August 2009


 

The mountains are their playground,

the crags, the fell, the muscular ridge,

the scouring dale, the tumbling water,

the gliding, striding, sliding edge. 

 

Beating time like boatmen,

their pinioned oars hum in the stiff’ning breeze.

Dark against the weather,

They surf the breaking storm.  

 

The sudden call, the stall, the mock attack,   

the plunge; the breakneck beak.   

The other, swerving to the pass 

makes high speed chase above the grass.

 

They’re such show offs!  Like clowns,  

they chuckle, roll over, fly upside down.

Like trapeze artists, they swing on the wind, 

As free as the fall; so near, so near to rocky death.

 

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IMG_2411 (Large)I had some pizza that I made the previous night and thought to share that and the remains of a bottle of claret with her.  But she is not right.  Julie has told me that she gets very emotional at the prospect of me coming round.  I have recently begun to wonder whether my frequent visits were helping her.

I hear her as soon as I open the door, the regular rhythm of querulous grunts, interrupted by ‘Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear!’  My heart sinks! 

‘Hello mum!’  I say with as much dramatic enthusiasm as I can summon. 

‘Oh, Hello Nick.  Thank goodness you’ve come.’  She grabs hold of my hands and looks  up at me.  Then her face breaks down and she starts sobbing, a thin high pitched whining note.     

I lift her up and hug her, stroke her hair.  ‘There, there, whatever’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know’, she replies, as she lifts a tear-stained face and gazes imploringly at me, ‘I don’t know’. 

I feel her desperation like a heavy band squeezing my heart; a pain like pressure that I can’t relieve.  How dreadful it must feel to lose touch with your life, like being trapped in a pit with people staring in but unable to reach you.        

She staggers unsteadily behind me as I put the pizza in the microwave and pour two glasses of claret.  She follows me to the table and stands there, unsure of what to do.  I sit down, cut up her meal and invite her to sit and join me. 

The grunts recommence as she slowly cuts the pizza into still smaller pieces and raises them unsteadily to her mouth. 

‘Cheers, mum.’  I lift my glass. 

‘Oh, I can’t finish all this.’

‘Well, don’t worry.  Just do your best.’

‘You’re eating too quickly.  And then you’ll leave me.’

‘Don’t worry.  I’m in no rush. Just take your time.’ 

More grunts, then she stops, her fork poised.  She gives me a long look.    

‘You do like coming to see me, don’t you?’

‘Yes, of course I do mum.’

‘You’re not going to stop coming, are you?’

‘No, mum.’

‘You don’t just do it out of a sense of duty, do you?’

‘No, mum.’ 

‘Come on then, let’s have a smile.’ 

 

I feel confused.  Why do I feel so bad? 

It is projection, of course.  Mum is making me feel her fears; the same fears that have undermined her all her life.  She was a lonely child.  She never knew her father; he had died during the Great War.  She had no brothers and sisters, no friends. Her mother worked all hours, looking after her family and running the business.  Although she had all the care and later, all the opportunities and material possessions that her mother could buy, she felt lonely, deprived, in the way.  She grew up without the confidence of belonging.  And now at the end of her life, she is still that same lonely little girl, unable to trust anybody or anything and desperately needy of attention and reassurance.  So as she  regresses towards the vanishing point of pure narcissism, the essence of her being, the feelings that drive her have become ‘her’.  She is deeply unhappy; the orphan girl, the abandoned lover, the lonely old lady.  She has to pass on the distress to those who are closest to her.

I feel responsible for her unhappiness, though I know in reality I’m not.  I feel compelled to do as much as I can to satisfy her needs, reassure her, comfort her, but it can never be enough.  How many birthdays have I made that special effort only to have her find fault? I never seem to learn. She passes on a lifetime’s grievance. I experience the same  pernicious blend of entrapment, compromise, irritation and guilt. So much so that I fear that it has become part of who I am. Relationships have always tended to recreate feelings of entrapment and obligation and I have found it hard to tolerate my own loneliness and find freedom.   

So it is my fault that she is feeling bad. I am here under sufferance. I don’t want to see her.  

The awful thing is she is right.  When she is heavy, like this, I don’t want to be with her.  I can feel an almost infinite compassion, but her pain and my guilt are almost impossible to bear.  And the more I deny the antipathy and reassure her, the worse we both feel; me, because I cannot be honest; she, because she cannot gain a real justification for her grievance.  So I try to steer a winding path through ensnaring undergrowth between understanding and care on the one hand and brutal honesty on the other.      

You might say it would be better to sort things out for her in a practical sense, do my duty and leave. But that doesn’t work.  No suggestion, no alteration of her circumstances is ever right.  She doesn’t want practical solutions.  She will always find fault with them.  They are incorporated into the grudge.  In fact, to help her is probably the worst thing I can do, because by gratifying her demands, I take away her remaining power, the manipulative power of the grievance.  What she wants is constant attention, understanding and reassurance, but even that has to be questioned, denied.  It seems so shocking to say it, but what she envies and wants is life, my life!  And in refusing to devote the totality of my life to her, I feel guilty.  She’s my mum, after all.  Surely I owe her my life.   

I am a psychotherapist.  I do recognise the manipulation and the need to maintain a boundary in order to protect myself from it.  But at the same time, I can feel the loneliness and desperation that hides behind it.  As a little girl, mum would have learnt that the only way she could soothe her distress was to get her mothers attention, even if the ways of doing it made her angry.  Any attention, even angry attention, was better than no attention at all.  And there was always the hope that her mother would soften, recognise her distress, calm things down, rescue her.  After all, how could anybody turn away from such distress.  And if they did, well she just raised the stakes, became more desperate. Guilt is such a good way of manipulating people.    

I feel disloyal in writing and posting this article, but it is cathartic and helps me defend myself against the other guilt. Perhaps there is some deep seated resentment, simmering away, but I do not wish to be unkind. And after all, so much of what is her is in me.  Only by understanding that, can I find ways of helping us both.  I feel desperately sorry for her, but also terribly trapped.  Nevertheless, I have a choice. I can either bear the guilt and suffer with her or I can seek understanding and some distance.  I feel the latter will help her more.   

In January, I am planning to go away travelling for three months.  She is 93 and frail.  What if she dies?   

When she is particularly aggrieved with me, she fixes me with her gimlet eye and says,  ‘You’ll be sorry if I’m not here tomorrow. I shall come back and haunt you, you know!’      

‘Yes mum; I think you will.’

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‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter.

Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

                                                Samuel Beckett

 

Don’t give up! Learn from your mistakes. Do better next time. Remember Robert Bruce and the spider, Alfred and the cakes.  Just pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again.  That seems be the message of Beckett’s aphorism.  

Of course, the greater the prize, the greater the chance of failure.  If only one in a hundred are going to succeed, then the odds are stacked against you.  Failure is not only likely but valuable. So give yourself a break.  Don’t get so hung up on failure?   Just learn from your mistakes and do better next time. 

Suppose you enter a poem or a short story for a literature prize and you don’t short listed, be phlegmatic, reflect on the experience and try again.  Lower your sites a little.  The next time you will do it better.  And maybe after three of four attempts, your poem might be commended and in time you may have amass a sufficient body of work to secure a publishing deal.  Look at the number of rejections J.K. Rowling had before Harry Potter was accepted.  Did she give up?  No!  She continued to go to the same Edinburgh café and keep writing.   

Science is 99% failure.  Grant applications are rarely accepted first time round.  Most papers submitted to scientific journals are rejected by the reviewers.  New drugs are almost invariably turned down by the regulatory authorities.  But scientists don’t give up.  They study the reviewers comments, make the necessary adjustments to their submission, mount a considered rebuttal to those remarks they don’t agree with and resubmit.  Maybe there was a fatal flaw in their argument all along and they have to withdraw, but the next time they send a paper in, they will do it so much better.  And eventually their  perseverance will pay off.   

This same principle applies to all aspects of life; job applications, passing your driving test, learning IT skills, house or garden design, managing your finances, bringing up children.  Parents are often more relaxed with their second child, who benefits from the mistakes made with their elder brother or sister. 

And of course, it applies in spades to personal relationships.  You meet the love of your life; the one, who has the looks, wit, charm and what’s more seems to love you too.  Yet, you make a mess of it.  The greater the desire, the greater the fear, and like a slip fielder, you bungle the catch.  But what do you do; give up all hope?  Go into a terminal decline?  Hopefully not!  You learn, albeit sadly.  You might question your own projections, acknowledge the confusion of love and possession, even gain a little wisdom but above all realise that life can still offer joy and happiness.              

The sporting metaphor is so apt.  How much we all agonised over Tim Henman’s battles with himself, which intensified as the prize of a Wimbledon grand slam got within reach.  But Tim not only failed better and better, reaching the semi-finals four times, but he failed magnificently.  What drama!  What courage! What a spectacle! 

And how many of us thought the Ashes series was dead and buried after the rout at Headingly, yet the same England team came back and secured the prized urn at The Oval just two weeks later.  

Success is never a good thing if it is too easy.  Easy success can breed complacency, a sense of entitlement that can make the shock of failure and rejection too much to bear. Look at the fragility of George Best, Paul Gasgoine, Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and  Jade Goody.  Celebrity that is not built on a solid foundation of hard work and harder personal experience can all too easily collapse with quite devastating consequences.   

On the other hand, how many successful people had constructed their life from the experience of failure.  Sir Richard Bransom left school at 15; so did Alexander Graham Bell.  Winston Churchill was right at the bottom of his year at Harrow. John Major, John Humphreys, James Callaghan and Alan Sugar never went to University.  Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. Damien Hirst got an E in A level Art.  John Lennon failed all his O levels.  The examples of successful failures are so legion that it can seems that failure is a necessary prerequisite of success, providing the grit in the oyster,  the frustration, disappointment and hunger that can motivate a person to fail better or even succeed.        

The important thing is to forgive yourself, reflect on your mistakes, adjust and try again.  Reflect but don’t over-analyse.  Learn but don’t agonise. Failure doesn’t have to be a fatal character flaw.  You are not defined by your success or your failure.  On the contrary,  failure is part of the human condition. Admit your mistakes, understand them and then let the experience go.  That way you will feel better.

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It was half past nine in the evening and quite dark.  The phone rang.  It was dad.  He was very agitated.

‘There are people in my house – lots of them; men and women.  They’re sitting on my settee. I have told them to go but they won’t.’

‘Who are they dad?’

‘I don’t know.  They won’t tell me.’

‘What are they doing?’

‘Oh, just talking, asking me questions, laughing.’

‘Can you let me talk to them, dad?’

‘MY SON SAYS YOU HAVE TO TALK TO HIM.’ 

‘They won’t.  Now they’ve issued me a death warrant.’

‘FUCK OFF!. GO ON. FUCK OFF!!!’.

‘Don’t worry Dad.  You just keep them talking and I’ll get the police.’

‘MY SON’S CALLING THE POLICE.’   

I phoned Toby who is an ex-policeman and runs the neighbourhood watch.  He was  out, but Judith said she’d go down and look around.

Ten minutes later, she called back. ‘There’s nobody there. Nick; no cars in the drive.  And I looked through the window.  You father’s alone in the house.’

I called dad back.

‘Hello, Nick.’

‘Have those people gone.’

‘Oh yes. They’ve gone now. But they left a message.’

 ‘Did they?  What did it say?’

 ‘Just a minute. I wrote it down.’

 ‘Here it is.’ 

 ‘NEVER MIND THE BUZZCOCKS’

 

 Never Mind the Buzzcocks is a popular BBC television panel game with a pop and rock theme.  It has been on air since 1996 and stars Phill Jupitus and a variety of guests.

 Today is dad’s birthday.  He would have been 93, but he died a month before his 91st.   

 

I was the first candidate after lunch.  I waited nervously outside sister’s office.   The lady arrived late and loud, flanked by two co-examiners, who were chuckling politely.    

She glanced at her clipboard and announced briskly;  ‘Now, Dr Read, examine this man’s chest.’  

I carefully went through the procedure, inspection, palpation, percussion, auscult……… 

‘Hurry up! Hurry up!’ 

‘I think the patient has a right pleural effusion,’  I offered tentatively. 

‘You only think he has!  You’ll have to do better than that.  Now, examine this mans heart.’  She wafted an imperious arm in the direction of the next bed. 

I got out my stethoscope, bent over the patient, but before I could listen to his heart, I heard the lady comment.  

‘He’s alright, but he’s very nervous!’

A resolve, like controlled anger, stiffened inside me.  I was quick.

‘Opening snap, mid-diastolic murmur with presystolic accentuation, splinter haemorrhages under his nails; Mitral Stenosis with SBE.’

‘OK. Next.’

‘Intention tremor, nystagmus.  This patient has cerebellar ataxia.’

‘Next.’

‘Enlarged liver and spleen.  Rubbery Lymph nodes in both groins.  I suspect lymphoma.’ 

‘Good! Now, just examine this mans eyes and anything else you think might be relevant.’ 

The patient eyed me with mischief.  I got my ophthalmoscope out and noted he had microaneurysms, blot haemorrhages, hard waxy exudates.  I took in the puncture marks, the lumps of fat under the skin of his abdomen. With a pin, I tested sensation in his arms and legs. Finally, I bent down and smelt his breath. 

Feeling confident now, I turned round, faced up to the lady and announced firmly.

‘This patient has long standing insulin-dependant diabetes with retinopathy and neuropathy.  He was probably admitted in diabetic coma, since I can still detect the ketotic smell of Golden Delicious apples on his breath.’

The lady was smiling, a curious almost triumphant smile.  So was the patient!  Confused, I looked down at his plate. My heart sank. It was the patient who broke the silence.  

‘Funny you should say that doc!  I’ve just finished that apple.’     

 

This article was submitted to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the MRCP examination by the Royal College of Physicians on 15th September 2009.  My examiner was Professor Dame Sheila Sherlock.    

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Upstream beyond the second run of rapids, the birch trees had been felled from near to the ground, their stumps sharpened like pencils. Beavers!  Looking closer I found sticks similarly sharpened with the chisel marks of their teeth were clearly visible.  Nearby was a untidy stack of sticks cemented together with mud; a beaver lodge.  One swam alongside the boat, then with a flap and a splash from its paddle of a tail, it disappeared. Beavers can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes.  

Beavers are the largest European Rodent, about the size of a Badger, and the most industrious. They can fell several trees in a day, chop them up and transport the smaller trunks and branches along the river to their dams and lodges.  They are animal architects; they construct their own habitat of ponds and canals by blocking rivers and streams and excavating underwater channels for purposes of transport and escape from predators, such as bears, lynx and wolves. 

Many beavers live in cold parts of the world, Canada, Alaska, Finland and Russia.  During the autumn, Canadian Beavers store branches at the bottom of their ponds by sticking them in the mud.  Beavers don’t hibernate. When the pond freezes over, the vegetation can remain fresh throughout the winter as if it were in a refrigerator and can be conveyed underwater to the lodges when needed.  Beavers live in small family groups, adults, yearlings and kits, but they do not discourage other lodgers, such as otters and  muskrats.   

The European Beaver, Castor fiber, is smaller than its North American cousin, Castor canadiensis, and will only build lodges when there are no available holes in the bank.  Its dams are not nearly so large and tend to be built across smaller streams.  One dammed up a culvert, flooding the road near Juntasranta.  Clearing it, workers discovered a Russian mine incorporated into the structure.  Luckily it didn’t explode.

The Beaver was once common throughout Europe, but was hunted almost to extinction for its pelt and meat and also for the secretions of its anal scent gland, known as castoreum, which contain salicylic acid and has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.  There have been no wild beavers in Britain for 500 years.  Now there is a plan to reintroduce them into Scotland.  The farmers are against it.  They fear that beavers will spread throughout the country and devastate their fields. The country sports lobby is up in arms.  The beaver, they claim will dam the salmon rivers and prevent the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. The conservationists say, ‘Not so.  The European Beaver will not dam major rivers, only smaller tributaries, and the wetlands they create will be a wonderful habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, frogs and newts and a wide variety of insect life.  They will be havens of biodiversity.  They will encourage the growth of water loving trees, such as the willow, the alder and the beautiful shivering aspen, Popula tremulens

The decomposing wood will encourage a great biodiversity of invertebrates and fungi, which will in turn attract birds, dragonflies, mammals and fish.

The arguments are delicately poised.  I am a romantic. Trees and water, a wonderful play of light, secret ponds, bird song, the sight of a beaver swimming upstream as the sun came up over the pines; these are the glories of life.  But I am also intrigued by the puzzles of nature inviting nothing more technical than careful observation to solve them.  

The reintroduction of the Beaver to Scotland may well encourage eco-tourism and a more widespread appreciation of the wonderful variety of other species with which we share the planet and a more robust and adaptable aquatic environment.  Bring back the Beaver, I say,  but don’t forget the midge repellent!

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Surely the Russian generals must have realised the folly of invading Northern Finland with an army of conscripts from the Ukraine.  They must have known what the conditions would have been like, a minus 30 degree cold that froze everything, so that the guns wouldn’t fire, their tanks wouldn’t start, the darkness for most of the day, the mobile Finnish troops, the white death, that materialised out of the forest in their white snowsuits shot up the field kichens and ammunition dumps and vanished into the wilderness, the lack of shelter and food.  So why didn’t they abort the invasion until spring?  Why didn’t they turn back when they realised it was so hopeless?   The answer was that they didn’t dare.  One of their number, perhaps the most courageous and intelligent had dared to suggest delaying the invasion at a briefing at the Russian railhead.  The political commissar went up behind him, drew his pistol and coolly shot him in the back of the head and then turned to the others. ‘Comrade Stalin said there would be no delays.’  And when General Novgorod escaped back across the frontier in a tank with three other staff officers after the piecemeal destruction of the 44th Division on the Raate Road, they were all taken into a wood and shot.  That was the way Stalin dealt with opposition, even a hint of opposition.

‘Burnt by the Sun’ adapted for the National Theatre by Peter Flannery from a film by Nikita Mikhailkov captured the threat of Stalin even to his friends.  The year is 1936.   Stalin, man of steel, had led Russia through the Great Depression that had afflicted the west by a massive programme of collectivisation and industrialisation.  He was immensely powerful, but dreadfully insecure. 

General Kotov was a hero of the revolution, a strong man, he had Stalin’s personal telephone number and lives in heroic retirement with his wife, the beautiful Mouroussia, and her family in their dacha in the country not far from Moscow.  Kotov is a large man, a dangerous, brooding presence who allows Mouroussia’s family, the old professor, the grandmothers, to continue their privileged way of life, but things have changed.  Heavy aeroplanes flew overhead, soldiers are on manoeuvres around the house, young Stalinist pioneers marched about singing patriotic songs and there are compulsory holidays to celebrate Stalin’s achievements. The threat is everywhere.  Do as you’re told or disappear.   

This is Chekhov with terror.  But whereas Chekhov hinted at the change that was about to overwhelm the pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie who seemed to have lost their purpose of their existence, in Mikhailkov’s drama, change had swept through and left Mouroussia’s way of life intact but under terrible threat.

For them, the collapse comes in the person of Mitya, who had once been Mourussia’s lover , who arrives after an absence of 12 years.  Mouroussia is shocked and upset.  They had been going to get married.  Why had he not written?  She discovers that her husband  had arranged for him to be exiled to Paris to spy on the white generals.  Mitya became an agent of the state.  The meaning of his life collapsed with the loss of Mouroussia,  her family and their life at the dacha. Kotov had stolen all of that.  Mitya returns as if to reassert his love for Mouroussia but all is not as it seems.  He is now a high ranking officer in the NKVD.  The terror of the purges has begun.  Stalin is suspicious of his friends and only trusts those he knows he can control. Mitya does his duty and wreaks a terrible revenge on Kotov, Mouroussia and her family.  He has Kotov arrested.  He will be shot.  The dacha will be possessed, the family dispersed and will most likely die.

Having done his duty, he takes his pistol blows his brains out.  It was only his anger and the idea of revenge that was keeping him going.  Now that that is worked out, he had nothing more to live for.  He has lost Mouroussia for ever.  The dark meaning that had kept him alive has now gone. His loss of meaning is a metaphor for the whole Russian state, lacking a sense of purpose other than suspicion and revenge. An army that lacks conviction is never going to succeed, even against a numerically much weaker force. 

Distances in Russia are enormous.  It took until 1917 for Russia to advance from its feudal existence.  One wonders even now whether it has really recovered from the hopelessness of post revolutionary oppression.

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