The Elephant in the Room

I have not been updating this blog much over the past couple of years. There has been a reason for this: unfortunately my cancer has returned. It is no longer curable, although, with luck and the right treatment, it may be some time before it proves fatal. For a long time I found it too painful even to announce this publicly, but now I think it is helpful for me to do so. For too long it has been “the elephant in the room”, taking up all the space in my life. The only way to bring it down to the size of perhaps a large dog or a small pony is to say something about it.

I don’t plan on saying much, for me it is too raw, personal and private, but it does impact my life quite severely, so I want to say something. The cancer has damaged my bones, resulting in several fractures, and leaving me disabled. For a while I was unable to leave the house, although now I am able to get out for short walks at least, which has done a lot for my mental health. I am still able to drive, which helps.

I also suffer from fatigue, whole days go by when I am too exhausted to do anything. The main consequence is boredom: while daytime TV has a few gems, they are few and far between. I no longer write or play music, I don’t have the energy or concentration required.

However it is not all gloom; when I am well enough, I paint, and I have completed several new paintings recently. I will be posting some of them here. I find that painting is more suited to the rhythmn of my life, because I can do it when I have the energy, then put it aside when I don’t.

The hardest thing has been reconciling myself to the fact that I probably will not live for much longer. It is not something that I expected. I have had cancer twice in the past, one of the things that got me through was the belief that I would survive it. Now I can no longer believe that. The most that I can hope for is to live a meaningful life during the time that I have left. I am still working out what that means.

Please Don’t Pull Up Ragwort

Ragwort is a very attractive plant. When it is left to grow unmolested it can be quite spectacular, reaching a height of several feet, topped by a dome of yellow flowers. It is a native British wild flower, and is important for a variety of insects, including the beautiful Cinnabar moth. Bees love it.

This is a picture that I took of some ragwort at a local nature reserve, Bannerdown Common near Bath. I am not sure what these creatures are, but they were evidently having a good time among the ragwort, it was the insect version of Love Island.

Ragwort at Bannerdown Common

Unfortunately the plant has developed an unfairly bad reputation, to the extent that some people take it upon themselves to roam about the countryside casually uprooting it. I have seen several examples of this recently. This is in fact illegal behaviour, as well as being pointless, ignorant and wantonly destructive.

Near to where the above picture was taken, I found this:-

uprooted ragwort found at Bannerdown Common nature reserve.

This was only one of several examples.

The excuse given is that ragwort is toxic to horses. I don’t have a horse, but if I did, I would certainly want to protect it from something that might poison it.  That’s perfectly reasonable and what any responsible horse owner would want. The thing is, though, horses don’t like the taste of fresh ragwort so will normally avoid it where it is growing. It is only when ragwort is dried and mixed with other plants in hay that horses will actually eat it. So the answer is to be careful what you feed your horse. The rational way to do this is surely to make sure that any feed that you give your horse comes from a reputable supplier who takes care to exclude ragwort.

What makes absolutely no sense is to wander the countryside pulling up a native wild plant, or encourage others to do so. One of the worst examples that I have seen recently was at East Harptree woods nature reserve, where I took this picture of Cinnabar moth caterpillars feasting on ragwort.

Cinnabar moth caterpillars feasting on ragwort

Sadly nearly all the nearby plants had been uprooted, so there will not be many of them maturing this year. The most ludicrous aspect of this is that no horses graze there, and horse riding is expressly forbidden at East Harptree, so no horse was ever going to go near them. It is just utterly pointless vandalism.

So please don’t pull it up. You are not helping horses, and you are committing criminal damage if you do. Why not do something for nature instead and grow it in your garden? It’s a lovely plant and deserves protection.

 

Countering the Idiocracy

I was struck by this item of news recently, about the fact that Macmillan, the well-known cancer charity, have appointed someone to counter the myths about cancer being promoted online (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-41780776). It is sad that this is necessary, but it surely is. This is a subject that affects me personally, because I have had cancer twice. It was my experience that mentioning this in conversation acts as a kind of beacon for the deluded: like the well-meaning person who insisted on telling me about the woman in Bristol who had “cured herself” of cancer (presumably she also diagnosed herself in the first place); or the person who solemnly assured me that it could be cured with lemon peel.

I decided early on in my treatment that I would ignore the idiots, and accept that the doctors treating me were exactly what they seemed to be: humane and intelligent people, who would not recommend a treatment unless it was actually likely to of real benefit. So I had surgery, and chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and yes, it is quite brutal, it is not an experience that I would recommend to anyone looking for a laugh. But the thing is that it actually works, and I am still here several years later.

Of course it is not a new thing that some believe that their ill-considered opinions are as valid as those of people who have spent years of their lives studying and researching a subject. But it is only recently that the internet has given them such a powerful platform, so at least the harm that they could do was more limited in the past. There is something particularly pernicious about promoting myths about cancer, it can quite literally kill people who are gullible enough to believe them. I have noticed that those who do so, while being all too quick to condemn “Big Pharma”, usually gloss over their own interests in promoting dubious “cures”.

There is no conspiracy among doctors and drug companies to suppress some safe and “natural” cure for cancer, whether it be vitamin C, or green tea, or magic beans for whatever. Why? Conspiracies just do not work because most people are absolutely terrible at keeping secrets. And the biggest reason is because doctors are human beings too, they get cancer too, and so do their husbands, wives, lovers, parents, children, brothers, sisters and friends. If such a cure existed they would want it to be developed, and would want to use it.

I called this post “Countering the Idiocracy”, but in truth I don’t know what the solution is. I still think that the internet is (on the whole) a force for good, and that there is no morally acceptable way of preventing idiots from having access to it. I think that the best thing that we can do, at least on an individual level, is to try not to be one.

And don’t be these people: http://www.thebeatlesneverexisted.com/

Painting: Broadmoor Lane, Bath

This is a painting of Broadmoor Lane near where I live in Bath, where I often walk the dog.

One of the good things about Bath is that it is very compact, it only takes a few minutes walk from the city and you are in open countryside and farmland. This is working farmland, there are often cows in the lane.

Chuckles Coulter: A Dog’s Life

It is with a great sadness that I announce the death of Chuckles, my much loved dog. She passed away peacefully on 17 November 2015.

Chuckles Coulter

She was probably a Lakeland Terrier (mostly). Not much is known about her early life, she was adopted by my father at about the age of 18 months, towards the end of 2001. She had been found as a stray, very thin and scared, wandering by herself on bonfire night.

Whatever the difficulties of her early years, it did not dampen her enthusiasm for life. As a young dog she had seemingly boundless energy, and was something of a little hooligan. Her best friend was a young Beagle called Millie, whom she adored. They used to chase each other at breakneck speed around the town ramparts of Berwick-upon-Tweed, where my father regularly walked her.

She liked cats, although it has to be admitted that she also enjoyed chasing them. However it did not seem to be motivated by ill-will, but simply because it was fun. She lived for many years quite amicably with my father’s cat Min.

As well as chasing things, Chuckles cultivated an interest in chewing things; squeaky toys (which she enjoyed killing), and sticks. Unfortunately she never got the hang of fetch, taking the view that if you threw a stick away you could hardly expect to get it back again, and it was therefore hers. She was never much interested in balls, unless the ball belonged to another dog, or occasionally a golfer; then she would enjoy grabbing it and running off with it. She always had a keen sense of mischief, which made her a fun, though occasionally embarrassing companion.

She was also an enthusiastic scavenger, and adopted an “eat everything” policy towards anything even remotely edible that she found on her walks, no matter how disgusting it might look and smell. I won’t turn my reader’s stomach by supplying details. She never seemed deterred by the occasional tummy upset this caused her.

In later years, she calmed down a lot (as do we all), and took up sniffing things as her main interest, which she could do happily for hours on end. She still loved walkies, but at a much more sedate pace.

I know that my father loved her dearly, and she was a loyal friend to him in the last years of his life. Sadly my father died in March 2013, and I adopted Chuckles. She was a wonderful companion for me at a very difficult time, particularly when I was undergoing chemotherapy, when she was a great source of support. I had some of my treatment at home, and, in a particularly touching gesture, she would sit and guard me while the nurse administered the medication. It was very healthy for me to have a reason why I had to go out every day for a walk, even when I really did not feel like it at the time. More than anything, her presence did a lot to help me keep my spirits up.

There are some people (nasty, bitter and twisted people: people who don’t like dogs) who imagine that a relationship with a dog is just an inferior substitute for a human relationship: but they are wrong, I think that it is something unique and valuable in its own right, and can be very profound. Dogs have a joyful simplicity and directness in their response to life, they are masters of living in the moment. They give their love without reservation, with a glad heart. They can teach us a lot, particularly people who don’t like dogs.

So when I say that Chuckles was a good dog, I mean it as no small thing. As Dad once said of her, she was everything you could want in a dog, in a conveniently small package. She was a true friend, and I will miss her with all my heart.

How Are You Today?

question mark

The other day a young woman rang me up “on behalf of Yahoo”. Now Yahoo don’t ring people up (nor do Google for that matter) so I am pretty sure that what that little sleight of hand really meant was that she was from an internet marketing firm who wanted to sell me some advertising on Yahoo, something that I could arrange for myself if I wanted, then charge me a fee for it.

However it wasn’t that little bit of dishonesty that really irritated me, it was the fact that she began our conversation with the question: “how are you today?” I have noticed that this is a bit of a trend, mainly among people who are trying to sell me something. No doubt some “marketing guru” once told them that this is a good way to start a conversation, that it creates a feeling of warmth and trust.

Well, no it doesn’t, in me anyway it creates irritation. I assume that the caller expects that I will answer “great, I’m fine”, and we will settle down to a nice cosy chat. In fact I find it an impossible question to answer, because even if I am feeling fine I don’t feel like sharing it with a complete stranger. And supposing I am not fine, supposing that I have just had my leg amputated, or am mourning the loss of my beloved pet swamp dragon? In that case I would be forced to either lie, and say that I am fine when I am not, I am feeling heartbroken; or I would have to tell the truth and pour out my heart to someone who blatantly does not care; who moreover is sufficiently lacking in personal ethics to pretend to be from Yahoo when they are not. Neither of these would be an attractive choice.

As a general rule in life I think that you should only ask how someone is if you actually know them, and you actually care enough to hear an honest answer. To do anything else is presumptuous. All of which I tried to explain to the caller, but she hung up on me.

Camping

trees

I had a sudden urge to go camping recently, which I did, in the Forest of Dean. It has been a few years since I slept in a tent, I had forgotten how uncomfortable it is sleeping on the ground. Also it was a very cold night, I was not imagining it, when I got up in the morning there was actually a slight frost on the ground – this is July!

The result was that I got very little sleep, by the next morning I was so exhausted that I felt quite ill, and decided to go back home. I think that you can gather that I am not a natural outdoors-woman, I am not a female Ray Mears. So it was a short trip. It was a pity, apart from the terrible lack of sleep I did actually enjoy the camping. I do like the simplicity of it, the way it brings life back to basics. The Forest of Dean is magnificent – even though some bits are quite touristy, the forest is so big that it is easy to just walk away from them.

I was hoping to see some wild boar. I didn’t – but I definitely heard them during my long sleepless night. At first I had no idea what it was, I heard some weird snuffling sounds, then scampering, and what was unmistakably the grunt of a pig. They must have been only a couple of metres away from my tent.

I will go camping again some day, but not before I have got myself an air bed.

I’m Still Here and I’m OK

Since some people have expressed concern about my well-being, this is just a short post to make it clear that I am fine, I simply have not felt like updating my blog until now. The purpose of this blog was never to be a confessional, I suppose that I am old enough to firmly believe in the importance of drawing a line between the public and the private sphere. Therefore I did not want to be writing about having cancer. However I can say that my treatment has been successful (so far anyway), it just takes a long time to get over. It is a bit like climbing out of a deep, dark well: even when you reach daylight you are not over it, you are so exhausted by the experience that you just want to lie in the sunshine and rest. At least so I have found it.

In the meantime here is a picture of a painting I made last year.landscape-small. I took up painting again – not really having done any since I was a teenager – but felt the need for some kind of hobby that I could do sitting down.