Wednesday, May 31, 2006

London life: Is there a doctor in the house?

I originally posted this as a comment on Dr Jest's caseblog, then decided that it was so long I shoudl put it here. He was talking about the new NHS computer system, and his own computerised records in his office - saying that most surgeries used computers now...

Speak for yourself - our local GP in Notting Hill still uses little library card sized pieces of paper in envelopes. We tried to make an appointment once and I was told that Universal Wifey was not registered. I said she should be, because her registration appointment was straight after mine - I even held the door open for her. They came back on the phone and said that actually, she had emigrated. I said, "Why would she have done that, we've just emigrated here." Receptionist said that she'd told that doctor that and that it was written in the records. I said that sounds unlikely, given that we had never actually met the doctor - having only just registered. (They made her have a pap-smear before they would re-register her - some sort of punishment we assumed.)

Most recently she needed more Clexane (she gets DVTs) before a long haul flight. She sat down and asked for the prescription, in single dose syringes, and reminded the doctor of the dose. The doctor said, "You've only had glandular fever - you don't take Clexane for that." She agreed, and said she was recovered from the glandular and that the Clexane is for DVTs. He said that there is no record on her record. She said that there should be, because she had given it to them - about fifteen pages of letter, test results and medical history. He said she didn't, and he wasn't giving her the drug. She reminded him that Clexane is not exactly a party drug, and asked him how many people had casually requested it over the course of his career. He said none, and he couldn't just give it to her. She said he'd better, because she wasn't leaving until she did.

At that point, a stare down ensued. Now Universal Wifey is not your average Notting Hill yummy mummy. For starters, she's not a mummy. She is a hardcore investment banker, and you don't get there without being able to stare someone down. She sat across from the doctor, wearing her smart work suit, and stared. Slowly the rustling from the waiting room became louder and louder. She stared. The clock ticked towards hometime. She stared. His phone rang with and enquiry from the desk to see if everything was OK. She stared. He picked up his men and doodled on her card. She stared. She clicked his pen a few times. She stared. He may even have perspired a little. She stared.

He stood up and walked over to the cupboard. She turned her head so that she could keep staring. He grabbed a handful of samples. She stared. He said, "How much do you need?" She smiled, and told him.

She thanked him, placed the syringes into her handbag, zipped it shut and left. Honestly, it's easier to get the stuff through customs.

So I say bring on a system that doesn't rely on the ability of three dessicated, resentful, old biddies who prefer to gossip about the patients than manage the records. Bring on the professionals!

Friday, May 19, 2006

How do you hold a baby's coffin?

I have always thought that Funerals are quite fun affairs - death and loss aside. Sure, the whole mourning thing is very upsetting, but it is also cleansing and cathartic, and leaves you feeling better afterwards. And there is also the celebration thing: celebrating a life lived, hopefully well. I have thought this since the first funeral I attended - my Grandfather's, or my Great Aunt's, not sure - which united cousins and friends who I had not seen for years. It was, ultimately, a reunion party that left us feeling more positive, like the worst was over.

I thought that I was alone in thinking this. Or perhaps that it was just my family, because we were having a laugh in the funeral car about some of the ridiculously funny things that my Grandfather used to do and say. Some of these had names - "The Toilet Seat Incident"; or was it Aunty Thelma's epic travels in her own train carriage, or when she thought her nurse was a gypsy because he had an earring. It doesn't matter, really. The point is that all the stories were infectious and pretty soon we were in the comedy car. At one point I apologised to the driver for our extremely bad taste. He didn't mind. He said that the biggest emotional struggle for a funeral car driver is keeping a straight face when the rest of the car is laughing. He said they are usually quite funny drives.

And funerals can be quite sexy: everyone wears their best clothes; the women look all flushed and vulnerable; the men look all stoic, while betraying an emotional range they usually conceal; and of course teenagers discover a whole new set of adult emotions to experiment with. This I also thought was my own idea until I found thirteen films that agree with me.

Having made these observations over the years, it took today to gel them into the single idea that ultimately a funeral is a positive experience. Because today was the exception that proves the rule.

This morning I held Universal Wifey's trembling hand at the back of a crematorium, tears rolling down our cheeks to the droning lullaby of a Hindu Priest. The casket was ridiculously small - like a dolls-house toy - and it occurred to me that with something so small the usual funerary pomp just doesn't work. You can't have many flowers, because the casket is smaller than the bouquet. The coffin is too small for pallbearers, so it has to be carried by one person, awkwardly. A hearse is a ridiculous conceit when the coffin fits on a lap. And without the formality the whole event becomes horribly personal and intimate. And when there is only fifteen minutes of life to celebrate, nothing can offset the gutting misery of lost hope and shattered dreams.

Again, I thought that this might have been my own observation, until we were waiting to pay our respects to the parents and I saw the undertaker crack. Have you ever seen an undertaker cry?

Also published on

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

London: Aaaaarrrsenallllll

Just after I left school I worked with Digby, a guy who had returned to Australia from the UK an obsessive Arsenal fan. We were moving office furniture and files and it became our mission to write Arsenal FA in ridiculously inaccessible parts of the items we moved - a calling card, if you will. And so it was that, for about a decade, when the MCS Partners at Price Waterhouse, Sydney opened a desk drawer, opened a filing cabinet, reached into a cupboard, or drank from a suitably inscribed mug, they inadvertently exposed a small Arsenal FA to the light. Our challenge was not to write it, but to write it somewhere wierd - like the top of an office door.

To me this was but a merry jape, something stupid, invented by a couple of bright lads to occupy their minds while doing manual labour. Digby, on the other hand, saw it as a vocation. At the time, and until today, I thought that perhaps Digby's devotion to the great club involved a little more affection than that of the average punter.

That was until today.

You see, my office is above a popular London nightclub. And the popular London nightclub is on a popular London road. And today - right now, in fact, as the hometime traffic is thickening up - the popular London nightclub on the popular London road is hosting an event for Arsenal. There are people in Arsenal shirts queueing outside, and there are Arsenal flags on the front of the building.

Well, the commotion! You see, not only are Arsenal fans driving past and shouting brief messages of support to their fellow gunners, but fans of every other team are also driving past, and they are shouting messages of, well not support, to the same gunners. These messages, shouted as they are from moving vehicles, tend to sound alike, and the closest comparison would be the noise a donkey makes.

Meanwhile, beneath the window we have bouncers chatting to echother, gunners chatting to eachother, gunners and bouncers arguing, one man crowing like a crow. I can hear a lot of Anglo Saxon language, particularly from one man who seems to have a problem with his ticket.

It's a very passionate scene and I suggest that anyone who accuses the Brits of being dispassionate and aloof should first sit above the entrance to a popular London nightclub, on a popular London road when it is hosting a football function.

Uh oh! I hear sirens....

Friday, May 12, 2006

Art: Would't you be pissed off...

...if, somewhere on your travels, you lost your luggage.

London: Is it ever too early for a Hummer?

They say you shouldn't drink spirits before 11am. Or is that just undiluted spirits before 11am, because Bloody Marys are acceptable, and they're breakfast food.

They say you shouldn't drink spirits undiluted before 11am. But what is the ettiquite for Hummers. Is a Hummer a morning, afternoon, evening or purely night-time thing?

It's 3pm in London, and a huge Hummer, painted Caterpillar yellow, just drove past my window with teenagers packed so tightly through its apertures - bodies sticking out the sunroof, heads and shoulders out the windows - that they looked like they were stuck on, rather than sticking out. They were all boys, and they looked like they were wearing their father's shirts. And of course the music was deafening, and the excited screaming and yelling was out-doing the music. There must be a party in the 'don tonight.

And "Really," I thought, "three PM is a bit early for that sort of thing". Although, and I'll give them this, they weren't in formal dress.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Books: and hate and the choices we make...

I'm reading the first page of Shantaram tonight, at a writer's salon where we are talking about openings. Shantaram has one of the best openings I have ever read: it tells you that you are about to go on a journey that may change you forever. Here is a taste:

It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility.

And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.

And yes, the rest of the book lives up to the promise.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Books: He faced the witching hour and he prevailed

I read a lot of books. It's easy to criticise books, but it's also true to say that most of the books I read are pretty good. They were good enough to get published, and that's a higher benchmark than you think.

I find that most books fall into three categories: terrible - which is usually more down to taste than quality; merely good - also dictated largely by taste; and outstanding - where you talk about them to your friends, want to read bits to people and would like to lend them to other people but won't because they may not come back.

There is another category. It's the category that DBC Pierre, David Mitchell and a few others occupy. It's the category of book - or perhaps of writing - that transcends most of what you have read before; that just comes in from left field with a story or a way of telling the story that blows you away. And no matter how you ultimately feel about the book - taste again - you have to stand back and give respect to the author.

Ludmilla's Broken English is DBC Pierre's first book after his booker prize. It's also his second book - it's like an author's double witching hour to have to write a book after all that adulation: will it be good enough; will it end my career if people don't like it; how can I possibly live up to my own standard; shit - I've peaked too early.

Well DBC Pierre's done it - it's a good book, the writing it outstanding and it's completely different to his last one. I didn't like the ending much - but that is just my taste and how I was feeling at 11.30pm last night. The book is superb.

Books: A big bad bushy whirlwind

My cousin is the most fearless woman in the world. In fact, sometimes I think she's the most fearless person in the world. She seems to wade in where angels fear to tread, with nothing to protect her but her strong personality and spiky haircut. (She's not of course - when you know what to look for you can see when she's scared - she's just scared of different stuff to you and I.) But stand back sister, because you have competition.

Perial Aschenbrand is one of those people who has the courage to follow her own ideas and ambitions and it pays off. She's the brain behind, "The only Bush I trust is my own", and a bunch of other pithy slogan shirts which have become Body as Billboard. Like most New Yorkers she is the star of her own unmade movie, but unlike most New Yorkers, her's is probabl a movie that you'd want to see. And her mother is adorable. Well worth reading.

A testament to the story-producing qualities of beer goggles.

Hip inner city girl - a commedian no less - spills the beans on her sex life and dating disasters for the general mirth and enjoyment of the reading public. The cover has pink writing, bed sheets, some sexy legs and a pair of undies falling off the corner. "Meet Chelsea, one girl behaving very, very badly."

Perhaps it was the name Chelsea, or just the mood I was in, but I was expecting some insightful, yet tittilating, life experience stuff like early Girl with a One Track Mind or Chelsea Girl.

At the start of the book I thought that it was a book about a girl who likes men - who REALLY likes men - particularly when she's had a bit of a drink. The more I read I started to think that actually, she doesn't like men. We don't pay her enough attention, we're unhygenic, our penises are too small, or too big and our attitudes are all wrong - particularly when she is sober. Ultimately it's a boring list of beer goggles mistakes assembled for a laugh, but resulting in a yawn.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

London: All that is old is new again

As ex-medieval cities like London become clogged with cars, some more traditional modes of transport are seeing a resurgance. We are seeing many more bicycles in particular, including big tricycles with tool boxes on the back creating a retro silhouette of the early 20th century. You also see builders on the tubes and trains, carrying their heavy toolboxes to work. You even, sometimes see joiners carrying the traditional timber carpenter's boxes they made as apprentices.

Today, looking down from my desk in the window that was once the arch into Turnmill's yard, I saw an elderly man, walking down the roadway of Clerkenwell Road. He wore a carpenter's dust cost, in denim I think, over a flanel shirt, and baggy blue trousers tucked into socks and boots. A scarf around his neck absorbed sweat, and would stop saw dust going down his collar. He was pushing a low, heavily built two wheeled barrow made of timber and iron, and it carried his toolkit, a tarpaulin and some pieces of wood. It was a timeless scene, that could have happened on any day in any European city or town for hundreds of years before the invention of the bicycle, or the white van.

And then a motorbike beeped him, and I turned back to my computer.

Monday, May 01, 2006

If life is what happens when you're making other plans...

Malcolm Knox's first book, Summerland, was a brilliant debut. The story is told in real time as a man sits at his desk and writes about how his friend and his wife betrayed him - a lifetime of bitter experience between dusk and dawn.

A Private Man - I bought it in Australia, it's called Adult Book in the UK - is equally superb and an obvious development on Knox's skill - this book traverses days. Knox is a master of identifying those moments that make life important - those little things that happen while you are making other plans that change the course of a lifetime. The book is a brilliant and complex tale of life on Sydney's well mannered Upper North Shore, where being simply human is not necessarily an asset.

And now a caveat: like Summerland, it's written about the land of my childhood - not just Australia, I'm talking land so familiar to me that I recognise individual houses - so I am ultimately biased. But since it was shortlisted for the Tasmanian Pacific Fiction Prize in 2005, it can't be just me who thinks it's worth reading.

Profound, disturbing and ultimately pointless

Look, there is a lot to say, but I just can't bring myself to do it. It's a well written, disturbing and ultimately unsatisfying story about a guy who feels guilty for shagging his best mate's girlfriend while his best mate is in a mental institution. It's been going on for years, and finally comes to a head when the mate tops himself, and still manages to manipulate the couple post-mortem. It just shows how mentally ill people can damage those around them - those who want to love and help them the most - and how ultimately selfish suicide is.

If the coffee were better, we wouldn't need our change to buy a coffee across the road...

We've decided to leave Notting Hill for a secret part of almost-Islington where we have fallen in love with the tree lined streets and cute houses. And it's reassuring that, now we have decided to leave, nothing here seems as good as before.

Carluccios 0n Westbourne Grove: our favourite breakfast spot for its cheap breakfasts of intensely flavoured small portions. Yesterday the portions were smaller, and the flavours insipid - fewer porcinis in the mushrooms, a smaller portion of scrambled egg, and somehow less scrambled than before - with streaks of white through it - and less creamy flavoured.

The Electric: our favourite spot to take visiting friends for an international standard menu and soem celebrity spotting. This morning the blueberry pancakes that used to be as big as a plate and so full of blueberries that they barely held together are now smaller and less berried. The full-Electric (The Electric's upmarket full-English) is still OK, but when I order "no black pudding", the waiter shouldn't be plonking the dish down with the words, "full-Electric, no black pudding... oh, well just a little bit there in the middle". And finally, when you serve coffee that bad, and you are already charging 12% for service, I shouldn't have to ask for my change back. You see we need the change to buy a good coffee from The Coffee Plant, acrosst the road.

Westbourne Corner
108 Westbourne Grove
Bayswater, London W2 5RU
Phone: 020 7243 8164

The Electric Brasserie
191 Portobello Road, Notting Hill
Phone: 020 7908 9696

The Coffee Plant
180 Portobello Road
Notting Hill, London
Phone: 020 7221 8137