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Squished like a pancake

I had my surgical assessment last week. It was on my birthday, and I had to get up at 5am for the privilege so that I could get to Charing Cross Hospital for 8.30am while avoiding London’s rush hour and leaving myself enough time to rustle up a wheelchair once I was there. I also took so many painkillers because I was actually leaving the house that I was off my tits the whole time.

Thankfully I took my lovely friend Paul with me, so he reminded me what the surgeons said when I asked him afterwards, because I’ll be buggered if I can remember it all. (He’s also surprisingly good at rustling up wheelchairs for people who can’t walk. Now there’s a strange gift.)

Anyway, at one point – a point I do remember – we were sitting there and the surgeon showed me the MRI scan of my buggered disc. Well, actually he showed me the disc above it, which was all perfect and beautiful and skipping through fields of flowers with grace and dignity. This was so that I could contrast it with the disc below it, which (as Paul pointed out) looked as though someone had thrown Flubber on the floor and squished him flat with their boot.

Here’s a handy diagram to illustrate the difference. This is a cross-section of my spine, looking down on it from above:


At least this explains why I’ve been in so much pain. Flubber-disc has been strangling the life out of my poor sciatic nerve since February and, let’s face it, nothing likes to be strangled. (Apart from Gyp Rosetti in the last season of Boardwalk Empire… but let’s not go there.)

I’m now “on call” for surgery. It could be tomorrow, or it could be January: nobody knows. There are simply too many patients and not enough surgeons. But at least I’m serious enough that I’m near the top of the list, which is nice. Maybe I’ll be seen before Christmas. Who knows?

The good news is that for the last week I’ve been experiencing less pain than usual; hell, yesterday I only took 9 out of my usual 12 painkillers. Go me! It won’t last, though. That disc-bulge moves around, so at some point it’ll slide around again and hit my nerve from another angle and the pain will return big-time. Oh, and I still can’t walk, which is annoying.

In two days I will have been housebound for an entire month. It’s felt like four…

But hey, I can work from home (for the most part). I am immensely grateful for that. And my Frasier chair gets more comfortable every day. He’s a member of the family now!

I know that because I had to wipe chocolate off him yesterday.


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A random act of kindness

Something amazing happened to me last week.

For those who don’t know, I’m currently totally housebound as I await an operation on my spine. I haven’t left my flat in almost three weeks (and I’m going quietly insane, by the way!). I’ve had to give up office work entirely, of course, and while I can work a little at my desk, things look bleak for the future unless I get this operation quickly. It’s very depressing.

The other depressing thing is the pain. I have sciatica, which is one of those illnesses that is so common that everybody knows somebody who has it, although many people don’t quite know what it is. To put it simply: a disc in my lower back has begun to bulge, and that bulge is pressing on the top of the big sciatic nerve that runs down my left leg. This means that I get a horrible, stabbing pain in the back of my thigh when I do wild and crazy things such as standing, walking or sitting – sometimes it even hurts when I lie down. If I don’t stop what I’m doing instantly, the pain becomes a horrible, crampy feeling in the back of my calf, and then my whole leg goes dead and I get pins and needles. Sometimes the pain is so bad that I wake up screaming at night when my drugs wear off, and no, I’m not exaggerating that. I know I’m a journalist and we like to exaggerate, but that’s the truth. I scream in my sleep. It’s a good thing I sleep alone…

In short, it’s absolutely horrible and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

This also happened to me in 2007, when I was housebound for three months while I waited for surgery (which did take the pain away, up until it started again last February). The thing is, back then it only hurt when I stood, so I could sit down and feel absolutely normal. Three months on the sofa watching TV wasn’t really that bad in comparison to this. Right now, I can’t sit on the sofa. It hurts. It hurts when I do anything, really, except lie down or sit at my desk (some days I can’t even do that).

Two months ago, I built a bed in my lounge so that I could watch TV lying down. I haven’t sat on my sofa since June: it hurts too much. This is how I spend 90% of my waking day now – on this collection of quilt and pillows that my friend Paul calls my “dog bed”:


Frankly, I’m sick of this dog bed. It’s less painful than the sofa and it’s better than sitting on the floor, but really, I’m a 41-year-old woman and I’m reduced to curling up on the floor to watch TV because I can’t do anything else. Pathetic, eh? The longer I use it, the more miserable it makes me. Nothing reminds you that you’re ill more than the fact that you have to lie on the floor to watch TV because sitting up is agonising. Bah.

Then a few weeks ago, my friend Olympia emailed me out of the blue. “If you could afford it, which of these chairs would you have if you could?” she said, and sent me a list of links to websites. It was a bit random, but I had a look out of curiosity, and didn’t see one I liked. I sent her this photo instead, of my dream chair:


Frasier’s Eames chair has always looked wonderful to me. Isn’t it pretty? So comfortable-looking, yet so stylish, even with a Jack Russell sitting on it. Way out of my price range, of course, but a girl can dream.

Last week I suddenly received an email from a furniture company telling me that Olympia had just purchased a reproduction Eames chair for me.

I’m sure you can imagine, I was freaked out. No way should anybody spend that amount of money on me! I was horrified! But when I started emailing her and my other friends in shock, I found out this:

The chair was a gift from Random Acts, a charity set up by Supernatural actor Misha Collins to do good deeds around the world. I’ve interviewed Misha a few times – once about Random Acts itself – so of course I knew about it, but it never occurred to me for an instant that I would qualify for a gift from them. It turned out that Olympia had applied for money, citing my need for a decent chair to help with my poorly back, and they’d paid for the chair. Then Olympia and my other friends Biddy, Vanesha and Tracy had all chipped in for any other costs.

It’s my birthday on 1 October. Happy birthday to me!


Incidentally, when it arrived my neighbour brought her brother round to build it for me – a man I’d never met before in my life. He built it while she got rid of all the packaging and even vacuumed my lounge afterwards. I just sat there on my dog bed and kept saying, “Thank you.” It was humbling, to say the least.

Once built, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to use the chair, as my back is so very (annoyingly) fussy these days. But I can sit without pain for about half an hour before I have to retreat to my dog bed, and then I can sit on the chair again once I’ve rested. It’s also perfect for sitting on when I use my laptop (because I rest the computer on the ottoman and lean over it, thus opening up my vertebrae and reducing the pressure on my disc). And I can eat meals off the ottoman, too, because that also means I lean over and it doesn’t hurt!

In short, the chair has reduced my dog-bed time each day by about 80%. I can’t stress how wonderful this is! And once I’ve had my surgery and I’m hopefully fixed up, it will be comfortable enough not to aggravate my back again, something my sofas have always done. This is a chair for life. It will go with me everywhere. I love everything about it: the fact it’s so smart, the fact it’s synthetic leather (I’m a vegetarian, so that’s perfect for my guilt levels), the fact it has given me more movement when I sit down because it swivels – again, good for my back – and the fact it’s just so goddamn gorgeous!

But most of all, I love it because my friends thought of buying it for me, and Random Acts made that possible. What an amazing thing that charity is; I’m always amazed at the things they do (such as building an orphanage in Haiti – far more important than buying someone a new chair!). The sheer kindness of some people is breathtaking. When I’m healed, I will most definitely find a random act of kindness to perform myself so that I can pay this forward. That’s what life’s about, really: looking out for people who are going through tough times. Hopefully mine won’t last much longer; I have a surgical consultation on Tuesday – my birthday! – so I could have surgery soon. Until then, and afterwards, I have something to make the pain go away. It’s only a chair, but it now means the world to me, and I won’t ever take it for granted.

I’ve called it Frasier, by the way. I’m resisting the urge to buy a little dog so it can sit on the ottoman and stare at me.


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Why I hate overseas call centres

Me, to call centre somewhere in the depths of India: “I have a payment due on the 8th, but that’s a Sunday. Can you tell me if it will leave my account on the Friday before, or if it will go out on the Monday after? I’m not sure what your process is.”

Indian call centre lady who can’t speak English properly: “You have to pay us on the 8th or you will be in breach of our arrangement.”

Me: “I know, and I have it, but when will the money leave my account?”

Call centre lady: “On the 8th of September.”

Me: “But that’s a Sunday. Banks don’t work on Sundays. So does it leave my account before or after that?”

Call centre lady: “You have to pay us or you will be in breach of contract.”

Me: “But on WHAT DAY? Before or after? It’s a simple question!”

Call centre lady: “You have to pay us on the 8th or you will be in breach of contract.”

Me: “But banks don’t do any financial processing on Sundays! Money never leaves my account on a Sunday – it’s always the Friday before or the Monday after! So which will it be?”

Call centre lady: “…”

Me: “Did you even know that British banks aren’t open on Sundays?”

Call centre lady: “…”

Me: “Hello?”

Robot on the other end of the phone: “You. Have. To. Pay. Us. On. The. 8th. Resistance. Is. Futile.”

Me: “…I’ll make sure the money is in my account on Friday.”

Robot on the other end of the phone: “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

Me: “Resistance is futile.” [hangs up]


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A Heartfelt Ode To Pam From True Blood


Pam, you are the greatest!
Even though you really hate us.

You think us humans are a waste,
But at least you like our taste.

Your swearing’s bloody funny
Especially when it’s sunny.

And you love Eric too!
(Mainly cause he made you.)

And did we mention the swearing?
We really like the swearing.


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Sexism and the City

I posted the other day about how much I hated Sex And The City 2. It seems just about every other film critic under the sun agreed with me but not, tragically, the cinema-going population of the UK. (At least it didn’t do very well in America. Small mercies.)

I’ve been thinking about it a lot ever since, and have had many conversations with my thinky friend Paul, who loves to analyse stuff in a way I don’t. He hated it even more than I did, if that’s even possible, and we’ve been batting SATC 2 insults between us for weeks now. He made a good point yesterday during our latest bitch-fest: about how many of the critical reviews have focused on the general appearance of Sarah Jessica Parker et al, pointing out how old and haggard they look. What’s infuriating about this is that it’s something you’d never see if the critics were discussing a film starring a good-looking man who just so happened to be getting older. And, horribly, a lot of that personal criticism has been coming from female critics: the very worst kind of reverse sexism.

I’ve been reviewing for over a decade now and in all that time, unless I’m hideously mistaken, I don’t think I have EVER criticised the personal appearance of an actor or actress. If someone’s starred in something and given a bad performance – well, that’s fair game. If I’d written something and it was crap, people would call me on it, so why shouldn’t I call out someone who’s phoned in a star turn? But I wouldn’t dream of insulting the way they look. It’s bitchy, unnecessary and one step up from name-calling in a playground.

Of course, part of the criticism of SATC 2 is that these are women are almost inviting the nasty comments because they aren’t growing old gracefully; they’re wearing clothes too young for their years and behaving the same way. There’s even a moment in the film where a shop assistant tells Samantha that a dress she has her eye on is ‘too young’. But it’s glossed over: rather than making their ageing a theme of the movie – one a great many women can identify with, and I’m saying that as a 38-year-old who’s starting to realise that my looks aren’t what they used to be – they went off on a tangent and decided to explore other things, such as how married life when you’re rich beyond your wildest dreams can be boring, or how women in Abu Dhabi eat chips while wearing veils over their mouths.

Instead of treating the audience like idiots and insulting us, why didn’t this film focus on some themes we might actually empathise with?

It’s a shame that our culture has this terrible double-standard. Truth be told, I think SJP, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis look amazing and probably always will. But throw them into a film in which looks are everything and they’re doomed – particularly when they’re 20ft high on a cinema screen, showing off every laugh-line, vein and wrinkle. As much as I hated that damn script, I really feel for them as human beings, being ripped to shreds by a press who can’t draw the line between a terrible movie and four women being called ‘ugly’ just because it suits the purpose of the reviewer.

And bloody hell, if these women are fugly, where do the rest of womankind stand?


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Thursday, June 3, 2010 · 8:10 pm

Another poem

River Birds


Walking along the river’s edge, I came across an old couple

One arm oustretched, holding aloft a perch for an African grey parrot.

“Her name is Cleopatra,” the grey-haired old lady informed me,

Proud of her feathered pet. “She does seem very regal,” I agreed.

Cleopatra ruffled her feathers and pecked at the leash around her foot.

She squawked  and ring-necked parakeets, wild in the trees in West London,

Called back to their cousin haughtily.


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