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Tuesday 25 January 2022

Sebhorreic Keratosis

Compared with other bloggers recently, I feel like Brody in Jaws, when the other two guys are showing off their hideous scars and he secretly looks down at his own, perhaps an appendectomy, and wisely decides it’s not impressive or gruesome enough to reveal. Except I’m not that wise.

Sebhorreic Keratosis: otherwise ‘thing-gy’, with a hard ‘g’.

I had this thing-gy on my face. I didn’t think it was too bad until I saw pictures of a concert I was in and realised how prominent it looked, even though I was hiding in my customary place at the back of the stage. Worse, I thought it red until told it was brown. They look the same to me.

I think my family had become used to it and didn’t notice any more. I zoomed into past photographs to see how long it had been there. It appeared as a small mark around 2005, and by 2018 had grown to a centimeter across. It almost doubled in size over a year.

I told the doctor I’d come about this thing-gy. After prodding, wiggling and stretching it, he pronounced it sebhorreic keratosis, not easy to pronounce at all. I knew the first word from shampoo bottles. Head & Shoulders bottles used to mention sebhorreic dermatitis but they mention only nicer things now. The worst it gets is “visible flakes”. Anyway, the doctor said it was harmless but did I want it removed? It was only on the surface and nowhere near any facial nerves. A cosmetic procedure.

Around six months later I attended his surgery at the local G.P. practice. He injected some anaesthetic, commented how surprisingly hard it was, scraped away the tissue with a scalpel, and corterised it. Apart from a tugging sensation, scraping sounds and a burning smell, it was not unpleasant.

He left me to be tidied up by the nurse who had helped. She assured me that actually, if anything, despite a round charcoal mark, it looked much better now than before because it was no longer raised. Aren’t nurses wonderful! She was wearing one of those NHS polythene aprons too, tied tight, shiny and shapely.

Within a few days the beard hairs were growing through and within a few weeks it had disappeared completely. 

Unfortunately, six months ago it started coming back. There were two small brown raised spots at the upper and lower edges of where it had been. There was no chance of treatment during covid overload, but my cousin, who also suffers them and is a nurse, said she just puts wart remover on hers. I said the local pharmacy wouldn’t let me have any. “That’s because you were silly enough to tell them what you wanted it for,” she said. 

She pointed me to Boots where you simply pick it off the shelves. Cousin said get the strongest. I got the weakest: ‘Wartie’. The instructions emphasise it is only for warts and on no account should it be used on the face. I dabbed it on my face, on the thing-gy, daily for three weeks then leave for a week. After three months it has nearly gone.

Now, should I tell you about the epididymal cyst?

Saturday 22 January 2022

Strange Conversation

Noted down at the time as part of a discussion about how lucky we are to have food.

Me: Grandpa (i.e. my father) said that when he was younger, if you were eating an apple in the street then children would come up to you and ask “Can I have your apple core Mister?”

Daughter aged 5: Why? Weren’t you allowed to eat apples inside?

Me: Yes, but if you ate them inside the children wouldn’t see you eating them.

Daughter: They could have looked in through the window.

Sunday 16 January 2022

Paul Theroux: The Great Railway Bazaar

Paul Theroux:
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (5*)

In 1973, Paul Theroux set off alone by train from London to Tokyo, taking numerous side-tracks along the route. But this is not so much a book about the countries he passes through, it is more an account of his experiences and emotional states. He does not seem to have enjoyed it much. Neither would I. It was what walkers call a Type 2 experience: you enjoy the telling of it afterwards. Like my Iceland saga?

He meets lots of strange characters along the way. I knew it was going to be entertaining when he introduces the first, Duffill, who carries his luggage in paper parcels. They board the Orient Express. Duffill takes a top bunk. Theroux struggles to sleep beneath. 

And then something else alarmed me: it was a glowing circle, the luminous dial of Duffill’s watch, for his arm had slipped down and was swinging back and forth as the train rocked, moving this glowing green dial past my face like a pendulum.. (p24)
The great thing for a writer of this kind of travelogue is that once they have done with a character they can simply get rid of them. Duffill gets accidentally left behind on an Italian station platform and Theroux hands over his parcels to an official at Venice.

For me, though, the book truly comes alive when Theroux reaches Pakistan. Crossing Iran, he seems depressed by the landscape, the most infertile soil he has ever seen. Afghanistan is “a nuisance”, expensive and barbarous, which even the hippies have begun to find “intolerable”, and where “the food smells of cholera”. He passes over it by plane, with only a brief, joyless stay in Kabul (p87-88). His mood then lifts as he descends through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar on a local train.

From there, he goes south by train to Ceylon, then back to Calcutta, flies to Bangkok, takes the train to Singapore, which he detests, and spends some time in war-ravaged Viet Nam just months after the American withdrawal, where he is astonished by the country’s beauty (I am using place names as they were in 1973). He then flies to Japan (the tracks through Hanoi and China being closed) and takes a prurient interest in the Japanese taste for bloodthirsty eroticism. He returns on the Trans-Siberian Railway without getting off, depressed again because of the Japanese people, the sea-crossing to Vladivostok, the cold and dark, the bleak settlements, the never-ending portraits of Lenin and four months of travel.  

I loved his description of the remote, imagination-catching Gokteik railway viaduct in Northern Burma, built in 1899 to expand the influence of the British Empire in the region: 

... a monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rock and jungle … bizarre, this manmade thing in so remote a place, competing with the grandeur of the enormous gorge and yet seeming more grand than its surroundings … the water rushing through the girder legs and falling on the tops of trees. (p230).

Memories of British dominion are everywhere. One eighty year-old tells his life story of starting as a cook in the Royal Artillery officers’ mess and ending up praised in person by the likes of Field Marshall Slim and Chiang Kai-shek (p215), almost like a Burmese version of the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day.

Theroux also encounters the inevitable hippies and commercial travellers in all kinds of unlikely goods: seamless tubes, plastic washers, bleaching agents and rubber casings for lugged sprockets (p158). He sees so much poverty: people crouching by the side of the railway to defecate, children who raid the train at stops to steal water from the toilet compartment, Singhalese living in ramshackle huts with an acute shortage of food.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s point in The Road to Wigan Pier, that our comfortable English lives are the legacy of a hundred million Indians living on the verge of starvation (p148). It has been estimated that, over the course of two hundred years, the British extracted £45 trillion out of India at present day prices.* That’s a million pounds for each person living in Britain at the time. It remains all around in the infrastructure, institutions, artefacts and systems you see, and in the shipwrecks and shrapnel scattered further afield.

I am also reminded of Ted Simon’s books about his trips around the world on motorbikes, the first around the same time Theroux was on the train, in which he fears that when the countless millions see what we have and they don’t, “there probably will be hell to pay”.

They’ve seen it now. 

*George Monbiot, The Guardian, 30th October, 2021.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Saturday 8 January 2022

I am a Mole

We were sitting quietly, me reading the newspaper and Mrs. D. getting on with some important knitting.

“I am a mole and I live in a hole,” I suddenly exclaimed.

Mrs. D. looked concerned, as if I had acquired some kind of cognitive deficit. She had heard the phrase at the group she runs for people with memory problems, where one lady sometimes comes out the very same line, just as I had.  

I had to explain that the newspaper contained an obituary of someone called Allan Wilmot* who had died in October, aged 96. I had never heard of him, but, along with his brother Harry, he had been a member of a Jamaican-British singing group, The Southlanders, who had enjoyed moderate success in the nineteen-fifties. I’d never heard of The Southlanders, either, but I knew their song: ‘I am a Mole and I Live in a Hole’. It was often played on Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites and at other times on the station then known as The Light Programme when I was little. I doubt I’ve heard it in sixty years, but the way the title line is performed is unforgettable. “I am a mole, and I live in a hole. Dum dum dum dum.”

Listening now, it’s great, although I doubt you’ll thank me for it.

I'm not a bat or a rat or a cat,
I'm not a gnu or a kangaroo,
I'm not a goose or a moose on the loose,
I am a mole and I live in a hole.

I'm not a cow or a chow or a sow,
I'm not a snake or a hake or a drake,
I'm not a flea or a wee chimpanzee,
I am a mole and I live in a hole.

Yarg yarg, quarck quarck, fried boiled or roast,
You're the slick chick I dig the most.

I'm not a ram or a clam or a lamb,
I'm not a hog or a frog or a dog,
I'm not a bus or a hip-potomus,
I am a mole and I live in a hole.

There were a lot of these ‘novelty songs’ on the ‘wireless’ before 1960. I would hear them as I moved my toy cars, trains and farm animals around the floor while my mother did the housework. I remember Pickin’ a Chicken, a Little Blue Man with a funny voice, Seven Little Girls huggin’ and a’kissin’ with Fred, an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini, some creeps Standing on the Corner Watching all the Girls Go By, and that one full of terrible puns on the names of American States. Most were either silly, irritating or both, although not as irritating as the awful show-offs who learnt the words and insisted on singing them to you.

But I quite like ‘I Am A Mole’.  Mrs. D.’s memory group liked it too - members and helpers - although, sadly, the lady who seemed to know it hardly reacted at all. 

Evidently, The Southlanders eventually tired of it and wanted to take it out of their act, but audiences always expected them to perform it.

The video link, if you can’t see it, is:

* Allan Wilmot came to Britain in 1947 after wartime service with both the Royal Navy and the RAF. After leaving ‘The Southlanders’ he became a Post Office Telephone Operator and helped set up the West Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Association. His elder brother, Harold (Harry) Wilmot, arrived in Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and was father of the actor, singer and comedian Gary Wilmot. He died in 1961 when Gary was 6.

Saturday 1 January 2022

Aunty Bina’s Farm

First posted as on 14th October, 2014
About 1300 words. Contains local dialect.

In a quiet southern corner of Yorkshire where the tributaries of the River Humber lock fingers with the Vale of York, there lies an expanse of pancake-flat country that geographers call the Humberhead Levels. It was once the bed of a glacial lake. Stand on the slightest rise and to the East you see the welcoming, chalky yellow-green hills of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds. Look to the West and you can just make out the menacing, inky-brown smudge of the Yorkshire Pennines.

In winter, there is little protection from the North and East winds that blow up and down the Vale or in along the estuary. In autumn, thick fogs rise up from the fields and drift in from the rivers. In summer, the baking sun cracks the earth into deep fissures. Spring reveals the richness of the soil. Parts of it are warp land, where turbid river waters were once diverted into the fields to leave layers of fine, fertile silt.

The region is dotted with remote villages and isolated farms. Aunty Bina lived at the end of a long lane that stretched straight and level from my grandma’s village, past silent fields of sugar beet, wheat, potatoes and fallow grass. Hardly anyone goes down that lane now if not in a motor vehicle or dressed in lycra, but in days gone by we walked from the village, a good two miles, me and my brother running happily ahead of grandma wheeling baby cousin Anna in her pram. It lives in my imagination as an expedition through an extraordinary landscape. 

Anna had been staying with us while Aunty Bina was in hospital for an operation. It was supposed to take a couple of weeks but things went wrong and it was four months before she got out. Even then, she was still too ill to cope with a one-year old, so Anna stayed with us a lot longer. We loved it. It was like having a new baby sister. She learned to walk and talk before she went home. Neighbours thought my mother had had another baby. 

We visited regularly for Bina to see Anna. It meant we could play on the farm with cousin Brian. It never failed to bring new adventures. Some of the buildings were two hundred years old. There were sweet smelling hay stacks to climb and burrow in, quiet shady barns to explore, nests of semi-wild, warm, furry kittens to stroke and befriend, and, away across a field, a mysterious, dark wood with fallen trees to scramble over. 

In summer you could channel mazes and crawl through the long wheat, provided Brian’s dad, Uncle Ben, didn’t spot you. The one time he caught us flattening his corn just before harvest there was hell to pay, especially by Brian after we had gone home.

Uncle Ben worked hard lonely hours on the farm, and had the farmers’ pragmatic acceptance of life and death. Once, making our way along the lane, we spotted him across a field, standing motionless with his gun, “shuttin’ t’crows an’ t’rabbits” [shooting crows and rabbits]. He had sheds of egg-laying hens, but, for farmers, there is no room for sentiment when a hen’s egg-laying begins to decline. He had a series of farm dogs, loud, ferocious, vicious things that sprang up at your face on chains, snarling as you edged past against the wall. I never thought to ask what happened when they got old, or what became of the litters of kittens produced by the semi-wild farm cats. In later years, he bought white Charolais calves and raised them like his own family, but in the end they were always sold on for slaughter and replaced by younger ones. He called them “be-asts”, splitting the word into two syllables.

I once sat behind him at a wedding and marvelled at the breadth of his back, like one of his ‘be-asts’. He thoroughly knew his job, the diverse skills involved, how to operate complicated machinery, how to calculate quantities of feeds and fertilisers, how to fill in government forms, how to buy calves, when to sow and harvest crops, when the weather said to wait a little longer, and when the weather said it was all right to hide indoors out of harm’s way and play pool with Brian, or watch cricket on television. Aunty Bina would have been quite happy to retire to a little cottage in the village, but Ben would not entertain the idea, and continued to raise Charolais, even when he was “pushin’ eighty”, as Bina put it.

His rural toughness applied to his dealings with people too. He could seem rude and aggressive, and more than one relative refused to have anything to do with him. We used to tell ourselves we visited the farm to be insulted. As I got older he always looked me critically in the beard and said, “You scruffy bugger! Can’t th’afford a razor?” And when it started to go white it was, “Well! Bloody ‘ell! Look who it is! It’s bloody Father Christmas.”

I once drove my dad there and Ben came in saying, “Ah cou’n’t see who it wa’ from ove’ thee-’re across o’t’ field, except it were a rich bugger wi’ a new car an’ a scruffy bugger wi’ whiskers.” [I couldn’t see who it was from over there across the field, except it was a rich b- with a new car and a scruffy b- with whiskers]. I wish I’d been brave enough to tell him the new car was mine.

This confrontational humour came straight out of pre-war village life, from the days of communal field work, laughing, joking and exchanging banter as they forked hay or straw on to horse-drawn wagons. But by the nineteen sixties things had changed. Farmers worked long hours on their own, driving up and down, up and down on their tractors. So Ben saved his acerbic wit for visitors. If you were in tune, he was one of the most amusing people you could ever hope to meet.

“What! y’don’t ‘ave sugar in y’tea? Bloody ‘ell! What d’y’think we grow it fo’?” [You don’t take sugar? Why do you think we grow it?]

“Vegetarian? Y’r a vegetarian? We wo’k our bloody guts out raisin’ t’be-asts fo’t’market, and y’come in ‘ere sayin’ y’r a vegetarian!” [We work hard raising be-asts for market and you dare to say you are a vegetarian!]

Ben had been born in another village, some distance across the river, and implied he married Aunty Bina only to improve the local bloodstock.

“If t’Blue Line bus ‘adn’t started comin’ thro’ t’village, th’d ‘ave all bin imbecil’s ‘cos o’ t’inbreedin’.” [If the Blue Line bus hadn’t started coming through the village they would have all been imbeciles because of inbreeding]

If ever I had an accent like that, I’m sorry to have lost it in pretentious jobs and places. One day over the phone, I was dismayed to hear Ben telling Bina “th’s some posh bugger askin’ fo’ y’r on t’phone.” Bina defended me. “Why, it’s not anybody posh,” she said, “it’s on’y our Tasker,” and then to me said “I suppose y‘ave to talk like that when y’r at work.”

One way to handle Ben’s prickly comments was to ignore him. That’s what Bina did, but there were others who returned as good as they got. One day, they were visited by ‘our Mary’, an overweight elderly relative, and an equally overweight friend, who arrived side by side on bicycles, gliding slowly along the lane, tyres bulging to bursting point, saddles submerged in the overhanging folds of their abundant bottoms, skirts gathered under to reveal thighs wobbling like jelly as they pumped against the pedals.

“Look who it is!” shouted Ben from his stackyard. “It’s t’Rolly Pollies.”

“Bugger off Ben Smith, y’mucky farmer blattered up in cow clap,” came the reply. “Get back on t’land whe-‘re y’belong!” [Go away you dirty farmer covered in cow muck. Get back on the land where you belong]

When you think what else they spread on t’land, that’s a pretty good put down.