Fifteen

Fifteen years ago today, 9th February 2002, was a day that has turned out to be very memorable for me. I’m hoping today isn’t.

I drove across London to go and watch Brentford beat Bournemouth at Griffin Park with my Bournemouth supporting friend, Alan from Balham. I then went home to Docklands and toyed with the idea of just staying in as a nice home win for the Bees had already made it a good day. But I’d arranged to meet another friend, Rich, to go to a house party of a mutual friend in Earlsfield and even though it was a bit of a bother to trek back over to the other side of London, I didn’t want to bail out at short notice. So after a few pints in Clapham Junction we went on to the the party. Where I got together for the first time with the future Mrs B. The rest is history.

Today, after work, I’ll be driving back from Egham to Leeds via Cambridge. I’ll be stopping off at Cambridge to see my mum in hospital. She’s been in Intensive Care for the last 10 days with flu and pneumonia, was unconscious for the first few days, and even now the Consultants are not holding out any hopes for her recovery. When I saw her last week, she was breathing through a tube and coughing silently (the tube meant that no air went past her vocal chords). Her eyes had gone blue. I think she was aware I was there, but I can’t be sure. I think I saw her try to smile when I talked about Oli, her only grandchild.

My mum has been ill for over 20 years. Her kidneys started to fail when she was in her mid 40s, about my age (the last proper conversation we had she was pleased when I told her that I’d had a kidney function test which had come out clear). She’d never liked eating vegetables much (neither do I, neither does Oli) but a few years previously she’d cut out eating beef because of the BSE scare and moved to a largely vegetarian diet which probably put a strain on the one working kidney she had at the time (it was only much later that the renal specialists said that one of her kidneys had never worked). She had a transplant about 11 years ago but the transplanted kidney started to fail about 18 months ago and after a stroke she decided to retire from work. Being somewhat unsympathetic she used to bemoan the young kidney patients she had dialysis with who had, despite being in much better general health than her, not worked when she would come into dialysis 3 evenings a week after working full time. Last year she had a heart valve operation which was difficult enough because the drugs needed to make that work were pretty much diametrically opposed in effect to the drugs needed to stop her body rejecting her transplanted kidney. They also meant that her immune system was very weak and she had two further long spells in hospital last year fighting off infections to the heart valve. She said the best treatment she’d got during those stays was while the junior doctors were on strike as she’d see the Consultants regularly and  they weren’t cack-handed in trying to find a vein to stick in one of the many needles she had pincushioning her. Until those infections were defeated there would be no question of going back on the kidney transplant list. I shudder to think what we’d have done if we’d had to pay for all this healthcare. The doctors and nurses at Addenbrokes and Papworth Hospitals have been fantastic. I doubt I’d be insurable (to my IFA’s disappointment, even taking out new life insurance now is not realistic). And the clock was ticking because she would not be allowed on that list after the age of 70.

I’ve been prepared for her death most of my adult life. Or so I thought.

Anniversaries are only arbitrary dates that we choose to put meaning on. There is no inherent quality to 9th February. Or to Valentine’s Day (which I’ll thankfully be away for, but is coincidentally the date of my first actual date with the soon to be ex Mrs B). But they are important because by tying events to memories we preserve those memories. I can barely guess what I was doing on 8th February 2002. I’m hoping 9th February 2017 is ultimately not specifically memorable other than as the fifteenth anniversary with which I started this blog.

Trump’s Eulalie

I haven’t written anything about last year’s US Presidential Election or the choice Americans made of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton before. Both candidates were pretty unappealing in different ways and in any case, as a Brit I had no vote or influence as well as not much knowledge of the everyday concerns of Americans about how their country should best be run. Working with quite a lot of Americans I was surprised during the Primary Campaigns at how widely disliked Clinton was by even liberally inclined Democrat voters who could see that Bernie Sanders was not a sensible option so I was not entirely surprised when she lost.

The stories emerging this week of Trump’s links to Russia and lurid tales of him paying to watch prostitutes to urinate over each other on the hotel bed previously used by President Obama are just the latest in a long line of critical reports arguing that Trump is a very bad man who will be a very bad President. Who knows if they are true? More importantly, they won’t change the underlying fact that in just over a week’s time, however much one might think him terrible in so many different ways, he will be inaugurated as President.

What few of his critics seem to have properly digested is that all these allegations are much of a muchness with the reams of other improprieties which were well known and publicised before he was elected. Regardless of the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, there were enough people in the right States who did vote for him to make him win and they voted in the context of knowing all this stuff. Of having seen him mock a disabled reporter and mimic his disability (or at least look like it – as with much in politics, if you have to explain what looks obvious you’ve probably lost that battle). One of the things from which all politicians could learn is Trump’s ability to speak in very simple, often literally simplistic, language that is clearly intelligible to ordinary people who aren’t paying a lot of attention to detail and nuance. That extends even to where the words themselves don’t make a huge amount of sense – in this he’s like our John Prescott whose garbled syntax and grammar didn’t prevent from getting across a general impression. So, when, as he did yesterday in his first press conference since the summer , he says that he’s an asset because President Putin seems to like him, sophisticated commentators can infer a pun about “asset” meaning a spy or plant for Russia but it will be heard by ordinary people who are busy thinking about other stuff as him saying that he’s a good thing for America.

One aspect of the allegations about his relationship with Russia and the possibility that Russia could have incriminating evidence about him which they could use for blackmail purposes is that it makes an assumption that he can be blackmailed. But I don’t think he can in any traditional way because it is difficult to think of anything that is so massively more disreputable than the things he’s already been proven to have said or done which could emerge and which he’d do anything to keep from being made public. You can’t really shame the shameless.

So, I think the best approach, if you really wanted to bring down Trump a peg or two and to make his supporters reconsider their support would be to go in a different direction for “dirt”. This would most likely involve finding Trump’s Eulalie.

This comes from PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories and the character of Roderick Spode *, a caricature of Oswald Mosley who Wooster could get to behave quietly and decently by whispering that “he knew about Eulalie”. This alluded to Spode’s other profession of designing and selling lingerie and the fear that were this to become public knowledge, it would rather undermine his appeal as a fascist hard man. All that remains then is to find Trump’s Eulalie. What otherwise harmless thing has he done which would make his supporters blanch? Perhaps there might be evidence of him actually being a highly sensitive soul who relaxes by playing the flute. Or that he likes nothing better than to write love poetry in classical Greek.

No, it’s no good. Apart from being implausible he’d just use it to show he wasn’t the ignorant loudmouth he might seem. He could, I think, even convert to Islam and not upset his supporters because you can just imagine him doing so and then being the first to sign up to his proposed register of Muslims in America. You see, that’s the problem, he really is shameless and that is his truest asset. Bigly. So Sad.

* Now, another prominent modern day Spode is of course Wodehouse’s fellow Dulwich College alumnus, Nigel Farage. If the allegations about him having sought German citizenship turn out to be true, they could be his Eulalie. Or perhaps someone could go a little further than Steph & Dom from Gogglebox who very nearly exposed him as an utter lightweight when they drunk him under the table. I live in hope.

How to be Alone

I haven’t blogged much this year. There’s been plenty to write about but I haven’t really felt like it very often. I’ve also found it hard to read fiction because real life has made caring much about made up ones difficult. So this isn’t a late review of Jonathan Franzens’s collection of essays of the same title (although it is very good and his latest novel, Purity is one of the few I’ve read and enjoyed in 2016).

About 18 months ago Mrs B and I started the process of separation. This year has been one of adjusting and learning how to be alone. Loneliness has started to become something which is being talked about and taken seriously. Prior to her horrific murder, the local MP, Jo Cox was working on a campaign and commission to look into and tackle loneliness and this is being launched in January 2017. I have a degree of scepticism about how practically this might work but it is good that someone is trying. There very clearly is a lot of low hanging fruit – getting people to look out more for older people in their communities or struggling new mothers – but the linked article rightly points out a huge number of different types of people who are suffering from loneliness. There’s an irony that the issue of men’s loneliness is being led on by the Royal Voluntary Service which was established for Women. The typically cheery main storyline of EastEnders over the festive season focused on Lee’s lonely spiral towards attempting suicide, with suicide being the largest killer of men under 45. How much can the public-spirited folk who organise such campaigns really understand about the people they are trying to help (in this regard I think the most important part of the story linked above is Seema Kennedy MP talking about how lonely she felt after first having a child)?

My own personal journey hasn’t been so harrowing, although I have had the odd occasion of feeling almost overwhelmingly teary (oddly usually at Waitrose on a Saturday) or ruefully musing that it is good thing that I am utterly incapable of tying a knot. Strangely, despite having had the week since Christmas alone it is only tonight in a few moments while the returned son is catching up with his friends on his dearly missed XBox that I’ve been able to write.

I’ve been fortunate in maintaining a friendly relationship with Mrs B, still spending a lot of time with Oli and discovering that you are never really alone if you have a dog. Yet there are still times when I can go days on end without speaking to another adult properly, particularly as I work from home half the week. So a lot of this year has been about changing that a bit (you’ve got to work with your own personality – I’ve never been one for striking up conversations with random folk) and about learning how to be OK with it more generally.

I think people are not that good at being alone and it is too easy to let that turn into feeling lonely rather than to embrace the peace of solitude. I’ve found it surprisingly pleasant to go to a pub on my own with a book and enjoy there being others around without feeling that not actually being with them was a problem or a loss. I’ve dabbled with online dating, largely on the basis that if I didn’t have a go soon after being in a relationship I’d most likely have completely forgotten what one involved if I waited until I was really desperate to have another one. What I’ve learned from it is that if you’re not really that good at striking up conversations with random folk in real life you’re probably not going to be much better at doing so on the basis of a collection of photos and a pen portrait. And that there are a lot of tall nurses, hairdressers and horse-owning middle-aged women who have discovered triathlon since becoming single.

Lots of think pieces are being written about how modern life and its increasing reliance on social media is part of the problem, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve been surprised at the kindness of complete strangers on Twitter. Particularly when contrasted to some of the things apparent real life friends have thought appropriate (although to be fair, the vast majority have been lovely). But unlike real life, muting and blocking people online is much easier to do without feeling guilt, and even unpleasantness can be dismissed by remembering that these people don’t know you (which is harder to do with people who you thought did).

We’re all different and so different things will work for different people. Some will have their lives improved by kindly volunteers knocking on their door to check if they’re OK. Others by knowing that actually people are interested in their problems if they want to say to talk about them. And maybe some others will learn that you can be on your own without being lonely, just as sometimes you can feel at your loneliest when surrounded by others when you’d rather something different.

So, roll on 2017. I’m confident that I can face you with the luxury of being upset by celebrity deaths or appalled by the political choices of other people when in 2016 such things had much less impact on my real life than reality. I might even write a bit more.

Happy New Year.