Sunday 28 December 2014

The greengrocer, the judge, Hari Krishna and Coca Cola

A few days before the end of November 2014, I started behaving strangely. I took a bath and when I'd finished drying off, I annoyed myself by stupidly dropping the towel into the bath instead of onto the floor. Later, I pissed on the closed toilet seat. I went to the shops, came home with nothing and couldn't open the front door. I was using the wrong key. I stared at my computer. I had forgotten how to type.
Two days later, Anne and I went to the Victoria & Albert Museum with our friend, Sebastian Balfour, to see “Disobedient Objects”. This was an exhibition of radical items from street demonstrations across the world.

There were photos of a recent protest in Rome: students confronting the riot squad with homemade shields constructed to look like book covers so that the police would be seen to be attacking literature: Boccaccio's The Decameron, Dante's The Divine Comedy, George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.

Hanging from the ceiling was a battered pan lid that had helped bring down the Argentine government in noisy rough-musik demonstrations. There was a sling-shot made from the tongue of a shoe that a Palestinian had used to defend himself against Israeli tanks.

It was surreal and my already-muddled head started to spin. I couldn't read the text that accompanied the photos and displayed objects. With a splitting headache, I had to sit down. Was I finally being driven mad by radical politics?

We went to the café and Sebastian bought us tea and scones. After eating the scones, I wanted more tea and shocked them by pouring it, not into my cup, but into the tiny jam jar. While we were there, Sebastian's wife, Gráinne, rang him and when he told her how I was behaving, she insisted I go to A&E immediately. On my way to the Whittington Hospital in north London, I tried to use my mobile phone to exit the Underground instead of swiping my travel card. Even I realised something was seriously wrong.

In triage they were sufficiently alarmed to give me a CT scan. It wasn't political subversion that was scrambling my brain; it was a chronic subdural haematoma, a veinous bleed between the outside of the brain and the skull. 

I was told that when a bed became available, I would be moved to one of two specialist hospitals for neurosurgery: Royal London or National Hospital for Neurology, Queen Square. Over the next three days I became even more confused. Alarmed at my deterioration, Anne kept asking the Whittington when I was to be transferred, but Gráinne managed to discover the names and numbers of the Bed Managers at both hospitals and pestered them to take me as soon as possible.

On December 3 I was admitted to Queen Square and told I would be having an operation the next morning to drain two massive blood lakes on the left side of my brain. This was cancelled four times because of emergency cases. Anne refused to leave my bedside, afraid that if she did, I would be taken to theatre and she wouldn't be able to accompany me. Afraid that it it might be the last time she saw me. She spent the whole day slumped over my bed rail.

I was operated on late that evening. When I woke up back in the ward, I was speaking, functioning normally again, but with the additional fashion accessory of a square, flat plastic bag. It was attached by tubing to one of the holes drilled into my head to drain blood and post-op saline solution. I asked Anne to bring me my computer the next day so that I could let my friends and family know I was myself again.

But recovery is not always straight forward. Twenty-four hours after the operation, I had an unexpected relapse. I was unable to remember my name or date of birth. I dreaded the nurses who came constantly to take my blood pressure. Their first question was always, 'Where are you?' I would try and work out my answer as I saw them approaching.
I was now so confused I had no idea how to clean my teeth or use my mobile. When I went to the toilet, I couldn't remember if it was wipe, shit, stand or sit, wipe, shit. It was all very scary.

I could only say 'Yes' or 'No' to questions. Words on a page no longer made sense. I had lost the ability to speak in sentences or read. I was assigned a speech therapist who came to my bedside with word exercises. At first, I was unable to read single-syllable words like 'book' and 'cold'. 'Peanut butter' was an impossibility. I was given a sheet with pictures and the words underneath so patients who'd lost the ability to speak could point at an image to indicate to staff what they needed to communicate. On the first row in the first box was a figure holding his head. The text underneath said, 'I'm in pain.' I struggled to decipher 'pain'. Stumbling over the letters, I finally managed to pronounce “pain” phonetically. When the therapist asked me to read the next box with a picture of four figures holding hands that said 'I want my family', I repeated 'pain'.

My Brazilian guitar teacher, Deicola Neves, brought his guitar and played bossa nova to the ward. He left it with me but, when I tried to play, I couldn't remember a single chord.

Anne knew more about my condition than I did. When she signed the consent form just before the operation, they told her that the procedure carried risks—no improvement, seizures, infection, left in a vegetative state and even death. She told me later that, while I was in the operating theatre, she went to the hospital chapel and lit four candles for me: one from her: two from my sons and one from my grandson. She then sat in the ward, staring at the empty space where my bed had been. She says she hoped for the best, but was preparing herself for the worst.

I can't recall being frightened from the moment I arrived at the Whittington to the moment I left Queen Square nearly three weeks later. I wasn't even fearful when they took me to the operating theatre. I remember thinking, They're just taking me for a check-up downstairs. Anne has a different opinion and tells me that, as they wheeled me away, I looked like I had the eyes of a wild horse.

At time of death it is said that the body releases chemicals that ease the mind from panic and fear. Perhaps this also happens when your skull is about to be opened. My consultant told me that patients facing brain surgery somehow manage to hold themselves together to be able to get through it. She added that the patients who worry least take longer to recover. Her reason being that the mind which fights off fear at the most critical of moments delays the trauma, but cannot avoid it altogether.

Four days after the operation and with no improvement, my consultant stood at the foot of my bed. She was unhappy with my progress because my ability to speak and read had deteriorated so rapidly. I was told I might have to have a second operation, and that this would involve substantial risk. Anne asked what was involved. She explained that a window of bone would have to be cut out of my skull to enable access for the brain to be scraped so as to remove old, dried blood in the hope that my ability to read and speak would be restored. There was, she said, no guarantee of success. Anne asked for the time frame before a decision was made. The consultant answered 'two days'.

As soon as the consultant left my bedside I indicated to Anne to hand me the sheet of images and words the speech therapist had given me that morning I had been able to read one word, 'pain'. Miraculously I slowly read out to Anne all the captions under the pictures. I have no explanation for this except that a possible, more dangerous and invasive op unlocked something in my mind. Without any other intervention, I began to speak and read.

Within two hours, I was talking reasonably and four days later I was home.
Lying in that bed reminded me of my father. I felt I was starting to talk like him, dribble my food the same way he did when he was bedridden and even have similar illogical conversations.

In my ward of six patients there was a greengrocer, a judge, a follower of Hari Krishna, a white Zimbabwean and an employee of Coca-Cola. I became friends with all of them except the judge. The greengrocer lived by the principle of the Sufi, Abu Sa'id, who said, 'Whatever you have in your hand—give it. Whatever is to be your fate—face it.' He had faced two operations to remove a tumour on his pituitary gland. Four days after his discharge, he came from his home in Wembley to visit the ward and to give each of us a sack of tangerines.

The Hari Krishna kept offering me his vegan food. We agreed that, in the New Year, we would walk together on Hampstead Heath.

The white African was a puzzle. In his 70s, he had served in the Rhodesian army and had then been a welder and business man. He was nostalgic for lost 'Empire'. But he spoke a number of African languages, was adored by the nurses—many of them African—and was always sympathetically curious about their lives. He shared with me my dislike of the judge.

The Coca-Cola man was the only one in the ward with no bandages. When Anne asked him why, he said he'd had a tumour behind his eye successfully removed through his nose. He told her this when they first talked together as he gave her a Costa coffee he had bought for her after seeing her looking distressed by my bedside.

I warmed to him when he told me that he travelled the world for the company, but always refused to go to Israel. Then added that, although he drank 'American champagne', he knew it was a poison.

The judge treated the nurses as if they were on trial. Every day we were given a long menu (the food was excellent there) and asked to choose our lunch and dinner. Once, when they brought the judge pasta, he complained he'd asked for spaghetti. They brought him the menu to show him that spaghetti was not on offer. 'Well, I ordered it,' he said. I wanted to tell him a neurological hospital is not the Ritz. His wife rang one day. A nurse relayed the message to tell him she'd called. The nurse then asked him to tell his wife not to be so miserable. 'Life is short,' she said.

In a neighbouring ward there was Bill, an old soldier, officer class, who kept trying to escape. He would shuffle into our ward and be obnoxious to the nurses who had to follow him around to prevent him from falling or straying too far. He would physically and verbally abuse them, not caring that he was often taking several of them away from their duties. Just after my op, when I was able to speak, he passed my bed with three black nurses and muttered that he was about to be cannibalised. I got out of bed, prepared to hit him. One of the nurses warned me off and told me they weren't allowed to touch him so I said, 'Get the fuck out of here and stop insulting the staff.'

The greengrocer told me that Bill was suffering after his operation. Maybe, but he had clearly been an unpleasant man pre-op. And scarce NHS resources were being used to guard him.

The nurses and cleaners came from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Uganda, India, the Philippines, Poland, Lithuania, Northern Ireland, England, Columbia, Spain, Portugal. The surgeons were from Italy, China, Ireland, the Philippines and north London. The surgeon who saved my life was from Nigeria. All of them were incredibly skilled, friendly and supportive. I hope Nigel Farage doesn't spend any time in hospital.

I got flowers, fruit, cards and daily phone calls from my son in Barcelona. Lapsed Catholics lit candles, an Iraqi atheist friend who was in Tunisia made a Friday visit to the mosque to pray for me and 400 US Reiki practitioners practised intuitive healing with me in mind.

When well enough to leave the ward, Anne took me to the chapel where she'd spend an hour each day between the morning and afternoon visiting hours. On entering I saw a notice saying that 'This chapel is for all faiths'. It should be changed to '...all faiths and none'.

On a table near a bank of candles, there is a Visitors' Book. One inscription in that book of hope and despair read, 'Thanks to all gods and goddesses and the NHS.' Another was, 'Mum was always heading for heaven. But please God, not yet.' I wrote my own message. In place of the gratitudes to God, Jesus and Allah, mine says, 'Let us thank the NHS'. No idea where I am heading but, wherever it is, the health service have delayed my departure.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Music and War

These are the opening paragraphs of my chapter from Left Field on the work of the Pavarotti Music Centre.

The Bible says, ‘In the beginning was the word’. Wrong. First there was the rhythm. From the time of the Big Bang, it is the beat that gives the cosmos its pulse. All else may be chaos, but it is there, in mathematical time, something primordial. In one sense, however, the Bible was right. Man’s first attempt to communicate involved rhythm, movement and dance which represented the first language, the first word.

At the time of what Engels called ‘primitive communism’, when homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers, humans signalled to each other by beating stick on stick, stone on stone. The first vocal syllables were whistles and calls based on rhythmic patterns which allowed human communication to take place.

Rhythm was there, at the start of everything. It was there at the start of our species and at the start of our individual lives. Whether or not we evolved from the sea, we all emerged from the waters of our mothers and water is a perfect transmitter of sound. Try placing a waterproof watch at one end of a swimming pool. Get there early in the morning, when no one else is around, and ask a friend to swim underwater to the far end of the pool and ask them what they can hear.

Both the heart of the foetus and that of the mother beat to a time cycle of three/four: dash dash, dum dum, dum dum, dum dum. Mother and baby are in syncopated rhythm. They have individual rhythms which meet to form a third. Sounds exterior to the womb may also be heard and absorbed. Many pregnant women will tell you that they are aware their babies react to external sounds.

So music and rhythm, or rhythm and music to be chronologically correct, are central to our lives. It is a physical and emotional link, both to something in us and beyond us, linking us to the music of the spheres. Music can move us to extremes of joy or sadness, elation or depression. Perhaps it is a piece we associate with some event in our life: when we first kissed, when we went to our first teenage party, when we first made love. This musical association is strong in all of us. Perhaps it is with Albinoni’s “Adagio”, Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto”, Ali Farka Toure, blues, a song sung by Ella Fitzgerald or John Lee Hooker, an Indian raga, hip hop or drum and bass. In all of types of music, we can be emotionally, and even physically, moved.

If you project sound waves at piles of sand, iron filings, water or mercury, you can create varied patterns, from spirals to grids. Given the sound conductivity of water and its high level in the human body, it is hardly surprising that our cells react to sound vibrations, even those at the far end of the spectrum which we are unable to hear. With this knowledge, holistic healers place vibrating forks close to the energy field of the human body and hospitals use high-pitched sound to shatter kidney and gall stones. Conversely, the negative side of the use of sound are experiments undertaken by the US military and other governments, utilizing sound waves as a weapon of war. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have shown us that music itself can be a weapon.

It has been argued that the vibrational energies of different notes affect different areas of the body. For instance, C major affects the bones, lower back, legs and feet. D major transmits energy waves to the kidneys and bladder, lymphatic and reproductive systems and skin and A major is related to pain and pain control.

Perhaps it is for this reason that in ancient Egypt, the hieroglyph for music was also that for well-being and joy. But what about music in negative, non-joyful situations, in war? When the lights go out, leaving hunger and the threat of death, you will still find music.

In 1993 and 1994, I was in cellars in Sarajevo and Mostar. Shells were exploding, the snipers were at work, but people, particularly young people, gathered together and, if they could not listen to music, as there was often no power, they played it. The louder the shelling, the louder their music. It was an expression of defiance, a testament to the survival of the one thing that kept them human in an inhuman situation—the primordial language of rhythm and music which connected them to their essence.

A young soldier in Mostar visited me after his time on the front line, a Kalashnikov on one shoulder and a guitar on the other. He tapped the guitar and told me, ‘A much better weapon’. . . . . .

Sunday 27 April 2014


Here is another excerpt from my forthcoming book, Left Field
- Michael Foot's visit to Mostar.

In the months leading up to the opening of the Pavarotti Music Centre in December 1997, we had numerous visits from local, and not so local, politicians. I remember stumbling across ex-Tory minister, Michael - Something of the Night - Howard in the reception area. He was being shown the nearly-completed building by an official from the EU Administration offices. I asked him what he was doing in Bosnia Hercegovina. I’m on a fact-finding mission,’ he said. Who are you meeting to do that? I asked. Politicians,’ he said. I answered, ‘Mr Howard, you should know better than anyone. You don’t go to them for facts.’ He did laugh.

In July I had watched Steve Biko’s ex-driver, the percussionist, Eugene Skeef, run workshops in the town. He had been invited to Mostar by Nigel Osborne and had recently worked with Edmund Mhlongo in Kwa Mashu on the Ngoma cultural education project. Remembering Mandela’s words to me that our music centre was a project needed in Africa, I realised that Eugene was a key to internationalising the PMC. I had also heard about the success of his djembe classes with children in the UK.

His first workshops were so successful I offered him the job of director of music development at the centre. He agreed to start work when the building opened. A few days before Eugene returned to London, we went to Dubrovnik. There we met two German doctors and they were interested to hear about our work in Mostar. Eugene had their eyes popping with his words about the importance of music and rhythm in our lives. One of the doctors said he spoke like a poet. He laughed and rewarded them with, “listen for the cadence of the sun in its journey that never ends. When night falls and the song fades, follow the rhythm of the moon when your voice disappears like a bird.” Those words got us a bed for the night. When we told them we were going to spend the night sleeping on the beach, they invited us to stay at their hotel, Villa Dubrovnik. Much to our surprise, there, at the bar was a politician I was delighted to meet; Michael Foot and his wife, Jill Craigie. They told us they stayed there every summer.

Sitting on the hotel balcony overlooking the old city walls, we discussed the war and the film he and Jill had made about it, Two Hours From London. I told them what a good documentary it was, but that it was a bit light on the Bosnian-Croatian war and that they should visit Mostar. Michael agreed to come with us the next day. Jill opted out because she didn’t like travelling along the serpentine roads.

Eugene and I showed Michael round Mostar’s old town. He was already eighty four and walked very slowly. It was impossible to use a car in Mostar’s narrow streets, but he was determined to see as much as he could. We ended our walk at the Centre where he sat down at last in the uncompleted courtyard. 'This is very impressive, David. I am sure you will be doing wonderful work in this building.'

That afternoon I drove him back to Dubrovnik and we spent the three hour drive discussing politics and poetry. I told him I’d enjoyed Paul Foot's Red Shelley, his nephew's book about the poet. Michael laughed and broke into, 'Rise like lions after slumber, In unvanquishable number, Shake your chains to earth like dew, That in sleep have fallen on you, Ye are many, they are few.'
After a pause he added, ‘But you know, Paul is wrong. Byron was the greater poet and greater revolutionary. Have you read "Darkness"?’
No, I haven’t.’
Stuck on Shelley, are you?' Another pause and then he recited, 'They slept on the abyss without a surge-- The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, The moon their mistress had expir'd before; The winds were withered in the stagnant air, And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need, Of aid from them--She was the Universe.' Michael smiled at me. ‘Byron goes further than Shelley. You must read him.’

When I got back to Mostar, Eugene and I went to a cafe close to the suspension bridge which had replaced the destroyed stone bridge. We watched in horror as a young man climbed over the rope hand-rail and hurled himself the twenty metres backwards into the Neretva. We rushed down to the river and Eugene and I managed to grab hold of his arms. We thought he should go to hospital, but he said he was okay and got up to walk away. I persuaded him to come to my flat which was close to the bridge.

He was soaking wet and Eugene gave him one of his T-shirts and a pair of his trousers. Over coffee he told us he'd come from Kiseljak in central Bosnia. He had never recovered from the loss of his mother, father and two sisters in the war. He had an aunt who had been living in Mostar and had come to look for her. She, too, had been killed. In despair, he had spent the last of his money on drink and then had decided to end his life. He had been disappointed to find the suspension bridge was four metres lower than the old bridge which had been twenty-four metres high at its apex. But he still thought he would die if he fell backwards into the water. While he was talking Eugene played soothing rhythms on his djembe. When he left us we felt guilty we hadn’t been more persistent in insisting he go to the hospital.

Two months later a package arrived at my London address. It was a collection of Byron’s poems with a dedication on the inside cover, “Byronic greetings from Michael Foot, with many thanks for a most instructive visit to Mostar, Sept 1997. Read especially Don Juan, right through non-stop, as I did again. See also Darkness. It has reflections of Mostar.” 

I don’t remember giving him my address so I assume he must have contacted the War Child office. All these years later Michael’s ‘Byron’ is on my shelf  and I dip into it a lot. I always start by reading the dedication. I don’t know what happened to the man who fell from the bridge and what he did with his darkness.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Pavarotti arrives in Mostar

Time for another excerpt from my forthcoming book,  Left Field.  Luciano Pavarotti arrives to open the music centre in Mostar.

Weeks earlier, children had decorated the art room with their hand prints. Hearing about this gave me the idea to have Pavarotti and the other celebrities place theirs under the tablet we had had made commemorating the opening. I'd arranged for two trays of green paint to be prepared for this. When Pavarotti’s head of security saw the children standing at the side with the trays, he told me that the last time this had happened was in an Italian school and the paint had ended up on Pavarotti’s clothes.
I ordered the paint ceremony to be cancelled but, to my horror, the two children were already stepping through the crowd just as Pavarotti, Bono and Brian Eno were unveiling the memorial. Pavarotti covered his hands with poster paint, followed by Bono and the others. Luckily no one’s clothes were splashed.
We had to get Pavarotti upstairs, through the crowd, for the press conference. I pushed my way through them to arrange for the lift to take him up. It was full. Its occupants included the Swiss Ambassador and a German army general. Unceremoniously, I ordered them out to let the Maestro enter.
Before the conference I'd made sure that there were spaces on the dais reserved for Pavarotti, Bono and a child. As I entered the hall, I saw there were not enough chairs. Tom Stoppard saw my face and vacated his and Bono picked up the child and sat him on his knee. I was now being told that the party had to leave for the Chinooks in five minutes. There was only time for Pavarotti to say, “My message is peace. You saw the horror of war—you see today the peace. The future now is in the hands of the children who will soon be grown up. Try to live in peace. That is the reason why we are here today.”
It was then a dash back to the lift, with just enough time to give Pavarotti and Bono a quick visit to the studio in the basement. ‘Ciao,’ Luciano called out as he was pushed into the street by an increasingly nervous military escort. He was gone. 
Some months later, I asked Pavarotti if he would submit his memories of the day to us and he wrote this:

“It is no exaggeration to say that visiting Mostar that day was truly one of the most beautiful moments of my life. For two years, we had been raising funds through concerts and albums to build the Music Centre and, to eventually see its completion and to witness some of the beautiful and talented children of Mostar performing for us was simply a joy. The children that day were so very patient. We were delayed on our journey by something beyond our control, the weather! Those children are an example to us all and a tribute to Mostar. If music is central to a person’s life, it can be something very special and life-affirming. The Music Centre was built for the children - I can only hope that making music helps in the healing process and that it will bring joy to the children of Mostar for many, many years to come."

You can view a video of Pavarotti's arrival at the centre here:

Friday 17 January 2014

Roger Lloyd-Pack: an appreciation

Best known for his role as Trigger in Only Fools and Horses, Roger Lloyd-Pack was such a distinguished actor he was never out of work with roles on stage and film as well as TV. From Kafka in Alan Bennet's Kafka's Dick to Osip in Chekhov's Wild Honey to Barty Crouch in Harry Potter

I first met Roger twenty years ago when he supported the work of War Child. In more recent years, he was an active supporter of the anti-war movement and when I helped organise fundraising events at the Stop the War Coalition, Roger said 'Yes' to all requests for help that came his way. When I called him, his only question was 'What would you like me to do?' For such a busy actor, this always amazed me. 

The last time I met him was when he used his acting talent to perform in The Trainer at the Hackney Empire, a play Anne Aylor and I wrote to raise money for the Gaza Music School which was destroyed in the Israeli attacks in 2009. 

Roger had been a supporter of the Labour Party, but last year was one of the signatories to a letter in the Guardian supporting Ken Loach and the formation of a new party of the Left—Left Unity. 

He leaves his mark on acting and political activism, but also in the teaching of philosophy. This clip from Only Fools and Horses is Trigger's attempt to explain 'The Ship of Theseus' paradox and is used in philosophy classes at universities. Now renamed 'Trigger's Broom' paradox.

He died on 15 January 2014, aged 69, from pancreatic cancer. Roger is a sad loss for us all.