Mark Zuckerberg, over 2U!


More and more frequently I am finding myself falling into the Facebook trap of liking (their word not mine) links to the support of people with disabilities and I sometimes even get channelled over to signing online petitions. I don’t normally like ‘liking’ and I avoid overt political statements and things that might come back to haunt me one day, but when it comes to acknowledging things such as bullying and mental health I find an upsurge of a need to scream ‘injustice’ coupled with the as-yet-unnamed emotion ‘World, please see me as a good guy’. hide and seek

I suspect one reason for all this is that I feel guilty for being ignorant and guilty for not being helpful to people I ought to be helping. I also suspect I am not alone in this and that by opening our Facebook souls we are somehow assuaging this guilt. If you think I’m about to say this is wrong and shallow, I’m not. Indeed although a public airing does little to immediately support those that might benefit by creating awareness, which in business terms is a chief function of Marketing, a first step is being taken. But it is only a first step.

The mention above of my own ignorance comes from a specific incident that happened today. One of my daughters was offered the chance to attend a free training programme (run indeed by a credible organisation) to help her set up her own business. My reaction was immediately upbeat and positive (i.e. pushy) and when she displayed reticence I went into the predictable parental assault/tirade about ‘missed opportunity’ and ‘it’s a once-in a lifetime chance’ when I ought to have realised, as pointed out by an observing third party, that she was basically scared and I ought have taken another more paternal approach.

Recap: Here I am; a writer, a Facebook sympathy giver and somebody who wants to look like a good guy failing at entry level Emotional Intelligence. I cannot even read my offspring’s feelings.

And yet again, I am sure I’m not alone. What is happening in this Facebook age is that many of us are taking to the touchscreen and demonstrating our nuanced skills of empathy and advocacy. This is a reaction to getting more information and hopefully (but with no guarantees), more knowledge about topics like depression, self-harm and cancer. A cost of this however is that some of us are creeping away from real-life interaction and hiding behind the cleanliness and safety of the keyboard. I don’t think we are to be blamed. So much of the modern world turns us towards selfish and egotistic behaviour and I believe the internet and its stable mates (smart phones, tablets, on-demand viewing etc.) all enforce and consolidate the message ‘you are alone, buy into it and act alone’.

At this stage I am not proposing a solution, I was the one that wanted to sacrifice Tim Berners-Lee  at the 2012 Olympics ceremony rather than celebrate him, but realistically had it not been him it would have been somebody else. I do think however that perhaps Mr Facebook himself could look into turning his behemoth into something that actively helps people to actively help. Mark ZUck

Mark Zuckerberg over 2U,






The Travel Coach Weekend Thought: Workplace bullying hurts us all.

I am a male car rental specialist working in a female only office. My male friends think that I’m lucky, but I disagree. Sometimes it feels like my co-workers gang up on me and make comments based on me being a man. I try to shrug it off and act like I’m not bothered thinking they will get bored but it only seems to make it worse. What tips do you have so that they appreciate I’m not willing to be the butt of their jokes?


Dear George
This is tough to answer because I can only guess at how your colleagues gang-up and how they ridicule.

What is interesting about your question is that we are so used to hearing about harassment the other way around that our immediate reaction, as seen from your friends, is to ridicule the scenario. The fact is that your situation is as important as that of a female worker subjected to innuendo from men and you have every right to want this to be taken seriously. df3f9d4f94923d0a43ce96eaa23e0b7c

Unfortunately your mates typify what is wrong in so many places.

They listen to you talk about work, but are imagining your job as a fantasy sexual arena.

Ganging-up against the odd-one-out begins at school and sadly never really leaves us. It is a sick part of human nature. My first piece of advice therefore is to try not to take it too personally. If you were the only left-handed person in an office or you were the only red head you would still experience stupid and senseless prejudice.

Try to clarify in your own mind what your colleagues are doing that is really offensive. Write down examples and maintain a log. Sexual harassment can be tricky to define, so before you start reporting your colleagues be sure of your facts. Do they touch you or make frequent comments about their own or your sexual activities? Do they force you into doing “men’s” chores such as lifting heavy brochures more often than are prepared to do?

Divide and rule: lash_on_demand_091

Do they really act against you as one consolidated unit? Surely at least one of the women is worth talking to alone. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking they are all they same. I am sure that most of them are decent when apart from the group. Work on building a friendship with one person. It would be better with someone to whom you have no physical attraction (and vice-versa). You will then develop a professional relationship that is built on what you have in common. In time she will distance herself from the remarks of the others. Once the other people realise that you can be taken seriously, they will follow.

Overall I’d say this is a human rather than a gender issue and please don’t allow it to influence the way you think about women. The truth is that anyone can be horrible to anyone else and we should maintain awareness of this. hqdefault

As bad as it is for you, neither you or I (as men) have experienced the pressure of wearing certain types of shoe or ‘flattering’ clothes to work.  Women continue to treated worse than men and as a victim yourself you now have the awareness that avoids most men. Maybe you can use it to broader advantage.





Lady Gaga image:

Ship Image:



Love, lost past and loneliness.


In 1975 I had a Saturday job in a North London travel agency called Frames Travel. It wasn’t so great because all I did was rubber stamp the holiday brochures and put them on the shelves. An exciting day was when I took the old brochures off the shelves and threw them away. Such fun.

During the ensuing forty years and as I grew up, that branch of Frames became a Thomas Cook travel shop. Since my own business transferred to North Finchley in 1990 I have walked past this shop every working day and every working day therefore has offered a connection to my past.  nostalgia

This week Thomas Cook closed the shop down. The building is still there but the erosion begins instantly. The interior colours will fade, the furniture has already gone and my personal connection will wither from a time spanning umbilical cord to a frayed thread of rain sodden parcel string.

I’m not complaining about the past being cut away from me. After all, it’s not necessarily desirable to be in daily contact with one’s yesteryears and it can be argued that being surrounded by your youth can hold you back as it offers the comfort of familiarity that may in fact be a false friend.

On the other hand, I recently visited the hotel in Rome where I worked and lived many years ago. The changes to the locale had been so total and complete that it left me feeling abandoned. There was nothing recognisable at all. Although the upper parts of the buildings were, I presume, the same the street level shops and office fronts were all new and nothing was familiar. The sadness from this experience was sharper than the slow evolving changes that occur daily in North London.

People have different levels of nostalgia. I suffer from it quite deeply and am one of those who looks for his own past and scratches the surface of time in the vain hope of finding small ways to re-trace what once was. My suffering however is a philosophical luxury. I have always had freedom to live where I wanted and have only every moved when I elected to. I imagine that refugees and people that move around because of their work e.g. army personnel, develop an immunity to nostalgia as pragmatism and survival instincts take over. The sub-conscious probably kicks in knowing that if you cannot be sure of where you’ll be tomorrow why upset yourself by connecting to the now and the past?

At a time when the media has ‘moved on’ from reporting on migrants in Northern France (and presumable elsewhere in Europe) it makes me wonder how people from stable and rooted lives are coping with reality of being cut adrift. It also makes me wonder that with President Trump appearing keen on shutting the door on people flying BACK to the USA how they cope with being told on arrival that their country is now in their past. The human timeline is a fragile thing.

I recently learned about the condition of ’separation anxiety’ and this week I felt it vicariously when I saw this story about the kidnapping of baby chimps to be sold as pets, my primal reaction was disgust towards the ‘nappers with subsequent thoughts that their lives are actually worth less than the monkeys’ and the planet would be better off with fewer useless hunting humans and more cuddly animals. This however is not the point. monkey

The point is that we feel so much for the little chimp because we can relate to his loneliness and isolation from his tribe and his home.  Very shortly, maybe even today, you will see a homeless person or somebody meandering with symptoms of dementia and remember that like the loveable chimp, everything about them before this moment has been smashed and effectively deleted. Judge them after you have helped them and I shall try to do the same.


b/w photo;

‘Ouvre le chien’: Bowie / Blackstar, Mercury and Crimson Moon (part 3 of 3)

I searched for form and land, for years & years I

When David Bowie died a year ago, the final corner of my holy-holy (rock) trinity of loss became complete.

Last September I wrote that Bowie’s death was easier for me to accept than those of Freddie Mercury and Marc Bolan yet looking across the worlds of music and social media a year after Bowie went Blackstar, it is clear that despite my personal approach, the space he left behind is growing into a black hole and that his legacy will continue to grow larger and harder to define than that of almost any other deceased contemporary artist.

If as I wrote in the September and November Blogs, if it was Bolan who introduced me to the concept of posing to build self-confidence from the outside-in and Mercury who drew power from not being universally popular then it was Bowie who booted these and additional interpretations of individuality from behind the TV screen directly into his audience’s laps.

When in 1972 he sang I had to phone someone so I picked on you’ I heard it as ‘I’m bringing you in, join me in the land of the different’.

Where Bowie quite quickly, after a 6 year journey to become an overnight success, stole a march on those who surrounded him was when:

A) He had a solid backlog of work that new fans could discover and

Click to buy Bowie Gull products
Click to buy Bowie Gull products

B) He had depth that went beyond the visuals and the melodies. The music was varied and the lyrics seemed deep and meaningful. The PR machine was straight into action in letting us know he borrowed writing techniques from the likes of William Burroughs and this soon added to Bowie’s mystique and credentials as an artist and not a ‘mere’ pop star.

Like many others, I bought into this lock and stock because at last there was somebody deep and clever which meant that by liking him I could somehow feel superior and therefore feel good about myself. At the time music seemed to be either rather soppy M.O.R such Elton John and as-yet-un-emerged Phil Collins or loud, clumsy and scruffy such as Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Bowie introduced a thinking person’s mental middle ground that also touched differing musical styles all at once. To me, liking Bowie was obscure and made me feel interesting. It definitely made me feel that I was deeper than the sheep  people who loved the so-after-the-event soggy Beatles. Most of all it meant there was an alternative to signing up to the pro-peasant unwashed culture of Rod Stewart and Slade. Of course there are many people that liked the acts that I didn’t who also liked Bowie and knowing this I want(ed) to demarcate myself from them and maintain my own private Bowie corner. I didn’t want to share Bowie with anyone else and what with all the grief out poured in January 2016, I felt the same again. Obviously none of us have any real possession over artists, but each of us has the prerogative to interpret and hold that interpretation and subsequent influences to one’s own heart.

Being a Bowie fan has been like being a cat person as opposed to a dog lover. Everything about him was subtle, shapeshifting and never obvious. Obtuse even. In 1976 he told The Sunday Times ‘anything you want me to be, I won’t be’. Whereas other performers were trained to be distinctive and clear, Bowie was never ‘in your face’. He embraced the force of obscurity (a calculated act of artifice?) and the more clever observers, many of whom were women like Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, and Madonna, successfully copied the notion that less is more.

Many commentators have described Bowie as a bridge. Visitors to the exhibition ‘Bowie Is’, which began in London in 2013 crisply linked Bowie to other areas of culture; particularly those of fashion.

Blue, Blue, Electric Blue

The show also reminded us that he was a capable and un-cracked actor.

It was his interest in mime and body language that had a direct influence on me. Looking back I suppose I was struck by the contrast between silent mimes and rock music. His performance values had an inherent irony because on one hand the live music was loud, yet on the other he was able to overlay it with silent one-man theatrical vignettes that told tales of inner torture and angst. They matched the sonorous backdrop and denied it at the same time. The music was his, yet even while performing, he’d portray something else. Somehow the structure of his performances reflected the bipolarity and mental instability that haunted him.

As a direct consequence I spent several years learning and performing mime and joined and even lead various theatre groups. I performed on stage and learned how to react in front of an audience. I confronted and dealt with stage fright and how to deal with blunders. I worked out how to pause when the audience laughed and how to improvise if somebody forgot something (a word, a location…). All these are life skills that I wouldn’t have explored had it not been for Bowie.
Likewise, when I went to live in Zurich in 1976 and realised it was the birthplace of the Dada and Surrealist art movements, my internal bells rang because I had read about Bowie referencing them. I had no idea what these branches of modern art were, but because Bowie had mentioned them, they were good enough for me to explore. He taught me so much. He was a bridge and a compass. He set trends and added to language (e.g. Bowie’s the term ‘Space Invader’ from Moonage Daydream became an arcade video game in 1978).

In Alan Yentob’s brilliant 1975 documentary Cracked Actor, Bowie described himself as being like a fly in a carton of milk ‘just soaking it (America) up’. What he achieved was the ability to soak up snippets of data and by subsequently writing or talking about them he endowed them with a certain ‘cool’ simply because it was he that suggested an interest in them. If Bowie looked under a rock, the driest sand became interesting.

This was meaningful as a teenager because I was desperate to discover, I didn’t know quite what, but it certainly wasn’t anything within my school work. It was Bowie’s way of referencing so much (Kahlil Gibran, Orwell [1984]…) that gouged open several cans of intriguing worms (or as in the title above; le chien).

And this is why Bowie will super-endure the other two artists of my triumvirate and all the others that have been and gone. I accept, albeit grudgingly, that people will grasp hold of  Lennon, Elvis, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin and this is because each of these artists triggered a set of emo/psychological needs among individuals within their audience and it would be ignorant of me to claim my needs are any the greater. I confess that I do feel my pro-Bowie connections are more valid, but I do not think it.

So where are we now?

Recently I was in the Pompidou Centre in Malaga, Spain and was struck by this ceiling high exhibit.


As I stood below this rather unnerving 30 cm high ‘big head’ talking Bowie puppet, it was confirmed to me that he had successfully mashed himself into the world of legitimate art. Sure there have been tons of Rolling Stones and Elvis oriented art events over the years but this is beyond that. The artist, Tony Oursler had realised that an effigy of a talking head-of-Bowie (and this was created long before he died) suggested so many other dimensions than had it been Jagger, McCartney or Sinatra. I highlight ‘suggested’ because Bowie’s strength lies in what he pointed towards and what he hinted at rather than what he said. Whether it was about his own skating along the gender spectrum or complete opaqueness over the last 10 years as to whether he was a working person or a retired pensioner, he just knew how to play it.

I never met him but somewhere in my loft lies a photocopy of his passport that I sneaked from the files of a hotel I worked in three months after he was a guest there during the Station to Station tour.

His passport details were as you’d expect;

  • Surname: Jones
  • Middle name: Robert
  • D.O.B: 8th January.

And as for occupation, the single word; musician.

That Bowie is an icon is not his issue. It’s impressionable people like me that allow some other people to become larger than life in our hearts & minds and in what influences us. It’s neither good, nor bad, it just is.

Bowie however was able to die knowing himself. Ultimately it suggests that despite all the insane stuff he name checked, he established self-knowledge and with that came peace of mind. As we embark on another January, I wish the same (sane) to you and, you guessed it; to myself.

Where can the horizon lie
When a nation hides
Its organic minds in a cellar…dark and grim
They must be very dim



Dancing on the Jetty

(Alternative silences)faenza

A warm 4pm sun slanted towards me as it prepared to set. The 27 degrees were made bearable by a speedy breeze. I stepped up onto the repaired jetty and began a casual stroll seawards towards its lamp bearing point. This is one of two parallel structures that sit about 200 meters apart astride the estuary of Porto Santa Margherita, Caorle near Venice.

I love this place.

I love the peace of knowing that to my right sat my hereditary home town of Venice, to my left, the  Gulf of Trieste and in front, beyond this pier, the relative safety of a calm Adriatic. I’m no seafarer, but if you want to wax and wane about green\blue salt waters, this is a good comfort-zone location to do it.

I was on a mission of silence. Part of a project to unearth a level of inner peace – something that has always eluded me.  It should have been easy to let the wind and lapping waters transport me someplace ‘else’ but to be frank, I’ve never been able to relax or to contemplate but a self-awareness crept up on me as I watched other people I could begin to take aim.

As I begun the stroll I was immediately struck by how many other people were passing their time on this same strip of concrete. A random cross-selection of Italy, about fifty people, was shuffling, marching, walking, swaggering and flouncing.

There was the noise of the seaside; birds, swans, wind, voices and the further I walked out, the softer they became. The shuffling sandals always belonged to people and of the people, this group of disconnects, I found four types of person, each embracing their own peace;

Western Guru, Fishermen, The Seaweed Community, The Observer’s Shadow.

When it comes to a calm the mind there’s no hierarchy and no space for judgement. Each has their own place along the jetty and whether that person is on a holiday break, a pause between bouts of depression, a child losing her inhibitions in the warm sun and a million other permutations. They are all valid.

What works for you

Could work for them

Or it may not.

If this silence is actually loud

There’s another version that will work

Your task is to find it and own it

And this is one thing you don’t have to share.

The first person was the Western Guru. 

Western Guru. Vuitton bag, Yoga mat and an Occidental sun

A European man sat facing the sea. Legs crossed lotus. His slim flexible frame sent a shudder of envy down my un-flat stomach. With his yoga mat and straight back it could even be that he wanted to be seen ‘doing it right’. I couldn’t decide if he was performing and wishing to be seen or truly building from inside. To offer the benefit of my doubt, I’d say that from his point of view the passing sample of public was an incidental thing. He could create an internal calm not despite, but because of the external sounds. Slapping waves, gull cries and even fighter jets on their way to and from an air display along the coast.

The more (confusion) outside: the more (controlled calm) inside.

It made me think that to assume a place of inner silence when already surrounded by silence, can for a town dweller, be rather daunting. But to be silent when surrounded by the familiarity of sounds and voices can enhance the peace.

And on I went along the path. I remember a brassy hook embedded in the sunken concrete that blinked up at me emblazoned TEMA FAENZA.

And so to the fishermen.

Mainly alone yet some in pairs, these men and boys enthuse about tackle and bait yet once they’ve cast the line, cloak themselves in stillness. Somehow the muted hubbub doesn’t affect the fish and a little like the Western Guru their actions are minimal and habitual. They do what they do and that is enough.  fishermen

Fishermen seem to know themselves. They appear self-aware.

Is their end game really to capture the flailing floppy fish or is the act of fishing the end in itself? I shifted focus to a tanned man with a simple rod and the ancientness of this activity came to me. Was this the beginning of humans discovering patience? When they accepted that the road to the goal of food required strategy and stillness and that this waiting time brought about the bonus of introspection and chill?

As I moved along the pier I noted that if a fish was caught it was the watching kids and adults that reacted in excitement at the capture. The fishermen remained stoic and controlled, as if the hook and haul was part of the process, not the end of it. Somehow even though hobby fishermen could undertake the activity without trying for a catch, the potential bite remains key. Even if the catch is in truth a secondary goal to the main one of carving out some ‘me-time’, to achieve moments of peace, the ‘wake-up’ jump-to-it moment of getting a bite is sewn into the process.

The Seaweed Community.

And on further towards the sea I went. To my right, on the large bank of sloping crane-planted rocks sat three young people and a dog. Here they shared a long, clumsily rolled joint. My first thoughts turn to the quadruped, barking his passive smoking way to dog-space. And as his bark subsided I confessed to myself that I never got this hippy thing. Personally I’m happier with the odd-un-shared Tramadol.

The dog sits low on the stones between her left kidney and his left knee.

‘Off my head inside my head. Alone.’

Yet this group chill is shared by many and as I watch the humans giggle and move in slow motion I accept that this kind of shared space doesn’t have to be a bad space. Whatever these people are feeling, or think they are feeling, I can see that as the sun sets and the sea breeze blows, the reality of the situation really doesn’t matter. If you can slip into a moment and then let it slip away, what the hell?  After all, it’s a viable rehearsal for the great unknown. The giggles and whispers between the youths and the dog are certainly not silence, at least not in its literal format but the state of a different reality is possibly just as valid. I suppose the issue with drugs, apart from dangers, costs and social alienation is that they might take you further away from inner peace rather than nearer to it.

But I’m not the one to judge because my own peace is largely derived from being the passive observer. I’d like to be the invisible man. In fact not even that man himself, but his shadow. Reality not once, but twice removed.

The Observer’s Shadow.

Consider some facts;

I cast a shadow taller than I’ll ever be, yet he’ll never be anything other than flat and in 2D.


  1. I have tried yoga and meditation. I’ve even had an Ayurveda massage and disliked them all. I find that an enforced introspection can dig up those not-so-deep lying demons of failure, conspiracy of the system against me and lost opportunities. The shark-toothed bite of nostalgia can infect me with quaint smells and deep regrets. My past is one of cautious times cautious squared. The ghost of the mediocre scares me when my own silence is loud.
  1. I tried fishing too and despite the thrill, the idea of waiting Godot-like for a fishy end with a wormy hand and hook-punctured finger has no appeal. I’d be sitting on the edge wishing I’d brought my hand sanitiser. C’est la guerre.



I do find a peace in being the watcher. The one based on the periphery with licence to step in and step out in a heartbeat.

My silent place is derived from watching two or three people or ideas come together and curating the outcome.

I’m aware that this is very much an artist’s position. Watching, interpreting and creating. My own silent place kicks-in before the creation. It’s the joy of seeing connections, those already manifested and those yet to occur. The world recreates miniature works of art every moment and even if I’m no Da Vinci, I can still sense the silent rumble of things about to unfurl.

Swans in the sea, whatever next?




Silent Horizon with Auditory Features


In conclusion there is silence

Yet before arriving there is noise, musing and meander

But for sure, the end is as it begins.

Summer for many people is a focal point. It is supposed to represent a pause in proceedings and an opportunity to rest and restore energy. It can also however be an unwelcome and abrupt halt. In fact to many, the whole concept of a hot August and its dog days conjures up images of sole-burning sand, pesky sun-in-the eyes and excessive heat. It becomes a hurdle to overcome before you can return to long sleeved, double-layered normality of cool.


Occurring soon after the year’s halfway mark, high summer is a period which peaks in mid-August, then plateaus and descends like a lava-skier down towards the calendar’s finale. People work/strive/limp towards it and with varying degrees and combinations of dread and excitement attempt to deal with it.

An often cited reason for taking a vacation is to relax. This, to me has long been a challenge and the proof is that despite my annual plea to my family to cajole me into booking the annual family trip early, I always leave it until late. I wait for the internal stress to boil up and the external familial bullying to reach a shrill pitch that usually with a few weeks to go, I relent and sort it out. Colleagues think I’m being laid back, my family think I don’t really care and the truth is that booking and embarking make my head whistle.

This whistle is not a metaphor either, it’s a thing of truth.

During moments of great pressure I get clattered by in-head voices. They start as a mumble and rise in pitch until I hear a high treble whirr that recreates the feeling of that self-inflicted in-flight yawn we create when the plane bang-whacks the altitude where ear-canals block. I become momentarily deaf and my hammer/anvil thump in tune with my heart to such intensity that I cannot tell which organ is calling me.

This moment is born from stress plus others peoples’ noises that amalgamate and become a pure fact that chases me inside myself. Within these sounds of patting and tapping a soft silent hand-like gesture sweeps my brain from nape to forehead and for a few absent seconds I crawl behind my closed eyes and engage a noiseless cocoon.

Yet this sensation has also happened during those all-too-few moments of personal greatness.

Once, when I unexpectedly won a sprint at junior school, another time when I was announced as the winner of a competition I hadn’t even entered and most recently when I opened an email to discover I’d been offered work by an organisation that had ‘released’ me four years previously. My internal reaction to triumph brings about the same sense of tinnitus as does my brain’s need for flight during fight.

What’s going on? How is it that moments of extreme, out-of-the blue, self-actualisation on one hand and cacophonous human vocal-screams on the other, both have the capacity to force me inside?

For some time I struggled to see how these sensations were connected, but three suns of conclusion have now dawned;

  1. I am not built to deal with the extremes of either success or conflict. This is odd because I have always purported to want success and anyone who knows me will tell you how I go to great lengths to avoid conflict. I suspect that somewhere ‘back there’ I’ve forged an agreement that offsets the horrors of litigation with holding back from real success.
  2. These moments, especially the good ones, belong to me and are not to be shared. I think this is partly because what I feel as something great e.g. having an article published in a magazine is seen as ‘nothing special’ by my peers.

But less literally I feel that every one of us feels differently and uniquely about stuff. Like that age old ‘When we both see the sky is blue, do we both see the exact same hue?’

{So, when a sports commentator asks an Olympic medal winner how she feels about her success, it’s not a dim question. The only regrettable thing is that we don’t have the words to express the personal truth.}

3. A way to digest and evaluate the extremes of life is to manage them in silence. There are times to spell it out / spill it out / shout / cry / punch the air / laugh aloud but these a short and sharp.

Silence, once under your control can be stretched and dwelled within.

A blanket in winter or

A reflective shield

During days of the summer diamond dog.


The Storm








The Lady in Bed (birth and death in the Tropic of Cancer)

We were getting anxious watching RS twitching her arms involuntarily as she lay unconscious in the hospice bed.

Mark Rothko ‘Black on Maroon’, 1959
© Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 2016 Black on Maroon Mark Rotkho 1959

She was a small woman, just turned eighty six and was finally succumbing to the non-stop intestinal punches of her cancer. Apparently it was painless, this so-called silent condition that turned her skin yellow in a swift morning swoop some ten weeks ago. Cancer was making the effect crystal clear ‘You stay still while I bring on pneumonia bruises, collapsed lung wheeze and whatever else makes your breathing look heavy and laboured.’

She lay on the bed, tiny and still. Her left arm raised, but bent at the elbow as if to shade her closed eyes from the beam of sun that stimulated the particles of human dust. I doubted she wanted to shade off the brightness because I knew she loved to discover the rays of light but as my father sat beside me he claimed to know her discomfort and the closing of the curtain supported his theory.

As the nurse walked in, she sensed the two-pronged assault: my father and I with questions and her bed-ridden patient’s silent needs. No pleading eyes and no question marked voices from the lady in the bed, just a stationary silence punctuated by those painful-to-hear breaths.

As one rehearsed voice we told the nurse that the patient appeared unhappy and off-comfort limits.

After looking at her eyes, temples, cheeks, throat and brow the nurse told us that all was in fact as well as can be.

She explained that palliative care differs from ‘mending nursing’ because the aims are different. A cure sits behind us, dismissed and irrelevant. What we are looking for here is a smooth journey to the end. Comfort, softness, toned down voices and muffled tears. Nothing is sharp or angled or abrupt.

She explained that RS was communicating involuntarily, through body language. Her lifting arm notwithstanding, she was without facial tension and free from frown. Her small neck remained loose. The cancer pain was emotional and psychological but this time; not physical.

This was the fifth death from cancer I’ve witnessed in the last 28 months and the one I’ve lived with the most. The visits to doctors, the blood tests, the hospital stays, the parking problems and the surgery. But above all this detritus the human efforts to deal with and chip away at unfair mortality have impressed me the most.

There are so many people who care. Some, like the doctors are well paid. Most others however are not, yet they still manage to offer time, soft vocal tones and shared tears.

This cancer seemed to create a stoic calmness. I saw other patients’ families sharing my bitten lip and inner cheek. I saw other patients walking through the specialist’s door with steady gait and defiant purpose. Fear always there, yet hidden.

Four weeks ago, while we were waiting in the hospital coffee shop for my father to return with her prescription steroids, I asked RS if she agreed with the oncologist that she was battling cancer bravely. ‘It’s not a battle’ she tells me ‘I’m too tired to call it a fight’.

I have tried to remember other comments and quips that RS uttered in her last weeks, but cannot recall anything other than the silent sadness of (angry) resignation. The fighting bit was how she summoned up techniques from Tai-Chi and Yoga to exude a tranquil stance on her death bed. For whatever was going on in her mind and her heart, it remained hidden and muffled under the sheets of dignity.