The Unwelcome Guest – Test Drive

The Unwelcome Guest – Test Drive

Back to Guy’s Hospital cancer centre for some more tests. They seem to have an animal acronym fixation here, so today it was both a PET scan and a CAT scan. I thought about asking if I should bring Rusty but I guess they’ve heard that gag before.

For those who have had the fortune never to visit Guy’s cancer centre, and I highly recommend you keep it that way, it is a bright new building with airport style displays often telling you your appointment has been delayed but ultimately which consulting room you should attend. Fortunately, there are no signs for departure gates.

Architects Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners and specialist healthcare architect Stantec designed the building which as it says on the website is based around a series of ‘villages’. This is when you realise the whole 14-storey block is suffering from AED or Acute Euphemism Disorder as we doctors call it. There is the Chemotherapy Village and the Radiotherapy Village. As my friends will tell you I’m not much for the countryside but I don’t remember the Chemotherapy Village nestling in the foothills of the Cotswolds.

What I do think they should have at the cancer centre is a bar. I quite fancy swapping cancer related anecdotes with my fellow sufferers while getting on the outside of a bottle of Jack Daniels. And given everyone’s condition, smoking shouldn’t just be allowed it should be positively encouraged. ‘Smoke ’em if you got ’em’ should be the watchword at the Radiotherapy Bar. It would really help with the whole Villagey atmosphere they are trying to create.

The persistent patient

I’ve never been seriously ill before, so the experience of being an NHS patient is new to me. I have no doubt the care that I’m getting is second to none, Guy’s is rightly called a centre of excellence, but I’m learning there’s more to being a patient than just turning up on time.

The hospital is large and has many consultants so you don’t form a relationship with any one doctor. I’ve seen a different consultant on every visit, without exception they have been great, but you don’t get the personal touch.

In my experience comms is where they fall down. On several occasions, I’ve received letters inviting me to an appointment, after the consultation has taken place. Not a problem because I’d nailed the appointment on my previous visit. I’ve also had appointments booked that I didn’t need. Your appointments may be in several different locations and you may, for example, need to fast before a blood test. I’m in email contact with a nurse who helps me sort all this out as getting through on the phone is difficult. Keep notes, keep a diary and keep on track.

At other times, I’ve been in waiting rooms with perhaps 50 other patients all waiting to see a doctor. In this situation, I check the name on the badge of the person at the desk, say hello using their name, and If I’ve not been called half an hour after my appointed time I go back to the desk and ask very politely when I will be seen. Now, if English is not your first language, you are of a retiring nature, or perhaps you are old and not up the struggle, it is possible you will get lost in the system.

Screaming and shouting will get you nowhere, but quiet persistence will. Being a patient means looking after and looking out for yourself.

Doctors have a great mordant sense of humour. At one point I was banging on to a consultant about how both my parents had died of heart attacks at quite a young age and how I’d always assumed I’d be having triple heart bypasses and the like and with no history of cancer in my family never thought I’d be a (baby) boomer with a tumour. The doctor thought for a moment and said well Jim just to put your mind at rest you’re still far more likely to die of a heart attack. Thanks doc.

Secret London: Brompton Cemetery

Secret London: Brompton Cemetery

A while back I asked readers where they would take people who had never visited the capital before. I was hoping for recommendations that went beyond Madame Tussauds and the London Eye. I was after the hidden treats that make London a special place; perhaps a favourite café or park, something off the beaten track.

Picking up on one of the many suggestions and accompanied by the wife, two teenagers and Battersea Bucket we headed to Brompton Cemetery. Although a Royal Park, which are usually kept in peak condition, this boneyard is quite a mess, which perhaps makes it all the more interesting.

Victorian era

Opened at the start of the Victorian era, when death was enjoying a good run, it was built to ease pressure on overcrowded graveyards elsewhere in the capital. The earliest graves are from the 1830s and with most family members long since dead no one tends the graves. Weeds and squirrels rule.

Imagine the most Gothic thing you can think of and then season with a bit more Gothic to taste, then chuck the pot in. The Victorians had a bizarre relationship with death and for the upper and middle classes this place was clearly a portal to their next destination which would be almost indistinguishable from their comfortable English life but with added cherubs.

Allow all of the above to marinade for almost 200 years, let the grass grow, let the memorial angels fall into disrepair, bring your own smoke machine and you have the perfect horror movie location. It’s a graveyard smash.


Unlike Highgate Cemetery which boasts Marx, Douglas Adams, Malcom McLaren and George Eliot, Brompton is not chock full of celebri-toombs – there is suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and cricket stats supremo John Wisden, but that’s about your lot. Ms Pankhurst is located at the north end of the park and has, quite rightly, a rather fine modernist tombstone. We were unable to locate Mr Wisden, perhaps he moved.

Dogs are meant to be kept on particular paths but as I’ve long suspected Battersea Bucket can’t read and so made herself at home amongst the dear departed. The teenagers found rather maudlin entertainment doing mental maths as to how old people were when they died. Well I guess GCSEs are coming up.

To get there jump on the District Line tube and get off at West Brompton. The northern gate is a two-minute walk away.

I can’t deny it was an odd morning out, we saw a man carrying two enormous blue parrots (go figure), but it’s not without interest.

From signs placed at the entrance it seems Heritage Fund money has become available to do the place up. Some might welcome this but I’m not so sure. It’s current horror-show state seems to suit it well.

The Unwelcome Guest

The Unwelcome Guest

You may have wondered what happened to this blog and whether I’d disappeared. In short no, I’m still here, but just before Christmas I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, so as you might imagine that rather got in the way of writing humorous essays on London. But more of that in a moment.

Around sixty years ago god was checking the paperwork to see who was out for delivery and luckily it was me. The big man paused and looked at his notes, muttering to himself: “Well it looks pretty sweet for Jim Charles Preen. British, born to middle class parents, gets a decent education, the good things are programmed to rain down upon him. Well, lucky for him but what say we redress the balance occasionally?”

Of course, god was right. Well he would be, wouldn’t he? Extraordinary things have rained down upon me, but that didn’t stop him from having the odd laugh.

Sideburns, beards and moustaches

Growing up in the early seventies was a pretty hairy time, I mean literally. Hair was everywhere, it touched men’s shoulders for the first time in 200 years and sprouted luxuriantly from sideburns, beards and moustaches. Just take a look at that old devil Peter Wyngarde, what that man couldn’t do with a smoking jacket and an industrial set of whiskers.

This all made a deep impression on my teenage version and I’m: “Where do I sign up?” Hair was grown down to my knees, brushed and occasionally washed, that is until I was 28 and like the second in line to the throne it all fell out. Bald as a billiard ball. Score 1, god.

I always loved music and was introduced to jazz by my dad at an early age. He brought home a walnut encrusted gramophone that sat self-importantly in our living room. It came with LPs that displayed its stereo capabilities. My dad and I sat between the two speakers mesmerised as ping pong balls shot from side to side and trains trundled from one speaker to another. Hi-tech sixties heaven.

The New Frontier

Then came the albums or LPs as we called them. The covers were almost as good as the music. The Dave Brubeck Quartet gave us the soundtrack to President Kennedy’s New Frontier with modern art on the album sleeves and modern jazz deep in the grooves.

Oscar Peterson wore his pianos out playing more notes than seemed humanly possible. Chet Baker melancholy and bleak and who I thought when he sang was a woman until I looked at the beatnik cool album covers. I danced to them all and love them to this day. But here’s the rub I’m now quite deaf and struggle to hear those beautiful sounds in the way I once did. Score 2, god.

Now in my sixties; the knees are gone, the hair’s long gone, the hearing’s gone and I live in constant expectation that my cock will drop off. Men of my age are in what some call sniper’s alley. What was that, that went whistling by? A stroke, cardiac arrest, so many interesting possibilities. Up until now they have all missed their target, but not now, now I have an unwelcome guest.

In similar circumstances, when he was diagnosed with cancer, PJ O’Rourke said: “I looked death in the face. All right, I didn’t. I glimpsed him in a crowd.”

I’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer, it’s treatable, manageable and just possibly curable, but cancer can be a slippery bastard and demands to be taken seriously. In fact, the worst aspect of the diagnosis is that right now it’s hard to think about anything else. I didn’t expect a cancer diagnosis to be so damn compelling but at the same time so boring. Thanks god, score 3.

So, what is a writer supposed to do with this information? Well write about it I suppose.

I’m being treated with brisk efficiency at the Guy’s Cancer Centre at London Bridge. Actually, I favour brisk efficiency as if nurses and doctors show their softer side I’m likely to get teary and embarrassing. But being in the NHS mix is interesting and while there have been many cancer memoires by writers far greater than me, I’m inclined to draw the curtain back a fraction on my experiences. Don’t worry I’ll keep it light. Well that’s my intention, let’s see how it goes.

Posh Pigeon Update

Posh Pigeon Update

My short blog on London’s ring-necked parakeets has sparked some comment, particularly whether they are a menace to our indigenous birds.

Kate commented: “Unfortunately they take food and nest sites that native species like robins, blue tits and sparrows need.”

James said: “I have noticed a HUGE decline in small birds in the back garden since the arrival of the parakeets.”

To try and get beyond anecdotal evidence I turned to the RSPB to see what they had to say. Here’s what I learnt.

There are various reasons why parakeets do so well here:

  • They originated in Lowland India and the foothills of the Himalayas, so obviously don’t mind a bit of a nip in the air.
  • There is a plentiful supply of food for them in London from berries to bird-tables.
  • Their breeding season starts very early; often in January so they have an enviable supply of nesting sites with little competition from our indigenous species some of which don’t lay eggs until June. They are hole-nesters in competition with owls, woodpeckers and starlings.

The RSPB is concerned about the interlopers’ effect on our native fauna, but are not currently calling for a cull. This may change as their population rises and their numbers need to be monitored.

Despite being incomers the ring-necked parakeet is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, though it is illegal to release them into the wild.

So in short, it looks like the RSPB, along with most avian species, is sitting firmly on the fence when it comes to the Posh Pigeon. It also means I’ve probably not moved this debate on any further.

Blue Planet II

But here’s something animal related that is unequivocally good; Blue Planet II is currently the most watched programme of 2017. Yes, a show about animals presented by someone in his nineties has scored 14 million viewers. According to The Guardian newspaper this made it not only the most watched programme of this year but the third most watched of the past five years, behind only the football World Cup final in 2014 and last year’s Great British Bake Off final.

As the camera goes deeper towards the ocean floor, seven miles down last week as I recall, the animal life gets more and more strange and everything starts to look like a 1970s prog rock album cover.

Where would you take someone who has never visited London before?

Where would you take someone who has never visited London before?

I’m looking for a little help here. Where do you take first time visitors to the capital? I’m definitely not thinking M&M’s World, Madam Tussauds, The Natural History Museum, the Eye or any of the other well-known destinations.

Where are the hidden treats that are special to you? Do you frequent a little café or art gallery? Is there a particular park you love? I’m looking for anything that’s bit off the beaten track that is important to your London life, but which you don’t mind sharing.

If you have suggestions please message me or leave comments. I want to start a thread called Secret London.

London’s Posh Pigeons

London’s Posh Pigeons

Posh Pigeons, London Pests or Parrots, if you live in the capital you must have seen or at least heard these green screaming banshees. Not sure what I’m talking about? London is now home to thousands of ring-necked parakeets.

When out walking the dog I usually hear them first as they shriek from tree to tree, then catch a flash of green as they speed past. I don’t know if they’re just trying to warm up, but they seem to fly faster than indigenous birds. Their numbers are booming, but why? Could it be global warming? Whatever the reason there seem to be a plague of them about town.

So, I hear you asking where the hell did they come from? This is where the story gets a little murky. Some claim they are the descendants of birds that escaped from Isleworth Studios during the filming of the movie ‘The African Queen’ which starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. But that was made in 1951, and I’m sure I never saw the little pests when I first moved to London.

Another bonkers theory is that Jimi Hendrix released a breeding pair during the 1968 Summer of Love.

A more likely explanation is that they are just escaped pets, which have somehow adapted to our rigorous climate.

Some would like to wring the necks of these ring-necked parakeets but not me; they don’t seem to bother other species and with winter on its way, they add a little tropical colour to our sometimes monochrome city.