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Horror in the Barbers’ (the story of a boy’s haircuts). Cert 18.

21 Jul

I am four years old and my mother has delivered me across the main road into Mr Middlemiss’s barber’s shop on the corner of Robinson Street for my first haircut that doesn’t involve a bowl and a pair of kitchen scissors.  Naturally, I am both inquisitive and also slightly apprehensive (though I don’t realise this at the time having never previously encountered either of these words).

Mr M shows us towards the largest chair I’ve ever seen and then, for good measure, places a padded box on top of that before perching me on the box.  He adds to the general air of anxiety by vigorously pumping the hydraulics of the chair without warning.  I am now so far off the ground that altitude sickness is starting to kick in and the precipitous drop (several times my entire height) only compounds the terror of the impending procedure.

Mr Middlemiss is considerably older than me (at around one hundred) and his scissors are even older than that.  He proceeds not to cut my hair as much as to tear it out by the roots before seizing my right arm and applying the electric trimmers to my quivering flesh: “you see Nicholas, these won’t cut you – but they do make a lot of noise.”  Thanks for that Mr M – maybe next time, demonstrate on a part of your own anatomy first?

In the coming months, I grew accustomed to the frequent assaults from Mr Middlemiss until we eventually left Little Harwood and my mother’s ‘Wool & Drapery’ shop for pastures (and barbers) new.  Over the years I frequented ladies’ hairdressers with my mother and sister after school, Ernesto the Italian barber in the town centre and various others until my teens when my mother discovered Martin.

Martin’s shop was around four miles from our home and this required a journey by car.  Naturally, I was only delivered to the shop on Saturday mornings when it was busier than a nest of wild bees in high summer.  I would be deposited on the pavement and collected an hour and a half later to ensure that I would have snaked my way through the endless queue.  There were no mobile telephones to enable a quick “I’m done, come and pick me up” call.

Other than the incessant noise of Red Rose Radio’s menu of endless pop music (which I hated) the shop was deathly silent because talking, evidently, was not allowed.  There was no: “how would you like it doing?” nor even the ubiquitous “do you have any holidays planned?” just a nod in your general direction, a theatrical flourish of the gown (like a scissors-wielding matador) and then the procedure itself, rounded off by scraping the top layers of skin from your neck with an unsterilised cut-throat razor.  Everyone left Martin’s shop looking the same, for to the best of my knowledge, he only knew how to undertake the one cut.  I would then retire to the bench and sit out the remaining fifty minutes waiting for my lift home.

I hated the whole event from beginning to end and so was completely nonplussed when my mother announced that I needed a haircut in mid December.  Having only endured the ordeal a fortnight earlier I’d been hoping that I might last until mid January.  “Don’t be stupid,” she replied “it’s Christmas.  You know very well why you need a haircut for Christmas.”  I didn’t.  I still don’t.

Eventually, having passed my driving test, I was sent off to Martin in the car on my own.  Thank goodness I wouldn’t have to sit there waiting for a lift home.  Driving myself was to be my salvation and I would never again dread my haircuts.  The queue was longer than ever and it must have been forty minutes before I even came close to its head.  The telephone rang, shattering the stillness in the shop.  Martin stopped scalping the unfortunate youth ahead of me, everyone looked up from their copies of The Sun and even Jason Donovan paused his crooning on Red Rose Radio.  Martin picked up the ‘phone and listened intently.  Would he actually be capable of speech?  Nodding, he turned to the assembled in the shop:

“Is there a Nicholas Palmerley here?  Your Mum’s on the ‘phone she says you’ve never been out in the car on your own before and she’s worried you’ve had an accident.”  Cheeks burning, I surreptitiously raised one shy finger.  A thousand sniggering men tittered then dropped their eyes back to page three and a small part of me died.

As an adult, haircuts are so much more pleasant.  Paula drops around to my home every three weeks or so and we sit chatting comfortably in the conservatory, a glass of wine at hand.  After 34 years and the tyranny of Mr Middlemiss, Martin and accomplices, I have finally come to enjoy the procedure – just as my hair is rapidly receding, haircutting time is short and I must look to the future.


The British trousers the weather cannot spoil

7 Jul

There can be few things in life as sickening as the slow realisation that the chair you’ve just sat in in the nursing home was slightly damp and that someone else’s urine is now slowly soaking its way through your trousers and underwear headed towards your snuff dry thighs. You spend the rest of the day with a uriniferous odour invading your nostrils at intervals.  Is it really there?  Do I really smell like a public lavatory in late July?  Is it just my imagination?  Does the word ‘uriniferous’ really exist?

Many ‘do I smell of stale piss?’ hours later you head home desperate for a shower, a change of clothes (and a change of nursing home).  Many of us working in the caring professions will have similar contamination incidents to recall which is why I now purchase trousers impregnated with Febreze cotton-fresh and wear PVC underwear to cover all eventualities.

In recent weeks however, I’ve been able to revert to the much simpler tactic of wearing full sou’wester on sorties beyond the confines of the surgery.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Met’ Office inform us that we’ve had a summer that’s wetter than a Cliff Richard Christmas song and happily, waterproof clothing is now available in tweed.  The ‘fallout’ from Vera’s urinary tract infection as well as that from clouds more dark and foreboding than the prospect of compulsory attendance at a two hour fire lecture are now amply taken care of.

Our dog Jack doesn’t seem to mind the prospect of a walk in the rain which is surprising considering that he’s hairier than a female wrestler from the Ukraine and soaks up water like a giant canine microfibre cloth.  This afternoon we came home with horizontal rain blowing in our faces – me gritting my teeth and adjusting the visor on the mobility scooter and Jack happily trotting along, occasionally sniffing my trousers for some reason.  Once dried off in the porch he looks like Toyah Wilcox on a bad hair day – but that’s easily fixed after an hour with the GHD straighteners.  (I was joking about the mobility scooter).

This year, on the one hand, we’re all thoroughly disappointed with what passes for our “summer” because we feel cheated that day after day we suffer endless dark skies, wind and rain.  On the other, we’re delighted that we can commiserate with each other, moaning endlessly in the way only the British can.  And do.

Last week a patient dashed into the surgery exclaiming: “I got caught in a shower – I’m piss wet through!” Believe me – until you’ve sat in the ‘throne of urine’ in Vera’s nursing home, you have no idea what ‘piss wet through’ means.

Home broadband – a journey into the unknown

19 May

Some time in the early 2000s I recall thinking that it might be quite fun to have access to this internet thing that everyone was chattering about in the media.  To be honest, I couldn’t really see much point but I’d heard that there was plenty to read and wonder at and with the recent cancellation of the British Journal of Labrador & Tweed decided it was worthy of cautious exploration.

Being ever the victim of fashion I travelled to our local retail park one Saturday and spent around £1000 (equivalent to £1.25m in 2012) on a brand new Apple iMac which promised “out of the box connecticity” to the world wide web.  I was not to be disappointed: within mere months I was happily listening to the sound of my modem dialling some  unfeasibly long number then passing a happy hour watching the screen build an early version of the BBC News website (in truth a photocopy of the script from the previous night’s Nine o’clock News).

Dial-up internet had all the speed and dynamism of a hibernating tortoise, but though we may mourn the fact that these crepuscular reptiles are no longer readily available in the UK, I suspect few of us miss the demise of the discordant modem contacting our ISP whilst we whiled away the long hours waiting for a connection (I can still remember the “tune” the infuriating thing “played” as it taunted me with line-by-line BBC website striptease).

Some time later I registered my interest with BT in their upgrade of our local telephone exchange so that we might be treated to the wonders of broadband.  We needed only 4 million local signatories before this could happen (one of whom had to be the Secretary General of the United Nations) – but incredibly it did and I was soon checking my bank balance, sending e-mails (with actual attachments) and perusing the schedule of our local cinema all on the same day from the comfort of my spare bedroom.  It was wondrous.

Eventually a change of job meant that the time came to move house.  It’s true that our new residence was somewhat rural, but BT assured me that the wonderful new broadband would still be available.  Imagine my despair on discovering that this had been a mere conspiracy (I suspect the estate agent had bribed them to falsely reassure us) and that we were once again back to the jingly-jangly world of dial-up, interminable waiting and frustrating dropped connections.

One Saturday morning I logged on to a comparison website searching for cheaper home insurance.  After several hours of entering personal details and waiting for screens to load, Norwich Union was returned as the company for us.  I think it might very well have been less time-consuming to actually drive the 400 miles to Norwich and back to obtain my quote in person.  I complained to BT and eventually the broadband signal was switched on to our property.

To say our new broadband was slow was something of an understatement – I’ve seen funeral processions move faster – and the joys of You Tube and the BBC’s iPlayer were a long way out of reach, but at least it wasn’t dial-up and I could just about send an e-mail without printing it out, putting it in an envelope and sticking a second class stamp in the top right hand corner.

One day, we unexpectedly received a letter from local celebrity and leisure industry tycoon Carol Bowe teasing us with the prospect of superfast broadband in our area.  Could it really be true?  Could we possibly join the rest of the UK in the new millenium?  Could Carol consider staying in the UK without jetting off on holiday long enough to actually make it happen?

Detail from the album cover of “The Best of Nick Hall, 20 Enchanting Love Songs”

Eventually we were lured to a public meeting attended by interested locals, Ms Bowe and her personal staff, North Yorkshire County Council’s NyNet team, CNN & Reuters and Nick Hall of Clannet whose company specialises in delivering broadband to rural areas of Yorkshire. It transpired that many attendees didn’t really understand the concept of Nick Hall beaming signals from property to property providing our own superfast network and linking back to NyNet’s optical fibre from a local school and thought that the term “broadband” referred to six middle-aged rockers who’d let themselves go a bit.  After enduring questions such as “so would this mean that my computer would start up faster when I switch it on?” and “the timer on my immersion heater’s stopped working, could you possibly come and have a look at it?” I’d had enough and brought matters to a close by asking: “where do I sign?”

Working with Carol as our indefatigable broadband champion and Nick whose energy and enthusiasm are quite simply matchless, we formed the steering committee of The Vale Of Mowbray Community Broadband Project and within weeks receivers and transmitters were installed on our properties beaming broadband signals around our corner of North Yorkshire with fulminating speed.  Nick’s commitment to our project (which has included dropping everything to repair downed transmitters on weekends and bank holidays) has been astonishing and those of us now enjoying catching up with iPlayer and QVC’s Today’s Special Value have much to be grateful for.

As I sit in my study happily comparing insurance quotes at breakneck speed I wonder what my internet-naive self would have thought had I been able to look twelve years into the future, seeing a world without noisy external modems, scanners, CD-ROM and floppy disk drives to a time when I could happily post cheesy home-made videos to You Tube (and to those in the know, I’m saying nothing about ducks, constipated or otherwise).

My name is Nick and I have a problem. I’m a history addict.

29 Apr

There comes a time when you consider that perhaps you should ‘give something back.’  No, I’m not coughing to having been a serial thief over the years with a penchant for stuffing boxes of Shredded Wheat under my sweater in Tesco (which would make me a cereal thief – with a very baggy jumper), I’m referring to doing something for nothing for once.  So far, I’ve spent 6 years at university learning the basics of my trade then the following 14 actually doing it.  For money.  Wouldn’t it be nice I thought, to undertake some form of voluntary activity to benefit the wider community?

Since January 2011, I’ve tried various different activities, some with more success than others.  It’s true that being a boxing coach at our local gym’ didn’t quite work out as I thought it might, teaching contemporary dance in the adult education centre in town wasn’t much better, and though I felt that organising the fashion show for our local sixth form A’-level textile and design group was somewhat more successful I’m informed that tweed might not be a la mode this year (or indeed this century) after all.  How was I to know?

Last year my sister-in-law invited us to accompany the family to Kiplin Hall, near Richmond to see the Victorian Christmas decorations.  We accepted and set off expecting little more than a relatively pleasant day out viewing a few sprigs of holly and a tired old tree with perhaps a cup of tea and a scone to liven up an otherwise adequate afternoon out.  We were wrong.

If you haven’t been to Kiplin, you should.  Built as a hunting lodge in the 1620s by Sir George Calvert (later first Baron Baltimore and founder of Maryland) the hall passed through purchase and inheritance over the centuries to the custody of The Kiplin Hall Trust on its final owner’s death in 1971.  There you go: four hundred years of history in a sentence.  I could go on, in fact I usually do but I’m thinking if you’ve made it this far then I’m not going to push my luck.

Today Kiplin is presented as it might have looked in Victorian times.  It is light and cosy, warm because of its conservation-grade central heating system and filled with homely furniture and paintings, all of which comes together to make the visitor feel as if the family are just waiting to welcome you in the next room (and if you believe the ghost stories surrounding the place, they very well might be).

I’ve been to other grand houses to view their Christmas decorations and been disappointed if I’m honest, but we enjoyed Kiplin’s so much we returned the following week with the other side of the family.  On this occasion, the Warden (Elaine’s) mother (a sprightly octogenarian called Pauline with a razor-sharp sense of humour and the upper-body strength of a professional wrestler) threatened me with physical violence if I didn’t request a volunteer application form before leaving the building.  In my weakened state (having been released from the head-lock) I acquiesced and after managing to find referees who knew nothing of my time ‘inside’ as an international country house art thief, started work on 1st April as a room steward in the library.

I admit to having found the whole experience of volunteering testing at times.  We’ve pestered Dawn (the Curator) for information on each room prior to our attendance (in order to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing that it was Bartolommeo Nazzari who painted the Venetian courtesans in the library – could you even imagine the shame?), learnt the secrets of Mary’s award-winning tearoom and I’ve wrestled with the intricacies of the till (an antique model collected in Livorno by Christopher Crowe and dating from 1734).

If like me, you could cheerfully live in a stately home, immersing yourself in four hundred years of history and would enjoy the pleasure of meeting others of a similar persuasion then you could do a lot worse than volunteering in your local historic house.  I’ve loved every minute of it despite all the revision at home over the past few weeks learning my Crowes from my Carpenters and my de Morgans from my Willements and in truth, I can’t wait to get back there on Wednesday for another fix.  If you’re in the area, do drop in and say hello – though I will sell you a guidebook and a piece of date flapjack because at Kiplin, Mary really does make exceedingly good cakes.

Kiplin Hall, near Scorton, Richmond, North Yorkshire, DL10  6AT. Telephone 01748  818178, e-mail:  Open: Sunday to Wednesday 2 – 5 pm until 31st October, 2012 (tearoom from 10 am for lunches and light refreshments).

Images of hall and library © Kiplin Hall.

Being a patient doesn’t come easily.

12 Apr

It’s 9.10 pm and I’m lying in bed roaring with laughter watching re-runs of Terry and June on UK Old when suddenly I notice that my heart is racing.  Surely this can only be a response to the raucous humour before me?  Whilst Terry and June continue mining comedy gold, I notice that my heart’s still beating with all the irregularity of a politician’s expenses claim. I’m not overly concerned about this because patients often complain of “palpitations” (which can mean just about anything) especially when they’re in the silence of the bedroom, he’s forgotten to take the Viagra and consequently she’s aware of no other distracting stimuli than the forceful contractions of her heart.  An ECG and a check of thyroid function is usually all that’s required coupled with much reassurance.

The following morning I’m consulting at work when my heart suddenly begins to feel like it’s leaping out of my chest.  An interesting patient problem, a fascinating diagnostic dilemma or any other pleasing alliterative anxiety, you ask?  Alas no, this is one of those: “I think my tablets might not be agreeing with me because this year’s daffodils are not what they have been” – type issues.  I begin to feel slightly faint and hurry to encourage my patient to leave by promising to stop their simvastatin if the crocuses suffer a similar paucity of efflorescence and dash upstairs for the event monitor.

Clamping the little device to my heaving bosom I record the kind of ECG trace which is so abnormal that a first year medical student wearing a blindfold would be hard pressed to miss.  I fax the trace (anonymously) through to our local Consultant Cardiologist who rings in person two minutes later (never a good sign) to enquire if it’s my heart that’s beating to the rhythm of a former Soviet state’s national anthem.  “I’ll see you at 12.30 tomorrow Nick and in the meantime if it happens again and you feel at all unwell, it’s 999.”  Terrific.

The following day I’m waiting in Cardiology when one of my own patients appears for his pacemaker check.  “I didn’t know you had heart problems doctor?” he enquires pulling out a spiral reporter’s notebook and a dictaphone ready to return to the village and publish his astonishing discovery as an exclusive in the parish magazine.  There is worse to come as I lie on the examination couch having an ECG and echocardiogram; I reluctantly accept that I have now crossed to the other side, no longer am I wearing the tweed jacket (with the pleasing coordinating tie featuring country scenes) I am stripped to the waist and covered in ultrasound jelly: I am a PATIENT.

I am shunted into another room where a technician (who is clearly delighted that she has been asked to forgo ten minutes of her lunch break – and who can blame her?) roughly shaves my chest in readiness for fitting a 48 hour ambulatory ECG.  Wielding the razor with all the finesse of a drunken sheep shearer she takes hair and a couple of millimetres of skin for good measure before reaching for the bottle of (presumably) concentrated acid to “remove any grease from your skin otherwise the pad won’t stick.”  We finish with her (quite literally) sanding down the now viciously stinging area before applying the electrodes.  Spotting the Black & Decker nail gun I wonder if she’ll go the whole hog and staple them in place but thankfully after a few cursory instructions she sends me on my way, my portable black box recording my every heartbeat.

Over the next couple of weeks the trace is analysed and I’m treated to an exercise tolerance test. I stand on the treadmill, displaying the injuries sustained from the ambulatory tracing and looking like a stigmatic on Good Friday before being treated to an ever increasing workload as the speed and slope of the treadmill are increased every few minutes.  It is negative and I breathe a sigh of relief as the consultant informs me that it’s probably been a viral infection of my pericardium triggering runs of fast atrial fibrillation.  I need no further investigation or treatment unless I fancy a trial of beta-blockers.  I don’t.

I hadn’t been especially worried if I’m honest, having suspected this diagnosis from the start, but it was sobering to be on the other side of the fence for a while.  Doctors don’t consider that they will ever make the transition to patient, we see ourselves as somehow immune from illness and disease and for the first time in years I have some insight into what it is to be the recipient rather than the donor.  I’m grateful that this potentially worrying symptom was promptly and thoroughly investigated, my only complaint being that the scars from the 48 hour monitor stayed with me for over two years and seriously dented my chances of gaining that lucrative modelling contract for Calvin Klein’s new GP country underwear range.  I suppose, under the circumstances, I should be thankful that I don’t have life-limiting heart disease (and that I managed to land the job of creative consultant on the forthcoming Terry and June The Movie).

Saturday night TV

30 Mar

I love Saturday night TV.  Time was, when as a junior doctor those of us not on-call would all make for the local night club in our market town.  For those who haven’t experienced the pleasures of North Yorkshire’s premier night spot, you’ve not missed a lot – not since the live recording of An Audience With Kim Jong-Il have so many people had so much “fun” at the same time in one place.  It always struck me that come midnight, this particular venue was not unlike Freddie Flintoff’s crotch on the afternoon of a July test-match – a hot sweaty box with lots of pointless bumping and grinding going on.

Nowadays of course, I’m far too old to even consider attending night clubs.  Firstly, being close to pension age (at least in the eyes of the local teens) we’d attract a great deal of negative attention, and secondly I could easily fracture a hip in that difficult moment when your foot sticks to the floor in the pool of spilt WKD.  So Saturday nights are no longer for going out (unless it’s a sedate dinner party when the conversation reaches the dizzying heights of whether to go for the Antony Worrall Thompson frying pans or the Tefal) – they’re for Saturday night TV.

I should make it clear, that the Saturday TV-fest is by no means a disappointing way to spend part of your weekend.  With the return of Britain’s Got Talent you can watch a whole studio full of people making fools of themselves on national TV.  This is followed by the marvelous Take Me Out where you can watch a whole studio full of people making fools of themselves on national TV.  The joy.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I particularly enjoy the misguided antics of others, it’s just nice that someone else is doing it rather than me for a change.

B’s Got T is all the better for the return of Simon Cowell (top tip: watch for those teeth when he smiles – it’s like being back on the Golden Mile at Blackpool Illuminations on a dull November evening).  Mr Cowell has the approach of a Dyno-Rod employee – he cuts through all the crap and flushes out the rubbish – of which there is a lot.   I particularly enjoy the really bad acts (though on a serious note, I do wish they’d screen out the entrants with obvious mental health issues).  The programmes are edited so that there’s at least a couple of routines per show who are so incredible that they bring a tear to the eye and you just know they’ll be in the final.

Take Me Out on the other hand has no such redeeming features, being 100% trite.  If you’ve not encountered this particular show, in summary, Peter Kay – sorry, my mistake, Paddy McGuinness jokes: “let the hamburger see the bun” resulting in a hapless youth descending the “love lift” to face thirty young women who decide through various ‘rounds’ whether or not they fancy an all-expenses paid trip to a Syrian beech resort called “Fernandos”.  Each girl stands behind a lighted podium which she can switch off at any time – “no likey, no lighty”, quips McGuinness.  The whole spectacle is reminiscent of walking past Smithfield Meat Market first thing in the morning.  Probably one of the worst game shows ever made, I absolutely love it and would pay my license fee if this was the only thing on TV ever.  Don’t bother ringing on Saturday nights when TMO’s on – the ‘phone’s not.

Of course, we tell ourselves that we watch these shows to make cutting witticisms to each other about their contestants – as Churchill might have said: “never in the field of light entertainment has such little talent been shared by so many.”  We sit with our feet up, a glass of Blue Nun in one hand, the Argos Catalogue in the other (open at frying pans), desperately diving for the mute button on the remote control when the Go Compare ad’ airs in the breaks.

Gone for us are the days of strutting our stuff at Club Adiemus, instead we’ve resorted to catch-phrase based humour for our weekend fix.  We watch as Paddy ascends the love lift at the end of the show, announcing for another week that “it’s lights out, all out” before we jump on the stairlift and tell our significant other to make sure the standard lamp’s switched off.


Psychothyroidism – Underactivity of the clairvoyant gland

16 Mar

“My sister’s clairvoyant told me to come and see you because there’s something not right with my thyroid,” said the worried-looking patient.  I search for the smile and wait for the hearty laugh to let me know this is an elaborate joke, but alas, my worst fears are realised as it dawns on me that she’s absolutely serious.

Now I don’t spend my weekends in a caravan at the seaside  surrounded by signed pictures of Ken Dodd and The Krankies moonlighting as a palm reader, but even I could have predicted the outcome of this particular consultation. In short, there was nothing wrong with her and her bloods returned normal results. I happily broke the news a week down the line, seeking to reassure my troubled service-user who simply replied: “Well, we’ll have to keep an eye on it Doctor, because it will happen, I know it will.”

Perhaps I should be absolutely honest and tell you that I am fascinated by anything to do with psychics and mystics and magic and suggestion and I would love it to be true, but (in my humble opinion) it’s nothing more than a load of [crystal] balls.

A couple of years back we went from work to see a clairvoyant perform, sorry, my mistake: “give a demonstration” of his mentalism act, sorry my mistake again “psychic abilities” in a run down motel. We arrived half an hour before the proceedings and were met by someone doing a passable impersonation of a former member of Agadoo (remember when we all pushed pineapples and shook that tree?). Yes it was 1980s hair and spray-tan a go-go. Having had to pre-book, the four of us were carefully crossed off the list (ringing warning bells yet?) and the number ’4′ was placed next to the name.

For the next two hours (with an interval in which we were offered the fabulous opportunity to purchase his books and CDs) we were treated to: “He’s only recently passed, hasn’t he?” (to the obvious widow shaking with emotion clutching a handkerchief in one hand and a sheaf of photographs in the other), and “I’m getting June, somewhere over here” [points to whole room] “it could be a name, or a date, or it could be May?”. To be honest, I do him something of a disservice – it was both a very slick performance (for the most part) and a brilliant demonstration of the art of cold reading.

Is it fair to exploit the vulnerable like this at a time of bereavement?  Is it justifiable because it gives them comfort? Who am I to judge?  (To enter, text your answer A, B or C to 81888 – remember, entries received after death will not be counted, but may still be charged).

On the other hand, perhaps a oujia board for antibiotic requests would be helpful in a couple of years or so for those difficult consultations when Jocasta’s been sent home from prep’ school yet again with one of her highly contagious conjunctivitides. We could perhaps use it to make contact with the ghost of a once great NHS (thanks to the antics of your friend and mine Mr Lansley) to point to the word “NO” followed by “Goodbye”.

What, you’re thinking that Andy L won’t ruin your NHS?  “Well, we’ll have to keep an eye on it, because it will happen, I know it will.”  It’s written in The Star.