The Day of Shoulda Beens

Sometimes the cancellation of events because of the Covid-19 pandemic has the very slightest of upsides. It would have been so tough to decide what I would have done today, with two events both of which I really wanted to go to.

First: the Haddenham Beer Festival. Over the years this has been taking place, always on the first Saturday in July, it’s become far more than just (just?) an opportunity to enjoy a huge choice of real ales and craft beers. It’s become a real family fun day, with music, bouncy castles and other activities for the children, and a range of street food from fish and chips to burgers to Scotch eggs to South African bunny chow. There’s cider or gin, prosecco or Pymms for them as wants it. But chiefly there are the 130 or so varieties of beer from real ale breweries far and wide.

We’ve been going for several years with as many of the family as have been able to be with us. A growing number as the children have more children of their own; a declining number as some of the children decide it’s too far or too difficult for them to travel in a day, with the numbers or age of their children, and the ‘decisions’ about who’s going to be the designated driver. We don’t have that problem: we can get there and back by bus.

But then there is also the School Reunion. This year it’s 60 years since I started at secondary school, aged 11. It’s not an occasion I go to every year, but 5 years and 10 years ago it seemed important, and today would have been just as important to meet up with my cohort of the 1960 intake. It’s an opportunity to meet old friends and classmates we may hardly have spoken to for years, to wonder “What am I doing here with all these old people?!”, to look at what’s changed and what hasn’t changed in the buildings, to ask “Do you know what happened to so-and-so?” (Increasingly with the sub-text, Is he/she still alive?) And we get to gather in the Great Hall and sing the deeply loved and loathed School Song.

This was filmed in 2015, when I didn’t know anyone was filming. If you look carefully, at about 0:31, you might spot me. It seems there are always some of the younger old boys or girls who mocked the venerable ode instead of respecting its true dignity…

This year, of course, both have been cancelled. I’m not aware of any plans for a virtual beer festival. Even if I could drink my can or bottle of beer while looking at other people drinking theirs, it wouldn’t be the same as a half a pint of Tiffield Thunderbolt or Bad Kitty or Bishop Nick’s 1555. Today the pubs are re-opening after over three months; but I don’t want to be part of whatever unsafe excess I’m afraid may ensue when their doors open.

There is, however, a virtual class reunion of Latymer 1960, being set up by one of the old classmates. I’m planning to ‘be there’, and I may even take a sip from my can of Brew Dog — with a tear in my eye? — while I do so. We’re told there won’t be any singing of the School Song. Shame.

Five years ago I met up with these two lovely ladies, Chris Humphries and Christine Budd, who were actually part of the 1961 intake. (As an August-born I was closer in age to many of that year group than my own.) I worked with both of them at the local library where the three of us had weekday evening and Saturday jobs. As a 17-year old I loved Christine B. from afar. She grew up to be a Maths teacher. Very much like the even lovelier lady I actually married. (What is it about maths teachers?)

Being tested for Covid-19

Ever since the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, we’ve been reporting daily to the Covid Symptom Tracker. There are now nearly 4 million people who have signed up to the app, and it’s been producing enormously valuable data in understanding the virus and the pandemic. For example, they were the first people who were really able to test and confirm that loss of taste and smell were symptoms of the illness. If you are not using the app, please do download it and use it. It only takes a minute a day to report if you’ve been tested for Covid-19, and if you’re feeling well or have any symptoms. If you do report symptoms, there are a few extra questions to answer.

Last week, Alison was feeling unwell with something that felt like migraine attacks, from which she’s never (hardly ever) suffered. So she reported this, and got an email in reply asking her to arrange for herself and all members of her household (that’s me, folks) to be tested for Covid-19. I don’t know if they’ve had any other evidence that migraine-like symptoms might also occur with Covid-19, but this is presumably what they might be wanting to look for.

Our nearest testing site is at Thornhill Park and Ride, where half the large car park has been converted for this purpose. Before you go there there you have to fill in an online form for the NHS, with details of name, date of birth, NHS number, and they send a QR code to your phone which is your passport to the testing area.

A Covid-19 testing site. Somewhere in England.

There are signs everywhere to keep your car windows closed until they say to open them. So you’re stopped at the entrance where a guy reads your QR codes, shouts through your window to ask if you want to administer the test yourself (which will be fairly quick i.e. take quite a while) or have someone else administer it (which will take even longer because they’re very busy and there’s a 15 minute wait. Probably.) We opt to do it ourselves, and are directed to the left to drive round the site to the self-administration area.

Here a guy holds up a piece of paper on which is written ‘Please phone this number 07* ****.’ We dialled the number, so that we can hear the instructions without him having to shout at us. This would be very helpful, except that our particular guy is Polish (?) so we have a few accent difficulties with the instructions. Use alcohol hand gel. Open the rear passenger window — just an inch — so they can post the kits through. Drive on and reverse park on the left. Now open the kits.

The first thing we see is the instruction leaflet: ‘Please read this carefully before using the test kit.’ But we’re not allowed to, because he is going to talk us through the procedure. Place the card and the plastic envelope on your dashboard. Open the envelope with the swab, holding it carefully at the end away from the swab itself. Take two samples: one from the back of the mouth (around the tonsils), one from a nostril. Open the plastic phial of testing liquid and place the swab inside, then break off the end of the stick and screw on the top. Place the phial inside the bag, squeezing out as much air as possible, then squeeze the air out of the envelope and seal it up.

That done, we are to drive on to the collection point where there is another number to phone to speak to the collector guy. Did we have any problems doing the test? Have we done everything we were supposed to do? When we’re ready, open your window — just an inch — and post the envelopes through into the box that is being held up to catch them. And that’s it. Hold on to the card with this QR code and they will email you the results within the next day or so.

In fact we get the emails within 24 hours, it’s in our Inbox when we get up the following morning. We’ve tested negative so we can go back to work (What?!) We never really thought we had it.

But at least we’ve got something different to tell the Tracker app today.

The Inbetweeners and Sex Education

Here’s a reflection I’ve been pursuing about contemporary culture, sexual attitudes, mores, popular entertainment, and humour, inspired by two TV sitcoms. You could frame it as an essay question:

Compare, contrast and evaluate The Inbetweeners, (2008-2010) and Sex Education (2019-present).

See the source image
The Inbetweeners
See the source image
Sex Education

They are apparently similar in being British comedy dramas about teenagers coming of age, and especially exploring their sexual identities, doing their best to look cool to their contemporaries, and to get laid as often as possible.

I quite enjoyed The Inbetweeners when it was first aired. I can’t say the same about viewing it again on Britbox, where it is currently available. Each episode opens with the moral health warning: Contains strong language and adult humour. This isn’t exactly true. The humour is relentlessly adolescent, and I would add, aimed at adolescent males. In the ten years since it first came out, there has been a huge sea change in the way we (or at least, I) react to this brand of humour. Perhaps it has been the effect of revelations about the abuse of women perpetrated by men, the whole #Metoo phenomenon, the language used by Donald Trump and others that sets out to humiliate, degrade and objectify women. I can no longer listen to Will, Simon, Neil and Jay’s conversations with even the wry recollection, “Yes, that’s just what being a spotty adolescent was like, my body raging with lust and hormones.” Now it’s just repulsive and gross.

Sex Education is different. It’s still about teenagers at a sixth form college agonising about sex, identity and the rest. It’s still a jungle in there – why is it that teenagers are often so outrageously cruel to each other? But it’s so much funnier, cleverer, more adult in fact, but without repelling in the same way. You might say, perhaps, that it’s about what the title says it’s about: these young people know more about sex (well, not always – witness among other examples the chlamydia “plague” panic in series 2, episode 1), and it’s also, seriously, about how they learn more. It’s also much more inclusive: girls have sexual desires and experiences as well as the boys. There are lots of strong female characters in the comedy, and they are often shown in a better, more sympathetic light than the boys. Adults have sexual desires and experiences too, and they form an important part of the action. The adults elicit our sympathy but also our disapproval, as they mistreat their pupils or children.

I thoroughly enjoy Sex Education and can watch it again without that disgust that not only The Inbetweeners, but other more vintage ‘comedies’, arouse.

What do others think?

Apocalyptic

Last Edited: Mar 25, 2020 2:01 PM

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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.

What a difference a year makes

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.

Oysters? No way

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.

Riddle & Finns. Champagne and Oysters on Brighton seafront

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.

Decadent poets I have loved

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.)

Swinburne’s grave in Bonchurch Churchyard
By Deeday-UK – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27960003

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.

Health Update

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.

Continue reading “Health Update”

Terwilliger bunts one

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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?