Thursday, 29 January 2009

Monday 26 January

This week’s edition of “In Touch” – a programme for blind and visually impaired listeners on BBC Radio 4 brings two pieces of exciting news. First of all, a talking measuring jug, which announces in stentorian tones - although at least with an English accent - the volume of liquid it has measured: for example, 250ml of water. This should prove a boon for those of us who like to experiment in the kitchen and where simply sloshing liquids in has produced unpredictable results. However, I am not sure if this will be good news or not for the various friends who may be forced to consume my burnt offerings!!

The second piece of news is about very early stages of research into using stem cells to regenerate the optic nerve and retinal cells damaged by glaucoma. Early trials on rats, linked with current much more advanced research into spinal cord regeneration, have shown some excitingly positive results. Stem cells injected directly into damaged optic nerve tissue have resulted in some regeneration of sight. But as the research involves mammals in the rodent class - rather than primates or human beings - it looks as though it will be several years before anything positive can be offered - even in the form of a trail for human beings.

Following the glorious ascent to the Presidency of Barack Obama, hearing this news of a rapid explosion in stem cell research that is now going to take place in the USA gives me some cause for hope and joy.

However… how do I argue the case for experimentation on higher mammals - having always been one of the soft liberal types, who in general has always been opposed to experimentation of any kind on animals? It certainly presents all sorts of moral conundrums when a treatment is potentially on offer. It’s somewhat easier to deal with the concept of experimentation on rats than it is on primates, with primates being much closer to us anthromorphically. If the only way to progress scientific and medical research involves very limited clinical and humane research on humankind’s closest neighbors before experimenting with consenting humans, then I guess it has to be so. That moral maze about whether restoration of sight can justify experimentation on higher mammals is one that I suspect will perplex me for time to come.

I have far less of a problem with the use of human stem cells harvested from unborn fetuses. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of reproductive biology will know that at fertilization more eggs are fertilized than is necessary. It makes complete sense with the skills and knowledge with which God has blessed us to make use of this resource - rather than it being simply washed away in menstruation. At the risk of trampling where angels fear to tread - in the realms of theology - I cannot believe that a loving creator, God, would wish us to do anything other than explore new ways of dealing with human suffering and loss and to exploit by-products of reproduction, which yes, would have the potential for life - but in practice would normally disappear!

Today I find myself moved in different ways by music. At lunchtime I attended a recital, at one of the City of London churches, given by an old friend of mine who fancies himself as a singer. And thus I sat for some 45 minutes on one of the hardest and most uncomfortable benches my bottom has experienced, whist a programme of obscure lieder was delivered. I clapped enthusiastically at the end, and praised effusively the artistry of my friend, comparing him to Peter Pears and Robert Tear (some, especially those who know me, might consider this rather damning praise!), before bidding fond farewells with much continental-style kissing.

Later in the afternoon, I find myself moved to tears whilst listening to Radio 3’s broadcast of Choral Evensong from Truro Cathedral - where the sumptuous excellence of the singing soars unexpectedly given the remote location. My own memories as a singer are heightened by the powerful beauty of Howells’s Collegium Regale setting, and Jonathan Dove’s Seek Him That Made the Seven Stars, both of which are favourite pieces of 20th century repertoire. I think wistfully of the joys that being a professional singer used to bring and the atmospheric feeling of the Cathedral Close … and quickly switch to other thoughts before starting to mourn lost skills and abilities and the ease of lapsing into languid dolorousness. Radio 4’s PM programme soon brings me back to reality, reminding me of the economic gloom hanging over the country!

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Monday 19 January

It has been an interesting past seven days. Some of my more regular readers may have been wondering what has become of me! Quite a lot of time has been spent exploring parts of my local hospital – St Thomas’s in London - where I had the opportunity to observe some bits in closer action than I would have wished!

I was recently put on some new medication in order to try to maintain what little residual sight I have. The hospital warned me that I might experience some side effects, the most common being chronic fatigue and sickness and very loose bowels.

The fatigue soon became apparent - and is still with me - but nothing prepared me for the horrors that were to come. After a couple of days, I began to feel rather strange. Then, one afternoon, I suddenly became semi-comatose and then felt as though I was on a trip induced by LSD – or what I imagine that to be like!

First of all, I felt very light headed and then very heavy and confused. Suddenly, it became very dark followed quickly by as though I was viewing everything through rose-tinted spectacles: everything was red! I began to panic - thinking that I was having some sort of bleed in my eyes! Wondering what I should do, I decided to have a short rest.

When I woke up, I was having wild hallucinations with lots of flashing lights and scenes from fairgrounds and a feeling as though I was going up and down in some form of roller coaster. And then there were the children … I found myself surrounded by a small group of children: all white, aged between about three to five years of age, all jumping up and down in the room with me, holding knifes and waving them at me. I phoned the hospital and was told to come around immediately to A&E to get myself checked out!

Anyone who has ever attended an A&E department - especially as a non-emergency case - will know there is an awful lot of sitting around to go through; that the surroundings will be less than inspiring and that your company will include a rich variety of citizens drawn from the modern day equivalent of Hogarth and Dickens. The mad and sad and the hard and bad were all there in abundance, along with assortments of relatives, drunks, homeless, and security staff.

Fortunately, the place was relatively quiet and after taking my numbered ticket I was seen by a triage nurse within the statutory 15 minutes. My blood pressure was exceptionally high (230/190) and my eyes appeared very bloodshot, although heart and temperature readings seemed normal. And thus it was that I waited for several hours to be seen by a doctor - whilst still experiencing psychedelic visions - and putting up with the strange people around me in a very hot environment.

After a long delay, I asked one of the nurses what was happening. He investigated and found that I had been put in the queue for major incidents rather than minor incidents. He was able to fish me out of one system and into another, which meant that after another twenty minutes or so I was taken to a cubicle and made to undress for a full physical examination. A lovely doctor soon appeared and did a full examination. It turned out that I was one of the one in 1,000 who experienced some of these bad side effects and that they would go away, but I should immediately stop taking any more of that medication and return to the clinic the following day to be seen as an urgent case for review.

I was also given some drugs to help lower my blood pressure and reduce hypertension and advised to see my GP about this as soon as possible.

So, some five hours after arriving at the hospital I was home and had something to eat. And I have to say that a bit of food and something to drink made an enormous difference! I spent a disturbed night experiencing minor hallucinations but things had improved by the following day so I was able to present myself at the clinic where they listened with great interest, care and concern and immediately switched me to an alternative drug regime … which I am happy to report has few side effects and hopefully will be effective.

But as for A & E! How I would just love to get my organisational hands on them as the whole process seems so slow and disorganized … but then it is a busy London hospital and I know that away from major cities the systems are very much better.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Monday 5 January

Thank heavens! Normality has returned! That odd period of offices and businesses being shut for two weeks has come to an end. Never did I think that I would love the traffic jams outside my front door or the crowding on the buses and tubes as much as I do today! Many parts of London have become like a ghost town for the past few weeks. My local small supermarkets, for example, have been stocked with shelves of small simple items rather than the more normal produce. I really don’t know where this two-week shutdown originated from but it is serious enough for Capital Radio to be running competitions where listeners could nominate any friends or family who were working to win a big prize! It’s all becoming rather like the French closure during August, which equally seems to be affecting much of the UK.

One of the benefits of people returning to normality is that you get to hear about the wretched times they had over Christmas and the New Year. All the arguments and disputes with family members, all the cases where intoxicated relatives - particularly elderly ones - severely embarrass both themselves and all the guests, and gruesome tales of inedible food or over-indulgence. A friend returning from a festive sojourn with in-laws in Cardiff, tells me that they tried to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve night only to discover that the parish priest had dropped dead of a heart attack that morning, and how on Christmas Day oysters had been served up as a special Welsh delicacy, only to result in all of the party being admitted to hospital on Christmas night with severe food poisoning!

Another friend recounts the ghastly experience of visiting parents in Nottinghamshire, where a motley selection of aunties have been assembled. At present-exchanging time on Christmas morning, it seems that one aunt recycled a gift from another aunt in a previous year, presenting it to another aunt, also present. Seemingly, a very frosty atmosphere lingered for the duration of the holiday.

And another returning friend tells of the tragedy of her best friend’s brother - who very drunkenly took a short cut home across some railway lines in the early hours of New Year’s Day - and was killed by the express train that he failed to either see or hear.

It makes you realise that however bad your own Christmas and New Year was, it was worse for some other people.

Now is that time of year when we celebrate the coming of the Kings, the Wise Men, to see the baby in Bethlehem. I wonder what we would do today if we had those gifts of fold, frankincense and myrrh to offer and to share?

New Year's Day 2009

It would be nice to report that was all was well, but in truth I’m not the happiest of chappies at the moment! True, some friends came round last night and dragged me out for some celebrations and we very much enjoyed the fireworks on the River Thames … along with several hundred thousand other people! Living a few minutes away from the river means that it’s incredibly convenient to get - literally round the corner - to the London Eye but not quite so good when you have to share it! Matters not helped by the Police closing off all the local roads and the whole area becoming a pedestrian only zone – complete with vast numbers of drunken revellers all seeming to pass by my front door in the early hours of this morning. But at least I should be glad that I was able to get out and appreciate the free entertainment. Several people I know seem to have been laid low with nasty viruses over the past few days and one person has been ill in bed with food poisoning ever since Christmas when their host’s cooking obviously was a bit of a disaster!

The friend that I had expected to spend Christmas with texted me on Boxing Day to wish me a happy Christmas and to say that he had tried to get through on the phone but had experienced major difficulties. He had been invited round to his bosses home for the day; he had called round to see my on the way home but obviously I had not been there. I phoned him and we arranged to meet up. I explained that I was more than a bit upset but then at the last minute that meeting got cancelled too. By a curious coincidence this was the only person not to reciprocate my “Happy New Year” text so it looks like that friendship/relationship is a thing of the past.

On top of that, I had a big falling-out with another friend over a simple misunderstanding. She’d been ill with flu, which seemed to be dragging on and on, and we were talking quite a lot on the phone. After leaving a message as well as sending a text and not hearing anything back for some 36 hours, I had become a bit worried. I then sent another text to ask if anything was the matter. This seemed to provoke a whole tirade of stuff about me not giving people enough space and that it was unrealistic to expect every call and message to be answered. So it looks like it’s time to give that one a rest - no doubt things will sort themselves out in time!

I managed to get a few days away in Brighton seeing step-family in those lull days between Christmas and the New Year - the period of indolence when few people are working but there’s a vestige of normality with trains and public transport back in operation. It is SO annoying: why do the train companies not realise that many people want to travel on Boxing Day and that there should be some sort of basic service. Certainly, other European countries seem to appreciate that people want and need to travel - but then there is a long history of different attitudes towards public service and investment in public transport!

One of the delights of Brighton is its slightly decadent and maverick reputation, including the opportunity to revel in the sheer sleaziness of parts of the city nestling alongside quaint Regency houses. Where else, for example, could you find neighbouring shops offering antiques and giant pink inflatable plastic penises?

But the true joy was the introduction to Poundland, where, yes, every item costs £1! What a sheer delight to find such an abundance of bargains and so many things you never knew you wanted until you found them on the shelves! What am I to do with those six fridge magnet clips, or the bumper pack of pens, or the amazing value wine glasses? A friend tells me that there is a similar shop a short bus ride away from my flat, so my New Year’s resolution must be to save my £1 coins ready for those shopping trips!

Christmas Day 2008

There’s an impending sense of gloom hanging over me today. Various Christmas plans have gone awry; I either have to make some alternative plans pretty quick, or bury my head under the duvet and hope things will get better.

Yesterday - Christmas Eve - was a long day. There were bits of last minute shopping to do, mostly stocking up on a few essentials for the days that the shops are closed, as well as delivering presents to various friends. One friend took pity on me and gave me a lift in his car, as I have to get to the local Royal Mail Sorting Office by 1pm to collect a parcel that the postman had been unable to deliver. Mysteriously, I had been “out” when he attempted to deliver it. I swear that they prepare those little cards in advance and don’t bother to ring the bell to save the trouble of carrying things round with them! The friend also took me on a detour so that I could deliver a couple of presents to the “special friend” where I was supposed to be going on Christmas Day. I struggle with the letter box thee to do my Santa bit, squeezing a couple of gift-wrapped books and some cologne through the fearsome letterbox!

In the evening and morning it’s off to religious celebrations. It is good to see large congregations swelling the ranks at both Midnight Mass and also on Christmas morning. Increasingly, it seems that people are going away for Christmas and so some familiar faces are not around. Perhaps the secularisation of society means that people who might have turned out at Christmas and Easter are now taking a raincheck on these things – although it was very cold!

All contact with the friend I was expecting to spend Christmas afternoon and evening with seems to fail. The phone keeps going to voicemail and I get no reply to text messages. So, at lunchtime I have to make the decision about what to do and having reassured other friends that I was taken care of, I phone up my Muslim friend, Baz, who I know is having a quiet day as he doesn’t celebrate Christmas. He tells me to come on round if I can find my way up to Stoke Newington! It was an expensive taxi up there, which included a quick visit to my friendly local Afghanistani shop where they know that customers want things 365 days of the year!

It turns out that Baz has a heavy cold; however, not being a particularly strict Muslim he soon perks up when he sees the bottle of whisky that I’ve brought with me! We end up getting very drunk, eating a lot of chocolate and nuts, and devouring various strange vegetarian concoctions that make a pleasant change from Turkey and other meat-based traditional fare. I end up staying the night, and actually getting to know a guy who was originally just a casual acquaintance much better.

Just goes to show that it’s always good to have a standby plan ready - just in case! Oh, and that sometimes people who you thought were friends will let you down!

Monday 22 December

Well, there are only a few days to go now until the big day, when, to quote the carol: “Christmas comes once more”. I’m looking forward to a few days of normality before the hectic days of Christmas kick in; unbelievably I seem to have done most of my preparations! It also seems good that after more than my fair share of Christmas Carol Services I can have a wee rest, until the time comes to celebrate rather than anticipate the birth of the Saviour.

Last night an old friend of mine congratulated me on my excellent memory, when we were at a service of Nine Lessons and Carols. Fortunately, having been a chorister as a small boy, the words of many carols are firmly engrained in my mind. I can sing them all from memory – somewhat helpful when you can no longer read the words in the booklets handed out at most places. For some reason, churches tend to forget that the Disability Discrimination Act covers things like service booklets, and very rarely have I come across large print versions being made available. Anyway, I had a good sing - along with some old friends - and it was only occasionally that unfamiliar modern carols, or the more obscure that I only knew vaguely, caught me out!

The final Carol Service before Christmas coincided with birthday celebrations for one of my oldest friends. December 21st is not a good time of year to be expecting much on the present front for gifts that are not Christmassy or linked with the festive season! However, clearly all of us had worked hard to find gifts that would be acceptable and distinct. As we drank festive champagne and tucked into some rather delicious Spanish nibbles - thoughtfully provided by a friend who was visiting from Madrid - two separately themed piles (a birthday pile and a Christmas pile) grew mysteriously throughout the evening. My choice of present - a model of Margaret Thatcher that turned into a nutcracker (to be broken between her legs) - seemed to be in slightly poor taste compared to the books and DVDs that were preferred by my companions. Fortunately, my choice of Christmas present – a Nigella Lawson cookery book and a device for charging mobile phones in an emergency – seemed more on the tasteful side!

It felt somewhat strange as a group of 40 and 50-somethings all gathering together before the great Christmas getaway. We laughed and joked and had learned discussions about Christmas food all over Europe (other countries are so lucky to be free of the tyranny of the turkey). We also discovered a delicious way of eating Brussels sprouts – oven baked with cheese over them. And there was the bizarre revelation by a senior BBC journalist that she had recently been taught to pole dance when attending a hen party!

Time now to start wrapping those final presents and preparing to spend some time with “loved ones”.