Last night I dreamt I went to Queens’ again

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Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Penrith

Childhood dreams in which I was falling alarmed me enough to make me wake myself up. Then one night I deliberately didn’t, to see what would happen. It was exhilarating. I enjoyed the flight, for that’s what it turned out to be.

About nine months ago I began having dreams in which I was back at school, anxious, perplexed, and fearful about failing chemistry and physics. I was wandering around on my own, observing fellow pupils in groups. The dream version of Penrith Grammar School was pretty much as it was in the 1960s.

Other dreams were about Cambridge and medical school—King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, south London. In these, there was no topographical resemblance to the real thing, then or now. There was a post-apocalyptic air of dilapidation, oppression, grubbiness and decay. Buildings were crumbling, streets dirty, pavements littered with rubble. Corridors became labyrinths with unattainable goals. I was back for resit exams, usually biochemistry or physiology (odd, since the subject I actually failed was pharmacology). The really curious thing is that in these dreams I was always aware of thinking “hang on a minute, why do I have to be here? I qualified as a doctor in 1975 and I’ve been a Professor of Anatomy?”

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Queens’ College Cambridge

Last night I dreamt I went to Cambridge again, though it was nothing like the real thing. In a haze of perplexity and indecision, I’d not found my timetable, so I’d missed three days of lectures and practicals. I was already notorious as the only person out of about 250 students who hadn’t attended anything.

Someone told me that I should be at Gordon Wright’s neuroanatomy lecture in half an hour. Gordon, let me tell you, in real life taught us neuroanatomy with great wit and style; he subsequently gave me helpful criticism on my textbook Cranial Nerves, so it’s not surprising that he has an honoured place in my memory. But why, having written two anatomy texts—and I was aware of that in my anxiety—should I have to attend his lectures?

Then it came to me what this was about.

Starting again.

It’s obvious now. Retirement means starting again. There is apprehension. Rubble is cleared away. It feels like going into a labyrinth. I was slow to see it.

Aren’t dreams clever? It takes the conscious a fair old time to catch up with the unconscious.

I hope the dreams continue. Enlightenment may dawn.

Hugh would have been 42 today

Hugh2I find his birthday more affecting than the anniversary of his death—in three days’ time. I don’t know why, it just is.

Hardly a day goes by without him cropping up in my thoughts, but then that’s true for Gloria (Victoria) and Ed too. With Hugh, though, it’s not what he might be doing, or hoping that the cold is a bit better, or the marathon training is going well, or whatever, but rather an emptiness.

There was a time when the overwhelming malignancy of loss blotted out any possibility of hope or delight or joy. That is not so now. The loss is there, certainly, the waste of a good and heroic man, father, husband and son, but now mingled with memories of mischief, boldness, pugnacity and perseverance. A smile on the face and a tear on the cheek.

I suppose this is progress. It’s interesting to observe and note my feelings and, as it were, cuddle them. And I do. For months after the catastrophe, maybe even a year, the lament of King David at the death of his son was always with me: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!  And it still is, but periodically now, not constantly. Unpredictably, but temporarily.

HughAs I’ve written elsewhere, the death of a son affected this particular father in some interesting ways. I no longer waste my time on things I don’t have to or won’t enjoy. The exhaustion that came with the devastation—like being assaulted by the greatest imaginable physical force—has not quite dissipated, and indeed is prolonged by tiredness that comes with the culmination of 43 years of ministry to students and parishioners. But I am hopeful.

I’m still not sure what to do with the rest of life, and as I retire officially in five days’ time, the sense of uncertainty is heightened. It’s a modern disease of course, this quest for purpose. It’s not helped by a society that measures success according to rank, qualifications, wallet, and size—none of which matters when you’re in the coffin.

Familyl’m sick of doing. Maybe it’s time for a bit of being. SWMBO has tended me for forty six years, so now I shall do my best to tend her. I’m free of having to organise and administer and chivvy a bit, so I’ll be better able to think, to write, to spread lovingkindness with eye-twinkling mischief in all the ways I can to all the people I can. Doubtless along the way I’ll continue to provoke and irritate and exasperate.

Hugh had PhDs in those qualities.

Coping, or rather not coping

LUP03510Happy pills ran out two weeks ago. Sertraline. I thought I’d try and do without it: I’d halved the dose a few weeks earlier. Today it became painfully clear to me that I can’t. The emotional lability is something else – listening to a friend playing Fauré, I can hardly remain upright. Or the end of Guilmant’s first organ sonata where the big tune is like the sun coming out.

I wrote in a previous blog that music melts my shell, leaves me unprotected, removes me from time and place, and that I would do almost anything for a fix of more of the same, to stay in that place of delight. But the effect of music doesn’t account for the disabling emotional lability, the psychic turmoil, the near despair of this morning.

There’s plenty that could contribute to all this: brexit, the fuckedupness of this country, the frank corruption of its “leaders” and their cronies, the cruelty of the church—oh, the putrid church—and so much more. But none of it accounts for the feeling that life shouldn’t be like this.

I thought that it’ll be over soon when I retire, when people no longer want some of my energy. Then I’ll be able to cope. But today I realised that I need a helping hand now. What did it in the end was another friend, well familiar with psychosis, telling me that what I was describing, no matter how I rationalized it or what euphemisms I employed, was “mental” and was “illness”. That struck home.

Now the fun starts.

I ring the GP surgery. No appointment today. “Ring tomorrow”. No guarantee that I’ll get one tomorrow. This went on for some time. I was surprisingly calm. I did not lose my kool. Eventually I said “so what you’re really saying is that I’ll see a doctor sooner if I go and play tag with HGVs on the A38”. Silence. “No definitely not. Hang on a minute—I can give you an appointment at 4.50 pm today. Is that any good?”

So that’s what it takes.

It was Chesterfield I think where I started long term SSRIs. A decade of parochial ministry. What is it about parochial ministry that is so emotionally draining?

  • Feeling the energy drain from me as people touch the hem of my garment.
  • People dumping their problems on me, and my not knowing how to get rid of them, especially the horrendous ones involving young people.
  • People dumping their neuroses, anger and aggression on me even though it has nothing to do with me. “Get the violence off the streets and into the Church where it belongs” said Michael Bland, a notorious former incumbent of Buckland, Gloucestershire.
  • After ministering for 30 years to open-minded and intellectually supple young people, now to be dealing with those, no matter how lovely, in their autumnal years, lacking vision or intellectual curiosity.
  • Having legal responsibilities but neither authority nor funds to manage them.
  • The feeling that however much I do, it’s not enough. This comes from diocesan staff, the assumption being that church decline is my fault, personally, and my responsibility, personally, to reverse. Bollox. As I’ve said before Lichfield is by no means as bad as Derby was.
  • Observing that ministry to non-church goers is nearly always appreciated, while that to churchgoers is often, in their eyes, inadequate. One group no expectations, the other more than making up for it.

That’s enough for the moment.

Of course, there are joys and delights that I shall miss very much. But it’s a funny old job that requires one to take happy pills.

Susan

66833415_2243781695676332_5078101973371191296_nAt Susan’s party on 13 July 2019 (birthday 5 July), Stanley said something like this:

It’s good to see you all. Thank you for coming. We have people from Burton, Nottingham, Brassington, Wirksworth, Chesterfield, Northumberland, and Cumberland (I refuse to call it Cumbria), and of course from Dublin. It’s just lovely that the Dubliners are here; we wouldn’t have had this celebration without Victoria, Ed and Shane. There’s one person who should be here but isn’t. Hugh is with us constantly in one way or another, but how we wish he were here in person. His wonderful daughter Abby is with us from Texas—it’s great to have you—give her a round of applause, and. Susan planted a yellow rose (of Texas) named Hugh just behind me, but it flowered earlier.

Susan and I met at Penrith Grammar School in about 1966. She comes from Westmorland north Pennine farmers and Durham miners. She has many characteristics of the tribe: straightforward, guileless, totally honest, blunt, stoical, intensely loyal, and stubborn. She has borne more than her fair share of sadness. Her father died just after Hugh was born. Her younger brother died just after Ed was born. She was a determined and robust mother to three children, and a steadfast wife, with no extended family support whatsoever. And then she had to bear what no mother should have to bear—the death of a son. And still she bashes on.

I said she was intensely loyal. She is. Since we were married in 1973, we’ve lived in London, Nottingham first house, Nottingham second house, County Wicklow, Dublin city, Derby first house, Derby second house, Wirksworth, Chesterfield, Portlaoise, and now Burton, shortly to move to a retirement home in Burton. Our chattels have crossed the Irish Sea four times. That’s a lot of hassle. So when it came to settling on a place to retire to, I said that since she’d followed me around for so long, she should decide our final move. So we’re going across the road!

If you look around, you’ll see the fruits of her green fingers. If you go over the road and see the garden shortly to be home, you’ll see she’s already been hard at work. I’m delighted that she has such joy in horticulture, and it’s marvellous that she’s passed on that gift to Victoria and Ed.

That’s more than enough from me. Raise is your glasses to an extraordinary and great lady.

We’re all on a spectrum

1*K6J46bRKr_HC-1bCqlEKYAMy chest has not been right since February. Three weeks ago I could feel it getting toxic again: the smell and taste of incipient infection. Then breathing difficulties so bad one evening I almost went to casualty. Fortunately I found some prednisolone lying about.

I’ve written before about childhood asthma. My lungs didn’t mind the piles of ordure in the village, but they took grave exception to hay, corn, grass and pollen. And hens. There was a time when my father kept hens in a black barn up by the Chapel, but we soon found out that I wouldn’t be joining him in that venture. It was awful. Memories were rekindled when I put my head into the bell chamber at S Paul’s, home to lots of birds of the feathered variety, and spores and fungi and other things that exist only to spite me. No bats. They’re in the pews. It’s a fine ring of 10 bells up there; second best in Staffordshire after Lichfield Cathedral, they say. The Bass family spent a helluva lot of money on S Paul’s.

I’ve moaned before about the near impossibility of getting a GP appointment, so I got myself some prednisolone and antibiotics from … well, let’s just say elsewhere. The doxycycline seems to be working, but I stopped the prednisolone since corticosteroids are immunosuppressive and that’s the last thing I want. Eventually it dawned on me that I’ve probably developed COPD, not surprising given my childhood history—and all the milk I was made to drink. This weather doesn’t help either. My chest prefers it colder.

I’ve been exhausted for the last two weeks. Sleep a lot. The bad chest is doubtless a factor, but so is something else that I would never have predicted. Stuff that I used to be able to do like water off a duck’s back now causes major anxiety. I get panicky if there are more than two things out of the ordinary in a week. The Mayor’s Civic Service had me in a tizz. Of course, it went very well—the sign of something meticulously organised—but as soon as it was over I collapsed for three days. It was the last big thing before I retire, unless of course Philip or HMQ dies, or both. I just hope they struggle on till November at least.

What I’m observing is that I simply don’t want any more to be responsible for the wellbeing and experiences of others. As a teacher, pastor and mentor of students and now parishioners since 1976 I’m tired, drained, vampired. What little energy I have I need for myself.

I haven’t yet found a vision for the rest of life—it evaporated in an instant with the nuclear explosion of October 2015. At first this troubled me, but now I think it’s a good thing: I have no expectations. No expectations means openness to experience, living in the moment, or that’s the theory at any rate. But it would be good to be able to sparkle for myself like I do for others. The lot of the prophet / comedian / performer is lonely. I understand why comics kill themselves: they—we—see too clearly. I’ve never been tempted yet. For the last decade happy pills have kept me from becoming too paranoid, and recently I’ve noted a suspicion of hypomania from time to time. I don’t mind that—it can be quite fun actually—so long as I don’t do anything silly like spend money on stuff I don’t need and then feel bad about afterwards.

We’re all on a spectrum. Some of us are on several. Life is interesting.

Stand well back

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Eruption alert!

Retirement date set. This had to be done for I was wasting energy prevaricating. But now I want it to be yesterday. I’ve given myself permission to feel that I’ve had enough. I’ve stopped pretending.

And that’s the problem.

Everything that frustrates and dismays and angers me about parochial ministry in the Church of England—things that I’d kept down in order to do the job—now rises to the surface like methane bubbling from the seabed ready to bring conflagration and catastrophe. How can I direct this energy so that calamitous eruptions will not harm me or those around me? Though some parishioners are uninhibited in telling me what they think of me and what I ought to do, I can’t tell parishioners what I think of them. Well I can, but the fallout would be cosmic.

It’s inevitable that a shrinking and insecure organisation should turn inwards, wagons circling. It feels like what I imagine the last days of the Soviet Union must have felt like. The Politburo gathers on Lenin’s tomb, swaggering in their be-medalled uniforms and über-pompous titles, patting each other on the back in faux bonhomie and watching the parade of institutional paraphernalia. Onlookers, numbers dwindling year by year, are dejected, depressed and increasingly elderly. Party big knobs visit hoi polloi, smell fresh paint, and go from one venue to the next along routes lined by empty facades—Potemkin displays. Meanwhile the great unwashed turn their backs on all this flummery and get on with their lives as best they can.

The Church of England has stopped listening and talking to ordinary people. It now talks only to cult members with words that are unintelligible except to the initiated. It’s self-referential newspeak. Decision makers seem to have the attitudes of the 1950s—OK perhaps an exaggeration, the 1970s then—so people, even their own groupies, ignore them. For someone like me who has put a bit of energy into a civic role, despite not being naturally gifted with hail-fellow-well-met attributes, this is disappointing at best and despairing at worst. And as for the institution’s attitudes to sexuality, I am ashamed to be part of it. Reports of how the institutional church has treated those abused in any way by its minions lead me to wonder if there is deep-seated evil sustaining its protect-the-organisation-at all-costs mentality. The last days of the Soviet Union again.

At a recent church meeting we considered briefly some reasons why men so often find church unappealing. (Yes, I’ve read David Murrow’s Why men hate going to church.) We looked at the choice between making a commitment to a football club and a church. Both provide a sense of community. Both provide ritual. Both provide colour and chanting (words might be different, but I’ve always liked profanity—it’s so euphonic). Both have priests and acolytes. Both provide physical expressions of “worship”. Sport is good for the body, church with its emphasis on chocolate and all things farinaceous, is most definitely not: no wonder so many church people are overweight. But only the church provides finger-wagging moralising that, coming from an organisation so rich in hypocrisy and pretence, is hard to stomach.

Then there’s the sense of competition: winner and loser. Scripture, about which more later, can easily be interpreted as encouraging repression and condemning competition. Now look, girls and boys, we are animals. We are driven to a large extent by testosterone, women too. Competitiveness is hard-wired in. It is not to be suppressed—very dangerous—but channelled. Sport does this. Church does not. People are not stupid—they might not be able to articulate this, but they intuitively know it and make their own choices. (Having written this I admit there’s plenty aggression in the church, much of it passive: don’t sit in my seat, don’t interfere with the flower arrangements, don’t change the hymns, don’t use the crockery in this cupboard unless you’re a member of the Mothers’ Union.)

Of course I think the Christian Gospel—the teaching and example of Jesus—is entirely worth promoting. Its psychological authenticity is unquestionable. That’s one thing that has kept me in the job. That’s why I think everybody could benefit from hearing it. And that’s why to be part of an institution that continually shoots itself in the foot is so frustrating. The other thing that is profoundly authentic about religious experience is liturgy which to my mind is not about worshipping God, but celebrating humanity.

Some clergy complain about the burden of administration. Without doubt it’s worse than it was ten years ago, but it doesn’t even begin to compare with that of a job in the real world. These clerics should just get on with it and shut up. Anyway, as I’ve said before, the wastepaper basket is the handiest accessory in my study. So no, girls and boys, it’s not the volume of administration that is so dispiriting, it’s the futility. It doesn’t lead to change for the better. It doesn’t lead to performance being rewarded in any tangible sense.

Two examples suffice.

  • Attendance statistics. How many people have joined/left your worshipping community this year? What’s a worshipping community? This is impossible to answer in an inner urban setting with a constant flow of casual visitors, churchyard sleepers, temporary workers, Eastern Europeans who think S Paul’s is RC. How many people aged 60-70? over 70? As if I or anybody else is going asking old women their age.
  • Mission action plans. Oh God. What do you intend to do over the next year? five years? How will you do it? Who will be in charge? It’s like being back in infants, answering questions set by people less imaginative than you. Sometimes they ask what resources you need—as if they will be provided. Ha bloody ha! I could go on but I’ll stop for the sake of my blood pressure. Every worthwhile development in almost 13 years of my parochial ministry has been serendipitous. Not one could have been planned for.

I suppose these things keep people employed in diocesan offices, checking up. Lichfield diocese is on the whole reasonable (Derby was grim), but it feels as if one is living in a totalitarian regime keeping apparatchiks happy in the land of make-believe. Soviet Union again.

As I said, the psychological authenticity of the gospel is peerless. The way in which it inspires individuals to bring life abundant—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless—is priceless. The church has been a wonderful patron of the arts for almost 2000 years, thereby giving people a vision of the divine. But the more the institutional Church of England promotes this cultic control-freakery, the sooner it deserves to die.

The solution to many problems in medicine is masterly inactivity. There is a lesson in that.

Things creeping innumerable

virus.jpgAn asthmatic child living in a farming village. Even thinking about being close to hay bales makes my lungs feel prickly. I never minded cow dung or sheep dottles, but grass and hay and corn were not my friends. Neither as it turned out was that poisonous substance cows’ milk, but that story can wait.

I learnt very young that the bedroom window should be left open, and I spent many happy hours in the dead of night with my arms pressing down on the windowsill to engage the accessory muscles of respiration so as to get a bit more air in.

A particularly unpleasant episode occurred when I was about 14 and had five weeks off school with what was diagnosed as pneumonia and pleurisy. When I returned to classes, I was told with some glee that they’d heard that they’d never see me again. Ha!

I don’t think I ever really recovered from missing so much work. I remember particularly the fourth form chemistry exam where some of the questions were complete gobbledegook, the material, I maintain, having been dealt with when I was ill. There was a good deal of whispering going on between me and a neighbour who, doubtless at risk to his immortal soul, helped me. Never let it be said that I don’t know to cheat.

I’m reminded of all this since for the last four weeks I’ve been out of action with a respiratory infection. It started on the throat, then the larynx, then the trachea making me feel as if a wire brush were plunging to and fro inside it. To the lungs next with painful cough, phlegm (grey, no blood, since you ask) and then back up again. I was reluctant to take antibiotics for what is almost certainly viral, but I wanted some prednisolone to reduce the inflammation.

Could I get a GP appointment? Reader, I could not.

I tried to get the steroids online, illegally. Couldn’t even see how to do that without going into bitcoin or the dark web, neither of which I’m ready for yet. If there’s anyone out there that can help me stash steroids for the future, please contact me privately. Seriously – I mean it. After three weeks I went to A&E and got some prednisolone. It’s finished now, but I don’t think the job is done properly.

I was musing on all things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts, some of which—bacteria and viruses—are bothering me at the moment. Why don’t they go and find somewhere else to reproduce? Why does it have to be in my respiratory tract?

The urge to reproduce is clearly overwhelming in these little bastards. Is the urge to reproduce overwhelming in humans? I think it is, only we sublimate it into other things—a future blog.

As a clerk in holy orders I’m supposed to believe in things like free will, and choice, and discernment guided by the “holy spirit”. I don’t think I do. As creatures of this earth it seems to me that we are at the mercy of circulating chemicals, most of which are produced by the body itself—sex hormones, other hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and many more. Some of them are produced by organisms that live with us such as bacteria on the skin and in the gut.

Some of the chemicals that influence us are voluntarily injected, absorbed, eaten, drunk or smoked. And don’t think just because you’re not injecting yourself that you are drug free. You’re not. Food is a drug. Coffee is a drug. Cheese is a drug. Water is a drug according to our Cambridge pharmacology lecturer. Nobody, nobody, is drug-free. If there were such a thing as free will then it’s not “free”.

We’re at the mercy of all these circulating chemicals. So relax.

Anyhoo, I digress. Back to the plot. These bacteria and viruses are clever little things. They perceive a weakness in my immune system and before I can say immunodeficient, wham! the little buggers are in there reproducing with gay abandon causing havoc and generally making me feel shite.

I’ve noted over the years that I tend to succumb to infections not when I’m stressed, but when I’m recovering from stress. Like the moment I leave on holiday. Or in this case, since I find November and December stressful, the moment January comes along. It was ever thus. Do you think I learn from my observations? I do not.

Do you think if I prayed hard enough the microorganisms would spare me a little, that I may recover my strength? Might they go hence, and be no more seen in me? Might they find someone else to infect?

No, I suppose not. But it’s becoming clear what I need to do.