Monday, 23 February 2009

The Colony Of Slippermen (PG Rated)

White walls; clinical.

The sound of muted conversation echoes down the corridor: the only evidence that life outside is still ongoing. The smell of disinfectant hangs in the air like a gentle mist.

Four plain walls, no decoration: just a clock on the wall, a TV and two plastic jugs of water that I’m not allowed to touch. There are about ten of us present, all politely waiting for our turn. In the front left corner is the door to freedom, in the front right the TV, unloved and unwanted, shows endless athletics. The emergency exit sits in the back right of the room, shrouded by blinds and making the sense of isolation complete.

The clock sits dead still at 10:45am. I’ve already handed my watch and keys to my partner and feel very lost in this timeless environment. I put my head back on the white wall and try to sleep. My partner is busy making friends with the old lady next to her: she’s good at this human interaction stuff – I’m really not. I listen to her voice and let it comfort me, glad that she is there.

I ask for the time: it’s already 2pm. I haven’t eaten or drank since 5am and I’ve been here, along with everyone else, since 12:30pm. Hardly anyone has been seen yet.

As a defence mechanism I start making stupid jokes: I talk about the athletics on the TV: how did the triple jump evolve, I wonder – I mean a hop YES, a skip, MAYBE, a jump DEFINITELY, but all three? What happens if you forget to skip? Do they knock off points or is it disqualification? I talk about my suggestion for the 2012 Olympics – that we should suggest Olympic Musical Chairs as an additional event. A part of me really wants to see the teams walk into the half-finished arena waving the flags whilst a presenter says “And here comes the British Olympic Musical Chairs team in the middle of the pack: they’ve had a lot of problems with funding over the past two years, most of them have been practicing with a bucket: so I wonder how quickly they’ll adapt to the Olympic Standard Chair” and suggest that, in keeping with childhood parties, the songs should all be by The Muppets or “Remember You’re A Womble”

I shut up, aware that I’m babbling. A gaunt man with scraggly stubble and a blue overall calls my name and I walk through. He tells me the same things I’ve already been told five times, asks me the same questions. Do I have any loose fillings? No, Do I have any history of heart disease, Diabetes or any other Non-Fun Diseases (NFDs)? Again – No.

He explains that they are going to perform an Endoscopy – send a tube down my throat and have a good nose to see what’s going on in my stomach. He also says they’re going to do a biopsy whilst they’re in there: take some samples from my stomach lining to check on my food allergy. He seems to be the first person I’ve spoken to today who knows that this is why I’m here – but I don’t mind too much as he’s the one doing it.

You see: ever since I was very, very young I’ve had a food allergy: I’m on a special diet so most of the time I don’t have a problem, but just recently the Doctor’s keep saying that I really should have another check for the NFDs that I’m apparently more prone to than the average person. Amongst the NFDs they say I could look forward to are such fun illnesses as Stomach Cancer, brittle bones, Diabetes and an increased likelihood to get Flu. Eventually I got sick and tired of hearing it and, foolishly, agreed to let them have a look – if only to shut them up for a while.

Personally I just think they have a quota each year and if they don’t ram something inside you from time to time they lose their funding. This conclusion has been reached because no one will tell me exactly how much more likely I am to get these NFDs. Is it one percent? Five? Fifty-five? How can I decide if not being probed every five to ten years is an acceptable risk if no one will tell me?

Eventually the man in the blue coat finishes his spiel and sends me packing. It’s not until much later that I think how funny it would have been to ask him if I will be able to sing after the procedure, so that when he says “yes” I can respond “Well that will be a bloody miracle, because I can’t sing now!”

They call my name again and this time there’s no escape – I go through to a small cubicle and undress, struggling to do up the gown at the back and the sides, placing my belongings into a hand basket that looks suspiciously like it’s been stolen from Tesco. As I don’t have any slippers they tell me to leave my trainers on: the last thing they need is me slipping over and breaking my neck! After a while a Chinese nurse comes to collect me, asks me to confirm who I am. I look at the tab of white around my wrist and wonder what the point of this is when I could read the information from here.

I go through to the procedure room and again I’m making stupid jokes. I do this when I’m nervous or bored or…well, almost any time really, but especially when nervous or bored. I ask one of the nurses if she ever wakes up and thinks “oh no, not another stomach: let’s shove it up his nose and look at his brains for a change?” but she doesn’t look amused. She looks like she’s spent too much time riding horses on Daddy’s vineyard and replies in a nice tone of voice that nonetheless tells me I am little more than a sack of meat as far as she is concerned.

The Endoscopist shows me the spray they will use on my throat and warns me that it will taste awful: a bit like rancid bananas. I suggest that they should produce a range of foul tastes for variety: peach melba perhaps, but open my mouth nonetheless. It is exactly like rancid bananas: only it stings as well.

They lie me down on one side, having to undo the gown around the neck because it is choking, and put a stopper between my teeth to keep my mouth open. The Endoscopist explains that this is the worst part, as when the scope goes over the back of the throat it can cause gagging. A convoluted discussion ensues as to whether I will need oxygen or not: the Endoscopist laughs off the suggestion of my air passages being partially blocked, but the nurse seems to win the argument as a small tube is pressed into my nose.

He asks me to swallow: and I realise in an instant that he is totally wrong – over the throat is easy: the feeling as the instrument descends down my neck, pressing against my windpipe, and into my gut is far worse: like swallowing a sword or a snake. I feel his thin tube pushing down through my mouth, down my throat, penetrating my body. I want it gone, now: but lie still. The pulse-monitor on my finger slips and I wonder if it is possible to find a comfortable position where I will not dislodge it.

My whole world now consists entirely of the sight of his hands adjusting the controls, the blue of the nurse’s uniforms and the steady ping-ping-ping of the monitors reminding me of the control panels on Star Trek. I try to breathe steadily and not think too much about what he is doing, but I can still feel the pressure in my throat and silently urge him to stop telling me what he is doing and just get the hell on with it.

He pushes a thin metal wire into a section of the tube and I feel a tug as he pulls out a section of my stomach wall: once, twice: four or five times in total – each time it’s like being pinched inside and then pulled quite hard. I try not to swallow too often, aware of the tube pressing against me from inside.

Finally, after what feels like a lifetime, he announces that he is pleased and begins to remove the scope and I feel it wriggling worm-like; slouching towards bethelehem so to speak...

Someone raises the sides of the bed and asks me to turn on my back. They ask me to sit and immediately my head starts to spin. Every time I swallow my throat complains.

I tell them that I can’t stand just yet and the Chinese nurse that led me through piles my Tesco shopping basket on the bed and pushes me through to a recovery room where she takes my blood pressure and my pulse. I feel bad for being such a pain and such a wuss: silently confirming to myself that the old lady before me probably got straight back up, did a little dance and swung her handbag at the Endoscopist in revenge. I apologise to the Chinese nurse for wasting her time and thank her for being a lovely audience.

Finally they allow me to stand and get dressed, before offering to let me look at the notes to see that everything is fine. I walk over, expecting to see a scan of my stomach, but there is only a drawing of a stomach with nothing much written on it. I wonder what this is supposed to prove: that the nurses are better artists than I am?

I thank them for their help and for looking after me and walk back to where my partner is waiting for me. I’m almost pathetically glad to see her, to know that she has been waiting for me, thinking about me whilst I was in there: thinking that words will never express how much that means to me.

As we leave the building I find myself thinking that modern medicine may well be wonderful, but that I’ve had just about enough of it for now thank you very much.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The World Won’t Listen

So today I’m on the bus (as is often the way) and I pick up the Ever Inadvertently Amusing “Metro” and flick through what is laughingly described as news. Sometimes there are some nice pictures in this publication, some of which I have used as the basis for paintings. Mostly it’s celebrity gossip and headlines from around the world.

Today the item that hits my attention the most is about a school where the teacher asked his very young kids to write down a list of the swearwords they knew, what they thought they meant and how they would feel if that word was used as an insult or to bully them.

The article was basically saying that a bunch of parents had got together and complained that their kids had come home with a list of swearwords in their books with a “well done” tick from the teacher.

Whilst I agree that this was probably not the best response I think that, personally speaking, I would be a little more worried that my five-year-old knew words like c**ksucker and had a good idea what they meant. I might even go so far as to applaud the teacher for making the kids think twice before using such words. As it is the teacher has been reprimanded and the pages removed from the books.

As I have mentioned before it is the common practice around my way to use a swearword as a thinking gap in a conversation. A recent survey that said that the average person swears 15 times a day missed the mark entirely down my street and needed to replace the word “day” with “second”

And of course, there is always the temptation to look back at one’s own childhood and imagine it to be a “Just William” style time of Swallows And Amazons and lashings of Ginger Beer, when the Police were to be Respected (with capital “R”) and everything was so much more innocent – when of course no such thing was true. I can’t deny knowing and using swearwords from a very young age, but I do worry that the frequency of use denotes a deterioration of literacy.

Some of the people I know are surprised when I use an unfamiliar word (I recently described something that had been said as a bit “Jingoistic” and then had to explain what that meant, as well as putting out an email that advertised “Sugar based comestibles” to general confusion) – but I guess it just comes from the fact that I love to read and am genuinely interested in language.

We are the only species on the planet that has developed such a complicated manner of communications; most others have only managed grunts, squeals and exchanging smells (admittedly this mirrors the behaviour of the average British Teenager on holiday in Greece) and I think that we should delight in the freedom of expression that this brings.

Quite recently there was a complaint that many public signs are now spelled incorrectly – for instance a road sign that stated “City Center” (US spelling) instead of “City Centre”. Meanwhile I can't name a single senior Manager that can get through an email without a spelling mistake and our Communications Department recently put out an email advertising Casual Dress Day as an opportunity to "where red". Even I, incredibly well-versed as I am, would struggle to cope without my ever-ready Spell-check.

And the question that many people have asked is “well, does it really matter?”

Well – in a way Yes, and in a way No. If linguists controlled the world (instead of the cats/traffic cone manufacturers conspiracy we’ve previously agreed on) then language would never change and would be written in stone. Rules would always apply and there’d be none of this nonsense where the word “Phonetic” was not even spelt phonetically.

But the truth is that language is forever changing and evolving to match our means of communications. If you were to travel back even 100 years the chances are that you wouldn’t be able to communicate with someone you met there because the language and the terms of reference have changed so much.

English is, alongside Japanese, described as the most difficult language to learn for a foreigner because of its inconsistencies (try explaining why “Stationery” (things you find in the office) and “Stationary” (not moving) are spelt so similar, but mean totally different things to a non-English language user and see what I mean) – but it is equally one of the most beautiful.

For a good example of what I mean, and in honour of the memory of my Gran and Grandad (father’s side), please find below a poem written in the local dialect of Sheffield:

Where's tha bin tha mucky tyke
Laykin t'all afternoon
Inter't sink oil yorll be fun
Look at tha britches showin
Muck an splat reet up t'neck
Black as soot thee clothes
No more laykin for thee tonait
Intert 'outhouse tha guz begone

And a rough translation (by myself, so apologies for mistakes)

Where have you been, you mucky kid?
Playing all afternoon (NB: I’m not sure exactly what “Laykin” means)
In the sink (wash yourself) or you’ll be in trouble
Look at your underwear showing
Muck splattered right up to your neck
Your clothes are black as soot
No more playing for you tonight
Get in the outhouse now – begone!

In its way this poem is as beautiful as any Shakespeare poem, with its own unique way of showing the world that says a lot about the times and the society it was written in.

One of the main themes of George Orwell's classic "Nineteen Eighty-Four" is the way that Big Brother controls language through the use of Newspeak - the theory being that if you deny the public the ability to put their revolutionary thoughts and doubts about the system into words then you equally deny them the ability to think those thoughts in the first place.

There is the possiblity that by chosing to limit our language ourselves in this way we have done away with the need for a despot and are heading full throttle into simplicity all by ourselves.

Whether this is true or not it pains me to think that future generations may know little better than to punctuate their every thought with a rude word because they have lost the ability to put their heads in the clouds and dream.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Nine Million Bicycles

The great thing about urban myths is how easy they are to start as opposed to how difficult they are to stop.

Even today thanks to an over-excited journalist and a weather balloon thousands of Sci-fi buffs across the planet suffer premature ejaculation at the mere mention of the word “Roswell”, meanwhile despite all the evidence that the deaths of Kennedy, Monroe and Diana were down to simple assassination, suicide and accident respectively people continue to gather in dark corners and mutter “conspiracy”

One of my favourite bits of un-provable bunkum is the so-called fact that if everyone in China was to jump at the same time it would cause a tidal wave.

Exactly how do we know this? Have their been experiments? Have there been actual recorded historical events where the “free world” has said “Oi, China: free Tibet now” only to be told, “Try and make us: we’re ready to jump at a moment’s notice”?

Are thousands of Chinese children being trained right at this very moment to jump in synchrony? Do we have evidence? Of course not. Mind you: as far as threats go it beats the nuclear deterrent hands down. We probably need orders signed in triplicate before we can even consider pointing a weapon at an enemy – all China needs to do is raise an angry foot.

This threat had been particularly relevant to me over the last two weeks, because I have spent an increasing amount of my time jumping up and down with frustration at my local bus companies and could well have done with the weight of nine million Chinese poised and ready to jump with me.

The problem is that the times of my local bus has changed so that instead of running a fifteen minute service at peak times it only runs every half-hour. This problem has been made worse by the fact that they are still advertising and promoting the fifteen minute service.

The Bus Company tell me that the information at the stations is nothing to do with them and is provided by the Station Company. They tell me that they are unable to pass back complaints or do anything about the displays. In general their whole attitude is “We just don’t care”

The Station Company tell me that the information they display is given to them by the Bus Company – so if it is wrong then it is not their fault.

The Travel Information company (whose website is not displaying a timetable for my route) say that there IS a fifteen minute service according to them and further tell me that the Bus Company are useless and not interested in helping before going on to start complaining to me about their own bus service

After two weeks and a dozen complaints I’m starting to think that they should enter me for a prize draw for a holiday in the Seychelles.

So what we have here is two different companies running two halves of the same service – with neither company having any easy means of clear dialogue with the other.

I wonder where the Bus Company thinks its main source of income comes from: is it a) Migrating Penguins travelling south to give birth, b) Hoards of aliens hell-bent on mankind’s destruction or c) paying customers boarding and alighting from their busses

And where do people (in general) do this from?

The change in times and the inability to get a clear answer from anyone has resulted in me having to leave my house much earlier in the mornings and take pot luck with services in the evening. I can barely wait until it is light enough in the evenings to cycle to work and all of this nonsense is behind me – no wonder people prefer to use their cars than rely on unreliable public transport.

Things moved forward slightly last night, because I was able to pick up a new copy of the new timetable for my service – what resemblance this timetable has to reality remains to be seen…

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Strange Days Indeed

The old woman on the bus seems to be attempting to eat herself.

Clearly I’m in one of my Strange Moods because a range of possibilities runs through my head as I stand a few steps back, hang onto the pole and try desperately not to stare at her.

Perhaps she’s been affected by the recent snow and is preparing for when we get stranded and have to eat one another, perhaps she has some peanut butter stuck under her dentures, quite possibly she has some weird facial tick (in which case I am clearly evil for thinking anything like this).

The extreme possibility that she has some kind of aural vibrator and is secretly pleasuring herself pops into my head and won’t dislodge. This may seem bizarre and, frankly, disturbing – but there was a recent case where a woman passed out in a Major Name Superstore. When the staff came to assist her they could hear a strange buzzing sound and it turned out that she had a vibrator fitted into her knickers and had passed out through sheer pleasure. The manager of the store (who must surely score 100,000,000 points for Comedy Genius Style) was recorded as saying that he would have thought shopping at their store was pleasurable enough as it was…

I realise immediately that I will have to get off the bus early – I feel awful for staring at this woman and thinking these strange things when it’s clear that she has some kind of affliction. Eventually a seat clears and I sit down – but this only makes it worse, because I know that somewhere – unseen – she is still doing it. Mouth going up and down, eyebrows moving in time (I try later to recreate the movement myself and am unable to recreate it – so perhaps she is some kind of facial gymnast preparing for the 2012 Olympics)

Eventually I flee the bus several stops too early and walk down the road – thinking of all the strange habits I intend to adopt when I get older in order to freak out younger people. Until recently I had been oddly keen to fake Tourettes, but this has got rather too much exposure recently and besides its so hard to tell the real sufferers from those on hands free phones (back in my day the man walking down the subway swearing loudly to himself was clearly insane or heavily inebriated, now he could simply be making a phone call to his maiden aunt in Totness)

I pause briefly to consider that in the interests of Equal Opportunities (and my own personal amusement) the Call Centres of the world should be actively recruiting from the Tourettes community (Imagine that: “Welcome to Barcla-ARRGH GERROFF YER BASTARD”) and walk down the hill, knowing that as a result of Gummy-Lady I will now be even earlier to my art group than I had originally envisaged.

So far at the group I have been relatively well behaved and not started doing anything subversive: although to be honest I’m itching to do something that will shake a few of the cobwebs out of their hair.

If you really want to annoy a British person there are two very easy ways to do it. Firstly – not queuing properly. Although the British ability to queue nicely and wait our turn for hours on end without complaint is sadly diminishing there is still very little else that will annoy us more than someone jumping a queue, not standing in line, talking on their phones about how much of a pain the queue, engaging in deep and prolongued conversation about their haemorrhoids with the assistant once they reach the front or doing anything more than the occasional disgruntled look at their watch followed by a “tut” noise.

Another fun way to annoy the British is to sign up for a course, go along to that course for a couple of weeks and then, once everyone is nicely settled into their routines, deliberately change seats.

This is also true of the art group – everyone has their desk set out in a space in the hall where they have been sitting each week since 1952 and woe betide anyone who sits in their space. Of course being British they are far too polite to say anything and just shoot you a series of increasingly hostile looks that if their eyes could shoot laser beams would have you incinerated in a second.

Still: a couple of the things that I have found out about the group disturb me – in as much as how introverted their approach appears to be.

Firstly: they have no website. I recently got into trouble with someone for making a joke about a website being out of date, but in this dog-eat-dog, get-it-now-this-minute world that we live in you can’t expect people to just find you through some kind of osmosis. Letting a site get out of date may well be the cardinal sin of the computer chip age. After all – if you had two sites and one was up to date, which would you go with?

Secondly: one of the people at the group (another trouble causer like me) has suggested that it might be a nice idea if the group was to produce a booklet or catalogue of their collected works to be available to the public at their displays. However, this has to be passed by a majority vote of the committee and a lot of the committee still feel it beneath them to advertise, or that not everyone will want their works displayed. OH COME ON PUH-LEASE

Finally, and most annoying to me: you can only go to the Wednesday workshops for so long before they expect you to become a member (allowing you to go to the Monday meetings). In order to become a member you have to submit three (original) paintings for assessment. If the painting is not considered to be up to their standard then you cannot become a full member (allowed to exhibit and sell through the group) and can only become an associate member.

My question to this is: how do you assess what is and what isn’t an acceptable level of art? After all, a quote I read recently said that “Science is everything we can explain to aliens, Art is everything else”

I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of some modern art: I don’t see the point of Tracy Emin’s unmade bed (although I enjoyed the Japanese Performance Artists who had a pillow fight on it) and Damien Hurst’s pickled shark is a waste of good formaldehyde as far as I’m concerned – but the fact remains that people pay lots of money for the work of both and both are considered by the Art community to be “artists”
When I finally start my own local group (currently called the Combined Real Arts Project: though I think the mnemonic needs a bit of work…) it will be open to anyone regardless of ability so long as they have passion. We will not be afraid to try new ideas or to publicise what we are doing and…oh hell, who am I fooling?

The truth really is that all such groups or gatherings of people eventually become secular: sticking to the ways they know best and unable to see that the cheese is slowly being moved. Sooner or later the power would go to my head. Look at the circles of power and control that have formed within your own workplaces, your street, your families

This is why, when I finally retire, I intend to spend all my time walking through subways and shouting obscenities to thin air: if nothing else it will give people a laugh!

On a final note: this is my 100th posting on this blog. Thanks to everyone who's kept reading so far - i'm glad that this post turned out so totally random: i really wouldn't have it any other way!