Sunday, December 30, 2007

A ‘What if...’ Moment

At around midnight last night, the sky in North Lincolnshire was beautifully clear. It was one of those rare times when the stars stood out in twinkling splendour on a background of deepest black. My own knowledge of the constellations is limited. However, I could clearly identify Aries, Pisces, Ursa Major (the plough) and Ursa Minor. To the east of them all, rather as a governess overseeing a scattering of her charges, floated the moon, now approaching its final quarter (on the 31st December).

Venus is best seen in the mornings at around 7am and was therefore not visible to me last night. Scientists, however, are currently studying the planet Venus, as, despite its toxic state today, it is once thought to have had an atmosphere akin to ours on Earth. Indeed, it is thought that its surface once contained water and may have been capable of supporting life. Now, dense clouds of sulphuric acid form an intense ‘greenhouse effect’ and all water has evaporated. It may therefore offer some suggestions as to how we can combat the warming of our own planet and thus avoid an ultimate total catastrophe.

As my wife and I stood mesmerised by the beautiful scene before us, my mind, fuelled by the above thoughts, wandered off into one of those ‘what if’ moments...

The culture of the ancient Egyptians has long been a matter for admiration and astonishment. They had competencies in the fields of engineering, geometrics, astronomy and medicine (just to name a few subjects) which leave us wondering at how they could have developed such skills and knowledge. Certainly, our knowledge of their pre-history is, by the very statement, minimal. Additionally, much of their understanding has had to be re-learned or re-discovered over successive millennia.

So, what if human life had once existed on Venus (or some such similar planet) and had developed into a very advanced and sophisticated civilisation? Then, that planet was subjected to the forces of global warming to the point where the inhabitants were looking at the destruction of their world. Because of their advanced technology, they were able to leave their planet and travel to another, equally hospitable to their biological needs; a planet we now know as Earth.

Of course, the immediate culture arriving on Earth would have the knowledge it brought with it, but limited technology at its disposal. Perhaps then, it would take a further seven thousand years or so before the subsequent generations were beginning to develop and match their predecessors in knowledge and skills... only then to find that they too were confronted with the need to find solutions to the problem of global warming...

As I stood wondering at the immensity of the night sky last evening, it made me think more than ever before about our relative position within the universe and the fact that it just may hold the key to not only our origins, but also our future.

...or was it just the malt whisky speaking...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thought for the Day

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.
Will Durant, historian (1885-1981)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Poisonwood Bible

I have just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber, 2000; ISBN 0-571-20175-X).

It is the story of an American Baptist missionary, who takes his wife and four daughters into the heart of the Belgian Congo shortly before the Congolese wrest their country back from Belgium and come under the influence of America and great civil unrest.The story charts the progress of the family - from its traumatic deconstruction as an American unit with all the values which go with being such, to the reconstruction of their individual lives over a thirty year period.

Told through the voices of the mother and four daughters, the story, taken at face-value, is a well-constructed and interesting insight to a world of which many of us would have no experience. However, the book is far more than that. It contains a depth of lyrical poetry, which resonates long after the book is closed. Many of its thought-provoking passages find an echo in our own lives, raising valid questions about our beliefs and values, our interpretation of what it is to be alive...and dead, our understanding of history and our concept of 'self'. There are many noteworthy phrases contained within its six hundred pages, but for me, one of the most memorable is:

'Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilisation.'

Time is a valuable commodity. However, time invested in the company of this book is well rewarded.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Words Mean What Words Say

Although the work conducted within the House of Commons can, at times, best be described as rowdy, the members operate under a strict code of conduct. One of the rules is that they do not use rude language or make accusations against each other which might be construed as being insulting.

Winston Churchill had a certain way with words and was not to be beaten by such constraints. On one occasion, confronted with a statement which Churchill deemed to be far from the truth, he referred to the member's 'terminological inexactitude' rather than accuse him of telling a lie!

Such are the rich opportunities offered by the English language.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Haiku from the Galapagos Islands

Marine iguanas
trail home through volcanic ash.
Galapagos dusk.

One century old,
a tortoise views our approach:
footsteps of Darwin.

© Copyright Dr Tusitala 2007

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Drug Running in Ecuador

‘Dr Tusitala?’

Somewhat sleepily, I nodded in acknowledgement.

Up until that point, I had been minding my own business by happily snoozing in a deep armchair in the Executive Lounge of Guayaquil International Airport. The flight to Amsterdam was delayed by one hour, so my wife and I had two hours to sample Ecuadorian Business Class hospitality. In effect, that meant we were allowed as much coffee as we could drink. However, being South America, tea was nowhere to be found; which is purgatory when you are English, dislike coffee and remain very partial to the odd drop of Earl Grey. However, at least the armchairs were comfortable – at least, that is, until the air hostess from KLM interrupted my dreams.

‘I’m sorry to disturb you, but Security would like you to open your luggage. Would you mind coming with me please?’

Reassuring my wife that I would be back soon, I accompanied the hostess out into the main waiting area, through the security desk (ominously surrendering my boarding card in the process) and down various corridors until we reached the tarmac, airside.

‘I wonder what has excited them?’ I commented to my silent escort.

‘It is just routine,’ she replied, in a non-committal sort of way.

The process may be routine for her, but in years of travelling the world, it was knew to me.

‘Perhaps my alarm clock has gone off?’ I offered, as an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. It didn’t work.

Beneath the airport main terminal was an open fronted, spartan and somewhat foreboding, grey concrete, service area. A long trestle table had been erected along one-side, behind which stood three uniformed security officers. Another two guards stood on my side. All five had belts bristling with firearms, long truncheons, cufflinks and a variety of other official-looking paraphernalia. I didn’t need to know whether they spoke English. Their adornments translated as “don’t mess with me” in any language. On the trestle table was a familiar silver coloured, Samsonite suitcase. One of two accompanying us on that trip.

Approaching the table, I nodded to the nearest guard, who remained silently impassive whilst I unlocked the suitcase. As I did so, another guard walked up behind me and requested my passport. Handing it over, I watched as he flipped through the pages, whilst a colleague started to unpack the contents of my case.

His approach was slow and methodical.

Starting with the contents of the lid, he unfolded clothing item by item. A model of a giant tortoise (from the Galapagos Islands – well, I thought it would look good on my desk back at home) was unwrapped from its safe-haven amidst the dirty laundry, visually inspected, sniffed (interesting) and then carefully re-wrapped. A similar procedure was then applied to every other object within the lid of the case until, seemingly satisfied, he turned his attention to the main storage area.

Beginning to feel a little more relaxed about the proceedings, I continued to watch as he was equally meticulous with the second half of the examination. Step by step, my washbag was opened, contents inspected (and sniffed), before being replaced from whence it had come. This was followed by my wife’s make-up bag, the portable hairdryer, a small souvenir bag from the outward flight with KLM, and so on.

It was as the officer was sniffing tubes of suntan lotion, after-sun lotion and insect repellent that I glanced at the final, yet to be inspected, corner of my suitcase, spotted the black Vidal Sassoon case, and suddenly realised that matters were about to get a little more exciting. Why couldn’t they have chosen to inspect my other suitcase? I asked myself.

My brother's comments prior to our departure from the U.K. came back to me:

'There are only two things which come out of Ecuador: drugs and Panama hats.'

He was wrong actually, as they are also major exporters of bananas. However, such erudite knowledge was not going to assist my present quandry.

Scenes from the 1970s film, Midnight Express, wherein a young English chap was imprisoned in a squalid Turkish jail, flashed through my mind. Would I be able to persuade the authorities of my innocence? Would they allow me to pass a message to my wife, or would she be forced to board the plane not knowing of my fate? Would the Ecuadorian jails be any better than those in Turkey?

At this stage, I ought to offer an explanation.

Being a physician, it is my habit to carry a small selection of medicines on most trips abroad, especially when journeying to places where western European standards of medical practice might not be easily accessible. Over the years, the number of medications thought to be of necessity, has expanded with experience. I now carry a supply of paracetamol, two or three different antibiotics (suitable for chest infections, cystitis and the dreaded traveller’s diarrhoea), antacids, eye ointment, antihistamines, Imodium, Dioralyte powders, anti-sickness tablets, hydrocortisone cream, antibiotic cream, suppositories, and so on - you name it, I can treat it. All those various white pills, creams and lotions pack very neatly, without their original boxes, into the black Vidal Sassoon case. However, without their original boxes, I suppose it is not quite so apparent, except perhaps to the trained medical eye, that they are relatively innocuous and not the latest designer drug destined for export from South America to Amsterdam.

Wondering whether my membership card for the Royal College of General Practitioners would be accepted as proof that I was not operating an opium syndicate (and only then realising that the card was in my wallet, safely in the possession of my wife back upstairs in the less intimidating surroundings of the Executive Lounge), I watched the officer fold back the last few items of clothing adjacent to the Vidal Sassoon case. I hardly dared breath whilst I waited for the inevitable.


He waved his hand over the suitcase. For a moment, I was non-plussed.

‘Si,’ he repeated, making a turning movement with his hand. I proffered my keys and he nodded.

Trying hard not to look relieved nor to rush the task in hand, I closed and relocked the suitcase, and then watched as it was loaded back onto a luggage trolley.

‘Follow me back upstairs please,’ said the now smiling KLM hostess.

I didn’t need any further bidding.

Ten minutes later I was reunited with my boarding pass and made my way back to the Executive Lounge.

‘Everything, alright?’ my wife enquired.

‘Yes, no problems,’ I replied. ‘They minutely opened and inspected everything in the suitcase apart from the medical kit.’

Her look of astonishment said it all.

‘You are joking?’

‘No,’ I responded. ‘I couldn’t quite believe it myself. The one bag he would really have got excited about and he ignored it! Strange how some things happen.’

I placed my jacket over the back of the armchair, shrugged and grinned.

‘Do you fancy a cup of coffee?’

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Matter of Perspective

Metropolitan Police figures have recently shown that 'foreigners commit one crime in five in London' (Sunday Telegraph, Sept 23rd). Presumably, the phrasing of such statistics is meant to alarm us into some form of negative response towards the increasing immigrant population. However, presented from the opposite side, we discover that four crimes in five in London must therefore be committed by people whom we would consider our kinsmen by birth.

Surely the latter statistic is far more worrying and worthy of greater contemplation?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On the day Gordon Brown became Prime Minister

The following (using quotes from Gordon Brown) is a poem I wrote:

On the day Gordon Brown became Prime Minister

‘I have heard the need for change.
…now let the work of change begin.’

Footage of journeys along The Mall;
political metamorphosis by Royal Assent.
Traditional photo-shoot at number 10
of this nation’s primary (Scottish) gent.

‘I remember words…which matter a great deal today:
“I will try my utmost”.’

Forgive a somewhat jaded view
from a veteran of decades past.
Successive governments have promised as much;
will your offerings be the ones to last?

‘I will build a government that uses all the talents.’

Are you capable of bringing stability?
Will your changes be climacteric?
Will patients see improvements they seek?
Are your sound-bites empty rhetoric?

(c) Copyright Dr Tusitala 2007

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lord Deedes – In Memoriam

I awoke this morning to the news that Lord Deedes has died.

As I read the headlines, I instantly felt very sad and quite dejected. It is interesting how someone who I have never met can have such an influence over me. However, Lord Deedes, or Bill Deedes as he preferred to be known, was such a person. Indeed, I am sure that I am not the only one he has anonymously influenced over many years.

A charismatic man, he led life to the full, right up to his death at the age of 94 years.It would not be appropriate for me to try and describe the details of his fulfilled existence. Instead, I would refer my reader to the article in Wikipedia:, which makes for most interesting study.

My own experience of Lord Deedes has largely been through the columns of The Daily Telegraph, where he wrote a regular column (as well as being a past editor of the paper). His articles were always of great interest, well-written and thought-provoking, even if one did not always agree with his personal views.

Like many, I was impressed with how he continued to work despite his significant age. Indeed, it was he who first led me to the poet, A. E. Housman and his poem, The Shropshire Lad. I can remember reading an article about Bill Deedes from a few years ago in which he cited a few lines from this poem and stated how he used them as his personal mantra. The particular lines are:

Up, lad: when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.

I confess to have taken those lines to heart and have since used them on many an occasion when I find myself tempted to laze in the mornings.

Bill Deedes will have been an inspiration to many others, probably throughout the English speaking world. No doubt they, like me, will be feeling his loss today.

Well, Lord Deedes, your long and colourful journey is finally over. Thank you for what you offered to so many. You have certainly earned your sleep.

A Thrust too Far

The middle aged man shifted uncomfortably in his seat whilst summoning the courage to say why he had booked the appointment.

‘It’s a little embarrassing, doctor.’

I encouraged him to continue.

‘Well, I have this problem with reaching orgasm. It takes so long to get there -although my wife thinks it’s wonderful.’

‘So, why is it a problem?’ I asked, slightly puzzled. 'I know many men would be pleased to have such powers of control.'

The reply left me speechless.

‘I know, Doc. It's just that two hours is a long time to go without a cigarette.'

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Thought for the Day

There's so much to do and so much to give today...

In my haste I missed
what was destined for me.

Youssou N'Dour, So Many Men, 2002

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Youssou N’Dour

As part of my current studies, I have just discovered the poet, singer and songwriter, Youssou N’Dour.

My introduction to him was by way of a song he wrote in 2002, entitled So Many Men. The reaction the lyrics and music had on me was immediate, leaving me wondering how I have missed knowing about him for so many years!

Youssou N’Dour was born in 1959 in Dakar, Senegal. He describes himself as a ‘modern griot’. A griot or jali (in the Wolof language of the Senegalese) is a West African poet or wandering musician.

N’Dour’s music is a wonderful mixture of traditional Senegalese dance rhythms, saxophone solos, guitar melodies, percussion, lyrics in English, French and Wolof, and Sufi-inspired Muslim religious chant. He draws on influences as wide ranging as samba, jazz, soul and hip-hop. With his versatile tenor voice, the effect is both stunning and inspiring.

(For those, like me, who are not instantly familiar with Sufism, according to Wikipedia it is a mystic tradition within Islam, encompassing a diverse range of beliefs and practices dedicated to divine love and the cultivation of the heart.)

Understandably, the artist is a leading political light in Africa, using his music to address several social and political issues. These have ranged from the release of Nelson Mandela, support for Amnesty International, performing in the Live 8 concerts and staring as the African-British abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano, in the film Amazing Grace, which chronicles the efforts of William Wilberforce to end slavery in the British Empire.

I cannot but recommend this accomplished poet and musician to you. Starting with the song So Many Men would, I think, be as fine a way as any to approach his music. However, he has many albums to go at – many of which are, courtesy of Amazon, already en route to my door.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Russian Affairs

According to the press reports this week, Russia feels that anti-terrorism co-operation with the United Kingdom is now impossible.

Whilst not wishing to appear too cynical, was Russia "co-operating" when it allowed an assassination, utilising a radioactive substance, in a public restaurant in the heart of London?

If so, the Russian President has a strange understanding of the meaning of the term "anti-terrorism".

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Place Name of the Week Award

Whilst driving along the B6318 in Northumberland (en route to visit Housteads Fort on Hadrian's Wall)I was delighted to drive through a hamlet by the delightful name of Twice Brewed.

Imagine my even greater delight when I found that the next hamlet is called Once Brewed!

I have absolutely no idea how they came by their names (apart from the obvious assumption that they have at some stage been connected with brewing). However, if anyone can enlighten me, please do leave a comment.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Thought for the Day

The average adult has 100 billion brain cells.

We lose 85,000 of these every day.

If all our brain cells were laid end-to-end the line would be 200 million miles long (from here to the sun and back).

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Choleric Musings on the day Gordon Brown became Prime Minister

Gordon Brown promises us change. That, I am afraid, is not good enough for an incoming Prime Minister.

In the NHS, we have experienced “change” for the past 30 years. What we need is stability in some areas and improvement in others.

Simply offering “change” is insufficient to maintain morale. Something substantially more than empty rhetoric is required, Mr Brown.

(First Published in The Daily Telegraph, 'Letters to the Editor', 29th June 2007)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Traditional versus Contemporary Poetry

I will stick my head above the parapet and ask the question:

'What is wrong with writing in a traditional form?'

I pose the question for the following reason.

Not so long ago, I had reason to show some of my work to a tutor at the Hull University. His reply was that my style was 'archaic' and I 'ought to read more contemporary poetry'.

I accept this as a valid personal view. However, why is it deemed to be 'wrong' if a modern poet chooses to emulate the style of past masters? Why is it that such devices are now 'only considered in parody'. We do not all choose to shun antique furniture or criticise the craftsman who emulates the same by producing reproduction furniture. On the contrary, the same is often revered and carries a high value. Why then is it considered to be the 'role' of the modern poet to perpetuate contemporary styles and frowned upon when traditional approaches are used?

I ask this, not as a matter of 'sour grapes' but to assist me in understanding the mindset which dictates what is 'right' or 'wrong' with our styles.

If you have a view on this issue, please feel free to comment.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Tale from Lent

Browsing the April edition of the St Aidan's Church Magazine in Hellifield, North Yorkshire, I came across the following anonymous story which caused me some considerable amusement. I couldn't resist the temptation to share it:

A preacher was coming to the end of a temperance sermon. With great expression he proclaimed: 'If I had all the beer in the world, I'd take it and throw it into the river.'

With even greater emphasis he declared: 'And if I had all the wine in the world, I'd take it and throw it into the river.'

Then finally he thundered: 'And if I had all the whisky in the world, I'd take it and throw it into the river.'

He sat down impressively.

The song leader then rose very cautiously and announced: 'For our closing hymn let us sing number 365: "Shall we Gather at the River?" '

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Epitome of Impatience

My wife likes to claim that I am an impatient fellow.

‘Not so,’ I often counterclaim, citing all sorts of ways in which I exhibit vast reserves of tolerance. (Most of these occasions coincide with shopping trips involving women’s clothes shops, where immense forbearance is required if the maximum number of Brownie Points are to be extracted.)

However, I suspect that my defence has today been severely undermined with an own goal.

For some time I have had my mind set upon achieving the academic heights of a Master of Arts. Having carefully explored the concept, in the early hours of this morning I ordered the entire reading list for my chosen subject.

The on-line book seller,, is very efficient and during the course of the morning I received a variety of e-mails informing me that various parcels have been despatched.

The trouble began some two hours later when I casually enquired of my wife as to whether the postman had been today. Her immediate response was to ask what I was expecting to arrive; a question which made even me think that perhaps I was being just a teeny weenie bit impatient on this particular occasion.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines impatience as ‘lacking patience or tolerance; restlessly eager’. I like to think that the latter of the two definitions applies to me. At least, that is to be my defence from now on.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Thought for the Day

'Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.'

Ralph Waldo Emerson
American philosopher and poet
1803 - 1882

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

God is in the Detail

I wonder how many people remember this phrase from the 1970s?

'God is in the Detail' was a kind of catch phrase which became widely known and was disseminated by its appearance as graffiti, car stickers and posters. I have no idea where it started or who first quoted it. Indeed, I had quite forgotten it until the curious coincidence of coming across it twice within twenty-four hours.

The first reappearance was last night in the latest episode of the television drama Life on Mars, a rather bizarre, albeit entertaining, police drama set in the 1970s. The second occasion was earlier this morning in a book I am presently reading in preparation for the writing of a review article for a magazine. The Girls, by Lori Lansens, is a novel based on the life of two conjoined girls in America.

An accident, chance, fluke, happenstance - call it what you will. I take great delight in such happenings and like to take time in order to reflect on the circumstances. Call me eccentric, but sometimes I think there is a message to be learned by such events.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Power of Love

‘I really do not understand how that lady is still alive.’

It was August 1986 and we were sitting in the Sister’s office on the surgical ward of a small district hospital in Kent. I was a newly qualified doctor and this was my first hospital job. I was very proud to carry the title of “House Surgeon” as it represented a major step up from that of “medical student”. However, only two weeks into my six-month post, here I was learning the meaning of humility.

‘She refuses to die whilst her husband is still alive,’ the staff nurse replied.

My first meeting with Mary, as I shall call the lady who was the subject of our conversation, was shortly after my arrival on the ward. I had been called by the nurse to replace Mary’s intravenous line. In retrospect, I hope I managed to hide my feeling of total incredulity at the sight that greeted me.

Mary was an extremely frail lady in her mid sixties. She is the only patient I remember in detail, when I cast my mind back to the six months of working on that ward, as she was there throughout most of that time. Quiet, uncomplaining and undemanding, she held little in the way of conversation apart from requesting the daily report on her husband. Her resilience was impressive.

Mary had been diagnosed, some four months previously, with inoperable cancer of the ovary. An exploratory operation was an “open and shut” case, the surgeon having nothing in his armoury that could halt the relentless growth of the malignancy eating away inside her. Over the ensuing months she had become progressively weaker, being unable to take food and surviving on the occasional sip of tea and the fluids being slowly dripped into her veins. She lay motionless in her bed; a mere skeleton of a human being, her skin appearing to have been wrapped, like cling-film, around every individual curve and contour of her bones. Such was the extent of her

Mary’s husband initially visited her every day. However, in the cruel way that fate often works, he had suddenly suffered a stroke, which left him paralysed and unable to speak. As a result, he had been admitted to another ward within the same hospital. Both being too ill to move, the only contact between them was Mary’s daily enquiry after her husband.

It was 10 o’clock one weekday morning when the telephone call came through to the Ward Sister’s office. Mary’s husband had died in his sleep during the early hours of the morning. I can remember that it was Sister who took on the task of gently breaking this news to Mary, who listened carefully but showed little in the way of emotion. She simply lay there, just as she had for the past six months or so, moving nothing but her wistful-looking eyes.

At 1 p.m. my pager summoned me back to the ward and I was asked to see Mary. A sense of calmness seemed to have descended on her. I knew at once that she, too, had passed away. I stood there, quietly pensive, noting, as the nurses averted their red rimmed eyes, that I was not the only one to be moved by the death of this remarkable lady.

Mary had affected us all. For many month she had survived against all odds, taking strength from the power of her husband’s love and her love for him. Then, within three hours of being informed of his death, she too had simply stopped living.

‘Never underestimate the power of the human spirit,’ said a nurse.

Those words have since come back to me on many occasions. Twenty years ago I marvelled at how the power of love fuelled Mary’s resilience. I still wonder at it and I have become humbler with every reminder.


The Power of Love was first published in an abridged version in the BMS News, Saturday 10th March 2007.

Patient names have been changed to avoid identification.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Thought for the Day

'Nothing but Art is moral:
Life without Industry
is sin...Industry without
Art, brutality.'

John Ruskin

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Ticket to Paradise

With time to spare before the departure of the Hull Executive train from London’s King Cross station, I strolled past the newly refurbished St Pancras Station and entered the hallowed grounds adjacent to it.

Beneath the erudite gaze of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze statue of Isaac Newton who, from his massive plinth of red brick, towers over each newcomer to the piazza as if metaphorically saying, ‘your intellect is but that of an ant compared to my own,’ I paused and considered the action I was about to take.

Steeled by an inner resolve to see the ambition through, I mounted the steps to the entrance of this labyrinthine temple - a silent shrine to the pursuit of complete understanding – and entered its cavernous interior.

Momentarily disorientated, I faltered as if a rabbit caught in the glare of oncoming lights, and scanned the signs for help. Then, seeing the name of the department I sought, walked boldly in its direction with a mounting frisson of excitement.

There were a few more moments of consternation, not least, as I examined the long and demanding list of required personal documents. However, reassured that I had the correct papers upon my person, I submitted my details to the computerised application form and waited to be called.

‘Number 2697.’

I rose and tried to look confident as I approached the steely-eyed interrogator.

‘Your documents, please.’

I handed them across and watched as they were scrutinised, my heart thumping lest they were to be rejected.

‘What is the purpose of your application?’

‘I am a writer and wish to have access for research purposes.’

‘Look into the camera.’

I did, uncertain as to whether to smile. I opted for what I hoped was a look of nonchalance.

‘Sign here, please.’

I did as I was bidden, meekly and without hesitation.

With that, he returned my documents and offered me a small card the size of a credit card.

‘It is valid for three years. Welcome.’

For the first time he smiled and I smiled back. Relaxing, I fingered the valuable green passport, with its red and white lettering, before stowing it safely into my wallet. I had been accepted into their domain without fuss or question.

As I elatedly bounced back down the steps outside the entrance, I could not resist winking towards the inscrutable Sir Isaac. I would have proudly stopped to show him my British Library Reader’s Pass, but I had a train to catch…

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Progress within the NHS

In Ted Hughes, The Life of a Poet by Elaine Feinstein, mention is made of the time when Sylvia Plath was in hospital. The year was 1961 and she had just had her appendix removed. Feinstein writes:

‘…her delight in Ted’s hospital visits and the steak sandwiches he brought to supplement the poor hospital food…’

Forty-six years later, plus ├ža change!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

What a Difference a Vowel Makes!

Recently, my wife and I undertook a walk in Lancashire, commencing from the picturesque village of Bolton-by-Bowland. The walk encompassed several very wet areas of pastureland, which were memorable only in so much as the thick, clogging mud deftly stripped our boots of all layers of waxing. It must be years since we could see the original colour of the leather!

However, the most interesting part of the walk was along a green lane, barely touched by the hundred-plus years which have passed since it was originally fashioned. It was tree-lined for its duration and made for a quite fascinating walk. Everything about it exuded a sense of age. All it required was for a little imagination to bring to life the people, carts and animals which had trodden that same path through the passage of time.

However, it was at the end of the green lane when the guide book started to make the walk really interesting:

‘At the end of the lane, debauch onto the B-road which runs at right angles to the lane.’

How extraordinary, I thought! Turning to my wife, I proceeded to repeat the directions and for the next one hundred yards we amused ourselves thinking about just how we were supposed to debauch onto the road. It has to be said that the fantasies ran wild and with liberated abandonment; but what the heck! After all, we were in the Lancashire countryside and, as Yorkshire people would quickly inform one, there are some strange folks in Lancashire!

Anyway, back at the cottage, I proceeded to muse on the author’s unusual choice of word for his directions and wondered whether there was an alternative meaning to the one I was so quick to assume. Out came the dictionary and with it, a revelation.

True enough, the word debauch is defined as follows:

verb: to corrupt morally; noun: a bout of excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures.

As I thought, there was no alternative meaning. So I picked up the guide book again, the better to consider this bizarre instruction. That was when I realised that the printed word was actually ‘debouch’; i.e. spelt with an ‘o’ and not an ‘a’. Returning to the dictionary, debouch is defined thus:

verb: emerge from a confined space into a wide, open area.

This, of course, within the context of the walk, makes far greater sense; albeit nowhere near as much fun.

Both words are derived from the French, which is a language I have never got on well with. My amusing mistake with the aforementioned words only served to heighten my conviction that it is a language which has the capacity to get me into a great deal of trouble. Perhaps more than I had ever previously imagined.

Best stick to English, methinks.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Inspired by a Snake

Many years ago, whilst living in Kent as a teenager, I would often catch the train up to Charing Cross, London and buy a cheap ‘student ticket’ to whichever concert was currently on in the South Bank concert halls.

As now, there were three to choose from – The Royal Festival Hall, The Queen Elizabeth Centre (containing the Purcell Room) and the Hayward Centre. Outside, the halls are, to my mind, an uninspiring mass of amorphous concrete. However, inside they are world-class concert venues, hosting everything from international orchestras and operas to jazz, popular music and dance.

My teenage mind would be stretched well beyond its boundaries by the magical sounds and sights I beheld there. I have no doubt that the halls played an important part in fashioning the great love for music which has continued with me through life.

The South Bank Halls were also influential for another similar, but slightly different, reason.

On leaving any given concert, one would exit the glittering colour and lights of the halls and step back into the grey world that existed outside. Even the cover of night did little to hide the starkness of the concrete walkways, the grey and foreboding waters of the River Thames and the metal structure and harsh lighting of the railway bridge which stretched across the river, connecting the South Bank with the Charing Cross Station.

It would have been easy to quickly lose the magic of that wonderful music, so eagerly absorbed over the previous few hours. However, salvation was at hand. As one climbed the concrete steps up to the pedestrian bridge alongside the railway line, the mournful but alluring sound of a lone tenor saxophone would, almost without fail, penetrate the gloom of the London night. Instantly, my plummeting soul would be rescued and once again lifted by an unseen melodious hand, this time to soar on the melodies of jazz and blues music. Even now, some thirty years later, I can remember walking across that bridge to the sound of the Pink Panther theme tune or Dave Brubeck’s Take Five.

There can be no doubt that it is because of that, almost invisible, busker, crouched into a corner of the bridge, that I developed the need to learn the saxophone.

Alas, the time for such a venture did not arrive until my fortieth birthday, when my wife decided to put my aspiration to the test and presented me with a tenor saxophone. (An alto saxophone followed two years later). I warmed to the challenge and, with the aid of a masterly tuition book, taught myself the rudiments of playing. Alas, though the spirit is strong, time is pressured. As a result, even though I can knock out a good few tunes, I have not progressed within the past year or so.

That was until last Saturday.

The Sands Venue is a high-class jazz venue in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire (, attracting world-class musicians. One of the greatest pleasures is the opportunity to meet and informally chat to the musicians during the interval, as they will often sit on the edge of the stage, signing CD covers. My wife and I frequently attend there, enjoying the sophisticated environment, high quality food and excellent live music. It is where we were on Saturday night for an evening’s entertainment by the Snake Davis Band.

Snake Davis ( is well-known as one of this country’s leading saxophonists. Many people will have seen him as the resident saxophonist on the Jonathan Ross Show and he has additionally played for bands such as the Eurythmics, Smokey Robinson, Amy Winehouse, Lisa Stansfield and Will Young, to name but a few.

The band is a quartet, comprised of keyboards, drums and bass guitar, along with Snake Davis on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, flute, tin-whistle and shakuhachi (very similar to the Peruvian queena). In short, he is a multi-talented virtuoso.

To say that I was mesmerised would be an understatement. His playing was inspirational and I could once again feel the powerful urge to blow my own horn, so to speak. By the time of the interval, I was a fully-paid member of his fan-club (well, at least in theory) and the proud possessor of three of his CD recordings. However, the best was yet to come. For, on glancing at the back page of the ‘forthcoming attractions’ leaflet, I noted with astonishment that his partner lives in a village only eight miles from me. What is more, Snake Davis is holding a saxophone workshop in the same village in a few months time.

Apparently, he teaches a small group of fifteen for a two hour period, discussing a variety of techniques and allowing an opportunity to try out the same under his watchful eye. All he asks is that you can already ‘knock out a few scales and a couple of tunes’.

Well, it is a fact that, by the time the evening was over, he was only looking for another fourteen students. What an excellent opportunity!

Come Sunday morning, my saxophones were dusted off and the scales were being once again practised. Now, as for the pieces…perhaps The Pink Panther theme and Take Five would be appropriate choices?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Clue is in the Words

Whilst rummaging through a bookshop in Sedbergh in Cumbria a couple of weeks ago, I came across a biography of the former Poet Laureate, the late Ted Hughes. It is entitled Ted Hughes - The Life of a Poet and was written by Elaine Feinstein shortly after the poet's death.

Ted Hughes was married to the American poet, Sylvia Plath.

It was therefore with interest that I noted an article in today's Sunday Telegraph by Mark Sanderson, writing in the Literary Life section of the Seven magazine. Having read his article, I plucked a copy of Sylvia Plath's Selected Poems (edited by Ted Hughes) from my library shelves and studied her poem entitled Edge. It commences:

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

On this day in 1963, one week after that poem was written, Sylvia Plath committed suicide.

How often is it that do we not listen to what people are really saying to us?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Not Quite What the Doctor Ordered

The following was sent to me this morning. Whilst perhaps not quite what the doctor ordered, it is certainly ‘food for thought’:

After an exhaustive review of research literature, here's the final
word on nutrition and health:

1. Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.

2. Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.

3. Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks
than us.

4. Italians drink excessive amounts of red wine and suffer fewer heart
attacks than us.

5. Germans drink beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer
fewer heart attacks than us.

Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you!

Thought for the Day

Man - a being in search of meaning.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Balmy January

The bird of dawning singeth all night long
William Shakespeare
Hamlet (1601) act 1, sc. 1,

On the 7th February 2006, I entered an article on this blog entitled The Dawn Chorus (see link). I was intrigued by the fact that the local bird life had commenced its dawn chorus so early in the year.

Well, this year sees my earlier comments well and truly surpassed. For, as I write,the blackbirds have been in full melodious song for the past hour. Along with the various trees which are now in blossom, if that doesn't represent a sign of global warming, then I am not sure what does.

These may be ominous signs for many scientists. However, on a personal level, I cannot help but greet the unseasonal warmth and the earlier onset of the dawn chorus as bonuses to be enjoyed whilst one may.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Research I Can Warm To

The independent food research organisation, Leatherhead Foods International, has recently conducted a study on behalf of the Countryside Alliance. The results are music to my gastronomic ears.

Apparently, there are more benefits to eating game than previously realised. Meats such as pheasant, partridge, venison and quail are not only low in cholesterol, but additionally have high levels of selenium. Selenium boosts the immune system, may have an anti-oxidant effect (good in helping to prevent cancers) and can elevate mood.

Bearing in mind that a glass or two of red wine per day is also thought to have its benefits, what better way to ward off the winter blues than to partake in a meal of game, washed down by a decent glass of claret?

I haven’t had breakfast yet…but I am already looking forward to dinner…

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Whither the Vocation?

In an increasingly consumerist society, the word vocation does not often appear in the context of everyday conversation.

The word derives from the Latin vocare, ‘to call’. It is defined as ‘a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation, especially one requiring dedication. As such, it has most often been applied to the professions and, most particularly, to the practise of medicine, the Church and other humanitarian pursuits.

Historically, a vocation has been seen as something which gives great satisfaction to the person pursuing it and equally great benefits to those on the receiving end of that person’s efforts. However, the implication has usually been that the rewards received in following a vocation are not so much pecuniary than an inner sense of fulfilment. This, of course, is precisely where the concept clashes with the modern consumerist society.

As a doctor, I am conscious of the changes which have come about over recent years in respect to the way General Medical Practitioners work. No longer do they have to be responsible for the well-being of their patients for twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. The new GP Contract introduced a few years ago enabled GPs to opt out of ‘out of hours’ care, thereby freeing up their evenings and weekends. Of course, this was greeted with delight by the majority of GPs. We had never been properly paid for such work and now we had the opportunity to ‘have a real life’, being free to spend time with family and friends or develop other interests. Neither, of course, were we expected to work throughout the night and then go on to tackle full surgeries the following day in a state of near exhaustion.

However, I am also aware that the above welcomed changes in medical practice have brought with them a downside. Many patients will, of course, lament the passing of the twenty-four hour availability of their ‘own doctor’. However, there are downsides for the doctor as well. It was only when I was recently called on a Sunday morning by a good friend and neighbour who, living on his own, was unable to travel thirty miles to the nearest out-of-hours centre in his present poor state of health that I realised what I was missing. Having visited my friend, I was in the process of collecting some medication for him from an otherwise empty surgery in an otherwise empty market town centre, when it dawned upon me that I was actually enjoying that very process. Stopping to think about this revelation for a few moments, I realised that I missed the relative intimacy of caring for patients within their own homes, at odd times of the day and night, along with the concomitant sense of satisfaction that being able to assist someone in a time of need (for no particular personal gain other than that sense of worth) brings with it.

Summarised in one sentence, I was missing that very aspect of my work which engenders a sense of vocation.

Grayson Perry is a well known transvestite artist who, in 2003, won the Turner Prize for his work. As he was being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg on a recent episode of The South Bank Show, Perry came out with the comment “I define myself by my work.”

How true that statement must be for a great many of us.

I see a sense of vocation in many people around me and not least of all amongst those members who work, either salaried or on a volunteer basis, for the charity, The St John Ambulance. One often wonders what drives the volunteers to give up their free time, often for many hundreds of hours per year, to be available to render first aid at public events. It is the same factor which drives many of the salaried staff to put in many hours of unpaid overtime and to be prepared to give up their Christmas and New Year plans (as they were prepared to do at short notice recently) all with the aim of assisting their fellow man in need.

I believe that vocation is that sense of worth which makes our jobs, our lives and the immediate world in which we live, that extra bit special.

We do not have to be persistently driven by what is increasingly termed the disease of “affluency”. As is written in the Bible (Ephesians ch. 4, v. 1):

‘I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.’

One of my New Year resolutions is to re-focus on my personal sense of vocation. If you are finding your own life lacking that certain intangible factor that health, wealth and love otherwise fails to bring, then I would strongly urge you to do likewise. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Thought for the Day

It is almost one year since I started this blog. During that time some one hundred and forty two pieces have been posted and the site has attracted almost two thousand hits. Now, I accept that, compared to some blogs, two thousand is not a large number. However, I feel that such a number is a happy start. It is also rewarding to see that some readers stay for anywhere between 5 minutes and one hour, reading many pages at one sitting. I only wish more people would add a comment or two; feedback is always helpful and interesting to have, even if it is sometimes controversial.

The most recent problem has been finding the time to write for the blog. I do realise that writers are always making such excuses. However, I can assure you that it is true! I am reminded of a quote, although I am afraid that I cannot attribute it:

I'm just catching up with yesterday; by tomorrow I should be ready for today.

That just about sums up the current situation. However, one of the New Year's resolutions is to re-light the blogging candle. So, thank you for your interest and, in the words of a certain television programme, stay tuned...

Monday, January 01, 2007

Linguistic Leaders

According to an article by Michael Legat in a recent copy of the Writing Magazine (January 2007, Page 17), it is predicted that the English Language will soon contain one million words.

This compares to 100,000 words in the French language.

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions!

Watching with John Henry Newman

I have recently been reading  Newman: The Heart of Holiness  (2019), a book by Roderick Strange about the priest-poet, John Henry Newman. In...