February 29, 2012

Media frenzy

My position on the committee of the Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery put me in the media spotlight today when I was called upon to talk about the problem of badgers digging up graves.

I was asked to appear on the Graham Mack Breakfast Show on BBC Radio Wiltshire at the unearthly hour of 7.25am.

It came about because of a story run in the Swindon Advertiser the day before, in which I was also quoted, about the rise in badger digging activity at the cemetery and the grisly tale of human bones surfacing as a result.

I went on the radio to say that this was a very rare occurrence and that even if we were allowed to move the badgers on, we wouldn't want to.

The cemetery has been a designated nature reserve since 2005 and turning the place into a 'green oasis' in the middle of Swindon was one of the reasons the Friends were formed in the first place (as well as the cemetery's historic interest).

The badgers are only doing what badgers do, and if you want a nature reserve you can't pick and choose what sort of nature you have. If worms, moles and rabbits dig there, why not badgers?

To be honest, I was glad to be on there and do what I could to speak up for badgers in the light of the impending cull planned by the Government as a (mis-guided) attempt to stop the spread of bovine TB.

Even if badgers are carriers - and not many people are convinced they are - the same argument applies to the cull as to the diggers at the cemetery, which is: if you tried to wipe them out, all you would do is move the problem to another location.

I was told my comments were repeated on several news bulletins during the day and I later got an email and then a phone call from Yahoo News, asking for quotes.

It was a nice story while it lasted and whereas I once would have wet myself with fear at the prospect of appearing live on the radio, I have to confess that I actually really enjoyed it.

February 27, 2012

Under the knife

Today was a day I have not been looking forward to - except now that it's over, I can put it down as one of life's experiences.

I went to the NHS Treatment Centre at Cirencester for a long-planned minor operation: the removal of a harmless lump called a lipoma. In my case, the lump was about the size of an egg, on my torso, approximately under my elbow when I had my arms by my side. I had always known it was harmless, especially as it had been there for five or six years.

As lipomas are often called fatty tumours, I might have expected it to shrink when I lost a significant amount of weight, 12-18 months ago. In fact, it stayed the same size, but ionically gave the impression of actually getting larger in comparison with the now-slimmer me. Even this might not have turned it into an issue if it wasn't for the fact that it was perched right on top of a rib, which made it so conspicuous.

If I said I wasn't the bravest person in the world when it comes to medical things, it would be an understatement. Everybody is entitled to a phobia, and whichever one you have, it doesn't make you are a coward. And medical scenarios - especially when they involve me - is my big phobia.

As Gonzo said in A Muppet Christmas Carol - which is, after all, one of the greatest movies ever made - that one thing you must remember, or nothing that follows will seem wondrous.

Despite this, towards the end of last year I decided to bite the bullet and see the doctor about having my lump removed - almost entirely for cosmetic reasons as it was making me feel increasingly self-conscious when I took my shirt off and may even have become noticeable under tight-fitting shirts.

The day for the dreaded surgery arrived today, but thankfully it was not preceded by sleepless nights because I was due to have it under general anaesthetic. This also helped me through today's delays as a backlog of operations meant that despite originally being told to report at 11.15am, the theatre nurse finally told me "Your time has come" - a slightly unfortunate turn of phrase - at 3.30pm.

Fortunately, I only had to endure the last five or ten minutes of this in the knowledge that the surgeon thought it inappropriate to do it under general anaesthetic as it could easily be done under local. I wasn't as keen as him because a) I've never had a general anaesthetic before and was therefore quite keen to find out what it was like, but mainly b) I didn't want to know anything about what would be happening after I was knocked out and before I woke up.

The anaethetist offered to sedate me instead and let me breathe through an oxygen mask, but it didn't reassure me all that much, especially as he admitted I would be conscious throughout. I tried to point out how anxious I was, but I knew I was fighting a losing battle.

So pretty soon I was led to the pre-op room (walking, surprisingly) and then having the cannula put in the back of my hand, which until ten minutes earlier had been my worst fear and was now a trifle in comparison. Another five minutes later I was being wheeled into the theatre itself, wondering when the sedation would start to take effect.

It didn't, not really. I would have been no less sedated if they had used three pints of bitter, because I heard and understood everything that was said and, although I kept my eyes shut for the duration, had a perfect picture of the scene in my head - which was exactly what I was hoping to avoid.

And that's not all. It hurt.

I'm not saying the anaesthetic didn't have some effect, because the oiginal incision would obviously have had me leaping off the trolley, but at certain points - apparently when the lump was being dug out - it was as if the surgeon was prizing it out with a sharp fork, and it was really sore. Although this obviously wasn't much fun, but in a strange way it actually helped.

The mistake people always make when you tell them you are squeamish and have a medical phobia is they assume it's all about pain. In fact, the pain has literally nothing to do with it whatsoever, as the phobia is, I believe, rooted in a deep fear of losing control. Indeed, in this case, the pain of the surgery was extremely sharp and in a sensitive area - where people are likely to poke you in the ribs - but temporary. And if it's temporary, it's bearable.

Possibly even more surprising than all this was the violence of it all. I obviously avoid watching explicit medical dcumentaries or even dramas on telly, but the operations I have seen - presumably because they were longer and more serious - have seemed fairly sedate and controlled.

But mine wasn't. Maybe because there is no point in leaving a wound open longer than is absolutely necessary, they didn't hang about and were actually quite rough. The blanket that was put over me was roughly placed too, whereas I expected them to place it carefully, turn over the edges and even fix it in place. There wasn't any time for nicities.

Not that I was complaining, because I really didn't want it to take any longer - and they must have done a good job because it didn't give me any pain when it was over, and even when some more feeling started to come back, an Ibuprofen tablet and then even puny parcetamols did all the painkilling required. And when I finally got home and looked in the mirror, I was surprisedby how small (albeit bloody) the dressing was and how small the scar is therefore likely to be.

I can't say just how relieved I was when the operation - which must have been half an hour of surgery - was over, but I was so relieved that I even had a morbid curiosity to see what they had removed. My colourblindness prevents me from giving an accurate description, but to me it looked like a ball of yellow pork fat, swimming in a mixture of blood and possibly some other (unidentified) liquid, dumped in a round margarine pot.

It's been a like it or lump it day for sure - although I'm glad that I have one less lump than when I started.

February 10-16, 2012


I am writing this in retrospect, so there is no time for too much text, but I thought I should at least post the pictures of our latest - and possibly most successful - 'gang weekend'. Off course, it graduated from being just a weekend, a while back, to nearly a whole week of fun and relaxation with a group of friends made up of old school chums and their wives.

This time we were in Kent, in a fairly isolated spot, miles from most places, and for the first time in the 20 years we've been going away together, there was not only snow on the ground but - one morning - in the air!

We got around a lot of places, including not far from base for our Seven O'Clock Club walks; Canterbury; Dover Castle; Deal, where I discovered an exceptional real ale-mad pub called The Berry; Sandwich, a town packed with old buildings; Broadstairs - very appropriate in the bicentennial of Dickens's birth as he spent a lot of time there; and even a day trip to France, where we tracked down the grave of my ancestor Jabez Staples MM, a hero of the First World War, who is buried at Anneux Cemetery.

Our day in France also included a visit to the Wellington tunnels, which were used by the Allied forces prior to the Battle of Arras, and the ever-impressive Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge.

We are aiming to find out more about Jabez in time, so I will save that for later.

Possibly the most memorable night was organised by Pete and was a Seventies-themed night including fancy dress, with Julie dressing up like a refugee from Top of the Pops 1975 and me going as Pele.

I don't think I've ever been quite as pleased about how the pictures turned out - especially the snowy ones, and the following are only the best. The rest (and bigger versions of the ones below) are on my Flickr account.

February 3-7, 2012

The history man

I was just about to say that history seems to be taking over my life, but it's probably more accurate to say it's now more about heritage than history.

What's the difference? Well, whereas in the not too distant past I used to spend a lot of my time reading about and finding out about one kind of history or another, these days there isn't much time for that as I'm too concerned with how that history is handled in the present and the future. That's what heritage is, if you ask me (not that you did, of course): the handing-over of history from one generation to another.

In 2009 I co-founded the Alfred Williams Heritage Society and last year I found myself on the committee of the Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery - which is about what happens to the cemetery now and in the future, more than anything else, and therefore heritage. I don't generally make a habit of hanging around graveyards.

Then, on Friday, I became a trustee of the board of the Mechanics' Institution Trust, which is pretty flattering as they have been striving, for the last 17 years, to make sure Swindon's most important building is not only preserved and restored, but used for something fitting its original purpose as a community hub. They are Swindon's only official building preservation organisation, so I am feeling pretty flattered.

Depending on certain legal and political events, the Mechanics' future will be resolved soon - and hopefully the trust will have a say in it. Imagine that - people being allowed to make their own decisions about their own heritage!

What most people don't realise (unless they've read this, which I wrote a couple of years ago, including the mythbusting list at the end) is the Mechanics' is an extremely important building, even compared with most other extremely important buildings. That's because it is Grade II*-Listed. That * puts it very near the top of the List and makes all the difference. It is the guarantee that, contrary to what people often assume, the Mechanics' will never be allowed to fall down. If it does, Swindon Borough Councillors will be seriously in breach of their legal responsibilities and lucky indeed if they escape being burnt at the stake.

Because of the Big Society idea - which may or may not have any credibilty when push comes to shove - and the certainty that communities will take greater responsibility for heritage/the arts/culture in the future, there are quite big issues involved and most of them are wrapped up with the need to win PR battles, so I hope I can do my bit.