Archive for the ‘General post’ Category

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Rules One and Two 

by Brendan Gill

“Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the argument that life is serious,

though it is often hard and even terrible. Since everything ends badly for us,

in the inescapable catastrophe of death,

it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time,

and that the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so.

There is no third rule.”



Sunday, November 23rd, 2014


In the Guardian, about six months ago, there was an interview with Sofie Grabol. (Yes you do: Danish actor, the wearer of The Famous Sweater, just been in a play in London’s West End …)


When they asked her what had been her most important lesson in life, she said this:


That we are going to die.

That life is precious, painful, and incredibly beautiful.

That it can change at any moment.

And that love is above all.









Oh, dear, what can the matter be?

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Oh, dear, what can the matter be? 

by Bill Halson


Chorus 1

Oh, dear, what can the matter be?

Tories and Labour both teetering backwardly,

UKIP ecstatic, Lib Dems fearing tragedy.

What a curious state of affairs.


Verse 1

Westminster, as Scots enjoyed their referendum,

Suddenly panicked:  decided to send’em

All three party leaders so as not to offend ‘em.

They even wheeled out Tony Blair.


Verse 2

Just when Alex Salmond thought that he had done it,

‘Cos Alistair Darling had totally blown it,

At the very last minute, ‘twas Gordon wot won it!

Nobody’d  known he was there.


Chorus 2

And it’s oh dear, pity the Englishmen,

Devolved powers to Welshmen, the Scots and the Irishmen,

But depend for their laws on MP’s from West Lothian

And now they’re beginning to care.


Verse 3

The Tories would bar MP’s North of the Border,

But Labour thinks that would be quite out of order.

The Scot Nats are ranting and screaming blue murder.

Lib Dems want it just to be fair!


Verse 4

Lib Dems spent their conf’rence lambasting the Tories

And waxed sentimental about their past glories.

Nigel Farage drank beer and told very rude stories:

He just loves to let down his hair!


Chorus 3

Now it’s oh dear, poor David Cameron,

Lost two MP’s and then got a hammerin’,

For his blood his right-wingers are clamourin:

How can he look so debonair?



Verse 5

In Europe they gave him a sudden large invoice

And said, about paying, the rules gave him no choice:

Guess which politician in Wagnerian voice

Sang:  ‘Ich liebe dich, danke sehr’?


Verse 6

Ed Miliband messed up his job application.

He spoke without notes and without hesitation.

The deficit somehow, dropped off his oration:

I wonder, was he unaware?


Chorus 4

Oh dear, Scots Labour’s new chorus

Is “Ed Miliband is a real dinosaurus”.

They say “Westminster won’t do anything for us.

They’re too ‘London–centric’ to care.”


Verse 7

Three cheers for the PM for coming out shootin’.

He fired a broadside at Vladimir Putin.

Am I cynical thinking his aim is recruitin’

To raise his electoral share?


Verse 8

Good news for the marchers and anti-capit’lists,

A book has appeared with a new Brand of Politics.

For myself it just sounds like a cart-load of bollitics.

I’m sorry, it just makes me swear.


Chorus 5

Poor, dear Liz Truss in an awful stew:

Ducklings in Yorkshire going down with the avian ‘flu.

She’s down on her knees praying turkeys won’t catch it, too.

UKIP blame it on immigrant air.


Verse 9

The gen’ral election will soon be upon us

With numerous parties attempting to con us

And scores of MP’s fear that they’ll soon be gonners:

For the real world they have to prepare.


Verse 10

A new coalition the pollsters predict.

It’s enough to make David and Ed feel quite sick.

Will the balance be held by Nigel and Nick?

They’d make such an elegant pair.


Chorus  5 (Last)

So it’s oh, dear, back to reality.

Will we ever return to two party duality?

Or is it henceforth multi-party rivality?

Frankly, I really don’t care!



©Bill Halson , November 2014

Reproduced by kind permission of Bill Halson. If you would like to use any part of it

please make a contribution to your favourite charity.

And would you like some warfarin with that?

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

This has made me so cross I have to blog about it. Last night, the wonderful doctor who looks after my PICC line, which needed attention, spent all day at University College Hospital – which was either an 8 hour or a 12 hour session – and came out into the rainy dark to discover that his bike had been stolen. The third one. The lock had been cut through – that’s about a hundred pounds – and I don’t know about the bike, except that my doctor thought his insurance company wouldn’t step up to the plate for that again. So he had to walk in the rain to get to my hospital and save the PICC for me. And he did.

You rat! You thieving horrible little rat! Oh I don’t suppose for a moment that the thief reads my blog, but do you really think this is acceptable behaviour? It’s got to be a doctor or another kind of medical staff who leaves a bike outside a hospital, doesn’t it? How is that OK to nick? Might you not imagine you might need their services in the future? Might you not think your behaviour was, um, inappropriate?

I don’t want to suggest that stealing a non-medical bike is OK. It’s so not. But this? It’s a bloody scandal.

Have some warfarin. Please. On me. Little rat.

Oh, and a PS to FaceBook friends: I’m back in hospital and unable to access FB at all so hello, and I hope you’re all doing just fine.

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

Dogs have owners, cats have staff

Monday, March 24th, 2014

When I wrote the blog post-before-last I included ‘plus two cats’ in the title but didn’t get around to telling their story. Here it is.

On the Key West compound on Ann Street where we lived until last Tuesday there were two resident cats. One of them is “my” Minnie Moocher – a smart and quirky tabby who was dumped on the property about 12 years ago. When she first appeared I was about to leave town, and I tried to find her a permanent home because she was quite young – maybe a year old – and I thought she’d be better off with a regular owner. I didn’t succeed, and I worried about leaving her to fend for herself, but I needn’t have done; Minnie is the most resourceful of cats. When I returned, months later, Minnie had appointed the only fulltime compound resident as her new human carer. She asked only for regular meals, daily conversations, and a little playtime. In return she did “meet and greet” duty to all new compound guests, kept the feral chickens and stray cats off the property, and was generally both entertaining and decorative.

Minnie is still the most interesting cat I’ve ever known. She is as smart as a tack. She’s curious, as are all cats, but not intrusive: she likes her own space and she allows that to humans, too. She’s witty: her favourite game is to give tiny, gentle bites to your ankles or hands and then to gallop away: you can almost hear her giggling as she runs off. She’s very affectionate, and she enjoys human company, but she doesn’t want to be owned – she’s a genuine free spirit. She knows all the best places to shelter when it rains, and cultivates a certain mystery about her life and habits.

And then, a few years ago, Patches joined the compound: a cat with an entirely different personality. Patches had been an exclusively indoor cat in one of the houses, but when her owner died she was rescued by Minnie’s human carer. She was a true scaredy-cat for the longest time, frightened of everything and everyone, and only gradually became more trusting in company. But then her new human carer also died.

When I returned at the end of January, both cats were still living on the compound. Patches is deaf, and has perfected the heart-breaking ‘silent meow’. Now she set her whole heart and mind on finding a new owner. She hated being an outdoor cat, and longed for the transient kindness of strangers to turn into a permanent arrangement. Every time new guests arrived in one of the rental houses Patches established herself on their doorstep, begged for food as though she hadn’t eaten for weeks (although she was already fed twice a day) and did her best imitation of full-on endearingness. It often worked, of course, but only for a short time. The cat-loving guests would inevitably depart, and Patches would fall into what I can only describe as a deep depression. In normal circumstances Patches would follow a bowl of food across the compound so enthusiastically she almost walked straight into trees – but after each disappointment she ate hardly anything for days. Cats sleep a lot: Patches slept all the time.

It seemed to me that Minnie disapproved of Patches’ needy behaviour. There was a lot of hissing and paw-swiping when they met, and meal times became complicated by tricky-to-manage issues of precedence. And then – thank you, benevolent universe! – Patches found a new owner! She finally rode off in a cat basket to relax in the joys of indoor living, petting, and general domesticated bliss.

So now it’s just Minnie again. She’s lived as The Compound Cat for so long, we all think she’ll be happiest if she stays there. I drive across town twice a day to feed her and chat to her, and she seems perfectly relaxed and content. I know that when I return to London next weekend other people will make sure she’s fed morning and evening, check her water bowl, and stop for a chat.

And yet … and yet. Minnie’s old now – not as old as Patches, I think, but she must be at least 14. She looks much younger; she’s frisky and funny and a joy to observe, but she’s old. She’s never been ill, and right now she’s the picture of health, but I worry about all that too. What if …?

Oh, I know that Minnie simply regards me as staff. She remembers me from one visit to the next and greets me with enthusiasm, but it’s probably because I’m more patient (and more reliably timely with meals) than other staff candidates. She tolerates my faults. But I love and admire her, ascribe human characteristics such as courage to her, and will miss her dreadfully when I leave. I’ll think about her a lot; I’ll regularly email the people who are feeding her to ask after her welfare.

And I’ll hope she’s still there when I return.

Washed three times so you don’t have to

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Years ago, in London, I discovered an amusing game to play on the underground escalators. You have to keep the full list of the Seven Deadly Sins in mind but I’ll help you out with that right now – the list goes: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

So imagine if you will, as the escalator is taking you past all the advertisements, you have committed those seven to mind and are ready to identify the Deadly Sin represented in each advertisement. So, for example, an ad for an electrical appliance that actually comes with its own plug (they didn’t used to have those automatically in the UK) – that’s clearly sloth. An ad for a pizza chock full of every delicious filling imaginable: gluttony. Or greed. Or maybe both, especially if there’s a special price offer on the pizzas that appeals to greed. And so on. I haven’t played it for years, but remembering it now I intend to play it again when I’m back in London. I used to love sliding past all that display of excess, muttering “sloth, lust, envy, envy, sloth, gluttony” to myself.

I’ve remembered that game because I’m presently shopping in American supermarkets, those temples of consumer power. I’m especially amused by the slogan on the boxes of organic salad: “Washed three times so you don’t have to” – a perfect example of an appeal to sloth. I’m slightly bemused by tubs of pre-crumbled feta (I reckon I could probably crumble my own feta, slothful or not) but the winner of the slothful competition was the pre-prepped carrots.

I wanted to make a gluten-free carrot cake for my sister in law, and the only thing that made me hesitate was not having a food processor here, to grate the carrots. I contemplated borrowing one for the job but that was a more complicated endeavour than I wanted. And yes of course I could grate them by hand – but grating a pound of carrots is a thankless task and usually involves grating your own fingers as well as the carrots. So I was browsing through the veggie section in the chilled cabinet, vaguely wondering if I could make a banana cake instead, or at the least try to buy bigger carrots which would be easier to grate – when, yes! You guessed it! I found packets of pre-shredded organic carrots.

Sloth, be my friend. The carrot cake was truly delicious.

The best and the worst, plus two cats

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

I always forget, until I’m back in Key West again, how this little town expresses some of the very best, as well as the worst, of America. So in case you haven’t already figured this out for yourselves I herewith insert a generalisation warning: here come a whole bunch of them, drawn from admittedly random specifics. Look away now if you can’t deal with ‘em.

The best, and it is a wondrously top of the range best, is the absolute sweetness of many local people. I don’t know what energy is behind that: maybe it’s being southern (although Key West is more about island life than a southern one: the weather’s hot and life is slow, certainly, and I grant you that we eat grits, but not at every single meal). I suspect it’s mostly down to being an island; an enclosed and self-referential culture. Residents on Waiheke (my other most favourite island) also tend to be easier and sweeter than most other New Zealanders. Or it could be that Key Westers are basically country folk with “time to stand and stare” as the poet W. H. Davies said: there’s time to be sweet, so damnit – they are. (The country folk thing is also true on Waiheke.)

Whatever the reason, I have to tell you it’s a joy. People smile and greet you in the street when they don’t know you, and they wave their thanks to perfect strangers who have done no more than follow the road code and let them cross the road in front of their cars. They admire your clothes as they pass; they ask you what your chosen meal in a restaurant is like; they pull over in the (gloriously wide) supermarket aisles to let you pass with your trolley. At a birthday gathering in a restaurant they not only join in enthusiastically from other tables when “Happy Birthday” is sung: they do it without irony. They eagerly discuss the merits of the newest movie showing at the art cinema, or the latest best-seller, in the fish shop. If they can help you, they will, even if doing that is a bit of a faff for them. Their manners are startlingly and consistently excellent, which in turn encourages me to act out a matching set of good manners. Lots of please and thank-yous; lots of “no, after you”, lots of “go for it”, all abound. It’s not only soothing, it’s heartening.

But when I said I’d talk about the worst as well, I was lying: the worst of America isn’t here at all. What is here isn’t always fun: many tourists come here specifically to behave badly (specifically to drink, drug and party too much, and as a local friend says ruefully, “they do it in my backyard”). The bars don’t close until 4.30 am, so drugged and drunken behaviour has lots of time to flourish in this end-of-the-road town. (Mile Marker Zero is emblazoned on a buoy at the end of the highway, and the next stop would be – and once was, maybe will be again – Cuba, which is much closer to Key West than Miami.) But to my mind the worst of America is the present expression of rightwing politics and its arrogant disregard for human dignity, and Key West is, happily, a small blue spot in an otherwise red state. So the worst doesn’t really manifest itself here, and the rest of Florida seems a long way from the mahogany trees, the languid pelicans and the cluck-happy street chickens.

And that story I mentioned about two cats? Next time, I promise. If you have tears, get ‘em ready: it’s a sad story, but it ends with hope for the future. And meantime here’s a taster – a photo of darling Minnie asleep on the path outside our house.

Burning the old year

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Naomi Shihab Nye is a remarkable poet, whose work I treasure whenever I encounter it. I posted one called ‘Shoulders’ just over a year ago, which she wrote in response to the Newtown school murders. There’s another I love called ‘Wandering around an Albuquerque airport terminal’. And now I’ve discovered this one – ‘Burning the old year’ – which is perfect for today, the first of a new year, which I’ve partly spent shredding old files. (I’d burn them if I could: much more satisfying, especially on such a drear day.)

I often think it’s the things you don’t do that you regret, rather than the things you do. And that gives the last stanza a lot of resonance for me.

Burning the Old Year
Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.