Wednesday, 30 August 2017

While Washing Up

I have discovered that it is a rare bit of washing up that cannot be done in the time it takes to listen to an episode of that British institution, Radio 4's The Archers. I do remember Victoria Wood saying once that she'd stopped listening to The Archers and started going into the shed and staring at the wall and found that much more interesting, but she was being harsh. Such a judgment is also, sadly, out of date, as the programme is now maddeningly racy, whereas before it was like cricket on the radio, (or, in Australia, the parliamentary live broadcast), just soothing background noise.

Unfortunately, The Archers is now:

a: a branch of whichever ministry is in charge of government service announcements, ("Oh, have you heard that lichen has been disappearing in the countryside because of spraying, Joe?", "No, Bert, but I've noticed there's not so much lichen on the village stone walls as there once was." "Yerrsse, well apparently there's a spray called 245T that we didn't ought to be using, but everyone is using it." "Is that right, Jo? Why, I think I've got a tin of that somewhere," "Well you should take it into Borchester to be safely disposed of, the offices in question are open nationwide between the hours of 6 and 10 on Tuesdays and Thursdays and they will welcome your visit, I'm absolutely certain", etc, etc)

and b: the place ex-Eastenders producers, directors and writers go for audio frolics.  As a result, while we may not be subjected to the kind of graphic sex Geoff Dyer decided to suddenly shove into one of the most up until then amusing books I'd ever read - (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; what was he thinking? Either that he could do DH Lawrence better than DH Lawrence, when it comes to sex, or that it was quite funny to claim that a few pages later that he wasn't the kind of man who boasts about sex, or just that he felt like shoving our faces in it; my view is that very detailed depictions of other people, fictitious or not, performing sexual acts upon one another leave the person doing the reading or viewing in the position of a voyeur and that there should therefore be warnings on such works of art so that those of us who would prefer not to be voyeurs could choose something else to look at or read) - we do get a lot of story lines about lurve rather than about almost nothing, which is what one used to expect from "an everyday story of country folk", (come to think of it, is The Archers still characterised in that way by the BBC? Probably not).

And not only lurve - there has also been masses of anguished stuff about rural poverty, domestic violence, gambling addiction, not to mention fermented and artisanal food. Worse still, the perfectly good actors who used to play, for example, Tom and his father, Tony, suddenly got replaced (on the grounds, I read, that they weren't experienced enough; I suspect some form of nepotism somewhere), and we were supposed not to notice. How could anyone not notice that suddenly we had one of the men from A Very Peculiar Practice playing Tony and a person with a much more annoying manner playing Tom, (which I suppose you could argue is a good move, given that Tom is very annoying as a character. But then aren't they all?)

So, if it is all such a disappointment, why do I keep on listening? Well, as I say, it does fit in very well with the time it takes to do the washing up. Additionally, and more importantly, very, very occasionally, the programme is, if not stupendously brilliant, at least faintly perceptive. An example of this occurred last week, when in a very short piece of dialogue the problem at the heart of the disintegration of contemporary life was expressed for all to hear.

The dialogue in question took place between a fairly new character,  filthy rich, new-money businessman Justin and old-money, widowed Oliver. They were talking about the possible sale of Oliver's dead wife's hotel, Grey Gables. Oliver has some debts, but he cannot bear to sell his farm, as the Grundys, the programmes ne'er-do-well heart-of-gold yokels, live there and he has promised not to shift them. Thus he wants to sell the hotel instead.

Justin, talking about Grey Gables: Old charm can only take you so far when you're trying to maximise profits
Oliver: Which is what you want to do?
Justin: It's what everyone wants to do. That might mean redundancies, high staff turnover ...
Oliver:That's my greatest concern - Caroline had such a loyal staff. They loved her and I don't want to let them down
Justin: It's a hard world out there, Oliver

There we have it, that phrase "maximise profits". What the hell happened to making a profit? Why isn't that enough, in combination with running a business that takes care of its staff and customers? Why is maximising profits at all costs the new thing? What happened to the idea of business being both profitable and community minded? How can we change back to that better way - the pre-Thatcher, triple-bottom-line approach? I think we urgently need to do so.

For the long version of how frightful everything is because of the unrelenting, singleminded drive to maximise profits at all costs, regardless of the consequences, this is a very complicated but utterly absorbing and hair-raising read. For the short version, stay tuned to the washing up and The Archers. Grey Gables will soon be luxury apartments, sod old world charm; you mark my words.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Woncky

It was that fairly rare thing in Belgium - a really beautiful day. Having missed out on spring to a large extent and quite a lot of summer, I decided I must go into the country immediately and breathe fresh air and lie on grass. 

And so I went to Wonck. Not because the Wonck Tourist Board has been promoting the Grottes of Wonck and I have fallen for them:

but just because Wonck is there.

When I arrived, I went for a wander and got all nostalgic about being a child, when my main focus was the nature table in my classroom at school. In those days my weekends were taken up with foraging for exhibits to present to the nature table, (it still rankles that Miss Pickard insisted on throwing away my beautiful dead mole after only a couple of days on exhibit in a rather superior shoe box).

In those days, I knew the names of flowers like this:




I don't know any of those sorts of things any more, and I don't think I've replaced those bits of information with anything that sustains my soul better. I began to feel rather dismal pondering this state of affairs. My camera, sensing this, decided to make my photographs take on a slightly apocalyptic colouring, to reflect the way I had begun to feel:


Spooky is a favourite word of Edna Everidge's, and one I try to avoid; however, it has its place and this, I thought, was one of them:


I was surprised when I came to this wooden tower, which didn't seem to serve a purpose, beyond being slightly scary - those tattered things hanging off the roof are creepy fingers and most of the perforations on the body are the shapes of elfin creatures, I think. The sign beside it declares with great cheerfulness, (provided you believe in miracles):  "We need a miracle, if our planet is to be saved":

And what is it with Wonck and towers, anyway? Is it a competitive sport down there I wondered, when I came to a second one within a five minute walk of the other. If so, that first one is left for dead by this amazing structure:

which is, it turns out, the life work of one Robert Bercet, a stone mason and soi-disant philosopher:
Bercet believed in love, thought, creativity, liberty, equality and fraternity. He was also keen on fossils. The tower is, I think, an expression of all these concerns.

Among the amazing features of the tower is that although it is just near Wonck, it is actually quite difficult to see from Wonck. You can in fact wander around Wonck, completely unaware that just nearby there is a tower with a winged cow, a winged lion and various other rather badly sculpted winged creatures on its roof - as well as gargoyles of a bishop, a soldier or policeman, some other figure of authority and a crocodile, (people who tell lies and generally abandon their souls to worldly things become crocodiles in Bercet's world view)m sticking out the side.

I don't know whether these stones were already there when Bercet moved in. The site was once a quarry, so possibly. Anyway, they made me think of Obelix and menhirs:

Behind the tower is a lovely grove:
Sadly, it is filled with the most frightful bits of sculpture, (I thought once of starting an Instagram dedicated to bad modern sculpture but then I realised I'd never have any time for anything else, as there is so much of it in the world that it would take up most of each day to document it).

This particular collection is dedicated to pacifism; naturally, its effect was to make me want to go and belt the living daylights out of the people responsible; I do realise this probably says more about me than about the works involved:
This one's by Eva Devaux and is called the Voice of Hope. Isn't it frightful? The caption beside it tells us that it seems impossible to unify our hopes without communicating them, without sharing them and without exchanging our ideas. It points out that there are many of ways of delivering and cultivating such ideas and that the symbol of the megaphone seems appropriate as a vehicle of cohesion and broadening of the sharing, while the woman's face, sheltered at the heart of the speaker makes one think of the words of Aragon (???), another symbol in the shape of a human. It ends with the rousing statement, "Woman is the future of man". So there. 

This unpleasant and enormous piece hurtled me forward from primary school memories to the dying days of provincial Yugoslavia. It has just the level of dreary symbolism to have been very much at home in Skopje, circa 1985. It was made by a collective, and I hardly need to tell you that the hands are raised in supplication to all the divinities in the universe, begging that all the crimes and atrocities committed in their names should cease. There is a lot of guff about hope on the sculpture's label, plus a quote from Mahmoud Darwich, (according to my diligent research i.e. one internet search, his name is usually spelt Darwish and he is a Palestinian poet who, in one photograph from a long time ago looked like Yves Saint Laurent in his heyday), which is this: "We suffer from an incurable disease: hope". My teeth are grinding at the sheer wishy washy wetness of it all, because I am a horrible, horrible person.

This piece is by Nadine Devreux and is called "Looking towards a better world". Apparently just as a tree hides in the forest, man surrounds him or herself in the protective cocoon of stereotype. Instead, we should accept our inequalities and culpabilities, without racial, sexual, religious or any other kind of discrimination, in order to overcome our fears and frustrations together and live in tolerance and respect for others, unified by our hope of making a world of love, liberty and fraternity, tomorrow. You will note she doesn't mention anything about making things of beauty, today, tomorrow or yesterday, presumably because she knows that is well outside her ability, judging by this nasty piece of work.

But if I thought that was unpleasant to look at, this took the cake. It actually made me feel sick, (I think you have to be there to absorb the full flesh crawling quality of the texture of the hanging objects). I didn't find out who it is by. I assumed it was some kind of reference to Strange Fruit, the song by the woman who isn't Billie Holiday but whose name escapes me. It turns out that it is something to do with willow leaves and the Chinese Buddha and the positive life force. I don't think any sculpture before has made me feel nauseous but this one did. Nevertheless it is called Spreading Hope. 

This one at first looked approachable, with its vague visual likeness to a cabinet in a 19th century museum. It was made by Adria Ceen and is called Glass Thought. The objects within it speak of the first part of the recovery of the artist's husband  from an accident that left him with a cerebral wound which caused him to lose language. I don't think my husband would be terribly thrilled with the offerings in a similar situation - the most stomach turning was the lizard thing with its mouth wide open, exposing an enormous pair of dentures, set in a material the colour of vomit. 

It was with some relief that I turned to the tower itself, which is admirable in the sense that it is the most amazing feat of sheer labour on the part of Mr Bercet, (and,  knowing a little of Belgian bureaucracy, I suspect quite a feat of battle against planning authorities as well):

Bercet built it himself, between 1949 and 1963, while also working in a quarry as his day job. You cannot do anything but stand in admiration before his indefatigability, even if a tiny voice keeps asking, "But to what end?"

By the entrance there is this sign, written on what may be slate but may be a piece of inner tyre, I couldn't quite tell. It says: "The stones that are here are witnesses to life through the ages. Let them speak for themselves. Don't write anything on them, don't vandalise them, don't take any away. To respect work is to collaborate with it. Peace and poetry live here. Be worthy of them."

I don't agree with all the claims in that statement, but I do feel sorry that apparently people have stolen a lot of the fossils Mr Bercet embedded in the tower's walls.

Anyway, in I went, and found inside some pictures of Mr Bercet. Here he is with his mother, when he was a small boy:
Here he is with his wife; the expression on her face isn't entirely thrilled, but perhaps it was just the light at that moment:
Here he is later in his life, still with his wife, who still doesn't appear to be exactly jumping for joy:
Here he is very late in his life, making some point with what I suspect may have been his usual conviction, (dogmatism, even?):
The rest of the interior of the tower is given over mainly to a museum devoted to Mr Bercet's thoughts. By the time I'd finished reading and listening to what he had to say, I was feeling exceptionally glad I hadn't remained at the nature table stage of existence, for I fear that that might be exactly what happened to Mr Bercet. The whole enterprise of his tower and his pacifist sculpture garden and his long screeds of so-called philosophy - (upstairs in the tower is a room in which the portraits of various well-known scholars are hanging, beside one of Mr Bercet himself, which suggests he saw himself as part of a pantheon of great thinkers) - struck me in the end as an example of what happens when quite a lively mind is left to itself, rather than taken off by its owner to engage with other lively minds at a university. The energy and intensity of the man was enormous, but what he ended up formulating seems to me to be a bit of a muddle, with various pieces of religious tradition, some science, some history and a smattering of philosophy thrown together in what ends up as less than its parts.

On the other hand, would the world have ever seen any stone-walled rooms with dinosaurs busting right out of the structures, if Bercet had gone off to the Sorbonne:

Or rooms with rather bewildered looking angels holding up the roof:
Or indeed a tower in the Belgian countryside with a flying cow on its roof:
Or a flying lion:



Or a gun embedded in its parapet:
I have never been convinced by so-called outsider art, but I think that is what Mr Bercet's tower is an example of. It struck me as a rather lonely enterprise. I hope he had some happy moments on this earth, rather than just being a raging ball of slightly confused ideas. I hope his wife did too; she looks in those pictures rather as though she might not have had the jolliest of times imaginable.

Meanwhile, Mr Bercet, unaware that he was creating outsider art, came up with the idea of "flint art":

Flint art, he tells us, is the tacit message of the gods. Art is eternal and there are  examples that have been made for the intelligent to find for 60 or 70 million years.





I left cured of my nostalgia for innocence, convinced that innocence, unharnessed by education, all too easily curdles into dottiness. On the other hand, I also thought that someone might imagine a quite interesting novel about Bercet, unschooled genius nutter, alone in a world of Philistines who laughed at him and pinched his fossils. A bit of a sad novel though.

On the other side of the road, someone was growing apples:

They looked tantalisingly red and shiny and delicious. I wondered if that mightn't have been an easier and better way to lead his life, if Mr Bercet hadn't been so determined to make a mark, to be seen as a great individual. But then again, look what happened the last time someone started thinking about picking apples.

The world is full of strangeness - and most of all of strange people. Mr Bercet's tower is certainly quite an achievement and, in a certain sense, a sight to see. Whether it is, to use the Michelin phrase, "worth a detour", depends on how much time you have to spare. I'm not sorry I went. Although I wish I hadn't seen some of those sculptures. Too late now. Once seen, things cannot be unseen.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Norman Lewis on the BBC

Norman Lewis wrote one of my favourite books, which I only read because it was a "battered penguin". I had almost forgotten how much I loved him until I was reminded of his existence by Don McCullin's decision to nominate him as the subject of a programme in the Great Lives series. I love him so much that I overcame my usual aversion to Matthew Parris's manner and listened to the episode, and I recommend that everyone else in the world does too (but ignore Parris's stupid questions about whether Lewis was a cad or made up things). You should be able to find the episode under Great Lives in the BBC radio IPlayer.

Meanwhile, here are Lewis's Guatemalan tribal people, the Chillams, on the move, to everyone's surprise:

"a  white creeping advance of human lava [moving] towards the centre of Guadaloupe', 'moving not so much as individuals but as a gigantic hollow muscle contracting slowly', 'flowing steadily across the bottom of the Alameda - over the central flower beds, across the wide, mosaic pathway, filling the roadway and streaming through more flower beds and shrubberies ...as slow and deliberate as the lazy advance of rollers seen from afar off up a wide beach ... like a termite army [that] would take the shortest route to their objective,' "

Monday, 21 August 2017

Stuff

Among the famous things Frank Zappa said and did, there was his comment about Communism, quoted somewhere else on this blog, but always worth a rerun - "Communism doesn't work, because people like to own stuff." I was vividly reminded of this on the weekend, when a huge festival of long distance riding set up in the park behind my house.

Having visited Mongolia at an impressionable age, I have never forgotten the horsemen of that country. Their skill and courage was astonishing. Their equipment was virtually non-existent. What they used as a bridle, we would have thought was really just a bit of rope with knots.

But here in Brussels, if you are a horse fancier, that will not do at all, judging by what I saw on Saturday and Sunday. To ride long distance, you need heaps and heaps and heaps and heaps of stuff - bridles, martingales, brightly coloured saddles, under saddle blankets, over saddle blankets, special farriers with special things to put on your horse's very special hooves. Bits, tail guards, rain proof reins, stirrups of every description, grooming brushes, mane combs, hoof picks, ear protectors, (for the horse's ears, not yours, I should point out).

Stuff, it's the fabric of our economy. I remember now the people we saw in Norfolk once, going for the shortest, flattest, most non-exertive (is that a word) of walks, but kitted out in weatherproof clothing and high tech boots, nordic sticks at the ready, maps in plastic folders hanging from lanyards round their necks. It took them more time to get ready than to complete the actual stroll they were getting ready for.

Stuff, gleaming at you from shops and stalls and in huge department stores. For me, the temptation is always gadgets - MP3 players, then iPhones, now blue tooth earphones. I don't really need any of it, but acquiring it all is such a thrill. I wonder what the impulse originates from, what primitive urge we are fulfilling.

As we are soon to move house, which means packing up all the stuff we've accumulated, perhaps stuff is rather more on my mind than it might be.

But, swerving off onto another tack - or rather going back to the beginning and the mention of Communism, has anyone noticed the thing that links Communism and Islam? In both cases, whenever things go wrong, it is claimed that it isn't the fundamental doctrine that is the problem, it is the interpretation and the way it is put into practice. In both cases, I find myself beginning to wonder whether it matters whether the fundamental doctrine is actually marvellous, when so terribly often the interpretation leads to such disaster. It seems to me that a set of ideas that is best when not in contact with humanity in all its devious wickedness is a set of ideas that it might be good to leave well alone.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Still Some Way to Go

In 2012, wandering about in Budapest, I was surprised by this. Half a decade later, I saw this and was astonished so little had changed, at least when it comes to selling "meat products":






Saturday, 5 August 2017

Doctors and Nurses

I got a message the other day. It was from a woman called Christine. My brother and I had made friends with Christine and her husband Bill, who was a patient in the oncology ward along with my brother. As you can probably guess, the news was not good. Bill had died.

I had succeeded up until then in remembering only the more positive side of the weeks my brother spent in hospital, in thinking only of the many admirable doctors and nurses who took care of him there - the huge mental efforts made by the specialists to work out how to make my brother better, the kindness and skill of so many of the nurses.

But, sadly, it wasn't all like that, as I had chosen to forget until I heard of Bill's death. Instead, the experience was, perhaps as always when humans are trying to achieve something within a large, impersonal organisation, a muddle of good, not so good and downright terrible. Those in the system who were dedicated and marvellous were far too often let down by their less committed colleagues. Mattresses deflated - “They send us a flawed one in every batch”, “I forgot that if I unplugged it, this would happen” - leaving my brother's frail, painwracked body resting on a hard metal frame for far too long. Agency nurses discussed their social lives over him, as if he were not a living thing; instead of concentrating on this ill human being, they discussed parties and television and thus neglected to bear in mind that his feet and ankles were so painful that even brushing against them was excruciating; consequently, it was often the porters - the lowest of the low in the hieararchy, but many of them in fact truly angelic - who had to remind the more careless nurses to be kind.

There was the unforgivable Monday when, the pharmacy having been closed - as always - over the weekend, the oncology ward ran out of painkilling drugs for several long, long hours. There was the Northern Englishwoman in the basement who had scanned my brother so many times that she couldn't really have failed to recognise him as he came down for scan No. 7 or 8. Yet she not only refused to respond with any kind of warmth to his cheery greeting but managed to almost strangle him by starting to drag his bed towards her office, without first taking the trouble to notice that he was connected to the oxygen supply on the wall behind him. And when I yelped to her that she needed to stop, that the cord was tightening round his neck, she just looked irritated. She showed no compassion; no contrition; she didn't say sorry or acknowledge that she had done something rather alarming. Recalling that incident, remembering that woman, I think I understand why I've decided until now not to remember the bad stuff.

That woman was an exception though, in the sense that generally it wasn't the business-hours day-staff at the hospital who caused the moments of real misery and pain. The biggest recurring problem, the dread, was always what would happen during the night time, the weekends and the public holidays. Too often the shifts at these times were staffed by people who seemed to be doing their work purely because they needed the money, (a factor of course in why anyone works but in the caring professions never a good one to have as your main motivation). These were people who very, very often didn't have very good English - the best example I can give of this being a problem is to point to what happened three nights before my brother died, which I only learnt about the following morning when a nurse came to talk to him. She began by telling him that she understood that he had had a bad experience with a couple of nurses in the early hours of the morning and she would like to know what had happened, in order to avoid a similar situation occurring again. My brother was reluctant to dob and also very weak (plus, judging by his tone, he felt somewhat hurt and humiliated by the experience, which had been close to nightmarish  and something he rather wanted to forget). Eventually though he agreed to explain what had happened; the conversation that followed went along these lines:

My Bro - They just seemed to be very lackadaisical and they were quite rough - they were just manhandling me a bit. I'd been told I was allowed to have fentanyl whenever I wanted to and so I asked for it. They told me I couldn't have it until two o'clock the next afternoon, which went against everything my doctor had told me - and he has just confirmed that
Nurse - I'm afraid that was a matter of poor charting, so your change in intake hadn't been charted
My Bro - But some nurses are kind and try to find out whether there has been a misunderstanding; these had such poor English that it came out as terribly dogmatic "No, you no can have it - no, no, tomorrow only. Two o'clock - not before, no."
Nurse - I think that is a bit of a language barrier. It is very hard.
My Bro - So I was in physical pain and there was a big language barrier. We spent yesterday discussing the fact that I am going to die soon and sorting out my treatment in the face of that, so most people here know that I do not have much time left on earth
Nurse - I don't think it was intentional that they were being a bit rough . It just shows how important communication is.

When I suggest that it was partly a result of the language barrier that many of the non-english speaking nurses didn't have enough compassion and insight to be good at the job of caring for the very ill, I should emphasise that this is not an anti-foreigner argument, as it works in both directions. One of my most horrible memories of that time is an incident where the language barrier seemed to create a reverse problem, with equally bad results. This memory involves a Chinese man who didn't have good English and who kept calling out that he needed a commode; somehow the nurse assigned to him, not a Chinese speaker himself, didn't appreciate the urgency, despite the man's repeated calls, which were perfectly clear, but accented - “Poo, I need do poo”, he called, “Yeah, mate be there in a minute”, the nurse,  replied, “No poo, I need poo now”, “Yeah, mate, coming”, then the saddest of sighs from behind the Chinese man's bed curtains and the whispered words, “Too late”. No one should have to suffer that kind of humiliation, least of all when very, very ill.

In addition, I must emphasise that I am not contending that the less dedicated members of staff are wicked people – I wouldn't have enough compassion and insight and patience to be a nurse and I certainly wouldn't try to do the job in a country where I was not a native speaker of the language. I think what I am suggesting is that the selection procedures for and training of nursing staff need to be focussed much, much more on very intent listening, on establishing a relationship with each patient, on being attuned to the patients' individual needs, on putting aside and forgetting one's own preoccupations for the duration of the hours at work and being able to understand and make oneself understood. I have to admit that for a while I did believe that it was thoughtless negligence that hastened my brother's death; now I am almost convinced that he was being attacked by something truly vicious, but I still cannot forget the weekend when he was left in extreme discomfort and, as it turned out, danger, because agency nursing staff were too careless to listen to him or too ignorant to understand that the drain to his chest cavity had been blocked for some time and he was essentially almost drowning in the fluid building up around his lungs.

To play the devil's advocate, I must admit that some patients might induce a sense of hopelessness in hospital staff and lead good professionals to become apathetic. I will never forget the young man who was brought into the oncology ward to begin an urgent series of chemotherapy treatments. He was from Wollongong and because it was a holiday weekend, the hospital up there was unable to start him off and so he was brought down to Sydney to get things going. His young partner told everyone who cared to listen that his chemo was due to finish at almost exactly the same time that their first baby was due to be born. Given this, I was particularly shocked when, at the end of the holiday weekend they were packing up to go back to Wollongong and I heard him ask this young woman whether his smokes were in the car.

Yes”, she replied, “I knew if I didn't bring them, you'd just make me stop at the servo to get some.”

He smiled. “I haven't had a smoke since I came in here”, he told her, “I reckon that's what's been making me feel so crook, not the chemo.”

And there was the afternoon when I was sitting in a courtyard, waiting for something to be finished being done to my brother. A man came out in an electric wheelchair, a tangle of drip lines swinging as he rolled along. I was surprised when he didn't park himself at a table but headed straight for the drain outlet in the courtyard's paving. All became clear when he pulled a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from his pocket, lit up, inhaled deeply and then vomited down the drain. He repeated this procedure several times, then dropped the cigarette stub down the drain, where presumably he knew his vomit would safely extinguish it, and steered himself back in doors.

But my brother wasn't like that. In fact, I'd say he was an ideal patient. But, except when he was in ICU, where there is not a single member of staff you cannot trust literally with your life – if only everywhere in hospitals such standards could be across the board normal – he was not always treated as well as he should have been. Whenever I left him behind in the hospital, I felt fearful, because not all the staff, especially at night time, were people I felt total confidence in.

To reiterate, because I do not want anyone to get the wrong idea: I definitely am not talking about any of those superb individuals who work in the hospital system who, when I think of them now, bring tears of gratitude to my eyes because of their kindness, their comforting presences, their total concentration on doing everything they can to make their patients better or at least to ease their time as patients. I am talking about the people who betray their best efforts, the B team nurses, those who I suspect are employed because not enough money or resources goes into properly understanding the standard of care that is essential from nurses. 

And I am also talking about hospitals themselves, great blundering, many-tentacled organisms, where things operate mysteriously from time to time. I think of the way in which, without explanation or communication, things would occasionally be allowed to drift for a day or two; in these interludes, when no one came to see my brother to explain where things stood and what was planned, it was frightening; he ended up feeling that he had been abandoned, that, although no one had told him, there was in fact no longer any plan for his treatment and possibly no longer any belief that treatment would make a difference. 

As I say, those times were frightening, but there were also the days when too much was arranged. The common factor linking both kinds of days was lack of communication: without any warning or consultation, three separate scans or radiotherapy sessions would be scheduled and three porters would arrive to take him off at exactly the same time or, in some ways worse still, one almost immediately after the other, so that he became exhausted, heaved about from place to place, knocked and shoved, given no chance to rest. And there was the time when at nine thirty at night he was suddenly moved to a new ward, without it having been mentioned that this was going to happen. 

There is also the crazy situation with patients' televisions. A set has been suspended from the ceiling above each patient's bed in most of the hospitals I've seen inside of in the past few years - not only in Australia but also in the United Kingdom. All fine and good - but why on earth did each hospital administration, when it agreed to install these things, not also ensure that headphones were supplied for every television, to prevent patients in adjoining beds from being disturbed by their neighbour's viewing preferences? This is just a mad scheme and it is baffling that hospital administrations everywhere seem to allow it. It cannot be good for anyone's recovery from illness to be forced to listen to television broadcasts when trying to rest. 

Within the larger mystery that was the hospital, there was also the pharmacy, which operated on a business hours only timetable and refused to acquiesce to the palliative doctors when they wanted half dosages of certain drugs - there seemed to be some kind of running battle going on regarding this issue,  as if someone in a nine-to-five pharmacy would have a better understanding of what was needed by patients than the people working up in the wards with those patients.

Anyway, one morning Bill arrived on the oncology ward. He was a commodity that cannot be bought or trained. He was a natural. He was sick as a dog but he cheered up the whole ward anyway. What must he have been like when he was healthy? Because, although I don't really understand how he did it, while he was there, that dire place seemed brighter. And although he had never heard of my brother – his wife was terribly apologetic about the fact that they never looked at or listened to the ABC – he took to him. Indeed, they took to each other. And as things got darker, as it became more obvious which way we were headed, Bill was very kind to me as well.

I should end by yet again emphasising that the majority of the care at the Prince of Wales Hospital is magnificent, that where it is let down, it is let down by 1) a problem of the larger health system, where insufficient thought has been given to the fact that the never-ending round-the-clock need for provision of care is inconsistent with a Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five system and 2) lack of funds, which leads to the employment of less than optimal staff at times. 

I think that the first issue is something common to many health systems; it needs to be addressed urgently but cannot be by individuals outside the system itself. The second issue though is something that we can do something about. In that context, my daughter is running in the City-to-Surf next weekend to raise money for the Prince of Wales Hospital. If you would like to donate something toward supporting the many, many excellent people who work in that hospital and possibly funding the employment of more of that calibre, you can do so here

In the meantime, vale Bill. You were a great human being.