Friday, 21 October 2016

The Corner

I feel as if I am turning a corner. It is now seven weeks since my surgery and five weeks since I left hospital. The pain of my wound is diminishing and my digestion is improving. I’m putting on weight and I’m able to walk further. There is still some way to go, but I feel that I’m approaching a more normal life; that strange mix of fears and reliefs that punctuate the life of a cancer patient.

My good friend Philip, who I have known since I was eleven, came from England to visit this week. We went to Murlough and did some birdspotting in Dundrum inner bay. But the most unusual bird we saw was actually on the way there, a Merlin flying ahead of us, scouting the hedgerow along a country lane. On another day we went to Castlewellan and walked around the lake. The autumn colours of the beech trees were just turning, and should be at their best in a week or so. Later we went to the Norman castle at Dundrum and surveyed the coast from the top of the keep. Climbing up the narrow spiral staircase was okay, going down was much harder and I was glad of the handrail as my legs got a bit tired and wobbly. We then had a good meal at Maud’s Cafe in Newcastle, finished off by Graham’s excellent ice cream.

I’ve been able to reduce the painkillers I take each day, from four to three grams. But night is still the worst and I often wake up with a throbbing pain in my right side after I have been lying on it awkwardly. I’ve been able to eat more at each meal and to take a more normal range of foods. I tend to try only one new thing at a time, as I can then gauge if there is a reaction in my digestion. Unfortunately both chocolate and marzipan have led to bad reactions, so I have to make do with cake.

T and I are involved in a competition. She is trying to lose weight and I am trying to gain it. The competition began a month ago. She was in the lead at first, but this week I’ve gone ahead by three pounds. I’m sure she will win in the end. The prize is a celebratory Mars Bar.

Next week, I have a review appointment with the surgeon who did my operation. I’ve been noting down questions to ask him, as and when I think of them. I always prepare a list of notes to take in with me, as it is hard to remember what you want to ask when you are in the room with the consultant. And you only get one chance to cover all the issues that you are concerned about. I know some of them don’t like being quizzed in this way, but it is my right as a patient to have my questions answered. It is far worse to be on the way home and then to remember a question that you should have asked.

I’ve not yet restarted any of my normal weekly groups. I do miss going to the Sing for Life Choir and the Queen’s Writers Group. I am becoming more robust, week by week, but I don’t quite feel ready to return yet.

Monday, 10 October 2016

David Hockney and the Flu Jab

I needed to go to Belfast to get the annual flu jab. I wasn’t looking forward to it. ‘You should add in a treat’, suggested T. After some pondering, I decided on the Hockney exhibition at the MAC. It had been recommended by a friend of mine. In the end, I was very glad that I went.

One of the advantages of being a cancer patient, indeed, it may be the only one, is that you are given the annual flu jab free of charge. Despite feeling under the weather, T drove me to Belfast for the jab. And a jab it certainly is; the vaccine is delivered by a broadish needle that the doctor forcefully inserts into the deltoid muscle of your upper arm. Thankfully, it was all over quickly and I was soon on my way to the MAC.

The exhibition space was on the third floor. It was free, but you still needed a ticket. So like many others, I went up to level three, down to the box-office in the foyer and back up again in the lift. The exhibition was billed as the first major show of Hockney’s work on the island of Ireland, surprising given his worldwide recognition. I thought back to the last time I had seen an exhibition of his work. It would have been twenty years before in Salt’s Mill in Bradford, Hockney’s home town. Salt’s Mill had been built by the Victorian social entrepreneur Titus Salt at the centre of his industrial village of Saltaire (like the Richardsons and Bessbrook). At that time I was living in a village in the Yorkshire Wolds, an area that Hockney had recently begun to paint in landscape.

Drawings and canvasses from throughout Hockney’s long career as an artist were crammed into a space that was subdivided into several smallish rooms. My initial thought was that the exhibition would all have been so much better shown in the Ormeau Baths Gallery, but, hey-ho, that was closed down in a political row over the opening of the MAC. But then I began to concentrate on the work.

Hockney is a very skilled draughtsman and drawing has been at the centre of his art since he studied in Bradford during the 1950’s. There were some early streetscapes from Bradford, then a roomful of portraits. Hockney is particularly good at capturing facial expression and bodily aspect. The portrait I liked best was of two men in bathrobes on easy chairs; the older man was looking at the viewer and the younger man was looking at the older.

The next room was dominated by two large pieces. The first was one of his large Californian pool paintings: sunlight, dappled water, a splash, a wobbly pink torso. On closer inspection it was made of coloured papier-mâché, which powerfully augmented the dappled effect. The second, was a series of 16 lithographs called The Rake’s Progress. These were inspired by Hockney’s first trip to the USA and were a reflection on Hogarth’s originals. Although witty and well made, they seemed a little dated in their critique: Bedlam was a row of identikit young men in jeans and T shirts with Sony Walkmans in their back pockets.

The final room was an assemblage of pieces from across his career. There were several of his recent Yorkshire Wolds' landscapes, drawn on Ipad and colour printed. The outcome was more like painting than drawing. I liked a large treescape the best. On the other walls were two very interesting series of lithographs inspired by Surrealism and Expressionism. The first series provided some witty pastiches of Picasso. The second series, called ‘The Boy who Left Home to find Fear,’ was largely expressionist in style. The series was inspired by Grimms’ Fairy Tales. I looked at the dozen or so plates again and again. This series, drawn 1969-70, was, I felt, the best piece in the exhibition.

In the car on the way home, I began to feel groggy. My body started to ache and my throat became sore. The side effects of the flu jab were kicking in. I went to bed and slept for thirteen hours. The next day I was little better, but I still felt groggy, weak and feverish.

The Hockney exhibition is on at the MAC until 16 October. It is well worth a trip. The flu jab is unpleasant in the short term, but hopefully worth it in the long run.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Halfway House

Recovering from surgery and a couple of weeks in hospital is not easy. Progress is slow and seems imperceptible, as you have few accurate measures. You are not ill enough to need nursing care but you are not well enough to lead a normal independent life. You are on a passage between these two states. The defining characteristics of this journey are disorientation, discomfort and frustration. Your passage contains elements of what you are losing and what you are gaining. You are inching your way in-between.

My wound remains sore; less so than before, but I am still taking my full allowance of painkillers. I can walk further and more easily, but I still need help putting my shoes on. I continue to wear jogging bottoms as I can’t bear trousers because the hard waistband catches my wound. I’ve just started driving short journeys in the car; operating the controls isn’t difficult but the holes in the road still jog the wound painfully. I have to wear a pillow between me and the seatbelt. The guts are still very sensitive and I’m continuing to eat soft food and small meals, but I have gained a couple of pounds.

Rex the collie dog is my regular companion on walks down the lane. He’s always pleased to see me and is ready for a walk. He rushes on ahead and often diverts into fields to follow scents or to chase a rabbit. He’s curious about the world but seems to be afraid of sheep and cattle (a bit of a disadvantage for a farm dog). He has two most unsavoury habits. He loves to roll in fox shit. It is black and very smelly and makes him honk something terrible. And he loves to chase cars. When I hear a vehicle coming down the lane I have to grab his collar or he will be after it in a flash trying to bite the wheels. I shout and whistle to try and divert him, but he only stops when the vehicle outpaces him.

I’ve become frustrated with daytime TV, but I haven’t yet got back into reading. My latest diversion is internet surfing. I’ve been watching old episodes of classic programmes such as Steptoe and Son, Spike Milligan and The Two Ronnies. I imagine that a serial about the humorous co-dependency between a father and son, who are rag and bone men, would not get very far with commissioning editors these days. I noticed that Leonard Rossiter appeared in several of the early episodes.

My journey of recovery continues and I am doing my best to find a good way forward through the confusion. I researched rites of passage in organisations for my PhD, so I should know a good bit about this topic. The key source was the anthropologist Victor Turner, who also wrote about drama and performance. On my desk I have a figurine of a man with a red and yellow striped body and a black, red and white striped face and headdress. He is the Mwengo, a shaman who leads the boys out of the bush after they have completed their tribal rite of passage; he takes them back to the village as young men. I got him in Zambia.

I’m not sure who will be leading me out of my discomfort and into normal life. I have a review appointment with the Oncologist next week. Somehow, I don’t think it will be her.