The Great British Bake Off

On my way to the tip last Saturday there was a discussion about the Danish concept of hygge on the radio.  Hygge (pronounced hooge) is something that all Danes are proud of.  It is the main reason why Denmark is often voted the happiest country on the planet, said the nice Danish man. It’s a kind of contentment and cosiness that makes you feel good about yourself.  Every person has a different sense of hygge. You can find this on your own, or with others.  With the Danes, hygge is associated with fires and light.  I guess this is because Denmark is mostly dark for most of the year, so any form of light and warmth is greatly appreciated.  Also, it’s where our word “hug” comes from.

One programme that probably is hygge to many people is The Great British Bake Off.   Over recent years, this programme seems to have evolved into having a life of its own.  There is Bake Off everything being marketed at us. If you don’t like, well what is wrong with you! It’s Bake Off! Everyone likes Bake Off!

I do like Bake Off.  I like the fact that not everyone on it is perfect.  The contestants are often portrayed as bumbling.  The judges are often seen as being harsh, when they haven’t been at all. This whole niceness feels sincere and honest.  This atmosphere or hyggeness, is down to Mel and Sue, the presenters. They subtly make sure that no one is too big for their boots by raising an eyebrow on any grand claims made by both the contestants or judges.

The problem I have with Bake Off is baking.  I hate baking.  There I’ve said it.  The reason why I hate baking is that it is by far the most complicated of any cooking process.  There is so much precision to it.  You need to have exact quantities, the exact temperature and the exact timings.  Failure to do so will bring ultimate disaster.  How anyone can find the whole process relaxing is beyond me.  Also what makes things worse is that everyone does the same thing, but in a slightly different way.  You might add sultanas into something and be called a heathen for even thinking of such an idea.  Baking to me, seems just as divisive as politics, religion and music.

Yet somehow, Bake Off manages to make light of these differences.  I think it’s because they often focus on recipes on things that people never make (Jaffa Cakes? I ask you, would you really bother?) or the recipes are so grand, that it would have to be one hell of a social occasion to ever warrant such an elaborate baked item.  This means that we somehow, become a bit like the contestants, wondering how on earth do you ever approach starting such a task.

What is lacking in the understanding of terminal illness is the hyggeness that Bake Off creates so well.  Instead of feeling on the same level as those around you, you can’t help but feel inferior.  Your genes or whatever have messed up.  You’ve had to reduce your hours at work.  You can’t do the things that you could do before.  This is often made worse, though not intentionally, by doctors, nurses, porters, friends, colleagues, family etc who either try too hard or not enough, to accommodate your changing needs.

What needs to happen is what happens on Bake Off.  You have an end to achieve, but there must be a flexibility in order to achieve that end.  In Bake Off this is best seen in the Show Stopper at the end.  Everyone must produce something that matches a certain brief, but it’s up to them how they do it.  It might be a three tier cake, a gingerbread structure or a flavoured bread.  It’s up to the bakers to interpret how best to achieve that aim.

This is true about life too, especially when you have or are recovering from illness.  There needs to be a flexibility so that you can achieve you goals, but in a way that is good for you.  Everyone is different and everyone recovers differently too.  Being terminally ill doesn’t make you inferior, it makes you more aware of your abilities and what is important to you.  When a Dane goes to a restaurant and finds that it’s too expensive, they will often go to a cheaper one as it’s more hygge.  It’s not that the expensive restaurant is inferior in any way.  For other Danes that restaurant will be hygge for them.  It’s about finding what’s comfortable for you and then having the confidence to stick with it.  Despite what Paul Hollywood might say…



It started one Saturday morning.  I woke to hear a man shouting in a Texan accent.  I went downstairs to see who this man was.  My husband was cheerfully frying bacon.  He was listening to the man on his laptop in the kitchen.

“Who’s that?”

“It’s Alex Jones. He’s bonkers.”

This was my first introduction to the world that is InfoWars.

Alex Jones is best known in the UK for having a go at Piers Morgan.  Normally this kind of behaviour should be applauded.  The topic on which Jones was yelling at Morgan about was gun control.  Morgan was for it.  He presented his arguments logically.  Jones just shouted.  How dare a limey interfere in such an issue! Some Americans may have loved this, but to us Brits, he looked like a loony.

So why was my husband listening to him?  My husband loves conspiracy theories.  He likes to debunk them.  Alex Jones is the main gatekeeper to most conspiracy theories doing the rounds.  I’d like to think that my husband doesn’t believe at lot of what Jones says.  He’s fascinated as to why people do put such much faith in Jones and his ilk, when it’s all a bit bonkers.

It’ll come as no surprise that Jones is a Trump supporter.  In the lead up to the election, he went into over drive in his condemnation of Hillary.  He slated her appearance, style, vocal pattern, everything.  Nothing was untouched.  It made very uncomfortable listening.  Jones would argue that the same was done to Trump.  This is true.  Trump seemed to revel in his notoriety while Hillary tried to rise above it.  It was a tactic that unfortunately back fired.  Trump kept on pushing those buttons and Hillary’s silence seem to fan the flames even more.  This was not Clinton’s fault.  It’s because now politics is black and white.  You are with us, or against us.  Any attempt that doesn’t fight fire with fire looks weak rather than statesmanlike, which is wrong.

Now though, Jones has won.  It wasn’t something he had planned for.  He’s got no real reason to be angry. I could sense he was ready to call Trump a patsy for not carrying out his promises, but he can’t. Trump is doing exactly what he said he would.

He’s tried to turn his ire onto the protestors against Trump.  They are obviously being paid by the establishment to block true Americans from speaking.  Yet his arguments are half hearted.  They simply aren’t as juicy as Hillary.

In the UK after the EU referendum, a similar thing happened to UKIP.  They lost their main reason for existing.  No one wanted to be their leader as no one knew what they were cross about.

This is the problem if you dally in the politics of hate.  It’s far easier for people to see differences than similarities.  Everyone loves a good moan or rant.  When you have a consensus, someone must compromise.  And that aint fair.

It’s much easier to blame the man for your problems, than look at yourself. The man is at fault for creating this polarised world.  That said the politics of hate have always been around.  It’s a shock to see it in the interconnected world that we have become.

So, is there an answer?  Can we ever shut up Alex Jones while keeping the Hillary lovers happy too? Each side needs to listen to each other.  It’s questionable if that will ever happen, especially when both sides are using fake news to fuel their arguments.  Yet over time I hope that the echo chambers will become smaller through communication and listening.  Banning cretins like the awful Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking is not the answer.  It widens the echo chamber further.  These people need to be confronted.  When Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time, support for the BNP collapsed.  The same could happen to Alex Jones and the alt right Illuminati if we listened to their views and debunked them.  This isn’t something that will happen overnight.  It will take generations if ever at all.  Changes in technology mean that we are all become insular seeking company with those who agree with us.  There needs to be far more debating in schools, community centres, pubs, cafes, anywhere.  We need to switch off our phones and actively engage with the world around us.  It may be awful, but unless we confront these worrying attitudes on both the left and the right, all will be lost.

Homes Under The Hammer

Homes Under the Hammer should come with a health warning.  It’s highly addictive.  Once you start watching, you must see what happens next. Whoosh! An hour of your life has disappeared like that. The premise of Homes Under the Hammer is that we follow a property that is about to be auctioned.  Once auctioned we see the transformation that happens to the property to make the hovel into a habitable dwelling.

It all starts with the presenters.  First is their pack leader, Martin Roberts.  He is charm personified.  He glides around properties that look like that they should be condemned with all the smarm of years of flogging houses gives you.  He is joined by Lucy Alexander and, bizarrely, former footballer Dion Dublin extoling the virtues of property auctions.

Homes Under the Hammer is like all property programmes selling a dream.  This is what you could do if you have a spare £200,000 knocking about or if you fancying paying off debts for the rest of your life.  It also feeds into the British obsession with owning property by whatever means.  It doesn’t matter what the property is like, acquisition is everything.

Most of the properties aren’t in bad nick on Homes Under the Hammer.  They do sometimes show some right humdingers.  People buy them without even looking at them which is highly suspicious if you ask me.  Most of the buyers who buy the properties are well seasoned property developers.  They look a bit bewildered at being hauled in front of the camera to justify their actions.

So far so mundane.  However it’s the choice of music that makes Homes Under the Hammer stand apart.  Some producer somewhere needs to take credit for this.  Highlights for me was when we discovered the buyer was a retired admiral, the conversation was faded out with the sounds of “Sailing” by Rod Stewart.  Also in another episode when Martin was saying that the property had a dodgy boiler. Cue Nelly singing “It’s getting hot in here! So, take off all your clothes…” I still snigger when I think of it.

Of course, most of the properties are transformed in a matter of months.  The estate agents that had previously condemned the property are brought back to marvel at it.  The price has increased.  The owners have a tenant that is paying more than the estate agents had said.  Everyone is happy.  That’s exactly how it is when you buy a property isn’t it? No trouble at all.

The reality of all this is somehow different.  The pressure that estate agents, mortgage fixers, solicitors, vendors et al inflict on this antiquated process is horrendous.  Everyone wants a piece of the pie at double quick speed.  The myth that these programmes portray is damaging.  You feel inferior for not owning a property which is wrong.  Owning a property shackles you.  You are accepting a debt that is with you for thirty years.  This isn’t something that should seen as light hearted and so easy that all you need to do is turn up at an auction, wave your paddle and have Homes Under the Hammer film you getting into bigger and bigger debt.

For all the funny songs, behind the grin of the presenters, there is a dark side to Homes Under the Hammer.  It’s a bit like Hotel California.  You can check in at any time you like, but you’ll never leave.

Two weeks after my eye op, I was back in the eye clinic.  Escape to the Country was on the wide screen.  I was trying to ignore it by playing Tetris on my phone.

“Anna Read?” said a woman who clearly wasn’t Mr T.

I followed her into the consulting room.

“I’m afraid that Mrs T is off sick so I will be examining you today.”

She didn’t give her name.  I place my chin in the eye examining contraption.  She shone a light into my left eye and asked me to look to the right.

“Well the good news is that the ulcer has reduced in size considerably.  You need to keep on applying the ointment and return to clinic in two weeks’ time.”

“What about my stitches?”

“Mmmm…well if you were my patient, I would take them out.  However, as you are with Mrs T, I think she should have a say on if they should come out or not.”

“So, you are going to leave them in?”

“For now, yes.  But they will come out in two weeks’ time.”

I nodded. We bid our farewells and off I trotted.

Two weeks later I was back.  This time a weird quiz show was on the wide screen.  I had just got to grip with the rules when my name was called out.

Mrs T was back, leaning against the door of her consulting room.

We exchanged pleasantries and I sat in front of the eye examining contraption.

Mrs T examined my left eye.

“Good good. It’s healed up nicely.  Take the eye drops three times a day and I’ll see you in a month.”

“But… what about my stitches?”

“We can’t take them out because you have an incomplete blink.  If we do, you’ll get an ulcer again.”

“So, you are saying that I have to have my left eye half stitched up for the rest of my life?”

She frowned.  She examined the stitches.  This wasn’t going as she had planned.

“It’s interesting to see that the surgeon decided to do it that way. I would have done it differently myself…”

She proceeded to get quite technical explaining the different surgical techniques that could be used for sewing up eyes.  It did nothing to get rid of the stitches in my eye.

“Ok… we’ll take a photo of your eye. Come back in a month and we’ll talk about it then. You can go home once your picture has been taken.”

She led me to another waiting room and promptly disappeared.  A very nice young man led me to another room and took a photo of my eye.  He said I would receive written confirmation of my appointment in a months’ time.  I left, slightly peeved, deciding that Mrs T had now been given a yellow card.  Another performance like that and it could turn red.

Jeremy Vile

Jeremy Kyle, as it kindly points out in a little graphic in the right-hand corner of the screen, is ten years old.  It’s the latest incarnation of the type of discussion show that had its roots in the Oprah Winfrey Show.  On Oprah, viewers would discuss their problems with Oprah.  If this involved some conflict, both sides would be brought together. The audience would participate in this by offering advice.  After the show, compromise would have been found.  Fast forward thirty years through Ricki Lake, Vanessa, Jerry Springer, Trisha and now we have Jeremy Kyle.

Jeremy Kyle was once described by a judge as public bear baiting.  He’s not far off.  Yet it’s everyone’s guilty pleasure.  As the name suggests, the show revolves around Jeremy Kyle.  He invites people onto his stage and they spill forth their problems.  The problems broadly fall into four categories:

  1. A suspected infidelity, stolen item or any other matter that can be resolved using a lie detector. However, the lie detector is only eighty per cent accurate and provides a yes / no answer but doesn’t explain why. We are told this by a tickertape message that zooms past, just before Jeremy reads the results.
  2. DNA results to determine the parentage of children whatever the age.
  3. People with addictions. I struggle with this type of conflict. Everyone involved are in so much pain. Having Jeremy wading in and mouthing off doesn’t seem to help either party.
  4. Inspirational stories involving overcoming the odds of some kind. Jeremy’s approach to these stories is so toe curlingly cringey, I have yet to sit through a whole episode.

The lynch pin that holds all this madness together is Jeremy’s right hand man, Graham.  Graham, or St Graham I think he should be, is the head of the “after care team”.  I suspect that Graham IS the aftercare team.  Graham is the voice of reason.  Graham makes sense.  Graham has a plan.  Graham offers resolution.  Most of the previous incarnates of Jeremy Kyle offered resolution to the problems aired.  Even Jerry Springer had Jerry’s Final Word, where Jerry tried to make sense of the madness that had gone on in the previous hour.  Graham’s presence is the Jeremy Kyle equivalent.  Yet none of the problems really get resolved.  Quite often Graham is sat there, staring blankly into the camera.

Two weeks later and I was back in the eye clinic. It seemed a very smooth operation.  I checked in at the reception.  After about five minute a nurse shouted my name and took me into a room.  In there a basic eye test was performed and notes were made.  The nurse took me to another waiting room with a large TV screen mounted on the wall.  A plaque informed us sick people that it had been donated by some company or other.  How considerate.  The waiting room was a hive of activity with consultants running about, collecting files and shouting names.

After about ten minutes, my name was called.  Mrs T was the same consultant I saw before.  She didn’t look happy.

“Come, come and sit here.”

I obeyed and sat in front of the strange eye examining contraption.

“OK. Put your chin here and we’ll see how it is…”

After five minutes of tutting, sighing, huffing and puffing a decision was made.

“Unfortunately, the ulcer has got larger. You need surgery right away.”

Crikey.  The next minute Mrs T was punching numbers in a phone.

“Lauren? Can you fit someone in for tomorrow? 1:15pm. Thanks.”

She gave my name, number and hung up.

“OK.  You will be having eye surgery tomorrow afternoon.  We need to sew half your eye lid up to allow it to clean itself.  This will get rid of the ulcer.  Is that OK?”

“Urm… yes.” I said while trying to remember if this would conflict with anything.

Oh God.  We were going to see the Super Furry Animals tomorrow night! I had booked tickets months ago, as they were one of the few groups that both myself and my husband like.  Oh, hang on.  That wasn’t until 7ish.  Hopefully it’ll be done by then.

“Yes.  Tomorrow afternoon is fine.”

“Great.  You need to go to the Day-care Eye Surgery which is on the third-floor tomorrow afternoon.  Show them this when you get there.”

She handed me a handwritten note with my name, the time and the date of the operation.  I nodded and left the room with my mind whirling.

The next day I was back in ENT making my way to the third floor.  The lift door opened and I was greeting by an organised looking reception area containing various lost soul, who couldn’t really see.  I checked in and was soon called through by a nurse.  Two days before I had treated myself to a new pair of Doc Marten boots.  I used to love my pair when I was younger.  I needed a new a pair so I thought what the heck.  Now they were giving me serious jip.  I hobbled into the consulting room to join the nurse.

We went through the pre-flight checks as I call them.  No, I’m not diabetic. I’m not allergic to anything as far as I know, that kind of thing.  When we had finished, she noticed the hobbling.

“Are you OK?”

“Yes, it’s just these new boots I bought a couple of days ago.  They are killing me!”

The nurse examined my boots.

“Ah yes. I got a pair of those.  It took two months to breaking them in.”

Two months! I smiled and was duly plonked on a chair outside.

While I was fiddling with my phone, I noticed that I was at the start of a weird production line.  In front of me was another waiting room.  At the end of the waiting room was a set of double doors.  People were going through the double doors, but none were returning.  Gulp.

There were more nurses, more pre-flight checks and now my turn had come to go through the double doors.  Accompanying me was a very jolly Scottish anaesthetist.  So far during this whole medical saga, the jolliest people I have encountered have been anaesthetist.  With the first one I joked with her about Green Wing.  The second one looked like Matt Berry from Toast of London so much, that I struggled to take him seriously.  This chap seemed to be skipping with me along to the theatre.

We reached his domain and I lay down on the trolley in front of him.  We did even more pre-flight checks.  He explained that he would be giving me local anaesthetic next to my left eye and that it would sting a little.  I nodded.  While he was getting all the meds ready, the conversation moved to chit chat.

“So, do you have any plans for later?”

“Well we’re due to see the Super Furry Animals at Rock City tonight…”

“Super Furry Animals! Och I remember them! What did they do now?”

Between us neither of us could think of a single song that the Super Furry Animals sang.  Shocking.

“There was that other Welsh group…” he said while unwrapping syringes. “Gorky’s?”

“Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci?”

“Of course! They were mega too…”

Our reminiscing of mid 1990’s Welsh bands was rudely interrupted by a petite woman tutting.  She was wearing scrubs so I presumed that she must be the surgeon.

“Mrs Read?” she said looking up from a clipboard.

“Urm… yes.”

Yet more pre-flight checks.  I noticed a change in the anaesthetist.  Gone was the jokey manner and a more professional edge appeared in his demeanour.

The moment had come to the anathestic.  Fortunately, as I have no feeling in the left side of my face, I didn’t feel the stinging.  Still I gripped onto the anaesthetist’s hand, just for the hell of it.

I was wheeled into the theatre for the operation.  It lasted for about half an hour.  It was one of the strangest experiences that I have had throughout all of this.  And I have had some strange experiences.  The surgeon was very professional.  Things were said between the surgeon and the nurses that I had no idea what they were on about.  It was all gobbledegook.

Amidst all this I became aware of music.  Yes, definitely music.  Hang on isn’t that Rod Stewart?  Someone had a radio on. It was playing “If You Think I’m Sexy” by Sir Rod.  Never has there been a most inappropriate song at a more inappropriate moment. Rod had just reached his climax when the surgeon asked me,

“So, any plans for the weekend?”

“I’m going to a concert, to see the Super Furry Animals.”


This Morning

The concept of daytime television in the UK only really got started in the 1980’s.  Before then it was assumed that the daytime audience mostly consisted of young mums with children, the old and infirm.  For that reason most of the programmes were either of the watch with mother variety or old war films.

In the 1980’s something odd happened.  It started with breakfast television.  There was Frank Bough and Selina Scott grinning awkwardly in dodgy jumpers.  They were quickly followed by a whole gang of serious journalist types on TV-am. They wrongly assumed that the British public wanted some gravitas over their Cornflakes.  They got it wrong completely.  The public wanted fluff and Roland Rat.

When breakfast TV finished at nine o’clock, there was an obvious gap.  So breakfast TV began to grow and eventually it spouted This Morning.  This Morning, when it first started, was of course, hosted by married couple Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan.  It has now become a Goliath of daytime TV with an army of devoted fans.

I only really watched This Morning at university.  I loved to watch the phone in part of the show especially if it was with their resident agony aunt, Denise Robertson.

I remember one phone in that must have been about abusive relationships.  A caller started speaking quite cheerfully, only for the conversation to take a very sinister turn.  Through very gentle questioning, Denise managed to uncover that the caller had been locked in her bedroom by her husband.  She had been there since he left for work at eight in the morning and wouldn’t be let out until he returned from work at six in the evening.  Richard and Judy were gobsmacked.  Richard urged the woman to kick down the door and call the police.  Judy just went pale and started trembling.  Denise, however, was very very calm.  Looking directly down the camera, she told the caller that although she thought she was safe, she was in grave danger.  She listened intently to the caller throughout. Occasionally she told Richard to shut up, which is what the audience felt like doing on most occasions.  This strange stand-off ended with Denise making the caller see that the only option was to call the police and get rescued from her bedroom.  Both Richard and Judy as well as the audience who were watching, were in complete awe of Denise.  Denise Robertson. She was one of the lights that was brutally snuffed out in 2016.  On This Morning, she shone.

The thing about This Morning is that it will always be there on British television.  No executive would ever think of cancelling it as the outcry would be immense.  This is also true with cancer.  It is never ending.  Like This Morning, there are light hearted and even down right hilarious parts.  But there is also an element of darkness lurking just beneath the surface.

You soon realise that it never ends.  A couple of weeks ago I started getting double vision again.  I tried to ignore it.  No way.  Everything is just too perfect.  There’s no way my body is going to scupper this.

By now I’m programmed on what the course of action is.  I called Melissa.  Unfortunately she was on holiday.  I contacted Lindy.  Lindy was surprised to hear from me.  The last time I had spoken to her was four years ago, when things had seriously gone tits up.  She listened patiently and booked me in with Dr B.

I arrived in the ENT waiting room and saw four men staring slack jawed at the TV in the corner.  I turned to see what was on.  It was the snooker.  The gentle clicking of the balls had created a calm, relaxing atmosphere in the waiting room.  It had turned grown men into zombies.

After about ten minutes, a friendly looking registrar called me in.  Dr B was sat at the computer looking puzzled.

“Oh! Hello Anna.  Lovely to see you.  I’m a bit confused.”

I looked at her blankly.

“Oh! It’s NOT the tumour.  Don’t worry.  We examined your scans back to front.  It most definitely is NOT your tumour.”

I felt a lot lighter than I had done some five minutes ago.

“But that eye…”

“Oh God!” chipped in the registrar. “That needs seeing to.”

“Really? I mean if it’s not the tumour…”

That was the thing I was clinging on to.  It’s NOT the tumour!

“No, no! It certainly needs looking at.  If you don’t mind waiting Anna, I’ll see if someone at the eye clinic can look at it.”

I shrugged and was plonked on a seat outside.

About fifteen minutes later, Dr B came running up to me.  I jogged alongside her to the eye clinic.

The eye clinic is opposite the ENT clinic.  It’s about twice the size of the ENT clinic.  We jogged quietly down corridors until we found the woman we were searching for.  She didn’t look happy.

“Come, come.  Please sit down.”

I sat on a chair in front of a contraption.  This contraption was similar to the one at the opticians that you sit in front of when you are having your eyes tested.

“Please put your chin here…”

She made adjustments to the contraption so that it was clamped to the front of my face.  She shined a bright light into my left eye.  Then she tutted.

“You have an incomplete blink.  Your left eye isn’t closing properly.  As it can’t close, it can’t clean itself.  Now you have an ulcer in your left eye.  I’ll prescribe you some eye drops which you must take six times a day.  You must also take a steroid eye drop each morning and put some gel on your eye at night.”

Myself and Dr B listened carefully.

“What’s caused this?” asked Dr B.  The woman tutted again.

“More likely the surgery.  The muscles in left side of your face are beginning to sag.  This has affected the muscles around your eye too.”

“Not the radiotherapy?”

“Only in a minor way.”

Dr B looked a tad disappointed.

“It’s very important you come back here in two weeks.  We can review the situation then.”

The eye clinic reception was closed by the time we finished.  I was assured an appointment would be made for me in two weeks, where the final verdict would be made.  In the meantime I was spat out, left clutching my eye drop prescription, on the way to lovely pharmacy.

Needles and Old People

If you can’t stand old people and needles, for goodness sake do not get cancer.  Over time I have come to seek out the company of the former, while developing a slight phobia of the latter. Or is that the other way round?

My first experience of needles involved a booster injection when I was about four or five.  I remember sitting on my mum’s lap having no idea why I was there.

The nurse came in and started chatting to my mum.  She turned to me and said:

“Look at that!”

She jabbed a needle into my upper left arm.  I don’t remember any lolly, just a lot of crying.

My next encounter with needles was at primary school.  When the girls turned eleven, it was decreed that we had to be immunised against rubella.  Rubella, which is also known as German Measles, we were was told was fine.  However, should we contract this illness while pregnant, all manner of awful things would happen.  This sense of fear spread to the actual injection itself.  All sorts of horror stories were soon circulating about girls whose arm became paralysed, blood spurting everywhere and of girls who were never the same since.

Soon the day of the injection arrived.  We were led in line to the school secretary’s office.  One by one we went in.  Each of us then emerged afterwards, clutching our upper arms, trying to make out how traumatic it was, when it wasn’t that bad.

My next encounter with needles was a couple of years later when everyone, including the boys, had their BCG.  The BCG had reached quite mythical status by the time it came for our year to have it.  There were stories of people being hospitalised, in comas, having their arm amputated and other such trauma.  What was bad about the BCG was that unlike Rubella, you had to have a skin test the week before.  If you got a rash after your skin test, then you didn’t need to have the BCG.  Somehow your body was already immune to all the illnesses that the BCG protected you from.

The day of the skin test arrived. Once again, we were led single file, to the school secretary’s office.  We went in two at a time and sat opposite a nurse, with our palms facing upwards, on the table between us.  The nurse placed my wrist between something that looked like a stapler.  She pressed down on the stapler. Gerclung!  I felt tears welling up and pulled my wrist away.  I looked down and saw a circle of five holes on the inside of my wrist.

“Sorry! It does hurt a bit…” said the nurse sympathetically.

“If you get a reaction, let your teacher know straight away.”

Unfortunately despite willing my little circle to get bigger and angrier, it didn’t.  For some lucky ones it did.  They displayed them with pride, while we poor mortals scowled at their smugness.

BCG day rolled up and soon we were all quivering outside the secretary’s office.  Once again we went in two by two.  As it was done alphabetically, I was towards the end of the queue with Sarah Taylor, a person I always ended up with alphabetically wise.  People were emerging in tears, sniffing, clutching their upper arms but thankfully, there were no stretchers.

Then came our turn and in we went.  The two nurses did a fantastic job, distracting us.  I guess as we were near the end, they had perfected by their double act by the time we arrived.  Without noticing, my upper arm somehow became exposed.  While the nurse was performing a comedy monologue, I became aware of a sharp scratch.

“That’s it! All over.  I’ll just pop a plaster on that and you’re good to go.”

That was it?  Both Sarah and I knew that we had to make it much more traumatic than it was to the final remains of the queue.  So I clutched my upper arm and for some reason, started limping.  Sarah, somehow, managed to bring tears to her eyes.

“How did it go?” asked Sasha Windmill, who was next in line.

“I think they hit a nerve…”I said as I limped by.

And so the BCG myth carried on being passed down for more generations of school kids to come.

After that, I had a couple of needle encounters when I went to teach in Thailand.  Both myself and the nurse were very professional about it all.  Maybe the pitch of my voice went up a little once the needle went in, but that aside, that was it.

And so it was until my cancer experience.  Now there was no escape from the barrage of needles being thrust at me.  It is generally true that nurses are far better at handling needles than doctors.  Some nurses realise this. At times, their cockiness can lead to a whole lot of pain.  My first experience of this was at my first CT scan.  The nurse seemed convinced that I would be cannulated in that veil, come hell or high water.  It just needs one painful wriggling around, to make you nervous for life.  You are forced to accept this predicament.  It’s either the needles or death.  It’s that black and white.

Old people have been a revelation to me throughout my treatment.  It’s a sad fact that the longer you live, the more likely you are to get cancer.  Chemo wards and radiotherapy units are dominated by the over seventies.  If you are allergic to old people, for heaven’s sake do not get cancer.

Before I had cancer, I was quite indifferent about old people.  I would chat politely to them at bus stops but that was it.  Now I mix with old people daily. They are fabulous.  Behind every old person is an amazing story.  They rarely talk about it.  A lot of prodding is often required.  But once you have heard their story, you’ll be spellbound.

Throughout my chemo, I had two stalwarts that kept me chugging on.  They were Keith and Arthur.  We all met while doing relaxation classes at the cancer support centre we all go to.  As soon as the therapist started talking, Keith would start snoring.  At first this was an irritation.  Over time it became a joke.  Arthur and I would time how long it took before Keith started.  His quickest was twenty seconds.

Over time I was privileged to hear both Keith and Arthur’s amazing stories.  Keith’s background sounded like a carbon copy of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  He was a factory worker for over thirty years.  He finished each day with the usual eight pints at the local.  Over time this caught up with him.  He was first diagnosed with prostate cancer.  That spread and now I’m not sure where he’s at.  All I know is that he seems to have had most of his bowels and lower intestine removed.  Yet he’s still able to move about and great each day with a smile.

Arthur’s story is equally amazing.  Arthur was a rocker.  He had a terrible motorbike accident.  While he was recovering, he met a beautiful nurse.  She became his wife and they had a wonderful family together.  Then the C word struck.  Arthur’s wife got breast cancer.  She died three years ago.

We all came together about six months after Arthur’s wife died and bonded immediately.  Keith and Arthur kept me going throughout chemo.  I knew I couldn’t miss a relaxation session or there will be trouble.  Most important they gave me hope via endless cups of tea and chat.

Old people are often seen as a burden.  During chemo, I would see relatives flapping around while the old person was sitting calmly, having their treatment.  They would be keeping their heads, while all around them others were losing theirs.


The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead had been trundling along for a good couple of years before I stumbled upon it.  My husband was over the moon when it first started.  I asked him what it was all about.  Zombies came the answer.  Thanks, but no thanks.

As I was feeling like a zombie myself, I decided to have a quick perusal.  It starts out like Day of the Triffids.  Sheriff Rick Grimes wakes up in hospital.  There are no doctors or nurses.  He realises that while he has been in a coma, the world has been taken over by the walking dead.

At first it starts out quite promising.  Rick is reunited with his family.  They and about ten others form a tight community, slaying zombies on the way.  By the third series, cracks start to appear.  Other groups start challenging them for resources. This all builds and the tension rises.  Now we have entered series seven and everything has changed.  A group call the Saviours, is now dominant.  Rick and his group are now slaves sacrificing everything to the mighty Neagan and his baseball bat Lucille.  All the while, those zombies keep multiplying.

The Walking Dead is interesting because the people who shine out are the ones in the “normal” world are the weakest.  One such character is Carol.  When we meet her in series one, she is a downtrodden wife to a husband who beats her.  She loses her daughter and is eventually forced to kill her before she becomes a zombie.  This experience makes Carol stronger.  She plays on the fact that people assume she’s a boring housewife.  She bakes cookies and readily performs other menial tasks to encourage this.  All the while she is plotting.  She’s hoarding guns, sharp objects, planning her next attack.

Some people think that people who have illnesses are like zombies.  Sometimes thanks to pharmaceuticals, we are.  They also think that like the zombies, we can infect others.  The only way to combat them is not a pick axe in the head like in the Walking Dead.  It’s to drug them up even more for “their quality of life”.

In reality, we are more like Carol.  Secretly storing information, secretly researching.  Getting ready for our next attack.  Underestimate us at your peril.

I am firmly in the clutches of the hospital.  Part of the deal with Herceptin is not only the two-hour thing, but regular heart scans.  This is because Herceptin can affect your heart tissue.  At the start of my treatment, I was having these heart scans every three months.  Now it’s been altered to every six months as my heart is bearing up well.

Heart scans are quite odd.  You go into a room and take your top off.  Then you lie on your side on a table while the radiographer wires you up to a machine.  The radiographer then puts some gel onto two paddles.  These paddles are wired to the machine.  They rub these paddles on your chest and in time you can hear your heart beating, which is a bit reassuring.  I think it’s a bit like the ultra sound scan that mothers to be have, except that the focus is on your heart not the baby. After about five minutes, it’s all over.

As well as six monthly heart scans, I also have a head and neck MRI every six months too.  In fact, I’ve had so many head and neck MRI’s I’ve lost count.  When I went last time, I think I knew more about the pre-scan checks than the student radiographer asking me.

I was seeing Dr H every three months but this has now changed to every six months, usually after a head and neck MRI.  I can arrange to see her whenever I like which is good.

As the Royal Marsden sort of, prescribed this treatment, I also go there every six months too.  This has now become a bit of a social occasion for me, my sister and my parents.  We all meet at Pret a Manager opposite South Kensington tube.  Whilst in there we discuss tactics and any questions that we have.  This normally will revolve whether they have my latest scan from Nottingham.  Nottingham always says they send them off but the Marsden always maintains that they haven’t received them.  Someone, somewhere is sending them or not opening the right in box.

Anyway, we make the short walk from Pret a Manger to the Royal Marsden in Chelsea.  When we get there, I check in at reception while my parents and my sister scrabble around for seats.  I must say that they usually have been good at keeping to their appointment times, but the café there does sell books, which is never a good sign in a hospital waiting room.

When we are called in, it’s usually to a small room that we all struggle to fit in.  Inevitably, I never see the Prof I but usually one of his minions – I mean registrars. They won’t have had the scans from Nottingham so will base their assessment on me and me alone.  They will say to carry on with the treatment and see you in six months.  Then, after I’ve made my appointment for six months’ time, we go to Carluccio’s opposite the tube station and have a meal to discuss what has just passed.

And so, it was until my last appointment at the Marsden.  The registrar came in.  We all introduced ourselves. He seemed a jolly chap. Then he dropped a bit of a bombshell.

“It’s lovely to meet you all but I am at a loss to know why you all come down from Nottingham every six months?  We are merely repeating what you are being told in Nottingham.  As they are administering your treatment up there, then surely you could save yourselves a journey?”

We were gobsmacked.  My sister put him right though.  She explained that only I lived in Nottingham. Both her and my parents lived in south west London therefore coming to Chelsea wasn’t an issue for us.  The reason why we kept coming back to the Marsden was that it has be emphasised to us that eventually, the Herceptin would stop working.  When this happened, we wanted to stay with the Marsden in case there were any other treatment options.  As the Marsden leads the world in the development of cancer drugs, in the future, I could become eligible for clinical tests that could maybe, get rid of my cancer completely.

That shut him up.  There were a few letters that went back and forth between the Marsden and a rather bemused Dr H. But we finally reached a settlement.  I made my appointment at the Marsden to see them in six months’ time.  If it was all tickety boo, I would extend it by a couple of months.  The key thing was to stay on the Marsden’s books.  I didn’t want to get discharged as I would have to go through a right palaver to be admitted again.

What this whole predicament demonstrates is the weird nature of illness.  When you are severely ill, you have doctors, nurses, consultants and even professors clambering all over you.  When you make a recovery, their hold on you lessens.  You still have your appointments and scans.  But no one seems that interested because it’s all normal.  It’s something that people and especially the loved ones of people who are ill can’t get their heads round.  You want them to be interested.  You want them to view you as your top priority.  But they don’t.  The reason that they don’t, is because you aren’t.  You are OK.  You may be in pain, but you are not in life threatening danger.

However, doctors can sometimes be wrong.  They can dismiss patients only for them to get worse and even die.  It’s this fear that creates so much anxiety when it looks like they aren’t just interested in you.  However, this dismissive attitude should be celebrated.  It’s good to be stable and normal.

Dr B said early on in my treatment:

“The longer we can keep you out of hospital, the better…”

She’s right.  It’s good NOT to be in hospital.  It’s good to be boring.  We should embrace medical professionals’ dismissiveness and not fear it.  It’s good not to be the centre of attention all the time but to just sit back and relax.  Relax until the next crisis occurs…like a zombie apocalypse.