Monday, 27 September 2010

Cautiously peeking out

Like a turtle retracting arms and legs, people retreat into themselves when stressed.

I was surprised that my mother took shelter in the mundane routines of home life while she was in remission. I didn't expect her to draw up a '100 things to do before you die' list, but I was taken aback by just how little interest she had in getting out and about.

With a few more years of life experience under my belt I've come to appreciate my mother's perspective. One doesn't need to fill every moment with things to DO, it is enough to simply BE. It is true we enjoy new experiences for their novelty value, but when we need comfort we seek the familiar patterns of our day to day life.

My mother was a staunch atheist. She did not believe in god, nor an afterlife. When she knew she was dying she lost interest in the future that beyond her own lifespan. In her case I suspect a little existential nihilism was at work. When life has no intrinsic meaning or value the experiences of a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant. Curiously this didn't appear to cause suicidal thoughts. She resented that she was slipping away, despite her determination to live.

My mum once said the purpose of life was to raise the next generation and propagate the genome. I do rather like this philosophy, after all every living species on the planet will procreate given the right conditions. When I was a young adult I decided my philosophy of life was to be happy and live without regret. It was a good philosophy for an optimistic youth, but it didn't fare well against the calamities of life.

I enjoyed the companionship, camaraderie, and opportunities of being in a couple. When we separated I struggled to adapt. In hindsight I’d obviously picked the wrong person as a life partner, but the regret I couldn't shuck off was that I was childless with my best reproductive years behind me when we broke up. It didn't seem probable that I would have time to get over the break-up, find a good man to settle down with, and start a family with the clock ticking on my fertility. I guess I did subscribe to my mother's philosophy to some extent after all.

The world spun and danced around the sun for a few years. My tattered philosophy of life lay neglected in a corner, while I mellowed into my singledom, and became accustomed to the idea that I wouldn't be raising babies.

When I developed lymphedema a little over a year ago I was in pain, and I was struggling to see a reason to carry on. I felt I needed a new philosophy of life – something I could use to fend off the nihilism. I didn't really gain any insights on this topic during counselling sessions. In the end I decided to just 'muddle along and see what happens.' It turns out to be a fairly decent philosophy, and the more I muddle along, the less important the whole question about the meaning of life becomes.

Meanwhile, like the turtle in his shell, I'm cautiously peeking out at the world, having a good think before I tentatively stretch my neck out, extend my legs and waddle off.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Life defies

I can't relate to the idea of that a creator made us in his own image, that he watches us, and at the moment of our death judges our lives by the rules he communicated with his chosen prophets, sending us on to the realm of heaven or hell depending on how our soul weighed on his celestial scales of good and evil.

I can see how the variants of the creator meme that humanity has followed over the millennia would be a civilizing force, providing structures, boundaries and consequences for communities to abide by. Many of our great works of art and architecture have been inspired by the desire to glorify or pacify a creator. On the flip side many people have been subjugated by the tenets of a creed, persecuted for their contradictory religious views, and wars have been prosecuted in the name of faith.

When I look at the natural world, its physics, chemistry and biology, I am struck by how life defies both Occam's razor and the second law of thermodynamics.

If the simplest explanation is usually the correct one (Occam's razor) how then do we reconcile this with the complexities of multicellular organisms, DNA and consciousness. Given the hot chemical soup that existed in the early Hadean eon of our planet's development could the evolution of life be considered a natural, simple, and inevitable progression? Is it plausible that random chemical reactions would become self-sustaining, self-replicating, growing ever more complex and specialized?

The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of an isolated system can never decrease. The increasing complexity of evolving life would seem to refute the idea that systems tend towards more random configurations with increasing entropy. Life is anti-entropic. How can that be?

Finding myself unable to cleave either to the religious view that life was ordained, or to the scientific view that life randomly developed I shake my head and don the "agnostic" label.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Ministry of Silly Walks

My right foot has been giving me some trouble over the past month or so - with each step I take it feels as though there is a pebble underfoot. It feels quite bruised, and at first I assumed that was all it was - a bruise. When it lasted longer than any bruise should I began to suspect my work shoes, which I wear longer than any other shoes, since I go barefoot whenever I'm indoors at home. During my vacation I avoided wearing those shoes, but at the end of my two week holiday my foot was no better.

Whenever there are unexplained symptoms I start to get concerned, and I'm under instructions from the oncologist to have any inexplicable pain which does not resolve itself checked out lest it be a symptom of secondary cancer.

On Monday I went to see a GP who referred me to an Orthopaedic consultant whom I saw yesterday. After x-rays were taken he was able to exclude lesions as a cause, and explained the problem is biomechanical. Basically I walk funny. My calves are too tight which causes me to lift my heel too early in the stride placing excessive stress on the metatarsals.

My next step is to see a Podiatrist which I have lined up next Tuesday. I'm going to take all my shoes (a grand total of 4 pairs), and find out which are good for me, and which are making the problem worse. I may get custom orthotic inserts made to help cushion my feet and correct my gait as I tend to over-pronate.

Meanwhile I'm busy stretching my calves and trying to correct my stride so that my heel doesn't come up too soon. Welcome to the Ministry of Silly Walks.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Anger squeezes out

Two years ago cancer claimed my health, work, independence, home, and threatened my future. I grieved for all those things, a process which has turned out to be much more lengthy than the treatment for the cancer.

Apparently there are five components to our reaction to catastrophic news: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It is not a linear process, a person may not experience all five, they may feel several at once, and even flip back and forth between them.

The major components for me have been anger and depression. Depression focuses the mind inwards, to dwell on past events and the unfairness of life. Anger squeezes out in unanticipated ways.

With all the crappy aspects of my life I feel I deserve a break in other areas, to balance the scales: the flexible work arrangement that allows me to live in Leeds; sitting in a priority seat on the bus so I don't have to shoulder my rucksack longer than absolutely necessary; the holiday I was entitled to accrue while I was off sick; a small shopping trolley at the supermarket; people giving me a wide enough berth that they don't bang into the lymphedema arm.

The trouble is that I feel angrily defensive over these small concessions. For instance, while no one might question my use of a priority seat on the bus, I stand ready to argue my special need. If someone comments on the amount of vacation time I have coming I itch to tell them "well I'd happily gift you the holiday time, if you'd like to take the cancer too." This is how the anger has been manifesting.

Over the last month I've noticed my mood has been lifting, and my focus is shifting away from the past. I can chart my progress by my blog entries, reading back over my more angst ridden blog entries I can see just how far I've come.

Many of the labels I'd used in categorising my posts (illness, cancer, chemo, brca1, lymphedema, anxiety, coping strategy) no longer felt appropriate. The cool green colour scheme and images related to cancer (a photo of yew leaves from which the chemo drug taxotere is made; a diagram of the lymphatic system; a diagram of the milk glands of the breast; the structure of the brca1 protein; an image of a metastasising cancer cell) seemed overly heavy. So I've given the colours, images and labels a makeover in what was a curiously cathartic process.

I believe I've reached a turning point, and that maybe I've reached the acceptance stage.

I'm calm, happy and relaxed.

I can only hope it lasts.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Disengaging the conscious mind

Our lives are a succession of repeating elements, from autonomic blinking and breathing to our willed activities.

Novel undertakings stress us, but with repetition they become familiar, routine and comforting.

The first time I walked from London Bridge to Paternoster Square it seemed to take an age. There were lots of sights to take in, and some uncertainty over the route. Each time I repeat the route my perception of how long it takes shortens, though in objective terms the elapsed time is unchanged.

I put this down to the way our brains work. They're basically learning engines. Laying down a new set of memories keeps the conscious mind engaged in the activity. With each repetition fewer new observations need to be committed to memory, and the conscious mind is increasingly freed to drift off to other topics.

When I was a teenager I did a morning paper round. At 6am I would arrive at the newsagents and be given my bag with its complement of papers. Within a month I'd memorised the round, and which papers and periodicals each house took. I knew the homes where there were dogs, and the vagaries of the various letterboxes some of which were liable to snap viciously shut on the fingertips of the unwary. I found myself operating on a kind of autopilot, frequently arriving back at the newsagents with an empty bag but no conscious memory of the preceding hour.

In later years I would regularly drive the 200 miles from London to Leeds, which immediately afterwards could only be recalled as a series of flashbacks - the service station I'd taken a break at, the stop start tailback by junction 26, the car that had undertaken dangerously, and the maniac who tailgated so close he should have just parked on my back seat. All the habitual actions of driving (stopping at lights, navigating roundabouts, changing lanes, indicating, turning) had vanished from memory.

Repetition is key to a great number of human amusements. Music contains a whole raft of different repeating elements : the drum beat, the base rhythm, the guitar melody, and the rhymes and flow of the lyrics. Rhythms get the toes tapping, hips swinging, and the head nodding. It is seductive to succumb and lose yourself in the music and dance.

Recurring actions relax and gratify. Stroking a dog, scratching an itch, the sensation of a sock sliding back and forward over the sole of the foot when walking in wellington boots, massage, sex.

Rhythms are hypnotic - the cliché of the swinging watch and the hypnotist's lulling voice. These both rely on the brain rapidly exhausting the uniqueness of the experience, disengaging the conscious mind from the present allowing the hypnotist to engage directly with the mind at a deeper level.

The brain likes repetition because it is predictable, and being able to anticipate what will happen has a clear evolutionary advantage. We've been shaped by natural selection to spot patterns and repeat successful actions. Our likes and dislikes stem from repeated experiences that are weighed for their perceived positive or negative outcome.

Our brains don't always get it right, perhaps because the algorithm is based on short term outcomes. Eat sugar, the taste is good, and a positive emotional response develops - we like sugar. A year later we're swaddled in fat, but the emotional response to sugar remains unchanged. In addicts, the mind gives an excessive weighting to one or two learnt patterns, and rather than being useful behaviour pathways they become seemingly inescapable ruts.

When you stop to consider that all your personal preferences are built up from the mind's cumulative weighting of life experiences you start to wonder why you have certain strong predilections.

As a child I recall being bemused when I was asked "what's your favourite colour?" Not really having a preference I picked a colour at random, green, and each subsequent time I was asked I would trot that out as my response. In my late twenties I realised that I had developed a very strong preference for rusty umber shades of orange. I can't think of a good reason why I love that colour, but just looking at those shades I feel physically relaxed, warm, happy and satisfied.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

A bleak situation

I'd grown up considering myself half-Geordie, as my dad's family came from County Durham, but while researching the family tree I discovered that two branches of the 'Geordie' family originally came from East Anglia.

My ggg grandfather William Rufus Lincoln, born in Saxlingham in 1837, left Norfolk with his wife and two children to go to County Durham in the 1870s, where he worked in the collieries.

My ggg grandfather Samuel Littlewood, born in Great Plumstead in 1824, migrated from Norfolk with his wife and their 7 children to County Durham in the 1870s, where he became a miner.

The two hundred miles these families moved typifies the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, when hundreds of thousands of people left impoverished agricultural areas to find work in mines, factories and mills. Many families emigrated to Canada, North America, South America and Australia.

In the early part of the 1800's there had been an influx of people into Norfolk, as trade and agriculture were booming. As the century progressed unemployment grew as a result of the introduction of agricultural machines, the return of ex-soldiers from the great wars, and loss of woollen production to the flourishing textile areas in the north. Overpopulation had resulted in exorbitant rents as speculators cashed in on the housing shortage. The growth of the railway network increased long-distance trade and intensified competition throughout the country. Wages (which were often paid in the form of goods or food) plummeted as English wheat prices were pushed down by cheap grain imports from the US. In the 1870s wet summers led to poor harvests, and there were outbreaks of disease affecting cattle and sheep.

It must have been a bleak situation for many families, but the railways that had exacerbated their economic plight also provided an escape route - transportation to areas booming with the opportunities presented by the Industrial Revolution. Others will have booked passage on the boats plying the east coast.

When I learnt about the Industrial Revolution at school I gleaned nothing more from my 'education' than the basic idea that 'folks worked in the fields, then machinery was invented and fewer people were needed in agriculture, so they went to work in factories instead.' Today I see the Industrial Revolution in more human terms. I can't help but see the parallels with our current economic realities - the challenges of globalisation, the decline of traditional industries and recession. In a hundred years time will they look back and call this period the 'Technological Revolution'?

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Stunned and empty

During my family history research I came across what must have been a very great tragedy for my family, as World War I claimed the lives of three of its young men on Tuesday 10th September 1918. My great great grandfather Ezekiel Harper lost two sons (John & Joseph), and his brother William lost one of his sons (Henry).

It was one of the great calamities of WWI that recruits from small villages would be formed into "Pal's Battalions" only to be wiped out together, leaving their home towns stunned and empty.

The lads from my family were all in the 1st Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, and curious as to what big battle had claimed their lives, I downloaded the Battalion's War Diary from the National Archives. It seems that the 10th September 1918 was a typically ghastly day. What follows is an extract (as best as I can decipher) from the diary of that day:

10 September 1918

LOWLAND & CAVALRY TRENCHES from W18b34 to W12a00. Barrage to commence at 4am.
B company on the right, C company in the centre, D company on left.
Very heavy rain through the night.
Time for barrage altered.
5.15am : Barrage. Owing to bad weather company was unable to get into position in time.
8.45am : Situation not coherent.
9am : The company owing to the darkness were unable to get into the exact positions indicated to them and had concentrated more to the left when forming up for the attack this morning. They were also unable to start at zero (5.15am), the right company started 5:30am. From verbal reports received it is evident that the attack went in a northerly direction, rather than a N.E. one. The enemy had apparently anticipated a further attack on his position and was fully prepared to meet it. The right company met with very heavy machine gun fire from its right flank and as they had lost the barrage had to withdraw. From further verbal reports it appears that the left company went too much to its left and the enemy counter attacked and apparently captured about 20 of them.
KILLED: LT C SPRAGG & 5 other ranks
WOUNDED: 2/LT H P SPENCER and 2/LT F MONKMAN and 36 other ranks
Warning received during this afternoon re possible relief in the evening, after cancelled, & message received that there would be no relief but this battalion would withdraw later.

Given the grid references from the diary, I've been able to map out their position and objective on that day on a WWI map :

On a Google image of the same location today you can still see the faint trace of where the Cavalry Support Trench (where B company where supposed to have been positioned) came close to the Cavalry Trench (B company's objective, a mere 100 meters away over no man's land.)

If you switch to Map view and zoom out you can get an idea of where this action took place, with Gouzeaucourt to the north, and Épehy to the south.

Poignantly, two months later the diary reads :

11 November 1918
9:00 am : Brigade marched to LIMONT-FONTAINE. Route - Lock bridge - AULNOXE STATION - (v29c04) - POT-DE-VIN - LIMONT-FONTAINE. Battalion billet at ECLAIBES, arriving at 11:45.
11am : Armistice Signed. Cease Fire.

William Boynton Butler

William Boynton Butler was my grandfather's oldest brother, fondly known as Uncle Willie by my branch of the family, and as Uncle Billie by his wife Clara's family. Sadly I never got the chance to meet him as he died before I was born.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross for an extremely brave action during the First World War, shielding a passing troop of infantry from a mis-fired mortar round with his own body until they were safely past, risking being blown to pieces.

I gather from family chatter that he was an unassuming man, somewhat embarrassed at the subsequent fuss, perhaps because his actions were an instinctive reaction to the situation, or perhaps because all the men who fought in that war risked their lives daily in the trenches, and many didn't survive.

I've published a number of newspaper clippings and photographs collated by my aunt, along with his citation, army records, and a brief biography to our Family Tree.

William Boynton Butler - Biography

William was born in Armley, Leeds and was educated at St. Oswalds School, Hunslet Carr. He worked in the area's coal mines from the age of 13. On his Attestation recruitment form his trade was listed as Miner, and being in a reserved occupation he need not have volunteered to serve.

Initially he was rejected for the Army because of his height, being only 5 foot 2 1/2 inches tall and weighing just 7st 10lbs.  After the formation of a "Bantam" battalion (short stature being an advantage in trench warfare) William joined the 17th Battalion of the West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales's Own) Regiment on 14th January 1915, at the age of 20. He received his training at Ilkley and was attached to the 106th Trench Mortar Battery, arriving in France on the 1st Feburary 1916.

He was awarded the V.C. for action on August 6, 1917, at Lempire, France, between St. Quentin and Cambrai.

From his citation: "For most conspicuous bravery when in charge of a Stokes gun [trench mortar] in trenches which were being heavily shelled. Suddenly one of the fly-off levers of a Stokes shell came off and fired the shell in the emplacement. Private Butler picked up the shell and jumped to the entrance of the emplacement, which at that moment a party of infantry was passing. He shouted to them to hurry past, as the shell was going off, and, turning round, placed himself between the party of men and the live shell, and so held it till they were out of danger. He then threw the shell on to the parados [the back parapet of a trench], and took cover in the bottom of the trench. The shell exploded almost on leaving his hand, greatly damaging the trench. By extreme good luck Private Butler was contused [bruised] only. Undoubtedly his great presence of mind and disregard of his own life saved the lives of the officer and men in the emplacement and the party which was passing at the time."

He was invested by H. M. King George V at Buckingham Palace, 5th December 1917.

He visited his home on the 4th December but his parents had already gone to London for the investiture, and the V.C. hero found himself locked out and had to sit on the step until recognised. He was given a civic reception in Leeds on 6th December 1917. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre.

After the war William worked for the North East Gas Board in Leeds, serving in the Home Guard during World War II. He died in hospital in Leeds on 25th March 1972 after a long illness. He was given a full military funeral on the 29th, the bearer party being drawn from senior NCOs and members of the Royal British Legion, and was buried in Hunslet Cemetery, Leeds.

He was laid to rest in the Boynton family grave which had no marker. In 1996 a headstone was erected after being donated by Newton's Monumental Masons.

William's medals, including the French Croix de Guerre, are held in the Lord Ashcroft Medal Collection. In the book "Victoria Cross Heroes Volume II" Michael Ashcroft recounts William's own recollection of the event.

On 7th August 2017, a paving stone at the Hunslet War Memorial was unveiled marking the 100th anniversary of William's bravery. The event was attended by family members, standard bearers, and members of the Yorkshire Regiment in full dress uniform. Father Chris Buckley led the ceremony, with the Lord Mayor of Leeds addressing the gathering, Captain S Mallinson read the citation and the Last Post was sounded by LCpl Farthing.

Caught short

For reasons I won't go into I'm visiting a school when I get caught short. With a mild feeling of dread, based on memories of ghastly school loos, I wander the corridors until I find the facilities and enter. There are a dozen kids in uniforms rampaging in there, and scenting fresh blood they turn to me. Deciding I’d rather hold it I make a quick exit.

Visiting a pub for lunch with a few friends, my bladder reminds me we need to go. I head for the basement following the arrows painted on the walls, and open the door to the ladies. The smell hits me, stale and pungent, but I force myself in. Opening a cubicle door I see the splashes of urine on the floor and toilet seat. 'No way' I think, and walk back upstairs to my friends. I should have known. It doesn't matter how nice the pub, the bogs always suffer from their inebriated patrons inability to aim.

That afternoon I'm in a shopping mall, and the need is still pressing. Musing that the shopping mall is bound to have nice toilets, I follow the signs. The woman depicted in the international symbol for Ladies toilets does rather look like she has her legs clamped together in desperate need. There seems to be a hundred or so cubicles, and the place is heaving with people queuing to use the inadequate number of basins to wash their hands.

Determining that no one is in fact waiting for the toilet, I go up and down the rows until I find the only two free cubicles. I open the door to the first one to find that it hits the toilet, and can't be opened fully. Due to a supporting pillar, the cubicle is smaller than all the others – unusably small. I try walking in and seeing if I can close the door behind me, but it isn't possible to unless I’m prepared to climb up and stand on the toilet seat. I'm not. The next cubicle along is free. It's grubby, with toilet paper on the floor, but I'm now really busting for the loo, so I close the door behind me.

I'm just about to pull my pants down when there is a tap on the back partition. "I just thought I'd warn you love, there’s a glory hole drilled in the back here." I look round and realise I can be seen. Arranging my clothing so my decency is preserved I sit on the toilet. In fact, the partitions are only shoulder height when sitting, which I'd not registered previously. I can see everyone, and everyone can see me. Wanting to be out of there as soon as possible I try to wee, but I'm too tense and it just isn't happening. I keep trying, desperate now for my sphincter to relax so I can get out of toilet hell. I strain and strain, to no avail. I then take deep breaths, willing my mind and body to relax. No joy.

The final straw comes when someone brushes by outside, and the cubicle door falls off its hinges and crashes to the floor. "Sorry love, I don't know my own size," comes a familiar Brum voice, and I find myself talking to a larger gentleman who I worked with many years ago. "Hey what are you doing in here? Nice to see you and all, but this is the Ladies."
He replies "I know, but you should see the state of the Gents."

With this surreal turn, I realise I'm dreaming and force myself awake. It varies each time, but the toilet nightmare is my mind's creative way of stopping me wetting the bed. I rise and go to the loo, where I’m rapidly cured of my discomfort.

Sleep, however, has left the building.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Forgive us our Twitters

And this is my own take :

Our favourites, who art on Internet,
hallowed by thy Wikipedia,
thy Google search,
thy will be done,
in real life as it is in Second Life.
Give us this day our daily YouTube,
and forgive us our Twitters,
as we forgive those
who Facebook and Blog.
And lead us not unto trojan websites
but deliver to us from ParcelForce,
for thine is the PayPal,
and the eBay, and the Amazon,
for ever and ever.

Forgive us our Westminsters

Courtesy of my iPod, from the genius of Ian Dury & the Blockheads :

Our Father, who art in Hendon
Harrow Road be thy name,
Thy Kingston come,
Thy Wimbledon,
In Erith as it is in Hendon.
Give us this day our Berkhamsted
And forgive us our Westminsters,
As we forgive those
who Westminster against us.
Lead us not into Temple Station
But deliver us from Ealing,
For thine is the Kingston
and the Purley and the Crawley,
For Iver and Iver,
Crouch End.

Original impetus

My original impetus for family history research was to trace the origin of a genetic flaw that affects the women in my family, making them prone to breast & ovarian cancers.

I have traced the source back as far as Ada Smith b1877, but neither her mother (Mary Ann Storey) or her grandmother (Sarah Robinson) apparently died from the disease. Perhaps it was inherited from her father (Charles Smith.)

If you have ancestors in common with Ada Smith I'd be interested in hearing from you, particularly if you aware of any pattern of either disease affecting the young women of her lineage.

My interest in genealogy has since broadened considerably. I'm tracing all forebears both maternal and paternal in an ever expanding research front that doubles with each preceding generation.

Needless to say, I enjoy hearing from cousins from any part of the family tree however distantly removed. Simply drop me an email.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Captain Duvet

In my student days I would bellow 'Captain Duvet' in much the same way as Captain Caveman.

I enjoyed a bit of a snooze in the afternoon back then. I look back and recognise the effects of a high carbohydrate diet which routinely sent me hyperglycaemic and off to the land of nod. 'I could sleep for Britain,' I would declare 'and bring home the Olympic Gold Medal.'

A few years later I would start to see the flip side - feeling grouchy, indecisive and faint: effects of hypoglycaemia as my blood sugar levels dropped through the floor if a meal was skipped.

It took me a long time to cotton on to the pattern behind these two extremes, and to link it to my diet. I'm sure a lot of people who end up with Type 2 Diabetes do so because they're ignorant of these signposts. My diet is no longer as carb heavy, and Captain Duvet is a relegated to the dusty corridors of fond memories.


Autumnal morning.
Contrails form the Scottish flag,
and breath condenses.