Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Turning Slap Head


“Another state has been reached - but in your case think on it as recovery - this is the effect of the chemo which is zapping anything that may be remaining after having been cleared out first. So things may look bad and make you feel down and afraid, but at the end of the chemo treatment, you will be clear and your hair will grow back again - the reverse of what you fear.”

This e mail from my friend Melissa this morning puts things back into proportion. Living alone it is possible to get things skewed and for a time I felt that incipient baldness meant imminent death.
She is right, it doesn’t. It’s just part of taking the cure.

On Skype to a friend in Poland I could see a tiny image of myself in the corner of the screen. Realised that my hairline is receding, a white shadow across my brow and two patches appearing above my temples. Laughed about it with her and it didn’t seem so bad. Thank God for friends.

Three days after the chemo I picked up and I am still well – sitting in my garden like a lady of leisure. She is a lady I don’t really know well at all, a mystery woman sitting in a bower garlanded by stephanotis and euphorbia.
I have landscaped the garden, stocked it with plants, cut the grass, put in vegetables, lobbed snails over the fence, acquired a new shed and painted it, but I have never actually sat in my garden and really looked at it before.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Hair Today

My hair is starting its promised journey. Tufts of it clog the plug hole.
Why not, I knew it would go, despite the painful experiment with cooling.
But still I thought it wouldn't go - that I would be different. Just as I would never be the sort of person to get cancer, I would never go bald and look like a victim.The two other people I knew who had chemo and went bald both died.

Putting the wet loops of hair into the waste bin my heart pounds. Feel tearful, sit and cry. Then feel elated; part of me wants it to go, to get it over, and also to have the full experience.
Text my mother far away in her village to tell her about my hair. She texts back to say, "think of all those lovely wigs."
It misses the mark - I want her to phone me, to help me feel strong about this, but she sends a text saying she is going to "a strawberry tea at the Hospice."
Think of wigs, look on the bright side, stiff upper lip. No need to make a fuss, or pick up a phone.
Go for a walk in the park, wearing my sun-glasses so no one sees my red eyes.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Maggie's For Company

I am sick of myself. What am I doing with my life? Nothing. After my failure to get a single painting into a single public competition, apart from the Bedford Park Arts Festival, where I didn’t sell anything, I have stopped painting.
I didn’t even manage to get a third prize in the festival marmalade contest. That has put me off marmalade. As this long summer of chemotherapy gets under way I am as creative and resourceful as a rice pudding.
When you are left to your own devices, through unemployment, illness or perhaps locked up for the safety of the public, time itself is the task that has to be met.
That was probably why when I got an unexpected call from softly spoken “Lorraine” offering me a free massage, I agreed to have it.
When you enter the new career and lifestyle that is cancer, you get offered all kind of unexpected things.
She also suggested I should try Maggie’s, the cancer support centre in the grounds of Charing Cross Hospital. I said I’d do that as well. I also accepted a free “counselling” session while I was at it.
In the oncology waiting room at Charing Cross, the girl on the desk gestured to some seats; the same high backed ones in pastel shades they’ve got at Garry. The same type of people in them too; fat men in shorts and women in bad wigs attached to baseball caps.
That whole floor though is light and spacious. Apparently their chemo clinic is similarly comfortable. I wonder if I can put in for a transfer.
The therapy room was like a large air-conditioned office. The counsellor very young and kindly. We chatted for an hour; I gave out details of my tortuous past but didn’t feel I had anything to say about the present.
“I am not worried about losing my hair,” I told him, but perhaps I am. I won’t know how I really feel until my locks make a sudden dash from my pate to the pillow or shower tray.
I did admit that I am afraid about the future – the long walk through the Valley of the Shadow which may go on for years, with the possibility that “it” might come back. I am afraid of having to live with that.
He said roughly what everyone says to this – that no one knows the hour of his death, or as a cancer support nurse put it a few weeks back, “I haven’t got a crystal ball Miss Kelly.”
He cheered me up when he told me he was a former social worker in an hospice. The work he does now is easier because some of his clients survive. “Survive,” is the word I need to hear more than any other.
I liked him, offering gentleness and humility against the doctors' hard brilliance and often tub-thumping, eye-watering honesty.
I went slowly and tentatively to Maggie’s, a large orange coloured structure by Richard Rogers, to the side of the hospital, with smooth Zen looking stone seats outside.
In side it reminded me of a children’s library I joined in the early 60s, all bright spot colours and Swedish style shelving. There was a kitchen island with a glass top in the middle of the main room where people could make tea and prepare food. Beyond that rooms full of greenery, sofas and low seats. It offers an “expressive art group,” Tai Chi, stress management classes, a “young women’s group,” Yoga, gardening, interspersed with the more ominous, such as the “Prostate Networking Group.”
Attractive middle class women in light floral skirts descended offering information and showing me round all the little alcoves and bowers among the wood shelving.
The place is chiefly about information, the walls lined with recycled paper booklets decorated with photos of mixed race couples gardening and washing dishes. This a world where everyone has cancer.
The booklets covered almost every one of the two hundred kinds of known cancer and related problems, including Urostomy, “Breathlessness and Sex,” and the “Molar Pregnancy support group.”
I settled down for a while with “A laryngectomee’s travel guide to the British Isles,” before dipping nervously into “Coping with Hair Loss.”
Like the others this was a cheery little pamphlet full of basic common sense and useful tips, suggesting one should draw attention away from one’s head by wearing brightly coloured sweaters and interesting jewellery.
But many of them slip into what I call, “modern information.” The booklet on mouth ulcers for instance suggested, “If you get ulcers do not eat hot, spicy food as this will hurt your mouth.”
The one on self-employment and cancer suggested it was a “good idea to avoid people with sore throats, flu, diarrhoea and vomiting, or other kinds of infection such as chicken pox.”
I can’t help remembering doing that when I still lived in the other world of the well.
The leaflets sometimes slipped into the equivalent of putting a label on a bag of peanuts saying that the product contains nuts and putting up notices showing people how to wash their hands. I enjoy collecting these and got a good one recently when the Royal Mail failed to deliver a package through my door. I rang their re-delivery number and a recorded message advised, “The quickest way to get your mail re-delivered is to collect it yourself.”
This official habit of stating the bleedin’ obvious is about an infantilised culture where people are assumed to have poor English. But these pamphlets were so friendly and nice to look at and hold that you had to like them. They make you feel better, like the good women at the Maggie’s Centre themselves.

I took part in a relaxation group with a young woman called Maria. She lay on one couch while I sat on a chair with my feet on another. The woman in charge put on a loop of ambient music and we drifted away in never ending circles to the sound of a whale trying to locate itself in a vast ocean.
It was a pleasant thirty minutes and afterwards I told Maria, from Puglia in Italy, that I liked her cropped hair style. She looked young and sexy, very like Sinead O' Connor, thirty at the most, with a round cheerful face. I had my hair like that when I was a student in the 1970s, trying to resemble a member of the Baader Meinhoff gang.
Strangers turning up at our door would draw back in fear when they saw me and I liked that in those days.
“I bet I will lose it all again now,” she said, “Just like I lost it all before.”
She had been free of breast cancer for five years, now it had come back with a vengeance. She had suffered a collapsed bowel involving an emergency operation, had a colostomy, and I could see she was wearing an intravenous line into her chest. She was having chemotherapy every day.
I left the relaxation room with a kind of dead, stunned feeling and a question drowning out the whale music, why do people have to suffer like that? Why a second crucifixion for this girl?
Maggie’s is a place for story telling, exchanges and mutual support. It insists that we can help each other, but it is not a cosy fire-side. You have to be prepared to listen to horror stories and tragic tales. Many of the women sitting round the table look like sad little birds. They stare dismally at any food presented and I wonder if they have always done that, even when they were well.
There was salad and taboule on the main table. A middle aged man looked at me with mild interest. He seemed to be with an elderly working class woman who talked a lot in a worldly wise voice. No one said anything about their circumstances, while a very thin, bronzed woman with hair like a cross between Sarah Jessica Parker and a Yorkshire terrier hovered about in the background with a colourful catalogue of wigs.
Marie reappeared smiling at me, her black eyes glistening with warmth. Perhaps she was glad that I had listened to her story. There was nothing else I could do for her.
I ate my salad leaves feeling the separation between what you say and what you feel – the almost metallic taste of fear in my mouth. Everyone looks cheerful but that is often the real feeling that you take away with you secretly and try to bury at home.

Later I spent an hour with Lorraine the masseur in another darkened room with more ambient music, while she massaged the back of my neck, putting her hands underneath and pulling the muscles in my neck upwards. I felt some of my hair tangled around her fingers, could hear it crackling as she moved and knew with a kind of shame that it was coming out.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Sod this for a game of soldiers!

Sod This

Well sod this for a game of soldiers! After only two days of the chemical treatment I have had enough.
I feel as if I am living in someone else’s body, one racked by a cross between indigestion and flu, and tortured by constant aches and pains in my joints, even joints I hardly knew I had.
At night I feel as if I am wearing a spiked, bony corset which sticks in my breasts and ribs. I am thirsty all the time, have to drink more water, so have to get up at least three times in the night to pee.
When I got back from the hospital on Wednesday, after the first chemo, I did a bit of gardening and got a few scratches on my wrist. Now I have an infection in my arm, a hard, broad red line racing up my arm. Perhaps it will kill me? I have to think about such odd things now, and do something about it quickly.
Four and a half months of this caution and curtailment, – on the bright side I suppose I could look on it as a time to think, read, rest, listen. A space where I don’t have to blame myself for anything too much, or berate myself for not achieving anything. How I long to be n a beach somewhere, with all this behind me.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Chemo 1. First Sip of the Devil's Brew

The first person I saw when I got to Garry for my chemotherapy was old fat knees again, still in his shorts. I scowled at him. He was not hard to spot as the chemo clinic is just the other end of the corridor to the alcove where we had all waited the day before.
The patients sit in a row of chairs tightly packed together in a right-angle along two walls. It could be three walls but some helpful person has put a very large, dingy fish tank against one side, taking up space for about six more seats.
Little can be seen inside its Stygian gloom and its view is interrupted by a forest of intravenous stands, giving the patients their brew. There are not enough sockets along the wall, so nurses have to grapple behind the tank to find more plugs.
Above it is a large flat screen TV, showing the World Cup, also obscured by the tall stands. No one is bother about that, as all the patients are women apart from Fat Knees who keeps his head in a book.
There were tea making facilities, and every so often a friendly looking lady came round with fruit and very stale sandwiches, which reminded me of the old days of British Rail. Guests, standing and hovering or sitting on hard chairs, were not allowed to share the food.
The room is partly divided by a curtain. Beyond the first bit most of the space was taken up by two large beds, with two middle aged Indian women lying on them, looking as if they half dead. They were surrounded by anguished but rather helpless looking male relatives.

I sat there from 10am till 4.30pm, patiently watching my two bags of chemicals empty. The Paclitaxel, which causes all the nasty side effects was in a red bag to protect it from the light and took longest, the Carboplatin took only an hour to go in, so I watched it keenly as it dripped away.
The whole thing took slightly longer as I decided to try out the scalp cooling treatment which is supposed to prevent hair loss.
This is a large plastic hat, shaped like a Mongolian helmet, which they press down on your head and fill with ice.
“It might give you a headache,” said the nurse vaguely. It felt as if I had just smashed a frozen lake with the top of my head. The pain was intense for about ten minutes and I thought I was going to vomit. The nurse stroked my hand and cooed encouragingly. My friend noticed that I’d gone totally white and that no one else was doing it.
I held on gritting my teeth until the pain abated as my head adjusted to the cold. It was then just heavy, and damp down the back of my neck. Later I had big ridges in my forehead.
I don't know why I went in for this rather hair-raising experiment as I don't care much about going bald that much, but I am curious to see if it works.

After this freezing you are not supposed to treat your hair with colour, use any products, or a hairdryer. So my hair will probably turn grey and look awful anyway. It will be interesting to see what colour it actually is. A leaflet about it also says you should also sleep on a silk pillow case, and rather sinisterly, “If you choose to visit your hairdresser whilst you are having this treatment this may lead to increased hair loss.”
That usually happens anyway when you see the bill.

When I got home, feeling perfectly well, I got an e-mail from one of my oldest friends telling me he’d just taken a school party to Canterbury Cathedral and said a prayer for me. He’d “taken it to the top.”
I also had a message from my Japanese friend in Ealing saying they had prayed for me in their church that morning, and another from a friend in Poland who seems to have set up a whole praying network for me across Poland and linking up with Polish churches in the UK.
I have stopped praying for myself as I’ve said all there is to say, so hearing that other people are doing it for me is a comfort – a kind of spiritual meals-on-wheels/ Home Help service.
Perhaps partly on account of this I decided to be nice to fat knees when I see him again in three weeks time.

Good Old Garry Again

Chemo is a two day process. You have to appear for tests the day before the real thing. The Garry girls on the desk told me to come later next time as I had waited so long to be seen the week before. All the people getting their chemo on the Tuesday have priority, but as everyone for either day is bunched in together your appointment time doesn’t count. Just turn up sometime in the morning is the rule.

I got there at 11am and found it more crowded than previously. There is a very large waiting room, with three areas of high backed chairs in tranquil shades of lilac, many of them empty but the patients in “the clinic,” sit in a small alcove at the end of a corridor, with not enough seats, so that people in all conditions have to stand.

The seating plan is a good metaphor for our situation; the waiting area looks fairly convivial, somewhere you might hold a conference or a “study day,” where people group together and enjoy themselves. They are in the midst of seething life, while we have been shuffled off to the edges. There you wait, an hour or more for your blood test, another hour to see a doctor, one you won’t have seen before.

A Malaysian looking lad taking blood told me that everything is chronically slow because the hospital computer system is so poor.

After ten minutes of standing tut tutting, a young man gave me his seat. I sat next to his mother, a round, jolly looking woman in a pink striped headscarf.

“It’s like Selfridge’s sale in here, isn’t it?” she said.

I asked her the big question, what exactly was “it” i.e. chemotherapy like? There is something redolent of torture about the very name and for some reason one wants all the bad news before it happens.

She looked as if I’d just asked her to describe the reasons we are at war in Afghanistan. She screwed up her face and tried to describe it but just couldn’t.

“It’s hard work, and you never know the outcome,” said her son helpfully.

She told me she had put on a stone during her months of chemo, which was worrying. This was due to the steroids you have to take at the beginning each session, ten the night before and ten on the day.

She also said you have to be careful with hygiene and domestic chores as your immunity is so low. “I had to take a lot of care about that,” she said with disgust.

So I felt I had learned a little bit more about my immediate future, but not much.

Through an open door I could see one of the young women doctors I’d seen before, in what seemed a long time ago. I remembered her sapphire engagement ring. She was talking to another doctor about a holiday, perhaps her Honeymoon, she’d just spent sailing up the Amazon. She was so happy, blazing with a life before her.

Opposite me sat a fat elderly man in very tight short shorts. His legs and thighs, hairless through chemo, were shining white.

“Why does any man think we want to look at that?” I snapped at the jolly lady.

“If only they were a bit longer, covering up a bit more ” she said wistfully. “Do you dislike men in shorts in public too? Most people don’t seem to mind.”

And we started a grumpy conversation about male dress, particularly those men in shorts on the tube who spread their legs wide.

“But you’ve got to keep in mind how lucky we are,” she said. “Fifty or even twenty years ago we wouldn’t be getting this treatment.”

She was right of course, and all over the developing world few people have any hope of surviving cancer. Sadly most African health workers move abroad, there is a mass exodus of nurses, doctors, care assistants and even hospital porters. Only one in six of the doctors trained in Zambia since its independence from Britain in 1966 have remained there. Every year, nearly five hundred of the seven hundred nurses qualifying in Zimbabwe leave - for the UK.

According to Indian Government figures published in 2008, India is lacking 600,000 doctors. This works out to be approximately one doctor for about 1,634 people. Other statistics on health workers in India are given on the WHO site. Whichever stats you take, they tell you the same thing – India is chronically short of docs. I can’t help being suspicious of people who leave such misery behind to make money in Europe.

Come Again?

Come Again

“A fine looking granulation,” said the doctor last week, looking down at a small scab on my abdomen when my hole finally closed.
All though in NHS hospitals you rarely see the same doctor twice, they all have a spectacular spray of unusual words – it pays to increase your word power, as the Reader’s Digest used to say, and you can do this in seconds if you have a serious condition.
I am currently toying with the word, “adjuvant.” That is the kind of chemo I am about to have, and it means, I think, following on after the removal of all cancerous parts. According to the dictionary it simply means, “A help. An ingredient to help the main ingredient.”
That sounds a bit worryingly pathetic, but it is better than having the sort needed to shrink existing tumours, or having chemo as palliative care. I am happy with that word, and say it over to myself; it sounds a bit like adulation and jubilant.

I also get letters from my consultants sent via my GP. These are often almost indecipherable.

British NHS surgeons are now under such pressure than they cannot be expected to write to the individual patient in lay person’s language.
A recent confidential poll of surgeons, released to the press on June 17th, suggested that almost one in five had been involved in an incident in which a patient was harmed, due to the need to cut up as many people as possible in as short a time as possible, to meet government targets.
The survey, carried out by Bournemouth University, shows that during a two week period 40% of respondents reported being involved in a ‘Near Miss’ (NM) in an operating theatre, where a patient was nearly harmed, while 19% recorded an ‘Adverse Event’ (AE), in which a patient was actually harmed.
This being the situation, I quite understand that they have piles of paperwork and have to dash off a letter to the local doctor as best they can. But these can make understanding what they are saying about you something equivalent to looking at hieroglyphics.
In my last letter I had, “debulked, metastic, seroma, immunohistrochemistry.”
Non of that was bad news luckily.
In previous ones; “Increased uptake,” “transient paraneoplastic manifestation,” (that meant stiff fingers) “endometrioid,” (I first had that one when I went for my results and they kept repeating it to me as if I was budgie learning to talk) and most interesting of all, “dirty necrosis.” I won’t be boasting about having that.

All these words are preferable to consultanol lung into metaphor. I am still getting over one professor telling me, when I was at my most fragile, that my cancer was “a Rottweiler not a poodle.”
I took that home and lived with it night and day.
Why do doctors nowadays feel they have to belt you over the head with the seriousness of you situation? They certainly don't go in for putting an optimistic light on anything. Most people who’ve been told they have cancer and are waiting for results are hardly in a frivolous mood sitting there with half a pint and cap and bells on. Most of them, if they are like me, think they are on the brink of death.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Time to kill

Not having the chemo as expected is a bit like being let out of school early. I am free to enjoy myself as normal; a private view tonight, Bedford Park Festival, and a summer Fair over the weekend.
Life has switched back to its normal shape - but I am hungry to be getting on with something creative and worthwhile. I also long to be with someone really close. Those yearnings were pushed out when the illness came along.
I am asking that old question again - where is my cell of good living and intimacy in a turbulent world? I've hardly started on that yet.

Yesterday evening, Dr Finlay's Casebook on BBC 7, out of new DVDs, Wolf Hall had stalled and nothing on TV after Come Dine With Me, had a look at the internet cancer sites again. I have not done this since March, when I looked up ovarian cancer, diagnosed myself with deadly certainty and nearly scared myself into an early grave.
This time had a look at the sites dealing with the affects of chemo, how to avoid infection and side-effects such as mouth ulcers. I told myself this was sensible reading, but felt it was gruesome, not what I really wanted to see.
Some of the pages were spookily American, they obviously have a much more hysterical attitude to hygiene than we do and recommend not going out or touching pets.
There are also some chilling notes about the "cost of chemotherapy," and "Will your insurance cover it?" For many Americans the answer to that will be "no."
The good old food fads were there too; people claiming that tumours live on sugar, so avoid all white sugar, and the frequent fear of red meat. On the other hand, something called the "National Cancer Institute," put up recipes worthy of an Edwardian dinner party, containing meat, whole milk and cream.
I have always believed that you should eat whatever you like when you are ill.

Braving that information had a good effect because this morning when Maisie woke me up at 6.30am I started cleaning my flat. It took two hours of hoovering, wiping and scrubbing. So there is my immunity from infection taken care of for the next eighteen weeks.

I also looked at how to avoid the mouth ulcers that come with chemo, and put a soft toothbrush and mouthwash down on my shopping list.
I have also put down foods which build up strenth, and prevent anaemia. It's like preparing to go on an arduous activity holiday - a four and a half month walk into the unknown.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Who is this chav, Garry Weston?

On Tuesday the 8th of June I had to present myself to Garry Weston Centre, in Hammersmith Hospital, for tests, before the start of the dreaded chemotherapy. Who was he, I wonder? Terrible name, and no doubt he is sadly no longer with us, so I won't look him up.

Got up very early and tried to make myself look civilised but how should one dress for this sort of thing? I decided on a neat, professional look, upbeat as if I was going for an interview. Then I sat on the bed and had a cry, just a small one, I didn’t want to risk really getting going in case there was a waterfall inside. Ticked myself off; this has to be done, it’s only a procedure, this is all for your benefit, think yourself damn lucky etc.

Outside the weather was rainy, it felt fresh and on the bus among the wet coats and brollies I felt calm again. When I arrived at Garry Weston, the sight of so many women sitting about in headscarves made me want to scream in terror.

This is the cancer clinic, the place which haunts the modern mind rather like the freezing tip of hell in the Medieval imagination. The place where the doomed, hungry and silent victims, their heads shaved, sit patiently trying to stave off the inevitable with infusions of poison. In fact it was quite a pleasant area, with lilac coloured chairs, coffee and Danish pastries.

Anyway I’m here, so better sit down and make the best of it.

My appointment was for 10.30am but I was an hour early as I couldn’t settle at home and like to get places early, partly being a journalist I don’t want to miss anything, and on the off chance that I might get seen and away early. This business has taken up nearly half a year of my time already.

Waiting for a blood test I forced myself to speak to someone, one's main impulse is to keep very quiet and introverted, but I chatted to a little Indian lady, who told me she was eighty eight. She has ovarian cancer but is too frail for an operation. I should think so remembering the tough love we got on the Victor Bonney ward. She was on her third dose of chemo but looked well, and hadn’t lost any hair. Her daughter was looking after her. I sensed a sad story there, but of course everyone in there has a story to tell.

At the coffee counter I rubbed up against the actress Rula Lenska. She has thick red/gold hair. If it’s a wig it's a very expensive one. I decided not to intrude on her, passing up on a possible diary story for the first time in my life. In reality I couldn’t speak to her as I still felt too emotional. In the loo I caught sight of my face and unlike the cool, collected, coiffured Rula, I looked like a mad woman. Something by Fuselli, or a Victorian lunatic, white faced with staring eyes.

At 11am, a young research scientist called Wendy Wang appeared, at least I assume that is how she usually orders her name because she called me “Kelly Jane.”
Her stuck on grin stretched even wider when I told her that, “Jane is a Christian name.”

She asked me to take part in some clinical survey and I agreed of course. Then I asked her how much longer I was likely to wait.
“Hardly any doctors here today,” she said more cheerful than ever. “Only two doctors here. Rest have gone to big conference in America. It will be long wait.”

She mentioned two doctors with unpronounceable names whom I’d never heard of before. I felt furious, about the waiting and having to see another stranger who would not know anything that went before. I longed to see the previous doctor, the smart young woman with the sapphire engagement ring who had been so efficient previously.

While I was fuming, I got a phone call from the Sunday Times asking if I could write a feature about prisoners converting to Islam in order to get special privileges in prison. I wrote a book in 2009 about my time teaching in prison, and recently wrote an article for the Salisbury Review about the film, A Prophet, which is set in a Paris prison and involves the struggle between gangs of Christian and Muslim prisoners.

I have not been offered work by the Sunday Times for over four years – and they decided to do it now, when I am trapped in a world of high backed seats and old copies of OK Magazine.

I had to decline, but I could certainly write a piece about the pains of being kicked out of hospital too early, which is also in the news. The new government has decided to fine hospitals that push people out who then have return as emergency admissions.
Sit there writing the piece in my head until 12 noon when I feel I might cry again, this time with sheer annoyance and fatigue at waiting.

Then I get in to see a doctor. She is tall, dark, smiling, or so it seems before she dashes out again. When she comes back I tell her that I am worried that the cancer has returned, because of pains in my neck, and my funny fingers. She seems very amused at this and dismisses it. Then she dismisses me – my wound is not yet closed up enough for chemo to start. I will have to come back on Tuesday and Wednesday next week.

I dashed home with one thought in mind – to get under the duvet with Maisie, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Dr Finlay's Casebook, and stay there for as long as possible.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Waiting for the Devil's Brew

Two days to go before I start the chemo, and perhaps turn into something like Frankenstein’s monster.

Before I became this quivering invalid, a very good word, I lived in the hope of one day being “valid,” validating myself by winning a glittering prize. I wonder what the apogee of success would mean; appearances on Any Questions? an interview on Woman’s Hour, an invitation to appear on Question Time, or maybe sitting between that chap with the funny hair and Julie Myerson on the Review Show.

Bids for success, fame and wealth so far this year –

10/1/10 Radio Play. This is in the hands of a BBC producer. Or more probably at the back of his drawer.

26/3/10 Job application as an on-line copywriter for a large salary. Did a two hour test on line. Didn’t get the job. Probably a good thing as I would not be much good to them now.

The Doctor Johnson Memorial Prize for non-fiction (for my book, Inside, about my time teaching in HMP Wormwood Scrubs.) Haven’t heard a word from them.

The RA Summer Show. Didn’t get in.
I had a portrait of Ken Livingstone accepted in 2000. Then I had a run of “D” notices. That meant you were accepted but not eventually hung. They make a final decision when they hang the whole room. I once got three D notices at once and a letter congratulating me on this “achievement.”
I wished they had done me a favour and just hung one and dispensed with the letter. Now this competition is huge too, after being turned into a TV reality show. The price to enter has gone up and you can only enter two paintings. I don’t think they even do D notices anymore. When I asked one of the young attendants he had never heard of them.
On my way out today (7/6/10) at 8.30am I saw a very old and bent lady walking through the Burlington Arcade pulling her unwanted paintings in a tartan topped shopping trolley. That is life. You just have to keep trying!

The BP Portrait Award. Didn’t get in.
When I was handing in my entry I saw some of the other exhibits, all giant photographic, airbrushed things, without a single paint mark and I knew I was doomed. The whole thing has also got too big. It’s now “International,” and most of the entries seem to be from Spain and Portugal.

Bedford Park Summer Exhibition. When I did this last year I thought it was just a small church event. I didn’t realise that Peter Blake RA shows there and some other professional Chiswick artists. It has a bit of a strange system though, where you don’t know whether you’ve got one in until the private view. They only way to find out is to ring the Parish Office to ask which day you are invigilating for the exhibition. If they give you a date and time you must have had a painting accepted.
Last year I had a small, bright landscape of Holkham Beach in Norfolk hung, but in such a dark alcove that it looked like a nocturne.

Bedford Park Festival Marmalade Competition. I am in with a chance on this one. It’s being judged by Clare Balding the frisky sports presenter who looks like a condottiere and is unlikely to be seduced by fancy lids.

The Threadneedle Prize. This is on the up because it still includes real paintings rather than photographic reproductions, and is not yet so vast that you get lost in the melee. You have to go miles cross country to find it. It took me over three hours to get there from Turnham Green in west London and back.
I got out at Devon’s Road and found myself in a typical north London landscape; a vast motorway, putrid air and scary underpass. After a short walk I was in the “Lea Valley Nature Reserve,” walking over a canal into a courtyard with buildings from the 1760s and three enormous black oast houses, which are apparently gin distilleries.
On my way out I heard what sounded like a professional chorus of children singing, “Food, beautiful food,” from Oliver! They must have been rehearsing.
London can change so completely within a matter of yards, that it can be quite surreal.
I will know in a week’s time, by looking on line, whether I am in or not.

My entry was a self portrait looking absolutely terrified – my white face in the mirror of the lymphoma clinic at Hammersmith, when I still thought that there was really nothing wrong with me but the horrible truth had begun to dawn. I would like to be able to capture that look of disbelief in the eyes.

Somewhere in the middle of all these contests I made a diary note about the extraordinary amount of courage needed if you really want to make something of your life (especially if you come from Wolverhampton without an Eton/Oxbridge background) and how that need for strength and energy goes on and on. Then I discovered that on top of that you need even more courage just to go on living in the normal way.

Surprisingly, life goes on

Maisie has re-established her cat food testing centre in the kitchen. We have three dishes of different flavour, all the cheap brands she likes, a bowl of biscuits and the remains of some fresh fish, but she doesn’t fancy any of them.

Glorious sunny day so I visited the Lambeth Palace Exhibition of treasures with my friend June from Guildford. Most of the exhibits are manuscripts and books inside flat glass cases. You have to lean over to scrutinise them and I find myself jostling with some very determined elderly ladies in smart cardigans, Clarks K sandals and specs on chains. In fact the vaulted library looks as if it's having a mass invasion by the W.I.

Among the stout, elbowing ladies I spied the actress Clair Bloom. She gave me one of her withering glances, which said, “How dare you recognise me?”
I have interviewed her twice, once when she was still in a relationship with Philip Roth. She was alone in London while he was far away in the US. In her smart town house, with its stripped wood floors there was no sign of a man. I felt her lonliness and uncertainty, although I didn't feel that sorry for her, as she had already had a good crack at Richard Burton and Rod Steiger. Something was obviously wrong, but she would say nothing, one of those major stars who invite journalists round because they have been told to sell something,a book or a film, but do not intend to give a real interview. Not long afterwards she and Roth parted and he wrote a bithcy novel including an unpleasant character study of a wife. The second time I met her was at an after show party, for a diary story, after she had appeared in a musical which quickly closed. She looked very uneasy then too.

From what I could see, through the struggling home knits, some of the exhibits were touching; a note from Charles I, “Dum Spiro Spero,” “While I breathe I hope.”
This sad fragment suggested to me that he had already given up.

Worse, an illustration of three women being hanged for witchcraft in “Chelms-ford,” in 1589. This pictorial evidence including one of the women being affectionate to her cat, who was according to the prosecution, was named “Satan.” I wonder what happened to him, nothing good I shouldn’t think. I don't think either of them had a defence barrister. The text revealed a chilling certainty and relief that these women and their pets were convicted and executed.

June is not only descended from St John Southworth, one of the last English Catholic martyrs, whose effigy in Westminster Cathedral looks just like her, but another of her ancestors got mixed up in the Pendle witch trials of 1612. She escaped but a woman called Anne Whittle hanged.
We agreed it was such a pity as if she’d got off she could have been known ever after as “Whittle the acquittal.”

The best thing was seeing Richard III’s prayer book found in his tent after the Battle of Bosworth, and later re-bound by Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII.

We struggled out past a table selling tea towels and paper-weights, without buying anything, and in the café/gardencentre we realised we'd completely missed seeing Mary Queen of Scot’s death warrant, perhaps the most interesting thing in there.

We couldn’t face going back to join the cardigan brigade which was getting thicker all the time. The café was also soon full of middle aged, middle class women, as if the men of England had died off of in some mysterious plague. A plague called having to go to work I suppose, but a lot of the women were probably widows or spinsters like us. I dislike seeing them en mass for some reason, although I expect that I now look just like them.

In the evening I went to Corpus Et Sanguis Christi, a “solemn concelebrated Mass and procession of the blessed Sacrament” to celebrate Corpus Christi, at St. Michael’s in Bedford Park.

It began at 8pm and as it's now light, I could walk there without fear of mugging. It was a blazing service, literally, masses of candles on the altar and I was almost smothered by incense.

Seeing the priests lined up, bowing before the altar and then their ecstatic movements, finally holding up the Host, I felt enthralled, like a child looking at a particularly glorious Christmas tree.

Apparently James Joyce’s brother Stanislaus once said that he wasn’t going to Mass anymore as he had “been there, done that.” Joyce replied that his attitude was equivalent to saying, “I’ve heard Beethoven and Mozart once, so I’ve done that.”

He always valued the church for its aesthetic experience. I hear that much of this ritual has gone from the RC church, but it still remains in the Anglo-Catholic churches. Sadly these are mostly in London and it is very hard to find bells and smells elsewhere. A young C of E priest explained to me recently, rather bitchily I thought, "In the countryside they can't afford real churchmanship."
I did discover a High Church, to say the least at St. Clements, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. At Evensong they carried the vicar in on a covered Sedan chair with a canopy, called a palanquin. I thought bearing the vicar about in a litter was going a bit far, even for me, but they explained that they didn't do it every Sunday, this was their patronal festival.

At Corpus Christi our sermon was preached by a toff who looked about twelve, who apparently goes to services on horseback. His sermon didn’t exactly trot along, in fact it was a bit lame, but he did give us an interesting quote from St. Silouan, a nineteenth century monk from Sovsk in Russia, who went off to live on Mt Athos in Greece, that place where there are no ladies. Prince Charles once went there while he was having a lot of trouble with Diana.

Silouan was praying one day, “after months of demonic attack,” which could mean anything from sexual frustration to a headache, when he heard the voice of God saying to him, “Keep you mind in hell but despair not.”

Very good advice I think.

After the Mass we processed around the church holding up the monstrance, sadly not the vicar, under a canopy and singing hymns, accompanied by a trumpeter. A whole crowd of young men in the Tabard pub fell completely silent as we went past. Probably stunned by such a rare display of Christian practice or do I mean practise, not sure.
After that, in the parish hall, we got down to the more usual St Michael’s canapés and champagne.

I noticed that Fr Cadwallader had shaved his head for summer. How odd that a man can do that and no one thinks anything of it, whereas if a woman has to go bald it is a major trauma.

The last consultant I saw said, “most women are very distressed by it.” That made me think that I should be distressed, there was something wrong if I wasn't. Real women have to start consulting wig-makers and Selfridge’s hats and scarves department.

I said something to him about it, but he shrugged it off. * Some women standing around began talking about people they knew who’d had chemo, and their own experiences of illnesses that lead to baldness. Their warmth and friendliness buoyed me up.

* I was tipped off later that he was in fact rather sensitive about his hair loss, and this turning slap head was a manly ruse to avoid it. It seems both sexes are oddly frantic about the luxuriance of their follicles.

4.6.10 Friday

Getting ready to go out, realised that I will have to change all my shampoo. After fifty three years of being greasy and needing washing every other day, my hair is now dry as a clump of spinifex grass in a dust bowl. I suppose this is due to my sudden lack of ovaries.

Received a letter from the hospital from my consultant, the same letter which is sent to my doctor. It contained phrases I'd never heard before, such as "transient paraneoplastic manifestation, endometrioid cancer and worst of all, "dirty necrosis."
Not a word of explanation for any of it. I didn't bother to look up all the terms on the internet as that might have put me off my lunch. And lunch was going to be very special, with my former colleagues from Grub Street.
It was very hot and I felt a bit alarmed at tackling the crowded tube, then finding the place in Lower Belgrave Road near Victoria.

I arrived early and quickly realised that the waiters were mostly tiny Dirk Bogarde look-a-likes. The first one furiously flared his sharp little nostrills at me. When I gave my host's name he reluctantly led me to a table out of sight then ignored me. I had to ask pointedly for a menu, which were being given out freely to male diners, then beg for a drink. One of the waiters told me sneeringly that they didn’t serve Pinot Grigot. Since I last ate out it had somehow dropped to the level of Blue Nun.

The men at the tables were all in couples. One Italian with long, smooth blonde hair and big sun-glasses looked like Steffi Graf.

Eventually the boys arrived puffing as journalists do, to suggest that they are still on a story and only popping out briefly. Waiters began to circle and bottles of Pinot Grigio appeared, in fact at least five of them.

** the rest of this has been censored as journalists are fragile plants and can't stand people reporting on them**

It was a very sportive lunch, knock about as only journalists can be, when I spoke I was often told to shut up, and my ideas shredded. It was like being in the House of Commons in the good old days of Punch and Judy, or real politics as it used to be. I like boxing and I was really glad of it. The food was wonderful too; I forget what it can be like now that I no longer have an expense account. I had cuttle fish for the first time. It looked like the sole of a Japanese sandal, and was hard to cut, but it tasted delicious. I followed that with linguini with crab and chilli.
I had given up eating crab as I don’t like the idea of anything being boiled alive, but unfortunately I read somewhere that crab meat is very good for you and I am now ruthless in my determination to use diet to deter cancer cells.
We followed up with a blueberry dessert, another tumour busting food.

As they ordered the fifth bottle I had to leave as I had arranged to meet a friend at the Renoir cinema near Russell Square. As I left there was a chorus of: "Now we are going to beat this thing, Jane, aren't we?" And I felt absolutely certain that I would.

I arrived at the cinema five minutes before the film started.
I hadn’t seen this friend for several years so I didn’t want to be late. All was well between us immediately. Amazing how this illness has demolished all the narcissistic barriers and petty resentments that had sprung up over the years.

The film, The Time That Remains, by Elia Suleiman, about the destruction of Palestinian society after 1948, through the eyes of a young boy, was fascinating but I did have some trouble in the snoring department, a bit like the average London theatre critic.

Alcohol can have a depressing effect and afterwards, sitting out in the sunshine I felt scared of the people smoking near me. I began feeling my groins for fresh tumours. I'd got pains in my neck, did that mean that my my lymph glands were swelling with cancer? I had a pain somewhere in my arse; didnt a BBC journalist recently die from a tumour in the buttock? Perhaps that was where it was. I suddenly wanted to be at home with Maisie, safely under my duvet.

When I got home my wound was still open and oozing. It had got three days to close before I am supposed to start the chemo.
On the phone my mother said, “In the old days they would have put a drain in and you would have been in bed for six weeks, then you would have been sent to a convalescent home.”
“You were always on your back in those days,” she said. “And when your Uncle Bill had a cataract done he had to lie down flat for a week.”
I vaguely remember that, as it was in the late 1960s.

By Saturday I just wanted to be alone to listen to Lord Peter Wimsey on the radio and concentrate on my hole closing, so to speak. Of course by the evening I wanted company – the perennial problem of single people.
I thought of people saying to me, “you shouldn’t go through this alone,” as if I can somehow move someone in.

But I am certainly lucky in my friends. June sent me some beautiful head-scarves, for the moment when I have to face up to being bald. This present really did help. Looking at all the pretty options, some sewn up like caps, the dread of what is to come drained away for awhile. Human love is the only thing that helps overcome fear.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Almost like normal life again

22/5/10 Make my first real excursion, walking to Turnham Green, then on to the Marmalade jewellery shop up by Chiswick High Road, to hand in my entry to the marmalade contest, which is part of the Bedford Park Festival.

Note that a few people have used fancy lids on their entries, some with paste jewels and spangles. I hope the judges will not be swayed by that kind of vulgarity!
Got back as far as the Oxfam shop and had to lean on the counter to recover myself. The woman behind the counter was very unfriendly and probably wouldn’t have noticed if I’d fallen flat on the floor.

I sat outside in the sun for ten minutes and felt better. By the time I got as far as the café facing the church I was OK again. A friend from the church arrived and advised me against taking any exercise, then she said, “but I suppose if you are fighting the Grim Reaper, you don’t want to waste any time.”

I am easily scared at the moment and this puts me off my coffee. Her husband is an artist but she says that his mother made him promise on her death bed to become a policeman. Cheer myself up wondering if I will be able to try that one on anyone if I have to meet the GR soon. Perhaps I can force Charles Thomson, leader of the Stuckist Painters to become an estate agent for Foxton’s.

A box of the Olive Tea arrives, with two extra packets and I wonder if I will ever open them. At church a woman who offered me a lift says, “try multi-vitamins,” and I think she might be right, anything else is too complicated.

In the run up to starting the chemotherapy, my life becomes surprisingly normal again and as sociable as I can make it, a whirl of going out and seeing people, as if I am going to be sent away soon, God knows where.

Spend Saturday night with my friend Sue Reid from the Mail. I have known her for years, but we haven’t spoken for four years after a silly quarrel. Now because of my illness we are friends again and she takes me to a restaurant called Babylon, at the top of the Kensington Roof Gardens.

I haven’t been out to a place with a buzz like that for a long time, probably not since I resigned my membership of the Groucho Club, due to an increasing lack of funds and the increasing price of their drinks.

On green silk sofas we are surrounded by Italian girls in brilliant summer dresses, floaty, sequinned, embroidered, and absurdly short. Find myself fancying a young man who looks like Mussolini. I always had a fancy for a bulging cranium and mad staring eyes.

Putting aside all ideas of the magic foliage I have been buying on line, we tuck into a Porterhouse steak slashed and hacked into pieces slathering with blood. We talked about politics most of the time. She has also been on a story in Haiti, a great adventure. I am glad that the paper still does those dangerous escapades, although the editor has little interest in foreign news. She sent some of the people she spoke to £500, more money than they have ever seen, and they are building a house with it.

Leave the restaurant late feeling like an adult person again.

Realise, perhaps due to two bottles of red wine, that in some ways I am a happier now than I was before. I was given up for adoption at six weeks old, became a sad baby as photos show, a fretful child, and an agonised adolescent. I tried to kill myself at twenty one, and was always looking for love, trying to hunt it down. I wanted so much to “find the one,” and failing to achieve that poisoned my life. It was like an inner carbuncle. I have been jolted out of that pathological sadness and it won’t come back because I can never be sure of my life again.

Get back to hear extracts from the Four Quartets on Radio 4, read in different voices including Ted Hughes. The perfect end to a day.

Lotions & Potions

18th May. 2010.

Mum returns to her life in the Midlands, where she has many friends. At her age she has lost a lot of close ones, but continues to make more. She has a good life; pensioners’ pub lunches which involve constant juggling of discounts, and bestowing of favours. They have lunch in one place for a few months raving about the Cumberland sausage and jam sponge, then without a bye your leave, they shift off somewhere else to a better offer. There is also Towns Women’s Guild, visits theatre matinees in Wolverhampton, the local Amateur Dramatic in the village and of course the church, where she was a sides-man till recently.
Perhaps she is the last generation to be truly embedded in village life, mortgage which was never above a few hundred pounds long gone, equipped with sound pension.
We mainly keep in touch by text. I started that about ten years ago, to keep her in the loop, let her know my movements, keep her abreast of my brilliant career and stunning social life. Now she is out there texting while I am at home.
Fall asleep and dream that I have to rush off somewhere in my car, realise that I don’t have any clothes for the trip, and anyway I am in the passenger seat. The car, without a driver, is already going too fast, out of control. I struggle over to grab the wheel and manage to turn the car around. As I do this I think: “If only this was just a dream, but they never are.”
Wake up feeling as there is a cold hand clutching my heart.
I prayed a little using the Roman Missal, just some random readings. Later it comes to me that the only way forward is to carry on as normal, keep calm and carry on if you like. That is God’s message to me, and more proof if needed that God is an Englishman.
My friend Richard Pendlebury from the Daily Mail visits, bringing, “Few Eggs And No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45.”
Like me she came down from the Midlands to live in London, and had the good fortune or otherwise, to blog the Blitz, writing her experiences in letters sent out to all her relatives.
The inside cover is decorated with bits of good advice from the period: “Go! To! It!”
“If you must talk, talk victory,” and “Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will win through.” All phrases I can employ now. Feel my courage renewed.

My oldest friend, Lucy, arrives from Birmingham bringing flowers and food. My flat currently has more fresh cut flowers than Buckingham Palace.
After she leaves I send twenty four e mails. Have a siesta and when I come to, my courage has to be renewed. Sleep has wiped it out.
I called my cancer support nurse to ask her if there is really any hope for me, as the cancer is already at Stage 4.
“We don’t have a crystal ball, Miss Kelly,” she says, sounding a bit indignant as if I have strayed into territory that is not hers.
“Lots of our Stage 4 ladies live for years.”
That’s what I am now, not a journalist or a painter, instead my new career is as a “Stage 4 lady.”
As my spirits began to droop, Father Bill arrived from Ealing by mountain bike. After half an hour he got up to go without saying a single word about the Deity. When I asked him about this he said, “Oh, I didn’t come to pray over you!”
That’s the C of E for you. He does say a prayer when I ask for one.
On Sunday I enjoyed the service at St. Michael’s, Bedford Park, more than I have ever done before. Everything was heightened, although there was a moment when the vicar pressed the wafer in my hand with great meaning and I felt I might burst into tears.
In the afternoon, Time and the Conways by JB Priestly was on Radio 4.
A bit of a gloomy play – an ambitious young family that goes progressively rotten over the period 1918 – 1939. The grabby mother, played by Frances Barber with a voice like a saw, is the worst character. I saw it at the Grand Theatre Wolverhampton when I was in my late teens, the mother played by Joan Plowright, Lady Olivier, who annoyed me with her high, fruity voice.

I was with Lucy that night and both our mothers. I suppose at the time she and I wondered if we might end up like any of the characters in the play, at least I did. I particularly dreaded the spinster blue-stocking headmistress, but listening to it again now she seems to have come out best of all, leading her own life, earning an independent living with integrity. Wonder why I was so scared of her? Probably because she was single.

Looking back to when we were so young and full of ambition, with everything to play for, I feel that Time is very cruel to humans. Priestly calls Time “a great devil in the universe,” but he also seems to be saying it is all on some kind of cosmic loop and we are going through it constantly, at all times holding all time within ourselves.

24/5/10 Get a phone call, from a nurse from Queen Charlotte’s, calling me “Kelly Jane,” saying that they have had a terrible struggle to get me an appointment for a colonoscopy. It has to be this week, if not it will be the end of June, which is “too late.”
What has happened, is the whole of west London queuing up to have their backsides examined? The government must have been publicising it, perhaps on those horrid films they now show in the doctor’s surgery during the interminable wait. I didn’t think anyone listened to them.

Knowing that I am “Stage 4” is on my mind all the time. Fear comes and goes in waves, like pain. Lie in bed letting BBC Radio 4 and 7 tell me long, cosy stories. The older programmes are more comforting than the new ones, a bit like nurses, as the priorities in the past were quite different, more about plumping up pillows and making you feel good than hectoring you on correct attitudes.

Listen to an episode of Take It From Here, circa 1959. The writers had composed an updated version of Trilby, De Maurier’s melodrama. Interesting that the audience, which cackled like a crowd at the music hall, all knew what Trilby was about.
There were also references to Gigi, a popular musical film at the time, which the audience was expected to have seen, and even jokes about opera: “She will next play “Rose” in Der Rosenkavalier,” says one character and the audience hoots with laughter at this play on the German title.
Someone should try that one again now and see what happens.

At tea time I catch a contemporary Radio 4 comedy, put out when children are listening. Someone with a voice like a Geordie lout regales the delighted audience with a joke about Santa, “shitting down the chimney.”

Also have a go at watching films on TV in the afternoon. They can be as good as Diazepam for taking you out of anxiety. Night Train to Munich starring a young Rex Harrison was made while the war was going on and as soon as I saw the news-reel footage of the Nazis stamping through Prague I started blubbing.

Watching sexy Rexy firing bullets at a particularly horrid German whilst hanging from the side of a cable car over a Swiss gorge, realised that I will probably never now have a real rip roaring adventure like that myself. This is my adventure, my night train towards extinction and you can keep it.
Next came Green For Danger, starring Alistair Sim at his oddest as an unlikely detective. This was also made during the war, adding an extra layer of frisson to each English character portrait. I first saw this on a neighbour’s TV in the 1960s when I thought it was very scary and longed for it to end. Now I realise that it was mainly a comedy of English manners, and when it ends I am back in reality, breathless with fear.

Find a dead magpie fledgling on the lawn. It looks as if it has been sucked to death. Its anxious parents appear on the fence. All that time they invested for nothing. I feel sorry for them but at the same time think that the death of this bird of ill omen might mean good luck? I’m clinging onto anything hopeful. Magical thinking comes easily.

More practically I decide to eat myself healthy with immune system boosting foods. Also discover on line that there is now a multi-million dollar industry in purveying these “super foods” to anxious members of the public.
At 4.30pm set out for the local Tesco's, although I have been advised not to lift or carry anything for weeks. Fight my way through streams of veiled women, people in Nigerian national costume and men with dangerous looking dogs.
I felt much better once I start thinking about my diet as it allows me a sense of control at last, as if I can really do something to help myself.
My friends also help. The biographer Neil McKenna says, “Eat broccoli until it comes out of your vagina, Darling.”

My friends are full of interesting cures for cancer. Charles Thomson, leader of the Stuckist painters, swears by a strange brew called Kombucha, which is a pancake made from mysterious wild mushrooms. He says that Alexander Solzhenitsyn cultivated these mushrooms when he got cancer while he was in a labour camp in Siberia.

On line it says these pancakes will diminish liver spots, prevent certain types of cancer, relieve constipation, sooth aching neck muscles, improve vision, cure insomnia, balance blood sugar and prevent baldness.

Well I need help with all those. He says he has been taking the potion himself for a long time and always has some on the go, as if that explains his natural loveliness. People who take these potions always believe they have been markedly enhanced by them, which makes it difficult to argue.

He handed me a heavy bottle of the stuff and some of the mushrooms in a jar. It tasted quite pleasant, like weak cider vinegar, but the instructions seemed terribly difficult to follow:

No metal must come anywhere near the mushrooms, you must be in a state of calm when you make it or they will get upset, you need a strainer and something non metal to brew it at room temperature for ten days.

Father Bill, surprisingly swears by Olive Tea, found on the internet at www.detoxyourworld. (A clever parodist couldn’t make that up) I couldn’t find it and ended up ordering “High Strength Olive Leaf Complex,” in a bottle. This tastes t like syrup of figs.

When I went over to the Ealing vicarage for the usual Tuesday afternoon tea, he showed me how to brew it up in the bottom of a cup, with a layer of highly expensive Japanese Yamamoto tea at the top.

If I remember rightly, Yamamoto was Commander- in- Chief of the Imperial Japanese navy. Despite small distractions such as the attack on Pearl Harbour and the Battle of Midway, he stood on his head on deck every morning to encourage his sailors. Perhaps his lively behaviour was due to this tea, so I will definitely try it.

Father Bill is certainly lively, despite his hairy beard. He claims to be wearing a toupee which can only be seen in very bright light, so he says he lurks in doors most of the time. His vicarage does resemble a boy’s bedroom, with a few sticks of furniture provided for elderly ladies to sit on. The rest is turned over to his mountain bike, Spanish and electric guitars, and skiing equipment. There is also an odd stuffed terrier.

After showing me the wonderful tea, in the large, cold kitchen, he gives us all a demonstration of his new i-phone, playing Mac The Knife at full blast, followed by “Move Closer,” by Phyllis Nelson. I wonder if he dances alone in the dark when we’ve all gone.

Eleven people drift in for the tea and Bourbon biscuits, sitting on the assembled chairs, mostly elderly ladies, some very old indeed. One cheerful, youngish man tries to entertain me and a very old lady sitting beside me, by telling us a joke.

“What did ET’s mother say to him when he got back home?” he asks gleefully. The old lady has never heard of ET so this has to be explained to her.

“Where on earth have you been?” is the punch-line, and he almost falls off his rickety chair with mirth. The old lady says that is odd, because she has just written a letter to her nephew, who is very keen on astronomy, and in it she wrote exactly the same joke, thinking she had made it up herself. Perhaps she too is on the olive tea.

My Japanese friend insists that she herself is “a healer,” she says she cured a woman who fell over in the shopping centre in Ealing and cut her leg. She wants to come round and see me for a proper healing session. When I demur she seems offended with me. “You are clearly not interested,” she says huffily.
My Polish friend e mails to ask if I have heard of “The Buwig Quark Diet?” Well no, can’t say I have.
This was developed by one Dr Johanna Budwig, a German dietician, and promises, yes promises to cure cancer with a mixture of flax oil and cottage cheese.
Their web page offers “Cancer cures and remedies,” “emotional rebalancing and re-mapping,” “herbal formulas,” and refers you to their diagnosis of the “Cancer personality.” You can also fill in a “Carcinogenic Personality Profile,” to see just how you gave yourself the illness by having the wrong attitude.
Apparently the typical cancer personality is “very tidy,” with “a fear of spiders and other crawling creatures.”
I am someone who does her housework once every month and never does anything to remove spiders or their webs. I have some in my hall who have been there for years. They look incredibly spindly and dessicated. I look on them as a kind of arachnid women’s group, and speak affectionately to them whenever I go out. So cancer must be entirely down to my bad attitude and avoidance of cottage cheese, which I gave up in my mid 20s at the same time as I gave up dieting.

Frau Budwig’s remedy is “all proven and effective,” it says on her web page, “synergistically with the Budwig Protocol.”
You can attend their clinic for some of their special salad, a snip at $8,500 for two weeks.
Her followers also claim that she was up for a Nobel Prize, “six or seven times.”
As she did her groundbreaking work in the early 1950s I would like to know exactly what she was doing during the prime of her life, in the Third Reich – awarded a judgement at Nuremberg more like.