Self-isolation – 2

If there is any advantage to self-isolating on Deeside, it is that there is plenty of beauty around us. Our garden is beginning to come to life, although when we see pictures from other parts of the UK we realise how far behind our trees and shrubs are here. No matter, to brighten your day, here are some photos of the colour in our garden today.

 

 

 

             

 

The pink flowers above are quince. These produce yellow/orange fruit in the autumn which can be made into quince jelly. I wonder how the world will look when this year’s fruit is ripe.

Finally, the answers to the cryptic clues in my last post

10 Across: Useful note that is received by religious community (10)

Convenient (Convent + i.e.)

15 Across: Candid work in French (4)

Open (op. + en)

You now have an insight into my wife’s mind. She finds this stuff easy.

Stay well

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Self-isolation

What to do?

I suppose the last time I chose to self-isolate (healthy, young, foolish) was back in the 1970s when a combination of endless rainy season storms, an unreliable little motor cycle and flood-damaged, horribly dangerous forest tracks kept me confined alone in my modest little house on the remote campus of St Paul’s College, Bonjongo, Cameroon for all of three days. All students and most staff had left for the long rainy season vacation. On that occasion I spent those days listening to the endless tropical rain beating on my tin roof, before I finally gave in, risked the floods and set off on my little motor cycle to a nearby town, just to see if the outside world continued to exist.

To deepen the gloom, I spent those three days reading Crime and Punishment to a background of thunder, lightning and cascading water, punctuated by the constant trilling of insects and the distant shrieks of forest birds and animals. It was oppressively hot and humid. From time to time, I would cook myself some rice and vegetables, drink tea or beer and take in the view through my one door which was always open and led directly outside on to a track flowing with mud and water. It was only three days but to me it seemed endless and the doings of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov only served to make it even more depressing and other-worldly.

So, what to do this time?

Older, less healthy, certainly more patient, marginally wiser (perhaps), I am self-isolating on Deeside (we live here), in a considerably more comfortable, but still modest home, accompanied by my wife and dog. We – all of us – have already agreed that we will be forgiving if we become narky, angry or upset with one another during our period of confinement. Archie, our whippet, doesn’t realise this yet, of course, but he will, he will.

Archie, in fact, is our link to sanity and the old life because he requires regular walks and is driven by routine, as I have mentioned before. We walk with him to stay sane, though I sometimes opt for the chill of the little treadmill in our garage. We were considerably cheered up by the arrival of our third grandchild in distant Nottinghamshire earlier this month. We have already viewed his cherubic face and spoken to his joyful parents via the wonders of skype. When we will meet them all in the flesh is one of today’s many unanswered questions.

We are fortunate in that the village shops are friendly and helpful. The paper shop, for example, is offering to deliver essential items to local people if need be. The front-line staff in the local supermarket have had to deal with a steady influx of people from Aberdeen who are seeking life’s necessities because, ironically, they think they are more likely to be available here in the sticks. I take my hat off to the staff for their patience. Also, it is spring – a chilly one, but surely a season of hope, despite the daily onslaught of disturbing health news.

Regular walks apart, we are confined to home, where there is now a daily routine of sudoku and crossword completion over morning coffee. During that process I frequently swear, while my much more patient and composed wife quietly gets on with it. To my mind she is a cryptic genius whom I would never like to try to deceive. She works out the answer to arcane clues that are beyond me. Here are two of today’s examples which defeated simple me:

10 Across: Useful note that is received by religious community (10)

15 Across: Candid work in French (4)

In my next post I will give you the answers, but if you are self-isolating and have time to work them out please send me your answers via the contact details or comment section on this blog. There are no prizes, but contact from followers of this blog and details of where you think we can obtain toilet paper would be appreciated – along with any tips for keeping happy a restless, routine-driven whippet.

Stay well!

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Are the Thought Police on their way?

I was fortunate when at school to have an inspirational English teacher who tried to get us all thinking. At least, he was inspirational to me – I know that some of my contemporaries did not find him so, but then that is the reality of life in the classroom for both students and teachers. As for whether his attempts to get me thinking worked, I’ve never been too sure of that, though he certainly opened my mind to the world of literature..

Because of his teaching, I read at that time everything I could by George Orwell, starting with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four and carrying on from there to read all of Orwell’s fiction and essays. As a young reader new to serious writing, I remember being struck by two things: firstly, the clarity of his prose and secondly, Orwell’s oft repeated message that language is a key part of our freedom in a civilised society to say what we think, and that any reduction in the subtlety and nuance of language leads to a concomitant reduction in our ability to express subtle and nuanced thoughts.

I suppose the prime example of this is Orwell’s creation of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four which illustrates how a ruthless state could, in the nightmare world of that novel, reduce the English language to prearranged, staccato-like strips of words, and hence, in the long-term, remove the ability of its citizens to think certain thoughts, or at least to allow them to think only the “correct” ones.

A Newspeak word and an image that has always stuck in my mind from that novel is “duckspeak”, which referred to the utterance by those in power of unthinking strips of words. It is worth quoting Orwell’s own words from the novel:

Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought. Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning “to quack like a duck”. Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when the Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.

Without labouring the point, I am sure you can immediately see parallels in the year 2020 – politicians and opinionated tweeters on the word-limiting platform of Twitter, or political speeches by some of our leaders (not all, fortunately). Then again, as I wrote in this blog last year, there is the general tone of debate on-line and in such settings as First Minister’s Questions in Scotland or in Prime Minister’s questions at Westminster, where thoughtless clapping seals (Scotland) and mindless supportive or angry braying (Westminster) are standard responses to the contemporary linguistic equivalent of duckspeak from our leaders. Surely the same principle applies to aspects of so-called political correctness, as well as the dog-whistle politics of some of the Brexit debate, or some of the “respectful debate” we endured here during the Scottish independence campaign of 2014. Even as I write this, are the thought police (thinkpol) heading my way to weed out such mutinous statements from this blog?

Am I being too negative? Too humourless?

Maybe, but perhaps we need to be vigilant about such things. Some of these thoughts were prompted by discovering recently that an organisation has been established called the Free Speech Union. It is worth following the link to their website to listen to what its founder, Toby Young, has to say. You may find yourself agreeing with him or not about the need for such an organisation. In a sign of our times, Toby Young himself has immediately been described as a “right-wing snowflake” by one publication – a fact which may indicate that free speech is alive and well, after all.

For myself, I am always concerned that organisations which broadcast their principles so loudly in their title, may in fact end up doing in practice the opposite of what they say. For example, I am instantly suspicious of countries whose Sunday name includes “The People’s Republic of…” or “The Democratic Republic of…”, or from Nineteen Eighty-Four again – the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) enforced loyalty to Big Brother through fear, while the Ministry of Truth {Minitrue) spread propaganda and lies. The title “The Free Speech Union” may perhaps sound to you to be dangerously close to such models.

What about humour? Is that allowed? Whose humour? And who to believe?

As my English teacher years ago might have said to my addled adolescent brain, “At least you’re free to choose, for now. Go home and think about it.”

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Collective Wellbeing

What is a successful nation?

I ask, because this was the question the First Minister of Scotland attempted to answer last month. According to Ms Sturgeon, Scotland is “redefining what it means to be a successful nation”. She went on to say that people’s quality of life – “collective wellbeing” she calls it – should be as important as economic growth. Despite the political fog in her statements, I think I am just about with her on this. What is the point of producing and selling more and more widgets and doing so more efficiently and profitably, if the whole process leaves us miserable and unhealthy as a nation? The trouble, of course, is that “collective wellbeing” can be difficult to measure. Some people have tried. According to the Scottish Trends Index of Social and Economic Wellbeing, Scotland is in the bottom half of OECD countries.

The quality of wellbeing also depends on where you are standing when you attempt the measurement. I suspect that if the First Minister asked some of her fellow Scots living with mental health problems, drug addiction, long-term health conditions, or those caring for them, she might receive some uncomfortable answers. At least, that is, if she is serious about putting collective wellbeing out there as a measure of our success as a nation.

I have a dog in this fight. I live with a long-term condition: chronic stroke. Just over a year ago, I wrote an article for the Scottish Review in which I deplored the apparent decline of stroke care in Scotland compared to other parts of the world. I pointed out at the time that this was no fault of the clinicians and therapists who work in the system. In fact, many felt frustrated by it. They work within tight resource constraints and are combatting a serious health problem which, UK-wide, affects approximately 150,000 people of all ages each year for the first time. In Scotland it is a major cause of disability.

So, where are we one year on? Research into stroke in the UK still accounts for a mere fraction of the amount invested into the causes and treatments of other serious conditions such as cancer or dementia. While there are immediate treatments available for some of the strokes caused by blood clots to the brain – thrombolysis, in which clots are dissolved, and thrombectomy in which clots are removed mechanically – both procedures require skilled stroke clinicians and a strong workforce of qualified radiologists. These are currently in short supply. Both treatments are also time critical, which presents its own challenges.

In Scotland there is underway a grindingly slow process to establish a nationwide thrombectomy service which would allow several hundred patients a year to avoid the long-term effects of stroke. Charities estimate this service could save between 600 and 800 Scots a year suffering physical disability and psychological impairment. Other parts of the UK and other advanced economies have forged ahead with developing thrombectomy services in recent years, while in Scotland not a single patient can at present benefit from this procedure. By this measure, then, the lives of several hundred Scots a year are being unnecessarily blighted by disability. Collective wellbeing?

More cheerful news, perhaps. In the draft budget presented to the Scottish parliament on 6 February, £1 million (out of a £15 billion budget) was set aside for the development of a stroke thrombectomy service. It has been estimated that this represents approximately 10% of the cost of establishing such a service nationwide, yet the potential long-term savings to health and social care services run into hundreds of millions, to say nothing of the possible improvements to “collective wellbeing”.

Where are the real priorities of the Scottish government? The same draft budget included an increase of £2 million for international affairs to a total of £26 million. International affairs are reserved to the UK government, so are not technically a responsibility of the Scottish government at all (although they allow Ms Sturgeon to grandstand all over the place). Imagine what could be achieved if a slice of that budget was to be invested in acute stroke care or other long-term conditions. Collective wellbeing?

Hospital treatment, however good, will still mean that most survivors of a major stroke will require long-term support, from family and friends and from state provided social care. Many stroke survivors leaving hospital – especially those of working age – describe the feeling of being discharged from hospital as akin to falling off a cliff. This is despite the worthy intentions of the new health and social care integration structures, which, though eminently desirable, are proving patchily successful at best. In the absence of long-term therapy, a large proportion of stroke survivors succumb to depression. Those who can afford to do so frequently end up paying for the physical or psychological therapies they require, further exacerbating the health inequalities that plague Scotland. Collective wellbeing?

I have concentrated on stroke, because it is an area I know only too painfully well. I know that the challenges I have described for staff and patients are mirrored in other long-term conditions, but I believe they are challenges that a successful nation should be striving more robustly to overcome – if, that is, it is serious about “collective wellbeing”.

A version of this post appeared in the Scottish Review on 12 February 2020. In the same issue I recommend the article by Josh Bain, about attitudes to disability.

 

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New year, new me… Maybe

Belated happy new year!

As we enter a new year and new decade, you will, like me, have noticed lots of newspaper and internet features along the lines of “New Year, New You”. These are usually accompanied by brightly coloured pictures of young or not so young men and women smiling happily as they work out in a gym or run happily through a park honing their already toned bodies as they face the challenge of a new year. Age no barrier! one headline shouted to me recently, beside a picture of a cheerful pensioner on an exercise cycle.

It would be easy to become depressed by these images. As a stroke survivor – all right, as a mature stroke survivor – I can choose to lie back, watch the telly and scream with envy at these pictures and features (and I do) or I can choose to devise my own opportunities for creating a new me through thinking up exercise opportunities appropriate to my decrepit state.

This is a constant challenge. As followers of this blog will know, walking about, as recommended by physiotherapists, has no doubt done me some physical good, but it has also caused me a broken limb and various other injuries through falling over in the last few years. I am determined that the 2020s will see an end to such mishaps, but I still have a vision of a body capable of dealing with rough terrain and hills, especially downhills, let alone obstacle-strewn city pavements.

On Deeside, one of the difficulties of getting fitter and stronger for someone like me is that there are quite a lot of hills around and most forest paths are littered with tree roots and stones which present no challenge to the nimble human or whippet (yes, Archie is still with us), but can seem like elephant traps to me. In winter, ice, snow and gales provide additional hazards and challenges to anyone whose balance is compromised.

Thanks to some months of intense negotiation, our local stroke Stroke Association exercise group – new members welcome, by the way – has obtained exclusive access to our community gym for one hour a week. This has undoubtedly helped to boost the confidence of members, something which is just as important as any boost to our collective physical strength. Many of us are now able to grapple reasonably confidently with treadmills, exercise cycles and arm presses – things which to many of us had been part of an alien wold for far too many years.

As a combined Christmas/New Year present to myself, I decided to purchase a small treadmill for home use. I say “small”, but no treadmill is truly small (or cheap), so the only reasonable place to set it up was in our garage. With the help of a kind neighbour, that is what we did. The treadmill now sits in the garage in front of our little car and surrounded by boxes of empty bottles, boxes containing things we haven’t seen since moving here in 2006, a rather rusty fridge and various other bits and pieces. The result is, therefore, not anything like one of those fancy David Lloyd gyms. There is a chill in the air and there are no lycra-clad bodies about- not even mine. However, the treadmill is accessible when the weather is harsh or slippy, and I have managed to use it regularly since we first installed it at the end of November, thus avoiding much ice, wind and rain.

Walking on a treadmill in a cold garage surrounded only by boxes and a silent car is dead boring. For that reason, I have set up a small tape/CD player next to the treadmill and beside it a supply of ancient tapes and CDs.  Some may prefer the rapid booming beat of 80s classics to accompany their treadmill rhythm, I favour BBC classics such as Yes Minister, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and so on. The doors of the garage are always shut when I’m in there, so I’m not sure what passers-by make of my laughing and grunting mixed with the mellow tones of the late Humphrey Littleton and his team of jokers which assail them as they pass.

One final thing, for now. I have been asked several times in recent days, where copies of Man Dog Stroke can be bought. The easy answer is by clicking on the link to Amazon on this website. You can also purchase the book through any good bookshop – the ISBN is 978-0-9570995-0-0 – and I would prefer that you did so in order to help local bookshops to flourish and to keep our high streets alive. If you live on Deeside, Deeside Books in Ballater could be your first port of call. Buchanans in Banchory usually have some copies as well. Remember all proceeds go to the Stroke Association.  If you prefer e-books to the real thing, the book is available as a download. In response to requests from stroke survivors and others, I am also working on an audio version with a professional voice-over artist – watch this space.

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Christmas 2019

Merry Christmas to all followers of this blog

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Double negatives and big girls’ blouses

My wife – a wise owl, who never tweets (at least in the internet sense) -remarked recently, apropos of nothing, “We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t fallible.” Despite the double negative in that statement, she had offered me a pearl of wisdom and I knew what she meant.

Earlier we had been discussing our Prime Minister’s comment across the House of Commons Chamber accusing the Leader of the Opposition of being “A big girl’s blouse”. Things being as they are, the Prime Minister who said this in early September may not be the Prime Minister by the time you read this. Come to think of it, the Leader of the Opposition may not be the same person either. At present they are

Johnson

 

 

 

 

 

and

Corbyn

 

 

 

 

 

In order to impress my wife, and offer her a pearl in return, I felt I should research the origin of the phrase “a big girl’s blouse”. I understand the phrase to be an insult directed at a man who is seen to be cowardly or weak, a man lacking in cojones. I am not sure if Mr Johnson has quite caught up with the way things are gender-wise in the 21st century, but I imagine that a number of people, male and female, found his words inappropriate, whether whispered or shouted. At least one female politician responded by telling him that if he thought women were weak, he would soon discover things to be quite different come the next election. Well, those are not quite her words, but I am sure you get the gist.

To my research: t’internet tells me the expression originated in the north of England in the 1960s and was popularized by northern-based television programmes such as the sitcom “Nearest and Dearest.” I don’t remember the programme, but Wikipedia tells me it featured Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel as brother and sister Nellie and Eli Pledge who inherit a pickle-bottling factory. Others will be more expert on this programme than I am. Personally, I was surprised to find that the origin of the phrase is so recent.

Dear reader, a confession. In order to produce this pearl of wisdom for her, I had to enter the words “big”, “girl” and “blouse” into my internet search engine and some of the results which appeared are wholly unsuitable as illustrations for a blog as genteel as this one. But those images were the personal sacrifice I felt I had to make in order to show my wife that I was at least able to match the pearl of wisdom she had offered me.

If you have read this far, you may wonder where all this is leading. Not much further, you will be pleased to learn. Some years ago, as head teacher of a secondary school in Orkney, I was keen to encourage our students to participate in debating. Debating sensibly (with humour allowed, of course) is a great way to learn to see things from the opposite point of view to your own, whether or not you are a young person. Our students often travelled long distances – accompanied by their long-suffering, energetic and enthusiastic teachers – in order to participate in country-wide debating competitions. They often performed well despite hours on the ferry and in the train.

Formal and informal debates are a great way for all of us to learn the art of civilised discourse. I often wonder what example our politicians in the debating chambers of London and Edinburgh are setting to our young people. Are they switching them on to what should be the stimulating world of political debate, or switching them off? Worse still, are they just encouraging the next generation of politicians and the public generally to shout angrily at one another from fixed positions? Remember Desmond Tutu’s wise words: “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”.

Words matter. In the wild west of the internet or in today’s toxic political arena, calling someone a “big girl’s blouse” is a fairly mild, if sexist, comment, and it’s the general angry tone of debate I’m concerned about rather than individuals’ sincerely held views. But it still matters who is making the comment, where they are making it and who is listening. Doesn’t it?

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Gardening Notes

1 September, and our fruit trees are doing well this year. We could never have made that statement in Orkney, where we lived for 10 years. Orkney has other compensations, however – see the header picture of this blog

Apple trees that seem to do well on Deeside in a sheltered garden – Discovery, James Grieve, Katya, which are all eaters; Howgate Wonder, which is a cooker and can just be seen at the back of this photo. We also inherited a Bramley Seedling which is intermittently good. This is the second year that our pear tree Bon Chretien has fruited well.

Like the best husbands, fruit trees, once planted, are great value and require little maintenance. Passing deer may munch the leaves, but so far they have not gone for the fruit. Provided you pick the right root stock they are relatively easy to harvest even if your balance is wobbly. In order for them to do well, you need to keep the grass away from their trunks (see above). This makes cutting the grass a bit of a pain, but that is no longer my department. It goes without saying that there is a huge difference between the flavour of fruit you’ve grown yourself and the flavour of what you can buy in the shops.

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Reflections

Responding to a recent survey on stroke care from the Scottish Government, I made the point that in stroke care psychological and emotional therapy should be provided where needed alongside physical therapy. In hindsight, I now feel even more strongly about this than I did during my time as a patient. I looked back at what I had written about it in my book Man, Dog, Stroke  in 2011, and I quote one of the relevant passages below. I should say that in many ways, stroke care in Scotland has moved on – though not enough. In particular, the culture around nursing care in Aberdeen is now very different from the experience I describe below. I feel I can say this with some certainty, having just stepped down after four years as a non-executive director of NHS Grampian. I am not so sure about the emotional and psychological care available to stroke patients and their carers.

Anyway, here is the relevant extract from Man, Dog, Stroke – if you would like to read more, then simply click on the link on this blog. By purchasing a copy of the book – preferably from an independent bookshop such as Deeside Books in Ballater – you will not be making me rich, as all profits from sales go to the Stroke Association in Scotland . Towards the end of the extract, I touch on the huge matter of personal identity after brain injury, If you would like to read more about that topic, I encourage you to read Lost and Found, a very accessible book by the neurologist, Jules Montague, or my ramblings in an earlier post.

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

“Akershus Hospital had been striking for its sense of calm, despite the adjacent enormous building site. Ward 11 of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary was a raucous cacophony of noise. It was Saturday evening when I was wheeled in on a trolley. Near my bed a large television set flickered garishly and trashily, the volume turned to maximum. To one side I was aware of a rank of inert elderly patients. In a room attached to the end of the ward I could hear the incessant, desperate shout of a woman calling “Nurse! Nurse! Nurse!” In another corner of the ward a gaggle of nursing staff shouted, belched, swore and gossiped at the top of their voices. They appeared to be oblivious to the noisy, desolate, hellish scene around them, seeking only to shout above it.

I wanted to run. Failing that (and obviously I did), I wanted to be back in the soothing calm of Ward S9 Akershus. Communication might sometimes have been a problem, but at least there was a general background of peace and quiet. Above all, the staff there did not shout in the presence of patients and there was no television set in the ward. During my stay in this Aberdeen ward, it seemed to me that no-one had trained the staff to look hard at how the hospital experience might appear from a patient’s point of view. A few individuals did try to make this leap of imagination and they stood out like gold nuggets in a shale pile, but on the whole, for the patient who was feeling tired and unwell (and surely that must be the majority), Ward 11 did not seem to be the place to find inner calm.

On my first full, working day in Aberdeen Royal, I was wheeled into the physiotherapy department to be assessed briefly by a harassed physiotherapist. Later in the day I was told by a young doctor that the ward I was in was really intended for ill people, and that, since I didn’t fall into that category (I assumed he was joking) as soon as a bed became available I would be moved to the Stroke Rehabilitation Unit at Woodend Hospital, a short distance away. No-one could tell me how long I would have to wait for this, but many described the Woodend Unit as a kind of stroke survivor’s heaven (“they do wonderful things there” was a typical comment), providing first class, frequent, intensive physiotherapy and general care. I assumed this would mean resuming the daily physiotherapy I had enjoyed in Norway and looked forward eagerly to the transfer there. It was now two weeks since my stroke, and I knew from the Norwegian physiotherapists that it was important to get active as soon as possible to promote recovery. I still had a vague and somewhat naïve view of what the word “rehabilitation” meant in the context of Woodend Hospital’s “Unit”. “Woodend” had a pleasantly sylvan ring to it. In my more upbeat moments, I pictured in my mind miserable paralysed patients being wheeled in there one day on a stretcher and then on another day a few weeks later striding happily and confidently out, throwing away all sticks and walking aids, having been put through an intensive programme of physical restoration all to a background of leafy calm.

I had this view partly because I still regarded the consequences of the stroke as purely physical – in my case, an arm and a leg, and to some extent a mouth, face and voice, would have to be put right with a series of tedious but necessary exercises. After all, you get ill, you go to hospital, they hurt you for your own good, you get cured, you leave, you resume your life. Isn’t that how it works?

Not with stroke.

Stroke is both instant and insidious, and every stroke is different. In simple terms, the initial “insult” – in my case a blood clot – starves part of the brain of oxygen. If the oxygen supply is not restored within a short time, the brain cells in that locality die, and so the parts of your body controlled by those cells cease to function. The body’s rather miraculous repair process gradually allows other parts of the brain to take over the functions of the dead cells (at least that’s the theory), hence recovery, which may be over days, weeks, months, years. No medical person can honestly put a time limit on how long any individual will take to recover – or indeed how fully they will recover. Awkward for the patient. Awkward for the medical staff. Awkward for the bean counters who control the system. With our money, our beans.

And there’s more.

The body is not like a computer where you can replace a faulty circuit with a new one. The body feels. The body is alive with present perceptions, past memories and future hopes. The body is human, and therefore unpredictable. So far as I could see, the medical “experts” in Aberdeen seemed to be treating my body more like a machine than a human being with a past, a present medical condition and – hopefully – a future. No one in Aberdeen spent time with me answering the huge pressing questions that constantly occupied my mind.

As I lay rotting in Ward 11, listening to the background symphony of elderly groans and farting, the harsh shouting of the nurses, and the braying of day-time television, I was gradually becoming more and more aware of the insidious effects of the stroke I’d suffered. During waking hours, I marshalled them in my mind, patrolled them in front of me one by one.

Concentration – gone. I could read words, but couldn’t concentrate long enough to read more than a couple of sentences. In any case, holding a book was difficult; holding a newspaper, impossible. Worst of all, I couldn’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time. No change there, Jo would say. But now it was serious. Friends had begun to visit me and I found that I couldn’t focus properly on what they were saying if there was another visitor talking at the next bed, or if a nurse was speaking at the other end of the ward, or if the television was switched on (it always was).

Speech – improving, but still hard work to form the words and string them together.

Emotions – in turmoil, and out of control. I could weep for Britain. Equally, if someone made a mildly funny remark, I could not contain my bursts of laughter. Surely it could only be a matter of time before I laughed at something tragic and lost a friend forever.

Exhaustion – constant and bone-sapping. The daily routine of showering and toileting supported by wheelchair and nurse left me weak and ready to sleep. I spent the whole day in bed. I slept for hours every day. I wakened every morning as if from deep unconsciousness.

Underlying all of these side-effects, a deeper nagging question – was I really the same Eric, as I had so confidently claimed to be when Jo first came to see me in Norway. I know that other stroke survivors have felt the same – are the pre-stroke person and the post-stroke person one and the same personality? How could I know for sure?

And the biggest questions of all – was life over as I’d known it up till now? Would I recover? Would I recover completely, partially or not at all? How could I help my recovery? None of the medical staff I spoke to in Ward 11 seemed willing or able to tackle these huge questions with me.

I hoped things would be better at Woodend.”

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Sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru

Note to Meghan and Harry –

 

Naming that Baby after me will not change my way of life.” Archie

 

 

Meanwhile, a gold star to you if you know what the title of this post means. It may help if I tell you that it is a Japanese phrase transferred into English orthography.

Take the first two letters. Then take the seventh through to the tenth letter (still with me?) and you will realise that we are more familiar with its shortened form, sudoku.  

Sudoku did not originate in Japan, however. It derives from a very ancient fascination with magic number squares. In 16th century Europe, there is a clear representation of a magic square in Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melancholia (right), which depicts the effects of obsessive study, and coincidentally illustrates my own relationship with sudoku. Difficult to make out on the page, but there is a “magic number square” below the bell in the top right-hand side of the engraving. Look it up for yourself.

Anyway, back to the twenty-first century. If you do an internet search for sudoku you discover there are literally thousands of on-line opportunities to try to solve these puzzles. It is amazing to learn that there are so many different ways of rearranging those 3×3 squares of 9 individual numbers. Just writing that sentence takes me painfully back to the time many years ago when I scraped my way through Higher Maths. A few years later, the Principal of the African college where I was working corralled some of his staff into a room and asked us to declare our academic qualifications in Maths. We had just lost our sole Maths lecturer and there was no money to hire another. With quiet pride, I offered up my C pass at Higher Maths, and was promptly given part of his teaching timetable. Most of the students were content to try for a pass in the local exams, but one of them was a star of the Maths universe. My Maths teacher would have been amazed to learn that only a few years after leaving his tender care I succeeded in coaching this student through A-Level Maths by keeping ahead of him one lesson at a time. It was he who did all the hard work, but my pride was at stake and I suppose it shows that when that is the case you can manage to do almost anything – a fact well-known to stroke survivors.

Which brings me back to my relationship with sudoku. I am married to a woman who is pretty good at sudoku, and, thanks to her gentle coaching, I am a recent convert. In my pre-sudoku days, I would watch in awe, marvelling at her ability to tackle the problems offered by our daily paper. I suppose sudoku is a bit like life – there are easy problems, there are difficult ones, there are fiendish ones – and if you want a real challenge there are super fiendish ones. Johanna apparently has the ability to tackle all of these and succeed, much of the time. She is very patient and methodical in life as in sudoku, which is where we differ – significantly.

Now that I have mastered the basics, I feel I should always be able to coast through every sudoku challenge – easy or fiendish. When I succeed, I bang down my pencil with a flourish and shout “Finished!” loudly enough to make the dog jump. When I fail – which is frequently – I bang down my pencil with a flourish, vowing never to waste time on this activity any more, and shouting other words which cannot be repeated in a blog as genteel as this one.

As I said, sudoku is a bit like life, really.

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