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Thursday 10 November 2022


Thank you for all your good wishes on yesterday's post. 

It has been harder to post than I thought.

I am going to take a few week's break from blogging. 

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Cancer Treatment

I am not all that keen to post this, and not everyone will want to read it, but if it helps anyone then it’s worthwhile. These things need to be talked about. We can find interest and enrichment in the most unlikely situations. 

Until this year I thought I was a healthy and active seventy-something year-old enjoying jobs around the home, gardening, walking, music, and so on. Here I am along one of our local lanes. As you can see, we are not serious cyclists. 

Old git with bike (or git with old bike)

Then J found me unconscious and having a fit. I eventually recovered enough to walk out to the emergency ambulance and two nights in hospital. The only warning was swirling black and white patterns in my upper right visual field. An MRI scan found a small tumour in the occipital lobe at the back of my brain. This was causing swelling which led to the seizure. The occipital handles some aspects of vision and reading, hence the odd errors I’ve been making.

The tumour was successfully treated by ‘gamma knife’ radiotherapy in a single hour-long session. This focuses two-hundred low-intensity X-ray beams upon precise high-intensity spots. It involves the discomfort of having an aluminium frame screwed (literally) to your skull to keep your head still in the treatment chamber, and to plot the 3D coordinates for the treatment sequence. Otherwise it is entirely painless. It can treat objects as small as two millimeters across.

Unfortunately, the brain tumour was a ‘met’ (a secondary) from a small lung tumour. This gave me no symptoms. Without the seizure I would have had no idea that anything was wrong. Last autumn, we were walking up mountains in North Wales.   

Things looked bleak. At one point the word “palliative” was spoken. However, a positron (PET) scan revealed no other unusual activity except in the brain and lung. Some patients light up all over like a Christmas tree. Things began to look more hopeful.

I went through three months of chemotherapy. It was awful. Some days I was so sick as to wonder whether it was worth it. At one point I ended up back in hospital for two nights on a drip.

Then I had a month’s lung radiotherapy (although side-effects last longer). It was considered preferable to surgery in my case.

For me, radiotherapy was far more tolerable than chemo; just tiredness and mild discomfort. This was fortunate as some find it too painful to swallow without anaesthetic suspensions, and can even have to have feeding tubes taped up their noses. They put the fear of God into you in warning what could go wrong.

The worst part was having to travel Monday to Friday to Leeds and back every day for four weeks, where, with twelve linear accelerators, St. James’s Hospital zap around 450 patients a day. Their record is 750. People travel from all over Yorkshire.

As I was not allowed to drive, I was eligible for free Patient Transport. If you asked for early appointments, you usually get a private taxi. The return journey could be taxi, volunteer driver or a small ambulance, sometimes shared. With travel time, the 10-minute treatment including its 25 seconds of irradiation took at least three hours. Most days it was more: nearly six on the worst occasion. With Patient Transport you have to be patient.

Some drivers became regulars. I spent over ten hours sitting with one friendly chap in the Leeds traffic, talking about all kinds of things and learning Urdu phrases. He came from Kashmir in the nineteen-eighties without a word of English and is proud that his children have had the education he never had.    

I have clearly had several tens of thousands of pounds worth of NHS treatment and may well need more. I could say so much more about it: the endless appointments and tests, the CT-guided lung biopsy which gave me a pneumothorax air pocket and another night in hospital, the radioactive dye squirted into my bloodstream from a lead canister by a nurse in an anti-radiation suit, the wholesale consumption of pills, how the challenge is as much psychological as physical, and the effects upon family, but I’ll leave things there.

I’m well again now. I have even been out on my bike. It is now a matter of monitoring scans. How long can any of us say we have: 2023? 2027? 2032? I might be lucky, but no delusions.

These things happen. As my Yorkshire grandparents would have said: “It’s a bugger in’t it!”

Sunday 6 November 2022

The Songwriter

Another item from the old electric guitar case: the November 1977 edition of The Songwriter, the magazine of the International Songwriters Association. Not very inspiring, is it! I have no idea how I acquired it or why I kept it. Perhaps I thought I would be the next Bjorn or Benny.

Can you become a songwriter by reading a magazine? It seems to me like all that stuff about how to be a published writer. If you look up “memoir blogs”, for instance, there are lots of people all too ready to tell you how to do it, but not many who actually do.

Did J. K. Rowling spend her time reading magazines about how to write books, or did she just get on with it?

The chap on the cover of ‘The Songwriter’, by the way, turns out to be one Reg Guest, apparently a successful arranger and session musician, but not much of a songwriter. The president and founder of the Association, Jim Liddane, does not seem to have written many songs either.

I think it’s another item for the recycling bin.  

Tuesday 1 November 2022

Weekend in College

(New month old post: first posted 23rd September, 2015)

You been tellin’ me you're a genius since you were seventeen,
In all the time I've known you, I still don't know what you mean,
The weekend in the college didn't turn out like you planned,
The things that pass for knowledge, I can't understand.
It was as if Steely Dan’s phenomenal ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ was aimed directly at me, cutting through the pretentiousness to the stupidity beneath. It was actually four months but might just as well have been a weekend for all the good it seemed to do. With the anticipation of arrival smothered in a blanket of disillusion, I detested myself as much as the subject of Becker and Fagen’s song.

City of Leeds and Carnegie College

It was the first of two attempts to escape accountancy. After four mind-numbing years, I decided it was not the career for me, and applied to train as a science teacher. You needed five G.C.E. Ordinary level passes, and to have studied your specialist subjects to Advanced level. In other words, you did not actually need to have passed the Advanced level. That was me exactly. I didn’t tell them about the failed accountancy exams.

It beggars belief that you could become a Secondary years science teacher with nothing better than weak Ordinary level passes in your specialist subjects. They should have told me to go away and re-sit Advanced Levels and reapply, assuming I still wanted to. Anything less would be to inflict my limited knowledge and ineffectual learning techniques upon other poor innocents. But you can talk yourself into anything if it’s on offer.  

Around 1960

The City of Leeds and Carnegie College, now part of Leeds Beckett University, was one of the loveliest campuses in Britain. It was built in 1911 in a hundred acres of parkland that once belonged to Kirkstall Abbey. Hares ran free in the woods and each spring brought an inspiring succession of leaf and flower. The magnificent main building dominated a sweeping rectangular lawn called The Acre, lined by solid halls of residence named after ancient Yorkshire worthies: Fairfax, Cavendish, Caedmon, Leighton, Priestley, Macauley and Bronte.

But instead of moving into halls, I remained off-campus in my seedy shared house. It meant not taking full part in the friendly community of cosy study bedrooms around the grassy Acre, and the activities I might have enjoyed. I felt old and awkward. The music drifting from open doorways flaunted the easy friendships within. While the Carpenters sang that they were on top of the world, Steely Dan mocked that “college didn't turn out like you planned”.

The course quickly became tedious. Chemistry classes were interminable, like being back at school. I began to sink into the old malaise and find fault in everything. A biology technician “humanely” despatched rats for dissection by cracking their necks on the edge of a bench. We sampled the vegetation growing on The Acre lawn, my accountant’s brain adding up the data almost before the other students had got out their calculators. In English classes, reading through a play, I realised that some of the others were not fluent readers. It was astonishing. They were training to be teachers for goodness’ sake.

We were sent out on teaching practice. I found myself in a Comprehensive School on a council estate. After two weeks, we were asked to plan and teach a small number of lessons ourselves. I had good ones and bad ones. In the best, observed by the teaching practice tutor, the children used Bunson burners, all happy and engaged in what they were doing. Do they still let them do such dangerous things? Fortunately, no one saw the worst from which I was saved only by the school bell.

The school had none of the liveliness of the grammar school I had attended myself, and staff made no secret of their dissatisfaction. “Here I am with a First in English,” said one, “and I’m supposed to teach kids who have no interest in reading anything at all.” And one of the most inspiring teachers left to open a pottery.

Despite good marks, the doubts grew as I returned to my old employer to earn money over Christmas. The uninspiring course, the mediocrity, the dismal school I’d seen, it was not what I wanted. It was not a substitute for university. More hopes and dreams dashed by another abandoned course. What now?

I was by no means the last to leave. A few went on to successful teaching careers, but many never taught at all. During the year that my course would have finished, the press was rife with accounts of unemployment among new teachers. Despite a chronic shortage just two years earlier, Governments had not planned for the falling birth rate. Around two thirds of newly qualified teachers were unable to find jobs.

One poor girl in London had previously been guaranteed a post, but after staying on at college an extra year to improve her qualifications with a Bachelor of Education degree, she now had to find work outside teaching. Perhaps it was fortunate I did leave.

It was thirty years before I visited Beckett Park again. The passage of time gave rise to quite an unsettling experience. I was haunted by half-remembered faces and snatches of conversation from a particularly intense episode in the past: here is where I usually managed to find a parking space for my Mini; across there is where I resented a tutor telling me I would have greater authority if I stood straighter and walked with shorter steps; that window, in Leighton Hall, is the study bedroom where a girl I seriously fancied took me one afternoon for nothing more than a cup of coffee and a long talk.

Ghosts aside, the place looked much the same. Most of the original Edwardian campus survives, although the internal use has changed, such as residences replaced by staff offices and teaching rooms, with students bused-in from off-campus and financed very differently.

Smoke gets in your eyes. You can convince yourself anything is right when you’re desperate enough.

[The original post was even longer and more over-written than this, but if you are interested, it is still here]