Sunday, 28 August 2016

Down in the Depths

I am so sorry. It's three months since I last blogged and the reason for the silence is that I've just been very unhappy about a lot of things in my life and didn't want to seem like a whinger.

To sum up, my relationship is no longer working but as my partner is sick and disabled, I feel dreadful about leaving; I still haven't found anywhere else to live and now face another freezing winter in this inadequately heated house; someone I am very attached to and have been very close to for ten years has suddenly cut me out of her life, with no explanation, and I have lost my regular freelance job and now have nothing to do and no extra income apart from my pension (thank God for that!).

Not surprisingly, the stress has had a bad effect on my health and I am wondering if I am having a kind of nervous breakdown. Having compared notes with my sister and found I have the same symptoms as when she had a breakdown years ago - panic attacks, insomnia, bad stomach, hyper-sensitivity, getting over-emotional about the slightest thing, bursting into tears frequently and all sorts of other stuff, too - I think I might be. I'm certainly very depressed.

I consulted a homeopath and the remedies he prescribed have helped for the last month, but I have now finished the course and can't afford to keep going back for more. I suppose I could try and track down the remedies on the web. Hmm... I might just do that. One of them was Lycopodium, for anxiety and stomach problems, another was Dulcamara which can help arthritis and stiff neck - and I have recently discovered that I broke my neck in three places in 1985, not just two.

Just thinking about what I suffered and how I got no help at all from the medical profession and have had to spend more than £30,000 of my own money seeking relief from the pain and disability it has left me with, makes me well up. It also makes me feel very angry and hard-done-by. I went to see my GP three weeks ago and she flatly refused to send me for any scans, even though I damaged my spine lower down, too, and that has never been x-rayed at all. Oh, sorry, I'm whingeing again.

Anyway, as soon as I have made sense of at least one of my current problems, I hope to start writing again. One good thing to report is that, encouraged by my artist sister,  I have begun painting for the first time since my school days and have already sold the two illustrated below.

Border Collie Pup

Here is the other:

Not having painted since my schooldays, I am surprised at how well they turned out. Perhaps painting, not writing, is what will get me through these dark days.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Great British Poo Test

When you get to a certain age in the UK, you are invited to take part in the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme (aka the Crap on the Cardboard test). So long as you are registered with a GP and are 60 or over, you get a letter saying they are sending you a kit plus instructions.

So far, so good. 'It can't be that difficult', you think. 'All I have to do it poo.' Then it arrives, complete with envelope for return postage. What? Poo through the post? The envelope isn't even padded! Ugh! Though it does have a shiny plastic-y lining. The post office sorters must get thousands of these envelopes and they must know what's in them. Do they wear hazard suits and extra thick rubber gloves? Imagine if your sample was post-curry-oozy and seeped its way through the cardboard. The kit has your name on. They'd know it was your vindaloo!

But I am getting ahead of myself. Here's what is in the kit. i, A prepaid return envelope: ii, 6 cardboard sticks, two for each of the three days of the test: iii, An orange and white cardboard test kit (yes, it really is Crap on the Cardboard).

The leaflet tells you that the kit must be completed and sent off within 14 days of the first sample being taken, i.e. the first poo. 'That's easy,' you think, with a certain sense of relief. 'I'm sure I can manage three craps in 14 days.' Well, don't be so sure. You can almost guarantee that one glance at the flimsy lollipop stick provided in the kit will send any incipient turd scuttling back up your colon for safety.

So, Day 1 dawns and I head for the bathroom, kit in hand and settle myself. Suddenly, when it's almost too late, a thought strikes me. How do I get it onto the stick? No way am I going to reach beneath myself in mid poo, even with my sleeve rolled up. In desperation, my eyes light on the loo paper. Perfect! I tear off a wodge and position it carefully, but, not having eyes in my derriere, I had no idea of the consistency of what I had just evacuated. It was like a very dense fruit cake that, as I withdrew the paper to dip my lolly stick in it, shot into the air and landed with a thud on the laminate flooring. I swear it bounced.

I felt as horrified as a child who had accidentally pooed in public. Though there was nobody to witness my 'accident', I nevertheless burned with shame. I bent as far forward off the loo as was physically and hygienically safe and grabbed the thing in a handful of loo roll, jabbed in the stick and then my troubles really started. I had forgotten to Lift The Flap! There I was, Richard in one hand (as in Richard the Third = turd, Cockney rhyming slang) and lolly stick quivering in the other, balancing a small heap of poo on the tip. I needed three hands and I could hardly call for help in the middle of such an intimate act.

My only recourse was to chuck the paper-wrapped lump down the loo and transfer the stick to my left hand while I opened the flap with my right. Wrong! I need two hands to prise open the cardboard flap, so I had to rest the lolly stick on the edge of the washbasin. Unfortunately, as I was opening the flap which covers the tiny area which you have to dot with poo, I flipped the handle of the stick with my wrist. The stick performed a tiddlywinks manoeuvre and prescribed a parabola in the air, hitting the mirror over the sink and slithering down.

I now had poo in the loo, poo on the floor, poo on the mirror and absolutely no poo on the poo test kit. Total fail. But then I had a stroke of luck as I received a message from Bowel Control to tell me that there was a beastie still to emerge. Grab tissue. Trap tiny tip of turd. Use the dipstick. Transfer to kit. Done!

Except it wasn't. On reading the leaflet more closely, I discovered I was meant to take a second sample from 'the bowel motion you have just collected'. Oh no! Too late! It had struck the iceberg of turd No. 1 and vanished beneath the water line. I shan't tell you what I did. You might be having your breakfast. Suffice it to say that cleaning up afterwards used an entire packet of antibacterial wipes.

By Day 2, I was an old hand - a rather brown hand - at this game. No problem. Day 3, the 'motions' were of gravy-like consistency and presented challenges of their own. But at last I had the envelope sealed and ready for posting. Just as I was popping it into the mail box, I remembered I had forgotten to write the date on Sample No. 3. I fished in my bag, found an eye pencil and scrawled it on the outside of the envelope, adding 'Sorry'. Perhaps it should have been 'Soggy'.

Since then, I have had my official NHS letter giving me the All Clear. Thank heavens for that! And just when I thought that was it for ever, I re-read the original letter and found they were extending the test for four extra years. That's how many lolly sticks to go? I shall never be able to face a choc ice again!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Keith Emerson and the slow fade

I was saddened by the news that Keith Emerson, the amazing prog rock keyboard player of ELP, has apparently ended his own life because a neurological problem was affecting his fingers and making it increasingly difficult to play.

I can empathise with this only too well. I have played the guitar since I was fifteen. I went semi pro, did a Continental tour as a solo singer-songwriter and later formed my own folk-rock band, Izara, which gigged for four years.

When the band broke up, I went solo again. I have written hundreds of songs and now, in the YouTube and SoundCloud era, was looking forward to recording the best and getting them out there so people could actually hear them, instead of my words and music being sung only in my bedroom.

What I didn’t bargain for was disease robbing me of my ability to play the guitar. I don’t know what Keith’s problem was but, in my case, it was osteoarthritis in my fingers. As they gradually stiffened, I found it harder and harder and increasingly more painful to form chords. As the disease progressed to my thumb joints, I couldn’t even strum without wincing. So I have been forced to give up a hobby that gave me great enjoyment and a creative outlet on a daily basis for more than five decades.

To make things even worse, a long bout of laryngitis over December and January has robbed me of my singing voice, too. Once, my soprano could soar to Kate Bush heights, though I could never quite achieve Minnie Riperton’s celestial squeak. My three and a half octave range has shrunk to two at a push and my breath control is all over the place. I am wondering if singing lessons might help.

If I can regain my voice, all is not quite lost as I can still play keyboards after a fashion. I started playing the piano by ear when I was only three, went to lessons from the age of six and had passed my Grade 8 by the time I went to university. I have recently bought a small digital five-octave keyboard and as soon as my tones have grown a bit more dulcet, I shall start practising.

Unlike Keith, I am not a musical colossus with a name and a performance standard to uphold and neither am I a perfectionist. I compose and play purely for enjoyment. But when a musical ability one has taken for granted for most of one’s life (I am the same age as Keith) suddenly begins to fail, it is like a bereavement. Instead of glorious chords and harmonies, all you hear is the percussion of slamming doors. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The killer coat

I have done some stupid things in my time. I sold a north London flat that would now be worth over £1 million and stayed out of the property market so long that I can now barely afford to buy a studio flat.( I had moved in with a boyfriend, of course, and hadn’t thought to keep my flat and rent it out, or invest in another property. *bangs head*)

Yes, I am the sort of person who ambles through life with head in clouds. A lifelong non-driver, I sit in the passenger seat in my own little bubble, so that when my partner says, “An unmarked navy blue police BMW. Impressive!”, I reply, “What BMW?” and he says, “The one that just whizzed past with blue lights flashing, you can’t have missed it,” and I answer, “Err… I was looking at tree over there.”

People despair of me, they really do. They despair of the blank look I give them in reply to a question, caused by the fact that right at that moment, an idea for a song had popped into my head, complete with the first two lines of the melody and I was frantically trying to stamp it on my memory for later. They despair of the way I always seem to misjudge what clothes to wear for any outing, so that when everyone else is sensibly dressed, I am wearing a patchwork hippy velvet coat and purple boots, and when they have a sparkly party frock on, I appear in jeans and a jumper with a furry raccoon on the front.

None of my financial or clothing misjudgements had actually been life-threatening… Well, not until December 15th, 2015, that is, when I made the biggest sartorial mistake of my life.

At least eight years ago, I bought a plain, rather boring, thigh-length black coat from a charity shop. It cost about a fiver. It had a furry collar, no hood, deep, hand-thrusting pockets and the back was elasticated at the waist, which was just as well, as it had baggy armpits and would have swamped me otherwise. It also had a half belt, attached at either side, which was a bit of a painus in the anus, as I never knew whether to knot it at the front, which was a nuisance every time I wanted to unzip the jacket, or tie it at the back, a la French trenchcoat, whereupon it always came undone, being a slippery fabric.

Unbecoming through it was, it turned out to be the most useful coat I have ever worn. It was only very slightly padded, but it turned out to be windproof, rainproof and season-proof. I wore it from January to December. It was the coat I always reached for on the coat rack whenever I was dashing out and the weather looked a bit dodgy. It was reliable, my stand-by. But… it was never flattering. In fact, I thought I looked a bit bag-lady-ish in it. And so, when I found a smart-looking, figure-hugging, black padded coat – Maine, from Debenhams – with detachable hood in another charity shop, price £7.95, I bought it.

I took my old favourite off the coat hook and laid it on the bed in the spare room. It was a hell of a wrench to part with it. I would go to put it in the charity bag, then take it out again, feeling a strong tug of attachment to it. In the end, telling myself sternly, ‘It’s only a coat,’ I thrust it into the bag, but not before wishing it well and hoping it would find a new owner who would get as much wear out of it as I had.

On December 15th, I had a concert and dinner date in Soho. I was staying the night with my friend in Camden Town and doing the annual present swap, so I left my overnight bag and headed for the bus stop to meet my other friend. Now, my Camden friend lives a good 12-15 minute walk from the nearest transport and I was halfway there when the heavens opened. It didn’t merely rain, it battered down, it emptied the North Sea on my head, it monsooned. And the rain went straight through my new coat and soaked me to the skin. I was also wearing silver and black Skechers trainers that weren’t remotely waterproof so my feet were soaked, too. I squelched onto the bus, slopped out at Tottenham Court Rd, couldn’t find Dean Street as it was all boarded off due to Crossrail works, plodded, shivering, all the way to Oxford Circus and back, and eventually texted my friend who was already waiting at the music venue and told me how to get there.

Three damp hours later, it was time to head home. I decided to get a cab but, on a rainy night in London, there wasn’t one to be seen, so I got a bus and walked a wet mile back to my friend’s. She made up the sofa bed and gave me a sleeping bag and went to bed herself. I got in and soon realised that, in my chilled state, I needed more covering than a thin cotton sleeping bag. But I didn’t want to wake her and ask for a blanket, so, guess what this idiot did? Put my damp coat over the sleeping bag and eventually drifted off.

The next evening, I could feel a cold coming on. By the 17th, I had laryngitis, a sinus infection, a chest infection and felt so sick I gave up eating. By the 21st, I was on a drip in hospital with a temperature of 39.9C (104F), dehydration and suspected pneumonia.

I’m much better now, thank you for asking. But I have kicked myself black and clue for parting with my old coat and have already given the new one, the one that did nothing to protect me from the elements, back to the charity shop. In fact, as soon as I was well enough, I was in there, hoping to buy back my old coat, but it had gone.

If you see a size 14 vintage M&S coat, made of a shiny black fabric with a half belt, a grey furry collar and a silver lining, grab it for me, please. I would give anything to have it back. If I had worn it that night, I know I would never have caught the chill that led to me catching the vile viruses that nearly carried me off.

I also know now that not every coat has a silver lining!