Cancer is our new normal

At 4.10pm on Tuesday 22nd March 2016 I started a presentation about paperless admissions at the UCAS annual conference in Newport, Wales. At 5.10pm I completed the presentation to lacklustre applause and answered a few questions from some hangers on. After reporting in to my partner back home and calling the GP to get the results of my biopsy it was 6.10pm and I was being told that I had a malignant meta-static melanoma – in layman’s terms, an incurable skin cancer that put a sudden limitation on my life. This was the day the world crashed down around my ears and, as I drove home as legally fast as I could, every possible outcome came rushing through my head – from becoming a hairless, wizened Eisenhower to passing away so quickly that my 18-month old son would grow up not remembering anything about his father from first-hand experience. My brain is a horrible, horrible place to be sometimes.
It is now Saturday night in the same week and I have told pretty much every person I know – some face to face and some via the internet. The uncontrollable sobbing has subsided (mostly) and it’s hard to think much further than the next day but there’s a new normal in town and its name is Living With-Cancer (it’s a weird name, I’ll grant you that, but I’m called Roland Monger so who am I to argue?).
As you might expect, the world takes on new meaning as songs have more weight and phrases like ‘I love you’ and ‘how are you?’ frequently turn you in to a melting puddle of tears and snot. What I didn’t expect was to get violently angry at an episode of Peter Rabbit that featured Peter watching some stolen film footage that featured his now dead father set to what seemed to be a song by the Script as covered by a losing semi-finalist from the X-Factor in 2007. I also didn’t expect to get the outpouring of love and support from people that I haven’t seen in the flesh for years. Say what you like about social media but if you need a shot of goodwill and positive vibes then let all your Facebook friends know that you have a life threatening disease and see what comes flooding back at you. I’m still not sure how I managed to attract that many nice people in my 35 years but I’m not complaining.
So, now we wait and we see what the scans bring and we make plans to live whatever there is left of life. I’m avoiding Googling anything to do with the disease so as not to freak myself out but I know I’ll get the support I need when I need it from friends, family and from within my own self.
I’ll write more when it happens and I’m not expecting you to read it or enjoy it but writing it down helps me out and if someone else finds it useful then that’s a bonus. For what it’s worth, I have a lump in my thigh about the size of a hotdog roll that the doctors thought was fat but turned out to be cancer. The moral, therefore, is if you think you have a fatty lump the size of baked goods inside your body go get it checked out and, if it turns out to be shitty cancer, then know you’re not alone. On the other hand, if you have no lumps that feel like anything untoward then just contact that friend you haven’t seen for a while or put down your I-Pad and play with your kids some more – you never know when that chance might get taken away without warning.

The idiots are in charge

I happened across an old episode of ‘cult’ comedy Nathan Barley and, apart from noticing how young Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Richard Ayoade and the rest all look, it was still a really enjoyable and fun half hour that had aged pretty well (seriously, if you’ve never seen it then check it out). However, as the end credits rolled up and I was still chuckling about Dan Ashcroft’s rise of the idiots article that was the main focus of the episode, a sudden, gripping, fearful realisation hit me. The idiots won. Sure, this sitcom was only written and aired in 2005 by the deposed Dukes of black mirth, Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris, so it was always going to be fairly relevant today but it’s scary how on the money these guys were.

Brooker and Morris riled against the increase in image obsessed screen junkies who would

Well futile … Nathan Barley promo. Photograph: Channel 4
Nathan Barley – Well futile

only go to parties to mock them and had lost all sight of what genuine fun or pleasure actually constituted. We now live in an age dominated by these very hipsters and celebrity platforms on every corner churning out the next poor victim who has signed away any dignity and self-respect in the fruitless pursuit of fame for fame’s sake. The Dan Ashcroft character is constantly mocked for actually wanting to write something valuable or engaging (like bullies swarming around a ‘swot’ at school) and now anything longer than a tweet is hard for the majority to digest without reaching for their plain glass geek-chic spectacles. In Nathan Barley we see East London ‘creatives’ riding around on children’s bicycles while only days ago I saw a full grown man gliding pompously through the city centre on a non-Doc Brown endorsed hover board – seemingly unaware that he was being easily overtaken by Old Aged Pedestrians.

Now, at least it seems as though Cowell’s TV reign is coming to an end although not in the Game Of Thrones-esque blood bath I’d been praying for. So we might hope for a world where perhaps music can regain some ground from the idiots and start to matter again, right? Wrong. While everyone was sat in watching the X-Factor, the music venues whistled with eerie silence and one by one they’ve been sold off and turned in to swanky flats, endless coffee shops and clothes shops that sell the uniforms we’re told will increase our chances of getting in the local paper as ‘best dressed shopper of the week’ because this apparently counts as news in 2016. New music, then, will come from the bedrooms in the suburbs straight to our ears via the interweb and that’s not a bad thing, fundamentally. However, when you take away the need to gig to earn money to record and rehearse and hone your craft what you get is an endless, unrelenting tide of music which it is nigh on impossible to filter through to find the good stuff hidden among the salty, contaminated tidal sludge. There is no filter and whilst that opens the airwaves up to more musicians – something of which I am a big fan – what seems to happen is that the masses think it’s funny to popularise the trite, dire ‘artists’ that clog up radio stations and TV like it’s some sort of ironic joke. I mean, seriously, does anyone really rate Olly Murs and is nobody else sick to the pit of Satan’s stomach of Adele moaning on about one break up over the course of three albums? THREE ALBUMS? Even Radiohead picked different things to moan about.

But, and this is where I start to get really worried, the idiots have seemingly started

Trump – Pull my finger

controlling the political powers as well. Sure, we always knew that most politicians are out of touch, overpaid and lacking in any real humanity – a joke in itself – but now the voting masses have started taking the piss. In March 2016, we stand on the verge of the very real possibility that two of the greatest political and financial powers in the world, the UK and USA, will be controlled by men named Johnson and Trump. We could witness meetings where one is sat thinking “In my country, your name means fart” while his counterpart fights the urge to chuckle right back thinking “Every guy I know uses your name to refer to their junk”. So that’s the western world taken in to a new era by two guys who (and I really hope this isn’t the case) are voted in because their names can give us years of guff and nob jokes to play with – surely nobody is voting for these people because of their policies or beliefs? It opens up the very real possibility that there are others out there already with hidden meanings in their name – does Mugabe mean pubic wig in Japanese? Is Merkel a piece of Swedish slang for when women tuck their skirt in to their knickers and walk around in public without noticing?

The scariest thing of all is I have absolutely no idea how to stem the tide of idiots. How far can this go? Is the next Christmas number one just going to be some kid from Surbiton singing a monotone version of ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ in to his I phone in a ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ megalolz joke on the music industry (or what’s left of it)? Is the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture going to go to a factual retelling of the 2016 Oscar race controversy, ironically still not featuring any black actors apart from Chris Rock as himself? Will local newspapers give over multiple pages to photos of pissed up idiots hanging out of Primark dresses in tacky bars and pass this off as news? Oh wait, that already happens.  Will Schwarzenegger be elected to some military role in the next government and accidently wage nuclear war on Russia because the steroids have warped his brain so much that he can’t remember he’s not in a film? I don’t have the answers, I wish I did but I don’t. All I can ask, implore, beg of you is this: Don’t be an idiot. Read beyond the headlines, make up your own mind and think about the consequences of your actions from time to time. That said, cat videos are still bloody funny so let’s not get too serious here, eh?


How does a modern family survive without the internet or telephone for 5 weeks?

I wasn’t going to write this piece, it felt like moaning about first world problems in the extreme and even in writing this I realise that it probably still is. But here’s the rub, as UWSITCH MAN so smugly says in that advert, what happened when we lost internet access in our home has been completely and utterly revealing – in good ways and bad. For a bit of background, you’ll need to understand a couple of things – I live in a small Cornish village that doesn’t get any kind of mobile signal (not even 1G never mind 4), I have a one year old son and three step-children aged eight to thirteen and I grew up in the 80s and 90s. Oh, and the reason we were without internet and phone? A cock up between BT and SSE left us virtually stranded as a family in a remote-ish location.

 Breaking the news to the kids was 75% devastating. The 1 year old just pointed and screamed as he does to pretty much everything that happens around him but the other three all reacted differently. The eldest behaved as though a beloved family pet had died, the youngest didn’t fully comprehend the full extent of the situation and the middle child forlornly tried each and every app on one of the two I pads to see if anything would still work without Wi-Fi. Nothing ‘good’ did. There were various acts of teenage frustration and vain attempts to offer suggestions – “can’t we just ring them up and tell them to switch it back on, or else?” being my favourite – but eventually a sense of resignation set in, they were facing  5 weeks without Wi-Fi or the phone. As mature, rational adults, my girlfriend and I were fine about this loss of connectivity, after all we grew up in an era when computers had rubber keys and phones were hardly ever cordless and only to be used if your dad said so. We would be absolutely fine.

The Upside

For the first few days there was reluctant acceptance but, credit where it’s due, the kids were all pretty mature about things and dusted off their various other forms of entertainment. The Wii got some attention and then board games and jigsaws were pulled out of the cupboard and, for a while, we felt like the kind of family that everyone wants to be until real life and modern society gets in the way. Argument levels dropped noticeably and imagination started to flourish – the eight year old even made a space rocket out of an empty milk bottle and electrical tape, complete with tiny passengers. Is this what Blue Peter was made from? Another gradual benefit was that the less time the older three spent on the I pads, the less energy our one year old spent trying to get hold of one proving the point that little ones will only follow what the older ones do.

From an adult perspective, we read more at bed time and, probably, slept better (as well as any parents with four kids sleep). We watched films that were more involved (i.e. less background noise and more quality movies) and made an effort to do all those little jobs around the house that only take 15 minutes but get bumped for watching that video on Facebook or scouring eBay for cheap furniture. We now have pictures that hang proudly and symmetrically on our walls rather than sitting in their frames, gathering dust on the floor. Hell, we even did a bit of gardening when the sun decided to make an appearance.

The Darkside

Now, initially the lack of connectivity was supposed to last three weeks and, to an extent, SSE kept to their word. Exactly three weeks in our phone line was restored but not router arrived so after sitting on hold for the traditional 20 minutes or so (seriously, ‘Unforgettable’ and ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’ are horrible, horrible choices for hold music) we discovered that we wouldn’t be reconnecting to the wider world for further two and a half weeks. This coincided, beautifully, with the start of the half term and, interestingly, kick started some slightly extreme reactions. The disappointment for the eldest on finding out that we would still be in limbo prompted the unexpected phrase of “I’m going to stab them through the heart for this!”. Now this kid has the usual levels of teenage hormones flying around but this was pretty ‘out there’ for him so we could tell things were getting tense. Even I was starting to get withdrawal symptoms now – there is a point during any power cut where the mood turns from romantic adventure to downright pain in the arse and that point had just been reached.

Among many other things banking had become a problem, paying bills had to wait and trying to organise anything remotely social involved going to the top of the house, typing out a message on your phone and then standing in ridiculous positions until a passing seagull bounced enough 3G in our direction. At one stage I had to drive to another house and ‘borrow’ some Wi-Fi without sounding like I was trying to borrow sugar in a flirty way just so I could activate a new credit card. As I said at the beginning, all of this sounds like problems hugely routed in the first world and they are but what is so terrifying is just how reliant we, as a family, had become on the internet. Our entertainment, finances, work, social lives, shopping and education were all tied in to the signal flying in though a box in the wall and then swarming around our house like invisible flying ants (only every day rather than once a year).

Special trips had to be made to download and complete the eldest’s homework and notes written to teachers to explain that we are currently luddites and as so couldn’t complete the task at hand. Old encyclopaedia’s were dusted off and laughed at for just how basic, out of date and non-interactive they are compared to the world wide web. Trying to choose a restaurant for an anniversary dinner came down to places we could remember the name of that we didn’t think would be booked up in advance. At one stage, I realised that I didn’t have up to date phone numbers for a large proportion of my friends so couldn’t actually text anyone as an alternative to other messaging services. So is Wi-Fi now a utility? If we run out of oil (no gas where we live) we have to put on an extra layer or borrow a heater from someone. If the water goes off then we can buy some from the shop for emergencies and when the electric dies, well, that’s what candles are for. But it’s hard to get a bottle of Wi-Fi from the local shop or spark up the wick of a wax router and given how essential connectivity is to modern life this presents a problem. A very modern, developed world problem, sure, but a problem nonetheless.

The Light Returns

As I write this we are still without Wi-Fi and an air of acceptance has descended on the house. Indoor hula-hooping has increased tenfold and that wire rack thing that we bought a year ago to hold all the bottles in the shower is finally up. I admit it, I’m looking forward to getting back online and back in touch with the world again but my partner have discussed the possibility of having an annual web purge so that we can keep our heads in the real world and remember how lucky we are to have grown up in an era when all automated and instant features of modern society weren’t so much the norm that they are today. Any coincidences with Lent are purely accidental (we are a purely secular household) as I know people who give up social media for this holy period every year then why not go one further and just turn your back on the virtual world for a few weeks – you might be surprised at what you’ll get done.

NB No animals or children were harmed in the writing of this article although many, many Sims and Clash of Clans characters have surely died miserable deaths but that’s OK because they don’t have feelings, right? Right!?!?