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Sticks and stones I can cope with, but the past couple of years has thrown up an almost relentless series of words and sentences that I’d never heard before.

Individually they’re unpleasant.

Cumulatively they’ve been as draining as anything I can remember, and their impact has been much deeper and persistent than any bruise or broken bone.

 

Aggressive T2 tumour in the bladder… radical cystectomy…

We think you should involve the police… “I just want it to stop“… 

Congestive heart failure… passed away peacefully on 14th September

masses in the lymph nodes and pelvis… chemotherapy… inoperable… balancing quality vs quantity of life…

the diagnosis of Dementia is confirmed – Alzheimer’s/Vascular mix… unable to live independently at home… had another fall last night…

Anxiety attacks… learning support… there was an incident… not engaging in class… found crying in the toilets… didn’t turn up…

Significant degradation in the visual fields tests… low-pressure glaucoma… repeat these tests every 6 months… if it affects the other eye you will have to inform the DVLA…

‘Concrete thinking’… sensory overload… problems with language processing… gender dysphoria… meltdowns… 

…confirm the diagnosis of Autism – Asperger’s Type… Cognitive Behavioural Therapy… 

 

I know that everyone goes through this sort of stuff. I know that many, many people have it much worse.

I know I am blessed with loved ones, family and friends.

I know I have much to look forward to, much to be thankful for.

I know that diagnosis is a starting point, an opportunity to shape a new normal.

But right now I’d take a beating to not have heard some of these words, or to not hear them again.

 

Theresa May is the British Prime Minister. She was appointed 6 months ago after becoming leader of the Conservative Party by the votes of just 199 MPs. Barely 6 weeks before that she had unsuccessfully campaigned for her country to Remain in the European Union. In October 2016 she spoke at the Conservative Party Conference and proclaimed

…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

I could launch into dictionary definitions and how her blinkered ‘vision’ is inadequate for the complexity and interdependence of the world in 1917, let alone 2017…

…but instead, here are three reasons why I believe in my heart and soul that she is wrong and why, despite all the Brexit sound and ‘America First’ fury raging against me, I’m proud to think of myself as a citizen of the world and a citizen of my country. Indeed, I can only think of myself in that way.

Eurocamp

For virtually all of my childhood that I can remember, I enjoyed family holidays in France, Germany and Italy, usually staying in Eurocamp tents on sites from Brittany to Tuscany, from The Dordogne to the Black Forest. I learned how to ask for baguettes and croissants, understand different road-signs, convert kilometres to miles. I discovered the joy of Orangina in funny-shaped bottles. Europe wasn’t something to be feared or resented, it was full of people quite a lot like us, with fabulous countryside and terrific summer weather. I’ve tried to pass on these attitudes to my children.

orangina

Put the Zep on…that snowpile is dead.

Between school and university, I went to the US for 6 months on an English-Speaking Union exchange to a High School in Princeton, and this boy from the Cotswolds discovered the world…

I found I could escape my (self-imposed) teenage persona of clever but never ‘cool’, often painfully awkward. On the very first morning, I was invited to skip class by other guys in the Senior Year, and we went out to get ice cream (it was January and about 5 degrees below zero), before one of them drove his car around the icy carpark, spinning and wheeling in all directions, ultimately ploughing into a snowbank. This seemed a long way from Gloucestershire.

I played baritone sax in a jazz band, played alto sax in a student rock band, started to write a screenplay, skied in Colorado. I travelled alone from New York to Seattle and San Francisco and back again. I was refused re-entry to the US at Niagara Falls. I gambled in casinos in Reno. I thought I was Don Johnson on top of the World Trade Centre…

world trade center

I grew up and grew out of myself in America. I couldn’t understand it in this way at the time, but travelling and living in another place made me appreciate my home all the more, while respecting and loving the differences.

Erasmus

At the end of my 2nd year at university, I signed up for an ERASMUS exchange to study in France, without consulting anyone, let alone my parents. A real snap decision, it was also a brilliant and far-reaching decision, as I got to go skiing in the French Alps A LOT, enjoyed a long weekend on the Mediterranean coast, and a week travelling into Italy to Genoa and Florence. I met and studied with multi-lingual French, Italian, Dutch, German students.

Most far-reaching of all, it was in Chambéry that I studied marketing & market research for the first time, and discovered more human, real-world ways to apply my thinking beyond the abstract, macro-economic aspects of my degree course.

Even more so, if I’d not studied in France I wouldn’t have been at university in Exeter for a 4th year, and almost certainly wouldn’t have met Rachel.

Erasmus

Erasmus. A scholar and citizen of the world.

I once gave a pecha kucha presentation about key moments in my life. Two of those focused on the experiences I had in Princeton and my decision to study in Chambéry: they have been that fundamental to my life since, the way I see myself and the way I see the world. I Reckon it’s simplistic to say the least, and actually insulting to suggest that people who think beyond their own country misunderstand the concept of citizenship.

So I encourage, implore you, dear readers, to think broadly about how we depend on each other, how we are stronger for being part of things that transcend nation-states. Be citizens of the world. The world needs us.

In early 1979 Squeeze were climbing the charts with their breakthrough hit “Cool for Cats”. A somewhat ridiculous lyric, it featured cowboys and indians, the Sweeney and failed “posing down the pub”. My 10-year-old mates and I loved it.

A few months later they produced another 190 seconds of pop perfection with the fabulous “Up the Junction”. It felt like this was in the charts for ages, as it too reached 2, kept off the top spot by Tubeway Army’s seminal ‘Are Friends Electric?’.

I love Up the Junction. I Reckon it’s got one of the best introductions of any pop song, tells an amazing story with a beginning, middle and end, goes from Love’s Young Dream to Growing Up to Losing it All in barely 3 minutes, and has a blinding middle 8, and for the geeky among you, the middle 8 is almost exactly to the second in the middle of the song! It’s true some of the rhymes are a bit tenuous, but Chris Difford has said he harboured ambitions of being the David Bowie of Deptford, and not of all Bowie’s lyrics made complete sense…

 

Up the Junction is one of my all-time favourite songs. I love the kitchen-sink storytelling (he started me on Monday, so I had a bath on Sunday), the loss (the devil came and took me from bar to street to bookie) and the ultimate lack of remorse (I’d beg for some forgiveness but begging’s not my business).  And apparently the video was filmed in John Lennon’s kitchen…

 

Can I say I was there at the start? Like seeing Radiohead when they were still On a Friday, I’ve loved Olivia Colman for, like, ages, since she appeared in sketches for The Mitchell and Webb Show (source of this blog’s title). And now she’s only gone and won a Golden Globe. So allow me to remind or introduce you to her fantastic body of work, enormously varied. Like the best in her profession, she makes great choices, and seems to make anything in which she appears better, however small her role.

The Night Manager was a fantastic BBC mini-series based on a John Le Carré novel, with amazing production values, glorious locations and a stellar cast dressed in beautiful things looking almost impossibly beautiful. Angela Burr was the ordinary person; the zealous, determined, heavily pregnant Government operative working almost entirely behind the scenes, focused on making the world a better place by seeking, finding and bringing down the Bad People. Played by Olivia Colman, she was dignity incarnate while all around her was deception, testosterone and greed.

olivia colman angela burr the night manager

(C) The Ink Factory – Photographer: Des Willie

 

And there was Broadchurch, where she played another decent, strong woman. Ellie Miller is a respected police officer in a small seaside resort, passed over for promotion and having to deal with the apparent suicide of her son’s close friend. In seeking the truth she unravels a very dark underbelly to the town she thought she knew, and faces a shattering revelation.

Olivia Colman Ellie Miller Broadchurch Season 1 final episode

 

Last but by no means least, perhaps her breakout film role as Hannah, yet another decent, Christian charity shop worker in Tyrannosaur. In what is basically a three-hander, she more than stands her ground alongside powerhouse performances by Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsan, both terrifying in their own way. It’s a brutal story and Hannah bears the brunt of it. Colman is mesmerising. I’d watch it again and again if only I had the nerve.

Olivia Colman Hannah Tyrannosaur

But before these often dark, definitely layered character roles, she made her name initially in comedy, from sketch shows to award-winning series. Much as I lover her as Sophie in Peep Show and Sally Owen in Twenty Twelve, my favourite performances and characters are contrasting.

Harriet Schulenberg is one of the hospital administrators in the surreal Green Wing. Permanently stressed, late, flustered and seemingly close to breaking point, she’s a small part who steals every scene she’s in.

 

 

In Rev she plays an upstanding vicar’s wife alongside Tom Hollander as her well-meaning husband clinging to his vocation despite the troubles of an impoverished parish in East London. It’s a fabulous series with tremendously human characters and performances, alongside occasional flights of fantasy, like this…

 

And after all that, I just have to mention PC Doris Thatcher from Hot Fuzz, whose unashamed filthy mind and single-entendres spew forth in a fabulous West Country accent…

I quite like a little midnight gobble …

Right now, in the afterglow of 2016, there are a few things I know to be true.

2016 was not the Worst Year Ever

  • To be sure, the ‘important’ celebrity deaths seem on a different level, especially as they now include stars who came to world attention in the broadcast media age. It’s very sad that Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (her Mother) died within hours. But please, it’s only a tragedy for their friends and family. It makes me sad for them, and a bit sad for me as I’ve loved their films, but it’s not life-changing or tragic or unbearable. Really, it’s not.
  • Brexit and Donald Trump have rattled my cage and dented my rose-tinted liberal view of the world, but they’re not massively unsurprising. With a smidgen of hindsight, it’s quite easy to see them as a natural progression of where we’ve been going in recent years, perhaps somewhat extreme, certainly upsetting for me, but actually almost inevitable.
  • Similarly, while stories and images from Syria have been uniformly depressing and the scale of destruction seems more catastrophic, how different are they from Chechnya, South Sudan, Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo and other conflicts of the last 25 years. The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ is  similarly the natural extension of what’s been building for a long time.

I’m done with thinking of The New Year as Something Transformative…

Just because the year changes on the calendar doesn’t mean I can swivel on a sixpence and turn things around. There are things I can control and things I can’t, things that actually affect me and stuff that simply bothers me. I’m trying to stop caring too much about celebrity deaths, or what Donald Trump has proclaimed about Vladimir Putin, or what kind of Brexit we apparently want today.

But I can’t shrug off or simply change my attitude about a whole shitpile of things that affect me directly and are at least partly beyond my control. I can’t pretend to even consider the sort of upbeat “let’s make 2017 AWESOME” posts that are just about everywhere. Because while I am privileged and lucky to be British, white, born to affluent parents (etc), and we had many fine experiences last year, I can’t hide that, overall, 2016 was bloody hard. And the things that made it hard aren’t going away anytime soon.

  • My Dad still has inoperable cancer and has been increasingly breathless, which unsurprisingly is taking its toll on Mum, so they need our support more than ever, emotionally and physically.
  • Christmas 2016 was the last that Rachel and I will celebrate in either of our childhood homes.
  • We’re still helping Hannah through a protracted process to get her the support she needs to make sense of herself, feel less anxious at school, and to give her a shot at achieving her undoubted potential in an education system that seems to be going back generations in its approach to testing and exams.

Believe in Better

I do believe that it will be all right in the end, but I can’t see the end right now. So please, try not to encourage me to make 2017 amazing or exciting. Please don’t tell me to ‘consume less/create more, frown less/smile more’.

If I’m lucky, stay focused and can stick to my intentions, I’m hopeful I can be enriched in 2017 by

  • moving house (while staying local)
  • helping my parents downsize into a smaller home
  • spending more time writing this than getting annoyed on Twitter
  • continuing my cycling evolution; ride more often (commuting), further (100 mile rides), in new places (Wales, Yorkshire, France?), and more with our children
  • (re)watching Mad Men
  • helping our children to thrive, laugh and be everything they can be
  • the love and support of Rachel, Hannah & Eleanor, as well as my family and friends

Wish me luck…

In 2009 I wrote that In Rainbows was the culmination of everything good about Radiohead’s formidable progress over nearly 20 years. I Reckon was right, at the time.

This year’s release of their 9th studio album A Moon Shaped Pool has forced me to reconsider. This is a very, very good Radiohead album, made even better by Jonny Greenwood’s arrangements and the introduction of intimacy. And it’s this honest human emotion that IMHO lifts it above everything else.

Radiohead have made a career from often unsettling music. In 1989 Thom Yorke responded to friends’ criticism that he only wrote miserable songs with a self-consciously titled Happy Song(!). But these songs feel truly from-the-heart, an opening up, brutally honest and raw. There are more mentions of the words love and heart than on their entire back catalogue combined.

 

Burn the witch…

abandon all reason / avoid all eye contact / do not react
shoot the messengers / burn the witch

This is the exception to that rule. From the sudden, strident opening, with strings playing repeated percussive chords con legno (with the wooden back of the bow), through the chilling message so relevant to the Brexit referendum campaign, this had my attention immediately. After the more electronic feel of The King of Limbs, this felt like a powerful statement. Jonny Greenwood’s film scores and orchestral writing were up front and central, and the relentless momentum of the song made me very excited for the album. Oh, and the video…

 

Daydreaming

Around the time of the album release I read that Thom Yorke had split from his life partner of 23 years. This coloured my reading of the whole album, and I Reckon it’s a serious influence on the musical and lyrical content.

Daydreaming is the first song that alludes to the End of Something, a time when something precious has been lost, and the world must move on.

beyond the point of no return… / …it’s too late / the damage is done

 After Burn the Witch it immediately signals a change of tone and mood that flows through and over the rest of the album. Slow descending piano arpeggios are set against a pulsing bass in a 3-against-2 rhythm that seems to cocoon the listener with its almost hypnotic feel. Thom Yorke’s plaintive vocals feel like mourning, while the fabulous video shot by P T Anderson evokes ceaseless searching for something misplaced, but concluding in a wilderness, retreating into foetal hibernation.

Decks Dark seems to use an alien invasion as a proxy for psychological unease.

In your life, there comes a darkness / there’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky / and there’s nowhere to hide…
…it’s the loudest sound you’ve ever heard / in your darkest hour

This feels like the overwhelming threat of depression, the deep guitar and dissonant effects adding to the unease, before it ends in a layer of overlapping sounds and a woeful

          Have you had enough of me?

 

Desert Island Disk seems born of solitude, perhaps not loneliness, but more of acceptance and understanding. It’s lilting and beautiful, but leaves me feeling almost unutterably sad.

The wind rushing round my open heart / an open ravine…
…waking up from shutdown / from 1,000 years of sleep…

Different types of love are possible

 

Ful Stop must be tremendous performed live. A restless, driving track that feels more angry than plaintive.

You really messed up everything
This is a foul tasting medicine / to be trapped in your ful stop…

After a building, almost menacing first couple of minutes, the band bursts into life in a way that reminds me of Arpeggi/Weird Fishes from In Rainbows

          All the good times … / take me back again / won’t you take me back again?

 

Glass Eyes

This is as beautiful a piece of music as I’ve heard in years. Limpid, fluid keyboard figures are distorted like reflections in the ripples of a pool, while aching strings underpin a lyric full of anxiety, fear and resignation: perhaps a farewell message, or a call for help?

Hey it’s me / I just got off the train / a frightening place / faces all concrete grey /
and I’m wondering should I turn around / buy another ticket /
panic is coming on strong / so cold from the inside out

And the path trails off and heads down the mountain / through the dry bush / I don’t know where it leads / I don’t really care

I feel this love turned cold

 

 

Identikit is a great Radiohead song that builds layers of different sounds and moods. Almost indecipherable words at the start break into a chilling

Sweet faced ones with nothing left inside that we all can love
When I see you messing me around I don’t want to know

Broken hearts make it rain

The rolling accompaniment soars into broken jangling chords and a choral refrain that is gradually replaced by terrific guitar work that takes over and builds in a rare solo to an almost ecstatic finish.

 

The Numbers starts like a jazz group warming up. Rolling, random piano lines and rustling percussion undercut with birdsong gives way to an insistent, shuffling rhythm and lyrics that depart from the painful intimacy of the previous 4 songs. This feels like a more prophetic take on global ecology and our place in the world. The string arrangements in the second half are astonishingly effective and turn this initially quiet song into something almost epic.

The numbers don’t decide / the system will survive /
the river running dry / the wings of butterflies /
will take back what is ours one day at a time

 

Present Tense is a great track, reminding me of Jigsaw Falling into Place with shuffling rhythms and acoustic guitar figures over layers of vocalising. It’s both a defiant stance against sadness and a recognition of loss. It has a perfect ending.

This dance is like a weapon of self-defence against the present tense…
…As my world comes crashing down I’m dancing, freaking out, deaf dumb and blind…

It’s no one’s business but mine that all this love has been in vain
In you I’m lost

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief…

With the longest title of any song I can recall, this is a hark back to Hail to The Thief, with white noise distortions and echoing vocals that grow with dark bass piano figures and sliding strings. On one level it feels more shapeless or experimental than other songs in the album, but then when I listen to it it feels almost perfectly formed.

 

True Love Waits is a song that had its origins 20 years ago as a B-side to an early single. It’s my favourite final song to a Radiohead album (no small achievement). A love song, a lament, the references to children (Yorke and Rachel Owen have two, similar ages to mine) make me shiver. The unresolved end to the song, to the whole album is breathtaking. I’m struck dumb for moments after.

true love waits in haunted attics / and true love lives on lollipops and crisps
just don’t leave, don’t leave

I Reckon this is my favourite album of all time. In the few months since its release I’ve listened to it straight through in one sitting more than 40 times, and I never get bored. I can’t remember a time when one album commanded my attention so completely for so long. It’s unsettling, challenging, beautiful, heartbreaking, human, breathtaking, accomplished and (occasionally) uplifting. Uniquely, in my experience of Radiohead over 25 years, it’s moving, touching, intimate.

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.