Self-medicating

It has often been said, mostly by those with no medical training, that laughter is the best medicine.  While I was up in Edinburgh, I developed a cold (OK, as this did not involve a lab and a team of rogue geneticists perhaps I should say a caught one) and I am unconvinced that any over-the-counter ‘medicines’ have any positive impact on the progress of the virus (except – if I’m lucky – for acting as a brief palliative).  However, my location and the time of year did mean that I did extensively self-medicate with comedy.  The cold proved very mild and the worst of the symptoms swiftly passed – could this be down to my frequent laughter?  Or was this purely coincidental?  As I am unwilling to be infected with multiple cold viruses and then ‘treated’ with varying degrees and styles of comedy we will probably never know – sorry folks, my commitment to the advancement of scientific knowledge only stretches so far.

Despite my obviously overweening self-regard, I do realise that the vast majority of the readership of this blog will not be visiting the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  However, this is also true for significantly more august organs with a much wider readership and the fact doesn’t stop them – and so it won’t stop me.  Plus, I do have an actual reader request for my comedy highlights!  And, you never know, these funny folk may visit a venue near you one day…

So, in no particular order (though I have not properly randomised the list) are my favourite ‘acts’ from those I saw over the last week.

  • Kieran Hodgson (FF): this is the third year I’ve seen Kieran’s one man show, in which he tells a story playing all of the characters.  The bad news (for me) is that his genius has now been recognised by others, including a 5* review in The Guardian, which may make him rather harder to see in future (or it may involve arriving very early to be sure of a seat).
  • John Robins: probably my 5th or 6th visit to his Edinburgh shows.  He really is a very funny performer, mining two-and-half relatively minor incidents for a full hour of laughs.
  • Brett Goldstein: my first time, inspired by seeing SuperBob earlier in the year.  He was a lot of fun, and surprisingly soft-spoken given that when he is invariable cast as a thug when you see him acting.
  • George Egg: almost a speciality act with jokes.  George cooked a full, three course meal using only the equipment you find in a typical hotel room. e.g. iron, kettle, trouser price etc.  At a time when many struggle to microwave an instant meal, the man should be an inspiration to us all – and perhaps placed on the National Curriculum.  His poached sea bass was glorious and you will never look at a wire coat-hanger in quite the same way again.
  • Max and Ivan: incredibly funny, apocalyptic story-telling.
  • Alfie Brown: inspired to see him following his interview on ComComPod.  Very funny and the finest Derby accent you will ever hear (including in Derby!).
  • Stuart Goldsmith (FF): I’ve seen and loved all of his Edinburgh shows.  This was his first time on the Free Fringe and he seemed much more relaxed and the show was excellent.  Arrive early as it tends to fill-up.
  • Nick Doody (FF): effortlessly funny, intelligent comedy.  I think we can all see why I’m not paid as a critic – this is nearly as bad as writing “satisfactory progress” in a school report, but Nick was brilliant and criminally under-attended last Tuesday.

It was great to see some old ‘friends’ doing well, some newer discoveries and some acts entirely new to me this year.  None of the people I saw are massively famous (as far as I know – be aware, this does not preclude massive fame) and it is hard to see the character comedy, in particular, working as well on radio or TV.  As I grow ever more ancient, I become increasingly convinced that comedy works best seen live and preferably in a small, sweaty venue – somehow it loses something important on the television and in larger spaces and even, sometimes, on radio (which is the medium that introduced me to comedy).  In so many parts of the country, it seems so hard to see a broad range of comedy – and, particularly, the full hour scale shows which can be important for more narrative acts.  I usually have to travel to London or Edinburgh to see old friends or expand my comedy horizons – a situation not helped by the fact that the ‘industry’ seems to believe that comedy should start late in the evening with little thought for those who have to catch the last train home (and the rail industry’s view that this last train should be well before 10pm unless it departs from London).

I always suspect that live comedy is missing a substantial, albeit latent, audience who are put off by the difficulty of seeing so many acts and the late nights and/or additional hotel costs which even the keen must endure.  Then again, I am broadly recognised as slightly odd and so generalising from my own experience may be fiscally irresponsible.   Nevertheless, if I had a larger parlour (and owned a few more chairs), I would be tempted to book acts myself and then attempt to defray the costs across an audience of 20 or so friends or acquaintances (or total strangers with cash – though this may cause issues with my lease): I suspect a couple of hundred quid (plus standard-class rail travel) would be enough to tempt many to indulge in a mid-week visit to the south coast.  I suppose I could rent a space – but this increases the costs and so would require improved marketing to boost the audience and keep my costs down.  Then again, how much can a church hall or pub room cost?  I think I shall investigate: if things go well, I could have a whole new career as a live comedy promoter!

Cold comfort

Some readers may have been wondering about the break in service here at GofaDM, most (I suspect) will have just been enjoying the peace and quiet.  A few may have correctly guessed that my cold, once eliminated from my sinuses, did not do the decent thing and leave my body.  No, instead it chose to begin a seven day residency in my chest and throat – which has meant me spending much of the last week coughing (both day and night).  I have also had much reduced appetite – though in some ways, for a chap trying to base his diet on local fruit and veg, this is about the best possible time of year to eat rather less.

I am far from alone in suffering under a prolonged cough, based on my friends and family, I am thinking of naming 2015 the Year of the Cough (though I note that our Chinese friends went with the Goat).  Indeed, I spent last week staying in an unseasonably warm Edinburgh with friends who were both similarly afflicted.  Obviously, this rather limited my scope for sympathy – but the excellent Edinburgh Science Festival provided further restrictions on traditional responses to a nasty cold.

A common response is to seek an antibiotic prescription from your doctor – rarely useful as most colds are viral in nature and antibiotics can (at best) see off bacteria (and perhaps archaea? fungi?).  Having been to a brilliant talk entitled Antibiotic Apocalypse! I was fully aware of the risks to both patient and society of unnecessary prescribing of antibiotics.  I could have been suffering from “strep” throat, but since it seems to have largely cleared up with the benefit of time, some menthol sweets and a lot of hot drinks (many containing honey and lemon) that now seems unlikely.

It was also very hard to wallow in self-pity after going to a talk on Motor Neurone Disease (or ALS for any American readers).  This would tend to put one’s minor ailments in their place at the best of times, but the fact that I spent a good hour sitting within a few feet (at times less than three) of a chap who really was dying (and fast) really did make it impossible.  He – Gordon Aikman – is a one time national gymnast and is still barely thirty: which certainly reminds one of the capricious (and cruel) nature of Fate.  The talk was fascinating and rather affecting: we know neither what causes MND nor can do anything to prevent its progress and Stephen Hawking is certainly not a typical sufferer – half of all patients die within 14 months of diagnosis and very few live for as long as five years.  It is surprisingly common – with some 400 current sufferers in Scotland alone.  Given our extensive ignorance and the swift, debilitating progress of the disease, efforts focus on improving the (all too short) lives of patients and basic research to try and understand why neurons in the motor cortex and spine start dying.  Some of the former efforts can be quite simple: for example, arranging for patients to have a single appointment to cover everything rather than forcing them to waste their very limited remaining time visiting five different specialists.  Others are more complex, including an attempt to use modern technology to allow sufferers to keep their own voices – rather than a standardised electronic voice – which improves quality of life for both them and their friends and family.  It certainly made me think how important it is not to waste NHS money on things which benefit neither patients, medical staff nor tax-payers.  It marks the current government’s awful, bodged attempts at soi-disant reforms (which seemed cunningly designed to help none of the traditional stakeholders even had they worked) as particularly wicked – they have probably set back real attempts to improve the financial management of the NHS by decades.  It also threw into sharp focus the trivial nature of any of the election debates on the subject of the NHS.

Anyway, lacking a decent route to self-pity and unaided by antibiotics, my immune system has had to do some work and see off the invaders on its own.  It does finally seem to be gaining the upper hand and (according to at least one test) I am now restored to 75% of normal function.  As a result of my reduced depletion, blogging should be fully restored.

The illness was not a complete dead loss as it led me to discover Belvoir Fruit Farms’ Ginger Cordial – which I purchased for its medicinal properties (well, a chap can dream), but which turns out to be worryingly delicious (at least when taken hot, I have yet to try it cold).

The Completist

I am current suffering suffering through (what I hope is) the tail end of a cold – my second of 2015 (though, apparently, this still does not make for a statistically significant rate of infection).  Given the timing, I had a number of social engagements whilst the cold was closer to its peak and so did a little research to identify whether I was likely to be infectious – despite my naturally giving nature, I felt sharing my viral load with friends and family was probably de trop.

Reference to Dr Internet (largely due to my iron self-control) did not lead to any escalation of my self-diagnosis, but nor was it particularly definitive as to whether I would be playing the role of Typhoid Mary de nos jours across East Sussex.  However, NHS Direct did suggest a number of precautions I could take to reduce the risks for those I would be visiting.  Only time (and lawsuits) will tell whether these will have proved successful.

My colds tend to be follow a very standard timetable – from first detection I have a sore throat and catarrh then after 72 hours my nose will run like a tap for 12 hours. I will then start to recover, though initially will feel worse and the cold will then degenerate into a cough.  I have yet to find any cold “remedy” that does much good, though anaesthetic throat lozenges help with the sort throat and Night Nurse helps with the disturbed sleep.  NHS Direct also gave details of the typical length of an adult cold and the normal symptoms.  I tend to have all the standard symptoms and most of the uncommon ones – but this time, I managed to achieve the whole list and some extras!

In terms of the progression of a cold, I tend to follow my father – however, with this cold I also followed both my sister and mother.  On Good Friday in particular, my sinuses were clearly massively unhappy – this means that as well as my nose feeling vaguely on fire, my brain felt too big for my head and all(!) of my teeth ached constantly.  NHS Direct did rather fail to mention the toothache aspect of the typical cold – but my sister has experienced this, so I’m not the first.  For some reason, I also had issues with the movement of my eyes within their orbits – and so it was much less painful to move my head to look at something than more my eyeballs.  This is surprisingly hard to remember to do: the eyes do seem to have a mind of their own.  In addition, my eyes were horribly bloodshot (I could have been cast, make-up free, as a zombie) and became very photo-sensitive as well: the lighting in railway carriages really needs a dimmer switch.  I think this extension of symptoms to the eyes I have from my mother.  I’ve even had to give up on the Night Nurse as my body mostly ignores it, then about three hours into the night sweats to an insane degree and I awaken drenched – which apparently happens to my dad when using paracetamol as well.  If nothing else, this cold strongly suggests that I am not adopted!

Fortunately, today I am feeling somewhat better – though my overly emotional response to watching the latest re-boot of Thunderbirds may suggest that normal service is still a little ways off (or perhaps it brought a tear – or a flood thereof – to the eyes of many a middle-aged chap).

Anyway, as a result of the severity of this cold (and the completeness of its symptoms) I have been forced to live for four days as conventional wisdom would suggest much of the population lives all the time.  Basically, illness has made me into a couch potato – with little or no exercise and far more time spent sitting or lying down than is normal for me.  How do people do this?  I ache everywhere – far worse than after even the most extreme of gymnastic sessions or even a full day of art gallery viewings – and that’s after only four days.  Does one eventually adapt to being a settee tuber?  Fortunately, today matters have improved and I have travelled a modest distance on my bike and had a very gentle session at the gym – which did cause my body to receive olfactory hallucinations, but the aches are diminishing.  On the plus side, whilst my nose is now imagining smells, hanging upside from the bar has done wonders for clearing my sinuses.  Well, when was the last time you saw a bat or sloth with the sniffles?

Life in the fridge

Not a low-budget, austerity-friendly sequel to David Attenborough’s series of 1993 set in the tropical paradise of Antarctica (or so it now seems), but day-to-day existence in South Cambs in Spring 2013.  It has now been many weeks since the temperature outside has reached the one inside my fridge – and that’s even before you account for the 30mph of wind chill.  I would turn off the fridge as an economy measure and keep my perishable food outside, but fear they would become too cold for reliable preservation – my snowdrops seem to have been freeze-dried.

Given the very limited breaks in the cloud cover, I think I’d also have more chance of obtaining a tan inside my fridge – though I would have to leave the door ajar or the light would go off (or would it?).

Today, the Met Office suggested the ambient temperature in Sawston would finally beat my fridge, but sadly their optimism was misplaced.  They are now promising the same for tomorrow, but my faith has been shaken (not stirred).  Of course to those in the know, we are in an Ice Age and have been for many thousands of years, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by the low temperatures.

Rather than just moaning about this state of affairs, I have tried to take matters into my own hands, using psychology as my guide.  Last week, I bought a jumper – so I now own two!  – but to no avail, the big chill continued unabated.  So, today I have been forced to take more serious action and have bought a very warm jacket.  To make this coat, a flock load of geese will be going cold this Spring – but, frankly,  it was them or me.  I should now be invulnerable to temperatures which would make a copper-alloy simian wince (or worse).  Under the protection of my new coat, I should be able to venture outside virtually naked from the waist up (calm down ladies and/or gents, I will probably retain some upper body covering for the sake of propriety, if nothing else) though may struggle to manoeuver through narrow doorways.  Still, this will be a small price to pay for the heat wave which is about to commence.

No need to thank me – it’s all part of the service for the GOfaDM readership.

Déjà choo

Following a series of posts tackling the major issues of the day to surprising critical acclaim (though, if I’m honest, any degree of critical acclaim is pretty surprising), today I return (unashamedly) to the domestic front.

The author once again find himself subject to the all-too-common cold: that’s the second one in a month!  Normally, my physical health is pretty solid (in marked contrast to its mental counterpart) and I only fall victim once a year.  This time, there is a rather obvious smoking gun in the form of the vast quantities of germ-ridden youngsters that shared my personal space last Tuesday.  I think if I start uncling on a regular basis I may need to take more serious precautions: a mask, gloves and a supply of disinfectant should cover most eventualities (and may have the useful side-effect of prompting the kiddiewinks to give me a wider berth).

Anyway, as I live alone there is little point moping around the house, sighing and looking pathetic as there is precious little obvious sympathy to be extracted from an orchid (which is by far the largest of my house-mates by size).  Nor should you, dear reader, view this post as an appeal for a sympathetic response to this debilitating bout of the man ‘flu – no, it only exists at all as a result of the wizard title that came to me as I was mooching around Waitrose in search of victuals to form the basis of the next few days of comfort eating.  You will be pleased to know I managed to obtain suitable nourishment, and in particular, chillies: I’m a big believer in the curative (or at least placebo) powers of hot food on the unwell – both in the sense of serving (or, as it has been known since the Budget, taxable) temperature and on the Scoville scale.

As a brief aside, on my way to the middle-classes’ supermarket of choice, I passed a car with what I felt was an inappropriate number plate.  The car was a large black Rolls Royce, one of the very modern, equally ugly type rather than anything more classic or attractive (in fact, it might even have been a Bentley as I’m quite rusty on my Eye-Spy Book of Ludicrously Expensive Cars) but it bore the plate: NHS 9.  Presumably the owner has the initials NHS or perhaps a loved one had been saved by a public hospital and this was his attempt at a tribute; I’m not sure why I should object, I suppose I just wanted some sort of nominative determinism for vehicles.  Ho hum…

Anyway, the choice of title does not just reflect the second cold and the tendency to sneeze, oh no, it goes far deeper.  This second cold began at the same time as the last (the wee small hours of Friday morn) and I have subsequently had exactly the same errands to run on both Friday and today.  Once again, I spent this morning working both in and on the garden – today more pruning and the planting of my first crop of 2012, the spuds (Rocket, since you ask) – and then had an afternoon trip to buy food while I was still fit enough to cycle (as I’d hate to use the car for such a frivolous reason – and it’s already been out this month to buy large quantities of peat-free compost).  The symptoms are also following exactly the same course at the same pace as last time.  It is all rather spooky – it’s as though the author of my life has run out of new ideas and is just recycling old ones in the hope I won’t notice.  Ha!  I have noticed!  I think it’s time go all Alan Sugar on the incumbent and recruit a new auteur to start scripting my existence – if we are all very lucky, it might lead to an improvement in the quality (or at least the range of subject matter) of future posts.

GCSE Equivalent?

I have had enough of the cold weather, and so have decided to head somewhere warmer.  Unlike most people (and creatures) from the Northern Hemisphere, I am not heading south to more traditional sources of winter warmth.  Oh no.  The path less travelled is taking me to Scotland, which is basking in much warmer temperatures than are available in arctic Cambridgeshire.

In fact, I planned this a couple of weeks ago, and today find I am planning to travel by train first thing in the morning after a full night of blizzard conditions.  I suspected that this journey may not have a happy ending, so decided to change my travel plans to beat the snow (I know it is more traditional to beat eggs, or a carpet, but how else do you think it ends up so lovely and fluffy?  Perhaps we should try “gritting” with icing sugar, as I’m sure snow meringue would offer excellent traction).

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the risk of this blog being called as a hostile witness, I like to think that I am fairly intelligent.  I try and pass myself as somewhat of an expert in arranging train travel, and in particular, how to travel in comfort without first obtaining a second mortgage on Fish Towers.  With low animal cunning I am able to break journeys into multiple tickets, alter travel times and routings, bounce between single and return tickets and first and standard class options to avoid single-handedly funding the rail network.  I have even spent more than an hour delving into the darkest recesses of the ATOC website to test valid routings, and the ability to leave the rail network part-way through my journey, to enable a weekend round trip encompassing both Lewes and Battle.  So, despite my original ticket being an Advance one, I was confident in my ability to easily alter the date of travel.  How wrong I was…

East Coast do allow you to alter your ticket on line, for a fairly modest £10 fee, as I discovered from a quick call to their web support.  This process works fine, you can rebook the ticket and make your reservations.  However, you are then told that there are no possible delivery options but that you must select a delivery option.  There seemed no escape from this paradox.

A further call to web support revealed that whilst a new ticket can be picked up from the station, an amended ticket has to be sent through the post.  I didn’t have the courage to ask why, I fear the answer would have been deeply depressing.  What a man (or woman or hyper-intelligent shade of the colour blue, for that matter) has to do is to book a brand new ticket and then call web support (again) to get the old ticket refunded (which involves mailing the old ticket to Wolverhampton for its sins).  I should imagine most punters never discover this fact, and so have to just write off the cost of the old ticket: but, luckily our hero is made of sterner (or more bloody-minded) stuff and so I have high hopes of a refund winging its way to me from the West Midlands in the coming weeks.

This week the government has decided to downgrade a number of qualifications (horse care and fish husbandry stick in the mind for some reason – I blame The News Quiz) so that they are no longer equivalent to a GCSE: good to see they are tackling the key issues affecting the country with such alacrity!  To partially counteract these losses, I would like to suggest that arranging rail travel (whilst avoiding excessive cost) should be considered at least the equivalent of a Higher National (do they still exist? or is it all NVQs now?) or even a first degree (certainly, Pure Mathematics at Oxford offered a substantially less challenging syllabus).

I’d also like to offer a shout-out to the brilliant staff at Whittlesford Parkway (which I had to visit twice this morning to try and re-arrange my travel, in addition to the three phone calls and heavy web access already mentioned).  There is only ever the one, and then only in the mornings, but they are always a joy to deal with.  I do hope they are still there (and properly treated) next week when our local trains have been taken over by the Dutch…

Brrrr!yophytes

The mercury has plummeted this week in Sawston (well, it’s probably coloured alcohol as there are Health and Safety issues with mercury, and I am sufficiently mad already), though this is as nothing to the conditions being experienced by some of our friends in Europe.  A colleague in Munich claimed the temperature there was minus twenty, which is pretty chilly in either Centiheit or Fahrengrade.  Now, a study in Nature Geoscience seems to suggests that I might be partly to blame.

“How so?”, I imagine you asking.  Well, worry not for I bring the gift of elucidation… (and no, I haven’t wrapped it and you can’t take it back if it doesn’t fit).

Fish Towers has east-facing grounds and, at this time of year, even on those rare occasions when a little sunlight breaks through the encircling gloom, the extensive lawns are still shaded by its imposing gothic façade.  This, coupled with the recent very soggy conditions, has offered a veritable nirvana to any passing haploid spores released by members of Division Bryophyta.   So, the bowling-green grass has now largely been displaced by a variety of mosses (though I have yet to spot either Kate or Stirling).

In their new study, scientists at Exeter University have proposed that the first appearance of moss (some 470 million years ago) led to a series of mini-ice ages resulting in a significant cooling of our climate.  Apparently, moss has a voracious appetite for carbon dioxide – though I prefer something more substantial myself.

So, I fear that my failure to eliminate my own bumper crop of bryophytes is contributing to the current low temperatures.  If only it weren’t so cold, I’d go out there with a rake to scarify us back to milder weather.  Still, on the plus side, I am doing my bit to keep global warming at bay for a few extra seconds, so I shall claim my arctic apathy as a principled stand for the environment!