Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Greenwich Means Time

I had a great day yesterday. We went to Greenwich Park to visit my Aunt Megan who lives conveniently close by. We met up in the park because she lives in an upstairs flat with access only via a steep flight of concrete steps which I have been unable to climb for the last 25 years. This August's frightful weather had a brief respite and provided us with an overcast but warm afternoon, even deigning to offer the occasional glimpse of sunshine. We even risked taking a picnic.

Greenwich Park is a World Heritage Site, and justifiably so. Situated on a steep hill over looking the Thames river and providing panoramic views of east London it has in it's grounds the National Maritime Museum and the world famous Greenwich Observatory, which gives the world the meridian – the hypothetical line marking Greenwich Mean Time. In the last year or so the observatory has been renovated and developed in to an outstanding visitor attraction and planetarium.

The observatory and visitor centre are free to enter and are packed with state of the art interactive displays and astronomical bits and pieces. While Polly and the boys wandered around touching hands-on virtual space age gizmos Megan and I snuck off to the Time Galleries to gaze at one of the most beautiful and important objects ever made – John Harrison's H4. The H4 is clockmaker Harrison's elegant solution to the Longitude problem, a problem that caused countless deaths at sea and had come to a head in 1705 when the brilliantly named but rather inept Sir Cloudesley Shovell ran a large proportion of the English navel fleet into the rocks off the Isles of Scilly costing 1,400 sailors their lives, because he didn't know exactly where he was.

To know precisely where you were in the days before satellites and GPS you had to know both your Latitude and your Longitude when out of sight of land. Latitude is relatively easy to determine using the sun and stars (1 say relatively as if I could calculate it myself if I chose too – I could, but not with out a copy of Google Earth) but Longitude was a whole different game of pin the tail on the watery donkey. To know your Longitude you need an accurate clock. Since clocks in the early 18th century relied on pendulums they weren't any good unless the sea remained absolutely flat. Since the sea is rarely absolutely flat you need a clock that isn't affected by motion or (equally importantly) changes in temperature. It is difficult to appreciate today how difficult it was to solve this fundamental problem. We take accurate time keeping for granted with our digital watches and atomic radio clocks but in Harrison's day it was considered an almost impossible problem to solve. Indeed, even trying to solve the problem was regarded as akin to inventing a perpetual motion machine might be today, the province of eccentrics and weirdos.

To encourage serious efforts the government offered in 1714 a massive prize of £20,000 (roughly £6 million or $12 million in today money.) Harrison eventually claimed the prize in 1773 after a life time of work and a series of upsets, petty officialdom and most significantly ever increasingly accurate clocks named imaginatively H1, H2, H3 and, of course H4. All four clocks are on display and they are truly beautiful.

After enjoying the wonders of the observatory we went to see a presentation in the planetarium about the life cycle of stars. With me being in a wheelchair we were swept in to the planetarium via a side door and given the best seats in the house. The show was quite awe inspiring as we journeyed through the galaxy visiting nebulae, pulsars and black holes, witnessing a supernova and the death our own Sun many billions of years hence. Fantastic.

It was the first day in a while I've felt up to doing anything so I'm glad it was such a good one.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Insured Of A Future

Polly went to the post office the other day. The boys were with her. She reports the following conversation.

M: (bored)
What's that?

Polly: (distracted)
It's a poster advertising insurance.

What's insurance?

If you buy something valuable like a car or a television you can pay a little bit of money to insure against it being damaged. If it gets broken the insurance company gives you money to buy a new one.

Wow. So if I break the telly they'll give us money for a new one.

Er. . . Well, if you did it accidentally.

What else can be insured?

Just about anything. Houses, boats, people.

People? Like you and daddy?

Well like me. They won't insure daddy.

So, you're insured?

Yes. If I die daddy will be a very rich man.

So if you suddenly die daddy gets lots of money. Cool.

Well yes. But I'd be dead so you would be sad. Wouldn't you?

Yes but dad would be rich. He could marry again.

Polly: (doubtfully)
Who would he marry?

He'd be rich. He could marry any one.. . Kylie Minogue* probably.


M: (hopefully)
Or Catherine Tate**

* For the sake of our American and other non-British readers – Kylie Minogue = Petite Australian Pop Princess

** Catherine Tate = British Comedienne\Actor beloved of M because she stars as Donna, Dr Who's assistant.

Friday, 22 August 2008

A New Look

As you you can see I've given the site a bit of a make over. I hope you like It. Comments would be appreciated.

I have been inspired by Polly who has been busy redecorating our hallway. She has been 'helped` by two small boys. After a while she had had enough 'help' and I have spent a lot of time making up Olympic events involving hoops and plastic tunnels where there are only two competitors. So far they have 15 gold medals each.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

A Wheelchair In Wales

Sorry for not posting for a few days; I'm still recuperating from last week. It's a case of two steps forward, one step back at present. The main problem is fatigue. I'm tiring very quicklybut I'm getting there. Now where were we? Oh yes, Wales.

The Pembrokeshire coast is a national park and is spectacularly beautiful. It is a rugged coastline, dotted with sandy bays, caves and rare wildlife. The whole area is littered with medieval castles. When it rains it dissolves the landscape into a melodramatic scene of countless shades of grey. When the sun shines it is glorious, When the sun shines.

Pam's cough got steadily worse and as a result a doctor had to be called out. This proved easier than you might have expected. Within a few hours of being called a doctor arrived to dispense a prescription and that was pretty much it. Over the next few days Pam gradually recovered and our holiday continued on.

The first few days were spent on the beach doing seasidy type things. When it rained (which was often – this being August, Wales and my summer holiday) we retreated to the local leisure centre to take advantage of Wales' 'free swimming for all` policy. In between showers we visited Carew Castle (pronounced Care-ree) which is a a small but spectacular castle ruin where they put on archery exhibitions and demonstrate medieval armoured fighting techniques. I was beginning to feel a bit bubbly in the chest.

I wouldn't normally have worried too much, At home I would have used the cough machine and kept on top of it, but here, without the necessary equipment the strain began to tell. The more I had to cough, the more tired I became and the harder it was to cough. I could feel the heat of infection starting to burn in the base of my right lung. So on the Saturday, once again a doctor was called but somewhat understandably he sucked air through his teeth and said he would ring the nearest A&E department and warn them to expect me.

The nearest hospital was just over 20 miles away and Polly and I arrived mid-afternoon. We were swept through triage and past a large group of waiting patients to a cubical where someone took blood and measured my O² saturation (90% since you ask) and went through the traditional “We'd better keep you in” chat. Nice though they were, there was no way I was letting myself get trapped in a provincial, non-specialist hospital: Before I'd know it I'd have a tracheotomy and a NG tube. No thank you, I'd take the antibiotics and take my chances. Some friends from home were coming to camp nearby and would arrive on Wednesday and they had said they'd bring the cough machine with them.

On our way out we followed exit signs and went through some double doors towards the car park but found the exit blocked because of building works. We turned around but found the double doors we had come through had automatically locked for security reasons. We went back towards the blocked exit and around the corner to the next set of double doors. These too could only be opened with a security code. Tile were trapped in a corridor. Two elderly ladies sat morosely on chairs."You won't get out that way", they told us with grim satisfaction. Polly and I are made of sterner stuff though and planned our escape with cunning. We waited by the locked door and when someone opened it, looking for the loo, we slipped out, hearing the door click locked behind us, and condemning our unwitting rescuer to limbo and two old ladies. As we moved away I swear I heard a voice say "You wont get out that way." (And was that a cackle?)

Back at the holiday house I began to wonder if I'd made a mistake. My lungs were burning and I couldn't stop coughing. Sucking air in was increasingly hard and I was beginning to feel faint and it was difficult to speak. By the following morning I knew I was in trouble. Polly was seriously considering a 500 mile round trip to get the cough machine or us all packing up and going home. And then, out of the blue, 3 days earlier than planned, our friends Stewart and Catherine and their 4 children arrived with the much needed machine. They'd received Polly's text detailing the situation and had promptly come to our aid, despite having no reserved place to pitch their tent. The cough machine made an almost instant improvement to me. It shifted the by now extremely sticky and hardened mucous and I felt instantly much better.

After a couple of days the antibiotics started to work and for the next week I enjoyed my sunshine and showers holiday with my family and friends. We went to fun places like the excellent Folly Farm and the beautiful Tenby. Our day at Tenby was one of the few purely sunny days of the holiday and was wonderful. I sat on a ramp right next to the beach and read while the children paddled and made sandcastles. On our last day we went to Manor Park, an innovative wildlife park where you can walk through the enclosures along side Wallaby's and Lemurs. When we arrived there was torrential rain and lots of people huddled in cagouls so we ate our picnic lunch in the van and made a dash for it when the rain turned to drizzle. It alternated rain and sun all afternoon but by the end of the visit I was starting to feel feverish.

We stopped at my mum's in Bristol again on the way home which was nice but I was definitely wilting. I made it home and then spent the next 36 hours in bed. The rest you know.

I'm too tired to edit this now so I'm sorry about grammer, spelling, coherence and so on.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

The Wheelchair Goes West

I awoke this morning feeling so much better that I wondered if I'd just been making afuss these last few days. Even when I sat up the resulting coughing fit was relatively mild and I was able to transfer to the wheelchair before needing a nebuliser and the Cough Assist machine. Offering up a prayer of thanks for the inventors of the antibiotics and steroids I've been taking I settled down for my first cup of coffee of the day and to watch a glorious day for the British Olympic team. Just for a while we can feel like a proper sporting nation. My temperature is a bit up and down in line with my consumption of Paracetamol and I'm tiring very quickly but essentially I'm better. So how did the situation come about?

We went on holiday to Wales. To be more precise we went on holiday to Pembrokeshire in the far south west of the country, to stay in a holiday house my parents bought back in the late 1970s at Freshwater East. The house is part of a holiday complex and is completely unremarkable but the setting is wonderful. Only a few hundred yards away is a beautiful, unspoiled, child-friendly sandy beach. It is a perfect bucket and spade, paddling and body boarding sea-side bay. The holiday village is a collection of some 500 white fronted, virtually identical terraced houses mostly grouped together in cul-de-sacs of 15. Groups of young children roam freely, watched over by, but generally unsupervised by, a host of parental eyes, enjoying a freedom of play rarely enjoyed back home. The children have grown up together, though only meeting up for a couple of weeks a year, they form their alliances and establish pecking orders and fall into patterns of friendship as though they have only been a part for a few weeks. New children come and go as families arrive and depart like a tide. Our boys, as you might imagine, adore the place.

The four of us plus Pam, Polly's mum, and our luggage had been packed into our van Tetris style and had to be driven the 250 miles to Pembrokeshire. Because space was so limited compromises had to be made with the amount of baggage we could take. We took the bare minimum of wet and dry weather clothing and necessary equipment such as the battery charger and BiPap but we left the Nebuliser and Cough Assist behind because I only need them when I'm ill and I hadn't had a cough for months and months. The odds of needing them were remote and the Cough Assist is a bulky piece of kit, about the size of an old style portable television. Space in the van was very limited.

We are blessed with two children who don't get travel sick on long journeys. Ensconced in the back with a stack of comics and a Nintendo DS they happily passed the first stage to Bristol where we had an unscheduled stop at my mum's because we had forgotten the keys to the holiday house and had to pick up the spare set. The boys were thrilled to see Granny and for a chance to run around her garden while Polly, Pam and I enjoyed a hot drink and chat. Afterwards we set off again, in glorious sunshine, and crossed over the Severn Bridge in to Wales. We stopped again at a retail park at Sarn to buy school shoes at the Clarke's outlet store and have something to eat. I bought a jacket from a discount store and Pam said she'd pop in to another shop to buy a sun hat. 30 seconds later the heavens opened and it began to pour with a drenching rain.

Back in the van, we rejoined the M4 and continued west. Then Pam began to cough.

To be continued. . .

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Still Ill

The problem with being ill and writing about it is trying to strike the right balance between conveying the true misery of the condition without slipping in to bathos and maudlin self-pity and making light of the situation so as to come across as brave and painting it all as part of life's rich tapestry leaving people to wonder what all the fuss is about. But hey! I'm a writer. It's my job to find the words before the Paracetamol wears off and my temperature goes up to the point where the stylus melts in my hand.

Last night, after downing a cocktail of no less than 16 tablets, I had 3 carers come to put me to bed. I'm not sure why 3 came, perhaps they felt there was safety in numbers, but they fussed over me and hoisted me and then gently lay me down to sleep. Which, somewhat to my surprise, I did, a part from a few coughing fits that woke me but were so exhausting that I promptly went back to sleep. So sleep wasn't a problem. Waking up on the other hand was another matter.

During the night the gunk accumulates in the lungs and ironically the BiPap that keeps me going through the night makes the waking up a misery by having dried it into what feels to me like pieces of hot gravel. Lying there on my air mattress it's just about okay but I know what is coming and anticipating it makes taking the decision to move very hard. As I am lifted to a sitting position everything shifts in my airways and the gravel seems to tumble in to new positions, blocking some of the bronchioles. The bronchioles that the gravel has moved from don't just spring open again so in those first few moments as I'm sat up I am literally gasping for air.

I've thought about this. How can I best describe the sensation? Imagine (and I do mean imagine – don't be stupid enough to actually do this) wrapping a sheet of cling-film around your head and then, after 10 or so seconds, prick the cling-film with a pin and suck your air in through the resulting hole. Now cough, but remember you need to get enough air around the blockages to be able too. Oh, and you can't use your diaphragm. (Well I can't, so in this virtual world neither can you). If you are lucky someone will shove a pressure mask over your face and switch on a Cough Assist machine. After several minutes a number of the bits of gravel have been physically sucked out and you start to feel human enough to think about a mug of very strong coffee.

It's not all over of course but those are the worse few minutes of the day. At least until your 4 year old finds his plastic saxophone.

Got to go now, I have a small meal of medication to get through before I can go back to bed. The antibiotics should kick in tomorrow and the steroids are beginning to take affect. Normal service will be resumed.

Friday, 15 August 2008


We are back from Wales and I am sick. Miserably sick. Whilst away I contracted a lung infection which despite a visit from a doctor and a visit to A&E failed to properly clear, and in combination with the increased tiredness that inevitably accompanies being away from home has landed me in some difficulty. I spent all day yesterday in bed in the hope that a lot of rest and time on the ventilator would make me feel better. I must have been exhausted because I couldn't even read a page of my book let alone eat anything.

I awoke this morning to the comforting but anxious faces of Kalepo and Godfrey who decided they were out of their depth and called for Polly. As I was sat up the gunk in my lungs that had accumulated over the last 36 hours shifted and it felt as though someone had poured liquid concrete directly into my airways which then promptly began to set. Polly slapped the cough machine mask over my face and there followed a frantic period of assisted coughs until I could suck in enough air to enable me to be hoisted into the wheelchair.

This afternoon our GP made a house call. Dr Toosy has, as you might imagine, plenty of experience in dealing with me over the last eight years and so knows not to mess around with a couple of aspirins and some cough drops. He has prescribed me a vast concoction of antibiotics, steroids and nebulisers that hopefully will do the trick. Lord, I hope so. I'm too tired to be ill.

When I feel a bit better I will regale you with tales of our Welsh odyssey. Until then – Nos da.