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You have glaucoma in your left eye.

A few months ago I had a routine eye test at our local opticians in Tetbury, part of which was the normal visual field test. I stared into the eyepiece, waiting for the machine to whirr and flash a series of tiny pinpricks of light, to which I would respond by clicking a button whenever they appeared. All-so-normal, until it seemed my left eye wasn’t quite so good at noticing the dots. This was unexpected, and very different from just 12 months earlier, so the optician asked me to repeat the tests. The results were the same.

I can still sense the whirring of the machine as it flashes lights that I ought to be able to see. There’s a rhythm to it that I can recognise. With my right eye there’s a regularity to the button clicks as the lights register in my brain. For my left eye there are gaping silences where clicks should be. I’m staring, squinting, aching to see something that means I can click. I’m tempted to cheat. The test takes longer as the machine gives me more chances, makes the lights brighter, trying to understand what’s there and what’s not there for me. And while I know it’s only minutes it feels much longer. I sense the nurse knows what the silences mean: this isn’t normal.

Visual Field Tests Glaucoma

This isn’t mine… but it’s sort of similar

 

And so last week, after further tests, a precautionary MRI scan and a couple of months of eye drops, I sat with the consultant as he confirmed the inevitable, and talked about my glaucoma.

There are fairly significant differences in the visual field tests in your left eye, notable damage to and thinning of the optic nerve…

…but your IOP (intra-ocular pressure) is normal, much lower than often is the case with glaucoma…

…you’re really quite a lot younger than the typical progression, a bit of an outlier on that graph…

…nothing on the MRI scan, so we can definitely rule out anything like a tumour pressing on the nerve…

…there’s no increase in your pressures since taking the drops, no real progression since the last tests (3 months ago), so that’s pleasing…

…you probably won’t notice anything different, until you do bump into something (joke)…

…playing a wind instrument like an oboe or French Horn can cause spikes in IOP, although I’m loathed to tell someone who loves playing music to stop…

So the long and the short of it is that I’m now taking daily eye drops (painless, no hassle at all), and will have repeated tests every 6 months. And that’s it.

Except…

The following day, at my regular orchestra rehearsal, I was acutely conscious of sensations of ‘pressure’ when playing, especially loud and high notes. We’re playing Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, which has plenty of loud and plenty of high, especially for 1st/3rd horn. In fact there’s mostly a lot of notes that are both loud and high, in rapid succession, in violently percussive chords and fanfares. In exercise terms it’s high impact, like running up and down stairs. I could feel the impact inside my head, around my eyes, behind my eyes, in ways I’ve never actively noticed before. And all the time I was thinking

Should I be doing this? Am I risking my sight?

There were moments when I wanted to play quieter, or stop. There were moments when I didn’t want to play my Horn any more, at all, ever again.

Apparently the mean time for progression from early diagnosis to loss of vision is more than 20 years: for normal tension glaucoma and for younger (under 60) patients it’s even slower than that. So I’m probably being over-sensitive. But if the visual field loss starts in my right eye, I’ll have to tell the DVLA. And then I’ll have to be reassessed for driving.

So.

I’ll take the drops every morning, and play 4th horn instead.

It’s said that if you put a frog
into boiling water
it will try to jump out,
but it will most likely die
almost instantly.

But if you put a frog
into warm water
and gently, gently heat the water
towards boiling point
the frog might not realise the danger
until it’s too late
and it’s unable to escape,
and it will die, slowly, in terrible pain.

 

How did we get here?

Politicians’ principles are defined by media barons
Game of Thrones and House of Cards look under-written
Xenophobia is legitimised
Compassion and empathy are unpatriotic
Being content is seen as smug self-satisfaction
or worse,
as weakness, as a lack of ambition.

The 1% are portrayed as middle-class
We need to reach out to the rich more than ever
The poor are to blame, for the shortage of nurses, for the state of our roads
and even for their own ill-health, under-achievement and poverty,
We’re all in it together.

Unelected elites are the scourge of our nation
(claim billionaire non-domiciled newspaper editors)
We’re told that we’ve had enough of experts
(but I Reckon that’s bollocks)
Foreigners take our jobs, but UK unemployment is at a 10-year low,
so exactly which jobs are they taking?

Empowered and informed by 24-hour news
feels more overwhelmed and misled
Facts are irrelevant if you can repeat a lie without consequences
Don’t even think about apologising.

Everything is my responsibility but I’ve control over nothing
Parents care for their parents
Kids care for their parents
Children’s services are cut and withdrawn
Self-harm becomes just another response to a bad day

Teaching more and testing less was a promise never met
Because one size fits all
we teach to the test,
Good results mean the grades are too generous
Bad results mean our children are failures
They’re falling behind in the competitive international race

Is this our New Normal?
When did the water get so hot?

To bastardise Oscar Wilde, losing one artistic hero is unfortunate, but losing two in the same week is careless. I’m still basking in the warm glow of so much superb music following the death of David Bowie, but now I’m also lamenting the uncannily coincidental passing of Alan Rickman, one of my favourite actors. Both men were 69 years old, both died of cancer. Apparently Stephen Spielberg is 69. I hope he’s not harbouring any secret tumours, I’m not sure I could cope with another icon passing anytime soon.

Alan Rickman is always worth watching: he’s always good, often great. I can’t say he’s good in films that aren’t, because he (a) made really good choices, and (b) he makes a film better by being there. To prove my thesis, let me illustrate

…and that’s the more famous ones. Those alone would be more than enough for most careers, but I will always remember Alan Rickman from his film debut, as the eminently-quotable, always watchable, so-good-you’re-almost-rooting-for-him-so-long-as-Bruce-Willis-gets-his-wife-out-too, European uber-thief Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

Hans Gruber Alan Rickman Die Hard

How good is this character and Rickman’s portrayal? Let me count the ways…

The benefits of a classical education…

Hans Gruber is an intellectual and cultural snob. He berates John McClane as another American who grew up watching too many movies, he (mis)quotes lines about Alexander the Great, recognises great tailoring when he sees it, and gives off a sense of European existential ennui. But always in a good way.

I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative…

Hans isn’t a terrorist (although he’s happy the FBI see him that way). He’s only in it for the money, and enters Nakatomi Plaza like he’s there for a meeting, albeit accompanied by bag-men with automatic weapons. His opening speech to the hostages is delivered while he’s clutching a notebook, like he’s trying to remember the key points in a presentation.

There will not be a four…

But for all his mannered class, he’s not averse to a bit of killing, and getting his hands dirty. And this is key to his villainy. If he were just the cleverest man in the room helped out by burly henchmen with guns, he’d be less formidable. But it’s clear early on that he an immense threat all by himself. He immediately dispatches anyone who is no longer useful (video NOT suitable for children)

You asked for miracles, Theo, I give you the F.B.I.

Hans Gruber is a very funny guy. He has great lines throughout the film.

I read about them in Time magazine.

Nice suit. John Phillips, London. I have two myself. Rumor has it Arafat buys his there.

When they touch down, we’ll blow the roof, they’ll spend a month sifting through rubble, and by the time they figure out what went wrong, we’ll be sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent.

I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.

Hans Gruber is an exceptional character, formed from brilliant writing and a terrific performance.

Alan Rickman was an exceptional talent and (by all accounts) human being. He has left us a huge variety of rich pickings to enjoy. He will be missed. My thoughts and best wishes are with his friends and family.

 

I may be the wrong age to have been a real David Bowie fan. He had his created and killed off Ziggy Stardust before I even understood music, and by the time I was a teenager he was in his Let’s Dance phase, which made him feel to me no different from the rest of the pop charts. Sigh.

Luckily for me I grew out of that feeling, mainly by discovering most of what he did in the 1970s, a decade in which he released 10 albums of original material, a collection of covers and two live recordings. Let’s just say I Reckon he’s about as important as The Beatles or Robert Johnson, that sort of level.

We know Major Tom’s a Junkie…

When Bowie’s first hit Space Oddity was re-released in 1975 this young boy loved the storytelling and the astronaut. He might have missed out on the alienation and tragedy. A few years later he thought he was older and wiser, until he encountered the deranged Pierrot clown walking with some very strange-looking people along a beach, with a bulldozer, in the Ashes to Ashes  video.

David Bowie Ashes to Ashes

Most of the lyrics still made no sense, but

Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know Major Tom’s a junkie

was a hook like no other. The electronic soundscape of the song sounded like it came from the future, and I’m pretty certain my parents didn’t get it. This was the start.

Didn’t know what time it was, the lights were low, I leaned back on my radio…

In the years that followed I learned more about Bowie through late-night radio. Radio Luxembourg on 208AM and John Peel on Radio 1, volume low so as not to alert my mum, cheek pressed against the corner of the radio. Many times I woke up with the radio, now drained of batteries, still pressing into my face.

The intimacy of no distractions helped feed my growing sense of musical snobbery. The arrangements and production in everything Bowie did are amazing. His early work features lush strings and saxophones. The stylophone drone and glissando in Space Oddity makes me smile every time I hear it. The ‘rattlesnake maracas’ in Jean Genie, that Rebel Rebel riff, Robert Fripp’s guitar on Fame and Heroes, it’s almost overwhelming. He wrote great songs but he had a f**king amazing band to deliver the vision. There’s more skill and creativity in one middle-eight section of a Bowie song than in many pop careers.

Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry…?

Not only did Bowie write great songs, he was a bad-ass singer. He could turn himself to almost anything and make it sound perfectly natural. There is no single Bowie sound, but everything he does, from the Philadelphia Soul of Young Americans to the foot-stomping Rebel Rebel  to the pop-tastic Let’s Dance immediately sounds like Bowie.

He has a fabulous rich baritone voice, and a crystalline falsetto. This line from Young Americans is his equivalent of Freddie Mercury at the climax of Somebody to Love: it sends shivers down my spine. But then, so does the high tenor of Heroes, somewhere between ecstasy and anguish. He nails it in any octave you care to mention.

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues…

Noone alive and with access to Radio 1 or Top of the Pops in 1983 could fail to recognise this line, and the iconic video that went with it. I didn’t care for it at the time. WTF is serious moonlight anyway?

david bowie let's dance video

Turn and face the strange…

In recent days I’ve most appreciated the way Bowie reached out to young people in so many of his songs. I was the wrong age to appreciate this at the time, but it’s there in so many songs.

Oh you pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane…

And these children that you spit on as they try to change their world are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware what they’re going through.
Changes – Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
Changes – Where’s your shame? You’ve left us up to our necks in it…

Let the children lose it, let the children use it, let the children boogie.

Turn on with me, and you’re not alone…

And then there’s the fabulous Rock’n’Roll Suicide. The closing track of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, it follows the barnstorming title track, and is at once a searing depiction of alienation and an uplifting message of hope for his fans. I’m pretty certain Pink Floyd’s The Wall used Ziggy as a template.

I reserve the right to change my mind, but I Reckon this is my favourite Bowie song. Or possibly Heroes.

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget
Ohhh, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide

You’re too old to lose it, too young to choose it
And the clock waits so patiently on your song
You walk past a cafe but you don’t eat when you’ve lived too long
Oh, no, no, no, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll suciide

Chev brakes are snarling as you stumble across the road
But the day breaks instead so you hurry home
Don’t let the sun blast your shadow
Don’t let the milk float ride your mind
You’re so natural – religiously unkind

Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone

Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on and be not alone
Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful
Oh gimme your hands.

So this was my Tuesday evening, another gust in the shit-storm that has been 2015.

Hello…

Hi Dad, how are you?

Oh, not so bad.

How was the appointment? What was the news?

Oh, not good news … the cancer is back … in the bowel, causing a partial blockage … and in some lymph nodes … the cause of all my symptoms recently, lethargy, pain, not sleeping … it’s inoperable.

appointment next week to talk about options … another stoma bag … chemo … balancing quality of life against quantity of life … 

Meanwhile, Rachel is in Bridgend, again accompanying her recently-widowed mother to a hospital appointment, on top of which we think she may have had another TIA.

I’m not asking for sympathy, I know there are millions of people going through their own private shitstorms. I have so much to be grateful for, but I just want you to know that if I’m a little off, I’m sorry. If I’m off in a Bad Way, tell me.

We’ve not told the girls yet, we’re waiting for the appointment next week. If you read this and see them, please keep it to yourself. Thankyou.

RIP Bernard Kenny; 3rd April 1931 – 14th September 2015

Beloved husband, Father of 4 daughters, Grandfather of 7, eldest of 10 siblings.

His father was a shipbuilder in Birkenhead, like his father before him, whom we’re pretty certain had worked at Harland & Woolf in Belfast while the Titanic was under construction.

Aged just 8, he was evacuated with his younger sister from Birkenhead at the start of WW2, only for his Roman Catholic mother to retrieve him from rural North Wales when it became clear he was attending a non-Conformist Protestant Chapel every Sunday. That would never do.

Still, it became clear that living so close to the shipyards of Birkenhead was no place for a young family in 1940, so he left with his mother and siblings to stay with his paternal Grandparents in Belfast. They were only able to stay there a short while, before having to take lodgings in a Protestant area. While walking to and from the Catholic school he was often stoned by the local Protestant children.

We soon learned to pick the stones up and throw them back…

It was only a matter of months before Belfast became within range of the Luftwaffe, and having fled Birkenhead they then lived through the Belfast Blitz with no air-raid refuge, only a kitchen table to shelter beneath…

A young man in search of a career...

A young man in search of a career…

He met the love of his life, Sheila, when he was 18, in 1949. He was working for a shipping company which meant he had to travel far and wide. After they were engaged in 1953, he left her behind to travel and work in South America for nearly 2 years. After he returned and they married on 1st October 1956, before they both travelled by ship across the Atlantic and up the Amazon to Peru, where they lived in Iquitos, before returning to Manaus for several years.

He served as British consul in Peru, reporting on rebel troop movements and once taking tea with Fidel Castro. In Manaus at that time there was barely 100m of surfaced road and little or no refrigeration, yet they managed to have two daughters there before returning to England.

He continued to work overseas, as he spoke fluent Portuguese and Spanish, and pretty decent French. He was an interpreter during the 1966 World Cup as the North West hosted both Portugal and Brazil, when he met both Eusebio and Pele. He worked extensively in Africa, escaping from Uganda after having his passport confiscated during ‘troubles’ there in the 1970s.

He had high blood pressure practically all his adult life, and had heart bypass surgery in the 1980s. He was a miracle of modern medicine, but medicine complemented by a tremendous human spirit, joie de vivre and optimistic outlook on life.

BernardandSheila

At Eleanor’s 3rd birthday party in 2008

His doted on his grandchildren, and they on him. Our daughters were his youngest (the older ones are in their mid-20s now), and they have such fond memories that illustrate his character.

He always wanted us to bring him a stick of rock from wherever we went on holiday…

he was brilliant at word games, he came up with words no one else had ever heard of, and he was always right…

he liked tripe!

And I need to thank him for my beloved Rachel, whom I first met in 1991. I always felt welcomed into his home and, coming from a small family myself (my parents are both only children), into the wider family. He introduced her to music, which influenced how we met. He introduced me to Laver Bread, now a staple (if occasional) weekend treat. I appreciated and admired (if not entirely shared) his love of opera singers, and his astonishing collection of 78s.

Bernard Kenny

By the end his heart had finally worn itself out. The smallest task was exhausting, and his decline sapped even his reserves of optimism.

At first glance you might have been mistaken that he was just another octogenarian who had lived a long life, and perhaps he was. But behind every octogenarian is a wealth of experiences that we would all do well to absorb and learn from. I am humbled before the things he endured as a child, awed by the fortitude and young courage that took him across the world in a time when that meant weeks and communications were primitive.

But all those achievements would mean less to him than his family, his almost-60-year marriage, his daughters and grandchildren. His attitude to life, his gentleness and his compassion for his fellow human beings will outlive him through his children and grandchildren. We will all miss him, but we will try to be inspired by his example.

I married my wife in a Catholic Church 17 years ago, where we both promised to raise our children as Catholics, and I’m sticking with that promise. I try to live by a lot of the teaching and messages in the Christian texts, even if I don’t accept the literal story or messenger. Last Sunday I attended Mass for the first time in a while, and listened to a reading from the Letter of St James (2: 14-18)…

How does it help, my brothers, when someone who has never done a single good act claims to have faith? Will that faith bring salvation? If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, “I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty,” without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that? In the same way, faith, if good deeds do not go with it, is quite dead.

Paris is worth a mass…

My thoughts immediately turned to politicians who claim that God inspires their every action. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Hundreds of years ago the Protestant Duke of Bourbon, on becoming King Henri IV of France, found that it would significantly strengthen his position if he were a Catholic: so he converted to secure the support of Spain and the Catholic League.

Especially (but not exclusively) in the US, being a God-faring Christian seems a hygiene factor to be an electable politician. The TV screens are full of mostly rich white men invoking God and Jesus at every opportunity. But their so-called Christian attitude seems largely unrelated to what I remember from the preaching of Jesus Christ: no compassion for women, even those who have been raped, who might want or need an abortion, no “Good Samaritan” attitudes to people living in poverty, ample protection and rewards for the rich at the expense of the vulnerable.

Setting the agenda

This week, the UK press has truly shown itself (as if any further proof were needed) to be ‘holier than thou’ bullies rather than enquirers after the truth. Jeremy Corbyn was elected by a massive majority to be leader of the UK Labour Party, surprising almost everyone with the scale of his democratic triumph, yet it seems that almost noone in the press (even the left-leaning Guardian) likes him, which has led to some shameful ad hominem attacks that don’t even get close to being worthy of the name ‘journalism’.

He’s faced criticism for wearing a jacket that didn’t match his trousers. He was pilloried for appointing a Shadow Cabinet in which no women held the so-called ‘Top 4’ posts, ignoring the fact that more than half of his total team are women. Currently just 1/3 of David Cameron’s Cabinet are women, and the last two Labour Prime Ministers (Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) ended their tenures in Downing Street with barely 1/4 women among their Ministers of State.

Surely it’s not about the bike…

Nothing seems too trivial or too tenuous to slip in a jibe, even if you’re the (sic) respectable broadsheet The Times of London. Mr Corbyn likes to ride a bicycle to get around his Inner London constituency. But because he’s left-of-centre, it’s now apparently acceptable to refer to his “Chairman Mao-style bicycle”… but look! David Cameron rides one that’s quite similar.

Chairman Mao Bicycle Jeremy Corbyn David Cameron

If that’s the Chairman Mao, is Dave riding the Pinochet?

Sing Up!

But that was Tuesday… Wednesday’s front pages were dominated by the scandal, the national shame that at a service to honour the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Mr Corbyn did not sing the National Anthem. I’m prepared to concede that this is a PR mistake and lack of foresight, and even an error of judgement. But is it really more important than the facts that in the last 48 hours the UK Parliament has debated and passed two bills which both seem to target the hard-working people the Tory Party so vocally championed during this year’s General Election?

Don’t blame me…

The latest Trade Union Bill will require unions to give at least 2 weeks’ notice of an intended strike, allow employers to use agency staff to replace striking workers and require picketing strikers to give their name, address and email address to police. The tone of Government presentation of this bill would have an outsider believe that the country is held to ransom by Trade Unions. In fact, the days lost each year to strike action over the last 5 years has averaged around 650,000. This might seem a lot, until you understand  that it is 95% lower than when the country really was held to ransom during the 1970s and early 1980s.

During this same period there’s reams of evidence demonstrating how the top 1% or 10% receive a far higher proportion of incomes. The banks who caused the credit crunch have been bailed out to the tune of billions and austerity measures have frozen pay for public sector workers and ushered in an increasingly new normal of zero-hours contracts. I Reckon we are still being held to ransom, but it sure ain’t the unions that are the problem now.

Work to live…

Just a few months ago The Conservative Manifesto trumpeted that

We offer a good life for those willing to try — because we are the party of working people. The next five years are about turning  the good news in our economy into a good life for you and your family.

Except the new tax credits bill that was debated and passed yesterday will cut supplementary benefits for low income or part-time earners, by as much as £1,000 per year, and could affect 3 million of these precious hard-working families.

When is a refugee more than just a scrounging immigrant? When he sells papers…

Jeremy Corbyn’s suits have made the plight of the Syrian, Libyan and Sudanese refugees suddenly “so last week”. Then the media and politicians were brow-beaten or guilt-tripped by grass-roots groups into taking any kind of action. From scathing indifference or outright hostility, they suddenly discovered a streak of compassionate, all encapsulated in one horrific picture of a dead toddler washed up on a beach. Now they’re wondering why Corbyn wears brown and not a nice midnight blue.

The UK Government and press are alike in behaving like St James’ examples of a man with loudly-proclaimed faith, but no good deeds. They preach about making “right” choices to the people who do not have such luxuries of choice. They judge poorly those who don’t fit their simplistic paradigm, By doing so, I Reckon they demean us all.