Archive for July, 2014

Advice for an unexpected summons

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

When the doctor said I had to go straight back into hospital because my blood test results were so dire, and never mind passing ‘GO’ or pausing for a cup of tea, it posed only minor practical problems. But since then I’ve wondered if there was any good advice I could offer others. In an emergency, how could you be ready for action in a similar situation?

Eyebrows spring to mind first, I confess, because frankly, decently plucked eyebrows come right into their own in some emergencies. I rather wish I’d given them priority at the time. But (a) any guys out there still reading this probably aren’t going to give a damn about their eyebrows, however sexist that may sound, and (b) it’s way too general a point for this context. (See also, e.g., clean nightwear, slippers, spongebag refills refilled, and some attractively varied reading material. You could work all that out for yourselves, right?)

But I’d never before realised how important it is to have all – repeat, all – your music on your iPod, and effectively organised into accessible playlists. And here are three good examples of why that is so, and just how much frustration and angst you might avoid in a similar future crisis.


Example Number One: The Goldberg Variations.

I have the glorious Glenn Gould CD version on my iPod, which you might think would do the trick – indeed, that it might do just about any trick imaginable. But the trouble is that it not only includes the 30 harpsichord tracks themselves but also, oh damn and blast, a surprisingly loud interview with GG right at the end. So any attempt I make to be soothed into sleep or at least into relaxation by the hypnotic patterns of the Variations is destroyed – right at the very end, when you might think that otherwise the lulling would have worked. This playlist needs urgent revision! I need to make a new one that doesn’t include the shock of the shouty damn interview!


Example Number Two: Nancy Griffith

Nanci Griffith has recorded at least two versions of her glorious “Love at the Five & Dime” song. The version I usually seek out begins with a paean of praise for the old Woolworth stores and then segues into the song itself. (I especially love the bit where she says she spotted a Woolworth’s store on her first visit to the UK and longed to stop the car, leap out, and buy a load of “unnecessary plastic objects”.) But because of the hospital drugs, or exhaustion, or general endemic incompetence, it took me hours – truly hours of faffing around – to find that one. I should have it carefully lodged in a special playlist such as  “Old Favourites”. And I will do, just as soon as possible, when I’m back home.


Example Number Three: my rest of entire music library

And why on earth I haven’t automatically added all new CDs to my iPod? Go on, tell me why not. Incompetence? Indolence? I even add them to my backup hard drive, for pity’s sake. But there’s a whole raft of music to which I can’t listen here in hospital, because – grits teeth in frustration – I didn’t add the CDs to my iPod. What’s more, I have at best only half-remembered clues about what the missing CDs might be. I have five Schubert piano trios on my iPod but surely that’s not all I own? Where are the Mozart operas? What about more Locatelli? This is all very frustrating. And here’s the worst bit: I don’t even know for sure what I’m missing.

I wake in the night and think: didn’t Phil give me some Ali Farka Toure? Where the heck’s that gone? And the thing is, on one level I could imagine myself perfectly content if my whole iPod was stocked only with Leonard Cohen. Maybe only with Leonard Cohen on repeat, singing ‘The Tower of Song”. Or maybe only with Sharon Robinson on repeat singing ‘”Alexandra Leaving”.

But then again, you need some variety in hospital life. Like – going home would make a pleasant change, I sigh in self-pitying fashion.

And my advice for today: get your iPods up to date, dear friends.







July all over again? And a poem.

Monday, July 21st, 2014

I truly don’t know what it is about me, my health, hospitalisations, and July. I’m trying to cling to the idea of random coincidences. But whatever the reasons, I went back into hospital just about on the exact same day as in 2013 and – gasp! – I’ve been here ever since.

Critical care all over again. Drips and central lines all over again, and a new thing called a PICC line which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Piccadilly Line although I admit I’m now getting a lot more emails from Transport for London.

I’m starting to feel better at last, oh thank thank! thank you! benevolent universe. They might even let me out of here soon… And meantime I read poetry and low novels, ingest a variety of drugs, and go for walks around the unit and even sit out on the balcony from time to time with Bruce (husbands are permitted in small quantities) and we pass judgment on the way the local mews houses have been modernised.

Because I’m in critical care I can’t have visitors , so this wonderful Charles Causley poem doesn’t apply to me. That doesn’t stop me loving it though – he was such a fine poet with such a distinctive voice and I find myself returning more and more to his work. He and my other current favourite – Cavafy – make rather unusual companions but I fondly imagine they’d have admired each other’s work.

One small irritation is that I can’t access FaceBook in hospital: I haven’t asked why not and I can surely live without it for a while longer. But this blog will (I assume) still bounce to FB and if you read it you’ll know why I haven’t responded to anything in the last month.. Roll on August, and maybe going home even for a short time …

Ten Types of Hospital Visitor,
Charles Causley


The first enters wearing the neon armour
Of virtue.
Ceaselessly firing all-purpose smiles
At everyone present
She destroys hope
In the breasts of the sick,
Who realize instantly
That they are incapable of surmounting
Her ferocious goodwill.

Such courage she displays
In the face of human disaster!

Fortunately, she does not stay long.
After a speedy trip round the ward
In the manner of a nineteen-thirties destroyer
Showing the flag in the Mediterranean,
She returns home for a week
- With luck, longer -
Scorched by the heat of her own worthiness.


The second appears, a melancholy splurge
Of theological colours;
Taps heavily about like a healthy vulture
Distributing deep-frozen hope.

The patients gaze at him cautiously.
Most of them, as yet uncertain of the realities
Of heaven, hell-fire, or eternal emptiness,
Play for safety
By accepting his attentions
With just-concealed apathy,
Except one old man, who cries
With newly sharpened hatred,
`Shove off! Shove off!
`Shove… shove… shove… shove
Just you


The third skilfully deflates his weakly smiling victim
By telling him
How the lobelias are doing,
How many kittens the cat had,
How the slate came off the scullery roof,
And how no one has visited the patient for a fortnight
Because everybody
Had colds and feared to bring the jumpy germ
Into hospital.

The patient’s eyes
Ice over. He is uninterested
In lobelias, the cat, the slate, the germ.
Flat on his back, drip-fed, his face
The shade of a newly dug-up Pharaoh,
Wearing his skeleton outside his skin,
Yet his wits as bright as a lighted candle,
He is concerned only with the here, the now,
And requires to speak
Of nothing but his present predicament.

It is not permitted.


The fourth attempts to cheer
His aged mother with light jokes
Menacing as shell-splinters.
`They’ll soon have you jumping round
Like a gazelle,’ he says.
`Playing in the football team.’
Quite undeterred by the sight of kilos
Of plaster, chains, lifting-gear,
A pair of lethally designed crutches,
`You’ll be leap-frogging soon,’ he says.
`Swimming ten lengths of the baths.’

At these unlikely prophecies
The old lady stares fearfully
At her sick, sick offspring
Thinking he has lost his reason -

Which, alas, seems to be the case.


The fifth, a giant from the fields
With suit smelling of milk and hay,
Shifts uneasily from one bullock foot
To the other, as though to avoid
Settling permanently in the antiseptic landscape.
Occasionally he looses a scared glance
Sideways, as though fearful of what intimacy
He may blunder on, or that the walls
Might suddenly close in on him.

He carries flowers, held lightly in fingers
The size and shape of plantains,
Tenderly kisses his wife’s cheek
- The brush of a child’s lips -
Then balances, motionless, for thirty minutes
On the thin chair.

At the end of visiting time
He emerges breathless,
Blinking with relief, into the safe light.

He does not appear to notice
The dusk.


The sixth visitor says little,
Breathes reassurance,
Smiles securely.
Carries no black passport of grapes
And visa of chocolate. Has a clutch
Of clean washing.

Unobtrusively stows it
In the locker; searches out more.
Talks quietly to the Sister
Out of sight, out of earshot, of the patient.
Arrives punctually as a tide.
Does not stay the whole hour.

Even when she has gone
The patient seems to sense her there:
An upholding


The seventh visitor
Smells of bar-room after-shave.
Often finds his friend
Sound asleep: whether real or feigned
Is never determined.

He does not mind; prowls the ward
In search of second-class, lost-face patients
With no visitors
And who are pretending to doze
Or read paperbacks.

He probes relentlessly the nature
Of each complaint, and is swift with such
Dilutions of confidence as,
`Ah! You’ll be worse
Before you’re better.’

Five minutes before the bell punctuates
Visiting time, his friend opens an alarm-clock eye.
The visitor checks his watch.
Market day. The Duck and Pheasant will be still open.

Courage must be refuelled.


The eight visitor looks infinitely
More decayed, ill and infirm than any patient.
His face is an expensive grey.
He peers about with antediluvian eyes
As though from the other end
Of time.
He appears to have risen from the grave
To make this appearance.
There is a whiff of white flowers about him;
The crumpled look of a slightly used shroud.
Slowly he passes the patient
A bag of bullet-proof
Home-made biscuits,
A strong, death-dealing cake -
`To have with your tea,’
Or a bowl of fruit so weighty
It threatens to break
His glass fingers.

The patient, encouraged beyond measure,
Thanks him with enthusiasm, not for
The oranges, the biscuits, the cake,
But for the healing sight
Of someone patently worse
Than himself. He rounds the crisis-corner;
Begins a recovery.


The ninth visitor is life.


The tenth visitor
Is not usually named.

Used by kind permission of David Higham Associates