Sitting on a plastic chair in the dark.
Sometimes all you can do is repeat the immortal words of those great men “Laurel and Hardy” and say quietly “this is another fine mess you have got me into”. I said this to myself as I sat stark naked in complete darkness on a small plastic chair in a shower cubicle in the “Royal Gwent Hospital”. Nobody told me that on Saturday mornings the electricity was shut off to all the non essential areas of the hospital while safety checks were done so I was just going to have a shower when everything shut down and I stumbled backwards into a chair, sat down and then found I couldn’t get up because I was jammed into this tiny shower seat and my swollen knees and legs couldn’t boost me out of it’s clutches, I had to yell for help and after a long wait a nurse rescued me. This is not something I wanted to have happen, everything is monitored and written up in your file including information about your behaviour and medical condition and I already had hysterical, incontinent diabetic on my file.

This situation came about because my spondylitis went berserk when my bed broke and while waiting for the delivery of a new bed my legs and feet swelled up so much I developed weeping sores on my shins and my balance was so bad I had several falls and felt so ill after the third fall I was taken to hospital in an ambulance.

When I came into hospital I was given a cubicle which was very lucky as most patients in Accident and Emergency that day were either sitting on chairs jammed into the waiting room, laid on trolleys or on beds placed in a semi circle around the central receiving desk where the nurses and doctors do their paper work, the whole room looked like a make shift MASH ward in a war zone or a refugee hospital. All the usual tests were taken and after a short time my bed was wheeled by a porter through the long confusing corridors, “Royal Gwent” is a huge hospital, to a ward where I had a cup of tea. To tell the truth just to be able to lay down on a comfortable bed and rest after weeks of trying to sleep on a recliner chair and then a lumpy sofa bed was wonderful. I slept and when I woke up it was supper time, I got out of bed and walked to the bathroom and back again unaided and had supper. I am telling you this because it lays the ground work for what happened in the middle of the night. The night nurses did their rounds and decided to check me for bed sores and if I was wet, I said I didn’t have any bed sores and wasn’t wet but they wanted to check. My swollen legs made it very difficult to roll over on my side easily so they decided to “turn” me. Four of them stood round the bed looking determined, is the only way to describe them, the bed was tilted so that my feet were much higher than my head and I was “helped” pulled onto my side so that my back could be checked, then I was put on my back and suddenly I had no breath, I couldn’t draw breathe, my chest had seized up and I was being “turned” onto my other side, somehow I dragged myself up on the bars and got a tiny breath inside me “I can’t breathe” I squeaked. “If you can speak you can breathe” one of the nurses said, to which my logical mind said “yes, that’s quite true” while the rest of my mind was screaming “can’t breathe, going to die”. Another nurse said “she’s panicking” and somebody else said “she’s hysterical”; slowly the bed was tilted until I was sitting up but I still couldn’t breathe and they had to get a nebulizer to regulate my breathing. As they were fitting the nebulizer mask another nurse said “get a catheter, she’ll be incontinent”. Somehow, I had enough breath to protest I wasn’t incontinent to which she replied “there’s always a first time”. I refused the catheter and finally made a deal where I would wear a pad. Dear God, how had it come to this? And to add insult to injury somebody made a clerical error and put me down as diabetic so in one night I had gone from being somewhat capable to hysterical, incontinent and diabetic. The next morning the results of the tests came back, I had blood clots on the lung, a lung infection, a bad spondylitis attack and a rash so I was put on a course of “warfarin” for the clots, antibiotics for the infections and a sticky cream for my swollen legs but no diabetes or high blood pressure. I stayed in the Gwent for 10 weeks and then I was transferred to St. Woolos a smaller hospital up the hill.

I didn’t stay on that ward for more than 2 days, which was fine with me as that nurse had the look of someone who would sneak up behind you with her beloved catheter – all the women on that ward had catheters and all were in their late 80s and 90s. We all came under “Care for the Elderly” which starts at 55 and covered all illnesses as far as I could see but the biggest part of this initiative dealt with senile dementia patients who came from nursing homes where they had fallen, some several times. The second ward I went into was a temporary ward which had a shortage of sheets (let’s make the bed do for today) and towels (hang onto that towel, we won’t get more for a few days) and no showers or baths so we washed each morning with a bowl of warm soapy water and disposable flannels. I knew there was a shower room and a bath but when I asked about having a shower I was told the shower room was full of office equipment and the bathroom hoist was broken, even if it worked you couldn’t bathe because the room was full of office files. I must have asked about the shower too many times because I was moved from the main ward to a room of my own with an en suite shower, the notorious shower I got stuck in, now that was fine for me but what about everyone else?

Everyone else never asked about having a shower, all the ladies were dementia cases living in their own little worlds which could be very dangerous for them as elderly people tottered around the wards and corridors looking for taxis to go home, wondering why all the lights were on which was a waste of money, screaming for a policeman because there was a dangerous burglar in the room, every night the alarms would be triggered by these poor dementeds, which is what I privately called them, wandering the corridors trying to go home and the nurses would run up and down the ward trying to find them before they fell, broke something or knocked a piece of equipment over. The nurses ran, there was no “fast walk that did not cause alarm” just damage limitation. One night there were several of these emergencies at the same time a nurse was trying to get a lady back into bed, the lady was very frail and in the bed opposite to me, she thought she was at home and needed to make all our beds, this was at 3am. As she tottered around straightening sheets and folding blankets the nurse saw I was awake, shoved a buzzer into my hand and said “watch her”. I struggled out of bed because my legs were still very swollen and my knees couldn’t bend. I tried to talk her into getting into bed but she suddenly decided she did not know why she was in hospital and was going home so she proceeded to stagger across the room barefoot, dressed in a nightie with no dressing gown and hardly able to stand; I hit the buzzer and another nurse came and put her back in bed while she complained loudly about her children who had put her in hospital when she was obviously perfectly well.

The nurses were amazing, short staffed, many with back and shoulder injuries from lifting patients or dealing with violent patients they ran from job to job and still found time to serve tea, feed patients who wouldn’t eat and be kind.

There is no television, radio or internet in the “Royal Gwent”. I spent all those weeks totally cut off from any news except the rugby scores (well, this is Wales) and I only heard about the Paris terrorist attack because a visitor said “wasn’t it terrible about Paris” and I had to ask “what about Paris?”. I lay in my en suite room looking at the beige walls or out the window. I did have lots of social workers and occupational therapists who visited me to try and find a way forward for my health problems and my housing situation. After a month the chest infection, rash and swollen legs had either healed or subsided to a reasonable level and the occupational therapists classed me as mobile and capable because I could walk unaided, use the shower and potter about, I even used to strip and make my bed each day as the nurses were short staffed and it gave me something to do. But, I was what they call “bed blocking”. I couldn’t go home because my home was not fit for purpose as it was riddled with damp and I couldn’t climb the steep staircase to reach the bathroom or my bedroom so I was living in one room of my cold damp house. The social workers organised carers for me when I left hospital and help with finding a new place to live either a ground floor flat or a bungalow.

Then on a Sunday morning I was told I was going to St. Woolos so I had to pack my few things and be ready to go. As I sat waiting to move I heard an argument start between an ambulance man and the ward sister. Whoever they were arguing about was over thirty stone with a huge BMI, who wouldn’t fit in the ambulance. The ward sister came and apologised, I wouldn’t be going to the other hospital so i unpacked and had lunch. I realised the argument had been about me, but I wasn’t thirty stone, before I had become ill I had been dieting and was 20 stone and I had come to hospital in an ambulance so I could definitely fit in one to go to St. Woolos. Half way through lunch I was told repack you are leaving. With very bad grace the ambulance men produced a wheel chair for me to sit in and be wheeled to the ambulance, it was as large as a four seater sofa, so I sat in the middle of my couch and was trundled out to the ambulance where we had another argument about how could I walk up the ramp into the ambulance (inference being I was so “huge” I couldn’t stand). I got in a temper, stepped out of the chair and stomped up the ramp and sat down on one of the seats unaided, the chair was duly wheeled up the ramp and strapped down. At the end of the journey I stomped down the ramp unaided, waited for my huge chariot to be rolled down the ramp, sat on the wheel chair and went into my new ward and new environment.

St. Woolos is like a cottage hospital with shower rooms, television room and non stop cups of tea with fairy cakes. Again, I had my own room and I am sure it was because someone felt I might see too much and perhaps cause trouble after all I had refused a catheter, asked for a shower and I asked questions about my treatment and when I had been told I would have to take warfarin for the rest of my life I said I would take it for the specified six months and no longer as it was an absolute poison so it was better I was kept under control, in a discreet way of course.

The ladies on my ward were all very elderly, one was 100 years old and in various stages of dementia from hysterical laughter like Mrs. Rochester from “Jane Eyre” to asking the same question over and over again and trying to get out of bed to go and catch a train. The lady catching a train nearly gave me a heart attack. I had been given a zimmer frame to help me walk and I always used it to go to the bathroom, I was just coming back to my room down the long silent dark corridor as it was about 11pm when I heard several ladies calling for a nurse. There were no nurses in sight, I went into the ward where I had heard the shouting and the train lady was laid on the floor, she had got out of bed and fallen. I was using the frame because my legs weren’t too steady but I did a three point turn any rally driver would have been proud of and hobbled down the corridor heart pounding in my chest which is not good for someone with blood clots on the lung, I was shaking as I started shouting for a nurse, one came running and dealt with the poor soul, who tried to do the same thing the next day!

My days were filled with boredom and bed making but I couldn’t go home because my blood results had not stabilised and I had no bed to sleep on if I did go home. A doctor allowed me to go home for the afternoon to wait for the bed to be delivered and then an ambulance would collect me and bring me back to the hospital in the early evening. The bed was delivered and I spent the rest of the bitterly cold afternoon on line trying to find a new place to live while waiting for the ambulance, but at least the room was warm as I had the heating turned on full suddenly the electrics went off and I was sat in total darkness with no heat, time went by and the ambulance had not come instead an emergency response car arrived and the responder waited in the dark with me, he had to wear a light like a miner’s lamp on his forehead so that he could see to take my blood pressure and temperature (it was like a scene from a surreal film by Bunuel) but it was no joke by the time the ambulance arrived my temperature had fallen 2 degrees and I was freezing even though I was wrapped in a quilt. So, I was trundled back to hospital and supper.

The next day it was decided I could go home, in fact the hospital was sending everyone they could either home or back to their nursing homes and I wondered how some of them would cope being back at home when they really were lost in their own worlds. The reason for this sudden activity was what the nurses called ”Winter Pressure” where as many beds as possible had to be free for the flood of seriously ill people suffering from flue, pneumonia and all the winter ailments.

I went home, at least the electricity was back on and I had a bed to sleep in but all the help I had been promised evaporated and I was on my own. When I rang my social worker thinking it was just an error I found out I had been classed as independent and capable of looking after myself so I wouldn’t get any help but I could keep the zimmer frame.

The National Health Service is buckling under the incredible strain of lack of resources, lack of equipment (I am sure that is why so many of the nurses have back problems when the hoist is broken they have to lift the patient), lack of staff (so many of the nurses were agency who did one shift and you never saw them again that is why everything was written down from what you had for breakfast to medications to create a continuity of care) and no matter how many social workers you have when they can’t do anything tangible to help the client, the buzz word is “we don’t want to impede your independence” they are useless and angry that they can’t do their job.

So, now I am back home, my independence unimpeded, still living in one room in a damp house and making my own way in finding a new place to live and I have an awful feeling that unless something is done we are seeing the last days of the NHS.

My Friend Said Part Two

My Friend Said, Part Two

When I write a blog which is a two parter, I always write the second part quickly;  in the space of a week or so but with this blog I have taken a long time to find the right way to express what I want to say. I lost the plot when the elections brought the Conservatives back into power with a majority because I couldn’t understand why they wanted to scrap the Human Rights Act and which Human Rights were they wanting to scrap? I got so bogged down trying to piece so many things together I couldn’t work on anything. But then I remembered I had written a blog about the “Lifeboat Theory” and speculators and I remembered the old FBI saying “follow the money” and things became a bit clearer.

I’ll start with the Human Rights part of my problem. Sorry if you get brain freeze, I will be brief.

During World War Two the allies adopted what they called “Four Freedoms” as their war aims – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want. The United Nations Charter framed that as faith in fundamental human rights and dignity and worth of the human person and all member states were to promote “universal respect for  and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”.  When the nazi atrocities were fully uncovered the UN realised that the United Nations Charter did not define human rights clearly enough so a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created. On the 10th December 1948 the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration. This is the basis of all the other acts and charters, because as time passes the original ideas are refined and defined more clearly. Now, we come to the act I think the government wants to revoke, put a wet towel on your forehead if it is all too much. The Human Rights Act was passed by the UK parliament in 1998. It means that you can defend your rights in the UK courts and that public organisations like the government, police and local councils must treat everyone equally with fairness, dignity and respect. This act protects all of us. Some of the rights include the right to an education, the right to privacy and a family life, protection against slavery and forced labour, the right to a fair trial, freedom of thought, religion and belief, protection of property and free elections. I could not understand why anyone would want to scrap this legislation for a “British Bill of Rights” when Britain had been one of the main instigators of the original UN charter and how could these so called “British Rights” be any different to the ones we already have.

Then I read that the parliamentary committee which scrutinises any major constitutional changes had been scrapped, it has a long name “The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee”. At a time when this committee is most needed – not just because of the human rights challenge but what about the referendum on membership of the EU, more devolution being given to Scotland and Wales, redrawing parliamentary constituency boundaries and this commitment the Tories have to “English votes for English laws”. Everyone of these subjects needs intense, detailed work and people from every party who really know their stuff, to put it mildly, but scrapping it certainly shields the government from real scrutiny and it scares me rigid how easily our system can be picked apart.

Then I was watching “Question Time” and Owen Jones started to talk about TTIP and the host David Dimbleby stopped him. (Sometimes you have to watch the gaps on that programme to realise what is important and what is white noise) Nobody wants to talk about TTIP, even the observers to the discussions aren’t allowed to discuss it, they have all had to sign confidentiality agreements and can just about admit to going to meetings.

The “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership” is a series of trade negotiations being held in secret between the EU and the USA. It is about reducing the regulatory boundaries to trade for big business (the transnational corporations and cartels) in areas like food safety, environmental protections, banking regulations and the sovereign powers of countries.

 One of the main aims of TTIP is to open up Europe’s public health services, education and water services to American companies. So, the NHS is right in the firing line and that means the privatisation of our health service, the health service invented by the Welsh and given to the nation to serve all of us.

The next thing in the firing line is food and environmental safety. The US wants to bring EU standards closer to those of America but American standards are much less strict with 70 percent of all processed foods sold in American supermarkets containing GM whereas the EU allows virtually no GM foods. The US is very lax on the use of pesticides and it uses growth hormones in its beef which is restricted in Europe due to links with cancer. America has repeatedly tried to circumvent European restrictions and failed TTIP opens the door. The same thing will happen to the environment. In Europe a substance has to be proved safe before it can be used. In America any, I repeat, any substance can be used until it is proven unsafe. For example the EU bans 1,200 substances from being used in cosmetics, the USA just 12.

TTIP also covers banking. Now, this is interesting because the City of London is trying to convince America to loosen its very strong financial rules which were implemented to stop another banking meltdown. If American restrictions are removed all the power is back in the hands of the bankers and the casino is open for business again.

In 2012 the European Parliament threw out “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement” because after a huge public backlash against an attack on an individual’s privacy where internet service providers would be required to monitor our online activity (which in my case would be very boring consisting as it does of ordering shopping, playing “Pengle” and checking “Facebook” and okay, writing subversive blogs). TTIP would override the European Parliament with an easing of data privacy laws and a restriction of public access to pharmaceutical companies clinical trials being part of the agenda.

What is really terrifying is that the EU has already admitted that TTIP will cause unemployment as jobs move to America where labour standards and trade union rights are lower or non existant. The Americans have advised EU members to draw on European support funds to compensate for the expected unemployment despite public assurances about TTIP bringing hundreds of thousands of new jobs to a Europe desperate to get its people into work.

And finally, there is ISDS which sounds like a sexual disease and is just as pernicious. “Investor-State Dispute Settlements” allows companies to sue governments if those governments’ policies cause the company to lose profits.

The introduction of ISDS is one of the main aims of TTIP. What this really means is that unelected transnational corporations can dictate the policies of democratically elected governments. It is happening already because ISDS is in place in other bi-lateral trade agreements so, in Germany a Swedish energy company “Vattenfall” is suing the German government for billions of dollars over its decision to phase out nuclear power stations after the Fukushima disaster. Phasing out the power plants affects “Vattenfalls” profits and shareholders dividends. There are around 500 similar cases being prosecuted at the moment around the world in arbitration tribunals made up of corporate lawyers, basically secret kangaroo courts biased towards big business overriding democratically elected governments laws and regulations and neither the public or politicians can stop this happening.

So, you can see why I was laying awake, unable to sleep, listening to classical music night after night trying to understand why all these things were happening when every one of them was against the good governance and security of the world, let alone Europe or the UK.

Now, these are just my answers; I haven’t unravelled even a quarter of it, there are so many layers. First I will say that hedge funds, cartels and speculators need turmoil, shortages and upheaval on a global level as well as local levels to achieve maximum profits. You can make profit in a stable climate but to make mega bucks, let your cocaine dealer have three holidays a year kinds of profit you need to use insider trading in the middle of war zones (e.g. Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Ukraine) and areas where populations are in terrible flux and dire need (e.g. all the refugees trying to reach Italy, the Rohingya, the Yazidis, Afghans) because food shortages, water shortages, every kind of arms deal imaginable plus the trade in priceless works of art looted from world heritage sites means huge profits.

There doesn’t have to be such drastic upheaval as the things I have just written but the London Stock Exchange is being affected every day by the upcoming referendum on whether to leave the EU as companies ponder how to structure their business so imagine the field day hedge funds and speculators will have once TTIP is in place and if the population is pushed far enough by Conservative policies there might be a few riots, strikes and maybe even a hunger march as the 30 billion in cuts starts to hit home to make the City even more nervous so there could be some very juicy “puts” being placed by wide boys in City braces even as I write. Whether it is the more “genteel” version of unrest, shortage and insider trading or the terrible war torn destruction kind it all feeds into achieving the “Lifeboat Theory” world view.

Briefly this theory says that there are too many people in the world and the earth is a lifeboat with limited resources, all the rich, important, entitled people are in the boat and all the poor, the flotsam and jetsam of the world are in the water drowning and they should be left to drown because the only people “worth” saving are the rich who will use earth’s resources to keep them in the luxury they are used to. When TTIP comes into force all the multinational companies and richest families must see is profit without any restrictions; no governments, no regulations, no unions just a more easily controlled (because there will be a lot less of them, the “Great Unwashed” after war, famine and pestillence have culled the herd) desperately poor  ready to do anything for a crust labour force and no way of stopping the free market and its ultra conservative right wing mad men from dancing us all into the dark.

Usually I have some suggestions about how to tackle the issues that I have written about but right now I don’t. My friend may be right when she says work houses will be coming back there’s no law to stop them.

My Friend Said

Whenever anyone says 1930s I always think of my grandfather who lived in London. His family were not wealthy, nobody in the East End was. The East End of London was where homeless people slept under railway arches or on park benches and the police would move them on or if a beggar had a few pennies to spare from pawning a pair of boots or the sheets off the bed you paid to hang over a rope  to sleep on your feet in a doss house. Scraping by was the daily reality for thousands. Anyone in the street who needed medical help but could not afford a doctor came to my grandfather, he would set bones and stitch up wounds, operating on the kitchen table and he never charged a fee. When I heard George Osborne talk about cuts which would take us back to the 30s I felt afraid. In the 30s there was no National Health Service, no safety net like the ones we have now, Lloyd George had brought in the old age pension scheme for the elderly but other than that there was just poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment and the equivalent of zero hour contracts where men would line up to get a days work from the boss but so many factories were closed because of the Depression that the only booming industries were soup kitchens and hunger marches.

I was talking to a friend a few months ago and she said that she thought the government would bring back work houses. I felt she was really exaggerating nobody would do that, would they? Having heard the Autumn Statement I am not so sure.

Everyone knows the term, work house, you only have to watch “Oliver” to see what a “spike” was like. The first one was in founded in Abingdon and the Mayor reported in 1631 that “wee haue erected wthn our borough an workehouse to sett poore people to worke”. As the centuries went by they were places of last resort for the truly destitute and infirm with a regime which was harsh to deter “scroungers” from taking advantage of the system. In 1929 local authorities were allowed to take over the work house infirmaries as municipal hospitals and it was only in 1948 with the “National Assistance Act” the work house disappeared. That is only 66 years ago. Why am I explaining the history of the work house?  Because at the same time George Osborne was giving the Autumn Statement  Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude was announcing what the real situation is and what the government is actually going to do. The aim is to make savings of £10 billion by 2017 and £20 billion by 2020; total £30 billion, which is a staggering sum of money. To achieve this in September this year former BP executive John Manzoni became Whitehall’s first CEO with a brief to shrink the whole of the Civil Service.

What is he going to oversee?  The outsourcing of who knows how  many services the public sector provides at the moment. I don’t mean changing the provider of the morning tea biscuits to a less expensive brand at the Foreign Office I mean for example all police evidence collection and witness statements will be digitised so that police officers don’t need to write up notes and reports, this information will be transferred into the court system and by using video links for witnesses, suspects, lawyers, court officers et al you remove the time and expense of people turning up in person, perhaps the courthouses can be sold off to speculators for luxury flats which rich Chinese and Russians can buy.  Some of the services will be contracted out to companies like “Serco” and “G4S” and we all know what amazingly competent, well organised companies they are. So, whole government departments will shrink drastically with IT, HR and legal support being merged and outsourced while goods and services will be centralized to get good deals on bulk buying (you can bet whatever you like that the companies they bulk buy from are all owned by or have directors who are either mps or people that “are known to us”). How many people will lose their jobs as the government proceeds with these draconian “reforms”. Against the realization that every department has to report to Manzoni who will decide what will be paid for and what will go to the wall I have a little list of services which I think will suffer, (feel free to add your own) in no particular order and to the tune of “Gilbert and Sullivan’s” song “I’ve got a little list”…transport, police, border and customs control, health and safety provision, outreach services to the most vulnerable adults in society, freezing of public sector pay, street and traffic lighting being turned off at night, employment law, more cuts to welfare and the “jewel in the crown” privatization of the National Health Service…”and all of them will be missed”.

I will go into why this government wants to make all these changes in my next piece because it is not just to make their friends in the city lots of money.

Christmas? Oh, No It's Not.

I haven’t celebrated Christmas for about 33 years, as a Buddhist I have always felt it would be hypocritical of me to be part of a different practise for one day just to get presents and have a party. So, every year I get myself organised for a non Christmas time and it can be just as difficult as getting ready for Christmas.

Firstly you have to decide do you want to spend your time at home or go away and if you do leave home do you want to spend the holidays in the United Kingdom or go overseas. This is a really serious question and can impact on everything else. I have done both and had, well not exactly disasters, but strange experiences might cover it. If you go abroad you need to pick a country which doesn’t celebrate Christmas because the whole idea of a non Christmas is to avoid all the Christmassy stuff like carol singing, sickly Christmas films, the Queen’s Speech and bloody Monty the penguin not to mention Jules Holland.  So Morocco is one place I like to visit because it is warm, the food is good, Marrakesh is a magical city, so is Fez and I speak passable French and not a decoration in sight. I did make the mistake of going to Malta for a two week break a few years ago; it is a beautiful place, good food, warm and sunny but I forgot that it is a Catholic country and as soon as I got off the plane I was being offered a guided tour of all the places that had the Nativity and Christmas cribs on display. I was extremely tired and I misheard the words “Christmas cribs”, I thought for some unknown reason, perhaps I was hungry, I was being offered cheesecake, it’s a good thing I didn’t ask what flavours they had!  But that set the tone for my two weeks including a carol service in the lobby of my hotel on Christmas morning which I had to negotiate on the way back to my room after I had been for a swim, no I didn’t want to hark any herald angels thank you as I climbed around sunburnt ladies and elderly gentlemen clutching zimmer frames and hymn sheets to reach the lift.

If you stay inside your own country then you have to be prepared for  a very expensive short break in a hotel which will try to provide every Christmas cliché you could desire because you are away from home and loved ones and the hotelier doesn’t want you to miss all the festivities including karaoke and cabaret that your own family and friends would usually provide for your entertainment on Christmas morning and don’t forget charades!  You have to chose the destination you want quickly and book it early because you cannot leave it to the last minute to book because all the decent hotels will be full and you will miss out on the oversized tree complete with flashing lights and the special Christmas Day dinner of overcooked chicken, 3 roast potatoes and a spoonful of Brussel sprouts. I don’t drive so I have the extra nightmare of having to use public transport to reach the hotel again you must book your train or bus ticket early, not that doing that is any guarantee you will make your journey comfortably or on time. One of my most memorable journeys was a short one from my home in Newport in Wales to Bristol which is about 30 miles away across the border in the West of England. I left Newport on the train about 5pm and did not get to Bristol until 9.30pm. There was snow on the line, which is always guaranteed to stop any train in its track, there were also the dreaded leaves on the track which no good train can travel over and then the Severn Tunnel  flooded, well it had been raining! I decided as I staggered out of an almost deserted Bristol Temple Mead Station that I was never going to leave home again.

Being at home is easier to organise, cheaper and more comfortable. First your entertainment needs must be really carefully considered because you want to block out Christmas and all its minions, I don’t mind watching “The Great Escape”, I will even watch David Lean’s “Christmas Carol” and I do admit to a love of the “Muppet’s Christmas Carol” but that is where I draw the line and everything else must conform to my strict rule of no slushy films, no elves and no tinsel. So, I make a list, usually a short one of the television programmes I want to see and I fill in the gaps with dvds I want to catch up on. Last year I watched the entire “True Blood” series and read a couple of murder mystery books. This year I am getting away from vampires and mayhem and i want to read the historical novels of Hilary Mantell and “Village of Secrets” a Booker Prize winner which sounds interesting, I am still trying to decide what movies or box sets to watch.

I don’t put up decorations, have a tree, send Christmas cards or give presents so I don’t have those pressures on me but I do find I have to fight against the power of advertising which has been sneaking into your brain since October and I admit to finding myself thinking a few days before the 25th that I can’t live without a coffee maker (I stopped drinking coffee a couple of years ago), a large bottle of Coca Cola (which I never drink on moral grounds), a lobster (I don’t like the taste), a bottle of “Guilty” perfume (I prefer Chanel) and a family size “Glitter Berry Gateau” (it would take me six months to eat a whole one of those by myself) so I have to continually check on myself to make sure I am staying true to my non Christmas self. Somehow, every year I manage to drag myself through the holidays and emerge on the other side feeling proud of myself for having created and lived through another stint of non merriness.

So on that note I want to wish a very non merry Christmas to everyone who reads my blogs and may next year be a better year for us all.

Considering the Light

I dislike John Milton’s poetry, the long winded, never ending poems about the battle between God and the Devil. The only poem I like is a simple poem “On His Blindness” with the line “when I consider how my light is spent” I first read it when I was about 12 years old but I really preferred to read James Thurber’s short stories especially “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Day the Dam Burst”, he also wrote about going blind. My eyesight was perfect at 12 years of age, I never thought about being blind and I didn’t even have to use reading glasses until my late 40s and it is only now as my eyesight gets worse and I have to change my way of living I can understand something of what they both wrote about.

Thurber wrote on black paper using thick white crayon and then white paper using thick black crayon. Three years ago the size font I used on my computer was 14 now it is 20. I have an intense sensitivity to light and in summer I wear sunglasses where ever I go, now that winter is drawing close and the light is grey and flat I can open the curtains and potter in the garden without having to wear them. I also have some strange distortions which Thurber had and like him I have found they do have a comic side to them. I live in a world of Impressionist painting colours where the blue and yellow and gold are so vivid they drown all the other colours. I can’t register red on black or black on red, I have lost that part of the spectrum so I can’t see notice boards on train stations or those electronic notices which tell you the time the bus is arriving, it is extraordinary how many notices are in red and black but they don’t exist for me so I just take pot luck. The last time I did that I stood on a platform in the middle of a field waiting for the train to Chirk while an announcement in Welsh asked me not to smoke on the platform or stand near the edge, presumably the train company had past experiences with passengers losing the will to live and throwing themselves on the track. My back was pulsing with agony but there was nowhere to sit and I had no way of knowing how long I had to wait for the train, thankfully it was only 15 minutes.

And pot luck is what you have to take if you are disabled and want to travel. Every journey I take is researched and organised as if I was going to invade Russia. I am very lucky in Newport which has a modern train station and is completely accessible for a mobility scooter so is Cardiff and I can visit Cardiff, Bristol, Bristol Parkway and London quite easily but the majority of stations are not accessible at all or partially accessible which is a wonderful phrase that means you can visit but you can never leave, because while one platform is okay the other platform can only be reached by stairs, lots of stairs and if you are foolish enough to pitch up at that station without researching its facilities you will be stranded. I have heard some grim stories about disabled people trying to make journeys; one person had to throw their wheelchair from the train onto the platform and then crawl after it because there were no staff around to help her exit the carriage, imagine scrabbling around on a filthy platform in a smart business suit because even though this station was supposed to be disability friendly in reality that was not the case. My thinking about these problems came about because I want to go to a village called Lechlade on Thames and view a canal boat I want to buy. This town doesn’t have a train station so I don’t need to worry about stairs or ramps but it doesn’t have a bus service either and the advice is to get a taxi from Swindon to visit this “delightful river side hamlet”. I can walk with a walking stick so if I followed this guidance I would need to take a train or coach to Swindon and then catch a taxi. This sounds easy but how long is the train platform that I have to walk down before you reach the street, how far would I have to walk to get a taxi, are there any seats I can sit on when the pain in my spine gets really bad and worst of all how many steps to navigate. The whole thing becomes a nightmare which makes me say fine I will order a car from my local cab company and make the entire journey with them in comfort, the only drawback is cost; the last time I did that cost me £250 round trip to Shropshire, again to see a boat. I can afford that but how many people can and why should they?

The other problem I have is ridiculous but I can’t always understand what I am seeing, it is called the “Charles Bonet Syndrome”. The closest thing I can use to explain it are those funny little pictures which start out as a young woman and then resolve themselves into an old woman, what you see is not what you get – I once thought a bag of recycling waiting for the rubbish collection was a person lying ill on the pavement outside my house, I rushed out my front door before it became clear to me what it was.  You become very unsure of yourself and question what is real especially when it affects words and you get a form of dyslexia where the letters don’t make any sense, I have found the best way to deal with this distorted world is to sit quietly and wait for everything to resolve itself, I say “wait for it to resolve” a lot. Fortunately I have a black sense of humour which makes jokes about myself, who but me could see a plastic bag caught on a neighbour’s chimney pot and be convinced it was a small person in a red jumper about to leap from the roof and seriously think I should ring the emergency services?  While I wait for “it” to be resolved I find I have time to think about all kinds of issues which go into my work and I can “consider how my light is spent”.

The Sheep and Me

I come from a farming family, my grandparents had a farm in Devon, so although I have never had to earn a living off the land I know how to do jobs like planting, harvesting and dealing with livestock including sheep. I say this so that anyone reading this can't say "well, this could only happen to a stupid townie who wouldn't know a ewe from a slap round the head with a jelly fish".
This true story starts when I went to visit friends who own a small holding with a couple of horses and four sheep. My friends are elderly and the husband had been quite ill so it was left to his wife to deal with all the animals. One of the sheep had a mild case of foot rot and one grey, muddy afternoon she and I tramped out to the field where the sheep were peacefully munching their day away, me wearing a pair of her old wellie boots, to fix the poor old animals foot which was not healing as well as it should.
The field was boggy, which is not good for foot rot, pools of water stood in little dips in the ground and after some chivvying and tempting with treats we got the sheep cornered and my friend got herself organised to tend the hoof. What was I doing? I was holding the sheep, I knew what I was doing, I had held sheep before and the ewe was docile until she realised that we wanted to fix her sore foot. She turned from being a friendly fat old woolly into a very large, old, soggy (because she had been standing in a field while it rained), extremely heavy grumpy sheep and suddenly I was clinging onto her for grim death. Slowly all her weight was beginning to press into my knees and chest which were bracing her while she stood on three legs and very slowly we began to sink into the mud. It was gradual at first but then seemed to gather pace and became like something out of a "Laurel and Hardy" film as my wellie boots went deeper and deeper into the mud and I struggled to stay upright, the thought of falling over on my back in a sodden field with a gigantic sheep on top of me was becoming a terrible possibility. Somehow I managed to stay on my feet, the treatment was finished and the ewe trotted back to her herd. Mud was over the tops of my wellies and I stank of "eau de sheep" and if you have never smelt that all I can say is you are lucky. I squelched my way back to the farmhouse aching all over.
This happened years ago and I had not thought about it until this weekend when I have been watching the war against IS develop and already you can see the tragedy unfolding, slowly at first with an accidental bombing by the American Air Force of a unit of Iraqi soldiers they mistook for IS fighters while the UK planes fly around in circles trying to find something to kill. Mission creep, such a wonderful term, will happen but then who will our ground forces be fighting for, who will they be allied to and who will be the enemy. Already, like me in that field, everything is getting bogged down but what do we do?
For years whenever I would oppose whichever war was being fought people would say "well, if we don't fight what do we do?" and that used to give me brain freeze.
When I was young I knew the answer, withdraw from Vietnam, stop the killing - it all seemed so clear cut but as the years went by the wars got more confused and the reasons for going to war murkier; wars that should have been fought weren't, wars like Afghanistan and Iraq were and always whether a war was fought or not by America and allies still the suffering of the ordinary people around the world is extreme.
Each of us has to make our own minds up about what I call "the new Iraq war" and whether it is right or wrong but there are simple things that can be done to help the civilians - donate to the various appeals for hospital supplies and support the refugee centres, sponsor an orphan and have an opinion, what is happening is happening in "our" name and we are all being dragged into the mud.

Why are Vikings stealing my organs?

Two years ago I was rushed to hospital in great pain and spent ten days in my local hospital.  I was supposed to have an operation the next day and was put on Nil By Mouth which was fine with me as I never wanted to eat again but due to various problems - a broken air conditioning system in the operating theatre and no surgeons available I spent seven days NBM on a drip before I could have the operation.  This piece is not about my time in hospital it is about my reaction to drugs and how debilitating the whole experience was.  I do not use drugs; no pain killers or any medications because I have always been extremely healthy until Spondilitis reared its ugly head but even then I refused pain killers preferring meditation, breathing and visualisation techniques.  Once in hospital I tried to explain I did not need any pain killers, sleeping pills etc but I had no control over what was administered through the drip so I was given pain killers although I wasn't in pain and pills to stop vomiting although I wasn't vomiting and I noticed that the control I usually have over my thoughts and speech was getting loosened, I was saying and thinking all sorts of odd things and holding conversations on topics I usually mulled over privately in my head - the role of the Lakeland Poets in modern society, Florence Nightingale and pie charts, concentric castles - I began to think I was the "nutter on the bus" as nurses started to look at me askance. Thankfully I wasn't rude or aggressive I just chatted away merrily in a manic fashion.  Finally, my operation went ahead and I was wheeled down to the operating theatre, all the theatre staff were blonde which I found quite interesting in my new weird freewheeling state of mind (did they all go to same hairdresser or did they dye their hair at home?). The operation went well and I was determined to come round from the anaesthetic quickly, repeating to myself over and over "no more drugs" and I groggily asked in the middle of my mantra why were Vikings cutting me up and stealing my organs?  Nothing made sense but then I was back on the ward with a little pump attached to me to self administer morphine when the pain got "bad". My system was awash with drugs, the effects scared me - I lost a day and became convinced Sunday was Monday, I had mild hallucinations involving a dragon and documentary footage of lilac bushes (don't ask, I will never look at dragons the same way again!) was here that I couldn't write about my experiences anymore and I saved the draft. The thing I treasure most, a rational mind and being able to use it unhampered had left me. I earn my living from writing, I value my clear headedness and even more than that my privacy and suddenly I was talking rubbish and thinking mush. So that is where I left my blog with the Vikings wanting  bits of my body and that body 2 stone lighter than when I had gone into hospital 10 days before. Now I have picked it up again all this time later with a new perspective about everything because I have had time to heal and time to think. What happened to my mind isn't unusual, I watched other people on my ward have the same kinds of reactions but the drugs are useful they keep the patient quiet, they make it easier for the nurses to get through their tasks even if the patient is screaming abuse at an imaginary friend or in my case having dragons help Vikings to gather lilac in concentric castles where they met the Lakeland poets, oh lawks, do I spy James Thurber frolicking among the cocktail glasses - yes definitely "nutter on the bus" time but it kept me quiet and hopefully I wouldn't argue with the doctor when he decided I should go to rehab (what for my mind shrieked I don't smoke, drink or use recreational drugs) or a residential old people's home (again I was speechless, I had a perfectly good home to go to when I was released and I know my hair is white but it has been like that since I was 25 and it turned white after I crossed the Sahara Desert but I am not an ancient relic yet) but when your mind can't think quickly or clearly you can't express yourself or protect yourself and it was only that there were no places at either of these institutions that I was released to go home. The whole experience really shook me, it showed me how easy it was to have control over one's life taken away from you by people who know nothing about you but are determined to act for your own good. It is overwhelming.
I came home and had home help provided by the local council for 6 weeks, these ladies were very kind and helpful but judgemental and I am sure they thought I was weird; I have a robot vacuum cleaner to clean the floors, I use a gizmo which has brushes that spin at high speed to clean the cooker and kitchen work surfaces, I do as little housework as I can a la Quentin Crisp I don't really bother with dusting and I do all my shopping on line. None of them had ever seen a robot vacuum cleaner before or my kitchen gizmo and the idea that I never as one of them said "popped out to the shops" was really strange to them as was my using my pc to write everyday (normal women, especially women as one of them implied who are getting older don't do these things, or live by themselves and never see any family). I was a puzzle they decided to humour but I would love to see the notes they wrote up on each morning visit! Anyway I survived the hospital, the Vikings and the home visitors and the only thing that niggled at me was the fact I had never finished this blog and faced my fear of opening up my mind and how it worked (or didn't) to scrutiny but now the piece is written and if it is woolly and wobbly just blame the dragons gathering lilac in the spring.