Since coming off the chemo drugs and feeling gradually better I have gone gradually madder. I noticed almost immediately that as my body started to run more normally my brain was skating off in the opposite direction. How could it be that a holiday from daily poisoning was making me feel more anxious and disorientated? The responsibility of going back to work with a brimming bowl of teaching was not something that would normally bother me but, on this occasion, I was choking on every morsel of preparation, feedback or marking. My 9:00 till 5:00 Friday (hardly exceptional but necessitating a 5:30 alarm) paralysed my eyelids open. I certainly wasn’t worried, depressed or even sad, actually the opposite, just hyper anxious and obsessively hard working. What was going on??
Yes what was going on? – I failed to ask myself in the rush toward start of trimester. As day one of teaching approached I decided to revisit resort-not-sleeping, a place that had been off my bucket list since the trip to China in the 80’s fiasco, the abandoned to burn by my costume designer fire incident and the dragging my mattress around the hotel corridors looking for somewhere to shack up with the sleep fairy debacle. Anyway in the last few weeks, and after some practice, I manage to achieve that special status reserved for only serious insomniacs of not sleeping for one night AT All! OK so a slight exaggeration – I needed to get up at 6:00 am. I slept from 5:45 till 6:00. I know because I was digital-flashing-clock watching all night. For those of you who have never tried it, I recommend insomnia as way to experience what it’s like to have OCD. I guess it might be a derivative. Your head goes into a loop ‘Look at the time, and I am still not asleep!’ -> ‘I am still not asleep. What time is it?’ -> repeat ad-nauseam. For those of you who have it, and I know some of you in the family suffer, maybe it helps to know we are all in the same club, even if nobody in their right mind would want to be a member.
Tips for surviving insomnia
take pleasure in punching the smug, right-on GP who puts up a massive fuss about giving you sleeping pills and recommends mindfulness (more about that incident when my rage abates)
Read what the brilliant Labour MP Jess Phillips has to say about managing anxiety and insomnia
“When things are really bad I take medication.”
so refreshing to hear someone say “Take the drugs.” Instead of – go and swim with dolphins with crystals down your trunks.” Yes, she also advocates regular exercise, I can forgive her for that, but a public figure addressing the stigma felt by us ‘softies’ that occasionally need some chemical coping strategies, is just what the doctor ordered, at least for me.
And this is the big one – read the back of your drug packets when you are on chemotherapy because ….
I mentioned in passing to my consultant that I was surprisingly anxious and had trouble sleeping despite being in such a positive place medically. I expected an explanation along the lines of – ‘now you have a bit less to worry about, your brain has invented some trivial worries to fill the hole’ … but no, he barely broke his verbal stride (you know the one that goes Him: ‘How are you?” Me: “Good.” Him: “Fine. Shall we say see you in 3 months.”) as he explained that for the last nine months I had been effectively taking sedatives. More than one of the drugs I was taking, even in small doses (I was taking big ones) would put most people to sleep. Thalidomide was prescribed originally both to alleviate morning sickness and to calm the mother down. My body had grown used to daily inputs of self-inflicted narcolepsy and now I was cold turkeying.
So there it is – now it all makes sense.
I am not having an Ingmar Bergman (Persona) moment.
I am having a Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) moment.
The anxiety and sleeplessness has not stopped yet but I have got a grip and a bunch of pills. Meanwhile Tracy Emin, another hero of mine, has taken a bunch of selfies to make all us nutters feel less alone at 3:17 in the morning.
The marvellous Lisa Marini and her marvellous band that includes the marvellous Jack Tustin, Benedict Wood & Arthur Newell are gigging on March 8th at St Pancras Old Church. Tickets and information can be found here https://www.bandsintown.com/e/100692521
Sometimes I worry that I just might be being boring. No, no, no! I hear you cry. Well, when you have little of import to say, no ripplingly funny cat anecdotes, no hospital misadventures involving poorly arranged gowns or hilarious pensioners getting misdirected by the Sat navs into one way streets (oh wait, that was me in Hull on my way to collect an old telephone from an eBay seller in a car park) it’s hard to acquire the confidence to press finger to keyboard and wax. But I owe it to you all, dear readers, to ensure you are fully conversant with my escapades, unremarkable though they are.
Maria is mid her seasonal Dickens read hence the rhythm of the last sentence.
Christmas is pretty much over and a big family super success it was. Due to conflicting schedules and parental turn taking we had our four early for “fake Christmas.” Maria had done her customary thing with trees and lights and lights and lights and baubles and candles and ribbons and incense and turkey and Christmas cake and lights and mulled wine and stuffing and Christmas pudding and more lights to which I contributed zilch. Why she endures my complete physical and emotional absence during the Christmas preparatory period I don’t know. She is so into it! And incredibly loveable it is too. Day one of the family visit and we blew the main fuse at 2:30 in the morning. Not some trivial circuit breaker but the fuse that is the first gateway between power station and domicile. A big black thing that looks like it was once part of a Lancaster bomber. Its demise indicated that the 9 storage heaters, the tumble dryer the 4 foot blow up Santa, the two immersion heaters and the 3000 watts of outdoor lights bought at a car boot sale (I jest not) could be drawing more power from the grid than the rest of the village put together. Anyway I slept on the sofa with a delighted ex Ferrell awaiting Northern Power who arrived after only a couple of hours with full mining helmet lights and generators to reconnect us. Last time this happened, donkeys years ago, we actually blew the cable off the outside wall and burnt it through like a Roman Candle, this time happily I did not have to lie about our power consumption and blame the previous house owners, as apparently it wasn’t our fault, the supply having been recently upgraded, however they agreed that excessive Christmas electrical joy and the blown fuse were probably not unconnected.
This outage came just a week or so after the 8 days we were cut off from phone, internet, landline, text, Netflix and catch ups of “Strictly.” The result of some over enthusiastic pruning of ivy on the telegraph pole with a chainsaw!!! by two nice ‘Open Reach’ chaps from Cumbria. I must admit when I saw them assault the pole I did wonder whether the combination of delicate electrical wiring, entangled knots of ivy stems as thick as blacksmiths arms and two burly enthusiasts, the bearers of said arms, wielding a chainsaw, a hand saw and an axe would result in the intended ‘pole clearance’ or the more likely “whoops we have cut through the wire but we ain’t the right guys insured to fix it” scenario. Anyway the latter came to pass as predicted. The blacksmiths and I enjoyed an amicable coffee together discussing the incident. My Bulgarian was taxed to the limit by our reflections on the quality of Bulgarian coffee versus Italian. I still don’t know which of us won or indeed if it was that we were talking about but anyway after many apologies they went back to Cumbria and we were left bereft of all digital connectivity. I would like to report how much we both enjoyed ‘being away from the telephone’ that old desert island disks “how will you cope marooned on a desert island cliché”, but actually, if I could have broken out with a digital connectivity yearning rash I would have done. Both of us became really quite anxious and fed up. I was no longer able to contribute my paltry amount of admin to the University, the telephone box was forced into silence, Nonna could no longer summon us (her mobility is now virtually zero) nobody could get in touch with us through any channel except by travelling to York and banging on the front door and the only telly was the telly that dropped down the telly aerial, ie repeats of top gear and QI. I was onto BT support daily, facilitated by hacking into the neighbours poorly secured Wi-fi from our shed, or using the telephone next door at Nons. Four times over four days BT promised to fix it and on three of those four occasions they did not show up. We were so so so pissed off. Finally they arrived with a Cherry Picker from Tadcaster, not a peasant wearing traditional dress with hands stained with purple juices, but a mobile person crane. This time the right people to fix it were present, although staggeringly they had to borrow some of my tools, having been gifted with a new junction box equipped with a lock and no key. Anyway to recap, imagine our surprise and delight when a week after digital connectivity was restored and my blood pressure settled to its normal just below Chernobyl level, we blew up the electricity supply in the middle if the night just as our Christmas guests had arrived. Anyway all turned out well in the end.
So the other good news for me is that I am off the drugs. My numbers are the best they have been since diagnosis so the nine months of mildly disabling medicines and three months of not going into work or driving anywhere has been worth it. Pretty much immediately I have started to feel much more normal. I am no longer dizzy, I can drive again, my energy levels are going up and I would swear I can see my legs metamorphosising from something an anorexic stork would be ashamed of, to something the Incredible Hulk would be proud off were he also to be anorexic. As you know the machine at the NAC always reports the ratio of my muscle to bone-matter gristle as laughably poor in my extremities. Basically my arms and legs are barely strong enough to stay attached to my body let alone contribute anything useful. If I find myself in the crouched position, say to retrieve a toothpaste cap, I need to find something substantial to haul myself up on, the sink, a handy scaff pole or a passing visitor will suffice. After a childbirth level of straining and groaning I am eventually restored to homo erectus. Thus; for the most part if I drop something, unless it is really crucial, valuable or embarrassing, it stays right there on the floor until the clean up fairy retrieves it. The alternative being the spectacle of me wheezing my way upright while grappling for hand holds as if I were climbing the Matterhorn without ropes. Anyway all of that is improving and while I am no springy chicken the improvement is massive already.
I have tons of teaching next trimester so I do need to do a lot of prep over Christmas but in between we are having return visits from some, or possibly all of our four. We will be doing another Christmas lunch on Christmas Day for Nonna, just the three of us. To be honest I can’t be arsed but as I contribute nothing to the process it seems churlish to complain and at least I get my presents. Spouserly presents are modest this year as we bought an expensive fence. Maria designed it and to be honest I was concerned that it could end up a bit Guantanamo as it’s about six foot high and of Trumpian substance but I have to say it’s turned out to be a design triumph. The issue has been that easy access to the dog walker lane from our garden has encouraged a steady flow of friendly pups to visit us unexpectedly, either in the garden or occasionally in the house. While I am an enthusiastic dog lover and tend to toward the welcoming, the three cats are not so delighted to see their food vacuumed up by anything from two white devious shiatsu to a dim adorable but not unintimidating Doberman. The fence has the added advantage of curbing that annoying Yorkshire habit of friendliness, manifest in worthless chat about the weather, a topic I simply don’t care about, particularly when I am engaged in lofty literary thoughts on our loggia regarding telephone directories (see below).
The new year looks promising for one and all and I eagerly await the arrival from our four of a novel, a screenplay, an album and accomplishment in Senegalese drumming. They are all being as incredibly arty as I am being incredibly dull. I am currently thrilled by a book recounting the history of the telephone directory which, by the way, began in America as one sheet of card listing predominantly doctors and dentists. No numbers of course, that hadn’t been thought of, just names.
Here is a cultural puzzle for you all I have been considering. There was a vogue, after the invention of the telephone, particularly in France for postcards featuring, predominantly anonymous children but also adults, photographed speaking on the telephone. These were often accompanied by some sentimental verse.
The romantic connotations of lovers communicating over a distance seems clear enough but some fella just sitting at a desk holding a telephone receiver to the ear is not particularly romantic, festive or cool. I know I am missing something here but can anyone think of an example of modern technology which has been repurposed in a similar way? It seems to me a bit like sending someone a postcard of an unknown person operating an iPad and expecting the recipient to be pleased, surprised, amused or moved. I just don’t get it. That said I am completely drawn to this period of rampant eccentricity. The era from 1870 to 1920 is variously stuffed with technical and cultural innovation as well as a mixture of self indulgent angst and wackiness. I have already bored you with my enthusiasm for the music of that period but the more I read, the more I find the “stuff” of that period alluring. Telephones, phonographs, radios, photography and film. I think part of it is a childhood sense that despite the brilliance of the inventions most of them are reasonably easily understood and thus potentially duplicated in Meccano or with a few lengths of copper wire and a magnet, whereas technical innovation today is largely incomprehensible and certainly not reproducible in Meccano.
Did you hear the sound of the mars wind? Actually it was really the sound of the spaceship vibrating because of the wind, but so what. “A windy day on mars.” What a thought.
The eagerly awaited results of the DID challenge. Paul wins with 25/80 points. Here are the correct answers. You miserable lot hardly any of you even tried. It was mighty hard though
Humperdinck: from Hansel and Gretel the opera
Berg: Hier is Friede – a song (i would guess early)
Dvorak : Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém – Song to the Moon from Rusalka the opera
Korngold: Die Tote Stadt (an opera by the famous film composer set in Bruges – thats why i want to go there)
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (last movement)
Tchaikovsky: Romance – actually a violin piece but someone stuck some words to it.
R Strauss: Wiegenlied a song
R Strauss: Morgen another song
I did find the uniformity of my choices a wee bit troubling. Am I obsessed or just unambitious. Most of these choices would have been the same 40 years ago. I discovered Korngold when I worked at HMV in Oxford St just before I joined the army for love – her name was Carolyn and she wasn’t worth it and she had a boyfriend – i nearly tempted her away though – he was a plonker but signifcantly better educated than me. I bought records of all the symphonies of Mahler at the same time (staff discount). The guy who was in charge of selling them to me – tried a not particularly threatening pass on me in a flat in Angel Islington by sharing his collection of gay porn – if i remember rightly it was all black and white and the playmates were exceptionally generously adorned – the second time I have actually run for it – not out of fear – but i simply could not think of a suitable excuse – so while he was in the toilet – i dread to think why – i legged it (both run-for-its in my early romantic life were in North London within 2 or 3 miles of each other). Actually he was a nice guy – bit embarrassed the next day (he was) – I wasn’t bothered (Swanley Comprehensive made you resistant to all forms of potentially abusive encounters and getting away with out being beaten up, just being made to share some grainy pictures of big willies made the whole incident a laugh that I shared with all my colleagues) He and I got on fine after that – ugly geezer he might of had a chance if he was a bit more of a looker – I think he finally finally believed I really was straight. The Tchaikovsky is a Maria discovery on a Sylvia Sass record – we have searched high and low for the music so she could sing at my funeral to no avail. Berg has been a long-time favourite particularly the stuff which is on the cusp of atonality – I find the agonising struggle between harmony and dissonance really really romantic. Berg never stopped doing that hence even his most challenging stuff still hankers after tunes. Aha Maria can sing that at my funeral – who’s up for the piano part – yikes – there is an arrangement for piano, harmonium and cello – I can feel an extended family band coming on. Talking of dying – I hitchhiked to Vienna to find Bergs grave. Ended up sleeping in a very rough bit of town next to the street of amorous encounters. I was on the ground floor – it was hot and the windows were open – my german vocabulary remains to this day highly specialised. To digress for a second- I actually slept in a real brothel when stranded by a rail strike for three days in Venice – as you can imagine there was nowhere respectable available. It was a very odd arrangement insofar as I was just put in a spare room all the other rooms being ‘occupied.’ I can’t remember exactly how i came about getting it but I had just finished three months of intensive Italian tuition in Perugia and I was really proud of myself so I was just talking to anyone on the street showing off my coffee ordering skills and enquiries after the location of the zoo or ‘their’ red pencil case. I assume I must have told my story to one of the nice girls I bumped into (The Perugia experience made me very confident – it wore off once back in England) and the next thing I had a not very nice room (i cannot remember a window) for next to no money for three days in Venice, other people were sleeping on the streets. My only regret was that I left my socks and a shirt drying there. The two Strauss songs are on the b side of Jesse Normans 4 Last Songs recording (My mother adored them and listened to them while lying literally speechless (motor neurone derivative) – in her chair in our annex crying with emotion. The Humperdinck always makes me cry despite being kitschy. I think a choir of angelic children descend from heaven to look over the sleeping children in the next scene. The Mahler is simply the sublimest farewell and slip into eternity ever written (saw his grave in Vienna too) and Freud’s surgery (best museum ever – you get shown around individually by the housekeeper – its just a flat with his stuff in. Incredible vibe.) It’s all the female voice which is the instrument of the wife I adore, all bar two in German and they all probably fit into a period of 1870 – 1930 ish which is my preferred period of all things arty, design, painting, architecture, film the lot. When I say preferred I don’t mean I spend my time studying or even absorbing the art of this period I just mean that this stuff always catches my ear or eye in a way that the early 19th century or anything from the eighteenth doesn’t.
I could do another considered eight that would be a bit more of a mixed bag. It would definitely have Puccini with Pavarotti, Monteverdi, Muse, Radiohead, Alison Krauss, Britten, Glass, but it has been interesting to release a gut reaction and see what comes out. I kind of recommend it but you may be surprised at what comes out.
I have more hospital results and I am at 33 thingies. They are now saying they may push for complete remission but we are not sure how the NAC defines that. I was told anything below 30 was more or less normal but the NAC are always keen to push it down further, don’t ask me why. Anyway that means potentially another three cycles after this one – argggghhhh! I will have been on the drugs for a whole year. Trouble is they are cumulative and each cycle does makes me feel a little bit weirder. My memory is getting quite bad (don’t worry it is a side effect) and I get muddled up easily, find it hard to concentrate and am rather bad tempered. These first few days are good cos the steroids counteract the thalidomide so I am able to be quite productive if very gobby, (hence this post) but once they stop and the melphalan really kicks in I do feel quite peculiar. Have not driven other than one trip of 4 miles for months now. I have heart tests on the 19th and 21st this month, if they can fix that it will make a massive difference.
Anyway I am managing to do some university office work, thank goodness for Skype and e-mail. The university has been exceptionally tolerant and supportive so I try to do all the tasks I am assigned without ranting about the meaningless form filling bollocks we are all subject to – so i want to get better quickly so I can resume the rants with a clean conscience.
You will be gutted to know that I have shut down public access to all my poems and short stories as I am planning a few submissions and most competitions stipulate that your work must not be on blogs or published online in any form. The one to have a go at is the Mogford Prize because the prize is 10 grand. I have tried the last two years and failed utterly. You need to write about food as its run by an Oxford based restaurant.
I have noticed a certain physical trait among some male lecturers. When walking past, or through a group of students, say in a corridor or waiting outside a lecture theatre, they start to walk like Andy Pandy, stiff and puppet like. Any documents they might be carrying levitate to form something like a sergeant major baton. Why is this? My theory is they are jumped up self important weaklings who deprived of any of the disciplinary means they hanker for expulsion, awarding grades of zero or barring students from lectures feel the need to at least try to be firmer, taller and straighter than their cohort, who, I have to admit are often quite bendy.
A niggling doubt one faces all the time as a lecturer is whether one is being fair when grading a student’s work. After all you do have opinions about students and opinions can mean bias. The methods imposed upon us that supposedly ensure we are being fair to students certainly create the illusion that bias has been piped out of the system like rats. After all they have been invented by clever people approved by a committee of the latter, applied by slightly less clever people (us lot) and will be audited and externally validated by professor blah blah so they must be fair. Surely these prophylactics are better than the old system, where a hoary old lecturer could raise a finger in the air and say – ‘that student looks like they deserve a 2.1.’ The trouble is that now, rather than relying on arbitrary and irrational judgements made by the hoary we have substituted a largely unreadable matrix of educoded gobbledegook which does nothing more than ask the student to squeeze their work into whatever the latest fashion in incredibly complicated jargon filled marking schemes backed up by discipline benchmark statements (whatever those are) applied by an educational establishment with extremely dubious credentials and often very out of touch with the specifics of any particular discipline. In the creative disciplines, sorry by that I mean all disciplines, we should be encouraging the next generation to break the rules, not follow the blind dictates of us folk – and that means giving them academic freedom as well as us.
I wonder if that is a bad thing? I treat them as my equals and yes I probably cross the line and treat them like mates sometimes. I try to avoid over mateyness but I suspect I am too honest sometimes. I am unafraid to self deprecate and quite prepared to criticise university systems if they are silly. A long time ago I was foolishly awarded a senior managerial job in a regional theatre. Within seven months I was out. I just could not do the management thing . I could not reprimand, I could not systematise people and I could not be a boss. I haven’t changed.
An awful lot of energy is expended by all academic bodies creating systems to protect them from deception. We assume students might try to cheat, we talk about untrustworthy sources, lecturers are not trusted to teach in the way they think best, funders don’t trust us to spend grants appropriately. I wonder what proportion of any academic budget is spent ensuring that bad things don’t happen? Has anyone speculated on the notion that the more systems you create to guard against a minority of untrustworthy individuals the more you create an environment in which the trustworthy cease to trust. It strikes me as an obvious descent to the lowest common denominator when we cannot entrust lecturers to spend budgets supporting their own students and teaching. Instead another group of slightly senior lectures who only slightly know the lecturer and the students pass the decision up to a committee of managers and accountants who definitely know neither. All lecturers in collaboration with their students, should be given a budget to spend as they wish.