Thursday 30 December 2010

With a little charm...

After a few weeks bare of wrist, I’ve started wearing my charm bracelet again over the last few days. It’s been relegated to my jewellery pot a fair bit of late, not thanks to me falling out of love with it – perish the thought – but rather, to be completely honest, down to my not wanting it to skew my weekly weigh-ins, so heavily populated is it with, well, charm. But, given that I don’t need a set of bathroom scales to confirm that I’ve gained an ‘extra layer’ during my Christmas diet-break, and given that I’m heading away tomorrow for 10 days in Malaysia: Land Of The Lost Weigh-In, I’ve taken my chance to wear my heaviest – and favouritest – piece of jewellery once more.

Now I’ve always been a sentimental old sod (even when I was a sentimental young sod), but at this time of year – with open house declared on misty-eyed reflection – I tend to turn soppier than a soft-focus basket of puppies on their way to a Richard Curtis film set. And, in many ways, my charm bracelet reflects said sentimentality.

There’s the heart-shaped charm that was already on my bracelet when it was given to me on my hen night as a present from my girlfriends. There’s the silver disc and the L and the oyster that were the leaving present from my colleagues on a magazine I edited. There’s the letter P and the ring that P gave me for our first wedding anniversary. There’s the starfish that, in lieu of being able to find an actual star, Mum bought while I was in hospital having my first mastectomy (a story that makes me love that charm even more). There’s the cat and the Routemaster bus that I received on my 30th birthday from the Tills/Si/Polly/Martin collective and my folks respectively. There’s the peep-toe stiletto and cupcake that were given to me by the same family and friends at my book launch. There’s the sleep mask that Jamie and Leanne chose while I was in surgery this September. And, as of recently, there’s the iPod headphone from my mate Weeza and the letter S from, erm, my cat that are ready to take their place on the chain.

But it’s not just my charm bracelet that signifies important things in my life. Whenever something noteworthy happens – be it a significant moment, achievement or event – I like to do (or buy, or write, or drink) something to mark it. (Told you I was a sentimental old sod.) It’s the reason I got my tattoo after completing my cancer treatment; the reason I let off fireworks on the eve of my final chemo, and the reason I saved up for a pair of Christian Louboutins after turning The Bullshit into a book. (A book which, in light of the new year, I suspect it’s now time to stop banging on about.)

While getting reacquainted with my charm bracelet this week, though, I caught sight of another such ‘moment marker’: the eternity ring that P bought me on our way to Mexico this year. It was all a bit of a surprise, really, what with us being in Terminal 5 at the time and me being stunned into uncharacteristic silence when he led me into Tiffany to ‘just have a look’, then proceeded to show off his sneakily pre-researched diamond knowledge to the guy behind the counter (AKA ‘Tony Soprano-ing it’).

‘It’s a look-how-far-we’ve-come ring,’ said P, in deference to a year in which we’d already gone from assuming the worst was over to facing another round of Bullshit-dictated surgery. ‘It’s a screw-you-2010-we’re-going-to-come-out-on-top ring.’ (Is there a collective noun for sentimental old sods? A wailing, perhaps? A tumult? A pander? A cry?) And, by ’eck, it didn’t half cheer me up (diamonds may not be a girl's best friend, but they sure as half know how to make a lass smile). But then, of course, I went and broke my back on the first day of our holiday and rather ruined the sentiment.

Thus, my beautiful ring came to signify not a year in which we were going to stick our flag and conquer as our own, but a lovely moment that we were never really able to celebrate. Which, in true poetically sentimental fashion, is a more accurate a description of the past twelve months than I’d ever be able to conjure up myself. 

It’s the new year filled with hopeful promise for my family, unceremoniously gazumped by my auntie’s diagnosis (who is now on the other side of treatment and recovering well). It’s the delighted joy of publishing my first book, stepped on by the muddy boot of mine and Mum’s BRCA discovery (all of which is now in hand). It’s the excitement of our getting-over-cancer holiday, broken at the same time as my vertebrae (ditto). It’s the thrill of watching Jamie and Leanne move into their new home, only for redundancy to take up residence soon afterwards (an unwanted house-guest now booted out thanks to J being offered a wonderful job on Christmas Eve). It’s the vow of keeping out of hospital, thwarted by the surgery to keep me cancer-free (and cancer-free I am). And it’s the relief of discovering Mum’s clear scans, only to watch as she prepares for more preventative surgery anyway (preventative surgery which will, from my experience, not just keep her scans clear, but her mind too).

And so, if you’ll excuse the customary misty-eyed reflection, 2010 has been rather like a mug of hot chocolate that’s cooled to a lukewarm, skin-on-the-surface temperature that you drink anyway because it’s stuffed with mini marshmallows. But since my eternity ring is infinitely prettier than that picture, I’m declaring that my ‘charm’ for 2010 instead; my little glimmer of loveliness from an often frustrating time. Or, as I’m preferring to think of it, the mark of another manure-marred year in which, yet again, we’ve somehow emerged smelling of roses.

Happy 2011, reader.

Thursday 23 December 2010

Christmas crackers: #2.

On the second day of Christmas, your true love gave to you... a post from Jonze’s point of view. Yep, as promised yesterday (and if you weren’t here yesterday, I suggest you read this first), here’s the final part to a lil festive gift in the form of a pair of guest posts from some supremely talented dudes I’m lucky to call mates. Again, do make Ward and Jonze welcome – leave them comments, tell them jokes, inflate their egos, wish them a Merry Christmas... but don’t get too carried away, right? You’ll have me back next week – and, frankly, this is an act I’m not looking forward to following...

Surviving Christmas 2010.

Christmas sucks.
No, wait, hear me out...

See the thing is, when Lisa first asked me to post here on, I leapt at the chance (after discretely pointing out that it was akin to lending her Porsche keys to the town drunk). And then I started thinking about the subject line: Christmas in 2010. Oh crap.

The irony of Christmas these days, now that we're all grown up and paying more attention to credit limits than making sure the chimney is clear on Christmas Eve, is that for the season of goodwill, it has a nasty tendency to bring out the worst in us. We stress, we overspend, we drink too much, we eat too much. We get emotional, we get mercenary, pushy and pissed off. 

It all starts some time in August, when that first overhasty Christmas ad appears on TV. Then we know that just around the corner will be the arguments in the office about who is organising the works do, the awkward dance of sorting out cards and that concluding nerve-shattering moment where we hear "Stop the Cavalry" blaring through the department store PA system and know that the season is unavoidable. Christmas has its fair share of dread even before the Coca-Cola ads start.

And worse still, even the exercise of finding a deeper meaning has its perils. Go on, say the words "The True Meaning of Christmas" out loud. Can you taste the saccharine? No? How about "Festive Cheer"? Or "The Season of Goodwill"? Year after year of having it marketed to us again and again have reduced it all to cliche, a giant sugary bauble of Grinches and Scrooges, of rosacea-plagued reindeer and flying snowmen with choirboys in tow.

For some, the real key to the season is remembering it as a holy time, as about Jesus or Hannukah or whether their faith takes them, which is fine, but that's not everyone. And for those of us leaning more towards Dawkins than the divine, the reminder that we don't get is just another festive irritation to go with the faux tabloid fury at some council putting "Season's Greetings" on a banner. (Eric Pickles, haven't you got more important things to be getting on with?

So here's a suggestion for us all. Why don't we just stop? 

How about, for a few days, all of us agree to just take a breather, to make this season about celebrating the fact that we've all made it to the darkest, crappiest time of the year relatively intact, and just surround ourselves with the people we care about and enjoy life for a bit?

Because, give or take a few days, Christmas is the point in the year when the winter starts to recede, where we've all got a moment given to us to shut down, wait for 30 seconds and restart. And it's the point where we've all got proper, socially sanctioned time to be ourselves, to celebrate our friends and our families, to eat like kings and drink like freshers at an open bar. So forget about shopping stress, stop moaning about how much you hate sprouts (I don't, for the record), forget about the empty Disneyfied Christmas we've been force-fed year on year, and instead just turn down the bullshit for a couple of days.

Smile. We made it. 

And best of all, we've got six months ahead of us where the sun is going to shine a little bit brighter every day. And you'd best enjoy them because those rudely premature Argos ads for Christmas 2011 are coming up fast too.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Christmas crackers: #1.

‘You still see Ward and Jonze?’ asks my old man occasionally.
‘Well, we live 100 miles apart so it’s e-see more than see,’ I answer. ‘But yeah. We’re always in touch.’
‘They crack me up, them two,’ he says. ‘The lot of you are bloody funny together.’
‘Ah,’ I say. ‘You don’t see the half of it.’
And then Dad always recommends the same thing: ‘You know what?’ he says. ‘You three should have a TV show.’

I suspect it’s instances in which photos like this are taken that prompt my old man to suggest such things for my mates and I. That, and an inexplicably daft in-language painstakingly crafted over 12 years of bad-taste jokes, shit-talk, relentless put-downs and magnificently made-up expletives. Kind of like Simlish, but with more fart jokes.

The TV-series suggestion is, of course, made through Dad-tinted glasses (besides, it’d never happen – no channel in its right mind would commission that much toilet humour… except maybe Five). But, from the moment The WardJonzeMac Entity was born on our university’s student mag (work has never been as much fun as it was back then), the instances on which the three of us have got together – whether in person or virtually – have, I think, had something of a ‘showlike’ quality about them. Though not, I hasten to add, in a jazz-hands way. Oh no. Glee boys these are not.

In fact, if there’s an opposite of Glee, Ward and Jonze own it. As anyone who’s smart enough to follow them on Twitter will know, they’re an endlessly entertaining pair of cynical, angry, sweary, flatulent, cantankerous, offensive, profanity-laden gits. But, by ’eck, a lovelier pair endlessly entertaining, cynical, angry, sweary, flatulent, cantankerous, offensive, profanity-laden gits you could never hope to meet.

They’ll have me in Chinese-burn-administering headlocks for telling you this, but despite cynical, angry, sweary etc appearances, there’s an undeniable sweetness to Ward and Jonze. Hell, I’m beyond being coy – they’re the friends you always wished you’d have. They’re the light relief in darker times. They’re the mates who never miss a big occasion. They send ludicrously shaped packages in the Christmas post (watch this space for the big reveal) and travel hundreds of miles to have you drunkenly sign a book. They’ll shower you with insults so hilarious that it’s utterly impossible to develop a complex, then build you up with such incredible, mind-bending encouragement that you actually believe you can rule the world (which, by the way, the three of us very much plan to do). They’re the only people I’d want to co-write a book or launch a magazine with. (And I WILL.) They’re the mates your parents should warn you off hanging out with, but actively encourage it instead. They’re the two big brothers who work overtime to ensure that your first word is ‘twat’. They’re the Kenny and Cartman to my Wendy Testaburger; the Harry and Ron to my Hermione; the Snap and Crackle to my Pop; the Peter and Paul to my Mary. And, for one week only (unless this goes as well as I suspect it will, in which case expect them to take ownership of Alright Tit very soon), they’re yours for the taking.

And so, in lieu of the norovirus-infected me being able to come up with a suitably inventive festive post, I’m using said illness as an excuse to give you the best Christmas present I can think to offer: this blog’s first-ever guest posts, from two of my all-time favourite people. First are Ward’s words because, well, he wrote his first. And tomorrow you can look forward to Jonze’s journal, so keep a close eye on this URL (or your email, if you’ve been smart enough to subscribe). Be good to them, eh? Make them welcome, leave them comments, tell ’em a good fart joke if you fancy. Season of goodwill and all that.

Thus all that’s left for me to do is wish you all the very best of the season and introduce you to part one of the spirit of Christmas, WardJonze style...

I Wish It Could Be Christmas... Every Day

There is not a day that goes by whereby I do not imagine beating Roy Wood to death with his own shoes.

There: I have said it. Such thoughts cross my mind from time to time. I am an angry, angry man, often drunk and lacking trousers. But nowadays my imaginary Wizzardicide is almost constant.

I am of course referring to the stalking horse of all sweating, palpating shoppers at this time of year – Christmas music. Even at the best of times, dodging the hordes of shambling undead in Marks and Spencer is enough to boil the blood of more limber, time-constrained shoppers such as myself. But this isn’t the best of times, is it? No, it’s bloody Christmas. Thus the God of Shops ordains that I must also contend with a never-ending rotation of holly-jolly inanity; sleigh bells, choirs singing... and Roy Wood wishing that it could be Christmas EVERY FUCKING DAY.

If I were made Grand Ruler (and if my plans come to fruition, I soon will be), to ease traversing this assault course of postmenopausal spouses clutching greeting card multi-packs, and rack upon rack upon rack of slippers, Christmas muzak would be banned outright.

Thus unshackled, shoppers would be free to listen to their iPods in peace. Personally I would select the Rocky soundtrack, the Theme from Shaft, or my personal favourite, Hitler’s speeches at the Nuremberg Rallies. And not a single choirboy or jingly bloody bell within earshot.

“Bah, what a humbug you are,” people say to me, often whilst gripping me by the shoulders and shaking violently. “What’s wrong with Christmas?”

Let me be clear: I DO NOT HATE CHRISTMAS. After all, what’s not to like? A day of family, food and fun? (Okay, the drinking is good. And I get days off to do it in, rather than nipping gin under my office desk, as per the norm.)

But like Pavlov’s dog, I merely react to external stimuli. It is not Roy Wood I hate, not his bearded face, nor his glassy eyes as he fingers his organ whilst surrounded by a throng of small children in THAT video. In reality I am sure he is lovely. Really LOVELY.

No, I hate Roy Wood because his song has come to signify “Christmas Creep”, whereby every shop wheels out the tinsel and the bloody Christmas music ever further in advance of December 25th. Under this barrage, by the time Christmas Day arrives I am so wearied by the enforced bonhomie, the only present I actually want is 24 hours in a dark, quiet room. Be thankful for Halloween, I say, otherwise in the world of retail, Christmas would begin immediately after Easter.

Still, there are always the January sales to look forward to, eh? And that’s the nub of it. Not to get all Michael Moore on your ass (what a thought), but this nightmare is of our own creation. The time is nigh that we the people take Christmas back for ourselves. No more wishing it would be Christmas every day... for multinational corporations milking us of every penny, at least. And maybe on the 25th of December we can say “Jesus Christ” – without adding the word “fucking” in the middle.

Until that day comes, or until I become Beloved Leader of the Huddled Masses, a vision of Roy Wood pushed into an imaginary wheat thresher will forever dance before my eyes. Or of Noddy Holder, his head cleaved from his shoulders by a blunt snow shovel. Or of Cliff Richard kicked up the arse so he falls down a lofty flight of stairs. [stares into distance]

Monday 13 December 2010

Dinner for schmucks.

‘I’ve come off Twitter today,’ I declared to P when picking him up from work one night last week.
‘Blimey,’ he said, as surprised by my words as if I’d told him I was shaving my head and running off to join the circus. ‘What, like, closed your account and come off for good?’
‘Well, no,’ I admitted. ‘But I’m purposely not tweeting all day.’
‘Oh. Okay. Why?’
‘It’s pissed me right off,’ I said. ‘Sometimes it’s just too self-absorbed for its own good.’

Spending 24 hours away from Twitter might not seem like a big deal. But, in my continual monologue of an online world, this was a Big Deal. See, I’m a little bit addicted to Twitter (if by ‘little bit’ you mean ‘has been known to tweet her husband asking him to put the kettle on’). I know it’s not for everyone, but I’m adoringly fanatical about it. And, if you’ll excuse the exaggerated evangelism, its mere existence has given me a chance I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for; a chance to say what I think – or what I’m thinking – without having to open my mouth and potentially embarrass myself.

Allow me to explain. It’s taken me years to realise it – largely because I’ve never exactly seen myself as quiet (heck, the only reason I ever got told off at school was for talking) – but I’m actually the kind of lass who tends to sit back in pub-table debates or dinner-party discussions, certain that I have nothing of value to bring to the table (unless, of course, it’s about Coronation Street or punctuation or the Top 40), only to trundle off home with a head full of all things I wish I’d said, replaying alternative realities in which I was an informed, engaging conversationalist. And so, for me, this wonderful world of having a voice online – a voice that allows me to think before I speak – has been quite the revelation; the dinner-party equivalent of a delicious dessert that prompts everyone to degenerate into non-intimidating, inclusive conversation about whether Alan Sugar or Simon Cowell wears the highest Cuban heels. Add to that the fact that Twitter has enormously benefited me both professionally (I’m acutely aware that, without it, the blog-book-film stuff would never have happened) and personally (I’m also aware that, without it, I wouldn’t have met a lovely handful of people I now call friends) and – even if you’re in the Twitter-hate camp – you’ll probably appreciate why I get so much out of it.

But, as is always the case, there’s a down side to everything. (I mean, heck, I get a lot out of football and hair removal and Weight Watchers, too, and none of those are without their disadvantages.) So occasionally, amidst all the brilliance I see in Twitter, comes a reminder that – much like the mirror of society at large – it can be a bit of a shitty place to find yourself. And, as the kind of incurably optimistic fool who overwhelmingly sees the good in things, that means that I tend to thud back down to earth from a much greater height whenever I glimpse the bad. Hence last week’s mini-strop, a spree of unfollowing and a 24-hour hiatus. So what was it that caused said thud? A combination of things, really. See, a number of gripes have been eating away at my fondness for Twitter recently and, much like swearing off your team after an embarrassment of a 6-0 drubbing, I’ve found myself hating it as much as I love it.

It’s the ego thing, mostly. You might be of the opinion that being on Twitter in the first place is a sure sign of an inflated ego. And you might well be right. After all, you sign up on the basis that you think whatever it is you have to say will be of interest to other people. But it’s the follower-count-as-ego problem that’s really got my goat by the goolies.

It would be hypocritical of me to tell you that I didn’t let out a giant, delighted squee when Stephen Fry doubled my count in a single tweet, or that I don’t keep a sly eye on the number of people who follow my feed. Of course I keep an eye on my follower count. We all keep an eye on our follower count, just as we keep an eye on our number of Facebook friends or birthday texts or compliments after a drastic haircut. Anyone who says they have absolutely no idea of their follower count is to be trusted about as much as Pete Doherty in front of a crack-pipe vending machine. Those who are to be trusted even less, however, are those who think a substantial follower count makes them a celebrity.

The reason I follow my follower count isn’t to make myself feel better about the number of people daft enough to be interested in what I’m tweeting, or to chest pump my way to a bigger ego – but rather because I’m continually paranoid that whatever I am tweeting will make said followers run away in droves with a horrible impression of me. (Surely the term ‘followers’ is half the problem? Jesus had followers; tweeters just have curtain-twitchers.) Because while plenty of people out there view several thousand Twitter followers as a fanbase, I can’t help but think that it’d be a bit of a burden, constantly leaning on you to bring continuous nuggets of intelligent witticisms to the dinner-party table – a stage-fright-inducing pressure that would have me slinking into the kitchen to make a dent in the Shiraz while pretending to wash up.

Social media has, in many ways, reinvented fame. From the kid who gained 3,000 followers after an online buddy-up with Kanye West, to the woman who found herself with an interested party of 6,000 and an offer of a flight to Australia by claiming the username @theashes, the media is quick to pick up on the social-media famous (or ‘twelebrities’, as I’ve wanted to gouge out my eyes after seeing it referred). And so, I suppose, it’s that kind of story that has convinced many a wealthy-of-follower (not, I hasten to add, the tweeters mentioned) that they are now Twitter’s Big Hitters, with a divine right to automatic retweets from hundreds of adoring admirers at the slightest micro-blogging-belch.

Often, the users who rile me most are those who I previously respected, whose opinions or jokes or words are now, thanks to the popularity of Twitter, being seen by more people than ever before, and whose egos (I’d call them ‘twegos’ if I were the kind of stick-a-tw-on-the-front-of-anything-to-make-it-Twitter-relevant twtwat) are swelling in tandem with their follower counts, often making them think they’re more famous than they indeed are. Hence I’ve lately found myself gleefully unfollowing those people who, I thought, were becoming corrosively patronising to their followers, or who were interpreting Twitter’s ‘what’s happening?’ question as an invitation to spew forth the never-ending, narrow-minded – and often disrespectful of their audience – gospel according to whoever.

I’m not naming any names here – because if you’re on Twitter, you know the kind of thing I’m talking about anyway – but I think it’s that trend for narrow-mindedness that is most responsible for bursting my Twitter bubble of late. Because, from what I’ve picked up from certain sections of my now-unfollowed timeline, the linking of follower-count with ego appears to be going hand in hand with an increasingly nasty – some might say bullying – discourse. Now, we all know that certain sections of the – oh, I can’t believe I’m going to type this – Twitterverse (*gives self Chinese burn*) are there for no reason other than to cause trouble and say unnecessarily hurtful things to well-known, Twitter-accessible people they don’t know the first thing about; and we all admonish those idiots for trying to ruin everybody else’s fun. So why, therefore, am I seeing more and more of their vitriol filtering through to non-idiots, whose criticism of prominent people – people both on and off Twitter – is drifting into the dangerous ground of harm-wishing, personally-wounding, ‘fuck off and die’ territory?

Politicians get the brunt of it, of course – these are delicate times politically, with many people’s tethers quite rightfully nearing an end – and while I’ll preface this by saying that I’m no more a Tory than I am a Forest fan (just as I’m no more a Labour supporter than I am a lamp-post, and no more a Lib-Dem as I am a pigeon), it does seem that, in the New Twitter Rulebook of Getting Followers Fast, tip number one is to threaten violence of an MP. (Tips two and three being to call Robbie Savage a twat and hurl 140-character stones at London Underground.)

I’m not saying it’s wrong to criticise the government (or London Underground or Robbie Savage, for that matter – God knows I had a few choice words to say about him before he became a Ram) – because, heck, it’s not like any of us are short of a reason to give most political parties a virtual shoeing right now. What I’m saying, though, is that there are smarter, more effective, less-arseholey ways to do it; ways that don’t make it obvious that – rather than being genuinely riled for genuine reasons – you’re merely using the target of your angerballs as a method to gain followers.

But, of course, that opinion is skewed by the way I use Twitter. And everybody uses Twitter in different ways. I suppose I’ve taken the name literally, and use it to indulge in mostly daft twitterings of background-noise-style conversation. I use it to banter with my mates. I use it to promote this blog. I use it to add an extra dimension to event-TV. I use it to ask questions. I use it to keep up with the news. I use it to give me ideas for work. I use it to converse with a manageable, personal timeline of people with similar interests or mindsets; people who write well, people who make me smile, people whose careers I admire, people whose music I like, people whose sports I follow, people I know in real life, people I find funny, people tweeting on behalf of organisations or charities or magazines or newspapers or websites I’m interested in… but all, in short, people with a common way of using the site.

I maintain that Twitter is able to bring out the best in people. After my cancer diagnosis, for example, it gave me a much-appreciated lifeline when I was suddenly forced to exist in a virtual world, introducing me to people who, for no reason other than wanting to be kind, gave me well-wishes and funny diversions and words of encouragement. It made me wonder whether, perhaps, we’re nicer online than we are in real life (if only eBay’s polite, grateful, A+++ manner were the way that all shopping transactions were conducted, eh?); the ability to think before we tweet granting us with a self-check of reflection; a window of a few seconds in which to consider how it is we want to come across.

I don’t doubt that there are many who’d disagree with my interpretation of Twitter, suggesting that, rather than simply offering light relief, it is instead the perfect platform for raw, uncensored, incautious critique, having given the public a voice that can’t be ignored. And to that I say each to their own. My caveat, though, is that if Twitter has indeed given us a loud-speaker of a voice that we’ve never previously had, then let’s not use it to portray ourselves as a bunch of malicious, egotistical futnuckers. Because, after all, nobody likes the dickhead at the dinner party who gets drunk on the sound of their own voice and ruins dessert.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Mind the gap.

The older I’ve got, the more I’ve realised – and become immensely proud of – how clever my mates are. I’ve got mates on national newspapers and magazines, mates in important marketing and PR roles, mates in medicine, mates in the city, mates running their own businesses, mates running other people’s businesses… put it this way, if I were going on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, I wouldn’t be short of a reliable phone-a-friend. (Speaking of which, I’ve even got a mate who’s been on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Twice.)

Perhaps the cleverest of all my mates, though, is Si: a mate so clever I’ve never really understood what it was he did. I’ve always known that it was something in the smartarse category but, frankly, I was never clever enough to realise how clever his clever job was. (I’m having one of those isn’t-clever-a-funny-word moments, where you stare at a simple phrase for an eternity, convincing yourself that ‘shoe’ or ‘get’ or ‘is’ can’t possibly be spelled that way. Good job I’ve got clever friends, eh?) You see, Si – sorry, Dr Si – is a medical anthropologist. And not just any medical anthropologist (because, of course, medical anthropologists are ten-a-penny), but a senior lecturer at Cambridge, too.

Si’s not always clever though, as he demonstrated last week when he made the definitely-not-clever move of asking me to speak in one of his lectures. But before you assume I was some kind of fancypants guest-lecturer (ha, come on – what did you think I was going to speak about, The Science of Fancying Gary Over Robbie? A History of Rovers Return Barmaids?), I was instead to be that week’s featured patient in a term on the social context of health and illness, as presented to 250-odd first-year medical students.

While it was my job simply to tell the story of my Bullshit (I referred to it as ‘The Bullshit’, of course – these kids need to know the correct medical terminology, after all), what Si was speaking about was the limits of medicine – or, in other (non-clever) words, the parts that medical professionals just can’t reach.

Now, aside from Clever Dr Si being a speaker so brilliant that I felt like a front-row groupie, this subject was of particular interest to me, following a few recent conversations with Always-Right Cancer Nurse that have, to be perfectly honest, kept me awake at night. Before anyone gets protective and jumps to shield my honour in the comments – because that is categorically not my intention here – I’ll preface the following dialogue by saying, as I’ve stated a million times previously, that I ADORE Always-Right Cancer Nurse. She’s amazing at her job and great fun to be around and marvellously empathetic and, frankly, I have a bit of a girl-crush on her. But, after a hitherto un-blogged conversation we had around the time of my last surgery (and have since repeated on more than one occasion), I’ve been forced to confront the Santa-doesn’t-exist realisation that Always-Right Cancer Nurse – deep breath – isn’t always right.

‘So,’ she said on the morning of my surgery, bounding up to my hospital bed around which my family were gathered, ‘it’s been so long that I haven’t even seen you to talk about your book!’
‘Ah, of course – so you’ve read it?’ I asked.
‘I have, and it’s really impressive.’
‘Ah, thanks,’ I said.
‘I have to admit, though,’ she said tentatively, ‘I found it to be quite a depressive read.’ (Down the side of my eye I caught my old man preparing to put her right in the way only a Dad can.) ‘It’s very angry.’
‘That’s a fair point,’ I admitted. I couldn’t argue with that, really. I mean, while it was never exactly my intention with my book (and is, at the same time, difficult for me to judge), I expect that The C-Word can probably be as angry as it is daft.
But then came the clincher: ‘I hadn’t realised that you hadn’t coped.’ Now that was something I could argue with.
‘Whoa whoa whoa,’ I protested, ‘I coped really well, actually. Being angry or feeling depressed doesn’t mean you’re not coping. It’s part of coping. I coped just fine, thank you.’ (Dad’s I’ll-put-you-straight look now had more of a you-tell-em-Lis air.)
‘Oh okay,’ she conceded. ‘I’m sure you did. I suppose I meant chemo. I hadn’t realised you hadn’t coped with that part.’
‘But I did cope with it!’ I squealed, getting redder with every syllable. ‘I mean, shit, it was a living hell, but I coped with it!’
‘I’d just never realised how it had been for you,’ she said, as I suddenly twigged that her perspective wasn’t borne out of disparagement, but of hurt at me keeping from her such an enormous part of my experience when I’d been so open about everything else. ‘I’d always imagined it hadn’t been as bad as you’d expected it to be. I mean, lots of women we see deal with it fine.’

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard the some-people-are-fine-with-it argument. A mate of P’s once asked me about how I’d felt during chemo, then met my answer with: ‘Oh. Because in his book, Geoff Boycott said it wasn’t that bad.’ (I’ve just deleted an unnecessarily lengthy paragraph of an I’d-like-to-see-Geoff-Boycott-try-my-chemo nature from this part of the post. Because, sheesh – it’s completely fucking ridiculous that I should even have to consider defending the nuclear attack that was my experience of chemotherapy, let alone subject you to it.)

‘Well those women clearly aren’t having FEC/T,’ I said to Always-Right Cancer Nurse. ‘And certainly not at the volumes I had it. I can’t tell you how many consent forms I had to sign before they’d go ahead with it – that’s how intensive my dosage was.’
Dad took this as his cue to defend his daughter. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘my sister has just had the same type of chemo – and not, as far as I know, in the same volumes – and she’s had every bit as much of a horrendous time with it as Lisa had. Her symptoms were exactly the same as Lisa’s. Almost to the day.’
‘Oh,’ said ARCN, visibly shocked that such a key part of the process so often goes unspoken. ‘But you see, nobody ever tells us about that.’

And therein lies the problem. (May I, at this point, briefly refer you back to this post? Yup… we knew this was coming, right?) I can’t speak on behalf of other patients but, with regards to my own experience, the fault here is, of course, mostly mine. See, I went to great efforts to hide my torturous time with chemo from Always-Right Cancer Nurse and Smiley Surgeon and everyone else at that particular clinic, for a number of reasons. Firstly because the days when I visited them were always my ‘better days’ on which I had the energy to paint on some make-up and a smile, style up my wig, and wear something other than pyjamas. And so, on the two days out of 21 when you’re suddenly feeling more like a human being, the very last thing you want to do is talk about the zombified state from which you’ve just been released. And so you shrug it off with a ‘well I’m alright now’ and a ‘let’s get on with the next one’ and nobody’s any the wiser.

Another reason was that, in my infinite arse-licky quest to be their favourite patient, I only ever wanted to paint some ludicrously overstated picture of myself as the kind of spritely young smiler with a grin that not even chemo could dent. But, as we now know, that was never going to be an act I could sustain forever. (Actually, I suppose, you could extend that excuse even further. Because, in actual fact, I didn’t really talk about the chemo stuff with anybody face-to-face. My blog was my way of talking about it; and once the shitty stuff had been posted online, I saw no reason to articulate it any further. I’d said it; it was out there; and anyone who was really interested in what was going on simply had to look here for the answers I’d rather not have given in person.) But without the benefit – or, perhaps, hindrance – of being able to read my blog (because I didn’t tell them about that either) there remains a cavernous divide between what my medical team thought they knew and how much of the reality they actually understood.

But what about the gap in between? Well that, I suppose, is a prime example of the limits of medicine that Clever Dr Si was speaking about. See, as much as my doctors are perfectly aware of the list of possible side effects of chemotherapy (to use that as an example), what they can’t know is exactly what those symptoms feel like – just as I can’t know what it’s like to cut open a breast or biopsy suspicious tissue or administer life-saving drugs. And so as close as you can be – as close as I still am – to your medical team, there’ll always be a wall of unawareness between you, like being married to a Spook or being mates with a James Blunt fan.

And thus what I desperately wanted to plead of Cambridge’s first year medical students (aside from not to judge me on my tendency to squeeze more and-errs into a sentence than the entire Manchester United squad) was for them to not just pay diligent attention to the more scientific parts of their course, but to become better doctors by understanding the experience of their patients in a way that, I think, our information age will eventually come to expect. Not that I spelled that out to the students in the lecture theatre, mind you. Nah, I’m much more of the cop-out-and-blog-it-instead kind (speaking of which – Jamie, I accidentally deleted that show you asked me to record; and P, I forgot to take the prawns out of the freezer). But also, I suspect there’s something of a hole in that argument which, let’s be honest, I was neither clever nor brave enough to talk my way out of in front of 250 of the smartest young minds in Britain.

The thing is, at the same time as wanting to close the gap between medical understanding and patient experience, I also wonder whether asking the next generation of doctors to pay more attention to it is an impossible job. Perhaps the only way that medical professionals are able to so successfully treat their patients is because they don’t know that stuff. And perhaps, then, I’ve made a mistake in being so brutally, publicly honest about the realities of The Bullshit? Perhaps it’s best if that discourse goes unsaid, like it always has before? And perhaps our doctors ought to just stick to the more scientific side of their jobs, without the additional burden of having to take on the parts that medicine can’t reach?

What I can’t escape, however, is that my inclination – with health, with relationships… hell, with everything – is that, whatever the facts, it’s best to have them out on the table for all to see. Hence, whether it eventually makes them more successful doctors or not, I think that the social context of illness is a hugely important discipline for medical undergraduates to study. They might choose to take on board their future patients’ experiences away from the hospital; they might not. But knowing that people like Si are making them aware of the gap between the two makes me feel as reassured in medicine’s future as it does proud of my clever mate’s role in it. The smartarse.