Wednesday, 31 October 2007


Last week my doorbell rang at 9.00 and Ray, my neighbour was standing there. Ray lives two doors away with his elderly mother. Their house has been on the market and recently the sign was changed from 'for sale' to 'sold' so I assumed they would be leaving soon. I have occasionally spoken with Ray's mother who told me that she had been caring for her brother in Romford and he had died and left her his house so she was going to live there. I haven't really said more than a passing word to Ray as mostly he is rather drunk (although harmless..I see him sometimes asleep on the lawn, unable to co-ordinate the front door key to let himself in!). Ian and I speculated that when the house was sold Ray would probably drink all the money away. Well, last week Ray asked me if I would come and have a drink with him as he was moving out the following day. I felt a bit sorry for him as I don't think he talks to many people and so I said yes. When I got to Ray's house the only thing in it was a TV, an empty can of Stella and a bottle of Russian vodka! I agreed to the vodka and he found some coke and I determined that the conversation (and the drink) would not take long! He told me that he was going to buy some land in Bulgaria (although didn't seem to know how or when or what he would do with it) although he couldn't see much need to learn Bulgarian as 'English is the language'. I drank the vodka quite quickly, wished him well, made my excuses and left! Fortunately he was too drunk to get out of the chair quickly enough to get me the second drink he promised! He said he had lived there 27 years but didn't really know anyone else to talk to which I thought was quite sad. Mind you, I notice that a week later he is still there and there is no sign yet of him moving out!

Ian's bowel's 2

Ian had his colonoscopy yesterday. It went pretty well. He was welcomed to the hospital and shown his room, which was like a cross between a 'Travelodge' and a hospital. All the staff were very polite and friendly. He saw a nurse straight away who filled out forms, did a few tests and prepared him for the procedure; he saw the consultant briefly and then he was wheeled down to theatre area. He was gone for an hour or so and while I waited the nurse bought me a cup of tea. While he was gone the nurse set up the room for his return with a monitor and an oxygen cylinder and made his outpatients appointment for him. He was asleep for about an hour after they brought him back but after that he woke slowly and had a drink and a cup of tea and a sandwich (the food was like the food you would get in an average hotel and served by someone with a badge on that said 'waitress'). The nurse asked me if he needed a certificate for work, checked up on him regularly and once he was awake and had been to the toilet removed his cannula and pronounced him fit to leave. The consultant came in and said that his bowel looked perfectly normal but had taken several biopsies to ensure that there was nothing there that couldn't be seen by the naked eye and after that we left. Ian was a bit unsteady and tired but basically well and we were home by 9.30. The whole thing had taken 6 hours from start to finish.

There were several things that struck me as a contrast to my recent experiences with the NHS. Firstly the whole procedure was very efficient from start to finish, the staff were all pleasant, friendly and efficient (even though they were busy) , the food was something that you wanted to eat and people were considerate enough to get me a cup of tea while I sat there! All of these things made a big difference to our experience and I'm sure if you were unwell would make you feel like you could relax and get better and not have to spend your energy trying to fight the system and to get out as soon as possible My only concern was how on earth they managed to keep the carpets clean and free from MRSA!

What a wonderful world

I always listen to the radio when I am by myself in the car and often sing along as I know no one can hear me! Today, while I was driving to Brighton they played 'What a wonderful world' by Louis Armstrong. The song always cheers me up, not least because it was one of my father's favourite songs. He always liked songs with 'a good tune' and also liked Louis Armstrong, who he remembered as 'old Satchmo'. I specifically remember him saying how much he liked it, especially the words, which I think summed up how he felt about life at the time. I was still at primary school (in fact I have just looked it up and it was released in 1968 so I would have been 10 years old) and my father would have been around 60 years old. Louis Armstrong would have been about 67 so I suppose my father grew up with his music. I very much remember getting the sense that for both of them the song was a celebration of life and all that is positive about it. I also remember that at the time they played it in our school assembly and we were told that although it was a popular song it was also like a hymn.

Over the last few years particularly I have been quite surprised at my ability to see a 'half full glass' rather than one that is half empty and I think I have been very blessed to have a largely positive view of life. When I heard the song today it reminded me of where some of that positivism might have come from.

I looked up the words. They are really quite simple and brief and the whole recording is only 2 minutes 19 seconds. It was one of the last last things Louis Armstrong recorded as he died suddenly in 1971 of a heart attack. My father died in a similar fashion 14 years later.

Lyrics to WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD written by George Weiss and Bob Thiele and recorded by Louis Armstrong.

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

The colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin' hands, sayin' "How do you do?"
They're really saying "I love you"

I hear babies cryin', I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Oh yeah

Monday, 22 October 2007

Mother's knees on the mend?

My mother seems to be improving very slowly. Her confusion and memory are a lot better and now when I speak to her on the phone she seems to be almost like her old self. Her feet are a little less puffy and her hands a bit better although her knees are about the same. She manages her own cooking, washing up, laundry, can mostly manage her own affairs and can get to the shops to buy a paper. My sister does her weekly shopping and cleaning but apart from that she is pretty much independent in her new flat. She still misses the fact that she can't go far on her own, although she does manage to get to the doctors, to get to the post office and we are working on her getting out to the hairdressers. It seems that most of her symptoms were due to an under-active thyroid and the severity made it difficult to diagnose. Her thyroid levels have only been in the normal range for about 4 weeks so we are hoping that in a few months some of her other symptoms will eventually ease. More importantly she has adapted to her move quite well and told me the other day that she really loved it there. The added stimulation of having company, the extra confidence of knowing that there are people around should she need them and the fact that there are things going on around her have all seemed to help. Sixteen of them are going out for dinner on New Years Eve. They have managed to negotiate a very good deal for themselves at one of the trendiest restaurants in Windsor that just happens to be round the corner.
It's funny but when I noticed that she was getting confused I couldn't really bring myself to be that honest with her at the time about it as I was afraid of the fact that she may have dementia. Now I know more than anyone that confusion is a typical symptom of under active thyroid and is often mistaken for dementia but when it concerns your own mother logic doesn't work!

Le maçon

We think we have found a builder for the house in France. We met four possible builders while we were over in the summer and they all promised quotes. One materialised quite quickly and bits of it were okay, but he wasn't our first choice of builder as he seemed to have his own ideas as to how things should be done and we thought we would probably have a hard time getting him to listen to us. One had been initially reluctant but after meeting Ian he had seemed quite enthusiastic. We chased him when the quote didn't materialise and he confessed that he had not done anything and as he had some health problems he didn't want to bid as he probably wouldn't have time to do the work. One hadn't responded but we decided we didn't really like him much. I can't quite put my finger on what it was that had put us off but we just got the impression that he was more interested in hunting with his friends that helping us build the house. Also when we stopped in at his house to drop off the plans he had a rather nice looking dog that he proceeded to shout at and hit. I just don't feel I want to trust the building of my home to a man who hits dogs as I can't imagine that he would be able to create a nice happy feeling in the building. After some reminders the final quote came in from Monsieur Soulier. We had both got a good feeling about him when we met. He seemed reasonable, quiet, polite and seemed to know what he was doing. The quote was not too excessive and so we hope to meet him soon and agree to start the work. I think what really convinced us was that he was a competitive racing cyclist in his youth. Funny how in the end business decisions are often little to do with business!

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Ian's bowels

The story of our collective ill health continues. Ian has had a pain in his stomach for about a year. It usually makes him feel quite sick and sometimes it has been quite bad and he has taken himself to the doctor, but then it goes off and he forgets about it. Two doctors now have told him that they thought he may have appendicitis and, after hearing of my sister-in-law's emergency in France and a particularly painful episode the other week he got himself referred to a specialist. He has private health insurance so he was seen quite quickly and had a few rather unpleasant and intimate examinations (he hated it and I guess they are not very pleasant but then as a woman you get rather used to it!). He was then sent for an ultrasound which found nothing and so he returned to see the consultant. Unfortunately the consultant could still feel a lump in his bowel and he still had some discomfort so the next stage involves a camera on a very long tube being placed in a very uncomfortable place! Ian has to first clear out his bowels with what sounds like a derivative of Harpic and then not eat for 12 hours. He will be sedated, unable to drive home and will need someone to look after him for a day or so. Needless to say he is rather worried. The consultant thinks he may have a polyp that he can remove or biopsy during the procedure but of course it is always easier to imagine the worst! We will be very glad when it is over!

Thursday, 4 October 2007

French classes

I went to my first French class last night. I thought it started at 5.30 but when I got there at 5.10 it was already underway. Furthermore the teacher didn't have my name on the list but I convinced her in French that I had registered and that these things happen all the time! I really enjoyed the class! The time went quickly and I actually felt quite exited at the prospect of my final assignment- a 10 minute presentation, in French, of a subject of my choice with questions. (Of course I have already decided that my talk will be on llamas!) When I got home I had a closer look at the course handbook and realised that in fact I had gone to the wrong class! I had gone to the intermediate class and I was signed up for the elementary! I emailed the teacher explaining my mistake but telling her how much I enjoyed the class and asking if I could transfer to it! I didn't get a reply but when I looked at the website this evening I realised that I had also emailed the wrong teacher! I then emailed the right teacher and am now awaiting to see if my request has been granted but not holding out much hope as I think they will think that I am very stupid!

Sandpit talk

We've been talking about the sandpit at work. Cleo told her husband and he said that cats sh*t in sandpits. Marie said that when she takes her six year old to the sandpit it always ends in tears when the kids fight over the bucket and spade and throw sand in each others eyes! The motto is choose your metaphor carefully!

Monday, 1 October 2007

Playing in the sandpit!

I have been thinking about the sandpit. I really think it is very inappropriately named! The stated purpose is to get researchers and others talking about research in a creative way but the hidden agenda is that it is linked to funding for research from the various research councils. Now, if you are a serious academic then your ability to secure research funding is absolutely crucial to your continued career. You will certainly not get a chance of a job in a top university unless you have been successful in getting serious money for a series of projects and you will never become a professor or dean without a string of publications in eminent and learned journals. After all, this is what keeps the universities financially solvent! Therefore, any mention of money brings out the bounty hunters in full force. So, the people applying to attend the sandpit will consist of the most competitive and ambitious researchers. Any others attending will usually be equally competitive in the voluntary sector; high powered professional advocates, often with an ultimate eye on a political post, or paid representatives of various pressure groups such as Age Concern, who are looking out for their next paid post or alternatively have a deeply personal motivation for being there. The stakes are high and the players are nervous! I would like to think that the main motivation for people to be there is that they are deeply committed to their cause or the research and truly believe that their input will impact positively on the lives of others and I would be being too cynical not to acknowledge that this does play some part. However, sadly, it is not the prime motivator! Having been to conferences and meetings where some of these high-flyers and potential high-flyers congregate I have observed the following:

1. They will always have plenty to say. Often it is rubbish and not related to the topic but they always say it enthusiastically and make sure that everyone knows their name and where they are from before they start. (One of my colleagues was such a high-flyer for a while and I can remember her saying "Lovely, when you are at one of these meetings it is important that you say something; and if you can't think of anything sensible to say stand up and say 'it's awfully hot in here, does anyone mind if I open a window?'" She later became the senior professional advisor to the Department of Health!)

2.They introduce themselves to you in a friendly manner but as soon as it is not rude to do so, ask about your research interests and publications. In their heads they are trying to work out whether there is any potential for them to get more money if they work with you and as soon as they realise there isn't they move off to the next potential target. (I think it is called networking)(They may also have another motive for continuing to talk with you- see point 5!)

3. Despite the public perception of researchers coming straight from the lab with no dress sense and unruly hair, these participants all wear Armani and go to expensive London hairdressers (if they still have hair; if it is thinning then it is shaved off in the designer skin-head look). The men usually have a left-over 80s earring in one ear (by now just a discreet stud) and the women somehow have never managed to loose their shoulder pads!

4. They all claim to vote Labour (not so surprising really as Labour is the new Tory!)The truth is if there were a different government in power they would claim to have voted for them as well.

5. At conferences or other residential events there will be quite a few delegates that seize the opportunity created by a few nights away from the wife/children/partner/husband and have an illicit shag with someone else. There are a lot of sad and lonely people in the higher levels of academia! Maybe there are a lot of sad and lonely people everywhere but somehow the 'deed' seems more shocking in that it is carried out in this rarefied environment. Sometimes these affairs continue from conference to conference and become part of the motivation for people to attend!

So rather than a sandpit I think these events would more appropriately called a snake pit!

The sandpit

I was quite surprised today to be invited to apply for a place on a sandpit. It threw me a little as the last time I visited a sandpit I was about six and I had a bucket and spade. I looked into it further and found that in modern-day English a sandpit is a

" residential interactive workshop over 5 days involving 20-30 participants, the director and a number of independent stakeholders. An essential element of a sandpit is a highly multidisciplinary mix of participants taking part, some being active researchers and some being potential users of research outcomes, to drive lateral thinking and radical approaches to addressing particular research challenges."

Other features of a sandpit are that they

"are intensive events. For the well being of participants, the venues offer opportunities for relaxation, and the timetable includes informal networking activities as a break from the detailed technical discussions"


"Owing to the group dynamics and the continual evaluation it’s not possible to dip in and out of the process. Participants stay for the whole duration of the sandpit event"

Further reading suggests that

"Sandpits encourage the imaginations and creativity of children by providing the materials and space to build structures such as sandcastles; use toy trucks, shovels, and buckets to move the sand around; dig holes and bury things, etc. In other words, the sand provides a medium in which children can pretend to explore, construct, and destroy the world in three dimensions. This idea of being creative and experimentation is what the metaphorical uses of the word 'sandpit' or 'sandbox' were born out of."

God...!!! Things like this just confirm my increasingly held belief that I am too old, too jaded and too cynical to continue working in the public sector! I don't think I could physically or psychologically stomach even one day with a bunch of people talking in metaphor and acronym, totally up their own ar*es without any means of escape. It seems to be a cross between New Age boll*cks and and a reality TV show! It really is time to breed llamas! (And no, that is not a metaphor for some career move or life-stage or retirement but a genuine plan! See earlier posts!)