(Newest entries first)

Phew

I just need to report the good news about my brother, Ron, for anybody who reads this blog and knows him.

He had his heart transplant at Papworth today, and the operation went as planned, with no complications. I only have sketchy details so far, but the main thing is that he has a new heart which is beating strongly. He should be conscious by the end of the day.

As I understand it, a heart became available, late last night, from a donor in Northern Ireland, and after a surgeon flew over to check it and collect it, they started the operation at about 9.30am this morning (Wednesday), and completed it at 1pm.

It's been a very long morning in Swindon, so goodness knows what it was like for his wife, Jenny, and their three sons at Papworth, but we now have the best news so far in Ron's three-and-a-half years of heart problems.

UnBEATable

I think our family could do with some good omens, so here's one - Sean won the Kingsdown School Young Musician of the Year competition tonight.

It's an annual event in which all the musicians in the school go through a qualifying round to get to the grand final, where he found himself up against three flautists, some singers, a cornet player, a guitarist and another drummer. He played along to a rock backing track that's perfect for drums as it allows plenty of intricate fills.

The adjudicator was a former pupil who's now a professional saxophonist in London (apparently working for Andrew Lloyd Webber's company). She said Sean was "amazing" and gave a performance "that I would have expected from a professional". Perhaps even more significantly, Sean said that, despite the pressure, it was the best he'd ever played that piece. It would have been so easy to crack in that situation.

And if that wasn't enough, Holly had also won through to the final with her violin - one of five finalists in her year (Year 8) - and gave a really nice performance (even though she didn't win). The adjudicator said it was "very accurate" but she "needs to believe in herself more" - which is, itself, very accurate.

At the end of the evening, his music teacher also presented Sean with his Grade 8 certificate, which he won a few weeks back. So Sean has finished off his school career - which ends in about two weeks, when he breaks up in time for the start of his GCSEs - in perfect style.

Sharp Focus

We - me, Brian, Sean, Dave (from our band) and several other people that I knew or recognised, including Dave Gregory, former guitarist with XTC - were at a packed Swindon Arts Centre, tonight, for the impressive visit of the Dutch progressive rock band, Focus.

They had hits in the 1970s with the excellent Sylvia and House of the King, which is pretty much all I knew about them before I went. Brian had seen them before, but nothing anybody could have said could have prepared me for the leader of the group, Thijs van Leer, who is a real character. He formed the group in 1969 with guitarist Jan Akkerman, who has since left, to be replaced by the amazingly talented but unassuming Niels van der Steenhoven.

Despite looking like the irritating TV horseracing pundit, John McCririck, van Leer was an excellent showman with his eccentric style of dress and especially his unique 'singing' which is almost impossible to describe but comes somewhere between yodelling at half-cock, Gregorian chanting, George Melly-style burbling and squawking. This is surprisingly good to listen to and helps to produce Focus's distinctive sound, along with the Hammond organ and flute that van Leer also plays - sometimes simultaneously!

The rest of the band is bassist Bobby Jacobs, who is actually van Leer's stepson, and drummer Pierre van der Linden who plays the part of progressive rock drummer perfectly, right down to the over-long drum solo. Also in keeping with progressive rock, some of the songs go on too long and they get to sound too similar after a while. But that doesn't mean that I wasn't thoroughly impressed and keen to get hold of some CDs so I can listen to more of them - and I'll definitely be there, the next time they come to town.

Never the Twain

One of the worst things about being a keen reader is that you are sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer scale of your hobby. There are so many acclaimed books that I've never had time to read - nor ever will, unless I live to be 500. It's even worse for me because I generally read non-fiction, only occasionally taking time out from my nerdy fact-seeking activities to read fiction. So there are plenty of mega-authors whom I've never read a word of.

One of the authors I've always regretted not reading was Mark Twain - mainly because his quotations are always cropping up and there is much more to him than his stories. Only the other day, somebody quoted him on the radio when talking about the mortgage 'crisis' (he said, "Buy land. They're not making it anymore.") So, when his name came up on a blog-cum-writers' forum that I visit regularly (organised by an American friend, Belinda, and called Wordella Writes), I decided it was time to read some Mark Twain, once and for all. His two best-known works also happened to be the only two of his in the bookshop, so I bought them both, starting with reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Mark Twain says himself that he intended the book to work on more than one level (as the best arts always do). He said, "Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves." So, although Tom Sawyer is a children's book, for sure, being about haunted houses, pirates and buried treasure, it's also true that it's about childhood.

Tom's adventures always involve some kind of superstition, and the book is a kind of study of childhood fantasies and imagination. They certainly reminded me of some of the ridiculous beliefs we had as children - except Tom is much more superstitious than modern kids. It's significant that all the mumbo-jumbo is acted out against a background of a pious mid-19th century American community (he wrote it in 1876 but set it in the 1830s), where religion and superstition were virtually the same thing (maybe they still are).

Another aspect is the characters' terrible prejudices against 'niggers' and 'injuns'. Twain doesn't make much comment about this, except to record it, which is surprising as he was very enlightened and liberal for his time, including being vehemently anti-racist, mistrustful of organised religion, a vegetarian and generally left wing. I'm sure he would have been fascinated by the way right-wing views and Christianity go hand-in-hand today, and the parallel between the God-fearing but prejudiced characters in his book and today's Christian fundamentalilsts in America.

So, even though it's predominantly a children's book, there is plenty of interest - not least in the fact that it is beautifully written. The beauty is mostly in the simplicity, the best example being the long first paragraph of Chapter 12, which is all about Tom's Aunt Polly's passion for quack medicines, and perfectly describes her fascination with them, but could equally be a description of the health, food and diet fads that some people live by today. I read that paragraph three times before continuing, because there isn't a single word or comma out of place.

Next up is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is reckoned to be even better.

Hey, guess what...
Mark Twain was born two weeks after Halley's Comet's closest approach to Earth in 1835, and predicted that he would die when it next appeared. He duly died of a heart attack, one day after its closest approach in 1910.
Source: Wikipedia

Hey, guess what...
Mark Twain was the first major author to type his manuscripts. His Life on the Mississippi, a non-fiction book from 1883, was the first book to be composed on a typewriter.
Source: Wikipedia

Band on a run

I thought I should update this blog with the progress of our (amazingly, still not officially named) band, following an excellent practice today at Hook Village Hall.

We went through about 15 songs from our repertoire, several times getting them right first time. Such has been our progress that the practices will soon be more accurately described as rehearsals - especially as we have drawn up set lists for two halves of a show, with each half featuring 12 songs.

It's amazing how quickly your drumming improves from playing with live people instead of CDs and backing tracks, and I'm feeling much more confident about the massive challenge of playing in front of a live audience. The plan is still to invite friends and family to a kind of dress rehearsal, before we officially go on the road, and this should now happen within weeks rather than months.

Scary.

Latest news from the Transplant Family

Any day now the Carters are going to be renamed the Transplant Family.

My second eldest brother, Maurice, successfully negotiated a bone marrow transplant, 18 months ago, to conquer leukaemia, and now my eldest brother, Ron, is up for a heart transplant. He's at Papworth Hospital, where he will now stay until a suitable donor heart becomes available.

Papworth is probably the world authority on heart transplants and boasts an amazing success rate in the short term and the long term, so there's a strong chance that his struggle to get fit will be won shortly.

Chickened out

We are taking steps to correct a silly anomaly in our lives. For years we've bought free range eggs because we've always hated the thought of battery chickens, but it's only recently that we've also started taking a stand on chicken meat. I'm ashamed to say that it has taken a media furore for us to see the light - a TV documentary about the inhumane treatment of factory-farmed chickens which has caught the public imagination. We didn't actually see the programme ourselves but heard about it. And anyway, we were always aware of what goes on. But it's only now that we've decided to avoid buying chicken - by far the meat that I have consumed most of in my life.

Despite talk of a significant change in shopping habits, however, it is proving difficult to put this policy into action as the supermarkets aren't responding. When it was built a few years ago, the Swindon Asha-Walmart was the second biggest supermarket in the country, but today this vast shop wasn't able to offer us the opportunity of buying any free range chicken breast at all, although the other stuff was piled high. So, for a change, we chose beef instead, for our weekly curry. I'm not sure what sort of life the cow had, but it will certainly have been better than the chickens on the shelves.

Considering we give them a vast sum of money every week to add to their already gigantic profits, I wonder whether an angry letter to Asda would be worth the bother...

The ayes have it

I am happy to report that I - or my left eye, to be more precise - has been discharged by the hospital.

The much-dreaded follow-up appointment after my latest bout of laser treatment, two weeks ago, was all over after about three minutes with the consultant - but not before a nasty moment when she said: "Goodness, you've got multiple tears there, haven't you?" For one dreadful paranoid second, I thought she had found some new ones - until she made it clear that she was talking about the four old ones that had been repaired by the laser. She obviously didn't realise that when it comes to medical matters, us Carters don't do things by halves.

So, after a month of being one short and unpredictable step from the disaster of a detached retina, I'm now back to normal. Except I'm even more massively impressed by the state of medical science than I was before. We are so lucky to live in an age when medical science has come on in leaps and bounds. Sometimes it seems that it can't possibly be as good as we hope it is, but it often ends up being even more amazing than we imagined.

Eye levels

I think that's a record - eleven days without updating the blog, mainly because I haven't been up to much. Apart from a couple of days' work, I've been deliberately taking it easy and getting plenty of sleep, thinking that it might help with my eye.

Since the last hospital trip, I've been wishing that a torn retina was a painful condition rather than something that it's impossible to feel. That way, I would know that it was getting better when the pain stopped. As it is, it seems to be going OK, but I thought that last time, and while you wait for the next appointment, you get a kind of paranoia, looking for the telltale signs that it's not healing or even getting worse.

The last thing you want to see is "a curtain going across your eye" (as the doctor described it) which is the extreme case of a detached retina. Flashing lights are a bad sign too, so I'm constantly on the lookout for them. But flares and random reflections are part and parcel of wearing contact lenses, especially at night, and it's easy to convince yourself that an everyday light is an ominious flashing precursor of more trouble.

Another drawback is there is no outward sign of trouble. My eyes look exactly the same in the mirror as they always have. The only clue I have to what's going on inside is that the 'floaters' I have been seeing for nearly a month now have faded, and the thousand tiny dots are about 250 faded ones. So maybe that's a better sign.

My favourite 'Nazi'

One of the good things about taking it easy because of my eye is that I've been able to catch up with some reading. I've finally finished a book called Guderian: Panzer General, which proved a strange experience.
My interest in Guderian in particular comes from a single line in a song by Al Stewart called Roads to Moscow - the only pop song ever written (according to Al himself) about the German invasion of Russia. Al is renowned for writing songs on historical themes, and this is not the first time I've read books about people just because they appear in one of Al's songs. I figure that if Al took the trouble to write a song about somebody, they must be interesting.

Guderian is interesting for being the only general who dared to argue with Hitler about military strategy - even though you didn't need to be a military genius like Guderian to see how disastrous Hitler's deranged ideas about strategy were proving.

Guderian effectively invented blitzkrieg, which has nothing to do with the Blitz but is the word used to describe the fighting method of German Panzer units - which Guderian masterminded. Basically, rather than two armies fighting by forming long lines, opposite each other, as they did for hundreds of years, Guderian came up with the idea of having fast and mobile mini armies which would punch a narrow gap in the enemy's lines, pour through and then cause mayhem from behind. This was exactly the opposite to the tactics he had seen in the First World War, and to achieve it he developed tank warfare and advanced communications.

The book, by Kenneth Macksey, is a difficult read because it's quite technical, but also because the author is obviously a military man and it's always military men who write books about other military men, not realising that the rest of the world don't think in the same terms. So, while he's busy telling us about armaments and training and things, the crucial questions about how much Guderian knew about the Holocaust or what he thought about the Germans' inhuman treatment of conquered Russians, are dismissed in a couple of sentences. Although it's clear that Guderian was never a Nazi, the reader is left to make up his own mind about what sort of person Guderian really was, from snippets from his memoirs, because the author talks about almost everything in military terms.

I've always been fascinated by the paradoxical concept of honourable Germans in the war, and one of the good things about the book is its explanation of the relationship between the German army and the Nazis, who were uncomfortable bedfellows (unlike the Luftwaffe and the Nazis). You couldn't help thinking that Guderian, who faced no charges for war crimes after he fell into the hands of the Americans, ended up a victim of the regime, like most army men end up being used by politicians in the end (they never learn).

The irony is that Guderian would have been a huge national hero if he had been British. He was honourable in the way he tried, in vain, to minimise German casualties at the end of the war - mainly because he always felt a duty to his men. He was certainly very charismatic and a brilliant thinker, so a few times, while reading the book, I had the awkward feeling of wishing success on him, as the hero of the book, until I remembered he was, for instance, heading towards Dunkirk or on the brink of victory in Russia, which would have been the most catastrophic event in world history.

The book also corrected some misnomers I had about the war in 1939/40. The Poles famously sent cavalry to meet the Panzers, but their defence of the country was very stubborn, determined and heroic, despite the odds against them. And the French, who I had always believed were overrun without much opposition, may actually have come out as winners if their leaders hadn't dithered at crucial moments.

Best of all, the book paints a useful picture of Germany between the wars, giving the reader a better understanding of why Hitler was able to seize power and keep it.

I'm now looking around for a book on Benjamin Franklin - because Al Stewart didn't just write a line about him, but a whole song...

Eye Saga - The Sequel

That's not a day I'd like to relive in a hurry.

Thirteen days after my torn retina experience, what I assumed was going to be a routine visit to the hospital to be given the all-clear turned into an unexpected, unwelcome sequel - but thankfully with a good chance of a happy ending.

I arrived for my 3.30pm appointment about half an hour early, and enjoyed 20 minutes of reading my book before I was called in to have the drops to make my pupil dilated. That put paid to my reading - it's impossible with one contact lens in and the other out - and it was another 45 minutes before I finally got my turn to see the consultant (a different one to the one I had seen before), by which time Julie had arrived to drive me home.

The consultant went through the same drill of looking at my eye very closely with his machine and then finally sat back - only to hit me with the news that I needed more laser treatment. Gulp. And before I had time to get used to this bad news, he hit me with the triple whammy that I have THREE more tears in my retina (tears as in things that are torn, not drops of liquid that come out when you cry).

Well, that was more than enough to send my little brain into overdrive. I immediately started to see blackness, and within two seconds it was as if a black shutter had been pulled up on my world, from bottom to top. I managed to say "I'm feeling really faint" and grip the table before I lapsed into a weird dream. Rather than continue at the same pace as real life, however, this dream was going at 1000mph. The next thing I know I am kneeling on the floor, staring at the caster of a trolley, and completely and utterly confused - like when you sometimes wake up and don't know where you are or how long you've been there, only this lasted for four or five seconds. I was desperately trying to make sense of it all, but that seemed to require so much effort that I was worried that if I suddenly jumped back into the real world my eyes would pop out or it would take my breath away or something. The only grip I had on reality was actually a grip on the consultant's leg. I was holding his calf, and actually recognised it as somebody's leg, and even vaguely knew it was the consultant's. Slowly, I began to understand that I had fainted, and the nurse got me to lie on the floor.

It was the first time in my life that I had fainted, and it shocked me because I had always assumed that fainting would be a fairly neutral experience. But I found it really distressing and scary.

I had obviously fainted in the chair and must have started to topple over, so the consultant grabbed me and lowered me to the floor. "You were away with the fairies for a moment there," he said later. So, now I'm on the floor with my feet on a chair and going through the feeling stupid phase, but now the anxiety is back as I realise that I'm in for another laser session. But it's not the laser that's the worry because I've had that before and I know it's only mildly stressful. The real problem is not knowing where all this is going to end and knowing that the consequences of a torn retina that's out of control are very serious - and all this has been multiplied by ten because I had made up my mind that today's appointment was only a formality, so was completely unprepared for it. I hadn't even eaten before I went, which didn't help.

So now I had to face about an hour of anxiety, mostly in the canteen where we had been dispatched, to get some food and drink. This was an hour longer than I really wanted to have to think about it, but the consultant wanted to see the other people in his clinic before concentrating on me. Part of my anxiety over the treatment was because of the laser, but now I had the added problem of avoiding fainting, which wasn't going to be straightforward because you have to be sat up for the laser and I had already proved it was possible to faint while sat down.

I actually felt better once the treatment started. It was the anticipation that was the problem. The laser was, of couse, no worse than before, but lasted longer this time - at least half as much again. At the end, the nurse checked the number of blasts of the laser I had had, and it was 519. I could have guessed this as one of the ways I devised to keep my mind from racing was to count each flash as they arrived in batches (I think the most was 33). The second worst part of the treatment was having to break off when it was nearly complete, so the consultant could take another look through another machine in another room, before resuming. Even worse was right at the end, when he donned a headset - a bit like those virtual reality helmets - to get a really good look in the corner of my eye. To do this he had to hold my eye open (with the blunt end of a paperclip, he said, although I'm not sure if he meant it literally). This lasted about a minute and a half, and by the end of that I was really squirming because I was desperate to blink.

I then enjoyed the relief of knowing the ordeal was over again, and this was made much better with some news that was more reassuring. The consultant said he thought it was now under control and there was no reason to think that I would get more tears (as in things that are torn), although he obviously couldn't guarantee it. As if to underline the fact that he wasn't concerned, he said there would be no need for me to come back for another fortnight, unless there was any change, and he even said I could go back to normal life, "as long as you don't do bungee-jumping". I asked if I could play tennis and he said yes*, but only after hesitating and thinking about it, so I'm taking that as: "Don't push your luck." However, he had no hesitation about drumming, so at least I can do that.

The first episode, nearly two weeks ago, turned out to be an interesting experience and a fascinating curiosity, which even became a bit of a conversation piece, so it wasn't so bad. But after today's palaver, I've decided that I've now had enough, and I'd really like it to stop now.

*Of course, this should go something like:
Patient: "Doctor, will I be able to play tennis after the operation?"
Doctor: "Yes."
Patient: "That's good, because I couldn't play before."

Hot stuff

I never enjoyed doing homework this much when I was at school...

Holly's geography homework over the weekend was to make a model of a volcano, which seemed a pretty tall order to us. She spent hours making it out of papier-mache, and we inevitably got involved. And as she was on a deadline, three of us were furiously painting and drying it with the hair dryer tonight, to get it finished on time.

The result - a two-part model that opens up to reveal the inner workings of a volcano - was pretty impressive, we think (though the photos don't really do it justice). It was a bit of a family effort, but mostly Holly's hard work, which was summed up when she said she wished it was for art homework, not geography.