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, Amazon.co.uk, 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.

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...