Friday, March 31, 2006

Friday's Fascinating Fact

Men who live in the United Kingdom and share the same surname have a 1:4 chance of being blood relatives.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Between The Acts…

I am uncertain as to where I originally discovered this lovely piece of prose. It was certainly many years ago. I have a flickering memory of it possibly being engraved onto a lectern, or a prayer stool or some such piece of wooden furniture in a small country church somewhere in England. I have been unable to find out who wrote it. However, whatever its origins, it remains a beautiful piece of thought-provoking work. I think the words are worth remembering when it comes to personal times of trial:

There are intervals in Life. The show can’t run non-stop. In between the acts there comes a pause. The curtain drops. Circumstances take a hand and something -unforeseen - comes along and breaks the pattern of the old routine. Illness, upheavals or a cruel turn of fate – call a halt and there is nothing you can do but wait.

While you’re waiting, learn the grace of faith and fortitude – as your life is being changed and problems reviewed. Intervals there have to be; accept them. Face the facts. Wisely use the quiet times that come between the Acts.

Author unknown.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Rugby – A Game for Gentlemen?

Always thought of as the superior game, being traditionally played by the public and selective grammar schools, the game of rugby is clearly undergoing a metamorphosis.

Anyone watching the Jonathon Ross programme on Friday night would have seen him interview a certain member of the Welsh rugby team. Evidently, that player’s pre-match preparation lasts for about two hours and involves a bath, shaving the legs, the application of fake tan and the careful waxing of the hair until it stands upright like a spiky hedgehog.

For anyone who missed the programme, I am not speaking of a member of the ladies Welsh rugby team.

The Welsh novelist and dramatist, Gwyn Thomas (1913 – 1981), said in the introduction to his play Jackie the Jumper (1962):

‘I wanted a play that would paint the full face of sensuality, rebellion and revivalism. In South Wales these three phenomena have played second fiddle only to Rugby Union which is a distillation of all three.’

Well, from the interview on Friday night it certainly looks as though the Welsh are maintaining the tradition of sensuality in Welsh rugby. As an ex- prop forward for my grammar school and medical school rugby teams, all I can say is ‘my, how things change!’

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Word of the Week – Megalotic

The more I live, the more I learn;
The more I learn, the more I realise the less I know.

That quote has been a favourite of mine for many years. Today, it is most apt. Firstly, because I have never found out who originally said it. (If you should know, then please tell me.) Secondly, because the precise meaning of today’s chosen word has almost eluded me.

I first came across the word ‘megalotic’ in an article by Mandrake in The Sunday Telegraph (5th March 2006). It read:

“…the BBC has picked its megalotic former political editor Andrew Marr to front its coverage of the Queen's 80th birthday celebrations next month.”

My immediate thought was along the lines of how unkind it was for Mandrake to publicly refer to Marr’s prominent facial features. Then, certain areas of higher intellect kicked in and started to question such an assumption. I mentally eliminated ears and nose from the meaning of lotic; the Latin and Greek origins of these words are different. So, what did he mean?

Cue the New Oxford Dictionary of English. ‘Megalotic’ wasn’t listed in there. Out came the blockbuster, the twenty volumes of The Oxford English Dictionary (OED). That, too, failed to deliver.

Oh well, there is always the internet. That has the answer to everything. Or so I thought. I entered the word ‘Megalotic’ into the Google search box and waited. Up came five pages of sites wherein the word was featured. However, all but two were in Japanese! The only piece of English within them was reference to ‘megalotic messiah’.

The two English sites were not very helpful either. The first gave reference to the Western Harvest Mouse, known scientifically as Reithrodontomys megalotis. This was in an article about a Government sponsored, military testing site in Idaho, USA. The second site was a direct reference to Mandrake’s article in The Sunday Telegraph.

I had gone full-circle.

Breaking the word down, one is left with mega and lotic. Mega is Greek, meaning ‘great’. Lotic derives from Latin, lotus, meaning ‘washing’. The OED defines lotic as an ecological term meaning ‘of fresh-water organisms or habitats, situated in rapidly moving water.’ Ecology is, of course, that branch of science relating to the study of how different organisms relate to, and interact with, each other.

So, finally, I think I am getting near to an understanding of the meaning of the word ‘megalotic’; at least in terms of Andrew Marr. He was, of course, at one time the BBC’s Political Editor. Most recently, he has been holding his own Sunday morning guest show, having assumed David Frost’s crown. In the Sunday Telegraph article, he is reported to have dislodged David Dimbleby from the important post for reporting major Royal events. I guess that Mandrake is therefore using the term ‘megalotic’ to describe Marr as a ‘major organism’ which moves in the ‘rapid waters’ of political and social life.

An interesting word and an even more interesting application. It certainly gave me food for thought. If anyone has additional comments, please feel free to add to this scholastic debate!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

In Pursuit of the Recently Departed

‘Funny things accidents - you never quite know when they are going to happen.’
Winnie the Pooh
A. A. Milne

Monday afternoon, 3.50 p.m. to be precise, and I have a sixty mile round trip to make, all because a dead body went walkabouts.

She didn’t really go walkabouts and it wasn’t truly her fault. It couldn’t be as she was dead, in which case I don’t suppose she had much say in the matter. However, at times like this, it always seems that the recently deceased are having their final revenge on the physician who latterly attended them in life. It is as if they are saying, in the style of Laurel and Hardy, ‘well, this is a fine mess you have got me into, so now I am going to make life just that little bit harder for you.’

I can tell that you are probably having difficulty following this, so I will endeavour to explain.

I have the privilege of practising medicine within a rural environment. That has the advantage of enabling one to have an attractive lifestyle whilst avoiding the socio-economic problems that my inner city colleagues have. However, one of the disadvantages is that it is a long way to the major towns and cities. Most of the time, that is of no importance. The local market town provides for most everyday needs.

Like funeral directors, for example.

This usually makes providing the dead with the various documentation required for the next part of their voyage of discovery, a simple process. The patient dies (as they sometimes ungratefully do), the doctor takes five minutes (between treating Bessie Smith’s varicose veins and collecting his dry cleaning) to pop up the road to Messers Ivor Grave & Sons to sign on a few dotted lines, leaves a message for one of the partners in a neighbouring practice (who will nip in, make sure that the aforementioned patient is not playing sham and really has decided to check out, and sign the second part of the cremation form) and still has enough time to collect a brace of pheasants (which the butcher has kindly plucked and disembowelled) before arriving back in the surgery for the afternoon sore throat and aching back parade.

However, just every so often, one finds an awkward patient who, having been born in the market town, attended the local school, married in the parish church, worked all her life in the local library, shopped at the Corner Shop, shunned holidays and finally ended her days, at the age of 96 years, in the departure lounge of the local residential home, suddenly decides that Messers Ivor Grave & Sons is not the tour operator of choice for the next leg of her journey. No, she wants excitement, the smell of sea air and the thrill of a weekend’s break in the seaside resort thirty miles away.

The first one knows of this late burst of wanderlust is a message during the second surgery of Monday morning. A little pop-up appears on the computer screen, announcing “you have mail.” Unprepared for the message contained therein, one eagerly opens it as it provides a welcomed distraction from Mr Heartsink’s meaningless waffle about the state of his bowels. After all, he cannot see the screen and will just think that one is diligently recording every detail of his recalcitrant plumbing.

Mrs Stayfast died on Friday afternoon. They need the death certificate today and she is for cremation.’

Not a problem, you think. She had a stroke one week ago and developed bronchopneumonia four days later. Simple and tidy; coroner doesn’t need informing, paperwork straightforward and a spot of “ash cash” into the bargain.

Another pop-up and another e-mail:

She is at Diggit & Furnace Funeral Parlour in Great Grimesthorpe By-the-Sea.

All hopes of a quick resolution to that task immediately disappear. Grimesthorpe is thirty miles away and I have no idea where to find Diggit & Furnace. There should be a rule against poaching bodies away from their home towns, even if it is at the family’s request. It is most inconvenient.

Thus it was, at 3.50pm, that I found myself in the surgery car park entering the address of Diggit & Furnace into the Land Rover’s satellite navigation system. ‘Fast Route…’ Yes, that will do nicely. Usually, I would take a leisurely drive across country. However, a quick flit down the dual carriageways will suffice for this trip; longer in miles but much quicker.

Five miles later, I am sat at the back of a very long traffic jam, which is going nowhere. The only slip road on this stretch is behind me and my green, magnetic emergency beacon, which has in the past enabled me to worm my way through all sorts of jams in true ‘let me though I am a doctor’ style, is sitting in my garage back at home. The announcer on Classic FM rather too gleefully gives out the motoring report and I learn that three lorries and a car have become snugly acquainted with each other at the intersection ahead. I eye the embankment, for a brief moment wondering whether the 4x4 would get up it and whose field it was on the other side. However, I decide against such a bid for freedom, well knowing that dozens of fuming drivers would be willing me to fail. There is nothing for it but to sit it out and rue the fact that I didn’t take my accustomed meandering route across country. It is another fifty minutes of quiet reflection time before I resume my journey down the “Fast Route” to Great Grimesthorpe By-the-Sea. Winnie the Pooh was absolutely right about accidents.

Mrs Stayfast’s revenge didn’t end there. Diggit & Furnace are in the middle of a council estate, whose roads are subdivided by pedestrian walkways and bollards, presumably to deter joy riders. With difficulty, I navigate my way through the maze and finally arrive to find, much to my relief, that a young employee has stayed behind to study for his NVQ in shroud-folding. He directs me to the refrigerators and then abandons me.

The refrigerator is a double-fronted, three-tiered one. Labels on the door announce the identities of the occupants, rather like the communal front door to an apartment block; only here you don’t expect the occupants to answer the doorbell – if there was one. True to form, Mrs Stayfast has seized the top bunk, which is conveniently situated about four feet above my head. The trainee shroud-folder is nowhere in sight. In one corner there is a mechanical lifting trolley, which looks far too complicated for my liking and prompts nightmarish images of spending the night on the floor with Mrs Stayfast for company. I decide to abandon any thoughts of getting her down to my level and opt for the mountain-goat approach. Really, it is just like climbing the parallel bars in my old school’s gymnasium, only a little colder; one step, two steps, pull-up with the biceps and there I am, squatting next to Mrs Stayfast. A one-handed uncovering (the other is firmly holding on to the freezer unit) and I have positive identification. Pupils fixed and dilated, no pulse, no heart sounds; job done.

Back at ground level, I ensure the refrigerator is fastened (just in case she gets wanderlust again), and go off in search of the junior pickler. I find him in the office, chewing his fingernails (always an unsavoury habit in an undertaker). Death certificate signed and Part One of the Cremation Form completed and I am on the road again. Only this time, I take the cross-country route home.

Mrs Stayfast’s revenge does not even end there, however. The following day, I have the task of trying to find a willing doctor to complete Part Two of the cremation forms. That used to be an easy affair. A simple task for a reasonable fee; everyone was happy to oblige. Then Shipman came along and overnight it got a whole lot more complex. So much so that, outside the market town (where the practices oblige each other as there is nowhere else to go) nobody wants to know. Five telephone calls later and I had been turned down by three practices for a variety of thinly veiled reasons. Not that they suspected me in anyway (honestly). It just wasn’t worth their effort and they were unlikely to need a favour returning. Finally, I managed to speak to someone who knew me from when we both sat on the Faculty Board for the Royal College of General Practitioners. Uttering comments like ‘for old times sake’ and ‘oh, ok, just this once,’ he acquiesced and I was finally free of Mrs Stayfast.

Looking at her thin set of notes, Mrs Stayfast probably took up more of my time after she checked out, than she had of any doctor throughout her entire ninety-six years whilst happily respiring.

So, if you are anticipating emigrating to the next world within the near future, please spare a thought for your poor GP and opt to support the local Funeral Director. If, by chance, you still decide to have one final holiday and go off elsewhere, then please use your new-found advantageous position in life (or should that be death?) and forewarn your doctor of any impending accidents on his route to find you.

That is, unless you also think that fifty minutes in a traffic jam is a fair punishment for him only allocating you the odd ten minutes here and there for the past decade or so. Sorry, if that is the way you felt, Mrs Stayfast. May you now rest in peace.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Bath B4 Eating

Having had the privilege of a classical education at a selective grammar school, I am one of those unusual people who have fond memories of Latin classes. It is true that I have since forgotten much, which, in the big scheme of the language, probably doesn’t leave a lot. However, even now, I often find myself hovering in front of a Latin inscription on a tomb-stone or memorial, struggling to make some sense of it just for the fun of doing so. If the same had been written in English, then I might have simply cast a cursory glance and moved on.

Sad, as many may think me to be, I still treasure copies of Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer and Wormald & Blandford’s Path to Latin, Vols. 1 & 2. Indeed, I have them beside me as I write. They are a little like a literary security blanket, forming a psychological link to those halcyon days of school life.

I was therefore delighted to come across an article in The Daily Telegraph News Review (Saturday, March 4th, 2006) entitled Rapping with Miss Ho-Jo. The reporter, Sam Leith, obviously had a similar scholastic background to my own. As a result, he managed to bring joyous memories flooding back as I read his article. The article is one of comparison between our experiences of learning Latin and the way it is currently being taught at an inner London comprehensive school.

The teacher, Miss Eugenie Howard-Johnston (hence Miss Ho-Jo) teaches a Latin class twice a week after school hours. The remarkable thing is that the class is voluntary and she gets a regular attendance of twenty seven pupils. Her skill is bringing Latin into the modern age. For example, she teaches the girls how to rap in Latin. How things change!

The piece which really brought my own experiences back to life was a reminder of the way to run through second-declension nouns without a moment’s thought: ‘Blumblumblibloblo, Blablablorumblisblis.’ Oh, the joys! (sic). Latin for me will always be the language which, to quote Horace, “delectando pariterque monendo,” delights while at the same time instructs.

What of the strange title to this piece? Well, that is a reference to the aforementioned text, Path to Latin which, in true schoolboy fashion, usually had the cover title doctored so that it read A Bath B4 Eating. Such little wits, weren’t we?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Ring of Confidence

‘Doctor, before you go, I have one last problem if you don’t mind. It’s rather embarrassing and I don’t really like to mention it.’

I smiled at Molly, a pleasant octogenarian lady, and gently persuaded her to continue.

‘Well, it’s my piles,’ she said with a slight grimace. ‘They’ve been ever so troublesome recently. I managed to find some of that cream you gave me a few years ago, but it stings something awful. It never used to; I think it must have gone out of date.’

I picked up a tube from her bedside table and Molly confirmed that it was what she had been using.

‘Yes, Molly, it is rather out of date. I’ll prescribe you a new tube which will be fine.’

As I reached for a prescription pad, I put the tube of a well known brand of spearmint toothpaste in my bag for later disposal. I hadn’t the heart to tell her the truth!

(First published in GP Magazine, 6th January 2006. The name of the patient has been changed.)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Wit & Wisdom of Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham was an English playwright.

Born on the 25th January 1874 (making him an Aquarian), he qualified in medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital, London. However, with the success of his writing, he gave up medicine for a career as a novelist and playwright.

He died on the 16th December 1965.

He has many quotes attributed to him. The following are just a few of my favourites:

On Life:

It's a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.

You can do anything in this world if you are prepared to take the consequences.

I made up my mind long ago that life was too short to do anything for myself that I could pay others to do for me.

On Death:

Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

On Writing:

Writing is the supreme solace.

Every production of an artist should be the expression of an adventure of his soul.

It's very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.

The crown of literature is poetry.

When I read a book I seem to read it with my eyes only, but now and then I come across a passage, perhaps only a phrase, which has a meaning for me, and it becomes part of me.

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Friday's Fascinating Facts

Having the job as carpenter to the British Library must be as daunting as being employed as the painter on the Forth Bridge.

The British Library is one of six copyright libraries to which publishers in the United Kingdom are required to send a copy of every new book. Each year it receives three million new books. Hence a requirement for twelve kilometres of new shelving per year. (Source: Observer).

It has been calculated that, if a person looked at five books per day (note that I wrote 'looked at', not 'read'), they would require a life-expectancy of at least 80,000 years to see the entire library.

Now, just where did I leave my bookmark...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Reaching for the Stars

Although the subject is not widely recognised amongst serious scientific circles, I confess to having more than a passing interest in the subject of Astrology. Within the consulting room I often amuse myself by quietly guessing, from the various psychological clues put forward, the star sign of the patient sitting in front of me.

I was recently somewhat surprised when a patient made an appointment simply to request some of the Aquarius Cream I had previously prescribed for her. My mind instantly wandered off to the Zodiac. However, a quick check of her date of birth confirmed that she had been born in November, under the sign of Scorpio. Had she, I idly wondered, decided that she would prefer her birthday to be therapeutically moved to January?

However, a more serious check of her past prescriptions clarified everything and she happily left with a prescription for Aqueous Cream. My fleeting thought of a career change to some sort of Psychotherapeutic Astrologer dissolved almost as quickly as the thought had arisen.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Bridport Prize 2006

Extract from the leaflet:

'The Bridport Prize is an annual international creative writing competition for poetry and short stories. The closing date for entries which may either be sent by post or online is 30th June. The Bridport Prize is one of the top prizes of its kind in terms of both prestige and prize money. It has been the first step in the careers of many established poets and novelists. The prize money for 2006 totals £14,000.'

Thought for the Day

By medicine life may be prolonged, yet death will seize the doctor too.

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616):
Cymbeline Act 5 Scene 5

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Lincoln Book Festival 12 - 21 May 2006

The Lincoln Book Festival aims to celebrate books but also includes some other art forms that books initiate and inspire - comedy, film, performance and conversation. The festival aims to celebrate local, national and international writers and artists, historical and contemporary works of art as well as offering the public a chance to see both emerging and well-known writers and artists.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Over the Hill

Non-verbal communication is something GPs are trained to interpret as a means of identifying the hidden agenda. However, from time to time what a patient does not say is sufficient to send out a message the GP would prefer not to hear.

I refer to a lady in her sixties who came to see me recently. She had been experiencing a sensitive problem and wished to discuss possible treatment options. I noted that she had been to see one of my partners only a few days previously.

‘Yes, doctor. I did see Dr X. However, I felt too embarrassed to ask him about this problem. After all, he is so young,’ the lady said by way of explanation.

Clearly, the unspoken implication was there regarding my own aged appearance. Oh, don’t they know how to hurt! The fact that I am only five years older than Dr X, with a full head of hair compared to his follicularly challenged pate, did nothing for my morale as I studied my reflection in the mirror following my patient’s departure!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Morale Boosters

It is always good to have the occasional confidence boost. During this past week such a psychological elevation has occurred no less than the proverbial three times. Minor events all, but they do help to raise the spirits.

First off was a letter from Writers’ News informing me that I was the winner of the Bookend Competition which appeared in the February issue of Writers’ News. Enclosed was my prize, a hardback copy of The Book of Life, A Compendium of the Best Autobiographical and Memoir Writing, edited by Eve Claxton.

Next was a letter from The Writers Bureau Ltd, announcing that I had won the quiz in the first edition of Latest Edition. Enclosed was a copy of the 2006 edition of the Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market.

Finally, a letter to GP Magazine was accepted and duly published in the 10th March issue.

All this on top of earlier successes within January and February in respect to the acceptance of an article for Pulse magazine, a filler article and a book review for GP Magazine, an article for MQ Magazine, the awarding of a ‘highly commended’ for a poem in the Toowrite Poetry competition and the winning of a caption competition in Yorkshire Life (resulting in me being the proud possessor of an original watercolour painting by the artist, Les Packham). Such little successes do help to offset the other competition failures and rejection letters which also land on the doormat.

If only I could be sure whether they were simply tasters for what is yet to come! Oh well, nothing for it but to keep the fingers typing. Pass me another envelope, darling…

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Rooney’s Royalties

It is now official. The World is mad.

At least that part of the World which many of us hold closest to our hearts, i.e. the publishing world, has given the ultimate sign that it is stark raving bonkers. I expect the men in white coats to arrive at any time now, waving documents testifying to the existence of total insanity. Those affected will be bundled off to the Institute for the Treatment of Insane Publishers and normality will return to the printed world. Once more we will be able to roam around bookshops, safe in the knowledge that the only offerings on display are erudite, well-written pieces of literature. No more will we have to suffer the chance of being offered an over-priced, under-written piece of gaudily illustrated, verbal diarrhoea masquerading as a book. No more we will have to attempt to improve such excuses for literature by spilling the contents of a coffee cup over them and then, if that fails, administer the coups de grace and place them in the re-cycling bin.

However, until the halcyon day of literary classics returns, we will have to suffer the parading of five volumes of Wayne Rooney’s autobiography, for which he is being paid £5 million, no less.

Who is Wayne Rooney? Take full marks and go straight to the top of the class. You are clearly my type of person. Excuse me if I enlighten you no further than to say that he is a footballer. That is really all you need to know in order to understand the depth of despair I have reached upon hearing of this latest piece of publishing histrionics. Not that it is lonely at these depths; I seem to be accompanied by scores of contemporary writers, many of whom are pulling their hair out, a few are in paroxysms of laughter whilst the reminder walk round in circles muttering to themselves, at the same time as carefully avoiding those rocking back and forwards on the floor. Beneath our feet, the earth is a constant quiver as the like of such great men as Wordsworth, Kipling, Joyce and Milton incessantly turn in their graves.

Surely it has to be a joke? Somebody please tell me that this Labour Government has finally tried to do something serious and moved All Fools Day to March.

£5 million for a five-volume Wayne Rooney autobiography? It isn’t even going to be an autobiography of course. I rather suspect that a ghost-writer will be trying to make sense of a few chats over a beer or two before writing whatever he thinks is appropriate. Someone on sabbatical from the tabloid press would probably be best for the job; after all, confabulation is what is really going to count here, is it not?

One hilarious article on this subject appeared in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. I quote the reporter Neil Tweedle: ‘So look forward to Chapter one, beginning: “My name is Wayne and I like football and chips. And football. And chips. And beans sometimes”.

The same reporter enquires as to the reading habits of Rooney: “Obviously, I’ve read a few of the Harry Potter books”. Oh, that’s reassuring then; perhaps he will have something to say. However, the final word in the report went to Rooney’s wife. When asked (in respect to great literary material) what was on her bedside table, the answer was “The phone”.

No, I am not envious of the £5 million. I know which literary pond I swim in. My dreams are confined to sums with two to three noughts, not six. However, I do lament the perilous state of the publishing world. What hope for the serious writer when such vast sums of money are being thrown after tomorrow’s pulp?

It is all too much. I’m off to caress a few leather bindings in my library in an attempt to soothe my troubled mind.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Threads through Time

The concept of human relationships taking the form of webs which intersect on many different planes of society is something familiar to readers of novelists such as Thomas Hardy (e.g. The Woodlanders) and Anthony Trollope (e.g. The Kellys and the O’Kellys). It is a concept that has long been a fascination to me, even more so since practising medicine within a close rural community.

However, it has only recently come to my attention that there are also linear threads (as opposed to webs) which link individual and seemingly disparate events within one’s own life. Perhaps such an awareness only comes about after a certain age, at a time when a person’s collective experiences have reached a certain ‘mass’ and such interconnections can thus be made.

This realisation first came to me whilst reading Alan Bennett’s book, Untold Stories (see my article entitled The Literary Stalker.) Last weekend, I was re-reading some of Bennett’s diaries. In one particular entry he speaks of the enclosure acts of the 18th and 19th centuries and how the lands of North Yorkshire were affected. Bennett informs us that “In 1890, John Hulton used the land allotted to him from the enclosure of Marske Moor in Swaledale to create a new farm, Cordilleras”. He goes on to say that “Today, the farm…has been swallowed up by the Ministry of Defence’s Training Area”.

It was as I read the name of the farm that long-forgotten memories flooded back. For eleven years, I served as an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. On one particular exercise, my Field Ambulance was stationed within derelict farm buildings somewhere in North Yorkshire. All we knew about the farm was that it used to be known as Cordilleras. That particular location has poignant memories for me, as it was there that I learnt, in the early hours of the morning as I sat in my army Landrover, about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

I had previously met Diana on the occasion of the opening of a maternity hospital in East Yorkshire, where I was the Senior House Officer for Obstetrics. Just recently, I visited Kensington Palace, the former home of Diana (see my Postcard from London (1)).

So, all of a sudden, because of a totally unrelated comment by a diarist, my mind had linked several events during the course of my life – the maternity hospital, my military activities at the time of Diana’s death, Cordilleras Farm and the reading of Alan Bennett’s diaries. In other words, a cerebral thread had developed, linking a series of otherwise isolated events spread over an eighteen year period.

Is it of interest? Well, such musings at least keep me amused and out of harms way!

However, more importantly, is such analytical linking valid or is it a nonsensical process of no material relevance? I do not know the answer to that. Although, I suspect someone with a higher grasp of philosophy may well be able to argue the pros and cons. Indeed, I would be interested to receive any erudite comments.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Story Concept

How is this for an idea for the basis of a story?

Mother accompanies daughter (in her twenties) to the doctor’s surgery. Daughter is complaining of back pain and lower abdominal pain of one day’s duration. Mother comments that daughter needs to loose weight. Daughter says she has been taking contraceptive pill and so cannot be pregnant. Doctor examines her and makes the diagnosis of a full term pregnancy in the early stages of labour. Cue expressions of complete surprise from both mother and daughter.

Mother then telephones daughter’s boy friend. He is, at that moment, in church attending the funeral of the stillborn child of his girlfriend’s sister. He expresses his disbelief in a series of four-lettered words, whereupon he has to hang up as the ‘vicar’ is giving him ‘funny looks’. He agrees to leave the funeral service and will meet his girl friend on the labour ward at the hospital.

Are you still following this? I agree. It would never work as a plot.

But then, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction…

Word of the Week – Nidification

I recently purchased a new dictionary.

Not another Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD), but the New Oxford Dictionary of English (NODE). The reason was that the 1977 copy of the COD, kept at our cottage in Yorkshire, was no longer suitable for my needs. Increasingly, I found myself frustrated by the absence of the words I was seeking the meaning to. Back in Lincolnshire, matters are very different. There, I luxuriate in a set of twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Duplication of such a monumental work for both homes was not, however, a sensible option. At the very least, it was not likely to get through the “nothing to declare” entrance to the cottage (for which, see my earlier article on the Noble Sport of Book Hunting).

At first glance, the NODE seemed to be an excellent compromise. I am pleased to say that it is indeed that. With far more words than the COD, it also purports to provide the ‘most complete and accurate picture of the English language today’.

Its first major test had, therefore, to be a word that the COD failed to deliver on. The word comes, not from an arbitrary opening of the pages of the NODE, but from a hoarding surrounding a building site in the City of London. There, a few hundred yards from the former home of Dr Samuel Johnson (see Postcard from London (2)), work is progressing in the building of new homes. The hoarding, protecting the site from curious passers-by, is adorned with building-related words, along with their definitions.

Nidification is a satisfying word that rolls nicely off the tongue. As a noun, it means ‘nest-building’. Its origins are from the mid 17th century, being derived from the Latin nidificat (‘made into a nest’), which in turn stems from the Latin verb nidificare and nidus, meaning nest.

Thus, the NODE passes its first test, a stroll around the City of London proves to have lasting educational value and, once again, I have the satisfaction of educating this computer’s dictionary.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Postcard from Lancashire (1)

Sunday, 5th March 2006

Being positioned where we are in the Yorkshire Dales, it is very easy to travel to the Lake District or drop down into Lancashire and the Forest of Bowland. Thus, after a leisurely morning of reading the Sunday Telegraph and revising the final draft of a short story for a competition in the BMA News (with the promise of a week’s holiday in Sorrento, Italy for the winner), we drove to Slaidburn for lunch.

The drive there was rewarded by panoramic views of the hills of Lancashire, particularly Pendle Hill, still liberally covered with snow. The landscape in Lancashire is generally softer than that in the Yorkshire Dales, the fields being rolling green swathes, with fewer dry-stone walls and an increasing number of hedgerows. Sheep abound, as they do in most of these northwesterly counties, and at this time of the year, there are an ever-increasing number of lambs.

The village of Slaidburn is known as the capital of Bowland, a title that dates back to when the area was a vast hunting forest. Beyond Slaidburn is the road to Dunsop Bridge and the start of a beautiful drive through the Trough of Bowland. For many people, Slaidburn is not in Lancashire at all, but the West Riding of Yorkshire. Such territorial spats aside, the fact remains that it is a splendid village with a delightful country inn called the Hark to Bounty.

The Inn has a fascinating history. Dating back to the 15th century, it used to be called The Dog. However, at some stage in the late 19th century, when the local squire (who was also the parson and kept a pack of hunting dogs) stopped off after a morning’s hunting, the pack outside kept up a raucous noise. The story goes that the squire’s favourite dog was distinguishable above all the rest, causing the squire to remark ‘Hark to Bounty’. From then on, the pub was renamed. The Inn was also once the home of the Forest Courts and still has the courtroom preserved on the first floor. Family run, it is an establishment that serves a warm welcome, good homemade food and an attractive selection of real ales (including Theakston’s Old Peculiar), making the drive there most satisfying.

The return journey found us stopped in a lane for a short period, whilst a cock pheasant decided whether it preferred the left or right hand hedgerow (or was it playing chicken?). A little further, our patience was rewarded with the rare sight of a weasel as it scurried across the lane.

Overall, a marvellous way to spend a wintry Sunday.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (4)

Saturday, 4th March 2006

The village of Clapham nestles in the foothills of Ingleborough, one of the three great peaks of the Yorkshire Dales. It is a popular tourist destination, offering ample parking within a National Park car park, a picturesque, leafy village scene, one pub and a scattering of tourist shops and clothing outlets for the walker.

A small river divides the village lengthwise. Today our path took us up the eastern side, past rows of stone cottages and the parish church of St James. Largely rebuilt in 1814, the tower of the church is thought to date back to the late Middle Ages.

Ingleborough Hall is nearby. Once the home of the famous botanist, Reginald Farrer, but now an outward-bound education centre, it was through part of the Ingleborough Estate that our walk commenced. There is a 50p charge to use the first part, known as the Ingleborough Estate Nature Trail. This is a small fee to pay for what is a well-maintained path, suitable for all ages and abilities.

Initially, the trail passes through deciduous woodland, soon running alongside an attractive lake. Yesterday had seen a heavy snowfall. Although the thaw had now commenced, many of the trees still carried lines of snow along their horizontal branches as well as having it piled up against the lower trunks where it had been driven by the wind. Indeed, there was the scenic comparison of trees on the trailside of the path having almost lost their covering of snow whilst, across the frozen lake, the woodland was a whiteout of snow and frost. Set against a clear blue sky and midday sunshine, the whole landscape was most pleasing to the eye.

After leaving the lake behind, a narrow wooded valley is joined. The one other attraction en route being a man made folly known as the Grotto: a small limestone cavern with a doorway and two windows, set into the hillside. Today it offers shelter, but little else.

Approximately one mile from the start, the nature trail ends and one passes into a narrow grassy valley, complete with stream. Four hundred yards further on, the entrance to the Ingleborough Cave system is reached. Here, sheltered by the limestone rock and fed by the melt water tricking down from the hills, icicles had formed, some reaching two feet or more in length.

On this occasion, our walk was to go no further and we retraced our steps back to Clapham. However, the path does continue onto the fells and up to the large hole known as Gaping Gill, an enormous pothole, which connects with the cave system at Ingleborough. So vast is the cavern that it is claimed to be able to accommodate York Minster. Beyond Gaping Gill, one can ascend Ingleborough itself, the summit being a distance of four miles from the start of the walk in Clapham.

* * *

One of the gems of the ancient market town of Skipton is the cinema. The Plaza Cinema, next door to Freemasons Hall, has defied all modernisation attempts. Complete with balcony and two-manual organ, it offers a step back into yesteryear; a cinema experience with a difference in this otherwise high-tech world.

Tonight we were there to see the film Casanova, a lively, amusing romp set as a period piece within the backdrop of Venice. With five people behind us on the balcony and another couple below in the stalls, the cinema could almost be called ‘crowded’, as it is not unknown for us to be the only patrons present. Fortunately, the lad who doubles as box office attendant, sweet vendor and, quite possibly, projectionist, no longer appears on the balcony with a tray of ice cream during the interval. When he did so in the past, one felt obliged to make a purchase if only in recognition of his attempt at hospitality. Otherwise, he would patiently stand there, unwanted and ignored, until the end of the interval. Such are the quaint charms of the Dales.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Celebrating World Book Day – The British Way

Introduced by Unesco in 1995, the 23rd April is traditionally World Book Day. That is, if the existence of something for just eleven years can be called a tradition. Putting such quibbles aside, the fact remains; the date being chosen as a symbolic gesture in recognition of the anniversary of Shakespeare and Cervantes.

Except in Britain and Ireland, that is.

Despite being the home of the greatest poet of all times, (okay, I accept I am biased, but I am also in charge of writing this piece, so the comment stands – if you disagree, then feel free to add your comments), Britain and Ireland celebrate World Book Day almost two months early. Today, the 2nd March, is World Book Day in these Isles only.

Putting aside one’s incredulity and trying not to imagine the appearance of the civil servant who decided that we should be so different, let us ensure that we do celebrate World Book Day today. After all, for those dedicated hunters of the bound word, the perverse decision of a bowler hat in London ensures that we get two bites of the cherry – we can celebrate World Book Day today and then again with the rest of the literate world on the 23rd April.

Why have World Book Day anyway? Well, the statistics, for once, reveal some interesting detail:

33% of Britons never buy a book.

26 million people in the United Kingdom have a literary level below that expected of a school leaver.

That said, 160,000 new titles are published every year in the UK. That is an astonishing rate of 3,000 new titles per week. No wonder the British Library has problems with storage.

However, the facts get even better, for we can say, in the UK, that we lead the way when it comes to book publishing. Taking the combined literary output of the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand together, a total of 375,000 new titles are printed per year. That is, the UK 160,000 - the rest of the English World 215,000. Not bad going for a small island with a 46% sub-literacy rate and where 30% are bordering on being bibliophobic.

Of the new titles each year, the breakdown is as follows:

18% are fiction, drama and literary criticism
12% are for children and young adults
9% are science and technology

Last year, the first category rose by 21%, the second by 33% and the last category fell by 9%. So, the thirst is there and computers have got to try harder if the printed, bound word is to be seen off in accordance with the predictions of so many people ten or so years ago.

As for me, I am not too fussy about the dates. I tend to celebrate books every day of the year, so having a special day doesn’t matter too much to me. However, I am one of the converted. Many out there are not. World Book Day is an opportunity to spread the word – literally. Today, you should encourage someone you know to read a book. Recommend one to them, tell them where to buy it, suggest they become a member of the local library, or even buy a book for them. (As for lending a book…don’t ask me to go there, my friend. That is taking World Book Day and our friendship just a little too far for me.)

So, the important dates for your diary:

2nd March 2006 – World Book Day

23rd April 2006 – World Book Day, The Sequel.

Happy celebrating.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Poem - A Journey With Time

It is always a great delight to open the emails and find notification of a success, or at least a partial success. Today, I am pleased to say that a poem submitted by me to a competition run by toowrite poetry has been one of ten shortlisted as "highly commended". The poems can be found at:$9600160120041531&key=afa0200288&back=yes

Postcard from London (2)

Monday, 27th February 2006

‘Let me take you by the hand
And lead you through the streets of London...’

Ralph McTell
Lyrics from Streets of London

The black cab deposited us in the centre of Lincoln’s Inn, the centre of London’s Inns of Court. Once the home of the Knights Templar, lawyers gradually took over the buildings following the demise of the Order. The present buildings go back to the late 15th Century, with the coat of arms over the arch of the Chancery Lane Gatehouse being of Henry VIII. The 17th century poet, John Donne, was a student here, as was Oliver Cromwell.

Our destination on this occasion was the Temple Church, built in 1160 by the Knights Templar. One of the few circular churches surviving in England, it has found new heights of fame since being featured in Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code. Today, however, we were out of luck…it was closed for filming!

Undeterred, we decided to take to the streets of the City and let them lead us to wherever. Ten minutes later, having walked down Fleet Street (imagining the presence of the River Fleet which has been piped to flow under the street) we arrived at the house of Dr Samuel Johnson. Dr Johnson was the 18th century scholar who compiled the first definitive dictionary of the English language (published in 1755). In keeping with the luck of our day, it was closed!

Back to the streets then, down Chancery Lane back to Fleet Street and up towards the Strand. This route took us past the Royal Courts of Justice where, coincidentally, the trial had just started in respect to the possible plagiarism of the book The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail by Dan Brown in his own book The Da Vinci Code. Side stepping the throng of reporters and photographers, we made our way across to the church of St Clement Dane.

The church is now the church of the RAF, following its renovation after the Second World War. It was built in 1680 by Sir Christopher Wren on the site of an older church built by Danish settlers. Dr Johnson attended services here and the crypt, once a place of burial, was where the wife of John Donne was buried. The bells of the church are famous for their ‘Oranges and Lemons’ theme.

Standing outside the church, I had one of those revelatory experiences which occasionally occur when one takes the trouble to walk around London rather than drive. From St Clement Dane, the line of sight allows one to see the spire of St Mary-le-Strand at the Aldwych and, in the distance, the spire of St Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square; a neat line of stations of worship and quietude amidst the frenetic thoroughfares which are Fleet Street and the Strand.

Avoiding the Strand, we walked down to the Victoria Embankment and continued our walk by the side of the Thames back to Westminster. Briefly stopping at Somerset House (with a mental note to return to enjoy its exhibitions at leisure) we continued to the House of Parliament where we were expected for lunch.

* * *
After passing through the security checks, we entered the Palace of Westminster through St Stephen’s Entrance. Following a leisurely look at the old Westminster Hall (1097), where we previously attended a reception celebrating the 900th anniversary of the Order of St John, we sauntered through the lobby between the House of Commons and House of Lords, to descend to the dining rooms alongside the Thames.

Today, we were part of a small party of guests of Edward Leigh MP, Conservative Member for Gainsborough and the Rt. Hon Lord Lamont, whose origins were in Grimsby, Lincolnshire.

A convivial lunch followed, with plentiful wine and conversation in grandiose, wood-panelled and historic surroundings – a splendid way to finish a morning’s stroll.

Lunch over, we adjourned to the Visitor’s Gallery to watch the tail-end of Parliamentary Question Time (today on matters of Defence), then back to St James’s and, ultimately, Lincolnshire.

And so 'adieu' to London until our next ‘quick fix’…

The Power of Love

Looking through my writing archives for the month of March, I came across the following article, initially published in my weekly column for...