Wanted Down Under

Wanted Down Under is a daytime staple.  For the uninitiated, a family from the UK go “down under” to either Australia or New Zealand for a week.  During the week, they weigh up the pros and cons of emigrating.

Over time it has become rather formulaic.  The family compromises of a husband, wife and three kids.  Normally it’s the husband who is the driving force behind the move.  He’s had a gap year down under and yearns to relive that experience.  The wife is not that keen.  As for the kids, the youngest is up for it, the middle one is won over during the week but the older teenage one, refuses point blank to shift.  The mum won’t go anywhere without all the kids in tow, so there is a stale mate.

Wanted Down Under flies the family over and puts them up in a lovely house.  They spend the week perusing houses, jobs, schools, way of life and the difference in costs.  All the while the oldest teenager pouts their way through.  When it comes to the climax at the end, most of the family votes for life down under, while the teenager remains undecided.  And then it ends.  We are left dangling wondering if they ever went.

There have been episodes where we do find out what happens next.  In those episodes, we find out that life down under isn’t all sun, sea and surf.  It’s bloody hard work, living so far away.  That’s the thing with these types of programmes.  They are selling a dream.  Work is work no matter where you live, even if it’s sunny.

As my appointment with the plastic surgeon looms, I can’t help viewing it all with a bit of caution.  Like the people on Wanted Down Under, I feel at times that I’m being sold a dream, that might not necessarily come true.  I have a nagging feeling that it may be harder to recover.  No one seems to know how the radiotherapy will affect the healing. But the drooling is getting worse and worse.  It’s getting so bad that I can’t say more than five sentences without someone handing me a tissue.  It’s not so bad with friends and family, but when you are talking to all those neutral people in your life, shop assistants, delivery men, builders, it’s just plain annoying.  Of course, everyone is far too polite to say anything. But weirdly, I kind of wish they would…


Confessions of a Junior Doctor

A&E was packed.  Doctors and nurses were running around all over the place.  This must be in London, Birmingham or Manchester.  One of the great cities of the British Isles that are groaning at their seams.  But no.  This hospital was in Northampton.  It was full to bursting and severely understaffed.

None of this is the fault of the staff.  Nor is it the fault of the patients.  The NHS is a victim of its own success by pushing the boundaries of medical care.  We are living longer than ever before.  Something that our politicians are finally recognising. The problem is that the other vital infrastructure needed to support this, hasn’t caught up.

Governments think of everything in the short term.  This way of thinking has slowly dripped down into all aspects of life.  This short term thinking is in direct conflict with the long term planning that the NHS is crying out for.  It operates by using targets to prove efficiency.  A hospital or a school isn’t a machine.  You don’t pump one thing in one end and get a product at the end.  People aren’t commodities.  Yet the management strategies being adopted fail to recognise or question this.

Healthcare, as well as education and to some degree, law enforcement, involves dealing with the whole individual rather than the illness, the exam or the crime.  The only place where this is really done in society is when someone wants you to buy something.  Go to any car dealership and they are trying to find out every aspect about you to find a car suitable to your needs.  The same goes with property and estate agents.  You are even asked for your name when you buy a coffee which puts in perspective one of the junior doctors who had been so busy, she didn’t have time to remember her patients’ names.

This is something the junior doctors in Confessions of a Junior Doctor know all about.  We saw an oncology junior doctor being brave enough to tell her consultant that she wouldn’t be hurrying her rounds.  Her superior was informed that if she didn’t take the time to reassure and listen to one particular patient, he would get extremely anxious and possibly talk of suicide.

On another ward, another junior took the time to find out why a relatively healthy twenty year old man was only weighing four stone.  What he discovered by just listening, was that the patient was using cannabis heavily.  Although cannabis is famous to inducing the munchies, if overused, like alcohol, it can suppress appetite.  I thought the consultant was going to kiss the junior doctor for discovering this.  The man had often been in and out of hospital and he was a bit of a mystery. Yet the junior doctor found out the root cause of the problem just by listening.

Such stories give you hope that all is not lost.  But these are doctors who are going against the system.  They are doing what they think is right, not what some of their superiors want them to do.  Now they can just about get away with it.  Whether they could get away with this in five years’ time, no one knows.


I feel a fraud writing about Emmerdale.  I’ve not watched it in years.  The last time I watched it, Amos and Mr Wilkes were pulling pints in the Woolpack and Andy Sugden was an obnoxious ten-year-old.   Now Andy has left with many wives and kids in tow but I think the Dingles are still knocking about.

Anyway, it turns out that a Dingle in Emmerdale has been diagnosed with cancer.  Faith Dingle was diagnosed a while back.  There has been praise in the media on how the soap has treated this.  Much lessons have obviously been learnt since Pat Butcher.

At last it seemed that a soap would now involve a character that was living with cancer.  However, the writers baulked at this.  She’s now been “cured” apparently.  Or more accurately “in remission.” Being in remission is not the same as being cured.  I used to think it was.  Remission basically means a break.  A break from cancer.  This break can be long or short.  For me, my first remission was for two months, if that.  My second remission was a bit longer at a year.  I’ve meet people who have been in remission for twenty or even thirty years.  They all know that the cancer will probably come back at some point in their lives.

Many advancements are being made to either make remissions longer or to stall the cancer when it reoccurs.  New treatments are being developed all the time.  I know many people who switch and change treatment quite often and can just get on with it really.  They are the lucky ones. What is scary about cancer, is when it takes hold, the downfall is quick.  Although Pat Butcher’s demise was a bit too quick that it almost was laughable, you can’t underestimate how powerful cancer can be.

Yet it’s not all depressing.  More and more of us are now in the grey area.  We are not in the brilliant white of remission and we are not in the deepest blackness of death.  We are in a pale grey.  We have cancer, but are having treatment to keep it at bay.  Every year there are more and more people in our ranks.  It’s something that TV is slowly recognising.  In Sons of Anarchy, the sheriff, who is trying to turn a blind eye to the biker gang’s illegal exploits, is suffering from cancer.  This is touched upon, but it’s a side issue and doesn’t dominate his sheriffing activities.  Emmerdale were very nearly there but faulted at the last.  Why? Maybe it wasn’t dramatic enough for a soap to deal with.  That’s the problem with illnesses.  It all starts with the high drama of the initial diagnosis and treatment.  Then the boredom kicks in and it all gets a bit tedious.  However, this tedium is a God send.  This gives you time to savour and value life.  You work out what is good for you and what isn’t.  Tedium is something that would kill a soap dead.  What would Emmerdale be like if everyone was happily married and nothing was going wrong? No one would be watching that’s for sure. And maybe that would be a good thing?

Murder She Wrote

Murder She Wrote is a staple of daytime TV all over the world.  It’s the one programme I’ve seen in both Thai and Czech, which was an interesting experience.  It seems odd that most crime shows involve people solving the crime, who aren’t qualified to do so.  I blame Sherlock Holmes.  He started it.  He went about his investigations in such an arrogant and original way, that he became the go to blue print for modern detectives today.

Now there’s a whole army of these vigilantes going around, sticking their oar in.  Image if that happened in real life?  The Met are investigating a brutal murder when up pops Father Brown to save the day.

There are some parallels with this and healthcare. When you go for an appointment, quite often you a met by Jessica Fletcher rather than DCI Tennyson.  On the surface, there is nothing wrong with Jessica Fletcher.  She solves the crime and everyone is happy.  Yet something is missing.  Police work is often quite boring.  Trawling through phone records and CCTV to get the evidence to prove your case.  But Jessica glosses over that.  Instead it’s all a big adventure.

This is why encountering a Jessica Fletcher in your appointment can be annoying.  They don’t know the detail.  Details are everything in healthcare.  When was your last scan?  What medication are you on?  When was your last blood test? Jessica Fletcher ignores all this.  She wants you out of that room as quickly as possible.  Yet she’s not horrible.  She wants you to feel better.  She is a doctor after all.  Yet when you are spat out at the other end, you are still left with your questions unanswered, bewildered in the waiting room.

That was exactly how I was feeling after all my to-ing and fro-ing in the eye clinic.  No one really knew or cared about the nitty gritty.  Just keep dolling out the eye drops and all was good.  Frustrated I phoned Melissa, my cancer care nurse in ENT.  She was sympathetic.   Within a week, she arranged an appointment for me to see my oncologist and a plastic surgeon at the end of the month.  Simples.  Hopefully now DCI Tennyson would be on the case…

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…

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.

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.