Thursday, 26 March 2015

MY RIGHT FOOT

No, this isn't a blog about a sequel to the Oscar winning Daniel Day Lewis film of 1989, but I feel like I've been through an epic performance just the same.

Last Friday, on the eve of the Spring equinox, I was admitted to hospital for a foot operation that I had waited on for some time, with the goal of preserving one of the damaged joints in the big toe of my right foot. At the same time, just for fun, it was decided to carry out two further operations, one to realign the toe better, and one to shorten the toe marginally to reduce pressure on the joint.

It's fairly accurate to say I was a little anxious whilst waiting, but I was also looking forward to the point of recovery and going back to things I have not enjoyed for a few years, such as walking the mountains of Scotland, which would make me very happy.  By coincidence the day of the operation was International Day of Happiness.

It was an early start at 7.30am, and the first hour was taken up with pre-op, checking and rechecking every detail. It was a little disconcerting, when, in each of the five sessions I was asked to state my name. Thankfully they put a name wristband on both arms, just in case I, or anyone else, forgot. The last thing they did made me laugh, as they drew an arrow pointing down my shin to the big toe. After all this attention to detail I thought someone might next hang a little card on my big toe saying "This one".

Then, very quickly, I was taken through to a small waiting room where I changed into the rather less than fashionable hospital gown, which is supposed to tie at the back, but the ties had long since vanished. It was a little disconcerting to sit down on the cold, vinyl-covered chair. In the room was a small TV, which was showing the solar eclipse event live. One of the locations was in the Faroe Islands, where a plane, high above the clouds, was filming the moment of totality. I felt it was a good sign as, just as the diamond ring appeared, the waiting room door opened and an attendant said, "they're ready for you now".

I have no end of praise for the staff at the hospital, especially the surgical team, as they got me ready to go through, keeping me calm. The last thing I recall was answering a question about my film teaching and getting as far as, "well, every Saturday I . . ."  I think some close friends would like access to that drug when I start on about the film academy.

I woke up what seemed almost immediately, only to find myself wired up to monitors. This was a surprise. There were also a number of staff scurring around me, talking to me as I came round. The anesthetist arrived and told me that during the operation my heart rhythm became irregular, and so they were just monitoring things for a while.

All was well and I left just 12 hours after being admitted,  hobbling out on crutches with rather strange footwear, reminiscent of an over-sized Geisha shoe.


One week has passed and in all that time I have been limited to walking between the kitchen and living room, or bedroom and bathroom. I have had various visitors every day, bringing me all sorts of goodies, and Pauline, my closest friend, has looked after me in the evenings, cooking all my meals. Maybe I can spin this out a bit longer for more attention.

I know I'm desperate now to be more mobile, but the pain and stiffness is still very noticeable, even though I am off the pain killers. The thought of grabbing a hold of the big toe and manipulating it up and down is making me quite anxious.

I'm reminded of a classic John Wayne film The Wings of Eagles, when John Wayne is in rehab after an accident. He's lying on his hospital bed, staring at his big toe, and repeats to himself over and over, "I'm gonna move that toe".


Thursday, 19 March 2015

A NEW DAWN

Tomorrow, Friday 20 March, at roughly 9.25am on the Outer Hebrides islands, off the west coast of Scotland, a solar eclipse will take place. It will be around 98%, with a full solar eclipse happening on the Faroe Islands about ten minutes later.

I have only seen one solar eclipse, which was back in March 2006 when I traveled to southern Turkey. I can say that it made the hairs on the back of my arm stand up and was altogether a very eerie experience.


It is little wonder, I thought at the time, that the ancients interpreted it as a sign of impending doom.

By coincidence solar eclipses have occurred at times of battles, when one side was victorious over another; they have occurred at the time of a meteor impact; and attempts have been made to firmly establish the date of Good Friday, interpreting the darkness that fell suddenly at Christs crucifixion to be that of a solar eclipse.

But a solar eclipse can also be a sign of a coming momentous and joyous occasion. A new beginning almost, quite literally, a new dawn.

About six years ago I sustained an injury to my right foot, in particular the big toe. Over the years my body grew additional bone around the damaged area, and six years on the flexibility is limited to 5% downward and 10% upward movement. It has also been gradually forced out of line. As the years have gone on the pain level has increased, and it has prevented me from certain activities such as hillwalking and skiing, primarily because I cannot get the boots on.

I was told two years ago that the only thing that could be done was to fuse the bones, thus reducing the toe movement to zero. This would eliminate the pain. I decided to hang on and persevere for as long as possible with some movement. However, by summer last year, the pain attacks were becoming unbearable and would keep me awake most of the night. At that point I had a consultancy with an inspiring surgeon, who convinced me he could carry out three operations that would bring the toe back to 75% normal, and pain free.

In much the same way that auspicious events in the past have coincided with a solar eclipse, at around the same time tomorrow morning I will be in theater, for what I hope will be a new beginning for me and my outdoor pursuits.

I suppose I'm hoping the eventual outcome will eclipse all expectations.

Do you see what I did there?


Thursday, 12 March 2015

HOW FAR DOES A BILLION POUNDS GO?

In 2008 my home city of Edinburgh embarked upon an ambitious project; to construct a new tram system.

It was to cost a staggering £375million, and even at the time it was hailed as a waste of money. The original plan was for it to go from the shore line of the Firth of Forth, across the city, terminating at the airport. A total of 11.5 miles. That's £32million per mile. However, it went through a number of delays, and even a change in contractor at one point, which extended the completion date. It finally opened for service in May 2014, but with only 8.7miles completed, at a final cost of what is expected to be £1billion, or £114million per mile!!

Imagine what else we could have funded for that!

The main criticism of the project, apart from the cost, is that it doesn't really go anywhere that useful. It has only 15 stops and is used primarily by commuters on it's single line, or people going to and from the airport. Look at this map which shows a comparison between the tram route system in 1950 to the newly opened route (they are at the same scale):


There are plans afoot to complete the final stage, but I wouldn't like to be the politician that proposes that one!

Edinburgh had trams in the past, from 1871 to as recent as 1956, which had a route length of 47 miles. In the area I live in, near Portobello, when the roads are occasionally dug up remnants of the old tram system can be seen. In fact where my old deli stands used to be the stables area for the horses in the days of horse-drawn trams, and nearby, and still there under the tarmac road, is the old turntable for rotating the trams around.

Though I was never in favour of such an extravagant expense, I had hoped that it would be a style of tram in keeping with a World Heritage City, something say like the San Francisco or Amsterdam styles. Unfortunately we ended up with a Japanese bullit train style, each coming in at £1million.

That said, my friend David took an astonishing photograph of the trams recently:

David's skills as a photographer are outstanding, and the photo above was "commended" in the Urban Category for Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year. You can see more of his images from Scotland at this link: www.studio2photography.co.uk

So do I have anything good to say about the trams?

Well, surprisingly, yes. Last Sunday my friend Pauline and I, decided that we would take a journey on a tram for the first time. Afterall, to have an honest opinion you need to be fully informed.

It was remarkably quick and it seemed as if all the traffic signals were biased toward the tram and there was virtually no delay. It was Sunday I suppose, but we completed 13 of the 15 stops in around 20 minutes. The journey was very smooth and it took corners as if it were on rails. Oh, that's right, we were! It costs the same as a normal bus fare (unless you go to, or are coming from, the airport) and runs about every 10 to 15 minutes.

It was fun I have to admit, especially when it swept around a bend or rang its bell on approach.

The tram is here to stay, and may even be extended in the future, so we thought we had better make good use of it, and so after a little shopping, coffee and cake, we jumped back on for the return leg.

On reflection it would seem overall that a billion pounds doesn't go as far these days.

Only 8.7 miles apparently.


Thursday, 5 March 2015

NEVER NEVER

When I was a little boy growing up, my parents used to buy things such as a car, TV or refrigerator on a credit agreement, at the time called Hire Purchase. Paying back way more than the item was ever worth, these repayments would last for many years. It earned the nickname, "buying on the never never", another way of saying, you could have it now and pay later.

Virtually the whole world has been rocked over the past half dozen years or so by a global financial recession, sparked in part by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage industry in the USA. However, it really owes it origins to far earlier than that, when we started to have credit made available to us. We could have pretty much anything we wanted right now, without having to wait while we saved up for it. It seemed at times the more you wanted to get into debt, the easier it was. Finance companies were literally throwing money at you, and we had little regard for the interest rates attached.

Eventually this all blew up in our faces, and that debt suddenly needed repaid, and a large percentage of people couldn't, and thus went bust. And it escalated, deeper and deeper, until eventually the system broke worldwide.

Up until 1869 in the UK, if you had debt you could be imprisoned. Now it seems the more debt you have the more you are offered.

But debt and credit's a bad thing right?

I pride myself with having virtually no debt except for a mortgage, which is all but paid off. I don't use credit cards, I have never owned a store card, and for the past 20 years or so I have never been overdrawn.  I'm not wealthy by any means, I just live within my means. If I want something, I wait until I have saved the money for it.

Well that's good, isn't it?

You'd think so, but recently I contacted my energy provider to change a gas meter from a pay-as-you-go card meter, to a regular meter where I would be billed.

I was refused because I didn't have a credit score.

Furious, I delved deeper. It would seem not being in debt, or not paying regular amounts to pay off a credit card balance, has gone against me. I am, quite literally, being punished for living within my means and not contributing to the financial mess that our country is in.

If I had mountains of debt, and were paying it off without defaulting every month, I would have a high credit score and would have no problems.

A completely ridiculous situation, and despite all my efforts of the past week, without a credit history there's absolutely nothing I can do about it.

Short of going out and buying that Ferrari on the never never that is.

 

Thursday, 26 February 2015

RONALD MACDONALD

Don't worry, this is not a blog about the mascot of a famous hamburger fast food chain, home of the American Big Mac.

By coincidence it happens to be the full name of a local character, who went by the more familiar title of Ronnie, who passed recently after a five year battle with cancer in his spine.

Back around this time in 2010, just before Pauline was heading off on her big global cycle, Ronnie broke the news to us. Doctors had told him then he wouldn't see Christmas. It is testament to his character and no nonsense attitude to life that he defied them all and held out for five years!

I first met Ronnie in 1989 when I moved in to the apartment where I still live today. He had the middle of three large garages diagonally opposite my apartment, and spent his days fixings taxi cabs. He owned two, but had long since given up the long hours driving them, and concentrated instead on keeping them maintained. Word grew of his skills and many other drivers would visit, sometimes just for a cup of tea and chat. A council worker who drove a tractor along the beach, collecting washed up debris, would always stop at the bottom of the lane and spend his morning break putting the worlds to rights with Ronnie.

His passion was Landrovers. His son-in-law told me recently that, despite his illness robbing him of his strength and mobility, he was always going on about the Landrover chassis sitting in his garage that he needed to start building a new vehicle on. I think it's what kept him going through his illness all this time. He had one small Landrover that was his pride and joy, and he used it in a local Victorian Day parade, heading it up with the crowned, Victorian Day parade queen waving from the open back. That parade sadly is no more, but every year the taxi cab drivers of Edinburgh get together to give sick and disadvantaged kids a day out down the coast, decorating the cabs with all manner of designs. In essence every cab was a unique float, and Ronnie took part every year.

In my street, not only was he a friendly character but he was great for security. Just knowing he was around was peace of mind, and, of course, he would happily help tinker with your car should you have a problem.

He was a good, honest man, who had worked hard all his life, and said it like it was, sometimes colourfully. I fondly recall one day he helped me get a heavy sofa up a flight of stairs into my apartment. He took the bottom end, shouldering most of the weight, but at only around five and a half feet tall, it was clearly a challenge for him. From start to finish the air was blue with muttered obscenities, like a nachine gun emptying its magazine. By the time we reached the top of the stairs tears were streaming down my face I was laughing so much. But the best laugh was to come when we finally got the sofa inside. He stood straight, dusted his hands down, and in a calm and relaxed voice announced, "well that was easy".

The street I live on now is quiet, and on Monday at his funeral, which I suspect will be very busy, we will all reflect on our own, unique memories of Ronnie.

He may have chosen to prefer to be called Ronnie, perhaps because of the connection to the fast food chain, who knows, but to me he will always be just Ronnie, our very own Big Mac.


Thursday, 19 February 2015

FAT TUESDAY

Shrove Tuesday, Pancake day, whatever you call it, is the day before Lent, when all good Christians everywhere fast for 40 days. I guess from a layman's point of view we could compare it to Ramadan in the Muslim calendar.

Personally I like "Fat Tuesday". It's just got that "stuff your face" sound about it.  Fat Tuesday is a literal translation of the French phrase Mardi Gras, the name given to the ritual of the last night of eating fatter, richer foods before the fasting period, which begins the day after, Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the ashes of burnt palm branches, blessed the year before on Palm Sunday, which is the Sunday before Easter, and was a reminder that we return to dust (hence ashes to ashes, dust to dust). Palm branches are used as it is believed that palm branches and leaves were scattered in front of Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem.

It's fascinating stuff the way it links and gives us modern day terms. But lets get back to pancakes.

After I sold my deli business in 2006, I traveled for a while, starting in the United States. It was on that trip that I discovered iHOP.  This was not some sort of technology exercise, but stood for the International House Of Pancakes.

I thought at the time that it was a new fast food outlet, but the first one opened in LA in 1958 and now has more than 1500 branches, with new ones opening recently in Dubai of all places. Well, it does say "International" in the name.

Now, it's worth remembering if you intend to visit an iHOP, and I recommend you do at least once, we're not talking about a couple of pancakes with a drizzle of maple syrup. We're talking a veritable mountain of carbohydrate, swimming in melted butter and maple syrup. It doesn't just serve pancakes though. You can go for the "lighter" option of crepes. Part of iHOP's fame is they have a lot more than maple syrup, and pride themselves on a wide range of syrups. But all's not lost on the waist line. Some syrups are sugar free.

However, sugar free and lighter options aside, the portions are so vast that you're going to need the 40 days of Lent to burn it all off.




Friday, 13 February 2015

FRIDAY THE 13th

I should have known with all that has gone pear-shaped today that it is Friday the 13th!

I recently changed from probably the worlds worst internet provider, Talk Talk, to a new company called Plusnet, with a much faster connection as a bonus.

The installation was amazingly fast, and though there were a few hitches for the engineer, it eventually went live. However, my main device, a MacBookAir, which is the computer I use for just about everything, froze up when connected to the Plusnet router with wifi.

Though I can use other devices OK and it is still a relief to leave the appalling service of Talk Talk, I can do without the stress. 

I eventually got it working by connecting it directly with a cable, but it's not ideal. I have been waiting all day to hear from the company's technical support team, and by 2pm I decided to phone them.

Only to find my phone is now not working as well! In fact, when I think about it I've not received a single call since the change over 3 days ago.  And I can't call out.

Eventually I spoke to someone using my mobile phone, only to get the run-around saying, it must be a fault with my phone inside the house as they are not detecting a fault. So I'm now at the stage of paying £31 a month for basically nothing! No one is willing to help solve the situation, and when I suggested I would have no choice but to cancel and have the equipment removed, I was told I couldn't unless I paid for the remaining 18 months contract.

There's only so much boring technical chat I can take, and so I drew a line under it for the day. I'm hoping tomorrow will bring better results. If nothing else it's Valentines Day.

Presumably I'll be too busy opening all my cards.