Ode To The Hitch

FeaturedOde To The Hitch

NSCLC

Friday, February 17, 2012

I started this blog at the beginning of a fairly traumatic and fatalistic journey which would explain the opening line I first wrote: “And so to journal the end, which is nigh, it seems.”

Well, whilst that statement could be construed as true in just about any circumstances, on a personal level I feel now that it gives the reader a less than perfect impression of what follows so I’m going to offer the following alternative beginning so as not to hide the good news that my friend will want to hear. Most of this was written almost live, just after it happened or even as it was happening, some was added after to fill in gaps, so on occasion the context might appear not to quite fit and the construction definitely leaves room for improvement:

And so to journal what could so very easily have been the end, which is not quite as nigh as I at first thought, it seems.

I’m not sure quite what I expected when I decided to go (finally) and ask for an investigation into what I was already sure was that dreaded beast, the cancer. Admittedly, I feared it was the same as dear Christopher’s, (Hitchens) the esophageal kind. For once the doc appears to have been correct in casting aside my self-diagnosis, proffering the much more likely (and somewhat inane) alternative of the lung kind and writing me up for the low tech scan of the x-ray kind.

It wasn’t fear that caused me to delay getting my ass to the hospital, any more than it had been the cause of the twelve month’s procrastination over getting into the doctors surgery. It was far more mundane a cause than that. In the case of the doctor it was the groan at the thought of the hurdles the surgery places in the way of dispensing it’s services – a rant for another time. That coupled with the fact that every time it occurred to me was in the middle of the night when symptoms presented and woke me up. A cough to be precise, a dry, back-of-the-throat cough, the very kind I had heard was the early symptom of Christopher’s kind, the kind that gets ignored until much worse symptoms arise- the difficulty in swallowing; change in voice; coughing up blood. Hence the poor survival rate, fourteen percent if I recall the stats correctly. No-one suspects the cough, why would they. Everyone coughs don’t they. At least every smoker coughs and smokers get more bronchial conditions and that usually presents as a cough and when the rest of the symptoms wane, the cough persists, doesn’t it? And it’s hard to judge when the cough should have stopped…but after a while you know. you just know.

So every time I tell myself, time to get your ass to the surgery, which doctor will you see? Any one, it doesn’t matter, you’re going to get “any one” anyway regardless what you plan and, “anyway” it doesn’t really matter does it, so long as they know how to refer you to a man who actually knows something – a real doctor, a “specialist”. And then you drift off to sleep and in the morning you wake and the treadmill starts over. One thing takes over, then another and so on. Occasionally I remember and write a note and then the other thing, the hurdles thing, pushes it to the bottom of the pile of “much more important” stuff and next thing you know, it’s the middle of the night, you’re awake again and you’re coughing again…

It could have been the same with the x-ray but this took me only a few days. I didn’t worry about it, didn’t fret, just figured I’d get it done in a few days, no rush, I’d taken the big step, no big hurdles with this one. And nor were there, easiest interaction I’ve ever had with the NHS. I turned up, parked (legitimately) right outside the front door, checked in at radiology reception, no queues, no hassle, no delays, ten minutes later I’m having my innermost secrets photographed in not so glorious monochrome. Including the conversation with the radiologist as to why one removes one’s shirt for a machine that can penetrate all bar lead – buttons and unusual stitching in case you are wondering – the entire process from parking to departing took twenty minutes dead, if you’ll pardon the, oh never mind. I guess all those billions have achieved something after all, to be fair, though it seems to us mere mortals that this wasn’t rocket science – we understand why rocket science costs billions.

Looking back I can see how this might seem odd but at no stage did I fret over the results. Having consciously sought out a scan and an investigation to satisfy my conviction that by now, and given my symptoms, I must actually have cancer, it never actually occurred to me that I did – does that make sense?
I’ve had my blood pressure checked, always well within range, my cholesterol: “perfect”; Liver function: “fine”; this lump just here: “fatty lump, sir, nothing to worry about”. Easy for you to say, I thought back then, but this perfect person doesn’t do “fatty lumps” that appear for no particular reason and aren’t even a symptom of a disease – but given they’ve been there a good few years now, don’t seem to be going anywhere, and generally seem to mind their own business – apparently I do do these innocuous things.

You get my point? I’ve indulged a few investigations over recent years and all my fears have always proved groundless to the point that I begin to fear a reputation as a hypochondriac, though I’m not. There was absolutely no reason to suspect that this would be any different. It was a formality I had to go through because I owed it to myself, and to others, to get it checked so I could say that I’d done all the right things, proved there was nothing to worry about and now I could put it behind me and move on. Just like all those other formalities undertaken for precisely the same reasons and in every case, the caution exercised, the investigation complete, there was absolutely nothing to report”….

So it’s Friday evening, around 5.45 and I’m chatting to Simon in the office because Simon is always the last to leave and I like to talk to Simon. I like Simon generally but he’s especially good to share things with and generally have a pleasant rant about the state of the world, the galaxy and everything.

My phone rings, I was expecting nothing and so whatever it was would have been a surprise but, on reflection, some surprises are not as nice as others. “It’s Dr Fulker”, now that I was not expecting, on so many levels. I wasn’t expecting a call from a doctor because that doesn’t happen, at least not to me, no, it just doesn’t happen. I wasn’t expecting a call from Dr Fulker who I had only met once, a week or so ago. I certainly wasn’t expecting the next part, “I have the results of your x-ray”

…what x-ray? What’s she talking about? Oh, that x-ray, no,that’s not possible, I only had it done two days ago….and all the time that these parallel, rather than sequential thoughts, were firing in my synapses her other words only registered on a semi-conscious level and, even then, it wasn’t the words that made me pause and reflect. It was the quality of her voice. Having only met her briefly I didn’t have the usual tools to draw upon, the familiarity with inflection or intonation, but it was there, unmistakably. The measured, uncertain but gentle, hesitating sound of someone delivering bad news. Someone sitting next to you on a couch, knees closed, turned toward you, a wish to reach out and touch a knee as they speak, as if to stop you taking flight, both to reassure, to express empathy but as much to tempt you to stay seated, “…now don’t take this badly, but…” but not done, the touching knee, because you just don’t know each other that well, in that way.

All of this was in the voice. Who would want this job? The woman doesn’t know me, has no reason to care about me, doesn’t care in any personal sense but she is human and she’s fallible, almost vulnerable in a situation like this. All that professional deportment, that education, that status, it doesn’t take away a person’s humanity, that innate sense of compassion for another human being, especially when she knows, better than most, the likely finality of the message she’s delivering. She didn’t make the call because she wanted to, because she cared, she called because that’s her job and she wishes it wasn’t and because she has to, the act of doing it triggers the compassion. What a shit end to her day, she must feel.

She must wonder, when she puts down the phone, how I’m feeling. Did he understand the significance of those words, she must ask herself because she knows she didn’t explain it and I didn’t ask (because I knew) and was he just taking it very well? Was that why he seemed so calm and measured, so matter of fact, so polite? “Thank you so much for calling to tell me” isn’t what you expect, now, is it? She will also have wondered about the other option, the truth. “Shock” would be far too superlative a description but did he really take in what I just told him?

And that’s the truth, I heard every word, I understood every word and the meaning contained in those words but I can’t claim that I fully “took it in” on a conscious level. My body’s visceral and emotional centre took it in ok. The hairs on the back of the neck, the shiver rising from somewhere, the tightness in the throat, the tremor in the tear ducts – the control mechanisms cutting in on auto-pilot to suppress it – because that’s what we do, it’s what we’re trained to do. It’s what we have to do.

“The x-ray shows a four centimetre lesion on your right lung”. Long pause, not waiting for a response, letting it sink in, searching for what to say next. “I’ll arrange a referral to a respiratory consultant as soon as possible. It’ll probably be seven to ten days.”

“On your flamin’ nelly will it be seven to ten days…”. Even then, with all this swirling around in my head, even then it kicks in, even before I’ve actually absorbed the enormity of this thing. Save your approach for the passive ones, they need it, I need to take this on in my own way. I can’t beat it, I know that but having done this to myself, having procrastinated all by myself, now the objective is revealed, the gears get engaged, at least now I can actually take part in this thing. The challenge, the problem to be solved, the obstacle to be overcome, the emotions subsumed, subdued, there’s a problem to deal with, an urgent problem, no time for indulgences and certainly no time to hand over the fate of the outcome to someone else, especially someone that represents the laissez-faire bureaucracy you cannot abide. You’re not one of the followers, it’s innate, you dig out the facts, you learn what you need to know and you make your own judgment, make your own arrangements – for better or worse but it’s yours, not theirs.

“Well, Simon, that wasn’t the best news I’ve ever had”. I relate the conversation, not over egging it in any way, playing it down if anything. A moment of sharing, it felt comforting to share, it was the last I was going to feel for a while. “Please keep this between us, Si”. “Of course”.

There’s a burning desire to tell everyone you know, to get on the phone and call all your friends, muster help and support, make those apologies, arrange meetings, journeys, visits, all those things you know you’ve put off – as if you can make up for all that previous indifference – but most of all just to share. And then you quickly realise all the things that are wrong with that.

What if it’s a mistake? What if it turns out to be one of the other curable things that, at the absolutely outside chance, it just could be? You put your friends through all that grief for nothing…that’s an important issue right there, you’re putting them through grief. False alarm or not, what right do you have to do that? When is it right? What about Ri, my wife. If I tell her she won’t just be worried sick, she’ll be devastated, debilitated. No, I have to handle this myself until I know more, at least that. If it can be sorted then you can tell the story in hindsight and bask in the happy ending. If it goes the other way then we can at least wait until we have all the facts so that there’s no room for supposition, hypothesis. Facts are facts, you can plan, put things in order, face up to it squarely, even learn to be accepting of it. Uncertainty is constant questioning, what if, if only, try this, perhaps that. I can’t be doing it. There’s a way to deal with this like everything else. Figure out the facts, put them in sequence, get on with them and all the while continue to function, to carry on with those things that need to be done on a daily basis, a minute by minute basis. The pets still need to be fed, the dog needs to be walked, there are people relying on you, you have staff, you have customers, you need to sleep, to wash, to get up and start your day as if there were some point to it. No, no one must know, sorry you had to, Simon.

Simon leaves, I think he’s upset (see, it proves my point). I turn to the nearest computer, nip downstairs and pull out the file on the health insurance policy I’ve paid all these years and never used. Back upstairs with it so no one can see what I’m looking at. Ok, how does this work, better call them, start a claim and figure out how it all works. “Office hours 8am to 6pm” Damn! What are they on? People only get sick 9-5? Damn that doctor, why didn’t she call earlier in the day, now I have the worst of all worlds, its Friday evening, there’s an entire weekend ahead, I’ve just been handed a potential death sentence and I can’t begin work on a potential reprieve until Monday ruddy morning! …and I can’t even share it with anyone, can’t rant, can’t dump…can’t cry, can’t scream.

Gotta be practical then, what can I do? Read the file…the hospital list, ok, how does this work? Three lists, “Countrywide”, “London extended list”, “London super duper list” and you know, don’t you, before you even check…of course you do, these were both optional extras weren’t they? How were you to know, you’ve never been seriously ill, why would you think to include all the hospitals you would actually want to use should you ever need to, The Wellington, The Royal Brompton, The Cromwell. I check their web sites, yep, they are exactly what I need. Ri has a fabulous respiratory surgeon at Royal Brompton, her insurance covers her for the Royal Brompton, it doesn’t cover her for Toby Maher, the bright young guy she really needs and got a consultation with because we paid for it directly. Hers, of course, is the only insurance company that doesn’t cover him. This is the kind of thing that gives privatisation of health a bad name, unfairly so because it doesn’t have to be this way.

So I spend an hour or two researching who I need, the best consultants, the best hospitals. Of course, they are all the ones I don’t have access to. Let’s do it the other way around, take a look at those on the London list that I am covered for. Mostly NHS hospitals that have sought private clients as a way of making additional cash, so run on NHS principals but with nice food? Nothing impressed. The only one I felt I could accept might be Royal Marsden, not because of any good news on the web site but because of it’s fame and reputation. I resolve to call them first thing Monday morning, given that’s really the only option.

Monday morning: I call the Private Patients Appointment secretary.
“I have lung cancer and I need an urgent scan and a consultation with your top specialist”.
“Have you been referred by your GP?”
“No, I have no GP and I have no idea where the one who gave me this news might have referred me. I am paying privately, I don’t need a referral.”
“I can’t do anything without a GP referral”
“You do realise you are offering private health care? I don’t have a referral, I need a specialist, privately.”
“I can’t do anything without a referral from your GP”.
OK, I could have explained to her how our surgery works, the fact that I hadn’t a hope in hell’s chance of getting a referral letter out of them in less than two to three days and that I was not planning on wasting my time trying but, I figured, let’s skip that obstacle for now and move on.
“So, suppose I can get my hands on a referral letter, and suppose I deliver it to you by hand, how soon can we arrange an appointment?”
“Well it normally takes seven to ten days….” Where have I heard that before, oh yes, from an NHS GP…
“I don’t think you quite understand the situation. The average lifespan of someone diagnosed with lung cancer is 52 weeks. I have absolutely no intention of wasting one of those fifty-two waiting for you to make me an appointment.”
“Well, it might be less than that…”
“Thanks but I think I’ve heard enough. I’ll make alternative arrangements.”

I call The Cromwell. Within two hours I have an appointment for a PET/CT scan for Weds and an appointment with one of the world’s most highly qualified pulmonary oncologists. The consultation is at 6pm on Tuesday and, the lovely Lina asks, “please let us know if you can’t make it for any reason as Dr Lewanski is coming in to see you especially”. Those words, I wanted to cry as I pondered the wonders of chalk and cheese. These were total strangers to me but Lina cared, this consultant cared, it was evident in every word, in every act, in every call and the attention to detail, ensuring that I was kept fully informed at every step. This is health care.

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m in the shower when the phone rings. It’s the appointments secretary from East Surrey Abattoir, sorry, hospital. I literally shuddered at the prospect. “Thank you but I already have an appointment.” “Oh? When?” “I have an appointment for this evening at The Cromwell”. “What, today?”. “Today, yes. Thank you for calling. Goodbye”.

I’ve been working, it seems pointless but you keep going until you can’t, that’s what I learned, I don’t know from where. I guess from my mother. I kept smiling at how important people clearly felt their inane issues were. I pandered to them. I kept up appearances. It all seemed so empty, so well, like I said, pointless.

With Lina’s words in my head and me figuring “like I would miss this appointment for anything in the world”, I decided to play completely safe and give myself oodles of time. Travelling up on the Gatwick Express I started writing this little blog. It seemed important to write it all down so that…I don’t know. It just seemed important. It also gave me something to focus on. Arriving at Victoria with more than two hours to spare, I waited till everyone else got off the train. They were all in such a rush, why? Here I was with less time than any of them and I was not in any kind of a rush. I wanted to distance myself from their rush, take my time, everything deliberate, calm, remembered. These were important days for me and I wanted to remember them. I would walk to The Cromwell, it was an unseasonally beautiful sunny February afternoon and I wanted to experience it in a very close and personal way. Crossing up to Eaton Square, eyes turned upward, as always when walking in London, to see all the things that are so overlooked as people hustle and bustle through their busy lives. I noted the prevalent use of clipped box and other topiary, even the odd Niwaki – obvious if unimaginatively used plants when all you have is a balcony to sculpt with. I was studying people too. Al kinds of people, the well heeled and the not so well, the students and the retired, the busy young things, the busy working people, the constant rush of the traffic. Through Sloane Square, up Sloane Street, down Brompton Road, past so many so familiar places, past the Vistoria and Albert, passing the Natural History Museum that cathedral to the things I love and my totally absorbing fascination, life itself.

The reception staff in the Radiotherapy department were welcoming, smiling folk who knew exactly why they were there and what their visitors were going through. “You’re very early?”, they said. I explained that Dr Lewanski was travelling in especially and they thought this was very considerate. “This is one appointment I was never going to miss” I countered to assure them that altruism is a two way street. Alina, in the way of someone showing you the ropes you were going to get very familiar with, showed me how to work the coffee machine and which was the strongest brew.

Dr Conrad Lewanski, greeted me with a warm, gentle smile and a firm handshake. We sat and he asked me all the things you would expect. He took his time, an hour of his time. He let me talk about things that were clearly not important to the reason I was there, he encouraged it and joined in. Every now and then he would steer us back to “business”. He wanted to make sure that I knew everything I needed to know, that I had asked all the questions I wanted to ask. When my eyes welled up, as they did several times, he would pause and respect my embarrasment. Most of all he wanted to tell me that there were lots of good reasons for remaining optimistic but there was no time to waste. He wanted to know what other symptoms I had and was clearly excited by the fact that I had none. I told him about my walk from Victoria, at which he happliy crossed “breathlessness” off the mental list of typical symptoms. My scan was moved to Thursday at a time when the required starvation would be less of a burden for me. An appointment was made for another consult on Friday, at which time he would have all the results and we would know the situation for sure. He urged me to remain optimistic, implied that he had a good feeling about “this one”. He allowed me to hang on to the possibility that it might not be cancer though he also let me read between the lines sufficiently to appreciate that was all that it was, a hope. It all hanged, in reality, over whether this little invader was a well-behaved individual or an exploding fire-cracker sending it’s starburst seedlings throughout the rest of my body in minute fragments.

So, it’s Thursday and first off I have to give blood for the tests, wouldn’t do to try it with the green-glowing radioactive blood that I’ll have after the scans. Then off to have my lung function tested, fabulous nurse who gave me every possible encouragement to keep blowing when my head felt like it would explode. 112% on the initial blow (that’s 12% better than average for the arithmetically challenged) but overall 76% of normal. Not bad, Conrad guessed it would be around 70% so, hey, this is ten percent better than that, right?

Then, here I am in a small room, sitting on a bed, dressed – if you could call it that – in one of those silly hospital gowns that I haven’t figured how to fasten. So it’s just wrapped around me…there’s some debate over whether or not I should have drunk black tea and coffee when told to fast. I assure the lovely Claudia that Dr Lewanski did tell me that was ok and that I confirmed it with the guy who called yesterday to confirm the appointment – I even repeated back, “so just water, black tea, black coffee, no sugar, right?” “That’s exactly right!” he says to me. I realised an issue with The black tea thing as I was getting ready – Ri isn’t an incredibly observant individual, especially first thing in the morning but it would be just my luck for her to spot it and realise that a) this lack of milk was a total break from the norm and b) as a veteran of many hospital exploratory missions and operations that “no milk” was the order of the day…I needn’t have worried, she didn’t spot it, which is just as well as I didn’t have any clever excuse I could think of.

Claudia stabs my finger and checks the blood sugar – can she see that I had some in my first cup of tea? An injection of radioactive glow juice, but a warning I might need another, something to do with the coffee, my Pet/CT becomes a CT. followed by a PET. No effects of the first injection at all, (really shouldn’t have put that quarter spoon of sugar in the first black tea…).
I’m escorted back upstairs and handed over to Michelle in the CT room. A little difficult to understand, her east-Asian accent, very nice but not big on the charisma thing. Seemed to really struggle to get a vein up in my left arm, she felt the right had been abused enough with the blood tests (did I mention those? oh no well there were the blood test phlebotomy appointment first, interesting conversations about rubber gloves and people smuggling drugs through customs (programme on TV, Nothing to Declare). She could see “a nice big juicy vein” but for some reason didn’t get it to come up the way she wanted. Lots of rubber straps, clenching of fist and finger slapping later it appeared the cannula was in but I didn’t feel it happen so good on yer, Michelle, nice one.

When that stuff starts pumping, whatever radioactive goo it is, your face gets a flush like the biggest blush you’ve ever felt, simultaneously your bladder feels warm and full, in a comforting way as if you could lie there and wet yourself and not fear doing so but rather indulge in the warm comfort of it. Odd how it’s not just the mental surrender one feels in the impotence of the situation, the abboragation of responsibility, the deference to the professionals but even your body becomes similarly compliant to whatever forces are deployed upon it.

It’s an entirely comfortable, almost comforting experience, the knowledge that your body is yielding up its deepest darkest and hitherto well hidden secrets to the overpowering might of modern technology. No longer are these things strange, awe inspiring secrets of the science of the body, they have been conquered, they shall be revealed in all their base ordinary mundanity. So much the better if these steps are taken early enough, the fear is that we are not looking at a nice, tight, contained circular lesion but rather a scattergun pattern of itty bitty cancers swirling around looking for a dark, secretive hiding place amongst the maze of the lymphatic system. If that’s what we find then, folks, let’s get real here. If on the other hand, it turns out to be the most orderly and well mannered of evil critters – strike you as a bit much to hope for? – then hey, they can cut out a piece of my right lung and toss it away and Bob, as they say, becomes a close blood relative.

So CT over I’m escorted back down the stairs into the care of the antipodean Claudia (Melbourne actually) who politely parks me in my waiting room for half an hour with the lights turned down with instructions to just rest and relax. Not the most arduous of preparations I’ve ever had to undergo but leaving me in silence with nothing but my own thoughts doesn’t come without its own special challenges. When she collects and shepherds me into the room containing the waiting space-age marvel of a modern day PET scanner the first thing I spot is the CD in the boogie box, “Do I get music?”. Indeed I did and great it was too, perhaps it’s a sign of the average age of today’s cancer patient or perhaps it’s such fabulous and timeless music that it will endure across the ages for ever more. If I recall the sequence, Dionne Warwick, The Four Tops, Jimmy Ruffin, Smokey Robinson, after that I’m a little hazy but there were only a few more tracks before the whirring sounds and the various horizontal manoeuvrings of the table bed ceased and I was delivered to the brighter lights outside the machine signalling the end of my all too simple, too pleasant experience.

Back in my little room, removed from the strange embarrassment of hospital gown, slippers and robe and once more in my own comfortable skin, the inevitable impatient question but, what do you know, she’s forbidden to reveal anything. Not so much as a nod or a wink or the proffering of glossy literature on suitable funeral homes. A bit of a disappointment but not unexpected. At least this is NOT the NHS and so I only have to wait until midday tomorrow, one more difficult to explain trip to London – these interminable legal meetings, oi vey! So midday tomorrow and Conrad will tell me what? Can he tell that it is, incontrovertibly, the dreaded cancer, I think he can but they will still want to do a biopsy of course to determine which of the seven (yes, seven) different species of cancer if might be. They range in severity from the benign “I was just sitting here because it seemed to be a nice piece of real estate upon which to hang my hat” variety through to the raging, ghengis khan types that just want to kill, conquer and ultimately commit suicide by literally biting the hand that feeds and killing me, its obliging host. I can’t help but wonder, well, wouldn’t you?

So, my array of tests over, I met with Daniel yesterday, what a lovely man. I felt I had to share this with him, for very practical reasons, and felt relatively easy about it because on the one hand, though we are very friendly, he’s not what you would describe as “inside one’s circle of close friends – so he’s less likely to be deeply affected by the news, I hoped. On the other, not being in that circle, the information was certainly safe in his hands. I need new trustees for the trust, and I believe I can trust Daniel to treat such a role both professionally and in a way that he would think I would have wanted. I also figure the issue of a will has kinda become rather important and, it occurs to me as I write, it would be a good idea to prepare a list of people who should be advised of my departure so that Ri doesn’t have to cope with that in the midst of what will for her be considerable grief. But back to the will, again I need an executor and who better than Daniel to both draw it up and execute it. All in all this is quite a considerable burden to place on one person, I must make sure he’s properly compensated so there is no contention in his mind, or anyone else’s, when it comes to rendering an account for his services as executor on both matters. He readily agreed to everything i asked of him, went out of his way to reassure me in various ways and proffered his help in any way at all whenever I might need it. Last night he sent a very touching email just to prove that my first contention was entirely wrong. He was clearly very affected and has just moved to the heart of that aforementioned circle.

So I’m once more aboard the Gatwick Express, it’s Friday and I’m heading in to meet Conrad, Dr Lewanski, to get his verdict. One more invented business appointment to satisfy Ri’s curiosity which is fast becoming ‘suspicion’, even the ubiquitous “are you having an affair” enquiry this morning. I am strangely calm. In a sense, this is the biggest event of my (only) week long journey to date – it seems much longer. A genuine Pullman Belle train to my right! Fabulous sight and has got the whole train buzzing and phones/cameras clicking. See what I mean? Calm, as always, it’s a thing, a task, a challenge, something to be dealt with. Gather the facts, assess it calmly, decide on a “solution”, a course of action at least. Here we are at Victoria, no rush, let the crowd move out, my time is precious and I again refuse to join in the hectic bustle for no apparent reason. Twice this week I’ve walked to The Cromwell. This time I don’t have the spare hour. I’ll walk part way and hail a cab to finish the journey…

Sloane Square, by a different route this time, good place to stop, sit, I know, I know but also to have my “last” cigarette. That’s three different routes I’ve used and on the way, a piece of memorabilia. “Eaton Continental” on the corner of Eaton Terrace and, what, Chester Row? A little grocer-cum-reckons-itself-a-bit-of-a-speciality-foods store, a customer from circa 1979/80 for my Redmile-Gordon Provisioners (Wholesale Division). Wow, I’d completely forgotten.

From here I can walk a little more, grab a cab later or grab it now and walk locally. Don’t want to be late for my own sentencing now do I? I think we play safe and grab the cab now.

On the radio in the cab, a discussion about the mansion tax, talk of poor people walking out of the estate agent’s with a cheque for two million quid because they had to sell the house as they couldn’t afford the tax…”Not a problem you and I are likely to worry about, eh, cabbie?”. After that of course we spent the next five minutes putting the world to rights and then I’m here. Familiar smiling faces in Radiotherapy reception, I remember the coffee machine instructions. Bizarre, there’s apparently something special about Fridays, a sort of club has formed. Three guys all around my age or more, everyone knows each other, chatting about the different people they see, calling out pleasantries to the reception staff – about whom they have clearly learned some personal details. Is this what it’s like when you start a treatment programme? I guess it would be. People you don’t actually know but whose shared experience removes all barriers and the need to explain or apologise. Hmmm…

“You guys sound like regulars”, I volunteer to introduce myself. “Us, we’ve got loyalty cards, we have”, jokes one. I laugh. I was going to make a crack about living long enough to collect on the points but that’s the kind of crack reserved for established friends or acquaintances, not Londoners you just met thirty seconds ago. “This your first time?”, asks his friend. “I’m here for my sentence”, I offer, I quickly tame it down but still got the chuckle I was aiming for,”Well, my diagnosis”.

It’s 12:10, he’s running late. On one level it seems cruel, on another it likely means he’s spending time with someone who needs that time. Who wouldn’t want the same thing in his place?

A mature nurse chats to some of the patients, clearly familiar with them and genuinely great in the way she relates, like a kindly aunt. “Is this your daughter?” she enquires of a guy about my age, mid-eastern origin, cool looking, westernised. When he confirms, the nurse turns to the daughter and, for conversations sake, asks “So, how is he behaving himself?”. “Not so good with the smoking”, she replies. You can feel the unspoken plea behind the words, it’s gut wrenching stuff. 12:20 now.

At 12:25 and fearing I’m supposed to be meeting somewhere else I step up to the reception desk just as Conrad is approaching to invite me in. By the way, that’s what happens in a private health care environment, doctors come to you and invite you in, they don’t summon you with a bell or at the bidding of an underling.

I don’t know where I start, how I carry on relating the story from here. I guess I have to explain it all but mostly I just want to run out in the street screaming, jump up an down shout, hug perfect strangers and generally CELEBRATE! I don’t understand why they don’t keep a fully stocked bar in reception for just such occasions – I suppose it would be a little insensitive for some but I’m sure most people in this situation would just want to share in any good news story that was going. We, Alina/Lina/Stephanie and me, we’re going to lobby for one.

I guess I should explain, to myself more than anyone. Yes, I do have cancer, that’s now an established and indisputable fact. Yes, I do have a 4.2 cm spitulate lesion on my right lung. Ugly looking little fucker. That’s what we’re celebrating. That’s what I’ve got. That’s the sum total of what I’ve got, that’s the good news – all I have is lung cancer!! I don’t have fifteen other cancers, I have nothing creeping around in my nooks and crannies, I have nothing in my lymph, in my spine, in my throat (despite the huge lump that’s there right now), in my groin or my bladder, in my prostate or my colon, nothing, not a solitary sausage, not a minute fragment. I just have what looks like one huge evil creepy looking, spiky lesion that looks like its crawling, hunting, espying it’s prey as it feeds glutton-like on the sugars in the fluid they injected. It feeds so much, it steals so much of the available sugar and consumes it with such energy that it glows white hot on the CT, white hot! Other organs consuming said sugar at a fast rate only rank yellow on the full colour display, the colour being heat sensitive.

But that’s it. Evil as it looks, voracious and aggressive as it clearly is, it has actually behaved itself impeccably, keeping itself to itself. It has not exploded its cells into a myriad parts and scattered them across my finite internal universe. It appears operable. It appears that whilst I have to donate an important and irreplaceable part of my lung – and my resulting lung capacity – this thing can be removed. It can be cut out. In short, it can be destroyed – before it destroys me.

Conrad, we’re operating on first name terms at my request, after all, as I said to him at the outset of this consult, he’s likely to be the most important person in my life, for the rest of my life, however long that may be, or not. Anyway, Conrad was just great. He was almost as excited as me. He showed me all the scans, turning my whole body around on the screen in glorious full colour 3D, pointing to my various organs and showing not just the total absence of any black specs (we’re on the PET scan now not the CT, come on, keep up), but also the perfectly healthy appearance of each of them. He has of course combined that with the blood test results which confirm exactly that. Cholesterol: perfect, Liver function, all the numbers: perfect, this is a body that just keeps on trucking regardless, it just does its thing, it works, there’s just this one bastard invading organism that it couldn’t stop. “With a liver like that you can drink yourself silly”, says Conrad with a big smile on his face.

He’s spoken to a colleague of his, Brian O’Connor who would do the bronchoscopy that I need. They give me a sedative and then slide a camera/whatever/thingumy up my nose and down into the lung where they (hopefully) see the little critter from the inside, bite a small chunk out of it and take it away for analysis. A biopsy if you will. There is a possibility that it is of a kind that they can’t easily remove but Conrad really doesn’t think so – he’s been right so far so I’m inclined toward optimism.

He calls his friend who operates out of the mews near the hospital entrance and yes, he will see me more or less immediately for a consultation. At his request, Alina offers to escort me over there and on the way she said something to which my eyes, throat and tear ducts responded in telltale fashion. Without hesitation she grabbed me and gave me a big hug, sweetness itself and how wonderful to feel that gentle human contact, it took every effort I could summon to let go.

Brian is a lovely man, a big softly spoken Irishman, a Dubliner who migrated twenty years ago and time has softened that Dublin accent so much I thought he was from the west. He looks at all the pictures and is clearly amazed at what a lucky little sod I am. “Normally”, he says, “when I’m talking to someone with lung cancer my eyes are down on the floor because, frankly, I’m usually looking at a death sentence.”. He continues, “In your case, you know what? I think we’ve got it just in time”. Again with the throat thing and the tear ducts, for about the tenth time today. I feel like a great big stupid soft thing but then, in my more self-forgiving moments, I figure I have some justification.

We talked about the smoking. We talked about the insurance company. In this context Ri cropped up in conversation, the ironies of fibrosis for a non-smoker, and he asked who her lung guy was. “excellent guy” he says when I tell him about Toby Maher, “leading world authority”. “I don’t know him personally”, he continues with perhaps the most glowing reference of all, “I know his ‘boss'”.

So I’m on the train home, writing this and I get the call I’ve been waiting for from the insurance company – they will cover me after all. Seems this is my lucky day.  Thank you Hitch.

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Twitter Book-Burning Censorship

Yesterday, a somewhat deranged young man went on a killing spree with an AK47 in El Paso, Texas, killing or wounding a great many people.

I received a tweet from some publication or other, keen to point out that, according to his “manifesto”, the fellow was a “progressive”. Having read the document, which the tweet obligingly included, I would say, as generously as I can, that this was “a stretch”. That said, I was naturally intrigued to try to understand what possible motivation or justification this fellow felt the impulse to document for posterity, so to speak.

Having read it, I couldn’t possibly agree with “the take” of the tweet so I didn’t “like” or “retweet” it. Instead, I saved the image of the document and tweeted it myself with, as far as I recall, the following words:

“Here is the manifesto of the shooter in El Paso, Texas. Obviously he has issues but I found it fascinating to read. ”

I instantly received a machine generated notice of 12 hr suspension, making no reference as to why but locking me out of my account.

Twitter is, of course, bending to the political posturing of partial apparatchiks who feel the need, as they always do, to control public morality, as they see it. I’m sure Hitler felt similarly protective of his people’s sensibilities by burning all the books he could find, especially those with unsavoury references or authorship.

In my country, we have Magna Carta, in Twitterland, there’s the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Both these enshrine the unfettered right to freedom of speech. Nowhere, in either, is that freedom claused to exclude “things we don’t like” or “things that might hurt someone’s sensibilities” or “things that some nutter may use as an excuse for his deranged actions”. There’s a reason for that, because with any of those limitations, speech can no longer be defined as “free”. If you start choosing which books to burn, you’re a fascist, plain and simple. Twitter has clearly chosen its political position, largely out of ignorance and idiocy, I’m sure.

When I say that I was fascinated to read the mad manifesto, I don’t say I was enamoured of it, approving or sympathetic, just fascinated. I’m fascinated watching creatures dismember and devour other creatures. I may be repulsed, I may regret the way the world works but I still want to know about it – especially if that creature isn’t shy of turning its attentions on human beings, like me.

Twitter, though, has other ideas. Even though it is they who served it up, who literally laid it at my door, they determined that I must be punished and investigated because I had the brazen audacity to disseminate it one step further – in a completely non-judgmental and non-partisan manner, unlike the tweet in which it was contained when I received it.

This is the proverbial slippery slope where one person’s right to decide what serves the public good gradually becomes the State’s moral mantra to which all must pledge subservience. It is, to paraphrase a hero, “the argument of tyrants, it is the creed of slaves”. It is precisely why it was the very first Amendment to that amazing document. This issue is an ancient one, wars have been waged, untold blood has been spilled to bring you these freedoms. Cherish them dear. Insult them at your peril.

Here’s the document in question:

A hostile environment or just incompetence?

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During the much touted Windrush Affair, which dealt with the inept and outrageous treatment of British Citizens, formerly from Commonwealth Caribbean countries, much was made of government responsibility in the matter. The phrase “hostile environment”, first coined by Liam Byrne, Labour Immigration Minister, repeated by Alan Johnson, Labour Home Secretary and adopted by Theresa May and Amber Rudd, almost certainly arose amongst the civil servants in the Home Office. It was certainly the same policy they had carried out for many years and was in evidence when I married my New Yorker wife in 2000.

It’s nothing they have against immigrants – they’re just hostile to their fellow human beings and to doing a good job.

Having this laid at the door of government was not unfair but having it used for party advantage was risible. The government, of course, claimed it was aimed at “illegal immigration” and I’m sure it was, in their minds but they rarely admit that the people employed to enact government policy are, well, less than perfect. Ordinary human beings from whom all capacity for exercise of common sense and reason has been extracted, squashed or simply banned.

Let’s start at the beginning of my own personally torturous story. My wife to be was supposed to come to UK and settle in, whereupon we would get married and, at some comfortable date in the future, she would take British Citizenship. Luckily it occurred to me that this country I love is far more in love with rules and bureaucracy than with me. Perhaps I’d better find out what those rules were? I logged onto the Home Office web site and had a good read. I was thoroughly confused.  I found their phone number, with some difficulty, and rang it. After one ring my call was intercepted by a good old fashioned answerphone and I listened, attentively, to the brief message: “All our lines are busy now, please call back later”. How, I wondered does an answerphone know that all lines are busy? It doesn’t. This was before any implementation of a managed telephony system. This was an old style answerphone. Fair enough, I thought. They’re busy so they’ve switched on the answerphone, I’ll try again later. Over a period of a week I rang that number at all times of day and night, even 2am on one occasion. The unspoken message was clear, we have no intention of ever answering your call, don’t bother trying and, by the way, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

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I returned to reading the web site. It advocated that I should employ the services of an immigration lawyer, if I needed help. I just wanted to know what the rules were, you’d think that would be simple enough, and free. I rooted out telephone details for a couple of said lawyers. I couldn’t understand a word that was said in the first instance. I figured I’d got a wrong number but on the second call I realised the source of my confusion. The lawyer I spoke to, and of whom I only understood around 50%, was completely bemused that I, an obviously articulate, white, English male would need any help bringing my obviously American betrothed to his home country. He did however offer to see me in his office somewhere in Southall if I would speak with his secretary. I tried, when it all became too difficult I decided this was not for me.

I returned to the web site.

From what I could make out, the challenge was that if my future wife came into the country “with the intention” of getting married, she must declare this upon entry. If she did that, she’d be allowed in but would not be allowed to work or make any claim for assistance for a period of two years. If she came in without declaring this and then married, she might be refused residence, ergo be deported. Phew! God knows what happens if you fall in love whilst on holiday and get married and, how on earth does one prove the lack of intent to marry? What if you mused on the matter, idly, over a martini? It felt to me that this way, there were a hundred booby traps one could easily fall into.

If, on the other hand, you marry outside the country, then apply for a visa before entering the country and come in together, all is allowed, no restrictions of any kind. After five years, automatic Indefinite Leave to Remain. So, no contest and, as added encouragement, a wedding in New York City sounded like fun.

Back to website to find out what I would need to support the visa application. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. OK, bright idea, what about the British Embassy in New York, did they have a website? Bingo!  (By the way, they don’t have one anymore)

Not only did they have one, it was welcoming and relatively informative. It even had a phone number. I hardly dared hope but I called anyway. They had voicemail, I was invited to leave a message and though the cynic in me wondered why on Earth I might fall for that ruse, I figured I had to try everything. So I left a message. I left my phone number, apologising for the fact that it was a U.K. number and all but offered them a great excuse for not following through.

Later that evening, in one of my local pubs, my phone rang. A bright, young, well-spoken New Zealand accent greeted me and *thanked me* for leaving my message. Whilst I was reeling from the absurd comparison of attitudes (and walking outside in search of better reception) I spluttered out my gratitude and surprise and explained my situation. The young women took it all in and was wonderfully effusive at how romantic she found all this and how she’d be delighted to help. She promised to have a word with one of the consuls *and have them call me*!!  A vivacious Kiwi working in the service culture of NYC is a world away from my everyday experience – and what was to follow.

Good as her word, she did speak to the Consul and, good as his, he called me. We had a lengthy conversation in which I explained the inordinate difficulties I’d had getting this far, how outrageous the lack of access to the Immigration Dept at the Home Office was and he not only agreed but expressed his own exasperation. By the time we finished, I had a clear and complete list of exactly what documentation I needed to bring. I knew, for example that no bank statements were required. I knew that I was not under any obligation to prove any specific quantities of cash, only that I was in gainful employment. I also knew, because I asked, that I only needed my last divorce certificate, not any previous ones. It makes sense, to get married that last time, you’d need to have proved you weren’t married to anyone else so, only the last divorce cert proves that now.

I was all set. I assembled everything and we made our plans. It was going to be tight because I could only spare a week away from work. It went like this:

Sunday – fly to NYC

Monday – my wife would fly up and join me.

Tuesday – we go together to City Hall to get the licence

Wednesday – Precisely 24 hrs after the licence is granted, we get married at her brother’s house by the local Deputy Sheriff (I kid you not).

Thursday – we arrive bright and early at the British Embassy, we present our papers and get the visa.

Friday – we fly home to England as husband and wife.

Simple, right?

Well, our week was going to turn out to be an interesting one. It had it ups and downs, let’s say.

Ri, for that’s my wife’s name, was living in Lexington, Kentucky. She’d had a hectic couple of weeks. She’d held a yard sale to get rid of possessions, given away most of what she owned to others who would make good use of them. She’d said emotional goodbyes to all her ballet students, who loved her like a sister/mother/mentor. She’d said equally emotional goodbyes to her work colleagues at Planned Parenthood, where she’d been a passionate campaigner and Director of Education, and to her many dear friends. Most of all, she said a tearful goodbye to Zodos, her enormous Maine Coon cat. She was leaving behind her entire life for this incredibly risky but exciting adventure in a land far away.

Her flight was a disaster. Bad weather cancelled flights, rerouted her and separated her from her baggage. She was already on an emotional knife edge, now she risked missing the tight deadlines and losing the few possessions she had left herself with. She was bereft, distraught and beside herself with worry – and totally exhausted. All this I only encountered in the numerous telephone calls at particularly stressful moments or when there was actual news to report. She, of course, was living every moment of it.

Finally, she had a flight and was en route once more, sans baggage. I decided she needed a little something “special” so I spoke to the chauffeur company at the hotel and organised the swankiest limo they had. I met Harry, our driver, a lovely sweet black man who “got it”, exactly. He’d seen his own lookalike in the movie “ Pretty Woman” and knew exactly what was called for. He even opened the sunroof and let me stand up through it as we drove down the streets of NYC, getting in the mood.

 

We picked Ri up from the airport, Newark I think it was eventually, in precisely the style I wanted for her and she loved every moment as she started, finally, to relax.

The very next day, we hi-tailed it down to City Hall to see what we had to do to get a marriage licence. I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say that government bureaucracy, inefficiency and callous attitudes are universal. They are truly global. The highlight for me was the scrappy piece of paper sellotaped to the glass screen between me and the unkempt teenager on the other side. I hadn’t really taken it in until the mute conscript on the other side recoiled at the sight of the dollar bills I was offering. He tapped the notice in an irritable manner and I read:

NO CASH
NO CHECKS
NO CREDIT CARDS

My mind ran through a mental recall of other appropriate mechanisms of financial exchange and drew a blank. I shrugged, he wasn’t looking. “How do I pay you?”, I pleaded. It turned out that the only mechanism his employers would allow him to handle, for fear he might pocket the funds, was a Cashier’s Check made out to the City, which I could obtain from a single bank half a mile away. Like I said, I’ll spare you the rest.

So, it’s late Tuesday afternoon and we’ve finally got our Marriage Licence. It took longer than expected and because it has to be a minimum of 24hrs old before we can marry, we had to push the marriage back a couple of hours and reconfirm our Deputy Sheriff. Ri wanted to take the opportunity to show me her home town and, in particular, Central Park; the background to so much of her life, the stage upon which so much of it had played out. Whilst we’re strolling in the beautiful May sunshine, my phone rings. I always hated that. In those days the cost of an international roamed call, even incoming, was enormous and usually turned out to be someone selling you something – no CallerID on international calls. It was the British Embassy Consul that I’d spoken to weeks before from the U.K. I was amazed! He had made a note of when I’d said this was all taking place and had “reviewed his notes”, apparently. He was very pleasant but then he said, “You have brought evidence to show that you can support both of you, haven’t you?,” he asked inquiringly. What had brought this on, I had no idea. “No!” I exclaimed, “no I haven’t. That’s because I asked you specifically if that was necessary and you explicitly told me it was not! We’re here in New York, we’ve just got the marriage licence and we’re getting married tomorrow. What on Earth do you need from me?”

In the most disarmingly matter of fact tone, he said, “Well, we’ll need a letter from your solicitor, attesting to your ability to support yourself and your wife.”

I tried to remain calm, to be polite, not to lose my temper but I have to confess it took every ounce of self-control I possessed and, even then, I’m certain my malcontent was blatantly evident. “Let me get this straight,” I began. “At 5pm in the afternoon, 10pm in the UK, with just one day before I present myself at the Embassy to obtain this visa, you call to tell me that I need a solicitor, that many people would never have need of, who if I have one will be getting ready for bed right about now, to attest, against his professional reputation, that he knows enough about the intricacies of my financial situation such that he can state without hesitation that I can afford my wife. You expect me to have access to his contact details and for both of us to have access to a fax machine and that he can do this at the drop of a hat. Have I got that about right?”  Something like that.

“Well”, he spluttered nervously, “Err, yes.”

“I’ll see what I can do”, was the only response I could muster.

hostile

So, I called my lawyer at home and explained the dilemma.  Luckily I did have a lawyer or three with whom I was on good terms.  This one, in particular, is currently serving a hundred year jail sentence, or something, for a massive fraud.  I’m very sorry for him and how he came to be in that position but I don’t think it was anything to do with my visa application!  On the other hand, it does amply demonstrate what a complete and utterly frivolous exercise it was, asking a lawyer to attest to something, this mundane, if £100 million tax frauds could be his penchant.

Anyway, good as his word, when I woke up the following morning, there was the fax of a letter from him, pushed under my hotel-room door.  How many people, let’s say from deepest Africa or Asia, could have achieved that and, if they had, how many consul’s would have treated what it said with the same deference coming from a swanky London address, if it came from Lagos, Nigeria, for example?  The situation is, frankly, laughable but at the time is was a major source of unnecessary stress.

So we got married that day and I only skip over it because it’s not the point of the story, which has already become long enough.  The next day we went down to the British Embassy in New York City, bright and early.  We weren’t the first ones there but we were greeted in a pleasant manner by a shabby little Greek guy who smiled a lot and as he greeted me, crammed a torn-off scrap of paper into my hand and one into Ri’s.  I looked at mine, bemused and saw that it had a number scribbled on it, in pencil.  I am not making this up.

I mused for a moment and then realised, okay, it’s like the deli counter queue in the supermarket.  Someone’s going to call out our number at the appropriate time and that way we all get processed in sequence, makes sense.

So we entered a large room in which 20-30 people were milling around.  We got chatting to some and were finding out, from a variety of nationalities, what their particular adventure was all about, answering questions about what life is like in the UK and stuff like that.  We were all generally having a good-humoured getting-to-know-you session, all resigned to the fact that this could take a while, when our smiley little Greek guy came into the room and tried to make himself heard.  Being so short and obscured by everyone else in the room, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds but by a process of Chinese whispers we all got the message that he wanted us to line up, in front of one of the windows, in the order of our numbers.

Not at all like the Deli-counter queue.

By this time, 20-30 more people had joined our merry throng and the task, it seemed to me, was to find the person with the number immediately prior to mine so that I could dutifully line up behind them…..just as soon as they figured out who they were supposed to line up behind….

“I’m 27, who’s 26?”, someone called out.  “I’m 42, has anyone got 41?”  “What number are you?”  “31”, “17”, “48”…..this was going to take a while.  I have honestly never witnessed such a chaotic scene as the numerous fragments of a conga queue accumulated, each manoevering around the room, trying to join up the broken elements into one coherent snake.  It took about 20 minutes but it kinda kept us amused and certainly brought us together, literally and metaphorically but largely in the shared sense of incredulity.

Finally, we’re in our place in a queue and someone has apparently appeared behind the glass screen.  I looked at the number of people in front of me and quickly calculated that we were going to be standing there for a good couple of hours, or more.  Ri and I took it in turns to sit and rest our feet, before swapping back to maintain our place in the completely unnecessary queue.  Its necessity had become apparent, however, within moments of us completing our exquisite dance when our little Greek friend proceeded down the queue, from the front, collecting his precious torn-off scraps of paper with their numbers, scribbled in pencil.  A prime example of recycling at work?  I guess austerity had begun some ten years earlier in the Consular Service than in the rest of government.  So, now, deprived of our official numbering system, it was essential to retain our place in the queue, you’ll understand.

After what seemed like an interminable wait, with the occasional shuffle up by one meagre place in the queue, we arrived at the glass window.  The Mancunian woman behind the glass, the one with the total charisma bypass, motioned for me to hand the paperwork through the slot at the bottom.  She never once looked up, she never smiled, in fact her facial expression never waivered from its default setting of sour.

She started to rustle through our papers.  She looked at a section of the form, the part dealing with previous marriages, and located my divorce certificate in the pile of documents.  She rustled some more and then, again without looking up she chastised, “Where’s the other divorce certificate?”.  Rattled a little, having spent weeks preparing so carefully and being literally on the brink, I retorted “But the rules specifically said I only need to bring the last one, it specifically said that….”

“Just asking”, she said in a tone that was both flat and simultaneously mocking and implied she’d omitted the phrase, “just kidding”.

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Then, “Where are your bank statements?”.  “There are no bank statements, I responded, the rules don’t ask for back statements, if I’d been asked to bring bank statements I would have brought them”  the sense of panic was clearly evident in my voice.  I went on to relate, very briefly, my conversations with the Consul, his omission of any need to provide evidence of means, his call 36 hours earlier telling me I needed the lawyer’s letter to which I pointed…..  “Can’t you just get a printout from an ATM?”, she asked, to the papers in front of her, not to me.  “I’m British, I said, my cards don’t work over here.”.  This may all sound strange in 2018 but in 2000, not every ATM was VISA/MC compliant for UK Debit cards.  Ri piped up, “I’ve got one”.  “I need one for each of you”, came the miserable Mancunian from behind the screen.  “How much does it need to have on it?”, I asked.  “Doesn’t matter”, came back.  At this point I wanted to say well if it doesn’t matter, why in the name of Christ do you need it?  I probably would have said that but I had just remembered that I had been solicited by phone a few weeks previously, by Citibank who were on a drive to open more accounts in the UK.  I had gone along with it and had opened an account with a token £500 for no other reason than they made it sound easy and, get this, that another bank account may always come in handy.  Handy wasn’t the half of it on this day.  I thrust my card into Ri’s hand, told her the PIN and, whilst I held my ground at the window, ushered her downstairs to the street to get us a couple of printouts.  When she appeared, somewhat breathless , some four minutes later she was beaming with success as she waived the two little chits in the air and thrust them under the window to what I can only describe as a disappointed grunt. Yes, it really did feel as if we had undone her plans to scupper our application.

Finally, she was done and without having made eye contact with us for the entire twenty minutes, she threw our papers in a basket with a few notes and other attachments fixed with paper clips and instructed “See the cashier, next window”, before calling “Next!”.

I’d not really figured out the “next window” thing but now I realised, this Consular Official, the Mancunian with the charisma bypass, was apparently not trusted to handle the dosh.  That was above, or below, her paygrade.  We resumed our place behind the same people we had previously stood behind in the first queue but felt somewhat elated that no one, so far, had refused us a visa, nor demanded of us anything we couldn’t produce – at a push.

While we were in this queue I spotted the price list on the wall.  It was one of those boards where you press letters and numbers into position, like they use in café’s and other old-fashioned places.  It had a glass door with a brass frame, as if someone might want to steal the numbers or try to cheat by rearranging the figures to reduce the price of their particular service.  I scanned the list, looking for the appropriate item.  “Spouse Visa £480.00”.  Blimey!  I thought.  It had never even occurred to me to ask.  I scanned up and down the price column, most things were in the range of £10-30, I think something was £45.  Importing wives appeared to be a lucrative little number for the government.  I guess they worked on the premise that there is absolutely no competition.  It’s not like choosing to go somewhere else for your holiday or having someone else certify a document.

I had plenty of cash on me, some sterling, mainly US dollars.  The prices were all quoted in Sterling so I figured I’d use up what I had (given it was a lot more than I expected) and hand the rest over in dollars.  I got to the window, and presented the fellow with some chit or other that the charisma bypass had given me.  He retrieved the my file, and asked me for an amount in dollars.  I handed him about £400 in sterling and asked how many dollars he’d need to make the difference.

He responded, and once again, I am not making this up, “I can’t take pounds”.  Flatly, just like that.  “You mean, Sterling?”, I clarified.  “Right”, he affirmed, “Pounds”.

I was aware that I was being artfully elaborate but I felt the situation demanded it:  I pointedly took two paces backward, and craned my head as I scanned the room, taking in the various paraphernalia that affirmed the nature of the building in which I was standing and I held out my arms in gesture at everything around me.  I returned, two paces forward.  “I am right in thinking that I am in the British Embassy?  This is British Sovereign Territory?  I only left home a few days ago and the currency of The Crown when I left was still Sterling.  Has something happened?”.  Of course I was being blatantly sarcastic and, I felt, with absolute justification.  He wasn’t moved.  “I can’t take pounds,” he said, “what would we do with them?”.  “Put them in the bank?”, I volunteered.  “In a Sterling account in London through a US bank, in the same way that I hold US dollars in New York through a UK bank?” I explained, helpfully I thought.

“Well we can’t take pounds, you’ll have to get dollars.”

I checked, I didn’t have enough.  At least, I thought to myself, they do actually accept cash so, one up on the New York City bureaucracy we’d dealt with just two days previously.  I asked if there was a bank nearby and he confirmed that there was one on the ground floor.  My “friends” in the queue assured me they’d hold my place for me and let me back in when I returned so I headed down in the lifts to the ground floor.  Yep, there was a large branch of one of the domestic US banks and I ventured to the counter.  I handed over my Sterling and asked to change it into dollars.  The woman was cheery and friendly and I wondered what it would take to have her organise a class in customer service for the folks just six floors above her head.  “ID?”, she enquired politely.  “Err..” I fumbled as I realised that my passport was up on the 7th floor along with every other scrap of ID I possessed and I tried to translate that to this pleasant lady.  As if talking to a moron, but ever so politely, she suggested “Driver’s license?”.  Feeling ever so dumb but instantly realising the difference between a traditional US licence, complete with photograph, and my large sheet of paper folded to one sixth of its natural size size, with lots of type and absolutely no photograph, I decided to tough it out.  I held it out proudly.  She took it from me gingerly, it looked pretty fragile even then, it looks positively decrepit now!

She took it to the back of the hall and gathered several colleagues around.  She opened it reverentially and together they poured over it, first one side, then the other, spreading it delicately down on the desk top.  There was a lot of frowning and puzzling and then it was over.  She came back to me, smiling sweetly, handed me back my licence and dished out the cash.  I’m going to credit my English accent and that very touching reverence that Americans seem to have for we Brits, for her failing to uphold her duties to the absolute letter of the law.

I raced back up to the top floor, resumed my reserved place, such nice people in the queue, and waited until it was my turn to hand over the fat, sweaty, wad of cash as Jacko described it in As Good As It Gets.  We were done.  We didn’t know we were done, we were just hanging around for someone to tell us what comes next.

After about an hour, when the last window had closed, out came a consular official and announced that the office was now closing for lunch and we should all go away and be back in one hour’s time, when we’d find out what came next.  What chaos.  So now, we had one hour to find somewhere to eat in downtown New York, eat, and get back, or risk not getting a visa.

So ended phase one.

Frankly, I’m not sure I have the energy for describing phase two and I’m even less sure that you, dear reader, have the appetite for it.  Suffice it to say it involved an interrogation, some game playing and a great deal of smiling and trying to be nice to people to whom I wouldn’t normally give the time of day.

Let’s leave it there.  Let’s not overlook the point of all this though.

The point is that it matters not one jot who’s running the government.  What matters is the leadership, management, training and recruitment down at the coal face and that is under the firm grip of the civil service and their unions.

If you employ muppets and don’t even try to educate them to the level of say, barely employable, put them in the control of frustrated traffic wardens and generally treat them as if you care neither about them or the people they are there to help, then this kind of crap will continue.  I doubt any government minister will ever find the will, determination or a suitable mechanism to impose change on the self-perpetuating life-force that is the civil service.  I don’t believe this is a party political issue any more than it is a national character trait.  I think it’s the way the world chose to travel and not enough people cared sufficiently to steer a different course.  How you could possibly change it now, I really don’t know.  What I do know is that it would feel really good if it looked like anyone was prepared to try.

Meanwhile, let’s acknowledge that those people at the coalface are just ordinary people like you and me who’ve had their charisma exorcised, their humour lobotomised, their empathy ostracised and, frankly, this is just the level of crap we all have to put up with.  Now go outside, away from this “hostile environment”, marvel at the world of nature and let it put a smile back on your face.  😊