Archive for October, 2007

It’s my Dad’s birthday today, and I completely forgot. I feel slightly smaller and more ashamed than a six year old who has just spilled Ribena all over the carpet. Not only is it a completely unforgivable thing to do, I was actually speaking to him on Skype and still failed to realize. I am currently hiding in a small box in the corner of my flat dictating this to my secretary in a thin and reedy voice. A is coming over later to give me a well-deserved tongue lashing and to point out that I’m a pathetic excuse for a son.

A lot of people are extremely cavalier about birthdays, claiming that they matter not a jot and generally scoffing at the whole idea. This has never been the case in my family, largely thanks to my Mum who is inclined to come down on such attitudes like a ton of bricks, and quite rightly so. There should be a day at least once a year on which everybody sits back and says ‘you know what, my brother/sister/uncle/mother/father is actually a pretty nifty guy and we should give him presents or a card or a phone call to make it clear that we feel this way.’ Well, I failed on all three counts so I’m writing this instead. Poor substitute I know, but I’m out of options at this point.

So, I think it’s important that I point out to the planet that my Dad is indeed one of the world’s finest fellows. I’m not just saying that, he really is an unusually admirable guy. When I was about seven I remember thinking that he was the nicest, funniest, cleverest, most generous, and, above all, the coolest person I knew. Thirty years later, I find that my opinion hasn’t changed in the slightest. As a Dad he’s pretty much perfect. If I ever do manage to grow up I hope I turn out something like him. Pretty much everything that I know about being a good man I owe to his influence, although I often fail miserably to put it into practice. If it wasn’t for my Dad I would never have heard of the Goons, or Hancock, or how to behave like a civilized human being. I wouldn’t know about tobogganing, or snow ball fights, or Bentley Continentals, or James Bond, or what conkers are for, or why it’s a good idea to travel across the world in a train, or how to use a screwhammer, or how to treat everybody, no matter who, as a valuable and unique human being. My entire philosophical and moral approach to life is based on the strong but subtle attitudes of my Dad. I honestly believe that if we could put my Dad in charge of the world universal peace and sensible attitudes would have prevailed by teatime. I can’t think of anyone I would rather have on my side, and I’m immensely lucky that he is. Looking back I can’t think of a single occasion on which he has let me down – there just aren’t any. That’s one hell of an achievement on it’s own. He has never failed to encourage me when I needed it and has always restrained from pointing out that I was behaving like a complete arse, even when I richly deserved it. I shudder with embarrassment when I think of the number of times he has gone out of his way to help me move, avoid bankruptcy, recover from setbacks, or just have a laugh in difficult circumstances. I consider myself to be almost supernaturally fortunate to have such a Dad.

By the way, my Mum is also a hell of a person, but she will have to wait until I forget her birthday for a similar post – except I will be buried under a ton of bricks at the time.


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Rumours of my demise were, I’m afraid, exaggerated. Rumours that I’ve been lying flat on my back thinking up ways to sue the designer of the human lumbar system were, however, right on the money – assuming there were any rumours of that kind. According to statistics that I vaguely remember ignoring at some point, back pain is the number one cause of lost man-hours in all developed economies, and I can well believe it. Of course the number one cause of lost man hours in non-developed economies tends to be along the lines of ‘being shot through the neck by state police’, or ‘starving to death’ so I shouldn’t complain too much, but I was astonished at how completely debilitating having a bad back actually is. I had never experienced this particular delight before so it was quite interesting – for the first couple of hours. After that I quickly began to tire of not being able to actually do anything, and I mean anything, except stare at the ceiling and wonder where my next meal might be coming from.

Apparently some obscure internal doohickey somewhere in my spine had, for unknown reasons, decided to impose a complete French-farmer style blockade on any and all movement in the rest of my body. Any attempt to twitch, shift, shuffle or in any way reposition was met with the kind of stabbing pain that makes you temporarily forget who you are and flail your arms around in a vigorous but ineffectual manner. I tried rational negotiation: “Would you mind awfully if I shifted my left leg a quarter of an inch to the left?” I said, “No, sorry, nothing’s moving” replied my lumbar vertebrae and underlined the point with a particularly searing shaft of agony. The only thing to do it seemed was to sit tight and wait for the doohickey to get bored and return to business as usual.

After a couple of days I found I was able to lever myself into a kind of half-kneeling half-kowtowing position without suffering beyond the call of duty and, from there, managed to use chairs, walls, and the occasional naughty word to drag myself upright. Actually moving one leg in front of the other was still way beyond me, but I was able to shuffle sideways to the kitchen and manufacture a simulacrum of a cup of tea in a little under 3 hours. Thankfully A popped in on a regular basis and fed me all kinds of nourishing Polish soups whilst muttering darkly about “going out in the wind” and recommending, inevitably, that I should visit the nearest doctor for get 14 different kinds of injection. I ate my soup and ignored her meteorological and medical advice in the traditional British manner. As I gradually developed my shuffling skills I found I was able to do all manner of useful things such as answering the door and even splashing water in the general direction of my face. Interestingly, one of the many, many things that one can’t do with a bad back is type. This is primarily because it involves sitting down, which was apparently number one on the list of things that my vertebrae doohickey was unhappy about. It’s extremely difficult to type from any other position than sitting. If you lie on your back you can’t see the screen. If you lie on your side you’re forced to use one arm to prop yourself up and are thereby restricted to ineffectual two finger input and frequently required to rest. I was advised to lie on my front by various authorities but the kind of effort involved in getting into that particular orientation simply didn’t seem worth it.

Late on day four I mounted an ambitious expedition to get myself out the door, down the stairs, and up the road to the shops with the bonus goal of also getting back again at some point. After a mere 30 minutes of sweaty labour I had managed to retrieve my shoes from the floor and somehow lever them onto my feet. I didn’t even begin to consider the possibility of socks. I was quite pleased. Getting hold of something that had been on the floor was a significant and novel achievement in itself. Up until that point if I dropped something it pretty much had to stay dropped, unless I really, really needed it, or it was on fire in a fairly major way. Pretty much everything was on the floor by this stage and I was rapidly running out of accessible cutlery, nail clippers, clothes, watches, and electrical appliances.

Getting down the stairs was daunting, but proved to be possible. Walking up the street was a different issue. Manoeuvring around my flat I had been quite impressed with my developing ability to walk, but it proved to be hopelessly inadequate for real-world conditions. Propelling myself forwards meant adopting a hunched shoulder position and carefully moving one foot about 10 centimetres in front of the other with eyes firmly fixed on the ground looking out for potholes and other tripping hazards. Negotiating my way around other pedestrians was right out of the question. My strategy was to shuffle well within the comfortable personal space of anyone in my way and mutter whilst staring at the floor. Remarkably effective. A couple of times I came up against a venerable Babci shuffling in the opposite direction (my how I envied those walking sticks). We locked gazes and mentally calculated before performing a gradual orbit around each other with something approaching mutual respect. The occasional able-bodied person would casually brush past at speeds nearing 3 kilometres per hour causing the kind of involuntary muscle reflex of avoidance that produces all sorts of hurt in a bad-backed person. These people were liberally, lengthily, and justifiably cursed for their troubles. In the shop I suffered a minor setback when I realized there was absolutely no way I could bend down to collect a basket (walking around a Polish shop without a basket is an offence punishable by death by the way). Fortunately I was able to scare a small child into dropping his basket and running away and I caught it on the way down. Of course it was impossible to select anything below waist level so I eventually returned home with a satisfying dinner of cornflakes hamburger relish and 14 Kit Kats. I dipped them in my soup.

I’ll tell you something about the Poles, nobody ever told them that staring is rude. When I was a nipper it was received wisdom that openly staring at odd balls, weirdoes, crazies, and sick people was a no no. It’s a fact of life that has allowed me to get as far as I have in British society. Poles are completely unaware of this simple rule. In fact, I suspect that young Poles are sent to special staring schools where they learn to gawp intently at anything out of the ordinary. If staring were an Olympic sport the Poles would be legendary. You’re catching on to my general point here. Polish people like to stare. Apparently shuffling down the road at a snail’s pace is well within the legitimate grounds for Polish-style staring. As I wended my weird and shuffling way to the shops people were fetching chairs out from their flats and settling down to a protracted staring session. I’ve noticed this predilection before I must admit. When I first came to Poland 10 years ago, speaking English in public would cause people to fix their gaze on you as if they expected you to start eating your own leg at any moment. Recently, on the way to a wedding in a Polish village one woman almost broke her neck in her efforts to stare into the car I was travelling in. I swear, the other day I saw a blind girl who had been provided with a dog that was specially trained to do her staring for her. The hound fixed me with a beady gaze, its head tilted to one side, as it’s mistress casually wondered into the path of an oncoming number 8 tram. She died safe in the knowledge that her staring quota had been fulfilled by her faithful canine.

I have to admit that the particular manner of walking I was forced to adopt did resemble, in almost every detail, the traditional staggering style of the Polish drunk. Head down, deliberate and slow movement of the feet, occasional protracted bouts of swearing, unpredictable movements, it’s all there. Still, exactly why a Pole would want to stare at a Polish drunk I have no idea. My neighbours still regard me with something approaching disgust even though I am now upright and non-shuffling. Of course if any of them bothered to hold a door open for me, thank me for holding a door open for them, or indeed responded to my occasional greetings I might consider crossing them off my ‘Assassination – immediate action’ list. I have operatives standing by, believe me.

Anyway, I’m much better now. Witness the fact that I’m typing this – from a sitting position and using both hands.

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