A diary collection of words and images from the past year. By Billy Mann.
Includes a trip to Malta, a tribute to the UK’s National Health Service and stuff about Brexit.
Notes from Malta
Some people are happy to spend Christmas away from home. Others would not dream of being anywhere else. It was a first for us, and I’m sure part of the motivation was laziness. What better excuse to NOT make the dutiful, remorseless rounds of faked social intercourse, during which everyone puts a brave face on the task of being jolly during the season to be jolly. What better excuse NOT to spend too much money on too much food. Nuts, anyone? What better excuse NOT to resurrect the pathetic ritual of sharp-knifing those silly crosses into the base of Brussels sprouts. What is that all about? In taking a Christmas holiday abroad you do, of course, run the risk of looking like Billy No Mates. Live with it, get over yourself, yadda yadda.
Choosing Malta as a destination seems quite cowardly. No language problems to contend with, plenty of familiar reference points in the shape of pubs and drinking tea. The weather was also unlikely to be vastly different from anything we might experience at home. Yes, it was toe-dipping to be sure. And since suffering a stroke three years ago, mobility and fatigue are key players in how we plan our vacations. Basically, I’m pretty limited, physically, so organised holidays by recommended companies are our thing for the time being. So Qawra it was, where Britons flock in vast numbers.
First impressions were clouded by our room being as far from the hotel reception area as the next town. The hotel had kindly allocated us a ‘family room’, which consisted of a lounge area opening to an outdoor terrace plus a large double bedroom and bathroom. Sadly, only one A/C unit was installed, so the lounge was freezing, the bedroom tolerable. I found myself getting dressed to go to bed and running a bath to stay warm. We were able to swap rooms the next day and from then on, our holiday became a much more enjoyable event.
Crane from plane to ground and wheelchair from ground to Customs. A dream. Room at hotel miles from anywhere. The furthest room from the lifts as it is possible to be. It is a family room. 2 rooms. A living room, cold; a bedroom, tolerable. One AC unit for both. Got dressed to go to bed. Ran a bath to warm up. Canteen style feeding sessions. Coloured plastic non-removable bracelets signify your status in the hotel. Yellow is full board, pink is half board (us), green I guess is bed and breakfast. Seems a bit juvenile and sinister, but I suppose it has its purpose. Is there a lot of scamming in this type of hotel, with All Inclusive guests smuggling in stray people who then make fast and loose with the free wine and Weetabix.
Organised day trip to Valetta. Agnes is our tour guide. She has the Maltese abruptness that borders on being rude. She adds the words “what not” and “suchlike” to the end of sentences that have run out of steam. Lascaris War Room and the story how they dug out the secret chamber and stored the rubble in bombed-out houses. This was from Boring Bob, who also told us about the discovery of a disused undersea phone line to Gibraltar which was resurrected to pass German codes to Bletchley Park, where they were duly cracked and we won the war, etc. Visited also St John’s Co-Cathedral. Not sure why its a Co, but its museum houses Caravaggio’s picture of John the B getting his head chopped off by bloodthirsty Romans. Had a cup of tea outdoors at Cafe Cordino. Valetta is overrun with pigeons.
Harbour boat tour from Sliema. Never quite sure what direction we were facing. Christmas glass of mulled wine and canapes courtesy of hotel management.
And a list of other things I meant to write about Malta but ran out of steam.
Gozo woman and her traditional Gozan singing.
Screaching children in hotel corridor.
Families who holiday around Christmastime and New Year.
Karoake style pub singers Alison (Amy Winehouse) and Paul (Bono, Madness) in the George.
Miracle of Mosta?
Renzo Piano Parliament building.
Violence. St John’s Knights and WW2 are the key identifiers for Malta.
Too many cars. Crying out for tram or overground light railway system.
Not that good for veggies.
Some nice retro cars knocking around. Minis, Mark 1 Ford escort, Triumph Herald, old Volkswagen Beetle, Vauxhall Chevette, Ford Anglia.
Abruptness of personality. Bad service included.
Ta Qali craft village. Converted Nissen huts.
Needlework embroidery. Filigree silver.
Wrought iron railings.
A couple of tatty old Ladas.
The olive oil industry.
Teatro Manoel. Rain-making sound device.
Beef olives in tomato sauce.
Watched entire first series of Gavin & Stacey. If it had rained we might have had to start on the 32 episodes of Thunderbirds we had downloaded as a standby.
Bus drivers, whose lives must be made very stressful by the excessive use of the single motor car with a single occupant are clearly under the influence of a directive to make their job more interesting that involves speeding towards red traffic lights then slamming on the brakes. Ho ho ho.
Inevitably, on organised tours you are thrown together with a varied bunch of characters, some of them readers of the Daily Mail. This can sometimes be irritating and a challenge, but on other occasions it can be fun, as it was when we discovered that one of our fellow holidaymakers bore a disturbing resemblance to the character Fat Bastard from the Mike Myers film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. And to spice things up a bit, his partner/companion had blue hair!
Gripping moment when she realises that maybe she needed him just as much as he needed her.
RIP Glenn Frey of the Eagles. We are all just prisoners here of our own device.
In Guardian Witness, 19.01.16, as part of the ‘This is the NHS’ series…
It was one of those days. I was waiting for my line manager to make a decision they were not going to make anytime soon, so I sat down in a quiet corner of a very large office to eat some lunch. Halfway into the second sandwich, a buzzing sound came to my right ear. It was very annoying. Then my vision became blurred. I felt sick. I tried to stand up but the left side of my body wouldn’t cooperate. My left arm flailed around helplessly. My left leg had no strength whatsoever. The buzzing noise in my ear was now a horrible grinding sound. I was having a stroke. Somehow I managed to attract someone’s attention and outline my predicament. Then I was sick in a green recycling bin. Paramedics arrived and I was whisked to A&E, whereupon I was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke. Long story a bit shorter, I had two lots of emergency brain surgery, spent three weeks in intensive care and was finally admitted to a stroke ward, where I then got floored by pneumonia.
Other complications followed (my brain became ‘soggy’) which delayed the start of physiotherapy and occupational therapy that would normally begin quite soon after stroke trauma, but eventually I became a rehab patient and began the very slow process of trying to piece back together some kind of life worth living. The type of stroke I had knocked out my balance, coordination and fine motor skills. I could talk OK, but sometimes I would get muddled and forget the word that two seconds ago was on the tip of my tongue. I was given regular physio sessions in which I learned such things as how to stand from a seated position. I had occupational therapy that included washing and drying dishes. I had sessions with a social worker to determine my needs when I was discharged from hospital. I had an altercation with a psychologist who wanted me to redefine failure as learning. I never noticed any improvement at the time, but others told me I was making progress. I was in rehab for eight weeks. This is a desperate time for most patients. They want to get home, to get away from the muck they call food, to watch some proper telly. I include myself there, but something happened, something that words could never describe, that makes me feel a yearning bond for that sad hospital day room where the look of joy had clearly done a runner. I visit every year at Christmas time to deliver macaroons for the nurses and the therapy team. I look for opportunities to visit at other times too. If there is ever a day they stop me visiting I will be grief-stricken. It means that much to me. This is where my old life ended and my new one began. You bet I feel sentimental about it.
It is three years now since I was discharged from hospital. In the first year I was given intense re-enablement therapy at home that involved learning anew how to do the boring stuff like walking, washing, eating with a knife and fork. I was also admitted to a vocational rehabilitation clinic where they figured out how I might be able to plug back into the workplace (I was not able to return to full-time employment). In the second year I ‘rejoined society’ by doing some voluntary work in education. In this I was assisted by my employer (the Guardian), who behaved with great decency and compassion all the way through my ordeal. This, I discovered later, is not always the case. The third year was pretty cool. I continued with my voluntary work and found a spiritual home at Submit to Love, the art studio of the brain-injury charity Headway East London. Art has been a remarkable aid to my recovery. Very slowly, things can only get better. Scratching my ear with my left hand was once a dangerous undertaking. Now it is just a challenge. I am what I now am because of the nhs. By some process of magic, its ethic surfaces in practically every corner of my day-to-day life, and scarcely a minute goes by when my mind is not boggled by the astonishing power of the goodwill that can pass from one citizen to the next. This is the nhs.
26 January 2016
I wonder what this kind of film will look like in the future. Reminiscent of ‘All the President’s Men’.
Picture: Meanwhile, In An Alternative Universe…
Film: Hail Caesar
Review of Postcapitalism, by Paul Mason
Brexit fallout II
Labouring a point
Was Richard Hoggart’s book ‘The Uses of Literacy’ just his way of trying to understand himself.
May’s first Cabinet.
“Gladstone quit his fourth premiership on a point of principle in 1894, aged 84, impatient, indignant, and half blinded by a ginger biscuit thrown at him by an angry woman during a rally in Chester.”Tom Crewe, London Review of Books, 22.09.2016
Camera culture: selfie disaster
1953: Waves & Surges
Picture: Dostoyevsky Quote
At Renal Outpatients, Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel
My face must look like it needs a good talking to. Every six months or so I attend a regular outpatients appointment at the Royal to monitor the state of my kidneys. I suffer from a hereditary condition that, left unchecked, might result in kidney stones. Passing a kidney stone is not something I would wish on my worst enemy.
In the waiting room at my most recent appointment a man sitting nearby started asking me questions about his kidney and fished for information about mine. Cheeky bastard, I thought. He wanted to know if I was in line for a transplant, because he was sure as hell he was. He started talking about the different signs of kidney damage and their intensity I told him that right now I am able to manage my kidney difficulties by drinking lots of water. Two to three litres a day. He seemed unimpressed. “I don’t like water,” he said. I replied: “Any fluids will do. You can drink beer if you want.” Then I realised that this man was almost certainly Muslim. Dohh!!!
Riven with guilt, I moved the conversation on quickly. I started to mutter something about the miracles of modern medication but he was determined to believe his own kidney condition was serious and that death was but one more visit to the urinal away. I struggled on, trying to convince him that the doctors knew what they were doing and things are rarely as bad as you think they are. But he already sold himself the idea that his predicament was drastic and that he would require a transplant. I opened my mouth, took a breath and was about to tell him that it is quite feasible to live a full and meaningful life with just one kidney, when his consultant arrived and took him off for the designated appointment. My face must have looked like it had made a narrow escape.
Headline: Somebody said something interesting, eventually
Subject: Councillors answer Golden Lane Estate residents’ questions
Location: Downstairs, beneath the chess players, Golden Lane Estate community centre.
Alderman Graves (he is the Big Hat in the posse of our Elected Representatives) began by asking how news of this meeting got around the estate. Did we hear about it via email, paper mail or by some other route such as noticeboards? He soon got the message that things could be improved in that regard before Lee Millam (Great Arthur House) stepped in with an urgent moan about the workmen doing the windows at Great Arthur.
What were they playing at? Nothing, seemed to be the answer. Drinking tea, rolling fags, discussing whether the universe was infinite or not. Anything but fixing the bloody windows. The Alderman started to take on the ruddy complexion of a man who’d just realised that leaving his new golf clubs in the E-type was probably not such a good idea. One of the other councillors (a lone woman among six men) said something along the lines of “we hear what you’re saying”, which I’m not sure was the answer Mr Millam was looking for.
The subject moved on in a roundabout way to social housing, right-to-buy, who pays for what, how the housing stock is protected from predatory speculators in the age of Materialism Gone Mad, and the thorny issue of numbers of properties built versus the location of said properties.
Roughly speaking, at the core of this is whether, for the same money, to build 100 new residential properties in the centre of Cripplegate, or else to build 300 dwellings four miles outside of it. These are the Big Questions those at the Corpy agonise over every minute of their lives, and especially during toilet breaks. Add into this equation a heavy shot of central-government busy-bodying and it’s headaches all round.
Councillor Gareth Moore (he’s our guy off the estate) raised some characteristically realist points and explained that it is in the DNA of the Corpy to skew all decision-making towards business and commerce (my words), and that the planning protocols that apply for commercial projects differ entirely from those that apply to residential stuff. My understanding from what he said was that the Planning Committee on the council was overegged with expertise in the commercial field, but very light on expertise in the residential area. This has resulted in no end of bureaucratic constipation for residential matters, but was now being corrected by someone new in charge of things.
Then came an interesting bit, and it came from Alderman Graves, who was by now warming to the occasion and looking a little less likely to burst a blood vessel. It was triggered by Paul Lincoln (Basterfield House), who said that Barbican residents have special status within the Corp – their very own committee – whereas Golden Lane is some kind of poor relation, forever in receipt of second-hand clothes. Gravesie, as I was now calling him (to myself), put on his ‘thinking-cap’ face and said that the way forward might be to start up a Golden Lane Working Party. To my ears this sounded like progress, and even the other assembled councillors (who all sit in a row, looking as if they are waiting to be called into the head teacher’s office) showed signs of resurrection.
The Aderman’s suggestion was not an opportunity to be missed, and after a brief diversion into drains, insurance and a potent question from myself about the poor lighting around the estate, Sue Pearson (Hatfield House) whose middle name is Persistence, raised her hand. Were the assembled officers aware of the newfound love affair between Golden Lane residents and the Corp, instigated by projects such as the redevelopment of the community centre, the Lord Mayor’s float and an overall softening of behavioural tones. After a massive whinge about the “plastic bags” still stuck on the end of Stanley Cohen House, she spoke about evolving plans to find a robust yet sustainable management model for when the community centre is refurbed and reopened. Magically, she screwed a pledge of support from each of the honourable members of Death Row and everybody skipped off home to watch Jordan Banjo getting evicted from I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! Happy days.
Picture: Theresa and Boris quote
My annual visit to the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen Square, London, to deliver some macaroons and Vin Santo to the therapy team for Christmas got me feeling sentimental. I realised that visiting the Neuro Rehabilitation Unit (NRU) on the second floor has become like returning to your old school. Memories come flooding back. Seeing the patients travelling the same rocky road I did four years ago is a wrench, riddled with pain but saved by an overwhelming sense of hope. So much happened here for me. It is where my life was put back together. It was a rebirth. So, as naff as that sounds, I feel quite attached to the place and to the people who helped me during my two-month stay.
Most of them have moved on, but Anne Fleming, who dealt with social work issues, was still there and full of good spirit and a still unfeasibly straight fringe. I deposited the festive goodies with her, asked her to pass on my best wishes to anyone who might remember me and put in a plug for an exhibition of paintings by survivors of brain injury from Headway East London art studio, Submit To Love.
It wasn’t such a shameless plug since I have a series of five paintings included in the exhibition depicting my ‘stroke journey’, and as already stated, NRU played a key part in that. Each of my paintings includes a hand-written paragraph describing the five ‘chapters’ of the past four years, from the moment of the stroke to my life as it is today.
The first, ‘Surrender’, illustrates the period from the initial trauma to when I went into surgery.
The second picture, ‘Oblivion’, is all about what happened in surgery.
The third, ‘Confusion’, examines what happened after surgery when I was in and out of ITU and then on the stroke ward.
The fourth painting in the series, ‘Survival’, covers the sink-or-swim experience of my stay in NRU, where the chance to start again kicks into action.
And the final picture, ‘Release’, reflects of my life since discharge from hospital in February 2013 and the shape it has taken since then.
I could bang on endlessly about these pictures and their meaning, but the blunt truth is that, once they were finished, I was glad to see the back of them. I was bored with myself, and right now I don’t care if I never see them again. Sometimes the right thing to do is to simply let go of what was and what happened. Strange, though, I can’t imagine losing the tiny bit of love I feel whenever I visit the National hospital in Queen Square, and long may the macaroon continue to be delivered.
The exhibition of paintings by members of Headway East London is at Stratford Circus Arts Centre, London, until 23 February 2017.
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