Pain, waiting and other personal problems

First of all, I’d like to make it clear that I’m very aware that there are many people who are in more pain than I was over the last couple of weeks, and even more of them are in pain for longer. The thing with pain is that it’s very personal. If you’re in pain, it doesn’t help that someone else is hurting more.

I woke up with a pain in my abdomen. At first it was sort of tight and gripping, and spread out quite a bit. It nibbled at my ribs. It kept me awake most of the night; eventually I took a Paracetamol and after a few hours got to sleep. The next day it was much better.

A couple of days later it came back again, only more precisely located. It was quite a different kind of pain, really, but they had one thing in common: they were strong and frightening, because I didn’t know what was causing them, and it all seemed to be getting worse.

Eventually, I rang 111. They told me to go to the walk-in centre, and the walk-in centre took it pretty seriously. They were quick, too. They said I should go to A&E if it got any worse. It did, and I did.

I do not like A&E. I know many people love it and seem to spend half their lives up there, but to me it’s just a massive waste of time, with no-one seeming to be in a hurry or connecting with each other. I’m sure that’s an illusion. Or it may be the IT system. I have been known to say I’d rather die than go to A&E, but that’s not strictly true. Obviously.

It was tortuous. Morphine didn’t affect the pain, but they eventually found something that did – about three hours after I arrived. I was moved here and there, had an x-ray and an ultrasound and eventually was taken to a ward by a nurse who thought I’d come from there in the first place. She was very nice. All nurses are nice. When I clap the NHS, I’m clapping the nurses and not the organisation.

The surgeon I saw a few hours later wasn’t sure what was wrong. To do him credit, he didn’t ask me to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I would have had no idea of the answer to this. I never do. It seemed pretty painful to me, but if someone was cutting my leg off without anaesthetic, I’m sure that would have been worse. I usually say 7 or 8. If someone were to try out the full range of pain on me and then ask, I would know, but I don’t really want that to happen.

The surgeon wanted me to have a CT scan urgently, but of course that wasn’t possible. It was Sunday, and there were lots of people who needed CT scans. He asked if it would be all right if he discharged me, and I came and had the CT scan as an urgent out-patient in a day or two. Foolishly, I said yes.

Still in quite a lot of pain, I waited patiently at home for a day or two. Then my wife rang the CT people. Yes, I was scheduled. Yes, I was marked urgent. It would be ten days or so.

This did not thrill me, but I buckled down, because the painkillers seemed to be working. I rang my GP, who couldn’t take my call but would ring me back. When he did, it was on a different number, and I didn’t answer it within 10 seconds. I rang back and was told I had to ring the following morning. I persisted, complaining about my pain and eventually got to speak to him. Rather reluctantly, I thought, he prescribed some more painkillers. It wasn’t my usual GP, of course. It wasn’t anyone I had ever spoken to before.

Anyway, with the help of the painkillers the pain eased, and when I went to get my scan, it had departed – for a while, at least. I should mention that during all this post-hospital time I had been eating a fat-free diet on the instruction of the surgeon. It would have been easier if I didn’t love fat so much: butter, cheese, steak… Now I had naked bread, bits of fruit and salad, boiled eggs and some jam or honey. I wasn’t hungry anyway.

I asked how long I would have to wait for my scan results, and it turned out to be two weeks or so. Probably. As it was urgent. I did not get upset with the radiographer, who was very pleasant, or with anyone else, because I suspect they’re all trapped within the system and don’t know how to get out of it.

The radiographer wasn’t sure why I was not eating any fat. But I have lost half a stone, which can’t be bad. Or can it? I don’t know. There’s no-one to ask.

Tunnel of contradictions

I am coming out of lockdown. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but at the moment I can’t quite make out how long the tunnel is. Nor how wide, come to that: in many respects it is a tunnel of contradictions, with rough walls and large patches of damp.

And as the tunnel progresses, I have a growing suspicion that many of the other people in it with me are from a completely different species. I mean, would you queue up for four hours in the blazing sun to buy a flatpack from IKEA? Four hours? Really?

And would you go to a world-famous beach and jostle together with like-minded enlightened gentry, while encouraging people to jump from a nearby cliff and stand a good chance of killing themselves? 

Would you gather in small groups and shout at each other from a foot or two away as though you were a character in EastEnders or Coronation Street?

Would you discard assorted unsavoury litter by the side of footpaths in as yet unspoiled countryside? 

Admittedly the litter-sprinklers have been encouraged by the interesting decision to keep public lavatories closed in many areas. There seems to be an opinion rife in some management areas that people go to the loo as a way of passing the time. So in schools “bubbles” of pupils are being allocated a specific time to go to the toilet. This ignores the basic human biological fact about going to the loo, which is that you go when you need to, and there are times when you need to go.

This was brought home to me a while ago on an EasyJet plane back from Israel, already poorly provided for on the toilet front, where whenever we hit a bit of minor turbulence, we were told that the toilets could not be used for the next half hour. So what were we supposed to do? Play video games instead?

I am also a bit nervous about that light I can see. What kind of a light is it? The nearer we get to it, the more it seems like a world designed for young and fit people – the sort who have been joggling and cycling their way vigorously through the pandemic. 

I am over 70. I may have mentioned this before. Although I walk a lot (and many of my age simply can’t), using a car makes life much easier in many respects. It’s also safer, when roads are uncluttered by distracting features like road bumps and contraflows. So why do post-pandemic plans centre on more cycle lanes and wider pavements, especially when we are being discouraged from using public transport in case we breathe on each other.

Interesting thing, breathing. Apparently gasping joggers and cyclists are no risk, but allowing people to get in a church and sing could be disastrous. I can only assume that people putting this view forward have not been in a church for a few years. 

Praying of course, is even more risky. I hope I don’t have to explain to you why that is.

Aiming to keep safe may not be the ideal way to live

It’s beginning to look as if coming out of lockdown will be more stressful than lockdown itself. Well, you know what Kafka said: “It’s often safer to be in chains than to be free.”

And we do tend to worry an awful lot about safety nowadays. Even before the dreaded coronavirus, most of what we did in life seemed to be directed into ensuring our safety: insurance for everything, ridiculously low speed limits, plenty of exercise, the “right” food, contorted health and safety regulations, dubious dbs checks, cameras everywhere and much, much more.

Now it’s face masks and protective clothing, social distancing and quarantine.

I am not one to criticise politicians for making radical decisions in the face of a threat none of us has ever experienced before – a threat that is unpredictable in who it affects, the way it affects them, the way it spreads and the possible ways of stopping it. It is a no-win situation, and if anyone makes the right decisions, it is likely to be down to luck or prayer.

But what about the science? That might work if there were such a thing as “science”. What we actually have is scientists, and to no-one’s surprise, they disagree with each other. Why wouldn’t they? That is how “science” makes progress. When politicians say “the science” they mean “what our own scientists say”. They try to pick the top scientists, but history shows the top scientists are not always right.

A week or so ago I had a COVID-19 test. This was a bit of a miracle in itself, because the nearest test centre they could offer me was not even in my own county, but more than 30 miles away. I am not sure how I would have got there if I had some of the more striking symptoms of the virus. As it happens, I wasn’t feeling too bad, which wasn’t surprising, because I turned out to be negative. A lot of people have always regarded me as negative; so that was no surprise.

The test itself, which took place in an empty leisure centre car park, was Kafka-esque. A group of young soldiers were supervising, but I had to do the test myself. This involved making a phone call to someone standing just outside my car, a pack being thrown through the side window furthest from me, together with a formidable set of instructions. I had to manipulate a swab of my throat and nose, then pop the swab into a tube, on which I had to stick a bar code. There were lots of bar codes. I then had to put it into a bag, and the bag into another bag, find my way out of the car park and throw the bag(s) out of the car window into a kind of sack. Then drive home.

I may have missed out a couple of stages. On the plus side, I did not turn into a giant insect. At least, I haven’t yet. As far as I know.

Obviously I understand that everyone wanted to be safe. I want to be safe. We all do. But we tend to forget that there are large parts of the world where no-one feels safe, and with good reason. Their lives tend to have different priorities. They look for a high quality of life, taking risks and offering hospitality and love, sacrificing themselves for others. They do not fear death, because we all die. They are likely to look beyond that.

Some of these people live among us.

That, in the end, is surely a life more worth living than one bound up in the chains of safety? Helen Keller said: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.” 

And Helen Keller was deaf and blind; so she knew what she was talking about.

What’s even better than clapping for the NHS?

As I believe I mentioned before, I am over 70. I am not boasting: these things happen – usually far too quickly. I am therefore restricted in what I can do.

I am not sure this is fair. But as a colleague of mine once said: “Who wants to be fair?” If life were fair, I should probably not be 70 at all. I should be elsewhere. So that’s OK. I don’t want fairness: I want forgiveness.

This is not as obvious as it sounds, because in fact one of our prime driving forces is for justice. That’s what we look for in films and books. A fair outcome: people getting what they deserve. Isn’t it?

Maybe not. What we really want is for evil to be overcome, and for goodness to triumph. That’s not quite the same thing.

We see an ideal society as one where justice is administered fairly, under the rule of law. But there is a dark side to that, and it is one it is all too easy to slip into.

It’s called self-righteousness. And there it is in the current crisis, lurking among all the good-neighbourliness and the compliance with intense inconvenience for the sake of others; peeking out from behind the unselfishness and love.

I went out for an exercise walk yesterday, and saw a deer in a cemetery. On the way back I met my wife, with whom I live and who was walking to meet me. I had just passed two men, sitting at least two metres apart, and my immediate thought was that they would assume I was meeting someone in secret, getting too close to her and flouting the regulations. They might report me.

They didn’t (as far as I know). Most people wouldn’t. But there is a hard core of people who are on the lookout for other people doing “wrong”. This results in newspaper stories like the one about the scientist whose mistress paid him a visit, and the one about Scotland’s chief medical officer, who travelled to her second home when this was being actively discouraged.

Neither of these people was “flouting” the advice given. I’m willing to bet they gave it a lot of thought and decided it posed almost no risk to anyone. But they both had to resign (and deprive us of the excellent work they were doing) because the self-righteous public thought that if they themselves couldn’t do it, no-one else could – and so they had to go.

It is those final five words that are critical. People make misjudgements – sometimes they just seem to make misjudgements – and they find themselves jumped on from a great height. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to allow them to say: “OK. I see what you mean. That may not have been the wisest thing to do” – and be forgiven?

It might not be fair, but it would be the compassionate thing to do. We need compassion. We need forgiveness. It’s not as easy as clapping for the NHS, but it lasts longer and reaches deeper.

Are we so afraid of death that we’ll do anything to avoid it?

I have to admit that I am over 70. I am therefore at risk and cannot be allowed out of the house except for exercise. I cannot buy my own food. My wife and I cannot help anyone else and have to depend on a friend to keep us fed. Neither of us is knowingly ill: I do feel short of breath occasionally, but that is just when the word “coronavirus” is mentioned. Unfortunately that is quite often, especially on the BBC.

It is a long time since I have hugged anyone except my wife. She views this as a good thing, but I am not so sure. My son is in Canada, and my grandchildren are in Buckinghamshire.

On the plus side, the sun is shining, and we have had some very warm days. I have in fact been getting more exercise than I normally do, though I cannot admit that, in case the Government tells me I don’t need it and locks me in the attic. We are eating pretty well and are improving our house and garden considerably.

Not only that, we now understand Zoom. I’m not sure “understand” is the right word, but we have used it to talk to friends, have meetings and “attend” church services. It is astonishing how many elderly people seem able to do this – not to mention FaceTime and Skype. In many cases these are people who would not in normal circumstances admit to any understanding of technology more advanced than e-mails.

My wife and I have now made friends with two blackbirds, who recklessly approach much nearer than two metres whenever we go into the garden, possibly because we feed them.

So where is it all leading? No-one knows, of course, but I am aware that I am extremely fortunate and could continue like this for some months. I don’t want to, but I could. Others, however, could not – especially those who are being deprived of work and money through no fault of their own.

Is it really necessary? Again, no-one knows. Is it all being done to save the NHS? The NHS is an expensive organisation, being operated at face-to-face level by courageous, skilful and caring people. But I suspect at management level it is in need of severe shaking up, and has been for some time.

It needs more money, but money does not appear magically out of thin air. Are we prepared to pay more tax? If not, it’s no use running campaigns to “save our NHS”. Clap by all means on a Thursday evening. We do. But we need to put our hands in our pockets too.

Many more people will die of COVID-19. Other people will die of other things. People die, sometimes in horrible ways, and we have to accept this. We may or may not think it’s the end of everything. I have lost a cousin to this virus, and it was devastating for his family. But are we so afraid of death that we will do anything to avoid it? Anything? Including making life intolerable for others?

If so, we should remind ourselves that those for whom life is being made intolerable are largely the young people who are the future of our country. They are vulnerable too, and they need some of the love that has been shown to so many others.

This is not a criticism of the Government. I don’t know what decisions I would have made, and I am grateful I didn’t have to make them. It’s just a question. What kind of people do we think we are?

Stand well clear

As it’s Easter week, I decided not to write anything about Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Black Saturday or Easter Sunday, on the grounds that what I say will already have been said by members of the clergy not allowed into churches and running desperately to the internet in order to write or stream, or zoom, or do something else I haven’t come across yet.

It is very hard to stop clergy expressing themselves. In that respect they are much like journalists. So instead of writing anything coherent in the way of journalism (Did I ever? you may ask), I am simply giving you a poem this week. Totally free. Not reduced in any way. No response necessary. I advise you to stand a good two metres away from it.

Take me back to Luskentyre

This would be a good time to be walking on the breathtaking beach at Luskentyre in the Outer Hebrides – assuming the weather is as sunny and (fairly) warm as it is at the moment in Norwich. Last time I was there – at the height of summer – it would have been a real challenge not to distance yourself socially from other beach-users, because there were so few of them.

Of course there might be good reasons not to isolate yourself in Luskentyre. I’m unsure about the toilet roll situation there, not to mention the food supply, and supermarket deliveries might be a problem.

But it’s definitely a good place to get away from it all in these stultifying times. I am fortunate in being forced to stay in a reasonably sized house with a beautiful woman, which is not something I’m desperate to get away from. Others are stranded on their own, or with someone who does not appreciate their finer qualities, or someone who abuses them, physically or verbally.

We do have a garden, and it’s in fine condition, because my wife has been working in it almost all this week. What have I been doing? Well, being a writer means my workload has increased, if anything, and I still can’t catch up. She likes gardening. Honestly.

I do try to get some exercise, and our neighbours, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, who are naturally closed, kindly left their gate open a for a couple of days so that I could take my daily exercise in their empty car park. However, they have now radically closed it, and my garden is not really big enough to get going in. A great deal of intricate manoeuvres are necessary to get from one end to the other, and even if you wiggle your hips, it still isn’t very far in terms of steps, which is what we all measure our fitness in nowadays.

We do have thoughtful neighbours and friends, which means that we are not hungry. Amazon have just delivered some olive oil, so that’s all right. I am expecting some peppercorns later. 

I am also doing what the Government tells me to. I am like that.

But I am paying little attention to the statistics on television or in the paper, because I still believe what my father told me over 60 years ago: “There are lies, damned lies and then statistics.” It wasn’t original to him, but he liked it.

I don’t actually think most statisticians make it all up; it’s just that there are so many unknowns, especially where viruses are concerned. It’s like economic forecasts – they are always wrong, and there’s always a good reason. Really.

Getting out of Bethlehem

Shortly after we left Bethlehem, they closed it down. If our journey had been a week later, we would probably still be there, stranded by the coronavirus. We would not even be able to wander round the rather beautiful Church of the Nativity – the oldest church in the country – because it is now locked. Manger Square, I would imagine, is open, because you can’t really close it.

I didn’t catch the coronavirus in Bethlehem, but I did get a rather nasty bout of diarrhoea and had to miss our group’s visit to Old Jerusalem. Annoying, but it could have been worse. I recovered sufficiently to get home in relative comfort.

Funny place, the Holy Land. Who would have guessed that Bethlehem actually adjoins Jerusalem? There is no countryside between – just a checkpoint and a wall. Bethlehem is in Palestine, whereas Jerusalem is mostly in Israel.

We spent quite a bit of time in Palestine (or the Palestinian Territories, or the West Bank), and mostly you wouldn’t know the difference, but of course differences are not always visible. Freedom of movement is not visible. Human rights are not visible.

I’m note sure what I expected in terms of the biblical sites, which were the main reason for our pilgrimage. Basically, if you could build a church on something, there was a church there – or two, or three. This did not really help. The only place they didn’t seem to have built a church was on Lake Galilee, which was as lovely as I expected.

But the most beautiful site was Caesarea Philippi, on the edge of the Golan Heights, almost within arm’s length of both Lebanon and Syria. A low ridge, a huge cave, sparkling water, acres of Roman remains – what more could you want? It is said to be the site where Jesus asked Peter who he thought Jesus was, and Peter’s reply – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” – gains extra power when you realise that they were surrounded by temples to Roman deities and a cave that was supposed to be the entrance to hell.

I suppose what stuck in my mind was not so much the sites – though many were striking – but the distance between them. We are sort of used to the idea of Jesus wandering around, preaching and healing, but he had to make some pretty serious treks. Nazareth may be only three or four miles from Cana, but it’s about 70 miles from Jerusalem and 25 miles from Capernaum, which itself is about 90 miles from Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi is about 125 miles.

And it’s not just distance. Practically everywhere we went was accessed by steps: it’s a very up-and-down country. The 15-mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho – setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan – drops about 3300 feet – higher than the highest mountain in England. Jericho is the lowest city in the world, at nearly 850 feet below sea level. Not an easy commute, on foot.

Six hours to kill, no car and not much rain

 As I sit here in the middle of Storm Ciara, well protected (I hope) by several walls and a roof, my thoughts turn to Westray, in the Orkney islands, where there are no trees.

Admittedly, that does avoid the possibility of one falling on you, but it also means that the wind sweeps across with virtually nothing in its way, which can be annoying. Apparently you get used to it – or so I was told when I was there last summer.

We went by air – in a very small plane which held eight moderately sized people – and we were deposited fairly early in the morning on a very small airstrip at the north of the island, from where we were transported to our B&B some miles away, the other side of the main village, Pierowall. 

Unfortunately the B&B was not ready to accept us until 4pm, which meant that we had about six hours to kill. We had no car and no provisions. There were no buses. The weather was not exactly warm, and there were very few people, but at least it didn’t rain much.

Nothing much happened, but it was one of the most memorable days of my life.

We took in a castle, a white beach, some links, a number of tracks and the only café on the island, which served me some absolutely stunning raspberry and rhubarb cake. We then found an ancient church and a hotel that served the only evening meal on Westray. 

We booked, and then found that we had to walk over a mile to the B&B, back for the meal, then back to the B&B again. If there had been a choice I would not have contemplated this. There was no choice. We did it. It was amazing.

It is often said that Westray is beautiful, and it is. But I’m not sure why. A lot of it is quite ordinary, with abandoned farm vehicles, wire fences, uncared for tracks and no hills to speak of. The coast is something else, but it was not so much the view that entranced us as being thrown on our own resources, with nothing to do but walk.

Sometimes not having a choice can turn out to be the best choice possible.

Woman’s shocking message brought my tree tumbling down

Family trees are awkward customers: they can lead you badly astray. For many moons, thanks to sloppy detective work and a series of guesses, I was under the impression that my mother’s family – the Browns – came from Cambridge, probably en route from Brighton.

This was based mainly on the fact that my grandfather was a gardener, and maybe he came from a long line of gardeners. I found a gardening Brown in Cambridge, and another in Brighton. Other things seemed to fit.

Brown of course is not a helpful name. It’s right up there with Smith on the unhelpfulness level where family trees are concerned, with the additional complication that you can spell it with an additional e if the fancy takes you.

To say I was confused would be an understatement. I was completely deceived. And I might have gone on with my self-deception for ever, if I had not had a shocking message from a woman called Nicola.

She had been dabbling in DNA and had discovered that she was my second cousin. Her grandmother was my mother’s cousin. Great! New relatives: what’s not to like?

In this case, nothing at all. Both Nicola and her mum, Jill, were delightful, and Jill turned out to be something of a Miss Marple (her daughter’s phrase). She had done some proper detective work, found that her grandfather was my grandfather’s brother, but almost 20 years younger. It was a big family.

What’s more, it was about as solidly Norfolk as you could get. Not a trace of Cambridge or Brighton. More Cringleford, Hethersett, Thurton and Bawburgh – among others. And many of them living in Norwich, just down the road, as it were, from my grandparents’ house on Hall Road, next to the butcher’s and now demolished.

I don’t know why my mother never mentioned them. Maybe she did, and I wasn’t listening. I am now returning to look at the maternal tree with more diligence and intelligence, and hope I can add to Miss Marple’s already impressive investigations. Relatively speaking, that is.

(Incidentally Nicola and Jill are not their real names. We don’t want to make this too easy, do we?)