been closed down, according to modern practice. I was happy to be in a side ward which looked quiet, with only two other beds occupied. As I lay on my bed I heard a familiar sound; a massive belch, followed by a long loud fart but without the half apologetic “Oof oof ” sound to follow.

The Entry to Hades

They kept me in for two days after the op. Not bad, it was only two days after the major hysterectomy when I felt very unwell and went home loaded with boxes of medication and syringes.
I quickly realised that I wouldn’t be able to take the paintings up to Piccadilly as planned. I would indeed be having a bed rest for some time. Alec, the handsome young editor of Private Banking Magazine who lives quite near, one of my few known neighbours, offered to collect the paintings on the Saturday lunch time and take them up to Piccadilly on his bike.

On Saturday 3rd September Alec didn’t get round to arriving until 3.15 pm. I had just realised that something was wrong; my abdomen had turned hard and looked bright red. I had a fiery pain, and then decided that none of this was happening. It must all be due to constipation. As I opened the door to Alec, I had to admit that I wasn’t feeling too good, it couldn’t really be denied. Then I felt blood running down my legs and saw large spots of it on the kitchen floor.
He went into Boy Scout mode – rang an ambulance, made hot sweet tea, for me as well as him, pressed a towel onto my middle. I had put on a loose summer dress I’d bought to go on my Cunard cruise to New York, for his magazine. It was the only thing to hand and I saw the blue pattern gradually turn dark red. The ambulance arrived within an hour. They were very nice, calming and efficient. By the time we set off it was too late for the paintings. Alec didn’t come with me in the ambulance but I didn’t mind as I was so glad to be going back to hospital where they would sort this out. Of course I didn’t realise that first I had to pass through the Hades that is A & E.


I made the dismal walk up to the operating theatre, which looks like a well stocked garden shed. I shed tears standing there waiting for it all to begin, remembering before, that whole scenario of big op, going home alone, diagnosis of cancer. Things I don’t want to remember at all. A doctor in his plastic cap ignored me while a nurse said, “Don’t worry. Lots of ladies cry.”
Well not me. I am not one of those ladies; I just didn’t want to be there again. I could have walked out of course, but I’d signed the form and I was brought up to be a biddable girl.

I woke up with the morphine bag attached and realised that the cut had followed right up the scar from the hysterectomy. It was just like before. I decided to lie back and enjoy the morphine and forget the rest.

I recognise one British nurse from Northern Ireland who was there before. After the first op, I used to wake up and see this line of people with frozen faces at the end of my bed. That nurse used to be in a dark blue uniform and hat, a bit like a life-guard and she used to glare at me as if I had just been accused of child murder. Now she was in a different uniform and seemed deflated somewhat. Perhaps there had been a coup d’etat of some kind; the ward was certainly different. Most of the nurses had hardly any English but they were much friendlier than before, and slightly older, more experienced.

I got up and pottered to the patient’s room with the TV for lunch. I enjoyed having lunch with the other women; a few of them from other parts of the ward were English, most with returning cancer.
We all sat playing with our food, like children, pondering: “Is this fish or is it potato? Where is the fish in this pie, can you spot it? Figures from 200 hospitals just released show that one in twelve or nine million hospital meals go back uneaten. This wastes about £22 million a year. All that money and they can’t even serve real potato or fresh veg.
When I was first in hospital in New Cross near Wolverhampton in 1980 they had a whole shiny kitchen, it probably looked like the VB ward. They cooked food on the premises and had their own nutritionist who had quite high prestige. I made a remark that there was not enough wholemeal bread, and I was told by a nurse that the nutritionist would be coming to see me as a result.
She was a young woman, very intelligent and she appeared at my bed and questioned me about my opinion of the food. After that I always got wholemeal rolls. Good Lord how things have changed!
I suppose we had M Thatcher just after that, the woman who invented soft scoop ice-cream by pumping it with 30% more hot hair, went on to be the great champion of rubbish food. Under Maggie everything started being outsourced, no more cooking in hospitals, or schools, and eventually not in many homes either. I wonder if she realises that she brought about the death of basic British food.

An elderly Indian woman sat with us. She gestured that she’d had a hysterectomy years before, but didn’t know the word for it. When the lunch trolley arrived bearing its cargo of packet fish pie and yogurts, she demanded her food without a please or thank you. That annoys me – so I said “please,” for her.
The person doling out the slop probably didn’t mind, as she was Thai or Philippine and didn’t have any English either. The Indian woman looked at me and smiled. After her lunch she suddenly bellowed for a nurse. I asked her why she couldn’t just walk by herself using her Zimmer frame. At this she got up and did just that, trundling off on her rickety legs. I felt like Alice in Wonderland reproving exotic creatures. She liked me though and we always sat together. Although she didn't have any of what are now called "social skills," i.e. manners she was good fun.
As the delivery of food and drink was intermittent, I went to the kitchen and got some orange juice for the Squaw. She looked baffled, probably thinking I was an enemy as I had groaned loudly about her horrible eructations.

I returned to my bed with its blood spotted sheets. It was changed frequently, everything seemed very clean, but the wound was leaky. I felt anxious and alone. Back in 1980, perhaps because I was so young, I felt quite cosy and protected in hospital. I could chat to women around me; I had visitors from my family of course, my friends and my parent’s friends. We were not far from my home village. A woman working in the hospital, who knew someone who knew one of my mother’s friends, sent down a flower arrangement for me in a small bowl. I remember looking at it and wondering if people would always be so nice to me? An echo of the future perhaps. I always remember that moment, feeling rather indulged and insecure about it.
That was long ago, I am now in that most unwanted category; the middle-aged woman, unless you happen to be a well liked wife and mother of course.
Hospital seemed like a dead halt, a void. It’s wasn’t just that there were so few English speakers, but there was nothing going on to bring in some of the outside to alleviate the bleakness; no trolley coming round with newspapers and sweets, no jolly volunteers bringing you a whiff of the life still going on. To get a paper you had to hope that you could find a nurse who could understand enough to know what you wanted, and that she would be kind enough to get you a paper when she was having her break. There were no chaplains either with their little cards bearing spiritual advice and psalmic verses. There were no radio attachments either, I should have bought in an I Pod, which I don’t have.
I had a nagging worry about visitors, like a prickly hedgehog lodging in my brain; I had told a few people that I was going in, but only for a small op, now I felt very alone. I also needed someone to give me a lift home. I could have been very grown up and just got a cab but I so wanted someone to offer me a lift.
I was worried about my cat and the food in my fridge. I had done a big shop but not sure how long it would be before I could shop again.
While the other beds were surrounded by relations during the day, as a lone, single English woman, my friends were working and I only got visitors at night. There was a lot of hoo-ha about finding someone free but eventually two ladies from my church agreed come and collect me. I was very grateful but I had this horrible certainty that modern hospitals are not good for single people. What I suspected in 1980, had happened.