Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Since my little turn at work the other day everything has been up in the air. They don't know whether they want me back. They don't know whether they think I'm SAFE to go back, and they want my GP to help them make up their collective mind. I know this because I had to give them my permission to talk to her.

Fine, I said. I've got nothing to hide. No undeclared illnesses (that I'm aware of) or secret drug addictions that I'm being treated for. That's my reputation, mostly because of my long hair and my beard. But I'm clean. Deep down I'm really an ageing choirboy. Just an intellectual hippie, like a lot of people from a comfortable middle class background. Hell, my mother was simultaneously a bourgeois housewife and a practising Wiccan.

I don't think I'd miss the job that much, if I couldn't go back. I've been doing care work for a long time. Fifteen years, more or less. And I'm fairly good at it, I think, (I ought to be by now,eh?) although I don't have much of a sense of mission about it anymore. I do the best I can, then I go home. Most people I know who've been in it for a similar length of time say they feel the same.

It sounds mercenary, but what I'd miss most if they won't let me back is the wage. Not being independently wealthy, alas, I do need to make a living. I have bills to pay. I have rent to pay. And the day before I had my turn I handed in my notice on my flat, having arranged to move into a place in Northampton near to work. I can probably keep that on for about three months if they don't let me back to the job, but after that I'll have to move on again; and where I don't know. It's been a while since I navigated the netherworld of the unemployed (though since I was unemployed for nine years once I ought to be able to pick it up again fairly quickly).

None of this is necessarily going to happen, of course, but Karma can be a bitch when she gets her juices flowing. And I have picked up that sort of dour mindset from somewhere that likes to be prepared for the worst so that my emotional flanks aren't exposed when it comes.

Now I can only wait for the call from my superiors. And in the meantime sit on the meditation cushion, returning my mind to the emptiness that underpins everything. It may or may not be an arbitrarily-created human crutch, but it's a bloody useful one if it is. And the last thing I want is for the stress of this uncertainty to leave me thrashing around on the floor like a beached fish again.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


These last two days have been strange ones. I had another seizure on Thursday, at work. It's at least the fourth one I've had in the last year. Now, anybody can have at least one seizure in their lifetime; but only a special sort of person has four--they're called epileptics. (Well, unless you have some sort of undiagnosed brain tumour.)

So it seems I now have epilepsy, which is a little bit difficult to adjust to, after not having it for 44 years. But they did enough tests to diagnose a battalion with epilepsy when I was taken to the hospital after the seizure, so I can only presume they know what they're talking about. I gave my blood pressure, they listened to my pulse, they took blood samples, they listened to my chest through a stethoscope as I said "ninety-nine" over and over again, they made me lift my arms and legs against the resistance of the doctor's fist, they made me walk, turn and walk again; they even wheeled me into another room and took an X-Ray of my chest.

I had known something was wrong for a long time, but I'd been afraid to do anything about it in case it was worse than I thought (I am a little too much like my mother). So in a sense I was relieved that events had taken over and now it was going to be decided one way or another. Was it epilepsy? or was I the next Severiano Ballasteros, soon to be diagnosed with a brain tumour and facing a terrible operation?

Frustration with events in the hospital soon took over anyway, as they will. After two hours of testing in A & E the Doctor there told me I could go home. But as I was preparing to leave, an orderly came in and told me I had to be taken to Emergency Admissions. When I asked him why, since I'd been cleared for discharge, he said, "You can't be discharged until you've been admitted." Eat your heart out Joseph Heller.

I was taken to EAU and assigned a bed there. I sat beside it rather than get in because I had been told I was scheduled to leave. This was at half-past four in the afternoon. At half-past nine I was still waiting to see a doctor. AND I was parked across the aisle in my bay from a lunatic woman who talked constantly. At one point she asked me if I liked to "take it up the bum sometimes." Every other sentence she uttered began with the words, "As an ex-nurse..." or featured the phrases, "Well, just go with the flow..." or "That's my tragedy..." I was ready to smother her with her pillow. The woman in the next bed along to her buzzed the nurse and then pointedly asked him, "Can't you switch her off?"

After the shift handover they began turning off the lights and settling people down for the night. Afraid I would be forgotten I asked to see one of the doctors. She told me she thought I was well enough to go home, but that I couldn't be discharged without seeing the Registrar. "Is that likely to happen tonight?" I asked.(I didn't want to be a complainer--their job is difficult enough--but I was getting really fed up now, and I didn't understand what would be gained from keeping me in.) "Oh, yes," the doctor assured me, as if the question were ridiculous.

At one a.m. I was still waiting, so I went outside the ward and sat in the corridor to read somebody's paper.THE SUN, but hey, it was a day for unusual and distatsteful occurrences. At two a.m. I was woken up in the corridor by one of the nurses, who apologised for the delay in seeing me with these words: "The Registrar is seeing the Poorlies." I asked her if she had any idea what time I'd be leaving.
"Oh, I don't think that's the plan at all, my lovely!" she said, appearing quite startled by the degree of my incomprehension.

Thankfully, the Registrar appeared half an hour later and true to the original plan, let me go with a prescription for Sodium Valproate and the promise of an appointment at an outpatients clinic. It was two-thirty in the morning and very quiet as I walked through the hospital's main entrance with its closed reception desk and empty cafe. I used to visit this part of the hospital quite often in the days when I worked down here as a Care Co-Ordinator in the Social Work Department. Things had changed since then in ways I can't possibly begin to understand, not even now after spending the next day lying around the house sleeping and trying to assess what has happened.

The full extent of the changes that the diagnosis have brought to my life will become more obvious as I go along. But I wonder now if the epilepsy is as new as I first thought. I have been having weird sensations in my brain for years now. It never occurred to me before that they might have been absences. Ever since I worked in Kettering--and maybe before--I've had these moments when my head seemed to flood and everything for a brief moment slowed down and became really exaggerated. I've written about them in my journals in those days.

Maybe if I'd dealt with them then I wouldn't have had to go through this series of very public collapses I've had in the last year, which for somebody as unreasonably proud as I am have been really difficult to deal with afterwards.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Make no mistake, what's happening in Washington DC today matters. It's important. Historically important. From our perspective, with the short memory of modern life, we may think that Obama's election means nothing much. But it means more than anybody can really say in words, without a concomitant photographic display, appropriate music, a long and detailed lesson in history (how we need that lesson in history).

Look at the video above, while YouTube allows it to be displayed. That's Pete Seeger up there singing. Pete Seeger, who testified before Senator McCarthy's Un-American Activities committee in the 1950s and almost went to jail for his presumed Communist affiliations. Pete Seeger, who sang songs exhorting everybody to join a union and fight the insane greed and violence of the capitalist bosses. And he's singing a song by another radical, Woody Guthrie; a song that reminds people they are free men in a land that belongs to them, not their leaders, who are supposed to go to Washington to serve the people, not dictate to them, manipulate them and steal from them. And he sings the verse about welfare lines and private property which almost everybody who's performed "This Land Is Your Land" since--including Springsteen--has edited out.

And what are they all there for, singing and playing out in the cold in front of a beautiful monument to the democratic ideal? To celebrate the 80th birthday of the American twentieth century's most beloved campaigner for peace, equality and justice Martin Luther King; and in anticipation of the inauguration of America's first black president, Barrack Obama.

Think about that for a moment. Dr. King's birthday draws thousands to Washington on a public holiday given in his name. And only fifty-some years since racial segregation was ended in American schools by force--because a Republican president, oddly, had the courage to send the Army in to Arkansas against his own population--forty-some-odd years since racially-motivated lynchings were a common occurence and Civil Rights workers who went in to to assist their black brothers and sisters were also killed--a black man is about to become President of the United States.

I'm not stupid enough to believe that this means racism has disappeared from the world (though legislative racism is in for an even bumpier ride). I'm not stupid enough to believe that the world is going to become a beautiful loving home for everybody overnight once Obama has been sworn in. I know there is still enough work to do in our efforts to fulfil the dream of Dr. King to keep our hands busy for another generation, and a generation after that. But one very important mile marker has been passed in the journey towards a world every man and woman can live in equally, regardless of the colour of their skin. And that's something, even if it isn't everything. Let's allow ourselves one small pat on the back and take the night off to celebrate, if only for the memory of all those people who were murdered along the way.

They, surely, wouldn't be sneering about Obama's inauguration and pointedly finding something else to do tonight to prove how real or sophisticated they are.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I'm sitting in the bus station, late, waiting for a bus, reading a book of poetry by someone or other, and this bloke spills off the nearest bus. He's older than me, maybe mid-to-late fifties, wearing a leather jacket, jeans, trainers, has a little white goatee, and he's obviously blasted; you can see it by the way he walks--he's staggering like a guy on an old sailing ship riding through a storm. He catches my eye. Here we go, I think, the drunk in the bus station, just what I need at this time of night when I'm tired and tetchy and all I wanna do is sleep. Then he yells "FAIRPORT CONVENTION!"

But drunks don't normally yell Fairport Convention at you,and they're one of my favourite bands, so I'm intrigued, I think that's what I heard him say but I want to make sure. It'll be so funny if he actually did. So I lean foward and shout back, "WHAT?" (Pardon just doesn't seem the right word in the bus station in the middle of the night.) He ambles over with a kind and kind of satisfied smile on his face and puts his hand out for me to shake. The alcohol on his breath is so intense it would kill a field full of daffodils instantly, but I like it, I need a drink anyway. "Fairport Convention," he says, simply, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. I shake his hand, he's an agreeable old fuck and like I say,I really really like Fairport Convention. "I just got a really strong psychic vibe off you," he says.

"That's pretty spooky," I say, impressed, feeling a bit of a weird chill actually, like someone's just been walking around inside my head. He smiles, apparently satisfied, and turns to walk away. That was obviously all he wanted to say, Fairport Convention, now he's off to do whatever other business he has in Northampton in the middle off the night. But before he walks out of sight he turns and shows me the Peace sign, "You have a good night, eh brother?" he says. I show him the sign back, a bunch of trackie-wearing kids looking on scornfully. "Peace, matey, you too," I say. And then he disappears.

And I go home in a really good mood and get a decent night's sleep for a change.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Big Boys Don't Read, But Who Cares?

On the radio this morning some nice educated people were wringing their hands about a report that's just come out which says boys don't read anymore and are falling behind girls in standards of literacy. So how were they going to get boys reading again?

I didn't hear the solutions they came up with because I stepped into the shower at that point and by the time I stepped out again they were doing a weather report.

Boys think reading is "boring", apparently, and would rather be watching movies or playing computer games. Girls, according to the experts who compiled this report, were pressing on with their reading and becoming intellectual superbeings, or something.

Well, it's a problem that has been around an awfully long time. Very few boys read when I was at school either. I've always been considered rather quaint and old-fashioned because the only thing I never forget to carry with me is a book.

But are women really reading that much more than boys? If they are, in my experience, it doesn't tend to be books they read; it's more likely to be magazines, and usually celebrity magazines with Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole on the front. And though I do occasionally see women reading books on the bus--whereas I never ever see men doing it, other than me--the books are usually cheap paperbacks, badly written romantic fiction or stories about charismatic detectives.

Personally I think it would be more instructive for the intelligence and more uplifting to the spirit not to bother with books like that.

I know all generalisations are false, except that one, because I have many women friends, made through writing, who are extremely well-read, and many male friends too. But on the male and the female side the well-read people I know are, with one exception, writers and poets. For them to know books is pretty much the same as Andy Murray owning a tennis racket (or is that racquet?)

The people I'm talking about are the ones outside of the trade. Outside of the trade I barely know anybody who will even hazard twenty minutes with a broadsheet newspaper.

And it's boring to be around, but I'm a writer; I'm going to prefer the company of my own, to some extent. This is a post-literate age in almost every respect. But since there are many other ways that a person can feed his or her spirit, which is probably the fundamental role of poetry if not prose (the "ameliorating effect" Allen Ginsberg spoke of), I'm not sure the vanishing of the book in the majority of people's lives really matters.

As long, that is, as there are still enough books around for them to be available to those of us who cherish them.