World Stroke Day

When I was at at school we were regularly encouraged by our excellent English teacher to write creative fiction. “However,” he warned us, “do not write a far-fetched tale that ends with the words ‘and then I woke up’. That is a cop out. Try to come up with a decent ending.”

Today is World Stroke Day 2020, no sorry that needs to be shouted above the coronavirus noise – TODAY IS WORLD STROKE DAY 2020 . You can read the thoughts of the Stroke Association’s director in Scotland about stroke care in Scotland here , so don’t just take my word for what follows.

Anyway, here is my piece of creative fiction dedicated to all English teachers everywhere. As you will see, I have not yet mastered the art of coming up with a decent ending – but then neither has the present Scottish Government.

29 October 2035

The First Minister of Scotland is standing up to address the chamber. There is a hushed silence as all members of the Parliament concentrate on listening to his* words.

*sorry, Nicola Sturgeon, in 2035 it may not be you

“Fellow MSPs, today we mark International Stroke Day 2035. I am delighted to tell you that members of Scotland’s stroke community – clinicians, other health and social care professionals, charity reps, stroke survivors and carers –  are joining us today in the Chamber to help us celebrate this important day.

“We have a lot to celebrate, and I want to remind you briefly of some of the successes of the last few years.

“If you are unfortunate enough to have a stroke today, you can be assured that the technology of mobile scanning means that whichever major hospital you are sent to will already know the details of your condition by the time you arrive.

“Our door to needle times – by which I mean the time from arrival in hospital to the moment you receive thrombolysis or other appropriate treatment – those times are the best in the UK and amongst the best in the world.

“Our hospital clinicians have benefited throughout the 2020s from a huge investment  in training and resources which has not only raised their morale but has also resulted in fewer fatalities and a fantastic service for patients. The greatly increased levels of staffing and staff training for our stroke units have significantly improved the service. Importantly, the investment in a comprehensive thrombectomy service has meant that there has been a very significant reduction in the number of patients whose lives are blighted by disability. This has also resulted in huge savings to the health and social care service. These savings have been re-invested in long-term evidence-based rehabilitation services for stroke patients who require it – especially younger patients. Once again, our rigorous measurement of rehabilitation has shown our service to be among the best in Europe.

“So, I can honestly say we have a comprehensive stroke service – responsive and quick acting at the acute stage, thoroughly supportive at the rehabilitation stage and spearheaded by dynamic forward-looking leadership here in Edinburgh (sporadic applause) – no, not me, colleagues. I mean the dynamic professionals who have led enthusiastically from the front, learned from experience and research across the world, and worked energetically in genuine partnership with stroke charities and a fully committed Scottish Government.

“I know that many of you will remember the coronavirus health crisis of 2020. We realised then that we needed an effective rehabilitation service for Long-Covid sufferers and moved quickly to put it in place. I am pleased to say that we learned from that and have transformed rehabilitation from its Cinderella status to being on an equal footing with other health service provision for people suffering from a range of neurological conditions, including stroke, as well as those recovering from traumatic injuries. Indeed, I was delighted to welcome a delegation from Scandinavia here last week who were visiting our recently opened rehabilitation centre in Inverness, the latest to join centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen housed in now redundant city centre offices. They were particularly impressed by the provision of psychological support, by the way in which stroke survivors and their carers were fully involved in the process of rehabilitation and by the excellence of communication with local hospitals.

“Finally, a word to our stroke researchers. Without you there would be no progress and I know that many of you have benefited from the Scottish Government’s promise to quadruple action research funding, enabling researchers to work alongside patients and stroke professionals in stroke units and rehabilitation centres and not just in our universities.

“I want to say a heartfelt thank you to all who have helped us to achieve these successes.”    (cue thunderous applause)  

Then I woke up.

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Scottish Stroke Improvement Plan 2020

The name of this blog is Man, Dog, Stroke. Recently there has been quite a bit about the man, and quite a bit about the dog. Perhaps it’s time for a bit about stroke.

Last month, later in the year than usual, the Scottish Government published its annual review of stroke care in Scotland. You can read the details here. I am aware that this blog is read well beyond Scotland, but who knows? There may be something in this post that resonates with you wherever you live. In any case, I would like to give you a stroke survivor’s perspective on this report, which is optimistically entitled the Scottish Stroke Improvement Plan 2020. Despite its title, it relates to stroke care statistics for 2019 – i.e. prior to the Covid pandemic.

First the good news. In common with the rest of the UK, Scotland’s stroke care is provided by a host of professionals who strive to do the best they can with the resources, training and guidance at their disposal

However, after almost a decade of these reports we now have a depressing situation where:

  1. there is a continuing post code lottery across Scotland in terms of acute and community stroke care and we are generally lagging behind the rest of the UK.
  2. in terms of stroke bundle performance (i.e. the procedures to be followed for stroke patients immediately upon admission to hospital) no NHS Board in Scotland reaches the stroke standard expected.
  3. thrombolysis door to needle times are variable across Scotland and below rates in the rest of the UK, despite this being an urgent treatment at the onset of stroke.  (Thrombolysis is a procedure to dissolve blood clots in patients with an ischaemic stroke – a clot blocking a vein or artery in the brain).
  4. while the Scottish Government has managed to produce in a matter of weeks a rehabilitation plan for covid-19 survivors, no such national rehabilitation strategy exists for stroke survivors, despite repeated requests for this from charities and professionals over several years. Rehabilitation merits only a passing mention in the audit report, despite being the key to maximum recovery for patients.
  5. there has been no opportunity this year for Health Boards to respond to their statistics within the published audit. This had in the past been an opportunity for readers of the report to get some of the human and resource facts behind the dry data
  6. there is still no measure of what a good stroke unit should look like – unlike the measurement of stroke services in many western countries.
  7. finally, despite its potential to reduce disability for hundreds of Scots each year, progress on developing a national thrombectomy service is proceeding painfully slowly at the planning stage, although thrombectomy has been available for suitable stroke patients elsewhere in the UK for some time. Thrombectomy is a mechanical procedure to remove a blood clot. While it is only suitable for some patients it can significantly reduce the chances of patients having their lives blighted by chronic disability, speech or vision problems and many of the other results of stroke – to say nothing of the savings that it potentially brings to health and social care services.

All of these points are significant, but for me there are important ethical and equality (inequality) questions posed by points 4. and 7. above.

None of these shortcomings is the fault of our stroke professionals who, as I said at the beginning of this post, can only work within the strategies and resources they have.

This blog rarely strays into the zone of politics, which in its on-line form in Scotland can be an extremely unpleasant place. However, it is important to say that stroke professionals, stroke charities and stroke survivors were heartened to see in last year’s Scottish Programme for Government a mention of stroke as a priority. It is a small fraction of the health budget, but £1m was allocated to stroke in that programme, mainly to undertake the first tentative steps towards introducing a national thrombectomy service. One year on and…, well, you have seen my comments above.

Understandably, the pandemic has caused upheaval in our health and social care services, leading to the hasty redeployment of staff and resources, including staff who might have been available to treat stroke patients. There is anecdotal evidence at least of patients being discharged earlier than they might have been from stroke units, and discovering that it is difficult or impossible to continue their rehabilitation in  the community. Some of this is understandable, perhaps, but it it does not bode well for how the annual review of stroke services will read next year.

If you wish to read more about how coronavirus has affected stroke services you can read an excellent report by the Stroke Association here.

The Scottish Government’s programme for next year is heavy on plans for Scottish independence (or breaking up the UK, depending on your viewpoint), but light on stroke care. Of course, we have a nationalist government, independence “transcends” (© N Sturgeon) everything else and next year is an election year.

Anyway, man will now cease his rant, dog will rest quietly at his feet, and stroke? Well, stroke will continue its devastating onward march.

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Julia, dogs and human nature

This is Julia Klöckner. You may never have heard of her, but read on and you will find out.

Julia is the German Minister of Food and Agriculture, a fact you probably already know if you live in Germany. This week – to much derision – she proposed an animal welfare ordinance that pet owners should walk their dogs twice a day. The ordinance would require that dogs be “permitted to exercise outside of a kennel at least twice a day for a total of at least one hour.”  This is allegedly to “ensure that dogs are given sufficient exercise and contact with environmental stimuli.”

I am not sure that Julia has thought this through as carefully as she might. I am sure the principles behind the ordinance are benign – it might, for example, help to reduce the deplorable and cruel industry of puppy farms and it might discourage people from treating dogs as toys. However, the problem with this blanket rule – indeed with many blanket rules imposed centrally – is that there are always important exceptions and there is always human nature to contend with.

Johanna and I met when we were both living and working in Germany, so we occasionally find it useful, entertaining and potentially dementia-postponing to exchange comments in German. This morning, for example, Johanna felt she should introduce our whippet, Archie, to some German and to the new German ordinance by calling loudly to him: “Komm, Archie, wir gehen spazieren!  Dreissig Minuten genau. Neun und zwanzig Minuten geht nicht.” (Come, Archie, we’re going for a walk. Thirty minutes exactly. Twenty-nine minutes is not acceptable.) To this Archie responded with his usual mournful look, comprehended nothing and did not move a muscle. Whereas many dogs at the sound of the word “Walkies!” or the sight of a lead will dash to their owner wagging an enthusiastic tail, Archie never does this. Despite their reputation for speed and agility, whippets are very happy to lie about all day, if allowed to do so. Usually a small biscuit will entice him from his bed, but if it is raining, Archie needs to be forcibly dragged out and will spend most of any rainy walks attempting to pull his owner back to the dry warmth of home. I challenge Julia to cope for thirty minutes with a stubborn rain-soaked whippet in a gale. I am sure there must be a few whippets in Germany; there are certainly rain and gales from time to time.

There are at least three other problems that I can see with this potential “walkies law”.

First, all dogs are different. A half-hour walk twice a day may be fine for some dogs, but for a collie it will barely take the edge off the creature’s desire to be up and doing, chasing about or herding something, while for a chihuahua or a dachshund it may be too much.

Second, how on earth do you police this law? There are far more dogs than police in this country, and I am sure the same is true in Germany. If such a law were introduced here, I have a vision of hundreds of dogs (many of them whippets) digging themselves into their beds in a show of communal resistance, while dozens of large policeman stand helplessly about waving batons, handcuffs and tasers to no effect. As for the dogs’ owners…..

Third, there is an unfortunate side to human nature which some can find hard to resist. Let me illustrate it like this, as it might play out in a fictitious German household if this law were ever to be enacted:

Heinrich: I see Frau Schmidt’s curtains are still drawn.

Lisel: Again. She is so lazy. Why is she not out and about with Rudi, her schnauzer?

Heinrich: It is so long since I saw Rudi that I cannot exactly remember what he looks like.

Lisel: I am sure I can hear him barking in his kennel.

Heinrich: Time to call the police. Rudi has not had his two thirty minute walks a day for at least a week.

…And so on across the country. The unpleasant human habit of dobbing on your neighbour would spread like a virus. We have already seen mild forms of it during lockdown.

I am prepared to bet a bag of dog biscuits that Julia’s law will never see the light of day, or if it does, it will be abandoned quickly. The controversy and laughter surrounding the threat of it should serve as a warning to all politicians everywhere that if you want to regulate human behaviour, it has to be done in a way that carries people with you; and the best way to achieve that is to convince people that what is proposed is sensible, workable and in their best interests. If politicians learn nothing else from this pandemic experience it is just that.

Meanwhile, if you want to regulate dog behaviour, first try to understand your dog.



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A whippet emotes

Today is my 7th birthday. That is 7 long years during which Master and Mistress have benefited from my presence in their lives and during which I have been endlessly patient with their many idiosyncrasies and foibles. Apparently 7 years of a dog’s life is equivalent to 49 human years, so I did not at all appreciate Master’s comment earlier today that my time with him felt like every bit of 49 years because I was showing little sign of graduating from skittish adolescence into some semblance of sensible mature adulthood. I think the fact that we have recently all been around each other too much is making him grumpy.

You would imagine that, this being my birthday, some sort of special ceremony or better still some rather special celebratory biscuit might have been in order. But no. This was a day of routine, routine and more routine. Early morning walk; small slice of carrot grudgingly given; short sleep; small treat from the postman who gives treats (some don’t); short sleep: afternoon walk; small sprinkling of dry food; bonio; chew; and now, I am waiting for Master to throw balls for me. He is good at getting the balls to bounce in the air so that I can grab them mid-flight. I really enjoy that but the throw balls sessions never go on long enough for me. I suppose that’s because Master is getting on a bit now – he is certainly more than 49 human years old. After we’ve done that I will rest a bit until dark. Perhaps it is living with me that is making him look old.

Today has been warm and pleasant – just the weather for a whippet to enjoy his birthday lying on his garden bed. Even Master was seen to smile briefly as he was sitting having his tea and biscuit in the garden, with me at his feet. There is always a slight chance that he might “accidentally” drop a corner of biscuit on the ground, so it is important that I am there  to sweep it up. Unfortunately, Mistress is usually ready to pounce if it looks as though I’m about to do this. She caught me successfully chewing my way through a human biscuit a few evenings back and even now I can still hear her anger ringing in my ears.

So there it is. Another birthday gone. Another day of predictable routine which, despite my protestations, is probably just how I like it.

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Bob Ross, Art and Me

Over the weeks of lockdown, BBC4 has been running a series of programmes called The Joy of Painting featuring the late American artist, Bob Ross. Bob and his art were new to me, though not apparently to many others. If you know the programmes, which were first broadcast in the 1980s and 1990s, you will know that Bob sports an Afro hairstyle and speaks with a gentle American accent, which welcomes you politely to the programme. He has certain soothing catch phrases which are sprinkled throughout each half hour session while he is spreading his oils on the canvas: “so glad you could join me”, “it’s your world- you can paint anything you want”, “happy little clouds”, “happy little trees”, “all sorts of little things can happen here. You decide”. And as each show nears its end he will say something like “the old clock on the wall tells me time’s up – till next time, enjoy your painting, God bless.”

Joy of Painting is a quiet restful programme which, if I had had a hard day at work, I would find to be a great way of winding down, glass in hand, before a meal or other evening activity. His technique of wet on wet oil painting leads the viewer to believe he or she can easily paint along with him. It’s a restful style which allows Bob to turn unpromising blobs of paint effortlessly into successful landscapes (they are nearly always landscapes or seascapes), with a backdrop of “happy little clouds” in a bright summer, autumnal or winter sky according to the seasonal atmosphere he wishes to evoke.

Each programme has a moment of sudden energy when Bob cleans his two inch brush by dipping it into a tub of spirit then thrashing it vigorously against one of the metal legs of his easel to dry it. “Beating the devil out of it”. Just occasionally he slips in a slightly commercial tone: “these are the things you need to do if you want to sell your paintings”, but overall the mood is one of calm reassurance: “I want your painting to make you happy”.

I am not sure of the artistic merits of his paintings (too “chocolate box” for some), but he has a cult following and people have been known to use his programmes as mindfulness sessions, where the calming mood imbued is more important than the artistic techniques demonstrated. Inevitably in the 21st century, there is a Bob Ross website where  various books, dvds and t-shirts featuring the artist can be purchased. There is even a link on the site to Bob Ross parodies on YouTube

I have the greatest admiration for amateur artists who are brave enough to display their efforts in public, whether or not they have followed a Bob Ross instruction manual. There are plenty of these talented people on Deeside and for anyone interested, the annual Art Aboyne exhibition starts in the next few days. This year, for obvious reasons, it is an on-line exhibition only, which you can find by going to @aboyne on Facebook. One of the few advantages of the pandemic is that exhibitions like this can be viewed anywhere in the world without the effort of having to travel to a physical site – though the social side is completely lost.

In the late 1980s I went through a brief phase of tinkering with paints and sketchbooks, but it was not associated with a great deal of joy (or talent). This is what my wife and 6-year old son looked like then, according to my 2B pencil:


I doubt if they were flattered by these sketches – they are certainly not smiling – but then I am no artist. If, on the other hand, you are an amateur artist, then as Bob might have said “I hope painting makes you happy.”

Talking of happiness, my wife and I have just celebrated our sapphire wedding anniversary – that is 45 years of happiness for me, and 45 years of patience and suffering for her. Celebrations were a raucously virtual affair punctuated, not by thrashing a brush, but by a moment of soporific calm, viewing one of the Bob Ross shows we had recorded.

After 45 years, you need calm more than brush thrashing.



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View from the Air

This picture from Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance (SCAA) appeared on Twitter today, inviting people to recognise this Scottish village

I can tell you that among the trees in a house on the left of this picture, I am writing this blog post. In the foreground is the River Dee and in the distance is Aboyne Loch. Yes, it is the village of Aboyne on Deeside. Just the place to spend a holiday if you don’t fancy the hassle of travelling overseas in these difficult times.

While you are admiring the view, you might care to donate to the Scottish Charity Air Ambulance Service. One day your life may depend on it.


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Long Tall Sally was my beacon of hope

cropped-es-pictureToday another part of my history has been chipped away never to return. This bit of history is not a statue of some infamous blackguard, toppled and hurled into a harbour. No, this is a part of my personal story, not formed out of stone, but out of something much less tangible and which some might at first sight find strange, perhaps even slightly weird.

This was the website of clothing retailer Long Tall Sally today:

2020-06-22 (2)

Long Tall Sally is closing; shutting up shop for ever. It is a sad day when any business closes, but why should the closing of this one bother me? After all I am a man and this was a business which sold women’s clothing, specialising in the requirements of the taller woman. Do I have a secret cross-dressing fetish? Is there a dark recess of my mind that quietly harbours the desire to don women’s clothing? Off with the trousers! On with the panties and summer dresses! Am I secretly a sort of stroke survivor’s answer to Grayson Perry?

Before some moral crusader stumbles on this blog and has it banned for affronting public decency, I should clarify all of the foregoing statements.

To do so, I have to take you back to the years when we lived in Orkney (the 1990s). On our infrequent trips south together, my wife and I would indulge ourselves selectively and sparingly in city shopping. In Edinburgh or in Glasgow, Johanna’s must-have choice of shop was Long Tall Sally where she would luxuriate in the racks of decent length trousers, dresses and jackets any of which could easily accommodate her legs, arms and tall elegant body. Certain shoe shops where size 10 ladies’ shoes were available were also an important port of call. The children and I would accompany her on some of these visits, and watch as she joyfully selected items unavailable in Orkney. Along with the other tall ladies striding around the shop, she generally left the premises with a smile on her face, gratitude for thoughtful staff, a collection of carrier bags and, of course, a lighter wallet. Those bags were colourfully printed in large letters with the words LONG TALL SALLY. For many tall women the shops must have been a godsend.

That collection of Long Tall Sally carrier bags followed us around for years as useful repositories for all kinds of goods, from supermarket shopping to sweaty trainers. It was one of those bags that brightened up the many monotonous months I spent in the Woodend stroke unit in Aberdeen. If you have ever endured a long spell in hospital, you will know that visits from friends and family are just as important for your welfare as the professionalism of the staff who are looking after you. In the Woodend stroke unit, such visits were  a life saver for me, breaking up the long empty gaps between therapy sessions.

Every day Johanna would visit, accompanied by Hamish, our whippet, and she would usually be carrying a Long Tall Sally bag containing messages, cards and gifts from friends and family. In fact, those bags became so well-known to some of the nursing staff that I would hear them referring to Johanna herself as “Long Tall Sally”.

2020-06-22 (3)I would be alerted to her approach down the long hospital corridor by the scraping of Hamish’s paws on the flooring as he dragged her towards the ward, and frequently by a nurse calling “Here comes long tall Sally.” There would follow the soft pad of Johanna’s feet and Hamish’s panting and I would know that the day was going to turn interesting, at least for a time. Your horizons get narrowed in hospital, so there was also the anticipation of what that Long Tall Sally bag might contain today – it represented a beacon of hope, a connection with that other world I had not seen for so long. While Hamish lay at full length, panting on the warm floor, Johanna would reveal one by one the contents of the bag.

This, then, is a sad day. It is sad, I am sure for all those who worked for Long Tall Sally There will be challenges for them in finding new employment and there will no doubt be challenges in winding up the business. It is probably of little comfort to them to know that the name of their business still resonates with some of us and made at least one hospital patient happy for a while.



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My bookshelf tells a story

Lockdown seems to have got me thinking of times past.

Older British readers of this blog will remember the days of the traditional prizegiving. These events were, and sometimes still are, a marker of the end of the school year or perhaps the last day of Sunday school before the summer holidays or Christmas. In their 21st century form, they have become known as awards ceremonies (in schools at least) and awards, if they are given at all, are generally given on a much more thoughtful and considered basis than they were fifty or sixty years ago.

In the traditional prizegivings of my youth I was the recipient of a few awards – usually in the form of books. Some of these still feature on my bookshelves today. Lest you think I am being boastful here, or drawing attention to my early flowering genius, I should point out that it was possible to obtain a prize simply for turning up most Sundays, in the case of Sunday school, and most days of the school year in the case of primary school. In retrospect I realise that there was always a hard core of youngsters – probably even the majority – who received no prizes at all at those events. There was also a hard core who received a disproportionately large number of prizes. In some years I was one of the group that received no prize – nul points – and it hurt, but such was the system at the time. Like most other children I accepted this as part of the rhythm of the year, part of life which was commanded and controlled by adults.

For younger children, the books given as prizes were often sub-divided into the categories of “suitable for girls” or “suitable for boys” and distributed accordingly. One Sunday school prize I received and treasured for years was the novel The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne, a Scottish author who travelled the world. You probably know the book well. Written in 1857, it tells the story of three young English sailors – Jack, Ralph and Peterkin – who are stranded on a remote island in the Pacific. As a child, I read and re-read that book as an adventure story, to the point where I could visualise clearly every incident in it – the shipwreck, the flora and fauna of the island, the unexpected arrival of pirates, the capture of Ralph, his encounter with “savages”, and so on until their eventual escape from the island. At one point I could have quoted sections of that book to you verbatim. As a child I read it simply as a tale of derring-do, and in that sense it left a strong impression.

Looking at that book again as an adult, I am surprised – and somewhat depressed  – by the fact that the language used in the novel is at a far more sophisticated level than anything I have seen children of the same age tackling today. That is an aside, however. As an adult,  I can also see that the all-male story reflected strongly the imperial values of the nineteenth century – the desire to spread Christianity and civilise the “savage”; a view of the world that implied British superiority over other races; a very precise moral code where the pirates who led “evil” lives were given their just rewards; and above all the ability of three clean-living young British men to survive more or less happily together on a tropical island and to provide mutual support to one another over a long time, with much of the knowledge and wisdom emanating from Jack, the oldest.

In his 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, William Golding borrowed the tropical castaway scenario to paint a much bleaker picture of how a group of young boys might behave in the same circumstances. To underline the contrast he even borrows the same name for key characters in his novel – Jack, Ralph and Simon, with the otherworldly Simon forcibly reminding us of the biblical Simon Peter (Peterkin). If you have read the book or seen the film you will know that things do not turn out too well for that group of lads.

The two novels were written a century apart. Implied innate goodness and moral certainty in the nineteenth century is replaced by implied innate evil and moral equivocation in the twentieth. In the 2050s will another novelist try his or her hand at constructing a similar castaway fable for the twenty-first century?

With the current spate of statue toppling and guilt about slavery, I leave you to mull over your own thoughts about how that future novel might look. In today’s climate, where a very different kind of moral certainty seems to rule, is The Coral Island in danger of being forcibly removed from my bookshelf? Should I even feel guilt about keeping it there?

As I say, lockdown gets you thinking about the past, but also about our present times and the future.

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The best medicine

Sometimes you just have to laugh – exercise and laughing: the best medicines, as anyone will tell you, whether medically qualified or not. Best of all, these medicines are free, though I acknowledge they can be difficult to obtain for some people with physical or mental challenges.


This image appeared today on social media:

Those of us who tentatively offer our verbal outpourings to the world live in fear of such unintended spell check gaffes. Most of the time it does not matter – in fact the author of that poster probably provided a lot of free happiness medicine to a lot of people. The fact that it appeared on social media, however, always leaves the nagging doubt that it may not be entirely genuine. No matter. Genuine or not, I bet it caused you to smile, even if it was a forced half-smile or even grimace (schoolboy humour, mutter, mutter. Get a grip, Sinclair).

Schoolboy humour of this kind always reminds me of an Irish friend, whose sense of the ridiculous helped me through a year of teaching in a German Berufsbildendeschule (literally, “Calling Building School” – roughly, Further Education college). There is not much humour in the formal side of most education systems, and the German one is no exception. In the world of education, the best humour exists not in dry curricular documents but in those classes where the teacher and students have a decent rapport and can share the occasional or even frequent joke. Sometimes humour comes unintended in the utterances of teachers, students or their parents – but that is for another day.

During the course of that year in Germany, for educational reasons naturally, I felt I should make the acquaintance of some of the fine local grape varieties – from Műller-Thurgau to Scheurebe, Dornfelder to Riesling, I sampled them all. A glass of Meddersheimer Paradiesgarten, for example, was just the thing to wash away the cares of a day spent teaching English to the trainee carpenters, mechanics, builders, bakers, factory and office workers of the college. The German Mark was riding high at the time and even quality wines were cheap when compared to UK prices. I can taste it now, that first cool sip of Paradiesgarten on a warm evening, the day’s labours behind me, the opportunity to socialise and improve my stock of German conversation in good company, the…. but I digress.

Generous and outgoing to a fault, I felt that it was only right to share the pleasures of the local wines with friends and family when I returned home for a couple of weeks at Christmas. This being the 1970s, the mobile phone had yet to be invented, so I walked along one evening to the public telephone near the station. There I called my Irish friend – I shall call him Frank – in a town some 25 miles away and agreed with him that he would obtain a case of selected wines from a vineyard close to him, and that I would collect and pay for the wine the following weekend. Remember, in those days a bottle of wine, and especially good quality German wine, still had a slightly exotic air about it, so would be warmly welcomed back home. Warmly welcomed, and hopefully served chilled.

I drove over to Frank’s flat the next Saturday, with the happy feeling in my heart that much of Christmas was now sorted, but a slightly less happy feeling about the stack of Deutschmarks in my jacket pocket that I was about to hand over to him to make this possible.

Later, as I drove off from Frank’s flat, with the case of wine clinking slightly in the boot of my car, I glanced in the rear mirror. Was that a conspiratorial smile I saw being exchanged on the doorstep between Frank and his flat-mate? Friendship is a wonderful thing but some good friendships are based on banter, as well as trust. A few streets away, I stopped the car, got out and opened up the boot. The wine had been supplied in a wooden case held together with light wire. I prised it open and counted twelve bottles. Fine. Each bottle appeared genuine, full and undamaged. I was imagining things. The unworthy thought that Frank had supplied me with ten bottles instead of twelve or cheap plonk instead of genuine quality wine should be banished from my mind.

And so, a couple of weeks later, I was back in Scotland giving and receiving for Christmas. To those special family and friends, a carefully selected bottle of German wine was given. Friends, cousins, parents – even the man who was to be my future father-in-law received a bottle. I saved a bottle to share with my parents on Christmas day. A special day made more special by the presence of a Meddersheimer Paradiesgarten.

It was some weeks later, back in Germany and well into the new year, before I ran into Frank. He was wearing the broadest and most annoying of smiles.

– How was Christmas?

-Fine, and yours?

-Are you sure everything was OK?


-And the wine, how was that?

-Great, thanks.

That damned smile again.



-What is so funny?

-I think we should have a glass of wine together.

It was over that glass of wine that Frank finally confessed. He and his flat mate had gone together to collect the case of wine from the vineyard and had stored it in a spare room. That evening, the thought of those bottles resting quietly in another room had become too much for them.

They had begun by carrying the case through to their living room. They had stared at it. They had commented to each other how flimsy the wire was that held the case together, how easy it would be to open it up then close it up again. Then, that they owed it to me to check that the bottles were indeed the correct ones. Yes they were. But didn’t they also owe it to me to check the quality? Yes, they would be doing me a favour. So they very, very carefully opened one bottle, preserving the seal and cork intact, poured themselves a couple of glasses then another couple, then much bolder and much merrier they refilled the bottle with cold water, very carefully reinserted the cork, very very carefully replaced the seal and returned the bottle gently to the case. Much giggling, no doubt.

I rewound Christmas. I thought of the faces of those who had received bottles. Unwittingly, I had been playing a kind of viticultural Russian roulette with them. Which friend, which relative had received the dud? Which had raised a glass to his or her lips and said to themselves, “Why is this wine so clear?”  “Is this wine water?”

To this day, I do not know the answer to those questions. I never asked and no-one ever said a word about it to me.

Frank and I are still friends. We smile a lot when we are together. Perhaps fortunately for those around us, these occasions are rare.

To the present, and the world of stroke, which is supposed to be the core topic of this blog. A Facebook friend and stroke survivor illustrated his latest post with this image:

For stroke – and lockdown – survivors, humour and exercise: the best medicines.


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The toosie slide and other delights

The ageing brain is capable of growth and development. How do I know this? This morning, to my wife’s considerable annoyance, I set myself the target of completing the Times mild sudoku in 15 minutes or less. She dislikes any unnecessary stress, pressure and ridiculous targets, but you’ve got to do something to keep your spirits up during lockdown. I almost managed to achieve my aim (and yes, I know, teacher followers, that aims are different from targets). Despite interruptions, I completed the task in 17 minutes. A year ago, with patient coaching from herself, I struggled to complete a sudoku grid at all. Now I have even managed to tackle the occasional fiendish one successfully. So, brain power growth achieved (albeit slowly), alongside smug self-satisfaction.

There is hope here for all stroke survivors. As with sudoku and brain power, so with neurological recovery, stamina and muscle strength. Last November, as I previously posted in the golden pre-covid days, I invested in a small treadmill. Despite the fact that it is located in a cold garage, I have been conscientious in using it through the winter, on days when the weather was too miserable to consider going out with Archie. From a lowish starting base of 5 minutes per session, which left me wobbling with muscle fatigue on the way back into the house, I can now manage 20 minutes at a reasonable pace without draining all energy from my body for the next two hours. This is helped, as I pointed out at the time, by listening simultaneously to the innuendo-drenched adolescent humour in past episodes of I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue and other classic comedy, which helps to take your mind off the repetitive tedium of treadmill use.

My opening statement on this post about ageing brains was further encouraged by learning today that the actor Anthony Hopkins (82) has gone viral – unfortunate term – for his attempts to do something called the “toosie slide”. This “dance” involves movements – left foot up, right foot slide, right foot up, left foot slide – which you can observe on the rapper Drake’s video here. Probably best if you don’t try to understand the lyrics. If you switch off the sound, and simply look at the dance movements, you will be reminded of those foxtrot instructions – slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Or, at least, a version of them. You can apparently find Anthony Hopkins’ performance on a social medium called TikTok.

I feel it is unlikely that I will ever manage the toosie slide. Even pre-stroke, my dance style was described by partners and observers as “interesting”, but you never know. One day residents of our street may hear our garage throbbing to the sound of Drake the rapper’s lyrics, and the distant sound of my feet sliding and lifting across the floor. I fear that if that is ever the case, “slide and lift” will be the last words I hear as I am hoisted into an ambulance by despairing medics.

And still they come

I have received more pangrams from creative writers:

From Bethan Starling, thinking of small children:

A black cloud descends. Ecstatic, Finlay grabs his indigo jumpsuit. Keen little mouth open. Patience quavers. Rain! Splash! The utopian vision. Wild, xenodochial youth zigzagging!

And from Jane Stephen, who may be feeling the pressure of lockdown:

A bored couple driving each other frantic. Geriatric humour is jaded. Knives look menacing. Nattering on. Prattling. “QUIET!” roars Simon to unrestrained voluble wife, Xanthippe. “Yes; ZIP (it).”

Meanwhile, David Ellix feels we should add to the torture of creating pangrams by attempting “margnaps” – i.e. telling the story with the alphabet back to front. As my friend, Alison, pointed out, this would have the benefit of dealing with the “x” early on in the writing process. This is David’s rather good A – Z offering:

“And breathe! Culture demands effort. Find great, high impact, jingles. Kindly love music now, or perhaps quietly retire south.” The uninspired, very weary, xylophonist yawns. “Zzzzz”

A land of quizzers?

It seems that during lockdown we have become a land of quizzers – quiz setters and quiz doers. Long-suffering followers of this blog will remember that some time ago I offered a cryptic quiz based on British trees. I have had a number of local replies, which I’ve responded to individually, but, particular congratulations to Mr and Mrs Davies from Pentredwr in North Wales who have sent in a complete set of correct answers. Well done. I hope lockdown is going well with you.

Now, let’s have another look at that toosie slide….

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