Celebrating my new credit card

December 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

Last month, I was sent a new credit card – a different colour, with contactless payment and a new three digit security code; so not that much to celebrate, you may say. Except that, in a quiet way, I did.

It’s three years since I had chemotherapy and surgery, and all the brouhaha that goes with breast cancer. Not the best of times. Some of you may remember (and thank you if you do). During those months, every time I used my credit card I would see the renewal date, November 2014, and in my more miserable days, it would occur to me that I might not live beyond the expiry date, that this might be my last ever credit card.

Of course, that wasn’t the priority. There were always more important things to be around for than a new credit card – family, friends, work, the Olympic Games – but there was something about the anonymity of my credit card and the ever-present date which itched away in my mind. If I died, all kinds of things would be canceled – my credit card, my twitter account, my Labour Party membership – and it would make absolutely no difference to any of these organisations. They would grind on regardless. In the same way, films would keep coming out, books be published, The Archers broadcast. No one associated with any of these things would have been bothered in the slightest if I watched their movies, read their books, sent my tweets.

Does it sound like a bleak celebration, the arrival of a new credit card? Well, either it isn’t or I don’t care. It is not so bad to mark these small, anonymous steps. I’m not talking about the personal anniversaries – birthdays, Christmases, summer holidays – but the day to day things on which we have no real impact, the impersonal stuff that comes and goes but which mark the passing of time.

It’s almost three years since I finished chemo. Time has passed; perhaps I should be “over it” and indeed, to a point, I am, but being around to open that new credit card, that was still something.

So, here are a few events to which my presence is completely irrelevant but that I will be using to celebrate the passing of time in the near and not so near future.

  1. Final Hobbit film – this week, the end of the saga.
  2. Labour winning the next election and/or electing a new leader.
  3. Batman v Superman, Dawn of Justice (2016), indeed the whole 10 film, DC series, finishing with Green Lantern, 2020.
  4. Publication of the final Hilary Mantel, Thomas Cromwell novel.
  5. Completion of Cross Rail.
  6. And, of course, my next credit card (2017).
Something from the past for for the future.

Something from the past for for the future.

 


NHS – Happy Birthday

July 5, 2014 § Leave a comment


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Today, I am keeping busy a) saying thank you the NHS, which is 66 years old today, and b) writing a letter to NHS England, protesting about the closure of the Soho Square General Practice. Dr Cheung and Dr Brassy have been our lovely and good GPs since we moved back to London 13 years ago. Those of you who know me will be aware that, in my case, this has been no easy task as I’ve been up and down to the doctors a fair amount with both real and bonkers stuff. They have always treated me with care, respect and understanding – and I’ve never had to pay.

Then we get a letter last week saying that the “Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust has notified NHS England of their intention to resign the GP contract for the Soho Square General Practice.” What does this even mean? The letter doesn’t bother to actually name the doctors involved – I guess it’s easier to think of this as a contract rather than as two real doctors who treat real people.

Patients were not consulted during the decision making process. Nor, if the accounts in the local press are to be believed, were the doctors or local councillors. Now we are being offered a choice of “dispersal” – finding another doctor – or asking NHS England to find a new GP or suitable organisation to provide health services – again, whatever that means.

This is all very confusing, particularly as there is another GP practice in the same building which is not impacted by this decision. I say decision, but we have been given no reason at all for the closure, aside from this resigning the contract business. A CLCH spokesperson told the West End Extra that this was not about cost cutting but rather that the GP service “doesn’t fit in with the the objectives of our business plan.”

My rather obvious question: how can cutting GP services be an objective of a community healthcare trust? If this is about cuts, please tell us.

What will happen to the large number of  elderly Chinese patients who use this practice because of the Chinese speaking doctor and staff? Or course, they may not yet know about the closure because my letter says that if you want a copy in Chinese you have to go the GP surgery to collect one.

Today is the 66th birthday of the NHS. You may have seen many tweets about this, people saying thank you for the amazing things the NHS have done for them. Look at #thankyounhs to see what great things people are saying.

I don’t want to become an NHS basher in any way – I love the twitter account @butnhs (big up the NHS) which posts positive NHS stories and accounts – and I don’t have enough information to know what the closure of the Soho Practice is really all about. What I do know is that the NHS is something we need to fight for. You’ll have heard it before, but it’s really true – we won’t know what we’ve lost until we wake up one morning and our healthcare is no longer free at the point of delivery but rather a horrible hotchpotch of insurance/profit making big corporations who talk about business plans and forget to name actual doctors.

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On the one hand, but on the other.

March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, I threw away Moving Forward: Living With and Beyond Breast Cancer, the folder of information I was given over two years ago, when I finished my cancer treatment. It had sat of the shelf, largely unregarded, both a symbol of hope – the living beyond breast cancer bit – and a slightly menacing “what if” threat – living with breast cancer. Even though I haven’t actually used the information, it took a bit of courage to decide I could do without it. I don’t like to think of myself as a superstitious person but, as I’ve said on this blog before, when push comes to shove, it’s strange the things you are prepared to believe have some power.

So, an update. Despite believing in the power of an information folder, I am not as bonkers as I was two years ago, or even this time last year. Which is good. I worry less, which is also good, although I still have my moments (ask the good Russell, who has recently talked me out of having hip, toe and ear cancer).

One of my techniques is to try to avoid things to do with cancer. This may be cowardly; it’s also tricky. Over this last weekend, for example, we’ve had:

1. Selfies without makeup and the subsequent fuss about whether they are an appropriate way to raise money for cancer research (and, for the record, yes they are – not one of those good ladies was saying that going without make up is the same as having treatment for cancer).

2. The headline on The Sunday Times today, plus the campaign they are now launching.

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Good news here is reading that almost 80% of breast cancer patients survive for over 5 years. Bad news, I do not want to be “betrayed” by the NHS (which is a stupid, unhelpful word anyway and certainly not what happened to me).

3. A link on Facebook about a group of women who shaved their heads in sympathy with a friend who has cancer. You can see it here – it’s nice, very moving.

4. Critics Choice in the TV guide for Wednesday 26th March is “Kris – Dying to Live“, about an amazing young woman called Kris who has late-stage breast cancer, cannot be cured, and who is now running a breast awareness campaign called CoppaFeel. I urge you all to go the website and do what it says.

I have a dilemma here. I know that breast cancer has such good survival rates because women before me made a huge fuss, and that continuing to make a huge fuss, and not just about breast cancer, is good for those coming next. I know that I benefited from a great deal of support (although, friends, I didn’t see anyone shaving their heads for me #disappointinginretrospect). On the other hand, everyone, just shut up. Two and a half years on from diagnosis, and I still feel weak and feeble faced with the mention of the word, cancer. It’s why I still haven’t watched Breaking Bad, why I couldn’t watch Halley dying on Coronation Street and why I heaved a huge sigh of relief when Ruth in The Archers was shouting at everyone because she was pregnant and not because her cancer had returned.

It’a all on the one hand, but on the other. This may help to explain why, although I could throw out Moving Forward, I still have my wig in its pink box, lurking under a cupboard, like one of those big worms in Tremors, waiting to snap at me. A bit like this:

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Of course, thanks to Kevin Bacon and co, the bad worms were beaten, which is what we all want from the general and ongoing cancer narrative. It’s probably all worthwhile, and I just have to get on with it.

And now I’m going to stop. I think this Tremors analogy has gone as far as was ever useful.

Shakespeare’s Enduring Legacy (or The Brilliant Lisa Jardine)

February 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Frank Kermode Memorial Lecture, the Purcell Room, 30th January, 2014, Professor Lisa Jardine

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I should say upfront that I am a huge fan of Professor Jardine. If there were mugs or Jardine T-towels, I’d have them. If you are not familiar with the brilliant Lisa Jardine CBE, well, I suggest you get yourself familiarised. Here are some things she has done. 1. She read mathematics at Cambridge before, two years into that course, switching to English. 2. She’s written a heap of books, from Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1983) to The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London (2003). 3. Since 2008 she has served as Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. 4. She is now  Professor of Renaissance Studies at UCL. 5. She’s pretty liberal and I believe sent her children to state schools in London.

I think she’s spiffing for a couple of other reasons. Firstly, she’s had breast cancer so, of course, I find that somewhat encouraging (she’s 69, still doing tons of great stuff, etc). Secondly, I credit her with preventing me from bombing out of Cambridge almost 30 years ago. To cut a very tedious story short, girl from huge, not very good comprehensive school + English Literature at Cambridge = recipe for disaster. Entering my third year, I decided to take a course on “The Novel” and was allocated yet another male supervisor with little interest in teaching, someone who had never been overly pleased that women had been admitted to my college in the first place, let alone girls from not very good state schools. At the time, Lisa Jardine was at Jesus College, nothing at all to do with me, but already an inspiring lecturer. In desperation, I knocked on her door and poured out my panic at having to study once again with said misogynist. She was lovely, found me someone to work with, the equally lovely Julia Swindells. It doesn’t sound much, but without a doubt that intervention got me through Cambridge.

Enough about all that. On Thursday, Professor Jardine delivered the Frank Kermode Memorial Lecture on Shakespeare’s Enduring Legacy. As suggested above, although I read English at Cambridge, it was all a huge error. Despite that, I went to hear Professor Jardine and, because she is so marvellous, I couldn’t help but learn a few things. Here they are (and with the usual apologies to anyone who really knows about this stuff).

1. The phrase “dumping in the pathetic” from Frank Kermode. Not sure what it means, though.

2. Shakepeare’s plays “wait patiently for each new interpretation.” Frank Kermode believed that “our questions, our seasonal truths, are not those of an earlier generation.” Being open to interpretation but being reticent about final meaning makes a work a classic.

3. Frank Kermode transformed Shakespearian criticism by giving us an outward rather than an inward interpretation. The Romantics, for example, put the poet at the heart of everything – the poet was always right. Kermode (and Professor Jardine) said that the spirit of the writer has to be considered along with the social, cultural, anthropological and historical questions of the time.

4. An example (and stick with me here). In the 17th Century, it was legal to beat your wife to death in your house, but not to do so in public. It was all about what happened in public. Church court documents record numerous cases of women, accused of adultery or lewd behaviour, coming to court to clear their names. It was vital to do this in public. Move to Othello, Act 4, Scene 2, when Desdemona is accused by Othello of adultery. She doesn’t actually deny it (perhaps because she can’t bring herself to use those words) and because she refuses to have the charge scrubbed from the public record, she is automatically guilty, or, as Professor Jardine put it, “the verbal has been consecrated as an event.” Othello doesn’t ever doubt her guilt again so that he kills her not though jealousy, but because, in his eyes, she had definitely committed adultery. But we might not read the play like this if we didn’t have the knowledge gained through examination of contemporary church court records.

5. Any scene from the period where a woman is in the same room as a bed is bad news for said lady’s reputation – Gertrude, in Hamlet, dies in her bed, and Desdemona is killed by Othello in her bed.

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There was lots more, and some pretty clever questions. A little out of my depth. Never mind. A much better thing to do than worry about that would be to listen to Professor Jardine talking about the founding of the Royal Society  or the history of cryptography both on In Our Time, or follow her on twitter @profLisaJardine.

A Brief History of Syria

October 31, 2013 § 1 Comment

Soho Theatre, September 29th, Dan Snow

The theatre went dark; Dan Snow was announced, but no one arrived. There was nervous laughter, a ripple of anticipation – then on he comes, tall, open shirt. Very causal.  A slight “there’s a rock star in the house” feel descends, particularly when Dan begins by telling us that he’s just come back from the Congo. He likes dangerous places, it seems. We didn’t mind though. Actually, we approved.

He was pretty good. Lots of information. Here are a few bits and pieces. (Huge apologies if any of this is incorrect. I was writing in the dark and he covered about 10,000 years and said quite a few words I couldn’t spell.)

  1. On medieval maps of the world, before Columbus, Syria is slap bang in the middle. It was the nexus of ancient history, on the route not just for trade but for ideas and language. The first complex civilisation was established there about 10,000 years ago. Damascus and Aleppo are probably the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
  2. Conquerer upon conquerer arrived – Egyptians, Mongols, Alexandra the Great, the Romans, French and British. The physical geography of the country changed along with each new invader.
  3. Khālid ibn al-Walīd, known as the Sword of Allah, (592–642), is “perhaps the best general we’ve never heard of.” He won over 100 battles and was key in spreading Islam.
  4. The Ottomans created a Sunni manorial-type of aristocracy, but this was starting to crumble by the early 20th Century. As shipping routes  improved, the old silk route through Syria was abandoned.
  5. The majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and so it is in Syria, where about 75% of the Muslim population are Sunni. The remainder are Shia. Assad is part of the Shia minority. In addition, he is an Alawite – a minority within a minority. (Good bit on what this means across the region here.)
  6. After World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence. Between us, the British and French created eight states, with new borders. The French claimed Syria because, they argued, they had played such a large part in the Crusades.  Under French rule, the Alawite minority was favoured and promoted – divide and rule type of thing. Assad’s father benefited.
  7. After Word War II, Syria was granted independence. However, the new state struggled. Intellectuals were put in charge but there weren’t many of them. Under the French, pre-World War II, only 350 Syrians were in higher education (not sure when and where but it seems like a good stat). In addition, the French charged the newly independent Syria 50 million Syrian pounds – the cost of their occupation.
  8. Ater the creation of Israel, Syria embarked on a series of disasterous wars. Most Syrians regarded the Golan Heights and other parts of Israel as being Syrian territory.
  9. In general, Alawites (about 12% of the population)  are more left wing than the conservative Sunni majority.  In addition, Assad has been very secular. He married in a civil ceremony, for example. But that doesn’t make him the good guy.
  10. In 1982, Assad’s brother, General Rifaat al-Assad, led the Hama massacre, when the Syrian army besieged the town of Hama for 27 days and ultimately crushed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood.  It is estimated that 20,000 people were killed.
  11. Before the current civil war, the Syrian population had grown by one third in the last 10 years. Unemployment was high and schools were running double-shifts to cope. Oil is running out and at the end of the 2000s, there were a series of droughts. Prices were also increasing. In addition, as markets have been liberalised, a small number of the ruling regime have become very rich. For example, one of Assad’s cousins owns two large mobile phone companies and all the duty free shops.
  12. The civil war was triggered when the police beat up a market trader.
  13. And, to make a link back to my write up about infectious diseases, the WHO have just confirmed the first cases of polio in Syria for 14 years. (Thanks to my friend, Liz, for prompting that thought.) Not good. Really, not good.

A couple of poets and some other stuff

October 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been a bit lax about writing up these talks. It’s poor. Very poor. Over the last few weeks, it’s been Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Oscar Wilde (the betrayal of) and Victorian England (life and death in). Here are a few things I have learned.

1. Sylvia Plath, King’s Place, 23rd September, some people whose names I have forgotten/lost, plus Juliet Stevenson reading.

It’s impossible to think about Sylvia Plath without being influenced by how she died.  As she said in “Lady Lazarus”,

Dying

Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

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So smiley, yet so sad

2. Philip Larkin, King’s Place, 7th October, people from The Archers and some musicians.

Philip Larkin’s relationship with women doesn’t make for a light-hearted evening round the piano. Love his work but he didn’t treat the ladies too well. Attempting to turn that into a semi-humourous exploration of his sex-life was possibly an error, even (or maybe especially)  when presented by Lilian and the Reverend Alan from The Archers. Larkin had three mistresses and, for some years, all at the same time.  Monica Jones, who is generally seen as his soul-mate (whatever that means) was an academic whom Larkin met at Leicester University, where he worked as librarian prior to moving to Hull.  They had an affair from 1947 until his death 40 years later. Maeve Brennan, a devout Roman Catholic and a member of Larkin’s library staff in Hull, was with him from 1961, on and off, for about 17 years. Then there was Betty Mackereth, his secretary at the library in Hull. We were told that each woman added to Larkin’s life in a different way which must have been jolly nice for him. This all singing, all dancing Larkin romp was at King’s Place, so in front of a very Guardianesque audience. They surprised  and confused me at their willingness to guffaw at the way Larkin used all three women (and more).

Larkin and Betty having a picnic

Larkin and Betty having a picnic

But none of that should put you off reading his poetry. Really.

3. Oscar Wilde, Soho Theatre, September 25th, David Hare, Rupert Everett, Merlin Holland

Oscar Wilde has a grandson who talks about his grandfather. That made me feel rather close to the Victorians.

Wilde was tried for gross indecency.  He could have run away but instead waited at the Connaught Hotel to be arrested and, apparently, here lies his immortality.  If he’d fled, would he be remembered still?

Rupert Everett is still fab. He described Wilde in his last days as “a terrifying hag,” living down in the Paris sewers. He described how being famous can lead you to think you are immune to being toppled. Wilde felt that everyone loved him. “The country is behind me to a boy.”

Rupert as Oscar

Rupert as Oscar

4. The Victorians, Soho Theatre, September 29th, Judith Flanders, Kate Colquhoun and Claie Armitstead

There are everyday bits of history that are lost to us simply because we were not there (Dickens is full of this kind of thing, if you know where to look). For example, Victorian streets were incredibly noisy, so loud that often you couldn’t hear a conversation. Burial grounds were so full that the level of churchyards just kept rising. One, in Dury Lane, was as high as the first floor windows.  The best place to sit in a train was with your back to the engine, thus reducing the chance of getting smut in your eyes. That kind of thing.

Cars were originally welcomed as “non-polluting” transport – ie no horse poo.

 

Next time: Syria.

Talk 3: Winning and Losing the Fight Against Infectious Diseases

September 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

Talk given by Professor Christopher Dye, World Health Organisation, 16th September 2013

I queued for this one, down the steps of the Royal Society and out along Carlton Terrace, watching gentlemen on their way to gentlemen’s clubs like the Carlton and Whites. Smart area. The Royal Society is pretty nice. Turns out lots of people want to hear about infectious diseases. While we waited for the Professor, people chatted.

“What field are you in?”

“I was in chemical engineering but I’m retired now. And you?”

“I work on malaria.”

(Obviously, this wasn’t me.)

Professor Dye, younger than I had imagined, said he was going to give us “a personal view of infectious diseases.”  Apparently, Hollywood has much to answer for in terms of how we understand, or misunderstand, the nature of infection – we saw some pictures from Contagion, which I don’t think Prof Dye really enjoyed.

Here are some more things I learned.

1. We should all be frightened of pandemics – H1N1, Spanish Flu, etc. – but most deaths from infectious diseases (IDs) are not caused by pandemics. Fifteen million people a year die from IDs that just inhabit their everyday lives – diarrhoea, HIV, TB, malaria, meningitis. About 20 pathogens account for nearly all deaths from IDs.

2. In the UK, death rates from IDs fell for three centuries from the early 18th Century. This is largely due to better sanitation, more food, and better public health – things like vaccinations. However, in recent years, death rates have finally plateaued at around 13 per 100.  The downside is that there has been a steep rise in non-communicable diseases but, as Prof Dye pointed out, we do all have to die of something.

3. There is a link between infectious and non-infectious diseases. For example, being under-weight makes a person more susceptible to TB. In the West, we eat well so TB is not so prevalent. However, because we eat well, we develop diabetes. Having diabetes makes a person more susceptible to TB. Tricky.

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Public health campaigns in the 1920s tried to halt the spread of TB.

3. In the developing world, not surprisingly the rates are the other way round.

4. The good news is that control of infectious diseases was one of the Millenium Goals and money spent on controlling IDs has risen from £5b in 1990 to £25b in 2010. However, since 2010 the rate of increase has declined. One reason for this is the growing importance of non communicable diseases.

5. Living in a city is both good and bad news. Since 2007, more of us have been living in urban areas  than rural ones and in cities of over 500,000, infections  really flourish. On the up side, infant mortality rates are substantially lower in cities than in the countryside, even for people living in slums.

6. It is probable that the 2003 SARS pandemic emerged from bats in South Asia. One in two people infected died. Researchers can follow its spread from five guests in the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong to 206 other people. It is probable that SARS is no longer in the human population.

7. There is reason to worry about resistant to antibiotics – in the last 40 years, there have been no major developments. On the other hand, researchers don’t really understand why some diseases become resistant while others don’t. For example, syphilis has never become resistant to penicillin, so the case is not completely lost.

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drug-resistant-tuberculos

8. Only two diseases have ever been officially eradicated, small pox and rinderpest, a disease in cattle. The major emphasis now is on eradicating polio, which persists in rumbling on in Africa and parts of Asia. Professor Dye asked Paddy Power for odds on eradicating polio and was given 4-1.

9. There are 2.4 billion people in the world without access to piped drinking water, and 1 billion without access to sanitation. Given that we have known how to do both since the 1850s, when James Bazelgette reclaimed the banks of the Thames in order to construct sewers (John Betjeman said, “Our nation stands for democracy and proper drains”), why have those billions had to wait for so long for clean water?

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Bazelgette inspects his work.

10. We don’t really understand the connection between infectious diseases and genes. Why do only 1 in 10 people infected by tuberculosis develop the disease?

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