I am a camera

Another visit to long lost E school on Sunday, this time to attend the presentation of a farewell gift to SH, excellent headmaster, whom I met in the improbable venue of Rothschild’s Bank. Neither F nor T wished to come with me. Weak as I was, this was something of a physical challenge though I do not find driving difficult. 

Because of the depth and rootedness of the memories, their restoration is always somewhat emotional, even sad. I walked by the upper pond, not feeling up to the walk to the lower one, admired the blossoms and lotus pads and longed to sit down. Rounding a corner, there appeared miraculously a bench with a brass plaque to a former bursar. I sent to F a photo view of the main building from this vantage point by SMS. 

But I was not alone. On the far side of the pond, making a circuit in the opposite direction to mine, came a figure whom I greeted as he drew close. We made small talk about the reconstruction of the hut nearby, but he wanted to talk more. It turned out he was Brigadier D, former chair of governors and currently president of the Association, the old boys club. His manners were exquisite and his polished black shoes shone. He had left E in the year in which I was born; it turned out that I was only the seventh oldest old boy present that day. He wanted to know,

"And what did you go on to make of your  life?" 

His own son had gone into the army and was currently in Iraq, from where he reported cautious progress. The brigadier had driven down from the Highlands of Scotland, where he farmed, the economic uncertainty being mitigated to some extent by his army pension. He wakes up in the morning, he said, and looks out down the valley of heather and forest and feels for what it must be like on the M25. 

S had introduced me to a 12-year-old boy called Tom, who had alleged interests in history and politics, though we did not get very far with these. Nevertheless the second and third time we ran across each other, his eyes shone with affection. 

At four there was tea on the terrace, but I sat gratefully on a stone promontory. A lady gave me to select from a tray of sandwiches and then offered to bring me a cup of tea. I realised how frail and elderly I must appear. “Certainly not,” I refused gratefully and procured a cup for myself. 

The culmination of the proceedings was a simple outdoor service. The choir sang an anthem and the Bishop of P gave a short colloquial sermon. His name was familiar but he must have arrived at E the term after I left. Perhaps he had an older brother. There were many microphones and an electronic keyboard, but how little has changed really. Everyone I spoke to was really pleased with the school and kept saying how lucky the boys were to be there. 

How lucky, indeed. And how lucky I had been, amidst my family turmoil, with question marks hovering continually over the payment of my school fees, to be one of the precious darlings. I said to a mother sitting next to me that “everything important happened here”. When she was surprised by this, I explained that I meant the foundations upon which all later learning must build. 

The open air Christianity was not too embarrassing. Some of the boys looked a bit glazed, as is usual. The sermon was short and personal, and not hearty. I could not believe that all the parents were free from the sort of jaded scepticism which is the norm. But how wonderful that the heart still beats in the centre of the body and that all the bifurcations, which now include science and computing, all emanate from this constant inspiration. 

From a notebook entry for 3rd July 2008

A visit to our GP. Dr AM, the consultant haematologist at the local hospital, complains that I have cancelled an appointment. I recall she said I was all clear and didn’t need these annual routine checkups. Anyway, I give blood and urine to Dr F, who is vastly more interested that I am an educational psychologist – a rare breed. Did I have any cards? But I have come out without even a wallet and F, my companion mercifully, has been paying for everything.

While you’re here, he says, is there anything wrong with you? Generally okay? Suddenly all my little quotidian complaints seem to dwindle to the small status of things scarcely worth mentioning. Is this my training? Bear pain. Don’t complain.

But when I get home, I consider scornfully: I am flatulent, sluggish of digestion, insomniac, overheated and overweight. My fine motor control is eroding rapidly. I have arthritis in both my thumbs, which is untreatable and makes many daily tasks, like opening the cap of a milk carton, exceptionally difficult. Both my lower legs itch a lot and, when scratched, grow raw and hairless.

From a notebook entry for 22nd September 2005

Dark, discreet, softly spoken, our 24-year-old relative has left to continue his programme of European visits.


What do people want to do when they find themselves in London for half a day in dry weather? National Gallery? Yes. Birdcage Walk? Yes. A peep at the proportionate statuary in front of Buckingham Palace.


How about Eggs Benedict at the Ritz?


How about a “straight blade shave” at a proper barber?


How about a visit to Taylor of Old Bond Street for some sandalwood shaving soap for one’s brother? The base tone should be sandalwood, of course, but there ought to be overtones of cedar.


How about evening attendance at a Peaceful Warrior presentation ― this concession to mind-body-spirit to gratify a helpful friend?


There is no hurry. Some of these goals are accomplished, others not. Nelson is extremely high on his pillar. Only British Colombia, with its proximity of mountains and sea, offers scope for nostalgia, appreciated less growing up there at the time.


But London is London. A brother is a brother. This one, born a century or two adrift, has been painted, qua Velasquez, with a ruff, hand on globe, positioned in front of a dog. It all got “more and more outrageous”.


An e-mail arrives from their mother: “I hope he’s not taking up too much of your time.”

I am being treated for cancer (don’t go away). The treatment for my myeloma — bone marrow cancer — has lasted for a year and consisted thus far in oral medication. Because my immunity is sometimes severely lowered, I am under strict instructions, in the event of any high-temperature, to present myself at the Accident and Emergency department of the local hospital.

Recently this actually happened and I was able to present the letter I have been carrying around for ten months. The modern medical world is adept at capturing, spider-like, its victims and, once captured, it is very hard to escape its clutches. I soon found myself an in-patient.

In the curtained cubicle where I was first examined, I could hear the agonising pains and groans of an old lady in the next door cubicle who had been brought in by a patient black carer from an old people’s home. Amidst the rising and falling howls were occasional snatches of intelligible speech. My wife, waiting with me, procured some blankets for her when she complained of feeling cold. The lowering of the high-pitched tones, and the increase in the proportion of human speech, seemed to signal increasing calm. At one point, the patient black lady asked her what she wanted and, unexpectedly, received the reply:

I want to sit up and say my prayers.

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The admitting doctor, from the subcontinent, advised, “Record, record” (times and dates of headaches and temperature levels), because “Memory is bad,” but would probably follow his friends to the better opportunities in Australia.

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I welcome signs of modernity, order and military discipline, forceful management and obedience to training; clarity of purpose at the top — the doctors; but at ward level things get a little ragged, plans don’t work out, the story changes among the brown faces and imperfect English.

Although the system is brilliant the individual’s case has to be lobbied, nailed down, pro-activated. And of course everyone is worse off than me, so no complaints — nothing but admiration for the ardent nurses, the night nurses who suffer in a wholly professional manner strident lunatics, wailing retardates, drug-stirred makers of noise and mischief.

Mostly people do not do the things they say they will do. Why? Are they too swept-up by the rush of the immediate? Overworked? Fickle? As always, it is a question of making things happen, seeing things through, not in fits and starts and in response to nuisance.

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I inhabit a side-room — a luxury allowed not for social but for immunity reasons. As clean and modern as a hotel room, with an ensuite bathroom, it is nevertheless bare except for varieties of technological equipment. These “rooms” are apparently modular — and lowered into place by a crane. Their floors echo. Next door is an old, and probably demented lady, sent to try the patience of the staff, especially the night nurses. Though by the morning her bedding is sopping wet and stiffened with urine, she will not let anybody touch her. Nevertheless this must be done and gives rise to animal howling that rises progressively in tone and harps on a repeated rhythm. Sometimes this rhythm seems to consist in words, which can be made out:

I hate you, you fuckers.

It is explained to me that any skin shade darker than that of Filipina evokes this response. The lady does not object nearly so much to being touched by white nurses.

During the day I hear a most surprising quadrille. She has put on her shoes, at least, and patrols the entire length of our party wall. Once or twice the steps acquire a rhythm, as if she were practising for the Royal Ballet. Long before I learn anything else about her, I determine from the weight of steps that she is female.

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Perhaps it is long service as a psychologist that yields such insights. I very quickly perceive that the nurses are frequently having to deal with mentally retarded adults. Sometimes I think at first but these are children:

“Lorraine — you are in the wrong place!”

“No!” (anguished howls)

All of these snippets arrive at my ears as I lie in bed contemplating the wall or a book. I see nothing.

Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak: O Lord, heal me, for my bones are vexed.

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Psalm 6, v. 2, Book of Common Prayer version.