What else is a retired gentleman in lock-down to do?
What else is a retired gentleman in lock-down to do?
Last Edited: Mar 25, 2020 2:01 PM
It seems strange when I remember it now. When I retired at the end of August 2016, and for some months afterwards, I quite often found myself having anxious, fearful thoughts about different kinds of disasters and apocalypses that might happen.
Some of it, I’m sure, was the stress of something I had never experienced in my life until then: the burden and responsibility of living in a house that we actually owned. Say what you like about living in a tied cottage – such as a vicarage is – but you don’t have to worry much about maintenance. You just pick up the phone to Church House and get the Diocesan Surveyor to send someone round to fix it. It’s also true that the Diocesan Surveyor got a bit fed up with phone calls from Marston Vicarage (which has since been demolished and a new one built.) Starting with the leaky flat roof, and progressing through numerous cracks in the walls caused by alternating heave and subsidence from the huge willow tree about ten metres from the house, rebuilding of said walls, and at the last water leaking from the pipes embedded in the concrete floor… Now I write all that, I wonder how we put up with it for 25 years, unless it was something to do with the wonderful parish and people. But at least it kept us entertained, and was really the only thing we had to complain about in the whole of our wonderful time there.
But when all that was left behind, I would often find myself – chiefly in those sleepy moments of doing the washing up – thinking what it would be like when you turned the taps on and no water came out… or when there was no electricity… or when rats crawled out of the toilets. Like in Raymond Briggs’s terrifying When The Wind Blows. Or when bands of brigands roamed, terrorising neighbourhoods, or tanks rolled along the streets. This was in the months following the Brexit Referendum, with that sense of dread over the divided country we were suddenly living in, and the possibility, that I imagined, of actual civil war or some similar calamity.
Never, in my wildest fantasies, did I imagine an apocalypse in the form of a global pandemic. Clearly I needed a more fertile imagination.
If you were reading my blog about this time last year, you’ll remember that I wrote quite a lot about the health problems I was having. After my RARP (Robot Assisted Radical Prostatectomy) I developed osteomyelitis of the symphysis pubis – a bone infection of the pelvis. This is such an unusual complication of the surgery I’d undergone, that it was some time before it was recognised and diagnosed, by which time I had been in real pain, practically unable to walk, for about five weeks. The treatment prescribed was three months of antibiotics, and about the time of the spring equinox last year, I had been on ciprofloxacin for a week, and not yet seeing noticeable easing of the pain. I noted in my diary that I went out for a walk – aided by my two walking poles – and managed about a couple of hundred metres and back.
It was a grim time, and there was further unpleasantness to come, in the form of acute urinary retention which required a urethrotomy. One of the things that helped me cope with this whole months long ordeal, was telling my story. I told it to anyone and everyone I thought would listen. I told it so often and in such horrifying detail that it probably drove my family and friends to distraction. Fortunately they had the wisdom, the patience, and the grace to listen, because telling your story is a healing thing. Victims of far worse traumas than mine – rape, war, genocide – have all testified how telling their story can help, even if there’s an element of it forcing you to relive the bad time.
For me there are still ongoing maintenance procedures I have to do, chiefly intermittent self-catheterization, which sounds terrifying but proves to be manageable even for someone as squeamish as me. It’s amazing what you can do when there’s no alternative. But as 2020 began, we began to think that this year we could get away for holidays and breaks again, in a way that was impossible in 2019. Nothing as ambitious as overseas travel, because foreign health insurance was likely to be difficult to obtain. Instead, we planned a progress north to see some of the cathedrals and medieval abbeys we we have never visited or would like to revisit. This was to finish with a week’s retreat on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, one of our very favourite places. A thin place, a place where you really feel that you can draw near to God.
And then came Covid-19.
It has turned the world upside down, in a way that seems more extraordinary and frightening than any of the other disasters that have befallen the world in the 70 years I have known. In October 1962, when I was only 13 years old, the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced many people that we were on the brink of a Third World War which would destroy us all. I have hardly any recollection of it – certainly not of being unduly terrified at the time – though I know some of my contemporaries who were more aware of world events shared that great fear. The Vietnam War was terrible, but far away from being an immediate threat to our survival. Likewise the Gulf War(s), 9/11, and all the subsequent Middle East horrors. Suddenly an invisible killer is out there in the world, and all the powers we have been accustomed to look to for help seem powerless against it.
Each day that passes brings news of further restrictions, as the Government struggles to find the least worst way forward in dealing with the crisis. It often has the look of people thrashing about in the coils of a monster that is dragging them inexorably towards destruction. Apparently our Prime Minister was driven by enormous ambition to reach the place he is now. I’ve found myself wondering whether he regrets that now… Or would it be worse if he’s sitting in No. 10 thinking he really is the man for this hour?
We’re hoping to stay well, and if that doesn’t happen, we’re hoping to survive (what a thing to come to!) Perhaps we really are coming to a time when Bishop Ken’s hymn becomes real:
Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
And live this day as if thy last…?
How would my thoughts, words, actions be different, if I considered that every journal entry, every blog post, every phone call, every conversation, might be my last? Not many of us are ready to think like that. Maybe we should cultivate how to be.
We enjoyed a lovely 4-night stay at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. It was partly to celebrate Alison’s 70th birthday, but also to get away from the Middle-of-England for a few days. Is that the same as Middle England? I’m not sure, but Oxford is about the furthest away from the sea that you can get in these islands, and Alison was really wanting to see the Sea again.
The weather was kind of what you expect from the seaside in January. Windy, misty, damp, cold. The wind farm out at sea, which we caught a glimpse of on the day we arrived, was invisible after that until the morning we left to return home – when the weather, it goes without saying, was the best it had been all week. Much of the time you couldn’t see the top of British Airways i360, which was closed for annual maintenance. Sometimes you couldn’t even see the roof of the seafront hotels. At least the city was not overrun with holidaymakers, so it was always possible to find somewhere to eat. We enjoyed some good meals. But not oysters and champagne, which I wasn’t tempted to try, and which I truly believe nothing on earth could ever induce me to try. Even though your 70s are supposed to be a time for trying new things. I draw the line here.
If you were to fancy trying them, I suppose you would go to Riddle & Finns.
This is their seafront place: it looks appealing enough, doesn’t it? But I googled how to eat oysters, and confirmed what I had suspected and feared: that you eat them raw, and alive, and swallow them down whole out of the shell. If you knew the difficulties I have swallowing stuff (e.g. paracetamol, a particularly troublesome thing to be swallowed), and knew that according to my family I even have to chew yoghurt before I can get it down, you would realise that this is a perfect recipe to have me gagging and throwing up the whole of my stomach contents on the well-kept floor of Riddle & Finns.
So forgive me if you should get a glimpse of my bucket list and be dismayed that ‘Enjoy a breakfast of oysters and champagne’ is strangely missing.
Long long ago, when I was a teenage wannabe poet, I took a special fancy to 19th century decadent poets. Two of my favourites were the bad boys shown here: Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Charles Swinburne. It wasn’t so much that I loved their poetry – though it had a certain, well, decadent, appeal – as that I loved the idea of them. Their wild, anarchic lives, rebelling against social norms and accepted bourgeois morality. Myself, I could hardly have been a less rebellious youth, on the outside at least. But inside I was a roiling mass of hating and wishing I could overthrow the established order, as long as I could do it without any risk or danger to myself.
Nowadays I’m rather glad I didn’t become an opium addict, or an alcoholic, or contract syphilis from prostitutes. But then, I didn’t become a poet, either.
And today I’m feeling disillusioned as I think about poor old Swinburne who didn’t die young and had a rather miserable old end. He had some alarming sexual proclivities, it’s true, and once spread a rumour that he had had sex with, and then eaten, a monkey. But it seems he may not really have been as decadent as he pretended to be. Oscar Wilde stated that Swinburne was “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.” (And Oscar Wilde probably should know.)
I used to visit Swinburne’s grave in St Boniface Churchyard, Bonchurch, IoW, and stand there thinking maudlin poetic thoughts for minutes on end. In this respect, he is unique among poets I have admired and wanted, without knowing anything about them, to emulate.
If you’ve been following the saga of my health problems throughout 2019 – and if you haven’t, you can soon catch up by reading my earlier posts from the end of last December onwards… here is the latest instalment.
The last (I hope) remaining complication of all the complications that followed my RARP (Robot Assisted Radical Prostatectomy – keep up, there) was a hernia that developed at one of the entry points for the laparoscopic surgery. My prostate consultant asked his colleague in endocrinology who does hernia repairs to have a look at it, and he decided it was a hernia (duh). I would get an appointment for a repair sooner if I opted to have it done at the Horton General Hospital in Banbury, rather than in Oxford; so that’s what we chose.
He told me the waiting list was about two months, and in this case, that was pretty accurate: they sent me a letter with an appointment with an appointment for Friday September 20. It meant an early start, leaving at 7 a.m. to drive to Banbury in time to check in at 8. I wasn’t too encouraged when the surgeon who was to perform the operation took a look and said “That’s a bit bigger than we usually like to do as a day case…” but he decided to go ahead anyway. There was then a boring wait for most of the morning – even with the fewer surgeries booked for that morning in the smaller hospital, I wasn’t the top of the list – until I went down to theatre just before midday. And the next I knew, I was being rudely awakened in the recovery room by a nurse asking if I was all right.
So, home the same day, and convalescent again. Not allowed to drive, or carry anything heavy (like shopping, a laundry basket, or a vacuum cleaner), and generally with every excuse to take things easy and be molly-coddled.
Now that I’m officially old, I reckon I’m entitled to show my operation scars to all and sundry. Look away now, or click if you want to see this 4 inch beauty.
I find myself looking back through some of the volumes of journals and diaries I have kept over the years. There are many of them, and I’m never sure how wise it is to read them again. During the 1990s especially, I wrote pages and pages of what was really a kind of spiritual journal, as I tried to deal with my depression, and worked (as I thought) at promoting my spiritual growth towards being the kind of Christian and priest I aspired to be. The reading itself is a depressing experience. Can I really have been such a self-obsessed miserable git as the guy in these pages?
But the main reason I was looking back, was to search for a note about when I bought my long-time favourite fountain pen. Most of those journals were written with a fountain pen, though in recent years I’ve been using a ballpoint, rollerball or a disposable like a Uniball Signo or Stabilo Sensor. Even when I’ve used a fountain pen, it was often with an ink cartridge. Now that we live in such a plastic-conscious world, I decided this was too much One of the ways of cutting down plastic use is to get rid of the disposables and write with ‘real ink’. But as I track down my various fountain pens, I find them seized up with old ink, all pretty sick-looking. All now washed and cleaned, they lie on my desk waiting to be put into storage, or perhaps even used.
So: what about that favourite pen? I knew exactly where I bought it: in wonderful Pens Plus on the High. But when? Turns out it was on Tuesday, 30 April, 1996. The more fascinating thing is that my journal records that on the paper I used to try the pen out, I wrote the sentence:
Terwilliger bunts one
I had entirely forgotten this sentence. But at that precise moment it was in my head because I had just read Annie Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood, where she writes this:
So it lived again in Oxford on 30 April, 1996., as my small contribution to the mystery of life. Would anyone see it and wonder? Thinking, What does it mean? Or even recognise the allusion? The world will never know.
All these years, I have never known what it even means. But today I discover to my delight, that bunt is a recognised baseball expression. It means, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: To let the ball rebound from the bat without swinging.
Has anyone proposed, as a remedy for depression, learning a new word every day?