Like being in ‘Groundhog Day’

I managed to ignore the screams of the  gulls that gathered on the  rooftop of Castaways just before first light. They couldn’t peel me out from the layers of slumber. Not long after, with the tide high in the creek and reasonable light, the giant machinery used to haul boats in and out of the water grumbled into life. Sleep over. It was a moment or two until I felt the familiar pull across my left side, the tightly drawn corset, and a ripple of pain as I shifted in bed. I looked up at the ceiling, staring into the blank space of my own version of ‘Groundhog Day.’

On any road to recovery, there are good days and bad days, and ultimately I know that the relative distribution of these will decide on how progress will fall. Today started off as a bad day, falling into all too familiar, of limited routines and potential. Even the sun, a welcome visitor these last days, had given up, leaving the day shrouded in a curtain of grey.

Where does the sea end and the sky begin? Even the day was shrouded in grey.
Where does the sea end and the sky begin? Even the day was shrouded in grey.

Those first movements, from horizontal to vertical, take supreme effort, as muscle and sinue rub against each other, bones flex, and the diaphragm tightens, sending sharp waves crashing through the body. I am a few paces away from the first painkillers of the day, swallowed as a greedy handful. I glance at the clock, noting when I can take the next batch.

Over breakfast the day shifts again. Brussels is bombed. Those poor people, killed, maimed, frightened, scarred. Everything is relative. My little world of frustration dissolves, as I think of Belgium, and those lives transformed in an instant. I cannot understand why anyone would do such a thing – yes, I understand in my head, but my heart and my soul can only weep.

I continued to do those things that make up my Groundhog Day, with a heavier heart, but not for me. Oh what a world we live in. In holding the perspective, as I walked a little further today, I thought about the picture I’d put on Instagram yesterday. Progress may be slow, but it is progress.

Three weeks on from Post-Op
Three weeks on from Post-Op

If you are not familiar with the film, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, and is the inspiration for the title, take a look at the trailer…

 

 

Book Review: The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, by Alexander McCall Smith

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The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine is the latest (number 16) in the beloved series The Ladies No.1 Detective Agency, and Mma Ramotswe must contend with her greatest challenge yet – a holiday. Mma Ramotswe allows herself to be manipulated into taking a holiday by her assistant, Mma Makutsi, and her husband, Mr J L B Matekoni, who share a concern that Mma Ramotswe is taking on too much. Typical of the style of the book, Mr J L B Matekoni persuades Mma Ramotswe that a holiday would indeed be a good idea.

“I worry about you a great deal, Mma. I worry that you will take all the cares of the world on your shoulders and that you will collapse under the weight. I worry that you will open your heart to so many people that eventually it will be full – crowded – and it will stop because there is no room for the blood to go round. I am worried that you will look after so many people that you will forget that there is one person who also needs looking after, and that person is you, Mma. I am worried about all these things” Mr J. L. B. Matekoni.”

On the first morning of her holiday, Mma Ramotswe has cleaned out her kitchen cupboards, but does not know what else to do. Of course, there is one thing that must be done on holiday, and that is to drink more tea. She decides to take tea at the President Hotel in Gaborone, and there begins a series of events that Mma Ramotswe cannot help but become involved whilst on holiday. Mma Ramotswe rescues the orphaned boy Samuel, carpark ‘guardian’ near the hotel; she comes across the arch-enemy, Violet Sepotho’s, latest venture; she goes to the assistance of the overwhelmed Mr Polopetsi, the part-time Chemistry teacher who is also volunteering at the Ladies No.1 Detective Agency. Their latest case is a matter of great delicacy concerning the late politician Government Keboneng, and Mma cannot resist an undercover role.

It is not the mysteries in themselves that are the attraction, even delight, in this series, but the observations on life as seen through the eyes of Mma Ramotswe and the conversations that she has with Mma Makutsi and Mr J L B Matekoni. It is like picking up with an old friend. The simple philosophies and views of the world are refreshing, delivered in a convincing tone and diction that McCall-Smith captures to perfection. Topics roam around the book, indeed the series, such as politics (and the behaviour of those in power), getting the happiness you deserve, divine retribution (with Violet Sepotho as a frequent example), food (and the merits of drinking red bush tea), the values of body image (the advantage of being traditionally built), and in The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, what your shoes might say if they could talk.

“Mma Ramotswe looked down at her hands, folded passively on her lap. Was she getting stale? She looked at her shoes, at her faithful brown shoes with their broad soles and their flat heels. Were these the shoes of a stale person?… Her gaze shifted to Mma Makutsi’s shoes… Wearing a pair of bottle-green patent sandals with wedge heels. The crisscross straps of the sandals were numerous, but thin – impossibly so, thought Mma Ramotswe – and could not be much stronger, she felt, than the gossamer of a spider’s web… No matter how impractical such sandals might be, they were clearly not the sandals of a stale person.”

This series is never going to win any great prize in literature, but that is no matter. The prize of each book is in spending time with Mma Ramotswe, and The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine is no different. A thoroughly enjoyable and calming experience that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Whilst The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine could easily be read independent of the series, I would heartily recommend beginning with book number one, and meandering through the complete series – although the perhaps not one after another. That might be a little too much of a good thing.

 

Book Review: Walking Away by Simon Armitage

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Walking Away is the ‘sequel’ to Walking Home, (which I have not read), where Armitage set up a kind of experiment to see if he could live off his wits as a travelling poet and pay his way, walking home along the Pennine Way. Apparently it was successful. It occurred to him that it was not really a stretch, for he was on home ground. Would it work on another path, somewhere quite different to his homeland? He chose part of the South West Coastal path.

A friend leant the book to me, else I would certainly have never come across it. It intrigued me – the coastal path that frames my home county, and a poet holding the pen. What riches I expected.

Walking Away was not a bounty of riches, but lurched, rather like the frequent ups and downs of the rugged coastline. There were occasional brilliances in the prose, lines that you wanted to savour, decadently, like a piece of dark chocolate, but these were midst so much grumbling narrative. Armitage struck me as a disgruntled troubadour, and I did not warm to him. His boots were falling apart, his back hurt, the paths were too treacherous to allow anything but looking at the path. There were many followers and hangers-on, so he craved being alone. In finding himself alone, he became concerned that the days would become indistinguishable in his toil.

Perhaps I was asking too much of Armitage. Perhaps it was poor timing on my part to read the book durging my recuperation from lung surgery. I wanted the escape from my inability to tramp a long path, to breathe in the sea air, and stretch my legs with him. Instead, it was a great relief to wave him off.

Armitage completely annoyed me in the afterword, fortunately it was positioned as such, else I fear I would have never set off with him. He had a preconception of stereotyping the generosity of the northern and southerners in their contribution to his sock, totalling the payment received enroute. He abandoned that idea somewhere along the path, thankfully. However, this also wasn’t a poet wandering and making his way as he went – his generous thanks were given to Caroline Hawkridge who stage managed the accommodation, transport and readings.

For the gems, those savoured observations in Walking Away, there was too much hassle. Perhaps that’s what Armitage himself felt about the whole experience. One that he said he would not be repeating.

On being in hospital…

Secured to the wall...
Secured to the wall…

I was in hospital for a total of three weeks. That’s a long time for anyone to be in hospital. You have to be pretty ill to be in hospital for that length of time, and yet in my own mind (and those who visited my bed-neighbours, who told me I looked too well to be in a hospital bed) I wasn’t ill. I was pretty poorly, it turned out, but mine was a mechanical failure, not some desperate illness. Don’t get me wrong, it was where I needed to be, and I was in a great deal of pain. But I didn’t have a lung disease, or heart failure, or cancer as others did. These women looked ill.

Hospital life relies on its routines. At first these are alien, but you quickly succumb to them, and they add structure, comfort even, to the days. Days that merge into one. I scoffed at the hot chocolate trolley marking the end of the day in the early days. That changed, and the thick milky drink became as important as the drugs trolley – and that was the single most important thing. In the respiratory ward in Royal Cornwall I was in the last bed of six. It took just under an hour for the nurse to get to me through the five other beds, and a couple of minutes only to give me the paracetamol and codeine my body needed. If they could move, these women rattled. I repeat, I wasn’t really ill.

Some of those women who were ill saddened me, because they suffered from a greater malaise, loneliness. Ladies who lived alone, and took pleasure from the camaraderie in the hospital ward. There is no privacy on a hospital ward, everything is overheard, even when you try not to. Behind the curtain pulled around a bed during doctor’s rounds, these women would grumble and splutter, presenting much worse than they really were. Being in hospital was more enjoyable than what waited at home. Those women broke my heart every day. None more so than Iris, who when pressed about her next-of-kin listed her solicitor. “Every one else is dead,” she said. It makes you think.

In the many hours of lying in bed, observing and being a part of the rhythm of hospital life, there is a lot of time to reflect. Being in hospital has taught me several life lessons.

One. Never take anything for granted. As I said before, one day you’re on one path, and then you’re not.

Two. Be as fit as you can be. Always. The metaphorical run for a bus. Those that recovered better were fit. If you go into hospital out of shape, you will come out much, much worse.

Three. The effects of smoking are truly gruesome. I met two women, heavy smokers all their lives. Both said that they were now ex-smokers. Time in intensive care sharpens the focus.

Four. Kindness is one of the greatest gifts you can give, and receive. When I was frightened, or frustrated others held my hand when I cried.  When a distressed lady took a bed next to me, her mind a muddle with her dementia, my soothing voice calmed her.

Five. The mind is incredibly powerful. It’s Henry Ford – whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right. There were women who had given up on their own health, and resigned to the worst of their ailments. There were others who, like me, who said, “I don’t know if I can do that, but I’ll try.” That attitude helps you heal.

Six. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help.

I wouldn’t wish hospital on anyone. I hated my own experience. There is always something to take from it, tough as it may be.

Please note – I was on a female ward in both hospitals. This is the reason for the distinction of gender. It was simply my experience, not a careless, anti-feminist statement on my part.

 

Book Review: A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines

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Set in Yorkshire in the 1960s, A Kestrel for a Knave is a day in the life of Billy Casper. Billy is a boy about to leave school, destined for work in the pit, like his half-brother Jud. Billy comes from a broken home and lives in something close to poverty. Flashbacks pepper the account of his day, and give context to Billy’s release from everything, Kes. Kes is a kestrel hawk that Billy took from a nest and trained.

Hines’ story begins with Billy in bed, and ends in the same place, but everything has changed in the course of this day. It is a continuous narrative, without chapters, entirely from Billy’s viewpoint. The prose is raw and stark, which helps to build up the picture of Billy’s bleak childhood. The prose comes to life when Billy heads out into nature, which becomes his salvation. Billy wanders for miles and miles in order to escape the grimness of his lonely existence. At school he has no friends. At home he seems unloved. He is treated brutally by his brother, and suffers a lack of affection from Mrs Casper, his mother.

Billy is always in trouble at school. He is marked out by Mr Gryce, the authoritarian head master. Billy is mocked by his peers. It is hard to have sympathy with Billy at times, because he seems to be unlikeable, unloveable. If others give up on him, why might the reader be any different? Billy becomes interested in falconry, and as detailed in a flashback, he goes to a library to join. Only he can’t, as he believes no one will vouch for him, so he goes to a bookshop and steals a book. Hardly model behaviour. My view of Billy shifted through the only character with any sympathy for Billy, Mr Farthing. Billy is a boy of few words, but Mr Farthing entices Billy to speak in class about Kes, and in this soliloquy, something wonderful shines from Billy. Mr Farthing feels it, his classmates feel it, as does the reader. Billy somehow shifts between victim and fighter, and in this scene, I felt my allegiance shift. Within this day, is a long narrative about a game of football. Billy falls victim to the PE teacher, and is cruelly treated, which further served to reinforce my own mental fight for Billy.

The culmination of the day comes when Billy takes a decision that will cost him dearly. He does not place Jud’s bets, but spends the money on chips. The consequences are dire for Billy, way beyond what he deserves. Billy’s day ends as it began, in bed, but nothing is the same, and you are left with the feeling that hope has died.

A Kestrel for a Knave is a stark tale, both depressing and with hope, although that is again shattered at the end. The 2000 edition includes an afterword by Hines, reflecting on the 1968 novel. He says that he would write it without the dialect – the dialogue is thick with the abruptness of the Yorkshire accent – and also make Mrs Casper more affectionate towards her son. Both of these I would welcome. Ultimately, I feared for the future of Billy Casper, in his vicious cycle of poverty and neglect, which is an unpleasant and uncomfortable feeling to be left with. A Kestrel for a Knave is a powerful novel, with a rightful place in the school syllabus.

A Kestrel for a Knave is part of my Reading Challenge for 2016, and is a book that you should have read at school.

Book Review: July’s People, by Nadine Gordiner

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July’s People is the 1981 published novel, in an imagined situation of anti-apartheid South Africa that descends into civil war. The white, liberal Smales are rescued by their servant, July, and taken to his village for protection, where they must adjust to a new life.

July’s People is written from the viewpoint of Maureen Smales, wife to Bam and mother to their three children. It is a short book, with an uncomfortable style. The writing is fragmented and took a while for me to warm to. It did not suit being picked up and put down at bedtime, but fared better with a run to grow accustomed to the style. The disjointed writing somehow echoes the situation that the Smales’ find themselves in – the exodus from Johannesburg in the yellow bakkie, or the snatched news that comes from a radio that is impossible to tune. Within this bumpy narrative is gasping beauty in Gordiner’s writing. Not once did I want to give up on her, or the Smales’ plight. You can really imagine yourself there, living an alien life in a country you know to be home, all credit to Gordiner’s writing.

In July’s People, Gordiner has created a story whereby the roles of the Smales and July are reversed. Nothing is the same once they flee, and July gradually gathers all the power. This is a novel about this reversal and the adjustment that the family go through. The Smales are dependent on July, and July’s People, for their hut, their food and their lives. The Smales are ill-equipped to deal with the life they find themselves in. They can’t speak the local language, they can’t thatch a hut, and they can’t gather plants. The theme of power is an important one in the book, and there are several points where the position of power changes. When July has the keys to the bakkie. When the Chief summons them to decide if they can remain. When the Chief asks Bam to teach him to shoot. When Bam’s gun goes missing and July refuses to help. There is a slow shift in power in Gordiner’s story, with a magnificent symmetry in this reversal that you discover when you finish the story and reflect on the whole.

Bam’s undoing is heightened when his gun is stolen, which emancipates him and renders him powerless, useless. Maureen becomes more alert through this, and more detached in a different way. She sees her husband dissolving in front of her. Her children flourish. They have learned the language and play with children of the village, and run more and more feral and independent. The children, you see, have adapted, where their parents fail to.

In July’s People, after the initial exodus, nothing happens and yet everything happens. The decision to flee brings a chain reaction of events that you wonder if Bam and Maureen would have taken had they known the outcome. The Smales become July’s People.

The ending of July’s People is unexpected, and initially I felt disappointed by it and had to read it over again. As it draws to a close, the narration becomes increasingly introspective, as Gordiner takes us further into Maureen’s mind, her own trauma. She sees herself in increasing isolation from her family. Previously the protector, she has no real place in the life she finds herself in, and in an almost euphoric madness she chases after a helicopter that has landed nearby, presumably in search of rescue from the rescue that she finds herself trapped in. It is extremely clever, and part of the symmetry of the story. Genius.

July’s People is part of my Reading Challenge for 2016, and is a book that was once banned. It was banned in South Africa.

 

When life throws a curveball

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On 3rd February, in my daily journal, I was scribbling about going away with Pete to celebrate our wedding anniversary, about competing in the Scillies, and some thoughts that were emerging in working on the structure for my WIP.

On 4th February, before we set off for Devon, I went gig rowing, and struggled to get my breath. The drive to Devon was uncomfortable, and I’d started to have chest pains. It’s trapped wind, I thought. After a fairly disastrous evening, the pain grew more acute. We left early to come home the following day, after a night spent in agony pacing up and down in the bathroom, so that I could try and see my GP. By 6pm, I was sitting in A&E, after my GP had spoken with the Acute team in Royal Cornwall Hospital. Two hours later, a chest X-ray revealed that my left lung had completely, and rather spectacularly, collapsed. And so began an education in medical terms, and procedures. Pneumothorax. Pleura. It took three attempts to get the chest drain in, on a trolley in A&E, where I screamed the place down. So began a traumatic and gruelling few weeks. A series of chest drains did not inflate the lung, so I was transferred to Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital by ambulance in the company of a cheery paramedic (on my birthday). Further chest drains (a big badass one, which was truly horrific in sounds and sensations, if not in pain, by then the teams understood my extremely low pain threshold!) did not work, so after two false starts (being bumped on lists) I had surgery to inflate the lung on Monday 22nd February. Unfortunately key hole surgery wasn’t possible, so it was the ‘traditional’ method of being sliced open.  Thoracotomy. I spent five days in recovery on their high dependency cardiothoracic ward, almost stuck to the bed and the ward’s wall by a series of tubes – two chest drains, suction for the drains, oxygen, an epidural (pain relief) and a catheter. Last Friday I was discharged, and I’m now on the slow path of recuperation.

Yesterday I had my chest drain stitches removed (the practice nurse telling me that she’d never seen such thick thread, oh deep joy), and a kind-of telling off. I am one who pushes herself. Recovery will take as long as it takes, possibly up to 18 months. I have had major surgery. I have had some of the most traumatic medical procedures (again and again). I am still poorly. I must slow down.

I am in a great deal of pain, and I swear I can still feel the ghost of the chest drains. I am restricted in what I can do in the short-term (next six weeks). It has only been in the last few days that my brain has been able to cope with concentrating on anything. Reading and writing are becoming friends again. Moving is an effort. My main Physio is walking, extending how far I go each day. Today it was eight minutes. I’ll torture myself if I dwell or compare that to where I was before, so I have to let that go. I can get back to where I was, and that’s the prize.

No more is competing in the World Pilot Gig Championships in April, although I hope to go as a spectator. The WIP is back on hold. No driving, no pushing, pulling or lifting. Life has shrunk, but in many ways so have I. I’m not sure what I’ll blog in the coming weeks, except sticking with the discipline of book reviews. The tricky books in The Book Challenge are on hold, until my mind feels more coherent. I’ve searched online, and there is very little support/pathway in recovering from lung surgery, so perhaps I will take up the mantel.

For now I cannot stress enough – you never know what is around the corner.