Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Emperor and the people on wheels

The Emperor of Exmoor, a red dear and the largest wild land animal in the UK, was killed by a licensed hunter early this week. It reminded me of the scene with the stag on the Balmoral Estate in  the film The Queen: it too was shot dead by a licensed hunter, a finance type from the city. What can I say, I side with the wild beast everytime. It may be romantic and sentimental and misplaced but I believe that when something beautiful and strong is destroyed, a little piece of our humanity dies with it.

While I'm on the subject, I also think that Tate Modern's decision to close access to Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds 2010 exhibit on health and safety grounds (the exhibit, made up of millions of hand made sunflower porcelain seeds was designed to be walked on and interacted with... now you can only view it from the platform or from behind a rope) is sad, deeply unpoetic and small minded in the way that only administrators' decisions can be. There goes another little piece of our humanity.

How do you eat an elephant? Even a really large one? One little piece at a time. Same goes with our humanity. Every day a little piece of beauty, of poetry, of enlightment, of love disappears - lost for ever. Some new ones are created: random acts of kindness, charity, mercy - but there is a deficit. And one day we will wake up and all our humanity will be gone. And we will be very very sorry. So here's what you can do: look up. That's right: look UP. Can you see the moon in broad daylight? Is it full? Is it a beautiful crescent? Is there a rainbow? A lovely sunrise or sunset? A flock of geese? Can you see the North Star? Look up and create your own little piece of humanity.

On to cyclists. I'm a pedestrian. Sometimes late at night or early in the morning I am a driver. What I am not is a cyclist although two of my friends are cyclists... Anyway, it turns out that it's not just cab drivers and everyone else who hate cyclists, it turns out... wait for it... that cyclists hate other cyclists too! Imagine that. This is what I have been told, second hand, so don't hold me to it:

Apparently, there are four main cyclist tribes:
The Daddies who dress any old way, as long as it's warm, waterproof, and provides good coverage. They ride upright bicycles with baskets/saddle bags and sometimes sport a child seat.

The Newbies in their 30-40 who, having not ridden a bike since the Thatcher era, have just experienced some sort of undiagnosed mid-life crisis and resolved it through the purchase of a brand new and expensive bicycle which they are now riding gingerly and nervously, paranoid about hurting it or hurting themselves, or both. They're a jumpy bunch, easily spooked and therefore both unpredictable and of a stroppy disposition.

The Freebies are the ones who have signed up to London's free bike scheme sponsored by Barclay's Bank; they ride around on these very sturdy bikes which can be picked up and docked from any of the hundreds of stations around London. The bike's design means that it is very slow and their rider's movements are eminently trackable and predictable: you are not going to get one of these beauties sneaking up on you or making a dash across the intersection through a red light.

And finally, there are the Triathletes: they ride carbon fibre bikes, wear "ridiculous lycra outfits", and race from traffic light to traffic light as part of their hard core training.

And here's the thing, everyone hates or despises everyone else! There is a class order too: the Triathletes at the top of the pyramid look down on every one else.The Daddies despise the Newbies for their lack of confidence. Everyone hates the Triathletes (including, I suspect other triathletes... they're a competitive bunch) and everyone despises the Freebies or worse, dismisses them as pedestrians on wheels. 

Friday, 15 October 2010

Playing Doctors and Nurses

We’re having a bit of a medical week. I had some inoculations yesterday for my planned trip to India (by planned I mean I know I’m going, at some point, like before the end of the year, but I’m not sure where to yet, or for how long). There are some nasty diseases out there: I got two jabs one for Hepatitis A and tetanus, one for polio, typhoid and diphtheria. The GP, feeling egalitarian in this age of fairness and austerity, gave me a jab in each arm – this morning I woke up feeling like I’d done a thousand bench presses in my sleep. And of course tomorrow is first my yoga class in two weeks as yoga George is back from holidays. I cannot bear to miss it but not sure how many chatarangas I will manage. Or headstands, or arm stands for that matter. Oh the irony!

Feeling rather contrarian, I requested some anti-malarial tablets (I am the poster child for Mosquito Tourism) but declined the offer of the seasonal flu jab. 

My right calf is sore too, courtesy of the man from the armoured car who was in such a rush to get to the Boots back office to collect the day’s takings that he ran me over with his incredibly heavy cart. I hollered in genuine pain and surprise but he never stopped. A case of pharmacy hit and run. Cursing quietly after him I hobbled to the chemist counter. The nice young man (notice how they are always nice and young when you find yourself in distress?) took me to the consultation room and treated me to some ice spray followed by a heating spray. “Tell me if this hurts.” “Ow! Ow! Just kidding.” It stopped him in his tracks and made him giggle. I guess I didn’t look the type to joke about.

I’m sporting a nice big purplish bruise today that only hurts if I press on it. So I try not to.

Today’s medical requirements are a little more serious. We are having a small hernia operated on and as I won the toss I get to play nursie rather than the patient.

It’s a very nice hospital, out West near Harrow, which means we had to leave at 6:15 this morning for our 8am appointment. We got here in plenty of time. Would have got here even earlier if I hadn’t entered the wrong postcode into the GPS. Luckily the other hospital was also near Harrow. I got called a “nong” for my efforts (I'm told it’s an Australian term of endearment) but I got off easy all things considered.

We arrived laden with food (a hernia operation is no excuse to abandon the Dukan diet) but conscious that we were “nil by mouth” since the night before I refrained from eating until the patient was wheeled off to the operating theatre.

It’s been a while since I was in a hospital. And boy have things move on. Have they ever! They make you were disposable underwear, the hospital gowns tie at the side, you are given a bathrobe to further protect your dignity and some fetching anti-deep vein thrombosis stockings. And a physio comes in with some simple deep breathing, toe wagging, and gentle coughing exercises for your post op recovery period. Genius.

I’m a bit jealous. I like general anaesthetics: the deep satisfaction of profound sleep. And the one week course of post op pain killers. Never mind. At least I got to enjoy the delights of the single and very well appointed bedroom whilst the patient was been operated on (in the theatre obviously, not the room).

... Three hours later, I had exhausted all available distraction available including but not limited to finding my way out of and back to the endoscopy ward, having breakfast, writing this blog, writing a couple pages of my novel “The Shy Exhibitionist (TSE)” – more on that soon – and doing all the puzzles in today’s Daily Mail – badly – and having a minor breakdown in the bathroom when I couldn’t figure out how to turn the tap off (you turn it all the way to the left). I was about to launch a rescue party for the patient when the phone rang. “Hello, this is the nurse in the recovery room. Everything’s gone really well but... (oh dear, what? WHAT?) he’s not breathing as well as we’d like. So we’re going to keep him here with us a little while longer before we bring him back up to the room. He’s fine really, he’s all talkative and telling jokes (oh, really? I am so relieved) but... you don’t happen to know how many breaths he normally takes per minute?” Unfortunately, I did not. But believe me, I’m going to find out for next time.

An hour later, they wheeled him into the room. A little pale and groggy but no worse for wear. With the daddy of all pressure bandages (to avoid excessive swelling and bruising for those of you not versed in surgery) on his tummy. Apparently, I’m going to have to yank it off in the morning. Lucky he’s going home with painkillers.

Turns out he is extremely susceptible to morphine: they gave him a tiny amount and he was out like a light. It took them an hour to bring him round.Turns out he’s some sort of non-breathing record holder... had the entire nursing staff on high alert because he was only taking 6 breaths a minute.

I told you I should have been the patient: I don’t mind morphine and I haven’t been training for any free-diving competition.

Anyway, he ‘s asleep now. Had some water and some food (lovingly prepared the night before – did I mention that we had to leave home at 6:15?) felt nauseous, rang for the nurse who never came, stopped feeling nauseous, saw the surgeon, had vital signs checked three times, did the physio’s exercises – that on top of a big incision on your belly is bound to wear you out. No need for morphine.

We’ll be going home soon. As soon as he can sit up and walk around a bit and all that. The nurses are all very friendly – like they just happened to stop by rather than actually working there on shift.

So all is good. The only cloud on the horizon is having to drive us back to and through London. I have to do it – he won’t be in a state to drive for a week or so. And I don’t drive through London very often – other than very very early in the morning or late at night – when there are no other cars around. Still. Small price to pay for spending an entire Friday playing doctors and nurses in a real hospital.

Monday, 4 October 2010

I come bearing gifts

Battling the rain, with my mock-Chanel sloppy trousers rolled-up around my ankles to avoid the tell-tale splatter, I picked my way around the puddles to the Tube station (that's what they call the London Metro/Subway). My destination? Kings Cross Station - or rather St Pancras International (or St Pancreas... as I like to call it) home of the Eurostar. I was heading home to Paris for the weekend. I'd packed rather light, in my wonderful Kitsch Kitchen bag. After some agonising sartorial decision making, I'd plumped for the school girl meets Chanel look which involved soft layering, slouchy trousers, long necklaces and charm bracelet, and a lot of pink and purple. (Sorry, I've been gorging on the freebie fashion mags on Eurostar - it's either that or Sudoku).

I'd even painted my nails "Rouge Seduction" which only the most dedicated of readers will remember as "the Woman" nail colour in Desire. That was a bit of a gamble: not only is this season's deep iridescent purple more "on trend" but there was a risk my mother would disapprove of the clash with my pink and purple colour scheme. (Note: as it turns out, she disapproved of the rather natty bright red lipstick that I put on to detract from my no longer black but mauve and green eye.) The other bit of gamble was borrowing a character's physical trait - but she was bold and feminine - a good talisman for a rare family visit. As it was a rather last minute decision, the top coat got mussed up - so I diligently repaired the damage when I got to the Eurostar lounge, but on that later.

Now for the "bearing gifts part". I'd already purchased some short bread, a favourite of my favourite aunt and godmother who is now 80, full of beans, and who developed a penchant for short bread shortly after my first stay in England in the late 1970's. (Kidmore Road, Caversham Heights if you must now.) Now I had to find something for my parents.

I got to St Pancras very very early. After retrieving my ticket from the self-service machine (which always involves a Continental frisson of  the "will-it-accept-my- booking-reference-number-or-will-the-computer-say-no" variety) I headed back out into the shopping arcade in search of TPP: The Perfect Present. They have loads of lovely things and I flirted with the idea of getting my dad the latest John le Carre hardback but decided against it as I was pretty sure he hadn't enjoyed the last one I'd got him. I looked at some costume jewelry and pretty scarves but my Mum has always eschewed frivolity and bright colours in favour of her very own brand of monochrome minimalism (head to toe black with the occasional flash of brown, tan, grey or white). Votive candles, incense sticks or house fragrances from Rituals? My mother doesn't tolerate lit candles or incense sticks... apparently the soot in the smoke blackens walls and ceilings.

So I walked into Neuhaus, the Belgian chocolate people. Everyone likes chocolate. Especially my mother. After a shortlived  "should I get the 40 or 60 piece" debate between my instinct to be generous and the voice in my head telling me my mother might think it wasteful, I went for the box of 60. Eat your heart out.

Not for the first time in my life I wistfully thought how I would have liked a mother who loved receiving presents, any kind of present, rather than a mother with impeccable taste. Luckily, therapy and a dedication to my personal yoga practice have made me rise above such considerations. Even if it still makes present hunting that little bit more challenging.

The lady in Neuhaus wrapped a nice ribbon around the box, and after paying for my purchase, I went to take part in the obstacle course which Eurostar generously provides free of charge to all passengers and which they amusingly call "security and passport control". Ha.

Actually it was fine. I got flirted at by a security lady with a Heidi blonde hairstyle (but not body searched) and I got a searching look from the French police official who was too polite to ask about my black eye.

Having reached the main lounge (as opposed to the lounge for business and first passengers which is off limits to the great unwashed) I sat down for the rather long hour wait until the scheduled boarding time and was treated to the most fascinating floor show - set to an Andrew Lloyd Webber catchy tune, it could have given Les Mis (Victor Hugo must be spinning in his grave) a run for its money.

Act 1: Bloody Jonathan. A rather tall and plump American business man called Jonathan had apparently tripped and hit the floor with his left brow and was now sitting rather dazed, blood pouring down the side of his face, attended to by Eurostar personel. They were diligently wiping his face clean with copious amounts of paper towel and a glass of water (!). They eventually wrapped a huge crown of gauze around his head before two medics showed up with some more impressive medical kit and - I think - gave him a few stiches. A few moments later, sans the gauze, he was escorted off presumably to his train? Goodbye Jonathan.

Act 2: The Mail Order Bride. An other American sat down next to me on my right. He was the domineering type who spoke in affirmative statements ("Swiss Rail Passes are a waste of money!") and his partner was very nervy but acquiescent. I nicknamed her the mail order bride. Totally not PC. Totally inappropriate. But he was getting on my nerves. And I wanted to kick her. I wanted to kick him too.

Act 3: Don't go anywhere. To distract myself I turned my attention to the lift well on my left. A Eurostar employee was wheeling a sweet rather frail looking elderly lady holding crutches towards me. He stopped by the lift and left her with a rather concerned sounding plea: "I'll be just a minute, please don't go anywhere!" She and I had a nice chuckle over it. "What on earth does he expect you to do?  Go scooting around the place?" "I know! I know! But isn't he sweet?"

Act 4: The Ballet. Then the real action started. Due to the late arrival of one train (from the depot! What happened? Was someone sleeping?), both the Brussels train and the Paris train (not mine, I was on the next one, I got there that early) boarded simulaneously. I watched wave after wave of people launch themselves across the lounge and then squint desperately at the most badly designed boarding screens and then perform a little jig, left - right - left until they finally spotted some unfortunate Eurostar Staff at whom they brandish their ticket in a desperate flourish only to launch themselves all over again in the direction in which the finger was pointed, trailing scarves, small children and luggage.

Act 5: The Trick. Like most things in life - is all about timing. You want to be standing close to the entrance to the platform from which your train will depart so that you can walk up the ramp ahead of the crowd, find your coach, find your seat, have room for your luggage near your seat, snaffle the freebie papers and mags and get yourself all settled in. The challenge is that the platform number is not announced until boarding commences, about 20 minutes prior to departure time. The trick is to spot the clues. Be alert. 25 minutes before departure time, I spotted a very pregnant lady with a stroller being directed towards gate 7. I took a gamble. Leaving the domineering American and his yes girl behind I followed the pregnant woman. And sure enough, the doors opened and after flashing our tickets, up the escalator we went. Cool.

We left on time. The journey passed without incident.

And my mother loved the chocolates.