23 April 2016

Hospital dialogue

Late evening. Male care assistant in his 20s/30s, of Asian appearance; male patient, white, in his late 80s. The names have been changed.

Bill, I need to take your temperature and blood pressure.
Must you?
Yes, Bill, I must.
Very well, then.
What's your name?
My name's Shamoon. Give me your arm now.
Where are you from?
I beg your pardon?
Where are you from, where were you born?
What's that? I can't hear you.
England. I was born in England.
Oh, I see.
Only ... I asked because ...
You look a bit ... Indian. I don't mean Indian as in cowboys and Indians, I mean from India.
That's what I meant.
So what's that got to do with anything?
So what's my blood pressure, then?
Is normal. OK.
Ah, that's good. So I'm not dead yet, ha ha.
Yeah, Bill, you're talking a load of rubbish, that means you're still alive.

22 April 2016


I can't believe how much I have taken my good health for granted for all these years. Before last month (in my 66th year now) I had not spent a day in hospital or had a serious illness since I was a child.

Then, a week before Good Friday, a minor and unprecedented problem with my waterworks escalated into a full-blown health emergency over the weekend. By the time Elaine returned from her Hastings Half Marathon run on Sunday afternoon (I felt too ill to go out and support her) I was in such a serious state – extreme pain urinating, high fever, nausea, headache and uncontrollable shivering – that she dialled 999. Within minutes a very nice paramedic was here to check me over, and within the hour I had been whizzed by ambulance – yes, siren and everything, but I wasn't in a state to appreciate the excitement – to the emergency department of the local hospital.

Where I spent eight days, much of that time being hooked up to intravenous fluids and antibiotics. Then felt better and was discharged. Started feeling the same symptoms at home a week later and was re-admitted for a further six days when it was confirmed the infection had not after all been eradicated.

I had urosepsis – a severe E. coli infection in my urine which had spread to my bloodstream and threatened my vital organs, especially the kidneys.

As soon as I was compos mentis I started trying to document this new experience, but the first couple of days in hospital remain a bit of a blur. I have a strange sense that I was tripping – other former hospital patients have confirmed similar experience. Whether it was massive doses of amoxicillin and other antibiotics, or the fever, or the billions of predatory microbes in my bloodstream, or the fact that I had virtually eaten nothing for two days, or a combination of all these, I was definitely hallucinating at one point. Powerful acid-flashback images coursed through my brain when I closed my eyes, and at night I fancied I could see the skeletons of alien creatures on the far wall (revealed in the morning to be the television and electric fan over the opposite bed). I drifted off to sleep listening through earphones on my iPad to Late Junction on BBC Radio 3 – a track by Malian singer Kandia Kouyate (later identified) transported me to a vision of the hospital at night as a giant spaceship that held the entire human race, the beautiful rippling cadences of the instruments and the ecstatic voice being effortlessly translated into images of benevolent, embracing forms cradling me ... oh, this is late-hippie crap, I thought later, but at the time it was real, it was a transcendental experience that caused me to weep when I recalled it, and that's the truth.

This NHS hospital has been labelled "inadequate" by the Care Quality Commission, failing or "requiring improvement" on all measures except "care", which it has decided is, unexpectedly, "good". I wouldn't disagree. There are some very good, caring staff there working under impossible conditions (one Saturday there were only two qualified nurses in charge of the ward, which required a minimum of four, I believe, and no doctors around).

Oh yes, and the business of immigration. So this country is "full up" and immigrants are putting a strain on our public services? Let's get this straight: were it not for doctors, nurses and care assistants born outside this country – a large proportion of those I saw – the hospital would face catastrophic shut-down. And by the way, most of the fellow patients I encountered were elderly, white, predominantly working class English people.

And boy, were one or two of the patients a challenge – to other long-suffering patients and to staff.

On my third night, sleep was somewhat disrupted by the sound of a man in a single room adjacent to the bay I was in, calling out "Mummy!" almost throughout the night – sometimes "Mummy Bear!" and then following up with "Come ON!" in the fashion of Andy Murray berating himself when things are not going well on court. A nurse told me that he was recovering from a serious head injury, and it was very common in these cases to revert to repetitive early childhood language patterns. The nurse added that typically the next stage was obscenities, and after that ("We nurses are used to everything, but it can be disturbing to other patients") masturbation. Sure enough, "Fuck me!" was soon added to the patient's repertoire. "Mummy! I love you Mummy Bear! Fuck me!" Once I knew what it was all about, I was able to blank it out and sleep better. I did later hear one of the male nurses gently remonstrating with him: "Put it away, mate, you'll go blind."

Second stay, second night, different ward: awakened at about 1.15am by shouting in the nurses' station just outside my bay. It wasn't the nurses. An elderly woman patient had parked herself on a chair in the corridor and was conducting an insane monologue. She employed grand cadences and pauses for effect, in the manner of a Shakespearean soliloquy or a Churchillian oration, but the content was absolute nonsense: "If you give me that cheque for £10,000 I know what I shall do with it. I want a black man – and a black woman – to do my hair. It's not that I want nigger hair. Not at all. But you know, I wash my hair every day. Sometimes I use shampoo, and sometimes I don't. My son won't have anything to do with me. But I was a nurse for 18 years." Etc etc. Sometimes she got tearful and hysterical, especially when I heard one of the nurses trying to persuade her to go back to bed and get some sleep: "You'll be very tired in the morning, Mrs X." "No! I shan't! I SHAN'T!" This went on all the rest of the night, and there was not much more sleep for me.

The following evening, a couple of hours after Elaine's visit, I called her on the mobile to wish her good night and find out how her evening had been – this had been a strain for both of us. After I ended the call, the sweet elderly man in the next bed to mine, suddenly tweaked back the curtain and spoke to me. He had not said a word previously, certainly not since he had tried to use his walking frame to go to the toilet and had had to be escorted back to bed by the nurses with his head bleeding from a fall. "Were you talking about me?" he asked. No, of course not, I said, I was talking to my wife. "I know," he said with a slight leer. Then he asked where I stood on "this thing" that was about to happen. What thing?

Well, it wasn't the EU referendum. Apparently, there was a huge conspiracy in the hospital against this patient, and it was all about to come to a head in the next day or two. As far as I could understand him, it was to do with something bad he'd done, and the nurses were all against him, though the doctors might have been in favour. He was anxious to know what my position was. I tried without success to convince him he might have been dreaming. He just chuckled contemptuously – clearly, I didn't understand. Later, he became abusive towards one of the male night nurses, who he decided was an impostor, and threatened to call the police.

I was asked if I wouldn't mind moving to a different bed, as mine was required for a higher-care patient. I was relieved, but not for very long. I had heard some blood-curdling screams in the distance. Now I found myself next door to the source of these. A young man, clearly with Down's syndrome and without speech. Mostly he was very quiet – he had to be fed, and he never moved from his bed – but occasionally when he felt disturbed his only available response was a loud and prolonged guttural scream which Bob Cobbing would have been pleased with. Actually I felt sorry for him – and this disturbance was only very occasional. More of a problem was the patient in his early 70s the other side of him who kept up a constant stream of abuse of the nursing staff, punctuated with swearing, and interspersed with groans of pain, his main complaint being that he was not being given 100 per cent attention 100 per cent of the time. When the doctors did their rounds in the morning and had the temerity to start with another patient, he shouted sarcastic remarks, drowning out their consultation. "That's fucking typical! Nobody cares about me! You bastards! I'm in pain! This is not a hospital, I think I've died and gone to hell!"

At one point a female security officer was called in to talk to this patient while the care assistants took up prepared positions, presumably in case of violence. The patient quietened down, but not for long.

The normally mild-mannered man opposite, with a brain tumour, couldn't stand it and suddenly yelled at him. Later I saw that this poor man had been set up on a chair and table in the corridor beside the nurses' station, just to get him some peace away from our personality-disordered, out-of-control neighbour. He seemed happier. He was sipping a cup of tea and reading Rupert Brooke's selected poems in a battered Faber paperback edition. Nice man. Lapses in memory for words. Maybe first signs of dementia. I hoped not.

One evening, a patient next to me was being wheeled out while I was reading Flaubert in bed. The porter was standing by while the nurses did their thing. The porters are a special breed: slightly macho in appearance with their chunky trousers and walkie-talkies, mostly quite jolly, one or two lugubrious. This one was craning his neck as he waited, to check out what book I was reading. When he saw, he looked at me, gave me the thumbs up, and said "Fantastic! Great writer. Fantastic!"

I saw a man die. In all my sheltered life I have never witnessed this. I saw my Dad just after his death a few years ago, and my Mum before she died, but never the moment of death.

Diagonally opposite me was a man who apparently had very bad emphysema, or COPD as I believe it's called now. He was supposed to wear an oxygen mask most of the time, but he clearly hated it and tore it off when the nurses weren't around. It was about 9pm, and I saw he was having real breathing difficulties. It was very bad. I couldn't see any nurses. I pondered hitting my own alarm button to summon one, but then I saw he was calming down, so maybe he was all right. He calmed right down. I went back to my reading. A moment later I looked up again to check. He was very calm. Actually too calm. He wasn't moving at all. His face suddenly looked grey. A nurse appeared and noticed him. She pulled the curtains round the bed. Other nurses appeared. They didn't rush or panic. But I never saw that man again. I had been the last to see him alive.

In the middle of the night, finally, two porters arrived with a trolley, pulled all the curtains in the ward shut, and trundled him out. In the morning, the bedspace was deep-cleaned and within a couple of hours another patient in another bed was in that space.

I don't think I could have done anything.


As I write, I have been home for just over ten days since my second discharge. I am still on oral antibiotics – the course finishes next week. I am apprehensive about what happens after this. Clearly there is some underlying problem that needs to be addressed, and my GP has requested an appointment with a urology specialist. I am mostly OK, but still get very tired even after a short walk in the sunshine. I have played my bass guitar a bit, and that helps. I can write, and I am writing. I have finished the proof-reading of and sent Bill Griffiths' Collected Poems Vol 3 to press, and started clicking the links to ship the book out to subscribers. I thought of Bill Griffiths dying alone of COPD-related heart attack in his flat, I think, in 2007.

But I am happy as well as fearful. Whatever occurs next, I will not take my health for granted again.

The Conservative government must not be allowed to destroy the National Health Service. I fear this happening most of all. It is struggling to survive. A few more "inadequate" verdicts and special measures, then, hey, the private sector is wheeled in as the solution. But it is not.

11 March 2016

Reading in London

I'm reading this Tuesday (15 March 2016) at the Blue Bus in London, with my old friend Jeff Hilson and Juli Jana.

If you follow the link, you'll see it says "a reading of poetry". In fact, I shall be reading from Country Life in my set in the first half, and from a book with no name, which, it has just been confirmed, will be published by Shearsman Books in September this year, in the second. The first book is a novel, the second a prose book of uncertain category. But everything I do is poetry, really.

You can sample Country Life here, and a book with no name here, here and here.

For those who want to know, I'm now working on a mystery novel called The Grey Area. There is probably no solution to the mystery.

4 February 2016

Back in the day...

Just out from Shearsman Books: CLASP: late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s, which Robert Hampson edited with my help. Twenty-three contributors who just about remember the Seventies put their penn'orths in. The cover shows the redoubtable Paula Claire, who performed with Bob Cobbing and others. Available now from Shearsman or orderable from all good bookshops if any such are left.

19 December 2015

The art of David Jones

David Jones (1895-1974) was one of those I was in awe of back in the day when I was first trying to make sense of poetry (I'm still trying). In particular, his book-length poems, or fragmented wholes, In Parenthesis and The Anathémata, inhabited the same mysterious country as the Cantos or the Maximus Poems: long works, poems that "included history" that I couldn't really understand but somehow connected with in disconnected ways.

Not too many of my contemporaries were even attempting such vast syntheses of language, form and culture, Allen Fisher being one notable exception.

What I identified with in Jones was his insistence on the materiality of language and all its associations; as he wrote in the preface to The Anathémata: "But, for the poet, the woof and warp, the texture, feel, ethos, the whole matière comprising that complex comprises also, or in part comprises, the actual material of his art."

Jones was, of course, not only one of the major British poets of the twentieth century, but made a triple mark: simultaneously, as a painter (notable mainly as an unparallelled watercolourist), and thirdly as a graphic artist, particularlty as a wood engraver. In other words, he emulates Blake. But I didn't really know his visual work so well, and it has to be said his watercolours in particular do not come across terribly successfully in the sub-standard reproductions that were all I had access to for a long while.

The major exhibition, The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester (the first such since the Tate in 1981), was a chance for me to further my education in this regard.

Functioning as a taster or hors-d'oeuvre for this is a smaller show of paintings, drawings and prints at the Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft, The Animals of David Jones. And as this was on the route to Chichester, we called in, turning off the A27 just past Falmer. The road climbs to the height marked by Ditchling Beacon and then descends through woodland opening on to sheep pastures. I've never experienced that wonderful view of the Downs, veiled though it was in mist – it felt like a different world from the Sussex I've inhabited for the past eleven years.

Ditchling is the village where Jones spent four formative years of his life in the early 1920s with his mentor, the sculptor and engraver Eric Gill, and the museum there, a modest, modern building next to the churchyard, is dedicated to the furtherance of the traditions established then. I don't go much on the Anglo-Catholic ethos myself, but that insistence on materiality starts here. Eric Gill's rediscovery of the technique of "direct carving" (as opposed to making moulds or models, the final objects to be manufactured by technicians) had an immediate effect on the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and, I think, on Jones' approach to writing too, which came much later in life than his visual work.

Jones' evocations of the natural world begin with amazingly mature drawings of a bear and a lion done when he was seven years old. He was a precocious artist already at a time when he was struggling to learn to read.

But as I said, this was just a taster, and the exhibition in Chichester is much vaster and more comprehensive. Comprising more than 80 works in all media, it spans his entire life as an artist. Most impressive for me were the large paintings, mainly watercolours. "Watercolour" may evoke tasteful, wispy scenes or decorative pictures of flower vases, but these are something else, especially when experienced close up. Ranging from the early, intricate, complex landscapes to the later mythological subjects of the 1940s and after, including the magnificently mysterious "Guinever", "Trystan ac Essylt" and "Vexilla Regis", and still-lifes with compressed religious symbolism, they have few parallels in the work of any other artist.

Also shown are many examples of his engraving, including book illustrations. And those inscriptions, comprising Latin, Greek, French, Anglo-Saxon and English text, where he seems to be encoding the entirety of Western Christian and pagan civilisation. I had never realised these were actual paintings too, the distinctive lettering often done in watercolour on a background of Chinese white.

The catalogue, published by the gallery in a handsome large-format paperback with excellent reproductions, is pretty well indispensable if you're interested.

On our return to Hastings, we called in at the Arundel Wetland Centre, where there were numerous ducks and geese. It was quiet, and the mistiness of the previous day had lifted. The two of us were the only customers on the boat ride at noon, drifting calmly along the glassy water between reed and sedge banks and those species of tree that tolerate having their roots in water. Our boatman, who said he was born in Hastings, told us the term for the intermediate stage where woodland starts to reclaim marsh is a "carr" (surviving as surname or place name). Exotic ducks were mostly absent here: just groups of mallards, the drakes outnumbering the females and starting to look edgy. In the now blue sky above wheeled two buzzards. But cloud was beginning to bunch up from the west again as dusk approached. It had been a satisfying two days.

The Animals of David Jones is at Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft until 6 March 2016
The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 21 February 2016

10 December 2015

Five books I read in 2015

Unthank Books asked me to do one of those books-of-the-year roundups, specifically requesting I say something about five books I actually read during the year, regardless of when they were published, rather than puffing new releases. So here, along with those of some fellow Unthank authors, are my choices.

2 November 2015

Punkique and Country Life

Exciting day today: first, my novel Country Life got published, and I finally received the author's copies the publishers had promised.

And then the CDs of the debut EP, Punkique, by Afrit Nebula, the new band I'm in (with Elaine on saxes and flute, and Jamie Harris on percussion and vocals) were delivered. They'll be on sale soon; in the meantime you can sample our Jimi Hendrix cover here. And pre-order the complete download (four tracks).