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Poem: The House Alone

The House Alone

I know a strange aloneness tonight –
Though noise ruled the day,
The house stands quiet now,
An absence of sounds conquering the
Loud and shrill and banging.

There is a whine of blood and air
Where chatter had displaced thinking –
And I think I miss the sound of you,
Restless and laughing, love and
Madness in the stories we shared.

I know a strange aloneness tonight –
Though light ruled the day,
The house stands dark now,
Shadows and glimmers banishing the
Harsh and artificial.

There is a dance of soft colours
Where brightness had blinded seeing –
And I think I miss the sight of you,
Restless and laughing, love and
Mischief in the comfort of friends.

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BBC History magazine had an article in its Christmas edition on the dangerous games played by children in Tudor England. With fond recollections of my own childhood games I was curious to see what mischief our ancestors got up.

True enough, some of the stories were very sad, recounting how children had met their unfortunate demise whilst playing, but the games themselves were nothing special or dangerous. Rather, youngsters then, as now, met tragedy in a pond or lake or with an item falling on top of them.

Somehow, on reflection, my own childhood games seem rather more hazardous. Weekends were an adventure playground.

There was “Stick Wars”, where four of us would split into two teams of two and roam the local woods, Coombe Wood, with its “Creepy Copse” or the “Sandy Hills” tucked away in a bushy enclave on Westley Heights and the product of centuries of toil by local badgers. (It was years before it was I realised it was “Creepy Copse” and not “Creepy Cops”, the tall pines giving me small-child nightmare images of evil tree-police ready to snatch us out of the evening gloom). There we would give ourselves a “time out” to gather suitably-sized and suitably-shaped sticks and twigs that could be flung at each other. These turned into mammoth reconnaissance efforts, donning second-hand army fatigues and wellies, buying walkie-talkies, and making clear to families and walkers up from the town and trying to enjoy a little countryside that these were our woods.

What little horrors we were.

My regular partners in games were my brother and two eldest cousins, Matt and Sarah, and we spent virtually every weekend together between the ages of six and sixteen. As the years went by, we added my sister Ellie and odd friends (odd as in random, not odd, though some were certainly quirky – eh, Bob?). It was either Matt and me or Sarah and me, never siblings together, and we could spend a goodly while deciding what mischief to get up to. Back then, 2pm to 5pm was a significant portion of a life-time and seemed to last forever.

We were lucky in that both families had extensive gardens with an adjacent field, very differently shaped, but both sporting a tremendous variety of sheds, trees, nooks, crannies, and hidey-holes.

Sticks were reserved for public spaces. For our own gardens, and depending on the season, we opted for acorns and apples, knowing that one of those catching you on the leg would sting like hell or leave a splendid, thumping bruise. We’d skulk about gathering windfalls and stashing caches of ammunition under bushes and in old coal scuttles. And then we would unleash the pain, always bemused when a glancing blow to the head reduced one of us to tears and drew down the wrath of one or other set of parents.

On one memorable occasion we were joined by Horst, a rather severe and strong German who was the brother of a friend’s friend, who rather missed the point of these games with their stealth and dexterously-flung missiles. Instead, he appeared on the brow of a hill carrying a tree trunk and yelling who-knows-what in German at the top of his voice as he charged us down. Thank goodness for Matthew and his Herculean strength, who managed to flatten him in spectacular style.

Elastic bands – the thicker variety that are rarely seen today – were strung together in threes, fours and even fives to make lethal catapults for firing gravel from the drive or grit from a felt roof. We perfected weapons with ranges of a solid two or three hundred feet, if the trajectory was suitably angled and the bands powerful enough. A careful watch was kept for parents who might not appreciate the stones peppering the lawn and dulling the blades of the Mountfield mower.

Field cricket was a potentially lethal affair. Many lazy days were spent playing cricket in “the field” under sweltering Summer suns, on a full length wicket with a makeshift backing net of fruit bush netting or chicken wire. We played with leather and willow, no fear – and no pads and gloves (except when Brian, my friend and neighbour, invested in them, tired of his bruises and in receipt of more pocket money than the rest of us). But the pitch was uneven and I liked to bowl. Having reached six foot early and being an adept strike bowler, I spent hours learning where the ball bounced best for maximum impact and avoiding the ditch on the run-up. When dusk became twilight and the light impossible for finding balls in bushes or under blackthorn we would retire scratched, exhausted and happy, ready to resume the next day.

Then, finally, there was “That Game”, so infamous we still recall it today with a wistful, evil glint in the eye, which is still spoken of in hushed terms, and which we wonder if even at our age we could perhaps play one last time. Were there any rules? Probably. I recall a violent combination of British Bulldog, the tag variants of off-ground touch and run-outs, and wrestling. It was best played in the dark, outside, torches both a boon and curse. How no-one ended up cracking open a skull on the stone wood bunker which served as a base at Matt and Sarah’s place I have no idea.

So. Sod the Tudors. Langdon Hills in twentieth century Essex is where the dangerous games were at.

We’re just lucky we survived.

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An Old Committee Room Clock

Its burnished face, worn by breath and dust,

gazing on the flare and flicker of lives

casually levelled by the years.


Its tight-wound heart, clogged by grit and rust,

grinding through the flap and chatter of words

caustically traded on the days.


Its iron-hard hands, watched with hope and trust,

goading fools and wise and fat and thin so

carefully counting out the hours.

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Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away…

Or something like that.

It was actually 1983 and Langdon Hills, Essex – and two friends, Bob and Ben, dreamed of becoming astronauts.

They used to sneak off to the school library in Lincewood Junior School  to look at space books. They wrote to NASA. They wrote space stories and they made space project books.

Then one day reality bit, as it tends to, and the dream died. One got embroiled in politics and the other joined the army (no prizes for guessing which I didn’t do!).

However, just at the time that Ben and Bob were dreaming space, Soichi Noguchi was in his penultimate year at Chigasaki-Hokuryo High School, about to study Aeronautical Engineering at Tokyo University.  In 1996, while Ben was stepping into Parliament for the first time, Noguchi was selected to train as an astronaut.

Noguchi was later lucky enough to travel to the International Space Station. His official NASA biography  is enough to make a Ben or a Bob green with envy:

SPACE FLIGHT EXPERIENCE: STS-114 Discovery (July 26-August 9, 2005) was the Return to Flight mission during which the Shuttle docked with the International Space Station and the crew tested and evaluated new procedures for flight safety and Shuttle inspection and repair techniques.  Noguchi served as MS-1 and EV-1 and performed 3 EVAs (spacewalks) totaling 20 hours and 5 minutes.  After a 2-week, 5.8 million mile journey in space, the orbiter and its crew of seven astronauts returned to land at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Noguchi next launched aboard a Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft on December 21, 2009, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, docking with the International Space Station two days later to join Expedition 22 crew.  He became the first Japanese to fly on Soyuz as left-seat Flight Engineer.  For the next 161 days, Noguchi lived and worked aboard the International Space Station as a Flight Engineer on Expedition 22/23, accomplishing Kibo full configuration assembly complete.  The Expedition 23 crew returned to a safe landing in central Kazakhstan on June 2, 2010.  In completing this long duration mission, Noguchi logged 163 days in space.

Whilst in space, Noguchi took a series of amazing pictures which he tweeted from the ISS. Below is a selection of some of my favourites.

In the mean time, neither Bob nor Ben have lost their interest in space. Bob assures Ben that he is delaying his visit to Jodrell Bank until Ben can get up there.

And both can take heart from the fact that Soichi Noguchi is at least seven years older than either of them and so there’s time yet for them to get their butts up to the ISS.

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It seems so counter-intuitive. That the food you eat is killing you, more or less quickly.

How is that?

How is it that the bread I make, very simply, from a basic recipe handed down in the family, each of us varying it a little over the years, and which fills the house with such an amazing smell as it bakes, is actually shortening my life, even as it sustains me? I celebrated that bread-making in one of my earliest blog posts. Surely it’s mad to think of it as effectively a poison, especially when people have eaten bread for millennia?

The last few days, recognising that this chest infection is still clinging on five weeks after I first had it, have been something of a wake-up call. Ironically, it may even be unrelated to my condition.

It should have come before now, really. There were plenty of moments when I could have woken up and “got it”.

The unquenchable thirst that plagued me in Germany back in 2008 (was it then that I was diagnosed?) which I tried to sate with pints of real Coca-Cola should have given it away. (Yes I know, I was a bloody idiot, but I didn’t suspect diabetes at the time, even though a year earlier I’d had a close shave with 7.0 in a blood test). The lactic acid build-up on that same holiday, which brought me literally to my knees in a Franconian valley, out of range of mobile signal (and beer) and with several hundred metres of steep valley to climb after a twelve mile hike. The tiredness. The diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. The nurse encouraging me to cope with understanding the implications. The doctor telling me that if I didn’t make drastic changes to my lifestyle the condition will kill me.

All should have prompted me to action.

And yet. And yet. It is like living every day in a beautiful house and not noticing the deterioration and decay because, to you, every day the house still looks the same. You don’t notice the minor changes in you, so slight, so subtle, so insubstantial as to be dismissed as merely a blip – a very minor wrong that will right itself soon enough.

Such is the capacity for denial and self-delusion.

But then there are things that start to gnaw away at you in quieter moments. The cut that takes longer to heal, the blood not coagulating quite as it used to. The skin taking longer to heal. The sudden tiredness that can descend from nowhere. The peculiar light-headedness after a fresh croissant.

But can it really be that what I eat is doing this?

So many of our personal stories are written around food. The dinner party with friends. The Sunday roast with family. The romantic meal with a lover. The quick bite at the late night van after a gig. The fish and chips on the sea front. The snatched sandwich in a meeting. The wedding breakfast. The thrill of tasting strange cuisine in new, exotic places. The popcorn and sweets munched at the cinema. The microwave meal cooked alone after a long day.

The list is endless but it is often the people and events and places that are recalled, not the food that graced plate and table. The food may enhance or detract from the experience, but it is rarely the thing talked of, except in passing. Yet in the making of the moment its role is central and it is enjoyed with surprise and delight, a treat for the senses to be enjoyed not meditated upon.

And perhaps in the thoughtlessness of it lie the seeds of what has happened since.

Perhaps if I had been more aware of what I was eating, the quantity of foods that I know now are fast carbohydrates, if I was less concerned with taste and the immediacy of the desire to sate hunger, but rather more concerned with what that food was really doing to me, I might have a different tale to tell. Perhaps if I had been less in denial about what I already knew about those foods then that tale might have been different.

I think now on the meals I enjoyed, thinking at the time I was writing different stories, and can see that each was a line in this particular story. My eighteenth birthday. My boozy dinners at work and Conference. The way I gave up cooking when I was alone again. The lazy detours via the chip shop or the garage. The Sunday teas with grandparents. The bread cooked optimistically on a Saturday morning, uplifted by the smell and the prospect of sharing it with friends.

All have helped lead me here.

Type 2 diabetes is estimated to be present in 2.9 million people – or 4.5% of the population. Diabetes UK predict that this number will rise to 4 million by 2025.

I am, in theory, on at least three doses of two different medications for the rest of my life, assuming, optimistically, that it doesn’t deteriorate. That is estimated to cost £300 to £370 per year. yes, I have paid my taxes and far more than that. But is that really what I was paying them for?

Diabetes UK report that the total cost of Type 2 care to the NHS in 2010 was estimated to be £11.718 billion. That doesn’t account for the costs of treating complications arising from diabetes medication:

The cost of diabetes to the NHS is over £1.5m an hour or 10% of the NHS budget for England and Wales. This equates to over £25,000 being spent on diabetes every minute.

In total, an estimated £14 billion pounds is spent a year on treating diabetes and its complications, with the cost of treating complications representing the much higher cost.

What’s more, its prevalence can lead to a casualness which denies the severity of Type 2 if it is not treated properly. To talk of the severest consequences is to sound melodramatic and so we tend to roll our eyes and shrug and say “Yeah, I’m diabetic”, a certain resignation in the way we say it, as if it is a condition of society that is beyond our control, an inevitable consequence of our 24/7, hurly-burly existence.

I had taken a cavalier pride in the knowledge that whilst my blood sugars seemed to remain out of control, the other symptoms – blood pressure, tiredness, nerve and organ damage – were absent. I thought perhaps somehow I was different, like I was defying the usual trajectory of this condition. I felt a measure of defiance – which fed the capacity for delusion. And denial. Then last year’s optical check, which had been clear for two years, showed I had suffered very minor retinal damage. Nothing to be concerned about, nothing that would affect my vision, but something that, untreated, could lead to considerable damage to my sight and potentially blindness.

No-one else is responsible for making the necessary changes other than me. I need to eat more of some things and less of others. I need to do more, physically, and give myself the best chance of living as long as possible without becoming a burden.

And if I don’t? The reality of Type 2, not properly managed, are potential health consequences and associated complications:

Body and Organs

  • Diabetic Nephropathy
  • Diabetic Neuropathy
  • Autonomic Neuropathy
  • Motor Neuropathy
  • Sensory Neuropathy
  • Diabetic Nerve Pain
  • Fatty Liver Disease
  • Gastroparesis
  • Heart Disease
  • Hypertension
  • Irritable Bowel Disease
  • Ketonuria
  • Mental Health
  • Proteinuria
  • Stroke
  • Urinary Incontinence

Complications

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Coeliac Disease
  • Constipation
  • High Cholesterol
  • Cushing’s Syndrome
  • Diarrhoea
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis
  • Erectile Dysfunction
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Memory Loss
  • Nocturia
  • Peripheral Arterial Disease
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
  • Urinary Tract Infections
  • Yeast Infections

Short Term Complications

  • Dead in Bed Syndrome
  • Diabetic Coma
  • Diabetic Ketoacidosis
  • Hyperglycemic Hyperosmolar Nonketotic Coma
  • Hyperosmolar Hyperglycemic Nonketotic Syndrome

Cancer

  • Bladder Cancer
  • Colon Cancer

Eating Disorders

  • Binge Eating
  • Diabulimia

Eyes and Vision

  • Diabetic Retinopathy
  • Diabetic Retinopathy Symptoms
  • Diabetic Retinopathy Treatment
  • Diabetic Maculopathy
  • Cataracts
  • Eye Disease
  • Glaucoma
  • Visual Impairment

Foot, Bone and Skin Care

  • Acanthosis Nigricans
  • Amputation
  • Charcot Foot

A cheery list, but one I have been too dismissive of to date. I still believe I am invincible. And I am not.

The fact that I cannot even recall the year I was diagnosed shows you something has been wrong in my attitude towards my diabetes.

Red, in the film Shawshank Redemption, makes an observation in the closing moments: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” It’s really not that hard. As my friend Lou posted on her Facebook, in one of those nuggets of wisdom that are shared worldwide and are often trite but occasionally to the point: “Are you happy? Yes? Keep going. No? Change something.” We really do over-complicate things sometimes.

I won’t give up bread – or making it. But I should eat much less of it.

And generally eat very differently. And exercise more.

I can’t keep pretending I don’t need to make a choice.

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I wrote this a couple of years ago in memory of my Grandfather, a farmer. I used to spend a lot of time at the farm, seeing the land change from the barren dark of fallow fields to heaving with its bounty of grain, roots and grass, cattle trooping into the parlour for milking. Something reminded me of him today and I thought to dig this out.

Hands, Fingers and Seasons

Thick, strong hands, they were, that lifted me to

The battlements of my straw castles,

Roughened by the scratch of twine and scrape of Summer’s bale.

 

A worker’s loyal touch it was, that raised the song of Harvest home,

Fingers thick with bean soot and the dusty flours of wheat and barley grain.

 

Worn, safe hands, they were, that made a man of me

In black-earth fields of buried treasure, and

Toughened by the bite of frost and soak of Autumn’s mists.

 

A lover’s gentle touch it was, that held a wife and the bounty of a quiet faith,

Fingers rich with tenderness and friendship’s honest clasp.

 

Torn, scarred hands they were, that told the story of his days,

Shaped by tractor’s diesel roar and

Sweet-spiced carolling of Winter’s lamp-lit song.

 

A servant’s kindly clasp it was, that welcomed friend and stranger,

Fingers which turned both page and slide, and, in deeper reverence, praised.

 

Wise, weathered hands they were, that counted out our seasons,

Ploughing fields and scattering seed, and

Carefully coaxing out Spring’s calf to startled breaths.

 

A musician’s chords of Eventide it was, the easier, ebony press of old, familiar hymns,

Fingers that broke Heaven’s morning in gentle smiles of knowing kindness.

 

Yearly sown –

All now safely gathered in.

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Poem: January

January

I dislike you, January, with your
Mornings veiled in wet mist and your
Sodden fields that have stolen
The cracked and frozen earth that should
Lie in frost under crisp, blue skies.

I resent you,  January, with your
Mornings steeped in damp gloom and your
Dragging hours that will bury
The well-intended hopes of New Year’s
Revels in bleak and cloying days.

I disown you, January, with your
Mornings lost in sad thought and your
Hungering for Summer’s laze –
And my feint of a single, red-stemmed glass
Filled with evening’s bold ambition.

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